Stephen Barber
MusicWeb International
April 2018

It is now twenty years since Tippett died, and much of his music has fallen into that limbo which awaits composers when they are no longer around to attract audiences with new works. He was an uneven composer, no doubt, but the best of his music is too good to be left in that limbo, and it is good that a new generation of performers is taking it up. Not long ago I reviewed a new cycle of his five string quartets and now we have the beginning of a new cycle of his symphonies.

This is in fact only the second integral cycle to be made. The celebrated recordings by Colin Davis, Tippett’s own favourite interpreter, are now over forty years old, and are of course in analogue sound, though very good analogue. They were originally made for different companies, though all with the London Symphony Orchestra, and were first assembled together in the digital era, coupled with Solti’s version of the fourth symphony, which he and the Chicago Symphony orchestra had commissioned. (Because of this, Davis never recorded the fourth symphony commercially, but he performed it with the LSO and I wish that either they would release it on their own label, or would license it to join its companions, as Decca did with Boult’s first recording of the Vaughan Williams ninth.) Richard Hickox made the first integral set, but this is now over twenty years old, and it is a long time since I heard it.

Martyn Brabbins, however, has another trick up his sleeve: for as well as the four numbered symphonies, he is going to give us the unnumbered early symphony in B flat, which was performed a few times before the war but withdrawn by the composer. He has already performed it, and, listening to the broadcast makes it clear that this is going to be worth having.

Meanwhile, to the first two numbered symphonies. The first was completed in 1945, and in it one can already detect anticipations of his magical first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, perhaps the finest of all Tippett’s works. The first movement has no fewer than six groups of themes and is written in dense counterpoint which can be quite difficult to follow, though Tippett’s characteristically soaring strings and punchy brass are unmistakeable. The second movement features a passacaglia, which is at times at variance with what is going on above it. The atmosphere is very tense. Then follows a Beethovenian scherzo with the emphasis on energy and drive. The finale is a double fugue which, however, loses its drive to bring the work to an end on a single sustained note.

Despite its virtues, which are many, there is something provisional about the first symphony, compared with the second, which followed it ten years later. In it we can hear Tippett beginning to move away from the world of The Midsummer Marriage to something harder-edged and more percussive, emphasized by the inclusion of a piano in the score. He characterized the four movements as expressing respectively joy, tenderness, gaiety and fantasy. The first movement is a sonata allegro which begins with pounding low Cs on the strings reinforced by the piano, followed by a high wildcat passage for the violins. A contrasting subject brings us back to the world of The Midsummer Marriage in the woodwind. These are developed throughout the movement, and again there is a characteristic passage of punchy brass. The slow movement opens with a tune on the trumpet followed by a duet for cellos, while the piano and harp provide a tinkly background. The centre of the movement is for strings. In his programme note, Oliver Soden compares this to the ‘Moonlight’ interlude from Britten’s Peter Grimes. The scherzo features a string theme of irregular rhythm in beats of unequal length and builds to a climax featuring a motto theme of three longer and two shorter notes. The finale begins with a rather Stravinsky-like idea which leads into a passacaglia. There is an interlude in which a long theme winds down from the high violins to the bass. The pounding notes of the first movement return before the ambiguous ending.

Martyn Brabbins has already shown his mettle as a Tippett interpreter in his fine version of the piano concerto with Steven Osborne. As a symphonic conductor he particularly impressed me with his version of the two Walton symphonies. In these Tippett symphonies he shows a firm grasp of the overall structure, clear articulation of the details and a good sense of balance across the orchestral forces. To be honest, there is not a great deal to choose between these performances as performances and the old ones of Colin Davis, except in the matter of recording quality, where the recent digital recording is obviously superior. Brabbins’ BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s violins struggle a bit with the wildcat passage at the beginning of the second symphony, but so do Davis’s LSO violins. The wind and brass do well. Perhaps the orchestral piano could be slightly more prominent in the second symphony. In this work we can also hear the composer himself, in a recording of the second and fourth symphonies which was first issued with the BBC Music Magazine in 1995 and then reissued by NMC in 2005. This was the composer’s last recording—he was ninety years old when he made it—and his tempi are significantly slower than either Davis or Brabbins, and seem too slow to me, except in the second movement, where they are much the same. However, he gets the piano balance exactly right.

This is an auspicious start to the new cycle.