New World Records: Virgil Thomson Songs

The Complete Songs of Virgil Thomson for Voice & Piano
(photo: New World Records)

The title of the newly-released New World Records CD set “The Complete Songs of Virgil Thomson for Voice and Piano” says it all. This is an ambitious, exhaustive and comprehensive effort as part of the Florestan Recital Project (highlighting art song in the twentieth century) by artistic co-directors baritone Aaron Engebreth and pianist Alison d'Amato. The 3-CD set, with a total of seventy-seven pieces (about three and a quarter hours of music) presents works ranging from forty seconds (the Benedictus from his Mass for Solo Voice) to seven minutes (Les soirees bagnolaises) in length, including several previously unpublished works (such as four brief lullabies) from the Virgil Thomson Papers at Yale. Set to texts by William Blake, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, Georges Hugnet, Jean Racine, Isaac Watts, Edward Lear, and others, even William Shakespeare and the Marquis de Sade, they're an incomparable collection.

Thomson, born in Kansas City (Missouri) in 1896, started composing while a student at Harvard. For the length of his subsequent prolific career until his death in 1989, the breadth and depth of his contributions to the musical world are amazing, including several operas. So it should come as no surprise that his art songs are so numerous and varied. With titles such as “The Courtship of the Yongly-Bongly-Bo” and lyrics such as “I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut” (from Kenneth Koch's Love Song), they illustrate Thomson's wit as well as his way with chromaticism; as the co-directors note, they also portray his “unique compositional language and deep personal expression”. Featuring the aforementioned Engebreth and d'Amato, the set also includes fine work by soprano Sarah Pelletier, contralto Lynne McMurtry, and tenor William Hite, with accompaniment by Linda Osborn on piano (as well as John McDonald on percussion for the additional work Song of Solomon).

This compilation is a testament to the priceless work accomplished by Thomson in his time as well as a labor of love on the part of Engebreth and d'Amato, and certain to be a treasured addition to any music lover's library of the works of this prolific composer.

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