The inspiration for Sir Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto came in a single moment in 1950. The occasion was a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Walter Gieseking as soloist. Recalling this “precise moment of conception,” the English composer commented, “Under the influence of an exceptionally poetic yet classical performance of the Beethoven movement, I found myself persuaded that a contemporary concerto might be written, in which the piano is used once again for its poetic capabilities.”
The spirit of Beethoven’s Concerto hovers around Tippett’s, from the magical opening bars of the first movement (Allegro non troppo), which are at once delicate, shimmering, and expectant. Here, the solo piano and flutes enter into an angelic dialogue, while an ominous pedal tone forms deep in the low strings. When this theme returns later in the movement, the celeste adds to its dreaminess. Beethoven’s evocations of nature transform into English pastoral birdsongs, while spirited “proclamations” ring out in the trumpets, horns, and timpani.
In the second movement (Molto lento e tranquillo), torrential arpeggios in the solo piano drift in a steady stream over dense, sometimes cacophonous canons in the winds. The high strings are absent for much of the movement. Finally, they emerge as a blinding flash of light. In an allusion to the mysterious dialogue between piano and orchestra in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, intimate solo piano lines are interrupted by passionate, anguished interjections.
The final movement (Vivace) is a jubilant rondo. A move from B to E-flat evokes the heroic grandeur of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. A series of musical adventures includes intimations of the blues, and a falling line reminiscent of the effervescent Mercury, the Winged Messenger movement from Holst’s The Planets. The final bars bring a celebratory cadence in C major.
The musicologist, Arnold Whittall, notes that, for all of its allusions to Beethoven, Tippett’s Concerto “turns the conventions of Beethovenian sonata form inside out,” allowing “change to take place gradually: ambiguity and avoidance of the explicit are exploited for their capacity to arouse expectations of coherent continuation.” Composed between 1953 and 1955 in response to a commission from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Concerto inhabits a magical sound world which is similar to Tippett’s opera, The Midsummer Marriage, and song cycle, The Heart’s Assurance, both completed during the same period. Throughout the work, vibrant contrapuntal conversations between groups of instruments pay homage to the Baroque Concerto grosso. Ultimately, this music is a shimmering celebration of the concerto itself.
I. Allegro non troppo:
II. Molto lento e tranquillo:
- Tippett: Piano Concerto, Steven Osborne, Martyn Brabbins, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Amazon
Featured Image: London’s Barbican Estate, photograph by Joas Souza