When will we reach the Tippett point?
Discussions of neglected symphonists invariably neglect to mention Michael Tippett. So it is good to see that Hyperion are releasing Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Tippett's First and Second Symphonies - sample here - as the first instalment of a Tippett symphony cycle. Excellent accounts by Colin Davis and Richard Hickox failed to persuade the wider audience of the indisputable merit of Tippett's symphonies, so it will be interesting to see how the new Hyperion release fares. The problem is that unfamiliar works such as these require repeated concert hall outings to engage audiences, not the one-off pseudo-event treatment that is now standard for non-mainstream repertoire. To treat Tippett and his neglected peers as more than a solitary freak show requires courage and commitment from conductor, orchestra and promoter. So I'm not holding my breath.
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It's lucky that I was too busy to comment earlier, because while awed by the musical abilities of a BSO violinist I must take issue with JMW. To begin with there is no fake jazz in the second symphony - I assume Russell must have been talking of the third, where Tippett certainly went out on a limb, trusting his instincts and juxtaposing fragments of Beethoven's 9th with his own version of the blues. The wrong soloist can wreck this, but get it right and (to my mind) it works totally - indeed very tellingly, Tippett's often criticised words for the songs also still sounding strong and powerful. As for the second symphony - where I second your enthusiasm for Colin Davis's revelatory recording - I once deliberately played this disc immediately after Kleiber's Beethoven 5th and felt it stood its ground perfectly, one of the few symphonies with an energy and a density of invention comparable to Beethoven. The pounding Vivaldian Cs and the harmonic tension above certainly launch the piece with terrific energy, but it is with the slow movement that it moves into totally unknown territory: new combinations of instrumental colours and textures, a disjunct language that no one had heard before which has us one moment drifting through far off galaxies and the next having our human hearts tugged by string writing or clouds of horns which somehow evoke emotional states with a directness and precision that no words can explain. And how many finales start with such a kick of fresh, invigorating energy?
I hope that the reason Tippett isn't mentioned in discussions of 'neglected symphonists' is that there are still conductors (Knussen as well as Brabbins) and programmers who keep faith with him and keep his music, albeit occasionally, before the public - in the UK at least. When played as powerfully as in performances led by Brabbins or Knussen, or for example by the Birmingham Opera Company, the reaction is usually overwhelming.
Amongst musicians too: I remember one day discussing Birtwistle with Adrian Brendel reacting to his words that the operas had to be the greatest British examples since Britten by saying that unfortunately I didn't share the general high estimation of Britten's stage works, only to remember with embarrassment that Jackie Shave, sitting a few feet away, was leader of the Britten Sinfonia and so not going on to express my preference for Tippett's. But in fact I should have done, as not long afterwards I heard her on the radio saying how she had not really known Tippett's music before playing King Priam and how she had been absolutely blown away by its quality. (And heaven knows, the violin parts in Priam are difficult enough!) I also recall a composer friend - who writes in a totally different idiom - reacting to the BOC's triumphant revival of The Ice Break with a brilliantly witty 'Yes, The Ice Break's a cracker!'
I am sure that we shall indeed reach 'the Tippett point' - the pointers are already there: the reaction to the Heath Quartet's cycle of the string quartets at the Wigmore Hall, a newspaper reviewer's
"I’m just going to say it: The Ice Break is a masterpiece and this production ... the greatest thing that Birmingham Opera Company has yet done" and I'm sure more of the same in response to this new series of recordings of the symphonies.