Wednesday 24 April 2013

Getting Tippett

Remember when there was a lot of stuff about 'Get Carter' around the time of the BBC's minifestival for that now-late composer? Well, I never have got him and never shall (get him). But slowly and surely I and my City Lit students on the BBC Symphony Orchestra course are getting some of Tippett's orchestral works. We've had to, because that fabulous band has been featuring all four symphonies and the Piano Concerto this season.

It's been a bumpy ride, nothing like as welcome or easy as the Martinů year, which I knew would be exciting before I even began. As for Tippett, we started with the late-ish Triple Concerto, parts of which are undoubtedly extremely beautiful and soundwise very arresting; but the mosaic-like stop-starts and some of the greyer music defeat me.

None of us could find any sort of soft spot for the Third Symphony, with those ludicrous last-movement blues written for a soprano who doesn't really exist (you can see the absurdity in what happened with the choice of soloist for the performance: Wagnerian soprano Susan Bullock was booked, light coloratura - and wonderful singing-actress - Marie Arnet took over). At least Tippett's awkward settings of his own faintly embarrassing texts turned me back to the inspiration - ha! - of Bessie and Louis in 1925.

Head back to before Tippett's 1960s watershed - King Priam is the very last, that's to say only the second, of his operas I can take, which is why I decided we'd cover it during next year's Opera in Focus course - and there, to my ears, are the masterpieces. I came to love the Piano Concerto not just for its luminous, tonally very rooted beauty but also for the logically developing parade of sounds. The interpretation which converted me was Steven Osborne's with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Hyperion.

And there are still those piano sonatas to get to know.

Similarly, how could you not be swept up by the pounding Vivaldi-inspired Cs in the bass, the pulsating horns, the flurrying strings which kick off the Second Symphony?

Here, too, the perfectly imagined parade of sounds somehow develops, above all when the strings, having failed to push forward their bewitching melody at the heart of the second movement, take flight in the finale and propel us to a really satisfying apotheosis.

I've written about the BBCSO's ravishing Barbican performance, also conducted by Brabbins, on the Arts Desk;  what a shame early Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra is so hard to find on CD. Hickox, rhythmically weak, is the only current YouTube contender, and he won't do; try Spotify for LSO/Davis. As for the concert, you have until Friday evening to listen again on the BBC iPlayer. There's a second chance this year to hear the Second Symphony live, at the Proms, where the BBCSO will be conducted by another firm favourite, Oliver Knussen. Addendum (30/4): don't miss a far too rare BBC blog post from the orchestra's sub-principal viola Phil Hall on the last time the players did a Tippett cycle 20 years ago and took two of the works into the recording studio...with hair-raising results brilliantly described.

In the main season, we only have the First to go, and I must look at the Fourth with the score I have here (couldn't get to that performance). But I think it's fair to say that the 1950s, such a grey time with the Darmstadt school holding sway, was Tippett's heyday. There are enough masterpieces from then to put him in the very front row of original thinkers among composers. And he was in danger of vanishing from the concert scene altogether, so bravo to the BBC for making us agnostics partial believers.

With Poulenc, I've needed no persuasion. The Southwark Cathedral Gloria left me wobbly-ecstatic, and I can't wait to hear these forces, radiant soprano Lizzie Watts included, joining others in Gloucester Cathedral as part of the Cheltenham Festival (Fauré's Requiem is the other work on the programme). Again, look at the date: 1960, such an unlikely time for tuneful exuberance outside the world of musical theatre. I'd already been playing over and over Stéphane Denève's sensational new disc with his Stuttgart orchestra of Les Biches - can't get it out of my head - and the Stabat Mater.

That liturgical masterpiece I hardly knew at all, and was hoping the Proms might do something for the 50th anniversary of Poulenc's death. But there's nothing large-scale at all, only the Sextet. Bizarre. In the meantime, don't miss adorable Stéphane's BBCSO concert on Friday: the suite from the La Fontaine-based ballet Les animaux modèles- I'd hope for the whole ballet - with Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges, a desert-island opera which Denève will be certain to do superbly. In the meantime, this is already on my shortlist of the year's best discs.

The Poulenc path led me to a previously unplayed disc of two-piano and chamber works. Perhaps the simplest, but typically affecting, is the Elégie 'a la memoire de Marie-Blanche'. Poulenc's instruction to his pianists in the score is characteristic: 'This Elegy should be played as if you were improvising it, a cigar in your mouth and a glass of cognac on the piano'. Pity the performers here aren't listed, but the fishtank effect is rather fun..

As if the to-be-read pile wasn't big enough already, with post-Sicily literature accumulating by the day, I splashed out at Travis and Emery yesterday on the long out-of-print collection of Poulenc correspondence Echo and Source (Gollancz). I loved what I'd already encountered of the composer in his own words so had to get it. Will report back anon.

The Bach cantata 'pilgrimage' continues to unearth new and original beauties, though I was seriously behind with the Sunday ritual until I caught up by listening to three in a row four days ago.

'Halt im Gedächtnis, Jesum Christ', BWV 67, illustrates the mixture of fear and belief in the resurrected Christ; the first Sunday after Easter is the intriguingly titled Quasimodogeniti. I'll call it 'Doubting Thomas Day', which allows for the magnificent Caravaggio above. I've seen Thomas's finger, you know, in Rome's Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, or so they tell me.

The cantata starts with one of Bach's most intoxicating choral fantasias, typical of the instrumental riches in the composer's first Leipzig year: corno di tirarsi, flute and two oboes d'amore elaborate. There are frightened hiccoughs on 'schreckt' in the tenor aria's phrase 'what frightens me still?', and the real dramatic/operatic novelty is the contrast in No. 4 between the assured bass with woodwind chords proclaiming 'peace be unto you' and the lively strings which assail each of the chorus's combative responses before fading into agreement with the Christ-figure. Let's hope Suzuki's soloists here are better than Gardiner's, my own listening last Sunday.

Second Sunday after Easter is Good Shepherd time - I prefer Samuel Palmer to any representations I found of Christ with lamb -

so cue delicious flowing (9/8, 12/8) pastorals in 'Du Hirte Israel, höre', BWV 104, also from the first Leipzig annus mirabilis 1724 with three appropriately bucolic baroque oboes. The tenor is still tracing graphic 'feeble steps in the desert'; prefaced by four compellingly varied instrumental phrases, the bass raises us to a heavenly kingdom on earth. These are obviously winsome arias, but again wretchedly sung on the only disappointing JEG instalment so far. Here we trust in Harnoncourt's Kurt Equiluz and Philippe Huttenlocher.

The spectacular strikes in 'Ihr werdet weinen und heulen', BWV 103, from the second Leipzig year. Here the post-Easter contrasts of human weakness bolstered by divine assurance are at their most vivid; Christ consoles the disciples with intelligence of the Second Coming (Russian icon depiction below). I'd love to sing in the opening number crowned by a flauto piccolo - our stalwart descant recorder - where the chorus get to deliver chromatic howls and exuberant jubilates. Bass-Christ pops up to declare 'ye shall be sorrowful', to which they answer with yet more expressiveness 'but your sorrow shall be turned to joy'. This is the gist of Brahms's soprano in the German Requiem's 'Ihr hab nun Traurigkeit', another great setting where serenity encompasses sadness.

Here are two more arias that follow querulous human searching with divine response. The alto has the flauto piccolo for company on the journey - with Suzuki, the superb Dan Laurin - while the bass banishes passing worries with the aid of a trumpet, heard for the first time. Irresistible. Let's try Koopman for this one.


Susan Scheid said...

Ask and she shall receive, it seems! There I was, as I'd noted at TAD, trying to "get Tippett" (he's often been recommended, but my past attempts didn't net much), and here you are with Tippett, not to mention another installment of Bach. This is just a quick note now, then, to say I'm really looking forward to reading at more length and shall return. Tonight, Das Rheingold, tomorrow, Walkyie, Monday,Seigfried, then resting up for Götterdämmerung next Thursday.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Sneaking in a read of the May BBC Music Magazine before heading out the door, and I see your recording of the month is Gurzenich Orchestra's Don Quixote. I have Jarvi/Scottish National, which I don't see you mention and wonder how you might compare them (don't feel obliged on this). In any event, I've added this to my wish list, with the hope of maybe even doing a listen to segments side-by-side. I have also discovered I can get BBC Mag podcasts through itunes and I see there is to be a podcast of your DQ pick (not showing up yet here, still on April). Last not least, I have had a chance, albeit fractured, to listen to the BBCSO performance of Tippett's Second Symphony, and am liking what I hear. I've loaded the Colin Davis on Spotify, so look forward to a listen to it when I can spend more focused time. Thanks for all, and I've only begun on this rich post!

David said...

Yes, an overload of listening recommended and YouTubed there, I fear. All this and an entire Ring too - even your energy and enthusiasm, dear Sue, will surely flag at some point. But I have no doubt they will revive by Twilight time.

I love Neeme in just about everything (except Bruckner) and remember interviewing him at the time of that SNO Don Q, which he saw as an 'opera for orchestra' (it is from him that I took the phrase). Bags of character there, a good choice. Tippett Two is another of those pieces, like the Poulenc Gloria, that know how to grab you right at the start - a very important lesson to younger composers (as you know, and Janis Susskind at Boosey's agreed, Dylan Mattingly did just that at the start of Atlas).

Susan Scheid said...

Yes, yes, about the Tippett Two's opening! Must go back and listen to Poulenc Gloria again, but though it's been a long time, I believe I remember the powerful opening there, too--if I'm right, that's a case in point, isn't it? There was a time when the Gloria and the Stabat Mater were top of the CD stack over here. Suspect that could happen again . . . hmmm.

Brief Ring report. This certainly is an opera (well operas!) like no other. A surfeit of stunning singing and a gorgeous performance from the orchestra. (I hope David D, if he looks here, will forgive my poor superlatives.) LePage, however, should get another job. As the friend who went with me said, everyone was made to serve the production, rather than the other way around. During the delicate unfolding with which the opera opens, the apparatus was creaking. Can you imagine? They might as well have piped in some subway noise or had us all turn on our cell phones. And three times, including at the death of one of the giants, some members of the audience laughed out loud. Well, the hour is late, and tomorrow is round 2. Nonetheless, it's a thrill to hear this music live, and performed so beautifully.

David said...

Shame about Lepage - his theatre work was so good (tho' Seven Streams of the River Ota proved self-indulgent) and I liked his Rake. But 'the machine' for this has proved a Frankenstein's monster. Creaking at the bottom of the Rhine indeed!

Susan Scheid said...

So, sorry to fill up your comment area, but breaking news: Schwanewilms is coming to the Met next season, and I have just ordered my tix.

Die Frau ohne Schatten
 11/7; conductor Vladimir Jurowski with Anne Schwanewilms and Torsten Kerl as Empress and Emperor, and Johan Reuter as Barak, Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife. Who knows, maybe you and the Diplo-Mate might hop the Atlantic and join in! Maybe wanderer will find a magic carpet and you can all hitch a ride to the Met!

David said...

Well, no-one else is here, and you're ever welcome. I did know Jurowski was conducting FrOSch at the Met but I don't think I'd clocked Schwanewilms as the Empress. Yes, it's one to travel for. We get it next March at the Royal Opera, but with nothing like as good a conductor (Bychkov) and a very mixed cast.

Susan Scheid said...

Ring Report (Walkure): Well, the music is glorious, just glorious, and the orchestra and singing tonight was stellar. I wonder if you have run across Martina Serafin (she is our Sieglinde in her Met debut and will sing the Marschallin next season). We thought her magnificent, though everyone gave their all, and what a wonderful all it was! Monday is Siegfried.

David said...

Yes, I saw Serafin as the Marschallin in Vienna - gorgeous in every way, reminded me a bit of Regine Crespin (who also sang Sieglinde). She has done, and will be doing, some Toscas at the Royal Opera.

Cross your fingers that you've got a Siegfried who can cut the mustard. Your Brunnhilde, I think I read, is Dalayman, right, and nowadays there's no better Wotan than Bryn.

Susan Scheid said...

So, I bet you thought you'd seen the last of me here, but here I am, now listening to the Poulenc Elegie. You have to love it just for the instruction in the score, which, based on what I'm hearing, seems just right. I don't have ears left to do the Bach justice, but at least I've had a taste of each—I love that flauto piccolo (is this the proper name for piccolo, or distinct?)—in the last. How wonderful it would be to have your Cantata commentaries as liner notes to a set of discs.

I've also been continuing to think on pieces that "grab you from the start," including as I listen to The Ring (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre are pretty much polar opposites in the way they start, don’t you think?). It would be interesting to put together listening lists of pieces like your "darkness to light" list, each containing pieces with, for lack of a more sensible way to put it, Rheingold-like and Walküre-like beginnings. In this regard, I think of Lembit Beecher's lovely oratorio And Then I Remember on the Rheingold end and Mattingly's Atlas on the other end, yet both, it seems to me, anyway, beautifully realized. For that matter, in a further sign of Mattingly's imaginative range, the piece he wrote for the Berkeley Symphony, Invisible Skyline, starts out on the Rheingold end of the spectrum and builds from there to create another, to my ears, gorgeous whole. I don't know what to conclude from this about what makes a piece “work,” but I can see it’s yet another interesting listening project for my endless list.

David said...

I suppose you're saying that the low E flat of Rheingold doesn't so much grab as compel - that it's a quiet start that's still original. Walkure, in short, is the only Ring intro that bursts upon us (maybe the chord for Twilight does too).

Immediately springing to mind are the earthquake at the beginning of Nielsen's Fourth Symphony and the weird oscillations which launch his Fifth; or the brilliance of Strauss's Don Juan and the rustling night of An Alpine Symphony; the thrusting horns of Rosenkavalier and the solo oboe of gorgeous Daphne. Puccini usually starts with throat-grabbers but Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica are just gentle scene-setters. Usw usw

David Damant said...

How far is what grabs you straight away due to the fact that you know what is to come?

What about the cords at the beginning of the overture to Don Giovanni? Gosh.

The opposite.......Zadok the Priest. Even if you know, you can be lulled into non-expectation by the long build up ....What an impact in a coronation, when most of those present will NOT know what is about to arrive and probably start looking around to see the sights....and then

David said...

The 'what's to come' is, I hope, irrelevant, though perhaps difficult to be sure after so many hearings. But surely Zadok encourages expectation by the chord progressions, a kind of inaudible crescendo to the main event when the choir comes in. If Handel repeated the first four arpeggios over and over again, well, that would be dull (= P Glass, where they would probably take 15 minutes to shift perceptibly).

Susan Scheid said...

Compel vs. grab. I like that distinction very much. As for the “what’s to come” issue, going back to new pieces, David N, your comment has usually been in the context of predictability vs. originality, right? That is, as I understood it, if the start has certain features, chances are very high the piece will follow a predictable path. Perhaps the source of your reaction to Judd Greenstein’s Acadia (which I’ll have to say, I’ve just revisited, and continue to like very much)?

Anyway, this now becomes even more fascinating (to me, anyway). I mention a playlist, and both you Davids start ticking off contenders! So, here are three each from me:

Rheingold-ish beginnings:

>Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
>Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time
>Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur

Walküre-ish beginnings:

>Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem
>Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony
>Adams’s Harmonielehre

I put together Spotify playlists called “Beginnings-Rheingold-ish” and “Beginnings-Walküre-ish” that include most of the examples we each named (I think, anyway), and a couple more so as to have at least one from each composer named in each category. They can be found, if I’ve done this correctly, here and here

David said...

Well, I never knew you could wield Spotify so effectively. To be frank, it is currently the bane of my logging-on life as I can't stop it popping up, so I am VERY cross with my lord Spotify.

But this is a good game if you take a great composer and find one outstanding example of each type. Otherwise we could be here 365/365...