Violin Concerto No.2 [London premiere]
A Child of Our Time
Nicole Cabell (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Matthew Rose (bass)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 23 March, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Michael Tippett’s great and moving – deeply personal yet universal – A Child of Time (1941) found Andrew Davis at his most involved, shaping the score with a devotion and nuance that made it his own while bringing performers and listeners totally on board. Tippett’s inspiration was World War Two-inspired, but the subject is time-less: man’s inhumanity to man. For his musical template Tippett took as models the Passions of J. S. Bach and the oratorios of Handel to which – as a stroke of genius – he introduced five Spirituals to devastating effect.
This was a superb performance, beginning in the depths of despair – “The world turns on its dark side.” Tippett’s own words; he wrote the text after T. S. Eliot suggested that he should. Whether lamenting or raging, the BBC Symphony Chorus was in great form, the arrival of “Steal away”, an inevitable chill-down-the-spine moment, and certainly so here. All the Spirituals were integrated as belonging to Tippett’s sophisticated writing, Davis measuring them to the work as a whole, the BBCSO always rhythmically tight (you have to be with this composer). Of the solo singers, the ladies were perhaps a little too operatic (something purer is perhaps needed), John Mark Ainsley (replacing Toby Spence) found Brittenesque references in his intense response, and Matthew Rose brought authority to his recitatives.
Yet for all the tragedy that is unfurled in this work, Tippett’s own humanity and his gift for consolation are not from the surface. The sunnier writing of his earlier, and wonderful, Concerto for Double String Orchestra breaks through in Part 3, and catharsis comes with the final Spiritual (“Deep river; my home is over Jordan”), which here lifted one’s very being out of the seat, and to which Davis had simmered to with an expectant touch and then brought to boiling point.
But the work ends on a question mark – after all, such troubles are omnipresent. This is music for then, now, and the future – yet one came away moved and enlightened and also remembering the final long silence, Andrew Davis meditating for a while following a performance that caught the letter and the spirit of the score and also went beyond both.