String Quartets – The Girl from Marseille, Op. 17 (2010); The Cage of Opprobrium, Op. 22 (2014); Night after Night, Op. 27 (2017); The Aftermath of Longing, Op. 36 (2021)
Tippett Quartet [John Mills & Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Božidar Vukotić (cello)]
Toccata Classics TOCC0688 [80’31”]
Producer Michael Ponder Engineer Adaq Khan
Recorded 6-8 October 2022, Studio TQHQ, Ruislip, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Toccata Classics continues its survey of Steve Elcock (b1957) – arguably its most important ongoing project – with this collection of his four (to date) string quartets, performed by the enterprising Tippett Quartet and reaffirming his stature among composers of his generation.
What’s the music like?
Elcock is not the first composer to eschew numbering his quartets (Daniel Jones, for instance, differentiated his eight by date), with The Girl from Marseille preceded by at least four such works (one of these refashioned into his Eighth Symphony). Coming after weighty pieces as the Second and Third Symphonies (the latter on TOCC0400), these eight diverse variations in search of a theme – its identity in the title – find his music at its most playful and entertaining, though the fractious final variation pointedly invokes the brutal origins of its source material.
It was the location of this work’s first performance that provided ‘inspiration’ for The Cage of Opprobrium, namely a 16th-century metal pillory used to incarcerate women found walking unaccompanied after dark. Its five continuous sections graphically evoke the imagined victim through alternate slow and fast sections – building towards a violent culmination (its alluding to a famous quartet less striking than the way in which this music is transformed into Elcock’s own), before subsiding into a postlude where mourning is informed by emotional exhaustion.
Emerging in a relatively long gap between Elcock’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (TOCC0445 and TOCC0616), Night after Night takes its cue from the poem in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel. The first of its six continuous sections, entitled ‘Somniloquy’, evokes those unbidden thoughts of a chronic insomniac then returns between episodes of a more volatile nature. Its climax comes in the aggressive final ‘Incubus’ (later extended into an autonomous orchestral piece), which elides between sleep and wakefulness without hope of reconciliation.
Elcock’s most recent quartet, The Aftermath of Longing is likewise in six continuous sections but is very different in mood. It is also the most inherently abstract of these works, moving fitfully between varying degrees of emotional ambivalence to a penultimate episode whose releasing of the pent-up intensity results only in a desolate recollection of the initial music. Something of its character can be sensed in the composer’s subsequent symphonies, notably the Ninth that is his largest such work to date and may well prove to be his most impressive.
Does it all work?
Indeed, it does and not least because Elcock has put his formative years of playing the violin to profitable use with his idiomatic and resourceful writing for strings. For all their technical demands, nothing is left to chance in these quartets which are evidently building into a cycle scarcely less involving than that of the symphonies. Suffice to add the Tippett Quartet, which premiered Night after Night, proves an assured and persuasive exponent while the running order, of 2-1-4-3, makes for a programme well worth experiencing as a continuous sequence.
Is it recommended?
Very much so. Sound is vivid and detailed, if a little confined in more tumultuous passages, while the composer’s notes are informative without prejudicing the response of each listener. Hopefully these quartets will be taken up by other suitably equipped and inquiring ensembles.
Listen & Buy
For buying options, and to listen to clips from the album, visit the Toccata Classics website. Click on the names for more on composer Steve Elcock and the Tippett Quartet