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Track(s) taken from CDA67461/2

Fantasia on a theme of Handel

1939/41; using the prelude from the Harpischord Suite in B flat

Steven Osborne (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Recording details: May 2007
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Phil Rowlands
Release date: November 2007
Total duration: 12 minutes 9 seconds

Cover artwork: Symphony (1915) by Michail Ivanovich Menkov (1885-1926)
Art Museum, Samara, Russia / Bridgeman Art Library, London


'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 music 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)
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

À l’école déjà, Tippett était attiré par Samuel Butler et ses écrits anticonformistes, surtout en matière de religion et d’éducation. Mais Butler était aussi musicien. Dans son roman Erewhon (anagramme de Nowhere), il cita Haendel pour donner une idée de ce qui se passait quand le vent frappait les têtes creuses et les bouches ouvertes d’immenses et très vieilles statues chargées de garder la terre d’Erewhon. Le fait que Haendel, «le plus grand musicien», ait ainsi été substitué aux effroyables sonorités émises par les statues constitue une bizarrerie. Mais il en est une autre: c’est que sa musique, du Prélude à une Suite pour clavecin en si bémol (où se trouve d’ailleurs l’«Air» rendu célèbre par Brahms dans ses Variations et fugue sur un thème de Haendel), soit citée sans ses passages baroques, ce qui la fait ressembler davantage à du Schumann. Pour le jeune Tippett, cependant, toutes ces considérations n’avaient aucune raison d’être. Il adorait cette musique, quelle qu’elle fût, et jamais il ne l’oublia—même s’il ne commença pas à travailler sur la Fantasia on a theme of Handel pour piano et orchestre avant 1939. En septembre de cette année-là, juste après le début de la guerre, il céda à la nécessité d’écrire son oratorio pacifiste, A Child of Our Time, et ne revint à la Fantasia qu’en 1941.

Dans cette œuvre, Tippett s’attacha avant tout à poursuivre son exploration des genres traditionnels à travers la fantaisie ancienne, les variations (une fois encore) et une étude préparatoire pour un concerto de grande envergure. On y retrouve donc une séquence joliment équilibrée avec un thème, cinq variations (des portraits d’amis, pour la plupart non identifiés), un développement, une fugue et le thème réexposé.

La Fantasia compte parmi les œuvres les moins jouées de Tippett, essentiellement parce qu’elle est difficile à programmer. Notons peut-être aussi que son langage profondément original s’entend mieux dans le détail que dans le déroulement global de la musique, dont les gestes fluides sont quelquefois banals (ceux de la variation quatre pouvant rappeler Rachmaninov) et dont les cadenzas interpolées suggèrent parfois une rhétorique de concerto stéréotypée (variations trois et cinq). Reste que c’est une œuvre sanguine et théâtrale, «vigorous and gay», comme l’écrivit Tippett dans la note qu’il rédigea pour la création. À cette époque, l’adjectif «gay» n’avait pas encore perdu son sens originel, même si Tippett en fit un usage un peu particulier, en référence à cette pensée de W.B. Yeats: en temps de conflit et de misère, l’art ne devrait pas refléter la souffrance mais être métamorphosé en une «gaieté» bravache. Comme pour corroborer cette opinion, Tippett avoua s’être surpris à ajouter ces mots à la cinquième variation de sa Fantasia: «Ah—youpi».

extrait des notes rédigées par Ian Kemp © 2007
Français: Hypérion

Schon im Schulalter fühlte sich Tippett zu den Schriften von Samuel Butler hingezogen, da sie, besonders in Bezug auf Religion und Erziehung eine erfrischende Anti-Establishment-Haltung einnahmen. Butler war auch Musiker. In seinem Roman Erewhon (ein Anagramm von „Nowhere“—„Nirgendwo“) zitierte er Händel, um eine Vorstellung davon zu geben, was passierte, wenn der Wind sich in den ausgehöhlten Köpfen und offenen Mündern riesiger, uralter Statuen fing, die das Land Erewhon bewachen. Dass Händel, „der größte Musiker“, die fürchterlichen Klänge, die die Statuen von sich geben, repräsentierte, ist hier die erste Eigentümlichkeit. Die zweite ist, dass Händels Musik—aus dem Präludium einer Cembalosuite in B-Dur (die auch die durch Brahms’ Händel-Variationen berühmt gewordene „Air“ enthält)—ohne sein barockes Passagenwerk zitiert wird, wodurch es eher nach Schumann als nach Händel klingt. Für den jungen Tippett war das jedoch irrelevant. Was sie auch sein mochte, er liebte die Musik und vergaß sie nie, obwohl er erst 1939 mit der Arbeit an der Fantasie über ein Thema von Händel für Klavier und Orchester begann. Im September desselben Jahres, unmittelbar nach Kriegsausbruch, schob er die Arbeit an ihr auf, um sein pazifistisches Oratorium A Child of Our Time zu schreiben und kehrte erst 1941 zur Fantasie zurück.

Hier war Tippetts Priorität, seine Erkundung traditioneller Genres fortzusetzen: mit der alten Fantasie, wieder Variationen und außerdem einer vorbereitenden Studie für ein ausgewachsenes Klavierkonzert. Das Werk besteht also aus einer Folge von Thema, fünf Variationen (Porträts weitgehend unidentifizierter Freunde), Durchführung, Fuge und Reprise des Themas.

Die Fantasie ist eines der am seltensten aufgeführten Werke Tippetts, hauptsächlich, weil es schwierig ist, sie aufs Programm zu setzen. Außerdem lässt sich seine hoch originelle Sprache eher im Detail hören als im allgemeinen Verlauf der Musik, deren fließende Gesten manchmal derivativ sind (in der vierten Variation erinnern sie etwa an Rachmaninow), und deren eingeschobene Kadenzen gelegentlich eine stereotypische Konzert-Rhetorik andeuten (in der dritten und fünften Variation). Sie ist dennoch ein vollblütiges, dramatisches Werk, „vigorous and gay“ („lebhaft und fröhlich“), wie Tippett in seinem Programm für die Uraufführung schrieb. „Gay“ hatte damals noch nicht seine neue Bedeutung („schwul“) angenommen, und Tippett verwendete es spezifisch als Anspielung an W. B. Yeats, der der Ansicht war, dass Kunst in Zeiten von Konflikt und Elend das Leiden nicht widerspiegeln, sondern stattdessen in eine Art trotziger Fröhlichkeit („gaiety“) umwandeln sollte. Als um dies zu unterstreichen, gab Tippett einmal zu, dass er der fünften Variation Worte hinzufügte: „Ah—whoopee“ („Ah—juchhu“).

aus dem Begleittext von Ian Kemp © 2007
Deutsch: Renate Wendel

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