Obituary: Susan Bicknell

SUSAN BICKNELL was a great champion of the viola. She performed the entire repertoire for the instrument, taught viola with great dedication at the Royal Junior College of Music and the Welsh College of Music and Drama and had started to record the works of Brahms and Schumann. Her need to get as close as possible to the heart of music also led her to embrace the period instrument movement and she performed frequently with London Baroque and the English Concert.

She was, with me, a founder member of the New Mozart Ensemble and of the Festival de St Agreve in France, and was a loyal and inspiring colleague in cham- ber music, contributing many ideas and insights to help enrich our performances.

Following her Wigmore Hall debut in 1981 Bicknell gave concerts all over the world as a soloist, as guest with the Chilingirian and Allegri String Quartets, as member of the Amati Quartet and with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the English Chamber Orchestra and the London Philharmonic.

She was based in Florence for a number of years and on her return became principal viola of the London Mozart Players. She also delighted in opera and was a great champion of the now defunct Kent Opera which she was determined should continue to exist despite government axing of its funding.

An eminent viola player, Bicknell was accepted originally as a violin student at the Royal College of Music at the early age of 16. She later studied in Brussels. It was Orrea Pernel, the great Bach specialist, who persuaded Bicknell to switch to the viola and who became perhaps her greatest musical inspiration. The great affinity Bicknell felt for Bach's music is embodied in the fine recording she made of the Cello Suites in 1996.

Here she was satisfied that she had made a true musical contribution and that she had also united certain of her own religious and practical ideas in her playing. She made sure that proceeds from the sale of this CD went to the Edmund Emery Fund for cancer research, a cause which was particularly important to her.

Sue Bicknell was a deeply spiritual person. Her own Christianity sustained her throughout her life as did her knowledge of Eastern religions, particularly Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. She also gained understanding of mathematical philosophy, Newton's laws and Einstein's theories, and delighted in making connections with her own artistic and spiritual understanding.

Her range of knowledge and her appetite for it was wide. She read extensively not only in English but also in French, Italian and ancient Greek, which she had studied in order to make her own New Testament translations.

Susan Bicknell's talents as a teacher and performer were matched by a remarkable generosity of spirit, writes Jeffrey Tobias. It was typical of her that even during her final month of life she arranged for her string quartet, the Amati, to play at the Middlesex Hospital to help raise funds for cancer research.

This late in the day, she could barely feel the fingers of her left hand yet she somehow retained sufficient dexterity to sustain her wonderful technique. She never complained throughout a lengthy illness lasting a decade, and in the latter years her professional ambition if anything seemed to accelerate: chamber works, baroque concerts and two unforgettable performances, as soloist, of Berlioz's Harold in Italy.

Eighteen months before she died, when faced with the inevitable, she achieved her lifelong wish to transcribe and record three of the Bach unaccompanied cello suites on the viola, leaving us a novel and permanent insight into her unique vision.

Susan Margaret Bicknell, viola player: born Farnborough, Surrey 5 August 1948; died London 22 November 1998.

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