The world première of Tippett's Second Symphony, Sir Arthur Bliss conducting his own music
"This is a must-have CD for all aficionados of British music" - MusicWeb International
These two recordings, both in excellent sound quality, are presented here in their entirety as broadcast in 1956 and 1958 on BBC radio. As far as I can ascertain, they have never been issued before. I have included the unfortunate "false start" referred to in the notes above, with Boult abandoning the first movement after about two minutes and twenty seconds, for historical interest. Likewise the somewhat stilted discussions between presenter Ronald Fletcher and Sir Arthur Bliss (and Lady Bliss) will I'm sure be of interest to many.
In both cases good live sound has, with XR remastering, produced superb orchestral tone throughout. I've been able to compensate for a handful of very short tape dropouts in the Tippett and eliminate a number of coughs from a generally quiet Royal Festival Hall audience. The Bliss was clearly recorded in front of a studio audience, who refrain from applause and remain exceptionally quiet. The venue is not known at this stage but would most likely have been one of a handful of larger BBC radio studios equipped to accommodate a full orchestra and small to medium audience - the orchestra was based at the Camden Theatre at the time and this is certainly a possible venue for this broadcast.
Capstan pitch correction software was able to correct a major drop in
pitch over the duration of the Tippett of around eight percent,
something that would have been impossible as recently as five years ago.
Thus with the advantages of much improved sound quality and pitch
stability, it is finally possible to re-evaluate Boult's Tippett
performance, false start notwithstanding, and perhaps reach a more
positive conclusion as to its merits than that often repeated by those
who may never have heard it, and certainly not in a reproduction that
does justice to it.
TIPPETT Symphony No. 2
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Paul Beard, leader
Sir Adrian Boult, conductor
BBC Third Programme
Live concert broadcast from 8pm
Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday February 5, 1958
BLISS conducts Music for Ligher Mood (radio broadcast)
In conversation with Ronald Fletcher live on BBC Radio in 1956, featuring:BLISS March: Welcome The Queen
BLISS March - Ballet for Children (from the film Things to Come)
BLISS Checkmate - The Red Knight's Mazurka
BLISS Checkmate - The Black Queen Dances
BLISS Theme and Cadenza for violin and orchestra
BLISS Overture: Edinburgh
Alfredo Campoli, violin
BBC Concert Orchestra
William Armon, leader
Sir Arthur Bliss, conductor
BBC Home Service
Live studio broadcast from 8.15 pm
Friday December 21, 1956
Reviews: MusicWeb International & Audiophile Audition
A highly recommended piece of history in excellent sound
All ‘Tippettians’ will be aware of the near-catastrophic premiere of
the Symphony No.2 on 5 February 1958 at the Royal Festival Hall. There
was the almost unheard-of event of Boult stopping the performance at the
end of the exposition of the first movement, and admitting that it was
‘Entirely my mistake, ladies and gentlemen’ is well-remembered.
Contemporary critics felt that the orchestra was ‘taxed to its limit’,
however history almost absolves their technique. This was reputedly
caused by the leader of the orchestra, Paul Beard’s ‘interference’ with
the orchestral string parts: he had altered the bowing. In mitigation,
it is now understood that it was the flautist who misread their part,
causing the cue for disaster. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted
by Sir Adrian Boult: the performance was recorded and broadcast live on
the BBC Third Programme.
Tippett has explained — this story has been told a number of times, in slightly differing words — that ‘the exact moment when the symphony began was when, listening to a tape of a Vivaldi concerto for strings in C, while looking out over the sunlit lake of Lugano, I was especially moved by some pounding C major bass arpeggios. I knew them to be the beginning of a new orchestral work.’ He concluded his note by admitting ‘it was some years after this initial moment of conception that the musical shape of the whole work finally established itself. It had taken the form of a symphony in the dramatic tradition.’ Whilst working on the score, he, conveniently, received the BBC commission. Tippett’s Symphony was one of six commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of The Third Programme.
Tippett’s Second Symphony is usually regarded as a watershed between the lyrical music composed up to and including the opera The Midsummer Marriage, and the next stage of his career progressing towards King Priam. In the Symphony, he has, by his own admission, turned to Stravinsky for inspiration. However, it was composed in a traditional four-movement form and still shows many indications of Tippett’s admiration for Beethoven.
The present recording is deemed to be the only one available of the premiere. Wisely, Pristine have chosen to include the false start and the applause. There have been three recordings of this work made over the years, Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968 (ARGO ZRG 535), Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Chandos (CHAN 9299, 1994) and Tippett himself conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra around 1990 (NMC 104).
I would argue that Colin Davis has the edge on Boult here: witness especially the ebullient scherzo. The slow movement is given a visionary reading by Davis. There is also more brilliance in the string playing. However, Boult’s reading is impressive and thoroughly satisfying. Whatever the faults of the premiere, it is essential to add this live performance to our understanding of the music. It is one of the composer’s most exciting and imaginative compositions at this period.
Bliss’ ‘Music for Lighter Mood’ is a real historical treat. It was broadcast on 21 December 1956 on the BBC Home Service. As the title implies, it featured some popular and approachable extracts from the composer’s catalogue. A valuable feature of this recording is the rather ‘stiff’ conversation between the composer and his wife, Lady Trudy Bliss, with presenter Ronald Fletcher. Bliss conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra in all the pieces. The programme has been presented in its entirety. Music featured begins with the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of Welcome to the Queen. This music was drawn from the Pathé newsreel of the young Queen Elizabeth’s Commonwealth Tour of 1954 at the moment when she arrives home on the banks of the Thames. Bliss had composed the march, declaring that it was conceived on the top of a number 73 London bus, and sketched out on the front of his evening newspaper. The remainder of the newsreel’s score was provided by Malcolm Arnold. This is followed by the ‘Ballet for Children’ from the scary science-fiction film Things to Come (1935), based on H.G. Wells The Shape of Things to Come. The present ‘light music’ extract features at the start of the film, during Christmastide. Two dances from the ballet Checkmate (1937) follow: ‘The Red Knight’s Mazurka’ which is a lively and exuberant number played as the Knight falls in love with the Black Queen and the second is ‘The Black Queen Dances’ who performs a ‘kind of tango’ as she teases the doomed and defenceless Red King.
The Theme and Cadenza (1946) is a Warsaw Concerto for fiddle. Derived from the radio play, ‘Memorial Concert’ written by Trudy Bliss, it features an imaginary composer, beginning in his student days and concluding with his tragic death as he approaches success. There is the inevitable ‘eternal triangle’. The present piece featured in the ‘memorial concert’ itself and was an ‘early composition.’ This gorgeous Theme and Cadenza works well as a standalone piece. I understand that only Campoli ever recorded it: it deserves a modern version. The final number in this concert is the rarely heard Overture: Edinburgh composed in 1956 for that year’s Festival. It is an impression of Scotland composed by an Englishman, but none the worse for that. The only modern recording is by Vernon Handley and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Sadly, this excellent CD (in sound and matter) has been spoilt by the documentation and presentation. The CD insert looks as if it has been printed on a basic ‘home’ printer on low weight paper. The notes are near illegible: this does not really matter, because the text discussing the Tippett has been lifted (acknowledged) from Wikipedia. There is no commentary on the Bliss whatsoever. Included is a paragraph by Andrew Rose on the history and technicalities of the actual recording.
This is a must-have CD for all aficionados of British music. I can easily forgive the liner notes for the opportunity to hear the Bliss concert and the premiere of Tippett Symphony No.2 in such ideal conditions.
John France MusicWeb International
Pristine Classical presents a very valuable Janus of a release, the two faces of which are clear from the contents. First we hear the world premiere, together with its unfortunate collapse early on the performance, of Sir Michael Tippett’s knotty and energetic Second Symphony, and then some of the urbane Sir Arthur Bliss’s music on the lighter side. Widely differing music by widely differing composers make for an intriguing combination and a successful one.
Sir Michael Tippett was inspired for his athletic and boldly rhythmic Second Symphony by the insistent rhythms of music by Vivaldi to which he was listening, captivated, while on holiday by the shores of Lake Lugano in the early 1950s. It took some years for the inspiration to gestate and assume the same classic four movement structure as used by Beethoven. An opening allegro oozing energy and high drama is followed by a slow movement of lyrical depth. A muscular scherzo is then followed by a last movement in the form of a fantasia.
This premiere performance has been much talked about for nearly sixty years, mainly if not solely due to the breakdown a couple of minutes into the first movement. Boult halted the orchestra, turned to the audience and said “Entirely my mistake, ladies and gentlemen.” Thus, the description of the concert as a notorious disaster entered into history. Details and possible reasons for the collapse are included with the notes supplied with this release. Nearly sixty years later, this is all incidental, for issuing the performance now must have at least a little musical merit rather than being the equivalent of a YouTube disaster clip.
And so it turns out. After the performance has begun again, Boult and the orchestra turn out a thoroughly decent account of the Second, white-hot even, full of frissons of energy not only in the more frenetic parts. The BBC Symphony’s focus provides a trenchant account. Years later, they recorded the Second and Fourth under the composer in a beautifully played and well-recorded pairing which ultimately remains dull, certainly by comparison with Boult. The Bournemouth Symphony who always seemed to play especially well for Richard Hickox make for a more interesting result and are also very well recorded. However, the first studio recording, made by Decca in the Kingsway Hall in 1967 with the London Symphony under Colin Davis, is nearest to the tight disciplined energy of that first performance under Boult. Perhaps this is one of those cases where a live performance captures all the excitement more easily, and there surely will have been a lot of excitement that night.
I did wonder how Tippett’s reputation has fared post mortem. He divided the critics during his lifetime; his output was variable and the at the time trendier works, rather like bell-bottom jeans, have not worn well. However, I think the Second Symphony is one of his great works. The best of Tippett will surely survive, though reading Norman Lebrecht’s essay [on scena.org] written just before the composer’s centenary you will see a contrary view on that.
The Bliss collection is worth more than the sum of its parts. The music is well-played under the composer, the BBC Concert Orchestra on very good form and the dose of excerpts was carefully selected. However, it’s the commentary for the wireless programme “Music for Lighter Mood” which manages to be the icing on the cake. I use the word “wireless” as Ronald Fletcher’s conversation with Sir Arthur and Lady Bliss sounds very much of its time (and quite possibly long before its time) when radio was referred to, at least in Britain, as “the wireless”. Indeed, the music of Bliss sounds rather more modern than the conversation.
Pristine Classical kindly sent me both the 16- and 24-bit FLAC files for review, and indeed I did find that extra resolution of the 24-bit files a little more revealing. What is more important, though, is the high quality sound resulting from these two off-air tapes. It belies the age of the material, sounding really quite fresh. The slightly later Tippett sounds a little better than the earlier Bliss, but here’s not much in it. The ambient stereo adds depth to the sound, the Tippett in particular sounding rather less dry than other contemporary recordings from the Royal Festival Hall suggest.
A highly recommended piece of history in excellent sound.