“Remembering Tippett”: Fantasy-Sonata (Phyllis Sellick), Concerto for Double String Orchestra (Walter Goehr), String Quartet No. 2 (Zorian Quartet), Tallis: Spem in alium (Morley College Choir). NMC D103 (2005)

“Remembering Tippett”: Fantasy-Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 1) (Phyllis Sellick 1941), Concerto for Double String Orchestra (Orchestra, Walter Goehr 1943), String Quartet No. 2 (Zorian Quartet 1947), Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium (Morley College Choir, Michael Tippett 1948). NMC Archive Series D103 (2005), barcode 5023363010320



Sonata: recorded 1941
Concerto: recorded summer 1943 at Levy’s Sound Studio, London
String Quartet recorded 18-20 December 1947 at the Decca West Hampstead Studios, London

The earliest recordings of music of Michael Tippett
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 8 February 2014

An important reissue of very early historical recordings of the music of Michael Tippett – in fact, they are the very premiere recordings of any music of the composer. Tippett was a late blossomer in composition: his first major outing was his first String Quartet, completed in 1935 when he was 30, and published only in 1946 afer major revisions made three years earlier and after completion of his Second String Quartet (a first movement substituting to the original first two). His second major work was the first Piano Sonata, begun in 1936 and completed two years later (and originally called “Fantasy-Sonata”), which got its first “publication” in 1941 in the form of a semi-private recording made for a record retailer, Rimington-Van Wyck, principally for promotional purposes, with the same pianist who had premiered it in November 1938, Phyllis Sellick (in gratitude Tippett dedicated to her his 1941 Fantasia on a Theme of Handel for piano and orchestra). This is the recording here reissued. The next recording of a Tippett work – again a semi-private one, mounted by Tippett’s publisher Schott – was of his Concerto for Double String Orchestra from 1939 by an unnamed pickup orchestra led by early Tippett champion Walter Goehr, a recording made in 1943 and supervised by Britten since Tippett, then detained for refusing conscription, could not attend. It is listed in the World’s Encyclopedia of Recorded Music as “Levy 659/64 (Schott 1/3)”, Levy being the name of the recording studio. Goehr re-recorded it for HMV in 1952, a recording which has not been reissued on CD (but it can be heard on YouTube and is available on download from some websites including iTunes). The Second Quartet was completed in 1942 and published two years later, and recorded in December 1947 for Decca – the first commercial recording of a work of Tippett – by the same Zorian Quartet that had premiered it and the revised version of the First. According to the liner notes the Zorian Quartet had already gone to the Decca studios to record the piece in June 1945, but for some reason it was never released. The Zorian Quartet was named after its first seat and founder Olive Zorian, and disbanded two years later. It had also done a recording of Britten’s 2nd Quartet in those days for HMV – it would have made a perfect pairing with Tippett’s on LP, but none of those recordings were ever reissued on LP, and to the best of my knowledge the Zorian’s Britten remains un-reissued commercially, although it is available on free download from CHARM, the Center for History and Analysis of Recorded Music.

The very thorough liner notes come up with a bag of comparisons and possible influences on Tippett’s First Piano Sonata: Scarlatti (here an influence recognized by the composer himself, inasmuch as “the music is percussive enough to make us fully aware of the fingers on the keyboard and the hammers at the strings” – lines drawn from the liner notes to the EMI recording by John Ogdon, along with other great EMI recordings from the 1960s), Beethoven, Stravinsky, Janacek, Bartok and even (from reviews published when the Sellick recording came out) Hindemith and Poulenc. Anyone else?

I don’t buy that at all. What makes Tippett’s First a remarkable work, if not yet as uniquely and unmistakably “Tippettian” as the composer’s later works, is how FREE of influences and reminiscences and how already entirely personal it is. 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 (with the fifth inspired by Gamelan music, which Tippett had heard on 78s records) 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. If you think of Stravinsky’s neo-classical piano works, the Stravinsky comparison is OK, but only inasmuch as you equate “Stravinsky” and “entirely original in its language, following no other model that its own”.

Until John Ogdon recorded it in 1966, the first Sonata had been ladies’ keep: after Sellick came another great champion of Tippett’s music (and dedicatee of his 2nd Sonata, which alas she never recorded), Margaret Kitchin, reissued on a Lyrita CD (with a fine Sonata by Scottish composer Iain Hamilton and less interesting pieces by William Wordsworth). The comparison is interesting. Sellick is more fleet and whimsical, less lyrical than Kitchin in her rendition of the opening theme, but not as crisp and clear either in her articulation of the wonderfully whimsical first variation at 0:54 or the scherzando fourth variation at 3:56, and (78s sonics “helping”) not as powerful in the 5th Variation, the famous gamelan-inspired part. But her recording is interesting also for being the only trace left of Tippett’s original conception, when the Sonata was still called “Fantasy-Sonata”; he later cut small bits in that Gamelan variation. They happen between 5:20 and 5:33 (where Tippett repeated the gamelan-theme in the upper registers, and I find that he could have kept that passage) and 5:04 and 5:51, where suddenly the music awkwardy ground to a halt in decorative tremolos.

In the other movements Sellick’s and Kitchin’s choices of tempi are very similar. Rathter than (like Ogdon) playing up the Beethovenian reminiscences and pounding power of the bouncing scherzo, Sellick plays it with a lighter and more gentle touch and a more choreographic allure, making it sound almost decorative, but I find that it is perfectly appropriate.

Sonics are 78s with surface noise, piano sounds somewhat tubby, and there’s an awkward side joint in the first movement at 3:58, where the surface noise suddenly becomes much stronger. For sonic and interpretive reasons Kitchin is preferable, but both ladies represent a definite yardstick in Tippettian interpretation, one that is arguably closer to the composer’s original conception than Ogdon’s massive pounding throughout. Naturally the historical nature of these recordings, especially Sellick’s, limits them to the diehard Tippett collectors. The near-definitive interpretation of Tippett’s Four Sonatas in digital stereo has been given by Steven Osborne on Hyperion, alongside the Piano Concerto and Fantasia on a Theme of Handel.

Tippett’s first three String Quartets (the Third was written in 1946) are marked by the Beethovenian model that so enthralled the composer in those years and you can hear the influence, but in the Second more than in the First, Tippett’s original voice can also be clearly recognized, especially in the first movement, full of gentle grace, with great melodic appeal and Tippett’s typical subtle rhythmic ambiguity, by which bars in 2/4 time signature are filled with irregular rhythmic goupings alternating between 1/4 and 3/8 pulse that defy the bar line, and in the irregular meters of the third, an exhilarating dance that could have been written by a Central-European composer, not pounding and gritty enough for Bartok, but Kodaly or Martinu, evoking even Brahms at his most Gipsy. The second movement is a gloomy Fugue (the theme was conceived in 1938, at the time of the infamous Munich accord by which the Democracies gave away Czechoslovakia to Hitler against the hope for peace – we know the outcome of that -, although Tippett the pacifist and conscientious objector must have rejoiced at it) that sounds like a slightly modernized shard from Bach’s Art of the Fugue and evokes echoes of the first movement from Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (heard on the radio in January 1938 and also an influence on the Concerto for Double String Orchestra), and the Finale is brash, rhythmic and syncopated, very similar in concept and atmosphere to the Finale of the First Piano Sonata – but without the ragtime/hop-scotch, and with a few striking lyrical lines as well.

It is impressive how much the Zorian Quartet is on top of the music. Sure the sonics are what they are and somewhat muffled and there was space for vast improvement on that front, and the Britten Quartet, recorded in 1991 by Collins Classics (on the two-CD set 70062, barcode 5012106700628, see entry on Discogs.com) and the best version I’ve heard, found more in Tippett’s articulation marks. But the style, the atmosphere, all is there already in 1947. And how at ease and dashing the Zorians are in the irregular meters of the third movement is phenomenal. One peculiarity, though, of their interpretation, is their very slow tempo in the Fugue (2nd movement), much slower than Tippett’s metronome mark (63 quarter-notes/mn vs the score’s circa 72), adding much to the sense of gloom. And that established something of a tradition, since the Amadeus Quartet in 1956 (see link at the end) took it even slower (60), and the Lindsay Quartet in 1973 (Quartets Nos. 1-3 on Decca 425 645-2 barcode 028942564527), slower still (54). One had to wait 1990 and the afore-mentioned Britten Quartet to hear it played as Tippett had written it. One supposes that this choice of a slow tempo resulted from discussions with the composer and had his agreement, since all those ensembles worked so closely with him. Yet, I prefer the swifter approach. It detracts nothing of the sense of bleak burden, but adds a dogged assertiveness, as if trudging on in spite of everyting.

The 1939 Concerto for double string orchestra was, with his oratorio A Child of Our Time (premiered in 1944), the work that really put Tippet on the map and revealed him as a British composer to be reckoned with, one that easily measured up in a tradition of string writing represented by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Tippett’s younger by seven years but the young prodigy, Benjamin Britten. In itself, due to its confidential distribution, this promotional recording had a limited impact, but, together with the favorable review it received in The Gramophone, it did convince the London Philharmonic to program the premiere of A Child of Our Time.

Of course the technical conditions of the 78s mono recording can’t do justice to the mandatory stereo separation of the two orchestras. Here, the impression is more of a concerto for an orchestra of violins and one of basses. One had to wait 1962 and the recording made for HMV by the combined and Iron-Curtain-crossing forces of Rudolf Barhai’s Moscow Chamber Orchestra and Menuhin’s Bath Festival Orchestra to hear a recording of the Concerto as it should sound (on the same two-CD set as John Ogdon’s recordings of the first two Piano Sonatas and Piano Concerto referenced above). NMC also seems to have applied excessive filtering here, resulting in a string tone that occasionally sounds, expecially in the softer passages of the slow movement, with the typical and typically disagreable feeling of dessication and wobbling, or as music heard underwater. Nonetheless, Goehr and the unnamed orchestra are admirably on top of the music, whose radiant beauty comes through. The outer movements are taken with an urgency and rhythmic thrust that all but disappeared from the interpretive dashboard in the 1970s – still there with Barshai in 1962 (conducting the combined forces of his Moscow Chamber Orchestra and Menuhin’s Bath Festival Orchestra, reissued on the indispensable twofer  with other great EMI Tippett recordings from the 1960s including John Ogdon’s first two Piano Sonatas and Piano Concerto, see link above), but gone with Neville Marriner in 1970, and never again encountered, not even with Barshai when he re-recorded it in 1984 with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (on EMI CDC 7 47330 2 with the Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage, barcode 077774733021), not with Tippett at the helm of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1987 (on Virgin Classics VC 7 90701-2), both disappointingly ponderous and slack – and it’s been a great loss. The slow movement did leave space for the more spacious and brooding approach of Marriner, although Goehr is here absolutely within the score’s metronome indication and there is much to be said in favor of the searing intensity rather than plangent meditativeness that the approach brings to the music.

Cherry on the cake, NMC’s reissue ends with another important historical recording: the premiere ever of Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in alium, conducted by Tippett in 1948 with his Morley Choir, at the invitation of no less than Walter Legge (the famous EMI producer and “Mr Elizabeth Schwarzkopf”). TT 75:16, extensive liner notes, giving loads of information about the circumstances of the composition and recordings and the performers – a model. Given the sonic limitations of all those recordings the casual Tippett listener may stand aloof, but it is an indispensable purchase for the serious Tippett fan (supposing there are any of those left besides myself), together with EMI’s compilations of their early Tippett recordings from the 1950s (EMI British Composers 5 85150 2 with three song cycles sung by Peter Pears and the Amadeus Quartet’s 1954 recording of Tippett’s Second Quartet and Mátyás Seiber’s Third) and 1960s (see link above).

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