Shostakovich’s complete cycle of string quartets must be one of the most complex, innovative and emotional works of art in music, bearing comparison with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen or the complete cantatas of J.S. Bach. And then, they are performed by a mere four mortals, in this case over a period of five days. These works are astonishing in their variety, in terms of musical ideas, emotions, textures and colours, not just quartet to quartet but from movement to movement, a constant stream of renewal and surprise, and yet clearly all cut from the same Shostakovichian cloth: fifteen quartets, in as many keys. Not only is there the music to contemplate, but one cannot avoid thinking also of the momentous 20th-century context in which they were produced, and the life of the man in that context.

Brodsky Quartet © Eric Richmond
Brodsky Quartet
© Eric Richmond

On this occasion, this mission was carried out under the aegis of the Perth International Festival of the Arts by the Brodsky Quartet, who have been together since 1972, with just two personnel changes since that time. They are celebrated for their performances of the cycle, and this is the first time they have performed the complete set in Perth, although they have done so elsewhere in Australia. While obviously limited in its appeal, the series managed to attract a few hundred people per concert, comprising a clearly knowledgeable and attentive audience.

The quartet members were, given the demands of such a performance, extremely generous in building a rapport with the audience. At each of the five concerts, the first violinist Daniel Rowland expounded on the nature and historical context of each work being played at that performance, including anecdotes about Shostakovich and the quartet’s involvement and response to the music. Paul Cassidy, viola, entertained us with an anecdote about meeting Shostakovich’s widow Elena, and he was also responsible for the very personal and informative programme notes.

The quartet famously stands to play, apart from the cellist who sits on a podium raised far enough to ensure a seamless flow of sound.  Each player was a sharply distinguished figure through the entire cycle: Rowland was a vivid image of passion and commitment expressed through his whole body; the cellist, Jacqueline Thomas, wielded her bow with muscular but graceful authority; Cassidy has a most expressive face, with searching and inquiring eyebrows; while the second violinist, Ian Belton, maintained an intriguingly passive presence which came to life when he had a substantial contribution to make, as in end of no. 9, and during the ‘Italian bit’ of no. 14. During the fifth movement of no. 11 he managed to look endearingly like an owl while imitating a cuckoo.

It is far beyond the scope of a review like this to comment on every quartet, apart from observing there was never a dull moment, or a lull in interest, and both players and audiences appeared completely involved throughout. It would take up too much space to enumerate more than a small number of highlights. No. 2 was notable for the beautiful sonorities of the second movement romance; the third movement was remarkable (at this early stage of the proceedings) for the high energy of all concerned, and the ferocious cello playing in the jig-like section that just seems to pop up in the fourth movement. No. 3 was distinguished by its extenuated slow ending, and the sustained silence which followed – not the only time! No. 4, the “Jewish” quartet, contained amazingly performed transitions from romantic lyricism to thigh slapping to decaying (again) into silence.

With respect to the ‘big’ items, nos. 5, 8 and 15, these more than fulfilled the audience’s expectations. In no. 5 the first movement manifested a sort of coordinated disciplined chaos, with ferocious violin attack, the second movement tore at the nerves with the  screaming high notes and the third ended in a transcendent trance-like state. No. 8, written ‘In Memory of the victims of Fascism and of the war’, held the audience transfixed throughout, with its alternating moods of gloom and darkness interspersed with distant rays of hope. Again, a sustained silence followed the conclusion. In many ways the most remarkable work of all is no. 15, written as the composer was dying. Composed of six slow movements, including a funeral march, it would be easy to summarise it as a final descent into doom and oblivion. It was performed under very dim lighting which obviously accentuated the darkness of the mood, but which also concentrated the mind on the power and beauty of the music. If this was indeed the dying of the light, it was also a mighty demonstration of the power of Shostakovich’s vision, creativity and commitment to art and life. The longest of sustained silences was succeeded by a standing ovation.