May 21, 2020

(++++) INSISTENTLY ROMANTIC


Ernő (Ernst von) Dohnányi: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Sofja Gülbadamova, piano; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Ariane Matiakh. Capriccio. $16.99.

     The composers who carried the banner of Romanticism – not neo-Romanticism but the full-fledged, 19th-century variety – into the 20th century did so unashamedly while at the same time giving their expressive, tonal works a personal stamp. Rued Langgaard did this decidedly in his 16 symphonies, for example; Sergei Rachmaninoff did so both in symphonies and piano concertos; and Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) also carried the Romantic torch forward in his two symphonies and two piano concertos. However, these large-scale Dohnányi works are not particularly well-known – perhaps ironically, his one truly popular piano-and orchestra composition is Variations on a Nursery Tune (1914), in which he follows Mozart by ringing a set of changes on Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman (in English, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).

     The two Dohnányi concertos, the first from 1897-98 and the second written half a century later, in 1947, are every bit as lush and a great deal more portentous, even pretentious, than the clever and wry nursery-tune variations. Dohnányi was a formidable pianist, and he wrote both the concertos for himself to perform – yes, even though he was 70 years old when he created the second. In this way as well as in his musical sensibilities, Dohnányi resembled the virtuoso-cum-composer Rachmaninoff. And this means it seems to be something of a mystery that Rachmaninoff’s four concertos (especially the second and third) have become enduringly popular, while neither of Dohnányi’s is heard very often (although No. 1 is slightly more frequently played than No. 2). There are, however, some reasons for the comparative neglect, which come clear when they are performed with the skill and commitment they deserve.

     Certainly the excellent new Capriccio recording featuring Sofja Gülbadamova and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Ariane Matiakh makes a very strong case for these pieces. The first concerto, in E minor, is huge even by Romantic standards – it runs as long as those by Brahms, about 48 minutes in this recording. It is in three movements, the first and third being very long indeed while the second, a pleasant 10-minute Andante, stands as something of an intermezzo between the pillars of the almost-equal-length opening and closing. Dohnányi did not have the skill of Brahms or Rachmaninoff in creating memorable themes, and his ultra-serious mien in this concerto makes it something of a morass in a way that the later, lighter, less self-conscious Variations on a Nursery Tune are not. It may simply be that the rather over-earnest nature of the first concerto has prevented it from gaining wide audience acceptance – while its numerous, very manifest difficulties have not made it a favorite of pianists. Gülbadamova gives no hint of those complexities and demands in her performance, which surmounts all the technical obstacles without apparent strain while pulling the rather sprawling work – especially its nearly 20-minute first movement – into coherent and cohesive shape. Matiakh has also taken the measure of the music quite effectively: orchestra and soloist perform as equals most of the time here, and the usual excellent sound and ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz are as warm and sumptuous as anyone could wish. The concerto is certainly effective as a display piece (and a considerable workout) for the soloist, even though its insistent nature and somewhat bloated form make it, for the audience, a work that is impressive rather than emotionally engaging or gripping.

     The second concerto, in B minor, although scarcely streamlined, is a more-compressed work and in many ways a more interesting one. It is not really tightly knit, but here Dohnányi controls the sprawl better than in his earlier concerto. The capital-R Romanticism is more surprising in light of the date of this concerto, written four years after Rachmaninoff’s death, than at the time of the first concerto, begun the year Brahms died. Dohnányi never updates his harmonic palette or takes particular cognizance of the many changes in music in the first half of the 20th century: he is unabashedly faithful to the Romantic spirit and the virtuoso piano techniques associated with it. Again in this concerto, he fails to create any particularly memorable themes, but he works with his material here with more-pointed skill than in the earlier concerto, and the piece feels better proportioned. And the slow movement, marked Adagio – Poco rubato, does not come across as a byway or afterthought, but as a warm and rather thoughtful contemplation between the outer movements. Concerto No. 2 may be just too backward-looking to attract the attention of contemporary pianists; but here again, Gülbadamova and Matiakh show clear understanding of the work’s provenance and structure, and work together to produce a finely balanced, very well-played performance that shows the concerto in the best possible light. Neither concerto is anywhere near as much fun as the Variations on a Nursery Tune, which pays tribute to some composers of the early 20th century and gently satirizes others: the two concertos are serious, intense works that are “big” in every sense. That makes them challenging to play and, in truth, to hear: they are well-made and worthwhile for occasional listening, but there is little in them distinctive enough to make them stand out from other late-Romantic (or post-late-Romantic) assertions for piano and orchestra.

(+++) THE UNPERSUADED


Clickable: The Art of Persuasion. Zara Lawler, flute, piccolo, whistle, voice, washboard, banjo; Paul Fadoul, marimba, voice, guitar, cajón, egg shaker, vibraphone, candy shaker. Ravello. $14.99.

     Sometimes a CD simply cries out to be a DVD. That is especially true when the material on a CD was specifically designed as part of a visual presentation – as is the case with a new Ravello release featuring music, talk and social commentary under the overall aegis of Zara Lawler and Paul Fadoul. Listening to this is sort of like hearing an hour-long television program without being able to see it. In fact, the CD is about the length of an hour-long TV show after commercials are subtracted: it runs 47 minutes. But commercials are not subtracted here – they are a major part of what Clickable is all about. And what it is about is persuasion of all sorts. Not persuasiveness, which is a different thing and not one of which this material boasts. Persuasion is the hallmark here: a mixture of commercials, promotions, protest, verbiage, even a lullaby (which, in the context of this disc, is seen as a method of persuading a baby to go to sleep).

     Lawler and Fadoul are aided and abetted in this endeavor, which originated as a live show, by composers Lewis Spratlan, Adam B. Silverman, Ralph Farris, Jason Nett, Katherine Hoover, Pat Humphries and, improbably, George Frideric Handel; and by speakers and instrumentalists Megan Meyer, Aine Zimmerman, Bill Spence, George Wilson, and Howard Jack. What pulls together all these disparate people and the many performance tools they use (from voice to hammered dulcimer to candy shaker to alto flute to nightingale whistle to cowbell to the kitchen sink – well, not that, but everything but) is a concept that, unfortunately, is not as clever or interesting as the people and instruments gathered to deliver the material. The idea here is, yawn, the excesses of a consumer-centric society and the means by which those excesses are perpetuated and the targets of those excesses are manipulated.

     The actual material here is carefully conceived and sufficiently varied so that much of Clickable is fun to hear even though it is hard to take its earnestness seriously. For example, there are four 30-second “commercials” called Hedonic Treadmill in which Fadoul, as announcer, tells Lawler, playing a housewife, of new and improved ways to do laundry – starting in the first case with something better than pounding clothes on rocks and ending in the fourth with an app that distances the person doing wash from the wash altogether. This is cute, but the point is – what? That people would be better off pounding clothes on rocks than using, say, a washing machine (as in the intermediate offerings)? And how exactly are these sarcastic commercials different from a genuine commercial called The Sweet Shop, which Farris wrote for him, Lawler and Fadoul to perform as a thank-you to one of the sponsors of the show? This little 51-second promotional piece is cute in its own way and seems sincere. But where is the dividing line? Is there one?

     Also cute are settings of copy from book dust jackets – another clever idea – in which music subtly comments on the promotional writing designed to interest potential readers. But again, the point is – what? Should there be no dust-jacket copy for, say, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility? Is there some less-promotional way to interest people who have never read the book in trying it? What is the alternative? (It is this dust-jacket setting that gets music by Handel, incidentally – music that stands out for its beauty, simplicity, and lack of any apparent ulterior motive.)

     There are some places here where the music is eminently listenable: Canyon Serenade for flute, marimba and vibraphone is lovely (even though it lacks the visual element for which it was created: a dance); and Common Thread, the last track on the CD, is a protest song so typical in sound and topic that it comes perilously close to self-parody – it is all about greater unity through diversity, the evils of police, and that sort of ho-hum naïveté. It comes complete with audience sing-along, which is easy for listeners to do because the melody is both super-simple and super-catchy. The point of the song, though, is harder to grasp – something about the ills of society and the need to fix them through, what, singing? One thinks of Tom Lehrer’s 1960s ditty about the “folk song army” with its admonition, “Ready, aim – sing!” Apparently little has changed in this particular sort of music in the last half-century. For that matter, the desire to stage something that is societally aware (the current oh-so-trendy word is “woke”) and have it incorporate music as part of a larger experience has also changed little. Clickable is, on one level, pleasantly old-fashioned, for all its professions of being up to date and acerbic. On another level, in CD form, it is really a visual performance in search of a way to connect without its visuals – something it manages to do only intermittently and imperfectly. Taken as a whole, this “art of persuasion” is a good deal more artistic than it is persuasive.

May 14, 2020

(++++) A SORT-OF NEW “MESSIAH”


Handel, arranged by Sir Eugène Goossens and Sir Thomas Beecham: Messiah. Penelope Shumate, soprano; Claudia Chapa, mezzo-soprano; John McVeigh, tenor; Christopher Job, bass-baritone; Jonathan Griffith Singers, National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Griffith. Signum Classics. $25.99 (2 CDs).

     An oddly compelling exercise in wretched excess, the Goossens/Beecham version of Handel’s Messiah stands in a long line of modifications of Handel’s 1741 original, including quite a few by the composer himself – and one created by Mozart in 1789 and intended to be sung in German as Der Messias (K. 572). It is arguable whether there is “blame” of some sort to be attached to the many changes made over the centuries to Messiah, but if there is, it traces to Handel himself: he created numerous versions of the oratorio for different singers and different performance spaces, as was customary in his time, and it was only natural for others, impressed by the subject matter and the beauty of the presentation, to want later audiences to hear the story and the music in ways to which their “modernized” ears would be better adapted.

     It is important, in an age now largely focused on performing music as composers intended it to be performed, to understand just how non-unusual this sort of alteration was. Handel’s 1741 instrumentation for Messiah consisted only of two trumpets, two oboes, two violins, one viola, timpani and basso continuo. In his version, Mozart had the horn, not the trumpet, play The Trumpet Shall Sound, added three trombones, switched Handel’s organ for a harpsichord, added the clarinet, changed Handel’s soprano-and-alto to two sopranos, and made numerous other alterations, including cutting some numbers altogether and shortening others. In all, Mozart changed about two-thirds of Messiah, while specifically stating that he was not trying to “improve” it but to adapt it for new purposes – specifically, for private performances in noble houses rather than the public, opera-like theatrical presentation for which Handel intended it.

     So when Beecham commissioned his onetime assistant conductor, Goossens (who had also been a violinist in Beecham’s orchestra), to produce a Messiah suitable for performance in the large concert venues common in the mid-20th century, using orchestral and vocal forces that people had come to expect, he was merely asking for the latest in a long line of adaptations intended to communicate the underlying meaning and message of the music in a form that would be more palatable to a later audience and more readily understood by later listeners. Beecham also wanted a commemoration of the bicentenary of Handel’s death in 1759, and Goossens obliged with a version that includes four horns, three trombones, tuba, piccolo, contrabassoon, two harps, triangle, cymbals, and bass drum – plus a full modern orchestra and large chorus. Adding cymbal clashes to For unto Us a Child Is Born, creating an accelerando in the Hallelujah Chorus, and otherwise expanding and inflating pretty much all aspects of Messiah, Goossens produced a version that may be called monumental and celebratory by its proponents (including Beecham), but deemed a bloated excrescence by detractors. Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra recorded the Goossens version in 1959, and that recording became initially famous for its grandeur and enthusiasm, then notorious for being tremendously overblown as the historical-practice movement in music took hold.

     The 1959 Beecham performance remained the only recorded version of the Goossens adaptation of Messiah not because of changing musical tastes but because of the most prosaic of reasons: a legal dispute, with both the Goossens and Beecham estates laying claim to it. Now that that matter has finally (after more than half a century!) been resolved, an all-new Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has again had the opportunity to perform this Messiah, now under the direction of Jonathan Griffith in a new Signum Classics recording.

     The result is strange, fascinating, sometimes moving, sometimes almost laughable because of the extent to which the arrangement now sounds overdone. Today’s listeners are likely to know Messiah in one or another of its Handelian forms, performed by a small complement of singers and instrumentalists, whether or not historical performance practices are rigorously followed. The opulence and sheer massiveness of the Goossens/Beecham version will therefore come as something of a shock: it is all so big, so endlessly insistent on its own importance, that the rather modest and elegant libretto by Charles Jennens, based in large part on the Old Testament rather than the New, seems scarcely equal to the task of penetrating music that insists on being delivered with splendor and intensity. The four soloists are all quite fine and clearly committed to this project, especially clear-voiced soprano Penelope Shumate, who invests all her lines with emotional as well as vocal strength. The choral forces are enthusiastic, their pronunciation readily intelligible and their sense of the music’s rhythms quite clear. And the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra delivers a smooth, warmly massive sound under Griffith, with playing that is skilled and heartfelt.

     This is sure to be a divisive Messiah, since it so clearly flies in the face of modern scholarship and performance practice, yet equally clearly reflects the time of its creation as surely as Mozart’s K. 572 reflects the time and circumstances of its origin. Listeners already familiar with the 1959 Beecham recording, with which many older lovers of Messiah literally grew up, will sweep aside any questions of the appropriateness of this version and simply enjoy it for its mixture of musicality and nostalgic value. Listeners hearing a grandiose version of Messiah for the first time will likely be less forgiving of this version’s excesses and may well find the performance rather elephantine. Messiah is truly a work for all times, musically transcendental despite its libretto’s clear focus on one specific form of religious belief, experience and expression. From a strictly musical perspective, the time for the Goossens/Beecham Messiah has passed, and that may be just as well: Messiah has an elegance, simplicity and directness in the original 1741 version and Handel’s subsequent modifications that it certainly lacks in this recording. But the Goossens/Beecham Messiah has an undeniably fascinating celebratory quality that makes it well worth hearing as an alternative approach to the material – as well as an aural documentation of the tastes and expectations of musicians and audiences alike in the middle of the 20th century.

(++++) A NEW SORT-OF “MESSIAH”


Richard Danielpour: The Passion of Yeshua. Hila Plitmann, soprano; J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano; Timothy Fallon, tenor; Matthew Worth, Kenneth Overton and James K. Bass, baritones; UCLA Chamber Singers and Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).

     Every time period has its own forms of acknowledgment, celebration and worship; and among Christians, every time period has its own way, musical and otherwise, of paying homage and tribute to Jesus. The way chosen by Richard Danielpour (born 1956) goes back to Hebrew, the original language of the Jews – of whom Jesus was one – and returns to the original form of Jesus’ name, Yeshua, which was a common one at the time and is attached to numerous characters in the Bible. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the name Jesus was rendered as beginning with the equivalent of an “I,” there being no “J” in Greek. The “J” results from a 16th-century typographical error that was perpetuated in later printings of the Bible. But none of this particularly matters to believers, any more than do the differing pronunciations of “J” and therefore of “Jesus” in modern languages. The reference is what matters, and the reference is clear.

     Nevertheless, Danielpour’s use of the original name, complemented by his inclusion of Hebrew passages among the English ones in his “Dramatic Oratorio in Fourteen Scenes,” shows how determined the composer is to revisit Christ’s Passion from an angle both new and as old as the Gospels themselves. Naxos’ world première recording of The Passion of Yeshua (2017) does full justice to Danielpour’s vision, thanks to the strong involvement and fine vocal talents of half a dozen soloists and the highly committed, knowing and knowledgeable conducting with which JoAnn Falletta shapes the performances of the UCLA Chamber Singers and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra.

     In line with the common modern focus on the human side of Yeshua/Jesus, The Passion of Yeshua is filled with emotionally engaging, involving music that explores the pain and suffering of Christ’s last days on Earth. In line with the contemporary desire to increase the prominence of women in narratives of all sorts, The Passion of Yeshua makes both Jesus’ mother Mary (here “Miryam,” sung by J’Nai Bridges) and Mary Magdalene (here “Miryam Magdala,” sung by Hila Plitmann) as prominent in the oratorio as is Yeshua (Kenneth Overton) himself. The result is a greater contemplation of compassion and forgiveness than a focus on the more-abstract notion of divinity-made-human and the attainment of eternal life through unswerving belief. And Danielpour’s music fits the emotional tone and undertone of the libretto, which he himself adapted and assembled, very well. The musical medium he chooses is essentially tonal, the choruses in particular having an old-fashioned massed feeling that recalls elements of the Baroque without in any way imitating (or even paying direct tribute to) the works of the Baroque masters. When Danielpour uses dissonance, he does so movingly and even cleverly: for example, rather than employing it obviously in the fifth scene, “Betrayal,” he uses it in the chorus of the seventh, “Interlude,” which immediately follows the longest scene of all, “Gethsemane.”

     Danielpour’s treatment of the events is full of surprising, very effective touches. The fifth scene, “Intermezzo: In the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” is only slightly gloomy and in some respects is almost tender, as if anticipating Yeshua’s conquest of death and the redemption, through his sacrifice, of all believers. The 11th scene, “Behold the Man,” lapses into percussive barbarousness when the crowd demands of Pilate (Timothy Fallon) the release not of Yeshua but of Barabbas. And the 12th scene, “Via Dolorosa,” although certainly dark enough, features a high, operatic soprano that floats above the somber instrumental material; here too is there an implication that the pain, sorrow and suffering in the straightforward story (which is moved at an appropriate pace by narrator Matthew Worth) are scarcely the whole meaning here, or even the most important one.

     The Passion of Yeshua is a long work, running more than an hour and three quarters. But like Handel’s Messiah, to which it is something of a counterpart (and which is even longer), Danielpour’s piece includes enough differences in its scenes and enough differentiation among its characters to retain audience interest throughout. In fact, Danielpour offers a 21st-century audience an alternative way of looking at the last days of Yeshua/Jesus, one that coexists with and complements the approach of Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens. Messiah proceeds operatically, but without a strong focus on Jesus or any other character: to the extent that there is a protagonist, it is the chorus, which is to say all of humanity. It is a macrocosmic view of events, a brilliant one that encompasses a promise to all people. The Passion of Jeshua is far more personalized. The troubles and suffering of Yeshua/Jesus are central here, but so are the feelings of Miryam and Miryam Magdala: their sorrow provides a microcosm of the pain of all, a pain that only Danielpour’s 14th scene, “Epilogue,” truly resolves with a message of peace and resolution that is thoroughly effective and deeply reassuring. The sheer beauty of Handel’s music, and the comfort level its words provide to those who share the beliefs of his time, have kept Messiah vital and meaningful for nearly 300 years. But because we live in a far more secular age than Handel’s, and one with a far more diverse set of religious and spiritual beliefs, Danielpour’s oratorio, with its strong focus on the human side of the New Testament narrative, fits our time period just as snugly and securely as Handel’s Messiah fit his.

May 07, 2020

(++++) FOR OUR TIME AND FOR ALL TIMES


Arvo Pärt: Stabat Mater; Salve Regina; Magnificat; Nunc dimittis; Peace upon You, Jerusalem; L’abbé Agathon. Gloriæ Dei Cantores conducted by Richard J. Pugsley. GDC Recordings. $19.99 (SACD).

American Psalmody, Volume 1: Music of Samuel Adler, Charles Ives, Alan Hovhaness, Daniel Pinkham, Ronald A. Nelson, Robert Starer, Howard Hanson, and Randall Thompson. Gloriæ Dei Cantores conducted by Elizabeth C. Patterson. GDC Recordings. $16.99.

     “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” reads Matthew 6:34, which is to say there is no use worrying about tomorrow, since it will provide plenty of worries of its own. Yet it is well-nigh impossible now not to worry about tomorrow and, indeed, to worry that the worries tomorrow will bring will only extend and expand those of today…and then the next day will make things still worse…and on and on. A touch or two of the peace “which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) is very much to be wished for now – no matter what one’s individual religious or spiritual beliefs may be.

     It is in times like these – and let us remember that there have been many earlier times filled with deep and justified fear, worry and uncertainty in terms both of health and of economic viability – that music, at least some music, can provide a combination of uplift and calm that can help counteract the frenetic thoughts and endlessly circulating worry and near-panic that pervade our lives today.

     Yet one would not expect to find calming, uplifting music being written by contemporary composers: most are better known for dramatic, dissonant, intense music that is difficult to perform (and frequently difficult to listen to) than they are for anything remotely soothing. Arvo Pärt, however, is a notable, very notable, exception. The famed Estonian composer (born 1935) did go through a neo-Schoenbergian period early in his compositional life (and was rather imitative of Shostakovich and Prokofiev still earlier). But he concluded nearly half a century ago that those approaches were, for him, dead ends – and that he needed to return to the roots of much Western music, in the form of Gregorian chant, to find a new way forward. The result was a compositional technique that Pärt calls tintinnabuli, the word itself evoking bell sounds and minimalism – which pretty well describes how works created by Pärt using the technique come across to an audience.

     Unlike other self-invented compositional approaches, though, Pärt’s does not require significant analysis or academic study to prepare listeners to experience it: whatever the technical specifics Pärt uses to create his chant-infused pieces, these are works that reach out to audiences’ emotions and provoke contemplative, uplifting and calming features that are intuitively understandable. All six works sung by the marvelous Gloriæ Dei Cantores choral group under Richard K. Pugsley on a new SACD from GDC Recordings speak beautifully to a modern audience – even one unfamiliar with Latin, the language of most of these pieces, and equally unfamiliar with the specific religious connotations and purposes of the pieces. Stabat Mater, the longest work here, produces an immediate feeling of eternity through a two-and-a-half-minute introduction for strings before the chorus even enters – and weaves a 25-minute spell of resolution and resignation, of acceptance, in musical language that certainly fits the topic (the suffering of the Virgin Mary at Christ’s Crucifixion) but that also ultimately proffers a message of hope. Salve Regina (“Hail, Queen”), directed at Mary, is declaimed, almost spoken, in Pärt’s work, whose modest pulsing carries the music along in a series of small, gentle waves. Magnificat is praise by Mary, and Pärt invests it with an otherworldliness that requires a perfectly balanced chorus with clear enunciation in even the quietest passages – providing a fine example of just how good Gloriæ Dei Cantores is. Nunc dimittis specifically asks God to allow His servant to depart in peace, and here the sense of peacefulness is palpable throughout. Peace upon You, Jerusalem – which is actually placed first on the disc – is a somewhat brighter, more-upbeat work, one in which the higher registers of the female voices have a distinct bell-like quality that produces a lovely blending at the conclusion. And then there is the most-unusual piece here: L’abbé Agathon, for voices and eight cellos, or four violas and four cellos – a work that draws not on traditional liturgical texts but on the story of one man who showed the purity and totality of his love by being willing to exchange his body for that of a leper. Placed second on the disc – just before Salve Regina – it combines instrumental effectiveness (including some telling pizzicato material) with a French vocal narrative, both spoken and sung, that makes the story more multifaceted than are the words of the other works here, but no less heartfelt and uplifting. The simplicity and directness of the setting makes it almost liturgical and lets it fit neatly among the Latin material elsewhere on this recording – helping turn this release as a whole into an experience that is both calming and highly meaningful.

     Gloriæ Dei Cantores has been conveying deeply held feelings for decades, the choir’s personnel changing but its very special, elegant and lovely sound remaining consistent since the days of its founding director, Elizabeth C. Patterson. Indeed, older Gloriæ Dei Cantores recordings, led by Patterson herself, provide respite from our everyday trials and tribulations in ways that can be quite different from those heard on the Pärt disc – but every bit as satisfying. For example, the first of a Gloriæ Dei Cantores series called American Psalmody remains something of a touchstone for the ensemble and a treasurable recording in today’s troubled times, two decades after the disc’s original release. It opens with Psalm of Dedication by Samuel Adler, a brief work whose use of two trumpets and mixture of tonal and atonal elements produce a well-designed celebratory effect. Then comes a marvelous performance of Charles Ives’ third and only surviving setting of Psalm 90, this being for mixed chorus, organ and bells. A very late work – Ives almost stopped composing after 1920, and this setting dates from 1923 – the piece has a feeling of summation about it, including considerable dissonance and some marvelous Ivesian creativity (such as a pedal C throughout the entire 11-minute piece, easily looked at as the anchoring of the work and world to God). The emotional heft of the performance by Gloriæ Dei Cantores is such that the work, which can easily sound episodic, hangs together beautifully, with the distant bells heard at the end providing an otherworldly effect whose solemnity is exactly right for the material. The Ives is the emotional highlight of this CD, but there is much more at an almost equal level. Make a Joyful Noise by Alan Hovhaness, of which this was the first recording, opens with a prelude for organ and solo trombone, then uses solo and mixed voices, two trombones and two trumpets, along with the organ, to produce a cantata whose third and longest movement is a searing lamentation that is effectively countered by the joyful finale. The Hovhaness contrasts strongly with four of the 12 Psalm Motets by Daniel Pinkham: these are short, rhythmically strong pieces focusing on different emotions expressed within the set of 150 Psalms. Gloriæ Dei Cantores performs them in the order III, V, IX, and IV. Next is a setting from 1983 of Psalm 139 by Ronald A. Nelson. Here, the use of violin and organ, and the differing handling of the solo voices, show considerable skill. Then there are two Psalms of Woe and Joy by Robert Starer, the first setting taken from Psalm 6 and the second from Psalms 136 and 148. These are written for mixed chorus and piano, using the keyboard mainly for its percussive qualities. And Starer uses the words in Hebrew, lending the material an unusual sound and rhythm. Howard Hanson’s How Excellent Thy Name, based on Psalm 8, is sensitive and quite exceptionally beautiful, with an especially attractive organ part. The disc concludes, perhaps inevitably, with The Lord Is My Shepherd (Psalm 23), here in a setting by Randall Thompson that emphasizes the pastoral nature of the words. The accompaniment for the chorus here is, interestingly, a harp: Thompson said organ, piano or harp could be used, and the choice of harp gives the piece a delicacy and ethereal quality that complements the sensitivity and balance of the chorus beautifully. Variegated the music on this disc certainly is, but all of it serves a higher purpose that can help all of us look beyond our current trials and tribulations and face the future with at least a modicum of added hope.

(++++) WORTHY REDISCOVERIES


Louise Farrenc: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, conducted by Christoph König. Naxos. $12.99.

     The extent to which Beethoven expanded the notion of what a symphony could be hovered over other composers throughout much of the 19th century, reaching near-mythic levels in light of Brahms’ well-known reluctance to undertake anything symphonic while constantly feeling the Beethovenian shadow. Some composers, such as Spohr, tried to continue matters in more-or-less Beethovenian mode, with a good deal of success in their own time but not much afterwards. Others, such as Schubert, looked in new directions but had considerable difficulty finding them: Schubert’s propensity for starting symphonies and leaving them incomplete is well-known. Still others, such as Schumann, undertook symphonies only reluctantly and produced ones mixing Beethoven’s influence with some genuinely new touches. Yet others, such as Mendelssohn, produced unique symphonies that sidestepped Beethoven rather than moving beyond his music. And some, such as Hummel, avoided writing symphonies altogether.

     Interestingly, when Brahms eventually produced his monumental First Symphony, he directly adopted elements of Beethoven while finding a way to expand and move beyond them: Brahms’ First is in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s Fifth, and the finale of Brahms’ work clearly and deliberately echoes the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. Lesser symphonists than Brahms also found themselves drawn to C minor for their first work in the form: Mendelssohn’s First (which dates to 1824, while Beethoven was still alive) is in this key, and so is the first symphony (1841) by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875). Farrenc is a very fine composer who is being rediscovered largely because she was a successful woman musician at a time when it was extremely hard for women to gain acceptance in that area. But her music deserves to be heard more often for its own sake, not because of her gender: in addition to a variety of virtuosic works for piano (her own instrument, at which she excelled), Farrenc proved adept in creating chamber works and orchestral ones – including three symphonies.

     Farrenc’s symphonies have the interesting characteristic of sounding a great deal like the works of other post-Beethoven symphonists while, at the same time, having a distinct totality that shows Farrenc placing her own stamp on the material. Her first symphony’s debt to Beethoven is apparent on a first hearing; its hints of Mendelssohn and Schumann become clearer afterwards; but it never seems merely derivative of any of these composers, with Farrenc blending drama and lyricism in her own distinctive way.

     Naxos’ new recording of Farrenc’s Symphonies Nos. 2 (1845, in D) and 3 (1847, in G minor) shows the ways in which Farrenc developed symphonically as well as the ones in which she did not. The home keys of Farrenc’s first two symphonies are exactly those of Brahms’ first two, which were written decades later; but while Brahms’ Second solidifies something genuinely new in the symphonic realm, Farrenc’s Second mostly solidifies the impression left by her First – that of a skillful adopter and adapter of the approaches and techniques of other composers, someone able to absorb earlier and contemporary approaches to the symphony and give them her own stamp without, however, producing anything revolutionary or particularly forward-looking. Thus, Farrenc’s Second sounds like a combination of elements from Mozart and Beethoven: the attentiveness to winds is Mozartean (although not as far-reaching as in Schubert’s symphonies), while the seriousness with which the symphony announces itself through the slow introduction of its first movement proclaims a relationship with Beethoven. However, unlike Beethoven’s symphonies, which progress toward climactic finales, Farrenc’s second is front-weighted, the first movement being the longest and most significant. The most interesting movement, though, is the third, a Scherzo that takes cues from Beethoven but goes well beyond them into a level of drama and structural interest that set it apart not only from its basic model but also from Farrenc’s other Scherzo movements.

     Farrenc’s Third also emphasizes its first movement, which also features a slow introduction followed by a well-developed, extended Allegro. Farrenc could well have known that the key of this symphony is the same as that of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 – and Farrenc’s work, while it has no Mozartean intensity or contrapuntal mastery, does have some of the drive and minor-key insistence of Mozart’s work. As in all three of her symphonies, this one also has passing echoes of other composers’ work: here Mendelssohn and Schumann peek in from time to time. But there is also a Sturm und Drang quality to this symphony that makes it sound somewhat like the symphonies of another composer for whom Mendelssohn was a strong influence: Niels Gade (1817-1890). Yet here as in her other symphonies, Farrenc takes in material from other composers and works with it in a way that gives it her own stylistic stamp. These are not great symphonies or world-changing ones, but well-constructed post-Beethoven forays into a form that was not Farrenc’s primary focus but in which her work evinces considerable skill. Christoph König and the Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, play the symphonies with unapologetic propulsiveness coupled with a willingness to let their many lyrical sections flow gently and smoothly, without delving into deeply emotional territory – that was not Farrenc’s province in these pieces. All the Farrenc symphonies are worth hearing, and in fact worth hearing repeatedly, by listeners interested in high-quality, less-known symphonic music of the 19th century.

April 30, 2020

(+++) HORSING AROUND


Soul Riders 1: Jorvik Calling. By Helena Dahlgren. Translated from Swedish by Agnes Broomé. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

     All the usual ingredients and one not-so-usual one: that is the formula for the Soul Riders series for preteen-to-midteen girls – which is based on the “Star Stable” online adventure game. The connection to the Web is not the unusual element here: interactions between Internet activities and printed books are increasingly frequent and common. It is the equine element that gives a slightly out-of-the-ordinary tinge to what is otherwise a straightforward, pleasantly formulaic story of girls bonding, learning about themselves, developing camaraderie, and, not incidentally, taking on grand forces of evil by riding forth as avatars of good. Literally riding forth, in this case – that is the horsiness of Helena Dahlgren’s plot.

     Actually, the plot is nothing that will be unfamiliar to readers in the target age group, and that is part of the point: Soul Riders is written and paced as comfortable fantasy, not too scary or intense, not at all difficult to understand and follow, and not in any way blurring the distinction between good and evil. The central character here is 15-year-old Lisa, whose mother died tragically in a riding accident and who has therefore buried her former love of horses beneath layers of grief and general unhappiness. Seeking a new start, Lisa’s now-single father, Carl, takes a job (about which, unsurprisingly, there is some mystery) on an island called Jorvik. An unnecessary Prologue ensures that young readers know before the story even starts that Jorvik is an extremely important focal point for the eternal battle between good and evil. And obviously Lisa, willingly or not, is going to become involved in the struggle.

     That means Lisa has to go on the usual journey of self-discovery. This one starts by ferry – the only way to reach Jorvik – and continues as Lisa begins to adjust to life on Jorvik by making friends and going to her new school. It turns out, very soon, that pretty much everything and everyone on Jorvik has something to do with horses: “Seriously, Lisa, I’m not even sure it’s legal to move to Jorvik if you don’t like horses,” one girl explains, in a statement that deserves to be taken at face value. What is important here is how closely the horses are bound to their riders, and vice versa. Each girl has a mount whose personality and appearance are very close to the girl’s own. That applies not only to the nice girls to whom Lisa feels immediately attracted – Alex, Anne, and Linda – but also to the inevitable dastardly characters who, of course, simply exude darkness and malice and, you know, evil. Would that real life could always be so simple! But the whole point of Soul Riders is to give readers something that is very definitely not real life: this is a world where you find your friends and hold fast to them, where your enemies are clear even when their exact motivations are not, and where the crucial elements of the good-vs.-evil battle are humans bonded to horses in a kind of figurative centaur relationship (yes, the girls and their mounts are so close that they almost seem to be compound creatures).

     To become part of the Jorvik magic and Jorvik world, Lisa must, of course, overcome her terrible memories of her mother’s death – a topic she cannot at first even bring up to herself, and one she is later unable to bring up to her newfound friends. Getting past this awful event requires Lisa to find her equine soulmate, and of course one is available nearby on Jorvik – and has unusual physical characteristics of which Lisa has dreamed since she was a little girl.

     Dahlgren gives slight hints, very early on, of what this horse will turn out to be named: Lisa finds herself drawn intensely to the “paling morning sky” as she arrives on Jorvik, and in particular notices a “giant star-shaped constellation” in which “the stars traced the outline of a large, four-pointed star.” There is no such constellation, Lisa is sure, but nevertheless, there it is. And, of course, her father cannot see it. And it later turns out that Lisa’s newfound friends and allies saw something on the same morning that Lisa did – but each saw a different something: “a big crescent moon,” a lightning bolt, and “a sun.” And then it turns out, courtesy of nothing less than a Google search, that “the sun, the star, the moon, and the lightning bolt are ancient symbols often associated with the legend of the four Soul Riders.” And there we have the summation of the plot of this first book in what clearly has the potential to be an extended series.

     Oh, and as for that suitable mount for Lisa: well, there just happens to be a horse at the local stable named – what else? – Starshine. And it is love, or bonding, or adventure-in-the-making, at first sight. And will undoubtedly continue in the same vein for plenty of Soul Riders books to come.

(++++) TONE POEMS WRIT LARGE


Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; King Christian II Suite. Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Alpha. $18.99.

     The second release in Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s Sibelius cycle on the Alpha label fulfills the promise of the first while showing this young Finnish conductor (born 1985) becoming more comfortable with his unusual and powerful vision of the symphonies of Finland’s most famous composer. The initial release, of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1, was unusual and dramatic – and very much a matter of taste. It was replete with rubato and emphases that turned Sibelius’ First into a highly energetic, craggy and often peculiarly phrased work that at times barely sounded like Sibelius at all. “Reconsideration” was almost too mild a word for Rouvali’s interpretative stance, which made Sibelius sound sometimes like Bruckner, sometimes like a tone-poem composer who inadvertently mislabeled an exceptionally episodic First Symphony. Rouvali’s was a polarizing interpretation – but there is much less of that level of controversy in his reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, and much more of the fine attention to detail and nuance that was the best part of his recording of No. 1.

     Make no mistake: Rouvali is still eager to push Sibelius’ tempo markings to extremes, notably in the second movement of No. 2, where fast sections are very fast and slow ones practically stop in their tracks. He still takes full rests very seriously indeed, stretching them to such an extent that the music has a stop-and-start quality even beyond what Sibelius put into it. But Sibelius did put much of this into his Symphony No. 2, and as a result, Rouvali’s approach seems more organized and well-accentuated here than it did in the much smoother and more overtly Germanic Symphony No. 1. It is in his Second Symphony that Sibelius really began to find his unique compositional voice where symphonies are concerned, and Rouvali seems thoroughly attuned to the special characteristics that Sibelius brought to the symphonic form in this work. Indeed, in retrospect, it may be that Rouvali, in his reading of Sibelius’ First, was trying – with mixed success – to find an interpretation that would look ahead to the approach that Sibelius took in his later symphonies.

     Be that as it may, Rouvali’s handling of Sibelius’ Second brings out the very best in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, whose brass growls, whose winds flit both pointedly and delicately about, whose strings have bite as well as warmth. The second movement, in particular, is quite marvelous: its intensity never flags, and Rouvali – given a tempo indication that actually calls for considerable use of rubato (the exact marking is Tempo andante, ma rubato) – lets his imagination fly, accentuating the different sections of the music to fine effect without ever overindulging to an extent that could easily become grotesque. This movement comes across as a dramatic tone poem within a larger tone poem, as if the entire symphony possesses an arc of storytelling within which this movement’s tale is told with particular drama and effectiveness.

     The rest of the symphony has remarkable power. The first movement is strong and bright, structurally sound and elegantly poised. The third is marked Vivacissimo, and Rouvali pushes the opening tempo so determinedly that it is a real credit to the orchestra that it can keep up and maintain so high a level of clarity in intonation. Again, Rouvali looks for maximum contrast in this movement’s next section, essentially stopping the entire forward motion of the music so as to bring out the lyrical beauty that Sibelius offers here. The back-and-forth between fast and slow sections is somewhat jarring, but in a way that seems to accentuate Sibelius’ intentions rather than run counter to them. And as the third movement yields attacca to the finale, with its spectacularly beautiful first theme, Rouvali urges the orchestra to ever-higher levels of intense commitment, to such an extent that the fourth movement sounds not only like a tone poem but also like a film score for a particularly impassioned directorial odyssey. Yet Rouvali – a percussionist as well as conductor – is also sensitive here to the extreme care with which Sibelius uses small sections of the music and the orchestra to provide contrast with the massed sound of the ensemble (one of the few instances in which Sibelius utilizes a technique more closely associated with Mahler). Rouvali’s symphony-as-extended-tone-poem approach is even more apparent here than in the earlier movements, as he gives each section of the finale a clear beginning and conclusion even at the occasional expense of some forward momentum. As the conclusion of the symphony approaches through a very extended full-orchestra crescendo, Rouvali takes pains to allow a final dip into quieter, more contemplative waters before the genuine splendor of D major sweeps everything into a brilliant conclusion. It is quite a performance.

     Also on this recording is the five-movement King Christian II Suite, which is somewhat earlier than the symphony (1898 vs.1902). The suite is drawn from music for a stage play and is more direct and less complex than the symphony, and in some ways more immediately appealing. Rouvali handles this material with a lighter and, in truth, less-intrusive touch than he uses for the symphony. The first two movements, Nocturne and Elegie, flow naturally and pleasantly, with expressiveness and thematic construction that are noticeably “Sibelian” even at this stage of the composer’s development. Elegie, originally the overture to the play (by Adolf Georg Wiedersheim-Paul, 1863-1943), is a particularly adept bit of scene-setting. The third and shortest movement, a bright little Musette, is followed by a Serenade whose rather martial character Rouvali emphasizes to good effect. The suite ends with a Ballade whose intense opening and scurrying middle section actually foreshadow the Second Symphony; indeed, this movement has something of the feeling of a brief tone poem about it, just as Symphony No. 2, in Rouvali’s performance, has a similar feeling writ large. The pairing of this suite with this symphony is a thoughtful one, giving this entire release a welcome cohesiveness that allows Rouvali to demonstrate the effectiveness of his approach in different but clearly related contexts.

April 23, 2020

(++++) HERE, KITTIES KITTIES


Breaking Cat News 3: Take It Away, Tommy—A “Breaking Cat News” Adventure. By Georgia Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     Lupin, Elvis and Puck, the three cats at the center of Georgia Dunn’s amusingly offbeat Breaking Cat News books, are joined by a whole passel of other felines in the series’ third entry, Take It Away, Tommy. The basic idea here is that cats have their own version of CNN – call it Cat News Network – that they use to communicate among themselves when anything that is noteworthy to cats happens to be going on. The cats dress up like TV reporters and use microphones and toss commentary back and forth while interacting with their humans, who appear to be oblivious to all the equipment (if it really exists) and interact with the cats simply as cats. The human family expanded in Dunn’s first two books, so it now includes a man, a woman and two children (toddler and infant), and everybody deals with the cats in his or her own way.

     That, however, is not all, especially when it comes to Take It Away, Tommy. The title refers to a cat from another family who is now part of the Breaking Cat News team. He is a field reporter – and, more significantly in this book, a barn reporter. Tommy meets Burt, a barn cat, and visits the barn on behalf of Breaking Cat News. In the barn, Tommy and Burt encounter Baba Mouse, a cat who has “had over 90 kittens” and is “older than dirt” but is also quite formidable and proves, in the course of this book, to have a significant role to play in the ever-expanding story. Burt has more to do, too: he is “an AV cat” who helps hook together the various elements of Breaking Cat News programming. This involves Lupin, Elvis and Puck dealing again with the Spanish-speaking (actually bilingual) cats from the upstairs apartment, first introduced in the series’ second book. And there are other cats introduced in this book, in addition to Burt and Baba Mouse. One is Sophie, who lives in the same house as Tommy and is “beautiful” and “very smart” and, in fact, an artist – but who does not care for Tommy at all, at least through most of the book. Another new feline here – and this becomes a very unusual story indeed – is Tillie, a ghost cat.

     Yes, ghost cat. Puck sees her and reacts as real-world cats sometimes do when they see things that nobody else can see. The other cats in the cast do not see Tillie, which thoroughly complicates matters. Tillie bounds around the house, knocking down things (for which Puck gets blamed), and asking, “Where is that new addition?” Since the house is an old one (now divided into apartments), Tillie’s quest is obviously for something from an earlier time – and gradually, through some delightful cat-and-human interaction, the mystery is explored and eventually solved. Elvis, sitting at the news anchor desk, says “things are getting strange” as this story develops, and they are indeed. For example, the two human women who try to figure things out try a Ouija board that keeps giving them the word “cat,” which they think is a mistake. A human ghost, a woman nicknamed Freddie, floats in asking, “Where is my cat?” But although Lupin sees Freddie, he cannot see Tillie and, well, things get pretty convoluted as the story progresses far beyond anything in Dunn’s earlier books.

     Dunn seems determined to broaden and deepen the Breaking Cat News premise. Even when the mystery of Tillie and Freddie is solved, it leads to something else, involving Puck’s favorite toy, Buzzy Mouse, being mouse-napped and held for a cheese-wheel ransom by a mouse gang. That situation, which ties obliquely to the ghost-cat story, turns out to require intervention by Baba Mouse to bring the story to a warmhearted and happy ending.

     There are Thanksgiving-related pages here, and Christmas-related pages, and Dunn does not entirely abandon the short-form vignettes that made up most of the first two books – such as, in Take It Away, Tommy, Elvis’ insistence on repeatedly taking a baby toy because he considers it a cat toy, and all the cats’ concern about the “little man trapped in the TV,” who is a video-game character. “The People are able to transmit instructions and send supplies to the little man through this electronic transistor,” Puck explains, but Lupin’s offer to pull the man out leads only to Lupin being carried away from the TV set, whose screen he is blocking while appearing (from the people’s viewpoint) to try to play with the video-game world himself. The different interpretations of the world by cats and humans are part of the fun in the Breaking Cat News books, and the way cats and humans deal with and help each other, often inadvertently, is another part (the ghost story is an especially well-done instance of that). Dunn has created some unusual, very amusing, grounded-in-reality scenes for this series – ones that cat owners in particular will appreciate (since the cats really do behave like cats some of the time), and ones that will tickle the funnybones and tug the heartstrings even of people who do not share their lives with felines.

(++++) MUSICAL EXCAVATIONS


Johann Strauss Jr.: Blindekuh. Robert Davidson, Kirsten C. Kunkle, Martina Bortolotti, Roman Pichler, James Bowers, Andrea Chudak, Daniel Schliewa, Emily K. Byrne, Julian Rohde; Sofia Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).

Vivaldi: Concerti per violino VIII (“Il teatro”), RV 187, 217, 235, 321, 366, and 387. Julien Chauvin, violin and conducting Le Concert de la Loge. Naïve. $16.99.

     Johann Strauss Jr. had the most mundane of reasons for wanting to write stage works: there was a lot more money to be made from them than from his world-famous, enormously popular dance concerts in Vienna and elsewhere. And the idea of stringing together numerous polkas, waltzes, and other popular forms into a single extended work must have seemed, on the face of it, a reasonably easy path to greater profitability for what was, after all, the Strauss family business. All this may explain the notable lack of success of Strauss’ operettas: they are indeed packed with wonderful tunes, but Strauss did not have a very good sense of what would engage a theatrical audience, so he accepted, again and again, libretti that ranged from the serviceable to the execrable. Even Die Fledermaus, his most popular work by far, is oddly structured, with a climactic third act that is almost entirely spoken rather than sung. And Der Zigeunerbaron, his second-most-popular work, although its libretto is passable, has elements that do not quite gel and tend to lapse into incoherence. Strauss was by no means the only 19th-century composer to suffer from subpar libretti, which have afflicted operas for hundreds of years. But perhaps because the musical snippets in which he specialized offered no way to overcome the extended incoherence of the plots, Strauss’ stage works were notable again and again for their failure to sustain audience interest. And that was the case with Blindekuh (“Blind Cow,” the game known in English as “Blind Man’s Buff”), a work from 1878 that closed after 16 performances and disappeared until Dario Salvi revived it in a concert version in January 2019. The overture and five dance works that Strauss drew from Blindekuh have retained some popularity, indicating that the music here is not the problem – a fact confirmed by the new Naxos recording made from live performances under Salvi’s direction. The operetta’s plot is ridiculously over-complicated and difficult to follow, the libretto having been written by Rudolf Kneisel (1832-1899) based on his own stage work – a kind of Molière bedroom farce without the bedrooms and without French witticism. Essentially, there are a series of misunderstandings and mis-identifications of characters, some engineered and some accidental, until everybody is happy at the end. Under the circumstances, the fact that Salvi’s performance contains no dialogue is probably a good thing, since listeners get a chance to hear an hour and 45 minutes of first-class Strauss tunes, and some delicious vocal writing, without being encumbered by any attempt to understand the mishmash of what is going on. All the typical elements of Strauss operettas are here in abundance: couplets and choruses, dalliances and duets, and some deceptions that are silly enough to remain funny, such as one character’s fanciful description of life in America, from which he is pretending to have come. The game of Blindekuh does not fit the action in any particularly significant way, but it is used as an important plot device at the end of Act II, allowing a scene of mass confusion in which one character suddenly recognizes his wife and a court officer demands that another character reveal his true identity (which does not happen). More importantly, the Blindekuh scene gives Strauss an opportunity to offer one of those wonderful waltzes that seemed to flow unceasingly from him – a waltz whose tune first appears in the operetta’s overture, is heard in full as part of the big Act II conclusion, and then unites the whole work musically when it returns at the end of Act III. Strauss may have had little ability in choosing libretti for his stage works, but he consistently produced music that remains worth hearing even though the plots that the music is designed to further are eminently forgettable. And so it is with Blindekuh. The singers are all quite fine and all actually sound as if they are enjoying themselves in delivering this frothy bit of comedy. And Salvi leads the production with genuine enthusiasm, pacing all the music sensibly and sensitively and eliciting fine singing from the chorus and delightfully bouncy playing from the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. It is highly unlikely that Blindekuh will ever become a significant component of the Strauss stage pantheon, but the overture and five instrumental pieces that the composer drew from it will likely continue to enchant audiences, as they should from a strictly musical standpoint. And this very fine recording, by giving audiences a chance to know the context in which the instrumental material originally appeared, is worthy of Strauss lovers’ celebration.

     There is plenty of digging-up still to be done among the works of even the best-known composers. Naïve has been doing this for nearly two decades in a series of presentations of Vivaldi music held at the National University Library of Turin. The 63rd Vivaldi Edition release is the eighth to focus on concertos for Vivaldi’s own instrument, the violin, and as in all the earlier releases, it contains some wonderful music and some excellent period-instrument playing – here by a violinist and ensemble not heard before in this long-running series. Julien Chauvin and Le Concert de la Loge are poised, even elegant in their handling of the six concertos on this CD – and as always, although the concertos follow Vivaldi’s familiar three-movement pattern, each has its own unique character and its own particular pleasures. RV 187, in C, has a strong stop-and-start opening with judiciously placed rests that give the music an emphatic character that contrasts well with the ornamental solo part. RV 217, in D, has a slow movement whose opening has an almost eerie, ghostly sound. RV 235, in D minor, has a particularly heartfelt slow movement. RV 321, in G minor, opens with ensemble flourishes that contrast strongly with solo passages, and has a finale that is more than usually intense. RV 366, in B-flat, has a slow movement that opens with a plaintive solo that could pass muster in one of Vivaldi’s operas. And RV 387, in B minor, has a slow movement in which the soloist offers an extended aria-like presentation as the ensemble provides ostinato-like backup – after which the stormy finale brings the work to a decidedly dramatic close. Listeners will discover their own highlights in all these works, and there are plenty of literally noteworthy elements in all of them. Here as elsewhere in the Vivaldi Edition, the performers show that historically informed performance practice need not mean persnickety attention to minor details, or an overly academic approach to the music in the name of authenticity. Careful attention to 18th-century style is certainly present, but the overarching purpose here is to bring forth what Vivaldi wanted his music to communicate to an audience. The quality of that communication has not diminished over the centuries, with this recording and its predecessors doing a wonderful job of giving music lovers the feeling that they are encountering the concertos, if not necessarily for the first time, then in a new and thoroughly captivating way.

April 16, 2020

(++++) AS PIGGISH AS USUAL


Pearls Goes Hollywood: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     The first thing to know about the latest Pearls Before Swine collection is that the strips in it have nothing to do with Hollywood. However, cartoonist Stephan Pastis goes into a major bout of self-love in the four-page introduction to the book, extolling at length his own virtues as a “movie mogul” in connection with a film project that is not based on Pearls Before Swine but on Pastis’ other work, the Timmy Failure series for children. Pastis’ love of his movie experience translates, in typically overdone Pearls Before Swine fashion, into inside front and back covers showing 50, count ’em, 50 photos of Pastis costumed as an Old West gunslinger; a front cover with Pastis tied to railway tracks as a train approaches, while various members of the Pearls Before Swine cast get ready to film his incipient demise; a back cover in which love-starved Elly the Elephant gazes longingly at Pastis-as-gunslinger as portrayed on a movie-theater poster advertising “El Desperado de Santa Rosa”; and a fold-out (or tear-out) version of that very same movie poster, bound into the back of Pearls Goes Hollywood.

     Wretched excess is a stock-in-trade for Pastis, as it is for Hollywood, and the excess is even more wretched than usual this time – and the wretchedness is even more excessive. Yet none of that will bother Pearls Before Swine fans in the slightest – or interest anyone else in any way whatsoever. Pearls Before Swine is an acquired taste that many people never acquire, and that is actually fine with Pastis, who appears to carry a good deal of the darkness and snarkiness of the strip into the real world. And that is only fair, since he carries a good deal of the darkness and snarkiness of the real world into the strip in the first place.

     The strips in the book, not to be confused with the new, Hollywood-themed material, offer the usual mishmash of not-very-well-drawn characters with no names except ones explaining what they are: Rat is named Rat, Pig is called Pig, Goat is Goat, and so on. Pastis often makes fun of his own drawing skill, or lack thereof (“it took me 45 minutes to draw that dartboard and it still looks terrible”), but he is laughing all the way to the bank: the strip remains distinctly bankable despite the fading of so many newspapers. Pastis also makes fun of himself: one strip talks about people taking selfies because they do not have friends to take the photos – because everyone spends so much time on the phone. Beneath that strip, Pastis, who offers commentary on many of his strips, says that this one “doesn’t apply to me. I had no friends even before smartphones.” He also creates some strips that younger readers will not understand, such as one featuring a communist from the former Soviet Union – Pastis says “if it were still 1975, you’d find this joke hilarious.”

     Pearls Before Swine works – for those for whom it works at all – because it is very much for adults despite the rather childlike appearance of the characters. Pastis draws “cartoon Pastis” as a regular, unappealing-looking character, for example, and has his alter ego constantly creating strips that result in really bad puns, after which other characters in the strip insult or attack him. That sort of cartooning-about-cartooning “meta” angle gives Pearls Before Swine part of its unique approach. Another part, accentuated in this collection by the beneath-strip comments, comes from Pastis’ attitude toward modern technology. In addition to the selfies/smartphone strip, there is one in which Goat, the resident intellectual among the characters, tells Rat, the resident cynic, that he is simply standing atop a hill enjoying the moment, not tweeting about it or posting it on Instagram or at Facebook. Rat says that means Goat has lost his mind. Beneath the strip, Pastis writes, “I posted this strip on both Facebook and Instagram.” There is the “meta” matter again, along with a certain combination of self-aggrandizement and self-criticism. It’s a heady mixture if you like that sort of thing.

     Pearls Goes Hollywood zips in and out of the many types of stories that Pastis has going at any given time. In some strips that pop up occasionally, Rat is president of the United States, making unending inane and nasty comments and bad decisions. In other strips, the top-hatted “Comic Strip Censor” loudly objects to something the characters are saying, or almost saying – as in one strip about security for religious groups that contains the phrase “unprotected sects.” And in some strips, the influence of Peanuts comes to the fore, as when Pig is seen within a version of Lucy’s “Psychiatric Help” booth that simply has the word “Help” on it. Rat asks what kind of help Pig is offering, and Pig replies, “None. I’m crying out for it.” And just to drive the point about Peanuts home, Pastis writes underneath these particular panels, “In strips like this, you can really see the influence that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had on me.” And then there are the “croc” strips, in which Larry, the father in the neighborhood crocodile family, “speaks” in different lettering from that used everywhere else, to emphasize the way he expresses himself: “Dis muss be best hiding place ever.” Larry also turns up in the “Rat as president” strips as press secretary, making comments such as, “Kees Larry butt, journilleests!”

     Some Pastis remarks in Pearls Goes Hollywood are considerably more useful than other comments. For example, his direct statement that “I use Rat to get out all my aggressions in life” is a useful encapsulation that explains a lot of Rat’s behavior. But Pearls Before Swine is passive-aggressive as often as it is overtly on the attack. Thus, “probably the most popular strip of the year,” says Pastis, is one in which Rat asks Pig why Pig is still in bed at noon; Pig replies, “Because nothing that will happen today will be better than the warmth and comfort that I have here”; so Rat climbs into bed as well, saying, “You may have solved life.” Rat may be aggression channeled, but Pig is the resident idiot savant when he is not being the resident idiot. And while Pastis’ primary characters may be unnamed and have stick-figure arms and legs, they are very much in tune with, and tuned into, the real world that Pastis views through a funhouse mirror in Pearls Before Swine. That is why he manages to get away with all the atrocious puns, almost-profanity and less-than-optimal art: none of those flaws seems like a flaw to people who share Pastis’ admittedly skewed but often unerringly on-target view of the world.