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Seen and Heard Prom Review

 

PROM 14: Tippett, The Vision of St Augustine, Shostakovich, Symphony No. 10, Roderick Williams (baritone) Elisabeth Atherton (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Richard Hickox (conductor), 25 July 2005 (AO)

 

The previous evening, the Royal Albert Hall had resounded to a glorious performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius.  By serendipity, both Elgar and Tippett were writing about holy men who faced death and were transformed by the afterlife.   Elgar's Gerontius grew out of Newman's profound understanding of Catholic belief.  Tippett, a man of his time in so many ways, responded more to the sudden transforming vision that changed Augustine, who had previously doubted his faith.  In 1965, the idea of instant revelation was in vogue - this was the age of LSD and pop psychology.  Even Bob Dylan wrote  I dreamed I saw St Augustine, alive like you and me”

The Vision is one of Tippett's most ambitious pieces. He attempted to express in music the complexity of St Augustine's writings and somehow capture something of the inspiring experience.  It is by no means easy music.  Indeed, the reason it is so rarely heard is that it depends on exceptional, tour de force performance to come off successfully.  In Roderick Williams, the piece might have found a champion.   Williams' credentials are unique.  Immersed in the English vocal tradition, yet also a specialist in contemporary music, and a good composer himself, he is uniquely placed to do the Vision justice.  He has the technical skill and musical understanding to make the piece work, and work well.  Unusually, the music seems to depend on the soloist, even more than the conductor, to propel it on.  It needs the sheer personal dynamism and commitment of a baritone like Williams.  It is no surprise that it was first performed by Fischer Dieskau (and was a BBC commission).

Tippett seems to have written the music so densely that it will deliberately trip up all but the most worthy performers.  The dissonances and jerky quirks are obstacles that perhaps reflect the difficulty St Augustine had in resolving his conflicts.  A particular feature is the constant drawing out of words, or syllables of words.  Perhaps these melismas are for their own sake, as well as to confound the performers and amaze the audience.  However, they do create an inner world, for the singer stretches the sound, sometimes a single vowel, as far as it can go, as if exploring and examining it over and over.  Perhaps it's supposed to be painful.  At times, even an agile singer like Williams was daunted, but undented, he soldiered on. Nonetheless, it creates an interesting sound world – surreal and yet vaguely familiar.  One can almost hear the sounds of Arabic keening in some passages, a subtle reminder that Augustine was African, and that his world existed on the periphery of Rome.  Because so much depends on the actual expression of the voice, the baritone leads the chorus as well as the orchestra.  It creates a tightly woven polyphony that in itself would turn to mush if sloppily performed.

Fortunately, the BBC Symphony Chorus are among the best in the business.  Fearlessly they negotiated the dissonances, the twists and turns and ululations.  There were complex patterns within even the basic voice groups, but they were so precise that it sounded as though they did this everyday. They had their share of fiendish melismas and sang them in unison what's more.  Their long exploration of the word “alleluia” at the climax of part two was very impressive.  I was reminded of the gorgeous setting of the Angel's “alleluia” in Gerontius.  Too little credit is given to choristers, many of whom can only work part time.   They may not have star status, but without the commitment of each individual, the group as a whole would be diminished.  A chorus master has to have unusual logistical and management skills in addition to musical ability. In this case the chorus master was Stephen Jackson.    Their vocal coach was Deborah Miles-Johnson. The demands of the piece were so great that the Chorus was supplemented by members of Apollo Voices.  Although her part was relatively small, Elisabeth Atherton did well, particularly as she is relatively young.

Hickox led the orchestra with great sensitivity.  The purely orchestral passages are as tricky as the vocal parts. Indeed, the writing was such that you could almost feel that the instruments were “singing” too.  Indeed, they take over at critical points, such as at the end of Part Two, when the force of emotion is so powerful that words cannot sustain them.  The orchestra sounds then, like nature itself, like surf rolling in and pounding on the earth. And yet, soon after, they are subdued and “listening” as Williams leads with  Sileant” (silence), to be echoed by the chorus singing “sileant....leant”,  repeated quietly, like waves receding.

At the very end, there's a typical Tippett touch, which you either love or loathe.  First the words are sung in Greek, and in case you don't get them, are spoken then in English. “I count not myself to have apprehended”. It's curious as the language to this point has been Latin.  Moreover, the baritone faces the chorus and orchestra to do so.  Those who admire this may think it's delightfully self deprecatory and humble.  Others may think it's excruciatingly pretentious and pointlessly coy in the 1960's manner.  Afterwards, Hickox and Williams embraced warmly.  They have worked together so often that perhaps a definitive recording may be in the offing. 

Shostakovich's Tenth symphony followed.  Usually this is a showpiece, with the “Stalin” movement stunning the audience.  It was competently played, but after the Vision, whatever its merits, only another tour de force would have registered.

 

Anne Ozorio

 

 

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