Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) A Child of Our Time (1939-41) [73:17]
Cynthia Haymon (soprano), Cynthia Clarey (contralto), Damon Evans (tenor), Willard White (bass)
London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 1992, Blackheath Concert Hall, London CHANDOS CHAN10869X [73:17]
The music world was shocked and deeply saddened by Richard Hickox’s untimely death in 2008 at the age of sixty, but with over 280 recordings to his name there is a more than substantial legacy on which we can look back with gratitude. You can read more on his obituary page here. The Chandos label’s “series of re-issues underway” will be a celebration of and testimony to Hickox’s work.
I have a particular affection for this piece as it was one of the early experiences I had as a very green-around-the-ears student at the Royal Academy of Music, drafted in as a chorus member for the RAM Tippett Festival in 1985. For some reason the original release of this Chandos recording of A Child of Our Time escaped review on this site, but it followed their award-winning recording of Britten’s War Requiem (review) with the same forces, and inevitably generated much interest at the time. Commentators admired the accuracy of the performance and generally very high quality, but arguments about its broad tempi and lack of drama rumbled around in some quarters. Now we can look back with a little more objectivity.
Yes, Hickox goes for a more sustained view of some of these movements, but with the Rolls-Royce qualities of his LSO players and chorus I sense he can more than get away with it, creating an electric atmosphere in something like the opening of Part II, ‘A star rises in mid-winter’. There is no lack of energy and pulse in the swifter and more dramatic sections, and as a result the contrasts are delivered with plenty of impact. The soloists are all very strong, top and bottom particularly well represented by the gorgeous tones of Cynthia Haymon and the irrepressibly powerful but also subtly expressive Willard White. Alto Cynthia Clarey takes a while to warm up but is better further along, her darker tones suiting the duet “The boy becomes desperate in his agony” and The dark forces rise like a flood in Part II. Tenor Damon Evans is good enough and suitably non-heroic as the boy singing in his prison, though I’m not so keen on the way many of his notes seem to take a moment to emerge.
The LSO chorus is excellent as you would expect, creating a magical halo around spirituals such as O, by and by and delivering plenty of character elsewhere. Texts are all given in the booklet, including translation into French and German. This release indicates it has been given a 2015 digital re-mastering but I don’t have the original for any kind of comparison. In any case there can be no complaints about sound quality, with excellent balance and a finely honed sonic stream which moves along as smoothly as the ‘Deep river’ of the finale.
There are other recordings around, and fans of Tippett will always want the composer’s own conducting as a reference. The Naxos re-release of the Collins Classics recording from 1991 (see review) has many fine qualities and for some has the greatest emotional impact of any. You may want Sir Colin Davis’s Decca version for Jessye Norman’s singing as much as anything else, though I don’t find it quite as distressingly ‘lumbering’ as Rob Barnett did in his review. While it has acquired something of a classic status amongst some commentators Gwyn Parry-Jones’s comments in his Naxos review are telling if perhaps not entirely fair; John Quinn was more welcoming. Davis’s 2003 Dresden recording from the Profil label is also not definitive (see review), with its rather noisy live ambience and Teutonic linguistic emphases, though there is no doubting the sincerity of the performance. Davis also has a recording via the LSO Live label LSO0670 which struggles a little in the rather flat Barbican acoustic but somehow manages to pack many a tear-jerking moment. I’ve had a copy of André Previn’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recording knocking around since the 1980s, but I’ve held onto it more for sentimental reasons than for the quality of the performance. Edward Greenfield admired it at the time, but it was more of a novelty as the only alternative aside from Colin Davis then on Philips, and another venerable recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir John Pritchard on Argo and now via Belart.
Of all the versions I’ve come across there is no all-round alternative I would prefer over this superb Chandos recording. Other performances have their own special moments and different qualities, and this one is certainly pitched at a slightly lower emotional edge than for instance Tippett’s own recording on that aforementioned Naxos re-release. Its effect is however as much cumulative as it can be immediate, and if you take the performance as a whole it provides as overwhelming an experience as any.