Tippett Quartet

Tippett: String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4

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Much can be made of Michael Tippett's explorations of form, and a close examination of his study of Ludwig van Beethoven's innovations in the string quartet genre is likely to be fruitful for students of either composer. But for all his fascination with Beethovenian ideals, Tippett seems to have been less interested in the function of the Classical string quartet as a medium for lively repartee, and still less concerned with the coherence of his own music, either in style or substance. In his String Quartet No. 3 (1945-1946), Tippett feels the weight of Beethoven's examples and grapples with the arch design he superimposed over the work's five movements. This is no doubt a reflection of the intellectual, neo-Classical approach to composing that dominated this period, before the appearance of post-Webern serialism, and Tippett's chief concerns are abstract and difficult to discern in the music itself. With an obsessive reliance on contrapuntal devices, Tippett tends to treat the quartet as a singular entity, rather than as four independent voices in wide-ranging conversation, and the discourse is almost entirely centered around the idea of the fugue, two of which frame the piece. Stylistically, Tippett's music seems drily academic and impersonal, and his quartal or even pan-diatonic harmonies, freely shifting tonality, and frequent outbursts of rhythmic ostinatos reveal the influences of Stravinsky and Bartók. The String Quartet No. 5 (1990-1991) is a product of Tippett's late period, and its loose presentation of ideas and free dissonant counterpoint make it rather chameleon-like, as if the composer changed styles with his moods. Because this quartet is so changeable, it could be argued that Tippett no longer worried about consistency of content and let the material meander where it pleased. In any event, he treats the ensemble largely as a single instrument, and its sections of imitative counterpoint are episodic and difficult to connect to any larger scheme. The Tippett Quartet has recorded its namesake's works for Naxos in two volumes, and the group's dedication to the music is obvious in its clean and meticulous playing and full, robust sound, so even if Tippett's string quartets are imperfect and problematic, these performances are at least attractive and enjoyable.

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