The Fitzwilliam String Quartet – 16/05/24


Lucy Russell  violin

Andrew Roberts  violin

Alan George  viola

Ursula Smith  cello


A New Beauty (No. 1 of Ben Hartley Notebooks, 2023)    

Liz Dilnot Johnson 


Ben Hartley (1933-96) was a painter who settled in the Devonshire countryside and lived there as a recluse. Alongside his numerous rustic artworks and quirky self-portraits (often painted on old brown parcel paper) he kept notebooks full of pencil sketches. He makes little observations of the landscape, people and creatures around him and this little piece for string quartet takes one of Ben’s offerings as inspiration: 

18th November 1964 Notebook entry: ‘Week of wetness, and a new beauty – that of brown autumnwinter… The dock leaf, the dandelion and the cow in the field…The leaves are gone, the landscape winter-looking.’

Liz plans to create more of these miniatures for string quartet – some of this music already features in her solo Cello Suite. 

Quartet in F major, Op.135        

Ludwig van Beethoven

 (1770 – 1827)



Assai lento, cantante e tranquillo

“Der schwer gefasste Entschluss”:- Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro

It would not have seemed inappropriate had Beethoven drawn his career to an apocalyptic close in 1823 with the Missa Solemnis and the “Choral” Symphony (No.9). Yet such a questing mind could hardly have sought rest at such a time of achievement. He evidently did not see the ninth symphony as his last, since another was planned (and started) – as also were other large scale works, including an oratorio. But among sketches for the Ninth was some material which later assumed significance: notably the main subject of the rejected instrumental finale, which eventually found its way to the corresponding point in the A minor quartet (Op.132). But there also appeared ideas specifically intended for a string quartet, such that soon after the first performance of the symphony (on 7th May 1824) a quartet in E flat (Op.127) was eventually begun – no doubt encouraged by an unfulfilled commission: it was in November 1822 when Prince Nikolas Galitzin (a wealthy Russian nobleman and patron of music, as well as the cellist of the St Petersburg Quartet) invited Beethoven to write him “one, two, or three new quartets, for which I should be delighted to pay you whatever you think adequate”! Three years later the E flat, A minor, and B flat quartets (Opp.127, 132 and 130 respectively) were all ready – but Beethoven only ever received the 50 ducats agreed for the first of them. This was probably completed in February 1825, nearly fifteen years after its predecessor (the F minor, Op.95), and marks the beginning of his total withdrawal into the private and intimate world of the String Quartet: from now until the end of his life he was to write for no other medium (with the exception of a few vocal canons and two or three short piano pieces). So it was that with Op.127 he turned his back on every “public” musical form: it is as if the creating of this work drew him into an inner region of utterly personal communion with quartet texture, but a place from which, two years and three quartets later, he emerged with Op.135 as a Being somehow relieved and exorcised – rather akin to Samson, “Calm of mind, all passion spent”.

Very little of the gloriously resonant sonorities and sweeping lyricism of Op.127’s first movement will be found in the corresponding part of this F major quartet. Indeed, the first page of the score is so fragmentary it almost looks like Webern – the first subject, split phrase by phrase between the upper three voices, could even be seen as an early example of Webern-style Klangfarbenmelodie. Yet its smiling good nature belies an extraordinary underlying subtlety and originality. Searching for hidden depths here has too often led performers, listeners, and commentators alike into problematical culs-de-sac, for such disarming simplicity might not have been expected of the composer of the three gigantic masterpieces which preceded it (those Opp.130-2 quartets). Neither would a Romantic notion easily accept this music as Beethoven’s last, although it is more likely that he was beginning to explore new avenues within the medium rather than settling for any pre-determined swan song. The Vivace scherzo might well be seen as being possessed of a maniacal streak, and the crazy ostinato and wild violin string crossings at its centre do support such a view; others may find this passage jubilant and exultant, rather than mad….. But clever exploitation of rhythm and dynamics (especially right at the end) still leaves an impression of intentional wit, however gruff. 

Once again (following Opp.127, 131, 132, and also the Ninth) it is a set of variations which lies at the heart of the work, but here very much in line with the almost epigrammatic scale of the other movements: so utterly simple, so unutterably still. “Problems” do indeed surface in the finale, as suggested by the title (which might roughly be translated as “The Difficult Decision”). Although it is said that the famous question and answer which heads this movement (“Muss es Sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!”) referred originally to unpaid wages to his housekeeper, its origin lies more correctly in an attempt by a concert promoter to regain the composer’s favour, having neglected to subscribe to the first performance of the B flat quartet (Op.130) – to which Beethoven laughingly responded with a canon on the “answer”. But the words may also have begun to assume an ominous significance for the already sick composer: a “poetic idea” which could even give a clue to his own thoughts about Life and Death. Whether this puzzling little prefix indeed suggests deeper metaphysical musings, or whether it really was no more than a personal joke, there can be little doubt that in the end Beethoven cheerfully accepts that “It must be!”. 

Quartet No.4 in D major, Op.83 (1949)              

Dmitri Shostakovich

(1906 – 75)



Allegretto –


The fourth quartet was written fully three years after No.3, so obviously it could not have been conceived out of the immediate aftermath of its mighty predecessor. Certainly it presents a totally different portrait of its composer: no tragedy or heroics, simply a work of exceptional beauty and lucidity in which Shostakovich allows his powers of melodic invention to flower in truly memorable fashion. Indeed, what is so striking – and almost revolutionary – about both this quartet and No.6 is the way they show their creator to be immune from the long prevalent conception of the String Quartet as an essentially serious and rigorously intellectual form. This would never have earned the approval of such earlier twentieth century composers of quartets as Schönberg and Bartók; but Shostakovich’s willingness to bring a greater range and freedom to the medium was far seeing and far reaching. However, there need be no fears that he compromised his standards of craftsmanship in any way: in No.4 he explores the art of climax to structurally telling effect, so that three of the movements (the exception is the third) owe their pleasing shape to the natural process of the building and releasing of tension. Although the first movement opens in lyrical serenity its climax is upon us in little over twenty bars, then to be sustained for at least as many again before an equally well worked descent. This whole passage is made especially memorable by the maintaining of a tonic pedal throughout its entire length, the open D strings of the viola and cello being brought into play with impressive resourcefulness. Additionally, the Jewish associations of this and other works from the late 1940s can immediately be felt through the preponderance of the interval of a fourth, which dominates almost all of this first movement – “I think…that Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me…. It is multi-faceted. It is almost always laughter through tears….”. None of these works – together with others composed after 1948 – were offered for public performance until after the death of Stalin in 1953: in January and February 1948 a series of conferences was held, led by Party Cultural supremo Andrei Zhdanov, which amounted to a purge on the leading Soviet composers of the day. Included among them were Prokofiev, Miaskovsky, Khatchaturian, and Shostakovich himself – a particularly sorry event which could only bring discredit to all responsible.

Climax of a more theatrical and impassioned nature is the focus of the Andantino, a quasi-sarabande in F minor – elegiac but faintly waltz-like – which provides the emotional heart of the work.  After this the atmospheric scherzo brings a touch of genuine fun; instrumental colour is exploited subtly and imaginatively, always featuring the shadier hues made available by mutes (kept on from the end of the previous movement). There is also an underlying rhythmic activity which maintains the music’s direction, and in addition contributes a faintly Eastern flavour very much in keeping with the Jewishness of the outer movements. The viola eventually comes to rest on a long C harmonic, out of which is intoned a melody which a fanciful imagination might attribute to a gnarled old Oriental, seated cross-legged before a coil of rope! The climax period in this finale is the most extended of all, and is sustained by a density of orchestration whose effectiveness did not go unheeded in Shostakovich’s next quartet. Indeed, one cannot in the end escape the impression that this thoroughly warm hearted piece of music must be a work of considerable stature – an impression which has on some occasions been diminished when the metronome marks (over which the composer took such care) have not been properly absorbed. As will be seen in the present performance, they are particularly important here as they give a clue to the character of each movement where the tempo designations themselves offer little distinction: for instance, the finale turns out to be a much slower, bigger, and more powerful piece than might have been anticipated, so that the shape of the quartet as a whole is firmly directed towards this heavy footed dance. Once the dreamy tranquility of the Andantino has eventually been re-captured, we can be left in little doubt as to the predominant mood of this music, when it speaks to us so simply and directly. The popularity of No.4 in Russia, where for many years it was one of the most frequently played of the Shostakovich quartets, is as understandable as its former neglect in the West was incomprehensible.

notes © AG 2023

The original members of the FSQ first sat down together, at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, in October 1968 – as undergraduates during their inaugural term. Their first concert appearance took place in Churchill College the following March, ahead of their public debut at the Sheffield Arts Festival in June – making the Fitzwilliam now one of the longest established string quartets in the world, and almost unique in having passed a half-century with an original player still on board (but latterly joined by the Chilingirian, Brodsky, and Coull Quartets – with our congratulations!). The present line-up combines founding member Alan George with a younger generation of performers: violinists Lucy Russell (herself celebrating 35 years in the group) and Andrew Roberts (son of the great pianist Bernard), along with former Zehetmair Quartet cellist Ursula Smith – who has also led a highly distinguished career as principal cello in various groups, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. 

International recognition came early for the FSQ, as the first group to record and perform all fifteen Shostakovich string quartets, drawing on the players’ personal connection with the composer: he travelled to York to hear their performance of his thirteenth quartet, and this musical friendship (the composer’s own word!) prospered through correspondence, and the presentation of his final two quartets – written in the years immediately following that visit. Sadly, a carefully planned trip to spend a week with him in Moscow was necessarily abandoned, following his death in August 1975. Benjamin Britten afterwards reported that his friend had told him the Fitzwilliam were his “preferred performers of my quartets”! Complete cycles were given in a number of major centres, including London, New York, and Montréal. A new recording of the last three quartets was specially released by Linn in October 2019, to celebrate “FSQ@50” year. Whilst their pre-eminence in the interpretation of Shostakovich has persisted, the authority gained has been put at the service of diverse other composers spanning six centuries, from the mid-16th to the present day. 

The quartet has appeared regularly across the UK, Europe, North America, the Middle and Far East, and Southern Africa, as well as making many award winning recordings for Decca, Linn, and Divine Art. A long-term ambition to record Beethoven and Schubert on gut strings – following the success of previous discs on historical instruments – was finally initiated during their 50th anniversary season, with recordings of Schubert’s last four quartets; Beethoven’s Opp.131 and 135 went under the red light in March! Thus does the Fitzwilliam remain one of the few prominent quartets to play on older set-ups, yet simultaneously bringing about the addition of over 60 new works to the repertoire – as can be heard on perhaps their most novel disc so far: a jazz-fusion collaboration with German saxophonist/composer Uwe Steinmetz and former Turtle Island Quartet violinist Mads Tolling.

After graduating from Cambridge in 1971 they immediately embarked on their first professional appointment, succeeding the celebrated Amadeus Quartet at the University of York. From there, the group built a niche for itself in concert venues around Yorkshire and the rest of the UK, at the same time joining a select company of aspiring quartets to have emerged under the guidance of Sidney Griller at the Royal Academy of Music. Having been Quartet-in-Residence at York for twelve years, at Warwick for three, at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge from 1998 to 2020, and at Bucknell (Pennsylvania, USA) since 1978, their university work now continues at Clare Hall Cambridge and at St Andrews – where they have become increasingly involved in working with the University Opera (most recently Pelléas in 2022) and with the Chamber Orchestra last year in Metamorphosen, and Vivaldi/Villa-Lobos/Mozart this January/February. The quartet is very proud to have been granted its own annual chamber music festival in the famous “book town” of Hay-on-Wye – the 2024 event is entitled “Music and Friendship” and includes works which we hope will underline the Transformative Power of Music: there will be music by JS Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Samuel Barber, Dmitri Shostakovich, Alfred Schnitke, as well as collaborations with at least two contemporary composers. Do come along and join in the Friendship!