Northwestern University Cello Ensemble: Shadow, Echo, Memory
Sono Luminus

As an album title, there's certainly nothing objectionable about Shadow, Echo, Memory, but perhaps an even better choice would have been Vocalise, the title of another work performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble on this well-rounded collection. For if there's one thing that stands out more than any other, it's the vocal-like quality of the ensemble's playing. Even when the cellists play in unison, their collective voice is characterized by a lyricism that one more typically associates with a single player's utterance; that four of the album's selections—Après un Rêve, Vocalise, Lux Aeterna, and Three Lacquer Prints—are arrangements of vocal works likewise testifies to the cello's expressive capacity.

Luxuriant also describes the ensemble's playing on the album's three centuries-spanning programme (the nineteenth to the twenty-first), which features familiar settings by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and György Ligeti (1923-2006) alongside recent compositions by Zachary Wadsworth, Michael van der Sloot, Hans Thomalla, and Aaron Jay Kernis. Certain pieces are characterized by elegant understatement, among them Wadsworth's (b. 1983) Three Lacquer Prints, originally a choral setting featuring lyrics taken from Amy Lowell's Lacquer Prints, whose poems were in turn inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The ensemble's strings shimmer incandescently throughout Wadsworth's pieces, whether it be the haunting “Temple Ceremony” or sumptuous “A Burnt Offering.”

The luscious sound generated by the ensemble in full is clearly one of the album's major drawing cards, but the musicians and director Hans Jørgen Jensen were also smart to feature soloists on three of the ten selections: not only does the move amplify the cello's expressivity, it grants a single voice the opportunity to maximize the emotional intensity of the piece in question. Written in 1877, Gabriel Fauré's (1845-1924) Après Un Rêve provides a marvelous showcase for soloist Gabriel Cabezas, whose playing is so expressive it seems to effortlessly collapse whatever distance there is between the cello and the human voice. Much the same could be said for Joseph Johnson's heartfelt contribution to Sergei Rachmaninov's (1873-1943) seductive Vocalise as well as Richard Narroway's passionate performance on Kernis's (b. 1960) gorgeous Ballad, composed in 2004 in memory of his deceased parents.

All concerned were also wise to balance comparatively more accessible pieces, such as Mahler's adored Adagietto (from Symphony No. 5), with those featuring novel sound worlds, such as the title piece by van der Sloot (b. 1991) where atmosphere takes precedence over conventional melody. The Canadian composer evokes prehistoric times in juxtaposing ominously deep chords (voiced by twenty-one cellists) with a panoply of unusual effects, among them luminous textures and percussive treatments suggestive of piercing light and echoing water droplets, respectively. In Intermezzo (from the 2011 opera Fremd), Chicago-based Hans Thomalla (b. 1975) uses glissandi to produce states of uncertainty and instability, the effect similar to a ship woozily rocked by ocean waves. And though it was composed a half-century ago, the micropolyphony of Ligeti's Lux Aeterna still dazzles when its individual voices expand from a single note to cover all twelve pitches, something the cello ensemble seems tailor-made to do.

As an album, Shadow, Echo, Memory encompasses such a dynamic range of expression, not once does the listener feel as if the sound world presented is in any way disadvantaged by the focus on a single instrument (though, for the record, guitar and percussion do appear in Thomalla's piece, harp in Mahler's, and bass on both). That's attributable as much to the calibre of the ensemble's playing as the compositions featured on this fine release.

August 2016