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Holst • Vaughan Williams: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2 etc

Tippett Quartet (SOMM Recordings)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Holst • Vaughan Williams
Holst: Phantasy Quartet; Vaughan Williams: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2
Tippett Quartet
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0656   59:35 mins

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This is an intermittently lovely, ultimately frustrating collection. That’s nothing to do with performances or recording. The Tippett Quartet play this music with more than the requisite enthusiasm and insight, and the power and intimacy of their music-making is well caught by the recording team. I certainly haven’t heard either of the Vaughan Williams quartets played better than this. From the start of No. 2 the hope grew that here, at last, was an ensemble who could convince me that the finale isn’t a thumping let-down. The originality, uneasy intensity and imaginative verve of the first three movements leapt forward at every stage – fascinating to consider that Vaughan Williams was composing this at the same time as the (largely) serene Fifth Symphony. But then comes that oddly low-key, church improvisation-like ‘Epilogue’, and once again the whole piece falls sadly flat, despite the players’ best efforts.

That doesn’t happen in the much earlier First Quartet, but here, although some of the music is arrestingly beautiful, it doesn’t have anything like the tight focus of the Second’s first three movements. The lasting, seriously disappointing conclusion is that Vaughan Williams could have written one of the great British string quartets, that he came very close, but that he seems to have lost focus at the final hurdle.

The Holst is entertaining and occasionally touching, but it’s a long way from, on the one hand the St Paul’s Suite, and on the other the deliciously ingenious late Terzetto.

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Stephen Johnson