TIPPETT: A Child of Our Time.
Indra Thomas (soprano); Mihoko Fujimura (alto); Steve Davislim (tenor);
Matthew Rose (bass); London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Colin Davis
LSO Live SACD LSO0670 (F) (DDD) TT: 63:59.
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No Britten-like prodigy, Michael Tippett indeed bloomed as a composer
rather late. He didn't begin to produce mature work until about the
age of 30,
and even then his music appealed mainly to connoisseurs. In 1941, however,
he completed, after two years of work, his breakthrough piece, the oratorio
A Child of Our Time. Inspired by the killing of a Nazi diplomat in Paris
by a Polish Jew, the event that triggered Kristalnacht, the score goes
beyond the immediate circumstances to meditate on persecution and revenge.
Unfortunately, the oratorio is still relevant.
Tippett, on the advice of T. S. Eliot, fashioned his own libretto, and
at a deep-structural level, the oratorio as a whole echoes the Bach Passions.
Tippett, however, was addicted to writing Poetry with a capital P, the
kind of poetry that instead of coming up with genuine insight and close
observation, chooses high-flown words and sentiments that mean very little
other than sound -- pretty much a Sensitive High-Schooler's notion of
poetry. In fact, if you didn't already know the story, you probably wouldn't
it. However, the glory of the music saves Tippett from his cheap poetic
self. For me, the highpoints of the score come in Tippett's use of Black
spirituals to summarize various themes of the score, just as Bach uses
chorales in the St. Matthew Passion -- tunes and lyrics that people know
and that strike deep. Tippett had seen the 1936 movie of Connelly's Green
Pastures and been impressed by the arrangements of Hall Johnson and the
singing of the Hall Johnson Choir. Nevertheless, his own arrangements
sound nothing like Johnson's and indeed brilliantly avoid the conventions
setting spirituals. Their madrigalian counterpoint stands out. In fact,
the entire oratorio brims to overflowing with counterpoint -- canon,
fugue, stretto, double -- in an idiom reminding me strongly of Hindemith's
The excitement of A Child of Our Time lies, as it should, less in the
message than in the music. However, the music exhibits a high degree
structure, and this quality plus a certain reserve arising from its indirection
can lead conductors to downplay the considerable emotions in it. This
is Colin Davis's third recording of the piece. None of them have been
His penultimate recording used German forces, with the slightly off-putting
accented English you'd expect and was pretty flat. The first recording,
despite the magnificent presences of John Shirley-Quirk and Janet Baker,
suffered from this as well. Furthermore, tenor Richard Cassilly was awful,
and soprano Jessye Norman went into full Diva Mode, complete with plummy
swoops and scoops. This time, the quartet is pretty good -- in fact,
as a whole, the best I've heard -- but it is Davis who indulges his diva
little fermatas for no good reason, calling for hammy declamation from
the very good choir. Davis's reading is no longer bland, but hokey and
at times unintentionally funny, like Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian.
Is there a recording out there worth having? I've always been partial
to the Pritchard recording (Decca, available through ArkivMusic), the
one I heard. He captures the high seriousness without getting mired down
in phony significance. Tippett on Naxos (originally a Collins Classic)
has, as you might expect, a deep emotional commitment. Unfortunately,
I haven't heard Hickox on Chandos, which I suspect might be pretty good,
despite the mixed reviews it has received.
The sound, although clear enough to allow you to hear all that counterpoint,
lacks any real warmth. The music seems to die as soon as it leaves the
instruments and singers. At any rate, I'd give Davis a miss.
At any rate, I'd give Davis a miss.