Proper artist albums in classical music are often less realized than other genre counterparts. Whether because they rely too much on standard repertoire, or perhaps more strict constraints to a particular composer or period, the market is packed with all-too-similar releases—regardless of the technical merits on display—that do little to differentiate themselves from the score of releases that have come before them.
Which is why Kim Kashkashian's latest album, Neharót, is such a breath of fresh air. Mining only recent and largely unknown compositions, it fits snugly into the contemporary classical realm. But its the cohesiveness of the selections that sets it apart. Focusing on composers and styles from the Near East, Neharot both relates to Kashkashian's heritage as an artist while also presenting a stylistic plumbline to center this particular program of material.
The tone of the album is dialed in to 'plaintive' and 'subdued' in the opening and title piece, "Neharót, Neharót." The work, whose title roughly translates from Hebrew to mean "rivers, rivers," is by Israeli composer Betty Olivero. A grim and mournful reflection on the 2006 Lebanon War, the title is an allusion to the many tears shed over the loss of life from the conflict. Musically, "Neharot, Neharot" features the solo viola alternating between more energetic, weeping phrase to more somber and long lines, accompanied by small string ensemble, percussion, accordion and manipulated recordings of indigenous female voice.
Kashkashian continues to explore her Armenian ancestry—as well as her ongoing collaboration with Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian—with "Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord." Originally written for viola and piano, this arrangement features viola and percussion with a very sparse and reflective air. The viola solos freely over long and fluid lines, while the percussion is relegated to more bell-like and atmospheric accents.
"Oror" follows as almost an intermission to the album. Mansurian's solo piano arrangement of a work by Armenian composer Komitas gives the viola a rest, as the incidental and soundtrack-like piano song follows the descent of emotion from the previous work and offers a subdued resolve before the more emotional triptych that follows.
Mansurian's work continues with "Three Arias (Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat)." Although concerto-like in style, it differs in actual form. Written for solo viola and orchestra, the work plays out as three instrumental songs, taking advantage of the viola's earthy ("human") range and fashioning very lyrical pieces for the instrument to sing. Continuing the album's theme of lament, this one has a decidedly more spiritual angle, as it imagines an Armenian looking out at Mount Ararat—one of their holy sites—that is now separated from them behind the borders of Turkey. This political border dispute mirrors some of the sentiments from the opening piece and continues the cultural and regional themes throughout the album.
The idea of instrumental singing returns again with the closing "Rava Deravin" by Eitan Steinberg. Originally composed for voice and mixed instrumental ensemble, the composer arranged the version here for Kashkashian and string quartet. Also an Israeli composer, Steinberg crafted this piece from his original based on a poem honoring a traditional Sabbath meal. The piece moves from very soloistic passages with involved accompaniment, to more subdued lamentations with near drone-like backing. Many of the sections feature almost ecstatic and ornamental lyric phrasing for the viola and becomes a very rich—if non-traditional—showcase for the instrument.
Aside from being simply a proper artist album—and a unified one at that—what's more satisfying is that Neharót is simply a beautiful album. Kashkashian's viola sounds as if it almost literally weeps and yearns, so expressive is her tone and lyrical phrasing. The pieces themselves are also very accessible, which makes it an easy recommendation to those who may or may not be otherwise interested in modern music, as well as to those simply interested in some exceptional viola playing.