Phila. Singers perform Randall Thompson's 'Requiem'

The Philadelphia Singers performed Randall Thompson's "Requiem," an hour-long, a cappella piece that had its premiere in 1957, on Saturday night at Holy Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square.
The Philadelphia Singers performed Randall Thompson's "Requiem," an hour-long, a cappella piece that had its premiere in 1957, on Saturday night at Holy Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square.
Posted: March 05, 2012

The Great American Anomaly unfolded from the voices of the Philadelphia Singers on Saturday in the form of Randall Thompson's Requiem - a hugely ambitious choral work from one of the better composers of the Aaron Copland generation and one that leaped well beyond what a requiem was considered to be in the mid-20th century.

What little performance history the five-movement, hour-long, a cappella piece had after its 1957 premiere was riddled with technical challenges - and, no doubt, questions of what exactly it is. Now, requiems can take many forms other than the traditional Latin Mass for the dead. One can stand back from Thompson's highly personal version and recognize how it achieves heroic stature and startling eloquence without resorting to the fire and brimstone of Verdi and Berlioz. Thompson also has the sort of expressive ambiguity that reveals different levels of meaning in any given listening. This composer's stock may well rise posthumously with wider dissemination of the piece, particularly when it is sung with the authority heard at Holy Trinity Church.

As in Brahms' German Requiem, Thompson fashioned his own text drawn from the Bible, often plucking a line here and a line there, and did so during a sabbatical from his Harvard University teaching position that gave him a blessedly concentrated period of compositional activity. Unlike Brahms, Thompson eschewed long, unfurling blankets of choral sound. Each line of text is treated like a piece unto itself, with transitions that are more spliced than gracefully shaped. After years of writing homogeneous, utilitarian choral works, Thompson was after maximum variety, opening with a near-quotation from Bach's Mass in B minor (the airy soprano melisma from the Sanctus) but treating other lines in a stark, rhetorical, even exclamatory manner.

Often, the emotional colors are bright and primary. A passage with the words Good tidings to the meek sounds like a lilting Christmas carol, though with gently unexpected turns. But with the words Sing unto him, the manner becomes so extreme in its exuberance as to suggest the frenetic (and ultimately ironic) mirth one hears in Shostakovich. "Blessed be the Lord, who does wondrous things" is characterized by a fairly wondrous fugue. But for all of the piece's cheek-by-jowl eventfulness (a quality perhaps bewildering then but now feeling quite modern), the choral writing flatters the singers with its idiomatic understanding of the ultimate effect that is possible. In the best moments, Thompson creates an attractive choral texture, only to have something even more alluring grow unexpectedly out of it. Beauty gives birth to a greater beauty.

Philadelphia Singers music director David Hayes seized the Requiem in the best possible way, perhaps with fast tempos at first, but always with inner passion that revealed a phrase's expressive potential. Has this group ever sounded better? Not in my experience. Each section had a clarity, definition, and extra surface polish. The collective sound has more personality. One might even say the group sang as if it owned the piece. Such ownership was thoroughly earned.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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