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August 01, 2005

Double Vision - Tippett's The Vision of St Augustine at the Proms

Posted by David Conway

Sir Michael Tippett's The Vision of St. Augustine
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
conducted by Richard Hickox
BBC Promenade Concerts 2005 (Prom no. 14)
25th July 2005

David Conway is pleased that the Proms exhumed Sir Michael Tippett's The Vision of St. Augustine - but thinks it's time to move on from such lost causes.

The more the benighted BBC tries to make the Proms season "appealing", the more uninteresting it becomes; and this season is the dreariest within memory. If this is a consequence of a mission to diversify its audiences, or some other such submission to a modish convention, it seems to be failing nicely. When there is an attractive programme the audience is as white and middle-class as ever; when the programme contains a BBC-approved dose of dyspepsia (I mention no names), this audience votes with its feet and the arena and seats show wide empty spaces. There continues the obsession with centenaries (or their fractions) as an excuse for the absence of intelligent programming. This season has two "themes", "the sea" and "fairy-tales", ludicrously justified by the 200th anniversaries of Trafalgar and the birth of Hans Christian Andersen. (Apparently our country is also in the middle of a year-long festival called SeaBritain 2005 – has no one realised yet that the compounding of two nouns with a capital letter sticking out is by now a guarantee of naffness?).

One or two interesting historical rarities by Zemlinsky, Novák and the like have been brought in to the programmes on the back of these themes, but in practice they are for the most part simply a crude means of repackaging Proms standards such as Scheherezade or the Hebrides Overture – not of course that I have any objection to such excellent music. But I would far rather that the gimmicks were banished and we were presented with a straightforward, intelligent, quality-based, series of programmes of the classics. I accept that an orchestral concert is an artificial phenomenon based on archaic assumptions, canons and procedures – but actually I, and very many others, rather like it that way. No attempts at modernising the process seem to be resulting in any permanent change in the structure of audiences. (For that of course we need to turn to education, but I am not holding my breath in anticipation).

2005 is also the centenary of the birth of Sir Michael Tippett, an anniversary which was supposed (last year) to mark the relaunching of his works as a major element of British musical tradition. So far it has signally failed to do so. Whilst we can all enjoy the earlier Tippett like the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1939) or the Correlli Fantasia (1953), and some of the chamber music gives us interesting material to chew on, the onset of the age of Aquarius did for him. In his music of the 60s and later, he is as irrevocably immured in the obsessions of his period as is (say) Stainer by the late Victorian era. We confront music which is undoubtedly earnest and sincere, and sometimes shows great craftsmanship, but which is also too often subject to extra-musical impulses which make it diffuse, often obscure and even embarrassing.

As however I am (nearly) always willing to give the unknown an opportunity, I was interested to catch a rare outing of Tippett's 1965 oratorio The Vision of St. Augustine coupled with the more familiar Tenth Symphony of Shostakovich, one of the very few works of the past 50 (well, 52) years that appears very regularly in Western concert programmes. Despite this however the prospect of the Tippett had clearly been enough to put a damper on the ticket-sales.

The Vision was completely unknown to me. The text is in Latin, based on Augustine's Confessions; casting an eye over the translation in the programme beforehand it was apparent that Tippett had taken on a real challenge. Augustine's vision is a momentary, but intense, perception of timelessness and infinity following a philosophical conversation with his dying mother, (who had persuaded him to convert to Christianity); after which the saint reflects that an absolute silence of the mind and soul (perhaps a version of transcendental meditation) might lead to a further encounter with eternal wisdom. For direct representation of these complex ideas, music, which is founded on time and noise, is inherently the least suited of the arts; although of course much great music approaches these ideas indirectly. The neatest "head-on" musical commentary on such ideas is perhaps John Cage's notorious 4' 33" of complete silence; Tippett however addresses them with a large orchestra, full chorus and a baritone soloist. So difficult is the choral part that a soprano soloist is often called in (as in the performance under consideration) to deal with the top line in the second section of the piece (but certainly not, as suggested by the BBC commentator, intended by the composer to represent Augustine's mother).

The structure of the piece is relatively straightforward. In the first section, Augustine (a very demanding part wonderfully sung throughout by Roderick Williams) recounts his conversation with his mother; the choir outlining or commenting on this using passages from elsewhere in Augustine's works, from hymns or from the Bible. The choir throughout, with only a brief exception, acts as a "shadow" of Augustine rather than as an entity in itself, and this renders the whole work far closer to a dramatic scena for baritone than to any tradition of oratorio. I found this section hard work to listen to, with little real contrast or relief. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I have been able to use the facility of relistening to the performance to check my first impressions, and can tell you it was no easier the second time around. The subsequent orchestral interlude – which Tippett apparently referred to as "angel music" and has a scherzo-like quality – was engaging on both occasions and more so on the re-hearing – perhaps because the radio can trick out the acoustics better than the Albert Hall.

The second section leads us up and into the vision itself. This is frankly a failure – one expects some inducement at least to hold one's mental or literal breath, but all that Tippett comes up with is a mechanical overlay of orchestral rhythmic passages accompanied by wordless choir. As a sludgy coda brought us to the end of this section I was left feeling "Is that it?"

And so to the third section, the invocation to silence. Here there were indeed some striking moments as little sections of the vision' music interspersed the soloist's reflections. Tippett described these instants as doors swinging open and shut and they are as close as the score gets to leading us to engage with transcendental apercus. The composer however then engages in one of his typical pratfalls by closing the work with a muttered confession by the choir, "I count myself not to have apprehended". If the composer thinks he's missed a trick, what does he intend by saying this to his audience? Cage at least teased his audience more economically and with more humour. While this sort of "non-statement" may have seemed chic, or even profound, forty years ago, today it just seems footling.

Despite therefore the magnificent efforts of soloists, choir and orchestra, I had no doubt I had heard a disappointing piece of music. I was therefore startled to read a rave review the next morning from David Fanning in the Daily Telegraph, calling the work a "blazing masterpiece" and invoking the great works in the oratorio-genre of Schoenberg and Scriabin as witness. As he went on to extol the performance of the Shostakovich symphony – nice enough in its way, but Hickox consistently lost the plot in a piece that needs to unroll with sustained conviction throughout – I wondered whether we had been at the same concert. Anyway I was induced to wait awhile and listen again; but count myself to have apprehended little more. I won't go out of my way to hear the piece a third time. Quite right for the Proms to have exhumed it – once. Now let's move on from such lost causes.


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