Roy Harris: Symphony No. 7 (1952), William Schuman: Symphony No. 6 (1948). New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Hugh Keelan. Koch International Classics 3-7290-2 H1 (2001) barcode 099923729020
Recorded December 1994 at Symphony House, Wellington, New Zealand
Law of diminishing returns
16 February 2023. Note: this review was begun circa 2008-2010 and left on ice pending comparative listening on Harris’ Symphony, “in due time”. More than a decade later the time came
There may be a law of diminishing returns with the Symphonies of Roy Harris. I’ve been enthusiastic about his 5th Symphony (see, on Amazon.com pending repost here, my review of Louisville First Edition Series Albany AR012, barcode 034061001225 – link will open new tab), I’ve raved about his 6th (which I have on the rare Varèse Sarabande VCD-47245 from 1986, no barcode), and the 7th (couched in a single movement made of four sections, as in Sibelius’ 7th, each cued on Koch’s recording) is as uniquely Harrisian as any of these – only, it is exactly the same composition. All the typical Harris formulas are there – the solemn and ample chorale-like progressions slowly building to climaxes of intensity (1st and last sections), the agitated dialogue of strings and brass with crescendos on single notes (2nd section, starting as a wild dance followed by a mesmerizing passage introduced at 1:57 by hushed and scurrying strings), the boisterous folk dance (3rd section). One senses that Harris once invented a style that was unmistakably his – and didn’t budge. Still, in itself, this is as magnificent as anything Harris wrote, with many superb touches of inventive orchestration and sonic imagination.
My collection is well-served in Sevenths of Harris: by chronological order of recording, Stokowski’s live performance of the original version with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on 9 January 1955 (Guild 2379/80 barcode 795754238020 with works of Stravinsky, Hanson, Hindemith, Hartmann, Hovhaness, an indispensable acquisition for the Stokowski admirer), Ormandy on Albany Troy 256 barcode 034061025627 (studio recording from 22 October 1955, originally on Columbia Masterworks ML 5095), Keelan here, released in 2001 but recorded in 1994, and Theodore Kuchar on Naxos 8.559050 barcode 636943905029 paired with Harris’ Symphony No. 9 and his “In Memoriam” Kennedy:“Epilogue to Profiles in Courage: JFK”, recorded in June 1999, released in 2002.
Stokowski’s and Ormandy’s shrill mono sound rule them out, at least for sonics, and Guild’s transfer of Stokowski runs, if I trust my ear, a little too slow and low. Between Keelan and Kuchar, preference goes to the latter. In the opening choral Kuchar is imperceptibly more spacious than Keelan (section taken in 7:23 vs 6:44 – the music of the first section “spills over” into track 2 for a few seconds), which might have translated in a lack of forward tension, but he has more grandiose nobility, thanks to a greater brassy prominence and impact (they are often so covered with Keelan that you think you are hearing another orchestration) and, more generally, greater orchestral presence. But Keelan is also more dynamic, boisterous and dance-like in the agitated second section. Where Harris indicates a dotted half-note at 80, Kuchar obliges (79-83) while Keelan takes it at 92, and comparative listening shows that faithfulness to score isn’t always the best option, as it elicits a certain impression of heaviness, even plodding, which Kuchar’s orchestral power doesn’t entirely make up for. In the third section, it is now Keelan’s solo woodwinds that have more presence and character, but Kuchar who is more dynamic and wilddance-like (law of contrasts, no doubt) than the more pastoral Keelan; and Keelan’s more held-back tempo makes the climaxes sound more disjointed. Likewise, Kuchar’s slightly more animated tempo is the coda-choral generates more tension.
Here’s the correspondence of timings:
|1st section||2nd section||3rd section||coda||Total|
|Kuchar||7:28||11:03 (3:35)||15:57 (4:54)||19:15 (3:18)||19:15|
The verdict is that completists will want all, but although I’d give an edge to Kuchar, anybody can be satisfied with either, choice will depend on price and pairing.
Given the stature of its composer as one of the major 20th Century American symphonists, Schuman’s 6th symphony is surprisingly under-recorded. Other than Ormandy’s pionnering but now time-worn 1953 recording (reissued on the same Albany CD as the Harris Symphony), I am aware only of a live recording by Bernstein from April 20, 1958, in a lavish 10-CD set published by the New York Philharmonic, “An American Celebration”, NYP 9904 (again see listing on Discogs.com and my review on Amazon.com). As with Harris, the hallmarks of Schuman’s style can be recognized: the slow-moving, brooding and lyrical introduction (track 5), leading to angular brass fanfares and anguished string statements (track 6), the sardonic scherzo alternating piercing woodwinds and scurrying strings (track 7), again the brooding slow movement with predominantly hushed strings, over which emerges a solemn trumpet call at 1:20 and, later, at 4:41, a wailing solo violin (track 8), and the agitated, angular and highly-energetic finale (tracks 9 & 10). The symphony does have a few turns that make it skid out of the expected, as the flute filigree at 2:30 in the intro, the scherzo brass peroration followed by timpani and snare drums alternating with agitated strings, beginning at 3:06 in the second movement, or the agitated woodwind dialogue at 0:24 in the finale. Still as with the composer’s 4th, 5th and 7th, I find Schuman’s 6th enjoyable, but just a little too predictable perhaps, and without Harris’ unique sonic personality.
Bernstein has much more drive and tension in the faster sections than Keelan (as in the Moderato con moto, track 6), even fury (in the transition to the final presto and the presto itself, starting at 18:00 with Bernstein, 0:39 into track 9 with Keelan), to the point even of scrambling the leggeramente section (8:02 with Bernstein, track 7 here); but Keelan is serviceable nonetheless and his stereo sound adds much to the piece’s power and grandeur, to say nothing of the clarity in orchestral details (for instance the woodwind dialogue I refered to above registers much better with him than with Bernstein).
The Albany reissue of Ormandy’s early recordings had Piston’s 4th Symphony along with the same two works as on this Koch release. In other terms, TT is here a disappointingly short (but the liner notes , by David Prieser, are very informative).