Nicholas Cords: Recursions
In A Circle Records

In the liner notes accompanying his solo debut, Nicholas Cords writes that “these works individually and collectively exemplify the inimitable qualities of the viola's sound world, highlighting its dulcet and melancholic voice while also showing that the instrument is capable of a broad palette of expression.” Truer words were never spoken, and characterizing the instrument's voice as “dulcet and melancholic” strikes me as a near-perfect way of capturing the instrument's special tone. Cords, also known as a founding member of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, includes works by Biber, Hindemith, Rubbra, Hovhaness, and Stravinsky on the album as well as a self-composed original.

Though Recursions is a true solo work in featuring the playing of Cords only, he sometimes uses multi-tracking to generate multiple patterns within a given piece. The material doesn't only extend through time either (to the seventeenth century, specifically), but also travels widely in geographic terms, with Cords making stops in Ireland and Armenia and touching down in the Byzantine era, too. For Cords, the album's unifying thread can be found in his having selected pieces that operate on the principle of repeating musical cells.

The plaintive character of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's “Passacaglia” is so affecting, the work's 1676 date of origin becomes nothing more than a mildly interesting historical detail. Somewhat similar in mood are the Irish traditional “Pórt Na BPúcaí,” which is as engrossing a lament as Biber's opener, Edmund Rubbra's “Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn ‘O Quando E Cruce,' Op. 117,” which, though composed in 1964, is as timeless as the two pieces preceding it, and, naturally, Stravinsky's 1944 piece “Élégie.” The recording also features renditions of Alan Hovhaness's brooding meditation “Chahagir, Op. 56a” and concludes with Paul Hindemith's four-part “Sonata for solo viola, Op. 11, #5” (1923).

Cords expresses reticence in describing himself as a composer, but on that count he needn't worry: “Five Migrations” is a more-than-legitimate contribution to the album, especially when it begins with a plaintive theme that could as easily have graced one of the other works. If anything, the piece finds him exploring the multi-tracking concept on Recursions to perhaps the fullest degree; by the time the closing part “Landing” appears, Cords seems to have become an entire orchestra section.

His impeccable command is evident throughout (for proof, consider the acrobatic runs in the Hindemith passacaglia), with the violist using his considerable technique to bring forth the emotional richness of the works presented. It's a testament to the recording's quality and Cords' artistry that its status as a solo viola project quickly recedes into the background and one's attention instead shifts purely to the music. And though it's presumably not designed to be heard as such, Recursions nevertheless acts as a wonderful stage-setter for Brooklyn Rider's upcoming album, A Walking Fire.

April 2013