On Record – Tippett Quartet – Vaughan Williams: String Quartets; Holst: Phantasy Quartet (Somm Recordings)

Tippett Quartet [John Mills, Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)]

Vaughan Williams String Quartet no.2 in A minor (1942-43)
Holst ed. Swanston Phantasy Quartet (1916)
Vaughan Williams String Quartet no.1 in G minor (1909)

Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0656
Producer Siva Oke Engineer Adaq Khan
Recorded 7-8 February 2022, St. Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

In case you have missed it, 2022 marks 150 years since the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams. A great deal has been made of his symphonic and choral output, and rightly so, but an added benefit of such an anniversary is the chance to look at other relatively neglected corners of a composer’s work. Chamber music is one such area that is infrequently explored, and there are some fine works ready for reappraisal.

The two published string quartets sit as principal examples. The String Quartet no.1 in G minor was written in Paris, during a period of study with Ravel, and reflects new influences at work in 1909. A great deal of water had past under the bridge by the arrival of the String Quartet no.2 in A minor in 1942-43. Written for the composer’s friend Jean Stewart, who played viola in the Menges Quartet, it gives great deal of prominence to her instrument.

Complementing the quartets is the Phantasy Quartet by Gustav Holst, a close friend and confidante of Vaughan Williams for many years. Their mutual love of folksong is perhaps their strongest musical link, though as the quartet shows Holst had a different way of expressing his sources. Claiming the work was ‘insufficient’, the composer withdrew it some years after its first performance in 1917, though his daughter Imogen saw its worth and published a version for string orchestra. On this recording the Tippett Quartet use an edition made by Roderick Swanston.

What’s the music like?

The Vaughan Williams quartets are a complementary pairing, and although starting with the later work may seem a curious decision it makes good musical sense in the context of this recording.

As described above, the viola takes an assertive lead in the first movement of the String Quartet no.2, pushing the source material forward with silvery tones that nonetheless have a strong autumnal shade. The harmonic writing is shot through with an anxiety reminding us of this work’s position in the Second World War and its proximity to the Sixth Symphony, a powerful yet haunted work.  The solemn second movement is deepened further by an almost complete lack of vibrato, while the viola takes charge again in the ghostly third movement, with the other instruments muted. The prayerful finale offers some solace, referring to the reverent calm of the recently completed Fifth Symphony, but the end is still shrouded in uncertainty.

The String Quartet no.1 is often talked about in the same breath as Ravel, but Debussy and Borodin are also notable influences here. After a tautly argued first movement the Scherzo is particularly successful here, its motif recurring with just the right degree of playfulness. The third movement Romance is lovingly rendered, while the finale has a great deal of positive energy, Vaughan Williams showing great agility in his writing for four instruments that often sound like a small string orchestra.

Holst’s Phantasy Quartet is beautifully judged, celebrating its folk sources but also throwing context of light and shade that reflect another time of uncertainty during the First World War. The work has more than a little in common with the celebrated St Paul’s Suite for string orchestra, moving between energetic tunes and more thoughtful episodes, where a shadow passes over the face of the music.

Does it all work?

It does. These are fine performances from the Tippett Quartet, who understand the emotional and often anxious pull of the second quartet. Its urgency is compelling, and the harmonic tensions are finely judged here. Meanwhile the compositional promise of the first quartet is clearly shown, with its rich melodic content and the vigorous exchanges of the outer movements, which are extremely well played. The Holst is affectionately given, the quartet revelling in the folk melodies but also the composer’s imaginative harmonies. Swanston’s version works extremely well.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. There are already some fine recordings of the Vaughan Williams string quartets, but the Tippett Quartet join the very best with performances of spirit and deep feeling. The Holst is the ideal complement, and with excellent booklet notes (Robert Matthew-Walker) and a cover picture to match (Simon Palmer) this is one of the finest releases so far in the Vaughan Williams 150 celebrations.

Listen

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You can listen to clips from the recordings and explore purchase options at the Somm Recordings website

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