Discovering that a student of Hans Jørgen Jensen is on the roster of the cello competition in which you’re competing is a bit like finding out that Elon Musk just entered your seventh-grade science fair. The Northwestern University cello professor has been sculpting world-class musicians (and competition slayers) for decades — and is now releasing a stunning album showcasing their collective artistic agility.
shadow, echo, memory moves the cello choir beyond the well-worn David Popper oeuvre into more adventuresome territory, as with the title track — and album stand-out — by composer and Jensen student Michael van der Sloot. Echoes of water droplets striking a frozen terrain open the piece before a vapor of harmonics appear like sunlight through a crust of ice. (Sidebar for real talk: the reason we love listening to the cello is for that positively orgasmic open-C-string payoff, and van der Sloot delivers in spades after an alluring, microtonal solo with an apocalypse at 65.41Hz.)
Initially brought together to record an arrangement of Mahler’s “Adagietto” from his Symphony No. 5, captured here tenderly, the NU Cello Ensemble spent a year workshopping to transform into a bona fide chamber group rather than a menagerie of virtuosos. While the solo-led numbers of Joseph Johnson (Rachmaninov’s Vocalise), Richard Narroway (Aaron Jay Kernis’s Ballad), and Gabriel Cabezas (Fauré’s Après Un Rêve) are executed with penetrating phrase contours and immaculate tone, what steals the proverbial show on this record is the musical empathy and artistic symbiosis across the collective.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with Hans Thomalla’s "Intermezzo" (excerpted from his opera Fremd), and György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Thomalla’s often translucent music requires the steadiest of hands and most elegant of blends, and here the NU cellists fuse into a unblurred pane of sonic glass. Facets of light are also in play for the seamless harmonic mutations of the Ligeti — a work so elegantly constructed, and rapturously performed, that it is as an effective a musical salve for the events of the past week as any this listener has found.
- Doyle Armbrust