Thursday, 2 August 2012

Blacks, Jews and Nazis - Tippett A Child of our Time Prom 25

Intelligence and sensitivity went into creatiung the programme for David Robertson's  BBC Prom 25. Because the 2012 BBC Proms are focussing on big choral masses and oratorios, and youth ensembles,  Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time would have had to be included. But placing it in the context of this brilliantly thoughtful programme elevated it way beyond "just" music, and made this Prom the most intellectually profound of the whole season (and that includes the Barenboim Beethoven which was moving but not deep).

Robertson started with Charles Ives The Unanswerreed Question. It's highly conceptual. Three sepaate units operate at different tempi. They don't connect, so what we hear comes from how we ourselves combine the layers. Strings intone a quiet, almost hypnotic line. Against this emerges a solo trumpet repeatedly  calling  out into aural space. Is this the questioner asking "serious things" as the composer suggested? A woodwind quartet chatters angular clutter, but the trumpet keeps searching, seeking and receives no answer. It's astonishing that this piece was written in 1906, for it employs concepts of multiple disaparate layers and the acoustic properties of the performance space. In six minutes, Charles Ives is metaphorically creating the world where there's data coming at us from all sides and levels.  It's  up to us to process it, if we can.

Everyone knows Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings op 11, in many different contexts, but at this Prom, Robertson had it grow fluidly out of Ives, as if the two were companions, each amplifying the other's meaning. On this occasion, I was struck by the hymn-like low rumble of the strings, thinking oddly enough of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel as the strings floated upwards, higher and higher.A threnody for troubled times.

Solo trumpet (Håkan Hardenberger) and reduced orchestra again for Bernd Alois Zimmerman's Nobody Knows the Trouble I've seen. It was written in 1954. Zimmermann, who didn't grow up with Black music, was responding to the Holocaust and what it meant for Germany and for humanity as a whole. It's a mistake to make too much of the jazz and gospel aspects of this piece, because Zimmermann is using the kind of Black music the Nazis hated in a spiritual way, almost reminiscent of Bach. Robertson wisely underplayed the "bluesy" aspects, and the processioinal towards the end was much more a procession for lost souls than New Orleans funeral. It's not meant to "swing". .Zimmermann killed himself in 1970, never finding his "unanswered questions".(lots on him on this site)

Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time can be heard in many different contexts, but Roberston's Prom 25 highlighted its true significance. It's more than "English Oratorio" even though Tippett clearly references Handel and Bach. The piece was inspired by the man who assassinated a German diplomat in Paris. Tippett describes the traumas that drove the refugee to revenge. "Among them was a young boiy of 8 who was kept in hiding" intones the Narrator (Jubilant Sykes, glorious name). Tippett develops the man's relationship with his mother. Sally Matthews sang ringing tops and Paul Groves was plausible as the son. But it'ss no mystery that oppressed people want to strike back. Ultimately, Kristallnacht and the Holocaust would have happened anyway, regardless of any one person's actions. Far more interesting is what one act of violence can mean against a far greater maelstorm of madness, but Tippett doesn't go there. Sarah Connolly lifts the solo alto part so it satisfies, even if Tippett doesn't ask the questions no-one can answer.

Perhaps Tippett is using him as a symbol of the oppressed of all times and places. Hence the framework of Black spirituals framing the narrative, distancing it from Europe. But that replicates the way Black culture has been exploited and "colonized".  Two wrongs don't make a right. Ideologically I'm not comfortable with that, so I was glad that Robertson didn't overemphasize this aspect of the piece, but let the very British choirs do their natural thing. Robertson is best when he's conducting music he cares about, and in this Prom his disciplned rigour brought out the best in the BBC SO.

There'll be a more detailed review of Tippett by Claire Seymour, the Benjamin Britten specialist, in Opera Today.

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