The American Composers Series: American Orchestral Music by Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem, William Schuman, Howard Hanson, Gunther Schuller, Edward MacDowell. VoxBox2 CDX 5092 (1993) barcode 047163509223:
11-15: Edward MacDowell: Suite No. 2 op. 48 (Indian Suite). Westphalian Symphony Orchestra, Siegfried Landau (originally published in 1971 on Turnabout TV-S 34535 with Piano Concerto No. 2 with Eugene List, piano)
Thomson (paired with Samuel Barber’s Second Symphony, Music for a Scene from Shelley and Essay No. 1 by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Schenck), Excelsior Classic Gold “American Masters” series EXL-2-5256 (1994), barcode 047163525629:
Hanson and Schuman (paired with Hanson Piano Concerto by Eugene List, MIT Symphony Orchestra, David Epstein), Excelsior Classic Gold “American Masters” series EXL-2-5257 (1994), barcode 047163525728:
Rorem and Schuller (paired with Barber’s Piano Concerto by Abbott Ruskin, MIT Symphony Orchestra, David Epstein), Excelsior Classic Gold “American Masters” series EXL-2-5258 (1994), barcode 047163525827:
Rare stuff (more then than now), and some of it valuable
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 5 May 2007. Comments on Schuman’s 7th substantially expanded upon repost, February 2023
In the days of the LP, Vox/Turnabout did great service to the music lover by issuing a lot of rare material, both in the Romantic repertoire (numerous “complete” sets) and in the realm of modern and contemporary music, usually played by second-rate ensembles – but that was and still is infinitely better than nothing. In the early 90s they tapped into their inventory and reissued, among others, nicely conceived collections of American music, including this one. These CD reissues gave us the chance to hear these works and recordings anew, unblemished by the inferior and noisy pressings that more often than not marred the original LPs.
Perforce this cross-section of American orchestral compositions written between 1895 (MacDowell) and 1967 (Hanson) is entirely arbitrary, but let us welcome what we get, as it offers material rarely recorded otherwise. The recordings were originally released in 1971 (Schuller and Schuman) and ’73 and four of them are actually first recordings (Rorem and Hanson in addition to the two above-mentioned). Since then Gerard Schwarz has done the modern recording of Hanson’s symphonies on Delos (complete traversal on DE 3150 barcode 013491315027; Sixth originally on DE 3092 with Symphony No. 3 and Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth, barcode 013491309224), Maazel recorded Schuman’s 7th for New World (NW 348-2, barcode 093228034827) and Hyperion released a recording of Thomson’s Louisiana Story-suite along with the second suite, “Acadian Songs and Dances”, from the same film music, and other film music (CDA66576 barcode 034571165769); likewise Naxos has issued recordings of Rorem’s first three symphonies (8.559149 barcode 636943914922) and of MacDowell’s Suites (8.559075 barcode 636943907528) in their valuable American Classics Series, and there are a number of other recordings of the MacDowell. So to the best of my knowledge only Schuller’s symphony hasn’t been recorded again.
MacDowell’s Indian Suite is a not very interesting rehash of sub-par Liszt anyway (or rather sub-par Raff, to make matters worse). Whatever original Indian flavour there may have been in the original tunes is entirely lost in the process. The only incredible thing is how MacDowell could write that kind of bombastic film music before the invention of film.
Thomson’s Louisiana Story-suite is indeed film music, written for a 1948 documentary by the great Robert Flaherty; the music is impressionistic and could have been written by Charles Loeffler. The best is the passacaglia and grandiose fugue that ends the suite.
Hanson’s 6th Symphony was written in 1967. If you forget its date of composition it is very enjoyable. Indeed, though written three years after Schuller’s, its language dates from twenty years earlier. It has the rhythmic vigor and dramatic sweep of the American symphonies composed in the 40s and the same kind of wistful slow movements. Its formal architecture is original, with a succession of slow-fast-slow-fast-slow-fast movements. It is not better but not worse than the best among similar works composed in those War and post-War years by Barber, Copland, Harris, Piston or Mennin.
Rorem’s Third Symphony from 1959 is for me a slight disappointment. Rorem is an estimable composer and a not minor figure in the American musical life. But his symphony strives too much for the facile effect, with its grandiose and coplandesque opening peroration on a four-note motif followed by a slow, then pastoral unfolding of the same, its jazzy second movement (Copland had tried that in his 1922 piano concerto, and then dropped the notion; Bernstein picked it up, and wasn’t very convincing at it), its alternately wistful and assertive slow movements (third and fourth) full again of coplandesque overtones, and its scurrying, triumphantly bombastic finale. I hear nothing new nor very personal here.
The Symphony 1965 of Gunther Schuller (it was actually completed in ’64) provides a welcome contrast. Now be warned and be prepared: this is a serial (e.g. twelve-tone) symphony. It music language is post-late Schoenberg – the more radical Schoenberg of the Variations opus 31 and Violin Concerto. It is not easy listening, but its rewards are many, as it is full of musical “events” that constantly engage the listener’s attention. Hearing Schuller’s Symphony, I feel like reversing the cliché that anybody can write serial music, but that it takes a REAL composer to write a tune. Well, I’ve been hearing twenties of symphonies composed in the 40s by the Barbers, Pistons, Schumans, Harrises, Mennins and the likes and, whatever their merits, ultimately they all sound as much the same as Haydn sounds like Mozart. Based on them I’d say that anybody can write a tune, and has (that is the least a composer can do) – but devising a cogently argued serial symphony, now THAT takes a real composer.
Schuman’s 7th (written in 1960) is very typical of its composer, if not the most original of his symphonic utterances (the 3rd and 8th are more unpredictable and thus, to my ears, more interesting; they are collected with the 5th Symphony for strings, in an indispensable CD from the “Bernstein Century” edition, Sony SMK 63163, barcode 074646316320 or 5099706316329). Still, the Symphony offers many rewards in Schuman’s typical style, the solemn and brooding introductory movement heavily reliant on long string melodies and woodwind and brass interjections (rehearing it in 2023, now with the score, it strikes me as a movement the later Honegger, the composer of “Symphonie liturgique”, could have written), the rhythmically jagged and menacing scherzo (Schuman just calls it “Vigoroso”) with its ominous fanfares evocative of Copland at his most “serious”, the serene-to-agonizing Adagio (“Cantabile intensamente” is the composer’s indication) scored for string alone and harking back to the symphony for strings, which over a decade ago when I first wrote this review I characterized as “post-Mahlerian or Shostakovichian” but which now strikes me as Schuman’s response to the opening Fugue of Bartok’s Music for strings percussion and celesta, the agitated finale (“Scherzando brioso”) with its buoyant and syncopated brass in the manner of Bernstein’s Broadway dances over flurries of scampering woodwind or underpinning a long, brooding line of cellos rising to a peak of intensity. And there are fine twists of imagination in the form of short passages written for solo instruments, bass clarinet and clarinet duet (first movement coda, sounding marvelously “late Stravinky”), bass clarinet then oboe (second movement’s coda), trumpet and horn duet (In the Finale).
Since Abravanel’s recording, two more have been published: Lorin Maazel with Pittsburgh on New World Records in 1987, and Gerard Schwarz in 2005, as part of his complete cycle with the Seattle Symphony on Naxos. Abravanel and his Utah forces hold their own remarkably, both sonically (Maazel’s orchestra often sounds muffled and lacking transparency in comparison) and orchestrally. The horn player from Salt Lake City, in the Finale’s passage I mentioned above (at 1:26) may not have the tonal roundness of his later counterparts from Pittsburgh and Seattle, there is one bar in the Finale where timps forget to enter and another one where flutes are a tad late on their beat, but other than that is is amazing how much they are on top of the music. And, interpretively, Abravanel is overall the closest to the composer’s tempi and always suitably forward moving, where Maazel, in the first two movements, is more expansive, at the cost of some loss in dramatic tension. Except in the slow movement (about that, see my reviews of Maazel and Schwarz), Schwarz is overall very close to Abravanel, even more dynamic than him in the Finale, and I’d given him preference, on account of that and because his all-Schuman program (with the composers 10th and ultimate symphony) is attractive. Maazel has Leonardo Balada’s Steel Symphony, a fun and exciting piece but resulting in a skimpy, LP-designed timing. But Abravanel remains today an entirely valid option.
The very informative notes (including Schuller’s own very thorough presentation notes for the Symphony’s premiere) are part of this set’s value. It can be fruitfully complemented with the set in the same series devoted to “American Concertos”, VoxBox CDX 5158.