Proms 2011 – Michael Tippett & John Tavener, Gubaidulina’s The Canticle of the Sun – BBC Singers & Natalie Clein

The Windhover; Plebs angelica
Popule meus [UK premiere]
Little Music for Strings
The Canticle of the Sun

BBC Singers
Natalie Clein (cello)
Britten Sinfonia
David Hill

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 3 September, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

David HillIt did cross my mind to head this review “Hurrah for Tippett” – the reasons will become apparent, but it is strange how the music of this great composer has almost completely disappeared from concert programmes since his death in 1998. Even these relatively minor pieces coming from the beginning of his compositional career remind us how much we should still appreciate this mercurial figure. The two short choral works opening this Prom are, like so much of Tippett’s music, by no means easy to sing, but held no terrors for the BBC Singers. Under David Hill’s clear direction they negotiated the springing rhythms of The Windhover with ease and gave one of Tippett’s few settings of a sacred text, Plebs Angelica (Angelic Host), an appropriate breadth and grandeur. Little Music comes mid-way between Tippett’s two masterpieces for strings, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra and the Corelli Fantasia; a smaller and less-significant brother perhaps, but still full of that unmistakable Tippettian radiance. David Hill and Britten Sinfonia made the music sing and dance – the Purcellian slow movement was beautifully controlled, whilst the finale brought a smile as the music mischievously scampered off into the distance.

Natalie CleinSir John Tavener was in the audience to hear Natalie Clein give the UK premiere of Populae Meus – what the composer describes as a “meditation on the Judaic and Christian text O my People, what have I done to you?”. By all accounts the violent timpani solo (finely played by Jeremy Cornes – who wasn’t given a credit in the programme or a call at the end) represents man and his rejection of God. The solo cello and strings remain serene and represent the Light that wins through. If all this sounds a bit familiar and predictable – it was! One could have nothing but admiration for Natalie Clein’s passionate advocacy and her command of the sometimes hair-raisingly writing for cello.

Sofia Gubaidulina is 80 this year, which must be the only logical reason for programming The Canticle of the Sun – certainly the dreariest forty minutes I have spent in any concert hall for some time. With the exception of some rather wonderful moments for the basses at the beginning, most of the choral writing is homophonic – obviously influenced by the chants of the Russian Orthodox Church, but nowhere near as spine-tingling and interesting. All manner of scrapes and jingles from the vast battery of percussion could not divert from the fact that there is no musical substance here at all, just a collection of sound-effects meant to illustrate the glowing text of St Francis of Assisi – and didn’t! The performers gave their all – again – Clein’s playing was heroic, gamely taking on the tiresome party-tricks. Two percussionists from Britten Sinfonia (Owen Gunnell and Cornes again) gamely imagined themselves in some strange 1960s’ Roundhouse new-music concert and Huw Watkins added some pretty sounds on the celesta. The BBC Singers need to be commended for keeping a straight face, not least when Clein performed her flexatone solo and the ladies had to imitate its sound (how original is that!) and for doing what they did as well as they did. I can’t imagine that the afternoon was any more rewarding for them than it was for many in the audience, judging from some of the comments heard afterwards.

Hurrah for Tippett!

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