Cellophony

The first concert in the Park Lane Young Artists New Year Series was a triumph, writes Rebecca Franks

What do you call a group of eight cellos? No, this isn’t a poor-quality leftover Christmas cracker joke. (Although any humorous answers are welcome on a postcard.) It’s a question that idly crossed my mind earlier this week during a dazzling performance by such a collection of musicians. The ensemble in question has plumped for the name ‘Cellophony’ – representing the ‘vibrant, sonorous and exhilarating sound of an octet of cellists’. One to add to the dictionary, but I’m still on the hunt for a collective noun (I suppose the prosaic answer is a cello octet).

Cellophony, formed in 2007, took to the stage for the first concert of the Park Lane Young Artists New Series. Each year the Park Lane Group offers the cream of today's upcoming musicians performance opportunities in London, getting the year underway with a concert series in the Southbank's Purcell Room.

Contemporary and 20th-century music are programme requirements – handy for the cello octet whose history doesn’t stretch back beyond the last century. (In 1922, Julius Klingel became one of the first to write for a cello ensemble with his Hymnus for 12 cellos.) Perhaps even more surprising than finding out just how musically convincing and varied an ensemble of eight cellos can be, was discovering just how good the works that have been written for this ensemble are. 

Sitting in an outward-facing semi-circle, and swapping places between each piece, Cellophony first tackled Berio’s 1998 Korot, a masterly work combining rich sounds with eloquent silences and a huge range of effects. Adam Gorb’s Into the Light, given its London premiere, was to my ears not completely convincing in its journey from ‘despair and terror to illumination and triumph’.

But it did end in a glorious blaze, paving the way for one of the shining beacons of cellophony: Boulez’s Messagesquisse. (Well, near-cellophony. It’s actually for seven cellists rather than eight). This impeccably structured piece pits solo cello against six others, and encompasses both magically hushed and manically frenzied passages, a solo cadenza and a flying finish.

Richard Birchall, cellist and founder of the group, stepped into the musical spotlight with the premiere of his work Mirrors, filled with intriguing cello effects – sounds like soft fireworks and otherworldly glissandi pizzicatos.

Italian composer Sollima had the final word, employing two of the eight cellists as soloists in his lyrical Violoncelles, vibrez!. At the end, the cellos ‘faded-out’, disappearing into the ether. But I don't think I was the only one left wanting to hear more cellophonous sounds. Let's hope they return soon.

Rebecca Franks is online editor and staff writer for BBC Music Magazine