Endnotes: July 2018, Michael Tippett, an overlooked English composer, by Stuart Millson; Steven Osborne, Martin Kasík, recitals reviewed by Leslie Jones
Sir Michael Tippett – a greatly admired figure in the 1970s and ‘80s, especially during Proms seasons – has fallen from public view in the last 30 years. His huge choral-orchestral work, The Mask of Time, opened the 1984 Proms to great acclaim; and his post-war operatic output rivalled that of Britten. Despite his radicalism and his embracing of liberal causes, Tippett’s fundamental Englishness shone through; and perhaps it was this “cultural DNA” which partly led, in our age of increasing musical nihilism and shunning of national feeling, to his eclipse.
Like Britten, unofficially enthroned at Aldeburgh, Suffolk as the “magus” of English composers, so it was that Tippett – especially in royal tributes, such as his Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles – became, in the eyes of an unforgiving avant-garde, an English establishment composer.
Michael Kemp Tippett, 1905 – 1998, had a mixture of West Country and Kentish ancestry – his (well-to-do) family exhibiting a strong grain of free-thinking, non-conformist idealism. Early associations with Socialism, with the workers’ educational movement, with Morley College (he was appointed its Director of Music in 1940) placed him, at first, as a figure who seemed to be against the grain of his country. But his music was championed by our conducting knights of pre- and post-war fame – the conservative Sargent and Boult – and latterly by the more progressive Colin and Andrew Davis, and Simon Rattle.
For a composer commonly thought of as a writer of “difficult” music, the natural stream of melodious ideas in the 1939 work, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra* – the infectious, unstoppable dance-like flow, leading to a triumphant conclusion – carries no sense of the pessimism of the times.
Writing ten years later in a survey of our native musical tradition, the Dutch musicologist Marius Flothuis** said of Tippett:
“He was especially concerned to produce programmes of unusual music… and devoted much time to pre-classical music, Elizabethan composers, Purcell and others. He made himself a considerable reputation as an authority on his ground, and daily contact with sixteenth-century music had an effect on his own composition, which has elements of the melodic structure and the free and independent metres of the old English madrigalists.”
The natural world, the countryside, mysticism and meditation proved to be profound inspirations for Tippett, as much as the great human issues of pacifism or political repression (the themes of his oratorio, A Child of Our Time). The opera, The Midsummer Marriage – given its first performance in 1955 under the baton of John Pritchard is a synthesis of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Magic Flute – a fantastic tale, exhibiting an elemental nature-worship; the purely orchestral Ritual Dances from the opera sometimes appearing in concert programmes in the same fashion as Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The Ritual Dances, as David Cairns explained in his fascinating synopsis of the opera, published by Lyrita Records*** depict a girl dancer pursuing a boy…
“In this first dance – ‘The Earth in Autumn’ – the Hound chases the Hare. The Hare escapes. But in the second dance – ‘The Waters in Winter’ – the pursuing Otter comes very near to catching the Fish, who injures himself against a tree-root. In the third dance – ‘The Air in Spring’ – the Bird has broken a wing and cannot fly. In the end he does not move when the Hawk swoops down on him.”
The bold, clear, open-air, open-country feel to each dance is overwhelming – with an almost supernatural shimmering sense of transformation suddenly produced by a swish of cymbals. The orchestra produces a sound, as though a rush of wind, or a strange force of primal energy, is coursing through it.
Tippett maintained a huge output throughout his life: chamber music, songs, a Triple Concerto written at the end of the 1970s and performed alongside Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the LSO at the Royal Festival Hall. International conductors, such as the Russian, Rudolf Barshai, took up the baton and the Tippett cause – as did Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who recorded the Fourth Symphony for Decca in the early 1980s.
Infrequently played on today’s Radio 3, and hardly appearing in the concert programmes now of British orchestras, it is surely time to rediscover the vitality and pastoral beauty of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the dream-world of The Midsummer Marriage – the complete inspiration of Sir Michael Tippett.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review
*Tippett, Concerto for Double String Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley. (On the EMI Classics for Pleasure label, catalogue number 40068, and available in CD format.)
** Modern British Composers, by Marius Flothuis. (Published by the Continental Book Company, 1949.)
*** Tippett, The Midsummer Marriage, Royal Opera House production, Sir Colin Davis, conductor/Lyrita Records. SRCD 2217
Steven Osborne, piano, Wigmore Hall, Saturday 7th July 2018, reviewed by LESLIE JONES
Steven Osborne’s recital was something of a musical history lesson featuring three modern composers, Berg, Debussy and Prokofiev. Sergey Prokofiev was on the cusp of the atonality embraced by Schoenberg’s student, Alban Berg. Claude Debussy was a transitional figure, in this context. The analogy is perhaps with impressionism before the onset of abstract art.
Osborne is a thoughtful musician. He informed the audience that Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1 incorporates the Tristan chord which so intrigued contemporary commentators and supposedly anticipated atonality.
The opening of Osborne’s performance, Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, from Préludes Book 1, was intense, inward and atmospheric, giving way to powerful passages. Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 in B Op. 83, which followed, was completed in 1942. There are violent but also lyrical moments. Osborne is an technically gifted artist who excels in addressing such musical contrasts. In the finale, Prokofiev pre-figured minimalism à la Steve Reich and John Adams.
In the second half of his recital, Osborne returned to Debussy. In Les Sons et les Parfums Tournent dans l’Air du Soir, he brilliantly captured, once again, the ethereal, transcendental qualities of this composer. But Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.6 in A Op. 82 was the unquestionably the highlight of his recital. This is futuristic music for an angst ridden, machine age. There are echoes of the 5th Symphony and introspective, troubled passages are interspersed with frenetic, powerful moments.
Martin Kasík, piano, Czech Idyllic Paths, Priory of the Museum of the Order of St John, 9th May 2018, reviewed by LESLIE JONES
Martin Kasík is a striking, romantic looking figure as befits a devotee of Chopin. The first of the 2 Nocturnes Op.27, with which he opened his recital, is wistful and melancholic. The Scherzo in B flat minor Op.31, which followed, has a powerful, dramatic theme and the whole work is imbued with nobility and grandeur.
Kasík produced a big sound in this unassuming venue with its somewhat resonant acoustic. In the Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brilliant Op.22, one of Chopin’s most exquisite pieces, with a poignant and touching leitmotif, Kasík’s playing was particularly moving and reflective.
The highlight of Kasík’s recital, however, was unquestionably his compelling performance of his compatriot Leoš Janáček’s On the Overgrown Path, which perfectly complemented the Chopin selection. This is an affecting and hauntingly beautiful piece, and maestro Kasík did it full justice. Such moments of dépassement de soi remain for ever embedded in the memory.
Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR