> Michael Tippett - Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 3 [RB]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Symphony No. 1 (1945) [36.24]
Symphony No. 2 (1957) [33.29]
Symphony No. 3 (1972) [54.59]
Suite in D for the Birthday of Prince Charles (1948) [14.45]
Heather Harper (3)
London SO/Colin Davis
Chicago SO/Georg Solti (suite)
rec Brent Town Hall, Wembley, Dec 1975, (1); Oct 1973 (3); Kingsway Hall, Mar 1967 (2); Medinah Temple, Chicago, May 1981 DDD, (suite) ADD
DECCA The British Music Collection 473 092-2 [2CDs: 140.16]


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This set is of far more than historical significance. However the choice of works again presents a puzzle. The puzzle here is what artistic judgement or contractual complication slammed the door on including the Solti-Chicago version of the Fourth Symphony (yes, complete with amplified breathing effect). Perhaps someone will enlighten us. This is not the first time that this sort of thing has happened. Look at the double Delius set which would have been a natural as a home for the reissue of the complete orchestral Delius of Mackerras and the orchestra of Welsh National Opera (originally on the late lamented Argo, early 1990s). We were treated to some of the Mackerras material spotted between the Delius double and the single. However other material edged out of the way a complete Mackerras set.

The First Symphony has the vitally sprung velocity, coil and recoil of neo-classical Stravinsky but chamfered down with some of the lyrical bloom of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Snappy pounce and bounce is evident in the Presto in which the horns sound superb. I note that Sargent conducted its premiere in Liverpool in November 1945. I doubt that Sargent had a good word for the work.

The start of the Second Symphony yammers and gauntly barks over a thudding and grunting bass pattern. Rhythmic impetus is to the fore. The cavernous sluggish dreamscape of the 11 minute adagio begins with a suggestion of Copland's Quiet City but soon resolves into density lifted by the superb solo trumpet line (3.33). I wonder if the presto veloce should go as steadily as it does under Davis. The stony slam of the piano returns for the finale with its transformational suggestion of that tricksy opening movement. This brings back many memories of the original LP which also included the Quartet for four French Horns. The recording, which comes up insolently defiant of its 35 years age, was made with the support of the British Council.

The Third Symphony is in two meaty movements each lasting about half an hour. Decca have tracked these into seven sections. This is a thoughtful work that does not give up its secrets willingly. I recall repeatedly listening to a tape of one of the early BBC broadcasts (Josephine Barstow, BBCNSO/Raymond Leppard, circa 1976). Unlike the same experience with Rubbra's Eleventh and Havergal Brian's Twenty-Second, I found my appreciation labouring against an obstinately obsidian face. I could and still can admire the surface but I still seek a grip, a toe-hold, on the 'message' of this music. This comes to some extent in the second movement when Heather Harper sings the various Blues (words by Tippett). In the Scena and Slow Blues I the quotation, and then sulphuric transformation, of the furious gesture (just preceding the cry 'Freude') from Beethoven's Ninth recalls the Wagnerian and Rossinian quotes in Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony. The recording quality is nothing short of superb. Heather Harper is one of my favourite singers (alongside Ian Partridge and Gerald English) but I doubt that she is best suited to this music. Faye Robinson (a Tippett choice - she appears frequently on Tippett recordings) is reputed to be more at ease in this work. Robinson appears on the Chandos/Hickox/Bournemouth set which is also well worth hearing. I liked the steady uprooting power of the Slow Blues (6) which is like an extruded echo of Roy Harris.

After three tonal but by no means instantly approachable symphonies we end with a digital recording (the only one in this set) of the Suite written to celebrate the birth of Prince Charles. It dates from between the First and Second symphonies. Its five movements allude to and quote various traditional tunes, folksy-olde-worlde in character, not soft-centred, and bustlingly raucous in triumph. This represents a strain of composition that I associate with Vaughan Williams' Three Portraits from 'The England of Elizabeth' (Previn on RCA-BMG) and the Rubbra Improvisations on themes by Giles Farnaby (early Hickox recording again on RCA-BMG). The precision and delicate strength of the Chicago orchestra is a joy to hear as in the Procession. Raymond McGill's notes remind us that Tippett used a theme from his unpublished ballad opera Robin Hood (1934). I wonder if that score exists. Surely it is time we heard it.

The notes are by Raymond McGill who has slipped into the shoes of Kenneth Chalmers (who did the required service for the earlier salvoes in this series). The full sung texts are printed in the booklet.

This set is valuable for restoring the first recordings of these busy but not always emotionally yielding symphonies.

Rob Barnett

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