Gardner and the LPO ensure Child of Our Time and Serenade to Music remain topical favourites.
For the first half of a concert to last only fifteen minutes must be something of a record, but the London Philharmonic Orchestra can be allowed Saturday night’s odd interval timing, as they opted to celebrate their 90th birthday with just two, unevenly timed, pieces that are close to their hearts and that of their Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner.
Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music (in its original version for orchestra and sixteen soloists) was the opener, and it wasn’t, sadly, the most inspiring performance. While the singing and playing were excellent, the work was taken at a slow pace that seemed to drag at times. Dynamic and expression were to the fore, and there were some enjoyable variations in timbre from the individual soloists (twelve of whom are students at the Royal College of Music), but there was a feeling of a ‘monotempo’ throughout, with the result that the text lost some of its poetic impetus, and the lines often became simply vocal showcases. It’s unusual for a piece under Gardner’s intelligent and opera-informed direction to receive such a staid account, and perhaps its ‘safe’ performance was down to the positioning of the singers (all were in front of Gardner, and thus unable to see him clearly, ruling out any sudden swerves in tempo), and even, one might posit, a shortage of rehearsal time.
Michael Tippett’s wartime oratorio A Child of Our Time filled the second half, and received a much more lively and nuanced performance. It is a sad and shameful truth that Tippett’s concept of the persecuted child of the work as an ever-present reality endures for every performance of the piece one hears across the years; the ‘Chorus of the Self-righteous’ (“We cannot have them in our Empire… Let them starve in No-Man’s Land!”) holds just as much for today’s xenophobic supporters of MAGA and deportation of refugees to Rwanda as it did for the antisemitic ethos of Nazi Germany, or the slave owners of the antebellum South.
“…the London Philharmonic Orchestra… opted to celebrate their 90th birthday with just two, unevenly timed, pieces that are close to their hearts…”
The sensibilities of the 21st century have, however, changed from Tippett’s world, and it no longer feels acceptable for an old-fashioned British chorus (with its primarily white, middle class demographic) to be singing spirituals born of African-American slavery. It was heartening, then, to see that, not only had the London Philharmonic Choir had been joined by the more ethnically diverse London Adventist Chorale (whose forte is singing arrangements of spirituals), but that the four soloists – Nadine Benjamin (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Kenneth Tarver (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone) – also widened the diversity of the platform demographic.
As to be expected, Gardner’s interpretation demonstrated a consummate understanding of the drama of the work, and under his relaxed but analytical control both orchestra and chorus produced a moving account, chock-full of subtle shadings of dynamic, tempo and timbre. The hushed chorus entry of ‘Deep River’ over the soloists’ hopeful ‘ahs’, for example, was an instant damp-eye moment; the flute duet before “we are lost” was exemplary in its intonation and shading; the ‘wall of sound’ moments in ‘Steal Away’ and ‘Go Down, Moses’ were magnificently brassy. Full marks must go to the chorus, as they met Tippett’s rigorous demands (particularly in the angular fugues that are a hallmark of the work) with precision, verve and synchronicity.
The soloists’ accounts were more mixed in quality. Nadine Benjamin was simply superb: in the middle of her range she has a fulsome richness, but her notes above the stave – whether turbocharged or floated – were gloriously clear and bell-like. Likewise, Roderick Williams, whose effortless sonority brought an exacting quality to his narrator role, and a profundity to ‘Go Down, Moses’. Sarah Connolly’s chest voice is always a delight to listen to, but there were moments when her mid range seemed a little swamped by the orchestra. Kenneth Tarver has a perfect voice for Mozart and Rossini, but the work – despite its Englishness, which would suggest just such a voice – needs some Helden welly at times; sadly, Tarver wasn’t able to supply this, and even the rest of his account seemed a little uncommitted.