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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven, Symphony No.3 ‘Eroica’ & Tippett, A Child of Our Time, Rebecca Ryan (sop), Jeanette Ager (mezzo-soprano), Wynne Evans (tenor), Andrew Foster-Williams (bass), New London Soloists Orchestra, Barts Choir, Alei Gefen Chorus, Ivor Setterfield (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 18th April 2004 (MB)

The ‘Eroica’ and A Child of our Time make an apposite coupling, both works being a reflection of their respective composers’ political and humanistic concerns. For Beethoven, his Third Symphony was a commemoration of Napoleon’s Republicanism and the triumph of people over empire; for Tippett, A Child of our Time was an expression of 1930s intolerance and inhumanity, a work which was as spiritual and pacifist in its scope as Beethoven’s work was heroic and idealistic. Yet, if Beethoven broke new ground with his symphony Tippett looked back beyond the ephemerism of ‘new music’ – or even the music of his day - to the ideals of Bach and Handel to create a work that, if not radically shaped, widened cultural boundaries in the unorthodox handling of his libretto (negro spirituals replaced the Bachian congregational hymns, for example).

Such an interesting coupling, however, did not manifest itself in particularly gripping performances of either work in the concert hall. The New London Soloists are a very good orchestra – some very assured brass playing in the Beethoven, along with some outstanding woodwind solos, impressed. But, such a thin body of strings in both performances – with only six ‘cellos and four basses – proved to be too little to give the performances the depth of sound both needed. Ivor Setterfield’s brisk tempi for the Beethoven never once created a frisson of drama or impact – and with such lacklustre string tone this only added to the impression of this being a weightless performance, one that was neither HIP nor especially ‘modern’ in its approach. A luminous – and fast - account of the funeral march almost benefited from such spectral string tone – the first and second violin figures of the fugal central section – even though not divided as strings – did embody an impressive sense of implied division. Too often, however, a sense of architecture was sacrificed for erratic tempi – and this was certainly the case in the final movement and its coda – which meant detail was irreparably lost; and even though Setterfield conducted without a baton there was little sense of musical shape being given to the performance.

Tippett’s A Child of our Time got off to a false start but more problematical was the slowness of the underlying tempi maintained throughout the performance. Tippett, himself prone to slowness in this work, at least realised how crucial the brevity of pauses between the movements should be; for Setterfield they could be sustained for such an inordinate length of time that all dramatic tension and purpose was lost. But even given these problems the performance did have some undoubted merits: the sublime woodwind phrasing in ‘Is evil then good?’ recalled the precision in the Beethoven, and if the brass playing was often tonally splendid one did yearn for better balance (in the closing spiritual of Part I the trumpets were all but obliterated by the chorus). ‘The cold deepens’ was intoned with a delicate balance between sombre strings and plangent brass.

The four soloists were uneven. Rebecca Ryan had some pitch problems in her solo ‘How can I cherish my man in such day’ and in the following spiritual an excessive vibrato drew attention to her voice when it should in fact have been drawing attention to the text. Jeanettte Ager’s mezzo didn’t always have the requisite evenness of tone in the lower register but she phrased beautifully, her opening solo setting the sun on a performance that was richly imagistic. Wynne Evans seemed to weaken vocally as the performance developed – his solo ‘My dreams are all shattered’ was slightly masked by the orchestration (although Tippett doesn’t make it difficult for the tenor to ride above the orchestra). Andrew Foster-Williams’ bass bestrode his narrative magnificently – perhaps not quite as deeply toned as would be ideal, but impressive to listen to nevertheless. The choruses – not always together – sang heroically, if without the precision on some recordings of the work.

Both Tippett (see below) and Beethoven need greater advocacy than they were given in this concert.

Marc Bridle

Further Listening

Tippett, A Child of our Time, Jessye Norman, Janet Baker, Richard Cassilly, John Shirley-Quick, BBC Singers, BBC Choral Society, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, Philips 4200752PH (nla in UK, but available in Germany).




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