Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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DVD [KAT.-NR 100 050]
see DVD overview
Amazon UK £18.99

This is among the first of what will probably be a very large number of DVD's which are essentially repackaged television documentaries - which means that one gets all the benefits of the system as a carrier (superb sound and picture quality, plus the ability to access individual tracks) but none of the interactive possibilities which programme makers will be exploring in the years ahead.

That having been said, it's a real treat to see this fifty-minute German television documentary, produced by RM Associates for ZDF Television, and directed by Manfred Waffender in 1998, shortly before cellist Joan Jeanrenaud left the group, and to hear them speak about their repertoire. What we have here is essentially a Greatest Hits compilation, almost all of which has been released in audio form, drawing on material from six or seven separate CD's and illustrating the remarkable range of the Quartet's skills and preoccupations.

The formula is a simple one: two recording sessions, both captured on four cameras, one in a studio, the other on a concert platform, intercut with brief interview statements in each of which one member of the ensemble makes a few prefatory comments about the music to be heard. In televisual terms this works well, and the director is to be applauded for his decision to let the music speak for itself, with generously long sections from the pieces in question, played in audio terms in an unedited form, though with a variety of visual material, much of which (bearing in mind that this seems not to have been an extravagantly funded production) provides an appropriate counterpart to the music.

The programme begins with rather 'hip' visuals, in which gritty urban images are overlaid (in black and white) over still photographs of the quartet, in a manner reminiscent of the 1960's 'underground' films of Robert Frank, Jonas Mekas and San Francisco's Bruce Baillie. This is edited to a skilful sound montage, which brings together sections of a number of the pieces to be heard later on the disc. This arresting beginning is followed by an essentially simple formula: a chunk of excerpted interview followed by a piece of music, generally with some kind of visual cutaway. And the range of the music - to say nothing of the brio with which it's performed - is just what one would expect from the Kronos. Beginning with Piazolla's 'Four for Tango' [1987, from the CD 'Winter Was Hard'], the programme moves through 'Where Was Wisdom When We Went West?', a section from Terry Riley's exquisite 'Cadenzas on The Night Plain' [1984, a CD in its own right], to Hamza El Din's 'Escalay' ('Water Wheel'), [1989] from the remarkable album 'Pieces of Africa'.

Of 'Escalay' the Sudanese composer, who is a master of the oud, recounts how his village lost its source of water when the Aswan Dam was built, reducing it to near desert. The 'Water Wheel' sequence is an evocation of his childhood memories of an oxen-drawn wheel used to pump water from a well on to the fields. A plangent and haunting piece, it is nicely complemented on the DVD by images (as throughout, in black and white) of just such a wheel, drawn by oxen, and of peasant life in the Sudan.

This is followed - as though evidence were needed to demonstrate the Quartet's catholicity - by John Zorn's 'Cat O'Nine Tails: Tex Avery Directs the Marquis de Sade', [1988, from the CD 'Short Stories']. This is a piece of post-modern collage, which jumps, cartoon-like, from atonal screeches, through what Jeanrenaud calls 'scratching', to long glissandi and fragments of old-time dance music, which always make me think of the Californian Gold Rush. The effect, evident even in the short extract on the DVD, is akin to that of William Boroughs's early 'cut-ups', and is thoroughly enjoyable. I await an all-Zorn CD from the Kronos. The disk goes on to include work by John Adams ['John's Book of Alleged Dances, 1994], Harry Partch [Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales, 1946] and Alfred Schnittke ['Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief', 1997].

There are two pieces of early music here, both featured on the Quartet's CD 'Early Music': Hildegard von Bingen's austerely beautiful 'O Virtus Sapientie' and Perotin's 'Viderunt Omnes'. The latter, a piece of early mediaeval plainsong, is probably best known from David Munrow's 'Music of the Gothic Era', where it is performed as a Gregorian chant accompanied by bells; here the drone element is provided by the insistent presence of Jeanrenaud's cello. As the group's viola player, Hank Dutt, points out, the ensemble has developed a very distinctive sound, with often quite sparing use of vibrato, but with an alertness - though I supposed every chamber ensemble would claim this - to intonation and phrasing.

The two early music tracks and the Schnittke piece use black and white footage - some seemingly from archive sources, the rest, one presumes, specially shot, but hand-held and rough-edged, giving it a primitive look and an appropriately grainy quality - featuring a ruined church, diverse religious icons and a graveyard. In the case of the Schnittke composition, the imagery shifts from the iconography of the Orthodox Church to the inscriptions on the headstones of a Jewish cemetery, suggesting that the threnody is a lament for the dead of all faiths.

Death is the focus of 'Altar de Muertos', 1997, by the Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz. Both she and Terry Riley wrote requiems for the Quartet following the premature death of the teenage son of its leader David Harrington. Harrington, who speaks - as, indeed, they all do - very eloquently in the programme, refers to the Mexican Day of the Dead as a 'helpful ceremony' and one to which he relates on a personal level. This piece, which is musically interesting, involving the striking of gourds floating in water and the musicians' wearing bells attached to their ankles, is dealt with - to my taste - more theatricality than is strictly necessary, with three of the musicians wearing skull masks and a generally stagey presentation. This, clearly, was the group's decision, rather than the programme-maker's - witness the specially designed backdrop and lighting.

Where director Manfred Waffender tries to enhance the visual impact of the performances - by his use of the black and white footage, for example - he generally does so stylishly and with restraint, though I personally hated his use in a couple of sequences of garish blue and pink lighting and of shooting the musicians deliberately out of focus - MTV-ish techniques which drew attention to themselves without adding very much. Production values were at their best, I felt, in the final sequence, the Quartet's much celebrated encore piece, Jimi Hendrix's 'Purple Haze', arranged by Steve Rifkin [1967, from the CD 'Kronos Quartet']: here the editing was crisp and sharp, skilfully intercutting footage from the two filming sessions, and conveying very well the remarkable stage presence of the group.

Taken as a whole, the DVD offers a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the Quartet's work, and one which well illustrates the breadth of its repertoire. The fact that it is essentially a television programme rather than a disc which exploits the medium's interactivity is not particularly relevant: it was made in 1998, and was in all probability shot in a couple of days and on a fairly small budget; we should be grateful that it's been made available. If it hasn't yet been shown on British television it would be good if it were, perhaps to coincide with the group's next British tour. Whatever purists might say of the group's skills when it comes to the classical repertoire - and I'm sure that there are more highly regarded renderings of Bartok and other canonical composers - they have done an enormous amount to alert audiences to the range, variety and sheer pleasure to be found in contemporary and near-contemporary work, and have done so, in my view, without serious compromise.


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