New York Times, March 22, 1993

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Song cycle unites musical opposites


Stephen Holden

When Elvis Costello made his recording debut 16 years ago, no one could have predicted that one day he would record, with a classical string quartet, an album of original songs conceived as letters written by assorted eccentric characters. But two months ago Mr. Costello released The Juliet Letters, a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, a respected English ensemble whose many recordings include the Shostakovich String Quartets. And on Thursday evening, Mr. Costello and the group concluded a 10-country concert tour with a sold-out appearance at Town Hall.

The music of The Juliet Letters could not be described as "crossover" in the manner of Barbra Streisand's "Classical Barbra" or Kiri Te Kanawa's recent album of Michel Legrand songs. Its 20 compositions are collaborations by Mr. Costello and the quartet in which they explore a juxtaposition of musical genres that many assume to be antithetical. One of the goals seems to be the expansion of expressive possibilities by creative friction. And Thursday's concert, in which Mr. Costello and the quartet exhibited an impressive coordination and musical precision, was an exhilarating success.

Among other things, the concert seemed to prove what the record only suggested: that an adenoindal post-punk voice like Mr. Costello's, with a thin timbre and wavering intonation, need not sound out of place in a refined chamber-music setting. A sneering defiance and rage have always been prominent qualities in Mr. Costello's singing and songwriting, and although they came to the fore only half a dozen times during the evening, when aired they lent the concert an edgy excitement.

Musically, the songs Mr. Costello and the quartet created for the album blur the boundary between classical and pop genres in ways that neither dilute classical thinking nor seem like pop music pretentiously inflated for highbrow accreditation.

Not surprisingly, the ghost of Shostakovich (both his darkly brooding and caustic satirical sides) haunted several of the songs. But the Juliet cycle touches as many pop bases as it does classical. "Damnation's Cellar," which imagines a time machine that will resurrect everyone from Hitler to Liberace, exuded a jaunty musical whimsy reminiscent of vintage Paul McCartney. Echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan run through "This Offer Is Unrepeatable," a musicalized piece of junk mail. "I Almost Had a Weakness" was a bracingly frenetic tango.

Except for a few comic flourishes, the quartet executed the richly textured classical-style arrangements with a flawless precision and grace. At the same time, Mr. Costello displayed all the emotion and vocal effects that he has brought to his rock records. The difference was one of discipline. Since he was singing meticulously notated music, his phrasing had a measured formality that called attention to the songs' musical structures and lent them extra stature.

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New York Times, March 22, 1993


Stephen Holden reviews Elvis Costello with The Brodsky Quartet, Thursday, March 18, 1993, Town Hall, New York.


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