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Kurt THOMAS (1904-1973)
Passionsmusik nach dem Evangelisten Markus op.6 (1926) [39:42]
Psalm 137: “An den Wassern zu Babel...” (1925) [11:42]
Norddeutscher Figuralchor/Jörg Straube
rec. 10-12 September, 2004; St. Osdag, Mandeloh
Texts in German only. Notes in German, English and French.

The name of Kurt Thomas, if known at all nowadays, is mostly familiar as a choral conductor and teacher. But in his youth – especially - he achieved considerable fame as a composer. Indeed he was something of a prodigy in that regard. His Mass in A minor, written when he was only 19, received many performances and much praise in Germany in the mid 1920s. It was a work which – along with compositions such as those recorded here – played an important role in stimulating that revival of unaccompanied choral music which was a marked phenomenon on the musical landscape in Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Writing in The Musical Quarterly in  1953, in the ‘Current Chronicle’ section, Karl H. Wörner argued that “recent German music is characterized by two contrasting trends; a new manifestation of the twelve-tone technique expressed in operatic and instrumental works of considerable individuality (Fortner, Zillig, Henze) and the new significance of choral music. The development of music for choir began about 1920 as a result of the youth movement, which evolved the so-called Singbewegung. The first outstanding work was the Mass in A minor for unaccompanied choir by Kurt Thomas”.
A few biographical details would not, perhaps, go amiss. Thomas was born in Schleswig-Holstein and grew up at Lennep in the Rhineland. He studied at the Konservatorium in Lepizig from 1922; while there he also worked with Karl Straube, then Kantor of the Thomasschule. He studied composition with Arnold Mendelssohn in Darmstadt and soon, as we have seen, made an impact as a composer. He taught at the Konservatorium in Lepizig between 1926 and 1934 and from 1934 to 1939 he was Professor of Choral Conducting in Berlin. Beginning in 1935, he published the three volumes of his Lehrbuch der Chorleitung (an English translation, The Choral Conductor: The Technique of Choral Conducting in Theory and Practice was published in 1971), a work of enduring influence. From 1939 to 1945 he was Head of the Musiches Gymnasium in Frankfurt. He held teaching positions at a number of German institutions, before becoming Kantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1956, a post he held until 1960, when he left East Germany for life in the West.
Aside from choral works, his compositions included a piano concerto, works for organ, songs and a widely-admired piano trio. Gradually, as his work as a teacher, choir-master and conductor increased, he composed less and less and by the mid 1930s he was making rather less impact as a composer. His work has largely been ignored, in part because of that reluctance (justified or unjustified) to look very closely at the music of composers who chose to stay and make careers in Nazi Germany.
As a successor of Bach’s at the Thomaskirche, it is natural to anticipate the influence of Bach in Thomas’s works for unaccompanied choir. However, save in the broadest generic sense – these are distinctively Protestant settings of Biblical texts – Thomas’s music largely escapes any sense of very direct influence and certainly there is nothing here that operates at the level of mere pastiche of a great tradition. In his own writing, Thomas’s Bach is filtered, as it were, through the choral works of Mendelssohn and Brahms, with a certain late-romantic overlay. He makes use of the occasional expressive dissonance, but this is quintessentially tonal music, music designed to be readily accessible to potential audiences.
Of the two works on this CD, the setting of Psalm 137 is particularly appealing. Psalm 137 is one of the psalms of the Baylonian exile, perhaps viewed retrospectively, a praise of loyalty and love for God’s city, which ends with an invocation of divine judgement on the enemies of that city. Thomas’s setting responds sensitively to the words of the Psalm, in music which is often forcefully emotional, for all the correctness of its antiphonal writing. The music juxtaposes plainness and complexity in a plausibly natural fashion and contains moments of real beauty. This performance by the Norddeutscher Figuralchor is very persuasive; this is a piece which other ambitious choirs might find of interest.
The Passionsmusik struggles to maintain the kind of musical intensity which the shorter Psalm setting has. Of necessity much of the work is taken up by a kind of choral recitative, which is done with delicacy and fair subtlety but nevertheless results in a certain homogeneity of tone and effect. One misses real set pieces and a consequent sense of dramatic conflict, a sense which the choral writing only occasionally communicates – as in the fine setting of Mark 14 verses 71-72, Peter’s tears at the realisation that he has fulfilled Christ’s prophesy that he would betray Him three times. In too many places, the music, although it is thoroughly competent, and though it is graced with some lovely touches, seems to add relatively little to the words of Mark’s account. There are too many times when it doesn’t really rise to the text’s great occasions.
Though I have my reservations about the Passionsmusik – a limited, rather than in any sense bad, work – I am very grateful to have had the chance to listen to two of Thomas’s significant choral compositions. I hope that we shall one day have a recording of his Mass in A Minor from these same forces. The Norddeutscher Figuralchor sings superbly on this present CD and Jörg Straube’s understanding of the music is, so far as I can judge, exemplary.
Glyn Pursglove


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