Tippett conducts Tippett

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Tippett conducts Tippett

  • Concerto for Double String Orchestra
  • Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli
  • Songs for Dov
  • Concerto for Double String Orchestra
  • Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli
  • Songs for Dov

When a composer performs his own works it isn't so much his contradictions of his own instructions that are fascinating (for the record Tippett takes the Adagio of his Concerto a good deal slower and more freely than his own metronome marking but nevertheless seems to keep it moving much more restlessly than most conductors; by contrast the outer movements are weightier and slower than usual) as the priorities that he insists on. In both the pieces for strings it is the bite and rich graininess of multiply-divided textures that he is at pains to draw out, much more than the sensuous beauty, the kinship to Elgar and Vaughan Williams, that made Marriner's Argo recording so famous. In the Corelli Fantasia those ecstatic high string figures are treated much more as densely florid ornaments than as melodies to be caressed and savoured; I was very much reminded of the bewilderingly tumultuous impression that the work made when it was new. Indeed, I have heard very few performances of it since then that have made it so obvious that Tippett's intransigent 'second period', culminating in the apparent new departure of the opera King Priam, had already begun. Other conductors have tried to clarify the Fantasia's three layers (solo trio and two orchestras); he loves their complexity and their profusion, their Grosse Fuge-like challenges to the players (and the devil take the hindmost—not that there are any laggards here). Both string works sound craggier than usual, partly because the forces used are not large (six violins to each part in the Concerto, three in the Fantasia), mainly because Tippett is so obviously keener on urgency and power than on pastoral echoes.
In the Songs for Dov, familiar until now in only one previous (and very beautiful) recording (Tear/ London Sinfonietta/Atherton—Argo ZRG703, 5/73—nla), Tippett's own account is almost a reinterpretation, and a compelling one. The solo voice is now much more part of the instrumental texture, to the extent that one can hear more of the work—I had honestly not noticed, for example the very conspicuous quotation from Der fliegende Hollander that occurs three times in the second song. Nigel Robson is as flexible and resourceful a soloist (his howlings and barkings even more abandoned) as his predecessor Robert Tear: an enthralling performance.
This isn't the only way to perform this music, of course (I shan't part with Marriner's lovely readings or with Tear's elegant vocalism in a hurry), but Tippett conducts his own works with a huge vitality that makes them seem new again, and full of interpretative possibilities. The recording is rich and vivid, with a commendably clear placement of antiphonal voices.
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