THOMSON, Virgil: Symphony on a Hymn Tune [No. 1]. Symphony No. 2, in C major. Symphony No. 3. Pilgrims and Pioneers.
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Sedares/cond.

Naxos 8.559022  [B] [DDD] TT: 64.21


The record bargain of the year to date! Thomson's music proves astonishingly durable in its directness, lack of pretension, simplicity (although never mere naivété), and deep-running charm. Plus the performances are a dream. James Sedares conducts with an insight no one else has matched on discs -- not even Leopold Stokowski in his coupling of suites from The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River on Vanguard Classics SVC 3  -- or in the concert hall since Eugene Ormandy's heyday. (What is this man doing in Phoenix, Arizona? He deserves one of the major metropolitan posts now open on our seacoasts as well as in the eastern Midwest!)

We still have Howard Hanson's pioneer recording with Eastman/Rochester student forces of Symphony on a Hymn Tune (albeit third-billed after Colin McPhee's Tabuh-Tabuhan and Bernard Rogers' The Black Maskers Suite on Mercury Living Presence 434-310-2). But that is now shown to be a cruder experience, missing by miles the poetry Sedares has found and imparted with a borrowed orchestra  -- arguably the best of breed Down Under, based on evidence that has accrued over a period of years thanks principally to Naxos. Erich Leinsdorf revived this quirky, sweet-sour symphony successfully in one of the last seasons before his death, but not with Sedares' uncanny identification -- as if sly, civilized, chirpy, terminally crochety Virgil, who took Kansas City with him to Paris for 14 years, were whispering in his ear from the Far Beyond.

The Hymn Tune Symphony was a Parisian creation, composed in 1928, shortly after he settled there (until the invasion of France forced him to return home in 1940). Both as to vocabulary and sheer audacity, it sounds the most "modern" of his three symphonies, with an antic solo trombone to keep the Protestant hymnody from cloying. Most astonishing, however -- after listening to this performance several times -- is Sedares' revelation of gentleness in the slow movement, almost an interior monolog, and the startling "rightness" of the work's end measures, which no one else has made as logical or conclusive.

The Second Symphony was composed between 1931 and 1941 -- that is to say, in Paris and in New York City, where he lived from 1940 until his death 11 years ago -- but so consistent in style it might have been written within months. It evokes bygone mid-America beguilingly, with an economy of means and directness of address entirely Thomson's own -- more honest as I hear it than Charles Ives' multi-layered hectoring (despite patches of quietude, as in the Third Symphony and The Unanswered Question), or Aaron Copland's urban artifices disguised as national artifacts. Ives' raucous collision of bands on the Boston Commons in Three New England Places sounds more contrived than usual after hearing (for me, discovering) Thomson's jaunty, Allegro militaire opening movement of Symphony No. 2.

Symphony No. 3 was V.T.'s orchestral expansion, in 1972, of his String Quartet No. 2, written 40 years earlier, employing "what I think of as classical other words, the same kind of quartet that Mendelssohn or Schubert wrote."  Four brief movements include a waltz that Thomson borrowed for his opera Lord Byron, when a ballet was asked for at last minute, where it sounded spectacularly wrong. In its native habitat, however, the music is a charmer.

The disc also includes Pilgrims and Pioneers, a brief but pungent concert arrangement of music for a single-reel film, Journey to America, produced for the New York World's Fair of 1964 by Thomson's long-time collaborator in the theater, John Houseman. It is, in V.T.'s phrase, a "nostalgically dissonant" conflation of hymn tunes, folk melodies and other desiderata from the U.S. of A.'s second century. Listen a couple of times and its distinctive shorthand will inscribe itself in your memory: the work's concert hall neglect is as perplexing as the short life of Wheatfields at Noon and The Seine at Night. Perhaps, though, Sedares and Naxos can be persuaded to give us a second volume of Thomsoniana with the same orchestra and the same recordist, Tim Handley, in the same resounding Michael Fowler Centre at Wellington, N.Z. This one is a sonic achievement of demonstration caliber. Let's hope audio shows hither and yon feature it in place of the usual sound-effects folderol that passes today for "digi-fi."