WILLIAM SCHUMAN:  Credendum (Article of Faith).  Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.  Symphony No. 4 (1942).
John McCabe, pianist; Albany Symphony Orch/David Alan Miller, cond.
ALBANY TROY 566 (F) (DDD) TT:  64:54
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Three sports. William Schuman belongs to the second generation (Thomson, Copland, Sessions, and Harris partly comprise the first) of American Moderns, having studied with Roy Harris among others. Extremely prominent in his own day both as a composer and an arts administrator (probably one of the most powerful in the country; among other things, he ran Lincoln Center), Schuman's star has dimmed a bit. Outside of his New England Triptych, there's no "hit" in his catalogue. I remember watching the Kennedy Honors program and wondering, as I saw the composer with the medal hanging from his neck, what on earth they would play. Predictably, they played excerpts from the New England Triptych, and I would bet dollars to doughnuts that very few people in attendance that night knew what they listened to. Not that I sneer at the New England Triptych, but it's not the core of Schuman's achievement, his cycle of nine acknowledged symphonies—in the composer's words, "eccentrically labeled from two to ten." To these I would add his violin, piano, and viola concerti, several fugitive orchestral works, his four string quartets, and a mountain of superb, highly individual choral music.

Schuman began his piano concerto in the late Thirties. Rosalyn Tureck and Daniel Saidenberg premiered a revised version in 1942 in New York. Then apparently Schuman forgot about it. It took a 1976 Vox/Turnabout recording with Gary Steigerwalt and conductor David Epstein to remind him of the piece. I'd describe it as hard-core neoclassic. To me, it represents a kind of "road not taken" in Schuman's output. It sounds little like the symphonies, for instance—more like something by Piston in one of his more aggressive moods. It's in three movements: a neoclassic jazzy allegro, a slow movement, and quick toccata. All the movements are extremely strong and memorable. Even though it stands slightly to the side of the main line of his output, it remains one of my favorite Schumans. Against all odds, I actually own all three recordings: Tureck, Steigerwalt, and McCabe. None entirely satisfies. The Tureck, unfortunately, has terrible sound—so terrible, I can't overlook it to get to the quality of the performance. The Steigerwalt, to put it mildly, is really rough—with smeared runs, probably missed notes, and lack of focus in the slow movement. The McCabe, with better sound, shines in the slow movement, but the outer movements are stiff, as if everyone plays too careful. The jazz inflections of the first movement just aren't there, and it plods.

Credendum appeared in the Fifties, a United Nations commission (this gives you some idea of Schuman's prestige at the time). It's a marvelous work—almost a one-movement symphony in three large sections. It reminds me a little bit of Harris's method of "continual variation" (Schuman studied with Harris). Compared to Harris's symphonies or Schuman's own, however, it's a little loose, architecturally speaking. However, it's also dramatic and intense as all get-out. Compared to the classic Ormandy performance (Albany TROY276), Miller elicits far more detail from the score, and, of course, the sound exceeds by several counties, if not states, the Fifties mono (even cleaned up for digital transfer). Ormandy isn't chopped liver, and he delivers great momentum. However, Miller gives you a better idea of what this work is about.

The Symphony No. 4, from the early Forties, cemented Schuman's reputation after the fanfare that greeted his breakout Third. It's unusual in that it shows the influence of Copland (just about everywhere at the time in "hard" modern American music), normally missing from Schuman's work. This may be due partly to Schuman's submission of the score to Copland for constructive criticism. I should add, however, that Schuman didn't take from the "popular" Copland of the big ballets, but from the avant-garde part of the older man's catalogue: notably, the Short Symphony. This comes out mostly rhythmically, and almost entirely in the first movement, with syncopations straight out of the Copland work and not at all characteristic of Schuman.

The first movement begins, however, as pure Schuman. A solo english horn and solo bass sing a slow duet as the rest of the orchestra gradually joins in to ratchet up the tension. The sound is Schuman's "skyscraper and steel," found in many other works—for example, George Washington Bridge for band—filled with upward leaps of major sevenths (eg, C-B) and minor ninths (eg, C-C#') that cut through the texture like shards of glass. The rhetorical structure is "simmer-and-erupt," and halfway through an allegro bursts out. Copland appears most obviously here. The quick music, a nervous quasi-fugato, gradually gives way to a long counter-melody which eventually takes over. The slow second movement begins, not surprisingly, as a lament but quickly becomes very elusive. The music continually transforms, and the mood with it. It's a beautiful thing—and immediately so —but I needed to listen to it several times before I began to find the structural handle. The finale begins with almost a throwaway idea—it passes so quickly—which turns out to have great importance to the course of the movement. This is the most identifiably Schuman music in the symphony, but it's hardly run-of-the-mill—basically, two fugues, the first mainly for winds and brass, the second mainly for strings. Gradually, a long tune in the horns appears against the fugue, and it turns out not only that the tune comes from the opening "throwaway," but that the two fugal subjects plus the counter-tune comprise the entire opening idea. Wow.

All of this would mean very little, had not Schuman written exhilarating music. As it stands, the architecture gives you a fuller picture of the quality of the composer's mind. Music, after all, is something made, and Schuman makes it better than most. Miller's recording competes with one from Jorge Mester and the Louisville Orchestra (Albany TROY027-2). Compared to the Miller, the Mester sounds like a read-through, stiff, monochromatic, and careful. Miller improves on the earlier performance in every way—more subtlety, more detail, more color, sharper rhythm, a firm grasp on the musical structure, more life. For my money, Miller stands at the head of young American conductors, at least in American music (I haven't heard him in anything else). Furthermore, the recorded sound astonishes all by itself, with a clarity and depth to the sonic image I've seldom encountered. One of those new-fangled Super-Audio CDs. Judging by this result, I doubt this is a gimmick or fad. So, mostly wonderful performances (except for the piano concerto; unsatisfactory though it is, for me the Steigerwalt account comes out ahead) in great sound. Who could ask for anything more?

S.G.S. (July 2003)