The moment anything is a success it must be abandoned

Last Friday’s Barbican performance of Sir Michael Tippett’s Second Symphony received a thoughtful review by David Nice which ended with the observation that “Wherever Tippett may have gone wrong in later years – some would argue that he simply changed shape – he left us a masterpiece in the Second Symphony”. Which raises the question of how long should an artist stay with a successful formula before moving on and risking the loss of his audience? Writing of Peter Brook’s approach to direction – which is influenced by Gurdjieff’s ‘work’John Heilpern explains that “Part of the crippling nature of the work is that the moment anything is a success it must be abandoned. If not, it becomes set and closed – unable to teach anything fresh”. One of the four Buddhist noble truths tells of the danger of attachment, yet classical music is firmly attached to successful but set and closed formulas ranging from minimalism through authentic performances to chart radio.

Tippett’s Second Symphony is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but the composer had no attachment to its paradigm and chose to follow a path that took him to the very different sound world of electric guitars and amplified voices in his 1989 opera New Year. But, again, he showed no attachment to that hyper-contemporary paradigm and in 1995 composed his final overlooked masterpiece – I use that word advisedlyThe Rose Lake. This is scored for a conventional large orchestra, yet a perceptive LA Times reviewer described it as “music that goes beyond description”. In 1997 Sir Colin Davis recorded The Rose Lake with the London Symphony Orchestra for the sadly defunct Conifer label, and it was released coupled with the composer’s account of The Vision of St Augustine – my header photo showing composer and conductor is from the CD artwork. Fortunately the recording, which with production in the hands of Andrew Keener and Tony Faulkner is sonically as well as artistically outstanding, has been reissued by RCA, and at a current UK price of £5 offers a painless way for readers to decide whether Tippett went wrong after his Second Symphony or simply changed shape.

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JMW said…
Ken Russell (a controversial film director who I greatly respect) thought Tippett went wrong WITH the 2nd Symphony. See his "Ken Russell's ABC of British Music".
David said…
Very interesting take, Bob, one with which I'm basically in agreement. I do think there wasn't any further to go with the line that culminated in the Second Symphony. And I'm not yet closed off to re-discovering the later works. It's just that my first reactions to The Knot Garden, The Ice Break and New Year were so negative. But that was many years ago now, and I'll try again, scores in hand.

The Third Symphony is so very hard to love, I think, but I salute the design behind it.

Anyway, I guess even you will applaud the BBC's attempt to give MT as much extended coverage as possible at a time when there's a real danger of much of his music 'going under'. Interested to know what you thought of that performance of the Second - and indeed of the new work, which in my dreams it's impressed upon me that I should reassess.
Pliable said…
"Interested to know what you thought of that performance of the Second - and indeed of the new work".

Thanks David, in brief I thought Mark Simpson’s A mirror-fragment surprisingly unsurprising, and Martin Brabbins and the BBCSO's performance of Tippett's Second Symphony praiseworthy but lacking the both the propulsion and compulsion of Colin Davis' definitive recording.

I should add incidentally that the sound from the BBC Radio 3 Barbican relay was excellent and full bodied, marred only by some slight spotlighting in the Tippett. The Barbican is a difficult hall for recording/relaying, and the BBC sound on Friday was signifcantly better that most LSO Live recordings from the same venue. And, joy of joy, no Petroc Trelawny, instead Martin Handley's presention was refreshingly informed and low-key.
David said…
I have still to hear the Davis - available on Spotify, I gather, and also in a Decca box, but I have some of the stuff from that already (including the dreaded-by-me Third).

Didn't the Tippett knock spots off the Simpson for arresting, fresh sounds? Why can't these younger composers realise less (ie selective) is more?

Ref David's comments on the 3rd Symphony, I admit to a certain fondness for this symphony, and still have the original Philips vinyl recording by Colin Davis and the LSO with Heather Harper singing in the second part of the symphony. The language Tippett used here felt to me like a meld between the opposing sound worlds of 'Midsummer Marriage' and 'King Priam'. For me, the Beethoven quote and the cumulative effect of the contrasting events together with Tippett's words and their humanistic plea for peace and healing (as sung by Heather Harper) has a strongly emotive effect.

I do feel, however, that the Richard Hickox recording of this work on Chandos just did not work for me at all. The Colin Davis premiere recording is the one to cherish.

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