by Brendan Howe
Inspired by his profound love for his new bride, Alma, Mahler saturated his Adagietto (the fourth movement of his Fifth Symphony) with his love of obsession and conflict. If you haven’t yet heard it performed by a world-class institution, I would recommend watching a clip of Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic perform the Adagietto so you get a sense of just how high the bar has been set with regard to the movement’s emotional capacity and execution.
For non-expert groups performing the masterpiece, walking the line between musical expression and self-indulgence often proves an impossible challenge. The Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, however, delivers a sublime performance that showcases both the work and the magnificent capacity of the cello to express the ineffable as the capstone track from their latest album, Shadow, Echo, Memory.
The Adagietto rounds out the album’s emotional exhibition of the cello as well as its theme of capturing specific moments in larger contexts. Shadow, Echo, Memory was recorded by a total of 45 current students and 15 highly successful alums of Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, under direction of the celebrated cellist and educator Hans Jørgen Jensen.
It is a collection of 19th, 20th, and 21st century music written and arranged for cello ensemble. The well-established idea of the cello’s unique ability to match the range and timbre of the human voice plays a large role, as Fauré’s Après un Rêve, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, and contemporary composer Zachary Wadsworth’s Three Lacquer Prints are all arrangements of vocal works. What makes this album stand out, however, is the Ensemble’s ability to combine technical excellence with poignant depth (Kernis’ Ballad, Mahler’s Adagietto) and conceptual clarity (Wadsworth’s Three Lacquer Prints, van der Sloot’s Shadow, Echo, Memory) in a moving and accessible fashion.
The opening track of the album orients the audience solidly on the conceptual end of the spectrum. The vocal group The Esoterics had commissioned Wadsworth for a piece to premiere in October 2012, and he began fleshing out an idea he’d been contemplating – while poetry and music are narrative forms of art that share the characteristic of changing over time, the relationship between visual art and poetry (and accordingly, music) is both far less tangible and underrepresented.
In order to rectify this oversight, Wadsworth found inspiration in a collection of Amy Lowell’s verse poems on Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, written between 1913 and 1919 (the three pertinent poems are reproduced in the album booklet). Wadsworth was struck by the elegance with which Lowell captured single moments through the inferred context of her words while ultimately respecting their static nature.
Wadsworth took this string of artistic influence one step further by writing one vocal vignette each using the Lowell poems Temple Ceremony, A Year Passes, and A Burnt Offering. The pieces mold and elongate Lowell’s lyrics to lend valuable time and perspective to the motionless, print-inspired experience.
Adding a fourth artistic interpretation to the woodblock-poem-chorus dynasty already in play, the NU Cello Ensemble recorded arrangements of Wadsworth’s Three Lacquer Prints, removing the restrictions of language in favor of the familiar, interpretive qualities of cello music.
Roland Pidoux arranged Fauré’s Après un Rêve with similarly emancipatory results, achieving a surreal dreamscape with eight cellos that would be unattainable with piano accompaniment. Van der Sloot’s titular track, Shadow, Echo, Memory, goes the furthest back into human history of all the pieces, drawing inspiration from Ice Age cave paintings. It opens with a spectral, water-droplet percussive quality, which feeds into the wide range of the unknowable creativity of the ancient mind – anxious slides, centered resolutions, fitful exclamations, and intense darkness.
As the album continues onward from the Rachmaninov through the Mahler, it becomes clear that the Ensemble has achieved their purported goal of using the cello to express textures of dark and light, bring to life sounds and images from another time, and finally to aid listeners in revisiting their own histories. It does indeed provide a fascinating, haunting individual experience to those who are up for a little soul-searching.