Tippett String Quartets

4 January
String Quartet No.1
Boyhood’s End
String Quartet No.3
The Heart’s Assurance

5 January
String Quartet No.2 in F sharp
The Blue Guitar – Sonata for solo guitar
Songs for Achilles
String Quartet No.5

Mark Padmore (tenor) & Andrew West (piano)

Craig Ogden (guitar)

The Lindsays
[Peter Cropper & Ronald Birks (violins), Robin Ireland (viola) & Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)]

9 January
String Quartet No.4
Chacony in G minor
String Quartet in G minor, Op.10

Psophos Quartet
[Ayako Tanaka & Bleuenn Le Maître (violins), Cécile Grassi (viola) & Ingrid Schoenlaub (cello)]


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 January, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

On the face of it, the commemoration of Michael Tippett’s centenary – in London at least – looks to be pretty desultory; a situation only made worse by some appallingly crass and ill-informed articles about the composer and his music. In this context, the Wigmore Hall’s marking of the occasion with a series of chamber concerts (including Steven Osborne in all Tippett’s piano sonatas cycle) comes as welcome and necessary redress. Good, too, that the Lindsay Quartet, stalwarts of many a Tippett festival, has been on hand for an almost complete traversal of the string quartets – just six months before the ensemble is due to disband following nearly four decades together.

The present Wigmore concerts were not unlike those marking Tippett’s ninetieth birthday. As before, chamber and instrumental music rubbed shoulders with the three song-cycles, which are among the composer’s most revealing creations and in which Mark Padmore evinced a complete identification with the ‘Tippett style’: his security of line potently drawing together the diverse moods within the cantata Boyhood’s End (1943), with its Camus-like evocation of ‘great and simple images’ that form the bedrock of personal experience, and distilling a poised emotion from the settings of Second World War poetry in The Heart’s Assurance (1951) that communicated effortlessly across half a century.

If the latter marks a highpoint in the lyrically effulgent manner of Tippett’s early maturity, then the Songs for Achilles (1961) – its opening number drawn directly from the opera King Priam – typifies the sparer, more angular approach that followed. Again, Padmore amply confirmed his standing as the leading British tenor of his generation with singing that conveyed the hero’s fatalistic musing as he contemplates the demise – first of his soul-mate Patroclus, then of his own. Craig Ogden brought a lilting intensity to the guitar part (hardly an accompaniment), and was equally persuasive in the knotty but never desiccated expression of The Blue Guitar (1983) – a solo sonata whose elliptical continuity and vibrancy of expressive gesture are typical of Tippett’s unfairly maligned late music.

The performances of the string quartets were in accordance with the strengths and weaknesses of The Lindsays playing over the last few years. The sheer emotional fervour of the Allegro that Tippett wrote in 1943 to replace the previous opening movement of the First Quartet (1935) – Tippett’s earliest acknowledged piece – testified to an undimmed belief in this music as central to the ‘quartet tradition’, with the lyrical depths plumbed by the Lento remaining constant over the five dozen works that followed.

Ensemble in the madrigalesque intricacy of the Allegro that opens the Second Quartet (1942) could have been more secure, but there was no doubting the forceful clarity of the finale, nor of the players’ agility in the complex fugal Allegro and scherzo of the Third Quartet (1946) – a five- movement compendium of Tippett’s preoccupations to that point and among his finest achievements.If The Lindsays missed out on the last degree of rapture in the Andante, they got to the heart of the Lento’s lyrical ecstasy as it crescendos over three intensifying phases, and found a harmonic focus in the finale that made it more than the provisional drawing together that it can sometimes seem.

In 1991, the Fifth Quartet was praised for its concentration of means and textural clarity – qualities amply in evidence here. Yet with hindsight, the sonata-form procedure of the opening movement does seem a little straitjacketed – something to do, perhaps, with the extreme contrast in motion and energy between its constituent musical types, while the Beethovenian alternation of ‘song’ and ‘dance’ in its successor generates less cumulative intensity than it should. Could it be that the work represents a falling-off of creative energies? Or is because the Fourth Quartet (1978), for so long considered the ‘Cinderella’ of the cycle, was so fully and hearteningly rehabilitated on this occasion?

Commitments elsewhere meant that The Lindsays couldn’t include Quartet No.4, and so it fell to the young Psophos Quartet from France, making its Wigmore Hall debut in a Sunday-morning ‘coffee concert’, to include it in a programme which also featured a lucid account of Purcell’s Chacony and a magnetic performance of the Debussy quartet which relished the contrasts in texture and the intermingling of whole-tone and modal tonality which portend the greater musical revelations to come.

Right from the outset, the textural and harmonic density of Tippett’s No.4 have been held against its efficacy as a quartet – but there was little in the Psophos rendering to suggest a work written against or in spite of the medium. Moreover, the diverse musical ideas are integrated into a single movement of undoubted purpose and finesse – unified by rhythmic and, at length, literal allusions to the ‘Grosse Fuge’ motif which give the piece its focus and endow it with that sense of striving for resolution that, as in all Tippett’s major works of the period, is pointedly and necessarily equivocal.

With unerring sense of balance in even the most elaborate pages, and an interpretative prowess that saw the music as an organic and inevitable whole, the musicians of Psophos gave what is surely the finest performance that this recalcitrant work has yet received. How encouraging that such an account should emerge at the end of Tippett’s centenary week, and that a quartet of the younger generation is advancing the composer’s cause in so dedicated a fashion. Hopefully the ensemble will be allotted an evening recital in the near future at the Wigmore – and thanks to the Hall for the present series.

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