Journey to the Sea
Serenade to Music
A Child of Our Time
Amar Muchhala (tenor)
Members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Students from the Royal Academy of Music
Edward Gardner [Turnage & Fahim]
Soloists of the Royal College of Music
Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Kenneth Tarver (tenor) & Roderick Williams (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Adventist Chorale
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 26 November, 2022
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The theme of migration marketed as ‘A Place to Call Home’ has been a handle for the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s current concert series. Two gigs in one here, the first offered free of charge under the aegis of Foyle Future Firsts (the LPO’s annual development programme) and the Royal Academy’s Side by Side scheme. The main event took in Vaughan Williams at his sweetest – and with the original sixteen voices – before the day’s defining utterance, Tippett’s A Child of our Time. The overarching effect was unavoidably solemn, although the content and casting could also be seen as a celebration of the multicultural reach and unlimited potential of Western art music.
We began at 6 p.m. with students from the Royal Academy of Music and LPO members in the music of a serial refugee, the young Boston-based Afghan composer-pianist Arson Fahim. This came as something of a surprise. At one remove from the harrowing, human experiences of migration Journey to the Sea moves from the pensively nostalgic (clarinet-led woodwinds intoning over pizzicato cellos) to the vaguely celebratory, reflecting the composer’s excitement on seeing the ocean for the first time, Afghanistan being a landlocked country, and back. Whether such guileless, gentle stuff has the capacity to develop into something more memorable remains to be seen; Fahim has yet to master the art of transition.
Next, the ensemble was joined by Bombay-born Amar Muchhala in a performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s thought-provoking song-cycle, Refugee. The music, first heard at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest, 2019 with Allan Clayton as soloist, sets four poems from three centuries. There is also an instrumental interlude of doubtful relevance. That said, Turnage remains one of the few contemporary composers with an idiom instantly recognisable as his own. The subject matter of displacement and rejection was nicely complemented by his patented mix of English pastoralism and urban blues, here handled with sensitivity so that the vocal line was rarely swamped. There followed a photo opportunity for student participants and time to adjourn to the bar.
For those skipping this pre-concert happening, the main event must have seemed curiously lopsided with Vaughan Williams occupying the first half on its own. The Serenade to Music, a piece closely associated with Henry Wood and the Royal Albert Hall loses some of its special intimacy in the alternative versions designed to avoid the need to engage sixteen soloists, but this one had marshalled the necessary forces. There were contributions from such old VW hands as Kitty Whately, with Nadine Benjamin, Sarah Connolly, Kenneth Tarver and Roderick Williams channelling Isobel Baillie, Mary Jarred, Heddle Nash and Roy Henderson respectively. Tempos were mainstream, leader Pieter Schoeman adopting a romantic, perhaps slightly cloying manner in his solos. A pièce d’occasion in which the argument unfolded with apparently practised ease.
A Child of Our Time is a tougher proposition altogether and not just in terms of its length, here 65 minutes including gaps. As Gardner wrote in the Guardian last year: “You have to love Michael Tippett’s music if you are going to conduct it. His music is exasperating to bring to performance – it is impractically written, often on the edge of possibility, and frustrating for musicians to realise.” There have been no more than eight commercial recordings of the oratorio to date, a relatively sparse tally for what was a breakthrough work at least in terms of public recognition. From the array of microphones it looked likely that Gardner would be adding his tried-and-tested interpretation to the lists following the LPO’s own-label transfer of The Midsummer Marriage, last season’s triumphant opener. Having conducted several London performances in recent years, Gardner knows the pitfalls only too well. To keep things moving forward at all costs risks sounding superficial while a more deliberate pacing is no guarantee of profundity. Here was a rendition that managed to square the circle, seizing the opportunities for drama while giving the final, deeply moving spiritual setting, ‘Deep River’, enough space to resonate. The clarity and fervour of the choral contribution was quite remarkable, even making something of a maladroit Tippettian tongue-twister like “When shall the usurers’ city cease?”. Set against a burnished contribution from orchestra and chorus the solo team worked only slightly less well. Nadine Benjamin was outstanding, her soaring high-Gs melting into the materialization of ‘Steal away’ in choir and orchestra. Kenneth Tarver’s elegant lyric tenor remains a beautifully focused instrument, plausibly boyish in context, if rather dry and muted when set beside memories of Philip Langridge’s commitment in what can (perhaps should) be the central role. Roderick Williams enunciated with all his old clarity and authority if with less firmness and beauty throughout the range.
Tippett’s text will always be a hurdle for some, but his message could scarcely feel more-timely.
The concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 2nd December.