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Classical music review: Quartet for the nick of time

Kronos Quartet

Royal Festival Hall, London

It's strange to think that the is a quarter of a century old. For more than 10 years the group has been known in this country for its adventurous determination to recreate and redefine the quartet as a vehicle for present-day composers and their audiences, becoming hugely successful and spawning several British imitators in the process. Well before that, these players had become widely admired in their own United States, and particularly in California, for their earlier, lower-budget efforts along similar lines - although there was a lot more early-20th- century music on their programmes in those days.

The first of four concerts in the Festival Hall's Kronos Festival, on Sunday, showcased two of the group's recent recordings and had many of its events' usual trappings: from the special lighting designs (including back projections, more subtle and sophisticated these days) and amplification (not always perfectly controlled) to those slinky black chairs that somehow seem less thick when you realise they're just ordinary furniture with stretch covers. Yet people who continue to despise the Kronos for its trendiness should learn to appreciate the substance that goes with it. This concert was a good example of how the Quartet still refuses, even after 25 years, to play safe.

The "Early Music" set in the programme's first half, based on the CD of the same name, is a logical extension of the Kronos's week with composers, such as Arvo Part, who have themselves been influenced by plainsong and medieval music. Especially notable about this sequence of 14 items - ranging from real "early music" by Machaut, Perotin and Hildegard von Bingen to pieces by 20th-century composers Part, Harry Partch, Jack Body, John Cage and Alfred Schnittke - was the expert way it had been conceived to encompass variety of mood and pace as well as a certain unity. Interlopers in the form of a four-part fantasia by Purcell and some Siberian throat-singing made well-timed appearances. Also notable was the Quartet's masterly control of timbre: their deployment of very different amounts of vibrato, for instance.

After this, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind by the Argentinian Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov - from the other CD, though not actually written for the Kronos - brought a greater stylistic unity more apparent than real. This five-movement composition makes sense as a whole via its audible basis in Jewish sources as well as its cleverly controlled interleaving of slow and fast music. The latter promises an orgiastic climax that, in this performance at least, didn't quite receive the expected consummation. Here the Kronos was joined by the clarinettist David Krakauer, whose raw timbres and energy were enthusiastically matched by string players whose ability to respond to just about any style and technique must surely be unequalled in quartet playing today.

The Kronos Festival continues on Saturday, with Kronos for Children, 2.30pm, and The World of the Gypsies, 8pm. Bookings: 0171-960 4242