Coffee Concert 19th February 2023 – Heath Quartet – Strings Attached Review by Michael Wilkinson

The Heath Quartet were once regulars in this series of concerts, last heard in the final concert at the Dome before the long-term temporary move to the Attenborough Centre. Since then, much has changed, notably in the make-up of the quartet, with the departure first of Cerys Jones, who was a characterful second violin, replaced by Sara Wolstenholme, and then the leader, Oliver Heath, replaced by Marije Johnston. For this concert, Juliette Roos, a most gifted player, substituted for Marije.

An orchestra can replace a player or two without changing its character; with a quartet, involving so intimately the personalities and musicalities of the performers, one should not expect exactly the same. There are audible differences in approaches to phrasing from these and the former players, but it would be inappropriate to say something would have been differently played a decade ago. Of course it would have been, but making comparisons would be futile and unjust.

Apart from Christopher Murray (cello), the players stand for the concert. It would be interesting to know how much this affects performance, whether it does indeed give greater interpretative freedom, but it somehow feels that way. How one could know for sure I cannot imagine – but there is a research project available to someone.

It was good to hear Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor, Op.20, No 5. By 1772, Haydn had established his own voice, and there is a confidence to his use of both musical language and instrumentation. In the quartet, nothing is mere accompaniment, but genuine interplay between the four instruments. There is a concision to the writing which demands concentration, with a lovely Adagio (placed third) and darker moments. The Heaths brought a sense of surprise and enjoyment to this fine piece.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A is a warm and attractive work. The composer, a much admired pianist, had no training on stringed instruments, as Felix did, writing principally for the piano or voice and piano and generally avoiding larger scale works. Yet there is no lack of confidence in this quartet in either form – it begins adagio and the first movement remains meditative – or content. The beautiful Romanze – lovingly performed here – is deeply moving, with intense, slightly belligerent feeling at its heart, yet also much that is serene. The final movement is perhaps the most emotionally complex, with changes of mood and a decisive ending. There is nothing of the second-rate here, and the performance was notably warm, elegantly and affectionately led by Juliette Roos.

After the interval, Sara Wolstenholme led Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet of 1824. This is one of the truly great quartets, intensely demanding, at moments ferocious, sometimes hesitant, sometimes tender and yearning, never fully joyous, always with an underlying darkness. No performance can express everything in it. The Heaths uncovered some valuable details in instrumentation not always fully developed, occasionally slightly losing the shape of a movement. Nevertheless, this was a fine and sophisticated performance to cap an admirable return.