The string quartet known as Brooklyn Rider is an offshoot of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and they follow in that ensemble’s path of cross-cultural music. A Walking Fire is a musical journey that begins in Romania, with a suite called “Culai” by the violist and composer Ljova, and ends in Iran with “Three Miniatures for String Quartet,” by Brooklyn Rider’s own violinist Colin Jacobsen. In between, the quartet plays a major piece from the string quartet repertoire, Bela Bartok’s String Quartet #2. This format — mixing a “standard” with new and more exotic fare — proved to be a winning one for the group in their 2010 album Dominant Curve, which included the Debussy String Quartet in among contemporary works that had an Eastern cast. And it works again here: The Bartok quartet, heard after Ljova’s gypsy-inspired suite, gains a kind of clarity of purpose. Ljova’s piece is named after the late Romanian violinist Nicolai Neacsu, known as Culai, and famous among world music enthusiasts as the wild fiddler who led the gypsy string band Taraf de Haidouks. Alternately ecstatic and elegiac, it is a perfect foil for Bartok’s quartet, a lament written during the First World War which includes echoes of the folk music (mostly from Eastern Europe but also, somewhat incongruously, from Nigeria as well) that Bartok loved so much and spent so many years studying and recording.
Ljova’s suite is also full of echoes of the folk music of Eastern Europe. It opens with “The Game,” a jovial, stamping dance. “The Muse” has a more obvious Balkan sound, including a moment or two of Culai’s famed “ratcheting” sound — created by dragging a piece of horsehair or fishing line over the violin’s string. “The Song” is a jaunty number with a sinuous melody that takes a couple of surprising turns; it leads seamlessly into “Love Potion, Expired,” which enters the high-speed world of Balkan gypsy music. A typically full-blooded Roma-style lament, or doina, wraps up the suite.
After Ljova’s “Culai” and the Bartok second quartet, Jacobsen offers a trio of pieces inspired by Persian music and specifically by his (and the quartet’s) long-standing and productive friendship with Kayhan Kalhor, the pre-eminent virtuoso of the Persian fiddle, or kemanche. At seven-and-a-half minutes long, “The Flowers of Esfahan” tests the definition of the title “miniatures,” but it is also a highlight of the album, as the music coils and uncoils in flowing arabesques and gossamer textures. The outer movements, “Majnun’s Moonshine” and “A Walking Fire,” with their exotic melodies and the strongly accented rhythms, are probably hard to play, but fortunately for us, are easy to enjoy.