If there is a more persuasive proponent of twentieth century British piano music than Peter Donohoe, I don't know who it is. His British Piano Concertos project, also on Naxos, has been a marvel, and this recording of his performances of three of Tippett's four piano sonatas is magnificent. A pity the Fourth Sonata, at 35 minutes, is just a bit too long to have been included on this single disc. I hope we can look forward to Donohoe recording it one day. The first three of Tippett's sonatas are as different from each other as one can imagine. The First is a neoclassic exuberance, the Second a more astringent but nonetheless insouciant one-movement monolith, the Third an exploration of the piano's sonorities.
The First Sonata, in four movements, was premièred by Phyllis Selleck in late 1937. Written in unselfconsciously tonal language, the sonata clearly is influenced by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and American popular music. It also uses a simple Scottish folksong as the basis for its second movement, a set of variations based on Robert Burns's 'Ca' the yowes tae the knowes' ('Call the ewes to the knolls' - Richard Whitehouse in his otherwise fine booklet notes has 'yowes' as 'cowes,' an understandable solecism for a non-Scot). The third movement is a sonata-allegro with a flowing main theme that is interestingly varied on its return in the recapitulation. The boisterous fourth movement, in rondo form, is influenced by American jazz gestures and in places reminds one a bit of Gershwin. As Tippett himself remarked, this is a young man's music.
The 1962 Second Sonata, in one movement, has been called austere by some commentators, coming as it did just after Tippett's astringently spare opera 'King Priam.' But I hear, rather, a kind of insouciant whimsy tending towards sarcasm at times. In this sonata one hears Tippett's kinship with Prokofiev or Shostakovich. Tonality in this sonata is unstable and it is often difficult for the ear to pin down tonal centers, yet this eleven-minute work is unfailingly interesting in its loose rhythmic swing, its unexpected events and, for me, its general cockiness as conveyed by those crushed appoggiaturas toward the end. I didn't 'get' this sonata at first but it eventually spoke to me and it is, I think, now my favorite of the three.
The Fourth Sonata, in three movements, is from 1973 and quite a departure for Tippett in that here he explores, in supervirtuosic yet pianistic style, the many and varied sonorities possible in piano music. There are gamelan sounds, impressionism, ecstatic stasis, pounding Beethovenian chords and more, all held together by Tippett's formal sense. I had previously had Paul Crossley's recording of all four sonatas (although I'm at a loss as to where those two CDs have gotten to, loaned out and never returned I suspect) and my recollection is that his performance of Sonata Three is the one most different from Donohoe's in that the present recording is more quicksilver to Crossley's brick-and-mortar. Further, I seem to recollect that Crossley's performance is more mosaic to Donohoe's organic whole.
If you own Crossley's traversal -- it must be getting onto twenty years old now, I suspect -- you probably don't need this one. But if you want to newly acquaint yourself with these important works, I'd give the tip to Donohoe, hoping of course that he will add Sonata No. 4 to the first three soon. The budget price makes it all the more attractive.