Arts: Concert review - Time alone cannot always tell

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Towards the Millennium:

The Seventies

A Child of Our Time

RFH, SBC, London

Thematic concert programming is a risky business. Sometimes you end up with something truly enlightening; more often, the works in question stubbornly refuse to illuminate the chosen theme. Thursday's Royal Festival Hall concert in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's marathon Towards the Millennium series took three British orchestral works from the 1970s: the late Sir Michael Tippett's Fourth Symphony, Oliver Knussen's Third and Harrison Birtwistle's The Triumph of Time - and there's your theme, "The Seventies".

Well, you can, if you wish, find distinctively Seventies elements in all three works, but that's hardly what makes them interesting. The half- dehumanised cry of the amplified soprano saxophone in The Triumph of Time, piercing the metallic halo of vibraphones and the snarls of muted trombones, speaks just as directly in our techno-threatened age as it did at the height of the Cold War. The birth-to-death idea behind Tippett's Fourth Symphony is one of the great constant human themes, and we are probably a lot less inclined to giggle uncomfortably at tape-recorded breathing sounds than many listeners were when the Symphony first appeared, in 1977.

Simon Rattle's performances of the Birtwistle and the Tippett were of the kind that demonstrate elegantly how the elements slot together and the argument flows. On that level, I have never before heard such a convincing account of the Tippett - a performance to silence doubts (mine included). Knussen's compact Third Symphony sounded equally clear and well-calculated, but then its clarity and intellectual virtuosity have never been called into question to anything like the same degree.

What all three performances lacked - to my ears - was the unquantifiable "tingle factor". Yes, the central climax of the Birtwistle was clearly the right organic development at the right time, but there was nothing thrilling or disturbing about it, apart from the sheer volume of the amplification. And yes, the fast sections Tippett's Fourth pressed forward as purposefully as anything in the more popular Second Symphony, but the brass fanfares often sounded cautious, reined-in.

The previous evening, Roger Norrington conducted the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra in Tippett's much earlier A Child of Our Time, a work which, when it was still new (the Forties), was considered hellishly difficult to sing. Now it is often performed by amateur groups. It needs enthusiasm, though, and a firm hand from the conductor. Norrington ought to have been the man, but here the music fell too easily into sections; the final climax, leading to the spiritual "Deep River", was strangely under-whelming. The choir sang solidly enough, but without great intensity, and of the soloists, only baritone Gerald Finley found the urgency text and music demand.

Hearing A Child of Our Time preceded by performances (by the London Adventist Chorale) of the Black American spirituals it borrows in lieu of chorales made one realise afresh how inspired Tippett's use of these tunes was - and how untypical of its time. But then, according to Nietzsche, geniuses are always "untimely": their works are the last places one should go looking for the Zeitgeist - a truth that Towards the Millennium has only tended to underline.

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