CD Review: Strange Toys

STRANGE TOYS | Talking House Records 2008 | Joan Jeanrenaud, cello; PC Munoz, producer

Tracks: Sling Shot | Axis | Kaleidoscope | Transition | Tug of War | Dervish | Ink Blot | Blue Kite | Livre | Waiting | Rainkids | Air & Angels | Vermont Rules | Trottola |

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Although widely recorded as a member of the Kronos Quartet, Strange Toys is cellist Joan Jeanrenaud’s first solo disc comprised of pieces entirely of her own composing.

The tracks are short, with only three of the 14 creeping over the five minute mark, and heavily influenced by the patterns and tonality of the Reich et al. Cellists looking for something more listener-friendly to accompany Kodaly, Britten or Hindemith on a recital program might consider Vermont Rules.

Transition, the longest piece on the disc by far, is also head and shoulders above the rest in terms of original execution of ideas. Scored for two cellos and two violas da gamba, this piece is a study in colour and texture that is engaging right from its neo-Baroque opening. The structure is similar to Pachelbel’s Canon in the sense that it starts with a ground and each added voice is at half the note value the previous line. The wooly tone of the gamba is haunting and creates the interest in what would be a pretty but forgettable composition exercise.

After five minutes, a more ominous, improvisatory section begins hesitantly at first and then settles into a solo line over what sounds like a phase-shifted accompaniment. The canon returns briefly before the piece ends without harmonic resolution.

As I was listening, many of the pieces reminded me of something else: Air on a G String, Pachelbel’s Canon, Bach’s C major prelude, Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet. The similarities were more in sensibility rather than a straight borrowing of themes. Whether this reveals Jeanrenaud’s influences or my own prejudices is a question that will have to stay unanswered for the moment. At any rate, this disc provides a peek inside a curious musician’s mind and a welcome respite to the heavy-hitters that populate cello repertoire.

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