The best recordings of Tippett's A Child of our Time
Daniel Jaffé names the greatest versions of Tippett’s large-scale oratorio, inspired by the dark events of pre-War Nazi Germany
With the 1944 premiere of his oratorio A Child of Our Time, the 39-year-old Tippett finally came to public attention. Hitherto an obscure choral conductor of left-wing sympathies, Tippett wrote Child in 1938 on reading of the Nazi pogroms in Germany triggered by the fatal shooting in Paris of a German diplomat by a 17-year-old Jewish refugee.
Tippett penned the libretto, influenced by TS Eliot and Jungian psychology. Like Eliot’s poetry, Tippett’s music is full of allusions, including to the three-part structure of Handel’s Messiah; he also followed Bach’s use of a soloist as an Evangelist-style narrator, and of the chorus as commentator, though using North American spirituals instead of Lutheran chorales.
After discouraging feedback from conductor Walter Goehr, Tippett consigned the work to a drawer until Britten, on seeing it, urged Tippett to get the work performed.
The best recording of Tippett's A Child of our Time
Indra Thomas, Mihoko Fujimura, Steve Davislim, Matthew Rose; LSO and Chorus/Colin Davis (2007)
LSO Live LSO 0670
A leading Tippett champion, Sir Colin Davis recorded Child three times. His final attempt, though, is the most compelling and exciting of all (not just Davis’s). There are some solecisms: Davis’s jaunty treatment of ‘Steal Away’, which follows the mother’s lament, hardly suggests the necessary consoling quality found by other conductors. He can be quite cavalier, too, over Tippett’s instructions for articulation. The pay-off, though, is a powerful and moving performance.
Key to Davis’s achievement is in the crucial central section, dramatising the brutal events that first moved Tippett to write his oratorio. ‘The Terror’, for once, lives up to that description: the London Symphony Chorus not only takes the alarmingly angular writing in its stride, but also delivers the words with venom. Equally, its steely delivery of the ‘Spiritual of Anger’ (‘Go down, Moses’) fulfils its title.
Respectively balancing and resolving this are the oratorio’s first and third sections, the orchestra’s playing exuding nobility and expressiveness, yet also providing muscular precision in the syncopations accompanying ‘The soul of man’. The soloists are characterful – even if Fujimura’s words verge on the incomprehensible – and blend beautifully in the final ensemble leading to the serene ‘Deep River’.
Other great recordings
Jessye Norman, Janet Baker, Richard Cassilly, John Shirley-Quirk; BBC Singers; BBC Choral Society; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis (1975)
Decca 478 8351
Davis’s earliest recording of Child is a classic, and ticks many boxes. If one discounts André Previn’s superb but unavailable RPO recording, Davis’s 1975 version has the most stellar soloist line-up: Jessye Norman is formidable as the mother, while Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk are compelling and sentient narrators.
American Wagnerian tenor Richard Cassilly, however, sounds out of place in Tippett’s mix of neo-classical oratorio and vernacular style. Given the tenor’s central role, this is a more crucial shortcoming than Fujimura’s diction in the LSO Live recording. And the BBC Singers and Choral Society, while technically faultless, do not match the fire of the London Symphony Chorus.
Elsie Morison, Pamela Bowden, Richard Lewis, Richard Standen; RLPO and Choir/John Pritchard (1957)
This account of Child, the earliest recorded, still sounds good. John Pritchard and his musicians’ fluent, natural-sounding projection of the oratorio’s drama comes into focus with Elsie Morison’s affecting performance of ‘How can I cherish my man’; as it segues into the consoling ‘Steal away’,
Morison’s lamenting melismas are a continuation from her aria rather than mere decoration of the spiritual. Mezzo Pamela Bowden and tenor Richard Lewis are almost as fine, and the choir is remarkably good. Two caveats: first, the bass soloist Richard Standen’s plummy tones have all the personality of a hired footman’s; second, the download’s rumble and pops betray its transfer from LP rather than original tape.
Faye Robinson, Sarah Walker, Jon Garrison, John Cheek; CBSO and Chorus/Michael Tippett (1991)
Recorded by the composer less than three months from his 87th birthday, this is not surprisingly both a loving performance – both in terms of detail and atmosphere – and generally a rather slow one.
Tippett has a fine line-up of soloists, with characterful singing from mezzo Sarah Walker and bass John Cheek, while both orchestra and chorus are well prepared. The chorus sometimes sounds tentative, possibly due to uncertain cues from the elderly Tippett. In theory, one might have expected this recording to be near the top of the pile. Unfortunately the leisurely tempos rather sap any dramatic urgency.
And one to avoid…
In Richard Hickox’s 1992 account, all his soloists are veterans of Trevor Nunn’s landmark Glyndebourne Porgy and Bess; but actor-singer Damon Evans, so effective as Sportin’ Life in the Gershwin, fails to appear sympathetic as the persecuted Jew, let alone cope with the part’s lyricism. Add to that Hickox’s rather lumbering way with Tippett’s linear and lean scoring, and the result is hectoring rather than moving.
Words by Daniel Jaffé