Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf

Adventurous listening does not always require leaving your sonic comfort zone. Sometimes unfamiliar music can instantly become an old friend, expanding your world without shattering it. And sometimes the opposite is the case - and wonderfully so. Those are the ends of the spectrum of new music explored by two cellists, Laura Metcalf and Michael Nicolas, who will both release excellent debut albums on Sono Luminus this spring. 

First up is Laura Metcalf, who has been on the scene for a number of years now playing in the ensembles Sybarite5, a string quintet mostly known for its Radiohead arrangements, and Break of Reality, a "cello rock band" that does a spirited take on the Game Of Thrones theme, among other things.

Metcalf's First Day is something quite different from her other activities, finding her assaying eight pieces from around the world and through the centuries with the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Matei Varga. The album opens beautifully with Varga's stylish introduction to Graciela y Buenos Aires by José Bragato, an Argentinian cellist, composer and conductor who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. You don't have to know the first thing about Bragato to hear his connection to "nuevo tango" and Astor Piazzola, with whom he in fact played in the 1950's. When Metcalf joins in, her tone is flawless and warm and her rhythmic command is thrilling and almost imperious in the faster portions. Instantly you know you're in good hands with this duo, and the rest of the album does not disappoint. 

If Bragato represents the the modern, urban Argentina, later in the album Metcalf and Varga take a trip to the countryside with Alberto Ginastera's Pampeana No. 2, Op. 21. Full of folky melodies and touched with nostalgia, the Pampeana covers a lot of ground in ten minutes. But first we visit an eastern European past in Bohuslav Martinu's Variations on a Slovakian Theme, with Metacalf's approach mercifully free of schmalz. She seems more invested in the sturdiness of the old melodies than in over-emoting. Martinu's piece is essentially episodic but if you want a sonata, First Day has it with George Enescu's Sonata In F Minor, a recently discovered work written when the Romanian composer was only 17. It may have a youthful energy and sparkle, but it is a fully mature work in the romantic vein and Metcalf and Varga have done a real service by bringing it to light. 

North America and the 21st Century are also well-represented on The First Day, with Phantasie by Caleb Burhans, a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, and Hard-Knock Stomp by Dan Visconti, whose work is often performed by Sybarite5. The first lives up to it's title, with lush cello lines interacting with repetitive and ruminative piano. Visconti's is the more radical work, full of sly, bluesy riffs and some dense knotty passages, all of which Metcalf handles with ease. It's a lot of fun and the levity it injects into the album sequence is welcome. It also leads perfectly into the oldest piece here, Marin Marais' Variations on "La Folia" from 1701, one folly in dialog with another. 

The Marais is elegant, tuneful, and filled with drawing-room dance rhythms - in short, a delight. But Metcalf saves a real delight for another French piece: the closing track, Francis Poulenc's Les chemins de l'amour. This piece, from 1940, is Poulenc's setting of words by Jean Anouilh and asks the cellist to sing along as she plays. Metcalf is pure charm here, playing the waltz with absolute lightness and singing in a clear unmannered soprano. It's a most satisfying ending to a rich and rewarding album, which quickly establishes Laura Metcalf on her own as a musician of real note. Brava!

The First Day is out on April 29th and Metcalf and Varga will be playing selections on April 27th at Subculture on Bleecker Street.

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