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Sarah Beth Briggs
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TIPPETT (1905 – 1998) Dance, Clarion Air (1952)
[3.49]; The Weeping Babe (1944) [4.33]; Plebs Angelica
(1944) [2.59]; Bonny at Morn (1956) [2.20] (1); Crown
of the Year (1958) [23.37] (2); Music (1960) [3.22] (3);
Five Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time (1939-41)
Medici String Quartet (2); Martin Jones (piano) (2, 3); John Anderson
(oboe) (2); Graham Ashton (trumpet) (2); Peter Hamburger (percussion)
(2); Martin Westlake (percussion) (2); Jeremy Cornes (percussion)
(2); Michael Copley (recorder) (1, 2); Maurice Hodges (recorder)
(1, 2); Evelyn Nallen (recorder) (1, 2); Christ Church Cathedral
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, 14-15 May 1990
NIMBUS NI 5266 [50.56]
For a composer so influenced by Purcell and early English music, it is surprising that Michael Tippett wrote so little choral music. His motet, Plebs Angelica, written for Canterbury Cathedral Choir in 1944, is his only piece for the all-male forces of an English Cathedral choir.
On this disc, recorded in 1990 by Stephen Darlington and the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, the choir have added works written for mixed voice choir as well as the cantata Crown of the Year originally written for a girls’ school.
Tippett probably never envisaged his Four Negro Spirituals being performed by an English Cathedral choir. In the review in the Gramophone in 1991 M.R. referred to 'thin, characterless solo voices' and 'contorted vowels' of the boy soloists. Certainly Gulliver Ralston (treble soloist in Steal Away) is no Jessye Norman. But I found something profoundly affecting about the performance. The choir never solves the problematic question of accents and vowels, so that in places there are some awkward half-passes at an “authentic” rendering of the text. To be able to appreciate the considerable virtues of this performance you have to be able to take a step back, and enjoy the disjoint between genres and between styles. After all, Tippett's spirituals are not authentic, they are adaptations by an English composer of 19th/early 20th century transcriptions (and sanitisations) of the real originals.
The disc opens with a nicely judged performance of Dance, Clarion Air, Tippett's madrigal to a text by Christopher Fry, which was contributed to A Garland for the Queen, a 20th century attempt to re-create the Triumphs of Oriana. Tippett showed himself one of the few 20th century composers able to reinvigorate the madrigal form. The Weeping Babe, setting a text by Edith Sitwell, needs a greater emotional range than the Christ Church Choir can really bring to it.
In Plebs Angelica they make a glorious noise, and bring off this taxing work with aplomb. But I missed the sense of individual lines interconnecting; perhaps due to the way the work was recorded in Dorchester Abbey.
The real novelty on the disc is Crown of the Year, to another text by Christopher Fry, which Tippett turned into a cantata for upper voices, recorders, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, string quartet, percussion and piano. The cantata was a commission from Badminton School Bristol and Tippett used as a text the alternative words which Christopher Fry had written for their possible contribution to A Garland for the Queen. He skilfully works a complex instrumental tapestry around the relatively straightforward vocal part. It is a real discovery for me and still seems an unaccountably neglected piece of Tippett. That said, I found the boys’ vocal contributions a little pallid at times and the treble soloists in the duet lacked the crystalline accuracy which Tippett seems to call for.
Inevitably you will want other recordings of some of the items on this disc. But Stephen Darlington and his forces bring an interesting side-slant on this music. These performances are never less than creditable, and make a coherent case for Tippett's choral music being performed by a choir of men and boys.
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