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Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Concerto for Orchestra (1962-63) [30:29]
Concerto for Violin, Viola, Cello, and Orchestra (1978-79) [34:18]
György 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]

It is astonishing that Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Orchestra has only two commercial recordings. The most recent, part of Chandos’ survey of his orchestral works by Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, was issued 27 years ago in 1995. The present version by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis originally appeared in 1965 and has been reissued and repackaged several times. Despite this dearth of recordings, it remains one of the composer’s most popular pieces.

Many listeners tend to switch off from their enjoyment of Tippett with works written after The Midsummer Marriage (1946-52). His music from the 1930s to the end of the 1940s is typically approachable and seems to comfortably belong to the greater tradition of English Music. One thinks of the glorious Concerto for double string orchestra (1939) and the thought provoking A Child of Our Time (1939-41), all providing satisfying examples of Tippett’s largely “tonal” style. This initial period lasted until about 1947. The following years still featured music with engaging compositions including the Corelli Fantasia (1953) and the Piano Concerto (1953-55). However, with the advent of the Symphony No.2 (1957) he began to change his style. Here passages of polytonality lead the way to the considerable chromaticism and increasing dissonance apparent in his music written during the 1960s. These were often characterised by “abrupt statements, sharply contrasting musical subsections and simplicity of texture.” Around 1970, Tippett began to create a synthesis of his earlier styles, where he also introduced rock and pop elements, blues, and quotations from earlier composers including Mussorgsky and Beethoven. Major works of these years were The Ice Break (1973-76), the Symphony No.4 (1976-77), The Mask of Time (1980-82) and New Year (1985-88).

Turning back to the Concerto for orchestra, the biggest driver of change was Tippett’s second opera, King Priam, premiered in 1962. As Bayan Northcott (sleeve notes, Philips, 6580 093) has summarised, in this “epic tragedy, the earlier euphony and flowing lyricism are replaced by strikingly abrupt and dissonant procedures.” Nods are made to Stravinsky’s “more revolutionary works” and to Schoenberg. Northcott has also identified Messiaen’s “timeless mosaic structures” and even Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Momente (1962 onwards) as influences on Tippett’s music at that time. I am not convinced by this last contention.

The basic hermeneutic for enjoying the Concerto for orchestra is to see it as an essay on the “individual timbral qualities of the instruments.” In Priam, the composer had used separate instrumental combinations to portray various characters. Andrew Burn (liner notes Chan 9834) has quoted the Tippett as saying, “that the work is more a ‘concerto for various instrumental ensembles,’ where the orchestra is ‘broken down into small groups and reassembled,’ commenting that it is ‘nearer to the concerto grosso of the 18th century than the display concerto of the 19th.”  Much conversation occurs within and between each orchestral section.

This is an immensely satisfying Concerto. For me the lyrical elements outweigh any dissonant ones that may trouble the listener. The opening theme for two flutes and harp still haunts my musical imagination, many years after first hearing it.

The Concerto for Orchestra was premiered at the Edinburgh Festival on 5 August 1963, by the present performers. It was dedicated “To Benjamin Britten with affection and admiration in the year of his fiftieth birthday.”

The Triple Concerto or Concerto for violin, viola, cello, and orchestra has fared better in the recording studio. There are five editions listed in the late Michael Herman’s essential discography pages on MusicWeb International. The present recording is the earliest with Deutsche Grammophon’s 2007 release being the latest. I have not heard all these records.

This Concerto was commenced in 1978, missed its completion date the following year, and was finally premiered during the 1980 Promenade Concerts. Conventionally, it is interpreted as a “birth to death piece” with its progress mirroring twilight, night and dawn. There are three movements separated by Interludes. The overall formal impression is of fast-slow-fast, which is traditional, yet, the overall effect is of music unfolding rather than developing.

During the gestation of the Concerto, Tippett had arrived in Bali, as part of an extended holiday in East Asia and the United States. Whilst exploring Java, the composer heard ‘live’ for the first time a traditional Indonesian gamelan ensemble. To be sure he had alluded to Gamelan music in his First Piano Sonata, but he was inspired to develop this further in the Triple Concerto, complete with tuned gongs and melodies performed on the percussion. The listener may at times be reminded of the lines from The Tempest: “This Isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight...”

There is much beauty in these pages, with just the occasional irruption of something darker. Against reason, this concatenation of luxuriant English lyricism and Eastern exoticism works remarkably well. The contributions from the soloists are magnificent. This is complex music that always demands concentration from the soloists, the orchestra and the recording engineers. This aim is achieved superbly here.

The performances of both works are superb as is the sound quality; bearing in mind that they are 58 and 41 years old respectively, they stand up remarkably well, sounding fresh, detailed and well balanced. The liner notes by Michael Kennedy, reprinted from the first CD release of these two pieces, are excellent and provide a comprehensive non-technical analysis. Ian Kemp and Bayan Northcott had provided notes to previous issues. No biographies of the composer and the several performers are included. They are written in English only; formerly, they included a German, French, and Spanish translation. The CD cover, which has the “Awards Collection” template, includes the original sleeve. I note that Tippett’s dates on the rear cover and in the track listing in the booklet, do not recognise that he died in 1998.

Tippett’s Concerto for orchestra was the first piece by him I heard, at a concert in the Bute Hall, Glasgow University on 17 January 1973. The companion work was Robin Holloway’s [First] Concerto for orchestra. The following year, Colin Davis’s recording was the first LP of Tippett’s music that I bought, coupled with the “Ritual Dances” from The Midsummer Marriage. It is good to have it in my collection once again.

John France

Previous review: Leslie Wright

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