Elvis Costello recently marvelled that his 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, ever saw the light of day, let alone got a rerelease 13 years later. A conceptual piece for string quartet and voice imagining a series of letters sent to Juliet Capulet, the project was largely ignored by rock fans and scorned by classical critics.
The fiercely eclectic Costello has continued to collaborate with the quartet, however. This rewarding evening of Juliet Letters material, freshly written pieces and adroitly selected tracks from Costello's voluminous back catalogue shows exactly why he has persevered.
The former angry young punk and the classical quartet are united by consummate musicianship. Costello's famously adenoidal, strangled vocal is pitch-perfect on the Beatles-esque "I Almost Had a Weakness" and his own 1983 hit "Pills and Soap," while sensitive playing by the Brodsky Quartet turns the Irish traditional air "Raglan Road" from a sparse lament into a melancholy jig.
The revisits to The Juliet Letters prove fertile, with pizzicato strings rendering "Romeo's Seance" gorgeously puckish. They are surpassed, though, by an elegiac reading of his anti-Falklands war song, "Shipbuilding," where mordant strings capture the exquisite melancholy. The Quartet attack The Juliet Letters' "Jacksons, Monk & Rowe" with the brio of Costello's old band, the Attractions; they close the evening with the brittle "Sulphur to Sugarcane," from his upcoming country-leaning album, and then the valedictory Juliet letter, "The Birds Will Still Be Singing." Few rock artists could carry off such a maverick evening without appearing a preening dilettante, but Costello remains among their number.