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CD Reviews: Brooklyn Rider puts a hipster spin on Beethoven string quartet, and The Knights search for peace in repetition

By John Terauds on April 3, 2012

New York string quartet, Brooklyn Rider.

Hip people love classical music as much as anyone else, they just don’t want to perform it or listen to it in the same old, same old way.

Among the hippest of the hip classical musicians these days are New York City’s Brooklyn Rider, who have released their fifth album, built around Ludwig van Beethoven’s epic, five-movement String Quartet No. 14.

The quartet’s cellist, Eric Jacobsen, is the leader of a new orchestra called The Knights, which also has a noteworthy new album out.

BROOKLYN RIDER
Seven Steps (brooklynrider.com)

Violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen have wrapped one of the iconic works of the chamber-music repertoire around two new explorations of what four string players can do: Seven Steps, Brooklyn Rider’s first improvisation, works itself out over 11-plus minutes from a framework of sketches; and Together Into This Unknowable Night, by Christopher Tignor, is a more conventional, fully written-out new composition that adds sampled loops, a bit of percussion and the least hip of all media: AM radio.

Along the way, the Brooklyners have, somehow, managed to make the new pieces sound much more conventional and conservative, and have given the Beethoven quartet an almost mystical presence.

Seven Steps, confidently paced and nicely developed by all four players, doesn’t give the slightest hint at being made up on the fly — which is a testament to these players’ skills and years of performing together.

It’s the Beethoven that really stands out. In looking for a simple way to describe what’s going on, I would say that the Brooklyners somehow manage to stop time as they make their way through music that is very tightly structured yet prone to constant shifts of tempo and tonality.

The opening “Adagio” movement starts almost as if Gandelsman is only reluctantly agreeing to place his bow on his violin strings. The effect is uncanny, slightly off-putting at first, yet, as the four players get into the music, it all starts to make sense.

The quartet gives the Beethoven — and the other two pieces — their all. The interpretation of the old piece may not be conventional, but it pulses with deep thought and commitment, making a convincing case along the way.

The group financed the self-produced album by soliciting donations through the online kickstarter.com community — one of the few times this means of raising money has been used for classical music, so far.

In an ultimate nod to current fashion, the quartet issued the album together with a limited number of copies on vinyl LP. For an iTunes link, click here.

Here is Brooklyn Rider with the final movement, “Allegro,” of the Op. 131 Beethoven Quartet, followed by a making-of video for the album:

THE KNIGHTS
A Second of Silence (Ancalagon)

Toronto has the Kindred Spirits and Sneak Peek orchestras. New York City has The Knights as its entry into the hip-new-ensemble category. Their latest album is devoted to finding a core of stillness common to the music of Franz Schubert as well as Philip Glass.

We get two Schubert Symphonies – No. 3 and No. 8 (the Unfinished) – performed with quiet, elegant reserve. We also get two of the Viennese Romantic’s art songs in arrangements that mesh nicely with Claude Debussy’s atmospheric orchestrations of two Gymnopédies by Eric Satie.

These, in turn, are fine companions to the four movements of Glass’s Company and Morton Feldman’s cuckoo-in-the-dead-of-night Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety.

Throughout, Jacobsen teases limpid textures, deep colours and easy pacing from his beguiling band. Beautiful music transcends any era or style.

For more information on the Knights, click here.

Here are Eric Jacobsen and the Knights at work a couple of years ago, in the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6:

John Terauds

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