LSO Live – A Child of Our Time/Sir Colin Davis

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A Child of Our Time

Indra Thomas (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (contralto), Steve Davislim (tenor) & Matthew Rose (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Recorded 16 & 18 December 2007 in Barbican Hall, London

Reviewed by: Peter Joelson

Reviewed: June 2008
[CD/SACD Hybrid]
Duration: 64 minutes



On 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew in desperation due to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and in particular his parents in Germany, went to the German Embassy and asked to see a German official. When shown to Ernst vom Rath’s office, he shot the German three times. Vom Rath died on 9 November, the anniversary of the Beer-hall putsch of 1923, and the Nazis found in his death an excuse for Kristallnacht, which many believe to be start of the Holocaust. Further details about these people and events can be found in Gerald Schwab’s book “The Day the Holocaust Began” (Praeger, New York, 1990).

Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998) echoed British horror at these events, and his anger at the World’s lack of urgency in dealing with the problem of Jewish refugees provoked an urge to compose what became his first major work. He asked T. S. Eliot to write the libretto, though after some discussion, Eliot suggested that Tippett himself should write it as he felt his text would draw attention away from the music. Tippett quoted “… the darkness declares the glory of light” from Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”.

Tippett’s work was started in 1939 and completed in 1941. Tippett, a conscientious objector, was imprisoned during part of 1943 despite intercessions from a number of musicians including Ralph Vaughan Williams, who wrote to Tippett:
I will not argue with you about your pacifist scruples which I respect though I think they are all wrong. But I do join issue with you in the idea that it is anyone’s business at a time like this to sit apart from the world to create music until he is sure that he has done all he can to preserve the world from destruction and helped to create a world where creative art will be a possibility.

On his release, Britten and Pears greeted Tippett at the prison gates and took him to breakfast. The first performance of “A Child of Our Time” was on 19 March 1944 at the Adelphi Theatre, London, conducted by Walter Goehr, with Joan Cross, Margaret McArthur, Peter Pears, Roderick Lloyd, the Morley College and Civil Defence Choirs and London Philharmonic Orchestra.

“A Child of Our Time”, the title taken from the novel “Ein Kind unserer Zeit” by Odon von Horvath, anti-Nazi writer, was conceived to be not solely an anti-Nazi polemic. Tippett based its construction on that of Handel’s “Messiah”, in three parts, with chorales based on Negro Spirituals and inspiration from baroque writing. Part One introduces the theme of oppression in general. Part Two tells the specific story of the boy’s violence and its terrible consequences, the soloists now adopting the roles of the boy, his mother, aunt and uncle, while Part Three attempts to draw a moral from the events.

Sir Colin Davis has conducted Tippett’s works for many years has shown deep affection for them. This performance of “A Child of Our Time” is a searing one, bringing out all the strength of the message. Indra Thomas, who becomes the Mother in Part Two, has at first hearing a vibrato which seems rather too wide for the purpose, but which adds to the frailty of the character and her position. Mihoko Fujimura and Matthew Rose bring a stoic, noble character to their roles playing the Aunt and Uncle. The young man is sung by Steve Davislim; his anger and horror at the consequences of what he has done has all the emotion necessary and he is careful not to turn drama into melodrama.

The London Symphony Chorus sings Tippett’s magnificent – and difficult – parts with tight ensemble and sensitivity; the quiet entries are utterly magical and much atmosphere is created. The choral-singers are suitably aggressive in ‘The Terror’, the start of the pogrom. Tippett’s arrangements of the Spirituals are exquisite and the soloists and chorus conspire to produce a most moving reading and guaranteed to make the hair stand up on the neck.

This hybrid SACD recording allows all of the detail in one of Tippett’s masterpieces to shine through; I listened to the SACD layer and the greater heft to the sound produces a more natural timbre to instruments and voices compared to CD.

It is Sir Colin who gathers most plaudits; this performance burns with energy and passion. Herschel Grynszpan’s father survived the Holocaust and was present at the Israeli premiere of this work; he would surely have been greatly moved by this coruscating rendition.

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