When you pass from the afternoon rain into Kilkenny’s former Augustinian priory of an August day, there’s plenty to be thankful for.
There’s the 13th century church of St John’s, which was once referred to as ‘the Lantern of Ireland’, owing to the beauty of its gothic windows. Cromwell, being of a generally unappreciative disposition towards many things, both inanimate and living, left the place in ruin after the siege of Kilkenny in 1650. Religious use didn’t properly resume there until 1817, when the Lady Chapel of the priory was reroofed and became the Protestant parish church of St John’s.
Now though, there are more immediate pleasures to be savoured, in the shape of Beethoven’s complete quartets, here performed in a 10-day cycle by the Heath Quartet (UK) as part of this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival ‘Beethoven Quest’.
We begin with Opus 130 in B flat, with the alternative, shorter finale Beethoven was encouraged to write by his friend and publisher Matthias Artaria, as the original (which will be performed on Sunday 17th August) was too confusing for audiences. It was also the last thing he ever composed.
The Heath Quartet arrived in Kilkenny on Thursday night, fresh from a performance at BBC Proms in London’s vast Royal Albert Hall. This is just the third time they’ve performed the full cycle, the last being at Edinburgh three years ago.
Sitting in Cleere’s the night before their first performance in the Marble City, they discuss the physically demanding nature of playing the cycle over ten consecutive days and the stamina required from each of them. I’m already impressed by their focus; they abstain from the pints of stout being poured beside them, so I’ve every faith in their ability. They’ll need it for the revised Opus 130 finale: although shorter and viewed as less imaginative than its predecessor, it’s more challenging to play.
The cycle of quartets are not performed in chronological order. Instead, the arrangement offers contrast between the early and late works. The Opus 18 quartets are mixed in with the Opus 59 ones; it dramatically demonstrates the evolution and ambition of Beethoven as a composer.
Many punters are opting to stay the distance for this ambitious musical journey, which builds towards a finale on Sunday 17th. For those dipping in and out, for one concert, two or ten, ducking and weaving among Beethoven’s finest work within the medieval walls of St John's is a glittering reward.