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First Play: Cheng² Duo, Violonchelo del fuego

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Robert Rowat

"As the first-born of our family, I am more Type A and a bit of a worrywart," says pianist Silvie Cheng, half of the Ottawa-based Cheng² Duo (pronounced Cheng Squared Duo), which she forms with her younger brother, cellist Bryan Cheng. "But this balances out Bryan’s adventurous and fun-loving ways towards life nicely."

Their sibling synergy is apparent on Violonchelo del fuego, their new all-Spanish album streaming in the CBC Music player until its June 1 North American release on the Audite label. It's a followup to their 2016 debut album, Violoncelle français.

"As music lovers, art history buffs and foodies, we thought it would be interesting for both us, and listeners, to be able to explore and delve deep into the musical flavours and tastes of different countries, as well as the cultural and historical influences behind their music," explains Silvie. "Our first album highlighted the elegance, refinement and sophistication of French culture. Much of the repertoire on that album showcased the lyricism of French music, so we thought it would be nice to have the next album be a fiery contrast — hence Violonchelo del fuego, which means 'cello of fire'!"

To get a feel for the Spanish dances that infuse so much of this music by Enrique Granados, Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz, Pablo de Sarasate, Gaspar Cassadó and Joaquín Turina, the two travelled to Spain.

"We spent about 10 days in Granada and Sevilla, going to authentic flamenco shows alongside locals, visiting architectural sights, and experiencing the cultural dynamics there first-hand," Silvie says. "My favourite part of the trip was visiting Falla’s house in Granada, at the foot of the Alhambra. It’s now a museum dedicated to him, and all of his belongings have been kept in their original condition and setting, including the piano he composed on. Upon learning that I'm a pianist, the museum guide suggested that I could play it, to my surprise. So I played one of his compositions, while looking out at the view of the city below. I felt an instant connection to his life and time!"

'A rich tapestry of truly unique sounds'

An arrangement for cello and piano of Falla's Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven popular Spanish songs) forms the album's centrepiece.

"To really understand this masterpiece, we listened to and studied the original version for voice and piano intensively," reflects Bryan. "We scrutinized every word in the text, translating to English so we could deeply comprehend the verses and apply their meanings musically. One thing you’ll notice is that we play all seven songs in this cycle, rather than the six you usually hear in arrangements for the cello. The 'extra' movement is from the original collection of seven vocal songs, which we arranged ourselves for cello and piano. You will hear that a lot of the idiosyncrasies in articulation, vibrato, and colour I create are based on the vocal origins of these songs. It was my goal to really make the cello sing and speak in each of the canciones, as a dramatic Spanish singer would. At the same time, arrangements open up a whole new world of possibilities and you’ll hear that at times I will strum like a guitar, or Silvie's playing will imitate castanets, and the result of this recording is a rich tapestry of truly unique sounds created from this eclectic combination of elements."

Silvie gets a solo turn on "Exaltación" from Turina's Danzas fantásticas, Op. 22, while Bryan plays Cassadó's three-movement Suite for Solo Cello.

"The Suite is a special combination of classic Spanish flavour with Baroque-inspired structure, obviously influenced by Bach’s Suites for solo cello," reflects Bryan. "Each of the three movements, although perhaps not initially very noticeable, is based on a particular dance: the zarabanda in the free and weaving first movement, a sardana in the rustic second, and finally a lively and explosive jota to close. Cassadó himself was a wonderful cellist who studied with the legendary cellist Pablo Casals in Paris, and at the same time, composition with Falla and Ravel. The two composers’ influences on his musical voice are also reflected in this piece, which quotes Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and draws from Falla’s characteristic flair. It is itself a remarkable mosaic of old and new, a celebration of life, really, from melancholy to hot-blooded flamboyance!"

Further highlights include Cassadó's Requiebros — "it’s one of those pieces where notes that were written down almost 100 years ago truly jump off the page and come to life," says Silvie — and their own arrangement of "Primera Danza Española" from Falla's La vida breve that, according to Bryan, "manages to capture a certain essence of Spanish music, in all its colour, effervescence, rhythmic vigour, and improvisational quality."

Download Cheng² Duo's Violonchelo del fuego here.

Their next album will be a double CD of Russian music, repertoire they'll be playing at a number of upcoming classical summer music festivals:

Aug. 1: Ottawa Chamberfest
Aug. 2: Toronto Summer Music Festival
Aug. 8 to 10: Five-concert residency at Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, Ont.
Aug. 19: Indian River Festival in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

More to explore:

This is what happens when you actually follow Beethoven's metronome marks

Watch Johannes Moser play excerpts from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1

Blake Pouliot drops his debut album, wins $20K prize

What's it like to be concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra?

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