New York based string quartet Brooklyn Rider epitomizes that movement within classical music which advocates ‘unfettered’ performances and a contemporary look, and has built a following on this image. Critics over the world have swallowed the bait, and when the group guested in Stockholm it also included a brief performance at an arrangement of Yellow Lounge (the DG label's ‘popular’ concept ) later that evening.

Brooklyn Rider © Sarah Small
Brooklyn Rider
© Sarah Small

Musically speaking, Brooklyn Rider is oriented in the same direction as the Kronos Quartet – mixing movements from the classical repertoire with new pieces which speak  the language of ‘world music’. In this case, it included music by Ljova, a Romanian composer from Bucharest, turned New Yorker, whose polyrhythmically explosive, florid pieces overflow with modality. Add to this how the group's own Colin Jacobsen integrates Persian imagery and sound worlds in a suite of musical miniatures. Indeed,  all of this adds up to fulfil the promise of an interesting afternoon. But ‘unfettered’? Well, having been spoiled with several generations of passionate, unbridled and unconventional chamber music playing on a high level here in Sweden alone, I'd like to take a closer look at this phenomenon with some critical distance.

The programme opened with the only existing movement of Franz Schubert's String Quartet in C minor D.703 – restless, moody and contemporary in its intensity. The anxiety-laden semiquavers chased over the strings, eyes met and temperaments connected in a piece which was a perfect concert opener, thanks to its popularity and brevity. The group plays standing up – like the similarly minded Brodsky Quartet – and presented the pieces in a friendly, non-condescending manner, lunging into the String Quartet no. 2, “Company” of fellow New Yorker Philip Glass.

And, lo and behold, the Glass quartet presents a mood of similar intensity, as though Vienna of the early 19th century and New York of the 2Oth century – and their inhabitants - have the same pulse, the same anxieties and desire to overbridge loneliness with company and intimacy. Granted, there is more of a laissez-faire attitude in the Glass quartet, as though the polish of modern living adds a layer of elusiveness to emotional expression when compared to the tortured nature of the Schubert.

All of that polish vanishes in a flash when the quartet becomes a Romany band, presenting glimpses of life in Romania. Culai by Ljova – New York immigrant Lev Zhurbin - is a homage to a legendary violinist and singer, whose temperamental virtuosity rips through the piece and generates images of the tarantella and funeral processions with riveting passion. 

The interval was followed by another Ljova piece, an arrangement of a Romanian ‘doina’, the traditional Romanian folk music which in this case comes out of the region surrounding the river Olt. Again, the playful, unpredictable flow of rhythms and melismas inspired the audience to unanimously warm applause.

The Ljova arrangement served as a perfect introduction to Bartók String Quartet no. 2 in A minor which, although more sombere and inward-looking, looks to similar folkloristic sources for material and inspiration. Even though Bartók harks back to the end of World War I, the atmosphere of lament and wounded sensibility is overwhelming. The group's rendition created a stark contrast to the exuberant, extrovert nature of the previous works, and caused the listener to reflect over different approaches to tragedy and loss.

The finale with Colin Jacobsen's Persian-inspired Three Miniatures opened yet another window to the East, with melodies and atmospheres imported from the world of his friend, the Persian musician Kayhan Kalhor. The vibratoless approach of the musicians and delicately spun patterns of the Persian melodies make for a poetic ending to this unusual programme.

Nevertheless, the claim for a “rock’n roll” approach to classical music had me reflecting even as the group performed that same evening at Yellow Lounge, the club-inspired concept initiated by their record company. There is nothing radically different about their approach to this considerably younger and less concentrated audience, even though they were surrounded by artificial smoke and wildly chasing patterns of lighting, and the instruments were amplified. I expected bows to break, sweat pouring from foreheads and hairy chests of musicians loosening their control, and crazy improvisations taking unexpectant audience members for a dance romp through the hall.

I’ve seen musicians the like of Martin Fröst, Bengt Forsberg, or Maxim Vengerov (the latter performing while imbibing shots of vodka), ripping pages of unknown music from an open suitcase in the middle of the night (Forsberg), or dancing in a nightclub to the tunes of an unbridled klezmer tune (Fröst). I think I expect more – or rather, less control - from a string quartet, or any classical musician, in order to apply the label “rock’n roll”.