Tuesday 2 February 2016

Complete Tippett quartets recorded live by the Heath Quartet

Heath Quartet - Tippett Quartet - Wigmore Hall Live
Tippett String Quartets; The Heath Quartet; Wigmore Hall Live
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 25 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Dazzling rhythms, complex textures and surprising lyricism in these live performances of Tippett's complete quartets

Sir Michael Tippett's string quartets don't so much form a thread running through his career as a series of snapshots across a 50 year period, with a 30 year gap between the third and fourth quartets. The quartets remain a remarkable and challenging piece of 20th century repertoire and in this new disc from the Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath, Cerys Jones, Gary Pomeroy and Christopher Murray), all five quartets are recorded live at the Wigmore Hall as part of the hall's Wigmore Hall Live label.

Tippett's first three quartets were written in the 1940's. Intended to be a group of four, the impetus was partly the Four Quartets of TS Eliot, whom Tippett had asked to write the libretto for A Child of Our Time. But another overarching influence was of course Beethoven, a composer whose music loomed large in the composer's iconography at the time.

The Heath Quartet
The Heath Quartet
The first quartet was premiered in 1935, but the composer substantially revised it, replacing the first two movements with a long single movement and the work was re-premiered in 1943. The opening movement is Tippett in his complex lyrical-pastoral vein from that period, the lyrical melodic material being subject to some serious polyphonic processes. The Heath Quartet capture the sense of four equal voices, and the lines are beautifully sprung with a sense of constant energy and poly-rhythms enlivening the complex textures. The second movement Lento cantabile is magically sung, but again the way the quartet brings out the complexity of the harmonic texture balances the sweetness in just the right way. The finale is a fugue, but one which mixes in influences of jazz and uses Tippett's familiar rhythmic complexity and love of combining different rhythmic figures. The Heath Quartet brings a fabulous tight intensity to the rhythms, making the music vibrantly intense yet full of clarity of texture; dazzling.

String Quartet No. 2 was premiered in 1943 and had been written whilst the composer was facing a prison sentence after a conscientious objection tribunal and the work's premiere took place just after Tippett was released from prison. This work returns to the classic four movements, with the opening Allegro grazioso being full of Tippett's lyrical melodies with sprung rhythms and dazzling rhythmic complexity, all welded into form with almost Beethovenian rigour. The Heath Quartet make it sound effortless and surprisingly full of joy. The theme for the fugal second movement Andante was jotted down during the Munich agreement and worked up into the expressively angular movement whilst war raged. The quartet bring a lovely controlled intensity to the piece, anguished yet singing. The scherzo, marked Presto, is full of dazzling rhythms and sparkling texture, whilst the vigorous final Allegro assai is full of anger and energy but allied to a sense of restlessness. Again the movement uses the unsettled Munich theme. The players make the music dance though, so that the unsettled nature of the piece is filtered through a wonderfully tight rhythmic texture, leading to a lovely coda full of lyrical transcendence.

String Quartet No. 3 was premiered in 1946. Here the Beethovenian elements (such as the use of fugue) are moderated by the influence of Bartok so that the quartet has five movements with the uneven numbered movements as fugues. The opening movement starts deceptively Grave e sostenuto before a high-energy and highly concentrated Allegro moderato fugue starts. There is a wonderful freedom to the writing here, far more so than in the earlier quartets and the Heath Quartet's playing bring a lovely sense of joy to the sprung rhythms and complex part-writing. The second movement, Andante, has a hint of anxiety underlying the lyricism, with the lovely opening melody combined with plucked guitar-like phrases on the cello. The movement forms a pool of quiet intensity between the energy of the fugues. The central fugue is marked Allegro molto e con brio and the players certainly make it that, bringing a sense of energy and of joy to the tight rhythms. It is full of virtuosic writing which the players render in superbly accurate fashion. The ending is almost abrupt, leading to the fourth movement with its magical sense of a vision. It opens with held chords from the upper strings and a rapturous long scale passage from the cello, until the intensity reaches breaking point. The whole movement has that sense of transcendence and rapture that Tippett was able to bring to music. The final fugue breaks the spell, and the movement is quite low key though the players keep the energy and sense of rhythm tight.

And then there is a gap. Much happened to Tippett's style, with the lyricism of The Midsummer Marriage turning to the stark angularity of King Priam. String Quartet No. 4 was written in 1977 and is one of a group of works where Tippett uses single movement form (the others are Symphony No. 4 from 1976-77, and Triple Concerto from 1978-79). Here the movement is in four sections which are tracked separately. The opening is quiet, spare and rather intense, and the sense of angularity in Tippett's writing continues into the fast second section. There is still the familiar sense of energy and lively rhythm, but the composer seems no longer quite as fascinated by the complexities of poly-rhrythmic passages and here the music is intense and angular. But this is anything but an easy ride, and the players dash from one intense moment to another. The slower third section is quiet and intense, haunted even in the veiled tone of the opening, with long held sections enlivened by rhythmic figures. Taut and anxious, full of held in energy. The long final section breaks loose with an energy which the Heath Quartet makes ferocious, and the movement continues with a constant opposition of opposites, high energy alternating with slow passages, low pitch alternating with fearlessly high violin writing. The young players of the Heath Quartet are tireless here, and bring the music alive in the long single span.

Tippett's final quartet, String Quartet No. 5 from 1990-91 is in two movements. Tippett's really late works reflect an interest in melody again, and in the opening movement this sense of melody is combined with passages of furious energy and amazing restlessness. This is certainly not the sort of music one might expect from an 86 year old. The second movement starts with a sense of concentrated intensity, and here the lines are disjointed and somewhat fragmented. But the movement develops into music of magical transcendence and in many ways it is unlike anything else on the disc. It is a radiant summation of the art of a composer whose music can reach remarkable areas of the human psyche.

The CD booklet includes and excellent article by Oliver Soden. The recording includes the applause after each quartet, but there is little sense of the audience apart from that. We are able to concentrate on the music, just as the audience did. I did not expect to enjoy this disc as much as I did, but these performances are dazzling. The young players of the Heath Quartet bring Tippett's complex textures alive and make them dance, enlivening even the most complex passages with a sense of tight energy and sprung rhythm. And all this is done live, and captured well on this disc.

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) - String Quartet No. 1
Michael Tippett (1905-1998) - String Quartet No. 2
Michael Tippett (1905-1998) - String Quartet No. 3
Michael Tippett (1905-1998) - String Quartet No. 4
Michael Tippett (1905-1998) - String Quartet No. 5
The Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath, Cerys Jones, Gary Pomeroy, Christopher Murray)
Recorded live at the Wigmore Hall 2/12/2013, 17/1/2014, 16/3/2014, 26/4/2014
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLive0080/2 2CD's [71.01, 57.11]

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