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Kronos Quartet: Mugam Sayagi: Music of Franghiz Ali-Zadeh

John Kelman By

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Well-known for a broad world view and a modernistic avoidance of the purely classical tradition, the Kronos Quartet has become something of a yardstick by which other contemporary string quartets are measured. Other quartets out there may be similarly fearless in their openness to new ideas and techniques, not to mention technology—like Ethel, which is as much in search of ways to keep the string quartet moving forward. But Kronos' reputation, built on a career that has lasted over thirty years now, is unique in its ability to commission new works from far and wide.

And so, from the small country of Azerbaijan, situated between the Russian empire and Iran, comes four compositions from Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, a composer who places the cultural cross-fertilization of her country's musical tradition into a new music context. Even though she's nearly sixty years old and has a career that dates back to the late '70s, Mugam Sayagi: Music of Franghiz Ali-Zadeh is nevertheless the first recording to present her compelling and evocative compositions to an international audience on a larger scale.

The Kronos Quartet has always represented the broadest range of emotions, from the playfulness of their work on '02's Nuevo to their more plaintive interpretation of Alfred Schnittke's deeply moving "Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief." With Mugam Sayagi the work leans to the serious; there's little joy to be found here. Even "Oasis," which begins and ends in relative tranquility with the quartet creating an almost ambient texture over the sound of dripping water, has a more intense centre. Kronos is also a rarity in the classical world in that its members are capable of blending improvisation with structure, a clear demand of Ali-Zadeh's work.

Ali-Zadeh herself appears on two pieces—the more rhythmically insistent "Apsheron Quintet" and the solo piece "Music for Piano," where, immediately prior to the recording, Ali-Zadeh draped her necklace over the strings in the middle range of the piano, making it sound remarkably like the lute-like tar of her father. The result is a solo piece that gives the impression of a duet, as Ali-Zadeh masterfully plays inside and outside the affected middle range.

One characteristic of Ali-Zadeh's music is, like that of Russian composer Giya Kancheli, a rich contrast in dynamics; although the juxtaposition is less voluminous than Kancheli's typically larger orchestral works, the sense of drama remains. While not forgetful of her country's traditions, Ali-Zadeh is less influenced by the folk music of Azerbaijan, however, than she is the music of Berg and Mahler. She works within a twelve-tone structure and, like the serialism that evolved from the Second Viennese School, controls aspects including rhythm, volume, and texture as much as pitch.

As for Kronos, few quartets could tackle the breadth of compositional, improvisational, and technical rigours of Ali-Zadeh's works. Mugam Sayagi is the group's first full-length release since Nuevo, and it continues a commitment to bringing the music of lesser-known but nonetheless significant and vital composers to the fore.

Visit Kronos Quartet on the web.


Track Listing: Oasis; Apsheron Quintet: I. Tactile Time; II. Reverse Time; Music for Piano; Mugam Sayagi

Personnel: David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), Jennifer Culp (cello)
with Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (piano on

Title: Mugam Sayagi: Music of Franghiz Ali-Zadeh | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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