In Aquarius – RCM Tippett Festival

String Quartet in A minor, Op.132
Symphony No.3

Belcea Quartet
[Corina Belcea & Laura Samuel (violins); Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) & Alasdair Tait (cello)]

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)

Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra
Martin André

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 January, 2005
Venue: Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Hats off to the Royal College of Music for its Tippett coverage and for presenting at this opening concert of “In Aquarius” the only performance of a Tippett symphony in London as the centenary celebrations for the composer kick in. It remains to be seen how much Tippett Proms 2005 is embracing; meanwhile it’s good to report that the RCM was virtually full for this imaginatively devised programme – one of Beethoven’s most expansive chamber utterances as a profound counterpart to one of Tippett’s greatest and most challenging symphonic scores; the contrasting soundworlds of the quartet and symphony orchestra was a telling one.

The Belcea Quartet (formed at the RCM in 1994) has shot to fame and, indeed, its members make a fine team, although cellist Alasdair Tait, on this occasion, was rather reticent and with less eye-contact than his colleagues. But that’s a visual reaction, and while the cello was, indeed, a tad under-balanced in aural terms, there was much to admire in the Belcea’s finish and blend in its classical, rather elegant interpretation. Rather too much so for music as extensive as this; and, maybe, the Belcea’s account was too consciously beautiful-sounding (one could make a similar observation of the now disbanded Quartetto Italiano in this repertoire) and not, as yet, striving, exploring or contrasting enough. Nevertheless, the shape of the work was elucidated with exemplary care, and at the heart of the music, and this near-on 50-minute reading, was a compelling reading of the third movement ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ (holy thanks after convalescing), its rapt stillness given with quiet intensity, the ‘lighter’ sections done with dancing poise; it caught the air and held the audience. (The Belcea play Op.132 again at the Wigmore Hall on 5 February, with Haydn and Schoenberg.)

Beethoven and Tippett were kindred spirits, the latter revered Beethoven, and both shared a capacity for humanism and for speaking directly – even in the midst of musical complexity.

Michael Tippett’s Third Symphony was first heard in 1972, Sir Colin Davis, the London Symphony Orchestra and Heather Harper giving the Royal Festival Hall premiere; this orchestra and conductor, with Faye Robinson, also gave the last London performance – at least ten years ago! So this RCM revival was extraordinarily welcome, just to hear the music live – but it turned out to be a remarkable occasion; with the RCM Symphony Orchestra able to devote all its time to this one work, the sheer quality of the playing was stunning.

Tippett’s Third Symphony is in two long movements, playing together for about 55 minutes; the first embraces allegro and slow movements, the second a scherzo and vocal finale, the composer’s own text illustrating human experience, based in sorrow. Here now the one cavil of this otherwise-outstanding performance. Elizabeth Watts, currently in her final year on the RCM’s Advanced Opera Course, declaimed Tippett’s text with a confidence, belief and a sense of theatre that marks her out as a special talent. However, she was amplified (“sound reinforcement” as the RCM would have it). I am grateful to the RCM’s James Murphy who was able to advise, during the interval, that the score allows for the voice to be so treated; unfortunately the process was slightly overdone here. Initially Watts sung from the rear of the orchestra and the balance was fine; she then moved to two other, nearer-to-audience positions and her aural positioning became diffuse (split between her actual position and the sound emanating from the loudspeakers), which rendered her a tad too dominant and edgy-sounding. She has a terrific voice and natural stage-presence; given the RCM Concert Hall’s ambient (if focussed) acoustic, I think she would have carried without the electronics. (Her relative isolation within the orchestra certainly offered a pertinent visual complement to the words and music.)

It would now be easy to throw a list of superlatives at this performance. This is a hugely challenging score, but was brought off here with a precision, unanimity and commitment that was astonishing. Martin André’s grasp of the score was total; his (and the coaches’) preparation of the orchestra unerring. André conducted a rendition that made no concessions to the young musicians. He drove the opening Allegro with a vitality that was compelling – the brass-playing was truly virtuoso (no stitch dropped), the percussion incisive (if occasionally too whacked), the strings athletically deft – and made what can seem disparate musical gestures into a powerful unity. The conflicts of this first section were fearlessly presented and the implosion into the cold, nearly frozen climes of the Lento was indivisible, the glints of colour and endless melodies effortlessly balanced (Louise Hayter’s cor anglais solos especially memorable) with the strings, now, adding a lustre and warmth that was heartfelt; how strange but how compelling is this aural landscape. When he first saw the score, Colin Davis thought the string-writing of the ‘scherzo’ section to be unplayable (although the LSO at the time made it work); here it was dispatched with absolute security and, typical of the performance, utmost musicality.

The opening of the finale is cued by a quote from the corresponding part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Tippett appending a gnarled tailpiece), which occurs twice more. Any lingering reservations about how this song-cycle finale is integrated into the whole symphony were banished here; Tippett’s use of the ‘blues’ (‘twentieth-century’ ones, of course!) and his jazz insertions are no pastiche, the decadence at one with the text (brilliant flugelhorn solo from Heidi Sutcliffe, by the way, flawless and expressive). Tippett’s examination of the human condition really meant something, here, and the symphony had a compelling logic – by the time the work reached its cyclic conclusion (earlier motifs returning but not as first heard) with bleak chords underpinned by consoling strings, Tippett had asked questions and was now beginning to help answer them; not easy, but typical of the composer not to stand aside.

So Tippett 3 was presented, here, as the masterpiece it is, a performance of exceptional quality that scorched itself into the listener’s memory. The rendition was recorded, as is typical, for the RCM’s archive; in this of all years, and as a showcase for the RCM, it would be great if a CD of it could be released.

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