Virgil THOMSON (1896 - 1989)
Suite: The Mother of Us All (1947)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Symphony No.2 in D, op.73 (1877)
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841 - 1894)
Marche Joyeuse - Marche Française
(1888) [4:32]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski
Rec live 2 April 1950 Carnegie Hall, New York ADD
Ned Rorem took lessons from Virgil Thomson in the early forties in exchange for pocket money and duties as a copyist. Having observed Thomson at close quarters, in one of his diaries, Rorem made the point that after working on Thomson’s scores he knew how Thomson composed but he had no idea of why he composed. Whilst I can understand Rorem’s comment, I cannot agree with it. Obviously, to the younger composer Thomson’s seeming naivety must have rankled - does the simplicity of the music mean it was created by an idiot savant or an idiot, or is it that Thomson was really a seer? This is truly the crux of the matter. Thomson was a well trained and very knowledgeable musician; a conductor, composer and music journalist. His catalogue is huge and includes work in all forms, some are simple little pieces - he wrote many Portraits of friends, which are delicate miniatures - and there are operas, ballets and symphonies. Perhaps his works didn’t plumb the depths of human emotion, perhaps some of his pieces are slight, but he is never dull.
The Mother of Us All is an opera with a libretto by Gertrude Stein. It tells of Susan B Anthony, one of the major figures in women’s suffrage in the USA. This suite has three movemets - Prelude, Cold Weather and Political Meeting - and they are written in Thomson’s usual, charming, easy going Americana voice. It’s a very enjoyable work, nothing serious, the middle movement is simply about weather with no other emotional connotation, and it’s given a nicely bluff performance which helps to point the jokes.
Stokowski’s performance of the Brahms Symphony is very interesting for he tends towards fast tempi on occasion, which will raise some eyebrows. The first movement is marked Allegro non troppo - not too fast - but Stokowski ignores the non troppo part and goes for a brisk, but, it must be said, never rushed, allegro. What this does is to heighten the tension and drama - this may be a kind of pastoral symphony but it still has some dramatic parts to it. The slow movement is marked Adagio non troppo and here Stokowski really gets it right, with some gorgeous string playing, and a strong sense of line. The scherzo is perfect in pacing in the outer 3/8 sections, hurried, but again not rushed, in the 2/4 middle section. What is interesting, and very satisfying, is how he marries the two musics together with ease. The finale begins with the most exciting pianissimo statement of the main theme, before Stokowski unleashes a climax of some power. Again the tempo is brisk, but every note is in place and articulated with clarity. There have been few conductors who could have achieved what Stokowski achieves here in this way. It’s certainly a unique performance and not one I would choose if I could only have one performance of the work on my shelf, but as a Stokowski fan it’s a performance I wouldn’t want to be without for this conductor was nothing if not inspirational and music can always live with the performance given for the moment, not for the recording studio.
The Marche Joyeuse recorded here is Chabrier’s Joyeuse Marche. I know that Marche Joyeuse is the correct French but the composer chose the other title and I wonder why its name has been Frenchified here. Do Americans call it Marche Joyeuse, against the composers wishes? Who cares? This is a spirited performance if without either the charm or the delicacy of Beecham - it was one of his lollipops - but it makes a fabulous end to a very exciting and stimulating concert.
The sound is what you would expect from a 60 year old recording, but it’s quite bright, almost throughout, and once the ear adjusts it’s easy to listen to. The CD also includes the radio announcer which gives a real period feel to the recording. Even though these performances aren’t what we’re used to, they are sparkling examples of music making in its most vivid sense and, it must be said, the old magician has done it again, making us reappraise our understanding and feelings towards an accepted masterpiece, and take account of a new work. Hurrah!
Bob Briggs