Wednesday 7 February 2024

Sophisticated timbres & detailed textures: UK premiere of Helen Grime's String Quartet No. 2 & Ravel's String Quartet from Heath Quartet at Wigmore Hall

The Heath Quartet - Sara Wolstenholme, Gary Pomeroy, Christopher Murray, Juliette Roos (Photo: Kaupo Kikka)
The Heath Quartet - Sara Wolstenholme, Gary Pomeroy, Christopher Murray, Juliette Roos
(Photo: Kaupo Kikka)

Haydn: String Quartet in E flat, Op. 64 No. 6; Helen Grime: String Quartet No. 2; Ravel: String Quartet in F; Heath Quartet; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 6 February 2024

Fabulously detailed textures and an emotional journey as the Heath Quartet contrasts Helen Grime's new work with Ravel's only quartet

The centrepiece of the Heath Quartet's concert at Wigmore Hall on 6 February 2024 was the UK premiere of Helen Grime's String Quartet No. 2, a work written for the Heath Quartet and commissioned by Wigmore Hall and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The Heath Quartet gave the work's premiere in August 2021 at New Mexico Museum of Art. Around Grime's new work, the quartet had assembled an eclectic and diverse programme beginning with Haydn's String Quartet in E flat from the group of quartets written in Vienna in 1790 by a Haydn newly released from his service to Prince Esterhazy, and ending with Ravel's only essay in the genre.

By the 1790s, Haydn was displaying complete mastery of the string quartet genre, creating music that was a sophisticated dialogue between all four players. The opening Allegro had a sense of civilised conversation to it, but being Haydn there were some wayward corners. The quartet played with style and elegance, along with strong phrasing. The quartet is now led by violinist Sara Wolstenholme, but for the Haydn she and violinist Juliette Roos swapped places (as they would in the encore at the end). The other players in the quartet being violist Gary Pomeroy and cellist Christopher Murray.

The second, slow, movement was interestingly contrapuntal, the players bringing engagement and clarity to the textures and allowing the passion of the middle section to really flare. Though marked Menuetto, the third movement was more of a robust dance, with the players bringing a delightful swagger and nice use of portamento to the middle section. We ended with a crispy busy Presto finale with vigorous episodes.

Grime's new quartet is in three movements, though none have specific markings. The work began with barely-there trilling from viola and cello; the opening being gentle yet with a sense of restlessness that would characterise the whole work. Texture is clearly important to Grime, the writing was full of finely detailed and well judged effects, in the first movement a unified gesture became more important and brought a welcome sense of structure to the music. Yet throughout the movement there was the feeling of restlessness, whether the music was quiet or vigorous. There were distinct sharp edges to the material in the second movement, vivid moments and an intense sort of climax that contrasted with the delicately detailed writing elsewhere. The third movement began quiet, intense and sustained, recalling the opening of the quartet. As the music developed in hesitant waves, the hesitancy gradually receded to create intense, striking textures before the whole died down.

Grime's sophisticated ear, her fondness for fabulously detailed gestures and the way that the music develops organically meant that there were times when I missed a strong sense of structure in the piece. This is music that repays repeated listening; if every a piece was meant to be listened to on repeat on your music system at home, then it was this one. The good news is that you can, NMC Recordings issued the Heath Quartet's recording of Grime's String Quartet No. 2 as part of Bracing Change 2, a compilation of new work for string quartet which also includes music by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Paul Newland. Further details from the NMC website.

There is curious tradition in French music of composers only writing a single string quartet. Franck, Chausson and Debussy all wrote a single example. Ravel wrote his quartet in 1904 and the influence of Debussy's quartet can be felt (too much so, according to some of Ravel's contemporaries). Ravel's teacher, Faure, would only write his quartet 20 years later in 1924.

Ravel's sophisticated control of timbre and texture perhaps encouraged the quartet to programme this work after the Grime premiere. But in the Ravel, the players also mined a remarkable sense of the music's emotional landscape, we didn't just sit and admire but were drawn in. The opening movement began all sophisticated textures and civilised elegance, but there was a disturbed restlessness and violence there too. The second subject contrasted with a fabulous singing line that really shone out. The intensity of the development was marked by the fine way the players marked the ebb and flow of the music's emotional undercurrents. The second movement began with strong pizzicatos and this vividness continued in the arco sections. This was urgent, impulsive playing with a lovely contrast in the middle section and I particularly enjoyed the way the players marked the way the opening material tries to return too early. The slow movement was notable for the plangent solos from individual instruments, yet the music developed into its own hypnotic world with a wonderful combination of intensity and tension. The more flowing episodes had a fantastic sense of detail to them. The finale was fast and furious, intense and violent, the sheer energy of a tightly wound coil.

This was a performance that went far beyond Ravel's sophisticated control of texture and material, as the players created music of real intensity and sometimes violence. Listening to the performance was an emotional journey, and we were rewarded by an encore, James MacMillan's Memento

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