Wednesday 18 January 2023

Intercourse of Fire and Water: Idlir Shyti in programme for solo cello that mixes late Romanticism with contemporary

Tan Dun, Arnold Bax, Ernest Bloch, Pascal Dusapin; Idlir Shyti; Coviello Contemporary
Tan Dun, Arnold Bax, Ernest Bloch, Pascal Dusapin; Idlir Shyti; Coviello Contemporary
Reviewed 17 January 2023 (★★★★)

An imaginative recital that draws together four contrasting 20th century works for solo cello, contrasting the late Romanticism of Bax and Bloch to more contemporary voices

Idlir Shyti is a young Albanian cellist who is based in London whose studies have included the École Normale de Musique de Paris, Royal College of Music and Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia Rome. For his debut disc, Shyti has chosen to record a sequence of works for unaccompanied cello, though with a rather imaginative mix of contemporary works with 20th century ones.

On Coviello Contemporary, Idlir Shyti's new disc Intercourse of Fire and Water features four works for solo cello, Tan Dun's Intercourse of Fire and Water, Arnold Bax's Rhapsodic Ballad, Ernest Bloch's Suite No. 2 and Pascal Dusapin's Invece.

Tan Dun has produced a cycle of concertos (cello, guitar, and a planned work for Bianzhong bronze bells and cello) inspired by the I Ching. Dun says that he became interested in the book’s examination of ‘the balance between that which already exists and that which has not yet come to be. I learned that ways of balancing the existing and the potential are truly unlimited'. The works in the cycle are based on a concerto for orchestra (the already existing) over which the different instrumental solos might be superimposed (the potential). Intriguingly his 1994 piece Intercourse of Fire and Water takes the solo cello part and omits the orchestra entirely. 

The result is a substantial work that makes great use of silence. Starting with spare, placed notes surrounded by silence, the work develops yet there is always the feeling of the cello music being placed in space, the idea of the cello having a dialogue with itself. The use of glissandi and motifs creates structure and the music seems to become steadily angrier and more continuous. Shyti gives a strong performance, really bringing out the sense of the soloist having an intense interior monologue.

Arnold Bax wrote his Rhapsodic Ballad for solo cello in 1939 for cellist Beatrice Harrison, however, Harrison never played it because she was aware that her sister, the violinist May Harrison, was attracted to the composer! Later on, when she approached the composer about playing it, it was Bax who had doubts about the work and certainly, solo piano works apart, it is his only solo instrumental piece.

It opens in an intense manner with a big, dramatic gesture and develops into something freely rhapsodic, but Bax's alternation of material, the free, the structured, the lyrical, the dramatic again creates a feeling of interior dialogue. It is a striking work and one that would seem to warrant being performed more often.

Ernest Bloch wrote three suites for solo cello for the Canadian cellist Zara Nelsova. The second suite dates from 1956, some 40 years after Nelsova played Bloch's Schelomo. The suite is in four movements, 'Prelude', 'Allegro', 'Andante tranquillo' and 'Allegro'. By the time he came to write the music, Bloch was in his 70s and his language was very much that of the earlier part of the 20th century. The work begins in a freely rhapsodic manner, but Bloch's sound world is complex and this continues into the more strenuous second movement. The third is quiet and intense, the solo line almost Bachian, whilst the vigorous final movement is full of rhythmic motifs, becoming almost orgasmic at the end.

Shyti ends the disc with another contemporary piece, Pascal Dusapin's Invece from 1991. Dusapin has written extensively for the cello including two concertos, a double concerto for violin and cello, numerous chamber works and eight pieces for solo cello. Invece (Italian for ‘instead of’ or ‘contrary to’) avoids Dusapin's usual use of extended instrumental techniques. It is a vigorous piece, full of drama and Dusapin's writing makes great use of different timbres and textures in the cello, and the whole is vividly played by Shyti.

Shyti's disc rather imaginatively brings together four very different 20th century works for solo cello, the recital not only showcasing his varied and vivid talents, but giving us a chance to explore repertoire that is not always at the forefront of recitals. Shyti plays with assured style and passion, and really holds our attention, something that is perhaps essential in the Dun, a work that deliberately omits some of the musical argument, and the Bax, a work somewhat experimental in the composer's output

Idlir Shyti in Dusapin's Invece recorded live at Salle Cortot, Paris in 2018

Tan Dun (born 1957) - Intercourse of Fire and Water (1994)
Arnold Bax (1883-1953) - Rhapsodic Ballad (1939)
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) - Suite No. 2 (1956)
Pascal Dusapin (born 1955) - Invece (1991)
Recorded 2021 Sands Films Theatre, Rotherhithe, London

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