Saturday 2 July 2016

Michael Nicolas’ debut disc for Sono Luminus is a remarkable achievement. He has a terrific technique as well as an ear for subtle beauty, texture and colour, shaping these works so well. This is adventurous programming that works brilliantly

New York based cellist, Michael Nicolas is of mixed French-Canadian and Taiwanese heritage. A graduate of the Juilliard School, he has forged a diverse career as soloist, chamber musician, recording artist and improviser, performing masterpieces of the past in the world’s most prestigious concert halls, free-form improvisation in a downtown New York experimental venue with giants of the genre and working with contemporary composers of all styles. 

He is the cellist of the genre-defying string quartet Brooklyn Rider , which has drawn praise from classical, world music and rock critics alike. He is also a member of Ensemble Ditto , a chamber group based in South Korea that has achieved extraordinary success in reaching young and new classical music audiences, selling out concert halls all over Korea, Japan, and China. As a member of the acclaimed International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) he has worked with countless composers from around the world, premiering and recording dozens of new works. Another group, Third Sound, which Michael helped found, made its debut with an historic residency at the 2015 Havana Contemporary Music Festival, in Cuba.

Highlights of the upcoming season include performances across South Korea with Ensemble Ditto and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, U.S, European tours with Brooklyn Rider and a six night residency at New York’s experimental music venue The Stone in December 2016 and the release of Nicolas’ debut solo album Transitions on the Sono Luminus label

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Michael Nicolas opens his new disc with Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 3 for Cello and Electronic Sounds which brings rich, resonant chords before developing through some virtuosic moments for the cellist as the theme leaps around with pizzicato interventions. Electronic sounds appear that cleverly dove-tail into the excitable cello line before finding longer phrases that bring a rather wistful character. The interaction between soloist and electronics is remarkable as the music moves through passages of fast moving short phrases that dart around for both soloist and electronics before a low pitched note from the electronics heralds the quick-fire coda.

Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint brings an insistent theme that soon expands as it drives steadily ahead with its multi-tracked cello textures, Reich finding some attractive melodic variants and harmonies. The music develops some very fine harmonies and textures with this cellist achieving terrific results, each line blending wonderfully. Later a tender little theme appears that still keeps the same tempo, whilst moving around and soon picking up a thrust before eventually slowing and finding a little relaxation. There are subtle rhythmic changes before the music regains its impetus to drive to the coda.

The soloist brings a whimsical little opening motif to David Fulmer’s Speak of the Spring before slowly developing the music, finding some exquisite little detailed cello sounds whilst creating a whole sound world where a myriad of lovely little sounds appear. Suddenly the music finds a stridency but falls back to discover new textures and colours. This soloist creates some exquisite little shapes and sounds, aware of every little colour and texture, every nuance his instrument can produce. The music later moves through a violent, strident passage where the soloist fairly tears into the strings of his instrument before subsiding and gently and quietly moving through a dark world of subtly shifting ideas to a gentle conclusion.

In Annie Gosfield’s Four Roses, for cello and electronic sampler, a firm rhythmic theme is taken forward to a pause before the theme recommences with electronic accompaniment, this soloist bringing a terrific rhythmic pulse, finding so many colours from his cello and using so much of its lower range. Along with the electronics some strange, often wiry sounds are produced including a sound very much like an old piano that brings some terrific dissonances. Soon there is a slower section with discordant harmonies from the cello and electronics with the electronic sampler taking the theme over a long drawn dissonant cello before weaving a lovely undulating theme. The rhythmic stance returns to take us to the coda.  

Annie Gosfield’s ...and a Five-spot for cello and electronic sampler was written as a companion piece to Four Roses and given its world premiere by Michael Nicolas and the composer at The Stone, New York City in September 2015. The cello brings a fine theme that is soon taken forward in a rhythmic dissonant manner, accompanied by electronic sounds. Soon the opening theme returns to be accompanied by the electronics finding many little detailed ideas. Again it is remarkable how this soloist weaves around the electronic sampler with the sound of an old piano returning. Long drawn, mournful cello sounds increase in tempo combining with a mesh of electronic accompaniment around which the cello weaves, finding so many textures and colours. Later the music finds a rhythmic nature with the sampler generated piano sounds discordantly accompanying a pizzicato cello line in a remarkable passage that takes us to the coda.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Þorvaldsdóttir) : Transitions was written in 2014. The cello appears with a high, long held note before a gentle wavering sound is heard. There are taps on the cello before more hushed sounds over which the cello rises, pulling out a mournful theme. Fleeting wiry string sounds appear as well as more taps on the cello. Anna Thorvaldsdottir always finds an underlying melodic base with this soloist bringing some exceptionally fine string textures, beautifully shaped and controlled, extracting so many lovely colours and textures.  The sad theme expands a little before the material is developed, bringing deep rich sonorities very evocative of nature, through passages of rich sonorous melody. Later there is a more quizzical, short phrased passage and more taps on the cello before the theme is drawn through a dissonant passage. A rhythmic tapping sequence is interspersed by longer cello phrases with the taps continuing over a held cello note at the coda

This is a particularly fine work, quite brilliantly performed.

Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa’s  Flexura leaps in with a rapid descending cello motif that soon quietens. This is repeated before being developed through the most amazing, often very free passages. Electronic sounds are heard subtly in the background before the cello brings much aggressive and virtuosic playing. The electronic sounds develop with a rather haunting accompaniment, the cello bringing higher phrases with lower growls. Michael Nicolas again achieves some remarkably fine cello effects, many subtleties as he eventually brings long drawn dissonant phrases around which strange electronic sounds flow. The music develops through some quite lovely, unusual passages with little melodic ideas appearing. Later the electronics bring some disturbing sounds around an anxious cello. There is a long held electronic sound over the cello before the soloist and electronics bring a wild passage with low growls, out of which the cello brings a lovely theme, a long, slowly rising and falling cello line that is surrounded by electronic sounds, creating a strangely mournful effect before descending to the coda.

Michael Nicolas’ debut disc is a remarkable achievement. He has a terrific technique as well as an ear for subtle beauty, texture and colour, shaping these works so well. This is adventurous programming that works brilliantly. 

The recording is very immediate and detailed. The booklet notes are brief but the artist and composers featured all have websites.

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