Tuesday 11 October 2022

A new benchmark: the first new recording of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage for over 50 years brings out all the work's intoxicating brilliance

Michael Tippett: The Midsummer Marriage; Robert Murray, Rachel Nicholls, Toby Spence, Jennifer France, Ashley Riches, Susan Bickley, Joshua Bloom, London Philharmonic Choir, ENO Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner; LPO
Michael Tippett: The Midsummer Marriage; Robert Murray, Rachel Nicholls, Toby Spence, Jennifer France, Ashley Riches, Susan Bickley, Joshua Bloom, London Philharmonic Choir, ENO Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner; LPO
Reviewed 10/10/2022 (★★★★★)

Gardner's 2021 concert performance transferred to disc in a vibrant and vividly realised performance that places the orchestra at the ecstatic centre of Tippett's opera 

The post-war period was a remarkable one for British opera, there was Britten's Peter Grimes, Walton's Troilus and Cressida, and Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage along with many other that are not so well remembered, including Bliss' The Olympians with a libretto by J.B. Priestly that in some ways intersects with Tippet's opera. 

Premiered nearly ten years after Peter Grimes, Tippett's first opera has never quite achieved the popularity or ubiquity of Britten's. It is a very different work, arguably more complex both in terms of its writing and its subject matter, but it has its adherents and has slowly gained ground.

The work's premiere is a thing of legend but listening to the live recording of the 1955 performance with Richard Lewis and Joan Sutherland, conducted by John Pritchard, there is plenty to enjoy. The work had to wait until 1970 for its first studio recording, with Alberto Remedios and Joan Carlyle, conducted by Colin Davis; a recording that arose out of Covent Garden's new 1968 production of the opera. Since then, there has been little in the way of complete recording and there does not seem to be DVD currently available.

A new live recording of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on the orchestra's own label seems set to provide a new benchmark with Robert Murray and Rachel Nicholls as Mark and Jennifer, Ashley Riches as King Fisher, Jennifer France and Toby Spence as Bella and Jack, Claire Barnett-Jones as Madame Sosostris, and Susan Bickley and Joshua Bloom as the Ancients with the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Choir and ENO Chorus.

In his illuminating booklet article, Oliver Soden talks about how the opera owed its genesis not so much to post-war Britain as to the immediate pre-war years, notably the symbolic verse dramas of T.S. Eliot (whom Tippett asked to write the libretto of A Child of our Time) and Christopher Fry, which meant that the opera, when finally produced in 1955, seemed somewhat out of time. It is indeed at odds with the naturalism of Britten's output of the period.

Famously, Tippett said his initial idea was from The Magic Flute with a 'Royal couple' contrasted with a more plebeian one, and this is preserved in the finished opera. But there are other elements too, the way the lead couple disappear for a long stretch of time and the use of orchestral interludes and integral dance sequences point us also to French grand opera (surely not a popular model in the post-war period). Whilst Mark and Jennifer are the focus of Act One, they are absent from Act Two and only reappear towards the end of Act Three, as a result this is very much an ensemble piece, and Tippett's writing places an important emphasis on the orchestra. And interestingly the work sticks to the classical unities, the time span is a single day and the location fixed.

Edward Gardner places the London Philharmonic Orchestra top dead centre in this recording, which captures superbly the crisply multi-layered textures of Tippett's writing. This is difficult music, both technically and in terms of bringing it off dramatically, and Gardner rarely puts a baton wrong. There is a wonderful brilliance here to Tippett's ecstatic, glittering textures, vivid and engrossing, and it is terrific to hear such fine performances of the dances in the correct context in the drama.

Mark and Jennifer require a pair of singers who can combine weight and flexibility, something of a challenge in casting (Sutherland's presence in the premiere is less of a surprise than one might thing, she had a surprisingly strong voice; after the famous 1959 Lucia di Lammermoor, Tullio Serafin suggested Lady Macbeth as her next role). Robert Murray and Rachel Nicholls are brilliant in the way they both encompass the roles' challenges. They are perhaps slightly behind in the mix and have to push somewhat at moments, having the large forces of chorus and orchestra on stage behind them not a help. Murray is simply superb in the way he gives a bright vibrancy to Mark's ecstatic vocal lines, and Nicholls similarly belies her dramatic repertoire and sounds lithe and flexible. The two create some superb moments as the music of Act One gets progressively more ecstatic.

Jennifer France and Toby Spence make a delightful second couple. France does not quite bring off the 'Oh, he's a honey' moment, the way Elizabeth Harwood did for Davis, but then Harwood had the benefit of a studio recording. Recorded live, France and Spence make a down to earth delight, a fine contrast to Nicholls and Murray. Ashley Riches is a lovely dead-pan King Fisher, the warmth in his voice combatting the fact that the character is such a pratt, but Riches also has the requisite dark authority. This is man who expects to be obeyed.

Susan Bickley and Joshua Bloom are nicely oracular and trenchant as the Ancients, mysterious and somewhat dismissive of these silly humans. Fearsome yet somewhat comic too. And also suitably oracular is Claire Barnett-Jones as the wonderfully mysterious Sosostris.

The choruses are in terrific form, vivid and vibrant in the projection of character, lithe of line and alert to the complexity of the writing. As I have said, the orchestra is top dead centre. The recording would be well worth listening to for its performance alone. But here we have a superbly assembled package, a vividly theatrical occasion captured finely. There are times when you simply forget that this is a live recording. If it had been done in the studio, undoubtedly balance and other details would be somewhat different, but instead Gardner and his forces give us a fine theatrical sweep yet, Gardner has a good eye for detail too and everything is crisply in its place.

I will still return (occasionally) to the 1955 live recording and, of course, to that first studio recording but this new one, in superb modern sound, is at the top of the library shelves. All we need now is a sympathetic stage production.

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) - The Midsummer Marriage (1955) [2:38:23]
Robert Murray - Mark
Rachel Nicholls - Jennifer
Ashley Riches - King Fisher
Jennifer France - Bella
Toby Spence - Jack
Claire Barnett-Jones - Sosostris
Susan Bickley - She-Ancient
Joshua Bloom - He-Ancient
London Philharmonic Choir
English National Opera Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)
Recorded live by BBC Radio 3 at the Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall on 25 September 2021
LONDON PHILHARMONIC LPO124 3CDs [63:12, 34:32, 60:39]

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