Interview: Martin Lovett

The cellist on his days on the road with the world-famous Amadeus Quartet


By Rodney Greenberg, June 16, 2011
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Martin Lovett today. Photo: Rodney Greenberg

Martin Lovett today. Photo: Rodney Greenberg

'When I was 10 years old my father took me to a cello shop. The owner showed us one for £5. I offered him half. He settled for £3."

Perhaps Martin Lovett had the early makings of a Lord Sugar "apprentice" - including being economical with the truth. He developed a shrewd way to assure his father, Samuel, that he was practising diligently. "He was the cellist in a trio that played for tea dances in the French restaurant of the Grand Hotel in Leeds, where we were living," Lovett recalls. "When he came home each day and asked me how long I'd practised, I just doubled the time."

Nonetheless, Sam knew his son was gifted. He arranged for 15-year-old Martin to audition for the Royal College of Music. "I won a scholarship. It was worth £50 a year, and included every aspect of musicianship. After three years I was sacked because they discovered I was playing in orchestras without permission. It was 1945, and I was trying my hand at playing quartets with formidable German refugees who spouted Goethe at me. A couple of years later I was in The Amadeus Quartet."

During the next four decades, this legendary ensemble reigned among the world's elite, only disbanding in 1987 after Peter Schidlof, their Vienna-born viola player, died of a heart attack. "We always knew it would end when one of us had gone," says Lovett. "The chemistry could never be the same with someone else." The two violinists, Norbert Brainin and Siegmund ("Sigi") Nissel, also grew up in Vienna. Brainin died in 2005, Nissel in 2008.

Lovett has lived in the same Hampstead house for 43 years and it holds fond memories. He is a skilled portrait artist. Near the piano hang oil paintings of his three colleagues, who rehearsed with him for six hours a day, argued over minutiae of interpretation, brought up their families, and toured the world performing the masterworks of chamber music. He is 83, the sole survivor of what was affectionately dubbed "the Wolf Gang" when their Mozart-inspired name gained prominence on the London concert scene.

The other three left Vienna separately after Hitler's Anschluss in 1938. Brainin and Schidlof met in the surreal circumstances of a British internment camp in Shropshire, one of several temporary prisons in which were billeted refugees regarded by the authorities as "enemy aliens". Brainin was soon released, but Schidlof was moved to a rat-infested cotton mill near Bury and from there to a camp on the Isle of Man, where he met Nissel. Meanwhile, Lovett had met Suzanne Rozsa, a Hungarian-born violin student who was to become his wife of 55 years until her death in 2005. She introduced Lovett to the others, and the stage was set.

Snapshot

The Amadeus Quartet was established in Britain in 1947 by three Austrian-Jewish refugees from the Nazis - violinist Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel and viola player Peter Schidlof - and Anglo-Jewish cellist Martin Lovett.
The Quartet earned a reputation as one of the finest ensembles of its era, performing around the world and making over 200 recordings.
It disbanded in 1987 when Schidlof died.

"I was the baby of the group," Lovett recalls. "They used to call me 'the Benjamin'. I had to learn German quickly."

Initially they performed as The Brainin Quartet. "I was so fond of Norbert that I wanted us to be called that. But the others disagreed. So we became the London Vienna Quartet. People said it sounded like a London-Vienna railway timetable. I was handling the business arrangements and our agent was pressing me about what to put on posters for our Wigmore Hall debut. Sigi suggested 'Amadeus', which at first we said was ridiculous because people would expect us to play only Mozart. But it stuck."

On the afternoon of January 10 1948, the queue for their debut recital at Wigmore Hall stretched around the block. A sold-out house was a record for an unknown quartet. Good performances of chamber music had become scarce during the war, and north London was a safe haven for music-loving Austrian and German refugees who sorely wanted to hear what three Viennese and a Londoner had up their sleeves. They sat spellbound through Mozart and Beethoven, plus - at Lovett's suggestion - the rarely-heard quartet by Verdi. It was a brilliant start, and there would never be any shortage of concert engagements.

Life on the road could be tough. But the four rarely missed a performance. Once, when asked whether they ever had time to see other quartets, Lovett quipped: "Yes, in airports." He says: "My father never warned me the cello is an awkward thing to carry around. You can't put it in the hold of plane. You buy a seat. Even then, the check-in can be a hassle. The Canadian cellist Zara Nelsova once got so fed up she said: 'It's not a cello, it's a jumbo balalaika'."

The most harrowing near-disaster was their American debut at New York's Columbia University. "We'd travelled all night on a train from Cincinnati. Approaching journey's end, Norbert fumbled in his suitcase to show us a clipping about his uncle being the President's watchmaker. An open razor cut his left hand. In a panic, he bought some 'New Skin' bandage. We dressed for the concert and took a taxi to the hall, then found we'd left all our music and music-stands in the taxi. Peter had a cousin in the city who rustled up fresh music, and the management lent us their stands. But they were too high. Our American debut was spent not seeing each other, playing from music without our markings, and with Norbert on a blood-soaked violin."

Behind Lovett are the years of painstaking rehearsal, maybe spending an entire morning on a few bars of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet. He still coaches young ensembles. His bête noire is when "authentic" performers play without vibrato, and he fires off angry letters to The Times and Strad Magazine. "Mozart said the voice has a natural vibrato, which can be emulated by strings and woodwind. So why not do it?"

His son, Peter, is a market researcher, and daughter Sonia a television director, specialising in music and drama. "My father loves the latest technology," she says. "He has a BlackBerry, he plays Lexulous [the Facebook version of Scrabble], and he's always on email."

His most memorable concert? "Late 1950s, in Vienna. We were just coming on stage. The entire audience gave us a standing ovation. I thought, this is the town that threw out my Viennese colleagues when they were boys. Now this. It only happened once in our lives."

Martin Lovett will be interviewed by David Herman at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on Wednesday June 22 at 7.30pm, as part of the 70th anniversary of the Association of Jewish Refugees. Details at www.ljcc.org.uk or call 020 8457 5000

    Last updated: 1:02pm, June 17 2011