April 25, 2019
Horses: The Definitive Catalog of Horse and Pony Breeds. Scholastic. $19.99.
A photographic extravaganza that will delight anyone who has ever ridden a horse or just dreamed of riding one, Horses is a testament to the longstanding closeness of the special bond between humans and horses and a remarkable exploration of the wide variety of horse types and characteristics. Even people knowledgeable about horses will likely learn new things about the equine world here – this is one of those books intended for young readers but absolutely fascinating for anyone of any age. From extreme close-ups that show the characteristics of various horses to gorgeous photos of forms of racing – harness and thoroughbred – to historical perspective on the human/horse relationship, Horses is packed with information as well as being just beautiful to look at.
The book explains that there were two kinds of ancestral horses some 4.5 million years ago, one of which led to the lines of today’s mules and asses, while the other resulted in modern horses. Further developments have been much more recent: “For example, when stronger horses were needed for farm work, to carry knights in armor, or to pull large weights, heavier breeds were created.” And this continues today through targeted breeding of specific types of horses for specific purposes.
The sheer number of horse breeds may come as a surprise to readers. Many may have heard of “Arabian” horses, but in fact there are quite a few different types. The rare Gidran Arab, for example, “was created at Hungary’s oldest national stud, Mezöhegyes, which was established in 1784 to breed military horses.” And the Shagya Arab “was originally bred in the 19th century in Báblona as a riding horse for the Hungarian cavalry.” And those are just the Arabian horses from Hungary – there are others from many other countries.
In addition to specifics of horse types, Horses gives good information – and wonderful pictures – about horses in general. “Light horses are split into two groups – hotblood and warmblood – depending on their characteristics and ancestry,” with hotbloods being “spirited, nervous, and full of energy,” while warmbloods are “gentler, calmer, and eager to please.” Within the groups, each breed has specific characteristics that are clearly shown in Horses, often with striking photos, such as the ones showing the coat colors of the Akhal-Teke, a rare Central Asian hotblood whose coat may be bay, dun, chestnut, black, grey or golden palomino. The pages about this breed not only show the horses racing but also display an emblem from Turkmenistan, where it comes from, explaining that the Akhal-Teke appears on that nation’s banknotes and coat of arms, and also on postage stamps from Turkmenistan, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. Like many other elements of Horses, this shows the continued importance of these animals to humans.
Light horses are the most-familiar kind, and they get more than half the space in Horses. But other equines are in some ways even more interesting, simply because readers are less likely to have seen or interacted with them. There is a section on ponies, “hardy animals that have learned to survive in the harshest of conditions, many on remote northerly islands,” and that are “intelligent, energetic, and sometimes stubborn.” Photos of the winter coat of the Icelandic, which dates to Viking times and has five different gaits, are very striking, as are views of wild or semi-wild island ponies: the Eriskay of Scotland, Skyros of Greece, Batak of Indonesia, and others – plus pictures of the tiny and graceful Falabella of Argentina (actually classified as a horse, despite its size). Horses also has an extended section on heavy horses, “also known as coldbloods or draft horses,” which are large, patient and very strong working animals. Bred for strength rather than speed, they have solid, broad legs, wide hooves, a short and very muscular back, and other characteristics that clearly show how they differ from light horses – a full-page explanatory photo highlights the distinctions. Some heavy horses may be familiar to readers – Clydesdales, for example, which are exceptionally tall and heavy, with weight that “is about the same as a Volkswagen Beetle” – but many will not be: the Belgian Heavy Draft, the Auxois of France, the ancient Ardennais warhorse that Julius Caesar considered “tireless,” and others. There are some real surprises here, such as the leopard-spotted coat of the Noriker and the striking appearance of the Black Forest Horse of Germany. Horses is a book to dwell on and return to again and again to look at and learn about the richness of the equine world and its continued importance to human commerce and, in many places, daily life.
In case all the photos and information lead readers to want a horse of their own, Horses offers a concluding section called “Care of Horses” that provides basic information, but only after warning that owning a horse “requires real commitment,” including “early starts day in and day out in all weathers” and a long-term commitment to proper housing, equipment and veterinary care. Daily rides or walks are necessary, for example, to prevent muscular and digestive problems, and “it is essential that the stable be mucked out regularly and clean, absorbent bedding put in place” to prevent respiratory problems. Horses are big animals and a big responsibility – likely far more than most readers of Horses will be able to assume. But just seeing how magnificent these animals are, in all their variety, turns horse ownership into a dream for many people. Horses is a book that can encourage the dream, but it also offers non-owners a much easier way to observe, appreciate and enjoy the wonders of the equine world.
Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand: Fifty Wonders That Reveal an Extraordinary Universe. By Marcus Chown. Diversion Books. $16.99.
Carl Sagan’s notable comment about whether he preferred science or science fiction makes an early appearance in Marcus Chown’s Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, and is in effect a motto for the book. Which field did Sagan said he preferred? “Science. Because science is stranger than science fiction.” Chown offers 50 short chapters demonstrating just how true this is – and since most chapters refer to multiple elements of some phenomenon or other, there are really far more than 50 wonders here.
A science popularizer in the Sagan mold, Chown is also adept at chapter titles and opening quotations. How can a reader not want to find out why a chapter is called “The Disposable Brain”? Or read one whose subhead states, “Every breath you take contains an atom breathed out by Marilyn Monroe”? Or one with the subhead, “If the sun were made of bananas it would not make any difference”? How can anyone with even a slight interest in scientific oddities not enjoy a book that, in addition to chapter-opening quotations from Shakespeare, Galileo, Richard Feynman, Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, and William Blake (from whom the book’s title is taken), offers comments from Joan Rivers, Gary Larson’s “The Far Side,” and, from Pink Floyd, “There’s someone in my head and it’s not me”?
That Pink Floyd remark is a fair example of how cleverly Chown weaves popularized science and popular culture together. It comes in a chapter called “Living with the Alien,” whose subhead reads, “You are born 100 percent human but die 50 percent alien.” What this is about is the fact that around half the cells in the human body are bacteria – humans are, essentially, symbiotic organisms (although Chown does not say exactly that). A study of all foreign microorganisms in the human body found “more than 10,000 species of alien cells in your body – forty times the number of cell types that belong to you. In fact, every square centimeter of your skin is home to about five million bacteria. That is about five hundred in every pinhead-size patch.” This is how Chown explains things: taking a scientific finding, emphasizing its weirdness, and thus showing how extraordinary everyday, taken-for-granted things are.
He also deals with non-everyday things, which means, for example, time travel, which “is not ruled out by the laws of physics” but turns out to require the would-be time traveler to “take the earth and a region near a black hole and connect them with a wormhole,” using “a type of matter with repulsive gravity that we do not know exists” but that has been calculated, plus “the energy emitted by an appreciable fraction of the stars in our Milky Way during their lifetimes.” Simple! Equally so is Chown’s explanation of the reason “you could fit the entire human race in the volume of a sugar cube,” wryly adding, “albeit a very heavy sugar cube!” The sugar-cube discussion, which focuses on how much of an atom is empty and why that is important, is one of Chown’s best in Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, because in it he does what he can to make quantum theory sort of understandable, aptly referring to it at one point as “quantum insanity.” Readers who cannot grasp the complexities of the quantum world – that would be everybody – will be relieved when Chown explains, “Don’t even try to imagine how this can be. It is impossible. The truth is that the electrons and photons and so on that make up the world are neither particles nor waves but something [with] which we have nothing to compare them in the everyday world and for which we have no word in our vocabulary.” That is not only accurate but also refreshing: reality is made up, we are made up, of things that we can comprehend mathematically (well, a very, very few of us can), but are literally incapable of envisioning. There are inherent limits to what the human brain (which performs all its wonders using the power of a 20-watt bulb, as Chown explains in one chapter) can calculate, just as there are limits to what any computer can possibly do (limits that Alan Turing set out to discover, as Chown discusses in another chapter).
The reason Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand works so well is that it does not “dumb down” abstruse science: instead, it shows how utterly wonderful and wonder-filled scientific discoveries are, even when (especially when) applied to mundane life and things we generally accept without thinking much about them. There is something exhilarating in Chown’s writing, something captivating in the way he casually tosses about a variety of fascinating facts and discoveries while explaining how many things remain unknown and perhaps, given the inherent limitations of the human mind, unknowable (although don’t bet on it). If Carl Sagan’s comment on the strangeness of science could be this book’s motto, then a remark by J.B.S. Haldane that heads one of the chapters here could be a pithy summary of what Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand is all about: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 3, 5 and 8 (“Unfinished”). City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake—1877 world première version. State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $21.99 (SACD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Ruby Hughes, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Minnesota Chorale and Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $18.99 (SACD).
The care taken in the production of Super Audio CDs, which are a kind of “CD-plus” medium playable both on stereo equipment and, to greater advantage, on multichannel systems, can serve symphonic music particularly well by bringing clarity to individual orchestral instruments as well as fullness of sound to an orchestra as a whole. When conductors pay particular attention to the details of a composer’s instrumentation, well-produced SACDs can be especially beneficial in reproducing the effects that the conductor is seeking. The first volume in Edward Gardner’s planned cycle of Schubert symphonies with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra shows how well this works in fleet, light-footed performances of two early symphonies and a reading of the “Unfinished” that goes out of its way to find lucidity. The Third is the first symphony in which Schubert really shows his own voice: it is still reminiscent of Haydn, especially in the opening of the first movement, but its lilting themes and easy flow seem less imitative of the older composer (or less of a tribute to him) and more indicative of Schubert’s own tremendous melodic gifts. The Fifth, the best-known of the early symphonies, uses a chamber-sized orchestra and gets going immediately – no slow introduction here – with a vivacious theme that is more Mozartian than Haydnesque but that has a recognizably Schubertian shape. Schubert’s abrupt key changes during the movements here are quite characteristic of his style, as is the headlong momentum of the symphony’s finale, which Gardner takes at an unusually speedy pace (an approach similar to what he offers in the finale of the Third) that takes some getting used to but quickly becomes winning as the orchestra’s ability to sustain it becomes clear. The “Unfinished” gets a lighter touch in its two movements under Gardner than it usually receives, with understanding of the fact that, unusually, the two are in nearly the same tempo: one is marked Allegro moderato and the other Andante con moto. Instead of trying for an inappropriate tempo contrast, Gardner opts for exploration of the subtle differences in instrumental emphasis between the movements – here the clarity of the Chandos sound is a great help. Schubert was an inveterate non-finisher of symphonies – the Eighth is by no means his only “Unfinished,” although it is the only one accorded that title – but conductors have long found ways to make the two movements of No. 8 sound complete in their own way. Gardner does this by careful attention to the movements’ pacing and instrumental balance, with the result that this “Unfinished” feels satisfying, almost like an extended concert overture rather than a portion of a symphony. The basically light and delicate touch that Gardner brings to all three of these symphonies bodes well for future releases of Schubert’s earlier symphonic works, although it remains to be seen how it will translate to No. 9.
Tchaikovsky had already finished his early symphonies, Nos. 1-3, when he created the ballet Swan Lake, which dates to essentially the same time as his Symphony No. 4. The ballet only seems highly familiar today: the version in which it is always heard is not the one Tchaikovsky intended, being considerably shorter than the original, whose first performance was a disaster (not because of the music but because of the staging). The standard Swan Lake of today was arranged after Tchaikovsky’s death, and while it contains a great deal of wonderful music, it has less of it than the composer wanted. It also has a different musical “story arc,” because in its original conception, Swan Lake was something of a hybrid between ballet and symphony – a kind of symphony to be danced. The original sequence of music, the key signatures and pacing, and the overall flow of the ballet, were all designed from a symphonic perspective – a very creative and highly unusual approach that comes through only imperfectly in Swan Lake as it is usually heard. That makes the new PentaTone release featuring Vladimir Jurowski conducting the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” especially interesting, because Jurowski returns to the original Swan Lake score – which includes more than two-and-a-half hours of music – and approaches the piece as an extended symphonic poem, if not exactly a symphony. This means that he paces certain individual elements so as to have them fit into a symphonic conception rather than be effective as dances – which means, in a practical sense, that some parts of this Swan Lake would be painfully slow to dance, while others would be impossibly fast. Yet nothing here distorts Tchaikovsky: all the warmth, the dark orchestration that would also appear in the Fourth Symphony, the beautiful melodies and their elegantly expressive presentation, are all present. This is Swan Lake as musical storytelling almost in the mode of Liszt, with recurrent motifs carefully developed and presented in various guises as the dark fairy tale of love, loss and last-minute triumph progresses. The SACD sound here contributes a level of clarity that allows middle voices of the orchestra to be heard easily and Tchaikovsky’s finely honed balance of orchestral sections – with brass as important to him as woodwinds were to Schubert – coming through to fine effect. The symphonic style and dimensions that Tchaikovsky brought to Swan Lake are evident in this performance after at most being hinted at in more-familiar versions of the music. This is a reading that makes the ballet seem genuinely new by offering it in its oldest form.
The many forms of Bruckner’s symphonies are a thorny, ongoing issue for musicologists and conductors, but less so for his Seventh than for others: the Nowak edition of 1954, based on Bruckner’s 1885 revision of his score, is the one usually followed. However, for his new performance with the Altomonte Orchester St. Florian, Rémy Ballot has gone one better than other conductors by using extremely recent (and, indeed, still-in-progress) scholarship by Paul Hawkshaw to supplement the Nowak version of the score. The noteworthy changes are few and will be mainly apparent to scholars and those with longtime familiarity with the symphony – they primarily have to do with phrasing and articulation, not orchestration or restoration of dropped material. Nevertheless, the attention to the minutest detail that has characterized all of Ballot’s Bruckner releases for Gramola is everywhere evident both in the scholarly area and in the performance, abetted once more by crystal-clear SACD sound. The orchestra’s astonishing proficiency in Bruckner is even more surprising in light of the fact that it consists of both professionals and student players: Ballot combines them to marvelous effect, here as in earlier releases, and the result is a “Bruckner sound” quite unlike that of other orchestras. The symphonies under Ballot are appearing in a peculiar order: No. 3 (original version) was first, then No. 8, No. 9 (three-movement version), No. 6, No. 5, and now No. 7. And the nature of the orchestra inevitably changes as its professionals pursue other commitments while its students move on. This makes the consistency of the interpretations all the more remarkable. Ballot has a genuine vision of Bruckner as symphonist: these recordings are expansive, very broadly conceived, and organic both in the way they appear to grow inevitably from the seeds planted as they begin and in the sense of organ-like sonorities that come to the fore again and again. In this live recording of No. 7, Ballot lavishes particular attention on the Adagio, which is longer than the third and fourth movements together, allowing the music to flow in a way that sounds both natural and inevitable as the dirgelike elements, never bereft of beauty, pile upon each other until a genuinely thrilling climax (in which Ballot does use a cymbal clash, which some conductors omit even though it appears in the Nowak edition). The symphony as a whole is not spun out to as great a length as are some of Ballot’s other recordings, but at 73 minutes, this is still a lengthy reading – which, however, never drags or feels flaccid (another characteristic of Ballot’s Bruckner). One of the most impressive parts of the sound is the quietness during rests and in the faintest passages of the symphony: the lack of sound seems audible, as if the world, along with the live audience, is holding its breath. Although not a “definitive” Bruckner Seventh – there is no such thing – this is a top-notch one that is convincing throughout and that allows Ballot’s unique approach to the composer to be heard in all its subtlety.
The sound, and in particular the sonic environment in quiet passages, is also crucial to the success of Osmo Vänskä’s reading of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony in a new BIS release. Unlike Ballot, Vänskä is an inconsistent conductor of this repertoire – and, in fact, of this specific symphony, which becomes progressively stronger as it goes on. Vänskä’s earlier Mahler recordings, of Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, did not: they tended to plod and then disintegrate under their own weight, lacking the sort of overarching conductorial view that makes Ballot’s Bruckner so consistently successful. Vänskä’s handling of Mahler’s Second seems at first as if it too will go awry. The striding heroism of the first movement is underwhelming here, with the movement’s quiet conclusion seeming more a collapse than a funereal farewell. And the second movement, which Mahler intended as so great a contrast to the first that he wanted a pause of at least five minutes between them, here provides little change of mood: instead of lightening, it drags. However, things improve in the third movement, an orchestral version of the Wunderhorn song about St. Anthony’s futile sermon to the fishes, which acknowledge the great truth of his words and then go back to being exactly what they were before. The underlying sardonic elements do not quite come through here, but the sinuousness of the material is well-handled; and the instrumental balance, made clear by the very fine SACD sound, is effective. And then the entire character of the performance changes when, attacca, the fourth movement begins, with Sasha Cooke singing Urlicht with depth, intensity and drama that are deeply stirring and emotionally trenchant. Suddenly there is genuine pathos in this symphony, a tremendous sense of the sheer humanity of the music, a feeling of reaching out to something beyond everyday human experience. It is a remarkable performance of the symphony’s shortest movement, and one that leads, again attacca, to a finale that starts in such a gigantic burst of stormy drama that listeners who set the volume a touch too high for the fourth movement may be physically driven back at the start of the fifth. Here Vänskä seems really in his element, bringing forth all the fire and passion that were largely missing from the opening movement, having Mahler’s grand-scale conception march strongly and stridently along for more than half the finale until, in a moment that is always thrilling, the chorus enters very, very quietly with Klopstock’s Aufersteh’n. The sound here is so good that the entry is, for a moment, questionable: is the Minnesota Chorale really singing? The answer is yes, and with remarkable sensitivity and fervor. Cooke has a part in this magnificent peroration too, and again her voice is so perfectly matched to the material that it overshadows the otherwise very fine contributions of the chorus and of soprano Ruby Hughes. Perhaps blessed with or inspired by Cooke’s voice – the religious terms seem fitting here – Vänskä carries the symphony through to a conclusion that is every bit as inspiring as that of Mahler’s Eighth, which the ending of the Second resembles exceptionally closely in this performance. The sonic clarity helps bring forth the beauty and intricacy of Mahler’s structure and Vänskä’s interpretation, and the result is a breathtakingly uplifting conclusion to a performance whose early portion gives little hint of the excellence of its ending.
Philip Glass: Perpetulum; David Skidmore: Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities; Peter Martin: Bend; Robert Dillon: Ordering-instincts; Gavin Bryars: The Other Side of the River. Third Coast Percussion (David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors). Orange Mountain Music. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Victoria Bond: Instruments of Revelation; Frescoes and Ash; Leopold Bloom’s Homecoming; Binary. Chicago Pro Musica. Naxos. $12.99.
Kinan Azmeh: Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra; Ibn Arabi Suite; The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea; Kareem Roustom: Clarinet Concerto—Adrift on the Wine-Dark Sea; Zaid Jabri: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra; Dia Succari: Paroles—Suite for Clarinet and Orchestra. Kinan Azmeh, clarinet; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Manuel Nawri. Dreyer Gaido. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Copland: Appalachian Spring—Suite; Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé—Suite No. 2; Stravinsky: Firebird Suite. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $18.99.
Minimalist music would be more readily dismissible if it did not occasionally stop taking itself so seriously. But give credit to Philip Glass, a master of the form: although much of what he has created sounds like New Age-y background music (which is readily dismissible), Glass often proffers a glimmer, or more than a glimmer, of amusement and cleverness that sets his work apart from similar material by other composers. Such is the case with Perpetulum, Glass’ first-ever work for percussion ensemble – and one whose portmanteau title (“perpetual” plus “pendulum”) gives a pleasant hint of its structure and approach, and of the fact that it is quite an enjoyable piece that does not include any deep emotional or intellectual material or expect major analysis from the audience. Third Coast Percussion, which commissioned Perpetulum, is an avant-garde group that also does not take itself too seriously (at least not all the time), and the pairing of these percussionists with this music is exceptionally apt. Perpetulum is in three movements plus an extended and very interesting three-minute cadenza; the work as a whole runs about 22 minutes and, like much of Glass’ music and minimalist music in general, is hard to pay attention to for its entirety, since its endless swells, arpeggios and repetitive themes (and non-themes) quickly blend into each other. But the character of percussion, especially keyboards such as marimba and xylophone contrasted with drums and similar instruments, is such that the sound itself provides variety in Perpetulum in a way that keeps the work interesting – which it would not be to nearly the same extent if played by, say, a string quartet. Orange Mountain Music, Glass’ own label, offers Perpetulum as part of a fascinating (if rather uneven) two-CD collection of percussion works, most of the rest of which were created by Third Coast Percussion members themselves. The only work by an “outsider,” Gavin Bryars’ The Other Side of the River, is the least-interesting piece here, going on as long as Perpetulum but lacking the cleverness and variability-within-sameness that make the Glass opus intriguing. The longest work on this release, though, is neither by Glass nor by Bryars but by David Skidmore. Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities runs 35 minutes and takes up the whole of the first disc in a series of seven sketches with such intriguing titles as “Torched and Wrecked,” “Don’t Eat Your Young,” and “Things May Be Changing (But Probably Not).” The use of titles of this sort is typical in contemporary music and often takes the place of genuine cleverness in the music itself; but not here. These are pieces that take Third Coast Percussion through many paces and many pacings, showcasing the instrumental complement in a wide variety of sound mixtures, tempos and rhythms. It is as interesting in its way as Perpetulum is in Glass’ way. Two shorter works fill out the recording nicely, and both show how members of Third Coast Percussion take their music-making seriously but do not seem to take themselves seriously all the time: Peter Martin’s Bend is relentlessly bouncy and upbeat, while Robert Dillon’s Ordering-instincts has a kind of witty insistency about it that comes through very well. Listening to this entire release straight through may not be the best idea – an hour and a half of percussion ensemble is a bit much – but by and large, the individual pieces are worth hearing on their own and worth returning to repeatedly.
Third Coast Percussion is Chicago-based, and the Chicago area is something of a hotbed of modern classical music: a new Naxos CD of chamber works by Victoria Bond shows this clearly, with first-rate performances by Chicago Symphony members playing as Chicago Pro Musica. Actually, only two works on the disc were recorded in Chicago; the other two were done in New York – and the recording dates range from 2012 to 2016. But wherever and whenever the recordings were made, they clearly show Bond’s style and her approach to chamber-sized ensembles. Bond is nearly a decade younger than Glass – she was born in 1945, he in 1937 – and stylistically very different, but her style is quite as fully formed as his, if not so immediately distinctive. Like the Skidmore piece on the Glass-focused release, one of the works here is in seven sections: Frescoes and Ash (2009) uses clarinet, strings, piano and percussion – in varying combinations – to paint musical portraits of the ancient city of Pompeii, its doom by volcanic eruption, and (to a lesser extent) its place in the modern world. The work, which is about the same length as Glass’ Perpetulum, has an intriguing final movement called “Ash” that Bond turns into a meditation on human mortality. This works particularly well because Bond is essentially a tonal composer, so her works can and do evoke emotional responses effectively. She is also skilled in managing the sounds of this small instrumental complement, whether in the virtuoso requirements of “The Sybil Speaks” or in the intriguing violin-and-bass duet in “Chiron Teaches Achilles to Play the Lyre” – a case in which the instruments particularly neatly encapsulate the characters. Just as substantive as her Pompeii pictures is Bond’s Leopold Bloom’s Homecoming (2011), a song cycle for tenor (Rufus Müller) and piano (Jenny Lin) based on James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bond handles the voice and piano parts well, and the performers do a good job with the material, but the stream-of-consciousness text becomes rather wearing to hear after a while, and the cycle comes to seem overly long, if not quite interminable. More successful, and not just because it is shorter, is Instruments of Revelation (2010), a three-movement set for winds, strings and piano based on three Tarot cards: “The Magician,” whose meaning of ambiguity is neatly encapsulated through quick juxtapositions of solemnity with verve; “The High Priestess,” representing wisdom and secrets, with music that starts calmly enough but then becomes impassioned; and “The Fool,” both mystic and lunatic, with music that appropriately contrasts chaotic elements with amusing ones. Here and in the Pompeii miniatures, Bond shows her skill in short-form portrayals: musical visualizations neatly captured. The CD concludes with Binary (2005), a work for piano solo (Olga Vinokur) whose bright liveliness, based on the Brazilian samba, ends the disc pleasantly.
If Bond stays firmly, or at least moderately firmly, in a tonal universe, Kinan Azmeh sticks to one in which sounds of different cultures are paramount and tonality, although often present, is largely incidental. It is hard to escape the notion that Azmeh, like Third Coast Percussion, does not always take himself entirely seriously, especially in light of his Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra, in which he pulls, nudges and shoves his clarinet all over the place in a manner perhaps loosely derived from jazz but decidedly non-jazzlike in effect. The work comes across as a sort of “song of myself,” giving Azmeh plenty of opportunities to show all the things he can do with and on the clarinet. Like most of the other music on this (+++) Dreyer Gaido release, it may be more enjoyable for Azmeh’s fellow clarinetists than for listeners in general: there is a certain sense of showing-off throughout, not only in Azmeh’s own music but also in three clarinet-and-orchestra works, all written for him by Syrian composers, that take up the second of the two discs. All those concertos draw to some extent on Syrian music, which, like other music of the Middle East, has cadences and rhythms that sound different and exotic when compared with Western, specifically European music. The differences are more formal than communicative, however: all the pieces here give Azmeh plenty of opportunities to show off his virtuosity – that seems to be their primary reason for being – and also provide at least periodic moments of soulfulness and emotive distinction that Azmeh fully explores (and, in fact, exploits). Azmeh seems to be a performer who would be more effective in person than when heard on a recording: his involvement with the material is almost palpable even when unseen, and it is hard to escape the notion that he and the other composers represented on this recording know that his skill lies as much in his on-stage presence as in the quality of the musical material he offers. That impression is heightened through the most-interesting piece heard here, which Azmeh wrote for himself and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea is both a tour de force for the two performers and an occasionally wistful, even tender exploration of the similarities of and differences between the sonorities of their instruments. Clarinet and cello here seem to have a very close sonic relationship, and the way Azmeh and Ma merge, then contrast their instruments tonally and rhythmically is fascinating and definitely ear-catching. Ma is himself a considerable stage presence, even a showman, and has become more so in recent years; the way he matches Azmeh in this piece makes it likely that the two would play well off each other (not just play well with each other) in a visual sense. They share warmth and stylistic certainty on their respective instruments in a way that makes The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea more intriguing in its impressionism than are most parts of the other pieces heard here. Manuel Nawri leads the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin with clarity and firmness in all the works, and if the accompaniment tends to be a bit characterless from time to time, that is likely because Azmeh and the other composers keep the musical spotlight trained so strongly on the clarinetist – who clearly enjoys being front-and-center as much as possible.
It is worth pointing out that contemporary composers, no matter how far they reach for new approaches and in what direction, are simply doing what other composers did when they were in the vanguard of musical modernity. The works of Copland, Ravel and Stravinsky on a new Recursive Classics CD, although they are now in or close to the standard repertoire, show this clearly – all the more so in the beautifully balanced and excellently played renditions by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under David Bernard. This (+++) release would have very clearly been a (++++) CD if the producers had only chosen to offer more of the music and to position the whole disc as being ballet music instead of calling it “Symphonic Dances,” a title that is scarcely helpful or accurate. The CD is not really short – it runs 65 minutes – but the entirety of Appalachian Spring, for example, lasts only 15 minutes longer than the suite recorded here; it would have fit on the disc without difficulty. This in no way minimizes the excellence of the performances, but there is a pervasive sense of the dances (that is, the ballet music) being taken out of context throughout the disc. What the CD does offer, though, is commendably rhythmic and aurally attractive versions of ballets that differ not only in national origin (U.S., France, and [essentially] Russia) but also in the time periods in which they were written and in which they broke new musical ground (Copland’s work was first heard in 1944; Ravel’s in 1912; Stravinsky’s in 1910, with this suite dating to 1919). Copland’s folklike “American” music, much better known than his thornier and more-modern-sounding works, represented in its time an elegant merger of European classicism with a rather naïve view of the United States’ past. Ravel’s ballet, which is the longest work he ever wrote, merges Impressionism and very lush harmonies with Wagnerian elements in its use of leitmotifs. And Stravinsky’s breakthrough ballet takes the sound world of Rimsky-Korsakov toward and into a new century in which acerbity and striking rhythms would come to dominate a great deal of music (The Rite of Spring came only three years later). This recording conveys a sense of “innovation light” to the music by presenting the material as excerpts rather than in context. But that in no way detracts from the high quality of what is offered here: the performances are exemplary, and it is regrettable that Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony do not offer even more of music that was, in its time, very forward-looking indeed.
April 18, 2019
Pig the Stinker. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.
Willbee the Bumblebee. By Craig Smith & Maureen Thomson. Illustrated by Katz Cowley. Scholastic. $7.99.
Inevitably, some books for young readers look behind (ha, ha) to find laughs. Some get to the bottom (ha, ha) of things better than others, though, and Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Stinker does this sort of thing about as well as can be hoped. Pig the Pug is a delightfully “bad” character: an unreconstructed bit of selfishness and self-involvement with no respect for housemate dog Trevor or for the humans who make occasional partial appearances (their faces are never seen) in these books. Blabey sets each book’s tone even before the story starts, this time with a “book plate” that says “Award for Neatness: Trevor” just inside, but with the inside front cover and facing page looking as if they have been smushed and smeared with dirt and mud, if not something worse. Yuck. “Pig liked to get dirty,” Blabey notes. “He frankly was RANK./ His paws could be frightful./ His fur often stank.” Poor, bemused Trevor looks on as Blabey narrates the ways in which Pig makes a pig of himself, including playing “with all kinds of unspeakable MUCK” – and readers will know just what the muck is from Blabey’s explicit (but funny) drawing. Blabey’s perfect rhyme scheme, dedicated to enumerating Pig’s many depredations, is a big part of what makes these books so likable. “He leaked out a stench/ that could not be forgotten./ He reeked. He was rancid./ In short, he was rotten.” The humans have eventually had enough, telling Pig that he needs “a good clean/ from your ears to your butt!” But (ha, ha) baths are not among Pig’s favorite things, to put it mildly. After running every which way around the house to avoid being caught and washed, he eventually brings a small toy into the bathroom and uses it to prevent water from flowing into the bathtub. Despite feckless Trevor’s attempts to point out what Pig has done, the water is turned on, and soon enough, there is a massive explosion that results in Pig sustaining yet another of the injuries that afflict him in these books – this time, a big bonk on his pushed-in pug nose that results in a X-shaped bandage being seen there when, after all, he does end up taking a bath with Trevor. However, the book ends appropriately Pig-ishly: “But although you can wash him/ with soap, cloth, and towel,/ there’s no getting ’round it…/ Pig is just foul.” And there, on the final page, where Pig and Trevor are sitting in a “Dog-E-Bath,” we see Pig surrounded by bubbles, with Trevor definitely not enjoying what they mean or, probably, how they smell. Pig always gets his comeuppance in these books, but he never quite learns to be anything but piggish. And that’s the bottom (ha, ha) line.
Perfect rhymes, such as Blabey’s, can make even some less-than-pleasant elements of a story enjoyable. The opposite is also true: imperfect rhymes can interfere with enjoyment of a story, even a basically nice one. That is why Willbee the Bumblebee is a (+++) book despite being a sweet tale and having some pleasant Katz Cowley illustrations. Originally published in 2007 and now available in paperback, the story by Craig Smith and Maureen Thomson is about a little bumblebee whose black-and-yellow jersey (the familiar bee stripes) gets caught on a thorn one day: “And as Willbee flew away, he did not stop,/ his jersey unraveled from the bottom to the top,/ and when he realized this, he lost his hum…/ He was showing the whole garden his bare bum!” And there we have a bummer (ha, ha) of a predicament. “He was frightened, and all alone./ All he wanted to do was to get home.” The non-rhythmic poetry and partial rhymes make the story less charming than it would otherwise be, and the authors often really reach to try to get a line to scan at all: “Now, Monica the butterfly,/ she flew down;/ She told Willbee to/ wipe off his frown.” Anyway, Monica helps out the distressed little bee by taking the unraveled jersey and getting a spider named Steve to reknit the garment. Smith and Thomson appear to have picked “Steve” because it is an easy name to rhyme, but young readers who have gone through books about spiders will know that female spiders, not males, are the champion knitters – that is, web builders. Many male spiders do not spin webs at all, and those that do generally do not make very attractive ones. Steve is good at this, though, as is necessary for the story. So soon enough, Monica brings the jersey back to Willbee and then, in order to give Smith and Thomson an easy rhyme with “last,” insists that he put it on “really, really fast.” And so, “With his new jersey on,/ he got back his hum,/ all his bits were warmed up…/ even his bum!” Monica does not give Willbee the bum’s rush (ha, ha), but hangs around long enough for a hug before Willbee heads home. And that is that. The pictures in Willbee the Bumblebee are a much bigger attraction than the text, but the story is agreeable enough so that the youngest readers, perhaps not yet completely attuned to the cadences of fully rhythmic, well-rhymed poetry, will like the simple tale and “bee” happy with the book. But (ha, ha) slightly older readers are less likely to find its pleasantries fully engaging.
The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie. By James King. Diversion Books. $18.
If there were an Ig Nobel prize for movie criticism, James King would deserve it. The Ig Nobel awards, parodies of the Nobels, are given annually to genuine, legitimate scientific research that is simply weird: attaching a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken to give the chicken a dinosaur-like walk; asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and deciding whether to believe their answers; doing a seated self-colonoscopy; using roller-coaster rides to speed the passage of kidney stones – that sort of thing (those are all genuine Ig Nobel winners). The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie would be a winner for investigating, in seriousness and with plenty of footnotes, a film genre whose utter unimportance is as overwhelming as are the personalities of the people involved in it (their on-screen personalities and, in most cases, their real-world ones as well).
The story arc here leads more or less from Saturday Night Fever (1978) to Dead Poets Society (1989), exploring along the way The Karate Kid, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and many more films of the type. The writing is strictly for people deeply steeped in pop culture, and not only of the movie variety: “And even when an older, classic song was used – such as Led Zeppelin’s 1975 rock behemoth ‘Kashmir’ – it was still pretty cool: the famously fussy Zep only let it in because they liked Crowe’s music journalism and, in his original undercover article, many of the characters at Clairemont had been Zeppelin fans, eagerly awaiting the band’s upcoming US tour that would ultimately be canceled in the wake of drummer John Bonham’s death from accidental asphyxiation in September 1980.” Yes, that is one sentence, and there are lots more where that came from (the book runs to more than 400 pages).
There are all sorts of footnotes, too, showing that King has done a lot of research in some rather odd places. One note says, “From the obituary of Ronald Reagan, Los Angeles Times, Johanna Neuman, June 6, 2004.” Another is “‘Demi Moore learns to accept change,’ Lawrence Journal-World, July 11, 1985.” And another: “New York thrash metal band Slayer would put that crossover on record in 1991 when they collaborated with Public Enemy on a new version of their single ‘Bring the Noise.’ The rap band’s original had appeared on the soundtrack of Less Than Zero. The early ’90s also saw director Mario van Peebles follow his era-defining urban drugs thriller New Jack City (1991) with the ‘black Western’ Posse (1993).” The book reads as if King’s mind is so jam-packed with things he has learned that there is just no way to fit everything in standard-size type: the overflow to the bottoms of pages becomes necessary to show the breadth of King’s knowledge of the primary topic and secondary ones as well.
This is a book simply packed with information on the who, what, when, where, and how (much less of the “why”) of teen movies of the 1980s in all their glory, or vainglory. Who made the films, who financed them, who acted in them, who distributed them, how well or poorly they did at the box office – readers will get all that and more here, whether in a chapter called “The Joy of Sex” (which opens, “Not every teen film from 1983 was chic and slick” – hopefully King does not think the last and antepenultimate words rhyme) or in one called “Big Budgets, High Concepts.” That latter title is intended to be taken seriously, leading as it does to a chapter that includes corporate information in some of King’s typically extended sentences: “MTV began to court older viewers with its spin-off channel VH1 and then, in 1985, American Express left the set-up entirely, leaving Warner to soon sell everything off to the media conglomerate Viacom, a company that had made its name distributing CBS shows to local TV stations.” But the reference to corporate matters highlights a systemic weakness of The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie: King has little interest in showing how the films reflected the society in which they were made, or how they highlighted (or downplayed) elements of that society. The book is about a whole passel of insiders making a whole passel of largely imitative films in pursuit, certainly, of money, but apparently not much else: the vapidity of many of these movies seems to reflect an insipid culture around them. But does it, or does it merely reflect the extent to which Hollywood was, in the 1980s (among other times), so far outside the mainstream of America in general that it had no idea what the wider culture really was like? This sort of question does not interest King in the way that the performers, directors and distributors of ’80s teen movies do. There are passing references to social changes in society that are reflected (or not) in various films, but there is no consideration of whether the teen-movie genre itself had (or has) any importance beyond, well, making money from the teen audiences at which the movies were aimed.
Ultimately, The Ultimate History of the ’80s Teen Movie is for dyed-in-the-wool fans of the teen-targeted films that King explores: millennials, now approaching or having passed the age of 50, who want to cling to the notion that they are still “in with the in crowd” (a 1960s musical reference that still seems apt). Those possessing an unending fascination with all things Hollywood will find plenty here that they will consider meaty from an “in crowd” perspective. On the other hand, those not already deeply immersed in these films and the environment in which they were made will find the book rather thin gruel: it can, in fact, be difficult for those not sufficiently “in the know” to tell one of these ’80s teen films from the next. Such teen-movie wannabes can take heart, though – not from King’s book but from work by Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita, who successfully taught pigeons to tell the difference between paintings by Picasso and ones by Monet. That work won those three researchers an Ig Nobel prize in 1995.
Bruch: Die Loreley. Michaela Kaune, Magdalena Hinterdobler, Danae Kontora, Thomas Mohr, Benedikt Eder, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Thomas Hamberger, Sebastian Campione; Prager Philharmonischer Chor and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Stefan Blunier. CPO. $33.99 (3 CDs).
Alfred Cellier: Dorothy. Majella Cullagh, Lucy Vallis, Stephanie Maitland, Matt Mears, John Ieuan Jones, Edward Robinson, Patrick Relph, Michael Vincent Jones, Sebastian Maclaine; Victorian Opera Chorus and Victorian Opera Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge. Naxos. $12.99.
Louise Reichardt: Songs. Amy Pfrimmer, soprano; Dreux Montegut, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The aged Max Bruch (1838-1920), like the aged Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), has often been criticized for never moving beyond the musical forms, styles and approaches of his youth – for staying firmly implanted in Romanticism, and early Romanticism at that, when the musical world had long since advanced to wrenching harmonies, atonality, the Second Viennese School, and so forth. Whether all those changes really constituted “advancing” is more a matter of opinion today, when music of all styles and approaches tends to be accepted if it has something to say, than in Bruch’s and Saint-Saëns’ own later years, when they were seen as relics of a time gone by. Even more than Saint-Saëns, Bruch is now known for only a handful of works, and grand opera is certainly not a field with which he is commonly associated. But Bruch’s early promise, his wealth of melodic invention, his devotion to the Romantic ideal, and his willingness to spin out musical beauty at great length, were already apparent in his early opera Die Loreley, written from 1860 to 1863. The libretto was intended for Mendelssohn, who actually wrote three numbers for it before his death, and since Mendelssohn was one of Bruch’s major compositional models, the eventual creation of the opera by Bruch makes considerable historical as well as musical sense – although the path to the work’s creation was by no means smooth. Bruch’s deeply Romantic temperament shows in the way he became attached to a story in which it is unrequited love, with some supernatural assistance, that leads to the creation of the Lorelei, who lures mariners to their death along the Rhine. The Lorelei is not simply a water spirit in Bruch’s opera – she is a woman wronged and thus transformed into a threat, in what is a very Romantic scenario involving the power of love and the risks of its disappointment. There are Lorelei works by Clara Schumann and Liszt that predate Bruch’s opera, but the music of which Bruch’s work is most reminiscent is partly that of Mendelssohn, whose works Bruch tended not only to respect but also to echo at this stage of his career, and partly that of Carl Maria von Weber. For the central scene of Die Loreley, and the first that Bruch wrote – the scene around which he built up everything else in the opera – is one in which Lenore (Michaela Kaune), the wronged woman who will become the Lorelei, calls on dark Rhine spirits for revenge after she has been seduced and abandoned by Otto (Thomas Mohr), the Palgrave (essentially Count), with whom she has fallen in love without knowing his identity. The spirits agree to grant her wish, in a scene quite reminiscent of the Wolf’s Glen scene from Weber’s Der Freischütz, and the remainder of the opera focuses on how that wish plays out – to the happiness of no one, including Lenore. This is a very rarely heard opera, so the live recording from 2014 that is now available on CPO is very much welcome – and CPO, which has sometimes given short shrift to listeners by failing to provide otherwise unavailable texts to allow the audience to follow the action of unfamiliar works, deserves five stars in this release for including a complete German/English libretto. The singing is generally quite fine, not only from Kaune and Mohr but also from Magdalena Hinterdobler as Bertha, the unfortunate countess whom Otto marries and quickly abandons and who, like Otto himself, loses her life as the revenge and curse of the Lorelei take hold. The only vocal disappointment is Jan-Hendrik Rootering as the minnesinger Reinald: his voice is pinched, shaky and not always on key. But the remaining parts come across very well indeed. Sumptuously scored and very well played by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Stefan Blunier, Die Loreley is impressive both as Romantic opera and as further evidence, if any were needed, of the depth to which Bruch – who was only in his 20s when he wrote this work – absorbed and continued to be guided by emotion-packed Romanticism throughout his compositional life.
The importance of Der Freischütz (1821), and in particular the Wolf’s Glen scene, for later composers can scarcely be overestimated. The scene, lightened and somewhat parodied, even makes its way into Gilbert and Sullivan, in their early The Sorcerer (1877). It is easy to assume that Gilbert and Sullivan ruled the British musical stage in their collaborative years, but a new recording from Naxos gives the lie to that common belief and cannot help but make G&S fans wonder what in the world the audiences of the time really considered top-notch entertainment. The release is the world première recording of Dorothy (1886) by Alfred Cellier (1844-1891), best known today, to the extent that he is known at all, for arranging some of the G&S operettas’ overtures. Dorothy was a genuine phenomenon: its 931 performances were almost as many as those of The Mikado (672) and its successor, Ruddigore (288), combined. Why? The recording makes that question inevitable and suggests that the only possible answer is that Dorothy is so feather-light that audiences did not have to think even briefly about political satire, class issues (except very much in passing), or any sort of topsy-turvy world along the lines of those that Gilbert was such an expert at creating. The full libretto of Dorothy – readily available online, thanks to Naxos – shows the weaknesses of the writing by Benjamin C. Stevenson (1839-1906) even more clearly than do the lyrics sung on the CD, which at least include a single number with a touch of spirit: “The old would be young, and the young would be old,/ The lean only long to grow fatter;/ The wealthy want health, and the healthy want gold,/ A change to the worse for the latter./ The single would wed, but the husband contrives/ To consider his fetters a curse./ And half the world sighs for the other half’s wives,/ With the risk of a change for the worse.” Those are the best lines by far in a very mediocre libretto, whose story it so bland that it brings to mind the words of Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience: “If they want insipidity, they shall have it.” The story of Dorothy involves two well-born cousins, Dorothy and Lydia, who vow not to wed (for no special reason) and who disguise themselves as an innkeeper’s daughters (also for no special reason); they meet two interchangeable young noblemen (less differentiated than Marco and Giuseppe in The Gondoliers). The men romance the girls, who give them rings; that night, with the girls out of disguise at the local nobleman’s hall, the men romance the opposite girls (shades of Così fan tutte) and give the rings to the “wrong” ones; the next day, everyone switches back and all is fine (yet again for no special reason). And that is that. The music is serviceably charming, far better than the words although it is largely characterless. The recording of Dorothy is nicely sung, and Richard Bonynge, a longtime advocate of less-known music, conducts as befits a man who has turned up some real gems. But Dorothy is at best semi-precious. Perhaps Bunthorne, again, got it right in figuring out why Cellier’s work was so tremendously popular in its time: “It’s his confounded mildness.”
Well, being mild and accessible is surely no crime, and certainly was not one in the Victorian age, or even the years immediately preceding it. There is some very pleasant, if ultimately rather inconsequential, music to be rediscovered from that time period, including the songs of Louise Reichardt (1779-1826), a selection of which may be heard on a new MSR Classics CD. Reichardt had a fine musical pedigree, being the granddaughter of Franz Benda (1709-1786) and the daughter of two composers, Juliane and Johann Friedrich Reichardt. Louise (sometimes spelled Luise) was involved in her family’s gatherings of notable literary figures of the early 19th century, including Goethe, Ludwig Tieck, Clemens Brentano, and Phillip Achim von Arnim, among others. When she wrote her songs – more than 90 in all – she often used the words of poets with whom she was personally acquainted. She also favored poetry that was popular with other composers, such as the works of Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), often set by Rossini. Reichardt deliberately created accessible, folk-music-like songs that would be easy for students to learn and present: she was a music teacher and a choral instructor, although not allowed, because of her gender, to conduct in public. Amy Pfrimmer offers a nicely chosen selection of 22 of Louise Reichardt’s songs on the new CD, with able support from Dreux Montegut – whose role is distinctly supportive and subservient, but who handles his contributions as well as possible. The selection begins with six songs to Metastasio texts and ends with three others; in between are pieces to words by Tieck, von Arnim, Brentano, Novalis, Karl Friedrich Gottlob Wetzl, Karl Philipp Conz, and Philipp Otto Runge. Reichardt does little to “tone paint” the words, preferring simple expressiveness that sets them to pleasant if undistinguished musical lines. Pfrimmer’s rich but sometimes slightly wobbly soprano serves the generally unchallenging material well, and her expressiveness effectively brings out what emotional depth the pieces possess – not that there is a considerable amount of it. It is largely the thrill of discovery, or rediscovery, that makes this a very pleasant and interesting recording: nothing here is earthshaking (or was intended to be), and Reichardt broke no new ground in the lieder genre. But the disc stands, like those of Dorothy and Die Loreley, as evidence of how much interesting and very rarely heard music remains to be unearthed and given a chance to reach a 21st-century audience that is eager to move beyond the standard repertoire and into some less-explored parts of the musical past.
John Robertson: Concerto for Clarinet and Strings; Hinemoa & Tutanekai; Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra; Symphony No. 3. Mihail Zhivkov, clarinet; Kremera Acheva, flute; Fernando Serrano Montoya, trumpet; Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.
David Maslanka: Recitation Book; William Albright: Fantasy Etudes; David Clay Mettens: Ornithology S. Fuego Quartet (Nicki Roman, soprano saxophone; Erik Elmgren, alto saxophone; Harrison Clarke, tenor saxophone; Gabriel Piqué, baritone saxophone). Ravello. $14.99.
David Noon: Partita; Jerry Owen: Meshquanowat’; Marc Mellits: Two Pieces for Flute and Guitar; Amin Sharifi: Duets Exhibition; Jorge Muñiz: South Shore Suite. Duo Sequenza (Debra Silvert, flute, alto flute, and piccolo; Paul Bowman, classical guitar). Navona. $14.99.
Giovanni Piacentini: Icarus—Suite in six movements for guitar and electronics; Six Preludes for Solo Guitar; Los Murmullos for guitar and flute; Passacaglia. Giovanni Piacentini, guitar; Gina Luciani, flute; Fernando Arroyo Lascurain, violin; Stefan L. Smith, viola. Navona. $14.99.
The many moods of which wind instruments are capable make them a continuing source of interest to contemporary composers, especially ones who still find traditional musical forms congenial. Thus, John Robertson has turned to the form of the wind concerto several times, with his clarinet and trumpet concertos featured on a new Navona CD. The clarinet work, which dates to 1989 and is in the traditional three-movement concerto form, shows Robertson’s skill with exploring the range of the clarinet without feeling obligated to push the instrument beyond the point of comfort for performer or audience. The slow movement is the longest of the three and is suitably melodic, but it is the finale, in which the clarinet is neatly played off against pizzicato and glissando strings, that is the most attractive part of the work. The trumpet concerto (2013) is also a three-movement work, opening with a military-style fanfare that is soon contrasted with more-lyrical elements. Again, it is the slow movement that is the longest, but again, it is the finale that is most striking, with its snare-drum opening and some Latin American themes and rhythms, reflecting the work’s origin: Robertson wrote it for a Cuban trumpeter. Robertson uses winds in a different, decidedly non-virtuosic way in Hinemoa & Tutanekai, a 10-minute tone painting from 1988 that is based on a Mâori legend of two lovers from warring tribes who are kept apart, on separate islands, by their families – leaving the woman, Hinemoa, disconsolately listening to the flute played by Tutanekai from across the water, then deciding to swim to him. The earlier part of the piece drags a bit, especially for anyone who does not know the legend: nothing here indicates warring tribes or demanding parents. But once the flute begins to sound (after about four minutes of music), the effect is pleasant and even elegant, and the piece has a well-managed air about it even without any particular emotional depth. Also on this CD is Robertson’s Third Symphony (2017), dedicated to the conductor Anthony Armoré, who leads it here with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra in a solid, committed performance – all the performers on the CD do a good job with Robertson’s style and the way he blends and contrasts instruments. The first of the symphony’s three movements has some of the sound of slow-moving waves about it, and some of the repetitiveness characteristic of minimalism, although it is more varied than strict minimalist pieces. The second movement, a Scherzo, is more attractive – Robertson’s faster movements tend to be more appealing than his slower ones – and the warmer, lyrical portion midway through makes an effective contrast. The first movement is string-dominated, but winds are more prominent in the second, especially in the central section. The third movement mingles strings and winds and, like the second, contrasts livelier material with more-lyrical music. The symphony, taken as a whole, is somewhat rambling, without a strong sense of direction or purpose: it is well-constructed but not particularly involving.
The entirety of a new Ravello CD involves wind instruments: saxophones, which are heard in three very different contemporary works. David Maslanka’s Recitation Book uses Bach works and other centuries-old music as the basis of a series of transformations into modern forms and musical approaches. Maslanka actually cites the specific pieces on which he bases the five movements of this suite, making it easy for listeners familiar with the originals to hear the ways in which he modifies and “updates” the material, for instance by turning a Bach chorale into a kind of popular, yearning “love song” melody. The saxophones’ sound fits a different Bach work, the meditative Jesu meine Freude, particularly (and rather surprisingly) well. Also here is a short piece based on a Gesualdo madrigal, a meditative handling of a Gregorian chant that begins effectively in the low register, and a set of variations on Durch Adams Fall (“Through Adam’s fall”) that is almost as long as the other four movements combined and that takes the Fuego Quartet members from their instruments’ highest reaches to the lowest and offers some very definitely modern rhythmic touches and considerable speed. The six Fantasy Etudes by William Albright are much more “modern” in sound, full of starts and stops, unexpected instrumental blends, pervasive dissonance, and many passages that do not so much explore the saxophones’ ranges and capabilities as they extend and push them. The quartet members play the material well, but the music itself is far from compelling, with Albright seeming more interested in having saxophones utter ghostlike shrieks and foghorn-like low notes than in having audiences get anything in particular from the material. This is one of those works that sound as if they are more fun to play than to hear, although the final movement, “They only come out at night,” has enjoyable bounce. The CD concludes with David Clay Mettens’ Ornithology S, a work that not only has the saxophones imitating birdsong but that also takes the extension-of-sound approach of Albright several steps further by having the performers use slaps, key clicks and other effects to extend the sound world. As an exploration of a sonic environment that includes and goes beyond that of saxophones, this is certainly effective, but the piece lacks musical cohesion and does not seem to have any particular purpose beyond a demonstration of techniques – a kind of etude exploring wind instruments’ percussive sounds, and another work that seems to be more for performers than for listeners.
The sounds are intriguing on a new Navona CD featuring Duo Sequenza, because this two-person group combines wind instruments with guitar – an unusual mixture that opens up some interesting sound possibilities. The five pieces on the disc, by five different contemporary composers, are of varying levels of interest, but listeners will find the mingling of sound intriguing in all cases. David Noon’s Partita (1989) is a work that, like Maslanka’s Recitation Book, looks to the past for inspiration, with four movements whose titles reflect old forms: “Preludio,” “Musette,” “Pastorale,” and “Rigadoon.” The first and third are gently lilting, the second and fourth more energetic, and all are pleasantly scored. Jerry Owen’s 1995 Meshquanowat’ (the apostrophe at the end adds a syllable, so the word is pronounced mesh-quan-o-wát-eh in the Native American Mesquakie language) has some elements of dance and lyricism as well, but here they are captured within a series of short, fast-changing sections that are intended to reflect the red-tailed hawk: the piece’s title is what the Mesquakie call the bird. Two Pieces for Flute and Guitar (2000) by Marc Mellits starts hesitantly but soon becomes intricate and strongly rhythmic in the first piece, after which the second (somewhat more ordinarily) strives for a kind of poignant nostalgia. Amin Sharifi’s Duets Exhibition (2016) includes four brief pieces with evocative titles: “Seven Color Tile,” “Prelude,” “The Game,” and “Murdered in His Labyrinth.” The music is less intriguing and involving than the words, however. Debra Silvert and Paul Bowman interrelate their instruments skillfully here (as they do throughout the disc), but there is little sense of either forward motion or scene-painting in these miniatures. The CD concludes with its longest piece by far: the six-movement South Shore Suite (2016) by Jorge Muñiz. This work is, by intent, very much a mixed bag of sounds, incorporating elements of jazz, blues, country music and other styles. The elements do not fit together particularly well, and some of the effects, such as the hesitant opening of the second movement, sound contrived rather than clever. The “South Shore” of the title is that of Lake Michigan, and the individual movements are supposed to evoke historical and contemporary figures within that geographical area. But listeners who are not familiar with the region will hear only a series of not-very-closely-related pieces in which Silvert and Bowman play skillfully, but without the music ever really seeming to go anywhere. It is all pleasant enough, but to no apparent purpose for anyone who does not know the specific circumstances or scenes that inspired each of the six individual pieces within the larger suite.
Flute and guitar are also joined in one of the works on a new Navona CD of the music of Giovanni Piacentini. This is Los Murmullos, which uses alto flute and guitar to convey the dreamlike quality of the “magical realism” literary movement. Close familiarity with such literature is not needed in the way familiarity with specific geography and legends is in the Muñiz South Shore Suite. That is because Piacentini uses the lower part of the flute’s range, in combination with guitar strumming, plucking and other sounds (such as striking the wood of the guitar with his hands), to produce a somewhat dreamlike landscape in five movements whose individual elements are less important than their cumulative effect. It is the tonal ambiguity that ultimately turns Los Murmullos into a musically imaginative experience, independent of whether listeners are familiar with the specific book that inspired Piacentini, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Parama. Piacentini is an effective performer of his own music, and his guitar is heard without other instruments in other works on this CD – although with electronics in Icarus, a six-movement retelling of the Greek legend of the boy whose wings took him too close to the sun. The tale is familiar, its treatment here much less so: atonality, twelvetone writing, percussive segments, many electronic samples of guitar music, jazzlike rhythms, and the usual distortions of sound with which electroacoustic music abounds, produce an intermittently gripping sonic landscape that never seems to reflect the old legend in any significant way. Also here are Six Preludes for Solo Guitar, this time without electronics, and this sequence offers the most interesting material on the disc: there is no specific literary or legendary gloss here, only a series of complex and beautifully handled etudes that range from Impressionism to tranquility to dynamic display to nostalgia to generalized scene-painting, showing just how wide an expressive range the guitar can have in the hands of an expert player such as Piacentini. In truth, the preludes are inspired by specific scenes or places, but so effective is Piacentini’s playing that the underlying motivation for these two-to-three-minute works becomes much less significant than their exploration of the guitar’s capabilities and the multitude of sounds of which the instrument is capable. The CD ends not with a guitar piece but with one for violin and viola: Passacaglia, a slow, encore-length, meandering tribute to Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor – a non-traditional sort of encore, without flash or brightness, and a work very different from the others heard here, showing that Piacentini has interests beyond tone painting and skills that go beyond writing for his own instrument.
April 11, 2019
Max & the Midknights. By Lincoln Peirce. Crown. $13.99.
Big Nate: A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Lincoln Peirce is one of those people who seem unable to leave well enough alone. Not content with having a highly successful comic strip, Big Nate, which has been around for more than a quarter of a century, Peirce has repeatedly expanded the Big Nate universe by creating Nate-focused illustrated novels. These are not graphic novels, as might be expected of a cartoonist, but instead are through-written books containing Nate and his friends and environment, with multiple illustrations but without the panel-by-panel progress characteristic of comics and the graphic novels derived from them. In other words, Peirce has actually written entire novels about Nate, having the words carry the story in exactly the way that the pictures tend to carry it in comic strips – or, more accurately, in exactly the opposite way. Why does Peirce do this? Well, his name is pronounced “purse,” but that does not necessarily mean he is money-hungry. He seems genuinely interested in doing more with the Nate universe than everyday strips can encompass. How much more is evident from a new book that does not contain Nate or any of his cohorts as characters at all – but that is 100% drawn (both artistically and in the sense of “derived”) from Big Nate sensibilities. This is Max & the Midknights, a very amply illustrated novel in which fans of Big Nate will immediately recognize the plotting, characterization, and (in the illustrations) poses and facial expressions – even though the book is set in the Middle Ages rather than modern times, and neither Nate nor any Big Nate characters appear in it. Well, except on the very first page, when Peirce offers a kind of “framing story” in which Nate presents a paper to his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, explaining that it is a book report on Max & the Midknights – to the suitable consternation of both Mrs. Godfrey and Nate’s student nemesis, Gina.
After that, though, no more of Nate appears in Max & the Midknights, at least under the name Nate; no more Big Nate characters appear, either, at least in modern dress. One of the many delights of the book – and it is delightful – is that readers completely unfamiliar with Big Nate can have a great time with it, while readers who know Peirce’s contemporary comic strip can enjoy both the story and the ways in which the characters in it reflect the ones in Big Nate. That is most noticeable in certain patented (or should-be-patented) Big Nate poses: on page 75, the open mouth, splayed hands and one-eye-open-one-eye-closed look of bewilderment; on page 83, the one-eye-more-open-than-the-other, mouth-wide-open-with-tongue-almost-sticking-out look of disbelief and anger; on page 125, the jumping-in-the-air-while-leaning-back, hair-sticking-straight-up look of surprise; on page 165, the blushing half smile and red-cheeked look (red cheeks obvious even in black-and-white) of acute embarrassment; and many more. Place Peirce’s cartooning skill at the service of a story involving the rescue of a good king who has been deposed by a bad one thanks to a wicked sorceress – a tale complete with an inept good magician who inadvertently turns Uncle Budrick, the sort-of-father-figure here, into a goose – and you have a pretty good idea of what happens in Max & the Midknights. But only a pretty good idea, because Peirce grafts enough surprises and twists onto the familiar good-medieval-characters-defeat-bad-medieval-characters model to make the book highly entertaining. For one thing, Max is a girl – and is determined to become a knight, which unfortunately is not allowed in her time period. Uncle Budrick, for his part, is a troubadour – a feckless one, akin to Nate’s dad in Big Nate – who had a chance to become a knight and wanted no part of it. The magician, Mumblin (a neat twisting of “Merlin” plus mumbling), has retired, but un-retires because of (what else?) a prophecy involving none other than Max. And then there are the Midknights, three kids who join Max in a quest to save the kingdom. Why “Midknights,” aside from the pun on “midnight”? Well, in trying to name their group, the four realize they are not real knights – but are really about to do real knightly deeds, such as invading a heavily fortified castle. So they are not full knights but also not “play” knights; they are in the middle. Hence “Midknights.” Throw in good king Conrad, bad king Gastley (who really is pretty ghastly), onetime royal-guard leader Sir Gadabout, three sword-bearing zombies, evil sorceress Fendra’s age-reversal spell, some walking gargoyles, and a few other suitable appurtenances, and you have a marvelous collection of characters – drawn with substantial individual touches, but all in Peirce’s immediately recognizable style – proceeding through a real page-turner of an adventure. It even has faint echoes of The Lord of the Rings (in a climactic dragon invasion) and some chances for Peirce to showcase art that goes beyond anything in Big Nate (such as a looming castle at night: it is very well drawn and looks nothing like the art that Peirce usually produces). Max & the Midknights is a standalone novel, but it will be a surprise if readers, whether familiar with Big Nate or not, fail to clamor for more of the same.
Max & the Midknights may be longer and more elaborate than the Big Nate comic strip, but the strip loses nothing by comparison – and, as noted, the novel gains something for readers who know the strip. This is easily seen in a comic-strip collection such as Big Nate: A Good Old-Fashioned Wedgie, which has Nate and friends and frenemies and enemies on familiar, decidedly non-medieval territory. One of the pleasures of Big Nate is the way Peirce varies the expected interactions among the characters so well that readers, however well they know the strip, are constantly being surprised and amused. It is, for instance, obvious that school bully Randy will try to get Nate and friend Francis upset by writing something nasty in Francis’ yearbook – but not obvious that it will turn out that Francis is carrying Mrs. Godfrey’s yearbook around rather than his own. It is obvious that Nate’s unending series of crushes on girls throughout his school will continue unabated, but not obvious that his primary crush, Jenny, will move back from a planned relocation to Seattle and sweep all thoughts of other girls out of Nate’s head (well, most thoughts, anyway). It is obvious that when Nate’s grandfather comes to spend some time with Nate and his dad, there will be parallels between Nate’s relationship with his father and his father’s with his dad – but not obvious that the three will compete for Choco-Chunk ice cream or that Nate’s father’s name will turn out to be Marty. It is obvious that Nate’s basic good-heartedness will lead him to suggest that he and his friends go on a diet along with Chad, whose grandmother is requiring him to eat soy nuts and kale and similarly unappetizing fare – but not obvious why the plan will not work (because Nate cannot bear the thought of living without Cheeze Doodles, although maybe that is obvious). It is obvious that self-centered Nate will be sure he has a secret admirer when a piece of a note turns up containing the partial words “ate” and “dorable,” and obvious that Nate will prove wrong about the whole secret-admirer thing, but not obvious what the note will turn out to say. But that is just fine, since it gives Nate-the-detective a chance to “dress like Sherlock Holmes and smoke bubble pipes.” Peirce’s drawing style is more finely honed than ever as Big Nate moves toward its 30-year anniversary in syndication (it started in 1991). And neither Nate nor the other characters show any sign of getting old (as in dull), much less getting older. Peirce really can rest on his laurels as long as he keeps Big Nate going with such consistently high quality. The fact that he chooses not to be content with his considerable success, leading to the production of a book such as Max & the Midknights, just puts him an additional cut above run-of-the-mill cartoonists.