I've spent many hours with Michael Tippett's four Piano Sonatas and they constitute a great and highly original body of works. Tippett was a late blossomer to composition and his first Sonata, composed in 1937 when he was 32 (and revised in 1942), was his second major outing, after the first String Quartet from 1935 (the latter thoroughly revised before publication in 1946). Although commentators often draw a long list of references and influences when they talk about that work - Scarlatti, Beethoven, Bartok, Stravinsky, Janacek, Hindemith, Poulenc - I find it remarkably FREE of influences and already entirely "Tippettian" (if not quite the Tippett he later became). Tippett described how he had tried to escape the "heavy" and "too serious" Germanic models, and he does. That the first movement, a theme and variations, is written in a (mainly) 5/4 time signature doesn't make it Bartokian at all, it has none of that Bartok rustic and vigorous pounding, and although it does have its moments of brash fortissimos, it is primarily lyrical and whimsical, and the slightly tipsy 5/4 signature and the wonderfully whimsical imagination in the variations give it a melodic shape that is entirely unique and, indeed, entirely NOT indebted to the Germanic and expressionist models. The slow movement is a somewhat austere but fascinating exercise in two-part polyphony based on a Scottish folk-song. Sure you can invoke the Beethovenian model (the 9th symphony comes to mind) in the exuberant Scherzo, a dashing Presto in (mainly) 6/8 rhythm (and Tippett would write other such movements in his symphonies, like Walton in his own First), but it is entirely transmuted in the composer's language. The boisterous and vigorous Finale shows influences of Jazz/Ragtime, but also of something like hop-scotch dance, again transmuted in the composer's personal language. There's a gaiety, an "upbeat-ness" and insouciance that will seldom be found in Tippett's later works.
The Second Sonata, written in 1962 in the wake of Tippett's opera King Priam, is even more original in its conception and construction, made of a succession of thematic blocks, each with its own tempo and character (always attention-arousing), returning in slightly modified form but never combined. I'll quote Tippett here, in the remarkably informative liner notes he contributed for the recording of Paul Crossley on CRD (Sir Michael Tippett: The Four): "Everything in the sonata proceeds by statement. The effect is one of accumulation; through constant addition of new material; by variation and repetition. There is virtually no development and particularly no bridge passages. The formal unity comes from the balance of similarities and contrasts".
The Third from 1973, commissioned and premiered by Paul Crossley, is an impressive work and a tougher nut to crack, with its furiously and even suffocatingly pounding outer movements (but with moments of dreaminess in the first, a sonata form with contrasting elements), and its sprawling slow movement, an extended theme and four variations with the theme made of 17 hushed broken chords, including one "mystery chord". This riddle deserves some explanation, and even revelation. In the liner notes to the recording of Crossley on CRD (link above), Tippett announces 17 chords; yet, I was puzzled to count only 16 on the score. I would have been inclined to blame myself and my lack of analytical skills (after all, some of those chords are highly decorated and never stated in their complete, vertical form, so it was very likely that I was unable to spot where one ended and the other began), had not Jonathan Dobson, the annotator of the recording by Graham Caskie's on the label Metier (British 20th Century Piano Music, Vol 1), counted like me and mentioned "16"; Tippett specialist and friend Merion Bowen, the annotator of Nicholas Unwin's recording on Chandos (Piano Sonata 1-3), says 17, but other CD annotators including Ian Kemp here on Hyperion, prefer to be non-committal and abstain from numbering the chords. In his study Tippett: The Composer and His Music, the same Ian Kemp talks of the "theme, a set of sixteen (or seventeen) chords never heard in their basic form", with no further explanation, which strikes me as particularly absurd: c'mon Ian, will the reader ask, can't you decide, is it sixteen or seventeen? And by the same token would you say that "the Sonata has three (or four) movements"?
So I wrote Paul Crossley to inquire about this riddle. He had worked with Tippett on the Sonata, if anybody would know, it would be him. He allowed me to quote his answer:
"Yes, this has always puzzled everybody, not least me! There are 17 chords, and if you think of them as being 11 + 1 + 5, the `enigmatic' one is the "1". As you will see from the score, it is never stated as a chord at all, but is presented in all sorts of elaborations.
In fact, when Michael was composing this movement, he always had by him on the piano the original succession of chords written out with a blank where this `enigma chord' should be. When I asked him about it, he said: "Ah, love, you work that out for yourself! You asked for a piece with some chords in it, so I've given you a little puzzle." I have never managed to deduce what the actual chord is. I'm sure somebody will `break the code' one day, but it won't be me. It's a bit like the `extra hidden tune' that Elgar said was part of his Enigma Variations. I've always personally thought it was the Song of the Volga Boatmen, but that's just one of many guesses.
If you ever find somebody who thinks they know what the Tippett chord is, I'd be very glad to know about it. But, do be assured, it is 17 chords."
Many thanks to Paul Crossley for letting me share this "Da Vinci Code" secret with the wide music world. Anyway, Tippett's unique magic and stunning originality is at play again, here in the form of the mainly two-part, non chordal writing in the outer movements, with a preference for sending both hands to the piano's extreme range, in the incredible inventiveness, Debussy-like delicacy and mesmerizing atmospheres of the theme and variations, and in the profusion of trills and grace notes, making it feel as if the ornament, the decoration even, was the veritable essence of the work, madrigal-like. I'm not sure that it is a work I would have warmed to as much as the first two if I hadn't come across the score, but with score and careful listening attention it is as great and fascinating a work as anything written by its composer.
Same comment applies to the Fourth, completed in 1984 (note the sequence of 11 years between both 2 & 3 and 3 & 4). It is couched in five movements - an architecture more readily found in string quartets and symphonies than in piano sonatas. There are moments of great melodic appeal, moments of haunting dreaminess, but those are not the overriding impression that it conveys. The Fourth is filled with Tippett's typical decoration, profusion of grace notes or quasi-grace notes, and it has great moments of whimsicality. There is also the fantastic rhythmic imagination, which might make the shape of some phrases feel strangely awkward but, when you are following with a score, always surprises the attention with new and unexpected twists. In the Fourth Tippett also extends a technique already present in the First, writing, on three staves, three different and highly differentiated strands (here especially in the first three movements), so much so that, on paper, it's hard to see how two hands can play them. If the first movement gives the impression of being episodic, it is: it is constructed of a succession of episodes. The third movement is a slow-fast-slow in a mirror form A-B-C (fast)-B-A and the fourth, a demented boogie-woogie reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow's Player Piano, in ever changing meters over obsessive runs of sixteenth-notes, is also in A-B-A form. I've read the second movement described as a fugue, but I'm not sure it is strictly one, it looks and sounds more like a passacaglia, based on a pervading ground in a basic 3/4 rhythm, a quarter-note followed by a half-note, but it is also an extraordinary etude in dynamics, with Beethovenian jumps from forte or fortissimo (on the quarter-note and its derivation) to piano (on the half-note and its derivations). The composer himself describes the Finale as a theme and four variations, but frankly, had I not been told, I wouldn't have recognized it a such, so transformed beyond recognition is the theme in the variations; for one of the variations, I am not even sure that I locate it right. Again I don't know how much of this can be perceptible by and enjoyable to the "lay" listener without the score (and obviously I am no more), but following and comparing the three competing recordings with the Schott score has provided hours of admirative amazement.
The Sonatas of Tippett have been well-served on disc in the stereo and digital era, by John Ogdon (the first two, Tippett: Piano Concerto & Piano Sonatas 1 & 2 - John Ogdon), Paul Crossley, Murray Perahia (the first, on Murray Perahia: 25th Anniversary Edition), Steven Neugarten (the second, Tippett Sackman Saxton Connolly vol 2) and Nicholas Unwin (the first three on Chandos, see link above, and the fourth on Metier, Tippett Saxton Matthews Lambert, Vol. 4) - I am less satisfied with Graham Caskie's trudging Third on Metier and Peter Donohoe's recording of the first three on Naxos, especially his first, pressing and dry (Tippett: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3). Steven Osborne goes right at the top of the pile, with the perfect combination of power and atmosphere.
In the First sonata some of his tempos are quite personal (as in the very fast second variation at 1:53) but I find them always convincing. There is none of the dryness that mars the reading of Peter Donohoe on Naxos. His Scherzo isn't faster than Donohoe's, but he brings it a pounding power that avoids any of the sense of trudging that arises from Donohoe's reading. He plays the Second with all the crashing power and atmosphere required, the combination of resonance and dryness; I really have no special remark on any of Osborne's interpretive choices: in broad outlook as in the minute details, I find his version perfect, and everything I expect, every turn at which I await the pianist and what he will do with the notes, Osborne delivers. Even the echo effect first heard at 4:13, that so few seem to be able to capture, is rendered perfectly. Likewise in the Third, not only is he truly and ideally furious in the outer movements (compare the 5:09 of his Finale to Donohoe's 5:21, Crossley's 5:31, Unwin's 5:35 and Caskie's 5:53: it seems like a few seconds but you can hear the difference) but with no sense of harshness, and he brings out the important melodies and counter-melodies from the dense texture of the first movement and lets you hear clearly when Tippett is running in 6/8 and when in 3/4. He is also very slow and atmospheric in the slow movement, and there no one renders as perfectly and accurately as he does all the minuscule and subtle details of Tippett's tricky 7/8 rhythm (changing at times to 6/8 and it is essential that the two should not be confused) where many others are oh-so-slighlty inaccurate here or there. In the Fourth, like Unwin, I find him preferable to Crossley because of his perfect rhythmic precision, essential to fully elucidate rather than obscure the intricacies and subtleties of Tippett's highly individual and "non-square" rhythmic writing. I also find him superior to Crossley (and equal to Unwin) in his clear delineation of Tippett's three-part writing and ability to keep the continuity of the "singing" voice there, and in the clarity of circulation of the running sixteenth-notes between the two hands in the rapid boogie-woogie-like fourth movement. His relatively fast tempo in the second movement brings out a great whimsicality which Crossley's more stately and solemn tempo doesn't quite capture, although Osborne's dynamic jumps may not be quite as dramatic as Crossley's (and contributing to the effect is that Hyperion's recording makes the piano sound more mellow than Crossley's). All these details may not be perceptible or important to the listener without a score, but it might not be entirely indifferent even to him to know that what he is hearing is exactly what is in the score and should be heard: he can go to Osborne with complete confidence.
But where Osborne definitely takes precedence over both Crossley and even Nicholas Unwin is in his complements: Tippett's Sonatas are too long to fit all on one CD (which rules out Donohoe as a first choice, even independent of his interpretive choices, since he offers only the first three), but too short to really fill two CDs (which makes Crossley, for all his Tippettian legitimacy, only a second choice). Unwin recorded all four, but on two different labels (the 4th is on Metier) and as fine as are his fillers to the Metier CD (piano works of Saxton, Matthews and Lambert, see my review), they are less coherent than those of Osborne: Tippett's Piano Concerto and Fantasia on a Theme of Handel for piano and orchestra, thus offering the composer's complete output with solo piano.
As I don't have the score I'll pass interpretive comment on the Fantasia, an early work of Tippett (1941) written for the same Phyllis Sellick who had premiered the First Sonata, and not an entirely significant one, in its few echoes of Rachmaninoff. But Tippett's Piano Concerto is like no one else's. Completed in 1955, it is a richly lyrical work, stemming from the sound world of the composer's opera The Midsummer Marriage, but also from an audition of Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto played by Gieseking in London. At times what goes on in the orchestra is so lush and sensuous, alternating between luscious outburts reminiscent of the early orchestral Bartok, and gossamer filigree from the woodwinds or delicate drops from the celesta, that I feel that the piano was not needed: it sounds really like more Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage. I do hear in the music echoes from or similarities with the sound world of Britten - both the extraordinary instrumental delicacy of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "The Turn of the Screw" (celesta helping!) and the more powerful utterances of "Peter Grimes" - which doesn't contradict my statement that "Tippett's Piano Concerto is like no one else's", because even Britten never wrote a Piano Concerto like that. The piano is in turn extraordinarily delicate and refined, sounding very much itself like a celesta, and powerful and pounding, and generally so embedded into the orchestral texture that Tippett could have called it a "Symphonie concertante", really. The slow movement - half the length of the first, and with the Finale balancing it - is equally original, two thirds of a threadbare and barely audible melody passing in canon from flutes to clarinets then horns, under (rather than "over") dense and highly decorated piano passagework, and one third of exchanges between piano and strings in the style of the Corelli Fantasia. The Finale is a brilliant and alternately epic and furious toccata, with sweeping flights into the lusher atmospheres of The Midsummer Marriage. To me this qualifies as one of the greatest Piano Concertos of the 20th Century, because one of the most original. But - as I'm sure Beethoven's Piano Concertos in the early 19th Century - it takes I think more than casual listening to grasp its many beauties.
Osborne and Martyin Brabbins deliver a fine version, again very precise. As Howard Shelley with Richard Hickox on Chandos (Tippett: Symphony, No. 1, Piano Concerto), Osborne and Brabbins strike a middle ground between the urgent approach of the 1963 premiere recording by John Ogdon and Colin Davis (link above) - something like a Midsummer Night's Dream fraught with an underlying sense of danger - and the expansive and sultry version of Martino Tirimo with the composer conducting in 1991 on Nimbus - a midsummer night of lascivious love (but I'm out of authorized product links, see comments section). I'd give Shelley-Hickox a slight edge over Osborne-Brabbins on account of their better sonics and greater vividness of orchestral details, although I find Osborne's slow movement marginally preferable, because of the sonic's greater transparency there.
This is now THE version of choice for Tippett's output for solo piano and piano & orchestra, and Tippett's output in the genre shouldn't be missed or looked upon casually. These are great works.