Tepid Tippett from Brabbins and the Scottish BBC

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 8

If Hyperion goes on to complete this series with Martyn Brabbins, it will only be the third Tippett symphony cycle yet recorded, and the second featuring the same conductor. This fact suggests that the music is still a goodly ways from achieving popularity, even in the UK. Indeed, although the Third and Fourth Symphonies feature the composer’s strikingly thorny, late style, these two earlier works are hardly “easy,” either for the players or their listeners. Their relentlessly syncopated contrapuntal lines, often rhythmically awkward, and freely dissonant harmonies can sound relentless, even monotonous, while the textures offer numerous problems of instrumental balance. Brabbins and the good, not great, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra don’t quite rise to the occasion.

Problems start right from the outset of the First Symphony: the woodwinds have the principal tune, but the strings threaten to bury it with their countermelody. There’s also something edgy to the sound that prevents the movement from expressing the bounding energy that Tippett had in mind–whether a fault of the engineering or the players is difficult to tell. The first movement of the Second Symphony shows the opposite tendency. Here, the violins fail to project their jagged main theme over the pounding accompaniment as they should. The slow movements of both symphonies are very slow indeed, but quite beautiful, while Babbins leads the scherzo of the First too quickly to permit the orchestra to articulate the rhythms with the necessary bite.

These are small details in what are otherwise lively and propulsive performances, but if this music is ever going to make the best possible impression it needs to be played with more virtuosity and impact than it receives here. Both pieces sound more compelling in the hands of Colin Davis (Decca) or Richard Hickox (Chandos). Brabbins has quickly become Hyperion’s “house” conductor, specializing in British repertoire much as did Adrian Boult or Vernon Handley. Much of the time he’s just as compelling as they were. Just not here.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Both Works: Colin Davis (Decca)

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