Programming is a delicate art, and one which is difficult to get right. However, it is one of Simon Rattle’s fortes, and this was clearly evident in Friday night’s concert. Both works on the programme, Brett Dean’s The Last Days of Socrates and Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time are large-scale oratorios dealing with difficult subject matter, and it is highly unusual to pair such works. But they both share one overarching theme: hope in the face of adversity. Though full of despair and sorrow, it is hope that draws both works to a close. I was originally concerned that this concert would be heavy and overly bleak, but the final moments are so uplifting that you feel cleansed of what came before.

Sir John Tomlinson, Sir Simon Rattle and Brett Dean with the Berliner Philharmoniker © Sebastian Haenel
Sir John Tomlinson, Sir Simon Rattle and Brett Dean with the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Sebastian Haenel

Brett Dean, a former violist with the Berliner Philharmoniker, is a composer with an uncompromising vision and a unique voice, and his music always has a clear message, a truly intense energy, and a solid emotional core. The Last Days of Socrates is in many ways typical of his works, drawing on a whole range of musical and extra-musical imagery to create a dramatic concert work, a true oratorio in a Handelian sense.

The work is full of contrasts, from the almost inaudible opening to the seat-shaking start of the second part, and both the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Berlin Radio Choir really bring these to the fore. Dean’s focus on texture and timbre plays to the orchestra’s flexibility both as an ensemble and as soloists. His total mastery of the instrumentation is clear from the many new and novel sounds which are often untraceable to any specific instrument, produced by unusual combinations and modern playing techniques. So often such things are gimmicky or incongruous, but Dean gives them meaning and works them into the integral structure of the work.

The choir are a joy to listen to, not only because of their excellent English, but because of the variety in their sound, and the depth of the emotions which they bring to the music. However, most impressive of all was Sir John Tomlinson, who not only sang, but acted the part of Socrates. His rich, deep bass voice couldn’t be more suited to the role, and his gentle and wise stage manner complements it perfectly. Dean said in the pre-concert talk that Tomlinson sung the music as though he’d been singing it all his life and truer words have never been uttered.

After the interval came Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. In recent years many critics have taken a strong stance against Tippett and his music, accusing him of incoherence, but no such accusations could be made in light of this performance. Tippett’s literary and musical description of the evil which dwells within us all, and the hope for post-war humanity, was delivered as an utterly clear message. As in first half, the enlarged chorus, prepared by the renowned Simon Halsey, sung with wonderful English and a real engagement with the text, and clarity of sound which few choirs ever achieve.

Alto soloist Sarah Connolly has a richness in her voice which is perfectly suited to the English alto repertoire. Tippett’s alto is a wise and grounded figure, who comforts in times of need without losing herself to hysteria: a role which Connolly perfectly takes on. And the contrast to Sally Matthews’ portrayal of the mother could not be more intense. Matthews is not only a wonderful singer, but a brilliant actor, and brings all her operatic experience to this difficult dramatic oratorio part. There was not a moment where she was not fully ensconced in the music, and the colours of her incredible voice were truly moving to. John Tomlinson, back for the second half, was just as at home here as in the Dean, and his anchoring presence as narrator really came across, never impersonal, but always calm and centred. American tenor Matthew Polenzani sadly didn’t shine with the other soloists, often out-sung or out-played by his fellow performers.

The orchestra, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle, played with such a broad emotional range, supporting the soloists and chorus at every turn, but bringing so much more depth. Rattle led the whole ensemble through the work with a close attention to detail, but also with a thoroughly personal approach. The performance was full of strongly felt emptions, but never resorting to sentimentality, and the Negro spirituals – so often incongruous against Tippett’s modernist style – were taken unusually fast. In Rattle’s hands they felt like the true culmination of the music which came before, an integral part of the whole.

Tippett’s retelling of Herschel Grynszpan’s shooting of a German official in 1938 and the subsequent events of Kristallnacht deliberately uses language in a way that makes the specific universal. These performers’ conviction to this music’s emotion achieves the impressive task of making this universalism personal, speaking directly to the audience.

****1