"Heaven’s Music" = Choral and Vocal Music of VIRGIL THOMSON: Rosalind Rees, soprano/ Steven Vosatka, piano/ Katherine Greene, viola/ Steven Hartman, clarinet/ Susan Jolies, harp/ Thomas Mulvaney, percussion/ Michael Osrowitz, percussion/ Gregg Smith Singers/ Gregg Smith, conductor – Albany TROY1166, 52:50 *****:
The Gregg Smith Singers and Virgil Thomson go back a long way, almost to the beginning of the group’s existence in 1955. Thomson gave them friendship and encouragement, and the Singers were never reticent in programming his music. Thomson is a vastly underrated composer, partly because his pen skills kept him quite busy exploring the music of other composers, though he did have notable successes with scores like Four Saints in Three Acts, The Plow that Broke the Plains, and Louisiana Story, the only film score to ever win the Pulitzer Prize (1949).
His choral music is quite varied in origin and muse, from traditional Mass to Protestant-like chorales to the Seven Choruses from the Medea of Euripides, an aborted piece that never made it to its intended destination, the stage. On this disc we get a wide spectrum of Thomson’s choral music and some songs as well, sung by his wife, the always-wonderful Rosalind Rees, who first hooked up with the Singers in 1968.
Particularly noteworthy are the first four pieces listed below, especially his treatment of the Holly and the Ivy, and the outstanding Four Songs on Poems of Thomas Champion with its unusual accompaniment of viola, clarinet, and harp, as rigorous and melodically wonderful a cycle as has ever been penned by an American composer, and they are pretty good at it.
I was about to go on and discuss some more favorites, but then I realized I would be listing everything! Thomson has an uncanny ability to set certain specified goals for one composition and then stick with it as if his style has never been anything else. Hence the medieval contrapuntal efforts of De Profundis, an early work done before his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and the Seven Choruses from the Medea of Euripides, an austere and Romanesque piece that makes its existence on open fourths and fifths. Then with a sweep of the cape he dives into Hymns from the Old South, properly set according to the style of these southern tunes.
I am a big Gregg Smith fan; his work in the enlightened Columbia days with E. Power Biggs provided us with some of the best Renaissance recordings ever, and I treasure his Revolutionary War discs and the Music of the American Moravians, still the best sampling of that genre. These recordings, shamefully not dated by Albany, stretch back into the analog age, and represent a terrific collection of much needed work that enhances the reputations of both Thomson and the Singers. I am grateful to have it, one of the best and most impressive recordings I will come across this year. Add to the package excellent in-depth notes plus complete texts and you have a near-perfect production. Highest recommendation!
TrackList: De Profundis; O my deir hert; Welcome to the New Year; The Holly and the Ivy; Four Songs on Poems of Thomas Campion; Mass for Two-Part Chorus and Percussion; 7 Choruses from the Medea of Euripides; My Shepherd Will Supply My Need; Hymns from the Old South
— Steven Ritter