Concerto in C for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op.56
Igor Levit (piano), Alexandra Soumm (violin) & Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)
Marie Arnet (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 1 March, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Beethoven and Tippett go so well together, the latter much influenced by his predecessor; there’s a similar emotional power and compassion in these composers’ music, and if Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is an occasional piece, it received here a splendidly exuberant reading, cobwebs immediately blown away by the orchestral introduction – flowing, hushed and zesty, and dynamic and detailed – the three soloists (all BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists) then joining in the fun with agile and shapely turns, each making characterful and charismatic contributions yet forming a piano trio of distinction, a true chamber-music interaction backed to the hilt by the BBCSO and a demonstrably I’m-really-enjoying-this David Robertson. Well done to him for hearing a high-pitched whistle, verbally commenting on it (with good nature) and then waiting for it to stop before beginning the second movement, here a solemnly beautiful intermezzo. If the finale, a polonaise, was nominally too swift it also felt right in context and gave the soloists an opportunity to be nimble while remaining communicative as well as dialoguing raptly when such moments arose. There was enough room to accelerate to the scintillating coda, Igor Levit noting Beethoven’s sustaining-pedal marks at the very end – how light and sparkling his playing was elsewhere – while Alexandra Soumm’s sweet, animated and poetic contribution and Nicolas Altstaedt’s unforced expressiveness were also a joy. This collegiate fresh-faced account radiated rejuvenating properties.
Nor was it overshadowed by the main event, a rare outing for Michael Tippett’s great Third Symphony, first heard on 22 June 1972 courtesy of the LSO (the work’s commissioners) conducted by Colin Davis with Heather Harper – and borne to your reviewer there and then by a live BBC Radio 3 relay from the Royal Festival Hall to tremendous effect. (Just a few weeks earlier, similarly broadcast, another masterwork, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time, also made a for-life impression, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Lawrence Foster. June 1972 was a vintage month!) At the time Davis and the LSO notched up several other performances, including at the BBC Proms, and recorded it for a Philips LP (now on CD), then revived it during the 1990s (with Faye Robinson, who contributes to the late Richard Hickox’s Chandos version).
If performances of Tippett 3 are infrequent (the last one in London was January 2005 at the Royal College of Music, Martin André conducting its Symphony Orchestra), such scarcity has everything to with its technical difficulties (on his first reading of the score Colin Davis thought some of the string-writing unplayable) and length, circa 55 minutes. Nevertheless the effort to bring this vivid and all-embracing creation to the concert hall is well-worth it. The BBCSO is doing Tippett proud just now, playing his four symphonies and other works. David Robertson got things going with the Third. Once passed a slightly careful opening couple of minutes, the violins a little tentative (reminding that this music requires both super-virtuoso precision and exacting counting skills), the rendition was enthralling. What music! However complex for conductors and orchestras, the score enters the consciousness very easily and stays there; maybe due to a mix of the composer’s naivety and genius, and his benevolence.
Tippett divides the Symphony into two parts (which yield opening and slow movements, a scherzo and a verbal finale). The first is kaleidoscopic, with volleys of brass and percussion and invention both contrapuntally dense and profoundly humane before catastrophe cues stellar and subterranean suggestion (the slow movement), mosaics painted with a colour-palette all their own, iceberg-cold yet warmly glowing, a strange but not forbidding landscape with silences as potent as sounds.
Ideally Marie Arnet (originally Susan Bullock was advertised) would have been on the platform from the off. Although she entered slightly too early (my ears were still hearing quiet jingles of percussion and anticipating an invitation to further stillness), at least no welcoming applause upset the mood, and she was outstanding in the vocal and spoken “songs of innocence and experience”, the words the composer’s own. Following the coruscating scherzo, brilliantly brought off, which tumultuously turns into Beethoven 9 (the opening of the finale), the soprano is asked to sing the Blues, Tippett’s tribute to Bessie Smith.
The composer calls for the soprano to be amplified, with specific restrictions. At the RCM in 2005 such “sound reinforcement” was grossly overdone, Elizabeth Watts only heard through loudspeakers and not from where she was singing. Marie Arnet was very favourably treated; the only real clue to amplification being the speakers themselves, for the ears heard positioned lyrics with natural tone and unfailingly good balance. Arnet was superb, as were Nick Betts’s flawlessly significant flugelhorn solos, the singer alive to the text’s sadness, vigour, hurt, mourning and probing, with jazzy asides, and symphonic ambitions maintained by cyclical reference to previously heard motifs. If the Blues can offer solace rather than emphasising grief, the concluding desolate brass chords seem to suggest tragedy, at best something ambiguous, such bleakness shared with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’, Mahler 6 and Sibelius 4, to which Tippett 3 may be considered their equal, certainly in this finely judged and impressive performance during which everything Tippett penned belonged for itself and as a whole.
- Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in “Afternoon on 3”, on Monday 11 March at 14:00
- BBCSO www.bbc.co.uk/orchestras/so
- BBC Radio 3 www.bbc.co.uk/radio3
- Barbican www.barbican.org.uk
- David Robertson writes about Michael Tippett [The Guardian, 28 February 2013]