Martin Lovett

Last survivor of the Viennese chamber ensemble which brought the classics to post-war Britain


As the sole Brit in a quartet of Viennese Jewish exiles, cellist Martin Lovett was the deep voice that helped seal the Amadeus Quartet into musical mythology. He was the gentle enforcer who brought the others to heel whenever he feared the Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert was in danger of sounding too florid. His cello — some describe it as the instrument closest to the human voice — brought a special gravity to the ensemble.

In 1947 Martin Lovett, who has died aged 93, joined violist Peter Schidlof and violinists Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel, all formerly interned in Britain, who had brought their classical repertoire to a country still reeling from wartime turbulence. Hearing the great German and Austrian classics after the war with Germany had a redemptive feel to it.

The mood was picked up by the former BBC Third Programme, which sensed an appetite for chamber music. The Amadeus would emerge as one of the definitive chamber ensembles of the 20th century, whose collegiate warmth filtered into their music. They were particularly acclaimed for their rendering of Beethoven’s complete String Quartets, considered the definitive recording of their day.

But Lovett, the quintessential Brit and the “baby of the group” — they even called him Benjamin — described his early alienation.“I felt out of it at first. They are all Viennese, Austrian Jews.” He found Norbert Brainin tended to speak German whenever he felt particularly secretive and so opted to learn German, himself.

In their recording of Schubert’s String Quartet D887, you feel the sensitivity of Lovett’s playing; the low hum of his cello, the depths of its vibrato allowing the silvery notes of the higher instruments to soar. His occasional dancing rhythms as the cello intrudes into those higher notes has a special poise. Such perfection, of course, could often result from an entire morning practising a few bars of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, for example.

Many names for the quartet were tried and discarded before Nissel hit on Amadeus. Their sell-out debut at the Wigmore Hall on January 10, 1948 included Lovett’s unusual choice of Verdi to balance Mozart and Beethoven. Lovett recalled the performance as “so exciting. We never looked back.”

Success soon enabled the musicians to live on their earnings, bolstered by teaching posts. University residences followed in York, Cologne and, from 1986, the Royal Academy in London. They recorded some 200 works with Deutsche Grammophon, Westminster and Decca labels, and 70 CDs.

Occasionally they would include chamber works by Tippett and Bartok. Benjamin Britten wrote his third quartet for the Amadeus: they performed it on Britten’s deathbed in December 1976. But Lovett insisted: “We only wanted to play music we subscribed to. We had a dispute over a certain passage in the Britten which we could not resolve. But in fact it resolved itself in the playing.”

While describing all his colleagues as very gifted, he found Norbert’s genius extraordinary. Peter Schidlof, whose parents had been murdered in the Holocaust, was silent on the subject. “He never talked about them,” Lovett recalled. “His daughter said it was forbidden. If it happened to me, I would have talked about it.”

For his three colleagues, the ensemble’s first visit to Germany in 1950 was a very difficult journey. Lovett himself had misgivings; his father had told him not to go. “But if the others agreed to go, who was I to say no?”

In the late 1950s they gave a concert in Austria, from where his colleagues had fled only 20 years earlier. “The entire audience gave us a standing ovation. I thought — this is the town that threw out my Viennese colleagues when they were boys!”

Martin Lovett was born in Stoke Newington, the son of Leah née Rothenberg who had come to the UK as a baby, and Sam Lovett, a professional London Philharmonic cellist. He may have been the “Englishman” in the quartet but his grandparents were all born in Ukraine, having arrived in Britain from the 1890s. His great grandfather had been the rabbi of Alexanrovsk, near Perm, in Russia.

Lovett studied cello with his father from the age of 11, and later with Ivor James. Educated at schools in London, Leeds and Liverpool, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he met his future wife, the émigré Hungarian violinist Suzanne Rosza, whom he married in 1950. She introduced him to the putative ensemble.

The Amadeus loyally retained the same players and the same purity of tone. No matter how much they might disagree with each other, they would never play with another string quartet. In disputes it was usually the quiet Siegmund Nissel who would gently adjudicate, although Lovett was surprised when told by an interviewer that the violinist was so influential.

Lovett handled all the business and travel arrangements until Nissel’s shrewd business brain took over. At the height of the quartet’s fame, tours would involve a 
gruelling eight-month schedule of travelling, performing and organising 100 concerts a year.

After Peter Schidlof’s death in 1987, the Amadeus stumbled on as a trio, but their heart was not in it. Brainin died in 2005 and Nissel in 2008. Later Lovett played in two piano trios and various ensembles and taught chamber music, somewhat inhibited by his lack of empathy with modern music. He was also a skilled portrait artist, and beside the piano in his Hampstead home there are oil paintings of his three colleagues — the men who had rehearsed and argued with him for six hours a day. He and Suzanne also collected miniature violins. Lovett was awarded the OBE with the quartet for their services to music in 1970, as well as the German Grand Cross of Merit and the Austrian Cross of Honour for Arts and Sciences. They also received doctorates from the universities of York in 1968 and London in 1983. Lovett’s own dry sense of humour was praised by fellow cellist Steven Isserlis, who tweeted that he was a “lovely, very funny man and a very popular character”.

As well as his intense musical ear, Lovett had a keen, analytical mind that made him sound off in letters to The Times and The Strad magazine when “authentic performers play without vibrato”, he once told the JC. “Mozart said the voice has a natural vibrato, which can be emulated by strings and woodwind. So why not do it?”

Suzanne died in 2005 and he married the writer Dorinde van Oort in 2015. She survives him with his children from his first marriage, Sonia and Peter, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.


Martin Lovett: born March 3, 1927.

Died April 29, 2020

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