Paradise - as seen by a non-believer

Visions of Paradise London Sinfonietta / LSO Barbican Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
This week, "Visions of Paradise" confronted Tippett's time of change: though his musical character never stopped growing, the pace hotted up through the 1960s and 1970s. With the Concerto for Orchestra, a composer of abundance and prolixity entered a phase of sudden bright colours and lucid forms. Slimming down before coming out, you might say, because the complexity bounded back with a vastly increased range of reference and freedom of spirit.

So it was that the Songs for Dov, featured in Wednesday's London Sinfonietta concert, began by making the tenor howl like a sick dog and put him through bouts of wild Americanisms in between the ornate lines and compassionate warmth that are more typical of the Tippett of old. Beyond this, the Symphony No 3 - revived on Thursday by the LSO, which had commissioned it - steered its way towards a deconstruction of Beethoven's Choral Symphony. Its finale, taking off from a direct quote from Beethoven's disruptive din, proposes an agnostic's alternative to the "Ode to Joy": three stylised jazz / blues songs, followed by a philosophical aria that quotes Martin Luther King but ends in orchestral gestures of doubt and uncertainty.

They don't wear evenly, these pieces. The Dov songs capture marvellously well an uprooted, fragmented personality, belonging to the character who sings them. But the music itself strikes poses and tries out identities as much as the character. It works best when the songs drop all pretence and yearn frankly for wholeness, because the music then achieves it. This state doesn't last, as a starry-eyed worship of the USA rears its head again. Nobody ever looks comfortable singing those would-be-racy "play it cool" lines. Wednesday's tenor, Nigel Robson, duly jigged around and tentatively flung his arms. Close your eyes, though, and you heard a performance of passion and skill.

The Symphony, a massive, hour-long piece, isn't played so often now. It made a revealing sequel to the Concerto for Orchestra, which was played brilliantly under Elgar Howarth in the first concert. The symphony's three purely instrumental movements use similar block-like methods of assembly; but its blocks don't have the epigrammatic force of the Concerto's, except in the hauntingly calm slow movement, and they pile up without the same clarity. Energy and directness carry the music far, and Faye Robinson's whole-hearted and generous-toned singing brought the later stages an unquestioned immediacy.

Still, what a muddle this finale is. The basis seems to be verbal, not musical, and a verbal misconception too that the simple certainties of the "Ode to Joy" are not viable in troubled modern times. Were they ever? Nothing stopped Martin Luther King from dreaming his impossible dream; but the music itself even undermines that vision. It's a poison, this lack of faith. Tippett himself gives the lie to it in the Concerto, with its ever-changing combinations of bright sounds valued for their own sake - a religion-free model of eternity and impermanence, as clear as a Buddhist mandala.

Sir Colin Davis and the LSO delivered a performance even more focused, bold and affecting than their first encounters with the symphony a generation ago. But they had upstaged themselves in the first half when Stephen Kovacevich joined them for unadorned Beethoven, the Piano Concerto No 4. Here were two musicians who have lived more intimately with the composer than most and, from the quiet intensity that touched each movement near its end, to the fire and impatience as the musical arguments were clinched, this was perfection of its kind.

Not so in the Sinfonietta's other item, where a David Sawer premiere had been postponed and Steve Martland's American Invention put in its place. Like Tippett, Martland knows how to strike attitudes fruitfully, but he's done it more cogently elsewhere. Despite the amplified guitar, keyboards and drum kit, this piece was more austere than abrasive, the colours kept cold by flutes and horn and the keyboard timbres. Bracing for a while, it asked too much of its material, and you could sense the audience letting it go.

Robert Maycock