Music of Vladimir Martynov 

Kronos Quartet

Nonesuch Records

  1. The Beatitudes
  2. Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished) (with Joan Jeanrenaud, cello)
  3. Der Abschied

David Harrington and John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola, Jeffrey Ziegler, cello

Vladimir Martynov’s flavor of minimalism (if you will allow me to call it that) is incredibly sneaky and pleasurable. When I received this disc in a simple, nondescript cardboard sleeve, I was unfamiliar with Martynov’s music but I was certainly looking forward to anything Kronos was going to play. At first, I was surprised by the complete conservatism of the first track The Beatitudes. A simple melody is repeated incessantly for five and a half minutes with an unsurprising and standard tonal harmonic progression. The thing is, it works. The tune is gorgeous in its sparseness and further listenings revealed subtle harmonic changes. It makes me think of one of the most important composition lesson’s I learned from the music of Schubert: you can’t go wrong with pretty. This piece is an arrangement of a choral work and while usually instrumental transcriptions of vocal pieces fall flat on me the variety used in scoring this music for four performers keeps the music fresh in the absence of text.

Speaking of Schubert, the Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished) was maddening at first listening. Schubertian harmonies and gestures abound but anything remotely melodic is surprisingly absent. It truly sounds like Martynov found a fragment of another Schubert quintet, one in which Schubert would later add a melody, and presents it whole for the listener to experience. The repetition of dramatic motions makes the work seem stuck at times but that only leads to more pleasurable breakthroughs as the piece evolves.

The epic Der Abschied does to Mahler what Martynov previously did to Schubert. A small moments and hints of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde are stretched out and composed through for 40 minutes. If you like Mahler but wanted it to have more breath and stillness, then this work is for you. What is even better is that you don’t need to have any connection to the Mahler prior to hearing this work. It is, in some ways, the antithesis of The Beatitudes which opened the disc. Der Abschied is a constantly shifting unresolved mist that keeps its hooks in you through tensions which are never satisfactorily released (sounds like Mahler, doesn’t it?) and holds you, breathless, until the music just floats away. I swear I could still hear the final string harmonics and cadences for the next half hour after the piece ended. It never lets go.

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