First Day is New York-based cellist Laura Metcalf‘s solo album debuting ten years into her career as a musician. Released on April 29, 2016 by Sono Luminus, First Day features pianist Matei Varga alongside Metcalf on the cello as they play works by composers ranging from Alberto Ginastera to Bohuslav Martinů. This diverse selection of music comes as no surprise to those already familiar with Metcalf, who regularly performs as part of string quintet Sybarite5 and cello rock band Break of Reality. For everyone else, however, First Day is a brilliant introduction to a cellist whose passion for music is as evident as her artistry and talent.
The album begins with José Bragato’s spirited Graciela y Buenos Aires, a tango originally written for cello and string orchestra. Choosing this piece as the opening track speaks volumes of Metcalf’s confidence in her collaboration with Varga. Their well-balanced partnership, stemming from years of playing together as friends, makes Graciela all the more intriguing to listen to given the parallels between tango as a dance form for two and tango music performed as a duet. With this in mind, Graciela may well be one of the best tangos ever danced by a pair of sedentary musicians.
At 2 minutes and 53 seconds long, Dan Visconti‘s Hard Knock Stomp (2000) is the shortest piece and the only unaccompanied display of Metcalf’s virtuosity on the album. With its tipsy, asynchronous swing, Hard Knock Stomp does not sound quite as laborious as its name suggests. Instead, Metcalf’s rendition of the piece makes all the technical tricks seem effortless, though she creates a sense of weighted imbalance by leaning into and bending each note instead of attacking them straight on. The musical footwork continues with Francis Poulenc’s Les Chemins de l’amour (1940), a dreamy waltz composed for French chanteuse Yvonne Printemps and set to words by Jean Anouilh. Mid-way through the piece, Metcalf briefly exchanges her cello for her singing voice; the playful switch, though unexpected, makes the song all the more endearing.
First Day then takes a turn toward pieces that draw listeners much deeper into their listening experience. Pampeana No. 2, Op. 21 by Alberto Ginastera, for example, is a sprawling rhapsody written as an ode to the lowlands of Argentina. Metcalf brings us along on her journey through Ginastera’s musical landscape before diving into Caleb Burhans‘ impressionistic Phantasie (2011), a piece exploring the moods and textures hidden beneath the topography of the composer’s mind.
Following this meditative moment, we are brought back to the turbulent world outside with George Enescu’s Sonata in F Minor, an enigmatic recording in that Metcalf and Varga had to learn it “from a copy of a handwritten manuscript” (there is no officially published version available). Rounding off First Day are Marin Marais’ Variations on “La Folia” (1701) and Bohuslav Martinů’s Variations on a Slovakian Theme (1959), with the latter sounding less like a set of variations and more like a theme that refuses to be recognized. This piece is one of the most captivating, complex, and dynamic performances on the album; saving the best for last, in this case, certainly leaves listeners wanting more.
Laura Metcalf’s personal relationship with every composition is apparent right from the start, and much credit goes to Sono Luminus for fully supporting her vision. First Day is a mixtape of the highest calibre: one cannot listen to the album without feeling lighter, brighter, and thoroughly wooed by end of it.