A Child of Our Time, Barbican Hall

At a little more than an hour long,
Tippett’s 1939-41 oratorio might have been thought to make for short measure
by itself, though I for one should much prefer to leave wanting more rather
than to regret the inclusion of padding. In any case, the companion piece was
certainly not padding on this occasion; we were treated to the London premiere
of Hugh Wood’s delightful second violin concerto, written between 2002 and
2004, and reviewed in 2008 (premiered by Alexandra Wood, the Milton Keynes City
Orchestra, and Sian Edwards in 2009). Cast in the ‘traditional’ three
movements, ‘marked ‘Allegro appassionata e energico’, ‘Larghetto,
calmo,’ and ‘Vivacissimo’, this proved to be a concerto worthy of any
soloist’s — and orchestra’s — attention, and received committed
performances from all concerned. Sir Andrew Davis is an old Wood hand, having
recorded the composer’s Symphony and Scenes from Comus for NMC. His
direction of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, also featured on that recording,
seemed authoritative, rhythms tight and colours boldly portrayed. Likewise the
contribution of Anthony Marwood impressed. His is not a ‘big’ violin tone,
or at least it was not on this occasion, but his shaping of Wood’s lines and
his irreproachable intonation — there are a lot of tricky yet always
idiomatic double-stopping passages here — served the composer well. What
struck me most forcefully about the work were the powerful echoes of Berg: to
have as a kinsman, if not a model, the composer of the greatest of all
twentieth-century violin concertos is not necessarily a bad thing. I assume
that the harmonic relationship between the two works must be deliberate.
Certainly the way Wood’s themes construct themselves — at least
quasi-serially, by the sound of it — has strong parallels in the work of his
august predecessor. Even the solo violin theme which enters in the second bar
(a rising figure of semiquavers, G-B-E-flat-F-sharp-B-flat-D-F-A, which then
continues to soar above the orchestra in lyrical crotchet triplets) seems to
harness the spirit if not the letter of Berg’s example. The transformative
technique to which the themes are subjected, and through which they are
developed, may ultimately have its roots in Liszt, even Beethoven, but it
sounds very much Wood’s own. I wondered also whether , especially in the
rondo-like finale, there was something of a homage to Prokofiev, though this
may have been nothing more than unwitting correspondence; whatever the truth of
that, the woodblocks and other lively, rhythmic untuned percussion gave a hint
of the Russian composer’s second concerto. (Wood in his programme note
pointed to a ‘Spanish’ tinge, ‘prompted by Alexandra Wood’s playing of

A Child of Our Time had the second half to itself. Davis and the
BBC SO again have a good track-record in the composer’s music, if not quite
so extensive as the conductor’s namesake, Sir Colin. Marking both the
increasingly traumatic turn of events in the 1930s — in particular,
Kristallnacht and the 1938 assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a
Jewish boy, composition beginning the day after war was declared — and the
composer’s undertaking of Jungian analysis, this oratorio attempts to address
the political by virtue of a turn to the psychoanalytical. That ultimately
remains for me a problematical turn, though there can be no doubting the
composer’s sincerity. Is it really enough in the Part Two scena
there are three parts, echoing Handel’s Messiah — for the
Narrator’s ‘He shoots the official’ to be responded to with the mezzo’s
‘But he shoots only his dark brother’? It might well be the case that the
fate of the boy whose tale is told obliquely can provide no answers, but do
political atrocities really permit of a solution in which all we need to do is
to master our dark unconscious?

At any rate, the oratorio received a fine performance. Its opening
orchestral bars evoked a melancholy as ‘English’, if distinctively so, as
the music of many of Tippett’s countrymen, up to and including Birtwistle,
yet with its own harmonic and melodic inspiration. Are there in the music and
the storytelling hints of Weill too, or does that merely reflect common
influences? The BBC SO’s contribution impressed greatly, whether in the
instrumental interludes — Tippett’s inspiration here Beethoven’s
Missa Solemnis — or the more grandly orchestral passages, the
opening to the Third Part rhythmically tight and implacable, not least thanks
to Davis’s direction. The first interlude, with its trio of two solo flutes
and solo viola against a softly singing cello section was powerfully matched by
the third part ‘Preludium’, almost neo-Baroque, in which two flutes and
solo oboe prepared us for the final peroration, chaste yet without Stravinskian
coldness. Choral singing was excellent throughout, the BBC Symphony Chorus as
ever well trained by Stephen Jackson, yet with an emotional as well as a
musical weight necessary to convey Tippett’s pain and transformation.
Strength in anger — ‘A Spiritual of Anger’ — was powerfully conveyed in
‘Go down Moses’, though the intonation of Matthew Rose’s bass
contributions was not always spot on. Nicole Cabell and the chorus provided
what is perhaps the most magical moment. An exquisitely floated and shaded —
with fulsome, though never excessive vibrato — soprano solo, ‘How can I
cherish my man in such days…?’ persisted whilst the chorus movingly
‘stole in’ beneath, with the spiritual ‘Steal away’. The use of five
spirituals, clearly echoing Bach’s Passion chorales, seems to me not without
its problems; simplification of harmonic language at times sounds a little
abrupt. Yet again, compositional sincerity tends to win out over such doubts.
Karen Cargill, whilst definitely a mezzo, brought a welcome hint of the
traditional oratorio contralto too to numbers such as ‘Man has measured the
heavens with a telescope’. I was less sure about John Mark Ainsley’s
contributions, sometimes both lachrymose and underpowered, struggling to be
heard above the orchestra. (It should however be noted that he was a late
replacement for an indisposed Toby Spence.) This may be a problematic work,
then, but it received for the most part powerful, enlightened advocacy.

Mark Berry

image_description=Sir Michael Tippett
product_title=Hugh Wood: Violin Concerto no.2, op.50; Sir Michael Tippett: A Child of Our Time
product_by=Anthony Marwood (violin); Nicole Cabell (soprano); Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Matthew Rose (bass); BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Friday 23 March 2012.
product_id=Above: Sir Michael Tippett