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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
The Midsummer Marriage (1955)
Joan Carlyle (soprano) Jenifer; Elizabeth Harwood (soprano) Bella; Elizabeth Bainbridge (mezzo) She-Ancient; Helen Watts (contralto) Sosostris; Alberto Remedios (tenor) Mark; Stuart Burrows (tenor) Jack; Raimund Herincx (baritone) King Fisher; Stafford Dean (bass) He-Ancient; David Whelan (baritone) Half-Tipsy Man; Andrew Daniels (tenor) Dancing Man
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Colin Davis.
From Philips 6703027 No rec. info. ADD


History may well reveal Tippett’s opera The Midsummer Marriage to be his greatest work. Sir Colin Davis is certainly a man on a mission to convince you of this. He inspires the Chorus (resplendent) and Orchestra of Covent Garden to truly great things. Rarely will you hear an uncompromising twentieth-century work such as this one sung and played with such almighty belief. The sheer standard of orchestral playing almost beggars belief (who does one highlight given the prevailing excellence – maybe the flutes, as they have a lot to do with conjuring up this magical world?). This standard is replicated in a recording of the very first rank. Detailed without being sterile, all credit is due to the engineers.

The disc layout works out perfectly, so that three of the famous ‘Ritual Dances’ kick off the second disc. The lively characterisation Davis gets from his players here sums up the orchestra’s commitment to the entire endeavour. Personally, I am not a fan of Sir Colin in everything he does, but here (as also in Berlioz) he seems at one with the composer’s intent. His way with the third ritual dance is such that the music is the perfect representation of the title, ‘The Air in Spring’. It is very much like having the score laid bare in front of your very ears. Davis is also responsive to the various comings and goings of tension – try the way he tightens the dramatic screw at the end of Act I (the brass are at the very height of their powers here).

The cast may well be a cause for nostalgia amongst certain readers, possibly especially the name of Elizabeth Harwood, who seems to be remembered with so much fondness. Here she takes the role of Bella (King Fisher’s secretary) – her voice is very lovely indeed. Joan Carlyle is a strong and characterful Jenifer (her aria, CD1 track 13, is jolly in a very Tippett way).

Raymond Herincx reveals King Fisher to be a character of real majesty, yet a flawed one (something along the lines of Wotan, perhaps) His long solos in Act I Scene 6 are particularly impressive.

Helen Watts assumes on Tippett’s take on Wagner’s Erda, Sosostris (which character is described as ‘a clairvoyante’). She has a large vocal sense of presence (try her solo in Act III Scene 5; CD2, tracks 11-13). As Mark, Alberto Remedios emerges as an ardent and lyrical tenor, particularly heroic towards the end of Act I.

Even the smaller roles are well taken (David Whelan’s ‘Half-Tipsy Man’ is great fun, for example). Holding it all together is Colin Davis’s baton. Davis’s pacing seems unerring throughout, never rushing so that detail always comes through.

It is true that the plot is heavily symbolic (due to its dream-like basis) and does not reveal its secrets on initial hearings. But that is all part of the music’s depth, and should be taken as a call to many rehearings.

No opera-lover should be without this set. Even if you think you have an aversion for Tippett, do give it a try as this seems to be the work in which his creative energies reached a zenith. The score demands a high degree of concentration from the listener – but its rewards are many and varied.

Presentation is excellent, with full libretto, essay and synopsis by David Cairns, and some reprinted excerpts from ‘The Birth of an Opera’ by Tippett himself.


Colin Clarke

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