THE FSQ STORY
The Fitzwilliam achieved international recognition at the very outset of its career, as a result of its young members’ personal friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich towards the end of his life and their championing of all his string quartets following his death. Whilst the FSQ’s pre-eminence in the interpretation of these works has persisted, the authority gained has also been put at the service of diverse other composers, from the late 17th century to the present day. It remains one of the few established quartets to play on historical instrument setups, but has simultaneously brought about the addition of over 50 new works to the repertoire. Its involvement in 2013 with celebrating Btitten's anniversary and last year of the chamber works of Delius and Grainger is only the most recent manifestation of the players’ enthusiasm for using anniversaries to promote less familiar music – following Vaughan Williams in 2008. It would appear that England is gradually taking its place alongside Russia and Vienna as a principal area of speciality. They have performed regularly across Britain, Europe, North America, the Far East, and Southern Africa, as well as making many award winning LPs/CDs for Decca, Linn, and Divine Art Records.
The Fitzwilliam Quartet first sat down to play together as undergraduates during their inaugural term at Cambridge, in Autumn 1968. Their first concert appearance took place in Churchill College the following March, then in June came their public debut at the Sheffield Arts Festival. After graduating in 1971 they went straight to their first professional appointment, as Quartet in Residence at York University, which afforded the group the opportunity to build a niche for itself in concert venues around Yorkshire and the rest of the country. Indeed, the Fitzwilliam was one of the first of a long line of eminent quartets to have emerged under the guidance of Sidney Griller at the Royal Academy of Music, where they travelled from York every Monday for over three years.
Undoubtedly it was their much documented Shostakovich connection which first catapulted them into the public eye, only a year into their Residency at York: following the composer's widely reported train journey north to hear their British première of his thirteenth quartet their friendship (the composer’s own word!) prospered through correspondence, and the arrival of the next two quartets when they were finished. At the time of his death, in August 1975, plans had already been finalised for them to spend a week with him in Moscow, only a month or so later. Benjamin Britten afterwards reported to them (just before his own death) that Shostakovich had told him the Fitzwilliam were his “preferred performers of my quartets”. Having introduced his last three quartets to the West, they soon became the first ever group to record and perform all fifteen – complete cycles were given in a number of major centres, including London, New York, and Montréal.
The Shostakovich recordings (now reissued for a third time) gained many international awards – including the very first Gramophone Award for chamber music (in 1977) and inclusion in the same magazine’s “Hundred Greatest-ever Recordings” (November 2005) – securing for them a world wide concert schedule and a long term contract with Decca. All the recordings from that era are now available again on their “Enterprise” label. The quartet’s current collaboration with Linn Records began in 2000 with Haydn’s Seven Last Words, and the latest sessions saw them complete a Bruckner disc featuring both the string quintet and quartet – this following critically acclaimed CDs of the Brahms clarinet quintet (Lesley Schatzberger) and Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge (James Gilchrist/Anna Tilbrook) – the latter nominated for the 2008 Gramophone Awards. Two new music recordings were released in 2013, the complete quartets of John Ramsay on Divine Art Records and chamber music of South African composer Michael Blake. There has also been a reissue of an earlier Haydn CD on Divine Art. Future plans include a jazz CD with saxophonist Uwe Steinmetz and Grammy award winner violinist Mads Tolling.
Repertoire, Old and New
If the quartet’s reputation was originally fostered by the Shostakovich connection, they are still at pains to avoid resting on those particular laurels, and the subsequent exploration of masterworks from less familiar regions of the repertoire has long given their concert programmes and discography a recognisably unconventional look. Additionally, they have always been enthusiastic in accepting the responsibility of promoting music of their own generation: the hotbed of New Music at York was a starting point. More recently, as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations, they invited a number of composer friends to contribute to a series of new fantasias along the lines of those by Henry Purcell. This included the German composer/saxophonist Uwe Steinmetz, with whom they have been collaborating since 2002, working extensively with his jazz group in Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany – where a CD of his Bonhoeffer Suite was released, with a follow-up disc completed last Summer. But it was also the university’s reputation for historical performance studies which encouraged them to carry an extra set of instruments for earlier repertoire. Indeed, for their recent Bruckner recording they played on a set of gut strings as near as possible to those used in Vienna in 1879.
Having succeeded the Amadeus Quartet at York they remained there until 1986 (apart from three years at Warwick from 1974), enabling them to concentrate full time on quartet and academic work. In 1978 their university connections were extended to the USA, where they became Affiliate Artists at Bucknell, Pennsylvania. Their achievements were recognised there through Honorary Doctorates of Music – conferred in 1981 by Shostakovich’s son, Maxim. To complete the circle, they are now 15 years into a new Residency – back at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge! – with similar associations at Bangor and London Royal Holloway following in the meantime, and the University of St Andrews in Scotland beginning in 2012.
Highlights over the past few years have included making an international dance film in Munich (based around Shostakovich's last three quartets), as well as bi-annual visits to St Petersburg, Russia, which have featured concerts in the Conservatoire, Pushkin's House, the Sheremetev Palace, the Summer Palace at Peterhof, as well as at Agora – former home of Modest and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. For most of their career they have been making regular trips to the USA, where latterly they have been occasional guests in Lorin Maazel’s private concert hall at his farm in Virginia. In 2008 they made their first venture to the snows of Newfoundland, followed by a Martin Randall Travel archeological cruise from Athens to Istanbul – when they performed in a number of ancient amphitheatres. 2009 saw them back on board ship in the Aegean, and in 2010 they were Artists in Residence for the entire length of the Ryedale Festival – a rôle immediately repeated during the first week of August at the Festival de l’Abbaye du Pin in France. Their latest overseas ventures have taken them to Italy, South Africa and Newfoundland.
So, armed with a new violinist, plus an enterprising manager (www.rayfieldallied.com) and record companies (www.linnrecords.com, www.divine-art.co.uk), the Fitzwilliam can look towards the future with hopeful anticipation, as well as recalling its rich history with a degree of pride.