Seven Steps to Beethoven heaven with Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider
Indianapolis Star

By Jay Harvey

Brooklyn Rider, the daringly original New York string quartet that had Ensemble Music Society patrons buzzing at a concert here two years ago, makes Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp minor, op. 131, the centerpiece of its new CD, “Seven Steps” (In a Circle Records).

On concert tour, the quartet — violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, cellist Eric Jacobsen — has drawn at least one withering critical comment deploring its vibratoless (or nearly so) sound in this work. The recording seems to feature a minimum of shaking as well, but is saved from excessive dryness by the slightly resonant acustical environment, which puts a slight bloom on the notes.

The early-music movement, following musicological notions of authenticity, may have taken such strictures on string instruments too far. In a lively article in the new issue of “Early Music America,” David Hurwitz brings up many examples of explicit calls for vibrato and hints that it was regarded as essential to some degree by our ancestors. The revolt against continuous vibrato in the late 20th century may have become too doctrinaire, resulting in spartan, charmless performances.

That’s not the case here, however. Brooklyn Rider makes a clearer case for the score’s incredible variety of mood over its seven movements by removing the veneer of vibrato. It doesn’t seem to be a decision driven by musicology. Each movement, starting with the slow fugue that introduces the listener into the special world of late Beethoven, has a stripped-down integrity. The interpretive focus is clear, and, with the good fortune of exact intonation as a mainstay, the performance is enthralling.

The disc opens with the title piece, a collaborative work by Brooklyn Rider that offers signs of continuous, feverish inspiration, with shifting textures and an improvisatory flair. Separating “Seven Steps” from the incessant demands of Beethoven comes Christopher Tignor’s “Together Into This Unknowable Night,” a quarter-hour of dappled string-quartet foreground and an interwoven yet hauntingly distant background of live sampling software instruments, percussion and AM radio. The piece never seems irresolute or meandering, despite a dogged open-endedness that suggests, as if it could be Brooklyn Rider’s watchword, that there’s always new territory to explore.