May 13, 2021

(+++) MINUSCULE MYSTERIES

Bark Park 1. By Brandi Dougherty. Illustrated by Paige Pooler. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

Bark Park 2: Scouting for Clues. By Brandi Dougherty. Illustrated by Paige Pooler. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

Escape from a Video Game 2: Mystery on the Starship Crusader. By Dustin Brady. Illustrations by Jesse Brady. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Make-believe puppies just don’t get much cuter than Scout, as drawn by Paige Pooler for the Bark Park books by Brandi Dougherty. A little brown pup with absolutely perfectly placed touches of white (four identical white paws, a tail that is precisely white-tipped, a white stripe exactly bisecting her head and highlighting her super-wide eyes, and so forth), Scout interacts playfully and adorably with other dogs that romp off-leash at a dog park where the smallest of small surprises lurk. These “mysteries” are about as minor as they can possibly be, but for the very youngest dog-loving children who are just getting into reading on their own, they make for some brief, entertaining stories. There are three very short chapters in each very short Bark Park book: the entire emphasis here is on making everything easy to read, easy to absorb, and easy to figure out. To vary the animal interactions a bit, Dougherty includes a friendly crow and adorable squirrel who become peripherally involved in the mild action. Thus, in the first book, when the ball belonging to one of Scout’s friends turns up deflated, Scout discovers that Abigail the crow accidentally punctured it while picking up a shiny piece of foil that had become stuck to the ball. And in the second book, when Scout’s blueberries – her favorite snack – disappear, Tippy the squirrel comes under suspicion (although Abigail turns out to be the culprit this time, too). Humans are incidental, to the point of irrelevance, in this dogs-talking-to-each-other series, but people do appear occasionally so they can move the plot along just a bit, as in a second-book story in which Lulu, a new arrival at the park, shows up leashed and gets into trouble (just a little of it, in keeping with these books’ mildness) after the other dogs help her out of the harness. The stories in Bark Park are so thin that the illustrations are especially important, contributing even more than pictures usually do in books for the youngest readers. The dogs have minimally individualized personalities, but the illustrations enliven everything, as in the first book’s very funny portrayal of the attempt of a dog named Bones to help the Great Dane, Rocky, out of a plastic veterinary collar. Adults looking to give new readers some super-easy-to-read books of cute mysteries – cuter than they are mysterious – will find the Bark Park series arf-fully adorable.

     For somewhat older readers, the pictures can be fun in the Escape from a Video Game series, but they are scarcely the main point. Yes, the two-page spread of a starship-trooper type pointing a weapon at a lab-coat-wearing, bipedal lizard with hair and also at a large, anthropomorphic, clearly nervous wombat is a great deal of fun. But the actual point of this second series entry is – well, the story does not actually have a point, and that’s the point. Mystery on the Starship Crusader, like its predecessor, The Secret of Phantom Island, is a pick-your-path book, in which readers go through a page of text, come to a multiple-choice option at the bottom, turn to the page they select, and immediately – well, it depends. Advance? Go back? Move sideways? Die (“lose a life” in gamespeak)? Like the first book in this video-game-derived series, Mystery on the Starship Crusader presents those possibilities and more. It also lets readers, on some pages, unlock achievements with such unhelpful names as “Aahooga” and “Robot Pretzel.” And this book also retains the first one’s slightly snarky sense of humor about the whole process, as on a page asking “Who’s the traitor?” and giving options that include “yourself” and “the game itself.” Among the characters here are Wumbo, Murp, and Doctor Iz – he (or it) being the character assumed by the reader. Each character is transformed from a real-life person, and all the characters are being manipulated by a rich guy named James Desmond Pemberton, who is using technology bought on the Internet after being purloined from a now-shut-down company called Bionosoft – this is the tech that results in people being pulled into the video game from the real world. Of course, none of this makes a lick of sense, but hey, there’s also a million dollars involved: Pemberton is rich, remember, as well as being a “guy [who] wiggles his eyebrows to build suspense” and takes pains to ask the trapped-in-game characters, “Aren’t mystery stories great?” Well, this mystery story isn’t particularly great, or even particularly mysterious, but like the first book in the series, it does a pretty good job (if not a particularly good one) of bringing the video-game experience into book form, more or less. Well, actually less – no video, no motion, no interactivity, no weird creatures morphing into other weird creatures through pixel magic – but for kids who like video games, this series retains enough of the milder sort of gaming experience to be enjoyable. Especially when the pictures show what it looks like when a “hacker apple with wires for arms” types on a keyboard.

(++++) THE HISTORICAL AND THE PERSONAL

Johann Jakob Froberger: Suites for Harpsichord, Volume 2. Gilbert Rowland, harpsichord. Athene. $25.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Harpsichord Works in A minor, D minor and C minor. Rinaldo Alessandrini, harpsichord. Naïve. $16.99.

Dance Music for Piano from the United States, Argentina, Spain, France, Hungary and Russia. Lisa de la Salle, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

     There is a tendency among some people to think of older music, specifically Baroque music, as elegant, refined, and essentially impersonal, a set of exercises in form rather than emotional expressiveness. Listeners who have heard the works of Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667), however, know how far this is from the truth. Froberger, one the earliest developers of the dance suite and one of the most-skillful creators of this movement sequence, composed highly distinctive forms of movements that again and again had the same designation, including Allemande, Courante, Gigue, Sarabande and others. He also created program music – indeed, music whose programs were so precise that Froberger often wrote them out, sometimes in very considerable detail, on the same pages as the musical notation. The second volume of Gilbert Rowland’s very well-played selections from Froberger’s suites, now available as a two-CD set on the Athene label, is an exceptional introduction to the composer or, for those who know his music already, a delightful expansion of their knowledge, since it is unlikely that many listeners will already be familiar with all 12 of these suites. The very first one offered here (in D, FbWV 620) opens with a descriptive and very personal movement bearing the title Méditation sur ma mort future, and although it is no more lugubrious than other movements in these suites, the mere existence of the title engages listeners in thinking about the topic that Froberger raised 400 years ago – and perhaps even about their own mortality. The rest of this four-movement suite consists of a Gigue, Courante and Sarabande, and all the other suites here – one in three movements, one in five, the remainder in four – are simply sequences of these and other dance movements. But “simply” is the wrong word, because Froberger’s rhythmic irregularities and unusual handling of Baroque dance forms give the music a level of complexity that Rowland explores with considerable skill and careful attention to period style and Froberger’s particular sense of it. Froberger was quite prolific and quite protective of his music, allowing only two pieces to be published in his lifetime and having friends and noble patrons keep and control the rest. And he apparently really did have a sense of ma mort future, since he is known to have made funeral arrangements for himself the day before he died. He is an unusual and highly creative composer, and was known as a keyboard virtuoso – as is clear from the demands of the suites that Rowland plays. Bach understandably thought highly of Froberger’s music, and the similarities and divergences between the two composers’ keyboard works are quite interesting. But hearing Froberger entirely on his own is all that is necessary to admire the quality of his compositions and the extent to which their content belies the notion of Baroque music as emotionally uninvolving.

     It is nevertheless quite intriguing to hear some Bach harpsichord works in juxtaposition with some of Froberger’s, and to contemplate the varied ways in which emotional – one could even say spiritual – connections can be made between composers and among the works of a single musical creator. Rinaldo Alessandrini’s new Bach recording for Naïve is a highly personal exploration of disparate Bach works, presented by Alessandrini as three minor-key sequences – A minor, D minor and C minor – with carefully parallel choices of pieces within each grouping. Each of the three sets starts with a prelude, an invention and a sinfonia: the A minor uses BWV 931,784 and 799; the D minor BWV 940, 775 and 790; the C minor, BWV 934, 773 and 788. Each group then includes two prelude-and-fugue combinations from The Well-Tempered Clavier: respectively, BWV 865 and 889, BWV 851 and 875, and BWV 847 and 871. And then Alessandrini gives each of the three assembled sets of pieces a different type of conclusion, thus distinguishing them by their overall musical arcs as well as by their underlying key signatures. The first grouping ends with the Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 904; the second with the Sonata for Harpsichord, BWV 964; and the third with an intriguing combination of the Fantasia, BWV 906 with the Ricercar, BWV 1079. The result of all this picking and choosing, all this assembling of different works into sequences connected by their underlying keys if not exactly thematically, is a very personal CD in which Alessandrini explores Bach in ways that make considerable sense to him even though nothing here was intended to be heard in these specific mixtures. The disc thus becomes one providing insight into the performer as much as into the music he plays – and, it should be noted, plays with great style and finesse. Alessandrini has clearly thought carefully about the relationships among the works that he has assembled in this form for this recital, and his exploration of the similarities and differences among the pieces – in particular, the similar-yet-different ways that Bach handles the six preludes and fugues – is fascinating throughout. It is interesting that he, like Rowland in the Froberger release, includes some pieces whose provenance is uncertain: several of the Froberger works are attributed to him but not assuredly by him, and the first piece Alessandrini offers (BWV 931) is of doubtful authenticity, although it makes an effective lead-in to the A minor sequence. Alessandrini and Rowland both show just how effective it can be to offer personalized, carefully assembled (the current buzzword is “curated”) Baroque pieces in ways that highlight their emotive elements while keeping historically informed performance practice always in the forefront.

     Lisa de la Salle takes personalization to a different level – not higher, not lower, just different – on a (+++) Naïve CD featuring dance music of various types from six different geographical regions. This is a CD that listeners will find very appealing if they gravitate to the music as strongly as the pianist does, if they do so in much the same way – and if they enjoy the rather arbitrary assembly of the program. Unlike the personalized Alessandrini approach to Bach – which listeners can enjoy if they like Bach’s music, even if they are not accustomed to hearing it in this particular setup – the de la Salle disc requires, for full effect, that listeners like these specific pieces by these specific composers, and enjoy them presented in this specific performer-selected order. The requirement to be strongly in sync with both performer and composers limits the likely audience for this disc, even though it is played stylishly and often with genuine panache. The first four of these13 works are American, beginning with Gershwin’s When Do We Dance? De la Salle also uses that as the overall title of the recital; it may be a bit cynical to say the answer is “never” when it comes to at least some elements of this musical potpourri. The three remaining American pieces are Art Tatum’s Tea for Two (not the delightful Shostakovich variations on the tune), William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag, and Fats Waller’s Vipers Drag. So we have four pieces from different eras, in different styles, arranged a bit jarringly and played with enthusiasm. De la Salle next goes to Argentina for, perhaps inevitably, Piazzolla’s Libertango, which is followed by Ginastera’s very different Danses Argentines No. 2. Then comes a quick trip to Spain for de Falla’s Danse du feu, and then a rather curious voyage to France for Valses nobles et sentimentales by Ravel (who was actually Basque), followed by Saint-Saëns’ Étude en forme de valse. As if there were not enough contrast between the two French-inflected offerings, de la Salle moves on to Hungary and Bartók’s Danses populaires roumaines, then rounds out the program with three works from Russia. They are Stravinsky’s Tango, Scriabin’s Waltz in A-flat, Op. 38, and Rachmaninoff’s two-piano Polka Italienne as transcribed for solo instrument by Vyacheslav Gryaznov. This is quite a selection of material, most of the pieces clearly unrelated to the ones that precede and follow them, the generalized notion of dance being the only unifying factor – and rather less so than in the suites of composers such as Froberger and Bach. The playing is pleasurable throughout, and it certainly seems as if de la Salle had fun assembling this musical mishmash that wanders all over the globe and through many stylistic periods (the works’ years of creation are roughly 1850-1950). Listeners who are swept up in, and by, de la Salle’s enthusiasm will find the disc a great deal of fun. But it will misfire for people who do not quite see and hear dance in general, or these specific dancelike pieces from these specific composers and nations, in exactly the way that de la Salle sees and hears them.

(+++) OLD VOCALS NEWLY EXPLORED

Kassianí: Hymns. Cappella Romana conducted by Alexander Lingas. Cappella Records. $19.99 (SACD).

Francesco Rasi and contemporaries: Arias. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, tenor; Louise Pierrard, viola da gamba; Thomas Dunford, theorbo; Flora Papadopoulos, harp. Naïve. $16.99.

     Listeners tend to trace Western vocal music back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the time of Claudio Monteverdi and the beginning of opera; or somewhat further back, perhaps to Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century. But of course the roots of Western music go back considerably earlier: Gregorian chant, although not actually created by Pope Gregory I in the 7th century, has been around since the 9th or 10th. This early music has been explored at considerable length in recent years, and performers have learned historical performance practices that have made it possible to hear and enjoy the exceptional purity and beauty of these very early works. There are other pieces of that vintage, however, that are still very little known outside specific religious celebrations, largely because they were created for the Greek Orthodox rather than Roman church. One foundation of this form of music, which is in Greek rather than Latin, is the work of a 9th-century Byzantine abbess named Kassianí or Kassia, who is a saint in the Orthodox Church (her feast day is September 7). Kassianí wrote a considerable amount of music – about 50 of her hymns survive – and also wrote aphoristic non-liturgical poetry. The excellent and expressive voices of Cappella Romana are ideally suited to introduce the music of Kassianí to a wider audience, which is just what they do in a new recording on the ensemble’s own label. Under the sensitive and knowing direction of Alexander Lingas, the members of Cappella Romana present 10 selections of Kassianí’s music for Christmas, the Lenten Triodion, and Holy Week. Included is her best-known hymn, known in English as “Lord, the woman found in many sins,” which is chanted each year at matins on Holy Wednesday. Like other works on this revelatory SACD, this hymn requires a very wide vocal range as well as sensitivity to the slow and sorrowful mood it evokes. Several of the hymns offered on this disc are world première recordings, and the disc itself is the first in an ambitious series intended to make all of Kassianí’s surviving music available in recorded form. The grace, beauty and stylistic clarity of these works come through in genuinely uplifting fashion in these beautifully balanced performances. The disc is nevertheless one whose appeal is sure to be limited because of the focus of the material, the nature of sacred choral music in our secular age, and the unfamiliar language of the hymns (although English translations are provided in the accompanying booklet). The fact that there is a limited audience for music of such beauty and uplift says far more about modern society than it does about Kassianí and her works. For those willing to open their ears and spirits to this material, the recording will bring a high level of peace and contentment, and a feeling of connection to something beyond everyday experience – exactly as Kassianí surely intended nearly 1,200 years ago.

     It is only in contrast to music such as Kassianí’s that the works by Francesco Rasi (1574-1621) seem comparatively modern. A new Naïve recording that is just as rarefied as Cappella Romana’s, but in a different way, features tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro sensitively exploring arias by Rasi and his contemporaries – including a number of works written for Rasi or believed to have been performed by him. The best-known composers represented on the CD are Jacopo Peri, Carlo Gesualdo, and – most familiar by far – Monteverdi, the title role of whose L’Orfeo (1607) was explicitly written for Rasi. For the music on this disc to have its full effect, it helps to understand that Monteverdi wrote L’Orfeo and other works in whole notes (semibreves) and left it to Rasi and other singers to ornament what was essentially a bare outline. Thus, modern performances of Monteverdi’s music and other works of the same time period offer material that was essentially created by two people: the composer and the singer. Understanding this context makes it even more interesting to hear the six works on this disc that Rasi himself actually created and sang (accompanying himself on the lute or harp). Historical understanding and knowledge of performance practice are also helpful when listening to the one Monteverdi aria heard here (Quel sguardo sdegnosetto) as well as the pieces by Giuseppino del Biado, Marco da Gagliano, Giulio Cassini (two arias), Thomas Dunford, Andrea Falconieri (two arias), and Sigismondo d’India. The composers’ names will likely be unfamiliar to most audiences, although several will be known to listeners with a special interest in music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Collectively, these composers represent the crème de la crème of creators of florid, elaborately ornamented arias from the early days of opera: they are largely responsible for establishing a tradition that became so closely identified with Italian music that it was not until centuries later that Respighi and others were able to reestablish significant non-vocal music with an Italian accent. The highly idiomatic performances by Toro and his accompanists make this unusual recording a treat for listeners who want to explore the byways of early opera and 400-year-ago compositional and performance styles. The audience for the recording will inevitably be a small one, but those who find the material congenial will greatly enjoy this fascinating journey into secular vocal material of the distant past, just as those interested in the Cappella Romana disc will find themselves transported into the sacred compositions and performances of an even more distant time.

May 06, 2021

(++++) STRINGS THROUGH TIME

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano. Ailbhe McDonagh, cello; John O’Conor, piano. Steinway & Sons. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Respighi: Gli Uccelli; Suite for Strings and Flute; Melodia and Valse Caressante for Flute and Strings; Serenade for Small Orchestra. Roberto Fabbriciani, flute; Orchestra Sinfonica Abruzzese conducted by Nicola Paszkowski. Tactus. $16.99.

Vivaldi: Bassoon Concertos, Volume V—RV 467, 476, 479, 481, 486, 489, and 497. Sergio Azzolini, bassoon and conducting L’Onda Armonica. Naïve. $16.99.

Eleanor Alberga: No-man’s-land Lullaby; Shining Gate of Morpheus; Succubus Moon; The Wild Blue Yonder. Navona. $14.99.

     The communicative power of string instruments is central to classical music and has been for centuries: orchestras, and even smaller ensembles, are typically dominated by string sections, with other instruments adding color and their own forms of expressiveness. So it can be a bit surprising to realize that in some forms, strings’ prominence and independence emerged rather late. Beethoven’s five cello sonatas are instructive in this respect – and also rather neatly encapsulate the three compositional periods into which the composer’s music is generally divided. Splendid new performances by Ailbhe McDonagh and John O’Conor, released on the Steinway & Sons label, show the similarities and differences among the five sonatas particularly clearly. The first sonatas, Op. 5, Nos. 1 and 2 – in F major and G minor, respectively – are essentially piano works with cello accompaniment. O’Conor strives to provide equality of interpretative standing to McDonagh, who certainly rises to the occasion when given the opportunity, but both these two-movement pieces use the cello more for tonal color (often having it double the left-hand piano part) than for thematic or structural independence. Each work has a long first movement, with a slow introduction and then a faster main section, followed by a rather peppy second movement. These sonatas are sonically somewhat overdone in this performance, with McDonagh’s Andrea Postacchini cello postdating Beethoven’s time and possessing a highly sumptuous sound, and with O’Conor performing on a sonorous modern Steinway quite different from the pianos of Beethoven’s time. The sonic beauty carries through to the third sonata, Op. 69 in A, where it is somewhat more appropriate. Here Beethoven, now in his “middle period,” composes independent material for the cello in much the same way as in his Triple Concerto of the same time frame. This means that cello and piano are much closer to equal partners than in the first two sonatas, with both having virtuosic as well as expressive opportunities throughout the three-movement work. Lasting nearly half an hour, this is the longest of the five sonatas, and in the hands of McDonagh and O’Conor, it is spun out with elegance and a kind of restrained passion that fit it very well. Equally effective, if not more so, are the fourth and fifth sonatas, Op. 102, Nos. 1 in C and 2 in D, which date to the beginning of Beethoven’s “late period” and use the instruments quite differently from the way they are used in the earlier sonatas. These are thoughtful and inward-focused works, despite their key signatures, and here there is genuine dialogue between the instruments, which often pick up and finish each other’s phrases as if ruminating on the same thoughts. The sonorous warmth of the cello and piano used here, even if not truly authentic (especially in the piano’s case), fits the emotional underpinnings of these works quite well. And McDonagh and O’Conor seem highly attuned (so to speak) both to the music and to each other: their balance is flawless, and their pacing has a natural quality that makes it sound as if these works could not possibly be played at any other tempo. The performances on this two-CD set, recorded during the unfortunately much-diminished celebration last year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, clearly show how much Beethoven still has to offer performers and listeners after two-and-a-half centuries.

     By the early 20th century, composers were sometimes using strings, with contrasting instruments, to look back as well as forward – as Respighi did repeatedly in works derived from earlier music. Thus, the small-orchestra suite Gli Uccelli (“The Birds”) uses strings, complemented by a modest number of winds and brass plus a celesta, in an unusual form of Impressionism: the five movements draw on works by Bernardo Pasquini, Jacques de Gallot, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Jacob van Eyck to celebrate birdsong while trying to portray avian activities in music. It is a fascinating notion, a work in which obviously imitative material is drawn from music of the 17th and 18th centuries but transformed, through skillful orchestration, into a work that definitely has the sound of its own time period (1928). Yet by the time of Gli Uccelli, Respighi had been down the transformative road before, not only in the first two suites of Antiche arie e danze (1917 and 1923) but also in even earlier works. The brief Serenade for Small Orchestra of 1904 is one example that is heard moderately often – and it has an interestingly Russian sound, surely influenced by Respighi’s studies with Rimsky-Korsakov. Slightly melancholy throughout, with the clarinet lending emphasis to the strings and providing contrast to them as well, the piece is pleasantly introspective – and very well played on a fascinating new Tactus recording featuring Orchestra Sinfonica Abruzzese conducted by Nicola Paszkowski. Even more intriguingly, the disc also includes two pieces of a similar type that here receive their world première recordings: Suite for Strings and Flute (1905) and Melodia and Valse Caressante for Flute and Strings (1902). These are works that show multiple influences, all filtered through Respighi’s well-wrought use of strings with woodwind contrast (flute in these cases). Melodia and Valse Caressante opens with a touch of Russian sound but in the balance of the first movement, and throughout the second, has more of a French turn-of-the-century flavor. And the Suite for Strings and Flute, against all odds, sounds positively Viennese: the start of the first of its four movements sounds astonishingly like the music that Franz Lehár was writing at precisely the same time. Here the string complement is at its warmest and most romantically, even erotically engaging, and as the suite proceeds from Badinage through Valse, Berceuse de Noël and a final enthusiastic Furlana, Respighi shows repeatedly just how well, even in this early work, he understood the emotive power of strings and the effectiveness of providing them with contrasting touches from instruments such as, in these cases, the flute.

     It is a different woodwind, the bassoon, that complements and contrasts with the strings in the 66th Vivaldi Edition release from Naïve. This is the fifth disc in the series to be devoted to Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos, and its seven concertos bring to 33 the total number recorded in the overall sequence. The two minor-key works here – RV 481 in D minor and RV 497 in A minor – have particularly interesting first movements: RV 481’s is positively mysterious and more inward-focused than is usual in Vivaldi’s concertos, and RV 497’s is highly operatic in its dramatic unisono opening, followed by a full stop that is genuinely disconcerting. Actually, there is something special about every one of these concertos: one thing the Vivaldi Edition shows again and again is that the canard about Vivaldi’s concertos all sounding alike because of their fast-slow-fast structure simply fails to acknowledge the composer’s tremendous creativity within the basically similar arrangement of movements. The alternation of tutti and soli in the first movement of RV 467 is delightful, as is the scurrying start of the finale of RV 476. The central Largo of RV 479 shows the bassoon in particularly warm guise, while the similar tempo in RV 486 gives the instrument more of a singing quality. And the finale of RV 489 is positively ebullient. These are just some of the highlights of a CD that features absolutely first-rate playing and conducting by Sergio Azzolini – and a wonderful string ensemble, assured and historically informed, in L’Onda Armonica. Both bassoon and strings can be unashamedly playful from time to time in these concertos, and that is all to the good, showing how serious music-making can be a great deal of fun for performers and audience alike. Like so many Vivaldi Edition discs, this one is revelatory of a side of the composer that until recently remained very little explored. It also explores some less-known sides of the bassoon itself: far from being the comical instrument that it became in later years, here the bassoon is a full-fledged, fully capable woodwind whose ability to amuse is just one element of its charm – which also includes considerable lyricism and, in Vivaldi’s writing, a mixture of drama and emotional intensity.

     Emotional intensity in strings and the instruments that contrast with them is a big part of many contemporary approaches to chamber music, such as the four works of Eleanor Alberga (born 1949) on a new Navona CD. The disc opens and closes with pieces for violin and piano: No-man’s-land Lullaby (1997) and The Wild Blue Yonder (1995), both played by Thomas Bowes on violin and Alberga on piano. The other two pieces here are for string quartet plus one other instrument; both pieces are performed by Ensemble Arcadiana (Bowes and Oscar Perks, violins; Andres Kaljuste, viola; Hannah Sloane, cello). Shining Gate of Morpheus (2012) features Richard Watkins on horn; Succubus Moon (2007) has Nicholas Daniel on oboe. Although the pieces were composed (and recorded) over a 25-year period, they clearly share some characteristics. The two single-movement quintets contrast peaceful scenes with ones that are considerably more intense, using the strings for quiet and reflective settings and the contrasting solo instruments to lead the music into more-disturbed realms. Thus, Shining Gate of Morpheus has the string quartet portray the gentleness of sleep, which is then disturbed and confused by the world of dreams, in which the horn figures prominently. Succubus Moon, somewhat similarly, contrasts lunar and nocturnal tranquility – dreamy in its own way – with more-intense material representing frightening creatures of the night, the oboe taking the lead in this element of the work although the strings too take part in it. As for the violin-and-piano pieces, they show quite clearly how far the string-plus-piano combination has come since Beethoven’s time: the instruments are absolute equals, each leading parts of the material and accepting a subsidiary role elsewhere, each equally engaged in emotional reaching-out and both equal in establishing and sustaining the changing moods of the music. No-man’s-land Lullaby is unsettling and mildly dissonant at first, then increasingly disturbed and intense – no surprise, inspired as the piece is by the horrors of World War I. Even without knowing the work’s provenance, listeners will be swept into its sound world, which strongly contrasts more-relaxing material with elements that are unsettling to the point of unpleasantness. Alberga’s use of silence and near-silence is notable here, the music’s quiet passages being as emotionally fraught as its loudest ones. The Wild Blue Yonder again uses the two instruments in equivalent if not always precisely equal roles, the importance of the work’s title here being less apparent and not particularly crucial for experiencing the music: this is a work in which fragmentary material appears tentatively and uncertainly, in one instrument or the other, joining bit by bit at times and then separating again, with climactic cacophonous sections rapidly dropping into a kind of near-silence that here and elsewhere is used so carefully that it becomes a hallmark of Alberga’s style. Somewhat unusually for contemporary music, all four of these pieces make sense at their given lengths of 10 to 14 minutes, being neither truncated nor overextended: each has elements of a tone poem whose exact story may be unclear but whose arc of presentation, communicated by strings enhanced by the presence of other instruments, comes through to fine effect.

(++++) FIVES AND OTHER NUMBERS

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Orquesta Filarmónica de Málaga conducted by José María Moreno Valiente. IBS Classical. $15.99.

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9. Concerto Budapest conducted by András Keller. Tacet. $24.99 (SACD).

Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op. 3 and Op. 6. Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Bernhard Forck and Georg Kallweit. PentaTone. $24.99 (3 CDs).

     Most classical-music lovers will think immediately of Beethoven if someone says “the fifth symphony,” but of course Beethoven’s is not the fifth – and the number five has some associations with other composers that are also very noteworthy (so to speak). Mahler’s Fifth, the midpoint of his symphonic oeuvre, is the first work in which he moved beyond the Wunderhorn connections that had previously been pervasive in his symphonies. Shorter than his Second or Third, longer than his First or Fourth, Mahler’s Fifth is a work of such varying moods and approaches that the composer stated that it was in three parts: the first two movements; the third; and the fourth and fifth. That is very much the way José María Moreno Valiente handles Mahler’s Fifth with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Málaga in a new recording on the IBS Classical label. In some ways, this is not a very idiomatic performance: it lacks both the bite and the considerable string warmth to be found when the music is played by the top German and Austrian orchestras. But now that Mahler’s music is so much a part of the classical mainstream – a status unthinkable until the 1960s – there are more and more ways to present it, and this one is quite intriguing. The first two movements are the least convincing here, with the opening trumpet tattoo less acerbic than it can be and the funeral march somewhat less Wie ein Kondukt than in the best performances. The storms of the second movement are also a bit on the tame side, although the actual playing is first-rate. The symphony’s second part – the third movement, with its highly prominent French horn passages – is considerably more effective, presented with rhythmic clarity and paced well (Mahler worried that conductors would take it too quickly; that is not the case here). And the symphony’s third part is very fine indeed: the Adagietto is played with straightforward beauty, without overdone attempts at warmth and without trying to downplay its very deliberate naïveté, while the concluding Rondo – which has simplicity of its own – is presented with bounce, optimism, and even a touch of humor that neatly counterbalances the extreme seriousness of the symphony’s first part. This is a very well-considered and nicely played version of a Fifth that is highly significant in its composer’s ongoing symphonic development, building effectively on what came before while taking Mahler’s musical thinking in new directions.

     The Fifth served a very different purpose for Shostakovich. For years, it was one of his most popular symphonies, perhaps the most popular of all, thanks to the way its first three movements encapsulate his compositional style, while its fourth offers straightforward triumphalism without the overt gloss of Socialist Realism so dear to the rulers of the USSR. But Shostakovich’s famous statement that the work was “the reply of a Soviet artist to just criticism,” it became increasingly clear, was made under duress and out of fear, and that led to considerations of subtexts and ironies within the Fifth – and the possibility that it did not in fact reflect the composer’s thinking as either musician or human being (in contrast to the suppressed Fourth). This led to a decrease in performances and caused many conductors to try to force the work’s bright finale into an ironic mode, often through a tempo so slow that the Allegro non troppo designation came much closer to an Adagio by the end. Thankfully, it now seems that conductors – some conductors, anyway – are willing to perform Shostakovich’s Fifth as written and let listeners decide for themselves what to make of it. András Keller does just that in an exceptionally fine-sounding and excellently played Tacet recording featuring Concerto Budapest (the new name of the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra). Given Hungary’s fraught relationship with the USSR and, more recently, with Russia, it may come as something of a surprise that the musicians handle this symphony with such strength and commitment. But that is just what they do: the expansive first movement, astringent Scherzo, and broad and intense Largo are excellently paced and played, and the finale – taken most definitely at a speed in the Allegro realm – rings forth in triumph and brilliance of orchestration, none of which will prevent the audience from wondering what exactly Shostakovich was trying to say here, and what he was trying not to say. The answer to the second part of that question may be found not so much in the Fifth of 1937 but in the Ninth of 1945 – a much shorter symphony, though in five movements rather than four, and one whose poised absurdity and unexpected turns of phrase show the depth of Shostakovich’s disillusionment with the USSR and its rulers in a way that the Fifth (in any interpretation) never quite does. Keller and Concerto Budapest handle this work quite wonderfully, allowing it its moments of apparently lighthearted humor while permitting the underlying sarcasm of a supposed celebration of the end of World War II to come through at every turn. After the large-scale wartime Seventh and Eighth symphonies, Shostakovich’s Ninth is in many respects downright peculiar – and a great deal more approachable than its two predecessors. Pairing the Fifth and Ninth (and never mind any inevitable thoughts of the difference between Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth) makes this a thoughtful recording as well as one that thoroughly plumbs the intricacies and uncertainties associated with both of these works.

     It is the number six rather than five that is prominent in much 18th-century (and early 19th-century) music, since works were often released in groups of half a dozen. Sometimes two sixes – that is, two half-dozens – appeared together. This explains the Op. 3 and Op. 6 Concerti Grossi by Handel, now available in splendid recordings on PentaTone, featuring Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Bernhard Forck (Op. 6) and Georg Kallweit (Op. 3). The earlier set of these marvelously effervescent concertos is something of a mishmash, having been assembled by the publisher with little if any input from Handel himself. As a result, Op. 3 – which is sometimes referred to as a set of oboe concertos, given the prominence of that instrument in many movements – has works of very disparate character, ranging from a two-movement one to two that are in five movements. This many years after the publication of Op. 3 in 1734, the works’ provenance scarcely matters, but their many delights remain, and the 20-or-so-member ensemble (augmented as needed for the movements with recorder, flute and/or bassoon) plays every concerto with tremendous style and panache and what sounds like great delight. Indeed, the works really are delightful, even though many partake of pastiche (including movements reused from operas), and one – the two-movement No. 6 – is really an organ concerto. The Op. 3 concertos’ forms vary, with more or less focus on a solo instrument: some leave the overall impression of what we usually think of as a concerto, while others more closely resemble Baroque suites. Much the same is true of the Op. 6 concertos, whose publication had a distinct pecuniary edge to it: one reason Handel reused so much of his music in altered form (sometimes unaltered form) was that he could present it in different contexts and make more money from it than he would be using it for a single purpose. Thus, the Op. 6 concertos could function as standalone works in concerts – both professional and amateur – and could also take the place of overtures to operas or oratorios, or be used as transitions or “intermission pieces” within stage works. The Op. 6 concertos are all in multiple movements – from four to six – and contain some unusual designations, including Largo e piano, Polonaise, Larghetto e staccato, Musette, Hornpipe, and Siciliana. Individual movements can be as short as 40 seconds or as long as six minutes. Yet Handel’s characteristic style, the marvelous balance he creates among the instruments, and the verve and skill with which Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin re-creates the music, all help the distinct elements hold together wonderfully well. The sheer joy of music-making is what comes through most clearly in this very fine three-CD set, which passes along a large helping of that joy to listeners – through all the thrice six concertos presented here.