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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Symphony No. 2 (1957) [36:40]
Symphony No. 4 (1977) [34:41]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tippett
Recorded at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 10th-11th March, 1993 (Symphony No. 2) and 29th March, 1993 (Symphony No. 4) DDD
NMC ARCHIVE NMC D104 [71:21]

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A brief word of warning to begin. For anyone who reads the BBC Music Magazine this exact recording was released as a cover CD in celebration of Tippett’s ninetieth birthday in 1995. If, like me, you are not always overly diligent in cataloguing your magazine cover discs it is worth having a hunt before parting with the nine pounds or so this mid-price NMC Archive re-release is going to cost you. Should you not have it in your collection then read on, for the disc is a fascinating document of the composer’s own realisation of his Second and Fourth Symphonies in the twilight years of his life.

Remarkably Tippett was eighty-eight when he took to the podium for this recording. In a series of highly illuminating recollections, recording engineer and former Chief Producer of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martin Cotton tells in the accompanying booklet of the trials and tribulations he encountered in bringing the project to fruition, trials that continued to the very recording sessions themselves. Initially, the problem was one of convincing record company executives of the merit of the project. "What do you think Michael would bring to the music" was one response, accurately described by Cotton as "supercilious". Enter Fiona Maddocks, then editor of the BBC Music Magazine, who agreed to fund the recording as the BBC Music Magazine’s contribution to the forthcoming Tippett celebrations of 1995.

No doubt one of the reasons for the scepticism was Tippett’s own reputation with the baton. Whilst a regular conductor of his own music, Tippett was not known for the accuracy of his podium technique. By the time this recording came to pass his age was also an obvious factor although it is clear from Cotton’s recollections that advancing years had done nothing to diminish his impish humour and an endearing delight at the "discovery" of his own notes.

What we get is a ‘seat of the pants’ musical experience, an orchestra at times clearly struggling to keep the roller-coaster from flying off the rails but nonetheless playing with a sense of concentration and respect that permeates virtually every bar.

The Second Symphony has, in my own mind at least, always been associated with spring. Tippett intended the first movement (conceived as he sat gazing over a sunlit Lake Lugano) to be a celebration of joy. From the pounding Vivaldi inspired Cs of the opening bars and the dance-like rhythms that ensue, I have always felt that the music heralds the beginning of the new season. Here, the BBC Symphony Orchestra play with a vitality that one could hardly envisage them gaining from Tippett’s physical example on the podium. Yet it was to his credit that the players responded with such unadulterated verve. The beautifully limpid sounds of the early bars of the second movement, like the waking of nature after the winter, are captured with heart-stopping atmosphere although the Presto veloce scherzo that follows fares less well, the tempo erring on the cautious side as both orchestra and conductor try to get to grips with the complexities of Tippett’s intricate rhythmic writing. The final Allegro moderato gets things back on track however as the symphony comes full circle to return to the Cs of the opening, this time slowed down and signalling that the music has run its course.

The essentially classical form of the Second Symphony could hardly be more at odds with the continuous structure of the Fourth, the origins of which lie in Tippett’s viewing of a film that showed the foetal development of a rabbit inside the womb, speeded up to demonstrate the splitting of the initial single cell. The brass (augmented to two tubas and six horns in addition to the usual three trumpets and trombone) figure prominently in Tippett’s scoring and the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra revel in the opportunities Tippett affords them. Once again, indeed more so than in the Second Symphony, there are moments when Tippett’s complex rhythmic systems seem to bring players and conductor perilously close to disaster. Yet the excitement and spontaneity of the music-making is exciting in the extreme. Perfection it is not but do not let that put you off. It’s thrilling stuff.

If you prefer your recordings studio-polished it is likely that Richard Hickox on Chandos will be your man. If you can put up with a few awkward corners however this recording is a memorable document of the sheer joy of music making.

Christopher Thomas

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