TIPPETT: Piano Concerto / Ritual Dances (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Benjamin Frith/ George Hurst) (Naxos: 8.553591)
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Michael Tippett (1905-1998)
Ritual Dances from TheMidsummer Marriage
Michael Tippett was born in London on 2ndJanuary, 1905, the second son of Henry William Tippett (a retired lawyer) andIsabel Clementina Binny Kemp, Tippett's father was of Cornish origin, hismother from Kent. He studied for his BMus degree at the Royal College of Musicbetween 1923 and 1928, composition with Charles Wood and C. H. Kitson, pianowith Aubin Raymar and conducting with Malcolm Sargent and Adrian Boult.
His creative maturity came relatively late (hedestroyed all of his early works), with his first acknowledged works being the String Quartet No.1 (1934-35, revised1943) and Piano Sonata No.1(1936- 37), this after a further period of study at the Royal College of Music underR.O. Morris. It was not until the premiere of his oratorio A Child of Our Time (1939-41) on 19thMarch, 1944, that Tippett's name became known to the general music public.
By this time he was Director of Music atMorley College (a position once held by Gustav Holst), a post he held from 1940to 1951. Under Tippett's direction Morley College became one of London's mostimportant centres of musical activity. As well as directing the College choirhe also organised many ground breaking concerts of both early and contemporarymusic, including Tallis, Purcell (thus helping to instigate the revival ofinterest in Purcell's music), Monteverdi, Stravinsky, Hindemith and Britten.
These concerts featured such future stars as Peter Pears, Alfred Deller and theAmadeus Quartet.
The year before the premiere of A Child of Our Time, 1943, had been adifficult one for Tippett. In 1940 he had joined the pacifist organization, thePeace Pledge Union, and had applied for provisional registration as a conscientiousobjector. When he refused to comply with the conditions of his non-combatantmilitary duties, arguing that he was serving the community as a musician, hewas sentenced to the minimum term of three months' imprisonment in Woffi1woodScrubs.
From 1951 onwards Tippett was able to give upteaching to concentrate entirely on composition, supplementing his income bybroadcasting for the BBC's Third Programme.
Tippett's operas formed the backbone of hismature works: The Midsummer Marriage (1947-52),King Priam (1958-61), The Knot Garden (1966-70), The Ice Break (1973-76) and New Year (1986-88). His other worksinclude four symphonies, five string quartets and three concertos. Thanks inpart to recordings of his music, his international profile (particularly in theUSA) started to grow from his sixties onwards. Several major commissions camefrom America, such as the Fourth Symphony (1976-77) for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, TheMask of Time (1980-82) for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Byzantium (1989-90) again for the ChicagoSymphony Orchestra and Carnegie Hall.
Throughout his career Tippett was therecipient of many honours, including a CBE (1959), a knighthood (1966), aCompanion of Honour (1979) and finally the Order of Merit (1983). Other awardsincluded the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society and honorarymembership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Michael Tippett died on8th January, 1998, one of only a handful of composers this century to achieveboth high public and critical acclaim.
Having completed his First Symphony in 1945, Tippett then spentthe next six years grappling with the problems of writing his first opera: theresult was The Midsummer Marriage, producedat Covent Garden in January 1955. The libretto, written by Tippett himself,concerns the problems faced by two pairs of lovers, Mark and Jenifer, and Jackand Bella, that have to be overcome before they can marry. It was at thesuggestion of the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher that Tippett turned the four Ritual Dances from Acts II and III of the opera into a concert suite. Sacher conducted thesuite's premiere on 13th February, 1953, in Basle, a full two years before theopera itself received its premiere. They have subsequently become one ofTippett's best-known works.
In the three dances in Act II, female animals (hound. otter andhawk) are shown hunting males (hare, fish and bird), with each respective danceassociated with its own element and season (TheEarth in Autumn; The Waters in Winter; The Air in Spring). Theclimactic fourth dance in Act III, Fire inSummer, symbolizes rebirth and human love, and is performed beforeMark and Jenifer and the Chorus.
The sequence of the dances is as follows. Allegro molta opening, slow movement (Adagio tranquillo),scherzo (Allegrograzioso vivace)andfinale (Pi?? mosso: allegro moderato),whilst the tonality shifts from A minor to the final triumphant A major by wayof E flat minor and D major.
Written between 1953 and 1955, the Piano Concerto shares severalcharacteristics with The Midsummer Marriage,notably its lyricism and the importance, both melodically andharmonically, of the interval of a fourth. It was first performed in Birminghamon 30th October, 1956 by Louis Kentner and the City of Birmingham SymphonyOrchestra, conducted by Rudolf Schwarz. Somewhat disconcertingly, the originalsoloist, Julius Katchen, considered the solo part unplayable and pulled out.
(This calls to mind a remark attributed to the composer Arnold Schoenberg uponbeing told that his Violin Concerto requireda soloist with six fingers. 'Very well, I can wait'). In fact the replacement,Kentner, was able to perform the work from memory.
Tippett stated that the Piano Concerto 'proceeds directly out ofthe world of The Midsummer Marriage. Themusic is rich, linear, lyrical, as in that opera. But it had its precise momentof conception years before when listening to a rehearsal of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto as played byGieseking on his return to England after the war'.
Formally the concerto follows a traditionalpattern: the first movement (Allegro nontroppo)is in sonataform, whilst the third movement (Vivace)is a rondowhich, unusually, gives the main theme to the orchestra rather thanto the soloist. Instead the soloist introduces each new episode that comesbetween the repetitions of the orchestral rondo.
The form of the central slow movement (Molto lento e tranquillo)is decidedly less classical and essentially rhapsodic in character.
Tippett's stated intention when composing the Piano Concerto was to make the piano sing- when one listens to the work, and to the slow movement's arabesques inparticular, one appreciates that he has succeeded brilliantly.
Benjamin Frith has had a distinguished career.
A pupil of Fanny Waterman, he won, at the age of fourteen, the British NationalConcerto Competition, followed by the Mozart Memorial Prize and joint top prizein 1986 in the Italian Busoni International Piano Competition. This was followedin 1989 by a Gold Medal and First Prize in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano MasterCompetition. Benjamin Frith enjoys a busy international career, withengagements in the United
States and throughout Europe, as a soloist andrecitalist, with festival appearanc