Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Brodsky Quartet @ Wigmore Hall, London

12 November 2006

The one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Schumann’s death has been treated like a diminutive filling dwarfed by two enormous pieces of bread.

Mozart and Shostakovich have been the dominant forces in the concert hall over the past year, and not without great justification.

Perhaps performers and programmers alike are lying in wait for the double-whammy of Schumann’s and Chopin’s bicentenaries in 2010.

Nevertheless, it was refreshing to witness the Brodsky Quartet place the illustrious Leipzig composer’s music side by side with that of the two “birthday-boys”, particularly in a genre at which the former is purportedly less distinguished.

The popularity of Schumann’s A-major String Quartet Op. 41 No. 3 has soared in recent years, amongst both performers and listeners alike. Though it may not boast the same level of intricate craftsmanship found in the finest examples written for the medium, it does possess the highly idiosyncratic voice of the composer, with its sublime melodies and sumptuous harmonic turns. That, in and of itself, sets the quartet apart from any other in the repertoire and is perhaps what makes it so appealing.

The Brodsky Quartet put forward an extremely convincing case for this work’s place in the canon. They clearly had an understanding of, and a love for, the distinctly Schumanneqsue elements of the music. Time was always allowed to thoroughly enjoy the many harmonic suspensions, particularly in the beautiful played Adagio molto. The Allegro molto moderato in the opening movement grew seamlessly out of the introductory Andante espressivo, and always retained a sense of restrained passion. The following Assai agitato presented the most fascinating interpretation, as the performers deftly balanced nervous tension with emotive yearning. The Finale was delivered with foot-tapping aplomb, as the tempo raced along at an alarming rate without sacrificing any of the music’s carefree joie de vivre. Greater variation between the different sections and their reprises would possibly have made for a more memorable performance, as the work was beginning to sound noticeably repetitive towards the end.

One reason for the Brodsky’s success is their visual presence on stage. The violins and viola play the entire concert standing, whilst ‘cellist Jacqueline Thomas sits on a raised platform. It is thrilling to see the flexibility of movement that this stance promotes, and to hear how it transforms one’s aural experience. Body language is such a crucial element of performance, and the extra motion gained from standing only adds vitality to the music and potentially increases one’s appreciation of it.

This is particularly true for the music of Shostakovich which, arguably more than that of any other composer, presents an extraordinary array of emotions at their most extreme. The Brodsky Quartet captured each and every one of these sentiments in a performance of the composer’s String Quartet No. 3 in F major Op. 73 that left the Wigmore Hall audience spellbound. The expressive power of Shostakovich’s writing was matched throughout by the excellence of the players, nowhere more so than in the fourth-movement Adagio. The heart-wrenching passion found here was delivered with an affecting profundity, as the richness of the Brodsky’s tone-colouring served only to accentuate the many dissonances, thus increasing the music’s intensity. Much of the success in the quartet as a whole stemmed from the brilliant, sparkling accompaniments of Ian Belton and Paul Cassidy (second violin and viola respectively), which were often equally as riveting as the melody.

This concert had begun with a delightful account of Mozart’s Quartet No. 17 in B flat major K.458. There was plenty to be admired, from the simple dance quality of the Menuetto, to the mysterious rhetorical “question-and-answer” sessions between Andrew Haveron‘s first violin and the rest of the quartet during the Adagio, to the captivating interplay between all four musicians in the final Allegro assai. Though the opening Allegro vivace assai at times sounded somewhat demure for a “Hunt” (the quartet’s nickname), the overall performance was a more-than-satisfactory experience.

The Brodsky Quartet treated the Wigmore Hall patrons to a surprising encore, namely an arrangement of the “Trumerei” from Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15. It provided a fitting end to a magnificent evening’s music-making by an outstanding chamber music ensemble.

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