William Schuman: Symphonies Nos. 3, 5 & 8

Leonard Bernstein / New York Philharmonic

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William Schuman: Symphonies Nos. 3, 5 & 8 Review

by James Leonard

Once referred to as one of the Holy Trinity of American symphonies -- and if that's not aesthetic blasphemy, what is? -- William Schuman's Symphony No. 3, along with Aaron Copland's Third and Roy Harris' Third, was once the height of musical fashion. Of course, that was back in the '40s, back when writing "the Great American Symphony" was believed not only to be possible but necessary, back when American composers sought to validate their own sense of self-worth by writing works that could bear the designation "the Great American Symphony," back when American composers thought in terms of Holy Trinities and great American symphonies. If these days such notions seem unduly precious, well, imagine how listeners 50 years from now will think about minimalism and neo-Romanticism.

But if there was any conductor in the '60s who lived and breathed the notion of the Great American Symphony, it was surely Leonard Bernstein. Not only did he himself attempt to write a Great American Symphony or two, he led more than a few recordings of would-be Great American Symphonies with the New York Philharmonic, including this one of Schuman's Symphony No. 3, Symphony for strings, and Symphony No. 8. Forty years on, Bernstein and the N.Y.P.O.'s recordings still stand as among the most passionate and most convincing recordings of Schuman. While it's going on, only a hard-hearted and tone-deaf listener would think Schuman's Third anything less than a Great American Symphony. The N.Y.P.O. plays with more panache and power than it ever did for Brahms, and Bernstein conducts with the kind of excitement and sensitivity that could transform any work into a great work. In this digital remastering, Bernstein's '60s recordings of Schuman still sound like, if not the Great American Symphonies, at least great American symphonies.

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