Tippett: Piano Concerto, Piano Sonatas, Fantasia on a theme of Handel

Steven Osborne; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Brabbins (Hyperion CDA67644)

Release Date: November, 2007 4 stars

Tippett Piano WorksGiven his popularity, and yet the relatively small size of his output, it is somewhat surprising that Michael Tippett's Piano music isn't more well-known. As a means to address this issue, I can think of no better option than Steven Osborne's excellent recordings of the complete Tippett Piano Works, which combine a keenly penetrating ear with a mature and fluid touch to create a memorable recording of these relatively little-known works.

The collection begins with Tippett's lyrical Piano Concerto, written in 1955 and recorded here with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins. The first movement opens with a lightly bubbling piano passage which sets the tone for a richly melodic work whose later climaxes are warmly projected by both brass and soloist. The darker middle movement gives the orchestra a chance to demonstrate its ability to colour and inflect lyrical melodies with a pensive and sombre pathos. Osborne pulls off the quasi-Beethovenian passages – those which possess an intensity of meaning and an expansiveness of gesture – adeptly, while Brabbins guides the often meandering orchestral lines gently towards their logical close. The final movement is an orchestral dance, familiar to us now from Tippett's stage works, which lightly scuttles around before culminating in a series of extraordinary episodes for the soloist and orchestral players, the most notable being a liquidly beautiful duet for celeste and piano. The work ends with Brabbins and Osborne expending the last vestiges of their contagious energy in an exciting dash to the close.

The next work on the disc, and the last for piano and orchestra, is the less successful Fantasia on a Theme by Handel. The work itself suffers from a lack of drive and is as fractured as its formal description suggests – theme, five variations, development, fugue, and theme again. Nonetheless, the players do an excellent job of finding some sense of continuity in the work and there is a sense of distance travelled when the fairly pretty last few bars are reached. Despite this, the work is just too foursquare to be considered really great, and the fairly academic fugue which comes towards the end of the work is simply draining.

The collection continues with Tippett's four piano sonatas in chronological order. While I had expected these to reflect the course of Tippett's development as a composer, I had not anticipated that they would contain so much to recommend them in themselves. They are musically rich, containing a wealth of ideas and colours, and intellectually demanding, spanning a huge range of techniques and styles.

Hence, the First Sonata's predominant lyricism is handled excellently by Osborne, who by this stage has established that he is clearly a superb lyricist himself. However, the more virtuosic fragmentation of motives and themes marks the first steps in a process which will ultimately lead to the third sonata. It is a fragmentation which Osborne handles with style, as though he too were startled by the sudden Nancarrow-like gestures which interject the otherwise melodic passages. The slow movement is again a darkly lyrical movement based, this time, on the alternation between the unlikely pair of a folk-song and a two-part invention; Osborne's achievement here lies in marrying these ill-suited bedfellows. After a chromatic Scherzo which begins to explore the extremes of the piano – a technique which, orchestrally, typifies Tippett's sound, and which Osborne balances perfectly – the intrusion of the finale's jazzy sound seems shocking. However, following more skilfully crafted fragmentation from Osborne, the 'post-jazziness' of the whole begins to make more sense.

The Second Sonata marks a major change in Tippett's style, embracing as it does darker and more fateful colours. The work is percussive, expressionistic, and tremendously difficult. Though it stops short of the kind of extreme aggression we might associate with other works of the 1950s and 1960s, the work is also grotesquely disjunct and broken. Given his skills as a lyricist, there is no reason to expect Osborne to be able to handle this intense one movement work – but on the contrary, he performs excellently, with the balance between sound and silence, or expression and failure, perfectly achieved. Although I felt that sometimes he could have been more sensitive to the quieter passages in Tippett's score, this is an altogether surprising recording given the precedents set by both composer and performer thus far.

If, however, one was surprised by the Second Sonata, then one has a right to be completely shocked by the third and fourth. In these works, Tippett's syntax becomes more and more disjointed and piecemeal, and his technique more and more expressionistic. The opening of the Third Sonata recalls a Ligeti etude, thanks, in no small measure, to Osborne's biting tone and digital strength. Similarly, the moto perpetuo of chromatic lines sliding past each other at the extremes of the piano and the near dodecaphonic counterpoint retain, thanks to Osborne's control and insight, a rusty and metallic edge which makes the music immediate and visceral. Finally, the fourth sonata marks another change of style, concerning as it does the exploration of the sonorous envelope of the piano and new techniques of creating sounds. Once again, though, the chameleon-like Osborne isn't caught short, and the work emerges sounding fresh and exciting.

To record a complete collection of the piano works of a composer whose style matured and aged through markedly different aesthetic periods is a brave task. However, Osborne is to be commended not simply for his bravery in undertaking such a mission. Nor, given that he accomplishes it which such aplomb, is he only to be praised for the sheer understanding, skill, and ability which he brings to these works. Ultimately, he must be thanked for bringing to a wider audience the emotional, meaningful, and intensely expressive works of one of twentieth-century England's greatest composers.

By William Lockhart