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The Brodsky String Quartet – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

This was a double celebration: the Brodsky Quartet is 50 years old (two of the members are originals and one dates from 1982) and they were once again mounting their acclaimed performance of the entire body of Shostakovich string quartets, 15 in all.

Between Saturday and Sunday, at a rate of two or three per concert, they covered all 15 in six concerts. Your reviewer, lacking the stamina of the Brodskys, attended three concerts, the first two covering the first six quartets, and the final one, with Numbers 10 and 15 – the programme was planned more or less chronologically, but with small variations to balance the concerts.

The first characteristic of these concerts was the quality of the introductions to the individual quartets. Many of us have suggested before that the spoken word is too often missing at classical concerts; here the role was passed around between the members of the quartet and the insights into Stalinist Russia, Shostakovich’s life at that point and the history of the Brodskys, as well as hints on what to listen for, proved invaluable – and the glow of genuine enthusiasm for Shostakovich’s music proved infectious.

Saturday morning offered Numbers 1-3 in chronological order. Number 1, written at the age of 32 when Shostakovich already had several symphonies behind him, was indeed as child-like as the introduction suggested, with only a touch of drama in the second movement and a playful mood established in the breakneck final movement.

The second quartet sees Shostakovich in contradictory mood, replacing simplicity with flamboyance, playfulness with intensity, and here the virtuosity of the Brodsky Quartet came into its own. First violin Krysia Osostowicz brought out the beauty of the second movement, a Romance that, typically for Shostakovich, suggests its Jewish origins. The final movement reveals a familiar trait in Shostakovich, the melodically simple opening that imperceptibly becomes more and more complicated, more dramatic.

String Quartet No. 3 rounded off the lunch-time concert with contrasts ringing in our heads. On the one hand the underlying theme is of the coming of war – it was composed just after the Second World War in 1946. On the other hand it begins by depicting the pre-war world with a delightful tongue-in-cheek humour. The power of Paul Cassidy’s viola and Jacqueline Thomas’ cello in the haunted Funeral March lent a sombre note to our lunch-time refreshments.

The afternoon session saw a rearrangement of the chronological to finish with No. 5 – and, indeed, it’s hard to imagine what could have followed this. In only three movements, it’s a work on a monumental scale, testimony to Shostakovich’s love for his pupil Galina Ustvolskaya. It begins with his own motto, soon giving way to a huge climax based on a quotation from Galina’s Clarinet Trio. It’s a remarkable work, impassioned (and performed with equal passion) with a wonderful second movement, coldly perfect, barely moving forward at all.

The Sixth Quartet, good-humoured (possibly in response to the death of Stalin) and the superb Fourth made up the first half of the afternoon session. The Fourth again draws on Jewish themes, with dances that merge sad and happy in tempos that are never quite as fast as you anticipate, and a horrific eerie dance sequence that conjures up horrific visions.

After a day off it was wonderful to find the Brodskys as perky as ever for the final two quartets. Number 10, dedicated to composer Miecyslaw Weinberg and the result of a wager as to who would complete ten string quartets first, it seems to contain everything within it. After a pastoral opening the second movement explodes on the listener, the violins of Osostowicz and Ian Belton playing higher and higher, Cassidy and Thomas attacking the notes with ever more ferocity. Before the end we have had a beautiful passacaglia, the distant sound of an army from the viola and a gentle fading out over a repeated figure.

Then finally we had Number 15, described as a “towering commentary on life and death”. Six movements, all of themadagio, are played without a break. From the opening fugue to the final epilogue, the default mode sees all four musicians playing together in hypnotic music of great depth. Along the way a terrifying series of shrieks from all the instruments breaks the mood and the fifth movement is a Funeral March. This piece clearly means much to the Brodskys who played it with subdued passion to a silent audience.

The concerts were billed as “a unique musical journey” which seems the best summing up of the occasion.

Reviewed on 17th and 18th January 2024

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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