I became a fan of the
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra when
I heard how well they recorded the wonderful,
bracing music of their own composer,
Douglas Lilburn, under the baton of
But I only realized
how well the New Zealanders did American
music when I recently bought the Judd/NZSO
account of the Aaron Copland Symphony
No. 3, paired with the suite from "Billy
the Kid."(Naxos CD 8.559106). I'll say
nothing about it except that for my
money, Judd's account of "Billy the
Kid" is as good or better than Leonard
Bernstein's or Leonard Slatkin's.
So I had no qualms
about buying the New Zealand Symphony
Orchestra's accounts of the American
composer Randall Thompson's three symphonies.
This is a double-disc set recorded in
1997, sold for the price of one CD on
the Koch International Classics label.
The New Zealand Symphony
Orchestra is in fine form on these recordings,
in which James Sedares conducts the
Symphony No. 1, and Andrew Schenck the
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3.
Randall Thompson was
a great writer of choral music and it
shows in these symphonies, in which
he occasionally seems to treat the orchestra
as a singer. Thompson's symphonic music
doesn't seem very well known, even in
America. This is the only account of
all three symphonies I could find. Others
may be out there; but the two or three
online outlets where I usually shop
had only this account of all three.
The No. 2 seems to
stay in front of the public because
it is part of a Leonard Bernstein disc
in Sony's ‘American Masters’ series
that packages it with two other classics,
the Roy Harris Symphony No. 3 and the
David Diamond Symphony No. 4 (Sony Classics
SMK60594). Those who have that disc
tell me the Bernstein account of the
No. 2 is wonderful; but on the downside,
you miss the other two Thompson works,
which are cut from the same cloth.
It's testimony to the
strength of these symphonies that I
can't honestly make up my mind which
of them I like the best. As a friend
of mine says hopelessly about the Rubbra
cycle, I like them all.
Symphony No. 1:
I wonder if this is not the most modern
of Thompson's symphonies, even though
he wrote it first. I find it "visual"
in an abstract way - not that the music
suggests any visual associations, but
it is as though the notes themselves
are performing a formal dance, starting
and stopping at intervals, with percussive
leaps - it "surges, hobbles and halts
in its progress," an early reviewer
wrote. Yet there is a planned progress
about it, for all its stops and starts.
I find this a very dancey sort of work
(a trait of the No. 2 as well). In fact
I wonder if Thompson's symphonies might
not be better described as "symphonic
dances". The rhythm can be almost unsettling,
but I don't find it jarring.
There's a nice sense
of balance despite the fitful motion
of this three-movement symphony. The
first and third movements are more than
11 minutes and 12 minutes long, respectively,
and they enclose an adagio not quite
7 minutes long.
A high point for me
is in first three minutes or so of the
adagio, which suggests to me the music
of Edmund Rubbra.
Symphony No. 2:
Thompson's second symphony is also his
second of 1931, apparently a very good
year for him. He goes with the classical
format of a four-movement symphony this
time, though once again the movements
are nicely balanced.
The Allegro is propelled
by strong rhythms, once again like a
symphony for dancers. As with the No.
1, there is a powerful sense of motion
- I can almost see the music cavorting.
The second movement,
Largo, is all adjective if the first
was all verb. It has a suggestion of
The rhythm with which this movement
opens suggests to me the Symphony No.
1 of William Walton, which the Thompson
work precedes by a few years. Then follows
another Delius-like interlude (Disc
1, Track 6, 2: 15), which eases
the tension before the rhythm storms
back into place. Again, abstractly it
suggests a tug of war between verb and
The last movement,
marked Andante moderato, might make
this the most American of Thompson's
works. Once again I had the sense of
Delius - but this time Delius when he
is writing in his American vein. I thought
of his Florida Suite. The humming
close of this symphony is one of the
passages that brings home to me the
vocal quality of Thompson's writing
Symphony No. 3:
There are passages in the first movement
of this symphony that remind me of the
Portuguese composer, Joly Braga Santos,
in his wonderful Symphony No. 2 (which,
coincidentally, also is written in 1947,
the same year in which Thompson is setting
to work on this, his last symphony).
The first movement of the Thompson No.
3 is marked Largo elegiaco, and perhaps
it's the elegiac nature of both that
appeals to me. (In the Braga Santos
No. 2, it's this quality that I hear
in the Adagio, and again in the very
start of the fourth movement, marked
The second movement,
Allegro appassionato, is one of those
passages that cries out for singing.
It's built on such strong rhythms, all
that's needed is the voices to make
it seem straight out of Carmina Burana.
third movement is marked Lento tranquillo.
To my mind, it holds some of the same
folk-like quality as the last movement
of the Dvořák Symphony No. 9.
Thompson wraps up the
work with a quick finale - just under
5 minutes in this account - marked Allegro
vivace. Here, it is as though Thompson's
American music has vaulted back to the
old world - it is the playing of the
flutes, with an almost Celtic puckishness
and charm, that wins the listener. Just
as in the second movement, it's music
that will make your toes start tapping
- but perhaps a little more quietly
as the work plays out.
While I had absolutely
no qualms about the quality of the symphonies
themselves, or the playing of the orchestra,
there is one major drawback about this
set. The notes break off abruptly, scarcely
dealing with Symphony No. 2 and dealing
with No. 3 not at all. It is as though
the writer or designer simply ran out
of space, for until that point, it is
a charming, folksy essay that deals
adequately with Symphony No. 1.
The other criticism
is that, though this is a two-CD set
sold for the price of one, the second
disc is decidedly skimpy. It holds only
Symphony No. 3, which takes only 32
minutes to perform. Surely Randall Thompson
wrote enough music that Koch could have
found something to fill out that second
disc a little more. Nevertheless, these
are lovely symphonies that speak for
themselves, and are well worth the hearing.