The new season opened in fine style with the celebrated Heath Quartet presenting works by Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Britten. The opening of Haydn’s Op.71, No. 2, a slow chorale, was movingly played in ‘period instrument’ style with no vibrato and pure intonation, but once the Allegro got underway, they adopted a modern, muscular style, especially the first violin (Oliver Heath) whose tone was sometimes too strident, even for this exuberant movement; but, in compensation, the lower strings brought to everything they played a glorious responsiveness.
Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet (Op.11, of 1871) is in effect an early work, with fascinating experiments in texture and rhythm and many hints of Russian folk styles. Russian folk music does not obey the square phrase patterns of popular Western music, and Tchaikovsky exploited the irregularities it offers. Even the otherwise saccharine theme of the Andante Cantabile is saved by its intriguing asymmetry of phrasing. Tonight’s musicians were fully alive to the nuances, subtlety, and sometimes wit of Tchaikovsky’s adventurous writing.
Britten composed his Second Quartet in 1945, soon after the triumphant premiere of Peter Grimes. It presents a composer brimming with new ideas and with the technical means to control them. The first two movements pay due homage to Shostakovich, Bartók and Tippett, but the voice is always Britten’s own, and the writing, especially in the Scherzo, strikingly virtuosic. But it is the third movement, an extended ‘Chacony’, that carries the main burden of this quartet. Nominally a tribute to Purcell, it also recalls Bach’s extended chaconnes, finding a huge variety of harmonic and rhythmic variations against the slow tread of the ground. About one-third in, the writing becomes extremely dissonant, perhaps a reflection on Britten’s recent experience of performing in war-torn Germany, but thereafter the tension is ever-so-gradually resolved. This music demands the utmost expressive control as well as virtuosity, and we were rewarded tonight with a stunning performance, a profound experience.
Professor Peter Johnson