Tippett: Piano Sonata Nr 1, 2nd movement, Andante tranquillo  [5’11”]

Paul Crossley, piano

32 Robert Burns

Scotland’s bard of choice, the imperishable Rabbie Burns

Michael Tippett (1905–98) was ever his own man, both as a creative artist and simply as a person.  As far as his composing is concerned this may partly be because there was nothing musical in his background, so he had to work out or discover everything for himself.  Though he lived through a century of seismic musical upheaval, actively engaging with its significant developments – the atonal revolution proclaimed by Arnold Schoenberg, to cite the most obvious example – he never fell prey to dogma, fashion or reactionary impulses, striving instead to create something new of his own.  As to his independence of mind more generally, it may (though I admit I’m speculating) have had something to do with growing up as a gay man in an age when to do so was to be, and to be made to feel, an outsider looking in on ‘normal’ society.  He was nothing if not principled, being not simply a conscientious objector during World War II, but going to prison for it when he could have avoided doing so with a single word had his conscience permitted him.

The distinctive musical path Tippett did carve out for himself would veer between angularity and lyricism.  This Piano Sonata No 1 (originally 1936–7, but close enough to his heart to be revised in 1942 and again in 1954) is typical of the early fruits of his maturity in falling into the latter category.  It’s a life-affirming 20-minute work in four movements, the wonderful second of which, heard here, alternates two types of material.  The first, heard at the very start, is an elaboration of a Scottish folk tune setting Robert Burns’s lyric (you will probably need the little glossary provided) Ca’ the yowes tae the knowes (‘Call the ewes to the knolls’).  Tippett used this again in the slow middle movement of his next work, the glorious Concerto for double string orchestra (of fond memory – see Track 12).  After the tune has run its plangent course, at 1’00” comes the second music with its two clearly distinct voices running alongside each other in mellifluous counterpoint.  Ca’ the yowes returns at 2’10”, rising to splendour out of elements of the other music, which then resumes at 3’02”.  The folksong comes back a final time at 4’05”, though rather than reaching any sort of climax it then fades softly away, poetically here in the hands of Tippett’s pianist of choice Paul Crossley.

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