Voci featuring Kim Kashkashian, viola

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Popular (people’s) music and classical (art) music are usually thought of as two different planets, orbiting far apart — and bringing them together might seem like mixing oil and water. But more than one early 20th century composer — Debussy, Bartók, Kodály, Ives — dipped into the bottomless well of folk music on the road to innovation. And such recent composers as Evan Chambers, Michael Daugherty, Bright Sheng and Kevin Volans have made extensive use of “people’s” music from around the world in the service of absolutely contemporary, passionate work.

Among those at midcentury who passed the baton from Bartók to these young Turks was Luciano Berio, an Italian composer known for uncompromising expressionism and stark sonorities. A 1999 recording of two Berio works — “Voci” (“Voices”) and “Naturale” — has just been released by ECM, featuring stunning performances by America’s premier violist, Kim Kashkashian, and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

Those who heard Kashkashian play selections from György Kurtág’s “Signs, Games and Messages for solo viola” at last summer’s Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival know the poetic brilliance that she displays on that instrument. On the present set, her intonation and depth of feeling are positively uncanny.

“Voci,” the first of Berio’s pieces here, feels like an updating of Bartók via Schoenberg-Berg-Webern. It has the high drama of the 12-tone innovators, along with the peasant roots that Bartók always left prominently showing. Kashkashian moves through what sounds like the full range of the viola’s possibilities, exploring melody sinuously as Davies directs the orchestra — drawn-out strings, brooding woodwinds and subtle percussion — like an avant-garde filmmaker, getting a full range of pictures and moods out of the score.

From high modernism, the disc switches unexpectedly to field recordings of Sicilian folk music: lone, plaintive voices of men or women, sounding like they’re calling across open spaces from hilltops or quavering to the accompaniment of droning instruments in some quiet corner out of the midday sun. It’s thoroughly existential, affecting music, and ECM has put it here as a reference point. This is Berio’s source, his morning star in the pre-dawn sky, the fixed sound that gives him his bearings.

So when “Naturale” comes along — a work that combines Kashkashian’s emotive virtuosity with taped samplings of the Sicilian singers and percussion by Robyn Schulkowsky — we hear it as a sublime hybrid of folk and fine art, but one that feels natural. By the end of this 22-minute work, we can’t imagine wanting anything else. It’s one of the most profound, most emotionally satisfying pieces of music in years.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at gtysh@metrotimes.com.

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