Hyperion Records

Fantasia on a theme of Handel
1939/41; using the prelude from the Harpischord Suite in B flat

'Tippett: Piano Concerto' (CDA67461/2)
Tippett: Piano Concerto
Buy by post £20.00 CDA67461/2  2CDs  
Track 4 on CDA67461/2 CD1 [12'09] 2CDs

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’.

from notes by Ian Kemp © 2007

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDA67461/2 disc 1 track 4
Recording date
13 May 2007
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Phil Rowlands
Hyperion usage
  1. Tippett: Piano Concerto (CDA67461/2)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: November 2007
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