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Virgil Thomson: Symphony No 1-3

4.8 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was, during his long creative lifetime, one of the major voices in 20th-century American music. He was a noted critic, teacher and, above all, skilled composer. Like the American romantics of the 1930s (Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Samuel Barber, to name a few), Thomson drew from many sources, but mostly from 19th-century American folk music and dance theater (as did Aaron Copland). Captured on this disc are four of Thomson's better-known works, played with sympathy, warmth, and charm by the New Zealand SO, with American James Sedares at the helm. It's also part of Naxos's dynamic American Classics series that, so far, has yet to stumble. And, at midprice, it's also a steal. --Paul Cook
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Product Details

  • Composer: V. Thomson
  • Audio CD (February 22, 2000)
  • SPARS Code: DDD
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Naxos American Classics
  • ASIN: B00004D3IW
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #116,424 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Audio CD
Most often, the only CD's of Virgil Thomson's music you can buy are of his film music, all excellent compositions, but it is nice to have some recordings of his concert music, presented here thanks to Naxos' American Composers series.

Symphony on a Hymn Tune is just that, "variations" on the tunes How Firm a Foundation and Yes, Jesus Loves Me, and some other pentatonic themes he creates to tie the piece together. There are a few Ivesian sounds portrayed, as well as some jazzy syncopations; a great American masterpiece.

Symphony 2 is very diatonic; from the opening trumpet melody (evocative of Lt. Kije), to the lyrical andante, to the restrained, yet grand finale; it is charming from start to finish. In contrast, Symphony 3 seems to be unified through dance. Rhythm and perpetual motion seem to guide the music along. Perhaps a bit more on the serious side to begin with, the 3rd Symphony also revels in melodiousness and optimism, something shared in all of these works.

Pilgrims and Pioneers is a concert version of music written for a short film at the 1964 Worlds Fair. Again using a wide variety of hymn and folk tunes, this time it is used in a much more pondering and dissonant manner, again, almost in the manner of Ives. It is a kind of mish-mash of ideas, perfect for visualizing the American immigrant.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays this music with great fervor. The hall is reverberant, although, not overly so. Since most of this music is not easy to find on one CD, this disk is an easy recommendation.
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Format: Audio CD
"We all loved his music and rarely performed it." Thus Leonard Bernstein in 1989 after the death of Virgil Thomson. I have read many critics who claim his methods of composition were "forced down the throats" of students in America; others who praise him highly. I feel someplace in the middle, but the new addition to Naxos' American Classics series has nudged me a tad toward the second group.
Since many CDs no longer have any definite titles, I will give what the cover states: <Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune, Symphony No. 2 in C major, Symphony No. 3, Pilgrims and Pioneers> (8.559022). These four works are played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under James Sedares. Since the liner notes give the composer's own descriptions of much of what you will hear, I wish only to say here that (a) the "Hymn Tune" piece will be more pleasing to most listeners simply because it is the most melodic, (b) the symphonies are honest attempts to bring an American sound to the symphonic format [and you may decide how well he succeeded], and (c) they all influenced other American composers, some in a negative and some in a positive way, dpending on which critic you read. But it is all very listenable and the Naxos bargain price not to be ignored.
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I must confess that my opinion of Virgil Thomson has been colored by his somewhat sharp tongued music criticism so I have not been much interested in his music. This was until I heard his Symphony on a Hymn Tune over the radio. The charm of the music and its wealth of melody changed my mind and led me to buying this disc of Virgil Thomson's music.

The music on this CD represents his entire career with the earliest music from 1926 and the latest from 1972. The Symphony on a Hymn Tune is from 1926 (revised in 1945) during the composer's years in Paris and is cast in four movements. The tune in question is a Scottish melody "How Firm a Foundation." It is as the composer described it simple and folkloric is style, evoking the America of Currier and Ives.

The Symphony No. 2 is a short work in three movements composed in 1930 and re-orchestrated in 1941. The key of C major dominated the first and third movements and the music begins with a melody upon which the symphony is based building on that theme. The Third Symphony dates back to 1932 but was expanded and re-orchestrated in 1972. The symphony is in four short movements with its inspiration coming from the quartets of Mendelssohn and Schubert - a classically inspired work utilizing the sonata form. A waltz movement is substituted for a scherzo which gives the symphony a lightness of tone. The Adagio is calm and reflective while the Finale is a charming rondo.

Pilgrims and Pioneers began as film music for a Journey to America, written for the New York World's Fair of 1964. The film, and music, tell the story of immigration to the United States using hymn tunes and evokes the folklore of the people. Thomson created an overture from the music that was first played in 1971.
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Format: Audio CD
Thanks Naxos for bringing the music of Virgil Thomson to us and even at a great price. I have been wanting to experiment in listening to more music by American composers...with this release I am happy I did. It is amazing that foreign orchestra like the very good New Zealand Symphony are playing Thomson and our orchestra seem to ignore him. Try like I did and explore more of our composers. Recommended
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These compositions all have a very light feel with an emphasis on clarity. And all these works clearly exude from the American experience. Virgil Thomson, perhaps even more than Aaron Copland, seems to have had the lock on that caveat.

Symphony No. 2 (1931-41, in three movements) is a bridge between an imaginary flight over the Midwestern States and a march. It's somewhat reminiscent of Copland's "Appalachian Spring" but a little more consistent in its rendering.

Symphony No. 3 (1972, in four movements) is notably more mature than its precedent. Still, it's a floating, bouncy fully orchestral composition which, in places, reminded me just a bit of the later works of Dmitri Shostakovich... nationalistic in its flavour. You'll also hear the flow of Tchaikovsky and the scales of Satie.

"Pilgrims and Pioneers" (1964) launches in a darker realm but quickly eases into a Monteverdi approach to something less melodic than one normally hears from this composer. It's a mature and impressive tone poem.

"Symphony on a Hymn Tune" (1928, in 4 movements) manifests a modernistic gospel ambiance but is pretty straightforward stuff. Some abrubt and notable meter changes keep the work interesting and the differences in the flow of the movements separate this composition from more traditional symphony formats. Good background orchestestration contributes significantly to this work.

For the lover of American classical music, this CD would have to be a top-ten pick. James Sedares, conducting The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, provides us with a brillant and meticulous interpretation of Thomson's works. And hats off to Naxos for capturing it so wonderfully -- great sound!
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