The Tippett Quartet premiere Noah Max’s Quartet No.2 at the Thaxted Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Noah Max, Holst, Schumann: Tippett Quartet (John Mills & Jeremy Isaac [violins], Lydia Lowndes-Northcott [viola], Bosidar Vukotic [cello]), Emma Abbate (piano).  The Church of Saint John the Baptist with Our Lady and Saint Laurence, Thaxted, 1.7.2023. (CS)

Tippett Quartet

Mendelssohn – String Quartet No.1, Op.12 in Eb major
Noah Max – Quartet No.2 (world première)
HolstPhantasy Quartet on British Folk Songs, Op.36
Schumann – Piano Quintet in Eb major, Op.44

Mendelssohn (1809-47), ever precocious, composed his first string quartet in 1823, when he was just 14 years old (although it was not published until 50 years after his death).  The first to be given an opus number, the Op.12 in Eb major, came six years later when the composer was 20 (though, to complicate things, the String Quartet No.2 in A minor Op.13 was actually written two years earlier), and the three Op.44 quartets followed in 1838.  It took Robert Schumann (1810-56) a little longer to get going, but when the 32-year-old composer turned to chamber music in the summer of 1842 there was no stopping him: he presented the three string quartets of his Op.41 to his wife Clara on her 23rd birthday in September, and the piano quintet and piano quartet followed that year.

During a pre-concert talk at the Thaxted Festival, Noah Max (b.1998) – the 2023 festival’s composer-in-residence – spoke of the challenge of grappling with the ‘weight’ of the quartet repertoire, a genre which he grew up exploring as a chamber musician and for which, he noted, composers often reserve their innermost thoughts.  But, that hasn’t stopped Max completing four quartets by the age of 25, the second of which was premiered by the Tippett Quartet in Thaxted Church, as part of a varied and generous programme.

Max seems to find inspiration from engaging with other art forms.  His chamber opera, A Child in Striped Pyjamas which premiered at the Cockpit Theatre earlier this year, was based on John Boyne’s book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and his first Quartet, which has an optional part for narrator, was inspired by The man who planted trees by the French writer Jean Giono.  For the Quartet No.2, it is visual influences that have been significant.  In a programme note, Max explains that ‘[e]arly sketches bore the title The Ladder of Escape, referring to a vivid and mysterious surrealist canvas painted by Joan Miró in 1940.  Visual art was crucial in crafting a very specific sound-world for the piece; other inspirations include the tree studies of Piet Mondrian and outdoor sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth’.

The music is by no means a straightforward representation of those artists, though.  And, it’s challenging and complex, its three movements strikingly differentiated in tenor and technique, the musical language dissonant and searching, often employing bitonality.  The Tippett Quartet mastered its technical challenges – advanced bowing techniques, double-stopped harmonics, precise and diverse timbral effects – with assurance, and persuasively conveyed the music’s intensity.  Movement and stillness seemed to be held in an uneasy balance in the opening movement, each struggling to dominate.  At the start, over held chords, first violinist John Mills roved high and low, as if sketching out a tessitura.  There ensued conversations between the four voices, often punctuated by short, sharp pizzicatos from cellist Bosidar Vukotic.  As the motifs were passed around, the music seemed to grow in confidence, to find its sense of direction, the changing textures and developing patterns perhaps hinting at a story being told – though at the close the narrative was interrupted by crunching chordal harmonies and a swift falling glissando from the first violin.

A spiky second movement followed, the strings’ pianissimo staccatos barely touching the string, yet precise and somehow penetrating, propelled by punctuating pizzicatos.  A high cello melody soared above busy counterpoint which eventually opened up into a fantasia-like episode for solo viola, played with rich tone by Lydia Lowndes-Northcott.  A repeating rhythmic fragment, abrupt and assertive, brought the voices together at the close, Mills’ impressive leadership ensuring ensemble unity even if the music does not suggest accord.  The final movement entered more contemplative realms, with melody and harmony now taking precedence over rhythm and timbre.  Chords of searing harmonic intensity surged then retreated, in a manner which recalled Shostakovich, presenting knotty but not discomforting bitonal arguments.  The last word went to the second violin and cello, a rapid up-bow stroke bringing the conflicts to a close.  It’s difficult to take in all the detail or the structural architecture of a new work on just a single hearing, but Max handles the string quartet medium with confidence and individuality, and there was much of interest here that made me want to hear this quartet again.

The concert had opened with Mendelssohn’s Op.12 String Quartet.  Mendelssohn does mark his short introductory Adagio, ‘non troppo’, but the Tippett Quartet’s tempo was fairly swift, and they turned the corner in the Allegro non tardante without lingering on the fermata, playing with gentle warmth.  The repeat of the exposition seemed characterised by more vigour in the conversing voices and this pushed forward effectively into the development section, where textures were lucid.  In the minor-key episode, second violinist Jeremy Isaac came to the fore, creating effective intensity, before the sunshine returned in the recapitulation.  I liked the elegance with which the Tippett Quartet played the theme of the Canzonetta, the sense of relaxed grace enhanced by the way the cello easily traversed from supporting bass to eloquent countermelody.  Mills’ airy scurrying was impressively nonchalant(!), as the ensemble differentiated the movement’s contrasting moods, their unisons veiled and ever so slightly dry, their pizzicatos tenderly wry.

The warm string blend in the Andante espressivo was complemented by dignified phrasing.  Again, the tempo seemed to push forward, and Mills’ poetic explorations had a strong sense of direction, leading into the dramatic chords which open the Molto allegro e vivace.  There was a real sense of buzzing Mendelssohnian energy here.  The staccato bows were unanimous and crisp, the repeated rhythmic motifs well-defined, the unison passages perfectly tuned.  The profusion of ideas – some new, some reprises – was skilfully crafted.

Gustav Holst first visited Thaxted in 1913 when on a walking holiday in north-west Essex.  The following year he returned, renting with his wife the cottage where he would compose much of his orchestral suite, The Planets (Thaxted is the stately hymn tune heard in the middle of ‘Jupiter’).  In 1916 the composer organised a Whitsun Festival in the parish church, an event that was repeated in 1917, when Holst moved to Thaxted, and 1918.  Though the church continued to enjoy a rich musical life it was not until 1980 that the Festival which flourishes today was re-established as an annual event.

It was fitting, then, that Holst’s Phantasy Quartet on British Folk Songs opened the second half of the concert.  The single-movement, ten-minute work was withdrawn by the composer, though Imogen Holst published a version for string orchestra.  Roderick Swanston has produced an edition based on a manuscript score held in the British Library.  The Tippett Quartet captured its gentle pastoralism and ‘Englishness’ without slipping into pseudo-Vaughan Williams mode.  The players enjoyed its melodism, the clarity of texture allowing all the string voices freedom to sing, and the transitions between lyrical reflectiveness and spirited dancing effectively shaped.

Emma Abbate

For the final work on the programme, the Quartet were joined by pianist Emma Abbate to perform Schumann’s Piano Quintet.  One sensed that they know this work inside out.  The rich chords, judiciously accented, and flowing melodic exchanges between piano, cello and viola at the opening Allegro brillante made one feel we were being permitted to listen in to intimate private chamber music-making, although there was never an absence of the projection and communication that is at the heart of ‘public’ performance.  The players simply let the music speak for itself.  The piano part is incredibly challenging – Schumann wrote it for his wife, Clara, but she was ill before the first performance in 1842, and Mendelssohn had to be persuaded to step in, being the sole pianist whom Schumann trust to play the part as he wished.  But, Abbate was able to balance virtuosity and spaciousness.  Impressive, too, was the way that each of the players took responsibility for creating the movement’s melodic and harmonic direction and structure.

In modo d’una marcia was dignified but not too funereal or sombre.  The staccato tread of the theme was quiet and reserved, but warmer in tone than is sometimes the case, while the piano’s falling arpeggios added lyricism.  Again the corners were turned with skilful and discernment, the flowing richness of the first episode slipping back, with sleight-of-ear, into the march.  The agitated minor key section was spikily taut but there was still strength and firmness of tone.  Abbate’s scalic flourishes at the start of the Scherzo were exuberant rather than flamboyant, joyful rather than showy.  The piano dominates this movement, but the strings were thoughtful ‘accompanists’, and played with due robustness in the second trio section, initiating a vigour which blossomed with seemingly unstoppable momentum towards the close.

And, in the final Allegro non troppo, there was again, as there had been in the Mendelssohn quartet at the start of the evening, a sense of a creative mind brimming over with ideas.  As the strings interposed moments of calm, so in the background the piano’s ripples hinted at an impatience to move on, and so the strings took up the contrapuntal bait, developing a fugal conclusion which made space for all the individual themes and voices.

The Tippett Quartet and Emma Abbate have performed Schumann’s Piano Quintet together many times.  On this occasion they combined flawless execution with instinctive – and utterly engaging – musicianship.

Claire Seymour

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