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.

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Shostakovich/Chihara/Bouchard (ECM New Series 1425)

 

Shostakovich/Chihara/Bouchard

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.

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