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Geoffrey GORDON (b. 1968) Cello Libris
Cello Concerto (after Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus) (2013) [24:15] Fathoms, for cello and piano [33:02] Ode to a Nightingale, for mixed choir and solo cello [23:24]
Toke Møldrup (cello), Steven Beck (piano)
Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir/Mogens Dahl
Copenhagen Phil/ Lan Shui
rec. 2018, Concert Hall of the Royal Danish Academy for Music, Copenhagen, Denmark
Text for Ode to a Nightingale included BIS BIS-2330 [81:40]
American-born composer Geoffrey Gordon is by now in his early fifties and given his increasing profile in the concert hall on both sides of the Atlantic (according to the booklet accompanying this disc, two recent full-scale concertante works for bass clarinet and trumpet have already been played in London, Malmo, Minnesota and Munich respectively) it is perhaps surprising to discover that this is the first ‘portrait’ disc dedicated to his art. As far as I can establish his only other work to feature on a commercial recording was Saint Blue, a compact double concerto for trumpet and piano which appeared on Simon Desbruslais’ anthology The Art of Dancing (review).
This generously filled new issue - its title translates as ‘Cello Book’- contains a trio of substantial works for the instrument; a sonata with piano inspired by Shakespeare’s Tempest, a setting of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale for choir with cello, and most impressive of all a full-scale cello concerto. One of the attractive features common to all three pieces is the elegance and symmetry of Gordon’s formal designs, and whilst this listener was never less than impressed by each of these arch-like structures, it was the concerto which stood out; the composer writes superbly for the orchestra while its delicately varied expressive content packs a lingering emotional punch.
The concerto takes its cue from Thomas Mann’s 1943 treatment of the Faust legend Doktor Faustus, a novel as renowned for its allusions to the art, music and literature of Northern and Central Europe as it is for its insinuations of social, political and economic decay. Bookended by a prologue and epilogue, the arc of the story is embodied in seven contrasting episodes, two of which are brief solo cadenzas. Nor is the work’s 24 minute duration an accident – it mirrors the 24 years of genius allotted to the novel’s central figure under the terms of the pact. From the sustained brooding brass chords flecked with colourful percussion which begin the prologue, it’s clear that Gordon is going to lead the listener on a journey to some dark places. In the first of the brief episodes that follow an uneasy sense of calm is projected by the lyrical cello line, which seeks a navigable route through some thorny orchestral textures. These cut through majestically in BIS’s fine soundscape, with especially vivid drums and timpani. The subsequent section features more agitated writing for the soloist (the terrific Toke Møldrup) incorporating a virtuosity in swifter moments that evokes Lutoslawski’s concerto. The third episode is static and ethereal, yielding an introspection in the solo part in which the protagonist seems preoccupied with the most disturbing internal conflict. It is subtitled Durer’s Melancholia (an engraving which previously inspired a fine work by Harrison Birtwistle) and ends as it started in still darkness before giving way to the first of the two brief, questioning cadenzas. In between them, chimes punctuate the mood of the fifth episode amid tangy passages involving muted brass, before a gaunt bass tread ascends threateningly, gravid with a sense of impending catastrophe although one senses that Gordon is holding something back. The final episode evolves darkly from the second cadenza – eruptive timpani and expressionistic material for the soloist coalesce and suggest Faustus’s impending madness, notwithstanding sporadic hints of deceptive lyricism. The material intensifies still further, its thickly layered solo part demanding fearsome levels of stamina and musicality from Møldrup. The epilogue provides a final opportunity to look back at the terrain travelled in a reflective panel brimming with Bergian ambiguity. At its conclusion the solo line is reduced to an uneasy oscillation between adjacent semitones. Gordon’s cello concerto impresses more with each hearing. It’s fierce and uncompromising and superbly played by Møldrup and the Copenhagen Phil under Lan Shui. BIS’s stereo production (no SACD here – more’s the pity in this case) is in the finest traditions of the label – the soloist is realistically balanced while the orchestral detail cuts through forensically.
If the overall impact of the concerto depends on its predominantly dark coloration and a troubled, introspective mood, there is more than sufficient variety in the texture and pacing of the work to maintain the listener’s close engagement. I would argue that the ambitious scale of the other two works on the disc demand similar opportunities for contrast; despite the best attempts of the performers I felt that both fell a little short in this regard. Of the two Fathoms seems the more convincing. This half-hour cello sonata incorporates six movements of similar length - a prelude and five ‘impressions’ drawn from Shakespeare’s final play. The opening Prelude and Storm is certainly an effective scene-setter; the cello writing is simultaneously florid and dark while the piano part plays on the extremes of deep bass and high treble. I also enjoyed the uninterrupted span of impassioned lyricism projected throughout Ferdinand and Miranda. But I found the next three sections rather more technically effective than emotionally affecting. Gordon’s piano writing for the character portraits of Ariel and Caliban is especially choppy and angular, while I felt the extended playing techniques which materialise in the fifth panel The Isle is Full of Noises a tad tokenistic. The rapid figurations at the conclusion of the finale, Prospero Drowns His Book at last offer a bit of interpretive leeway for the pianist (Gordon’s compatriot Steven Beck) and some livelier material for the listener while the eerie microtonal cello writing as it plumbs the depths ‘deeper than did ever plummet sound indeed’ during the final bars constitutes a most painterly conclusion. Møldrup and Beck certainly warm to the considerable technical challenges presented by Gordon’s score and the BIS sound again wants for nothing, but I couldn’t help thinking that Fathoms might have benefitted from some judicious pruning.
The disc concludes with Gordon’s setting of John Keats’ immortal Ode to A Nightingale. It seems to me that the cellist’s role is subordinate to that of the choir in this piece – frequently Møldrup’s contribution is restricted to brief commentary and punctuation. The vocal writing seems incredibly challenging; in the first couple of verses the Danish choir seem to cope splendidly both with the chromaticism of Gordon’s piquant harmonies and in terms of their projection of Keats’ singular language. But as the Ode progressed I sensed the singers becoming increasingly taxed by both notes and words. The dynamic shifts in the work similarly seem to present balance problems for the engineers – at loud climaxes the cellist is sometimes inundated by choral sound in which the subtleties of Keats’ delicate language are lost. Any composer attempting a setting of such an iconic text is likely to be on a hiding to nothing and whilst I really wanted to like Gordon’s piece – there are occasional flashes of vocal writing which recall Britten at his best - I felt a little defeated and deflated at its conclusion.
It is high time listeners were presented with an extended opportunity to become acquainted with Geoffrey Gordon’s music and not for the first time we can be grateful to BIS for making this happen. Whilst Cello Libris is an ambitious enterprise per se in my view it is only a qualified success. Gordon’s cello concerto is certainly a fine piece which deserves the widest currency – I urge readers to hear it. It is to be hoped that they respond to each of the couplings a little more enthusiastically than I did.