Winter was Hard is one of Kronos Quartet’s anthology albums, and contains a wealth of contemporary music from a wide range of approaches. It is one of the first of their recordings that I owned (in cassette) and my first exposure to many of the composers included. Coming back to this album after several years, I am amazed at how much of this music is now familiar from other contexts.
The opening work, and the title track, is by Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen, a brief (1:40) piece for chorus and reed organ in addition to the quartet. It is a serene, spiritual piece that could best be described as Gregorian chant with accompaniment, although the text is somewhat mordant. This leads immediately into a section of Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace titled “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight.” It contains all the Riley hallmarks and is an excellent selection from the longer work. Kronos’ rendering of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres is haunting, low, quiet, somehow intense and serene at the same time, projecting a great sense of expectancy. Kronos gives a reading of Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles that pushes the envelope on that composer quite a bit: there is almost an electronic feel to portions of the piece. I would love to see John Zorn’s Forbidden Fruit used as a score by a modern dance troupe. Scored for quartet, voice, and turntables, it is terrifically “avant garde” and, in places, rather humorous, breaking passages of almost overpowering “urban angst” with interludes of fluent melody, punctuated by random words and short phrases.
John Lurie’s Bella by Barlight is a softly lilting piece, plucked strings providing a good foundation for violin passages with a sweet, slightly piquant quality. Four, for Tango, by Astor Piazzolla, is not a tango in any sense that we would recognize, but we can recognize the elements in a surprising new format. Alfred Schnittke’s Quartet No. 3 is one of the more “normal” works on this album, although definitely contemporary. An intense work, it is also the longest selection (19:06), and, although it suffers from “urban angst,” it is well worth the listening.
My hands-down favorite is the Barber Adagio, one of those fairly romantic pieces that one has heard many times in the lushest possible arrangements. To say that Kronos turns this idea on its head falls far short of the mark. Their tight, almost sere approach finds new wonders in the music and provides a kind of transparency that brings great power to what has been, all too often, a “filler.” The fluidity of their interpretation leads to a climax that is almost painful in its intensity. I don’t think I have heard a rendition that matches the quality of this one, or one that pulls so much sheer beauty out of the score. Frankly, they have ruined any other interpretation for me.
The final, very brief piece, A Door is Ajar, is credited as “Traditional” and “arr. Kronos Quartet.” It is a “musical” rendering of the old riddle, “when is a door not a door?” and the sheer effrontery of it finishes your listening experience off with a guffaw.
Kronos Quartet early on marked out their territory among chamber groups: contemporary music, from almost any source. They have done full-scale recordings of works by Terry Riley, with whom they have worked since the late 1970s, any number of anthologies of contemporary composers, including contemporary African music, Witold Lutoslawski, Philip Glass – the list goes on. Not only has this history given them a high profile, it has honed their sensibilities to the point where they are probably the best group working in this area. And this is a service to those who are interested in this music: albums such as this one give you a chance to sample the work of a number of composers with the knowledge that the rendition will be excellent (indeed, Kronos often collaborates directly with the composers).
Do I recommend this album? Absolutely, with my usual caveats: this music is not to everyone’s taste, but if it fits yours, you will find intelligent, sensitive renderings of some very enjoyable works.