When TS Eliot drew together his sequence of reflections on humanity and time under the title Four Quartets, it was with reason. Structurally and sonically the poems are indebted to the way that chamber music works. And in their questing if impenetrable spirit they specifically owe something to the late quartets of Beethoven – which is why the big sell of this year’s Ryedale Festival in Yorkshire was a concert series in which the Heath Quartet played Beethoven’s music while actor Jeremy Irons read Eliot’s words.
To say this idea was inspired would be an understatement. It was one of the most memorable projects that I’ve ever witnessed in a music festival: the kind of life-changing experience that concert-goers always want but rarely find.In no sense was it easy listening.
The five quartet scores that comprise “late Beethoven” are an unfathomable mix of visionary contemplation, sweet caprice and rough power – with bizarre occurrences that seem to step out of the composer’s time and into ours.
That he was deaf by then, with a perhaps fallible sense of what he was doing, means we can’t be sure how much is accident, how much design. But either way, the end result is genius. And the same goes for the Eliot Quartets, which sometimes soar and sometimes stumble in their efforts to express the inexpressible, yet manage to convey the reader/listener on a route-march into his own being. By whatever means.
The choice for a performer in both cases is to camouflage the problems or expose them. And what gave these concerts their significance was that the four musicians and the actor took the riskier but more rewarding latter option. Everything was done with an uncompromising honesty, the Heath acknowledging the grit that makes the oyster in accounts that were as physical as they were transcendental. And in careful, quiet readings that suggested Eliot as a pioneer of mindfulness, Irons did a comparably honest job of grappling with his hard texts, making no attempt to plug the gaps in comprehension with default-mode thespian flannel.
That these concerts ran in places of extraordinary beauty – as does everything at Ryedale, which brings music into perfect churches, villages and stately piles across North Yorkshire – added to their wonder. And it’s worth reporting that the first of them played in the grand saloon at Castle Howard: the house that made Jeremy Irons famous when he filmed Brideshead Revisited there, 35 years ago. He told me that he hadn’t been back since, that it was full of memories. And if they didn’t feed into his reading of “Burnt Norton” (which, like Brideshead, is about revisiting a great house and its ghosts), I’d be surprised.