The Fitzwilliam String Quartet
is now one of the longest-established string quartets in the world. Founded in Michaelmas Term 1968 by four Cambridge undergraduates, the quartet achieved international recognition from the very outset, as a result of its members’ personal friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich towards the end of his life and their championing of his string quartets following his death in 1975. He had entrusted them with the Western premieres of the last three, and before long they had become the first ever group to perform and record all fifteen quartets. Those discs, which won many international awards, secured the Fitzwilliam a worldwide concert schedule and a long-term contract with Decca/London, by which they explored some byways of the late Romantic repertoire (including Franck, Delius, Borodin and Sibelius) before embarking on a Beethoven cycle. The Shostakovich set was included in Gramophone’s ‘Hundred Greatest-Ever Recordings’ in November 2005. All these recordings are newly available on Universal’s London or Eloquence labels.
Generous private patronage has made possible the Fitzwilliam’s current collaboration with Linn, which began in 2000 with Haydn’s Seven Last Words and has continued with Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet (with Lesley Schatzberger) and an album of twentieth-century English song with James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook (this includes Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge and was a finalist in the 2009 Gramophone Awards). Further releases have appeared on Divine Art Records, beginning with the complete quartets of the eminent geologist John Ramsay, the latest of these a jazz-fusion collaboration with the German saxophonist-composer Uwe Steinmetz and former Turtle Island Quartet violinist Mads Tolling.
The Fitzwilliam remain one of the few prominent quartets to play on older set-ups, yet at the same time they have helped bring over 50 new works into the repertoire. They have maintained their pre-eminence as interpreters of Shostakovich, and also put the authority thus gained at the service of a range of other composers, from the late seventeenth century to the present day.
From Vaughan Williams in 2008 and Delius and Grainger to the Britten centenary in 2013, the players have enthusiastically used anniversaries to promote less familiar music: in 2015 they look further north, to mark the joint 150th birthdays of Glazunov, Sibelius and Nielsen.
Travels since the millennium have included four visits to Russia, which took in the St Petersburg Conservatoire, Pushkin’s House, the Sheremetev Palace, the Summer Palace at Peterhof and the former home of Modest and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. For most of their career they have been making regular trips to the USA, two of which included marathon three-hour events in the late Lorin Maazel’s private concert hall on his farm in Virginia. In 2008, their first journey to the snows of Newfoundland was followed by a Martin Randall Travel archaeological cruise from Athens to Istanbul that featured performances in a number of ancient amphitheatres en route. Further ventures abroad have taken the Fitzwilliam back to Italy, North America and South Africa (where they performed in Cape Town and Pretoria and made a recording of music by the Western Cape composer Michael Blake); they have since made their debuts in Luxembourg and Israel. At the beginning of 2013 they performed three movements of Britten’s String Quartet No. 3 for John Bridcut’s BBC4 film Britten’s Endgame; three weeks later they received a Delius Society award for services to the composer in his 150th anniversary year. Their continuing work on Beethoven has included a collaboration with Prof. Nancy November (University of Auckland, New Zealand) on a new edition of the string quartets for Henle. In July 2014 they embarked on a project to record English anthems with St Salvator’s Chapel Choir (University of St Andrews, Scotland).
After twelve years as quartet in residence at York University and three at Warwick, their university work continues at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, and latterly at St Andrews, where they run an annual quartet course called Strings in Spring alongside their regular coaching weekend for Benslow Music in Hertfordshire.