United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Tippett: Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Kenneth Tarver (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Soloists of the Royal College of Music, London Philharmonic Choir (artistic director: Neville Creed), London Adventist Chorale (musical director: Ken Burton), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.11.2022. (JR)
Vaughan Williams – Serenade to Music
Tippett – A Child of Our Time
For the second of three London Philharmonic Orchestra concerts this autumn celebrating Vaughan Williams 150th anniversary), the LPO chose a rarely performed piece, unique in its construction. Composed to celebrate Henry Wood’s jubilee concert in 1938, Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music was originally written for an unusual combination of sixteen solo voices and orchestra; the words stem from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Due to the complexity of the piece, Vaughan Williams rewrote it for chorus and orchestra; however, LPO’s Principal Conductor Edward Gardner chose to perform the original version for this concert. By common consensus, this is now the best version by some margin. When Rachmaninov first heard the work, it made a profound impression on him and it is said he was moved to tears.
The piece is a 14-minute gem. The soloists’ dialogue is interspersed with exquisite and transcendent orchestral colours. The Leader Pieter Schoeman performed a prominent role, possibly playing a tender love song (Vaughan Williams had just met the woman he was to marry) and was sublime. The four soloists for the second half of the concert were joined by twelve soloists from the Royal College of Music (sopranos, Daniela Popescu, Eyra Norman and Charlotte Bowden; mezzo-sopranos, Kitty Whately, Martha Jones and Angelina Dorlin-Barlow; tenors, Michael Gibson, Paul Charles Clarke and Philip Sheffield; baritones, James Atkinson and Ross Fettes; and one extremely dark bass, Graeme Broadbent). None of them were weak links, and most were of high quality. The audience were clearly much taken by the work, given its excellent performance.
In a pre-concert address, Edward Gardner revealed that Tippett’s A Child of Our Time was a work he had known and loved since childhood and his affection for the piece shone through at every turn.
A Child of Our Time is a secular oratorio. Composed between 1939 and 1941, it was first performed in March 1944. The work was inspired by events that affected Tippett profoundly: the assassination in 1938 of a German diplomat by a young Jewish refugee in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan, and the Nazi government’s reaction: the Kristallnacht, in which Nazi thugs forced their way into Jewish people’s houses and smashed as much glass as they could find. Tippett’s oratorio deals with these incidents in the context of the experiences of oppressed people generally, particularly comparing the fate of Negro slaves and the Jews of central Europe; it carries a pacifist message of reconciliation. The text’s themes of shadow and light reflect the Jungian psychoanalysis which Tippett underwent in the years immediately before writing the work.
The oratorio is structured in the manner of Bach’s Passions. The work’s most original feature is Tippett’s use of African-American spirituals, which carry out the role allocated by Bach to chorales.
The soloists featured two National Vocal Treasures, Dame Sarah Connolly and Roderick (Roddy) Williams, who can do no wrong. The shining light above them was the soaring voice of Nadine Benjamin who made a dazzling impression, her debut with the LPO. We will be hearing much more of this fine, young singer. American tenor Kenneth Tarver completed the quintet, an intelligent singer slightly lacking, at times, volume and declamation. The two choruses were intermingled and impressed: particularly their control of dynamic range. The London Philharmonic Choir counts over 120 singers, supplemented by just over 20 members of the London Adventist Chorale: they made a splendid sound; as impressive in the modern sections as in the moving spirituals.
Tippett’s Child of our Time still speaks profoundly to us, given the current troubles in Ukraine. This work also brought a tear to the eye.
This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 2nd December 2022.