Lera AUERBACH (b.1973)
24 Preludes for cello and piano (1999) [50:00]
Cello sonata (2002) [21:51]
Postlude for cello and piano (2006) [3:08]
Ani Aznavoorian (cello); Lera Auerbach (piano)
rec. 7-9 August 2012, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, Purchase, New York
CEDILLE CDR 90000 137 [74:59] 

Lera Auerbach is one of our foremost composers, a Russian-American who brought a Siberian heritage to New York and now hears her musical language interpreted by such artists as Gidon Kremer, Hilary Hahn, the New York Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, and the Tokyo, Artemis, and Jasper string quartets. It’s easy to understand why: her music has great power, communicating in a basically tonal language but doing so with lessons learned from great 20th-century forebears - the name Shostakovich occasionally comes up. Thus all this music is intensely expressive, but not overly serious or glum.
The Twenty-Four Preludes for cello and piano are in the footsteps of, say, Bach or Chopin: they function as standalone miniatures but also as a cyclical whole (as performed here, Nos. 9 and 10 proceed without pause), and they test extremes both of virtuosity and of emotions. The heart of the set is Prelude No. 12, which takes a theme briefly reminiscent of Mussorgsky (Bydlo) and spins it into a cello melody of such mysterious beauty that it can be compared to Saint-Saëns and Fauré. I dare not spoil for you how, halfway through, this extraordinary tune is transformed, haunted-house style, from something so pristine to being more sinister. I should note that Auerbach thinks the “heart of the set” is actually No. 16. There are a couple of unaccompanied cello preludes in the mix, too, including one which is an obvious homage to Bach; No. 14 is a variation on a tune from Mozart’s Magic Flute. You might think No. 21, “Dialogo,” misleadingly named: it’s a dialogue between the highest and lowest registers of the cello, with the piano silent.
The first movement of the twenty-minute Cello Sonata contains the harshest, most difficult music on the disc, with the following lament more willing to sing about its pain. The finale, marked “Con estrema intensita,” is marked by cello playing which follows this marking so strongly I was worried the bow was going to snap and all the strings were going to come flying off. What makes Auerbach’s music successful despite its rarely-relenting intensity, by the way, is how sincere it feels; she has mastered what the Greeks called the “ethical appeal,” the idea that the author is persuasive one. Her music seems to be driven by something more personal than ambition or self-seriousness. The brief Postlude brings back parts of the tune from my favorite Prelude, No. 12, alongside the spooky sounds of a prepared piano.
The performances are of just staggering quality. Lera Auerbach at the piano is as effective a performer of her music as you can imagine, but the real surprise is cellist Ani Aznavoorian, who appears to have only one other CD to her credit. Playing on a cello built by her father, Aznavoorian delivers with emotional commitment that borders on eye-popping. Plus she seems never to be afraid of the music’s demands for exotic effects, microtonality, scraping, spooky harmonics that sound like Armenian wind instruments, vibrato that threatens to explode, and fiendish double-stopping. To paraphrase Nigel Tufnel, this cellist goes up to 11. She delivered the world premiere of the preludes, according to her bio, and she simply owns this music. Not that I hope she owns it for long; this is extraordinary cycle that belongs in the repertoire of many a cellist.
Well, what’s to add? Auerbach writes the booklet notes and took the cover photo. The performances are not just expert but authoritative. The music is pretty much essential for contemporary music lovers, and those who want to hear a cello at its limits. I was so engaged I barely noticed the perfectly natural sound, always a strength of the Cedille label. This one’s a strong contender for my Recording of the Year list.
We’ve reviewed a lot of other Auerbach: the solo violin partita, the piano preludes, the piano trio, and a string quartet should get you started. Ani Aznavoorian is premiering a cello concerto which somebody has got to record or I’ll start a protest.

Brian Reinhart 

Authoritative performances of essential new music. This cello goes up to 11. 

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