Philadelphia Singers perform Randall Thompson’s ‘Requiem’

A great requiem has its day

The music of American composer Randall Thompson is in the repertoire of nearly every choral group in this country, and yet what is probably his masterpiece, Requiem, is rarely performed. There is no mystery: Thompson’s more popular music, though not simplistic, tends to fit neatly in a general program and can be handled by reasonably skilled amateur ensembles.

Randall Thompson (April 21, 1899 – July 9, 1984) was best known for his choral works, but his "Requiem" is seldom performed.

The Requiem, on the other hand, is an hour-long plus bruiser for two a cappella choirs, often featuring extremely intricate and precisely composed figurations. It was written in 1957, a commission to celebrate the opening of a new music building at Berkeley, California. It was a no-strings-attached assignment (pun intended), and Thompson took the opportunity to create a true musical monument, as opposed to the brief fanfares that are usually concocted for such occasions.

Great art is not always practical. It took a full generation for the late solo piano music and string quartets of Beethoven to enter the standard repertoire. Many of his contemporaries thought he was going mad. Thompson did not, as far as I know, garner a similar reaction for this Requiem, but the sheer size and complexity of the work has dogged it from the beginning. Even the premiere was only a partial performance, as the musicians did not have enough time to learn the entire score. It was performed in full only a handful of times during Thompson’s lifetime (he died in 1984).

David Hayes and his Philadelphia Singers have made a proper performance of Requiem their mission for the past two seasons and will make the first commercial recording of the music this spring. Based on this most recent live performance, it is safe to say that they have exceeded their expectations.

From the swirling, anguished tones of the opening "Lamentations," the music is utterly hypnotic, especially so when rendered with the focused passion of this wonderful band of choristers. Thompson’s construction is utterly unique, dispensing entirely with the traditional Latin mass. It is, instead, the composer’s own stringing together of lines of scripture from any number of books of the Bible, grouped into five sections.

Hints and nods

It is, musically, a unique and wonderful piece. But it is also possible to hear specific influences, which may indeed be intentional homages to past masters of choral writing. The "Lamentations" features a wailing motif that is highly reminiscent of the mighty Sanctus from Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In the section titled "A Call to Song," there is a brief flash of an allusion to the chorale in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and in the closing "Amen" and "Alleluia" a sense of spiritual timelessness that Beethoven also strove for in his Missa Solemnis. Handel’s oratorios are also evoked, especially in the jubilant "Garment of Praise."

Thompson even includes more contemporary influences. In some of the large massings of voices, he seems to be nodding to the clear, acerbic beauty of Stravinsky’s vocal writing. One of Thompson’s frequent devices is the repetition of text — for example, overlapping strands of the phrase “Sing unto him” — in a way that is almost proto-minimalist. Or, perhaps as likely, a take on Gregorian chant.

As should be obvious by now, I found this performance to be magnificent. David Hayes is one of the finest conductors working in Philadelphia today, displaying masterful rhythmic control and superbly shaped dynamic phrasing. The singing of all concerned was of a piece, a tremendous achievement that obviously consumed countless hours of preparation. If you missed this, too bad, but the recording is on the way.

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