Some of the best chamber concerts in Edinburgh are put on by the New Town Concerts Society. They feature performances by famous groups and also afford younger, less well-known ensembles an opportunity to reach a wider audience. The Heath Quartet falls somewhere between these categories, as they have been steadily gaining in recognition over the last five years or so.

© Heath Quartet
© Heath Quartet

Beginning with Mozart’s String Quartet in E flat major, K428, we were firmly rooted in familiar territory. The piece belongs to the set of six quartets the composer famously dedicated to Haydn and is considered an absolute gem of its kind. Haydn’s response to the honour was no less flattering and the whole set has been in every quartet’s repertoire for ages, be they lowly Sunday afternoon amateurs or lofty professionals. The helpful programme notes informed us that the autograph score is full of alterations and crossings-out. Mozart clearly wanted things to be “just right”, and perhaps composed with less than his customary fluency.

The first Allegro begins quite softly and although each instrument ultimately has its chance to shine, in a large hall it is difficult to resist the temptation to begin too robustly. The dynamic contrasts become flattened. From where I was sitting, this is precisely what happened, so that while the opening did not sound thin, there was hardly any room to build up to the first forte. The playing was crisp, with well articulated dotted rhythms and dynamics that subsequently rose and fell with the melody. After the first repeat, there was a genuine atmosphere of tension in the playing, enhanced by almost tangible communication among the players. The entries in the Andante were beautifully matched for sound, warmed with a touch of vibrato, and the movement never threatened to drag, even at its quietest moments. The Minuet has an almost rustic swing which contrasts vividly with the trio, and for my money, the playing last night was a little too genteel to capture the difference. By the end of the final Vivace, I was pleasantly confident that we were in safe hands – but there had been no hint of the excitement yet to come.

With many composers, a low opus number leads one to expect immaturity and youthful inexperience. The truly great works must lie with the later compositions, surely? Not so with Alban Berg! Although not a child prodigy as Mozart and Mendelssohn were, Berg seems to have sprung fully formed onto the unsuspecting Austrian musical scene. He wrote his String Quartet, Op. 3 in 1910 during the final stages of his tutelage under Schoenberg. The quartet received its première the following year at the same time as his Piano Sonata, Op. 1 and both works were greeted with incomprehension and even derision. It was not until after the First World War that the quartet began to find a place in the literature.

This is decidedly music for professionals. Even a cursory glance at the score reveals the attention with which Berg practically micro-manages its interpretation. He specifies which string to use, where on the bow – or string – to play, the type of stroke to use; the detail is extraordinary. Each part is virtuosic, but melds into a whole which is intimate. Even the two-movement structure defies expectations but somehow manages to satisfy. The Heath Quartet played with passion and commitment and all the attention to minutiae that the score demands. The four separate voices yielded a rich warmth and the unison passages were positively lush when required. The tonal range was spine-tingling: lower strings directly on the bridge against muted violins, crisp pizzicato. The tempo was given as “slow”, but at the end of the movement, you could have heard a pin drop. The second movement was translated in the programme as “moderately paced”, but “steady crotchets” is closer to the actual meaning. How deceptive such a designation can be. The attack was electrifying and sustained until the final dramatic chords. This was the kind of playing that grabs and holds your attention, the kind that wins prizes.

There was a tenuous link between the two halves of the programme in the shape of Isabel Charisius, of the Alban Berg Quartet. She came on to play the second viola part in Mendelssohn’s String Quintet no. 2 in B flat, Op. 87 – something of a rarity in concert programmes. It is a product of Mendelssohn’s maturity and was written barely two years before his death. This period in the composer’s life was one of immense sadness, crippling workloads and failing health. And yet there is hardly a trace of melancholy to be found. The work does not look forward to the late string quintets of Brahms or even Dvořák. Instead we look back twenty years or more to the Octet.

The first movement begins with the same first violin soaring joyously above sustained tremolo strings and a lyrical second subject in the middle and lower parts. It is almost as if the composer had eliminated the third and fourth violin parts and the second cello. While the second movement is not exactly A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are sufficient scherzando touches for the composer to be unmistakeable. The performance was enthusiastic and nicely judged, with no need for the first violin (or anyone else for that matter) to overplay. Phrasing was expertly crafted, as in the pizzicato diminuendo with which the second movement closes. The only earnest moment in the entire work came in the Adagio, with its echoes of the Pilgrims’ March from the Italian Symphony. By now the performers had gauged the acoustics of the hall and as with the previous work, a genuine pianissimo was achieved as following its dramatic climax, the movement reached a peaceful conclusion. The adolescent was present again in the finale, a scurrying, energetic Molto vivace that could easily have become quite scrappy but didn’t. This is a piece that deserves to be better known, but perhaps it might suffer from invidious comparison with its bigger although younger relation.

The Heath Quartet are no strangers to Edinburgh and on the strength of their performances last night, their return from a hectic touring schedule will be welcome. They are clearly a quartet for whom it is worth braving the sleet and snow.

***11