William Schuman: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 10 “American Muse”. Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz. Naxos 8.559255 (2005)

William Schuman: Symphonies Nos. 7 (1960) and 10 “American Muse” (1976). Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz. Naxos 8.559255 (2005), barcode 636943925522

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Recorded November 2003 (No. 7) and September 2004 (No. 10) at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium

No dwindling of inspiration
Originally posted on Amazon.com 31 August 2007, review of the Seventh Symphony substantially expanded upon repost, 21 February 2023

William Schuman, in my opinion, hasn’t always maintained the same high level of inspiration he had reached as early as his 3rd Symphony (1941). The basic parameters of his style have always remained, the dramatic sweep and the sense of the American epic, the seriousness, the broodingness, the rhythmic vigor. But what makes compositions such as the 3rd and the 8th (1962) Symphonies rise above the mere level of esteemable competence is, I find, their unpredictabily.

I recently reviewed the first instalment in the ongoing complete recording of Schuman’s symphonies by Gerard Schwarz and Naxos, with symphonies 4 (1942) & 9 (1968) – and I found the latter to be a better work, more complex and dissonant, dramatic, thorny and angular (see my review of Naxos 8.559254, barcode  636943925423, on Amazon.com, pending repost here, with a complete discography of Schuman’s symphonies). I am happy to see that Schuman’s inspiration did not dwindle with his next symphony, the 10th, subtitled “The American Muse” (1975). It was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra in anticipation of the nation’s bicentennial celebration and was premiered by Antal Dorati. Of his Symphony Schuman said it was spurred by a spirit of optimism, as “optimism is, after all, an essential ingredient in understanding America’s beginnings” – but that is not quite the emotional content I hear in the composition.

The first movement begins with powerful, dramatic and dissonant fanfares for brass and percussion. The mood remains throughout epic, dramatic and breathless, dominated by relentlessly powerful brass and percussion punctuations, at times over long and angular string lines. With very small reorchestration this would make a powerful and effective work for brass band. Schuman manages to contribute a new slant on the old problem of the slow movement, which I find a composer like Peter Mennin, for all the maturity he shows in his last symphonies, has never quite solved (see my reviews on Amazon.com of CRI CD 741 with Mennin’ Symphony No.3, Piano Concerto and Symphony No.7 and New World Records NW 371-2 with Symphonies Nos. 8 & 9 and Folk Overture). As expected, muted strings open the movement, but here there are used for over two minutes in eerie harmonies and for mysterious color rather than as an accompaniment or counterpoint figure to a flute/oboe/english-horn melody. When the “pastoral” flute finally enters at 6:08, it is over a barely audible “carpet” of strings and in duet with stern, fugue-like trumpet melody: beautiful. When the long, brooding line of bass strings sets in at 7:37, it is as a counterpoint “accompaniment” to a nervous and increasingly agitated flute figurations culminating in a powerful and menacing brass fanfare (8:55).All this is compositionally superb, but the movement is also highly effective because its emotional message isn’t clear cut and heart-on-sleeve – whether “pastoral”, “meditative”, “plaintive” or what not. The Finale is slightly more traditional in its compositional procedures – agitated flutes and nervous brass over alternating long string lines and jagged pizzicatti, later (6:34) nervously jagged strings over long string lines, sounding canon of fugue-like, and soon joined by brass and woodwinds – but still quite effective. It is also interspersed with passages where Schuman revels in mysterious tone colors (xylophone and glockenspiel over hushed strings at 2:21), ominous brass clusters (4:37), and all those elements unite starting at 9:05, rising to an exultant climax of great power which concludes the Symphony.

The 7th is Schuman’s symphony which has fared best on disc: this is its third recording, after the pionnering effort by Maurice Abravanel with the Utah Symphony Orchestra in 1971 (now on an attractive twofer from Vox, VoxBox2 CDX 5092, “American Orchestral Music”, with works of Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem, Howard Hanson, Gunther Schuller, Edward MacDowell, link to my review reposted on this website) and the one by Lorin Maazel leading the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1987 on New World Records NW 348-2. All Schuman’s stylistic traits are present – 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.

But, despite some 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), what I find amiss is the unpredictability that characterizes Schuman’s best symphonies. In the 7th , Schuman, to my ears, takes an idea and just develops it, period. You know more or less where you are going from the first bars on – and where you are going is nowhere that Schuman hasn’t explored in his earlier symphonies. That said, coming back to the symphony some 15 years later, but now following with score, I found much to enjoy, get excited about and admire.

Of the three versions now available, Schwarz would be my top recommenndation, because of his attractive all-Schuman program and of being one instalment in Naxos’ indispensable survey of the composer’s complete symphonies – but not only. Maazel’s sonics with Pittsburgh are somewhat muffled and lacking transparency, and Maazel’s greater expansiveness in the first two movements comes at the cost of the loss of a touch of forward-moving tension. Abravanel and his Utah forces still hold their own remarkably today, both sonically and orchestrally, and in fact Schwarz’ approach in the first two movements and Finale is remarkably similar to Abravanels, although the hornist from Seattle has a more rounded sound than his Utah counterpart in the Finale’s duet with trumpet mentioned above. Abravanel’s and Maazel’s Finales rock plenty enough, but Schwarz’s rocks even more. One further personal touch of Schwarz here is his slowdown of tempo at 1:21 for the duet horn-trumpet mentioned above. The composer indicates no such “tempo II” and both Abravanel and Maazel play it “a tempo”, but it’s one of those cases where you may think “the composer didn’t write it, but it wouldn’t shock if he had”.

The slow movement deserves a particular comment. None of the three versions are entirely observant of the composer’s metronome indication: they all take the movement slower than the composer’s prescribed eighth-note = 60: Abravanel a little slower, at circa 55, Maazel slower still at circa 45, and Schwarz much slower at 39-40. When comes the build-up of tension (Abravanel reaches that point at 1:40, Maazel at 2:06 and Schwarz at 2:11), because of his slow opening tempo, Maazel steps up his tempo markedly to produce the effect (to 53-54), although Schuman prescribes no acceleration there: his build-up of tension is achieved through dynamics and shortening of note-values only. Abravanel accelerates also, but, thanks to his more flowing opening tempo, imperceptibly so (to circa 58) – but then he slows down considerably, though, again, imperceptibly, to the point that he becomes slower than Maazel, whose acceleration here, though not prescribed by the composer, generates much tension and energy.

Schwarz presents yet another approach: like Maazel he opens at a tempo slower than the composer’s and slower even than Maazel’s (39-40) but, like Abravanel, he steps up only minimally (to circa 45) and builds up the tension through dynamics rather than tempo. It doesn’t respect Schuman’s basic tempi, but it has the merit of coherence.

Not that such interpretive choices are likely to bother anybody without a score, and, just like the first movement of Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta, Schuman’s “Cantabile intensamente” works any way… but I find that there is value, in a contemporary work with very little comparative versions, to do what the composer demands – and we have it in none of these three versions.

Anyway Schwarz is in a class of his own, as he is the only one to present the 7th in an all-Schuman program and as part of an indispensable complete traversal of Schuman’s symphonies.

Comments are welcome