The combination of Michael Tippett and Ralph Vaughan Williams is a well-worn concert recipe, arising from their differing but related response to an inherited musical language as Vaughan Williams’s war-time gesture of goodwill when in 1943 he stood as a character witness for the conscientious objector, describing Tippett’s compositions as “a distinct national asset.”
Tippett’s pacifism expressed itself most movingly in A Child of Our Time (completed in 1941), building on formal models by Bach and Handel with its initial inspiration derived from the assassination of a Nazi official by the seventeen-year-old Herschel Grynszpan in 1938. The subsequent savagery (Kristallnacht) by the Nazis is well documented as is Tippett’s decision (prompted by T. S. Elliot) to furnish his own text with philosophical debate and cultural references drawn from Jung, Wilfred Owen and the Bible; posing questions in terse, pregnant sentences, than providing answers. Yet in its contemplation of man’s inhumanity to man Tippett succeeds in combining the particular with the universal.
In numerous ways this BSO performance conducted by David Hill mostly succeeded in conveying Tippett’s darkness-to-light vision. Chief amongst the movers and shakers was the 150-strong Bournemouth Symphony Chorus (prepared by Gavin Carr) that fearlessly strode through the uncompromising sinewy counterpoint. From the initial hushed austerity through to the comforting assurance of the “promised land” intonation and ensemble were uniformly impressive. Warmth and firmness of tone characterised the singing of the Spirituals (Tippett seeking an alternative to Bach’s Lutheran chorales) with “Nobody knows” given with such lightness; syncopations pointed with lissom jazziness.
Of the vocal soloists, Madeleine Shaw (replacing Christine Rice) compelled with Wagnerian poise, a rich chocolate torte of a mezzo, firm-centred and luxuriant, coupled with the ability to convey words with striking conviction. If Lauren Fagan was slightly less at ease, her transition into “Steal away” was finely achieved, gilded tone and soaring line suitably consolatory. There was the somewhat pinched tenor of Samuel Sakker whose emphatic delivery brought a stab of sympathy to the prison scene, and Simon Shibambu brought authority, and had he occasionally looked up from his score his narrative might have carried greater persuasion.
To Tippett’s many felicities the BSO was superbly responsive with Hill’s fluent and expressive reading avoiding any hint of sentimentality and gaining much from his energising direction. Earlier there had been a shimmering, sonorous and silky account of the Tallis Fantasia (1910), Vaughan Williams’s inspiration outlined by an a cappella introduction, Tallis’s seminal Third Mode Melody.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)