Lera Auerbach is one of our foremost composers,
a Russian-American who brought a Siberian heritage to New York and now
hears her musical language interpreted by such artists as Gidon Kremer,
Hilary Hahn, the New York Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, and the
Tokyo, Artemis, and Jasper
string quartets. It’s easy to understand why: her music has great
power, communicating in a basically tonal language but doing so with
lessons learned from great 20th
-century forebears - the name
Shostakovich occasionally comes up. Thus all this music is intensely
expressive, but not overly serious or glum.
The Twenty-Four Preludes
for cello and piano are in the footsteps
of, say, Bach or Chopin: they function as standalone miniatures but
also as a cyclical whole (as performed here, Nos. 9 and 10 proceed without
pause), and they test extremes both of virtuosity and of emotions. The
heart of the set is Prelude No. 12, which takes a theme briefly reminiscent
of Mussorgsky (Bydlo) and spins it into a cello melody of such mysterious
beauty that it can be compared to Saint-Saëns and Fauré.
I dare not spoil for you how, halfway through, this extraordinary tune
is transformed, haunted-house style, from something so pristine to being
more sinister. I should note that Auerbach thinks the “heart of
the set” is actually No. 16. There are a couple of unaccompanied
cello preludes in the mix, too, including one which is an obvious homage
to Bach; No. 14 is a variation on a tune from Mozart’s Magic
. You might think No. 21, “Dialogo,” misleadingly
named: it’s a dialogue between the highest and lowest registers
of the cello, with the piano silent.
The first movement of the twenty-minute Cello Sonata
the harshest, most difficult music on the disc, with the following lament
more willing to sing about its pain. The finale, marked “Con estrema
intensita,” is marked by cello playing which follows this marking
so strongly I was worried the bow was going to snap and all the strings
were going to come flying off. What makes Auerbach’s music successful
despite its rarely-relenting intensity, by the way, is how sincere it
feels; she has mastered what the Greeks called the “ethical appeal,”
the idea that the author is persuasive one. Her music seems to be driven
by something more personal than ambition or self-seriousness. The brief
brings back parts of the tune from my favorite Prelude,
No. 12, alongside the spooky sounds of a prepared piano.
The performances are of just staggering quality. Lera Auerbach at the
piano is as effective a performer of her music as you can imagine, but
the real surprise is cellist Ani Aznavoorian, who appears to have only
to her credit. Playing on a cello built by her father,
Aznavoorian delivers with emotional commitment that borders on eye-popping.
Plus she seems never to be afraid of the music’s demands for exotic
effects, microtonality, scraping, spooky harmonics that sound like Armenian
wind instruments, vibrato that threatens to explode, and fiendish double-stopping.
To paraphrase Nigel Tufnel, this cellist goes up to 11. She delivered
the world premiere of the preludes, according to her bio, and she simply
owns this music. Not that I hope she owns it for long; this is extraordinary
cycle that belongs in the repertoire of many a cellist.
Well, what’s to add? Auerbach writes the booklet notes and took
the cover photo. The performances are not just expert but authoritative.
The music is pretty much essential for contemporary music lovers, and
those who want to hear a cello at its limits. I was so engaged I barely
noticed the perfectly natural sound, always a strength of the Cedille
label. This one’s a strong contender for my Recording of the Year
We’ve reviewed a lot of other Auerbach: the solo
, the piano
, the piano
, and a
should get you started. Ani Aznavoorian is premiering
a cello concerto which somebody has got to record or I’ll start