Concerto for Double String Orchestra
String Quartet No.2
Spem in alium
Phyllis Sellick (piano)
Morley College Choir
Recorded between 1941-1948
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London in March 1993 10th & 11th (Symphony No.2) and 29th
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: February 2005
CD No: See above
Duration: See above
In recent years, the art of composition has been democratised by the instant accessibility of sounds, images and ideas from every continent and every age. That need not be a bad thing. But today’s desire to emancipate the vernacular does not always coexist so happily with older imperatives – the urge to communicate unpalatable truths, the compulsion, archetypically expressed by Sir Michael Tippett, to give form to “images from the depths of the imagination”.
At a time when the acquisition of a unified, personal and resonant voice is no longer considered top priority for workers in the creative industries, one of the inspiring things about Tippett is that he was rarely a hired hand and always sounded himself. He did so whether reworking folk melody or dabbling with the latest technologies. Not all his experiments succeed and their technical shortcomings, real or imagined, have provided a surprising amount of knocking copy in 2005, his centenary year.
Perhaps the junketing has come too soon to make much of an impact on a reputation still mired in the critical trough so often awaiting the artist celebrated in life. I wonder how many have been struck by the way in which commentators resort to curiously dated nostrums when attacking, or even defending, an oeuvre which, like much of the best twentieth-century music, stands apart from the modernist mainstream that pulled away from the post-war listener. Tippett was always an outsider. To claim that he responds deeply to the English landscape as some insist is not to say that he does so in the manner of Vaughan Williams on the one hand or of Birtwistle on the other. He is his own man and his memory deserves our respect as well as our affection.
This pair of NMC CDs is admirably annotated but they aren’t likely to win new friends or influence people: the affection is taken as read. Instead they provide a sort of musical autobiography that will keep initiates very happy indeed. Objectively speaking, Tippett’s own interpretations of the two symphonies came too late. Taped in his late eighties, they will no doubt be traduced as sluggish and sloppy in some quarters, notwithstanding the terrific warmth of phrasing achieved in the slow movement of No.2 and the unforgettable heft of parts of the Fourth. At these tempos Tippett’s slower-moving string writing can acquire a positively Mahlerian flavour. Martin Cotton’s eye-opening session report accompanies more conventional annotations on the individual works. (You may recall the performances from a BBC Music Magazine cover disc.)
That Walter Goehr was a more proficient conductor is immediately evident in his pioneering 78s of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra dating from 1943. A masterpiece, of course, despite its relatively early position in a long creative life, the score represented a challenge to contemporary sensibilities yet is remarkably well served here. While there is neither the dynamic range nor the depth of perspective one expects today, the sound is not unappealing in its edgy immediacy and the playing is a revelation: taut, disciplined and with a vital forward drive not always felt in present-day accounts. The awkward corners are there to be sure, albeit fewer than you would expect. Famously detained in Wormwood Scrubs as a conscientious objector at the time, Tippett had Benjamin Britten assist with production duties. The recording was originally made for promotional purposes, although the set went on to achieve a limited commercial release. It’s a pity that there is some pulsing of the string tone in the slow movement (the re-mastering?) but this cannot disguise the commitment of the scratch band.
Phyllis Sellick is equally outstanding in the Fantasy Sonata (the first version of the Piano Sonata No.1) recorded as early as 1941, while I am not sure that The Lindsays ever equalled this Zorian version of the Second Quartet, set down in 1947. Its scherzo really does capture that authentic sense of slightly unhinged uplift that makes Tippett more than a Hindemith replicator.
Only his own groundbreaking direction of Tallis’s 40-part “Spem in alium” (recorded in 1948) struck me as of mainly historical interest. Perhaps because the sound is unhelpfully woozy, the intended sense of euphoria comes but fitfully amid the period hooting. In matters of technique we have of course come a long way in this kind of music too. I should add a word of praise for Anthony Burton’s exhaustive notes for this disc (he acknowledges the assistance of researcher Hannah Vlček).
To be presented with such a splendid booklet really enhances the appeal of a collection of this kind, even if Tippett’s thornier side is knowingly undersold.