CD Reviews: Brooklyn Rider puts a hipster spin on Beethoven string quartet

04.03.12
Brooklyn Rider
Musical Toronto

By John Terauds

"Hip people love classical music as much as anyone else, they just don’t want to perform it or listen to it in the same old, same old way.

Among the hippest of the hip classical musicians these days are New York City’s Brooklyn Rider, who have released their fifth album, built around Ludwig van Beethoven’s epic, five-movement String Quartet No. 14.

Violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen have wrapped one of the iconic works of the chamber-music repertoire around two new explorations of what four string players can do: Seven Steps, Brooklyn Rider’s first improvisation, works itself out over 11-plus minutes from a framework of sketches; and Together Into This Unknowable Night, by Christopher Tignor, is a more conventional, fully written-out new composition that adds sampled loops, a bit of percussion and the least hip of all media: AM radio.

Along the way, the Brooklyners have, somehow, managed to make the new pieces sound much more conventional and conservative, and have given the Beethoven quartet an almost mystical presence.

Seven Steps, confidently paced and nicely developed by all four players, doesn’t give the slightest hint at being made up on the fly — which is a testament to these players’ skills and years of performing together.

It’s the Beethoven that really stands out. In looking for a simple way to describe what’s going on, I would say that the Brooklyners somehow manage to stop time as they make their way through music that is very tightly structured yet prone to constant shifts of tempo and tonality.

The opening “Adagio” movement starts almost as if Gandelsman is only reluctantly agreeing to place his bow on his violin strings. The effect is uncanny, slightly off-putting at first, yet, as the four players get into the music, it all starts to make sense.

The quartet gives the Beethoven — and the other two pieces — their all. The interpretation of the old piece may not be conventional, but it pulses with deep thought and commitment, making a convincing case along the way.

The group financed the self-produced album by soliciting donations through the online kickstarter.com community — one of the few times this means of raising money has been used for classical music, so far.

In an ultimate nod to current fashion, the quartet issued the album together with a limited number of copies on vinyl LP."