When musicians seek inspiration from musical traditions that are not their own, quiet often, clichés abound. But "A Walking Fire," Brooklyn Rider’s new recording on the Mercury Classics label, expertly manages to draw on the folk music roots of Romania, Hungary and Persia in a way that feels authentic, fresh and kitsch-free.
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The trendy New York-based string quartet’s longstanding relationship with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble helps to explain the heightened subtlety and intelligence that violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen bring to this recording’s seamless merging of musical vocabularies from disparate geographic climes.
The brilliance of "A Walking Fire" also owes much to the influence of Bela Bartok. Although widely known as a composer of nationalistic works, the Hungarian master’s true genius lay in sublimating – as opposed to slavishly transcribing – the detailed ethnomusicological studies he made of the folk musics of Eastern Europe, Turkey and North Africa.
Brooklyn Rider’s feelingly tempestuous take on Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2 makes, then, for a fitting centerpiece to the group’s new album. The ensemble approaches the second movement, infused with Arabic folk music inflections heard by the composer on a 1913 sojourn in Nigeria, with a muscular frenzy that is as unsettling as it is thrilling.
Two captivating contemporary works inspired by other folk music mentors bookend Bartok’s seminal quartet.
The recording opens with Culai, the Russian composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s emotionally complex, five-movement homage to the virtuostic violinist and vocalist of the renowned Romanian folk ensemble Taraf de Haïdouks. The music makes ample use of gypsy scales, note-bending and other idiomatic material while maintaining a streetwise sensibility that feels more akin to Brooklyn than Bucharest.
Three Miniatures for String Quartet, an aromatic exploration of a Persian miniature painting tradition by Brooklyn Rider’s own Colin Jacobsen, draws on the composer-violinist’s deep friendship with the Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor. The ecstatic, three-movement composition impressionistically evokes an ethereal moonlight scene, birdsong and the throes of passion. Though the spirit of Rumi permeates Jacobsen’s music, it remains rooted in the western classical tradition.