MUSIC / Strength in numbers: Brodsky Quartet - Spadesbourne Hall

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The Independent Culture
FOR ALL its abstract credentials, few genres offer a clearer view of a composer's soul than the string quartet. The uniformity of colour and the elegance of balance in the medium throw the compositional burden on to content rather than ornament. Few composers in the 20th century have understood these qualities more fully than Shostakovich. His 15 quartets may not provide a complete conspectus of his career - he only began composing them in 1938, two years after his critical mauling at the hands of Stalin's henchmen - but they do present the listener with a surprisingly comprehensive map of a tortured soul.

Complete cycles of Beethoven quartets are familiar enough; indeed, the full run of Shostakovich quartets has been essayed before. But it seems likely that Bromsgrove Concerts have scored a first in presenting all 15 quartets in a single weekend performed by a single group. The sense of community which concentration had generated in a capacity audience was clear by the second day. Shostakovich freaks of every magnitude had come from afar (Australia in one case) to share in a unique event. Ways into the composer's personal world were offered in a number of talks breaking up the five main concerts of three quartets each: John Joubert brought his composer's mind to bear on Shostakovich's musical style and David Rudkin gave a virtuoso defence of his screenplay adaptation of Volkov's Testimony.

None of these excellent staging posts in the odyssey itself would have offered such complete satisfaction had not the playing of the Brodsky Quartet been so remarkable. Few ensembles understand this repertoire better. There is an honesty and directness about their vision of Shosta kovich which is quite untrammelled by the high pressure virtuosity that some groups bring to the more overtly expressive quartets. In a chronological presentation of all 15 works, intelligence and insight proved to be the most effective way of building a picture of the composer's inner life; far more effective than the kind of aggravated assault on, for example, the Eighth Quartet which can work so well in a single recital.

The revelations came as often in the juxtaposing of individual quartets as in the performances. The Fourth Quartet has a lightweight reputation and yet, as a prelude to the magnificent, and scandalously rarely heard, Fifth Quartet, it emerged by reflection a radiant counterweight. The Eighth Quartet, by far the best known of the series, gained even greater strength as a public expression of grief and horror in the presence of the worryingly introspective Seventh Quartet. Apart from nearly superhuman concentration, which on Saturday only seemed to flag in the Sixth Quartet, the magic of the performances derived from the players' sensitivity to Shostakovich's rhythmic structures. By comparison with Stravinsky and Bartok, Shostakovich can seem limited in his use of rhythmic gesture, deadeningly so when performers focus too insistently on foreground fragments. Perhaps with a view to the effect of the whole, the Brodsky Quartet nudged rather than pushed Shostakovich's characteristic rhythms. A faithful adherence to the composer's metronome marks also led to a far broader range of basic tempi than is normal in standard interpretations of Shostakovich's favourite designation, Allegretto.

Uncommon sweetness of tone in every register and a refusal to exaggerate for the sake of short- term effect, made the Brodsky manner the best kind of Baedeker for this unique event. From the point of view of a listener who is far from being a fully paid-up member of the Shostakovich fan club, I can vouch for a clear sense of new vistas opening.