United Kingdom MacMillan, Haydn: Brodsky Quartet (Gina McCormack & Ian Belton [violins], Paul Cassidy [viola], Jacqueline Thomas [cello]), St John’s Smith Square, London, 15.4.2019. (CS)
Macmillan – To Sonny; Momento
Haydn – Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross/Die Worte des Erlösers am Kreuze Op.51
Extinction Rebellion protestors may have brought the roaring lanes of Parliament Square’s ‘race track’ to a standstill (though no one seemed to have told the Formula 1 cyclists forming life-threatening pelotons surging alongside the Palace of Westminster), but once inside the quiet nave of St John’s Smith Square it was not worldly strife but spiritual reconciliation and redemption which were our concerns, in this Holy Week Festival performance by the Brodsky Quartet.
The website of the 47-year-old Brodsky Quartet currently announces that ‘Gina McCormack will join the Brodsky Quartet in May 2019’ replacing ‘Daniel Rowland who leaves to pursue a solo career after twelve wonderfully diverse years with us’. We’re still in April, but McCormack was ‘in position’ at St John’s, and this intense, sometimes reverential, sometimes rhetorical programme gave us a good opportunity to see how new musical relationships were developing.
Rowland was a charismatic leader: his technical brilliance was matched by an idiosyncratic theatricality. In recent years, the Brodsky Quartet’s performances have been lit as much by the energies that jangled between the constituent players, as by the consummately prepared details and subtleties of their interpretations. McCormack is a less exuberant performer, but no less focused – there is a steely intensity about her playing, which is softened by her clean, pure tone, and a relaxed technical assurance. After a single performance of limited repertoire, it’s impossible to essay judgements, but it seemed to me that somehow, slightly, the synergies of the Quartet had changed: viola player Paul Cassidy, in particular, seemed to play with particular freedom on this occasion. Time will tell, and I look forward to hearing the new partnerships blossom; it’s not a case of better or worse, rather of new routes which will be creative, liberating and communicative.
The programme at St John’s was, in any case and inevitably, constrained by its context. Remembrance, reflection and ritual were at its core. We began with two works by James MacMillan, a composer known for his vocal support of Scotland’s Catholic minority, and a passionate advocate of the need for the ‘sacred’ in art and in life.
For Sonny, composed in 2011, is an elegy for a friend’s son who died soon after birth. McCormack’s pizzicato repetitions – a simple, child-like motif that rises and falls with an unwavering innocence – were nudged, questioned, then hectored by grief-stricken voices which were first quizzical, then querulous. Rhythms moved freely and lightly initially; then the chords accrued weight, harmonies acquired aggressive tints, and the lower three string voices summoned a graininess and an angry energy expressed in vigorously lifted bows.
A five-minute distillation of grief, For Sonny was deeply moving, and Memento shares its lamenting spirit. Based on a Gaelic lament, it was written for David Huntley, who worked for Boosey and Hawkes before his untimely death in 1994, and exploits pentatonic modality in haunting fashion. There was a striking poise about the Brodsky Quartet’s placement of the imitative opening motifs, which ‘crunch’ together at close intervals, and though there was a gradual easing as the musical landscape broadened, there was never relaxation. The heterophonic gestures are statements rather than explorations; and the Brodsky Quartet successfully established structure and ‘shape’ even though stasis seemed to prevail. More than this, harmonics and glissandi came not from the fingers, or even the throat, but from the heart – a powerful, sometimes painful, tribute to a departed friend.
Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross followed (MacMillan composed his own Seven Last Words on the Cross in 1993). Originally orchestral meditations (passioni instrumentale) on the final utterances of Christ on the Cross drawn from the four Gospels, commissioned by Cádiz Cathedral for performance on Good Friday in 1786 or 1787, the Seven Last Words were subsequently crafted by Haydn into three further forms: a string quartet, a choral-orchestral oratorio and a piano solo.
One thing that was immediately noticeable about the Brodsky Quartet’s performance was its poised Classicism and restraint; what one might describe as a Mozartian purity. The nave of St John’s is a large space, but this performance was intimate, drawing in the small audience. Yes, there was ‘theatre’ but it was of the ritual kind; and the unceasing concentration almost dared the listener to let their attention drift.
It’s interesting to reflect that the first ‘performance’ of the Seven Last Words was inherently ‘theatrical’. In his preface to the 1801 vocal version of the work, Haydn described how in the church at Cádiz, ‘the following arrangements contributed a great deal. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were covered with black cloth, and only one large lamp, hanging in the centre, illuminated the sacred darkness. At noon all the doors were closed, and the music began. After a spoken prelude, suited to the occasion, the bishop ascended the pulpit and pronounced one of the Seven Words, and delivered a reflection upon it. When it was finished, he descended from the pulpit and knelt down before the altar. This interval was filled by music. The bishop ascended and descended the pulpit a second, a third time, and so on; and each time the orchestra filled in at the end of the discourse.’
What this description, reproduced somewhat indulgently here, confirms is that the seven adagios – nine if one includes the slow introductions to parts one and two – were not intended to unfold in an uninterrupted sequence. To present them in this way present enormous challenges, of structure and tempo, for the performers. The Brodsky Quartet were fairly swift; with the ecclesiastical lessons and ritual prostrations of the priest, the Good Friday liturgy must have been protracted, but here there was a fluidity of melodic utterance, a sense of inevitable development and progress. Harmonic explorations did offer moments of warmth and delicacy – though one could imagine a performance that was more consoling – and the sound was suspended in rapt attentiveness, beautifully calibrated and contemplative. There was an over-riding sense of everything being ‘in its place’: Haydn’s archaic rhetoric was less emphatically impressed upon us than a Beethovenian modernity: Es muss sein, and all shall be well.