The Brodsky Quartet looks like a classy busking act - three lads stand while the lady takes the seat; yet Monday's "Meltdown'' recital at the QEH was anything but polite. The music itself was rich in narrative incident, from the eerie desert noises of Peter Sculthorpe's Jabiru Dreaming to the simulated machine-gun fire of Shostakovich's Eighth Quartet.
First on parade was Pawel Szymanski, a young Pole whose Five Pieces ran the gamut of modernist tactics from Penderecki to Part. It was a fascinating if perplexing sequence, with mournful, downward glissandos - the sort that signal humour, grief or a failing turntable - and plenty of syncopated staccato. There was a serene third movement reminiscent of Part, and a fourth that brought Reich vividly to mind; but the voice is distinctive and the manner of its use unmistakably East European.
Beyond Szymanski came John Woolrich, whose The Death of King Renaud for string quintet saw Jonathan Barritt standing in for an indisposed Jane Atkins. The piece starts out to a powerful unison flurry, then goes on to incorporate all manner of tonal contrasts, with occasional backward glances (or so it seems) at Britten and Bartok's Sixth Quartet. Again, the level of invention was high, but to pit Woolrich against Haydn's C major Quartet Op 54 No 2 (performed in memory of Terence Weil) was to remind us all that the old jokes are still the best.
Haydn's earnestly voiced bag of tricks includes a virtually operatic adagio (with much filigree work for the first violin), an intense minuet trio and a finale that initially poses as a second slow movement, then swings into presto mode before falling back to adagio. Two hundred years later, and we're still astonished - the Brodsky's invigorating performance saw to that - more so perhaps than at the quartet leader Michael Thomas's own catchy, Nyman-esque Harold in Islington, an upbeat sound-portrait of a friend on a sandwich round.
After the interval came Andy Rushton's Awakening 1994, where the Brodskys were supported by Shan Verma (tabla) and Stanley Adler (tampura) for a mild-mannered, East-West "fusion", the high spot of which was Verma's virtuosic tabla solo.
More "fusions" arrived by way of Peter Sculthorpe and the musics of Northern Australia, Torres Strait and Indonesia. Jabiru Dreaming (a rock formation in Kadadu) starts out like a bluntly obsessive processional, then goes on to mimic the wild with what sound like screeching bird-songs and the manic buzz of flying insects. There's a passionate cello cadenza, but the birds have the last say. Of the second movement, Sculthorpe himself writes that it "stems from my belief that Australia is one of the few places on Earth where one can honestly write straightforward happy music" - something of a non sequitur, I fear - at least as applied to this particular work.
Not that "happiness" could (or should) have framed Shostakovich's harrowing Eighth Quartet, a perennial "shocker" that flies high on fierce rhythms, Jewish-style dance tunes (it was written "in memory of the victims of Fascism'') and a striking episode where the distant drone of aircraft engines is punctuated by gun fire. Only when the drone ceases do we realise that the guns might at last be redundant, and peace a possibility. The Brodskys were eloquent commentators and we left the hall suitably humbled.
nThe Brodskys play Elvis Costello: 9pm tonight, QEH, London SE1 (0171- 928 8800)
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