If you’ve ever seen the film A Late Quartet, you’ll appreciate that a String Quartet is a fascinating thing. Four people working together, each person in tune (figuratively and musically) with the other, performing, breathing and thinking as one; it’s like a beautiful, intricate, highly charged feat of human engineering.
St George’s Bristol has had the pleasure of working with one of the best for some three decades. Emerging from the North East of England in the mid 1970s, the Brodsky Quartet today represents the very best, and over the years they have engaged audiences with ambitious programmes and creative collaborations, proving itself to be so much more than a Classical ensemble. On our very stage they have not only performed the great quartet cycles, but also memorable concerts with artists such as Björk and Elvis Costello, the likes of which are still talked about to this day.
This season they make a triumphant return to Bristol as they take on the complete Shostakovich Quartet Cycle across a series of concerts, together forming the heart of our music and conflict series The World Changed. The first concert took place on Monday 1 September at the Royal West of England Academy with a performance of the first three quartets. The reaction from the near-capacity audience was one of some awe, the backdrop itself enough to make us catch our breath; Ian Shaw’s imposing sculpture (titled ‘Casting a Dark Democracy’) loomed large behind the quartet like a harbinger of death (see the image below).
The rest of the cycle is to be performed in four further concerts on consecutive days in October. Once again we take the music outside of St George’s, firstly to The Lord Mayor’s Chapel (at 1pm on Friday 17 October) and then to the Anglican Chapel at Arnos Vale Cemetery (at 1pm on Saturday 18 October). Following both lunchtime concerts the Brodsky’s take to the stage at St George’s (at 7pm on Friday 17 & Saturday 18 October), with the last concert featuring the deeply emotional and darkly intense final three quartets.
We sat down with Paul Cassidy (viola) and founding member Ian Belton (violin) to have a quick chat about the Shostakovich Cycle and some of the surprising places they’ve been asked to perform…
You have quite a long history with this cycle. Can you remember the first time you played it?
(Paul) An arts centre in Bracknell… Stockton? Queen Elizabeth Hall, maybe that’s the best answer. The three were within a very short space of time.
When was that?
(Ian) 1989… Soon after the series at the Southbank; we recorded it all for Teldarc.
And you’re not playing it in order for this set of concerts… Why is that?
(Paul) Well we’re not; it’s slightly different with this because here we are doing the first concert a month before the next four, so it’s slightly unusual. We tempered it to try and suit the venues a little bit more as well, but normally we do pretty much play them straight through. It’s a fantastic journey… Of all the cycles, Beethoven or Schubert, or any of these big cycles – Bartok – there’s none quite like this in terms of the kind of humanitarian ‘journey of the man’.
Why is this cycle so important when talking about music and conflict?
(Paul) Well Shostakovich famously lived through Stalin’s regime, so you can’t really ignore that, and in many ways that’s what the public knows. You know, you mention Shostakovich and as far as the public are concerned it’s that kind of story.
What are the joys and the challenges of performing the cycle?
(Ian) Well I suppose we want to sort of lead the audience through, but then everyone seemed to find the last quartets a little bit more deep, possibly challenging for some people. And yet if they do the journey they probably get into it; it’s informative to play the perhaps slightly easier on the ear ones, which perhaps go to number nine or ten, then the later ones which are very different, for obvious reasons.
(Paul) I think when you realise that he intended to write twenty four quartets in all the keys, the way he did with the preludes, and then you stand back and see where he got to – number fifteen – and you look at the cycle, it’s such a kind of perfect thing. I mean you can’t help but imagine that maybe there is a power somewhere that kind of pre-destines these things, because the way it’s lined up – the middle, number eight, is himself, it’s his own epitaph and he said that himself. There you are, C Minor, him in the middle with not only his epitaph, but his comment on fascism, War and the futility of War, and the destruction. He’s flanked by two of his three wives, I mean it just seems kind of perfect, you know, it starts with the birth of his son in the first quartet and the last one was one of the greatest commentaries on life itself that has ever been written by anyone.
It’s quite a setting in that room where you’re performing tonight… Can a venue influence or have an effect on the way you play?
(Paul) It makes me think we should have played number eight (laughs)… We have played in various places and, I mean, you do get inspired in ways like that but I think really what’s important for us is the sound, because if you turned up to Dresden Town Hall, or somewhere that is evocative and so on and so forth, but it sounds like a dull theatre, then you’re really up against it. So yes it is inspiring, but it’s crucially important that the sound is good.
Of course that’s not a problem at St George’s…
(Ian) No it’s not…
Is it a venue you particularly enjoy playing?
(Ian) Over the years we’ve played there more times than I can remember.
(Paul) It’s like a second home, if not in fact our home in many ways; I mean we’ve been coming for thirty years!
And what is it about the acoustic in there do you think?
(Ian) It’s quite possible to play in a beautiful hall, where everyone says the sound’s lovely, but you don’t feel comfortable. Then you get the others where there’s a lot of wood, for example, on the stage and very plush nice seating and you feel marvellous and the audience has to sit near the front to get the effect. It (St George’s) seems to fit all sorts of scenarios… but when there’s a reasonable sized audience there it’s incredible. The rehearsals never sound so good, but when the audience comes in…
When you’re back in October you’ll be playing at smaller chapels, as well as at St George’s… What’s the most unusual place you’ve performed?
(Paul) The ninth green of a golf club; that was pretty bizarre wasn’t it? We did a late night concert in Majorca, there was a festival there, and when we turned up to play we were actually on the green, the ninth hole! We’ve played in caves, where was that? Gibraltar! We played on a boat here, that ship that you’ve hot down there, a tall ship; we’ve also played in a ski lodge in front of a ski slope, that was in America, that was weird.
(Ian) Recently, last year, we played a series of concerts in Holland where there were nine hundred people, and the next night we were playing in what used to be a really small Jewish synagogue and there were just thirty people there. It felt like perfect chamber music, but it was quite an experience.
And what’s next for you?
(Paul) Well we’ve got some concerts in the UK, and also in Poland because we’re commemorating the Panufnik centenary. We’ve recorded all his quartets, his sextets; so there’s a lot of stuff going on to do with Panufnik. So Poland, London, Sweden for a week, then onto Mexico for two weeks; a lot of stuff like that…
And then back to Bristol in October.
Yes! Looking forward to it.
Friday 17 October, 1pm
Brodsky Quartet, Shostakovich Quartet Cycle II at The Lord Mayor’s Chapel
Friday 17 October, 7pm
Brodsky Quartet, Shostakovich Quartet Cycle III at St George’s Bristol
Saturday 18 October, 1pm
Brodsky Quartet, Shostakovich Quartet Cycle IV at Arnos Vale Cemetery Chapel
Saturday 18 October, 7pm
Brodsky Quartet, Shostakovich Quartet Cycle V at St George’s Bristol
Thanks to Ian Belton and Paul Cassidy, The Royal West of England Academy and Imogen Morris at Hazard Chase. Interview by Michael Beek.