Memorable performances from Costello and the Brodsky Quartet

The Brodsky Quartet QEH, London

When Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet gave their Punishing Kiss as part of Wednesday's "Meltdown" event at the QEH, they were working within a time-honoured tradition. Popular balladeers and "classical" string players habitually work well together. John McCormack sang his heart out to Kreisler's violin and Bing Crosby partnered Heifetz in "Where My Caravan Has Rested". But Costello and the Brodskys go one further. Their manner of storytelling is more akin to the world of, say, Samuel Barber's Dover Beach, with harmonically inventive (and often imaginatively extended) arrangements that on this occasion prompted a heady sequence of memorable performances.

The atmosphere was both relaxed and electric. When, for example, did you last enter the QEH to the sound of canned music? Not Costello's, I hasten to add, but a pre-concert shot of John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison, musical canapes to go with the drinks that virtually everyone brought into the hall. There were celebrities everywhere, including the septuagenarian Moondog, who crossed the front aisle like some hallowed soothsayer. Costello and the Brodskys entered together and launched into their opening selections without ceremony. The concert's first half was made up entirely of arrangements for voice and string quartet, with Michael Thomas's "Skeleton" being one of the most outstanding - a haunting, tender-hearted piece, with pertinent references to the slow movement of Sibelius's Violin Concerto.

Jacqueline Thomas was responsible for a harmonically outreaching version of Jerome Kern's 1914 ballad "They'll Never Believe Me" and, of course, Costello's own song-cycle-cum-CD-album The Juliet Letters was healthily represented. The mix worked wonderfully well: Costello, a people's poet par excellence, whose expressive voice and unaffected stage manner spell absolute sincerity, was supported by consistently inspired string playing.

The second half saw Diego Masson direct a larger group made up of the Brodskys plus two horns, two clarinets, trumpet, flute and clarinet. Repertoire included Michael McGlynn's arrangement of Costello's early song "New Lace Sleeves", Bill Frisell's characteristically fresh paint-job on "Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue" (originally composed for Charles Brown) and Clive Langer's musically eventful "Shipbuilding". Costello was generous with his praise for all on stage - and decisive about leaving on time. It had been a rewarding but exhausting experience, later-starting and longer- lasting than most SBC classical concerts. It was also tremendously stimulating, with subject matter that ranged from humorous social commentary to tender reflection ("Almost blue, doing things we used to do...").

As to defining the event, I'd be inclined to think more in terms of a "shared path" than the woefully inadequate "cross-over" epithet. This was quality stuff, and as significant for the development of music now as anything we're likely to hear from the hard-line avant-garde.

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