Congratulations on winning the 2017 Limelight Recording of the Year!

Thanks. It’s amazing, especially now that we have just undergone a personnel change in the quartet. That project feels like part of a different lifetime so it’s very nice to get an accolade for it.

The Heath Quartet has been playing for 15 years now. How did the group form?

We started out as 19-year-olds at the Royal Northern College of Music, which is in Manchester. There was a very dynamic and charismatic head of chamber music there, and he thought we’d be a good combination so he put us together. First of all we took part in internal competitions at the college and did well, and then we did UK competitions and then international competitions. It was great that the Young Classical Artists Trust supported us during that really difficult period after you leave music college where you’ve had all of this structure and then you’re suddenly out at sea on your own. They really helped us through it all and handed us on to Askonas Holt who manage us now. It’s been a very organic journey really. We can’t quite believe how much time has passed, and that this is now our job.

The Heath QuartetThe Heath Quartet: Chris Murray, Oliver Heath, Sara Wolstenholme, Gary Pomeroy. Photo © Simon Way

How does a string quartet know that it’s really gelling?

I don’t know really. For me, I think, it’s just getting confirmation outside of the group that you’re doing well, because I think within in the group it’s kind of impossible to get any distance on what is actually going on. So, whether that was getting onto the YCAT roster, or having the support from Wigmore Hall, it’s things like that. I think at the moment, we’re going through a phase where we’re really enjoying playing, but it’s always really challenging and there’s always work to do. You always feel like what you’re trying to sound like is quite a long way away. I don’t think we’re the kind of group that has – not the conviction – but the confidence that we’re good enough to be an international string quartet.

Over these last 15 years, how do you think you’ve grown as a quartet?

That’s a difficult thing to answer from the inside, but we’re constantly learning about to how to do things better, how to communicate with one another better. My own personal journey, with the experience of doing big concerts and big recording projects, is that you learn to trust yourself a little bit more. And I think with that trust, you can start to find your voice when it matters. So when you’re onstage and it’s a sold out Carnegie Hall concert, or whatever, you can still connect with your voice.

Is there a particular repertoire that is special to you as a group?

Not really, no. I think the Tippett and the Bartók have been better received than our Tchaikovsky recording. And I certainly feel more confident about those two. Both are live recordings, something I’m really keen to carry on doing. The Tchaikovsky was a studio recording and I think you can hear that. Part of what is positive about the Tippett and the Bartók is a sense of the atmosphere and tension in the hall. That’s not a repertoire thread, but I think 20th-century music is something we’re quite good at playing. We love the Second Viennese stuff, especially Berg and early Schoenberg and Britten, but we’re pretty open and we don’t have any concrete plans in the diary yet. Right now we’re in the middle of a Jörg Widmann project. A lot of quartets of our generation are playing his music and rightly so, it’s absolutely wonderful stuff. We’re doing the complete string quartets and I think they’re going to be recorded in some shape or form.

And what other rep have you been playing?

There’s always either Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven in there. That’s kind of the foundation of what we do. We’ve been playing some Dvor˘ák, which has been really nice, and we’ve been playing some Mendelssohn. We’ve revisited a couple of the Bartók quartets and we’ve been playing Fauré piano quintets with a wonderful young Dutch pianist called Hannes Minnaar.

So what made you choose Bartók for your second recording on Harmonia Mundi?

The real impetus was a conversation with John Gilhooly, the director at London’s Wigmore Hall. He wanted to have a complete Bartók cycle. He’d put it on once before with the Belcea Quartet and had such good feedback and enjoyed it himself so much that he wanted to do it again. As a cycle, it’s an amazing span. With a lot of cycles you’re just doing it for the sake of doing everything a composer wrote rather than having a satisfying experience as a listener, or as a player. But I think with Bartók, the evolution of the quartets, the contrast between them and the way you get immersed in this world, it makes for such a satisfying experience.

With the First dating from 1909 and the Sixth written in 1939, does it feel that the cycle is documenting a life?

Yes, I think that’s why it’s such a satisfying cycle to do because you really get that sense. In the middle quartets you hear a man at the height of his powers with all that energy and strength and conviction, and at the beginning and the end of his life, it feels – not fragile – but far more questioning.

The Heath QuartetThe Heath Quartet. Photo © Simon Way

Technically, what are the greatest challenges in the Bartók quartets?

For individual players, the parts are very difficult in the first place even before you come together as four people. Just to be on top of that much music, it’s really, really challenging. But the transitions you have to make are really difficult too because you’re never in one tempo or at one dynamic range or atmosphere for long. You’re constantly having to jump from one to another. To make those shifts in a kind of logical way, and in a way that makes
the narrative unfold as it should, to do that as a group is really difficult.

Over the next few years, what pieces  would you most like to spend time with?

I’d love to revisit the Berg quartets and Schoenberg No 2 – they are big favourites of mine. We’re doing a lot of Beethoven in 2019 and 2020. With that being his anniversary year, everybody will be sick of Beethoven quartets [laughs], but we’re getting on board anyway. We’re also playing the three Britten quartets as well in the 2018/2019 season. We’ve only done the first of those, not the second and third, and I think it will be our aim to record them. It will certainly be nice to have those alongside the Tippett and to have done both of those major 20th-century English quartet cycles.

Presumably you have no idea whether you’re coming to Australia or not?

No, but we’d love to come! We’re waiting for the call, basically. We’re coming to New Zealand next year for a big tour next summer. But we’d love to come to Australia. Our contemporaries over here in the UK have all gone to Australia, so I don’t know why we haven’t come out. Mind you, we are happy doing what we’re doing right now, so it’s not like we’re miffed we haven’t been invited yet. But hopefully this will make Mr Musica Viva invite us [laughs].

The Heath Quartet’s winning Bartók CD is available now on Harmonia Mundi.