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Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)
Portraits, Self-Portraits and Songs
Anthony Tommasini (piano), Sharan Leventhal (violin), Nancy Armstrong (soprano); D’Anna Fortunato (mezzo-soprano), Sanford Sylvan (baritone), Frank Kelley (tenor), Paul Kirby (tenor), David Ripley (bass), James Russell Smith (percussion), Fenwick Smith (flute), Frederic Cohen (oboe), Ronald Haroutunian (bassoon), Jonathan Miller (cello)
rec. 1989 (Portraits, Self-Portraits) and 1993 at The Campion Center, Weston, MA (Songs And Vocal works)
Texts and translations included
EVERBEST MUSIC 1002 [77:52 + 77:13]

Combined now into a 2-CD set, this is a reissue of two single CDs that originally appeared in the early 1990s by Northeastern Records. Portraits and Self-Portraits is the instrumental disc recorded in 1989 and Mostly about Love is the vocal disc recorded in 1993. Quite a number of the performances were première recordings, six pieces had never even been published at the time of the recording sessions, and the production of both sessions was overseen by pianist, critic and Thomson biographer, Anthony Tommasini.

Though Thomson was a critic and composer and a major presence on the American scene, it’s probably as a musical iconoclast that he is best remembered. Four Saints in Three Acts may have been recorded, abridged, back in 1947 and many an admirer would have eagerly picked up the gatefold LP of Raymond Leppard conducting The Mother of Us All in its 1976 Sante Fe production, but arguably his most intimate music resides in his sequence of Portraits. Their painterly qualities are reinforced by the fact that Thomson almost always sketched the music whilst in the presence of the ‘sitter’, afterwards editing it, articulating it and, in effect, creating it. The emergent music can be jarring, or replete with curious juxtapositions or with hymnal, neo-baroque or modernist tensions. It’s always alive and alert.

Four of the Five Ladies, for violin and piano lay hidden in a bottom drawer so Thomson added the fifth and the piece was issued as a suite. The music embraces fanfare elements and etude-like drama as well as the light muse. One of the portraits is of Alice Toklas. In the Seven Selected Portraits for solo piano, we are introduced to other sitters important to Thomson, such as Jane Bowles, whom Thomson ‘painted’ in 1942 but reworked in 1985 and Dora Maar, painted in Paris in May 1940 where her neo-classical scurries are disrupted by her companion Picasso’s gruff bass interjections. The medium of an instrumental trio is perfectly realised by Thomson; the Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano (A Portrait of Two) is a charmer whereas he was later to realise that his Violin Sonata was, in effect, a self-portrait. Perhaps its Handelian moments, complete with scrunchy dissonances, confident Waltz and somewhat sullen elements, and an ultimately ripe and free-wheeling finale, sum him up.

There is much to ponder and enjoy in the remainder of this first instrumental disc. There are the Samuel Dushkin-arranged Three Portraits, including the crisply ear-titillating central virtuoso solo study, or the sinuous Tango of the last portrait. The 1929 Piano Sonata has its mocking, facetious elements – part of the Thomson makeup – but rather more convincing is the neo-classical Serenade for flute and violin composed the following year. His much later 1966 Etude for cello and piano, a portrait of Frederic James, is rather stern and the sequence of six piano portraits that span the years 1929-84 offer a wide array of pleasures, not least the one for Aaron Copland; there’s much charm and affection in this collection. The Northeastern Suite is a 1989 arrangement for small ensemble by Scott Wheeler – dedicatee of one of those piano portraits (as is Tommasini) – of piano originals and makes for a delightful end to this disc, adding contrast and colour and timbral breadth.

The songs span the years 1926 to 1963 and in some ways are more problematic, or at least difficult. Some conform to the modernist position where nonsensical words allow a deliberately reductive accompanying line (Susie Asado, for example, to Gertrude Stein’s words). The cycle Praise and Prayers, however, composed in 1963, takes poems by Richard Crashaw and Matthew Arnold (his translation of St Francis of Assisi) as well as anonymous sources, to altogether different effect. I find the Arnold setting enervating in the extreme but the second, My Master Hath a Garden, is fresh and light and the last, Jerusalem, My Happy Home is ardent. The Five Phrases from the Song of Solomon were composed at around the time of the experimental Susie Asado and share its spirit of invention, being cast for soprano and percussion – tom toms, wood block, small drum cymbal. The music has Semitic turns of phrase and the second setting is, in fact, unaccompanied. But the colours evoked, notably through the percussive commentaries, though ritualized, are less than truly effective; they’re more performative than musically resilient.

Much more large-scale is the 1959 set Mostly about Love which took Kenneth Koch’s poems and, to his irritation, cut some of their lines (hardly the first poet to which this has happened). This is among the most overtly American-sounding music here, with vernacular phrases, hymnal allusions and almost Appalachian cadences; it’s also probably the finest of Thomson’s settings of poetry. From "Sneden's Landing Variations" (1972) shows Thomson was still at the cutting edge of things – not quite two minutes long but terse and avant-garde – whereas the music he set for John Houseman’s Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare performances is altogether more emollient. Nevertheless, it manages to ignore the temptation to plumb Elizabethan cadences in favour of a more robust North American twang. This is Thomson after all, not Finzi. Oraison funèbre de Henriette-Marie de France, reine de la Grande-Bretagne is, in effect, a cantata for soprano and piano composed in the Parisian years of 1930. There are a variety of musical means here, from plangent to near-baroque, from Les Six to simpler, sparer accompanying figures. Finally, there is Capital Capitals which returns us to a Gertrude Stein text and a setting of 1927 for four male but not overlapping voices (one sings at a time). If you have a yen for whimsy of this sort, you’ll find a 17-minute entertainment that will fit you to a capital T.

The performances are all splendidly authoritative, not least when guided by Tommasini. I’ll reserve special praise for soprano Nancy Armstrong, violinist Sharan Leventhal and of course Tommasini himself. But their colleagues are all equally committed. Tommasini’s booklet notes are reprised, and there are full texts of the songs and translations where they are in French. If I have underplayed Thomson’s sly, or not so sly, wit in this selection of his music that’s not to downplay it. But it’s only one element of a puckish personality, whose serious exploration of compositional methodology affords constant surprises.

Jonathan Woolf

Contents
CD1
5 Ladies for violin and piano (1930-83)
- No. 1, Cynthia Kemper (A Fanfare)
- No. 2, Anne Miracle
- No. 3, Alice Toklas
- No. 4, Yvonne de Casa Fuerte
- No. 5, Mary Reynolds
7 Selected Portraits for Solo Piano (1935-85)
- No. 1, Philip Claflin (Dans le temps trés noceur)
- No. 2, Jane Bowles (Early and as Remembered)
- No. 3, Sea Coast (A Portrait of Constance Askew)
- No. 4, A Portrait of R. Kirk Askew, Jr.
- No. 5, Maurice Bavoux (Young and Alone)
- No. 6, Dora Maar, or the Presence of Picasso
- No. 7, Florine Stettheimer (Parades)
A Portrait of Two (1984)
- I. Tempo commodo
- II. Andante
- III. Alert
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1930)
- I. Allegro
- II. Andante nobile
- III. Tempo di valzer
- IV. Andante. Doppio movimento
Concerto for Flute, Strings, Harp and Percussion (1954)
- I. Rapsodico
3 Portraits (Arr. S. Dushkin) (1948)
- No. 1, Barcarolle
- No. 2, In a Bird Cage
- No. 3, Tango Lullaby
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1929)
- I. Cantabile
- II. Sostenuto
- III. Leggiero e brillante
Serenade for Flute and Violin (1930)
- I. March. Allegro militaire
- II. Aria. Lento ma non tropo
- III. Fanfare. Vivo
- IV. Flourish. Presto possible
- V. Hymn. Lento
Etude for Cello and Piano (A Portrait of Frederic James) (1966)
Lili Hastings (1983)
6 Portraits for Solo Piano (1929-84)
- No. 1, Alternations (A Portrait of Maurice Grosser)
- No. 2, Paul Sanfaçon (On the Ice)
- No. 3, Louis Rispoli (In a Boat)
- No. 4, Persistently Pastorale (Aaron Copland)
- No. 5, Scott Wheeler (Free-Wheeling)
- No. 6, Tony Tommasini (A Study in Chords)
Northeastern Suite (After V. Thomson) (1989)
- I. The Hunt
- II. Anne-Marie Soullière
- III. Karen Brown Waltuck
- IV. Russell Hitchcock, Reading
- V. Rodney Lister
CD2
Susie Asado (1926)
4 Saints in 3 Acts (1935)
- Pigeons on the Grass Alas (Version for Baritone and Piano)
Praises and Prayers (1963)
- No. 1, From "The Canticle of the Sun"
- No. 2, My Master Hath a Garden
- No. 3, Sung by the Shepherds
- No. 4, Before Sleeping
- No. 5, Jerusalem, My Happy Home
5 Phrases from "The Song of Solomon" (1926)
- No. 1, Thou That Dwellest in the Gardens
- No. 2, Return, O Shulamite!
- No. 3, O, My Dove
- No. 4, I Am My Beloved's
- No. 5, By Night
Mostly About Love (1959)
- No. 1, Love Song
- No. 2, Down at the Docks
- No. 3, Let's Take a Walk
- No. 4, A Prayer to Saint Catherine
Commentaire sur Saint Jérome (1928)
From "Sneden's Landing Variations" (1972)
Shakespeare Songs (Excerpts) (1956-57)
- No. 1, Was This Fair Face the Cause?
- No 2, Take, O Take Those Lips Away
- No. 3, Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred
- No. 5, Sigh No More, Ladies
Oraison funèbre de Henriette-Marie de France, reine de la Grande-Bretagne (1930)
Capital Capitals (1927) text here




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