Saturday 7 December 2013

Tippett songs and quartets

The Heath Quartet - Photo Credit: Sussie Ahlburg
The Heath Quartet - Photo Credit: Sussie Ahlburg
Michael Tippett (1905 – 1998) – A retrospective: the first and third string quartets, 'and song cycles 'Boyhoods End' and 'The Heart's Assurance' performed by the Heath Quartet, Mark Padmore and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall, 3 December 2013

One of a series of concerts at the Wigmore Hall celebrating Michael Tippet’s work - these four works  were all written close to the start of Tippett’s long compositional life. Unlike Britten, Tippett took time to become confident in his work and the earliest of his surviving compositions date from the late 1930’s. 

In 1943, during the Second World War, Tippett was imprisoned for two months for failure to comply with the conditions of his exemption of service due to conscientious objection. Nevertheless compositionally this was an important period in his life. He was promoted, from conductor of the South London Orchestra for unemployed musicians, to become the musical director of Morley College in 1940 and stayed there until 1951. 

At Morley College not only did Tippett meet Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, but the college became a musical refuge for musicians and composers escaping Nazi occupied Europe. Tippett embraced the musical talents surrounding him and the influence of this and of the war can be felt in his work.

The first string quartet originally written in 1935 was revised in 1943, and the song cycle ‘Boyhoods end’ was written in 1943. The third string quartet was also written at about this time (1946) - more than ten years after the first - and ‘The heart’s assurance’ a few years later (circa 1950). Both of the song cycles were written for Britten and Pears to perform.

The Heath Quartet, Oliver Heath and Cerys Jones on violin, Gary Pomeroy, viola, and Christopher Murray on cello, are regular performers at the Wigmore Hall. They have won recent wards including the 2012 Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artists Award and the 2012 Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Ensemble Prize. Their performance was confident and assured making the most of the great contrasts available in Tippett’s work, whether playing as one or standing out during solo passages. 

The first string quartet begins in a much darker and fragmented style than the more well-known ‘Concerto for double string orchestra’. Attacking it from the start, the Heath Quartet were full of life, with vivid touches leading into breathlessness and back. The cello solo at the end of the first movement was bursting with passion. 

The second movement ‘Lento cantabile’ was pastoral sweetness, with waves of lightness and gossamer. But if that movement was rural the third movement ‘Allegro assai’ was distinctly urban with rushing staccato business. Each of the fugal entries was clear despite each of the voices talking over each other. The ending of the quartet comes suddenly but in this case was pre-empted by a flurry of bow waving.

The third string quartet is much longer and more rambling. Here Tippett’s style is more self assured. The ‘Grave e sostenuto- allegro moderato’ contains some of the same ideas as the last movement of the first quartet but intersperses them with controlled slower passages. Again the Heath Quartet sympathetically played the fugal passages so that each entries could be heard, helping to make sense of the music. 

The second movement ‘Andante’ began peacefully with the strummed cello and viola duet but becoming more passionate as the other instruments joined in. The violin duet also deserves mention for its shimmering quality. The movement ended as it started with cello and viola, but restfulness is quickly dissipated by the meandering of the third movement ‘Allegro molto e con brio’. 

Tranquillity was restored in the ‘Lento’ movement with mutes, but this again altered in mood becoming much angrier, then vacillating back and forth, until the final accelerando into the ‘Allegro comodo’.

The song cycle ‘The Heart’s assurance’ sets a series of war poems by Alun Lewis (1915 – 1944) and Sidney Keyes (1922 –1943). Alun Lewis died in 1944 during the Burma campaign in his camp while Sidney Keys died in action in Tunisia. 

Song is a difficult medium as all emotion has to be portrayed by the performance alone but Mark Padmore, accompanied by James Baillieu, is a master of this art form. His clarity of diction meant that not a single word was lost and he was able to contrast not only volume but also style of voice, sometimes projecting and sometimes using a much softer more naturalistic and centred voice. 

Baillieu’s piano playing perfectly underscored the vocal line, requiring great skill and judgement, adding to the dismay and pain of lost lives and loves. So much so that the moments when he did not play, such as ‘young men who live in the carven beds of death’, were made even more stark because of the suddenness of silence. 

‘Boyhoods end’ is a setting of William Henry Hudson (1841-1922) text. Hudson was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina but moved to England in 1874. He was fascinated by nature and was involved in setting up the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

While the text could be read as whimsical remembrance of times gone with its lists of birds and flowers, Tippett’s reading was more about the loss of life during war, and Mark and James brought out the threatening and dysfunctional power of Tippett’s interpretation. This earlier work contains more word painting such as ‘flying’, ‘float’ and ‘dance’ than ‘The Heart’s assurance’ and it ended in a quietly atmospheric unprojected, unheld note on ‘void’.

It is heading towards the end of the Britten centenary year and perhaps it is time to remember his contemporaries. Not everyone likes Tippett, but if the rest of the series is as good as this performance then it is definitely worth listening to. The next concert in the series in on the 17th January 2014 with the fourth string quartet, ‘The Blue Guitar’, ‘Piano Sonata No. 4’ and ‘Songs for Achilles’. The second string quartet is to be performed during the final concert in March.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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