J. S. Bach: Six Suites for Viola Solo
Kim Kashkashian viola
Recorded November 2016 and February 2017 at American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Judy Sherman
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 12, 2018
“Living with Bach: a true and faithful companion who patiently provides a merciless and transparent reflection of one’s failings in vision and simultaneously gives the deepest comfort in all circumstances.”
If you were to unravel all the blood vessels contained in the average adult, they would stretch to a distance of 100,000 miles. And while the Six Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1007-1012) have always felt like such an unraveling, heard now from the viola of Kim Kashkashian, one becomes aware of that distance in an entirely new way. Whereas on the cello the extent of their totality feels surprising and overwhelming, here it takes an intimate, inevitable quality. In that respect, Kashkashian makes us believe that this music has passed through every molecule of her own body before a single note has tingled from the regard of a microphone.
Kashkashian heats expectation to the consistency of glass, cools it, and shines new light through its resulting prism by starting with Suite II in D minor. At first, one might miss the “depth” of the cello, but what the viola may lack in octave it makes up for with a resolutely vocal quality. With so much emotion at hand, the listener feels inadequate to contain it all. Yet both composer and interpreter assure us of having enough corridors within us to provide passage. In her rendering of the Sarabande especially, Kashkashian hasn’t so much revealed something once hidden by the screens of former performances, but taken the first pictures of this moon’s far side. Indeed, whereas other performers have focused on the face that’s always illuminated—whether by force of history or convention—Kashkashian shines her creative light onto a darker plane that was always there but for so long went unseen.
Only next do we find ourselves swaddled by Suite I in G major. At last, we get those familiar arpeggios, making their appearance all the more savory for their anticipatory marinade. What might normally be experienced as the seed, then, becomes the stalk born from that seed, at last graspable as an object of silent regard, not unlike the bow used to elicit its photosynthesis. Kashkashian shows her greenest spectrum in the Allemande, tracing every life-giving vein from edge to edge. Here, as also in the Courante that follows and the Menuet a skip beyond, she takes her time, allowing rhythms and ornaments to suggest their own variations and appearances.
Anyone missing the cello’s grit will find it dutifully preserved in C-minor Suite V. Between the angular Prélude and the laddering Gavotte, there’s plenty of sediment to be sifted through. The latter movement is a major turning point in that respect, and was for these ears the moment when the viola took on its spirit as a voice to be reckoned with in its own terms. What becomes clearer from this point forward is that everything Kashkashian plays is infused with as much of her being as Bach’s very own.
While “thinking out loud” is a descriptor often reserved for jazz improvisors, throughout Suite IV in E-flat major, Kashkashian shows us that classical musicians at the highest level are equally deserving of the accolade. Whether in every studied pause of the Allemande, masterful bowing of the Courante, or lively restraint of the duple Bourée, she shifts the light to reveal facets that, while forever singing, need a temporary amplifier to become audible.
Suite III, written in the fundamental C major, is a pantheon among temples, and therefore holds itself with a dignity that the other suites can only taste in shadow. Its own Allemande is another master class in syncopation and finds Kashkashian moving as would a linguist through a text so fully clothed in marginalia that, despite not being written in the native tongue, becomes second nature through years of anthropological internalization. So, too, the Courante, which leaps not from the strings but from the bow bidding them to resonate. Neither has the Bourée sounded so connected to its physical means, cracking in the ear like the softest of whips.
Just as the album began with the unexpected, so does it end as it should: with Suite VI in D major. Offering the most arresting Prélude of the collection, the microtonal rocking of which glows phosphorescently in its present handling, the suite is wisdom incarnate. The Sarabande is another manifesto of tenderness rarely so sustained, and delivers us like children into the dawn-drenched Gavotte. And where would we be but lost without its declamatory Gigue. Like its previous five counterparts, it gives us closure in order to hold us true to ourselves and our experiences. As Paul Griffiths in his liner essay notes of these farewells: “Gigues complete the landscape drawn in each key, not by the composer, not by the instrument, not by the performer, but by all three—complete it and leave.” We, however, stay behind, closing our eyes against the grain of what we’ve just heard in full knowledge that no such experience will ever honor us again. And so, we fold every artery, vein, and capillary we can call our own back into the suitcases of our skin, stepping back on the train of life and counting every track as we try to recall what it all felt like before these sounds compelled our detour into peace.