Brighton Festival final concert review: The Dome, May 26

Roderick Cox conductiing
Roderick Cox conductiing

Philharmonia Orchestra, Roderick Cox (USA) conductor. Beethoven, Triple Concerto with Trio Isimsiz – Pablo Hernán Benedi (violin, Spain), Michael Petrov (cello, Bulgaria), Erdem Misirlioglu (piano, England).

Tippett, A Child of Our Time, with soloists Gweneth Ann Rand (sop, USA), Ronnita Miller (mezzo, USA), Noah Stewart (tenor, USA), Jonatham Lemalu (bass baritone, NZ), and Brighton Festival Chorus, music director James Morgan.

The Brighton Festival closing concert is by definition ‘The Big One’. But this was bigger. No standard blockbuster classical works conducted by a lately more rotund, middle-aged established celebrity conductor, nor anything outlandishly adventurous breaking the mould.

No, this one made a different statement. Of quality of thought, intent and reflection on our current world, at home and abroad, instead of merely a safe, grand parting gesture of nobility, dignity or star quality. The decision to perform Michael Tippett’s celebrated British wartime oratorio A Child of Our Time, with its subtly powerful pacifist’s outcry against racism, fascism, bigotry and xenophiobia at such a febrile time in home and European politics, was potently relevant enough.

But then to cast the conductor and all four vocal soloists as not only non-British but three African-Americans and a Maori appears a decision of insightful brilliance. A deed far from daring or audacious (heaven forbid we return to days when this would have be regarded as so) and entirely logical as the final bequeathing to the Festival by its 2019 guest director Rokia Traoré from Mali, working with resident Australian Festival chief executive, Andrew Comben. Three Festival days earlier, Europe’s first black minority ethnic orchestra Chineke! had performed in this same building.

The sight in a British concert hall of these figures dressed in evening black doing everything conventionally familiar will have been a striking – and, moreover, a beautiful one, to anyone taken aback and perhaps still unaware of the growing call for positive racial diversity on the classical music platform, which lags well behind gender issues.

The Festival closer is never more spectacular than when the Brighton Festival Chorus are towering above the orchestra to create a wall of bodies, instruments and sound confronting the surrounding 1,700 seats of the Dome audience. And now, the focal figure directing these forces of 243 performers was the young, lean, 6ft-plus Roderick Cox, taking calm, graceful, composed command.

The potential of A Child of Our Time to move listeners musically was guaranteed the moment Tippett heard ‘Steal Away to Jesus’ and was instantly captured by the world’s favourite Spiritual. This song and four others he recruited strategically as choruses expressing both neutrality and universality inside a musical framework moulded on successful Baroque oratorio models such as Messiah and the Bach Passions, but inflected occasionally within Tippett’s own sound world with afro and latin rhythms.

The Brighton Festival Chorus revelled in the opportunity and unfailingly elevated the occasion. Jonathan Lemalu’s narration darkly told Tippett’s parable of hope for the world once again turning ‘on its dark side’.

Noah Stewart’s crystal words bit home as the scapegoat Child of Our Time, sourced as the composer’s igniting moment on hearing of the vicious, anti-Jewish Nazi counter-retaliation to a vengeful Polish teenager having fatally shot a German diplomat in 1939 Paris. Gweneth Ann Rand was the softly desolate mother and Ronnita Miller luminously steadfast as the Aunt.

The performance, which ends in an unexpected and counter-affirmative sudden minor chord, was greeted with huge warmth by the audience whose cheers had earlier been directed towards Trio Isimsiz after a Beethoven work that ended in a largely sunlit polka.

Isimsiz means ‘nameless’ in Turkish, the half-ancestry of Erdem Misirlioglu, their prizewinning pianist and their only member to have reached age 30 in a trio whose own prizewinning includes European triumph in Beethoven repertoire. Brighton’s own knowledgeable chamber-music-loving Coffee Concert public already rate and love them for their two charmingly accomplished performances in recent years at The Attenborough Centre.

After two intended performances that conspired not to materialise this was finally their first one of Beethoven’s pioneering, underrated and still under-performed Triple Concerto. And in less than ideal circumstances, on a bulging stage forcing a compromise playing layout whose challenges majored on Misirlioglu having to play with his back to the others.

But Isimsiz succeeded, and one looks in coming years to tracking their growingly authoritative account of a work of authoritative material during the relatively few performance chances they will get.

Cellist Michael Petrov told me: “What a journey we’ve had. It’s such a symphonic piece and it’s something we’ve been working on for a long time. It was our first appearance together with an orchestra, although all three of us are used to playing solo concertos.”

Petrov’s cello role is far from bridesmaid to the busy piano and violin. Beethoven heaps on him the responsibility of announcing alone, at the beginning – all eyes and ears on him – the main tune in all three movements. “It’s so difficult,” Petrov commented. “But I think I lived to tell the tale! Now we can’t wait to play it again.”

Petrov and Pablo Hernán Benedi on violin were, as expected, in total alert accord in their melodic and passage work together, and the awaiting power was obvious when joined by the piano. Benedi has a subtle characteristic style, sometimes understated, sometimes delivering familiar passages seasoned with the freedom of a street fiddler and imparting that welcome sense of spontaneous newness.

Recordings that bring this music to its live performance-rationed admirers are commonly ad hoc trios from stellar solo careers. Here was an established chamber trio in the very role Beethoven intended, placed in concerto situation but when playing alone, a trois, providing inevitably the very sound of a piano trio in a chamber music room.

And in front of a very full 1,700-seater hall with also a choir of 138 sitting listening. An outstanding Coffee Concert crowd is presently around 230. The Germans are keener on the chamber stuff than us. Petrov reports: “Erdem and I recently played a piano and cello recital at 11am in Baden-Baden and 1,000 people turned up!”

So was a Festival opportunity missed here by someone, to introduce an already delighted audience to a captivating sample movement from a solo Piano Trio, as an encore?

Trio Isimsiz are at Aldeburgh on June 17 under the directorship of tenor Mark Padmore. Petrov explains: “It’s a reproduction of the only concert Schubert ever played in. There is a string quartet movement, some lieder, and we are playing his Piano Trio in Eb.”

Scarcely a handful of specialist piano trios stayed together long enough to become enduringly world famous.

Trio Isimsiz have the potential at least to be celebrated in our own land – if Britain gets enough chance to recognise them. If not, could we lose them to Europe?