If the viola is the string quartet’s bridesmaid, Beethoven doesn’t agree. He places the ultimate success of his third Rasumovsky Quartet on those shoulders. And he’s not asking them simply for a winning pot of tea to be expertly brewed for everyone. He’s entrusting him to initiate and dictate the trajectory of one of the most exciting bits of music he ever wrote.
He’s actually blasting the violist first out of the blocks in the pacemaker’s role the helter-skelter final fugal race towards the finishing line. Perfection of note, pitch and tempo his givens, and Heath Quartet need smiley Gary Pomeroy’s inspiration to ensure not just the success of their Rasumovsky performance, but to crown, no less, the entire concert for which they’d set their morning alarm clocks so cruelly early.
Gary, what’s that responsibility like? “Yes, you’ve got to be so agile and ready,” he grinned afterwards. “It’s the release of all the tension of the piece, but it can all go terribly wrong if you aren’t prepared and on the ball.”
He scintillated. It brought down the first complete full house at the Coffee Concerts. Audience had overflowed unprecedentedly onto the slender side balconies of ACCA. Because Heath were back, for the first time since their two 2016 appearances and then second violinist Cerys Jones’ departure.
An appearance at Brighton Festival widened local awareness. Also factor in the current media fervour launching Beethoven’s 250th birthday and here the crowd was 273 to see the quartet’s ACCA debut. They broke the attendance record by around 25 people and the Strings Attached music group of Coffee Concerts supporters membership shot above the 100-mark.
On her own Coffee Concerts debut, Sara Wolstenholme shone in the unglamorous way second violinists do, and the three Heath chin fiddlers are still standing to play – a surprise to many who forget their switch to this performing stance in 2016. “Yes,” said cellist Chris Murray, who sits on his own DIY rostrum. “Quartets now do this quite a lot in America – where we are working our way through our current Beethoven cycle of concerts. We tried it a few years ago in a rehearsal when Oliver had a back problem, and we liked it.”
It looks less formal and liberates movement. In the middle of the line-up, the four feet of the ‘engine room’ (second violin and viola) stayed mainly static and concentrated, with Pomeroy often opening his viola more towards the audience for projection. But leader Oliver Heath is constantly stepping forwards and back. He and Murray, far left and right, are frequently swaying leaning towards the middle two.
They are more relaxed like this. Gone is the four chairs formality. It’s Sunday morning. Murray is the only one wearing a suit, dark, and tie, silver, the plainness lifted by jacket cuff buttons that catch the light. Perhaps he came straight from church. Heath’s light grey shirt is untucked over slim street trousers and red-laced shoes. He’s still unsure of his plans for today. Wolstenholme is in voluminous wide black trousers and a sleeveless asymmetric-hemmed top in jade green matching Heath’s chin cloth. Pomeroy has dark trousers and a black open-necked, button-collared shirt and a charcoal grey waistcoat. Both probably have a lunch date.
“They can’t possibly be good enough if they dress like this”, the oldies would have scoffed. But today’s truly dedicated classical audiences are past caring. The music and the performance is everything, and whether it – through the artistes – speaks to them or not. And these 273 knew a Heath appearance is not to be missed. The critics? There’s little left to say except they’re creeping ever closer to world class.
Those of us remembering them before three beards took over recall being able to read more of their facial communications and expressions of performance enjoyment, but that’s a small and maybe temporary loss.
They opened crisply and muscularly the third of Beethoven’s first-published quartets, forthrightly but nuanced. Their second movement began gruff and throaty, then flowed mellifluously and conversationally with moments of mystery-making and others of touching delicacy. The third featured accents with subtly smooth edges. Then another fast finale, in this one the Heath seeming to portray a constant chattering tavern, Beethoven in a corner leading a lively debate ever the more heated with the clock at 10.50pm.
After the complete surprise of its quiet conclusion (the publican shutting the door behind everyone and breathing a sigh of relief?) what could follow this sheer quality? In came poor Brahms, as if next morning to clear up the glasses, wipe over the tables, and mop the floor. Serious as ever, but trying not to be too gloomy too often, despite his A minor attire; sometimes lost in regret and daydreaming, sometimes domestically content in his task. The Heath, sensitively – but robustly where necessary – painted the contrasting new picture.
The concert demonstrated this juxtaposition. Beethoven’s inveterate ‘con motos, prestos, vivaces and moltos’ virtually opposing, and ultimately overshadowing Brahms’ melancholic, cautionary ‘non troppo, moderato, moderato again, and non assai’. As pianist Paul Lewis recently commented about one of his programmes, with Brahms there’s not much laughter to be had.
In this material, Chris Murray’s growing authority as a top rhythmic driver and textural creator among British quartets was evident. Developing surely is his multi-faceted and widely coloured sound and presence; caressing and singing, a vigour and vehemence, sometimes an anger; the variety and character of his pizzicatos, the way it is all controlled and channelled.
After the sunlight of the Rasumovsky opening movement, begun in awed pin-drop suspense, many of these Murray qualities shaped the unparalleled atmosphere and uncertainty of mood in the second movement. Assuredly calculated were Heath’s non-vibrato interprets, Pomeroy was making unworldly sounds, and Murray’s cello now dissenting, now compliant, then closed out the story with Beethoven’s disconcerting, almost walking jazz bass-like exit through the door.
Then, after a Grazioso in which Beethoven stole Brahms’ thunder on the day, came that sizzling, mercurial finale which, in such hands as this ensemble, brooks no encore.
The only ensemble in 18 years to win the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artistes Award were Heath Quartet in 2013. Now there has been another in 2019: the Castalian Quartet. Younger but attaining almost equal Coffee Concerts popularity during Heath’s three year absence, they are here on February 23 with Schumann Opus 41 No 2 in F, Janacek’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ quartet and Brahms’ Opus 67 No 3 in Bb.
Didn’t the RPS commission Beethoven’s Ninth? Finnish and French women, English and Welsh men, they warrant the welcome of a standing ovation for this huge achievement from this growingly affectionate Coffee Concert audience. It could be another bursting crowd at ACCA.