Kim Kashkashian's Bach
On The Bach Hour, the Boston-based violist brings her penetrating insights to the composer's Cello Suites, describing their emotional power in a conversation with host Brian McCreath.
On the program:
Suite for Solo Viola No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 (originally for cello): I. Prelude - Kim Kashkashian, viola
Cantata BWV 9 Es it das Heil uns kommen her (translation) - Julia Doyle, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; Chorus and Orchestra of the J.S. Bach Foundation St. Gallen; Rudolf Lutz, conductor
Chorale Prelude on Es it das Heil uns kommen her, BWV 638 - Markus Becker, piano
Suite for Solo Viola No. 3 in C, BWV 1009 (originally for cello) - Kim Kashkashian, viola
Kim Kashkashian: Bach will never be anything but a giant to all of us. And no matter how long you study, every day brings new insight into the architecture and the spirit behind this music.
Brian McCreath: Kim Kashkashian has been one of the top soloists on her instrument - the viola - for years. But her reputation isn’t built on dazzling virtuosity as much as it is on deeply thoughtful, artistically penetrating interpretations. That approach extends to the six suites Bach originally wrote for the cello. And in Kashkashian’s hands they sound as natural and organic as any music the composer wrote. Kim Kashkashian - in words and in music - is coming up on The Bach Hour.
Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. Kim Kashkashian, who makes her home here in Boston and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, writes that Bach “provides a merciless and transparent reflection of one’s failings in vision and simultaneously gives the deepest of comfort in all circumstances. Bach leads us to new insights as we approach the mysterious and miraculous point of intersection where craft and art become one.” Those words accompany Kashkashian’s recording of the six Suites for Solo Viola, and you’ll hear how they translate into music in this program.
Also coming up is Bach’s Cantata No. 9 Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, or, “It is our salvation come here to us.” And if you’d like to see a translation of the text for that piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.
When Kim Kashkashian recorded Bach’s suites, she arranged them in an order that you probably wouldn’t expect. You’ll hear how and why she did that later on. But for now, I’ll just tell you that she starts with the Suite No. 2, in D minor. Here is the Prelude from that piece. Kim Kashkashian is the violist, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 1008-1]
That’s the Prelude, the opening part, of Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D minor, originally for cello, and performed here by violist Kim Kashkashian. You’ll hear much more from this release of all six of Bach’s suites, along with the thoughts of Kim Kashkashian herself, later in the program.
In his notes about Bach’s Cantata No. 9 for Emmanuel Music, composer and conductor John Harbison writes that “The ‘story’ of this cantata is Martin Luther’s story: a progress from utter despair to hope for salvation.” And he goes on to describe the ways this cantata, rather than reflect the specific Biblical readings associated with a week on the calendar, like most other cantatas, is really a short, beautiful, compact summation of what it is to be Lutheran.
To do that, Bach sets an opening choral movement - cast in bright instrumental colors - to the words, “It is our salvation come here to us, full of grace and pure goodness. Deeds can never help, they cannot protect us.” As Harbison puts it, “This chorus announces the destination of this cantata, to be learned in the succeeding movements.”
The tenor soloist begins that learning in a painful, anguished aria on the words, “the abyss sucked us fully in … an yet, in such distress no hand could be of help to us.”
It’s an unsettling sound after the brightness and sunshine of the opening of the piece. But the bass soloist sings of Divine Law, and that those who trust and have faith are destined for Heaven. Which brings the return of that brightness in a setting of the words “only faith justifies, all else being too meager to help us.” And those words are cast as a canon, where two or more voices sing the same thing, offset by a couple of beats.
To quote John Harbison again, canons, in Bach’s time, were “not only a metaphor for Law - something given or proved - but also a bridge to the next world, since, if it’s carried out strictly it cannot end.”
The chorus ends the piece by reminding the believer to trust God, that “when God is most with you, God doesn’t reveal it.”
Remember, you can find Pamela Dellal’s translation for this piece for Boston’s Emmanuel Music when you start at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.
Here is the Cantata No. 9, Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, or, “It is our salvation come here to us,” featuring soprano Julia Doyle, alto Alex Potter, tenor Charles Daniels, and bass Peter Harvey. Rudolf Lutz leads the Choir and Orchestra of the J.S. Bach Stiftung of Switzerland, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 9]
Bach’s Cantata No. 9, Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, or, “It is our salvation come here to us,” in a performance featuring soprano Julia Doyle, alto Alex Potter, tenor Charles Daniels, and bass Peter Harvey, along with the Choir and Orchestra of the J.S. Bach Stiftung, led by Rudolf Lutz. That’s a concert recording made in 2014 on March 20th, which happens to be Bach’s birthday, as it turns out.
The piece you just heard, the Cantata No. 9, has, at its root, a chorale setting of the same words, “It is our salvation come here to us.” And here is another setting of that tune by Bach, as a chorale prelude, transcribed by Max Reger and performed by Markus Becker.
[MUSIC – BWV 638]
That’s Max Reger’s transcription of Bach’s prelude on “It is our salvation come here to us.” Markus Becker was the pianist. [pause]
When Kim Kashkashian decided to record Bach’s Cello Suites on her chosen instrument, the viola, she did so in a way that wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows her. She put intense thought, practice, and experimentation into creating her own edition of the music. And as she told me in a conversation at the New England Conservatory, where she’s taught for many years, that’s partly because of the limitations of the music we have, which was copied out by the composer’s wife. But, those limitations also lead to a valuable perspective.
Kim Kashkashian: What we have in the case of the cello suites is no manuscript. We have pieces of paper that were written by Anna Magdalena, but we have nothing in Bach's handwriting. So you get the idea that this has to be a very personal, direct conversation between you and Bach, because he never laid it out for us. And whether or not we believe every pen stroke of Anna Magdalena is a big issue. So we are a little bit more on our own.
Brian McCreath: Kim Kashkashian also told me that these six suites and their intrinsic musical power led her and her producer, Manfred Eicher, to an unusual order on the recording itself.
Kim Kashkashian: The order on this recording is primarily driven by an emotional thread rather than the chronological thread, or looking for some way to bring them all into synchronization key-wise, which is not actually possible. So we went for the emotional thread, and Manfred's distinct advice was "Start with the D minor. That's you." And I have to agree. I mean, I'm an Armenian person, I tend to have to work out of the black cloud every morning [laughs]. And you work your way out of it and then the day is normal. But, you know, starting with that kind of pensive, inward looking music seemed appropriate to both of us.
Brian McCreath: And here is a part of that trajectory that comes well after the black cloud Kim describes. This is the Suite No. 3 in C major. Kim Kashkashian is the violist.
[MUSIC – BWV 1009]
J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 3, originally written for the cello, and performed here by violist Kim Kashkashian. And you can hear more from my conversation with Kim Kashkashian at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.
Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.
Hear the full conversation about Bach's suites with Kim Kashkashian and host Brian McCreath:
Brian McCreath [00:00:00] This is material that we hear on the cello typically these days, although it's not uncommon to hear them in other contexts. And there's a few things that I'm curious about. One is, simply, how long have you lived with this material? I mean, the viola is an octave up from a cello. So I imagine in some form of even just practicing them for fun or education on your own, you've lived with them for a very long time. Am I right about that?
Kim Kashkashian [00:00:26] Well, I hate to tell you how long.
Brian McCreath [00:00:28] [Laughs] You don't have to give a year.
Kim Kashkashian [00:00:29] No, no. But I will say that all violists consider this music to be part of the repertoire and we start to learn it quite early. So I've been playing it, let's say, since I was 12 years old.
Brian McCreath [00:00:44] Wow. OK, so with that in mind, what made this last year the time to actually get into a studio and work with ECM to put together a recording, your own take on these, at least as it is right now. What was it that made this the right time to get to them?
Kim Kashkashian [00:01:02] I will, as I always do, want to credit Manfred Eicher with the initial impulse. Many people have asked me over the years, "Why haven't you recorded Bach? You play it in a unique way. Why haven't you recorded?" And I've always said, "Hm, not sure, maybe when the right time comes." And he heard me play a solo concert of Kurtág and Bach -- it's been four years now -- in a church in Austria and afterwards he said, "You've got to record Bach." And I rarely do what other people tell me, but with him, I try, because there's usually a very good and deep reason behind such suggestions on his part. So I started to look at the whole picture of the Bach suite in a different way and to figure out whether I might feel ready to make such a distinct document. Recordings are something very different than a performance because it's not fleeting. It's not over when it's over, right? And we need to treat it as its own serious art form. So I made very careful research and made an edition of my own, with articulations and bowings that I liked and created actually two sets, one for the repeats, and my students are using that now. They don't always find it comfortable, but in the end they usually understand the logic behind it. But it took a lot of thinking and a lot of, actually, just at one point saying, "it's got to happen." In all humility, Bach will never be anything but a giant to all of us. And no matter how long you study or perform this music, every day brings new insight into the architecture and the spirit behind this music. So one is never done. And in that sense, you just have to pick a point and say, "It's something that's hopefully worth other people hearing, but it's not the end."
Brian McCreath [00:03:39] The thing that I've always understood about the cello suites, not being a cellist or violist myself, is that the manuscript, maybe even especially in this case compared to other Bach pieces, gives very, very little direction. So you sort of have to either accept somebody else's edition or, as you say, generate your own. When you say two editions, one for repeats, what does that mean exactly?
Kim Kashkashian [00:04:04] Well, what we have in the case of the cello suites is no manuscript. We have pieces of paper that were written by Anna Magdalena, but we have nothing in Bach's handwriting. So what we have is already a secondary source, and then we have a couple of fairly close corresponding texts, which we all use, the Kellner manuscript and so on, but in the end, if you look at all the source material and read Anner Bylsma's book about Bach and the suites, you get the idea that this has to be a very personal, direct conversation between you and Bach, because he never laid it out for us. And whether or not we believe every pen stroke of Anna Magdalena is a big issue. So we are a little bit more on our own. And there are some nice clean editions which are good to use as base material. In the end, however, one has to suit that material to what you feel about the dance forms, what you want to be conveying. And when I say two different versions, I mean a different set of bowings and articulations that bring out different aspects, perhaps rhythmically or in terms of long phrasing, trying to bring out different aspects in the repeats.
Brian McCreath [00:05:56] That's great. That's great. One thing I love about this recording is not only your own very beautiful, very poetic program note that's that's accompanying the recording, but also that written by Paul Griffiths. He brings up something that I've never actually heard, and maybe that's more my own ignorance. But he talks about the preludes sort of having-- it's almost like, if I can, I hope this is an accurate summary of what he says, basically having sort of the source material for the rest of the movements in each suite that when you play the prelude, you can hear what it's almost like, a preview of aspects. Is that how you think of them when you play them? And is it something you feel like listeners can really pick up distinctly in any or all of the preludes?
Kim Kashkashian [00:06:44] I think it's absolutely there. That thread, red thread through each suite is absolutely there. I don't know whether your average listener on first listening would hear that, but I think very often when you get to the final movement, the Gigue, you think back and you say, "Oh, yes, of course. Of course, it's all inside of one structure." Yeah, all these gems are inside of one structure.
Brian McCreath [00:07:19] That's great. One more question about it. You wanted to go with a very specific arrangement of the suites in an order on the recording, as opposed to what we would normally see on a recording of these suites, which is one through six, straight ahead, two follows one, et cetera. But you have an order to them. And tell me what that means, and why you wanted to arrange them that way.
Kim Kashkashian [00:07:48] The order on this recording is primarily driven by an emotional thread rather than the chronological thread or looking for some way to bring them all into synchronization key wise, which is not actually possible. So we went for the emotional thread and Manfred's distinct advice was "Start with the D minor. That's you." And I have to agree, I mean, I'm an Armenian person, I tend to have to work out of the black cloud every morning [laughs]. And you work your way out of it and then the day is normal. But, you know, starting with that kind of pensive, inward looking music seemed appropriate to both of us.
Brian McCreath [00:08:50] Wow. Wow. I love that. That's just such a fantastic approach to these. It's really beautiful. And just on a really technical basis, there is that one suite, it's the sixth suite, that involves the extra string. Was that a special piece of equipment you had to have made or modification to your instrument? How did you, how do you deal with that?
Kim Kashkashian [00:09:07] That's a good question too. It is, I do play it on a five string viola, which is the equivalent of the five string instrument that Bach wrote this for. It's not exactly a viola pomposa, it's not big enough, mine is not big enough to be considered that. It's a normal looking viola with an extra wide neck and fingerboard and the extra string. So I had the E string, which he meant to have, which meant that all the bariolage passages worked really beautifully. And I could play in the original key, which most violists don't, right. So that definitely was part of the project from 25 years ago or longer. I had this instrument built for me by Bissilotti, and he lived in Cremona at the time. He recently passed away. It's a beautiful viola. My original thought was that I wanted a low string, an extra low string to be able to do the Bach gamba sonatas without having to shift range. And the low string sounds very beautiful, but it's very hard to articulate. So that project actually never got off the ground that way. But when I did record with Keith Jarrett, I used a four string viola.
Brian McCreath [00:10:40] OK, OK.
Kim Kashkashian [00:10:41] And the five string viola sat on a shelf for a long time, and then I thought, you know what, I could play Schubert Arpeggione without having to compress the range if I had an E string, and then, of course, the sixth suite for the same reason. So I started experimenting with it.
Brian McCreath [00:11:00] I was just going to ask whether this is the only piece that you use the five stringed viola for, but no, Arpeggione on it, and maybe there are others as well. I don't know.
Kim Kashkashian [00:11:07] Well, I mean, it is a very useful -- during the weeks that I was exclusively playing on it because of the confusion that ensues when you have a middle string, suddenly, I taught on that instrument, too, and I blithely went over to the E string for all the high passages in the Bartok concerto, and my students were going, "Well! Of all the nerve!" [Laughs]
Brian McCreath [00:11:31] [Laughs] That's fantastic. Kim Kashkashian, thanks so much for your time today.
Kim Kashkashian [00:11:38] Thank you. It's been really fun to talk to you. Bye-bye.