The Brodsky Quartet chose to make the contrapuntal musical form of the fugue the centre-point for this opening performance of their New Zealand tour. A fugue generally begins with a simple theme which is then imitated at different pitches and then developed into a complex whole. This Auckland programme might have appeared less exploratory than the programme of Golijov, Lavista and Alvarez they were presenting elsewhere in the country but the sheer variety that was summoned from what seem to some to be such a dry musical form was astonishing. This was in no small part due to the Brodsky’s ability to fully inhabit the sound worlds of vastly different musical periods, allowing the audience to appreciate how the fugue as a form has evolved across time through Bach, Beethoven and Bartok with sprinklings of Mozart and Mendelssohn in between. 

Brodsky Quartet
© Duncan Matthews

Bach’s key position in the history of the fugue was emphasised by the position of two of his fugues (Nos. 1 and 6 from The Art of Fugue) opening this concert. No. 1 is a four-voice fugue on The Art of Fugue’s principal subject and in the Brodsky's hands it seemed to have distilled the purest essence of the form; four voices working together with strong unity of vision but with each player maintaining a clear individuality at each entrance. Jacqueline Thomas shaped the subject particularly movingly with her warm cello sound. In a nod to Baroque performance practice, all four players used vibrato only sparingly but imbued the music with a warmth of tone that is relatively uncommon in that performance practice nowadays. My only criticism is that compared with the more Romantic repertoire in the rest of the programme, the performance was perhaps a bit over-reverent and lacking in edge. The sixth fugue, a more complex example with the subject tackled in several altered forms, was again lovingly dispatched but could have used more definition in its dotted figures.

The opening of the Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K.546 immediately seemed to open a new world of expression from the Brodsky. The players summoned a gloomy and apprehensive tone for the Adagio, surprisingly violent in its outbursts alternating with hauntingly quiet moments that seemed to hark forward to Beethoven as much as the form harked back to the Baroque. The Fugue section originated as a work for two pianos, but sounded just as masterly in its string quartet guise. The performers were more assertive in this fugue than they were in the Bach, with strong forward compulsion but maintaining an ideal clarity of texture. This was followed by a frankly gorgeous rendition of Mendelssohn’s Fugue in E flat major, the thematic ideas charmingly passed between instruments and the players separating into exquisite duet combinations.

What a contrast between Mendelssohn’s genial take on the fugue and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op.133! In this late work, Beethoven bends the fugal form and conventional harmony almost as far as they will go. This piece still sounds shockingly modern, in fact no less so than the following Bartók quartet that was written almost a century later. This piece really gives the first violin a chance to take the limelight, an opportunity that was all the more notable as this concert tour of Australia and New Zealand is the first to feature new violinist Gina McCormack. She fits in seamlessly with the rest of the quartet, leading the way through Beethoven’s frenetic lines with a superb control of dynamics, especially in the eerie opening. Overall this was an extremely wild and exciting performance, the Brodsky appropriately sacrificing beautiful tone for thrilling attack on Beethoven’s wide intervals. As the tension built and the harmonic clashes grew progressively weirder, their concentration and propulsion were suitably relentless, an astonishing performance showing how far the fugue had come since Bach’s refined perfection.

Perhaps the most memorable performance of all was of Bartók’s String Quartet no. 1 in A minor. Supposedly inspired by the composer’s unrequited love for violinist Stefi Geyer, the first movement was dripping with heart-on-sleeve dejection. The Brodsky astonished by how raw the emotion is that it brought to the music and also how it made the contrapuntal textures of this movement seem part-and-parcel of this emotional outlook. Technically, the players almost appeared to be one organic unit, so flawless was their sense of ensemble and flexibility as a group. This first movement flowed effortlessly into the ever-accelerating second and the mood began to lighten ever so slowly. With the final movement, we were plunged into an unsettled and restless world with new themes constantly being flung out and the players attacking the music with astonishing gusto and dynamic range. This was a true tour de force and a fitting climax to a rather miraculous examination of counterpoint through musical history.