For beautiful human life

Of the three singles Kronos Quartet released to commemorate its 30th anniversary, Peteris Vasks’ String Quartet No. 4 offers little in terms of any compositional challenges and is admittedly derivative.

It’s also the most beautiful.

Vasks’ String Quartet No. 4 represents one of three kinds of works the Kronos performs — commissioned pieces. (The other two are repetoire pieces, such as Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, and pieces in other idioms, as with Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball).

Vasks says the quartet embodies his personal struggle to find hope in a world teetering on the edge of extinction. He namedrops Dmitri Shostakovich when describing the piece’s “Tocatta” movements (the second and fourth).

It’s more than just a passing resemblance — the “Tocatta” movements sound like drafts of Shostakovich’s second movement in the Quartet for Strings No. 8.

Is that a bad thing? In this case, no.

Vasks’ Quartet No. 4 has been described as “elegiac”. That’s modern classical doublespeak for saying it has melody and tonality, two ideas that are still somewhat anathema to Western art music of the last century.

But for a listening public conditioned to think of modern classical music in terms of movie soundtracks, Vasks’ Quartet No. 4 is an accessible work.

If it bears resemblance to Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 or Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings — see “Chorale”, the third movement — so be it. Of course, both Shostakovich and Barber have been recorded previously by Kronos.

Vasks achieves what he sets out to do in this work. The strife and hope he struggles to balance get equal airtime. The “Tocatta” movements are downright fiery, the “Elegy” and “Meditation” introspective.

Kronos brings out every ounce of emotion inherent in the work, delivering a magnetic and charged performance. In this recording, the ensemble gets to the core of what marks its reputation.

Regardless of its collaborations with world-class singers, international performers or multimedia pioneers, Kronos is simply a string quartet.

And any new work that reminds listeners of this fact is welcome any day.