Heath and More: a British string quartet provides a tour of musical landscapes in a PCMS concert

Oliver Heath, violin
Oliver Heath, violin

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented a concert by the Heath Quartet at the Philosophical Society along with a lecture on Michael Tippett by Thomas Schuttenhelm, who has written an entire book on the composer’s Fifth String Quartet, the first piece on the program.

The Heath Quartet plays standing rather than sitting, so three of the musicians had to hold their instruments patiently for twenty-five minutes. (The cellist was seated on a high podium.) The few samples they played took up less than two minutes. Mr. Schuttenhelm is quite an authority of Michael Tippett and a good speaker, but the music itself contained the stronger statements.

Mr. Schuttenhelm’s revelations of how Michael Tippett depended greatly on his assistant and friend, Michael Tillett, to produce clean copy of his late compositions to the publisher made one wonder if Mr. Tillett should not be credited as a co-composer. The many changes he made for Mr. Tippett’s late works were demonstrable improvements to the original and the product of considerable work deciphering manuscripts and taking music dictation over the phone. Who should be credited for the final cut?

The challenges of Mr. Tippett’s musical score were met with incredible skill by the quartet, playing with a second violinist standing in for their regular member who is on maternity leave. Natalie Klouda, a prolific composer in her own right, played as if she had worked with the quartet a long time.

Tippett’s fifth string quartet is full of knotty passages, starting with a cascade of downward glissandi which proceeds to a rhythmic rodeo of exchanged motifs and mirrored duets. There are bursts of romantic melody which are immediately countered by dissonant responses. As the quartet concludes with a return to the original theme, the brilliance of the composition is revealed and wrapped up like a musical present.

From there, the quartet’s performance of Henry Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor, Z. 730, a four-part viol consort piece, allowed us to hear the barest bones of their playing in a sweeping tune, with successive variations taking place as if improvised by the players. The finale, as it is led in a slow passage of half steps on the viola, was magnetic.

Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 2, Opus 36 demonstrates the composer’s superb skill for writing quartets. Woven into the work are duets, trios, and solo sections which call for the highest violin notes, which flowed easily from Oliver Heath’s violin, to a surprisingly low C from Gary Pomeroy’s viola. The final movement, Britten’s homage to Purcell’s Chacony, brought Purcell’s rhythmic variations into a modern setting without losing the simplistic nature of the 17th century form.

[The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presents The Heath Quartet, Sunday, November 18, 2018 at 3:00 pm at the Benjamin Franklin Hall of the American Philosophical Society, 104 S. Fifth Street] 


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