Ahead of their ambitious cycle of the complete Beethoven String Quartets later this Summer at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, the fast-rising Heath Quartet join forces with actress Olwen Fouéré in the KBC Great Music in Irish Houses Festival.
This brilliantly curated festival combines a host of top Irish and international performers with a selection of amazing and unusual venues. Smock Alley is the oldest theatre in the country and has been recently renovated and returned to its original function. The Main Space is a spare, beautiful room, the ground-level stage area backed by a bare concrete wall and surrounded on three sides by hard wooden benches.
Tonight’s event is daringly programmed, beginning with a recitation of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets and continuing without a break into Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet in A minor Op. 132. Anyone in the audience who is either solely a theatre fan or solely a chamber music aficionado is faced with one very complex unknown.
Fouéré’s recitation is slow and pronounced, precise and deliberate yet somehow almost on the verge of stumbling. She lends every phrase an air of mysticism. Tom Creed’s direction is subtle and very effective: the lights are virtually extinguished, the only furnishings a desk and a reading lamp. As Fouéré concludes, the musicians enter silently, one from each corner of the room. In a moment of intense drama, the mournful opening notes are submerged in the silence left by Eliot’s disappearing words.
The Heath Quartet have a lot to say in this piece, one of the pinnacles of the repertoire in terms of profundity as well as difficulty. Of particular note are the chorale sections of the extraordinary third movement (entitled Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen tonart [Hymn of thanksgiving to the Divinity by a convalescent, in the Lydian mode]; written after Beethoven recovered from a serious illness, no other work in the Classical repertory comes close to inhabiting the emotional world of this movement), which are played with almost no vibrato and bring to mind a consort of viols.
The passionate recitativo that links the final two movements jolts the audience into a wildly different arena. The quartet show off a wide and considered range of colours, but what the Heath Quartet bring to the fore most obviously (and more than most performances) is the schizophrenic wildness of the music, which is utterly unpredictable and must have seemed completely bizarre to audiences nearly two hundred years ago. On this evidence, they are an intriguing quartet with boundless potential.
TS Eliot – Four Quartets
Beethoven – String Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op. 132