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CD Review

Randall Thompson

The Nativity According to St. Luke

  • The Nativity According to St. Luke
  • Pueri Hebraeorum
  • The Morning Stars
  • A Feast of Praise
Soloists, Motet Choir of the First Presbyterian Church, Warren, Ohio
Cleveland Sinfonia Sacra/Frances Gress Burmeister
Koch 3-7210-2 2CDs 48:37 + 50:01
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Too damned nice.

It seems that Schirmer's publishing house looked eagerly for a follow-up to its fabulous mega-hit of a television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, by Gian Carlo Menotti, and thought to give Randall Thompson a try. It's fairly indicative of the confusion in the Lovely Tonal Music Camp of the 1950s, sown by the high dragons of the musical mandarins. The desperation – or what appeared to me as desperation – on the part of concert organizations and publishers in the face of what seemed (and to a large extent was) the monopolization of artistic validity by the "hard" composers like Carter, Stockhausen, and Boulez drove conservatives into the trap of vapidity. They hailed one after another new young hope as the savior of Real Music, only to find that each had the staying power of Menudo. Lovely Tonal Music became, unfortunately, a cause rather than the way good composers needed to write. Such works gave off a strong whiff of the second-hand and the pastiche. Rather than fighting for someone genuinely interesting – composers like Diamond, Piston, Mennin, Bernstein, Barber, Bergsma, Thomson, Lees, Imbrie, Fine, Bernstein, Foss, Schuman, and so on – they wanted music to provide no challenge whatsoever, total comfort – a fairly bloodless idea of beauty, all too predictable in a culture dominated by consumerism.

Thompson, in many ways an ideal choice, had long ago become disaffected by new music and had resolved by the time of the commission to avoid professional performance as much as possible. From the Twenties through the Forties, most regarded him as one of America's leading lights, with symphonies (the second especially popular), major choral pieces (Americana, The Peaceable Kingdom, Frostiana, The Testament of Freedom, Alleluia), and chamber music (String Quartet #1) to his credit. Along with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Howard Hanson, and (later) William Schuman, he crafted the standard university-level composition curriculum in the United States. Obviously, he knew his onions. His work for amateurs at its best rises to a very high level. It neatly balances technical challenge and consideration. A community or church choir sounds much better than it probably is when it performs a Thompson piece, all due to Thompson's consummate craftsmanship. Most North American choristers probably know several works by Thompson and very likely have sung them more than once. However, his thoroughly deserved success in this niche has obscured his achievement elsewhere. I doubt many such choristers know that he even wrote one symphony, let alone three. Furthermore, his musical conservatism has left him out of most serious discussions of American music, as it has others.

Thompson traded in several manners and idioms. I like best the language based on Appalachian hymns and folk tunes – works like the Suite for Oboe, Symphony #2, String Quartet #1, Frostiana, and especially The Peaceable Kingdom. The Nativity According to St. Luke, a late-ish work, has some of this, but most goes along in a too-comfortable vein, which I associate with 19th-century French sacred music, especially works by Gounod and Saint-Saëns. Like Thompson, each of these composers knew the craft of writing. Real inspiration, however, burns fitfully in these works, despite wonderful moments. The Prélude to the work features a pizzicato "walking bass" based on the bell-ringing change "treble bob minor," which will return in its major form in the final number. The scene of the angel announcing to the shepherds the news of Christ's birth culminates in a delightful fugal gigue. The adoration of the infant Jesus in the manger and Mary's lullaby, based on a text by Tudor poet Richard Rowlands, crown the work – lovely indeed. Yet between the various isolated highpoints come long stretches of musical filler, Bachian noodlings and twirls without anything near Bach's substance. Here, the air hangs heavy with good taste – so Episcopalian, somehow (no offense meant to any Episcopalians out there). Art that matters usually risks something, often disaster. Thompson not only doesn't leap off the edge, he views it from a comfy seat at a café table at least twenty yards away. This art would pass the scrutiny of both New York Mayor Giuliani and Senator Helms. The only people I can imagine this work would offend would probably be those to whom art actually mattered.

The performance would probably have gladdened Thompson's heart- trained singers and amateur chorus "getting up" the work and working with professional-caliber small ensemble (13 players plus organist). The ensemble is peppered with ringers, in some cases, first desks of the Cleveland Orchestra. It's a superior amateur performance, lacking only the strong, ringing tone of professional choirs. Of the mostly-capable soloists, Kenneth Kramer as Zacharias stands out, with a dramatic bass-baritone. Tenor David Root as Gabriel and soprano Amanda-Joyce Abbot, a Mozartian Susannah, as Mary, although trained singers, have a naïve quality to their voices which serves them well in this music.

The remaining works – Pueri Hebraeorum, The Morning Stars, and A Feast of Praise – showcase the choir. Pueri recreates the Gabrieli antiphonal motet, and completely successfully, with strong rhythms and deceptively simple harmonies laid down without a misstep. The Morning Stars portrays Job and the voice out of the whirlwind, in an idiom similar to Thompson's familiar Alleluia. A Feast of Praise opens with a big-hearted tune, moves to a contemplative middle section, and ends with a jumping finale, reminiscent of Pinkham's Christmas Cantata. The choir's a good, trained amateur group. Intonation is often shaky, with sections not in tune with themselves or each other. This results in a "spread" in Thompson's diatonic chords and robs them of much of their impact. Diction comes and goes, mostly absent in The Morning Stars. However, the choir's performances over all are acceptable. Burmeister, however, has one grating flaw. She can't generate the compelling line essential to Thompson's music. The pieces constantly fall to stops and restarts, rather than move convincingly from beginning to end, and I blame the conductor.

In all, I recommend this disc mainly for the repertory.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz