November 15, 2018

(++++) SOMETHING TO TREASURE?


Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

     On one level, there is no need whatsoever for fans of Stephan Pastis’ dark and sometimes borderline dismal comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, to buy an oversize “Treasury” volume such as Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn. These large collections simply contain the strips that have already appeared in earlier, smaller-format books, in this case I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream Because Puns Suck and Floundering Fathers. On the other hand, there are some perhaps rather rarefied reasons to buy the “Treasury” even if you already have the books whose strips it collects. For example, there is the cover. The covers of Pearls “Treasury” books are usually gems, if admittedly rough-cut ones, and this one is no exception. The front cover is a scene right out of innumerable noir movies, with a trench-coated guy, presumably a detective, being enticed to the corner of a building on a foggy night by a long-legged dame whose out-of-sight hand is holding a butcher knife. Also on the cover are multiple Pearls characters known for their violent propensities, such as Rat with a baseball bat and Guard Duck with a grenade; and also pictured is typically naïve and oblivious Pig, innocently playing a paddle game.

     That is the front cover. On the back cover are Rat and the shadowy figure of the dame walking away into the fog, only visible from the back, as Rat gives a thumbs-up sign. In the foreground is a chalk drawing, the sort used by police to show where a body has been found; and Pig, wearing the hat formerly sported by the trench-coated presumed detective, is joyfully drawing hearts, balloons, flowers and such in chalk on the pavement.

     Lest anyone wonder whether all this is in fact a weirdly off-key tribute to noir films, the inside front cover shows several Pearls characters settling in to watch a movie in an old-fashioned theater, where the screen shows the alleyway of the front cover but without any visible people or cartoons. And the inside back cover shows the Pearls characters reacting to the movie they have just seen (the screen now says “The End”) in suitable ways: Rat, for instance, is hurling a tomato.

     And there is more than this that makes Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn a value-added proposition. Many cartoonists use “Treasury” collections to make brief comments on their strips, drawing attention to a timely reference, a sequence that went well or not so well, or some aspect of the writing or drawing. But Pastis takes this to extremes (sort of the way he takes the strip itself to extremes): he makes comments on every page, ranging from the self-derogatory to the self-congratulatory to the self-revelatory. For instance, Pastis does a strip in which Goat is watching “a documentary titled ‘World’s Greatest Mysteries,’” and Pig asks whether the documentary explains why a Honda Accord’s speedometer goes up to 160 miles per hour; in the comment below, Pastis tells readers that he really does have a Honda Accord with a speedometer that goes up to 160 miles per hour, and wonders whether the manufacturer wants him to experiment to see if it can really go that fast. Elsewhere, Pastis has cynical Rat comment that “togetherness makes the heart more annoyed” in a strip – beneath which Pastis says he hopes Rat’s remark catches on but that so far, “Hallmark hasn’t called.”

     Pastis is well aware that his comments have value. Many times, he points out a strip that did not work or that confused or befuddled readers, such as one in which he uses the film-industry phrase “dolly grip” and shows a man holding onto a character who is supposed to be Dolly Parton but is drawn, ahem, less than perfectly (Pastis makes plenty of remarks, some overdone but many justified, about his own limited artistic skills). After explaining the Dolly Parton element of this strip, Pastis adds, “Too bad I can’t print these comments in the actual newspaper.” Well, yes, that is too bad in one sense – but in another, the comments are fun precisely because they explain things that readers, including those who own the smaller-size collections on which Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn is based, might not have understood until the “Treasury” became available.

     Of course, whether or not this book is in fact treasurable will depend on one’s views on Pearls Before Swine. This remains a strip on which opinion is sharply divided, and Pastis seems quite content with that. He delights in pushing the verbal boundaries of the comic pages by engaging in rather juvenile but often amusing word usage: at one point, Pig, while watching the Olympics, sees swimmers doing the breast stroke, and Pastis comments beneath the strip, “It is sort of interesting how I can say ‘breast stroke’ but could never say ‘stroke breast.’” Along those lines, Pastis occasionally introduces a comic-strip-censor character who is fed up with the way the strip stays just within the bounds of verbal acceptability. Even in strips that do not push the proverbial envelope, Pastis likes to be subtly (sometimes not so subtly) subversive: one Sunday strip has Goat talking to “Benny the beach bum” and telling him to get a job and get on with life so he can make money to build up his savings so he can one day retire and do whatever he wants, such as hanging out and sitting on the beach. Realizing what he just said, Goat plunks himself down on the sand and tells Benny, “You’re the most brilliant human alive.” And Goat, mind you, is the strip’s resident intellectual.

     Pearls Before Swine certainly isn’t for everyone, which means that neither is Pearls Takes a Wrong Turn. But for those who find Pastis’ weird characters and offbeat, often deeply sarcastic humor attractive, this “Treasury” adds authorial insight to comics whose dark-but-funny observations often seem unerringly in tune with our times.

(++++) YES, MONEY MATTERS


Paying for College, 2019 Edition: Everything You Need to Maximize Financial Aid and Afford College. By Kalman A. Chany, with Geoff Martz. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $22.99.

     This annual guide to college costs, now in its 27th year, was a lot more fun when it was called Paying for College without Going Broke. Well, not “fun,” exactly – it was never that – but the former title encapsulated the knowledge of college-financing consultant Kalman A. Chany that college costs are a huge strain on the budget of most families and need to be thought through very carefully so they do not torpedo the rest of a family’s financial life (including the parents’ retirement). The 2019 edition of what is now simply called Paying for College contains the same sort of straightforward advice and assistance as previous editions, including excellent line-by-line guides through the enormously thorny thicket of federal forms – notably FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), some of whose questions can be answered in various ways that will have different impacts on student financial assistance. There is similar detailed advice on handling the CSS PROFILE form – required by many selective colleges in addition to FAFSA. There are even 2017 versions of IRS forms 1040 and 1040-A in the back of the book, just to make the whole paying-for-college experience even less enjoyable.

     To be fair, Chany does not want to make college finances frustrating, difficult, time-consuming and overwhelming, but that is what they will be for most families. “Almost every family now qualifies for some form of assistance,” Chany asserts, and while that is a bit of an overstatement and over-simplification, it is true enough to make it worthwhile to use this book to find out if your family can indeed get assistance and, if so, how to go about getting as much as possible. Chany minces no words when it comes to the way a college financial aid officer (FAO) works: “He will be much more invasive than the IRS ever is, demanding not just your financial data but intimate details of your personal life such as medical problems and marital status. …The college FAOs don’t really want you to understand all the intricacies of the financial aid process.” Chany’s book is intended to show how parents, once they do understand the way an FAO operates, can use the rules to their advantage.

     Paying for College is not intended to turn parents into financial-aid experts. Its objective is to guide families to the circumstances discussed in the book that most closely resemble theirs, then show them how to use those circumstance as effectively as possible to maximize aid. Some of Chany’s advice applies to almost everyone: “If you have any hope of financial aid, never put money in the child’s name” (because colleges insist that lots of the funds held by a child be used to pay for schooling, far more than the percentage they insist parents contribute). And some of the information does apply to everyone: “Colleges now use the tax year two years before college begins…as their basis for deciding what you can afford to pay during freshman year.”

     Much of the material in Paying for College, however, is of the “it depends” type: its value depends on your family’s specific circumstances. For example, there are good reasons to file a Form 1040A or 1040EZ if IRS rules allow you to do so – even if an accountant says it is better to file a more-standard 1040. If you own a home, federal financial-aid methodology does not include its value in determining eligibility, nor do calculations at most state schools, but highly selective private colleges (and even some that are not as highly selective) do include it. And so on – and on and on. Yes, this gets extremely complicated, and Chany can simplify it only so far; in fact, the firm he founded, Campus Consultants, charges nearly $2,000 to help those who can afford it get through all the ins and outs of college financial aid, and he would have no business if all the complexity could be learned for $22.99. Nevertheless, there is a great deal to be gained from Paying for College. Chany includes a chapter on what students themselves can do while parents wade through all the forms and numbers: take an SAT review course, take AP classes, plan to transfer to a desired college after spending two years at a less-expensive one, and more. He provides very helpful lists, such as one of state agencies that administer college aid and one of the different types of financial aid (with explanations of the pluses and minuses of each). And he delves into all sorts of pragmatic issues, such as what to do if you are divorced, separated or a single parent, and how to file an appeal if the FAO does not offer enough aid. The bottom line – an apt term to use when discussing money – is that Paying for College will not solve every family’s financial concerns and will not pre-empt the need for at least some families to seek help from Chany’s firm or a similar one in order to maximize college aid. For many families, though, Paying for College will be a highly useful guidebook showing what to look for, and what to look out for, when negotiating the morass of forms and requirements and tax laws and individual colleges’ quirks – and how to do all this without going broke.

(+++) HEXPLOITATION


Slender Man. By Mythology Entertainment. Harper Voyager. $15.99.

     You might think that the Slender Man meme had crested and washed away by now. The horrific case involving two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls stabbing a third has wound through the courts and even, inevitably, found its way into a documentary film, Beware the Slenderman (using the alternative one-word version of the fictional character’s name). And a very poorly received horror film was made by Sony Pictures and Screen Gems – along with several independent films, a video game, and all the usual detritus of contemporary entertainment.

     So is that it? No such luck. Mythology Entertainment, which was involved in the Sony/Screen Gems film, now offers a novel called Slender Man without authorial attribution. That is probably not intended to make things spooky but to relieve any individual human being of the need to take credit or blame for the book. In fact, Slender Man reads like a multi-author project, akin to many screenplays, with no consistent voice and with lapses of continuity and pacing (and language: there are several British spellings of common words, although this could just indicate that one contributor is from England, or Canada, or Australia).

     Slender Man, the book, is not really bad, but it is so obvious that it will scarcely appeal to horror aficionados; whether it will attract people fascinated by the Slender Man character, for whatever reason, is another matter. As in so many novels that try to be with-it and up-to-date, this one features a mixture of narratives (helping justify, or at least explain, its mixture of styles). Teenage central character Matt Barker, one of the wealthy students at the snooty Riley School, which Matt describes as “a judgemental [sic] cesspit,” keeps a diary and has his cellphone set to record automatically on many, many occasions in the wee hours of the morning; the psychiatrist he is seeing because he has nightmares sends Matt’s parents old-fashioned snail-mail letters, making it possible for Matt to intercept communication; various students chat on social media (of course); there is a Reddit group in which Slender Man is discussed; there are transcripts of interviews of students with detectives investigating, among other things, the mysterious disappearance of one of Matt’s classmates, Lauren Bailey; school officials issue various administrative notices; a nosy reporter for a local newspaper keeps writing spectacularly boring articles; and on and on it goes.

     The use of various sources of information does nothing to mitigate the sloppiness with which the story is told. Some of the many typos are just funny: “I couldn’t keep my mouth close any longer.” And most of the efforts to make things seem horrific are little better, as in an attempt to pull in something vaguely Lovecraftian (Slender Man was in fact created with some thought to H.P. Lovecraft’s works): “I sort of felt this enormous thing, like I was seeing a fraction of something so huge that my mind couldn’t really process it, like I was looking up through a keyhole and he was the only thing I could see, was the only thing in the universe, was all there was.” Like, uh-huh.

     The basic plot will be quite obvious to anyone who looks at the dates meticulously included with the various narrative segments. The cops are talking to kids in late April, but dates relating to the actual events, including the crucial narrative portions from Matt, are in March. Aha! Something happened to Matt! That is quite apparent even though most of the narrative concerns the disappearance of Lauren, who is Matt’s friend but not his girlfriend and who has this thing about horrific stuff for absolutely no reason and who shares that interest with Matt but doesn’t actually let people know the two of them are friends and neither does he because, well, who needs motivation or character-building anyway?

     There are some unspoken rules in horror potboilers, one of which is that central characters are supposed to be smart but invariably do incredibly stupid things. In Slender Man, for example, there is a scene in which birds hit the glass outside Matt’s family’s super-high-class apartment and Matt’s father cleans up the mess matter-of-factly. Later, the same thing happens again, with even more birds and a bigger mess, in the middle of the night, and the birds’ blood makes the shape of a horrific character, so Matt wakes his father up to show him and get help. Of course not!! That would make sense!! Matt decides that no one would believe this has happened and maybe it is all imaginary anyway, so he carefully and meticulously destroys all the evidence that might show Slender Man to be real, doing the cleanup of the birds himself and letting his parents sleep. Brilliant guy, that Matt.

     As things go, though, Matt is smarter than anyone else in the book: all the other characters have no personality at all, to the point that calling them cardboard would be giving them too much depth – they are tissue paper, maybe. The whole story arc, of an overly sensitive and allegedly smart young person being pulled more and more deeply into eldritch horrors (“eldritch horrors” is a Lovecraftian phrase, not one in this novel), is formulaic in the extreme and unconvincing to an extreme degree.

     So who will pay attention to Slender Man, the novel? It is hard to say. There are some mild chills here and there, and horror fans looking for a tie-in to a recently created fictional character – one associated with some awful real-world events – may want to read the book. Fans of the film in which Mythology Entertainment was involved may want to look at it, too, although it does not claim to be a novelization of the movie. Oddly enough, it may be in the academic sphere that the book gets some traction, among scholars interested in Internet memes and the interaction, for good or ill, of the make-believe online world with the real one. Using this book for academic purposes is almost a scarier thought than anything in the book itself.

(++++) REDISCOVERIES AND RETHINKINGS


Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony No. 13; Serenade for Orchestra. Siberian State Symphony Orchestra (Krasnoyarsk) conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $12.99.

J.A. Kawarsky: Orchestration of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52; Fastidious Notes; And We All Waited…; Episodes. Arizona Choir and chamber musicians conducted by Bruce Chamberlain; Jonathan Helton, alto saxophone; Chicago Arts Orchestra conducted by Javier Mendoza; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Peter Laul, piano; Saint Petersburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $14.99.

Brahms: Hungarian Dances; 16 Waltzes, Op. 39. Hélène Mercier and Charles Katsaris, piano. Warner Classics. $17.99.

Ching-Chu Hu: Pulse; Gabriela Lena Frank: Sonata Andina No. 1; Philip Lasser: Sonata for Piano “Les Hiboux Blancs” (“The White Owls”). Minju Choi, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     The fascinating, if capriciously sequenced, Naxos survey of the symphonies of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) continues to uncover surprises and unexpected delights in its latest volume, featuring world première recordings of the dense Symphony No. 13 (1976) and the much lighter Serenade for Orchestra (1952). The symphony dates to the year after the death of Shostakovich, who was friend and sometime mentor to Weinberg, and sounds quite a bit like the older composer’s work as it begins. But it soon moves in its own direction, spinning a 35-minute, single-movement, fantasy-like texture in which a large orchestra is for the most part used only in chamber-music-like bits and pieces, in somewhat Mahlerian fashion. Dedicated to the memory of Weinberg’s mother, the symphony has little in the way of sweeping lines about it, the composer instead constructing the piece from small motifs that emerge, subside, combine and develop as the work progresses. Structurally interesting, it is not as emotionally affecting as Weinberg surely intended it to be: the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra (Krasnoyarsk) plays it very well under Vladimir Lande’s direction, but the work itself comes across as rather directionless and meandering. It is unsettling rather than heartfelt. How it fits among Weinberg’s 22 symphonies is difficult to determine because of the way in which these releases have been appearing: there is no apparent sequence or logic to them, with No. 13 being added to a series that so far includes Nos. 6, 8, 12, 17, 18 and 19. Some of the other symphonies have been paired, as No. 13 is, with lighter material by Weinberg. Here the matchup is with a work from the time of the notorious Zhdanov decree, which affected Soviet music from 1948 until Stalin’s death in 1953. To adhere to the decree, composers had to produce music that was not overly complex or difficult for people to understand and follow; this was to be true whether or not the material was overtly celebratory of socialist realism. Weinberg’s Serenade for Orchestra fills the bill of its time nicely, with touches of wistfulness – nothing deeper – amid what is generally an upbeat, sometimes even playful four-movement construction that is pleasant to hear if, on the whole, rather vapid.

     Lande is also the conductor of one work on a new Navona release featuring music by J.A. Kawarsky: he leads the Saint Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in Episodes, a piano-and-orchestra piece that dates to 2001 and shows some distinct Russian influence through parts that are reminiscent of Prokofiev and Mussorgsky. The work does not have anything like what would be considered a Russian sound, however: it is a generally upbeat piece, reflecting Offenbach as well as the Russian composers. Percussion plays a large role in the music, and the piano part is written to display the instrument’s percussive rather than melodic side. Light, even frothy at times, Episodes is as episodic as its title indicates. It successfully fulfills the role for which it was commissioned, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Kawarsky is fond of borrowings and episodic structure, as is shown as well on this disc in Fastidious Notes for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra: bits of Britten, Copland and even sort-of-Shostakovich sneak into a piece in which the main effect is of contrasting sections of quietness (if not exactly lyricism) and upbeat brightness. These two works are quite different in intent from And We All Waited… (the ellipsis is part of the title), in which Kawarsky strives to be completely serious in expressing concern about the horrific nature of school shootings – but despite this plan, he drops again and again into his preferred quotation-of-others form, with Nielsen and Shostakovich elements especially clear here, neither earlier composer providing whatever sort of answer to perceived political inaction Kawarsky is seeking. This sort of overtly political piece rarely conveys the seriousness of its composer; certainly this one does not. Indeed, it seems insufficiently grave for its topic, with the instruments at one point (about four minutes from the beginning) almost giving out with a laugh. Much more interesting, and indeed the most intriguing piece on the CD, is Kawarsky’s handling of Brahms’ Op. 52 Liebeslieder Waltzes. The 18 pieces date to 1868-69 and were originally written for vocal quartet and piano four hands. But they have appeared in many other arrangements – including, in the case of eight of them, with orchestral accompaniment by Brahms himself. In this piece, Kawarsky’s familiarity with the music of other composers is put to very good use as he scores the work for voices and 10 performers playing flute/piccolo, oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, harp, piano, violin, cello, double bass and percussion. The Liebeslieder Waltzes are thoroughly charming – hence their longstanding popularity – and it is precisely this charm that Kawarsky emphasizes and brings forth in his delicately intriguing arrangement. The texts are not provided, but can be found through an online search. However, they are not really needed to enjoy the music: these miniatures, several lasting less than a minute and none as long as three, are actually cute – a word one scarcely hears often in connection with Brahms, but one that is quite appropriate to Brahms as handled by Kawarsky in this rather puckish fashion.

     Other Brahms dance music is played in the original form, and with exceptional clarity and skill, on a new Warner Records release featuring pianists Hélène Mercier and Cyprien Katsaris. But what a disappointment is overlaid on the excellence here! The capriciousness of the releasing of the Weinberg symphonies is nothing compared to what has been done here: the Op. 39 waltzes and the full set of 21 Hungarian Dances are given out of order and commingled with each other. The motivation for this is surely a good one – musicians of this quality and caliber cannot possibly intend to mock what they perform so well – but what listeners get here is 70 minutes of individually wonderful tracks that collectively are frustrating in the extreme. Mercier is primo in the waltzes, Katsaris in the Hungarian Dances, but the two perform so well together that this scarcely matters. What does is that the first three tracks on the disc are waltzes Nos. 3, 5 and 6 – followed by Hungarian Dances Nos. 3-8, then waltzes 7, 8, 14 and 4, then dance No. 9, waltzes 9 and 10, dance No. 10, waltzes 15 and 1, dances 1 and 2, waltz 16, dances 11-18, waltzes 11-13, dance 19, waltz 2, and dances 20-21. The dipping into the correct order in several locations means listeners who know the music will just get used to hearing it so well presented when, after a partial sequence, they will be jerked into awareness that something else has suddenly appeared. The sense of dislocation is substantial, and the mixing-up of the waltzes is so extensive that even reprogramming the disc’s play sequence to restore the pieces’ correct order is a chore. It is tremendously hard to fathom the thinking behind this presentation – which is so well-played, so beautifully handled in its individual elements, that it attains a (+++) rating despite the very serious miscalculation around which it is built.

     The musical elements are more carefully calibrated on a new Navona CD featuring pianist Minju Choi, but the music itself is of highly variable interest, resulting in a (+++) rating for this disc as well. The three contemporary pieces here are all by composers from dual cultures, all of whom seek to unite and explore elements of both parts of their background without allowing one to overcome and subsume the other. These are thus works intended, in a sense, to cement and affirm their composers’ identity – and while they may in fact do that for the composers themselves, they do not connect in any particularly deep or emotionally resonant way with an audience outside their creators. The four-movement work Pulse by Asian-American Ching-Chu Hu (born 1969), commissioned for Choi, combines overtly Asian musical elements with obeisance to Western composers including Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Ravel. The start-and-stop dancing of the second movement, “Anticipation,” is the most stylish element here. Sonata Andina No. 1 by Gabriela Lena Frank (born 1972) offers a different cultural mixture, combining Western classical material with Andean folk music. Here the fourth movement, “Finale Saqsampillo,” is the most effective: it is a homage to Alberto Ginastera as well as an attempt to imitate two kinds of guitars, flutes and marimba, all in the context of a strongly rhythmic dance. The third work on the disc, Sonata for Piano “Les Hiboux Blancs” (“The White Owls”) by Philip Lasser (born 1963), has nothing in particular to do with white owls, but is intended as a blend of Lasser’s American and French roots and influences. The work’s traditional three-movement structure belies the rather mixed-up way in which themes and harmonies are assembled and reassembled throughout. The finale, marked “Fast, in the Style of a Toccata,” is the most engaging movement in its technical complexity and free-spirited lightness. It demands a lot of the pianist but does not require significant intellectualizing by listeners. For that very reason, it provides more pleasure than some of the more-freighted elements of this disc in their attempts to be culturally aware and inter-culturally sensitive and significant. Choi, who herself has a dual-culture background (she is Korean-American), plays all the works with verve and obviously believes in the messages they try to convey. Not all the music works particularly well, but all the pieces get as strong a commitment from Choi as they are likely to receive.

(++++) POWERS OF THE SMALLER-SCALE


Telemann: Sonatas Nos. 1-6 for Violin and Harpsichord, TWV 41; Sonata in F-sharp minor, TWV 41:fis2. Dorian Komanoff Bandy, baroque violin; Paul Cienniwa, harpsichord. Whaling City Sound. $15.

Jeffrey Boehm: Sonata for Three; Virginia Samuel: Flying over Water; William Price: I Don’t Want to Dance (Dance-Like); Chris Steele: Suite No. 1; Robert J. Bradshaw: Crepuscular Rays; Valentin Mihai Bogdan: City Scenes; Juan Maria Solare: Sale con Fritas. UAB Chamber Trio (James Zingara, trumpet; Denise Gainey, clarinet; Chris Steele, piano). Ravello. $14.99.

Samuel A. Livingston: Gentle Winds; The Old Man Is Dancing; Call to the Mountains; Quiet Summer Night. Arcadian Winds and Pedroia String Quartet. Navona. $14.99.

Jo Kondo: Syzygia; Snow’s Falling; Craig Pepples: Pine Cones Fall. Ensemble Nomad and Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus with Satoko Inoue, piano, conducted by Paul Zukofsky. CP2. $19.99.

     Large-ensemble works, for chamber or full orchestra, garner much of their power from the massing of instruments and the effects made possible by unison or carefully balanced playing of groups set against one another. The communicative potency of chamber music, from duets up to sub-chamber-orchestra ensembles, lies elsewhere: it comes from interplay between and among instruments, and frequently from the clarity of line made possible when only a few musicians, or only a couple of them, are, in effect, conversing without words. This conversational element is especially apparent in works such as the six Telemann violin-and-harpsichord sonatas of 1715 heard in a splendid new performance on the Whaling City Sound label. Superlatives abound here, from the enormously involving playing of Dorian Komanoff Bandy – who fully evokes the emotional undercurrent of the sonatas without ever deviating from Baroque appropriateness – to the beautifully nuanced and rhythmically sure harpsichord support provided by Paul Cienniwa. Six-sonata groupings were commonplace in Telemann’s time, and the key variations among the sonatas had specific musical functions as well as emotive ones. The sequence here is G minor, D major, B minor, G major, A minor, and A major – and even for listeners unfamiliar with Baroque attitudes toward and expectations of keys, the perfect minor-major balance will come through clearly as establishing an explicit form of communication and involvement between the performers and, through them, with the audience. It is important to remember that works like these were written not for public display but for noble household members to perform themselves, or for small groups of invited guests to enjoy in a salon. Thus, the sequence of movements – slow-fast-slow-fast in all six sonatas – provided an easy-to-grasp kind of background, while the specific ways in which a composer used the standardized arrangement of movements allowed considerable creativity and a series of delights and unexpected turns of phrase. Telemann handled this balance of the expected and the innovative masterfully – in many ways he was a highly intuitive composer. In this series, Nos. 2, 5 and 6 are dance-focused, all three starting with an Allemande: Largo and continuing with Corrente: Vivace, Sarabanda, and Giga. Nos. 1, 3 and 4 simply provide tempo indications for the movements and are structured somewhat more formally, or at least less danceably – but these sonatas are packed with clever and often unexpected elements, such as the harpsichord solo that opens No. 3. Bandy and Cienniwa have a comfort level with this music that is altogether extraordinary, and they have been blessed with an exceptionally well-thought-out sonic environment, in which microphone placement and overall aural ambience contribute mightily to the very impressive effect of their playing. And the recording offers an exceptional bonus in the form of a world première recording of a kind of “study score,” or perhaps simply a failed attempt, involving an F-sharp minor sonata. This has three slow or slow-ish movements in sequence (Largo, Andante, Adagio), and a second movement so short that Bandy and Cienniwa have to play it twice to get it to two-minute length. It has a third movement that is longer than all but one of the movements in the TWV 41 sequence, but that meanders strangely and is almost themeless. And it has a finale, Un poco presto, that veers from straitlaced to rustic and back and then simply disappears. Heard after the six completed TWV 41 sonatas, this TWV 41:fis2 evokes new respect for the care and polish with which Telemann wrote the works that he finished. Whatever this F-sharp minor piece may have been, or may have been intended to become, it is here a showcase for the quality of the remainder of the music on this CD and for the elegance and beauty of Telemann’s violin-and-harpsichord sonatas as Bandy and Cienniwa present them.

     Add a third player to the duet concept and the possibilities of musical interplay grow substantially, whatever the three instruments involved may be. This is so even in less-common combinations, such as that of clarinet, trumpet and piano – the instruments played by the UAB Chamber Trio on a new Ravello CD. Because this is a somewhat unlikely grouping, these performers play a great deal of music composed especially for them, including six of the seven works heard here (the sole exception being Crepuscular Rays by Robert J. Bradshaw, written for clarinet, flugelhorn and piano). Everything on this (+++) CD is played very well, but listeners will not likely find everything equally congenial. Jeffrey Boehm’s three-movement Sonata for Three is a mostly pleasant mixture of classical and jazz elements; there is some de rigueur dissonance that seems rather out of place. Virginia Samuel’s Flying over Water, also in three movements, has a tendency to meander rather aimlessly much of the time. William Price’s I Don’t Want to Dance (Dance-Like) is a short neoclassical work that lurches rather pleasantly here and there. The three movements of Chris Steele’s Suite No. 1 do not focus on the piano, even though Steele is the pianist. Like Price’s work, it is somewhat dancelike in a slightly awkward, almost tipsy way. Bradshaw’s brief piece evokes twilight through moderate pacing and mostly moderate dynamics. The three movements of Valentin Mihai Bogdan’s City Scenes bear the titles Riffs, After Midnight and Zoom and offer rather forthright tone painting, with the finale being the most affecting section. The disc concludes with Sale con Fritas by Juan Maria Solare, a small gem that makes a very satisfying encore in the form of the tango-like Argentinian milonga. Listeners who would like to hear the specific combination of instruments played by the UAB Chamber Trio are the natural audience for this pleasant if somewhat uneven chamber-music offering.

     A (+++) Navona CD offering four works by Samuel A. Livingston will have a more-limited audience: it is really for fans specifically of Livingston, all of whose works here are similar in their use of syncopation, dance rhythms and folklike elements. All four of these pieces are in three movements. Three of the four feature members of the Arcadian Winds, a group that at full strength includes Vanessa Holroyd, flute; Alicia Maloney, oboe; Mark Miller, clarinet; Marina Krickler, horn; and Janet Underhill, bassoon. Gentle Winds (for flute, oboe, clarinet and horn) justifies its title with its overall pleasant sound. The Old Man Is Dancing (for flute, oboe and clarinet) must refer to a rather spry elderly person, the piece being full of bounce throughout and having a distinctly light, almost airy feeling, thanks to Livingston’s skillful blending of the instruments. This work is a highlight of the CD. Call to the Mountains (for the full Arcadian Winds ensemble) is influenced by or intended as homage to film scores. This makes for easy listening but, within fairly short order, a sense that there is not much musical substance to be found here: the work is distinctly thin and, in the second movement, rather mannered, although the finale certainly has considerable pizzazz. The concluding work on the CD, Quiet Summer Night, features clarinetist Yhasmin Valenzuela in partnership with the Pedroia String Quartet (Jae Cosmos Lee  and Rohan Gregory, violins; Peter Sulski, viola; Jacques Wood, cello). This piece shares structural similarities with The Old Man Is Dancing and has an overall sound along the lines of Gentle Winds, but it never quite stakes out its own territory: although the instrumentation is different from that of the other works here, the piece sounds as if everything it has to say has already been said earlier on the disc. Livingston’s chamber music here is nicely constructed and generally tonal, easy to listen to and rather unchallenging for an audience. This is pleasant music that may not have very much to say but that delivers what it does offer with finesse and clarity.

     Contemporary music of a very different sort, and small-ensemble playing that is also on a different level, will be found on a (+++) CP2 disc featuring the final recording (from June 2016) by conductor/violinist Paul Zukofsky (1943-2017), a lifelong advocate of a certain kind of modern music-making. This is very much an enthusiast’s disc: it will not appeal to listeners at large, and makes no attempt to do so. It lasts just 47 minutes but will seem much longer to anyone not already attuned to what composers Jo Kondo and Craig Pepples are trying to do, and how Zukofsky is trying to help them do it. Syzygia (written in 1998) is one of those highly complex works in which the composer strives to integrate moods, rhythms, speeds, musical notation and other compositional and emotional elements – an attempt that makes the work very difficult to perform but that, for listeners, does nothing to make it sound different from many other recent musical pieces using similar forms of instrumental combination (even if notated differently). Pine Cones Fall dates to 2016 and is a reflection of a T’ang Dynasty poem, but it has no musical content particularly redolent of Eastern music – indeed, in its emphasis on singularity of notes and virtual absence of linearity, this is a work in which it sounds as if acoustic instruments (shakuhachi, piano, cello and double bass) are trying to imitate electronic sounds. Individual notes of long duration, followed by extended silences, characterize this piece, which runs more than 16 minutes but could just as easily last six or 60. Snow’s Falling (2001), a choral setting a 1929 poem by Chuya Nakahara (1907-1937), is the most interesting work here, treating the voices instrumentally as well as using them to recite the Japanese words (which are fairly straightforward ones about how snow looks as it falls in various places). Again and again, the chorus starts on one note and rises or descends from it, in a manner imitative both of typical contemporary instrumental composition and of the way snow falls and, blowing, rises. Slow-paced and atmospheric, Snow’s Falling is an impressive piece that somewhat overstays its welcome (it runs nearly 20 minutes) but that has a lulling, involving quality that is attractive through most of its length. This CD is emphatically not for everybody and is not intended to be: it is for fans of Zukofsky, certainly, and for those familiar with the music of Kondo and Pepples, and for listeners interested in experiencing one clear and specific way in which small-ensemble performances – and choral ones as well – are handled by contemporary composers whose interests lie in using limited sound palettes to produce effects of a very particular type.

November 08, 2018

(+++) IN SEARCH OF THE CUTE


Phoebe and Her Unicorn 8: Unicorn Theater. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

My Life in Smiley 2: I Got This! (mostly…) By Anne Kalicky. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.

     Real-world life may not be adorable, but adorableness is only a page or two away for young readers looking for a touch of illustrated escapism. The very simple graphic novels in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series can be fun for readers looking for easy-to-follow, easy-to-understand mild adventures in which magic is so widely accepted that just about every child character has his or her own magical accompanying beast/friend (adults, of course, do not, although they are quite accepting of the ones the children have). Dana Simpson’s latest Phoebe and Her Unicorn story is a camp tale – specifically drama camp – and assumes readers are already familiar with Phoebe, her unicorn, and various other characters: for instance, one reference to “how you became friends because of a rock you skipped” is inserted and immediately dropped, and will make no sense to readers here meeting Phoebe and her unicorn for the first time. Simpson makes unicorns not only adorable but also well aware of their beauty: in one panel here, a unicorn says, “I am so beautiful,” while one standing nearby says, “What? I could not hear you over the sound of how beautiful I am!” But beauty takes a back seat to friendship in this and the other books of the series. In Unicorn Theater, Phoebe and her unicorn, whose full name is Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, have a minor falling-out because Marigold is using the occasion of Phoebe’s trip to drama camp to clear the air with Marigold’s younger sister, Florence Unfortunate Nostrils (so called because she used to sneeze spiders, although that little problem is absent in this book, thanks to a unicorn-specific nasal spray). The two sisters had an argument involving a play in the past, and Marigold wants to talk things through and move beyond the mutual irritation, and so does Florence, so everything goes perfectly well and everybody is quite happy with everyone else. There is very little interpersonal drama or even disagreement here: the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books are determinedly good-natured. In addition to Marigold and Florence, mythical-but-real characters here include a lake monster named Ringo (friend of a girl named Sue) and an electrical monster named Voltina (friend of a boy named Max). Everybody collaborates on a play that stars Phoebe and Sue and repairs whatever little bit of residual anger may exist between Marigold and Florence, and it is all just too cute for words – if you like this sort of thing. Some young readers will enjoy Unicorn Theater for its simplicity and straightforward message about friendship, but others may find the whole tale just too doggone nice.

     “Nice” is scarcely a word that is applied to middle school in many, if not most, books for middle-school-aged readers. The books show this stage of education and socialization as having plenty of elements of gamesmanship, including teams, opponents, coaches (parents and teachers), and cheerleaders (friends or crushes). The basic idea is that the whole experience frequently feels like a battle, often an unsportsmanlike one, to middle-schoolers themselves. Based on the uncountable number of books about middle-school angst, which come at the topic from an uncountable number of angles, it certainly seems that the phrase “it’s how you play the game” applies. And how Max, the 12-year-old narrator of the My Life in Smiley series (no relation to the Max in Phoebe and Her Unicorn), plays the game is with emoticons. Lots and lots and lots of them. The second My Life in Smiley series entry is all about seventh grade, and it does help to have read the first, It’s All Good, to get the full flavor of the characters and their interactions. It is not absolutely necessary, though – certainly not where Max himself is concerned, since he peppers every page of this diary-style book with smiley faces that, although they do sometimes smile, more often frown or turn green or change into a panda or puppy or fish, or stick out a tongue or show big bright teeth or become an orange or…well, the possible variations on the simple, circular face seem nearly infinite, and a big slice of that infinity shows up here. The smileys are in fact the main attraction of what is otherwise a largely straightforward middle-school novel about friends, groups, crushes, games, and clueless parents (Max’s father makes a “mixed salad” that includes sardines, melon, blue cheese, anchovies, pickles and more). What is not quite straightforward here, for a North American audience, is the fact that this Anne Kalicky book is set in France and was originally published there in 2016. The translation by Leigh-Ann Haggerty and Kevin Kotur reads well enough, but not all the concepts and names make it seamlessly across the ocean: Max’s full name is Maxime, his crush is Naïs, other classmates include Célia and Louison Toinou and Tristan Le Bouzec, there is a reference to “American basketball” and one to “a super trendy American rapper,” Max’s grandparents live in Brittany, and so on. And there is even a section about sending a comic called “Extreme Excavator” to “that ole Brit Conrad…for Conrad to make progress on his French” – complete with a drawing of Conrad reading the comic with a sort-of-French accent: “It ways a terrayble slooghter.” Some young readers may find these elements exotic or extra-amusing, while others are likely simply to be puzzled. In any case, My Life in Smiley 2 is all in good fun, featuring activities that will mostly be familiar to middle-schoolers on either side of the Atlantic, and if there is nothing very special in the plotting or minimal characterization, at least the presentation is enough to make you smile. Or perhaps, after seeing a few hundred of the smileys, grimace.

(+++) MAGIC, POLITICS AND STEAMPUNK


Blood of Earth #3: Roar of Sky. By Beth Cato. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     Here we go with a trilogy wrapup that takes place in an alternative version of the early 20th century, in a world where geomancers play a crucial role by absorbing earth energy and moving it into storage crystals that power homes, flying cars and so forth, a world where a geomantic failure causes the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 by unleashing untamed energy. Here we have a world where Beth Cato tries gamely to use some aspects of Chinese culture and bows to multiculturalism and political correctness by having protagonist Ingrid Carmichael be motivated in part by the horror she feels at the racism and segregation that Chinese people face from the Unified Pacific (UP) – a world-dominating alliance of America and Japan. Being female and of mixed race, Ingrid has personal experience of being marginalized, cast out and looked down on – not to mention the fact that she and her Japanese mentor, Mr. Sakaguchi, are on the run from the military and from the powerful and ruthless Ambassador Blum, a shape-shifting kitsune (essentially a fox spirit) with aspirations to dominate the world.

     So here we go to – Hawaii. By the end of the previous book, Call of Fire (which followed the first in the sequence, Breath of Earth), Ingrid has escaped Ambassador Blum for the time being but has been left physically weak, unable to walk, and in constant pain. Trying to find the source of her unusually strong (though now diminished) magical powers, which she suspects result from being the granddaughter of the volcano goddess Madame Pele, Ingrid heads for the volcano Kilauea aboard a fairly standard-issue steampunk airship owned by Ingrid’s pacifist lover, Cypress (Cy) Jennings, and his partner, Fenris Braun. The descent into Kilauea is actually one of the best scenes in the book, thanks to some unexpected leavening, if not exactly humor: the potent world-protecting Ingrid goes into Kilauea along with a group of bumbling tourists. But whatever minor levity this brings is soon gone as the standard-issue fantasy quest heats up (and not just because of the volcano). A legendary Chinese being appears in suitable deus ex machina fashion to tell Ingrid to deliver a divine weapon called the Green Dragon Crescent Blade to her adoptive brother, Lee, son of the late emperor. This requires Ingrid to find a way into the city of Excalibur (a particularly ill-chosen name, although surely meant ironically) – this is the floating city of the UP, whose chief engineer, Maggie, happens to be Cy’s sister and needs to be won over to the good guys’ cause before something vaguely Deathstar-like happens.

     If all this sounds rather mixed up and overly complicated, that is because it is rather mixed up and overly complicated. There are the usual quest elements, as Ingrid and companions leave Hawaii in a race to California and then Arizona to confront and ultimately defeat their enemies. There are fairly standard expectations that the good guys must be “audacious and brave” despite the great odds against them. There is the undercurrent of Ingrid’s self-discovery that propels the entire trilogy. There is the ultra-pure motivation of Ingrid, whose love for her friends (Cy included) is almost irritatingly pure. There are easy encapsulations of characters other than Ingrid: Cy is a brilliant inventor, Fenris a Mr. Fix-It type. There are periodic appearances of mythological creatures from Asian cultures. There is a final battle that reads a bit like something written by an over-hyped Ian Fleming. Ambassador Blum is one of those standard, devious, ultra-evil and ultra-powerful villains so awful that just mentioning her name upsets people. So there are echoes aplenty of Harry Potter, James Bond, Star Wars, and pretty much everything in the steampunk world, to the point of having the final setting aboard the world’s largest airship. And after all the fireworks eventually go out, there is the expected conclusion in which the survivors are determined to live a normal life hereafter – but there are hints that Cato might return to them, or at least to this world, in future books.

     Roar of Sky is surprisingly easy to read without having gone through the first two books in the series. This is partly because Cato keeps the pace breathless and does action scenes particularly well, and partly because the characters are, in the main, such standard-issue stereotypes (even when given a multicultural veneer) that readers can easily figure out what must have happened before even without knowing the details of the earlier adventures. Although aimed at adults, the Blood of Earth series reads, in the main, like a so-called YA (Young Adult, which is to say teenager-oriented) trilogy, with its easy-to-grasp characters and motivations, coming-of-age elements, action-packed sequences, and frequent echoes of other YA stories. Although it is fun to read for its fast pacing and some exotic tinges, and although it has some trappings of social awareness (again, largely in YA mode), Roar of Sky and the sequence it concludes read mostly like genre escapist novels full of sound and fury, signifying not very much.

(+++) TOWARD THE END OF THE ROAD


Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner): An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation. By Michael Hebb. Da Capo. $26.

     Sincere to the point of being simplistic, well-meaning to the point of being naïve, Michael Hebb’s Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner) is an anecdote-packed attempt to enliven (pun intended) the American avoidance of direct discussion of death – one’s own and that of others. It is in part an advocacy book for Hebb’s own businesses: he is the founder of an organization called Death Over Dinner and of the New Age-y sounding “Convivium, a creative agency that specializes in the ability to shift culture through the use of thoughtful food-and-discourse-based gatherings.” Not surprisingly, Hebb is from Seattle, where descriptions of this sort are taken very seriously indeed.

     In the United States, however, Hebb argues, we tend not to take death seriously – or rather, we take it so seriously that we practice avoidance of the topic. That means we speak of people “passing” rather than dying or say they “went to heaven” or “exited this life” – or any one of a variety of other euphemisms. So the first thing we need to do is use the words “death” and “dying” so we can confront their inevitability.

     So far, so good. But this is difficult for Americans and many other Westerners because, as one of the many counselors and educators quoted by Hebb states, “Western medicine tends to think it can beat death.” Really? Yes, says Hebb, and this means “it’s as if we’re heroes in an action film, squaring off with an evil foe, and everyone knows the good guy wins in the end. …If it’s us versus death, we will come out victorious.”

     To say this is an oversimplification is to understate. On one level, it rings true, as do many of Hebb’s comments. But on another, it ignores deep-seated cultural imperatives and foundations that cannot simply be swept away with a nice dinner. The counselor whom Hebb quotes grew up in Hong Kong, and Asian cultures have multi-thousand-year histories of ancestor worship, respect for elders, family structures geared to protect the elderly and usher them gently out of life, and much more. Although some of those cultural elements have become a bit faded recently, the point is that they are deep-seated and rooted in hundreds of generations of practice. Contrasting them with American culture, and speaking as if action movies are somehow the cultural imperative for American medicine, is barely to skim the surface of the difficulties underlying “the American way of death” – to uote the title of Jessica Mitford’s famous 1963 study of funeral-industry abuses.

     Hebb never mentions Mitford, but he does briefly discuss Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whose insights into death and dying are now classic. In fact, Hebb briefly discusses a great many death-related things: Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner) jumps around quite a bit, mentioning planning for our own death, how we are affected when people we know die, how our own death may affect others, how different cultures handle death, and much more. There are numerous topics to which he gives short shrift, bringing them up and then dropping them just as they become intriguing. One is “death shaming,” of which Hebb writes, “None of us can say until we get there how we will feel as we stare down our own death, and there are no ‘shoulds.’ …Shame drips into every part of our lives, and death has some of the richest waters for it to dissolve [in].” But there is little more than this on the topic; indeed, there is little enough on any topic here (or subtopic, given that death is the overall subject). Hebb moves quickly from methods of giving comfort to examples of religious and nonreligious  thoughts of and responses to death; he discusses the death-with-dignity movement and what a “good death” looks like to various people; he even attempts, far too briefly, to explain reactions  when someone commits suicide (not within a death-with-dignity setting). Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner) is weakest when the topics are most intense: Hebb’s few pages on the death of a child cannot help being heart-wrenching for any parent, but they are far too surface-level to offer structure, guidance or any sort of closure.

     What is valuable in Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner) is simply its basic suggestion that death is as good a dinner topic as anything else – that people can and should (yes, a “should”) get together, on their own if not through one of Hebb’s businesses, to talk about their feelings regarding death, their experiences of it, their reactions to others’ deaths, and their anticipation of their own. And then – well, what? Hebb several times comments that the death-dinner discussion is meaningful to participants, providing insight and comfort with the topic. But he never quite explains what people can or should (another “should”) do after the dinner. Have another one? Have them regularly? Have them whenever someone close to the participants dies? Have some other sort of “refresher course” in death and dying? The last two sentences of Hebb’s book are, “Death walks with us through our entire life. The best thing I can suggest is that we all get better acquainted with our constant companion.” That is at best a very partial and rather wan conclusion. Readers may find other approaches to death and dying far more congenial than this: perhaps the writings of Kübler-Ross, perhaps the portrayal of Death by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld novels, perhaps reading (hopefully re-reading) Shakespeare’s gloomily poetic lines about “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” All these examples offer more insight than is to be found in Let’s Talk about Death (Over Dinner). But Hebb does deserve credit for suggesting a venue where some level of conversation about death and dying can potentially take place.

(++++) UNEXPECTED COMBINATIONS


Brahms: Clarinet Quintet; Elliott Carter: Clarinet Quintet; Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux. Mark Lieb, clarinet; Igor Pikayzen and Regi Papa, violins; Katarzyna Bryla and Colin Brookes, viola; Alice Yoo and Caleb van der Swaagh, cello; Anna Urrey, flute. Navona. $14.99.

Prokofiev: String Quartet No. 2; Janáček: String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”); Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 6; Osvaldo Golijov: Tenebrae. Calidore String Quartet (Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violins; Jeremy Berry, viola; Estelle Choi, cello). Signum Classics. $17.99.

Mozart: Violin Sonata No. 21; Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 1 (“Regensonate”); Tartini, arr. Kreisler: Violin Sonata “The Devil’s Trill”; Alois Hába: Hudba—Music in Quarter-Tones for Violin Solo. Auerbach-Pierce Duo (Dan Auerbach, violin; Joshua Pierce, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Blues Dialogues: Music of Black Composers. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Hagle, piano. Cedille. $12.

     Except for being written for the same instrumental combination, the clarinet quintets by Brahms and Elliott Carter have virtually nothing in common. As a result, they are almost never heard in juxtaposition – a fact that makes a new Navona CD featuring clarinetist Mark Lieb all the more fascinating. Interestingly, the violist and cellist in the Brahms and Carter quintets are different, probably just a matter of musicians’ availability but in a sense underlining the extreme disparity between these works. Brahms’ quintet, which was one of his last works even though he lived six years after composing it in 1891, is full of the sound that is usually called “autumnal” (although Brahms actually used it throughout his compositional life), and it is a work of gorgeous warmth and deeply felt emotion throughout. Lieb and colleagues play it with understanding and considerable depth, bringing out the unison passages in such a way as to provide strong contrast with the ones in which the clarinet emerges from the ensemble to shine forth alone. There is a burnished feeling to the whole performance, a sense of polish in the pacing that fits the music very well indeed. Carter’s quintet is also a very late one for this exceptionally long-lived composer (1908-2012): Carter wrote it in 2007. It is for the most part a dense and very modern-sounding work, and it uses the clarinet in a way just about opposite that of Brahms: Carter emphasizes the distinction between clarinet and strings, while Brahms focuses on blending them. The result in Carter’s work is that when the instruments do come together, as happens from time to time, their “musical agreement” is all the stronger. Yet Carter does allow some lyricism to creep into his quintet, primarily in the middle of the work, whose five movements are all short (the fourth and fifth each last less than two minutes). While Brahms keeps the clarinet mostly in the middle and lower registers, where its beauty and sonorousness are clearest, Carter uses its full range more of the time, notably in a Presto fourth movement whose conclusion goes so high that the clarinet almost sounds like a flute. It is not entirely flutelike, though, as is clear from the inclusion on the CD of Carter’s amusing 1985 trifle, Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux. The flute and clarinet, nominally here performing as a duo, in fact have little to do with each other (to an even greater extent than the clarinet and strings in the later quintet). Flute and clarinet occupy the same physical space while performing, but not the same expressive one, with neither dominating the other but neither paying much attention to the other either. The contrast of rough and smooth, implicit in the work’s title, is beautifully conveyed by Lieb and flutist Anna Urrey, and the placement of this little piece between the two quintets on the CD serves neatly to set off the many differences between Brahms’ and Carter’s handling of the combination of clarinet and strings.

     The inclusion on a new Signum Classics CD of quartets by Prokofiev and Janáček is scarcely a surprise, but adding to them the final quartet by Mendelssohn is somewhat unexpected – and combining the three works with a piece by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov (born 1960) is definitely unusual. Yet the disc has a well-integrated feeling about it, thanks in part to the excellent ensemble playing by the Calidore String Quartet and in part to the underlying thematic elements that, to some extent, unite all the music. Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 is a wartime work that is, to some extent, reflective of the chaos all around the composer during the German invasion of Russia in 1941– which had led to Prokofiev being evacuated to a safer area of what was then the Soviet Union. Sensitive to his surroundings as well as to a time of war, Prokofiev incorporated some folk melodies and rhythms from his temporary location (the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous SSR, about 900 miles south of Moscow) into this quartet. The work was actually written at the behest of a Soviet official, who insisted it include regional folk themes, but it still sounds very much like Prokofiev and seems, at least retrospectively, to reflect the turmoil of the times. The first quartet by Janáček reflects turmoil of a different sort: this is frequently wrenching music born of unrequited love and a feeling of inner isolation, written when the composer was in love with a younger woman while trapped in a loveless marriage. The frequent overlap of comparatively lyrical, long-line elements with angular, dissonant ones makes this work from 1923 sound modern even today, and the emotional discord of the feelings underlying it remains quite clear in this performance. The quartet is called “Kreutzer Sonata” after the Tolstoy novella of 1889, whose title in turn comes from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9. The Tolstoy work, about a husband’s murder of his unfaithful wife, who at one point in the story performs the Beethoven sonata with her lover, is filled with the drama that also permeates the quartet. The foundations of the Janáček and Prokofiev pieces are thus quite different, but the Calidore players bring forth the depths that the woks have in common. They do the same for the Golijov, which dates to 2002 and which Golijov says was inspired by seeing violence in Israel and, a week later, taking his son to a planetarium, where they saw the beauty of Earth as viewed from space. The string-quartet-only version of Tenebrae (which is the second version of the work: the first was for soprano, clarinet and string quartet) effectively contrasts the overview of a beautiful planet with the “on closer look” elements, in which deep pain is present. But this is not done through any obvious technique: the piece as a whole is slow, meditative, thoughtful, the painful elements appearing more as an undercurrent of sadness than as an explicit lament. In this, the Golijov is emotionally closer to the Prokofiev quartet than to the Janáček work; and it stands in the strongest possible contrast to the Mendelssohn quartet that concludes this CD and is by far the most intense piece on it. This quartet, Mendelssohn’s final piece in the form, is the composer’s last major work and was labeled by him as “Requiem for Fanny,” a reference to his deeply loved sister, who died in May 1847. Mendelssohn wrote the quartet four months later, and himself died two months after that. The Sturm und Drang of this work, the incredible intensity of the feelings it expresses, can make the piece actually painful to experience, no matter how well it is played: it is a cry of anguish whose occasional elements of nostalgic joy and tender memories are never enough to overcome grief so deep that it feels insurmountable. The Calidore String Quartet is especially effective in this work, offering ensemble playing of strength and drama that makes the music into a heart-wrenching experience that is beyond anything else on the disc, but is clearly related to the other works.

     There is less of a relationship among the works on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the Auerbach-Pierce Duo, but this too is a disc that combines material in unanticipated ways – although in this case the exact reason for doing so is somewhat elusive. Dan Auerbach and Joshua Pierce first present a moving but thankfully not overstated version of Mozart’s only minor-key violin sonata, No. 21 in E minor, K. 304, written shortly after his mother’s death and perhaps an attempt (within Mozart’s usual refined musical approach) to express grief at her passing. Auerbach and Pierce successfully tread a delicate line between having the sonata seem straitlaced and blowing it out of proportion into something from the Romantic era; the poised performance fits the music very well. The Brahms sonata that follows is not quite as successful: Pierce’s pianism is very fine here and clearly establishes the importance of the piano in the work, but Auerbach is a touch too reserved. This is music of considerable warmth, and it is music of underlying sadness, too, with a kind of funeral-march rhythm within the middle movement; but Auerbach is rather matter-of-fact about the whole work, which comes across as a touch too thin for effective emotional expression – although Auerbach’s actual playing is first-rate. The CD concludes with Giuseppe Tartini’s notorious “Devil’s Trill” sonata, and here Auerbach’s virtuosity and clarity of tone fit the music perfectly. He and Pierce neatly and effectively build up to the notorious trill itself through the snippets of it provided earlier in the work by Tartini, and when the trill finally does appear, it proceeds with masterful clarity. The Tartini does not really fit very well with the Mozart and Brahms works, however; yet it is not the primary instance here of something unexpected. That distinction goes to the work that appears after the Brahms and before the Tartini: the world première recording of Hudba—Music in Quarter-Tones for Violin Solo by Moravian composer Alois Hába (1893-1973). This is nonmelodic, nonthematic music using intervals smaller than the usual semitones, and it seems to be more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. The work is laid out in four movements whose tempo indications suggest a slow second movement and energetic third-movement Scherzo between traditional opening and closing movements. But the music mostly just sounds strange, like a demonstration of a way in which music can be written rather than a piece that is fully realized in its own right. Auerbach is a specialist in microtonal music, and Pierce’s longtime association with John Cage is only part of his commitment to far-reaching techniques and new interpretations of what music means and what it can do. So the performers’ comfort with Hába’s work cannot be gainsaid. But it is a different matter for listeners, who will likely listen for something to hang onto in aural terms – and will find neither emotional connection nor melodic presentation here. The rhythms are strong, and Hába deserves credit for even including a touch of humor here and there, but ultimately Hudba sounds more like an experiment in microtonality than a fully realized piece that just happens to be written using microtones.

     Unexpected material for violin and piano is offered throughout a new Cedille recording featuring Rachel Barton Pine and Matthew Hagle: very few of the composers heard here are familiar, and even fewer of the works presented. World première recordings appear throughout the CD. They include A Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin by Noel Da Costa (1929-2002); the four-movement version of Blues Dialogues – also for solo violin, despite the title – by Dolores White (born 1932); Incident on Larpenteur Avenue, a single-movement sonata by Billy Childs (born 1957); an arrangement by Wendell Logan of In a Sentimental Mood by Duke Ellington (1899-1974); a 2018 revision of Filter for Unaccompanied Violin by Daniel Bernard Roumain (born 1977); and the violin version of A Song without Words by Charles S. Brown (born 1940). But not all the pieces here are previously unrecorded. The CD also includes Blues (Deliver My Soul) by David N. Baker (1931-2016); two solo-violin pieces by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), Blue/s Forms and Louisiana Blues Strut (A Cakewalk); the Suite for Violin and Piano by William Grant Still (1895-1978); Levee Dance by Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960); and Woogie Boogie by Errollyn Wallen (born 1958). The unifying principle of the disc, as its subtitle says, is that the composers are all black; but that is a poor reason for hearing this music, more a matter of identity politics than one of musical quality. What does matter is the way in which the works use versions of the “blues” for its expressiveness, its ability to connect viscerally with contemporary audiences in the 20th and 21st centuries in ways very different from that in which Mendelssohn and Mozart did in earlier times. The basic concept of “blues” may be of something sad and downbeat, but these composers show again and again that there is nothing unidimensional about the form. The three parts of Perkinson’s Blue/s Forms, for instance, view the blues from three entirely different vantage points, while Still’s three-movement sonata – the movements all suggested by works by African-American sculptors – manages to combine bluesy elements with dance rhythms in a way that stays firmly within 20th-century classical traditions. Pine and Hagle show considerable sensitivity to the nuances of all the music on the disc, whether jazz-inflected, distinctly danceable, warmly overdone in pop-music style, evocative of gospel, or redolent of the Harlem Renaissance. There is enough variation within and among these works to present Pine and Hagle with plenty of chances to showcase a variety of styles, and there is plenty for listeners to gravitate to as well: every track of the 23 is short (only two last more than five minutes), giving the entire recital the feeling of a hop, skip and jump from style to style and sensibility to sensibility. The sum total is exhilarating, a combination of inward-looking emotion that stops well short of the depressive with periodic outbursts of celebratory exuberance.

(+++) STRETCHING AND SEEKING


Songs without Words: Torchsongs Transformed. Les Délices (Debra Nagy, baroque oboe; Mélisande Corriveau, viola da gamba and pardessus de viole; Eric Milnes, harpsichord). Navona. $14.99.

Ted Coffey: Works for Dance. Ravello. $14.99.

David Rosenmann-Taub: Piano Music. David Rosenmann-Taub, piano, bongo and synthesizer. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

     There is nothing new about musicians looking for and exploring connections between works of the Baroque and those of modern times. Musicologist, keyboardist and conductor Joshua Rifkin’s The Baroque Beatles Book of 1965 remains a classic of the type because of its unique combination of simple joy with careful scholarship – and because the Beatles’ music partook, more than that of any other rock group of the time, of classical elements. So Songs without Words, a Navona release featuring performances by the period-instrument trio Les Délices, builds on a rather deep foundation, even though it comes at its material from a different angle. Interested in what might have been the earliest, now-lost works for Baroque woodwinds, dating to before 1700, Les Délices managed by a rather circuitous route to explore some very old repertoire in combination with jazz standards and pop music from recent decades – played on very old instruments or modern reproductions of them, and in a style in accord with Baroque practices (including A tuned to 392 Hz rather than the 440 Hz standardized since 1936). The sequence of the 19 tracks is sufficient to show just how varied the material is: A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing by Billy Strayhorn, arranged by Aidan Plank; Pourquoi, Doux Rossignol by Jean-Baptiste de Bousset; Emily by Johnny Mandel; Prelude in A Minor by Marin Marais; Tomorrow Is My Turn by Charles Aznavour; Crazy by Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson; D’un Feu Secret by Michel Lambert; Folies d’Espagne by Marais; La Foule by Edith Piaf; J’avois Juré and Allez Bergers by Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre; Les Voix Humaines by Marais; Tristes Apprêts by Jean-Philippe Rameau; Michelle by Lennon and McCartney; Récit de la Beauté by Jean-Baptiste Lully; Misty by Errol Garner; De Mes Soupirs by Jean-Baptiste De Bousset, after Jacques-Martin Hotteterre; Vos Mespris Chaques Jour by Lambert; and Autumn Leaves by Joseph Kosma and Johnny Mercer. Despite the inclusion of one Beatles song, this recording by Les Délices bears virtually no resemblance to its distant relative from half a century ago. Instead, it is a disc featuring excellent, sensitive and elegant playing on instruments with which pop-music fans will likely be totally unfamiliar – instruments that give the simplistic and straightforward pop tunes a level of resonance and beauty that they do not otherwise possess (despite the popularity they have from their easy-listening quality). The audience for this CD is a bit difficult to discern: fans of jazz and pop music will not gravitate to it, nor will listeners focused on historically accurate performance of the music of 300-plus years ago. The disc is essentially an experiment in sonority and in uniting disparate musical forms in an attempt to find out whether they are at some level compatible. It is very interesting to hear, although listening to the full hour of music straight through is a bit much. The CD is a curiosity, for listeners as curious about musical interrelationships as are the performers of Les Délices.

     The sound on a new Ravello CD featuring musical assemblages by Ted Coffey is much more ordinary, in a modern computer/electronic sense. There is, however, one bit of Baroque connection in the material here, through the use of gamba recordings as an element within a piece called Sonatina.  That title and the titles of the other works here have little structural significance and point in no particular aural direction: the other pieces are called Petals 1, Petals 2, Petals 3, Petals 8 and One Note Solo. Coffey says Petals 8 was inspired by medieval Japanese court music, but listeners will be hard-pressed to discover the connection through the many entirely typical electronic sounds here. The works on the CD are actually intended for dance performances, but there is nothing rhythmic or evocative of body movements in them. Coffey clearly reaches out to a very specific and very limited audience through his rather pedantic approach to sound generation. For instance, One Note Solo is built, more or less, around the note C, but the note is obscured rather than elucidated or expressed by the elaborate use of tuning forks, clusters, the inevitable synthesizers, the usual electronic humming and thrumming, and rhythms intended to relate to speech but difficult to distinguish from a kind of sonic mumbling. There is certainly a very specialized audience for material of this sort, and there would be something intriguing about seeing the dance moves associated with this collection of sounds – although even in a visual performance, the 20-minute duration of Petals 8 would likely be a bit much. In strictly aural terms, what Coffey produces is a rarefied form of music that stretches the definition of the word “music” itself even as it uses now-common sound-manipulation methods to transform electronically or acoustically generated notes into elaborate and multifaceted sequences.

     The material on a new two-CD set of piano music by David Rosenmann-Taub is elaborate in a different way. Rosenmann-Taub (born 1927) is a distinguished Chilean poet and artist as well as a musician; he has lived in the United States since 1985 but is still considered a Chilean national treasure and, in some circles, the most important contemporary Spanish-language poet. The MSR Classics release featuring Rosenmann-Taub as both composer and performer offers a lot of his music – nearly two-and-a-quarter hours – and is really for listeners already knowledgeable about and interested in his musical thinking. The pieces are well-constructed in a comparatively straightforward modernist style that often pushes the boundaries of the piano’s sound and sometimes expands them through the inclusion of other instruments. Like Coffey, Rosenmann-Taub sometimes uses electronic techniques, for instance by employing multi-tracking to create works including as many as six pianos. Rosenmann-Taub’s music comes across as less gimmicky than Coffey’s, however. For instance, the synthesizer in Salomé is put at the service of what is essentially a slow habanera, giving that dance form a kind of evanescent quality. Some of the pieces here have titles that are contemporary in the extreme: B1, G1, Z3 and G2, for instance. Others have titles intended to be evocative, but in those cases, such as Primavera sin fin, there is little apparent relationship between a piece’s name and its musical content (Rosenmann-Taub’s “endless spring” consists largely of near-constant atonal dissonance in multiple rhythms). Adding the bongo and/or voice, as in La soledad plena, allows Rosenmann-Taub a greater range of effects, many of them percussive, without noticeably expanding the emotional connectivity of his music – and indeed, emotional connection with listeners scarcely seems to be Rosenmann-Taub’s primary interest. These works vary enough stylistically to show that the composer is exploring techniques of communication without necessarily seeking to say anything very specific to audiences. Again like Coffey, Rosenmann-Taub sometimes creates music that can be danced, even if not originally intended that way: both Salomé and Mensaje a Pedro Humberto Allende have been choreographed. Listeners interested in modern Chilean music and in Rosenmann-Taub’s importance to that nation’s culture (musical and otherwise) will welcome this release. Others will likely find it less attractive: the works, although well-crafted, are not especially distinctive in what they present or how they present it.