These two composers are in their own ways icons of early American
20th Century music. The pieces recorded here are their most iconic
representations. At EMI’s budget price this then is a disc worthy
of careful consideration.
Thomson was, it seems to me, primarily a composer of film scores
or in the case of this CD of music for film documentaries. Those
of you who are intimate with his output will disagree with me
and point to many ‘serious’ works including the symphonies.
But in preparing this review I took off my shelf the Naxos recording
from 1998 of the Second, Third and ‘Hymn’ Symphonies (8.559022)
and wondered why I had hardly played it, I listened again and
realized that the episodic nature of the music and the sense
of ‘Americana’ and landscape and their short playing times made
the works seem lacking in focus. I then listened to these recorded
pieces and began to discover where Thomson’s strengths lie.
He is brilliant at describing America in ‘the old days’, the age of pioneers and Baptist hymnals.
The CD cover photo sums it up really well: a lone ranch on a
deserted plain. And with titles like ‘The Old South’ and ‘Industrial
expansion in the Mississippi’ found in ’The River Suite’ and
‘Cattle’ and ‘Drought’ in the music for the ‘Plow that Broke
the Plains’ you will, I hope, see what I mean. This is not to
denigrate the music in any way but to paint in words what the
music sounds like.
First Symphony was entitled ‘Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1928)
and ‘The Plow’ includes a hymn at the start repeated at the
end - ‘The Old Hundredth’- ‘All People that on earth do dwell’.
In addition he also quotes the traditional melody ‘Old Paint’
which Copland used in ‘Rodeo’. The fourth movement is called
‘Blues’ subtitled ‘Speculation’; it hints at the old style pioneer
gold-diggers. The music has a sense of space and a touch of
Dvořák as well as the occasional nod in the direction of
have not been able to work out why the ‘Concertino’ for harp,
strings and percussion is called ‘Autumn’. Cconfusingly there
is a movement called ‘Love Scene’ and another called ‘Dialogue’.
Anyway its four movements attractively mix the harp with various
percussion sonorities including an excitable xylophone in the
finale curiously entitled, ‘Promenade’.
River Suite is an eccentric and slightly comic work in four
movements. There are certainly hymn-type textures. I detect
in the first movement a Stephen Foster-inspired Banjo picker.
One also hears in a later section a ‘Joplined’ version for woodwind
of ‘He’s a jolly good fellow’. Other songs and traditional tunes
appear including ‘Go tell Aunt Rosie the old grey goose is dead’
all mixed into a pot-pourri of Americana - great fun.
performances seem to me to be completely in character. The players
obviously enjoyed themselves and the tempo seem entirely appropriate.
The recording however lacks the immediacy that one finds in
more recent efforts.
Hanson’s Second Symphony dates from 1930. It was one of the
pieces commissioned by Koussevitsky for the fiftieth anniversary
of the Boston Symphony Orchestra - Stravinsky’s Symphony
of Psalms being another. It is a big-boned work of three
movements called the ‘Romantic’, a title that could apply to
several of his other seven symphonies. In fairness this does
have some especially moving tunes and luscious orchestration.
It’s worth making a comparison with the Delos Recording of 1989
(DCD 3073) with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. In
every way Slatkin takes a more leisurely approach adding over
two minutes to the work. The first movement occasionally lacks
a sense of momentum where Schwarz has his eye on the wider horizon.
Slatkin brings out every romantic nuance especially in the finale
which although marked Allegro con brio has its more relaxed
moments. I also prefer the quality of the recorded string sound
in this EMI Classics version.
in all this is a disc of fascinating repertoire which is well
worth seeking out.
see also Review
by Rob Barnett