Kim Kashkashian: Arcanum (ECM New Series 2375)

2375 X

Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian viola
Lera Auerbach piano
Recorded October 2013, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 30, 2016

The 24 Preludes, Op. 34, of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), not to be confused with his 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, comprise the first half of this fascinating diptych. Transcribed for viola and piano in 2010 by Russian composer Lera Auerbach (b. 1973), and rendered by Auerbach at the keyboard with Kim Kashkashian on the viola, the resulting forest of sound is one into which the listener is immediately dropped via chromatic parachute. The tone is familiar, comforting, and wise, dreaming in its C major cradle like the foundation of the world. Although there are certainly jagged choreographies to be savored (e.g., Nos. 5 in D major, 9 in E major, and 18 in F minor) such as only Shostakovich could have devised, a deeply felt sense of humor balances the spectrum in Nos. 6 (B minor), 9 (E major), and 15 (D-flat major). Kashkashian’s uncanny connection to her instrument is resolutely expressed in the lyrical turns of No. 7 (A major) and 17 (A-flat major). Yet whether marching through the thicker settlements of Nos. 13 (F-sharp major) and 14 (E-flat minor) or dancing joyfully in 24 (D minor), she keeps her ears as open as possible to opportunities of freedom.

Drawing out lines of articulation from within the piano’s own vocabulary and grafting them onto the viola is no small task, given their divergence of material articulation, and Auerbach has accomplished something subtle and wonderful with respect to her source. Highlights in this regard include the Prelude No. 21 in B-flat major, which holds its ground in the cross-current of interpretation, and 23 in F major, wherein Kashkashian’s pliant tone and color blossom remarkably well.

Our forward-leaning duo follows with the Auerbach composition from which this album gets its name. Written in 2013 and dedicated to Kashkashian, it shows an intimate understanding of the viola’s internal vocabulary. In an interview with NHK Television in Tokyo, excerpts of which are included in the CD booklet, Kashkashian describes the title as referring to “some knowledge that we have, which we may not necessarily verbalize or rationalize. This knowledge allows us to see the truth, to be guided, to seek answers.” Thus, Auerbach walks between knowing and unknowing, favoring pregnant questions over barren answers. Like the viola itself, it exists comfortably in a liminal space. Above all, it is a transfiguration of thoughts into notecraft. The first movement, marked “Advenio”(meaning “to arrive at”), defines itself in real time, content in the narrative potential of every moment. Its pauses speak volumes while its utterances waste no breath of meaning. The second movement, “Cinis” (“ashes”), treats darkness as tenderness, lifting tears from the face they cling to like decals in search of order. Its implications, almost fully formed, hang from the viola’s guttural dips and falsetto highs. “Postremo” (“at last”) embodies a thematic impatience as if trying to become the very object of its own desire. Through a linguistic approach to tempi, it unfurls a mosaic of neural pathways, as does the fourth and final movement, “Adempte” (“to rescue”), which indeed brings salvific understandings to bear upon karmic falsehoods. Like a pyramid carved in negative space, it embraces geometry as a way of life—a sensibility perhaps informed by Auerbach’s experience as a sculptor. Either way, she understands music’s physical consequences.

Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica: Gustav Mahler/Dmitri Shostakovich (ECM New Series 2024)


Gidon Kremer
Kremerata Baltica
Gustav Mahler/Dmitri Shostakovich

Gidon Kremer
The Kremerata Baltica
Yulia Korpacheva soprano
Fedor Kuznetsov bass
Recorded October 2001 in Riga (Mahler) and November 2004 at Musikverein, Vienna (Shostakovich)
Engineers: Niels Foelster (Mahler) and Martin Leitner (Shostakovich)
Album produced by ECM

All-powerful is death.
It is on guard
even in the hour of happiness.
In the moment of our highest life it suffers in us,
it waits for us and thirsts—
and weeps within us.
–Rainer Maria Rilke

As Inna Barsova has noted, the two symphonies on this massive disc both “share a concern with parting and death.” Each was written in its respective composer’s twilight, and unfolds in varying shades of darkness. Appropriate, then, that we should begin in the throes of the Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony (1910). Although originally scored for larger orchestral forces, in this 1971 string version by conductor Hans Stadlmair the young musicians of the Kremerata Baltica find themselves admirably well off. It begins more like a concerto than a symphony, a mournful solo echoing across time. That same quality prevails as the orchestra lifts off its fleet into darkened harbors. This wave repeats itself, each time with greater deference to the tide. “Lush” doesn’t even begin to describe the overwhelming beauty of the strings in full cry. Some crackling moments do crop up, each like an insect dying gracefully on the sands. And as dusky violins streak jade skies with their trembling light, a bold cry issues from the lower strings, pushing ever upward the ether upon which our spirits rest. Cosmic forces spread in earthly tones, leaving behind the faintest traces of an aurora borealis in anticipation of the coming dawn. This music may be unfinished, but it surely lingers.

Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony (1969) for soprano, bass, and chamber orchestra sets texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker, and Rilke along the contours of some powerful soloists. In this crystal clear live recording, marred slightly by a persistent cough during the most pregnant pauses, Shostakovich’s sense of playful morbidity shines through. This piece may not have the same concentrated sense of narrative (here, more spliced) as his masterful Execution of Stepan Razin, but its effect is still engaging. The operatic slant gives it flair, and the excellent percussion is a joy to behold. The voices are fully invested in their roles, each a fine example of method singing at work.

The music on this disc is about as far from background listening as one can get. It requires us to face the finitude of our mortality, to look closely into its eyes and see ourselves reflected, craning our necks across the gap of time into the infinity that awaits.

Rosamunde Quartett: Webern/Shostakovich/Burian (ECM New Series 1629)


Rosamunde Quartett

Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner cello
Recorded December 1996, Stadttheater Eichstätt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Rosamunde Quartett began its increasingly fruitful ECM relationship with this lyrically conceived disc, which brings together one of the twentieth-century repertoire’s most widely played and recorded pieces (Shostakovich), one not so widely played (Webern), and one relatively unknown (Burian).

Although Anton Webern penned his Langsamer Satz in 1905, it would not be performed until nearly six decades later. One of many such single-movement string quartets produced at the behest of teacher Arnold Schönberg, it stands out for its balance of ergonomic contours and emotional fragility. In its attempts to gain purchase in the wake of a crumbling Romanticism in which the composer still found rooted value, the piece arches its back like a bridge across a gaping intellectual chasm. The result is an emotive stomach crawl that is quite visceral to hear and, I imagine, even more so to play. Through a series of languid turns, signposted by Ravel-like use of pizzicato, it carries the listener across a tundra of harmonies. It is its own inner fire, the instability of an art in and of being. The transitional agitations throughout are reactive rather than reactionary, and seem to gasp in slow motion toward an incomplete resolution.

Written in a three-day fervor following his diagnosis with polio, Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, op. 110 (1960) is a bidirectional memorial, pointing one finger to a world being crushed under the weight of totalitarianism and another to the self caught in the middle. Structured around the intimate pedal point of the composer’s initials—DSCH—and filled with allusions to many of his own works, its power is expressed through a protracted implosion in which not only our ears, but also our philosophical fantasies, come to be implicated. The opening Largo is one of modern music’s most honest statements. Characterized by a sinuous tenacity and burnished chording, its shifts in key and height are painfully organic. By the time of this release, the piece had already made an ECM appearance in orchestral costume on Dolorosa. As a quartet, however, it remains wiser to the score’s vast internal tensions. From the fibrous links and buzzing viola of the Allegro molto to the surprisingly ambulatory Largo reprise, the current version heaves with all the tears of its turbulent milieu. The call of the Allegretto is written off here not with the usual trill, but a restrained waver, and the pizzicati are so biting that one can almost feel them in the chest. The ever-mysterious viola solo is handled with the utmost delicacy as the violins recede farther than I have ever heard. The sustained violin note that follows echoes like tinnitus, a siren of historical malaise that slices through the mind. The staccato attack of the penultimate movement is not so much dramatic as it is traumatic, and in being so makes the resolved chords ring like a scar undercutting the healing process with the acrid fear of recurrence. My standard of reference for this seminal piece has always been the Lafayette String Quartet’s fantastic 1993 rendition on Dorian Recordings, and I must say that here we reach a new level of craftsmanship.

The Rosamundes finish with a name likely unknown to most. In addition to being a composer, Emil František Burian (1904-1959) was a singer, musician, poet, actor, journalist, and playwright. Described as a “one-man Czech avant-garde,” Burian was a strident communist whose primarily theatrical activities throughout the twenties and thirties served as mouthpiece for his leftist leanings. After surviving three German concentration camps, during which time he managed to put together a forbidden performance or two, he returned to his homeland, where he left a lasting mark in the comingling worlds of theatre and politics. His String Quartet No. 4, op. 95 was written just after the war. Though new to this listener, it reads like a synthesis of the Webern and Shostakovich: combining the former’s elegiac veneer with the latter’s tortured soliloquies. Its promises are fleeting, its dances icy and dense. Like a forgotten bottle of wine opened at long last, it contains a host of flavors locked at the peak of their historical creation.

This album is yet another example of how ECM New Series continues to revive the tried and true as no other imprint can. Of the many fine string quartet recordings offered, this is an ideal place to begin.

Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues – Jarrett (ECM New Series 1469/70)

Dmitri Shostakovich
24 Preludes and Fugues

Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded July 1991, Salle de Musique, La Chaux de Fonds
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“When I first saw these pieces in a music shop, I knew I wanted to play them. I recognized the language. But when I started playing them, they were so close to me that I knew I had to record them.”
–Keith Jarrett

In 1950, during a trip abroad as a cultural ambassador, Shostakovich was treated to a performance of selections from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier by pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva in Leipzig, where the composer had been asked to serve as a judge for the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition. Just two years later, Nikolayeva would have Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues in hand as their dedicatee for the first public performance in Leningrad. Although one can hardly talk about these pieces without being aware of Bach’s shadow, I think it is precisely Bach’s shadow that Shostakovich is interested in here. In modern parlance one might say these are the “b-sides” of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a record of previously unreleased demos that refused to be lost to time. Like Bach, Shostakovich rallies through a lifetime of moods: from naivety (D major Fugue) to gentility (D major, B major, and F-sharp major Preludes); dawn (E minor Prelude) to destruction (B minor and G-sharp minor Preludes); death (F-sharp minor Fugue) to joy (E major and B major Fugues), resplendence (the standout A major Fugue), and playfulness (A-flat major Prelude and Fugue, B-flat major Prelude). The overall tone, however, is one of exuberance. Whenever this music isn’t dancing, it’s waiting to pick up its feet and resume. The carefully laid out balance of the entire work is clear not only in the distribution of slow and fast movements, but also in Jarrett’s dynamic pianism. He excavates the keyboard like an adult unearthing a time capsule buried as a child—such is the nostalgia folded into every note. From the punctuational bass notes of the E-flat minor Prelude to the poignancy of the F major Prelude and the smooth legato phrasing of the Beethovenian G minor Prelude, Jarrett negotiates a wealth of obstacles with the kind of fluidity that can only exist behind closed eyes. Moments of dissonance creep in only briefly, as if to remind us of perfection in that which is imperfect.

This is incredibly insightful music played by a musician who seems to see more in it than Shostakovich himself. In bearing his heart to us, Jarrett also bears the composer’s. Not only do Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues make up one of the most important works of the twentieth century, but Jarrett’s performance and ECM’s flawless production also turn them into one of its most important recordings. Need I say more?

<< Keith Jarrett Trio: Bye Bye Blackbird (ECM 1467)
>> Kancheli/Schnittke: Vom Winde beweint (ECM 1471 NS)

Shostakovich/Chihara/Bouchard (ECM New Series 1425)



Kim Kashkashian viola
Robyn Schulkowsky percussion
Robert Levin piano
Recorded June and October 1990
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Kim Kashkashian’s third disc for ECM is a curiously mixed bag. Although the liner notes give some delightful anecdotes and insider’s information, I am torn over how much said information enriches my experience of the whole. For example, Kashkashian points to the percussiveness of Shotakovich’s piano writing in his Sonata for Viola and Piano op. 147 as justification for the two companion pieces scored for “actual” percussion and viola. To be sure, this is a fascinating connection, though one that perhaps only the performers can intuit with such immediacy. Either way, the knowledge does guide my listening in new directions and pushes me to burrow into the music wholeheartedly.

We begin with Pourtinade by Linda Bouchard, consisting of nine sections that may be rearranged at will and which are otherwise meticulously notated. Each chapter breeds freshness in this indeterminate order and points to a hidden vitality behind the deceptively ineffectual surface. This is a piece that finds precision in its looseness. Deftly realized, Schulkowsky’s percussion work is porous and minutely detailed like a spiked pincushion through which Kashkashian threads her song.

Next we have Paul Seiko Chihara’s Redwood. Chihara, a film composer who has collaborated with such greats as Louis Malle, was inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints for this piece largely built around melodic phrases volleying between viola and tuned drums. I doubt that one would ever guess its source from the music alone, and I can’t say for sure whether this really informs the way I listen to it. Nonetheless, the programmatic music has its heart set on something beautiful.

Last but not least is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano op. 147. This being his final work, it unfolds like the imminence of death and the timid promise of afterlife. The central Allegretto is filled with concentrated ardor, held back every time it threatens to transcend its cage, and the final 15-minute Adagio is as visceral a swan song as one could expect from such a towering figure in modern music. While this sonata does sound haggard, conserving its energy for selective crescendos, there is a glint of affirmation for every cloud of resignation, so that by the end there is only neutral space.

Even after repeated listenings, I am still not sure how successful this program is as a whole. While the Bouchard and Chihara pieces have their own merits, knowing that Shostakovich is waiting around the corner throws a much different shadow on already obfuscated atmospheres. It’s not that the conceptual approach of the percussion pieces is out of place with the op. 147, but simply that they feel like different languages in want of an intermediary (and, to Kashkashian’s credit, she tries her best to fulfill that role). They rather put me in mind of the stark stop-motion artistry of the Brothers Quay, and would perhaps be better suited to such imagery, crying as they are for visual accompaniment. Nevertheless, all three musicians’ rich talents scintillate at every moment, breathing vibrancy into still notes on a page with oracular fervor.

Knowing the context of a piece biases our interpretation of it. This can be a hindrance, or it can lead to an enlightened understanding. In this case, I find it to be both—hence my complicated reactions to this release. Sometimes the most memorable musical experiences are also the most unexpected. Albums such as this remind us that music is its own reward.

<< Gavin Bryars: After the Requiem (ECM 1424 NS)
>> Paul Giger: Alpstein (ECM 1426)