Sir Michael Tippett: Choral Images


When Sir Michael Tippett first worked with the BBC Singers in 1944, the experience was such that he recalled nearly 50 years later that “It was to be the first of many such occasions when a composer’s dreams were brought to fulfillment.” Now under their Conductor Laureate, Stephen Cleobury, the present-day BBC Singers return the compliment with this programme of his works for choir, both unaccompanied and with organ.

Includes the works:
The Windhover
Plebs Angleica
The Weeping Babe
Magnificat & Nunc Dimitis
Four Songs from the British Isles
The Source
Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time
& two premiere recordings:
Over the Sea to Skye
Unto the Hills (Wadhurst)


What people are saying

“Scarcely time to draw breath but the BBC Singers offer a winning Tippett set” The Gramophone

“In 1994 Tippett wrote ‘in my first encounter with the professionalism of the BBC singers [1994] , I was immediately taken aback by their speed of learning and range of vocal skills’ … The BBC Singers have a remarkable ability to create immensely varied colours, something all too rare in most choirs… This is a hugely recommended disc. Tippett knew his dreams were being brought to fulfilment in 1944. In 2007, they still are” Church Music Quarterly

“An essential for any Tippett lover. But with these dazzlingly vibrant performances, if you love good choral music, then you should buy it.” MusicWeb International Recordings of the Year 2007

The BBC Singers conducted by Stephen Cleobury
Iain Farrington – Organ

Release date:1st Feb 2007
Order code:SIGCD092
Barcode: 635212009222

The Times, February 2007, ***

Stephen Cleobury conducts the BBC’s professional choir in a Tippett programme almost identical, even down to the running order, to that which his younger brother Nicholas recorded 30 years ago with different singers.

Comparisons are, of course, inevitable. Stephen’s Dance Clarion Air has neater diction and slightly better tuning than his sibling’s; but Nicholas’s St John’s Service has a raw energy that Stephen’s lacks. Stephen’s spirituals are relaxed where Nicholas’s are excited, and the Yeats and Hopkins lyrics are more sensitively sung on the new CD. This also includes a previously unrecorded, but alas dull, Tippett hymn tune.

Rick Jones

BBC Music Magazine, April 2007
Performance ***** Sound *****

There may be passing similarities in style between Michael Tippett’s music and that of his friend Benjamin Britten. But where Britten’s hallmark is often lucid clarity, Tippett is much less easy to grasp on first hearing. That’s as true of these choral miniatures as much as his better-known more ambitious works. Tippett is more inclined to quirkiness, to go off at seeming tangents, and the serpentine intricacy of some of his choral writing puts even the best-drilled professional choirs to the test.

A hit-and-miss composer? That might be the impression you take away from this disc, but when Tippett hits the mark he does so like no other composer. The plaintive high solo of the Nunc Dimittis, floating above strange middle-range harmonies, soars worlds away from cosy Anglican convention. The ‘sprung’ rhythms of Dance Clarion Air and The Windhover have a muscular freedom unlike anything in contemporary English music. The strangely irregular figures Tipett waves around the tune in Over the Sea to Skye may seem over-ingenious at first, but by the end their quite hypnotic, at the same time challenging the ear to re-examine a very familiar melody. Britten, masterful as he is, can seem disappointingly safe in comparison.

Tippett’s relationship with the BBC Singers went back to almost the beginning of his career, and he often expressed intense admiration for them. His faith is rewarded here. Other choirs – the Finzi Singers on Chandos for instance – have made a good case for this repertoire, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard things like the tortuous chromatic writing at the heart of The Weeping Babe come across with such conviction. Recommended.

Stephen Johnson

Music Web International, April 2007

As a follow up to their fine Tippett song disc, featuring John Mark Ainsley, Signum have now issued one covering Tippett’s choral music. Although Tippett worked extensively with choirs throughout his life, smaller-scale choral pieces did not feature all that strongly in his repertoire. This disc covers all of his significant works for choir alone, or choir and organ. The surprise is that there isn’t more of it and that there are no large pieces comparable to those which Britten wrote for unaccompanied choir.

That said, there is some very fine music on the disc and much of it is currently not available on disc. The BBC commissioned The Weeping Babe from Tippett in 1944 when the BBC Singers premiered it. The current BBC Singers have now recorded all of Tippett’s choral music under the direction of Stephen Cleobury.

Tippett’s earliest published choral pieces were the two madrigals, settings of The Source by Edward Thomas and The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Written in 1942, they were dedicated to and first performed by the Morley College Choir. Both pieces use Tippett’s modern madrigal manner, both are complex part-sings with much vigorous, multi-textured writing. You can’t help but be impressed at the standard that the amateur, war-time Morley College Choir must have achieved to have event attempted these pieces. The BBC Singers respond to the composer’s challenge with relish. In many places on this disc they make light of difficulties creating effortlessly dazzling textures.

Also in the 1940s Tippett wrote two more choral pieces, to commission, even though he had complained that working on a small scale was not to his taste. Plebs Angelica might be small, but it is tricky to sing and dazzling in execution. It was written for Canterbury Cathedral Choir but first performed in the cathedral by the Fleet Street Choir, directed by T.B. Lawrence. The text is a medieval Latin lyric and Tippett uses two antiphonal choirs to produce some glittering, multi-rhythmed textures.

The other 1940s choral piece was the BBC Commission, The Weeping Babe. The poem is by Edith Sitwell, a serious nativity carol that prefigures the Crucifixion. Tippett creates a complex, powerful part-song with a complex interweaving of rhythms.

Tippett’s major achievement during this period was the oratorio A Child of Our Time. In 1958, at the request of his German publisher, Tippett made an a cappella arrangement of them; two are essentially unchanged from the oratorio but in the three others Tippett significantly re-worked material to replace the instrumental parts. The original solo parts are retained, sung by the choral leaders. Here the solos are impressively sung by members of the BBC Singers: Jennifer Adams-Barbaro, Jacqueline Fox, Robert Johnston, Stuart MacIntyre. Whilst some people will still prefer the orchestral version, Tippett shows great skill at re-creating this music for his unaccompanied chorus whilst retaining the essential feeling of this wonderful pieces. Sung here by a relatively small group of singers (26 in all), we gain immensely in clarity and flexibility. It is undoubtedly thrilling to hear the Spirituals sung by a large chorus, but here the more concentrated texture makes them profoundly moving.

Dance, clarion air was Tippett’s contribution to A Garland for the Queen, the 1952 collection of songs for the Queen’s Coronation. All the texts were specially written, Tippett’s by Christopher Fry. Using this Tippett creates a dazzling, dancing part-song inspired by madrigals of the past.

In 1957 Tippett was commissioned by North West German Radio, Bremen; the result was Four Songs from the British Isles. In the event, the amateur choir for whom the piece was intended, found it too tricky and the first performance was given in 1958 by the London Bach Group. Tippett’s folk-song arrangements are long, surprisingly substantial and satisfying; these are no mere bonne-bouches. In each song Tippett generally starts off with relatively straight presentation of the tune but gradually surrounds it with a web of more complex background material. Over the Sea to Skye was intended to be included in the set but had to be discarded due to copyright reasons and was only discovered at Schott’s London offices in 2002.

Unto the Hills is a simple, for Tippett (!), hymn tune which he wrote for the Salvation Army in 1958. This came about because Wadhurst, where Tippett was living, had a strong Salvation Army band and they used to play at his house at Christmas; the bandmaster asked Tippett for a piece and this was the result.

But this piece is not really typical of the changes that were happening to Tippett’s music around this time; he introduced sparser textures and more astringent harmonies. His dazzling pastoral style would not recur until his wonderful late orchestral pieces.

The key work in this period was the opera King Priam and Lullaby sets a W.B. Yeats poem which includes references to the Priam story. The piece was written for the Deller Consort, with a solo part full of declamatory flourishes written for Deller himself. The result is quieter than some of the earlier pieces, with a jagged lyricism; the angular solo part is admirably sung by Sian Menna, though I would have been interested to hear a counter-tenor of the Deller school singing it.

Tippett only wrote one piece setting liturgical text, his Anglican Evensong canticles written in 1961 for the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. John’s College, Cambridge. The college choir, under George Guest, first sang them in March 1962. The Magnificat is remarkably uncompromising with a mainly homophonic choral part interrupted by organ flourishes; these were designed to show off the new trumpet stop on the St. John’s organ. The Nunc Dimittis gives the lion’s share of the work to soloists with the treble soloists – beautifully sung here by Margaret Feaviour – taking the lead, again with occasional organ interruptions. The result is austere and lovely.

These are the last choral pieces that Tippett wrote; all his later work for choir involves large-scale choral and orchestral forces. We might regret what Tippett did not write. But, despite his experience as a choral trainer he obviously found the limitations of choral writing restricting rather than liberating.

The BBC Singers under Stephen Cleobury give strong, passionate performances. There were occasional moments when I did wonder whether less vibrato and purer tone might have worked better; but this is strong music and it responds to strong, technically confident performances. But here, the BBC Singers go far beyond mere technical competency, creating a series of varied but dazzlingly vibrant performances. If you love good choral music, then buy it.

Robert Hugill

International Record Review, March 2007

There are two novelties here, discovered only after Tippett’s death in 1998, but neither is going to set you racing to the shops on its account alone. The first is a hymn-tune with organ, Wadhurst, more of a youthful indiscretion than anything else: pleasant but unmemorable. The second is an arrangement of the Skye Boat Song, originally intended for the other national folk songs that also appear on this disc; and here Tippett finds a delectable pattern of arabesques to weave round the familiar and wonderfully languid tune – it is, briefly, magical.

The main fare, though, consists of Tipett’s limited quality of music for choir, much of it early, bulked out with the inevitable ‘Five Negro Spirituals’ from A Child of Our Time: lovely as these are as detached pieces, some of their impact is surely muted when they are thus wrenched from their context and sung as consecutive numbers (at least Jeremy Summerly’s Hyperion recording, reviewed in April 2006, separated them with other music).

Pieces such as Dance, Clarion Air, Plebs Angelica and The Weeping Babe are by no means uniformly easy, as Tippett’s melismatic style of writing is sometimes ungrateful. However, it goes without saying that the BBC Singers, as Britain’s premier professional choir, evince not the least trace of difficulty and sound utterly at home and assured everywhere, and perfectly blended. Their conductor Stephen Cleobury clearly knows this music well, as indeed he should, as he turns up as organist on the rival Decca recording (part of a four-CD set) of this music, conducted by his brother Nicholas, which was originally a L’Oiseau-Lyre LP! His organist for Signum Classics is Iain Farrington, highly efficient, who especially enjoys the trumpet stop on the organ of the Temple Church at the start of Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, written originally for St John’s, Cambridge.

The acoustic is warm and rounded, once or twice obscuring the clarity of the words. the BBC Singers have some fine soloists in their number and all the occasional solo moments Tippet offers are well taken. There are full texts in English and in Latin only, and an excellent note from Anthony Burton, who used to produce the Singers’ broadcasts when he was with the BBC.

There have not been many recordings of this music of recent vintage. The Nimbus recording from Christ Church broke new ground in its day (1990), used boys’ voices, and included the slightly naïve schools cantata Crown of the Year at the expense of some folk songs. The Finzi Singers’ disc on Chandos dates from 1994 but still sounds excellent, vocally and sonically. That, or the present release is the one to have.

Piers Burton-Page

The Gramophone, May 2007

Scarcely time to draw breath but the BBC Singers offer a winning Tippett set.

Tippett’s choral music makes for a heterogeneous collection on disc; just the sort of programme that you would never expect to encounter at a live concert. Signum Classics underline the heterogeneity by cramming the 19 items together with only a few brief seconds between them. This makes for several jarring shifts of tonality, and seems especially careless since the disc plays for under 63 minutes anyway. Constant use of the pause button is the only solution.

Fortunately, the performances compensate. The polish and professionalism of the BBC Singers are everywhere apparent, and they bring an imposing tonal weight to such familiar items as the Spirituals from A Child of Our Time. This is a fine account, aided by the lively acoustic of the Temple Church: for once one hardly misses the orchestra in “Go down, Moses”. For the same reason the absence of boys’ voices in the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for St John’s College, Cambridge, and of a plangent solo countertenor in Lullaby, for the Deller Consort, are less troubling than they might otherwise be. Stephen Cleobury and the Singers are especially impressive in the weaving lines and dancing rhythms of the madrigals and motets from the 1940s. Even they can do little to clarify the congested textures of the Songs from the British Isles, but there are two previously unrecorded items, giving this disc the edge over such long-standing and worthy rivals as the Finzi Singers (Chandos). An arrangement of “Over the Sea to Skye” weaves the familiar tune in some appealingly offbeat counterpoints, and a hymn-tune written by the atheist Tippett for the Salvation Army proves to be touchingly sincere.

Arnold Whittall

Church Music Quarterly, June 2007

In 1994, at the occasion of the BBC Singers’ 70th anniversary concert, Tippett wrote: ‘In my first encounter with the professionalism of the BBC Singers [1944], I was immediately taken aback by their speed of learning and range of vocal skills. It would be the first of many such occasions when a composer’s dreams were brought to fulfilment.’ Given the quality of the singing on this disc, it seems that in over 60 years, things have only got better.

The disc comprises all of Tippett’s choral works for both unaccompanied choir and choir with organ, mostly sets of small miniatures, but also his two ‘sets’ of multiple pieces (Four songs from the British Isles and the Five Negro Spirituals). This disc also contains two works not previously recorded: The hymn ‘Unto the hills’ (Wadhurst) was written for the Salvation Army, and a fabulous arrangement of Over the Sea to Skye which was at one point to be the Scottish song in Four songs from the British Isles.

The BBC Singers have a remarkable ability to create immensely varied colours, something all too rare in most choirs. I’m not talking about successful dynamics, though that is highly apparent too, but the possibility of different types of piano and forte. This varies from the middle of Lilliburlero, ”and he will cut all the English troate’. In fact, the Four songs from the British Isles are as fine a performance as you are likely to hear, with wonderful characterization from Cleobury and the Singers.

As can be expected, the choir contains soloists of the highest quality, notably Sián Menna in the intricate Lullaby, originally written for Alfred Deller and his Consort. There is also a beautifully plaintive but uncredited solo in The Weeping Babe.

On the down side, there’s very little time left between tracks – this just doesn’t allow the listener to breathe or sufficiently digest what they’ve heard…This, though a shame, isn’t the end of the world since the singing more than makes up for this small fault.

The disc culminates with an excellent performance of Tippett’s most popular work for unaccompanied choir, the five Negro Spirituals. When they are heard in his oratorio a Child of our Time, they appear with orchestral accompaniment and this sometimes leads to a feeling of lack of bass in the a capella version. This is certainly not the case hear, and they can be heard with aplomb at the end of Nobody knows…

This is a hugely recommended disc. Tippett knew his dreams were being brought to fulfilment in 1944. In 2007, they still are.

Will Dawes

MusicWeb International Recordings of the Year 2007

An essential for any Tippett lover. But with these dazzlingly vibrant performances, if you love good choral music, then you should buy it.

Robert Hugill

  1. Dance, Clarion Air – – [4.36]
  2. Plebs Angelica – – [3.11]
  3. The Weeping Babe – – [5.06]
  4. Magnificat – Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense – [4.14]
  5. Nun Dimittis – Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabrigiense – [2.45]
  6. Hymn: Unto the Hills – (Wadhurst) – [3.46]
  7. Four Songs From the British Isles: England – Early One Morning – – [2.56]
  8. Four Songs From the British Isles: Ireland – Lilliburler – – [1.41]
  9. Four Songs From the British Isles: Scotland – Poortith Cauld – – [5.26]
  10. Four Songs From the British Isles: Wales – Gwenllian – – [3.26]
  11. Over the Sea to Skye – – [4.04]
  12. The Source – – [2.14]
  13. The Windhover – – [3.00]
  14. Lullaby – – [4.20]
  15. Five Negro Spirituals From The Oratorio “A Child Of Our Time”: Steal Away – – [3.01]
  16. Five Negro Spirituals From The Oratorio “A Child Of Our Time”: Nobody Knows – – [1.22]
  17. Five Negro Spirituals From The Oratorio “A Child Of Our Time”: Go Down, Moses – – [3.02]
  18. Five Negro Spirituals From The Oratorio “A Child Of Our Time”: By & By – – [1.13]
  19. Five Negro Spirituals From The Oratorio “A Child Of Our Time”: Deep River – – [3.33]

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