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Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Concerto for Orchestra (1962-63) [30:29]
Concerto for Violin, Viola, Cello, and Orchestra (1980) [34:18]
Gyorgy Pauk (violin), Nobuko Imai (viola), Ralph Kirshbaum (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. London, UK, August 1964 (Concerto for Orchestra), November 1981 (Triple Concerto)
Presto CD
PHILIPS 476 7144 [65:01]

This is a most welcome reissue of two of Sir Michael Tippett’s major orchestral works. It has been available periodically before, but seems to have disappeared from the catalogue. Now Presto Classical has restored them as originally issued for the enjoyment of all fans of Tippett’s music. Of the recordings of the two works, the Triple Concerto was awarded Gramophone’s Record of the Year and Concerto Award for 1983, hence the cover of the CD booklet as reissued in 2005.

The Concerto for Orchestra is one of Tippett’s thornier works, which he wrote while composing his opera King Priam. As the late Michael Kennedy in his fine discussion of the music in the disc’s booklet notes, Tippett “employed a deliberate fragmentation of the conventional orchestra” to differentiate characters and emotions in his “declamatory” style. The concerto consists of three movements, all of equal length. The first movement contains three groups of instruments. Each group plays its themes, which are in turn lyrical, declamatory, and energetic, and then they all come together for a “‘collage’ or jam session,” as Kennedy describes it. Although the employment of the instruments is colourful and quite virtuosic, it is sometimes difficult for the listener to grasp its discourse. The second movement is scored for strings alone and in its lyricism provides a good contrast with the first movement, progressing from dark to light and back to dark. Then the composer lets loose in the finale with drums, trombones, and trumpets, whose music he borrowed from King Priam. Its exuberance makes it in some ways the easiest to comprehend, though, as with the other movements, the music just stops rather than ending in some decisive manner.

The Concerto for Orchestra has not often been recorded. It was included in a Tippett series by Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony on Chandos on the same CD as their account of the Triple Concerto. I have not heard that recording, but I cannot imagine a better one than this reissue with Davis and the London Symphony. The orchestra obviously has the chops and the conductor the full measure of the music. The excellent 1964 analogue recording sounds as good as the later digital one for the Triple Concerto, with which it is also paired here.

Tippett’s Triple Concerto is a well-constructed and memorable composition. It has received greater exposure on disc than the earlier work. When I first heard it, I was blown away. I was living in the UK at the time and was fortunate to attend a concert in November 1981 in London with the same forces that premiered the concerto on the CD. There have been several other excellent accounts, but none has dethroned this premiere recording from its preeminence. The concerto was commissioned by the London Symphony for its 75th anniversary in 1979, but Tippett did not complete it until a year later. It is in five movements, the first, third, and last which feature the string soloists, while the second and fourth are brief orchestral interludes. The string soloists have yearning, lyrical themes, especially in the middle movement, that stay long with the listener, while the brass and percussion provide the necessary punctuation. The last movement ties everything together and the work concludes with loud timpani beats and a final thwack. The Triple Concerto is one of Tippett’s most successful works and representative of him as an orchestral composer.

While this premiere recording has provided the benchmark for all successors, there have been several others that merit attention. One of these on Nimbus is conducted by the composer and therefore might be considered authoritative, were it not for the fact that Tippett was not the best conductor of his own music. The soloists on that disc, Ernst Kovacic, Gerard Caussť, and Alexander Baillie, are first-rate in every respect, but the orchestra as recorded is not at the level of the London Symphony. The soloists are recorded more closely, whereas their balance in Davis’s account is more natural within the orchestra. Still, this disc has much to recommend it (review ~ review). I also have a third disc in my collection that may not have been issued in the UK, but is still available in the US: A two-CD set entitled “Best of British from the BBC Proms 2007” (DG) which contains a live recording of the concerto with Daniel Hope, Philip Dukes, and Christian Poltera and the BBC Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis. Theirs is a vibrant account possessing the frisson of the event albeit with some background noise betraying its origin. It really gives the “other Davis” a run for its money, though there’s no gainsaying the greater refinement of the earlier performance. The glorious middle movement is particularly unforgettable in that account. May the Philips disc never again disappear from the catalogue!

Leslie Wright

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