Opera North’s enterprising programme for the Howard Assembly Room has its esoteric moments, but here we had a conventional chamber music concert – well, only slightly unconventional! The stage lay-out was notable for seven illuminated Christmas trees and the absence of chairs for the violinists and viola player – just a stool on a small podium for the cellist.
This is the Brodsky String Quartet, the quartet that plays standing up! If the intention is to increase expressiveness and involvement with the other musicians, it certainly worked. The understanding between the players no doubt also has something to do with the fact that the quartet is 50 years old next year, formed by school friends in Middlesbrough at an absurdly early age. Two of them, Ian Belton on second violin and cellist Jacqueline Thomas, are still with the quartet. Violist Paul Cassidy joined in the early 1980s and the only newcomer, Krysia Osostowicz (first violin), is a long-time associate of the other members. This closeness registered in the alert responses to each other and the subtlety of the internal group dynamics.
A programme full of contrasts began with Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for solo violin in an arrangement by Paul Cassidy. As Krysia Osostowicz implied in her introduction, it is difficult to imagine this piece as played by a single instrument, especially in the mighty fugue of the second movement. Cassidy’s version spread the swirling patterns between the four instruments, each taking its turn to lead into the next stage of the fugue’s development. A dancing allegro finale established a sunny mood, about to be dispersed.
Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 is, as Osostowicz pointed out, overwhelmingly autobiographical. Though the composer tried to blur the issue by dedicating it to all victims of oppression, it is clearly about one victim of oppression – himself, at a time (1960) when he had finally been forced to become a member of the Communist Party. Five short movements lead into each other without a break. The Brodskys’ poignant performance revealed no trace of optimism, but plenty of contrasts, from the near-silence of despair to violent fury in slashing strokes from the cello.
After the interval Schubert’s String Quintet only went so far to restore the sunny mood. Written shortly before his tragically early death, it’s an imposing work (over 50 minutes), almost symphonic in tone at times, and Schubert’s famed gift for serene melody has to take its place alongside more turbulent passages, even in the lyrical second movement. The blithely dancing Scherzo leads into a deeply introspective Trio – and so it goes on.
The Brodskys were joined for this by acclaimed young cellist Laura van der Heijden, Schubert favouring the fairly unusual two-cello model for a string quintet. Sometimes doubling the cello part for a deeper, darker feel, more often going its own way, frequently as a sort of pizzicato commentator on the melody line, the second cello part was never predictable. Osostowicz was eloquent in the frequently passionate first violin part, van der Heijden totally at home in the ensemble.
A fine performance, building to an exciting finale, led to an encore of a Pablo Casals favourite, Song of the Birds, again arranged by Cassidy, the two cellos in charge of the lyrical folk melody while the others twittered in the trees. The serenity finally arrived!
Reviewed on December 9th 2021