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Beyond Good and Evil

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/04/1999 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Kyrie K.341
Sir Michael Tippett: A Child of Our Time

Deborah Riedel (soprano), Nora Gubisch (mezzo), Jerry Hadley (tenor), Robert Lloyd (bass)
New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (director)
New York Philharmonic, Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

There are many stories of great courage that emerge from the nightmare years surrounding the Second World War. One group of these are the extreme sufferings of the pacifist community of England and the abysmal way that these people were treated by their government and their peers. Unlike a moment of bravery on the battlefield which is then honored for the rest of the hero’s life, the English conscientious objector traded a lifetime of commitment to their own moral imperatives for an existence of denigration and social exile. Benjamin Britten escaped for a while and came to San Diego where he wrote his masterpiece about the ultimate outcast Peter Grimes, a character purposefully drawn by W. H. Auden to be as unsympathetic as possible, testing the elasticity of the empathy of the opera’s audience and challenging their smugly neat moral universe. For his unyielding ethics, Michael Tippett ended up imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubbs (where he once turned pages for Britten at a recital for the convicts) when he refused to even participate in the war effort in a non-combative role. Like all of the children of the English pastoral movement, Tippett laid his politics bare for all to hear and cared not a whit for the mass resistance that he would thus incur (Britten agreed to premiere Owen Wingrave on television despite the many logistical problems because he realized that it was the best way to beam a pacifist message to a global audience).

Thumbing his nose at the very cornerstone of English civilization, Tippett chose to create an oratorio surrounding the birth of a Christ-childlike figure complete with Handelian reverence, except that his nativity explores the entrance into the world of a killer, the young Jewish Frenchman Herschel Grynszpan, who shot a German official to death at the embassy in Paris and triggered the Nazi response of Kristallnacht. For Tippett violence begets violence and, on an even more elemental level, all violent impulses stem from the same atavistic roots under the human family tree (his text refers to the Nazi as Grynszpan’s "dark brother"). The resulting oratorio, combining the harmonic language of Shostakovich (in such pieces as The Execution of Stepan Razin or the Symphony #14) with the powerful tonality of the Negro spiritual, is extremely disturbing and dark, meant to leave the listener auditorily and philosophically uncomfortable.

It was with great trepidation that I heard this work for the first time under the baton of a man for whom I don’t care (Davis is a truly passionless individual) who historically has interacted very poorly with New York’s inconsistent resident orchestra. Although the overall sound of the ensemble was above par (many of the section leaders took this week off, but I draw no conclusion from the fact that the intonation of the group was surprisingly good last night), the lack of vigor and lifeblood drained away most of the active passivity intended by the composer. The soloists, except for Robert Lloyd, were rather weak and their diction was atrocious, sending all of us audibly scurrying for our programs to figure out about what the heck they were attempting to be emotive. The New York Choral Artists gave their usual fine performance however and my favorite parts were the sections that featured this extraordinary ensemble, especially in the hymn section that sounded very much like Schoenberg’s great Freide auf Erden.

Ursula Vaughn Williams is very passionate about relating the experience of attending the premiere of husband Ralph’s Symphony #5 in London during the worst days of the war. The piece was so uplifting that the crowd seemed positively buoyed by it. I don’t think that any of us born after those days can fully appreciate what the totality of the gestaldt was for those who actually saw all of civilization being destroyed right before their eyes. Like Weill’s Eternal Road, this Tippett oratorio can seem dated and yet, in a good performance I have no doubt that it is a work of tremendous pity and power. Perhaps I’ll attend such a performance sometime in future.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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