Perhaps it was my position up in the gallery looking down on them, clouds of rosin rising like smoke. Perhaps it was the fact that three of them stand to play, so it felt more like a dance than a static event. (There was a moment in Bartók’s fifth quartet where leader Daniel Rowlands moved over to violist Paul Cassidy as if to physically hand on the melody). Perhaps it’s the explosive cocktail of personnel: Rowlands brings a shot of wild intensity to the power-house trio of long-term members Cassidy, Belton and the formidable Jacqueline Thomas. While they are dynamic but grounded, he seems permanently in flight.
Their opening was an inspired eliding of Purcell’s Chaconne in G minor with Britten’s ‘Poem’ from his juvenile quartet (1927). Somehow the sombre magnificence of this chaconne, wreathed in ornament, attuned the atmosphere to Britten’s strangely hypnotic andante, lending what might have seemed naive mysterious depth.
Into this melancholy gloom sprang Bartók’s snarling fifth quartet, wave upon wave of rhythmic energy slicing across the group. After exquisitely-rendered nocturnal fluttering in the Adagio, the players hit on the visceral dance groove of the Scherzo alla bulgarese, the quartet’s fiery heart. Each pizzicato rang out startling and true in the following Andante before melting into song. In the finale, that peculiar sotto voce hurdy-gurdy tune teetered on a knife-edge between hilarity and spookiness before being swept away by a presto tornado.
Beethoven famously got the hump when asked by his publisher to write ‘an original quartet’. Op. 131 remains a highly provocative retort, tripping up the listener and defying expectation at every turn. The Brodskys achieved an improvisatory freshness in the sublime opening Adagio, whose long-breathed beauty is so hard to leave behind for the puzzlingly cheerful Allegro. If the quartet’s recordings have occasionally sounded less than sharply-etched, here a penetrating unity of vision brought the central Andante into remarkable focus, every phrase cherished and poised. They injected just the right degree of whirling madness into the breezy presto, with its pizzicati ricochets, and ended with a ferocious Allegro, overriding any sense of an engine running on empty.
Brodsky Quartet perform Golijov, Osborne and Alvarez: 30 January
Jacqueline du Pre Music Building, Oxford: Friday 30 January