A proud history of quartets being at the fore of Cork music

Christopher Marwood, centre, and other cellists playing at UCC on Saturday.

FOR many of us, it’s hard to imagine a time when television wasn’t a fixture in our living rooms.

The announcement in 1959 of the launch of a national television service was linked to another auspicious event that was to change the Irish musical landscape.

Following years of campaigning, Aloys Fleischmann, Professor of Music at UCC didn’t get the orchestra he had sought for the city but Cork did get a consolation prize.

Under the aegis of the national broadcaster, Cork was to be provided with four musicians who would live in the city, teach in the School of Music and tour and broadcast as a string quartet.

At the inaugural recital of the new Radio Éireann String Quartet in Cork, 60 years ago, Michael Hilliard, Minister for Post & Telegraphs in Lemass’s government announced the setting up of Radio Telefís Éireann.

RTÉ was the first state broadcaster in the world to establish a quartet-in-residence.

The siting of a professional quartet, the smallest of the RTÉ performing groups and the only one based outside Dublin began the process of establishing Cork as a centre of excellence for chamber music.

The first quartet appointed was The Raphael Quartet, a quartet based in England.

Reviewing the inaugural recital in Cork in August 1959, this newspaper reported: “It was a very impressive performance throughout and it left one with the opinion that this quartet rates with the best we have heard in Cork for many years.”

When the leader moved on, attempts by the RTÉ to impose a violinist led to the quartet disbanding. RTÉ didn’t have too far to look for a replacement as the next quartet were already playing in the R.E. orchestras.

All went smoothly until 1971 when Audrey Park and Archie Collins returned to positions in the RTÉ orchestras.

The leader’s ill health led to a sporadic activity for much of the latter part of the tenure.

A decade of playing together prior to their arrival in Cork gave the Academica Quartet plenty of time to develop a welded sound.

Larry Poland a member of the committee at Cork Orchestral Society recalled the inaugural recital of the young Romanian quartet: “Everyone was in raptures. They had such a dramatic presence. Even the silences were exciting!”

But a string quartet is a fragile miracle and quartets that last beyond a decade are a rarity. When three of the members resigned leaving the viola player in an untenable position, the search for a new quartet began.

Not long out of college in London, the Vanbrugh quartet arrived garlanded with international prizes.

The late Tomás O Canainn, writing in this paper on their inaugural recital in June 1986 lauded “the subtlety of their approach yet their enthusiasm in striking out boldly for particular musical goals.”

A career of hard work over three decades brought a remarkable consistency to musical scene in Cork. The quartet continued to perform together until the retirement of the leader Greg Ellis in 2017.

Spearheading the National String Quartet Foundation, Christopher Marwood continues to foster a culture of chamber music that sees emerging and established musicians coming to the platform.

In celebration of a remarkable legacy, 19 musicians will grace the platform at the Aula Maxima in UCC at the Foundation’s Annual Fundraiser which takes place at the venue where the first R. E. Quartet gave its first performance sixty years ago.

Vanbrugh and Friends A Fundraising Concert in aid of the National String Quartet Foundation, Aula Maxima, UCC, on Saturday. Tchaikovsky and Dvorak together with four arrangements for eight cellos. www.nsqf.ie

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