Golden Oldies: A Fiftieth Anniversay Celebration

The Brodsky Quartet celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2022, and we like to think we still look young enough for that to be almost unbelievable!

How has it been fifty years since we started this lifelong journey together? Looking back, I find it wonderful that ten- and twelve-year-olds were already infused with passion and with a belief in the longevity that is now playing out. Two of us remain from the beginning, one joined as we turned professional, forty years ago, and our new fourth member has trodden her own similar path in the endlessly fulfilling life that is the string quartet.

It has become something of a tradition that we release a compilation disc once every ten years, and so we are adding one to the list for this special anniversary. We were inspired this time to look back at the early history of the group. Growing up in the North East of England in the 1970s, as children not yet in our teens, we were already as passionate about this string quartet as we are now, determined to make it our lives’ work. At that tender age we would delve into some of the most complex works in the glorious repertoire, refusing to be deterred by the limitations of our abilities. Tackling Bartók and Janáček, we learned the notes as we went, keeping up in frantic ensemble, playing the rhythms and feeling the beats. We even transcribed some works we could not get hold of, feeling motivated especially by Shostakovich who was still in the process of completing his quartet cycle. When a new one received its première, we would gather round the radio and listen in excited awe, as most other kids were listening to the ‘pop parade’ to hear the week’s latest hits. Then we would write down the parts as we heard them, so that we could get to play them as soon as possible.

As time went on and we began to receive invitations to perform concerts, we were also asked from time to time to play light music for parties and events. So we decided to make arrangements of popular classical works to suit the occasion. Before long we had quite a collection and, as our professional career took off, we used these lollipops as end-of-concert encores. The collection has grown through the last four decades and a lot of it has been committed to disc; Brodsky Unlimited, Lament, and Petits-fours, each in its turn, has marked key milestones for the Quartet. So now, in our Golden Anniversary year, we have assembled a playlist from past and new arrangements, taking inspiration from the old days and even revamping some of our childhood efforts.

Scott Joplin’s rags were some of our favourite ditties to present way back then, so we have dug out an old arrangement which I made in the mid-seventies, when The Sting hit our cinema screens and brought wider fame to that iconic composer. (It needed some tweaking but wasn’t half bad, for a thirteen-year-old!)

Paul wanted to pay tribute to the colleagues who started the group and who have stayed loyal for fifty years, so he has featured Ian and me heavily in his offerings.

For me, he explored some of the most-loved cello tunes, and we invited the wonderful Laura van der Heijden – with whom we recently released a recording of Schubert’s famous C major Quintet – to join us again on second cello, which adds an extra richness to some of these arrangements. As well as the astounding Prelude X by Bach and Debussy’s haunting Prélude VI, we have the heart-breaking lament to his homeland, Song of the Birds, by the exiled Pablo Casals and Fauré’s dream-like Après un rêve, both favourites of the cello repertoire. And I love the idea of two swans gliding side by side on still waters... after all, swans mate for life and should never be alone!

Ian, being almost as proficient on the piano as he is on the violin, would tinkle away at Debussy or Bach whenever there was a keyboard available and so some of his old jingles are included here – those two Arabesques amongst his confirmed favourites. And teenaged Ian would bash away gleefully, four hands at the keys with pianist friends back home, in the riotous Sonate pour piano à quatre mains by Poulenc. He also had a go-to warm-up piece on the violin: if I had a penny for every time I have heard him play the opening bars of Bazzini’s La Ronde des lutins over the years...! But he never got much further, so as punishment I have made an arrangement, featuring him, of the whole piece. He rose to the challenge with aplomb!

No encore collection of ours would be complete without our dear friend Shostakovich. So I have added two more of the Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano to accompany Ian’s arrangement of the Prelude, which appeared on Petits-fours. The Elegy and Polka embody all that is sweet and carefree in the often sadly tormented life of that genius.

Two of the numbers pay tribute to past violinists in the group. Khachaturian’s famous Sabre Dance was actually arranged by Andrew Haveron some twenty years ago, and Elgar’s touching Adieu, which we often perform as an encore after the Piano Quintet, was Paul’s way of saying farewell to Daniel Rowland when he left the Quartet in 2018. Now our newest member, Krysia, has happily embraced this project with some offerings of her own; three of Satie’s hypnotic and quintessential Gnossiennes.

We dedicate An Intimate Letter from the Judean Desert – the one work on the list which was not arranged by us but is played in its original form – to its composer, Isidora Žebeljan. This astonishing musician, artist, and human being, who died far too young, in 2020, is sadly missed by all of us who knew and loved her.

Finally, it may seem blasphemous to attempt a string version of Beethoven’s magnificent Sonata quasi una fantasia better known as the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, one of the piano repertoire’s most revered works. And yet we feel that Beethoven would have approved. We have explored all his endlessly fascinating and rewarding quartet output since the start of our fifty-year journey together and feel somewhere close to knowing his spirit. At a competitive music festival in 1973, where we played his sublime ‘Cavatina’, the adjudicator accused us of being ‘too young to understand, and therefore attempt to perform, Late Beethoven!’ We were devastated by his prejudice and stuck to our guns, never allowing a season to pass without at least one Beethoven work in the repertoire and over the years going on to record them all. Now perhaps we are old enough to pay tribute to this giant of the musical world with a small thank you for all that he has brought us.


© 2023 Jacqueline Thomas

Brodsky Quartet

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