Sir Michael Tippett, who died nearly two years ago at 93, adored the United States and all things American, a love that seems destined to remain unrequited. In England, Tippett the composer is now revered along with his slightly younger contemporary, Benjamin Britten, but his music has never made comparable headway abroad, certainly not in this country. Even at home it took a while for the British to untangle his message – not so much the musical idiom, always accessible even as it toughened in later years, as the complex ideas that created the allusively rich poetic landscapes of his operas, symphonies, chamber, and choral works.
Perhaps the best way to approach Tippett is through the early scores, and the entrée for most has been the 1942 oratorio that became his first major success: A Child of Our Time. Although now a frequently heard and recorded repertory piece in England, the work has only just now been performed by the New York Philharmonic, thanks to the advocacy of conductor Sir Colin Davis, long one of the composer’s most distinguished and internationally visible champions. The child of the title is Herschel Grynspan, a teenager who assassinated a Nazi official in 1938 and triggered the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom. The event stunned Tippett into writing an oratorio on the subject using his own text, an eloquent examination of how violence invariably begets more violence, a vicious cycle that can never be condoned – even the desperate act of the child of our time, who in his blind rage “shoots only his dark brother.”
Critics in 1944 were perplexed by the piece: Tippett’s use of biblical language, the structural resemblances to Bach’s Passion settings, and the startling presence of African-American spirituals, which function as chorales that highlight key moments of emotional tension. These unusual procedures now seem exactly right, a strikingly original application of old forms for new purposes, and all expressed in music that comfortably creates a bridge from the English oratorio tradition of Elgar into sterner mid-century concerns.
I wish I could say that the Philharmonic performance captured the unique spirit of the piece, but something was not quite right. Apart from that excellent bass Robert Lloyd, the soloists (Deborah Riedel, Nora Gubisch, Jerry Hadley) seemed unconnected to the music, as did Joseph Flummerfelt’s usually committed New York Choral Artists. If Davis was unable to communicate his enthusiasm for this composer to his vocal forces, he did manage to draw warmly inflected playing from the orchestra. That, at least, advanced the cause of Tippett in New York by a few degrees, but the performance as a whole was curiously uninvolving.