Van der Sloot: Shadow, Echo, Memory (CD review)

Hans Jorgen Jensen, Northwestern University Cello Ensemble. Sono Luminus SLE-70004.

Here, I make a confession: Until auditioning this album, I had never before heard a cello ensemble. Indeed, I no idea what to expect from a large cello ensemble, what their tone or sound or level of expertise would be. Nor were any of my expectations very high, and the disc lay on my living-room shelf awaiting a listen for some weeks as I kept putting off what I thought might be a chore. Then I did listen.

Wow.

To say that the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble exceeded my wildest expectations by a mile would be an understatement. To say that the performers and their performances exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. And to say that the recording quality exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. This one goes down as a clear entry in my list of favorite recordings of 2016.

So, what is this cello ensemble all about? According to the disc's accompanying booklet, the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble was "established by artistic director and Northwestern University cello professor, Hans Jorgen Jensen." The ensemble "began as a result of bringing together Northwestern students, talented Chicago-area high school cellists, and 21 highly successful Northwestern alumni in May 2013 to record Mahler's Adagietto. This unique and memorable event inspired the continuation of the project and the decision to record this debut album."

Don't think this is a small group, either. Augmenting the twenty-one alumni referred to above are dozens more, the booklet naming about fifty-eight cellos, seven basses, a guitarist, a percussionist, and a harpist, depending on the piece of music. They make a glorious sound.

The program consists of eight selections, the first one in three movements. The agenda is as follows:

Zachary Wadsworth (b. 1983): Lacquer Prints
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924): Après un rêve
Michael van der Sloot (b. 1991): Shadow, Echo, Memory
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943): Vocalise 
Hans Thomalla (b. 1975): Intermezzo
Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960): Ballad
György Ligeti (1923-2006): Lux aeterna
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

Hans Jorgen Jensen
As you can see by the birth and death dates above, the program alternates modern numbers with older, Romantic transcriptions. Yet the modern material is hardly raucous, nonharmonic, or atonal. Appropriate to the mellifluous sound of the cello, Maestro Jensen has chosen music that complements the instruments, and most of it is quite beautiful, gracefully rhythmic, flowing, and satisfying.

Among the album's few tunes that sound at all "modern" is Michael van der Sloot's Shadow, Echo, Memory, which tends to be a bit more ambitiously experimental than the other items on the program. However, Van der Sloot fully utilizes the potential of the cello band, providing it with every opportunity to show off its range of possibilities. So, within its almost ten-minute structure, we hear slow and fast segments that are both dark and light, impressionistic, emotional, and visual. I was sorry when it ended.

Rachmaninov's Vocalise and Mahler's Adagietto are probably the most-familiar music on the agenda, although Ligeti's Lux Aeterna may come close (think Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). The Cello Ensemble performs them all wonderfully, and the music seems to exude an even more-profound mood than ever coming from such a large body of cellos.

Congratulations to producer Hans Jorgen Jensen and recording, mixing, and mastering engineer Christopher Willis for the excellent work they did. They made the album at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois in 2013 and 2014. There is a realistic clarity to the music, by which I mean it sounds natural, with just the right amount of ambient bloom to give the instruments a lifelike appearance. There is also a truthful scope to the group's dimensionality, filling in all areas of side-to-side and front-to-back perspectives. With a wide, well-balanced frequency response and strong dynamics, the sound comes across as I would imagine it might in a live performance. It is a complete and utter pleasure listening to it.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:


1 comment:

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa