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PROM 1: Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Tippett Soloists, BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Sir Roger Norrington, Royal Albert Hall, 15 July, 2005 (CC)



Sir Roger Norrington's speech on the recent London bombings (which he referred to as 'last Thursday's tragedy') pointed out the aptness of Tippett's Child of our Time, which formed the second half of the concert. It is a work that examines the destructive outcomes of clashing ideologies and could hardly be more fitting. Norrington's timing was perfect. The speech actually preceded Elgar's overture Cockaigne, the work that ended the first half. Subtitled, 'In London Town', it celebrates the greatness of this wonderful city.


A pity then that the actual performance of this Elgar was the weak point of a very strong programme. Stumbling into life, bleary-eyed, the whole affair was low-voltage, and the langorous passages tended towards the over-indulgent. If the marching band episode was fairly loud, this was a band certainly not in full cry and decidedly unjubilant – a shame, as this represents the colour and pageantry at the heart of Elgar's London. Norrington's take on Cockaigne is strangely, rather unnervingly, diffuse, his sagging nobilmente rather on the tepid side.


All the more of a pity when one considers the excellence of the rest of the first half. Berlioz' Le Corsaire Overture, despite a scrappy start, had real life. The light violins (vibrato, of course, at an absolute minimum spoke of Norrington through and through). I liked Norrington's pirate-like swish, sword-like, of his baton at the audience at the end.


So to the triumph of the First Night First Half – Janine Jansen's Mendelssohn. Jansen's tone was simply gorgeous, with a burnished edge that was most appealing. Most importantly, her approach was an intrinsically human one – not a trace of the automaton or virtuoso show-off here (Gil Shaham ruined an otherwise fine account with an insubstantial finale in 2003). The rapport between Jansen and Norrington was palpable. Full agreement on chamber-music delicacy and transparency (never have I heard the orchestral contribution with such textural detail) meant that pianissimi could really sit on the threshold of audibility. The playful finale had a real thread of energy running through it.


Tippett's Child of Our Time, is a response to both the assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a teenage Jewish boy and also the resultant Nazi Reichskristallnacht. The soloists were the excellent American soprano Indra Thomas, the BBC New Generation Artist, mezzo Christine Rice and the perhaps better-known Ian Bostridge and Willard White to complete the line-up.


The piece is impeccably structured, and the use of Spirituals 'in place of' Bach Chorales is most effective. This is, perhaps, Tippett's finest work (although Midsummer Marriage to my mind vies with that title). The chorus is mightily important, and the BBC Symphony Chorus excelled. Norrington guided his forces well (despite one false oboe entry) and paced Tippett's piece with expertise. Indra Thomas seemed absolutely at home in the Spirituals (positively embarrassing Bostridge on one occasion). Christine Rice proved an acceptable mezzo after a nervous start and Willard White brought a wealth of experience to make the Narrator's contributions remarkably moving. Only Ian Bostridge was a real disappointment, seeming weak of voice at times. The characteristic attention to diction was there (the famous 'I have no money for my bread' solo, for example) but involvement lay at a minimum.


This was a powerful performance with a depth that I had not entirely expected from Sir Roger. All bodes well for the 2005 Season, then.



Colin Clarke


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