Thompson, Barber Symphonies Paired On CD Of Classics

Conductor James Ross huddles with students of the National Orchestral Institute during a recording session of American symphonic works for Naxos. (Courtesy Jonathan Hsu Photography)

Randall Thompson: Symphony No. 2. Samuel Adams: Drift and Providence. Samuel Barber: Symphony No. 1.  National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic/James Ross. Naxos 8.559822. Total Time: 69:52.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – Harvard-educated composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984) is best remembered today for his choral music, especially the Alleluia commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in 1940. The piece has proven so beloved and durable that it is still performed every summer at Tanglewood’s opening ceremonies. One might also say that Thompson’s Symphony No. 2 (1931) was the first great American symphony. Others might give the edge to Barber’s Symphony No. 1 (1936) or Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 3 (1939), but Thompson’s work, which gets a superior performance on this new Naxos release, is certainly a contender for that credit.

Very much rooted in the 19th-century Romantic tradition, Thompson’s Second Symphony was old-fashioned even for 1931, with few nods to contemporaries Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or even Ravel; that said, it does tip its hat to the popular jazz music of the day from time to time. Within these chosen parameters, it is a well-crafted piece with catchy melodic ideas and plenty of orchestral color. The last movement is particularly interesting. It begins slowly with a solemn tune that echoes a phrase from “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then follows a faster section culminating in a return to this tune at the end in full Elgarian nobilmente fashion.

James Ross, at work with NOI student musicians. (Geoff Sheil)

The National Orchestral Institute is held each June at the University of Maryland, and its first-rate orchestra features some of the finest young musicians in the country. Under the capable direction of James Ross, until recently the director of orchestral activities at the University of Maryland, these gifted players seem very much at home with the symphonies of Thompson and Barber, as well as with the contemporary composition by Samuel Adams, a current composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In May, James Ross gave his last concert at the University of Maryland to take up a post with the Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès in Spain. Ross has been one of the most innovative conductors at work anywhere. He will certainly be missed in Maryland. For those not familiar with his projects, here is a link to his amazing “Afternoon of a Faun,” which the students performed from memory with elaborate choreographed movement.

Composer Randall Thompson

Thompson’s Symphony No. 2, given its first performance by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic in 1932, was soon taken up by virtually all the major orchestras in the country. Koussevitzky conducted it often, as did Charles Munch, his successor with the Boston Symphony. The first recording, with Dean Dixon conducting, was released in 1952, followed by at least six others, including a 1968 version with Leonard Bernstein, Thompson’s former student at Harvard and at Curtis.

This new recording is as good as any of them. A comparison of just the closing peroration with the same passage in the Sony Classical Bernstein recording proved Ross far more convincing than Bernstein, who seems so intent on wresting meaning from the score that he all but stops the music in its tracks.

Samuel Barber (Carl Van Vechten)

Barber’s Symphony No. 1, conceived as a single-movement symphony along the lines of Sibelius’ Seventh, is widely regarded as one of his greatest achievements. While the music flows continuously, both the Barber and the Sibelius are clearly in four parts – first movement, scherzo, slow movement, and finale – much in the manner of a symphony from the late Classical or Romantic eras. The Barber is consistently dark and tormented, as befitting a work written during the Depression, and the oboe solo in the slow movement is both original and sublime in its expressive beauty. As in the case of  Thompson’s Second Symphony, the work has been performed by many major conductors, among them Bruno Walter. Current recordings by David Zinman (Argo 436288), Neeme Järvi (Chandos 9684), Robert Spano (Telarc 80596), Leonard Slatkin (RCA 60732), and Marin Alsop (Naxos 8.506021) are all excellent, but once again, Ross and his young musicians offer comparable quality.

Ross confers with composer Samuel Adams at the Naxos session. (Jonathan Hsu)

Why the producers of this recording saw fit to include Samuel Adams’ Drift and Providence alongside the Thompson and the Barber is unclear to me. It is all very well to encourage young composers, but in this case it does Adams a disservice to have his very modest piece included in the company of two acknowledged masterpieces. Drift and Providence is a static, impressionistic, amorphous work with very little substance to sustain interest over the course of its 19 minutes. There are electronic elements at work here, but to my ears they were inconsequential.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for, and