Rohan de Saram Plays Modern Works


WP 2019 - 2DRAKEFORD: Suite No. 2 for Solo Cello. PAREDES: Zuhuy Kak. MATTHEWS: Songs and Dances of Mourning. DILLON: Eos. MAYER: Sannyasin / Rohan de Saram, cel / First Hand Records FHR 45

Now, this is the kind of cello recital I look forward to hearing: all late-20th-century works. And please note, it’s played by a cellist who is celebrating his 80th birthday! He chose to celebrate it with the music of contemporary composers, not a bunch of dead guys. How refreshing!

First up is the oldest piece on this record, Richard Drakeford’s Suite No. 2 for Solo Cello (1957-59). Drakeford studied with Herbert Howells and the more famous Edmund Rubbra. He actually wrote this piece for de Saram yet this, like the Matthews and Mayer pieces, is its first recording. The music is primarily tonal, yet has some interesting harmonies within, some of them modal. As the notes point out, although Drakeford’s model in this sonata may have been Bach, the music also channels Shostakovich and Rawsthorne, although I would say the former more so than the latter.

De SaramMuch stranger in form and harmony is Mexican composer Hilda Parades’ Zuhuy Kak, which uses atonality, edge-of-strings playing, and microtonal slides. The music seems less structured and more amorphous to the naked ear though it is not. The title refers to the fires “lit by the Toltecas during their religious ceremonies to prevent the end of the world and to mark the new time cycle every 52 years.” The rhythmic elements in this piece are based on the Kandyan drumming of Sri Lanka. In one section, Parades uses contrasting eight-note phrases that rise and fall against each other. This piece, too, was written for de Saram, and premiered by him in 1997. A live performance was previous issued on CD, but this is its first studio recording.

By contrast, David Matthews’ Songs and Dances of Mourning opens with the kind of music I refer to as “schlumph”: dirge-like, dour and thickly written. Well, he’s referring to death, so I guess he has a point, but the music only began to appeal to me about two and a half minute into its nearly 28-minute length. At 3:05, faster figures enter the picture although the minor-key, dirge-like feeling continues to prevail. I guess Death isn’t all that hip of a dancer.

James Dillon’s Eos (1998), the only work on this album previously recorded, is comprised largely of edgy sound effects in the “approved” modern style. Short, edgy phrases—not really even themes or tunes—are eventually melded with longer phrases. It’s an interesting piece that eventually makes a good impression, but not particularly memorable or original.

We end our musical journey with Sannyasin, a piece written for de Saram in the late 1990s by Indian-British composer John Mayer, who also led a jazz quintet within his Indo-Jazz Fusions group. This is a wonderful piece, beginning with rapid scale passages before moving into sustained notes, “replete with a determined rhetorical quality,” before moving into three other short movements. The second opens with lightly-played pizzicato chords, then moves into a series of phrases that are ruminative and questioning. The third movement is the liveliest in rhythm, almost simulating a jazz feel here and there, while the fourth is all fast-moving 16th notes in a sort of moto perpetuo.

Overall, then, this is a fine album of interesting music, played by an excellent artist committed to promoting modern works. Well recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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