Known for their innovative programming, the first half of the Brodsky Quartet’s concert at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building was an inventive tour of the Latin world, moving from music by Italian and Spanish composers to South America. The concert opened with Spanish composer Joaquín Turina’s La Oración del Torero (‘The Prayer of the Bullfighter’, 1925). Both the taut design of this work and the strains of French impressionist harmony that could be heard in the two ‘prayer’ sections showed Turina to be a more sophisticated composer than is often assumed. This was followed by Puccini’s Crisantemi (1890), a lament supposedly written by the Italian composer in a single night in response to the death of the Duke of Savoy. The programme then moved both across the Atlantic and forward in time for Metro Chabacano (1991) by Mexican composer Javier Álvarez and Tenebrae (2002) by Argentian Osvaldo Golijov. Whether tackling the heart-on-sleeve emotions of Puccini or the driving rhythms of Álvarez, the Brodsky’s performance was worthy of their world-class reputation.
The main focus of the evening, though, was the the forty-five minute work that comprised the second half, Trees, Walls, Cities. This ‘Song Cycle for the Modern Day’ was commissioned for the 2013 City of London Festival, in collaboration with Derry’s Walled City Festival. The eight songs were named after eight international cities, with texts and music by local poets and composers. This was in part a project about reconciliation, with many of the cities featured, such as Jerusalem and Berlin, marked either presently or historically by physical walls of division. This political aspect was perhaps most explicit in Yannis Kyriakides’s setting of a text by Mehmet Yashin in ‘Nicosia’. Here the poet’s sense of being stranded between languages, of lacking a mother tongue in a city divided by state politics, was neatly expressed by the device of having individual words or phrases from the text spoken by members of the quartet, thus fragmenting any sense of a unified poetic voice.
Given the diversity of the collaborators, the range of moods was unsurprisingly wide-ranging across the cycle as a whole, from the earthy rhythmic energy of Isidora Zebeljan’s ‘Dubrovnik’ to the reconstruction of a sacred baroque in Theo Verbey’s ‘Utrecht’ or the modernist dissonance of Gerald Resch’s ‘Vienna’. One of the most effective songs was Jocelyn Pook’s ‘City of London’, where one of the cycle’s central poetic images was put to subversive means. Elsewhere, trees represented freedom and peace, but here the same image functioned as a symbol of social inequality, with the music underlining the critique through its ironic use of a brittle folk idiom. Such songs provided a fantastic platform for the extraordinary vocal versatility of mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg, who moved from a rich operatic sound to sprechstimme, from naïve folkishness to violent snarls.
Designed to create ‘a coherent journey between the styles and characters of the songs and cities’, the instrumental material composed by Nigel Osborne was interesting but perhaps less convincing in its overall effect. The eighth and final song, ‘Jersualem’, was a setting of a text from the Song of Solomon by Habib Hanna Shehadeh that ended with powerful energy, Lixenberg gesticulating wildly to the string players around her. After this, a reprise of the material from Osborne’s slow instrumental introduction with which the work began felt a somewhat anti-climactic way to conclude, an attempt to impose unity on a project that was perhaps most interesting for the heterogeneous perspectives it offered. Regardless, there was much to admire about this project, and, as in the first half, the Brodsky’s playing was enthralling.