Martyn Brabbins conducts Michael Tippett – Symphonies 3, 4 & in B-flat – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with Rachel Nicholls [Hyperion]

5 of 5 stars

Symphony No.3*
Symphony No.4
Symphony in B-flat

Rachel Nicholls (soprano)*

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Recorded 3-5 February 2018 in City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2019
CDA68231/2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 1 minute



I hope March the First 2019 has been as bountiful to you as it has to me – for this date marks Hyperion’s completion of Martyn Brabbins’s Michael Tippett Symphony Cycle – including an important bonus.

The bonus is Tippett’s Symphony in B-flat (his Symphony No.0 if you will; a designation good enough for Bruckner), composed in 1932 and 1933 when Tippett was in his late-twenties – “rapturously in love, politically aflame” – given several performances (including by the LSO) and revised a couple of times before the work was finally withdrawn. Given the composer’s suppression (but nonetheless leaving the opus to posterity) I can well understand those folk who feel we should not be hearing the piece. However, all these decades later the Tippett Foundation has released the score and our opportunity to get to know something by such a singular and significant composer is not to be missed; being able to tick it off the wish-list is something to celebrate.

Best is the slow music – that is the opening of the outer movements and the central Adagio, all of which is somewhat more akin to Gerald Finzi in its wistfulness than the cited Sibelius influence, once past the opening clarinet solo (cf. the correspondence of the Finn’s First Symphony) that is. Outside of such harmonious and eloquent expressions, there are flare-ups that are quite filmic, the music turning on a sixpence emotionally if perhaps somewhat overblown within the three movements’ compact design (here they total twenty-seven minutes); and Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra turn in a sympathetic and persuasive performance.

I suspect that finding himself with such greatness as the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938) and A Child of Our Time (completed in 1941) Tippett must have looked at this earlier effort and decided that it no longer did him justice; that said, the Symphony owes nothing to nobody yet it also lacks a defining personality; even so it draws the listener back to discover more.

Symphony 3 (first-performed in 1972, Colin Davis and the LSO with Heather Harper) made a huge impression on the teenager me – a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3, yours-truly listening on a portable and an earpiece; not ideal but it says something for the music that it made such a haunting impact (even better when these artists recorded it for Philips), as did the contemporaneous premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Triumph of Time (conducted by Lawrence Foster) under similar circumstances: those two works plus Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra (Bernstein’s recording) left me in no doubt that everything was rosy in the world of contemporary music: nothing to fear and much to stimulate and reward.

Tippett 3 is an epic rollercoaster, close on an hour, four movements linked as equal-length pairs. Extraordinary music, like no other, arresting from the off as Tippett unloads motif after motif – whether brassy-jagged, scurrying strings, roulades of percussion, this is music with characteristic dance and volcanic potential until a mighty climax unites what might seem loose if intriguing connections. Brabbins is more-deliberate in tempo than Davis – different, that’s all (I can’t recall much about Richard Hickox’s version) – but better detailed in places, and his long-term approach really allows for a significant development and denouement, the music flaring with intensity (to catastrophe?) and then disintegrating into a chilly transfixing beauty that, iceberg-style, has its depths below the surface and is not without anxiety or upheaval.

The Symphony’s Part 2 – scherzo and song-cycle – opens at speed, non-stop crazy, Brabbins taking no prisoners with violin-writing that Davis initially thought unplayable, but the LSO sorted it during rehearsal, and well-worth the effort. The horn-players are demanded of, too, and the musical target is a quotation from Beethoven (one of Tippett’s gods), before Tippett the wordsmith enters, his text included in Hyperion’s booklet. Introduced by fragile solo strings and a lamenting flugelhorn solo (Mark O’Keeffe), we have now reached decadence, bluesy jazz (clarinet riff), operatic drama, and ultimate tragedy (that’s what the music above all says to me, although the final words are optimistic if set ambivalently) and Rachel Nicholls is fantastic, whether singing or speaking, totally uninhibited and magnetic.

Wow! Similarly Symphony 4 (1977, for Chicago and Solti, the latter studying the manuscript with “the greatest joy and love”, he revealed), a “birth to death” piece said Tippett, and he admitted to keeping the scores of the similarly-journeyed Heldenleben and (Elgar’s) Falstaff by his side during composition. Like them Tippett 4 is continuous (thirty-six minutes here, Solti, by the stopwatch, is quicker), but Brabbins’s view is just as compelling, the BBC Scottish SO just as heroic as their Chicago counterparts (Decca recording), not least the brass, which Tippett makes particular play with. (Sadly, Colin Davis, although he conducted Tippett 4, I heard him twice, both LSO, he didn’t record it.)

From the cosmic opening, including convincing human breathing (I assume electronically reproduced as per Tippett’s revision: the first performances found a CSO member miked-up) this is music that pulsates with life and leaps (but it should defy any choreographer) and is also capricious, quixotic and even naive (honest), not forgetting rapt reflection and ecstatic string polyphony, and at the Symphony’s mid-point an emotional pile-drive (mid-life crisis?) that is overwhelming (I can’t forget Simon Rattle and the CBSO at this moment in the Barbican Hall, terrifying, Bruckner 7 to follow). Brabbins doesn’t stint though and the whole is thought-through in exemplary fashion. I have played this 4 (and 3) a lot.

High production values (Andrew Keener), superb sound (Simon Eadon) and totally committed musicianship (concert performances beforehand) make this release another winner. May we now have Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra and the Concerto for Orchestra.

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