Tippett 4 & Eroica

Symphony No.4
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Beethoven made a profound impression on Tippett and his music, and the pairing of these two composers, although familiar, remains a potent one.

Sir Colin Davis has led a significant number of Tippett performances, including several premieres, and recordings. The Fourth Symphony, though, fell to the Chicago Symphony and Solti to introduce and first document, and remains absent from Sir Colin’s discography. Davis’s current thoughts on Tippett’s final, “birth to death”, symphony – further described by the composer as a “collage-concentration of the most diverse musics in a single-movement form” – further confirmed that he is one of Tippett’s most dedicated and perceptive interpreters.

Davis led a large-scale reading, 33 minutes (adding a few minutes to Solti’s recording), one that lacked the last degree of tension at the opening, and with a too deliberate tempo set for the brass’s sonorous entrées (including 6 horns, four trumpets and two tubas); the music’s impulsive energy took a while to be established despite heroic playing of hugely taxing writing (Tippett fully exploited the famed virtuosity of the Chicago orchestra). Other miscalculations included timpani that were not quite crisp enough in terms of clarity, and the synthesised breathing effect; originally Tippett had one of the Chicago Symphony string-players wired-up for some live ‘heavy breathing’, which made a moving impression when the Chicagoans and Solti gave the UK premiere at the Proms in 1978. The composer’s electronic sanction suggests swamp-monster rather than human being. The effect, virtually inaudible in the early stages of this LSO account, literally expires the symphony, and was more hall-filling come the end, but there remains the dubious timbre itself.

Yet, overall, this was a very convincing performance, one very well prepared and which searched the realms of the slower, interior music for all its deep expressiveness (superb solos from violin, viola, cello, oboe and cor anglais) and which presented the work as more a ‘symphony’ than the symphonic poem it has been thought off previously. In particular the final minutes seemed to more-belong as a logical and emotionally sustained denouement and Davis gave the central upheaval with optimum power and incisiveness. Equally, Tippett’s many arresting ideas and his totally individual orchestration was relished without apology. Despite some early reservations, this became an especially persuasive realisation that made one think this a ‘real’ symphony after all.

No such doubts about the ‘status’ of the ‘Eroica’, but then it’s had rather longer to establish itself, and was probably more bewildering to its first audience than was Tippett 4 to its Chicago patrons in 1977. Colin Davis retained the 60 strings that had played the Tippett – ha! – and, wisely, built upon the music’s two centuries of meaning instead of initiating another ‘born again’ ceremony. This, then, was a gloriously ‘old-fashioned’ account, architecturally sound (in the Klemperer sense, but with less granite), and spaciously serene in a manner that suggested Giulini. Maybe the first movement (exposition repeat taken but rather superfluously so) was a tad too stately, but better this than a meaningless, rapid-fire, metronomic traversal. The second movement was more a lament than a funeral march, time-taken but not dragging (just over 17 minutes). If the opening measures seemed less burdened than ideal (and not helped by several chinks and thuds from the hospitality boxes), something special imperceptibly happened along the route, and which brought to mind Tippett’s line, “the world turns on its dark side”.

Come this movement’s close, just as the opening one had been, an ignorant minority applauded – such a superficial response … and whomever starting clapping during the symphony’s coda (yes, during it!) also coined unprintable thoughts. Not that Davis’s signing-off was all guns blazing, although there was plenty of jubilant horn tone. Maybe there was something a little too impromptu about this account, but Davis’s ever-keen conducting was a visual pleasure (during the first movement he lost his baton, which was neatly rescued by one of the cellists and returned) and the LSO’s corporate response was weighted in trust. Above all, it was a timely performance, one against the trend – from a conductor who is his own man and unconcerned with whim or fancy, historically informed or otherwise.

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