Swan song of a supreme quartet

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The farewell performances of musicians tend to be somewhat protracted affairs. One of the best string quartets in the world, The Lindsays, is to retire in the summer, and it takes its leave with a very large number of concerts over the next six months. But it is a spirit of celebration, not of egotism, that has turned The Lindsays' retirement into so extended a business. In 40 years, the quartet has covered so much ground, and established itself so securely in musical life, that any less would hardly do such a splendid career justice.

The farewell performances of musicians tend to be somewhat protracted affairs. One of the best string quartets in the world, The Lindsays, is to retire in the summer, and it takes its leave with a very large number of concerts over the next six months. But it is a spirit of celebration, not of egotism, that has turned The Lindsays' retirement into so extended a business. In 40 years, the quartet has covered so much ground, and established itself so securely in musical life, that any less would hardly do such a splendid career justice.

The string quartet is, for many professional classical musicians, the pinnacle of their art. The four-part conversation between similar instruments might seem limited; in reality, since Haydn, composers have found it full of potential, capable of massive grandeur and the utmost intimacy. And it is a huge test for both composers and performers; there is nowhere to hide, and the musical argument is laid bare.

There is often the sense that in the string quartets of many composers can be found the essence of their work, and their thought at its most distilled. The quartet cycles of Haydn, Bartok, Shostakovich, Elliott Carter, Tippett, Schoenberg and, supremely, the late quartets of Beethoven are at the heart of a life's work in ways that can make their composers' noisier work seem like mere conjuring tricks. Some composers, such as Berg, Verdi, Ravel, Debussy and Wolf, only bring off the trick once. When we sense, as in Brahms, Mozart, Schubert or Tchaikovsky, that the composer is struggling with only four instruments, and finds a quintet or a sextet more forgiving, the cruel test of the medium is absolutely clear.

The life of a professional string quartet is a hard one, and there are fewer great quartets that last the course than you might think. There is a mental strain involved in routinely dealing with some of the greatest masterpieces of Western music; any quartet player who says that he or she doesn't feel terrified at the prospect of performing the Berg Lyric Suite in public is lying. Very few of the great quartets are anything but physically demanding.

There is, too, the strange life of the players. Touring, they are in constant proximity; rehearsing, they exist in a state of constant debate over interpretation (few good quartets simply take orders from the first violin). A state of mutual hostility is never far away, and there are rumoured to be some quartets whose members simply never speak outside the rehearsal room. There is a steady demand for good quartets, but fame on the scale of a great soloist never really happens.

The few great string quartets have highly distinctive characteristics. The Amadeus used to be the classic sound; now, they sound a little old-fashioned. Of the old quartets, I adore the Quartetto Italiano's searching intelligence, and the august security of the Berg Quartet. Currently, I find the fashionable Tokyo String Quartet too precious, but the Emerson Quartet overwhelmingly good; the young Belcea Quartet is also worth going to hear. But there aren't so many that The Lindsays won't be greatly missed.

The Lindsays are special. They eschew any sumptuous beauty of sound; they never try to sound like a string orchestra; they can grunt and squeal. There is never any suggestion of listening to expensive virtuosi, and their mastery never conceals the struggle with the music. But across their huge repertoire, their serious and honest approach yields immense dividends. In cycles of Shostakovich or Beethoven, you don't forget that you're listening, above all, to an argument in sound.

It is this that commended them to Michael Tippett, who loved the sense of physical struggle in his own music; they premiered his fourth quartet in 1979, and commissioned his fifth in 1991. It is wonderful that they are honouring Tippett in his centenary year, and in their final season; no composer suits them better.

I owe a lot to The Lindsays; their period as quartet-in-residence at Sheffield University coincided with one local adolescent's obsessive concert-going habit, and I don't think there could have been a better introduction to musical intelligence than their concerts. Amazingly, they've only changed one player since then, suggesting that they probably like each other more than the members of many quartets. It is most unlikely, given current government policy, that many university music departments will be nurturing string quartets in the future. It is inconceivable that we will ever again have a string quartet named after a vice-chancellor of Keele University. But, by the time The Lindsays retire, at least we might have learnt to regret the fact.

Comments