Notes and Editorial Reviews
Virgil Thomson accurately predicted that as a composer he would best be remembered for his two operatic collaborations with Gertrude Stein. Their 1928 Four Saints in Three Acts premiered in 1934 and ran to some 60 performances that year--an unprecedented figure for new opera in English. Thirteen years later Thomson and most of the original cast gathered to record about half of the opera for RCA Victor. First time listeners may be baffled by the deceptively simple pump-organ harmonies and catchy hymn-like tunes, yet repeated hearings reveal more and more of Thomson's tough exterior, crystal clear orchestration, and impeccable deployment of Stein's madcap language.
Although Nonesuch made a fine digital recording of the entire
score in 1981, I much prefer this earlier version's greater diversity of vocal styles, superior diction, more spirited orchestral execution, and grittier ambience. Aside from superfluous added reverb, RCA's clear and airy 1996 transfer sounds nearly as good as the singers (most of them, anyway).
Edward Matthews delivers the famous "Pigeons on the Grass, Alas" sequence with moving fullness and fervency, while Charles Holland's singular tenor timbre graces the role of St. Chavez. Though slightly past her prime, genuine star quality informs everything soprano and St. Teresa I creator Beatrice Robinson-Wayne does.
The first and better of Leopold Stokowski's two recordings of Thomson's suite culled from his film score to The Plow That Broke the Plains fills out the disc. It's easy to hear why Thomson admired this performance. The Pastorale conveys just the right lilt, the blues-tinged Speculation's syncopations are surprisingly idiomatic, and you can take dictation from the delicately balanced wistful opening and closing movements. Arkivmusic.com's "on-demand" reissue of this important release replicates the original booklet notes and libretto.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson
Inez Matthews (Soprano),
Edward Matthews (Baritone),
Charles Holland (Tenor),
David Bethea (Tenor),
Randolph Robinson (Baritone),
Altonell Hines (Mezzo Soprano),
Ruby Greene (Alto),
Beatrice Robinson-Wayne (Soprano),
Abner Dorsey (Bass)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1927-1933; France
Date of Recording: 06/25/1947
Length: 47 Minutes 54 Secs.
Notes: Virgil Thomson wrote this abridged version specifically for this 1947 recording. It includes excerpts from all sections of the opera, and lasts roughly half as long as the complete work.
The Plow that Broke the Plains: Suite by Virgil Thomson
Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1936; France
Date of Recording: 08/30/1946
Length: 13 Minutes 38 Secs.
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