Norbert Brainin, Longtime Violinist with Amadeus Quartet, Has Died at 82
Saturday, April 23, 2005
The Herald [Glasgow]
By Conrad Wilson
Leaders of string quartets come and go, but Norbert Brainin led the Amadeus Quartet for all 40 years of that ensemble's epoch-making existence. It was to Britain's musical benefit that, as an Austrian refugee, he arrived with two of his colleagues, Siegmund Nissel and Peter Schidlof, just before the start of the Second World War and created what was initially called the Brainin Quartet just after the war ended.
Born in 1923, he studied the violin at the Vienna Conservatory. But it was in Britain, after Vaughan Williams and Myra Hess had secured their release from internment on the Isle of Wight and elsewhere, that he and his friends became pupils of Max Rostal in London. At that time all three were violinists, but Schidlof switched to viola so that they could form what was to become the best-loved quartet in the world, with Martin Lovett as cellist.
After its Wigmore Hall debut in 1948, the Amadeus ó as it was named in tribute to the composer who was one of the pillars of its repertoire ó found itself increasingly in demand. As exponents of Mozart, indeed, the players cultivated a sheen and homogeneous sweetness of tone for which they would be deservedly acclaimed.
The Edinburgh Festival held back for three years before offering them a slot. Haydn, Schubert and Brahms formed the bulk of the Amadeus's first two programmes [at the festival], but the sprung rhythms of Tippett's Quartet No. 2 showed that the players were also prepared to tackle something new and British.
Fired by Brainin's musical perception and passion for textual accuracy, the Amadeus was emerging as an ensemble of the highest quality. From then on, there were few years when it was absent from Edinburgh, and its Beethoven cycle in 1970, celebrating the composer's 200th birthday, was an event in festival history. These 17 works had become the backbone of its repertoire, and its recording of them, still available as a boxed set, remains admired for its Viennese glow, wisdom and texture.
But though the sound cultivated by Brainin seemed Viennese, the quartet remained in Britain, serving for a time as quartet-in-residence at York University. The humanity of its playing formed part of the humanity of the players. They wanted to share their music, they enjoyed good food and conversation, and, though touring formed part of their lifestyle, they never allowed it to become dominant.
In an interview, Brainin once told me that taking Schubert's arduous final quartet on tour was something he would never advise. Yet, he loved the work so much that he sometimes defied his own advice.
Presiding over an annual quartet competition at Evian, on Lake Geneva, he and his colleagues willingly admitted to me (as a critic-in-residence at the event that year) that the food and wine at the Hotel Royale were part of the attraction.
Lunching with them on a different occasion in Edinburgh, I was stunned to find that they had left their priceless instruments on the floor of an unattended cloakroom.
The music-making, however, remained infallible. Britten composed his third, last, and loveliest quartet for Brainin and his fellow players, and they performed it privately for him just before he died in 1976, repeating it in Edinburgh the following year. They went on playing for a further decade, when the elegant Schidlof's sudden death, in 1987, prompted them to disband, as they always said they would if one of them died.
Thereafter, summer schools and occasional appearances as the Amadeus Trio preoccupied the three survivors. Now Brainin himself is dead, at the age of 82, and an era is over.
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