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Heath Quartet’s brilliant Philadelphia debut could (and should) spark a Michael Tippett revival

The London-based Heath Quartet made a dazzling debut in Philadelphia Sunday afternoon.

The London-based Heath Quartet (left to right): Oliver Heath, Gary Pomeroy, Sara Wolstenholme, and Chris Murray.
The London-based Heath Quartet (left to right): Oliver Heath, Gary Pomeroy, Sara Wolstenholme, and Chris Murray.Read moreLauko Kikkas (custom credit) / Lauko Kikkas

In the big scheme of things, Michael Tippett has only a minor profile and occasional presence in concert halls today, and yet the English composer may be coming into greater prominence — in Philadelphia, of all places.

You certainly came away with that impression Sunday afternoon reading between the lines at the American Philosophical Society. Tippett, who died in 1998, had no particular local ties. But by coincidence, two of his keepers of the flame converged. The Heath Quartet of London was making a brilliant Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (and Philadelphia) debut with Tippett’s String Quartet No. 5, and by chance, Network for New Music’s new artistic director, Thomas Schuttenhelm, is a Tippett scholar.

When another piece dropped out, the concert was reformatted to include about 25 minutes of background on the Tippett quartet from Schuttenhelm with an occasional musical illustration by the Heath.

If it had been Christmas morning, it’s hard to imagine a more gleeful Schuttenhelm. He assumed in his talk a high level of musical training on the part of his audience, but his sense of discovery made brief technical references easy to glide past. His basic message — that for a composer who tended to plot out an entire piece in his head before putting pen to paper, this string quartet was an exception — was just the kind of process insight any audience is grateful to ponder.

Schuttenhelm set up the listener, but it was the Heath in its full performance of the fifth string quartet that convinced you Tippett is a major (and majorly overlooked) voice of the 20th century.

For many, English music is represented by the majesty of Elgar or folk tunes captured by Vaughan Williams. This concert reminded us of progressives -- not just Tippett, but also Britten, whose String Quartet No. 2 the Heath played; and Purcell, an incredible original, represented by an advanced sense of imagination in his Chacony in G Minor from about 1678.

Each of these composers, above all, consciously defies aesthetic cliche.

Make no mistake about Tippett and Britten: they embrace stern dissonance. But both are also expert storytellers. There is a contour to the music that is easy to follow. Ideas repeat and develop. They come back later. They come to mean something.

And both composers have a keen ear for beauty. The Britten was full of strange textures, all expertly rendered by the Heath.

The third movement — also called “Chacony” — is a stunner of solo turn-taking. First violinist Oliver Heath sustained a passage in the highest reaches that was breathtakingly sturdy and sweet. Cellist Chris Murray took over with his rich sound, and, later, violist Gary Pomeroy with his.

In one section, the upper three strings hover in the heavens with a fluttering pattern as the cello plucks pizzicato. (Natalie Klouda was subbing for Sara Wolstenholme, out on maternity leave, on second violin.)

In some ways, Tippett seems an ordinary composer in that he uses some ordinary techniques. Ideas get passed from one player to another, and a fugal moment rears its head.

But there is something so expressively original about him that his music is as a fingerprint. Tippett has a way of dropping in brief moments as a kind of emotional shorthand: a repeated lyrical turn that seems like a time-traveler from the classical era, fleeting moments of peace and warmth, a sweetness here and there that no sooner appears than it is clawed back.

The Heath not only conveyed total mood and atmosphere on a dime, but they are also wrought of a single-minded sound.

In a way, this was the best kind of concert. It created a hunger for more Tippett, and with Schuttenhelm now at Network, more seems like a fair bet. It also raised the possibilities of what the Heath can do in other repertoire, a tantalizing question one hopes is answered here soon.