Heath Quartet 23rd October 2016 – Review by Andrew Polmear

I approach a concert by the Heath with the feeling that I’ve already said all there is to say about them. I love their technical abilities: ensemble, precision, delicacy, passion. I love their musicality and I like the way they look on stage, especially now they play standing. I love the way the two powerful players at the heart of the quartet balance the brilliant fluidity of the first violin and the solidity and expressiveness of the cello. Jokes about second violin and viola players are traditional but I don’t suppose there are any such jokes in this quartet! But I’ve already written about all these things so I find myself wondering whether there will be anything new to say. But of course there was.

However, first I have to comment on the fact that we were in the Dome Concert Hall. I would have thought that would have been death for intimate chamber music. In fact, the acoustic was more suitable than the Corn Exchange: warm, dry, resonant enough, with the softest whisper carrying across the hall. True, we weren’t in the round but we weren’t far away from them either and once they started to play who was even aware of the empty balcony above us?

Haydn Opus 50 No.4 is a quirky piece, as though Haydn is trying to wrong-foot the listener. It’s full of invention and well-worth playing but there’s none of the usual Haydnesque feeling that all is well with the world. The Heath didn’t try to hide this; in fact they took the first movement at a stately pace as though to glory in its awkwardness. Things seemed at first to have cheered up in the second movement until Christopher Murray on cello came in on his bottom C string with a roar and things become darker again. The scherzo continued the unease, while the final fugue was as edgy as it could get. It was as though the musical lines were bickering with each other. The playing was wonderful throughout – extraordinarily delicate; totally convincing.

For me it was Tippett’s Quartet No. 5 that dominated the concert. He seems to have put fragments of melody and rhythm together in a patchwork of sound but as you listen you get a feel for how it all fits together. And the whole thing has such energy, such forward movement, such economy of expression. Blink and you feel you’ve missed something, so concentrated is the writing. Occasionally he gives us a moment of unabashed joy – two violins like birds whirring up into the sky together in the first movement, or the repeated downward glissandi in the second – but most of the time we really have to listen hard to the conversation between the four voices to get any feel for what’s going on. The Heath played it with an understated intensity that seemed just perfect. The quieter they play the more intense they sound.

The last Dvorak quartet is, in many ways, the opposite of the Tippett: looser in construction, packed with lovely tunes, prone to repetition, even to a bit of padding. The playing was lyrical and romantic but rather different from most interpretations. There was little of the feeling of rumbustuous peasants dancing on the village green. This was more inward looking, the great melodies often played softly and with tenderness. This didn’t stop the players from intruding their own personalities occasionally. In the slow movement Cerys Jones on second violin shot off two quick notes of pizzicato that you usually don’t notice because you are listening to the gorgeous first violin tune. Marvellous. I wanted to clap.

How can they play any better than this? I gather they are returning for the Brighton Festival in May, so perhaps we’ll find out.

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