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The world turns on its dark side

Royal Albert Hall
09/06/1998 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven : String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127 (arr. Colin Davis and David Matthews)
Michael Tippett : A child of our time

Deborah Riedel (soprano), Nora Gubisch (mezzo-soprano), Jerry Hadley (tenor), John Tomlinson (bass)
London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis (conductor)

This programme is a token of something wonderful. Only a few years ago, there was an English Night in every Proms season (performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra), just as there was a Gilbert and Sullivan Night and a Viennese Night (waltzes, not Serialists). This year, works by British composers are programmed throughout the season for their thematic and musical qualities, without comment or regard for the nationality of the performers. We've had Gennady Rozhdevshtvensky conducting an programme by English composer, and Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Birtwhistle and Mahler on the same programme.

This performance of A child of our time is of course in memory of Michael Tippett, who died earlier this year. But it also represents a final summary of the theme of "power and politics" which has run through this years Proms, and of some related themes which have emerged. These have included the Holocaust, the presence of children, as both victims and observers of the workings of political violence, the capacity of people en masse for violence and pity, and the profound political and emotional content of Handel's oratorios and the Bach Passions, with their pervasive influence on modern composers, including Elgar, Weill and Tippett.

Tippett's response to Nazi anti-Jewish violence is individual and emotional. He expresses it in terms of a personal, Jungian-based, mythology which might be embarrassing if it were not so clearly honest. In particular, his conflation of of the child of the quasi-Nativity of the first part with the young man whose act of political murder lead to the punitive atrocities that inspired the work, risks being both sentimental and patronising.

But Colin Davis' performance with the London Symphony Orchestra highlighted the dramatic and argumentative structure, based on that of Handel's Messiah, and the dramatic shape of the music, and allowed the audience to find the overwhelming expressive force of the work for themselves. The London Symphony Chorus sang with power and precision, recalling the formal and musical precedent of the double chorus of the St Matthew Passion, and bringing the same seriousness and formal clarity to the spirituals, to great effect.

The soloists all gave fully committed performances. Deborah Riedel, recently returned from Sydney, was not quite on top form, but sang movingly. Nora Gubisch has a beautiful rich voice, and delivered the potentially pretentious-sounding argument of the first section clearly and intelligently. Jerry Hadley was never quite secure in either pitch or rhythm, but delivered his spirituals with feeling. And John Tomlinson was as ever loud and clear, shaking the hall with "Go down, Moses".

Tippett relates in his autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues that, in his younger days, he was obsessed with the Beethoven string quartets. Davis' and Matthews' arrangement of Beethoven's String Quartet in E flat major for string orchestra, in the first part of the concert, brought out the structure and detail which are easily lost when a quartet plays this impossibly demanding work.

H.E. Elsom



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