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Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)
Synthetic Waltzes (1925) [5.01]
Four Songs to Poems of Thomas Campion (1951) [9.40]
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1930) [12.55]
Two by Marianne Moore (1963) [4.42]
Praises and Prayers (1963) [18.35]
Continuum/Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs (directors)
Recorded Wright Music Hall, Middle Tennessee State University, 1988 (except Synthetic Waltzes and Four Songs to Poems of Thomas Campion, recorded New York City, 1989)
NAXOS 8.559198 [50.53]

Thomas Beecham always liked a saucy wit and he liked Virgil Thomson. The feeling was mutual. Looking at the cover photograph of Thomson, resplendent in superbly cut pin-striped and double breasted suit, standing by a column, his glasses tightly clenched in his right hand and left hand slipped barrister-style into left pocket, I thought he could even be modelling for the conductor. How instructive then to turn from the elegant Savile Row cut of his cloth to his instrumental, chamber and vocal music presented in this disc. It’s a reissue and devotees of the highways and byways of American music may have caught up with it over a decade ago on Musical Heritage Society. Those yet to make the acquaintance of Thomson in less opulent canvases than his more popular orchestral, ballet or operatic works will like to investigate.

The Synthetic Waltzes date from 1925 and Thomson’s very early thirties. They’re as naughty as La Pigalle after dark – waltzes subject to rhythmic and metrical displacements, though not omitting to include a trademark glorious tune. And yes, it really is glorious and how typical of the dandy to sink it in a jeu d’esprit such as this. The Violin Sonata followed five years later, still in Thomson’s Parisian days, and is written in his personalised brand of neo-classicism in four movements. The slow movement sounds like slightly displaced Handel, the Waltz (he was fond of subverting them) is a bumptious wrong note affair, whilst the finale develops a ripplingly lyric dynamism.

The rest of the disc is devoted to Thomson’s settings of Campion, Marianne Moore and a sundry collection called Praises and Prayers. The four Campion settings are written for mezzo, clarinet, viola and harp, an intriguing ensemble perhaps rather more associated with the salon but here used to entirely different musical ends. Short but not epigrammatic, Thomson responds with great finesse to these settings, a love of which poetry aligned him once more with Beecham, who could recite reams of the stuff. In 1963 he set Two by Marianne Moore. Both are short; the first is emphatic, the second madcap – not surprisingly since the poem is My Crow Pluto, an example of Moore’s more esoteric sense of humour.

Praises and Prayers dates from the same year as the Moore settings. Saint Francis of Assisi, Richard Crashaw and jostle with Anonymous. Thomson responds with simple piety to the St Augustine, with powerful climax in the Crashaw and with roundel joy in the anonymous setting of Before Sleeping.

The performances are thoroughly committed and if not the last word in finesse at least certainly on the right side of engagement. Thomson’s insouciance may sometimes be held against him but at his finest in these works, especially the vocal settings, he shows the utmost clarity and beauty in his response.

Jonathan Woolf


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