The string quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello—is one of the mainstays of classical music. A vast repertoire of chamber music has been amassed over the centuries, but only in the last few decades have foursomes gained a kind of mainstream popularity. Among those filling both concert halls and pop stages in recent years is the Brodsky Quartet. In both their demeanor and their performance, the musicians are known for instilling energy into the string quartet. As London Times critic Geoff Brown said in a review of their String Quartets, “If you thought music for string quartet was dainty and bloodless, this CD will make you think again.”
The Brodsky Quartet—or the Brodskys, as many refer to them—was formed by four musicians studying at the Royal Manchester (now Royal Northern) College of Music in the 1970s. Cellist Jacqueline Thomas and her husband, violist Paul Cassidy, joined violinist Ian Bel-ton and Jacqueline’s brother, violinist Michael Thomas, to create the quartet, named for one of their instructors, the Russian-born violinist Adolf Brodsky. The group became the first quartet in residence at Cambridge University in 1985 and began earning a reputation, according to David Thomas of the Sunday Telegraph, “for brilliance and idiosyncrasy.” In later years, Michael
Members include Ian Belton , violin; Paul Cassidy , viola; Andrew Haveron (replaced Michael Thomas; joined group, 1999), violin; Jacqueline Thomas , cello; Michael Thomas (left group, 1999), violin.
Group formed in Manchester, England, 1972; debuted in London, 1982; became first resident quartet at Cambridge University, 1985; debuted at Carnegie Hall, 1991; released, with Elvis Costello, The Juliet Letters, 1993; appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, 1994; have collaborated and performed with Björk, Dave Brubeck, Django Bates, Paul McCartney; released Opus 18 Project, six new compositions based on themes by Beethoven, 2000.
Awards: Royal Philharmonic Society Award for outstanding contribution to music, 1998.
Addresses: Management —Marjon Koenekoop, Delfina Studios, 50 Bermondsey St., London SE1 3UD, England. Website—Brodsky Quartet Official Website: http://www.brodskyquartet.co.uk.
Thomas left to pursue other musical interests; his place was taken by Andrew Haveron, who recalled to Thomas that when he was approached to join the Brodsky Quartet he had initial doubts. “To me [they] were a household name, but I had no idea how they played,” Haveron remarked. “I spoke to my friends and they said, ‘Aren’t they the hip, trendy ones?’”
Hip and trendy they may have been, but from the beginning, the Brodskys had a mission to redefine the appeal of the chamber quartet. To that end they have developed “a magnificent classical pedigree,” noted Sunday Telegraph interviewer David Thomas, “plus the added street cred of collaborative projects with Elvis Costello, Björk, Dave Brubeck and Paul McCartney.”
The Brodsky Quartet has interpreted the works of such classical figures as Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, and Bartok. At the same time, they have performed the sometimes challenging music of the early-twentieth-century composers, with attention-getting results. Gramophone’s Adam Sweeting, in an interview posted at the Brodsky Quartet website, declared that the quartet has “adroitly demolished the accepted notion that anything by [Anton] Webern or [Arnold] Schoenberg is harsh and atonal”; indeed, the quartet released a new arrangement of Langsamer Satz and Quartet in D major that Sweeting described as “music so warm and romantic that they put an ironic sticker on the disc: ‘WARNING: This CD contains tunes!’”
Continuing in the twentieth-century vein, the Brodsky Quartet teamed up with vocalist Anne Sofie von Otter to release a compendium of Ottorino Respighi chamber music. Reviewing Respighi String Quartets for Gramophone, Andrew Aschenbach said the collaboration represented “an excellent coupling.” Singling out the piece II Tramonto (The Sunset), Aschenbach said the number “has a sort of pre-Raphaelite quality that is most appealing.” Julian Haylock of Strad also praised the II Tramonto performance. This number, he noted, is more commonly performed by a full string orchestra, “not that anyone is likely to notice with Anne Sofie van Otter and the Brodskys [in] such radiant form.”
One of the Brodskys’ best-known collaborations came in 1993, when they provided musical accompaniment on The Juliet Letters, an album for voice and strings, written by Elvis Costello. The songs take the form of missives—love letters, suicide notes, junk mail—collected by a professor in Verona and addressed to Shakespeare’s famous victim of love gone wrong. While Costello’s biting lyrics drew much critical attention, “the project was a true collaboration with members of the quartet participating in all facets of the songs’ composing,” according to a reviewer for the Love Blender website. The Juliet Letters is also notable for a vocal cameo by violist Paul Cassidy, who croons, “Romeo is calling you” in harmony with Costello.
Costello described working with the Brodsky Quartet as an unexpected pleasure. “There are several pieces of luck apart from simply meeting and finding compatibility as people,” Costello stated at the Bright Blue Times website. “One is that the tone of the Quartet seems to blend with the natural tone of my voice; and another is that the musical form is very suited to this kind of intimate storytelling, which a letter is.” Costello and the Brodskys toured with a concert version of The Juliet Letters; later, the singer Björk asked for a string arrangement from the album for her song “Hyperbal-lad.” Eventually Björk and the Brodskys toured together, the string players opening the singer’s show with arrangements by Stravinsky and Szymanski before the five of them performed together, including arrangements of Björk’s original music.
Dedication and longevity are Brodsky hallmarks; in three decades there’s been only one turnover within the quartet. “In a successful musical ensemble,” Haveron told the Sunday Telegraph, “everyone has to be an expert in the arts of diplomacy. It’s a question of pride. You have to have absolute respect for the other three, and they for you.” According to the Sunday Telegraph, Jacqueline Thomas even performed the same night she gave birth to her and Paul’s second child, going from the stage to the hospital.
A live performance finds the musicians standing to face the audience, as opposed to sitting in the tight circle characteristic of many string quartets. Though they continue to perform the classics, the group’s pop-music connections have led some to wonder if the Brodskys are selling out. As Haveron noted in Sweeting’s article, “I don’t know if our awareness of other types of music is more than anyone else’s, it’s just that we’ve decided we’re not going to allow ourselves to be pigeonholed.” “We tend to work on projects that have a bit of thought behind them,” Cassidy told Thomas. “We could probably make more income by dumbing down slightly…,” he added, “but we could never be happy in that world.”
Borodin: String Quartet No. 2, Teldec, 1991.
Brodsky Unlimited, Teldec, 1992.
Shostakovich: The String Quartets, Elektra/Asylum, 1992.
(With Elvis Costello) The Juliet Letters, Warner Bros., 1993.
Lament, Silva America, 1994.
Mozart: String Quartet No. 17; Haydn: String Quartet No. 42, Silva America, 1996.
Best of Brodsky Quartet, Elektra/Asylum, 2000.
Elegie, Silva America, 2000.
Ludwig van Beethoven: The Opus 18 Project, Challenge Classics, 2000.
Music from Vienna, vols. 1 and 2, Challenge Classics, 2000.
Ottorino Respighi: II Tramonto/String Quartets, Challenge Classics, 2000.
Peter Sculthorpe: Island Dreaming/String Quartets, Challenge Classics, 2000.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Chamber Works, Challenge Classics, 2002.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky/Benjamin Britten: String Quartets, Challenge Classics, 2002.
Gramophone, April 2000; August 2000.
Opera News, June 2001, p. 60.
Strad, July 2000; November 2000.
Sunday Telegraph, March 6, 2000; May 26, 2002.
Times (London, England), April 30, 2002.
“Brodsky Quartet,” All Classical Guide, http://www.allclassical.com (February 19, 2003).
Brodsky Quartet Official Website, http://www.brodskyquartet.co.uk (November 21, 2002).
“Costello on Costello,” Bright Blue Times, http://www.astheygo.com/econtjl.htm (November 28, 2002).
“The Juliet Letters,” Love Blender, http://www.loveblender.com/1997october/review.html (November 28, 2002).
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