Review: Fitzwilliam Quartet, Buxton International Festival

Day 8 of the Buxton International Festival was billed as “the day of the quartets” and it fell to the Fitzwilliam Quartet to begin proceedings. Described as “one of the longest established string quartets in the world” founded in 1968 only one of the original members survives – the other three regular members not were even born then.
Leading cellist, Sally Pendlebury – who grew up in Manchester – took the place of Heather Tuach. Heather is currently “lost to motherhood” according to the programme notes – an odd expression.

Anyway, to the music. The FSQ played Beethoven’s Quartet No 13 in B flat (Op 130) complete with the massive Grosse Fuge (Op 133) as a finale. This is late Beethoven and he did not get to see a performance of the whole piece. Composers like Beethoven were under great pressure to produce and deliver to their sponsors. It would be understandable, then, if occasionally they produced a ‘potboiler’ but – maybe because he knew he had little time left – Beethoven was working flat out to produce something that would befit his musical legacy.

There are few tunes that you can whistle here – this is more like “art house” Chamber music, frequently intense and dramatic with a wide dynamic range. This is demanding of performers and listeners. Not that it is without more accessible moments; the Cavatina (adagio motto espressivo) is as beautiful and moving a piece as you will hear.

It is the Grosse Fuge that caused Beethoven the most difficulty; it took him months to complete and even then neither he nor his audiences were totally persuaded that it made sense as a piece of music or as a conclusion to the quartet. Arguably it is on too great a scale and unbalances the other movements. That said it is a landmark in European music and to hear so persuasive an account was a privilege which the capacity audience obviously recognised.

By Keith Savage