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Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984)
Requiem (1958) [55.16]
Philadelphia Singers/David Hayes
rec. Gould Rehearsal Hall, Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, 25-26 January 2014

In December 2013 I reviewed enthusiastically for the Seen and Heard pages of this site a live performance in Cardiff of Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony, commenting that his music was little known outside the United States and indeed that I had taken part in the first UK performance of his choral Testament of Freedom as recently as the 1970s. This would have appeared very surprising to any American readers, since Thompson’s choral music in particular has long been established as a central part of the scene in the USA and indeed his Alleluia can lay claim to being the most popular and best-selling published score in that country. On the other hand his Requiem premièred in 1958 is very much an unknown quantity, and this Naxos production can claim, amazingly enough, to be its first complete recording. In his booklet notes Zachary Vreeman speculates that this lack of attention may derive from the fact that the Requiem was overshadowed by Thompson’s popular Frostiana which appeared only a couple of years later; but another reason surely must be the sheer difficulty of the music, written like Thompson’s other choral works for amateur forces but demanding in the extreme, both in its innate requirements but also because pieces of this length for unaccompanied voices pose real problems in the matter of simply maintaining the correct pitch. These may well be compounded by the fact that the work is written not for one but for two choirs, taking diametrically opposed theological positions and singing for extended periods as separate entities which only unite for climactic passages. This in turn clearly demands not only a large body of singers, but also that the amateurs who constitute the choirs should be of a very high standard of proficiency. Such bodies are hard indeed to find.

At the same time it has to be admitted that Thompson’s real strength, the matching of words to memorable themes, takes some time to make itself manifest here. Part of the problem lies with the composer’s selection of the non-liturgical text, a juxtaposition of some wildly disparate sections of the Bible. Vreeman suggests that his intention was to present “an entirely personal message”; but in fact the contrast between the one choir of “mourners” and the other of “the faithful” lacks real dialectic and the ultimate triumph of the latter is far too easily achieved. The assembled text also means that some of the eighteen individual movements are very short indeed – one under a minute, and none longer than seven – which does not allow for any extended development of the musical material. The lack of any really memorable recurring theme, such as binds together The Testament of Freedom, is a problem too; Vreeman draws attention to ‘the “everlasting life” life motive’ [sic] but it does not have a solid profile to fix it in the ear of the listener. The fact that the final double fugue quotes a theme from Bach’s Mass in B minor doesn’t seem to resolve anything either.

These criticisms of a work which clearly meant something to the composer are not intended to deny the existence of many passages of drama and elation, as well as some very beautiful contemplations. But some of the problems may indeed lie with the performance itself. It is clear from the extravagant layout of the choral parts that Thompson, like Granville Bantock in his large-scale symphonies for unaccompanied chorus, envisioned a massive force of amateur voices trained to a very high standard of proficiency. It is no criticism of the Philadelphia Singers here to point out that they are a chamber-sized body of 32 voices, who simply lack the sheer heft to cope with the reinforcement of sound as Thompson ratchets up the tension by modulating from one key to another (a real hallmark of this composer); the failure to do so does however have an additional drawback of actually suggesting uncertainty as the singers seek to establish the new key before mounting higher again. It also appears from the recording that no attempt has been made to isolate the two choruses, the “mourners” and the “faithful”, from each other – the voices all seem to come from the same general area of the sound-stage, and the sound when the two merge is not redoubled. It also defuses the passages where the choruses pass questions from one to the other, in the manner of Bach and the opening chorus of the St Matthew Passion. In short, it is all just a little too polite.

The recorded sound is very good indeed, and the complete texts laid out carefully to distinguish between the words of the two choirs is printed in the booklet along with Vreeman’s informative essay on the music. Vreeman expresses the hope that “this first-ever complete recording of the work will … lead to a revival of this American masterpiece.” If indeed it does inspire further performances and recordings with larger forces, this would be a consummation devoutly to be welcomed, and further aspects of the work might be revealed to justify the “masterpiece” description. If this recording remains unchallenged in the catalogues, that would be a pity; but it is nonetheless a musically worthy representation of a score that certainly does not deserve the total lack of recognition it has achieved thus far in its existence. Nor does Randall Thompson, whose music deserves much more than the somewhat patronising recognition that is all most European critics seem willing to accord it.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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