THOMSON: 5 Ladies for Violin & Piano.1 7 Selected Portraits for Piano. A Portrait of Two, for Oboe, Bassoon & Piano.3,4 Violin Sonata.1 Concerto for Flute, Strings, Harp & Percussion: I. Rapsodico for Solo Flute.2 3 Portraits for Violin & Piano (arr. Dushkin).1 Piano Sonata No. 2. Serenade for Flute & Violin.1,2 Etude for Cello & Piano: A Portrait of Frederic James.5 Lili Hastings. 6 Selected Portraits for Piano. Northeastern Suite (arr. Wheeler).1-5 Susie Asado.6 Pigeons on the Grass, Alas.10 Praises and Prayers.7 5 Phrases from “The Song of Solomon.” 6,11 Mostly About Love.6 Commentaire sur Saint Jérome.9 From “Sneden’s Landing Variations.” 6 Shakespeare Songs.7 Oraison funèbre de Henriette-Marie de Franc reine de la Grande-Bretagne.6 Capital Capitals 8-10 / Anthony Tommasini, pno (all tracks except Concerto for Flute, Serenade for Flute & Violin, No. 2 of 3 Portraits for Violin & Piano and 5 Phrases from “The Song of Solomon”); 1Sharan Leventhal, vln; 2Fenwick Smith, fl; 3Frederic T. Cohen, oboe; 4Ronald Haroutunian, bsn; 5Jonathan Miller, cel; 6Nancy Armstrong, sop; 7D’Anna Fortunato, mezzo; 8Frank Kelley, 9Paul Kirby, ten; 10Sanford Sylvan, bar; 8David Ripley, bs; 11James Russell Smith, perc / Everbest 1002
Years before he became a music critic for The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini was a pianist and music educator, but not receiving tenure pushed him into the role of music critic. Tommasini was very lucky to have had both Virgil Thomson, himself a critic for the New York Herald-Tribune as well as a composer, as one of his mentors, along with the Boston Globe’s critic, Richard Dyer.
These two excellent recordings, which I missed the first time around, were recorded for Northeastern Records in 1990 (Portraits and Self-Portraits) and 1994 (Mostly About Love). After having joined the Times staff, he wrote Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle, which received the 1998 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, and Opera: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Works and the Best Recordings.
These two important releases, both funded through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, are reissued here as a 2-CD set by Everbest, the record label of the Virgil Thomson Foundation at 254 West 31st St. in New York. The reissue was funded by Tommasini himself.
In my own Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music, I noted that Thomson was a very fine composer but unfortunately didn’t write as much music in his long life because of his other commitments. In most respects he was one of America’s greatest music critics, a man who turned a surprisingly objective eye and ear on the contemporary concert scene and one who, I’m happy to say, also appreciated and promoted jazz artists in addition to classical. He was, however, diametrically opposed to the objectivist performances of Arturo Toscanini; he didn’t “get” them, he didn’t like them, and therefore he spent a great deal of time and a large amount of bile dumping on the conductor every chance he got. I’ve heard from some insiders that this was in part because Toscanini never performed any of his music, which in itself is true, and there certainly were some Toscanini performances that even I find harsh and brutal, but Thomson even carped about some of his very best interpretations. But of course he was entitled to his opinion. I can’t stomach the music of Bruckner or the conducting of the late Giuseppe Sinopoli, in which I seem to be singularly alone among music critics.
Despite his occasional lack of time to compose, Thomson was, in my view, very diverse in his musical styles. He was not, like so many composers nowadays, locked into one style or mode of expression, to which he was committed “do or die.” He was very fond of the music of Erik Satie (particularly that composer’s Socrate, which he considered an early minimalist masterpiece), Igor Stravinsky, Bach, Scarlatti, and even to some extent Aaron Copland (in The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains). One can hear elements of all these in his works, although to my mind his greatest masterpiece was The Mother of Us All, in which he took a libretto by Gertrude Stein (one of his favorite writers) and turned it into a cracked-mirror mosaic of overlapping lines by the vocalists, all singing different words at the same time. In my view, it is wholly unique in the world of opera and still one of the most underrated works ever composed in that genre.
You can hear all these influences and more in the music presented here. Stravinsky’s neo-classicism and bit of Satie’s minimalism inform the opening 5 Ladies for Violin and Piano, and in the 7 Selected Portraits for Piano one hears some elements of formal 18th-century music. This little suite in itself is proof of my comment above that Thomson never got bogged down in just one composing style. He was the closest thing I can think of to being a “musical polyglot,” which is why his scores remain so fascinating.
About the only small complaint I have of the recording is its very dry acoustic. As far as the performance goes, it is excellent in every respect. Violinist Sharan Leventhal had a bright, pointed tone which was perfect for this music, and I’m happy to say that Tommasini was (and, for all I know, still is) an excellent pianist. In this work, at least, he uses virtually no pedal, yet he is able to “bind” the phrases due to his superb ear for legato as well as the work’s structure. Nor are these virtues confined to the violin and piano works; he gives us excellent performances of the solo piano works as well and, in fact, every piece on this album. One wonders if his mentorship with Thomson included some tips on performing his music; I would think they did, which for me makes these truly “historically-informed performances.”
The first CD contains chamber works with oboe, bassoon and flute which add to the diversity of one’s listening experience, but it’s really the music itself that holds one’s attention. Largely tonal but never sentimental, Thomson cut his own swath through the classical music world. If much of his output is encapsulated by small-scale pieces such as these, at least they were small-scale pieces of great imagination, imbued with warmth and energy. Except for his few full-length works, I like to think of him as the Ned Rorem of American instrumental music. He was apparently incapable of writing anything banal.
One good example is the second movement of the Violin Sonata. Sounding very much like 18th-century formality, there are nonetheless a number of little touches in the score that would tell the educated listener that it is not 18th-century music, and as it goes along the unusual turns of harmony make it a certainly. Yes, there are some later American composers who have written in a style like this, but Thomson was one of the first to do so. And you talk about miniature: his Piano Sonata No. 2 is, in three movements, only 7:14 long! Then, after the sweet sounds of the Serenade for Flute & Violin, we get the Etude for Cello & Piano, a dark, mostly dissonant piece that seems to borrow a few things from such modernist French composers as Honegger. In the second movement of the Six Portraits, “Paul Sanfraçon: On the Ice” (a suite which he wrote over a period of 55 years, from 1929 to 1984!), Thomson suddenly uses the pentatonic scale as its basis. Interestingly, the sixth portrait is of our intrepid pianist. This one uses an odd mode which alternates with the normal tempered scale.
The second album consists of vocal pieces, starting with the very odd Susie Asado for soprano and piano. This begins with the soprano repeating the same note for a few bars before moving into an angular, Stravinsky-like melodic line yet, surprisingly, the Gertrude Stein text for Pigeons on the Grass, Alas is set to a very simple, tonal melodic line. Happily our baritone, Sanford Sylvan, not only had a fine voice but superb diction. Praises and Prayers are sung by D’Anna Fortunato, a mezzo-soprano with a lovely voice but, sadly, not always clear enunciation. There are a few surprising harmonic shifts in this otherwise tonal piece. Perhaps because he was used to being a soloist and concerto pianist, in these recordings Tommasini seemed to me to be operating on a different level than as accompanist in several of these pieces.
Soprano Nancy Armstrong, who also has some diction problems in her upper register, is also a superb singer in terms of vocal tone and control, and her performance of 5 Phrases from “The Song of Solomon” with percussion accompaniment is particularly outstanding. The Commentaire sur Saint Jérome is sung by tenor Paul Kirby with an excellent tone but poor French diction. Oddly, the first of the Shakespeare songs, “Was this fair face the cause,” has a melodic line and rhythm closer in style to old French than British songs, but it is simple and attractive—and, again, in a different style from his other vocal music—while the second, “Take, oh take those lips away,” is set to a lovely waltz tune that could easily have been a popular tune. No doubt about it, Thomson was always surprising the listener. Only when he reaches “Sigh no more, ladies” does he give us a tune that does indeed sound like an old English lute song—but in the second half he ups the tempo and changes the rhythm.
The Oraison funèbre de Henriette-Marie de Franc reine de la Grande-Bretagne begins with a fairly simple melodic line but then shifts the tonality around as it goes along. Armstrong’s French diction, though not perfect, is more idiomatic than Kirby’s. The disc ends with one of Thomson’s most whimsical pieces, Capital Capitals, again based on a Gertrude Stein text. This one is written for male quartet, two tenors, baritone and bass, and I was extremely happy to recognize the bright voice of tenor Frank Kelley, who I remember well from his student years at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music where I heard him sing in a performance of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and give a splendid rendition of the duet “All’idea di qual metallo” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia in his graduate recital. The music is, again, mostly tonal, the rhythm starting and stopping at whim. Although not really a minimalist piece, Thomson keeps the melodic line within a narrow range of notes and often repeats notes within his phrases. Although not a masterpiece, it’s a very clever and amusing piece and I’m very glad to have it.
This is clearly one of the best and most important reissues of the year. Bravos all around!
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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