22 September 2009

Kim Kashkashian

Kim Kashkashian - Neharót
ECM New Series, 2009

Violist Kim Kashkashian has shown, over the course of her recording career at ECM, that she seemingly has a magic touch when it comes to programming her albums. Her choices come from the ‘expected’ realms of classical music (her recording of Brahms’ sonatas for viola and piano, with Robert Levin) to composers whose work, while exceptionally thoughtful and beautiful, has not enjoyed the exposure of more ‘known’ composers, most likely due to its challenging nature and more obscure inspirational sources (her previous recordings of the work of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, as well as this current release, falling into this category). It’s a shame – I know her work is highly regarded and much appreciated by both critics and listeners, but the wider listening audience is missing out on something very special indeed if they pass on her work simply because they don’t recognize names.

For Neharót, she draws from the oeuvre of four composers – Betty Olivero (Israel), Tigran Mansurian (Armenia), Komitas (Armenia) and Eitan Steinberg (Israel). The works offered here draw from the classical tradition, but also from other, age-old sources such as Armenian chant, laments and Hasidic melodies. She takes these melodies to the deepest chambers of her heart and transforms them, using her instrument as few musicians can, giving voice to their soul – and when I use the word ‘voice’, I do so very consciously, for there is a voice-like quality to her playing that brings depth of emotion and a living warmth to her music. Her tone, in her capable hands, can be pristinely intellectual or (as described by Paul Griffiths in his well-written notes to the disc) ‘earthy’ as needs dictate. She truly sings these pieces through her viola – it’s a marvel to experience.

Griffiths speaks of ‘memories we did not know’, referring to the chords struck within the listener on hearing this music – and his description is a perfect one. One can debate the validity of so-called generational or inherited memories – but few people are without the experience of feeling a sense of familiarity with something they’ve never before heard, as if the remembrances are carried in the blood, or DNA. Cultural tendencies and customs are taught, but think about that feeling of an emotion or action simply being ‘right’ touches our thoughts on a subconscious level, many times without being aware of it. These pieces – thanks to the skill of the composers and that of the performer – ring that memory-bell with a delicacy that belies the strength of deeply hidden layers of past experience.

Betty Olivero’s ‘Neharót, neharót’ opens the album – Kim’s viola leads a small ensemble (accordion, percussion and taped voices) and is accompanied by the Münchener Kammerorchester. Accordion, strings and delicate percussion lay down a dirge-like drone, with the viola serving up a melody that is a prime example of the ‘vocal’ qualities I mentioned. Just as with our internal memories, it’s easy to get lost in this piece. The title means ‘Rivers, rivers’, and is a reference to the flood of tears evoked by the seemingly continuous suffering under the yoke of wars in the Middle East. Along with the qualities of a lament, or mourning, however, are undeniable and unquenchable strains of the hope that allows people to survive as human beings in such a time and place. Olivero draws on traditional melodies from Kurdish and North African sources – taped voices of two professional singers, Lea Avraham and Ilana Elia, are used to great effect, enhancing and enriching the voice-like qualities of the viola.

Next up is Tigran Mansurian’s ‘Tagh for the funeral of the Lord’ – the sense of lament continues in this beautiful piece, with Kashkashian being accompanied by some amazingly sensitive percussion work (vibraphone, Thai gongs) by Robyn Schulkowsky, who was worked very effectively with Kim on previous recordings. This is a piece I can easily imagine hearing under darkened skies, perhaps even total night – the sounds have a gentle but firm penetrating quality, again with the quiet insistence of a voice that will not be denied expression. A piece by Komitas (1869-1935), which also appeared on Kim’s Hayren recording, is adapted by Mansurian, who performs it here, solo on piano. It’s a heart-rending, achingly lovely melody – Griffiths notes that it ‘reminds us how close are the genres of lullaby and lament’, and once again he has described the work perfectly. There is a palpable feeling of quietude, especially in the ending of the piece.

A trio of Mansurian works follows, ‘Three arias (sung out the window facing Mount Ararat)’, dedicated by the composer to Kim Kashkashian, who is accompanied here by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Gently swelling strings usher in the viola, which takes the melody firmly but delicately, almost physically handing it to the listener. Turning again to the notes, Griffiths writes, ‘The emotion…is one of longing, a feeling not so far from lament – of longing, in particular, for ancient Armenian sites that are now over the border in Turkish territory. Mansurian imagines these arias as sung out through windows looking towards the holy Mount Ararat, the mountains of Sasun and the ruins of Ani, where thousand-year-old churches testify to the splendour of a city, once one of the world’s greatest, that has been abandoned for centuries.’

Completing the bookending of the shorter pieces (along with the opening work by Olivero) and ending the recording is a longer composition by Eitan Steinberg, originally composed as a vocal work based on a traditional Hasidic ceremony, re-configured here (at Kashkashian’s suggestion) by Steinberg as an instrumental piece. Conveying the emotional impact of the now-missing words to the listener was a challenge for both the composer and the performer – Steinberg notes that Kashkashian ‘managed to cry the prayer from within the strings, to murmur the sacred text with no words’. It’s a stunning accomplishment on both their parts, and one whose result will move the listener deeply, whatever their spiritual orientation might be – emotions and feelings cross all such artificial barriers with great ease.
I’ve enjoyed Kim Kashkashian’s work for years – with each new release, I look forward to hearing composers I’ve never heard before, music performed with warmth and sensitivity, delicacy and strength, always left with the feeling that her viola is ‘speaking’ directly to me. This could well be my favorite recording of hers – but it’s hard to say, with so many of them ranking so high in my esteem, and so dear to my musical heart and soul.