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 guess 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 of 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 Das Unaufhörliche.

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 of conscious 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 satisfactory. 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 self: 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 first 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.

S.G.S. (September 2008)