Classical music: The ascent of two men

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OUT OF the air comes music, even, at the start of Tippett's The Mask of Time, sound from "where no airs blow". For a pre-millennial Proms season steeped in themes of late works and of man's creative idealism, this late-20th-century answer to Haydn's The Creation proved a perfect first-night choice. An evolution narrative partly inspired by Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, this unique oratorio also contains poetical interludes, "Hiroshima, mon amour" for example, movingly sung by the soprano Claron McFadden, where the composer assumed his customary role as seer and dreamer. He himself had hoped to greet the new century. For those for whom his memory is green (he died last year, aged 93), listening or viewing on Friday, the work's ending, "The singing will never be done", must have proved especially poignant.

And it was just like Tippett, a 20th-century magpie, to pick on this phrase (Wilfred Owen's, as it happens) and blend it with music to yield an artistic sum that was different from either. When, at the end, the conductor Sir Andrew Davis held the score aloft, maybe this was what the audience partly acclaimed. The Mask of Time, though not quite a masterpiece, enshrines what its composer did best: assimilation and synthesis. It was no matter that at times the piece approaches bathos, even in its clinching gesture, the trumpet fanfares going with its summatory statement, "O man, make peace with your mortality, for this too is God." What seemed to count on Friday, defiant against even the Albert Hall's acoustics, was the strength of Tippett's setting of English. This was true both of the often surreal texts for the soloists, delivered without hesitation by Felicity Palmer, Robert Tear and Steven Page, and of the extended choral settings of Shelter and Akhmatova, masterfully rendered by the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Also fecund to a goodly age, Haydn stole Saturday's show, thanks to conductor Nikolaus Harnocourt (himself a sprightly 70), and the ravishing mezzo of Cecilia Bartoli. True to theme, there was also late Mozart "Parto, parto," from La Clemenza di Tito, but Bartol's shining coloratura in "Al tuo seno fortunato", a sybil's song from Haydn's opera Orfeo ed Euridice, crowned the evening. Her impassioned phrases, exquisitely partnered by the playing of the Vienna Concentus Musicus, seemed light years away from "The beleaguered friends", from The Mask of Time's second half. Yet the echoes in the latter (also an oracular scene, for mezzo, in a section about the Orphans myth) of modern opera's greatest divination aria, Sosostris's, from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage, was food for thought on how great composers over the centuries have worked with shared ideas.

In Haydn's Symphony No 87, there was something, too, about the frame of silence in which tunes appeared and vanished that suggested music borne of that region "where no airs blow". Tippett meant it metaphorically, whereas for Haydn, sound and its absence were key elements in his musical gamesmanship. If this kind of suggestion was the programmers' intention, however, then omens for a fascinating 1999 Proms season are strong.