Good Start to Cycle of Tippett’s Symphonies

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Tippett: Marie Arnet (soprano), Igor Levit (piano), Alexandra Soumm (violin), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra / David Robertson (conductor), Barbican, London, 1.3.2013

Beethoven: Triple Concerto, Op 56
Tippett: Third Symphony

The BBC Symphony Orchestra are featuring several of Tippett’s orchestral works in their current Barbican season and this concert was the first of four, taking place over the next few weeks, programming a complete cycle of Tippett’s symphonies alongside concertos by Beethoven and Brahms.

Beethoven was a lifelong model composer for Tippett so it was appropriate that the concert began with Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. This is a work that has sometimes been accused by detractors as a second rate Beethoven score. That judgement has always seemed to me to be unduly harsh as the concerto is full of original and memorable material. It is a hugely enjoyable piece, less profound than the Violin Concerto and the later piano concertos, but equally compelling and full of surprises.

The main problem for performers is how to balance the piano trio with the orchestra as this is not a natural combination of instruments for a concerto. In this performance any problems of balance were triumphantly solved. Igor Levit took care not to swamp his colleagues with some sensitive and delicate piano playing. However it is the cello which takes the melodic lead in the concerto and I was especially impressed by Nicolas Altstaedt’s passionate interpretation frequently duetting with Alexandra Soumm’s violin part. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Robertson provided some full-bloodied playing in the orchestral tuttis and hushed intensity in the brief slow movement. The lively Rondo alla polaca (Polonaise) finale was played with a real swing and provided an upbeat conclusion to the first half of the concert.

Tippett’s four symphonies span the length of his long composing career and they reflect the various stylistic shifts he made over a 35 year period from the early 1940s to the mid 1970s. (An early Symphony in B flat also exists from the 1930s but performances were suppressed by the composer during his lifetime; what chance is there of a revival I wonder?).  All four numbered works make a vital and distinctive contribution to the continuation of the symphonic tradition in the 20th century.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra started their cycle of the symphonies with a performance of the Third, the most wide ranging and longest of the symphonies playing for nearly an hour. Tippett composed his Third Symphony from 1970-1972 in the wake of his third opera The Knot Garden, a work which like the symphony, features Tippett’s own take on the blues. The symphony was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall in June 1972 by the LSO conducted by Sir Colin Davis with soprano Heather Harper.

The Third Symphony addresses the problem of how to write a symphony in the late 20th century head on. In a memorable BBC TV programme which Tippett presented at the time of the Symphony’s first performance in 1972 he posed the question “What price Beethoven now?” The challenge Tippett set himself in his Third Symphony was to ask how humanity can still aspire to the brotherhood of man, as set out in Schiller’s Ode to Joy and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, after the horrors of various 20th century conflicts.

Tippett’s musical solution was to invent a two part structure which contains all four movements of a conventional symphony with two movements in each part.

Part One is unquestionably one of Tippett’s most inspired creations. The (fast) first movement contrasts hard hitting paragraphs for brass and untuned percussion (Arrest) with surging dancing semiquavers from strings, woodwind and tuned percussion (Movement). Both of these materials grow in length and intensity developing in a most original way but always independent of each other until they eventually collide and splinter into the (slow) second movement. This movement again contrasts two types of music, evocative nocturnal sounds for solo violin and viola, oboe, harp, piano and tuned percussion against a powerfully intense passage of dense counterpoint for strings.

Part Two begins with an exuberant and anarchic scherzo that builds in intensity to be suddenly cut off at its climax by the symphony’s most famous (or infamous – depending on your point of view) moment – the “terror fanfare” from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This starts Tippett’s long fourth movement, an exploration of the Beethoven/Schiller questions in three blues numbers and a final scena set to Tippett’s own text. In the final moments of the symphony Tippett concludes that we must try to rebuild our shattered dreams and aspirations through love and compassion. The final sounds of the symphony echo the beginning in starkest terms, barking brass chords contrasting with warm tender string chords. Tippett is not attempting to write a better symphony than Beethoven (which would be impossible) but to challenge our perceptions both musically and philosophically.

This is a demanding work to perform and Tippett, like his hero Beethoven, wrote from inner compulsion unconcerned about practicalities for the players. The BBC Symphony and David Robertson rose magnificently to the challenge with playing of bite and vigour in the first movement despite some slight rhythmic uncertainties and ensemble lapses at the start of the piece. Fortunately matters soon settled down. Most impressive however was the performance of the rapt visionary slow movement with beautifully executed solos from woodwind, solo violin, viola, harp and percussion. The dense wall of string counterpoint that lies at the heart of the movement was magnificently shaped. To my ears Tippett’s orchestral palette in this movement shows the influence of Messiaen (echoes of Turangalila perhaps?). Listening to this performance what struck me most was how clearly the structure of the piece came across, remarkable in such multi layered music.

Soprano Marie Arnet joined the orchestra for Part Two of the symphony. It was fascinating to hear this young Swedish singer with her impeccable command of English tackle the wild and ferociously demanding vocal part. Her entry in the first of the blues numbers (following the Beethoven quotation) was confident and secure and she was accompanied by some virtuoso flugelhorn playing and sonorous brass chords from the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I detected problems with the balancing of voice and orchestra in the second blues, a fast boogie woogie celebrating physical and sexual vitality, where the words were indistinct. However given the crudities of Tippett’s text in this number perhaps this was no major loss! The vocal part was amplified throughout, a sensible move given how difficult it is to project the voice above Tippett’s often turbulent orchestration. The third blues number, a song of sorrow, was sung with real depth of feeling accompanied by a beautifully played keening oboe solo and waves of string sonorities. The demands of the final scena held no terrors for Marie Arnet whose voice sailed above the orchestra at the climax of the piece with Tippett quoting from Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.

This was a triumphant performance of an extraordinary work. David Robertson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra deserve the highest praise for performing this complex and challenging work with such clarity and passion. Clearly David Robertson has the deepest respect and enthusiasm for this music.

The concert can be heard on BBC Radio 3 during Afternoon on 3 on Monday 11 March starting at 2pm and will be available for listening again via the iplayer for the following seven days.


Paul Hearn