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William BOLCOM (b.1938)
Complete Works for Cello
Capriccio (1988) [15:03]*
Cello Suite No.1 in C minor (1995) [16:44]
Décalage (1961-2) [7:44]*
Dark Music (1970) [9:22]**
Cello Sonata (1989) [18:30]*
Norman  Fischer (cello)
Jeanne Kierman (piano)*
Andrea Moore (timpani)**
rec. Duncan Recital Hall, Shepard School of Music, Rice University, Houston, Texas, 15-17 May, 10 September, 28 November 2006.
NAXOS 8.559348 [67:22] 

The Naxos catalogue of titles representing the work of William Bolcom must surely now be the strongest available, and this disc presents all of the composer’s work for cello to date. 

Taking them chronologically, Décalage, as the composer freely acknowledges, is heavily influenced by the music of Pierre Boulez. The work’s basis has that feeling of serial angularity, but you can sense Bolcom’s attraction to the natural sonority of the instruments, and some inevitable, chance-like moments of tonality are allowed through the web of notes as well. The piece retains an attraction through speech-like patterns from the cello, but does ‘date’ somewhat – very much a product of its time. 

Dark Music follows, described as recalling ‘certain plays of Samuel Beckett, a world “of emotional anomie and dissociation.”’ Listeners will have their own associations to apply to this kind of piece, but the dry thudding of the timpani, at times commented on my pizzicato from the cello, the beats sometimes threaded together by glissandi, does conjure a fairly grim and desolate musical landscape. 

The disc opens with Capriccio, the title only misleading if you interpret it as meaning a work light in content. The piece is constructed much in the way of a sonata, with four clear movements. The opening is a fairly short and lively Allegro con spirito, compared by the composer to one typical of Milhaud. The other composer indicated is Brahms, whose spirit lives to a certain extent in the elegiac second Molto adagio espressivo and the third Like a barcarolle. This third movement combines an atmospheric rhythmic movement with bitter-sweet harmonies from the piano and expressive melodic lines from both instruments. The final Gingando is a marvellously itchy tango dance, the title being a marking often used by Ernesto Nazareth, whose tangos were such that he was considered the father of Brazilian music by Heitor Villa-Lobos. This is a highly attractive piece, fully deserving its concert-hall and recorded popularity. 

The Cello Sonata was written for Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax while at Aspen, once again recalling Brahms in certain aspects, but also making the combination with Schubert in terms of a structural model. The opening movement has a light feel, mixing serious musical statement with gentle parodies of a kind of salon style of music. The second Adagio semplice is the central movement for which the other two are very much orbiting satellites. The deceptively simple, almost lullaby-like opening soon develops into a tightly woven musical argument which contrasts with intervals of fervently agitated interruption and variation. The final movement is a compact rondo, a short ride on something bouncy: in this performance somehow eluding the Sturm und Drang the composer claims for it.

The most recent piece is the Cello Suite No.1 in C minor, whose title suggests the ‘complete’ title of this disc may be short-lived. This is a substantial work for cello solo, expanding on material the composer wrote for a stage production of Arthur Miller’s play Broken Glass. Norman Fischer recorded the stage score for these productions, and performed the première of the complete Suite at Tanglewood in 1996. There are some references to Bach in the Badinerie and Alla sarabanda titles of two of the movements, and the composer refers to the sombre mood of Bach’s C minor solo suite BWV 1011 in the nature of the music in his own Suite. One can imagine the effectiveness of such pieces in setting the mood of Miller’s play, and the lines and gestures of the piece seem by turns to have a narrative, or a somewhat objective, commentary role. As a piece of music it stands alone well enough but, Dark Music aside, the Suite is one of the most serious pieces in this programme, having more of a grey November feel than anything else. 

I have no comparison recordings to hand when evaluating this disc, but have no hesitation in recommending it either in terms of recorded sound or performance. Norman Fischer is an excellent soloist with a lighter touch than some, avoiding the kind of passionate scrubbing and over-emphasis which can put one off entire programmes of cello music. Collectors and fans of William Bolcom’s oeuvre can rejoice in another bargain for the collection, and cellists in search of challenging new repertoire should also be making a bee-line for such an all-embracing recital.

Dominy Clements 



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