The English baritone John Shirley-Quirk, one of the singers most associated with the music of Benjamin Britten, has died aged 82. Liverpool-born, Shirley-Quirk started his musical life playing the violin. It was as a student at Liverpool University, where he read chemistry and physics, that he started to study singing and worked with Austen Carnegie (he would also go on to study with Roy Henderson). He later taught chemistry at Acton Technical College (later Brunel University).
He sang as a Vicar Choral at St Paul's Cathedral and at the same time made his Glyndebourne debut as the Doctor in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. As a member of the English Opera Group between 1964 and 1976 he worked closely with Britten. (Talking to Alan Blyth in Gramophone in January 1972, Shirley-Quirk said of the EOG that 'this has certainly been the most important part of my career. I don't think that there's a higher standard of performance anywhere else in the world. Everything is as right as it can be within the limitations of the time devoted to any production'.) Among the Britten works he created were Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi and the multiple baritone roles in Death in Venice (both recorded for Decca). Britten wrote the part of Spencer Coyle in Owen Wingrave for Shirley-Quirk: as the composer said in an interview with Gramophone in June 1970, 'I always think of the voice, personality, appearance, nature of the singer when I'm writing a part'. He would also create the role of Lev in Sir Michael Tippett's The Ice Break.
He appeared with many of the world's great orchestras and opera companies and recorded extensively. He appears on the Solti Mahler Eighth (Decca), Britten's own recordings of Peter Grimes (as Mr Redburn - Decca) and Curlew River (Ferryman - Decca) and his recordings of Bach's St John Passion and Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (Decca), Delius's Requiem (Meredith Davies - EMI), Vaughan Williams's Five Mystical Songs (Willcocks - EMI) and Pilgrim's Progress (Boult - EMI), Haitink's Mahler Songs from 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' (Philips), Wolf's Italian Songbook with Dame Janet Baker (ICA Classics), Abbado's LSO disc of Stravinsky's Pulcinella (DG), Richard Strauss's Feuersnot (Leinsdorf - DG) and Sir Colin Davis's multi-voice recording of Berlioz's Le nuits d'été (Philips) among much else. As a recitalist he often worked with the pianist Martin Isepp and was one of the few singers to introduce the songs from the stage, something that created a wonderful atmosphere at his concerts.
He was awarded the CBE in 1975 and latterly taught at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music.