String Quartet No.4
Six Pieces for String Quartet [world premiere]
Phantasy Quartet on British Folk Songs, Op.36
String Quartet [world premiere]
Tippett Quartet [John Mills & Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola) & Bozidar Vukotic (cello)]
Reviewed by: Timothy Wild
Reviewed: 21 March, 2013
Venue: St Mary’s, Church Road, Barnes, London Borough of Richmond upon Thames
In one of the world’s biggest cosmopolitan cities, variety and difference are celebrated daily. The variety of culture in London is apparent everywhere – the streets, on the tube, the markets or galleries. The capital of the English is known for so many different nationalities but less so of its own. However, these days the launch of a new festival promises to add some more Englishness to London. The Barnes Music Festival has chosen for its theme in its first year the late-19th/early-20th-century composer Gustav Holst and the English tradition he represents, featuring alongside pieces by Britten, John Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Constant Lambert and Tippett. The week of events mostly performed in the beautiful 12th-century church of St Mary’s presents a wide range of Holst’s output.
This programme sharpened the theme and examined to what extent the English tradition carries on today. Three pieces written by composers who reside in Barnes were performed by the Tippett String Quartet together with Holst’s Phantasy on British Folk Songs. Stephen Dodgson, now 89, is more widely known for his guitar pieces but has recently developed a relationship with the Tippett String Quartet, which has recorded his complete works for the genre, the intriguing Fourth engaging the listener with mere fragments of melodic ideas. The repetition of these simple thoughts exposes the themes to varying timbre in an attractive but occasionally limiting way. The players beautifully highlighted the ever-changing texture and their daring harmonics were well rewarded. Although the piece lacks a coherent structure the musicians presented a very strong and directed reading. Tom Evans’s Six Pieces are inspired by specific birdsongs. The premise has much scope for imaginative use of the instruments yet the work was a disappointment. The obvious nod to Messiaen lacks the atmospheric evocation that characterises the latter’s Quartet for the End of Time. The music’s limitations were made more obvious by the performers’ lack of inspiration and by their overly diligent regard for the score.
Holst’s Phantasy Quartet (1916) is a recently discovered work, which the Tippett musicians have championed. This charming piece evidently captured their imagination and they enthusiastically evoked the idyllic Hampshire countryside. Holst’s characteristically rhythmic writing was brilliantly and joyously communicated and special credit must go to Lydia Lowndes-Northcott for some fine solo passages. Only occasional lapses in intonation could count against what otherwise was an outstanding account of a work that deserves to be more widely known. Jim Parker (born 1934) will be familiar to many by his television (Midsomer Murders) and film scores and it was in his String Quartet that the Tippett ensemble showed its true colours. This accessible and amusing work is framed by outer movements that represent the composer’s tribute to the great jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. The middle movements displayed Parker’s intense lyricism and wit and reference to a hurdy-gurdy; as his programme-note made clear: “any suspicious intonation is fully intentional”.
The English Tradition that this festival aims to celebrate was shown here to be one of immense diversity. Four local composers expressed various aspects of their own Englishness and based on this evidence it would appear that Holst’s musical legacy is secure and there is more than enough music to fill another Barnes festival.