Michael Tippett was a fully rounded modern composer, with demonstrated mastery in a broad range of genres. He was especially attracted to the string quartet and wrote five mature quartets over the course of his career. In this first volume of the quartets recorded for Naxos, the Tippett Quartet plays his first, second, and fourth quartets. The first and second quartets, written when Tippett was in his thirties, are characterized by the effulgent lyricism tempered by angularity and astringency that mark the composer's early style, which culminated in his first opera The Midsummer Marriage. Tippett cites Beethoven as his model for quartet writing, and Beethoven's combination of disciplined rigor and inspired inventiveness is clear in the structure of Tippett's writing. The sound world of the first two quartets, though, is closer to that of Debussy's quartet, in their sonorities and textures; they are clearly modern works, but their gestures and mood echo a late-Romantic sensuality. The third movement of the second quartet, marked Presto, is an especially attractive piece whose rhythmically exuberant lyricism both looks back to the second movement of Debussy's quartet and forward to The Midsummer Marriage. The fourth quartet, written in the late '70s, is altogether more angular; it's not cerebral, though, and has real emotional urgency.
The Tippett Quartet, which was formed in 1998, (obviously) has an affinity for the composer's work. The ensemble plays with an incisiveness that's well suited to Tippett's characteristic rhythmic energy and unpredictability, and since the works are strongly contrapuntal, the precision serves the music well. Tippett's music requires sensitive attention to his subtle dynamic shadings to be fully effective, and the group excels on that count. The quartet doesn't have the fullest, warmest tone, though, so the music's most expansively lyrical moments fail to make their maximum impact. That element of the ensemble's performance isn't helped by Naxos' dry, somewhat sterile acoustic.