There was a Brodsky Quartet before this one, back in Tchaikovsky's own day. Adolf Brodsky gave the premiere of Tchaikovsky's concerto, and he eventually settled in Manchester, where the members of the new Brodsky Quartet received their musical education, presumably at the great Royal Northern College of Music, although their web-site does not explicitly say so. England needs a top-class new string quartet now that the Lindsays are retiring, and I'm happy to report that this group seem to be filling the bill admirably. I had become aware of them from the Britten quartets in which they are major contenders, and now here is an excellent disc of the second and third Tchaikovsky works.
The best-known instrumental composers of Tchaikovsky's time, other than Dvorak, were not very prolific with string quartets. There are two from Borodin, Brahms got around to three and Franck, who wrote just one of most things, to just one. In compensation there is a fine and most original effort in the genre from Verdi, and a very interesting if distinctly over-long effort by Wolf. Tchaikovsky felt unsure of himself in this medium. His first production, famous for the hackneyed andante cantabile, is on a fairly small scale, but the remaining two are full-sized specimens, very serious in tone. As usual with this composer, the finales are not the strongest movements. Hanslick was hardly exaggerating when he described the last movement of the violin concerto as 'lamentably trivial Cossack cheer', and it seems to me that even in the symphonies the final movements let their predecessors down until the composer went out (in every possible sense) with the masterpiece that concludes the Pathetique. Nevertheless even here Tchaikovsky keeps himself on a tight rein - there is no temptation to play to the gallery with cheap effects in a string quartet, and there is probably no way either of producing sounds conceived so exclusively for this ensemble that they would be completely meaningless if played on the piano. The other movements, even the two scherzos, are deeply serious in the best sense - thoughtful rather than going in for theatrical tragedy about nothing much as Tchaikovsky was often prone to doing. In particular the andante funebre of the third quartet seems to me to rise to real greatness.
I find myself very impressed indeed by these accounts from the Brodskys. They seem to me to get the idiom right and to get the tone right, the expression strong but not overdone - it does more harm to try to express what isn't there than to miss a bit of what is. The actual playing seems to me exemplary, and I have no difficulty with their interpretation at all. In particular I was thoroughly convinced by the fast, urgent and anxious 'allegretto' in the second movement of the third quartet. Where full-blooded Tchaikovskian emotion is called for in the movement following that it is provided with great power. The recording could probably have been a little warmer in tone, but we have become very pampered in that respect nowadays and I make no real complaint. The liner note is effusive about the music in a fairly conventional idiom, but the section on Brodsky, on Tchaikovsky and on the players themselves, written by their cellist Jacqueline Thomas, is first-class in what it has to say and delightfully written as well.
This is very promising indeed. I take intense pleasure in welcoming these distinguished graduates of the distinguished school where I attend so many superb events. I wish them confidently a long and eminent career, and it may be that we should be starting to look out for the Johnston Quartet as well.