Michael Tippett: 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. London “The British Collection” 421 389-2 (1989) and reissues

Michael Tippett: Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (Alan Loveday & Karmel Caine violins, Kenneth Heath cello), Little Music for String Orchestra, Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner. London “The British Collection” 421 389-2 (1989), barcode 028942138926



Collated in Decca 470 196-2 “The British Music Collection” (2 CDs) with Concerto
for Orchestra, Fanfare for Brass, Byzantium, Triple Concerto, Dance: Clarion Air) (2002) barcode 028947019626



Collated in Decca 475 6750 (6 CDs) with Sonatas No. 1-3, Fanfare for Brass, Sonata
for four horns, String Quartets 1-3, Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Triple Concerto,
4 Symphonies, Little Music for String Orchestra, Ritual Dances, Suite for the Birthday of
Prince Charles, Concerto for Orchestra) (2005) barcode 028947567509



Reissued on Australian Eloquence / Decca 476 7960 (with Fanfare for Brass, Suite for the
Birthday of Prince Charles) (2006) barcode 028947679608



Recorded 26-28 October 1970 at St John’s, Smith Square, London

Important historical Tippett recordings from 1970, in somewhat idiosyncratic readings
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 2 March 2014

Although London gives a copyright year of 1972, Marriner’s Tippett recordings were made on 26-28 October 1970 (source: the authoritative Decca discography of Philip Stuart, available online from CHARM, the Centre for Historical Analysis of Recorded Music) and released at the end of 1971, on Argo, ZRG 680 (they were reviewed in the January 1972 issue of The Gramophone). Argo was a subsidiary of Decca.

They were important additions to the Tippett discography back then, in those times of recording scarcity and even famine: only the second recording ever of the 1953 Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli, after the one made in 1964 for HMV by Menuhin and his Bath Festival Orchestra with the composer conducting, and the second stereo recording of the 1939 Concerto for Double String Orchestra, after, again, HMV’s 1962 recording with Rudolf Barshai conducting the combined forces of his own Moscow Chamber Orchestra and, already, Menuhin’s Bath Festival Orchestra (both pieces are collected on an indispensable twofer with Tippett’s Piano Concerto and first two Piano Sonatas performed by John Ogdon, EMI 7 63522 2, link will open new tab to my review). There had been two recordings of the Concerto in the mono era, in 1943 and 1952, both conducted by Tippett’s early champion Walter Goehr, the latter not reissued to CD and the earlier one now collected on an NMC CD, “Remembering Tippett”, with the earliest recordings of music of the composer. As for the 1946 Little Music for String Orchestra and Tippett’s third composition for string orchestra, this may have been its premiere recording (there was an issue by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, with the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra under John Avison, which may have been recorded and released first, but with limited circulation).

Argo’s release was also important for pairing these three works together – an apparently obvious choice, especially given that the Fantasia Concertante and Concerto are among the composer’s most appealing, easy-listening and popular works, but one that, surprisingly, wasn’t offered again until way into the CD era. Even the two HMV recordings weren’t paired together on LP until 1984, when EMI released a 2-LP set to honor the composer’s 80th birthday, reissued on CD in 1991 (see link above).

It is fitting that the two premiere stereo recordings of Fantasia Concertante and Concerto for Double String Orchestra should have been those of HMV and Argo, because they represent, truly, two opposite interpretive poles: HMV – both Barshai in the Concerto and Tippett in the Fantasia – urgent and intense, even in the slow movement of the Concerto and, in its first movement, with an undercurrent of grim anger at times; and Marriner/Argo more spacious and pastoral. This may not be entirely perceptible in the outer movements of the Concerto because, although Marriner is indeed more spacious than Barshai (and significantly so in the first movement), he maintains a crisp articulation, and it is only in an A-B comparison with Barshai that his first movement feels somewhat heavy-footed. Still, while his approach may not elicit the same kind of intensity as Barshai, it conveys nonetheless an intensity of its own. But where the more spacious approach works superbly is in the beautifully brooding, almost mourning central Adagio. Not that his approach invalidates Barshai’s: the two indissociably and indispensably complement each other. The sonics let you hear with sufficient clarity the two divided orchestras and their tossing around the phrases at each other, though not as distinctly as HMV’s for Barshai. Marriner re-recorded the Concerto a quarter-century later, for EMI, with a more dynamic and altogether preferable first movement, but a Finale with slightly softer edges, and a very different middle movement, overall swifter, but also very flexible in tempo (EMI British Composers CDC 5 55452 2, link to my review).

In Fantasia Concertante, there are passages, like the beginning, where Marriner’s tempo choices are very similar to Tippett’s. It is when he reaches the “Andante espressivo” passage at 6:18 that his andante is considerably slower than Tippett’s, almost Adagio, and to very beautiful effect. But the most idiosyncratic passage in Marriner’s reading is his ensuing Fugue, from 9:12 to 14:31, uniquely deliberate. It may feel, especially at the start, somewhat plodding, but ultimately piles up considerable energy. Overall, Tippett’s is the shortest (but William Boughton’s 1991 recording is in the same league; it is on Nimbus NI 5334 with Tippett’s Little Music for Strings and works of Lennox and Michael Berkeley, barcode 083603533427) and Marriner’s the longest-running version of Fantasia Concertante among the dozen I’ve heard.

Both approaches work, the music is so beautiful and intensely lyrical that it can easily take a wide variety of approaches, slow, fast, in between, the beauty and lyrical intensity of the music always shines. When you compare in the finest details, there is slightly more vehemence and expressiveness with Tippett’s soloists – Yehudi Menuhin, Robert Masters and Derek Simpson – than Marriner’s (Alan Loveday, Karmel Caine and Kenneth Heath). Tippett’s contrapuntal writing in Fantasia Concertante is uniquely dense – driving many of his adversaries in the early days to call him an amateur composer – with his group of three soloists (two violins and cello) and two divided orchestras (with the second assuming, in some parts, the role of “the instruments accompanying from the figured bass”, but in others one equal to the other orchestra). Very rarely on CD do the two orchestras really sound divided as in the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, so that some of the details of that “concerto terzo”, and even some of the part-writing of the “concerto grosso” or first orchestra, must be imagined more than heard. In that respect, HMV’s sonics afford slightly more clarity than Argo’s. Marriner re-recorded Fantasia Concertante in 1982, for ASV, in a collection titled “The English Connexion” (with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Tallis fantasia and Elgar’s Serenade), CD DCA 518 barcode 5011975051824, reissue 743625051827. The sonics are also clearer than Argo’s and let you hear more of the intricacies of Tippett’s part-writing. It is a fine interpretation as well, (but) less extreme and idiosyncratic than Marriner’s previous one.

As befits its name, the Little Suite, comprised of four movements following without break, a Prelude, Fugue, Air and Finale, isn’t major Tippett, because, except in the Finale, it lacks the melodic and rhythmic invention that are typical of the composer at his best. The Finale however is something else, and there the ebullient and passionately lyrical atmospheres of Tippett’s first opera and great statement The Midsummer Marriage are adumbrated. Marriner also re-recorded it in 1995 (same EMI CD as above with the Concerto for Double String Orchestra), in an interpretation overall very similar to his previous one, and where it differs (mainly in the first movement), the 1970 recording is better, because the strings’ articulation is crisper in some essential, quasi-Fanfare passages. Among the versions I’ve heard – to Marriner’s remake, add William Boughton, John Farrer and Richard Hickox – Marriner’s 1970 Argo recording of Little Suite remains the best one.

This disc remains, then, a fine representation of Tippett’s three works for strings, despite – or perhaps even because of – Marriner’s few idiosyncracies of interpretation, and an essential building block in any serious Tippett library, together with the reisue of HMV’s recordings from the early 1960s. TT of 55:48 is LP-tailored and on the short side for a CD, but, for those who wouldn’t want to go for the multi-CD Tippett collections referencesd in the header, Marriner’s recordings have been reissued in 2006 by Australian Eloquence on a single CD (see details in header), with welcome complements, the minuscule and not very significant Fanfare for brass by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (a recording many times reissued on CD on various Philip Jones Brass Ensemble collections) and, more substantial, Colin Davis’ rare 1975 recording of the Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles, originally the filler to his recording of the First Symphony on Philips, never before reissued on CD.

For more Tippett, see my comprehensive discography (link will open new tab to pdf document that you can read online and/or download).

Comments are welcome