The "Awards" issue of Gramophone 1999 had a fairly extensive essay on the American Symphony. At that time only two Gottschalk pieces are listed as in print, none of the above works by Thomson nor those by Piston (though it did mention a few of his symphonies). Thanks to Naxos we can now get a better feeling for the music of our country and a greater perspective to add to our appreciation of it.
Anybody who is a serious listener of classical music must listen to the Gottschalk disc. Louis Moureau Gottschalk (1829-69) was the first truly "American" composer. I say this because his music is the first that truly tapped the language, utilizing Creole and Black music as part of the web he wove. His music is Whitmanesque, and even Ivesian at moments. All of it is delightful and some of it memorable. For example, the piano melody that floats above the orchestral garb of "Celebre Tarantelle" is still haunting my memory as I write this. The music here was arranged and orchestrated by others, some of who were the composer's friends, but it all sounds from the same cloth. It is truly "American". You will find the notes biographically interesting and even enchanting. The sound is excellent, too.
Thomson, on the other hand, has always seemed more than slightly over-rated as a composer. His music is definitely in the romantic mainstream, reminding me of Copland. Sometimes I think the reason his music got performed so much in the 40s and 50s was due to his position as music critic for the New York Harold Tribune when he could make or break reputations with a stroke of his pen. This music is not bad; it is just not very interesting. I am glad to have it for reference.
Then we come to Piston. I read somewhere that his music was considered too "academic". Well, if so then I am an academic. For some reason Prokofieff came to mind as I listened to the music. Not, mind you, that his violin concertos are like Prokofieff's, but that there is an over-all sense of urbanity and darkness that brings Prokofieff to my mind. On the other hand, at one point I noted, "sounds like an American Martinů". I really, really enjoyed listening to this disc, it is just plain interesting with lots of things going on all the time. Oddly, the notes in the Thomson CD indicate that he was an influence on, among others, Piston. I don't hear it. What I do hear is a truly original voice that may not be as "folksy" as Copland/Thomson but is wonderful music making. The performances, and I lack any direct comparisons, are committed and excellently recorded.
The American Classics series being produced by Naxos should be in everyone's collections. Even if I don't care for Thomson, I am so very glad that I can now hear music that otherwise might have remained a mute reference. That said I find it slightly annoying that, with one exception, these recordings were made with orchestras overseas. Granted the conductors are American (although Kuchar has a definite Slavic accent he picked up somewhere other than his native New York) but with so many very good local orchestras, like the Columbus Symphony in Ohio, I do wish Naxos would look here.
Copyright © 2000, Robert Stumpf II