Wednesday 10 September 2014

Tippett yes, but Rozsa, Schubert and Mendelssohn too

The Tippett Quartet - photo credit Thurstan Redding
The Tippett Quartet - photo credit Thurstan Redding
(John Mills, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, Jeremy Isaac, Bozidar Vukotic)
An encounter with members of the Tippett Quartet

The Tippett Quartet (John Mills - violin, Jeremy Isaac - violin, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott - viola, Bozidar Vukotic - cello) has recently released a disc of string quartets by Andrzej Panufnik and Witold Lutoslawski and whilst their name might suggest that they specialise in 20th century quartets, if you look at their repertoire it is of far greater range, stretching from Haydn and Mozart, to Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann. I met up with two of the members, first violinist John Mills and cellist Bozidar Vukotic to talk about the quartet and their ethos.

The quartet was founded 16 years ago, and Bozidar is one of the founder members. He and first violinist John have been playing together in the quartet for 12 years, with second violinist Jeremy playing for a similar time; violist Lydia is the baby at two years. In person, both John and Bozidar are enthusiastic and charming, and frankly neither looks old enough to have been playing professionally for 16 years. Both are knowledgeable about their chosen repertoire, and keen to share their enthusiasms whether it be the concert music of Bernard Herrman, the structure of Andrzej Panufnik's String Quartet No. 1 or the effect of using gut strings in Janacek.

It was Bozidar who originally put the quartet together, playing with friends from the English Chamber Orchestra; the original viola player was Lawrence Power. When asked to define the quartet's approach, Bozidar suggests individual, innovative and inclusive, saying that they like to tackle different types of music. The name Tippett Quartet was originally chosen because Tippett's own music did embrace so many different influences.

Bozidar Vukotic - photo credit Thurstan Redding
Bozidar Vukotic
photo credit Thurstan Redding
The quartet has recorded over 20 discs, including Tippett's quartets as well as a lot of the standard repertoire and despite their name they play a lot of Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, Mozart and Janacek (when we later talk of desert island recordings, it is the names of Beethoven and Janacek which crop up). In fact, try rather hard to avoid being pigeon-holed by their name, avoiding the perception that the Tippett Quartet must specialise in 20th century works.

But what perhaps stands out is their recordings of music by film composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa. When I mention these two composers, Bozidar and John grin, saying that they love this repertoire. Their Herrmann recording came about because Jeremy and Bozidar played at a screening of Psycho, the music for which was written by Bernard Herrmann. Bozidar thought the music fantastic and wondered if Herrmann had written any chamber music. A little research led them to Herrmann's chamber music, but they also had the idea of arranging the Psycho music for quartet. The arrangement was done by a friend, and in fact the trickiest thing was getting the rights to do it. But a chance encounter with Herrmann's widow Norma (who is English and lives in Brighton) helped things along. Norma said that she thought that Herrmann would be pleased at the idea of the project. (The quartet's recording of Herrmann's Echoes for String Quartet, Souvenirs de Voyage for Clarinet Quintet and Psycho Suite is on Signum Classics and their recording of Rozsa's String Quartets is on Naxos).

In fact Herrmann trained at the Julliard as a composer and conductor and was keen to be taken seriously, and felt angry at the differentiation between concert and film music. Similarly composers such as Rozsa and Korngold shared the desire to be taken seriously, having ended up in Hollywood by force of circumstance. Both Herrmann and Rozsa were able to produce scores quickly, to suit the film studios schedules and Bozidar and John liken this to Haydn writing music to order at Esterhazy. We touch on other composers who wrote film scores, such as Shostakovich (Bozidar points out that he wrote over 35 film scores) and Britten. I mention Andrzej Panufnik's film music, which leads us directly to Panufnik's String Quartet No. 1, which John likens to film music with the strikingly atmospheric music taking you on a journey.

John Mills - photo credit Thurstan Redding
John Mills
photo credit Thurstan Redding
Both John and Bozidar describe the structure of the quartet in clear details, obviously taken with the ingenuity and simplicity of Panufnik's conception (a tone row, centred on C) and they feel that it is easy for the mind to apprehend the structure of the work. I wonder about Panufnik's writing for strings, as listening to the disc the three quartets sound tricky. John admits that they are not that easy to play but that number three lies very nicely under the fingers and the feel that Panufnik uses the instruments well. Aptly, String Quartet No. 3, John feels, can also be seen as working as a journey leading to the stunning final movement.

Their recording of Panufnik's string quartets also came about through personal connections. They were doing a concert in Richmond and Camilla, Lady Panufnik (Sir Andrzej Panufnik's widow) was there as she lived just round the corner. Bozidar was familiar with Panufnik's work having heard Rostropovich play the cello concerto and with Panufnik's centenary coming up it seems a great opportunity.

In fact their record pairs two centenarians, as Lutoslawski's centenary has just been. The Lutosklawski quartet was an entirely different proposition. John describes it as a strange piece to record as it was never the same twice. With other works you are generally working towards an ideal image of the piece, but with the Lutoslawski a recording would only ever be a snapshot as the work is almost entirely aleatoric. The work consists of aleatoric sections separated by notated interludes, with a particular player being chosen to lead the group out of a particular aleatoric section into a notated one. Both felt that recording the work was a unique experience, with the players being able to contribute a very personal interpretation. In fact, Bozidar comments that the aleatoric sections were very freeing.

As a side issue I then ask about improvisation, and whether they have done much of this. Both have done improvisation in the context of pieces, but neither is jazz-inclined. Then a gleam comes into Bozidar's eye and he comments that they have not finished any concerts with free-form string quartet improvisation, yet!

We move on to chatting about forthcoming projects, and staying true to form they name a fine variety of composers. John and Bozidar have a duo recording due out on Naxos in 2015 where they are playing duets by Beethoven and his older contemporary Franz Hoffmeister (1754 - 1812). John comments that the Hoffmeister duos are unbelievably complicated, so this is a disc to which I look forward. The quartet is recording a Korngold disc in December and they are going to be recording their final disc (their fifth) of Stephen Dodgson's music. This disc will be of his piano quartets. Another project, one which is one of their own making, is a new Schubert disc when they plan to record Death and the Maiden and the String Quintet.

I then ask what their ideal recording would be, given no time or cost constraints. Their immediate reaction is a complete Beethoven set, John comments that it is every quartet's ideal. Then Bozidar adds anything by Schubert and whilst John says that he is rather fond of Mendelssohn's quartets.

Then Bozidar comes up with an even more intriguing idea, that seems dear to both of their hearts; the idea of recording both of Janacek's string quartets using gut strings. John talks of the fascination of playing this early 20th century repertoire with gut strings and the changes in sound that this would bring. But there are dangers, gut strings were superceded for a reason! They break easily, particularly high tension E strings on the violin and both John and Bozidar have stories about period practice performances where strings break. But there are compensations, and John talks about the challenge bringing rewards in the greater variety of sound and texture. They feel that this would work particularly well in Janacek's quartets, which they describe as pure folk music.

Looking ahead to performances, I ask when they are next playing in London. This elicits another grin and John says that they are in Wales a lot, but will be performing in Berkhamsted. One London concert which is coming up, at Cadogan Hall in April 2015, is another of the Frank Sinatra projects re-creating on of Sinatra's intriguing collaborations. Sinatra recorded an album with the Hollywood Quartet, with the songs being arranged for string quartet, jazz quartet and harp by Nelson Riddle. At the Cadogan Hall will be joined by Matt Ford and the James Pearson Quintet. And the quartet will be adding some Korngold and Rozsa to the set.

Tippett Quartet - selected dates

21st: Harrow School
Schubert Death and the Maiden
Shostakovich Octet

25th: North Wales Festival
Janacek 'Intimate Letters'
Dvorak Piano Quintet
With David Owen Norris

27th: West Malling Festival (Kent)
Close to You Ensemble
Ravel Introduction & Allegro

8th: Wavendon 'The Stables'
Close To You Ensemble + Korngold & Rozsa

11th: Alwyn Festival Suffolk
Puccini 'Christhanthimi'
Alwyn Quartet No.2
Schubert Death & the Maiden

8th: Berkhamsted
Haydn 'Sunrise' Quartet
Mendelssohn String Quartet op.12
Schubert Death & the Maiden

27th: Imperial College (lunchtime)
Janacek 'Intimate Letters'
With letters read by Matt Wilkinson and Emily Bruni

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