Michael Tippett: The Four Piano Sonatas. Paul Crossley. 2 CRD 34301. CRD 34301 (1992), barcode 5015155343020
Note: also listed under 750582091025 (may be download edition)
Cover photos pending
CRD 34301 (2005), barcode 708093343027 (reissue for the Tippett centenary, slimline case)
From 2 LP-set CRD 11301 (1985) see entry on Discogs.com
Recorded 15 – 21 October 1984 and 4 January 1985 in the Unitarian Chapel, Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, London
An impressive and hugely imaginative body of works by one of their great champions
Review written in 2014, first posted here on 4 March 2022
I’ve spent many hours with Michael Tippett’s four Piano Sonatas and they constitute a great and highly original body of works. Tippett was a late blossomer to composition and his first Sonata, composed in 1937 (and revised in 1942) when he was 32, was his second major outing, after the first String Quartet from 1935 (the latter thoroughly revised before publication in 1946). Although commentators often draw a long list of references and influences when they talk about that work– Scarlatti, Beethoven, Bartok, Stravinsky, Janacek, Hindemith, Poulenc – I find it remarkably FREE of influences and already entirely “Tippettian” (if not quite the Tippett he later became). Tippett described how he had tried to escape the “heavy” and “too serious” Germanic models, and he does. That the first movement, a theme and variations, is written in a (mainly) 5/4 time signature doesn’t make it Bartokian at all, it has none of that Bartok rustic and vigorous pounding, and although it does have its moments of brash fortissimos, it is primarily lyrical and whimsical, and the slightly tipsy 5/4 signature and whimsical imagination in the variations give it a melodic shape that is entirely unique and, indeed, entirely NOT indebted to the Germanic and expressionist models. The slow movement is a somewhat austere but fascinating exercise in two-part polyphony based on a Scottish folk-song. Sure you can invoke the Beethovenian model (the 9th symphony comes to mind) in the exuberant Scherzo, a dashing Presto in (mainly) 6/8 rhythm (and Tippett would write other such movements in his symphonies, like Walton in his own First), but it is entirely transmuted in the composer’s language. The boisterous and vigorous Finale shows influences of Jazz/Ragtime, but also of something like hop-scotch dance, again transmuted in the composer’s personal language. There’s a gaiety, an “upbeat-ness” and insouciance that will seldom be found in Tippett’s later works.
The Second Sonata, written in 1962 in the wake of Tippett’s opera King Priam, is even more original in its conception and construction, made of a succession of thematic blocks, each with its own tempo and character (always attention-arousing), returning in slightly modified form but never combined. I’ll quote Tippett here, in the remarkably informative liner notes he contributed for the CD: “Everything in the sonata proceeds by statement. The effect is one of accumulation; through constant addition of new material; by variation and repetition. There is virtually no development and particularly no bridge passages. The formal unity comes from the balance of similarities and contrasts”.
The Third from 1973, commissioned and premiered by Paul Crossley, is an impressive work and a tougher nut to crack, with its furiously and even suffocatingly pounding outer movements (but with moments of dreaminess in the first, a sonata form with contrasting elements), and its sprawling slow movement, an extended theme and four variations with the theme made of 17 hushed broken chords, including one “mystery chord”. This riddle deserves some explanation, and even revelation. In the liner notes, Tippett announces 17 chords; yet, I was puzzled to count only 16 on the score. I would have been inclined to blame myself and my lack of analytical skills (after all, some of those chords are highly decorated and never stated in their complete, vertical form, so it was very likely that I was unable to spot where one ended and the other began), had not Jonathan Dobson, the annotator of Graham Caskie‘s recording on the label Metier, counted like me and mentioned “16”; Merion Bowen, a great specialist and friend of Tippett and the annotator of Nicholas Unwin’s on Chandos (see link below), says 17, but other CD annotators prefer to be non-committal and abstain from numbering the chords. In his study “Tippett: The Composer and His Music” (ISBN-13 9780306903878), another Tippett friend and specialist Ian Kemp talks of the “theme, a set of sixteen (or seventeen) chords never heard in their basic form”, with no further explanation, which strikes me as particularly absurd: c’mon Ian, can’t you decide, is it sixteen or seventeen? And does the Sonata have three (or four) movements?
So I wrote to Paul Crossley to inquire about this riddle. He had worked with Tippett on the Sonata, if anybody would know, it would be him. He allowed me to quote his answer:
“Yes, this has always puzzled everybody, not least me! There are 17 chords, and if you think of them as being 11 + 1 + 5, the ‘enigmatic’ one is the “1”. As you will see from the score, it is never stated as a chord at all, but is presented in all sorts of elaborations.
In fact, when Michael was composing this movement, he always had by him on the piano the original succession of chords written out with a blank where this ‘enigma chord’ should be. When I asked him about it, he said: “Ah, love, you work that out for yourself! You asked for a piece with some chords in it, so I’ve given you a little puzzle.” I have never managed to deduce what the actual chord is. I’m sure somebody will ‘break the code’ one day, but it won’t be me. It’s a bit like the ‘extra hidden tune’ that Elgar said was part of his Enigma Variations. I’ve always personally thought it was the Song of the Volga Boatmen, but that’s just one of many guesses.
If you ever find somebody who thinks they know what the Tippett chord is, I’d be very glad to know about it. But, do be assured, it is 17 chords.”
Many thanks to Paul Crossley for letting me share this “Da Vinci Code” secret with the wide music world. Anyway, Tippett’s unique magic and stunning originality is at play again, here in the form of the mainly two-part, non chordal writing in the outer movements, with a preference for sending both hands to the piano’s extreme range, in the incredible inventiveness, Debussy-like delicacy and mesmerizing atmospheres of the theme and variations, and in the profusion of trills and grace notes, making it feel as if the ornament, the decoration even, was the veritable essence of the work, madrigal-like. I’m not sure that it is a work I would have warmed to as much as the first two if I hadn’t come across the score, but with score and careful listening attention it is as great and fascinating a work as anything written by its composer.
Same comment applies to the Fourth, completed in 1984 (note the sequence of 11 years between both 2 & 3 and 3 & 4). It is couched in five movements – an architecture more readily found in string quartets and symphonies than in piano sonatas. There are moments of great melodic appeal, moments of haunting dreaminess, but those are not the overriding impression that it conveys. The Fourth is filled with Tippett’s typical decoration, profusion of grace notes or quasi-grace notes, and it has great moments of whimsicality. There is also the fantastic rhythmic imagination, which might make the shape of some phrases feel strangely awkward but, when you are following with a score, always surprises the attention with new and unexpected twists. In the Fourth Tippett also extends a technique already present in the First, writing, on three staves, three different and highly differentiated strands (here especially in the first three movements), so much so that, on paper, it’s hard to see how two hands can play them. If the first gives the impression of being episodic, it is: it is constructed of a succession of episodes. The third movement is a slow-fast-slow in a mirror form A-B-C (fast)-B-A and the fourth, a demented boogie-woogie reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano, in ever changing meters over obsessive runs of sixteenth-notes, is also in A-B-A form. I’ve read the second movement described as a fugue, but I’m not sure it is strictly one, it looks and sounds more like a passacaglia, based on a pervading ground in a basic 3/4 rhythm, a quarter-note followed by a half-note, but it is also an extraordinary etude in dynamics, with Beethovenian jumps from forte or fortissimo (on the quarter-note and its derivation) to piano (on the half-note and its derivations). The composer himself describes the Finale as a theme and four variations, but frankly, had I not been told, I wouldn’t have recognized it a such, so transformed beyond recognition is the theme in the variations; for one of the variations, I am not even sure that I locate it right.. Again I don’t know how much of this can be perceptible by and enjoyable to the “lay” listener without the score (and obviously I am no more such a lay listener), but following and comparing the three competing recordings with the Schott score has provided hours of admirative amazement.
Crossley has a unique legitimacy in the Sonatas of Tippett. As mentioned, he’s the premiere performer of the Third (which he commissioned) and also of the Fourth, although none are dedicated to him, and the composer even acknowledges his help and advice in writing both. In 1973 he recorded the first three sonatas, on Philips 6500 534. It’s hilarious to compare him on the cover of that album, hippie-style long-haired, and on the CRD disc, recorded in 1984 upon completion of the fourth. The older recording has been reissued to CD but is available only on a 6-CD Tippett compilation, Decca 475 6750 (2005) barcode 028947567509 that now seems hard to find and was never a good deal for the Tippett fan anyway, as it reissued much that was already available on CD, but the Sonatas can be purchased on download, at least in Europe, without having to buy the complete album (but not so on Amazon.com apparently, which seems absurd). The 1984 recordings were also made under the composer’s guidance, and the liner notes, by the composer himself, are the same as on the 1973 Philips LP, only those for the Fourth Sonata are new (Tippett also wrote the rather more extensive notes for the CD reissue of John Ogdon’s EMI recordings of the first two sonatas, originally made on two different albums in 1963 and 1966; they are on the 2-CD set 7 63522 2 with more great Tippett recordings of the 1960s).
Crossley’s interpretations of the first three Sonatas haven’t changed significantly since 1973 and he delivers excellent versions, entirely attuned to the composer’s style and idiom, unexceptionable in his choices of tempo, but with, in the first movement of the First, a few phrasing quirks that are uniquely his own, especially the very staccato and detached touch in the Gamelan-variation at 5:38, a 1984 novelty (and in the previous variation, the left hand doesn’t quite stand out enough where Tippett instructs “il basso un poco prominente”, and it was also the case in 1973). The 1973 Philips recording made the piano sound fuller, the touch in 1984 is marginally more brittle but brings a welcome lightness to the statement of the first movement’s theme. The 1973 third and fourth movements were marginally more thrusting, pounding and energetic, almost in the league of John Ogdon in the third movement Presto and one-upping him in the Finale, although Crossley in 1984 is no slouch either, but the effect of the lighter touch is more choreographic (and Crossley now applies a freer and almost graceful rubato in some spots of the Presto). I marginally prefer the no-punches-held energy of the earlier version.
Likewise in the 2nd Sonata, taut and powerful, a bit dry sometimes (as in his very staccato phrasing of the second and third blocks at 0:18, also a 1984 novelty), which may deprive some of the thematic blocs of a touch of power and/or atmosphere, but in some others sounds great (as the drum-like rolls first heard at 0:47, or the quasi-carillon first heard at 2:13, where Crossley combines perfectly resonance with the “non legato” instructed by Tippett). Tempos were very similar in 1973, but there was more crashing power; on the other hand, a few spots sounded rhythmically very awkward. In the Third, the outer movements are great, with all the furious pounding energy they require and Crossley goes far in elucidating the dense strands of Tippett’s two-part writing. There is little to choose here between 1984 and 1973, although the fuller and more powerful tone of the piano, the greater atmosphere it brought to the slow movement, may give an edge to the earlier version. I have a few minuscule issues of details in the second movement, where Crossley doesn’t let you hear as sharply as I’d wish some of the limping rhythms of the second variation (he did in 1973), and isn’t always entirely accurate in his rendition of Tippett’s very subtle and tricky 7/8 rhythms in the third variation, but those details won’t be perceptible to anyone without a score, and, in the Finale, in 1973 as well as in 1984 there are moments when right and left hand play the same note and Crossley catches perfectly the left-hand/right-hand balance that none of his competitors get quite right. Incidentally, since they are not cued, it might be usefull to know that the 2nd movement variations start at 2:23, 5:09, 7:05 and 9:46. In the Fourth, I am, even more than in the Third, somewhat bothered by a rhythmic freedom, or constant lack of stability in pulse that may be construed as rubato but also as rhythmic slackness, and which ultimately oscures rather than clarifies the “non-square” intricacies and subtleties of Tippett’s rhythmic writing. The two competing recordings, by Nicholas Unwin on Chandos (1996) and Steven Osborne on Hyperion (2007), are entirely precise. Crossley is also somewhat dryer in touch, less atmospheric than both Unwin and Osborne, and I find his two competitors clearer in their delineation of Tippett’s three-part writing and in the sense of continuity they bring to the “singing” voice in the third movement, as well as in their elucidation of the circulation of the sixteenth-notes between both hands in the fourth movement. There are also passages in the first movement where Crossley lets the left-hand cover some of the rhythmic details of the right hand. But the pianist’s dynamic contrasts in the second movement have great dramatic impact, more than with his two competitors, and his “non legato” playing there is exactly what the composer demands.
My reservations bear on fine points of detail and don’t invalidate the choices of Crossley, who has the historical legitimacy for him. What does give precedence however to the recent Stephen Osborne on Hyperion, other than his interpretive excellence and greater rhythmic precision, is that the Hyperion twofer gives you more, with Tippett’s two compositions for piano and orchestra. The four sonatas are too long to fit on one CD, but on two, as is the case with Crossley, they offer, at respectively 45 and 49 minutes, a comparatively short measure. Nicholas Unwin also recorded the four, albeit on two different labels, the Fourth on Metier (with impressive works of Robert Saxton, Colin Matthews and an affecting Elegy by Constant Lambert) and the first three for Chandos (see link above). They are also excellent interpretations.
For more Tippett, see my comprehensive discography (link will open new tab to pdf document that you can read online and/or download).