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Wolf, Puccini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky: The Brodsky Quartet, Cadogan Hall, London, 2.7.2009 (GDn)

Wolf: Italian Serenade

Puccini: Crisantemi

Verdi: String Quartet in E minor

Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence, String Sextet in D major, Op.70

Light and breezy Italian airs suffused this evening’s Brodsky Quartet concert; the perfect fare to round off a spectacular summer’s day. The theme of chamber music with an Italian flavour presented each of the composers in an unusual light, the Italians – Puccini and Verdi – making rare forays into the string quartet medium, and the non-Italians – Wolf and Tchaikovsky - taking respite from their habitual gloom through visits to the country.

The Brodsky Quartet have always seemed to me a very democratic ensemble, taking turns to introduce the works for example, and standing so that the players can as easily swivel round to follow the cello as take a lead from the first violin. But in this evening’s concert a strict hierarchy was observed with the first violin, Daniel Rowland, clearly dictating the proceedings. Puccini and Verdi both benefit from this approach, as neither is able to fully shake off the operatic protocol of a lyrical solo line accompanied by a subordinate ensemble. In Puccini’s Crisantemi, the first violin carries the cantabile melody throughout, and Rowland found the ideal tone, styling his articulation and phrasing to the conventions of the bel canto voice. And Puccini’s accompanying textures are magnificent. The work is a lament for a close friend, and the spacious homophonic textures that often underpin the melody add liturgical solemnity to the plaintive tone.

Verdi’s String Quartet in E minor shows a greater determination to move away from operatic rhetoric and into truly instrumental composition. It is a bold attempt, but he never fully rises above this internal tension, and the work remains in a constant state of flux between operatic arioso and structural functionality. The Brodskys’ approach is to emphasise the operatic, to let the music sing, even as the composer attempts to suppress his lyrical urges. Again, the leadership from the first violin invoked a sense of theme and accompaniment, even when the material is distributed more evenly. Verdi himself may well have preferred a more academic approach to the performance of this music, but whatever the composer’s intentions, but by letting the music sing, the Brodskys seemed perfectly attuned to the quartet’s operatic origins.

Both Hugo Wolf and Peter Tchaikovsky found solace from their troubled lives in Italy, and the similarities between their Italian souvenirs is striking. They shared a profound gift for melody, more often employed to express angst than contentment, but the Italian climate brought out the brighter side in both of them, resulting in two undisputable masterpieces for string ensemble. The leadership of the first violin was again very much in evidence in Wolf’s Italian Serenade, although this too is the work of a composer more accustomed to writing for voice and accompaniment than for chamber ensemble. But for all that, his instrumentation is strikingly original, creating continuously fascinating inside movement without ever distracting the ear from the melodic surface.

Souvenir de Florence
was the keynote work of the concert’s Italian theme. No conflicts here between genres, or between cultures, or even between the composer’s own incompatible artistic aims. Tensions exist beneath the surface, or course, but it is a testament to Tchaikovsky’s genius that, when required to do so, he can suppress all this baggage and invite us to share the contentment of his holiday mood. The Brodsky Quartet have developed a certain choreography in the years that they have played standing. There are sways and turns, stamps and kicks. Some of this has musical significance, co-ordinating entries and so on, but most of it does not. The viola and cello player who joined the ensemble to make up Tchaikovsky’s sextet (but whose names did not make it to the programme) both seemed auxiliary for their lack of physical movement. Their contribution to the musical ensemble fitted well enough, but the visual impression was definitely of a quartet with additions.

The Tchaikovsky, like all of the works, was interpreted to emphasise the lightness of the music. By turns melodic and decorative, but rarely profound. There were moments in the slow movement, and in the slow movement of the Verdi, where deep feeling was obviously passed over, the rubato and agogic variability required to let this music breathe denied in the name of summer cheer. Relaxed, carefree playing was the order of the day. The unfortunate, and probably inevitable, by-product was a lack of precision, with both intonation and ensemble occasionally veering towards the approximate. This came as a surprise, given the immaculate standards routinely expected of string quartets these days. It’s not a big grumble, and the problems were only occasional. But they came close to compromising the integrity of these relaxed interpretations, making the admirably carefree seem complacently blazé.

Gavin Dixon

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