Classical Music Review: New Releases

Virgil Thomson - Symphonies.  Symphony on a Hymn Tune; Symphony No. 2 in C major; Symphony No. 3; Pilgrims and Pioneers.  New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James Sedares, conductor.  Naxos 8.559022 (64'21).

One of a Kind

Truly creative composers rarely practice one style.  Still, whatever they do, they're usually typecast, and that's because we want simple, easy answers.  A real original like Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), however, remained himself no matter what.  The brashness and sweetness that marked him as a person are in his music, too.  And though sometimes described as a neo-classic composer, his three symphonies, recorded together for the first time here, never sound like the works of his contemporaries in this form -- Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and David Diamond.  Tommasini's recent biography almost, but not quite, pegs Thomson as a gay composer.  Of course he was -- so were Copland and so is Diamond -- but Thomson, being both elusive and diverse, resists even that.

His symphonic outings are quirky and thoroughly imaginative.  The earliest, Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1926-28, revised 1945), dates from his study in Paris with Boulanger.  Fractured in continuity, it also refuses to be linear-rational.   (Parts of it turned up in Thomson's film score for The Goddess (1957), a sort of cult film with Kim Stanley as a Monroe type).  And, despite a four movement layout, it never develops in ways you think it should.  Unrelated things happen, as in a collage.  At least two hymn tunes appear -- "How Firm a Foundation" and "Yes, Jesus Loves Me", as well as a waltz, a tango, academic fugues, a blues-inflected passage which evokes a distant train, and other startling, moving and amusing sounds.  It also recalls and sends up Thomson's Southern Baptist boyhood in much the same way that his legendary first opera with Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-34), did.

His score for John Houseman's one-reel documentary, Journey to America, draws on a variety of musical memories.  Originally shown in the United States Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair, it appears in suite form here as Pilgrims and Pioneers (1971).  Best described as a dissonant variation set, it's brilliantly orchestrated and full of character, with severe chorales and fugues, a country fiddle tune, suggestions of the Renaissance dance the sarabande, the Appalachian song "Shenandoah" in various guises, and a passage which sounds like a gigantic barn dance and the Virginia reel rolled into one.  Mercurial and dynamic it also resembles the composer's third and final opera, Lord Byron (1964-72) to a libretto by Jack Larson.  This is the first recording of the film suite, and James Sedares and his orchestra give a very persuasive performance.

He also leads compelling accounts of Thomson's two other symphonies, which are superficially more conventional works. Symphony No. 2, which began its life as the Piano Sonata No. 1 in 1929, was written in 1930, but re-orchestrated in 1941 because the composer felt it "wanted higher contrasts and a more striking color."  Thomson's friend and fellow composer Henri Sauguet called it "paradoxical and poetic" which is a good description.  It's also joyful, fresh and spontaneous.

Symphony No. 3 is an orchestral version of Thomson's neo-romantic String Quartet No. 2 (1932) which he wrote in France when a number of his friends like Christian Bérard and Tcheitcheff were also painting in that manner.  And it's neo-romantic because it uses personal feelings as subject matter.  But does it succeed in this new form?  Yes and no.  The playing here is OK, but also tentative.  James Bolle and the New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra give a much more sensitive and idiomatic account on CRI's Gay American Composers, Vol 2.  And though only two of the symphony's four movements are excerpted there, it has a lot more atmosphere and charm.  But Bolle and the same band aren't nearly as effective in their versions of Thomson's First and Second Symphonies on an Albany CD, though that does have a knockout performance of Thomson's memorial piece for Gertrude Stein and Bérard, A Solemn Music (1949).

Sedare's recording is part of Naxos' American Classics series and it's a welcome addition ot the discography of this controversial composer, who, though famous, should be much better known.

Michael McDonagh

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