October 31, 2019
Rocks, Gems & Geodes. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $24.99.
The increasing demands for education to be centered as much as possible on the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – seems tailor-made for the cleverness of Klutz, that purveyor of “books-plus” products in which crafts projects are carefully explained, step-by-step, and are offered to young people complete with all the materials needed to accomplish them. Klutz has in fact risen to the occasion with its line of Klutz Maker Lab offerings, which are a marvelous mixture of hands-on experimentation and learning-by-the-book.
Rocks, Gems & Geodes is a particular, well, gem among these items. It presents readers ages eight and up with more things to look at, touch, feel and admire than there are pages in its instruction book: 36 rocks in a nicely labeled plastic display tray vs. a book that runs 32 pages. Interestingly, there is a geography lesson – not part of the “official” learning process here – even before anyone opens the nicely designed box that includes the rock samples and book. It turns out, per the “contents” notation on the box’s back, that six of the rock samples are from Brazil, one from Madagascar, four from South Africa, one from Afghanistan, one from Tanzania, and 23 from China. Think about that for a moment: in a $25 kit for preteens there are carefully selected and arranged rock samples from six countries, a veritable world tour of geology visible through the box’s plastic front even before anyone opens anything. It is a bit mind-boggling, and a fascinating introduction to the extent of our interconnected world – a world whose needs have led to those increasing demands for education in the STEM subjects.
And so we circle back to the main event of Rocks, Gems & Geodes, which is to learn about the science of rocks and such basics as the Mohs scale of hardness (which runs from 1, talc, to 10, diamond). Studying the 36 sample rocks and learning about their differences can be a self-guided activity lasting hours, especially if a budding geologist has his or her own magnifying glass (there is one in the Klutz kit, but it is low-magnification). In addition to the facts about rocks in the included book, there are – as usual with Klutz – some apt and interesting hands-on activities. One of these involves building a rock tumbler, a genuinely intriguing project that introduces young readers to the world of gemstones and that will help explain the highly polished look of a number of the rock samples provided here. Young readers/participants will likely be intrigued by the way in which some of the samples provided could, under other circumstances, become very valuable indeed. Those would include the ruby and garnet, for example, as well as the rutilated quartz – a form of quartz containing needle-like crystals of titanium dioxide and much used as a gem as well as a kind of New Age “focusing object.”
In addition to studying the rock samples themselves and providing basic information on geology and how scientists study it, Rocks, Gems & Geodes of course includes everything needed for some hands-on experimentation. The final word in its title refers to a specific type of rock formation, one that is not seen in those 36 samples. Instead, the book explains what a geode is and then shows how to make your own – using a “geode mold” along with plaster powder and purple crystal powder. This is scarcely the first “hobby kit” to offer young people a chance to grow their own crystals – that particular activity has in fact been a mainstay of science classes for decades, long before the current strong focus on STEM subjects began. But Klutz handles the project in its own way, explaining clearly what geodes are, how they form, and how to grow one in the common purple color in which they are usually found in nature. Then Rocks, Gems & Geodes provides step-by-step growth instructions that budding geologists (or just rock lovers) will find simple to follow.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy for the increasing STEM focus in schools to be overdone, to turn instruction in these subjects into must-do drudgery taught with unceasing intensity because young people must learn this material in order to “keep up” and “be employable in the future” and all that. There is some truth to those essentially sociopolitical arguments, but the problem is that they can suck all the joy out of exploring the world around us – which, ultimately, is what science is all about. What Klutz does so well in Rocks, Gems & Geodes and its other STEM offerings is to keep matters accurate and factually well-presented while presenting the information in a way that is interactive, participatory, and just plain fun. Enjoyment and excitement are ingredients all too often missing in our very sober focus on the competitive environment of STEM today and in the future – but they are elements that are more likely to get young people interested in STEM topics than all the strongly worded pronouncements that are constantly being made about these fields of learning. Thanks to its form of presentation and the high quality of its projects, Klutz, in Rocks, Gems & Geodes and its other STEM products, has become a real contributor to an important part of today’s educational environment.
The Ghost Network, Book Two: Reboot. By I.I. Davidson. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
Khorasan Archives, Book Three: The Blue Eye. By Ausma Zehanat Khan. Harper Voyager. $18.99.
The breathless pacing and magical thinking that pervaded the first book of The Ghost Network trilogy, Activate, are very much present and consistently applied as well in the sequel, Reboot. I.I. Davidson (pen name of Scottish author Gillian Philip) here offers preteens and young teenagers novels in which, as usual in books for this age group, the adults are ineffectual compared to the young people and the world at large is filled with evils that only the carefully balanced team of young heroes can overcome. The four 12-year-olds around whom The Ghost Network revolves – the largely interchangeable John, Slack, Akane and Salome – are hackers, not practitioners of magic, but the computer-focused elements here are handled in much the way magical ones are in other series: these young hackers just make things happen, generally very quickly and always just in time to move from plot point to plot point. There is no acknowledgment whatsoever of the extremely time-consuming and difficult elements of actual code writing and code breaking: here the simple waving of a magic wand (or magic keyboard) is enough to get done whatever needs doing. And what needs doing in Reboot is the restoration to power of John’s father, Mikael Laine, previously thought dead by John and his mother but in fact just hiding out to escape the clutches of the might-as-well-be-cackling-and-mustache-twirling evildoer, Roy Lykos. Lykos delenda est might be the cry of the Ghost Network members if they knew Latin: Lykos must be destroyed! Easier said (even in Latin) than done, however, since Lykos is extremely well-connected in that pesky adult world out there, and everybody, everybody, thinks he is a great man and a major contributor to society and the good of the world when in fact he is a supremely evil con artist and manipulator who is determined to bend the Ghost Network and other people and technologies to his own nefarious ends. Lykos is so powerful that it is only when he fortuitously commits a murder that one of the young people not only witnesses but also captures on a cell-phone camera (yes, this is the central plot point) that it becomes possible to bring him down. And so everything ends happily, or would if the Ghost Network and Mikael Laine did not have a surprising blind spot: the two preteen minions who helped Lykos with everything in Activate are left alone during and after the celebration of Mikael’s return to power at the Wolf’s Den school. They are untouched, unwatched and unrepentant by the end of Reboot, and sure enough, there’s dirty work afoot! They are going to conspire with the now-imprisoned Lykos (to whom they can easily reach out through magic, or rather through super-powerful but easy-to-do computing) to stir things up all over again in the final book of the trilogy! But now they will be facing more than the four original members of the Ghost Network – whose group gets its name from the fact that all suffered extremely severe accidents in earlier life, accidents that should have been fatal, that were fatal until Mikael, a brilliant surgeon, rescued them by using experimental methods that essentially turned their human brains into computers that store far more information than any human brain possibly can on its own. In the upcoming concluding book, the baddies will also have to cope with a boy named Zhou Zhou, introduced in Reboot, who possesses a more-advanced but less-controllable form of whatever the original four contain, and who therefore has even more-exceptional powers and abilities – for instance, he has a habit of looking at things from a distance and those things then, well, explode. Nothing in The Ghost Network makes a lick of sense, but it is not really supposed to: it is simply a super-speedy, cinematically paced adventure tale unconnected to anything in reality and allowing its target audience a whole set of spills, chills and thrills.
The intended audience is adults in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Khorasan Archives novels, whose pacing is much, much slower and whose planned scope is much, much larger, spanning four novels rather than three. The third of the four, The Blue Eye, is certainly true to the style and spirit of the first two, continuing the quest of Arian, First Oralist of Hira, and her companion, Sinnia, to overthrow the anti-intellectual and hyper-violent Talisman (yes, sounds like Taliban) and assert feminine superiority over male-dominated crudity and viciousness (which is not to say that the female warriors are nonviolent). The Blue Eye builds directly on The Bloodprint and The Black Khan, the first two novels in the sequence, and in fact begins as Ashfall, the Black Khan’s capital, is under siege by the Talisman, whose barbarity gets the usual quasi-religious defense: “‘To spread the message of the One across these lands is an act of justice. …The One has judged. We have come to carry out the judgment.’” Sure, they have. They are opposed in their depredations by the Black Khan and by Daniyar, Arian’s lover; and while the siege of Ashfall continues, Arian and Sinnia are elsewhere, seeking something called the Sana Codex, whose content may help them overcome the Talisman. The two adventures occur more or less in parallel, or at least in back-and-forth narration, and matters are complicated by the fact that alliances change constantly and names do as well: here as in the prior books, Khan gives multiple titles to the same characters, making recurring references to the four-page “Cast of Characters” and eight-page glossary at the back of the book a necessity for readers. It is the descriptive passages, redolent of old tales of the Middle East, that make much of the Khorasan Archives series worth ploughing through; but make no mistake, the narrative bogs down and again, and it can be hard wading through the discussions of historical and religious arcana – germane though they may be – to get on with the action. The underlying premise is that the Companions of Hira preserve the magicoreligious sacred heritage of a scripture known as the Claim, which is generally known only through fragments but supposedly exists in complete form in an artifact called the Bloodprint. It is that item that the Talisman’s leader, the One-Eyed Preacher, is determined to destroy for a variety of spurious reasons that all come down, eventually, to a hunger for power. There is all sorts of magic in The Blue Eye, as in prior books, in addition to all the arguments and discussions of scriptural matters and the identity confusion and the alliance-shifting and the battles. Certainly readers who made it through the first two books will want to find out what happens next, but even those who enjoyed the earlier volumes may decide that by now, this series has gone on and on and on at greater length than is really necessary. The planned finale will have many threads to knit together before, inevitably, the evil of the Talisman is extinguished; hopefully Khan will handle the conclusion of this discursive tetralogy with sufficient skill and narrative satisfaction to make it seem that the long, long journey was worthwhile.
Dad’s Maybe Book. By Tim O’Brien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $28.
Nearly 400 pages of self-conscious navel gazing in the guise of a series of letters to children, Dad’s Maybe Book is Tim O’Brien’s would-be testament to himself as a late-in-life father of two boys. This is not offered as a 21st-century version of Wordsworth’s Song of Myself, but that is, in effect, what it is, although there is nothing here as poetic as the line, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” Instead, there are letters written starting in 2003, when O’Brien had a one-year-old son and another one due soon, as O’Brien faced his own mortality and the realistic belief that his children would know him only as an old man, if they would really “know” him at all. Trying to cope with this gloomy prospect, O’Brien decided to produce for his children what his own father never made for him: a series of notes ending “Love, Dad,” which might or might not be possible to assemble in a book (hence this book’s title).
The chapters in Dad’s Maybe Book do not literally end “Love, Dad,” but they are a labor of love nonetheless. However, this is not a how-to book about parenting and not really a book from which other fathers, even ones of O’Brien’s age, can extract very much wisdom or usefulness beyond the foundational idea of leaving something for one’s children that will tell them what you wish they would know about you. This is partly a book in which O’Brien tries to “channel” his own father as he, in reality, wasn’t: O’Brien keeps his father’s ashes in an urn on a bookcase and writes about his dad frequently. The book also appears to be an attempt to get his boys to develop an interest in Ernest Hemingway: O’Brien writes about him often as well. To what purpose? That is not particularly clear. An author himself, O’Brien writes at one point that “as I return to Hemingway’s stories and novels, I am often stopped – in awe, in surprise, in confusion, in recognition, in delight, in contention, in envy – by a single word or phrase. For instance, in ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’ the writer in me is stopped by the word ‘plunging’…[which] is a conscious word choice: it appears three times on the same page. …I stop and stare. …I think: Oh, Christ, I cannot under any circumstances, in any novel or in any story of my own, use the word ‘plunging.’”
What O’Brien’s children make of this, or made of it, is unclear; that may show up in decades to come when and if they write books of their own. But the point in Dad’s Maybe Book is that this sort of material constitutes what O’Brien considers important and memorable about himself, what he wants his children to have as “takeaways” from his life. Readers may find all this a tad mystifying, but then, one’s self-image and the way one developed it will likely always be a mystery to anyone who comes to know a person only after that person reaches his 60s.
O’Brien describes himself as “someone who frets over word choices with the neurosis of a scab picker,” but that is not always obvious in Dad’s Maybe Book, which seems more concerned with grand themes than the small events that make up everyday life: colic, homework, basketball games (although O’Brien writes about all those). On balance, there is not really very much that is quotidian here: O’Brien ruminates on war a lot and frequently returns to his antiwar beliefs and feelings, for example in discussing his tour of duty in Vietnam and looking for parallels between it and the 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord. And perhaps inevitably, near the end of Dad’s Maybe Book he presents an essay about Hemingway’s writings on war and death.
What are readers to glean from all this, especially readers not immersed in Hemingway or deeply involved in the works of other literary figures about whom O’Brien writes, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell and Flannery O’Connor? Well, there are some matters in Dad’s Maybe Book to which other parents can relate, such as O’Brien’s interest in things he hopes his sons accomplish, his pride when they succeed and his troubled feelings when they fail at anything, even his longstanding interest in magic – topics like those reach out to other parents in a way that the nearly ceaseless antiwar message and ongoing literary analyses may not. And of course the underlying premise of the book, that a father – especially an older one – will miss a great deal of his children’s lives, and must regard that situation with realism mixed with regret, is one that will resonate with mothers and fathers alike. There is enough commonality of parental experience in Dad’s Maybe Book to make the book episodically interesting and even moving for members of families other than O’Brien’s. But there is enough in it that is highly personal and irrelevant to parents in general to turn Dad’s Maybe Book into a book that may be useful to O’Brien’s children in the future but may be less than compelling to pretty much anyone else.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Anja Kampe, soprano; Daniela Sindram, mezzo-soprano; Burkhard Fritz, tenor; René Pape, bass; Wiener Singverein and Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9. Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. Accentus Music. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Dimensions, Volume 2: Works for Orchestra by Erich Stem, Bill Whitley, Brian T. Field, Mark Francis, and Jan Järvlepp. Navona. $14.99.
FLUX: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 33—Music by Ryan Carter, Wendy Wan-Ki Lee, Chi-hin Leung, Igor Karača, Ingrid Stölzel, Jonah Elrod, Leah Reid, Matthew Heap, and Nathaniel Haering. Navona. $14.99.
Philippe Jordan concludes his Beethoven cycle with the Wiener Symphoniker, on the orchestra’s own label, with one of the most operatic versions of Symphony No. 9 in recent memory. It is an altogether fascinating reading, one in which the first three movements constitute a prologue to a remarkable conclusion that turns this ever-new work into more of a cantata than a symphony. Indeed, although Jordan does not exactly give the first three movements short shrift, he moves through them in such a way that Beethoven’s Ninth shows its distinct similarities to Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang, which in fact is based on Beethoven’s final symphony but which reduces its first three movements significantly in length in order to allow its sung portions to expand, extend and emerge triumphally. Jordan’s analogous approach to Beethoven has its pitfalls, and, indeed, some of the pacing is questionable: the first movement occasionally sounds perfunctory, and the third does not breathe as deeply or intensely as in other performances. But there is a reason for everything Jordan does here, and it becomes clear in the finale, which is blessed with a solo quartet of exceptional opera singers – all four of whom are known for their roles in Wagner, who becomes a looming if unstated presence throughout the last movement. Indeed, so steeped in Wagner are Anja Kampe, Daniela Sindram, Burkhard Fritz and René Pape that the ways in which Beethoven’s vocal lines look forward to Wagner – or rather the ways in which Wagner drew on Beethoven as a model – seem particularly clear here. The “Wagnerianism” of the singers’ experience is pervasive: remarkably, both soprano Kampe and mezzo-soprano Sindram have sung Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Kundry in Parsifal. Yet the singers and conductor do not attempt to turn Beethoven’s finale into something Wagnerian – rather, they emphasize its operatic elements, including its times of high drama (such as the very first vocal entry) and even its unusual forms of contrast (the “Turkish March” section). The finale comes across as a huge set of variations on a not-initially-stated theme – which is exactly what it is, but this structure is rarely as clear as it is here. And the pacing of the first three movements becomes retrospectively important as the finale progresses, resulting in a totality that is highly dramatic and musically convincing, if not the sort of “plea for brotherhood” (and sisterhood) that it is in some other readings. The singing of the Wiener Singverein is as clear and admirable as the playing of the orchestra, and the overall performance is so well-thought-out that it puts the Ninth not only in the sequence of Beethoven’s symphonies but also in the series that includes his cantatas and other religious music, such as Christus am Olberg and the Mass in C. And the affirmation of the finale here definitely recalls the mood, although not the music, of the conclusion of Fidelio.
Beethoven did not complete another symphony after the Ninth, although he did begin a Tenth. But the Ninth has always seemed a fitting capstone for his symphonic works. So too, but in a different sense, does Bruckner’s Ninth stand atop his symphonic production. But there is an important difference, because Bruckner never finished his Ninth – and despite all the assertions that it is “complete” in its three-movement form, it most definitely is not, and was never conceived by the composer to finish as it does. Using the incomplete Bruckner Ninth as the completion of a great conductor’s podium career therefore has something of an eerie feeling about it. It also produces a sense of genuine amazement on a new Accentus Music release featuring the August 26, 2013 Bruckner Ninth conducted by Claudio Abbado at the Lucerne Festival – in what was to be Abbado’s last appearance. It is easy to read too much into this: Abbado and the audience did not know this would be a finale for the conductor, who died on January 20, 2014. And there is certainly no sign of flagging ability on Abbado’s part – quite the opposite, in fact. This performance was not intended by him or the Lucerne Festival as a memorial, but it is hard to imagine a better one. Abbado lets the very long lines of the music spread out and out and out, a series of concentric ripples reaching away toward, if not quite to, infinity. The pacing of the first movement goes beyond leisurely: it has a sense of eternity about it, or rather a sense of the eternal, a measured pace that feels as if it could go on forever even though, objectively speaking, the reading is not an especially slow one. The scherzo, which can and frequently does have a demonic undertone, has none of that here: it is a disturbance in the cosmos, but one that serves only to reassure the audience that everything will eventually be resolved and “this too shall pass.” And the third movement is simply magnificent, building with what sounds like complete naturalness to a massive climax that seems predestined by all that has come before and that leads to a “peace that passeth all understanding” that is little short of astonishing – and that will leave sensitive listeners practically agape with the desire for what comes next. But nothing comes next: although there are now several first-rate completions of Bruckner’s Ninth, Abbado ends matters here, having brought the audience to a remarkable pinnacle from which they, like Moses, can see the Promised Land without ever getting to enter it. The beauty and brilliance of the interpretation shine forth, but also produce a sense of enormous disappointment that Abbado never conducted, say, the Gerd Schaller version of the finale. Still, this is an extraordinarily beautiful version of the first three movements, and one that produces something akin to the religious experience that Bruckner surely hoped to evoke in a work dedicated “to beloved God.”
Abbado handles earlier Bruckner with nearly equal skill. The Ninth is paired with the later, Vienna version of Bruckner’s First, taken from an earlier (2012) Lucerne Festival performance. This is actually Bruckner’s second symphony, after the one now numbered “00” but before “No. 0.” Numbering issues aside, here too Abbado does wonderful things with the music. It is arguable whether the much-changed 1890-91 Vienna version is “preferable” to the original 1865-66 Linz version; in fact, both are worth hearing and contrasting, and Abbado’s performance of the symphony in its later form is exceptionally effective. The reason is that he makes the symphony almost classical in its lines, using the remarkable clarity of sectional playing by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra to show clearly that Bruckner’s music at this stage, even after revision, was strongly Schubertian – even as the composer was developing his own unique compositional voice. The Bruckner cycle by Mario Venzago gave the symphonies performances along the same lines, but most conductors still tend to focus on Bruckner’s massed and massive elements rather than his poised and delicate ones. This Bruckner First by Abbado makes a strong argument for Bruckner as a composer who, in addition to seeking grand sounds from a large orchestra, wanted to highlight more-delicate elements of instrumentation – not, to be sure, to the extent that Mahler would later do, but with much the same purpose of contrasting attentiveness to individual orchestral sections with the massed full-ensemble sound. Abbado’s memory is well-served by both his Bruckner First and his Bruckner Ninth.
Two new (+++) Navona releases offer neither especially early nor especially late material by their composer participants, instead proffering anthologies that are intended to reflect contemporary thinking in works for orchestra (Dimensions) and solo musicians or small groups (FLUX). The five pieces on “Dimensions, Volume 2” are performed by three different orchestras under four different conductors, adding to the somewhat chaotic feeling of a CD whose intended audience is difficult to pin down, since the works are disparate enough to make it likely that even listeners who enjoy one or two of them will not necessarily feel the same way about the rest. The Athens Philharmonia Orchestra under Michalis Economou handles two pieces here. Bill Whitley’s Bonzai Down is intended as a musical portrait of a specific location in Corvallis, Oregon. It alternates speedy and slower sections in an overall rondo form, the faster portions more attractively propulsive than the somewhat static slower ones. Mark Francis’ Concerto No. 2 for Guitar and Orchestra, “In Somnis Veritas,” with guitar soloist Dimitris Kotronakis, has three increasingly speedy movements intended to reflect a title that means “In Dreams There Is Truth.” The mainly gentle first movement gives way to a second that is more irregular rhythmically and features a central section for guitar alone. The finale is the most interesting movement, largely because Francis includes a ratchet, toy piano and toy train whistle (shades of Leopold Mozart!). The music leaves the impression that guitarists would enjoy playing it. The CD also includes two works played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Brian T. Field’s A Letter from Camp is a setting of a Walt Whitman poem, conducted by Pavel Šnajdr and featuring soprano Lucie Silkenová. The opening is suitably dramatic, and the music throughout conveys the anguish caused by war not only for those who fight but also for their families at home. This is scarcely a new message, and the vocal music is not exceptional in conveying it, but the piece is heartfelt and effectively orchestrated. Considerably more upbeat is Street Music by Jan Järvlepp, conducted by Petr Vronský, which has the feeling of a dance (the cha-cha) mixed with the sounds of a steel band and assorted percussion. This is placed at the end of the CD and provides a very effective, lighthearted conclusion to the disc – it is the most appealing music here. As for the work that opens the recording, that is Erich Stem’s Portland, played by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiří Petrdlík. Like Whitley’s piece, Stem’s is location-specific to Oregon: the title refers to the state’s largest city. The idea here is to give a feeling of city life, which the work does in general terms that urban residents, whether or not familiar with Portland, Oregon, may recognize. Percussive outbursts and smoother sections alternate, with enough hustle and bustle to convey that there is much going on. Indeed, when it comes to this disc as a totality, there is a bit too much happening: listeners need to refocus their attention and attentiveness again and again as the recording pulls them hither and thither.
The refocusing must occur even more quickly on the CD called FLUX, which contains nine different pieces. Taken as a whole – which is not the right way to take them – these works provide a miscellany of sounds, noises, effects and musical thoughts recorded over nearly a decade (from 2010 to 2018) and bearing no significant relationship to each other. The disc is a sampler, a chance for listeners who want to know what some unfamiliar contemporary composers are doing musically. Anyone who finds a piece here particularly interesting will need to look elsewhere for similar pieces by other composers, or for additional works by the same person. On a better filtering algorithm, by Ryan Carter, is an electronic assemblage performed by Present Music. The Earthy and Ethereal Bond, by Wendy Wan-Ki Lee, is a piece for flute (Ritsu Okuda) and cello (Tomoki Tai) in which the instruments simply go their own ways. Unicorn Dance, by Chi-hin Leung, uses sounds exotic to Western ears – it is played by the Asian Young Musicians’ Connection, consisting of Kohei Nishikawa on nohkan, gamin (single name, no capital letter) on piri, and Wei-yun Wang on bass sheng. Whatever interest the sounds themselves may have, there is certainly nothing danceable here, nor does any such thing appear to have been sought. Echo Caves, by Igor Karača, is for soprano saxophone (Jeffrey Loeffert) and piano (played by the composer), and is on the conservative side in not trying to make the instruments produce sounds beyond their comfortable range – although the music never really seems to go anywhere. The Voice of the Rain, by Ingrid Stölzel, is for flute (Sarah Frisof), cello (Hannah Collins), and percussion (Michael Compitello), and is one of the more interesting pieces here, allowing the instruments to mingle as well as contrast and using the cello for some sections that are actually expressive. Urban Sky Glow, by Jonah Elrod, is for solo marimba (Brian Baldauff) plus electronics that serve neither to accentuate nor to contrast in any particular way with the marimba’s sound. Crumbs, by Leah Reid, is a short work for percussion (I-Jen Fang) that takes little advantage of percussive instruments’ varied capabilities, sounding more electronic than it actually is. And the Earth Sang to Me Through the Wind, by Matthew Heap, is a piano piece (played by the Khasma Piano Duo: Katie Palumbo and Ashlee Mack) that tinkles along, up and down the keyboard, with no specific point of origin or particular destination. And Medical Text p. 57, by Nathaniel Haering, is almost a parody of contemporary music, although not intended that way: a solo voice (Daniel Bayot) squeaks, grunts, screams, clears its throat, gasps, cackles, and occasionally says decipherable words against an electronic background that communicates nothing more than the words do – which is to say, nothing at all. The genuinely unpleasant nature of some of the sounds here is probably supposed to mean something, and indeed, there is a lot of “supposed to mean” throughout FLUX. But just what is meant, and to what end, is something that listeners interested in the latest try-to-push-the-musical-envelope trends will have to judge for themselves.
Dvořák: Complete Chamber Music for Piano and Strings—Piano Trios Nos. 1-4; Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Piano Quintets Nos. 1 and 2; Bagatelles. Busch Trio (Mathieu van Bellen, violin; Ori Epstein, cello; Omri Epstein, piano); Miguel da Silva, viola; Maria Milstein, violin. Alpha. $39.99 (4 CDs).
Limitless: Duos Performed with the Composers. Jennifer Koh, violin. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).
James O’Callaghan: subject / object; On notes to selves; AMONG AM A; Alone and unalone. Ensemble Paramirabo (Jeffrey Stonehouse, flutes; Victor Alibert, clarinets; Geneviève Liboiron, violin; Viviana Gosselin, cello; Daniel Áñez, piano; David Therrien-Brongo, percussion). Ravello. $14.99.
The longstanding notion of chamber music as a conversational form, in which instruments assume virtually equal roles and pass material back and forth and among themselves, is one of those customs often “more honored in the breach than the observance,” certainly in modern times. Even in the early 19th century, composers experimented with balance among instruments in chamber pieces and with the overall feeling of chamber music, which could verge upon the symphonic in both length and depth – Beethoven’s late quartets being a case study. As the 1800s went on, composers increasingly considered new groupings of instruments and new forms within which to display them, particularly including nationalistic elements as those rose in importance. By Dvořák’s time, folk rhythms and actual folk tunes were beginning to appear much more frequently in chamber music, and the patterns for creating chamber forms were widening. These are just a few of the observations occasioned by an excellent new Alpha release featuring the Busch Trio – augmented as necessary – in all of Dvořák’s chamber music for piano and strings. Having all this material in a single set is unusual; having it played this well is delightful. The players here, although chronologically young, have depth and maturity in all these performances, with particular exuberance when called for in some of the composer’s own more-youthful works. Among those are the first two surviving piano trios (two earlier ones were apparently destroyed), the first of which, in B-flat, shows Dvořák trying to bring some of his more-experimental impulses under control within a traditional framework. The second, in G minor, shows the composer reaching for greater depth almost throughout (and with an occasional bow to Beethoven), until his essentially sunny musical disposition breaks through at the end. The Busch Trio captures the moods of these works to fine effect, sweeping listeners along through movements that are more-or-less standardized structurally but that reach well beyond standardization emotionally. The third trio, in F minor, is emotionally deeper than the second and more Brahmsian than Beethovenian. The fourth trio is quite different from all the earlier ones. Written in E minor and known as the “Dumky,” it is a set of six versions of the dumka dance, all in similar style and without the connective harmonic tissue of the earlier trios, but all so varied in melody and use of the instruments that they come across as very different even though, on an underlying basis, they are structurally the same. This sleight-of-hand is another element that the Busch Trio members bring off very well, with the “Dumky” trio sounding a good deal more unified than it in fact is. The only issue with the ensemble’s handling of the trios is that Mathieu van Bellen’s violin is sometimes overwhelmed by the other instruments in a way that does not seem interpretatively intentional and may be the result of the way the works were recorded. The music of all the trios is actually quite even-handed in terms of the players’ roles, so this balancing toward cello and piano is a bit “off” when it occurs. It does not, however, undermine the very fine foundational quality of the interpretations.
For the remaining works in this four-CD set, the Busch Trio is joined by Miguel da Silva for one disc and by da Silva and Maria Milstein for the other. Improbably, the trio’s performances are even better when the guest artists are there. The two piano quartets are very, very different, and the performers have an excellent sense of this. The first, in D, dates to 1875 and is especially distinguished by a finale that includes both Scherzo elements and rhythms taken from the Furiant. The second, In E-flat, came 13 years later and is a good deal more substantial, its generally positive mood tinged with sorrow in its most-extended movement, marked Lento. The maturity of the Busch Trio is especially strongly in evidence here, giving this movement considerable weight while balancing it with the lyrical beauty so characteristic of pretty much everything Dvořák composed. The piano quintets are every bit as different as the piano quartets. The first, in A, is very early Dvořák, dating to 1872 – a time at which he wrote music that he subsequently destroyed (probably including the two missing trios). This quintet survives only because the pianist for whom Dvořák wrote the music kept a copy – and, as a result, listeners can hear the ways in which Dvořák’s not-yet-mature style was evolving, with his tendency to spin musical arguments at somewhat-too-great length not yet under control (also a characteristic of his earliest symphonies) but his ability to create beautifully lyrical themes already well-established. The second quintet, written in 1887 and also in A, is in some ways the pinnacle of Dvořák’s chamber music for piano and strings: it is significantly longer than the first quintet, running some 40 minutes, but it does not feel long, as Dvořák keeps it tightly knit and structurally sound throughout. And here his combinatorial impulses work beautifully: the Scherzo manages to meld the Furiant with a waltz, to exhilarating effect. Furthermore, the finale moves along with a sense of inevitability – not by any means always the case in Dvořák’s music – and has a wonderful slowing-down interlude that the performers here handle with just the right warmth and delicacy. Also put forth delicately are the pleasantries known as the Bagatelles, originally written for harmonium and filled with some of the same spirit as the first set of Slavonic Dances, which date to the same year (1878). These are salon-music pieces, but written at a very high level, and the Busch Trio and their guest artists treat them with the same care that they give to the more-substantial music offered here – without trivializing them, on the one hand, or giving them any undue sense of importance, on the other. This entire set is a delight, and a testimony to how well Dvořák’s chamber music with piano continues to speak to performers today.
Some modern performers, though, are determined to take chamber music in as many new directions as possible. That seems to be the aim of violinist Jennifer Koh in an intriguing experimental two-disc Cedille recording in which she performs contemporary music, much of it composed for her, along with the composers themselves. That is an interesting idea, and it provides a window into both the compositional abilities and the performance capacity of the eight composers featured here. But what ultimately matters is not the cleverness of the notion but the “enjoyment quotient” of the music, and it is here that Koh’s presentation falls a bit short (although it still deserves a +++ rating). The listeners who will be interested in this material will include those who admire Koh and want to hear pretty much anything in which she is involved, and those who are happy hearing a fairly random sampling of contemporary compositions created with all the usual elements that modern composers have at their disposal, such as electronics, politicization, and references to highly obscure concepts. Qasim Naqvi’s The Banquet uses a modular synthesizer to try to express beauty in a time of stress. Lisa Bielawa’s three Sanctuary Songs set texts from American women poets of the 1920s to assert that music itself is a sanctuary of sorts. Du Yun’s Give Me Back My Fingerprints turns Koh’s usual warm violin tone into something screechy in seeking emotional connectedness. Tyshawn Sorey’s In Memoriam Muhal Richard Adams is an expression of gratitude to an avant-garde pianist who was the composer’s mentor. Nina Young’s Sun Propellor uses scordatura tuning and electronics to try to approximate the “throat singing” of the Tuva people of southern Siberia. Wang Lu’s three-movement Her Latitude, another piece for violin and electronics, includes aleatoric elements as well as sounds drawn from Buddhist chants, pop songs and other sources. Vijay Iyer’s A Thousand Tongues has four movements whose interesting titles (“A Dream,” “A Phantom,” “A Drop of Dew,” “A Flash of Lightning”) tie to a specific quotation from a Buddhist text that is crucial to understanding the nature of the piece. Finally, there are two works by Missy Mazzoli. A Thousand Tongues mixes amplification with a meandering violin line, while Vespers for Violin is filled with deliberately distorted electronic samples – of organs, voices, strings and more – that sound in the background as the violin meanders in the foreground. Each and every piece here is a matter of taste, and the works are sufficiently different so listeners who find themselves gripped by one or two are by no means assured of finding any others congenial. Koh’s playing and conversations-with-composers concept unite this release, but the music itself, without all its extramusical gloss, tends to pull the CD in too many different directions.
The four James O’Callaghan works on a (+++) Ravello CD use a chamber-sized instrumental group and, like those on the Koh disc, are filled with extramusical elements, including footsteps and the sounds of chairs being moved and much more. Also like some of the Koh-plus-composers works, O’Callaghan’s rely heavily on electronics of various types. And they also have objectives, purposes they are meant to fulfill, arguments they are intended to make – which listeners need to know in order to get the effects that O’Callaghan seeks. Whether this level of study of background, intention and method is worthwhile will likely depend on how listeners respond to the sheer sound of the material. That response will determine whether they think it worthwhile to invest the time needed to understand where these works come from, why they sound the way they do, what the composer wants listeners – with whom he is, in effect, conversing – to hear, and how he expects them to hold up their end of the conversation. subject / object (no capital letters) dates to 2016 and is a multiply self-referential work, in which O’Callaghan takes one of his earlier pieces, modifies and alters it in various ways, and produces a variety of sounds that make no attempt to be musical in any traditional sense. On notes to selves (also 2016) sounds much the same and is also determinedly self-referential, even though the origin of its sonic material is different, its sounds being drawn from recordings made in various cities and playing those recordings to performers who in turn then react to the recordings as part of the performance. AMONG AM A (all capitals) dates to 2015 and is a piece about listening to pieces – by this time listeners will long since have realized that O’Callaghan is primarily concerned with a “meta” approach to music and performance rather than with music or performance in any traditionally interactive, much less conversational sense. The final piece on the CD is Alone and unalone (2019), which – like AMONG AM A – was commissioned by the group that presents it here. Once again there is a philosophical gloss – here, the difference between individual and collective experiences in listening to music, yet another “meta” matter – and once again there is electronic processing of sounds of various types, from environmental noise to bits of Handel. All four of these pieces are intended to be long enough for listeners to immerse themselves – they last from 11-and-a-half minutes to more than 23 – but in the absence of any identifiable beginning, middle or end, all four can be heard at whatever length a listener may wish, and can be started and stopped anywhere. Furthermore, all the titles can be randomly reassigned without any significant impact, since there is nothing audible in any of these works to distinguish it (from a title standpoint) from any of the others. Like many self-defined avant-garde composers, O’Callaghan creates what is essentially theatrical and situational material that may or may not be worthwhile to label “music.” The label does not really matter, just as the distinction between music and nonmusical sound is erased in these pieces and in many others of the same ilk. The philosophy, the thoughts, the settings, the plans under which these works are designed and executed are the things that matter to O’Callaghan. The actual sounds are largely secondary. Whether that results in material that should be labeled “music” at all is a matter of opinion – or, perhaps, something about which it would be worthwhile to have a conversation.
October 24, 2019
LEGO Gadgets. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $24.99.
One of the great things about those marvelous click-together LEGO building blocks is the way they invite creativity. If you can think of something to build, you can probably build it with LEGOs. Indeed, for decades, the great joy of LEGOs was the way they encouraged unstructured play – much the same way solid wood building blocks used to for kids of earlier generations, except that LEGOs snap tightly together and are not prone to fall over and cause painful bumps, as could happen when heavy wooden blocks were stacked just a bit too high.
There is still nostalgic appeal to LEGOs, and they can still be used for creating just about anything, but there is a lot more to them now than there was when Ole Kirk Christiansen came up with the LEGO idea in 1932 (yes, that long ago). Now there are LEGO blocks in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and LEGO figurines of all types in all sorts of costumes, and all sorts of guided ways to use LEGOs – ways that go well beyond “think it up yourself” but still retain a great deal of the original LEGO creativity concept.
And right in the middle of the new ways to use LEGOs is Klutz, that wonderful purveyor of “books-plus” products in which all sorts of crafts projects are offered, explained, and provided with everything needed to accomplish them. LEGO Gadgets is a perfect encapsulation of what Klutz is all about and what LEGO has, to some extent, become. The excellent illustrations in the 78-page book provide step-by-step instructions for making 11 machines, and the way the book is written is right in line with the level of amusement and enjoyment that permeates Klutz products. For instance, one chapter is called “Micro Movie Maker: No Lights, No Camera, All Action!” And the book ends with a list of “LEGO gadgets we would love to see,” such as an “obstacle course designed for minifigures,” a “metronome to help musicians keep their tempo,” and a “truck that gathers loose LEGO bricks from the floor.”
Even more intriguing than these concepts are some real-world creations that are similar in some way to the LEGO projects in the book. For instance, in the chapter on building a hand-like LEGO claw, there is a photo of “a prosthetic arm called Luke (after Luke Skywalker from Star Wars),” which “can pick up a coin” and is “controlled by the wearer’s brain!”
To make the 11 machines pieced together in LEGO Gadgets, people ages eight and up (not just kids!) use the 58 included LEGO elements that are neatly packaged in a box affixed to the side of the instruction book. To jazz up some of the projects and give the gadgets extra personality, there are six papercraft sheets provided – so, for example, “Rollin’ Rex,” an upright dinosaur on wheels rather than legs, gets a paper head and paper tail, and the “Ghost Guzzler” (a kind of vacuum cleaner for ectoplasmic beings) gets paper ghosts that appear to have been sucked in.
It is worth pointing out that Klutz is well aware of the creativity aspect of LEGOs, and the LEGO Gadgets book tosses out ideas about going beyond the instructional material to make somewhat different items on more or less the same basis. Regarding that wheeled, cartlike “Ghost Guzzler,” for instance, there is a suggestion to “try hacking this build to make holes in donuts, play a robot drum solo, or build a minifigure rodeo.” How exactly would those modifications work? That is left up to readers/users of LEGO Gadgets, the idea being to spur the creative process even while giving precise instructions for making some specific items. The blend of precision, careful instruction, humor, suggestions for additional ideas, and careful inclusion of everything needed to accomplish all the projects outlined in the book, results in a “books-plus” offering that will keep kids and parents alike intrigued for hours, days and more – confirming the continuing delights both of LEGO blocks and of Klutz productions.
A History of Art in 21 Cats. By Nia Gould. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Texts from Mittens: The Friends and Family Edition. By Angie Bailey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Sorry I Barfed on Your Bed Again (and More Heartwarming Letters from Kitty). By Jeremy Greenberg. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
There is nothing particularly unusual about cats in art. Ancient Egyptians revered cats and often portrayed them, and in more-modern times, cats have featured in paintings by Abraham Teniers in the 17th century (“Barber Shop with Monkeys and Cats”), Renoir in the 19th (“Child with Cat”), and Picasso in the 20th (“Cat Devouring a Bird”); there is even a particularly devilish-looking feline in Hieronymous Bosch’s “Temptation of St. Anthony” (1501). However, using cats as artistic tour guides is unusual, and Nia Gould has done a wonderful job with the concept in A History of Art in 21 Cats. The book is exactly what its title says: a journey through the ages (starting, unsurprisingly, with ancient Egypt), using portrayals of cats to explain different artistic movements and the work of various specific artists. Gould highlights elements that characterize each artistic period or artist: the Egyptian use of the elaborate Eye of Horus and palette of six colors (red, green, blue, yellow, black, and white, each with a symbolic meaning); the inclusion of the halo (previously associated with paganism) in Byzantine art, and that time period’s stylization of faces; the use of flowers to convey messages in Renaissance art; and much more. Gould sprinkles the book with relevant quotations, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” And throughout A History of Art in 21 Cats, she uses cats as themes, showing how one could have looked if painted in elaborate, exuberant Rococo style or with the spots of pure colors characteristic of Pointillism – a style that elicited a wonderful comment from one of its famed practitioners, Georges Seurat: “The inability of some critics to connect the dots doesn’t make Pointillism pointless.” Some of the styles and eras of art will be familiar to readers, but many likely will not be: Symbolism and Cubism are comparatively well-known outside art circles, for example, but Fauvism, which dates to roughly the same time period (early 20th century), is much less so. Gould does an excellent job of using stylized cats to show very clearly how various forms of art differ from each other: a nonsensical Dadaist cat clearly displays the anarchic impulse of that movement while also contrasting strongly with a cat drawn using the horizontal and vertical lines and primary colors favored by the De Stijl approach. Art Deco, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and more – all are here, and all feature cats whose body parts (faces, ears, tails, whiskers, etc.) are used to illustrate each form of art that Gould discusses. The book is really very clever: the pages on Minimalism are almost entirely white, with just a touch of black used to show cat parts impersonally (triangles for ears, for example) – while the discussion of Graffiti looks at the underlying philosophy of street art and explains that the name comes from an Italian word meaning “scratched,” since practitioners originally scratched into walls instead of painting on them. At the back of A History of Art in 21 Cats is a time line that gives the dates of the various art movements discussed and some names of important artists who practiced each style – a forthright invitation to explore art history further, presumably in non-feline ways.
There is nothing particularly artistic about Angie Bailey’s Texts from Mittens, but the concept is certainly amusing, if rather one-dimensionally so. Here we have a cat possessing modern (and scarcely artsy) characteristics, specifically those with which it is endowed by Internet users who apparently find cats irresistible. Bailey has a Web site that is filled with words, not the kitty videos that see to proliferate every time an Internet user does just about anything. Bailey’s idea, though, is that these words are by cats, and specifically by Mittens, a curmudgeonly feline surrounded by various sometimes indulgent, sometimes irritating, generally feckless human beings – basically, Mittens’ friends and family. Hence Texts from Mittens: The Friends and Family Edition. Actually, Mittens interacts via text – on a cell phone; what else? – not only with humans such as Mom (who could laughably be called Mittens’ owner if one could ever truly own a cat), treat-giving and indulgent Grandma, and usually tipsy neighbor Drunk Patty, but also with other cats that presumably have their own cell phones and data plans (Mittens is on the Furizon network). The comedic fodder here involves imagining what Mittens and his friends and family might text if they could – and while some of the resulting material is funny enough in a standup-comedian kind of way, the concept as a whole is pretty much a matter of the same jokes told and re-told. This does not mean they aren’t funny – some of them are – but in book form, they tend to recur a bit too often. The absurdities of “autocorrect” are always fodder for laughter, for example, but there are a few too many here. Mittens’ expressions of strained tolerance for Mom’s dog, Earl, a simple-minded squirrel chaser, are also fun, but they pale after a while through sheer repetition. Actually, the funniest texting tends to involve Drunk Patty, who appears to be goodhearted and is certainly spelling-challenged (whether or not she has indulged a bit too much). One such exchange, for example, goes: “‘Hey Drunk Patty.’ ‘Mittyyy! Hold on! I’m clippping my tooenails!’ ‘I could have lived without knowing that.’” Another goes, in part: “‘I havvve a surprise 4 u! I went too the store and have treeets for BOTH OF US!’ ‘Roger that. Come over.’ ‘I’ll bring the bowels. BOWLS! Autocorrect!’ ‘I should hope so.’” A little of this goes a long way. Even less of Mittens’ communication with other characters goes an even longer way. True, some individual texts are very amusing, such as the one in which Mittens writes a poem for his ever-patient and rather sweet girlfriend, Fiona: “‘I love you Fiona, I’m glad we’re sweethearts. I’d be your baby daddy if I still had my parts.’” Or the comment Mittens makes after learning that Fiona is older than he is: “‘But I’m a BOY TOY. I need to go under the bed and process this for an undetermined amount of time.’” There is just enough cat-ness in these back-and-forths to make Texts from Mittens: The Friends and Family Edition pleasing now and then, but not quite enough to make this (+++) book fun from cover to cover – or, heaven forbid, on any potential (but quite unlikely) re-reading. Like real-world texts in general, whether written by humans or cats or warthogs or pretty much anyone or anything else, Mittens’ texts are better in small doses and forgettable in larger ones.
Ah, but what if cats had a long-enough attention span to go beyond texting and actually write letters? And what if humans had a long-enough attention span to read the letters? Well, both those things are highly unlikely (for an explanation of what a “letter” is in this context, people accustomed only to texting are advised to use a search engine). Jeremy Greenberg has repeatedly channeled the events that would ensue if the unlikely combination of letter-writing felines and letter-reading humans should ever come to pass. His latest (+++) gift-book-size production of this type is more of what he offered in Sorry I Pooped in Your Shoe and Sorry I Slept on Your Face, which is to say it’s about cats saying they are sorry about things that they are not sorry about at all. The cat photos are, of course, a big part of all this. A cat named Ovid lies on his back with eyes closed for the “Dear Grieving Human” letter that explains why Ovid cannot go to the vet: “I’ve unexpectedly died. …[But] I’ve got nine lives and spending one getting out of going to the vet is a worthy sacrifice.” A cat named Lugar is photographed standing on his back legs, and looking surprised, for the “Dear Intrepid Kitchen Explorer” letter, which explains that the upright posture marks Lugar as “Catsquatch,” and “now that you’ve seen me, human, I will unfortunately have to kill you. Or you can get me a yummy treat and we’ll call it even.” There is an extreme closeup of the face of clearly unapologetic Tasha with the “Dear Spray-n-washer” letter, which begins, “I am very sorry that yet again I’ve hacked up a skinless sausage of bile, kibble, and crabgrass onto your satin sheets.” And there is just-awakened Coconut emerging from beneath a sweater for the “Dear Mrs. Forgetful” letter: “How the hell would I know where your sweater is? …[S]omething that feels exactly like a sweater landed on me and woke me at the same time your short-term memory issues forced you to seek the aid of a cat in locating a piece of clothing. Ugh. You don’t seem very bright.” Well, perhaps humans in general do not seem particularly bright to felines, but cats put up with hairless apes as a source of food, comfort and playthings – all of which make their appearance in this for-cat-lovers-only little book.
Mieczysław Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. East-West Chamber Orchestra conducted by Rostislav Krimer. Naxos. $12.99.
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 90-92. Bayerisches Kammerorchester Bad Brückenau conducted by Johannes Moesus. Profil. $18.99.
John A. Carollo: Symphony No. 3. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
The four chamber symphonies by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) are all late works, written between 1987 and 1992, the last of them finished a full half-century after his Symphony No. 1 of 1942. The chamber symphonies bear some resemblance to his strings-only symphonies, Nos. 2, 7 and 10, but more than that, they were deliberately conceived as conclusions to Weinberg’s symphonic output and, at the same time, as expansions and rethinkings of some of his music for string quartet. Indeed, Chamber Symphony No. 1 began as a revision and expansion of String Quartet No. 2, then was later revised further by Weinberg into its final form. It is a comparatively popular work in its symphonic guise – nothing by Weinberg is yet heard really frequently, but within his oeuvre, this piece is programmed more often than others. The reasons are clear in a very fine, well-paced and transparently played performance by the East-West Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Rostislav Krimer, on the Naxos label. Chamber Symphony No. 1 is, in a word, accessible: it lasts less than half an hour, has four movements with standard tempo indications, and offers direct (yet not simplistic) expressiveness and an easy-to-follow formal structure. Weinberg’s music is often compared to and contrasted with that of Shostakovich, his close friend and sometime mentor, but this chamber symphony requires no such comparative thinking: it shows Weinberg’s mature style clearly and, as a result, can actually be a good introduction to his music. Certainly the enthusiasm and clarity with which the work is played on this disc speak well both for the music and for the performers. The same qualities are in evidence in the reading of Chamber Symphony No. 3 (1990), which again is more than “just” a symphony for strings: this piece is based on Weinberg’s String Quartet No. 5. But unlike the earlier chamber symphony, which can still be thought of as an (expanded) arrangement of its source, this third one differs substantially from the chamber music on which it is based. For one thing, its longest movement, an Andante finale, is not in the predecessor quartet at all. Chamber Symphony No. 3 is more intense than No. 1 and somewhat thornier to absorb: it has elements of lyricism but is largely unsettled emotionally throughout, with a dominant feeling of turmoil and even despair that eventually leads, at the very end, to a level of acceptance that is not fully conciliatory with the emotionally distressing matters with which it has been wrestling. Krimer and the East-West Chamber Orchestra nicely balance this chamber symphony’s elements of equanimity and anguish, exploring it carefully and systematically and playing it very well indeed.
If the Weinberg chamber symphonies offer something additional through their echoes of the composer’s chamber music, Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 90-92 offer something more than usual on a new CD from Profil – in part through what two of them do not include. These three symphonies occupy a rather odd place in Haydn’s later output. After creating Nos. 82-87 for Paris and Nos. 88-89 as a pair for the Esterháza orchestra, Haydn was asked to produce a trio of symphonies for Prince Kraft Ernst of Oettingen-Wallerstein. He eventually did so, and those are Nos. 90-92 – which Haydn carefully and cleverly wrote in the keys of the C minor chord (C, E-flat, G) and all of which he orchestrated for the same instrumental complement. The very fine performances of these works by Johannes Moesus and the Bayerisches Kammerorchester Bad Brückenau offer the symphonies just as Haydn planned and intended them – but there is more to these works’ story, and knowing the other elements helps listeners hear the symphonies in a new light. For one thing, Haydn, a shrewd and not always 100% forthright businessman, actually sold the symphonies twice – first to the same Paris organization that had commissioned Nos. 82-87 and only on second thought to Prince Kraft Ernst. Thus, these were clearly “commodity” symphonies, designed by Haydn to appeal as widely as possible and to take advantage of what was at the time (1789) his very considerable fame. For another thing, Symphonies Nos. 90 and 92 are never heard today as Haydn originally wrote them and as Moesus conducts them: they are played with trumpets and timpani, which Haydn added later to give these two works greater heft and a more celebratory feeling. It is these added instruments that Moesus notably omits. On top of these matters, No. 92, with the added instruments, has long been called the “Oxford” because of a later performance in a city far from Oettingen-Wallerstein. Because of all these factors, Moesus’ first-rate interpretations of Nos. 90 and 92 are world première recordings in the original orchestration, and these readings fit beautifully with that of No. 91 to produce a three-symphony sequence far more unified than anything else in Haydn’s late symphonic production and all the more interesting to hear as a result.
John A. Carollo’s Symphony No. 3 of 2017 has little in common musically with either the works of Weinberg or those of Haydn, but it does have some “extras” of its own. For one thing, just as Weinberg based his first and third chamber symphonies on earlier works, so Carollo based his third symphony on a song cycle he had written earlier, to texts by William Blake, called Awake Humanity to Nature’s Beauty! Also, just as Haydn added additional instruments to his original versions of Symphonies Nos. 90 and 92, Carollo added something to his orchestra for Symphony No. 3: a wordless soprano voice. This is not in itself anything particularly new: Nielsen has a wordless soprano and baritone in his Symphony No. 3 of 1910-11, and more-recent composers have used the vocalise technique as well – for instance, Giya Kancheli in his Symphony No. 3 of 1973. Still, the vocal elements are effectively handled by Carollo, and they work particularly well because his medium in the symphony is essentially tonal, albeit with plenty of dissonance and a perhaps inevitable emphasis from time to time on percussion. The four-movement symphony is only about the length of most of Haydn’s – just 28 minutes on a Navona release featuring the London Symphony Orchestra under Miran Vaupotić, with soprano Emma Tring. The symphony is evocative in a mostly straightforward way: the opening “To Morning” sounds like movie music used at dawn; the second movement (“Gestural Rituals”) is filled with percussion and with sweeping strings that, again, sound filmic; “In the Garden of Earthly Delights,” the third movement, which features the vocalise elements, has a chamber-music-like opening, a speedier middle section, and a brass-and-percussion conclusion in which the soprano sounds rather pained; and the finale, “Let the Evening Stillness Arouse,” starts with tone painting resembling that of the first movement and remains mostly on the quiet side until the volume picks up toward the end for an emphatic climax and fade-out. The music is well-crafted and is very well, even sumptuously played by the London Symphony Orchestra, but the symphony is not especially original in sound or orchestration, despite the inclusion of the soprano voice. And the disc, being quite short and having just this one work on it, gets a (+++) rating – it appears to be aimed at current fans of Carollo who want this new symphony to add to an existing collection.
Dowland: Songs (Airs) for Voice and Lute. Mariana Flores, soprano; Hopkinson Smith, lute. Naïve. $16.99.
Holst: The Planets; The Perfect Fool—Ballet Music. Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
Purcell: Come Ye Sons of Arts; Peter Meechan: Love Songs; Holst: Song without Words, “I Love My Love”; Britten: Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from “Peter Grimes.” Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The German, Italian and French traditions are the bulwark of the standard classical-music repertoire; the English tradition is much less so. This is more an accident of history than one of musical quality, however, since there is so much excellent British music – some well-known, some only now being discovered or rediscovered. One of the preeminent British composers had the misfortune, if one could call it that, to live in Shakespeare’s time, and therefore wrote in a style that would later be largely eclipsed. But the works of John Dowland (1563-1626) remain a pinnacle of expressiveness and emotional communication even today, as is very clear in a fine new Naïve recording featuring Mariana Flores and Hopkinson Smith. These two really are paired on this CD: the vocal and instrumental elements blend and interweave in such a way as to reinforce each other strongly, lending the 15 airs and two instrumental interludes remarkable power. The pieces are drawn from five Songs or Ayres volumes by Dowland, printed between 1597 and 1612, and are in the main rather on the dour side – which does not prevent them from being uniformly beautiful, dark-hued tonally but tremendously expressive in their use both of the mellifluous English language of Dowland’s and Shakespeare’s time and in their extremely careful crafting to take full advantage of the capabilities of the lute. There are occasional lighter pieces here, such as Come Away, Come Sweet Love. But the more-typical feeling evoked here is melancholy, if not intense despair, expressed with considerable beauty in airs such as Can She Excuse My Wrongs, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, If My Complaints Could Passions Move, and Sorrow, Sorrow Stay. Indeed, listeners will want the sort of sorrow expressed here to stay: the singing and lute playing are that beautiful and that involving. The temporal distance from Dowland’s time to today, and the language differences that render these airs so beautiful, have the effect of mitigating the emotional depth of the material to an extent sufficient to make this CD a joy (if that is an apt word) to hear either straight through or bit by bit. It is not that the emotional content is upbeat, much less bubbly; none of it is. Neither are the expressions of worry, concern and even torment entirely surface-level, as they are in popular music today (and Dowland’s music was, in a sense, the popular music of its time). Flores enunciates the poetic language clearly and forcefully, and Smith’s mastery of the lute is absolute – and is shown to fine effect in the two instrumental pieces, Mignarda and Go Crystal Tears (the latter also being heard with a vocal line). It is worth remembering that only a few years after Dowland’s death, in 1645, John Milton in Il Penseroso called on Melancholy to “bid the soul of Orpheus sing/ Such notes as, warbled to the string,/ Drew iron tears down Pluto's cheek,/ And made Hell grant what love did seek.” This is the mood in which Dowland wrote, and it is one that Flores and Smith plumb deeply and expressively.
Much later British music sounds quite different, of course, but here too the emotional expressiveness of the material can be highly effective – even when performances are not at the level of the ones by Flores and Smith. A new Reference Recordings SACD is blessed with absolutely first-rate sound – this label has some of the best audio quality in the business – but places it at the service of a performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets that is not quite at the highest level. It is not that Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony are unequal to the music: this is a fine orchestra, if not quite a first-tier one as yet. But there is something a trifle flaccid here in the more-outgoing portions of Holst’s suite for large orchestra, resulting in a performance in which, unusually, the most-effective elements are the ones that tend to be somewhat downplayed in most readings. Mars, the Bringer of War does not march forth with intensity and inevitability: things are a bit tentative in this opening movement, whose potential as a sonic spectacular is never quite realized. Venus, the Bringer of Peace, on the other hand, far from being the anticlimax that it can sometimes be, comes across very effectively, Holst’s sound world here gently wafting through the air. Among the other movements, Mercury, the Winged Messenger is effective, if not quite as fleet as possible, while the big, brawny Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity and rather peculiarly mystifying Uranus, the Magician come across moderately well, but without any real fire or intensity. However, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age really limps, sounding almost as if the music can barely pull itself along from measure to measure, and the concluding Neptune, the Mystic is truly evanescent, the wordless six-part female chorus barely a presence at all and yet so crucial to the feeling of this movement that the whole thing seems to be built around the voices. The result of this rather unusual admixture of material is a version of The Planets that will not likely be most listeners’ first choice, but that is notable for the way it highlights elements of Holst’s music that tend to get somewhat short shrift in other renditions. The (+++) disc is filled out with the popular ballet music from Holst’s one-act parodistic opera, The Perfect Fool, and here Stern and the ensemble thoroughly take the measure of the material: the contrast among the spirits of Earth, Water and Fire is made quite clear, and the clean playing and fine sectional balance will make lovers of Holst wonder, likely not for the first time, why someone does not produce a recording of the entirety of The Perfect Fool. This ballet music is more than enough to whet the appetite for the whole thing.
Holst’s music also appears, briefly, on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. This is strictly a recording for people fascinated by the sound of a top-quality grouping of these particular instruments: the ensemble includes Lev Garbar, Andrew Hunter and Joe Loeffler on trumpet, piccolo trumpet and flugelhorn; Kathryn Swope and Renée Vogen, horns; Ian Fitzwater, trombone; Philip Bessette and Akshat Jain on tubas; Joe Beribak, Logan Fox and Michael Schraft, timpani and percussion; and organists Heike Burghart Rice, Jared Stellmacher and Mark Sudeith. The Holst piece here is a Craig Garner arrangement of Song without Words, “I Love My Love,” and it is certainly a well-made arrangement of the music – even though this work is not an ideal vehicle for this particular instrumental combination. However, the reason for including the Holst is plain enough: it follows Love Songs by contemporary British composer Peter Meechan (born 1980) – four vocal settings of Shakespeare sonnets, featuring the Oriana Singers and City Voices of Chicago under William Chin, with the Holst providing instrumental contrast to the extended song cycle. Meechan arranges his four songs intelligently, providing the selected sonnets with a narrative underpinning: first is Lost Love (Sonnet 71), then Love’s Betrayal (Sonnet 147), Love’s Dream (Sonnet 43), and Love’s Ideal (Sonnet 116). Meechan’s choral settings become somewhat more impersonal than Dowland’s single-voice settings, distancing listeners a bit from Shakespeare’s thoughts in a way that renders Elizabethan English more observational: while Dowland transcends the hundreds of years of language between his time and today, Meechan tends to embrace them, creating songs that accept the beauty of the language without ever truly plumbing the depths of the emotions that the language was designed to communicate. The Meechan and Holst works are placed in the middle of a disc that opens with a reconstruction by Rebecca Herissone of Come Ye Sons of Arts by Henry Purcell (1656-1695), arranged, as is the Holst, by Garner. This provides a suitable lead-in to the Meechan cycle. But the concluding material on this (+++) all-British CD stands apart in several ways from the rest of the disc: Garner’s arrangement of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. These are, in fact, five of the opera’s six interludes: the Passacaglia is No. 4 and the others are Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 2. As an atmospheric suite, the music is highly effective, especially when the Passacaglia is added at the end. And Garner’s sensitive arrangement works particularly well: the atmosphere of gloom and repression that overhangs the opera comes through clearly, and the instrumentation seems just right to communicate Britten’s carefully managed mood changes. This disc as a whole is something of a specialty item focused on a specific instrumental complement, but the Britten material is out-and-out special – and the other works offer some interesting perspective on the way British music has developed over the course of many centuries.