tippett child naxos

Déjà Review: this review was first published in March 2005 and the recording is still available.

Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998)
A Child of Our Time
Faye Robinson (soprano); Sarah Walker (mezzo); Jon Garrison (tenor); John Cheek (bass)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Michael Tippett
rec. 1991, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK
Naxos 8.557570 [69]

Naxos has already reissued several excellent recordings from the now-defunct Collins Classics label. However, with due respect to the artists involved in the previous reissues, I venture to suggest that this is the most important to date for it restores to the catalogue a recording that gives us a relatively rare chance to hear Tippett conducting one of his major scores.

Written between 1939 and 1941, A Child of Our Time was inspired by an event in 1938. A young Jewish boy murdered a German diplomat in Paris and this was the excuse for the horrifying series of pogroms in Germany and Austria known collectively as ‘Kristallnacht’. Tippett devised his own libretto (one that is neither as wordy nor as abstruse as those that he later provided for some of his operas), which reflects on these events and their consequences. In his excellent and succinct liner note Anthony Burton recalls that the composer himself commented that the tripartite structure of Messiah was to some extent his model, in that Handel’s masterpiece consists in the first part “of ‘great but general prophecies’, the second of narrative, and the third of ‘commentary and judgement.’” I hadn’t read this before but I appreciate the comparison. Much better known, of course, is Tippett’s inspired decision to weave into his work five African-American Spirituals, which is comparable to Bach’s use of chorales in his Passions.

Tippett, then aged 85, directed a fine performance of this deeply serious work. He is fortunate to have had a very fine team of soloists, all of them, apart from Sarah Walker, American. As a point of interest three of this team (Jon Garrison is the exception) also took part in Sir Andrew Davis’s EMI recording of Tippett’s The Mask of Time. The contributions of all four singers are very impressive. Sarah Walker is at all times clear and eloquent; as, for example, in her opening solo, ‘Man has measured the heavens with a telescope’. Jon Garrison is a fine, ringing tenor who sings intelligently and with a well-controlled ardour. His diction is excellent, as is that of John Cheek … and Sarah Walker, also. Cheek commands attention throughout, though it sounded to me as if he was recorded just a fraction more distantly than his colleagues. Faye Robinson sings with a pretty wide vibrato and unfortunately this means that her words are not as clear as are those of her colleagues. However, she sings with lovely tone and soars beautifully above the ensemble in ‘Steal away’ and another of the spirituals, ‘Oh, by and by’.

The CBSO Chorus makes a telling contribution. Clearly energised by the octogenarian composer, they sing with a commitment that is just as evident in soft passages as in the more fiery stretches. The orchestra too plays very well, responding positively to Tippett’s direction. Much of the work is dark and powerful and the CBSO makes a major contribution to the success of this performance by projecting Tippett’s music strongly The final ensembles, ‘I would know my shadow’ and the spiritual ‘Deep river’, which ends the work are very moving, as is the spiritual ‘Go down, Moses’, which lies at the heart of Part II.

In summary, this is a very committed and eloquent account of a serious and important work. The fact that the composer presides adds an extra frisson of authenticity. The recorded sound is very good and the documentation (in English only) includes a full libretto and the very interesting note by Anthony Burton.

This release is doubly welcome as a contribution to the Tippett centenary celebrations. I’m delighted to see it restored to the catalogue. It’s an indispensable purchase for all admirers of Tippett and all lovers of the English choral tradition. At the Naxos price it represents an incredible bargain. Strongly recommended.

John Quinn

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