"Kim Kashkashian's playing of that most vexing and vulnerable of instruments, the viola, always seems to convey both the pain and the joy, the beauty and the toil, that go into the making of music. As it's been said, she is a virtuoso who doesn't play like a virtuoso. You don't get just the notes, the surface brilliance...you get the subtext, the deep feelings - the composers', hers, yours." - Bradley Bambarger, Schwann Opus.
Typically impassioned, committed performances distinguish Kim Kashkashian's New Series recording of music for viola by three great Hungarian composers. Kashkashian's intense focus, superb crafts-manship and explosive virtuosity are brought to bear on Béla Bartók's final work, on one of György Kurtág's early pieces, and on an important new work written especially for her by Peter Eötvös.
Interconnections between the composers and the interpreter are many. Something akin to a line of transmission runs from Bartók to Eötvös via Kurtág. Kurtág has famously said that his "mother tongue is Bartók", and his Movement for Viola and Orchestra was directly influenced by Bartók's Violin Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra. Peter Eötvös was born, like Bartók, in Transylvania, befriended Kurtág in Budapest, and his musical development was decisively influenced by the work of both com-posers. "György Kurtág's music", Eötvös has noted, "is deeply rooted in European tradition. The cer-tainty and glowing intensity of his works remind me of Van Gogh and Dostoyevsky. The increasing success of his music comes on the one hand from the fact that his powerful, subjective ability to ex-press himself cannot be pigeonholed in any of the familiar stylistic movements, and on the other hand, from the fact that his music has an unusually vital relationship to the living and the dead." A similar claim might well be made for the musics of Eötvös himself and Bartók, in which innovation and re-spect for the weight of tradition are keenly balanced.
Kashkashian, who has worked closely with Kurtág, was instrumental in bringing his music to the New Series and made the premiere recording of his revised six-part cycle "Jelek" (ECM New Series 1508). She has also worked under the baton of Eötvös and has, furthermore, been playing the Bartók Viola Concerto for three decades now. In preparation for the current project she went back to some of Bartók's own sources, "listening to a lot of the Hungarian folk music he collected to study the articu-lation of melody, rhythm, phrasing."
In his liner essay for this disc, Paul Griffiths imaginatively sketches possible links between the works themselves and looks at the way in which the incomplete status of Bartók's Viola Concerto ("partial, imminent, not yet arrived") - the faithful restoration efforts of his compatriot Tibor Serly notwith-standing - seems to anticipate a compositional mode such as Kurtág's, in which the music seems to wish to unravel itself, in which the "fragmentary" has the upper hand, or music which - as is the case in Eötvös's "Replica" - finally disappears or dissolves. "Displacement" in one sense or another seems bound up in the very fabric of the music and only one of these pieces, Kurtág's "Movement" - the detached first half of his Viola Concerto - was written in Hungary. Bartók failed to finish his Viola Concerto in New York, and Eötvös has been on the move since leaving Hungary in 1966 (he's cur-rently based in the Netherlands): "There's nowhere I'd actually call home. I lead the life of a stranger watching what goes on around him..."The idea of "departure" is central to "Replica". Eötvös was asked to write a piece for the Filarmonica della Scalla di Milano in the summer of 1997 and immediately resolved to compose a concerto for viola and orchestra rather than a purely orchestral work. "Replica", an immense aria for the viola, was composed expressly for Kim Kashkashian and is dedicated to her. At the time when he received the Milan commission, Eötvös was putting finishing touches to his opera "Three Sisters", each sequence of which finishes with a large farewell scene and characters en route to destinations unspecified. "Replica", conceived as a kind of postscript to the opera, was premiered in Milan in June 1999 with Kashkashian as soloist. The work is developed as a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra with five orchestral violas in the role of intermediaries. Paul Griffiths: "Like lords around a king, they cir-cle, ready to take over... Undeterred, the viola goes on with its gestures of songful farewell."
Eötvos is a composer with a rare feeling for the expressivity and the idiosyncracies of the individual performer, and for the quality of sound projection. "Peter has a phenomenally precise ear"; says Kashkashian, "like Boulez. When he decided he wanted to write this piece for me, the first thing he requested was to hear me play, not in a room but in a concert space. He wanted to hear how my energy and the viola's energy mixed in the hall. So he has this precision in his mind, but also this physical, energetic sense."
Kurtág's "Movement" for Viola and Orchestra comprises the first movement (and nearly two-thirds of the duration) of his Viola Concerto written in 1953/54, and the composer now prefers this shorter ver-sion - which remains nonetheless a relatively long piece in the context of an oeuvre inclined toward miniatures. Dedicated to Hungarian violist Imre Pataki and first performed by the Railway Symphony Orchestra of Debrecen in 1955, the piece was originally written as a graduation exercise at the end of Kurtàg's studies at the Liszt Academy, a decade after Bartók's death. In addition to the clearly Bartókian cast of the composition Kurtág says that it also bears the imprint and influence of Brahms and Haydn. A youthful work, then, but by no means a minor one, it contains the seeds of the work to come.
The Bartók Viola Concerto is a creative instance of the restorer's art, having been pieced together by Tibor Serly, a former pupil of Kodaly's, from scattered fragments. "First there was the problem of deciphering the manuscript itself [Serly noted]. Bartók wrote his sketches on odd, loose sheets of mu-sic paper that happened to be on hand at the moment, some of which had parts of other sketches al-ready on them. Bits of material that came to his mind were jotted down without regard for their se-quence. The pages were not numbered nor the separation of movements indicated. The greatest diffi-culty encountered was deciphering his correction of notes, for Bartók, instead of erasing, grafted his improvements onto the original notes." For the present recording, Peter Eötvös made some revisions where he was confident that Serly had misread (rather than misinterpreted) the composer's sketches and Kashkashian changed a few articulations and phrasings. The outcome is an authoritative perform-ance of what will, doubtless, come to be regarded as a reference recording of this work.