To those who grew up with Michael Tippett’s music and lived through the later premières, the neglect into which he has fallen and the ill-disguised contempt of many is both puzzling and distressing. The same fate befell both Sibelius and Vaughan Williams in the years following their deaths and now, fifteen years on, there is perhaps just a faint glimmer of a Tippett reappraisal on the horizon. The BBC Proms have mounted a handsome series of works this year and, although only one work was included in this year’s Presteigne Festival, the festival has consistently kept faith with Tippett. Although less than 20 minutes long, The Heart’s Assurance is a key work and the most personal ever to come from Tippett’s pen. Composed in 1951 for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, it forms a neat adjunct to the festival’s Britten performance of Curlew River, which was dedicated to Tippett. Taking texts by Sidney Keyes and Alun Lewis, it was a response to the suicide, in April 1945, of Francesca Allinson, one of Tippett’s closest friends. Writing forty years after its composition in 1990, Tippett remarked, “I am still unutterably moved when I hear it performed”. One can see why: the music has a raw emotional appeal not found anywhere else in his output – be it the almost unbearable transience of the opening song or the leave-taking of the final piece.

Sir Michael Tippett © Nicky Johnston
Sir Michael Tippett
© Nicky Johnston

Britten remarked, one suspects more in frustration that jest, that he wished Tippett’s piano parts were not so difficult, and The Heart’s Assurance is a minefield for any but the most securely equipped of performers. The essential challenge is to find a clear line through the dense musical text that sounds both inevitable and effortless – qualities that tenor Andrew Tortise and pianist Chris Hopkins seemed to achieve with ease, both here and in the other works on their excellent programme.

This was one of the more difficult concerts of the festival, for both performers and audience: 90 minutes plus of contemporary songs – an idiom that, for 50 years or more, composers have either grappled with or abandoned altogether. Hugh Wood is unusual amongst composers of his generation in that songwriting has dominated his output since the 1950s. His Wild Cyclamen, to poems by Robert Graves, which closed this concert, is a cycle of twelve songs that reflect the solid painstakingly craftsmanship that Wood brings to all his music.

David Matthews’ music is a regular feature of Presteigne, particularly in this 70th birthday year, and the concert contained a première: the Three Dunwich Songs. These were often seductively beautiful, but, as with the Wood songs, one felt sometimes that too much of the real invention was in the piano part and that the vocal lines lacked that essential quality that makes a song – something that, for all his songs’ complexity, Tippett never forgets.

The most impressive contemporary work was by Gabriel Jackson. His Ruined Land, from 1994, could never be described as a song – more a scena or even cantata, it is a setting of words by Richard George Elliott. Cast in a continuous movement, it reinvents the relationship between voice and piano and, if not always entirely successful, it was the most imaginative response to the problems of setting voice and text of the three contemporary works on the programme.

****1