Randall Thompson: Symphony No.2

review thompson x1 cong

Thompson is known as one of the most-performed American composers of choral music, notable for writing that is approachable to both audiences and choirs. The Second Symphony is “an excellent example” of what the composer was capable of when not composing for voices, say the sleeve notes. We say it’s ideal if you want to tackle modern classical music but don’t want anything too heavy. It’s not intimidating. The work opens with an allegro that’s vibrant and almost catchy, with jazz elements. (The opening bars reminded us of the music from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, as the knights ride to be taunted by the French). It’s instantly likeable and that initial listener-friendly feel will carry you into the CD.

This easy charm continues into the second and third movements, sections of both conjuring up either music on the Light Programme in about 1949 or the soundtrack of a black and white romantic movie.

The programme continues with Samuel Adams’ Drift And Providence, for which the composer (who’s in his 30s) took recordings of the Pacific Ocean, transformed them digitally, and transcribed them for instruments. The sleeve notes say he has to use a laptop when playing it live, as most orchestral music occurs in the frequencies between 60 and 4,000 hertz, whereas the ocean tends to make noise in frequencies below 60 hertz and above 5,000. Despite this geekery, it’s a nice piece, and sounds suitably watery.

The third piece is Samuel Barber’s Symphony No.1, the first American work to be performed at the Salzburg Festival. It’s nearly as accessible as the Thompson, just a tad more formal but with some lovely romantic sections, and lively in places.

This is all performed by the elite conservatory students of the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic; they’re still students, albeit really good ones. Impressive.

Out now on Naxos, 8.559822

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