I purposely listened to this CD before researching the players/quartet. It made for a very pleasant surprise.
The playing on this CD is superlative. The players change from individual solo work to the most corporate quartet sound with consummate ease. Fabulous! And they are English.
The Heath Quartet formed like many quartets, at music school. The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester in 2002. But unlike many British quartets, the Heath Quartet play with perfect intonation (a problem for many quartets, not just British). But if truth be told, many British quartets do not not match up to their continental counterparts. In fact, the Heath's recording company, harmonia mundi already has the Arcanto Quartet, Casals Quartet and Jerusalem Quartet on the books, all stronger in the intonation and ensemble departments than most British quartets.
So, the Heath Quartet goes to the top of the class, with no apparent bias.
They chose an interesting program for their debut CD recording on harmonia mundi. Tchaikovsky is best known for his large scale orchestral music and concertos, far less for his songs, instrumental and chamber music. A shame, for the two quartets here are magical works, full of the melodic inspiration and brilliant instrumentation for which Tchaikovsky is known.
Both string quartets follow standard form, opening movement, slow movement, scherzo (previous two reversed for the 3rd Quartet) and finale. The youthful 1st Quartet (Op. 11) is in many ways more successful than the 3rd (Op. 30), written much later. The 3rd maintains the melodic invention and instrumentation quality of the 1st, but the key and drama are more 'advanced'. Wonderful, but in the 1st, you can feel Tchaikovsky working as hard as he can to provide a top class quartet. He is totally inspired. And even though there is always melancholy underlying his work, lots of happiness shine through the notes.
The Heath Quartet change their sound, individually and in ensemble as required by the score and the group's interpretation. Both slow movements have the strings muted. The effect is wonderful. Technically, the group is beyond reproach. Each player can match each other in sound and playing technique. You can hear them 'listening' to each other. At times, they throw in some 'interpretation' for good measure -- staccatos where there are none, etc -- but on the whole, both works sound very natural. Musical lines unfold on a particular solo instrument and the other three accompany beautifully.
The recording quality is absolutely superb. Yet another audiophile recording from harmonia mundi. I've not heard a duff recording from this source in years.
The group is named after the first violinist, Oliver Heath. Obviously, thousands of hours of rehearsal have built the group into a well oiled machine. The quartet is getting lots of great press in the UK (every new quartet with a recording does!). However, they are the real deal. If you are used to the qualities of the Alban Berg, Amadeus, Vermeer, Emerson, Tokyo, Italian Quartets then buy this CD with confidence.
I just read this morning that the quartet has cancelled its upcoming US tour for 'personal reasons'. Hope it's a simple glitch and they can reschedule. Of course, there are legions of stories of quartet breakups. After fourteen years together, here's hoping they continue their musical journey together for many years to come.
The Heath Quartet
Oliver Heath violin; Cerys Jones violin; Gary Pomeroy viola; Christopher Murray cello
Tchaikovsky: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 3
Release date: November 18, 2016