HARRIS:  Symphony No. 7. SCHUMAN:  Symphny No. 6
New Zealand Symphony Orch/Hugh Keelan, cond.


These symphonies by teacher and pupil were recorded decades ago by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Columbia mono LPs, but those performances still can be savored (along with Walter Piston's Fourth Symphony, the original Schuman Sixth disc-mate), thanks to Albany Records CD 256. They differ considerably from the readings of Hugh Keelan, currently in his second season as music director of the Erie Philharmonic, working here with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra which by now has recorded more American music than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The NZSO isn't numerically or tonally a Philadelphia Orchestra (or Boston Symphony in its pioneering prime under Serge Koussevitzky), but it plays precisely, robustly, and best of all idiomatically. Both works might have sounded more dynamic had James Sedares conducted (who left Phoenix in 1996, and now is principal guest-conductor of Wellington NZís Sinfonia), although Keelan is dutiful and painstaking. For more than that, you need to hear Albany's reissue.

While Harris in his peripatetic career was Schuman's some-time teacher at The Juilliard School (and later on an "advisor"), the younger composer's Sixth Symphony came first, in response to a commission from Antal Doráti and the Dallas Symphony, who introduced it on February 27, 1949. David Prieser, author of Koch's annotation, quotes the conductor's praise for its "overall passion and intensity." But in Michael Steinberg's book, The Symphony, one can read that Schuman himself—along with most musicians including Steinberg—"acknowledged it as his own favorite" and that "it occupies a very high place indeed in a time singularly rich in strong symphonies...an accessible but challenging piece [whose] musical language is lucid, [whose] expressive gestures are vivid...and [whose] invention is driven by an emotional current that is strong and clear." Yet it is not an easy piece if one merely half-listens—a single-movement work that encapsulates the traditional four, with a slow introduction (Largo) and an even slower epilogue (Larghissimo). It is dark and serious, even the scherzo-like Leggeramente, as well as profoundly moving in the Adagio section that follows. For the concluding Allegro risoluto, Schuman wrote "wild" in his meticulously annotated score.

Keelan's performance is more persuasive in the slow, contemplative sections, despite a tendency to parse everything, but wildness is missing—perhaps is not in his nature. Ormandy conducted his peerless strings with trademark sweep and great passion, a richness beyond the NZSO's means. And Schuman spoke more directly to him than Harris did.

By 1951, when Harris finished the first version of Symphony No. 7, also in one movement, he had passed his prim—was in truth pass». Koussevitzky, who excitedly ( if hyperbolically) declared Harris' Third the "Great American Symphony," had left Boston after 25 years, and died that year. His last deed of affirmation was to conduct the Fifth Symphony of 1942, which Harris, ever the opportunist, had dedicated to "the fighting spirit [or some-such] of the Russian people." By 1960, when he attempted to conduct it himself at the Ravinia Festival (and threw the Chicago Symphony's brass choir a wrong cue in the coda that produced syncopation), No. 5 had become a celebration of Abraham Lincoln—Harris' perennial soul-mate since both had been born in a log cabin. Symphony No.6 followed in 1944, but then a symphonic silence until No. 7/i, as it turned out to be. Rafael Kubelik premiered this at Chicago "in the autumn of 1952" (Prieser fudges the date in his annotation). I covered that debut for The New York Herald Tribune—unaware that several months later I'd be back as music critic of the Chicago Herald-American—pretty much despising what I heard because Roy had rewritten himself again, without having mastered the knack of making music move.

Since Harris by then was 54, it was obvious that he never would get any of his vehicular contraptions out of the garage onto the street, much onto the high road. Nadia Boulanger had taught him Baroque mechanics—Harris was very big on chorales—but not acceleration. No. 7/i stayed on blocks, polished to a high shine but wheel-less. (Virgil Thomson, who was still the Herald Tribune's chief critic, complimented my simile with a Cheshire grin). Then, surprise of surprises, Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1955 announced another premiere of Symphony No. 7, which turned out to be "a new version"—in other words 7/ii, the version recorded afterwards, and the version Keelan uses. If you read Prieser's notes, which are basically sound albeit biased, there would not have been Schuman if there hadn't been Harris. (Expletive deleted).

Harris imparted what Mlle. Boulanger taught him about chorales, and whetted Schuman's appetite for the overtone series in fourth and fifth chords, but the "Great American Symphonist" had been eating Schuman's dust since his student's Third, completed in January 1941 and premiered in Boston by Koussevitzky (to whom it was dedicated). A new "Great American Symphony" was proclaimed; but it was Aaron Copland, not Roy Harris, who brought Schuman to Koussevitzky's attention. And Copland subsequently wrote Koussevitzky's most favorite "Great American Symphony," the bloated Third that he introduced at Boston in 1946.

You may disagree altogether about Harris' rhythmic inertia, despite the whirring gears and spinning axles. If you find his Third Symphony "Great" as Koussevitzky did, you may find 7/ii likeable. And if mono recordings are anathema, you may prefer Keelan's painstaking performance in vivid New Zealand stereo, thanks once more to producer Michael Fine. But don't deny yourself the sweep of Ormandy, who almost creates the illusion of motion in Harris' 7/ii. The Piston Fourth is a beguiling neo-Classic bonus, but his Schuman Sixth remains essential in every serious collection of 20th-century American music.

Note that Koch International offers just 49 minutes of music on a full-price CD that could have accommodated another 28 minutes, even with long pauses in between pieces. And also that Steinberg didn't write about any of Harris' music in The Symphony. Nor did The New Grove 20th-Century American Masters include him, despite the editors' trivial choice of Henry Cowell and insupportable selection of Bernstein. But then TNGT-CAM omitted Schuman too, preferring John Cage instead. O those Brits, with their Baxes and Birtwhistles, Tyrrwhit-Wilsons and Tippetts.

R.D. (Dec. 2001)