Sir Michael Tippett’s oratorio A Child Of Our Time may date from 1941, but its relevance to the first Prom of this new season could not be overestimated. Earlier the conductor Roger Norrington had reinforced his willingness to dedicate this concert to the victims of the four London atrocities on 7 July, pinpointing Tippett’s view of a world steeped in evil, as relevant today as it was in the Nazi era.
Traditionally the Proms open with a large-scale work of sacred connotation, and Tippett’s intensely moving work dominated our thoughts afterwards. Willard White reprised his role as the narrator with ease, his rich, sonorous voice filling the Royal Albert Hall. The tenor Ian Bostridge made considerable impact as the child in question, standing on tiptoe to reach the climactic high notes, like a tree bending in the wind. His dialogue with the chorus during the first of five negro spirituals in the work was one of the highlights, as was the performance of soprano Indra Thomas as the anguished mother. The text frequently raised pertinent observations, none more so than the united forces singing, “courage, brother, dare the grave passage”.
In his sensitive speech, Norrington drew parallel between this and the bustle of Elgar’s Cockaigne overture. This evocation of Victorian London drew an exuberant and nicely pointed performance, the obduracy of the marching band theme splendidly realised and the Albert Hall organ rumbling into action toward the close.
To open proceedings we had been treated to a scurrying interpretation of the Berlioz overture Le Corsaire, and a performance of rare delicacy from the young Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, playing Mendelssohn’s E minor concerto.
At times the balance between Jansen and Norrington’s scaled-down chamber forces was stretched in favour of the latter, but this could have been due to the deceptive acoustics of the hall. She brought a wispy quality to the sublime second subject of the first movement, and Norrington reminded us of the element of surprise, as the first movement blended into second without a pause. Jansen’s classical interpretation gave the piece a spring-like charm, revelling in the exchanges with the orchestra and showing effortless technical control of the music.
Despite these highlights it is to the Tippett once again that the memories will return, capturing the spirit felt in London the previous week and sounding a note of optimism in its final spiritual, the lighter tread of the chorus as they sang, “I want to cross over into camp-ground, Lord”. We were all with them.