Since the death earlier this year of Sir Michael Tippett (with William Walton and Benjamin Britten, one of England's mighty three), record companies will be scurrying to release boxed sets of his works. This is one of the first and it is a good one. Aside from the curious exclusion of chamber music pieces (except for The Blue Guitar), it is also fairly representative.
There are too many works in this ambitious four-disc set to give detailed evaluations. Here are a few highlights and low points.
Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Little Music for Strings – These three show Tippett's neo-classical side: they prove he not only loved the old forms, but could wring passable rhythms and usable melodies out of them. Radio announcers take heed! The non-disruptive counterpoint and reassuring repeats make these pieces ideal drive-time programming.
Triple Concerto for Violin, Viola, Cello and Orchestra – An edgy, disturbing work. At first hearing, it's hard to tell what scary psychological state Tippett was in when he wrote it. There's lots of anxiety and rattling at the cage of life. Not a pretty piece, but hard to turn off. What will it reveal next?
Piano Concerto – Tippett claimed he set out to create a concerto in which "the piano may sing." It does in this gentle, romantic work, which he conducts with competent skill.
Disc Two (Choral Works) – Because of their opaque themes and ragged transitions, Tippett's choral works demand patience and repeated listening to absorb their effects. Some fall short of their intentions. For example, the motets and madrigals are conservative and uninventive, although they are adequately performed here. Crown of the Year has complex structures and clever quotes from traditional sources, yet craves a firm center and a performance with oomph. In contrast, the lively a cappella arrangement of the Five Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time succeeds. Too bad Nimbus didn't include the texts to any of these pieces.
Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles – Wonderful hack work. Full of brassy fanfares, clashing cymbals, tintinnabulating bells, nostalgia for the old days, and other aural trinkets the royalty loves. One would hope Sir Michael composed it with a wry smile on his face.
The Blue Guitar – Based on the surreal Wallace Stevens poem about the creative process ("Things as they are/Are changed upon the Blue Guitar."), this work evokes the half-formed sonorities of dreams, their sparkling rapidity, seductive power, and inconclusiveness. Like the bent man in Picasso's The Old Guitarist, Craig Ogden plays with restraint and wispy resignation.
Copyright © 1999, Peter Bates