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Concert review: the Heath Quartet, 17 July 2016

Concerts at Cratfield: the Heath Quartet, Sunday 17 July 2016

After the season got off to such a brilliant start two weeks ago with the excitement of Nicholas Daniel performing the specially-commissioned Fanfare for a New Roof and the Carducci Quartet in predictably fine form, the bar might seem to have been set intimidatingly high for our second concert.

It did not prove so, however, for the Heath Quartet. They took that standard in their elegant stride and added a special bonus for Members and Patrons by coming to Suffolk a day early and giving a gem of a performance on Saturday evening at the Christies’ converted barn at Parham. We heard three pieces by JS Bach, transcribed for strings from his original organ compositions, and Mozart’s last string quartet, K590. The exuberant note on which the Mozart ended seemed wholly in tune with the idyllic summer evening and the charm of the setting.

Improbably, for a normal summer, the idyll was set to continue when we returned to Cratfield on Sunday. It proved to be another perfect English summer day; temperature in the low eighties, a hint of a breeze, the leaves not yet tired and the grass still fresh. On such occasions St Mary’s churchyard is at its incomparable, Betjeman best and the church positively glowing in the sunlight.

Having ended with Mozart on Saturday, we began with an earlier work of his on Sunday; the ‘Hunt’ quartet, K458. It is an exuberant piece and the lively rhythms, particularly in the first movement, brought out an aspect of performance generally to which I had not previously paid much attention; for not only did the Heath play beautifully, they moved beautifully. This was made possible because they stand to play. In full orchestral performances conductors are recognisable by their gestures, for better or for worse, but to the concertgoer they contribute little towards enjoying the variety of elements in the music. By contrast, on Sunday we saw how each of these young musicians could endorse with their movements the dynamic and emotion in their respective parts in a way that would not have been possible had they been sitting. Grace and restraint were of course needed, and these they had, so the effect in ensemble was to offer a quite unexpected, further layer of enjoyment; yet another pleasure exclusive to live performance – so away with chairs, I say. Christopher Murray, the cellist, had no choice, of course, but having his own small podium he was not lost to view.

Bartok’s quartet no 3 followed the Mozart, a leap of nearly a century and a half. It offered rather less balletic scope for the group but it was a refreshing contrast and produced some intriguing and unusual sounds, fully explained in Philip Britton’s programme notes. Philip’s introductions are now indispensable to my enjoyment of the concerts; they are building into a sort of personalised mini-Grove, scholarly but always readable, and a fine memory substitute for previous years.

The interval followed, time for tea and cakes, and especially time for further reflections on setting and the importance of adding variety to our sensory experience. It was pleasing to note that the tree seat in the shade of the copper beech, installed in memory of one of the concert founders David Holmes, was filled full circle as never before.

The highlight of the day was a truly outstanding performance of Beethoven’s quartet in B flat, op 130. I can add nothing to Philip’s description of the work except to say that it was big and completely satisfying. The Heath were playing superbly, moving elegantly and the late afternoon light through the clerestory was quite glorious; it was a perfect sum of pleasures.

Don Peacock

20 July 2016