For decades, record and concert producers have tried to lure ever-wider audiences into buying discs or purchasing tickets by combing major styles (classical, jazz, pop, rock, etc.). The theory being that if there was enough crossover from devoted fans, then sales and attendance would soar. One of the pioneers from the classical side of the tracks was Kronos Quartet who frequently played where no “serious” chamber music ensemble had gone before (cross-references below). Not surprisingly, that inventive group toured less mainstream venues than Carnegie Hall but also caught the attention of film composers—notably the 1999 redo of Tod Browning’s Dracula.
With its recent Xibus release, the Boston String Quartet has added considerably to its reputation of game-for-anything programming. Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly given the dearth of mixed-style work being utilized in concert halls, theatres and the movies, the most satisfying tracks are those which just feature the quartet’s talented musicians all by themselves.
“Roads,” the first of those, offers compelling intimacy as the inner journey moves wordlessly forward. Cellist Masanori Taniguchi’s melodic contributions and violist Chen Lin’s subtle accompaniments beg for more. After a few dangerous curves have been traversed, calm returns and all is well. “The Boy and the Rose” is the closest to traditional quartet fare with its quasi-classical construction and grace-note-rich triple-metre easily ebbing and flowing until a fleshly pizzicato says “adieu.”
Following violinist Christopher Vuk’s mood-setting, beautifully phrased opening (and ensuing obliggato), “She Is Like the Swallow” is convincingly sung by Fionnuala Gill in a thoughtful, well-balanced arrangement from Thomas Parish.
The rest of the music with its cryptic quotes from Hansel and Gretel—most certainly informing “The Woods”—(after an appropriately eerie beginning in the same vein as Phil-sung Yim’s recent film of the same name, Giorgia Fumanti’s vocal line tries frequently to burst into “Maria”; numerous birds colour this magical forest, which no one seems in a hurry to leave) and a biblical reference from the Book of John, is a pot pourri of forms and styles with no overarching idea or link. Setting the play control to random wouldn’t seriously alter their singular or collective impact.
“Hey Jude” is easily the worst of the lot. The string players’ purity of pitch and phrase is totally at odds with Augustin Simone’s snarling voice. Much better in the “pop culture” category is “Like it Is.” Here, John Courduvelis’ Radiohead-like vocal contributions are a constant pleasure. “Ave Maria” is beautifully scored and performed, notably the blend of Fumanti and Fionnuala, but is considerably weakened by melody that is unworthy of its text. “Polaris” employs the largest forces (including a wee chorus) and has a compelling Eastern tinge. Colourful as it is, the eye becomes restless for a visual feast that the music could nourish..
Still, for those looking for variety and fine performances, this disc will satisfy; and, rest assured, that by listening to it “No harm shall come to you.” JWR