December 26, 2019
Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby. By The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Phoebe and Her Unicorn 10: The Unicorn Whisperer. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Once a cartoon-driven series hits its stride, new entries in the sequence have a certain pleasurable predictability mixed with just enough uncertainty to encourage existing fans of the series to keep up with it – and, ideally, enough standalone strength so that people picking up a new series entry can decide on that basis whether to stick with the whole thing, without needing to go through all the earlier volumes in order to catch up. This is true even when a cartoonist’s work is not formally a “series,” as in the case of the offerings of The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). There are recognizable themes that Inman trots out again and again and handles in more-or-less predictable ways: cats and dogs and their relationships with humans; babies and their relationships with those around them (parents and nonparents); bodily functions of many types; and genuinely peculiar concepts of various sorts, rendered in immediately recognizable art whose exaggerations range from the outré to the utterly bizarre and back again (yes, that implies that Inman does not have much range in his art; and yes, that implication is deliberate – but irrelevant to enjoyment of his work). All Inman books stand on their own, and each provides an equally good entry point to the world of The Oatmeal, for those who wish to venture there. It is a strange but strangely almost-real world, made more intriguing by its recognizability although less so by Inman’s occasional over-fondness for four-letter words. Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby has all the Oatmealian elements. The title refers to a specific panel sequence explaining that “babies come shrieking into this world as selfish, amniotic, jam-covered goblins” while cats “come into this world as kittens, which are independent, adorable, and not at all goblin-like.” The contrasting illustrations of a monstrous-looking baby erupting from a woman and a gigantic-eyed kitten looking sweetly at the reader make the completely inaccurate and prejudiced point very clearly (umm: kittens and human babies are born through essentially the same amniotic, jam-covered process, OK?). Accept the basic premise, though, and Inman lays things on even more thickly, with the evilly cackling baby making loud noises when upset, while the gracious cat will merely “slaughter pigeons and take 16 hour naps.” There is much more along these lines. And actually, cat-bird enmity is a recurring Inman theme: later in the book, a one-page entry has a pigeon asking a cat for a cease-fire and to “stop eating my friends and leaving them on doorsteps,” to which the cat immediately and nonchalantly replies, “No deal.” Inman is not a big fan of birds in general: another one-page entry shows two seagulls at a floating buoy, with one repeatedly saying “Yeahhhhh buoyyy!” while the other tries unsuccessfully to get it to shut up. Inman is, however, a big fan of cats, even when he recognizes the difficulties inherent in their territorial instincts, as in an extended entry called “How to Comfortably Sleep Next to Your Cat,” which works out about as well as might be expected, including “learn to sleep while being gently struck in the face” and “just accept that this isn’t your bed anymore.” Inman does have some weird perceptions and weird ways of putting them on display: it is hard to imagine any other cartoonist creating the sequence called “corgi babies,” in which he copes with babies by imagining them as adorable corgi canines (re-drawing them with corgi heads to make the point), then extends his corgi thinking to other things “that I find unpleasant,” such as a rude driver (transformed into a corgi-headed chunk of adorableness) and a “strange lump growing on my leg” (changed into a happily smiling corgi head in one of the weirdest of the many weird drawings in the book). Obviously, Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby is not for everyone. But for those who already know and enjoy Inman’s seriously skewed thinking, it fits the established mode of The Oatmeal very well indeed. And for those considering whether to spend more time with (or in) The Oatmeal, it is about as good an introduction as anything else Inman has produced.
Aimed at young readers rather than somewhat odd adults, and written and drawn much more mildly and suitably for its target audience, the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books have also long since hit their stride, and the 10th of them, The Unicorn Whisperer, fits into the series perfectly. Newcomers will have some trouble figuring out just why things are the way they are here: everybody interacts with Phoebe’s unicorn, and there are plenty of other magical creatures around as well (dragons, goblins, fairies); exactly how the whole thing got started is never explained except through an occasional oblique reference, as when Phoebe wishes her unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, a happy new year, and Marigold says happy years can be boring, but “my finest recent year was when a child hit me in the nose with a rock, resulting in our becoming best friends!” Make of that what you will: there is no further reference in The Unicorn Whisperer to any sort of “origin story” for the series. Dana Simpson simply takes many themes she has used before and uses them again, in somewhat different ways, in this latest book. That means Phoebe has multiple run-ins with her “frenemy,” Dakota, who becomes the star of a goblin opera and invites Phoebe and Marigold to the performance because starring in the staging makes Dakota “cooler” and her “popular, cool friends wouldn’t understand that,” so she needs to have Phoebe attend because “we need uncool kids’ approval, too.” Dakota is hard to like but not quite as nasty as she could be, so Simpson gets away with having her treat Phoebe this way. And Phoebe occasionally gets back at Dakota, as when Marigold enchants a jump rope for Phoebe and Phoebe lets Dakota jump with her only if Phoebe gets to make up a jump-rope rhyme that insults Dakota (“she smells like a goat-a”). There are various soft-pedaled lessons in The Unicorn Whisperer, as in other Phoebe books, as when gold-star-student Phoebe gets so involved in reading that she does not do her homework and has to confess to her teacher, who says that “if I assigned self-awareness homework, you’d get an A on it.” And then there is the time that Phoebe wants to invite a boy, Max, to her slumber party, and her usually practical mother says that is traditionally not done, but “viva la revolución.” Phoebe is usually more in tune with her father, who watches more cartoons than she does, sports long hair and wears the back of it in a ponytail, and can discuss the various generations of “Pastel Unicorns” created by Toycorp (“I get to have a daughter who shares my interests”). Much less successful are Simpson’s heavy-handed teaching moments, as when she has Phoebe neglect Marigold for a while in order to write a history paper about “Georgia Neese Clark, the first female Secretary of the Treasury.” The subtler messages here – and some are indeed subtle – are better, as when Phoebe is frustrated about the classmates she is told to work with to make a diorama, knows she will end up doing all the work herself (as has happened before), and is shocked when the others get it all done without her because she is avoiding them: “I deserve an F for the amount of work I did, but I deserve an A for the job I would have done.” That is worth thinking about – as are some, but not all, of the elements of The Unicorn Whisperer and other books in the continuing Phoebe and Her Unicorn series.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5. Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano; Die Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. BIS. $39.99 (2 SACDs).
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. “0”-5; Triple Concerto; Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6; Variations and Fugue in E-flat, Op. 35 (“Eroica”). Mari Kodama, piano; Kolja Blacher, violin; Johannes Moser, cello; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano. Berlin Classics. $27.99 (4 CDs).
The most prominent number in classical-music circles during 2020 is sure to be 250: it is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. And the flood of Beethoven releases and re-releases is already well under way, with several “complete works” sets released or planned as well as any number of productions of music both highly familiar and less-known. To stand out from the huge crowd of newly issued performances – not to mention the tremendous number of releases of Beethoven’s music available long before the 250th-anniversary year – recordings need something special, even gimmicky. Excellent performances alone are not enough: the quality of playing of Beethoven’s music has been remarkably high for many years now, and pretty much any reading of his well-known music will be more than adequate. That means listeners who already may have several recordings of his better-known works – and who certainly have one – need to pick and choose among newly offered material based on factors ranging from “special-ness” of some sort to price. The two-SACD set of the piano concertos from BIS, featuring Ronald Brautigam and Die Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens, is expensive, but it ranks high on the “special” scale for the excellence with which the performers bring forth the concertos as Beethoven expected them to sound. Brautigam plays Paul McNulty reproductions of two different fortepianos, one based on a Walter & Sohn instrument from about 1805 (for the first three concertos) and one modeled on a Conrad Graf instrument from about 1819 (for the fourth and fifth). The sound of the two keyboard instruments is very different – this is one way in which fortepianos, like harpsichords but unlike many modern pianos, colored music in very different ways. The Walter & Sohn instrument, for example, had knee pedals only, while the Conrad Graf had the foot pedals familiar from later instruments – but it had four of them, including not only a moderator but also a double moderator. The tonal colorations available to fortepianists help balance the comparatively modest (to modern ears) sound of their instruments, and lead to readings of period music that can be very highly nuanced when handled with the care and sensitivity that Brautigam lavishes on them here. And speaking of “period music,” Die Kölner Akademie is a period-instrument ensemble, and an excellent one – and has previously collaborated with Brautigam on a number of fine recordings, notably of Mozart concertos. Willens leads the group through the Beethoven cycle in very fine form indeed, highlighting the Mozartean elements of the first two concertos, the transitional nature of the third (whose minor-key structure comes directly from Mozart but whose handling of the piano looks toward the future), and the significantly expanded communicative elements of the fourth and fifth – which sound both fuller and more dramatic on the later-model fortepiano. Especially effective in this set is the second movement of the fourth concerto, whose dramatic back-and-forth between soloist and ensemble offers just the right balance for an argument whose structure is genuinely new in a piano concerto and whose resolution in something like comity is handled with poise and elegance. On the surface, the music here is entirely familiar, but it sounds so different in these performances from what is usual today that the recording shines new light on Beethoven by offering readings whose sound is as close as possible to what the composer expected and what his initial audiences would have heard.
Listeners who think of “Beethoven’s five piano concertos” are of course thinking about the five played by Brautigam and most pianists. But Beethoven in fact wrote eight-and-a-half piano concertos, including a very early one that has not survived and a much later one that he started after the “Emperor” but on which he did not make much progress. In terms of his seven playable concertos, in addition to the ones numbered 1-5, there is the piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto, which sounds quite fine as a keyboard piece and includes an unusual first-movement cadenza in which the piano is accompanied by timpani, in a clever recollection and expansion of the movement’s opening bars. And there is also a concerto by young-teenage Beethoven, dating to 1784 and assigned the number WoO 4, that predates No. 2 (the first of the five numbered ones to be composed) by about five years. A new Berlin Classics release featuring the excellent wife-and-husband musical team of Mari Kodama and Kent Nagano makes this early concerto the focal point of a four-disc set of performances dating as far back as 2006 – although the recording of “No. 0,” as it is called here, was made as recently as May 2019. The set is well-priced in part because it is something of a hodgepodge of recording dates, and because Nos. 1-5 and the Triple Concerto were previously released in these exact performances in 2014. But far from there being anything here for which Kodama, Nagano or the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin should be apologetic, the entire release is filled with excellent (although not particularly historically informed) performances. Concertos Nos. 4 and 5, handled with verve and intelligence, are the best of the standard set of five here: Nos. 1 and 2 have a bit of unnecessary rubato now and then, and No. 3 gets a somewhat surface-level interpretation, although all the concertos are very well played by both soloist and orchestra. This release is, in fact, something of a treasure trove of Beethoven’s piano concertos and related works. In addition to the five usual concertos – in readings that offer nothing particularly revelatory but much that is highly skilled and sensitively presented – and the “No. 0,” there are ancillary works that shed considerable light on the main concerto sequence. “No. 0” is no slouch of a concerto: it is derivative, yes, and to a greater extent than No. 1 or No. 2, but it is filled with fresh, well-thought-through ideas, and has a degree of lightness and almost-humor that is largely absent from later, more-mature Beethoven. It is comparable in length to No. 2, if stylistically less individual, but in one significant way it presages later Beethoven: it is in E-flat, a key that was to be enormously significant to his music. To show just how significant, this recording includes Kodama’s performance of the “Eroica” variations in the same key – which is the key, of course, of the “Eroica” symphony as well. Somehow E-flat was already assuming considerable importance to Beethoven even when he created that very early piano concerto. And this set contains another “early thoughts” piece as well: the Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6, which Beethoven originally planned as the finale of his Concerto No. 2. Once again, the piece itself is quite well-made, and it shows a slightly different direction for the concerto’s conclusion from the one on which Beethoven ultimately decided. These Beethovenian byways are complemented in this release by the Triple Concerto, in which Kodama is ably if somewhat timidly partnered by Kolja Blacher and Johannes Moser. This concerto dates to about the same time as No. 3 in C minor – and because it is in C major, it offers an interesting juxtaposition (the two are presented on the same CD in this set). Kodama tends to dominate the playing a bit too much: Beethoven deliberately downplayed the role of the piano in this concerto and brought forth the significance of the cello. The result is a rather pallid performance, although all three soloists play with considerable skill. This is a set for listeners interested in some offbeat elements of Beethoven’s work and some items heard quite rarely but presented here in a way that increases understanding of Beethoven’s development in the piano-and-orchestra realm. That is not to say that this set is “complete” in any way: it omits both the piano version of the Violin Concerto and the Choral Fantasy, with its extensive and crucial piano part. But for what it does contain, and for the quality with which the material is handled, this is a release that is worthy of inclusion in the 250th-anniversary celebration, and one that many lovers of Beethoven will be happy to own.
François-Adrien Boieldieu: Piano Concerto; Overtures to “La Calife de Bagdad,” “Emma ou la Prisonnière,” “La Dame Blanche,” “Jean de Paris,” “Les Voitures versées,” and “Ma Tante Aurore.” Nataša Veljković, piano; Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in D minor; Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra. Solomiya Ivakhiv, violin; Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Theodor Kuchar. Brilliant Classics. $9.99.
Johanna Senfter: Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra; Ten Old Dances for Two Violins. Aleksandra Maslovaric and Katarina Aleksic, violins; Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Feminae Records. $20.97.
Vaughan Williams: Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra; Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Tzigane; Kenneth Hesketh: Inscription-Transformation; Henri Dutilleux: Au gré des ondes (arr. Hesketh). Janet Sung, violin; Simon Callaghan, piano; Britten Sinfonia conducted by Jac van Steen. SOMM. $14.98.
Second Wind: Arrangements for Saxophone of Works by Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and Koechlin; Music by Robert Muczynski, David DeBoor Canfield, John Rommereim, and Russell Peterson. Dave Camwell, saxophone. Navona. $14.99.
Concertos can sometimes provide insight even into the works of composers who were not particularly associated with the concerto form. François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834) is remembered today only as an opera composer, and specifically as the composer of one opera, La Dame Blanche (1825). But he did work in other forms, including, in a single case, that of the piano concerto. Boieldieu’s piano concerto is an early work – he wrote it when he was 17, and it is his only known piece for piano and orchestra. It is a two-movement work that is overbalanced toward the first movement, an extended Allegro with some clever and unexpected handling of the thematic material. The second movement is a bit of a letdown: marked Pastorale con variazioni, it is a set of five variations on a pleasant, bucolic theme of little significance. The concerto, written the year after Mozart died, is a throwback in some ways, but in others it looks forward to the harmonic structure and thematic development that Boieldieu would include in his operas. The new CPO recording featuring pianist Nataša Veljković and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Howard Griffiths provides a fine opportunity to hear the relationship between the piano concerto and other works by Boieldieu, since it includes six opera overtures – including the one to La Dame Blanche. These are considerably more tightly knit than the concerto and a better blend of the amusing and the dramatic. Interestingly, Boieldieu uses three different forms for his opera overtures. One introduces themes from the opera – this is what most modern listeners tend to think of as normal in an overture, although it was not always so. La Dame Blanche is an overture of this type. But in addition, Boieldieu writes overtures in sonata form and in variation form – and within those forms, he sometimes opens with a slow introduction and sometimes dispenses with it. These varied approaches give the overtures heard here a freshness and attractiveness that put them on the level of the overtures by Luigi Cherubini – with whom Boieldieu in fact collaborated several times. Indeed, the overture to Emma ou la Prisonnière is not by Boieldieu but by Cherubini, although Boieldieu composed half of the opera. The piano concerto here gives an idea of the road not taken in Boieldieu’s music, while the overtures offer fine examples of the direction in which the composer did develop – with considerable success.
Mendelssohn’s success in the concerto form is much clearer: his two piano concertos and E minor violin concerto are repertoire standards and quite deserving of the admiration they receive. But even though Mendelssohn was a child prodigy almost on Mozart’s level (and considered on Mozart’s level in his own time), these concertos did not simply spring into being, any more than a piano concerto such as Mozart’s No. 9, K. 271 (“Jeunehomme”) appeared without predecessors. If it is intriguing to hear Boieldieu’s piano concerto to realize the direction in which he did not develop, it is even more interesting to hear early Mendelssohn concertos for the light they shed on the direction in which he did go. A new Brilliant Classics CD featuring Solomiya Ivakhiv, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, and the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Theodor Kuchar, offers a rare and most welcome chance to explore two Mendelssohn concertos that are almost never heard in concert, and only rarely in recordings. The D minor violin concerto dates to 1822, when Mendelssohn was all of 13 – he really was a prodigy – and the concerto for violin and piano was written only a year later. Both are remarkably assured works, and in both there is already the easy melodiousness for which Mendelssohn was known. These pieces date to the same time as his String Symphonies, which show equal assurance and similar qualities of engaging tunes and well-crafted developments. The heart of the violin concerto is its central movement, which is more expressive than its Andante tempo indication might lead one to expect. And as in the later E minor concerto, Mendelssohn here has the finale begin attacca after the slow movement’s conclusion. Ivakhiv does not overstate the concerto’s importance or overplay it in any way: it is basically a concerto strongly indebted to those of Mozart, but with some Mendelssohnian characteristics, and Ivakhiv and Kuchar present it with just the right light touch. The violin-and-piano work has grander ambitions, and in it Mendelssohn somewhat overreached, based on his command of individual instruments and the orchestra at this time. The piece lasts a full 40 minutes and does not really sustain at that length. Here the first movement is the primary focus – it takes up half the work’s total length – but, again, it is the lyrical and often quite lovely second movement that is really the concerto’s heart. Yet there is a strange element to it: the highly affecting middle portion of the movement is for violin and piano alone, without accompaniment, and it almost sounds as if Mendelssohn meandered into chamber music as this section continues – until he eventually resumes the orchestral portion. Later composers were to do something similar, as Tchaikovsky did in his Piano Concerto No. 2, but in this Mendelssohn concerto there is a combination of creativity and awkwardness that is one of the few ways in which the composer’s youth seems retrospectively evident. Again, soloists and conductor approach the music with care and perform it with fine balance and without making too much – or too little – of the material. These concertos are not works of genius, but they are works of genius-in-development, and that in itself is more than enough reason to hear them.
Concertos can be a gateway not only to a well-known composer’s other or later work but also to a less-known composer’s entire oeuvre. That is the case with the Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra by Johanna Senfter (1879-1961). A student of Max Reger, Senfter wrote music that was less gnarly and more accessible, although she clearly absorbed some of Reger’s notions of harmony and some of his compositional techniques. The four-movement concerto is compact, lasting about 18 minutes in a performance by Aleksandra Maslovaric, Katarina Aleksic, and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra on Feminae Records. The first and shortest movement comes across as an introduction to what will come later, and quickly establishes the virtual equality of the two solo voices and the skillful manner in which Senfter interweaves them. The second movement has an attractively lyrical, almost singing quality that is immediately winning. The third has a kind of quizzical sound that is almost playful, while the fourth sounds the most like a 20th-century work rhythmically, even though it repeatedly returns to a level of warmth that many 20th-century composers (including Reger) tended to abandon. This is a very well-made concerto that lies well on the violins and uses them effectively – and that makes one wonder why Senfter’s work is not better-known. Part of the answer may lie in the other piece on this disc, Ten Old Dances for Two Violins. Arranged in two suites of five dances each, these pieces bear the names of dance forms with which Bach would have been (and was) familiar: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte and Gigue in the first suite, then Allemande, Bourrée, Menuet, Loure, and Passepied en Rondeau in the second. But although Senfter was clearly influenced by these Baroque forms, her suites do not so much reflect them as they attempt to update them for much later ideas of harmony and rhythm. This works rather well in the two strongly accented Allemande movements, but less well elsewhere: the dissonances of the Courante and Menuet, and the latter movement’s stop-and-start character, seem not to fit either the dances’ original forms or the time period of Senfter’s composition especially well. As a whole, Ten Old Dances for Two Violins is a piece that violinists can certainly enjoy playing: like the concerto, it shows Senfter’s considerable skill in instrumental balance and relationships. But it is not a particularly engaging work to hear: it is the sort of piece that can be admired for the skill of its construction but that leaves non-performing listeners somewhat cold – as, come to think of it, does much of Max Reger’s music.
A well-played but rather ill-assorted (+++) SOMM recording features a concerto that is itself somewhat off-putting and detached: the Violin Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Like Senfter’s two-violin concerto, this Vaughan Williams work is from the 20th century (1924-25), and like Senfter’s Ten Old Dances, the Vaughan Williams concerto has neo-Baroque tendencies. But there is a certain chilliness to the Vaughan Williams, which includes bitonal elements as well as the folksong references of which he was fond. The composer originally called the work “Concerto Accademico,” and the title seems apt, even though Vaughan Williams withdrew it in 1952. It is difficult for a listener to become emotionally involved in this music, and while it is easy to respect the considerable skill that Vaughan Williams brought to bear on the composition, the concerto never becomes engaging – even when performed as well as it is by Janet Sung and the Britten Sinfonia under Jac van Steen. The concerto was dedicated to Jelly d’Arányi, great-niece of Joseph Joachim, and she was also the dedicatee of Ravel’s Tzigane, which is more effective – if more superficial – than the concerto, and is heard on this disc in Ravel’s arrangement for violin and orchestra. The other Ravel work on this disc is his strongly jazz-influenced Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, which gets a fine and suitably jazzy performance from Sung and pianist Simon Callaghan. Offered on the CD between the opening Vaughan Williams work and the two closing ones by Ravel are first recordings of music by Kenneth Hesketh (born 1968) and by Henri Dutilleux as arranged by Hesketh, who studied with Dutilleux. Hesketh’s Inscription-Transformation is an extended exercise in textures in which complexity seems to be its own reason for being. The violin, often in its highest register, is set against an orchestra whose main purpose appears to be intensity. This could be effective in a five-minute work, but in this 14-minute one, it wears thin well before it wears out. As for the Dutilleux arrangement, this is Hesketh’s orchestral version of the piano suite, Au gré des ondes, and it is more effective than Hesketh’s original composition. Its six movements also add up to slightly less time than Hesketh’s single one: they work well as expressive miniatures, essentially small tone paintings of six musicians done in styles intended to reflect their work or their approaches to performance. Hesketh’s selection of illustrative instruments is first-rate, very neatly complementing Dutilleux’s very varied portraits of Claude Pascal, Jacqueline Bonneau, Pierre Sancan, Leon Kartun, Claude Arrieu, and Geneviève Joy. This is a case in which both the original work and the arrangement are worthy of being heard more often.
The arrangements on a new (+++) Navona CD featuring saxophonist Dave Camwell are unlikely ever to supplant the originals, being designed more to highlight Camwell himself than to focus in any meaningful way on Bach, Vivaldi, or Handel. Camwell arranges the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3, BWV 1006, and the Allegro Assai from his Sonata No. 3, BWV 1005, for, respectively, one and two saxophones with piano. He arranges, for single saxophone and piano, Vivaldi’s entire Concerto for Oboe, RV 548, and Handel’s complete Sonata No. 3 for Violin, HWV 370. The arrangements are nicely done to take advantage of the saxophone’s warm, sumptuous tone, and Camwell plays the pieces with Romantic feeling that is inappropriate for the music but effective in its own way. Considerably more interesting is Charles Koechlin’s Épitaphe de Jean Harlow, written for alto saxophone, flute and piano, a suitably small-r romantic and expressive lament for the early death of the once-famous movie star, who died at age 26 in 1937. Here Camwell comes into his own, comfortable with the music in ways that he never quite seems to be when playing his arrangements of much older material. The balance of this CD is newer still. Robert Muczynski’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano (1971) is a short, well-varied work with considerable heft in its two movements. David DeBoor Canfield’s Concerto after Mendelssohn for Tenor Saxophone (2016-17), heard here in a 2018 version for saxophone and wind ensemble, plays around with several Mendelssohn works in a manner that ranges from mildly amusing to considerably overdone. John Rommereim’s Amara, Breath of Grace (2014) includes a choral ensemble and instructs the solo saxophone to improvise throughout. The idea is for the soloist to take cues (literally or figuratively) from the choir’s singing of the word “amara,” which means “grace” in the language of the Nigerian Igbo people. Whatever the intended meaning of this arrangement, what emerges here is a pleasant, tonal piece that sounds like a choral vocalise with saxophone sounds weaving in and out of the voices. This is the sort of music in which Camwell is clearly comfortable. The CD ends with Russell Peterson’s Concerto for Flute, Alto Saxophone and Symphonic Band (2009/2012). This is a pleasant three-movement piece in which the flute and saxophone complement each other well, although having the first two movements both slow and expressive makes matters rather soporific before the concluding Allegro brightens matters considerably. Camwell is Director of Jazz Studies at Troy University in Alabama, and the performers with him on this CD are drawn from the same venue. All contribute with skill and commitment, making the CD a treat for listeners who would like to hear a disparate set of unrelated saxophone performances – a generous 80 minutes that, in truth, will be somewhat too much for anyone looking for something more musically substantive and less focused on the sheer sound of the saxophone and the combinations in which Camwell presents it.
December 19, 2019
Bird Brain: Comics about Mental Health, Starring Pigeons. By Chuck Mullin. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
All Cats Are Introverts. By Francesco Marciuliano. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy 3: Time Trout. By Doug Savage. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Cinderella Rex. By Christy Webster and Holly Hatam. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
The comings and goings and ups and downs of not-quite-real animals appeal to just about everyone, from adults to young children to very young children – but in different ways. Adults seem to like things wry, even sarcastic, and in some cases – such as Bird Brain – foundationally very serious even while they have amusing elements. Chuck Mullin’s Bird Brain is all about her bouts of overflowing anxiety and depression, and her attempts to cope with them by creating amusing pigeon drawings and sending them out onto, of course, social media. This is not traditional “funny animals” cartooning, and the extent to which it is different is made clear through the serious essays that Mullin includes to introduce the book and that she also places within each of its sections: “Bad Times,” “Relationships,” and “Positivity.” Those essays are pretty heavy going, especially for anyone who has ever experienced even a modicum of anxiety, much less the amount about which Mullin writes. In fact, the book might have been more immediately appealing if Mullin had started it with a few of her pigeon presentations and then used her essays to explain what was going on. Since she didn’t, readers may want to skip the essays at first, check out some of the pigeon stuff, then read about how and why the whole book came to be: “I’ve always loved drawing, but it surprised me just how much creating these pigeon comics helps me; they’ve become my tether to existence, my voice when my mouth fails me. …I hope that their nihilism can burst through my invisible bubble and into yours to connect us. A strange sort of connection, but a connection nonetheless.” Well, the connection is made pretty effectively through Mullin’s words, but is even better in her comics, which feature anthropomorphic pigeons with weirdly floating eyes (one is in each pigeon’s head where it belongs while the other floats off to the side somewhere). For instance, one set of panels shows a pigeon waking up to a “bad brain day” and calling in sick to work, then feeling even worse for lying about being ill, and finally burrowing under the covers and declaring, “I’ll just live under here forever now.” Another shows two pigeons walking side by side, with one thinking, “Oh no, an awkward silence! Quick, say something! Anything!!” And the other is thinking, “I like that we can have these quiet moments.” The seriousness of the topics that Mullin tackles puts Bird Brain outside the usual realm of comics and cartoons, and also means the book will not be appealing to everybody – in fact, “appealing” is not really the right word for it at all, “helpful” being much more apt. Nevertheless, the use of cartoon animals to communicate some very complex adult topics is evidence that comics can tackle a great deal more complexity than they are often given credit for – and can do so with sensitivity and without the need to be snide or sarcastic.
On the other hand, a certain amount of snide sarcasm can be appealing, and it proliferates, to a greater or lesser degree, in many animal-focused books – certainly where cats are concerned. The result is works such as All Cats Are Introverts, a little gift book in which Francesco Marciuliano pens supposedly-from-cats poems celebrating felines’ well-known habits of being aloof and unresponsive, and suggesting that those characteristics flow not from standoffishness but from deep and pervasive introversion. Yeah, right. The fun here is partly in the photos – cats are nothing if not photogenic – and partly in the juxtaposition of apt poses and expressions with free-verse poems such as “Wanted,” which reads, “Send me a hint/ Show me a sign/ Pat your lap/ Your sofa/ Your chair/ Let me know/ In no uncertain terms/ That you want me to come over/ I won’t/ But I like to be invited/ Going to be over here for a while.” Or there is “More Than You May Know,” which goes, in part, “More than the honorable to a promise/ More than the endeared to a love/ More than the righteous to a cause/ I will be loyal to you/ I will be there for you/ I just may not be around you/ For long stretches at a time…” And there is “Elsewhere,” which neatly captures what cats’ human companions like to think a cat is probably thinking: “…My mind is always moving/ From daydream to daydream/ Never stopping to hear/ What you just named me/ Or who you said you were again.” Humans who coexist with cats will certainly recognize the feline personality in these smidgens of poetic whimsy, which confirm again and again that cats’ toleration of human beings is merely a form of acceptance in which cats, introverted or not, put up with people to a certain degree and not beyond. Or, as Marciuliano puts it in “One Too Many,” directly and pointedly, “Maybe I wouldn’t/ Nap so much/ If people didn’t/ Exhaust me so often.” And there you have it encapsulated: why cats sleep up to 20 hours a day.
The use of cat photos gives a veneer of realism to All Cats Are Introverts, but many books for younger readers dispense with even the slightest pretense of reality and simply create adventures in which animal-ish characters, usually humans thinly disguised as anthropomorphic nonhumans, get into various scrapes and difficulties and then get out of them. A typical graphic-novel example of this approach is the Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy series by Doug Savage. A moose wakes up in the forest one day and discovers that he has laser eyes. He befriends a rabbit, and they have adventures that also involve a deer named Frank (whose leg Laser Moose has a habit of shooting off) and a raccoon who keeps sewing Frank’s leg back on but who insists he is not a doctor, no matter what the other animals call him. In the third Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy book, Savage introduces “Time Trout,” so called because he encounters a human time traveler who conveniently drops his time-travel device – which, conveniently, falls into the river and is just the right size for a trout to eat, and which, also conveniently, reads the trout’s brain waves so the fish can go hither and thither in the time stream. This causes various predicaments for Laser Moose and Rabbit Boy: one future has the entire forest on fire, another features an invasion by flying saucers, and in one section of the book the moose and rabbit re-encounter an enemy from a previous book, Aquabear, who is half bear and half fish. None of this makes a lick of sense or is intended to – it is all there for mild adventure and mild amusement. Of course, the many mixups can only be solved if the trout returns everyone to the right place and time and the “time hopper” device is destroyed, but the trout refuses to allow the device’s destruction, because “being a fish is so boring” and “I want to keep having adventures” and “I finally feel like I’m truly living my life.” Eventually the trout’s selfishness leads to Laser Moose being marooned 78 million years in the past and fighting dinosaurs, while Rabbit Boy fails in an attempt to recover and destroy the time-travel device, until the trout finally realizes the error of his ways and gives up the time hopper – returning it to the original time traveler but then, at the last instant, joining the time traveler in going back to the future and a different and presumably more exciting life there. Silly and meaningless, Time Trout is simply an amusing illustrated journey for young graphic-novel fans who do not care much about plot consistency or character development, but kind of like the notion of a moose that shoots laser beams from its eyes and hangs out with a faithful rabbit companion.
Dinosaurs are only a part of Time Trout, but they are whole point of Cinderella Rex, a board book – aimed at the very youngest readers and even pre-readers – in which the well-known Cinderella story becomes well-nigh unrecognizable. Well, some basic themes are there, such as the royal ball and fairy godmother – here, a Fairy Triceratops. But Cinderella Rex – who is, yes, a T. Rex living with her “stompmother” and “mean stompsisters,” who are other types of dinosaurs – here wants only to dance, but is not allowed to because she is kept too busy cleaning things. The whole family is invited to a ball at the local castle, but it takes so long for Cinderella Rex to help her “stompsisters” get ready that they go to the dance without her, and “she could only dance alone in her garden,” a tear dropping from one eye as she gracefully whirls about in front of a nearby erupting volcano. There is nothing here about a possible royal marriage – this is, after all, a book for very young children – but there is a lost-shoe moment with the most amusing element of the story: Cinderella Rex “tried to pick it up, but her arms could not reach it.” True: she is a T. Rex, with those famous tiny arms! Anyway, the prince recovers the shoe and takes it around town to find the graceful dancer he had seen, simply because he wants someone to teach him to dance. And eventually “Cinderella Rex moved to the castle” and “her stompsisters had to clean up for themselves” and everything ends swimmingly…err, danceably. A simply told story with a few amusing elements and a lot of absurd ones, Cinderella Rex is enjoyable in its use of multiple types of cartoon dinosaurs enacting an age-appropriate version of a familiar fairy tale – a small treat for the youngest children, provided that they find green-skinned, huge-headed-and-huge-toothed central characters adorable.
Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. Accentus Music. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Schubert: Symphony No. 9, “Great.” Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev. Linn Records. $18.99.
Haydn: Symphony No. 99; Mass in B-flat, “Harmoniemesse.” Mireille Asselin, soprano; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Jeremy Budd, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone. Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.
Hummel: Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano. Uwe Grodd, flute; Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Frith, piano). Naxos. $12.99.
Superstitious worries about the number nine when it comes to symphonies trace directly to Beethoven’s works, since the Ninth was his final such work – although, more accurately, it was his last completed symphony, since he did start a Tenth, some of which is quite playable. Because Beethoven was the first major composer to make symphonies monumental, the fact that he finished only nine came to be perceived as a barrier of sorts. Thus, much tends to be made of the fact that Schubert also wrote nine symphonies – although he too started on a Tenth, left several incomplete (notably the one known as the “Unfinished”), and it is arguable whether his Seventh should be counted and therefore maybe he only completed eight and started a Ninth. This sort of thing quickly becomes silly: Dvořák also wrote nine symphonies, and unlike Beethoven or Schubert did not start another after his “From the New World,” but the consensus for many years was that Dvořák actually produced five symphonies, the ones now numbered 6, 7, 5, 8 and 9 – until four early ones were discovered. And then there is Bruckner, whose Ninth remained unfinished but who created one after his No. 1 that is now called “No. 0,” so the Ninth was really his Tenth – or, to be completely accurate, his Eleventh, since there is also a very early work now numbered “00.” And yet one composer, Mahler, took the numerological issue of the number nine very seriously indeed, to the point that after his Eighth he assiduously avoided called Das Lied von der Erde a symphony – that would have been No. 9, a prospect that seems genuinely to have frightened Mahler. Yet when he did give No. 9 to a work, it became his last completed symphony – although, again, he started on a Tenth, and got much further with it than Beethoven did with his, to the point Mahler’s No. 10 is often performed in any of several completions made after the composer’s death. Still, the notion of Mahler’s Ninth as a “farewell” of sorts persists, and at its best can inform well-considered performances with the kind of resigned beauty that is everywhere apparent on a new Accentus Music release in which the symphony is performed by the Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. It is highly noteworthy that this reading was led by a conductor who at the time was one month shy of his 92nd birthday – surely an age by which most people are contemplating their own mortality, never mind the fact that Mahler himself died two months before he would have turned a mere 51. Although it is impossible to know just what Blomstedt was thinking as he prepared for and conducted this performance, certainly his handling of the music shows him attributing to it some intimations of immortality, especially in the outer movements. The opening Andante comodo is very commodious indeed, proceeding at so leisurely a pace that its unfolding seems almost like that of a gorgeous flower being watched as it blooms nearly in real time. The movement grows and grows as Blomstedt paces it as a very slow, deliberate walk, almost a meandering, although it is clear that there is a destination – one that is not revealed even by the movement’s end. The middle movements here seem more like byways, roads not taken, or at least not taken satisfactorily. The gentle Ländler of the second movement provides little respite, for there has been nothing from which significant respite is required: it simply offers a feeling of pleasant, pastoral relief from the first movement’s quest. The third movement is much less biting and frenetic than it can be, as if Blomstedt is at pains not to disturb the first movement’s mood too greatly even here, when Mahler – as heard in many performances – becomes truly demonic. This is actually the least successful movement in Blomstedt’s reading, being just a bit too mild to provide the intended contrast with the finale. But once the finale arrives, concerns about the preceding movement evaporate, since here Blomstedt picks up the mood of the Andante comodo again seamlessly, only with even greater depth, as is justified by the simple tempo marking of Adagio. And gradually, with a steady pace and increasing certainty, the destination implied in the first movement comes into focus in the fourth, as the symphony ends with quiet beauty that is part resignation and part acceptance. This is a highly knowing performance by a conductor who, surely cognizant of his own mortality, makes the final complete symphony of a much younger composer into a statement for all ages.
At the other end of the conductorial age scale is Maxim Emelyanychev, new principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who was born in 1988 and was 30 when he made a newly released recording of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 for Linn Records. This is a reading so packed with the impetuousness of youth that it is easy to think about the fact that Schubert completed the symphony when he was not yet 30 – and died at 31. This is a polarizing (+++) performance, one so packed with vigor and intensity that the gentility and gentleness of Schubert are nowhere to be found: this is driven music, which Emelyanychev pushes hard and harder, especially in the first two movements. The opening Allegro ma non troppo main section does not acknowledge the ma non troppo at all: there is nothing expansive here, only a headlong burst of intensity that is undeniably exhilarating but that runs roughshod over many of the beauties with which the movement is packed. The second movement’s Andante con moto really does move at a fast walk: no time for sightseeing here, or even for thinking about where one may be going – it is more a power walk than a stroll. There is vivacity to this movement, but it comes at the expense of perception of beauty. The symphony’s second half works better. The strongly rhythmic third movement is effective and particularly well-played, despite some inexplicable rubato in which Emelyanychev periodically seems hesitant to move on from one section to the next. Then comes the finale, the only movement here that really thrives under Emelyanychev’s approach. It is rushed, yes, but less so than the first movement, and here the speed comes across as a kind of headlong joy that may not fit the expansive themes perfectly but that is convincing in its own way. It is highly unlikely that Emelyanychev will interpret this symphony the same way in a decade or two, much less in the five decades that separate his age from that of Blomstedt. For now, what Emelyanychev offers is an interpretation filled with vigor but largely lacking in nuance and expressivity – decidedly a matter of taste.
The tastefulness with which the Handel and Haydn Society under Harry Christophers performs the music of Haydn can never be doubted, and a new (++++) CORO recording shows once again the excellence of this period-instrument group and is leader. The symphony they offer is not Haydn’s Ninth – which is largely eclipsed because it follows the “Morning, Noon and Night” trio of Nos. 6-8 – but his 99th, one of the less-often-heard of the composer’s final dozen “London” symphonies. The neglect of this splendid work has never been understandable and is even less so after one hears how Christopher and his ensemble perform it. Maybe it needs a title to bring it to the popularity level of the “Surprise,” “Miracle,” “Military,” “Clock” and “London” symphonies from the same batch. Christophers actually proposes one: the “Harmonie,” that being the German word for a full wind band – and Symphony No. 99 does indeed make extensive use of the orchestra’s wind complement. From its stately opening to its Andante with extensive employment of winds to its exceptionally clever and witty finale, the symphony is a delight throughout, and the verve with which the Handel and Haydn Society plays it serves to make it even more enjoyable than it usually is. It is paired here with Haydn’s final large-scale work, the sixth and last mass that the composer created for Prince Anton Esterházy, whose interest in music was minimal and in strong contrast to that of his father, Prince Nikolaus, whom Haydn served for the better part of three decades. Prince Anton did, however, want Haydn to write a mass annually for the nameday of Anton’s wife, and Haydn did just that – six times, with the final such mass being composed in 1802. That is the work heard here, and it was in fact designated Harmoniemesse (although not by Haydn himself) because of its extensive use of wind instruments. Even in our much-more-secular age, it is a marvelously expressive work with some special touches that show how creative Haydn remained at the age of 70: the usually tender Benedictus, for example, is here a fast choral movement full of eagerness, and the concluding Agnus dei progresses from a radiant beginning to a more prayerful central section, then stops altogether before closing with bright, emphatic expressiveness. Soloists, chorus and instrumentalists all handle the Harmoniemesse beautifully, making both the meaning of its devotional elements and the power of its exceptional musical creativity equally clear.
It would have been interesting if the creativity of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Beethoven’s sometime friend and sometime rival, had led him to arrange Beethoven’s Ninth for a small instrumental ensemble of the sort that could be found in many households – or could readily be put together – in the early 19th century. Hummel did not do this, though. But he did arrange Beethoven’s first seven symphonies (as well as the Septet, Op. 20) for flute, violin, cello, and piano – the same instruments for which Hummel made arrangements of half a dozen Mozart symphonies. A new (++++) Naxos CD featuring Uwe Grodd and the Gould Piano Trio offers listeners a chance to hear what Hummel did with Beethoven’s First and the “Eroica,” and the result is fascinating. Unsurprisingly, the classical lines and comparative mildness of No. 1 come across better on these instruments than does the far more expansive, broader, deeper and more emotionally trenchant No. 3. Also unsurprisingly, Hummel – a brilliant pianist – reserves much of the “good stuff” in these arrangements for the piano, even taking some elements that Beethoven originally assigned to the flute and giving them to the pianist rather than the flautist. The purpose of these arrangements, though, transcends any of their oddities and forgives them. Hummel re-created these symphonies – probably shortly after Beethoven’s death – for the express purpose of making more people aware of Beethoven’s genius, which Hummel himself never doubted even when he and Beethoven found themselves at odds. There was no “standard repertoire” in the 1830s, no easy way for people to get to concerts to experience Beethoven’s music, no recordings of it – it was only through arrangements that people could play for themselves, with family members and friends, that these symphonies could become known. And Hummel’s handling of the symphonies accomplished just what he intended, by bringing Beethoven far more attention from music lovers than he would otherwise have had. Heard in that context, these arrangements are very fine indeed. Grodd and the Gould Piano Trio play them straight and without exaggeration, in finely balanced performances that do indeed have the piano prominent much of the time but that also function as a clear introduction to the music. And some of what Hummel did comes off exceptionally well: for example, while the first two movements of the “Eroica” inevitably lack the power of the original, the lithe and lively finale is surprisingly effective in this chamber version. Certainly, in the 21st century, these Hummel productions are interesting sidelights on Beethoven rather than any sort of introduction to him. But sidelights do cast light, and Hummel’s handling of Beethoven’s First and Third Symphonies for a small ensemble very skillfully showcases many of the pleasures of music that was not always known as well as it is today – and that gained some of its popularity precisely because Hummel presented it in this form.
Eduard Strauss: Waltzes and Polkas, Volume 2. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Villa-Lobos: Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra; Concerto for Harmonica; Sexteto Místico; Quinteto Instrumental. Manuel Barrueco, guitar; José Staneck, harmonica; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
Peter Greve: The Palace of the Dreamking; Partita for 11 Brass Instruments; Give Us Peace—Invocation for Organ and Mixed Choir; Trio for Clarinet, Violoncello and Piano; Magic Winter—Arctic Saga; Aria pour Trompette et Orgue. Navona. $14.99.
Paul Reale: American Elegy; Hextet; Caldera with Ice Cave—Piano Concerto No. 3; Dancer’s Dream; Concerto Grosso; American Elegy with Chimes. Lynn Philharmonia conducted by Guillermo Figueroa and Jon Robertson. MSR Classics. $12.95.
David Maslanka: O Earth, O Stars—Music for Flute, Cello & Wind Ensemble; Symphony No. 10—The River of Time. Western Illinois University Wind Ensemble conducted by Mike Fansler. Navona. $14.99.
Although it is impossible for a single CD containing 60 to 80 minutes of music to provide a full picture of any composer’s interests, concerns and overall production, some releases do make a concerted effort to showcase enough of an individual’s oeuvre to give listeners a pretty good sense of where a composer’s primary strengths and interests can be found. In the case of Eduard Strauss (1838-1916), this involves a kind of redress-the-balance approach, since “handsome Edi,” as the youngest of the three sons of Johann Strauss Sr. was called, was best-known for his work as a conductor and long thought to have produced music far inferior to that of his brothers, Johann Jr. and Josef. Only one work by Eduard is played fairly regularly nowadays, the Bahn Frei Polka, but it is so marvelously infectious that it seems logical for there to be other works by him of equal quality. And so there are, as it turns out on a new Marco Polo disc – the second the label has offered of Eduard’s music. What emerges here is a composer who thought most effectively in the three-minute range, whose polkas and galops were filled with verve and panache, even though his waltzes, despite being uniformly well-made, operate at a somewhat lower level of inspiration. Every one of Eduard’s short-form pieces, as played by the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis, is convincingly lively or sentimental (depending on its type) and worth hearing and rehearing, and even the titles are especially attractive: Flüchtiger als Wind und Welle (“More Fleeting Than Wind and Wave”), Flottes Leben (“Fast Living”), Froh durch die ganze Welt! (“Merrily Around the World!”), Schmeichelkätzchen (“Little Flatterer”), Flott! (“Snappy and Stylish!”), Witzblitz (“Flashes of Wit”), O schöne Jugendzeit! (“O Beautiful Days of Youth!”), and Sprühfeuer (“Sparkling Fire”). Whether in fast-polka, polka-mazurka or polka Française form, these pieces show Eduard to have a masterful sense of themes, rhythms and orchestration – and with any luck, more works such as these will find their way into Strauss-themed concerts over time. The waltzes, on the other hand, are serviceable and often elegant, but they lack the developmental cleverness of those by Josef and the symphonic style of those by Johann Jr. For dancing, they are more than fine, but as concert pieces, they do pale beside those of Eduard’s brothers. The ones here are Aus der Studienzeit, Freie Gedanken, Bemooste Häupter, Lebende Blumen, Akademische Bürger, Jubelfanfaren, and Heimische Klänge. All get highly satisfying performances, but it is the shorter dance pieces that provide a real showcase for the talents of this under-appreciated member of the Strauss family.
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is best known for his Bachianas Brasileiras, but his talents went well beyond those works, as a new Naxos CD featuring the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under Giancarlo Guerrero clearly shows. The two concertos here date to late in the composer’s life, the one for guitar to 1951 and that for harmonica to 1955. The guitar concerto, the last piece that Villa-Lobos wrote for this instrument, was composed for Andrés Segovia and is well-known to guitarists – if less so to the general public. Villa-Lobos had a longstanding interest in the guitar, and tried in this concerto – mostly successfully – to find a way to allow the inherent delicacy of the instrument to stand out from an ensemble. Using a string orchestra rather than a full one was part of this; another element was the creation of a rather freewheeling score – Villa-Lobos in fact originally called it a Fantasia Concertante. The work sounds assured, clear and effective here, fully deserving of the respect that it has among guitarists (including Segovia, who gave the first performance – with Villa-Lobos as conductor). The harmonica concerto is much less familiar and quite interesting to hear. Commissioned by John Sebastian, a noted harmonica virtuoso of his time, this work also shows Villa-Lobos’ care in balancing a solo instrument against an orchestra – a full one this time, making matters more complicated. The composer’s solution here often involves having the soloist and ensemble play the same material separately rather than in anything approaching a competitive manner – for instance, the second movement’s theme is first performed by strings and winds, then by the harmonica with only a modest string accompaniment. The concerto is appealing in itself and is also indicative of Villa-Lobos’ interest in musical coloration and balance. In addition to the concertos, this CD offers two chamber works, one late and one early, at least in conception. Quinteto Instrumental dates to 1957 and is written for flute (Cláudia Nascimento), harp (Suélem Sampaio), violin (Adrían Petrutiu), viola (Ederson Fernandes), and cello (Adriana Holtz). It shows effective use of an instrumental combination often favored by 20th-century French composers: the work was commissioned by a French ensemble. The first two movements are meandering and rather pastoral, the finale more intense but always somewhat restrained. The work contrasts interestingly with Sexteto Místico, which dates to 1917 and was certainly conceived then – but not published until 1957, and perhaps not put into its final form until the 1950s. Here the instruments include flute (Nascimento), oboe (Layla Köhler), alto saxophone (Douglas Braga), guitar (Fábio Zanon), celesta (Rogério Zaghi), and harp (Sampaio) – an unusual combination whose coloristic possibilities Villa-Lobos clearly found intriguing. The composer combines the instruments’ sounds in unusual ways, for example by having a theme carried by oboe, flute and saxophone while the strings only provide background. Delicacy and placidity are the main emotional colorations of this work, whose unusual scoring is its most-attractive element – showing, as do all the pieces on this CD, the extent to which Villa-Lobos was interested in exploring the sound both of individual instruments and of groupings of them.
Some less-known composers also engage in effective sonic explorations, as Peter Greve does when illuminating specific scenes and rethinking a variety of forms on a new Navona CD. Greve himself conducts the New Europe Symphony Orchestra in The Palace of the Dreamking, which illustrates a scenario from a book by Dutch author Henriëtte van Eyk. What is interesting about this music is that it tells a story effectively whether or not a listener knows the specific story it is designed to communicate: the music breaks down clearly into sections that have some sort of illustrative purpose, using dissonance and drama, rhythmic changes, lyricism, and other techniques to pull listeners into Greve’s sound world. Simply hearing this work – which is in nine continuous sections but lasts a total of only a bit more than 11 minutes – is satisfying enough so listeners may want to find out what Greve is illustrating. That is the mark of effective musical scene-setting. Partita for 11 Brass Instruments, played by the Zagreb Festival Orchestra Brass Ensemble under Ivan Josip Skender, is not a traditional partita but a short three-section work whose middle segment is said to be “looking back to Giovanni Gabrieli” but can, again, be enjoyed simply for the sonorities of the instruments and the clever ways in which Greve interweaves the sounds. The final section zips by in less than a minute and caps the piece effectively. These two instrumental works contrast strongly with Give Us Peace, which Greve calls an “invocation for organ and mixed choir” and which is performed by organist Karel Martínek and the Kühn Mixed Choir conducted by Marek Vorlíček. This is a work in seven short movements, with an organ-solo introduction and a series of vocal elements that descend into “Devastation” and “Despair” before ending with “Reconciliation.” The text draws on multiple religions’ pleas for peace and uses the organ to especially fine effect for “Devastation” as well as in its more-traditional calming mode. Next on the CD is Greve’s Trio for Clarinet, Violoncello and Piano (played, respectively, by Yhasmin Valenzuela, Leo Eguchi, and Karolina Rojahn). This is an in memoriam work that, like Greve’s other music on this disc, does not go according to expectations. Instead of being deeply sad, it is wistful and lyrical, quiet and thoughtful, with the second of its three movements being the most mournful and contrasting with a surprisingly upbeat, dancelike finale that has some of the positive effect of a wake (in contrast to a funeral). After this comes Magic Winter, here played in a string-orchestra version by the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore. This is another three-movement work and, like The Palace of the Dreamking, a piece that reflects a specific scenario – in this case, trolls from Scandinavian folklore as they live through the long and deep Arctic chill. This work too is impressively evocative even for listeners who have no idea what it is supposed to be about. The first movement’s contrasts are clear and dramatic, the second movement’s mood of dullness bordering on despair comes through with dismal certainty, and the upbeat finale – which also contains its share of drama, representing the difficulty that springtime has in throwing off the Arctic winter – is a satisfying conclusion even for listeners for whom its specific illustrative purpose is unknown. The disc concludes with Aria pour Trompette et Orgue (played by, respectively, Ondřej Jurčeka and Martínek). This is a tribute to Francis Poulenc that is supposed to reflect Poulenc’s self-description as “half-rascal, half-monk.” It is the one work on the disc that is significantly more effective if its provenance is known and appreciated, since it sounds a bit Poulenc-ish (although there are no direct quotations in it) and the specific nature of the contrast between its two sections is clearer if the Poulenc relationship is known and appreciated. Nevertheless, this piece can be enjoyed simply by listening to the combined and contrasted sonorities of the two instruments and the music’s ever-changing dynamics and tempos. Greve’s communicative skill shines through in all these disparate works, and the CD as a whole offers an interesting portrait of a contemporary composer skilled both in composition and in connecting with an audience.
Not all composers’ explorations come across as effectively as do those of Villa-Lobos and Greve. A (+++) CD from MSR Classics offers six works by Paul Reale (born 1943) that spring from very different inspirations but are not, collectively, especially inspirational. Sometimes Reale makes his sources quite clear: American Elegy (2008), which opens the disc in a version for strings and closes it in one for strings and rather unnecessary (and somewhat intrusive) chimes, is intended to pay homage to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings; but it has little in common musically with that work or with Barber in general. It also does not sound especially American. Elsewhere, Reale says he was inspired by composers including Ravel and Mahler, but without knowing that, listeners will more likely hear some rather warmed-over Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Britten. With the exception of Dancer’s Dream (2018), a nicely paced work with a degree of warmth, the music here, even including the opening-and-closing elegy, seems studied and fairly cold. Somewhat strangely, Reale’s rather angular style is toned down for the one work here that it would seem to fit best: Hextet (2017), whose three movements are supposed to reflect elements of Halloween and horror movies. The titles do just that: Tarantella, Zombies and Walpurgisnacht. But the music itself is not particularly cinematic and, for that matter, not especially chilling – it is, on the whole, rather too gentle to be thematically convincing. The longest work on the disc, a piano concerto (with Christopher Guzman on piano) called Caldera with Ice Cave (2002/2012), also has a specific inspiration, and an imposing one – but the music itself is not very reflective of that inspiration and, indeed, not very impressive in the way that, say, Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica is when it comes to matters of ice. This is more a work with piano obbligato than a full-fledged concerto – pleasant enough, but not particularly distinguished. More interesting is Concerto Grosso (2015), which features Yordan Tenev, violin; Daniel Moore, viola; Sonya Nanos, cello; and Guzman, piano. It is a well-made work and more tightly knit than the piano concerto, and is fairly effective musically – although less so in the representational sense in which Reale created it. As a portrait or partial portrait of Reale, this CD shows a composer who, although he is comfortable writing for a variety of instruments, tends to get somewhat bogged down in trying to communicate specific thoughts or scenes in individual pieces.
There are only two pieces on a new (+++) Navona CD devoted to music of David Maslanka (1943-2017), but the works are sufficiently different so that they show distinct sides of the composer, if not necessarily the totality of his communicative abilities. O Earth, O Stars—Music for Flute, Cello & Wind Ensemble features John McMurtery on flute and Moisés Molina on cello, in a broadly conceived six-movement work whose foundation lies in a whole host of material both musical (Bach’s Jesu, meine Freude, and other pieces) and extramusical (sources as different as Carl Jung, A.A. Milne, Buddhism, and the Latin Mass). The work opens and closes with movements designated Chorale, and its four middle movements all have evocative or programmatic titles: You Are the Image of the Unending World, Sanctus, Dragons and Devils of the Heart, and O Earth, O Stars. Maslanka says the piece does not actually require programmatic understanding to be effective, but the specificity of the titles and the clear religious connotations of Chorale and Sanctus make it difficult to hear the work without striving to figure out what it means or is trying to say. It does not come across as a true double concerto: the solo instruments participate with the wind ensemble but by and large are not out in front, with percussion often more prominent than flute or cello or both combined. The tone painting is often formulaic, for instance in the early part of Sanctus before a pleasant flute solo alters the mood. This can work rather well – Dragons and Devils of the Heart is suitably draconian and devilish, functioning essentially as a scherzo – but the portions of the work that are intended to evoke grandeur and emotional commitment are its least convincing ones, as if the music is trying a bit too hard to convey philosophical depth. The piece is pleasant enough and features some attractive wind sonorities, but is not as trenchant or meaningful as Maslanka apparently wants it to be. Symphony No. 10—The River of Time was unfinished at Maslanka’s death – he finished the first movement and half of the second – and was completed by his son, Matthew. This is an extremely personal work, and not just because it was begun during David Maslanka’s life and finished after his death. Among other things, the first movement deals with the fatal illness of the composer’s wife, Alison, and the third – almost entirely created by Matthew Maslanka – focuses on the deaths of both Alison and David. The work progresses through a not-uncommon trajectory, from rage (tenderly mediated by love) through attempted acceptance, and thence to actual acceptance and the ability to survive loss. There is power in the symphony, and beauty, but it is a very difficult work to hear without knowing and responding to its most-personal elements – for instance, the second movement contains much of a movement from a euphonium sonata that David wrote for Matthew, and Matthew then uses the euphonium in a crucial way in the third movement. Taken simply as a listening experience, the symphony is episodic and structurally unfocused: what pulls it together is its experiential basis, not its musical elements. It is a lovely tribute by Matthew to his parents, and a highly personal one: hearing it almost feels like intruding on a private family matter. Yet the work’s effectiveness is so tightly bound up with knowing how it came into being, and why it was made the way it was, that it ultimately falls a bit short of being a shared experience with listeners who are not Maslanka family members or friends. It is certainly heartfelt, but its heart is in one very specific place.
Bach: Partita No. 4, BWV 828; Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze; Caroline Shaw: Gustave le Gray. Amy Yang, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Leo Sowerby: Three Summer Beach Sketches; Suite for Piano—Four Hands; Passacaglia, Interlude and Fugue; Prelude for Two Pianos; Fisherman’s Tune; Synconata. Gail Quillman and Julia Tsien, pianists. Cedille. $10.
Perspectives: Music of Reena Esmail, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Jung Sun Kang, Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee, Florence Price, Lili Boulanger, Vivian Fine, and Amy Beach. Dawn Wohn, violin; Esther Park, piano. Delos. $14.98.
Music for Oboe and Piano by Pedro Soler, Robert K. Mueller, Edmund Rubbra, Grażyna Bacewicz, and Merab Partskhaladze. Theresa Delaplain, oboe; Tomoko Kashiwagi, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Fernando Sor: Music for Guitar. Gianluigi Giglio, guitar. SOMM. $14.98.
Figments, Volume 2: Music by Yuan-Chen Li, Peter Dayton, Hans Bakker, Navid Bargrizan, and Charles Corey. Navona. $14.99.
Listeners enamored of very fine playing and a feeling of intimacy from recordings can readily turn to CDs featuring just one or two instruments and performers – in effect, “recital” rather than “concert” discs. The enjoyment of these releases depends not only on the quality of the playing, which by and large is very fine indeed nowadays, but also on the specific musical mixtures offered by the performers. That tends to be where a recording becomes a matter of taste. For example, Amy Yang’s new MSR Classics CD is by any standards played with great sensitivity and skill. But the musical combination here is on the unusual, even quirky side, and therefore will likely appeal to some audiences but not to others. Her version of Bach’s D minor Partita No. 4, for example, nicely explores the emotional variances of this seven-movement suite, with the Allemande and contemplative Sarabande coming across particularly well. However, like all performances on a modern concert grand, Yang’s lacks the contrapuntal elegance that Bach created for the harpsichord. Yang actually keeps the sound of the piano admirably light, using the instrument to accentuate some of the delicacy and verve that Bach brings to some of the movements. Listeners who like Bach on piano will enjoy this, but those who prefer the instrument for which the music was written will find the offering here to be just an approximation. There is a strong contrast between the Bach and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, a kind of sequel to Carnaval that is less often heard. There are no fewer than 20 movements in Davidsbündlertänze, and as in the Bach, there is considerable emotional variation among them, with two marked Mit Humor and one Mit gutem Humor, while others are designated Ungeduldig (“impatient”), Zart und singend (“tender and singing”), and Wie aus der Ferne (“as if from afar”). The work as a whole nearly encapsulates the tenets of early Romanticism, and in fact Schumann designated different movements as coming from his intense, extroverted Florestan side or his more inwardly focused Eusebius. Yang’s sensitive handling of the contrasts among the pieces is even more engaging than is her treatment of Bach. The two extended, multi-movement works are separated on the CD by a world première recording of a piece commissioned by Yang herself: Gustave le Gray by Caroline Shaw (born 1982). This is a tribute to the 19th-century photographer who invented the technique of combining separate negatives into a single picture. Shaw’s musical version of this involves mixing material of her own with a Chopin Mazurka (Op. 17, No. 4, in A minor). But the result is not really creation of a whole greater than the sum of its parts, as in le Gray’s work: the Chopin and Shaw elements remain distinct, not quite an oil-and-water separation but more of a colloid than a solution. Listener enjoyment of this disc will hinge on the extent to which people find its highly personal combination of music congenial.
The enjoyment of a new Cedille release of world première recordings of music by Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) is mostly a matter of discovery – and appreciation both of the music and of the performances by Gail Quillman (who studied with Sowerby) and Julia Tsien (who studied with Quillman). Sowerby had a career as a pianist for a time (and later as an organist), and his writing for the keyboard is assured and idiomatic, if often rather backward-looking. Indeed, the earliest work on this CD, Three Summer Beach Sketches of 1915, is harmonically the most advanced-sounding. The latest work on the disc, Suite for Piano—Four Hands (played here on two pianos), dates to 1959 and has some of the typical sound of mid-20th-century compositions, but it is scarcely adventurous. There is an aleatoric element to the suite: the movements can be played in whatever order the performers wish. Here they appear in a slow-fast-slow-fast sequence that works well. There is nothing particularly profound in the music, but it is pleasant to hear and, like all Sowerby’s works on this disc, very well-constructed. The most intriguing work on the CD is Passacaglia, Interlude and Fugue, essentially a single-movement, three-part sonata that reinterprets some classic Baroque forms in accordance with 20th-century Impressionism, and contains a variety of unusual and unexpected elements, including a very quiet conclusion. Prelude for Two Pianos is shorter and somewhat more straitlaced, although it partakes of similar sensibilities. Fisherman’s Tune is shorter still, and is very upbeat and accessible. The CD concludes with the intriguingly titled Synconata, which is equally forthright and communicative, with distinct jazz elements reminiscent of some music by Gershwin – perhaps unsurprisingly, since Sowerby’s work arose from a collaboration with Paul Whiteman, through whom Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue came into being. All the performances here, which date to 1997, are enthusiastic, and all evince commitment to the music and to the elements that make Sowerby’s piano pieces stand out. If there is nothing truly exceptional on the disc, there is much that is enjoyable and much that will make listeners wonder why Sowerby’s many works – he wrote more than 500 – are not heard more frequently.
There are, of course, many, many composers whose works are heard rarely, if at all. A kind of “redress the balance” movement has been in progress for some time now, seeking worthy pieces that have not been heard in many years or with which audiences may be wholly unfamiliar. One aspect of the approach is to seek out “under-represented” groups of composers, such as women – an admirable enough goal if the music uncovered is worthwhile in itself and just happens to have been composed by women (as opposed to being deemed worthy because females rather than males wrote it, which is just silly). A new Delos CD featuring violinist Dawn Wohn and pianist Esther Park is a typical “rediscovery” release, an anthology featuring 10 pieces by nine women whose names will likely be almost wholly unfamiliar to listeners (the three most likely exceptions being Lili Boulanger, Florence Price and Amy Beach). As with any anthology disc, this is very much a mixed bag, and it is highly unlikely that listeners will enjoy all the material equally – the intent here is to offer a potpourri of short works from various time periods and in many styles, with listeners deciding for themselves whether there is enough worthy material to counterbalance pieces that they may find less enjoyable. There are Indian folk melodies at the heart of Jhula-Jhule by Reena Esmail (born 1983). Episodes by Ellen Taafe Zwilich (born 1939) combines a broadly Romantic sensibility with pervasive atonality in very well-contrasted movements simply marked “Arioso” and “Vivace.” From Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) comes the gentle and affecting Legenda. Jung Sun Kang (born 1983) offers Star-Crossed, a rather self-consciously modernistic work, commissioned for this CD, based on a Korean story about literally star-crossed lovers who represent two constellations. From Chihchun Chi-sun Lee (born 1970) there is Provintia, “Sunset of Chihkan Tower,” the title referring to a Dutch-built 17th-century monument in Taiwan and the music originally written for the Chinese erhu rather than violin. There are two works here by Florence Price (1887-1953), Deserted Garden and Elfentanz, both of which are distinctly Romantic in sound but incorporate elements from spirituals, ragtime and other influences – these are pieces that, short as they are, show Price’s personal style. The brief Nocturne by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), the short-lived younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, is less distinctive but is exceptionally evocative, smooth, and genuinely beautiful. Portal by Vivian Fine (1913-2000) follows on the CD and is a very strong contrast, with its pervasive dissonance and multiple, quickly changing textures. The disc concludes with Romance by Amy Beach (1867-1944). This is a particularly sweet work with very fine balance between violin and piano, partaking of some of the sensibilities of Boulanger’s Nocturne but presenting them at greater length and in more depth. There is quite a lot to enjoy on this very well-played recording, and although listeners may not find all the music equally worthy, they will likely find at least a few pieces worth hearing again and again.
Another anthology disc of music by mostly unfamiliar composers, this one an MSR Classics release featuring oboe and piano, offers works by Pedro Soler (1810-1850), Robert K. Mueller (born 1958), Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969), and Merab Partskhaladze (1924-2008). Theresa Delaplain and Tomoko Kashiwagi handle the very different styles of these pieces quite well. Soler’s Souvenir de Madrid has the Spanish inflections and soulful passages to which its title points, and builds to a very bouncy conclusion that is a real workout for the oboist. Mueller’s Commemoration: In Honor of Fallen Heroes moves this recital from the 19th century to the 21st (2006), but Mueller’s work retains much of the expressiveness associated with the Romantic era, especially in the first of its two movements, Elegy. And the second movement, Spirals, provides an apt contrast. The three movements of Rubbra’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano are well differentiated, too. Although this is a work of the middle of the 20th century (1958), it shows little evidence of the sometimes outré timbral experiments of the time: the first movement is a gentle Con moto, the second an Elegy: Lento in which the oboe’s wistful qualities are prominent, and the finale a Presto in which the scurrying piano part is combined with oboe material that borders on the jaunty before the work wraps up in a surprisingly thoughtful mood. This makes for quite a contrast with the sonata by Bacewicz, which was written two decades earlier (1937) but comes across as a more angular, less flowing work. The oboe and piano are closely interwoven here, and the music is on the acerbic side, especially in a central Tempo di Valse that has some of the flavor of Shostakovich. The CD concludes with Partskhaladze’s Two Pieces for Oboe and Piano, its short Melody and Dance intended to reflect Russia in much the same way that the other works on this disc are associated with other countries: Soler’s with Spain, Mueller’s with the United States, Rubbra’s with Great Britain, and Bacewicz’s with Poland. The actual reflection of nationality or regional music, such as folk material, is more apparent here by its absence, however: the disc as a whole simply gives listeners a chance to hear several interesting ways that composers have handled the oboe-and-piano combination from the 19th century to the 21st.
The whole of a new SOMM disc featuring guitarist Gianluigi Giglio lies in the 19th century, and this is a recording featuring works by only a single composer: Fernando Sor (1778-1839). Sor may have written music in the 18th century, but all his published works date to the 19th, and he is best-known for his guitar music – although he also wrote for string quartet, piano, and even tried his hand at ballet and opera. Sor’s music is very familiar to classical guitarists but much less so to listeners in general, making this CD a treat for audiences looking for out-of-the-ordinary, virtuosic solo music. Sor actually wrote for players of all skill levels, but Giglio focuses primarily on his more-challenging material. He includes one of Sor’s best-known works, Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart, Op. 9, which is based on a melody from The Magic Flute and which explores the guitar’s expressive potential. Also here is another work of a similar type, Introduction and Variations on “Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre,” which begins simply but soon becomes quite intricate. The remaining pieces cover several genres that were popular in Sor’s time – and a couple of them are from his instructional rather than virtuosic material. One such is The movement of a religious prayer, No. 23 of Sor’s 24 Progressive Lessons for Beginners, whose chordal structure may be fairly simple to play but fits the theme of the work very well. Another is the Easy Fantasy in A minor, Op. 58, which has lovely flow but does sound more straightforward than the Elegiac Fantasy in E, Op. 59, an in memoriam work in which the use of the guitar’s lower range is particularly impressive – and in which Sor produces an effective funeral march as the second of two movements. Also here are Nos. 3 and 5 from Sor’s Mes Ennuis – Six Bagatelles, the first a gentle Cantabile and the second a rather spare-sounding Andante. Sor excelled in delving into the expressive powers of the guitar, as in the Capriccio in E, “Le calme,” which progresses in a satisfyingly even manner. But Sor could also call up specific national sounds and forms when he wanted to, as in the intriguing Les folies d’Espagne and a Minuet. Giglio’s cross-section of Sor’s work will perhaps be of more interest to guitar players than to a broader group of listeners: 68 minutes of solo guitar music, even excellent solo guitar music, is a bit much except for those truly devoted to the instrument. Listeners who are not intense guitar aficionados will likely enjoy the disc more by hearing it a couple of pieces at a time rather than straight through.
The solo guitar figures as well in some works on a new Navona disc called Figments, Volume 2. But the four contemporary works in which the guitar is heard here bear virtually no resemblance to anything by Sor, and the techniques required to play some of the modern music are quite different from those of Sor’s time. Hans Bakker’s Tiento I (performed by Ruud Harte) and Tiento II (played by Tatakh Huismans) both look to the past, it is true – all the way to a 16th-century Spanish keyboard form – but both are determinedly modern in sensibility, although the second has a certain amount of Romantic or post-Romantic lyricism. And neither approaches the sound of Se-Chahar-Gah by Navid Bargrizan, played by Tolgahan Çoğulu on an instrument he invented called the “microtonal adjustable guitar.” Retuned strings, references to traditional Persian music, and frequent changes of scaling and intonation characterize this work, which is quite interesting to hear purely sonically, although it falls somewhat short as music in the sounds extracted from the instrument. Also on this disc is a work for guitar (David William Ross) and oboe (Jennifer Slowick): the piece, by Peter Dayton, is called Mar de Lurín, after Paintings by Fernando de Szyszlo. The title refers to a Polish-Peruvian artist whose style the composer tries to translate into music, but only those who are thoroughly familiar with the artist’s work will be able to judge whether Dayton succeeds. Heard simply as music, this piece handles the unusual mixture of sonorities skillfully, although guitar and oboe seem much of the time to be going their own way and mingling only incidentally, or coincidentally. A special understanding is equally necessary to make sense of Tell for Alto Saxophone Solo – a work that, despite its title, is actually for alto saxophone and voice (Jessica Maxfield both plays and emotes). Yuan-Chen Li here seems, like many contemporary composers, to be quite interested in having the instruments (both saxophone and voice) sound like something other than what they are: squeaks and squeals from the sax, exclamations and sound snippets from the voice. There is an elaborate background story to the piece, having to do with a site so holy that its story cannot be told even to prevent it from being despoiled. Again like many contemporary composers, Li expects audience members to learn and absorb the story and then apply their newfound, esoteric knowledge to hearing the music. Listeners not so inclined will find this piece puzzling at best. Also on this disc is 10 Aphorisms, a second work by Bargrizan, this one written for soprano saxophone (Laurent Estoppey) and baritone saxophone (Steve Stusek). The comparative simplicity of this music belies the considerable underlying complexity of its creation: it is based on a principle developed in an opera called Orpheus Kristall by a composer named Manfred Stahnke. But in this case, the music is accessible, if not particularly appealing, without knowing the “psychoacoustical” framework used to produce it. The saxophones have clearly discernible differences in their material, which makes the piece something of an intellectual exercise to follow, although portions of it are genuinely unpleasant to hear – presumably by design and in accord with its underlying foundation. The final work on this disc is the only one to use more than two instruments: Syzygy by Charles Corey is for string quartet (the Pedroia String Quartet: Jae Cosmos Lee and Rohan Gregory, violins; Peter Sulski, viola; Jacques Wood, cello). Once again, this is a work requiring elucidation by the composer, and study by listeners, for its full effect, which is intended to come from its title as applied specifically to poetry and astronomy. The four movements’ titles are described by the composer as homonyms (they are actually homophones): Canon/Cannon, Pour/Pore, Descent/Dissent, and Rays/Raze/Raise. Those titles are the cleverest element of the piece, because the music within each movement, although the composer can surely show how it fits the title, simply does not sound as if it is aimed at expressing anything relating to the verbiage. The second movement, for example, is supposed to be perceived as an outpouring of notes within which there are tiny spaces (hence “pores”) through which slower material emerges. The work actually makes the most musical sense by simply being heard as a dissonant, atonal modern string quartet with a first movement, scherzo, slow movement, and a finale that opens in ethereality and progresses into fragmentation. Contemporary composers are by no means the first to insist that it is important that listeners know their works’ programmatic content – indeed, a considerable amount of the argument between the Brahmsian and Wagnerian factions in the 19th century had to do with whether or not audiences should be required to know exactly what a work was about in order to make sense of it. What today’s composers have done, however, is to create music based on more and more abstruse systems and referents, thus requiring listeners to spend more and more time learning about a piece before being able to absorb a composer’s intention in writing it. Audiences will have to decide for themselves, when it comes to Figments, Volume 2 and similar CDs, whether the game is worth the candle.