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Brooklyn Rider - Seven Steps

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Artist: Brooklyn Rider

Album: Seven Steps

Label: In A Circle

Review date: Apr. 10, 2012

Anyone tackling Beethoven’s monumental 14th string quartet, opus 131 in C-sharp minor, has their work cut out for them. The piece, from 1826, is a revolutionary monster on just about every level, even compared with his other so-called “late period” pieces. Beethoven explodes the structure of the string quartet, creating a through-composed, quasi-operatic behemoth in seven movements, centered on a massive, seven-part variation set more expansive than some entire quartets. Harmonically, its home key of C-sharp minor is merely a launching pad to explore just about every harmonic corner available to composers in the early 19th century, touching on far-flung keys, reveling in the occasional bare dissonance and generally twisting your brain every way possible. (The opening theme of the piece is a based on a tritone! The variation set lets some wonderfully gnarly dissonant notes just grind against each other in the most sumptuous way!) And it’s as rhythmically inventive and unsettled as Beethoven gets, displacing emphases to obscure the underlying meter in some place while making straight moto perpetuo sections feel vibrant and almost, well, swung in others. Beethoven’s penchant for humor and thematic minimalism is on full display, particularly in the fifth movement, a scherzo and trio (a fairly standard three-part classical form that typically begins and ends with a fast, dance-like section, surrounding a slower, more lyrical section) with an almost trite melody that just keeps repeating and repeating and repeating, getting more hysterical with each iteration. And the finale is a blast of pure darkness that doesn’t allow you to escape. The little C-sharp major tag tacked on at the very end seems almost silly, an homage, I suppose, to the Picardy third at the end of most minor-key Baroque pieces. I would go so far as to say it is one of his most modern works.

I would love to spend the rest of this review delving into every amazing detail of the piece, but I wouldn’t be remotely able to do it justice. Books have been written about this quartet by far better writers than I. Really, you should really just listen to it to experience it properly. And Brooklyn Rider’s reading of the quartet is a great way to experience it. Consisting of Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola (full disclosure: I took viola lessons from Cords for a few years when I was in college), and Eric Jacobsen on cello, the group offers a somewhat unusual version, bringing out the modernity of the work.

When you take on a piece as heavily recorded as this one, you have to deal with every previous version as much as the score itself. The typical recording of it bathes every note in heavy vibrato, luscious romantic gestures, and all the sonic trappings of “proper” classical performance. Not that there’s anything wrong with lots of vibrato, but that approach freezes the music in a very specific set of sociological, political, and aesthetic assumptions that weigh the music down. Brooklyn Rider don’t entirely escape the weight of the classical tradition, but they seem more than willing to question its assumptions, leading them to deploy a vast catalog of tones and colors throughout the work. There are so many moments here that make so much more sense without vibrato, places that become more devastatingly emotive with a more flexible touch.

Take, for instance, the opening movement, which starts almost without vibrato, with a subtle slide between the first two notes of the theme, gradually incorporating more vibrato as the movement progresses. As a result, the movement freely shifts through different musical eras in a way that the score can only hint at: from the medieval through the baroque, skipping ahead to the late 19th century, back to Beethoven’s time, and so forth. A similar process happens almost everywhere in the work, which only heightens the dramatic/operatic scope of the piece (see, for instance, their rendering of the two little recitative-like movements). And they do other things with tone and timbre beyond vibrato — particularly the completely alien sul ponticello passage at the end of the fifth movement — but their approach to vibrato really sums up what sets this recording apart. It’s a horrible reviewer’s trope to say that a particular group makes Beethoven sound modern, but Brooklyn Rider actually earn that trope. In their reading, the piece is still irreducibly Beethoven’s, but they project Beethoven forward, rather than grafting themselves backwards onto Beethoven. The distinction is subtle but critical.

Setting the stage for the Beethoven are two somewhat lighter works: Seven Steps by the quartet themselves, and Together Into the Unknowable Night by Christopher Tignor. The former represents the group’s first foray into collective composition (most of the quartet also moonlight as composers), in part as a release from the weight of Beethoven. Hopping around different global styles, it shows off the group’s Kronos Quartet-esque fascination with non-Western musics, born in part from their involvement in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. It has tango, a touch of Irish fiddling, Elliott Carter- or Psycho-like harmonies, post-minimalist flourishes, and ends with a relaxing, modal vamp. You can literally hear the group mentally stretching out the Beethoven-induced cramps. Together in the Unknowable Night is a fairly simple ambient, minimalist wash that sounds like it should be a film soundtrack. Neither of these works has Beethoven’s heft, but they work nicely to counterbalance his intensity.

By Dan Ruccia

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