Tippett at Wigmore Hall

The British composer's music glowed in this superb showcase of his later works

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There’s nothing like a year of Britten immersion to sharpen the appetite for Tippett. They are surely the yin and yang of British 20th-century music: while Britten delivered his ultimately tragic vision with crystalline assurance, Tippett offers prolix, labyrinthine works lit with optimism.

I can’t imagine a better re-introduction to the composer than Wigmore Hall’s no-expense-spared retrospective, of which this was the third concert. Featuring Steven Osborne, Craig Ogden, Mark Padmore and the Heath Quartet, it provided an exquisite distillation of the composer’s art from 1961-84. It proved a time of honing and refining.

Craig Ogden began with The Blue Guitar (1982-3), inspired by Wallace Stevens’s poem on Picasso’s painting The Old Guitarist. The myriad textures of its virtuosic first movement 'Transforming' ('Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar') dispel all clichéd guitar tropes with intriguing polyphony, slinking octaves and naive descending fourths which stop time. The scherzo-like 'Juggling' features spider-quick intricacies and percussive drumming while the warmly resonant suspended chords and questing recitative of 'Dreaming' make for a characteristically Tippettian ‘open end’.

Steven Osborne then plunged into the composer’s next piece, the Fourth Piano Sonata (1983-4), originally a set of five bagatelles that grew into his longest sonata, a grand experiment in sonority and resonance. Osborne has made brilliant recordings of all the Sonatas, and his command is gripping: the depth of tone and sense of space he achieved in the opening movement were matched by the sheer drama of its hammered fanfares and glittering high chords.

He drew an inexorable narrative thread through the complex central movement, based on the opening of the Fourth Symphony, before exploding into the dazzling virtuosic jive of the fourth movement. Again, the finale takes us into infinite space, repeated notes echoing onwards, swirling quavers rising like smoke; Osborne held a rapt audience in silence long after its end.

The Songs of Achilles for tenor and guitar were a spin-off from Tippett’s great pacifist opera King Priam (opening at the Linbury Studio, London, 13 February, returns only). Mark Padmore, in particularly pure voice, created a wonderfully sinuous, sensual opening, and brought an arresting edge to the second song’s narrative with its fierce, melismatic ululations, followed by a sudden small, still voice ‘Why so still now on the plain?’ He brought a poignant simplicity to the final song, in contrast to Ogden’s complex, tripping lines. Three short songs, but a long distance travelled.

Tippett’s String Quartets are woefully neglected, so one can only hope that the young Heath Quartet have more opportunities to play them if this performance of the Fourth is anything to go by (they play No. 2 on 16 March). Despite the dire warning of the programme note that this ‘grotesque’ work had to be ‘experienced rather than analysed’, the Heath revealed a wonderfully clear, spirited quartet, driven by febrile energy, its gestures familiar, its dense, rich harmonies gloriously indefinable. Cellist Christopher Murray shone in the lyric slow movement and the group found the instructed ‘radiant sound’ in a triumphant finale. How good to be reminded by Tippett that the sun is – somewhere – still shining.

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