By Geoffrey S.W. Gaskell.
Though Binge himself is not among their number, it seems that I am about to
begin a binge on several British composers - and with so much of quality from so
many, though they might once have been considered so few, why not?
This time I subject Tippett's Piano Sonata No.1 to the idle musings, which I
here set down for the scrutiny of the reader for no better reason than a mere
This is the among the earliest works which the composer still held in high
regard in his later years, for indeed many composers of more advanced years come
to bury juvenilia, not to praise it. The sonata received its first
performance in 1937, so it predates the mature, single movement second sonata by
The first sonata is in four movements as follows:
2. Andante molto tranquillo
4. Rondo giocoso con molto.
The work, which was well received, marks the beginning of the composer's ascent
from the dismal depths of obscurity, which condition talented people bear
grudgingly. It has the greater simplicity of youth and a
more direct approach to harmony than would be the case in most of his later
compositions. There is a high level of melodic invention and a high incidence of
percussive effect. When commenting on the piece, Tippett
acknowledged that he learned much from the sonatas of Scarlatti and he also
cited Javanese gamelan music as an influence, even at this early stage of his
development as a composer. I would add that this sonata would not be at all
displeasing or disappointing to anyone who admires the early sonatas of Serge
Prokofiev. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that the latter's Sonata No.5
(1923) would make an apt coupling on any multiple composer recital CD. Or should
this sentiment be expressed vice versa?
The first movement presents a set of variations on an original theme. A variety
of moods are captured as the music proceeds in the forthright and efficient
manner of a newly appointed CEO. There is also plenty of scope
for nimble fingered display.
The second movement is a simple rondo setting of the Scottish folksong 'Ca the
yowes tae the knowes'. It offers moments of delicate and gentle repose before
the intense third movement, a sonata form Scherzo, which presents itself as the
emotional climax of the sonata.
The third movement is a vigorous rondo, jazz influenced and again there almost
seems to be a nod towards Prokofiev (listen to the Piano Concerto No.5). It must
be something in the air, for in his early Piano Concerto,
the slightly younger Britten also seemed keen to exhibit those spiky rhythmic
patterns, so often associated with Prokofiev.
John Ogdon recorded this sonata (and also the second sonata and the Piano
Concerto in the mid 1960s). His performance of this sonata seems authoritative.
His formidable technique scarcely seems challenged, so he
is able to focus on and reveal something of the art that exists within the
printed score. He does not, however, waste any effort by attempting to drill
deeper than necessary to strike oil, so to speak.
Geoffrey S.W. Gaskell