Exclusive video preview: hottest Beethoven of the year

This is Brooklyn Rider and they are playing the opus 131. It’s a kick-start project and it’s not out for another fortnight, but this stuff is too good to go unheard.

And here’s what they have to say about it:

We decided to explore this idea with a new album, entitled Seven Steps. The album is named after the opening track, our first ever group-composed piece. The process of writing and improvising music collaboratively requires an enormous amount of trust. Symbolically, this process represents seven steps forward in our evolution as a quartet.

The second track of the album is a work by Christopher Tignor, NYC-based composer/band leader by night and software engineer by day, who wrote “Together Into This Unknowable Night” for Brooklyn Rider in 2008. Christopher’s music, informed as much by the vast possibilities of the electronic music universe as it is by his tactile experience as a violinist, seemed to be a natural fit for this album.

The rest of the album features arguably one of the greatest quartets ever written, and one of Beethoven’s greatest works – String Quartet no.14 in C# minor, op.131. One of the central challenges of that piece is that it places huge emotional and physical demands on the player, often posing near-impossible musical juxtapositions. But in demanding the impossible, Beethoven forces us to rise to no less than our full potential, to interact with each other and society on equal terms, to love and to be vulnerable—in short, to experience a sense of catharsis together. Throughout our rehearsal process, we came to understand op. 131 as the story of a life, and the ingenious variation of musical DNA throughout surely creates one of the ultimate motivic journeys in the classical music canon. This is truly mind and spirit-expanding music and it is our privilege as performers to live in this world.

We are very lucky to work on this album with one of the young stars of the recording industry, Grammy-winning engineer Jesse Lewis.The material is recorded, and we are very excited about the result. The album will be available on CD/ all digital retailers, as well as Limited Edition Vinyl. You may ask, “why vinyl?” First of all, vinyl creates a bridge to a past we deeply admire. The medium (in its predecessor, shellac 78s) brought us the unforgettable voices of the Capet, Rosé, and Busch String Quartets along with other greats on up to the advent of the digital age. But beyond the historic links, vinyl is above all a tactile experience for the listener. The simple act of putting a record on the turntable requires more of an investment than a touch screen or track wheel, an investment that results in a more engaged listening environment.

We are asking for your help to make this record a reality. The album will be released by In a Circle Records, a company that was started in 2008 by one of Brooklyn Rider violinists, Johnny Gandelsman. Although this sounds somewhat official, this is completely an independent project. The money we hope to raise will help off-set production, post-production, art design, manufacturing and promotion costs, which are quite substantial.  We need your help so that we can share this album with as many music lovers as possible.

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  • Twelve microphones (maybe more out of shot of the cameras) to record a string quartet – that must be a record for control-room intervention. With more microphones the perceived dynamic range and perspective get reduced which is a useful phenomenon sometimes, especially for recording easy listening music. Beethoven is full of dynamic markings and subtleties of perspective which I would have thought are best left alone if at all possible.

  • The sound is certainly unnatural with a great deal of reverberation.
    I find the sound of the 1st violin somewhat unattractive and I notice he has an extreme baroque grip of his bow (which the others don’t) which is producing a pseudo-baroque sound. I don’t know whether he or any of the others are using gut strings. There could be much greater dynamic contrast.

  • Tony (see above) has said it all……….the sound is totally artificial, no real ambience of the hall perceivable, instead bad artificial reverberation.

  • Well, I liked it a lot. Some of the very challenging transitions in this movement they handled as well as anyone. I found it musically convincing and exciting to listen to–and I know this movement pretty well. As for the sound, I have recorded in churches even more resonant than this one. Using a lot of microphones has not much to do with dynamic range. It does mean that the engineer can mess around with perspective, but I really didn’t hear any problems. As for the slides, what, you’ve never listened to all the other quartets play Beethoven? Alban Berg, Amadeus, Emerson? They all use glissandi when appropriate.

    I’m looking forward to hearing the whole quartet and I’d love to hear them doing Shostakovich.

    • Salut from Paris, Johnny, Interesting approach. The reverb certainly sounds natural to me (but I’m only a retired clarinet player). The minimal vibrato and maximal slides sound like you are reverting to a style that was more like what Beethoven might have actually heard. Your bow is also provocative: a baroque-type grip on what appears to be a conventional bow. Good to hear young groups exploring and not just trying to imitate “famous” quartets. I look forward to hearing more and hope that everyone keeps an open mind and ear.

  • I’d like to leave the musicologists to argue about glissandi, baroque bowing, and the recording engineers to worry about the number of microphones. It reminds of the hot day I spent laying a patio in the garden, only for my wife to come home and complain that it wasn’t the same as next door’s.

    This certainly sounds different from most other recent recordings of Op 131 and is therefore all the more worth listening to! If it does anything unusual, it makes me interested to hear the other music on the recording.

    Thanks for sharing it.

  • Pictures don’t tell the whole story.
    Fisher’s recording dictum no.1: If it’s not on a stand and plugged in, you can’t fade it up. (NB just because it is there doesn’t mean you have to fade it up.)

    The last string quartet recording I engineered saw a total of eight (might have been ten) microphones plugged in and visible in photographs. But only two were faded up because that’s what worked best in that situation with that group.

  • I really like this performance, not at all dry and stuffy. No these are real musicians of flesh and bone playing music how they want (not based on what they read in some dusty old book), AND they are talented with sound musical ideas to boot.

    The recording is nice too, very carefully engineered. The reverb is very long, not at all ‘standard’ for chamber music, BUT the instruments and music remain perfectly clear. This is what is possible with more than a single stereo pair of mics, and it works very well here (nothing wrong with two mics alone of course). The sound stage is excellent, very nice stereo.

  • The “sound cloud” is almost turning me off here — the fact that “the reverberation is all natural, nothing added” (as the first violinist puts it) is not an excuse: they could have used directional microphones to attenuate the reverb. Pity. I have a sneaky suspicion that the sound management was used to cover up the rather thin tone of the first violin. And the portamenti are used to a degree that (to me) crosses the border to mannerism. Nothing against an occasional, audible position shift — but a portamento as a means of expression??? That said, they are certainly not bad, overall, but the quartet has 7 movements, I have just listened to this movement, and I haven’t read the score while listening. Certainly among the better interpretations, I would think (4 out of 5 points?) — but “the hottest Beethoven of the year”??? Sorry, Norman, but it’s early February!

    • Rolf – directional microphones hardly attenuate reverberation – you can’t stop the space sounding like the space you’re in. Sure, you can put up curtains, move chairs, and so on – but the hall then sounds as you set it – it’s then the space you’re in, and will sound like it. [of course, one can add reverb, but taking it away is another matter altogether]
      Indeed, a directional-only setup is likely to result in an odd ‘disconnect’ between the sound of the quartet and the sound of the room following, whereas the likely goal is a more integrated sound, rather than one where the room is audible but the musicians appear artificially in front with a gap between.
      Arguably there is also a likelihood that a directional setup could exacerbate any ‘thin tone’ problems that you cite: all in all, not really the best way to proceed. (mind, I could also ask, before you ponder on such things, do you know what setup was used? Possibly it was a well-judged more directional setup in any case).

      The only way to have less reverberation is to record in a room that has less.

      As for your distaste for portamento, I assume on this basis you don’t really like most orchestral recordings made in the 1930’s & 40’s . . .?

      • I’m not a recording / sound engineer, and my remark about directional microphones was perhaps somewhat of an “intuitive guess” — I’m merely judging the result after comparing it to a number of other recordings (new & old), essentially meaning: the sound engineers could have done something about the reverberation (be it microphone placement, “acoustic engineering” in the room, or — if that would not help — choosing a different recording location. To me, reverberation should be used to *support* a recording — here, in my personal opinion, it is turned into a feature on its own, obscuring the sound of the quartet. It’s well possible that the church chosen is a perfect location for a live performance (but then, there are listeners attenuating the reverberation!) — an audio recording can rarely transport such an experience to a remote listener, and it definitely cannot transport the beauty of the recording location (except that the latter may provide extra inspiration for the artists — but even that is questionable, as the live feedback from an audience is missing, assuming that this was *not* a live recording?).
        Also with the portamento, I did not express general distaste. I can understand and enjoy early recordings *in their context* (Adolf Busch and his colleagues did use a fair amount of portamento), namely as a remainder of a tradition that grew in the late 19th century (along with other “bad habits” such as excessive rubato, bad / obscured perfection of a composer’s intent, up to deliberate alterations to a composer’s notation), which isn’t a period that the Brooklyn Rider artists are referring to. I don’t think we have any firm measure of how much portamento was used in Beethoven’s time, so: what the artists are presenting is a hypothesis at best — and debatable as such. My violin teacher used to say “an audible position shift can be something nice” — and in that sense, occasional, *moderate* use of portamento is OK — but (again, for my personal taste) it should not be turned into a feature of its own. My *benchmark* here (for historically informed performances) is the Quatuor Mosaïques — I wish they had done the late quartets as well!

        • First of all, a beautiful and impressive rendition of the music at hand, kudos to Brooklyn Rider! Following up on Rolf’s stylistic musings–I would like to pull the rug away from a bit more history underneath–back in Schumann’s time (roughly 1830s-1850s) it was common fingering practice to stay on one string for the duration of a phrase, and with the longer phrases being provided then by composers this could lead to quite a lot of shifting up and down. The larger the instrument the more difficult to “hide” shifts. Furthermore the term “portamento” is literally a slippy one. Given a bow, a set of strings, several fingering choices, and an imaginative, trained player, there are many ways to “bridge” two tones with different connective sounds in between. Beethoven would probably not have used the term portamento; rather he and his friends who played his music likely had at least one or more other, more current terms for varieties of glissandi that were part of their style and approach. Think of this as the musical analogue to the “many words for snow” debate. A musician friend of mine, who has been to the archives of the Beethoven House in Bonn, tells me that many of the original playing (string) parts of Beethoven’s music contain fingering notations, presumably by the original players. So down the road, please expect more than just hypotheses regarding music expression, expressed with slides– though I’m sure there will also be much discussion following.

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