MusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Fitzwilliam String Quartet – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Musicians: Fitzwilliam String Quartet

                  Opera North String Quartet

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The Fitzwilliam String Quartet’s appearance at the Howard Assembly Room was celebratory in mood, notably in the stunning performance of Shostakovich’s String Octet with the Opera North String Quartet which concluded the evening, the perfect antidote to any mistaken belief that chamber music is cerebral and unexciting.

The Howard Assembly Room is 10 years old, a beautiful concert venue in many ways, acoustically clean and welcoming. The fact that it is about to close temporarily, is cause more for rejoicing than lamentation, as Opera North’s development of the New Briggate site will bring improved access and facilities for the Howard. 

So this concert was the Fitzwilliam’s 10th birthday party for the Howard. The Fitzwilliam String Quartet, now led by Lucy Russell, itself celebrated a significant birthday recently, having been formed in 1968, and remarkably Alan George has taken the viola chair for the full half-century. In the last years of Dmitri Shostakovich’s life, the Quartet formed a close relationship with him personally and musically, so it’s hardly surprising that the joint themes for this concert were the number 10 and Shostakovich’s music for string quartet(s).

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10 was the main work of the first half, a work of huge contrasts played with idiomatic conviction. The opening Andante made almost whimsical use of fragmentary phrases before the second movement lived up to its tempo description: Allegretto furioso. As the lyrical third movement died down into sparse hints of melody, the viola set the final movement on its way with a jaunty Allegretto, typical Shostakovich motor rhythms carrying us through to the final brief Andante.

The concert opened with an attractively welcoming pairing: Purcell’s Fantasia No. 10 and Double on Fantasia 10 by Marcus Barcham Stevens, second violin with the Fitzwilliam, a world premiere that segued on from the Purcell, complementary enough for you hardly to see the join before Stevens’ harmonies took on a somewhat post-Purcellian texture.

After the interval, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet delivered an assured performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10, nicknamed ‘The Harp’ for the pattern of the pizzicato arpeggios in the first movement, before the Opera North String Quartet joined them for Shostakovich’s String Octet, composed when he was only 18. This proved an ideal climax to the concert, though, as Alan George wryly remarked, it’s a pity it’s Shostakovich’s Opus 11, not Opus 10 – if only he’d composed it a bit more quickly…

Sally Pendlebury, cellist with the Fitzwilliam, was until recently principal cellist with Opera North and she was the catalyst for a remarkable performance, even though the two movements of the Octet only last about 10 minutes. After a richly scored opening, the Prelude at times sounded like a Scherzo, but that was before you heard the Scherzo itself. At breakneck speed, the two quartets, standing opposite each other, with the cellos seated at the back, exchanged phrases, some quasi-improvisatory, with astonishing precision and dynamic cohesion, then, when the breathless audience applauded, did it again to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

Reviewed on February 7, 2019 | Image: Peter Searle

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