Saturday, 8 December 2012

Brodsky Quartet at 40: Angels and Maidens

Brodsky Quartet
As part of their 40 year celebrations last night the Brodsky Quartet performed Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Death and the Maiden and GeorgeCrumb’s (b1929) Black Angels at King’sPlace.

Schubert’s string quartet (no. 14) in D minor D810, also known as ‘Death and the Maiden’, was written in 1824 when Schubert had just been hospitalised with syphilis. As one of his last three string quartets ever written Schubert must have been feeling his mortality – and it is his struggle with impending death which fills this poignant piece.

The name ‘Death and the Maiden’ comes from the song which Schubert wrote seven years earlier, based on a poem by Matthias Claudius. This tune forms the basis of the second movement, and is the theme borrowed by Crumb in Black Angels.


From the start the Brodsky were dramatic and powerful. The violinists (Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton) and Paul Cassidy on viola stood up throughout, allowing them freedom of movement and adding to performance immensely. The cellist Jacqueline Thomas was raised in splendour on a dais so that she was at the same level.  Extreme contrasts in dynamic emphasised the different moods of pride and sweetness between sections in first movement. Embellishments were delicately placed, with perfect balance between the instruments, bringing forward the compositional complexity provided by Schubert which can often get lost.

The beginning of the second lachrymose movement was achingly beautiful. The second theme was all pastoral, flowers and innocence, but with an undertone indicating that all is about to be destroyed. Describing this Paul Cassidy said, “The failing heartbeat which transports one from earthly worries and woes to heavenly contentment is heart-breaking” – and the quartet certainly conveyed it.

The third movement was, again, passionately played, with perfectly placed contrasts between moods in the scherzo and trio. The final tarantella was masterful, always just on the edge of running away, and absolutely the best performance I have ever heard. Brodsky – you have done the impossible and persuaded me that Death and the Maiden is a fantastic piece!

During the interval I chose to stay and watch the stage being set up for Black Angels. The curtains round the top section of the hall were closed, stands for percussion (and glasses) and the electronics rigged. After a brief check that everything was to hand and there was enough space to play while still being able to reach everything the quartet was ready to go.

George Crumb
George Crumb is an American composer interested in extended techniques and new sounds. He first studied music at Mason College of Music in Charleston, then University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and after a brief sojourn with Boris Blacher at the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin, he returned to America to study at the University of Michigan. During the 1960’s and 70’s he wrote primarily for voice and ensembles, many pieces based on the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, including Ancient Voices of Children (1970), Madrigals (1965,69), Night of the Four Moons (1969), and Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1968). Black Angels (1970), like other ensemble pieces, uses amplified instruments and unusual effects to bring a new direction not only to his own composition but to music at the time.

Black Angels is one of my favourite pieces – and (again) the Brodsky did not disappoint. I could have been happy with a little more amplification in the loud sections - but perhaps I have been listening to too many recordings with the volume turned up. I was also surprised that all the sound appeared to come from the front because Hall One in Kings Place has speakers along its length. However there may be a reason for this that is part of the composition.

This performance by Brodsky highlighted the similarities between Black Angels and the Schubert. Even at the start alternate dynamics define different moods, with the instrumental scream pitted against the dry desert of sounds of Bones and Flutes. The effects possible with electric instruments were seamless in execution.

Seeing Black Angels live always brings home the compositional detail which has gone into it. Similarly to the Schubert, little threads of sounds get passed between performers – including the crawling insects, reptilian maracas, and creepy bowed gongs. In the second movement the borrowed themes are brought forward, matching Schubert’s plan.

God music and Ancient Voices are entirely new. Playing with water filled glasses brings an unearthly timbre to the horror – but no respite. Eventually the Electric Insects crawl in, although they too do not stay, and after a brief return to ideas in the first movement the piece fades away.

Never afraid to use dynamics the Brodsky’s approach made Black Angels a deeply moving experience and pushes the contrasts beyond the sweetness and pride of Death and the Maiden, to a chilling edge of madness where God and the devil fight for souls.
review by Hilary Glover


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