Monday, March 1, 2010

CD Review: Brookly Rider--'Dominant Curve'

The NYC based string quartet Brooklyn Rider covers a lot of ground with their newest release from In A Circle Records, Dominant Curve. From Debussy to arrangements of John Cage and featuring compositions by the musicians themselves, Brooklyn Rider shows deep artistic maturity and a spiritual essence bordering on the psychedelic.

This disc, centered around Debussy's monumental String Quartet No. 1, featured music by, inspired by, or in the spirit of Debussy. Achille's Heel, by violinist Colin Jacobsen, opened with a spare threnody that hinted little at the chaos to follow in the second movement. Every trick in the book was pulled out: harmonics, glissandi, multiple stops and col legno combined to produce an intense sonic mind-warp, varied and somehow hypnotic despite the dynamic extremes. The third movement, Loveland, was simple and beautiful, featuring sighing violins and pizzicato cello playing in closely-layered modalities that occasionally intersected to create lush cadences. Finishing with a dragonfly's flight of fancy on a ceaseless moto perpetuo, the music heaved and seethed in impossible quadrangles and dying suns.

The extremely atmospheric (Cycles) what falls must rise by Kojiro Umezaki (who also played shakuhachi and electronics) was an eerie soundscape of very different character. Redolent with Japanese imagery and mystery, it moved ceaselessly, sound colors shifting in and out like a ghost coming in from a cold gray electronic fog. The piece closed with a perplexing coda, a more conventional string quartet playing with the shakuhachi. It seemed awkwardly appended to the end of an otherwise marvelous piece. Thematically it was enjoyable but did not seem to fit in the slightest with the rest of the material; it served to unnecessarily break the spell.

They approached the Debussy with a vigorous attack that seemed at times like almost too much, but Debussy always sounds right to me when played at the very edge of the emotions; his music inhabits a world of dreams and half-light, of terror and overpowering surges of innate divinity. Brooklyn Rider made the most of this titanic work, throwing caution to the wind with bold tempos and unabashedly dramatic dynamics. Yet there was something old-fashioned there too; the whole thing had a sepia-tone timbre to it, like listening to a recording from the thirties. The third movement ended with a gentle, rapturous ascent, rendered as prayerfully as anything by Messaien.

It closed with two more contemplative, dreamy works in keeping with the overall feel of the release: niente by Dmitiri Yanov Yanovsky and an arrangement of John Cage's In a Landscape. Exciting and fresh, Dominant Curve is full of worthwhile new material as well as a valid and imaginative interpretation of the Debussy string quartet.

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