Fitzwilliam Quartet – Live Review @ Jacqueline du Pré Music Building

Having recently returned from a fortnight in America, the Fitzwilliam Quartet, one of the longest established quartets in the world, took over the Jacqueline Du Pré building in St Hilda’s last Saturday.


The quartet is now built around a younger generation of string players with the notable exception of Alan George, one of the quartet’s original members. George is an eminent lecturer and writer and took a captivating pre-concert talk that felt much more like an informal chat, in which he discussed the importance of debunking our stereotyped images of the composers in the concert.


The programme opened with Tchaikovsky’s much-loved Quartet in B flat major (1865) – the single surviving movement from his first attempt at a string quartet he produced as a student. This dismembered work makes an eminently satisfying whole, however – much aided by the fantastic musicianship and sense of togetherness that the players produce. The jolly piece is unified by a Ukrainian folk motif, which was originally sung by working women, and, all-too-timingly, is a fitting reminder of Ukraine’s rich cultural output.


Second up was little-known composer Frederick Delius’ Late Swallows (1916). Delius, like Sibelius, was a lover of nature, yet was also steeped in the German tradition. This single movement serves an example of the Delius tone poem in miniature and is the only work in the series not to require a soloist. This emphasized the Quartet’s strengths in ensemble playing, with no voice willing to take the limelight for any longer than necessary.


Next up was the concert’s centrepiece, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, Op. 138.  As a student, George had written to the composer asking him to send them the parts, and was so excited that he had ripped the original score (which he still insisted on playing off) in excitement when it arrived. Shostakovich attended the 1972 premiere of the work by the Fitzwilliam Quartet, and George vividly depicted air of mystique created by the presence of a composer from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’.


Shostakovich was struggling with immanent death during the composition of this work – he was suffering from numerous strokes and heart attacks – and this lamentation for youth manifests in itself in the piece’s bleak and desolate mood. The Quartet’s impeccable performance highlighted the intimacy of Shostakovich’s chamber works; they successfully conveyed the to-ing and fro-ing of tensions punctuated by percussive ‘taps’ on the wood of the instruments with different parts of the string bows. The audience seemed utterly captivated by the performance, either subsumed or shocked by its disturbing character.


After the intensity of the Shostacovich and a short interval, the Quartet seemed to relax into Sibelius’ Voces Intimae – Quarte in Dm Op. 56. The work is symphonic in many ways: the disparate lines in the lively Vivace were seamlessly woven together by the players and the ensuing more serious Adagio was beautifully expressed. The lively finale brought the concert to an end with a thrillingly fast-paced romp, which brought to mind the Finnish myths that inspired much of Sibelius’ work. A flawless and fantastic performance from the Quartet, much appreciated by the audience who insisted on bringing them back for a third bow at the end.

Holly Manners

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