This programme was not one for the faint-hearted: Bartok String Quartet No.1 followed by Beethoven opus 131 and preceded by Wolf’s Italian Serenade – the light-weight piece that is anything but light-weight. Our reward was a concert of sublime musicality, so uplifting that many in the audience hung around afterwards, reluctant to leave the building.
Unpicking what it was that made this happen isn’t hard. The Beethoven and the Bartok are great works, although the Wolf is a tricky, skittish piece that showed off the quartet’s skill without making me want to hear it again. Then there’s the quality of the players. What can I say about the Heath that hasn’t been said before? Their ensemble is impeccable, their playing expressive, ranging from the most delicate pianissimo to the most passionate fortissimo. They don’t seem to play a phrase that hasn’t been thought through. Although they are four very different players, they play with a single voice.
I think there were two other things at play this morning. One is that this audience and the Heath know each other well. They’ve been associated with Brighton Dome for at least seven years and played at the Old Market before that. We know not only how good they are but something of their peculiarities. Oliver Heath leads not by playing loudly – indeed sometimes he seems the softest player of the four – but by his intensity. Cerys Jones on second violin has a particularly mellow tone but also an ability to make her instrument scream with passion when she lets rip on a loud solo, as she did in the second movement of the Bartok. Gary Pomeroy is a delight to watch; he says he doesn’t know he’s smiling but that’s what it looks like. And Christopher Murray on cello has a pizzicato of which a percussionist would be proud – when it’s loud it’s like a pistol shot.
The second thing is playing in the round. The Heath like it. They say it feels as though the audience is there with them; they can play as they do when rehearsing without having to think about projecting to the back of the hall. And the audience likes it. It’s the difference between being on the bank watching a river going over rapids and being in a canoe going over those rapids yourself. You feel the danger and the exhilaration.
Having made those two points, I come back to the essence of the morning: this was a superb performance of two great works. The Heath are working on performing the complete Bartok cycle: that will be worth crossing the country to hear.