While the British Music Collection is in standard livery
it mixes double CD sets with single discs and in one case (Walton) a
four CD box. This Tippett set is a 'twofer' compactly accommodated in
a single-width hinged case.
Universal had plenty of recordings from which to choose
amongst Philips and Decca masters. All the tracks, save the Triple
Concerto and Byzantium, are in ADD sound. The Concerto
for Orchestra and the Triple Concerto are Philips tapes;
the rest are from the Decca stable.
The Concerto for Orchestra tape hails from 1964.
It was recorded in association with the British Council shortly after
its Edinburgh Festival premiere that year. The work is dedicated to
Benjamin Britten to mark his fiftieth birthday. The Concerto
marks the same gear change that you find between Midsummer Marriage
and King Priam. It sports a spiky brilliance but not unleashed
joy. It is a work of the Sixties and I wonder if it has ‘legs’. It has
its attractions - the Largo in which the strings get more of
a look-in. Otherwise it is one of those works that it is good to have
but does it provoke affection? Not in the case of this listener.
This can be contrasted with the Triple Concerto
which although sporting thornier melodic argument, and perhaps just
as brilliant as the Concerto for Orchestra, is an intensely
lyrical work. Do persist with it. I think that it is amongst the greatest
Tippett. I recall how struck I was by the piece when I heard the Proms
premiere over the radio in 1981. Listen to the yearning heart-aspiring
call of the three soloists as at 3.41. This passage is graven in my
memory. In this Tippett reaches back to the blindly ecstatic cradling
of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. If Vaughan Williams's
Pilgrim's Progress is 'in the similitude of a dream' then this
is a genetic brother - younger and more fluent, less longwinded but
just as dreamlike. The sweetest lullaby and the tenderest love-making
continues in the languorous core movement marked Very slow, calmer
still. The finale marked Medium fast is more animated, coloured
by a brilliance that intermittently recalls Bartók.
In the early 1970s Decca brought out a staggeringly
successful LP of Tippett's music for strings with Neville Marriner conducting
the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The contents of that LP are
all here distributed across the two discs. The quadripartite Little
Music for Strings is a low key (and it must be said less inspirational)
analogue of the Double Concerto. It is in the sweetest of sound and
the strings retain much of their caramelised yet athletic quality -
a hint of acid percolating through now. The Corelli Fantasia is
searching and flooded with baroque grandeur, humanity and a twentieth
century passion. This was surely the kindling for the 1970s works of
Alfred Schnittke. Marriner’s is a smouldering performance, bathed in
light, and evangelical for humane values. The recording still glows.
The orchestra and the soloists (ASMIF principals) are all you could
ask. Listen to the 'machine gun' attack of the soloists at 2.54. Then
we come to the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. This stands
as one of the loveable monuments of British music. Its pattering colloquy,
vitality of dialogue, its lift and spin, its liberated flood of melody
are all projected with delicacy and potency untrammelled. If you want
to sample this work then try the last movement. For those lucky enough
yet to have discovered this work think of it as a stylistic step forward
from Elgar's Introduction and Allegro.
I note the chronological pulse of these concertos.
The Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1940); Corelli Fantasia
Concertante (1953); Concerto for Orchestra (1964) then a
long hiatus until the Triple Concerto.
The two short works include the tartly shattering Fanfare
and delightful Dance Clarion Air. These are followed by a substantial
song-cycle with orchestra. Byzantium (based on Yeats' famous
poem) was taken down from the New York performances in April 1991. This
is late Tippett and I thought pretty unpromising in the first of the
five songs. The melismatic Before me floats an image and At
midnight offer some relief but this is otherwise a development of
the fragmented trend announced by King Priam and a resiling from
the humanity and communication of the Triple Concerto. No texts
are provided - only Kenneth Chalmers' good compact notes.
The competition for this 2CD collection is few and
far between; the best being the now deleted 4CD Nimbus set enshrining
a sequence of recordings conducted by the composer during the 1980s.
For this listener the Decca collection would have been
ideal if the Concerto for Orchestra, Little Music and
Byzantium had been substituted with A Child of Our Time and
the Second Symphony.
At 154.52 this Tippett cross-section offers generous
measure. It is spans the decades rather well and if I find Byzantium
and the Concerto for Orchestra less than impressive that tells
you more about this writer than the quality of the music. Let me recommend
this set strongly for the Triple Concerto and the string works. They
are something special - treasurable and pleasurable all in excellent