Today is the anniversary of the death of Sir Michael Tippett, and last week was the anniversary of his birth. To mark both occasions, here’s a collection of his music from a service of Choral Evensong that dates back to St Peter’s Day 2005, from St John’s College, Cambridge. It’s a recording i recently discovered in my archives, on a video cassette, so the quality doesn’t quite live up to the digital recordings i make today; all the same, it’s a nice clear reproduction, taken from digital radio.
Almost all the music in the service was by Tippett, beginning with his neo-renaissance motet Plebs angelica, mellifluous and texturally very thick throughout. The canticles are Tippett’s setting for St John’s College (composed in 1961 to mark the 450th anniversary of the founding of the college); the Magnificat is brilliantly virile, startlingly muscular from the outset, and the Nunc dimittis is no less interesting for its relative softness, individual voices sounding stark, even vulnerable against a gentle choral backdrop, occasionally punctuated by the organ, contributing strange singular clusters. Instead of a single anthem, the choir performed no fewer than all five of Tippett’s Negro Spirituals from ‘A Child of our Time’. They’re given a thoroughly spirited performance (no pun intended), the singers quite clearly relishing the material. “Steal Away” (in my opinion the best of the five) is performed with great delicacy, and the baritone soloist is superb; and “Go down, Moses”—which, more than the others, tends to sound significantly weaker than its original orchestral version—is strikingly brought to life here, the final bars given a suitably authoritative tone. To finish, the voluntary was Tippett’s meandering, rather mundane Preludio al Vespro di Monteverdi.
It was a very worthy endeavour of St John’s College to focus their energy on such an interesting and challenging composer on this feast day. But most of all, this is worth hearing as it’s such a wonderful break from the bland fodder we’re usually force-fed in these services.