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The Ascent of Tippett

Royal Albert Hall
07/16/1999 -  
Michael Tippett The mask of time
Claron McFadden, Felicity Palmer, Robert Tear, Steven Page Andrew Davis (conductor) BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra

It can be tempting to see Michael Tippett's recent elevation to the ranks of Great Composers as a response to his death last year, at a grand old age reached with grace and endearing eccentricity. The mask of time, like many of his other choral works and operas, looks potentially embarassing, an attempt redolent of ageing hippiness to merge popular culture and great ideas in a personal, spiritual cosmogony from creation to Hiroshima. Inspired by a television series, it uses fragments of novels, poetry and scriptures of all persusasions, as well as text by Tippett himself, to narrate the history of humanity within the universe from the creation through unorganized life, paradise and the fall to the modern world with tyranny and the atomic bomb. It seems an odd choice for the "big choral work" to start the Proms, even when "the ascent of man", the title of the television series, is one of the themes of the season.

In the event, an inspired performance by Andrew Davies, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the two choirs and a superb set of soloists suggested that The mask of time is entirely plausible as a modern equivalent to Haydn's Creation, the first night work in 1997. It is also engaging and often moving in itself, with amusing depictions of animals, a wry domestic scene to narrate the fall from paradise and a heart-wrenching setting of poetry by Anna Akhmatova to commemorate all victims of political violence.

Tippett's commentary, included in the libretto, makes it clear that music itself is inherently cosmological, creating emotional order out of the chaos of noise. The second of the ten movements is called "The creation of the world by music". The movements include a wide range of forms, including dances, and the texts refer frequently to dance, performance and play.

The chorus often represents an impersonal view of the universe while the soloists provide a personal response in the here and now. This worked beautifully,  from the chorus' monolithic opening, "Sound, where no airs blow", played against by Robert Tear's "All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all", to his final song as the young actor coming face to face with god, in the form of the statue of Zeus at Olympia, ending in the chorus' many-layered, echoing "O man, make peace with your mortality, for this too is god".

Tear and Felicity Palmer, two of the soloists from the 1983 premiere, were in fine voice. Palmer was wearing a coat in a ladylike jungle print, ideal for the third-movement depiction of uncontrolled nature, and also for her role as the dragon, who is downgraded to a snake at the fall. Steven Page made a wry Ancestor transforming into the remote Judeo-Christian God. Claran McFadden was outstanding, particularly in the Akhmatova setting in the section "Hiroshima, mon amour".

H.E. Elsom



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