Britten & Tippett String Quartets

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Britten & Tippett String Quartets

  • String Quartet No. 3
  • String Quartet No. 4

We might think of the Fourth Quartet as 'late Tippett', but there's little evidence that the composer thought of it that way. The passages of dancing sprung rhythm which recall his earliest music and of ecstatic carolling melody that recapture his 'middle period' are not so much autumnal retrospects as elements of a language that is still growing and still transforming itself. His bold use of the medium almost suggests a composer embarking on a set of six quartets, laying down areas to be more fully explored later: sonorous double-stopping on all four instruments at once, complex rhythmic counterpoint, extremes of contrast (both of mood and texture), argument by laconic statement and counter-statement. It is not a long work (under 24 minutes) but it is a very big one, Beethovenian in its form and seriousness as well as in its overt quotation from the Grosse Fuge. Repeated hearings are needed to solve its challenges (how the serene simplicity of the coda is 'earned' by what precedes it, for example), but there are entrancingly memorable inventions (such as the gravely beautiful melodies and bright, birdlike counterpoints of its slow movement) to make renewed acquaintance a pleasure.
This rather delayed first recording (the piece was first heard in 1979) has been worth the wait: it has become a repertory work for the Lindsay Quartet in the interim, and they now play it as assuredly as they play Beethoven or Bartok. They recognize that in one sense (acknowledged by the composer's recent transcription for string orchestra) the quartet is not 'chamber' music at all, and their performance is large in gesture and in sound. The effort involved is occasionally audible in a suppressed gasp, but never in the playing itself.
Britten's Third Quanet receives a similarly big-scaled performance, and a strikingly original one. For the Lindsay the concluding Passacaglia is more sombre than for any other group who have recorded it; their reading takes more than one-third as long again as that of the Amadeus (Decca—LP only), who created the work, much longer even than the restrained and pensive Endellion. The long pauses and eloquent recitatives in the introduction and the almost violently protesting crescendo in the coda are both much more dramatic than in any other performance I have heard. The intense opening movement, the athletically forceful second, the almost tangible (and certainly audible) concentration of the central violin solo and the ferocity of the second scherzo (with an emaciated, Shostakovich-like account of its Trio) accord well with the Lindsay's view of the finale. Is it over-expressive for such an understated work? Melodramatic, even? It can seem so especially by contrast with the subtle Endellion and the refined Amadeus, but I am sure that it is a valid approach, and the strength of the work seems confirmed by this re-interpretation. Like the Tippett it is cleanly and fairly closely recorded, close enough to pick up a few extraneous noises from feet and music-stands.
The Endellion's coupling of Britten's Second and Third Quartets is a very fine achievement. Although it differs in many respects from the Amadeus's accounts of the same works, you might regard it as of the 'Amadeus school' of Britten performance, whereas the Alberni on CRD (LP only) are closer to the Lindsay with their forceful zestures and big sound. The sheer strangeness of the Third Quartet's musical world is still more vividly apparent in the Amadeus recording, and their enjoyment of this is infectious: how Norbert Brainin relishes the florid, staccato cadenzas in the central movement, and how they all respond to the queer sound of the viola playing on the wrong side of the bridge in the Trio of the second scherzo. But I find the Endellion's account of the finale the finest of all: it has a veiled pallor to it that is deeply moving without needing the overt dramatization of the Lindsay or the Alberni or the franker expressiveness of the Amadeus. In the Second Quartet, the Alberni again adopt a vehement and attacking approach, the Amadeus a more classically restrained one whose seriousness is matched by the Endellion; the latter however, are especially good in the finely controlled slow tempo that they choose to intensify the gravity of the chaconne finale.
How well off we are for recordings of Britten's quartets. The Endellion have the finest recording, especially on CD, but the Amadeus (heard in rather close focus in the Third Quartet) have such character and vivacity that I would find it hard to part with their readings. Some may prefer the more 'public' style of the Alberni, which is impressively vehement; forced to choose, I should opt for the Endellion.'

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