I became aware of the British violinist Daniel Hope from his playing on the wonderful reworking of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons on the album Recomposed by Max Richter (Richter makes a cameo appearance here), released by Deutsche Grammophon a few months ago. Spheres is a project conceived by Hope as a 21st-Century exploration of musica universalis, the idea that the motion of celestial bodies is in itself a form of “music.” (One can’t help but think of Gustav Holst’s symphonic suite, The Planets.)
In his teens, Hope was introduced to the famed astronomer Carl Sagan by the violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin, a meeting that the young musician says opened his mind to the enormities of the universe and to the notion of “music of the spheres.”
“It started with Pythagoras and extended to some of those extraordinary German thinkers, such as Johannes Kepler, who were convinced that music was created when planets move or collide, and that music had a mathematical foundation, a kind of astronomical harmony,” he comments in an interview with Deutsche Grammophon.
The selections on Spheres (which could have benefited from a more creative cover design) feature an eclectic mix of composers, ranging from Bach and Fauré to Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, as well as several young artists, including Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev), and the refreshing inclusion of two female composers, Lera Auerbach and Elena Kats-Chernin.
Hope’s vision of this melodic brush with outer space has its hits and misses.“Imitazione delle Campane,” from a violin sonata by the baroque composer (and underrated Bach contemporary) Johann Paul von Westhoff, sets a sublime tone, with a piece one finds hard to believe was written more than three centuries ago. It resonates with a timelessness that’s perfect for the conceptual layout of the recording.
Arvo Pärt’s complex and challenging Fratres, for violin, strings, and percussion, is by far the most interesting of the offerings, as well as serving as an impressive showcase for Hope’s talents. And Gabriel Prokofiev shows compelling flashes from a string quartet or two by his grandfather, in a world premiere that provides the title of the album.
Spheres also includes some prosaic New Age-sounding pieces by Ludovico Einaudi and Michael Nyman, but closes, nicely, with the enigmatic “Nachspiel” by Karsten Gundermann, from his Faust – Episode 2, a world debut as well.
Though perhaps a bit uneven in its modernistic interpretation of the so-called sounds of the universe, Spheres provides worthwhile exposure to several younger composers as they pursue their own musical odysseys.
“So, is there anything out there?” the violinist asks in the liner notes. After listening to the otherworldly Spheres, most will probably agree with his answer: “I like to think so…”