WILLIAM SCHUMAN: Credendum (Article of Faith).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Symphony No. 4 (1942).
John McCabe, pianist; Albany Symphony Orch/David Alan Miller, cond.
ALBANY TROY 566 (F) (DDD) TT: 64:54
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Three sports. William Schuman
belongs to the second generation (Thomson, Copland, Sessions, and Harris
partly comprise the first) of American
Moderns, having studied with Roy Harris among others. Extremely prominent
in his own day both as a composer and an arts administrator (probably
one of the most powerful in the country; among other things, he ran
Lincoln Center), Schuman's star has dimmed a bit. Outside of his New
England Triptych, there's no "hit" in his catalogue.
I remember watching the Kennedy Honors program and wondering, as I
saw the composer
with the medal hanging from his neck, what on earth they would play.
Predictably, they played excerpts from the New England Triptych,
and I would bet dollars to doughnuts that very few people in attendance
that night knew what they listened to. Not that I sneer at the New
England Triptych, but it's not the core
of Schuman's achievement, his cycle of nine acknowledged symphoniesin
the composer's words, "eccentrically labeled from two to ten." To
these I would add his violin, piano, and viola concerti, several fugitive
orchestral works, his four string quartets, and a mountain of superb,
highly individual choral music.
Schuman began his piano concerto in the late Thirties. Rosalyn Tureck
and Daniel Saidenberg premiered a revised version in 1942 in New York.
Then apparently Schuman forgot about it. It took a 1976 Vox/Turnabout
recording with Gary Steigerwalt and conductor David Epstein to remind
him of the piece. I'd describe it as hard-core neoclassic. To me, it
represents a kind of "road not taken" in Schuman's output.
It sounds little like the symphonies, for instancemore like something
by Piston in one of his more aggressive moods. It's in three movements:
a neoclassic jazzy allegro, a slow movement, and quick toccata. All the
movements are extremely strong and memorable. Even though it stands slightly
to the side of the main line of his output, it remains one of my favorite
Schumans. Against all odds, I actually own all three recordings: Tureck,
Steigerwalt, and McCabe. None entirely satisfies. The Tureck, unfortunately,
has terrible soundso terrible, I can't overlook it to get to the
quality of the performance. The Steigerwalt, to put it mildly, is really
roughwith smeared runs, probably missed notes, and lack of focus
in the slow movement. The McCabe, with better sound, shines in the slow
movement, but the outer movements are stiff, as if everyone plays too
careful. The jazz inflections of the first movement just aren't there,
and it plods.
Credendum appeared in the Fifties, a United Nations commission
(this gives you some idea of Schuman's prestige at the time). It's a
workalmost a one-movement symphony in three large sections. It reminds
me a little bit of Harris's method of "continual variation" (Schuman
studied with Harris). Compared to Harris's symphonies or Schuman's own,
however, it's a little loose, architecturally speaking. However, it's
also dramatic and intense as all get-out. Compared to the classic Ormandy
performance (Albany TROY276), Miller elicits far more detail from the
score, and, of course, the sound exceeds by several counties, if not
states, the Fifties mono (even cleaned up for digital transfer). Ormandy
isn't chopped liver, and he delivers great momentum. However, Miller
gives you a better idea of what this work is about.
The Symphony No. 4, from the early Forties, cemented Schuman's reputation
after the fanfare that greeted his breakout Third. It's unusual in that
it shows the influence of Copland (just about everywhere at the time
in "hard" modern American music), normally missing from Schuman's
work. This may be due partly to Schuman's submission of the score to
Copland for constructive criticism. I should add, however, that Schuman
didn't take from the "popular" Copland of the big ballets,
but from the avant-garde part of the older man's catalogue: notably,
the Short Symphony. This comes out mostly rhythmically, and almost entirely
in the first movement, with syncopations straight out of the Copland
work and not at all characteristic of Schuman.
The first movement begins, however, as pure Schuman. A solo english horn
and solo bass sing a slow duet as the rest of the orchestra gradually
joins in to ratchet up the tension. The sound is Schuman's "skyscraper
and steel," found in many other worksfor example, George
Washington Bridge for bandfilled with upward leaps of major
sevenths (eg, C-B) and minor ninths (eg, C-C#') that cut through the
of glass. The rhetorical structure is "simmer-and-erupt," and
halfway through an allegro bursts out. Copland appears most obviously
here. The quick music, a nervous quasi-fugato, gradually gives way to
a long counter-melody which eventually takes over. The slow second movement
begins, not surprisingly, as a lament but quickly becomes very elusive.
The music continually transforms, and the mood with it. It's a beautiful
thingand immediately so but I needed to listen to it several
times before I began to find the structural handle. The finale begins
almost a throwaway ideait passes so quicklywhich turns out
to have great importance to the course of the movement. This is the most
identifiably Schuman music in the symphony, but it's hardly run-of-the-millbasically,
two fugues, the first mainly for winds and brass, the second mainly for
strings. Gradually, a long tune in the horns appears against
the fugue, and it turns out not only that the tune comes from the opening "throwaway," but
that the two fugal subjects plus the counter-tune comprise the entire
opening idea. Wow.
All of this would mean very little, had not Schuman written exhilarating
music. As it stands, the architecture gives you a fuller picture of the
quality of the composer's mind. Music, after all, is something made,
and Schuman makes it better than most. Miller's recording competes with
one from Jorge Mester and the Louisville Orchestra (Albany TROY027-2).
Compared to the Miller, the Mester sounds like a read-through, stiff,
monochromatic, and careful. Miller improves on the earlier performance
in every waymore subtlety, more detail, more color, sharper rhythm,
a firm grasp on the musical structure, more life. For my money, Miller
stands at the head of young American conductors, at least in American
music (I haven't heard him in anything else). Furthermore, the recorded
sound astonishes all by itself, with a clarity and depth to the sonic
image I've seldom encountered. One of those new-fangled Super-Audio CDs.
Judging by this result, I doubt this is a gimmick or fad. So, mostly
wonderful performances (except for the piano concerto; unsatisfactory
though it is, for me the Steigerwalt account comes out ahead) in great
sound. Who could ask for anything more?
S.G.S. (July 2003)