Thursday, 5 December 2013

Mark Padmore Michael Tippett Wigmore Hall

In the first of four concerts at the Wigmore Hall featuring the music of Michael Tippett, Mark Padmore joined the Heath Quartet in a recital which included Boyhood's End.

If the jury is still out on Tippett, Boyhood's End  (1943) is a masterpiece. It sets a marvellously written poem by W H Hudson (1840-1922). Hudson grew up in South America, where he spent an idyllic childhood roaming  largely free of adult supervison.  Plants and birds are meticulously observed, as if the act of describing them might bring them back to life, in a far grimmer, conformist England. The lines are long, almost prose-like. Hudson wants to lie back, gazing at the sky "peopled  with millions and myriads of glistening balls of thisteldown, ever floating by" The words impose a structure onto the piece which Tippet observes, restricting the piano part (James Baillieu) so it's minimalist enough not to disturb the magic. Padmore carried the prose line convincingly, so that it felt like conversation, yet expressed the circular musical line, which turns and twists, as if  Hudson is examining objects through an imaginary microscope. Padmore sang each word with careful deliberation. Hudson is fighting against transcience,, trying to recapture a past forever lost, "To gaze and gaze, until to me they are living things, and I, in an ecstasy am with them, floating in that immense shining void!"  The final word suddenly lifts upwards, as if severed. Padmore didn't soften the shock.  It's meant to hit you in the ear and make you feel Hudson's pain.

Perhaps the reason why Boyhood's End works so well is because Hudson's  unselfconscious innocence imposes discipline on Tippett's normal verbosity. In The Heart's Assurance (1950), Tippett sets five poems by three poets, which in itself would pose no problems for most composers. Perhaps Tippett tried to express too much with too few resources. The piano line churns about ostentatiously: the vocal lines struggle to keep up. "Oh never, never  never trust your pride of movement". Tippett forces as many notes into each word as he can. That's fine in theory, but the effect is clumsy, the way a stutter overtakes communication.  In "The Dancer", the convoluted phrasing might suggest dance, and the piano part is attractive. But even  singers as good as Padmore can't disguise the choppiness. The studied artiness of  "Remember your Lovers" might impress, but for me it creates emotional distance, understandable given that the songs were written to mark the death of Tippett's closest female friend. Britten did emotional distance too, but with far more fluency.

The Wigmore Hall  retrospective is built around Tippett's five string quartets, performed by the Heath Quartet, who won the Royal Philharmonic Society's Young Artisrs Award. At this recital, they played Tippett's String Quarter no 1 (1934, revised 1943) and String Quartet no 3 (1945, revised 1975)  The latter has clearly discernible shape, and a good variety of invention. The Heath Quartet imbue it with youthful high spirits. The next recital in this series is 17th January, Padmore will join the Heath again, with Steven Osborne and Craig Ogden.


Oliver Soden said...

Boyhood's End sets not a poem by W. H. Hudson, but a section of prose taken from Chapter 22 of Hudson's memoir, Far Away and Long Ago.

There are only two poets whose work Tippett chose for The Heart's Assurance: Alun Lewis, and Sidney Keyes.

Doundou Tchil said...

Based on the metre, it's poetic. Note that I said "prose like". This passage lifts off from the literal. Part of Tippett's problem with word setting is that he's pedantic. Boyhood's End works well because he is able to let go and fly. The Britten connection is relevant, this being such a Brittenish subject.