Michael Tippett: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3. Nicholas Unwin. Chandos 9468 (1996), barcode 095115946824
Recorded 8 & 9 August 1995 at the Faculty of Music Concert Hall, Cambridge
Fine readings of these masterpieces, which must be complemented with the pianist’s recording of the Fourth on another label
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 26 December 2013
I’ve spent many hours with Michael Tippett’s four Piano Sonatas and they constitute a great and highly original body of works. I refer the reader to my review of Paul Crossley’s traversal of the four on CRD for a general presentation of the works, including a not-to-be-missed revelation about the “mystery chord” contained in the slow movement of the Third Sonata.
Tippett’s Sonatas of have been well-served on disc in the stereo and digital era, by John Ogdon (the first two, best found on EMI’s 2-CD reissue of great Tippett recordings of the 1960s on 7 63522 2), Paul Crossley in 1985 (see link above), Murray Perahia (the first, on Sony’s 4-CD set “Murray Perahia: 25th Anniversary Edition”), Steven Neugarten (the second, on Metier, with works of Sackman, Saxton and Connolly), and, more recently (2007), Steven Osborne on Hyperion (I am less satisfied with Peter Donohoe on Naxos, and with the trudging Graham Caskie on Metier in the Third), and Unwin serves them well, with a fine combination of power and subtle atmosphere, and no particular quirk of phrasing or articulation or tempo like those one can note in the recordings of Ogdon or Crossley. In some minuscule details I may prefer other versions (in the second Sonata for instance, the drum-like roll of thematic block 5 – see my presentation of the Sonata in my review of Crossley’s recording to know what that refers to – first heard at 0:48 isn’t quite dry and biting enough), but these are really minuscule details that don’t diminish in the least the excellence of this recording. Unwin’s first movement of the Third Sonata is the most urgent among all the competition but, although it deprives the dreamy moments of some dreaminess, it is perfectly in situation in this overall furiously pounding movement. His approach of the slow movement is also urgent (compare his 11:28 there to Crossley’s 12:19 or Osborne’s 14:15, to say nothing of Caskie’s 15:10) and relatively “objective”, he doesn’t try to “milk” the mysterious atmospheres, and I find it just as well, it lends a feel almost of abstraction to the music that I find perfectly appropriate.
The only drawback of Unwin, as well as of Donohoe on Naxos, is that a CD won’t fit all four sonatas, and they offer only the first three. Paul Crossley on CRD has the four, but then each CD is relatively short, 45 and 49 minutes. So, if price isn’t an impediment, the recent version by Steven Osborne on Hyperion is the most complete and the version of choice: it comes on two CDs, but with the complement of Tippett’s Piano Concerto and Fantasia on a Theme of Handel for piano and orchestra – and the interpretation is uniformly great. But Unwin DID record the 4th Sonata, albeit on another label, Metier, and it is also an option, if not as coherent as with Osborne, to complete this Chandos CD with Unwin’s Metier recital, with the bonus of two remarkable British contemporary piano works, Robert Saxton’s 1981 Piano Sonata and Colin Matthews’ extraordinary Studies in Velocity, plus Constant Lambert’s short and affecting Elegy from 1938.
For more Tippett, see my comprehensive discography (link will open new tab to pdf document that you can read online and/or download).