"One of my oldest and richest visceral memories is of my father's singing voice. He sang with abandon, enthusiasm and an unashamed all-embracing love directed toward his listener, be it his children, a stone in the garden, or his students. I am sure that my first attempts at the age of nine to make my violin sound, and all further attempts up to the present, to make a sound, followed a compelling urge to join him....
So began my constant fascination with song -and the accompanying challenge of bringing a string instrument to express even a small fraction of the melodic and emotional information that a voice imbues.
Song, with or without words, is the most potent of cures. Song allows the spirit to fly in lonely exploration yet it provides the most diverse of spirits the vehicle of union.
If we are all groping in the dark towards a faintly sensed light, then anything that brings us closer to that light is a boon. When I look back on my work, and when I imagine future forms for that work, the one certainty is song."
(Kim Kashkashian, liner notes)
The viola is a lovely instrument, much neglected in classical music prior to the twentieth century. Until recent times it was primarily used to provide harmony to its lighter, higher pitched, more agile cousin, the violin. Beethoven, Mozart and Bach all preferred playing the viola when they played in ensembles and other composers, from Haydn to Benjamin Britten have played viola in ensembles. In the twentieth century, things changed for the viola, though not a lot. A small number of virtuosos --William Primrose foremost among them--and composers -Hindemith, Elliott Carter, Britten--championed the instrument, leading to a very small resurrection of this much undervalued string instrument. (In pop music, John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground played electric viola and lues player Clarence `Gatemouth' Brown also played the viola.)
Until now, my classical music collection sported just one viola album -Hindemith sonatas played by Misha Amory, with Thomas Sauer on piano. I thought I should do something about that so I ordered three albums by Kim Kashkashian, Brahms's sonatas for violin and piano, played by Roberto Diaz and an album of viola transcriptions (Borodin, Schubeert, Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikmovsky, etc.) by Primrose.
Kim Kashkashian (b. 1952) is an Armenian-American violist who has been featured on more than thirty albums playing music of composers as diverse as Bach, Mozart and Brahms (revoiced for viola), Bartok, Berio, Britten and Carter, Kodaly, Kancheli, Penderecki, Shostakovich, Vaughn Williams and Liszt. The first album to arrive was her rendition of orchestral pieces by Bartok, Peter Eotvos and Gyorgy Kurtag. I'm still digesting the Eotvos and Kurtag pieces but Kashkashian is wonderful on the Bartok concerto. The first classical recording I ever bought, when I was twenty-two and had decided that I really needed to start listening to this classical stuff, was Bartok's Concerto for Violin, Isaac Stern on violin. This piece, for viola, has the same qualities as the violin concerto -the thrumming rhythm, changing orchestral timbres and mercurial shifts in mood that I associate with Bartok's orchestral music.
Asturiana arrived together with Elegies -same musicians -Kashkashian and Harvard's Robert Levin on piano--transcriptions of vocal songs by contemporary Spanish and Argentinian composers, adapted to fit a middle-ranged string instrument, on the one, and a series of elegies by largely modern composers -Britten, Vaughn Williams, Elliott Carter, Glazunov, Liszt, Kodaly and Vieuxtemps on the other. I've only had time to listen to Asturiana.
My advice? If you don't own it yet, buy it. It's not an album where I can tell you which songs are best because they're all good. Besides, part of the beauty of his album is that it exceeds so well as a totality. The individual songs are short -1:13 minutes to 4:23 minutes- and they vary greatly in melodic line, tempo, and mood, but they hang together to create something longer lasting and indelible. The bringing together of a collection of songs as lovely as these with artists as good as Kashkashian and Levin is rare, and deserves to be heard. Does this CD remind me of other Cds? Two -ECM's birthday gift to Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, entitled Songs from the Notebook, and the best of Astor Piazzolla's tango recordings.