Sunday, 1 January 2012

Heath Quartet at Wigmore Hall


Beethoven: String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major ‘Harp’
Luke Bedford: Nine Little Boxes, All Carefully Packed (world premiere)
Schubert: String Quartet in A minor, D 804 ‘Rosamunde’

When I heard the Heath Quartet in Vienna the December before last I thought they had the makings of a fine ensemble. Hearing them at Wigmore Hall on Friday I was left with the same impression, give or take a couple of reservations. Technique is solid across the quartet, and the players have cultivated a good ear for balance, expressive consistency, and a refined homogeneity to their sound. Helped by the home advantage of the Wigmore acoustic, they also sounded warmer and more resonant than in the Brahms Saal of the Musikverein. It was however that sense of poise and refinement which, acting as a very English inhibitor, worked rather incongruously as a brake when the tone acquired too much sweetness or metallic edge, and, more disappointingly, prevented limits from being pushed.

This was most noticeable in the Schubert, which was played capably but lacked interest. There are many phrases in this work which work well with a clean full ensemble attack, that is if it is adequately prepared by what comes directly before. In this performance, those moments were non sequiturs, with a sense of contrast evident only in the dynamics (which even then seemed too apologetic and equivocal). The Beethoven was played more freely, with the Heaths’ commitment less tempered by caution. This was a performance which, for the quietly absorbing opening and compelling coda of the first movement, will make for an interesting release (this concert was recorded for the Wigmore Live label). There was much to recommend the Adagio as well: a similarly nuanced understanding of Beethoven’s thematic materials, with well-judged tempi and a flowing sense of line giving the movement some convincing proportions. Just some of the less obviously interesting pivot chords – in all the movements – might have played been slightly more attentively.

Living in Austria, I don’t hear Luke Bedford’s music any more so much as hear about it. There was one piece programmed as part of the British focus at the most recent Wien Modern (regrettably unblogged, my excuse being six events in the first four days alone plus the Thielemann Ring), Man Shoots Strangers from Skyscraper, which was played ably by members of the London Sinfonietta but struck me, to damn it rather meanly with faint praise, as a decently composed and rather derivative MA submission. But that was written in 2002 and Bedford has moved on. My tastes are still more in the direction of high modernism than Bedford is prepared to go, but he writes for string quartet with great facility, and this work, if not exactly inventive, held my interest from beginning to end and didn’t irritate as much as I thought it would for pandering to audiences such as the Wigmore’s (Bedford is composer-in-residence at the hall until 2013). I just wished I hadn’t read his programme notes (emphasis on programme) before listening to the piece, which was billed on the Wigmore’s website simply as Bedford’s second string quartet. Nine Little Boxes, All Carefully Packed takes its inspiration from the ‘forty-two boxes, all carefully packed’ passage of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. The boxes were left on a beach and as Bedford writes, ‘I imagined [them] gradually decaying over time, their finery being washed away and their contents oozing out across the sand. These goods, which had been so lovingly packed away, now lie mostly ruined and forgotten. And I imagined that the contents of the pieces that I had written had undergone a similar fate. They would still try and sing out their beauty, despite the ravages that might have been acted upon them from the outside world.’ To that end there are three pieces, or boxes, which get a full and an altered statement each, and a further three which ‘remain fixed in position’ – though I’m not so sure, at least about the choice of words, since two of these set in motion the disintegration of the first three pieces and if we’re being literal, shouldn’t be regarded as boxes at all. But that’s perhaps my problem. Another quibble I had was that the pieces were too short to support the programme – I only realized were we on box eight, rather than box four or five, when the lady next to me pointed out to her husband, quite correctly, that we were listening to the viola solo which Bedford writes of characterizing that fixed box. I had wrongly assumed that the underlying rhythmic figure of box two was a continuation of box one’s canon. (So much for formal musical training). I would say however that with some Lachenmannian scratching as contrapuntally promising as it was entertaining, the canon could have done with more development. I recognize in hindsight that the lyrical Barber-like violin melody which followed this was in fact box two and the figure beneath it (more scratching and bowing behind the bridge) just accompaniment. And if calling a boxes three and nine ‘Radiant’ weren’t bait enough for a Scriabin or Messiaen comparison, Bedford actively courts it with the vivid colours and dazzling textures of the quartet’s ending echoing those of either composer in their ‘extase’ mode.

The Heath Quartet gave this work the most spirited performance of the evening, responding to Bedford’s demands with that rolling up of sleeves and getting stuck in quality the Ardittis often muster. Oliver Heath and Gary Pomeroy, first violin and viola respectively, both impressed with their solos. A final mention goes to Pomeroy and second violinist Cerys Jones, both formidable players whom more established quartets would surely consider themselves fortunate to have as assets.

Image credit: Heath Quartet

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