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Asturiana: Songs from Spain and Argentina
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Asturiana - Songs From Spain And Argentina
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Spanish songs lend themselves particularly well to instrumental transcription due to their frequent foundation in folk and popular styles of song and dance. Their melodic beauty and rhythmic energy create an intense atmosphere of tenderness and nostalgia with sudden outbursts of vitality - a most evocative music that doesn't seem to call for any verbal emphasis. For Manuel de Falla, whose famous "Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas" form the centrepiece, the spirit of Spanish popular music was more important than the actual lyrics. The album offers a fascinating overview of different idioms in Spanish and Argentine song.
The fascination for song is central to Kim Kashkashian's artistic credo, her constant wish to "bring a string instrument to express even a small fraction of the melodic and emotional information that a voice imbues." Many of her ECM releases have circled around instrumental song, most of all 'Voci' (Berio's settings of Italian folksongs) and 'Hayren' with the Armenian songs of Komitas adapted by Mansurian.
Kashkashian's and Levin's duo, dating from the mid-70s, is a true musical partnership, observed especially in their ECM discs from 'Elegies' (1986) onwards, including Schumann, Brahms, Hindemith, Shostakovich and others. It is the difference between their musical approaches - Kashkashian's lyricism and love for the melodic line combined with Levin's strong interest in structure and stylistic considerations - that made this collaboration so fruitful. In fact, the new record demonstrates an extraordinary degree of freedom and flexibility, both rhythmically and sonically.
Kim Kashkashian (viola), Robert Levin (piano)
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So began my constant fascination with song -and the accompanying challenge of bringing a string instrument to express even a small fraction of the melodic and emotional information that a voice imbues.
Song, with or without words, is the most potent of cures. Song allows the spirit to fly in lonely exploration yet it provides the most diverse of spirits the vehicle of union.
If we are all groping in the dark towards a faintly sensed light, then anything that brings us closer to that light is a boon. When I look back on my work, and when I imagine future forms for that work, the one certainty is song."
(Kim Kashkashian, liner notes)
The viola is a lovely instrument, much neglected in classical music prior to the twentieth century. Until recent times it was primarily used to provide harmony to its lighter, higher pitched, more agile cousin, the violin. Beethoven, Mozart and Bach all preferred playing the viola when they played in ensembles and other composers, from Haydn to Benjamin Britten have played viola in ensembles. In the twentieth century, things changed for the viola, though not a lot. A small number of virtuosos --William Primrose foremost among them--and composers -Hindemith, Elliott Carter, Britten--championed the instrument, leading to a very small resurrection of this much undervalued string instrument. (In pop music, John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground played electric viola and lues player Clarence `Gatemouth' Brown also played the viola.)
Until now, my classical music collection sported just one viola album -Hindemith sonatas played by Misha Amory, with Thomas Sauer on piano. I thought I should do something about that so I ordered three albums by Kim Kashkashian, Brahms's sonatas for violin and piano, played by Roberto Diaz and an album of viola transcriptions (Borodin, Schubeert, Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikmovsky, etc.) by Primrose.
Kim Kashkashian (b. 1952) is an Armenian-American violist who has been featured on more than thirty albums playing music of composers as diverse as Bach, Mozart and Brahms (revoiced for viola), Bartok, Berio, Britten and Carter, Kodaly, Kancheli, Penderecki, Shostakovich, Vaughn Williams and Liszt. The first album to arrive was her rendition of orchestral pieces by Bartok, Peter Eotvos and Gyorgy Kurtag. I'm still digesting the Eotvos and Kurtag pieces but Kashkashian is wonderful on the Bartok concerto. The first classical recording I ever bought, when I was twenty-two and had decided that I really needed to start listening to this classical stuff, was Bartok's Concerto for Violin, Isaac Stern on violin. This piece, for viola, has the same qualities as the violin concerto -the thrumming rhythm, changing orchestral timbres and mercurial shifts in mood that I associate with Bartok's orchestral music.
Asturiana arrived together with Elegies -same musicians -Kashkashian and Harvard's Robert Levin on piano--transcriptions of vocal songs by contemporary Spanish and Argentinian composers, adapted to fit a middle-ranged string instrument, on the one, and a series of elegies by largely modern composers -Britten, Vaughn Williams, Elliott Carter, Glazunov, Liszt, Kodaly and Vieuxtemps on the other. I've only had time to listen to Asturiana.
My advice? If you don't own it yet, buy it. It's not an album where I can tell you which songs are best because they're all good. Besides, part of the beauty of his album is that it exceeds so well as a totality. The individual songs are short -1:13 minutes to 4:23 minutes- and they vary greatly in melodic line, tempo, and mood, but they hang together to create something longer lasting and indelible. The bringing together of a collection of songs as lovely as these with artists as good as Kashkashian and Levin is rare, and deserves to be heard. Does this CD remind me of other Cds? Two -ECM's birthday gift to Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, entitled Songs from the Notebook, and the best of Astor Piazzolla's tango recordings.
This album is gorgeous. It would not even matter if I were told that these were songs from Spain and Argentina. The compositions, the sounds of the music, the timbres and the instrumentation is diaphanously intriguing. It makes you forget where you are and pulls you into another world. These are stories without words; a soundtrack for your poetic imagination. You should listen to this when you're having your sacred time with yourself, or with your lover.
Subtitled Songs from Spain and Argentina, it is not overly tinged with "Latin" music, although the influences are there. Some of the songs bear a slight resemblance to Schubert's Sonatas. The composers on the CD - de Falla, Ginastera and Granados are familiar to most. But the lesser known ones here, especially Catalan's Xavier Montsalvatge is a welcome revelation to me. His Canciones are exquisite. He claimed that these were influenced by the music of the West Indies.
These songs need a certain sensitivity to play, and consequently to fall under their spell. The liner notes are informative, compact and well written. Perhaps Kim articulated it best when she wrote "Song, with or without words, is the most potent of cures."
Thank you for allowing me to be enchanted by this sound world.