Festival Music

RSNO/Davis Usher Hall,


Keith Bruce

five stars

THERE is a long list of memorable concerts by the RSNO with Sir Andrew Davis on the podium, many of them at the Edinburgh International Festival. Now in his 80th year, the conductor added another at the Usher Hall.

The appetiser was Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Orchestra, a work that was premiered at the Festival 60 years ago and which should be heard a great deal more often than it is. With a very specific and unusual layout of players – as well as a unique requirement for what constitutes an orchestra – Tippett gives individual instruments their moment as well as pairing them in ways familiar and unusual.

The opening movement might almost be an educational exercise, while the slow movement features an extended solo for the first cello before the conversations become increasingly colourful and the low winds have a resonant last word. Exquisite playing right across the platform from the RSNO.

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Tippett composed his oratorio A Child of Our Time during the darkest days of the Second World War but the resonances for our own time were inescapable, especially in Part Two and the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Chorus of the Self-Righteous.

The Festival Chorus is having a busy year as Aidan Oliver steps down as its director, with Beethoven 9 and Rachmaninov still to come, and the choir was on top form here save for a slight wavering in the intonation of the sopranos later on. While Tippett’s arrangements of spirituals are often performed, hearing them in the context of the whole work is an entirely different experience.

The soloists had been very specifically cast, with the familiar figures of mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly and Glasgow-born bass Michael Mofidian – on superb form – the narrative voices and African-American tenor Russell Thomas and South Africa’s Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize winner, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, having the first-person experiential words and music. The soprano is still at the start of what is clearly being a carefully curated career, and it is to be hoped Edinburgh continues to feature in her schedule.

Davis took his time, but this reading made Tippett’s deeply-felt work was every bit as moving as the early music masterpieces of Bach and Handel that shaped it. Whether a contemporary composer of Tippett’s background could now use the ingredients he included without being accused of cultural appropriation is debatable, but it would be tragic to be denied an experience as profound as this collection of musicians delivered on Sunday evening.