Tippett and Beethoven

Coriolan – Overture
Divertimento on Sellinger’s Round
Fantasia concertante on a Theme of CorelliBeethoven
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Joseph Swensen

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 9 March, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Philosophy and music are rare bedfellows in any age. Somehow music is regarded as not needing any other mental stimulus to be appreciated. It’s all in the notes for better or for worse. Yet, in literature, philosophy reigns supreme. Indeed just about all philosophical thought and argument are expressed in the written word and none more so than in the last 100 years between Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche through Freud and de Saussure to mid-20th-century writers such as Gramsci, Benjamin and Bakhtin. How many composers from this same period can be so regarded?

Well, Michael Tippett for one, although his longevity produced a certain thought-process nearly into this century. From an earlier age Beethoven can also be regarded as a supreme musical philosopher, both in his very private and very public diverse utterances. This link of a philosophical inclination explains Tippett’s admiration for Beethoven and brings a sense of balance to any programme containing music from both composers’ pens.

Tippett’s early recognition of the writings of Jung, post-Freudian as they are, was instrumental in defining the major works of his output. The idea and challenge of ‘Self in Society’ runs through Tippett’s output and is contained, for better or worse, in his operas, all of which (apart from “The Knot Garden”) have been scandalously neglected in this his centenary year. There is a belief that he might have tried too hard in his expressive desire for philosophic commentary in his late operas but the flowering of his genius comes in his first and greatest opera, “The Midsummer Marriage”, where literary ideas and musical thought are ideally complemented.

Music from this mid-1950s’ vintage springs from the well of lyricism found in the opera and the slightly earlier Fantasia Concertante on a theme by Corelli, an abstract statement suffused with warmth and poetry that is now heard as hallmarks of Tippett’s early maturity. It is not a grand statement of the kind found in the near-contemporary opera but it is certainly a marvellous introduction into the world of melodic complexity that Tippett developed throughout his career.

Just now there is much coupling of Tippett and Beethoven, and this concert was no exception. On the face of it a relatively short though major work for strings by Tippett should not in any way match the stirring majesty of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. In fact the Tippett Fantasia is crammed full of musical thought – so that listening carefully to its processes is as rewarding as it is in the huge panorama of Beethoven’s Third. Both composers were at the beginning of self-discovery and audiences today should have no difficulty in understanding the internalised, human struggle for musical expression heard in both works.

It is time to recognise Tippett as a giant of his age as opposed to an interesting figure to be sidelined for his supposed musical obscurity. He was unsullied by fad or fashion, resplendent in an environment that contains more than music. As the critic, Peter Stadlen, wrote about Sibelius, Tippett was a ”thinker” in music and, in truth, there are not many such minds at work in any century.

At this concert the welcome visitors from Scotland included two works each by Tippett and Beethoven. However, the application of philosophic thought was not, alas, in much evidence. Neither work by Tippett exactly captures the zeitgeist of the age in a way his later operas do but, instead, we hear a flowering of his genius. The Divertimento, written in 1953-54, initially at the suggestion of his new friend, Benjamin Britten, grew into a bigger work and one in which we hear premonitions of all his masterworks from the 50s, including the Corelli Fantasia, Second Symphony, Piano Concerto and “The Midsummer Marriage”. In fact the Divertimento contains quotes from a number of other composers including Purcell, Orlando Gibbons, John Field and, yes, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeoman of the Guard”!

The Fantasia Concertante, also from 1953, is one of Tippett’s finest works, rich in invention and with a transforming eloquence that culminates near the end when the solo violin intones the near-hidden theme heard earlier: one of the most beautiful of post-war statements in music. Praise must go the leader, Thomas Bowes, for his supple playing at tempos that were a little faster than usual. Joseph Swensen showed his credentials as a string-player (violinist) with his ability to make even the most complex parts of the work lucid, with none of the strain that is typical in this work. It was well conceived and marvellously played.

Swensen takes brisk speeds in Beethoven. Coriolan exploded from the start in a fierce interpretation but one that was plausible. What was not so welcome was the fast, unrelenting tempo of the first movement of the great Eroica. Beethoven’s organic growth counted for nothing; there was no release of tension, merely a continued battering of the senses with nothing emerging from the debris of an overheated, scrambled performance of what, surely, is one of the most towering movements in all music. The funeral march had more feeling but again it was over-interpreted so that all natural feeling was denied this most potent of slow movements. And so it continued until merciful release came at the end of the work. The orchestra did its best under this battering of the mind and senses; the SCO’s musicianship, particularly evident in the warm woodwinds and eloquent horns, did not really stand much of a chance. Beethoven the philosopher was replaced by an overbearing bore.

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