Having chosen a debut album featuring solo cello without electronics or accompaniment the Sono Luminus label virtually guarantees that every one of the subtleties of the performer’s skills will be heard in all their glory. And so we have an auspicious solo debut album by a skilled and talented artist with a unique and intelligent vision in her choice of repertoire for her instrument. Hannah Collins has a beautifully designed web page describing her background so I will focus only on the music on this release.
Even a brief glance makes it obvious that Collins’ radar captures a wide range of music which encompasses five centuries of compositional efforts by both a consciously curated selection of composers that reflect both racial and gender diversity and who themselves represent a substantive variety of styles and visions. She begins with a rather obscure baroque composer (I had never heard of him), Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694). His Chiacona (1670) is apparently the first identified composition for solo cello (the famous solo cello suites by J.S. Bach wouldn’t come along until 1717-1723).
This arguably foundational work of the solo cello genre is then followed by the very fine Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) whose Dreaming Chaconne (2010) is in fact a variation on the Colombi piece.
The third track, “In manus tuas” (Into your hands) by the equally fine American composer, Carolyn Shaw (1982- ) was written for Ms. Collins, and is an aural peek inside the mind of the composer as she recalls a performance of a motet by 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Shaw evokes a sonic memory moment of hearing a performance of “In manus tuas Domine” in Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut which made a strong impression on her. It is a work that appears to be destined to become a modern classic. It creates spectral harmonics that engulf the listener inside Shaw’s memory of the event. The composition’s title also function metaphorically as she offers her music into the hands of the artist and the minds of the listeners. It is a challenge both technically and interpretively and Collins rises to those challenges with seeming ease.
The next seven tracks are given to another Saariaho composition, “Sept Papillons” (2000). This earlier work from her extensive catalog is also given to extended instrumental techniques as she evokes the seven butterflies of the title. This set of pieces was written for the fine Finnish cellist, Anssi Karttunen. It was at the 2008 Creative Dialogue Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico (run by Karttunen) that Collins encountered this music and the extended techniques required for its performance. Saariaho’s sound world is like that of an incarnation of Debussy and his impressionist aesthetic. There is apparently no visual program here but the music recalls, in this listener’s mind, Saariaho’s earlier “Nymphea” (1987) for string quartet and electronics which was inspired by Monet’s famed “Water Lilies” of 1906.
This fine disc includes the first (of three) suites for solo cello by Benjamin Britten. All three of these (1964, 1967, 1971) had all been composed for the Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich. Like the the Saariaho and Shaw pieces these suites are inspired by earlier works, in this case the Bach suites of the early 18th century. Collins plays the first (Opus 72) of these and her performance makes this listener hope that she will later record the other two.
While modeled on earlier music, the Britten work utilizes techniques that would likely be unfamiliar to cellists before the 20th century. It is homage both to Bach and to Maestro Rostropovich. And Collins’ playing furthers this homage to both of these past masters.
The final track is a work by one Thomas Kotcheff (1988- ). Like the first track, this young composer is unfamiliar to this writer. His work, “Cadenza (with or without Haydn)” of 2020” carries on the theme of homage. In a nod to the late great Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021) whose “Cadenza with or without Beethoven” (2003) is an extended cadenza which can be played on its own or as part of the Beethoven 4th piano concerto.
Kotcheff’s work is a cadenza for Haydn’s C major cello concerto. Like the Rzewski, it can be performed with the concerto or as a solo work on its own. Also like the Rzewski, the more modern aspects of this “cadenza” might confuse audiences anticipating more conventional music that fits with the context of the concerto for which it was written and the music stands very strongly on its own.
Like a lot of solo artists are doing these days, Collins’ debut solo album is like her personal manifesto of music for her chosen instrument. It is a fine foundation anticipating what will likely be an enlightening as well as entertaining career.