Parker Quartet/Kim Kashkashian: Kurtág/Dvořák (ECM New Series 2649)

Parker Quartet
Kim Kashkashian
György Kurtág/Antonín Dvořák

Parker Quartet
Daniel Chong
Ken Hamao violin
Jessica Bodner viola
Kee-Hyun Kim violoncello
Kim Kashkashian viola
Recorded November 2018, Radiostudio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Cover photo: Woong Chul An
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 22, 2021

If the phenomenality of existence is rooted in its fleetingness, then music cannot be clothed in any raiment other than its mortality. Such is the impetus (and the slip-through-your-fingers brilliance) of György Kurtág’s composing, which never bites off more than it can chew so as to absorb every nutrient of its dialogic vocabularies. In the invocational architectures of his Six moments musicaux, op. 44 (2005), which open this program of ear-opening juxtapositions, there is much to be uncovered by listeners willing to seek the fragmentary in the harmonic and the holistic in the dissonant. Whether dancing with exuberance or wallowing in the eventide of mourning, the strings manifest as much meaning untouched by the bow as humming beneath its pressure. Shades of motifs that came before crack themselves open like eggs to reveal two distinct textures that cook at different temperatures. The Parker Quartet treats these dichotomies as anything but, reveling quietly in their gradations of white and yellow. The icy “Rappel des oiseaux…” (an etude rendered mostly in harmonics) is the clearest example of how sensitive one must be to speak Kurtág’s language. The quieter his grammar, the more robustly it leaps from the score.

The painted side of this mirror is Kurtág’s Officium breve, op. 28 (1988/89). Written in memory of composer Endre Szervánsky (1911-1977) but also paying respects to Anton Webern (1883-1945), its fifteen movements open as if tuning, bleeding into concentrations of light. Like a candle during a power outage, its quotidian purpose is magnified to near-sacred focus. For the most part, however, these pieces are reflections of reflections. From the sonority of the “Sostenuto” to the fragile spirituality of the “Canon a 2,” the Parkers erase the “d” in “breadth” and leave it to exhale into the slow-motion slumber of the final “Larghetto.” It is, as Paul Griffiths best describes it in his liner note, “A homecoming, to a lost home.”

Between these two destinations blossoms the String Quintet No. 3 in E-flat major, op. 97, of Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). Composed in 1893 during a sojourn in the small Iowa town of Spillville, its rendering here with special guest, violist Kim Kashkashian (a mentor of the musicians), immediately boldfaces the brightness for which the Czech composer was so well known, soaring in search of a place without winter. What begins as a splash of sunlight in the Scherzo shifts into fluid motion, the violin working its way like a bird in slow motion without any other purpose than to mark its path with invisible ink. Heat comes in the slow burn of the Larghetto, which rests its weight on Kashkashian’s shoulders as on a savior in dark times. This is a highlight for the quartet’s ability to mesh with itself and incorporate the extra instrument as if it was always there. Between the light footfalls of the cello’s pizzicato and the dreamlike tremble of its higher cousins, everyone has a chance to make peace with the fullness of their message, finding in the Finale a way to begin again: by inhaling with a prayerful spirit.

Kim Kashkashian: J. S. Bach – Six Suites for Viola Solo (ECM New Series 2553/54)

Six Suites for Viola Solo

Kim Kashkashian
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.”
–Kim Kashkashian

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.

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.

Luciano Berio: Voci (ECM New Series 1735)


Luciano Berio

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.

Between One Embrace and the Next: Ulysses’ Gaze and the Pace of Discovery

And, if the soul is about to know itself, it must gaze into the soul.
–Plato, Alcibiades 133b

The film

In a quiet arthouse theater one night in May of 1997, a scene from Theo Angelopoulos’s 1995 masterwork Ulysses’ Gaze reached out and holds me still. In it the protagonist, A (Harvey Keitel), is relating a personal story to a curator from Skopje (Maia Morgenstern, who plays every woman Keitel encounters throughout the film’s nearly three-hour duration). As the latter runs alongside the train that threatens to vanquish their transient encounter, A’s story lures her into the clattering comforts of the car, and into the emptiness of his heart. He tells her of stumbling upon the birthplace of Apollo, of seeing there something so vivid that every Polaroid he attempted to take came out only blank, “as if my glance wasn’t working.” In those empty squares, those black holes made tangible, he sees both the past of which his body and mind were formed and the future into which he blindly walks.  Thus does Angelopoulos engage us, finding in this nameless figure an everyman whose quest for origins beyond his self leads only to a hollowing out of that self.

We see a film: Spinning Women by Yannakis and Miltos Manakias. It is perhaps the first film, speculates A’s voiceover. The first gaze. Yet once we are released from its black-and-white confines, the only gaze afforded us is of misty waters, indistinct and close to blanking out. Monochrome pales into color as we witness Yannakis’s last moments, and the single ship upon the sea that is his farewell.

The vessel looms like a face, fills the screen with its expressive pace, and breaks the seal on a filmic letter like no other.

“How many borders must we cross to reach home?”

Yannakis, we learn, left behind three reels of undeveloped film, and it is these A wants like a light bulb hungers for electricity that will one day pop its filament. We contemplate the ship and the three missing reels as A sets out on his personal journey. He hopes a film archivist from Athens may be able to help him, but is instead escorted through crowded streets in which A has not set for 35 years, and which echo with the controversies of his latest film beyond the theater doors it has closed.

A follows the trail into Albania, a land of snow and silence where refugees stare at the mountainous border as if it might speak on their behalf.

A woman who hasn’t seen her sister in 47 years since the civil war asks if A might take her along. His cab driver agrees and drops her off at Korytsa. Only she doesn’t recognize it as the place of her girlhood. She stands in the middle of the street, empty save for the agony of her shattered expectations. Part of us stays with her, knowing that all the comfort in the world will never alleviate the wounds she has endured to get here.

Haunted as much emotionally by the Manakias brothers’ film as we are visually by it, A maps a path of ruin through the Balkan Wars and the First Great War. The turmoil of the region is encoded in every frame of those missing reels. Yet the brothers were interested less in politics and more in people. They recorded “all the ambiguities,” A tells the woman from Skopje, who at first takes no interest in his obsession, which overtakes him to the point where he relives the brothers’ exile by the Bulgarian government as collaborators against the state, feels the confiscation of their archives like an artery ripped from his chest, smells the gunpowder of a mock execution. He wants to find his own first glance, long lost yet always tapping him on the shoulder, and his only way to know where it leads is to take on traumas of which he will never be a part.

His itinerary reads like a litany of destruction. He follows footsteps into a time where his mother can care for him, a substitute in memory for what eludes him in the present. Then again, in this film there is no “present” as such, bearing as it does an eternal trace of that which bore it. A shares a dance with his mother, and in the space of that dance a family is destroyed, dispossessed, and broken before posing for its final group portrait by an illusory photographer who may be the director himself, if not us in his place.

A awakens from that dream, shaken and silent. At the docks of an overcast morning, he bids farewell to Skopje, even as the head of an enormous statue of Lenin is craned onto a barge behind them.

The nameless woman questions his tears. “I’m crying because I can’t love you,” he tells her between sobs, and tears himself away from the only security he may ever know.

“The war’s so close it might as well be far away,” observes an old journalist friend in Belgrade, where the head of its Film Archives has agreed to meet. The man tells A he once had the reels, but after failing to devise the proper chemical formula to develop them, gave them to a colleague in Sarajevo with whom he lost touch during the war. Of course, A insists on going to Sarajevo. He rows a boat into dark waters (an allegory, perhaps, for the toughness of Balkan reality itself) and nearly falls into a double life with a widow in mourning.

“The first thing God created was the journey, then came doubt…and nostalgia.”

Upon arriving in the city, surrounded by bombs and crumbling edifices, he foolishly asks of those fleeing around him, “Is this Sarajevo?” as if his purpose in being there were more important than their demise. It is the deepest moment of denial, and therefore of weakness, in the film, and throws us into the soul of a man whose love for history has blinded him to the visceral impact of its making.

He finds who he is looking for: a film museum curator (the inimitable Erland Josephson) by the name of S. Even as the air explodes with dust and bloodshed, S commends A for his faith in having traveled this far for something believed to be lost.

S, we learn, has been searching for that magic formula for years, and A’s persistence emboldens him to finish his task.

“You have no right to keep it locked away. The gaze…it’s the war, the insanity, the death…”

It is in Sarajevo that we learn the true meaning of the fog, which creeps in like a protective force, a shroud in which one can live without fear, if only for a brief time. In its embrace neighbors can speak without words. In its diffuse glow a youth orchestra made of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, traveling from city to city during ceasefire, can play its song for all to hear.  But even this screen cannot keep them from harm, for behind its veil children are shot before their parents, thrown to the water from which they took shape. And so, the man who rescued a gaze from certain death now becomes a part of it, but not before leaving the successfully developed reels.

Yet we never see those reels, only their light flitting across A’s weary eyes. Whether or not he finds them is as immaterial as they legend they have grown to be. In those reels lies a dream, “a gaze struggling to emerge from the dark…a kind of birth.” And in birth there is no sight but the glare of strife, no sound but the wail of projection.

“What am I if not a collector of vanished gazes?”

And just what is all this gazing about? Beyond that of the camera, of the eye in reality (and of the soul in non), it is for me the slumber of the centuries, dismembered and left to drift like Lenin’s statue on river’s flow. It is the pathos of pathos, forever unrequited in the blink of a fettered eye.

As a teenager I used to have a recurring dream. In it I was younger still, perhaps 12, and clothed modestly in a tunic and brown leather sandals. I ran through a hilly landscape, dodging brush and fauna to the top of a rocky slope. And there I lay low beneath an olive tree, a quiver of arrows slung across my back, overlooking a landscape of ruins. I like to think that I was also gazing, like A, upon Apollo’s birthplace, of which I can remember nothing but the feeling: an unanswering abyss of rock and overgrowth into which I cast my questioning stones.

The more tangible it is, the more unrecoverable a past becomes, the more easily burned, the more easily dressed in the clothes of the dead.

The music

Among the many sonic cartographies it has innovated, ECM has redefined almost every genre it has touched. This includes the film soundtrack, which, through the work of Angelopoulos’s sonic partner, Eleni Karaindrou, has shown us music that stands alone before reaching toward the images it cradles.

Eleni Karaindrou
Ulysses’ Gaze
(ECM New Series 1570)

Kim Kashkashian viola soloist
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Andreas Tsekouras accordion
Sopcratis Anthis trumpet
Vangelis Skouras french horn
Christos Sfetsas cello
Georgia Voulvi voice
Lefteris Chalkiadakis conductor
Recorded December 1994 at Sound Studio, Athens
Engineer: Yannis Smirneos
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This soundtrack introduced me to the Angelopoulos’s cinematic world long before I saw a single frame. It would be two years before I had a chance to see the selfsame film, by which time I had heard the soundtrack and stared at the booklet stills so many times that I felt like I knew every ventricle of Ulysses’ pensively beating heart. Though set against a backdrop of primal discovery, it ends up becoming its own discovery, linking the personal to the political to the universal in one red thread, represented to its fullest by Kashkashian’s gut-wrenching playing. Though mainly driven by the soloist, there are splendid moments of conversation with oboe, as in “Ulysses’ Theme Variation II.” Yet what comes across as an intensely mournful theme can, with just an intensification of speed, turn into an exuberant dance.

Among the more touching moments in both film and soundtrack is “The River.” With its elegiac horn wafting out over the misty waters like a requiem for a fallen past never to be recaptured in the crumbling ruins of an age blinded by innovation, it breathes through our rib cages with voices of passage. The 17-minute spread of “Ulysses’ Gaze – Woman’s Theme, Ulysses’” is the album’s most enchanting encapsulation, the entire narrative telescoped into a single epic mosaic, drawn from the same ink as the tears of its characters. A lilting accordion carries us like a feather on wind into the inner portal of a traditional Byzantine Psalm, from which we emerge with that same thread in our grasp, sinking deeper with every reiteration until the seedlings of our plight become the stuff of myth and melted celluloid.

Ulysses’ Gaze bears dedication to the memory of the great Italian actor Gian Maria Volonté, whose role in the film was cut short by a fatal heart attack and recast to Josephson. In kind, I can only dedicate this review to the memory of Angelopoulos (1935-2012), a director in whose oeuvre everyone seems to find a ghostly double self, whispering at the fringe of conscious imagination.

May his gaze live on.

“I live my life in ever widening circles that rise above things.
I probably won’t come last, but I’ll try. I circle around God.”

<< Alexandr Mosolov: Sonatas for piano Nos. 2 and 5, etc. (ECM 1569 NS)
>> Thomas Demenga: J. S. Bach/B. A. Zimmermann (ECM 1571 NS)

Tigran Mansurian/Kim Kashkashian: Monodia (ECM New Series 1850/51)


Tigran Mansurian
Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian viola
Leonidas Kavakos violin
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen conductor
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James counter-tenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Andreas Hirtreiter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2001, Himmelfahrtskirche Sendling, München and January 2002, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann and Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…
–William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Monodia represents the invaluable efforts of violist Kim Kashkashian to bring Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian onto the world stage. During this journey of discovery she was fortunate enough to have found in Manfred Eicher the ideal partner to ensure that this exposure be done properly and with the utmost respect. The composer’s homeland may not be visible in the flow of information that saturates mainstream media, but it is intensely audible in this landmark recording of a music and a culture that demands to be heard by virtue of the fact that it demands nothing at all.

Kashkashian brings her inimitable talents to bear upon “…and then I was in time again, a viola concerto written in 1995. The title comes from Faulkner, whose inky nooks harbor shades of meaning whereby the light of experience comes to be similarly refracted through the prism of the mind. Kashkashian’s harmonic whispers usher us into a world in which the viola not only sings, but also speaks. Through a sometimes-tortured narrative, Kashkashian externalizes the music’s inner life through her fearless translational abilities. The orchestra’s lower registers are favored here, so that the violas echo Kashkashian en masse, thereby drawing a genealogical thread from Allegro to Lento in a twin birth of lament and knowledge. As throughout, peace is hard to come by even in the absence of the occasional high-pitched interjections, each a sketch of histories long atrophied.

If we began rooted in time, in the Concerto for violin and orchestra (1981) we are left to fend far outside of it. After the earthy tones of the viola, the violin hangs from a much thinner thread, ever poised on the brink of a sudden fall. The soloist here is Leonidas Kavakos, who begins, as violin concertos are wont to do, somewhere above our heads. Kavakos underscores the solitude that permeates the score, emerging like an orphaned cub taking his first tentative steps across the forest floor. Sunlight works its way through the mists, spreading its fingers wide between the branches and coaxing the world back to life. The opening motive, while inaugural in its first appearance, is a powerfully disruptive force when it returns halfway through the piece. Its violence and fear spawn a thousand voices singing with agitated lyricism. Low strings sweep us under a watery carpet before spitting us out onto the shores of something oddly familial.

This sense of lineage continues in the 1999 Lachrymae for soprano saxophone (played here by Jan Garbarek) and viola. The patterns traced here are not unlike those on the CD’s cover, meeting as they do in a rosette of mystical curves through human rendering. Like an incantation, the music’s implications far exceed its means, for in the lingering echoes of this piece we can hear our own tears hoping for the curing touch of moonlight. A quintessential New Series piece from two of ECM’s finest musicians.

Lastly is Confessing with Faith (1998), for which Kashkashian is joined by the Hilliard Ensemble in evoking texts by St. Nerses the Graceful (1102-1173). The gut-wrenching depth of her playing here must be heard to be appreciated, and with the Hilliards its secrets become even more complex. One can’t help but feel that the voices are being spun from the same threads, as if to more fully flesh out that which already resides in the instrument. Once countertenor David James breaks from the gloomy waves, he dances with the viola in a lithe display of melodic inertia. Agitated tremolos enlarge the feeling of solitude, letting in a spirited round: one river overtaking another in a bed of tenors. James is resplendent in his delicate high lines from which hang the piece’s final mobiles. The viola is given the final word, which feels more like the first, drawing out a double stop as if it were a pair of lungs about to pray.

Sing a new song to Him who rose,
First fruits of life of them that sleep.


Kim Kashkashian: Hayren (ECM New Series 1754)


Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robyn Schulkowsky percussion
Tigran Mansurian piano, voice
Recorded May 2000 at Teldec Studio, Berlin
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian made its first ECM appearance on Alexei Lubimov’s Der Bote. Yet it wasn’t until violist Kim Kashkashian reflected deeply on her own Armenian roots that his sound-world, along with that of the nation’s treasure Komitas (a.k.a. Soghomon Soghomonian, 1869-1935), came into its deserved own. The result is a fortuitous one, not least because of Kashkashian’s unwavering dedication to her instrument and its limitless possibilities. Hayren interlocks Mansurian’s earthen sensitivities with Komitas’s visionary roots for a blend that is at once supra-paradigmatic and forged on a shared oral connection between those who perform and the very earth on which they stand. The program’s title deliberately evokes the poetic style much revered in Armenia, and the implications could hardly be more appropriate, for while Mansurian is like a brittle page, Komitas’s typography is bold and crisp.

Although the album is made up mostly of chamber pieces such as Havik, in which the viola seems on the verge of losing its foothold, surprises await us Mansurian not only takes to the piano but also adds his actual voice into the rippling waters of his surroundings. The polished arrangements encase every raw lullaby in a lantern, such that the quietude of songs like Garun a feels like the shadow of the dying light of Krunk. His is not a voice to be praised for its technical prowess, but one to languish in for its unabashed descriptiveness. Mansurian seems to mimic Kashkashian’s gravelly emotions, if not the other way around. This is music that flirts with pitch as the wind might with a tree branch: no matter how much it bends, its essential form remains intact. One can say the same for Chinar es, which feels on the verge of utter collapse from the weight of its openness. And it is a fine musician indeed who can become even more vocal in her instrumental rendition of Krunk, which while timorous is by virtue of its lilt a caress on whatever part of the brain is activated when we read moving literature. After an alluring piano solo in Oror, sounding like a plaintive interlude in an Eleni Karaindrou soundtrack, Kashkashian and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky untie every subtle knot to be found in Mansurian’s Duet for viola and percussion. What starts as a soulful postlude burrows into an 18-minute cavern of living darkness. The melodies are self-aware, dented by marimbas and gongs, and point like a compass needle to the truest north that is incantation.

Hayren is an album that will likely require repeated listening. As for myself, I can only say it has grown with me into a rich and multilayered carving. Not unlike life itself, it is narrated by a thousand cryptic asides for every direct proclamation, and through this disparity achieves a mature sort of unity that is nothing if not honest.

Kashkashian always brings a personal dimension to her playing and perhaps nowhere more so than here. The intimacy of her interpretations is only enhanced by those of Mansurian, who continues to open our ears to the possibility of what lies already locked behind those cochlear doors.

Kim Kashkashian: Bartók/Eötvös/Kurtág (ECM New Series 1711)


Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian viola
Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Peter Eötvös conductor
Recorded January and July 1999, Musiekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann and Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The viola has long been one of my most beloved instruments. I see it less as a “neglected” presence in the string world and more as a quiet supporter whose ubiquitous presence has simply been taken for granted. In all this time, it has never been compromised, and for that I adore it. Nearly all of my adoration can be attributed to one musician: Kim Kashkashian. For this all-Hungarian program, the instrument’s most committed proponent raises the bar on a standard work in the literature and sets another for two others.

Of the first, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, I can say that in Kashkashian’s firm grasp it falls with the sweetness of rain onto drought-ridden land. The concerto was written between July and August of 1945 and never finished, due to the composer’s death just one month later. Here, the musicians use Tibor Serly’s standard completed score along with some adjustments of their own. After a robust introduction from the viola, the 14-minute Moderato comes to life like an afterthought that was always meant to be. The viola is such a profound presence in this piece that at points one almost forgets the orchestra is even there. Rather than see this dynamic as a distraction, I chalk it to the orchestra’s ability (both in the playing and the writing) to infuse the soloist’s every move. Pizzicati crumble off like debris as discernible themes come and go through a fractured lens that opens our eyes to the pastoral, openhearted exchange of the second movement. Though hardly a third in length of the first movement, it plies our scales of judgment with as much moral weight. The third movement, marked Allegro Vivace, bursts almost immediately into the final dance. Like the rest of the concerto, it is so melodically confident that it could easily hold its own as a solo piece. What the orchestra provides is a tonal palette upon which the viola’s many colors may rest.

Replica for Viola and Orchestra was written in 1998 for Kashkashian by this recording’s conductor, Peter Eötvös. Regardless of what its intended replication is, the viola and orchestra are always sketching one another: the former linearly like smudged charcoal and the latter in bold yet multifarious brushstrokes dripping with excess paint. The puddle that collects on the floor beneath the easel is its own replica, more than a mere remnant of the creative process. Throughout this single-movement piece, we are never sure of where we are, only that we are comfortable being there. It is music to which we may open our ears without fear of harm.

György Kurtág’s Movement for Viola and Orchestra (1953/54) is the lone survivor of an abandoned early concerto and a welcome change of pace from, if no less fragmentary than, the miniatures that dot much of his other label representations. Distant timpani and swells of brass throw wide the curtains of its keen melodic stage. Also in one movement, its terse balance is the result of astute composing adorned with virtuosic viola writing and not a few demanding moments. Through every spiral we hear the revelry of composer and performer alike, plucked like so much fruit in the orchestra’s final pizzicato.

While a handful of fine recordings of the Bartók certainly exist (of which Hong-Mei Xiao’s superb twofer on Naxos is a personal favorite for comparison), Kashkashian’s brings something untouchable to bear upon this masterwork. To the others she imparts a fresh and mounting vitality. She plays with fortitude yet also with such grace that we find ourselves stunned in the middle. The crisp recording and all-around pellucid musicianship only strengthen her case. Hers is neither the delicate chiseling of the fine woodworker nor the casual scraping of the whittler. Rather, it is the rough-hewn grace of the ice sculptor. And like our breaths that cloud in the air as we watch her at work, the music fades all too soon.

Alternate cover (?)

Hommage à R.Sch. (ECM New Series 1508)

György Kurtág
Robert Schumann
Hommage à R.Sch.

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robert Levin piano
Eduard Brunner clarinet
Recorded August 1992, May and September 1994, Kammermusiksaal Beethovenhaus, Bonn
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

During his lifetime, the idiosyncrasies of Robert Schumann earned him little of the posthumous admiration that now abounds. A Romantic to the core, he found solace in the hollow spaces of his rich musical ideas, manifested to greatest effect in the potent miniatures he left behind. Perhaps no one has inherited this legacy in such a life-affirming way as György Kurtág. In this brilliantly realized album, which pairs both composers in a fortuitous program, we hear not only the bridge that arches between their worlds, but also the river that flows beneath it. Kurtág’s micro-compositional Neun Stücke für Viola solo are threaded by thinnest of intentions and a captivating dynamic contrast between nervousness and lyricism (though, to be sure, what qualifies as lyricism here exists always at the molecular level). The fragment takes on sensory completeness, compensated as it is by the symbiosis of performance and listening, so that even in absence of an audience, the performer remains the immediate receiver of the audible gesture. Jelek (Signs) op. 5 brims with the rich, heady double stops of Kim Kashkashian’s faultless phrasing, ensuring that hidden messages ring with all the robust fragility that surrounds them. Kurtág’s lines are by turns pliant and rigid, vaccinated with moribund attention. Distinctions between “interior” and “exterior” become irrelevant and fold into a shapeless entity with neither. The album is ordered in such a way as to centralize the viola, so that when the piano and clarinet emerge in Hommage à R.Sch. op. 15d, they seem to flank it from all sides. Through this transition, the music becomes more “visible.”

With the Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) op. 113, we finally encounter Schumann in the flesh, though “stumble over” might be the more accurate term, as Kurtág’s ghostly echoes release us so effortlessly that we barely have time to breathe. These four vignettes for viola and piano melt into the ecstatic dramaturgy of the Fantasiestücke op. 73, in which the clarinet has its say before merging with the viola in the uniquely scored Märchenerzählungen (Fairy Tales) op. 132. These are profoundly embodied works that render any descriptive words mute to the touch, leaving me with little to offer for all their wonders.

Steady performances from all three musicians—but especially from Kashkashian, whose strings unravel like a mummy in the dusky light of an interstellar awakening—make for an engaging experience from front to back. Therein lies a pyramidal cycle, with the composers at its base, and a thread of life at its apex, pulled ever taut by an unseen alien hand.

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