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8.557611 - TIPPETT: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3
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Michael Tippett (1905–1998)
Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3

Among the most arresting features discernible in the output of Sir Michael Tippett is that the majority of his most important works fall into recognisably classical categories (operas, symphonies, concertos, string quartets and piano sonatas) that occur throughout his composing career. So with the four piano sonatas, which encompass a time-frame of 48 years and take in his range of creative preoccupations, from the vigorous neoclassicism of the 1930s, through the experimental phase of the 1960s, to a renewed involvement with the ‘classical tradition’ of the 1970s and the process of summation and synthesis that took place during the 1980s. Of equal note is the fact that, in common with his string quartets, no two of Tippett’s sonatas have the same number and arrangement of movements, typical of a composer who sought new solutions to the challenges posed by large-scale instrumental writing over the previous two centuries.

By his own admission Tippett was a slow developer. Whereas his younger contemporary Benjamin Britten had established a fair reputation by his mid-twenties, Tippett evolved slowly and fitfully as a composer, withdrawing all of his music written before the First String Quartet, completed in 1935, though substantially revised in 1943. Compared to the Beethovenian density of this piece, the First Piano Sonata (1936-7) is both more relaxed in manner and more varied in expressive content. At its première, given by Phyllis Sellick in London in November 1937, it had the title Fantasy Sonata, indicating the musical range found within its clear-cut, four-movement form.

The first movement begins with a theme, alternately vigorous and flowing, which is made the basis of five variations. The first is lively and capricious, the second hectically virtuosic, while the third brings forth a lyrical new counter-melody. The fourth variation trips along in blithe syncopation, then the gamelan-like fifth emerges mysteriously from the depths, before a coda repeats the theme largely as before. The second movement takes the Scottish folk-song ‘Ca’ the cowes tae the knowes’ as the basis for its increasingly elaborate and cumulatively expressive variants, before a return to its pensive origins. The third movement is cast in sonata form, its forceful and ruminative main themes made the subject of intensive discussion, before moving into a subtly altered recapitulation. In evoking jazz and popular music, the rondo fourth movement ranks among Tippett’s most engaging pieces, concluding the work in a mood of boisterous humour, and, in its rhythmic freedom, anticipating the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1939) and Second String Quartet (1942), as well as two post-war instrumental works, the First Symphony (1945) and the Third String Quartet (1946).

One of the greatest surprises for those who had kept abreast of Tippett’s creative evolution was his seeming abandonment of the ‘ecstatic lyricism’ that permeated his music during much of the 1950s, notably his first opera The Midsummer Marriage (1952), the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953), and the Piano Concerto (1955), for an idiom harmonically more austere and formally more fragmentary. Hence the uncertainty which greeted his second opera King Priam at its 1962 première, to which the Second Piano Sonata, itself composed in 1962 and first performed by Margaret Kitchin that September, might be viewed as a formal and expressive pendant. The piece derives its tightly knit, one-movement form from the fantasy procedures beloved of English composers from Byrd to Purcell, while its mosaic-like construction evokes Stravinsky, whose influence on Tippett had been evident since the Second Symphony (1957), and who had long eschewed linear development for the succession of contrasted musical types.

There are eight musical types in this sonata, which evolves starkly yet inevitably over its eight sections. Section one presents the first five such types in stark juxtaposition, respectively forceful, angular, energetic, lyrical and capricious, before section two takes the second, third and fourth as the basis for greater elaboration. Section three introduces the sixth musical type, inward-looking but diverse in terms of gesture and sonority, at some length, while section four returns to a hectic alternation of the third, fourth and fifth types. Section five is devoted to the seventh type, making the most virtuoso use of the piano, while section six brings further elaboration of the second, third and fourth types. Section seven focuses on the eighth musical type, affording a calm, mysterious repose before section eight, which brings all except the fifth and eighth types into a series of collisions worthy of the ‘jam sessions’ familiar from jazz of the period, and culminating in the imperious return of the first type. This is gradually reduced to an alternation of loud and quiet chords, which latter manage to have the last word.

Tippett then opened-out the possibilities of this sonata in the Concerto for Orchestra (1965) and the oratorio The Vision of St Augustine (1965). The remainder of the 1960s was taken up with his third opera The Knot Garden (1970), in which his long-standing interest in jazz and blues become further integrated into a musical idiom that was as wide-ranging stylistically as it was contemporary in expression. Following this, Tippett daringly evoked the example of Beethoven in his Third Symphony (1972), an ambitious conflation of abstract symphonic, and graphically illustrative thinking. Yet as Beethoven had followed his allembracing Ninth Symphony with the rigorous piano Bagatelles, Tippett followed his own symphony with a Third Piano Sonata, completed during 1973 and first performed by Paul Crossley that May, the most ‘pianistic’ of all his sonatas.

The Beethoven connection remains strong, however, not least in the opening movement, a compact sonata piece whose respectively driving and lyrical main themes are drawn into a sustained process of development. This culminates in the transformed recapitulation of both themes, before a brief and openended coda. The central slow movement begins with a succession of chordal statements, which are the basis of the four variations that follow. The intent of these variations is of cumulative expressive intensity, each transposing the chord sequence upwards so that it comes full circle when the fourth variation is reached. Most notable is the unadorned melody to emerge at the start of the third variation, serenely marking the effective midpoint of the sonata. The finale is all coruscating trills and hammered chords, its relentless onward drive reaching a point of repose before returning methodically to the initial idea. A brief coda rounds off the work in gestural and uncompromising terms.

As he entered his seventies, Tippett betrayed absolutely no sign of compromise in his composing. Along with such large-scale pieces as his fourth opera The Ice Break (1976) and oratorio The Mask of Time (1983) came such abstract works as the Fourth Symphony (1977), the Fourth String Quartet (1978) and Triple Concerto (1979), a group of works that was to conclude with the Fourth Piano Sonata (1984), which in turn heralded the ‘Indian summer’ that sustained itself through to the composer’s 88th year in 1993.

Richard Whitehouse

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