There are several string quartets whose repertoire focuses on current composers (the Mivos Quartet, JACK Quartet and Chiara String Quartet, to name three especially good ones). There are others who play their own compositions, and even some who improvise, but it’s hard to think of another string quartet who manage to simultaneously carry the weight of being leaders in the world of new music, and have as much fun doing that, as Brooklyn Rider does. Pretty much every musician who makes it to major concert halls has virtuoso chops; what sets this ensemble apart is their irreproachable preference for material with substance and depth. And they are eclectic to the extreme, just as likely to dive into Armenian folk melodies or gypsy music as they are Philip Glass and Kayhan Kalhor (two composers for whom this group has become the go-to quartet). Their latest album Seven Steps is in many ways a distillation of their career, and yet a new starting point. Even if you may not agree with everything they’re doing, there’s no question that they’re shifting their paradigm.
The title track is a collective composition by violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen, with echoes of just about every place this group has been. Kicking off with a minor-key chromatic riff that bounces warily from the cello, there are allusions to Eastern Europe, Iran and hushed IRCAM-era ambience. The group matter-of-factly works its way through this eclectic mini-suite, from suspensefully slow tectonic shifts, to swirls of harmonics from the violins, to terse but lush melodicism, atonal atmospherics that rise to a hypnotically echoey Kalhor-esque crescendo and then a whispery conclusion. The second composition is Christopher Tignor’s Together Into This Unknowable Night. Simultaneously an anthem and a tone poem (which might sound paradoxical, but it’s not), it alludes to the hook from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, swooping energetically against the ambient wash of noise from the composer’s AM radio (utilized to add texture: it never becomes intrusive). Flickering, insistent Philip Glass-like motifs (and a direct quote, maybe?) lead to a long, organlike swell fueled by the majestic gleam of the cello in tandem with the viola; like the opening track, it whispers its way out. Played at low volume, it’s a gentle nocturne, but for the musicians, it’s an inescapable vortex, a fact which makes itself loud and clear if you turn it up. It’s a characteristically vital work in the growing catalog of this ensemble’s memorable commissions.
The final piece here is an eye-opening, idiosyncratic and utterly original interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131. While there is an improvisational feel to some of this, notably the slinky, slippery dynamics in the introductory adagio (which begins more lento, actually), the end result is simply the logical result of the group’s interpretation of this work as the summation of a life. Essentially, what they’ve done here is tie up the loose ends, formatting Beethoven’s short, punchy phrases into a more legato architecture: Mendelssohn might have been tempted to do the same thing with it. The ensemble expands the dynamic range in the faster passages, notably in the second, Allegro Molto Vivace movement, emphasis on the vivace for awhile, but then they revert to an elegant cohesiveness: if there was ever a singleminded interpretation of this work, this is it. And yet by the end, they’re playing it pretty straightforwardly, letting Beethoven’s emphatic, unassailable confidence speak for itself: for all its apprehension, especially in the middle passages, it’s testament to a composer who simply would not be deterred, not by fashion, self-doubt, his own self-destructive tendencies or even the eventual inability to hear what he wrote. In that light, Brooklyn Rider’s approach is less radical than it is emotionally intuitive. It’s one of the most delightfully challenging recordings of the year.
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