Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
String Quartet No. 1 in D, op. 11 [31:04]
String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat minor, op. 30 [35:18]
Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath & Cerys Jones (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola), Chris Murray (cello))
rec. December 2015, Potton Hall, Suffolk
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907665 [66:24]
I first came across the Heath Quartet in 2011. They were playing a complete cycle of the Beethoven Quartets at the Edinburgh Festival during late night sessions in Greyfriars Kirk. It was a Fringe event, not part of the International Festival, thrown together with only months to spare—the twinkling of an eye in classical music planning terms!—due to the venue becoming surprisingly free. The fact that they were available at short notice is perhaps an indication that the quartet were still young and undiscovered. I did not see the entire cycle, but the ones I did see were pretty magical, suggesting an exciting set of talents, as yet little known, that were about to burst onto the international music scene. Burst they did, their first recording of Tippet’s quartets garnering plaudits all round. This disc is their first in what is to become a partnership with Harmonia Mundi.
It is very good indeed. Tchaikovsky is quite a smart choice for a label debut disc. The composer is central to the mainstream but his quartets are a little on the verge, so there is room for the Heath to impress, and indeed they do. The lovely sense of blend in the opening of the first quartet reflects their experience in Beethoven: there is a beautiful, Germanic warmth to the sound that actually sounds rather un-Russian. However, at this stage in his career Tchaikovsky was at heart a westernising classicist, so that is probably their being true to the music. The turbulent development section is admirably precise, the different lines weaving in and out of one another with exciting clarity. The 9/8 syncopations which sit at the heart of this movement sound even fresher when the new lines come into play at the start of the development. The second theme retains great songfulness, however, and this serves as a lovely precursor to the famous Andante cantabile second movement. There is a beautiful simplicity to it that is utterly beguiling; art concealing art in the most moving way. The muted sound is also wonderfully caught by the Harmonia Mundi engineers, and the expertly chosen acoustic of Potton Hall really comes into its own here, too, almost as much a part of the recording as the musicians. A smidging of Russian flavour arrives in the (slightly) more rustic-sounding Scherzo, which also has an appealingly energetic Trio. The finale is wonderfully playful,with the Heath getting inside the mood of the piece wonderfully, and the chocolaty viola sound making a wonderful contrast with the smooth second theme.
The third quartet is not exactly avant garde, but it is still a more ambitious work than No. 1. The opening is full of quiet passion and restrained lyricism, reminding you that the work was conceived as a tribute to the recently deceased violinist who had played in the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets. The contrast between this and the ensuing Allegro moderato section makes for compelling drama, with the alternation between edgy quavers and quieter sustained sections beautifully realised. The effect when the Andante returns, only a couple of minutes before the movement’s end, is really rather wonderful. The agile Scherzo seems to be played with a nod and a wink (something I saw the quartet do a lot in that Beethoven cycle) and the kind of interplay that you really only get when musicians know each other well. The passion that characterised the quartet’s opening returns for the funereal slow movement (funebre e doloroso), but here the quiet lyricism of the first movement’s introduction gives way to an altogether more impassioned, heart-on-sleeve approach where the composer wears his grief on his sleeve. It is to the Heath Quartet’s credit that they take it seriously and never lapse into melodrama, and their playing of the more lyrical, major key second theme is a beautiful contrast of great warmth. The darkness of the unrelenting cello tread of the recapitulation is very effective, as is the hushed, almost defeated return of the main theme that follows it. The finale is energetic, but also has a searching feel to it, as though nobody is quite convinced by the sincerity of the major key ending after the powerful grief of the preceding movement.
Like I said, these quartets are not exactly central to the repertoire of many chamber groups, and it is impressive that the Heath Quartet have made their CD debuts with Tippet and now with Tchaikovsky. It is outstandingly assured, and speaks of artists who have already attained a remarkable degree of maturity. Harmonia Mundi have done us all a service by snapping them up. The booklet informs me that we should expect a complete Bartók cycle from them in 2017, and that should definitely be something to look forward to.