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Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor [28:51]
Samuel ADAMS (b. 1985)
Drift and Providence [18:59]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 [22:02]
National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic/James Ross
rec. Elsie & Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Centre, University of Maryland, 2016
NAXOS 8.559822 [69:52]

Randall Thompson achieved a degree of eminence in choral music but, in terms of orchestral music, was one of that group of 20th century American composers (notably including Virgil Thomson, Quincy Porter and Walter Piston) who rather stood in the shadows of better-established composers such as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Roy Harris. Listening to his highly approachable Second Symphony I was struck by the many similarities of sound and style that the work exhibits with the ‘American’ sounding works of Copland – notably the latter’s three famous ballets (Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring). It is, however, surprising to learn that this symphony actually predates the period of Copland’s career when the ballets were composed – so Thompson might better be regarded as being at the forefront of a movement than being a mere follower.

The symphony’s first movement Allegro is an optimistic piece, bright and vibrant, with a playful, character – poles apart from some of the angst-ridden offerings from Europe at the time. It opens with a syncopated fanfare and then settles into a driving theme with suggestions of the later music of Douglas Lilburn. The booklet notes claim that what follows has “...echoes of jazz – the musical style that American composers were quickly assimilating into their more traditional works at the time”. Whilst there may be something in this comment, the music of this movement doesn’t necessarily sound to me particularly suggestive of jazz or derived from it. It is, for example, a long way from Gershwin. The following Largo movement is more American and sounds like film music although, given that it dates from 1931, it is likely that contemporary film music was influenced by it rather than the other way round. Some passages sound like Korngold although that composer was probably unknown to Thompson at the time. Here, however, there is a very slight jazz element in that, towards the end of the movement, a horn chord includes a Gershwinesque “blue” note that leads the orchestra into the vigorous and syncopated third movement scherzo (Vivace) – which has pre-echoes of Bernard Herrmann. The last movement, Allegro moderato, commences with a slow introduction, giving way to an Allegro section that is bracketed by two Vivace sections. There is a jokey second theme, complete with trombone slides. The second Vivace section builds to a noble and exciting coda.

Brief research suggests that at least five alternative recordings of the symphony are available. My own collection includes the one by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi (Chandos) and a quick comparison suggests only marginal differences. Järvi is fractionally faster throughout [26:46 overall] – and this is slightly preferable - but, as far as performance quality goes, honours are about even. Considering that the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic is effectively a student orchestra, this is a pretty good result for the Naxos disc. The Naxos recording sounds brighter and more forward, if less subtle than the Chandos.

The principal coupling, Barber’s First Symphony, was modelled on the Seventh Symphony of Sibelius and that debt is recognizable throughout the work. It is in one condensed, cyclical movement, broken into four sections so that it retains some of the character of a more traditional symphony. The work starts ominously with the timpani underpinning proceedings. The first section (Allegro ma non troppo) has three themes which, once heard, tend to lodge in the mind. The driving pulse reminded me of Holst’s ‘Mars’ and of Roussel’s Third Symphony but also of something else. It took me a while to realise that it sounded like the finale of Barber’s own Violin Concerto. The first theme forms the basis of a second (Vivace) section. The augmented second theme provides the basis of the third section, which starts as an Andante tranquillo and leads directly to a noble and uplifting passacaglia final section (with shades of Britten’s later Passacaglia from Peter Grimes) which revisits all three themes and serves as a recapitulation.

This symphony is really a much more significant work than the Thompson work – although Naxos have given it second billing in this release. It has not wanted for recordings and there are, at least, twelve currently available (three in the form of download only) of which no fewer than four appear on the Naxos label, including the present performance. Previous reviews (e.g. review) suggest that, amongst these, Järvi and the DSO – again on Chandos – is one of the best. A superficial comparison with the present Naxos disc again shows Järvi’s performance as fractionally faster [21:42] but, overall, only marginally different and my comments above about the comparison of the two versions of the Thompson symphony apply equally here.

The filler is a contemporary piece, dating from 2012, by yet another Adams - “a composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music”. Apparently, Samuel Adams “took recordings of the Pacific Ocean, transformed them digitally and transcribed them for a number of instruments ……to imitate the sound. The result is a work that pushes the orchestra to its sonic limits in both a metaphorical and literal sense”. The work is scored for a large orchestra and it relies on “extended orchestral techniques”, together with the composer providing electronic processing on his laptop(!). This description need not worry those who have little time for contemporary music. The piece is not atonal and, whilst there are no actual tunes, one can occasionally recognise the emergence of a pseudo-theme. The electronic elements are not particularly evident. The work doesn’t go anywhere much but there is a suggestion of gradual development in the climaxes and occasional silences suggest the existence of sections. As is so often the case with such music it goes on for too long and parts of it are like watching paint dry (albeit interesting paint). It ends suddenly and for no apparent reason. I can’t help thinking that it would have been better if the composer had tried to write music rather than attempting purely to recreate sound. At any rate, this offering provides a perfectly acceptable coupling – here given what sounds to be a fine performance in what is probably its first recording.

Booklet notes are both extensive and readable and, unusually for Naxos, they provide a list of all the members of the orchestra.

Overall, then, if the coupling appeals, this is an enjoyable disc – very recommendable at bargain price.
Bob Stevenson



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