Reviews

GMCD 7346 – Music by Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940)

TIPPETT QUARTET: John Mills – violin, Jeremy Isaac – violin, Julia O’Riordan – viola, Bozidar Vukotic – cello

To the CD in our Shop


Fanfare Magazine May / June 2011

I’m pretty sure it was G. B. Shaw who said, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” In the case of Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940), perhaps the aphorism ought to read, “Not everyone who can, should.” Tovey wrote a considerable volume of music in his lifetime, mostly chamber works for various combinations of instruments, but also a symphony, concertos for cello and piano, an opera, and a handful of choral pieces. Some of it has been recorded once or twice, but none of it has ever garnered much interest.
A one-time composition student of Hubert Parry, Tovey was obviously capable of composing, but it’s probably kindest to say that his talents lay elsewhere. Those talents were formidable, for Tovey distinguished himself as a musicologist, musical analyst, aesthetician, academic, and indefatigable writer and lecturer on matters of musical form and harmony. He made a major contribution to articles on 18th- and 19th-century music in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a collection of his program notes served as the basis for what is likely his most widely read publication, Essays in Musical Analysis. His love of Bach led him to produce a speculative completion to The Art of Fugue, and he devoted much time and effort to analyzing the works of two composers in particular, Beethoven and Brahms.
Tovey was especially fascinated by the subjects of tonality and musical form, believing that “classical music has an aesthetic that can be deduced from the internal evidence of the music itself” In this regard, Tovey’s philosophical ideas are closely related to those of the famous 19th-century music critic and aesthetician Eduard Hanslick, who believed that The Beautiful in Music (the title of his best-known publication) derived from its own inner logic and the fulfillment of its formal design. In other words, music has no meaning – at least not in any symbolic or emotional sense we impute to it – outside of realizing its own operative directives. Most of us, I think – readers, contributors, and living composers alike (except perhaps for the most radical of the avant-garde) – would find in this a not very satisfying explanation for our love of music. But it has long been one of the persistent lines of debate in the field of musical aesthetics.
This is not to suggest that Tovey’s compositional efforts are purely theoretical solutions to nonexistential abstractions. Stuck somewhere between Brahms and Parry, Tovey’s music can make for pleasant enough listening, though it seems to be quickly and easily forgotten.
The Air and Variations for String Quartet dates from 1900. No performance history exists until 1935, when it was taken up by the Busch Quartet for at least a couple of outings. The Air bears some resemblance to the opening of Brahms’s same-key Bb-Major String Sextet, op. 18, but Tovey’s undisturbed diatonic triadic theme, which introduces but a single Ab into the line, and then not until the second strain, has none of Brahms’s chromatic or rhythmic sophistication. Such a theme promises little in the way of fertile soil for development, yet Tovey doggedly spins 11 wearying variations over it for over 30 minutes of music that is never less than pretty but pointless and exhausting in a way that leaves this listener wishing the thing had ended before it started.
The G-Major String Quartet, op. 23, written in 1909, is the first in a pair of quartets Tovey wrote; its companion is the D Major, op. 24. It’s a bit more harmonically and rhythmically adventuresome than the Air and Variations and holds the interest for a moment or two longer, but four movements and 35 minutes later, I couldn’t recall a single idea from it that made a lasting impression on me.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There was one flourish that stuck with me, if only for its seeming incongruity, inaptness, and utter banality. At 50 seconds into the first movement, after a considerable amount of chromatic wandering about in a tonally vague soup, without any preparation, Tovey suddenly introduces a cadential, trumpet-like triadic fanfare that sounds like something straight out of a Gilbert and Sullivan military march. Even if it weren’t such a baldfaced cliche, it’s so out of context with what has gone before it that one can only wonder at its rhyme or reason. This sort of musical non sequitur underscores a point I’ve made in the past about a common deficiency among third-rate composers. No matter how inspired or memorable a musical idea may be-and there’s hardly anything inspired or memorable here to start with-if a composer has no idea how to follow up on it, if he is wanting in the art of continuation, his efforts can never produce a masterpiece.
Though Tovey’s string quartet was published by Schott in 1914, apparently no record exists of its ever having been performed. If I have learned anything from my years of music listening and study, it’s that there really is a difference between the analytical and the creative mind. For all his learning and profound knowledge gained from the analysis of the music of others, Tovey was not able to turn his keen analytical skills into a talent for composing.
Commendable, nonetheless, are the efforts of the Tippett Quartet for doing its best to salvage Tovey from his relative obscurity. The ensemble, formed in 1998, has thus far, on record at least, devoted its considerable talents to the music of 20th-century British composers, namely Bax, Bridge, Dodgson, Tippett, and now Tovey. Performances and recording are first-rate, and it’s unlikely that these works, which have lain fallow for so long, will be taken up anytime soon by others. So, cautiously recommended to the curious.
Jerry Dubins

Clofo – Classics Lost and Found. 23.February 2011

One of Britain’s most distinguished educators and musicologists, Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940) was also an accomplished composer, whose music is now undergoing a silver disc revival (see the newsletters of 28 October 2008 and 25 April 2010). Well-read and a true intellectual, his creations could at times border on the cerebrally dispassionate. But he rejected the avant-garde, including dodecaphonism, in favor of a late romantic style that more often than not resulted in genuinely emotionally appealing works.
The selections on this Guild release fall into the latter category, and many will find his first string quartet (he wrote two in 1909) an undiscovered chamber masterpiece. In the usual four movements, the opening andante is in sonata form, and begins with a couple of memorable thematic ideas. Tovey subjects these to an insightful extended development somewhat in keeping with what Beethoven (1770-1827) does in his late quartets (1810-26, see Sir Donald’s penetrating Essays in Musical Analysis for some of the most enlightened commentary on same). A dramatic pizzicato-laced recapitulation and final coda end the movement in thrilling fashion.
A lovely pastorale with Italian folk overtones is next, followed by a binary structured adagio that could well be a musical representation of a gently rocking cradle-cum-colicky-child. The contrapuntally complex finale finds the composer paying homage to one of his heroes, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). An intricately fashioned movement showing Sir Donald at the height of his powers, it leaves one wondering what he’d go on to say in his second quartet (not currently available on disc).
Lasting just over half an hour, the CD is filled out with Aria and Variations for String Quartet from 1900 [track-1, unfortunately without breaks]. Stated at the outset, the aria is a beautifully phrased majestic tune that sounds folk inspired. It lends itself perfectly to the following eleven variations, some of which include ingenious, minuscule developmental sections.
The first four are a chromatic fantasy [02:15], extended berceuse [04:20], angular march [07:30], where it’s easy to picture the Lipizzaner Stallions prancing about, and a delightfully animated caprice [09:52]. Variations five [10:58], six [13:39] and seven [17:49] are melancholic musings brought up short by a will-o’-the-wisp skittish eighth [19:54].
It sets the stage for the final three variants. Here the composer demonstrates his consummate compositional skill by giving us a fugal fantasia [21:00], love song [23:14] and contrapuntal epilogue [25:36] that create an exciting sense of anticipation in the listener by coming ever closer to quoting the original aria.
This finally reappears in all its pristine glory [28:46], bringing the work full circle. Incidentally, perspicacious listeners may notice a melodic fragment [26:59] bearing a strange resemblance to the rondeau from Purcell’s (1659-1695) Abdelazer (1695), which Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) would later borrow for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946).
Sir Donald couldn’t have better advocates than the members of the Tippett Quartet. Their sensitive committed playing and extraordinary technical ability render performances that will be definitive for years to come. Let’s just hope they’ll give us the second quartet (see above) in the not too distant future.
Recorded in St. Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London with a reverberation time of almost five seconds, the soundstage projected is generously resonant. This enriches Tovey’s lush music all the more, but without any loss of inner voice clarity. In that regard, the string tone is natural except for some causticity in a couple of upper violin passages.
Bob McQuiston

Klassik.com September 2010

Interpretation:  
Klangqualität:   
Repertoirewert:
Booklet:             

Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940) war einer der angesehensten Musiktheoretiker im England des letzten Jahrhunderts. Seine Kompositionen sind heute so gut wie vergessen. Nachdem das Label Toccata mit der Einspielung von Klaviertrios, des von Pablo Casals uraufgeführten Cellokonzerts und der Symphonie op.32 Pionierarbeit geleistet hat, sind nun beim nicht weniger für seine Entdeckungen bekannten englisch-schweizerischen Label Guild zwei von Toveys Werken für Streichquartett erschienen.

Die 1900 geschriebene ‘Aria mit elf Variationen’ op.11 ist ein über halbstündiges Werk, das einem recht einfachen Thema, das in seinem Rhythmus an die britische Hymne ‘God save the Queen’ erinnert, elf Charakterstücke folgen lässt. Über das Datum der Uraufführung scheint nichts bekannt zu sein. Immerhin brachte es das deutsche Busch-Quartett bei einem Konzert in Oxford 1935 dem britischen Publikum näher, wie ein zeitgenössischer Kritiker unter Hinweis auf die britische Vernachlässigung eigener Komponisten dankbar bemerkte. Zwar bietet der Booklettext von P. R. Shore umfangreiche Informationen zum Leben Toveys und sogar Notenbeispiele zu den eingespielten Werken, über etwas mehr Hintergründe zur Entstehung der Stücke und ihre Wirkung hätten sich Hörer und Leser aber sicher gefreut. Bezieht das Thema der Aria seine Attraktivität hauptsächlich aus den unregelmäßig langen Phrasen, die sich zu einer quasi unendlichen Melodie aneinanderreihen, so ist das melodische Material allerdings zu dürftig, um den halbstündigen Bogen des Werkes füllen zu können. In ziemlich traditioneller romantischer Harmonik, entstehen zwar immer wieder schöne Momente, insgesamt ermüdet das Stück den Hörer aber doch durch seine Eintönigkeit. Dabei versucht das britische Tippett Quartet durchaus engagiert und fast immer souverän, dem Stück etwas abzugewinnen.

Auch das 1909 komponierte Quartett G-Dur op.23 bewegt sich harmonisch in einem eher rückwärts gewandten Rahmen und wirkt mit seinen oft in Terzen oder Sexten geführten Violinen zeitweise kitschig. Ähnlich wie in den Variationen ist zwar stets der raffinierte Kontrapunktiker Tovey zu hören. Das melodische Material ist aber nicht sehr einfallsreich, so dass die vielen Fugati und Kanons ziemlich blutleer klingen. Vernachlässigt man die Zeit des Entstehens des Quartetts und die damit verbundenen Erwartungen an solch ein Werk, so gibt es auch in diesem Quartett immer wieder überraschend schöne Stellen, die dann aber wieder mit sehr einfachen Figuren abgeschlossen oder kombiniert werden, die zum einen gewollt und andererseits einfallslos wirken. Lediglich im vierten und letzten Satz des Quartetts wird Toveys Stil moderner mit Anklängen an impressionistische Klangflächen und -verbindungen.

So bekannt und bedeutend Tovey vor allem in Großbritannien mit seinen ‚Essays in Musical Analysis‘ auch war, die er als Begleittexte zu den Konzerten des von ihm gegründeten und dirigierten Reid Symphony Orchestra schrieb, so zeigt die Aufnahme doch deutlich, dass ein großer Musiktheoretiker nicht automatisch auch ein guter Tonsetzer sein muss. Trotzdem ist diese Einspielung ein wertvoller Beitrag zur nicht sehr bekannten Streichquartettgeschichte in England, die im 20. Jahrhundert doch noch so wichtige Werke wie die Streichquartette B. Brittens oder des Namenspatrons des Quartetts M. Tippett dem Repertoire der Gattung hinzufügen sollte. Wir dürfen gespannt sein, ob das Tippett Quartet auch noch Toveys zweites Streichquartett op.24 einspielen wird, das Schwesterwerk des hier vorliegenden op.23.
Christian Starke


Gramophone 2010

First recordings of quartets by the master music analyser
Sir Donald Tovey’s brilliant Essays in MusicalAnalysis, no longer fashionable, are what this distinguished academic is still generally remembered for, but he was also a prolific composer, here represented by two of his works for string quartet, both of them written before he was 40. Both are marked by masterly control of structure and argument, as one would expect of such a perceptive musical analyser, and one welcomes the chance to get to know a side of Tovey’s work not often appreciated. It adds to the attraction of the disc that these are both works never previously recorded, so all credit to the enterprise of the fine Tippet Quartet and the Guild label.
Needless to say, Tovey has a masterly understanding of the string quartet medium, so that themes emerge with clarity and definition. One is never in danger of losing one’s place in the music. An obvious reservation is that the composer seems reluctant to adopt a really fast or exhilarating speed, whether in the Aria and Variations or in the four movements of the String Quartet, in which an Andante pomposa galante leads to a Pastorale allegretto and a Poco adagio sempre sostenuto. Even the final Allegro has the addition of commodo, modifying any idea of speed.
The wonder is that the sequence works as well as it does, yet the even more serious reservation is that Tovey seems unable to create a really memorable theme. His themes are all perfectly serviceable but they rarely if ever stick in the mind. At the, end one admires without really being moved. Even so, there is much in favour of a disc that exploits two such confident works, very well played and recorded with striking immediacy.
Edward Greenfield

MusicWeb International Wednesday September 01 2010

Two masterworks played with sympathy, understanding and relish.
There are two important ideas to hold in equilibrium in any review of Donald Francis Tovey’s music. Firstly, the listener must expect that most of his works could be classed as ‘retro’ and, secondly, in spite of this warning, all the compositions that I have heard are marked by a sense of beauty, design and emotional impact that makes them largely timeless.
Tovey is fairly and squarely in the mould of Brahms: there is virtually nothing in his music that could be described as modern. In spite of composing during the first forty years of the twentieth century, little of that era appears to have ‘rubbed off’. It is hard to imagine that this period included such works as Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Walton’s Façade or Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Even the post-romanticism of Edward Elgar or Richard Strauss seems to have passed him by: the impressionistic strains of Debussy and Delius are ignored. As far as I am aware, folksong is nowhere to be seen in his music. It is not as if he did not know, understand and appreciate all this new music as any glance at his magnum opus the Essays of Musical Analysis will show: it is simply that he appears to have been satisfied with the musical language he adopted as his own.
Although there are plenty of biographical details available on the Internet, a short note will be useful to some readers. Donald Francis Tovey was born at Eton, the son of a schoolmaster, on 17 July 1875. He trained as a musical scholar, as a pianist and as a composer. It was this latter occupation that he regarded as being the most important. He studied piano with Sophie Weisse until he was nineteen and also took lessons in counterpoint from Dr. Walter Parratt when still a boy. He worked with Hubert Parry before being elected to the Lewis Nettleship scholarship at Oxford. He graduated with classical honours in 1898.
Tovey was active in the recital room, giving concerts of his own music, playing chamber music in Berlin and Vienna, and championing other composer’s works through the Classical Concert Society and later the Reid Orchestral Concerts (1917). In 1914 he was appointed to the post of Reid Professor of Music in Edinburgh University and some ten years later he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Music. It is as a scholar that Tovey is best remembered – certainly his analytical notes are still in service and provide learned and often witty comments on the standard repertoire. In his lifetime he was well known as a lecturer and as a broadcaster. Donald Tovey died in Edinburgh on 10 July 1940.
In recent years a number of his musical compositions have been released by enterprising record companies beginning with the Cello Sonata on the Marco Polo label in 1995. Hyperion issued a fine recording of his Piano Concerto on their ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’ series and finally Toccata Classics have issued three CDs devoted entirely to his music – including the Symphony, the Cello Concerto and chamber works. Dutton have recently presented a large part of the opera The Bride of Dionysus to listeners. Guild Records must be congratulated for joining this increasing group of recording companies who recognise the sheer attractiveness and intrinsic value of Donald Tovey’s music.
Two major works are presented on this disc – the Aria and Variations in B flat major for String Quartet, Op.11 and the String Quartet in G major, Op.23. Both works date from the first decade of the Twentieth century. I am grateful to the author of the liner-notes for information on these two works.
The Aria and Variations was not performed ‘officially’ until 1935 when it was played by the Busch Quartet in Oxford and then repeated in London. Fortunately, there is a review preserved in The Times which stated that ‘… at the end of this fascinating work we were left wondering at the neglect of our English masters and grateful to these German artists for recalling one of them to the attention of an English audience.’
Peter R. Shore notes that in assessing a ‘theme’, ‘phrasing is of the essence.’ He explains the musical structure of the Aria and suggests that it is this phrasing ‘which holds the eleven variations together with every possible variety and contrast of which four stringed instruments are capable.’
There is no doubt that this is a well-balanced theme and has the added value of being memorable and therefore recognizable as it is put through its paces. It is reiterated in the finale in its original mood. The work appears to have an overall structure of an arch, with the theme and first four variations building up to a climax. It has been noted that Parry may well be an influence in this work, and this becomes apparent in the music following the central ‘crisis.’ It would be easy to dismiss a work such as this as ‘all Brahms and water’ however the attentive listener will hear echoes of Beethoven and Bach as well as the English master mentioned. Tovey has not written a pastiche or parody: the composer has absorbed all these influences and has created a stunningly beautiful work in its own right. I will not be exaggerating if I suggest that this is one of the masterpieces of English chamber music. Finally, I agree with the reviewer in The Times who suggested that this work must have sounded ‘surprisingly fresh’: it still has that impact in spite of all the changes and chances that music has gone through during the last 75 years.
Peter R. Shore does not mention in his programme notes whether the String Quartet in G major op.23 was ever performed. A quick check in the ‘usual’ places did not reveal any history of a performance. The Quartet was composed in 1909 and was subsequently published in 1914 by Schott.
The only reference I can find to this work is in that good old book The Well-Tempered String Quartet. After suggesting that Sir Donald Tovey’s music is ‘rich in the qualities of solid, well-wrought workmanship’ it insists that amateurs of ‘the more serious order will find much to admire in his chamber music.’ It mentions that there are three quartets – his Op. 11 in B flat (the Aria and Variations), the second in G major, Op.23 and the third in D major, Op. 24. In the opinion of the authors the final quartet is the most worthy, in spite of it being somewhat shorter than the preceding two. Their view on the G major Quartet is that it is ‘a rather slight work’.
This is a point with which I would have to take issue: certainly on the sheer scale of the work which runs to nearly 35 minutes it is no slouch. Yet I can see where the authors are coming from. This is a largely sunny and untroubled work that does not offer players and listeners the challenges of some of the more formidable works in the repertoire.
The G major quartet is written in four movements with the first being the longest. Shore notes that it is written in extended sonata-form, but does not then declare where the extensions occur! However the opening subject is an attractive dotted rhythm which appears to haunt the entire movement. It is signed as ‘andante pomposo e galante’, which is a playing instruction that I have not come across before. The entire movement is satisfying and, in spite of not having perused the score, appears to me to be well constructed and proportionate.
The second movement is a ‘pastorale’: however do not expect anything remotely like the ‘cow and gate’ school of English music that was popular at the time. I am not sure where the pastoral imagery derives from – is it Scotland or England? However, something tells me that it is more likely to be a classically imagined backdrop. The programme notes point out that the composer’s inspiration partially derives from the baroque period where a ‘pastorale’ consisted of a melody in thirds played over a drone bass.
The slow movement, ‘poco adagio, sempre sostenuto’ is the core of the work, yet even here there is no great angst or intensity. Whatever the emotional content of this music is, it is viewed by the composer with equanimity. However the middle section is more strident and alludes to the dotted rhythms of the first movement. The reverie-like music is recalled before this lovely movement closes.
The finale is an ‘allegro commodo’, which once again defines the relatively easy-going nature of this work. It is in this movement that one senses Tovey had been most influenced by contemporary developments in musical language. There is an ambiguity about some of the harmony and the soundscape does push towards the impressionistic on occasion. The themes are developed with skill and soon the movement and the string quartet comes to a triumphant close.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable work that captures the listener’s attention without causing too much soul searching. It is an ideal piece for anyone who wants a break from addressing the more demanding works of Bartók, Maxwell Davies or Shostakovich. Yet ‘demanding’ does not always equal ‘enjoyable’, or more pertinently, moving. In all these categories Sir Donald Tovey succeeds where the others may sometimes struggle.
The Tippett Quartet addresses these two masterworks with sympathy, understanding and relish. It is so good to see such attention to detail and musical engagement with music that is at the fringes of the repertoire. Their efforts here must surely bring Tovey’s chamber works to a wider audience. One hopes that they will also perform these two Quartets in the recital room.
The quality of the sound is great and the packaging of the CD is impressive: I liked the cover picture ‘Moonlight’ by Matthew William Webb (1851-1925).
I felt a little ambivalent about the liner-notes. In spite of an excellent introductory essay by Mr. Shore, the analytical notes of the two works appear to have been done in a hurry, and in spite of the musical examples did not really give much information on the genesis, reception and progress of the music.
Lastly it would be great if Guild could see their way to releasing the D major quartet alongside the Variations on a Theme of Gluck (flute also needed).
John France

Classical Music Sentinel July 2010

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

International Record Review July / August 2010

The Donald Tovey discography continues to expand. Shortly after the extracts from his Opera The Bride of Dionysus, which I reviewed in the April issue, comes this recording of two major chamber Works. Once again his vast technical competence and indebtedness to Brahms (not so much stylistic as practically genetic) are in evidence, but also – and this is what makes the music ,well worth getting to know – the warm-hearted nature of much of his Invention.
The Aria and Variations dates from 1900, when Tovey was 24, and at over 30 minutes’ length could itself be considered a large single-movement string quartet in variation form. The serene Andante cantabile theme has the unusual phrase-structure 6 bars + 5 + 4, then 3 + 6 + 2 + 5, the last 5-bar phrase becoming 6 bars on repeat, and this phrasing determines the proportions of most of the 11 variations. (Tovev may have had the irregular phrasing of the Brahms `St Antoni’ Variations at the back of his mind.) By any Standards this is a substantial work, that demonstrates Tovey’s command of variation form in exemplary fashion. The variations in canon are particularly striking.
Despite the ingenuity with which he treats his materials, though, one seldom feels that Tovey is particularly stretching himself. Brahms once warned against too complacent a reliance an the agreeable solidity of B flat; the ear wearies a little, too, of the consistently full textures and the generally equable tone, though the last couple of variations do present us with something more passionate and deeply felt. Sometimes one feels that Tovey learned everything he could from Brahms except the desirability of concision; perhaps the work could have benefited from two or three variations fewer. Or perhaps not: Tovey is actually a different sort of composer from Brahms and tends to work in larger periods with longer themes.
In some of his works (the Cello Concerto, for example) his `heavenly length’ is absolutely right for what he has to say. In any case, the Aria and Variations is still a significant if rather isolated achievement in British music of its time. Nothing outstays its welcome in Tovey’s beautifully proportioned four-movement String Quartet in G major, Op. 23, one of a pair – the other is the D major, Op. 24 – composed in 1909 and published in 1914. The unusual marking of the first movement,
Andante pomposo e galante, is reflected in the character of the opening subject, whose strong dotted rhythms and sequences back back to the Baroque, and probably speeifically to Handel. Yet this is not really a work im alten Stil; the Brahmsian echoes soon take over and the exposition begins to sound as buttoned-up as that of Brahms’s C minor Quartet. However, I’ve observed before that Tovey’s great strength is not so much in the invention of distinctive material as in what he does with it in his development sections, and the working out of this movement is both highly effecfive and atmospheric. The gem in this work, though, is the second movement, which he calls a Pastorale. Its ultimate inspiration may have been in such movements as the Agitato in Brahms’s B flat Quartet, or the Allegretto in the G major Quintet, but Tovey here far transcends his models and writes an extended piece of muted half-lights and silvery harmonic colouring that creates a sense of mystical rapture akin – though their musical language is very different – to that which we experience in Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony. It is, I think, the most sheerly beautiful movement by Tovey that I have heard. The succeeding Poco Adagio maintains the dreamlike atmosphere in its outer sections and harks back to the Baroque echoes of the first movement in its central section and is on almost as high a level of invention. The robust and tuneful finale (no question about the quality of the themes) puts Tovey’s rather infrequently proclaimed Englishness of musical accent (he was a pupil of Parry, after all) on full display, along with his contrapuntal mastery, and provides a full-hearted summing up to what is an undeniably impressive quartet. One thing that struck me listening to the whole CD, and it may be a fault in the composer, was how narrow the range
of tempos is – almost everything falls somewhere between Andante and Moderato. I did wonder, however, if the fault was in the performance: the G major Quartet’s finale is marked Allegro commodo, but need the Tippett Quartet have made it quite so commodo? The effect is more like another Andante, and I’m sure the music would respond well to being played faster.
That is, however, the only cavil I would put against their performances. I’m sure these are not easy works for a quartet to bring off, but the members of the Tippett Quartet sound as if they’re really enjoying this meaty and affirmative music, and doing their utmost to present it as eloquently as possible. I very much hope they have been booked to do a follow-up disc of Tovey’s D minor Quartet, with the Piano Quintet and Gluck Variations. Highly recommended.
Calum MacDonald