Back in the days when my “full-time occupation” was computer science, I remember coming across a review of a paper submitted to a technical conference in which the reviewer described the content of the paper as filling “a well-needed gap.” I was reminded of that scabrous and withering assessment while listening to the latest Kronos Quartet album, Folk Songs, released by Nonesuch at the beginning of this month. This was apparently the product of festival performances given in 2014 to celebrate the label’s 50th anniversary.
Kronos has been a “Nonesuch property” for a significant share of that label’s history. Indeed, the label’s discography accounts for all of the changes in personnel that the ensemble has sustained. Personnel for the anniversary concert was the same as it is to this day. David Harrington still leads as first violin, joined by founding members John Sherba on second violin, and Hank Dutt on viola. Cello is taken by Sunny Yang. However, the concert saw them join forces with four Nonesuch vocalists, Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant; and the Folk Song album is a document of the resulting performances.
When Nonesuch albums first his the record stores (remember them?), it was quickly clear that the label was trying to be hip and eclectic, offering a refreshing alternative to the middle-brow offerings from labels like RCA and particularly Columbia with its high-value middle-brow champion Leonard Bernstein. When it came to genres, Nonesuch cast a wide net; and, for a while a least, it appeared that the producers knew how to give each genre the serious treatment required for stimulating listening. There was also a hip sense of humor when Joshua Rifkin produced The Baroque Beatles Book. (Rifkin was also the key figure in Nonesuch’s contribution to revived interest in Scott Joplin.)
Folk Songs is far from hip and cannot be counted as eclectic just because it mashes up performers from different backgrounds. To be fair, that mash-up also includes the contributions of the arrangers, Nico Muhly, Donnacha Dennehy, Jacob Garchik, and Gabriel Witcher. For the most part those arrangers seem to be giving the Kronos players something to do while the vocalists accompany themselves on instruments like guitar, harmonium, and hand drum. Every now and then, one hears a portamento with a bit of bluegrass rhetoric; but, for the most part, the music plods its way behind vocalizing that tries to sound down-home but comes off as merely affectation.
Earlier this week I expressed discontent over a recent BIS recording of Vadim Gluzman. Gluzman had built up an impressive repertoire of recordings of adventurous compositions, but his latest album was all music by Johannes Brahms. My response was to ask, rhetorically, whether BIS no longer wanted Gluzman to be Gluzman. I hope that it will not be long until Nonesuch decides to let Kronos be Kronos.