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Thompson: The Peaceable Kingdom, Mass Of The Holy Spirit, Etc / James Burton, Et Al

Release Date: 10/14/2008 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67679   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Randall Thompson
Conductor:  James Burton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Schola Cantorum Oxford
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Whether there's a plan at work or whether it's just happened that way, it's a happy circumstance that Hyperion has been devoting resources to recording entire discs of music by American composers, sung by British choirs. Contemporary composers Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre have enjoyed the attention of Polyphony and Stephen Layton (type Q8554, Q10963, and Q9718 in Search Reviews), and now we step back in time with James Burton and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford to revisit works by Randall Thompson, many of which are rarely recorded these days. The big exception, of course, is the Alleluia, which has enjoyed continuous popularity with choirs and audiences since its premiere in 1940 under Serge Koussevitsky at the opening of the Berkshire Read more Music Center in Massachusetts.

The big problem with this work is that it's deceptive in its difficulty, and most choirs and directors don't have the control or stamina necessary to execute its demand for restrained energy and judicious pacing over a long arc. Performances by different groups vary widely in tempo--the meaning of "Lento" adjusted to the circumstances and ensemble in question--exemplified in the references listed above, that of the Trinity Choir being a relatively speedy 4:58 and the Kansas City Chorale coming in at an amazingly restrained 7:36! However, each is successful because within each conceptual context all of the components of the performance--articulation, dynamics, phrasing, and tempo changes--are sensitively executed and in balance. At 6:15, the Schola Cantorum's rendition seems just right for these singers--but a comparison with the Trinity Choir's version reveals the latter to have a more satisfying, seamless, easy fluidity that in its seeming effortlessness, from first note to last, releases the work's full power.

The rest of the Schola Cantorum's program is nothing less than a treasure-trove of worthy but recently neglected Thompson works, from the almost too-substantial Mass of the Holy Spirit to the masterpiece that everyone loves but never sings in its entirety, The Peaceable Kingdom. In these two large-scale pieces we see the root of Thompson's problem: as a former publisher employer of mine used to say of Mahler, "he needed a good editor." Thompson has a habit of outrunning his material, even though he has very sophisticated and compelling ideas that, especially in the case of several movements of The Peaceable Kingdom, stand firmly among 20th-century choral music's more influential and memorable creations. "The paper reeds by the brooks" is one example, and here it may be just slightly too slow, but there's no denying that the requisite tension and emotional energy are fully present.

And so are James Burton and his excellent choir, who take on these often unassuming and straightforward, sometimes very demanding, technically unforgiving works (Woe unto them; Howl ye; Gloria) with enthusiasm and commitment, the same as they would exhibit for Stanford or Britten, Tallis or Byrd. The result is a very satisfying 77 minutes of listening--and remembering the music of a composer who helped define a sound and sensibility for a couple of generations of choral musicians. Anyone who loves choral music will be right at home here.

--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

The Peaceable Kingdom by Randall Thompson
Conductor:  James Burton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Schola Cantorum Oxford
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; USA 
Alleluia by Randall Thompson
Conductor:  James Burton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Schola Cantorum Oxford
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1940; USA 
Mass of the Holy Spirit by Randall Thompson
Conductor:  James Burton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Schola Cantorum Oxford
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1955-1956; USA 
Last Invocation by Randall Thompson
Conductor:  James Burton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Schola Cantorum Oxford
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1922; USA 

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