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.
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
, 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.
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.