Surely, Michael Tippett must be considered the most important British composer of the mid 20th century, even if this might be an unfashionable thing to say in this Britten-filled centenary year. Certainly, the BBCSO's brave performance of his Third Symphony was evidence of this in itself.
Since his death in 1998 at the age of 93, performances of Tippett's work have gone into sad decline. For the last 30 years of his life he had been revered to the point of near adulation, with dissenting voices only finding fault in some of his "hand-knitted" opera libretti. These few embarrassing moments of naïve colloquialism are already becoming less jarring than they were at the time and what is left is a fabulous body of music.
Tippett excelled in all the musical forms, including string quartets, piano sonatas, operas, and large-scale choral works – not just A Child of Our Time but also the perhaps greater piece The Vision of Saint Augustine from 1965. Of his four varied and colourful symphonies, the most important and ambitious is the Third. Sadly, it is also the least performed, so all credit to the BBC for kicking off their groundbreaking series of concerts featuring all the Tippett symphonies with this one in particular.
And what a work it is. At 55 minutes, it is by far the longest of his orchestral works, and in its scope, it outshines them all. Using Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as its template, it treads a similar path in terms of design and emotional impact. It is also as technically challenging as the Beethoven work must have been in its time. David Robertson and the BBC SO kicked off their account of the work with a faster tempo than either Colin Davies or Richard Hickox in their recordings of the work. If some of the orchestra looked a tad worried at this point, they soon settled down into a wonderfully confident and accurate Allegro. Tippett's individual structural process, where each section in the orchestra presents their own material that is then varied and combined in different configurations leading to a climax where all the elements join forces, was clearly and powerfully conveyed in this performance.
After this climactic moment, the music collapses into the slow movement. An eerie soundscape is quickly established, again using his "blocks of sound" technique. The elements in this movement include an obsessive solo viola solo that seems to punctuate the it. Recurring outbursts in the percussion eventually lead to a fabulously rich passage for the strings that starts in the lower strings and eventually leads to a climax for the full string group. The BBC SO strings have never sounded better. Indeed, they certainly need a medal for their whole performance, one minute lush and full-sounding, next scurrying about in a rhythmically complex environment that you felt was on the brink of collapse – surely the effect of instability and danger Tippett intended in this piece.
In the Scherzo that follows, the ferocious energy of much of the opening movement returns, this time more propulsive. The music is soon swept into a climax which quotes directly from the similar transition point in the finale to Beethoven's Ninth. Tippett twists up the end of the quotation with some near hysterical discords and we are plunged into the finale.
Finding a modern-day interpretation of Beethoven's choral finale troubled Tippett for some years. He eventually decided that using his own version of the blues would work. When he listened to this music, he said, it got him "out of the blues". With it, he felt he could achieve the philosophical goal of redemption through human love and goodness, that he wanted to express.
Replacing the advertised Susan Bullock, the soprano Marie Arnet carried the burden of Tippett's grand design and indeed the ghost of Bessie Smith, who had most inspired the composer. Arnet's voice was well suited to this elaborate scena, consisting of four linked songs and culminating in a heartfelt plea for compassion. She succeeded in encompassing the wide range of styles and dynamics expected of her. By the end of the work, which alternates lifeless string and brass chords, the effect was of exhaustion – as if we had seen the world, warts and all and were not victorious or defeated, but exhausted.
And what else could have preceded the Tippett but a work by Beethoven himself? The choice of the Triple Concerto seemed on paper to be somewhat perverse. A shadowy work, its easygoing riches only occasionally find that passionate dynamic quality so beloved by the other composer. But then maybe it was wise not to compete with the Tippett for intensity in the same programme. Besides, when it came to it the performance by the young trio Igor Levit (piano), Alexandra Soumm (violin) and Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), was a delight. Nicely balanced, with the cello usefully the most assertive of the three, it was good to hear the piece without star performers competing for centre stage. David Robertson drew from the BBC SO a refreshingly on-their-toes performance, which didn't feel like it was another day at the office at all.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
Sir Michael Tippett © Nicky Johnston