Fanfare reviews Cello Libris: new CD on BIS

"With every contemporary composer I ask myself 'What is the entry point?' in the way that indigenous Russian folk singing lets us into Stravinsky’s Les noces or the rules of 12-tone composition let us into Schoenberg’s concept of the tone row. Geoffrey Gordon is a US/UK composer whose entry point on this collection of his music for cello is literary. The first work, his intensely dramatic Cello Concerto, grew out of a love of Thomas Mann. In 2013, Gordon and Toke Møldrup, first cellist of the Copenhagen Phil, discovered a mutual interest in Mann’s 1943 novel Doktor Faustus....

Gordon’s idiom is dense, kinetic, multi-layered, extremely colorful in using both the cello and the orchestra, and theatrical. Don’t expect the cello in its typical role as soulful singer. The last contemporary cello concertos that had a lasting impact were composed by Schnittke, Dutilleux, and Lutoslawski. They function as laboratories, if you will, for experimenting with the cello’s hidden capacities. Gordon mines the same vein, showing us that the cello can tremble, shudder, shriek, whine, keen, grow hysterical or menacing, etc. Here the cello is an agitated participant from the first... What Gordon presents, like (Robert) Schumann when he refers to the mad musician Kreisler, is a composer’s private transformation of his own literary response into musical notation...Gordon’s concerto reminded me instantly of Schoenberg’s 1929–30 Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, not as a direct influence but by dint of a musical imagination creating a cinema of the mind. Schoenberg’s score never reached the movie house; Gordon’s concerto is so dramatic that it would leap off the screen, blotting out the visuals. There’s a schrecklich air to Gordon’s concerto which befits Leverkühn’s dance with the Devil...Gordon’s Cello Concerto is a remarkable score of eye-opening dimensions for both cellist and listener. It deserves to be widely played and appreciated."

"The cello-and-piano suite Fathoms is inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as in “Full fathom five thy father lies,” and the work’s Prelude and five movements bring forward the familiar elements of the play: a storm at sea, the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand, the wizard Prospero, and the supernatural Ariel and Caliban. (I could have neatly made a comparison with Thomas Adès’s opera of The Tempest if Gordon had orchestrated Fathoms, but never mind. It’s enough to say that Gordon’s use of the orchestra in the concerto is just as ingenious and imaginative as Adès’s.) The same exploration of color, tone, and mood that characterizes the Cello Concerto is extended here —the piano’s possibilities are very extensively explored and beautifully conveyed by pianist Steven Beck.

Without an orchestra to compete with, Møldrup can dominate the sound picture, and his virtuosic playing is little short of amazing. There’s a lot of tempestuousness in this depiction of The Tempest, even if the only literal tempest is in the “Prelude and Storm.” The mysterious noises of Prospero’s island come through vividly, and Gordon applies a contemporary sense of melody to the two young lovers, in which the cello’s long lyric line is set against the piano’s evocation of the strangeness surrounding Ferdinand and Miranda. They find themselves in a realm where love, terror, dream, romance, and a wizard’s spells are indistinguishable."


Huntley DentFanfare