What do Jimi Hendrix guitar solos, György Ligeti sonatas, Shakespeare sonnets, and Spanish sarabandes all have in common? Each of them appears in one form or another on cellist Matt Haimovitz’s latest release, “Orbit: Music for Solo Cello (1945-2014).”
Sprawling in scope, “Orbit” is a three-disc compilation of music for solo cello featuring works by over 20 contemporary composers, 15 of whom are still living. The ambitious solo album is also one of the first releases on the new Pentatone Oxingale Series. This innovative new project is a collaboration between the Dutch classical music label PENTATONE and Haimovitz’s own trailblazing artists’ label Oxingale Records, which he created in 2000 with his partner in life and music, composer Luna Pearl Woolf.
Clocking in at a hefty 3 hours and 45 minutes, the album features solo works that Haimovitz initially released on Oxingale as five thematic albums: “Anthem” (2003), “Goulash!” (2005), “After Reading Shakespeare” (2007), “Figment” (2009), and “Matteo” (2011). The album also includes two newly-recorded works: Philip Glass’s “Orbit” and a new arrangement by Woolf of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”
Over the course of three discs, Haimovitz takes the listener on a musical odyssey through time and space, from minimalism to maximalism, tonal to atonal, folk to avant-garde, abstract to narrative, and everything in between.
The album begins with the title track, Philip Glass’s “Orbit.” Warm and achingly tender melodies evolve softly over the course of this seven-minute solo work, and Haimovitz crafts each note gorgeously.
He tackles a very different style of contemporary classical in his performance of Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza XIV,” a virtuosic piece with mesmerizing rhythms inspired by Sri Lankan drumming. Haimovitz bows, plucks, taps, twangs, slides, scrapes, and soars through a number of extended techniques before settling into silence.
Another memorable moment on the album is György Ligeti’s Sonata for Violoncello Solo, a piece Haimovitz worked directly with Ligeti himself to learn. The piece’s modal melodies and Hungarian profile make clear the influence of Bartók and Kodály, and Haimovitz brings out the complex polyphonic counterpoint beautifully. It is followed by a performance of Du Yun’s “San,” a piece which weaves musical fragments of Eastern mysticism and meditation into a mesmerizing yet haunting sound world.
Haimovitz also takes a crack at some contemporary popular music: the album includes his own cello arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s famous “Star-Spangled Banner” performance at Woodstock. He snarls, growls, and wails through the Hendrix classic so convincingly that you’d almost expect him to have a whammy bar hidden somewhere on his cello. Haimovitz also takes on the Beatles’ loud, wild, and raunchy proto-metal anthem, “Helter Skelter.”
Over the course of disc two Haimovitz glides through the dramatic and dense melodies of Elliott Carter’s “Figment” (Nos. 1 and 2), the ethereal whispers of Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Ai Limiti Della Notte,” and the gorgeous cantabile lyricism of Luigi Dallapiccola’s “Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio.”
But the most sentimental piece on the album is Woolf’s “Sarabande.” Derived from the Baroque Spanish dance form, the piece is also named after Haimovitz and Woolf’s child, who was lost mid-term in utero. The poignant and pensive work is both delicate and passionate, and Haimovitz brings it to life with remarkable timbral detail.
The third disc features three suites inspired by literature. The first is Ned Rorem’s “After Reading Shakespeare,” a suite in which each movement is based on a quotation from a Shakespearean play or sonnet—and the nine movements explores the romance, beauty, and balance of Shakespeare’s poetry without using a single word.
Inspired by Rorem’s work, Haimovitz commissioned two new suites based in literature by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Paul Moravec and Lewis Spratlan. Moravec’s “Mark Twain Sez” takes the witty words of Mark Twain as the basis for an eight-movement exploration into the human condition, exploring themes of dreams, love, humor, insanity, mystery, and more.
The album comes to a close with Spratlan’s four-movement “Shadow,” a surreal musical reflection which takes the symbolist poetry of Rimbaud to a whole new world.
Because in the end, the musical possibilities for solo cello are about as numerous as the stars in the sky—and Haimovitz puts them all into “Orbit.”
Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, from our field trip to the Tractor Tavern in Seattle on February 2, 2015