VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor; String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor; HOLST: on British Folksongs, Op. 36 (ed. Swanston) – Tippett Quartet – SOMMCD 6656 (39:35) (7/29/22) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Among the plethora of recordings issued in this year of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 150th anniversary, we have this recent trinity of performances (rec. February 7-8, 2022) by the Tippett Quartet – John Mills and Jeremy Isaacs, violin; Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, viola; Bozidar Vukotic, cello – that attests to the enduring friendship of Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, until the death of Holst in 1934. The two creative artists met at the Royal College of Music in 1895. Vaughan Williams’ interest in chamber music became stoked by studies with German composer Max Bruch and Frenchman Maurice Ravel. The Holst composition, from 1917, comes in the midst of the horrors of WW I, a sort of musical consolation in affectionate, nationalist terms.
The Tippett Quartet opens with the Second Quartet of Vaughan Williams (1944), a mixture of emotional turbulence and unease that gives way to a sense of acceptance and consolation, here set in the throes of WW II. The piece favors the dedicatee, violist Jean Stewart of the Menges Quartet, who gave the premiere at the National Gallery in London, October 1944. The viola phrase that begins the first movement, Prelude – Allegro appassionato, sets a modal, dark idee fixe that infiltrates the music as a whole. This first movement and the succeeding Romance – Largo reveal a jagged, disquieting distance from the heart-rending melodic curve of the music, given the instruction senza vibrato to eliminate or reduce affective response to the bleak vistas revealed. The music for the Scherzo originated in a 1940 film score, that for 49th Parallel, in which a group of Nazi soldiers attempts to trek through Canada to the “haven” of the United States. The last movement, Epilogue, too, in its message of consolation, derives from an intended score for a movie about Joan of Arc. The Tippett ensemble bestows a generous, even vivid, degree of intensity and tenderness in this score, which receives little enough public performance at concerts.
The “sleeper” piece in this recording awakens us to the 1916 treatment in quartet form of Gustav Holst’s Phantasy on four British folk tunes, a ten-minute work, marked Andante, of some passing dissonance that the composer disowned – he called it his “guilty secret” – but whose daughter, Imogen, published an edition for string orchestra shortly after he died. In this quartet arrangement by Roderick Swanston, we hear the kind of drone bass, asymmetrical melodies, and four-part, contrapuntal effects we know from Holst’s St. Paul Suite, especially its slow movement. If passing harmonies suggest Bartok in their less-than-pastoral sensibility, the impact seems intentional.
The Tippett Quartet returns to the music of Vaughn Williams with his String Quartet No. 1 (1908), the result of the composer’s Paris studies with Ravel, to whom he bore a letter of introduction from fellow composer Frederick Delius. Vaughn Williams felt insecure of the work’s value, and he withheld publication until the revision of 1922. Ravel had insisted on textural clarity of line in music submitted to him, and the G Minor Quartet basks in clean lines, even if passing modal harmonies in the opening Allegro hint at the Master. The music enjoys a subtle and rhythmically variable character essentially new to British composition at that time. The viola sets up the initial motif, moving to the first violin; a second subject, Tranquillo, evolves in E Major. There are moments that the ensemble plays in unison, an organ effect that soon dissolves into a transparency that carries us to a benign coda in G Major. An old-world affect inhabits the second movement, Minuet and Trio, which enjoys some nicely harmonized interior conversations. The folk dance favors the interval of a third, sometimes augmented, but moving with a stately, solid E Major.
The third movement Romance proceeds in two tempos, the first of which, 5/4, takes its cue from Tchaikovsky. The give and take in the metric pulse eventually conforms to a ¾ series of gestures until the return of the original meter undulates in a mood of lyrical musing. Again, the interior dialogues among the individual instruments create a flowing palette in diverse colors, delicately shaded and mysterious. The last movement, Rondo Capriccioso, offers the kind of sonata-rondo format honed to perfection by Haydn. The shifting metrics offer challenges to players and audiences both, moving from 6/8 to the 5/4 of movement three. The viola part invests a rich color to the frothy and unruly frolic that unfolds. The essential folk element has a way of bursting its generic bounds and urging a more potent rhetorical strategy, much in the manner of Bartok, Brahms, and Dvorak. Even near the finale of this Allegro molto, Vaughan Williams finds an extended moment to introduce brief but intense fugatos. It is in this “learned” mode that the Tippett Quartet catapults us to a swift, determined, whiplash conclusion.