Some Shapiro CDs

Madeleine Shapiro, one of the founding members of the New Music Consort, plays on two Mode discs with that ensemble in pieces by Anne LeBaron (“Rana, Ritual & Revelations” and The Musical Railism of Anne LeBaron). Except maybe for Lamentation/Invocation on the Rana, Ritual & Revelations disc, these CDs are not something to get to hear Madeleine play. They’re nice discs, interesting collections of pieces by a composer who likes to try a bit of everything. For hearing Shapiro’s technique and versatility well, Judith Kellock’s Albany CD, East Meets West, is better, as it has prominent cello parts in two pieces, Chen Yi’s As In A Dream and Lawrence Moss’ Three Chinese Poems for Cello and Soprano. And the new Naxos CD of Gen Gan-Ru’s string quartets, Fall of Baghdad. Best, of course, is Madeleine Shapiro’s solo album on Albany, electricity, six widely differing pieces for cello and electronics, and the SEAMUS disc (Vol. 18) that includes Paul Rudy’s Vastly Shrinking Space, written for Shapiro.

Chen Yi’s As In A Dream is for violin, cello, and soprano. Even though this is the soprano’s CD (“Judith Kellock, soprano & Friends”), in this piece it’s the cello that gets the lion’s share of cool bits. If you’ve heard Madeleine play but have not heard this piece, you’ll want this disc for your collection. (The three pieces without Shapiro are all fine, so why not?) And if you’ve never heard her play, this piece is a good example of her effortless seeming technique and uncanny precision. Plus it’s a good piece.

In Moss’s Three Chinese Poems, the cellist does quite a wide range of things, on every part of the cello, different attacks, bowings, pizzicatos, what have you, all very subtle and moving along quite rapidly. And never any sense that all this variety is anything more than just the easiest and most natural thing. A real treat this piece, for the soprano’s part is treated the same way, all sorts of subtle little clicks and pops and sung notes and speaking. Delightful.

The quartets of Ge Gan-Ru are a mixed lot–the three on this CD, anyway, from the short and pithy first quartet to the alarmingly tonal and even 19th century sounding (OK, 1920 at the latest) fourth quartet, to the more interesting fifth quartet, with its hard bowing and other nice harshnesses. This one really puts all the players through their paces, with fewer of the familiar patterns or techniques of earlier times.

But whatever you think of the pieces, for good or for ill, the playing is stunning throughout. In fact, the fourth quartet is so beautifully played, one is almost convinced (some will be wholly convinced, I’m sure) that this is a worthwhile piece for all its looking backwards to so long ago.

The playing of ModernWorks is utterly ravishing, whatever they’re performing. I hope there are many more CDs to come.

As one would expect, Madeleine Shapiro’s solo album shows off the range of her technique–and a wide range it is, to be sure. But even more importantly, the six pieces on this album show off the diversity of new music around the world, and all six pieces are first rate.

Karen Tanaka’s The Song of Songs has big, lush, warm cello lines over an electronic drone, occasionally punctuated by some bell sounds, both short attacks and (electronically) prolonged.

Jukka Tiensuu’s oddjob has just a big a sound, but neither so lush nor so warm. Big and forceful, with a real edge to it. And a lot more dynamic range. It starts off with solo cello. Some very subtle echo is added and then some obvious altered cello sounds, mimicking the live cello, commenting on it, the two engaging in a complicated play in and out of each other’s lines.

The next piece on the disc is Yi Feng, that premiere piece of the Chinese avant-garde. This incredible work starts out with what sound like great echoing drum strokes and then moves into some hard, gritty bowing and on to a cornucopia of slaps and taps and plucks and bowings. I suppose if one were so inclined one could find here practically every extended technique that had ever been used up to this point (1982), plus several new ones made just for this piece. But one probably wouldn’t. The piece, at least as it’s played here, is so utterly convincing simply as a piece of music. Not only does Shapiro present each nuance perfectly, but with the ease and grace of music thoroughly mastered and presented as lovingly and as excitingly as if this were the coolest cello piece ever. I’d love to hear Madeleine play Pression, now, or Origo or Axe (II).

The Saariaho piece, Petals, starts with basically one pitch, variously played, there are some twisty, noodly little bits–and one part where the cellist is playing very high and very low sounds at once. (It sounds, anyway, as if both high and low are being playing by the live cello.) Nothing flashy, even though there are some very aggressive licks. A very, how best to put this, secure piece. The composer and the performer alike simply doing something very fine that they both obviously know is very fine.

Davidovsky’s Synchronism (no. 3), on the other hand, perhaps because he was working nearer the beginning of things–early synthesizer music, anyway–is more flamboyant. Not any less secure, but very obviously out to make a splash. And succeeding, what’s more. I remember not liking Davidovsky much back in the day, but this piece seems perfectly OK to me now, and I’m wondering how the other pieces of his, which I haven’t listened to in many years, will sound to me now.

Michael Gordon’s Industry consists mainly of a simple three note figure (down up down) over and over again, sometimes higher, sometimes lower; some glisses to get from one set to another. Not something you ever want to change, so it’s a good thing the changes are small and slow. And even though it takes awhile to get there–or perhaps because–the shift from a three note phrase to a two note one is quite delightfully shocking.

These three CDs are readily available in stores. The SEAMUS CD won’t be, but it’s easy to get from their website. I have to confess that I have not done so, yet, though I’m planning to. It looks a sweet disc, even though I’m about to do my best to convince you that it’s worth getting for Paul Rudy’s Vastly Shrinking Space alone. (The clip is from the composer’s recording of the performance.)

The wild electroacoustic clatter that opens the piece settles quickly down to some lovely cello lines over some really gorgeous low frequencies. After quite a variety of interesting, quiet noises, most of them unaccompanied cello, there’s another bit of clatter, this time clearly factory or warehouse kinds of noises. The cello gets another long section before the electronics join in again, this time somewhat altered bird sounds, after which the cello takes the piece to its soft and subdued close.

Listen to any of this really rich and lovely piece, and you’ll recognize how utterly lacking the above description is. Vastly Shrinking Space is one of the most gorgeous pieces for cello I know, and loving the cello as I do, I know some really great cello pieces. Rudy’s piece belongs with the best of the best, and Shapiro’s playing is not only flawless but exquisitely sensitive and seductive.

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