Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Tippett – A Child of Our Time
BSO, leader David Juritz
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, director Gavin Carr
David Hill: Conductor
Lauren Fagan: Soprano
Christine Rice: Mezzo-Soprano
Samuel Sakker: Tenor
Simon Shibambu: Bass
THIS concert started with a wonderful surprise: we settled in to hear the BSO strings play Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, but as conductor David Hill arrived on the platform the BSO Chorus rose to their feet, adjusted their scores, and we were treated to a marvellous unprogrammed performance of Tallis’s original choral setting of his theme from 1567. The Chorus was in fine voice, warm in tone and precise in delivery, as were the BSO strings when it was their turn to take to spotlight.
The Tallis Fantasia (1910) never fails to overwhelm me with its beauty and Vaughan Williams’s masterly blending of the sweeping full-toned passages for the full orchestra and the more intimate moments for the nine players in the antiphonal ensemble and the four leaders of the main string sections. David Hill’s unflashy direction, as ever, let the music speak rather than imposing meretricious theatricals on it.
After the interval, we embarked on a performance of Michael Tippett’s secular oratorio A Child of Our Time, written in the early years of the Second World War and first performed in 1944. The fact that the Lighthouse Concert Hall was practically sold out evidences its enduring popularity. Tippett’s, reputation has suffered a bit of an eclipse in the twenty years since his death, but this work has never left the repertoire.
Tippett takes Handel’s Messiah as his model, blending choruses and soloists and keeping a high-profile orchestral presence throughout. As in Messiah, there is a three-part structure, with a first section setting a context, a central section following a narrative and a final section drawing conclusions. Whereas Handel uses the life of Christ, Tippett uses the life of a young Jewish man, goaded into revenge against a Nazi official by the inhuman treatment of his race.
What makes this work so original, and I suspect is the cause of its enduring popularity, is Tippett’s use of spirituals from the culture of black slaves working on American plantations in the nineteenth century. This aims to give the work a universality beyond its immediate context of the oppression of the Jews by the Nazis. The degree to which Tippett is successful in integrating his own musical language, rooted firmly in mid-twentieth century England, and the musical idioms of black slaves is still a subject for debate. Indeed, it spurred a vigorous discussion between my companion and I in the car on the way home.
I found the settings of the spirituals very moving, both musically and in the power of the language. Passages such as ‘Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land: / Tell old Pharoah, to let my people go’ combine the Jewish and African American experience of oppression elegantly in a way that Tippett’s own text for the rest of the oratorio sometimes struggles to achieve. It aims for a Blake-like aphoristic quality but seems to me over-reliant on abstractions: it is difficult to set a line like ‘How shall we have patience for the consummation of the mystery?’ with any force or directness.
David Hill and his team of soloists, players and chorus gave a wonderfully persuasive account of the work, however. You can’t help being inspired and impressed by Tippett’s ambition, inventiveness and originality, and this was an inspired and inspiring evening’s music making.
And the great news is you can hear it for yourself! It was live on Radio 3, and is available for the next few weeks on BBC Sounds: search for ‘Radio 3 in Concert’.