THOMPSON: The Peaceable Kingdom. Alleluia. The Last Invocation. Mass of the Holy Spirit. Fare Well.
Schola Cantorum of Oxford/James Burton.
Hyperion CDA67679 (F) (DDD) TT: 77:02

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 - 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." Thompson'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.

S.G.S. (February 2009)