“This morning I visited the two Signor Bezozzis, whose talents are well known to all travellers of taste in music. Their long and uninterrupted regard for each other is as remarkable as their performance. They are brothers; the eldest seventy, and the youngest upwards of sixty... The eldest plays the hautbois, and the youngest the bassoon, which instrument continues the scale of the hautbois, and is its true base... So much expression! Such delicacy! Such a perfect acquiescence and agreement together, that many of the passages seem heart-felt sighs, breathed through the same reed.”1

As early as 1773, it seems, strong friendships were thought to lead to effective musical collaboration. The remarkable music tourist Charles Burney’s account of the Bezozzi brothers (who “have lived so long, and in so friendly a manner together, that it is thought here, whenever one of them dies, the other will not long survive him”) speaks of the sort of kinship among dedicated chamber performers that actually seems less remarkable today, when professional ensembles stay together for decade upon decade, than it must have done in the 18th century.

With the odd member change, the Borodin String Quartet have been going since 1945, and the Allegri Quartet since 1953: chamber music has become a medium which thrives on close collaboration and commitment over time. And while group members’ connections need not extend as the Bezozzis’ did “to their very dress, which is the same in every particular, even to buttons and buckles”, a chamber music group is absolutely the closest of working environments. Though new kids on the block compared to some, the Endellion Quartet have been together for an impressive 33 years, and the only non-founding member – violinist Ralph de Souza – joined 27 years ago. Even before establishing the group, the other three future Endellions used to play string trios together. The question of what effect such extreme familiarity has on the music-making is a big one – how do performances change over 33-plus years of playing together? The Endellions’ cellist David Waterman’s response is a surprising one: “We’ve probably become... just more expressive, more daring, taking more risks,” he says. “The more you play pieces, the more you can be spontaneous.” What hasn’t happened, evidently, is that the group has stabilised, and slipped in to predictable habits. They may have got to know each other rather well, but there is clearly enough of the unknown left in the music to keep things sounding new. What comes across most clearly talking to David is the amazing sense of freshness which remains for him in the group: it even characterises his attitude towards recording. He describes the group’s recent time in the studio recording Haydn as “A snapshot of how we played it on one particular day”: even in music as standard to the repertoire as Haydn, there remains a multitude of ways to perform it. This isn’t to say that a huge amount of careful work and preparation doesn’t go into the group’s maintenance, of course: the Endellions are a sufficiently taut team, in fact, that they even run seminars for business people on teamwork, taking the string quartet as a model non-hierarchical structure and demonstrating how they make effective group decisions together. Perhaps it’s not some innate musical connection that binds groups together for the long haul, so much as “how you cope with disagreement”, as David puts it. Either way, the musical results speak for themselves.

Of course, string quartets are only one type of chamber music ensemble, though there is something particular about them – even when they work alongside other musicians. Pianist Martin Roscoe, a frequent collaborator with numerous chamber groups (the “fantastic to work with” Endellion Quartet among them), describes working with a string quartet as “coming in as an outsider, into their dynamic”, and he notes as well just how varied such dynamics are from group to group. But while working with a string quartet may require a certain amount of fitting in, different types of ensembles require altogether different approaches. Martin also plays in the Cropper Welsh Roscoe Piano Trio, and in stark contrast to the diligent rehearsal schedule full-time quartets enjoy, he describes the trio as “Three chums getting together to have fun”. He adds that “We don’t rehearse hugely” – a necessity at any rate given their differing locations around the UK, but also something which ensures a genuine spontaneity in performance. Of course, it takes an extraordinary degree of musicianship and copious playing experience to pull off this sort of approach, but it's hard to disagree with Martin that such an attitude can contribute to a noticeably livelier performance in the concert hall. Whether it comes through time spent together or through time apart, one key goal for chamber groups is always the same: freshness in performance. This is top of the agenda for a lot of ensembles, not just because of the need to keep such long-term relationships feeling new, but also surely because freshness and maybe even ephemerality are key to what makes live classical music a continually enlightening experience. Another way to keep things new, of course, is to play new works, and a majority of the artists I spoke to have been active in commissioning and performing new pieces.

This is particularly important to the brass quintet Onyx Brass, who comprise a combination of instruments sufficiently often overlooked by composers that tuba player David Gordon-Shute even speaks of a sense of “duty” to expand the repertoire through commissioning. “We’ll never be able to compete with the string quartet or the piano trio”, he says, but his group has added valuable pieces to the repertoire: works by composers such as Stuart MacRae and arrangements of Bach fugues and Ives songs stand out among the new works they have contributed, and their work with choir and organ (in partnership with the John Armitage Memorial charity) has seen new pieces from contemporary figures as diverse as Judith Bingham and Michael Nyman. While Holly Randall of the Gallimaufry Ensemble, a wind quintet, does admit to envy of “the amount of repertoire” that string ensembles have, she also describes how “really exciting” it is to perform new pieces, and also to collaborate with composers in rehearsal. It’s interesting just how divergent different composers’ attitudes towards interpretation is; Holly characterises John Woolrich’s approach as very laid back, letting the ensemble find their own way with his music – “He doesn’t really want to make any comments” – whereas George Benjamin is more keen to impress his own thoughts onto the performance. John Mills of the Tippett String Quartet would presumably agree that composers’ attitudes can vary: he describes carefully basing his playing of one of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Naxos Quartets on the Maggini Quartet’s recording, only to be asked by the composer to do something completely different.

Despite such mind-changes, though, the Naxos Quartets still stand out as one of the most remarkable and successful examples of composer-ensemble collaboration in recent times. A series of ten quartets, all written for the Maggini Quartet between 2001 and 2007, they stand as evidence of a developing relationship between writer and performer: though they didn’t know each other at all at the start of the process, as early as the Quartet no. 3 Maxwell Davies was apparently composing with the Magginis’ personalities in mind. The Third Quartet features one of the highest passages in the whole quartet literature, in the second violin part – a particular gift to the Maggini Quartet’s David Angel. David seems understandably fascinated by the way Maxwell Davies’ music changed over the ten quartets – he speculates that the writing may have got “clearer” in terms of texture, and that Maxwell Davies’ familiarity with the group allowed him to push them ever further technically. While the Magginis have enjoyed close relationships with other composers as well – including Eleanor Alberga and Roxanna Panufnik, who would fax the group “experiments” while composing – it seems that collaborations with composers benefit from time together: much like quartets themselves, in fact. All of these new works don’t mean, of course, that there isn’t plenty of traditionalism left within the chamber music world. Though a few new pieces are creeping into the standard repertoire – Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana, an Endellion Quartet commission, springs to mind – the main canon of works played is pretty stable. As Schumann commented back in 1842: “The quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, who does not know them and who dares cast a stone at them? ... after the lapse of half a century they still delight all hearts, posing a challenge to the succeeding generation that in so long a period of time nothing comparable has been created”.2 Perhaps a few “comparable” things have emerged since then – Schumann’s own quartets aren’t that bad, after all – but it does at least remain the case that Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and so on continue to inspire chamber music ensembles and audiences alike. But as with ensembles themselves, maybe increased familiarity just means that the pieces keep getting better and better.

Paul Kilbey 31 July 2012

1Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy (second edition: T. Becket and Co., 1773), pp.69-71. 2Schumann writing in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, quoted in William Weber, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste (CUP, 2008), p.126.