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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Remembering Tippett - Historic Recordings from the 1940s

Fantasy Sonata (1936-38) [21:09]
Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-39) [21:15]
String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp (1941-42) [20:20]
Thomas TALLIS Spem in alium [12:02]
Phyllis Sellick (piano) (Sonata)
Walter Goehr and his orchestra (Concerto)
Zorian Quartet (Quartet)
Morley College Choir/Michael Tippett (Spem)
Rec. Decca London Studio, Remington Van Wyk, 1941 (sonata); Levy’s Sound Studios, 73 New Bond St, London, summer 1943 (Concerto); Decca London Studios, 18-20 Dec 1947 (quartet); HMV Abbey Rd, 7 Oct 1948 (Spem)

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The centenary of Tippett’s birth falls this year (2005). This together with another NMC CD of Tippett conducting his second and fourth symphonies are the first outliers for that celebration. No doubt the year will be crowded with Tippett discs. His music was feted during his lifetime but seems to have let slip its precarious hold on the repertoire after his death. Centenary year will at least put many of his CDs back in the shops and on our shelves.

I rather hope that some of the long-disdained works will put in an appearance. It worked for Britten so why not Tippett? After all is there any real reason why we should not hear A Song of Liberty to words by Blake from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ and, by the way, the 1930s were a good decade for Blake settings: William Alwyn’s gargantuan setting of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell has been neglected for far too long and may yet surprise us. The Tippett work, which is for chorus and orchestra, dates from 1937. There is also Tippett’s music for the Socialist ballet The Colliery written for Dartington in 1934; the same year he completed the similarly neglected ballad opera Robin Hood. The 1930s also gave birth to a cargo of Lennox Berkeley works including a superb Cello Concerto, the masterfully stormy Nocturne for orchestra (as if Berkeley had taken a shine to the first two Barber Essays and Music to a Scene from Shelley) and the oratorio Job (1934).

These recordings have been digitally remastered by NMC but they do not betray any of the usual signs of excessive scrubbing and synthesis. In fact the dream-like Fantasy-Sonata has one point where there are deep rumbles from the disc. Scuffs and hiccups are also encountered at the start of the second 78 from 4:00 on tr. 1. Phyllis Sellick’s way with the gently singing way with the Andante links with Finzi. There is otherwise little that you might link with the main practitioners of English pastoralism. Bach, Beethoven and Handel may pass in deferential parade through some of the pages but the tight rhythmic figures that grip the finale pave the way for the air-borne exuberance and life-enhancing joy of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. This comes next in the hands of Walter Goehr, the father of Alexander Goehr. Did Tippett ever excel his achievement this work, perhaps in the late Triple Concerto but he never captured anything like the popularity secured by the Concerto. It will keep his name in the repertoire when everything else has faded. Another first recording this Goehr set ushered me into Tippett’s music via a battered Classics for Pleasure LP reissue from the late 1960s. The coupling was an equally distressed 78s transcription of Rawsthorne’s Symphonic Studies. Goehr leads his orchestra through an emotional reading - the vibrato piled high, wide and almost Hollywood deep in the Adagio cantabile. In the finale Goehr dares to have the strings almost croon when it comes to the big lyrical statements. Comparing this with Colin Davis’s BBC TV studio recording from the 1960s broadcast in monochrome as part of a Tippett retrospect in December 2004 Davis shows a more typically English reserve. Goehr’s orchestra is not large, nor is it perfectly polished but it is ample to carry the emotional burden. This work strikes the ideal balance between seething Stravinskian bustle and dew-fresh pastoral song. It remains at all times pellucidly orchestrated something that was to carry over into the Corelli Fantasia years later. Compare this clarity with two other British works of the 1930s; works I love but which often revel in a gorgeous density of texture: Bliss’s Music for Strings (1935) and Howells’ Concerto for Strings (1938). Ironically the recording of the String Quartet No. 2 often sounds as if it is for a much larger number of players than four. A major early performance of the work took place on 21 August 1943. Tippett was able to attend having just been released from prison. He had missed the recording sessions for the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. At that time he was in Wormwood Scrubs as a conscientious objector. It was his friend Britten who supervised. Britten and Pears had themselves narrowly escaped imprisonment as ‘conshies’. The bustling of the Concerto comes out in the Presto and finale of the quartet, tenderness in the andante as well as a very European complexity and a certain coldness in the two outer movements. The most recent recording here is of Tippett conducting his Morley College Choir in Tallis’s Spem in Alium. He inspires a majestic performance of a sovereign work - and was no doubt delighted by its complexity of lithely interweaving lines. This is hardly the way to get to know the Tallis but it makes a fascinating once in a while experience.

The CD is generously timed and exhaustively documented in fascinating detail. This is recommendable to students of British music during the 1930s and performance practice in the 1940s as well as to Tippett fans everywhere.

Rob Barnett

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