The boundary-jumping Kronos Quartet, has come up with another world music infused program on Caravan. With only one contribution that might be called classical (Terry Riley's monumental "Cortejo Fúnebre en el Monte Diablo"), the territory covers South America, Western and Central Europe and the Middle East. The quartet play with fire and precision and they are quite inventive in adapting ethnically idiomatic sonorities and tunings. The recording quality is superb. In short, Kronos is at the top of their game right now. So what it comes down to in reviewing a CD of this nature is the actual choice of material and the success of bringing it off. For the most part this is a CD of varyingly successful endeavors, with only one real clinker.
"Pannonia Boundless" by Serbian born Aleksandra Vrebalov is a programmatic piece attempting to capture the cultural and historical tides that have traversed this broad plain. The melodies and modes combine Slavic and Magyar elements, with just a hint of Ottoman influence. It's nice piece, and the quartet attacks it with full conviction, but the following track is stronger. The haunting "Canção Verdes Nos" by Carlos Paredes is a gorgeous thing, full of longing, sweet sorrow and regret--in a word, saudade. "Aaj Ki Raat" is a tribute to Bollywood and features the tabla playing of Zakir Hussain--as well as impressive ponticello playing and excellent dynamic control from the ensemble.
The CD falters a bit with "La Muerte Chiquita." There is nothing particularly wrong with this piece; it is a lovely, delicate waltz, but it simply does not have the thematic strength of the preceding tracks, no matter how inventive the arrangement.
"Turceasca" however, has enough excitement and viscera to get one's blood flowing again. The "Turceasca" is a signature piece of the Taraf de Haidouks, and the combination of the Kronos with this massive Gypsy review is hair-raising. The Taraf seem to be whipping the quartet into a fiddling frenzy, --there is an awesome accumulative velocity, a headlong rush augmented by several key modulations. Travelling Northwest into Hungary, there is a somber rendition of the notorious "Gloomy Sunday.' For all its reputation it seems rather lightweight now, but it is a good setup to the next track, "Cortejo Fúnebre en el Monte Diablo," Terry Riley's composition, written in memoriam to Kronos member David Harrington's son. The only piece on the CD to have electronic instrumentation, it is a majestic and dazzling standout on this primarily acoustic CD.
"Responso" penned by the tango master Annibal Triollo is a liturgical tango, if such a thing can be said to exist. It is an unfortunate bit of sequencing to follow it up with another piece by Paredes, "Romance No. 1". The two are too similar in dynamics and ambiance and they drain rather than enhance each other.
"Gallop of a Thousand Horses" by Iranian kamancheh maestro Kayan Kalhor is just that, a marvelous gallop into modalities of Middle Eastern music. Sticking with the eastern direction, the next track is "Ecstasy" by Lebanese composer Ali Jihad Racy-- belying its title, this is a slow rather trite sounding piece, which breaks into 3/4 meter but to no avail. It¹s still a bore. Oddly enough it is performed primarily in the time signature and tempo of the original "Miserlou" which for some reason the quartet has decided to adapt for its last track, using the Dick Dale "surf" arrangement made popular by the movie "Pulp Fiction." Perhaps this is meant to be "tongue in chic," but for me it is pure bathos, oddly square, and a surreal parting shot. - Michal Shapiro