Brooklyn Rider takes Masterworks on a thrilling ride

Old Lyme - Musical Masterworks Artistic Director Edward Arron introduced Brooklyn Rider to the full house at the First Congregational Church as "the most versatile, curious and well-traveled string quartet performing today."

By the time the long concert program ended Saturday night, peppered with standing ovations and gasps of delight from the audience, no one would think of that introduction as hyperbole.

The four musicians - violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen - spanned three centuries of music as if they owned it. Using very little (or no) vibrato, they stamped their own unique sound world on works ancient and brand new. Seldom does a quartet perform with a "style" that doesn't after time feel merely tendentious.

Whether performing a 1680 work by Henry Purcell, written for a viol consort, or a new composition by Colin Jacobsen, the quartet bloomed with a sound that was at once transparent, from the lack of vibrato in the always changing primary voices, and full and rich, from the harmonic depth it revealed. Members at times used the sort of exaggerated slides associated with the wet and gooey quartets of the late Romantic era, yet in their hands the device was new and utterly modern.

The quartet accentuated the beauty in works by revealing it, not by wallowing in it, and even in this post-Bartók world, it conjured sounds and sensations both startlingly otherworldly and utterly appropriate. Performing standing up (except, of course, for cellist Jacobsen) in casual dress, Brooklyn Rider quickly won over the old-school, post-retirement age audience and brought them clapping and laughing in delight into its world.

The heart of the program was Beethoven's String Quartet in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131. In an interview last week, violist Cords described Opus 131 as possessing "the quality of a life … There are moments of looking back into the past and moments of looking into the future, into the beyond." Saturday, he said simply, "This piece lives in communion with people."

Brooklyn Rider presented such a coherent, holistic reading of this epic and strange quartet that the 40-minute, seven-movement work seemed not so much compressed as plainly narrative. The melancholic opening fugue was less sorrowful than serene, the following allegro more energized than frenetic. The heart of Opus 131 is the central movement, a set of variations that felt organic as they unfolded; seldom does a fugue sound conversational, but the fugal third variation seemed to pass from musician to musician as if dialog. The scurrying fifth movement presto was quicksilver … quick, sly and joyous, before the staccato attack of the final allegro, which was sharp and intense, yet fully nuanced.

Late Beethoven quartets are strange creatures, often obscure and remote. Yet Brooklyn Rider made Opus 131 immediate, vital and, above all, purely musical. The trills, the pauses, the quick shape-shifting all were fully natural and inevitable in their hands.

The program also included a Colin Jacobsen transcription of the Joao Gilberto song "Undiu" that opened with a display of the overtones, harmonics and just plain bizarre sounds that can be evoked from bows and strings, so startling at first that you thought an electronic instrument was in the house. And in this lovely work, redolent of Philip Glass, the four members sang at one point. The audience, accustomed to Brahms and Dvorák, loved it.

To open the program, cellist Arron joined Brooklyn Rider for one of the 125 Boccherini string quintets, the E Major, G. 288, and from the very first movement, the ensemble's sense of texture stressing harmonic depth was evident. The program moved through a sonically scintillating reading of four movements of the 2000 composition Viaggo in Italia for String Quintet by Giovanni Sollima, which ended with a wild finale that could be named "Dances with Buzzsaws."

Seldom does an ensemble arrive in a chamber music series billed as something new and different without seeming gimmicky and odd. Brooklyn Rider is the real deal.

The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. today. I can't imagine a better Sunday afternoon.


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