Graham Rickson
March 2019

Michael Tippett's luminous Second Symphony is one of the great 20th century British orchestral works. No 3, premiered in 1972 by Colin Davis and the LSO is radically different, though repeated listenings do confirm that, as Oliver Soden writes in Hyperion’s booklet, Tippett ‘composed in many styles but one voice.’ The language is harsher and more abrasive, but the lyricism remains, just. Dissonant syncopated chords jostle with exuberant string flurries in the work’s thorny opening movement. The tension never abates, the music distinctly uncomfortable listening. Not that there's much respite in the chilly Lento which follows, a parched, arid landscape. Again, there's a claustrophobic feeling of stasis. Release eventually arrives in a vast, episodic finale. Tippett’s response to the finale of Beethoven 9, it includes a famous sequence pairing soprano (here, a gallant Rachel Nicholls) with flugelhorn, Tippett’s take on Bessie Smith singing the St Louis Blues. There's no easy resolution when the work eventually stutters to a halt, and the composer's arch texts aren't easy to assimilate: ‘I'll go whirling with my armpits.’ Hmm. But full credit to Martyn Brabbins's brave BBC Scottish players for clarifying Tippett’s dense counterpoint.

I'm equally baffled by the single movement Symphony No 4, though at least there's a sense of forward movement. Tippett’s intention was to write a ‘birth-to-death’ piece in the manner of Sibelius's 7th, inspired by speeded-up film footage of a rabbit foetus developing from a single cell. The tricksy breathing effects are here provided by Ian Dearden, his own exhalations subtly modulated to reflect the ageing process. Best to sit back and enjoy the ride, Tippett’s ear for arresting colours as strong as it ever was: the writing for brass and percussion is consistently brilliant. There's an essential bonus in the shape of the early Symphony in B flat, composed in the early 1930s and at one stage Tippett's official Opus 1 before he withdrew it. It's confident, assured but a little anonymous, the closing chords one of many nods to Sibelius.