For a time, new works come attached with a sense of ownership by their original performers—particularly if such a work is tailor-made for a renegade outfit like Kronos Quartet and especially if that world-premiere album netted a Grammy Award, as the original recording of Reich’s Different Trains did in 1990 (by—who else?—the Kronos Quartet).
Of course, that sense of ownership gradually begins to erode as contemporary works make their way into classic canons. Two recordings of Different Trains even came out within a week of one another this month, the first a fine rendition by the London Steve Reich Ensemble for EMI, and the latter by the always-inventive Quatuour Diotima.
Diotima’s album for Naïve (which features their second insouciant album artwork, a nod perhaps to the old Westminster Gold series?) sets itself apart, however, with a clean read of the work that teems with urgency and vibrancy. Like a bullet train, the Diotimas fearlessly blast through Reich’s landmark and uneasy Holocaust-themed work. If it doesn’t sound entirely like hearing Different Trains for the first time, it does breathe a fresh perspective into the work and allows us to see it as a piece that has become a repertory staple over the last 23 years.
The quartet cushions Different Trains with two other American quartets, presenting a full spectrum of the U.S.’s 20th-century music scene with a colorful and textured account of Samuel Barber’s melodic String Quartet in B Minor, before diving full-throttle into the thorny depths of George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet. That the foursome can take on all three varied genres without any hint of inauthenticity is a testament to their talent; that all three works can be polar opposites of one another and still written by composers of the same nationality is a testament to America’s powerful (and age-old) new-music scene.