WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1, 5-7 • String Quartets Nos 3 & 4; Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet
PERFORMER: The Tippett Quartet; Craig Ogden (guitar)
CATALOGUE NO: CDLX 7182 • CDLX 7214
Stephen Dodgson’s string quartet sequence has a curious history. Four earlier works in the medium, dating back to 1948, were all withdrawn; Dodgson composed what he regards as his official No. 1 in 1984, and it has since had a cascade of successors.
The music’s idiom is benign, vivid, ultra-fluent, and technically as strong as steel, though in such a disarming way that there’s no sense of paraded expertise.
Trying to relate Dodgson’s style to that of other composers is pleasingly difficult. I found myself thinking of an unlikely-sounding blend of Tippett and Janácek – two other composers with wellsprings of humanity singing within an idiom that’s as much modal and tonal.
The First Quartet is probably the finest of the set. Its design of just two quite large movements works with absolute sureness, with the introspective first offset by the flowing second, and material of ceaseless strength throughout.
Since then Dodgson has preferred multi-movement, more suite-like forms, with rich results in, for instance, the Sixth Quartet, whose sequence of Arioso, two Dances, Ground Bass and final Caccia is linked by recitative-like solo passages. No. 7, a sonic counterpart of the ‘Cross-Currents’ of river or sea, doesn’t quite manage to sustain the beautiful interplay of its opening stages.
The outstanding work besides the First Quartet is surely the Fourth, which again explores Dodgson’s favoured Baroque forms: all five movements excel, with the vivid atmospherics of ‘Shadowplay’: Andante (so individual compared to the Third Quartet’s rather obvious debt to Bartók) followed by a wonderfully expressive ‘Canzona’: Allegro non troppo.
Dodgson’s fabled expertise as a composer for the guitar shines through the Quintet, although the Chaconne finale is a stronger statement than its two precedessors.
From start to finish it’s genuinely difficult to imagine how the Tippett Quartet’s performances could be bettered. Besides the bombproof tuning and unerring balance and ensemble, there’s a warm clarity to the playing that allows the ear to savour what the notes themselves are doing, plus rich reserves of individual expression (from Maxine Moore’s viola particularly) which nonetheless never threaten to hog the limelight. Malcolm Hayes