The Peaceable Kingdom
The Last Invocation
Mass of the Holy Spirit
Schola Cantorum of Oxford
Recorded 9-11 March 2008 in the Chapel of Exeter College, Oxford
Reviewed by: Graham Rogers
Reviewed: October 2008
CD No: HYPERION CDA67679
Duration: 77 minutes
Alleluia … or selections from his works setting liturgical texts.” Perhaps that is the case in the USA, but outside of it Thompson’s music is not very familiar. Not that you would guess this from these enthusiastic and committed performances by Schola Cantorum of Oxford conducted by James Burton.
Harvard-trained, Thompson spent his career in academia, with teaching posts at Berkeley, Princeton and (for two years) the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he taught Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein. The most recent piece here (1974) is Thompson’s appropriately elegiac setting of Walter De La Mare’s “Fare Well”, written when Thompson was in his seventies, but the bulk of his unaccompanied church music dates from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Despite distinctively American inflections, the influence of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century English choral tradition is very strong – which may explain why the Oxford choir sound so at home. Thompson blends hymn-like sections, flowing melodies, triadic harmonies, effective word-setting and Renaissance and Baroque hommage into a likeable, and often compelling, coherent whole.
The most substantial work on the album is “The Peaceable Kingdom” from 1936 – a linked sequence of eight ‘sacred choruses’ to texts from the book of Isaiah, inspired by Edward Hicks’s well-known painting of the same name (reproduced on the booklet cover). The youthful singers of Schola Cantorum handle the reflective opening with fluency, although they sound less assured in the plainchant-like declamations and stark tutti punctuations of ‘Woe unto them’. The taut intensity of ‘The noise of a multitude’ is gripping, however, and other dramatic passages are attacked with gusto (if not always absolute precision). The choir achieves an impressively vast sound in the concluding section, ‘Ye shall have a song’, growing from a hushed beginning with mesmeric fluidity.
The album also includes a graceful “Alleluia” and, from 1956, “Mass of the Holy Spirit” – the most harmonically adventurous work of the selection. This is performed with conviction, and features confident step-out soloists.Though Thompson’s music is not, perhaps, music of revelatory proportions, this recording nevertheless offers an important opportunity to appreciate it in keen, near-immaculately tuned performances that are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.