The year-long “The Rest is Noise” festival at the Southbank Centre, investigating the music of the 20th century, has reached the second world war. Unlike the Great War, when it was the poets who took the lead, composers in the late 1930s and ’40s found themselves at the forefront of cultural life commenting on the political turbulence of their time.
The festival has grouped the events of this period under the subtitle “The Art of Fear”. This means primarily music written in response to the totalitarian regimes of Hitler in Germany and Stalin in the Soviet Union, but composers in the UK were not silent, and Wednesday’s concert brought together two English works representative of those years.
The programme offered two contrasting, but complementary halves. Neither Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No.4 nor Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time is an unquestioned masterpiece – how often does either get performed in the rest of Europe? – but they show tellingly how composers from different generations faced up to the unfolding crisis.
Aggressive, driven, spare, Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No.4 is unlike any of the symphonies he had written before. Although the composer denied that the work was a response to political events, it is hard not to hear in this music an angry frustration at the world and, in the way it keeps seeking resolution in calm and quiet, a nostalgia for some English pastoral idyll. The conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth, charted this repeated journey skilfully and obtained first-rate playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra with a fine, warm bloom to the sound.
Tippett’s A Child of Our Time is more tricky to bring off. The various elements drawn from Bach’s passions – the vigorous choruses, the short, impassioned solos, the spirituals in place of Lutheran chorales – are engaging in themselves, but so constantly stop-go that it is hard to maintain any sense of direction. Wigglesworth again led a vital performance with a sure grip on detail. There was a creditable quartet of soloists, bolstered by soprano Claire Booth’s soaring top notes and Matthew Rose’s commanding bass at top and bottom, with Pamela Helen Stephen and Ben Johnson as mezzo and tenor, and the London Philharmonic Choir excelled itself in Tippett’s often testing choral writing.