In the past 25 or so years, Kronos Quartet has commissioned more than 400 works. That’s about as many songs Prince reportedly has in his legendary vault.
Of course, that means Kronos shares with Prince the potential to release some awe-inspiring albums or some really questionable duds.
Although Kronos has single-handedly managed to bridge classical music with pop culture — commissioning a piece from Mr. Bungle and performing with Café Tacuba — the quartet is in its best element performing Western art music.
Requiem for Adam fits squarely in the classical arena, and it’s a piece which sports one of Kronos’ most spirited performances. Named after the son of Kronos’ first violinist David Harrington, the piece was written by Terry Riley, the man commonly credited for ushering in minimalism with In C.
Riley stayed away from notated composition early in his career but started up again after working with Kronos in the late 70s. In turn, Riley’s improvisational pieces forced Kronos to adopt a work ethic that involved totally immersing themselves into a piece.
Unlike the overly long Salome Dances for Peace, Riley’s work on Requiem is focused but organic. The beautiful first movement starts off mournfully but midway through slowly builds to a flurry.
The second movement pits Kronos against a set of analog synthesizer effects that sound totally crude. Extracted from the piece on the whole, this movement could have been a somewhat engaging work by itself.
In contrast to the first and third movements, which have no electronics, the second movement sticks out.
Thankfully, the third movement erases any missteps of the second by returning to the dark harmonies that informed the first. Save for an introspective middle section, this last movement is mostly kinetic, an energetic piece propelled by glissando and heavy arhythmic accents.
The album concludes not with Kronos but with Riley performing a quiet piano piece titled The Philosopher’s Hand.
It’s a suitable conclusion the album. Kronos spends a good part of the disc mourning, wailing and screaming through their instruments. Drawing back from that intensity with a low-key piano piece strikes the right chord.
Of all the 400 pieces Kronos could have recorded, the quartet picked a great one to feature on Requiem for Adam. This disc is no dud.