MusicWeb International reviews Cello Libris: new CD on BIS

This generously filled new issue - its title translates as ‘Cello Book’- contains a trio of substantial works for the instrument; a sonata with piano inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest, a setting of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale for choir with cello, and most impressive of all a full-scale cello concerto. One of the attractive features common to all three pieces is the elegance and symmetry of Gordon’s formal designs, and whilst this listener was never less than impressed by each of these arch-like structures, it was the concerto which stood out; the composer writes superbly for the orchestra while its delicately varied expressive content packs a lingering emotional punch.

The concerto takes its cue from Thomas Mann’s 1943 treatment of the Faust legend Doktor Faustus, a novel as renowned for its allusions to the art, music and literature of Northern and Central Europe as it is for its insinuations of social, political and economic decay. Bookended by a prologue and epilogue, the arc of the story is embodied in seven contrasting episodes, two of which are brief solo cadenzas. Nor is the work’s 24 minute duration an accident – it mirrors the 24 years of genius allotted to the novel’s central figure under the terms of the pact. From the sustained brooding brass chords flecked with colourful percussion which begin the prologue, it’s clear that Gordon is going to lead the listener on a journey to some dark places. In the first of the brief episodes that follow an uneasy sense of calm is projected by the lyrical cello line, which seeks a navigable route through some thorny orchestral textures. These cut through majestically in BIS’s fine soundscape, with especially vivid drums and timpani. The subsequent section features more agitated writing for the soloist (the terrific Toke Møldrup) incorporating a virtuosity in swifter moments that evokes Lutoslawski’s concerto. The third episode is static and ethereal, yielding an introspection in the solo part in which the protagonist seems preoccupied with the most disturbing internal conflict. It is subtitled Durer’s Melancholia (an engraving which previously inspired a fine work by Harrison Birtwistle) and ends as it started in still darkness before giving way to the first of the two brief, questioning cadenzas. In between them, chimes punctuate the mood of the fifth episode amid tangy passages involving muted brass, before a gaunt bass tread ascends threateningly, gravid with a sense of impending catastrophe although one senses that Gordon is holding something back. The final episode evolves darkly from the second cadenza – eruptive timpani and expressionistic material for the soloist coalesce and suggest Faustus’s impending madness, notwithstanding sporadic hints of deceptive lyricism. The material intensifies still further, its thickly layered solo part demanding fearsome levels of stamina and musicality from Møldrup. The epilogue provides a final opportunity to look back at the terrain travelled in a reflective panel brimming with Bergian ambiguity. At its conclusion the solo line is reduced to an uneasy oscillation between adjacent semitones. Gordon’s cello concerto impresses more with each hearing. It’s fierce and uncompromising and superbly played by Møldrup and the Copenhagen Phil under Lan Shui. BIS’s stereo production (no SACD here – more’s the pity in this case) is in the finest traditions of the label – the soloist is realistically balanced while the orchestral detail cuts through forensically.

The disc concludes with Gordon’s setting of John Keats’ immortal Ode to A Nightingale. The vocal writing seems incredibly challenging; the Danish choir copes splendidly both with the chromaticism of Gordon’s piquant harmonies and in terms of their projection of Keats’ singular language - there are flashes of vocal writing which recall Britten at his best.

It is high time listeners were presented with an extended opportunity to become acquainted with Geoffrey Gordon’s music and not for the first time we can be grateful to BIS for making this happen.


Richard HanlonMusicWeb International