They being among the youngest people in the Corn Exchange whenever they return to give these Coffee Concerts, Heath Quartet are logically recognisable as though the sons and daughter of this remarkable audience. In the years since their Brighton Dome residency, the Heaths have made several contributions to this richly maturing series of chamber music concerts, each distinguishable by the inclusion of a strong 20th century string quartet.
The previous two have been by Britten and Tippett and both left the listeners hugely enlightened and impressed by music many had not heard before. Now the Heaths came with Bartok, who, though mainstream 20th Century in this repertoire, constitutes a risk and is rarely chosen for performance at the Coffee Concerts.
So lovingly are the Heath now anticipated here that hearts and ears were open to hearing Bartok No 1 in complete confidence. Not only testament to that affection and admiration, but in tribute to the quality of this audience, which must be among the best of its kind in the country, Heath gave a programme that would not have drawn in many other public places the 200-plus who filled most of the seats.
Opening the morning as an apparently cheery greeting and opening to an essentially serious programme, even the humour amid the dynamically extrovert Italian Serenade by songsmith Hugo Wolf was shadily ironical and even sarcastic. But the delivery by Heath was palpably complete in its integrity and the flow into the Bartok was no sudden jerk or scare.
Always of such experienced and entertaining assistance are the Coffee Concert programme notes which I now hereby brand as ‘Chris Darwin’s Origins of the Pieces’. We often hear of great works composed for performers who then shun it on musical grounds. Usually, the composer got on with finding someone else to give the premiere. But here was a different story.
Darwin tells us that Bartok had a violin concerto ready for the love of his life to play. Girl ‘dumped’ boy. Boy (27), devastated, instead poured his feelings into the first of a series of string quartets out of Hungary that prickled the world of that genre. The unlyrical prickling still goes on but this intently-listening, committed, indeed relishing audience had no problems.
Bartok’s self-confessed opening funeral dirge found the Heaths conveying raw, agonised longing and regret, culminating audibly in a wringing out of the final drops of pain. Then came a forward-running momentum which, though seemingly back to life and reality, had the Heaths raging as though in grim reluctance to rejoin the race. The finale, like a dance with gritted teeth, containing possibly a softening smile proposed by the viola, ultimately in vain, had jaggedness and cragginess the Heaths superbly delivered.
While some of us go to the gym, pump iron, ride bikes or run a distance. Instead, the Heaths sometimes play music like this. Sunday morning or not, it was all action for them, with the cello bass felt through the floor and up the listeners’ feet, and even Oliver Heath drawn into the physical battle. He usually sits very still with mainly static feet and lets his lead fiddle do all the talking and responding to the score.
Violist Gary Pomeroy is similarly still, trunk down, but watch for his frequent smiles and turns of dark eyes to the others, enquiring or warmly confirmatory by turns. Like Oliver Heath, he had to break some sweat in this one. There’s nothing like violins to see musicians physically animated from top to toe. Second violin Cerys Jones’ face reveals the most of the four and she and cellist Christopher Murray get through the most physical work.
The reward, and a testing one still, was to play and to hear Beethoven’s Opus 131. In chamber music, this is among his late quartets and the second of his final three. These quartets take music beyond our existence. And remember the number 131 because Beethoven, the best qualified to say so, his judgment based on its extra imaginative content, rated it his best. Many would say that this verdict automatically places it above all others ever written.
There are seven movements for the price of four and a bonus extra scherzo. And it’s a free ticket into the unknown. Beethoven was deeply unwell, long stone-deaf, and tormented by a recalcitrant, feckless nephew forced into his care. But the music just kept coming.
And today, the Heath just keep coming, too, better, and better still. There was no encore necessary to programme, nor one to be justifiably demanded by an audience once again left in wonder at the quality of performance at these Coffee Concerts, which are heard in ideal in-the-round format. Who needs celebrated quartets at The (conventionally laid-out) Wigmore Hall when this more intimate and satisfying experience lies on your doorstep?
Concluding Coffee Concerts (11am, doors 10.15):
February 22 ― The Britten Oboe Quartet including Nicholas Daniel (oboe) in Elgar, Lutyens, Mozart, Britten, Knussen, Lennox Berkeley.
March 15 ― Royal College of Music Wind Ensemble including Mozart’s Gran Partita (Serenade for 13 instruments in Bb)