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Kim Kashkashian on Bach's Cello Suites

Kim Kashkashian
Steve Riskind
Kim Kashkashian

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

To hear Kim Kashkashian's conversation with host Brian McCreath about Bach's Cello Suites, use the player above, and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath 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 Well, I hate to tell you how long.

Brian McCreath [Laughs] You don't have to give a year.

Kim Kashkashian 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 OK, OK.

Kim Kashkashian 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 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 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 [Laughs] That's fantastic. Kim Kashkashian, thanks so much for your time today.

Kim Kashkashian Thank you. It's been really fun to talk to you. Bye-bye.