Russia has never been known for its political stability. Long before Red Square was flooded by protesters, long before journalists went to Chechnya and never returned, long before Stalin’s pogroms, and even long before the Bolsheviks, Russian politics have been on footing as uncertain as a lightweight after a few rounds of vodka. Opposing sides clash with a frequency to which you could set your watch.
You see this collision immediately in album art for the Kronos Quartet’s latest album for Nonesuch, a collection of music by Muscovite composer Vladimir Martynov. A shot of a ceiling, bedecked with seraphim and holding in its center a beleaguered chandelier, features two opposing sides of stripped wallpaper and primer paint. There are no clean lines and, with the whole of the structure still in progress, an uncertain outcome.
Such a clash is an apt metaphor for Martynov’s own compositions, with artful nods to the lush Romanticism of Tchaikovsky and jagged affairs with latter-day Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Except, at times, sadder: Much, much, much sadder. The grand finale of a 40-minute quartet, Der Abschied, was written to commemorate the death of Martynov’s father in 2003. A musicologist and expert on Glinka and Shostakovich, Martynov’s father lived to 96, viewing a crucial period of Russian history (born in 1946, his son saw his own share of watershed moments).
The tumult is apparent between the dying breaths and the vaguely Russian Orthodox air in the work. It's heavy with the stench of death and the whiff of liturgical incense and those aural scents burrow themselves into your subconscious like the literal, olfactory scents cling to heavy wool. There are significant quotes from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which bridges another, telling pan-European gap that continues in Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished). It's Schubert on drones, moving into a meditative trance and gathering folk idioms from the Caucasus along the way (cellist Joan Jeanrenaud joins the Kronoses for the journey).
Moving back to the album's beginning is a quick five-and-a-half minute The Beatitudes, which beams with religious ecstasy and provides an easy gateway to the meatier subjects. Enter with fortitude, but expect euphoria.