Kim Kashkashian viola
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Luciano Berio conductor
Robyn Schulkowsky percussion
Recorded November 1999, ORF Studio, Vienna; May 2000, Teldec Studio, Berlin
Engineers: Josef Schütz and Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
The interest of Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003) in folk music runs as deep as the grooves in his scores—trenches, rather, through which performers have been backpacking their talents since the latter half of the 20th century. In them are remnants of decay and sound intermingling with fantastical re-creations. Much of said interest has flowed through those earthly scars outward into other lands. French, Italian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, and American sources were all fair game in the path of his net, reaching notable culmination in his Folk Songs of 1964. The range of this touchstone composition places unenviable demands on the singer, who must convey respective flourishes and qualities as if they were her own. The brilliance of the piece lies less in Berio’s settings, per se, than in his decoupling of songs from their provenance. This act of displacement lends their motives clarity and reliability (an idea that would surely have been fresh for one who had just relocated to America for a series of teaching appointments). We can therefore assume that the settings were no mere archival gesture (two of the Folk Songs are his own), but rather a vibrant shuffling of idioms. In that world we encounter a roving gallery of maidens, fishermen, even a nightingale, and in each there is a new message. It is something of a comfort to know that, in the midst of this politically charged period, Berio remained true to roots as he saw them, even when they were not his own. The folk song was thus for him a found object. Like his contemporary Italo Calvino (who would write two librettos for the composer), Berio was an interdisciplinary storyteller who meshed experimental and traditional impulses, and in the process saw fit to fit what he saw.
Voci (1984) continues the thread first spun in Folk Songs, but stares deeper into the looking glass. As the center of this exemplary recording from ECM’s New Series, it radiates with warmth and tactile force. Its focus is on the sights, sounds, and smells of Sicily, and in them finds a suitable color palette from which to sketch and paint. Its inaugural gesture of bells and viola is not unlike the solo introduction to Ravel’s Tzigane in its thorough physicality. The analogy stops there, however, for Voci is anything but a showpiece. It rings in the air like the street calls, lullabies, and folk tunes that inspired it, minimally dressed. Violist Kim Kashkashian and the Vienna RSO are ideal and formidable interpreters, bringing renewed variety to the piece’s inherent textures as compared to the reference recording by Aldo Bennici (for whom it was written) fronting the London Sinfonietta. Kashkashian carries full orchestral weight in her bow, keening her way through the piece’s epic travels with confidence. Fragmentary dances and incantations trade hands, carving circuitous paths around an elusive center. The colorful blend of percussion (courtesy of the great Robyn Schulkowsky), winds, and strings surrounding her form a pastiche of rusticity that brims with practically excessive totality. This is not the careful revelry of the attentive archivist, but rather the unrest of the enraptured interpreter, translating, transforming, and deconstructing.
In a fitting stroke of programming panache, producer Manfred Eicher includes five field recordings from the very regions that so entranced Berio. Of these, the lament is especially magnetic. Mournful though it is, it also undergirds a heavy weight of realization: the folk song is no fleeting thing. Rather, it continues to sing itself into existence even in the absence of voices, working its way into the very soil and thrumming among the dead. This makes Kashkashian’s performance all the more worthy of praise, for she does what many singers have done before her with a shaft of hair, rosin, and four strings.
After this dive into “agro-pastoral” authenticity, we return to land in Naturale (1985), which combines the composer’s own song recordings with viola and percussion. Although more than a mere Voci redux, its effects are nearly identical, drawn as they are from the same starting point. The intimacy factor is higher, the mirror more polished, the sun lower in the sky.
As Berio would have been the first to admit, the “cannibalization” process by which these strains made their way into his meticulous constructions remain free from romantic visions of preservation and speak to a process of linear progression in the continued search for new directions through the fusion of disparate paths. We can be thankful that some of those paths lead straight into our ears.