Kronos Quartet – Photograph by Michael Wilson

Kronos Quartet’s Early Music at the Barbican, London

The Kronos Quartet completed their week-long residence with the Barbican Centre in London with a typically audacious and varied programme in Wilton’s Music Hall, a kitchy and historic venue in East London which says it is “the oldest surviving Grand Music Hall in the world”. Kronos were in a more light-hearted mood than they had been at Awakenings the previous night, playing a set which they called “Early Music”.

Kronos Quartet – Photograph by Michael Wilson

The music played was “early” in a variety of different ways. Among the works included were an arrangement by Marianne Pfau of Hidegard of Bingen’s chant “O Virtus Sapiente,” and a Philip Glass arrangement of an early Bob Dylan song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” And there were Webern’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 9, a piece early in that it apparently featured in Kronos’ first ever rehearsal. First violinist David Harrington commented that the programme was an approximation of the quartet’s “Idea of a unified field theory,” and one would have to agree, at least in that it would be very difficult to explain how it works in detail.

In among the more fanciful inclusions were a few works receiving the first UK airing. Nicole Lizée’s Death to Kosmische opened the concert: a thoroughly, commitedly postmodernist piece which involved a stylophone and an omnichord and ended with a muffled miniature LP player going wrong. Dan Visconti’s Love Bleeds Radiant was similar at least in that it also involved itself with early recording technology, combining the live quartet with mounting, crackly pre-recorded noise. Both pieces had a pleasing oddness; Visconti’s had more of an emotional core, but Lizée took the prize for eccentricity. Both, as one would expect, received excellent performances.

Nicole Lizée

One bizarre flipside of Kronos’ incredible passion and integrity in performance is that their brilliance live can detract from focus on the quality of the compositions they play. That is, while it was completely enchanting to watch Kronos mess about with their weird toy instruments, I think it was their performance – light-hearted but sincere, slightly ritualistic – as much as the piece, which I really appreciated. I find it very difficult to imagine how much I would have enjoyed these works played by another, slightly more ordinary group. Either way, though, the effect on Friday was excellent.

Valentin Silvestrov

The concert also featured the world première of Valentin Silvestrov’s Third String Quartet, and the composer was in attendance. The piece was, again, enhanced hugely by its performance; Silvestrov’s fairly conventional, gimmick-free piece required passion and commitment rather than impishness, but Kronos’ wings spread this far with ease. There was a fin-de-siècle air to the composition, oddly juxtaposed with its chic, retro setting, and Silvestrov’s primary concern appeared to be to scrutinize various relatively simple, essentially tonal ideas through sequence-obsessed quasi-repetitions and a strong sense of larger-scale “architecture.”

Wikipedia quotes Silvestrov as saying that “My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists” – and though this quotation’s cited source (if Google Translate is to be believed) says nothing of the kind, it still quite accurately describes his Third Quartet. It was, at times, a touch Mahlerian in its obsessive irony, its slight sense of discomfort with its own means; certainly, it was out of kilter with the other new works in the concert. But its grace and its sense of mystery were unquestionable.

Highlighting their eclecticism to as great an extent as ever, this was a fascinating programme of music, which surely contained at least something for absolutely everyone. Just in case it hadn’t done, though, the Wilton’s audience were treated to one hell of an encore, featuring British composer-singer-cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson, with whom Kronos have recently recorded in New York. Until this material is released, though, the non-Kronos-backed version of “Ain’t I a Woman” will do fine.

Paul Kilbey writes on music and culture for publications including Culture Wars, Huffington Post and Bachtrack. Follow him on Twitter @paulkilbey.