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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

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.

Virgil 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. 

His 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 bitonality. 

I 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’. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

Howard 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. 

All in all this is a disc of fascinating repertoire which is well worth seeking out.

Gary Higginson

see also Review by Rob Barnett



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