Tippett The Mask of Time

Author: 
Michael Oliver
TIPPETT The Mask of Time

TIPPETT The Mask of Time

  • (The) Mask of Time

The Mask of Time is Tippett's biggest work so far, and the problems it presents to a recording producer are formidable: complex and closely-set ensembles in which both chorus and soloists must be audible, an all-too-coagulable electric organ, blindingly brilliant high brass, an exuberant use of percussion (of which the bashing of brake-drums with a couple of coke-hammers is only the most conspicuous example: it sounds like a gargantuan xylophone)—all these are juxtaposed with chamber textures of luminous beauty and delicacy that could very easily be distorted by any attempt to compensate for their relative lack of decibels. I cannot imagine the problems being better solved than they are by this outstandingly successful recording: the rendering of voices is splendidly direct and natural, any discreet help that the final section may have needed to clarify the soloists' contributions is unobtrusive, the alluring strangeness of Tippett's orchestral palette is engrossingly conveyed without ever robbing the chorus of satisfying impact. The recorded sound, in short, has the measure of the work's stature.
That stature is implicit from the very beginning (a memorable choral image of the creation of sound), but it first becomes fully evident in the fourth movement (''The ice-cap moves South-North''), a huge choral double scherzo of marvellously sustained invention. This combines impressive technical resource with the sort of naivete that can reach areas that sophistication cannot: the first part of the movement, an exhilarating evocation of man the hunter, concludes with an onomatopoeic percussion interlude (to describe a stampede of buffalo); the second, in which mankind learns agriculture and religion, unaffectedly quotes both Handel and Beethoven within its first few bars and ends with the dawning of a magnificent sun (choir and brass so vivid that you shield your eyes). Balancing this in the second half of the piece is another scherzo, also double, but this time a fearsome one. Shelley's vision of human life as a triumphant but terrifying juggernaut is set as a Berliozian Lacrimosa, careering along over a lumbering ostinato, drums and brass adding elements of Tuba mirum and Dies irae. Shelley's death at sea is then described in a scudding, headlong storm-piece of reeling impetus, but both sections of the movement salvage images of permanence from the wreckage: a choral shout of ''Life!'' and a calm contemplation of the poet's immortality.
Such contradictions are at the very heart of The Mask of Time: the 'paradise garden' scene that lies between the two scherzos mingles radiantly Purcellian evocations of Milton and a sort of blues-madrigal with some of Tippett's most engagingly daft dialogue. Soaring towers (the ululatory 'endless singing' of the finale, the movingly plangent Akhmatova setting in the eighth movement) are set alongside cunningly crafted lapidary work (the three chorale preludes and three alchemical invocations that make up the seventh), and for such moments as these I am more than willing to pay the price of a few botched details: Tippett has never been a composer of flawless masterpieces. He needed this towering structure in order to support the sheer size of the images he was creating; they contain some of his most masterly music and provide abundant evidence that his imaginative grasp is still expanding. Who could complain that some elements of the structure are a bit rickety?
The performance is a marvellous one, distinguished especially by choral singing of breathtaking assurance and by the fervour and grip of Andrew Davis's direction; the soloists are all better than good and the orchestral playing is virtuoso. A performance worthy of the music, indeed: high praise.'

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