Friday 19 December 2014

Favourite fifty music: the Brodsky Quartet play Bartok and Beethoven at Kings Place

Brodsky Quartet
Brodsky Quartet
Beethoven, Bartok, Purcell, Britten; Brodsky Quartet; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 11 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Music across four centuries from Kings Place's top 50 classical chamber music works

In 2014 Kings Place have been slowly working their way through the top fifty classical chamber works voted for by the readers of BBC Music Magazine. In the last week of the series, perennial favourites the Brodsky Quartet were in fine form, showing the versatility of strings, playing music from across four centuries.

The top five of the fifty chamber works were Schubert's String Quintet, Mendelssohn's String Octet, Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet, Mozart's Clarinet Quintet K581, and Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 130. Tonight's offerings were Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 131 (10th on the list) and Bartók's String Quartet No. 5 (voted at no. 35). The aggression of the Bartók and the romantic leanings of the Beethoven were balanced by the minimal 'Chaconne in G minor' by Purcell and youthful 'Poeme' by Britten.

The Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton on violin, Paul Cassidy on viola and Jacqueline Thomas on cello) were founded in 1972. Like most music groups there have been changes of personnel over the years, but two of the original members, Ian Belton and Jacqueline Thomas, still play today. This gives the quartet a continuity of style from their early win of the National Festival of Music for Youth, to the world renowned talent we can hear today. Over the years they have collaborated with composers to extend the classical repertoire, and also continue to work with the next generation of composers, writers, artists, and musicians, at schools across the UK.

The concert began with the earliest piece. Henry Purcell's (1659-1695) 'Chacony in G minor Z730' is listed as among his 1680 'Fantasies and In nomines', and a quick look on YouTube will find numerous arrangements, and interpretations - ranging from morbidly melancholy, through spritely, to a staccato gallop. Purcell was born and died in Westminster and is considered to be one of the early definers of an English sound. It is fitting then that when another distinctly English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) used the chaconne in his second string quartet he also arranged the original for string orchestra – and it is this arrangement performed by the Brodsky Quartet.

Here the quartet employed little touches of period ornamentation, shaped notes, and used a range of dynamics and changes in tempo to keep the chaconne alive. The ending was sotto voce, stretching the last suspension, and sliding straight into 'Poeme' by Britten.

Purcell probably wrote the chaconne when he was about 21, but a young Britten wrote 'Three poems' when he was just 13. Not one to waste a good idea the second poem became the inspiration for his quartet in F major written the next year.

Moving into the programmed works – Bela Bartok's (1881-1945) 'String Quartet No. 5', written in 1934, crashed in after all the restraint of the Britten. Neither of these quartets is typical in form. The Bartok has five movements forming an overall arch – revisiting ideas from the first and second movements in the later, especially in the fifth, which was at a furious, accelerating race.

The second movement was full of amorous twitterings and pastoral chords which contrasted with the discords and jazz rhythms of the first. The third, scherzo and trio, movement was full of Bulgarian rhythms led by the cello, and tunes which reminded me more of the American folk of Ives than of Eastern Europe. The andante fourth movement played with sound production: pizzicatos, trills and slides were followed by beautifully stage managed bouncing bows, con legno, and double stopping on one note (to change the quality of sound).

A hundred years earlier (in 1826) Ludwig van Beethoven (1779-1827) wrote his 'String Quartet Op. 131' (although they listed this in the programme as Op. 132 in A minor) Beethoven teased his publisher that the music was 'stolen together from a miscellany of this and that' (taken from the programme notes). With seven movements Beethoven certainly gave himself a chance to explore lots of different styles.

Movement one opened with a C sharp minor fugue. Quiet and refined this was followed by a series of changing combinations, duets and trios, as well as tutti. Daniel Rowland is quite the fan of portamento adding to the romantic sound. The second movement was fast and flowery leading into the heady romance of the third movement, and the theme and variations of the forth. The presto fifth movement settled into a madrigal with a hey-nonny accompaniment to the tune and a light harmonic verse towards the end. The sixth movement harked back to the Purcell with a dotted rhythm lacrimae while the final movement transformed this rhythm into a much faster dance in sonata form.

As always the Brodsky Quartet brought something new and alive to the music, bringing out elements and connections which show their commitment to understanding what the composer had going on in their head.

Next year Kings Place will be 'unwrapping' minimalism – with music old and new, from renaissance to today. You can read a sneak preview here.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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