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History Repeating

Making beautiful music alone, and together, for 30 years

Pianist Robert Levin and violist Kim Kashkashian performing circa 2007.

Julien Jourdes/file circa 2007

Pianist Robert Levin and violist Kim Kashkashian performing circa 2007.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Levin and Kashkashian practicing recently at the New England Conservatory.

Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin are not the biggest names in Boston’s music scene, but they are two of the essential elements that make it the special place that it is. Both long ago established themselves as musicians of uncommon depth and integrity: Kashkashian as the most prominent violist of her generation, with a distinctive instrumental timbre and an exceptional gift for lyricism; Levin as a scholar-pianist of probing intelligence. Each has formed partnerships with living composers in a quest to enlarge the repertoire for their respective instruments.

As fine as they are individually, something magical happens when the two collaborate, as they have done for decades and will do so again on Monday for a free concert at New England Conservatory, where Kashkashian is on the faculty.

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They first played together in the chamber ensemble New York Philomusica in the 1970s. But it was their first duo album, “Elegies” – recorded 30 years ago for the ECM label – that offered the first glimpse of their special rapport. In a sequence of melancholy works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Kodaly – all of which are on Monday’s concert – and others, they produced a remarkably dark, inwardly focused sound without sacrificing an uncanny sense of expressive intensity.

This is what the Associated Press wrote in a review of “Elegies” in 1986: “Elegies,” an elegant but somber collection played by Kim Kashkashian and Robert Levin, is perfect for a dreary, lonely day. With its darker, lower sound, a viola sounds like a violin which has lost its will to live, the perfect voice for singing an elegy — a song in praise to the dead. What a somber mood it is. The title of the first cut, Benjamin Britten’s “Lachrymae,” refers to tears. Britten doesn’t write of the tears from the first stab of heartbreak, but the exhausted tears which come later.”

The affinity of the two musicians has reappeared on all the recordings that have followed, in repertoire ranging from the viola sonatas of Brahms and Hindemith to the gorgeous arrangements of Spanish and Argentine songs on “Asturiana.”

How to describe this uncanny bond? “My take on it is that he and I embody a completely opposite set of strengths and weaknesses, and therefore it’s a pretty good fit,” Kashkashian told me when I asked her about the partnership in 2007. “There’s one thing we have in common musically, which is that we have the same sense of breathing, which is something you can’t explain or produce. It’s one of those imponderables.”

Levin put it in even more poetic terms in a 2008 story in the Detroit Free Press. “When you hear Kim,” he said, “you wish to experience in your daily emotional diary the feelings that emanate from every one of her performances.”

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.
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