Bach: 3 Sonaten für Viola da Gamba und Cembalo – Jarrett/Kashkashian (ECM New Series 1501)

J. S. Bach
3 Sonaten für Viola da Gamba und Cembalo

Kim Kashkashian viola
Keith Jarrett cembalo
Recorded September 1991, Cavelight Studio, New Jersey
Engineer: Peter Laenger

The exact dates of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord are contestable. We do know they were composed sometime in the 1740s, making their unity as a set tenuous at best. Still, on their own, they glisten with the genius that bore them. Though more commonly played on the period instruments for which they were written, one may still find the occasional cello filling in. On this recording, we find a unique substitution in the viola, which shares hardly more than a name with its predecessor. This is accomplished by transposing any notes below the viola’s range, making for a relatively buoyant sound. Purists take note: this is, in my humble opinion, the finest interpretation of these much-recorded sonatas. Admittedly, this opinion is as much informed by the fact that it is the first I ever heard of these works as it is by the stellar musicianship that follows Keith Jarrett and Kim Kashkashian wherever they go.

The opening Sonata in G BWV 1027is a warm embrace of Baroque elegance. Jarrett captivates from bar one, his continuo providing bold bass lines as Kashkashian’s deeply sustained tones guide us through foggy waters. The second movement, while airy enough, manages to support its fill of weighty trills and rhythmic spontaneity. The Andante establishes an even tighter bond as Kashkashian dots the i’s and crosses the t’s of Jarrett’s solid arpeggios. A rather bold intimacy is maintained throughout, lending the movement an almost orchestral fullness. It is at such moments—i.e., those where expansive instrumental coverage is implied through rudimentary means—that Bach’s creativity sparkles. This tightly knit synergy carries over into the final movement as the viola harmonizes with Jarrett’s sharply syncopated left hand before doing the same with his right. The harpsichord then takes the lead as the viola provides further diacritical accents to a smooth finish.

The lush Adagio that begins the Sonata in D BWV 1028 glows like a dying fire. It dangles on an unresolved note before diving headlong into the magisterial Allegro that follows. Another beautiful Andante awaits, this time led strongly by the viola, again harmonizing with the left hand, while another confident lead-in to the final Allegro births contrapuntal bliss.

The real tour de force here, however, is the Sonata in G minor BWV 1029 that closes out the trio. The angled playing of the opening Vivace describes an exultant rejuvenation. The viola seems to find purchase in every nook and cranny carved out by the harpsichord in anticipation of the potent repeat; every precisely measured note of the Adagio sends off vibrations of the utmost gorgeousness; and the concluding Allegro is introduced by a fibrous dance which is immediately spun by the viola into an indestructible c(h)ord. The riveting descending motif at the end rings in the heart long after its completion.

The range of sound from Jarrett and Kashkashian impresses as the powerful duo navigates Bach’s intricate contours with active precision and an overarching sense of freedom. Kashkashian’s warm, sandy tone meshes so well with Jarrett’s lively harpsichord that one would seem the symbiote of the other. Upbeat tempos and a gracious resistance to filler material clock the album at a modest 39 minutes. But with such enthralling music to be had, captured at the height of passion, the urge to listen afresh is only intensified. Easily one of ECM’s finest New Series releases, and a resilient exemplar of the label’s fresh take on the tried and true.

Giya Kancheli: Abii ne viderem (ECM New Series 1510)

 

Giya Kancheli
Abii ne viderem

Kim Kashkashian viola
Vasiko Tevdorashvili voice
Natalia Pschenitschnikova alto flute
The Hilliard Ensemble
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded April 1994
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

My first exposure to the music of Giya Kancheli, with which the composer once said, “I feel more as if I were filling a space that has been deserted,” was through Exil, which remains in my opinion the finest ECM New Series release to date. Much in contrast to the tearful beauty of that most significant chamber album, the orchestral arrangements on Abii ne viderem—drawn as they are from the same thematic sources—lend extroverted articulation to essentially “monastic” material. This music may speak the same language, but in a far more distant dialect. The Life without Christmas cycle, from which two pieces bookend the present recording, is central to the Kancheli oeuvre. Not only is it his wellspring, but it also comprises, it would seem, the overarching worldview under which he musically operates. It is the gloom of a life of displacement, the full embodiment of what Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich calls “measured gravity,” which may perhaps be likened to the heavy emptiness of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. As in said film, every gesture makes a footprint, a remnant of human presence left to sink into the submerged wasteland of a silent future.

Morning Prayers (1990) is immediately distinguished by an angelic boy soprano, whose taped voice is never fully grounded but which hovers throughout. The piano adds another haunting element, seeming to pull at the barbed ends of nostalgia even as it pushes the orchestra down a flight of descendent chords. Occasional violent moments startle us into self-awareness and only serve to underscore the power of the prayers that surround them. The most profoundly effective moment occurs when the piano echoes in a dance-like theme, the orchestral accompaniment slightly off center—a distant memory ravaged by time and circumstance.

The title of the album’s central piece, Abii ne viderem (1992/94), translates to “I turned away so as not to see.” The more one listens to it, the question becomes not what is being turned away from but what is being observed upon turning. Its paced staccato bursts are linked by a profound silence, escalating with every reiteration. This silence eventually opens into a full orchestral statement, italicized again by the piano’s audible pulse. We find ourselves caught in the middle of a larger web of sentiments, until we can no longer see ourselves for who we are but only for who we have been. Personally, I find this piece to be a touch overbearing, if only because the import of its ideas is easily crushed by the heft of its dynamic spread.

The presence of the Hilliard Ensemble rescues Evening Prayers (1991) from the didacticism of its predecessor. It is a more fully unified narrative, linked by a lingering alto flute. A gorgeous “ascension” passage marks a rare contrapuntal moment for Kancheli, while David James’s voice creates magic, ever so subtly offset by a skittering violin. Occasional bursts, some punctuated by snare drum, break the mood and ensure that our attention is held. Inevitably, the piece ends like a ship sailing into a foggy ocean, leaving behind only a blank map to show for our travels.

Don’t let any comparisons to Arvo Pärt lure you astray. Kancheli’s music, while transcendent, cannot be divorced from its rootedness in upheaval. And while this album may be filled with beautiful moments, I cannot help but feel that something gets elided in these grander arrangements. I say this with the gentlest of criticisms, and perhaps only because my first foray into this world was on such a small scale. The sound of Exil stays with me, and sometimes I just cannot hear it in any other context, and for those wishing to hear this composer for the first time I would recommend starting there. That being said, the scale of these pieces makes them no less evocative for all their historical understatements and sensitivity. And perhaps that is Kancheli’s underlying observation: that, in our current climate of convalescent ideologies, all we have to hold on to are those rare flashes of fire in which our communion with something greater has transcended the rising waters of sociopolitical corruption.

Brahms: Sonatas for Viola and Piano (ECM New Series 1630)

 

Johannes Brahms
Sonatas for Viola and Piano

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robert Levin piano
Recorded November 1996, Mozart-Saal/Liederhalle, Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

These two sonatas, originally written for clarinet, marked the end of an intense period of depression for Brahms, during which his creative energies had all but faded. Kim Kashkashian, whose command of the viola unearths an even deeper realm of possibility in this already engaging diptych, faithfully captures the somber circumstances of its creation. In doing so, she shows that the viola is no less an instrument of breath, drawing from deep within her lungs the sheer vocal power required to carry across such arresting music.

The disc opens with the Sonata No. 2, evoking the spirit of its underlying “tragic motive” as if it were the weight of an all-consuming desire. The entire sonata, but especially the first movement, flows with what I can only call an urgent delicacy. The looser third movement makes for a more abstract statement, never seeming to settle until it is dashed off with a declamatory flourish in its concluding Allegro. As arousing as the second sonata is, the Sonata No. 1 is perhaps the more fully fleshed of the pair. The second movement is for me the most effective portion of the album. It unfurls the viola’s heart like no other recordings (excepting Kashkashian’s, of course) can. Its yearning melody moves like grass bending in the wind, expressing in its pliancy a total acceptance of emotional upheaval and the growth that upheaval fosters. Just as the Andante casts its lyrical spell, so does the final Vivace enchant with gorgeous pockets of emptiness, drawing in thick lines the journey of its own resolution.

As one would expect of Brahms, the piano writing is superb at every turn, providing Robert Levin the perfect foil by which to extol the wonders of this richly blessed composer. Once again, he and Kashkashian prove themselves to be a finely matched pair. They maintain respectable dynamic distance throughout, balancing the latter’s robust vibrato with the former’s assertive yet nuanced touch. In spite of the darkness that binds these sonatas, their rewards are nothing if not radiant.

Kim Kashkashian: Lachrymae (ECM New Series 1506)

Lachrymae

Kim Kashkashian viola
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded December 1992
Engineer: Peter Laenger

Lachrymae was my second exposure to the brilliance of violist Kim Kashkashian, after her ECM recording of Paul Hindemith’s viola sonatas. It has long been one of my favorites of hers, as its emotional and tonal complexities are high points of the New Series catalog. The program here is modest—consisting of only three pieces—but heavy. The opening strains of Hindemith’s Trauermusik paint a grave and darkening picture. Composed in a six-hour stretch of creative fervor in the afternoon following the death of King George V in 1936, the piece mourns the fall of the monarchical figurehead by describing a musical effigy in his place. Hindemith gave the premier performance that very evening in a special BBC live broadcast. And indeed, the music has that very quality: a lost message somehow regained and spread across the airwaves in a time of great sorrow.

The album’s title work comes from Benjamin Britten and is performed here in its glorious 1975 orchestrated version (for the earlier viola/piano version, check out Kashkashian’s Elegies, also on ECM). Britten has subtitled the work “Reflections on a Song of John Dowland,” thereby lending it a rather bold intertextual potency. And while it goes without saying that Kashkashian’s soloing is first rate here, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra casts an even more enchanting spell as it binds each motivic cell with fluid grace.

Which brings us to Krzysztof Penderecki’s Konzert für Viola und Kammerorchester. The result of a 1983 commission from the Venezuelan government in honor of freedom fighter Simón Bolívar, the concerto marks a distinct shift in the composer’s aesthetic of virtuosity. Much in contrast to the density of his earlier concertos, here Penderecki cultivates a more intimate sound palette. Yet none of the color his work is known for is lost. We still get a meticulously constructed object adorned with all manner of timbres and percussive details.

In my opinion, Lachrymae showcases some of the most powerful music written for the viola. And who better than Kashkashian to wring out every last tear from this trio of captivating scores? This music is wrought in sadness and refined through a nurturing touch from its composers and musicians alike. It is not the spirit made manifest, but the manifest made spirit.

Giya Kancheli/Alfred Schnittke: Works for Viola and Orchestra (ECM New Series 1471)

Kancheli/Schnittke
Works for viola and orchestra

Kim Kashkashian viola
Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn
Rundfunk Sinfonie-Orchester Saarbrücken
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded November 1991, Beethovenhalle, Bonn (Kancheli)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recorded May 1986, Saarländischer Rundfunk, Saarbrücken (Schnittke)
Engineer: Helmut David
Remixed by Peter Laenger and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This powerful record brings together two of the most seminal works for viola and orchestra of the twentieth century. Although these pieces are as different as they are similar, together they form a distinct balance of sentiment and execution.

Giya Kancheli: Vom Winde beweint (Mourned by the Wind)
Kancheli’s self-styled “liturgy” is an exercise in patience and surrender. Its opening slam of piano chords is a big bang in and of itself, and sets the stage for the soloist’s epic journey. Wilfred Mellers, in his liner notes, posits the viola’s emergence from such chaos as the “birth of consciousness.” And indeed, one can extrapolate from its startling abruptness the inklings of a life yet lived, fresh and devoid of self-awareness in the greater void of silence. The orchestra skirts the periphery, gradually uniting with the soloist. This contrast mimics the arbitrary stability of human values—at once sacred and mutable—so that moments of resolution always tread a downward slope. Luminous winds, a cosmic harpsichord, and trails of harmonics characterize the first movement. Brief horn blasts introduce the second, throughout which the viola wanders without fortitude into a minefield of piano and timpani, singing without carrying a tune. The harpsichord again works its galactic magic, feeding stardust into the viola’s arterial core. A passage of intense and sustained volume leads into an epic swan song. The third movement is brought forth on the strings of the harpsichord, the viola a mere flit of wings in the surrounding air. An oboe threads the hesitation like the beginning of an incomplete statement. The fourth movement is a violent implosion and balances out the first with its selfish gaze. As with seemingly every Kancheli composition, it ends as quietly as an evening breeze. One hears the rustling of leaves in the distance, only to find that it was a trick of the ears all along. Vom Winde beweint is rich with sharp dynamic peaks that are short-lived and sporadic, the hallmarks of an ode to process over progress.

Alfred Schnittke: Konzert für Viola und Orchester
For this monumental work, Schnittke has chosen to invert the standard concerto form, sandwiching an Allegro Molto between two Largos. The piece opens with a viola solo held aloft by shimmering orchestral waves. Every melodic line is like the root of an ever-growing tree of voices. In the second movement, the viola skips across a landscape of consonances and dissonances at the behest of a passively insistent harpsichord. Schnittke maintains the fascinating sense of rhythm and energy that distinguishes his faster turns, scratching at the surface of a larger unfathomable world. Harpsichord, flute, and viola congregate in a Mozartean danse macabre at the movement’s center. The strangely wooden pizzicato toward the end haunts as the piano jumps impatiently on its lower notes. The last movement gives the viola a demanding solo, which is eventually overtaken by horns and winds. A deep pause marks a change in intent. The harpsichord once again comes to the fore, the final cameo of a strong orchestral cast, before bowing to a beautifully dissonant double stop from the viola.

Schnittke would suffer a stroke just ten days after completing the score for his concerto.* Said the composer: “Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement).” Such narrative approaches to one’s own work speak of a pragmatic mind that seeks order in the flow of a creative life. Yet rather than a premonition, I experience the concerto as an affirmation of what one already knows. If Kancheli’s is an unanswered question, Schnittke’s is an unquestioned answer.

This is a profoundly emotional album, by turns confrontational and mournfully resplendent. Kashkashian brings her usual heartrending strength to even the subtlest gestures and is never afraid to betray the fragility of her pitch. The orchestras, under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies, are forces to be reckoned with that scintillate in a slightly distanced mix. A benchmark recording in all respects.

*My thanks to Christopher Culver for the correction.

Kim Kashkashian/Robert Levin: Asturiana (ECM New Series 1975)

 

Asturiana: Songs from Spain and Argentina

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robert Levin piano
Recorded August 2006, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As it opened, the rose embraced the willow.
The tree loved the rose so passionately!
But a coquettish youth has stolen the rose.
And the disconsolate willow weeps for it. Ah!

What can we know of a text when its words are taken away from us? Is it forever lost, or does its ghost still linger? Do we simply replace it with another, or do we revive it in another form? In an expansive and carefully thought out program of Spanish and Argentinean folk songs adapted by a handful of famous and not-so-famous composers and arranged here for viola and piano, the subject of this review provides a simple answer to these questions: all of the above and more. The songs on Asturiana may be without words, but they want for nothing in communicative power. The booklet contains English translations of every song being rendered, if not sung, through Kim Kashkashian’s flawless touch and Robert Levin’s colorful accompaniment, thereby allowing us direct access to each melody’s interior life.

The title of Asturiana comes from its opening song, set by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) as part of his Siete canciones populares españolas, and is probably the most well-known melody among the album’s twenty-three. This is also the first of three songs that appear twice, each time in a differently nuanced performance—the others being the whimsical “La rosa y el sauce” by Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000) epigraphed above, and heartbreaking “Triste” by Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) from the fellow Argentinean composer’s Cinco canciones populares argentinas. The latter tells of a shunted lover who has only the shaded pool where he once gave his heart, and which now only reflects the face of a dejected man. Four songs by Enrique Granados (1867-1916) dramatize the loves of majos and majas, denizens of Spain’s lower class. From Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) we get four of the Cinco canciones negras, which look beyond the composer’s Catalonian roots to the West Indies for their inspiration. Avid Mompou listeners will find much to admire in Montsalvatge’s melodic density and personal flair. Then comes the full cycle of de Falla’s Siete canciones, where the title track makes its cameo. Of these, “Jota” is the most exuberant and brims with the blissful naivety of young love, while Kashkashian’s rendition of “Nana” touches the heart as tenderly as any singer ever could (having sung some of these pieces in concert with classical guitarist Joseph Ricker, I can personally attest to this statement). After de Falla’s masterful arrangements, Ginastera’s “Triste” is reprised, followed by a selection of songs by Guastavino. These are the most poetic of the verses represented here, carried along by an almost mystical interest in naturalism and magic. The two final songs by Carlos López Buchardo (1981-1948) speak of deep communication and love’s self-destruction in the same breath.

These timeless, and timely, melodies come to life in Kashkashian’s utterly capable hands. As such, they become more than adaptations, but journeys into the heart of song. Kashkashian’s viola resonates like a deeply exhaling lung, and leaves us just as breathless. If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, then her musicianship is the straightest line one could possibly drawn between the listener and the music contained on this superlative CD. May she never stop singing.

Kim Kashkashian: Neharót (ECM New Series 2065)

 

Neharót

Kim Kashkashian viola
Münchener Kammerorchester
Alexander Liebreich conductor
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Gil Rose conductor
Kuss Quartett
Recorded between 2006 and 2008 in the USA, Poland, and Germany
Engineers: Peter Laenger, Lech Dudzik, Gabriela Blicharz, Joel Gordon, John Newton, Blanton Alspaugh
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Neharót Neharót (2006/7) for viola solo, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles and tape by Israeli composer Betty Olivero opens a haunting album from violist Kim Kashkashian. It is a slow awakening—not into light, but into twilight—and swells with the wounds of fresh tragedy. Kashkashian arrives as if by wind and with the raw imperfection of an unpreened bird. The tone and feeling are not unlike that of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil at its tensest moments. The strings roil like turgid waters in which eddy the relics of an unseen war. Two women’s voices reach into the storm with tendrils of mimicry. This call and response blossoms into a profound moment of rupture, at which point the orchestra and percussion spill over one another. Fragments of the audible past come through as snatches of Monteverdi quoted from his Orpheus and eighth book of madrigals. These recycled motifs are like a dream that quickly consumes itself before waking again. The viola rises in their place, seeming to run around frantically in search of the voices that so enlivened it. When they are nowhere to be found, the outcast wallows in the hopes that nightfall will be her cloak. But then the voices come back: the viola prostrates itself, fearing to expend the ancestral legacy it breathes. It wants nothing more than to offer gratitude, but can only contort itself into a vowel of need.

After such a profoundly draining journey, the three Armenian selections that follow are a welcome rest, though one not without its internal travels. Tigran Mansurian gives us his Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord for viola and percussion, Three Arias (Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat) (2008), and Oror, a lullaby by Komitas (1869-1935) arranged and performed here by Mansurian at the piano. The “tagh” is an ancient Armenian song, and Mansurian’s breathes with organic vitality. Its lament echoes across cold plains, the percussion a mere accent to the viola-driven melody. The Three Arias are essentially a series of orchestral swells with viola interludes, an audio essay of the music’s own origins and possible futures. The viola acts like a lens over a film sheet, trying to find the one picture that most clearly articulates something that can only be remembered through image, but that can only be musically described. The viola struggles with an unseen force in spite of its orchestral inheritance. A dazzling ending is made all the more so for the effort required of us to get there. And this is precisely what the piece is about: seeking out those moments that, in a life remembered, also define that life most clearly. Mansurian’s interludes are like the passage between two days, a conduit between continents and cultures, a subtle diaspora of sound.

And so, by the time we return to Israel in Eitan Steinberg’s Rava Deravin (2003) for viola and string quartet (the tile means “Favor of Favors”), we feel more fully prepared for any and all emotional obstacles. The piece was originally scored for voice and a mixed chamber ensemble, but was transcribed as the current version at Kashkashian’s behest; hence the accordion-like opening harmonics that speak of bellowed breath. Yet even before the music begins, the instrumentation tells us so much about what we are about to hear. We know the viola soloist has a second self, a ghost presence amid its accompanying quartet, and yet here it is at once extracted and embedded in its periphery, singing with its own voice even while knowing it has been long aligned with the larger organism behind it. When the quartet takes a more syncopated stance, we never lose sight of the abstract milieu in which it is situated. The viola must resign itself to self-division, and toward the end it squeals and scatters snake-like through tall grasses of harmonics. The music dies not by lowering itself in volume, but by pushing us away so gradually that by the time we notice the music has gone, we are already too far away to catch up with it.

Were the orchestra to be analogized as body, the viola would most certainly be the throat, for the vibrations of song rattle its chambers more than those of any other. In this respect, Kashkashian has given more lucid breath to this recording than to any other she has made. She only seems to get better with every draw of her bow, and her dedication once again remains paramount. This is a cohesive program of some of the most original music to come out of ECM in a long time. Not to be missed.

Hindemith: Viola Sonatas – Kashkashian/Levin (ECM New Series 1330-32)

Paul Hindemith
Sonatas for Viola/Piano and Viola Alone

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robert Levin piano
Solo sonatas recorded 1985-86, Kirche Seon, Switzerland and Karlshöhe, Ludwigsburg, Germany
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Sonatas for viola and piano recorded 1986, Feste Burg Kirche, Frankfurt, Germany
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“The viola is commonly (with rare exceptions indeed) played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a stringed instrument once upon a time.”
–Richard Wager

If ever a recording could put Wagner’s infamous statement to rest, this would be it. Simply overflowing with musical brilliance, it remains one of the finest examples of what the viola is capable of. Kim Kashkashian’s technique and passion are almost palpable and one can only marvel at the humble respect she brings to both. The viola doesn’t simply exist somewhere between violin and cello, forever doomed to be second rate to both. It is, rather, an utterly dynamic and rich musical object, and the ways in which Hindemith unravels its subtler intonations in these sonatas is nothing short of monumental. Every chapter tells us something new, until the linguistic possibilities of the music represented in this eclectic set are exhausted.

Sonate op. 31,4
The first movement is a virtuosic leap through microtonal harmonies and energetic flights of fancy. Kashkashian negotiates these with such conviction, they sound spontaneously composed. As evocative as the music is, it is difficult to picture anything while listening to it, existing as it does in a sound world fashioned from the innards of its own body. And in this fashion it proceeds, drawing from its ligaments, veins, and arteries a broader musical circulation that extends one’s sense of self beyond the instrumental and into the metaphysical. Kashkashian ends with a dramatic flourish, as if to punctuate the ineffability of belonging. The second movement is a mournful monologue. This, Kashkashian plays with heartfelt sensitivity, much in contrast to the raw strength with which she attacks the opening movement. She extracts from her instrument sounds and emotions that are deeply ingrained in the wood itself, brought forth through the strings just as breath is spun into voice through the throat. She does this not so much with the “effortlessness” often ascribed to virtuosi, but rather makes audible her long hours of dedicated practice, her struggles to wrench from this neglected instrument an entirely orchestral palette of atmospheres. The third movement opens with double stops and a linear introduction of the theme before venturing off into beautiful variations and idiosyncratic counterpoint. Again, Hindemith shows a fondness for tight harmonies, for the spatial potential between adjacent notes. The theme is a fascinating melody, devoid of context and therefore unbounded. As Kashkashian builds her energy, the music regresses into its constituent melodic parts before taking pause. The next section of the third movement is marked “Langsam,” and is an accordingly pliant interlude that hangs in the air like a piece of windblown pollen. Kashkashian plays it as if sharing a new discovery. The final passage springs from the solace of the tangential middle with almost Pan-like exuberance. We see in this music a certain quality of “understanding,” a mischievous surrender to the will of compositional potential.

Sonate op. 25,1
This second sonata erupts with a series of portati, which are dissonant enough to catch our attention with discomfort but which eventually resolve themselves in airy double stops. Here we find beauty not only in those moments that provoke consonance, but perhaps even more so in those moments swirled like knots in a tree. The second movement is another earthy meditation that allows the listener to focus on every sound contained in the lone string. We find in this movement a robust patience. There is no sadness here, only the room in which to deal with our own faults. Through these singular notes we are given a glimpse of what such a process might look like. The third movement is a violent dance that climbs the ladder of its own expression before hurtling itself into a vale of doubt. It is a short foray that dies as quickly as it is born. The final movement begins slowly and with a beauty that is only heightened in the aftermath of the previous display of suicidal vigor. Kashkashian draws out each note into a linear phrase before accentuating it with another. This kind of lilting pattern continues throughout, lending a dirge-like quality to a fitting conclusion.

Sonate 1937
This sonata is like a lesson in biology, highlighting the fluidity between skin and the musical score. The first movement is a convoluted organism indeed. It undulates with its own respiratory rhythm, shaping itself as a voice might in a debate or argument, and in doing so perfectly captures the details of its own fallibility. This is followed by another heartfelt slow movement, as nocturnal as it is bright. The mood changes quickly as the playing erupts into a more frenzied exhibition, plying the listener with forced resolution and the impatience that drives it. The ensuing calm segues into a beautiful pizzicato passage, which exploits all the resonance residing within the viola’s, and the performer’s, body. Soon the bow is returned to the strings, laying out a delicate tessellation of finality. We finish with a somber and somewhat indecisive third movement.

Sonate op. 11,5
This sonata begins with a rather terse opening statement, both in length and in mood. It is as if we have been given a contentious opinion that we can’t quite figure out, but which we know is fraught with danger. The movement has a touch-and-go quality that comes to a head with an obligatory and theatrical exit. The second movement climbs even as it descends, a Jacob’s Ladder toy in sound. As gripping as Hindemith’s faster movements are, it is in these downtempo moments that he displays his greatest deftness, so engaging are they in their fortitude, in their ability to imply the inexpressible, in their wantonness for melody and articulation, and in their remarkable ability to highlight the joys of self-discovery. The Scherzo is a stone changing directions in mid air as it skips across water. It is playful; not in the sense that a child might play, but in the sly intelligence of social agency that is part and parcel of adulthood. A masterful miniature, to be sure. The 11-minute epic that is the last movement also moves very organically. It dances and glides—opening its melodic gills to whatever might pass through them before erupting into gorgeous runs across the fingerboard that simply revel in the melodic possibility they so artfully carry—and moves like a folksong.

After such an exposition of prowess on the viola alone, the gentle introduction of a piano changes things considerably. While a certain level of restraint is to be expected from the accompanist, Robert Levin draws his playing through the viola’s almost vocal cartography, astutely aware of the dialogic nature of their music-making. The recording from hereon out is strikingly different. The viola remains quite present while the piano seems far away, as if playing on the other side of the room, thereby opening the spatial possibilities of the music and further contrasting the intimate pointillism of the solo sonatas with the broader strokes of the accompanied. At times the piano and viola would seem to be talking to themselves, as if after a long argument between a couple that has been together for so long that, no matter what they say, their voices blend with an exacting harmony.

Sonate op. 11,4
The opening Phantasie is stunningly beautiful, lapsing into moments of passive romanticism even as it unravels more overblown threads. The second movement is comprised by a jaunty theme with variations and fleshes out the sonata form in uniquely ecstatic ways. The finale with variations brings itself even closer to the inherency of the first two movements, only to lower into mysterious asides that seem to hover around the edges of its introduction.

Sonate op. 25,4
This sonata brims with a Bartókian jouissance, at once sylvan and nomadic. The viola enters, a dancer waiting for just the right moment to let loose her footwork. The piano responds with a playful challenge, which the viola answers wholeheartedly and with due respect. This rhythmically dynamic and challenging movement ends with a light touch of pizzicato. The second is full of tragedy, proceeding at a crawl through an indefinable wreckage that, while familiar to us, is also something we can never experience because it is not our own. The finale is filled with drama and screeching tremolos, and sings with the conviction of a mountaineer. The third movement is a boisterous exposition that ends with a few lines in unison and a soaring high note to finish.

Sonate 1939
This last sonata begins as if in mid-phrase, jumping right into its melodies with careful abandon. The piano and viola play off each other rather explicitly, holding fast to connection and release. Whereas this movement is filled with playful moments, plucked diversions, and pianistic revelry, the second plants its feet firmly on the path and rushes toward its finale. The third movement, another Phantasie, ruptures the music’s icy surface like the sticks on the album’s cover. As we come to a close, the sound cracks like an egg.

Of the many solo sonatas for various instruments composed since the time of Bach, it is Hindemith’s that most concretely capture a likeminded spirit. While Paganini’s caprices, for example, model Bach on the surface, they are essentially showstoppers meant to test the technical limits of whoever dares perform them. The solo violin works of Ysaÿe are also closely allied with Bach. Ysaÿe draws more specifically and overtly, and in doing so pushes away from Bach in the process. By contrast, Hindemith chose colors from his own palette. In the same way that Bach revitalized the violin and the cello, Hindemith forged a space for the viola. I hear no evidence in these sonatas to suggest that Hindemith was in any way attempting an imitation. He was, rather, exploring his own territory with unbridled honesty. Thankfully, Kashkashian has given us this landmark performance to enjoy to our hearts’ content. Her playing is by turns robust and delicate, her tone impeccable, her technique assured and minimally adorned.

It has been said that, as a performer, one develops a certain appreciation for a given piece of music that the listener can never access, for the performer learns a piece from the inside out. What separates Kashkashian from the rest is her willingness to let the listener in on the performer’s appreciation, and on the different levels of which such an engagement is comprised. We feel every detail as we would feel our own.

Kim Kashkashian/Robert Levin: Elegies (ECM New Series 1316)

 

Elegies

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robert Levin piano
Recorded 1984 in New York
Engineers: Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Kim Kashkashian is easily one of the finest violists to ever place her bow on the instrument. She shines just as effervescently in the company of an orchestra as she does solo or here alongside Robert Levin, a trusty accompanist with whom she shares a palpable musical bond, and puts the range of her talents on full display in this fine chamber program of mostly rarities.

Benjamin Britten: Lachrymae: reflections on a song of Dowland (1950)
As the title suggests, Lachrymae is built around the merest skeleton of quotations. One doesn’t go into this piece expecting a recognizable motif. Rather, one wanders a dense exegesis of thematic material that splits the narrative into unspoken “reflections.” The only way in which these voices are renderable is through a music born in obscurity, like a film transitioning from blur to discernible image. This emergence from a darker history does little to foreshadow the drama that follows. An early pizzicato passage glitters with poignant resonance and the occasional touch of vibrato. At moments, Kashkashian and Levin fall into unison, only to scamper off again into the shadows. Kashkashian draws out a mosaic of double stops as Levin sprinkles her playing with suitable adornments. This leads to an eruption of emotion that seeks resolution through the sharpening of its own agitation. In its quieter passages, the music evokes a mouse running skittishly through hollow walls. At 14 minutes, Lachrymae is much to absorb in a single movement. Still, the fervor of the performance of this finely nuanced masterpiece is a revelation. In the hands of these competent musicians it is given its fullest possible breadth, so that the end leaves us wanting more.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Romance
A rarely heard work that blossoms in a gorgeous, almost cathartic outpouring of emotion, Romance is neo-romanticism at its finest. One thinks perhaps of summer, of those youthful infatuations that seemed so utterly consuming, only to be replaced by those even stronger and unimaginably overpowering. Whereas Vaughan Williams’s orchestral arrangements often evoke the pastoral landscape in all its vastness, Romance skirts the edges like a wayfarer who, during an unseasonable cold snap, stumbles upon a half-buried skull: remnants of a forgotten hunt. As the sun rises, the animal’s spirit animates the dawn with promise and leaves us feeling light as air.

Carter: Elegy (1943)
If the Vaughan Williams is inhalation, then Carter’s attractive miniature is exhalation, a windy sigh across nostalgic waters. Each note lilts with careful equality. Even as the energy increases, the music remains constant in its message. This is a solitary world where only composers can open their eyes, and only listeners can close them.

Glazunov: Elegie (1892)
This is perhaps the most evenly structured statement on the program, a crystalline rivulet that knows exactly where it is headed. Kashkashian’s vibrato is particularly resplendent here and one can almost imagine the comportment of her playing, the arches of fingers and tilts of body that produce such sounds from this neglected instrument. Her tone is rich and inviting, if a touch regretful. Elegie is melodically succinct, rhythmically consistent, and symmetrical in approach, closing with a lovely phrase amid an ivory cluster.

Liszt: Romance Oubliée (1881)
Liszt’s dedication on the original manuscript reads: “To Herr Professor Herman Ritter, the inventor of the viola alta.” Ritter (1849-1926) was responsible for designing the instrument in question, a 5-string affair with a larger body for a higher range combined with deeper tone. And certainly, one can hear the expansive reach Liszt has wrought into this piece, weaving as it does like a needle and thread. Our musicians here work in studied synergy, building to a carillon-like crescendo. Listening to this piece is like body surfing: you just have to let its undulations take you where they will. The viola goes down to its lowest note, never venturing much higher as it washes ashore in a mournful end.

Kodály: Adagio (1905)
Composed just before Kodály would launch his monumental gathering of Hungarian folksongs, this quaint Adagio shines with a Brahmsian lacquer. The music is plaintive, even timid. It gives the piano a few asides in which to speak with minimal interjection. These segue into a gorgeous series of fast arpeggios over which the viola glides with an ice skater’s ease. This breaks down into a dirge that turns slowly toward a more uplifting song. The viola seems almost to weep; whether with joy or sadness is never clear.

Vieuxtemps: Elegie (1854)
This closing piece feels choral and almost militaristic, as if it were an anthem or war song meant to inspire troops down on hard times. The nostalgia with which it is painted attests to its arousing qualities as it marches through silent trenches in a flurry of confusion. This dark mood leaves the listener with much to ponder after the CD ends.

On the whole, this album is very warmly recorded. Levin pulls from the piano an almost gamelan-like quality, while Kashkashian luxuriates in the plurivocity afforded to her. She interacts with her instrument as would fingers upon a spine and her tonal depth often breaches cello territory. For anyone who is curious to discover what her playing is all about but who is wary of her penchant for the contemporary, this is an ideal place to start.