Summary for the Busy Executive: One bona fide masterpiece in a good performance.
The American composer Randall Thompson made a point of suiting his music to the circumstances of a commission and, if lucky, to transcend them. Although one finds pieces in his catalogue written for purely private reasons (eg, "Bitter-Sweet," the first three Odes of Horace, and Mass of the Holy Spirit), these count more as exceptions. A broad streak of savvy practicality ran through Thompson, and his craftsmanship (he studied with Bloch and Malipiero) was so great that I suspect he relished the limitations he imposed upon himself, just for the pleasure of overcoming them.
Thompson's music has faded from the scene of serious discussions of American classical music. On the other hand, community choral groups continue to perform him, and often. The dichotomy stems from Thompson's musical conservatism. He never broke new ground. On the other hand, the quality and inspiration of his work rises higher than many a wilder and more fashionable composer. Critics find it easier to talk about new techniques than straight applications of older ones. Thompson eludes most professional talkers about music. Because he leaves them with little to say, they leap to the erroneous conclusion that he himself has little to say. I must admit that I don't particularly care for The Testament of Freedom or understand why it has received at least three commercial recordings (Hanson on Mercury, Abravanel on EMI, and now Clark on Koch). It comes from a guy who knows his stuff, but, excepting the first "big tune" of the opening movement, "The God who gave us life" - expansive and rousing - I don't see much memorable in it. Thompson himself regarded it as an occasional work, although that's deceptive, since almost all his work was written to very specific commission. Thompson wrote the work during World War II, to texts by Thomas Jefferson. Thompson had a marvelous eye and ear for texts, obviously read a great deal, and found these Jeffersonian treasures well off the beaten path. Obviously, somebody likes it more than I. For me, too much just goes by, like the scenery in downstate Illinois, away from the big river. There are people who grew up with it, love it, and see its distinction. So much is homophonic declamation, all voices marching in rhythmic lock-step, like the "execution" movement in Thompson's Americana. It works for a movement, but not for four. I suppose I'm just a tourist looking for the cheap thrill of Niagara. Thompson, I suspect, knew what he had, since he refers to the "big tune" in every movement of The Testament when he wants to jack up the emotional level.
On the other hand, Frostiana, written for the Amherst, Massachusetts, bicentennial, warms like a fireside. Frost and Thompson knew and admired one another's work. Again, Thompson chose well - not only favorites like "The Road Not Taken." "Stopping by Woods," and "The Pasture," but the relatively obscure like "The Telephone" and "A Girl's Garden." "The Road Not Taken" and "The Pasture" sport two marvelous tunes, both modally inflected in a way that may remind some listeners of Vaughan Williams. "Come In" has some gorgeous chord changes and a tasty solo flute imitating a thrush. "A Girl's Garden" and "Stopping by Woods" both sing folk-like melodies ("Stopping" has the family look of "Greensleeves"). Overall, the work is a miracle of inspired economy. Thompson makes his points directly and simply, which not only allows a group of amateurs to succeed but courts the most obvious and humiliating artistic failure. If the materials fail to come up to the first-rate, you'd know it immediately. Instead, we get seven gems, the most intricate of which is the last, Frost's complex "Choose Something Like a Star," which Thompson sets just about perfectly, apparently without breaking a sweat. This kind of simplicity is, to my mind, the hardest art to achieve, since you can't cover up your lack of inspiration by getting fancy. Vasari's Lives of the Painters reports that Giotto competed for a prestigious commission by drawing a perfect circle free-hand, as evidence of his skill. He got the job. Thompson does pretty much the musical equivalent here. Frost, present at the première, liked it. When the last bars of the music had died away, he shouted, "Sing that again!"
Clark and his forces do a good job. They recognize that the key to success in both works is to make the texts intelligible. Rhythm and diction, for the most part, are clear to the point that you probably won't need the texts in front of you. Clark does better with the orchestra than with the chorus, however. He manages to bring out in The Testament the thematic links between movements with greater clarity than in the other four versions I've heard. The New York Choral Society is a well-trained group, but the sound is a little raw, particularly from the men, and intonation occasionally gets slightly unstuck. More important, the group doesn't trade much in subtlety of phrasing. Whoever trained them missed several opportunities. Nevertheless, this is the only commercially available recording of Frostiana, and Clark certainly keeps things moving, a real plus in The Testament of Freedom. In Frostiana, we have one of the jewels of American choral music. David Francis Urrows's informative liner notes are pure lagniappe. I didn't know, for example, that Thompson was born Ira Randall Thompson. Kudos to Koch for allowing us to explore this repertoire.
Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz