April 18, 2019
Pig the Stinker. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.
Willbee the Bumblebee. By Craig Smith & Maureen Thomson. Illustrated by Katz Cowley. Scholastic. $7.99.
Inevitably, some books for young readers look behind (ha, ha) to find laughs. Some get to the bottom (ha, ha) of things better than others, though, and Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Stinker does this sort of thing about as well as can be hoped. Pig the Pug is a delightfully “bad” character: an unreconstructed bit of selfishness and self-involvement with no respect for housemate dog Trevor or for the humans who make occasional partial appearances (their faces are never seen) in these books. Blabey sets each book’s tone even before the story starts, this time with a “book plate” that says “Award for Neatness: Trevor” just inside, but with the inside front cover and facing page looking as if they have been smushed and smeared with dirt and mud, if not something worse. Yuck. “Pig liked to get dirty,” Blabey notes. “He frankly was RANK./ His paws could be frightful./ His fur often stank.” Poor, bemused Trevor looks on as Blabey narrates the ways in which Pig makes a pig of himself, including playing “with all kinds of unspeakable MUCK” – and readers will know just what the muck is from Blabey’s explicit (but funny) drawing. Blabey’s perfect rhyme scheme, dedicated to enumerating Pig’s many depredations, is a big part of what makes these books so likable. “He leaked out a stench/ that could not be forgotten./ He reeked. He was rancid./ In short, he was rotten.” The humans have eventually had enough, telling Pig that he needs “a good clean/ from your ears to your butt!” But (ha, ha) baths are not among Pig’s favorite things, to put it mildly. After running every which way around the house to avoid being caught and washed, he eventually brings a small toy into the bathroom and uses it to prevent water from flowing into the bathtub. Despite feckless Trevor’s attempts to point out what Pig has done, the water is turned on, and soon enough, there is a massive explosion that results in Pig sustaining yet another of the injuries that afflict him in these books – this time, a big bonk on his pushed-in pug nose that results in a X-shaped bandage being seen there when, after all, he does end up taking a bath with Trevor. However, the book ends appropriately Pig-ishly: “But although you can wash him/ with soap, cloth, and towel,/ there’s no getting ’round it…/ Pig is just foul.” And there, on the final page, where Pig and Trevor are sitting in a “Dog-E-Bath,” we see Pig surrounded by bubbles, with Trevor definitely not enjoying what they mean or, probably, how they smell. Pig always gets his comeuppance in these books, but he never quite learns to be anything but piggish. And that’s the bottom (ha, ha) line.
Perfect rhymes, such as Blabey’s, can make even some less-than-pleasant elements of a story enjoyable. The opposite is also true: imperfect rhymes can interfere with enjoyment of a story, even a basically nice one. That is why Willbee the Bumblebee is a (+++) book despite being a sweet tale and having some pleasant Katz Cowley illustrations. Originally published in 2007 and now available in paperback, the story by Craig Smith and Maureen Thomson is about a little bumblebee whose black-and-yellow jersey (the familiar bee stripes) gets caught on a thorn one day: “And as Willbee flew away, he did not stop,/ his jersey unraveled from the bottom to the top,/ and when he realized this, he lost his hum…/ He was showing the whole garden his bare bum!” And there we have a bummer (ha, ha) of a predicament. “He was frightened, and all alone./ All he wanted to do was to get home.” The non-rhythmic poetry and partial rhymes make the story less charming than it would otherwise be, and the authors often really reach to try to get a line to scan at all: “Now, Monica the butterfly,/ she flew down;/ She told Willbee to/ wipe off his frown.” Anyway, Monica helps out the distressed little bee by taking the unraveled jersey and getting a spider named Steve to reknit the garment. Smith and Thomson appear to have picked “Steve” because it is an easy name to rhyme, but young readers who have gone through books about spiders will know that female spiders, not males, are the champion knitters – that is, web builders. Many male spiders do not spin webs at all, and those that do generally do not make very attractive ones. Steve is good at this, though, as is necessary for the story. So soon enough, Monica brings the jersey back to Willbee and then, in order to give Smith and Thomson an easy rhyme with “last,” insists that he put it on “really, really fast.” And so, “With his new jersey on,/ he got back his hum,/ all his bits were warmed up…/ even his bum!” Monica does not give Willbee the bum’s rush (ha, ha), but hangs around long enough for a hug before Willbee heads home. And that is that. The pictures in Willbee the Bumblebee are a much bigger attraction than the text, but the story is agreeable enough so that the youngest readers, perhaps not yet completely attuned to the cadences of fully rhythmic, well-rhymed poetry, will like the simple tale and “bee” happy with the book. But (ha, ha) slightly older readers are less likely to find its pleasantries fully engaging.
The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie. By James King. Diversion Books. $18.
If there were an Ig Nobel prize for movie criticism, James King would deserve it. The Ig Nobel awards, parodies of the Nobels, are given annually to genuine, legitimate scientific research that is simply weird: attaching a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken to give the chicken a dinosaur-like walk; asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and deciding whether to believe their answers; doing a seated self-colonoscopy; using roller-coaster rides to speed the passage of kidney stones – that sort of thing (those are all genuine Ig Nobel winners). The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie would be a winner for investigating, in seriousness and with plenty of footnotes, a film genre whose utter unimportance is as overwhelming as are the personalities of the people involved in it (their on-screen personalities and, in most cases, their real-world ones as well).
The story arc here leads more or less from Saturday Night Fever (1978) to Dead Poets Society (1989), exploring along the way The Karate Kid, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and many more films of the type. The writing is strictly for people deeply steeped in pop culture, and not only of the movie variety: “And even when an older, classic song was used – such as Led Zeppelin’s 1975 rock behemoth ‘Kashmir’ – it was still pretty cool: the famously fussy Zep only let it in because they liked Crowe’s music journalism and, in his original undercover article, many of the characters at Clairemont had been Zeppelin fans, eagerly awaiting the band’s upcoming US tour that would ultimately be canceled in the wake of drummer John Bonham’s death from accidental asphyxiation in September 1980.” Yes, that is one sentence, and there are lots more where that came from (the book runs to more than 400 pages).
There are all sorts of footnotes, too, showing that King has done a lot of research in some rather odd places. One note says, “From the obituary of Ronald Reagan, Los Angeles Times, Johanna Neuman, June 6, 2004.” Another is “‘Demi Moore learns to accept change,’ Lawrence Journal-World, July 11, 1985.” And another: “New York thrash metal band Slayer would put that crossover on record in 1991 when they collaborated with Public Enemy on a new version of their single ‘Bring the Noise.’ The rap band’s original had appeared on the soundtrack of Less Than Zero. The early ’90s also saw director Mario van Peebles follow his era-defining urban drugs thriller New Jack City (1991) with the ‘black Western’ Posse (1993).” The book reads as if King’s mind is so jam-packed with things he has learned that there is just no way to fit everything in standard-size type: the overflow to the bottoms of pages becomes necessary to show the breadth of King’s knowledge of the primary topic and secondary ones as well.
This is a book simply packed with information on the who, what, when, where, and how (much less of the “why”) of teen movies of the 1980s in all their glory, or vainglory. Who made the films, who financed them, who acted in them, who distributed them, how well or poorly they did at the box office – readers will get all that and more here, whether in a chapter called “The Joy of Sex” (which opens, “Not every teen film from 1983 was chic and slick” – hopefully King does not think the last and antepenultimate words rhyme) or in one called “Big Budgets, High Concepts.” That latter title is intended to be taken seriously, leading as it does to a chapter that includes corporate information in some of King’s typically extended sentences: “MTV began to court older viewers with its spin-off channel VH1 and then, in 1985, American Express left the set-up entirely, leaving Warner to soon sell everything off to the media conglomerate Viacom, a company that had made its name distributing CBS shows to local TV stations.” But the reference to corporate matters highlights a systemic weakness of The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie: King has little interest in showing how the films reflected the society in which they were made, or how they highlighted (or downplayed) elements of that society. The book is about a whole passel of insiders making a whole passel of largely imitative films in pursuit, certainly, of money, but apparently not much else: the vapidity of many of these movies seems to reflect an insipid culture around them. But does it, or does it merely reflect the extent to which Hollywood was, in the 1980s (among other times), so far outside the mainstream of America in general that it had no idea what the wider culture really was like? This sort of question does not interest King in the way that the performers, directors and distributors of ’80s teen movies do. There are passing references to social changes in society that are reflected (or not) in various films, but there is no consideration of whether the teen-movie genre itself had (or has) any importance beyond, well, making money from the teen audiences at which the movies were aimed.
Ultimately, The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie is for dyed-in-the-wool fans of the teen-targeted films that King explores: millennials, now approaching or having passed the age of 50, who want to cling to the notion that they are still “in with the in crowd” (a 1960s musical reference that still seems apt). Those possessing an unending fascination with all things Hollywood will find plenty here that they will consider meaty from an “in crowd” perspective. On the other hand, those not already deeply immersed in these films and the environment in which they were made will find the book rather thin gruel: it can, in fact, be difficult for those not sufficiently “in the know” to tell one of these ’80s teen films from the next. Such teen-movie wannabes can take heart, though – not from King’s book but from work by Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita, who successfully taught pigeons to tell the difference between paintings by Picasso and ones by Monet. That work won those three researchers an Ig Nobel prize in 1995.
Bruch: Die Loreley. Michaela Kaune, Magdalena Hinterdobler, Danae Kontora, Thomas Mohr, Benedikt Eder, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Thomas Hamberger, Sebastian Campione; Prager Philharmonischer Chor and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Stefan Blunier. CPO. $33.99 (3 CDs).
Alfred Cellier: Dorothy. Majella Cullagh, Lucy Vallis, Stephanie Maitland, Matt Mears, John Ieuan Jones, Edward Robinson, Patrick Relph, Michael Vincent Jones, Sebastian Maclaine; Victorian Opera Chorus and Victorian Opera Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge. Naxos. $12.99.
Louise Reichardt: Songs. Amy Pfrimmer, soprano; Dreux Montegut, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The aged Max Bruch (1838-1920), like the aged Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), has often been criticized for never moving beyond the musical forms, styles and approaches of his youth – for staying firmly implanted in Romanticism, and early Romanticism at that, when the musical world had long since advanced to wrenching harmonies, atonality, the Second Viennese School, and so forth. Whether all those changes really constituted “advancing” is more a matter of opinion today, when music of all styles and approaches tends to be accepted if it has something to say, than in Bruch’s and Saint-Saëns’ own later years, when they were seen as relics of a time gone by. Even more than Saint-Saëns, Bruch is now known for only a handful of works, and grand opera is certainly not a field with which he is commonly associated. But Bruch’s early promise, his wealth of melodic invention, his devotion to the Romantic ideal, and his willingness to spin out musical beauty at great length, were already apparent in his early opera Die Loreley, written from 1860 to 1863. The libretto was intended for Mendelssohn, who actually wrote three numbers for it before his death, and since Mendelssohn was one of Bruch’s major compositional models, the eventual creation of the opera by Bruch makes considerable historical as well as musical sense – although the path to the work’s creation was by no means smooth. Bruch’s deeply Romantic temperament shows in the way he became attached to a story in which it is unrequited love, with some supernatural assistance, that leads to the creation of the Lorelei, who lures mariners to their death along the Rhine. The Lorelei is not simply a water spirit in Bruch’s opera – she is a woman wronged and thus transformed into a threat, in what is a very Romantic scenario involving the power of love and the risks of its disappointment. There are Lorelei works by Clara Schumann and Liszt that predate Bruch’s opera, but the music of which Bruch’s work is most reminiscent is partly that of Mendelssohn, whose works Bruch tended not only to respect but also to echo at this stage of his career, and partly that of Carl Maria von Weber. For the central scene of Die Loreley, and the first that Bruch wrote – the scene around which he built up everything else in the opera – is one in which Lenore (Michaela Kaune), the wronged woman who will become the Lorelei, calls on dark Rhine spirits for revenge after she has been seduced and abandoned by Otto (Thomas Mohr), the Palgrave (essentially Count), with whom she has fallen in love without knowing his identity. The spirits agree to grant her wish, in a scene quite reminiscent of the Wolf’s Glen scene from Weber’s Der Freischütz, and the remainder of the opera focuses on how that wish plays out – to the happiness of no one, including Lenore. This is a very rarely heard opera, so the live recording from 2014 that is now available on CPO is very much welcome – and CPO, which has sometimes given short shrift to listeners by failing to provide otherwise unavailable texts to allow the audience to follow the action of unfamiliar works, deserves five stars in this release for including a complete German/English libretto. The singing is generally quite fine, not only from Kaune and Mohr but also from Magdalena Hinterdobler as Bertha, the unfortunate countess whom Otto marries and quickly abandons and who, like Otto himself, loses her life as the revenge and curse of the Lorelei take hold. The only vocal disappointment is Jan-Hendrik Rootering as the minnesinger Reinald: his voice is pinched, shaky and not always on key. But the remaining parts come across very well indeed. Sumptuously scored and very well played by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Stefan Blunier, Die Loreley is impressive both as Romantic opera and as further evidence, if any were needed, of the depth to which Bruch – who was only in his 20s when he wrote this work – absorbed and continued to be guided by emotion-packed Romanticism throughout his compositional life.
The importance of Der Freischütz (1821), and in particular the Wolf’s Glen scene, for later composers can scarcely be overestimated. The scene, lightened and somewhat parodied, even makes its way into Gilbert and Sullivan, in their early The Sorcerer (1877). It is easy to assume that Gilbert and Sullivan ruled the British musical stage in their collaborative years, but a new recording from Naxos gives the lie to that common belief and cannot help but make G&S fans wonder what in the world the audiences of the time really considered top-notch entertainment. The release is the world première recording of Dorothy (1886) by Alfred Cellier (1844-1891), best known today, to the extent that he is known at all, for arranging some of the G&S operettas’ overtures. Dorothy was a genuine phenomenon: its 931 performances were almost as many as those of The Mikado (672) and its successor, Ruddigore (288), combined. Why? The recording makes that question inevitable and suggests that the only possible answer is that Dorothy is so feather-light that audiences did not have to think even briefly about political satire, class issues (except very much in passing), or any sort of topsy-turvy world along the lines of those that Gilbert was such an expert at creating. The full libretto of Dorothy – readily available online, thanks to Naxos – shows the weaknesses of the writing by Benjamin C. Stevenson (1839-1906) even more clearly than do the lyrics sung on the CD, which at least include a single number with a touch of spirit: “The old would be young, and the young would be old,/ The lean only long to grow fatter;/ The wealthy want health, and the healthy want gold,/ A change to the worse for the latter./ The single would wed, but the husband contrives/ To consider his fetters a curse./ And half the world sighs for the other half’s wives,/ With the risk of a change for the worse.” Those are the best lines by far in a very mediocre libretto, whose story it so bland that it brings to mind the words of Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience: “If they want insipidity, they shall have it.” The story of Dorothy involves two well-born cousins, Dorothy and Lydia, who vow not to wed (for no special reason) and who disguise themselves as an innkeeper’s daughters (also for no special reason); they meet two interchangeable young noblemen (less differentiated than Marco and Giuseppe in The Gondoliers). The men romance the girls, who give them rings; that night, with the girls out of disguise at the local nobleman’s hall, the men romance the opposite girls (shades of Così fan tutte) and give the rings to the “wrong” ones; the next day, everyone switches back and all is fine (yet again for no special reason). And that is that. The music is serviceably charming, far better than the words although it is largely characterless. The recording of Dorothy is nicely sung, and Richard Bonynge, a longtime advocate of less-known music, conducts as befits a man who has turned up some real gems. But Dorothy is at best semi-precious. Perhaps Bunthorne, again, got it right in figuring out why Cellier’s work was so tremendously popular in its time: “It’s his confounded mildness.”
Well, being mild and accessible is surely no crime, and certainly was not one in the Victorian age, or even the years immediately preceding it. There is some very pleasant, if ultimately rather inconsequential, music to be rediscovered from that time period, including the songs of Louise Reichardt (1779-1826), a selection of which may be heard on a new MSR Classics CD. Reichardt had a fine musical pedigree, being the granddaughter of Franz Benda (1709-1786) and the daughter of two composers, Juliane and Johann Friedrich Reichardt. Louise (sometimes spelled Luise) was involved in her family’s gatherings of notable literary figures of the early 19th century, including Goethe, Ludwig Tieck, Clemens Brentano, and Phillip Achim von Arnim, among others. When she wrote her songs – more than 90 in all – she often used the words of poets with whom she was personally acquainted. She also favored poetry that was popular with other composers, such as the works of Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), often set by Rossini. Reichardt deliberately created accessible, folk-music-like songs that would be easy for students to learn and present: she was a music teacher and a choral instructor, although not allowed, because of her gender, to conduct in public. Amy Pfrimmer offers a nicely chosen selection of 22 of Louise Reichardt’s songs on the new CD, with able support from Dreux Montegut – whose role is distinctly supportive and subservient, but who handles his contributions as well as possible. The selection begins with six songs to Metastasio texts and ends with three others; in between are pieces to words by Tieck, von Arnim, Brentano, Novalis, Karl Friedrich Gottlob Wetzl, Karl Philipp Conz, and Philipp Otto Runge. Reichardt does little to “tone paint” the words, preferring simple expressiveness that sets them to pleasant if undistinguished musical lines. Pfrimmer’s rich but sometimes slightly wobbly soprano serves the generally unchallenging material well, and her expressiveness effectively brings out what emotional depth the pieces possess – not that there is a considerable amount of it. It is largely the thrill of discovery, or rediscovery, that makes this a very pleasant and interesting recording: nothing here is earthshaking (or was intended to be), and Reichardt broke no new ground in the lieder genre. But the disc stands, like those of Dorothy and Die Loreley, as evidence of how much interesting and very rarely heard music remains to be unearthed and given a chance to reach a 21st-century audience that is eager to move beyond the standard repertoire and into some less-explored parts of the musical past.
John Robertson: Concerto for Clarinet and Strings; Hinemoa & Tutanekai; Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra; Symphony No. 3. Mihail Zhivkov, clarinet; Kremera Acheva, flute; Fernando Serrano Montoya, trumpet; Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.
David Maslanka: Recitation Book; William Albright: Fantasy Etudes; David Clay Mettens: Ornithology S. Fuego Quartet (Nicki Roman, soprano saxophone; Erik Elmgren, alto saxophone; Harrison Clarke, tenor saxophone; Gabriel Piqué, baritone saxophone). Ravello. $14.99.
David Noon: Partita; Jerry Owen: Meshquanowat’; Marc Mellits: Two Pieces for Flute and Guitar; Amin Sharifi: Duets Exhibition; Jorge Muñiz: South Shore Suite. Duo Sequenza (Debra Silvert, flute, alto flute, and piccolo; Paul Bowman, classical guitar). Navona. $14.99.
Giovanni Piacentini: Icarus—Suite in six movements for guitar and electronics; Six Preludes for Solo Guitar; Los Murmullos for guitar and flute; Passacaglia. Giovanni Piacentini, guitar; Gina Luciani, flute; Fernando Arroyo Lascurain, violin; Stefan L. Smith, viola. Navona. $14.99.
The many moods of which wind instruments are capable make them a continuing source of interest to contemporary composers, especially ones who still find traditional musical forms congenial. Thus, John Robertson has turned to the form of the wind concerto several times, with his clarinet and trumpet concertos featured on a new Navona CD. The clarinet work, which dates to 1989 and is in the traditional three-movement concerto form, shows Robertson’s skill with exploring the range of the clarinet without feeling obligated to push the instrument beyond the point of comfort for performer or audience. The slow movement is the longest of the three and is suitably melodic, but it is the finale, in which the clarinet is neatly played off against pizzicato and glissando strings, that is the most attractive part of the work. The trumpet concerto (2013) is also a three-movement work, opening with a military-style fanfare that is soon contrasted with more-lyrical elements. Again, it is the slow movement that is the longest, but again, it is the finale that is most striking, with its snare-drum opening and some Latin American themes and rhythms, reflecting the work’s origin: Robertson wrote it for a Cuban trumpeter. Robertson uses winds in a different, decidedly non-virtuosic way in Hinemoa & Tutanekai, a 10-minute tone painting from 1988 that is based on a Mâori legend of two lovers from warring tribes who are kept apart, on separate islands, by their families – leaving the woman, Hinemoa, disconsolately listening to the flute played by Tutanekai from across the water, then deciding to swim to him. The earlier part of the piece drags a bit, especially for anyone who does not know the legend: nothing here indicates warring tribes or demanding parents. But once the flute begins to sound (after about four minutes of music), the effect is pleasant and even elegant, and the piece has a well-managed air about it even without any particular emotional depth. Also on this CD is Robertson’s Third Symphony (2017), dedicated to the conductor Anthony Armoré, who leads it here with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra in a solid, committed performance – all the performers on the CD do a good job with Robertson’s style and the way he blends and contrasts instruments. The first of the symphony’s three movements has some of the sound of slow-moving waves about it, and some of the repetitiveness characteristic of minimalism, although it is more varied than strict minimalist pieces. The second movement, a Scherzo, is more attractive – Robertson’s faster movements tend to be more appealing than his slower ones – and the warmer, lyrical portion midway through makes an effective contrast. The first movement is string-dominated, but winds are more prominent in the second, especially in the central section. The third movement mingles strings and winds and, like the second, contrasts livelier material with more-lyrical music. The symphony, taken as a whole, is somewhat rambling, without a strong sense of direction or purpose: it is well-constructed but not particularly involving.
The entirety of a new Ravello CD involves wind instruments: saxophones, which are heard in three very different contemporary works. David Maslanka’s Recitation Book uses Bach works and other centuries-old music as the basis of a series of transformations into modern forms and musical approaches. Maslanka actually cites the specific pieces on which he bases the five movements of this suite, making it easy for listeners familiar with the originals to hear the ways in which he modifies and “updates” the material, for instance by turning a Bach chorale into a kind of popular, yearning “love song” melody. The saxophones’ sound fits a different Bach work, the meditative Jesu meine Freude, particularly (and rather surprisingly) well. Also here is a short piece based on a Gesualdo madrigal, a meditative handling of a Gregorian chant that begins effectively in the low register, and a set of variations on Durch Adams Fall (“Through Adam’s fall”) that is almost as long as the other four movements combined and that takes the Fuego Quartet members from their instruments’ highest reaches to the lowest and offers some very definitely modern rhythmic touches and considerable speed. The six Fantasy Etudes by William Albright are much more “modern” in sound, full of starts and stops, unexpected instrumental blends, pervasive dissonance, and many passages that do not so much explore the saxophones’ ranges and capabilities as they extend and push them. The quartet members play the material well, but the music itself is far from compelling, with Albright seeming more interested in having saxophones utter ghostlike shrieks and foghorn-like low notes than in having audiences get anything in particular from the material. This is one of those works that sound as if they are more fun to play than to hear, although the final movement, “They only come out at night,” has enjoyable bounce. The CD concludes with David Clay Mettens’ Ornithology S, a work that not only has the saxophones imitating birdsong but that also takes the extension-of-sound approach of Albright several steps further by having the performers use slaps, key clicks and other effects to extend the sound world. As an exploration of a sonic environment that includes and goes beyond that of saxophones, this is certainly effective, but the piece lacks musical cohesion and does not seem to have any particular purpose beyond a demonstration of techniques – a kind of etude exploring wind instruments’ percussive sounds, and another work that seems to be more for performers than for listeners.
The sounds are intriguing on a new Navona CD featuring Duo Sequenza, because this two-person group combines wind instruments with guitar – an unusual mixture that opens up some interesting sound possibilities. The five pieces on the disc, by five different contemporary composers, are of varying levels of interest, but listeners will find the mingling of sound intriguing in all cases. David Noon’s Partita (1989) is a work that, like Maslanka’s Recitation Book, looks to the past for inspiration, with four movements whose titles reflect old forms: “Preludio,” “Musette,” “Pastorale,” and “Rigadoon.” The first and third are gently lilting, the second and fourth more energetic, and all are pleasantly scored. Jerry Owen’s 1995 Meshquanowat’ (the apostrophe at the end adds a syllable, so the word is pronounced mesh-quan-o-wát-eh in the Native American Mesquakie language) has some elements of dance and lyricism as well, but here they are captured within a series of short, fast-changing sections that are intended to reflect the red-tailed hawk: the piece’s title is what the Mesquakie call the bird. Two Pieces for Flute and Guitar (2000) by Marc Mellits starts hesitantly but soon becomes intricate and strongly rhythmic in the first piece, after which the second (somewhat more ordinarily) strives for a kind of poignant nostalgia. Amin Sharifi’s Duets Exhibition (2016) includes four brief pieces with evocative titles: “Seven Color Tile,” “Prelude,” “The Game,” and “Murdered in His Labyrinth.” The music is less intriguing and involving than the words, however. Debra Silvert and Paul Bowman interrelate their instruments skillfully here (as they do throughout the disc), but there is little sense of either forward motion or scene-painting in these miniatures. The CD concludes with its longest piece by far: the six-movement South Shore Suite (2016) by Jorge Muñiz. This work is, by intent, very much a mixed bag of sounds, incorporating elements of jazz, blues, country music and other styles. The elements do not fit together particularly well, and some of the effects, such as the hesitant opening of the second movement, sound contrived rather than clever. The “South Shore” of the title is that of Lake Michigan, and the individual movements are supposed to evoke historical and contemporary figures within that geographical area. But listeners who are not familiar with the region will hear only a series of not-very-closely-related pieces in which Silvert and Bowman play skillfully, but without the music ever really seeming to go anywhere. It is all pleasant enough, but to no apparent purpose for anyone who does not know the specific circumstances or scenes that inspired each of the six individual pieces within the larger suite.
Flute and guitar are also joined in one of the works on a new Navona CD of the music of Giovanni Piacentini. This is Los Murmullos, which uses alto flute and guitar to convey the dreamlike quality of the “magical realism” literary movement. Close familiarity with such literature is not needed in the way familiarity with specific geography and legends is in the Muñiz South Shore Suite. That is because Piacentini uses the lower part of the flute’s range, in combination with guitar strumming, plucking and other sounds (such as striking the wood of the guitar with his hands), to produce a somewhat dreamlike landscape in five movements whose individual elements are less important than their cumulative effect. It is the tonal ambiguity that ultimately turns Los Murmullos into a musically imaginative experience, independent of whether listeners are familiar with the specific book that inspired Piacentini, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Parama. Piacentini is an effective performer of his own music, and his guitar is heard without other instruments in other works on this CD – although with electronics in Icarus, a six-movement retelling of the Greek legend of the boy whose wings took him too close to the sun. The tale is familiar, its treatment here much less so: atonality, twelvetone writing, percussive segments, many electronic samples of guitar music, jazzlike rhythms, and the usual distortions of sound with which electroacoustic music abounds, produce an intermittently gripping sonic landscape that never seems to reflect the old legend in any significant way. Also here are Six Preludes for Solo Guitar, this time without electronics, and this sequence offers the most interesting material on the disc: there is no specific literary or legendary gloss here, only a series of complex and beautifully handled etudes that range from Impressionism to tranquility to dynamic display to nostalgia to generalized scene-painting, showing just how wide an expressive range the guitar can have in the hands of an expert player such as Piacentini. In truth, the preludes are inspired by specific scenes or places, but so effective is Piacentini’s playing that the underlying motivation for these two-to-three-minute works becomes much less significant than their exploration of the guitar’s capabilities and the multitude of sounds of which the instrument is capable. The CD ends not with a guitar piece but with one for violin and viola: Passacaglia, a slow, encore-length, meandering tribute to Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor – a non-traditional sort of encore, without flash or brightness, and a work very different from the others heard here, showing that Piacentini has interests beyond tone painting and skills that go beyond writing for his own instrument.
April 11, 2019
Max & the Midknights. By Lincoln Peirce. Crown. $13.99.
Big Nate: A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Lincoln Peirce is one of those people who seem unable to leave well enough alone. Not content with having a highly successful comic strip, Big Nate, which has been around for more than a quarter of a century, Peirce has repeatedly expanded the Big Nate universe by creating Nate-focused illustrated novels. These are not graphic novels, as might be expected of a cartoonist, but instead are through-written books containing Nate and his friends and environment, with multiple illustrations but without the panel-by-panel progress characteristic of comics and the graphic novels derived from them. In other words, Peirce has actually written entire novels about Nate, having the words carry the story in exactly the way that the pictures tend to carry it in comic strips – or, more accurately, in exactly the opposite way. Why does Peirce do this? Well, his name is pronounced “purse,” but that does not necessarily mean he is money-hungry. He seems genuinely interested in doing more with the Nate universe than everyday strips can encompass. How much more is evident from a new book that does not contain Nate or any of his cohorts as characters at all – but that is 100% drawn (both artistically and in the sense of “derived”) from Big Nate sensibilities. This is Max & the Midknights, a very amply illustrated novel in which fans of Big Nate will immediately recognize the plotting, characterization, and (in the illustrations) poses and facial expressions – even though the book is set in the Middle Ages rather than modern times, and neither Nate nor any Big Nate characters appear in it. Well, except on the very first page, when Peirce offers a kind of “framing story” in which Nate presents a paper to his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, explaining that it is a book report on Max & the Midknights – to the suitable consternation of both Mrs. Godfrey and Nate’s student nemesis, Gina.
After that, though, no more of Nate appears in Max & the Midknights, at least under the name Nate; no more Big Nate characters appear, either, at least in modern dress. One of the many delights of the book – and it is delightful – is that readers completely unfamiliar with Big Nate can have a great time with it, while readers who know Peirce’s contemporary comic strip can enjoy both the story and the ways in which the characters in it reflect the ones in Big Nate. That is most noticeable in certain patented (or should-be-patented) Big Nate poses: on page 75, the open mouth, splayed hands and one-eye-open-one-eye-closed look of bewilderment; on page 83, the one-eye-more-open-than-the-other, mouth-wide-open-with-tongue-almost-sticking-out look of disbelief and anger; on page 125, the jumping-in-the-air-while-leaning-back, hair-sticking-straight-up look of surprise; on page 165, the blushing half smile and red-cheeked look (red cheeks obvious even in black-and-white) of acute embarrassment; and many more. Place Peirce’s cartooning skill at the service of a story involving the rescue of a good king who has been deposed by a bad one thanks to a wicked sorceress – a tale complete with an inept good magician who inadvertently turns Uncle Budrick, the sort-of-father-figure here, into a goose – and you have a pretty good idea of what happens in Max & the Midknights. But only a pretty good idea, because Peirce grafts enough surprises and twists onto the familiar good-medieval-characters-defeat-bad-medieval-characters model to make the book highly entertaining. For one thing, Max is a girl – and is determined to become a knight, which unfortunately is not allowed in her time period. Uncle Budrick, for his part, is a troubadour – a feckless one, akin to Nate’s dad in Big Nate – who had a chance to become a knight and wanted no part of it. The magician, Mumblin (a neat twisting of “Merlin” plus mumbling), has retired, but un-retires because of (what else?) a prophecy involving none other than Max. And then there are the Midknights, three kids who join Max in a quest to save the kingdom. Why “Midknights,” aside from the pun on “midnight”? Well, in trying to name their group, the four realize they are not real knights – but are really about to do real knightly deeds, such as invading a heavily fortified castle. So they are not full knights but also not “play” knights; they are in the middle. Hence “Midknights.” Throw in good king Conrad, bad king Gastley (who really is pretty ghastly), onetime royal-guard leader Sir Gadabout, three sword-bearing zombies, evil sorceress Fendra’s age-reversal spell, some walking gargoyles, and a few other suitable appurtenances, and you have a marvelous collection of characters – drawn with substantial individual touches, but all in Peirce’s immediately recognizable style – proceeding through a real page-turner of an adventure. It even has faint echoes of The Lord of the Rings (in a climactic dragon invasion) and some chances for Peirce to showcase art that goes beyond anything in Big Nate (such as a looming castle at night: it is very well drawn and looks nothing like the art that Peirce usually produces). Max & the Midknights is a standalone novel, but it will be a surprise if readers, whether familiar with Big Nate or not, fail to clamor for more of the same.
Max & the Midknights may be longer and more elaborate than the Big Nate comic strip, but the strip loses nothing by comparison – and, as noted, the novel gains something for readers who know the strip. This is easily seen in a comic-strip collection such as Big Nate: A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie, which has Nate and friends and frenemies and enemies on familiar, decidedly non-medieval territory. One of the pleasures of Big Nate is the way Peirce varies the expected interactions among the characters so well that readers, however well they know the strip, are constantly being surprised and amused. It is, for instance, obvious that school bully Randy will try to get Nate and friend Francis upset by writing something nasty in Francis’ yearbook – but not obvious that it will turn out that Francis is carrying Mrs. Godfrey’s yearbook around rather than his own. It is obvious that Nate’s unending series of crushes on girls throughout his school will continue unabated, but not obvious that his primary crush, Jenny, will move back from a planned relocation to Seattle and sweep all thoughts of other girls out of Nate’s head (well, most thoughts, anyway). It is obvious that when Nate’s grandfather comes to spend some time with Nate and his dad, there will be parallels between Nate’s relationship with his father and his father’s with his dad – but not obvious that the three will compete for Choco-Chunk ice cream or that Nate’s father’s name will turn out to be Marty. It is obvious that Nate’s basic good-heartedness will lead him to suggest that he and his friends go on a diet along with Chad, whose grandmother is requiring him to eat soy nuts and kale and similarly unappetizing fare – but not obvious why the plan will not work (because Nate cannot bear the thought of living without Cheeze Doodles, although maybe that is obvious). It is obvious that self-centered Nate will be sure he has a secret admirer when a piece of a note turns up containing the partial words “ate” and “dorable,” and obvious that Nate will prove wrong about the whole secret-admirer thing, but not obvious what the note will turn out to say. But that is just fine, since it gives Nate-the-detective a chance to “dress like Sherlock Holmes and smoke bubble pipes.” Peirce’s drawing style is more finely honed than ever as Big Nate moves toward its 30-year anniversary in syndication (it started in 1991). And neither Nate nor the other characters show any sign of getting old (as in dull), much less getting older. Peirce really can rest on his laurels as long as he keeps Big Nate going with such consistently high quality. The fact that he chooses not to be content with his considerable success, leading to the production of a book such as Max & the Midknights, just puts him an additional cut above run-of-the-mill cartoonists.
The Luminous Dead. By Caitlin Starling. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Call it The ISP Phenomenon. The survival against long odds of an Irredeemably Stupid Protagonist is part and parcel of adventure stories of all kinds. That includes not-really-science-fictional ones such as Caitlin Starling’s debut novel, The Luminous Dead.
Superficially science fiction, the novel is really an old-fashioned thriller with at most a veneer of SF. Yes, it is set on another world a couple of hundred years in the future, with easy space travel and all sorts of high-tech equipment available to the population. But Starling makes a classic error of novice SF writers: she plucks technology advancements out of her authorial hat but leaves nonessential (to her) elements of the story in undisguised 21st-century form. Thus, while complex full-body ultra-manipulative protective suits allow cave explorers in Starling’s imagined world to accomplish far more than they otherwise could, there has apparently been absolutely no medical advancement for centuries, since the various stimulants, anxiolytics and sleep aids in use by the super-well-equipped cavers are exactly like current ones, with identical effects, side effects, and aftereffects. Um, not likely.
Starling also, in her rush to set up what she really wants to write – a thriller pitting two very different people against each other in the service of a more-or-less common cause, resulting in both of them being forced to delve deeply into their emotional and psychological beings – sets up a creaky “framing tale” to explain why only a single caver, wearing one of those high-tech suits, can handle highly dangerous belowground explorations. It seems that there are hyper-powerful, hyper-dangerous “Tunnelers” beneath the ground – a direct ripoff from, or tribute to, the sandworms of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune – and they destroy any human group larger than one, because…well, just because Starling wants it that way. There is really no reason for this, and no suitable explanatory setup. If a single 250-pound person can explore safely, for example, how about two 125-pound people? How exactly do these terrifying and enormously powerful creatures count the humans belowground, and to what do the Tunnelers respond or fail to respond? For Starling, these are side issues and therefore ones she passes over lightly – but SF readers will surely focus on them and find them more intriguing than the author does. (And apparently human/animal ethics have not evolved any more in this “future” than medical science has: the Tunnelers, which are natural inhabitants of the cave system and have evolved to fit their ecological niche, are deemed deeply evil, their wanton destruction not only worthy but also to be celebrated by humans.)
Starling cares primarily about the ISP. Her name is Gyre Price, who as a girl enjoyed doing some informal, amateur cave exploration. Then her mother, to whom Gyre was not particularly close, up and left, and since then Gyre wants nothing more than to find her mother – pretty thin motivation, all in all. So Gyre falsifies her cave-exploration credentials to get herself hired for a super-lucrative and super-dangerous job that will pay enough so Gyre can start the search for her mom. The job comes with the most-up-to-date exploration suit available, with bells and whistles on its bells and whistles. So Gyre, being an ISP, does not learn about the suit’s functions before putting it on and therefore repeatedly runs into self-caused life-threatening problems. And this super-high-tech suit happens to have an all-communications kill switch that, in the silliest part of a decidedly un-silly book, Gyre just happens to throw and just happens to be unable to switch back (since she never, you know, studied the suit’s workings), so she is completely cut off from her surface “handler” at a number of crucial junctures.
Oh, and the “handler,” who turns out to run the super-successful company that made Gyre’s suit, actually tracks down Gyre’s mother while Gyre is belowground, and downloads the information to Gyre’s suit – and Gyre, so desperate for this material for so long, decides not to look at it. This has been her 100% obsession, remember, so when she gets what she wants, she turns her back on it. Perfect ISP behavior. Furthermore, as circumstances deteriorate around her, when Gyre desperately needs something to cling to, such as her adult-life-long obsession, she again decides not to look at what she has wanted for so many years. Even when she believes, quite reasonably, that she is about to die, she decides not to look. This level of unbelievability would be laughable if Starling paused to think about it, but she is too busy with the next plot twist to bother.
Gyre’s handler, Em, has issues and obsessions of her own – part of the point of The Luminous Dead is that these two very different women are in many ways flip sides of each other, and there is both an emotional attraction between them and a physical one. Why Em’s super-sophisticated equipment contains a switch that an ISP can use to cut herself completely off from her handler, with neither of them able to reestablish contact, is just one of many plot contrivances never adequately explained. Or rather they are adequately explained, in a “meta” sense: they are there for the benefit of the author, not the characters and not plot consistency. Starling writes of Gyre at one point, quite seriously and with the intent to evoke readers’ emotions, “She was pathetic. They both were.” The fact is that this is quite true – just not in the emotionally trenchant way Starling means it. At another point, Gyre, in a fit of childish pique and to get back at Em for not being sufficiently emotionally available (!), deliberately smashes all the backup power sources for her suit except one, knowing for sure that she will not need more than one and determined, determined, to teach Em a lesson. Any reader with even a modicum of familiarity with thrillers will know exactly how dumb this is and exactly what is going to happen (if not precisely how it will happen). Indeed, it is only a few pages later that Gyre is saying, “This wasn’t supposed to happen!” Gyre: a perfect ISP.
It is a shame that Starling hews so closely to The ISP Phenomenon in The Luminous Dead, because the book is filled with genuinely tense, sometimes thrilling scenes, and the detail lavished on describing the dangerous elements of cave exploration is impressive. Em has Gyre follow dozens of previous cavers – most of whom died – into a terribly dangerous set of underground passages, not because she is seeking rich ore deposits, as is the norm on this ill-defined planet, but because she is seeking information on the fate of her parents, who went on an early multi-person exploratory journey and ended up dead. Maybe. There is a mystery about their fate. And there is an additional nicely sketched mystery here – another of the book’s strong points – when Gyre starts finding bodies of previous cavers sent in by Em (not a surprise) and then discovers supply caches missing or partly empty (yes a surprise). Unfortunately, as Starling herself becomes more wrapped up in the relationship between Gyre and Em, she seems to forget the way she has strewn the path with mysteries: most of them remain unexplained by book’s end, which is distinctly unfair to readers.
What Starling focuses on with increasing intensity as the book continues is Gyre’s mental state. Never particularly stable to begin with, it begins to deteriorate more and more quickly, and as Gyre’s nerves start to fray because of a multiplicity of her own ISP mistakes as well as the challenges inherent in the job she is doing, readers need to try to figure out whether Gyre is seeing genuine people or creatures living, impossibly, deep in the cave system; whether Gyre is hallucinating; or whether Em has knowledge far beyond anything she has disclosed to Gyre, to whom she has told quite a few lies already (with Gyre telling Em a number in return, although it is worth mentioning that Em discovered the phony elements in Gyre’s résumé but nevertheless decided she would be a good fit for this exploration – another plot place where “why?” is a question never adequately answered).
The usual elements of ISP Phenomenon thrillers are nicely handled by Starling, including the very-very-very-near-death experiences of the ISP, the motivational uncertainties of the characters, and the deft way in which the good-bad dichotomy between the principals rebalances and changes over time. Starling has a strongly cinematic writing pace, allowing only brief respite between perils as Gyre’s role as ISP brings her right to the verge of madness and/or oblivion time after time. The interaction between Gyre and Em, although somewhat formulaic, is also well-paced and well-handled. And the interweaving of real-world dangers with possible mental deterioration, another trope of the thriller genre, is managed with similar skill. It is unfortunate that Gyre never rises above the level of ISP and never seems a fully formed character, nor does Em go much beyond the formulaic antagonist-who-may-not-be-so-awful-after-all role. The Luminous Dead is in many ways a strong debut novel, but it has enough rough edges to show that Starling’s abilities require some honing if she wants to rise above ISP-focused genre potboilers in future books – although, to be fair, genre potboilers using The ISP Phenomenon can be a very profitable authorial niche.
Beethoven: Mass in C; Leonore Overture No. 3. Genia Kühmeier, soprano; Gerhild Romberger, alto; Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; Luca Pisaroni, bass-baritone; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Verdi: Requiem. Dinara Alieva, soprano; Olesya Petrova, mezzo-soprano; Francesco Meli, tenor; Dmitry Berosselskiy, bass; Bolshoi Theater Chorus and St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov. Delos. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Gregorian Chant: The Chants of Transfiguration. Gloriæ Dei Cantores Schola. Paraclete. $16.99 (SACD).
William Mathias: The Doctrine of Wisdom and other choral works. Gloriæ Dei Cantores conducted by Elizabeth Patterson. Paraclete. $18.99.
Michael G. Cunningham: Choral Works, Volume II. Navona. $14.99.
Voices of Earth and Air, Volume II: Choral Music of Scott Solak, Jonathan David Little, Helen MacKinnon, L Peter Deutsch, Juli Nunlist, Daniel Morse, Peter Greve, and Whitman Brown. Navona. $14.99.
The longstanding words of faith and spiritual commitment may no longer be spoken in everyday discourse, but they have been sources of inspiration and comfort for centuries, and many composers during the last 500-plus years have found their own unique ways to harness the words’ power and expressiveness. Fifteen years before composing his Missa Solemnis, Beethoven turned his thoughts to a Mass setting for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, the last noble patron of Haydn and a man who undoubtedly expected something Haydn-like from the younger composer – who, after all, had studied with Haydn. Instead the prince got a work that he reviled, that was generally not well received, and that to this day is infrequently performed. Mariss Jansons’ new BR Klassik release, featuring a live performance from 2018, shows what a mistake this is: although lacking the scale, scope and drama of the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s Mass in C is a thoughtful, expressive setting. The resignation mixed with hopefulness in the Kyrie sets the scene for a Mass that is, on the whole, rather more upbeat than might be expected. There is serenity rather than anguish at the heart of the Mass in C, an expectation that God will do the right thing for His sinful children rather than a plea begging Him to do so. There are some effective, dramatic Beethovenian touches here, with numerous sforzandi and unexpected syncopations, and with musical/textual events such as the reappearance of the pain of the Agnus dei just before the final Dona nobis pacem. The Mass in C is moving and uplifting, perhaps even more so in a concert setting – where parts of it were first performed – than in a church. Jansons leads it forcefully as needed and tenderly when appropriate, and the fine vocal soloists and excellent chorus contribute to a highly effective performance. The Mass is paired, rather oddly, with a much earlier performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3, from 2004 – another live recording, and a well-paced, strongly accented and altogether accomplished presentation, but a work that does not fit particularly well with the Mass in C. Both the mass and the overture are, however, given readings that are worth hearing on their own.
A Mass of a different kind, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, gets a potent, vigorous performance under Yuri Temirkanov in a new Delos release. This is the most operatic of all Requiems in the classical canon, and indeed sounds more like an opera than a church work most of the time: Verdi heightens everything with immense skill, from the pleadings for mercy for the dead to the terrifying (and recurring) music of the Last Trumpet and the Day of Judgment. It is almost impossible not to be swept into Verdi’s operatic sound world when hearing this music, whose striking intensity and heartfelt (if at times almost saccharine) emotionalism come straight from the operatic stage. Temirkanov and his singers and musicians offered this live December 2017 performance in memory of famed Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962-2017), and that memorialization no doubt contributes to the intensity of this reading and the exceptional emotion with which the soloists and chorus deliver the material. It is easy to argue that Verdi’s Requiem is overdone and even somewhat bombastic, but when performed with strength and passion, it works remarkably well, its excesses well-balanced by the sincerity of feeling underlying them. And this two-CD set – the performance is just a bit too long for a single disc – certainly comes across as a sincere tribute, and a highly meaningful one. Temirkanov is an uneven conductor and at times an unpredictable one, but when he is at his best, when he is strongly involved in the music he is presenting, he digs deeply into himself and marshals his forces with skill and understanding. This piece, in this context, clearly meant a lot to Temirkanov, who lavishes it with care in phrasing, emphasis and orchestral balance, while allowing the very fine soloists and excellent Bolshoi Theater Chorus to proclaim and declaim the words with strength and sincerity. So dramatic is Verdi’s Requiem that its over-the-top passages can swamp its quieter, more-thoughtful ones, but Temirkanov and his forces, perhaps mindful of this performance as an actual memorial concert, balance the work’s bluster with its warmth, to very fine and wholly convincing effect.
The strong and wide-ranging sacred and spiritual music of the 19th century, by Beethoven and Verdi and many others, builds on a tradition hundreds of years older, one traceable to the Gregorian chant of a thousand years ago, as modified many times over the centuries. Monophonic and unaccompanied, the chant was used in worship for hundreds of years as a means of spiritual elevation and affirmation of belief – a use far distant in purpose as well as time period from a piece such as Verdi’s Requiem. Hearing real Gregorian chant in modern times is a distinctly salutary experience, as well as a rare one: there simply are not many choruses, much less professional choirs, that know how to handle this a cappella music and can do so effectively. Gloriæ Dei Cantores Schola is a very happy exception, as may be heard on a number of Paraclete recordings, including The Chants of Transfiguration, originally released in 2006. The CD is divided into three parts called “Prophecy—Vision,” “Manifestation—The Moment of Transfiguration,” and “Promise of Our Personal Transfiguration,” and the chants within each section are designed to expand on the section’s title and elucidate (literally bring light to) the joy and hopefulness of Christ’s transfiguration and the promise of one’s own, made to each individual Christian. Organ works at the start and end of the CD provide a framework within which the individual chants – ranging in length from less than a minute to nearly eight minutes – can rise and proclaim tidings of great joy and promise. This is meditative music in the best sense, not intended as “background music” but as an aid to focusing on one’s soul, its potential for salvation, and the wonders of Christ as Savior. The singers are uniformly excellent, their delivery heartfelt without being in any way overdone. Certainly the emotions expressed here continued to be felt in much later music – consider, for just one example, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony – but grandiose later works, for all their power, lack the directness and simplicity that make Gregorian chant so immediately and ceaselessly appealing.
This is not to say that the members of Gloriæ Dei Cantores sing only Gregorian chant. Their skill is also brought usefully and impressively to bear on modern music that offers some of the same uplift as the old chants, albeit in different musical language. A Paraclete release originally from 1998, featuring the sacred choral music of Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-1992), is one fine example among many. The disc includes two longer settings, a Missa Brevis (1973) and Rex Gloriæ (1980), as well as eight anthems of various types – of which the longest, Veni Sancte Spiritus for choir, organ, two trumpets and percussion, is particularly impressive. If traditional Gregorian chant focuses mainly on lifting humans up to a fuller appreciation of God, Mathias’ works are more concerned with celebrating the existence of God and the wonders of faith. Mathias sometimes paid special tribute to his own heritage: The Lord Is My Shepherd, the familiar 23rd Psalm, is heard on this disc in Welsh. Most of the time, though, Latin more than sufficed for what Mathias sought to communicate, although he – like other composers from Great Britain – used English as well in some settings. Interestingly, Mathias’ most-famous work, the one heard by the most people by far, is not included here: it is Let the People Praise Thee, O God, which Mathias composed for the July 1981 royal wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales and which reached a TV audience estimated at a billion people. Yet that anthem was something of an outlier among Mathias’ creations, most of which are more modest in scale – including The Doctrine of Wisdom (1990) for choir and organ, which gives this disc its title. Mathias’ music, often joyful, typically seeks to reach out to people as individuals rather than to any wide-scale audience. On this (+++) recording, the singers of Gloriæ Dei Cantores give Mathias’ music all the beauty and spiritual uplift that they can, confirming him as a very solid composer of 20th-century sacred music and, in particular, a fine communicator of the joyful elements of religious belief and practice.
Even in the 21st century, as forms of musical communication continue to evolve and change, the old words of faith have resonance for some composers, such as Michael G. Cunningham. A new (+++) Navona release, although not formally labeled “Volume II” of Cunningham’s choral music, is in fact a continuation of an earlier one, from 2016. But several of the works heard here were recorded even earlier than those on the Mathias disc: all six are live performances, and they date to 1975, 1979, 1980, 1988, 1997 and 2003. Like Mathias, Cunningham sometimes writes music decidedly intended for uplift, such as New Beginnings, a work for full choir with horns and percussion that is highly celebratory in tone. At other times, Cunningham seeks quieter and lighter spirituality, as in The Annunciation, whose dissonant piano opening clearly marks it as a work of modern times. Also here are brief and relatively straightforward settings of The Lord’s Prayer and The Prayer of St. Francis. The meatiest material on the CD, though, is found in two multi-part works. One is Cunningham’s Seraphic Mass, essentially a Missa Breve in which the familiar Latin gives way to a setting in English for chorus and organ. Despite the decision to use English for the text, this is a generally conservative and tonal setting, and one in which the organ plays a considerable role. Cunningham includes The Lord’s Prayer (in a setting different from the standalone one on the CD) as part of this work, placing it before the concluding Agnus Dei, here written as Lamb of God. Although short – only 11 minutes in all – Seraphic Mass clearly communicates the seriousness with which Cunningham takes the elements of the Mass. Even more substantial than Seraphic Mass is the six-movement The Holy Spirit, written for chorus with percussion and tubas – an unusual and unusually powerful accompaniment for the voices. The vocal settings here are more modern-sounding and more complex to sing than those in Seraphic Mass, and the work as a whole seems to reach more strongly for individuation of expression. Perhaps because he is not here bound by the strictures of a Mass setting, Cunningham gives the music, vocal and instrumental alike, considerably more freedom and more interesting sounds than in the other works on this disc. The seriousness of the material is never in doubt, but there is enough that is unusual in the writing and presentation – including one movement with a baritone solo, one featuring a solo tenor, and a short instrumental Interlude – to make The Holy Spirit the most unusual work on this recording and the most interesting to hear. The performers, all from the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire, handle the material well, despite occasional vocal imperfections. Like the Mathias recording, this is a limited-interest CD, but one that fans of Cunningham and of modern iterations of longstanding religious texts will find suitably edifying.
There is certainly inspiring material to be found as well on a (+++) Navona recording of contemporary choral works that does officially have “Volume II” in its title. A followup to a release from 2013, this disc offers eight very varied settings of sacred texts or of words intended to put listeners in touch with their higher beings or better selves. Although the whole presentation is better-integrated than are most anthology CDs, the differences among the pieces are considerable, with the result that most listeners will likely find some admirable, some less so, and some off-putting. The exact ones in each category will, however, vary. Scott Solak’s Ave Maria is tonal and straightforward; it would fit well into a collection of earlier music of the same type. Jonathan David Little’s Crucifixus has a more-modern sound and unusual construction, being written for triple choir in 12 parts, plus organ. Helen MacKinnon’s Gloria in Excelsis Deo is an a cappella setting that starts simply and beautifully, with lovely harmonies, then moves to a much more complexly harmonized and strongly accentuated section than would be expected in this music – followed by a melodically complex section that challenges the performers but lies well in a listener’s ear. A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by L Peter Deutsch is something else altogether, using a Japanese folk tale as told, in English, by Ursula Le Guin, as the text for a work in five vocal parts that includes a central percussion section. The piece is clever, perhaps too much so, drawing considerable attention to its own cleverness. Hearing its words after the more-traditional ones of the works earlier on the disc is a bit jarring – but may be pleasantly so for listeners especially interested in contemporary choral music. Also here are two excerpts from Spells by Juli Nunlist: Spell of Sleep and Spell of Creation. They are evocative, declamatory choral pieces. They are followed by Daniel Morse’s Nachtlied, a setting of a work by Austrian poet Georg Trakl. This is a quiet, very breathy-sounding setting for voices and electronics of a poem filled with still images: “the silence in stone,” “speechless over bluish waters,” “silent mirrors of truth,” and so on. Next come the seven short songs of Peter Greve’s Give Us Peace, for organ and mixed choir. Latin, Russian, Hebrew and Arab texts, which follow an introductory organ solo, are used to produce a kind of plea for coexistence. And then, at the end of the CD, there is a rather sweet and soothing setting of Psalm 23 by Whitman Brown, returning to the mood of the earlier part of the disc in what is surely intended as a kind of spiritual narrative arc. The varied elements of the music on the CD make the whole presentation intriguing, although the differing focuses and styles of the eight composers result in a somewhat scattered rather than fully integrated impression of their disparate approaches to somewhat similar material.