Quintessential music-making from the Brodskys

Chamber Music New Zealand 2015 presents:

Music by Purcell, Britten, Bartok and Beethoven

PURCELL – Chaconne in G Minor (arr.Britten)
BRITTEN – Poeme (2nd Mvt. of String Quartet in F Major 1928)
BARTOK – String Quartet No.5 SZ 102
BEETHOVEN – String Quartet in C-sharp Minor Op.131

Daniel Rowland, Ian Belton (violins)
Paul Cassidy (viola), Jacqueline Thomas (‘cello)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 26th March 2015

Reading about the Brodsky Quartet brings much pleasure and a few surprises: the group was formed thirty-five years ago in Manchester, and was named after Adolf Brodsky, the great nineteenth-century Russian violinist notable for premiering Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in 1881, and whose career eventually took him to Manchester, in England, where he became Principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music. Two of the original Quartet are still with the group, Ian Belton and Jacqueline Thomas – Paul Cassidy joined in 1982 and Daniel Rowland in 2007.

This is the Quartet’s third visit to this country – the group was here in 1994 for the International Festival of the Arts that year, and in 1998 toured the country with Chamber Music New Zealand. After seventeen years it was high time that the group returned – and as a result of hearing this concert I find myself hoping that I won’t have to wait for another seventeen years before encountering these remarkable musicians performing live again.

In this concert the group for me ticked the boxes which defined a well-rounded concert experience for chamber music enthusiasts – two string quartet classics, each with aspects in common, though from different centuries, were presented, along with two lesser-known, but utterly distinctive pieces, again composed in completely separate times, but linked by certain circumstances. It was programming whose connections offset the wide range of differences of the various pieces in term of style and language.

The first “pairing” came with the two opening works on the programme – first was Purcell’s Chaconne in G Minor, played in an arrangement for quartet by one of the composer’s most recent and famous devotees, Benjamin Britten. A Chaconne is a French courtly dance in which the basic harmonic pattern of the piece supports any number of melodic variations, giving rise to wonderful invention on the part of various composers who’ve written examples for various instruments.

The Purcell was followed by – indeed, actually linked to the second work on the programme, with we in the audience so completely spellbound by the music and playing to even think of applauding after the first piece – it was a magical moment when Britten’s music simply grew out of the silence that followed the Purcell. This work was a movement from an early Quartet in F Major by Britten, the material reworked by the composer into one of three Poemes for String Quartet – this movement is marked Andante. I thought it an absolutely stunning piece – a magical sound-world, not unlike the kinds of ambiences the composer created in some of his choral works to create atmosphere, such as the falling snow effect in “A Boy Was Born” – there were equally beautiful equivalents here. The music in fact gave the impression of being refracted through a dream, thanks in part to a wonderfully other-world-like ostinato figure, from the second violin.

The Brodsky Quartet’s leader Daniel Rowland, talked about the relationship between these two works, calling Purcell’s work “contemporary” in its freedom of expression, and emphasizing the inspiration the music must have been to Britten (who as a conductor made a recording of the work). The playing of the Purcell seemed timeless in its effect – because it comes into the category of “early music” the players were sparing with their vibrato in the manner that’s become accepted “period practice”, but were otherwise very free and subtle with the treatment of Purcell’s theme – very forthright voicing in places, making for great tensions, but with some magical soft playing towards the end of the piece, the final few bars creating a hypnotic effect that carried through the silences and into the beginning of the Britten which followed.

By contrast the Bartok which was next on the programme was less concerned with creating atmosphere, and much more about expressing essential elements of a distinctive musical language, strong rhythmic character, closely-worked harmonic and contrapuntal voices and cliff-face contrasts of mood and expression. The very opening of the work goes from terse unisons from groups of instruments to stamping rhythms, and then to a chromatic, somewhat eerie section played in canon – Bartok gives the listener these three contrasting ideas boldly and directly, then works them together in a full-on, abrasive way!

It seems to me that these works have a Beethoven-like quality in that they don’t employ any “padding” – the ideas are delivered straight-from-the shoulder, and in less-than-comfortable ways, making for the sort of effect that contemporaries of Beethoven used to complain about with his later music. Bartok is as wide-ranging as Beethoven, though in that he gives the listener plenty of contrast, both within single movements and in the individual movements’ differing character. In this quartet, the second and fourth movements have elements of the “night music” sounds that Bartok became known for. And in this quartet’s case in between these two movements Bartok wrote a scherzo movement as humourful and bucolic as any Beethoven wrote in a similar vein, one called “Alla bulgarese” – in the Bulgarian style. You could hear the folk-tune flavorings in the snappy rhythmic figurations – wonderful energies, at one and the same time music from the soil, yet given a kind of timeless, universal quality – which I think is a mark of greatness.

I couldn’t help thinking that same thought while going through the incredible journey that Beethoven took us in his Op.131 Quartet which finished the programme. It’s always seemed odd to me that people both contemporaneous with and in the years immediately after Beethoven simply couldn’t fathom his late music. I know there are music-lovers who still have difficulty with coming to grips with some of the works, like the Grosse Fugue and the Hammerklavier Sonata, but the general reaction even to these works is that they are masterpieces and their language is accessible. Bartok is a kind of modern-day equivalent, though perhaps not a contemporaneous one – there’s music which has been written since Bartok which is more likely to draw forth responses similar to what Beethoven’s music got from some of his contemporaries – such as fellow composer Carl Maria von Weber’s opinion upon hearing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that the latter was “fit for the madhouse”. There’s no doubt Bartok makes you work at listening – but, of course, if you’re fully engaged, Beethoven makes you work as well!

To my ears the Brodskys were lyrical and expansive in appropriate places, but dealt with the music’s more vigorous sections in a fairly straight, no-nonsense and unrhetorical way – whereas other groups of late I’ve heard tend to emphasize the composer’s “angular” quality. Basically I thought they didn’t make a “meal” out of anything, except that I did find the leader in the first movement had a tendency to slide between some of his notes in places that gave a slight sentimental air to the music which it didn’t need – the other thing is that if only one person in a group is doing that there’s a discrepancy of phrasing, of texture, of unanimity in places – he only indulged occasionally, and he “tightened” his phrasing as the performance moved through its different sequences. As for the group as a whole, I thought, their playing had a purposeful grip of the music which simply never let go – and even though the dotted rhythms of the finale were occasionally hurried, and their “snap” glossed over ever so slightly, the performance’s overall drive carried the music irresistibly forward.

During this performance of the Beethoven, I think the expression “in thrall” would have best described the audience response – as the work unfolded, with movement after movement following without a break, there was engendered a growing sense of undertaking a journey, far-flung, rich and strange, encountering all kinds of quixotic encounters and occasional difficulties and well as moments of deep and rich reflection. The effect at its conclusion was that we “snapped out of it” and reacted as if waking from a wonderful dream, but a very immediate and visceral dream. The Quartet players never overdid any aspect of the music, but kept it tailored to a greater purpose, the result being a cumulative effect of the kind which kept the music playing in my head long after the actual concert sounds had ceased. In sum, I thought, as stated above using different words, that the Brodskys gave us a quintessential chamber music experience.

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