Classical Music Review: New Releases

NUEVO - Kronos.  Music by Briseno (arr.Osvaldo Golijov); Lara (G); Revueltas (arr. Stephen Prutsman); Esquivel (G); Dominguez (P); Sanchez (G); Golijov; Bolanos (arr. Ricardo Gallardo); Cafe Tacuba (G); Henryk M Gorecki / Qt # 2 (Quasi Una Fantasia). March 16, 2002. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco.

Kronos has never been afraid of challenges or controversy, and their NUEVO program proved their astonishing versatility. It was divided into two very distinct musical halves, with excerpts from their new Nonesuch CD of Mexican music, on the first, and a complete performance of Polish composer Henry M. Gorecki's Quasi una Fantasia, Qt. # 2, Op. 64 (1990-91), on the second. And though both parts seemed to come from entirely different worlds, a little reflection provided the link -- each piece derived in whole, or in part, from folk or popular sources. This was obvious in the first part's selections, most of which were arranged for Kronos by composer Osvaldo Golijov, who served in that capacity on the quartet's last "world music " CD, Caravan, but much less so in the Gorecki.

Golijov's arrangement of El Sinaloense (The Man From Sinaloa) (1943/2001), by Severiano Briseno (1902-1988), had Kronos imitating the bright, strident unisons of a mariachi band, which they evoked to perfection. Golijov's version of Se me hizo facil (It Was Easy For Me) (1959/2001), by Agustin Lara (1896-1970), was a transparent waltz, which the quartet projected with great charm. But the pieces that took the cake were the darker, more passionate, and definitely more serious ones devoted to the Virgin Mary -- K' n Sventa Ch' ul Me ' tik Kwadulupe (Festival For The Holy Mother Guadalupe ), 12/12, which refers to the date of her feast day, and Stephen Prutsman's version of Sensemaya (1937/2001), by the great Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940). The first of the Guadalupe pieces, which was accompanied by a recording of Luane Warner on marimba, was starkly ritualistic and poignant, while the second, which Golijov co-wrote with the Mexican band Cafe Tacuba, had the widest variety of sounds and playing techniques -- and a recording by the band, with Alejandro Flores on violin and requinto, served as accompaniment.  There was also a particularly striking passage in minor thirds. Prutsman's arrangement of Revueltas' huge orchestral piece gave its principal ostinati to cellist Jennifer Culp, which she played with the requisite steady, unwavering tone. Violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, and violist Hank Dutt, performed their interlocking rhythms, which match and about Culp's, with precision and passion. The group was also joined here, on tape, by the Mexican percussion group Tambuco.

With the Gorecki Kronos were entirely on their own, and though they've played it many times and recorded it for Nonesuch (with Joan Jeanrenaud on cello), it never sounded like they were on automatic pilot. Nor did it sound easy. The Second, after all, is a big European piece in the grand tradition, and it's alternately somber, meditative, and fierce. It's also in the classic four-movement layout, and has many passages which evoke Polish folk music from the Tatra region. The strange, almost Asiatic-sounding pitches in the middle of the "arioso: cantabile" section of the third movement, for example, and the keening, and very gradually decorated viola figure in the first, sound like reminiscences of Polish Catholic church music, and are rooted, I'm sure, in real native material. Kronos gave a super alert and deeply felt performance, and the piece was demonstrable proof that some composers still approach the quartet as the most perfect and most spiritual medium in music. And, like the quartet's performance last fall of  Peteris Vask's Fourth -- within days of 9-11, it felt entirely necessary. And one can't ask for any more than that.

Michael McDonagh