SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 4 (1941). Prayer in Time of War (1943). Judith (Choreographic Poem for Orchestra) (1949).
Louisville Orch/Jorge Mester and Robert S. Whitney (Judith), cond.
FIRST EDITION FECD 0011 (F) (ADD) TT: 59:27

William Schuman used to say that he wrote “eight symphonies, numbered 3 through 10” (the original 1 and 2 were both played once but then withdrawn). Of the surviving “eight,” No. 3 has been widely performed and is generally considered his finest, although Nos. 6 and 8 have a legion of staunch adherents, and No. 5—for string orchestra—has become virtually a repertory piece. The entire canon has been recorded, whether or not currently available in these parlous times, but among Nos. 3 through 8, only the Fourth of 1941, in three movements, had a single advocate on discs—this Louisville performance from 1968—until Albany’s new version earlier this year. (Sad to say, Nos. 9 and 10 are currently in BMG/Red Seal limbo, led respectively by Eugene Ormandy and Leonard Slatkin with, again respectively, the Philadelphia and Saint Louis Orchestras.)

The Fourth was Schuman’s only uncommissioned symphony, which might lead fancy-label buyers to suppose it is somehow inferior to the other works he acknowledged. Not so, thanks to Jorge Mester and the still-smallish Louisville Orchestra of 1968, although their performance was more careful than rousing. For a time it was on an Albany TROY CD along with others of the orchestra’s 158 First Edition LPs, dating back to 1950 when Mercury issued the ballets Judith and Undertow on a single disc. The latter was conducted by composer, the former by Robert Whitney who built an orchestra in Kentucky Derbyland from scratch between 1937 and his retirement in 1967. In 1948 incoming Mayor Charles Farnsley advocated commissioning new pieces for what was then an orchestra of 50 musicians who played only five pairs of subscription concerts annually, instead of spending a limited budget on solo artists.

In 1952 Goddard Lieberson, the far-sighted president of then-Columbia (now Sony) Records, negotiated a three-LP deal with much fanfare and national press support. In 1953 Farnsley won a $500,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to further the commissioning project. Subsequently, the orchestra launched its own label, First Editions, which Lieberson assisted by assigning Howard Scott to produce Louisville LPs sold on subscription. In six seasons Whitney and the orchestra gave the world premieres of 116 works by 101 living composers. Between 1952 and 1967, Whitney and Scott had recorded 125 LPs. BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) provided a two-year grant when Rockefeller Funds were exhausted, and in 1966 the Ford Foundation provided “significant funding” to continue recordings by Whitney’s successors, Mester (1967- 1979), Akira Endo (1980-83), and Lawrence Leighton Smith (1984-94). For almost a decade, the orchestra’s popped up occasionally on Albany, Crystal and Koch International, but starting in 2002 it resuscitated First Recordings under Uri Segal, music director since 1999.

Meanwhile, back at Churchill Downs, the original First Editions program faltered after four decades of success, artistically if not financially. As of now, however, the Santa Fe Music Group, LLC, has acquired rights to all music on the First Edition label and, with Scott still able and willing to act as “supervising producer,” plans to release the entire Louisville catalog remastered for CD. This disc seems to be the first reincarnation, welcome indeed as a tribute to the late Schuman (1910-92), whose influence as an administrator as well as composer and teacher was unparalleled in the period following WW II until his retirement from the presidency of The Juilliard School in 1962 and his subsequent resignation as President of Lincoln Center in 1969. His like has not appeared on the horizon since. With his retirement, however, performances became fewer, although the Leonards, Bernstein and Slatkin, along with Gerard Schwarz kept the flame lit.

I don’t know the Albany version of No. 4, conducted by David Alan Miller, but Mester’s is a careful performance that, however, doesn’t challenge the orchestral level of Schuman’s stellar advocates living or dead. The work was premiered in January 1942 by Artur Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra, and is typically Schumanesque—the use of half-step and far-flung intervals, a mastery of traditional symphonic form that allowed him to bend the rules for expressivity, and a career-long commitment to counterpoint. See S.G.S.’s July 2003 review of the Albany version for a detailed and insightful examination of the work, although the influence of Copland he cites is not a feature of Mester’s interpretation, where the ghost of Roy Harris’ tuition is faded yet still reminds us of his influence on Schuman’s surpassing mastery of counterpoint and sanguine scoring. This makes me all the more anxious to hear the Albany Symphony’s new Fourth.

Another first (and in this case only) recording is Prayer in Time of War, composed in 1943 and recorded in 1972. Originally Schuman called it Prayer—1943, which begins with “a polychord: D major over C major” in Robert McMahan’s notes from the original issue. It is a 15-minute piece that becomes agitated, even “savage” before returning to its hushed and somber beginning. Mester again conducts, and both he and the orchestra sounds surer. Like the Fourth Symphony, the source of Prayer is “the original two-track stereo session master.”

Judith, written for Martha Graham in1949 who performed it at the Louisville premiere and later the same season at a Carnegie Hall tour concert, is one of Schuman’s most visceral works, everywhere befitting the Biblical story of Judith, widowed in war by Holofernes, who insinuated herself into Holofernes’ camp and during a feast beheaded her enemy. It ends with a dance of triumph, but you can hear the uneasy tension in Louisville’s 1959 re-recording, still monophonic, under Whitney’s technically preoccupied direction. The recording lacks bass, so if you want Judith as it deserves to be interpreted, hunt down Gerard Schwarz’s 1992 version on Delos with the Seattle Symphony on its mettle, thrillingly recorded. The Delos version is three minutes longer, which allows for passages of repose essential to the music’s structure and impact.

That said, treasures exist among Louisville’s First Edition LPs, and what could follow whets the appetite. I had all the originals once upon a time, but LPs in those years often as not came with tics and pops and scratches. In any event, a multi-gun salute the the enterprise of Santa Fe New Music (and “partial funding generously provided by The Aaron Copland Fund for Music and the National Endowment for the Arts.”)

R.D. (November 2003)