This concert by England’s Tippett Quartet, their debut in Canada, was about time. The Quartet came together in 1998, the year of the passing of their namesake, Sir Michael Tippett. Their first musical offering of the afternoon was Tippett’s Fifth and final String Quartet (1991), with Anna Smith filling in for Jeremy Isaac on second violin. Though he composed his Fifth when he was 86, the work looks back to dramatic sonata principles that had interested Tippett during the 1950s, and to the lyrical quality of the music he liked writing at that time. The dramatic principles reflect his borrowings from Beethoven’s late quartets, one of which, Op. 131, the Tippett Quartet later played for us. The lyricism resonates with Tippett’s roots in English folksong, with Purcell and the Tudor composers, and with the traditions of folksong that Bartók studied around the turn of the 20th century.

The Tippett String Quartet with second violinist Anna Smith © Stanley Fefferman
The Tippett String Quartet with second violinist Anna Smith
© Stanley Fefferman

All these various times resolve into timelessness. Early in the first movement of the Fifth Quartet, there is a succession of dynamic rippling lines that for me echoed the cadence of a particular line in T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton: “Quick, said the bird, find them, find them...” John Mills’ violin and Lydia Lowndes-Northcott’s viola sing it as a birdlike phrase, while Bozidar Vukotic’s resonating cello leads the way into what Eliot termed variously “our first world”, and “The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery”. This “singing” theme is repeated in the development many times, each time coming round lightly as a ray of sun, concluding with an harmonic rainbow by the cello and violin playing several octaves apart.

The longer second and final movement alternates slow and quick blocks of music inspired by the “Thanksgiving” third movement of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet. Tippett’s blocks are threaded along a motif that he once called “the nightingales’ song”, a poignant scale played sul ponticello on the violin that rises like the children’s “alphabet song” and descending, tapers off with a sighing glissando. As the alternation of anxious sighing and quicker, dancing sections develop along this line, the canonical dialogues become more conversational and radiant. The concluding chord glows like a Turner seascape.

Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for string quartet (arr. Richard Birchall, 1960), shows the Tippett Quartet’s appreciation of the musical genius that can appear in the world of popular music – in this case, Herrmann’s iconic score for the Hitchcock film Psycho. They stir up from the start a Khachaturian-esque frenzy: cyclical rhythms of anxiety, racing tempi of excitation, nerve-snapping staccatos, and the irresistible chug-chug of precipitous forward locomotion. There are ominous interludes of tense silence and sighing extenuated towards the eeriness of deranged expectations. Things tear apart as the groaning cello separates from the violin’s thin, uncertain wail, and a porcine squeal lets loose the dogs of helter-skelter. The concluding music rises like smoke curling from an incense stick, thinning to transparency and the ash of a final drone.

The afternoon reverted to sanity with Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131. This work is associated with a very bad time in Beethoven’s life, when he was obliged to accept the failure of his attempt to live as a family with his nephew Karl. Where the psychotic protagonist of Herrmann’s music indulges his rage, Beethoven redeems his bad time by riding it out. Wagner described Beethoven’s martial Finale as “the fury of the world’s dance... and above the tumult, the indomitable fiddler whirls us to the abyss.” As the “still, sad, music” of the opening fugue passed into the vivacious allegro, it became clear that the Tippett Quartet would likely eschew both the “fury” of the dance and the beckoning abyss, for a safer, saner, more balanced path. I missed the excitement that ensembles like the Tokyo and the St Lawrence string quartets bring to their Beethoven. However, I cannot forget the heartbroken longing for redemption that poured out of the Tippetts’ preceding Adagio and left traces in the martial Finale. If that were the message of the Tippetts’ debut during this time of celebrations of springtime in Canada, it would be apt indeed.

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