Tippett Centenary Festival, Wigmore Hall, London

Good? Bad? It's too early to tell...
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The Independent Culture

For all but the most passionate champions of a particular composer, a major anniversary is something to be regarded with a queasy combination of optimism and dread. Last year, the centenary of Dvorak's death threw up some sensational performances of his major works, several delightful rediscoveries among his songs and chamber music, and a significant amount of tosh that can now be forgotten again with a clear conscience. Charpentier, the tercentenary of whose death also fell in 2004, fared less well in Britain; with the odd Messe de Minuit, a scattering of Histoires Sacrées, but no fully staged production of his operatic masterpiece, Medée. So what is the deciding factor in marking these anniversaries? Is it box-office appeal or historical significance? National treasurehood or international regard?

This year's centenary subject is Sir Michael Tippett, who was born on 2 January, 1905; thus allowing the Wigmore Hall and Radio 3 to launch their celebration of his music in a week when most concert halls are quiet as the grave. Scottish Opera's new production of The Knot Garden and ENO's staging of A Child of our Time - Tippett's most enduringly popular work - follow later this month, while Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra are devoting a whole weekend to Tippett's symphonies in February. In October, the Royal Opera House will be staging The Midsummer Marriage, and it seems likely that the Proms will be full to bursting with whatever Tippett is left over. But is such a massive celebration justified? If the audience for the second and third of the Wigmore Hall's concerts is an indicator, Tippett is not a composer to put bums on seats. As to his significance, it is surely too early to tell.

Less showman-like than that of his younger and more successful friend Benjamin Britten, Tippett's chamber music is most striking for its sincerity, accomplishment, and, though this may seem an odd accolade, the absolute beauty of his endings. (Not knowing how to finish a movement is a common fault among the later 20th-century composers.) Across two evenings, The Lindsays - for whom Tippett wrote his Fourth and Fifth Quartets, and who will be retiring in July after 40 years of playing together - performed four of Tippett's string quartets, dating from the late 1930s to the early 1990s. Though their intonation was often astringent, some of their phrasing distinctly individual, and their articulation muddy, each one made me wonder why this music is so rarely programmed. Tippett's expertly strung, rhythmically witty neo-classical fugues may enjoy wide popularity but for me, it is the tentative, philosophical, responsory flickers in his slow movements - and the shades of Tobias Hume's Spirit of Gambo in the andante of the Third String Quartet in particular - that linger and seduce. Regardless of the lack of unanimity in The Lindsays' ensemble, these quartets are equal if not greater in stature to Britten's.

If only Tippett's String Quartets had been programmed alongside Britten's, the Wigmore Hall's sparse audience would probably have doubled in size. Indeed, it would have been useful to hear them together. Brief spoken contributions from Steve Martland and Professor Valentine Cunningham aside, these concerts were bereft of context. Where was the music of Alan Bush, Alan Rawsthorne, Humphrey Searle or Elisabeth Lutyens? Where was the music that influenced Tippett? Where was the poem that inspired The Blue Guitar? Where were the blues? With the exception of Beethoven, the clearest influence here was that of Purcell. But though Britten and Tippett were intrinsic to the revival of the music of Purcell, Blow and Eccles in the mid 20th century, their borrowings from Restoration style were not always as happy as Tippett's elegiac extension of Dido's lament in the Quartet in F sharp major (No 2) or the first song in Britten's cycle, On This Island.

Boyhood's End (1943), which Tippett designated a cantata for tenor and piano and which flows through different metres and moods like Bess of Bedlam, From Rosy Bowers and any number of Restoration songs, is a particularly uncomfortable example of post-modern declamation. Despite an excellent performance from Mark Padmore and his pianist Andrew West (technically and interpretively the finest accompanist in Britain), the madrigalian word-painting on words like "float", "uprising", "dance" and "ecstasy" is an arch anachronism in an otherwise calm and understated setting of William Henry Hudson's elegant prose. Even the more fluid song-cycle The Heart's Assurance (1950-51) falls foul of this device, with breathless repetitions and reiterations tacked on to the melodies like cheap jewellery, though Tippett's setting of Sidney Keyes's valedictory "Remember your lovers", with its fiendish figurations for the keyboard, has a smoother, richer and more unified line.

The sharp difference in quality between Tippett's abstract music and his song-settings was further underlined by Craig Ogden's sublime performance of The Blue Guitar (1982-3) and Songs for Achilles (1961). Where the former has the nocturnal world-in-miniature quality of the Goldberg Aria, the latter's beautifully contained writing for guitar is raucously interrupted by uncomfortable lyrics (Tippett's own) and over-excited word-setting. Despite Padmore's expertly controlled singing, the primitavism of Achilles's war-cry "Oi-o-o-o!" in "Across the plain" is unconvincing and unmoving, the sobbing threnody of "By the sea" a rude translation of a sentiment more effectively conveyed by the prelude and postlude for solo guitar. So, optimism or dread? By my reckoning, this is the first of three or four columns on Tippett this year. Thus far, I'm frustrated and fascinated in equal measure.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

For further details on Tippett centenary events, see www.michael-tippett.com

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