William Schuman: Symphony No. 7, Leonard Balada: Steel Symphony. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel. New World Records NW 348-2 (1987)

William Schuman: Symphony No. 7 (1960), Leonard Balada: Steel Symphony (1972). Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel. New World Records NW 348-2 (1987) no barcode

Primary Secondary, 2 of 2


Schuman recorded 11 August 1985
Balada recorded 18 March 1986, in Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh

Schuman a bit disappointing in its predictability (and not overall the best version either), Balada’s modernized and expanded “Iron Foundries” fun to hear
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 16 December 2006. Comments on Schuman substantially expanded upon repost, 21 February 2023

Heard immediately after Schuman’s masterful 3rd and 8th symphonies in Bernstein’s recording (collected Primarywith the 5th Symphony for strings, in an indispensable CD from the “Bernstein Century” edition, Sony SMK 63163, barcode 074646316320 or 5099706316329), I found myself somewhat disappointed by his 7th.  Certainly, 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.

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 makes the two above-mentioned compositions such breathtaking masterpieces: there is always in them a twist of orchestration, of rhythmic or melodic writing that keeps you on your toes. 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.

Maurice Abravanel and his Utah Symphony Orchestra had made the pioneering recording of the Symphony, released in 1971 on Vox and now reissued in a great VoxBox twofer, VoxBox2 CDX 5092, “American Orchestral Music” (with works of Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem, Howard Hanson, Gunther Schuller, Edward MacDowell – link will open new tab to my review). Since Maazel’s, Naxos (the modern Vox) published the version by Gerard Schwarz with the Seattle Symphony, paired with the composer’s 10th and ultimate Symphony, part of their survey of the complete symphonies. Although no one will go wrong with Maazel, of the three he is the one I’d give only third recommendation, and not only because of the skimpy total timing of the CD. First, the orchestral sound is somewhat muffled and opaque, especially in the first three movements; even Vox’ 1971 sonics for Abravanel are better. Interpretively, Maazel takes a more expansive approach than Abravanel in the first two movements (Schwarz being very similar to Abravanel  there and in the Finale), at the cost of the loss of a touch of dramatic tension and power. Maazel’s first movement conveys an impression of listnessness; there is that in the movement, but – as demonstrated by Abravanel and Schwarz – not only, and the music gains, I find, from their greater assertiveness.

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.

Comes the Finale, where Abravanel and Maazel both rock – and Schwarz rocks even a touch more. Not enough in my opinon to compensate for the CD’s small shortcomings, in sonics, interpretation and total timing. Because of the few shortcomings of Maazel’s recording, in sonics, timing and, at times, interpretation, Schwarz, with his all-Schuman program, is now the prime choice, and Abravanel steel holds his own remarkably.

Leonoardo Balada’s Steel Symphony is fun. First performed in 1973, it is a kind of modernized and vastly expanded Mossolov Iron Foundries, in which Balada seeks to express musically the sensations elicited from the Pittsburgh steel mills. But where Mossolov just harps for a short duration on a huge orchestral ostinato, Balada conveys a much wider array of sounds and atmospheres (including, like his predecessor, various machine-like ostinatos), starting with the tuning of the orchestra and going from hushed, quasi-nocturnal mystery to unleashed violence. The basis of his orchestration is strings and brass, augmented of, to quote the liner notes, “a formidable battery of forty-eight percussion instruments (including automobile brake drums, garbage-can lid, thunder sheet, siren, and ‘a big piece of wood'”.

I hear nothing really new in Balada’s language – I find myself constantly playing the game of “oh, this sounds familiar, where have I heard it?” and I did recognize touches of Ligeti and Lutoslawski and even of Varèse – but the way he composes theses ingredients into his own dish is efficient and palatable.

The New World CD’s timing of 49:40 minutes is appropriate for an LP but short for a CD. As usual with that label, liner notes are a treasure-trove of information, including selected bibliography and discography for both composers.

Comments are welcome