The Elias Quartet – the second Coffee Concert 2011-12

Review by Andrew Polmear (founder member, Strings Attached)

We were back in the Corn Exchange for this concert and it was interesting to compare the setting to the intimacy of the Dome stage where the first concert was held. The Corn Exchange is a great barn of a place, even with the raised seating area curtained off. The players sit on a raised dias in the centre with seven rows of seats around them. It’s intimate but it could never be cosy. Instead the management has gone for drama, with the players lit by white spots while the audience is washed in pale pink: only just enough to read its programmes by. It’s the Mastermind effect and signals that something serious is going on.

Few programmes could be more serious than this: three fugues from Bach’s Art of Fugue followed by Beethoven’s opus 130 ending with the Grosse Fugue.

The Art of Fugue is extraordinarily complex and clever but that does not make it sublime. What does is that Bach paints patterns which interweave through the four parts, sometimes setting the players against each other, sometimes bringing them back together.For some listeners it is enough to absorb the music, as one would look at an abstract painting. For others, the whole complexity of human life is there: the journey of a single voice through life, the joys and the chaos of human relationships, the intimacy of sex (for four), the optimism that ultimately all will be resolved.

Bach opens by stating simply his sparse theme and after the first four notes we knew that the Elias felt this piece deeply. They played the whole piece mezzoforte, every note and every phrase exquisitely shaped. By resisting the temptation to intrude an alien expressiveness they allowed the music to do the work. It’s interesting that they say they arrived at this way of playing Bach not as a policy but because, as they got to know the piece, this is how it seemed to want to be played. By doing that they have arrived at a way of playing that is close to that of specialist baroque players.

Beethoven opus 130 has similarities with the Bach: it plumbs the heights and depths of human experience and does end with a fugue. But the differences are more striking: it’s emotional range is extraordinary, from humour in the ‘dance’ movements to weeping tenderness in the Cavatina. It sometimes has what you could call a tune, but more often the parts pass musical figures backwards and forwards as they shift mood at sometimes breakneck speed. All this is technically very demanding. In the 19th century some renowed players wouldn’t play the Grosse Fugue that Beethoven originally wrote as the final movement. The Elias not only coped with those technical challenges but brought new insights to the piece. They brought out the emotional range by highlighting the shifts between loud and soft. I don’t think I have ever heard a violin played so quietly in a concert hall; the subsequent forte was all the more striking. And all was played, again, with exquisite phrasing and passionate intensity. The quartet is preparing to perform the whole cycle of Beethoven quartets round the country, and will start their Brighton Beethoven concerts in autumn 2013. It will be worth waiting for.

The Heath Quartet : review from The Worthing Herald

The Heath String Quartet at The Dome Concert Hall, Brighton, Sunday 6th November 2011

JANACEK’S Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet ensured that the Coffee Concert series made a dramatic debut at Brighton’s Dome on Sunday morning. Not only did the whole audience get to be on stage with musicians but the music shattered any notions that chamber music is only a hallowed world of refined spiritual or high-end intellect art from of 18th or 19th century court halls.

True, The Heath Quartet, after playing the disturbingly volatile Janacek, ensured no subsequent Sunday afternoon naps became nightmares by administering an antidote — in form of one of the staple favourites, Haydn (the Andante from his Opus 33 No 1 quartet). But after the familiar, divine, sublime territory of Schubert which opened this programme, the Dome had been shuddering to the vehemence of Leos Janacek recognising and responding to just his kind of story.

The Kreutzer Sonata tells a tale. Or at least is intended to evoke for the listener the Leon Tolstoy novella of the same name which was inspired by Beethoven’s original Kreutzer Sonata for violin and piano. In short, a wife constantly rehearsing that piece with a very friendly violinist, and thus escaping from her unhappiness until her jealous husband’s discovery and resort to a dagger, let Tolstoy unleash in Janacek passionate sympathy, particularly for the woman.

Janacek thrived on musical inspiration from his own intensely-pursued private life and his Kreutzer Sonata Quartet of 1928 extended the scope of the string quartet medium and expression. All four instruments have their roles of vivid depiction and observation, with chilling some effects. The music broods through the gathering crisis but as well as of the female side there seems to be evocation of the husband’s own tender feelings alongside his anguished and finally violent ones.

Attacking the music, with second fiddler Cerys Jones’ jabbing bow fraying its horsehair, the players were now many miles beyond an opening interpretation of Schubert’s great A minor Quartet that for the first three movements was like a rich nocturne in atmosphere.

For all its disquiet, all its melancholy, and that recurrent ‘Death and the Maiden’ sensation in Schubert that the most intense pain can come from the softest and soothing of paintbrushes, this could have been ideal music to awake us in bed on a dark, gloomy Sunday morning near the winter solstice.

Lead violinist Oliver Heath’s yearning melody established an interpretation of tender restraint and there were three movements of essentially soft music only fleetingly disturbed by cries of fear or despair — before the sun threw wide the curtains in the infectiously rhythmical finale that would have us dancing out of bed towards the breakfast room.

Violist Gary Pomeroy and cellist Chris Murray frequently smile to each other during ensemble moments in harness, and none of the audience was, I’d guess more than 20 feet from the action. The Dome stage became the auditorium. Extended forward removing three rows of stalls, it accommodated 200 seats on all four sides of the quartet’s square rostrum.

Afterwards, up in the Mezzanine, the players met the audience over drinks and cake, which brought a further logical dimension to the intimacy and communal feeling of the whole chamber music listening experience.

While the Heath head towards their next London date at The Wigmore Hall, the Coffee Concert series reverts next month to The Corn Exchange, again seating in the round, as surely ideal — nay, essential — for this kind of music. The popular and rightly lauded young Elias Quartet visit on December 18 (11am) with JS Bach’s The Art of Fugue, then late Beethoven, his Opus 130 in Bb with the Grosse Fugue.

Richard Amey of the Worthing Herald

reprinted with permission


The Heath Quartet – the first Coffee Concert 2011-12

Review by Andrew Polmear (founder member, Strings Attached)

Sunday morning was a ‘first’ for the audience at the string quartet concert in the Dome: it was the first concert in the first series of Sunday morning Coffee Concerts organised by the Dome in collaboration with Strings Attached; and it was the first time the audience had sat on the Concert Hall stage with the players.

Being on the stage was a happy accident. The usual venue at the Dome for chamber concerts is the Corn Exchange but that was occupied by a previously-booked fair. The Concert Hall was free but that huge space is totally unsuitable for an intimate concert with an audience of 200. So the quartet sat in the middle of the stage with the audience on all four sides of them, five rows deep.

It worked extraordinarily well. With the auditorium lights dimmed we were unaware of the great space out in the hall. The closeness to the players made us feel part of the performance rather than observers – even between movements there was none of the usual coughing and rustling of programmes. And the acoustic was good enough for the players to play really quietly, at times in the Schubert hardly moving their bows.

So how was the music? For a start the two pieces were well chosen for their contrast. Schubert’s quartet in A minor No. 13, the Rosamunde, is a piece of great delicacy – wistful, gentle but with undercurrents of distress. Schubert knew that he had incurable syphilis when he wrote it. He doesn’t rail against his fate, he savours every moment of life left to him. The first quartet of Janacek, in contrast, is spiky, its distress very much on the surface, its tunes presented as fragments of just a few notes, so that you only recognise them as central motifs after Janacek has presented them repeatedly, in different guises and on all four instruments.

The Heath Quartet get all the fundamentals of string quartet playing right. Their ensemble is impeccable, their intonation spot on, they seem to feel the piece in the same way, they even seem to breath together. Their instruments blend well with each other, though that is not surprising when you learn that all four instruments were made by the same man, Nigel Harris. But a lot of young quartets do all of those things; so why does the Heath stand out?

For me there are three things that make them distinctive. Firstly, they look good on stage, not just because they have taken trouble with their outfits but because they move in an expressive way, without a hint of showing off. I even liked the way the second violinist appeared for the Janacek barefoot. Secondly, they have a first violinist who plays with exceptional elegance – near the beginning of the Schubert he played a rising run of triplets with such exquisite sensitivity that we knew we were in for a treat. Thirdly, they take risks that pay off. Sometimes the silences in the Schubert seemed more eloquent than the notes – it would have been easier to go for a more expressive lyrical interpretation than the understated spellbinding rendering that they chose. And then, in the Janacek, they played at times as harshly as is possible on a violin while using the bow rather than taking a saw to it.

This was a great start to the series. The next concert is on 18 December, in the Corn Exchange, given by the Elias Quartet. Should be good.

Chilingirian quartet thrills Strings Attached inaugural concert

Strings Attached launch event at The Corn Exchange on 24 October 2011 was a sell-out.

The review in The Argus Tuesday, 25 October 2011  begins:

“Strings Attached is a new society aiming to bring quality chamber music to Brighton and Hove, and it certainly fulfilled this in its inaugural concert by the Chilingirian Quartet at the Corn Exchange.”

The full Argus review, by James Simister is found at The Chilingirian Quartet – Strings Attached, Corn Exchange, Brighton, October 24.

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