There may be passing similarities in style between Michael Tippett's music and that of his friend Benjamin Britten. But where Britten's hallmark is often lucid clarity, Tippett is much less easy to grasp on first hearing. That's as true of these choral miniatures as much as his better-known more ambitious works. Tippett is more inclined to quirkiness, to go off at seeming tangents, and the serpentine intricacy of some of his choral writing puts even the best-drilled professional choirs to the test.
A hit-and-miss composer? That might be the impression you take away from this disc, but when Tippett hits the mark he does so like no other composer. The plaintive high solo of the Nunc Dimittis, floating above strange middle-range harmonies, soars worlds away from cosy Anglican convention. The 'sprung' rhythms of Dance Clarion Air and The Windhover have a muscular freedom unlike anything in contemporary English music. The strangely irregular figures Tipett waves around the tune in Over the Sea to Skye may seem over-ingenious at first, but by the end their quite hypnotic, at the same time challenging the ear to re-examine a very familiar melody. Britten, masterful as he is, can seem disappointingly safe in comparison.
Tippett's relationship with the BBC Singers went back to almost the beginning of his career, and he often expressed intense admiration for them. His faith is rewarded here. Other choirs—the Finzi Singers on Chandos for instance—have made a good case for this repertoire, but I don't think I've ever heard things like the tortuous chromatic writing at the heart of The Weeping Babe come across with such conviction. Recommended.