Brooklyn Rider’s Walking Fire – Their Most Intense Recording Yet
Taking its title from a Rumi love poem, Brooklyn Rider‘s new album A Walking Fire captures the state-of-the-art New York string quartet at their most animated and eclectic, even by their standards. Violinist Colin Jacobsen, cellist Eric Jacobsen, violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords arguably embrace interests beyond the classical repertoire more than any other quartet in recent memory, from Central Asian and Persian music to Romany and even Americana sounds. This one finds them diving into Eastern European music new and old via a suite by one of this era’s most cinematic composers, as well as a haunting early Modernist/late Romantic warhorse, along with a gripping Middle Eastern-flavored trio written by Colin Jacobsen.
The first is violist/composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s Culai, a homage to the late violinist and Taraf de Haidoucks bandleader Nicolae “Culai” Neacsu. In five parts, the group moves through a caffeinated, circular, balletesque pulse to low-key, Romany jazz-inspired atmospherics, a gentle but expressive Balkan dance dedicated to singer Romica Puceanu, a frantic tarantella (previously recorded by Zhurbin’s rocking string ensemble the Kontraband) and finally the poignant, elegaic Funeral Doina.
Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2 doesn’t have the ferocity of the quartet that preceded it but there’s still plenty of raw anger, as one might expect from a work written in the midst of World War I. What distinguishes this version from the many other superb ones out there? Brooklyn Rider digs in hard, particularly in the low registers, Cords and Eric Jacobsen doing most of the heavy lifting in elevating the bitterness and angst (not to mention the sophistication of Bartok’s harmony). Riddled with apprehension, there’s a persistent contrast between an elegant staccato and a snaky legato that uncoils with a proto-Shostakovian dread. A wary subtlety dominates, especially as the high strings rise against the cello’s stern anchor in the initial moderato movement before giving way to the relentless pulse and anguished cadenzas of the second and the somber, smoky, funereal crescendo of the third. It’s a quietly, bitterly matter-of-fact showstopper.
Colin Jacobsen’s Three Miniatures for String Quartet draw on surrealistic, Persian-inspired imagery as well as Brooklyn Rider’s close association with the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor. Majnun’s Moonshine works apprehensively minimalist permutations on a darkly catchy, allusively chromatic dance vamp, while The Flowers of Esfahan shifts from an amiably twinkling nocturnal cityscape to an unexpectedly shivery swell. The title track employs Kalhor’s signature fluttering motives and otherworldly close harmonies over steady cello for an atmosphere that’s equally infused with dread and longing. Jacobsen, and the rest of the ensemble, succeed mightily in evoking one of their great inspirations with a triptych that manages not to be anticlimactic in view of what it has to follow – the decision not to close the album with the Bartok instead was very brave.
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