Heath Quartet. (Sussie Ahlburg)
April 14

The Phillips Collection continued its sterling weekly concert series Sunday, presenting the Heath Quartet, a talented British group on its first U.S. tour. Now a dozen years old, the group plays with a winsome blend of impetuosity and discipline. In matters of basic quartet grooming, they are well-nigh impeccable. They lack the extra dimension of beauty and spirituality that the finest quartets attain, but it is certainly within reach.

I have seldom heard such pure ensemble intonation. In the “La Malinconia” section from Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6 and in the ghostly opening chorale from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, each harmony change took on an expressive force that cannot happen if each pitch is not centered. The musicians were always aware of the principal voice and balanced their parts accordingly and unobtrusively, giving the overall texture a rare cleanliness. They made light of the metrical challenges in the Beethoven scherzo, the most rhythmically complex movement he ever wrote. The quartet also gets kudos for literally observing Schubert’s frequent pianissimo marking, playing as softly as instructed and not getting carried away by the romantic beauty of their parts.

So the Heath does pretty much everything right. It was a little startling then to hear its leader misread his part in the first variation in the Schubert slow movement placing his 16th notes against the accompanying triplets (when they are supposed to clash). More generally, the group needs to cultivate a wider tonal palette. None of the players produces the expressive beauty of their counterparts in the Guarneri or Amadeus quartets, for example. The perfect intonation in the Beethoven “La Malinconia” was necessary but not sufficient; variation of tone color and vibrato intensity needs to be front and center as well. The quartet’s range of articulation is also too narrow: Staccato notes all tended to stay on the string; nothing really sparkled. And the poignant journey of the Schubert slow movement, particularly the anguished coda, was all on the surface; the greatest quartets make this an almost shattering experience.

The pluses of this fine young group far outweigh the minuses, all of which are fixable with more work, listening and experience.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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