It’s fantastic to meet you all! You’re about to take part in the Tippett Retrospective at the Wigmore Hall, but first let’s talk about you as a group. How did you all get together?
Gary: We three boys met in Manchester, where we studied at the Royal Northern College of Music. Then, we met Cerys a little bit later, when we were looking for a second violinist. She studied at the Royal College of Music, and at the Juilliard School in New York.
And what felt like your breakthrough moment? When did it become obvious that the Heath Quartet was going to be such an exciting ensemble to be a part of?
Cerys: I think one of the most significant moments was doing our first Beethoven cycle. We actually had two in one year, which was an incredible thing to have. We had been preparing the cycle for the Edinburgh festival in the summer, but then we were offered an opportunity to play it for a festival in Salamanca as well. Only, the Salamanca festival lasted five days, so we had to fit the sixteen quartets into just five concerts! It was pretty intense. So, that was a real make-or-break moment, and we felt like a completely different group afterwards. It was such a homogenising thing to do. Then, we went on to do the cycle in the summer at Edinburgh, where it was much more generously spaced out with only two quartets per concert, and we received some very nice critical acclaim. We won a Herald Angel award as well. So, that was a really big milestone.
Chris: Yes, doing a Beethoven series is the Mount Everest of the string quartet. Having done that first one in Spain, and then in Edinburgh, it felt like we could basically tackle anything after that. There’s nothing as difficult or as all encompassing as doing all of those Beethovens in such a short space of time.
Ollie: Absolutely, and achieving something that seems insurmountable when you’re so young is quite a marker for a group.
It certainly is, and to have achieved it to such critical acclaim, too. That first Salamanca festival must, as you say, have felt like the most extraordinary challenge, though. What on earth gave you the courage to take it on?!
Ollie: The opportunity came about, and it just would have been foolish to let pass it by. I think when you do something like that you’re never going to feel prepared, and if you wait until “now feels like the right time” for things then you’ll probably never end up doing them.
You talked about homogenising as a group, and that homogeneity is very obvious as I talk with you and watch you interact with each other. What exactly do you think it is about your particular combination of musical and personal characters that gives the Heath Quartet its team magic?
Ollie: I don’t know. I don’t think we’re really aware of it, because it’s just a combination of our different personalities. That said, I think we all very much enjoy the live experience – the act of engaging an audience and bringing them along with you. Also, not trying to replicate the same thing over and over again, but instead constantly evolving and reacting to whatever circumstances or unique pressures that there might be for a particular concert. I think we all embrace that.
Gary: I think the other thing that works very well between us is that, whilst we all like to take it very seriously, we also all like to have fun with it.
Cerys: Yes. We take what we do seriously, but the eccentricities of the classical music world do make us laugh, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’ve also got a few rules about working together and behaving courteously towards one another which I think help to create a positive working atmosphere and mean that we generally get quite a lot of positive work done.
How much time do you spend together?
Chris: Most days. At least four or five days every week, because the quartet is our full-time job. None of us is doing any other playing, which is wonderful. We’re very, very lucky to be able to do that. It’s quite rare really, and we don’t take it for granted.
Moving on to the Tippett Retrospective, what kind of an artistic experience is it to be performing all five of Michael Tippett’s quartets over the space of a week?
Oliver: Well, it has actually been quite a long, immersive experience for us. We were first asked to do the retrospective about three years ago. At that point, we’d already played the second quartet and were slightly familiar with Tippett’s language. By now, Tippett has regularly been in our concerts for the past two years, so we’ve had time to practise and perform all of the quartets, to digest them, to put them away for a bit, and then get them back out again, which has been great. It has been very rewarding to get to know this fairly neglected repertoire, really take it on and make it our own.
How much do you think about the very human element behind all the music’s intricacies and challenges?
Cerys: I think a huge amount of our work is about trying to get inside Tippett’s head and think about the sorts of visions he was having. We discovered that his compositional technique was to have it all ready in his mind, and then literally to just sit down, start at the beginning, and write all the way through to the end. There was no sense of “Here’s the main theme, now I’m going to put it into the dominant, then I’m going to develop it, and there’s going to be a recapitulation”. His compositional style was more like a stream of consciousness. In that sense, it’s quite difficult to attach our classical training on to his music, because it doesn’t really follow that kind of pattern. So, connecting in a more human way is much more revealing.
It sounds like this is music that you all love playing.
Chris: Yes, we absolutely thrive on it. Tippett’s language changed enormously throughout his career because he was always assimilating new musical ideas, and these five quartets really span his whole life – the first one is 1934/35 (revised in 1943), and the last one is 1991. They are all so different but all unmistakeably his. They couldn’t be by anyone else. So, performing all of them you get a sense of how each one is different, but also an overall sense of what he is trying to say, and the way to get that across with your style of playing. We never get tired of playing them. We could rehearse just a few bars for hours and hours.
How do your audiences react to them? Is that part of the joy?
Chris: Yes, it is. You always get a strong reaction. It isn’t music to which you can just switch off and let it wash over you. It always makes a strong statement. I think a lot of people who don’t know the pieces already are surprised by them and really enjoy them because, although it’s not easy music to listen to, it’s very rewarding.
Cerys: There are moments of absolute genius and beauty in them, too. The slow movement of the first quartet is a little gem, and we sometimes play that as an encore. To find these things hidden in his music is wonderful.
Do you have a favourite quartet of his to play?
Chris: I don’t know about you guys, but my favourite is the third.
Ollie: I like the first
Cerys: I like the first, but the fourth is quite unique because it’s so difficult. It took the longest time ever to prepare just because of the technical demands, so that one’s got a special place in my heart.
…because of the sheer hard graft of it?!
Chris: Yes! It’s so ambitious. Tippett 4 is one of those quartets like Bartok Quartet No.5 or Beethoven’s Quartet No.13 Opus 130, in that it’s just huge in the amount of musical ambition. (Laughing) We keep thinking of mountain ranges and Himalayas, but it’s one of these mountains. It’s one of the great pieces.
How will performing these quartets alongside his other chamber music, with other performers, enhance the experience for yourselves and the audiences?
Ollie: For us, we feel very privileged to be on the same bill as Mark Padmore and Steve Osborne, and James Baillieu as well. Steve’s recordings of Tippett’s piano sonatas are amazing. For the audiences, I think it will be interesting for them to hear how Tippett uses the sonority and the qualities of the string quartet alongside how he uses the sonorities of the human voice.
Your performances will be recorded for release on the Wigmore Live label. What does it mean for you to know that your versions of these particular quartets will be on disc?
Ollie: It’s great. Tippett’s quartets are not hugely well represented on record, unlike the majority of quartet repertoire which is a crowded field, generally, and we’ve had so much experience of performing them over the past couple of years. So, it’s really exciting to have this opportunity to record our own unique perspective on them.
Looking to the future, what are you most excited about?
Cerys: We’ve got another Beethoven cycle lined up for next summer in Kilkenny. Having that now is great because we’ve got that first Salamanca and Edinburgh experience behind us, and we’ve also been playing quite a few of the Beethoven quartets on other occasions since. We feel very ready and able to tackle the cycle again, and to bring new insight to it. We are also touring the United States soon, which I’m particularly excited about as I studied there. I’ve invited my old teacher to the concerts.
Ollie: Yes, it’s just wonderful to be asked to go there. It’s quite a short tour, but we’re playing some very nice venues. For me, I’m also very excited about playing the Bartok cycle at the Wigmore Hall in 2015. It’s a very, very exciting proposition to be able to immerse ourselves in Bartok’s quartets, and all the stuff that goes with that. We’ve actually already started, as there’s been some overlap with Tippett.
The Tippett Celebration begins 3rd December 2013 at Wigmore Hall, with further concerts on Friday 17th January 2014 and Sunday 16th March 2014.