A Highly Rewarding Programme from the Heath Quartet

18/03/2019

Haydn, Ligeti, and Beethoven: Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath, Sara Wolstenholme [violins], Gary Pomeroy [viola], Christopher Murray [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 16.3.2019 (MB)

The Heath Quartet (c) Sussie Ahlburg

Haydn – String Quartet in D major Op.20 No.4
Ligeti – String Quartet No.2
Beethoven – String Quartet in E-flat major Op.127

To the Wigmore Hall for a highly rewarding programme of Haydn, Ligeti, and Beethoven from the excellent Heath Quartet: all standing, save the cellist. Whilst it would be banal in the extreme to attribute such alert, illuminating performances to the lack of seating, it doubtless did no harm. Who knows? At any rate, those of us who were sedentary doubtless found ourselves on the edge of our seats, such was the electricity of the music-making we heard.

Haydn always seems to be on the cusp; most great composers do when considered historically. (A good few lesser composers too, come to think of it.) He is surely nowhere more so, however, than in his Op.20 quartets, of which we heard the fourth, in D major. ‘Baroque’ and ‘Classical’ are little more than labels, really, often highly misleading labels at that, but perhaps that cusp had something to tell us – at least until the sudden eruptions of the first movement, which, if not quite Beethovenian, were not exactly un-Beethovenian either. Cultivated tone, conversation, and keen dramatic sense conspired to make play with a thoroughly dialectical relationship between material and its performance. And so, it continued, throughout the development and recapitulation, not least between counterpoint and harmony. Relative – only relative, for this was no no-vibrato freak-show – astringency of tone in the slow movement proved highly apt for the numerous suspensions and general Affekt. The variations’ unfolding proved unquestionably Haydnesque, quite different from, say, that of Mozart or Beethoven – without ever feeling the need to trumpet individuality or, God help us, ‘quirkiness’. There was much fun, both ‘rustic’ and ‘intellectual’, to be had in the ‘Menuet alla zingarese’, with respect to metre and its relationship to harmony. The trio properly relaxed, going its own way: not less but differently challenging. The Heaths’ finale captured the essence of Haydn’s marking (‘Presto e scherzando’) and, beyond it, a sheer brilliance that seemed to extend from the minuet and trio rather than merely contrast with it. It had all the hallmarks of one of Haydn’s free-wheeling symphonic finales, whilst retaining the individual and conversational voices of his quartet writing. Best of all, it put a smile on my face.

Ligeti’s Second Quartet (1968) opened with an éclat from which, it seemed, both all and nothing derived: testament to a decidedly un-, even anti-Haydn-and-Beethoven, denial of motivic development in a ‘conventional’ sense. Scurrying sounds, eruptions, a primacy of texture, and much else besides pointed to kinship instead with a work such as Ramifications, also heard in a Wigmore Hall concert earlier this month (albeit on location at the Roundhouse). And that was only in the first few bars! As with George Benjamin and the Ensemble Modern in that concert, the Heath Quartet made us listen – as, of course, did Ligeti. Indeed, it was the composer’s sheer invention, rather than any particular manifestation thereof, that proved most suggestive of kinship with the Classical masters who were his companions on the programme. The second movement, ‘Sostenuto, molto calmo’, sang in and through the uncertainty of an overarching drama that was underway, yet nowhere near resolution, be it on a micro- or macro-level. Technique, both in work and performance, truly proved the liberator of the imagination – just as in Haydn.

The central, third movement, ‘Come un meccanismo di precisione’, certainly spoke of its marking, a multiplicity of ghosts making themselves felt in this machine or mechanism – or should it have been machines in this uncanny, ghostly world? Clocks ticked and malfunctioned, if only figuratively, yet for that reason perhaps all the more tellingly, for they struck as if heartbeats: heartbeats, perhaps, of insanity. Truly pivotal, then, prefacing a wonderful sense of fourth movement play between apparent unanimity and harmony. But was it play? Everything felt both strongly purposive and called into question. The final movement brought delicacy and apparent continuity, at least at first. Yet again, the more one listened, the more one doubted, Ligeti’s notes both binding together and dissolving their very material: ever changing and yet ever similar. It was a finale, yes, just as much as Haydn’s had been, but one was left in no doubt that a finale by now meant something quite different.

The opening of Beethoven’s Op.127 Quartet offered so much in the way of E-flat resonance (in more than one sense). The so-called Emperor Concerto, Mozart in all manner of guises: such were the ghosts briefly summoned, prior to a decidedly late, different path on which Beethoven and his interpreters led us: exploratory, yet in the surest of hands. It may be a cliché – what is not, when writing of this music? – but the Heaths truly imparted a sense, however illusory, of the music being composed on the spot: nothing taken for granted, everything ‘new’. Once again, the first movement from its outset made us listen to, indeed participate in, a drama of dialectics, and a specifically tonal drama in this case, a drama of E-flat major. Motivic method reasserted itself in the wake of Ligeti: no mere reversion, perhaps even a progression. Concision, however, was not the least of the qualities held in common, at least in context.

How does one speak of a late Beethoven slow movement? Maybe one should not even try. This, at any rate, unfolded with a rapt sublimity – another cliché, I know – that was anything but generic, bathed, it seemed, in the glow of the Missa solemnis. And how we were compelled to listen to Beethoven’s harmony! In a concert offering us startling original third movements, Beethoven’s scherzo had nothing to fear. Tension and relaxation proved both co-dependent and perfectly judged. Metrical dislocations may have recalled Haydn, but they were very much the composer’s, the work’s, the performance’s own. Modernist and neoclassical impulses were held and encouraged in dialogue for the finale. By what? By many things, but not least a gruff humour that spoke of a humanity it is difficult not to think of as ‘Beethovenian’. Such, once again, proved just the right note for a finale, moreover for this finale.

Mark Berry

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