‘Seven Steps’ = BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 14; BROOKLYN RIDER: Seven Steps; CHRISTOPHER TIGNOR: Together Into This Unknowable Night – Brooklyn Rider – In a Circle Records

05.17.12
Brooklyn Rider
Audiophile Audition

By Zan Furtwangler

It sounds the way Brooklyn Rider sounds in live performance: in your face.

The first time I heard live the string quartet Brooklyn Rider was two years ago at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC. It was spectacular. Experiencing Debussy’s String Quartet performed by such a driven and musically intelligent group was remarkable. A recording of the Debussy plus some contemporary works is available on a disc titled Dominant Curve (In a Circle Records ICR003).

The same can be said of their second recording, Seven Steps,  with the lion’s share of the compact disc filled with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op.  131. Brooklyn Rider’s performance may not be agreeable to all those familiar with this monumental work. It is a modern interpretation, but it remains Beethoven through and through.

What is striking is the way it was recorded: in your face. It sounds the way Brooklyn Rider sounds in live performance. The four instruments are clearly reproduced, individually and in ensemble.

To quote the program notes: “ Throughout our rehearsal process, we came to understand Op. 131 as the story of a life, and the ingenious variation of musical DNA throughout surely creates one of the ultimate motivic journeys in the classical music canon. Beethoven’s organizing principles are as amazingly crystalline in the macro-view as they are in the microscopic details. This is truly mind- and spirit-expanding music.”

One of Beethoven’s late quartets, No. 14, is fascinatingly different. It has seven movements played one after the other without interruption. The tempos of each movement are important, particularly as they relate to one another. The flow of the movements is critical and create a totality.

The opening Adagio is a labyrinthine fugue which Wagner called “a melancholy too profound for tears…the saddest thing in music.” Berlioz said it was terrifying. Sir Arthur Sullivan felt it was a mystic vision. The second movement, an Allegro molto vivace, is a “new born creature in a new born world” from out of the preceding fugue according to Sullivan. The third movement Allegro moderato is less than a minute and is employed as a connection to the song-like melody which opens the fourth movement.

The fourth movement, Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile, is the main movement of the string quartet and by far the longest, clocking in at 13 minutes. It is a theme and variations, displaying grace and poetry.  The fifth movement, Presto, is playful and boisterous, not to mention fiendishly difficult for the musicians to execute with breakneck speeds and abrupt dynamic changes, and is considered a high point in quartet composition.

The entertainment ends with the beginning of  the short sixth movement , a tragic Adagio and an introduction to the final movement, an Allegro. Wagner summed this movement up this way: “It is the dance of the whole world itself – wild joy, the wail of pain, love’s transport, utmost bliss, grief, frenzy, riot, suffering: the lightning flickers, thunder growls, and above all it is the stupendous fiddler who bans and bends it all, who leads it haughtily from a whirlpool, to the brink of the abyss.”

Brooklyn Rider are right-on with the tempos and their relationships. They also understand the Beethovenian ethos, bringing out those characteristics that Berlioz, Sullivan and Wagner so aptly described.

Two modern works introduce the program. Brooklyn Rider’s own Seven Steps and Christopher Tignor’s Together Into This Unknowable Night. Seven Steps is accessible, but the Tignor is less so and rather long for its content.

In all, a first class choice with impeccable sound quality (recorded in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Montclair, NJ). Anyone wanting a fresh approach to a reconstructed Beethoven can’t go wrong with this ethereal performance.