Michael Tippett Piano Concertos/Piano Sonatas Review

Album. Released 2008.  

BBC Review

This is intelligent, soulful, technically brilliant, and a must-listen.

Charlotte Gardner 2008

This is full-blooded, dramatic, joyful music. Steven Osborne makes the works his own, dealing with their considerable technical difficulties with ease and aplomb. Osborne was recently quoted on Tippett's piano works in International Piano magazine, saying 'I can’t think of any late 20th-century music that is more gripping to perform'. Listening to these discs, I can't think of a performance that could be more gripping. Certainly, considering his long relationship with Tippett's piano music, there couldn't have been a more appropriate 21st-century pianist to make this recording. He is joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.

Tippett's piano works consist of his Piano Concerto, the Fantasia on a theme of Handel, and his four piano sonatas. Grouped together like this, they offer a compact overview of Tippett's compositional journey over the decades, with Piano Sonata No.1 dating from 1936-8, through to Piano Sonata No.4, composed in 1983-4.

The recording starts with the Piano Concerto, composed in 1953-5, and Osborne's playing hits the work's confident exuberance spot on. Under his fingers, the piano glitters and glides through the multi-faceted concerto with luminosity and depth, and his playing is perfectly matched by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.

Tippett believed that, rather than composing for pure pleasure, it was his duty to reflect on society and write for its nourishment and therapy. In the sleeve notes, Osborne quotes Tippett's aim for his compositions to contain 'images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent', and Osborne's playing achieves exactly that. From the escapist Piano Sonata No.1, which feels as if intended as a British respite from the foreboding atmosphere of 1930s Europe, to the structural complexities of the winterly Sonata No.4, Osborne plays with lyricism and emotion. This is intelligent, soulful, technically brilliant, and a must-listen.

The musical and intellectual exuberance of Tippett's music is fully demonstrated in his piano works, recorded here in their entirety on a double CD. The sonatas and concertante works recorded here offer a more compact survey of the various stages of his composing career than any other of the traditional genres he favoured: symphony, opera, and string quartet.

Every one of Tippett's six piano works is substantial, if not in length then in compositional ambition. By temperament he conceived music on a large scale and was more attracted to the sonata than the short genre piece typical of the famous pianist-composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Being only a moderate pianist himself his piano writing speaks of an imagination directed not by virtuosity or routine movements of the fingers or the blandishments of the sustaining pedal but one set free to explore the contrapuntal style and fascination with rhythm it was heir to.

This is full-blooded, dramatic, joyful music. Steven Osborne makes the works his own, dealing with their considerable technical difficulties with ease and aplomb. He is joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.

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