“Inspired programming; exceptional playing” – Shostakovich String Quartet Cycle at Kings Place with the Brodsky Quartet

Guest review by David Lake

The Brodsky Quartet – sometimes called ‘the British Kronos’ – have been around for 50 years, but, as Paul Cassidy tells us, “have only played the complete Shostakovich cycle three times”, his soft, lightly-lilting Derry accent lulling us into the belief that we’re in for a relaxed weekend of ever-so-soft string music. “Only”!?

From the outset, we’re in unstable territory. Violist Paul Cassidy and cellist Jacqueline Thomas sit down with eminent Shostakovich expert Elizabeth Wilson to give us not only the musical detail we need to ‘understand’ the quartets – if indeed we ever can because we’re told that Shostakovich was a master of quotations, wit, irony and acerbic asides, often-times to cock a snook at the authorities without them realising it – but to fill us in on the socio-political background and how it affected Dmitri Dmitryevich and his fellow artists.

Later in the weekend, we learnt that Wilson, taught as she was by Mstislav Rostropovich, had taken Benjamin Britain and Peter Pears to meet Shostakovich in Russia and hear his 13th quartet prior to its premiere in his apartment! We knew we were in the presence of history..,

Over the course of the next seven concerts, each introduced by one-or-more of the Brodsky’s
and Wilson, our emotions were systematically wrung out in the way that the KGB and FSB
must have treated Shostakovich – from the hopeful start of the C Major first to the ever-popular eighth to the ‘dying of the light’ of the 11th the playing is exquisite, detailed and engaging in true Brodsky style. The blending is so precise that at times it is difficult to tell who has which line, Shostakovich not helping by moving the parts around so that registers and instruments become confused, all part, we learn, of adding to constant sense of unease which dominated Shostakovich’s life.

Before we know it, we arrive at the final concert on Sunday evening, preceded by a 45-minute lecture by musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker recapping what we’ve heard, up to now. We hear how the quartets were kept private whilst Shostakovich was forced to dole out Soviet tosh – these were his inner thoughts, his hopes, his demons.

Then comes the 15th. Oh My.

This brooding, at times angry, quasi-religious and very final masterpiece ends with a single
held note across the players; dying, as was Shostakovich. Except the viola keeps the slightest
of trills going. The sound stopped after what felt like a lifetime but Cassidy’s little finger kept
playing, soundlessly, for what must have been two full minutes with the hall in total silence.
What we witnessed was the last breath, the final heartbeats of the man, the music – and the
fabulous weekend.

Relaxed? No. Educated? Yes. Full of admiration for Dmitri Dmitryevich and the Brodsky
Quartet. Inspired programming; exceptional playing.

David Lake is a research scientist, engineer, pianist, concert-goer and choral singer, and sees the barriers between art and science as purely artificial and unhelpful.  He is currently studying for his Licentiate Diploma (piano) and recently achieved a first in his BA from the OU, whilst carrying on with the science-stuff in 6G mobile networks for the “day-job.”

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