Proms; Shaking a fist at God

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ANY TRIBUTE to Sir Michael Tippett, who died earlier this year, was bound to include Beethoven. Visionaries both. Men of lofty ideals. But it was Beethoven's rage, his need to know, to challenge, to reason why; it was the fist he repeatedly shook at the Almighty that one senses really and truly inspired Tippett. When Tippett reiterated - in actual quotation - the explosive opening bars of the Beethoven Ninth finale in the finale of his own Third Symphony, it was as if he himself could not get beyond them, as if it were no longer possible for him to believe, as Beethoven so clearly did, or wanted to, in the unalloyed joy of Schiller's Ode. Tippett wrote his own blues instead. That was his rage, written on behalf of the people, in the musical vernacular of the people. He'd done it before, with the spirituals of A Child of Our Time - the born- again Passion which first brought him to prominence. And that work has been reaching father and wider ever since.

Sir Colin Davis, long-time friend and champion of the composer, brought it to the Proms on Sunday. And Beethoven was there too in the unfamiliar shape of his String Quartet in E-flat Op.127, newly recast for string orchestra by Sir Colin and David Matthews. It worked rather well, thanks in no small part to playing from the London Symphony Orchestra strings which managed somehow to convey a sense of this music having naturally, not forcibly, outgrown the solo quartet which first gave it expression. Great music transcends its form. Great Beethoven such as this communicates publicly what it once contemplated privately. Which is not to say that Davis's reading was short on contemplation. The long and serene slow movement - offspring of the Ninth Symphony's slow movement (which immediately preceeds it) - is so much more than a theme and variations. It's about the evolution of ideas, it's about one idea becoming another. It's about strict form making for free expression.

Undoubtedly the most remarkable feature of Tippett's A Child of Our Time is the symbiotic relationship between the formality and concision of the recitatives, arias, and choruses - so closely modelled on Bach's Passions - and the highly emotive free-flow of the spirituals. "Crystal Night" - the advent of Jewish persecution - is concentrated into a terse fugal chorus of little more than a minute. But the response - the "spiritual of anger" - is "Go Down, Moses", an expansive, resounding setting in which all the world seems to find a voice. Davis and his forces - not least, of course, the splendidly open-throated London Symphony Chorus - flung wide the word like true believers. This is a piece where moments must be seized and simple truths communicated in an instant. Its directness of utterance is disarming. There is nowhere to hide.

None of these performers needed to. Tenor Jerry Hadley invested everything he sang with the fervant, in-your-face tone of the spirituals. That was something we as "a community", as opposed to an audience, could relate to. Likewise the, plain-speaking bass of John Tomlinson. Nora Gubisch proffered some throatily arresting mezzo colours, and from the moment the creamy, beautifully "covered" sound of soprano Deborah Riedel floated to a perfect high A in blissful anticipation of "Steal Away", it was clear that the spirit moved in her. It sure moved in Tippett. The final word of "Deep River", the final word of the piece, is "Lord", starkly, simply, intoned as a falling third: acceptance and an open question at one and the same time.

Edward Seckerson