The final quartets of Beethoven and Tippett, written close to the end of their lives, undoubtedly have a quality about them that seems no longer of this earth, and yet both represent a tantalisingly new direction in their creators’ development. Words like “buoyancy”, “transparency”, “luminous” and “fragile” have been applied to each work.
Sir Michael composed his strange and haunting Fifth in his late eighties after dragging his frail frame to Australia and Senegal. The landscape of both countries influenced his final few works which approach a transcendental and, in his words, “very distilled kind of lyricism”.
Apart from the glorious resignation of the D-flat slow movement, enigmatic humour and irony pervade Beethoven’s Opus 135, bringing to mind the farewell performance of a wise old clown (“Applaud, everyone, the Comedy’s over” was the way he greeted his death-bed friends). Does the famous inserted text of the finale (“Must it be? It must be!”) pertain to the meaning of life, or to a haggle over a performance fee? Or both? Temporal and Spiritual, Worldly and Other-worldly: this artist always straddled each realm.
Tippett: String Quartet No.5 Beethoven: String Quartet No.16 in F major, Op.135