Heath Quartet & Nils Mönkemeyer at Wigmore Hall – Haydn, Widmann, Bruckner

String Quartet in C, Op.74/1
Jörg Widmann
String Quartet No.4
String Quintet in F

Heath Quartet [Oliver Heath & Cerys Jones (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola) & Christopher Murray (cello)] with Nils Mönkemeyer (viola)

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 14 March, 2018
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Heath QuartetPhotograph: www.heathquartet.comThe Heath Quartet took a forthright view of the Haydn which dates from 1793, lying between his two visits to England. Here was a positive approach with securely sustained tempos and every instrumental line firmly projected, expressive attention given to each melody while being kept within a firm structure: a large-scale performance with both sections of the outer movements repeated. There was boldness in the opening Allegro, gentility in the flowing Andantino and rhythmic strength in the Minuet. The swift Finale included an ideally delicate second subject and there were forceful Hungarian episodes conjuring the vision of a wild gypsy dance. The musicians took one minor liberty: pointed relaxation for a few bars just before the coda, all the more effective because it took place only on the repeat.

Born in Munich in 1973, Jörg Widmann is a distinguished clarinettist and conductor – currently principal in the latter with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. He sometimes presents his music as a sequence of works; there is an orchestral trilogy and this Fourth String Quartet from 2005 is one of six conceived as a cycle which began two years previously. Variation of sound is the essence of the work; there is no melodic development but the composer states that it has “a clear ABA pattern”. Opening with a quiet threat achieved by the bows being drawn across the wooden body of the instruments, a series of timbres is built up, the unifying feature being the use of pizzicato – often required to be played with the left hand and sporadically giving a feel of regular propulsion. There is a brief central section where the strings have an interesting passage of held consonant harmony – something of a surprise in the often aggressive surroundings. Many devices are employed to create a sonic effect, including that made by the swift upward sweep of bows through the air. The piece finally returns to the sounds of the opening which might be described as col legno in reverse, not the wood of the bow on the strings but the wood of the violin on the hair of the bow.

Bruckner’s String Quintet has all the characteristics of his Symphonies apart from instrumentation. The Heath musicians’ attention to respecting the structure was much in evidence. Not for them the indulgence of lyrical themes being allowed to meander, instead there was a calm forward surge. In his Symphonies, Bruckner anticipates his codas with a threatening bass-line, often using quiet timpani rolls and here the cellist created a similar effect – memorably dramatic in the outer movements. Nils Mönkemeyer played first viola and was ideally expressive in the solo during the Adagio; the viola is always important with Bruckner and the later reflection of that melody by the second violin represents a characteristically endearing moment. The Scherzo is less bucolic than some by this composer but it was appropriate for the slower Trio to be rhythmically strong and the Scherzo’s rhythm was anticipated at the Trio’s close thus avoiding the risk of its return seeming hurried. The Finale is comforting rather than dramatic and the central fugue can interrupt continuity but was swept along within the general impulse. The ensemble invoked a sense of mystery during the quiet, questioning moments with which Bruckner precedes a new theme but the players always resumed their convincing forward traversal as soon as the melody arrived – one of several confirmations that the essence of Bruckner’s music was understood.

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