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Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984)
The Peaceable Kingdom (1936) [23.24]
Alleluia (1940) [6.15]
The Last Invocation (1922) [6.00]
Mass of the Holy Spirit (1955/6) [32.59]
Fare Well (1974) [8.23]
Schola Cantorum of Oxford/James Burton
rec. 9-11 March 2008, Exeter College, Oxford. DDD
HYPERION CDA 67679 [77.02]
Experience Classicsonline

This disc comes with its booklet cover adorned with a painting by Edward Hicks (1780-1849). Hicks is often described as an ‘American Folk Painter’ because of the clear simplicity of his pictures which often portray, in contemporary costume, scenes from the Bible. The one used here is called ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ and shows a large group of diverse animals, a lion and sheep and some children lying serenely together in harmony, demonstrating the words from the Book of Isaiah ‘The lion shall lie down with the lamb’. Intrigued by this work Thompson turned to Isaiah and set eight contrasting passages for choir. Although a challenging work he was aiming it at amateur or young voices.
 
Thompson was a great supporter of amateur voices. He always wrote with sensitivity - never writing down. If any modern composer did this nowadays no professional would pay him/her lip service. Professional composers must write music which is virtuoso, flashy and above all, difficult, otherwise he is not worth the time of day. This Oxford choir is not professional but it does possess a professional attitude. This is evident from these performances by Schola Cantorum who aim at and achieve the highest standards. Their funding liberates them from commercial concerns allowing them to sing repertoire which they like and which is not always that well known. Having said that, Thompson’s choral works, at least some of them, are not that far distant from the mainstream.
 
‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ has some attractive moments. It is a fascinating and beautiful piece. It includes the exciting speech rhythms to be heard in ‘Woe unto them’ and ‘The noise of the multitude’. It reminds me of the powerfully rhythmic opening of the 2nd Symphony (1933). Also notable are the soft, lovely, gently rhythmic and oscillating setting of the ‘Clap their hands’ section in movement six and the word-painting in ‘paper reeds by the brooks’ in the gorgeous movement five.
 
‘Alleluia’ could be called a motet. It involves only one word and was written in the midst of the Second World War for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center in 1940. The poor conductor, one G. Wallace Woodworth, and an even more flustered choir received the music only forty-five minutes before the performance. It has an ethereal and meditative beauty reminding me of Evensong in some Home Counties cathedral; none the worse for that. It reaches a glorious climax but never quite throws off a sense of melancholia. This is a magical performance.
 
The English choral tradition was based on a conservative development of gently imitative counterpoint mixed with homophonic writing and word-painting. It creates that typical wistful, contemplative mood which can be heard in ‘The Last Invocation’ a moving setting of Walt Whitman. Edward Bairstow, Master of the Music at York Minster, a composer of the early 20th century, whose anthems are still, quite rightly, loved came into my mind whilst listening to this piece.
 
If you look through Thompson’s work-list it is immediately apparent that choral music predominates and particularly music for the church. For this reason the appearance of a fairly large-scale Mass setting should not come as a surprise. The Schola have recorded his only mass written when at the peak of his powers in 1955. It would be interesting to know if it is ever performed liturgically as its length might well preclude even Cathedrals from taking it on for a Sunday morning Eucharist. I mention this because the work seems to have been intended, primarily at least as a concert piece. It received its first performance by, of all choirs, the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society. Thompson was professor of Modal Counterpoint at Harvard and wrote a book on the subject ‘On Contrapuntal technique’. Briefly this can be seen as a style of counterpoint used before the days of standard major/minor tonality and therefore as the basis of all early music. If you want to hear a fine textbook example of Modal Counterpoint then look no further than the Agnus dei of the Thompson Mass. One might say, although I would not want this parallel to be pushed too far, that Thompson’s Mass is the American equivalent of Vaughan Williams’ G minor Mass with its use of triadic harmonies (listen to Thompson’s Credo) and modality.
 
The disc ends with the latest work, appropriately entitled ‘Fare Well’. In this Thompson speaks to us across the years in the words of that deeply unfashionable poet Walter de la Mare: ‘When I lie where shades of darkness/Shall no more assail mine eyes”. This setting is tear-jerkingly beautiful and James Burton paces it perfectly especially as we move towards its drawn out ending “those who loved them/In other days”.
 
The interesting booklet notes are by Morten Lauridsen, the American composer whose choral music has also made quite a hit recently.
 
The Schola Cantorum of Oxford is a superb outfit. For a first disc this is most impressive. Although all texts are supplied their diction and tuning are immaculate. Their fresh young voices have been finely honed and disciplined by James Burton. The recorded balance slightly favours the soprano part although this is not really a problem. In every way this is a fine CD and will be high on my personal list as a disc of the year.
 
Gary Higginson
 


 


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