Composers: Tippett
Compositions: Symphonies Nos 3 and 4, Symphony in B Flat
Performers: BBC Scottish SO/Martyn Brabbins
Catalogue Number: HYPERION CDA68231/2

This release from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concludes Martyn Brabbins’ survey of Michael Tippett’s symphonies, more ‘complete’ than those of Colin Davis and Richard Hickox because it includes the first recording of a Symphony in B Flat, written in 1932-38 and subsequently suppressed by the composer.

Tippett wrote four numbered symphonies. The First and Second are among the greatest 20th-century works in the genre, but while Nos 3 and 4 are examples of his mature art, both are problematic. The Third (1970-72) appeared after Tippett visited America, where he was inspired by that nation’s urban vitality. Part One, made up of two long movements (Allegro and Lento) pulses with energy and sharp-edged harmonic clashes. Part Two is a series of “blues” songs for soprano. Predictably, they sound nothing like the blues, and Tippett’s text is riddled with inadvertent clangers: “I found the beautiful moronic child”, “As I lay down beside my mate” etc. Luckily, Rachel Nicholas’ words are no clearer than Heather Harper’s on the Davis recording, but this piece does evolve into something of a scream-fest.

Symphony No 4 (1976-77) represents a human being’s life journey. Musically it has several moments of serenity and colour, but here the problem concerns the “breathing effect”. When I heard Tippett conduct the symphony in Adelaide he used a wind machine to simulate breathing, but on record conductors choose his preferred option of closely recorded respiration. Inevitably, the recurring sound effect suggests a pervert breathing down the phone. Brabbins’ breather is less sleazy than Solti’s, but I hoped this time it would be the wind machine.

The early symphony, barely recognisable as Tippett, is substantial at 27 minutes. The language is post-Sibelius and Bax. Well-written though anonymous, it is nevertheless enjoyable and historically significant. Brabbins’ performances are taut, gripping and exciting.