United Kingdom Britten, Tippett. Talise Trevigne (soprano), Dame Felicity Palmer (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Stewart (tenor), Brindley Sherratt (bass), CBSO Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.9.2019. (JQ)
Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem
Tippett – A Child of our Time
With this concert the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their Osborn Music Director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla embarked on a two-year celebration of the orchestra’s centenary. The orchestra was formed in September 1920 as the City of Birmingham Orchestra (the word ‘Symphony’ was incorporated into the title in 1948) and gave its inaugural symphony concert under the baton of Sir Edward Elgar two months later. Since the 1970s the orchestra has benefitted greatly from the contributions of its justly renowned affiliated choir, the CBSO Chorus. It’s logical, therefore, that an important thread running through the 2019/20 season – and, I hope, the following season also – will be Birmingham’s proud tradition of the performance of choral music. Thus, the CBSO Chorus was on duty for the second half of this evening’s concert.
When I read the prospectus for this season it struck me that tonight’s pairing of these works by Britten and Tippett was an inspired piece of programme planning since the links between the two composers were so strong, and on many levels there’s a great affinity between the works in question. In fact, on reading the programme tonight I discovered that the CBSO had played the identical programme back in 1985 under David Atherton. By a happy chance the mezzo soloist on that occasion was Felicity Palmer and what a pleasure it was to hear her reprising the role tonight.
First, though, we heard Britten’s searing Sinfonia da Requiem. This work was commissioned by the Japanese government to mark the 2600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese empire. As Andrew Burn reminded us in his programme note, the work was rejected by the Japanese because Britten gave the three movements titles that refer to Christianity. I wonder, though, if that was something of a fig leaf: perhaps also Britten’s music was felt to be uncomfortably near the knuckle given the aggressive, militaristic stance of Japan’s foreign policy in 1940. Not long ago I was intrigued to learn from an online article by the seasoned music critic, Christopher Morley that, notwithstanding the rejection of the piece, the original version of Britten’s score is still preserved in Tokyo and that on one occasion the CBSO and Sir Simon Rattle were allowed to give a one-off performance using those performing materials.
That’s part of the history that the CBSO has with this work: with Rattle they made a superb recording of the work for EMI in 1984 which is still one of the finest I’ve heard (review). Tonight’s account of the work was of a similarly exalted standard. After the explosive opening of Lacrymosa, the pounding of the timpani commanding our attention, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla led a measured, tense performance of the movement in which no one could doubt the ominous nature of the music. Patiently, she and the orchestra built the movement to an angry and anguished climax. The movement gave way to a blistering performance of Dies irae. The pace was electrifying, as it needs to be. This was a no-holds-barred but very precise performance. The premiere of Sinfonia da Requiem was given in 1941 by John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic. The radio broadcast of the second performance, given the following day, has survived and has been issued on disc by the NMC label (review). At times even the NYPO’s players are audibly challenged by Britten’s demands in what was then very unfamiliar music but tonight the CBSO rose to every challenge as Ms Gražinytė-Tyla drove the performance forward thrillingly; at all times the playing was excitingly incisive. The movement’s jagged conclusion dissolves into the final movement, Requiem æternam. Here, Britten’s music is decidedly ambiguous. On the surface, the melodic lines heard first on the upper woodwinds and later on the violins seem tranquil, especially by comparison with the music that has gone before. However, the orchestral parts that support this melody provide very unsettled, nervous undercurrents. Eventually, the music builds to an ardent climax which is a clear and impassioned plea: Britten might well have used the subtext ‘Dona nobis pacem’ but, even without that, his meaning is nonetheless crystal clear. It was with a sense of relief that I listened to the subdued ending after all the drama and passion that had gone before. Sinfonia da Requiem is an extraordinary score – one of Britten’s finest, I believe – and no one hearing it should find the later War Requiem in the least bit surprising. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will conduct that masterpiece next June near the end of the CBSO’s season. If she gets hold of that score in the same way that she fashioned tonight’s tremendous performance then her War Requiem promises to be a memorable experience.
If anything, Michael Tippett’s oratorio, A Child of our Time is even more pacifist in tone than Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. I must confess that this is a work with which I’ve always struggled. I don’t for one moment doubt its sincerity but I find the libretto, written by the composer himself, hard going and over-earnest at times. The music itself, for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, is music that I respect rather than love. However, tonight’s gripping and dramatic performance engaged me to a level that I’ve not previously experienced.
Tippett inserted into his score five African-American spirituals. These punctuate the score at critical junctures and act as gathering points. The arrangements are magnificent and they’ve always struck me as highlights of the work. It has often been remarked that the spirituals compare with Bach’s use of chorales in his Passion settings; both fulfil the same reflective function. That point was made again in the excellent programme note by the Tippett biographer, Oliver Snoden. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla had the inspired idea of taking this thought to what, on reflection, seems a logical conclusion. When Bach’s Passions were sung as part of the Good Friday liturgy in Leipzig the congregation would have joined in all the chorales: they were familiar with them as Lutheran hymns. Tonight, we, the audience, were invited to participate in two of the Spirituals, ‘Steal away’ which ends Part One, and ‘Deep River’ which is sung at the score’s conclusion. Before the performance began Ms Gražinytė-Tyla led us, engagingly, in an impromptu choir practice so that we were ready when the time came.
The performance that followed was magnificent on every level. Perhaps it’s inevitable that in a work of this nature comment should focus on the singing. So, before going any further I should say something about the orchestral aspect of this performance. In the Britten work the CBSO had served notice that, collectively and individually, they were on top form and this continued as they played Tippett’s score. Their colleagues in the CBSO Chorus were no less impressive. They excelled in the spirituals. Elsewhere, we heard much powerful and incisive singing – for example in the ‘Chorus of Persecution and Persecuted’ and in the subsequent ‘Chorus of the Self-righteous’ They were perhaps at their finest in the exchanges with the bass soloist in Part 3 where the singing was potent and showed highly impressive attention to dynamic contrast. Tonight we had yet another reminder that the CBSO Chorus is one of the finest of its kind in the UK.
We heard a strong solo quartet. The American soprano, Talise Trevigne was very well suited to her role. Her singing exuded commitment and I enjoyed the sound of her voice: her top register was most impressive. Felicity Palmer brought her vast experience to the mezzo role, not least in her Part 3 solo, ‘The soul of man’, which was vividly projected. We had another American singer in tenor Joshua Stewart. When the score called for loud singing, he had all the necessary heft but he could also sing with great feeling, not least in ‘I have no money for my bread’. The pick of the soloists, though, was Brindley Sherratt. Right from the start he brought great authority and presence to the narrative passages of his role. His singing was consistently splendid but I thought he reached his peak in Part 3, not least in his imposing contribution to ‘Go down, Moses’.
The performance was directed with great energy and commitment by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. She brought out vividly the dramatic tension in the score whilst not underplaying its reflective aspects. Her reading took about 65 minutes. I’m aware of some recorded performances, not least the composer’s own 1991 version with the CBSO (review), that take a few minutes longer but I think this is a score that responds best to an overall approach which is urgent. I was convinced by all aspects of her reading.
A Child of our Time culminates in a setting for soloists, choir and orchestra of ‘Deep river’. It’s a very moving conclusion at any time but tonight, as the audience joined in the singing of this spiritual which mingles melancholy and hope, I felt strongly that the decision actively to involve the audience had drawn us into the work and the performance in a unique way. I had read earlier that A Child of our Time is to be the next release under Ms Gražinytė-Tyla’s recording contract with DG. The presence of an array of microphones on the stage suggested that tonight’s performance was recorded live. I hope that’s the case for this gripping performance was very worthy of preservation on disc. I just hope that the audience’s contribution will have passed muster!
I’m sorry to end on a note of criticism. The CBSO had gone to the trouble of printing the full text of A Child of our Time in the programme book. Unfortunately, the Symphony Hall authorities dimmed the auditorium lighting which made reading the text very difficult indeed. The contrariness of this decision was underlined when, at the two points where the audience joined in the singing, the lights were brightened so that we could read the words and music with which we’d been provided. That betrays a lack of joined-up thinking, it seems to me, and also a lack of consideration for the audience.