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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
CD 1
Piano Concerto (1953-5) [34:21]
Fantasia on a theme of Handel (1939-41) [12:09]
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1936-8, rev. 1942) [20:09]
CD 2
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1962) [13:01]
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1972-3) [24:45]
Piano Sonata No. 4 (1983-4) [35:50]
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchesta/Martyn Brabbins (Concerto, Fantasia)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 28-31 July 2006 (Sonatas), City Hall, Glasgow, 12-13 May 2007 (Concerto, Fantasia)
HYPERION CDA67461/2 [66:57 + 73:52]

The secret to Tippett’s Piano Concerto is, at least in part, his opera The Midsummer Marriage, which I have to admit discovering more recently than all of the works on this magnificent double release from Hyperion. Tippett worked on the opera in the same period as the concerto, completing it in 1955, and the magical atmosphere of the one infuses the other in a number of places. My reference has long been the recording which Tippett himself conducted in 1991, with Martino Tirimo as soloist with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and released on Nimbus. While this has inherent value as an historical document and is a fine performance and recording in its own right, I can state that this new Hyperion recording clearly replaces it in every regard. Comparing the recordings, Nimbus’s stereo/ambisonic mix – heard in stereo of course, I don’t know anyone with a UHJ decoder – comes over as cluttered and indistinct in the louder tutti sections, compared with the grand sweep of the opening forte gesture and onwards with the new recording. The soloist is less powerfully present as well, which is not always such a bad thing, but at times Tirimo sounds more like baroque continuo on the Nimbus disc. Sir Michael Tippett was a good conductor, whose vibrant personality was an infectious influence and who was highly respected by the musicians with whom he worked. Works conducted by their composers have their own unique value, but such recordings need not be taken as definitive. At times is feels a little as if Tippett is listening a little too hard to the music in his recording of the Piano Concerto, one could want a little more urgency and movement in places, and with this new recording that balance is restored.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra knows this work well of course, having recorded it already with Benjamin Frith as soloist and conducted by George Hurst on Naxos. Hyperion’s recording is rich and detailed, the acoustic admittedly more resonant and sympathetic than the BBC Manchester studio in which Tippett made his recording. Steven Osborne makes immediate impact as an assertive and uncompromising soloist, one who can play alongside and in concord with the orchestra, as well as being able to fire musical broadsides against it where necessary. The opening of the second Molto lento e tranquillo is to my mind a problematic one, but the wind players and sound engineer cope well with the long held high notes, and the horns seem to be able to create almost endless crescendi. The carpet of sound the strings create in their fragmentary but intense passages has an incredible, captivating power, and the chamber-music solos and interactions are gorgeously restrained. The playing in the final Vivace is extravagantly marvellous, and Osborne revels in the jazzy ostinati in the piano part, as does the orchestra in all of the energy and high jinx that Tippett creates for it – it is just sooooo good, words fail and the emotions taken over. The famous duet that the pianist has with the celesta is a thrilling effect, with a palpable sense of the distance between the two instruments, and the climax and conclusion should make you jump around and throw cushions.
This ecstatic experience is followed by a piece of Tippett’s which I didn’t know, the Fantasia on a Theme of Handel. Also for piano solo and orchestra it is, as a preparatory study for a concerto, an ideal follow-on to the previous piece, but has an entirely different feeling to it. Handel’s theme, from the Prelude to a harpsichord suite in B flat, is given a full-blown and romantic sounding arrangement, and, with few of the recognisable fingerprints which gave Tippett’s music its unique individual style later in his career, explores traditional styles and genres. There is a certain amount of bombast in the composers treatment of some of the material, but reflects his exuberant joy in working on such a piece. Tippett had put it to one side in order to write his pacifist oratorio A Child of Our Time, hence the delayed completion date of 1941. For Tippett it was the right work at the right time; and characterised by the composers own private addition to the fifth variation of the words ‘Ah – whoopee’.
With the piano sonatas we enter a different acoustic, and different worlds of sound. I had a good listen to these works a while a go when reviewing Peter Donohoe’s excellent recording of the first three sonatas for Naxos, and comparing recordings find the Hyperion piano somewhere in between the close immediacy of the Naxos recording, and the more distant and resonant CRD set with Paul Crossley. The Hyperion piano sound is fine indeed, and I have no real complaints, although I suppose I might have expected just a little wider stereo spread.
When comparing Donohoe with Crossley, I ended up preferring Donohoe, despite Crossley’s recording having the symbolic advantage of having been made in the presence of the composer. Steven Osborne takes an in-between view of the Piano Sonata No.1, coming in consistently faster than Crossley, but a little less spectacularly compact as Donohoe. The timings mean little of course, and I greatly enjoy Osborne’s sense of contrast in this music. The close of the second Andante tranquillo movement really sounds like a prayer, and the wildness of the following Presto is breathtaking – like the piano part of another concerto but with the orchestra inside the piano as well as the soloist. Just listen to the way Osborne presents the voicings in the final Rondo giocoso con moto, each with such a distinct personality it’s like a colourful stage show.
The Piano Sonata No.2 was written shortly after Tippett completed King Priam, and uses compositional procedures and quotations from that important work. Osborne brings out the sequential and fragmentary nature of the work, giving its sometimes Messiaen-like gestures plenty of clarity and explosive individuality. Donohoe’s faster passages have a more quicksilver immediacy, which can make them seem rushed in comparison to Osborne, but would account for Donohoe coming in more than a minute faster. Donohoe’s lyrical runs seem to have more expressive power in this piece somehow – Osborne manages a slightly less effective illusion of legato, but he is more inclined to allow for more expressive rubati at the end of some phrases, and in the end it’s swings and roundabouts.
Piano Sonata No.3 was written after the struggle of completing the 3rd Symphony, but unlike King Priam, doesn’t use material from its adjacent chronological partner. Tippett explores the independence of the hands in the outer movements, and any pianist worth their salt will revel in the patterns and contrasts created by the technical demands of the music, and Osborne clearly has the measure of some of the remarkable writing, with the completion of which Paul Crossley helped the composer considerably. Crossley manages a more spiky right hand, but his left is less well served by the CRD recording, and we miss some detail in the densest passages. With Donohoe the left hand is emphasised almost to a fault, so that it has a palpable and almost disorientating equality with, and sometimes supremacy over the right. Donohoe’s remarkable rhythmic control is revealed superbly and the playing is breathtaking, but returning to Steven Osborne I feel he has more hold on the soul of the music, especially in the slower sections and the beautiful central movement. Like all these sonatas, variety in interpretation serves to shine lights on different aspects of the music, and each has their value. If it were a desert island choice however, it would be Osborne I would want to have.
The Piano Sonata No.4 at well over half an hour is the problem child for all projects of this kind, being too long to squeeze onto a single disc with all of the other sonatas, but leaving a double CD release short on timing. Hyperion have solved this elegantly with the Concerto and Fantasia, but it still seems to make for an unusual match of solo and orchestral; until you encounter the fourth sonata, which more than balances the weight of the programme in terms of musical content. The sonata deals in part with some of the resonant effects of the piano, and the use of all three pedals. This is quite clear from the opening, in which the harmonic series is ‘awakened’ through half-stopping a string. I’ve always considered Paul Crossley’s recording to be pretty authoritative, and returning to the CRD set, still find him at his most convincing in this amazing work. If I’m honest, I feel Steven Osborne lingers just a little too long over the cadences in the central movement, the quotations from the fourth symphony. Crossley moves these moments along and get more out of the relationships of the chords against each other. Osborne’s pacing and sense of colour elsewhere is impeccable however, and it seems churlish to quibble over what after all are often questions of taste when it comes to performances at this level. His playing in the fourth fast section is awe-inspiring, and the final slow movement is poignant indeed.
Ian Kemp has written extensive and informative booklet notes for this release, including plenty of background and analysis of all of the pieces on these discs. Steven Osborne has also included a personal essay, in which he expresses gratitude to Professor Kemp for his assistance with the preparations for these recordings, and in his instructive lessons in analysis – approached not only as an intellectual exercise but also as an emotional and instinctive one. This interaction raises the most important question asked of a piece, “what does it actually sound like?” These reflections on Tippett’s music and performing in general come to the heart of Steven Osborne’s recordings of these essential works, and point some of the way towards appreciating their value as additions to the catalogue. One doesn’t need to be told that the player has considered these works deeply, one feels it instinctively – proof that looking beyond the notes on the page, and even beyond the instrument, has crucial importance in realising such fine recordings. Like a Shakespearian actor who makes you forget you are watching Shakespeare, Steven Osborne’s narrative of these works can make you forget you are listening to a pianist, putting you as close to Tippett’s sparkling imagination as I can imagine is possible through the medium of recorded sound.
Dominy Clements


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