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Seen & Heard
Editor in Chief
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905–1998)
Dance, Clarion Air (1952) [4.36]
Plebs Angelica (1943) [3.11]
The Weeping Babe (1944) [5.06]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (1961) [6.59]
Unto the Hills (1958) [3.46]
Four Songs of the British Isles (1956) [13.29]
Over the Sea to Sky (1956) [4.04]
The Source (1942) [2.14]
The Windhover (1942) [3.00]
Lullaby (1959) [4.20]
Five Negro Spirituals (from A Child
of Our Time) (1939-1941) [12.11]
The BBC Singers/Stephen Cleobury
rec. 21, 24, 25 January 2005, Temple Church, London
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD092 [63.00]
a follow up to their fine Tippett song disc, featuring John
Mark Ainsley (see review), Signum have now issued one covering
choral music. Although Tippett worked extensively with choirs
throughout his life, smaller-scale choral pieces did not
feature all that strongly in his repertoire. This disc covers
all of his significant works for choir alone, or choir and
organ. The surprise is that there isn’t more of it and that
there are no large pieces comparable to those which Britten
wrote for unaccompanied choir.
That said, there is some very fine music on the disc
and much of it is currently not available on disc. The BBC
commissioned The Weeping Babe from Tippett
in 1944 when the BBC Singers premiered it. The current BBC
Singers have now recorded all
of Tippett’s choral music under the direction of Stephen
Tippett’s earliest published choral pieces were the
two madrigals, settings of The
Edward Thomas and The
Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Written in
1942, they were dedicated to and first performed by the Morley
College Choir. Both pieces use Tippett’s modern
both are complex part-sings with much vigorous, multi-textured
writing. You can’t help but be impressed at the standard
that the amateur, war-time Morley College Choir must have
achieved to have event attempted these pieces. The BBC Singers
respond to the composer’s challenge with relish. In many
places on this disc they make light of difficulties creating
effortlessly dazzling textures.
Also in the 1940s Tippett wrote two more choral pieces,
to commission, even though he had complained that working
on a small scale was not to his taste. Plebs
be small, but it is tricky to sing and dazzling in execution.
It was written for Canterbury Cathedral Choir but first performed
in the cathedral by the Fleet Street Choir, directed by T.B.
Lawrence. The text is a medieval Latin lyric and Tippett
uses two antiphonal choirs to produce some glittering, multi-rhythmed
The other 1940s choral piece was the BBC Commission, The Weeping Babe. The poem is by Edith Sitwell, a serious
nativity carol that prefigures the Crucifixion. Tippett creates
a complex, powerful part-song with a complex interweaving
Tippett’s major achievement during this period was the
Child of Our Time.
In 1958, at the request of his German publisher, Tippett
made an a cappella arrangement of them; two are essentially unchanged
from the oratorio but in the three others Tippett significantly
re-worked material to replace the instrumental parts. The
original solo parts are retained, sung by the choral leaders.
Here the solos are impressively sung by members of the BBC
Singers: Jennifer Adams-Barbaro, Jacqueline Fox, Robert Johnston,
Stuart MacIntyre. Whilst some people will still prefer the
orchestral version, Tippett shows great skill at re-creating
this music for his unaccompanied chorus whilst retaining
the essential feeling of this wonderful pieces. Sung here
by a relatively small group of singers (26 in all), we gain
immensely in clarity and flexibility. It is undoubtedly thrilling
to hear the Spirituals sung by a large chorus, but here the
more concentrated texture makes them profoundly moving.
Dance, clarion air was Tippett’s contribution
to A Garland for the Queen, the 1952
collection of songs for the Queen’s
Coronation. All the texts were specially written, Tippett’s
by Christopher Fry. Using this Tippett creates a dazzling,
dancing part-song inspired by madrigals of the past.
In 1957 Tippett was commissioned by North West German
Radio, Bremen; the result was Four
Songs from the British Isles.
In the event, the amateur choir for whom the piece was intended,
found it too tricky and the first performance was given in
1958 by the London Bach Group. Tippett’s folk-song arrangements
are long, surprisingly substantial and satisfying; these
are no mere bonne-bouches. In each song Tippett generally
starts off with relatively straight presentation of the tune
but gradually surrounds it with a web of more complex background
material. Over the Sea to Skye was intended
to be included in the set but had to be discarded due to
copyright reasons and was only discovered
at Schott’s London offices in 2002.
Unto the Hills is a simple, for Tippett (!), hymn tune which he wrote
for the Salvation Army in 1958. This came about because Wadhurst,
where Tippett was living, had a strong Salvation Army band
and they used to play at his house at Christmas; the bandmaster
asked Tippett for a piece and this was the result.
But this piece is not really typical of the changes
that were happening to Tippett’s music around this time;
he introduced sparser textures and more astringent harmonies.
His dazzling pastoral style would not recur until his wonderful
late orchestral pieces.
The key work in this period was the opera King Priam and Lullaby sets
a W.B. Yeats poem which includes references to the Priam
story. The piece was written for the Deller Consort, with
a solo part full of declamatory flourishes written for Deller
himself. The result is quieter than some of the earlier pieces,
with a jagged lyricism; the angular solo part is admirably
sung by Sian Menna, though I would have been interested to
hear a counter-tenor of the Deller school singing it.
Tippett only wrote one piece setting liturgical text,
his Anglican Evensong canticles written in 1961 for the 450th anniversary
of the founding of St. John’s College,
Cambridge. The college choir, under George Guest, first sang
them in March 1962. The Magnificat is remarkably uncompromising
with a mainly homophonic choral part interrupted by organ
flourishes; these were designed to show off the new trumpet
stop on the St. John’s organ. The Nunc Dimittis gives the
lion’s share of the work to soloists with the treble soloists
- beautifully sung here by Margaret Feaviour - taking the
lead, again with occasional organ interruptions. The result
is austere and lovely.
These are the last choral pieces that Tippett wrote;
all his later work for choir involves large-scale choral
and orchestral forces. We might regret what Tippett did not
write. But, despite his experience as a choral trainer he
obviously found the limitations of choral writing restricting
rather than liberating.
The BBC Singers under Stephen Cleobury give strong,
passionate performances. There were occasional moments when
I did wonder whether less vibrato and purer tone might have
worked better; but this is strong music and it responds to
strong, technically confident performances. But here, the
BBC Singers go far beyond mere technical competency, creating
a series of varied but dazzlingly vibrant performances. If
you love good choral music, then buy it.
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