R THOMPSON Symphony No 2 BARBER Symphony No 1
This is the second recording by the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, a summer training programme for conservatory students. It’s as impressive as its predecessor in terms of the quality of orchestral execution, and perhaps even more valuable in its choice of repertoire.
Randall Thompson’s Symphony No 2 (1931) is woefully neglected both on record and in the concert hall. James Ross captures the music’s playful verve without neglecting its powerful lyrical undercurrent, and if there’s not quite that marvellous sense of authority and élan one hears in Bernstein’s classic 1968 account (Sony), it’s still eminently satisfying. I actually prefer Ross’s unfussy yet always affectionate phrasing in the Largo – lyrically lovely music that seems to marry Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Rodgers.
Barber’s First Symphony (1936) is somewhat less of a rarity but even here Ross and his young musicians hold their own. Listen, for example, to the ardent, imploringly communicative string-playing beginning at 4'50" in the opening section or to the rapturously mesmeric oboe solo in the Andante tranquillo. Never mind that violins occasionally show a hint of strain in alt; this is a performance that grabs you and won’t let go.
I’m not convinced Samuel Adams’s Drift and Providence (2012) – for orchestra and real-time, digitally filtered percussion – is heard to best effect alongside the brilliant concision of Barber’s symphony. The young American composer clearly has the ability to create and sustain atmosphere, and there are some memorably thrilling moments. Inspired by recorded sounds of the Pacific Ocean, the music does indeed project a enveloping sense of undulating vastness. At 2'30" in the central ‘Divisadero’ section, for instance, deep notes seem to rise, lurking, from profound darkness. At times, however, there seems to be a surfeit of orchestral activity without sufficient incident. On the other hand, this may be exactly the effect Adams had in mind.