Usher Hall, Edinburgh
While the bulk of Sunday’s Usher Hall audience will have known what to expect with Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, fewer will have been familiar with his Concerto for Orchestra. This pairing constituted an intriguing snapshot into the 20th century English composer’s complex, personalised sound world, delivered consummately under the seasoned baton of Sir Andrew Davis.
The former, a stirring 1940s wartime response to human violence and oppression, ranks among the composer’s few instantly-accessible pieces, notable for its thrilling climactic use of Black American Spirituals, their spine-tingling harmonies and tearful pathos.
The Concerto, however, is later Tippett – commissioned for, and premiered at, the 1963 Edinburgh Festival – the language by then more testing and austere, the milder dissonant complexion of Child of Our Time consigned to the past. Yet, as these engaging performances illustrated, a commonality persists – an elusive, mystical personality arising from complex objectivity. In other words, a consistent and recognisable musical voice.
Davis knew instinctively how to extract that personality from the RSNO in the orchestral opener, serving up exactly what it says on the tin, a concerto for orchestra, in which no-one gets an easy ride. It played out like a quick-fire conversational theatre piece, multi-layered characterisations ricocheting off each other with unceasing changeability. It featured delicious solos for flute, cello, even timpani, and sparky ensemble cameos – a parping tuba paired with piano, for instance – but also a concealed lyrical thread that formed a cohesive backbone to this fascinating, iridescent work.
That same unyielding determination fed through A Child of Our Time, Davis calmly in charge, but generating, through judicious pacing, an organic sense of the epic. The Festival Chorus took their lead accordingly, solid as a rock, openly expressive – especially in the unison singing – but sensitive, too, in shaping the big picture. Within the solo quartet, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha’s soprano was an exuberant foil to Dame Sarah Connolly’s burnished mezzo, tenor Russell Thomas and bass Michael Mofidian equally generous as a pairing. As a complete team they were resplendent. Once again the RSNO were faultless.
The outright winner, of course, was Tippett, so often maligned and misunderstood – not unreasonably in certain cases – but reconfirmed here as a legitimate and unique voice in what was a turbulent, sometimes unfriendly, 20th century musical landscape.