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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 (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-catching), 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 a "mystery chord" which deserves some specific explanation, and even revelation. In the liner notes to the recording of the premiere performer Paul Crossley on CRD (see 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 of Graham Caskie on Metier (British 20th Century Piano Music, Vol 1), counted like me and mentioned "16". Merion Bowen, an authorized Tippett specialist and annotator of Nicholas Unwin's Chandos CD, Piano Sonata 1-3, talks of 17, but the other CD annotators, including Richard Whitehouse here on Naxos, prefer to remain non-committal and abstain from numbering them. Another authorized Tippett specialist, Ian Kemp (also the annotator of Steven Osborne's Hyperion recording, Tippett: Piano Concerto / Fantasia on a Theme of Handel / Piano Sonatas), in his study Tippett: The Composer and His Music, 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.
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 (see link above), Murray Perahia (the first, on Murray Perahia: 25th Anniversary Edition), Steven Neugarten (the second, Tippett Sackman Saxton Connolly vol 2), Nicholas Unwin (the first three on Chandos, link above, and Sonata No. 4 on Metier, Tippett Saxton Matthews Lambert, Vol. 4) and Steven Osborne on Hyperion, link above(I'm not so happy with Graham Caskie's trudging Third Sonata on Metier). Donohoe is interesting if only because he strays from the general norm. In the first Sonata, his first movement is urgent, even pressing and almost nervous. This is no subjective impression: he takes the movement in 6:49, compared to Crossley's 7:55, Unwin's 7:47, Ogdon's 7:46, Perhahia's 7:23 and Osborne's 7:15. In fact, he recaptures something of the approach of premiere performer (and 1938) and recorder (in 1941) Phyllis Sellick (Remembering Tippett), so it may be very true to the way Tippett conceived his work. But, either by dint of the recording or his own touch and pedalling, Donohoe is also very dry and lacking bloom and sonic sensuousness, never letting the piano resonance fully unfold and fill the acoustic space. His 4th variation, at 3:53 - a brilliant exercise in whimsical and jaunty dotted eighth-note+sixteenth note - is taken so fast as to almost loose the music's characteristic rhythmic shape. At least Donohoe is consistent with himself in his approach to the second movement, dry and very urgent again (compare his 3:37 to Crossley's 5:15, Ogdon's 4:53, Perahia's 4:31, Unwin's 4:16), but it suits the music better, an already austere exercice in two-part polyphony. On the other hand his Scherzo - a movement which can and should explose with thrusting energy - is taken at a very cautious tempo and is disappointingly unexciting. But it's also a matter, again, of how the piano resonates - and in this case, doesn't: Osborne on Hyperion doesn't take it significantly faster, but he has the pounding and resonating power that avoids any impression of trudging. Donohoe's piano sounds muffled in comparison. But I have no issues with his Finale.
The same parameters are at play in the 2nd and at times I find Donohoe's interpretation a bit too dry and jaunty (in the way for instance he twists the rhythm of Tippett in the opening theme), but he is more up to the piece's power (as in the crashing second thematic block first heard at 0:15) and atmosphere (as in the lyrical theme first heard at 0:33 which constitutes the Sonata's fourth thematic block, or in the chime-like theme at 2:11, part of the Sonata's 6th block, which tippett indicates, rather contradictorily, "carillonando non legato") and sometimes that very dryness is much in situation (as in the quasi-drum roll that makes up the fifth thematic block at 0:44).
I have a few issues also with his Third, first for taking, like Graham Caskie on Metier, the first movement at a tempo significantly below Tippett's. There is a positive side to it, in that it makes the movement possibly easier to take, because less furiously pounding, but then it does loose the sense of furious pounding that is integral to Tippett's original conception, and that Crossley, Unwin and Osborne render perfectly. It also deprives the passage at 2:46 of a touch of its whimsicality. I'm not entirely happy either with Donohoe's balancing of the two hands in the first movement, letting some important left-hand details get covered (at 1:16 for instance, and it recurs later). But Donohe is dashing in the Finale, almost at the expense of clarity of articulation, but exuding tremendous energy. He also takes a very urgent approach of the slow movement (his 11:03 is the fastest of all versions; compare with Unwin's 11:28, Crossley's 12:19, Osborne's 14:18 or Caskie's 15:10) but with no loss of atmosphere thanks to his beautiful control of the keyboard's sonorities. I'm not happy though with the way, in the statement of the slow movement's theme, he shortens the length of the chords' last quarter note, in effect changing Tippett's all-pervading 7/8 rhythm into a 6/8. He does it again in the third variation (6:14), now shortening the value of the fifth beat (and so had Crossley and Caskie). In the second variation (4:16) there is a very characteristic "limping" rhythm that emerges from the dense texture - but not with Donohoe, who (like Crossley) doesn't play it sharply enough. These are small details that won't be perceptible to listeners without the score and they certainly don't come in the way of the music's beauty, but then it may not be entirely indifferent even to the listener without score that this he is not hearing exactly what Tippett wrote. For that, go to Unwin or Osborne.
Despite my reservations, listeners won't go wrong with the recording of Donohoe - but they will find interpretively better with Unwin and Osborne. The other and major drawback with Donohoe is that a CD won't fit all four Sonatas, and he offers only the first three. So does Unwin on Chandos, but at least you can find Unwin's Fourth on another label, Metier, paired with Robert Saxton's sonata and Colin Matthews Studies in Velocity (see link above). Paul Crossley also performs all four (on two CDs on CRD) and has a unique legitimacy in these works, as the Third and Fourth were written for him, but the CRD set comes with no complements and each CD offers a relatively short measure. So the absolute first choice now is Osborne on Hyperion, not only because he offers the most coherent complement with Tippett's two compositions for piano and orchestra, but also because he is, interpretively and sonically, the best. True, there is a premium to pay for Osborne, but it is worth it. And if price is an issue, as I write, Unwin doesn't sell more expensive than Donohoe.