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Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984)
Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 3

Symphony No. 1 (1931), [Allegro brioso, 11.19 : Poco adagio, 6.53 : Allegro, 12.40]
Symphony No. 2 (1931) [Allegro, 8.25 : Largo, 4.22 : Vivace, 6.22 : Andante moderato, 10.05]
Symphony No. 3 (1947-49) [Largo elegiaco, 9.26 : Allegro appassionato, 8.22 : Lento tranquillo, 9.07 : Allegro vivace, 4.57]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Sedares (Symphony No. 1) and Andrew Schenck (Symphonies No. 2 and No. 3)
No recording dates or venues listed.
KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS CD 3-7413-2 [60.12: 32.00]


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 James Judd.

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 Delius.

Third movement:  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 adjective.

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 for orchestra.

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 Lento.)

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.

The 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.

Lance Nixon


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