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Michael Tippett [Source: Naxos]
22 Dec 2015

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Michael Tippett [Source: Naxos]


The circumstances which led to the composition of this oratorio, which received its first performance in 1944 are well-known: in 1938, 17-year-old Polish Jew Herschel Grynspan, who was being illegally sheltered in Paris by his uncle and aunt, was provoked by the frustration of his attempts to gain official papers and by the persecution of his mother, and shot Ernst von Rath, a German diplomat. The act prompted what has been described as one of the ‘most severe and terrible of the official pogroms in Germany’. Grynspan was imprisoned by the French authorities; after the fall of France he was handed over to the Nazis, and disappeared.

The oratorio may have had its origins in specific events, but Tippett was concerned with their universal significance - the evidence they provide of man’s inhumanity to man - and seventy years later, Tippett’s ‘impassioned protest against the conditions that make persecution possible’ seems just as relevant and necessary.

Gardner made the divisions between the work’s three sections clear: the Parts presents the experience of those individuals whose lives take them beyond the conventions of their rulers, then follows the personal drama of the ‘Child of Our Time’, and the work concludes with an exploration of the significance and potential healing effect of these events for all mankind. In this way Gardner created a structure in which the framing reflections had a dynamic relationship with the drama they embraced. The orchestral sound was prevailingly sombre, though through the darkness there were glimmers of light.

The oratorio’s musical and emotional contrasts, twists and turns were emphasised. Even in the opening bars, an almost Elgarian warmth was immediately quelled by a wonderful diminuendo: ‘It is winter’, we are told, and the world ‘turns on its dark side’, as the music shifts alarming between diatonicism and chromaticism.

Soloists, chorus and orchestra - the latter both as massed ensemble and as solo instrumentalists - were equally involved, and intertwined, in the unfolding arguments. Alice Coote’s opening statements in Part 1 were immediately engaging, though the part lay quite low for her, and she enunciated Tippett’s text dramatically; while in the ensuing instrumental interlude, the flute and solo viola offered pertinent reflections on, and energised debates with, Tippett’s words: ‘Truly, the living God consumes within and turns the flesh to cancer!’ In Part 2 the cellos’ imitative counterpoint emphasised the almost hysterical desperation of the mother who cries, ‘What have I done to you, my son? What will become of us now?’ Horns, brass and timpani added chilling power to the choral opening of Part Three: ‘The cold deepens. The world descends into the icy waters.’

Much of the impact of the work derived from the precision and vigour of the singing of the BBC Symphony Chorus. The choruses possessed a rousing contrapuntal vitality: the imitative drama of the ‘Chorus of the Oppressed’ recalled the rigorous polyphony of the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli and the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, and the BBC Symphony Chorus encompassed a huge dynamic range, from whispered pianissimos to thrilling fortissimos. In ‘The Terror’ in Part 2, ‘Burn down their houses’ was sung with a rhythmic dynamism evoking the choruses from Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Of course, it is the Negro spirituals which Tippett included at pivotal points in each Part which most powerfully swell with emotion. The first, ‘Steal away’, was ardent and free; the lithe accents of the second, ‘Nobody knows’ were enhanced by quiet, buoyant playing by the cellos. The progression in Part 3 from Coote’s arioso, ‘The soul of man is impassioned like a woman’, through to the ecstatic greeting, ‘It is spring’, which precedes the final spiritual, ‘Deep river, my home is over Jordan’, was superbly controlled and emotionally compelling. ‘Deep river’ itself had both urgency and splendour. Tippett explained that he chose the spiritual form to serve as a substitute for ‘the special Protestant constituent of the congregational hymn’. But, Gardner couldn’t quite overcome the fact that the spirituals are not truly integrated into the oratorio. Stylistically, and in terms of the gap between the collective expression that they embody and more individual expression elsewhere in the oratorio, the division is perhaps too wide for the overall form to ever fully cohere. But, these soulful outpourings still made an absorbing and animating impact.

Soprano Sarah Tynan used her penetrating and crystalline voice as a persuasive dramatic and expressive instrument: the range of colours she found for the repetition of the word ‘How’ in her first contribution to Part 1, ‘How can I cherish my man in such days, or become a mother in a world of destruction’, seemed to embody the very irresolvability of the question. Tynan spun a wonderful pianissimo which then soared and bloomed entrancingly about the choral injunctions to ‘Steal away to Jesus’; in her Act 2 duet Scena with tenor Robert Murray, ‘On my son! In the dread terror they have brought me near to death’ the soprano’s rich timbre was replete with emotion. Murray sang with dignity and elegance.

The rhythmic poise of his calypso-like ‘I have no money for my bread’ was striking, set against the strong rhythmic definition of the orchestra. In ‘Go down, Moses’, as the voice of ‘Boy’, the lyricism of Murray’s phrase, ‘My dreams are all shattered in a ghastly reality’, served to push home the horror.

Brindley Sherratt narrated Parts 1 and 2 with the clarity of the Narrator from a Bach Pasion. If sometimes his bass was a little taxed by the most high-lying phrases, there was an ominous weight in the deepest and darkest of his utterances, such as ‘Men were ashamed of what was done. There was bitterness and horror’,which precedes Act 2’s Spiritual of Anger. In Part 3, Sherratt’s tone became ever more focused, his bass a true oracle: ‘The words of wisdom are these: Winter cold means inner warmth, the secret of the nursery of the seed.’ Gardner and his massed forces powerfully fused the dramatic with the contemplative; the results were both troubling and consoling.

The concert began with Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder, a ‘potpourri’ for orchestra drawn from the composer’s opera Higglety Pigglety Pop!, the second of his ‘fantasy operas’ in collaboration with Maurice Sendak. The suite comprises three episodes - ‘The Journey to the Big White House’, ‘Kleine Trauermusik and ‘The Ride to Castle Yonder’ - presented in a seamless sequence. Knussen describes it as ‘a theatrical requiem for [Sendak’s] dog, Jennie, in the frame of a ‘quest’ opera. Castle Yonder is Sendak’s imaginary theatrical heaven for animals’. The airy breadth of the opening of ‘The Journey’ established an ominous mood; within the spacious sound-world distinct textures and timbres emerged, meticulously defined by Gardner, like a rotating kaleidoscope. As more energised momentum accumulated, the trotting hooves of a milk-cart horse were heard, countering the eeriness with realism. The subsequent ‘meditation’ - Jennie’s dreams of lions’ - presented a simple, poignant contrast to such shifting complexities. The shift to the concluding ‘Ride’ was explosive and the percussive close shimmered thrillingly

The Chinese-Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel was the soloist in a refined performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, though one occasionally lacking in strong characterisation. Schwizgebel was almost wrong-footed at the start by an intrusive sneeze which disrupted the pianist’s preparations for the placement of the crucial first chord of the Allegro moderato. When he did get underway, the elegant restraint of the opening chordal phrase was further disturbed by a splutter from the other side of the Hall. But, if Schwizgebel’s focus was unduly unsettled he did not let it mar the poetry of his exquisite phrasing. The first orchestral entry had an assertive ebullience which seemed out of keeping with the pianist’s self-possession; Gardner seemed to be urging the orchestra onwards, eager to find drama in the instrumental interplay, in contrast to the still, reflectiveness established by Schwizgebel; perhaps the pianist felt rushed, for his tone was rather brittle in the development section of the movement. The Andante felt overly brisk, and there was a never-quite-resolved tension between the asperity of the strings’ unison pronouncements and the piano’s more introverted expressiveness. The Rondo: Vivace was light of spirit but I’d have liked more brilliance and colour.

Claire Seymour


Sarah Tynan - soprano, Alice Coote - mezzo-soprano, Robert Murray - tenor, Brindley Sherratt - bass, Louis Schwizgebel - piano, Edward Gardner - conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus.

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