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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) A Child of our time (1941) [64.28]
Jessye Norman (soprano), Janet Baker (contralto), Richard Cassilly (tenor), John Shirley-Quirk (bass)
BBC Singers, BBC Choral Society, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
rec. London, March 1975 PHILIPS PRESTO CD 420075-2 [64.28]
When originally issued on LP in 1975, this was only the second recording of Tippett’s sublime oratorio on disc. It had been preceded by an early stereo issue on Argo conducted by John Pritchard (issued on CD on Decca Belart), at that time one of the leading proponents of Tippett’s music, and the recording by which I first came to know the score. By the 1970s the role of Tippett’s champion in Britain had been assumed by Colin Davis, who naturally wished to set his own stamp on the work. Indeed in some ways it appears now in the light of a deliberate counterblast to Pritchard’s much more laid-back approach. At the time – and indeed now – it seems to be considerably faster at nearly every point than was Pritchard, and consciously stresses the drama of the music at the expense of the contemplative elements. The conductor appears to have changed his mind little over the years about this – his later Dresden re-make is of exactly the same duration – but others have taken a much broader view. Richard Hickox on Chandos takes nearly ten minutes longer, and even more extraordinarily the composer himself took a full quarter of an hour more in his reading of the score on the defunct Collins Classics label, a release now available on Naxos.
It is not therefore purely by comparison with Pritchard’s recording that I find Colin Davis’s traversal of the score undesirably hasty. To take just one example: at the end of Part One, when the first of the negro spirituals steals in, it should surely bring a sense of ecstatic relaxation after we hear the mother’s lament over her persecution – indeed her sighs continue to be heard over the chorus. Here the speed adopted feels positively jaunty, and this seems to trivialise the music rather than lend it dramatic urgency. The metronome markings in the score indicate a slowing of the pace rather than (as here) an increase; and the solo soprano line is no longer a lament, but simply a decoration of the melodic line below it. I could cite other examples where Davis’s desire for urgent involvement actively undermines the emotion that Tippett himself seeks – and which, judging from his speeds in his own version, it really needs.
This is all the more regrettable in that this CD reissue (see here for an earlier disc) certainly fields the strongest team of soloists to be found in any recording of the work. I am not sure how far the role of the mother should be virginal rather than maternal, but Jessye Norman makes out a very strong case for the latter interpretation by comparison with the purer-voiced sopranos we find elsewhere. At the same time she seems to be the performer here most ill at ease with Davis’s speeds. Janet Baker is superb, both impassioned and resigned by turns, and a great improvement on Pritchard’s rather plain Pamela Bowden. John Shirley-Quirk similarly scores heavily by comparison with Pritchard’s rather placid Richard Standen, although one might wish for even more sense of barely suppressed rage on a line like “If not, I’ll strike your firstborn dead” in the “spiritual of anger” (the composer’s own description) Go down, Moses. Richard Cassilly however is not in the same league as Pritchard’s Richard Lewis, metallic and edgy where Lewis was more obviously the embodiment of the “scapegoat” that Tippett describes. Then again, nobody has ever quite equalled Lewis in this music for sheer beauty of tone.
In short, this recording is best described as a “young man’s” interpretation of Tippett’s masterpiece. Davis was relatively young then. It has previously been available on CD not only as a stand-alone issue (as here) but as a very substantial ‘filler’ for Davis’s recording of the opera The Knot Garden. Most of Tippett’s admirers will probably already own it as part of that set (no longer separately available), as indeed I do. Tippett himself was no expert conductor of his own music, as was for example Benjamin Britten, but it seems to me that at Naxos price his own recording of the work is surely unbeatable, an “old man’s” version illuminated by a lifetime of both experience and disillusionment; he was in his mid-eighties at the time of the recording. The booklet in this Presto reissue contains the full text from the original Philips CD together with a French translation (the miniature score gives us one in German). Being an exact reprint of the original information, it does not give the date of the composer’s death.