An Evening of String Music – Elegies, Scenes and Cello

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It’s been a long time since I’ve written an entry for my blog as the past few months I have been otherwise engaged. In order to compensate I’ve decided to write a special entry focusing on not one but three excellent albums. It’s part of a suggestion I would like to make: a listening experience designed by yours truly consisting of an evening of wine and cheese and the sublime string music I am about to elaborate on. So, if you will, choose a quiet winter evening to just kick back, open a bottle of Heras Cordon Reserva, vintage 2005,  prepare a nice cheese plateau and toast to whoever invented the first stringed instrument for without them we could not be enjoying the talent of these marvelous artists.

Let’s start off with Elegies by Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin. I became familiar with Kashkashian because her viola is an integral part of Jan Garbarek’s In Praise of Dreams which happens to be my all-time favorite record. I was so enamored by her enchanting performance on that particular album that I decided to look up everything I could find that featured her name and I came across this compilation where, backed by pianist Robert Levin, her viola gets to shine in a way that is at the same time very powerful but also charmingly discreet. Featuring compositions by Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Elliot Carter, Alexander Glasunow, Franz Liszt, Zoltan Kodaly and Henri Vieuxtemps this is, as far as style is concerned at the same time the most varied and the most “traditional” of our serene string trio. Levin is an amazing backup for Kashkashian as the sound of his subtle but powerful, masculine piano supports and accentuates the delicate, emotional, feminine sound of her viola, as is most fitting for such a love-filled musical embrace. This is a record that demands complete attention so as to rejoice in some of the finer, more emotionally charged moments (see Kodaly’s “Adagio” and Glasunows’ “Elegie op 44” as well as Vieuxtemps’ “Elegie op 30”) which manage to somehow be cathartic without being emotionally draining. Overall, as other reviewers have also pointed out, even though it offers music from a wide array of periods the record stays cohesive and is an excellent companion for a late-autumn/winter night.

We now move on to the violin via Michael Gallasso’s minimalist masterpiece Scenes. The hard-to-come-by record was released in 1984 and stands as a statement to the genius of this American composer, violinist, and music director. The songs, entitled simply “Scene” I to IX form a tightly structured body of music which is best understood as a whole rather than individually. While Kashkashian’s record called for complete attention and built up the intensity to certain emotional highs, Scenes’ magic lies in its raw emotion, its conflicting calm turbulence, vibrating with the intensity but also the melancholy of life, at certain times displaying the agitated rhythmic repetition of brainwave activity, at others the delicate pitter-patter of raindrops as the patterns range from turbulent to calm or even seductive but with the constant presence of anxiety. The songs pulsate at times with a muted desperation like the calm before a storm that never arrives and even the livelier tracks like “Scene III” or “Scene V” have a certain nervous “twitch” about them. This is a recording best enjoyed with closed eyes in order to experience the images the music conjures up which is not unlike staring at clouds to make out shapes. All the tracks have the vivid quality of film music (understandable since Gallasso often wrote for film) and the absolute highlight must be “Scene VI” with an almost wraith-like “cry-of-whales-sound” that will keep you absolutely mesmerized.  I mentioned that this album does not necessitate complete attention as the music, very uniform in its delivery, will engulf you and weave itself into any emotions you might be experiencing at the time.

To close up our cozy evening of wine, cheese and musical mastery I have chosen David Darling’s compositions for cello simply entitled…Cello. Another ECM release just like the two previous records, this one appeared in 1992 and consists of thirteen tracks delivered solely on 8-string electric cello. This beautiful, dark and introspective album is a mood piece in its entirety and continues in the same spirit of minimalism encountered on Gallasso’s Scenes, though, with its meditative slow-motion “float-on-water” pace it’s a 180 degrees shift of temperament from Gallasso’s nervous “eye-of-the-storm” perspective and somewhat reminiscent of Gavin Bryars’ “Sinking of the Titanic”. Featuring tracks with names such as “Darkwood I,II & III”, “Lament”, “Totem”, “In November” and “No Place Nowhere” the listener knows exactly what to expect and David Darling delivers some of the most memorable somber music you will have heard. The highlight is probably “Choral”, one of the most wonderful, sad but also self-sufficient tracks that I know. In fact, the entire record is a balanced construction which, like the previous record, is best understood and enjoyed as a whole. We can rely on this calm companion to fade out or evening of wine and music and provide comfort as we stare in disappointment at the now-empty bottle of Heras Cordon Reserva.

I’m curious if anyone reading this decides to join me on this evening dedicated to some of the most beautiful string music that ever appeared under the ECM label and, if any of you do I’m most interested to find out your thoughts and feelings about the experience as a whole. I chose these three records, because I believe they highlight the most beautiful aspect of string music which is the diversity of emotion it can evoke.