Coffee Concert 26th January 2020 – Heath Quartet – Strings Attached Review by Andrew Polmear

It’s three years since the Heath played at a Coffee Concert. Their essence remains the same but some details have changed: they stand to play, Christopher Murray, the cellist, has a beard and, most important, Sara Wolstenholme has taken Cerys Jones’ place as second violin.

To deal with the standing first; a few people didn’t like it but most did. It frees the players up to turn to each other as the music dictates, it reveals the fact that playing involves the whole body, not just the upper half and it allows the players to dance a little. I think there’s another factor: the players seem more vulnerable without the comfort of a chair. That tenses the audience; they sense that something important is about to happen.

And indeed something important did happen. All the usual features of a performance by the Heath were there: perfect ensemble, lyrical playing with finesse rather than power, well-judged tempi – fast but not showy, with lovely use of rubati at key moments. But at this performance everything they do so well seemed to be taken a step further. Take the opening of Beethoven’s Opus 18 No.3. The first violin plays two bars alone, one note to each bar, before his running quavers start and the others come in. Beethoven marked it piano but the temptation is to play it a little louder than that, to make it easier to phrase. Instead Oliver Heath played it quieter than expected yet was able to pour expression into it. He did this again and again throughout the concert – his bow hardly moving but still shaping the music exquisitely.

This sensitive playing continued through the tender second movement, the jaunty third movement and they became suitably rumbustious in the helter-skelter of the final Presto. However many times we’ve heard this piece we have never heard it played like this.

Has the change of second violin made a difference?  I liked Cerys’ playing. She didn’t play like a conventional second violin, that is, subservient to the leader. She could make a bigger sound than he, and when she did it woke us to the importance of her part. Sara Wolstenholme is the opposite. Her playing is very much like Oliver’s: elegant, expressive, relying on musicality rather than power. She fits into this quartet like a hand in a glove. Was it coincidence that Oliver’s chin-rest towel was exactly the same shade of green as Sara’s top? At times I thought her playing had a more mellow tone than Oliver’s but I think it’s just that her part is pitched lower. Gary Pomeroy continues to produce that rich viola sound that is such a joy and Christopher Murray on cello seems to enjoy more than ever being the rock on which all this marvellous sound is produced.

They played Brahms’ A minor Quartet in much the way that they played the Beethoven, but Brahms’ sound world is so different – so much more dense – that the playing sounded different too. Solos in all instruments were rich and mellow; the ending was sheer full-bloodied excitement.

Beethoven’s third Rasumovsky quartet opens with a loud chord followed by music so quiet you might think they’ve stopped playing. This goes on for 29 bars with only one further forte bar. Beethoven marked it pianissimo and repeats sempre pianissimo twice to make sure. I’ve never heard it so magically quiet; they seemed to make time stop in its tracks. Once they got going they unfolded the marvel of this wonderful piece until it ended in that devastating final fugue.

Andrew Polmear