The Heath Quartet – the first Coffee Concert 2011-12

Review by Andrew Polmear (founder member, Strings Attached)

Sunday morning was a ‘first’ for the audience at the string quartet concert in the Dome: it was the first concert in the first series of Sunday morning Coffee Concerts organised by the Dome in collaboration with Strings Attached; and it was the first time the audience had sat on the Concert Hall stage with the players.

Being on the stage was a happy accident. The usual venue at the Dome for chamber concerts is the Corn Exchange but that was occupied by a previously-booked fair. The Concert Hall was free but that huge space is totally unsuitable for an intimate concert with an audience of 200. So the quartet sat in the middle of the stage with the audience on all four sides of them, five rows deep.

It worked extraordinarily well. With the auditorium lights dimmed we were unaware of the great space out in the hall. The closeness to the players made us feel part of the performance rather than observers – even between movements there was none of the usual coughing and rustling of programmes. And the acoustic was good enough for the players to play really quietly, at times in the Schubert hardly moving their bows.

So how was the music? For a start the two pieces were well chosen for their contrast. Schubert’s quartet in A minor No. 13, the Rosamunde, is a piece of great delicacy – wistful, gentle but with undercurrents of distress. Schubert knew that he had incurable syphilis when he wrote it. He doesn’t rail against his fate, he savours every moment of life left to him. The first quartet of Janacek, in contrast, is spiky, its distress very much on the surface, its tunes presented as fragments of just a few notes, so that you only recognise them as central motifs after Janacek has presented them repeatedly, in different guises and on all four instruments.

The Heath Quartet get all the fundamentals of string quartet playing right. Their ensemble is impeccable, their intonation spot on, they seem to feel the piece in the same way, they even seem to breath together. Their instruments blend well with each other, though that is not surprising when you learn that all four instruments were made by the same man, Nigel Harris. But a lot of young quartets do all of those things; so why does the Heath stand out?

For me there are three things that make them distinctive. Firstly, they look good on stage, not just because they have taken trouble with their outfits but because they move in an expressive way, without a hint of showing off. I even liked the way the second violinist appeared for the Janacek barefoot. Secondly, they have a first violinist who plays with exceptional elegance – near the beginning of the Schubert he played a rising run of triplets with such exquisite sensitivity that we knew we were in for a treat. Thirdly, they take risks that pay off. Sometimes the silences in the Schubert seemed more eloquent than the notes – it would have been easier to go for a more expressive lyrical interpretation than the understated spellbinding rendering that they chose. And then, in the Janacek, they played at times as harshly as is possible on a violin while using the bow rather than taking a saw to it.

This was a great start to the series. The next concert is on 18 December, in the Corn Exchange, given by the Elias Quartet. Should be good.