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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Symphony No.2 (1956-7) [37:03]
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
‘Music for Lighter Mood’ (includes dialogue):-
Welcome to the Queen (1954) [5:07]
Ballet for Children (from Things to Come) (1935) [3:48]
Two Dances from Checkmate (1937), The Red Knight’s Mazurka [3:02]; The Black Queen’s Dance [3:35]
Theme and Cadenza for violin and orchestra (1946) [7:03]
Overture: Edinburgh (1956) [10:37]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult (Tippett)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Arthur Bliss (Bliss)
rec. 5 February 1958, Royal Festival Hall, live broadcast on BBC Third Programme (Tippett); 21 December 1956, live studio broadcast on BBC Home Service (Bliss)

All ‘Tippettians’ will be aware of the near-catastrophic premiere of the Symphony No.2 on 5 February 1958 at the Royal Festival Hall. There was the almost unheard-of event of Boult stopping the performance at the end of the exposition of the first movement, and admitting that it was ‘Entirely my mistake, ladies and gentlemen’ is well-remembered. Contemporary critics felt that the orchestra was ‘taxed to its limit’, however history almost absolves their technique. This was reputedly caused by the leader of the orchestra, Paul Beard’s ‘interference’ with the orchestral string parts: he had altered the bowing. In mitigation, it is now understood that it was the flautist who misread their part, causing the cue for disaster. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult: the performance was recorded and broadcast live on the BBC Third Programme.

Tippett has explained — this story has been told a number of times, in slightly differing words — that ‘the exact moment when the symphony began was when, listening to a tape of a Vivaldi concerto for strings in C, while looking out over the sunlit lake of Lugano, I was especially moved by some pounding C major bass arpeggios. I knew them to be the beginning of a new orchestral work.’ He concluded his note by admitting ‘it was some years after this initial moment of conception that the musical shape of the whole work finally established itself. It had taken the form of a symphony in the dramatic tradition.’ Whilst working on the score, he, conveniently, received the BBC commission. Tippett’s Symphony was one of six commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of The Third Programme.

Tippett’s Second Symphony is usually regarded as a watershed between the lyrical music composed up to and including the opera The Midsummer Marriage, and the next stage of his career progressing towards King Priam. In the Symphony, he has, by his own admission, turned to Stravinsky for inspiration. However, it was composed in a traditional four-movement form and still shows many indications of Tippett’s admiration for Beethoven.

The present recording is deemed to be the only one available of the premiere. Wisely, Pristine have chosen to include the false start and the applause. There have been three recordings of this work made over the years, Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968 (ARGO ZRG 535), Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Chandos (CHAN 9299, 1994) and Tippett himself conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra around 1990 (NMC 104).

I would argue that Colin Davis has the edge on Boult here: witness especially the ebullient scherzo. The slow movement is given a visionary reading by Davis. There is also more brilliance in the string playing. However, Boult’s reading is impressive and thoroughly satisfying. Whatever the faults of the premiere, it is essential to add this live performance to our understanding of the music. It is one of the composer’s most exciting and imaginative compositions at this period.

Bliss’ ‘Music for Lighter Mood’ is a real historical treat. It was broadcast on 21 December 1956 on the BBC Home Service. As the title implies, it featured some popular and approachable extracts from the composer’s catalogue. A valuable feature of this recording is the rather ‘stiff’ conversation between the composer and his wife, Lady Trudy Bliss, with presenter Ronald Fletcher. Bliss conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra in all the pieces. The programme has been presented in its entirety. Music featured begins with the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of Welcome to the Queen. This music was drawn from the Pathé newsreel of the young Queen Elizabeth’s Commonwealth Tour of 1954 at the moment when she arrives home on the banks of the Thames. Bliss had composed the march, declaring that it was conceived on the top of a number 73 London bus, and sketched out on the front of his evening newspaper. The remainder of the newsreel’s score was provided by Malcolm Arnold. This is followed by the ‘Ballet for Children’ from the scary science-fiction film Things to Come (1935), based on H.G. Wells The Shape of Things to Come. The present ‘light music’ extract features at the start of the film, during Christmastide. Two dances from the ballet Checkmate (1937) follow: ‘The Red Knight’s Mazurka’ which is a lively and exuberant number played as the Knight falls in love with the Black Queen and the second is ‘The Black Queen Dances’ who performs a ‘kind of tango’ as she teases the doomed and defenceless Red King.

The Theme and Cadenza (1946) is a Warsaw Concerto for fiddle. Derived from the radio play, ‘Memorial Concert’ written by Trudy Bliss, it features an imaginary composer, beginning in his student days and concluding with his tragic death as he approaches success. There is the inevitable ‘eternal triangle’. The present piece featured in the ‘memorial concert’ itself and was an ‘early composition.’ This gorgeous Theme and Cadenza works well as a standalone piece. I understand that only Campoli ever recorded it: it deserves a modern version. The final number in this concert is the rarely heard Overture: Edinburgh composed in 1956 for that year’s Festival. It is an impression of Scotland composed by an Englishman, but none the worse for that. The only modern recording is by Vernon Handley and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Sadly, this excellent CD (in sound and matter) has been spoilt by the documentation and presentation. The CD insert looks as if it has been printed on a basic ‘home’ printer on low weight paper. The notes are near illegible: this does not really matter, because the text discussing the Tippett has been lifted (acknowledged) from Wikipedia. There is no commentary on the Bliss whatsoever. Included is a paragraph by Andrew Rose on the history and technicalities of the actual recording.

This is a must-have CD for all aficionados of British music. I can easily forgive the liner notes for the opportunity to hear the Bliss concert and the premiere of Tippett Symphony No.2 in such ideal conditions.

John France



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