Kevin Volans: Hunting: Gathering (Duke Quartet)

As much of a Kronos Quartet groupie I am, they are not the be all and end all of classical music ensembles. Yes, Kronos was the first quartet I heard play a vast number of works — many commissioned by the ensemble itself — but taste can be fickle.

The Fitzwilliam Quartet reading of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 has a bit more bite, and the Emerson Quartet’s take on Charles Ives’ Scherzo: Holding Your Own is slightly more expressive.

Duke Quartet’s performances of Kevin Volans’ string quartets perhaps mark the first time I preferred another group’s version of works actually commissioned by Kronos. Hunting: Gathering includes two quartets also recorded by Kronos, plus the composer’s sixth quartet commissioned by the Duke itself.

It’s been years since I listened to the original Kronos recording of Hunting: Gathering, Volans’ second quartet. In fact, I sold the single years ago for cash because I never really listened to it. (Yes, Kronos considers this release a "classical music single".)

The piece never made an impression with me — it just seemed like a bunch of fifths floating in some vague structure. I didn’t get the sense of rhythmic vibrancy as Volans’ first quartet, White Man Sleeps, and whatever African influences informed the piece weren’t properly parsed by my ears.

That was 14 years ago — perhaps now I’m listening to the piece with a touch more wisdom.

But the Duke performance made a much more immediate impression. The ensemble really emphasizes the rhythmic aspects of Volans’ first two quartets. The Duke certainly takes Hunting: Gathering at a slower pace, bringing out the intricate syncopations more clearly. It was easier to track the progression of ideas in the quartet as a result.

The Duke also plays well above the noise floor, letting the quieter moments of White Man Sleeps in particular to come through. The original Kronos recording seemed to get muddled when the piece got quieter.

Duke’s reading of Hunting: Gathering actually has me curious enough to reacquire the Kronos version I let go so many years ago. Were my first impressions hindered by inexperience? Or does the recording not really do the work justice?

Volans moved away from the African influence of these first quartets. His String Quartet No. 6 is more akin to the slow-moving works of Morton Feldman, perhaps too eerily so. The single-movement work clocks in at 26 minutes and pretty much consists of a series of long chords changing minimally over time.

It’s almost too easy to say Volans apes Feldman on this work, but Volans doesn’t take the sparsity of Feldman as extremely. Compared to Feldman’s five-hour String Quartet No. 2, half an hour is a snap. Feldman’s changes occur almost imperceptibly, while Volans makes sure this work show its development. Despite the pace, there’s still movement.

The Duke Quartet has some overlap with Kronos in terms of repertoire, and Hunting: Gathering makes me curious to hear their take on such pieces as Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet and Steve Reich’s Different Trains. While Kronos has done much to expand string quartet literature in the last 30-plus years, it’s up to other ensembles to continue to champion that body of work.

For Volans, he could find no finer champion than the Duke Quartet, if Hunting: Gathering is any indication.