Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Concerto for violin, viola, cello and orchestra (1980) [35:43]
Concerto for piano and orchestra (1953-55) [36:35]
Martino Tirimo (piano), Ernst Kovacic (violin),
Gerard Caussé (viola), Alexander Baillie (cello)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Michael Tippett
rec. Studio 7, BBC Broadcasting House, Manchester, 7 July 1990 (Triple Concerto) and 17 May 1991 (Piano Concerto).
NIMBUS NI 5301 [72:32]
All recordings performed or conducted by composers of their own work have value, and the recordings made with Sir Michael Tippett on the Nimbus label between 1989 and 1991 are all ‘must have’ versions for anyone interested in this composer, and all are excellent performances in their own right.
The Concerto for violin, viola, cello and orchestra or Triple Concerto was commissioned for the London Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary in 1979, but was in fact completed in the year of Tippett’s 75th birthday and first performed at a Promenade Concert in 1980 with violinist György Pauk, viola player Nobuko Imai and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum. These performers conducted by Sir Colin Davis later recorded the piece for Philips 420 781-2, and this is and remains the reference recording. This triple concerto is fiendishly difficult in places, and while the forces under Tippett himself are very good, the refinement in the solo parts and sense of ensemble with the LSO recording is a few degrees better. The Very slow section here is also unbeatable – one of the most incredible and moving sounds you will ever hear on any recording anywhere. So, anyone really wanting the full effect of this piece will want Sir Colin Davis and the LSO, but they should also have Sir Michael Tippett. His recording is a little longer but in terms of tempi there is little essential difference. Given the drier acoustic of the Manchester studio, the atmosphere and intensity created by the players on the Nimbus recording is impressive, and the colourful, resonant and subtly nuanced orchestration of the piece has a clarity which is striking and memorable. The frisson of those little inflections which begin the first Interlude work perfectly, and the warmth of the brass in these gentler sections gives the lie to that section’s busy, even violent power in the first movement. That special Very slow movement isn’t quite as spine-tingling here, I think because the solo violin and cello sound more like two separate instruments rather than one organic and heavenly voice. There are still plenty of highly expressive and lovely moments though, and the playing is impassioned and honest. The percussion riffs in the second interlude are very different between recordings, and while I’m not sure Tippett’s jazzy syncopated cymbal is entirely a good idea it certainly points out a difference of opinion one way or another. The same goes for the final Medium fast movement, in which Tippett is a few notches quicker than Davis and therefore that much tighter and more exciting.
From a mature masterpiece to an earlier work which took longer to find its place in the repertoire, the Piano Concerto was conceived as “a concerto in which... the piano may sing”, and breathes the same air as Tippett’s opera The Midsummer Marriage. Once again the composer’s own directing of one of the mainstays of his catalogue is an essential purchase, and this performance is a good one. The recorded piano sound is a little jangly – the instrument itself doesn’t sound like the best one in the world to be honest – and the balance is a little disjointed, the piano if anything a little low against the orchestra, and frequently overpowered by it. I’m more inclined to complain if a solo piano is unrealistically large in relation to the orchestra with concerto recordings, and with the solo part often joining with the orchestra almost like a continuo part this is also an aspect of the piece as a whole, but students wanting to hear every detail of the solo part will have to strain quite hard at times. The balance of first violins is also rather on the sharp side in this recording, and the lower instrument and timpani rather tubby and indistinct. As far as I’m concerned the main competition for this piece is with Steven Osborne on the Hyperion label (see review), which has a more appealing piano sound and a richer accompaniment in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins. This said, you won’t want to be without Tippett’s own conducting, and there are special things on the Nimbus disc as well. The horn calls for the beginning of the Molto lento e tranquillo are particularly intense for instance, and it’s fascinating to hear how those high winds are allowed to sing over the rest of the orchestra, an aspect of doubtful orchestration under Brabbins, but given substance and a greater sense of form and direction by the composer. With the final Vivace it is Tippett who is slower, almost a whole minute longer in duration than Brabbins who sounds far more in control, as do his musicians. Martino Tirimo shines in this rhythmic solo however, and the music retains energy despite a less urgent and dramatic feel.
With better all-round recordings available, this Nimbus CD does rather rely on its USP, that of having the composer as conductor. Tippett was a good performer of his own music though, and while elements of detail and refinement are bettered elsewhere, these recordings are essential listening for connoisseurs of this composer. Collectors will find more such releases in the Nimbus catalogue, of which that with the Crown of the Year NI 5266 is particularly fine. By all means treat yourself to the alternatives but this is by no means a ‘specialist’ choice and is good in its own right, in the main for the Triple Concerto but with unique qualities throughout.
Uniquely special, but up against serious competition.