December 07, 2023

(++++) NOT PUZZLING AT ALL

The Brambly Hedge Jigsaw Book. By Jill Barklem. HarperCollins. $22.99.

     Charm has no expiration date – or shouldn’t have one. The Brambly Hedge books date back to 1980 and stand as a wonderful memorial to Jill Barklem (1951-2017), who originated them as a series of four seasonal volumes and subsequently produced four additional ones. These are nothing but sweet books about a thoughtful community of mice living in tranquility in the English countryside. Yet that “nothing but” conceals so much delight! The books seem frozen in time, their treatment of small adventures, small conflicts, and the importance of working together for common goals seeming at once hopelessly old-fashioned and an anodyne for all the trouble and turmoil to which children – always their intended audience – are ever more frequently subject as time goes on.

     These are books totally lacking in bad characters: nobody is unkind, and even though these are mice, nothing preys on them. Barklem simply and lovingly explores the families of Brambly Hedge, building the stories around picnics, gatherings (birthdays, weddings, “traditional midwinter celebrations”), and small journeys hither and yon. The illustrations are every bit as sweet and lovely as the stories, prettily colored and often surprisingly intricate. It is impossible to consider them realistic, but they are the sorts of pictures that can easily make young readers – and, if they are being truthful, adults as well – wish that things could be as lovely and loving as they are in Barklem’s mouse world.

     The Brambly Hedge Jigsaw Book is a new and special way to visit or revisit that world. A well-made, sturdy 8½-by-11-inch board book, it contains six jigsaw puzzles, each consisting of 12 pieces, each showing one of Barklem’s original Brambly Hedge scenes. On the pages facing the puzzles are excerpts from the text of the books, relating directly to the scenes pictured and also serving as an introduction to the settings and characters that Barklem created – or, for those who already know and love these stories, a revisiting of a fondly remembered place that is both magical and mundane, which is to say that it makes the mundane magical.

     The focus here is, of course, on the illustrations and the simple jigsaw puzzles created from them; but the text’s resonance is pervasive. The especially well-known picture showing a cross-section of a tree inhabited by the mice, with all rooms neatly designed and arranged just so, introduces the “dense and tangled hedgerow that borders the field on the other side of the stream.” The surprise picnic on Wilfred’s birthday shows “the stream where baskets and cloths were put down on the mossy grass” and where the grown-up mice napped while the children “played hide-and-seek in the primroses.” The sheer charm of the wedding day of Miss Poppy Eyebright and Mr. Dusty Dogwood pervades the prose as well as the picture. The voyage of the Periwinkle is sheer pleasure, as “the children raced along the shore and hunted for treasure in the rock pools together until it was time to go home.”

     The pages with text also contain small scattered illustrations picturing elements of the events described in the words and shown at full-page size on the puzzle pages. Pictures of puzzle pieces adorn the text pages, too. As a result, the design of The Brambly Hedge Jigsaw Book thoughtfully merges writing and illustrations throughout, almost as if Jill Barklem had assembled this thoroughly delightful volume herself. It surely partakes tremendously – indeed, to the fullest – of her spirit, and of the kind and gentle world she created so enchantingly with words and pictures alike. It is a world that seems far more distant in time as troubles of all sorts mount in the 21st century. But it is worth remembering that 1980 was no “perfect” year and that the Brambly Hedge books were a corrective to everyday troubles even when they were first created. They look back much further than their year of origin – indeed, to a time that never really existed, with characters that could never really exist. And yet they remain capable – as books and, now, as the most pleasant of puzzles – of transporting children and sensitive adults to one of those utterly captivating fairy-tale realms that always retain their attractiveness and their charm.

(++++) STANDARD AND LESS-STANDARD PIANO

Chopin: Ballades Nos. 1-4; Nocturnes—No. 2, Op. 9, No. 2; No. 4, Op. 15, No. 1; No. 9, Op. 32, No. 1; No. 15, Op. 55, No. 1; No. 17, Op. 62, No. 1. Jonathan Phillips, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Brahms: Theme with Variations in D minor, Op. 18b; Variations on a Theme by Paganini—Books I and II; Liszt: Réminiscences de Norma; Ravel: La Valse; D. Scarlatti: Sonata in A minor, K. 217. Gabriele Micheli, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Fred Lerdahl: Inner Life—A Cycle for Two Pianos. Quattro Mani (Steven Beck and Susan Grace, duo pianists). Bridge Records. $16.99.

     There are so many recent recordings devoted to unknown, little-known, should-be-better-known and who-knew? composers that it is a genuine pleasure, once in a while, to encounter familiar repertoire that is exceptionally well-performed and makes no apologies for its popularity. This is perhaps particularly true for piano music, so much of which has emerged from obscurity in recent years or has been written in our own time. Jonathan Philipps’ Chopin ballade cycle for Divine Art is a fine example of highly skilled, nuanced playing of music that is extremely well-known but still leaves plenty of room for personalization of response and interpretation. Phillips brings out the majesty and dynamism of Ballade No. 1 to fine effect, and pays particularly close attention to the work’s varying time signatures – it is the only one of the four ballades with a level of structural variability, the three others all being written in 6/8 time. The quiet opening of Ballade No. 2 is highly effective here, and it contrasts suitably sharply with the subsequent Presto con fuoco material. In Ballade No. 3, which is more tight-knit than the others, Phillips again excels with contrasts, here between the extended opening dolce material and the later chordal passage that in turn gives way to both right-hand and left-hand runs. Everything flows easily and naturally while upholding the underlying organizational elements, but without drawing overmuch attention to them. The quiet opening of Ballade No. 4 is noteworthy in Phillips’ reading, and the work’s contrapuntal nature comes through clearly while in no way diminishing its emotional expressiveness. And then, having taken the measure of these works, Phillips complements them with five selected Nocturnes, whose comparative structural simplicity and emotive directness stand them in good stead as comparable to, but very different from, the longer pieces. No. 2 flows gently, its familiar lines unfurling with care and consistency; it is followed by No. 9, which has a bit of a stop-and-start quality that comes across as an emotional balancing act; next is No. 4, nostalgic and sweet; then No. 15, the only minor-key nocturne chosen by Phillips and a work whose pervasive melancholy here seems tinged with world-weariness; and finally No. 17, longest of the five heard here, which spins itself into a kind of cradle song of gentility and warmth. Phillips’ impeccable musicality is everywhere apparent throughout the recording, and his love for Chopin comes through clearly as he manages all this music almost caressingly, allowing the feelings it evokes to flow freely from the piano to the listener.

     Another very fine Divine Art recording offers more-varied and somewhat less-familiar fare, but by and large still in the Romantic tradition. Gabriele Micheli’s primary focus here is Brahms, but before that, the CD offers the only non-Romantic piece on the disc: a Domenico Scarlatti sonata that does not quite fit on the modern piano (or any piano), and that is played with greater warmth and a bit more of the sustaining pedal then is really appropriate for music of the early 18th century. The inclusion of this work as a curtain raiser is something of a mystery, since Micheli is clearly more at home in interpreting the rest of the pieces on the disc. The Scarlatti is followed by another slightly odd choice that, however, fits Micheli’s style better: Brahms’ piano arrangement of the second movement of his String Sextet No. 1, transcribed for piano by the composer as a birthday gift for Clara Schumann, who had asked him to do so. The movement is a noble one, mixing elements of proclamation with the sound of a solemn march, all within variation form. It is a touch on the heavy side in Micheli’s performance, which is a bit slow and which seeks the emphatic more than the emotionally expressive. The playing is first-rate, however, which makes the overall reading a convincing one. What follows on the CD comes across even better. Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books I and II, based on the famed Caprice No. 24, manage to straddle the worlds of theme-and-variations on the one hand, and étude on the other – Brahms actually called this work Studies for Pianoforte. Each of the two books starts with the caprice itself and then presents 14 variations, the last of which is the most virtuosic in both sequences. Micheli really goes to town with this material, attacking the keyboard with abandon that is nevertheless carefully controlled – and handling the considerable technical challenges of the variations with tremendous skill and a certain panache, especially in the second book. Pianistically impressive, the performance is not particularly deep, but unlike much other Brahms piano music, Variations on a Theme by Paganini is primarily a display piece, not a profound one. Micheli clearly enjoys a certain level of showing off, as is apparent in his handling of Liszt’s Réminiscences de Norma, which takes the dramatic core of Bellini’s opera and turns it into a piece of great power and concentrated drama. Not incidentally, Liszt also makes the work a grand showpiece for the pianist; and again, Micheli relishes the challenge and rises to it in a performance of considerable sweep and intensity. After the Liszt, this CD concludes with Ravel’s La Valse, originally an orchestral work but transcribed by the composer for two pianos and subsequently for a single one. There is a subtle, bittersweet character to the music, whose implied irony – or lack thereof – continues to be a source of debate. Micheli plumbs the depths of the piece, quite literally in the growling way he handles the opening, and while he allows some of the “gradual illumination” of dancers that Ravel said the work includes, the general feeling here is a dark one – the eerie material in the work’s second half sounds especially disconcerting in this performance. The impressionistic nature of the music is less apparent in Ravel’s piano versions than in the orchestral one – the odd playfulness of flute, glockenspiel and triangle at one point, for example, falls a bit flat on keyboard. But the lighter elements of La Valse are not Micheli’s focus in any case: he highlights the restless and grandiose elements rather than the tender and sweet ones. The result is a rather dour La Valse – a justifiable interpretation, certainly, and a very well-played one, but perhaps not quite as sensitive to the many internal contrasts that Ravel built into the work as other readings have been. As a whole, this is a (+++) disc, characterized throughout by excellence of playing but also by somewhat quirky, if not quite ill-considered, handling of several of the pieces.

     The quirkiness is of an entirely different kind on a (+++) CD featuring a single extended work for two pianos by Fred Lerdahl (born 1943). This is Inner Life, which was composed from 2020 to 2022 and written for and dedicated to the duo Quattro Mani, which plays the cycle here. The three-movement piece is actually carefully and rather intricately constructed, the vast majority of its musical argument occurring in its first two sections (which take up 42 of the total 47 minutes). But what listeners actually get here is more a series of individual sections of varying length, not obviously connected to each other either emotionally or musically, played with considerable aplomb by Steven Beck and Susan Grace – but not in any way repaying the length of time needed to experience the totality of the material. Embedded Loops, the first movement, mostly has the two pianos playing different material that connects only sporadically and not especially convincingly. The whole “different pieces combined into one” approach is fairly standard in contemporary classical music, but in this case the actual material proclaimed by one piano or the other is insufficiently engaging to encourage the audience to wait to find out what happens to the music either separately or with the two instruments together. The second movement, which gives its title to the entire work, is one of those pieces that makes far more sense if listeners know where it comes from – which is not obvious from the music itself. Lerdahl used internal monologues from James Joyce’s Ulysses – a notably abstruse and difficult work – as the basis for this movement, and ended up creating some music that is indeed suitably abstruse, if not really difficult to hear. It does, however, go on for a very long time, almost 23 minutes, and does not flow so much as it stops, starts, re-stops, re-starts, combines, pulls apart, and so forth – a technique actually rather effectively reflective of Joyce, but not one that repays attentiveness for those unfamiliar with the complexities of its inspiration. The final movement, Solitude, is the most-effective of the three, partly because it communicates with clarity, partly because it has a single mood of thoughtfulness tinged with melancholy, and partly because it lasts just five minutes – enough to establish and explore feelings but not spun out to such an extent that it belabors them. The CD will certainly intrigue listeners already familiar with Lerdahl’s music, much of which is available from Bridge Records – this is the label’s seventh volume of Lerdahl’s works. But although the disc is short by clock time, it seems dragged-out because of the nature of the material and Lerdahl’s determination to explore most of the elements of Inner Life at somewhat too-considerable length.

(+++) FAITH AND PERHAPS ITS ANTITHESIS

David Shapiro: Sumptuous Planet—A Secular Mass. The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Daniel Knaggs: Two Streams. Caitlin Aloia, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Christopher Bozeka, tenor; Mark Diamond, baritone; Houston Chamber Choir and Kinetic conducted by Robert Simpson. Cappella Records. $19.99 (SACD).

Szymanowski: Twelve Kurpian Songs; Adam Wieniawski: Eight Polish Folk Songs; Antoni Szałowski: Three Folk Songs; Mieczysław Karłowicz: By the Oak Tree. Ewa Kowcz-Fair, soprano; Małgorzata Surowiak-Then, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Adopting the form of the Catholic Mass to create an atheistic, science-focused work seems on the face of it to be an exercise in deliberate disrespect for a very old and honored tradition. But David Shapiro (born 1947) does not intend it that way in Sumptuous Planet (2021). Shapiro believes the musical scaffolding of the venerable Mass can provide a kind of framing structure for a work intended to highlight the texts of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, physician Richard Feynman, and microbiologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. To that end, Shapiro creates a very skillfully composed hour-and-a-quarter-long choral work that draws on religious notions of the wonders of the world while explaining those marvels in strictly secular/scientific terms. The sound of Sumptuous Planet is very modern indeed – vocal overlays, extreme dissonance, intricate and complex lines, all in the service of texts in both English and the traditional Latin of the Mass. Again and again, Shapiro emphasizes words that are entirely at odds with the faith underlying his work’s foundational form: “life started from nothing,” “let us understand,” “let us try to teach generosity,” and so forth. Among the 16 sections of Sumptuous Planet are many that specifically tweak, if not exactly satirize, the religious worldview, bearing titles such as “Glory,” “The Adoration,” “Taking Away the Sins of the World,” “Spirit,” “Resurrection,” and “Holiness.” The Crossing, an outstanding chamber choir, handles the frequent complexity of the declamatory and argumentative material with passionate intensity, although the words are not always as clear as they could be, because of the ways in which Shapiro sets them. This is clearly deliberate, since Shapiro can be quite transparent when he so chooses – and does not hesitate to use wordless syllables at times to make his points on a purely musical basis. It is not entirely surprising that the longest portion of Sumptuous Planet is titled Death – The Lucky Ones, and focuses on the improbability of the existence of humans and, indeed, of any form of life. This is at bottom an argumentative work, suggesting again and again that one does not need any sort of deity to explain the marvels of Earth or to feel and express wonder at them. The fact that the polemical aspects of the material are subsumed within some genuinely appealing music will not make them any more attractive to listeners who may be a bit shocked that Shapiro has selected this particular framework for his arguments. But this is scarcely a work for everyone; after all, neither is the Mass. Sumptuous Planet includes some thought-provoking music and some verbiage that is at least worth considering as an alternative to the religious language generally heard in a format approximating Shapiro’s. This New Focus Recordings presentation will resolve no arguments, philosophical or musical, but will appeal to listeners interested in considering those disputes in an unexpected and unusual way.

     The other side of the coin of faith, also very much in a contemporary musical idiom, is presented by the Houston Chamber Choir and ensemble Kinetic on a Cappella Records release featuring the music of Daniel Knaggs (born 1983). Knaggs’ Two Streams dates to the same year as Shapiro’s Sumptuous Planet, but its sensibility could not be more different. Two Streams is a work focused on Christian mysticism, specifically that of a Polish nun named Maria Faustina Kowalska, who was born in 1905 and died – probably of tuberculosis – in 1938. Now recognized as St. Faustina (canonized in 2000), she had a series of visions of Jesus, notably one that was later painted under the title “Divine Mercy” and widely venerated. Two Streams is in the form of a cantata, using texts from St. Faustina’s diary and various religious sources in Latin and Greek. The work is in English, but Knaggs also wrote a version in Polish, with the interesting result that the sung material is very simple and easy to follow, since the languages are so different that mapping one to the other is by no means easy. Structurally, Two Streams is a 14-movement arch, its first and last movements being related, as are its second and penultimate ones, and so forth. And like Shapiro, Knaggs does not hesitate to pull together musical sounds of many eras, from medieval to contemporary. But while Shapiro’s sonic landscape is generally modern, Knaggs’ is for the most part determinedly old-fashioned, as befits music designed to extol the religious worldview and mystical Christian experience. Robert Simpson leads the work with tremendous sensitivity and care, effectively emphasizing the cantata’s focus on the divine mercy with which St. Faustina is associated: three movements bear the title “Song of Mercy,” and others are called “Merciful Heart,” “Mercy to Others,” and “Mother of Mercy.” Knaggs’ interweaving of texts is clever, notably in “Invocations,” which includes polyphonic handling of the Kyrie and Agnus Dei prayers, mingled with words by St. Faustina. This is a work of great sensitivity and heartfelt belief, and it is sung with conviction and a very fine sense of blending instrumental and vocal forces – all abetted by exceptionally clear SACD sound. Like the 70-plus minutes of Shapiro’s Sumptuous Planet, the 70-plus minutes of Knaggs’ Two Streams will scarcely be to everyone’s taste, although the actual aural world that Knaggs creates is considerably more soothing than Shapiro’s – appropriately reflecting the two composers’ differing worldviews. Neither of these impressive pieces will change minds and, in truth, neither will necessarily reach out even to the people who may agree with their underlying sentiments, since in both cases the music is a somewhat rarefied experience. But certainly Knaggs’ Two Streams is impressive in demonstrating the extent to which a contemporary composer’s sensibilities can resonate to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of a modern Christian mystic.

     Musical experiences focused on Poland are considerably less weighty and considerably more accessible on a purely secular MSR Classics recording of some little-known songs written between the late 19th century and the middle of the 20th. Only one of the four composers on this disc, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), will likely be familiar to listeners; but even those who know his music may well be unaware of his Twelve Kurpian Songs (1930-33). These are by and large simple folksongs, often using less acerbic music than Szymanowski employed elsewhere – although occasional more-dissonant elements do creep in, for instance in The Rainstorm Has Come. The songs vary in tempo and emotional effect, from the sad uncertainty of Beware, Mother to the dour Grey Horses by the Forest to the surprisingly pleasant The Night Is Dark. Of interest more to fanciers of Polish folk material than to aficionados of Szymanowski’s work, the songs are nicely sung by soprano Ewa Kowcz-Fair and accompanied in idiomatic and suitably subdued fashion by pianist Małgorzata Surowiak-Then. They are followed on the disc by Eight Polish Folk Songs (1915) by Adam Wieniawski (1879-1950), nephew of the better-known Henryk and Jozef. Four of these eight songs are quite short, under two minutes apiece, but it is the longest – the four-minute A Bit of News Happened – that is most interestingly scored, intermingling the voice and piano skillfully in music that varies in pace and expressiveness. The minute-and-a-half-long Who Is Sad is also notable – for its insistent initial bounciness, followed by bits of melancholy. Next on the CD are Three Folk Songs (1950) by Antoni Szałowski (1907-1973), which take the voice to greater heights – some of which Kowcz-Fair manages less than fully effectively, her voice taking on a bit of a screechy edge – but whose harmonies are not noticeably different from those of the earlier cycles heard here. The disc concludes with an 1898 setting of the traditional By the Oak Tree by Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909). This very short encore – just over a minute – nicely sums up both the simplicity of the material on this CD and its straightforward emotionalism. A disc for a very limited audience that has a strong attraction to Polish-language folk material, this CD does provide a chance to experience some feelings that are far less abstruse than those involved in religious mysticism and that are, as a result, more readily accessible to those with an interest in the material.

November 30, 2023

(++++) DERRING-DO AND DON’T

Sir Morien: The Legend of a Knight of the Round Table. By Holly Black and Kaliis Smith. Illustrated by Ebony Glenn. Little, Brown. $18.99.

     The Arthurian legends are far more extensive and complex than the few with which most people are familiar – Lancelot, Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, and a small number of others. And the tales, although often told in simplified form, were originally decidedly for adults, being filled not only with religious concerns (the Grail Quest being the central one) but also with some very adult behavior on the part of King Arthur’s various knights. The code of chivalry that is endemic to the stories is not necessarily in line with various later schools of thought – certainly not in the case of Sir Moriaen, whose tale dates to the 13th century and was written in Middle Dutch. The basic story involves one of Arthur’s less-known knights, Aglovale, who while searching for the missing Lancelot falls in love with a Moorish princess – getting her pregnant and betrothing her, but postponing marriage until he can honorably (under the code of chivalry) complete his quest. The racial element of Moriaen’s conception is key to the story, with his face, body and armor all described as equally black. Moriaen ends up on a quest for his father, is joined in the endeavor by Lancelot and Gawain, and eventually Aglovale is found – after which he returns to the Moorish lands to marry Moriaen’s mother and restore lands that have been taken from her.

     This does not quite work for very young readers and pre-readers, and anyone hoping to use the tale as the basis of a book for ages 4-8 needs to do more than simply re-tell it. So Holly Black and Kaliis Smith leave out all the adult elements that are important in the legend, modernize the knight’s name’s spelling to Morien, and create a super-simple and very appealing book in which Morien and his mother are said to have tamed a dragon, gone surfing on the Nile, and “vanquished every last vegetable on the dinner table.” Morien does go on a quest to find his absent father, but Black and Smith emphasize that Morien’s superb fighting abilities are not really the point of anything he does, even though “all the knights he met seemed to want to fight” and, when Morien did so, he “won every time.”

     In this children’s book, Morien does meet Lancelot and Gawain, there are not-very-serious fights among them with some not-very-serious bragging about who is better than whom, and then everyone becomes friends and the three set off on a decidedly upbeat quest – at the end of which they rescue both Aglovale and King Arthur, who have conveniently been imprisoned in the same castle dungeon. And the three, now fast friends and devoted companions, set off at the end of the book on new quests in which friendship will be as important as martial prowess.

     The book is a lot of fun in fairy-tale mode, with Ebony Glenn’s simple digital illustrations keeping the story firmly in the realm of a modern portrayal, for today’s children, of “olden times” in which people are shown to have been pretty much the same as they are now and to have had pretty much the same concerns, attitudes, likes and dislikes. For pre-readers and the youngest readers, this works quite well, and the inclusion of names that young children may encounter elsewhere – King Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain – provides a touch of familiarity for a story that is not at all well-known. Sir Morien: The Legend of a Knight of the Round Table is a pleasant picture book with a small smattering of action, an underlying message of racial tolerance (which is present in the original story as well), and a nicely done emphasis on the idea that friendship and family, rather than religion and chivalric notions, are foundational to the characters’ interrelationships. The Arthurian legends may be due for a re-exploration – the last well-known one, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, dates to 1958, and the musical Camelot that is drawn from it to 1960. It is probably a stretch to think that books for young children could be in the forefront of a new focus on the material, but who knows? Black and Smith, or other children’s authors, might decide that the tale of Sir Morien barely scratches the surface of some under-appreciated and quite excellent storytelling that should still have appeal in the 21st century. Stranger things have happened.