We began playing the Shostakovich quartets in 1969

Alan George of the Fitzwilliam Quartet has been reflecting on playing a great modern cycle from the time of its inception until now. Music history in the making:

The Shostakovich connection goes back to our first year in Cambridge; those of us who were there then as students gave our first public concert outside Cambridge in June 1969, which saw us playing No. 8. This was kind of on the cards from the beginning; three of us were in the National Youth Orchestra, and got together to form a string quartet in Cambridge as soon as we arrived. We were all violinists, so I had to change to the viola! We’d done the Tenth Symphony in our last concert with the NYO and it rather infected us, so playing the quartets seemed the natural thing. So after that, while still at Cambridge, we just learned a few more; hardly any of them were played in the West apart from No. 8. We were so lucky to be able to go straight from undergrads at Cambridge to being the Quartet in Residence at the University of York, and we brought it all up here with us.

There used to be a place called the Anglo-Russian Music Shop, next to Foyle’s, and one day I saw an LP of Quartet No. 13, which I had no idea existed; I bought it and listened to it, and it just blew me away, so we decided we’d like to play it. But there wasn’t any music available, so a good student friend of mine (the writer Erik Levi) suggested that we write to Shostakovich. I got an immediate reply from him saying that when he got back to Moscow he would send the music and that he was going to be back in England in November, so if it happened then he would come to hear it. It was really rather a bombshell – we had had no expectation of anything like that, as I didn’t even know that he was coming back to Britain again. Sure enough, a few weeks later the music arrived with another letter, saying he still hoped to be able to come. I had a phone call from the Hochhausers, who were managing him at the time, informing me what train he was going to be on and what kind of accommodation he’d need; we got the university to fix everything up and I went and met him from the train, and it was as straightforward as that! It was unbelievable, life-changing in a way. Every time I walk to the station it keeps that memory fresh: I don’t go up to the university that much any more, but just being in that hall is enough for me to picture exactly where he sat.

And it all developed from there; Decca wanted us to go on and record the whole lot, and I’m glad to say the recordings did get a bit better over the course of that project and we got some very good reviews which led to the label asking us to do even more. In many ways we were running before we could walk; we’d come out of Cambridge and gone straight into this amazing residency at York that had enabled us to rehearse, do concerts and find our feet; but with the Decca contract under our belts we were always struggling to keep up, both with the recordings and with the reputation we were forming. It was quite tough, actually, and it put a lot of strain on us for a while. But the origin of it all was just being in the right place at the right time.

Read on here.


share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • This was wonderful to read. Funnily enough, I recently bought their box with all the Shostakovich quartets, which I have really enjoyed listening to. Their relationship and commitment to Shostakovich is really inspiring. I worked closely with the late Harald Sæverud (1897-1992) whose four-decades-old 2nd and 3rd string quartets (neglected XXc chamber music masterpieces) I have recently published. Any quartets out there willing to give them a go? They are quirky and demanding, but no weirder than Bartók or many other contemporaries.
    And here’s a recording I did with the Hansa Quartet back in 1996:
    In the meantime, cheers and respect to the Fitzwilliam Quartet and best wishes for many more yeaers of music making.

  • I remember that visit to York by Shostakovich. I was an undergraduate there at the time – not reading music. It all happened at very short notice: I remember some duplicated sheets appearing on dining room tables headed up “Shostakovich visits York. That was, I think, on the very day of the concert. Fortunately, I managed to get a ticket and was among the capacity audience in the Lyons Concert Hall to welcome the composer.” It was a huge compliment to a fairly recently established quartet that he would make the trip to York to hear them. But it shows how pioneering was their work in the UK on his music at that time.

  • I always think of Boulez:

    “It’s like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler. I think, with Shostakovich, people are influenced by the autobiographical dimension of his music.”

  • In these string quartets Shostakovich is arguably at his best. His symphonies are very popular these days, but, slow movements apart, are they all truly great music?The banalities in the outer movements make Gustav Mahler’s music sound as pure in comparison.

  • Many thanks to Alan George for his acccount. Through the Fitzwilliams Quartet’s landmark set of Shostakovich’s quartet cycle of quartets, and Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on D.S.C.H., Britain has a lasting connection to these works.

    The Beethoven Quartet premiered all 15 quartetsl but the last, with the Borodin Quartet giving it and the second performances of many of the others. A few years ago I heard Pacifica Quartet play the cycle in Rudolph Ganz Hall hin Chicago with the piano quintet.

    the Borodins premiered the15th quartet after they had performed Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ” in Moscow. The two works share an unusual plan: a succession of six or seven slow movements, which may be significant. Rostislav Dubinsky,founding leader of the Boerodins, recounts the circumstances of their Haydn performance in his book “Stormy Applause”.

  • A definition of a string quartet is four musicians each thinking he’s saving the situation. The lower strings often seem to be the intellectuals.

    • I’ve always heard that the definition of a string quartet is:
      One good violinist
      One bad violinist
      One ex-violinist
      One person who hates violinists

  • What a story! Can you imagine this happening today? A world famous composer actually sending his music to a group and then having the graciousness to actually show up for a performance? Is there any living composer that anyone really gives a damn about? DSCH may have been the last of the truly great composers, bombast and Boulez notwithstanding.

    • “Is there any living composer that anyone really gives a damn about?”

      Yes, of course.
      You’re speaking from your own (rather narrow if I may say so) perspective so ‘anyone’ should be replaced with ‘I’.

      • I think it is undeniable that there is no living composer that has the stature in the classical music industry of either Shostakovich or Britten.

        Of course there are contemporary composers who have an dedicated audience (and perhaps their music will one day eclipse Shostakovich). But they do not currently have the same place in the performing repertoire that was enjoyed by Shostakovich when he was alive.

  • Good one, Greg. When the Budapest Quartet was around in one of its incarnations, it went:

    One Russian is an anarchist
    Two Russians are a chess game
    Tjree Rissians are a revolution
    And four Russians are a string quartet

  • >