Heath Quartet & Daniel Tong
March 24 2022
Review: William Ruff
Playing as fresh, buoyant and inventive as the music itself
Thursday’s Lakeside concert was a vivid reminder of how we hear with our eyes as well as our ears. It’s usual for all four members of a string quartet to sit down when playing. But not the Heath Quartet. Apart from the cellist (who sits on a raised platform) they all stand up – and it makes a huge difference. It’s not just that it adds energy to their performance; it also allows them more freedom to communicate physically with the audience and between themselves. Playing becomes a whole-body experience with phrasing starting at the knees and growing upwards. They lean in to each other, their bodies responding to mood and rhythm, throwing and catching musical ideas.
Pianist Daniel Tong introduced the programme, explaining its title Romantic Tensions, placing the three works within their mid-nineteenth century context and suggesting how the musical landscape was beginning to change with progressives beginning to distance themselves from traditionalists.
The piece Daniel Tong chose to illustrate the ‘new’ music of the period may have startled anyone who hadn’t heard it before. It was a short work by Franz Liszt called La Lugubre Gondola, nothing like the barnstorming virtuoso works by which the Hungarian composer is generally known. This is a very sombre work inspired by the idea that fellow composer Wagner would die in Venice and his body would be carried on a funeral gondola. Its utterly original approach to harmony making its sense of tragedy seem exceptionally desolate.
The concert began with the String Quartet in E flat by Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the more famous Felix. Although she was a prolific composer and virtuoso pianist, she suffered from the prevailing attitudes towards women of the time, especially those who were members of the upper echelons of Berlin society. Her education was directed at marriage and running a grand house and definitely not the public role of composer and performer. Those talents had to be nurtured in private. Her String Quartet is clearly the product of an intensely individual musical imagination, beginning with a deeply expressive Adagio that seems liberated from formal constraints and adventurous in all sorts of ways. The scherzo has more than a whiff of the demonic about it; the following Romanze is a deeply expressive, poignant song without words and the high-octane finale propels the work to an exhilarating conclusion.
In the concert’s second half the Heath Quartet and Daniel Tong were united for Schumann’s Piano Quintet, their playing as fresh, buoyant and inventive as the music itself. Their approach to its final movement was typical – from the opening, startling minor key attack to the double fugue which is the Quintet’s crowning glory. The combination of verve, anxiety and delicate lyricism seemed to sum up not only the romantic imagination but the musical intelligence of the five performers.
The Heath Quartet Sara Wolstenholme, violin
Marije Johnston, violin
Gary Pomeroy, viola
Christophe Murray, cello
Daniel Tong, piano