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Quartet channels early music in contemporary works

02.23.10
Brooklyn Rider
Washington Post

By Joe Banno

It was striking, sitting in the Renaissance splendor of the music room at Dumbarton Oaks on Sunday, to hear allusions to 16th-century musical style crop up over and over, in a recital by the New York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

The first movement of "Achille's Heel," by Brooklyn Rider second violinist Colin Jacobsen, conjured that earlier time in stately, interwoven violin and cello lines, before the piece took off into a playful, pizzicato-rich evocation of bouncing Super Balls. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky's piece, " . . . Al Niente," started and ended in an evocative cloud of sound, with violent shards of melody disrupting its calm. But for most of the piece, busy figures in the upper strings twirled over a drone in the lower strings, suggesting Renaissance dance music.

Likewise, in the "Frederico II" movement from Giovanni Sollima's pop-tinged "Viaggio in Italia," an earthy bass line growled away on the cello (punctuated by drumlike tapping on the instrument), while folksy dance rhythms soared above. Even the evocative noodlings of Philip Glass's String Quartet No. 2, "Company," brought a whiff of chamber music from earlier centuries.

Most arresting, though, was how much the ensemble made the slow movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet sound like some doleful, ancient song played by a consort of viols. Employing scant vibrato (and playing standing up -- except for the cellist, of course -- in early-music style, as they did throughout the program), the group's spare, fleet, energized account honored period practice while making this thrice-familiar score seem new-minted.