Bonus Recording of November 2018: J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Viola Solo

J.S. Bach: Six Suites for Viola Solo, BWV 1007–1012
Kim Kashkashian, four- & five-string violas
ECM New Series 2553/54 (2 CDs). 2018. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Judy Sherman, eng. DDD. TT: 2:22:35
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

Little is known of the origins of the Solo Suites, usually performed on the cello. No manuscript in Bach's hand survives, and in the copy produced by his second wife, Anna Magdalena, markings for slurs, articulation, and dynamics are sparse even by baroque standards. The suites may actually have been composed for the violoncello da spalla, an instrument smaller than the cello but larger than the viola, and played while held on the shoulder (some modern players use a neckstrap). But what are problems for the musicologist present a world of latitude to the interpreter, in this case master violist Kim Kashkashian, who takes full advantage of them.

Regardless of performer, most of the Suites' music is not represented on the page—the scores of most of these movements look like little more than arpeggio exercises: long marches of eighth or sixteenth notes or repeating dotted patterns. The scored pitches and time values are the barest bones—the rest is to be created in the moment by the performer, and rubato reigns. Kashkashian is more consistently in the moments of these works than any other I have heard. None of her eighth notes seems to have the same value in time as any other, and all are in deliciously complex relation to their neighbors. She lets no note go unexamined or less than fully voiced. These broadly paced readings are some of the slowest I know of—slow enough to give the listener time to think about each note in relation to the notes before and after it, to wonder how and when the next note will sound, and then be surprised by when and how it does, and not the least surprise is how right it sounds.

In short, these interpretations are extremely free—often, they sound less interpreted than wholly improvised in the moment, absolutely fresh and new and unprecedented, as well as venerable and strong and wise. The freedoms Kashkashian grants herself often seem to invert the standard phrasings: rejecting many if not most of Bach's editors' markings, she slurs where many articulate, plays legato where they are staccato. This frequently presents the illusion of the meter being inverted: straight eighth notes sounding as triplets, or vice versa; a count of three where four is marked, or the other way around. Such shifts are, deliciously, more implied than fully realized, the implications strong enough to immensely expand the listener's conception of the other musics this music might or does contain. And again, Kashkashian takes enough time to let those implied other musics blossom on the stalks of the music actually played. All of this can be heard in the very familiar Prélude of Suite 1: thrilling music making made all the more so by such invitations to the listener to enter it as co-creator. Play broadly enough and committedly enough, with enough rubato, and there's no telling what might turn up.

If, then, one definition of great art is whatever you can get away with, Kashkashian almost gets away with it all. Only occasionally does she seem so intent on carving each note in aural olivewood that the through-pulse nearly disappears—as in Suite 1, Courante, and in Suite 3, Bourrée—and the faster movements of Suite 4 seem a bit labored. But everywhere else, and especially in Suites 5 and 6, I felt I was hearing works I thought I knew well being completely reinvented and reimagined. In Kashkashian's hands, this music is more profound than I have ever heard it, in all definitions of that word but one: deep, all-encompassing, complete, "characterized by intensity of feeling or quality"—but never "difficult to fathom or understand."

This is because Kashkashian's large-hearted Bach is immensely and equally accessible to ears and mind and heart. Through realities of physics and acoustics, the viola is notoriously difficult to make "speak" or resound as loudly or as ringingly as a violin or cello. This does not seem to apply to Kashkashian or her instruments: Her tone is big, bold, deep, rich, and dark without being muffled in any way. Her viola is closely but not claustrophobically miked, and the acoustic is satisfyingly if anonymously resonant in classic ECM style—but the bigness of sound so perfectly complements the expansiveness of musical vision that it's hard to believe it's not almost entirely the work of the player herself. As I listen in the nearfield, about 6' from my Vandersteen 2Ci speakers, Kashkashian seems to simultaneously stand about 15' away in a small church (actually, a 730-seat Manhattan auditorium), and close enough that I feel I can see how closely she's trimmed her nails. I didn't know the viola could sound like this. I hadn't known my system could sound this good. Perhaps, unless I play this recording, it can't.

I've heard only half a dozen recordings of the Suites performed on cello, and none of the other recordings on viola, but it's difficult to imagine that any have been performed with such authority, confidence, power, and deep seriousness. Those who have felt, as I have, that the Solo Cello/Viola Suites, delightful as they are, lack the depth of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, may find themselves revising that view with this recording.

The rest is simply stupendous playing of what must be as thorough a revisioning or reimagining of what is possible in these works as has ever been achieved. We can ask no more from an interpretive artist. And the sound is fantastic.—Richard Lehnert

spyder1's picture

Purchased 96/24 download.

Richard, I have enjoyed listening to Kim Kashkashian's Solo performance of J.S. Bach's 6 Suites the last two evenings. I agree with you that it is a excellent recording, from a "Great Violist." At 2:22.35 it is a long time in the chair concentrating on the music. Manfred Eicher at ECM Records continues to produce "Stellar" recordings.

woodford's picture

in Tidal the suites seem to have been reordered thus: 2, 1, 5, 4, 3, 6.

are the that way on the download?

Maxim Rysanov's recording on BIS on the Viola, is also exceptionally fine.

spyder1's picture

Downloads are in numerical order.

ednazarko's picture

I went to Interlochen and was in a cabin with her brother Dikran, and got to meet Kim a few times (although she was older enough that we were uncool to be around.) A family of violists, as crazy as that sounds. I have a different album of hers, and it's just really smart, creative interpretations.