Gerard Schwarz / Seattle Symphony Orchestra

William Schuman: Symphony No. 8; Night Journey; Variations on 'America'

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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.

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