The Brodsky Quartet has been a feature of the chamber music scene for more than forty years, and it was a heady blend of dynamism and experience which they brought to their Music Nairn concert on Saturday evening. They have made two complete recordings of the Shostakovich quartets, the latest with their current line-up, so their opening account of Shostakovich's Seventh String Quartet could draw on an unparalleled depth of familiarity. Pitched in F-sharp minor, the work finds Shostakovich at his most cryptic and acerbic. It is dedicated to the memory to his first wife Nina, and is shot through with his shock and pain at her unexpected death. Angular and highly dramatic playing from the quartet ensured that this powerful music made a considerable impact. With cellist Jacqueline Thomas seated on a raised podium and the other three standing, the interactions between the players seemed intensified, and the immediacy of the music heightened.
Borodin's Second Quartet followed, a work also dedicated to a wife, in this case the composer's still-living spouse Ekaterina, represented by the first violin in contrast to the cello's embodiment of the composer. This is a wonderfully romantic piece, in which these two instruments touchingly join in closely imitative love duets across the ensemble, particularly in the famous Notturno, which suitably found a popular afterlife in the song 'And this is my beloved' from Kismet. Fascinatingly, the ensemble seemed to seek out the pre-resonances of Shostakovich in this lush music, although just occasionally for me their intensity of approach bordered on aggression. I would have liked a more stable sense of ensemble for this lyrical music, but I did admire the passion of their reading.
The decision to play one of the legendary Late Quartets by Beethoven was significant for me – I have made these works my autumn project, as to my shame I have never really felt that I understood them fully. The 12th Quartet in E-flat major is a relatively unproblematic work, but beside passages of the sublimely visionary there are curiously trite episodes and progressions of presumably intentional artlessness which are startling, and which led many of the composer's contemporaries to write the works off as the ravings of a deaf madman. Always admired by fellow visionaries, the Late Quartets served a seminal role in establishing the language of contemporary music, to an extent that it is now impossible to unravel whether they were in fact wonderfully prescient or whether this apparent prescience is self-fulfilling.
The Brodskies took no prisoners in their uncompromising account of this remarkable repertoire, underlining its revolutionary and challenging nature. If again just occasionally first violin Daniel Rowland's enthusiasm verged on the wild, again the power of the group's interpretation was undeniable. As if to soothe our troubled senses, they calmed us with a serene performance of an arrangement of Mendelssohn's 'On Wings of Song' – not as announced one of his Songs without Words, but a song very much with words by Heinrich Heine. However, spiky satire ultimately prevailed as the group followed this with bravura performance of an outrageously camp Polka - by Shostakovich.