Cellist Laura Metcalf’s debut solo CD impresses on several levels
The old saw “safety in numbers” is as true in the classical music world as anywhere. Even the most dazzling track record of success in ensembles is no guarantee of capturing audiences when one makes that initial launch into the crowded world of solo artist. But cellist Laura Metcalf’s debut solo CD, “First Day,” is persuasive evidence that this young lady should still pack major concert venues all by herself, as surely as Sybarite5 has done, the string quintet she has been a part of for the better part of a decade.
Certainly from the very first track one is glad to hear Metcalf’s tone outside the ensemble—pure, silky and subtly expressive—unadorned. Well, almost…after all, while this is a “solo” album, she is partnered at the piano by Matei Varga. Indeed, a significant element of the success of this recording is the consistently high level of nuanced interplay between cellist and pianist. Add the final element of pristine recorded sound and a close, but natural sounding acoustic, and this disc is a flat-out winner. Daniel Shores gets the credit as “Recording, Mixing and Mastering Engineer,” but everyone involved in this Sono Luminus release deserves praise (the CD cover is pictured above, courtesy of Dario Acosta).
Oh, you want to know what music Metcalf and Varga are playing? Well, as I digested my first hearing of the disc and came back to it (and had thirds, so to speak, on a few tracks!), what stuck in my mind is the varied repertoire. Metcalf eschews the temptation to be compared to any other great cellist by rolling out a Bach suite, or a Beethoven or Brahms sonata (not that we would mind hearing her tackle those great works at some point). Instead, she has selected works and composers both on the road less traveled and inherently inviting.
In her own pithy and droll program notes, Metcalf explains that she and Varga played together a great deal before their career paths kept them apart for about ten years. The eight works on “First Day” all represent, in a variety of ways “many firsts, beginnings and youthful sentiments.” If the first work is invariably evocative of Piazzolla, the “Graciela y Buenos Aires” of Jose Bragato, it is convincingly fresh enough on its own terms to almost immediately earn a repeat hearing before the rest of the disc was explored. Even when the composers are better known, e.g. Martinu and Enescu, the works are hidden gems; the latter is represented by a brief sonata written when Enescu was just seventeen years old, and still at the Paris Conservatory.
Metcalf also plays works with direct ties to her career; the “Phantasie” of Caleb Burhans is inspired by sources as diverse as chant from the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, and the indie band Death Cab for Cutie. Sybarite5 fans have probably already heard music by Dan Visconti, and here they can hear his “Hard-Knock Stomp.” His first published work, originally for solo viola, it gives Metcalf no pause in executing a raft of traditional and innovative techniques.
Ginastera is represented by the “Pampeana No. 2,” and we get a major shift in style with Marais’ “Variations on ‘La Folia.’” The disc closes with Poulenc’s “Les Chemins de l’amour,” which is the source of the CD’s title. Metcalf relates how she has played this beguiling waltz most of her life with her father, and that the original was written to a text by Jean Anouilh. Sure enough, Metcalf puts down the bow and gives us a verse in a most attractive and unassuming voice. It practically begs the question: Is there anything Metcalf can’t do well? But the better question is: what will she do next?