Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg… It is hard to imagine the string quartet repertoire without the huge legacy of composers associated with Vienna. One route through that extraordinary wealth of riches was provided by the Brodsky Quartet’s concert at the Sheldonian Theatre on Saturday evening, beginning with Schubert’s Quartettsatz in C minor (D 703). Apart from some brief sketches, Schubert never composed the other three movements that would have made up the full four-movement work that he presumably planned and this first movement remained unpublished in his lifetime. Given the sense of Viennese tradition that permeated Saturday evening’s programme, it is notable that it was none other than Johannes Brahms who edited the Quartettsatz when it was first published in 1870. Very effective as a stand-alone work, the innovations of the Quartettsatz are considered by many as a crucial step towards the important achievements of the composer’s late instrumental music. Despite a slight sense of uncertainty at the very opening, this performance soon got into its stride, conveying very effectively Schubert’s great talent for allowing blossoming melodic expression to somehow coexist with driving rhythmic momentum.
At the end of the first half came Alexander Zemlinsky’s Quartet no. 4 (1936), composed in response to the death of Alban Berg. Filtered via Berg, but also Mahler and Brahms, one could clearly hear the presence of a specifically Viennese and Schubertian kind of lyricism when heard in the context of this cleverly constructed programme, especially in cellist Jacqueline Thomas’s wonderful, burnished tone in the fifth movement’s moving lament. Juxtaposed with a more ‘modern’ sense of anxiety, agitation and irony – again calling Mahler and Berg to mind – this was a work that fully justified the Brodsky Quartet’s enthusiastic promotion of Zemlinsky, a composer often overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries.
One of those talented contemporaries, of course, was Anton Webern, whose Six Bagatelles (1913) were heard between the Quartettsatz and the Zemlinsky. The thin and delicate texture of these pieces, with ideas moving fleetingly between the players for the most part at very quiet dynamic levels, is just as characteristic of Webern as the oft-cited compression of these extremely short movements, most lasting less than a minute in performance. The Brodsky Quartet met the challenges of Webern’s revolutionary and influential language here with ensemble playing of the highest standard. Each of the small and seemingly insignificant fragments spelt out in dry pizzicato was shaped with care and precision, suggesting teeming expressive depths beneath the surface. ‘Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly’, wrote Schoenberg in his famous preface to the published edition of Webern’s Six Bagatelles. ‘You can stretch every glance out into a poem, every sigh into a novel.’
By way of contrast, Schubert’s instrumental music is better known for what Robert Schumann famously labelled its ‘heavenly lengths’. Unlike the concise Quartettsatz, the ambitious ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet in D minor (D 810), which formed the second half of Brodsky Quartet’s programme, does indeed fit with this image. As something of a warhorse of the repertoire, it is all too easy to find under-rehearsed performances of this work that seem only to go through the motions. As a result, it was something of a relief to hear the freshness and colour that the personal and idiosyncratic approach here brought to the music from the very first bars. The quartet seemed determined to bring out the emotional extremes and turbulence of Schubert’s later music, as in, for example, the sense of shocked withdrawal and stasis created by pulling back the tempo and the dynamic after the initial gestures of violence in the first movement. This is not the only way of playing Schubert, of course, but it was hard to argue with the conviction and commitment of this dramatic reading. In the second movement, a set of variations on a theme from the famous song from which this quartet takes its nickname, Schubert creates an impressive curve of intensity. In a performance that ranged from fragility to imposing power and sweep, the expressive shape of this famous slow movement was communicated very effectively and movingly. The finale, taken at breakneck speed, was simply thrilling.
Leopold Godowksy’s witty arrangement of Alt Wien provided a charming encore for an appreciative audience in the Sheldonian, reminding us of the more lighthearted side to Vienna that had emerged only fleetingly from the more serious tone of the other works on the programme. That seriousness was captured in first violinist Daniel Rowland’s description in an address to the audience between pieces of the Quartettsatz as an ‘explosion’ of both ‘angst’ and ‘tenderness’. With the exception perhaps of Godowsky’s frivolity, such a description seemed an apt way to characterise the whole of this remarkable recital.
For more information about the Brodsky Quartet, please visit their website.