Classical Lost and Found
Bob McQuiston
November 22, 2010


The Harvard music department has certainly produced its share of distinguished American composers, including John Knowles Paine (1839-1905), Arthur Foote (1853-1937), John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951), and Walter Piston (1894-1976). But none was more influential than Mid-Westerner Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), who went on to study with Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) in Paris during the 1920s.

He was an astute music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune from 1937 through 1951 with a wit worthy of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), and could at times be a bit of an intellectual exhibitionist. But that’s not the case with his music whose elegant sincerity makes him an American Original. Frequently based on folk as well as hymn tunes, there’s a disarming melodic simplicity and Gallic suavity about it clothed in an orchestral finery which seems to be a specialty of Harvard composers.

The program opens with A Solemn Music and A Joyful Fugue of 1960-61, which played in tandem form a modern day prelude and fugue. The slow ponderous opening could easily be a funeral dirge for some fallen hero. The sprightly conclusion may bring to mind the livelier contrapuntal moments in Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946).

Thomson was a past master when it came to setting the English language to music, and the next seven orchestral songs are cases in point. The first of these is The Feast of Love for baritone, which was written in 1964. With a text consisting of several stanzas chosen and translated by the composer from an anonymous second or fourth century Latin poem known as Pervigilium Veneris (“The Vigil of Venus”), it’s a sensuous vernal paean to the goddess of love (see the album notes for this and all the other texts). The vocal line finds Thomson at his most lyrical, while the orchestral accompaniment is the essence of articulation and refinement.

With the name Collected Poems, don’t let the next selection fool you! It lasts only about five minutes, and is the amusingly clever creation of another Harvard man, American writer Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), consisting of some thirty odd uppercase titles, each followed by one-line verses. Thomson set it in 1959 for baritone and soprano, who alternately sing the captions and lines to a magnificently effervescent instrumental accompaniment. There’s a sense of Zen detachment which makes it come off sounding like a series of koans.

The poetry of London-born William Blake (1757-1827) inspired Thomson’s Five Songs from William Blake (1951) for baritone. They cover a variety of moods, which the composer convincingly conveys by perfectly matching the words to exquisitely scored melodies. Highlights include the lovely hymn-like “The Divine Image,” arrestingly phrased, percussively punctuated “Tiger! Tiger!” and bitonally fleeting “The Land of Dreams.”

The concert concludes with a trio of his finest symphonic works known collectively as Three Pictures for Orchestra. The first, The Seine at Night completed in 1947, is an impressionistic pastel that’s a fascinating combination of Debussy (1816-1918), Delius (1862-1934), and Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Once again it may remind you of Britten, but this time his Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes (1945).

The second selection, Wheat Field at Noon, was written a year later (1948). It’s a theme and variations where the main idea contains all twelve tones of the chromatic scale ingeniously arranged to produce a captivating extended melody. Set in a static harmonic matrix, the variations build to a climax reminiscent of those in a Roy Harris (1898-1979) symphony only to evaporate. This is Thomson at his most mysterious where there’s also an intermittent bell-like ticking somewhat anticipating Gyorgy Ligeti’s (1923-2006) Poème Symphonique (1962) for one hundred metronomes.

The final Sea Piece with Birds of 1952 finds the composer at his most harmonically adventurous. It’s a chromatically impressionistic seething seascape with swooping birds that screech a final chorus and then disappear as the work ends with a tam-tam undertow. Three Pieces is like no other Thomson you’ve ever heard, and by itself makes the concert on this disc worth the price of admission.

Baritone Thomas Meglioranza and soprano Kristen Watson are both in fine voice. They deliver these songs, except when that tiger shows his stripes, with a conversational understatement perfectly suited to Thomson’s lyrically relaxed settings. Conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project provide sensitive accompaniment for the soloists, and give perfectly shaped performances of the orchestral selections. This represents another high point in their continuing championship of little known US repertoire.

You’d never guess these recordings were made at three different locations because they all project a consistently generous soundstage in a warm acoustic. As regards the instrumental timbre, there’s good and bad news with impressively tight bass, but highs that suffer from moments of digital grain in massed violin passages. From the vocal standpoint, the soloists are beautifully captured and balanced against the orchestra.

- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (