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23.2.04

Brodsky Quartet at the Library of Congress

The Brodsky QuartetOn Friday night, the latest group to perform in the series of free concerts at the Library of Congress was Great Britain's Brodsky Quartet (see photograph at right). (For some information about this concert series and the historic Coolidge Auditorium, see my post on August 31.) As their biographical information in the program puts it, "Unlike the majority of string quartets, the members of the Brodsky Quartet play standing up, intensifying communication among them and giving a real edge to their performance." More precisely, the violinists and violist stood on the stage (with violist Paul Cassidy, in particular, weaving maniacally and somewhat distractingly behind his music stand). Cellist Jacqueline Thomas—who, incidentally, is Mr. Cassidy's wife—was seated on a black podium that elevated her to the eye level of the other players. Two of the three pieces that they played are featured in their recording Tchaikovsky and Britten String Quartets, from 2002.

Breaking form with most of the Library of Congress concerts, which put a work of new music or a commission of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in the second position before intermission, the Brodsky Quartet began their concert with the String Quartet no. 1 in D Major, op. 25 by Benjamin Britten. Mrs. Coolidge commissioned this quartet when Britten was in the United States during the dangerous years of World War II, after she met Britten and his companion Peter Pears at the home of mutual friends in California. Britten spent the summer of that year composing it, and it was premiered in Los Angeles in 1941, with a second performance here at the Library of Congress later that fall. As the always excellent program notes of Tomás C. Hernández (of the Music Division of the Library of Congress) relate, Mrs. Coolidge awarded Britten the Coolidge Medal "for eminent services to chamber music" at that concert, in honor of her birthday:

The presentation of the Coolidge Medal was "quite an alarming ceremony," Britten wrote his sister, "but Mrs. Coolidge, who is really a sweet old thing, made things easier by publicly referring to me as 'Benjy', which made everyone smile sweetly."
Some listeners find this quartet to be atypical among Britten's compositions, because it has more dissonant and challenging sounds than you might expect in his music (for example, François-Xavier Avajon, writing on his Web site, calls this quartet "le moins attachant des trois, le moins proprement brittenien" [the least attractive of the three, the least truly Brittenish]). I really enjoyed listening to this piece. The first movement oscillates between two basic sonic territories, the tragic sounds of the opening Andante sostenuto (the three higher instruments on long, sustained, very high, dissonant harmonies, with the cello on slow, somber pizzicati) and the bubbling movement of the Allegro vivo. The second movement (Allegretto con slancio) is in a basic triple meter that is destablized with Stravinskyesque rhythmic shifts, which was played by the Brodsky Quartet, it seemed to me, somewhat fast for allegretto. The astounding third movement (Andante calmo) luxuriates in a gorgeous homophonic stasis, moving in and out of dissonant harmonies and several times blossoming into a massive major chord. The fourth movement (Molto vivace) was played at an appropriately very fast tempo, which underscored the Haydnesque pauses that Britten uses here. There are some remarkable effects and some real moments of furied frenzy, which was very exciting.

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