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The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River
Film Director: Pare Lorentz, Music Composer: Virgil Thomson, Soundtracks re-created by: Post-Classical Ensemble. Music Director: Angel Gil-Ordonez, Narrator: Floyd King. Naxos DVD video 2.110521
This almost unique historical project began in 1936 and continued through 1938. The middle 1930's saw the United States taking a break from the Great American Dream. The fertile plains of mid-country were over-worked and ruined by the many years of the worst drought in American history. The farms were left behind and people moved further west. That historical story was told in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. That story was also told by Pare Lorentz's documentary film, The Plow that Broke the Plains in 1936. It was made for the Farm Security Administration of the U. S. Department of Agriculture! Lorentz, after interviewing many well-known composers such as Aaron Copland, selected Virgil Thomson for this important historical document. This collaboration was repeated by Lorentz and Thompson with The River. That collaboration revolved around the polar opposite subject of the previous one. Here the subject is the Mississippi River and the problems it created in the middle 1930s. It was voted the best documentary at the 1938 Venice Film Festival. Pretty much the same basic music score is heard on the old Vanguard Stereolab recording (VSD-2095) that holds up quite well even by more recent standards. Leopold Stokowski led the Symphony of the Air orchestra on that old stereo release. Literally, this new Naxos recording is distinctly clearer, cleaner and more detailed than the older Vanguard. The orchestral playing is outstanding, as if they might have had all the rehearsal time needed. The brass plus horns are particularly well captured here.
I feel obligated if not almost forced to promote or recommend this Naxos recording to all of our readers for many reasons. The music is beautiful, forceful, dynamic or whatever as needed to complement the visual. Yes, dear readers, here you also get the original, seventy years old film on this disc in its original low definition black and white with almost stunning impact at times. I was surprised at the visual quality of the old film. The old original soundtrack beginning and original ending of The Plow that Broke the Plains are also included as optional choices and are, as expected, of poor audio quality. All in all there is almost two hours of visual and audible interest and entertainment on this recording and I have not mentioned all that is included!
This "must have" recording should be viewed and heard by all for its historical background of the U.S.A. You may not and need not play it often; it will remain fixed in the memory lobes of your brain. If you have children or grandchildren, sit them down and play it for them. It is a significant chunk of American history and a satisfying piece of outstanding American classical music. Both musical selections contain a number of very familiar passages from bygone days—see how many you can spot. I was apparently having trouble getting this excellent disc to play correctly—particularly trying to change to a different track. I mentioned that to the Naxos representative and he was genuinely surprised as they pride themselves with their quality control efforts. The next day I received another copy. It turned out that both copies were fine. The "problem" turned out to be me. Basically I was trying to change tracks the same way as I do with CDs, though here there are no track numbers. The correct way is to simply press the menu button and scroll to and click on the desired option on the menu screen and it should give your desired choice very quickly.