The fugue made an interesting subject for the Brodsky Quartet’s concert at St George's. The programme delved into the fugue’s crossover between eras, from Baroque all the way to early expressionism. The two hours of the concert were utterly absorbing and flew past all too quickly.

Brodsky Quartet © Eric Richmond
Brodsky Quartet
© Eric Richmond

The attention to detail in which the Brodsky Quartet had addressed each individual piece in the programme was impressive. Paul Cassidy, the viola player of the quartet, explained each of the pieces in the programme briefly in between performances to compare stylistic differences and treatments of the fugue across the different eras. The quartet’s understanding of the music was reflected in their performance, rather than permitting such subtleties to be overwhelmed by their stylistic personalities. Vibrato was only used in the later-composed pieces and the use of dynamics was kept authentically true to each composer.

The most challenging piece of the evening from a listening perspective was the last piece of the first half, a powerful rendition of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s String Quartet no. 4, Op.25. It was also the most striking performance from the Brodsky Quartet. The strength and energy injected into this piece defined its schizophrenic nature perfectly where angular atonality was met with glimpses of traditional romanticism. The piece had an academic awareness about it that required intricate technique: the quartet had to pluck and double-stop, use vibrato and a range of dynamics, tempos and time signatures. This busy structure was absorbing on stage as visually the musicians were constantly applying something new to the music. Jacqueline Thomas' melody lines on the cello captured the more romantic flavor overlaid by sweeping violins that slipped back into harmonic atonality just as themes unraveled. Violinist Daniel Rowland had broken a few hairs on his bow by the end of the piece in a display of impressive dexterity and flexibility by the quartet.

The Zemlinsky was comparable to the final Beethoven Grosse Fuge, Op.133, as in both pieces the quartet expressed more emotional energy and creative use of counterpoint than in the other fugues. The Grosse Fuge was described by the quartet before its performance as “screechy”. It didn’t sound “screechy” as such, but had rather high-pitched and intense melodic lines on the first violin. Mendelssohn’s Fuga: A tempo ordinaro from Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op.81 was simple and elegantly played, but not as remarkable or climactic as the Beethoven which followed.  The intensity of the Brodsky Quartet’s rendition of Beethoven made it a very memorable performance.

In the most fitting traditional ode to the fugue possible, the concert opened with Bach’s The Art of Fugue BWV 1080, Contrapunctus I and VI. These fugues were performed in a heavier style than the others in the programme, which was in keeping with the more traditional German style of counterpoint, the entrances were more informal and rather than the performers addressing the balance of entrances, the composition itself was left to reveal melody over melody. Bach is over-romanticised by string performers all too frequently, but within this performance, the Contrapunctus I and VI were neither overloaded on vibrato nor dynamically overcooked. At times in VI the cello was in the forefront more than the rest of the quartet, but this was sharply brought back into balance by Rowland on first violin.

The Brodsky Quartet followed the Bach with a very different treatment of Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546 in which each of the parts were more presented and performed on stage.  In the Fugue after the Adagio, the quartet players were battling each other more and the melody was fought out between them, which made an engaging performance to watch. Despite its competitive nature in scoring, this interpretation did not lose integrity and was elegant in its underlying simplicity. As an encore the Brodsky Quartet played an experiment transcribed for quartet of Bach’s Adagio and Fugue in C major. Perhaps performed more expressively than Contrapunctus I and VI, the quartet shaped the fugue where each melodic entrance was earmarked with clarity. This was a rather long piece to have as an encore at around ten minutes but was the most authentic fugue of the evening and a stunning piece with which to end the evening.