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Haydn, Britten, Dvoràk : Heath Quartet, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 29.3.2011. (RJ)

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, Op. 17 No. 2

Britten: String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 25

Dvoràk: String Quartet in E flat, Op.51

I had intended this to be a relaxing night out, but after hearing the magical sound the Heath Quartet created in the opening bars of Haydn's String Quartet in D major, Op.71 No.2 I felt duty bound to pull out my notebook and don my reviewer's hat. These four young musicians came together in 2002 at the Royal Northern College of Music and it seems I am not the only person to have been impressed by their musicianship. They have, for instance, made their mark in Vienna (where better?) coming second in the Haydn International Competition and walked off with the top prize at the Tromp International Competition in Eindhoven.

The brief introduction to the Haydn was followed by a short intense allegro in which the instruments leapt around with sparkling energy. The second movement seemed to inhabit a different universe taking the form of a dreamy adagio which conjured up a starry night. The players identified totally with the Haydnesque wit of the light-hearted minuet with its r subdued trio. Then it was forward to the finale which started off as a gentle stroll in the country before becoming more restless and exciting. The rondo theme returned, but this time there was a definite spring in the musicians' step and the movement culminated in a fast and brilliant climax.

Britten's first published string quartet dates from 1941 and was composed during his self-imposed exile in the United States. In his informative introduction to the work Oliver Heath described it as a mature work in which he detected the nostalgia Britten felt at the time for the Suffolk countryside - its wide open spaces and the wind in the bull rushes. These images came over clearly in the atmospheric still slow opening to the first movement in which the violins play in a barely audible high register punctated by the cello's staccato. The stillness was interrupted by an outpouring of energy with dance-like themes flitting from one instrument to the next before the stillness returned. There was plenty of attack in the Allegretto con stancia with its grotesque sounds and bustling feel, but calmness was restored in the Adagio which seemed to feature some of the elements we had heard in Haydn's Adagio - a sense of mystery and the sublime. The final movement featured plenty of virtuoso playing but amidst its pot-pourri of themes and counter-themes one could hear the occasional sigh of despondency.

There were no nasty surprises in the Dvoràk String Quartet in E flat. The genial mood of the music was reflected in the performance which started gently and gathered momentum in the polka theme. The contrasting passages of the Dumka were well handled and there was a warm glow to the Romanza. The Quartet let their hair down in the Finale which was a very jolly affair full of sprightly rhythms but with hints of more serious preoccupations. This was a very satisfying end to a recital in which the versatile performers proved thoroughly conversant with a range of different musical idioms.

Roger Jones


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