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Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) [26:52]
The River (1937) [27:43]
Post-Classical Ensemble/Angel Gil-Ordóñez
rec. 11-12 June 2005, Omega Recording Studios, Rockville, Maryland
NAXOS 8.559291 [55:43]


For some Virgil Thomson is seen as an American Satie, writing music of great beauty and simplicity; for others he wrote simple-minded, negligible, music. For many, though, he is seen as being instrumental in creating a true “American” sound in classical music. However he is viewed, he is an important figure in the development of music in America, both as composer and critic and, later in life, as mentor for younger composers such as Ned Rorem, Paul Bowles and Leonard Bernstein. 

After attending Harvard he moved to Paris in the 1920s, where he remained until the start of World War 2, making regular visits home. The 1930s saw him working in theatre – his most important work here is the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (with libretto by Gertrude Stein) - and film – both The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River. 

Written in 1936, The Plow was Thomson’s first film score and has become well known through a short orchestral suite – very attractive indeed – but this disk gives us the first ever recording of the complete score. The ten sections are full of Thomson’s down-home Americana, quoting cowboy songs. The instrumentation includes rare visitors to the orchestra – saxophones, guitar, banjo and, for the Church music, harmonium. It is a sheer joy.

The River – which traces the history of the Mississippi River and argues the necessity of a system of dams to harness water - was written the following year, and was, ironically, completed shortly after devastating Mississippi floods. The music has also become known through a short orchestral suite. Again, Thomson writes in the American vernacular, using jazz and folk music elements, but this time the textures are more transparent and are more delicately scored. As with The Plow this is the first recording of the complete score, and fine stuff it is. 

The Post-Classical Ensemble, a group formed in 2003, plays superbly and makes the music delightful and entertaining. This is the first time I have heard this music played with such elegance, so many treat the music with far too heavy a hand. The recording matches the performance, being clear and luminous. 

Naxos has done both Thomson and us a great favour giving us these fine scores in such excellent sound, and, as a bonus it has issued both films on DVD (Naxos 2.110521) using this recording as the soundtrack. Both issues are a valuable addition to our knowledge of Virgil Thomson’s graceful art.

Bob Briggs  

 

 


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