Meet the Artist……Alan George, viola, The Fitzwilliam Quartet

Who or what inspired you to take up your chosen instrument and make music your career?

My mum and dad: Dad was a devoted brass band player, there was always music in the house (he had a gorgeous walnut radiogram, with piles of records – mostly 78s!). They fixed up violin lessons for me, made me practise, came to almost every concert I did, helped get me in the NYO, and thence to Cambridge.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

My colleagues in the Fitzwilliam Quartet! But before that, our mentor, Sidney Griller and his quartet; the Smetana Quartet; the Beethoven and Borodin Quartets (for Shostakovich); violinist Alfredo Campoli (the ideal violin sound); conductors Otto Klemperer and Roger Norrington (two totally opposite approaches to Beethoven); clarinettists Alan Hacker and Lesley Schatzberger (opening my eyes to historical performance practice); Dmitri Shostakovich himself – the greatest man I have ever met, whose very presence and humility imparted a belief in what we were doing, and a confidence to press on into the future; the greatest performer I have ever heard (not in the flesh, sadly): Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau;

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Starting off and making headway in the real world as a professional string quartet; playing to Shostakovich; our New York debut – then the complete Shostakovich cycle there; re-building the quartet post- Chris Rowland (it took over twelve years!), and maintaining its profile and pre-eminence in these times of age discrimination in the music world; getting John Eliot Gardiner to observe the spirit and letter of Beethoven’s metronome marks (without seeming too cocky for my position!); getting my own playing onto a higher level, in order not to let the other three down (whilst spending a disproportionate amount of time on admin….).

What are the pleasures and pitfalls of ensemble work?

As a “team player” (which is the most satisfying role for a violist) one can achieve collective heights one could never achieve on one’s own – especially since the FSQ plays to a higher standard than I could ever reach myself! Those concerts (which happen rarely) when everyone is pulling together for the common benefit of quartet and composer, when you feel anyone can do anything, and everyone else will respond and be with each other. The pitfalls are when that doesn’t happen…. Or when individuals prioritise themselves before the group.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

The Shostakovich cycle, of course – although many of them we play better now! The Franck quartet. The Brahms clarinet quintet (with Lesley Schatzberger). Wolf’s Italian Serenade – as virtuosic as we could get in the old days! Then, latterly, our first ever public performance of Schubert’s Death & the Maiden (after 42 years! – as good as I’ve ever heard it from anyone…..).

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

The N D Rooke Recital Hall at Bucknell University, USA; Lyons Concert Hall, University of York; Glinka Hall, Leningrad (until the acoustic got ruined, somehow); Holy Trinity Church, Grange-in-Borrowdale (I can look at Skiddaw while playing!); St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow (an audience drawn from all walks of life).

Who are your favourite musicians?

The ones I play with: colleagues in the quartet, plus Moray Welsh (cello), Anna Tilbrook (piano), Lesley Schatzberger (clarinet), Carolyn Sparey (viola); also those influential musicians mentioned above.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

16th November 1972, Lyons Concert Hall, York: packed to the rafters to witness us play Shostakovich No.13 with the composer in the audience. I have never in my life experienced such electricity in the air, or intensity of applause.

What is your favourite music to play?

Currently: Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence, Elgar Piano Quintet, Borodin Quartets 1 & 2, Haydn Opp.77/2 and 50/6 (“Frog”) and Seven Last Words, Schubert Death & the Maiden and Quintet in C, Grieg G minor quartet, Mendelssohn Octet, Purcell Dido & Aeneas/fantasias, Beethoven Missa Solemnis, Bach St Matthew Passion.

To listen to?

Anything by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Berlioz, Bruckner, Schumann, Janáček, Delius, Mahler, Schubert, Nielsen, etc etc! Plus Mussorgsky’s Boris, Gluck’s Orfeo.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

Don’t get in the way of the music or the composer! Be faithful to both the spirit and the letter of the score – i.e. inform yourself as to the exact meaning of the notation, the performing conventions and sound according to the period of music in question. Aim to perfect every aspect of your “craft”, in the service of both the music and your own self-expression – but never impose the latter: this would imply that your own personality is not strong enough to stand on its own. Ego is no substitute for the humility and character required to communicate with your audience.

What are you working on at the moment?

Tchaikovsky No.3, Borodin No.1, Delius, Grieg, Shostakovich 7

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Same as now, but with rather more free time!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Man U overturning the rich pretenders from Man City next year!

What is your most treasured possession?

My family, my friends, my health, my viola, a lock of my late daughter’s hair

What do you enjoy doing most?

Drinking good beer or wine, eating Italian food (or Indian), playing (now watching…) cricket, walking, cycling.

What is your present state of mind?

Content, partially fulfilled, but frustrated when playing is not all it might be, angry with this Tory-led government and their flagrant promotion of gross inequality in our Society.

The Fitzwilliam Quartet perform at London’s Wigmore Hall on 24th July in a programme featuring music by Delius, Shostakovich and Schubert (with ‘cellist Moray Welsh). Further details here.

www.fitzwilliamquartet.org

Alan George’s biography

The Fitzwilliam Quartet