The Brodsky Quartet: In Time Of War

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tanaka, Schulhoff, Shostakovich, Brubeck, Crumb: Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland & Ian Belton [violins], Paul Cassidy [viola], Jacqueline Thomas [cello]), Kings Place, London, 18.11.2018. (CS)

Brodsky Quartet (c) Martina Simkovicova
Brodsky Quartet (c) Martina Simkovicova

Karen Tanaka (b.1961) – At the grave of Beethoven (1999)
Erwin Schulhoff – String Quartet No.1 (1924)
Dmitri Shostakovich – String Quartet No.8 in C minor
Dave Brubeck
Regret (2001)
George Crumb (b.1929) – Black Angels (Images I)

After all the Requiems, settings of the WWI poets, and other cultural rituals of remembrance, this London Chamber Music Society recital, In Time of War, by the Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place was characteristically idiosyncratic and insightful, challenging and refreshing.

Though their eclectic programme brought together varied responses to wars from the last hundred years, focusing our attention on grief, loss, regret and anger, there was no morbidity, only deep reflection – and, joy in shared music-making informed by the knowledge and consolation that from human cruelty, conflict and suffering can come creative expression, reconciliation and redemption.  The Brodsky’s natural ease in each other’s musical company – it’s astonishing to think that they have been performing together since 1972 – exercised a powerful influence on my response to these works that sometimes probe into disturbing expressive realms.  This was a performance that was technically rigorous and expressively taxing, but the Brodsky struck a mesmerising balance between the intensity of their engagement and the relaxed composure of their delivery.

They began with a work which they commissioned in 1999, from Japanese-born, Paris-domiciled composer Karen Tanaka, whose music – to judge from At the grave of Beethoven ­– is unjustly neglected in the UK.  Tanaka was one of six composers whom the Brodsky Quartet asked to write a piece to be played alongside Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets and her homage is to the third – in D major and perhaps the most genial in spirit – of Beethoven’s set of six.  It was fluttered agitation, though, that marked the opening – the work was influenced by Tanaka’s horrified response to the war in the Balkans in the late 1990s – but the tone was warm and subsequently a quiet pedal from the cello and the developing repetitive patterns brought a sense of equanimity.  The elegiac lyricism of the harmonic unfoldings of the second movement was marked by a tautness of textural blend allied with a relaxed tone, as the music searched, wandered and finally found peace.

I am not very familiar with the music of Erwin Schulhoff who, born in 1894 to a German-Jewish family, later took Soviet citizenship and, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in early 1939, was deported to a concentration camp in Wülzburg where he died of tuberculosis in August 1942.  Now I want to hear more.  As if in denial of this tragic personal history, Schulhoff’s First String Quartet is full of life-loving energy, zest, humour and a spirit of adventure.  The Brodsky Quartet romped with a brisk and buoyant step through the Presto con fuoco and with a smile on their faces – literally in the case of viola player Paul Cassidy! – as pizzicato effusions rang, buzzed and burred, leading to confident unison exclamations at the close.  The Allegretto con moto was an airier dance, and though the pizzicato again injected a propelling abrasiveness – what power from David Rowland (reminder to self, practise pizzicato …) – the movement was underpinned by an insouciant gracefulness, until the glassy eeriness of the con malinconia grotesca episode intervened.  In the Allegro giocoso alla slovacca folky Slavonic and jazzy vibes merged and mingled with a playful quasi-Shostakovich vigour that was quelled in the Andante molto sostenuto by gentle melodicism and pathos which, so beautifully articulated here, seemed to flow from direct from Schulhoff’s soul.

Dave Brubeck’s Regret, originally composed for string orchestra, expresses (in the composer’s words) ‘a sweet sadness, a longing for lost moments’.  It is a lyrical reflection on the 9/11 attacks and here its sighing semitone fall formed a poignant ‘breath’, before the terrifying explosiveness of George Crumb’s iconic protest against the Vietnam War, Black Angels for electric string quartet (1970), which the composer describes in a note in the score as ‘a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world’.

With the Hall darkened and the stage tinted an apocalyptic red, the numerological symbolism of the work, which is subtitled ‘Thirteen Images from the Dark Land’ and bears the inscription ‘finished on Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970’ at the end of the score, threw a heavy shadow.  The Brodsky Quartet’s delineation of the ‘Thirteen Images’ was meticulous and mesmerising, as the extended performance techniques, instrumental paraphernalia – everything from conventional percussion to water-filled bowls – and indeterminate sound, cast their spell.  The col legno tratto of ‘Bones and Flutes’ was insect-brittle; the tam-tam bellowed as spine-judderingly as the performers’ violent shouts – they used their instrument microphones to amplify spoken outbursts.  Alongside echoes of the musical past – danse macabres, pavanes, sarabands – the ‘pure noise’ was nerve-tingling: the over-pressure of the bow strokes in ‘Devil Music’; the snaps, cracks and screams made by thimble, a glass rod and metal plectrum; the tonal ‘purity’, which is both sweet and terrifyingly unearthly, of the goblet-shaped crystal glasses filled with water in ‘God-music’.

Thankfully perhaps, the Brodsky Quartet resisted Crumb’s instruction that the instruments be amplified to ‘the threshold of pain’ – and the sound seemed to come from front of Hall, whereas a surround-sound effect would have been more visceral – but, to be honest, the result was sufficiently surreal and discomforting.

At the heart of the recital lay Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet – dedicated ‘in remembrance of the Victims of Fascism and War’ and written in just three days while Shostakovich was composing the score for a Soviet film about the ruin of Dresden.  The Brodsky Quartet’s performance was simultaneously beautiful and brutal.  A rich vibrato infused the opening Largo with both emotive honesty and solace, and graininess and gentle eloquence were juxtaposed.   Pianissimo whispers almost disappeared, but just held back from the nihilism of nothingness, the surviving delicate wisps creating tense expectancy.  And from such anticipation sprang the violence of the Allegro molto’s fugue, Rowland launching fearlessly and with rich sincerity of tone towards the uppermost reaches of the G-string.  Stabbing gestures were aggressive yet fulsome of resonance, but in the following Allegretto there was a terrible sense that things could become unhinged, the dry etchings tumbling into histrionic anarchy.  Of course, they did not, sarcastic accenting and growling being tempered by ironic elegance, and the tugging cross-rhythms balancing perfectly.  But, the drones of violence plunged deep into the listener’s body and spirit in the following Largo, where lyricism and anger collided.  At the close of the final movement the Brodsky eschewed vibrato but still their pppp hush was warm and had a life-spirit which was both consoling and inspiring.

Claire Seymour

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