String Quartet No.1
String Quartet No.2
String Quartet No.4
The Tippett Quartet [John Mills & Jeremy Isaac (violins), Maxine Moor (viola) & Bozidar Vukotic (cello)]
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: November 2008
CD No: NAXOS 8.570496
Duration: 65 minutes
The Tippett Quartet is one of the most exciting ensembles to have appeared in the UK in recent years. This Naxos release is the first instalment of its complete recording of Michael Tippett’s five mature string quartets.
Like his four piano sonatas, these span most of the composer’s career, though they are much less evenly spread in time. The first three are all early works – Number One from 1934-5, Numbers 2 and 3 from the 1940s and Numbers 4 and 5 are from much later, 1978 and 1991 respectively.
In its original, four-movement form, Quartet No.1 was Tippett’s first published work, though in 1943 he replaced the first two movements with the present Allegro appassionato. This movement shows straight away the very different approach taken by the Tippett Quartet compared with The Lindsays on its complete survey (ASV). Where The Lindsays, who worked extensively with the composer himself, are forthright, positively in-your-face at times, the Tippett Quartet is more restrained and measured. Arguably this robs the music of some of its ‘appassionato’ quality, but it explores the music’s quieter inner recesses more effectively.
The Tippett Quartet is also more inward in the second movement, in spite of shaving nearly a minute off The Lindsays’ timing. The players pay more attention to the subtle dynamic shadings, and are readier to quicken their pace in the middle as Tippett asks.In the third movement the two groups are equally adept at handling intricate metric patterns, although The Lindsays have a greater sense of sheer abandon (Tippett originally headed this movement with a line from William Blake: “Damn braces. Bless relaxes”).
The individual characteristics of the two recordings continue in Quartet No.2, with the clarity of both the Tippett Quartet’s playing and Naxos’s engineering allowing individual phrases to tell more incisively. Again, The Lindsays are more passionate, but also sound more strenuous and make the little rhythmic and melodic flick on second violin and cello that launches the first movement’s main theme sound more effortful. The Andante second movement is a fugue, sometimes compared to the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet (Opus 95). The fugue subject also has an affinity with some of Purcell’s ground-bass themes, something that emerges more clearly in the Tippett Quartet’s performance. The Lindsays, predictably perhaps, find an extra degree of emotional intensity. The scherzo is lighter on its feet, more playful, from the Tippett Quartet, while in the finale, the often closely-knit textures benefit from the this group’s cooler poise as against The Lindsays’ more intense approach.
Quartet No.4 was written for The Lindsays (as was No 5). Reportedly, the composer’s first comment to the musicians after the premiere was, “What a strange piece!”. In four distinct but continuous sections, it is a very different experience from the first two quartets. There is much less emphasis on counterpoint, dealing more in juxtaposed blocks of material, by turns harmonically dense, and light and airy, and in its later stages flying off into references to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. The Lindsays, recorded nine years after the first performance, adopt the expected big-boned manner, handling the music’s extraordinary difficulties triumphantly, but you can sense the effort that has gone into it. The Tippett Quartet, without sounding in the least bit glib or superficial, clear the same hurdles with greater ease and clarity. A case in point: just over a minute in, the four instruments in turn play a sequence of phrases in hair-raisingly difficult double-stopping. Tippett allows for only the upper notes to be played; The Lindsays take this option, the Tippett Quartet plays everything, with no sense of strain.
The difference between these two complementary approaches to the three works might be summed up as Romanticism, in rather more resonant sound, from The Lindsays as against the Tippett Quartet’s crisper, more neo-classical style, in a warm but more analytical recording. Some may find The Tippett Quartet somewhat pastel-shaded compared with The Lindsays’ stronger colours, but The Tippett’s less strenuous performances give the music a more airborne quality. While honours are complementary and more or less even in Quartets 1 and 2, The Tippett Quartet emerges as a marginal preference in No 4.