Kronos plays Holmgreen
01 January 2010
International Record Review
Raymond S. Tuttle
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen turns 77 this year. He remains active and agile minded, yet realistic. Last Ground, composed in 2006, elicits this comment from him (included in Dacapo"s booklet): "I'm an old codger and I don"t know how many more grounds I'll manage to make." He compares mortal life to the string quartet in this work, surrounded by the taped sound of the ocean, which threatens to wash it away. "In the face of the roaring sea, the quartet is a puny little thing", he comments. There's a genre of CDs in which classical music is combined with the sound of waves; I gather the intention is to de-stress listeners. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen"s intention here appears to have been to remind them gracefully of mortality. The Concerto Grosso, composed in 1990, was revised in 1995 and 2006. It has been programmed with surprising frequency, considering its difficulty and its scoring: an orchestra with no strings (except double basses) ringed around a string quartet. In its sonic abrasiveness it challenges listeners too, although its mood is more amiable than threatening. Indeed, it retains many characteristics of a Baroque concerto grosso, so one has the uncanny feeling of being in a familiar place, no matter how foreign the language is. (The composer uses the memorable phrase "Vivaldi on safari".) The comparison recording obviously d"s not take into account the 2006 revisions and is seven minutes longer. Furthermore, this SACD is the first recording of the Concerto Grosso with the Kronos Quartet, who commissioned it.
Moving Still was commissioned by the "Symphonic Fairytales" project to celebrate the Hans Christian Andersen bicentenary in 2005. "Moving", the first, "American" movement, is partly inspired by American Minimalism. The baritone recites a text by Andersen, in English, in which Jet Age transatlantic tourism is presciently described. He is accompanied by the string quartet, and also by pre-recorded tracks of his own "mouth music" (more Tourette Syndrome-like exclamations than Bobby McFerrin!). I sense ironic undertones in Paul Hillier's voice as he recites a text about Americans in Europe; perhaps I am overly sensitive! "Still", the second, "Danish" movement, sets a patriotic text by Andersen to a hymn-like tune original but stylistically similar to much earlier attempts to set Andersen's text. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen comments on perceptions of "Danishness" by interrupting the tune with a boogie-woogie break and then "the melody begins to mutate in the direction of Arab music". Again, Hillier's pre-recorded voice is layered beneath his "live" singing but this time more smoothly, producing an effect more mellow than nervous.
Fearless performances are in evidence throughout, and I am particularly glad to encounter the Kronos Quartet in repertory equal to their musicianship, with no gimmicks. If you can't always hear what they are doing, that's probably more by Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's design than by anything else. In the Concerto Grosso the Danish National Symphony Orchestra makes a joyful and precise racket and the percussionists, who have their work cut out for them, seem particularly pleased to shine. The engineers keep the sonic tangles as navigable as possible, wielding high-tech machetes. Raymond S. Tuttle