BBC SO Invitation Concert Review

Michael Tippett: Symphony No.2
Alan Bush: Piano Concerto

Rolf Hind (piano), Ashley Holland (baritone), Apollo Voices.
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 December, 2000
Venue: Studio One, Maida Vale, London

I would have short-listed it anyway, but in the resonance of this superb performance it’s definitely included – one of the great symphonies of the twentieth-century (something which can be properly evaluated now that 2000 has run its course). I’m talking about Sir Michael Tippett’s Second Symphony, and I’m only bracketing it into the last century because of the musical upheavals the one-hundred years from 1901 witnessed – how the symphony, as a musical form, has been extended (Mahler) and contracted (Sibelius 7 and the Thirds of Roy Harris and Lennox Berkeley).

Tippett, in fact, stays with the conventional four-movement plan and a ’classical’ timescale (35 minutes), and, in a nutshell, combines Beethovenian depth of expression with Stravinskian clarity of structure and instrumental line. There’s few more bracing and uplifting statements than the opening movement – pounding low Cs inspired by Vivaldi, rhythmically-biting violins dancing above, the cooler interludes (including a clarinet tune which haunts the memory for days) offering contrast but no breaching of symphonic heft. And what can one say about the rocking, lullaby-like idea that steals into the slow movement after about four minutes – a thing of rare beauty; Slatkin’s depth of feeling here – stresses, inflections and dynamic shifts judged to perfection – suspended time, confronted one’s profoundest sensibilities and threatened the tear-ducts.

One notices echoes of Copland in this music – Tippett has found much favour in the States – then one thinks of Elliott Carter. Mention this to Slatkin and a cautious ’yes’ is returned, with it Roger Sessions as another suggestion. I’d asked him, nominating Carter, who might be considered Tippett’s American counterpart. Yet Tippett is always his own man – those rapturous and blossoming string lines, the disruptive instrumental and rhythmic ’breaks’ and the suggestions of distant, magical plateaux all have Tippett’s very personal stamp.

Considering Tippett 2 is to embrace and be thrilled by the life-giving dotted rhythms, the bedrock lower harmonies and bass foundation, the masterly intertwining of lines, the trill-encrusted surface and a hypnotic sense of fantasy. Yes, Beethoven and Stravinsky with a suggestion of Copland’s harmonies and Carter’s florid scoring is a mouth-watering combination; there’s also the omnipresent Englishness (evident in the consummate writing for strings) and the divine-power of Tippett building on and celebrating centuries of heritage beginning with Purcell. That’s especially evident in the last movement, which Tippett entitles ’fantasia’ – one of its four (indivisible) sections seems to suggest Puck, whose visions are viewed at speed and from on high, as the music soars ecstatically, the violins singing in their highest register and the ’freeze-frame’ final chord (following five ’farewells’ of the symphony’s opening material, now almost an echo) which appears to focus on one particular, spellbinding image. This is a symphony that in its melodic, harmonic and instrumental content is an aural joy; it is also capable of transporting one to flights of fancy and recondite contemplation – music of extraordinary imagination, experience and compassion.

As I say, a great, great work – a masterpiece. I’ve long known Slatkin’s enthusiasm for Tippett; I know his high regard for this symphony. This was a masterly performance, superbly played – Tippett’s huge technical demands negotiated with aplomb, all the better to focus on the music in this marvellously secure, committed reading – quite one of the finest things I’ve heard Slatkin do, and an awesome yardstick for future concerts. I hope it won’t be too long before Slatkin tackles Tippett’s equally fantastic Third Symphony.

It was Sir Adrian Boult who premiered both Tippett 2 (in February 1958, just a few days after this writer was born – a good year!) and Alan Bush’s Piano Concerto (in 1938). The latter was completed on Bush’s 37th-birthday (22 December 1937). Not played for several decades, this Maida Vale rendition must have been a first performance for the majority of the audience (the second for those of us present at the afternoon’s dress rehearsal)… and what to make of it?

Well, it’s a likeable piece, one that, initially, has curiosity value: be honest, if you saw this listed in Bush’s catalogue as playing for an hour and including a baritone soloist and men’s chorus, you’d want to hear it. In this only its third UK performance (there have, I understand, been others in France and Russia) and the first, seemingly, for over thirty years, a very strong case was made. It’s not a great work though and things go awry in the 20-minute finale. Like Brahms’s B flat concerto, Bush has four movements; like Busoni, there’s a choral finale – but Bush’s concerto is not in that league. Not knowing enough of Bush’s output (I’ve only ever heard one of his operas – Joe Hill: the man who never died – and Dialectic for string quartet), I’ve yet to establish what is Bush’s own voice. Therefore, this concerto reminded of Hindemith (or, for British ears, Alan Rawsthorne), Kurt Weill, John Ireland (Bush’s composition teacher), Schoenberg (a wry glance from Bush one suspects in the second movement, a skittish scherzo contrasted by an anguished trio) and Delius, who is suggested in perhaps the concerto’s most memorable section, a reposeful orchestral preamble to the piano’s first entry in the slow movement. This initially dark movement becomes progressively more radiant (if burdened) while the piano contributes chords and arpeggios.

A symphonic concerto, the pianist, despite several cadenzas, may be thought as the first among equals – perhaps in keeping with Bush’s Communist sympathies. The expansive 15-minute first movement, structurally impressive but lacking truly distinctive material, is balanced by the even longer finale, which starts with a rather strict but folksy idea (reminiscent of John Ireland, whose own piano concerto was then several years old) and gathers in seriousness until the male chorus interrupts with “Friends, we shall speak a little of this performance”, the beginning of Randall Swingler’s leftist text, denouncing privilege, wealth and power.

The problem isn’t the text, which raises a smile or two today, but Bush’s setting, which, to my mind, de-personalises Swingler’s socialist address (presumably seconded by Bush) by using an oratorio style that had served Handel through to Mendelssohn; Bush’s use of the baritone is straight out of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, premiered in 1931. Perhaps Bush didn’t wish to distract from Swingler’s words, but one doesn’t sense a blazing identification with the political sentiments in this utilitarian section. Of course, this functional appendix might also warn, unwittingly, of the dangers of all men being equal and having the same, unquestioning devotion to the cause. Enough!

Although I have cited other composers, I have done so as references. Bush was evidently aware of his contemporaries; more importantly he was conscious of war clouds and current political unrest – a troubled atmosphere informs this music, very easy to date as ’from the 1930s’. While Tippett painted in variegated colours (albeit, in Symphony Two, with little use of percussion – harp, piano and celeste aside), Bush tends to opt for shades of grey (excepting some luminous harmonies and very ’clean’ piano writing). His extended concerto (54 minutes in this Maida Vale performance) is formal, pianistically decorous, a musical hybrid and, in its political stance, one with an extra-musical agenda. A curiosity as I said, music probably not destined to be performed again too soon – but more than worth this revival, especially in Bush’s centenary year.

Rolf Hind was a superb exponent of the solo part (Bush, who studied with Moiseiwitsch and Schnabel, was an excellent pianist and gave the 1938 premiere) with its allusions to Brahms, Rachmaninov (more Medtner perhaps) and Debussy (especially in the arabesques that adorn the slow movement), while Slatkin brought a Boult-like dedication to his conducting. It was enough to fill to overflowing Studio One’s audience-capacity; hopefully an even bigger audience listened to Radio 3’s live relay.

Linked by having these works premiered by the BBCSO and Sir Adrian Boult, and linked once more by this orchestra and its present Chief Conductor, these two contemporaries, politically-empathetic friends, lived almost the entire span of the twentieth-century (Bush 1900-95, Tippett 1905-98). While Bush may still be waiting in the wings to be appreciated and assessed, Tippett needs no pleading from me to be considered one of the great composers.

With Leonard Slatkin’s willingness to champion the unfamiliar and explore uncharted musical waters, and the BBC’s resources at his disposal, there will hopefully be many more programmes like this one – this concert sets a glorious precedent, and the studio setting and acoustic of Maida Vale are just the place to discover neglected music and focus on supreme musical achievements, here Tippett’s wonderful score

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