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Randall Thompson: Requiem


We should have played this sooner: it’s superb and would be a great recording for early Christmas morning (or late Christmas Eve).

The sleeve notes say that more than 30 years after Thompson’s death, several of his choral works are performed “with regularity”, and Alleluia (1941) at one point had more copies in print than any choral work in history.

The sleeve notes describe Requiem (1958) as his masterpiece and we cannot disagree. It was written during a year’s sabbatical from Harvard, in response to a commission from one of Thompson’s former institutions, the University of California, Berkeley, with almost no stipulations on the nature of the piece to be composed.

So Thompson had the time, the commission and the chance to compose as he wished. He used text presenting own personal statement on life and death.

All this freedom meant he was ambitious: this is a work for two choirs, conducting a dramatic dialogue on the reality of eternal life, a capella, and splitting up into more than two bodies at various times, with up to 16 parts. It’s no wonder it is rarely performed — choirs talented enough to pull this off are probably rare, never mind the logistics.

To write the libretto, Thompson used only scripture, but verses (in English) are often not used in their entirety, sometimes taken out of context, and assembled to deliver his personal message.

The piece is arranged in five dramatic scenes, all but one with multiple movements within them. One choir portrays mourners, lamenting the loss of a loved one, and the other choir represents the souls of those dead, returning to comfort the mourners and convince them of the reality of eternal life.

The five parts are Lamentations, The Triumph of Faith, The Call to Song, The Garment of Praise and The Leave-taking, “The Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light flows and thy God thy glory”.

Excellent for Christmas, whether enjoyed purely for the music or when taking heed of the religious content.

Out on Naxos, 8.559789

Enjoy all year, and have for next Christmas:

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