THOMPSON: Frostiana. Testament of Freedom

THOMPSON: Frostiana. Testament of Freedom. Richard Auldon Clark conducting the New York Choral Society and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra.
KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7283-2H1 [DDD]; 49:07. Produced by Michael Fine.

The graphics of this new release give Randall Thompson’s somewhat better-knownTestament of Freedom center stage treatment, but it is Frostiana that offers the chief musical interest and satisfaction. Written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city of Amherst, Massachusetts in 1959, Frostiana comprises settings of seven of Robert Frost’s best-known poems. Within a consonant, diatonic musical language whose simple directness is universally accessible, the half-hour cycle successfully paints a poignant and remarkably apt musical analogue to Frost’s vision of rural New England and of the values and sensibilities associated with this milieu. The work concludes with a setting of “Choose Something Like a Star” which, despite its utter simplicity, is deeply and unforgettably moving. (Immediately following the premiere, Frost reportedly rose from his seat and bellowed, “Sing that again!”)

Thompson’s choral music seems to be the most enduring portion of his output; much of it is performed far more widely throughout the country than its representation on recordings might suggest. I believe that this new release marks Frostiana’s first appearance on a commercial recording, although it has been a favorite of choruses ever since it was written. I have felt for a long time that a recording would provide a welcome introduction of the work to a different segment of the listening audience. But, unfortunately, this performance is not
fully satisfactory. During the past few years, the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra’s many recordings, under the leadership of founder and conductor Richard Auldon Clark, have contributed significantly to the discovery and revival of American music of the middle third of this century. But, in general, Clark’s performances tend to emphasize accuracy, intonation, and warm, homogeneously blended textures at the expense of rhythmic and dynamic thrust, and this is also true here: the music is not quite as bland and passive as it sounds on this recording.

Furthermore, the chorus’s phrasing lacks nuance, resulting at times in a mechanical squareness of rhythm. I cannot help but recommend this release as a means of discovering a most rewarding piece, but there is room for interpretive improvement.

Testament of Freedom presents selections from the writings of Thomas Jefferson in primarily homophonic, syllabic settings. While using essentially the same simple, straightforward musical language as Frostiana, it is a much less interesting work. Rather like lower-drawer Elgar, it proceeds with a stately and occasionally stirring sense of patriotic self-satisfaction. Composed in 1943, Testament was apparently intended as a positive, encouraging wartime statement. But, as is usually the case with such efforts, the result is musically unimaginative and emotionally simplistic.

Both these works were originally conceived with piano accompaniment, and, for obvious reasons, this is the way they generally performed. However, the orchestral versions heard here are far preferable for listening purposes.