Brodsky Quartet

Newry provides the perfect warm up ahead of a run of performances in Derry~Londonderry

For viola player Paul Cassidy, the Brodsky Quartet's current visit to Northern Ireland is a homecoming.

When the group arrives in Cassidy's native Derry-Londonderry on February 14, it will be to provide the live music in Adrian Dunbar's version of Brian Friel's Performances, a play about the Czech composer, Leoš Janacek, which runs in the Great Hall at Magee for 11 nights.

The quartet's tour starts, however, at First Newry Presbyterian Church, Newry, with a concert in the city's chamber music series, curated by violinist Joanne Quigley and her pianist brother, David. The pair, both of whose schedules are packed full professionally, regularly bring classical events of high calibre to Newry.

Bagging the Brodskys, however, is a major fillip. They are a quartet of genuine international stature, with a reputation for excellence and innovative programming extending back four decades to the ensemble's fledgling days in Middlesborough, England.

The Newry recital has a strong American flavour. It launches with a leanly expressive account of Aaron Copland's rarely heard 'Two Pieces for String Quartet', the hymn-like threnody of whose opening movement is projected with rapt concentration by the Brodsky players.

Gershwin's 'Lullaby' is theoretically a lighter piece, but the Brodskys have a special relationship with it (they're about to make their second recording), and find subtleties of nuance and dynamic most other quartets would merely dream of.

The Brodskys not only play superlatively, they're also notably good talkers, and punctuate the programme with interesting information about the music (a rarity in classical concerts), avoiding unnecessary technical complexity and wearing their extensive knowledge lightly.

Cassidy introduces Samuel Barber's 'String Quartet' with a reminder that most of the audience probably knows its middle movement already. It's the famous 'Adagio' (actually 'Molto Adagio', as Cassidy points out, in the original quartet version), familiar to millions from its use in films such as Platoon and Band of Brothers.

The Brodskys' version of the 'Adagio' is highly charged emotionally, but never swooningly over-indulgent. There's a clear pulse-line running through the interpretation, and an intense focus on the tragic overtones of the music: it's a deeply satisfying and thought-provoking rendition.

Dvorak's 'American' Quartet is the single item after the interval. It's a generally high-spirited, ebullient piece, and allows the Brodskys to let their hair down a little. Literally so, in the case of first violinist Daniel Rowland, whose flowing mane is tossed round energetically, in time with the music.

Rowland is a strikingly adventurous player, at times possibly too adventurous – his pianissimo playing verges occasionally on inaudibility, his vibrato in the Lento seems overdone and febrile, and he throws a succession of rhythmic curveballs to the other quartet members in the course of a highly spontaneous-sounding traversal of Dvorak's well-known masterpiece.

There's some eloquently expressive playing from cellist Jacqueline Thomas and Cassidy on viola, both clearly relishing the care taken by Dvorak to share the melodic narrative democratically between the instruments. There's never a dull bar in this 'American': it's a vigorously joyful, life-enhancing interpretation.

It brings the curtain down on an evening which perfectly illustrates why the Brodsky Quartet retain an exclusive spot at the very top of their profession. They're excellent players technically, of course, and wonderfully sensitive interpreters.

Above all, however, the Brodskys are genuine risk-takers, unafraid to grasp the inspiration of the moment and run with it, unbothered by the occasional raggedness of ensemble and untidiness of intonation that go with a full-on commitment to genuinely living artistically in the present moment.

The great German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, was once described (by critic Hans Keller) as 'the opposite of a gramophone record'. Keller meant that Furtwängler was ever-new, ever-fresh in his approach to making music, viewing it as a constant journey, not a definitive destination.

Keller's words apply also to the Brodskys. Hear them in Derry-Londonderry if you can during this exciting UK City of Culture year: they're one of the best live acts currently operating on the classical music circuit.

The Brodsky Quartet perform as part of a new adaptation of Brian Friel's play Performances in the Great Hall, Magee in Derry~Londonderry from February 14 - 23 as part of the UK City of Culture 2013 celebrations.

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