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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Divertimento on Sellinger's Round for chamber orchestra (1954) [18:27]
Little Music for string orchestra (1946) [10:38]
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
(recorded in Henry Wood Hall, Southwark, 14/15/18 February 1995)
Sonata for Four Horns (1955) [13:43]
Michael Thompson Horn Quartet
(recorded in Henry Wood Hall, Southwark, 12/14 May 1995)
Ritual Dances from 'A Midsummer Marriage' (1956) [28:51]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai
(recorded in the Concert Hall, Poole Arts Centre, 25/26 November 1984)
EMI CLASSICS 5-86587-2 [71:47]


I suspect not many people would think to put Tippett on their short-list of 'unjustly neglected composers' or, come to think of it, 'great British composers'. But I wonder how many people actually know his music. Certainly compared with Britten, the contemporary he's most often associated with, there's very little Tippett which could be said to have reached repertory status, and still less that could be described as 'popular'. In my experience, his intellectualism frightens away lovers of earlier 20th century British music who might otherwise be inclined to investigate, and his fondness for complex and detailed material contrasts with the innate simplicity and distinctive 'Englishness' of, say, Delius and Vaughan Williams. Even the heartfelt and richly melodic A Child of our Time struggles for our attention - and that of choral societies up and down the land - besides Belshazzar's Feast or the War Requiem. And the five string quartets, four piano sonatas and four symphonies (marvellously inventive and strongly individual scores, all of them) haven't yet been taken up by performers or concert-promoters, let alone listeners, as much as 'similar' scores (but actually not remotely similar scores!) by some of his contemporaries. His day will come, I'm sure.

For those who wish to dip their toes into these waters, be they uncharted or already-familiar, this disc is a near-perfect introduction to Tippett's music. The beautifully crafted Divertimento on Sellinger's Round is as fresh, as accessible and as 'English' as any number of British music best-sellers, and yet remains little known. Anyone familiar with the quasi-Baroque manners of the Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli or the Concerto for double string orchestra will surely enjoy this. So too will anyone who treasures the lovely 'Passacaglia on the Death of Falstaff' from Walton's music to Henry V, or the celebrated Lament from Dido and Aeneas, both of which were evidently haunting Tippett at the time of its composition.

Little Music too is very easy on the ear. With obvious references to Eine kleine Nachtmusik in its title, and recollections of Purcell and Vivaldi in its stylistic make-up, it's a piece which is positively waiting to be popular! Classic fM producers please note!

One piece which can't be compared with much else, on account of its almost unique scoring - although there is another by Hindemith - is the Sonata for Four Horns. Which other instrument commands the range of pitch and expressive character necessary for such an exquisitely-varied one-instrument piece? Written for Dennis Brain and his Philharmonia colleagues, the cascading hunting calls of the opening movement recall -perhaps I should say quote? - the Tennyson setting ('Blow, bugle, blow') in Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Compare that with the close-voiced barber-shop harmonies of the nocturnal slow movement! The sheer variety of music here ensures that the potentially-limiting tone of four horns cannot possibly outstay their welcome! If you know and enjoy the horn-quartet sound in that wonderful Schumann Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra, do give this a try!

The Midsummer Marriage conspicuously integrates ingredients of The Magic Flute - the pairs of lovers and the initiation ceremonies required of them - and, as implied by its title, A Midsummer Night's Dream, in its juxtaposition of ordinary mortals and supernatural figures. And its warm heart follows in the wake of both. These Ritual Dances were written for Paul Sacher, and actually predate the opera. They make a perfect concert-suite, and a tasty appetiser for the real thing. It's difficult to think of more voluptuous music than the interweaving woodwind configurations and romantic horn-calls (from the prelude to Act II of the opera) with which the five-movement sequence begins and ends. The hounds chasing hares, the otters chasing fish, and the hawk chasing its prey, are all marked by music which is wonderfully alive with playful rhythms and delicate sonorities. And the ecstatic peroration - with heavy brass intoning praise of 'carnal love through which the race of men is everlastingly renewed' - is intensely memorable. Such rapturous music really does deserve the widest possible dissemination. The four main dances here are set in Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer: now if only Tippett had called this The Four Seasons…

These performances are all in the top flight. Marriner and the Academy are at their incredible best: and Michael Thompson and friends contribute a performance of quite extraordinary dexterity and virtuosity. Barshai and the Bournemouth orchestra - without the optional but unforgettable choral intervention - can't quite match the confidence and rainbow-like colourings of Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (now reissued on Warner Apex 8573890982: another all-Tippett curtain-raiser) but they do not disappoint. Nor do the recordings, which are among EMI's digital best.

Peter J Lawson

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