The Fitzwilliam Quartet

Concert date: 21 March 2014
Reviewed by: JRC

The world renowned Fitzwilliam Quartet returned to Newton Abbot last Saturday, and played to another near capacity audience. Their name, together with composers Tchaikovsky, Delius, Sibelius and Shostakovich, meant this was an event in the West Country worth travelling to. What made it so special was the knowledge that the viola player, Alan George, had worked closely with Shostakovich; thus this quartet's performance was as close to a definitive rendering as we are likely ever to experience live.

There is more to concert programming than a variety of composers; but the Fitzwilliam's selection proved very interesting in themselves. They started conventionally with the earliest composer, Tchaikovsky [b.1840]. The movement in B flat major was written in 1865 when Tchaikovsky was still a student in St Petersburg; but wasn't published until 1940. A lesser known work, this was made captivating by the subdued, but warm, tones the Fitzwilliam gave to a solemn introduction. Each instrument had brief solo runs before we were spirited into a lively folk-dance that had edge. The opening mood returned, and we were led masterfully into silence.

Delius' third movement of a string quartet, named by him as 'Late Swallows' [1916], proved an intriguing mixture of melancholy and grace. With Delius' title to set this tone poem's scene, the Fitzwilliam's swooping phrases were beautifully evocative. Foci changed as later we zoomed in and out of more distant views which became lost to sight. The earlier memories return to be faded into nothingness. This is a work that I would not wish to hear entrusted to any lesser musicians!

The Shostakovich quartet No.13 in B flat minor was given its UK premier by the Fitzwilliam Quartet; and Shostakovich came over to York to hear it. Years later, here, in Newton Abbot, there were many of the audience for whom this work was the pinnacle of the evening's experiences. Not only did we have dramatic fortes and delicate pianissimos, but there were percussive effects when instruments were struck with bows. There were, I'm sure, many like myself for whom Shostakovich's works are, to say the least, 'difficult': but any sensitive soul could not fail to be touched by the tension created during this performance. When performance is all that one expects it to be, I often feel that it is by the silences that performance is judged: this audience was gripped for the duration.

After the interval we were treated to Sibelius' String Quartet in D minor. This has a brief simple introduction by violin and cello, followed by a more expansive series of melodies. A short Vivace precedes an Adagio where the Fitzwilliam gave us exquisite moments of striving and poignancy over-arched with beautiful phrasing. The movement was faded peacefully to a conclusion. A bright attack heralded a peasant dance, and the tempo was upped for the final spirited Allegro.

The Fitzwilliam Quartet performed a glorious concert. Not only had their programming given us a variety of composers, but also I appreciated the progression of styles towards Shostakovich before the interval, and the chronological and stylistic retreat to Sibelius afterwards. If one were to look for a theme in their programme, it could well be the dark sides from early Tchaikovsky to a dying Shostakovich; an evening of intense introspection.

Apparently the Fitzwilliam had played our programme recently at the Kings Place in London; no wonder their performance shone.