New Music Center

Kronos Quartet: Music of Vladimir Martynov

The Kronos Quartet has been called “the most famous new music group in the world,” and rightly so. For over forty years the quartet has been a huge proponent of new music and has worked to expand the string quartet repertoire. They have done so not only through aiding in creation of a larger repertory of contemporary works for the genre, but also expanding the concept of what a string quartet can do. Working with composers such as John Adams, George Crumb, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Osvaldo Golijov (among a multitude of others), the group has helped to create hundreds of new works. The group was formed when founding member David Harrington heard a performance of a work that has become one of their most well known performances– George Crumb’s Black Angels. The work certainly pushes the boundaries of traditional string quartet writing, employing electronically amplified instruments and makes use of extreme registers and many extended techniques. Excellence in performing this sort of experimental music is what has set Kronos apart from other new music groups.

Never to be pigeonholed into just one stylistic frame, the group also frequently performs works that cover a large range of musical genres (including styles such as folk music, rock music, movie soundtracks, jazz, incidental music, and music that can defy categorization). In the spirit of this constant exploration, last month the Kronos Quartet released its new recording on the Nonsuch label featuring the music of Russian composer Vladimir Martynov. Though a prominent composer in Russia, he is regretfully little known in the West.

Martynov was born in 1946 in Moscow and graduated from that city’s conservatory in 1971. His early work was written in the 12-tone system and was considered quite avant-garde at a time when the official stance of the government on such art was highly negative. In the years following his graduation from the conservatory, Martynov became interested in various other musical styles, even writing a rock opera in 1978. Another strong influence came in the form of the particular style of minimalism that was developing in Russia during the 70s. The Russian flavor of minimalism was heavily religious and metrically static, without the strong pulse of much American minimalism that was developing around the same time. Martynov is also active as a musicologist. His interests in Russian folk music, religious musical history, and Renaissance polyphony have also had profound influences on his own music.

The works included on this disc have been described as having the “lush Romanticism of Tchaikovsky and jagged affairs with latter-day Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Except, at times, sadder: Much, much, much sadder.” The disc opens with “The Beatitudes”, a rescoring of a choral piece from 1998. The original piece, a setting of the biblical text, gradually unfolds a repeating melodic line that plays out over gradually changing harmonies which eventually thin and fade away. In “Schubert-Quintet (unfinished)”, Martynov reflects on Schubert’s glorious Quintet in C, using the rising octave figure prominently and interweaving other quotations from Shubert throughout. Scored for the quartet plus another cello part, it was written at the request of the group as a chance to reunite with long time Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud who played with the group from its founding in 1978 to 1998.

“Das Abschied” (The Farewell) also takes as its basis a preexisting work, in this case Mahler’s symphonic song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde”. Clocking in at forty minutes, it is the largest track on the recording and by far the weightiest. Martynov composed the piece in memoriam to his father. Similar to Mahler’s ability to navigate various emotional extremes, this extended elegy traverses many moods from desolate recollections of a father’s final breaths to more impassioned remembrances of happier times. In this track, Martynov displays his most unabashedly romantic side.

Kronos’s performance of Martynov’s works is clear and has an assured musical direction. Though his talent has never had a high profile outside of Russia, this recording is the perfect introduction for those who are unfamiliar with him and his canon.