I missed the previous visit of the world famous Brodsky Quartet to the Lunchtime Series. That was when the Series was in exile at Holy Trinity so I looked forward with keen anticipation to hearing them in the Museum and, for the first time as far as I was concerned, in the flesh.
It was an anticipation that proved to be amply justified. Over 45 years the quartet has built a reputation for having an enormous repertoire and being prepared to build innovative programmes. In this instance the audience was given an early Shostakovich Quartet ,No.4, and Mendelssohn’s rarely played Fugue for string quartet, Op.81 No.4. The concert ended with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge as a stand alone piece and not as the final movement of Quartet Op.130.
The Shostakovich Quartets has been for years one of the central calling cards of this Quartet. They have recorded two complete sets, the second one as recently as 2016. As regards the quartet which they played here , as was the case when the Carducci in the summer performed No. 2 , I cannot say that I remembered anything of the music even though I own a complete recording of the canon. However, suffice it to say, like last summer, the experience was riveting. There is most obviously unforgettably searing pain at the centre of this music, which the Brodsky delivered at the several climaxes in the work with unforgettable power. Perhaps because three of them play standing up, the sound in this intimate space was at times more of a magnitude of a small orchestra than a quartet. In these circumstances one had to wonder how on earth the Soviet authorities could possibly have missed the composer’s raw anger and despair at the world he was forced to live in.
Perhaps the answer lay in another aspect of this performance in that it also found the many moments of poignancy and beauty in the music, particularly in the slow movement and most unforgettably in the final movement with its embracing of the world of Jewish music. With this music’s sense at times of deeply sad mourning and conversely the moments when for instance on one occasion the viola player not only played but seemed to dance like some fiddler on the roof, it brought vividly to one’s imagination the horror of the Holocaust and the attempted complete destruction of a vibrant musical culture.
Whether it was intended or not, the following of that with a piece by Mendelssohn, whose music the Nazis also attempted to extirpate from the Reich, reinforced such lines of thought, particularly since the work clearly paid homage to Bach with writing so characteristic of the composer’s capacity to create music of a unique grace. Such grace permeated the playing. This was a real find.
Then we were pitched without pause directly and dramatically into the Grosse Fuge. The contrast could have hardly been greater, from a composer who for the most part was content to work within the classic norms to one who, as the first violin of the Quartet reminded the audience, so stretched those norms at the end of his life as to be thought by some as ripe for the asylum. Nowhere was that more the case than in this work, about which even Beethoven himself had second thoughts as the final movement of a quartet. As a youth I heard it done for string orchestra under Klemperer (very dim memories of that ) and since then once or twice as the finale of Op. 130. I think this was the first time I have heard it detached and certainly when juxtaposed with another piece of music as here.
Was the juxtaposition successful? Well, for me only partly. Certainly it was a dramatic contrast in a performance that was spectacularly propulsive, coupled, as in the Shostakovich, with a weight of sound that did indeed haul up those dim memories of Klemperer. However, perhaps partly because of the contrasts with Mendelssohn/Bach, that so finely wrought and so lovely , perhaps partly because the impact of the Shostakovich was still with me, I have to admit that I found what I remembered as an extraordinary quarter of an hour’s music becoming ever so slightly wearisome with its emphatic repetition and in this case rather narrow dynamic range. What came over to me at times was music that indeed bordered on the manically obsessive particularly as the fugue careered on. At other times, so fragmentary did the music seem that I struggled to make out where it was going. So, I left not knowing quite what to make of the way things had finished. It did not, however, in anyway erase the many revelations that had preceded it in what overall was a very fine concert indeed.
Footnote: On reaching home I did what I rarely do, and sat down to listen to a CD performance of a work I had just heard live, in this case the Grosse Fuge. I rarely do this because I think it very questionable to compare the live with the recorded. However, all that can be said is that in this instance the work seemed on a second hearing and in this particular performance to have a wider dynamic range and a more varied mood than the one just heard live, all of which contributed to my making better sense of it.