sun 13/10/2019

BBC Proms: BBCSO, BBC Proms Youth Choir, Robertson | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: BBCSO, BBC Proms Youth Choir, Robertson

BBC Proms: BBCSO, BBC Proms Youth Choir, Robertson

A youth choir tackles Tippett's great oratorio with mature understanding and serious skill

Sarah Connolly: a mezzo for our time

Another day at the Proms, another English choral masterpiece. Last night it came courtesy of the newly formed BBC Proms Youth Choir – a moveable feast of an ensemble that will bring together different youth choirs from across the UK over the next three years. I can’t imagine a more apt work to inaugurate the project than Tippett’s bravely painful meditation on human cruelty and capacity for endurance, A Child of Our Time. Framed intelligently within a collage of 20th-century American styles it offered a hopeful vision of the future, both musically and philosophically.

Trained by Simon Halsey, the young singers tackled the more inscrutable narrative elements of Tippett’s oratorio with real understanding. So much of the success of the work lies in storytelling, in wedding the abstract prophesying and moralising of the outer sections to the personal tale of the central one. This they achieved with some excellent diction (so crucial given the acres that separate the two sides of the RAH choir stalls) and quick-footed shifts between styles. The muscular tone of attack demanded by The Terror gave smoothly into the choral blend for the set-piece spirituals and the stillness of the outer, meditative moments.

Sykes's unduly free rhythms generated some heart-stopping tension and more than a few traffic-jam cadences

Unfortunately the choral unanimity wasn’t shared among the four soloists, who each seemed to have a different oratorio in mind when calibrating their performance. The breadth of Tippett’s musical vision is such that the piece works any number of ways, but not all simultaneously.

Bass Jubilant Sykes was perhaps the most natural fit for the music, bringing an almost musical-theatre directness to the recitative passages and an authentic Gospel swing to the spirituals. Unfortunately his unduly free rhythms couldn’t (or didn’t try to) accommodate the massed choral and orchestral forces around him, generating some heart-stopping tension and more than a few traffic-jam cadences.

Sarah Connolly offered the classic English interpretation – clean, unfussy and offering moments of casual beauty (her “but pity breaks open the heart” in particular). But while she played down the operatic in favour of a more intimate approach, tenor Paul Groves did not. His hooty, impersonal delivery felt ill-suited to the work, and some of the higher passages left him struggling vocally.

While the quality of Sally Matthews’ instrument is beyond reproach, floating the high passages and bringing such resonance to the lower-lying scenes of conflict, her vowels are a major impediment in this kind of vernacular repertoire. When we lose the words we lose the heart of Tippett’s work, and in competition with the bright twang of Sykes’s timbre she came off a poor second.

A sampler of American (post)modernism, the first-half showcased experimental music (Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question), romanticism-revisited (Barber’s Adagio for strings) and a jazz-serial hybrid (Zimmermann’s trumpet concerto Nobody knows de trouble I see).

Banishing the trumpet up into the gallery and spreading the mocking chorus of flutes right across the back of the stage, The Unanswered Question was aided by its acoustic drama. Robertson (pictured above) pitched the determined pianissimo well for the still-restless crowd, silencing them with this tricky opener and opting for a very natural attacca into the Barber. While the restraint of the BBCSO was admirable here, it was also just a little under-cooked at times, especially with the ecstatic sheen of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales still glowing in the ears.

The Zimmerman saw the orchestra joined by Håkan Hardenberger for a performance as cool as his outfit. It’s a tough work to warm to; for every jazzy come-hither it hurls you back with a serial contortion. Both Robertson and Hardenberger clearly have an affinity for this ballsy concerto, and their musicality (and the aid of a whole section of saxophones, a guitar and a Hammond organ) just about sold it.

The coolly sustained strings of the Ives flowed directly into those of the Barber, while Ives’ offstage solo trumpet became in turn the foreground soloist for the concerto; finally the contorted spiritual so buried in the Zimmerman was stripped-back to its basics, becoming the four spirituals in Tippett’s oratorio. This was a beautiful, elegant piece of programming, and despite a few musical issues made for one of the most satisfying musical wholes of the season.

Comments

Great, scrupulously fair review. From down in the Arena I found the sound world and the textures of the Zimmermann completely fascinating. Yes, there was serialism and complexity, but to my ears probably not the bebop language of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker which Calum MacDonald was suggesting in his programme note (?) I thought there were also strong resonances of the Stravinskyan paganist cross-rhythms (Petrushka, Circus Polka perhaps). And a Bergian lyrical sweep too, and far more rhythmic propulsion in this performance than I was expecting. As AC says, the piece has a lot of come-hither, absolutely! And she is spot-on about the disguising and burying of the spiritual, Was it really there? - It's very hard indeed to grasp such things at just one hearing. This is a piece I'd be very keen to hear again. Having heard it for the first time, I'm surprised it's such a rarity, and I hope the BBCSO give it another outing. It deserves it. Hardenberger was a very convincing soloist, but maybe not the last word on the piece - I'm sure that either, say, Gerard Presencer or Ralph Alessi could do it real justice too.

A very fair review, and I fully agree with your comments on the quality of the choral singing. I found the pulling around of the tempo by Jubilant Sykes rather annoying (particularly where he lost the orchestra and chorus momentarily), and while I agree that Sally Matthews' diction was less good than the other soloists (let alone the choir), I found the way her voice floated over the chorus in the spirituals incredibly moving. I enjoyed the Zimmmermann more than I did last time (some time in the mid '90s), but whether that says more about me or the piece I don't know. In any event, I agree with Seb's thoughtful comments above about it.

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