Classical: A life's work in reflection

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The Independent Culture
IT'S NOW something of a cliche that most composers have to die to achieve true recognition. Sir Michael Tippett lived long enough to avoid this fate, although it was only after acclaim in America that a wary musical establishment here embraced him fully as "Britain's greatest living composer".

Now that he is no longer with us, there is somehow a possibility, if not of re-assessment, then of standing back and looking again at his life's work as a completed whole. His five string quartets are central to that work and life, and the Lindsays' celebratory gesture of playing all five in two evenings is entirely appropriate. A quarter of a century of experience and the premieres of two of the quartets under their belts inevitably gives their interpretation a special air of authority.

Even their slightly dishevelled, shirt-sleeved appearance on stage was rather reminiscent of Tippett's endearingly off-beat informality, but there was nothing informal about their approach to the war-time Quartet No. 2. Beginning at a deliberate pace, the first movement came across as fairly decorous, with only the occasional outburst of passion; similarly, with the troubled chromatic intertwinings of the slow fugue. Things livened up in an energetic, if not faultless, rendition of the busy scherzo, and the players achieved a trenchant quality in the dynamic last movement, pushing forward to its remarkably achieved tender and affirmative conclusion.

The weird, rasping opening bars of Tippett's Fourth Quartet, written 30 years later, appeared to inhabit an entirely different world. In his post-King Priam language, the composer eschewed formal counterpoint in favour of big homophonic gestures and the sort of twiddly mirror-image melodic lines that became a worrying mannerism in his later music. There is a much wider range and a new confidence and exuberance that may have arisen from increasing recognition - but is the musical quality there?

A very remarkable piece, nevertheless, given a performance of supreme conviction by the players who first performed it 20 years ago, negotiating its dense textures and fiendish complexities (now untramelled by the disciplines of fugue) with the familiarity of experience. The irruption of the Beethoven quote in the last movement was striking, and the Lindsays negotiated the intercutting between frenzied rhythms and floating harmonics to realise its strange, frozen ending.

As if the demands of Tippett were not enough, they took on the mammoth challenge of its putative model, Beethoven's Op.130 Quartet, complete with Grosse Fuge finale, and won through with flying colours.