Brooklyn Rider: A Walking Fire
Mercury Classics

One of the fundamental challenges facing any string quartet is how to differentiate itself from others crowding the marketplace. Omitting the word quartet from the group's name is certainly one way, but there are other things that have helped Brooklyn Rider distance itself from the competition, the first being a high-energy delivery more characteristic of a rock band than stuffy classical outfit and the second an inspired choice of repertoire. Though the group isn't averse to including an established classic on its releases—look no further than the inclusion of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 on the 2012 collection Seven Steps—, its primary focus is on fresh contemporary works, many of them written expressly for the group itself. Such qualities are very much in evidence on the quartet's major label debut, A Walking Fire.

If the coupling of the aforementioned Beethoven work with Christopher Tignor's “Together Into This Unknowable Night” on Seven Steps seems a tad incongruous, the latest release leaves no such impression in its pairing of Béla Bartók's second string quartet with two new works, Culai by Russian composer Ljova (Lev Zhurbin) and Three Miniatures for String Quartet by Brooklyn Rider's own Colin Jacobsen. The reason, of course, is that the inspirations for Ljova's and Jacobsen's pieces— Romanian gypsy and Persian folk music, respectively—jibes naturally with the Hungarian flavour of Bartók's material. There are many things common to the three pieces: strong folk and dance dimensions that can't help but engender a feeling of connectedness and continuity between them, and an implicit celebration of the transformative effects of traveling beyond one's immediate borders—in that regard, “Who lives sees much; who travels sees more,” the Arab proverb included in the release's booklet, is fitting. That travel is a central theme is obviously implied, too, by the train illustration and cartographic details on the cover.

Inspired by travels to the village of Clejani in Romania, Ljova composed his ravishing Culai in tribute to the late gypsy violinist Nicolae Neacsu of the ensemble Taraf de Haïdouks. A Walking Fire's infectious spirit emerges in the work's jaunty opening movement, “The Game,” its Balkan folk swing providing a strong entry-point for the album as a whole. The vocal-like cry of the lead violin in “The Muse” seduces, as do the similarly vocal-like lines that flow through “The Song,” which was inspired by the singing of the Gypsy vocalist Romica Puceanu. The final movements, “Love Potion, Expired” and “Funeral Doina,” provide dramatic contrast in following a high-spirited tarantella with an heartfelt homage. Put simply, it would be hard to imagine any listener being immune to the melodic allure of Ljova's piece.

The joyous tone of the opening setting shifts dramatically with the onset of Bartók's second string quartet. Written between 1915 and 1917, the work unfolds with an intensity and seriousness characteristic of the composer's work. Broad melancholic strokes in the sombre “Moderato” suggestively allude to the tragic losses incurred by WWI, after which the tempo accelerates in the second movement with feverish string patterns and percussive ostinatos that one could imagine as the source of inspiration for Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score. Returning to the tenor of the opening movement, “Lento” conveys an even more mournful quality in concluding the piece on a note of lamentation.

The despair expressed in the central work is alleviated by Three Miniatures for String Quartet, whose creation was prompted by Jacobsen's friendship with Persian musician Kayhan Kalhour and Persian culture in general. Miniature in this case doesn't refer to movements of inordinately short length but to a miniature painting tradition that sees epic stories represented in tiny portraits of rich detail and texture. Each of the three movements thus carries with it a programmatic content rendered memorably in aural terms by the composer. “The Flowers of Esfahan,” with its dreamlike mood and busy cross-patterning, could easily, for example, be taken to stand for a moonlit setting where nightingales sing and friends drink tea, though no such literal interpretation of the music is required for it to be enjoyed. The ululating melodies of the closing “A Walking Fire” bring the recording full circle in drawing a connecting line to Ljova's piece.

One comes away from A Walking Fire feeling as if much ground has been covered as well as enlightened and invigorated by one's travels. No matter the work in question, violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicola Cords, and cellist Eric Jacobsen bring a degree of passion and conviction to the performances that can't help but fully engage the listener.

April 2014