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CLASSICAL  March 2009

CLASSICAL March 2009

Subject:

The Kingdom of Thompson

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 31 Mar 2009 17:01:46 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Randall Thompson

*  The Peaceable Kingdom
*  Alleluia
*  The Last Invocation
*  Mass of the Holy Spirit
*  Fare Well

Schola Cantorum of Oxford/James Burton
Hyperion CDA67679 Total time: 77:02

Summary for the Busy Executive: Ravishing.

You don't run across Randall Thompson's name much on concert programs
these days, although between the wars he stood in the first rank of
American composers.  Part of this arose from the inevitable changes in
musical fashion after World War II, part from Thompson himself.  The
composer, disenchanted with the music fast becoming the norm during the
late Fifties, in effect largely took himself out of professional venues
to concentrate on writing for amateur choirs.  As a result, most people
think of him as a musical purveyor to high schools, whereas he wrote at
one time mainly for professionals and in all genres.  I must also say
that lack of sympathy did not lie exclusively with Thompson.  The hard
Modernists snickered at him even before the Fifties.  They saw him as
essentially genteel, a caricature of the well-bred WASP - a clean,
harmless old uncle.  Thompson does have his genteel pieces.  Yet he has
inspired ones as well, and it makes no sense to judge an artist by his
worst.  In his person, he was an intellectual, even an academic, teaching
in the top American universities, most notably Harvard.  He, Hanson,
Piston, and Sessions, are largely responsible for the general approach
to the university music curriculum.  He also set extracts from The
American Mercury and various left-wing poets of the Thirties.  As it
happens, amateurs have kept his music alive, to an extent not possible
with such former bright lights as Dane Rudhyar or even Carl Ruggles.

This entire program, however, is strictly for professionals, even though
amateurs routinely massacre Thompson's greatest choral hit, Alleluia.
Thompson had mastered choral writing so completely that almost any
choir sounds better than it really is when doing his stuff.  A bunch of
professionals will sound absolutely amazing, but professional recordings
of Thompson run rare on the ground.  So I approached this disc with great
anticipation.  British vocal ensembles -- small choirs of fifteen to
thirty-six singers -- stand among the best in the world.

Thompson wrote The Peaceable Kingdom in 1936 -- a choral cantata on
texts from the book of Isaiah.  Isaiah is credited with some of the most
eloquent books of the Bible.  I'm sure it's possible that various hands,
cumulatively, have set every single word of the prophet, but Thompson
has chosen eight beautiful texts, not necessarily that well known.  The
work comes out of American artists' attempt to build their aesthetic
past, to become distinctly American, apart from Europe.  Melville, for
example, gets revived in the Twenties.  Interest in colonial and federal
composers like William Billings, Daniel Read, and Justin Morgan comes
from the Thirties, when Copland's populist work begins.  Interest in
Ives also began around this time.  We can see these concerns very clearly
in works like William Schuman's New England Triptych, based on Billings,
as well as in his orchestration of Ives's Variations on "America."
Thomson's Peaceable Kingdom evokes the rough vigor of Billings, even
though Thompson's own writing is quite sophisticated.  I think it one
of his best scores and a masterpiece of American choral music.  The tunes
are simple, eminently singable, and gorgeous, modally inflected, hinting
at the old shape-note hymnals.  The cantata divides into a prelude
followed by two major parts.  The prelude, "Say ye to the righteous,"
sets up a dichotomy: for the righteous, all will be well; for the wicked,
all will be woe.  The next numbers deal with the wicked -- from the wrath
of God ("Woe unto them," "The noise of the multitude in the mountains,"
"Howl ye!") to the lamentation of survivors, weeping at "The paper reeds
by the brook." This last piece has achieved an independent life.  It
sounds blood-simple and emotionally direct, but it also exemplifies
Thompson's fondness for "mirror-writing" -- where the bass and soprano
move in opposite directions, in diatonically-equal amounts (harder than
it sounds).  Thompson isn't afraid of dissonance, and his dissonance is
highly expressive.  He takes the meaning of his text as paramount, and
there's a real elegance in the correlation of his idiom and the text's
demands.  Furthermore, he doesn't confine himself to dissonance.  Dynamic,
rhythm, and choral "orchestration" (who gets to sing what, when) also
come into play.  His declamation -- the musical rhythmicization of speech
-- is superb.  The wicked wail, spit, gnash their teeth, and gape in
horror.  The prophet then ringingly and briefly proclaims God's promise
to the faithful.  From here on out, the piece becomes ecstatic, culminating
in rich, eight-part writing.  Beautiful effects bathe the listener in
pure joy, especially as "all the trees of the fields . . . clap their
hands" and "one goeth with a pipe, to come into the mountains of the
Lord."

The Alleluia of 1940 was written in one night and finished 45 minutes
before its premiere performance at Tanglewood under G. Wallace Woodworth.
Woodworth commented with Yankee wryness, "At least the text won't be a
problem." Considering its amazingly brief gestation, it's by no means a
throwaway or simply a disciplined response to a commission.  Rhythmically,
"alleluia" gets set every which way, falling apparently anywhere within
a measure.  Competing, offset alleluias make for beautiful, sophisticated
counterpoint in the various voices, and yet it seems so straightforward.
The piece exhibits emotional complexity as well.  The choir doesn't
praise to the exclusion of other things.  Thompson wrote this just after
the fall of France.  One hears darkness in some of these alleluias, but
like a great sermon, we rise at the end into exaltation and, finally,
benediction.  This is as beautiful a piece of choral music as I know.

The Last Invocation comes from early on, when Thompson was about 23.
Even at this time, he has a marvelous ear for choral sound.  Unfortunately,
for me William Schuman owns this text.  His setting stresses the fear
and trembling of the text, while Thompson emphasizes the consolation.
Furthermore, Thompson hasn't yet found himself as a composer.  The writing
is expert, but not particularly individual.

Mass of the Holy Spirit (1954) just about closes out Thompson's interest
in professionals.  Compared to The Peaceable Kingdom, it is far more
abstract.  It is almost a declaration of choral principles, particularly
in its appropriation of Renaissance contrapuntal techniques.  The Sanctus
is a prelude and fugue.  One finds three canons of varying complexity:
the Christe eleison (3 voices, entries at the fourth and seventh below),
the Benedictus (4 voices, entries at the fifth, ninth, and thirteenth
below), and the Agnus Dei (entries at the octave between tenor and
soprano; free alto and bass).  The writing is so difficult, even a
top-notch group can come to grief.  However, it's well worth the effort.
Thompson's expressivity doesn't desert him, and the work comes very close
to the spirit of composers like Palestrina and Victoria.

Fare Well sets one of my favorite lyric poets, Walter de la Mare.
Essentially, it laments one's own eventual death and the death of all
beauty for the speaker, as well as enjoins us to appreciate the world
now, while we can.  Thompson was roughly 75 when he wrote it and had
suffered the loss of a beloved granddaughter, Katie.  The works that
come out of that death sing deeply, and there are no concessions to
amateurs.  Thompson seems to write mainly for himself here.

As I've mentioned, professionals have seldom taken up this repertoire.
Mass of the Holy Spirit has received, to my knowledge, only one previous
recording -- by G.  Wallace Woodworth and the boys and girls at Harvard.
It's all right, but the choir does struggle and the tone leaves something
to be desired.  Timothy Mount conducts a chorus of Stony Brook students
-- a superior college job.  The stack of Alleluia recordings almost
dwarfs the recordings of his other music.  You have many to choose from,
including Robert Shaw on Telarc and Charles Bruffy on Nimbus.  Burton
joins that distinguished company.  Leo Nestor and his American Repertory
Singers on Arsis are okay, but little more.  Avoid Robert Shewan on
Albany.  The intonation of the singers is almost uniformly terrible.
Burton's Peaceable Kingdom competes with Nestor's.  When Nestor's recording
came out, I was thrilled, mainly that the piece had made it to CD at
all.  Nestor's group sang at professional levels, but it was a little
rough.

From the opening bars of "Say ye to the righteous," Oxford's Schola
Cantorum takes your breath away with their superb blend and flexibility
of phrasing.  With one exception, they pretty much hit it out of the
park.  They connect notes to emotion -- that is, they make music.  I do
take slight issue with Burton's interpretations.  Sometimes, he holds
the tempo back a little too much.  The choir can handle it, but my inner
metronome at times wanted to scream, "Get on with it!" It's a little odd
for me to hear Britishers do these works, since the American sound of
them has been in my ear for almost half a century.  Perhaps, I react to
that.  The choir hits pitches dead on, with the single exception of the
opening to the Mass of the Holy Spirit's Gloria, admittedly a bear to
keep in tune, but they quickly lose the fuzz and coalesce.  One of my
favorites of the new year.

Steve Schwartz

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