Saturday, 24 March 2012

BBC SO/Davis - Wood and Tippett, 23 March 2012

Barbican Hall

Hugh Wood – Violin Concerto no.2, op.50 (London premiere)
Tippett – A Child of Our Time

Anthony Marwood (violin)
Nicole Cabell (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Matthew Rose (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus-master: Stephen Jackson)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)


The Barbican’s English oratorio series now reaches the twentieth century, with Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, though it will step back to The Dream of Gerontius next month. At a little more than an hour long, Tippett’s 1939-41 oratorio might have been thought to make for short measure by itself, though I for one should much prefer to leave wanting more rather than to regret the inclusion of padding. In any case, the companion piece was certainly not padding on this occasion; we were treated to the London premiere of Hugh Wood’s delightful second violin concerto, written between 2002 and 2004, and reviewed in 2008 (premiered by Alexandra Wood, the Milton Keynes City Orchestra, and Sian Edwards in 2009). Cast in the ‘traditional’ three movements, ‘marked ‘Allegro appassionata e energico’, ‘Larghetto, calmo,’ and ‘Vivacissimo’, this proved to be a concerto worthy of any soloist’s – and orchestra’s – attention, and received committed performances from all concerned. Sir Andrew Davis is an old Wood hand, having recorded the composer’s Symphony and Scenes from Comus for NMC. His direction of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, also featured on that recording, seemed authoritative, rhythms tight and colours boldly portrayed. Likewise the contribution of Anthony Marwood impressed. His is not a ‘big’ violin tone, or at least it was not on this occasion, but his shaping of Wood’s lines and his irreproachable intonation – there are a lot of tricky yet always idiomatic double-stopping passages here – served the composer well. What struck me most forcefully about the work were the powerful echoes of Berg: to have as a kinsman, if not a model, the composer of the greatest of all twentieth-century violin concertos is not necessarily a bad thing. I assume that the harmonic relationship between the two works must be deliberate. Certainly the way Wood’s themes construct themselves – at least quasi-serially, by the sound of it – has strong parallels in the work of his august predecessor. Even the solo violin theme which enters in the second bar (a rising figure of semiquavers, G-B-E-flat-F-sharp-B-flat-D-F-A, which then continues to soar above the orchestra in lyrical crotchet triplets) seems to harness the spirit if not the letter of Berg’s example. The transformative technique to which the themes are subjected, and through which they are developed, may ultimately have its roots in Liszt, even Beethoven, but it sounds very much Wood’s own. I wondered also whether , especially in the rondo-like finale, there was something of a homage to Prokofiev, though this may have been nothing more than unwitting correspondence; whatever the truth of that, the woodblocks and other lively, rhythmic untuned percussion gave a hint of the Russian composer’s second concerto. (Wood in his programme note pointed to a ‘Spanish’ tinge, ‘prompted by Alexandra Wood’s playing of Sarasate).

A Child of Our Time had the second half to itself. Davis and the BBC SO again have a good track-record in the composer’s music, if not quite so extensive as the conductor’s namesake, Sir Colin. Marking both the increasingly traumatic turn of events in the 1930s – in particular, Kristallnacht and the 1938 assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a Jewish boy, composition beginning the day after war was declared – and the composer’s undertaking of Jungian analysis, this oratorio attempts to address the political by virtue of a turn to the psychoanalytical. That ultimately remains for me a problematical turn, though there can be no doubting the composer’s sincerity. Is it really enough in the Part Two scena – there are three parts, echoing Handel’s Messiah – for the Narrator’s ‘He shoots the official’ to be responded to with the mezzo’s ‘But he shoots only his dark brother’? It might well be the case that the fate of the boy whose tale is told obliquely can provide no answers, but do political atrocities really permit of a solution in which all we need to do is to master our dark unconscious?

At any rate, the oratorio received a fine performance. Its opening orchestral bars evoked a melancholy as ‘English’, if distinctively so, as the music of many of Tippett’s countrymen, up to and including Birtwistle, yet with its own harmonic and melodic inspiration. Are there in the music and the storytelling hints of Weill too, or does that merely reflect common influences? The BBC SO’s contribution impressed greatly, whether in the instrumental interludes – Tippett’s inspiration here Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – or the more grandly orchestral passages, the opening to the Third Part rhythmically tight and implacable, not least thanks to Davis’s direction. The first interlude, with its trio of two solo flutes and solo viola against a softly singing cello section was powerfully matched by the third part ‘Preludium’, almost neo-Baroque, in which two flutes and solo oboe prepared us for the final peroration, chaste yet without Stravinskian coldness. Choral singing was excellent throughout, the BBC Symphony Chorus as ever well trained by Stephen Jackson, yet with an emotional as well as a musical weight necessary to convey Tippett’s pain and transformation. Strength in anger – ‘A Spiritual of Anger’ – was powerfully conveyed in ‘Go down Moses’, though the intonation of Matthew Rose’s bass contributions was not always spot on. Nicole Cabell and the chorus provided what is perhaps the most magical moment. An exquisitely floated and shaded – with fulsome, though never excessive vibrato – soprano solo, ‘How can I cherish my man in such days…?’ persisted whilst the chorus movingly ‘stole in’ beneath, with the spiritual ‘Steal away’. The use of five spirituals, clearly echoing Bach’s Passion chorales, seems to me not without its problems; simplification of harmonic language at times sounds a little abrupt. Yet again, compositional sincerity tends to win out over such doubts. Karen Cargill, whilst definitely a mezzo, brought a welcome hint of the traditional oratorio contralto too to numbers such as ‘Man has measured the heavens with a telescope’. I was less sure about John Mark Ainsley’s contributions, sometimes both lachrymose and underpowered, struggling to be heard above the orchestra. (It should however be noted that he was a late replacement for an indisposed Toby Spence.) This may be a problematic work, then, but it received for the most part powerful, enlightened advocacy.

2 comments:

Oliver Soden said...

Yes indeed: Tippett explicitly referenced Weill as the inspiration for the tango-like accompaniment to the tenor number 'I have no money for my bread'. (How one longed for Toby Spence.) The opening chords, sadly not quite together at the beginning of an otherwise crisp performance, seem to me be an explicit reference to Vaughan William's Sea Symphony.

Nicole Cabell did sing beautifully, but it should be noted that 'How can I cherish' was taken at almost half-speed (metronome mark, crotchet = 120). Indeed, all the tempi of this (tremendously powerful) performance veered towards the slow, but then so do they in the composer's own recording.

Re the Wood concerto: when does 'influence' turn into 'being so similar as merely to highlight the superiority of the original'? And did that Spanish finale really belong in the work? (Shades of Walton?) TS Eliot, in an essay on Massinger, says that 'Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.' That, for me, was the difference between the Wood (imitation, if not defacement) and the Tippett that followed...

Thank you as ever for such an acute and informed review.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Oliver. I was pretty sure that was an explicit reference to Weill, though thought there was a chance of it being unconscious. Never having seen the score of the Tippett, I wasn't aware quite how slow 'How can I cherish' had been, though I did have a sense throughout that things were not moving very quickly. Not that I think it mattered.

The Wood concerto is an interesting case. At least from a first hearing and from having looked at the score, I much prefer it to the Walton, which I find simply incoherent, but Walton was another name that nevertheless came to mind. I enjoyed the piece, but afterwards, I must admit that I began to wonder whether it was simply too close to the Berg. Who knows, and for whom is it to judge? The Eliot quotation is apt, though. Stravinsky said something rather similar, I think (perhaps stealing from Eliot?!)