WILLIAM SCHUMAN:  Violin Concerto.  New England Triptych.  IVES:  Variations on "America" (orch. Schuman).
Philip Quint, violinist/Bournemouth Symphony Orch; José Serebrier, cond.

NAXOS 8.559083 (B) (DDD) TT:  56:54

William Schuman's Violin Concerto, which Samuel Dushkin commissioned in 1947, was premiered instead by Isaac Stern in 1950, with the Boston Symphony conducted by Charles Munch. During a 1956 revision, Schuman decided on its final two-movement form, introduced at Aspen three years after that by Roman Totenberg. Paul Zukovsky recorded it in 1970 for DGG with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Boston Symphony; Robert McDuffie did likewise for EMI in the 1980s with Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Orchestra. Both, however, are currently (perhaps terminally) out-of-print. To the rescue, courtesy of Naxos, comes a brilliant young Russian-American, Philip Quint, superbly partnered by JosÈ Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Between them they explore every nuance with a combination of loving care and nervy virtuosity, listened to several times before I dared to risk writing what still may read like a press-release.

The music has muscle and thrust and lyricism and imagination that make it one of the best of concertos galore for violin and orchestra by American composers since World War 2 (if you wonder, by the way, where Leonard Bernstein collected a whole portfolio of ideas, lend an ear). The molto tranquillo section five minutes into the opening movement is extraordinarily poetic, with the soloist playing con sordino. But then the music heats up again, and by the end of the second movement, you’ve been on a trip that included everything from turbulence to haute cuisine with champagne to a drop in cabin pressure to sudden changes in altitude. Book a ticket; the trip costs only $7.

Besides, there are two bonuses: the best reading I know of Schuman's 1963 orchestration of Charles Ives' cheeky Variations on "America," originally  for organ. Neither Slatkin nor Gerard Schwarz in their versions come close to Serebrier's tongue-in-cheek, and the latter's reading of the New England Triptych clearly leads the pack. Slatkin's brass in the Saint Louis recording that RCA/BMG has deep-sixed may have sounded weightier than the Bournemouth section, but not more virtuosic, although Schwarz's reading on Delos has a keener ear for detail than his stateside counterpart. But neither bring the temperamental zest or podium panache of Serebrier, whose only blemish is recessive timpani at the start—though that could have been the option of his otherwise admirable co-producer and engineer, Phil Rowlands.

I haven't singled out five year-end Favorites since the last exercise in frustration for Fanfare (try January-February 1986). But I can't imagine this disc not being on a final short-list for 2001. Get it if you're not afraid of adrenalin rushes.

R.D. (May 2001)