Awesome foursome

When the Brodsky Quartet walk on stage at the City of London Festival this summer, in their 40th birthday year, they’ll have no idea of what they’re about to play.

Members of the audience will choose their programme by spinning a wheel, on which the dial could come to rest on any one of 40 musical works. It’s a daring game, but not the first time the group have thrown away the concert rulebook.

It was, after all, the Brodskys who ditched black tie for minimalist fashion designer Issey Miyake in the 1980s, who kicked away the chairs and now play standing up, and who have performed on stage with Complicite. They co-wrote Elvis Costello’s 1993 Juliet Letters album, joined Björk for her Union Chapel concerts and have collaborated with a host of artists from Sting and Dave Brubeck to Paul McCartney.

On a grey winter morning in London, I meet the quartet’s violist, sparky Paul Cassidy and his wife, cellist Jacqueline Thomas. Cassidy admits the new “Wheel of 4Tunes” format puts huge pressure on them. “We have 150 quartets under our fingers, and would normally rehearse a programme to perfection. That process has the potential to eliminate risk, spontaneity, spirit. In this new situation, we have to listen to one another or we’re dead: now that’s music.”

In fact, the wheel is a masterclass in the subtle art of programming: it is expertly planned so that all combinations will “work”, with 10 shorter pieces, 10 meaty core repertory works, followed by 10 new works written for them and 10 “big beasts” – by such as Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók – to finish.

When we meet, four of these serendipitous concerts have taken place, with cheering results. “People come in a bit stiff and suspicious. They don’t believe it isn’t a fix but as soon as it kicks in, they relax and warm up,” says Cassidy. An evening of Purcell, Haydn, Kraggerud and Bartók was followed by another of Schubert, Korngold and Brahms.

The Brodsky Quartet began life in 1972, when Jacqueline and her violinist brother Michael were still at school in Middlesbrough. Their first concert boldly included Shostakovich’s bitter Quartet No 11, then less than a decade old. They arrived at the Royal Northern College as a seasoned ensemble and by the time Cassidy replaced their violist on graduating from the Royal College of Music, their destiny was set. “I immediately knew when I met them this would be my life’s work,” says Cassidy. “If you meet the right people, it’s like a marriage, it’s solid.” He should know, as he and Jacqueline married in 1990 and have two daughters. Violinist Ian Belton is an original member of the foursome; Daniel Rowland replaced Michael Thomas.

Jacqueline’s explanation for the quartet’s longevity is the music itself. “The quartet repertoire has an unparalleled richness. Composers seem to view the form as the ultimate challenge and, for many, the most personal.” She’s thinking of the late quartets of Smetana, Janacék, Britten – and Shostakovich, whose music is woven through the Brodskys’ career. “His quartets intimately chart the latter part of his life, from the optimistic first to the haunted 15th, a meditation on death,” she says. That’s why the Brodskys have titled their complete Shostakovich cycle in London in April “The Musical Diaries of Shostakovich”.

The quartet have played a part in the expansion of the repertoire for the next generation of adventurous foursomes, such as the Smith, Duke, Sacconi, Ebène quartets, and the Elysian, who improvise as well as interpret. They are often compared to the influential American Kronos Quartet, founded in San Francisco in 1973, which has dedicated itself to building a new repertoire. But Cassidy is quick to point out that, despite its focus on new work and formats, the Brodskys’ real achievement has been to maintain a high standard of performance in the searingly competitive classical field.

As our conversation draws to a close, he is mulling over how to respond to German and Swiss concert promoters who are struggling with the idea of a concert with no programme: “They’re asking, ‘Can you leave just one piece to chance?’ We’re thinking about that. I’m not averse to breaking my own rules.”

Fortieth birthday concert, Wigmore Hall, March 11; City of London Festival, July 2; The Secret Diaries of Shostakovich, Kings Place, April 26-29

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