Prom 25: BBCSO/David Robertson – The Unanswered Question … A Child of Our Time

The Unanswered Question
Adagio for Strings, Op.11a
Nobody Knows De Trouble I See
A Child of Our Time

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)

Sally Matthews (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Paul Groves (tenor) & Jubilant Sykes (baritone)

BBC Proms Youth Choir

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Create a meditative and mystic string background, add a solo trumpet from somewhere undefined but tangible, and then enliven with four increasingly animated and abrasive flutes. It’s the recipe for Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question (1906/35) that he originally considered a Contemplation (its companion was Central Park in the Dark). At this Prom the answer to the trumpet’s persistent if lofty enquiry was temporarily if persuasively Samuel Barber’s equally reflective Adagio for Strings. David Robertson ensured a neat segue into this broad, very touching and deeply felt performance that was at once consoling and steered seamlessly and silkily to an impassioned climax.

Håkan Hardenberger. Photograph: hakanhardenberger.comCologne-born Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-70) composed his spiritual-related trumpet concerto in 1954. Nobody Knows De Trouble I See is a remarkable fusion of advanced techniques and jazz, with nothing interloping, a distinctive soundworld created from ‘traditional’ strings and woodwinds (one of each suit) with single horn; added to which are five saxophones, Hammond organ, jazz trumpets and trombone, piano, electric guitar and drum kit. A ‘strange meeting’ maybe but Zimmermann created a 15-minute, super-productive quick-change piece that journeys and returns, its diversity absorbed wholesomely. If Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis are cited as influences, then maybe Stan Kenton can also be mentioned. Compact in length but considerable in its expressive variety, ‘Nobody Knows…’ was here given a rendition that really clicked – Håkan Hardenberger a seasoned virtuoso of the solo part – and could well have proved a revelation.

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroSpirituals – and spiritualism – continued with Michael Tippett’s wartime, war-related, but timeless and universal oratorio, A Child of Our Time, which was completed in 1941 to the composer’s own text; on another day T. S. Eliot could have been the wordsmith. In March this year the BBC Symphony Orchestra (with its Chorus) had been led by Sir Andrew Davis, its Conductor Laureate, in a memorable performance of this great work.

Here was another one, Principal Guest Conductor Robertson offering a conspicuous and equally compelling viewpoint with four different vocal soloists and a debut-making conglomerate chorus. The latter was the idea-laudable and execution-admirable BBC Proms Youth Choir consisting of five UK ensembles; with Simon Halsey being the main director, no wonder these youthful singers were so impressive. Even so, the sheer number of personnel, around 300, although creating an imposing wall of sound, sometimes dwarfed the orchestra, which is not much larger than asked for by Beethoven in his ‘Choral’ Symphony.

Nevertheless this was a performance to grip heart and head. David Robertson brought emotional urgency to the arresting brass-led opening bars and was soon tapping into the humanity of Tippett’s writing, which would sustain the music (from wintery despair to anger to deliverance) and the listener. Of the soloists, Sally Matthews (replacing Measha Brueggergosman) gleamed and tugged at our sensibilities, Sarah Connolly was typically authoritative and Paul Groves brought the ardour of his Gerontius. I am less certain though about Jubilant Sykes, who had a tendency to ‘speak’ his words and with a timbre that has certain partials of it unduly highlighted; nevertheless he was a believable orator who embraced his congregation.

To his redefined Baroque template – specifically Handel’s Messiah – Tippett’s use of Negro spirituals at significant moments is a stroke of genius. Each of the first four is a milestone, but how effectively Robertson turned the screw during the build-up to and the release of the final, cathartic, interpolation (“Deep river, my home is over Jordan … I want to cross over into camp-ground, Lord!”). In many ways radiant … but questions remain, not least on the dying fall of “Lord!”. With disciplined playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra that went beyond the notes – and with some exquisite woodwind contributions – this was a performance very much for our time and beyond it: the definition of a masterpiece.

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