Marvelously played performances of excruciating repertoire.
(5 out of 5 stars)
"William Schuman, one of America's most distinguished and underrated composers, is known for the increasing power of his symphonies. Here Schuman's works for theater and dance are spotlighted incredibly with his two dark, imposing "choreographic poems," written at the special request of Ms. Martha Graham. "Judith" (1949) is, without question, one of his best orchestral works ever. (But with Schuman, how can you possibly choose?) Utilizing the entire ensemble exquisitely with his absolutely unreal sense of rhythm, the ensemble playing of the Eastman Philharmonia is textbook, beyond description. The brass sound is strong and bold and the strings play sensitively and beautifully throughout. A landmark recording of one of Schuman's great masterworks. "Night Journey" (1947) was composed by Schuman for this very Endymion Ensemble for 15 instruments in 1981, but the recording makes it sound like full instrumentation. Another incredibly difficult piece by Schuman (which is quite commonplace), the jaw-dropping precision of the ensemble is definitely worth noting. One of Schuman's later works is "In Sweet Music" (1978) which concludes the disc, featuring the hauntingly beautiful voice of Rosalind Rees. Very highly recommended for any who appreciate the American genre; a must for fans of Mr. Schuman's great gift of music."
Rare and valuable Schuman
Discophage | France | 04/06/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Along with his famous Martha Graham ballet "Judith" (1949), this CRI reissue features two rare compositions of William Schuman. Not that any Schuman is all that "abundant" on disc, mind you. But Judith has been granted, including this one, four recordings since the pioneering effort of Robert Whitney with the Louisville Orchestra in 1951, on Mercury (MG 10088, paired with Undertow, conducted by the composer, never reissued on CD); the others are Whitney's 1960 remake (W. Schuman: Judith / Symphony 4 / Prayer in Time of War) and Schwarz' 1996 recording on Delos (A Tribute to William Schuman).
Schuman called Judith not a "ballet", but a "Choreographic Poem for Orchestra", and that is what is is: as early as 1949 Schuman is all there : the menacingly brooding, the explosive outbursts, the wistful flute and oboe (and also, here, horn) over hushed tapestry of strings, the dynamic and dramatic syncopations. It breaks no new ground, but it is entirely Schuman and an immensely effective, evocative and dramatic work.
The first of the two rarities then is "Night Journey", another ballet written for Martha Graham, earlier still than Judith: 1947. It is the missing link between Undertow (1945, written for Antony Tudor) and Judith. It is based on the Oedipus story, but seen from the eyes of Jocasta, reliving her past experience at the moment of her death. What is played here is Schuman's concert score, written for the Endymion Ensemble that performs it here. The liner notes are somewhat puzzling when they say that Schuman wrote that concert version "a quarter-century later" and that it was first performed in 1981: that's closer to 35 years after 1947, or the ensemble waited 9 years to premiere it? According to the annotator, the concert score contains only small alterations of the original. Anyway, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the radical that Schuman might have become (but didn't). Not only because of its scoring for 15 instruments including a biting piano, it sounds more angular and Stravinskian than Judith. It is a magnificent score, highly dramatic and effective.
Both Judith and Night Journey are the reissue of a CRI LP published in 1984. They were recorded respectively in 1981 and 1983 and sound fine.
If you had played me on a blind test "In Sweet Music", you would have seen my jaws drop when you had revealed who had actually composed it. It is one of the composer's later works and a commission from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It was premiered in 1978 and though it has the same scoring as Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola and harp, its stylistic universe is not at all evocative of Debussy's; to Debussy's ensemble Schuman adds a soprano, singing a poem by Shakespeare. The composition is formally original too, in that the soprano sings only the title at the beginning, then continues with long, wordless vocalises of haunting beauty - including moments of just humming - in which the vocalist becomes purely instrumental. The full poem is sung only at the end. The music starts somewhat neo-renaissance, like a homage to music in the time of Shakespeare and develops into something rather austere and a bit angular, but very poetic. Around the 8-minute mark (the composition runs nearly 25 minutes) it turns into a more whimsical, scherzando mood that recalls the kind of thing Meredith Monk might have improvised, or maybe a Berio Folksong (and it is really a piece Cathy Berberian should have sung) - really unexpected for Schuman. I find Rosalind Rees perfect: pure-sounding, intimate, like a folk-singer.This is a beautiful composition, and it is a shame that is should be apparently so little known and seldom recorded.
TT is 70-minutes so there is nothing to complain about. The only frustration is that "In Sweet Music" was originally paired with two other late Schuman song cycles on CRI SD 439, back in 1981 and the old LP days: "The Young Dead Soldier" for Soprano, Horn and Chamber Ensemble (1976) and "Time to the Old" (1980). "In Sweet Music" is simply too good to let these other cycles linger LP oblivion. When will they make it back from the dead?
An important disc for the admirer of Schuman."