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Graaff concertos TTK0076
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Jan-Peter de GRAAFF (b 1992)
Concerto No. 4 Rimpelingen (Ripples) for cello and orchestra (2017) [20:57]
Concerto No. 5 The Forest in April for cello and orchestra (2021) [30:04]
Maya Fridman (cello)
North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/Sander Teepen (4) and Nicolň Foron (5)
rec. 2021, De Oosterpoort (Grote Zaal), Groningen, Netherlands
Reviewed in stereo and surround

The first thing that strikes the listener about this disc is the remarkable purity of its sound, in both formats. Tiny details of colour and texture in De Graaff’s writing are vividly projected in the two speaker option, but the surround sound is yet more revelatory; it’s among the best issues in that format that I’ve yet heard through my modest (and by now rather primitive) multi-speaker system. Which is just as well, as on this evidence this composer produces aural canvasses which incorporate extremes both of light and shade, and of delicacy and depth. The rather un-catchily named TRPTK label thus seems to be an audiophile brand to be reckoned with.

The Dutchman Jan-Peter de Graaff is evidently a composer of real substance. It comes as no surprise to find that Kenneth Hesketh, one of the UK’s most accomplished composers (and arrangers) for orchestra is named as one of his teachers. Having graduated from the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague in 2016, de Graaff made his first impression upon me a couple of years later with the broadcast of Le Café de Nuit, a fifteen minute orchestral study which is by turn atmospheric, bombastic and glitzy; its performance in 2019 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jac van Steen lived in my memory for some time afterwards.

The two concertos recorded here absolutely reinforce that initial perception of a composer with a wealth of ideas and more than enough technical skill to translate them into radiant instrumental sound. The fiercely committed soloist in both works here is Maya Fridman, a Moscow-born cellist now resident in Holland who rather serendipitously also doubles as TRTPK’s A & R officer. In 2017 she found herself among the audience at the premiere of de Graaff’s Concerto No 4, Rimpelingen (Ripples), given by Hans Woudenburg with the Asko/Schoenberg Ensemble at that year’s Gaudeamus Muziekweek. She was so touched by the piece that she swiftly commissioned a new concerto from the composer for herself:, the Concerto No 5, evocatively named The Forest in April was the result She plays both works on this disc, stylishly accompanied by the North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.

A word about nomenclature. De Graaff appears to designate each of his concertante pieces sequentially according to number rather than solo instrument; the pair of cello concertos included here are therefore siblings of his Concerto No 2, Four Dances (2014-15), for clarinet, optional choir and small orchestra and a Concerto No 3, Concerto Grosso (2015) for wind quartet and sinfonietta. I’m afraid I’ve been unable to find any reference to the Concerto No 1 in this series.

De Graaff’s Concerto No 4, Rimpelingen is a transluscent 20 minute essay in which Fridman’s cello is supported by a 16 piece ensemble which de Graaff handles with uncommon precision and discernment. The composer employs a five section arch-like structure which is elegant, symmetrical, instantly comprehensible and profoundly satisfying. The odd numbered movements are a tiny prelude, interlude and postlude which respectively seem to preview, connect and summarise the flavours and stratagems which constitute the larger scale (just shy of nine minutes apiece) Passacaglia and Scherzo contained therein. The vivid pizzicati, orchestral droplets and cymbal shards of the Prelude stimulate the subtitular ripples that awaken the Passacaglia. The stunning recording truthfully captures the glassy orchestral slivers which cushion the rather diatonic theme which emerges from the lowest range of the cello. Fridman’s ardent cajolings trigger responses which seem to be tossed most democratically among each of the orchestral players in turn. A distant piano shadows these threads. The panel develops coolly and inevitably. De Graaff’s luminous writing features twinkling celesta which gently feathers the aerated orchestral sound. An almost imperceptible increase in intensity dissolves into a linking Interlude built around the soloist’s melancholy gestures. One abrupt mood change later and the listener is carried along on a slipstream of rapid winds and brass whose skitterings are taken up by the strings. De Graaff’s expert writing for low lying cello prevails once more as Fridman spins a sturdy web betwixt and between the abundant, busy orchestral weave. This composer has a remarkable ear for textural variety and draws countless novel timbral combinations from his small band. A crepuscular mood emerges at the half-way point ushering in marcato cello and strident brass. The movement evaporates in a haze of flutes which melt into a concluding Postlude bringing us back to the ripples which started the piece. Impressive as the stereo sound is, the TRTPK engineers have surpassed themselves with the clarity and detail of the surround. That format suits this kind of music to perfection. Fridman completely inhabits her part; The North Netherlands Symphony Orchestra offer flawless accompaniment under Sander Teepen.

Their numbers are beefed up considerably for De Graaff’s Concerto No 5,‘The Forest in April’, which embodies a more conventional three movement layout although its long central movement is prefaced by a fascinating five minute cadenza; one’s initial impression is that this longer piece is actually rather more diffuse in structure and content than its sibling. However that view is confounded during repeated listening in which the work’s absolute coherence becomes ever more apparent. The work’s title is telling – a sylvan atmosphere pervades throughout. The initial sounds of its opening movement, The Forest, are arboreal knockings, creakings and plenty of bird calls, a freshly imagined evocation which is directly communicative and owes little to Messiaen, for example. Fridman’s demure cello threads are absorbed within another gradual awakening, conceived on a more ambitious scale than the equivalent moments in Rimpelingen. The surround layer reveals a plethora of hidden sounds which materialise, momentarily delight and disappear. The soloist’s tentative responses transform in time into recognisable shapes and melody. The lyricism of de Graaff’s writing sometimes bring to mind the sound world of the underappreciated French composer Philippe Hersant. Towards the end of the movement a delicate and distant human voice emerges (I assume this is Fridman’s?) which intertwines soulfully with the cello and the rustling woodland footsteps which conclude the panel. It’s a lovely effect. The central panel (Echo Chamber) kicks off with the forceful cadenza during which Fridman explores a number of ways forward. Its virtuosity lies in her expressivity as opposed to any empty technical showiness. The orchestra enters in due course – it feels like a fully-fleshed reprise of the cadenza, an exhilarating white-knuckle night ride through the forest. At the core of this movement Fridman produces a glowing melody which is shadowed by the flutes. As the momentum increases the orchestra roars into overdrive – de Graaff’s pacing is ideal. A controlled calmness is restored during the final bars, the apparent inertia shared with gentle cello melody and big orchestral chords. The concluding movement, Requiem is seasoned with sinister string rustlings and Fridman’s pianissimo harmonics. Here the composer turns to textured, atmospheric sound as opposed to overt melody, until a leisurely tune finally emerges in the woodwinds. In turn this effects a sighing cantilena from the cello, Waves of pulsing orchestral mass follow before the sounds of the forest emerge once more in the form of quiet chirrupings, distant waves and a palpable vernal breeze; until at the last Fridman’s last gestures seem to dissipate into still air.

If Rimpelingen is impressive, The Forest in April is masterly. If this disc gains traction I would expect cellists to be queuing up to play it. De Graaff’s individuality, precision and style light up every bar of both works, but his skills seem especially apt for a large orchestra. In any case, regardless of whether or not either of these terrific works takes off, it’s difficult to imagine they could be performed with deeper engagement by soloist and orchestra alike, or recorded with greater clarity.

A final word about TRPTK’s packaging. The documentation is useful and fulsome. I suspect some collectors may baulk at the fact that the label favours a DVD style container, but this accommodates distinctive (and aptly selected) cover art which is common to all their releases, and which adds an extra aesthetic dimension to the product. I would certainly beseech curious readers to take the plunge in any case – these are fantastic pieces, each presented in an outstanding performance and ideal sound. It’s the best disc I’ve heard so far this year.

Richard Hanlon

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