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The Britten Are Coming! The Brodsky Quartet Does Washington — by Jens Laurson

This is a follow-up piece on the concert reviewed on February 23. This is the first double review in ionarts history, although this was not the first concert that both ionarts music critics have happened to attend.

The Brodsky Quartet is from Manchester, England. Their namesake, Adolf Brodsky, had been an important violinist and teacher in their native city, where they founded this group 32 years ago. Their unusual longevity has kept Ian Belton (second violin), Paul Cassidy (viola) and his cellist wife, Jacqueline Thomas together since their inception. Only recently did 20-something Andrew Haveron replace Jacqueline Thomas’ brother, Michael, as first violinist. The impression they make on stage is not necessarily one that I would expect from a string quartet. Andrew Haveron looks younger than his 27 or 28 years. With the goatee and well-rounded face, he looks like a college frat boy. Ian Belton, a small, sturdy man, resemble a Red-Meat cartoon character. His five-o’clock shadow looks like it was painted on. Paul Cassidy reminds of the teacher in South Park but more likely a classical musician. His wife, finally, looks perfectly charming and normal. She, too, is the member who is dressed least conspicuously. Paul Cassidy (who champions a zebra-like striped sports jacket on the Brodsky Quartet's Web site) wears a vest, as do his colleagues who man the violins. Over their unironed or unironable shirts we have matte/shiny patterns in black and aubergine and Cassidy's tank-gray vest with infusions of canary yellow and ultramarine. It resembles a flak jacket or live vest more than a part of someone’s closet.

The program started with Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet no. 1 in D Major, op. 25. His first of three, it is perhaps least like his output of that time (World War II) and somewhat belies works with which I am more familiar, like Peter Grimes, which had its inception at around the same time. The work opens with shimmering and light notes, accompanied by hardy plucking on the cello before that rough treatment turns into a more conventional pizzicato. The violins hover over the audience in slowly progressing patterns. Three against one. This set-up does not change until the first movement's Allegro vivo sets in. Much more conventional a string quartet format now, it has half the pulse of Bartók but twice the melody of Tippett.

Further down the movement, the shimmering, hovering strings plus accompanying cello-plucks (with big pauses) return in their high registers. The viola takes over some of the predominant parts, and the rhythm of the movement finally establishes itself halfway through. It finally gets a bit of the drive that I find so seductive in the 20th-century string quartet repertoire. The shimmering theme comes back once more and firmly establishes itself as the quartets calling card. (Feeble, frail, and flimsy: should that be "fistelty"?) Whistly and whimpering to cello sounds, it fades away. A few attacca notes and some whimsy make an end of it.

Allegretto con slancio gets the pulse started right away. Britten achieves this very simply but effectively with one or more instruments playing a driving rhythm in the spiccato style. (Spiccato, saltando, sautillé, or even arpeggio: if a reader knows which exactly the Britten score calls for, I'd be interested in finding out.) The piece charms me reasonably well but leaves me less impressed than I had hoped it would. The Andante calmo starts beautifully with a gray, weeping melody: not so much fresh-cut tears but rather bitter resignation. It culminates in impotent rage before subsiding and letting the first violin whine along to the continuous, monotonous bows of its three companions. It remains enjoyable for these ears, but for several moments I find it distinctly lacking purpose. Towards what seems the end the andante climaxes nicely before pausing only to add a subtle and soft afterthought that gets picked up for another run—handing off to the once again prominent viola and expanding the natural lifespan of this movement by half. The puckish cello guides a similar but shorter rise to the andante's third life before a sustained light note on first violin actually ends it.

Molto vivace, the final movement, trades whimsy among the instruments but turns quickly into a hearty bout. Jacqueline Thomas and her cello raced while her three male colleagues on the smaller instruments performed similar musical patterns. "Carefree" is the word that I conjured immediately. Speed-demon-like pizzicati interspersed with intense and chromatically bent exultations by force of "instrument-scrubbing" ended the piece abruptly and well, leading to generous applause.

Franz Schubert's "Rosamunde" String Quartet in A Minor (D.804) was next. The opening Allegro ma non troppo was amiably, though not perfectly, played; although very satisfactory, it lasts forever. The Andante finally arrived and left the impression of a children's mobile. Menuetto: Allegretto and Allegro moderato rounded out this half of the program with admirable playing but ultimately remained uninspiring. The word was "nice" or "quaint" in its more negative connotation.

After the break it was Tchaikovsky's String Quartet no.1 in D major, op.11, that awaited the audience. A very smooth and gliding beginning was gentle enough but not boring and ready to pick up speed or energy or both along the way. A rather full sound was summoned from the players. In several moments the first violins' uncleanliness bugged me. With little new material or ideas introduced, the piece babbled along just fine until it got a little excited toward the end of the first movement. For the most part it seemed best just to sit back and casually enjoy a (surprisingly?) nice and long string quartet that is amiable but soon exposes itself as one of the lesser works by maestro "Petr Il'ich Chaikovskii" as his name might be spelled more accurately. The Andante cantabile, like its predecessor, starts out most amiably. Mr. Haveron's three-year-old violin (by Polish master violin-builder Zygmuntowicz, who also made the Emerson String Quartet's instruments) sounds lush and thick even through the entirely muted sections of this movement. The five-note theme (made up of three distinct notes) that makes the core of this work is shared among the instruments to intone a lament.

The Scherzo: Allegro non tanto e con fuoco enjoyably worked its way toward the end of the evening. A fine evening for sure, but almost certain not to entail an encore. In brevity lies the soul of wit—the scherzo stayed true to its name. Allegro giusto is the finale's marking. Unlike the sometimes excruciatingly slow Schubert earlier, the Brodsky Quartet went to work on these parts as though they just remembered that their cars were parked in the no-parking zone. They seemed to get more into the piece, and with them went I. The finale is perhaps not quite ravishing, but a consoling finish. A faux ending: soft recapitulation of previously stated material and a very soft line led to a finishing frenzy in highest tempi and reasonably rousing applause.

After the concert, which was fine but ultimately disappointing for lack of energy and excitement, everyone in my company disagreed with each other. Britten was the only good thing; no, it was horrific. The Tchaikovsky was astounding; no, it was pleasant at best. The Schubert was stupendous; no, it put me to sleep. What is true is that the Britten, as nice a piece as I find it to be, is probably not of the same quality as some other modern string quartets. More importantly, it was not played with the passion and excitement that would communicate to a Britten neophyte why and how to like it. The performance of the Brodsky Quartet was good enough to please those who know the work, but miles away from making converts. But not every concert can be conscious-altering and life-changing. Sometimes "good" has got to be "good enough."

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