An intriguing collection of English Music from both sides of the coin.

TIPPETT:  Symphony No. 2* [ world première]; BLISS:  Welcome The Queen – March; March from ‘Things to Come’; Checkmate (excerpts); Theme and Cadenza for violin and orchestra; Overture: Edinburgh / BBC SO / Sir Adrian Boult*/ BBC Concert Orch. / Sir Arthur Bliss – Pristine Classical PASC460; 78:20 [] reviewed as a 24-bit download (24 & 16-bit download or CD-R available) ****1/2:

Pristine Classical presents a very valuable Janus of a release, the two faces of which are clear from the contents. First we hear the world premiere, together with its unfortunate collapse early on the performance, of Sir Michael Tippett’s knotty and energetic Second Symphony, and then some of the urbane Sir Arthur Bliss’s music on the lighter side.  Widely differing music by widely differing composers make for an intriguing combination and a successful one.

Sir Michael Tippett was inspired for his athletic and boldly rhythmic Second Symphony by the insistent rhythms of music by Vivaldi to which he was listening, captivated, while on holiday by the shores of Lake Lugano in the early 1950s. It took some years for the inspiration to gestate and assume the same classic four movement structure as used by Beethoven. An opening allegro oozing energy and high drama is followed by a slow movement of lyrical depth. A muscular scherzo is then followed by a last movement in the form of a fantasia.

This premiere performance has been much talked about for nearly sixty years, mainly if not solely due to the breakdown a couple of minutes into the first movement.  Boult halted the orchestra, turned to the audience and said “Entirely my mistake, ladies and gentlemen.”  Thus, the description of the concert as a notorious disaster entered into history. Details and possible reasons for the collapse are included with the notes supplied with this release. Nearly sixty years later, this is all incidental, for issuing the performance now must have at least a little musical merit rather than being the equivalent of a YouTube disaster clip.

And so it turns out. After the performance has begun again, Boult and the orchestra turn out a thoroughly decent account of the Second, white-hot even, full of frissons of energy not only in the more frenetic parts.  The BBC Symphony’s focus provides a trenchant account.  Years later, they recorded the Second and Fourth under the composer in a beautifully played and well-recorded pairing which ultimately remains dull, certainly by comparison with Boult.  The Bournemouth Symphony who always seemed to play especially well for Richard Hickox make for a more interesting result and are also very well recorded.  However, the first studio recording, made by Decca in the Kingsway Hall in 1967 with the London Symphony under Colin Davis, is nearest to the tight disciplined energy of that first performance under Boult. Perhaps this is one of those cases where a live performance captures all the excitement more easily, and there surely will have been a lot of excitement that night.

I did wonder how Tippett’s reputation has fared post mortem. He divided the critics during his lifetime; his output was variable and the at the time trendier works, rather like  bell-bottom jeans, have not worn well. However, I think the Second Symphony is one of his great works. The best of Tippett will surely survive, though reading Norman Lebrecht’s essay [on] written just before the composer’s centenary you will see a contrary view on that.

The Bliss collection is worth more than the sum of its parts. The music is well-played under the composer, the BBC Concert Orchestra on very good form and the dose of excerpts was carefully selected. However, it’s the commentary for the wireless programme “Music for Lighter Mood” which manages to be the icing on the cake. I use the word “wireless” as Ronald Fletcher’s conversation with Sir Arthur and Lady Bliss sounds very much of its time (and quite possibly long before its time) when radio was referred to, at least in Britain, as “the wireless”.  Indeed, the music of Bliss sounds rather more modern than the conversation.

Pristine Classical kindly sent me both the 16- and 24-bit FLAC files for review, and indeed I did find that extra resolution of the 24-bit files a little more revealing.  What is more important, though, is the high quality sound resulting from these two off-air tapes. It belies the age of the material, sounding really quite fresh. The slightly later Tippett sounds a little better than the earlier Bliss, but here’s not much in it. The ambient stereo adds depth to the sound, the Tippett in particular sounding rather less dry than other contemporary recordings from the Royal Festival Hall suggest.

A highly recommended piece of history in excellent sound.

—Peter Joelson