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Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, December 2000

"'We all loved his music but rarely performed it', Leonard Bernstein wrote of Virgil Thomson. How odd, because Thomson's music is mainstream and approachable, and he was a strong influence on composers like Aaron Copland.

"Thomson's most prominent works are his operas and movie scores, but he wrote three fine symphonies. Symphony on a Hymn Tune (No.1) was written in Paris, but it sounds as American as a rural church and has been described as a musical Currier and Ives print. (Thomson wrote it so Paris would "know Kansas City".) It is a tuneful work and his riches symphony. The music begins with the hymn in parallel, open chords. Much of what follows treats the hymn with transparently scored dance-like passages. There are also extended solos for trombone (perhaps because of the instrument's association with religious music) and a bizarre 'cadenza' for trombone, piccolo, violin and cello. Sometimes Thomson's bitonality sounds like out-of-key singing. A more important implementation of his bitonaliy establishes the relationship of a tritone, the musical symbol of the Devil, creating a conflict between good and evil that underlies much of the symphony. The first part of II, a group of variation on the hymn tune, is gentle and solemn, leading to a bitonal duet between clarinet and bassoon that mimics an out-of-tune church organ. The movements ends with a passage for horns and trombones that depicts a fading train. The Allegretto is a vigorous passacaglia on the bass of the hymn tune. IV looks back on the symphony, polyphonically repeating many of its effects. Thomson used a close variant of it as the finale of his movie score to The River.

"If Symphony 1 is rural religion, the Second (an orchestrated version of the First Piano Sonata) is a combination of jollity and the military. The themes are simple and diatonic, both the harmony and the frequent use of major scales. Most of the material is short and contrasting in mood, often changing quickly from snappier melodies to hymns. The mood is sprightly and upbeat-often evoking barn dances and quiet nights on a rural porch-but frequent fanfare-like passages keep the martial spirit close by.

"The Third Symphony (1972) is an orchestration of the Second Quartet, 'the kind of quartet that Mendelssohn or Schubert wrote', as the composer put it. He was going to use it as a ballet for Lord Byron before he turned it into a symphony. Though in Thomson's pungent style, it is also his most conservative and nostalgic symphony. (As a quartet, it does sound Schubertian. It's the orchestration that makes it tangy and modern.) Just as the First was cyclically based on a hymn tune, the Third grows out of the opening motif of successive leaps-a broken arpeggio-that reach the octave. I is exuberant and surging, with its Schubertian style in a dramatic 20th century guise. As it opens II , the motif is more relaxed, leading to a wistful and sparkling waltz. III stresses the octave leap of the motif as it passes hypnotically by with a hint of menace, like a slow pas de deux. IV opens like a Haydnesque Allegretto and turns gradually calmer and more inward toward the end.

"Thomson wrote Pilgrims and Pioneers for a documentary about the Depression. He uses a lot of hymn and folk music, many "nostalgically dissonant". Much of the music is desolate and eerie, fitting the subject, and accented by sharp contrasts of ranges played together. Often we hear a tune in one key and accompaniment in another, creating a wistful or bitter effect. I hear Ives, too. The music is touching and affecting, as well as powerful in places, and is an important discovery.

"Sederes's greater energy and conviction is audible from the first notes. At the same time, he is warmer and produces more breadth without sacrificing wit. His orchestra sounds fuller, too. Howard Hanson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune on Mercury is more powerful, punchier, and four-square than Sedares, and just as good.

"Every lover of 20th century American orchestral music should have this. Naxos's full sound is immediate and rich."




Richard Burke
Fanfare, November 2000

ANTHEIL: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6 / McKonkey’s Ferry 8.559033
CRESTON: Symphonies Nos. 1–3 8.559034
THOMSON, V.: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 / Symphony on a Hymn Tune 8.559022

I have chosen three recent ones that demonstrate the vitality and scope of the American symphony in the 20th century. © 2000 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare



Michael Oliver
Classic CD, May 2000

"The Second Symphony is a little more adventurous, the Third rather bigger and bolder, but all have a freshness, a melodic appeal and avoidance of rhetoric that are typical of Thomson. Pilgrims and Pioneers is a short film score, using a collage of old tunes to portray the building of America with the musical equivalent of an album of evocative and unfaded photographs. Real affection is what this music needs, and these performances are loving ones, suitably cleanly recorded. Strongly recommended."



Geoffrey Norris
The Daily Telegraph (Australia), February 2000

"Thomson's music has certainly made few inroads into the repertory on this side of the Atlantic, but, with these sparkling performances by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, there is a chance to sample his clear, lyrical style and rhythmic zest."






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9:35:44 PM, 14 July 2014
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