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Shyti cello COV92215
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Intercourse of Fire and Water
Tan Dun (b. 1957)

Intercourse of Fire and Water (1994)
Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Rhapsodic Ballad (1939)
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Suite No 2 (1956)
Pascal Dusapin (b. 1955)
Invece (1991)
Idlir Shyti (cello)
rec. 2021 Sands Films Theatre, Rotherhithe, London

This appears to be cellist Idlir Shyti’s debut solo recording. As such it is a very impressive achievement with playing combining technical security, musical insight and a compelling sense of passion and conviction. Apart from Bax’s Rhapsodic Ballad, all of the music was new to me so I cannot compare and contrast different versions.

The disc opens with Tan Dun’s Intercourse of Fire and Water. The CD liner written by Tim Rutherford-Johnson explains that the inspiration for the work came from the Chinese “Book of Changes”. Tan is quoted as saying the music represents the balance between the “existing” and the “potential”. Tan’s musical solution to this was to write a sequence of concerti for different instruments where the “existing” was represented by an identical orchestral part, with the differing solo element the “potential”. The work presented here is literally the solo cello part from that concerto alone. Rutherford-Johnson suggests that the concept of balance in the work manifests itself through a series of opposites; the combination of Western and Eastern playing techniques, melodic motifs, static and active musical material and metered or metrically free passages. Within the framework of time that a reviewer can allot a disc, it can be difficult to assimilate and begin to understand the greater structures and through-threads that bind a work such as this together. As performed here the work runs to 18:15 and it is to Shyti’s considerable credit that he is able to hold the listener’s attention so well. Superficially it would be easy to hear the work as a kind of compendium of advanced contemporary cello techniques. But Shyti plays with such authority that the listener is drawn into the remarkably wide and expressive musical range this work demands. On the website there is a brief excerpt viewable from a longer piece that appears to be an analysis of this work. From the densely worded, weighty paragraph I could see it is clear that the compositional processes behind the work are many and complex but it will take a listener with a more forensic ear than me to divine these from the music alone even in as an assured performance as this.

A word here for the quality of the recording; I did not recognise the name of the recording venue – Sands Films Theatre. The booklet includes a photograph from the sessions of this space which looks like a curious fusion of miniature baroque theatre replete with plush curtains and golden braid and a 1920’s cinema. Further research online suggests it is a performance space created in an 18th Century warehouse in London’s Docklands. Whatever, the result of the engineering and production by Aaron Holloway-Nahum is very fine indeed. Shyti’s modern cello made by Peter Beare sounds absolutely gorgeous – richly voiced and tonally equal across the entire musical and dynamic range. As recorded the acoustic of this theatre sounds bigger than the photographs imply but however achieved this is impressive.

Bax’s Rhapsodic Ballad is a curious work in that composer’s output. Although composed in 1939, the work did not receive its premiere until 1966. Except for a minor and brief piece for harp, this is Bax’s only solo instrument work excluding those for piano. At first glance it would seem improbable that a composer known for his opulent and discursive scores should be attracted to writing for an essentially monophonic instrument alone. Referencing Graham Parlett’s magnificent “Catalogue of the works of Sir Arnold Bax”, it seems that Bax harboured some concerns as to the work’s viability. The liner repeats the notion that dedicatee Beatrice Harrison avoided playing the piece so as not to create jealous tensions between her and her sister but Parlett refutes this – indicating wartime performances by her of other Bax scores as evidence. Post-War she approached Bax about performing the work but he replied; “to tell you the truth I am not satisfied with it and cannot feel it could be made into a success.” This performance proves Bax was wrong. In retrospect it can be heard as one of the very last Bax works that has his authentic and dynamic voice. It follows his Symphony No 7 as the very next catalogued work, but from that point forward almost nothing of real substance was written before his death in 1953. The work has hardly been over-recorded. Since its mid-60’s premiere there have been commercial recordings from Rohan de Saram, Lionel Handy and Raphael Wallfisch. The latter was on Chandos and recorded as long ago as 1986 included in a recital of British Cello sonatas. De Saram coupled the Bax with Ligeti and Dallapiccola and takes a broad 14:28. Its well played but the actual recording is probably the least good. Wallfisch takes just 11.20 which gives the work thrust and energy but skates over some of the brooding menace in the work – returning to Wallfisch it strikes me as a relatively superficial performance. Shyti sits between the two at 13:23, is certainly the best recorded but I find he slightly underplays the drama of the work – a certain kind of muscular wildness is present in Bax’s music that sits quite at odds with the opposite extreme of rapturous dreaming. The performance by Lionel Handy is from a collection of Bax’s chamber works for cello that I have not heard. The outlier is a remarkable YouTube video performance by Domenico Ermirio which to my ear is the most compelling version I know. That said this new recording from Shyti is very well played with great technical assurance and a wide and expressive dynamic range.

Ernest Bloch wrote his three cello suites for the great Zara Nelsova who was a noted interpreter of probably his most famous work Schelomo. They are late works written in 1956 just three years before the composer’s death. The Bach cello suites are a clear and benevolent influence with a Prelude followed by three further movements of a neo-baroque dance character. As printed [the score can be found on IMSLP] – and as played here – each movement is barely separated from the next so there is a sense of continuity and evolution. Again, this is a work I had not previously heard so I can only judge this performance on its own merits. This strikes me as a very fine, well judged performance. Technically again Shyti seems in complete control with beautifully even tone production across the entire range of the instrument. This is especially important in these neo-baroque works where broken chording and arpeggiating figurations are used to outline the work’s harmony. Shyti’s control over primary and secondary material is again excellent and the acoustic of the Film Theatre again proves ideally supportive. This is a wholly accessible and very attractive work that gets a strong advocate in Shyti and it certainly encourages me to seek out the remaining two suites.

The disc is completed by Pascal Dusapin’s Invece. I do not know any music by this French composer. The liner describes him as; “one of the twenty-first century’s most prolific and important composers for cello.” This output includes eight works for solo cello of which Invece [contrary to] is one. Apparently this work is relatively unusual for the composer in that he does not use as many extended performing techniques as usual relying on sharp extremes of rhythm and pitch to give the contrasts implied in the title. This is a compact work – running to just 6:29 it is the shortest piece on this recording by some way. I like the vehemence of Shyti’s playing – its aggressive and dynamic in a theatrically compelling way. To my mind he should have risked this kind of attack more in the Bax – the piece can take it. There is a nervous jittery energy to this work that is very effective especially when set in contrast to the brief moments when something more lyrical and relaxed tries to be heard. One interesting aspect of the work – it seems to be almost exclusively written in the mid/lower range of the cello - Dusapin avoids the searing higher registers that often feature in this kind of piece.

For those interested in hearing both this music and Shyti’s considerable assured style and technical brilliance before buying, there are videos of three of the four pieces taken in concert (I presume) on the artist’s website - the Bax is the sole omission. In addition there are some other works including a beautiful Vivaldi Cello Sonata performance that gives a good idea of the range and diversity of Shyti’s repertoire. This disc is well presented in the now-common cardboard gatefold with the disc in a tray on the right and the liner booklet tucked into a slot on the left. The booklet in English and German only is perhaps a little briefer than would have been useful given the relative unfamiliarity of the repertoire but it is well presented. The composer biographies are useful although the one on Bax seems to imply that he was taught by folksong collector Cecil Sharp – he briefly attended a private music school run by Sharp near the family home as a child so hardly a defining relationship. Overall a very impressive and successful debut release from a young player with a well-defined musical personality and technique to match.

Nick Barnard

Published: November 7, 2022

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