Elgar: String Quartet; Piano Quintet  review | Andrew Clements' classical album of the week

Roscoe/Brodsky Quartet
A century after the composer’s String Quartet and Piano Quintet were premiered, the Brodsky Quartet return them to the spotlight

In May 1919, the first public performances of Elgar’s String Quartet and Piano Quintet were given in a concert at the Wigmore Hall in London. The programme also included Elgar’s Violin Sonata, which had already received its premiere, but all three works had been composed the previous year, when he was also finishing his Cello Concerto. They were the only mature chamber works that Elgar ever wrote. He had made a couple of attempts over the previous two decades to complete the work he had promised to the original Brodsky Quartet, but finally wrote the three-movement score as the first world war was coming to an end. Though he dedicated it to the Brodskys, another group, led by the violinist Albert Sammons, gave the Wigmore performance.

Elgar: String Quartet; Piano Quintet album artwork.
Elgar: String Quartet; Piano Quintet album artwork. Photograph: Chandos

The quartet remains a rather reticent, enigmatic work, and certainly it doesn’t always seem as if the latter-day Brodskys – who named themselves in honour of Adolph Brodsky, the leader of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, where they were students – impose themselves upon it with total conviction.

They play the work very sensitively, treasuring the first movement’s backward glances to the world of Elgar’s Second Symphony, but somehow don’t make all three movements cohere as they should. Certainly they sound more assured with pianist Martin Roscoe in the Piano Quintet; it’s conceived on a much more public scale than the quartet (a convincing orchestral transcription was released three years ago) and their performance has the sweep and big-boned assertiveness that the work needs. But among recordings of these two works, those by the Goldner Quartet on Hyperion remain the top recommendation.

Also out this week

Caroline Shaw became the youngest ever winner of a Pulitzer prize for music when her Partita for 8 Voices took the award in 2013. Her latest release, Orange, focuses on works for string quartet, played by the Attacca Quartet. The most substantial of them are the single-movement Ritornello 2.sq.2.J.A, and the five pieces that make up Shaw’s Plan & Elevation cycle. She emphasises that these pieces are not “radical reinventions” of the quartet medium, but “contain traces of worlds that came before – Haydn, Mozart, Ravel, Bartók”. However, there’s much more to this compellingly varied music than just echoes of the past. Shaw’s attitude to tonality, and her inventive mastery of string sonorities (she also performs as a violinist) make these pieces genuinely original additions to the quartet repertory.


Andrew Clements

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