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Schuman: Symphony No. 8 / Night Journey / Ives: Variations on America

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Naxos's acclaimed series of William
Schuman's symphonies concludes
with his powerful and at times playful
Eighth Symphony, in which the great
American composer takes full
advantage of the diverse instrumental
colors available from a very large
orchestra, including two harps, piano,
and batteries of brass, wind
and percussion instruments. The
introspective Night Journey is based
on Schuman's score for Martha
Graham's ballet about Jocasta's
tragic destiny as both mother and wife
of Oedipus, while his arrangement of
Ives's popular Variations on 'America',
again rich in percussion, combines
reverence and exuberance.

Review

"...A distinguished American composer known also for his leadership of the Julliard School and Lincoln Center, Schuman is not heard very often in the concert hall, except for his New England Triptych (based on old American tunes), his Third Symphony, and on occasion the Symphony for Strings (the Fifth). But the Eighth Symphony is a major work, written for the inaugural celebrations of Lincoln Center's Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall. The rendition of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, who premiered the work and recorded it five days later, can still be heard on a Sony CD [SMK 63163], paired with the Third and Fifth Symphonies -- an indispensable disc for anyone who loves modern American music. For competition, Naxos offers a fine performance, superior sound, and a different set of companion pieces: a chamber arrangement of a Martha Graham ballet and a reissue of what might be called Schuman's Greatest Hit, his arrangement of Charles Ives' organ solo Variations on `America.'

The Eighth Symphony is unusual in having essentially two slow movements in a row (a Lento and a Largo, though both speed up in the middle), followed by a Presto finale. Every bar of the symphony is distinctively Schumanesque -- most noticeably in the rich string sonorities, the stuttering brass outbursts, the angular melodies. And yet the Eighth is full of striking passages unique to itself, beginning with its strange, somber opening chord--strings, woodwinds and a haunting combination of glockenspiel, tubular bells, vibraphone, two harps and a piano -- from which after a few quieter repetitions a mournful (and very challenging) French horn solo emerges. In all three movements the climaxes featuring the whole brass section, always exciting in a Schuman work, are especially memorable, and the Presto Finale is breathtakingly complex in its rhythmic patterns and full of quirky details, like an extended duet between bass clarinet and bassoon plus a brief vibraphone solo... Night Journey, the first of the Graham ballets (1947), is based on the Oedipus myth but told from the perspective of Jocasta. In 1981 Schuman reduced the score to chamber ensemble (rather the opposite of Aaron Copland beefing up his original score for Graham's Appalachian Spring) and cut some passages to create a piece called Night Journey: Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments, which is what Schwarz and Seattle have recorded here. After several hearings I'm not convinced that it's one of Schuman's major scores. I hesitate even to mention Samuel Barber's great score for Graham's Medea, composed the same year, let alone Copland's 1944 ballet, though it works very well with Graham's choreography, as far as I can judge by an 8-minute YouTube excerpt. Most of the music of the shortened score is very slow-paced, as if portraying Jocasta's stunned silence after learning the truth about her husband-son, though with agitated passages. The Seattle ensemble is again vividly captured by Naxos' engineers, but I wish Polisi's otherwise valuable notes had listed those fifteen instruments.

To fill out the disc Naxos has reissued Schwarz and Seattle 's 1991 Delos recording (issued in 1992) of the Ives/Schuman variations on "My Country `Tis of Thee." The original piece -- the classic recording is by E. Power Biggs -- is a hilarious nose-thumbing send-up of both organ music styles of 1890s America and of the traditional form of the variations-on-a-theme. Schuman's jaunty orchestration, premiered in 1964, is great fun, though the original organ work is even more satisfying. The sound of the reissue is adequate but the orchestra sounds boxed in, compared to the sonic fullness of the symphony and ballet. In short, the powerful performance of the Eighth Symphony is what makes this CD well worth acquiring." -Joe Milicia -- EnjoytheMusic.com - http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/music/0610/classical/schuman.htm

Back in the 1990s, Delos enticed us all with the expectation of a complete cycle of William Schuman's symphonies. Gerard Schwarz's work with the Seattle Symphony on a Hanson cycle in warm sound made the prospect of his Schuman approach quite interesting. A release of the third and fifth was as far as they got until Naxos revived the project of which this is the crowning and final achievement of this five-disc cycle. Schuman's music wavers between astringency and accessibility and this disc allows for a bit of both sides of this great American composer. The CD opens with an intense and near perfect performance of Schuman's Symphony No. 8 from 1962. Schuman eschews traditional orchestral melodic writing instead creating an almost overwhelming study in orchestration, texture, and tempo acceleration. The piece has a distant cousin in the composer's monumental fourth string quartet from 1950 whose elements are further explored and extended in this piece. The first movement is a study in dissonance and very close harmony that opens with a slow pulse that Schwarz allows time to flow into the silence with amazing power. As the movement builds in temporal intensity, the intervallic proportions begin to alter slightly and are almost pulled apart by the increased tempo. The movement essentially segues into an arch-like central slow movement with a faster central section. Here longer string lines ebb and flow in an angular idea that along the way is harmonized with extended chordal structures. Once again the music tries very hard to push its way faster into the center but is reigned in to its breaking point. Schwarz manages to create shape to Schuman's seemingly disjointed lines here and the engineers have managed to capture the different instrumental groupings so that they can be easily heard in the overall texture. The third and final movement moves at a "Presto" tempo but aurally the effect of static motion still occurs. Skittish strings and brass alternate along with some truly fascinating pitched percussion work always referring back to those clashes of slow dissonance from the opening movement. Dissonance seemed to take over the first movement, but here tempo rules insistently driving to the close with the orchestra seeming to want to veer out of control. The winds get a chance to show off here for the first time winding their way around a small pitch level in fits and starts that gradually builds throughout the orchestra in a textural crescendo. There is but one other recording of this symphony made by Leonard Bernstein back closer to the works premiere. The recording is available with Schuman's 3rd and 5th symphonies and is worthwhile listening, but Schwarz's new recording will be the one to beat if ever one decides to record this work again. Both performances are quite similar in their timings with Schwarz getting the better of a warmer acoustic and improved digital sound. Though playing to 32 minutes, the symphony is easily one of the composer's finest pieces. Bridging the gap between later-century symphonic writing and the post-Americana movement of the 1930s and 1940s is Night Journey. Written for Martha Graham in 1947, the first of four ballets he would compose for her company, Night Journey is perhaps the most familiar and played. The story takes the point of view of Jocasta, the lover and mother of Oedipus. It is both a seminal piece of American Ballet and a defining piece of music in Schuman's career that allows us to see the fruition of his style in this miniature orchestral form. There are intriguing melodic ideas that spin out endlessly with an almost melancholic turn in the music. The scoring is quite intimate and introspective. Most fascinating for fans of other ballets commissioned by Graham is the overall shape the music takes. Consider comparing this to the more familiar Americana stories scored by Copland and there is a general dramatic structure that begins to emerge. Again, one is always amazed at the way Schuman can manipulate his orchestral textures so effortlessly. There have been a few recordings of this work that come and go in the catalogue. The most recent was a Koch release from 1991 that featured additional ballets by Menotti and Hindemith also written for Graham. That version of Night Journey ran to nearly 30 minutes under the direction of Andrew Schenk. Both appear to have chosen a 15-instrument version of the score which Schuman prepared in 1981 for smaller ensembles which removes extra repeats and bridges necessary for stage production. Finally, the disc closes with perhaps one of Schuman's most popular arrangements from 1964, Ives' "Variations on `America'." The piece was premiered at a New York Philharmonic Concert conducted by Andre Kostelanetz and had rarely flagged in popularity. It makes for a delightful and ear-relaxing encore to a quite satisfying performance. (This performance originally appeared on a Delos release of Schuman's music with these same forces.) No fan of American music will want to be without this quintessential series of music by one of our great composers of the 20th century. -- MaestroSteve on Xanga, March 15, 2010

Rejoice! With this disc Naxos complete their survey of the numbered Schuman symphonies. You will look in vain for symphonies 1 and 2: they were disclaimed by the composer. That's a pity as it would be fascinating to hear these works of the 1930s. I have not given up hope. Schwarz here has the conqueror-advocate's measure of the bell-haunted Eighth Symphony. It was premiered in the Lincoln Center in 1962 with Bernstein conducting and was recorded by Bernstein the same year. That recording is easily and inexpensively accessible on a 1998 Sony CD alongside symphonies 3 and 5 via Amazon. While I still recommend that CD for an unassailably vital and kinetic Third Symphony Schwarz is to be preferred in the often more tensely reflective Eighth Symphony. He takes a minute and a half more than the comparatively opaque Bernstein but the Seattle results positively glow. This is a work that can be difficult to approach but I find it completely accessible in this Schwarz-Naxos version. Schwarz's reading is as much of a revelation as Walter's Brahms 3, Oramo's Sibelius 6 and Ormandy's Nielsen 6. The lucid and directly engaging recording is a co-conspirator in the results. The prestissimo finale showcases the audio engineering which accommodates solo strands and florid climactic material with a natural ease and without any sense of perspective zooming. Even Schwarz cannot completely transform the rather hollow gestures of the last page or two of this score but overall the Symphony emerges wonderfully well - better than ever. Night Journey was one of four ballets on which Schuman collaborated with Martha Graham. Its spareness of utterance and angularity is only partly accounted for by the score which specifes fifteen instruments. A diminutive orchestra was not an unusual restriction for Graham ballets of that era - no doubt sensitive to cost and touring practicalities. The music has a Bergian astringency whether pensive, charged with nocturnal foreboding or fitfully frenetic. That inward quality echoes Barber's tense dark chocolate romanticism but presents in more transparent textures. Night Journey has been issued on CD before by CRI but is not currently available. The Ives/Schuman Variations on `America' is a brilliant showcase built around a song that most Brits will recognise as God Save the Queen. The familiar tune is put through some wheezingly irreverent transformations. This is in no sense a representative Schuman work but is full of left-field fun. It's too easy to forget the sponsors without whose sense of judgement and even courage we would not hear the music. It's much to the credit of the National Endowment for the Arts that they have financial sponsored this disc. The more than capable notes are by Schuman biographer Joseph W Polisi. For enthusiasts of the orchestral Schuman and the American 20th century symphony this disc brings the Naxos Schuman project to a close in style. -- MusicWeb International, Rob Barnett, February 2010

Schuman's eighth symphony, first heard at the opening of New York City's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1962, is emotionally involving in its own way, especially in the first two of its three movements. Schuman uses a large orchestra - with plenty of percussion - not only to generate sheer volumes of sound (lots of fff) but also to create textures that range from the ominous to those of chamber music, as in the long lines of violins, oboe and trumpet in the first movement and the harmonic and rhythmic complexities of the second, which follows it without pause. The finale is appended a bit uneasily to the first two movements: its playful themes and interesting orchestral effects (pizzicato strings against glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone and piano!) do not seem to follow naturally from what has gone before, although they are certainly interesting in their own right. Gerard Schwarz leads the Seattle Symphony effectively throughout the symphony, doing an especially good job of bringing out the strong brass writing. But Schwarz is less convincing in Schuman's orchestration of Ives, which also traces its origin to the opening season of Lincoln Center: Schuman suggested it at that time to fellow composer Henry Cowell, Ives' artistic executor. Schuman's orchestration is far flashier than Ives' highly creative original set of organ variations - Schuman sometimes comes very close to the point of deliberate near-vulgarity. This work is a great crowd pleaser, one of two superb mid-20th-century encores or concert openers (the other being Leonard Bernstein's Candide overture). But Schwarz is a bit too fastidious in this performance. All the elements are there, but most of the tempos drag a bit (until the very end), and Schuman's clever instrumental effects, such as castanets, are not brought to the fore as much as they can be. The piece is still fun, but it could use a bit more raucousness than Schwarz gives it. Also on the Schuman CD is Night Journey, a 1947 ballet that Schuman wrote for Martha Graham, based on the story of Oedipus' mother/wife Jocasta, and adapted in 1981 for small ensemble. It is pretty much what one would expect from a score on this subject: dark, pensive, dissonant and unsettled, with an increasing sense of violence as it progresses. It is not top-notch Schuman, but it has moments of somber power, and Schwarz and the Seattle players give the music the intensity that is its due. -- Infodad.com, February 25, 2010

The recovery of William Schuman's symphonies by the Naxos label, in the hands of the Seattle Symphony and conductor Gerard Schwarz, has been nowhere less than worthwhile. The Symphony No. 8 recorded here dates from 1962, just before the mid-century American style of which Schuman was a major exponent began to crack up. It's a dark work that builds up tension over two movements of mostly slow material, punctuated only by short, exclamation-like passages, and the Presto finale has a fatalist feel. The orchestrational genius -- and genius is the right word -- for which Schuman was known is in abundance here, however, and Schuman had a very large canvas to work on. The symphony was premiered at Lincoln Center by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and the entire back bench was brought on-stage for an orchestra of Mahlerian dimensions. As with Mahler, it's rare that the entire orchestra is used at once. Of the many unique combinations that pass by, note as just one example the harp-brass accompanimental combinations in the first movement that sound like some kind of unearthly giant guitar. The following Night Journey (1947) is similar in tone but more loosely narrative in its structure, probably to its detriment. Schuman's familiar orchestration of Charles Ives' Variations on "America" rounds out the program with an increase in energy level. This performance was recorded in 1991, in a different location than the other two pieces (which date from 2008 and 2007, respectively), and it's not sonically of a piece with the rest of the recording. But the Seattle Symphony does consistently well by this difficult music. Recommended for those who like to immerse themselves in a complex orchestral score and don't much care if it lets very little light in. -- Allmusic.com, James Manheim, March 2010

William Schuman was one of those larger-than-life persons when I was first embarking on a musical career. As president of Julliard, then Lincoln Center, he had a public presence rare for a composer of modern music in the 20th Century. One just knew about him if one was in and around New York at the time, and so one naturally found oneself wanting to hear his music.

Schuman is a composer for whom a gestation period is necessary, I believe. This is perhaps especially true for his Eighth Symphony, first performed in 1962 by Leonard Bernstein for the opening days of Lincoln Center. The music is dense, somber, intensely brooding, rather complex, and (like many of Harris's works), constructed on the principal of an unending melodic sprawl, made intriguing in the way the orchestration colors the phrasing with interesting aural combinations. It is a remarkable work, a work of pure invention, and perhaps its complexity has made rough going for the average audience.

Schuman's Eighth is not a work to be absorbed fully in one sitting. The positive side of that factor is that increased exposure to the work leads to almost infinite pleasures. The more one listens, the more Schuman's musical world reveals itself to the ears and the musical mind's eye.

There have been a number of recordings of the work. Bernstein's NY Philharmonic version more or less set the standard. However, the new recording by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (Naxos) certainly comes close to rivaling that original reading. Schwarz's interpretation is a little more linear; he connects the musical-phrase-dots in a way that brings out the musical logic of the piece. The sonorous qualities of the large orchestra needed to properly perform this work is captured in a full sound stage and the balance seems quite right. Schwarz's reading is expressive; it heightens the seriously somber quality of the work. In short, it is a lovely reading.

As a bonus, the disk includes the 1947 ballet Night Journey in its 1981 revision; and the marvelous Schuman orchestration of Charles Ives's delightful Variations On "America".

This is an indispensable installment of Naxos's complete Schuman symphony cycle. It is great listening! -- Gapplegate Music Review, March 23, 2010

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Product Details

  • Orchestra: Seattle Symphony Orchestra
  • Conductor: Gerard Schwarz
  • Composer: William Schuman, Charles Ives
  • Audio CD (February 23, 2010)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Naxos American Classics
  • ASIN: B0030UO9MW
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #163,741 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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By gtra1n VINE VOICE on March 25, 2010
Format: Audio CD
This is the final CD in the Naxos series dedicated to the symphonic music of William Schuman, and is a fitting wrap-up. This is a major body of work from a major American composer as well as a rewarding look into history. Schuman's style expresses a uniquely American quality from a specific time in the cultural history of this country; it's an expansive sound, tonal but not simplistic, and full of determination, confidence and strength. There's a mix of toughness and tenderness that is invigorating and appealing.

The 8th is one of his most powerful works, dark-hued and intense. Leonard Bernstein gave the premiere in 1962 as part of the inauguration of Lincoln Center, and until now the brilliant Bernstein recording was the only one available. That is a great recording, forceful and brilliantly played, and this new one from Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony is its equal. These musicians have specialized in American music in their previous recordings for Delos and now Naxos, but that doesn't begin to described how accomplished they are and how good they sound in all repertoire. They play Schuman with a great balance of refinement and strength.

On a purely superficial, sonic level, this recording seems subdued at first, but that's misleading. From the uncanny opening chord, Schwartz balances orchestral colors to an exceptional degree, his Schuman doesn't sound much like Bernstein's Schuman, but it does sound ideal. He also takes a subtle and effective approach to conveying the intensity of the work; the common approach is to articulate notes and phrases with a rather aggressive opening attack, but Schwartz and the orchestra hold back the force a bit and instead carry a great deal of expressive focus and emotional weight in their sound.
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The year 2010 marks the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the American composer William Schuman (1910 - 1992). Although not as famous as his near namesake, Robert Schumann, who celebrates his 200th anniversary this year (1810- 1856), William Schuman too made a lasting contribution to music and deserves to be remembered. In addition to his work as a composer, Schuman lived a busy life. He served as the president of the Juilliard School of Music and of the Lincoln Center.

In order to keep Schuman's music accessible, Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony have recorded Schuman's eight published symphonies (Schuman withdrew his first two efforts in the form, which are thus not included in the cycle.) together with other orchestral music on the budget-priced Naxos label. The National Endowment for the Arts also deserves a great deal of credit for helping to fund the project. This CD is the final installment of the set, and it includes Schuman's Symphony No. 8 together with two shorter works, "Night Journey: Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments" and "Variations on `America'". The orchestral playing is clear and convincing, even though Schuman composes for a large ensemble with a dense texture, and all the voices come through admirably in the recording. Joseph Polisi, the current president of Juilliard and the author of a biography of Schuman, wrote the lucidly descriptive liner notes. Two of my fellow Amazon reviewers have written excellent reviews of this recording and of earlier CDs of Schuman's eighth. This reading of the eighth was recorded in 2008. The recording of "Night Journey" dates from 2007 and the "America" variations" recording was done in 1991, all in Seattle.
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William Schuman was one of those larger-than-life persons when I was first embarking on a musical career. As president of Julliard, then Lincoln Center, he had a public presence rare for a composer of modern music in the 20th Century. One just knew about him if one was in and around New York at the time, and so one naturally found oneself wanting to hear his music.

Schuman is a composer for whom a gestation period is necessary, I believe. This is perhaps especially true for his Eighth Symphony, first performed in 1962 by Leonard Bernstein for the opening days of Lincoln Center. The music is dense, somber, intensely brooding, rather complex, and (like many of Harris's works), constructed on the principal of an unending melodic sprawl, made intriguing in the way the orchestration colors the phrasing with interesting aural combinations. It is a remarkable work, a work of pure invention, and perhaps its complexity has made rough going for the average audience.

Schuman's Eighth is not a work to be absorbed fully in one sitting. The positive side of that factor is that increased exposure to the work leads to almost infinite pleasures. The more one listens, the more Schuman's musical world reveals itself to the ears and the musical mind's eye.

There have been a number of recordings of the work. Bernstein's NY Philharmonic version more or less set the standard. However, the new recording by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (Naxos) certainly comes close to rivaling that original reading. Schwarz's interpretation is a little more linear; he connects the musical-phrase-dots in a way that brings out the musical logic of the piece.
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