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Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998)
String Quartets Volume 1
String Quartet No. 1 in A major (1934-35, rev. 1943) [18:49]
String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp major (1941-1942) [19:55]
String Quartet No. 4 (1977-78) [25:53]
Tippett Quartet (John Mills (violin); Jeremy Isaac (violin); Maxine Moore (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello))
rec. St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, 12-14 November 2007. DDD
NAXOS 8.570496 [64:37]
Experience Classicsonline

There are only two recordings of the complete Michael Tippett String Quartets currently available. The Lindsays concluded their cycle in 1992, with the first three having been recorded in 1975. For many years, apart from the odd chamber concert or private hearing, their cycle has been the only medium for exploring these seminal works. And excellent they are too. However, all Tippett enthusiasts will be delighted that the eponymous Quartet has been selected by Naxos to make a new reading of these superb pieces.
 
The Tippett Quartet, which was formed a decade ago, has rapidly become one of Britain’s leading string quartets.  Their ‘mission statement’ is to combine so-called mainstream repertoire with contemporary works. They have recently made recordings for Dutton Epoch of music by Cecilia McDowall and Stephen Dodgson. These have been well received.  Naturally, as their name implies, they have a ‘soft spot’ for Tippett’s music.
 
Since hearing the first three Quartets way back in 1975, I have agreed with commentators that these works are critical to an understanding of Tippett.  The Fourth and Fifth Quartets chart the composer’s progress into a different soundscape, but remain essential to an appreciation of his career.
 
The first volume of this Naxos release contrasts the first two ‘lyrical’ Quartets with the much more dissonant Fourth, which was written in 1977-78.
 
The programme notes point out that Michael Tippett, as a student, was ‘invincibly’ drawn to the quartet medium after hearing performances in London by the Busch and the Lener ensembles. He is known to have written a number of unpublished quartets in the late 1920s. However it was the Quartet in A major that was the first work in the genre to be accepted as part of Tippett’s canon. It appeared in its original form in 1935.  In 1943 it was revised, being reduced from four movements to three. The composer had felt that the first two were unsuccessful. He composed a new ‘allegro appassionato’, which clearly reflects the composer’s admiration of Beethoven.  The slow movement is truly beautiful. It is ‘cast in the form of an Elizabethan Pavane’ and Tippett describes this music as being ‘almost unbroken lines of lyric song for all the instruments in harmony’. The final movement is an enthusiastic allegro which is really a fugue – although without the pedantic overtones that such a form may suggest. This fugue is perhaps more redolent of Beethoven than J.S. Bach.
 
The Second String Quartet builds on the success of the first and once again owes much of its ethos to Beethoven.  It has been well described as being ‘lithe and dancing’. Certainly lyricism is one of the hallmarks of this work. One reviewer suggested that the key designation of F# major should not put off atonalists from enjoying this quartet. Contrariwise, those who enjoy traditional key relationships should not assume that Tippett will oblige them: certainly the work begins in F# minor and concludes in the tonic major, as does the second movement fugue. However, a better impression is gained if it is assumed that Tippett has designed a work that hovers around the ‘noted’ key rather than using it as a part of the work’s tonal structure.  Yet the composer himself states that this quartet is the most classically balanced of the first three. At first glance it would appear to be written in standard four-movement form. However the composer insists that the “standard is juggled with and moved around.”
 
This work ought to rank as one of the finest examples of a twentieth century string quartet. It seems unbelievable that there are only two or three recordings of this currently available. The Second Quartet was first performed in 1943.
 
The first time I heard the Fourth Quartet, I admit that I was not impressed. Its style seemed a million miles away from the Tippett that I knew and loved. This included the Double Concerto, the first two Quartets, the A Midsummer Marriage and A Child of our Time. I realised that there was a more complex and dissonant side to Tippett’s art – having ploughed my way through a recording of the Vision of St Augustine. I remember hearing the first performance of the Fourth Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall and feeling it was just not what I imagined or hoped what it would be like. It was harder to come to terms with than the blues-influenced Third Symphony. That was all a very long time ago: music, like life, sorts itself out. What was difficult listening for me in 1978 now seems quite reasonable and even enjoyable. Moreover, the same can be said of the Fourth Quartet. Listening to this work for the first time in many years I was impressed by both the sound-world and its formal balance. Tippett has written many, to my mind, obscure and obtuse words about his compositional ethos. Sometimes this can be of help, but more often that not it is a hindrance to an appreciation of the music. The programme notes point out that in this present work Tippett was exploring “the compositional potential of one-movement form, using it a metaphor for the cycle of life.” Here, this life is a specifically human one, and that of a certain individual.  Over and above this emotional programme, the composer was attempting to attain the ‘purity and tenderness’ of Beethoven.
 
The sleeve-notes gives quite a long analysis of this work – which deserves study. However the key thing to note is that there is much beauty in this work – in spite of the reputation this work has for dissonance. And finally, the work is really conceived as being in one movement – as opposed to the earlier works. The Quartet has a number of sections, which contrast tempi, and to a certain extent harmonic language, but is played without a break. Finally the listener will surely note that the third section is truly lyrical: the music here is beautiful and lacks the acerbic sound of earlier pages.
 
This CD will appeal strongly to all interested in the chamber music of Michael Tippett. The three works as performed with great technical skill, articulation and sheer understanding of the music.  Naturally there is a hiatus in style between the first two Quartets and the last. Yet the Tippett Quartet are equally at home with the lyrical demands of the earlier works as they are with the more complex, dissonant and involved structures of the last. However, if the listener needs a sample of the sheer perfection of this recording, they only need to listen to the Lento cantabile of the A major Quartet. This is surely one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music in Tippett’s catalogue in particular and in English music in general.
 
John France
 


 


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