By Donald Judge
Bollington Chamber Concerts and Bollington Arts Centre did a remarkable job in bringing quality chamber music to afficionados throughout the many months when it was impossible to attend live concerts. Minor hiccups with live streaming were soon alleviated, and listeners at home treated to quality sound and vision, albeit a fixed view. Nothing can replace the experience of a live concert, but it’s the next best thing to be sharing it in real time, and to know that friends and those familiar from visits to a favoured venue are doing so too.
When live concerts returned, BCC was in a good place to continue the splendid offerings of decades, and what finer quartet to start the 2022-2023 Season with than the world’s longest-established. The Fitzwilliam Quartet, recognisable to many as FSQ, was formed in 1968 by four undergraduates studying at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge, a city also famous for the Fitzwilliam Museum and for Fitzbillie’s cakes and buns.
One of FSQ’s founder members is violist Alan George, who fills that role to this day. As the FSQ website states, he is the longest serving quartet player in Britain. Lucy Russell has been with FSQ since 1988 and its leader since 1995. Cellist Heather Tuach played from 2008-2016 and rejoined last year. Andrew Roberts is the “baby” of the FSQ family, though a violinist with a wealth of experience behind him. The stabilising factors and the changes of personnel combine to maintain the superb quality of the group while injecting new ideas as their performances and repertoire evolve.
Audiences in N W England particularly may instantly think of Christopher Rowland in association with the FSQ. He wasn’t one of the founders but joined in 1974. In those days, FSQ had formed a friendship with Shostakovich, who entrusted his three final quartets to them. He told Benjamin Britten that FSQ’s performances outshone all others. After his death, FSQ went to Russia, sad never to meet him: Pravda published a glowing review of a concert they hadn’t given, as they were stranded at Moscow Airport.
A decade after joining FSQ, its residencies with young people at universities inspired Christopher Rowland to move on and join the staff of the RNCM. People who hear his name tend to well up, not only at his untimely death, but at knowing that quartets such as the Sorrel, Elias, and Navarra emerged under his benign but rigorous tutelage: award winning quartets which have been favourites of BCC audiences.
But to the present, and Saturday’s concert. A near capacity audience was immediately engaged not, as so often, by Haydn, but by a contemporary work: Strum by Jessie Montgomery. Full of recognisably tonal melody and a host of sonic devices, but never “obvious”, it’s one of those pieces that players and audiences so took to that it has several versions, including the one FSQ made so appealing.
They “repaired” their instruments for technical reasons that Alan George explained so engagingly, and then altered the published order to give a thrilling performance Schubert’s Quartettsatz, with a bonus. The bonus was what Schubert left of a lovely slow movement, and the bonus to that was Brian Newbould’s masterly completion of it. This left a complete quartet to finish the first half, and what a timely and revealing choice it was. Audiences get few chances to hear string quartets by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the second of them was an inspired choice. The work was written in the 1940s at the behest of a young viola player, Jean Stewart. Another lovely connection here is that Alan George knew her. His playing came to the fore as RVW often showcases the viola in contrast to the other three. It’s a highly original work in form and content: four movements that don’t even look conventional listed on paper and sound anything but in performance. The influence of RVW’s teacher Ravel are perhaps more evident here than in his orchestral or choral music, but it certainly isn’t an attempt to mimic the Ravel or Debussy quartets. The Fitzwilliam’s compelling performance will surely have convinced any doubters, and should inspire many to listen to other performances of it. After much turmoil, it concludes with surely one of the most ravishingly beautiful, most timeless, and most “English” passages in all music. RVW is a very enigmatic composer: is it a longing for peace from the war that still raged as it wrote it? Avuncular affection for the work’s dedicatee? A vision of a pastoral landscape? There are passages in the music of Finzi and Tippett that are reminiscent of it. Or did its calm D major beauty simply emerge organically from the Dorian mode material that precedes it? FSQ rightly raised as many questions as it resolved.
After the Interval, happily now with a bar and coffee, FSQ was on stage before the audience had taken their seats, not, as Alan was quick to point out, to drop a hint (although it did help a very full programme to finish promptly!) but to keep their instruments at an equable temperature. As Beethoven intended, there was little or no break between the 7 movements that make up his string quartet in C sharp minor, op 131. No performance of any music so radical, however familiar it has become, should ever sound “comfortable”. The aim should be to recreate as far as is possible, the extraordinary effect it would have had on contemporary audiences – and indeed players. Nor should an experienced ensemble lapse into its comfort zone; the music should be 100% accurate, yet sound as if it’s emerging as a fresh discovery. FSQ avoided these pitfalls in full measure and the result was a magnificent conclusion to an uplifting concert – and a glorious start to a season full of promise.
If I might be allowed another personal reminiscence after the one about Alan Ridout… Memory can sometimes play tricks, but I have a vivid if incomplete one of hearing the Fitzwilliam play soon after their inception in 1968. I was then in the sixth form at school in Cambridge and had come by almost a second family – a very artistic one with several children younger than me. I was roped in to play piano for their ballet classes, including for the only boy with five sisters, and that led to the purchase of Schubert’s complete dances, an education in themselves. I accompanied several of them in grade exams and concerts. Most of them, and I, played in the Cambridgeshire Schools’ Holiday Orchestra, another education as it had no auditions and the first music on my stand as a 12-year-old violist who’d had a few violin lessons at primary school had been The Rite of Spring. I even became a babysitter in return for driving lessons, which included ferrying the children and their instruments including two celli (one mercifully half-size!) around Cambridge in a Fiat 600. Final lessons at a driving school proved difficult due to the silence. The Triumph Herald’s engine made barely a sound, and there were no children chatting and laughing in the back seat.
It may have been a little later as I was an undergraduate in Cambridge and I maintained my “second family” relationship. But at some point they asked if I’d like to go to a concert given by a very exciting ensemble, the Fitzwilliam Quartet. Memory convinces me that it was at Kimbolton School, and that they played Shostakovich Eight. They were heady days when I was discovering a lot of “new” music, including Janáček (CSHO tackled his Sinfoniettawhen many professional bands didn’t dare to) Britten, Tippett, and Shostakovich, while the avantgarde led in the UK by Peter Maxwell Davies was both inspiring and challenging. Shostakovich’s precarious existence in the USSR, the lives of Soviet artists trying to visit the West and “Western” ones the USSR, the contrast in freedoms and restrictions, were frequently in the news and my thoughts. I had friends who – either they or their parents – had escaped from the Nazis or Communism. One, a Czech refugee, gave the Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968 a personal dimension. The threat of nuclear annihilation rumbled on less than a decade after Cuba. To hear a live performance of Shostakovich knowing its composer was still living – and a work only around a decade old – was a remarkable experience. To hear in 2022 of Russian artists hampered from global engagement by current events, or needing to be extremely brave to speak out, is heart-breaking. But music in all its many forms, remains for so many people, a constant, a comfort and a hope. It has always done so, throughout the darkest days.