Feature review – Michael Tippett in 2006

Written by: Colin Anderson

A survey of Tippett’s music on CD…

Sir Michael Tippett’s centenary year has come and gone. Tippett (1905-1998) was celebrated before 2005 and, hopefully, will continue to be so – for his is a highly distinctive musical language based on centuries-old forms, crystallised by Beethoven, and updated for Tippett’s times, and beyond.

It is surely a sign of greatness when a creator exudes a very personal musical expression and soundworld – and divides opinion, which Tippett does. And the acid test of any composer’s standing, even though coming to the fore during a significant anniversary, is that the music doesn’t then fall back to obscurity. Tippett’s music was played before 2005 and will be played after it; although its difficulty of execution is maybe a barrier to a commensurate number of performances in relation to its quality.

This is where recordings come into their own – in this instance as a constant opportunity to explore Tippett’s output. There follows a select few, by no means all.

Decca has done Tippett proud with two sets. One embraces the four symphonies (Colin Davis in numbers 1-3 and Georg Solti in the Chicago Symphony-commissioned No.4), the first three string quartets (The Lindsays) and piano sonatas (Paul Crossley). Add in some richly-expressed concertos – for double string orchestra, for orchestra, and for violin, viola and cello – and John Pritchard’s pioneering account of the Ritual Dances from “The Midsummer Marriage” for a collection really worth acquiring [475 6750, 6 CDs]. Decca’s other box includes “The Knot Garden” (now uninterrupted on an 81-minute CD), “A Child of Our Time” (both conducted by Colin Davis), Philip Langridge in the song-cycles, and Faye Robinson and Solti performing “Byzantium”. Again, a noteworthy acquisition [475 7172, 4 CDs].

EMI has issued numerous, and excellent, single-disc releases. One offers another view of three of the song-cycles (“Boyhood’s End”, “The Heart’s Assurance” and “Songs for Ariel”). The tenor is Peter Pears in Decca recordings from 1952 and 1964. The latter date is applicable to “Songs for Ariel” in which the pianist is Benjamin Britten, and for the earlier recordings Pears’s accompanist is the ill-fated Noel Mewton-Wood. Also on this CD is Tippett’s lyrically entwining String Quartet No.2, played here with sympathy by the Amadeus Quartet and also included is its 1954-recorded companion, the Third String Quartet, Quartetto lirico, by Mátyás Seiber, which was written for the Amadeus and is music worth getting to know. The booklet note includes contributions from the composer [5 85150 2].

Equally recommendable is John Ogdon’s flowing assumption of the enchanted ‘Midsummer Marriage’-related Piano Concerto, with Colin Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, a time-honoured recording from 1963, ideally supplemented by Ogdon’s 1966 tapings of the first two piano sonatas, No.1 a work of great freshness and ‘popular’ in cut, while No.2 is a compact and terse masterpiece [5 86586 2].

Another of EMI’s Tippett releases embraces his fourth opera, “The Ice Break”, something of a rarity, so it’s good to welcome back David Atherton’s 1990 recording of music first heard in 1977 at the Royal Opera House under Colin Davis. Of convenient length for compact disc – 74 minutes – and even if there are aspects of “The Ice Break” that can seem impenetrable, then having this work recorded enables further listening and studying. Heather Harper and David Wilson-Johnson are among the cast, and although there is no printed libretto included in the booklet, there is a synopsis, a note from Tippett, and a masterly essay on the opera by Meirion Bowen [5 86585 2].

A collection of some of Tippett’s most accessible and joyous scores includes the Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’, light music that escapes the ‘entertainment’ epithet by dint of Tippett’s skill and imagination to counterpoint and scoring; musical quotations abound (Purcell, Arne, Field, and Gilbert & Sullivan). Neville Marriner conducts a spruce account of this and Little Music, a homage to Baroque times, and the Michael Thompson Horn Quartet gives a deft account of Sonata for four horns. Closing the disc is a carefully considered version of the ‘Midsummer Marriage’ Ritual Dances from Rudolf Barshai and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, 29 minutes overall to Pritchard’s 23 [5 86587 2].

Originally Barshai’s Ritual Dances was coupled with Concerto for Double String Orchestra (Barshai’s second recording of it), and EMI also has a version under Neville Marriner (his first is in the 6-CD Tippett set from Decca). EMI has chosen instead Tippett’s own recording with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (from 1987, the composer aged 82), which is instructive rather than definitive; it could be termed cautious, although it is certainly lucid, but there is a fiery Walter Goehr recording from on NMC that should not be missed. Also on the EMI CD are the Fantasia on a theme of Corelli (wonderfully satisfying music in its floridity and this, Tippett’s second recording, is well measured) and “Songs for Dov”. Dov is a character from “The Knot Garden” and these ‘songs’ extend Dov beyond the opera as a self-portrait of Tippett himself, a howling, electric-guitar-coloured examination in terms angular and lyrical [5 86588 2].

Between them, Decca and EMI have done an immeasurable service to Tippett’s cause.

And then one thinks of RCA’s coupling of The Rose Lake (Colin Davis) and “The Vision of St Augustine” (the composer), “The Midsummer Marriage” (Colin Davis’s Phillips taping now on Lyrita), Chandos’s Tippett recordings, those that the composer made for Nimbus, while recalling that all four piano sonatas and five string quartets are also available. Tippett is a composer for posterity and for renewal – Naxos has just announced Peter Donohoe in the first three piano sonatas – and a very fine release it is too [8.557611].

Tippett’s music lives on.

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