In Oliver Soden’s new biography of Michael Tippett, he describes how Tippett wanted to open his Fourth Symphony with the sound of breathing: ‘as if the orchestra itself had lungs.’ Tippett had no idea how to achieve this effect, and at the première in 1977 they used an orchestral wind machine — a canvas band rubbing against a wooden drum. It proved about as convincing as it sounds, so at later performances a musician exhaled down a microphone. The effect, writes Soden, was reminiscent of an obscene phone call.
And there the matter and (effectively) the symphony rested, until Sound Intermedia — a team of electronic music wizards best known for their work with the London Sinfonietta — attempted something new for a recording with Martyn Brabbins earlier this year. The result could be heard in this performance by the BBC Philharmonic, also conducted by Brabbins, and it seemed to do the trick — a slightly eerie, elemental sound, rising imperceptibly from within the music; not quite human but unquestionably organic.
So the symphony quickened into life as Tippett intended. Brabbins, an undervalued conductor whose recordings show a profound sympathy for Tippett’s teeming, utterly idiosyncratic brand of symphonic argument, conducted with purpose and a sonic grandeur that proved once again that, two decades after his death in 1998, we’re only really starting to catch up with what Tippett has to tell us. The technical problems are falling away, although in a performance of such epic conviction (and coming after Sir James MacMillan’s comparably taxing Fourth Symphony), it’s no wonder that the BBC Philharmonic’s horns buckled slightly under the strain.
But the years of sniggering about Tippett’s garish clothes and quirky librettos are past; and the slightly dated gesture (for 1977) of writing a full-scale orchestral symphony no longer looks quite so eccentric. That perspective, in itself, rested on a reading of musical history that’s unsustainable in the 21st century, and while some 20th-century titans (including Britten and Stravinsky) engaged with the symphony only ironically, there was a parallel tradition of modern symphonists — Martinu, Vaughan Williams, Wellesz, Dutilleux — for whom the form clearly had a moral dimension: an assertion of the value of music on its own terms and an attempt by the creative mind to find order, meaning and a sort of hope out of an encroaching chaos.
MacMillan’s Fifth Symphony is due this summer, but it was his Fourth (premièred in 2015) that opened this concert, and the parallels with Tippett were there for the taking. Both are vast single-movement spans for large orchestra, both contain multitudes, and both create perspective by quoting a renaissance composer. Tippett alludes briefly to Orlando Gibbons. MacMillan dwells far more reverently on the Scottish polyphonist Robert Carver, peeling away layers of the string section to serve as a consort of viols, decorated with the keen, vivid clatter of steel drums and piano.
Brabbins and the BBC Philharmonic made the music shine fiercely from within, and found an unsentimental tenderness in the long, yearning cello melody at the symphony’s centre. It called to mind another of Tippett’s maxims: ‘The fundamental difficulty of our time is to be able to write the heart-easing tune which isn’t a cliché.’ That concern with the human heart feels central to both works, though while Tippett lets his Fourth expire into nothingness —the mere fact of having lived being miracle enough — it is hard not to hear MacMillan’s shimmering final chord as something more transcendent. ‘It’s not really a conscious thing,’ MacMillan told an interviewer in 2015. Some things still just demand to be said, and it takes a symphony to say them.