The Times, September 2015:
“Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland contains many strange sights and creatures, but there’s one phenomenon the intrepid author forgot: the cello octet. Cello octets are rarely spotted in the concert hall, partly because there’s not much music for them to eat. Yet Britain has a splendid specimen in Cellophony, and here they were in this pleasant concert repairing Carroll’s omission in Alice in Wonderland, a very engaging 25-minute romp written to mark the book’s 150th anniversary by the group’s founder Richard Birchall.
In four incisive, witty movements, the cellos conjured the White Rabbit’s hurrying, a waltzing Alice, the caucus race, the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the Mock Turtle’s musings through notes alone. In five others they chipped in with underscoring while Simon Callow narrated a miniature version of Carroll’s text, speckled with delicious impersonations (loved that lazy Cheshire Cat).
The undoubted highlight was the animal round-up in A Pool of Creatures, a jostling collection of musical impersonations quoted from Schubert, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns and others, each transferred with dashing finesse to the ensemble’s sound.
Fully at home in the cello’s world, Birchall brilliantly exploited the instrument’s facets, from autumnal melancholy and comic surprise to the percussive effect of scurrying fingers tapping the wood. I only wished the piece had been longer.” Geoff Brown
The Strad, May 2014:
“This release is a debut both for London-based cello octet Cellophony and for Edition’s new Classics label. ‘Vibrez’, a request not for vibrato but rather to thrill, opens with practically none of the former but plenty of the latter. The groundbreaking first few bars of the Act 1 Prelude to Tristan and Isolde are extra-striking with the hard, cutting edge the non-vibrato lends to them. It also renders the luxuriant sweep of sound when all eight cellos come in at full throttle almost overwhelming.
The recording’s bold, immediate colours ensure that we are frequently wowed by the combined sound of these young cellists, all alumni of London’s Guildhall School. Liszt’s Lugubre Gondola has a truly lugubrious opening: massed low tessitura cellos, haunting solo lines and an ethereally effective texture when the chromatic melody emerges. In Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria their shared sound is a pretty good imitation of a church organ, while Giovanni Sollima’s Violoncelles, Vibrez! builds with glissandos, pizzicato and repeated minimalist motifs to a dazzling conclusion.
All the tracks except the Sollima are arrangements by multitalented Philharmonia cellist, composer and Cellophony member Richard Birchall. These are unfailingly clever, sometimes so intricate that effect swamps the music, but full of inspired moments such as the change to sul ponticello in Schubert’s Aufenthalt as the mood becomes more fevered.” Janet Banks
International Record Review, May 2014:
“Just occasionally a new disc appears that causes one to rethink one’s conceptions of the most familiar of works. This is the case with the debut disc from the eight cellists of Cellophony, all aged only 30 or so, all former students of Louise Hopkins at London’s Guildhall School of Music, and all now embarked on flourishing careers as soloists, chamber musicians and orchestral players. Their founder and co-director, Richard Birchall, has arranged nine of the ten tracks, and they provide a wonderful example of how repertoire can be renewed and revitalised. Amongst all instruments, the cello – with its tessitura that spans the entire range of the human voice – offers a sound-world of unparalleled richness, and this is beautifully evoked in these masterly arrangements.
The programme offers a panoply of styles, from the counterpoint of Bach and the High Baroque, through Classicism in the form of Schubert Lieder, Romanticism in all its guises from early (Mendelssohn) to middle (Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan) and late (the atonality of Liszt’s final piano works), through to the twentieth century with Barber’s Adagio, before culminating in the one work expressly composed for these forces, Sollima’s Violoncelles, Vibrez!, composed in 1993. Birchall’s arrangements play to the variety of this repertoire, with the melodic interest constantly being passed from player to player in contrapuntal works such as the Bach F major Prelude, and indeed in the Wieniawski Scherzo-Tarantelle, with the voice-leading being ingeniously interwoven between the players. In the Prelude to Tristan and in Barber’s Adagio, the density of the scoring is all the richer for the occasional octave displacement, and the sinewy linear writing is brilliantly brought out, the players straining to reach the upper registers but with immaculate intonation always in evidence. Having eight players offers a range of doubling which enables the melodies to sing out at all times, as well as a fabulous richness and luxuriousness of tone which is beautifully exploited in Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria: it’s impossible to imagine the composer would have been anything other than highly approving.
The rearrangements of the piano writing work similarly well. In the second of Liszt’s Lugubre Gondola, the opening repeated three-note motif is able to be both played and held by the eight cellists making a very effective imitation of the sustaining pedal, and likewise they manage to maintain the line and the dynamic gradations in the closing monophonic section, which is so difficult on the piano with its rapid sound decay. Meanwhile, in the Schubert Lieder, the motives embedded in the piano figurations emerge as unalloyed lines and melodies rather than being broken up, with the antiphonal exchanges being passed from player to player each with his or her own tone colour, again an effect that is so difficult to achieve on a piano.
The final work is a virtuosic tour de force by the Sicilian ‘post-minimalist’ composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima, an extraordinarily eclectic and wide-ranging work that places extreme demands on the players, sending them to stratospheric registers with extensive use of harmonics, swooping glissandos, and all underpinned by a series of recurring rhythmic and melodic motifs.
Cellophony is a remarkable group and the players’ busy lives mean that they only occasionally manage to get together to perform. I have been fortunate enough to hear them on two occasions and the audience’s response has been unequivocal. I urge you to hear them.” Nicholas Salwey
Gramophone, May 2014:
“Cellophony are a talented octet of young British cellists who for their second CD have put together a well-balanced programme of transcriptions as well as including one attractive contemporary work. Most are palpable hits, a couple of them near misses.
‘Vibrez’ may be the name of the CD but it opens with the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, where the straight, vibrato-less tone of the cellos is the defining characteristic of a searing performance, the forthcoming drama pitched on a precipice before it takes off on that pizzicato chord at bar 17. Barber’s Adagio is a natural for inclusion and Cellophony’s performance draws the listener inwards as if in a conversation. The group are adept at getting round the tricky figuration of the Wieniawski showpiece, and in the contrasting Venetian scene of La lugubre gondola they catch the desolate tone of Liszt’s late composition that anticipated Wagner’s death in the city. The Bach Prelude in F flows unobtrusively, the tempo easing off as a natural response for the return of the opening subject. In Mendelssohn’s lovely Ave Maria, they could have made more of the drama in the supplicant calls of the middle section. Cellophony add a charming countermelody to the return of the main refrain in ‘Ständchen’ but the transcriptions of Schubert’s other Lieder fare less well: the busy demi-semiquaver accompaniment muddies the rippling waters in ‘Liebesbotschaft’ and likewise the personal drama in ‘Aufenthalt’. Violoncelles, vibrez! by Giovanni Sollima was composed in 1993. It is an appealing piece of minimalism, the thrice-repeated lyrical tune rising up to the highest register in an engaging manner.
The unanimity of the playing and the diverse nature of these performances make this Cellophony CD exceptional.” Adrian Edwards
The Guardian, September 2013:
“Cellophony also showcased their depth, energy and rapport, with arrangements from Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde and a furiously virtuosic account of the contemporary Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima’s dazzling Violoncelles, Vibrez!. … breathtaking sonorities, ambiguities and audacities” John Fordham
The Daily Telegraph:
“But then something comes along that just blows you away. The eight-cello group Cellophony which launched the series was one. They looked terrific lined up there on stage, and what a fabulous rich and fruity noise they made. Some of the pieces revelled in that sound, such as Adam Gorb’s Into the Light, while Richard Birchall’s Mirrors reminded us how varied the cello palette is, sometimes sounding like seagulls or falling fireworks.
But the best pieces were the two by modernist old masters, Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez. These played on eight cellos’ ability to sound sometimes like one thing — moving with lightning speed — or many things in rushing counterpoint. Both were thrown off with terrific panache.” Ivan Hewett
“I am not sure what career prospects there are for an ensemble of eight cellos. But I hope the old cynic in me is proved wrong. Cellophony, which opened the Park Lane Group’s annual week of mostly contemporary music played by young professionals, are a bold and brilliant bunch. They even made Boulez sound like fun. And that’s not a sentence you read often. His Messagesquisse was sensuously and scintillatingly delivered, with the fiendish solo superbly executed by Richard Birchall. And the latter’s moodyMirrors, replete with glissandos, harmonics and vocal hissing, revealed a composer who knows fully how to exploit the possibilities of his instrument.
The players managed to maintain the pulsing momentum of Berio’s stunning Korot while conjuring gripping drama in those thrilling moments when all eight cellos suddenly coalesce in one mighty gesture. And I also liked Adam Gorb’s Into The Light, which – as its title suggests – moved from Stygian gloom to Straussian ecstasy and even ended on a glowingly optimistic major chord: “a small dedication to myself for my 50th birthday,” the composer says.
But the real crowd-tickler was Violoncelles, vibrez! by the Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima. Cinematic and unashamedly sentimental, it had two solo cellos overlapping in increasingly stratospheric sequences, then furiously egging each other through a rabid double-cadenza. Intonation was strained at times, but the players (all graduates of the Guildhall School) sounded in a different league from when I heard them last summer.” Richard Morrison
“The Park Lane Group’s annual series of young artist showcases got off to a surprising start this year, with a concert by Cellophony, an ensemble consisting of no fewer than eight cellists. I scarcely knew there was enough cello octet repertoire to fill a concert, let alone justify the formation of a professional chamber group. But the real surprise lay in the variety of tone and effect the cellists conjured in this programme of 20th- and 21st-century works.
A rarely performed piece by Luciano Berio was the opener. Korot sets fragmentary counterpoint against moments of textural and thematic homogeny, the pull of which is increased by the uniformity of the instrumentation. It is a nicely poised work that, despite its expressive modesty, is thrilling to hear when played with this kind of precision and sensitivity.
The Berio was succeeded by Boulez’s Messagesquisse (for a mere seven cellos), Giovanni Sollima’s Violoncelles, Vibrez! (a stylistic splicing of Morricone and Reich) and two new works. The first, by Adam Gorb, only half succeeded in his aim to create a “vast and varied soundworld” and lacked concision; the second was by Richard Birchall, Cellophony’s director and an evidently gifted composer as well as performer. His three-movement Mirrors played to the grouping’s strengths, and made up for what it lacked in structural variety by packing both punch and promise.” Guy Dammann
“First up were eight cellists going by the name of Cellophony, offering premieres by Adam Gorb and Richard Birchall (who was also one of their number). Gorb’s Into the Light’followed its title quite literally, beginning with angry growls from the depths and ending in a blaze of exaltation, with much Bartokian material in between. Birchall’s Mirrors was a dazzling exploration of the effects this instrumental combination can produce, but by also playing two classics in this unusual genre, Cellophony showed how high the bar had already been set. Boulez’s Messagesquisse turned the group into an orchestra with alternating soloists. Berio’s Korot was a breathtaking essay in whispered sound and pregnant silence; with its diamond-sharp contours immaculately sculpted, it seemed to imply the presence of a larger work hovering unseen in the ether above.” Michael Church
BBC Music Magazine:
“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. 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
“The Cello Octet Cellophony bids fair to inherit the mantle of of Conjunto Ibérico, who pioneered the medium for contemporary composers and have been widely acclaimed. Subject to the contraints of their separate professional lives for getting together, Cellophony achieved miracles of ensemble and, especally, a ravishing joint pianissimo.
Two classics, by Berio and Boulez, were balanced by high quality novelties by Gorb and Birchall; their ordering was so canny that afterwards we were ready to indulge ourselves in the lyricism of Giovanni Sollima’s eclectic blend of recent musics.
Their rapport and eye contact (without a conductor) made for a show which was as good to watch as to hear; a first CD is on the way – they should consider making a DVD or, at the least, getting some of their pieces onto YouTube. Would anything else live up to that start to the week?” Peter Grahame Woolf
The Independent (Wigmore Hall, December 2011):
“Anyone wanting to test the mettle of British classical music’s up-and-coming young stars might begin by checking out the annual parade of talent put on at Christmas by the Park Lane Group.
Sitting in a semicircle and constantly changing their positions, Cellophony look like a strict democracy, but their group discipline is immaculate. They brought a luxuriously warm sound to arrangements of three Schubert Lieder, with ‘Standchen’ lending itself ideally to such treatment. Then they repeated the stunt they pulled at the Southbank last Christmas, delivering Berio’s daunting‘Korot’ with seemingly effortless ease. Expressly written for cello octet and trading on finely-calibrated harmonics, this work is an essay in whispered sound and pregnant silence; sometimes it suggests a radio tuning between frequencies, but its contours are diamond-sharp and its textures recall Bartok’s; Cellophony made it the occasion for some dazzling virtuosity.
The cellos came back to delight (with an arrangement of Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ Prelude), to intrigue (with some transcribed Bach), and to send us out into the night with their own version of Wieniawski’s fiddle fireworks.” Michael Church