What better to way for the Brodsky Quartet to celebrate its 50th anniversary than a full Shostakovich string quartet cycle in one weekend? Repertoire marathons are not for everyone, but this group of fifteen works of such incredible intensity, tracking much of the career of one of the 20th-century’s most intriguing composers, is an ideal cycle for an immersive, if challenging weekend experience. Inevitably, attendance varied across the weekend, with the evening concerts achieving full audiences (and ovations), but the early morning sessions still pulled in the diehards, at nearly half of the Kings Place capacity. 

Brodsky Quartet
© Sarah Cresswell

The Shostakovich quartets have been in the Brodsky’s repertoire since the very beginning, with two recordings of the full set to date – cellist Jaqueline Thomas tells a great story of their performance of two movements in a RAH Schools Prom concert in the seventies (then called the Cleveland String Quartet, after their Middlesborough roots), to which the young audience responded positively with enthusiastic attention. However, the BBC cut this from the concert’s TV broadcasts – Thomas’ response to this in her teenage diary is not repeatable here! Remarkably, Jacqeuline, Ian Belton (second violin) and friends formed the quartet when they were just 10 and 11 years old. Paul Cassidy (viola) joined the quartet in 1982, so can still boast 40 years, with the first violin chair seeing the most change, Krysia Osostowicz being the fifth in the role, joining in 2021. On the basis of this weekend, however, you wouldn’t know she’d not been playing with her colleagues for many years. 

Cassidy joked that as their last Shostakovich cycle was spread over three days, and this one just two, next time they’d maybe go for just the one day! However, with the added input of illuminative discussions with Shostakovich biographer Elizabeth Wilson, a lecture from musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker, and a video on the Brodsky’s history showing on a loop, squeezing the quartets into one day would have been a tall order. 

The fifteen quartets were spread over seven concerts, mostly in pairs and largely in chronological order. Most were preceded by discussions between Wilson and varying Brodsky members. Cellist and writer Wilson studied in Moscow with Rostoprovich in the sixties, and was full of first-hand knowledge of not only Shostakovich and the works but many of the key people around him. For example, at one point she casually dropped in a tale of taking Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to Shostakovich’s home to hear a performance of the 13th by the Beethoven Quartet – apparently Britten was so moved, he persuaded them to immediately play the whole thing again. Her insights were always highly illuminating, although pre-concert details could have alerted audience members to this input more clearly. While I welcomed her highly insightful input throughout the weekend, by the second day there were clearly a few other audience members who wanted less of this. Frolova-Walker’s talk on the second day added wry humour, but also drew harsh parallels with the current situation in Russia and Ukraine. In chilling reference to protests against the present war, but also to attempts to unravel Shostakovich’s complex messages and meanings, she reminded us that “you can read a blank sheet of paper if you know the context”.

Hearing over six hours of such commanding performances of this complex and intense repertoire, combined with such a wealth of background input from speakers and performers, it is hard to distil such an experience into a few words. We were taken from the deceptively light yet bitter-sweet no. 1, with strident expression from Osostowicz in the opening movement and sad nostalgia from Cassidy in the slow movement, right through to the time-stopping bleakness of no. 15, with real anger and pleading from Thomas in the most ‘un-serenade-like’, tortured Serenade, and a faltering death dance, in and out of the shadows, from them all later in that same movement. In between, we passed through the grotesquery and violent attack given to their chilling no. 3, the two violins battling it out in the strident climax of no. 5’s finale, and the weird viola and cello glissandi in second movement of the shortest of the set, the Seventh, written in memoriam to Nina, Shostakovich’s first wife, any sense of sleepiness swept away by the ferocious assault of the final movement. 

The ‘Quartet of Quartets’, numbers 11 to 14, was each dedicated to a different member of the Beethoven Quartet, who premiered all but two of the 15 quartets, gave additional opportunities for individual players to shine. In no. 11, Belton gave the fifth movement’s cuckoo-like ostinato a fragile sense of loss when suddenly left alone after the movement’s climax. There was stark pizzicato and searing anguish from Osostowicz in no. 12’s second movement, and Cassidy’s painful ascent to the top the fingerboard at the end of no. 13 was almost unbearably lonely. In the Fourteenth, the cellist gets the theme throughout most of the first movement, and Thomas brought rich intensity to the almost Bachian extended solo passages, as well as glorious warmth to the ‘Italian’ duet with the first violin, and the Lady Macbeth “Seryozha, my darling” quote in the final movement.

The end result of such an all-consuming, immersive experience? As many questions as answers about this profoundly disturbing yet moving cycle, as well as even greater admiration for the artistry and achievement of a fine quartet of players in their prime.