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ClassicsOnline Home » TIPPETT, M.: String Quartets, Vol. 1 - Nos. 1, 2, 4 (Tippett Quartet)
Michael Tippett, who was ‘invincibly drawn to the quartet medium’ when he heard performances by the Busch and Léner Quartets during his student years in London, wrote five string quartets spanning his entire compositional life. On this first disc of the complete Quartets, the tuneful String Quartet No. 1 is followed by the String Quartet No. 2, notable for its abundant lyricism and lithe, dancing rhythms. In sharp contrast to both these works stands the more dissonant String Quartet No. 4, an unbroken sequence of numbered movements, which reflect the String Quartet Op. 131 of Tippett’s compositional hero, Beethoven.
By David Denton
Michael Tippett composed the five quartets through much of his life, and they perfectly encapsulated the stylistic unfolding of one of the great English composers of the 20th century. Born in 1905, he published nothing until he was in his mid-thirties, the eventual breakthrough coming in 1941 with the emotive, A Child of our Time. Over the following years he was to embrace atonality and serialism, yet always seemed more persuasive when working within the extended boundaries of tonality. It is this environment that we find in his earliest quartet began in 1934, its three movements centered on a sombre but radiant Lento cantabile. Already the technical demands were evident, and were much extended in the Second Quartet dating from 1942. By 1978 he seems to have overlooked the limits on performing capability, the Fourth quartet’s ‘very fast’ finale presenting formidable technical challenges, not least in the harmonics with which the work ends. You are sometimes reminded of Shostakovich in his most angry moments. It was the Lindsay String Quartet’s pioneering recordings that brought the cycle to international recognition, but whereas in the 1970s they presented the music as very ‘modern’, this new cycle, from the aptly named Tippett Quartet, has the benefit of hindsight, their performances sounding less stressed and seeking out the lyrical aspects, the slow movements in the first two quartets taken at more fluid tempos. Technically they are well handled performances, but are no less stretched than the Lindsays were in the Fourth. They decide on a less frenetic tempo for the finale, though working with the composer the Lindsays must have came close to his intentions. I discovered Tippett from the Lindsay’s concert and live recordings, but I would want to add these new versions to my library. Sound quality is exemplary.
Michael Tippett (1905–1998)
String Quartets • 1
Michael Tippett studied at the Royal College of Music with Charles Wood and later with R.O. Morris. His first acknowledged works appeared in his late thirties, such as the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938–39). From 1940 to 1951 he was director of Morley College where he mounted important revivals of early music such as Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. In 1943 he was imprisoned for his pacifist beliefs, and the following year his reputation as a leading British composer was established with the oratorio A Child of Our Time (1939–41). His series of five operas, string quartets and piano sonatas, and four symphonies are major contributions to these genres. Among his characteristic masterpieces are the operas The Midsummer Marriage (1946–52) and King Priam (1958–61), the Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli for strings (1953), the Piano Concerto (1953–55), Second Symphony (1956–57) and the oratorio The Mask of Time (1980–82). Many of Tippett’s compositions reflect the social, political and philosophical beliefs that he held. He was knighted in 1966 and composed into his vigorous old age, his later works including the scena Byzantium(1989–90) and the orchestral The Rose Lake (1991–93).
Tippett wrote that he was ‘invincibly drawn to the quartet medium’ when he heard performances by the Busch and Léner Quartets whilst a student in London. Unpublished quartets were written in the late 1920s; then followed the composition of his first three acknowledged quartets in little over a decade from 1935 to 1946. (A fourth was intended in the sequence, but the prolonged composition of The Midsummer Marriage prevented this.) In each of the quartets Tippett was preoccupied with form, although equally important was the profound influence of Beethoven, whose music, particularly the complete quartets, enthralled him. In his own music he found his challenge was to adapt and redefine Beethovenian forms in a meaningful twentieth-century compositional context.
The String Quartet No. 1, in its original version, was composed in 1934–35, and first performed by the Brosa Quartet on 9 December 1935 when there were four movements. Tippett subsequently deemed that the last two were successful, but not the others; therefore he replaced them with a single new first movement, given its première by the Zorian Quartet on 26 February 1944. The clue to the first movement is its heading, Allegro appassionato, since it is full of drama and ardour. Following the classic Beethovenian mould, the weight of the musical argument of the entire work is to be found in this sonata-form allegro with an exposition of ideas, their development and recapitulation. The exposition ends with what Tippett described as an ‘upward-striving, then calming passage’ for cello alone, which was an idea retained from the discarded movement. This returns at the end of the movement, but now ‘downward-striving’ and links directly with the slow movement. Marked by a quality of serenity, this is cast in the form of an Elizabethan Pavan: three different sections, each divided into two parts, which rise and fall in a curved arch. Tippett described the music as being ‘almost unbroken lines of lyric song for all the instruments in harmony’. Such extended melodic flowering was to become a hallmark of the mature composer.
The quartet is capped with a vigorous fugal finale which hearkens back to Beethoven rather than Bach. Tippett explained that it was ‘the earliest example of additive rhythm and cross-rhythm polyphony’ in his music, which means that an irregular pattern of rhythmic metres replaces a regular pulse, the technique once more looking back to the Elizabethan age and the practices of the madrigal composers. The result is a constant change of metres creating music which bounds along with an ebullient flow. Tippett had headed the finale with a quotation from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘Damn braces. Bless relaxes.’ It is as if he had decided to throw his inhibitions about his compositional skills to the wind: he knew that he had found himself in this work.
The String Quartet No. 2 (1941–42), first performed by the Zorian Quartet on 27 March 1943, is one of the quintessential works of the composer’s early maturity. Three features characterise the quartet: an abundant lyricism; lithe, dancing rhythms; and, once more his engagement with his lifelong compositional hero, Beethoven. Having made the decision to place the compositional emphasis on the finale, a passionate Beethovenian sonata-allegro, Tippett sought a different approach to the structure of the first movement from the classical norm. Beethoven though is again his inspiration and specifically the opening movement of the Piano Sonata, Op. 101, in which the classical sonata principal of contrast and drama is subsumed into music whose primary force is lyrical. Thus both the main musical ideas of Tippett’s movement have this character, the second theme being derived from the accompaniment to the first. Apart from its soaring lyricism, the movement is characterized by a rhythmic vigour again reflecting the influence of the English madrigalists. True contrast appears with the second movement, a fugue. Its dark, chromatic character develops from the sombre fugue subject which Tippett had jotted down at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938. Apart from the example of Beethoven’s late fugues, the spirit of Purcell’s string fantasias is also apparent in the music.
The buoyancy of the exhilarating scherzo is generated again by the use of ‘additive rhythm’. Scherzo and trio are merged in the movement, so that it comprises an extended statement of ideas which are then twice repeated, at a higher pitch each time, and with subtle changes of thematic material and texture. After these three very different movements the stage is set for drama in the finale which Tippett modelled on the last movement of Beethoven’s Op. 131 Quartet. To assist the sense of summation the themes are derived from the previous movements: the first subject from the initial movement, the second from the fugue and a new theme at the start of the development section from the scherzo. In its powerful progress, the Beethovenian ideal of contrasting ideas tussling with each other is finally assuaged in the serenity of the beautiful coda.
Tippett’s String Quartet No. 4 (1977–78) was given its première by the Lindsay Quartet on 20 May 1979. What is instantly aurally apparent is the radical change in the character of the composer’s voice, which is now far more dissonant compared to the earlier works on this disc. In this quartet, as in the contemporaneous Fourth Symphony and Triple Concerto, Tippett was exploring the compositional potential of one-movement form, using it as a metaphor for the cycle of life; here, specifically an individual human one. According to the eminent authority on Tippett’s music, Ian Kemp, the composer was also striving to attain the ‘purity and tenderness’ of Beethoven’s late work. Indeed the continuing influence of the latter on Tippett is also apparent in the structure of the quartet, an unbroken sequence of numbered movements, once again reflecting Beethoven’s Op. 131 —extended slow introduction, sonata-allegro, main slow movement, and palindromic finale. Throughout thematic crossreference between the sections creates an overall unity.
A vivid musical image of ‘birth’ occurs at the beginning. Germ cells from which the work is wrought are laid out as the music builds to a short oscillating climax linked to the next section where the mood plunges instantly into conflict. A tense figure is punched-out dramatically in rhythmic unison followed by a helter-skelter explosion of pizzicato and glissandi. Memorable musical images flash by: a lyrical pianissimo idea on the first violin; a passionate, richly harmonic chordal passage with the instruments moving in unison; a buoyant marcato passage generating a swirling energy; and finally a tailpiece referring to the oscillating link. This material is heard in three strophes suggestive of the exposition, development and recapitulation of classical sonata form. During the slow section (described by Tippett as ‘the emotional core of the work’), the ‘birth’ music is explored further and an exultant leaping duet for the violins (marked ‘light, flying’) is heard twice over a contrasting plangent cello solo. The finale erupts with a ‘strong, fiery’ gesture, cutting to a jerky rhythm, played with ‘great energy’ which clearly refers to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. Its surging momentum dissolves into a pianissimo ‘light, crisp’ passage of semiquavers. In the centre a still chorale in eerie harmonics is juxtaposed with fragments of the fast music as well as a quintuplet figure on viola and cello like the inhalation and exhalation of breath. The fast music returns in reverse order, but now stalled by the static chorale music, which expands on each appearance. By the slow conclusion a mood of transcendence has been achieved: the journey of life is complete.
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