The Brodsky Quartet, named for violinist Adolph Brodsky (1851–1929), formed in 1972. Two founder members remain: second violinist Ian Belton and cellist Jacqueline Thomas. 2,000 concerts and 50 recordings later, they have been celebrating their 40th anniversary year by mixing their huge repertoire with an element of chance. Enter “The Wheel of 4Tunes”. Total indeterminacy might result in a bonsai-concert of bijou items, or an all-nighter of titans, and so a little constraint was devised. The game show-style wheel of fortune, spun by audience members, consisted of four concentric circles, the overall pie being divided into ten 36-degree slices. This ingenious plan would guarantee a concert of four items of contrasting length and style, while retaining a chance element of 1:10.

Brodsky Quartet © Eric Richmond
Brodsky Quartet
© Eric Richmond

The first spin landed on La Oración del Torero (“The Bullfighter’s Prayer”) by Joaquín Turina (1882–1949). This 1912 work began life as a lute quartet. As first violinist Daniel Rowland explained, there is some programmatic ambiguity here; could the concluding heavenly sounds suggest that victory belonged to el toro and not el torero? Had one intentionally chosen a work to showcase the fruits of sustained musical monogamy, it would have been difficult to find a finer example than this ten-minute Iberian gem. It navigates its terrain of rich, almost jazzy impressionistic harmony with a very flexible beat. The ensemble here was extremely impressive, an easy watchfulness replacing the cagey cuing of less intimate ensembles.

The second spin landed on Beethoven’s 1810 String Quartet no. 11 in F minor, “Serioso”. Rowland described how this work was written following romantic upset, and the moments of anger were certainly put over convincingly. This was at its best in the third movement, Allegro assai vivace ma serioso – Più allegro. No sooner does a perfect cadence sound than the following beat announces immediate and radical departure in the manner of the non-sequitur conversation of someone under great stress. However, as in much Beethoven, serenity seems near at hand and this contrast was very convincingly handled. Articulation in the final movement was very impressive.

“Tenebrae” refers to the final three days of Holy Week, during which candles are gradually extinguished. The resulting “darkness” in Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae of 2002 refers to the darkness of space and of human atrocity, specifically the bombing of a bus that the Argentinean-Jewish composer witnessed while in Israel. Fond of drawing inspiration from earlier sources, Golijov turned to Couperin’s Troisième leçon de Tenebrae, which, I felt sure, made its presence felt more markedly towards the end. The music, which might be compared to, say, Gorecki or Tavener, is not only tonal but centres around C major for quite a time. To this end, Ian Belton was required to tune his G string down to a minor third to E. The instrument now having two E strings, benefited from sympathetic resonance of a very significant note in this tonality. The reverent and quietly pulsing stillness with which the Brodsky Quartet performed this piece was very affecting and I hope to explore Golijov’s work further.

The final spin of the wheel was undertaken by a pupil of Edinburgh’s St Mary’s Music School, which, by happy coincidence, the quartet were due to visit the following morning. Having spotted Bartók and Shostakovich on the outermost circle, I must confess to slight deflation when Tchaikovsky’s 1871 String Quartet no. 1 was called. However, I have to say, I was really taken with the piece and the performance, especially the first movement. It has some lovely harmonies and elegant phrasing which this quartet really pulled off beautifully. As suggested by Cassidy, the end of this movement is sufficiently thrilling to have concluded an entire quartet. The contrasting body language of the three standing members was interesting in this piece. Freedom to move – which, of course, includes freedom not to move – can allow performers to communicate additional aids to listening. Paul Cassidy, whose stance was at times judo-like, seemed to move nearer the cello when so paired, and nearer the two violins during three-part harmony underpinned by lone cello. In the finale of this piece, he performed what can only be described as a one-metre sideways leap!

I joined the throng of audience members keen to photograph the Wheel of 4Tunes: partly to check spellings; partly to note the names of those we might have heard. I wonder how many, like me, will combine this photograph with YouTube and Spotify to further their explorations of the quartet medium. As to this evening, I take off my hat to any quartet able to play any of 40 works as well as those we heard.