Obituary: John Shirley-Quirk CBE, bass baritone

Born: 28 August, 1931, in Liverpool. Died: 7 April, 2014, in Dorset, aged 82

John Shirley-Quirk (left): Mellow-voiced baritone best known for his leading roles in Brittens operas. Picture: Getty

With his fine sense of musical technique and an agile and resonant voice, John Shirley-Quirk became renowned for his interpretations of many of the operas of Benjamin Britten. His voice ideally suited many of the roles in the composer’s church parables and for 20 years Shirley-Quirk was a prominent member of Britten’s English Opera Group (EOG) appearing in five premieres of the composer’s operas.

Three years before Britten’s death in 1976 Shirley-Quirk created the multiple baritone roles of Aschenbach’s alter ego in the première of Death in Venice. When the work came to the 1973 Edinburgh Festival Shirley-Quirk repeated the role to acclaim, The Scotsman calling his performance “a masterstroke”.

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Shirley-Quirk had an elegant, mellow voice which, allied to his fine diction, made him ideal for many religious works. He was an exceptional interpreter of Handel’s Messiah and the Bach Masses and of English ballads by Vaughan Williams, Walton and Britten.

Shirley-Quirke had a long and distinguished connection with music in Scotland. He first sang at the Edinburgh Festival in 1961 and made numerous visits: memorably in the challenging production of Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy For Young Lovers with Scottish Opera under Alexander Gibson and prestigious concerts under Claudio Abbado and Carlo Maria Giulini, before joining Gibson for a magnificent account of Janacek’s huge Glagolitic Mass in 1978. The following year he sang the title role in Scottish Opera’s fine production of Eugene Onegin.

In fact Shirley-Quirke was a founding member of Scottish Opera, singing Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande in 1961. He returned often, notably as Don Alfonso in the famous production of Cosi fan tutte, and in other Mozart operas. In 1978 he appeared in the triple bill with Janet Baker under Charles Mackerras as Death (Savitri) and Aeneas (Dido and Aeneas). He created the role of Gil-Martin in Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1976) and made a cameo appearance at the closing concert of the 2006 Edinburgh Festival as one of the Mastersingers in an historic performance in the Usher Hall of Die Meistersinger for the outgoing Festival director, Sir Brian McMaster.

His appearances with the Scottish National Orchestra were legion and fondly remembered. In 1966 he made his debut with the orchestra in a splendid account of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. Other notable concerts included two performances in 1968 (Usher Hall and Paisley Abbey) of the St Matthew Passion, returning in March 1969 to Paisley for another St Matthew Passion and performances of Brahms’ German Requiem in 1973.

Many SNO regulars remember Shirley-Quirk’s relaxed style and gracious manner on the concert platform. He was a tall man with a commanding presence, and his black hair had a badger-like streak of grey which added a certain distinction.

John Stanton Shirley-Quirk was a chorister at Holt High School in Liverpool. He read chemistry and physics at Liverpool University and did his National Service teaching sciences with the RAF.

Shirley-Quirk slowly built a reputation as an aspiring singer and was involved in the UK premiere of Elegy for Young Lovers at Glyndebourne. He sang the role of Mitterhofer in his own right at the 1970 Edinburgh Festival with Scottish Opera – “a fantastic physical undertaking”, he once recalled.

His 1973 Covent Garden debut was in Britten’s Owen Wingrave along with Janet Baker and Peter Pears. In 1977 he returned for the world premiere of Michael Tippett’s The Ice Break and joined Baker for her farewell performances with the Royal Opera in 1981 in Alceste.

Shirley Quirk was often heard at The Proms, appearing at the Last Night in 1974 under Charles Groves in an inspiring performance of Walton’s mammoth oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. The Prommers gave it an ecstatic reception.

Shirley-Quirk sang in all the major opera houses in the world, but at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York he made history by performing Death in Venice and creating six roles in one evening.

It required multiple costume changes and the New York Times called it a mammoth undertaking “and mammothly achieved.”

His recordings were prolific and he is best known for various Britten CDs – notably The War Requiem under Richard Hickox in 1991, the Recorder of Norwich in Gloriana under Sir Charles Mackerras and on Georg Solti’s account of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

Shirley-Quirk, who was made a CBE in 1975, was a singer of much class whose voice commanded a wide dynamic and an expressive range. He had a wonderful sense of phrasing and an intellectual curiosity that made every performance so vital.

Shirley-Quirk was thrice married. His first two wives died. He is survived his third wife, Teresa Perez, a son and a daughter of his first marriage and a son and a daughter of his second marriage.