Hyperion Records

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.

from notes by Ian Kemp © 2007

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