Sarah Bernstein

September 19, 2022

VEER Quartet
New Focus Recordings No #

Ernesto Rodrigues/Guilherme Rodrigues/João Madeira
Creative Sources CS 731 CD

Quatuor Bozzini
Tom Johnson: Combinations
Collection QB CBQ 2230

Although the primacy of small string ensembles for superior musical expression has been confirmed since at least the 18th Century, there are still adornments that can be added to those configurations. While Portugal’s Ernesto Rodrigues (viola), Guilherme Rodrigues (cello) and João Madeira (bass) expand their Cosmos with a trio variation in traditional instruments, New York’s’ VEER led by violinist Sarah Bernstein and Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini innovate using standard string quartet instrumentation. The resulting performances pinpoint the division between the creativity reacted to from the improvised or the notated side of musical performance.

Working through the four-part Cosmos suite, the Rodrigues duo and Madeira turn away from the melodic mores of their instruments to scratch, stretch and strop timbers even as the piece evolves in broken octave triple counterpoint. Halving and doubling the tempo at various junctures, the two higher-pitched instruments use spiccato jumps and jolts to advance the exposition while the bassist’s thumps and pulls steady the advancement. As the tri-layer narrative is established, all three torque the presentation with additional buzzes and strains. Energy expressed in whistling string squeaks and guiro-like ratcheting creates the discordant but open presto strokes that conclude the combinations “Cosmos III” provides the greatest improvisational scope. At 18-minute plus, the simple moderato tempo moves up to staccato sawing so that the 12 strings respond with such vigor that the bows appear to bounce off the strings into the air. Wood vibrating hard plucks from the cello and bass become so percussive that they reorient the track towards full dissonance, only to be drawn back when near-cooing lyricism from the viola transforms contrast into connection.

Interpreting six compositions by Bernstein, who has worked with the likes of Anthony Braxton and Kris Davis, the dynamics and energy of Free Jazz are part of VEER’s genetic code. Often cellist Nick Jozwiak produces the equivalent of a walking bass line, while the harmonic vamps, call-and-response variations and swift rappels up and down the cumulative string sets from violinists Sana Nagano and Bernstein plus violist Leonor Falcon, fit that genre. At the same time Impressionist and Romantic motifs inhabit some tracks with honeyed tones and harmonies often as prominent in broken chord initiatives as harshness. A track such as “Clay Myth” for instance moves from requiem to raucous. Smooth flutters quickly give way to more aggressive and continuous plucking as violin variations follows variations before relaxing into mutual harmonies including a near-Country Music-like fiddle solo. The ending is a sequence that combines beauty, beats and harmony, leaving space for pointillist jabs. Able to coalesce into near-opaque considerations at time with crinkles that almost sound electro-acoustic, the most profound expression of VEER’S vectors is on tracks allowing for the widest variety. Jazz-affiliated quotes from what could be snatches of “Tico” and “Figaro” are heard in the second half of “Nightmorning” that make up part of a swinging interlude. Before that an oboe-pitched viola lead has defined the track’s introductory sequence which is then extended as cello lines move downwards and the others’ strings upwards. The andante cello part is in clear contrast to the others’ tempos which soon shake into strained spiccato runs. The so-called Jazz interlude culminates with timbral overlapping from all and conclusively ends with low-pitched variations on the introduction.

Moving from improvisation to interpretation, Quatuor Bozzini (QB) with violinists Alissa Chung and Clemens Markel violist Stéphanie Bozzini and cellist Isabelle Bozzini bring their proven skills in dealing with and commissioning contemporary concert piece to four string quartet combination by American composer Tom Johnson. Concerned with minimalism, repetition and mathematical techniques, three of the creations are divided into tiny shards, some as brief as 14 seconds, with the turnarounds and breaks in all almost as short. Overall the performances are vastly more tonal and circular than those on the other discs. However it’s a testament to the QB’s skill that the four make rhythmic and fluid what could have been a series of academic exercises. The five-part “Combinations For String Quartet” for instance that opens the disc, is a monument to simplicity and beauty. Through many unison sections and seemingly endless pattern repetitions, sprightly and floating responses enter into the unfolding. The cellist even manages to suggest a foot-tapping rhythm. Moving on from the harsh and buzzing interruption in the fourth section, the piece ends with warmer, more moderate developments. Additionally, the concluding seven-part “Formulas For String Quartet” evolves with same sort of layered and lyrical interface. Including harder bass clef strokes and back-and-forth linear thrust, the QB creates something that is lyrical and almost flowery, but not at the expense of conscious projections. The penultimate “VII” confirms this with speedy glissandi that move from allegro to staccato, and the concluding “VIII” that displays slightly nervous, but never dissonant timbres that connect appropriately.

There is much to experience for string fanciers with these discs. They prove the malleability of ensemble playing to interpretations of new and New music.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: VEER: 1. Frames No.1 2. News Cycle Progression 3. Clay Myth 4. World Warrior 5. Nightmorning-6. Hidden

Personnel: VEER: Sarah Bernstein and Sana Nagano (violin); Leonor Falcon (viola) and Nick Jozwiak (cello)

Track Listing: Cosmos: 1. Cosmos I 2. Cosmos II 3. Cosmos III 4. Cosmos IV

Personnel: Cosmos: Ernesto Rodrigues (viola); Guilherme Rodrigues (cello) and João Madeira (bass)

Track Listing: Combinations: Combinations For String Quartet (2003):1. I-5:04 2. II-4:49 3. III-4:31 4. IV-6:12 5. V-5:07 6. Tilework For String Quartet (2003)-9:14 Four-Note Chords In Four Voices (2009): 7. I-0:26 8. II-1:11 9. III-1:20 10. IV-1:09 11. V-0:38 12. VI-1:11 13. VII-2:16 14. VIII-2:15 15. IX-1:16 16. X-1:11 17. XI-0:2718. XII-1:10 19. XIII-0:38 20. XIV-1:22 21. XV-0:14 Formulas For String Quartet (1994): 22. I-0:46 23. II-2:24 24. III-3:13 25. IV-1:2126. V-2:48 27. VI-1:57 28. VII-1:3129. VIII

Personnel: Combinations: Alissa Chung and Clemens Markel (violin); Stéphanie Bozzini (viola) and Isabelle Bozzini (cello)