To my shame, I tended slowly to lose interest in Michael Tippett’s catalogue as his career developed. For example, I am a great enthusiast of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra written in 1938-9: I do not enjoy (but can admire) the opera The Knot Garden or The Songs of Dov. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule. I love The Blue Guitar written in 1982-3 and the late The Rose Lake for orchestra (1991-3). One genre that I have always been more or less comfortable with are the four symphonies. From the largely neo-classical First Symphony, through the exciting and imaginative Second, to the adventurous fusion of Beethoven and Blues in the Third and to the complex Symphony No 4, I have appreciated the diversity and musical exploration of these works. I do not know them as well as I should.
The music of Tippett has slipped into the doldrums. I was surprised to be reminded that there are only two complete cycles of the Symphonies—the present Martyn Brabbins edition and part of the ground-breaking survey of Tippett’s orchestral music made by Richard Hickox in the mid-nineteen-nineties. There are also the Colin Davis/London Symphony Orchestra Philips recordings of the first three dating back to the 1960s and 70s. The Symphony No 4 was recorded by Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1979, also on the Philips label. In 1993, the composer conducted the Second and the Fourth for the NMC label. So, the current project is important: it is the first complete cycle of Tippett’s Symphonies in quarter of a century.
I first heard a performance of the Third Symphony during a Glasgow Promenade Concert in early 1970s. I was bowled over by this very unbalanced but ultimately successful work. I bought the Philips LP with Sir Colin Davis conducting London Symphony Orchestra and the soprano Heather Harper as soon as it was released in 1975.
It is not necessary to give a detailed account of the Third Symphony: this is provided in the liner notes. The putative listener is advised to view it as a work in two disparate parts. The first is purely orchestral with an exposition evolving into a slow ‘movement’. The main philosophical argument in this section is the concept of ‘Arrest and Movement’—which could be paraphrased as ‘stop/start’ or maybe even ‘go/no-go’. Tippett has used ‘blocks’ of sound to create his structures with huge contrasts of mood, orchestration and musical style. The second ‘part’ begins with a Scherzo that famously quotes Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This is followed by four songs, with texts devised by the Tippett. The first three are blues-influenced and the last is a ‘dramatic scena’ more at home in an opera. There are some other ‘Beethovenian’ allusions in this symphony too.
At first glance, there seems to be no unity of purpose in such a work. Edward Greenfield said that it is ‘two quite separate works that somehow had got put together and didn’t quite fit.’ This is how I felt about the symphony in the early days. I recall only listening to the first ‘half’ of the Davis LP before doing something else. I did not relate to the songs: only now am I beginning to see a connection. For some reason it does result in a satisfying symphonic structure. Don’t ask me why; I have not yet worked that out.
The vibrant playing by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is superb. I enjoyed the gutsy performance by singer Rachel Nicholls. She seems a touch more up front than in the Chandos recording sung by Faye Robinson. As for the Colin Davis recording with Heather Harper, I can see little to choose between them. In preparation for this review I listened to extracts from all three versions of the Symphony No 3. If I am honest, all are superb, all masterclasses …
Tippett’s Symphony No 4 was premiered in Chicago in 1977 by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It is written in a single movement but subdivided into seven sections which enclose a slow movement and a scherzo as part of the work’s development. It is correct to suggest that the symphony cannot quite decide whether it is written in ‘sonata form’, as a ‘free fantasia’ or a tone-poem. The composer wrote that the metaphysical idea behind the music was the journey from birth to death. I don’t go for the story that he was inspired by watching a highly speeded up film of the development of the embryo of a rabbit, and I am not enthusiastic about the breathing noises created by a wind machine or tape. That said, the music is striking. It may be that some of the stimulus has come from Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony or Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Certainly, Tippett’s intention was to create a work that followed a human life from birth to death. It had to include elements of ‘self-doubt’ and ‘exhilaration’. In fact, all that is the ‘Condition of Man.’
The Fourth Symphony is written for a huge orchestra, which is divided up into several instrumental ‘choirs’ which tend react with each other, rather than to be united. I was awe-struck by the brass chorus with their powerful and technically demanding sounds. There are some magical moments too, especially with the tuned percussion. Lyricism, despite some claims to the contrary, seems to predominate rather than sheer rhythmic activity. I was impressed by the contrast of ‘walls of sound’ and beguiling passages for solo instruments. Stylistically, the music seems to me to a little bit of everything. I hear nods to the early Concerto for Double String Orchestra, a backward glance to Orlando Gibbons and the more acerbic and complex sounds of his post-King Priam music.
On 4 September 1978 I heard the Prom Performance of the Symphony No 4 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti. It was not until the remarkable cycle of Tippett’s Symphonies issued by Chandos in 1994 (Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) that I heard it again. The present recording is totally satisfying: Brabbins has emphasised the expressive nature of much of this work. He has convinced me that this symphony demands my attention.
A major point of interest for me on this new CD is the early Symphony in B flat. As it was originally written in 1933, when Tippett was 28 years old, it cannot be regarded as ‘juvenilia.’ It was premiered by the South London Orchestra in 1933. Following some amendment, the first movement was played on 12 July 1935 by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal College of Music, conducted by the composer. Despite being the subject of some further revision, it was subsequently withdrawn.
I accept that this music is largely unrecognizable as being by Michael Tippett. The exemplars would appear to be Sibelius and, on occasion someone as unexpected as Gerald Finzi. There are even hints of Wagner and Brahms. I can understand stylistically why Tippett supressed this work, but I am grateful to his estate for allowing it to be revived.
Nicholas Kenyon in The Observer (25 February 2018) has made an ideal call on the work’s value. He suggests that it all ‘sound[s] like a passionate reinvention of the English pastoral tradition that was part of Tippett’s background.’ It is an opinion which sums up my feelings entirely. It may be a bit rambling in places, and some of the material is certainly a little old-fashioned. At no time is it at the cutting-edge of 1930s musical endeavour in England or the Continent, but neither is it a pastiche of Vaughan Williams or the other ‘greats’ of the day. It may not foreshadow Tippett’s achievement over the following 50-60 years, but it does present music that is convincing and above all thoroughly enjoyable. Reading some of the reviews of the 2018 concert performance, I was expecting to be impressed - and I was, in spadesful!
The CD liner notes are excellent. There is a long, detailed essay about all three symphonies by Tippett expert Oliver Soden which demands and deserves to be read. This is especially useful in its study of the Symphony in B flat, as there is nothing much else to base one’s opinions on. The essay is also printed in French and German. The text from the ‘blues’ section of the Third Symphony is included. Unusually, there is a complete listing of the orchestral personnel.
I enjoyed this double-CD. It was good to re-engage with the Symphonies Nos.3 and 4: it has been several years since I listened to them with attention. But for me the ‘prize pippin’ was the Symphony in B flat. It may not be a masterpiece, and it could be said that there are structural and aesthetic drop-offs in it; nevertheless, it is good to have an approachable and rather traditional ‘English’ work from Tippett’s pen that acts as a remarkable ‘companion piece’ to my favourite of his works, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra.