The Vision of St Augustine

The Vision of St Augustine
Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 25 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The interval in this Prom separated a work whose theme is the relationship between the individual and the infinite and a work that articulates the relationship between the individual and the state. Inevitably, the former, Tippett’s rarely-heard oratorio “The Vision of St Augustine”, is as intrinsically elusive as the latter, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 – written in the immediate aftermath of the death of Stalin – is resolutely forthright, although recent scholarship has convincingly argued that it has its own mysteries too.

In programming “The Vision of St Augustine” (in only its second Proms performance, the first being given by Colin Davis in the 1966 season shortly after the premiere), the BBC was making the boldest of its tributes to Tippett in his centennial year. The work is hugely demanding of both performer and listener. I recall finding it totally impenetrable on first encountering the work in the composer’s pioneering 1971 recording, even as a teenager who already knew and loved such works as the Second Symphony and Piano Concerto. Sustained acquaintance with it however reveals an extraordinarily original work, one which positions the listener perpetually on the verge of a revelation that ultimately is denied to him, although glimpsed momentarily.

The text conflates extracts from St Augustine’s Confessions with passages taken from the Latin version of the Bible. In the first of the work’s three parts, Augustine recounts his vision of eternity, a moment of timelessness and egolessness he experienced standing with his mother at a window looking out to a garden in Ostia (actually the second of his two ‘visions’, although the earlier one had been purely auditory). The texts of the second and third parts meditate on this theme, with the third comprising one huge sentence, a rhetorical question shaped in a series of parenthetical clauses. The text is passed between the baritone soloist and the chorus and the substance of the music alternates between the tremulous and the ecstatic. The first two parts culminate in purely orchestral passages that function as if mere words were no longer adequate for the task in hand. The first of these takes the form of a delirious dance (the vision itself perhaps) played through twice, the second time in a lower tessitura. The second is an intense reiteration by the cellos of the baritone’s rumination with which the second part began. The whole work concludes with an extraordinary admission, as the chorus speaks the final line unaccompanied – “I count not myself to have apprehended” (in this performance, the chorus put aside scores and spoke, as it were, from outside the work).

Any evaluation of a performance of “The Vision of St Augustine” must start with the contribution of the chorus and soloist, the writing for both being poised at the very edge of the possible. The BBC Symphony Chorus performed wonders of accurate intonation and clean articulation. Every strand of the complex and ever-changing textures stood out clearly. The baritone Roderick Williams acquitted himself magnificently in a part originally written for Fischer-Dieskau. His plangent and mellifluous voice was at the service of a reading couched throughout in a tone of quiet wonder. Elizabeth Atherton was rapturous in the highly demanding solo soprano line more usually taken from within the chorus. The orchestral contribution was vividly realised – bringing out the torrent of invention that is Tippett’s ‘mosaic’ style, its most characteristic image here being a dark undertow flecked with sudden bursts of brightness.

And yet I found something lacking in the whole performance. It was as if the fine detail had necessarily been worked on so meticulously that the broader picture – the vision, if you like – somehow failed to materialise. I wanted to be overwhelmed by the pivotal moments of the piece – the great choral cry of ‘fenestram!’ in the first part, for instance, with that astonishing orchestral cluster-chord behind it – but for me these moments failed to register with their true force. This was a cautious ecstasy rather than a fervent one. I hesitate to say it in the face of such a deeply committed performance but there is surely something amiss when a work is explicitly concerned with the numinous but the performance is itself not numinous.

This is truly a piece that needs a ‘visionary’ conductor in the mould of Colin Davis to ignite it rather than Hickox’s unflappable ‘English choral tradition’ direction, albeit that those latter qualities had so effectively delivered the nuts and bolts of the piece. However I have no wish to appear ungrateful for the rare experience of hearing a live performance of this masterpiece and one so exquisitely realised.

There was a palpable sense of orchestra and conductor (and audience) being on firmer ground from the very opening of the Shostakovich. The exceptionally refined string tone and the gorgeous solo woodwind playing (clarinet in particular) in the first movement drew me in to what emerged as a reading of altogether beautiful shape and proportion with dynamic gradations perfectly judged, mirroring the miracle of organic growth that the composer achieved in this movement. The long-sustained climax was rendered without strain and one did not feel browbeaten by it as in some performances. The second movement gave us the first prolonged fast music of the evening and was dispatched with real élan. String and wind tone again came to the fore in the third movement and the ‘Elmira’ theme was taken well-nigh perfectly by the solo horn – whose intertwining with the composer’s oft-repeated DSCH signature motto is now widely taken to be a romantic encryption of the type more usually associated with Berg.

I have long felt that despite its high standing the Tenth Symphony is afflicted by more than its fair share of the stagnant recitative that for me mars the pacing of other mid-period Shostakovich symphonies, most notably the 7th (Leningrad). This terrific performance, more than most, managed to persuade me that none of the material is extraneous to the overall trajectory of the work. Well, almost.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content