Kurtág/Ligeti: Music for Viola (ECM New Series 2240)

Kashkashian KL

Music for Viola

Kim Kashkashian viola
Recorded May 2011 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Two Györgys, Kurtág and Ligeti, are subjects of violist Kim Kashkashian’s adventurous solo program—“adventurous” because the music steps bravely out into the open, absorbing the elements as they come: wind, water, earth, fire, and air, but also mineral, animal, and vegetable. The end result begins an experience which, if handled with time and care, is sure to grow with the listener in ways only the most intimate albums can.


Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages is an ongoing project begun in 1989. Instigated by the composer’s usual insistence on note integrity, these pieces divide like cells in a colony toward a body that will likely never walk upright. It is, rather, content to slither and percolate into mental corners both dark and delightful. Though characterized as a master miniaturist, Kurtág is more the scientist whose microscopy reveals terrains not audible to the naked ear without intervention of ink and staves. Bound to an honest, exploratory spirit, Kurtág charms in the purest sense of the word, combining thought and action through a system of articulation that is only magnified by Kashkashian’s dynamic readings thereof.

An introductory “In Nomine” widens the scope of possibilities from the earliest stirrings. It slides and swivels like a Rubik’s cube without a solution but which finds language hidden in every manipulation. The pieces that follow don’t so much have beginnings and endings as they do openings and closings. This gives them a three-dimensionality, forged at the intersection of an inner space the musician might enter, an outer space from which she might shut herself away, and a sense of time that meshes the two. Details emerge in literary fashion—which is to say, by the scrawl of a writer’s instrument. The most frenetic passages swirl behind closed eyes, manifesting in their destined form before emerging on the open page. The notion of the solo performer as one who interacts as much with herself as with the music finds itself multiply confirmed by a tactility that only Kashkashian can bring to her instrument. Even at points of least resistance, she remains aware of the skin at hand, scars and all.

That Kurtág and Ligeti were lifelong friends may not be so obvious based on their compositional output alone, but through this recording one may locate an affinity that goes beyond the mere juxtaposition of their works. For while Ligeti’s masterful Sonata for viola solo (1991-1994) would seem a more constructed organism, its veins guide a likeminded bloodstream between inhale and exhale. The opening “Hora lungă,” modeled after a traditional lament, is played exclusively on the viola’s C string. Kashkashian deftly handles the timbral subtleties required to bring it to life. She bends notes at the cusp of their chromatic defaults, warping them like the convex surface tension of a fully filled glass. After the candle’s flicker that is “Loop,” the ashen “Facsar” revisits the psychological vessel in which the sonata began, only now with the addition of double stop harmonies and thus a feeling of ceremonial craftsmanship. The fourth movement, marked “Prestissimo con sordino,” is an energetic afterimage, but also preludes the fifth movement, a “Lamento” that works muscles of mystery in the finish before the final “Chaconne chromatique” parts the darkness to reveal a lantern’s glow. Though tense and sinuous, it feeds its own melancholy by taking a step forward to contain the shadows.

This album’s earning of a Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo is proof enough of the wonders of its performance, program, and production. But neither award nor accolade can express Kashkashian’s embodied art better than the recording itself. It’s a truth that comes out only in the listening, so that even these words, as I write them, turn to smoke in the firelight of experiencing it for yourself.

(To hear samples of Music for Viola, click here.)

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