The ink had barely dried on the announcement that the multi-award winning and ground breaking British Brodsky Quartet had a new first violin in Gina McCormack, former leader of the Sorrel and Maggini ensembles, when they embarked on an overseas tour. So when they turned up in Sydney for the latest of the Utzon Series at the Opera House, it was indeed, as curator of the series Yarmila Alfonzetti said, the start of a new era for the group. The change was so recent that the line-up in the program photograph still showed Daniel Rowland, who joined in 2007 as their third leader and left to pursue solo opportunities earlier this month.
The Brodsky Quartet. Photo © Duncan Matthews
The ensemble chose a program centred on the role of the fugue in the musical canon – from Bach to Beethoven via Mozart, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich – to showcase their new acquisition, who started violin lessons as a nine-year-old growing up in Cape Town. It was a shrewd choice as there is no better way to hear the individual voices of a quartet playing with and against each other.
The program started with the seemingly simple Contrapunctus I from Bach’s The Art of Fugue and it was immediately apparent that McCormack had no problems melding with the trademark bold, adventurous and warm tone and approach of her new collaborators. When the sixth Contrapunctus followed – a jaunty inversion of the fugue’s original theme – the seal was set. And when the recital ended 90 minutes later it was obvious to all that the “new era” will be as exciting as all those that have gone before.
It was 1972 in Middlesbrough in the north of England when four school kids aged between 10 and 12 decided they wanted to form a string quartet. Of those four only second violin Ian Belton and cellist Jacqueline Thomas remain. Within two years they were winning national competitions, performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s music to a packed out Royal Albert Hall in London. They had been so keen to play this then relatively obscure Russian composer’s quartets that they wrote out the parts themselves from radio broadcasts. Their last appearance in the Utzon Series, in 2013, featured a performance of the complete Shostakovich cycle over five concerts and their special affinity for this composer was also on show in their latest program with a spellbinding account of the harrowing Eighth Quartet closing the recital.
Mozart’s study of Bach’s scores, particularly counterpoint – which later served him so well in his operatic works – followed on from The Art of Fugue with a bracing and elegant reading of the Adagio and Fugue K546.
Mendelssohn also studied his Bach – playing an enormous role as a conductor in restoring his music to the concert roster – and owed most of what he learnt about string quartet writing to Beethoven, so his delightful Fugue from Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81, made the perfect link to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, which, instead of closing the program as originally published, would lead into a brief interval.
McCormack, bouncing up and down in the highly charged passages, led Beethoven’s granite-like work from the hip. Hers was a highly nuanced performance with some magical moments in the quieter passages before the whirlwind finale was unleashed. After a welcome emotional breather the Brodskys returned for the Shostakovich. Violist Paul Cassidy has described the 15 extraordinarily diverse quartets as “friends we have lived with for 40 years”.
The Eighth, the often-enigmatic composer’s reaction to seeing the results of the bombing of Dresden in World War II, was written in 1960 at a time when he was said to be feeling suicidal after the breakup of his second marriage and he originally intended that the powerful work would be performed at his funeral. The most personal of the cycle, based on Shostakovich’s musical signature – the notes D, E flat, C and B natural, which in German read as DSCH or the first letters of his name – this was perhaps the only piece that could follow Beethoven’s ultimate statement on the fugue form.
There was a pause of almost a minute before the audience applauded – testimony to the spell that the new-look Brodsky Quartet had cast.