United Kingdom Schubert, Webern, Zemlinsky, Beethoven: The Brodsky Quartet, St Nicholas Church, High Bradfield, Sheffield, 25.6.2015 (JK)
Schubert: “Quartetsatz”, D703
Webern: 6 Bagatelles, opus 9
Zemlinsky: Fourth Quartet
Beethoven: String Quartet, No. 13 in B♭ major, opus 130
The picturesque setting of Bradfield Parish Church has been attracting audiences and performers alike for many years. And the promise of yet another high quality performance by the Brodsky String Quartet attracted a full house.
The quartet has remained remarkably unchanged over the past decades. Only the addition of Daniel Rowland as first violin about eight years ago altered my memory of this fine ensemble from when I last heard them in the distant past. His virtuosic playing was certainly one of the most endearing attractions of the evening. His athletic approach was matched by his much older colleagues as they gave a sprightly rendition of the Schubert.
The choice of the Webern was probably misjudged. The Six Bagatelles requires intense listening – preferably uninterrupted by off-stage noise. However, the knowledge that the performance was to be in a medieval church packed with a largely elderly audience could have given the quartet a clue as to what to include in their fine performance. Coughing, spluttering and the wriggling of people uncomfortable on wooden pews rather distracted those who were trying to follow Webern’s sparse narrative.
The Zemlinsky was a magnificent revelation to all those who were unaware of the work. The high romantic flavour (something between Berg and Debussy) suited the style of a quartet now led by Daniel Rowland. The dramatic, rapid movements were accomplished with aplomb and the three slower movements took the audience to a universe into which the heartbroken Zemlinsky invited us. It was here that the quartet were at their very best – no longer interpreters but acting as the composer’s own voice.
After the interval the audience were promised one of Beethoven’s most complex and challenging late quartets. The first movement was an accomplished account where the composer’s clear dynamic markings were faithfully followed to introduce us into his thoughts and aspirations. The presto was a moment of clear enjoyment by all the players with the strange chromatic downward scales disorientating the listeners just in case they thought Beethoven was simply having fun. The quartet led us through the complex variations of the third movement as if they were taking us to somewhere worthwhile. And they did! The Danza Tedesca was presented in all its ambiguity, beautiful but somehow in an alien landscape. A superb performance!
Things began to go wrong in the Cavatina. This must be one of the most difficult movements in all the quartet repertoire to pull off. The pristine clarity of this Beethoven masterpiece is finely balanced by the profound feelings expressed in the writing. The temptation to express oneself whilst playing is enormous. But by doing so the player places himself between the listener and the composer. Daniel Rowland’s natural romantic expressiveness gave us a lot more portamento and slides than the music required. As a result, much of the pristine qualities of the Cavatina were lost. The famous beklemmt section passed as merely a temporary break in the opportunities to play the passionate first subject again. The prayer-like atmosphere that the Brodskys could have summoned up in this ancient church were lost.
How to finish Opus 130 has remained a subject of hot contention ever since Beethoven provided an alternative ending when his initial composition concluded with the jaw-dropping Grosse Fuge. After the wondrous Cavatina, only something as groundbreaking as that could have been written. For some, failure to play the fugue would be like not playing the Chaconne at the end of Bach’s 2nd Violin Partita. Of course, Bach gives us no alternative ending whereas Beethoven, at the behest of his publisher, decided to give us a throwaway finale that harks back more to Haydn than forward into the Grosse Fuge’s far future. The Brodskys gave us the throwaway. They played it quickly which, according to my neighbours, was a relief as the pews were becoming extremely uncomfortable. But I was left feeling that, for the first time in my life, audience seating was in some way determining what was being played.
What I will take away from this balmy evening set high up in the lovely countryside of Bradfield was a storming performance of a Zemlinsky quartet that I would like to hear again.