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Remembering Tippett - recordings from the 1940s
and the first and the latest recordings of Tallis Spem in Alium

Fantasy Sonata

Concerto for Double String Orchestra
String Quartet No. 2
Tallis Spem in Alium

Phyllis Sellick
Morley College Choir conducted by Tippett
Orchestra conducted by Walter Goehr

Here is the perfect centenary CD, a reissue of well-remembered shellacs from the '40s. The documentation (Anthony Burton & Hannah Vlcek) is superb; for me an enthralling 20-page trip down memory lane (NMC D103).

All the people around Michael Tippett at the time are featured; fascinating to read how important was Walter Goehr ("a sort of elder brother figure") who collaborated closely with the composer on the notation of Tippett's complex rhythms. Morley College looms large, "an evening school in the humanities for the unfettered amateur" - I won a composition prize there awarded by Antony Hopkins, popular broadcaster and writer about music, and rested on that laurel thereafter! Walter Bergmann ran the recorder class I attended; musicians and friends, they all come to life again.

About the performances; this first one of the Double Strings Concerto is lucid and wears its age well (Alexander Goehr is quoted as saying that his father's interpretation of it is the only one which realised the rhythmic character as the composer wished) and the Zorian Quartet's (second) recording of the 2nd Quartet is fine in this transfer, as is Phyllis Sellick's of the Fantasy Sonata for the record shop Rimington Van Wyck (the original version of the 1st Piano Sonata). They have the patina of age but for some of us this has an appeal alongside later accounts in the highest-fi of today's digital stereo.

The reissue of Symphonies nos 2 & 4 (NMC D104), with the BBCSO under the 88 yr-old composer's baton in 1993, and a poignant memoir by the sessions producer, is an affectionate reminder of Sir Michael's energy and commitment into extreme old age, but it will not be a first choice - though it is certainly better than the same orchestra's premiere of No 2, which broke down in the first movement !

Tallis Spem In Alium (Six into forty don't go!)

I cannot recommend Tippett's enthusiasm as having been enough to make his recording of the Tallis 40-part Spem In Alium, the first ever, competitive! I was there at Abbey Road when he tried to bring together various amateur choirs "trained by innumerable sub-conductors". Sir Michael had his heart in his conducting, but little technique. . .

For a musical history lesson, hear the Tallis 40-part Spem In Alium 60 years on, in the most recent of a spate of its digital recordings, a "single" for release January 2006
[Signum SIGCD071]

The six male King's Singers have employed all the technology of pop recording to multiply their voices to forty, and record the work a tone down with click-tracking to keep in time, a mapped template to cope with the complex logistics, finally overdubbing, elaborate mixing and editing. They explain the process with a modicum of due modesty.

The text is not supplied with this CD-single but there are interviews to explain the project. It really is an experiment for technophiles; smooth and perfect, but the absence of strain comes at a price.

So back to Tippett for real life !







© Peter Grahame Woolf