R. Hutchinson | a world ruled by fossil fuels and fossil minds | 11/16/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
""Black Angels," the amazing string quartet written by George Crumb in 1970 in response to the Vietnam War, is what inspired the formation of the Kronos Quartet. They set it to disc in 1990, and unfortunately it has remained a timely testament to the ongoing terror and tragedy of war. According to Crumb, "[t]he work portrays a voyage of the soul. The three stages of this voyage are Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation) and Return (redemption)." It is a resolutely modern work, not the sort of thing Haydn would ever have expected. The opening is called "Night of the Electric Insects," and that gives you an idea. Absolutely brilliant
"Black Angels" is 18 minutes long, and opens the disc, and Shostakovich's 8th quartet, at 20 minutes, is the closer. Kronos gives a hard-edged reading of the famous piece, dedicated to "the victims of war and fascism." It is strongest in the louder, faster sections, and not quite as effective in the slower sections, where the Borodin Quartet conveys more feeling, more poignancy (see my review of their 1990 recording of DSCH quartets 2, 3, 7, 8, 10 & 12). A fine performance, though, of a 20th century classic.
Unfortunately I don't have much good to say about the three shorter pieces in between. I've listened to this disc many times now, and I am just not won over by the Tallis, Marta or Ives. It's fun to hear a hoarse Charlie Ives shouting and ranting about the soldiers "Fighting for the People's New Free World," but it reminds you that he was probably a manic-depressive, and you want to tell him to take his medicine. Other than checking in now and then to see if these 3 have grown on me, I typically play either "Black Angels" or the 8th as stand-alone works, and so the 4 stars reflects the fact that the disc as a whole is less than satisfying."
Difficult to express in words
R. Hutchinson | 02/12/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Upon the initial listening, I felt that "Black Angels" was the only piece presented on this album that was worthwhile listening. Initially, I felt that the Tallis, Marta, and Ives pieces were useless filler tracks, and that Kronos simply didn't do a particularly good job with the Shostakovich (which, along with Black Angels, is one of the most important contributions to the string quartet this past century).However, the entire CD begins to fall into place in one's mind. First, the Tallis piece "Spem in Alium"'s positioning in the album is fascinating and effective. After the emotionally disturbing and draining Black Angels, we hear this piece, which reaffirms much of the faith in people we lost upon hearing Black Angels.The Istvan Marta piece is a good middle piece. It is in the same vein as Black Angels and String Quartet No 8 in that it is meant to disturb and provoke. The voice that we hear throughout the piece is not annoying, as some people have said. Listen more closely - it is a deeply moving and personal work.The Ives lightens the mood slightly. On an album such as this, it's important to have at least one bright (ie happy) spot. Here it is in this scherzo-esque piece.Now we come to the Shostakovich. Truthfully, I'm still not sure if I like Kronos's reading of it. Frequently it feels as though they missed the point, as though the pain and anguish never fully got through to them. It's an awfully fast reading, which is interesting in some respects. I'm still working on this, which is a good sign - it means their reading isn't bad, just different from what I'm used to.That's sort of what this album is all about though - presenting you with a side of music you aren't generally used to. It's extremely dark and anguished, but it's important to hear this music. It's a reminder that life has a dark side."
Excellent, but not ideal
new music guy | NY, NY United States | 04/03/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is among Kronos' better recordings, and includes perhaps their only performance of a standard-repertoire work that can stand up to comparison with other groups' performances (the Shostakovich).Black Angels is an immensely powerful piece, and this is overall a fine performance of it. One major issue though: Crumb calls for an amplified string quartet, and if memory serves, specifically requests that the purpose of the electronics be only to amplify and not to distort or alter the string sound. Kronos' natural sound is somewhat thin and nasal, but levels here have been adjusted to give the group a more "electric" tone quality. They sound in many places less like a string quartet and more like a MIDI file. For more of the former sound, I'd recommend the Cikada Quartet's performance, though that disc also has its issues. Also, the quartet doesn't play the ossia version of the Death and the Maiden arrangement which opens the second section, in which the pitch lowers incrementally first from D minor to C# minor and then to C minor, as does the Concord Quartet (who recorded this work in collaboration with the composer). It's a nice effect, and sorely missed here.Shostakovich's 8th string quartet is perhaps his most often heard piece, and there are excellent performances from several groups, notably the Fitzwilliam and Emerson quartets (the latter performance is live). To that short list I would tentatively add Kronos. Gone from their sound is the dark, brooding Russian depth of tone and color that make the above performances so powerful. Replacing that is a fiery energy, and at times a certain lack of clarity. The fast movements are gritty and rough, the slower movements not quite as stark as they could be. But it's a unique and moving recording, worth hearing.The Ives is light, more of a curiosity than anything else. The Marta might be powerful to some, but I was yawning. The Tallis is a weak arrangement and is given a weak performance. Kronos' style of playing early music basically seems to consist of putting on practice mutes and playing everything non-vibrato and strictly in tempo. It's worth skipping."
R. Hutchinson | 11/09/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Perhaps I'm biased regarding this recording. After all, this CD switched my passion from large orchestral works to 20th Century Chamber Music. The two towers on this CD are "Black Angels" by Crumb and String Quartet No 8 by Shostakovich. Tallis, Ives, and Marta's works fill the track spaces between (quite well). The Shostakovich is...how should we say...an "American" view of this piece. They play it with fire and ornery-ness...for example, the 2nd movement, normally marked at a whole note = 120 bpm, is play much, much faster than that (which results in a few technical slips on the performers' parts, but that's here or there). Whether or not you like a "flashier" Shostakovich is just a question of personal aesthetics. For me, while I do like this version, I feel that the Borodin String Quartet has produced the definitive recordings of the Shostakovich String Quartets...period. However, Kronos provides a new and refreshing look.Thus, we come to Black Angels, and incredibly powerful programmatic piece of George Crumb. This piece stretches what a string quartet can do more than anything else prior to it. The performers incorporate amplifiers, percussion, and their own voices. The opening explodes with screaming violins, which suddenly disappear into echoes only to explode yet again. The work is genuinely frightening and surprising in that respect. It is also strange...amidst all these extremely modern techniques we see musical quotations of.....Schubert. What? How did this happen? Listen to the piece, because, somehow, it makes sense."
It's nuts! It's scary! It's a masterpiece!
Meekiahman | Singapore | 04/02/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"'Nuts' and 'scary' are not words you use to describe classical music, but Black Angels do demand to be labeled as such. A friend once pushed this CD up my nose and challenged me to have a go at it at 3am. I obliged, though not at the appointed time, and it was more than enough for a novice classical critic like me. I tend to appreciate classical music so long if I can associate a particular piece with some universal theme, so soundtracks usually catch my attention easily. Concerning the theme of war, look no further than here. Black Angels contains musical structures that are more harrowingly depressive, manic and jarring than what you may hear in Platoon, guaranteed. "Doom. A Sigh" is the finest example, one that charges the hair around your neck with static. "Devil-music" of "Departure" from "Black Angels" by George Crumb is very effective at conjuring horrific mental images. It really SOUNDS like B-52s flying from afar and dropping their napalm, ending with a loud gong for explosion. I consider "Spem In Alium" most classically conventional...well, can't say much about it...perhaps Jerry 'The King' Lawler should adopt it as his new appearance theme, ha! The inclusion of "They Are There!" by Charles Ives is most disputable among reviewers here, but I think of it as an act of black humor. The sleeve notes say, "A black eye never reformed a drunkard, a czar never stopped a free thought." So this about sums up the vocals behind the song; Charles Ives must have been a darn drunkard to have sung so optimistically. The accompanying sometimes-a-bit-out-of-tune Kronos composition helps to amplify that perception, and I think the effect works. It brought a wry smile to my face. I have heard several renditions of Shostakovich's Quartet No.8. By far Kronos' is most stupendous, period. The way Kronos 'pulled' the sounds out for the 2nd stanza "Allegro molto" and as well as "Doom. A Sigh." is testament to their immaculate variation in the control of force and strength to bring music up to a required emotional level. Now I challenge you to listen to this most incredible work at 3am."