Michael Tippett (1905-1998) composed his first three String Quartets between 1941 and 1946, during World War Two when he was a Conscientious Objector, working at Morley College (in London, his place of birth), although he was imprisoned awhile for his pacifist leanings, and believing in the power of music for the good of society. Later, he was knighted.
String Quartet No.1 opens in brusque and bracing style, classically concise and with a yearning lyricism that prefaces a slow movement of great beauty and a Finale that is playful while revealing Tippett’s contrapuntal mastery. Quartet No.2 opens serenely and expressively, while the fugal slow movement takes its time to grow (not dissimilar to the beginning of Beethoven’s Opus 131) and is followed by a fleet Scherzo and a dynamic appassionato last movement. The expansive Quartet No.3 (premiered at Wigmore Hall), in five movements, is of searching music, a journey undertaken and arrived at through precisely pointed energy, the utmost technical confidence and the loveliest of invention in such as the first of the slow movements.
There is something engrossing and deeply satisfying about Tippett’s music from this period, utterly personal while owing to Beethoven (one of Tippett’s gods), Jazz and the composers of the English Renaissance.
Although Tippett was far from silent in the interim – Symphonies 2 (Boult), 3 (Colin Davis) & 4 (Solti) and operas, including The Midsummer Marriage, King Priam and The Knot Garden – a new String Quartet from him didn’t arrive for another thirty years.
During those three decades Tippett’s style changed dramatically. String Quartet No.4 (1978) is in a single movement if four defined sections. It’s terse, clustered and intense, forcefully communicative if a nightmare of demands for the players: let it be said that the members of the Heath Quartet are magnificent in technique and musicianship. Maybe for convenience (no more) the music could be described as Bartókian, yet really it’s Totally Tippett in its chiselled drive, song-like lyricism, complex decoration and vivid outreach. Quartet No.5 (1991), Tippett now in his mid-eighties, is in two movements, and like its predecessor the composer had taken to English-language markings rather than Italian ones (from “slow” to “very fast”). This swansong Quartet (if with The Rose Lake, for the LSO, still to come) distils the essence of Tippett’s music without in anyway suggesting the ‘same again’. He is both continuing to explore with vigour yet refine his art; the slower music is especially poignant. (Applause jars following the tranquil ending, fine on the night, not so at home.)
Tippett’s String Quartets have been previously recorded by The Lindsays, the Britten Quartet and the eponymous Tippett Quartet. This Wigmore Hall Live release sets a new standard; not only does it contain great music but also superb performances and ideal recorded sound; a potent combination of artistry and technology.