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'The greatest American symphony'

At long last, SONY Classical has reissued the Bernstein recording of Harold Shapero's Symphony for Classical Orchestra as part of their Bernstein Century Series, SMK 60725. (Originally a Columbia LP, ML4889, and later reissued on CRI, this is one of the first recordings Bernstein ever made and, for that matter one of the first works Bernstein ever conducted.) In a recent New York Times, Anthony Tommasini recounts the history of this work, and it made a bit of a splash in the press a few years ago when Andre Previn took it up and recorded it for New World. There is a chapter about it in Harvard Composers: Essays on Walter Piston and His Students, by Howard Pollack (Scarecrow, 1992). (Shapero's other teachers included Slonimsky, Krenek, Hindemith and Nadia Boulanger.)

If I have a favorite musical work, this is it. And Bernstein's may be its definitive performance; certainly it is the one I prefer, in spite of its vintage age, for reasons Tommasini articulates better than I've ever been able to, having to do with rhythmic articulation and the coherence of the entire work. Since I discovered this symphony by chance in a public library about thirty five years ago I have been carrying a torch for it. It was once on a Schwann Basic Record Collection list, but more often than not a recording of it has been hard to find, over the years. (I treasure a copy found in a New York used record store that I was told was from the collection of the inventor of the LP.)

What do I like about it? It is one of the most exciting symphonies ever written. (Tommasini quotes Alan Rich as declaring it 'the greatest American symphony.' I would not quarrel with that.) It has tremendous rhythmic drive, with clear orchestral and harmonic textures, sometimes pungent harmonies, some syncopation, strong melodic inventiveness and contrapuntal interest - as well as a wonderful trumpet obbligato. It has both exuberance and lyricism. It goes on, as someone said of the Schubert Great C Major Symphony, at heavenly length. (I have never dared compare these works before, but I don't mind doing so. The Shapero is also reminiscent of Beethoven's Seventh, especially in the headlong momentum of the finale. Stravinsky's Symphony in C may come to mind also, if you know it.)

Why isn't this work part of the standard repertoire? Partly because it is difficult to perform; partly because it was composed at the end of the neoclassical period, with all the musical politics that implies and, aside from his early associations with Bernstein, partly because the composer has never been part of any musical establishment; partly because Shapero never did what composers like William Schuman and Alan Hovhanness did in the face of scorn and neglect--forge on while letting the torpedoes be damned. The result of all this - and there is more that could be said - is that in effect, this wonderful symphony is Shapero's 'ONE WORK,' as he said to me after a program in Jordan Hall, Boston around the time his symphony was reissued by CRI. (He has written others, of course, but I couldn't really argue with him - none can touch this one.) People have problems with that kind of output; they want to discuss a composer's whole oeuvre. But, so what? This work is big enough to stand by itself.

My advice? GET THIS DISC!

© James Tobin, February 1999

SONY Classical - Bernstein Century Series
SMK 60725 (74 minutes, mono)

Harold Shapero: Symphony for Classical Orchestra (44 minutes)
Lopatnikoff: Concertino for Orchestra
Dallapiccola: Tartiniana for Violin and Orchestra


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