For many (myself included), the music of Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) is an acquired taste. Originally I was rather put off by the harmonic simplicity (and occasional banality) of his dominant musical language – a language built almost exclusively upon simple hymnal harmonies and American folk rhythms. However, as the years have passed, I have come to deeply admire music of his work, and several pieces have become true favorites that I listen to often. At his best, Thomson was able to create music of remarkable emotional expressivity from the simplest means; furthermore, he composed music of genuine joy, amid a century of angst. This splendid new CD from Gil Rose and his enterprising Boston Modern Orchestra Project is the most satisfying Thomson orchestra disc currently available. A CD of his three symphonies on Naxos contains the delightful (and well-known) Symphony on a Hymn Tune, but neither the Second nor Third Symphony lives up to the first.
This new release opens with a pair of orchestra pieces from 1961-62. A Solemn Music (in a wind ensemble version) is a classic of the band world. A Joyful Fugue is almost completely unknown but it is a real delight, and this diptych is one of Thomson’s most satisfying brief orchestral works. The largest piece on the CD is Thomson’s only unrecorded major orchestral piece, the symphonic suite Three Pictures for Orchestra. Written as separate commissions from 1947 to 1952, each depicts a scene: “The Seine at Night,” “Wheat Field at Noon,” and “Sea Piece with Birds.” The music uses Thomson’s more romantic (and often more dissonant) idiom, reminiscent of the music of his last opera, Lord Byron. “Sea Piece with Birds” is a particularly vivid (and dissonant) depiction.
Thomson was one of the great masters of English prosody, and his book Words and Music (1982) still remains the only text ever written on the subject of making musical settings of English poetry and prose. The inner tracks of this release are three vocal works, the first of which is perhaps my favorite small-scale work of Thomson’s: The Feast of Love (1964) for baritone and chamber orchestra, a setting of Thomson’s own English translation of an anonymous second- or fourth-century Latin manuscript. It is a vibrant pagan paean to love and spring, and Thomson’s setting is true perfection. The Feast of Love and the Blake songs are performed exquisitely by baritone Thomas Meglioranza, who is a committed advocate for contemporary music. The last recording of this work was an unbelievably turgid rendition by Patrick Mason on the Bridge label a few years ago, so this new version (almost two full minutes faster) is very welcome and allows the work to be heard as it should be. (A much older recording by Donald Clatworthy and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra under Howard Hanson is also available on Mercury.)
In its piano version, Five Songs from William Blake is one of Thomson’s more frequently performed works; it is particularly nice to hear the witty and colorful orchestration. Though all are appealing, the final song deserves special mention. It is a setting of “And Did Those Feet,” the famous extract from Blake’s poem “Milton” that is best known in C. Hubert H. Parry’s soaring hymn Jerusalem. Thomson’s gorgeous treatment is the polar opposite of Parry’s beloved Edwardian pomposity, setting the text instead with the delightful atmosphere of British Isles folk music. It provides one of those brain-tickling, cognitive dissonance moments when something so familiar is experienced in a totally fresh way. Meglioranza is ably joined by Kristen Watson in Collected Poems, a humorous treatment of a text by Kenneth Koch, a series of satirical one-line poems.
BMOP/sound maintains its very high production standards with superb performances and first-rate booklet essays and notes. Thomson fans will have already ordered this recording months ago. But for anybody else interested in significant American vocal music or thoroughly appealing American orchestral music, this is a must. I can’t stop listening to it.
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