GOMPPER Cello Concerto.1 Double Bass Concerto.2 Moonburst Emmanuel Siffert, cond; Royal PO; 1Timothy Gill (vc); 2Volkan Orhon (db) NAXOS 8.559855 (60:08)
This release of music by the American composer David Gompper (b. 1954) completes a trilogy of Naxos recordings devoted to his concerti for string instruments. This volume (including Moonburst) also forms the other half of a pair with the previous disc (including Sunburst). I wrote very positively about the previous disc in 42:6, and it was one of the best CDs I’d heard in several years. This new album is a worthy successor in every way: superb recordings of three excellent pieces. Gompper is a very fastidious and highly self-critical composer, and when a work of his reaches its final form, it is highly polished and carefully considered in every detail. I am consistently impressed with the balance he strikes between being connected to tradition but also saying something new.
Timothy Gill, the excellent soloist for the cello concerto, appeared in Gompper’s magnificent double concerto (perhaps his finest work to date) on the previous CD releases. The cello concerto (2019) is in two movements, an energetic “Mnemosyne” followed by a still, memory-like “Lethe.” (The two names come from Greek mythology: the goddess of memory vs. the spirit/river of forgetfulness.) Gompper notes that the orchestration of the concerto (with only strings, keyboards, and percussion) was inspired by a performance he heard in the late 90s of Boulez’s memorable work Sur Incises (for three each of pianos, harp, and percussionists). The two movements work in perfect aesthetic balance, and the whole piece is filled with exquisite timbral details. The cello’s nervous energy in the first movement results in a variety of orchestral “responses” that feel totally organic. In the second movement, there is a distinctly “spooky” element to the atmosphere that the percussion (which open the movement with quiet flower pot tremolos) and pianos provide with a timbral coloring of the C# that is the movement’s central pitch. As always with Gompper’s work, despite the intense detail and creative effects, everything is lucid and contributes audibly to the experience. The clarity of the sound images always makes for real accessibility.
The double bass concerto (2018) is a response to a solar eclipse, and the titles of the three parts (Penumbra, Umbra, Antumbra) reflect that sequence. The double bass, while an essential and effective part of standard orchestral texture, is a very difficult instrument to use as a concerto soloist. I’ve heard many concertos for it, and I only find the smallest handful to be effective. It is a particular disaster when a composer approaches the instrument as some sort of traditional heroic concerto protagonist (like a piano, violin, or trumpet.) Gompper has approached the problem by integrating the instrument’s understated “muted” character (and its timbre that is somehow both full and hollow at the same time) into the eclipse concept of the piece. He writes: “When light from the sun travels through the valleys of the moon, there is a moment (around two minutes, depending on your point of view on earth) where ‘beads’ of light seem to dance around the edges of the moon. This is suggested by the pulsating harmonics in the solo directly in the opening bars. The idea of covering and masking direct sunlight with the moon is, in some imaginary way, replicated sonically. I was keen to position the double bass in such a way as to create sonic shadows, auras, and glimpses of sound that are suggestive and ambiguous, often whispered and always muted.” Soloist Volkan Orhon plays superbly. By integrating the bass’s sound character so essentially into the concept of the piece, Gompper has made a piece where the scoring feels essential. This is indeed a welcome contrast to concerti for the instrument where one is left wishing the soloist were something else.
Moonburst (2018) is either a stand-alone piece or the second half of a two-movement work (Sunburst appearing on the previous disc.) The composer writes that the music “reflects the transforming images of the night: a calm and gentle breeze triggering a whispering of leaves and twigs; the silent flight of owls amid a full moon overflowing with milky light and the distant yet sustained final mating calls of cicadas, all of which surrounds a sleepless mind reflecting on time passed.” The music derives material from three works of other composers: Schoenberg’s “Mondestrunken” from Pierrot lunaire, Sciarrino’s Sui poemi concentrici, and Debussy’s Clair de lune. This is a thoroughly evocative and atmospheric piece, with a particularly wonderful last three minutes, where the climax unfolds broadly and resplendently before disappearing.
All three of the Naxos albums are “must haves” in my view for anybody with an interest in orchestral music of the present era. All this music has been recorded in strong, composer-supervised performances. Gompper has been writing impressive music for a long time, but in these three albums, we really get the full sense of this truly excellent composer.Carson Cooman
Superb orchestral music by a major composer