Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C major is one of the most often played tracks on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, and the work was certainly a crowd-puller at this concert by the Brodsky Quartet with guest cellist Antonio Meneses at Kings Place. It is often known as the “cello quintet” (quintet with two cellos rather than two violas), and indeed the theme of this concert, part of the hall’s year-long Cello Unwrapped series, was to highlight chamber music works with an emphasis on the cello.

Brodsky Quartet © Eric Richmond
Brodsky Quartet
© Eric Richmond

Although I hadn’t heard the Brodsky Quartet for a while, I have always associated them with contemporary or eclectic repertoire (they are also known for playing standing up), so to be honest, I was a little surprised to see that they were going to perform such a conventional programme of Boccherini, Borodin and Schubert. Except that the Boccherini quintet with its alluring title of “La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid” (Night music of the streets of Madrid) was anything but conventional, and a delightful opener.

Boccherini didn’t publish this work during his lifetime because apparently he didn’t think people outside Spain would appreciate the localness of it. However, the music sounds quite modern to our ears even now. He depicts various everyday sounds with simple but effective techniques such as the violin playing percussively to imitate the drumming soldiers, the viola depicting church bells by pizzicato (which Paul Cassidy did entertainingly by walking around the stage to express the bells ringing in the distance), and the two cellos holding their instruments like a guitar and strumming the strings in the “Minuet of the Blind Beggars”. It’s a relatively short piece with seven continuous scenes, but what particularly struck me was that Boccherini’s depictions are very realistic and not idealised as in the programmatic music of later times. The Brodskys and Meneses captured the spirit of the work perfectly – with a certain amount of humour but no cynicism.

Borodin’s popular String Quartet no. 2 in D major is known for its gorgeous cello melodies, especially in its “Notturno” movement. Here the cello solos were played with poise by Brodsky’s own cellist Jacqueline Thomas. In general, their interpretation of this work was clear and unsentimental, if a little idiosyncratic at times. The first movement began elegantly with the cello leading the melody and the first violin taking over, but as the music developed there were some unnecessarily vigorous moments. After a lively Scherzo, the Notturno movement was lyrical but not sweet. While Thomas played the main melody with cantabile, when it was taken over by the first violin, David Gowland gave it more of an edge. Again, I didn’t feel that was necessary in this piece, but I suppose that is his (and the Brodsky’s) style and a matter of personal taste. Still, they brought a wonderful hushed poignancy in the coda, which led directly on to the buoyant finale.

Schubert’s String Quintet is one of those timeless and universal works, like Beethoven’s late quartets, which can be interpreted in so many different ways and yet be equally valid. The Brodskys, rejoined by Meneses, gave a dramatic but stark reading that was quite flexible in tempi and full of dynamic contrasts, often not afraid to play ultra softly. When performing this work, normally the guest cellist takes the second cello part, which can be tricky as he/she has to provide the foundation for the group. But Meneses, former cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio and experienced chamber musician, kept the ensemble grounded while also playing with a sonorous tone throughout – his accompanying pizzicato in the first movement was so resonant that I was in pizzicato heaven!

The first movement had plenty of warm lyricism, and even a little aggression in the development, whereas in the Adagio they brought out the emotional fragility with restrained vibrato and raw sounds. The hushed stillness created, especially at the return of the theme, was heart-stopping. The third movement had a lively folk dance feel, although it suffered some intonation uncertainty. Despite the finale being a little hurried at times (in the fugato section) and having rough edges, the performance built to an intense climax and ultimately it was a fulfilling experience.

****1