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Hyperion Records

CDA67461/2 - Tippett: Piano Concerto
Symphony (1915) by Michail Ivanovich Menkov (1885-1926)
Art Museum, Samara, Russia / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67461/2
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: November 2007
Total duration: 140 minutes 3 seconds

GRAMOPHONE AWARDS SHORTLIST 2008
GRAMOPHONE RECOMMENDS
SUNDAY TIMES CONTEMPORARY CD OF THE YEAR
THE GUARDIAN TOP MUSICAL EVENTS OF 2007
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE INSTRUMENTAL CHOICE
DIAPASON D'OR

'Osborne's outstanding recording of the Piano Concerto … it's a lyrical piece with magical moments' (The Mail on Sunday)

'The mighty Concerto, starkly and confidently poised between Tippett's still richly potent earlier style and the brave new possibilities explored in its visionary central movement … the eloquence and fantasy of what is undoubtedly one of the major works of the 1950s is superbly projected in a performance which need fear no comparison with the best earlier recordings … as for the sonatas, Steven Osborne is at least the equal of Paul Crossley in interpretative empathy, and has the advantage of superlative modern recording. There's a further advantage: perceptive and lucid booklet-notes by Ian Kemp, Tippett's friend and biographer' (Gramophone)

'This splendid double album … performances that impressively set new standards in these often challenging works … Steven Osborne seems to have the measure of them all. His account of the Concerto, ably supported by Martyn Brabbins's command of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, has all the ecstatic power that Ogdon brought to the first movement, and a like rhythmic ebullience in the finale, but negotiates the contrapuntal thickets of the slow movement with greater delicacy and feeling. He's helped by Hyperion's detailed recording … the Fourth is by far the longest of the sonatas and has previously been the hardest to assimilate. Even so, Osborne's wonderfully elegant unwinding of the contrapuntal lines in the first movement, and his powerful, deeply elegiac reading of the finale, illuminate this fascinating work … more clearly than any version I've previously encountered. This is a very important release' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Released just in time to mark the 10th anniversary of Michael Tippett's death comes this magnificent set of the composer's complete music for piano played by the musician who must surely be regarded as one of his most resourceful interpreters, Steven Osborne. He has just the range of touch to bring out the tonal richness of the Piano Concerto (superbly partnered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins), the muscularity of the Beethovenian elements in the First Piano Sonata and the almost Messiaenic sense of fantasy required for the Fourth' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Steven Osborne is a young pianist who seems completely at home in this wide-ranging and challenging music … the best case for the music I’ve ever heard' (American Record Guide)

'Osborne's readings on this new recording from Hyperion undoubtedly triumph … Osborne wins through on grounds of spontaneity and bitterness … Hyperion's new release, delightfully crisp and immediate, brings together all of Tippett's piano music under one roof, a feat not hitherto attempted. It succeeds in honouring the music's volatility while salvaging from it the composer's temperate if idiosyncratic sense of Song. Osborne's reflections complement full and illuminating booklet notes by Ian Kemp, who first brought Tippett's piano msuic to the pianist's attention while studying at Manchester University. This is a set that certainly deserves our warmest embrace' (International Record Review)

'Steven Osborne's accounts of the four Tippett sonatas in recitals at the Wigmore Hall were one of the highlights of the Tippett centenary celebrations in 2005, and his recordings of them, together with equally exceptional accounts of the Piano Concerto and the early Fantasia on a theme of Handel have been well worth waiting for … Osborne is superb at delineating the characters of the four sonatas and underlining how, in their very different ways, they relate to the piano tradition … under his fingers the Second Sonata emerges as a gritty and uncompromising masterpiece … his account of the Piano Concerto with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony is similarly charged' (The Guardian)

'The Scottish pianist demonstrates the driving energy behind Tippett's solo piano music. The four sonatas dance nimbly over the keys … nothing beats the hungry Vivace of the Piano Concerto, however, for sheer palpitating excitement' (The Times)

'This double album is a monumental achievement. Tippett's writing for piano is as demanding as it is cliché-resistant. No body of music for the instrument since Messiaen's is as distinctive as his and it is wonderful to have the oeuvre together on disc. The concerto is realised with a precision and vigour, both soloistic and orchestral, that leave one marvelling anew at its inventiveness. The account of the brief, early, concerted Fantasia on a theme of Handel makes me revise my opinion of the work sharply upwards. In Osborne's account of the four sonatas, each a big statement, radiance and virtuosity go hand in hand' (The Sunday Times)

'This double-disc set from Hyperion is a monumental justifcation for his efforts. In all four sonatas, Osborne reveals a sense of composure that reflects his total absorption in the music … the most exciting revelations are his illuminating accounts of the Third and Fourth Sonatas. Osborne hits the button on all levels. In terms of stature, he pours out Tippett's edifices with radiant vision. But within all that there is a galaxy of detail that hits you with intoxicating freshness and dynamism … these are award-winning performances' (The Scotsman)

'I applaud Steven Osborne for his dedication to Tippett's music. He has worked long and hard on it and found his own way; furthermore, he had the opportunity to include the sonatas in recitals before recording them … Steven Osborne brings deep commitment to the music, making it alive, vivid, and communicative through musical and technical virtues of the highest order … he really is inside Tippett's continually fascinating output' (Fanfare, USA)

'Osborne is at the top of his game in his unmistakable mix of liberated pianism and steel-tempered discipline … his playing, never better, is stamped with an immaculate sense of organisation and structure, married to a freewheeling joy at grappling with music he is committed to' (The Herald)

'I cannot imagine a finer recording of the emotionally restrained and stucturally tight Tippett Piano Concerto than from Steven Osborne … any older recording of this very important British piano concerto is safely ousted from the market. Osborne also does justice to Tippett's sontatas here' (Pianist)

'The English composer Michael Tippett left an idiosyncratic body of work shaped by keen intelligence and humanitarian spirit. But given the unorthodox demands and occasional technical shortcomings of his writing, his music has been best served by performers who approach it with sympathy and absolute commitment. The latest to do so is the Scottish pianist Steven Osborne, whose new collection of Tippett’s piano music is a revelatory achievement. The four sonatas span Tippett’s career, providing a concentrated overview of his restless style. The First, completed in 1938 and revised in 1942, responds to Europe’s darkening political climate with virtuoso fireworks and boisterous folk melodies. The Second Sonata, from 1962, shares the brittle, jagged sound Tippett fashioned for his second opera, King Priam, yet passages of gracious lyricism pop up throughout the single-movement span. Tippett’s musical language had become still more abrasive by the time he wrote the Third Sonata in 1973, but the icy stillness of the Lento movement and the explosive vitality of the finale speak clearly and directly. The Fourth, finished in 1984, is stuffed with enough material for a dozen pieces, including a quirky fugue, a gamboling fourth movement and a ghostly finale. Somehow Mr. Osborne makes it all stick. The Piano Concerto, from 1955, occupies the ravishing sound world Tippett created in his first opera, The Midsummer Marriage. The concerto is awkward but endearing, and Mr. Osborne is a compelling soloist. The conductor, Martyn Brabbins, draws a lively performance from the BBC Scottish players here and in the ostentatious Fantasia on a theme of Handel' (The New York Times)

Piano Concerto
CD1
Allegro non troppo  [16'42]
Vivace  [8'18]
Allegro  [7'19]
Presto  [4'00]
CD2
Allegro  [5'13]
Lento  [14'19]
Allegro energico  [5'12]
Crotchet fast  [6'56]
Crotchet slow  [10'06]

The musical and intellectual exuberance of Tippett’s music is fully demonstrated in his piano works, recorded here in their entirety on a double CD. The sonatas and concertante works recorded here offer a more compact survey of the various stages of his composing career than any other of the traditional genres he favoured: symphony, opera, and string quartet.

Every one of Tippett’s six piano works is substantial, if not in length then in compositional ambition. By temperament he conceived music on a large scale and was more attracted to the sonata than the short genre piece typical of the famous pianist-composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Being only a moderate pianist himself his piano writing speaks of an imagination directed not by virtuosity or routine movements of the fingers or the blandishments of the sustaining pedal but one set free to explore the contrapuntal style and fascination with rhythm it was heir to.

This is full-blooded, dramatic, joyful music. Steven Osborne is a celebrated interpreter of Tippett’s piano music, making the works his own and dealing with their considerable technical difficulties with ease and aplomb. In a recent interview with International Piano magazine, he wrote ‘I can’t think of any late 20th-century music that is more gripping to perform’. He is joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.


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Tippett’s music is a far cry from the diligent, pastel landscapes traditionally associated with English art. It is vivid, urgent, immediate. It has presence. There is no mediating veil between it, the music, and you, the listener. Such remarks are of course generalizations but they nevertheless hold good for everything Tippett wrote, from his first published works of the mid-1930s to his last of the early 1990s. All they conceal are the changes of style his music underwent during this long composing career, changes sometimes so radical that it is difficult to recognize the same composer in any two works. There are several reasons for this, such as Tippett’s natural ‘development’ or his responses to the rapid and shocking political upheavals of the twentieth century. The most important is the sheer inventiveness of a composer who was always fighting against the idea of doing the same thing twice.

The sonatas and concertante works recorded on these two discs offer a more compact survey of the various stages of Tippett’s composing career than any other of the traditional genres he favoured: symphony, opera, string quartet. Every one of his six piano works is substantial, if not in length then in compositional ambition. By temperament he conceived music on a large scale and was more attracted to the sonata than the short genre-piece typical of the famous pianist-composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Being only a moderate pianist himself his piano-writing speaks of an imagination directed not by virtuosity or routine movements of the fingers or the blandishments of the sustaining pedal but one set free to explore the contrapuntal style and fascination with rhythm it was heir to. The result is that his piano music is difficult and sometimes awkward to play, problems he cheerfully left to the performer. The obverse of that is the number and complexity of the things going on—in other words, the intellectual exuberance of his music.

Piano Sonata No 1
This work, completed in 1938, was written against a background of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism. Its invigorating exterior represented, however, not English indifference to events on the Continent but, on the contrary, a calculated attempt to offer vitality and optimism to anyone with ears to hear. This is already clear in the opening movement, a theme and variations, whose elaborate rhythmic and textural transformations are arranged in a sequence of two fast variations, a slow variation, a scherzo variation in a contrasting key, a minore variation in the style of a cadenza, and the final variation, a restatement of the theme. Tippett later revised the minore variation because its improvisatory character had lost direction and its rhythms discipline. This last consideration was crucial in a variation which marked the culmination of a process subjecting the 3+2 construction of the theme to continuous expansion and contraction.

The slow movement is built around two elements, a folksong and a two-part invention. The folksong yields somewhat, being a paraphrase of ‘Ca’ the yowes’, the beautiful Scottish tune with words by Burns (which Tippett was to use again in his next work, the Concerto for double string orchestra). The invention also yields somewhat, being based on motives from the folksong. But the contrast remains extreme, an index of Tippett’s compositional daring.

The Presto scherzo is equally daring—a sonata-form based on the dynamic material appropriate to a ‘first subject’ and lyrical material not appropriate to a ‘second subject’, that is, another folksong (on this occasion newly invented) and thus another clash of styles. The use of folksong of course reflected the prevailing climate of English music; but Tippett’s juxtaposition of folksong with the procedures of the great classics reflected something else, the challenges he set himself in the pursuit of technical proficiency. The most ambitious feature of the movement was his decision to place the sonata-form movement, the weightiest of all the movements in a sonata, third; it usually came first. This altered the balance and thus presented a further challenge. His solution to this particular one was an easy-going finale, couched in the argot of the music-hall but with incongruous intrusions from the well-bred language he had just abandoned—the first example of Tippett’s instinct to avoid pomposity and be inclusive, here with the cake-walk, in later works with jazz, spirituals, blues and boogie-woogie.

Fantasia on a theme of Handel
Even as a schoolboy Tippett was attracted to the writings of Samuel Butler, because they were refreshingly anti-establishment particularly in regard to religion and schooling. Butler was also a musician. In his novel Erewhon (an anagram of Nowhere) he quoted Handel, in order to give an idea of what happened when the wind caught the hollowed-out heads and open mouths of some huge and very old statues guarding the country of Erewhon. That Handel, ‘the greatest of musicians’, should be annexed as surrogate for the fearsome sounds emitted by the statues is the first oddity here. The second is that Handel’s music, from the Prelude to a harpsichord suite in B flat (also containing the ‘Air’ made famous in Brahms’s Handel Variations), is quoted shorn of its baroque passage-work, making it sound more like Schumann than Handel. For the young Tippett, however, all this was irrelevant. He loved the music whatever it was and never forgot it—although it was 1939 before he began work on the Fantasia on a theme of Handel for piano and orchestra. In September of that year, immediately after the outbreak of war, he deferred to the need to write his pacifist oratorio, A Child of Our Time, and returned to the Fantasia only in 1941.

Tippett’s priority here was to continue his exploration of traditional genres—with the old fantasia, with variations again and also with a preparatory study for a full-scale concerto. Thus the work consists of a nicely balanced sequence of theme, five variations (portraits of friends, mostly unidentified), development, fugue and theme recapitulated.

The Fantasia is one of the least performed of Tippett’s works, chiefly because it is difficult to programme. It may also be remarked that its profoundly original language is to be heard more in the detail than in the general course of the music, whose flowing gestures are sometimes derivative (recalling Rachmaninov perhaps, in variation four) and whose interpolated cadenzas sometimes suggest a stereotyped concerto rhetoric (in variations three and five). Yet it remains a full-blooded and dramatic work, ‘vigorous and gay’, as Tippett wrote in his note for its first performance. ‘Gay’ at that time had not lost its original meaning, although Tippett’s use of it was in fact rather specialized, referring to W B Yeats, who thought that in times of conflict and misery art should not reflect suffering but be transformed into a defiant ‘gaiety’. As if to endorse that, Tippett once revealed that he found himself adding words to the Fantasia’s fifth variation: ‘Ah—whoopee’.

Piano Concerto
The full-scale Piano Concerto Tippett was eventually to write was completed in 1955, though conceived nearly a decade earlier. During most of the intervening time he was preoccupied with The Midsummer Marriage and not surprisingly the music of that opera permeates the concerto—the expansive orchestral lines, the abundance of decoration which makes such lines throb with life, and in particular the use of a celesta to light up a realm of mystery and magic. But these features affected the orchestral as much as the piano style. For that, the surest pointer is the piano part of Tippett’s song cycle The Heart’s Assurance, completed in 1951, and especially in the music to the words ‘the meadows of her breath’ in the third song, which sounds as if it was the direct link to the opening phrases of the concerto. For the rest, while not excluding the received resources of concerto-writing, Tippett focussed on his discovery of a shimmering pianism in which the harmonies emerged from the pedalling of lines of unequal groups of short notes, as in the first song of The Heart’s Assurance. It creates an effect of hovering somewhere between the essential and the decorative. The work is unhurried, reassuring. If a climax seems imminent, it is diverted: spacious paragraphs open out into deep vistas and tiny visions. The remarkable thing is that the concerto was written when the course of European music seemed to be leading to an anxious, fragmented serialism—with the corollary that Tippett’s redefinition of English pastoralism was a quaint irrelevance. The early 1950s was a period of threat and cold austerity; here was another example of Tippett offering an antidote to all that.

The first movement is a conventional sonata-form. The gentle opening (recalling the spirit of Beethoven’s fourth concerto) burgeons into an orchestral passage epitomizing the serenity of the pastoral A flat of the movement; woodwind arabesques then reveal the still centre, a ‘tiny vision’ on muted viola, muted horns and celesta. Tippett had used a similar ensemble in The Midsummer Marriage to evoke the timeless presences that move beyond the surface realities of life. He achieves a comparable effect here, mysterious yet familiar. The spell is broken when the soloist ushers in a group of themes and motives marking the ‘second subject’. The vision unexpectedly returns at the peak of the development just before the recapitulation, and it does so again in the middle of the solo cadenza, unpredictable but reassuring reminders that the vision can never be lost. The cadenza, unusually, is placed before the recapitulation of the ‘second subject’ and after an interpolated second development section. So, despite being conventional, the design of the movement is continually being loosened up.

The slow movement has affinities with Beethoven’s fourth concerto, even if the outcome is new. The serenity of the first movement is replaced by a different vision, dense and disturbing, a kind of tournament between faceless close canons from pairs of wind instruments and manic cascades from the piano, each pursuing dogged courses until the tension eases and is released in a series of exchanges between packed high strings and the now ruminative soloist, who calms things down. It is an extraordinary conception, suggesting some programmatic basis, though Tippett never revealed one.

The finale springs to life with a key change, from B to E flat, implying now the influence of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto. There are indeed other echoes of Beethoven’s finale but the joy and high spirits are Tippett’s own. The movement begins with a long section for orchestra alone (a foil to the almost continuous sound of the piano in the previous movement), shaped in three parts—a wealth of little motives, a central striding theme with a touch of blues harmony at the end, a codetta reintroducing the celesta. The soloist enters dramatically with a theme of his own. This turns out to be the first episode in a scheme in which the orchestral section is the rondo theme, now divided into its three parts with episodes between. The second episode is for piano and orchestra, the third for piano and the last an enchanting duet between piano and celesta. All that remains is a return of the rondo complete and a short coda carrying the music to a jubilant C major.

Piano Sonata No 2
Tippett composed his second piano sonata in 1962, shortly after he had completed his second opera, King Priam, which marked a dramatic change in the substance and style of his music. The opera is concerned with the impact of war and malevolent fate on a sharply differentiated set of characters—quite the opposite of The Midsummer Marriage. Accordingly a composer who had spent most of his career writing music that flowed naturally from one thing to the next now wrote music of abrupt contrasts, often astringent harmonies and for idiosyncratic ensembles. Of course Tippett didn’t have to write like that. He did so, one may deduce, because he felt that he had exhausted the resources of his earlier style and that the idealistic spirit of the 1960s needed to be tempered with scepticism.

The influence of King Priam on his output was far-reaching. As far as the second piano sonata is concerned it extended to the direct quotation of motives from the opera and, more fundamentally, to the way the music behaves. Although the sonata includes passages of great beauty, in general it is arresting and uncompromising. There are spectacular glissando effects and it would have included the direction ‘strike wood of the piano with the fist’ (at three places, to imitate a bass drum) if Tippett hadn’t decided this was incongruous. It is highly sectional, short gestures being juxtaposed with other short gestures in a sequence of statements that makes it easy to understand why he originally planned to call the work ‘Mosaics’. He abandoned the idea when he realized that in essence his material was shaped to form a single-movement sonata, with passages in double and triple octaves between the sections: thus, a ‘first movement’ with dynamic and lyrical material, a ‘slow movement’ in which the motives eventually reach a state of inertia, a ‘development’ with interpolated ‘scherzo’, and a ‘slow finale’ with interpolated recapitulation of fragments from the whole sonata. There is a short coda returning to the beginning yet leaving the work hanging in mid-air, as if to say that positive conclusions are no longer possible.

Piano Sonata No 3
As with Tippett’s second sonata, the third, completed in 1973, reflects something of his changes of style during the 1960s and early ’70s, when he developed a more radical approach to formal design and a more abrasive harmonic language sometimes bordering on atonality. The new sonata does not quote from its immediate predecessors—his third opera The Knot Garden and his massive Symphony No 3—but its temper is an obvious by-product of them, an exhilarating energy sometimes concealing barely suppressed rage. This was not what he expected the sonata to be like. It did not become a kind of undemanding holiday task: it stood firmly in line with its predecessors and its immediate successor, his fourth opera The Ice Break. But it did become a pre-echo of his multi-movement yet classically shaped later instrumental works. Thus there is a sonata allegro, a set of variations and a toccata finale, all played without a break.

As well as listening to music Tippett liked seeing it being performed. The best evidence for this is the present sonata. The initial idea of the two hands playing independently of each other at the extreme ends of the piano, clambering about like overgrown spiders, gradually closing the gap and meeting in the middle, is an almost visual one. It results in a musical argument dominated by the various ways extremely unconventional textures contract and fan out again. This is clear at the outset and shortly afterwards, when a silence punctuates the process. The silence is also the point at which a ‘second subject’ group emerges, demonstrating that for all its radical surface the music is built on traditional lines. The exposition concludes, after another silence, with an alert codetta motive, thus preventing the second subject from languishing in its own warmth. As in the classical model the exposition is repeated, now varied and converted into the first section of the development. So the model is a source of invention, not a restraint.

In the second movement, by contrast with the first, the two hands combine—to create the ‘theme’, which is a sequence of chords. In their simplest form these would resemble the chords in the ‘slow finale’ of the second sonata but here, even in their initial presentation, they are spread out and elaborated. The first variation emphasizes the chords, the second the elaborations, the third a singing line and the fourth dissolves in a haze of trills, leaving a dreamy calm to be shattered dramatically, brutally, by the torrent of relentless activity marking the beginning and indeed all of the finale, which restores the gaunt two-part writing of the first movement. It is easy to describe this astonishing inspiration: a first section (ending with repetitions on two adjacent notes), a second section which is the first backwards, the first again, eventually wrenched away from its circular course into a headlong conclusion. Its origins might perhaps be found in the finale of Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ Sonata or in the jazz of a pianist like Art Tatum, but none of this accounts for a movement that is both wildly exhilarating and, as it were, held behind bars.

Piano Sonata No 4
The first performance of the third sonata was given by Paul Crossley—who also gave the first performance, in 1985, of the Piano Sonata No 4, just after Tippett’s eightieth birthday. This sonata is indeed a ‘late’ work, a product of the last years of his composing career, when the rigorous dialectic of earlier works was giving way to a style more relaxed and harmonically opulent, if no less inventive. In writing the sonata Tippett was helped by Crossley to find new ways of creating piano resonances, particularly those concerning the use of the middle pedal, which accounts for an abundance of three-layered textures only possible through this ‘sostenuto’ pedal. Tippett was also stimulated by a visual image—of Glenn Gould’s flamboyant crossing-of-hands while playing Bach on television. Within a few bars of the opening movement both these features are in evidence. His original plan was for a collection of bagatelles, like Beethoven’s Op 126, held together by balancing contrasts of tempo, style and key. The pithy miniature was however never a natural mode of expression for him. It was only when he accepted that the imposing opening sounds of his Symphony No 4 would not stop clamouring at the gates of his imagination until he had, so to speak, let them in again that they now became the source of the new work and the reason why it changed from bagatelles to sonata.

The opening bars of the symphony had already launched one work and could hardly serve the same function again. Tippett put them in the centre of the sonata—adapted as the core of a five-movement design which by its nature was more sectional than the organic processes of a classical sonata and so a reflection of his original idea of bagatelles.

The first movement is a form of prelude, a huge improvisation uncovering sections of starkly contrasted character, another reflection of the original idea. In the second movement Tippett returns to a favourite form of his earlier music, the fugue, when its concentration on a single theme was often used as a foil to movements with several themes, as it is here—even though it does not really sound like a fugue. After the ‘exposition’ there is a ‘counter exposition’, the theme in progressively longer notes with extended episodes between its three appearances. The last of these is in extremely long notes in the bass, thus setting up the central movement whose opening section is built on another set of long pedal notes, and the quotation from the fourth symphony. This movement, like the whole sonata, is in five sections, here a mirror shape ABCBA. The C section is again based on a sequence of pedal notes (the same in fact as had appeared at the very beginning of the sonata) while the tuneful lines of the B sections provide relief from their neighbours’ eruptions and hammerings. There follows a scherzo and trio, the scherzo reminiscent in its fierce appropriation of the extreme ends of the piano in the third sonata and also, unexpectedly, of Chopin.

This richly complex sonata was not Tippett’s last work, though at the end of it, when its finale’s theme returns home after four distant variations, it is difficult not to think of it as a poignant farewell.

Ian Kemp © 2007

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