Quartet in D minor, Op. 76 “Fifths” Haydn Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960) Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 14 in E flat major, K.449 Mozart

What a wonderful, warm, summer evening it was: the renowned Fitzwilliam Quartet performed Haydn, Mozart and Shostakovich in the beautiful Sutton House – with champagne and strawberries! The House was sold out, and there was a warm buzz amongst the audience, eagerly anticipating one of the last concerts of the season, at nearly the end of the quartet’s Shostakovich marathon.

The concert opened with a light yet intense performance of Haydn’s second string quartet, “Fifths”. Composed on his return to Austria after celebrity years in London, when Haydn was in his sixties, it is one of the eight of his most sublime and mature quartets: so sparse, muscly and modern, that at times it felt surprising it was eighteenth century Haydn at all. The ensemble communicated so intensely with both the audience and each player, that it was hard to believe that the ensemble was so recently reorganised after the departure of cellist Andrew Skidmore.

Due to this being only the second appearance of the Fitzwilliam’s new cellist, Heather Tuach, the expected Shostakovich’ second quartet was replaced with the fabulous eighth – and as it is a favourite of mine, this was a delightful surprise. The darkness of this famous quartet was superbly captured in the opening Largo with the wonderful depth and intensely rich quality of tone colour that can be produced only by such fine string players.

Written in just three days in 1960 on a visit to Dresden, after being shocked by the sights he encountered in the city not yet rebuilt after the devastating bombing by the British in 1945, and with his own, still fresh, first hand memories of the horrific siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich unofficially dedicated this work “to the memory of the victims of fascism and war”. Appropriately, there is an aching intensity to the sound, stirring a huge sense of pain and loss. The stillness of the audience, moved by the poignant first movement, which opened the work almost like a funeral march, created an intense atmosphere which remained unbroken even with the interruption of a crying baby – a child clearly affected by such powerful music! The Allegro Molto, which seemed to burst from the haunting beauty of the first movement with a relentless panic, revealed the uncontrollable horrors, and therefore the futility, of war. The unstoppable driving force of the lower strings in particular reflected the inhuman brutality of war. This huge piece, demonstrating a spectrum of intense pain, loss, power and suffering – while not exactly anger – was built almost entirely on four notes, a musical cryptogram in the style of Bach and Schumann, derived from the initials of Shostakovich’s own name. This signature, together with quotations from his other works (such as the his first cello concerto), are repeated many times in various forms throughout this autobiographical masterpiece.

After the interval of twenty minutes or so, mingling in the garden, enjoying delicious strawberries and cream, and browsing through Fitzwilliam CDs, the concert resumed with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 14, in Eb major, arranged for piano quintet with Penelope Roskell, a soloist, chamber pianist and a professor at Trinity College of Music.

The lightness of the sparkling string introduction created a wonderful backdrop for the majestic solo entries; with almost effortless ease, Roskell answered light phrases in the quartet with passages of fiendish virtuosity, alternating long brilliant flourishes with intimate lyricism. The breathless Allegro was followed by the singing Andantino- élan combined with tenderness, and the whole work was feisty and full of brio. This combination of tender, mature understanding with youthful vigour and virility seems characteristic of the Fitzwilliam Quartet: they are capable of the highest passion, tempered by delicacy, subtlety and depth.

All in all, it was a wonderful summer evening. Among so much recording and travelling, the promise of the remaining few Shostakovich quartets are eagerly awaited by Sutton House regulars. If there were any disappointments, perhaps it would be that there are so few Sutton House concerts scheduled for the future…

Lizzie Boyce, aged 17

Lizzie attended a concert at Sutton House Music Society on 14th June 2009.