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 advisedly – The 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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