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Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
String Quartet No.1 in A major (1934-5, rev.1943) [18:49]
String Quartet No.2 in F sharp major, (1941-2) [19:55]
String Quartet No.4 (1977-78) [25:53]
The Tippett Quartet
rec. St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, 12-14 November 2007
NAXOS 8.570496 [64:37]
Experience Classicsonline

The Naxos Tippett series continues with the first of two discs devoted to his five String Quartets. Like many other composers, Tippett found himself drawn to the challenges of writing effectively for the string quartet medium, and his cycle spans most of his mature creative life. Andrew Burn’s useful liner-note tells us that the composer found himself ‘invincibly drawn to the quartet medium’ after hearing the Busch and Lener Quartets in concert whilst still a student in the twenties. There are unpublished attempts from this period, but the First Quartet ‘proper’ dates originally from 1934, being reworked and finally premiered in its new form by the Zorian Quartet in February 1944.
 
It’s an engaging, thoroughly amiable work, full of touches that identify the composer during this period. We still have a firm key signature, and melodic and rhythmic ideas that surfaced in other works. We also have Tippett’s fascination – bordering on obsession – with Beethoven and his ideas on form and structure. The first movement heading of allegro appassionato gives one clue, as does the expanded sonata structure that Beethoven experimented with. The slow movement is glorious, ardent and serene, the composer himself describing it as ‘almost unbroken lines of lyric song for all the instruments in harmony’. The eponymously named Tippett Quartet certainly give it their all here, melding rich tone and immaculate intonation. The finale also recalls Beethoven in its fugal form, something Tippett returned to a number of times.
 
The Zorians were also responsible for the premiere of the Quartet No. 2, this time if F sharp major and regarded by many as one of the composers true masterpieces from this period of early maturity. Beethoven once again looms large, with Andrew Burn citing the Piano Sonata Op.101 as principal influence. Soaring lyricism of a truly Tippettian nature is abundant on the opening allegro, and it’s the slow movement’s dark fugal unwinding that recalls the German most readily. The Tippetts clearly enjoy the buoyant rhythmic antics of the presto scherzo, and the rather serious-minded finale, modelled on Beethoven’s Quartet Op.131, shows them able to grasp structure but maintain impetus and excitement.
 
Rather than work through chronologically, Naxos has opted to couple these two early works with a much thornier work from the late seventies, the Quartet No.4. Key signatures have now gone, and a more dissonant, consciously modernist musical language is evident. It is contemporary with the Fourth Symphony and Triple Concerto, and is in the one-movement form that the composer saw as a metaphor for the life cycle of birth to death. The tense, brooding opening seems to grow out of tiny melodic ‘germs’, and though it is stark in overall mood, there are flashes of light here and there in the form of little ‘fanfares’ of the sort we often hear in the composer’s work. Beethoven’s dotted rhythms, especially of the sort found in the Grosse Fuge, do feature throughout, and Bartókian glissandos and harmonics punctuate the denser textured passages. It’s not an easy work to perhaps appreciate on first hearing, but it does reveal its rewards with repetition, and the excellent Tippett Quartet play with passion and conviction, even finding warmth in bleak closing moments.
 
There are quite a few rivals to this Naxos issue in the record catalogue, and I suppose the shadow of the Lindsay’s cycle on ASV looms largest of all. They were the dedicatees of the last two Quartets and worked with the composer directly on the whole sequence. I haven’t sampled that set, and can only say that with warm, immediate recording quality and playing of tremendous power and persuasion, you will not be disappointed if you plump for this new release.
 
Tony Haywood

see also review by John France

 

 


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