Michael Tippett: A Retrospective [Mark Padmore, Craig Ogden, Steven Osborne, Heath Quartet at Wigmore Hall]

The Blue Guitar
Piano Sonata No.4
Songs for Achilles
String Quartet No.4

Craig Ogden (guitar), Steven Osborne (piano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Heath Quartet [Oliver Heath & Cerys Jones (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola) & Christopher Murray (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 January, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Michael Tippett (1905-98)The season following the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s cycle of his symphonies, a (timely) Tippett revival continues with such as this Wigmore Hall programme mainly focussing on instrumental works from his later years. Those that featured in the first half followed on in direct succession – written between what was then seen as his summative choral work, The Mask of Time, and the still largely dismissed final opera, New Year. The Blue Guitar (1983) has received surprisingly few hearings since Julian Bream launched it to notable success three decades ago, but this is due less to its ostensible difficulty than to the relative dearth of guitarists to have continued the trail blazed by Bream and John Williams all those years ago. One such is Craig Ogden – who first came to prominence with this piece and whose advocacy was evident in his lucid handling of the quixotic mood changes in ‘Transforming’, reflexive agility of ‘Juggling’ and intensifying inwardness of ‘Dreaming’: so that the piece emerged less as a disjunctive suite than as the growing totality which its composer doubtless intended.

Craig Ogden. Photograph: www.craigogden.comAlthough Tippett’s Fourth Piano Sonata (1984) has not been neglected since Paul Crossley gave the first performance, its length and complexity (not prolixity) have mitigated against its acceptance. Fortunately a younger generation of pianists has taken up the challenge: not least Steven Osborne, whose approach left no doubt as to its overall cohesiveness. A major factor here was his underlining of the marked contrast between the opening two movements – the emotional ambivalence of the first brought into purposeful accord with the greater decisiveness of the second; setting up a formal and expressive duality that is opened out and intensified by those movements that follow. The looming chords and wistful musing of the third were duly interrupted by the visceral outburst at its centre, while the ceaseless energy and intricate passagework of the fourth were rendered as a cumulative curve that climaxed with the emergence of a songful theme that is the basis of the finale’s five variations: the music dissolving in a haze of trills as to reinforce the Beethovenian inheritance with rapt affirmation.

Next a welcome revival of Songs for Achilles (1961) that followed in the wake of Tippett’s second (and arguably greatest) opera King Priam. Indeed, the overall sequence makes for a telling overview of the protagonist in question – ranging from the self-absorption evident in the opening ‘In the tent’ (taken almost literally from the start of the opera’s second Act), via the realisation in the central ‘Across the plain’ that such vacillation has caused his beloved Patroclus to take up the Greek cause and so bring about his death at the hands of Hector, to the heightened invocation to his mother and his fatalistic envisioning of his killing of Hector then of his own death at the hands of Paris. While not the first song-cycle for voice and guitar, this is surely the first to make such timbral and textural contrasts central to its musical content: something that came across strongly in this mesmeric account in which Mark Padmore’s fearless vocal line – as in the war cries of the second song – was complemented by Ogden’s dexterity in such as the quizzical solos framing the third setting.

Finally to what has been considered one of Tippett’s most intractable works. Appearing over three decades after its predecessor, the Fourth String Quartet (1978) continues on from his Fourth Symphony in its amalgamating of widely contrasting ideas within a continuous and cumulative design. Although a four-movement progression can be discerned, this is secondary to its gradual and frequently oblique evolution – taking in the all-round equivocation of its introductory section, through the formal dislocation of a nominal sonata-allegro then the distanced poise of a slow movement, to the expressive charge of the extended finale where shades of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge are juxtaposed with earlier ideas in a process that culminates not with any clinching apotheosis but a coda where the work’s conflicts are not so much resolved as sublimated in one of this composer’s most ravishing conclusions. A work to which the Heath Quartet did ample justice whether technically or interpretively, setting the seal on a memorable evening of music and music-making.

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