Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 21 June 2010

Neharót: Olivero, Mansurian, Komitas, Steinberg. Kim Kashkashian - viola

Betty Olivero (b. 1954)
Neharót Neharót (for viola, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles and tape) [16:20]
Tigran Mansurian (b. 1939)
Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord (for viola and percussion) [5:31]
Three Arias (Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat) [19:11]
Komitas (1869-1935)
Oror (for piano) [2:57]
Eitan Steinberg (b. 1955)
Rava Deravin (for viola and string quartet) [15:59]
Kim Kashkashian viola
Münchener Kammerorchester
Alexander Liebreich conductor
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Gil Rose conductor
Kuss Quartett
Rec. March 2008, Himmelfahrtskirche, Munich (Neharót Neharót), October 2007, Aula Nova, Academy of Music, Poznań (Tagh and Oror), January 2006, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston (Rava Deravin) STEREO DDD
ECM New Series 2065 476 3281 [60:13]

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Violist Kim Kashkashian is a big name on the ECM roster, and it is easy to hear why from this disc of her recent pet projects. All of the works have vocal origins, for which her distinctive lyrical tone is ideal. But beyond this, the whole ethos of the recording is pure ECM. Each work makes some reference to cultural contacts and conflicts in the Middle East, but none is overtly political. Instead, a relaxed tone, bordering on the ambient, is adopted throughout, and the various songs and styles are allowed the space to tell their own stories. The result carries a powerful message about the compatibility of neighbouring cultures, a message given all the more power through the subtly of its communication.

The title track Neharót Neharót is by the Israeli composer Betty Olivero. The title means ‘Rivers Rivers’ in Hebrew, but its musical references stretch far beyond Israeli Jewish culture, encompassing Kurdish and north African songs as well as quotations from Monteverdi. As with most of the music on this disc, the solo viola plays a lyrical singing line over the top of ensemble accompaniments, with the ensemble making the specific cultural references while the soloist spins out a more directly emotional melodic line. An accordion is used in the ensemble to remarkably subtle effect. Less subtle is ‘atmospheric’ percussion, including an occasionally irritating bell tree. Recordings of women’s singing voices (the singers Lea Avraham and Ilana Elia) are added into the texture in places and fit remarkably well. Olivero has skilfully anticipated any possible jarring that their introduction could cause and both prepares and supports the voices with rich string textures. For all these effects though, the most satisfying and interesting music in the work is to be found in the passages where the viola plays alone, or against static drone accompaniments, the stylistic and timbral complexity of Kashkashian’s playing more than a match for any of the accompanying effects.

Like Kim Kashkashian, the composer Tigran Mansurian is of Armenian descent, although neither was born in the country. His three works on this disc (really two works and an arrangement) address various issues of diaspora Armenian identity. Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord has as its generic basis an ancient Armenian song form (the ‘tagh’). The work is for viola and percussion, principally isolated vibraphone notes and deep, quietly struck Thai gongs. As with all the works on the disc, the success of the piece rests on the composer’s ability to introduce exotic elements in casual yet assured contexts, thereby avoiding confrontation, musical, cultural or otherwise. The viola plays in the d-phrygian mode with a quarter-tone sharpened seventh, a temperament that sits on the borderline of familiarity, continually suggesting exotic origins without ever insisting on a unique identity.

Oror is little more than an interlude. It is a piano arrangement made and played by Mansurian of a lullaby by the Armenian composer Komitas. Three Arias, however, is a much more interesting work. Issues of cultural alienation are apparent from the subtitle ‘(Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat)’ and the composer’s statement that the work is a testament to the memory of ancient Armenian sites that are now within the borders of Turkey. But this too is a work that presents its constituent plurality as cultural interaction rather than political specificity. It is a work for solo viola and chamber orchestra (the Boston Modern Orchestra Project), and its most persistent internal tension is its oblique relationship with the genre of the concerto, continuously skirting its conventions, but also relying on the certainties of its expectations. The work opens as klangfarbenmelodie with a single note passed around the ensemble. The accompaniments get louder, but rarely more complex than this. The long viola solo towards the end of the first movement would be a cadenza in any other context, but it so restrained, lacking in bravado and seamlessly linked to the earlier music that the name seems curiously inappropriate. The second and third movements (Arias?) take on an unashamedly tonal euphony, the second slightly more upbeat, the third more lamenting. Vibraphone and celesta are introduced in this last movement to subtle but imaginative effect. But again, the most interesting aspect of this work, and of its performance, is the solo line, the lower strings of the viola giving a satisfying richness and effective vocal analogy.

Rava Deravin is an arrangement for viola and string quartet by the composer Eitan Steinberg of his own work of the same name for voice and ensemble. The arrangement was made at the suggestion of Kashkashian, apparently confident of her own ability (amply demonstrated by the other works presented here) to imitate vocal performance on the viola. The work fits well into the ethos of the programme, setting as it does a Hasidic melody for the very masculine-voiced viola over an accompaniment usually of almost static drones. The accompaniment at the start calls to mind Olivero’s accordion, but it is an effect produced solely by strings. The form is sectional, almost strophic, with the individual lines of the chant each supported by a different string texture. And despite its fifteen minute duration, the work has a diminutive profile, an epilogue to the programme rather than a finale.

The packaging is up to the usual ECM standards with an arty blue-washed water surface image on the cover illustrating the rivers of the title work. The liner note is by Paul Griffiths, who starts out in an unusually ethereal mode ‘...the viola is more an open space, desert or wilderness’ before settling down to a more prosaic discussion of the programme, which is highly informative and will no doubt be of great use to the many listeners who will come to the recording with little knowledge of the music. 

For followers of the ECM New Series project, recommendation of this disc will probably be unnecessary, but I offer it nonetheless. As with many of their most successful recordings, the fact that an accomplished and distinctive recording artist has been given the scope to explore personal interests (and they may be pet projects, but they combine to a magnificent whole) ensures an artistic integrity that, when combined with the company’s high production standards, have the makings of yet another ECM classic.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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