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January 10, 2005

Two Traditions - Steven Osborne performs Tippett & Jazz at the Wigmore Hall

Posted by David Conway

Steven Osborne - Tippett Centenary Festival recital/Jazz recital at the Wigmore Hall, London, 7th January 2005
Tippett at 100 – BBC4, 8th January 2005

First out amongst the musical centenaries this year is that of Sir Michael Tippett (1905 - 1998). We have had the piano sonatas, amongst other items, on Radio 3, we had a compilation documentary on the composer on BBC4 on 8th January and on the 7th, Steven Osborne included the first two sonatas in a recital with music by other twentieth century composers – the other two were included in a 9th January concert which I was unable to attend.

Even before he died, the debate about Tippett's music was well under way. Some saw him as a man who had outlived his time. Others debunked his entire output and could not wait for him to be forgotten. Present judgements hover around the level of Ivan Hewett's very faint praise in a recent article in The Telegraph, which reminds us that he "certainly wasn't a great innovator" and "is often accused of being technically ham-fisted". The pair of sonatas in Osborne's recital, which were played about as convincingly as they could be with this pianist's superb technique and crystalline clarity, will not have – could not have by their nature – created new fans. The first sonata, reworked in 1938 from an earlier Fantasy Sonata, is entirely in the English pastoral tradition of the first half of the last century. Pleasant, and fluent in its narrative, it is let down by a clumsily conceived last movement whose naivety is more embarrassing than engaging. Still one would be quite willing to listen to it again, which is more than can be said of the one-movement Second Sonata which was written 25 years later. Actually I remember finding this sonata disagreeable when I last heard it some fifteen years ago played by Paul Crossley in the presence of the composer, who introduced the piece. For all Tippett's powers of communication, personally as well as in his best music, and for all Osborne's stylish advocacy last Friday, there is no way to make this arid landscape of disjointed sonic events amenable to a listener. It sounds selfish and spiteful, and is wholly rebarbative.

It was good to be reminded of the composer's affirmative music in the BBC documentary, which included Colin Davis conducting the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. If this piece, the Corelli Fantasia, the Midsummer Marriage and A Child of Our Time, (all of which manage more or less successfully the lyrical fusion between popular and formal idioms which the early sonata just misses), remain substantially more popular than the later works, then he who runs may read. An interview between Tippet and Bernard Levin seems to point to the problem, when the composer revealed his urge to grow beyond the idiom and culture in which he had matured and embrace the many differing styles of non-Western music which were now apparent through radio and recording. It is clear why these novelties would be attractive to one of Tippett's great aural curiosity, but this involvement seemed also to lead to some rejection of the underpinning structures which, for audiences, sustained the hold of his imaginative productions for the duration of a performance. A rather cringe-worthy New Age whimsicality also set in at this time, perhaps as a corollary. So the degeneration, from about the time of the Second Sonata and King Priam, towards the inchoate tootling of his last work The Rose Lake (1995), also played in the documentary, of which the first fifteen minutes were more than enough for me. Doubtless however we will have many opportunities for re-evaluation of the oeuvre as a whole during the forthcoming Proms season.

Gershwin and Ives were two of Tippet's favourites and Osborne gave us the well-known jazz-style Preludes of the former and the rumbustious miniature Three Page Sonata of the latter. This performance made me hunger to know what Osborne would make of the Ives's two full-scale piano sonatas – I hope he will essay them in the near future. He is able to carry off Ives's deliberately rough edges with great conviction. It seems to me that this is because he not only gets the notes right, but listens to himself very carefully while he is working the music up, so as to get the colour and shading to the exact standards he has conceived. One senses his satisfaction from time to time in his recitals that he has reached his own mark – a mark which is not, as with some pianists, a stamp of his own prowess, but is a determination to bring out what his study of the score has revealed to him about the composer's intentions. Osborne's intelligence gives him the confidence to be transparent. This was highly rewarding to his audience in his very French playing of Ravel's Sonatine, about as remote from Ives's idiom as one can get. The recital concluded with five pieces from Bartók's Mikrokosmos, including the wonderfully accurate droning From the Diary of a Fly and a throbbing, storming, folk-music Ostinato.

After a break, Osborne continued the evening with a second recital, this time of jazz. He has recorded an excellent album of the extraordinary Russian jazz composer, Nikolai Kapustin, (born 1937 and still going strong) but it turns out that he has a fascination with the great pianists of the jazz tradition, and an envy of the freedom which jazz improvisation offers the soloist.

His jazz session was in fact a revelation but perhaps not in exactly the way Osborne had conceived it. He began with recreations of three Oscar Peterson solos, starting with a take on Won't You Take the A-Train? This immediately raised questions – as Osborne himself conceded in his introduction - of exactly what we were listening to. I was reminded of Borges's story of a twentieth-century Frenchman who summons all his faculties to write Cervantes's Don Quixote, word for word as the original. Osborne's devotion to the music and his technique are not in question; but the value of Peterson's performances and recordings are that they sprang, as it were, directly from his fingers. To reproduce his music in this way is valuable to Osborne, certainly, because it can help to inform his performances of scored music. Clearly it is helpful to an interpreter to master every form of relevant technique; just as it can be valuable for painters to produce copies of masterpieces in galleries. But whilst it is possible admire the latter for their technical mastery, they cannot live and provoke reactions as their originals do. (I will sidestep here the question of whether this is just because we know they are copies, or whether the originals have some innate spiritual qualities). My suspicion that this sort of activity may reveal more to the artist than to his audience increased during Osborne's reproduction of a Keith Jarrett improvisation, music which whilst it provokes interesting moments of sound is as a whole dull and self-important.

When Osborne gave us some of his own improvisation, he was absorbing when indulging on the brink of some Cecil Taylor-like chaos, but diminished the effect by retreating to safer melodic episodes. In fact he was encountering the same problems of integration that in different ways run through Tippett's works. He thus brought us to face a fundamental, and I think ultimately irreconcilable, difference between jazz and popular elements and the 'classical' tradition. Jazz is essentially small-scale, the improvisatory elaboration, often undeniably with great virtuosity and harmonic imagination, of small structures like the twelve-bar blues or simple dance forms. The classical tradition creates large structures articulated by long-term shifts in key and harmony, demanding a different attitude to improvisation. Indeed improvisation in this tradition is almost lost (except perhaps amongst organists) – it is difficult for us to credit the casualness with which, for example, Mendelssohn or other virtuosi of his era might request three different unseen subjects from their audiences, and then improvise a sonata-form structure ending in a fugue on all three simultaneously. These differences in attitude seem to me to be essentially irreconcilable, although experiments in reconciliation may often be fascinating. I am not convinced that any musician brought up in one of these traditions can ever be fully at home in the other.

All the music I have been discussing in fact can be presented as attempts by composers of the last century to confront this dichotomy. In Ravel's case by retreat to 'neo-classicism'; with Ives, the challenge for musicians and audiences alike to 'stretch their ears'; Gershwin's early attempts at 'cross-over'; with Bartók and Tippett, in their different ways, grafting folk-elements onto classical models, (and indeed Kapustin smuggling in jazz techniques to counterfeit Soviet musical criteria). All credit to Steven Osborne for mounting, once again, a challenging programme and with his very fine performances, forcing his audience to think as well as to take pleasure.


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