Fitzwilliam String Quartet at Howard Assembly Room on 7 February

An excellent concert for lovers of Shostakovich, and a very good one for everyone else.

Whilst I was vaguely aware prior to this evening that there was something in existence named the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, I couldn’t boast that I possessed any greater knowledge than merely this on the subject. After this evening’s concert, I can say that I am glad to be more educated, since the Fitzwilliam Quartet is a distinctive and interesting one, with an honourable history.

Perhaps first and foremost of the group’s historical honours is its association with Shostakovich, who was a personal friend of the group around the time of its initial formation in the late 60s. The string quartet premiered several of his compositions for that set of instruments, and made the first recording of all fifteen of them. Of course, things have changed since then—including the quartet’s members—but Shostakovich remains a significant part of their repertoire.

Purcell, Fantasia No. 10, & Marcus Barcham Stevens, Double on Purcell’s Fantasia No. 10

The quartet began, however, not with Shostakovich, but with two connected pieces—the first, the oldest piece on the programme, written by Purcell in the late seventeenth century, and the second written within the past year or so by the quartet’s own second violinist, Marcus Barcham Stevens. Perhaps the most charming part of this was when the delightfully eccentric composer-violinist introduced the pieces, summarising the programme’s thematic organisation around the number 10, explaining that his piece takes as his cue a 10-note thematic cell from Purcell’s tenth Fantasia. He explains this as ‘dactyl, spondee, dactyl spondee’, remarking on his sureness of our expertise in Latin and Greek poetry, to the audience’s amusement.  Well, if not expertise, a healthy interest.

His piece, he tells us, is about life in harmony with itself, and at peace with itself, but seems slightly to skip over this part of the explanation as if embarrassed. I have no idea why, since it was a welcome experience to hear and see a composer play and talk about their new piece—a rare pleasure in a field of interest in which most of one’s artists have been dead for centuries.

Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat, Opus 118

Continuing the theme of ten, the quartet comes to Shostakovich’s tenth string quartet. This piece is on a much larger scale and makes generally much greater technical demands on the players. Therefore, if the quartet’s assured virtuosity was not already evident from the beauty and confidence with which they played the first two introductory pieces, then it certainly was here. Particularly impressive was the second movement, ‘Allegro furioso’—furioso it certainly was, with the violins almost hammering the opening notes with repeated down-bows at the heel of the bow (the heaviest and loudest part). By the time they conclude and their bows fly into the air, it is hard not to applaud the movement. The closing two movements feature, amongst the Stoshakovichian tempest, much swapping of lyrical and reflective melodic lines and solos amongst the instruments, always with a thoughtful accompaniment—pizzicati, drone, unison, homophonic texture, etc. Overall, I am not left convinced that this is my favourite piece of all time, but I am impressed by it.

Beethoven, String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat, Opus 74 (also known as The Harp Quartet)

Throughout the night the quartet unfailingly offered a rich, warm sound, but this was especially evident in the opening bars of the Beethoven quartet and its warm E-flat chords. It seems to derive its ‘harp’ nickname from the first movement’s passing around of arpeggiated pizzicato. Although Beethoven’s soundworld seems somewhat safer than that of Shostakovich, the quartet very pleasantly wanders through a studious first movement, a simple but quite spellbinding Adagio, an instantly tempestuous Presto, and lastly a set of variations which, whilst not made as distinct as one might like, comes to a rollicking conclusion. Altogether a beautiful piece, and handled impressively by the Fitzwilliam quartet.

Shostakovich, String Octet, Opus 11

The evening concluded with something of a treat, namely two string quartets for the price of one. The Fitzwilliam were joined on stage by the resident Opera North string quartet to play Shostakovich’s youthful, two-movement showpiece Octet. The first movement, the Prelude, seems more like a preamble to me, but the playing from all eight players is impressive, and the movement’s still ending is quite moving.

The second and last movement, the Scherzo, is where the piece really becomes a showpiece and shows off the virtuosity of the players. It was strange that during a movement of such intensity and excitement that a couple of audience members chose to have a whispered, but obviously very loud and obnoxious conversation. Nevertheless, this mass of jagged rhythms and flawless technique rattled to its end unhindered, and earned such a huge applause that the two quartets were called back and reprised the Scherzo as an encore. This would, of course, be great for lovers of Shostakovich, but I felt it more as a missed opportunity to play a movement from Mendelssohn’s Octet, which is a masterpiece, and, as standard repertoire, the players were all likely to know.

Nunc Dimittis

Overall this was an evening of exacting and skilful musicality from not just one, but two top string quartets. Whilst it was not the best of all possible programmes, there was plenty to enjoy, and it obviously very much appealed to much of the audience in the packed and bustling concert hall. For me, the highlight was witnessing the world première of Marcus Stevens’ Double on Purcell’s Tenth Fantasia, and especially its being played (in part) by the composer himself, who strikes me from this short acquaintance as a fascinating character of learning and artistry, into whose work it will be interesting to delve.

Feature photograph by Peter Searle, provided by Opera North.

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