Possible Openings

Article by Andrew Watkinson, first published in 2004 in the Endellions’ 25th Anniversary Booklet.

I suppose the first hint was when I received a phone call from David in January 1977, asking me if I would like to meet to play through some quartets. I didn’t know David, but we had a mutual friend who played viola with us and another friend of David’s played violin. We must have enjoyed ourselves because David and I continued to meet from time to time with different players to read through the quartet literature. These occasions were often followed by a meal in David’s local Chinese restaurant, the Green Cottage (still a regular haunt), and gradually we began to think about finding some regular occupants for the other two seats in the quartet. The viola position was readily filled – I knew Garfield from the Menuhin School, the St Endellion Festival in Cornwall and freelancing in London, so we started to do the occasional concert as a string trio. Finding a second violin was much harder but eventually we asked Louise Williams (who David knew from playing in Pizza Express quartets and a mysterious breakfast in King’s College Cambridge) if she would like to come to play through some quartets with us. It went well and she agreed to join us.

January 20th 1979 was the day of our first rehearsal. We had different attitudes to the idea of playing quartets for gain. David’s path towards it had been indirect but typically determined. He was the third child of an extremely musical family. Both his sisters were precociously talented and after brief flirtations with both violin and piano (his parents’ and his sisters’ instruments) David dug in his heels and refused to play anything. Some time later he decided to take up the cello. Of course he was very good at it so to thwart his parents’ expectations he decided to go to Cambridge rather than study music. Seven years later he had a PhD in Philosophy (surprisingly his doctoral subject was to do with free will!) and was in London wanting to be a cellist in a string quartet.

Garfield, though only 21 and still a student at the Royal Academy, had already been playing quartets seriously for four years. He had achieved distinction by having been the longest serving inmate at the Menuhin School, where for nine years he had had two lessons a week from a violin teacher he loathed! (I should add that he is grateful to the school for teaching him about stage management and page turning!) As luck would have it, my call to ask if he would consider playing with us came just seconds after he returned all the music he’d been using in his previous quartet. So, whilst not being against it in principle, he could perhaps have done with a few hours off!

Louise was brought up in Oxford and had taken to the violin like a duck to water. She had recently returned from completing her studies in the USA and had played chamber music for years and thought it was a wonderful idea to settle down and focus on a quartet. She was also on the point of getting married, so her life was changing dramatically.

I was ambivalent. From the age of 12 some of my most wonderful experiences had been connected with playing quartets: a weekend at the Menuhin school when four of us stumbled across a volume of middle Beethoven quartets and spent hours laboriously devouring them; weeks at Dartington Summer School spending twelve hours a day discovering the quartet repertoire with amateur players who already knew it back to front. I feared that working at this wonderful music, and playing to an audience rather than for ourselves might ruin this extraordinary and miraculous pleasure.
From the first rehearsal there was a burning question: should we enter the first Portsmouth International Competition (now the London International Competition), which was to be held in April. We were divided between those who thought it was far too soon and those who thought it would give us a goal to work towards. (I no longer remember who was in which camp.) Something persuaded us to give it a bash, so the next deadline was to choose a name before the closing date for entries. As anybody knows who has ever had to decide on a name for anything from a boat to a pet rodent, it is a tortuous business, and one that very easily descends into hysterical confusion. So after a few hilarious but unproductive sessions it was decided that at our next rehearsal we should each arrive with four names to be reduced to a short list on which we would vote. (David had devised some complicated system of preferential voting.) Elliot, Alexander and Turner were all names that we considered but in the end we voted for Endellion, and at 11 o’clock that evening I rang the Rector of St Endellion church to ask for his and the village’s approval. We just made the competition closing date, though without the required photograph for the programme!

We should have had a comfortable 10 weeks to prepare for the competition – after all, it was only a question of learning four pieces and the basics of quartet playing. Unfortunately, however, David went down with pleurisy which wiped out three weeks. We still managed to fit in a few warm-up concerts, the first of which (and therefore the quartet’s first concert) was in Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, on March 3rd. I believe David still has a tape of this concert, though we would all pay him a lot to lose it!

We arrived in Portsmouth expecting nothing so with nothing to lose. My clearest memories of the days there are of hearing the Takacs Quartet (the eventual winners) giving a breathtaking performance of the Schumann A major quartet, and of my walking onto the stage to be assigned our playing time for the final, clinking like a milk float! We were so certain after the second round that we would be on our way home that we had bought a considerable number of bottles of beer with which to drown our sorrows, and most of them were distributed about my person!

In fact we were awarded the Audience Prize and the second prize, which gave us lots of concert dates around Britain, an entrée to the BBC and an agent. In the next season we gave 130 concerts and we soon had agents in many different countries and were playing everywhere from Oslo to Dunedin! We were very fortunate, not only in that beginning to our career, but in the way that we managed to adapt fairly quickly to spending a large proportion of our lives together, without too much of the tension and acrimony from which many quartets suffer. In the early days I think we were lucky to have Garfield’s experience of other groups, David’s wise and philosophical attitude to life and Louise’s intuitive awareness – not to mention her willingness to carry everybody’s luggage the whole time! I probably added a readiness to work all the hours of the day and night.

We played to a few people for advice in those early days. Hans Keller would sit immoveable throughout a whole quartet (apart from lighting one cigarette from the stub of the previous one) and at the end would say: “There are seventeen points” and proceed to go through them, complete with subclauses, without for a second losing his line of thought. He had a wonderfully clear idea of the bones of quartet playing as well as an extraordinary ear and imagination. Sigmund Nissel was absolutely insistent on the rhythmic integrity of the pieces we played him, and helped us all to understand the inside players’ role, and Sandor Vegh was able to lead us, in spite of his extraordinary English and ferocious manner, into worlds of mystical and emotional intensity that stay in the memory 25 years later.

The most difficult year was undoubtedly 1983, and it all came down to having to spend too much time away from home. We had a 3 week trip to Australia and New Zealand, spent a similar length of time in America, were in Finland for a fortnight, Denmark for a week, as well as trips to Holland, France, Germany and such distant places as Scotland and Yorkshire. We concluded that such an amount of travelling was definitely too much, and that if we were to have any chance of enjoying playing together we would have to spend far less time away from home. (The only really good thing that came out of this was that in a hotel room in Hamilton, New Zealand we started to play bridge together – which we still do before and during the interval of almost every concert!) It was also in this year that we received one of our most prized reviews, from a concert in the Hague, which after recounting our failings in loving detail advised us to think very carefully before daring to play outside Britain again!

Not surprisingly Louise decided during this year that she had had enough of spending all of her life with three moody men, so in 1984 she left and Jim Clark replaced her. We have been lucky that both our changes of personnel (Jim stayed a little over two years before Ralph joined us) have happened without rancour, and that we still retain some traces of the first two incumbents’ personalities in our interpretations and working methods. (As well as the odd “L” or “J” in the parts to indicate who led a particular corner!)

And so the years rolled by, and we find that it is 25 years since that first rehearsal. After 17 years Ralph is no longer the new boy and we are definitely no longer an “up and coming quartet”! (Is there anything between “up and coming” and “down and going”?) We must now have given around two thousand concerts and although we certainly can’t remember all of them we can usually recall the meals! Some stand out: from the early years, playing in the cauldron of the Great Hall at Dartington, where it was always incredibly hot and the audience seemed to envelop us with the intensity of their listening. (After one concert there Sandor Vegh made the gloriously ambiguous comment to Peter Maxwell Davies that his quartet was a “ho-o-opeless piece”!) Playing in Bridlington to an audience of 15, nine of whom had been dragged unwillingly from the youth club next door at the last minute. The barn at Breaky Bottom where the audience sat and lay on hay bales; playing all the Beethoven quartets in Bogota, where they keep an oxygen cylinder in the dressing room because of the altitude. Playing at the Carved Angel restaurant in Dartmouth where the fee was the magnificent meal we received afterwards. Playing a Brahms Sextet in the Harrogate Festival with Norbert Brainin and Martin Lovett – no one had warned us that in the first half Norbert would be sitting in the front row of the audience ten feet away! The concert in an upstairs room in Ballymena, which we had to abandon at the interval because a dance band had struck up forcefully in the room below!

More recently the thrill of playing Haydn quartets in the Esterhazy Palace in Eisenstadt, the poignancy of performing Haydn’s Seven Last Words with Andrew Motion reading his almost unbearably honest and touching poems in between, and the fevered intensity of the final concerts of the Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn Fests at the Royal Northern College in Manchester.

We have been indebted to many people over the years: to Andrew Green, our first agent, who gave us an amazing launch into the musical world, then Richard Apley and Fiona Blyth, who looked after us at Ibbs and Tillett until that business folded in 1992. Since then, to James Brown and his many helpers at Hazard Chase, especially Juliet, Sibylle and Libby. To promoters who have been especially loyal: Gordon and Valerie Woods at the Cricklade Festival, Maricarmen Palma at La Caixa in Barcelona, Amelia Freedman at the Bath Festival and Chris Rowland at the RNCM. To Ros Buffery who helped to start the Residency at Cambridge University which has become such an important part of our lives, and still gives us tea before every concert there. To Peter and Irene Gore, who just by attending so many of our concerts and by continuing to be enthusiastic and appreciative help us to believe that we may be getting somewhere.

I believe we are all also grateful for the friendship and support that we have received from the other members of the group. Largely unconsciously we have found a way of working together that has given us the freedom to grow and develop both individually and collectively, and we have helped each other find the confidence and discipline necessary to win at least some of the battles with the unforgiving instruments we play. We have also been lucky enough to enjoy extraordinarily good health. (We have only had to cancel two concerts for illness in all that time!)

But the greatest gratitude must be for the music itself. How extraordinary that we can arrive to rehearse a quartet that we have performed more than a hundred times and experience again the intense commitment, wonder and sense of discovery of the very first rehearsal, together with the joy of being wrapped up in music we have loved for many years. How amazing, after a quarter of a century in which people’s lives and work circumstances have changed more drastically than ever before, that our job is at heart exactly the same as it was when we started. How privileged to be doing something we love and receiving so much appreciation from the people for whom we play. How miraculous that we have as our raw materials the infinite subtlety and good humour of Haydn, Beethoven’s electrifying synthesis of humanity and spirituality, and the kaleidoscope of joy and pain, defiance and resignation of Schubert…..

The music’s possibilities are limitless, there is no “definitive performance”, the path of discovery can continue until our fingers or our energy give out. Thank you!