If there’s anyone who can pull off a 3-disc compilation of contemporary music for solo cello spanning from 1945 to 2014, it most certainly is Matt Haimovitz. His latest release on Pentatone entitled Orbit is an ambitious retrospective collection of works by 22 composers, ten of which are world premieres, recorded at different times and in different spaces over the past 15 years of Haimovitz’s career. It seems impossible to weave these varying sounds, styles, and techniques together in a cohesive manner, but Orbit succeeds convincingly. This is a compilation designed for curious minds, encouraging listeners to explore and question rather than to define or decide how contemporary music should sound.
Still, Orbit can be a bit overwhelming at first glance. Each of the three discs is roughly 70 minutes in duration and contains enough material to be an album unto itself; the extensive tracklisting on the back only has enough space to accommodate the composers’ last names. Pentatone’s art direction for Orbit, however, is refreshingly modern and attractively packaged. One can hardly pick up the album or read the liner notes without looking forward to the music it contains.
The first CD opens with Haimovitz’s recording of Orbit (2014), a Philip Glass composition which premiered in 2013 with Yo-Yo Ma on the cello with choreography by dancer Lil Buck. Though Haimovitz does not have the benefit of Lil Buck as live accompaniment here, his performance is deeply moving, melancholic and luscious in tone. It’s an unsuspecting first track for a disc comprised of otherwise animated pieces, ranging from David Sanford’s A Love Supreme-inspired Seventh Avenue Kaddish (2002) to a rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s star spangled Anthem (2002) recorded at New York’s iconic CBGB. One standout track is Du Yun’s San (2004) which sounds unlike anything else before or after it. The Shanghai-born composer mixes electroacoustic textures with fragments of ancient Chinese melodies to delightful effect, and Haimovitz makes it all seem effortless.
The second CD highlights more prominently the influence of Luna Pearl Woolf, Haimovitz’s partner in life and art as well as the producer of Orbit. Her arrangement of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter (1968) is particularly delightful and wild, allowing Haimovitz to take on the persona of a one-man cello band stepping out beyond the soloist role. The recording ends with him exclaiming “I got blisters on my fingers!”, a cheeky sound bite which counteracts the darker, more severe and dissonant moods of the rest of the disc. Among these other works is Salvatore Sciarrino’s Ai Limiti Della Notte (1979), featuring Haimovitz’s 1710 cello by renowned Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller. This piece is reminiscent of one’s heightened sensitivity at night time, when darkness is all around and signs of movement are always fleeting, whispering, or else on the edge of (dis)appearing. Haimovitz hints at these ephemeral motions with a deft and ghostly performance, enhanced further by his usage of the music’s spatial dimension. I for one would jump at the chance to hear Notte in HD surround sound.
The third and final CD explores the relationship between the written word and music. Of the three suites featured on this disc, Lewis Spratlan’s Shadow (2006) is the most driven by abstraction thus somewhat difficult to access in light of the language-driven theme. Rambo/Rimbaud showcases the composer’s sense of humour though, and Haimovitz makes the most of this comedic match-up by twisting poetry out of brute force. Also on the CD are Ned Rorem’s After Reading Shakespeare (1980) and Paul Moravec’s Mark Twain Sez: (2008) which are more directly correlated to their literary counterparts. Moravec’s quotations of Twain are witty and rife with wisdom, while Rorem’s Shakespearian movements prove how musical dramaturgy can work just as well in concise forms. Throughout all these pieces, Haimovitz makes visible the shapes inherent to literature and poetry by translating them into his own language, then letting his cello do the talking.
While his musical vocabulary is impressive and his prowess undeniable, the sense of adventure that Matt Haimovitz brings to each performance is what captivates time and time again. Orbit is a fitting celebration of his artistry, but also of his vanguardism; after all, not many people can compile 225 minutes of solo cello and do so with such range, deftness, and panache.