The Brodsky Quartet and friends — ‘Close To You II’

brodskyweb.jpg‘Sex And The String Quartet’ is not a widely discussed topic.  However, one of the delights of experiencing chamber music live – as opposed to on record or on the radio – is the interaction between the players:  the vibes, the sparks, the knowing grins, the micro-dramas, the body language.

For example, the Wihan Quartet (see my previous post) consists of four men:  their work ethic seems to be ‘Come on, chaps – let’s roll up our sleeves and go for it’ (with immense musicality and sensitivity, of course).  Conversely, when I heard the Chilingirian Quartet play Dvořák all those years ago, the viola player was the lovely, pale (and pregnant) Louise Williams, and it was touching to observe the tremendously gallant way in which the other three (male) members of the quartet nurtured and cared for her (musically, I mean).

In the Brodsky Quartet, the female member is the cellist, Jacqueline Thomas.  Uniquely, the quartet plays standing up, except for the cellist (yes, I know – ‘you can’t get that under your chin’), so she sits, literally, on a pedestal, with the others standing around her.  The image that came to my mind was of an ice princess surrounded by adoring acolytes (not wishing to be sexist or ‘look-ist’, but Ms Thomas is a strikingly tall and elegant ash blonde – though with a nice twinkle).

To composer Martin Butler, however, the image that came to mind was slightly different:

‘I imagined the four standing players to be acting as sentries, standing guard, keeping watch over the seated cellist and patrolling their space – hence the title. Then a friend pointed me in the direction of the opening scene of Hamlet – with its sentries, its sinister and slightly surreal atmosphere, its ghost, its uncertainty and apprehensiveness – and the flavour of the piece was fixed.’

The resulting work, Sentinels (for the Brodsky Quartet plus an extra viola – tonight John Metcalfe) was arresting and powerful, more challenging than other works by Prof. Butler that I have heard.  Strong, clear, colourful, totally ‘thought through’ – very rewarding.  (if you’re reading this, Martin, I’m sorry not to have met you;  I’ve been listening to the Tin Pan Ballet CD continuously in the car for a month!  Brilliant.)

When you add extra players to a quartet, the number of possible interactions – musical and interpersonal – must multiply geometrically (xkcd must have something to say about this).  With the six players required for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, you are more or less listening to a string orchestra.  I have never managed to warm to this late-Romantic-early-Schoenberg ultra-emotional piece, although I can see and hear its virtues (maybe, for me, it’s just because it isn’t by Richard Strauss).  The Brodskys and friends gave a glorious performance – rich, passionate, sonorous, nuanced – but it didn’t do it for me (nor for my companion).

Then, in the second half, Schubert’s String Quintet – that favourite of Desert Island Discs (and me, of course).  Thanks to my brother Tony’s recent spot on Radio 3’s CD Review, I now realise that there as many ways of interpreting this piece as there are ensembles willing to have a go.

The Brodskys enlisted Sophie Harris on second cello, joining Jacqueline Thomas on that pedestal.  (Hardly two Ice Princesses – the Red Queen and the White Queen, perhaps.  They were certainly having a lot of fun.)  It strikes me that, of all works of chamber music, the Schubert Quintet is the least suitable to be played standing up;  surely we need that Viennese Gemütlichkeit of a comfy armchair, cigar and flagon of beer at elbow (well, maybe not for the ladies).  A strange side-effect was that the three (standing) men tended to clump together, so that there came to be an apparent ‘us-versus-them’ dynamic going on (‘Cellists are from Venus…’?).  This did affect the music making:  in the ‘sublime’ slow movement (I have to call it that because it is, even though it’s the word everyone else uses), the chorale in the three inner voices (2nd violin, viola, 1st cello) should move as a gorgeous, angelic unit, with the other two players adding their comments;  Sophie Harris was unsurpassable in the subtle sympathy of her pizzicato accompaniment, but it didn’t seem strong enough to support the ensemble, and Jacqueline Thomas on the bottom line of the angelic trio overpowered her two colleagues.  It occurred to me, as it had in the Mendelssohn Octet a while ago, that perhaps it would be better if the second cello were to sit on the outside of the circle.

Otherwise – a fine, muscular, delicate and sensitive performance.  And what a glorious sound they make.  Perhaps they overdo the ‘breathless hushed pianissimo’ somewhat – an occasional sense of ‘hey, isn’t this TOO beautiful’ (what did Eric Berne call it?  Ah yes [dashes upstairs to look up ‘Games People Play’] – ‘Greenhouse’…).  But in this piece above all others, that’s forgivable.

Anyway… minor cavils.  A stunning evening of tremendous music-making, in the Cadogan Hall – which is fast becoming the crucible for all my most satisfying musical experiences.  Thanks, Lisa, for the tickets (and the programme-note commissions!!) – and thank you, Loo, for your company.

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picture stolen from SanctuaryClassics.com — thanks!

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