This batch of suites is volume three of Vanguard's "Stokowski Collection." Each of the works was adapted by the composer from a larger original score. In the case of The River, Thomson recast the soundtrack he wrote for the 1937 Pare Lorentz film, a documentary of life in America. The Plow That Broke the Plains also derives from a Lorentz/Thomson collaboration. The digital transfers are first class, though the acoustics for the Stravinsky are somewhat claustrophobic, the sessions having been recorded in Vanguard's 23rd Street studio in New York.
The River explores in four sketches the industrial and agrarian society of the Mississippi Valley. The writing is vivid and doesn't shy away from obvious pictorialism; there's the languor and fecundity of the "The Old South", which Thomson captures fetchingly with a banjo and plenty of spirituals. The third movement, "Soil Erosion and Floods," erupts in dissonance before resolving into a gentle and moving canon. The almost pentatonic tune has an Native American flavor.
I imagine Stokowski found little he could improve upon in Thomson's scores. The musical style is fluent and tasteful, avoiding the bombast that mars another American portrait, Rodgers "Victory at Sea." (I'm hitting back at my local PBS affiliate who showed the complete series to "attract" subscribers.) Stokowski finds the right balance between poignancy and rhythmic thrust along with his usual dramatic sense of dynamics.
The Stravinsky is scored for violin, clarinet, trumpet, double bass, bassoon, trombone, and percussion. For this performance, Stokowski assembled a first-rate group of musicians, including Gerald Tarack on violin and trumpeter Theodore Weis. These men have the most prominent roles - Weis shows his skill in the pasodoble section of "The Royal March." Tarack is appropriately gnashing and lascivious for his part. The soldier's "story" is adequately covered by the notes, but after this tasty morsel, you might investigate the original with narrative. A valuable reissue.
Copyright © 1998, Robert J. Sullivan