Violist Kim Kashkashian has been an ECM recording artist since 1985. She has built up an impressively broad repertoire, which has been the basis for an engaging series of releases that range from the nineteenth century to the immediate present. She received a 2012 GRAMMY Award in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category for her ECM New Series album Kurtág and Ligeti: Music for Viola. (The announcement of the nominees may have been the first time that the name of György Kurtág appeared in the same sentence as “GRAMMY.”)
Her latest ECM New Series recording will be released on CD tomorrow, and this will be the recorded debut of a duo she has formed with pianist and composer Lera Auerbach. As usual, the album, entitled Arcanum, is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com (for those who are really impatient). Auerbach was responsible for the two selections on the recording. “Arcanum” is the name of the sonata for viola and piano that she composed for Kashkashian. The other selection is her arrangement for viola and piano of the 24 Opus 34 preludes, composed for solo piano by Dmitri Shostakovich.
There is almost always an engaging ludic quality to Auerbach’s work, and each of the pieces on this album seems to be placing its own game into play. In a recent interview, Auerbach explained that “arcanum” means “mysterious knowledge.” The root, “arca,” actually means chest; so more literally the word refers to things that are hidden away (as in a storage chest). Each of the sonatas four movements is given its own “mysterious” title: “Advenio,” “Cinis,” “Postremo,” and “Adempte.” Fortunately, those who choose the browse the booklet accompanying this album will quickly discover that the meanings of these titles have been “hidden in plain sight” under the title “Instead of Program Notes.” Even before listening begins, those who have this album will have experienced a foretaste of Auerbach’s playfulness.
Whether or not there are hidden qualities in the music itself will probably depend on the attitude of the listener. Auerbach is far from shy when it comes to using dissonance; but she is particularly adept at drawing upon dissonant intervals for their sonorous qualities, rather than for harmonic ambiguity. What may be most engaging is her skill at taking on both the full breadth of the piano and the same extent of the viola as sources of sonorities that can then be blended in more ways than many listeners would suppose from listening to earlier repertoire, particularly for the viola. Since Kashkashian has demonstrated many times in the past that no technical challenge is insurmountable for her, she could not be a better partner for Auerbach in exploring that diversity of sonorous qualities. The result is that the attentive listener will probably not have to worry about what Auerbach may have chosen to hide, since there are no end of readily apparent features that will keep the mind behind the ear engaged over the course of multiple listening experiences.
The Shostakovich selection, on the other hand, is the product of a rather extended history. Shostakovich composed the cycle of preludes for piano in 1933, and it would be fair to say that he had created a prankish reflection on the 24 preludes that Frédéric Chopin composed for his Opus 28 collection. Chopin had written one prelude for each of the major and minor keys. Shostakovich not only did the same but also followed the same ordering Chopin had used, a “circle of fifths” ordering as opposed to the “chromatic” ordering that one finds in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Not long after Shostakovich published these preludes, Dmitri Zyganov, first violinist of the Beethoven String Quartet and a friend of Shostakovich, began arranging the preludes for violin and piano. He would eventually transcribe nineteen of them. Auerbach completed the collection with the remaining five preludes in 2000. In 2008 she transcribed the entire cycle for cello and piano and then created a version for viola two years later. That last project was intended to provide a contrast to Shostakovich’s final composition, his Opus 147 sonata for viola and piano, which is distinguished by its highly dark rhetoric.
In this case the playfulness thus originates with Shostakovich himself. Auerbach’s “mission” was to translate the ludic rhetoric for solo piano into three different instrumental settings; and my own listening experience has now taken in two of them (cello and viola). From a point of view of interpretation, it is sufficient for the performers to focus on being true to the score and let Shostakovich take care of the rest. This makes for a highly satisfying recording in which the humor ranges from the subtle to the raucous. It will now be interesting to see if the duo formed by Kashkashian and Auerbach will continue beyond this album and, if so, how they will further expand their repertoire.