While the large audience for this Edinburgh International Festival Michael Tippett concert from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra were surely here to catch a rare Scottish performance of his pacifist wartime oratorio A Child of Our Time, it was a treat to hear his 1963 Concerto for Orchestra which received its premiere at the festival 60 years ago. The two pieces provided insight into the composer’s development, his bold edginess whetted over the 20 years between the pieces. 

Loading image...
Sir Andrew Davis
© Dario Acosta

The seldom performed Concerto for Orchestra is almost a concerto for ensembles, here slimmed down forces were placed in unusual positions to accommodate the score: a harp, piano and percussion stretching directly in front of conductor Sir Andrew Davis, a tuba nestling beside flutes, woodwind far off to the side. The stringless first movement saw each section state a theme, dream-like flutes and harp setting the tone, the music becoming more animated with horns playing against each other, woodwind arguing, xylophone and percussion interjecting vigorously, the flutes trying to escape the unruly tuba grunts. 

A more lyrical second movement for the strings saw a push from darkness to energetic light and back again, an uneasy warm tension with violas weaving anxious themes and lovely swooping solos from principal cellist Pei-Jee Ng. Borrowing some trumpets and drums from King Priam, the final movement is a collage of flowing ideas and colours, overlapping and interrupting continuously, the strings finally agreeing in unison, the double bassoon adding an edgy uneasiness. It’s been described as a thorny work, an ensemble of differences, but Davis and the RSNO players brought a bright freshness and restless energy to this performance.

A Child of Our Time was composed as a reaction to Kristallnacht, the horrific 1938 attack on Jewish communities by the Nazis. Tippett, a regular visitor to Germany before the Second World War, was horrified and moved to write a work of protest. Using his own libretto and adding in five spirituals, the secular powerful work has stood the time well, its message of the terrors tempered with hope as valid today as it was 80 years ago. First performed in blackout London in 1944, it is a work that has enjoyed landmark performances worldwide. Davis clearly loves conducting Tippett and delivered here with a full strength RSNO, a strong solo line-up and the 100+ strong Edinburgh Festival Chorus, it packed an enormous punch in the Usher Hall.

Loading image...
The RSNO in Usher Hall
© Sally Jubb

The chorus play a major role in the work, a big sing and an immense challenge which the EFC rose to magnificently under director Aidan Oliver. Setting the scene with the world on its dark side in winter, through the haunting Chorus of the Oppressed to the white anger “burning the houses” in the fugal double chorus, they sang with venom and pinpoint accuracy. It is not a polite piece.  

The soloists had to work hard as Davis was not holding the orchestra back, but they were up for the challenge: Dame Sarah Connolly luminous, measuring the heavens with a telescope, tenor Russell Thomas effective as the boy. Michael Mofidian was an authoritative narrator, his dramatic clear voice cutting through Tippett’s vibrant music. Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha was beautifully moving as the Mother, soaring skywards in the spirituals, Steal Away a poignant highlight.

The RSNO were on top form, Davis conjuring the complicated light and shade from his stool, but jumping up at key points, keeping his forces together in powerful lockstep. By turns painful, moving and uplifting, this Child of Our Time left a deep impression.