The Rest is Noise – London Philharmonic/Ryan Wigglesworth – Vaughan Williams 4 & Tippett’s A Child of Our Time

Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.4 in F minor
A Child of Our Time

Claire Booth (soprano), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano), Ben Johnson (tenor) & Matthew Rose (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 May, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Ryan Wigglesworth. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaRalph Vaughan Williams predicted World War Two and Michael Tippett commented on it, inspired by a real event. In the case of the former’s Fourth Symphony (1935), first introduced by Adrian Boult, it is perfectly possible to hear it as war-like, an angry and prescient warning of the conflagration to come; also it is perfectly possible to hear it as a statement of absolute music. Either or any other way, VW4 is a masterpiece, save it seemed somewhat less than this here, a brass-dominant performance in which returns diminished the more it went on. The opening promised much though; the music seethed. Ryan Wigglesworth and the LPO were at one in unleashing the work as a torrent of notes and at whiplash speed, but the attention given throughout to trumpets and especially trombones created an imbalance and often masked other detail (horns lost out). When the music is in full torrent – which is often – the strings were dwarfed. Also, the linked scherzo and finale (a counterpart to Beethoven 5) were rhythmically straitjacketed; the former can galumph more than was revealed here, and the finale seemed relentless and hollow in a way that threatened the Symphony’s greatness, yet the sinister central section dragged and lacked tension.

What was missing in this account, which wasn’t always pristine, was the sort of emotional identification that made Boult and Handley such perceptive ‘insider guides’ to this music and which also distinguished such interpreters of the work (whether live or recorded) as Bernstein, Berglund, Rozhdestvensky, Slatkin and Solti, the latter also with the LPO. The composer’s own recording (from 1937) is indispensible. Best of all from the LPO here was the slow movement, initially competing with latecomers being admitted and a ringing mobile. Wigglesworth caught its strange implacability well, its frozen wastes expressed in Sibelian terms, and with a suitably chilling flute solo by Cormac Henry at the inquiring close.

From the very opening of A Child of Our Time, it was clear that Wigglesworth was more attuned to it. He conducted a moving and powerful performance of this Baroque-influenced and spiritual oratorio, its template rooted to J. S. Bach’s Passions and to Handel’s Messiah. The use of Spirituals makes an unforgettable (and totally integrated) effect in Michael Tippett’s wartime, war-related, but timeless and universal setting, which was completed in 1941 to the composer’s own text; on another day T. S. Eliot could have been the wordsmith. It was he that determined the composer knew what he wanted and should compile the lyrics himself.

Perfectly paced and pungently characterised from the off, the turn to the World’s dark side here sucked the listener in, and such subtleties as flutes and solo viola created an unsettling, suspense-filled atmosphere. The disciplined London Philharmonic Choir found exactly the right moods, and Matthew Rose was an imposing Narrator with an apposite degree of story-telling distance. Claire Booth (a late replacement for Rebecca Evans) brought real eloquence to her solos, not least leading into the first of the Spirituals (‘Steal away’) which typically represent a great release. Maybe Ben Johnson was too reticent in his contributions, although his incarcerated loneliness was poignant (he, “The Boy”, a Jew, has shot a German diplomat), and if Pamela Helen Stephen was a little uncertain of pitch at times she was a caring Mother. All the vocal soloists played their part in making this a compelling performance.

If the work itself is event-specific, its sentiments relate unerringly to us today – man’s inhumanity to man – a combination of Tippett’s great music and his acknowledgement of enduring musical procedures, the use of Spirituals being ‘music of the people for the people’ without ever being patronising and seamlessly introduced; indeed their inclusion at strategic points is the work’s ultimate defining; these are Spirituals that inspire and also speak of anger, and in ‘O, by and by’, if the clarinet was a little shy, Booth added some effective indigenous touches. In the final Part (like Messiah there are three), the LPO’s strings danced awhile in typically Tippettian gestures, and the wonderfully moving ‘Preludium’/General Ensemble’ and final Spiritual (‘Deep river’) were a powerful embodiment of music being able to say it all, if with here a final question mark of uncertainty as to what the future holds.

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