Dmitri Shostakovich Complete String Quartet Cycle
Shostakovich has become synonymous with the Brodsky Quartet name. Their 2012 London performance of the complete string quartet cycle resulted in their taking the prestigious title ‘Artistic Associate’ at London’s Kings Place – a residency which lasted ten years, culminating in a triumphant repeat cycle of the fifteen works over two days. It therefore seems fitting that the legacy of their inimitable 50 years as a quartet has been to offer complete Shostakovich cycles around the world, allowing the full immersive experience to be accessible to all in the coming seasons.
Malvern Concert Club is proud and delighted in equal measure to have been invited by the Brodsky Quartet to host this Shostakovich cycle in Malvern in June 2024.
About the Brodsky Quartet
Krysia Osostowicz violin
Ian Belton violin
Paul Cassidy viola
Jacqueline Thomas cello
Since forming in 1972, the Brodsky Quartet have performed over 3,500 concerts on the major stages of the world and released more than 70 recordings. Having recently celebrated their 50th anniversary, the Brodsky Quartet continue to enjoy a busy international performing schedule, extensively touring the major festivals and venues throughout Australasia, North and South America, Asia and Europe as well as in the UK, where the quartet is based. Their prominent presence on the international chamber music scene, as well as in a range of educational affiliations, has been ensured by their never-ending energy and craftsmanship, attracting numerous awards and accolades worldwide.
The Brodsky Quartet have always had a busy recording career and currently enjoy an exclusive and fruitful relationship with Chandos Records. Releases on the label include a live recording of the complete Shostakovich cycle as well as quartets and quintets by Brahms, Elgar, Janacek, Debussy and more, with a stellar line-up of fellow musicians. Their set of the Late String Quartets of Beethoven was released in 2020 to great critical acclaim and one of their most recent releases, Homage to Bach, comprises the phenomenal premiere recordings of Bach’s three Solo Violin Sonatas arranged by Paul Cassidy. The Quartet marked their 50th anniversary with three diverse releases: the hugely celebrated Schubert Quintet with cellist Laura van der Heijden, Rocking Horse Road with long-term collaborator Jacqui Dankworth, and Golden Oldies, a compendium of encores arranged by the Quartet in celebration of this milestone.
The quartet took their name from the great Russian violinist Adolf Brodsky, the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and a passionate chamber musician. Krysia Osostowicz plays a violin made by Francesco Gofriller, 1720; Ian Belton’s violin is by Giovanni Paolo Maggini, c.1615. Paul Cassidy plays on La Delfina viola, c.1720, courtesy of Sra. Delfina Entrecanales, and Jacqueline Thomas’s cello is by Thomas Perry of Dublin, 1785.
Concerts in the Cycle
The intimacy of bringing a child into the world inspired Shostakovich to turn to that most intimate of all musical forces, the string quartet. Rather like a child, his first quartet is small scale – full of innocence and wonder, becoming more and more spirited, fun-filled and daring.
His second quartet could not be more different. It is a colossal tour de force. The celebratory first movement is followed by one of the most captivating slow movements ever; a wondrous fusion of baroque and jazz. A whirlwind scherzo gives way to a magnificent set of variations which build in speed to a huge life affirming ending.
In the third quartet, we find Shostakovich in unmistakable voice. This extraordinary work takes us on an emotional roller coaster ride from happy-go-lucky, through war and death, to a place where, if you’ve survived, your brow-beaten, exhausted mind tries to make sense of it all.
The sixth quartet finds the composer in a very settled mood. Supposedly written as a little birthday present to himself, it trots along seemingly without a care in the world. Its almost incessant serenity is most uncharacteristic and surprising, an endless conveyor belt of effortless melody.
Quartet No.4 is a glorious and loving gift to the Jewish people who, like himself, were so harshly treated by the regime. It abounds with their folk songs and musical gestures, a most heartfelt and touching affair.
No.5 is a symphony for string quartet. Its origins lie in an ill-fated affair Shostakovich had with a fellow composer, Galina Ustvolskaya. It is rumoured that he proposed marriage to her on more than one occasion and when the relationship ended, he poured out his emotions into this piece. Its three majestic movements unfold seamlessly, plumbing the depths and surfing the highs as we travel musically from the vast open spaces of Russia, to Hawaii briefly, and eventually to heaven itself.
And so we arrive at the heart of the Cycle, a staging post, if you like, on the most personal journey in all of music. No.7, written in memory of his first wife Nina, is the shortest of the set. Almost Webernesque in its succinctness, it nevertheless carries poignancy, its four short movements expressing sadness, humour and anger in equal measure.
No.8, written as his own epitaph, is surely the most intimate and self-revealing work ever composed by anyone. Using his very own four note musical motif, he pours out his heart and soul onto the page, masterfully mapping out his life’s journey.
No.9 is a magnificent five movement declaration of love for his new wife, Irina. Bursting with melody, its boundless energy is intoxicating, reaching fever-pitch in the incomparable final bars which never fail to have me jumping up and down whilst trying to execute them.
The untimely death of Vasili Shirinsky, the 2nd violin of the Beethoven Quartet, led Shostakovich to write four quartets dedicated to the four members of that group who had worked with him so closely.
No.11, written in memory of Vasili is a short, almost reverential tribute in which the characteristics of this gentleman are plain to see: they are never exaggerated, always understated and somehow loving.
Quartet No.12, written for the 1st violin Dmitri Tsiganov, is arguably the most formidable of the fifteen. The gently undulating first movement acts like a prelude to the unleashing of seemingly infinite power in the titanic second movement. Reflective adagios try to take over the scene but the irresistible energy of the main movement always wins out as the music gallops towards an ultimately optimistic ending.
The infamously brooding and personal timbre of the viola leads our composer to a particularly dark and lonely place in No.13. Though it often shows signs of a loving character, this is a troubled soul who cannot escape the walls of his tortured mind. Even the quirky central ‘jazz’ section is confused and goes by in a bit of a blur. This poor unfortunate being inevitably ends up alone, screaming with pent up frustration in a perfect musical depiction of that celebrated Munch painting.
In No.14, Shostakovich seems to do the exact opposite by presenting the cello with a series of roles not necessarily typical of that instrument. The first and last movements are frivolous and enigmatic, our protagonist inhabiting a daydream world. It is in the middle movement that real life comes to call, but even here, in the glorious love duet with the first violin, the cello most unusually takes the upper line, creating a particularly heart-breaking effect. Equally, even here, the music is heavily tinged with nostalgia.
Perhaps it’s because of where it lies in the cycle, between Nina, Dmitri and Irina and the four members of the Beethoven Quartet, but No.10 always strikes me as a little oasis. Whilst its outer movements remain eerily subdued, drained of hope and with little to prove, they do nonetheless serve to highlight two of the most striking movements in the whole set. The furioso second, with its 347 bars of unrelenting venom, is arguably the most bitter of his tirades. This is followed by a particularly beautiful passacaglia whose form is a bit of a Shostakovich trademark. Rather in the way that so many of Beethoven’s great slow movements are in fact sets of variations, so the passacaglia form allows Dmitri to lay out a bass line and repeat it as often as necessary, adding more and more beauty around it. Like Bach before them, these two giants were formidable improvisers.
And so we come to No.15. and frankly, what to say? This is the most intimate and profound commentary on the eternal question of life and death – what’s it all about? The music is stripped back to its bare bones, perpetually alone. Only for one brief moment of its heavenly length do the four players collectively exist. The work is full of emotion, beauty, love, tragedy, humour – it’s all there, but expressed existentially by a mind which appears to be straddling that nebulous line between reality and the unknown. It was Shostakovich’s genius which allowed him to capture these images for us mere mortals to reflect upon.
Notes © Paul Cassidy
Each concert will be introduced from the stage by members of the quartet.
The public can purchase tickets from Malvern Theatres box office £25 per concert, or £100 for all 5 concerts (plus 12% booking fee for non-members of Malvern Theatres’ schemes). You can book online at the Malvern Theatres website or call 01684 892277.
Malvern Concert Club Members get a reduced price of £20 per concert, or £80 for all 5 concerts. You can apply for tickets from the Membership Secretary. Just click the button to fill out the form.