Embarking on several Shostakovich string quartet performance cycles over 2024 and 2025, members of the Brodsky Quartet answer our questions on how to tackle this mammoth of a task

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The Brodsky Quartet © Sarah Cresswell

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When did you first come across the Shostakovich quartets? Which ones did you perform first? Are any of them the least familiar for you?

Jacqueline Thomas (cello): We have been immersed in Shostakovich since our childhood days, starting with no.11. Wanting more, we found a score for no.1 and wrote out the parts so we could have a go. Then nos 3 and 8 quickly followed. We were to perform two movements of no.3 in the Schools Prom ‘77, on a stage in the centre of the arena surrounded by a sea of young people. It was quite an experience! 

We heard the premiere of no.13 on the radio and, having recorded it, managed to take a lot of it down in dictation, as it wasn’t available to buy yet.  

When we were finally asked to perform the whole cycle in the late ‘80s, we still had a handful to learn. No.6 was probably the last to be tackled. Having never heard it, we followed a misprint in the parts and played the entire last movement Adagio. Half way through we were saying, ’this is awful, what was he thinking!?’ Then we checked the score and found that from bar 3 there was the missing Allegro marking! Then it all made sense! 

Krysia Osostowicz (first violin): I had played some Shostakovich with my former group, the Dante Quartet. But when Bromsgrove Concerts invited the Dantes to play all 15 quartets in a weekend marathon in 2018, we had to learn a lot of music fast!

To get to know the cycle better, I spent long car journeys listening to my favourite recording: the 2016 box set of the Brodsky Quartet’s live performances from Amsterdam. I loved those recordings for their creativity and spontaneity, never imagining that I might in future become part of the quartet I admired so much.

Once we started to work together in 2021, I realised that what had attracted me to the Brodskys was not just their passionate commitment to the music, but also their constant spirit of exploration. Since then, I have been revelling in the chance to join their journey of discovery. I was less familiar with some of the later Shostakovich quartets, whose language becomes ever more sparse and refined. It’s been a joy to immerse myself in these works: a well that never runs dry.

Many people say that Shostakovich’s quartets are all similar, and that once you’ve heard a few, you’ve heard them all. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as with Haydn or Beethoven, this music has its own recognisable language which evolves and tells a different story in each work. Yes, there is certainly darkness, aggression and despair - born of the specific circumstances of the composer’s life - but equally these quartets contain a wealth of heartfelt, lyrical melody coupled with hilarious caustic wit and shafts of radiant light. 

These quartets contain a wealth of heartfelt, lyrical melody coupled with hilarious caustic wit and shafts of radiant light

Can you give some examples of tricky parts in the quartets?

JT: As an ensemble, we find no.14 quite tricky to pull off. The cello has the leading voice for much of it and the higher registers of the accompanying parts can make balance a problem. It’s important in a case like this to separate the elements for clarity, and focus on grouping textures together.  

The sheer scale of no.15 is a challenge for performers and audience alike; keeping the tension and pacing in hand. Moments of pure isolation are marked by long solo passages, which are challenging to sustain, but there are also glimpses of tenderness and comradeship among the players. It’s an epic journey that richly rewards.  

Some movements are a test of endurance and stamina, like the second of no.10, a tour de force in fortissimo; or the scherzo of no.2 and its crazed waltz tempo, with mutes to complicate matters when the dynamic increases.  

No.7, though one of the shortest, is hard to put across to the audience, quirky and intangible for the most part.  

Paul Cassidy (viola): Individual preparation is very different from the collective. Having put in countless hours over the years, I can nail my part for the whole cycle in an hour, and as long as I’ve got about 20 minutes before each concert, that’s easily enough to be well prepared.

My call sheet is incredibly specific, sometimes just a couple of bars in a whole quartet. There are many points I like to cover, some examples are the second subject in the scherzo of no.2, the opening of no.4, the viola theme in the last movement of no.5, as well the last movement of no.10, which is probably the trickiest for me.

Group-wise, it’s a totally different set of issues. These include intonation in the finale of no.1 and opening of no.3, getting the right sound quality in the scherzo of no.2, as well as capturing the moods in the whole of no.7. 

KO: Where to start?! Although the first violin has a huge responsibility throughout the cycle, there are fiendish passages for everyone, often quite exposed - which all adds to the excitement. Ensemble and counting of rhythms is always a challenge: Shostakovich, continuing in Haydn’s footsteps, likes to literally wrong-foot the performer with unexpected phrase-lengths or contradictory overlapping entries. As soon as you think you really know the music and start to relax, you’re suddenly caught out again. Focus is needed at every moment!

Various prolonged forte passages need to be structured, just as in Beethoven or Schubert. One needs to be able to play extremely fast, but also to make sense of the long slow phrases which seem to expand throughout the cycle.

My favourite movements are far too many to list. Everyone is familiar with the perfection of no.8, but I love the improvisatory Recitative in no.2 (rarely played); the yearning finale of no 3; the broken waltz which concludes no 7 (a homage to his dead wife, Nina); the loving lyricism that opens no. 9 followed by its playful William Tell scherzo; the unbridled savagery of no.10’s  Allegretto; the sardonic humour of no. 11; and finally, the mesmerising 45-minute span of no. 15, with all five movements marked Adagio… to name just a few highlights.

Although performing the entire cycle is incredibly taxing - both physically, mentally and emotionally - nonetheless it’s the kind of music that gives back more every time. We greatly look forward to repeating the experience in this special Shostakovich year.

How do you go about preparing the cycle, which is a huge number of works? Do you have any particular strategies, and how has your approach changed over the last 50 years?

PC: We have performed the cycle all over the world, in so many different scenarios. Over a whole season; in one day: In five different venues, in Bristol, to five different fjords in Norway. I think, given the choice, our current favourite way is over two days (Saturday/Sunday) - three concerts on each day. Good old Dmitri was clever enough to supply us with some tailor-made, cracking programmes within the cycle. 

1, 2, 3 and 7, 8, 9 are fantastic programmes in their own right. 1, 2, 3 constitutes his coming of age as a composer of quartets and 7, 8, 9 holds his own epitaph flanked by two of his wives. 

Then, 11, 12, 13, 14 are the four pieces he dedicated to his friends in the Beethoven Quartet. In the two-day version of events, we split these into two shorter concerts, which helps everyone as the music is quite intense.

JT: In preparation, we tend to start a few weeks beforehand, touching on some key works, playing them through and covering certain tricky corners. This might be concurrent with other concerts and repertoire, but we also try to include individual works into other programmes when we’re approaching the full cycle. Stamina is a big part of the preparation. When we first performed them in one weekend we were quite shocked by the physical and mental toll it took, but as the years have passed we find we can pace ourselves and come out the other end feeling fine. One stage manager proudly told us, following a two-day cycle, that we had played 450 minutes of music! That was good to know.  

Some of the feedback for these cycles has been wonderful. Recently in Leeds we had audience members who’d travelled many hours to be there, saying they ’couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear our legendary performances of these works’. Another man said he’d never been to a classical concert before and he was now completely hooked on these incredible works. 

People say they come out ’emotionally drained,’ or feeling they’ve ’witnessed a life-changing event.’ Others comment that our spoken introductions to each work are eye-opening and really enhance their enjoyment of the cycle, bringing the music to life: ’Hints on what to listen for proved invaluable – and the glow of genuine enthusiasm for Shostakovich’s music was infectious.’

Tell us about the order in which you perform the quartets. Why have you chosen this order?

PC: We make two slight alterations to the chronological order of things.

Instead of 4,5,6 we play 6,4,5 simply because no.6 is a great opener, no.4 finishes the first half beautifully, and nothing can follow no.5. 

This leaves no.10, which in a way, feels like a bit of a loner anyway, and, is sufficiently understated not to disturb the most extraordinary experience which is no.15, the most perfect ending to any musical event.

The Brodsky Quartet will be performing the Shostakovich String Quartet cycles throughout the UK and Europe during 2024 and 2025. Find out more here: https://malvern-concert-club.co.uk/complete-shostakovich-cycle/

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