Thomson: The Plow That Broke the Plains (HDCD review)

Also, Suite from The River. Leopold Stokowski, Symphony of the Air. HDTT HDCD369.

American composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was not only a contemporary of fellow American composer Aaron Copland, he wrote music in the same vein, and the two men have become inextricably connected with the American experience. The fact that Thomson befriended such American giants as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Orson Welles didn't hurt his reputation or the quality of his musical output. If Thomson failed to get out from under the shadow of Copland, well, it wasn't for his lack of trying. Or maybe it was simply because it was pretty hard to match, let alone surpass, Copland's genius. Whatever, the present album contains two of Thomson's most-famous works: The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains, both commissions for movie documentaries.

It is all fairly lightweight stuff, to be sure--celebrations of Americana in pastiches of folk and folk-inflected tunes that sometimes betray their documentary film origins. Yet once underway it is all undeniably charming and sentimentally appealing, and no one performed it better than the old Maestro, Leopold Stokowski, and the Symphony of the Air (an ensemble made up mostly of former members of the defunct NBC Symphony Orchestra). Stokowski championed both works on record, and the 1960 recordings we have here were the first stereo versions of the scores.

First up is a suite of tunes from The River, a short 1938 film that chronicled the importance of the Mississippi River to the United States. For a conductor born and raised in England, Stokowski showed a remarkable affinity for American idioms, as he displays here. Of course, being intimately familiar with these scores helped, too, but, really, he seems born to play Thomson's music. The composer breaks The River into four descriptive movements: "\The Old South, sounding something like Max Steiner's score for Gone With the Wind; Industrial Expansion in the Mississippi Valley, lively and variegated; Soil Erosion and Floods, plaintive and poignant; and a Finale, cumulative in its effect. Never in Stokowski's reading does he give in to any of his occasional inclinations for exaggeration, distortion, or glamorization. Instead, every phrase seems perfectly balanced and expertly carried through, creating a highly expressive, atmospheric presentation.

Then we get music from The Plow That Broke the Plains, a short 1936 documentary film that described some of the origins of America's Midwestern Dust Bowl in the 1930's. The suite from The Plow is in six segments: Prelude, Pastorale (Grass), Cattle, Blues (Speculation), Drought, and Devastation; although on this HDTT disc, perhaps because the entire suite is so brief (a little under fourteen minutes), we get the whole thing on a single track. Under Stokowski's direction, the suite is both sad and heroic, the themes well unified with a firm control. Incidentally, you'll instantly recognize the Cattle tunes as "I Ride an Old Paint," "Streets of Laredo," and "Git Along Little Doggies" woven together in a kind of waltz mode. The Cattle and New Orleans-inspired Blues sections are probably the most recognizable parts and have made the suite as popular as it is, with help from Stokowski's evocative conducting.

Producer Seymour Solomon (cofounder of Vanguard Records) and engineer Ed Friedner recorded the music for Vanguard at Manhattan Center, New York in 1960. HDTT transferred the recording in 2014 from a 4-track tape. These recordings may come from 1960, but you wouldn't know it. There is little trace of tape hiss or noise; there is a wide dynamic range, good depth, and moderately good transparency; and there is a bass drum whack that would do any of today's record labels proud.

Now, here's the thing: Vanguard themselves remastered the music for CD using Sony's 20-bit Super-Bit Mapping process back in 1994 and reissued it again as recently as 2004. However, since Vanguard folded that same year, finding a new copy of the disc at a reasonable price can be tricky. So, that's where HDTT comes in, making the music available at a variety of reasonable price points (depending on the format you choose: digital download, DSD, PCM Flac, physical disc, CD, DVD, HQCD, etc.). Having the Vanguard disc on hand, it made a convenient comparison with the newer HDTT product.

In direct comparison, the HDTT seems to have a slight advantage in overall clarity, but it is very close. The HDTT disc also seems to deliver a bit more lower midrange, upper bass response, providing a fuller, warmer sound than on the Vanguard product. In any case, both discs sound quite good for their age (or maybe because of their age, depending on how much you think today's recordings are an actual improvement over early stereo productions), producing good depth, balance, and dynamics. I know I enjoyed the sound of both discs, but if I had to choose, I'd opt for the HDTT transfer. It's crisply delineated and clean, clean, clean, with a beautifully extended high end. Indeed, it's among the best transfers I've heard from HDTT, and I enjoyed it immensely.

About the only advantage I see in the old 20-bit Vanguard disc (even if you could still find a good copy) is that it comes with the bonus coupling of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat with Stokowski leading an instrumental ensemble. But if you really want the Stravinsky piece, HDTT also have a version of it on hand with the ensemble Ars Nova that is a genuine reference recording in jaw-dropping sound. Jus' sayin'.

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To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa