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Recordings

Virgil Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River
31 May 2007

THOMSON: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River

Naxos’s DVD venture has produced a fascinating document, the original documentary shorts The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, filmed by Pare Lorentz, with the Virgil Thomson scores re-recorded by the post-Classical Ensemble, led by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

Virgil Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River

Post-Classical Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordóñez (music director), Joseph Horowitz (artistic director), Floyd King (narrator), Pare Lorentz (film director).

Naxos 2.110521 [DVD]

$18.49  Click to buy

The musical pleasures come from both the re-recording, sympathetic performances in clean, modern sound, and the original performances, offered as an optional soundtrack. The sound of the latter can’t compare to the 2005 recording, but it has a sentimental appeal, in that its qualifications mirror those of the simple techniques of the black and white film-making.

Furthermore, Naxos has filmed some bonus features, mostly interviews with participants in an AFI celebration of the films that led to the re-recording. George Stoney and Charles Fussell speak with authority and humor about their experiences with the films. In audio-only composer Thomson speaks, in an interview, about his compositions. Finally Naxos offers the original endings for both films, clips of about 3 minutes that don’t offer any big revelations but will please cinematic completists.

The films themselves, while dated in style, bring important segments of American history into sharp focus swiftly and simply. The Plow that Broke the Plains feels like a wise ancestor of An Inconvenient Truth, with its narrative of human development leading to the Dust Bowl crisis. The River, conversely, celebrates the advances of man that tamed nature in ways designed to benefit our society — watching the film clips of levee-building, however, leads inexorably to memories of nature having the last word with Hurricane Katrina.

The films themselves total under 60 minutes, with the bonus features doubling the length. The booklet, in English only, has a substantial essay by Joseph Horowitz, Artistic Director of the post-Classical Ensemble, a note from Gil-Ordóñez on some textual issues with the score, and brief biographies of key participants.

The films, let alone the bonus features, may not demand repeat viewings, but Naxos still deserves thanks for both the quality re-recordings of Thomson’s scores and the reminder of the context in which they first were heard.

Chris Mullins

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