Brodsky Quartet: From the Art of Fugue to Shostakovich

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Published: 24th May, 2019

The Brodsky Quartet, veterans of the quartet genre and champions of creative collaborations and with over 45 years experience, performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Monday 6th May a concert titled The Art of Fugue.

I had high expectations, given their inventive history with The Juliet Letters, modern lieder for male voice (Elvis Costello) and string quartet and Hyperballad with Bjork.

The premise of the concert was perfect – a survey of the treatment of fugues by the great composers: JS Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Shostakovich.

However the art of interpretation of JS Bach’s The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 Contrapunctus I and Contrapunctus VI, a 4 in Stylo Francese seemed to be looking backward from the romantic era rather than forward from the Renaissance, bypassing the decades of widely accepted, historically informed performance practice. Vibrato gave a warm tone and slurs found their way to places that seem unlikely given the current practice.

With Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue, K546, it seemed that the quartet moved into slightly more familiar territory. The feather touch of the viola and cello were magical and the mood was at times tempestuous – a serious side of Mozart we don’t hear often. The lighter side of Mozart seemed to be missing, perhaps owing to the very smooth red-wine-like maturity of their gorgeous and, undoubtedly, very old instruments.

Violist Paul Cassidy gave a brief overview of their rationale for choosing the program inspired by the greats, noting that playing Mendelssohn was like getting to play Bach in a Romantic way; like you play it at home in your lounge room. This gave a clue about their performance of the Bach. He excused the group from playing another JS Bach arrangement of the fugue from Sonata No.3 in C, BWV1005, saying it had not made it into his suitcase.

Mendelssohn’s 4 pieces for string Quartet, Op.81, Fuga, A tempo ordinario was described tongue-in-cheek as “little”, but of course proved to be nothing of the kind. Skillfully played with Cassidy physically repositioning when his viola line joined with the second violin of Ian Belton or the cello of Jacqueline Thomas. It ended with a contemplative stillness leaving no room for applause, but instead pages were quietly turned and they launched into Beethoven.

The Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 by Beethoven was at times furious and insistent with dotted rhythms punctuating the atmosphere and was ably led by Gina McCormack, the new violinist joining the quartet. She was technically superb, however it felt like she was a little at arms-length from the other members both physically and musically. As Cassidy had suggested earlier, this work must have challenged audiences during Beethoven’s time, and its timelessness is evident in that it continues to be a complex and involved listen, even to modern ears.

It was only after interval that I felt that the quartet truly came into its own with Shostakovich’s String Quartet in C minor, Op. 110, No. 8. The masterful interpretation of this work was a pleasure to behold – the range of tone, articulation and dynamic was wide and I cannot remember hearing a more sensitive rendition of this cornerstone of the repertoire. It is easy to understand why the Brodsky Quartet is known for its versions of Shostakovich’s string quartets – a reputation well deserved.

The cello playing of Jacqueline Thomas deserves special mention and her high “E” held in the Allegretto of the Shostakovich had a whole life of its own – magical. The quartet’s instruments are obviously extremely good. However the viola was so deep, resonant and at times woolly, that I felt it got lost a little in the mix.

The small audience was appreciative of the performance of these fine musicians and I was happy to have seen this long-standing quartet live. For their Shostakovich, I will be eternally grateful.

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Bronwen Whyatt reviewed the Brodsky Quartet at the Melbourne Recital Center on May 6, 2019.