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Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)
The Plow the Broke the Plains - suite (1936) [12:41]
Autumn - Concertino for harp, strings and percussion (1964) [9:05]
The River - suite (1937) [23:55]
Howard HANSON (1896-1981)

Symphony No. 2 Romantic (1930) [30:08]
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra/Neville Marriner (Thomson)
St Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin (Hanson)
rec. April 1975, Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena, California; April 1986, Powell Hall, Saint Louis, Missouri (Hanson). ADD/DDD
Experience Classicsonline

EMI's American Classics series reintroduces some once familiar material. For the present disc I recall the 1976 LP that featured the three Thomson works and much later, after the world changed in 1983, the issue of the Hanson.

Thomson is celebrated through suites from films commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture. The Plow that Broke the Plains is about the Dust Bowl and deprivation in 1930s USA – social commentary on an era vividly depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. Thomson uses folk material in much the same sense as his contemporaries in Soviet Russia. As was his wont he weaves into the score suggestions of hymns, folk song and dance (Cattle) and dance-hall lowlife complete with saxophone (Blues - speculation). Both Prelude and Devastation build a picture of the depredations of over-harvesting, saturation cropping and towering dust clouds bearing away people's lives and livings.

The River was also written for the film director Pare Lorentz. The river in question is the Mississippi and the first movement recreates the atmosphere of the Old South - cotton, slavery, the majesty of the river and the river boats. A cooling flute ushers in the melancholy Industrial expansion in the Mississippi river basin. This touches in the popular Vaudeville details amid the sadness. Soil erosion and floods now seems remarkably contemporary. How much has really changed since the 1930s? The score holds a mirror up to society while recycling great swathes of then-contemporary culture.

Marriner and EMI use the concert versions of the suites – as recorded by Stokowski on Vanguard - with a larger orchestra. You can hear the smaller more intimate original and complete version on Naxos who also stock a superb DVD including the original films and much else.

Autumn, written for Nicanor Zabaleta, is in four movements no longer in total than a concert overture. Salute to the Wind is placid and sky-blue innocent with a redolence of the hymnal. Dialogue leaves the sampler behind and glows and chimes with intimacy. Love scene is tender. It is a delightful work done with great attention to emotional detail. Its last three movements were arranged from Thomson’s Second Piano Sonata.

This Hanson Second is a mite cooler and broader than the classic account from the early 1970s by Charles Gerhardt with the National Philharmonic. Slatkin has the music stretch and brood and gives it a more epic stride but it lacks the visceral heat and propulsion of the spectacular Gerhardt. Warm and leisurely, it is not without excitement with its fanfares superbly caught, its grandeur prominent and its romance unabashed - as in the sleepy central Andante. Things do heat up and there is some real crackling energy in the Allegro Con Brio. The Saint Louis brass give their all. I will admit that Slatkin proves a doughty interpreter in the tense yet slow pizzicato over which the horns call out at 3:52 in the first movement. It's different from Gerhardt but very effectively calculated and weighted to achieve maximum effect. For now this is excellent but if you get the chance to pick up the Chesky version of the Gerhardt then don't hesitate for a second; it's music-making at white heat and even outpoints the composer's Mercury version. It is long past time that some company tracked down all Gerhardt’s recordings (classical and film, RCA and Reader’s Digest) and began issuing them in a uniform edition. That they are absent from the catalogue is a cultural mystery.

Thomson and Hanson were two very different contemporaries. Hanson the irascible romantic and Thomson the sardonic commentator. Hanson the luminary of the Eastman School with a heritage in hundreds of students and Thomson the clever and sophisticated writer, practitioner and opera composer.

There you have it: lovingly done classic Thomson and an expansive, handsomely recorded Romantic.

Rob Barnett




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