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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2009

The Tippett Quartet—violinists John Mills and Jeremy Isaac, violist Maxine Moore, and cellist Bozidar Vukotic—give fine, crisp performances of these works. Unlike much of Tippett’s oratorio and operatic music, they are written in a vigorous, often severe style, built on but expanding the language of Beethoven’s late quartets. Quartet No. 1 was originally written in 1934–35, but its first two original movements were replaced in 1944 by a more severe single movement that is dramatic and full of contrasts. The harsh opening passages give way to a lyrical yet harmonically modern middle movement, cast in the form of an Elizabethan pavane: three different sections, each divided into two parts that rise and fall in a curved arch. The energetic fugue finale is quite obviously modeled on Beethoven.

The Second Quartet is one of Tippett’s benchmark works, and one of his most popular. Built around buoyant, lilting rhythms and plentiful lyricism, it too resolves itself in an almost furious, Beethovenian sonata-allegro finale. The Fourth Quartet, by contrast, is almost consistently dissonant and angular in its language. It also blends the four movements together seamlessly, as Beethoven did in his op. 131 Quartet. The opening movement is constructed of germ cells knitted together in short, oscillating phrases. A tense figure is aggressively declaimed in rhythmic unison, followed by a wild explosion of pizzicatos and glissandos. A multitude of interesting images flash by, such as a soft, lyric passage for the first violin, an intense chordal passage with the instruments moving in unison, and finally a tailpiece referring to the oscillating link. The slow section was described by Tippett as “the emotional core of the work,” a sort of “birth music” represented by an ecstatic, leaping violin duet.

These extremely satisfying performances compare favorably to those of the Lindsay Quartet in their two versions (Decca and ASV). For listeners who don’t know them, however, I’d warn that these quartets are more rigorously logical than emotionally moving, even in the lyric passages.

Edith Eisler
Strings Magazine, March 2009

…the first quartet…beautiful, ethereal slow movement: a flowing, lyrical melody that comes to a radiant climax. The finale is an exuberant, whimsical fugue.

The second quartet (1941–42) opens in a playful, gracious mood with syncopated, dancing rhythms. The slow movement is a somber, expressive chromatic fugue, the Scherzo is bouncy and brilliant; the finale’s turbulent passion is relieved by recurring lyrical sections. It is said that people mellow with age, but Tippett seems to have done the opposite.

His fourth quartet (1977–78) is dissonant, aggressive, and full of such extreme contrasts and sound effects as slides, scratchy chords, eerie harmonics, ponticello, and pizzicato. The four connected movements are supposed to parallel a human life, and at the end the abrasive “Grosse Fuge” theme yields to a slow chorale that fades away in a whisper.

The Tippett Quartet…is most excellent. The players handle this dauntingly difficult music with technical assurance, a beautiful, varied tone, rhythmic vitality, and total emotional commitment.

David Denton
The Strad, December 2008

Tippett himself coached the Lindsay Quartet (as it was then called) for its recording of his first three quartets (A5V) and wrote the last two for the same players. How much the composer became swept away by the big, bold and energetic style that characterised the Lindsay’s playing is questioned by this first disc of a complete cycle from the young Tippett Quartet.

If in the 1970s the Lindsay was pointing to the music’s modernity, the Tippett has the luxury now of looking backwards to find a greater degree of lyricism in this music, whose roots hark back to Beethoven. Technically the players rise to the many challenges made by the composer, at times with more certainty than the Lindsay, and we arrive at the finale of the Fourth Quartet before needing to question the security of intonation.

Though in general the Tippett players display an ample dynamic range, they take a more intimate view of the First Quartet, and soften moments of acerbity in the scoring. If tempos generally show little variance from those used by the Lindsay, the Tippett does employ a more urgent pulse in the second movements of both nos.1 and 2, and in so doing gives a more purposeful shape to the music.

Those two scores come from when the composer was relatively young, but by the time he reached the Fourth Quartet in 1978 there is more aggression and dissonance, and from the start the music plunges into a conflict that extends through much of the score. The Tippett Quartet stops short of the Lindsay’s frenetic take on the finale; the music is marked ’very fast: though the composer was probably looking for an atmosphere that was verging on turmoil.

A scrupulously clean and clearly recorded disc.

John France
MusicWeb International, November 2008

There are only two recordings of the complete Michael Tippett String Quartets currently available. The Lindsays concluded their cycle in 1992, with the first three having been recorded in 1975. For many years, apart from the odd chamber concert or private hearing, their cycle has been the only medium for exploring these seminal works. And excellent they are too. However, all Tippett enthusiasts will be delighted that the eponymous Quartet has been selected by Naxos to make a new reading of these superb pieces.

The Tippett Quartet, which was formed a decade ago, has rapidly become one of Britain’s leading string quartets. Their ‘mission statement’ is to combine so-called mainstream repertoire with contemporary works. They have recently made recordings for Dutton Epoch of music by Cecilia McDowall and Stephen Dodgson. These have been well received. Naturally, as their name implies, they have a ‘soft spot’ for Tippett’s music.

Since hearing the first three Quartets way back in 1975, I have agreed with commentators that these works are critical to an understanding of Tippett. The Fourth and Fifth Quartets chart the composer’s progress into a different soundscape, but remain essential to an appreciation of his career.

The first volume of this Naxos release contrasts the first two ‘lyrical’ Quartets with the much more dissonant Fourth, which was written in 1977–78.

The programme notes point out that Michael Tippett, as a student, was ‘invincibly’ drawn to the quartet medium after hearing performances in London by the Busch and the Lener ensembles. He is known to have written a number of unpublished quartets in the late 1920s. However it was the Quartet in A major that was the first work in the genre to be accepted as part of Tippett’s canon. It appeared in its original form in 1935. In 1943 it was revised, being reduced from four movements to three. The composer had felt that the first two were unsuccessful. He composed a new ‘allegro appassionato’, which clearly reflects the composer’s admiration of Beethoven. The slow movement is truly beautiful. It is ‘cast in the form of an Elizabethan Pavane’ and Tippett describes this music as being ‘almost unbroken lines of lyric song for all the instruments in harmony’. The final movement is an enthusiastic allegro which is really a fugue—although without the pedantic overtones that such a form may suggest. This fugue is perhaps more redolent of Beethoven than J.S. Bach.

The Second String Quartet builds on the success of the first and once again owes much of its ethos to Beethoven. It has been well described as being ‘lithe and dancing’. Certainly lyricism is one of the hallmarks of this work. One reviewer suggested that the key designation of F# major should not put off atonalists from enjoying this quartet. Contrariwise, those who enjoy traditional key relationships should not assume that Tippett will oblige them: certainly the work begins in F# minor and concludes in the tonic major, as does the second movement fugue. However, a better impression is gained if it is assumed that Tippett has designed a work that hovers around the ‘noted’ key rather than using it as a part of the work’s tonal structure. Yet the composer himself states that this quartet is the most classically balanced of the first three. At first glance it would appear to be written in standard four-movement form. However the composer insists that the “standard is juggled with and moved around.”

This work ought to rank as one of the finest examples of a twentieth century string quartet. It seems unbelievable that there are only two or three recordings of this currently available. The Second Quartet was first performed in 1943.

The first time I heard the Fourth Quartet, I admit that I was not impressed. Its style seemed a million miles away from the Tippett that I knew and loved. This included the Double Concerto, the first two Quartets, the A Midsummer Marriage and A Child of our Time. I realised that there was a more complex and dissonant side to Tippett’s art—having ploughed my way through a recording of the Vision of St Augustine. I remember hearing the first performance of the Fourth Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall and feeling it was just not what I imagined or hoped what it would be like. It was harder to come to terms with than the blues-influenced Third Symphony. That was all a very long time ago: music, like life, sorts itself out. What was difficult listening for me in 1978 now seems quite reasonable and even enjoyable. Moreover, the same can be said of the Fourth Quartet. Listening to this work for the first time in many years I was impressed by both the sound-world and its formal balance. Tippett has written many, to my mind, obscure and obtuse words about his compositional ethos. Sometimes this can be of help, but more often that not it is a hindrance to an appreciation of the music. The programme notes point out that in this present work Tippett was exploring “the compositional potential of one-movement form, using it a metaphor for the cycle of life.” Here, this life is a specifically human one, and that of a certain individual. Over and above this emotional programme, the composer was attempting to attain the ‘purity and tenderness’ of Beethoven.

The sleeve-notes gives quite a long analysis of this work—which deserves study. However the key thing to note is that there is much beauty in this work—in spite of the reputation this work has for dissonance. And finally, the work is really conceived as being in one movement—as opposed to the earlier works. The Quartet has a number of sections, which contrast tempi, and to a certain extent harmonic language, but is played without a break. Finally the listener will surely note that the third section is truly lyrical: the music here is beautiful and lacks the acerbic sound of earlier pages.

This CD will appeal strongly to all interested in the chamber music of Michael Tippett. The three works as performed with great technical skill, articulation and sheer understanding of the music. Naturally there is a hiatus in style between the first two Quartets and the last. Yet the Tippett Quartet are equally at home with the lyrical demands of the earlier works as they are with the more complex, dissonant and involved structures of the last. However, if the listener needs a sample of the sheer perfection of this recording, they only need to listen to the Lento cantabile of the A major Quartet. This is surely one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music in Tippett’s catalogue in particular and in English music in general.

Tony Haywood
MusicWeb International, November 2008

The Naxos Tippett series continues with the first of two discs devoted to his five String Quartets. Like many other composers, Tippett found himself drawn to the challenges of writing effectively for the string quartet medium, and his cycle spans most of his mature creative life. Andrew Burn’s useful liner-note tells us that the composer found himself ‘invincibly drawn to the quartet medium’ after hearing the Busch and Lener Quartets in concert whilst still a student in the twenties. There are unpublished attempts from this period, but the First Quartet ‘proper’ dates originally from 1934, being reworked and finally premiered in its new form by the Zorian Quartet in February 1944.

It’s an engaging, thoroughly amiable work, full of touches that identify the composer during this period. We still have a firm key signature, and melodic and rhythmic ideas that surfaced in other works. We also have Tippett’s fascination—bordering on obsession—with Beethoven and his ideas on form and structure. The first movement heading of allegro appassionato gives one clue, as does the expanded sonata structure that Beethoven experimented with. The slow movement is glorious, ardent and serene, the composer himself describing it as ‘almost unbroken lines of lyric song for all the instruments in harmony’. The eponymously named Tippett Quartet certainly give it their all here, melding rich tone and immaculate intonation. The finale also recalls Beethoven in its fugal form, something Tippett returned to a number of times.

The Zorians were also responsible for the premiere of the Quartet No. 2, this time if F sharp major and regarded by many as one of the composers true masterpieces from this period of early maturity. Beethoven once again looms large, with Andrew Burn citing the Piano Sonata Op.101 as principal influence. Soaring lyricism of a truly Tippettian nature is abundant on the opening allegro, and it’s the slow movement’s dark fugal unwinding that recalls the German most readily. The Tippetts clearly enjoy the buoyant rhythmic antics of the presto scherzo, and the rather serious-minded finale, modelled on Beethoven’s Quartet Op.131, shows them able to grasp structure but maintain impetus and excitement.

Rather than work through chronologically, Naxos has opted to couple these two early works with a much thornier work from the late seventies, the Quartet No.4. Key signatures have now gone, and a more dissonant, consciously modernist musical language is evident. It is contemporary with the Fourth Symphony and Triple Concerto, and is in the one-movement form that the composer saw as a metaphor for the life cycle of birth to death. The tense, brooding opening seems to grow out of tiny melodic ‘germs’, and though it is stark in overall mood, there are flashes of light here and there in the form of little ‘fanfares’ of the sort we often hear in the composer’s work. Beethoven’s dotted rhythms, especially of the sort found in the Grosse Fuge, do feature throughout, and Bartókian glissandos and harmonics punctuate the denser textured passages. It’s not an easy work to perhaps appreciate on first hearing, but it does reveal its rewards with repetition, and the excellent Tippett Quartet play with passion and conviction, even finding warmth in bleak closing moments.

There are quite a few rivals to this Naxos issue in the record catalogue, and I suppose the shadow of the Lindsay’s cycle on ASV looms largest of all. They were the dedicatees of the last two Quartets and worked with the composer directly on the whole sequence. I haven’t sampled that set, and can only say that with warm, immediate recording quality and playing of tremendous power and persuasion, you will not be disappointed if you plump for this new release.

Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, November 2008

Tippett’s tribute is beautifully shaped by the eponymous quartet

Tippett’s Fourth String Quartet is an excellent example of how traditional formal processes could come up as new in his later, less conventionally tonal style. It is also by some way the most sophisticated of his various homages to Beethoven, explicit allusions to the Grosse Fuge placed in the context of more far-reaching echoes of the last quartet, op 135, with its question-and-answer motto (“Must it be? It must be”). Like the Beethoven, the work as a whole balances joyous dance figures against solemn incantations, and the Tippett Quartet, launching a two-disc series, are as expert as any of their predecessors on disc in achieving an ideal balance between rhythmic relaxations and expressive warmth. Tippett’s free-flowing counterpoint is beautifully shaped and controlled, so that any suspicions of counterproductive garrulousness on this voluble composer’s part are short-lived. And the one big difference from Beethoven—the withdrawn, uneasy ending—comes in this performance with a strong sense of rightness and even of resolution.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2008

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.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group