This year sees the 50th anniversary of the first public performance of the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, making them one of the longest established quartets in the world. On Thursday 7 February the ensemble visits the Howard Assembly Room to help us celebrate another milestone: the venue’s 10th anniversary. In anticipation, members of the Quartet take us through some highlights of the specially curated programme, which (almost) entirely revolves around the number 10 and features a grand finale augmented by the Opera North String Quartet.
A co-founder of the Fitzwilliam Quartet in Cambridge in 1968, Alan George has been the ensemble’s sole viola player for all 50 years of its existence, and he is now the longest-serving quartet player in Britain.
“It’s wonderful to be able to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Howard Assembly Room – and to find nearly a whole programme of works which use the number 10! Too bad Shostakovich couldn’t have published his first symphony (Op.10) and our two Octet pieces (Op.11) the other way round…
Mention of the great Russian composer’s Op.11 reminds me of an occasion, back in the 1980s, when the Fitzwilliam String Quartet was invited to team up with the legendary Borodin Quartet, who wanted to include these youthful, dangerously modernistic pieces in their complete Shostakovich cycle at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Rehearsing with them was quite some experience! As was the concert, of course: this was the second generation of the Borodin, by now led by Mikhail Kopelman, his predecessor, the utterly distinctive Rostislav Dubinsky, having left in 1976.
The two older members (violist Shebalin and cellist Berlinsky) struggled to rehearse for much more than half an hour at a time, the need for a step outside for a quick fag (plus a tot of the strong Russian stuff) requiring frequent breaks! These two were also quick to justify any idiosyncratic departure from the printed text as “Trrrradition”!
We learnt so much that day, which has since added lustre to our own Shostakovich renditions. In those far-off times the Borodin and Fitzwilliam were the only groups regularly performing all 15 quartets over here – wonderful to say, it has now become almost a commonplace feat for some of our fine younger groups. Nevertheless, I seem to remember that performance of the Octet pieces packed quite a punch.
And I don’t doubt the same will happen on February 7th: having lived in York since 1971, and been around when ENO North (as it then was) first emerged, it’s a massive honour that David Greed and his colleagues from the Orchestra of Opera North were willing to accept the Fitzwilliam’s invitation to team up with us – especially so since Sally, our cellist, was formerly principal cello at Opera North, and my son Jacob has benefitted greatly from David’s great wisdom in violin lessons!
Sally Pendlebury was Cello Section Leader in the Orchestra of Opera North for five years. In addition to the Fitzwilliam, she is also a member of The Angell Piano Trio and Möbius and an associate member of Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
“Being proved wrong can often be a more enriching experience than the opposite scenario. Somehow, this concert will be a salutary reminder (for me) that one should never judge too soon or without context and real understanding!
I’m referring to the two composers that I particularly associate with my most recent places of work, Opera North and the Fitzwilliams. As a musician, one is constantly asked who one’s favourite composer is. It’s almost always impossible to say and the answer can change daily, depending on what one’s working on at any given time. I always found the question “who isn’t your favourite composer”, slightly easier to answer! It shames me to say that two of my least favoured composers in previous years have been Wagner and Shostakovich.
I became a member of the Orchestra of Opera North in 2009 and the news that the company was going to present The Ring Cycle was announced in one of the very first rehearsals I attended as a brand new member. I was quietly horrified at the thought of the hours and hours of both rehearsal and performance of a composer I had, until then, done my best to avoid.
I’ll never forget the first rehearsal of Rheingold in the Howard Assembly Room, the opening bars of E♭ emerging from the endless depths, spilling us forward into hours and hours of pure magic. I was transfixed and have never looked back.
I had a similar (previous) antipathy for Shostakovich and I admit that I had to question myself quite avidly as to why I was joining a quartet that was so associated with a composer that I had successfully and deliberately managed to ‘not play’ in my chamber music life thus far. Similar to my Rheingold experience, in my first rehearsal with the Fitzwilliam Quartet I found myself utterly humbled and moved by Shostakovich’s 13th Quartet which begins with a lonely lamenting viola single line. I found myself mesmerised by the complex and opposing emotions that he is able to evoke in the sparsest of writing.
His 10th Quartet is no less affecting and as often happens in the Quartets begins with a single line, this time on first violin, a quirky stuttering melody which is perky yet questioning, confident yet vulnerable (perhaps that’s the essence of what is so intoxicating, his ability to evoke opposing emotions simultaneously).
The fiercest of second movements follows, where player and listener can’t escape for a moment from highly charged, head on collision until an abrupt stop. The third movement is a blazing Passacaglia of heart-wrenching beauty and the fourth begins with a gruff, almost comedic circling viola melody which gives way to a folksy, hurdy gurdy melody, again on viola as the other players are all in double stops creating 6 lines of organ grinding beneath.
There is one point in the movement where just about every bit of thematic material from the whole work is thrown together. After another hurdy gurdy episode, this time on violin, the music, remembering the 1st movement subsides into silence.
My life has been truly enriched by both composers and both groups of people!”
Lucy Russell (violin) has been a member of the Fitzwilliam since 1988, becoming leader in 1995. She divides her time between performing on period instruments, their “modern” counterparts, and the Hardanger violin.
“The extraordinary String Quartet no.10 in E flat major embodies some of the very best of Beethoven, I think. The culmination of tension in the first movement is a virtuosic and extremely frenetic (or joyous, perhaps?) first violin part, on top of which is a truly life-affirming melody taken by second violin and viola. It’s a showstopper of an ending and part of what makes the work so notable.
We recently played the climax at a primary school and the kids could barely contain their excitement! So gratifying to witness the power of music on the very young… and the rest of the piece isn’t bad either! The beautiful, personal and heartfelt second movement is followed by a crazy fast Scherzo with a not insubstantial dash of heroism. The Finale is a set of variations which invite imagination, playfulness, mystery and ultimately, confirmation.”
Alan Lucy, Sally and violinist Marcus Barcham Stevens perform a specially curated programme of works by Purcell, Shostakovich, Beethoven, and a new commission by Marcus, in the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 7 February. They’ll be joined by Sally’s former colleagues in the Opera North String Quartet to close the evening with Shostakovich’s String Octet op. 11.