The Boston String Quartet's Navona disc Xibus is a dedicated and sincere effort to break out of the box for a string quartet, collaborating with composers, singers, percussionists, and in a couple of instances, a whole orchestra's worth of extra musicians. There is nothing here that derives from conventional string quartet literature, and the whole disc is strongly popularly oriented, to such extent that the contribution by composer Karl Jenkins is among the most conservative of the offerings in the program. There is also a conscious effort to connect with a mixed kind of world music focus; the opening track, Polaris, is a heavily overdubbed homage to popular Arabic music, and its ambitiousness is impressive. However, compared to other kinds of "Middle East meets West" offerings by long ago figures such as Big Eddie Adamis or Mohammed el Bakkar, the piece seems a bit diluted; a bit more snap and Mediterranean spice might have perked it up a bit. Or perhaps less of that, as a consistent challenge with Xibus is how the star of the show keeps getting subsumed into the role of the string section in an easy listening arrangement rather than serving as the main foreground element in their own recording. Once Xibus is finished playing through, there's a sense of hardly having heard the group whose name is above the title.
One extraordinary exception is the piece Roads by Mauricio Yazigi; apart from an awkward turnback mid-work, it is a stunning example of all the qualities that Boston String Quartet seems to be exploring here; a viable way for a classical ensemble to render something that is convincingly popular in nature, without sounding arch. However, certain other things do not work out so well -- Caccini's "Ave Maria" comes off like an entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. Violist Chen Lin's arrangement of the Beatles' "Hey Jude" starts off perfectly, and from the standpoint of a string quartet recasting of this overly familiar McCartney tune, brilliantly done. Until, that is, the singer begins; then all bets are off. Agustin Simon certainly sings "Hey Jude" nicely, but it's an element that simply isn't necessary.
To be fair, Boston String Quartet is touring with some of these singers, and if you have seen the group in concert perhaps Xibus will not be bothersome; such a listener will be prepared by virtue of the performance and at least some parts of this will work. Coming to it cold, however, the listener will likely stay cold; it reaches out so far of the string quartet medium that one is unsure as to what the goal actually might be. In lieu of liner notes, there is an unidentified quote and an excerpt from the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel." In response, here is a different fairy tale from Tex Avery's 1955 cartoon Field and Scream; a hapless fisherman has his line dangling into a pond, with no luck. In a neighboring pond, a kid is reeling fish in by the dozens. The kid departs, and the fisherman moves to the neighboring pond, only to encounter the same luck as before, and shortly thereafter the fish poke their heads above the water line to ask, "Where'd the kid go?" Indeed, the "kid" should not "go"; the Boston String Quartet needs to find a way to get their heads above the heavily arranged textures of Xibus and to make listeners hear what they are doing. If it means going back and retooling some of the repertoire to include more of it and less in the way of external elements, then so be it.