Brooklyn Rider are the rare string quartet who seem to have as much fun with the classical canon as they do with the new composers they champion. To violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas, it’s all just good music. Their latest, lavish double-disc set, Healing Modes – streaming at Bandcamp – interpolates some fascinating new compositions among succesive movements of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, a mainstay of their performances (before the lockdown, at least). The new repertoire here challenges the group’s extended technique arguably more than any other recording they’ve done, but they rise to its demands. As usual, among the new works, there are connecting threads, notably a constant tension between atmospherics and bustle. And the Beethoven bristles with surprises and erudition, even if you’ve heard it a million times.
The opening piece, Matana Roberts‘ Borderland is a contrast in ghostly and poltergeist sonics. Microtonal haze gives way to insistent, rhythmic phrases, hectic pizzicato, coy glissandos, and then back. There’s also a loaded, allusive spoken word element that packs a wallop at a time when our constitutional rights have been stolen from us by the lockdowners.
Reena Ismail‘s Zeher (Poison) has a similar resonant/rhythmic dichotomy spiced with doublestops and quavery, Indian-influenced ornamentation, shifting to an unexpectedly anthemic conclusion that brings to mind the quartet’s recordings of Philip Glass.
Gabriela Lena Frank’s Kanto Kechua #2 has acerbically harmonized, tightly leaping phrases, a round of biting chromatics at the center. The quartet revel in these flurries, which obliquely echo Bernard Herrmann film scores, Peruvian folk music and also the Beethoven here.
The second disc begins with Du Yun‘s I Am My Own Achilles Heel, its shivers, squeals, approximations of arioso vocalese and sharply strutting figures receding down to sepulchral ambience and back again. There may be an improvisational element at work here: beyond an animated, allusively Appalachian circle dance at around the halfway mark or so, and pastoral Asian tinges later, it’s hard to tell.
The take of Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma seems even more amiably plucky and subtly anthemic than the version they played as a New York premiere on the Upper West Side in the spring of 2019.
There seems to be new gravitas but also new vigor in the first movement of the Beethoven, compared to the group’s previous interpretations, although their stunningly legato approach throughout hasn’t wavered over the years. It’s less a nocturne than an anthem. There’s lilting grace and delicacy in unexpected moments of movement two, but with plenty of muscle.
The devious Bach quotes amid the hymnal lustre of the third movement are right up front, and irresistible, as is the lushness of its conclusion. The ensemble play up the drollery in the fleeting bit of a fourth movement as much as the bittersweet, Vivaldiesque grace of the final one. These guys know better than most anyone else that this particular quartet is more symphonic than it is chamber music, a celebration of being snatched from the jaws of death. What does it sound like mixed up amid the new compositions? Full disclosure: this blog tweaked the tracklist to play it contiguously. It’s that addictive.