American Record Guide reviews Virgil Thomson: Three Pictures

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American Record Guide
Gil French
January 1, 2011

Concerning Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein was right when he said, "He is a son of the hymnal." Listening to this recording, that seems like a severe limitation. His melodies remain almost structurally naïve, akin to the more unsophisticated guitar hymns that arose once the vernacular replace Latin in the Catholic Church; their melodies sound like the notes of arpeggios with awkward harmonizations.

In A Solemn Music and A Joyful Fugue (meant to be performed together), Thomson's endless repetitions remind me of Methodist hymns with verses that never end. With careless ensemble at the start of phrases, weak endings, and undefined inner details, Rose makes them feel like the writings of a bloated gasbag. The colors that doubling are meant to create are inaudible. And Rose's players don’t articulate well; in effect, they don't make the music speak. Toward the end, everyone shouts.

All that in seven minutes! The trouble is that these performance faults continue in all the other works as well. In The Feast of Love with its Glass-like irritating minimalist accompaniment, Meglioranza has a pleasant tone, but his expression stays on one level. Words are not caressed; the story is not told. The same is true in the Blake Songs. At the start they seem composed of sophomoric melodies, harmonic shifts, and cadences; then a stronger character develops in the orchestral accompaniment as they progress. But here the orchestral playing (lots of woodwinds) is especially third tier. I can't make heads or tails out of Collected Poems where Watson sings a subject matter and Meglioranza replies with a nonsense phrase. It's five minutes of non-sequiturs. If it's meant to be fun, it's not here because, once again, everything is done at one mezzo-forte level.

To my ears the most interesting work here is the 20-minute Three Pictures for Orchestra. It comes from the sound world of Paul Creston, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, and, in the final picture, Charles Ives. On top of all the other performance flaws already mentioned, the two most crucial ones became evident here: lack of both long lines and rhythmic appropriateness. Rose seems incapable of creating long lyrical lines because he's so literal in reading the score; every I is dotted, every T crossed; he reads the notes but doesn't see the music. As a result, what's missing in 'The Seine at Night' is atmosphere. In 'Wheat Field at Noon' rhythms are not concise and ensemble is weak. In the Ivesian (or is it Rautavaarian?) 'Sea Piece with Birds' pulses are too strong to convey the flight of birds, especially when the orchestra is not blended.

I listened to all these works except A Feast of Love with scores from the Eastman School of Music. Apparently that clientele agrees with me about Thomson: one score was last checked out in 1972, another only three times since 1972, and two never. But even if you're fond of Thomson, this is not a recording that will make your heart grow fonder.

- Gil French

© Copyright 2011 American Record Guide