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Michael Tippett: A Child of our Time
15 Mar 2009

Tippett: A Child of Our Time

Although an ineffable aura of the 1960s emanates from Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, its composition came at the start of WWII in Europe.

Michael Tippett: A Child of our Time

Indra Thomas, Soprano; Mihoko Fujimura, Alto; Steve Davislim, Tenor; Matthew Rose, Bass. London Symphony Chorus. London Symphony Orchestra. Sir Colin Davis, conductor.

LSO Live LS00670 [SACD]

$19.99  Click to buy

The immediate inspiration was Kristallnacht, the violent Nazi outburst motivated by the assassination of a German official by a desperate Polish Jew. Tippett struggled with a text to encompass this terrible subject, and after T. S. Eliott declined the opportunity to create one, the composer followed the poet’s advice and devised his own, a blend of his own words and those of several spirituals, such as “Deep River.”

Although the composition’s title derives from a novel by a German author (Ein Kind unserer Zeit), Tippett avoids conventional narrative, referring only briefly to the relevant historical event: “He shoots the official - but he shoots only his dark brother.” Most of the text adopts a Kahlil Gibran-type profundity.

Healing springs from the womb of time
The simple-hearted shall exult in the end

In other words, time heals all wounds, and the meek shall inherit the earth. The clarity and direct expression of the words to the spirituals comes as a welcome contrast, even as sung out by the over-enunciated, rich voices of the four soloists and chorus.

What carries the work past any perceived limitations of its text is the power of its music. Tippett sets the spirituals with exquisite taste, and he never chooses the easy route of producing ugly sounds to suggest the pain and horror of the subject. The great model seems to have been Bach’s Matthew Passion, with its urgency and somber beauty.

This live recording from December 2007 at the Barbican in London captures Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra and chorus in crisp sound; the disc is a Hybrid-SACD. Davis conducts with precision, which is most welcome in the faster, fugal passages. However, he can’t find a way to bring the hour-long work to a more forceful conclusion; it’s one of those works that simply seems to stop. Soprano Indra Thomas tends to shrillness at the top; the body of her voice is attractive. Mohoko Fujimara’s alto sound works better for the spirituals. Tenor Steve Daislim and bass Matthew Rose blend well as they join the women in the final number, “Deep River.” Elsewhere they have no choice but to sound a bit fussy when vocalizing Tippett’s text.

Criticizing Tippett’s oratorio almost places one in the painfully uncomfortable position of defending the Nazis or denigrating the artistic value of spirituals when placed alongside art music. Perhaps thankfully, much of the time Tippett’s own awkward text is incomprehensible as sung, particularly by the chorus. LSO Live does provide the text in English, with brief but informative notes by Meiron Bowen and Paul Griffith. Opportunities to hear A Child of Our Time, especially in the U.S., probably will remain rare, which is reason enough to be glad for a recording of this quality.

Chris Mullins

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