On November 10th, The Centaur Record Label released a CD that features the fantastic American cellist Sophie Shao. Called CanCan Macabre, this disc features works from the cello repertoire such as Debussy’s beautiful cello sonata and the third movement to Chopin’s Cello Sonata. The recording also features new music written by composers Hershel Garfein, and Thomas Ades. Rounding out the disc is music by Couperin arranged for the cello by Paul Bazelaire.

For those unfamiliar with Sophie Shao, she has taken top prizes and the Tchaikovsky, and Rostropovich cello competitions. She has performed as soloist with the Houston Symphony, The National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan, The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, and The Pacific Symphony.

Shao has performed at prestigious festivals throughout the U.S. Such as the Marlboro Festival and Chamber Music Northwest, and has been on faculty at Vassar College in New York, and Princeton. Currently she is Assistant Professor of cello at The University of Connecticut’s School of Music.

One of the big stimuluses behind the recording CanCan Macabre was Shao’s desire to commission a piece that would be a companion piece to Debussy’s cello sonata. The resulting work would be Hershel Garfein’s piece titled Layers.  As Shao says, “The commission came about because a friend of mine after a recital I played said ‘I would like to commission a piece for you.’ And so of course that was gratefully accepted by me and I got to choose which composer I asked. I had played a concert for the Five Burrows Music Festival …I had been asked to play this concert where they were celebrating their commissions over the years…I loved the piece I had played by Hershel Garfein called just was so exuberant and it had so much visceral energy. It was just thrilling…and so I approached him about a commission.”

Garfein’s piece Layers is based on a Poem by Stanley Kunitz of the same name. The poem depicts a person who has had a long life, and is reflecting back on the life he’s lived, and the desire to move forward and not live in the past; to “Live in the layers not on the litter.” Each one of the movement’s titles is taken from a line in the poem.

  1. Scavenger angels
  2.  When the moon was covered
  3.  Every stone on the road—klezmer influenced

The resulting work is a beautifully accessible piece that has elements of drama, but also elements of great textural splendor between the cello and piano; sometimes the piano being an ally, and sometimes an adversary.

The other new work for cello on CanCan Macabre is a piece by English composer Thomas Ades called Lieux Retrouves. (Places Found) This is music originally written for the English cellist Stephen Isserlis. The piece is in four movements that depict water, a mountain, a field and a village.

1. Les eaux

2. Les montagne

3. Les champs

4. La Ville-Cancan Macabre

Each one of the four movements is very different stylistically and texturally than the one previous, with some very inventive writing by Ades for both instruments. In Describing the piece Shao says, “The first movement called water is very much like a Debussy Image but of course all Ades. The second movement is called the mountain, and so there are two mountaineers… you can hear one in the piano and one in the cello. And you can hear them all ascending this craggy mountain…the same tune is there but he puts us in different metres. The slow movement is called the fields and it’s just very quiet, very spare, and very calm.” The third movement makes use of extreme high writing for the cello, as Shao describes it, “It really feels like you have all this wafting into the air.” She continues, “The last movement is just this romp where everything that you could go wild in a town is involved in this last movement. He [Ades] uses some really crazy extended techniques that are really difficult. It’s just wild.”

Lieux Retrouves by Ades put simply; are four fantastic character pieces for the cello and piano that are both challenging for the players and delightful for the listener.

The other revelation on this disc is the 5 Pieces en Concert by Couperin arranged for cello by Paul Bazelaire. This is music that was originally written for viols, but Bazelaire has put these pieces through a whole new prism, where the colors of the cello and piano work remarkably well. One might think that the piano part would serve simply a continuo role, this being music from the baroque, but instead Bazelaire has arranged the pieces so that there is very much a partnership or duo role between the two instruments. Shao and her pianist make the most of this arrangement with the clarity of Couperin’s writing always present and the new textures created by the arrangement bringing new life to this music.

Can an Macabre is marvelous disc that needs to be heard! The music of Debussy and Couperin combined with two excellent new works for cello make this disc a must have for anyone who simply wants to hear good music.