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
Arcanum

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.

Kurtág/Ligeti: Music for Viola (ECM New Series 2240)

Kashkashian KL

Kurtág/Ligeti
Music for Viola

Kim Kashkashian viola
Recorded May 2011 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Two Györgys, Kurtág and Ligeti, are subjects of violist Kim Kashkashian’s adventurous solo program—“adventurous” because the music steps bravely out into the open, absorbing the elements as they come: wind, water, earth, fire, and air, but also mineral, animal, and vegetable. The end result begins an experience which, if handled with time and care, is sure to grow with the listener in ways only the most intimate albums can.

Kashkashian

Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages is an ongoing project begun in 1989. Instigated by the composer’s usual insistence on note integrity, these pieces divide like cells in a colony toward a body that will likely never walk upright. It is, rather, content to slither and percolate into mental corners both dark and delightful. Though characterized as a master miniaturist, Kurtág is more the scientist whose microscopy reveals terrains not audible to the naked ear without intervention of ink and staves. Bound to an honest, exploratory spirit, Kurtág charms in the purest sense of the word, combining thought and action through a system of articulation that is only magnified by Kashkashian’s dynamic readings thereof.

An introductory “In Nomine” widens the scope of possibilities from the earliest stirrings. It slides and swivels like a Rubik’s cube without a solution but which finds language hidden in every manipulation. The pieces that follow don’t so much have beginnings and endings as they do openings and closings. This gives them a three-dimensionality, forged at the intersection of an inner space the musician might enter, an outer space from which she might shut herself away, and a sense of time that meshes the two. Details emerge in literary fashion—which is to say, by the scrawl of a writer’s instrument. The most frenetic passages swirl behind closed eyes, manifesting in their destined form before emerging on the open page. The notion of the solo performer as one who interacts as much with herself as with the music finds itself multiply confirmed by a tactility that only Kashkashian can bring to her instrument. Even at points of least resistance, she remains aware of the skin at hand, scars and all.

That Kurtág and Ligeti were lifelong friends may not be so obvious based on their compositional output alone, but through this recording one may locate an affinity that goes beyond the mere juxtaposition of their works. For while Ligeti’s masterful Sonata for viola solo (1991-1994) would seem a more constructed organism, its veins guide a likeminded bloodstream between inhale and exhale. The opening “Hora lungă,” modeled after a traditional lament, is played exclusively on the viola’s C string. Kashkashian deftly handles the timbral subtleties required to bring it to life. She bends notes at the cusp of their chromatic defaults, warping them like the convex surface tension of a fully filled glass. After the candle’s flicker that is “Loop,” the ashen “Facsar” revisits the psychological vessel in which the sonata began, only now with the addition of double stop harmonies and thus a feeling of ceremonial craftsmanship. The fourth movement, marked “Prestissimo con sordino,” is an energetic afterimage, but also preludes the fifth movement, a “Lamento” that works muscles of mystery in the finish before the final “Chaconne chromatique” parts the darkness to reveal a lantern’s glow. Though tense and sinuous, it feeds its own melancholy by taking a step forward to contain the shadows.

This album’s earning of a Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo is proof enough of the wonders of its performance, program, and production. But neither award nor accolade can express Kashkashian’s embodied art better than the recording itself. It’s a truth that comes out only in the listening, so that even these words, as I write them, turn to smoke in the firelight of experiencing it for yourself.

(To hear samples of Music for Viola, click here.)