London Cello Connection. © 2023 Navona Records LLC

CD Spotlight

An Impressive Calling Card

Eight new North American works for solo cello and orchestra impress PAUL SARCICH

'Recording and orchestral playing are first rate, so the composers have been well served.'


The Romanian-born cellist Ovidiu Marinescu has produced an ambitious recording here: eight premieres of pieces for solo cello and orchestra by USA and Canada based composers. There was no booklet file provided for download, only a link to Navona's online catalogue where a dedicated page gives information about the composers, artists and pieces, but nothing about how these composers came to be chosen. It would be interesting to know, because as the notes point out, this is an eclectic bunch: professors, professionals and part-timers; writing in styles from unabashed romanticism to uncompromising modernism, in pieces ranging from the intensely personal to the totally abstract. The webpage also has three video clips from the recording sessions.

The titling is somewhat mystifying: given the above and the fact that the conductor is the Croatian Miran Vaupotiić and the recording crew seem to be from all over Europe, the only London connection seems to be the use of the London Symphony Orchestra.

The opening track is from one of the professors - Marvin Lamb, from the University of Oklahoma. Entitled Sarabande, his piece is not an academic reconstruction of an ancient dance form, but a freewheeling discussion of ideas that range from the meditative to the overtly rhapsodic, embracing some glittery backing textures, a large major chord climax, and harmony which is not lacerating but not comforting either. Quite a lot of the melodic writing, especially for the cello, is wide-ranging and leapy, and the piece does not give a sense of a peaceful, elegant dance - rather more of a tone poem on a subject that has not been stated. It's a substantial piece that will bear repeated listening.

Listen — Marvin Lamb: Sarabande
(NV6514 track 1, 0:01-1:00) ℗ 2023 Navona Records LLC :

John Robertson, a New Zealander long resident in Canada, had a career in insurance, doing composition on the side before retiring. Shades of Charles Ives? Not stylistically - the piece is called Celebratory Music and records his recovery from chemotherapy for a lymphoma. Opening with restless moto perpetuo ideas in the orchestra which then pass to busy cello arpeggiations while the winds play long note melodies, this could be read as a return to an active life. Brass and timpani fanfares follow and could be a shout for joy, then chirpy woodwind and percussion writing under the cello now singing the long lines keep up the feel. A very sudden ending on a brass chord does take one by surprise, and with the plethora of ideas this does sounds like a piece which is not quite sure of which way it wants to go.

Katherine Price comes with a stated background in religious music, and influences from holy minimalism. Her The Two Headed Calf is indeed sombre and plaintive, with string backings à la Pēteris Vasks underpinning impassioned cello lines. As with Robertson, she also gives cello scrubbing an accompanimental role, and with busy woodwind textures also added to the mix, sometimes the cello gets lost in all the activity. It is, however, primarily a contemplative piece and not in any way robotically minimalistic - there's too much feeling in it for that.

Listen — Katherine Price: The Two Headed Calf
(NV6514 track 3, 0:00-0:49) ℗ 2023 Navona Records LLC :

Joanna Estelle, another 'part-timer', mixed a huge amount of music study and activity with a successful career in public service. (Composers know all about 'portfolio careers'.) Her Ukrainian family background informs I Am My Home, originally a choral piece written on a poem of her immigrant grandfather's, a Ukrainian nationalist who fought the Bolsheviks before fleeing to Canada. Starting with a straightforward announcement of the hymn-like eastern European flavoured tune, Estelle continuously varies the treatment of it, producing not a set of variations but a richly-coloured exploration, throwing the attention from cello to orchestra and back; sometimes the cello seeming to act as a cantor to the orchestral congregation. It is an excellent piece of both orchestration and development. And of course, very pertinent to events today.

Listen — Joanna Estelle: I Am My Home
(NV6514 track 4, 2:15-3:15) ℗ 2023 Navona Records LLC :

Diane Jones is the Program Manager and mid-day host on WCNY-FM, Central New York's Classical Radio Station. (See what I mean?) Her Soul Dance opens and closes with cello soliloquies, but the bulk of it happens over regular string quavers, providing a simple and repetitive accompaniment for the cello, given plenty of space to explore the basically simple melodic ideas, which tend toward the sound of central European folk music. It is all a refreshing kind of simplicity though, if one can appreciate unaffectedness.

L Peter Deutsch's compositional style is strongly influenced by choral singing and its extension into chamber music, but here we have a piece of unashamed nature music, inspired by places in New Hampshire and around Lake Tahoe. 'Wandering among nature' is Deutsch's phrase, and certainly there is pastorality, lyricism and impressionism here. A section with the cello in low register accompanied by harp stands out among the largely high register writing over most of the album. The ritornello form and a cheeky fugato in the middle section are features of a piece where the cello gets a lot of space to sing above simple woodwind and string accompaniments. We are never far away from peace here.

Listen — L Peter Deutsch: The Forest Stream
(NV6514 track 6, 3:13-4:05) ℗ 2023 Navona Records LLC :

In complete contrast, Keith Kramer's Luce del Sole is a piece of uncompromising modernism, reliant on texture and gesture, full of stark and sudden contrasts of dynamics, density, activity levels and colours. The solo cello gets to do plenty of extended techniques. It is undoubtedly dramatic, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who knows the contemporary music of the 1960s and 70s.

The other professor on the disc, Arthur Gottschalk from Rice University, contributes another very personal piece, Brunetti Meditations, in memory of his friend, the violinist and pedagogue Kenneth Goldsmith. An unsurprisingly elegaic opening in the cello has surroundings that are contemplative rather than sad, colourful rather than dark. The departed friend would still seem to be a positive force, and an air of otherworldliness creeps in as harmonies seem to semi-solidify, then melt. Above which the cello sings what could be an improvised tribute - it has that sort of feeling. A few moments of a loud, emotional outburst toward the end do not dispel the general atmosphere of thanksgiving.

Listen — Arthur Gottschalk: Brunetti Meditations
(NV6514 track 8, 6:19-7:15) ℗ 2023 Navona Records LLC :

This is obviously a huge undertaking on Marinescu's part: commissioning and learning eight substantial new pieces and getting them recorded in two days. But he has made himself an impressive calling card, as his playing is consistently committed and of a high quality, no matter what the idiom. He has also brought some interesting pieces into the repertoire, most of them accessible to both players and audiences. Recording and orchestral playing are first rate, so the composers have been well served.

Copyright © 4 April 2023 Paul Sarcich,
Sheffield, UK



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