String Quartets Volume 2
String Quartet No. 3 (1945-46) [31:42]
String Quartet No. 5 (1990-91) [28:23]
The Tippett Quartet: John Mills, Jeremy Isaac (violins), Maxine Moore (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
Rec. St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, 3rd and 4th March and 3rd April 2009 Stereo DDD
NAXOS 8.570497 [60:05]
This second volume of Tippett string quartets completes the Naxos cycle by the group named in the composer’s honour. The third and fifth quartets are a curious paring, over forty years separates their composition, and the musical worlds they inhabit are at the far ends of Tippett’s spectrum.
The Third Quartet is cast in a Beethovenian mould, with Beethoven’s late quartets the principle point of reference. Like the mature Beethoven, Tippett strives here to combine the modest scale and intimacy of chamber music with the structural rigour of renaissance counterpoint. The result is a work in five movements, in which the contrapuntal movements, the first, third and fifth, are in a continual state of contrapuntal flow. Players approaching this music have the long-standing performing traditions associated with the Beethoven quartets as their guide, and as with the greatest of those, the Tippett Quartet combine a lyricism in each of their lines with an impressive discipline in the tuning and above all the balance of their ensemble. The pacing in these movements is steady – all the better to appreciate the contrapuntal intricacy – and their tone leans towards solid an earthy timbres. It is not the only way that this music could be presented, but by keeping these complex textures earthbound, without any flights of lyrical digression, the players instil a sense of loyalty to Tippett’s muse; a contained lyricism based on a dark inner poetry. The slower and less contrapuntal second and fourth movements are presented with great care. This is music of borderline tonal affiliation, but is, I suspect, much easier on the listener than on the performers, who are required to tune a range of unusual combinations and voicings without the support of traditional tonal conventions. They do so magnificently, and the care with which they place each note lends a sense of reserve to these movements, which again is perfectly accordant with Tippett’s paradoxically introverted expression.
The Fifth Quartet is a more esoteric proposition. It was written in 1990-91, when the composer was in his mid-80s, and employs an uncompromising aesthetic. That is not to say that it is continuously harsh and dissonant (though it often is, at the opening for example), but rather to emphasise that the work engages very little with the history of the genre, preferring instead to explore its thematic material in a state of Modernist isolation. On those terms it succeeds. It is cast in two movements, a dramatic and multifaceted opening movement followed by a calmer, almost post-apocalyptic epilogue. As with the Third Quartet, the players present a controlled and disciplined reading, and again the results accord well with the inner logic of Tippett’s Modernist aesthetic. A kind of suppressed lyricism occasionally comes to the fore, especially in the second movement, and the players give these passages their due, emphasising portamento slides, for example, to highlight the productive, if paradoxical discrepancy between these short passages of vocalise and the architectural austerity of the whole.
Both of these works deserve to be heard more, and as the Lindsay Quartet, who have been the primary advocates of this music in recent years, have recently disbanded, it seems that the (significantly named) Tippett Quartet are on hand to take the baton. Their performances here do justice of Tippett’s imaginative and diverse soundworld. Fans of the composer are unlikely to need my recommendation, though I offer it nonetheless. I’d also recommend it to those curious about Tippett and who are interested in going beyond his most famous oratorio. The Third Quartet in particular is a valuable door into the more esoteric corners of his output. And for anybody who has completed their pilgrimage through Beethoven’s late quartets and is ready for more music in the same vein, the contrapuntal intrigues of Tippett’s Third are unlikely to disappoint.