Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

VIRGIL THOMSON (1896-1989)
Symphony no 2 in C major (1931-41)
Symphony no 3 (1932-76)
Pilgrims and Pioneers (1964-76)
Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1926-45)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Sedares
Recorded at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, 21-25 November 1998
NAXOS 8.559022 [64:21]
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Virgil Thomson is a familiar name, but like that of many a twentieth-century American composer who seemed to live for ever (and, at 93, Elliot Carter is still going strong) his music is little known in this country. Indeed it appears that is not particularly well known nowadays in the USA. 'We all loved his music and rarely performed it', Leonard Bernstein is quoted as having said on learning in 1989 of Thomson's death; and though he composed extensively in a wide range of genres for which he received a number of honours, he was better known as the pungent music critic of the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954. This disc reveals him to have been a talented composer - but one who lacked a truly distinctive voice.

The Second Symphony (composed 1930, orchestrated 1941) is a cheerful, uncomplicated, even folksy three-movement affair lasting a mere 16 minutes. The equally brief Third Symphony, which had begun life in 1932 as a string quartet, did not appear in this symphonic form until 1976. Much of it is classical pastiche; the second movement marked Tempo di Valzer has clear echoes of Richard Strauss and Der Rosenkavalier.

Pilgrims and Pioneers is a concert piece taken from the music he wrote in 1964 for a brief documentary called Journey to America. The documentary consisted of a sequence of photographs to illustrate the story of immigration into the USA; the music is a fragmentary, allusive collage of folk-songs, shanties, hymn-tunes and dances - quite entertaining, I suppose, but again without the stamp of a distinctive musical personality.

The Symphony on a Hymn Tune is perhaps the most attractive piece on the disc. The earliest of Thomson's works on this disc, it was composed between 1926 and 1928, but not performed until 1945. The tune in question is 'an old Scottish melody that is sung in the South to many texts but most commonly to How Firm a Foundation'. The work abounds in ingenious transformations of the tune, in a variety of sometimes quirky styles, with an evocation of the folksy, rural America of the nineteenth century very much to the fore.

Recording and performance are as straightforward and uncomplicated as the music itself.

Adrian Smith

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