Sir Michael Tippett's last two symphonies are nothing if not ambitious: the Third, a near hour-long sweep culminating in a vocal challenge to the optimism of Beethoven's Ninth, no less; the Fourth, a ‘birth-to-death piece’ cross-cutting all the functions of a symphony in a multi-coloured, single-movement collage. Martyn Brabbins's new recording of the Third cannot quite match the virtuoso drive of Sir Colin Davis's original LSO recording, nor the spacious sound of Richard Hickox's alternative version; nor has his Fourth quite the epic scope of Sir George Solti's first recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
What the new accounts have are the virtues of Brabbins's versions of Tippett's First and Second, reviewed in these pages in January 2018: a purposeful intentness, with care for dynamics and rhythmic precision, captured in the relatively contained acoustic of Glasgow City Halls—though with no lack of virile energy and lyrical grace in the response of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and a finely-contoured delivery of the taxing soprano role in the Third from Rachel Nicholls.
The fill-up is the first ever recording of Tippett's long suppressed Symphony in B flat, composed in his late 20s in a somewhat unfocused idiom veering between Sibelius and such English contemporaries as Rubbra and Moeran—but with surprisingly few hints of the Tippett to come. Brabbins manages to make something of the stormy first movement, but can do little with the drifting middle one, and the finale might convince more at a somewhat faster tempo. Still, a revealing glimpse of the difficulties Tippett had to overcome to find himself.