Stoical Reserve in Tippett’s A Child of our Time

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tippett, Hugh Wood: Anthony Marwood(violin),  Nicole Cabell (soprano) , Karen Cargill (mezzo), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Matthew Rose( bass) , BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 23.3.12 (GDn)

Hugh Wood: Violin Concerto No.2
Tippett: A Child of Our Time

A young Frenchman from an ethnic minority shooting an official in revenge for attacks on his people: given the events in Toulouse this week, Tippett’s oratorio would seem as timely as its title suggests. Actually, it feels quite dated, and the opaque libretto (by the composer himself) only obscures the work’s message. But then, its continuing popularity results from the power of its music, which has rarely sounded as focussed and dramatic as it did this evening.

Andrew Davis achieves a fine balance with this score, allowing the quieter passages to meander just enough to give contrast to the louder movements, which sound all the more impassioned by contrast. The BBC Symphony Chorus, fielding just about as many singers as they could squeeze onto the back of the Barbican stage, regularly upped the volume to sound like a significantly larger choir. For the most part, their ensemble and tuning were tight, and the impact of the choral singing was all the greater for the extreme dynamic contrasts between movements.

The four vocal soloists all had their individual merits, but couldn’t have sounded more different from each other. That isn’t really a problem – they only sing together once – but it did lead to inevitable comparisons between them. Bass Matthew Rose shone out, with his clear diction and rich powerful tone. Tenor John Mark Ainsley stood in for an indisposed Toby Spence, but he had been booked long enough to get his name in the programme, so that didn’t explain his regular lapses in pitch and support. Karen Cargill gave a more solid performance of the alto part, although there isn’t much of it and she did seem underemployed. Nicole Cabell’s coloratura tone stood out a mile from this line-up, but added to the dramatic intensity, especially of the numbers she sang with the chorus.

Given the driving and continuously intense performances that have become standard from London orchestras in recent years, the stoical reserve behind much of this performance seemed like something of the throwback. It was certainly welcome though, and Tippett’s score benefited from the controlled and only occasionally impassioned reading. Hugh Wood’s Second Violin Concerto, here receiving its London première, is a similar case. There’s nothing flashy or virtuosic about this score. It is well written, with effective although unsophisticated orchestration. The solo part emphasises linear and melodic integrity over showmanship, but seems to borrow heavily from the Berg Concerto. The composer is known for the accessibility of his music, so it was a surprise to hear so much serial technique, but for the most part this score inhabits an impressionist or perhaps gently expressionist aesthetic. It is no great revelation in terms of the recent history of the violin concerto (and it pales in comparison with Brett Dean’s Concerto played by the same orchestra last Saturday) but its attractive enough.

Anthony Marwood put in an excellent performance. There isn’t really much here to challenge him technically, and he could easily have given a condescending reading of this relatively straightforward music. But he is clearly convinced of its merits and communicated them effectively. His playing was precise and controlled, but never cold, and the score’s mix of Romantic and Modern was reflected in every aspect of his playing. No masterpiece then, but an attractive addition to the repertoire, and an ideal coupling for Tippett’s more substantial oratorio.

Gavin Dixon

This performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on Sunday 8 April at 2pm.