By Thomas May | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
“I migrated to viola because I sensed that it was closer to my own internal voice,” says Nicholas Cords as he talks about Touch Harmonious, the violist’s follow-up to his debut solo recording, Recursions (both released on In a Circle Records—the label established by violinist Johnny Gandelsman, his colleague from Brooklyn Rider). “Because of its flexibility and ability to move from the middle voice to bass or soprano, the viola has a unique perspective, a bird’s-eye view of the music, which is why I feel some of the great composers made the viola their instrument of choice.” The viola is flexible not only in its range but also “in what kinds of literal voices or other instruments it might embody,” Cords adds. “It’s cloaked in a way.”
While he has appeared on several recordings in recent years with Brooklyn Rider and the Silkroad Ensemble (he is a member and former co-artistic director), this latest endeavor arrives mid-pandemic—after a hiatus of seven years since Cords’ solo debut—spotlighting his musical personality at its most virtuosic and at the same time intimate. His insightful work as a curator is likewise on display in the album’s guiding threads.
Touch Harmonious juxtaposes music from the Baroque with Britten and a cluster of contemporary works, including two premiere recordings. Even with J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 on the menu, this is an album of discoveries—the viola’s “unique perspective” offering an unaccustomed encounter with the familiar masterwork. As Cords writes in his booklet essay, “Touch Harmonious is a celebration of the balming font of musical tradition as seen through the particular gaze of the viola.”
What made you decide to return to solo recording for the first time since 2013? To what extent did the pandemic influence the project?
I’d been thinking of this recording for a number of years and had put it into action before the lockdown, starting about three years ago. Sometimes you want to do the thing that is not the thing that you always do—in this case, a truly solo project instead of the collaborative music-making I usually do. Part of the reason to do that is simply growth and exploration. That’s the spirit that I wanted to bring to this recording. But I don’t think I could have finished it had my career just gone on as normal, since I never have the time.
“Music has this power to remove those things at least momentarily, to remove stress and to help us find calm.”
I was about halfway through the recording when the pandemic hit, and then was given the opportunity to finish and make adjustments to what I had been thinking programmatically. So the album straddles those two worlds. I was able to let the current moment loosely inform things. I ran across an epitaph by Samuel Johnson [from 1740, about the itinerant musician Claudy Philips] where I found the phrase “touch harmonious” [from the first line, “Philips, whose touch harmonious could remove/The pangs of guilty power and hapless love!”].
So this idea of the power of music to remove pangs became a focus: the pangs could be what Johnson talks about or the pangs of a pandemic. Music has this power to remove those things at least momentarily, to remove stress and to help us find calm. This recording is not meant to be an in-memoriam to the departed of COVID, but as I was going along, part of it became a matter of how I find my own comfort and power. Exploring the sound of the viola is one way; another is to realize that music is part of a tradition and continuum where we are connected to the past in an unbroken way.
The new recordings on this album seem to reflect this belief in the creative potential of that tradition. How do the new pieces here relate to the works you include from the Baroque era?
I used the Baroque as the starting point because that really is the beginning of modern string playing per se and of these great traditions of people who wrote virtuosic works for stringed instruments. The idea of the inexorable life of a tradition that is centuries old, that has been through pandemics and plagues and depression and all kinds of horrors, is comforting to me.
I personally commissioned the pieces by Dana Lyn [endlessly i would have walked] and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky [Short Epitaph for two violas], which were generously supported by friends of mine. I wanted these to be related to the Baroque period in some way. Dana is a Brooklyn-based violinist and composer who studied classical music but went to Ireland to live for ten years and became an Irish fiddler. She also studied counterpoint and loves Bach. Dmitri lives in Uzbekistan and has written pieces for Silkroad. He based his piece (which has no relation to the Johnson) on the La Folia chord progression in an ingenious way, so you wouldn’t know it at first hearing from the surface.
Touch Harmonious is about bridging time then—from the Baroque to the present. But it’s also about bridging different stringed instruments, since many of the choices involve transcriptions for viola.
I think transcription is what we are actually doing all the time. Think of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” where he takes a song and reimagines it in the release of the string quartet. So many pieces of Bach reuse material from other sources. We have a long tradition of composers who sanction transcribing their work for another instrument—Brahms made his own transcriptions of clarinet pieces for viola, and Elgar even conducted the viola version of his Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, transcribed by Lionel Tertis. It’s an extremely porous border to move between these instruments.
How would you describe experiencing the viola version of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1?
Generally speaking, Bach was being rather experimental when he wrote these cello suites, using the instrument as a contrapuntal and harmonic instrument. The viola is a less-resonant instrument, so in a way the listener has to work a little harder—or perhaps the viola player has to work harder. I think the viola is able to separate the idea of the middle and upper voices quite interestingly. It’s that bird’s-eye view—the viola does that a lot in the string quartet.
You give a nod to the vocal side of the Baroque with your choice of Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo. And you use an unusual find here—the transcription made by the contemporary composer Toshio Hosokawa.
I always try to have a multicultural element in the programming, and the Handel communicates that well: here is a German composer writing in the Italian language for singers in an opera that takes place in Jerusalem, but in a viola arrangement created by a Japanese composer. So the story travels in time and distance. You also see this with the Britten selection [Cello Suite No. 3], which was inspired by Rostropovich but also by Bach and Baroque forms. And the reference to the Russian Hymn to the Departed is another way of trying to tie in this idea of the current moment. When I program, I like to have layers that connect on the surface and underneath the surface as well.
What attracts you to your instrument, which was built by Patrick Robin in 2019?
I have a real love for the modern craft of instrument making, which is a parallel to what I’m talking about in terms of tradition. There are great instrument makers alive who are working with a template from tradition. Patrick, who lives right on the Loire River in France, made this instrument for me and another right next to it for Tabea Zimmermann. Patrick’s instruments have a more flexible and pliable sound—also a slightly darker sound. The bow I use is a Pierre Simon from the 19th century. So I play a new instrument with an old bow, which also relates to the topic.
What do you want the listener to come away with?
What I want in the end and what I felt reasonably happy to have achieved is that the recording works aesthetically and instinctually for the listener to have this transportive experience. I don’t like the word “escape,” but I hope it reaches people immediately without having to think too deeply about the connections.