Michael Samis’ debut solo album is as eclectic as anything we’ve seen in years. There’s a world-premiere of a major romantic concerto, another premiere of a romantic piece updated by a beloved conductor, and two works by important contemporary composers. We have Robert Schumann on one hand and a marimba duet on the other.
Carl Reinecke’s cello concerto is a pretty good one, unworthy of its obscurity. The first melody is striking, a bid for exotic sounds of the Near East. The second melody is even more striking, because it resembles one of the central tunes in Dvorák’s cello concerto. The slow movement and finale are concise constructions that offer good themes and nice showcases for the soloist. Sure, they follow the rote “romantic concerto” template a little too closely. Minor-key first movement with drama, consolatory slow movement, then dark transition to a cheery finale untroubled by drama. You’ve heard things like it before but that won’t dampen your enjoyment, not when the music is this well-crafted, catchy and outstandingly played.
That's especially because more than half of the album is even rarer and more eclectic. Reinecke leads straight into John Tavener’s solo lament Threnos
, written “in memory of [a] dear friend.” This is a work of deceptive simplicity, where the mournful melody stretches out over two minutes before we hear it developed. Although Samis is mostly asked only to play one note at a time — again: deceptively simple — the buildup at the beginning makes him sound like an entire quartet and the expressive demands are constant.
After this, Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro
is a welcome relief and a warm embrace. Ernest Ansermet’s orchestration is sensitive and true to the composer’s romantic style, with a prominent role for the oboe. Then Samis goes solo once more, for the first suite by Ernest Bloch. You know Bloch could write for the cello from Schelomo
, but this ten-minute suite is dark in hue, with echoes of his Jewish heritage and maybe his homesickness. Osvaldo Golijov rounds out the programme, with a piece inspired the same way Tavener’s was: the death of a good friend. Mariel
uses a pulsing marimba part that, if it were in a film, would accompany someone driving a black car at night, alone, under cold antiseptic street lights in the city. Alongside this, the cello plays an achingly sad melody which will communicate directly with the heart of any listener.
How is such fantastic music so little-known? The Reinecke has never been recorded before; Samis discovered it himself. Ansermet’s arrangement of the Schumann piece is new to disc, too. Ernest Bloch’s cello suites are available on one other disc, by Emmanuelle Bertrand on Harmonia Mundi.
Michael Samis funded the recording of this CD on Kickstarter
, and many of the donors are listed in the booklet.
Given it’s recorded on a Kickstarter budget (Samis raised $11,887), the “emerging” Gateway Chamber Orchestra from Tennessee, make for very good partners and the recorded sound is at the height of professional standards. Everything was recorded in one concert hall, so the solo pieces are surrounded by a little more reverb. Did I mention that Samis gives a truly heroic, attention-grabbing and, I hope, career-advancing performance in every single work?
So it’s an album built up from weird, unknown parts and worth much more than their sum. The twin threads of lament (Tavener, Bloch, Golijov) and romantic warmth (Reinecke, Schumann), plus the thrill of discovering over an hour of new stuff make this a major release. How many great recordings will be crowd-funded online by their listeners? We don’t know, but judging from this and another disc I have received, the answer is at least two.