Wednesday 16 September 2020

The Heath Quartet at Wigmore Hall: late Bach and middle-period Beethoven

The Heath Quartet
The Heath Quartet
(Oliver Heath, Gary Pomeroy, Sara Wolstenholme, Christopher Murray)

Bach The Art of Fugue, Beethoven String Quartet in C Op.59 No.3 'Razumovsky'; The Heath Quartet; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 September 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A riveting account of middle-period Beethoven and some stylish, expressive late Bach
My first visit to the Wigmore Hall since it re-opened, a strange experience with a widely spaced out audience and staggered entry times, but it was lovely to be able to experience live music indoors. Whilst the hall's concerts are available for streaming on the hall's website, there is nothing like hearing live music in close quarters.

On 15 September 2020, the Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath, Sara Wolstenholme, Gary Pomeroy, Christopher Murray) performed a programme of Bach and Beethoven at Wigmore Hall, pre-fixing  Beethoven's String Quartet in C Op.59 No.3 'Razumovsky' with four movements from Bach's The Art of Fugue, contrapunctus 1, 5, 9, 14.

Bach's The Art of Fugue survives in short score with no indication of instrumentation. Here we heard four of the fugues, chosen to create a rather satisfying four-movement symphonic-like structure with plenty of contrast, starting with the first Contrapunctus and ending with the last, which remains unfinished and that is how the players performed it. It was lovely to hear such clear, expressive lines and whilst the performances were not Historically Informed, there was much shapely phrasing and a sense of communal conversation. A four-part fugue is the ultimate quartet, in a sense, four independent yet linked lines all weaving around each other and reacting. The first fugue was quite steady, whilst the second was an elegant discussion, the third felt like the scherzo, with a great contrast between the exciting running figure and the slower fugue subject. The fourth started quietly and intense, almost aetherial with a slow build towards the faster fugue which increased in intensity until, nothing. The sudden end.

Beethoven's Opus 59 quartets were written as the result of a commission from Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna. Razumovsky was an accomplished amateur violinist and had a house string quartet led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, a friend of Beethoven's who was involved in the first performances of many of the composer's pieces. Two years before establishing the quartet, Razumovsky had commissioned the three quartets from Beethoven. Contemporaries were somewhat unsure of the quartets, seeing them as long and difficult, and differing somewhat from contemporary norms, whereas nowadays we regard the Razumovsky quartets as the first of Beethoven's middle period quartets.

After an arresting, and dissonant opening, the slow introduction was full of contrasts between the dissonant and loud, and the quiet and harmonious, and then suddenly the main theme appeared, full of character, and we were off. There was a real feeling of communal enjoyment in the music its complexities. This was a supremely artful account of a sophisticated work, bringing out much detail and leading to the remarkable coda. The second movement started full of contrast, between the haunting, shapely theme and the cello pizzicato, but then settled into something a little more lilting yet still with an unnerving edge, and a middle section which was intense yet otherworldly. The third movement minuet was quite serious yet engaging with a sense of communal activity and engagement leading to a fast, vigorous, tight and exciting finale. A vivid ride which was full of details.

The concert had started rather late, because Oliver Heath's car had broken down, but the performance showed no sign of hurry or disturbance, yet perhaps this perturbation in the regular order of things had brought an extra edge because whether giving us late, late Bach or prime middle-period Beethoven, the players were never less than riveting, with a sense of their long experience together.

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