At the end of last week, the new PENTATONE Oxingale Series label, formed when PentaTone classics took over the Oxingale brand, put out its second release. The title is ORBIT, and it is a three-disc compilation of music composed for solo cello between 1945 and 2014. “Orbit” is also the title of the newest piece in this collection of works by 22 contemporary composers. It was completed by Philip Glass last year. With the exception of “Orbit” and an arrangement of the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” by Luna Pearl Woolf, all of the tracks in this collection are taken from five previous albums released by Oxingale Records: Anthem (2003), Goulash! (2005), After Reading Shakespeare (2007), Figment (2009), and Matteo: 300 Years of an Italian Cello (2011).
To the extent that this collection amounts to a historical perspective of making music for solo cello over the past 70 years, it is probably worth while to consider a few data points. First is that Haimovitz was born on December 3, 1970, putting him a little over a quarter century away from the oldest selection in this collection. For the record that piece is a three-movement collection by Luigi Dallapiccola of a chaconne, an intermezzo, and an adagio. The program book barely mentions him, identifying him only as a member of “the Italian avant-garde,” a category that he shares with Luciano Berio and Salvatore Sciarrino. Sciarrino is the only living composer in that group, and he has definitely been marching to the beat of a very adventurous drummer. Berio was actually Dallapiccola’s student; and Dallapiccola was very much taken with serial atonality, particularly as practiced by Arnold Schoenberg’s two “prize pupils,” Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Clearly, “the Italian avant-garde” is a moving target (as is just about any avant-garde movement); but that comment is an example of the casual quality of the booklet text.
Such casual writing tends to obfuscate the historical perspective of the last 70 years. The problem, however, is than such obfuscation seems to extend to not only the performer but also at least some of the composers. Consider, for example, David Sanford’s “Seventh Avenue Kaddish.” According to the booklet, this was “inspired by the four parts of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.” Let’s play with some dates again. Sanford was born in 1963, meaning that he may not yet have been two years old when Coltrane went into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in December of 1964 with Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner to record A Love Supreme. Impulse! Records released it only a few months later in February of 1965. Not only is the connection between the four sections (“Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm”) more than a little muddled, even the idea of four sections being distilled into about seven and one-half minutes of music boggles the mind. For that matter, on purely rhetorical grounds, it is hard to tell whether or not Sanford has ever taken the trouble to give A Love Supreme the serious listening it deserves.
The same can be said of Woolf’s arrangement of “Helter Skelter.” However, the real kicker came in 2000 during a gig at CBGB when Haimovitz decided to play his own version of Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. For those of my generation, this was the historic rock concert when we all thought we could change the world. It took place in August of 1969, over a year before Haimovitz was born. Fortunately, Hendrix was not only recorded but also filmed, which meant a lot for those of us who were not there for the backed-up traffic and the muddy grounds of the site. Still, really listening to Hendrix is far more cerebral than most rock fans would think; and Haimovitz’ arrangement seem to spend too much time on the surface to get to where the guts really were.
Finally, it is worth taking the time to bring attention to a major sin of omission in this collection. The three solo cello suites that Benjamin Britten composed were written, respectively, in 1964, 1967, and 1974. They are all within the scope of this collection, and they are all omitted. To be fair, Haimovitz has recorded all of them; but those are old recordings from his time with Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft. Nevertheless, as is the case with the Bach solo cello suites, these are compositions that are not learned and then forgotten as one moves on to “the next thing.” To consider the legacy of the last seventy years of solo cello repertoire and ignore Britten is a bit like writing about the American Revolution and forgetting to mention George Washington.
The overall impression is that this is a collection that is trying to be really hip; but it seems to have emerged from a process that has not yet figured out what hip is, not now and not over the last 70 years.