For the eternally-on-the-cutting-edge Kronos, a programme of commissions from international women composers might seem an almost conservative repertory conceit, but the quartet’s latest project features other ties that bind. All four works embrace technology in arresting ways. All four disclose autobiographical elements. And all four extend the possibilities of the venerable quartet format.
The results sometimes reach out to envelop the listener. In her captivating …hold me, neighbour, in this storm…, Serbian-born Aleksandra Vrebalov asks the players to bow ethnic Balkan instruments, beat native drums, pound their fiddles and chant Islamic prayers while recorded church bells add another layer of cultural significance. A mournful cello yields to a frenetic village dance, interrupted by a series of repeated, boldly accented dissonances. Tense silences melt into aching string harmonies. Vrebalov might be offering an aural portrait of her homeland. The performance traded in the exploratory fervour that, over three decades, has made the Kronos Quartet nonpareil in contemporary chamber music.
Aviya Kopelman’s Widows & Lovers tests the strength of the string quartet to retain its traditional profile within a world of unfettered technological resources. Some of the piece – such as the crowd noises, the single entry of the players and the talky bits – convince less than the passionate string writing, in which every modulation tugs at the heart. The Israel-based composer does not shy away from basics.
Hanna Kulenty’s String Quartet No 4 finds the Polish minimalist looking back at earlier material, at a cradle song here rewoven within a fresh context. The tune drives an unremitting series of buzzes and sobs, as strings swirl round tonal centres and swoop between pitches. The writing is facile; Kulenty generates thematic substance out of mere notes, yet the intricacy sometimes overwhelms the expressive content. The balance is found and sustained precariously in Kaija Saariaho’s early (1987) Nymphéa. A spoken text and an electronic component drive the Finnish composer to an integration of elements that makes the string quartet sound like a brave new world ripe for conquest. An enthralling evening, overall.
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