Rory Macdonald & RSNO - Thomas Wilson: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5 - Fanfare

Thomas Wilson (1927–2001) was an American-born Scottish composer who wrote a great deal of music in almost all of the traditional forms associated with classical music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Until being asked to review this recording I have to admit that I had not heard any of Wilson's music, and in the notes accompanying the disc the composer himself is quoted speaking of his own music. I think these words are illuminative: "Though there is a Scottish dimension to my music ... it is not of an obvious or ethnic kind. Early influences such as Bartók and Berg have led through serialism, aleatoricism, and various other expressionist and mystical aspects to a mature style which is almost 'classical' in its lucidity." What is very clear from the outset is that Wilson's music is exquisitely crafted and thought out. The orchestration to be observed in both symphonies is quite masterful, and leaves the listener in no doubt that here was someone in full command of his resources. There is a sort of concentrated austerity here, however, that seems to prevent the music from fully successfully making the emotional connection one feels the composer is striving for. The Second Symphony dates from 1965, and is cast in the very traditional four- movement outline, including a slow movement and scherzo that run together without a break. The music is "post-tonal" in its harmonic language (although the symphony does end in D Minor), and short, pithy melodic and rhythmic cells often compete with longer lines in more austere textures. This listener, at least, was always more aware of the intellectual musical argument unfolding, rather than being caught up in an emotional journey, but there is no doubting that the music is able to conjure a sort of visceral excitement and tension at times. The later Fifth Symphony is scored for smaller forces than the Second, and this was Wilson's last completed score. The style is immediately consistent with that seen in the Second Symphony, although the "mysticism" the composer mentioned in the above quotation is very much more to the fore here than in the earlier work. Set in a single sectionalized movement, this is a very stark and uncomfortable piece, and—as was the case with the Second Symphony—this listener at least was drawn more into the intellectual achievement the music represented, rather than experiencing the music in more emotional terms. Both of the main climaxes within the movement, however, were viscerally impressive. Throughout this new recording both the recording and the performances are excellent. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra plays with complete authority in scores that often highlight the work of individual players and/or sections, and the result is totally convincing. The recording is detailed, spacious, and wide-ranging, with individual tone colors perfectly captured but with plenty of weight and impact in fully scored sections. In terms of late 20th- century music from the United Kingdom, Thomas Wilson is certainly a voice well worth hearing. Whether or not this music will connect with every listener does not change that fact.

22 June 2021