Fitzwilliam String Quartet

Fitzwilliam String Quartet

Fitzwilliam String Quartet
String Quartet

The Fitzwilliam String Quartet is among the longest established string quartets in the world, it first became known internationally through its close personal association with Dmitri Shostakovich.


Now closing in on the end of its fifth decade, the Fitzwilliam finds itself among the longest established string quartets in the world. The current line-up combines founding member Alan George with a younger generation of performers: violinists Lucy Russell (herself celebrating 30 years in the group) and Marcus Barcham Stevens, along with former Vellinger Quartet cellist Sally Pendlebury. 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. The quartet has since appeared regularly across Britain, 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 Records: perhaps the most novel so far has been a jazz fusion collaboration with German saxophonist/composer Uwe Steinmetz and former Turtle Island Quartet violinist Mads Tolling; a return to more traditional fare then saw Bruckner’s String Quintet coupled with his early Quartet – begun while Jonathan Sparey was still second violinist but delayed by his retirement, eventually released thanks to generous sponsorship by the Bruckner Society of America and The Bruckner Journal (UK). Also now available are the complete chamber works (so far!) by award winning English composer Liz Johnson – including a new quintet which requires five different clarinets! Finally, a long term ambition to record Beethoven and Schubert on gut strings – following the success of previous recordings on historical instruments – was finally inaugurated last July, with sessions for the latter’s “Death & the Maiden” and A minor quartets (to be released as part of the anniversary festivities in 2019). 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 50 new works to the repertoire. The original members of the FSQ initially played together as undergraduates during their inaugural term at Cambridge, in autumn 1968. Their first ever concert appearance took place in Churchill College the following March, before their full public debut at the Sheffield Arts Festival in June. After graduating in 1971 they accepted their first professional appointment, as Quartet in Residence at the University of York, succeeding the celebrated Amadeus. There, the group built a niche for itself in concert venues around Yorkshire and the rest of the United Kingdom, at the same time joining a select company of quartets to have emerged under the guidance of Sidney Griller at the Royal Academy of Music.

It was only a year into that residency that the much documented association with Dmitri Shostakovich first catapulted the Quartet into the public eye. The composer travelled to York to hear the British première of his thirteenth quartet, and this musical friendship (the composer’s own word!) prospered through correspondence, and the presentation of his final two quartets, which he wrote in the years immediately following that visit. Sadly, a carefully planned trip to spend a week with the composer in Moscow was necessarily abandoned when he died in August 1975. Benjamin Britten afterwards reported (just before his own death) that Shostakovich 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. Whilst their pre-eminence in the interpretation of Shostakovich has persisted, the authority gained has also been put at the service of diverse other composers, from the early 17th century to the present day. Their involvement in 2013 with celebrating Britten's centenary, and before that the chamber works of Delius and Grainger, are only the more recent manifestations of the players’ enthusiasm for using anniversaries to promote less familiar music: following Vaughan Williams in 2008, it would appear that Britain has gradually taken its place alongside Russia and Vienna as a principal area of speciality, while in 2015 they looked further north, to honour the joint 150th birthdays of Glazunov, Sibelius, and Carl Nielsen.

Having been Quartet-in-Residence at York for twelve years, at Warwick for three, and at Bucknell (Pennsylvania, USA) from 1978, their university work continues at Fitzwilliam College Cambridge, and now at St Andrews – where they are also proud to run their own annual quartet course (alongside their regular coaching weekend at Benslow Music, Herts). Last season began with an exceptionally busy September, which included London concerts in Southgate, Stow Festival (Walthamstow), St John’s Smith Square, and King’s Place. Autumn 2018 has proved no less busy, beginning with six performances in just one week: a concentration of events to herald the quartet’s 50th anniversary season 2018/9 – which will include a concert back in Cambridge on March 2nd, 50 years to the day after that debut public performance. CDs of the last quartets of Schubert and Shostakovich will be released: Linn already has the great Russian’s 13th and 14th in the can, 43 years after the FSQ’s debut recording of these very works!