We have met the Tippett String Quartet once before on Classical Explorer, in music by Penderecki on Naxos (link). They are just as impressve live, it turns out: their concert as part of the 2023 Thaxted Festival revealed a group of musicians of profound interpretative depth, and capable of traversing a wide range of repertoire.
First, though, the Thaxted Festival itself. Patron Seb Soanes describes it thus:
Thaxted Festival has its origins in the music-making which Gustav Holst led with great enthusiasm while he was living in the town in the early years of the twentieth century and we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth next year. His Whitsuntide Festivals and other events brought together students, professionals and local amateur singers and musicians which he would describe as ‘a feast’ of music-making. Thaxted’s new Developing Artists Programme continues Holst’s passion and delight in developing young musicians. Providing a platform for musicians and composers at the earlier stages of their careers, it will give us the chance to say in years to come ‘I saw them first in Thaxted …’. On a summer’s evening, there really is nowhere better to relax and enjoy the music of your choice in beautiful surroundings, than at the Thaxted Festival.
The composer Gustav Holst first visited Thaxted on a walking holiday in Essex in 1913. A small blue plaque commemorates his abode in Town Street; his association with Thaxted lasted until 1925. Full details can be found in this excellent online article.
The Tippett Quartet included one piece by Holst in their programme, the Op. 36 (/ H 135) Phantasy on British Folk Songs, a piece they have recorded on the Somm label coup;ed with the Vaughan Williams Quartets:
Thsi is a marvellous piece, typical of the English Pastoralist/English Musical Renaissance tradition. The work was written in 1916, the year of Holst’s first Whitsuntide Festival in this very venue. The Phantasy plays with no fewer than four English folksongs within its short, ten-minute duration. The composer’s skill is palpable: the music is simultaneously quintessentially English and yet perfectly of Holst, too. The performance was a joy, opening with a superbly delivered viola solo by Lydia Lowndes-Northcott. and blossoming out beautifully. The piece is well-crafted, and the quartet brought out its sense of both structural and linear perfection. Although not announced in the programme, this was performed in the completion and edition by Roderick Swanston.
That piece began the second half of the concert: first up was Mendelssohn’s marvellous String Quartet in E flat, Op. 12 (1829), a work that takes Beethoven’s Op. 74 “Harp” String Quartet as a template. The performance was notable for the Tippett Quartet’s senseitivity to Mendelssohn’s harmonic world. The thematic workings of the first movement were well realised, while the famous “Canzonetta” second movement, often wrested from its surroundings and given as a stand-alone piece, is charming, and here flowed beautifully. The “Canzonetta” is an Allegretto; the third movement is an Andante espressivo, so the two central movements offer a combined panel of lyricism. It was the Tippett Quartet’s homogeneity of sound that so impressed in this Andante; an absolute dream that rose to a carefully-wrought climax - John Mills' expressive violin was a vital part of this movement’s success, particularly at that focal point. The finale is a Molto allegro e vivace; and lively it certainly was, the repeated chords carrying real internal energy. A fabulous piece, well performed.
Here’s a previous performance by the Tippett Quartet of the Mendelssohn, this one at King’s Place, London:
After the Mendelssohn, the first half concluded with the World Premiere of a String Quartet by the Thaxted Festival’s Composer-in-Residence 2023/24, the young Noah Max (born 1998). Max takes inspiration from external sources: for his First Quartet “The Man Who Planted Trees,” the catalyst was a short story by Jean Giono; there, he included an optional part for narrator. Here’s the premiere of that piece, performed by The Brompton Quartet:
Of this First Quartet, Max writes that it “reflects on the beauty of nature and the possibility of human altruism through tehe prism of an iconic story by Jean Giono”.
Max has also written an opera based on the book The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. The next subtantive work after that opera was the Second Quartet. Composed between October 2021 and February 2022 , String Quartet No. 2 was originally called “The Ladder of Escape” (after Miró), lthough other visual inspirations come from Mondrian (tree studies) and the outdoor scuptures of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. The quartet is intended as a triptych, “three acts in a drama whose story is ambiguous”.
Max writes well for the instruments, and his use of certain textures or rhythms as structural articulators is interesting (in the first movement, a sudden paring down of texture to a pair of instruments or just one, double stopping, acts as something of performed Luftpausen, while in the second the technique is more to do with rhythm). Demands on the intrumentalists are significant (ultra-high writing in the work’s second panel, writing in the manner of a cadenza and so on), while effects are carefully chosen and placed (a col legno passage in that second part). Max”s keen harmonic awareness seems foregrounded in the finale, where the music seems to move slowly towards the light. Bitonality gives Max”s music some grit, while his use of gesture is, like that of texture, carefully calibrated.
Max has written four quartets in toto so far, and they will all be recorded by the Tippett String Quartet for release on the Toccata Classics label.
After the Holst, the evening concluded with a performance of Schumann's magnificent Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 44 (1842). Pianist Emma Abbate is a consummate chamber player (sometimes to a fault - she was placed behind the quartet and occasionally, even quite close up, it felt like a touch more projection would have sealed the deal). The Schumann includes significant viola solos, again engagingly and perfectly delivered by Lowndes-Northcott. Lovely to hear a crisply articulated funeral march (the secomd movement is indicated as “In modo d”una marcia”) before a Scherzo characterised by its pinpoint sense of ensemble. If the finale occasionally lost a touch of its voltage (the tension needs to be held throughout, the lower dynamics promising the later outpourings), the later fugal passages shone.
The Tippett Quartet’s programme was featured on BBC Radio 3's In Tune (Friday, June 30, 2023), with the Holst at the beginning and an interview with Noah Max starting at around 38 minutes in, which includes a performance for the show of the Second Quartet’s opening couple of minutes.
A positvely life-enhancing performance of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore in English with reduced ensemble by Wild Arts as part of their Summer Tour was offered the next day; my review of that will appear in the magazine Opera Now.
Photos of the Tippett Quartet © Thurstan Redding