Brodsky String Quartet – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Opera North’s enterprising schedule for the Howard Boardroom has its esoteric moments, but here we had a conventional chamber music concert – well, only slightly unconventional! The layout of the stage was remarkable with seven illuminated Christmas trees and the absence of chairs for the violinists and violist – just a stool on a small podium for the cellist.

It’s the Brodsky String Quartet, the quartet that plays standing up! If the intention is to increase expressiveness and involvement with other musicians, it has certainly worked. The understanding between the players also arguably has something to do with the quartet turning 50 next year, formed by school friends from Middlesbrough at an absurdly early age. Two of them, Ian Belton on second violin and cellist Jacqueline Thomas, are still part of the quartet. Violist Paul Cassidy joined in the early 1980s and the only newcomer, Krysia Osostowicz (concertmaster), is a long-time associate of the other members. This proximity is part of the alert responses to each other and the subtlety of internal group dynamics.

A program full of contrasts began with Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for solo violin in an arrangement by Paul Cassidy. As Krysia Osostowicz hinted in her introduction, it’s hard to imagine this piece being played by one instrument, especially in the powerful fugue of the second movement. Cassidy’s version distributed the swirling patterns among the four instruments, each in turn taking the direction of the next stage in the fugue’s development. a dance allegro finale established a sunny vibe, about to be dispersed.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 is, as Osostowicz has pointed out, essentially autobiographical. Although the composer tried to confuse the subject by dedicating it to all victims of oppression, he is clearly a victim of oppression – himself, at a time (1960) when he was finally coerced to become a member of the Communist Party. Five short movements follow one another without interruption. The Brodskys’ poignant performance revealed no trace of optimism, but plenty of contrasts, from the near silence of despair to the violent fury of the cello strikes.

After the intermission, Schubert’s String Quintet went no further to restore the sunny ambience. Written shortly before his tragically precocious death, it is an imposing work (over 50 minutes), almost symphonic at times, and Schubert’s famous gift for serene melody must take its place alongside more turbulent passages, even in the second lyrical movement. The happily dancing Scherzo leads to a deeply introspective Trio – and so on.

The Brodskys were joined in this by acclaimed young cellist Laura van der Heijden, with Schubert favoring the rather unusual two cello pattern for a string quintet. Sometimes doubling the cello part for a deeper, darker feel, more often than not going its own way, frequently as a sort of pizzicato commentator on the melodic line, the second cello part has never been predictable. Osostowicz was eloquent in the often passionate first violin part, van der Heijden completely at ease on the whole.

A fine performance, leading to an enthralling final, led to a recall of a favorite of Pablo Casals, Birds singing, again arranged by Cassidy, the two cellos in charge of the lyrical folk melody while the others chirped in the trees. Serenity has finally arrived!

Reviewed on December 9e 2021

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