Never underestimate the power of a well-situated, cyclical arpeggio – especially in the hands of skilled, vigilant musicians. Much of English composer Jane Antonia Cornish’s portrait album, "Continuum," is built on this most fundamental element of classical music, and as anyone who has attended a concert in which a program swap offered an under-rehearsed, minimalist number can attest, this brand of music is not easily executed.
It may not be the sexiest praise afforded an ensemble, but Decoda’s playing across these tracks displays exemplary intonation. This is essential, given Cornish’s writing, as triads laid bare tend to leave the players equally naked, bringing tone and bow control into the foreground. But that’s just the mechanics. "Continuum" is a font of wistfulness and melancholic beauty, both in the thoughtful constructions by the composer, but especially in the august deliveries by Decoda, an affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall.
With one exception, "Continuum" is anchored by cello quartet – that delicious, overtone-rich outfit capable of heart-swelling chorales and intoxicating virtuosity. Such is the case here, and for Three Nocturnes which opens the record, cellists Hamilton Berry, Caitlin Sullivan, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, and Claire Bryant fashion plaintive hymns and gutsy explosions with a radiance interrupted only by a perplexing hiss in the mix that unfortunately highlights the recording’s edit points.
Whether in the satisfying, recurrent cadences of title track Continuum (for two violins, four cellos, and bass guitar) or the entrancing undertow of Tides (for the same orchestration), the success of Cornish’s creations lies in the organic, almost improvisatory-sounding air of these fluctuating harmonies and iridescent arpeggiations. While stylistically divergent, Keith Jarrett’s "The Köln Concert" is a touchstone for the vibe here. Continuum inhabits a persuasive, consistent emotional space, and the album’s apogee arrives with Portrait for solo cello. Thorsteinsdóttir traverses these whirlpool phrases with a patina of burnished bronze, elegantly unfurling a soundtrack perfect for ruminative gazes out onto a rain-streaked street.
- Doyle Armbrust