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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
A Child of Our Time (Oratorio in Three Parts) (f.p. 1944)
Faye Robinson (soprano), Sarah Walker (mezzo), Jon Garrison (tenor), John Cheek (bass)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus/Simon Halsey
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tippett
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Birmingham UK; 11-13 Oct 1991.
NAXOS 8.557570 [69:19]


It’s rare for a great musical work to be brought into being as the direct result of a news story. That is, however, what happened when Michael Tippett learned of the tragic events concerning 18 year-old Herschel Grynspan. This Jewish boy’s shooting of a Nazi official in Paris in 1938 precipitated the horror that became known as ‘Kristallnacht’ – the infamous ‘Night of Broken Glass’, during which thousands of Jews were killed or injured, their businesses wrecked, and the first decisive steps taken by the Nazis towards the Holocaust.

Tippett fashioned the resulting oratorio with the greatest care, seeking to avoid any suspicion of sensationalism, yet wishing to drive home as powerfully as possible the message behind the events. In this, he was remarkably successful, though it has taken a long time for the work to find the true acceptance that it enjoys today. As an early work by a late-developing composer – for Tippett had none of the staggering facility of the young Britten, for example – it was for many years viewed with some condescension by admirers of Tippett’s later music. On the other hand, music-lovers and amateur performing groups still found it challenging and, in many ways, unapproachable.

The composer had hit upon a brilliant means of universalising the emotions in the story, which was to use Negro Spirituals – five of them in all – to clinch the emotional high-points of the work. These perform much the same function as the chorales in the Bach Passions, and provide a melodious relief to the sometimes austere music that surrounds them. The Spiritual settings have been published separately, arranged for unaccompanied SATB chorus, and have become, understandably, enormously popular with choirs that can rise to their challenges. Perhaps that explains, in part, why the work finally seems to have settled into the repertoire, even if to a limited degree.

It is, however, an uneven piece; there are some places where the invention flags, and the choral writing is sometimes miscalculated. Then there’s that libretto by the composer himself. In fact, it mostly works surprisingly well, but it is sadly prone to sudden plunges into befuddlement; “Winter cold means inner warmth”, sings the bass (anyone for Ready Brek?), while shortly before this, the alto soloist assures us that “The soul of man is impassioned like a woman”, which, while you do kind of get what he means, is a really clumsy image.

However, in a performance like this one, all of this matters but little, for the composer’s direction gives the whole thing the authentic ring of intense emotional involvement, which no-one could possibly mistake. As it happens, I had recently been listening to Colin Davis’s 1975 recording, which in comparison seems bloodless and detached. Though the choral and orchestral contributions are good, Davis’s soloists are a mixed bag; Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk sing well enough, but a young Jessye Norman is squally and undisciplined, and tenor Richard Cassilly is, I’m afraid, just awful. Tippett’s quartet on the present CD are really very fine; Faye Robinson’s soprano is emotionally intense but always focused – compare her exquisite high Bb (marked pp in the score), just before the choir enters with Steal Away, with Norman’s outrageous swoop and belt, and you’ll see what I mean!

Sarah Walker is on magnificent form, her firm lower register giving a tragic and sometimes sinister edge to her words. Bass John Cheek has a splendidly rich voice, with enough baritone quality in it to lend warmth to his expressive phrases. Tenor Jon Garrison is possibly the least impressive of the quartet vocally, but he has the advantage of a very young sounding voice, which gives the music associated with the central figure, the “child of our time”, an added poignancy.

Choir and orchestra are more than adequate – the choral soprano line is quite outstanding – though some of the orchestral detail could do with greater projection. But the main force behind this is the composer himself; despite his often discussed shortcomings as a conductor, he knew exactly how he wanted this music to go, and it has the burning commitment and emotional energy that arise from having ‘lived’ these experiences at first hand. Any listener who knows his Tippett will recognise these qualities immediately, and even the very fine Hickox version doesn’t come close to matching that essence.

By the way, one of the joys of this version was to hear the composer as conductor placing this early music of his in the overall context of his output. The springy rhythms leading to the first tenor solo, for example, (track 6) could come straight out of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra of a few years earlier, while the alto solo of track 27 contains music that looks forward unmistakably to the hieratic complexities of A Midsummer Marriage, to follow some years later.

On the debit side, the tension is allowed to sag towards the end of Part Two, after the great outpouring of anger that is Go down, Moses, and there is frequent, though never serious, untidiness of ensemble. We are probably still waiting for the definitive Child of Our Time. Nonetheless, this recording will never lose its rightful place in the discography of this wonderful and deeply moving work. My thanks go to Naxos for making it available once more, and for timing its release so impeccably.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see also Review by John Quinn




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