The Heath Quartet Combine Bach and the Second Viennese School

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach, Musto, Webern, and Schoenberg: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Heath Quartet [Oliver Heath, Cerys Jones (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola), Christopher Murray (cello)]. Wigmore Hall, London, 1.7.2015 (MB)

Bach – Chorale Preludes: ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier,’ BWV 731; ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr,’ BWV 662; ‘In dulci jubilo,’ BWV 608
John MustoAnother Place (world première)
WebernLangsamer Satz
Schoenberg – String Quartet no.2, op.10


Bach goes more or less unerringly well with music of the Second Viennese School. Three Chorale Preludes, arranged for string quartet, did not, however, seem to have any obvious connection with the song cycle, Another Place, by John Musto, which here received its first performance. (Nor did works by Schoenberg and Webern.) Treated on their own terms, though, they were welcome to hear. Bach from a string quartet often seems to offer a slight element of friction, perhaps because it is so ‘Classical’ an idiom at heart: does one ever fail to think of Haydn or Beethoven? I remain to be convinced, for instance, that the Art of Fugue finds its most natural home here. By the same token, however, Bach is too great to be constricted by such matters, and the Heath Quartet offered an intriguing balance, despite my initial doubts concerning minimal vibrato, between modernity and the sonorities of certain Baroque organ stops. More than once, I fancied I heard an echo of an 8’ Gamba. ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier’ was taken at a sensible tempo, speaking, as the useful cliché has it, ‘for itself’. There was indeed something winningly self-effacing about all the performances. Great clarity was achieved; harmonic tension was productive, without being exaggerated. The quasi-serial expansiveness of ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’ had me wish it would continue for eternity. ‘In dulci jubilo,’ however odd it might sound on the hottest day of the year, was, by contrast, experienced in the twinkling of an eye.

Musto’s new work sets verse by Mark Strand, father of the dedicatee, Jessica Strand. Paul Griffiths’s programme note tried gamely to discern a Schoenbergian connection: ‘The soprano in Schoenberg’s Second Quartet discovers, as we will hear, the “air of another planet”; in this new work …, she finds “another place”, which seems to be a place out of this life.’ If you like. Aside from a certain busy-ness of counterpoint in the first movement, I failed to discern anything more. No matter: whilst I cannot say that the songs made a great impression upon me, they were well enough put together, provided one could take a language which, at its most adventurous, seemed to extend little further than Britten or Weill. The second, ‘Another Place’, offers a passacaglia one can hardly miss: certainly several times less oblique than that of Pierrot lunaire. Likewise, the 5/8 dance of the following ‘XVIII from Dark Harbor’ and pictorial representation of a heartbeat therein announce themselves without subtlety, though not without effect. Performances were throughout committed. As I have repeated perhaps too often before, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.

Webern is certainly the sort of thing I do like. His early slow movement for string quartet received as fine a performance as I can recall, enabling me almost to see, let alone hear, early twentieth-century Vienna. It was ‘late Romantic’ in the best sense, ushering in, as well as waving the fondest of farewells: not just gorgeous, but tastefully gilded. Tempo was admirably flexible, founded upon sound structural understanding. Kinship with Verklärte Nacht was abundantly clear, especially when a motif passed furiously between the instruments. Vibrato was – well, put it this way: not for Norringtonians. But there was great variegation with respect to dynamic contrasts, which were yet always integrated into an expansion of what Schoenberg would have called the Idea. Even the relative gaucheness of the young Webern could hardly have proved more lovable.

I am not sure I have heard a bad performance of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet; there was no question of this performance breaking that particular mould. The first movement was already heading in that direction, whilst remaining of our own – or rather, 1908’s own – planet. The contrapuntal complexities of the First Quartet and First Chamber Symphony, and the latter’s joy (if here, ever turning to F-sharp minor melancholy) soon came to mind. It was salutary to hear Schoenberg sounding more radical than Webern. Brahmsian intensity was palpable throughout; so also was the possibility of themes we heard taking on life beyond their present tonal moorings. (The same can also, of course, be said of many of Brahms’s themes.) Flexibility and harmonic understanding again provided a sure context for the unfolding musical drama.

The second movement seemed to take us a step closer. (I know that I am speaking teleologically, perhaps unduly so, but it is difficult to avoid doing so in this work, and I am not sure I see the point in trying.) There was certainly a great deal of pent-up intensity in both the material and its unfolding. Again, it was the sureness of integration – of melody, harmony, and rhythm – that signalled the excellence of the Heath Quartet’s performance. That quotation actually had me laugh, so startling did its humour, if humour it be, prove. The closing bars were incendiary.

Harking back to the opening of the concert, the opening bars of ‘Litanei’ sounded almst as if they were from a Bach Chorale Prelude, albeit with a touch of Beethovenian ‘Muß es sein?’ With Carolyn Sampson’s entry, almost but not quite bell-like, ghosts of Romanticism assembled, as they (not quite correctly) believed, for one final conference. Twin ecstasy and nostalgia relating to that assumed parting of the ways thrilled, as did Sampson’s mini-Kundry-ish downward leap. Strings briefly reminded us of what, tonally, was at stake.

The ‘air of another planet’ never fails to brace, to invite, even to seduce; nor did it fail here. So we were brought to the moment of transition, which, I am not afraid to admit, elicited a tear from my eyes. With those words, necessary release came – without, or so it seemed, the slightest of effort. And how ambivalent the following cello line sounded, testament to the meaning of both work and performance. Thereafter, there came exploration, ever firmly to what had gone before, and yet with early freshness of discovery recaptured. Moonlight silver and vocal conviction sounded with unerring conviction. The players, however, quite rightly reminded us that, ultimately, this remains a string quartet – and what a string quartet!

I had not anticipated an encore, let alone two; nor would I have anticipated the choices. The second of Britten’s Three Divertimenti and an a cappella performance of The Ash Grove – as Sampson told us, her favourite folk song – proved just the unexpected ticket, in their different ways.

Mark Berry

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