As Elvis Costello wryly observed, it is not every day that you go to see a recital by a string quartet and get treated to a pyrotechnic display. He was referring to a stage light that exploded rather dramatically above the musicians' heads on the opening night of his British tour with the Brodsky Quartet. The distraction occurred, with appropriate timing, during "I Thought I'd Write to Juliet," a lyric inspired by a letter written by a soldier in the field of battle, and was followed by "Bedlam," in which Costello conjured even fiercer images of dread: "Easter saw a slaughtering, each wrapped in bloodstained fleeces." It is not every day you see a string quartet accompanied by a superannuated rock star, for that matter.
But the collaboration, which began with the release of the album The Juliet Letters in 1993, has stood the test of time better than some of Costello's other quixotic alliances. There was a distinct rapport to the performance that went beyond the obvious mutual respect between the two parties, and a sense of musical adventure was in the air as they opened with a radically revised version of "Accidents Will Happen." The arrangement of just about any pop song for string quartet inevitably harks back to "Eleanor Rigby," and this was no exception. And as they moved on to "Rocking Horse Road," incorporating a brief, humorous quote from "Wild Thing," there was a slight sense of old pop being tarted up with a coating of classical varnish.
But when they moved on to some of the numbers from The Juliet Letters, the music took on a deeper and more characterful tone. Costello was clearly at pains to sing and project to the absolute best of his ability and reached some impressive notes, particularly during "Shipbuilding," an emotional performance that he ended with a sensational flourish. But there was still a certain incongruity between the finesse and technical exactitude that the classical players brought to the performance and the slovenly rock 'n' roll method which remains embedded in Costello's performing DNA.
An encore of the Johnny Mercer standard "P.S. I Love You" took the performance yet farther into intriguing realms. Costello remains one of the most restlessly enquiring performers — in any genre.