If I read another review agonizing over the quality of Tippett’s work I’ll most probably scream. From the evidence of this concert, all those gripes about his so-called inadequate technique, dotty opera libretti and even dottier political views, were swept aside by the sheer depth and power of the music performed here. Continual comparisons with Britten are spurious, but this concert certainly convinced me that Tippett is by far the more interesting musician. So please, dear colleagues, let’s celebrate Tippett’s greatness and just concentrate our efforts on criticizing the performances of his work.

Michael Tippett at work
Michael Tippett at work

And what performances we were treated to here! Music-making of the of highest calibre from all quarters, without a weak link. Craig Ogden kicked off with a strong and heartfelt performance of The Blue Guitar, a late work from 1983 written for Julian Bream. The lyrical beauty shone through and the spikier music had a wonderful point. At the end of the piece, a delicate, mystical atmosphere was achieved, leaving one with the sense of having been on a very worthwhile journey.

Even more so with the next piece on the programme (and written next): the Fourth Piano Sonata, of 1984, performed by Steven Osborne. This is perhaps the greatest of the four sonatas; stretching out over its five substantial movements with a confidence and dynamism that at once reminds one of Tippett’s great musical hero, Beethoven. And then the unexpected voice of Messiaen comes to the surface. Perhaps this latter reference became obvious as a result of Steven Osborne’s previous immersion in Messiaen’s music. He certainly had the measure of the considerable technical demands of the sonata, as well as finding a depth of feeling on a level with Beethoven’s late works. The wonderfully sonorous middle movement, with its recollections of the Fourth Symphony, was perfectly judged and ultimately very moving. The madcap scherzo that follows was jagged and rhythmically alert in Osborne’s hands, significantly outstripping the recording by the work’s dedicatee, Paul Crossley, who sounds cautious by comparison. At the end of the long final movement, a profound sense of mystery was achieved, perfectly judged by Osborne.

After the interval we were thrust back 20 years, to one of the first outings of Tippett’s second composing style – replacing the lyricism of his earlier style with a sparer and more harmonically adventurous palette – in The Songs for Achilles. The short song cycle of love songs is linked to his second opera, King Priam. Unusually written for tenor with guitar accompaniment, the cycle was originally written for Peter Pears and Julian Bream. Here performed by Mark Padmore and Craig Ogden, they made a strong impression and certainly whetted the appetite to hear Tippett’s least controversial and most purely dramatic opera again. Mark Padmore presented the three songs in a big-boned fashion, treating them more like arias than songs, particularly in the second song, with its startling repeated war-cry at the end of each verse. He and Ogden also found a touching intimacy, particularly in the final lament.

The last work in the programme, the Fourth String Quartet from 1978, finds Tippett reintroducing elements of lyricism into his music, which he developed still further in his next work, the Triple Concerto. And what a balanced and satisfyingly profound work this is – particularly evident in this superb performance by the Heath Quartet. As with the Fourth Piano Sonata, the comparison with late Beethoven is clear and its single movement form is even more developed than in the Fourth Symphony, which precedes it. The technical challenges it presents for the players are considerable, but the Heath Quartet seemed so on top of these that one was left, as you surely should be, experiencing a virtuoso showpiece with the heart of a lion. Moments that stood out were some wonderful lyrical passages from the cellist Christopher Murray in the slow section, beautifully balanced against the delicately scurrying violins. Then in another section where all action seems suspended and the four players nonchalantly muse, each in their own world musically, found the Heath Quartet performing at their sensitive virtuoso best.

A nearly full Wigmore Hall clearly appreciated this rewarding concert of “difficult” late works by Tippett, in these performances that it is hard to imagine could be bettered.