Tippett: Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: BBC SO/Michael Tippett
Tippett’s music has never been the kind that ‘plays itself’. It always needs committed and understanding performance from fine musicians, and that’s exactly what these two discs celebrate. First Tippett himself: his octogenarian conducting of Symphonies Nos 2 and 4 started life as a cover CD with this magazine in 1995, but it richly deserves bringing into general circulation. Some of his tempos may be slower than ideal and there may be occasional uncertainties of ensemble, but these are rich, glowing, utterly convincing performances. No. 2 is warmer, its first movement weightier, than Colin Davis’s classic account on Decca. As for No. 4, which many commentators found rather underwhelming at its first appearance under Solti, this is the performance – the one performance – in which its fresco-like single movement (wind-machine, Gibbons quotation, recorded breathing and all) makes something like complete sense.Then the anthology of premiere recordings, which is truly historic. Phyllis Sellick’s 1941 promotional discs (clicks and pops and all) of Piano Sonata No. 1 (then called Fantasy Sonata) are light, airy and beautifully sensitive in approach, representing a near-vanished piano style in which the player almost never attacks the keys but strokes and caresses the sound from them, limpid and clear. Walter Goehr’s 1943 recording of the Double Concerto – co-produced by Benjamin Britten while Tippett was in prison as a conscientious objector – seems to use only a small number of players, but has a gripping intensity; the solos in the slow movement are exquisitely played. The Zorian Quartet’s 1947 interpretation of the Second Quartet is marvellously flexible and rhythmically pointed, and the utter emotional focus of their second-movement fugue has never been bettered. As a bonus, the first-ever recording of Tallis’s 40-part Spem in alium, conducted by Tippett with the Morley Choir in 1948 – a glowing, lyrical account despite spots of insecure intonation. NMC’s presentation of these discs is impeccable. Martin Cotton’s reminiscences of recording the symphonies disc are charming; Anthony Burton’s notes for the other disc add up to a substantial and fascinating essay on early Tippett recordings. Calum MacDonald