What a momentous way to start 2018, with the first release in a new Michael Tippett Symphony Cycle, courtesy of Hyperion and Martyn Brabbins, and which will include the early B flat work that Tippett withdrew, effectively now his Symphony No 0.
London-born Sir Michael Tippett (1905-98) is one of the great composers, and to anyone unfamiliar with his diverse output—for which his musical signature underwent huge sea-changes over the decades—a terrific place to start would be the Second Symphony (1957).
The first movement, with its pounding Vivaldi-inspired bass line (supplemented by a piano) and ecstatically dancing violins is simply irresistible—intoxicating—and brought off marvellously here. It’s very demanding on the performers though (even more so if, as for the first performance, the leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Paul Beard, re-bars the writing for strings and doesn’t tell Sir Adrian Boult ... the result, an unfortunate collapse, although reports vary as to the reason for the breakdown, such as a too-early flautist causing confusion among woodwind and horn colleagues). No such problem in Glasgow. Brabbins leads a powerfully arresting interpretation and also ensures that the intricate detailing within lyrical contrasts is lucid, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra responding with virtuosity, togetherness and the minuteness of inflections.
If there is a problem with this movement it is that it’s so magnetic and inexorable that one wants to play it again—immediately—and thus lose the Symphony’s continuity and completeness. Nevertheless such temptation must be resisted, for the subsequent Adagio is a marvel of innermost expression, one of Tippett’s most-eloquent creations, music of rapt beauty and wonderment (the latter radiating from his recently completed opera The Midsummer Marriage), and Mark O’Keeffe should be congratulated for his valiant handling of the exposed trumpet solos. Following which there is a capricious Scherzo (marked Presto veloce)—shadowy, witty, elaborate, passionate, playful—and a Finale that is as bejewelled in scoring, as it is multifarious in conception, as it is resolute in direction. This masterpiece, which has enticed such as Mark Elder, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Leonard Slatkin to take it into the concert hall—and the composer to record it—finds in Brabbins a further illustrious exponent.
If not his first such work, the Symphony that he was eventually able to assign as No 1 (completed in 1945) could only be by Tippett (and surely displaying his admiration for Bach, Beethoven and Hindemith, the latter composer far more esteemed then than he has become, sadly)—a first movement of vigour, rigour and confidence, complex counterpoint (highlighted by neoclassical Stravinsky-like orchestration), and loaded with strong ideas. The soul-baring slow movement (music written in time of war—Tippett’s father had died in 1941 from injuries received in an air-raid—and also reflecting the composer’s grief at the suicide of a woman whom he was close to) communicates deep emotions and with compassionate echoes of Tippett’s contemporaneous oratorio A Child of Our Time.
The First Symphony has perhaps at best found only a toehold in the repertoire, maybe a legacy of the Liverpool premiere led by an 'under-prepared' Malcolm Sargent, but Brabbins secures a revealing performance that compels from first note to last, not least in his expansive reading of the Adagio, which is followed by a dazzling Scherzo, yet its optimism is countered by a Finale, although striding-forth initially, that finds the grinding climax leading to uneasy quiet and reminds of the corresponding passage in Sibelius 4.
Notwithstanding Colin Davis’s excellence in the first three Symphonies (although he conducted the Fourth, written for Chicago and Georg Solti, he didn’t record it), and allowing that Richard Hickox’s Chandos traversals may not be his finest hour with the red light switched on, Martyn Brabbins gives us commanding accounts of the first two—for our time, which should dispel any Twenty-First Century Blues, both works complemented by top-notch production values, vivid and dynamic sound, and informed annotation. All in all, unmissable.