Michael Tippett (1903-1998, British) and a complete discography

Michael Tippett (1903-1998): a composer dear to my heart, not only because of the music (altough it is principally that), but also because, back in 2014, I spent a couple of very busy and dense months compiling a – hopefully – complete discography of the composer. My blog post of 28 February 2022 (which is, as I write, today) recounts the circumstances in which I was called to do that for Tippett’s publisher, Schott of London. The discography lay dormant ever since, Schott never did much with it, and I knew I needed to publish it on this website, but there was a little cleaning up I needed to do first… which seemed never to be forthcoming. I owe it to reader Mark Meldon’s kind insistence that the publication of the discography would be welcome, to have given me the kick to finish adapting it (it was just a matter of inserting hyperlinks within the text for easier access). I haven’t tried to update the discography, so it is to be considered valid as of March 2014; sadly for the composer but fortunately for the discographer, it seems that not much has been added since to Tippett’s discography. Tippett seems to be suffering the fate of many excellent composers after their death: relative oblivion. The discography is in the form of a .pdf document which you can open and download from here.

Tippett was somewhat overshadowed by Britten. He was more modern in his compositional outlook, though never “avant-garde” (which may explain why he has fallen out of favor), and fully embraced the trends of the “glorious seventies”. I consider him something like the Number 2 British composer of the second half of the twentieth-century (that I arbitraily confine Vaughan Williams to the first half of the century, despite his death in 1959, allows me not to put both composers in competition for that position on the podium).

I’ve published A LOT of Tippett reviews back in the days, and I’ve started to reimport them over here.  And there are all those Tippett CDs that I haven’t yet reviewed (I have plenty in sketch form). The transfer process is time-consuming, not only because there are many reviews, but also because every “import” requires lots of work, referencing the various editions, finding suitable cover photos, and cross-referencing all the other CDs that I mention in the reviews by links to their own reviews on this website rather than, as on the original posts, to their Amazon page. But I’ve begun.

First, for the Tippett newcomer, who wouldn’t already have all the individual CDs later collected in convenient compilations, let me make a few suggestions to start a Tippett collection:

The EMI 2-CD set, 7 63522 2 (link to my review), originally published in 1990 (after a 2-LP set published in 1985 on the occasion of the composer’s 80th anniversary), collecting the label’s great Tippett recordings of the 1960s: Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli conducted by the composer (with Menuhin’s Bath Festival Orchestra and Menuhin himself as one of the soloists), and Concerto for Double String Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Barshai – both with unique vehemence and passion -, the Piano Concerto and first two Piano Sonatas performed with huge pounding power by John Ogdon.

Decca 475 6750, a 6-CD compilation from 2005 of the great Tippett Decca and Philips recordings from the 1970s, great for the beginner, frustrating for the seasoned collector, since the set features, besides recordings previously released on CD which said collector is likely to have already in his collection, a few important first and only CD-reissues (notably Paul Crossley’s 1973 recording of Piano Sonatas 1-3). See my review for the complete contents, comments, and pointers to a few other recordings to fill the few gaps (in the field of instrumental and orchestral compositions) of these two sets.

(For Tippett’s vocal and choral music and operas, I’m not there yet in my comparative listening and reviewing, so revisit once in a while.)

Here’s the list of and links to my Tippett reviews reposted on Discophage.com:

First, 3 CDs of historical recordings, indispensable to the serious Tippett fan and collector:

“Remembering Tippett” on NMC D103, with the premiere recordings, made in the 1940s, of his First Sonata (original version, then titled “Fantasy-Sonata”) by Phyllis Sellick, Second Quartet by the Zorian Quartet and Concerto for Double String Orchestra by Walter Goehr.

EMI “British Composers” 5 85150 2 with three song cycles sung by Peter Pears and the Second Quartet by the Amadeus Quartet (paired with Matyas Seiber’s Third String Quartet)

The First Piano Sonata, recorded in by another great female champion of Tippett’s music in those days, Margaret Kitchin, on Lyrita REAM.2106, paired with a fine Sonata by Scottish (and unjustly neglected) composer Iain Hamilton, and pieces of lesser interest by Englih William Wordsworth.

And now, by rising order of instrumental lineup:

The four Piano Sonatas by Paul Crossley on CRD 34301. Crossley, who commissioned and premiered the Third and premiered the Fourth and worked closely with the composer, has unique legitimacy in these works (he had already recorded the first three for Philips in 1973, CD-reissued only in the Decca set referenced above).

Piano Sonata No. 1 by Murray Perahia, unexpected in this repertoire and a superb version, recorded in 1986 (and an equally fine interpretation of Berg’s Sonata), on his 25th Anniversary Tribute, Sony SX4K 63380 (1997)- making it frustrating that one should by this 4-CD set of mostly reissues to access both works.

Piano Sonata No. 3 by Graham Caskie on Metier MSV CD92004 (1993), part of a series of British 20th-Century Piano Music which featured three different pianists playing Tippett’s Sonatas 2-4, and that inexplicably Metier never completed with the First Sonata. Caskie’s is a disappointing, trudging reading. His complements are pieces by John McCabe, Paul Patterson and Nigel Clarke, all impressive and attractive works.

Piano Sonata No. 2 by Steven Neugarten on Metier MSV CD92008, one of the best versions of that work by a pianist who then disappeared from the recording limelight.  Neugarten’s complements are fine pieces by Nicholas Sackman, Robert Saxton and Justin Connolly.

Piano Sonatas 1-3 by Nicholas Unwin on Chandos 9468 (1996). Excellent versions, to be complemented with the same pianist’s magnificent Fourth Sonata on Metier MSV CD92009 (1995), paired with great pieces of Robert Saxton and Colin Matthews.

Piano Sonatas 1-3 by Peter Donohoe on Naxos 8.557611 (2005). Donohoe is interesting if only because he strays from the general norm, often pressing to the point of nervousness (and also sometimes trudging when he should be thrusting), but also dry in touch and lacking bloom and sonic sensuousness. Not a first recommendation.

First recommendation in all four Sonatas now goes to Stephen Osborne on Hyperion CDA67461/2 (2007), with the bonus complement of Tippett’s two concertante works for piano, the Piano Concerto and Fantasia on a Theme of Handel.

Jump the String Quartets and song cycles because I haven’t finished my comparative listening, and come Tippett’s orchestral compositions:

London “The British Collection” 421 389-2 (1989): Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, Little Music for String Orchestra, Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner 1970.  An important recording back then when scarcity reigned, important for pairing these three works (an obvious choice and yet a premiere), and even more, for establishing a new interpretive paradigm, spacious, lush and pastoral, on the opposite pole from the unique vehemence and passion of Rudolf Barshai in 1962 (Concerto) and Tippett in 1964 (Fantasia) – both on he two-CD EMI set referenced above as a first recommendation. Marriner’s recording is part of the 6-CD Decca set also referenced above.

Virgin Classics VC 7 90701-2 (1987): Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, Songs for Dov (Nigel Robson, tenor). Scottish Chamber Orchestra, cond. Tippett. As indispensable as it is to have Tippett’s own view of his works (at 82), the disc can’t be recommended without some reservations. His recording of Songs for Dov is MUCH preferable to the one on Decca with Robert Tear and David Atherton from 1971 (collated on Decca’s 4-CD compilation of Tippett’s vocal and choral music, 475 717-2, barcode 028947571728), and in itself warrants the acquisition of the CD. Despite minuscule reservations, his Fantasia Concertante is equal to the best, striking a fine balance between the vehemence and passion of… himself, in 1964, with Menuhin and Menuhin’s Bath Festival Orchestra (see the two-CD EMI set referenced above as a first recommendation) and the spacious lushness and pastoral mood of Marriner in 1970. But his Concerto for Double String Orchestra is a sluggish, trudging affair.

EMI “British Composers” CDC 5 55452 2 (1995): Divertimento on Sellinger’s Round, Little Music for string orchestra Sonata for Four Horns, Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner, Michael Thomson Horn Quartet. Excellent remake of the Concerto, with more jubilant drive than Marriner’s 1970 version on Decca, and interesting and rare fillers.

On the other hand, avoid a CD that looks deceptively like a straight reissue from the former, 5 86587 2, barcode 724358658729, but substitutes, to Marriner’s fine Concerto for Double String Orchestra Rudolf Barshai’s 1984 recording of the Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (originally on EMI CDC  7 47330 2, barcode 077774733021, paired with a very mediocre reading of… the Concerto for Double String Orchestra).

Chandos 9409 (1995): Divertimento on “Sellinger’s Round”, Little Music for String Orchestra, The Heart’s Assurance (orch. Meirion Bowen), Concerto for Double String Orchestra. John Mark Ainsley (tenor), City of London Sinfonia, Richard Hickox. Same year as Marriner’s EMI program and very similar, substituting only Meirion Bowen’s orchestration of Tippett’s song cyle The Heart’s Assurance to Marriner’s Sonata for Four Horns. Excellent performances by Hickox – but I prefer the original version of the song cycle, and the Sonata for Horns.

(to be continued)

PS: 5 March 2022: upon repost of some of my old Tippett reviews on Amazon.com from 2013-2014, I notice in my discography what appears to me now as one glaring and one small mistake in two label numbers. They pertain to EMI’s 2009 reissue on their collection “Encore”, of Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (cond. Tippett), Piano Concerto (John Ogdon Colin Davis) and Concerto for Double String Orchestra (cond. Rudolf Barshai). I reference it in the 2014 discography as “EMI 839913 [5099923574427] or 2 35744-2 [5099923574328]”. The latter is indeed the same reissue, but for American distribution with the Angel logo. The former is for European distribution with Nipper logo – but I don’t see how the label number can be 839913 and where I got that number from. In EMI’s catalog there is always a direct correspondance between label number and barcode. As per barcode, label number should be – and is, I’ve seen backcover photos online – 2 35744 2. As for the Angel reissue, clearly (well – it is clear and glaring to me now), label number should be, as per barcode, 2 35743 2 (and no hyphen between the last two digits, Universal – e.g. DG, Philips, Decca – uses that hyphen, but never EMI).

Seeing those discrepancies today sends all the alarm bells ringing. Not so, evidently, in 2014. As I said in my blogpost, doing that Tippett discography back in 2014 was a watershed in my discographic activities, as it is on that occasion that I realized the importance of barcodes, and their correspondence (usually, but not always, not with every label) with label numbers. I’ve so much busied myself since with compiling EMI discographies, that what I didn’t see (and know) in 2014 appears glaring today. I’ll correct the discography but thought I’d add this postscript here for possible further reference – maybe I’ll find out some day how I came up with that impossible label number.

March 9: whatever time and finicking care you spend on a discography, errors and omissions will always creep in. Now I discover that I had forgotten to mention the CD reissue of John Pritchard’s 1957 recording of the Ritual Dances, with the Orchestra of Covent Garden. That it came burried in a 6-CD compilation (see above list of first recommendations) may be a partial explanation, but not an excuse! And it remains inexplicable to me. How could I omit that? How many more are hiding in the discography?

Well, it hasn’t been even a day, and here’s one more: Graham Caskie’s recording of the Third Piano Sonata on Metier: “Recorded in the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 20, 21 & 23 APRIL 1993” – not August!!!!

Comments are welcome