Acoustic Sounds

Kronos Quartet

Black Angels



Label: Nonesuch

Produced By: Judith Sherman, Kronos Quartet

Engineered By: Judith Sherman, Tony Eckert, Alex Haas, Dan Reid

Mixed By: Judith Sherman, Bob Edwards, Alex Haas

Mastered By: (no credit)

By: Fred Kaplan

April 28th, 2024





Kronos Quartet's Deepest Album Now on Vinyl for the 1st Time

Crumb's "Black Angels" and Shostakovich's 8th get double-LP treatment

As part of its 60th anniversary celebration, Nonesuch Records is reissuing several of its albums on vinyl for the first time, among them one of the greatest recordings by the Kronos Quartet, which happens to be marking its 50th year as an ensemble.

The album is Black Angels, the label’s 6th Kronos album, released in 1990 and still among the most jarring and important in the entire Nonesuch catalogue and in the Kronos discography.

Nonesuch and Kronos made a perfect pairing at the time of their union in 1986. No other classical label at the time could have comprehended, much less creatively promoted, what Kronos was up to; and no string quartet, other than Kronos, could have jolted Nonesuch to such a wide-ranging array of artistry.

It was in 1984, two decades after the label’s creation, that Nonesuch, under the new leadership of Robert Hurwitz, carved the modernist angles that it’s known for today—bold cover designs encasing new music by the era’s most innovative musicians, notably Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, John Zorn, and, perhaps above all (at least most persistently over the ensuing decades), Kronos Quartet.

Fans who weren’t around at the time would find it hard to imagine the storms that Kronos stirred up when the group first hit the nation’s concert halls. The three men in the quartet (David Harrington, 1st violin; John Sherba, 2nd violin; and Hank Dutt, viola; joined for its first years by Joan Jeanrenaud, cello) wore flamboyantly fashionable duds, not tuxedos (this alone shocked patrons). Their programs, for the most part, shunned the classical repertory in favor of largely unknown pieces by living composers. One symphony board member at the time harrumphed to me, at a dinner party, that Kronos “isn’t serious” because it didn’t play the likes of Beethoven or Mozart. The fact that a favorite encore piece was a blazing cover of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” hardened the point—though, oblivious to the snobs, a new young audience for the classics was rising to the occasion.

Black Angels was, and still is, a bit of an anomaly among the 46 albums Kronos has made for Nonesuch over the decades. It features the title composition, by George Crumb; a 16th century by Thomas Tallis; brief pieces by Charles Ives and Istvas Marta (“They Are There!” and “Doom, a Sigh,” respectively); and Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8. None of these were new pieces, but they were configured in a way that was entirely, bracingly new for a string-quartet album.

The Crumb piece is crucial in the Kronos origins story. As David Harrington, the group’s founder and music director tells it, one night in August 1973, at the age of 23, recently married and between jobs, he was lying in bed, listening to the radio, when “Dark Angels,” played by the New York String Quartet (on the small CRI label, one of the few labels where adventurous classical music could be pressed before Nonesuch met Kronos), came on the air. It jolted him upright. He’d never heard anything like it. As he recalled to me in a recent email:

"This experience changed everything for me. All of a sudden the worlds of the anti war movement, Schubert, Jimi Hendrix, early music and experimental music were combined into one world and I had my song. There was no choice—I had to play this music. The next day I found out who George Crumb was, who published his music, the phone number of Peters Music in NYC and called them up. Somehow, I was able to convince the person on the end of the line that I needed the score to ‘Black Angels’ immediately. Several days later a big mailing tube arrived with the huge score of ‘Black Angels’ rolled up in it. Upon inspecting the score, it was clear that I needed to get a serious group together to play this piece. On or about September 1,1973 Kronos had our first rehearsal."

It's a dark, blistering, incredibly difficult 18-minute piece (it takes up all of Side 1 on Nonesuch’s two-LP vinyl reissue), written in 1970 as a sonic jeremiad against the Vietnam War. Kronos tears into it with electronics, multiple overdubs, shards of distortion, and frenetic but precisely directed energy. The pieces by Tallis, Marta, and Ives (totalling 22 minutes and taking up Side 2) are more spare but nearly as haunting. Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 (Side 3) is the most famous and in some ways most daunting, a passionate, mournful piece in five movements composed in 1960, dedicated, as Shostakovich wrote on the score, “to the victims of fascism and war” (though his heirs later said he meant it as a critique of all forms of totalitarianism, including the Soviet brand, which he couldn’t slam openly at the time).

This track stands as dramatic rebuttal to the claim that Kronos can’t play the classical repertory. Its cover falls short of the Borodin Quartet’s 1962 recording, but so does every other version and almost every other string-quartet recording, period. When the Borodin played the piece for the composer in his Moscow apartment, in hopes of receiving some critical notes, he was so moved by the group’s treatment that he broke down in tears. Still, in the hands of Kronos, this is deeply felt music—I would say on the same level as the Emerson Quartet’s, which is regarded as among the best of fairly recent renditions. (Recorded in 1999, it was released as a stand-alone disc and as part of Emerson’s series of all 15 Shostakovich quartets.) I have read some criticisms that Kronos plays the piece too fast, but I don’t hear it that way, and, in any case, its version and Emerson’s both clock in at 20 minutes.

Kronos hasn’t delved much into the repertory since. (One notable exception, three years after Black Angels, was At the Grave of Richard Wagner, featuring pieces by Lizst, Berg, and Webern.) But this is because they haven’t wanted to do so, not because they can’t. In the three decades since, they have played mostly pieces that Kronos commissioned. The pieces in their catalogue now number nearly 1,000, many of them by foreign composers. Their first foray into such exotica, Pieces of Africa (1992), was a wild best-seller, signaling what might have been the popular beginning of “world music” (now called, simply, “music”). It was just in April that the album was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. (Nonesuch reissued this on 2-LP vinyl in 2013.)

Still, Black Angels stands as a uniquely profound Kronos album. (Close runner-ups might include Early Music, Night Prayers, Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam, “The Beatitudes” from Music of Vladimir Martynov, and the quartet albums of Schnittke and Gorecki.)

As for sound quality, the vinyl edition of Black Angels is superior to the original CD. You hear more resin on the bows, richer overtones from the wood, a slightly fuller image of each instrument, an airier ambience. Nonesuch went to the trouble of stretching out the album to fill three sides of two LPs. (The 4th side is blank, except for some decoration.) As a result, the inner grooves are widely spaced, free of distortion. In general, though, Nonesuch while adventurous in so many other ways, never set out to be an audiophile label. Most Kronos albums sound good; very few sound great. Furthermore, this album was recorded to DAT at 44.1 kHz / 16 bit (this was before High-Rez digital came into being). For what it is, it sounds better than you might suspect.

An odd, obscure fact: One of the first Kronos albums, In Formation, made iin 1979, before they were known at all, was engineered at 45rpm by Reference Recordings, which, like the quartet, was based in San Francisco. It has interesting music that sounds great. Many Kronos albums on Nonesuch have great music that sounds…fine. On no albums do any sonic shortcomings get in the way of the music. Buy them, especially this one.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: 075597509809

Pressing Plant: Record Industry


Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 140 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Presentation: Multi LP


  • 2024-04-28 10:32:03 PM

    Anton wrote:

    Wow, Kronos myîa!!

    50 years of greatness and standard setting.

    I can remember when they arrived and set a standard for the true hipness of their genre.

    Thanks for the review.

  • 2024-04-29 11:01:33 AM

    mark evans wrote:

    Around thirty-two years ago, my wife and I saw and listened to Kronos play at UCLA's Wadsworth Theater and attended a reception after the show. I brought along a copy of their recording, In Formation (Reference Recording-9), for Kronos to autograph. I handed the LP to David Harrington, who immediately said, "What is this? I never seen this before". I explained who Reference Recordings was and that we enjoyed the recording and this evenings performance. They passed the LP around among themselves, signed it and said they must get a copy for themselves. I enjoyed reading your article about this reissue.

  • 2024-04-30 12:11:36 AM

    Mark Ward wrote:

    This has been a favorite Kronos recording since it came out. I used some of the Crumb in a short film to accompany footage of an early atomic test - it was a perfect match! I had no idea this had been released on vinyl, so thank you so much, Fred, for this and all the fascinating information about its genesis. I've never seen Kronos live, alas - they're on my bucket list! I'm always excited to read your reviews.

  • 2024-04-30 05:11:43 PM

    Rob wrote:

    I'm mostly not a huge Kronos fan (just have maybe four or five of their albums), as I'm not particularly into string quartet music and I just don't find too many of their explorations fascinating to me, but... sometimes they really knock it way out of the park- if 'Winter was Hard,' or particularly 'Nuevo' (their 'Mexican' album, one of my all-time favorite recordings) were released on vinyl, I'd be just about the first in line to buy them! Particularly Nuevo- can't stress how offbeat and brilliant this album is. One can always hope.

  • 2024-04-30 06:34:45 PM

    JACK L wrote:


    "On no albums do any sonic shortcomings get in the way of the music. Buy them, especially this one." qtd Fred Kaplan

    Really ?

    Reissues become so popular in the record marketplace since last year. Yet I heard enough complaints about the sound of many reissues albums using digital replicas of the original master tapes.

    Since this album is also reissued basing on DDA code format which is digitally mastered & mixing. Would it sound as musical as its 50-year old AAA old timers ??? Correct me if I were wrong.

    Honestly I would not go for any digitally mastered/mixing LPs as my skeptical ears dislike it given my small 1,000+ LPs collection are all AAA format & my 50+ digitally mastered/remastered LPs are AAD.

    Listening is believing

    JACK L

    • 2024-05-01 12:37:53 AM

      Josquin des Prez wrote:

      I used to feel the way you do, but I learned better. It's not about whether the source is digital vs analog. It's much more about how it was recorded and mastered. I have AAA records that sound like shit, and I have DDA records that sound utterly fantastic.

      I still mostly avoid ADA releases because I feel that once they take an analog source and put it in the digital domain, then it might as well stay there, unless there is something special to justify it. On the other hand I have digital recordings cut to analog LPs that sound really great.

      I don't believe this album was ever recorded to analog tape, so I'm good with a good DDA reissue. I don't even have a CD player. :)

      • 2024-05-02 06:34:16 PM

        JACK L wrote:


        "I have AAA records that sound like shit," qtd J d Pres

        Why come my 1,000+ AAA LPs all sound sooo good & closer to live than my 50+ digitally mastered/remastered LPs (all AAD). Hence my comment above given so many complaints being posted in major audio journals so long.

        FYI, I got hundreds of CDs with a few 24-bit mastered reference CDs. So I know how good is the sound of DDD cds & DDA LPs.

        JACK L

  • 2024-05-01 12:28:27 AM

    Josquin des Prez wrote:

    Thanks for the great review, Fred. You talked me into it and my copy is due to arrive May 1.

    • 2024-05-06 11:45:24 PM

      Josquin des Prez wrote:

      I got my copy (after Amazon sent the wrong thing first time around). I've worked through first play, and enjoyed what I heard.

      The Tallis piece is interesting. He would have arranged such a work for Viol Consort, and that's exactly how Kronos plays it. I wonder if they back-handed their bows when they played it? :)