It was 1972 in Middlesbrough in the north of England when four schoolkids aged between 10 and 12 decided they wanted to form a string quartet. 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, the then relatively obscure Russian composer’s quartets, that they wrote out the parts themselves from radio broadcasts.
More than 40 years on and with two original members remaining – second violin Ian Belton and cellist Jacqueline Thomas – the Brodsky Quartet has been touring the world, performing in more intimate spaces and returning to their first love: the 15 quartets which make up this extraordinarily diverse cycle.
Critics may have been divided about their 1989 Teldec set, detractors considering them “slick” and “cool”. But there should be no such worries with this stunning set taken from live performances at Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw. With more than 60 groundbreaking recordings under their belt – and with their characteristic full-blooded sound – the Brodskys bring wisdom, searing intensity and undimmed passion to these works, described in the liner notes by violist Paul Cassidy as “friends we have lived with for 40 years”.
Along with the Kronos Quartet, the Brodskys were one of the first quartets to break free from the mainstream repertoire. Always outward looking and adventurous, their “crossover” collaborations with Elvis Costello, Björk and Sting have been valued
as highly as their recordings of mainstream and contemporary works. But they have never wandered far away from their first love, “the beautiful human being who went by the name of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich”, to use Cassidy’s words.
Deeply personal and enigmatic, the canon covers 36 years of the composer’s life, from 1938 and the birth of his son Maxim to 1974, just a few months before his death. One is dedicated to his first wife Nina (No 7) and another to third wife Irina (No 9), as well as to his friend and fellow composer Mieczysław Weinberg (No 10) and the various members of the Beethoven Quartet (Nos 11-14).
Brodsky’s newest recruit Daniel Rowland, who joined in 2007, is a charismatic leader with an intensity, energy and sweetness of tone. The result is a heady and powerful set, beautifully produced by the Chandos crew.