The Strad Issue: November 2016
Description: Massed Chicago cellos in a range of 20th- and 21st-century music
Musicians: Northwestern University Cello Ensemble/Hans Jørgen Jensen
Composer: Fauré, Kernis, Ligeti, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Thomalla, Van Der Sloot, Wadsworth
Catalogue number: SONO LUMINUS SLE70004

Can the sumptuousness of a cello ensemble be too much of a good thing? Occasionally the harmonies can be too densely packed, the part-writing in this arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, for example, sounding a little glutinous despite the poetically intense playing from soloist Joseph Johnson. In contrast, Fauré’s Après un rêve has a leaner texture, Gabriel Cabezas presenting an eloquent rendition of the vocal line.

This warmly recorded and varied CD also offers some intriguing contemporary works. Three Lacquer Prints (2012) by Zachary Wadsworth is an atmospheric piece drawing inspiration from a set of woodblock prints and Japanese poems. Michael van der Sloot’s Shadow, Echo, Memory (2014) brilliantly reinvents the timbral possibilities of a cello ensemble, using percussion and amplification, ghostly whispering metal against strings framing fluttering harmonics and sul ponticello – all choreographed with microtonal fluctuations.

The Intermezzo from Hans Thomalla’s Medea opera Fremd (2014) uses a more acerbic language, this arrangement hoisting the listener right into the conflict. Aaron Jay Kernis’s Ballad (2014) presents an eclectic stylistic fusion with snippets of romantic melodies floating into the intertwining musical lines in a compelling performance. In Ligeti’s Lux aeterna (1966), the haunting music deploying 16 voices forges towards intense dissonance and then falls away. Its exquisite sound world of anguish and release forms an ideal link to Mahler’s Adagietto, which likewise plumbs the emotional depths, with the addition of harp and double basses offering an intoxicating richness of sonority.

Joanne Talbot