AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Franklin Cox – The New Cello Volume 2 [Centaur Records CRC3390]

MI0003868339One of the more important legacies of the musical avant-garde of the last century is the extension of the technical means available to instrumentalists of all kinds. With this has come a corresponding broadening of the range of sounds ready to hand for performers and composers alike. With his series of recordings of new and recent music for the solo cello, Franklin Cox offers a cross-section of some of the more demanding and expansive compositions for the instrument.

An American originally from Illinois, Cox (b. 1961) is not only a cellist but a composer and musicologist as well. He was a student of composer Brian Ferneyhough and retains an allegiance to the New Complexity, of which Ferneyhough is perhaps the best known exemplar. All of the composers represented on The New Cello Volume 2, in fact, are either associated with or have been influenced by the New Complexity. Microtonality is a significant element of New Complexity composition and of particular importance to Cox, whose New Cello Volume 1, a collection of works by Americans Ben Johnston, Elliott Carter, Stuart Saunders Smith and Cox himself, demonstrated his fluency not only with microtonality but with intonation that falls outside of or beyond equal temperament. His favoring work of this sort pushes him into sonic territory that he describes as challenging Western art music’s traditional “requirement of constant tonal beauty.” The New Cello Volume 2, which features nine demanding compositions by contemporary European composers, finds him very much at home in that territory.

Although all of the works delve deeply into the cello’s full complement of technical resources, they aren’t simply about what can be done with and to the instrument. Each has an irreducible expressivity that the techniques, remarkable as they are, ultimately serve. This is apparent from the first track, Cox’s realization of British composer Roger Redgate’s Feu la cendre (1992). It is an aggressively percussive work that, with its rising and falling glissandi, has the cello at times take on the plaintive inflections of the human voice. Michael Finnissy’s Dove’s Figary (1976-77; 1981), a microtonal recasting of a 17th century English country dance tune, maintains its underlying songful nature underneath the artful warpages and distortions of Finnissy’s reimagining. Einspielung II (1980) by the late Portuguese composer Emmanel Nunes has a kind of knotty lyricism transmitted through rapidly falling figures, false leading tones and dramatic changes of register and dynamics.

Three of the works are linked to literary sources. James Erber’s Le colonne d’Ercole (1996) is based on Canto 26 of the Inferno; its flowing line possesses a lyricism that nonetheless is subject to dislocating shifts in mood. La vision d’ange nouveau (1997-98) by German composer Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf has its basis in Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History;” its slow, microtonal glissandi against a drone are broken by pizzicato notes and an increasingly fragmented texture–possibly an allusion to the shattered future that Benjamin’s angel sees spread out before him. A poem by Paul Celan provides the context for Welsh composer Richard Barrett’s Dark Ages (1987-90), a fittingly dark, thick-textured work for cello played with two bows on detuned strings.

Interspersed throughout the program are three versions of Klaus K. Hübler’s concise Opus breve, a predominantly timbral work of multilayered rhythms.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Brice Catherin – Winterreise

Brice Catherin: Winterreise [pyr065]

Winterreise is composer/cellist Brice Catherin’s 40-minute long concerto for cello and small ensemble, recorded at its premier performance in October 2010. Catherin describes this work as having been composed for “cello with specific techniques,” which here means the substantial use of triple and quadruple stops. Because these cannot be produced with the standard bow, the work calls for the specially-made Bach.bogen bow.

The Bach.bogen is a dramatically curved bow developed by German cellist/composer Michael Bach in 1990, with the involvement of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. In contrast to a conventional bow, the Bach.bogen’s curve allows its user to play polyphonically by sounding one, two, three or four strings at once. Although frequently associated with contemporary experimental music, the bow as conceived goes back to Albert Schweitzer’s 1905 book on J.S. Bach, the argument being that a sufficiently curved bow was needed to sound the chords of the composer’s solo works for cello and violin. But it’s perhaps best known for its use in John Cage’s ONE8.

For this premier performance, Catherin played the solo cello. Its parts add up to a kind of inventory of the technical possibilities afforded by the Bach.bogen, from grinding, overpressured chords to polyphonic vibrato to the opposition of rapidly repeated figures on higher strings against drones on the lower strings. The accompanying orchestra is described as a free ensemble, meaning one in which the number of instruments is determined but the choice of instruments is left open. This particular ensemble is made up of a highly diverse group of instruments including multiple saxophones, guitar and bass guitars, violins, percussion, accordions, and even a homemade sitar. The ensemble supports the solo cello with a thick but porous tissue of sound characterized by shifts in color, texture and density rather than by conventional changes in harmony.

Catherin composed Winterreise as the first of three concerti for Bach.bogen cello. It will be interesting indeed to hear the subsequent installments in this series.