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Johannes BrahmsSonatas for Viola and Piano

Sonatas for Viola and Piano op. 120.Sonate No. 2 in E flat Major; Sonate No. 1 in f Minor

Kim Kashkashian: viola; Robert Levin: piano

ECM New Series 1630 CD 457 068-2

Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin, musical allies for twenty years, focus their shared knowledge and skills in imaginative and moving performances of these "late works" by Johannes Brahms. Written in 1894, just three years before the composer's death, these Sonatas, existing in versions for both clarinet and viola, have often been considered as a link between the musical thought of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. "Both the end and the beginning of an epoch come together here", writer Lotte Thaler notes, "Romanticism and Modernism, standing at the turn of the century like a Janus head."

The "modernism" – or otherwise – of Brahms has been debated extensively in this centenary year, with critics looking anew at the composer's impact on the Second Vienna School in particular. Schoenberg, and his students Berg and Webern, revered Brahms as the father of modern music. "The chromatic path has begun!", Anton von Webern exulted on hearing the Song of the Fates. But Schoenberg put it best in 1931: "From Brahms I learnt uneven numbers of measures, extension and contraction of phrases; not to be mean, not to stint myself when clarity demands more space; clarity, yet richness." Yet this perception of Brahms as a structuralist has often confused both those admirers and detractors who hear in the composer only the '"dreamy romanticism" that charmed Elgar and his contemporaries.

Kim Kashkashian clarifies the issue: "What Schoenberg took from Brahms was a way of looking at the thematic material being used and giving it a structural importance that wasn't necessarily based upon the harmonic structures Brahms was using. But that structural edifice also exists in Brahms and in that sense Brahms was using techniques that are the same of those of the following fifty to seventy-five years. The kernel is there – also in the Viola Sonatas. Brahms takes a structural kernel which he can either magnify or make smaller until it's only a few notes, and it is something which will reappear and be a key organizing factor in the music. At the same time, however, Brahms has a harmonic organizing factor which is not modern. So the 'old' and the 'new' exist side by side."

Kashkashian has been playing these pieces for a quarter-century. "We violists have a so-called limited repertoire – and even these pieces we share with the clarinet! They are pieces that one usually comes to early in one's training, but there's always more to learn from them. Just as, if you look at a great painting long enough you will see more and more things in it, so it is with these sonatas. They're constructed so tightly, so perfectly. All kinds of relationships gradually become apparent: 'Ah, he's using the same motive in the sonata as he does in the other sonata.' Or, 'he's hiding a little secret out of one sonata in the other'. Study the construction of these pieces and you're seeing an edifice, an architecture. And what that architecture means to you changes as the circumstances of your life change. A kind of evolution goes on. Part of my work is always about going back, taking another look, finding another level, and relating it to the outer life. When first playing Brahms, as a teenager or in your twenties, it's very tempting to use the compositions to express your hotbloodedness and passion. It's only later that you see this very crystal-clear edifice that becomes more and more important. And then it's less a matter of expressing a momentary emotion and more a question of expressing an elemental warmth which is determined by the structure."

Johannes Brahms was a notoriously self-critical composer. His conviction that "musical tradition evolves only by submitting itself to endless critique" (to quote Brahms scholar Malcolm McDonald) often caused him to take a harsh view even of some of his finest creations. In correspondence, he could be flippant about his work. Literalists amongst music historians have pounced upon such comments and, at times, over-emphasized them.

"Studying a composer's writings, studying also the surrounding social aspects of his life, looking at what has happening politically, and at what other art was being was being produced – all of these can be valid ways into a piece," says Kashkashian. "But whether we can talk about Brahms's 'state of mind' on the basis of a few letters is a moot point."

In 1891, Brahms had written to his future editor Eusebius Mandyczewski declaring, impulsively, that he would "compose no more." The decision, of course, was not final. His friendship with clarinettist Richard Mühlfield encouraged the composition, over the next few years, of the Clarinet Trio op. 114, the Clarinet Quintet op. 115 and the Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano op. 120. The version for viola of the latter may have been prompted by Brahms's long association with one of his most ardent supporters, violinist Joseph Joachim. It was to Joachim, at least, that Brahms expressed a typically self-belittling remark: "I fear that both pieces are perhaps still a little unsatisfactory and awkward as viola sonatas". The relative merits of the clarinet and viola versions have been a subject of discussion ever since.

Kim Kashkashian's perspective on the matter is evenhanded: "I would say there are strengths and characteristics brought out in each piece depending on which instrument is playing them. It's rather like dressing up the same body with a different set of clothes. I would say that the E-flat Sonata benefits from the viola, and the F-minor Sonata benefits most from the clarinet. That's a very personal opinion, but I think both pieces exhibit certain priorities or values depending on which instrument is playing them." With this in mind, Kashkashian decided to take seriously Brahms's "reservations" about the viola versions; the result is a unique interpretation:

"I went back to the original score and am playing, very often, in the original octave. What you hear when you listen to this particular CD of the Viola Sonatas is sometimes in the written viola octave and sometimes in the original octave. At the time, the average violist was not expected to be able to execute some of the greater range manœuvres that the clarinet could encompass, and the upper range of the viola was not considered characteristic. On the other hand, there are passages where I stay in the original viola range. At those points where Brahms went down to the low C on the viola – which the clarinet doesn't have – I took again the liberty of assuming that he might have written that for the clarinet had the note existed. Essentially, I thought: This he probably changed because of violists' habits of the day, and this he probably rewrote because we have a low C that the clarinet does not have. So some of the music remains for me in the viola range and some of it has gone back up to the clarinet range."

Technical innovations notwithstanding, the power of the performance resides in its drawing out of the music's full range of temperaments. Some commentators have drawn attention to the "cry of despair" in these "late works" of Brahms. Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin hear much more. Kashkashian: "Despair is there, among other elemental cries. There is also pure joy – and recognition of what is to come. The beauty of these pieces lies in their clarified emotional balance. All the emotions are there, in all their purity."

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Born in Detroit, Michigan, of Armenian descent, violist Kim Kashkashian graduated from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where she studied with Walter Trampler and Karen Tuttle. She has appeared as soloist with major orchestras in New York, Berlin, Vienna, London, Munich and Tokyo, and in recital at the Metropolitan Museum and the 92nd Street "Y" in New York, as well as the major halls in Amsterdam, Zürich, Paris, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

Kashkashian's career has embraced most stations of the classical tradition, but she has specialized in contemporary music, working closely with György Kurtág, Giya Kancheli, Sofia Gubaidulina, Linda Bouchard, Krzysztof Penderecki, Jon Harbison and others, in the process considerably expanding the repertoire for the viola.

Since 1985, Kim Kashkashian has recorded extensively for ECM New Series. Albums include: the highly-acclaimed double disc set of the complete sonatas for viola by Paul Hindemith; Hommage à R.Sch., which brings Kurtág's music into juxtaposition with that of his dedicatee, Robert Schumann; three recordings with music of Giya Kancheli; Lachrymae (music of Hindemith, Britten, Penderecki); an album on which music for viola and percussion by Linda Bouchard and Paul Chihara is contrasted with Shostakovich's Sonata for Viola and Piano op. 147; and Bach's Viola da Gamba sonatas. Kashkashian is also the soloist on the soundtrack album of Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze.

Kim Kashkashian lives in Germany and is professor of viola at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule in Berlin.

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Robert Levin studied piano with Louis Martin and composition with Stefan Wolpe in New York, and worked with Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau and Paris. As a pianist and harpsichordist, Levin has been heard throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia as soloist and in chamber concerts. He is especially well-known for his Mozart and Beethoven performances which restore the practices of improvised embellisments and cadenzas. He has given concerts with, amongst others, the orchestras of Berlin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Montreal under Bernard Haitink, Neville Mariner and Simon Rattle, as well as with the Academy of Ancient Music, the London Classical Players, the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique, under Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner.

In addition to his performing activities, Robert Levin is a recognized theorist and Mozart scholar, and has completed a number of Mozart fragments. His reconstruction of the Symphonie concertante in Eb major for four winds and orchestra, K.297B, was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic at the 1984 Mozartwoche in Salzburg, and subsequently performed around the world. The Philips recording of the work received the 1985 Grand Prix International du Disque.

Robert Levin has recorded widely for many labels. For ECM New Series, in collaboration with Kim Kashkashian, he has recorded compositions by Kurtág, Schumann, Shostakovich, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Elliott Carter, Glasunow, Liszt, Kodály and Vieuxtemps.

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