Henri Dutilleux: D’ombre et de silence (ECM New Series 2105)


Henri Dutilleux
D’ombre et de silence

Robert Levin piano
Ya-Fei Chuang piano
Recorded December 2008, Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of Henri Dutilleux, now approaching his 95th year, has been sadly dwarfed by that of Ravel and Debussy, among whom he is often the third wheel in categorical groupings of modern French music. Represented only cursorily on ECM thus far (12 Hommages A Paul Sacher), he at last receives a treatment that is as meticulous as he is. Pianist Robert Levin first met Dutilleux during a 1979 residency at Nadia Boulanger’s Conservatoire Américain at Fontainebleau, since which time the two have maintained close friendship. When producer Manfred Eicher bid Levin (familiar to label listeners as violist Kim Kashkashian’s go-to accompanist) to record a solo recital, Dutilleux’s name emerged early in discussions, though the material needed to be concert tested and approved before the studio would be graced with its bracing refractions.

The Petit air à dormir debout (1981), which begins the disc, is the first of a handful of pieces written for children. Others include 1950’s charming Blackbird and the pensive Tous les chemins… mènent à Rome of 1961, each a pocket of halting lyricism from which both composer and performer lift handfuls of stardust before committing fingers to keys. We see that every note has its place as the galaxy of the programming begins to take shape. The Sonata (1946-48) that anchor’s the disc’s first half is the composer’s Opus 1. It is also a masterstroke of compositional acuity. Every nuance leaps off the page, not least because of Levin’s supremely fluid gestures, as if self-aware. Though one of the composer’s most widely known works, it bristles with fleeting handles of articulation, none of which ever quite holds its shape long enough to be grasped. Dutilleux adds sharp edges to these potentially impressionistic reveries, making them all the more delicate to handle.

Intended as interludes for radio broadcasts, the “Prélude en berceuse” and “Improvisation” from Au gré des ondes (1946), reprised at the album’s conclusion in their completed context, sound like bagatelles from the afterlife. One can almost hear the static that might have surrounded their original appearance. Like Blackbird, Résonances (1965) quickly skitters through Messiaen’s shadow before stumbling over its own light. This is followed by a counterpart of sorts in the form of Figures de résonances (1970/76), for which Levin is joined by wife Ya-Fei Chuang. The two play as one, passionate allies of the melodic thread that binds them. The final section feels like an echo in the ribcage, its strength waning with every heaving breath. Two more fleeting statements, Mini-prélude en éventail (1987) and Bergerie (1946) embrace a triptych of preludes. More like an overcooked pastry than a sandwich, its outer layers flake off at the slightest touch while the center awaits its first tongue to burn. Levin saves the best for last, laying the nostalgia on thick with an homage to Bach and the enthralling Etude that is its partner.

These works are, as Levin stresses in his more than insightful notes, conceived and written “molecule by molecule.” Not only is this music that follows no footsteps, but music that would rather not leave any at all. Levin touchingly dedicates this recording to the memory of Dutilleux’s wife, Geneviève Joy, who passed on just before its final production. An accomplished performer, Geneviève’s own interpretations of her husband’s music, in Levin’s estimation, “provide the lodestar to all of us who seek to follow in her footsteps.” If these performances are any indication, hers must have been downright otherworldly.

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.

<< Wadada Leo Smith: Kulture Jazz (ECM 1507)
>> Egberto Gismonti Group: Música de Sobrevivência (ECM 1509)

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/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.

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.

<< Gary Burton Quintet: Whiz Kids (ECM 1329)
>> Keith Jarrett: Spirits (ECM 1333/34)

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


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.

<< Werner Pirchner: EU (ECM 1314/15 NS)
>> Keith Jarrett Trio: Standards Live (ECM 1317)

Shostakovich/Chihara/Bouchard (ECM New Series 1425)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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