Michael Tippett’s Symphony in B-flat – Martyn Brabbins conducts BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – Petrushka, and Alberto Menéndez Escribano plays Mozart

Symphony in B-flat [world premiere of final version]
Horn Concerto No.4 in E-flat, K495
Concert Rondo in E-flat, K371
Petrushka [1947 version]

Alberto Menéndez Escribano (horn)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 February, 2018
Venue: City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow

Martyn BrabbinsPhotograph: Benjamin EalovegaMartyn Brabbins’s cycle of Tippett Symphonies with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra reached its conclusion here by going back to the beginning, and the first performance in over eight decades of a Symphony in B-flat with which the composer had intended to announce his arrival. Its genesis is hardly less fascinating than its content.

From the outset, Michael Tippett was intent on balancing the political, latterly humanitarian concerns of his music with an inherently abstract dimension. So it proved with this Symphony, written at a time when he was intimately involved in amateur and community projects, while mindful of the need to essay something more ambitious. Written during the course of 1933, the piece received three complete hearings over the next two years (plus a run-through at the BBC) and was revised extensively up to 1938 – Tippett standing by it as late as 1944, when what became his First Symphony was initially designated as No.2. Brabbins’s account accordingly enabled his final thoughts to be presented for the first time.

Lasting for just under half-an-hour, the Symphony is cast in three movements that amount to a (surprisingly?) cohesive entity. Received wisdom suggested that it was overly reliant stylistically on Sibelius but while the formal processes are undeniably Sibelian, its sound is appreciably less so (certainly when compared to Walton’s First, let alone Moeran’s G-minor) – even if that sound is not yet identifiable as Tippett. Indeed, there is a shimmering quality to the string textures as is redolent of Miaskovsky’s Fifth, which Tippett might well have encountered in London during the 1920s and whose status as the first Soviet Symphony would have struck a chord in one whose Marxist sympathies were then undoubted.

What of the piece itself? The first movement is an eventful though not wholly convincing sonata design – its contrasting themes intensified in a fusion of development and reprise, framed by a limpid introduction which returns in sombre guise at the close. What follows is less a slow movement (despite its Adagio marking) than an intermezzo in which modal and chromatic elements alternate to provocative if uncertain effect, prior to a Finale whose folk inflections feel even more pronounced. Formally the most judiciously proportioned movement, this builds purposefully towards an apotheosis whose determined while slightly contrived optimism speaks to us touchingly of the ‘confidence of youth’.

The performance was all one could have wished for, Brabbins securing a committed response from the BBCSSO in music whose lambent harmonies and tricky – if not yet typically Tippettian – rhythms go a long way towards offsetting any lack of melodic profile. The revisions had likely taken care of any formal longueurs, though if the Hyperion recording (the sessions scheduled for the Saturday) could tighten up those endings of the outer movements, then so much the better. Whatever else, the composer’s trustees were right to have sanctioned revival of a piece which, no less than Schoenberg’s String Quartet in D or Stravinsky’s Symphony in E-flat, offers fascinating insights into his creativity just before it began falling into place.

Mention of Stravinsky brings one onto Petrushka, which occupied the second half. ”Over a century later, its orchestral colours are still as bright as new paint” proclaimed the programme, seemingly oblivious that the piece was heard in its revision of thirty-five years later. Less evocative and harder hitting this may be, it found a ready advocate in Brabbins – who characterised the interior scenes for Petrushka and the Moor with respectively claustrophobic then ominous intensity. The framing depictions of the Shrovetide Fair were more generalised though never understated in their impact, with some impressive solo playing to suggest that a ‘concerto for orchestra’ might have been Stravinsky’s goal in revision.

In between, the orchestra’s principal horn Alberto Menéndez Escribano took the floor for a fluent and appealing account of Mozart’s Fourth Concerto (1786, recent research suggests the latter three Concertos were written in reverse order), then the mellifluous Concert Rondo as completed by Waldemar Spiess – all pleasurable music-making of a high order.

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