The numerous links and connections between each of tonight’s pieces make this a very cleverly crafted programme, on paper at least. Unified by a theme of ‘reflection and questioning’, the concert is evenly balanced, with two open-ended, questioning pieces (Ives’ The Unanswered Question and Zimmermann’s Nobody knows de trouble I see are both left hanging, unable to find resolution) each followed by a more pensive piece (Barber’s immensely popular Adagio and Tippett’s contemplative A Child of Our Time respectively). Both Zimmermann and Tippett use African-American spirituals in these works, both presenting anti-racist statements in the aftermath of World War II. Both also take the forms of the pieces from Bach – with Zimmermann constructing Nobody knows de trouble I see in the style of a chorale prelude and Tippett’s oratorio presenting something of a ‘modern Passion’ piece. Ives’ music exhibits a multitude of influences and, like Tippett and Zimmermann, Ives was unafraid of quoting from and alluding to popular as well as classical sources. Just as Barber’s Adagio was the piece that really put him on the map, so too A Child of Our Time brought Tippett international fame. Three of the pieces (Ives, Barber and Tippett) were performed in the 2001 and 2002 Proms series in remembrance of the September 11th attacks.
So, when there are so many notable parallels between these individually great works, why did I feel that the programme didn’t really work?
Ives’ The Unanswered Question does exactly what it says on the tin – the question posed by the interrogatory trumpet remains unanswered at the culmination of the piece. So I found it disappointing that the piece segued straight into Barber’s Adagio, as there was no real opportunity to reflect on the question posed, or its lack of resolution. This also denied Barber’s piece the poise and grandeur that it deserved, detracting from the performance. Also, I remain unconvinced that the Barber was an appropriate answer to Ives’ question. A more suitable accompanying piece would surely have been Ives’ Central Park in the Dark, which was composed for the purpose, and I feel this would have been a valuable addition to the concert (although admittedly extending an already long concert). Neither piece was poorly executed technically, although the concert did get off to a rocky start owing to a highly distracting (for orchestra and audience) squeaky door. The strings were faultless and the lead flautist Michael Cox was brilliant. Ives originally wanted to achieve a ‘stereophonic’ effect, separating the strings, flutes and trumpet spatially and intending the strings to play offstage. Logistically unrealistic as this is, the decision to have the trumpeter play offstage worked very well instead, I thought. Conductor David Robertson described Barber’s Adagio as doing a ‘psychic repair job on the soul’. Sadly it didn’t for me tonight, owing for the most part to an underwhelming climax – a disappointment as I was expecting so much from this moment. Ultimately, I was left somewhat dissatisfied.
Luckily the concert did gain in strength, however. Håkan Hardenberger’s solo trumpet performance in Zimmermann’s Nobody knows de trouble I see was phenomenal. Looking cool, calm and collected at all times, Hardenberger made it seem so easy and natural. The orchestra, too, seemed to up their game. This piece was a pleasure to hear live and worked far better than any recording of it I have ever heard. The percussion section in particular flourished. Although probably the least well-known of the evening’s programme, it was arguably the best performance of the night.
The interpretation of Tippett’s oratorio emphasised the lack of sentimentality in Tippett’s writing. Despite including performances by well-known soloists Sarah Connolly, Sally Matthews and Paul Groves, it was really the newly formed BBC Proms Youth Choir (which includes members of choirs from across the British Isles, such as the CBSO Youth Chorus, National Youth Choir of Scotland, Côr Hyn Glanaethwy and Codetta) that stole the show. Despite one noticeable intonation problem at the beginning of the third part, the choir’s performance was outstanding. I was equally impressed by Jubilant Sykes, the American baritone who performed the part of the narrator. His jazz and gospel influences fitted the spirituals-inspired oratorio perfectly, although perhaps didn’t gel so well with the other, more conservative soloists. This is no poor reflection on Sykes, however, as his warm, soulful voice gave a heightened expression to his lines.
David Robertson begins with two
iconic American pieces before turning to works in
which the emotive force of the African American
spiritual is harnessed by composers of the old world.
In A Child of Our Time Tippett drew in five spirituals to
reaffirm the indispensable human values of compassion
and brotherhood. Star trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger
returns and an impressive array of international singing
talent features alongside tonight’s newly formed
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP
David Robertson © Michael Tamarro