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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 [21:40]
Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 [18:06]
Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 [25:19]
Suite No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 1010 [24:39]
Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009 [22:09]
Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012 [30:38]
Kim Kashkashian (viola)
rec. 2016/2017, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
ECM NEW SERIES 2553/54 [65:05+77:26]

More often associated with contemporary music but tremendously versatile as a performer, it was way back in 1991 that the brilliant Kim Kashkashian recorded Bach’s viola da gamba sonatas with Keith Jarrett on harpsichord, so any new Bach recording by her was always going to be something of an event. This is very much a personal set of interpretations, Kashkashian making no claims in terms of ‘authentic performance’ in these suites. She uses contemporary instruments for the recordings and has previously integrated them with modern music in concert, for instance, between movements of works by György Kurtág.

With no autograph scores there is some argument about which instrument Bach might have had in mind for these suites, and their suitability on the viola as much as for the cello has been tested before. They certainly sound very good here, though you may find yourself taking a while to become accustomed to Kashkashian’s way of playing as much as in hearing this music an octave higher than usual. In his booklet notes, Paul Griffiths remarks on Kashkashian’s sense of pulse, which “comes from the music, not from the clock. Bach’s dances are not for jaunting feet but made rather of shapes and images moving in the mind.” This is all very well when you can see the flow of the music in the physical presence of the player, but the stop-start nature of some of the movements is something I found hard to warm to.

The alternative recording I’ve been most used to in this repertoire played on the viola is that with Maxim Rysanov on the BIS label (review of vol. 2). His playing has a comparable freedom to that of Kashkashian, but is swifter and less abstract in several movements. The Allemande second movement of BWV 1008 for instance, takes 4:15 here to Rysanov’s 2:39, so that the latter’s traversal has a ‘dance’ feel even though it’s not played to a metrical beat. With Kashkashian I can’t help feeling I’m losing my way in the piece, which gets dropped on the floor to be picked back up again a few times too many. If you can find empathy with this approach then everything is fine, but even after listening quite a few times I’m still struggling. Music that has an essential simplicity, such as the Menuet of the same suite has so many extra beats and half-beats that you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, and I don’t hear any expressive advantage in such an interpretation. That ‘sense of pulse’ is tugged around so much that it has no pulse at all at some points. Reflective slowness is another feature here, but this is such distracted ruminating that it becomes stressful.

Make no mistake, Kim Kashkashian is a superb player and clearly knows what she wants from these suites. I’m all for new views on familiar music and indeed you may find yourself in entire agreement with her on this, and if so please ignore my comments. We’re not entire strangers to wilful Bach and, maybe like Glenn Gould, there are always going to be two camps – the committed admirers versus those who can’t stand that kind of playing. The famous Prelude to BWV 1007 certainly has a whiff of Gould about it, comparable to his C major opening to The Well-Tempered Clavier in some of its more staccato notes toward the beginning. The flow further along is not entirely unconventional however, nor is the tempo, but while this may be one of the less controversial suites in general I’m still not attracted to the displacements of rhythm in the Allemande, something much less of a feature in the playful Courante, and that gorgeous Sarabande can cope with plenty of lingering at the ends of phrases.

Like Rysanov, Kashkashian takes the bull by the horns and plays the fiendish Sixth Suite BWV 1012 in the original D major rather than the transposed version in G major. There is a change to a more violin-like timbre here, with a 5-string instrument used to cover the range demanded of the work. This is one Allemande in which Maxim Rysanov is slightly longer than Kim Kashkashian, both players exploring this movement’s poetic lyricism to the full, the former managing some real magic in his softness of dynamic in some passages.

With ECM’s usual fine sound quality and the secure expertise and technical skill in Kim Kashkashian’s playing this is certainly a recording that intrigues. If offered the choice for a viola version I might go for Maxim Rysanov’s set, though there are other recordings around, such as Nobuko Imai’s rather nicely turned and desirably uncomplicated Philips/Decca set (review). If recommending a first-choice all-or-nothing version of this music I would however tend to lead listeners towards the more ‘human voice’ range of the cello.

Dominy Clements

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