Two Classic Virgil Thomson CDs Reissued

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 8

First issued by Northeastern Records in 1990 and 1994, these two long-out-of-print Virgil Thomson releases gain a new lease on life via Everbest Music, a label established by the Virgil Thomson Foundation to disseminate the composer’s works. Their point of center is Anthony Tommasini, who was active as a pianist prior to his full-time stint as New York Times music critic. He enjoyed a close musical and professional association with Thomson, and eventually wrote his 1996 biography Composer On the Aisle.

Disc 1 offers a wide range of Thomson’s musical portraits for solo piano and myriad chamber configurations. Thomson composed more than 150 portraits largely from life, meaning that one posed and Thomson composed. Whether or not the portraits musically resemble their subjects is debatable, yet there’s no questioning Thomson’s stylistic range, from the harsh edges and dissonant jabs in portraits of Florine Stettheimer and Tommasini himself to the Aaron Copland portrait’s disarming two-part counterpoint and the gorgeous lyricism of In a Boat, a portrait of the late Louis Rispoli, Thomson’s onetime assistant.

Thomson considered his terse three-movement Piano Sonata No. 2 as a kind of self-portrait, hence its inclusion. The Northeastern Suite comprises five portraits from different periods of Thomson’s long life where Scott Wheeler’s chamber ensemble arrangements handsomely flesh out and vitalize the piano originals.

A wonderful cross-section of Thomson’s songs takes up Disc 2. While the texts are printed in the booklet, you really don’t need them, due to Thomson’s impeccable mastery of word-setting and prosody. That even holds true for the rhapsodic phrases and wide interval leaps in the Five Phrases from the Song of Solomon for soprano and percussion, a remarkably forward-looking work from 1926.

It doesn’t hurt that each one of the singers involved boasts impeccable diction, to the point where even the most obscure texts convey shape and meaning. This is especially true about Thomson’s 1927 Gertrude Stein setting Capital Capitals. Its long stretches of declaimed text on single notes and brash diatonic asymmetry might be described as a prototype for the Thomson/Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts, or arguably as a harbinger of minimalism.

Thomson liked his music played straightforwardly, without gratuitous dynamic hairpins or expressive tricks (he’d often yell at performers to “play it plain!”). Needless to say, Tommasini and friends “play it plain”, but never blandly. Rhythms are always crisp and well-articulated, while tempos never drag. That’s true even for the oddly verbose and semi-solemn “cantata” Oraison funèbre, a work that Tommasini describes as Thomson’s answer to Satie’s Socrate. The booklet reproduces Tommasini’s astute and informative booklet notes from the original CDs. A most welcome reissue.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Album Title: Portraits, Self-Portraits, and Songs
Reference Recording: None for this collection

    Portraits for piano (selected); Portraits for chamber ensembles (selected); Songs (selected); Capital Capitals
  • Anthony Tommasini (piano); Sharan Leventhal (violin); Fenwick Smith (flute); Frederic T. Cohen (oboe); Ronald Haroutunian (bassoon); Jonathan Miller (cello); Nancy Armstrong (soprano); D’Anna Fortunato (mezzo-soprano); Frank Kelley (tenor); Sanford Sylvan (baritone); David Ripley (bass); James Russell Smith (percussion)

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