First performed in 1972, Michael Tippett’s Third Symphony was written during what was perhaps the most successful period of the composer’s career. The premiere of his third opera, The Knot Garden, at Covent Garden in 1969, had been a huge success. He had also tapped into a totally new audience in the US, which he first visited in 1965, and where he returned regularly for the rest of his life. The Third Symphony reflects his new enthusiasm for American culture, with its vocal finale in which a soprano soloist, partnered by a flugelhorn, sings a series of blues. It’s intended to offer a 20th-century response to the expressions of universal brotherhood proclaimed by the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, which Tippett quotes in his own last movement.
So much of Tippett’s output has become unfashionable in the 20 years since his death, it’s reassuring to discover how well the Third Symphony still stands up, both musically and idealistically, in a far more cynical age. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, completing a cycle of Tippett symphonies they began last year with the First and Second, propel it with an almost confrontational sinewy intensity, with every texture crisply defined. Rachel Nicholls is the feisty soprano soloist in the finale, which is almost a dramatic scena, looking back to the world of The Knot Garden, and especially to its character of ‘freedom fighter’ Denise.
As this recording shows, though, the symphony is a far more robust, less modish achievement than the opera, and one much more likely to persist in the repertoire. But Brabbins and the orchestra cannot make such a convincing case for the birth-to-death span of the Fourth Symphony, premiered in 1977. It seems to lack the substance of its predecessors, being more an orchestral display piece (it was composed for Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony) than a tough-minded symphonic argument.
Brabbins’ two discs now line up against the only previous cycles on disc, by Richard Hickox for Chandos, and a Decca set that’s shared between performances under Colin Davis (for the first three symphonies) and Solti (for the Fourth). All three have their different merits, but Hyperion offers a bonus with the first ever recording of Tippett’s Symphony in B flat, premiered in 1934 but withdrawn after a handful of performances, and not heard again until Brabbins revived it last year.
Fundamentally neo-Romantic, indebted to Sibelius and with few hints of the direction Tippett’s music might take over the next decade, it’s now a historical curiosity more than anything else, but rounds out the survey nicely.