October 06, 2022

(++++) UPON THE DESK, UP ON THE WALL

Calendars (desk for 2023): Chihuly 2023 Weekly Planner; Get It Together! with Sarah’s Scribbles. Abrams, $19.99 (Chihuly); Andrews McMeel, $16.99 (Sarah’s).

Sandra Boynton’s My Family & Friends Birthday Calendar. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     It is very difficult to think of some calendars as disposable. Objectively, almost all of them are: they are designed for use for a year and replacement thereafter. But every once in a while, there is a calendar that is truly special, one whose genuine beauty makes it tempting to keep it around long-term – or maybe tear out selected pages and use them as decorations. That is the situation with the Chihuly 2023 Weekly Planner, an exceptionally attractive, spiral-bound, lie-flat desk calendar that features a beautiful photograph of elegant Chihuly glass art on every page, opposite a week of dates with plenty of room to make note of appointments, plans, meetings and so forth. Chihuly’s art is all over: among the locations where the glass sculptures in these pages can be found are Columbus, Ohio; Tacoma, Washington; Monterey, California; New York City; Milwaukee; Singapore; and Naples, Florida. Even if you do not recognize Chihuly by name (Dale Chihuly, born 1941, is known for transforming blown-glass pieces into large-scale sculpture), the art created by him or in his studio is immediately recognizable. Brilliantly multicolored glass twists and turns every which way; flower-like shapes become chandeliers and wall hangings; nested baskets-within-baskets look like enormous, gorgeously colored seashells; rich-hued glass stalks resemble elegant, long-necked birds. These and many other scenes are what make this calendar such a special addition to a desktop or tabletop. The calendar’s layout is artistic, too, in the way it presents standard information. Each month starts with a full-page display of all that month’s days, some of which contain a small triangle at the lower left – the triangles function as asterisks, directing users to a list, below the dates, of notable events of the month (including moon phases and holidays, which are also listed on individual days as the month progresses). To maintain the flow of the calendar, every page of dates includes a full week, even if a new month begins during that week – thus, August 28-31 and September 1-3 appear on a single page. And the Chihuly glass art is sometimes on the left-hand page, sometimes on the right-hand one. This sounds more confusing than it is: the calendar is designed to stay flat when open, and can easily be left open all the time for quick reference – and when it is open, seeing the notes on the day-by-day page (whether at the left or right) is very simple. This is a calendar designed with elegance in mind: the spiral-bound part is within a hard-cover binding, which means the calendar has two cover pages featuring different Chihuly works – one on the outer binding and one on the front of the actual calendar pages. This is the sort of gift that one gives to a senior corporate executive, a tenured university professor, an artist with strong feelings for colors and curvature – or to oneself, for considerably more beauty in calendar form than is typically seen.

     If you switch over to what is typical in desktop/tabletop planners – and still want something a cut above – a good choice for the upcoming year is Get It Together! with Sarah’s Scribbles. This is a 16-month calendar (September 2022-December 2023) filled with the offbeat humor of Sarah Andersen, who makes the life of a twentysomething woman seem much more wryly amusing than it really is (and never mind the fact that Andersen turned 30 in 2022). From the page of self-adhesive stickers bound into the front of the calendar, to the handy pouch on the rear inside cover for storing receipts and miscellany, this spiral-bound planner is packed with useful as well as funny elements. The entire 16-month span of the calendar is laid out, month by month, at the front of the book (instead of having each full month shown at the start of the week-by-week pages). The individual pages then give each day of each week three columns: “appointments/misc,” “stuff to do,” and “my social life.” The columns are the same size, but hey, if you have no social life – or have a lot of it – you can adjust the notations on the calendar accordingly. Each full month at the front of the calendar shows Andersen’s cartoon alter ego at the top in a specific pose, and that pose carries through to each of the week-at-a-time pages. And each two-page spread showing a week of dates includes a full Sarah’s Scribbles comic of up to six panels. These panels may be aimed at a certain age group, but they often reach out beyond that target audience: in one strip, cartoon Sarah struggles while carrying a boulder labeled “stress” that grows in each panel and finally crushes her; in another, she holds a glob labeled “feelings” and tries to stuff it into a bottle so small that an out-of-panel voice warns her it will burst (which cartoon Sarah denies); in another, cartoon Sarah’s dog spends multiple panels projecting “I love you” at her, while her cat uses a single panel to say, “I accept you under certain circumstances.” Sarah’s Scribbles is not artistic in the Chihuly sense, to be sure, but in the Internet sense (the strip originated online) and the keep-people-amused-throughout-the-year sense, it works just fine – and makes for a very pleasing planner that can bring plenty of smiles all year.

     If you really do want a calendar that is not disposable, there is one type you should definitely consider: the perpetual calendar, otherwise known as an “occasions” calendar, otherwise known, specifically, as Sandra Boynton’s My Family & Friends Birthday Calendar. The back of this wall-hanging, spiral-bound (at the top) calendar says it all: “OH, WHAT A RELIEF!! A birthday calendar that ISN’T DIGITAL! [Dinosaur-approved for home or office use].” So, sure, be a dinosaur where calendars are concerned, and forget the reality that so many people nowadays do all their record-keeping and appointment-watching and occasion-remembering on their phones or other digital devices. Proclaim your independence and free-thinking ways with Boynton’s usual bevy of rounded, ridiculous-looking dinosaurs and hippos and elephants and penguins and indescribable monsters, oh my! Seriously (ok, not too seriously): this calendar features some of Boynton’s inimitable characters atop each month; then there is a headline with the month, the word “birthdays” and an exclamation point; and then there are numbered lines for every day, so you can write in the name and birth year of anyone whose birthday you want to remember perpetually. Toward the bottom of each page, one or two small Boynton characters appear, just to enliven the whole display even further. How could anything be wrong with this? Well, ok, if you want to nitpick, think about the label “birthday calendar” and consider the fact that most people who use perpetual calendars in the first place utilize them for more than birthdays – there are anniversaries of various types, for example, and the dates of arrival in the family of canine or feline companions, and various other notable occurrences to be remembered year after year. However, anybody who wants to carp about the precision or imprecision of such matters does not deserve this Boynton calendar in the first place and should be relegated to electronic record-keeping only. There is a timeless quality to Boynton’s silly cartoons that makes them a great match for what is essentially a timeless calendar – one that you can hang in a suitable place on a suitable wall and use both for reference and for something to enjoy time after time after time.

(++++) THE PATH OF DISCOVERY

The History of the Computer: People, Inventions, and Technology That Changed Our World. By Rachel Ignotofsky. Ten Speed Press. $19.99.

     It was Charles Babbage, one of the many visionary thinkers and tinkerers mentioned in The History of the Computer, who said that the path of discovery’s first steps “are those which add most to the existing knowledge of mankind.” On that basis, it is the very early illuminations discussed in Rachel Ignotofsky’s fascinating book that deserve the greatest praise and most attention, which they rarely receive for the simple reason that they are so commonplace, so much a part of the fabric of society, that even thinking of them as “discoveries” is very difficult. Thus, for all the attention that Ignotofsky gives to topics about which her target audience of young readers will likely be interested, such as video games and cellphones, it is the first steps toward those modern inventions that added most to human knowledge and capabilities. Those steps include the first abacus (around 2500 B.C.E.) and the first use of zero as a number (around 683 C.E.).

     To Ignotofsky’s credit, she does include these extremely crucial items in her book, not dwelling on them but not minimizing their importance, either. And that is a major strength of The History of the Computer, which shows that without knowledge and comprehension of mathematical elements that now seem utterly mundane, the wonders made possible by computers would be wholly impossible. Indeed, without computers – the word originally referred to human beings whose job involved mathematical calculations – the machines we now call computers would not exist. Of course, the annoyances associated with computers would not exist, either: Ignotofsky points out that the first message we would now describe as spam dates to 1864 (it was an advertisement for a dental group, sent by telegraph).

     Ignotofsky’s own communicative method, which involves very extensive illustrations accompanying clearly written textual material, helps make The History of the Computer fascinating – and worthwhile for adult readers, not only the younger people for whom it is intended. Adults will likely be especially interested in learning, for example, who coined the term “software engineer” (Margaret Hamilton, born 1936) and who pithily observed that “the most damaging phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way’” (U.S. Navy Admiral Grace Hopper, 1906-1992). Younger readers may be more likely to gravitate to information on how now-everyday technological innovations came to be: the first commercial computer using a graphical user interface (which Ignotofsky, for some reason, calls a “graphic” user interface) was the Xerox Star in 1981; flash memory dates to 1984; the first successful tablet computer was created by the same man who invented the Palm Pilot (Jeff Hawkins, born 1957); the World Wide Web did not exist until 1990, and the first website was published in 1991; the first pop-up ad appeared in 1997; and much, much more. The quality of Ignotofsky’s explanatory writing can be seen throughout her discussions of these and many other elements of The History of the Computer. For instance, “The terms internet and Web are often used interchangeably, but they are two different things! The internet is the physical network of connected computers, with standards of how data moves [sic] across that network. The Web is an application that runs on top of the internet and is a collection of pages, documents, and resources that are all linked together in a ‘web’ of hyperlinks and addresses.”

     This sort of clarity generally overcomes the book’s occasional shortcomings, such as using the word “data” as a singular noun (a common enough error, but not one expected in a book on computer history) and, at one point, specifically highlighting the design and structural components of “the intergrated [sic] circuit.” It also helps that Ignotofsky comes at various topics from different angles, sometimes going through the same material in different contexts and thus making it easier to understand. For instance, at one point she explains and illustrates the structure of Boolean algebra and the logic gates that, in effect, use it for on/off switches; later, she provides a timeline that includes George Boole’s publication of the way Boolean logic works – and, again, the way logic gates are derived from it.

     The history of the computer is not, in the final analysis, the history of a machine. It is the history of humans’ relationship with numbers, with using those numbers to reflect the world and make predictions about it and create advances not only in scientific areas but also in thinking processes themselves. Most of the people discussed by Ignotofsky in her book, even the ones who were avowed tinkerers, were thinkers above all, figuring out how things could be done differently (and hopefully better), and what sorts of new things might be just over the horizon if they took those all-important first steps on the path of discovery. In fact, in a sense, all steps on that road are first steps: one person takes some, and then another takes his or her own first steps, and so on. The marvels of modern computers are many, but without the Sumerian abacus and the exchange of ideas and thought patterns made possible by the Silk Road, none of those marvels would be possible. The History of the Computer is especially attractive for the way it invites young readers to take their own first steps into a world that they themselves will help make and remake.

(++++) AH, THE STAGE!

Suppé: Die Reise um die Erde in 80 Tagen. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $13.99.

Edward German: Music for the Stage. Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper. Naxos. $13.99.

Nicholas White: Songs of Innocence; The Raven. Clara Rottsolk, soprano; Roger O. Isaacs, countertenor; Matthew Loyal Smith, tenor; Mark Andrew Cleveland, bass; Heather Braun-Bakken and Heidi Braun-Hill, violins; Christopher Nunn, viola; Colleen McGary-Smith, cello; Kate Foss, double bass; Laura Ward, piano. MSR Classics. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Alastair White: RUNE. Patricia Auchterlonie, soprano; Simone Ibbett-Brown, mezzo-soprano; Ben Smith, Siwan Rhys and Joseph Havlat, pianos. Métier. $18.99.

     Although we think mostly of opera and ballet when it comes to classical-music theatrical works, it is worth remembering that composers often created music for other stage purposes, such as interludes and “musical underlining” for spoken-word plays. Much of that music is virtually unperformable in concert form, although an occasional piece, such as Sibelius’ Valse triste from Kuolema, stands on its own quite well. The same cannot be said of Franz von Suppé’s music for plays such as Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne’s very popular 1872 novel, which became an 1874 play. The play (by prolific playwright Adolphe-Eugène-Philippe d’Ennery) makes Verne’s story into even more of an adventure romp than it is in the novel, emphasizing the most overtly dramatic material and downplaying much of the scene-setting – which is left largely to the music. Suppé came through with suitable material in fine fettle, using his talent for melodiousness and his flair for orchestration to illustrate everything from the original wager to a three-wedding finale. The tone-painting is, not surprisingly, on the obvious side: the music needed to make its points quickly, without distracting the audience from the story. So Suppé includes everything from an Oriental gong to a pistol shot (in a scene in the United States). The love-story elements are as well-handled as the intense ones (an Indian attack on a train, the explosion of the ship carrying the adventurers homeward), and Suppé uses every available opportunity to showcase his skill at musical scene-creation. This music for Die Reise um die Erde in 80 Tagen has never been recorded before, and that is scarcely a surprise, since it contains several incidental pieces lasting less than a minute, and although a few scenes are in the four-to-seven-minute range, there is nothing continuously melodious that would work well out of the context of the play. There is plenty of rousing, triumphal material here, though, nicely leavened with lyricism from time to time, and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Dario Salvi plays everything with suitable élan and apparent enjoyment on a new Naxos CD. This is scarcely great music, but it is a lot of fun to hear, even without the words of the play to indicate exactly what is going on at any given point.

     Like Suppé, Edward German was devoted to the stage in ways both operatic and non-operatic. Aside from a couple of works that remain in the repertoire at least occasionally, notably Tom Jones (1906-07), German is distinguished for creating the last opera to a libretto by W.S. Gilbert: Fallen Fairies, or The Wicked World (1909). Actually, it was also German’s last opera – and was not a notable success either for him or for Gilbert (whose longtime collaborator, Sir Arthur Sullivan, had died nine years earlier and had at one point proclaimed German his successor). German did not have Sullivan’s melodic gift (or Suppé’s), but he regularly produced pleasant, well-crafted music that understandably brought him considerable success in his lifetime and just as understandably largely faded after his death in 1936. A Naxos re-release of recordings from 1991 of some of German’s stage music, performed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Leaper, confirms both the quality and the limitations of German’s art: nothing here is less than pleasant and nothing is eminently noteworthy. The disc actually includes an instrumental arrangement of a famous number from Tom Jones, the waltz-song from Act III known as For Tonight. But most of the material is drawn from incidental music for various plays that German illustrated musically with considerable skill – and without creating pieces that would distract audiences from the action and spoken words. The disc is arranged in no logical order, the result being that it shows German’s style to have evolved very little during the two-decade time period in which these works were written. The pieces are the overture and three dances from Nell Gwyn (1900); four characteristic dances gathered as Gipsy Suite (1889-92); three dances from the music for Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1891); a berceuse from a work called The Tempter (1893); incidental music from Romeo and Juliet (1895); and a short four-movement suite from Merrie England (1902/1908), one of German’s most-popular works. German’s music tends to be more forgettable than Suppé’s or Sullivan’s, but it clearly serves the purposes for which he created it and, in performances as good as these, makes for an enjoyable, if occasional, listening experience.

     “Occasional” is also the right frequency for listening to two theatrically thought-out settings by Nicholas White (born 1967) of familiar poetry by William Blake (Songs of Innocence) and Edgar Allan Poe (The Raven). The Blake settings are more effective in the way they draw on multiple vocal ranges and provide apt instrumental coloration (under White’s leadership) that differentiates the texts well and allows the dominant brightness and subsidiary-but-crucial darker elements to come through to very good effect. The 18 songs, pervaded as they are by Blake’s mysticism, include some lines that the “woke” mobs of today would surely suppress if they could, but White retains the poems as Blake created them and in so doing transcends our own time as surely as the musical settings transcend Blake’s. There are, however, exceptions here and there to White’s sensitivity to the poet: for example, The Little Black Boy is retitled Heaven’s Light, although the boy’s plaintive cry to be reborn as a lamb in Heaven and thus become lovable is as powerful as ever. White’s settings lack the tremendous power of William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but they are well-proportioned, well-thought-out, and generally sensitive to the nuances of the poetry. White is, however, much less sensitive to Poe’s The Raven, one of Poe’s many products focusing on obsession and mental collapse. Here the characteristics that make White’s Blake settings effective – the use of multiple voices and multiple instrumental colors – work against the words rather than with them, bringing The Raven far too much variety of sound and feeling. Poe’s poem is uttered by a single narrator, and it simply makes no contextual or interpretative sense to use more than one. Similarly, the multifaceted instrumental accompaniment, although nicely structured and very well-played, does not fit Poe’s gloom particularly well. It is true that one could easily overdo a setting of The Raven by assigning it to, say, a bass-baritone narrator and a single instrument (cello, or piano using only the lower half of the keyboard). But White’s treatment overdoes things in the opposite way: he never makes the material sound light, but Poe was careful to create an atmosphere of unremitting guilt and gloom, and that does not come through here. This two-CD release from MSR Classics has far more bright spots than dark ones, but some of those bright spots are somewhat misplaced.

     It is worth remembering that opera does remain a major factor in contemporary classical music – but it is often not what earlier composers would have thought of as opera. Alastair White’s “fashion-opera” trilogy – ROBE, WOAD and RUNE – sounds much more like Nicholas White’s poetic settings of Blake and Poe than like anything traditionally deemed operatic, although it is much less emotionally communicative. RUNE, now available as a (+++) Métier release, does not have any of the poetic elegance of either Blake or Poe: Alastair White (no relation to Nicholas White), who wrote the words himself, is mostly concerned here with painting a vast science-fictional canvas and using the story to reach for a sort of profundity that, in truth, RUNE never achieves. Like WOAD, its predecessor, RUNE is determined to be heard, seen and accepted as avant-garde, and is a sort of mixture of the declamatory with straightforward storytelling with a sort-of-song sort-of-cycle. The soprano and mezzo-soprano voices are not used especially distinctively most of the time, although there are a few occasions where there is real creativity: in “If life makes,” one voice delivers lines slowly and portentously while the other literally whispers at the same time and at a significantly faster tempo, resulting in an interesting effect if not an increase in comprehensibility. Part of the difficulty in listening to this CD arises from the fact that RUNE was designed as a multimedia experience, including dance and, yes, fashion: what is heard on the disc is thus only part of a presentation intended to be much more wide-ranging. What is left is the story of a planet where history is forbidden (of course it is supposed to make the audience think of the buried past of Earth) and where one young girl violates cultural taboos by telling her own story, which turns out to reach unimaginably far into the past and produce resonances that no one could have anticipated – well, no one but readers of science fiction, for whom the foundational plot here, about the opportunities and dangers of digging too far into times long gone, will be thrice-familiar. Alastair White’s sincerity comes through clearly, and the two vocalists and three pianists play their parts very well, but RUNE is more an intellectual exercise and a none-too-subtle advocacy piece than a truly gripping story or musical experience, much less a musical-and-dramatic one.

(+++) THE ART OF PRESENTATION

Haydn: Piano (Keyboard) Concertos—complete (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 11); Piano Trio in G: Finale (arrangement by Ettore Prandi). Matthias Kirschnereit, piano and conducting the Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn. Berlin Classics. $20.99 (2 CDs).

Émile Naoumoff: Piano Music. Bogyeong Lee, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Anthony Cheung: All Roads; Elective Memory; Character Studies; All thorn, but cousin to your rose. Gilles Vonsattel, piano, with the Escher Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart and Danbi Um, violins; Pierre Lapointe, viola; Brook Speltz, cello); Miranda Cuckson, violin, with Anthony Cheung, piano; Paulina Swierczek, soprano, with Jacob Greenberg, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Music for Flute and Piano by Tania León, Alvin Singleton, Julia Wolfe, David Sanford, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Valerie Coleman. Jennifer Grim, flute; Michael Sheppard, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The playing is delightful but the musical delivery on the quirky side in the new Berlin Classics release of all the keyboard concertos known to have been composed by Haydn. Figuring out which ones those are is a longtime preoccupation of music scholars and a nuisance for listeners, who will undoubtedly notice that numbers 7 and 9 are missing from the sequence (they turned out not to be by Haydn despite being catalogued as his) – and who will learn from this Matthias Kirschnereit set that No. 6 is actually a double concerto (for violin and keyboard). Furthermore, these really are keyboard concertos (unlike the ones by Bach that are sometimes labeled as such but are really out-and-out harpsichord concertos). In Haydn’s case, some of these pieces were written for harpsichord, some for organ, and only one – No. 11, the best-known of the series – was certainly intended for a piano in the way pianos were known in Haydn’s time. Kirschnereit manages to confuse an already confusing situation further by presenting the works in a thoroughly illogical order arranged neither by chronology nor by number: Nos. 4, 8, 2, 5, and 10 on the first CD and Nos. 1, 3, 11, and 6 (the double concerto) on the second. He also throws in an encore in the form of an arrangement of the speedy Rondo all’ongarese from a piano trio in G – but for some reason, the encore is at the end of the first CD, not the second. This is all rather strange. Kirschnereit, who both plays as soloist and conducts the Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn, presents all the concertos using a full-scale modern concert grand piano, which is thoroughly inappropriate for the music and has a tendency to overwhelm the orchestra – by design, we must assume, since the pianist is also the conductor. Kirschnereit is restrained when it comes to the cadenzas, which is a good thing: no original cadenzas have survived, and it is certainly possible to overweight these extended solo passages in creating them, but Kirschnereit exercises good taste and care in producing ones that in most cases fit the music well and display a modicum of virtuosity without sounding overblown. The performances themselves are well-paced and sound quite good for ones focusing on a modern piano. There is nothing especially revelatory in any of them, certainly nothing to elevate these concertos in listeners’ minds to the level of even the earlier ones by, say, Mozart (or concertos by Handel, for that matter). The works come across as pleasantries rather than significant pieces, sounding very good – Haydn always sounds very good – but carrying much less musical meaning than many of the composer’s symphonies and quartets. Listeners unfamiliar with the keyboard concertos would do better to hear recordings that pay closer attention to period style and period instruments; but listeners who already know how Haydn intended these works to sound will find much to enjoy in Kirschnereit’s personalized reinterpretations of them.

     The Steinway Model D that Kirschnereit uses for Haydn is a much better fit for the piano music of Emile Naoumoff (born 1962): a different Model D is used by Bogyeong Lee for the Naoumoff works heard on an MSR Classics release. Several of these pieces draw explicitly on the composer’s Bulgarian heritage, including Danses Bulgares (1972) and Bulgaria 1300—Theme and Variations (2016). The dances are straightforward, pleasant and unassuming folk material in the mode of works by Bartók and Kodály in Hungary; Bulgaria 1300 is a much more ambitious work – at nearly 15 minutes, the second-longest piece on the CD – that possesses considerable grandeur and intensity, well brought forth in Lee’s performance. Other pieces on the disc often reflect Bulgaria indirectly if not explicitly. Valse pour Nadia (1996) is soft and gentle. Flowing Souletude (Souletude No. 24) (2015) has a Romantic-era sensibility and does indeed flow effectively throughout. Nocturno—Silent Ancient Alley of Tryavna (1970) is quiet and thoughtful, intended as a window into a distant past time. Pastorale (1970) has much the same mood: it is quiet and thoughtful rather than bucolic. Burlesque Brillante (1974) is bouncy and bright and over rather too quickly, lasting less than two minutes. Quatre Préludes (1988) are thoughtful and Impressionistic, showing the influence of Naoumoff’s teacher, Nadia Boulanger – they are somewhat static, with the exception of the third, marked “Tourbillonnant” (“Whirling”). Four Inventions (1972) are vaguely reminiscent of Bach, but with more-modern harmonic language, although as a general rule, Naoumoff’s piano pieces are tonal and rather charmingly old-fashioned. Requiem (1969) has a tentative, stop-and-start feeling to it, with more pathos than tragedy in the material. Seven Sisters Ballade (2012), which at 16 minutes is the longest work of all on the disc, is thoughtful and carefully constructed, but seems somewhat over-extended. In contrast, Menuet (1969), which runs barely more than one minute, packs plenty of charm into its very brief duration. Naoumoff is scarcely a household name, and the works heard here show little stylistic difference or progress despite being written during a period of almost half a century. There is a certain degree of monochromaticism to Naoumoff’s piano music that makes it less than gripping, although always pleasant. Lee is a strong advocate for this material and gives listeners plenty of chances to find enjoyable elements within these uniformly well-crafted pieces.

     The piano is used very differently by Anthony Cheung (born 1982) in the four works on a New Focus Recordings CD. It is combined with string quartet in All Roads, an eight-movement piece that takes the instruments hither and thither without apparent rhyme or reason until the final and longest section, “Convergence” – which, however, does not really bring the strings together with each other or with the piano, opting instead for a kind of dramatic, atonal, arrhythmic insistence that is ultimately inconclusive. Elective Memory contains references to Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96, but seems mainly concerned with tearing apart a work characterized by calm and beauty and reassembling it as an avant-garde, vaguely experimental-sounding piece that is wholly lacking in lyricism and emotional connection. Miranda Cuckson, who handles the violin part of this work with Cheung himself on piano, is on her own for Character Studies, a two-movement piece that first bounces up and down and sideways as if trying to characterize multiple people at once, then becomes somewhat more continuous in sound, although remaining ultimately rather characterless. The piano is back for the final work on the disc, All thorn, but cousin to your rose, a contemplation of the art of translation in which a soprano sings, speaks, declaims and otherwise puts forth words by Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Pushkin, and Edgar Allan Poe, with snippets generated by Google Translate thrown in here and there. This is the most interestingly conceived work on the disc, but the interest is a purely intellectual one: there is no seeking of emotional connection with listeners, no sense of the verbiage of the authors as having any significance except as building blocks – a particular violation of the intent of the excerpt of Poe’s The Bells included in the piece. The piano has little of significance to do here: the work is essentially a lecture (and not always an intelligible one), with Cheung combining an interest in translation itself with his own attempt to translate the works of Nabokov, Pushkin and Poe into a musically trenchant piece. It never becomes one, but Cheung’s attempt is at least interesting as an intellectual exercise.

     The piano is only an occasional presence on another New Focus Recordings CD, this one featuring flute performances by Jennifer Grim of seven pieces of music – some including piano – by six different composers. The piano appears in two works by David Sanford, the only composer heard more than once on the disc, and in pieces by Tania León and Valerie Coleman. Sanford’s Klatka Still (2009) is a two-movement piece where the flute, which dominates the material, has a certain circularity of expression in the first movement, then provides a level of linear calm above rather disconnected piano material in the second. Sanford’s Offertory (2021), also in two movements, offers near-lyrical thematic flow in the first and greater fragmentation in the second. León’s 2009 Alma (“Soul”) meanders here and there, focusing on flute techniques more than flute-and-piano relations, although the piano does have more to say later in the work. Coleman’s Wish Sonatine (2015) is one of those “social consciousness” works whose background the audience must know in order to be able to make any sense of the material – in this case, the piece is a meditation on the Atlantic slave trade. One of the flute-only pieces is similarly concerned with societal matters: Allison Loggins-Hull’s Homeland (2018) is a rather screechy response to various disasters, both natural and human-created. Neither of these pieces stands effectively on its own as music, and apparently neither is intended to: they are advocacy works more than musical ones. Of the two remaining pieces, Alvin Singleton’s Argoru III (1971) is a periodically interesting exploration of flute technique, while Julia Wolfe’s Oxygen, for 12 flutes (2021) uses overdubbing to include Grim performing on piccolos, alto flute and bass flute as well as the standard flute heard elsewhere on the CD. A certain richness of texture is available through the overdubbing technique, as well as the ability of a single performer to have a dialogue (and a “trialogue” and more) with herself. But Wolfe does not take much advantage of the opportunities offered by the technique: the work is repetitious and uneven in its exploration of the different-but-related sonorities of the instruments, and seems often more focused on exploration of technique than on instrumental sound, much less any sort of expressiveness. At 15-and-a-half minutes, Oxygen is the longest piece on this disc, but it does not use that extended time period or the multiple similar-but-different instruments played by Grim to any particularly strong effect. Grim’s playing itself is exemplary throughout the CD, however, and the disc should be of interest to other flute players – although not particularly to pianists, despite Michael Sheppard’s game attempts to make more of the piano parts than the composers themselves do.