Rangwanasha’s singing and Davis’s conducting of Tippett’s music proves unforgettable in Edinburgh

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2023 [13] – Tippett: Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha (soprano), Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Russell Thomas (tenor), Michael Mofidian (bass), Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.8.2023. (SRT)

Sir Andrew Davis

Tippett – Concerto for Orchestra; A Child of Our Time

It is a shrewd move to couple in one concert Sir Michael Tippett’s most popular work with one of his less-played orchestral compositions. A Child of Our Time is one of those works that retains its power because its message is sadly never-changing: oppression and disaster versus hope and renewal. There was a lovely sense of that rebirth at the end of this performance as the winds of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra began to curl in gorgeous lines of sound to speak of tendrils of growth, pushing the earth from winter into spring as the waters of renewal bring hope. That colour was typical of the freshness and beauty that the orchestra brought to this entire concert, something in which they were largely matched by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. True, their soprano line proved a little woolly in the early pages, and some of the more agile moments of Part Two taxed the chorus as a whole, but there was richness and beauty from the tenors and basses, and it all coalesced in the pooled reflection of the spirituals.

The quartet of soloists was terrific. Dame Sarah Connolly was a declamatory mezzo, albeit lacking in power in the darker moments of drama, and Michael Mofidian was an authoritative presence in the bass part, balancing Russell Thomas’s bright, clean tenor. All were dwarfed by the remarkable voice of Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, however. Hers is a soprano of champagne and satin, gorgeously rich and rewarding. She floated effortlessly yet opulently over the chorus in the spirituals, and she could cut through the orchestral textures with luminous beauty. Unforgettable.

If the solo singers were the most memorable thing about A Child of Our Time, then the Concerto for Orchestra brought out the best in the solo instrumentalists. Tippett’s approach to the genre is to compartmentalise, almost atomise the orchestra in the first two movements, avoiding much of the richness or cohesiveness that, say, Bartók or Lutosławski brought to the form. That means that each instrumental section, indeed pretty much every orchestral player, got their moment alone to shine. However, it also adds to the sense that the work runs in sequences rather than as a whole, the bouncing ball moving from player to player as the concerto progresses, and Tippett’s music doesn’t always benefit from that approach. The sense of compartmentalisation seems to run through the score, too, with spidery lines of music that often conceal rather than reveal their connection to one another, and I repeatedly got the sense of parallel lines running alongside one another without ever seeming to meet.

It is a good job it was so well played, then, with terrifically assertive winds and brass, and the dark, swirling tone of the lower strings balancing the delicate dance of the violins and violas. It helped that there was master on the podium, too. There can’t be any other living conductors who have played Tippett’s music as well or as often as Sir Andrew Davis, and the unusual layout of the players (Davis’s idea?) allowed the wonderful strangeness of Tippett’s scoring to come out all the more clearly.

Simon Thompson

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