SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 7. Symphony No. 10 "American Muse."
Seattle Symphony Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
NAXOS 8.559255 (B) (DDD) TT: 60:48

BAUER: A Lament on an African Theme, Op. 20a. Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Strings, Op. 32b. Trio Sonata No. 1 for Flute, Cello and Piano, Op. 40. Symphonic Suite for Strings, Op. 33. Duo for Oboe and Clarinet, Op. 25. American Youth Concerto, Op. 36.
Ambache Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble
NAXOS 8.559253 (B) (DDD) TT: 58:45
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ADAMS: Grand Pianola Music. REICH: Eight Lines. Vermont Counterpoint.
Alan Feinberg & Ursulla Oppens, pianists; Pamela Wood Ambush, Jane Bryden & Kimball Wheeler, sopranos; Solisti New York/Ransom Wilson, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 31534 (F) (DDD) TT: 58:24
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ADAMS: I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky (Song Play in Two Acts)
Martina Mühlpointer (Consuelo); Kimako Xavier Trotman (Dewain); Markus Alexander Neisser (Rick); Jeannette Friedrich (Leila); Dariuis de Haas (David); Lilith Gardell (Tiffany); Jonas Holst (Mike); Young Opera Company Freiburg; The Band of Holst-Sinfonietta/Klaus Simon, cond.
NAXOS 8.669003/4 (2 CDs) (B) (DDD) TT: 72:37 & 43:22
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Gerard Schwarz’s Seattle Symphony overview for Naxos of William Schuman’s eight acknowledged symphonies (he withdrew Nos. 1 and 2 without reassigning their numbers) has now reached the halfway mark with this musically stark pairing of two neglected works in the late composer’s canon. Actually it is the fifth Schuman symphony the Space Needle team has recorded: in the early ‘90s they did No. 5 for Delos – which the composer chose to call “Symphony for Strings” – on a stunning disc that included the ballet Judith, New England Triptych, and an orchestral setting of Ives’ Variations on “America.” Naxos seems not to have bought this from Delos, however, and if you can find 3115 beg, borrow or steal it, meanwhile budget-buying the recent Schwarz/Seattle coupling of Symphonies 4 and 9, and now this pairing of 7 and 10, the latter called “American Muse.” Both were commissioned for special occasions 16 years apart. No. 7 was requested in 1960 for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony, in memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky, and No. 10 in 1975 for America’s forthcoming Bicentennial. No. 7 is a gentler work in four uninterrupted movements that begin Largo assai, very quietly, although his signature polytonality and deep-piled sonorities make their appearance with typically muscular vigor and clarity. A cadenza for clarinet and bass clarinet leads into a brief, free-meter scherzo with a seventh chord as its “motto,” marked vigoroso, followed by a gorgeous movement for strings alone, Cantabile intensamente, arguably Schuman’s loveliest single creation before he concludes with a Scherzando brioso that Leonard Burket’s annotation calls “dance-like, with echoes of jazz.” To each his own; in any case the finale is befittingly celebratory and ends with a bang. This is not the only available Seventh, however – Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony made a version still available in a hotch-potch VoxBox of “American Music,” left to eat dust in 1985 by Lorin Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony, coupled on New World Records with a less beguiling “Steel Symphony” from prolific Leonardo Balada, Pittsburgh’s composer-in-residence as it were from a throne-room at Carnegie Tech. That Seventh is a sumptuous, tonally saturated performance but lacks the clarity of Schwarz’s reading, in no small part because of Seattle’s divisi violins on either side of the podium. There may be a miniscule sacrifice in depth of sound compared to Maazel’s plush-carpet texture, but Schuman comes out the winner. If the recording in Benaroya Hall still could profit from a little more air front to back, it is nontheless a winner.

Symphony No. 10, despite its celebratory subtitle, is altogether more sinewy, in greater part a proclamative work that takes no prisoners until the last nine of its nearly 32 minutes. In three movements – Con fuoco, Larghissimo, and a five-part finale marked Presto–Andantino– Leggiero–Pesante–Presto possible – it is real-life America, rather than the Norman Rockwell music that Aaron Copland wrote between 1938 and his bloated Symphony No. 3. Schuman looked 200 years of nationhood in the eye without blinking or shifting his gaze. Symphony No. 10 may take several listenings but ultimately rewards the exercise. Again, divisi violins subtract a degree of sonic richness heard in the only other recording of the work (and is no longer in any catalog) – Leonard Slatkin’s of 1992 with the Saint Louis SO in its prime, produced by Joanna Nickrenz in the reverberant depths of Powell Symphony Hall. But otherwise Schwarz is an even match for his contemporary (born three years earlier) as a parser of Schuman’s arching as well as contrapuntal structures, and a purveyor of subtleties in the scoring that enchance Schuman’s sheer power of expression at age 65. The recording may not surpass the veteran genius of Joanna Nickrenz in a hall where she worked for years, but it is nonetheless of championship caliber. Seattle, Schwarz, and the spirit of William Schuman can be proud, while we look forward to Symphonies 3, 6, 8, and perhaps a remake of No. 5 “for Strings.”

Marion Bauer (1882-1955) was already 28 when Schuman was born in 1910, and in fact the very first American pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris before World War I, where she paid for lessons by teaching “Madame” English. Bauer was a triple-threat in her time – author and educator as well as a composer of genuine expressive gifts, French-tinged without copying. Everything on this disc with the possible exception of an antic Duo for Oboe and Clarinet is variously charming as well as musically sophisticated. The introductory Lament on an African Theme was originally the slow movement of her String Quartet of 1925, extracted from context in 1927, and orchestrated a decade later by Martin Bernstein, her colleague at New York University. The Concertino for Oboe, Clarinet and Strings was written in three movements over a four-year period, 1939-43, that reflects the times, especially in the opening Allegretto, but ends by suggesting an American counterpart of Jean Francaix, with tongue very much in chic as well as cheek. The strongest work, however, is the Symphonic Suite for Strings, composed in 1940, which laments the fate of her Jewish relatives who chose to remain in France while others moved to the U.S.in the 19th century (she was born, for example, in Walla Walla, WA). It is a somber work with two tragic, grieving opening movements capped with a fugue whose resoluteness is fitting. In 1944 Bauer wrote the gossamer Trio that remembered France as it was and promised to be again. Before that, however, she shifted gears completely in the American Youth Concerto of 1943 with piano soloist, written for the High School of Music and Arts. It reveals another facet of this neglected lady whom I’d known for decades only as the author of a trenchant 20th Century Music: How to Understand and Listen to It, published in 1947 and still an anchor in my recently winnowed library. Forget Amy Beach in other words, and concentrate on Marion Bauer as the forerunner of Ruth Crawford Seeger among distaff composers when this nation was younger but still musically sexist. The recording, made last year in London, is altogether a credit to pianist Diana Ambache and her Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble. More, please!

Which brings us to some of the best of earlier John Adams on a disc of mysterious origin and vintage, although EMI issued it with a different number in England three years ago. No recording date over here three years later – not even that this is DDD (a guess because it is very good contemporary sound indeed). While some prefer Harmonielehre among Adams’ early works, my favorite remains the whimsical and jaunty Grand Pianola from 1982, for two pianos (playing the same material “slightly out of phase”), winds, percussion and sopranos. Its 32 minutes go by as if windblown, and continue to be fun on repeated listenings. Unhappily, however, this Angel release is coupled with two vertiginous pieces for flute(s) by one of the granddaddies of “Minimalism,” Steve Reich, in which “phase shifting” is carried to catatonic lengths. If Mozart only pretended to dislike the flute, Eight Lines and Vermont Counterpoint would have congealed his feeling into real hatred. Presumably Ransom Wilson, being (or having been) a flute virtuoso, plays as well as conducts the Solisti NewYork, which he founded in 1980. But where Adams was recorded is Angel/EMI’s secret. The Reich pieces were taped separately in New York and California. The program book, by the way, was designed by those two sadists – here using tiny white sans-serif type on a pale grey-blue background – who combined pumpkin on mango for Angel’s concurrent Beethoven re-release of incidental music for Egmont and The Ruins of Athens (REVIEW). But maybe it’s (gasp!) true after all – no one bothers to read annotations any more.

Back to the subject of John Adams, we get some of the worst of his celebrated middle-period music (he’s approaching 60 now) from Naxos – a 1995, Robert Altman-kind-of-pastiche with a “libretto” by the late June Jordan. I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky features seven characters from Los Angeles who express Angst (well, mostly that) in 23 songs in various pop-music styles, identified quite specifically. There is no plot, no dialog (just the songs), no structured drama – only texts sung idiomatically (and I confess startlingly so) by five young Germans and two Americans in a 2004 production by the Young Opera Company Freiburg, with the Band of Holst-Sinfonietta led by Klaus Simon, the whole expertly recorded in Vienna. The two stateside singers are Afro-American males, Kimako Xavier Trotman and Darius de Haas. As for the score, and whatever Peter Sellars’ direction may have been, and the stylistic imitations Adams asked for, let there be silence from this quarter. I listened to everything, teeth clenched within five minutes, and came away feeling utterly emptied. You may react differently, but I’m not going to chance any kind of recommendation except that Adams jettison Peter Sellars.

R.D. (November 2005)