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Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989) Symphony on a Hymn Tune, Symphony No. 2 in C major, Symphony No. 3, Pilgrims and Pioneers    James Sedares conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra NAXOS American Classics Series 8.559022 [64:21]

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Virgil Thomson is probably best remembered for his scores for a handful of films including, Louisiana Story, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, plus his comic opera, Four Saints in Three Acts.

Thomson was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris where he lived for many years. He taught music at Harvard, played the organ at King's Chapel, Boston and was the respected yet feared music critic of the New York Herald Tribune. As Leonard Bernstein remarked after his death, "Virgil was loving and harsh, generous and mordant, simple but cynical, son of the hymnal yet highly sophisticated. We all loved his music and rarely performed it. Most of us preferred his unpredictable and provocative prose." Virgil Thomson had a great influence on the work of his fellow composers particularly Aaron Copland.

This album eschews Virgil Thomson's more progressive music in favour of four of his more immediately attractive and accessible scores. The excellent booklet notes, by Marina and Victor Ledlin, include Virgil Thomson's own extensive programme notes from the first performances of his works. Sedares and his Wellington ensemble clearly enjoy this predominantly jolly outgoing music.

Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune dates from 1928 and it is an affectionate, humorous view of the composer's favourite hymns. The main theme is based on the old Scottish melody that is sung in the Southern States to many texts but most commonly to 'How Firm a Foundation'. Another familiar hymn tune, 'Yes, Jesus Loves Me' appears as a secondary theme. The Symphony has been described as 'simple, straightforward and folklorish in style, evoking nineteenth-century rural America by its dignity, its sweetness and its naïve religious gaiety.' It opens on a serene pastoral evocation with lazy echoing horns and develops episodically with quirky humorous material and ends with a rather 'farmyard' cadenza for trombone, piccolo, solo cello and solo violin. The andante is song-like and contemplative with the odd caustic or sour comment from the brass and it ends with a suggestion of a distant railway train. The bright Allegretto is a passacaglia, strongly rhythmic with a jazzy swagger. The concluding Alla breve was used by Virgil Thomson in a slightly altered form as the finale of the film, The River.

The short (16½-minute) Symphony No. 2 in C major (1931-1941) has a folksy, bucolic charm with trumpet riding high over cantering staccato strings and woodwinds as the work opens. Virgil Thomson describes the work thus - "The expressive character of this symphony is predominantly lyrical. Dancing and jollity, however, are rarely absent from its thought; and the military suggestions of horn and trumpet, of marching drums, are a constantly recurring presence both as background and foreground." There is too, a tenderness and old world charm (although brittle enough to be challenged by bugle calls from the barracks even in the lovely andante) that for me dates the atmosphere this work further back than its composition to the turn of the 18th/19th centuries. Beneath all, there is a concern for classical elegance. The concluding Allegro scintillates.

The music for Symphony No. 3 (1972) (another brief 16½-minute opus) was originally in his String Quartet of 1932, then it was intended as ballet music for Thomson's opera Lord Byron but production problems ensued. It begins most arrestingly and atmospherically with crescendoing waves of cymbals and gong strokes and strident brass. But almost immediately the mood relaxes and we hear the strains of dance music and for the rest of the movement it is a clash of pompous and assertive masculinity and graceful femininity. The following glorious Tempo di Valzer confirms that this work belongs again to the turn of the previous century and the ballrooms of the Hapsburgs with all their colour and glitter. The following andante has a morose tenderness and the finale mixes the innocent elegance of a minuet with all that martial material again.

Pilgrims and Pioneers (1964), was composed for a documentary film, Journey to America, conceived for the New York World's Fair of that year. The film charts the history of American immigration. It has to be said that it is a predominantly austere morose work treating old hymns with a deep melancholy. The gloom is lifted only sporadically. Not surprisingly this is its premiere recording.

Notwithstanding Pilgrims and Pioneers, this is a very approachable and attractive album


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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