ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS
DONALD TOVEY - String Quartet


DONALD TOVEY - String Quartet Op. 23 - Aria and Variations Op. 11 - Tippett Quartet - Guild GMCD7346

If this String Quartet in G major, Op. 23 is any indication of the writing skills of British composer Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940), then what we have here is another clear example of a composer who has been unjustly ignored and neglected. A man of many talents, he was a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, scholar, broadcaster, critic, editor and writer. Important and influential text books were written by him including A Companion to Beethoven's Pianoforte Sonatas, A Companion to The Art of Fugue, Essays in Musical Analysis, and many articles for Encyclopaedia Britannica. He composed, amongst other things, a Piano Concerto, a Symphony, an Opera and a Cello Concerto performed and recorded by Pablo Casals in the 1930s. He was highly regarded as both a solid performer and an astute composer.

I might be mistaking, but I believe this is the premiere recording of this particular string quartet. It opens with an Andante Pomposa, which as its name suggests, sounds like a regal march, somewhat resembling the pomp and circumstance style of Elgar, but with a much more advanced contrapuntal layout. It demands precise ensemble playing from the musicians involved, and the Tippett Quartet certainly deliver just that plus a big helping of lyricism within the long melodic lines. The second movement, a Pastorale, is imbued with a simple beauty, or what sounds like the beautiful simplicity of a Christmas Carol and a perfect balance of light and shadow. Coincidentaly, I like to approach a listening session of a new piece of music or a new recording with a bit of ignorance. What I mean by that is that I reserve all my research about the composer or his work until after I've given the recording a good listen. I don't want anything to prejudice my opinion or thoughts about the music. Information like nationality, influences, musical education, writing techniques and so on, have a way of twisting your opinion about somethings. I prefer to judge a piece of music or a recording on its own merits, before making any comparisons or digging into the background of the work or composer. So imagine my pleasant surprise, when reading this CD's booklet notes, to find out that Tovey's inspiration for this Pastorale came from the traditional Christmas playing of pifferari in Italy. The following Adagio Sostenuto movement, is full of sombre repose and harmonic riches. The final movement returns to the opening key of G major, and its stately theme carries everything along to an imposing and well attained finish.

The Tippett Quartet was formed the same week that Sir Michael Tippett died in 1998. Therefore the reason behind the name choice. They display a keen sense of teamwork and communication, and perform with a tight, clear and focused direction. The first violin really sings in the high register and the cello is full-bodied and resonant when the music demands it. They play this Tovey quartet with a perfect blend of discipline and joy. The Guild recording, captured inside a church, uses the room's natural reverberation perfectly, and delivers a rich and pliable sound that brings out the instruments qualities very well. Highly recommended for both the quality of the music of this unknown work, and for the recording itself.

Jean-Yves Duperron - July 2010