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Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
The Rose Lake (1995)
The Vision of St.Augustine (1965)
John Shirley-Quirke (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Colin Davis (Rose Lake)
Sir Michael Tippett (Vision)
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, 17 April 1997 (Rose Lake) and 7-8 June 1971 (Vision)
BMG-RCA CATALYST 8287664284 2 [68’19]

I doubt if there can be many Tippett fans, or for that matter fans of modern British music, that who will not have acquired this superb disc first time round when it was on the full price Conifer label. For those who didn’t, here is a second chance and at mid-price.

As the composer’s last orchestral work, premiered in his ninetieth year, The Rose Lake was always going to attain mythical status among his many fans, but there is certainly nothing frail, depressing or valedictory about it. Indeed, listening again to it confirmed my initial feelings that the piece celebrates nature with the most colourful, exuberant and seductive of orchestral palettes, producing sounds that more than once reminded me of earlier works, particularly The Midsummer Marriage.

As is fairly well documented, The Rose Lake is based on the profound impression made on the composer by a small lake in Senegal which, at midday, is transformed by natural light from whitish green to translucent pink. Tippett describes how he hears the lake singing to him, and the half-hour work is divided into five basic sections (or songs) that alternate with faster music, thus providing a basic rondo form that is seamless and beautifully integrated. The lake first awakens (track 2) with calm, bucolic horn writing, its song then echoing from the sky (track 4) with magical woodwind and string counterpoint, reaching ‘full song’ (track 6) in a gloriously rich string tune, underpinned by exotic roto-toms (distant drums), that forms the centre of the structure and an obvious climactic point. The rest of the piece ingeniously reworks the earlier material, providing a sort of developed mirror image (or reflection?) that eventually subsides back to the magical horn calls. There is a slight (mosquito?) sting in the tail in the form of a short coda made up of staccato wind chords, but the overall impression is of a beguiling, luscious tone poem, full of characteristically Tippettian melody, masterfully orchestrated. Needless to say, it receives a well-nigh ideal performance by Davis and the LSO, artists who have a long and fruitful association with the composer, and the recording is superbly rich and full.

The coupling is certainly a contrast and is very welcome, even if it does make greater demands on the listener. The Vision of St. Augustine is a 37-minute oratorio, commissioned by the BBC and first performed on January 19, 1965 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the composer conducting and Fischer-Dieskau as the soloist. It has struggled to maintain a foothold in the repertory, partly due to the length, which makes it awkward to programme, and the difficulty of the music. This is its only recording, and a very good one it is too. Tippett the interpreter has drilled his forces well, so that the performance is accurate and exciting, with fairly extreme tempi adding to the overall intensity. The subject matter is dense (concepts of time, Christian philosophical thinking, man’s place in the universe etc.) and this is reflected in some of the thickest textures that Tippett employs. His mosaic structure, which is built around thematic ‘blocks’, each designates a tempo, can be tough going at times, but the moments of ‘light’, as in the blazing climax to Part 2, ‘O eternal truth’, are impressively grand in their feeling of release and usually worth the wait. Shirley-Quirke is on top form, as are the LSO forces, and the 1971 recording hardly shows its age.

There is a full text and translation for the choral work, and very full notes from leading Tippett scholar Meirion Bowen. Whatever your thoughts about the coupling, The Rose Lake demands your attention.

Tony Haywood

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