New recordings of Sir Michael Tippet’s first two symphonies reveal their warmth and complexity.
MICHAEL TIPPETT: Symphonies 1 & 2—BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins—Hyperion CDA68203—74:44, ****:
What attracted me the most upon my first hearing of these two Michael Tippett (1905-1998) symphonies was their exuberant spirit and rhythmic vitality. There is a level of musical complexity that motivated me to listen often, a key to understanding Tippett’s musical genius. Emotional depth and moments of transcendent beauty make Tippett one of the great British composers of the 20th century. This new recording of his first two symphonies by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins illuminates these qualities.
Sir Michael Tippett’s youth was formed by his rural English childhood (early works use English folk material) and the influence of his independent parents. He went to the Royal College of Music for compositional study, but taught French for a couple of years before returning for further study. Yet he learned almost as much from numerous attendance of concerts. In the 1930’s a break up with a gay lover led him to a lifelong journey with Jungian analysis (people can achieve full potential through individual growth) that became a basis for the worldwide spiritual view of his operas. He sought musical verity “in the depths of the psyche where god-and-devil images also hibernate.” Yet, most who met him felt his kindness and respect for humanity. Tippett was a socialist and pacificist, refusing to serve in any capacity during World War II. When he sold his manuscripts to the British Library in 1976, he established a foundation which assisted young musicians.
Yet until the 1960’s Tippett wasn’t recognized as a significant British composer. There was the bias against his refusal to serve in any capacity in World War II, the fact that he was gay, and his music was often too complex not only for audiences but also musicians. Although counterpoint was the essence of his music, his additive rhythms (where uneven accents don’t follow traditional bar lines) made it difficult to perform. Yet these characteristics added energy and fluidity to his music. Tippet’s use of development through thematic blocks (using different instrumental combinations) that overlapped overall structural patterns made the music hard to comprehend upon first hearing. Repeated exposure made it clear that he was a composer of great substance.
Of his Symphony No. 1 (1944-5), Tippett said, “I had hoped to…write a real symphony, big and strong and unintimate.” It’s rife with complex counterpoint and contrasting themes that clash against each other. Yet, there are two moments in the first movement where the strings play a theme that is nothing less than a vision of the composer’s true spirituality. The mournful and beautiful adagio reflects the tragedy of the time. Vulnerable individual voices (clarinet, flute) softly speak. The discordant power of the full orchestra ends meekly. A lively scherzo with a plangent string trio remind the listener that Beethoven was a major influence on Tippett’s music. A dancing double fugue swirls through the beginning of the final movement, but beneath the bass drum beats and trumpet volleys lie the sadness and anger of World War II. Tippett lost two properties and a tenant who was a friend. “I dare say it sprang more than I knew from the experiences of a general catastrophe,” he said. Brabbins’ recording reveals inner details without eschewing drama, adding a warmth that escapes the earlier Colin Davis traversal.
The Second Symphony (1956-7) followed his masterpiece, the opera The Midsummer Marriage. But bad performances of that and the Symphony No. 2 (Sir Adrian Boult had to restart the premiere) obscured their excellence until the following decade. The ebullient beginning of this symphony—the rhythmic lower basses accented by powerful piano chords express high spirits and musical invention that are thrilling. The searching slow movement plunges the listener into a sensuous reverie that program annotator Oliver Soden likens to the ‘Moonlight’ interlude from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. The scherzo pulses and dances irregularly, bursting into a delirious climax, only to flame out. In the theme and variations finale lush string melodies clash with brass salvos, earlier themes are reprised, all clothed in a buoyantly brilliant tapestry. This is a memorable symphony and Brabbins’ passionate performance exudes energy and commitment.
We’re long overdue for modern recordings of Sir Michael Tippett’s music and this is a wonderful beginning.