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.