Cellophony at Summer Music Festival
1 Aug 2013
Eight cellos make up Cellophony. Since 2007 they have blended and harmonised their way into élite music circles with this simple formula and on Tuesday 30 July they were arced into a semi-circle in Trinity College to show us their stuff.
The set up had its skeptics. Everyone loves the cello. And many would agree with the confidence of Cellophony’s leader when he announced from the podium it is the very best instrument of the lot, but the sight of so many identical instruments propped and ready to play, with not a friendly violin or even double bass in sight was distinctly strange- rather like that sequence in Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice where the mops all begin to multiply and march off on their own.
And among the wonderfully talented cellists, all professionals in their own right, were a range of truly inspired musicians. Yet the doubts remained as we saw the seven young men and one beautiful young woman, settle astride their instruments for the first half. They chose Mendelssohn’s delightfully melodic Ave Maria as an opener. A brilliant piece with exquisite musical variation, it soared into the crowded chapel with harmonic precision. The large audience, rather modestly unexpected by the ensemble, arrived at the end of their very first experience of a cello octet with some pleasure.
Measured, varied lyrical, it was an ideal starter. Next however came some Bach interludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier. The effect although brilliantly executed, was rather sombre. Suddenly the absence of the brightness of the violin and the gravitas of the bass were worryingly apparent, rather like being at an all-male theatre production when you suddenly miss the girls and women's tones. The cello has the low sonority of a light bass voice and however brilliantly balanced, a group of them can miss their happy orchestral companions found in the usual line up of a chamber group or even quartet.
Barber’s Adagio for Strings was next. Beautiful dark and haunting (it was the theme music for the film Platoon) it was one of the big draws of the evening. Yet though it seems churlish to cavil, the exclusively cello treatment turned it three shades more shadowy and emphasised the depressive nature at the heart of Barber’s musical genius.
The second half began with the sadness of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde theme, for many one of the most moving of his works. It exudes doomed love as the hero Tristan finds himself deeply in thrall to Princess Isolde whom he’s taking to be the bride of his lord, King Mark of Cornwall.
Aboard ship the two slip further into the whirlpool of yearning and desire – and realise the utter hopelessness of their passion. In despair they drink poison together and die uncompromised and true to their destiny. Written at the height of his powers, Wagner’s piece was so utterly romantic, fashioned in a totally new and expressive musical lyricism, it went on to influence all modern music henceforth.
Expressed by the lovely tones of the eight cellos, we judged it a successful adaptation from the original orchestral version, an effect achieved by the near genius of the playing. And we caught an unusual sight, a smile from the sole woman player, gently exchanged with the bearded lead cellist (hard to keep track of names as the company had to change seats like musical chairs between pieces). It was such a touching moment and conveyed the rapture with which this group give out their music.
The most successful piece, and one played for an encore, was a selection of Schubert songs. Now the ensemble became more defined in their roles, the two leads taking the melodic upper lines and their counterparts acting as bass. Then a switch around as the voice of the other side of the ensemble was heard in distinct individuality. Heavenly rhapsodic and wonderfully romantic, this had to be the highlight of the evening. Unless you include the Bond theme, 007, teasingly performed with great seriousness and corresponding irony as a finale. Actually it was rather good musically and certainly sent everyone away with a spring in their step.
The Cambridge Summer Music Festival now powers through its second week with a charge of virtuoso organisation from Director Juliet Abrahamson. She has even devised a brilliant support scheme where individuals can present their beloved with a concert in their honour. For £2,500 it will be named after them and their guests feted. ‘One woman gave a concert as a present for her husband’s 60th birthday,’ Abrahamson told us. ‘She had a party and reception beforehand and he said it was the most memorable event of his life.’
Ingenious and flamboyant, this does sum up the style of the Festival which puts excellence at the centre and can roll from the grandeur of the Monteverdi Vespers in King’s Chapel on Saturday, to the final flourish of Northumbrian Music, with clog dancing at the exquisite venue of Childerley Hall on Sunday 4 August.
It will be over far too soon, so join the devotees and listen to some world class music without the tedium of a London trajet, it’s all here on the doorstep – well until Sunday that is.