The Heath Quartet : The third Coffee Concert 2012 – 2013, a review

The Corn Exchange, 16 December 2012

We’ve seen quite a bit of the Heath Quartet since they became quartet in residence at the Dome 2 years ago. There’s a lot to be said for getting to know one Quartet well: it’s interesting to see how their playing changes over time, and how they tackle one composer when we’ve heard them playing other, very different pieces. It also allows us to get to recognise them as individual players and to see how that individuality merges into the whole.

Oliver Heath is immediately recognisable. He sits very upright and has the best cut jacket and tightest trousers in the business. There is something elegant, composed, even masterly about his posture, not to mention his playing. Cerys Jones, on second violin is the opposite, much more free moving – she adopts a positively combative stance, legs apart, when the music gets a bit fierce. Gary Pomeroy on viola seems to smile throughout. I asked him once if he was really smiling and he said he wasn’t aware of it. Perhaps it’s how he looks when he concentrates. Anyway, it makes him a joy to watch. Christopher Murray on cello used to be the least demonstrative of the four but no longer. He now looks as though he’s really enjoying himself, and even allows himself a rueful smile on the one occasion he got a bit behind with a fast passage.

Does this matter? It does to me. It’s part of the experience of being there; of hearing the music played by human beings. It makes it all the more extraordinary that they then play as one: the tone of their instruments so similar and complementary, their phrasing identical, their ensemble so impeccable.

The concert started with the leader with his back to the raised seats, with the second violin opposite him, and the cello to his left and the viola to his right. You can only do this in the round and it emphasises the relationship between the two violins – sometimes together, sometimes in opposition. Playing in the round has the disadvantage that we hear most clearly the instruments that point towards us. I don’t find this a huge problem and it is more than overcome by the great advantage of playing in the round: that more people can get close to the players. Judging from the numbers who get there early to claim those front row seats, I am not alone in liking this.

At last, the music. The Mozart quartet in E flat starts quietly. Mozart marked it piano but they seemed to play it pianissimo with little or no vibrato – an ethereal sound. They really trusted the acoustics of the Corn Exchange; they knew they would still be heard. And at the forte 12 bars later the contrast was stunning. That set the tone for the whole piece: exquisitely delicate playing set off against boisterous loud passages. I’ve never heard it played quite like that before and never heard it played as well. Tempi were fast but never sounded rushed. The Andante was also relatively fast but still had a sense of stillness because of that quiet delicate playing.

Britten’s Three Divertimenti were tremendous. They are full of fun – swooping glissadi, lots of pizzicato, the instruments moving from the bottom to the top of their ranges. Chris Darwin, in his programme notes, comments that its premier at the Wigmore Hall in 1936 was met with “sniggers and cold silence”. Today’s audience was grinning broadly at the joy in the piece.

The Heath did everything they could to bring the third Tchaikovsky quartet to life, but I don’t find it a successful composition. There are a lot of notes, and every now and then a Tchaikovsky-like tune emerges, but it doesn’t seem to amount to much. It was no fault of the Heath, however, and Oliver’s playing, when Tchaikovsky slips into his violin concerto-like writing, showed that he could have a career as a soloist if he wanted. But he couldn’t possibly; this Quartet is too special.

Andrew Polmear