First Night: A challenging puzzle heroically tackled

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The Independent Online
Proms, BBC Symphony

Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall

London

IT WAS a brave decision to start this year's Proms season with one of Sir Michael Tippett's most problematic and ambiguous scores, The Mask of Time, a work "for voices and instruments". So it is not surprising that the Albert Hall was not as chock-full as one expects on the First Night.

The Mask of Time - inspired by Jacob Bronowski's 1973 television series The Ascent of Man - was one of the most ambitious things Tippett attempted, both musically and philosophically, for its subject is the transcendental: man's "relationship with Time, his place in the world as we know it and in the mysterious universe at large", as he put it.

Late Tippett can be uneven, and in this instance the eclecticism of the music is matched by wildly unbalanced text by Tippett himself, adapted from a heterogeneous range of sources: Milton, myth, Shelley, Akhmatova, Rilke, and many more. Moreover, he matched the ragbag philosophy of the words with music of bewildering richness and diversity. At times, indeed, it is almost embarrassing: he so closely skirts questionable taste that one wonders whether nobody warned him he was wandering into self-parody. But Tippett would not have cared. He knew what he wanted, said it, and left us with the problem of what to make of it.

All the Tippett hallmarks are there - the sprung rhythms, the leaping string lines, the jubilant hunting fanfares. And when the music jells, it can be glorious, most movingly of all in the lament "Hiroshima, mon amour", for soprano and a chorus that first hums quietly and then gently echoes her sorrowing tones.

It was obvious that Sir Andrew Davis had done his preparation very thoroughly: the conductor knew every detail of the score and his confident direction brought out a performance that glittered in every detail. The four heroic soloists - Claron McFadden, Felicity Palmer, Robert Tear and Steven Page - tackled Tippett's awkward vocal lines as if they believed in every syllable. And the precision of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, both in pitch and diction, was remarkable.

The players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded with chamber-musical sensitivity to Tippett's extraordinary colours. If a performance as committed as this one fails to convince, one has to wonder whether, after all, The Mask of Time is a magnificent failure.

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