GORDON: Cello Concerto, after Mann’s “Doktor Faustus.”1 Fathoms, 5 Impressions of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”2 Ode to a Nightingale3 / Toke Møldrup, cel; 1Copenhagen Philharmonic Orch.; Lan Shui, cond; 2Steven Beck, pno; 3Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir / Bis SACD-2330
This CD highlights the music of British composer Geoffrey Gordon for cello, one work each with orchestra, piano and mixed choir. When the Cello Concerto started, I immediately thought to myself, “Here’s another composer who follows in the footsteps of Thomas Adès’ edgy style,” but by the end of the first minute I realized that Gordon has his own way of composing. Yes, there is edginess in the orchestra, but also some melodic lines as well, and in fact the solo cello part is largely comprised of little melodic cells that develop slightly as the music progresses. Although I can’t say that Gordon’s music impressed me quite as strongly as that of Kalevi Aho, I’d say that he’s closer to Aho in style than to Adès.
There’s a nice organic feeling about this piece that I liked, not least of which was its continuous structure. Though divided into nine sections titled “Prologue,” movements 1-3, “Cadenza,” movement 4, another “Cadenza,” movement 5 and “Epilogue,” the whole piece flows seamlessly from start to finish, a continuous and continuing development every way except harmonically. For the most part, this concerto stays in one basic chord or mode throughout most of its length, with only a few small excursions outside of it. Yet Gordon avoids sounding monotonous by means of his continuously shifting the orchestral colors and rhythmic interplay of the various instruments.
In a way, it sounds less like a cello concerto than like a symphony with cello obbligato, similar to Berlioz’ Harold en Italie. Because of this, I found myself focusing on the content of the music more so than the style of the soloist, although Møldrup is a fine cellist with a bright, compact tone. The music calls much more for legato phrasing than for pyrotechnics, though the cadenzas are certainly somewhat virtuosic. Since this is the first time I’ve heard this music, and haven’t seen the score, I can’t say how close the performance is to the written notes, but it seemed fine to me. I should point out that Møldrup is the principal cellist of the Copenhagen Philharmonic, an orchestra with which conductor Lan Shui has worked with before, particularly in his recording of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies.
It is in Fathoms that Gordon moves into a more restless, energetic style than the Concerto, producing a veritable swarm of notes from the piano, often in circular chromatic patterns, over which the cellist plays virtuosic, continuously edgy music. Yet in the “Ferdinand and Miranda” section, Gordon writes a surprisingly melodic theme which is later disrupted with edgy outbursts. Yet the music is highly imaginative and unexpected; nothing falls into a neat category for the listener. In “The Isle is Full of Noises” the pianist plays the inside strings of his instrument as well as to slap the outside of it. I should also note that this piece was commissioned by Møldrup.
Ode to a Nightingale is for the unusual combination of a cappella chorus and solo cello, set to the poetry of John Keats. Here, Gordon juxtaposes a tonal melodic line (albeit with several altered chords in the accompaniment) for the chorus against edgy, angst-filled outbursts for the solo cello, and very effectively, too. My lone complaint of this piece is that it went on a bit too long yet did not really add anything to what was already said.
All in all, however, this is a fascinating CD, beautifully recorded and presenting some very diverse and interesting music.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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