February 27, 2020
The Best Value Colleges, 13th Edition (2020): 75 Schools That Give You the Most for Your Money. By Robert Franek, David Soto, Stephen Koch, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $12.99.
Well, let’s see. The previous edition of The Princeton Review’s always-valuable guide to ROI (return on investment) where college is concerned was called the 2019 edition, not the 12th. The new one is called the 13th, not the 2020 version (although that is what it is). The previous edition included 200 schools. The new one includes 75 – but an additional 125 are discussed online, and it costs nothing (except time) to gain access to the data on them. The prior edition was, typically for these books, something of a giant: a weighty paperback that could be awkward to carry and page through because of its sheer heft, but having an easy-to-use layout in which each school profiled received two facing pages with shaded far-left and far-right columns packed with data, and rest-of-page narratives on specific topics. The new edition costs less ($12.99 vs. $22.99), is considerably smaller, and is certainly easier to carry and thumb through, but now each school’s information is spread across four pages, and the layout is choppier than in the past and not as easy to use.
Year-over-year comparisons are largely irrelevant to families with college-bound students, though, since there will likely be only one specific year per student in which families need to consult books like this one. And the only thing that will matter in that year is how helpful the book is. So the good news, and it really is good, is that The Best Value Colleges remains as useful, well-thought-out and impressively data-driven as it has always been. Increasingly, attendance at college is seen as primarily an economic decision: a college degree today, like a high-school degree in the not-so-distant past, is a requirement for the sorts of jobs to which a great many people aspire. Therefore, the notions of value and ROI have now taken on even more importance than they used to have. The Princeton Review tries to prevent its data from being solely a measure of financial success by including metrics relating to graduates’ identification of “high job meaning (i.e., feeling that their job makes the world a better place),” although this is necessarily a highly subjective matter. Nevertheless, it makes sense for the book to provide students who are so inclined with some information on schools they can attend where like-minded “make the world a better place” individuals are more often to be found.
By and large, however, what The Best Value Colleges does is provide financial data indicating the economic value of attending specific schools – and how some schools’ value, under this definition, compares with the economic value of attending different ones. The 75 schools in the book, or the 200 discussed when the online elements are included, are drawn from a group of 656 that already represent a small fraction of the 5,300 or so colleges and universities in the United States. Whatever the value of inclusion of exclusion – the book explains its methodology briefly – the fact is that any student who wants to attend college can find one that will accept him or her. Whether the post-graduation economic value of having attended schools not discussed in this book will be comparable to the post-graduation economic value of attending ones that are included is both unknowable and irrelevant: this book is for families that want a big dose of economic reality, served in this particular style, and that will therefore consider only the schools discussed here, at least as a starting point.
Colleges in this book get to be listed in high positions on the various lists based largely on the generosity of their financial-aid packages. Princeton University (with which The Princeton Review is not affiliated) tops the list of 75 because admitted students who qualify for financial aid get 100% scholarship grants – not loans. Note that this is for students who qualify for financial aid. Yes, the school provides them with an average grant of more than $51,000 for a single year of attendance, but how does a student qualify? Ah, that is where things get tricky. The highest-ranked colleges here have a strong focus on “need-blind admissions,” designed to bring in the best students without regard to their wealth (although often with regard to other factors, ranging from alumni connections to skin color). The ability of children from families of modest means (or even out-and-out poverty) to get a top-quality college education is a major accomplishment for many of these schools and a major strength of the higher-education system in the United States. But what happens to families that scrimp and save diligently for 18 years after a child is born, managing to scrape together enough money to pay for the child’s college education at a modestly priced school, but not enough to afford one of the absolute top-tier ones? Those families are the forgotten middle, because they cannot pay retail prices for top schools but do not qualify – because of income, assets or both – for the extremely generous grants and other subsidies that the highest-ranking schools offer to people who have done a poor job, or none at all, of saving for college. The situation is exacerbated by politicians who increasingly often seek to buy votes by promising that highly indebted students will get all they have borrowed forgiven, leaving students and families that save and sacrifice and manage to pay back their obligations in the “sucker” category.
The Best Value Colleges cannot remake the U.S. sociopolitical system, of course. And its rankings are careful to exclude matters relating to student loans, as opposed to outright grants. In addition to the primary list of 75 best-value colleges, there are six other lists here, each including 25 schools: best alumni network; best entry to internships; best career placement; best financial aid; best “for students with no demonstrated need,” which means those who do not qualify for financial aid; and best “for making an impact” – the most subjective of the lists, based on “student ratings and responses to our survey questions covering community service opportunities at their school, student government, sustainability efforts, and on-campus student engagement.” It is important to remember that even this list may have significant value for families in which a student has already expressed a strong interest in going into nonprofit work, community activism or similar areas.
For the much larger group of students seeking an education that will be a ticket to financial and material success, the various lists are an excellent place to start: they make it easy to turn to the alphabetically arranged pages for the various listed schools to explore them in greater depth. And the school-focused pages may encourage “shopping around” for similar schools based on the description of the pluses and minuses of each specific one (there are very few minuses anywhere). The “Career Information from PayScale.com” that appears in each school profile will be an immediate eye opener, showing not only each school’s ROI rating but also just how much the median starting and mid-career salaries of graduates tend to be. The final line of this particular element of the book gives “degrees awarded in STEM subjects” – since those fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are the ones in highest focus for so many students and families these days.
As with all books of lists, data and analysis, The Best Value Colleges is only a start, and should emphatically not be the basis for choosing a single school. The best thing to do with it is to use the various lists and individual descriptions of colleges to focus on a small number of schools that will hopefully meet the soon-to-be-college-student’s goals and needs (financial and otherwise). But before doing that, a family discussion of the word “value” is in order – because this book defines it in a particular way (or set of ways), and those may or may not be the same ones that individual students and families use. Only when you know what “value” signifies to you can you try to find a college match that will deliver value in a meaningful way.
Louise Farrenc: Etudes and Variations for Solo Piano. Joanne Polk, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Laura Netzel: Tarentelle; Humoresque; Suite, Op. 33; La Gondoliera; Berceuse et Tarentelle; Elfrida Andrée: Sonata in B-flat; Amanda Röntgen-Maier: Sonata in B minor. Paula Gudmundson, flute; Tracy Lipke-Perry, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The recent focus on giving women their due in music and many other fields has sometimes led to presentation of less-than-compelling material that is offered only because it was created by females. At other times, though, works, musical and otherwise, show up that are excellent in and of themselves and just happen to have been written by women. That is the case with the new Steinway & Sons recording of piano music by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875): there is a great deal of marvelous material here, no matter its provenance. But lest contemporary opinion be too quick to attribute these works’ obscurity solely to the fact that their composer was a woman, it is worth recalling that much other music of the same time period received extremely high praise for a while and then fell into near-total obscurity – the creations of Kalkbrenner, Thalberg, Pixis and Herz, for instance. In a few other cases, piano music that fell into near-oblivion has recently been revived through the efforts of a champion, or a few of them: Alkan’s comes immediately to mind. And Farrenc, who was respected and successful in her own time, may well have found just the needed modern champion in Joanne Polk, who performs on this CD with utter dedication and compete involvement in the material. Indeed, Polk treats some of the works here as rather more consequential than they are: the weakness of Farrenc’s music lies in its superficiality and its reasons for being – partly to display Farrenc’s own considerable talents as a piano virtuoso, partly to help train the would-be virtuoso students whom she taught for 30 years at the Paris Conservatoire. Whether the Farrenc piano pieces heard here will prove to have staying power is to be determined – but whether they make an excellent impression in Polk’s hands is not: that is already quite clear. Display pieces these may be, but Polk displays them to excellent effect, in the process providing great insight into Farrenc’s compositional skill as well as what were clearly her considerable performance abilities. Three works here are from the standard-for-its-time category of variations on exotic or well-known tunes. Air Russe Varié is of the former type, subjecting a folk melody to a wide variety of intricate presentations. Les Italiennes, Op. 14: No. 1, Cavatine de Norma falls into the well-known-tune area, using a still-famous Bellini melody as its basis; likewise, Souvenir des Huguenots rings multiple changes – very effectively – on an excerpt from Meyerbeer’s sprawling and once super-popular opera. Collectively, these three works shine a light on Farrenc as virtuoso; but they take up only one-third of Polk’s recital. The remainder of the CD focuses on Farrenc as teacher – and here the material, although clearly created with an academic purpose, rises well above its reason for being, as the three sets of variations do not. Farrenc wrote 30 etudes in major and minor keys, collecting them in two “books” published as her Op. 26. Polk offers Nos. 3, 5, 9-12, 14 and 15 from Book I, and Nos. 17, 18, 21, 22, 24, 25 and 29 from Book II. This half-helping of the totality is more than enough to whet the appetite for a recording of all 30 of these beautifully formed pieces. Farrenc’s etudes do not push the boundaries of the form into near-unrecognizability, as Alkan’s do: their instructional elements remain clear and in the forefront, and their lengths are in the modest two-to-five-minute range. But within their genre, these etudes offer far more listening pleasure than most, thanks to Farrenc’s well-constructed themes and the way she combines specific forms of intricacy with genuinely enjoyable music-making – a fine way to captivate piano students. Thus, the galloping Presto of No. 11, the finely constructed neo-Baroque two-voice fugue of No. 12, the heart-on-sleeve Andante affettuoso of No. 15, the juxtaposition of the piano’s high and low ranges in No. 22, the bravura Allegro energico of No. 25 – these elements and many others display Farrenc’s compositional prowess in a distinct way, in addition to and independent of the pieces’ academic value. It is by no means certain that Farrenc’s piano music – or, for that matter, her other music, which includes everything from chamber pieces to three symphonies – will go through a complete revival for 21st-century audiences. But Polk’s recording constitutes a strong argument in favor of hearing a good deal more of it a good deal more frequently.
The rediscoveries on a new MSR Classics flute-and-piano CD are more modest, and while they too have their pleasures, there is less that comes across as distinctive in the works of Laura Netzel (1839-1927), Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929), and Amanda Röntgen-Maier (1853-1894) – at least those heard here – than there is in those of Farrenc. Part of the issue with this disc featuring Paula Gudmundson and Tracy Lipke-Perry is that only one piece on it, Netzel’s Suite, Op. 33, was actually written for flute and piano. The other pieces were intended for violin and piano. Röntgen-Maier’s was transcribed by Carol Wincenc; the remaining works were arranged by Gudmundson herself. Certainly there is nothing wrong with wanting to expand the repertoire for one’s own instrument, and certainly these pieces generally sound fine on flute. But it is a bit much to ask an audience of non-performers to discover or rediscover all this music and explore its merits while hearing it in a different instrumentation from that which the composers intended. The pieces are pretty much what one would expect from their titles: Netzel’s Tarentelle is bouncily rhythmic; her Humoresque flows pleasantly; her Suite explores considerable technical and expressive territory for the flute, for which it was written; La Gondoliera has a gentle, meandering quality throughout; and Berceuse et Tarentelle contrasts lyrical, long-lined warmth with considerable bounce and perkiness – the work’s conclusion is especially pleasing. Andrée’s sonata, although pleasant enough, is not particularly distinctive either thematically or compositionally: it is enjoyable to hear but rather forgettable in its surface-level way. Röntgen-Maier’s sonata is more substantive and, thanks to its minor key, has a stronger emotional pull – if not really any significant depth. The extended first movement (half the work’s 20-minute total length) sounds violinistic in its runs and in the interrelationship of the two instruments; indeed, parts of the flute part border on shrillness here. The second movement gestures toward plaintiveness without quite attaining it, and the good-humored finale bubbles along attractively enough but without ever quite establishing a distinctive compositional voice. So this is a disc featuring discovery or rediscovery of music by three female composers who, like so many male composers of their time, were certainly competent and capable of producing well-crafted works that skilled performers such as Gudmundson and Lipke-Perry can play with dedication and involvement. But the fact that these composers were women does not make their works any more inventive or engaging than the works of moderately capable composers who were men. This is an enjoyable enough (+++) disc, to be sure, and flute players in particular may welcome the chance to expand their repertoire by considering the performance of some of this material. There are, however, no major revelations here of unjustly neglected brilliance that fell victim to gender imbalance.
Ravel: Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Piano; Stravinsky: Firebird Suite; Petrouchka—Three Movements for Piano. Chloé Kiffer, violin; Alexandre Moutouzkine, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Zhou Long: Five Elements; Chen Yi: Night Thoughts; Lu Pei: Scenes Through Window; Vivian Fung: Bird Song; Yao Chen: Emanations of Tara. Civitas Ensemble (Yuan-Qing Yu, violin; Kenneth Olsen, cello; Winston Choi, piano; Lawrie Bloom, clarinet); Yihan Chen, pipa; Cynthia Yeh, percussion; Emma Gerstein, flute and piccolo. Cedille. $16.
Excellent performances of works that do not quite fit together in any meaningful way are presented by violinist Chloé Kiffer and pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine on a new Steinway & Sons CD. Kiffer and Moutouzkine may have personal reasons for assembling this recital, but it comes across a trifle oddly when heard straight through, the most distinctive element of the disc being the skill with which the performers handle the material. The fact is that Ravel and Stravinsky had very different musical sensibilities and approaches, and while contrasting them can be interesting, it can also be somewhat jarring – especially on a disc arranged like this one, with the two Ravel violin-and-piano works placed first and third and the two Stravinsky solo-piano ones heard second and fourth. In any case, the Ravel sonatas come across with genuine distinction here. No. 2, which dates to the mid-1920s, is the only one heard with any frequency. Its strong jazz influences are apparent throughout: the middle movement, called “Blues,” is quite unlike most other pieces by Ravel, and the outer movements are just as rhythmically uneven and attractively harmonized as the composer’s other jazz-influenced music, notably Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The single-movement first sonata, called “Posthume,” dates to 30 years earlier than the second and is far more conventional harmonically and rhythmically. It nevertheless has a very engaging late-Romantic sensibility about it, and Kiffer’s rich violin tone is especially welcome in maximizing the piece’s effectiveness. In the two Stravinsky works for solo piano, Moutouzkine shines forth with substantial virtuosity if at times with a somewhat over-hectic approach to the material. He made his own piano arrangement of the 1919 version of the Firebird Suite, and the focus on virtuosic display is quite clear: this is music that partakes of the spirit of Liszt as much as that of Stravinsky. The suite is quite effective as a showpiece in this arrangement, although some of the warmth and sensitivity to folk heritage is missing. Still, listeners can scarcely ask for more excitement than Moutouzkine offers in the “Infernal Dance,” and the “Final Hymn” has a more-than-apt conclusiveness about it. Besides, Stravinsky was scarcely averse to a certain degree of pianistic showmanship being applied to his music. He made his own piano arrangement of three movements from Petrouchka in 1921 for pianist Arthur Rubinstein, and the movements scintillate throughout while providing plenty of challenges for the performer. Moutouzkine seems quite unfazed by the difficulties: the many rapid jumps and frequent polyrhythms appear to give him no difficulty at all. He and Kiffer are both impressive technically on this recording, whose only real failing is that the selection of music makes it come across as something of a pastiche rather than a fully thought-through and well-integrated recital.
Certainly plenty of thoughtfulness has gone into a new Cedille disc featuring the Civitas Ensemble and several guest artists in performances of works by contemporary Chinese composers – including three pieces that are world première recordings and two heard here in new arrangements. The moving spirit of this musical mixture – which is given the overall title Jin Yin, meaning “Golden Tone” – is violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, one of the founders of Civitas Ensemble, who was born in Shanghai. This is not music for everyone, certainly not for those primarily interested in Western musical sounds, since all five composers spend considerable time and effort incorporating the sensibilities (and sometimes the instruments) of Chinese music into their works. The approach is in especially strong evidence in Zhou Long’s Five Elements, an extended suite whose depictions of metal, wood, water, fire and earth are often intensely (and impressively) percussive, and are pervaded by the sound of the lute-like pipa. Whether or not Western listeners will feel that the movements adequately reflect the “elements” they depict, an audience will likely be entranced by the sheer sonic variety of the music and the intriguing way different elements – musical elements, that is – are brought together and contrasted. The arrangement here was made especially for Civitas Ensemble. So was that of Chen Yi’s poetry-inspired Night Thoughts, a less-down-to-earth and more-evanescent piece that contrasts, among other things, the violin’s and piano’s very high ranges. Lu Pei’s Scenes Through Window has a sound that may be somewhat more readily accessible to a Western audience, and its speedier and more-propulsive elements have a folk-dance-like quality that alternates to good effect with sections whose lyricism is well-proportioned. Vivian Fung’s Bird Song is a violin-and-piano duet whose avian elements appear at the start and finish, with the middle given over to a well-thought-through blending and contrast of the two instruments. The seven-movement Emanations of Tara by Yao Chen concludes the CD in an expansive manner that parallels that of Five Elements at the disc’s beginning. Tara is a highly respected figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and this work – written for the Civitas Ensemble – is suitably mystical, respectful and evocative. It also has a pervasively Chinese sound and sensibility, thanks largely (as in Long’s work) to the prominence of the pipa. At the same time, Chen uses contemporary compositional techniques – atonality, pervasive dissonance, and a degree of minimalism – to communicate various internal states. Whether the music does so satisfactorily is very much a matter of opinion: much of the work sounds somewhat forced and overdone, striving (for example) for “mysterious, deepened emotion” through sounds that are not much different from those intended to be “extremely undertoned but with burning sensation inside.” The very last section, marked “extremely quiet,” is suitably esoteric and mystical, but its plucked strings and bells convey a lesser sense of the mystic realm than, say, the final movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. As a whole, this is an impressive-sounding disc – the word sounding being worth emphasizing, since it is the aural impression of the mixed instruments that is most likely to reach out to a wider audience, even one that may not find itself fully in tune with the philosophical underpinnings of each of the works heard here.
February 20, 2020
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Tomás Cotik, violin. Centaur. $16 (2 CDs).
Ned Rorem/McNeil Robinson: Improvisations on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. McNeil Robinson, organ. Delos. $14.98.
The notion that Baroque music is bland and emotionless, to be performed metronomically and with a focus purely on form, is an old but long-discredited one that becomes harder and harder to imagine anyone ever believing each time a new and excellent recording of a staple of the Baroque repertoire emerges. Tomás Cotik is the latest performer to lay to rest the old canards about the Baroque, doing so in a highly thoughtful and thoroughly satisfying recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin – in which Cotik makes some highly personalized decisions about playing the music. The result of those decisions is a hybrid performance: Baroque bow, modern violin, softer-than-usual strings, tuning to today’s 440 Hz rather than the 415 Hz common in Bach’s time (although at that time there were actually many different “A” tunings in use). The underlying reasons for Cotik’s various decisions are part of a series of ongoing musical/academic debates/discussions that are unlikely ever to lead to consensus. For instance, Cotik’s near-complete lack of vibrato is not only historically correct but also a function of the Baroque bow itself: it simply is not possible to produce modern-style near-constant vibrato with it. Similarly, the way Cotik brings forth the lightness and dancelike elements of these works is due in part to the bow’s characteristics, which make those effects easier to achieve than they are with a modern bow. The actual sound of the music is partly a function of using A440 rather than A415, which is a semitone lower: this tuning decision is very much a matter of taste, since performers accustomed to more-modern music may actually have difficulty playing in a way that sounds constantly a semitone flat to them. But all these elements, as interesting as they can be to the analytically inclined, take a back seat to the basic question of how the music sounds at any given time. And in Cotik’s hands (and beneath his fingers), it sounds very fine indeed. There is a sprightliness about these performances that is immediately winning, and at the same time there is all the seriousness one might wish for in the deeper and more-complex movements. The famed Chaconne of Partita No. 2 is lighter than usual but scarcely ebullient, its contrapuntal complexity highlighted by the care with which Cotik brings out its various components. To cite just one other example, the highly complex Fuga of Sonata No. 3, which leans (among other things) on the performer’s ability to perform quadruple stops, is neither heavy nor academic-sounding here, and its considerable length (only the Chaconne is longer) makes complete sense as a way to work through its musical arguments and overall development. Cotik, who uses less ornamentation than do many other performers, allows emotion into the music as appropriate, as in the openings of all three sonatas and in the two sarabandes (in Partitas Nos. 1 and 2); he also permits, even encourages matters to become almost frothy in some of the quick sections (Presto of Sonata No. 1, Gigue of Partita No. 3). What is evident throughout this Centaur recording is that Cotik has thought long and hard about every aspect of playing this music, from where to follow historically informed practice closely (and where not to) to when to show the music’s emotive power (and when to keep matters much more restrained). There is no “best” recording of these works – and no definitive way to answer the many questions they pose for performer and listener alike. There are, however, many excellent approaches to the music, each convincing on its own terms. Cotik’s are very decidedly within that distinguished group.
There are two distinguished musical figures involved in a new Delos release of Improvisations on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross: Ned Rorem (born 1923), whose themes are the basis of the performance, and McNeil Robinson (1943-2015), the distinguished organist whose March 21, 2006 improvisations are recorded and memorialized on the disc. Readings of text introduce each of the 14 tracks, setting a scene that Robinson interprets and realizes with consummate skill: the “falling” nature of the music in “Jesus falls for the first time” paints a very clear picture of the stumble, for example, while the portentous, echoing dissonances of “Jesus is nailed to the Cross” are simultaneously dramatic and heartfelt. Robinson brings forth considerable tenderness when it is called for, as in “Jesus meets his afflicted mother” before the crucifixion and in “The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother” after it. The concluding “Jesus is laid in the tomb” is suitably solemn, but what comes through most clearly and affectingly in this music is the extent to which this is a human story rather than (or in addition to) a divine one – as in “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” to which Robinson gives great tenderness, and “Jesus is stripped of his garments,” whose exclamatory passages here seem indicative of all-too-human greed rather than a customary rite of Roman times that is given scriptural significance in the New Testament. Robinson himself surely saw these improvisations and much of his other musical work as serving a spiritual purpose: he was organist and choirmaster at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin for two decades, organist at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City from 1965 until 2012, and also served as organist of the Park Avenue Christian Church. But equally surely, Robinson saw improvisation – at which he was highly skilled – as a purely musical matter, one that could connect listeners with something beyond themselves even without the necessity of conformity to religious orthodoxy. It was on this basis that he served as chairman of the organ departments at the Mannes College of Music and Manhattan School of Music. Improvisations on the Fourteen Stations of the Cross partakes of several elements of Robinson’s life: his sheer musical ability, the quality of his improvisational thinking and playing, and his knowledge of ways to connect the higher purpose of religion with the mundane elements of human life – including the human life of Jesus – in ways that reach out equally to firm believers and to those of less faith or none. This is a very moving CD, as well as one whose musical quality pervades the material and stands, as a result, as a suitable monument to Robinson’s persuasive skill.
Mark John McEncroe: Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra—Reflections & Recollections, Vol. 2. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.
Ahmed Alabaca: Ascension for Solo Clarinet and String Orchestra; Sarah Wallin Huff: The Dark Glass Sinfonia; Noam Faingold: The Defiant Poet—Elegy in Memory of Yevgeny Yevtushenko; Raisa Orshansky: Spring Fantasy; Craig Morris: Songs of the Seasons; Scott Brickman: Restoration; Audun G. Vassdal: Prelude & Fugue for Orchestra. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Kružík and Jiří Petrdlík. Navona. $14.99.
Like the first Navona release titled Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra by Mark John McEncroe, the second is a series of chamber-music arrangements by Mark J. Saliba of pieces that McEncroe originally wrote for piano. Also like the first volume, which was a two-CD offering, this single-disc followup presents works that are quite similar from one to the next – inspired by different life experiences, according to the composer, but expressed in a way that makes it difficult (and perhaps unnecessary) to try to figure out exactly why a particular title goes with a particular musical offering. The 11 pieces here constitute, in totality, a kind of portrait of McEncroe’s impressions of various scenes and events in his life, all of them seen – if the music itself is a fair indicator – with a great deal of equanimity. The titles of the pieces are Daybreak, Cindy’s Song, A Rainy Summer’s Day, A Penny for Your Thoughts, Dance of the Pagans, Fleeting Images, Natalie’s Theme, Nocturnal Images, Fading Memories, Floating Lilies, and Shimmering Lights. All the works are similarly paced at moderate speed and produced at soft-to-moderate volume. They are primarily consonant, their mild dissonances used for periodic emphasis but quickly subsumed within what is generally a kind of “easy listening.” For example, a listener might expect a piece called Dance of the Pagans to have at least a slight Stravinskian tinge to it, but in fact this is a pleasantly upbeat and rather delicate dance with a few percussive elements that presumably point to “paganism” in the same way that drums and cymbals were considered to produce “Turkish” music in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time. And if the “pagans” are gentle, the other people and scenes here are equally so. Indeed, the titles Fleeting Images, Fading Memories, and Shimmering Lights neatly encapsulate the entire worldview created by this material: this is the sort of unchallenging aural material suitable for listeners to have on in the background as they go about their everyday lives. Like its predecessor release, this one offers mood music in a single mood, pleasantly soporific and engagingly undistinguished. There is nothing challenging or portentous here, nothing to make one’s ears perk up or one’s mind pay attention, but a great deal that can be used as an aid to meditation or to sleep. Indeed, the titles Nocturnal Images and Floating Lilies give a good sense of the kind of contemplative quietude within which all these pieces float, and into which they invite listeners who are disposed to enter McEncroe’s memory world with him and dwell therein for a time.
The portraiture is considerably more varied on a Navona release called “Prisma, Vol. 3,” on which seven composers try to offer insights into themselves and, in some cases, into their views of other people. Ahmed Alabaca’s Ascension for Solo Clarinet and String Orchestra features soloist Karel Dohnal in a heartfelt, warm, rather cinematic piece created as a memorial tribute to a friend. Sarah Wallin Huff’s The Dark Glass Sinfonia juxtaposes harmonic and atonal sections and frequent contrasts of loud and soft passages. Noam Faingold’s The Defiant Poet is a memorial for Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko – it is a work that sounds heartfelt but meanders rather too much and for rather too long. Raisa Orshansky’s Spring Fantasy was inspired by a different Russian poet, Alexander Blok, and is suitably evocative of the notion of birth and rebirth; but its pleasant, straightforwardly melodic communication gives the impression of having been heard in many other works by many other composers. Craig Morris includes springtime as the second of the four movements of Songs of the Seasons, after opening with “Winter Snowfall.” He next seeks to evoke “Spring Raindrops,” then “Summer Waves,” and finally “Fall Colors.” As the titles indicate, this piece, like Orshansky’s, does not reach for any particularly new imagery; also like Orshansky’s music, Morris’ does not really explore new melodic or rhythmic territory. Indeed, there is a sameness of pacing and expression among Morris’ four movements that makes the four seasons less distinguishable than they actually are. The impressionism here is mild, the music easy to listen to and comfortable enough, but it is all curiously uninvolving and far less descriptive of the times of year than the titles of the piece and its individual elements would lead listeners to expect. Scott Brickman’s Restoration is more aurally challenging, although it is scarcely “difficult” music. Brickman considers it a one-movement symphony, but it sounds more like a fantasia or concert overture, paying tribute to Eastern European folk material although not directly quoting any of it, and lapsing into occasional sort-of-minimalist, percussive sections among a series of more-melodic ones featuring longer lines. This very mixed compilation CD concludes with Audun G. Vassdal’s Prelude & Fugue for Orchestra, which is not quite what its title indicates: the first portion is slow and undramatic almost to the point of dullness, although its volume and tempo slowly increase to a climactic, somewhat overdone dramatic outburst; as for the fugue, it is more a sort-of-fugue, stretching the form’s structure and turning at one point into something closer to a waltz. Formally intriguing and with some interesting uses of the orchestra, this is the most intellectually engaging work on the disc, but it is not especially emotionally involving and comes across as more clever than meaningful. As is generally the case with anthology discs of contemporary music, there is much well-crafted material here but little chance that listeners will find more than a small portion of the total presentation congenial and worth returning to repeatedly.
February 13, 2020
Birdie and Me. By J.M.M. Nuanez. Kathy Dawson Books. $16.99.
Book genres have long-established characteristics – in fact, that is much of what makes them genres. They have tropes, mandated character designs, expected relationships, and formulaic plot points that provide readers with a sense of comfort and familiarity within which authors can explore themes, some very new and others very old indeed. A first-time author of a book for preteens and young teenagers had better have a very good sense of which way the wind is blowing in age-focused genre novels if she is to entice a major publisher into taking a chance on her work. And in our current obsession with inclusiveness and political correctness, it boosts her chances of success if she is hyper-inclusive and hyper-politically correct.
And so we have J.M.M. Nuanez and her debut novel, Birdie and Me. It is formulaic to the nth degree, yet has a veneer of being so with-it, so in tune with contemporary societal concerns, so sensitive and well-meaning and caring, that it fits the latest requirements of its genre to perfection. The basic story is quite simple. A brother and sister bond more tightly after going through a series of harrowing experiences and learning the true meaning of “family.” The siblings are being raised by their mother (fathers are generally feckless or absent in books of this type), but she dies, and they are shuttled back and forth between two uncles with completely different personalities (another trope of this sort of book). The uncles are quirky and one-dimensional in completely opposite ways, one a kind of 21st-century “flower child” and one straitlaced. The siblings encounter standardized home-and-family challenges as well as ones involving school – including the inevitable bully – and eventually emerge as stronger, more-focused individuals who know they can always count on each other and on those who care about them, and will be able to handle whatever life throws at them in the future.
Described this way, the story of Birdie and Me is nothing but a mild rehash of innumerable plots that have defined preteen and young-teen “self-discovery” novels for decades. But it is more than that – because of how carefully Nuanez tunes the story into contemporary concerns about gender self-definition. Birdie is what is now called “gender non-conforming,” which means that (aside from his name) he wears traditionally feminine clothing, plus eye shadow and nail polish – all things that naturally attract the inevitable bullying. The “me” of the title is Birdie’s older sister, unnecessarily given the masculine name Jack (that lays things on a bit too thickly). So the standard preteen struggles of the siblings are seen entirely through the lens of gender self-definition. This is a one-dimensional way to view people, but no more unidimensional than having Uncle Carl be defined by his scattered and unstructured view of life and Uncle Patrick by his prescriptive and rather stern approach to things.
Nuanez is clearly aiming for Birdie and Me to be deemed “courageous” or at the very least “outspoken” in dealing with gender matters that have been swept under the proverbial rug for far too long. And she writes with firm control of the story and total sympathy for the title characters: it would not do to be even the slightest bit critical of these highly challenged young people, even when they try on several occasions to run away from “home” (really, from life). The inevitable question is for whom the novel is intended. Certainly unconventional families containing gender-uncertain or non-conforming children are the audience, but they make up a very small group. Estimates by psychologists suggest that about 0.6% of U.S. adults are non-conforming as to gender, although advocacy groups on one side of the issue claim “as many as” 12% of people may fit the category (depending on how the category is defined), while those on the other side have suggested a range of 0.005% to 0.014%. Perhaps a stronger hint of Nuanez’s target readership comes from a recent study in which 27% of California adolescents claimed to be non-conforming: Nuanez is a California native, and her book partakes strongly of sensibilities associated with the state’s most liberal (self-defined “progressive”) elements. So Birdie and Me seems destined for high praise as a “cause” book and an “important” counterbalance to the ranks of “exclusionary” books for ages 10 and up, which means ones in which central characters behave in accordance with societal expectations for their physical genders.
This is the kind of book that well-meaning educators assign to students in the target age range with the avowed aim of teaching that any and all versions of gender identity and family structure are equally valid and deserve equal respect. Since Birdie and Me follows a long-established story arc in terms of its events, differing only in some characteristics of its protagonists, it will certainly be easy for young readers to follow. Whether it will teach them universal tolerance and acceptance is an open question, however: Birdie is entirely defined by being gender non-conforming, never emerging as a whole person beyond that element; and much the same is true of Jack, who is also something of a cardboard character. The pervasive advocacy underlying Birdie and Me therefore flows from the notion that one’s self-defined gender is the entirety of what matters – which is just as much a simplification as the notion that adults are solely defined, as they are here, by their type and level of quirkiness.
Percy Grainger: Bridal Lullaby; Shepherd’s Hey; Colonial Song; Spoon River; The Nightingale and the Two Sisters; Scotch Strathspey and Reel; Frederick Delius: In a Summer Garden (transcribed by Philip Heseltine); Roger Quilter: Summer Evening; Henry Balfour Gardiner: Con Brio; Adagio non troppo; Gavotte; Cyril Scott: Lento; Pierrette; Cherry Ripe; Rainbow Trout; Norman O’Neill: Deux Petites Pièces. Richard Masters, piano. Heritage Records. $16.50.
Witold Lutosławski: Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon; Antoni Szałowski: Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon; Wawrzyniec Żuławski: Aria con Variazioni for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon; Władysław Walentynowicz: Trio for Reeds (Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon); Tadeusz Baird: Divertimento for Flute, Clarinet, Oboe and Bassoon; Janina Garścia: Tema con Variazioni for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon. Sonora Winds (Bethany Gonella, flute; Anastasiya Nyzkodu, clarinet; Stuart Sutter, oboe; Marta Troicki, bassoon). MSR Classics. $12.95.
A suitable entry point for becoming familiar with the work of less-known composers is to explore the way their music is similar to and different from that of the better-known ones with whom they share a time period or set of predilections. Thus, familiarity with Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Borodin can become a gateway to the music of the two other members of Imperial Russia’s “Mighty Five” composers: Mily Balakirev and César Cui. In other cases, though, instead of several members of a group being comparatively well-known today, there may be only one with whom listeners are likely to be familiar. That is the case with the “Frankfurt Group,” a set of five composition students who met at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt in the late 19th century. Only the youngest of them, Percy Grainger (1882-1961), gets much attention nowadays – a situation that pianist Richard Masters does his part to alter on a new Heritage Records CD featuring works by the entire Frankfurt Group and by one of the young composers’ favored elders, Frederick Delius (1862-1934). Delius’ music is not universally appealing, and that of the Frankfurt Group will also not interest everybody: the group’s music had a kind of “political” purpose, specifically involving an attempt to throw off the influence of Beethoven and other German and Germanic composers, and it sometimes seems rather self-conscious in its avowed Impressionism and determination not to do what the German school was doing or might have done. Nevertheless, Masters makes a strong case for the quality of this material – and in the process shows that Grainger deserves to be the best-known of the Frankfurt Group, with music that is more innovative and attractive than the somewhat milder (although still pleasant enough) works of his compatriots (at least those of their works presented here). Masters actually places the six Grainger pieces at the end of the CD, in effect building up to them, and he precedes them with the longest piece on the disc by far: a well-constructed piano arrangement by Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) of Delius’ In a Summer Garden. This is fragrant music by any measure, more so in its orchestral guise than as a piano piece – but nevertheless redolent in its keyboard arrangement of the colors and harmonies that make Delius’ music so distinctive. Grainger himself transcribed some Delius works for piano, and their appeal to the younger composer is clear from the juxtaposition of the Delius with Grainger’s Bridal Lullaby, which follows it on the disc and partakes of much the same sort of outdoorsy but inwardly compelling beauty. A similar connection to the outdoors comes through to pleasant effect in Colonial Song. But Grainger was and is mainly known for his rediscovery and advocacy of folk material, and the other four pieces played by Masters show why. All are very well-crafted and often quite cleverly constructed, whether Grainger is combining multiple fiddle versions of Shepherd’s Hey or mixing two apparently ill-assorted Danish folk songs in The Nightingale and the Two Sisters in a manner that makes them seem a perfect fit. Next to Grainger, the other four members of the Frankfurt Group seem a trifle pale. Roger Quilter (1877-1953) offers an evanescent Summer Evening that is more pretty than profound – which may perhaps be the intent. There is more inward feeling in the Adagio non troppo by Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950), and a sense of folk music in Gardiner’s Gavotte, but here too the music seems rather restrained and even a touch superficial. The pieces by Cyril Scott (1879-1970) are varied in their effect: Lento was actually inspired by a work by Grainger, and Cherry Ripe features some interesting harmonies, but neither they nor Scott’s other works have much heft or depth. The Deux Petites Pièces by Norman O’Neill (1875-1934) are simple and pleasant, emotionally rather vapid, and on the whole pretty much forgettable. It certainly seems, on the strength of this well thought out and very well played recording, that Grainger deserves to be significantly better-known than his Frankfurt Group compatriots – and that Delius did indeed have a noticeable compositional influence on the entire group.
The 20th-century Polish composers on a new MSR Classics CD did not a form a “group” except in the most general sense: that of having similar ethnicity in a similar time period. But it is interesting to hear the sensibilities that they shared – and did not share – when writing trios (and one quartet) for wind instruments. The only name here that will likely be familiar to most listeners is that of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), and his Trio (1945) is characteristic of his style: angular, strongly rhythmic and written with a sure understanding of the capabilities of the instruments. The dissonances here are mild, as are the emotions the music evokes, with the playful concluding Rondo having more character than the other two movements. The 1937 Trio by Antoni Szałowski (1907-1973) is in four movements, as is the 1953 Trio for Reeds by Władysław Walentynowicz (1902-1999). Both are shorter than Lutosławski’s work despite having an extra movement, and both embrace a kind of suite-like structure in which individual movements are on the stylized side: there is a Gavotte in the Szałowski, while the Walentynowicz includes both “In Waltz Time” and a brief, decidedly upbeat concluding “Merry March.” Both these trios are in the main strongly tonal – the one by Walentynowicz sounds like a deliberate throwback to earlier times – and both use the winds idiomatically and to very pleasant effect. Also on the CD are two sets of variations for flute, clarinet and bassoon, one from 1950 by Wawrzyniec Żuławski (1916-1957) and one from 1967 by Janina Garścia (1920-2004). The first of these handles a chorale-like theme with sensitivity and skill, while the second starts with a lighter and more dissonant basic theme and gives each instrument several opportunities to shine. As for the quartet on this disc, the 1956 Divertimento by Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981), it consists of five very short movements, each lasting only one to one-and-a-half minutes. Much of this is stop-and-start music, and most of the material is played by one or two of the instruments rather than by the group as a whole. This gives the work a somewhat rarefied feeling, and the use of dissonance and high-register writing, especially for flute, produces a more “modern” impression than comes from the other pieces on this disc. The members of Sonora Winds do a top-flight job with all the music on the CD, and hearing them explore this largely unfamiliar repertoire is a major pleasure of the recording. The actual pieces, though, are somewhat insubstantial and unlikely to have a strong attraction for a general audience – although people who are themselves wind players will find a great deal of interest in this rediscovery of mostly undiscovered 20th-century Polish music.
Michael G. Cunningham: Prisms; Polyphonies; Piano Sonata, Op. 33; Images; Phases; Statements; Concertant; Triple Sonata; Terzett; Scenario; Noetical Rounds. Students of the Indiana University School of Music. Navona. $14.99.
Kirk O’Riordan: Four Beautiful Songs; Autumn Winds; Prayer Stones; Beautiful Nightmares. Holly Roadfeldt, piano; Ann Moss, soprano; Peter Dutilly, viola. Ravello. $14.99.
Michael G. Cunningham (born 1937) and Kirk O’Riordan (born 1968) are of different generations and have different sensibilities as composers. Yet they utilize many of the same musical tools and structures to communicate their thoughts in chamber music, as new Navona and Ravello releases show. Interestingly, although Cunningham is significantly older than Riordan, he composed the works on the new disc when he was younger: the CD commemorates his residency at Indiana University School of Music from 1969 to 1973, and consists entirely of live performances dating to that pre-digital era. So these are Cunningham’s musical thoughts when he was in his 30s – while the Riordan disc includes works written in 2012 and later, reflecting his approach in his 40s.
Prisms, the earliest-recorded Cunningham work (1969), features a string trio delving into fairly straightforward-for-its-time dissonance and tone clusters. Polyphonies, the first of four works here that were recorded in 1970, is more interesting: it is for xylophone, tom-toms, bass drum, cymbals, and timpani, and explores the sonorities of this mixed-percussion section effectively and in brief (about three minutes). Piano Sonata, Op. 33, returns to the sound world of Prisms, one that has been employed by so many composers in so many ways that it was already somewhat passé by this time. Images, for violin, cello and bass, sounds somewhat self-consciously “modern” but includes some interesting contrasts between the highest and lowest string ranges. Phases is even more interesting in sonic terms, being written for bass clarinet and harp – the musical material is not particularly substantial, but the aural combination is intriguing. The next three works on the CD were recorded in 1971. Statements, for trombone and piano, contrasts a mostly chordal piano part with trombone statements that bear little relationship to it. Concertant is for brass quintet – two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba – and has a certain verve and unselfconscious display-piece structure. Triple Sonata, at 12 minutes the longest work on the disc, is a meandering four-movement work for flute, clarinet and piano, whose quiet slow movement makes the best effect. Terzett, recorded in 1972, is a piece for three horns that seems to go on longer than its three-and-a-half minutes: it just does not have much to say, although it seems challenging enough to perform. Scenario, recorded in 1973, is interestingly experimental, calling for a conductor and five players who perform on multiple instruments. It is a work of some theatricality, labeled as a “Prelude and 4 Scenes,” that opens with an extended passage for bells before delving into a variety of percussion sounds that are mixed to sometimes intriguing, sometimes arbitrary effect. The final work on the CD is out of order in terms of recording: it is another from 1971. It is called Noetical Rounds and is performed on violin, oboe, marimba, and bass. This is another piece showing Cunningham’s interest in experimenting with instrumental combinations at this point in his career, and is another case in which he does so effectively. However, the work seems written for effect rather than in an attempt to communicate anything in particular to an audience. Like several other pieces here, it seems designed to engage performers more than listeners: Cunningham uses the tools of arrhythmic atonality skillfully, and throws in a surprise or two (such as ending Noetical Rounds with a descending glissando), but the music sounds mostly gestural rather than emotive.
Emotion, however, is the primary concern both of O’Riordan’s songs and of his instrumental pieces on the Ravello disc. There is, however, something a bit “meta” about Riordan’s approach, as is clear in the title of the first of the Four Beautiful Songs, “Ode on ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’” The text (for all four songs) is by Lee Upton. Keats’ poem is a contemplation of beauty and mortality, so Upton is contemplating a contemplation, and doing so, in O’Riordan’s setting, in a rather intense and somewhat screechy vocal manner – above, at the start and on a recurring basis, a very quickly flowing piano part that is far from contemplative. The underlying musical language here is not much different from Cunningham’s of decades earlier, but O’Riordan uses his forces differently. His dissonances are insistent and often dramatic, and he often puts piano, soprano and viola more at odds with each other than in any sort of concerted combination. These are not particularly short songs, ranging in length from four to more than five minutes, but O’Riordan uses their length to accentuate and stretch out the words, not to provide instrumental episodes during which listeners might contemplate what they have heard vocally. “The Age of Beauty” is mostly slow-paced; “Even If,” also moderately paced, features some attractive use of the viola with the voice; and “The Blouse” features the clearest vocal writing, almost a narration, in a piece about being rejected and not quite knowing why. Despite the overall title, these songs are not particularly beautiful either musically or in their topics; indeed, the cycle’s title is presumably ironic. Not so the title Autumn Winds. This cycle, for soprano and piano, offers 15 haiku by Matsuo Basho, each of them including and briefly exploring an aspect of the two words of the title. This is a very intriguing poetic conceit that invites a composer to create very different music for each short poem, reflecting the differing aspects of the winds and the season. O’Riordan does not quite rise to that challenge, though, apparently seeing the material differently. There is a certain sameness to the musical treatment of all 15 pieces here, which makes some sense for contemplating the bleak aspects of autumn but not specifically for thinking about the season’s winds. Individual poems’ emphases are certainly different: one, for example, is called “Spiders,” and the final three all have the noun “grave” in their titles. But there is something somnolent about this season and its winds in O’Riordan’s settings: the winds may blow and produce unsettling events, but the music soon becomes, if not repetitious, largely the same in effect. This CD also includes two instrumental works, Prayer Stones for piano and viola and Beautiful Nightmares for piano solo. The first of these is quiet, contemplative, meditative and often gently lyrical, its musical language quite different from O’Riordan’s in the songs (and from Cunningham’s). The use of the viola’s lower register is especially effective here, and the overall somewhat soporific nature of the piece is justified by its title – although some of its effects, such as the meditative “tinkling” from time to time on the piano, are rather too obvious. Beautiful Nightmares has a very intriguing title but less-interesting execution: it is a serial piece, a bit of homage to Schoenberg, but considerably more delicate and emotionally attractive than serialism or nightmares tend to be. The performers handle all this music with skill and enthusiasm, with pianist Holly Roadfeldt seeming especially well tuned into O’Riordan’s sound world and expressive interests. The overall impression of the recording is of a composer seeking emotional connection through fairly straightforward contemporary compositional techniques, but finding it only irregularly and inconsistently.
February 06, 2020
Beethoven: Complete Edition. Naxos. $129.99 (90 CDs).
The proliferation of recordings of Beethoven’s music in acknowledgment of the 250th anniversary of his birth is scarcely a surprise. Equally unsurprising, under the circumstances, is the comparative abundance of more-or-less “complete” recordings of Beethoven’s works. What is a surprise is just how high-quality these “complete” releases are, and, in one particular case, how incredible a value a “Beethoven Edition” can be.
The 90-disc Naxos collection called Beethoven: Complete Edition is in some senses no surprise at all: Naxos has a tremendously deep and broad catalogue of releases spanning many decades, so assembling a Beethoven box from existing material is not as difficult as it would be for other firms. For example, the company has not one but two versions of the complete music to Egmont, the first with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd and recorded in 2003/2007, and the second (the one used in this boxed set) with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam and recorded in 2018. Furthermore, Naxos has enough agreements with musicians worldwide so that it had a comparatively easy way of filling in the relatively small number of missing short pieces needed to complete a release of various parts of Beethoven’s oeuvre. And for filling in a few larger pieces that it would be impractically expensive to produce just for this release, Naxos has agreements with other companies, notably Brilliant Classics, for use, in this special context, of their existing performances.
Nevertheless, the uniformly high quality of the musicianship throughout this release, coupled with the extraordinary price of $1.44 per disc (and that is the undiscounted price: discounts may be available), makes the Naxos “complete” Beethoven edition as close to a must-have as it can be for classical-music lovers, no matter how many versions of the more-familiar works by Beethoven they already have in their collections.
Naxos used to produce multi-CD offerings that it called “White Boxes,” for projects such as Bruckner’s complete symphonies conducted by Georg Tintner and Mozart’s symphonies conducted by Nicholas Ward and Barry Wordsworth. The clean, attractive look of those earlier “complete” boxes has been carried through and improved for the Beethoven edition, making it good-looking enough to merit display on its own, even somewhere apart from the rest of a listener’s collection. The preponderance of white on the box is reminiscent of the look of Google’s home page, and the box’s design subtleties are carried through the whole set. On the outside, the words “Complete Edition” appear with their letters in seven different colors – the same colors used for the CD sleeves inside, the labels on the individual CDs, and the color-coded inner box lid, which has one color apiece for music designated “Orchestral,” “Concerto,” “Keyboard,” “Chamber” (the largest category, a fact that may surprise some listeners), “Stage,” “Choral,” and “Vocal.” Although a box like this one, made entirely of paper and cardboard, may not be super-durable, it should last a long time if handled gingerly and with the respect the production and the music deserve. And the use of these materials is part of what makes the remarkably low cost of the enterprise possible.
Naxos’ handling of ancillary material is also intelligent and cost-effective at the same time. The 136-page booklet is mainly devoted to giving the timings, performer names, recording dates and prior-release information about the music. There are no sung texts or translations – instead, those are available online, and that is a thoroughly reasonable if admittedly occasionally frustrating approach. Also reasonable but occasionally frustrating is the sole essay in the booklet, a 30-pager that manages to be both skimpy and repetitious but is nevertheless a satisfactory overview of the material. Naxos has not so much “cut corners” in this set as it has found ways to offer a high-quality, attractive box of most of Beethoven’s music at an exceptional price.
That “most of” is more accurate than the word “complete” that appears on the box. It is only fair to note that there are quite a few omissions from the set, albeit in most cases minor ones such as variants of songs or fragments of movements. A few pieces, though, are notable by their absence. Missing is the sketch for the first movement of Symphony No. 10, which was recorded as long ago as 1989 (conducted by Walter Weller). Also omitted is the sketch of the first movement of what would have become Piano Concerto No. 6, recorded recently by Sophie-Mayuko Vetter and conducted by Peter Ruzicka. And there is no performance here of the original panharmonicon version of Wellington’s Victory – although the fact that none of Mälzel’s instruments survived World War II makes hearing that version only a dream.
However, the point of this set is not what is missing but what is included – and with what quality. And it is the nearly universal excellence of the performances here, both of the great music and of the not-so-great, that makes this set so distinguished even apart from its price. The great-and-familiar material is certainly well done. The symphonies are played by the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia conducted by Béla Drahos. As the ensemble’s name indicates, this is a group more suited to Haydn than one would expect it to be to Beethoven, but it is one whose size is closer to what Beethoven would generally have had available for his symphonies than is the size of a modern symphony orchestra. Thus, hearing not only the Haydnesque works (Nos. 1 and 2) but also the larger-scale ones (up to and including No. 9) with this group provides a perspective that is intriguing and not often available when listening to Beethoven. The piano concertos and sonatas are a bit more of a mixed bag, because the performers differ from work to work – resulting in a lack of consistency in approach that is the single biggest criticism that can be leveled at this release. In the concertos, the early work in E-flat (sometimes called “No. 0”) features Martin Galling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl-August Bünte, and this is a charming reading despite the oddity that the finale, whose theme is one of Beethoven’s most delightful, is here marked Allegro, ma non troppo, rather than the correct Allegretto. Concertos Nos. 1-5 are nicely played by Stefan Vladar and Capella Istropolitana conducted by the aforementioned Barry Wordsworth. The piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto features Jenő Jandó with Drahos and his ensemble – and for the Triple Concerto, Jandó and Drahos are joined by violinist Dong-Suk Kang and cellist Maria Kliegel, the latter being especially noteworthy whenever she appears in these recordings. Also noteworthy is the excellent Takako Nishizaki, who is the soloist in the Violin Concerto with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Jean – a 1988 recording that still holds up very well.
Clearly there is something of a potpourri feeling to this Beethoven collection because of the multiplicity of performers. Thankfully, the piano sonatas are offered in numerical order – not everything here is arranged with equal simplicity – but although Jandó performs most of them, the well-known Nos. 8 (“Pathétique”), 21 (“Waldstein”), and 32 are played by Boris Giltburg, whose approach is equally satisfactory but generally more emotive and less percussive than Jandó’s. And the less-known piano sonatas outside the canonical sequence of 32, along with various other pieces, are played by still other pianists, including Sergio Gallo, Carl Petersson, Larry Weng, and Ian Yungwook Yoo. There is also some noticeable variability of sound quality – no surprise in light of the fact that the recordings collected here were mostly made over a 30-plus-year time period, between 1987 and 2019, with a few dating back to a time even before the advent of digital recording, such as the early Piano Concerto No. “0” from a 1968 performance. Despite all this, the sonic environment is never less than satisfactory, and in most of the newer recordings it is excellent.
When it comes to chamber music, again the performances are quite fine despite being spread among different artists. Outstanding here are Kliegel and pianist Nina Tichman, who play the six cello sonatas as well as three sets of variations, one based on a selection from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus and two taken from arias in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Kliegel and Tichman are joined by violinist Ida Bieler to make up the Xyrion Trio for the Piano Trios, which are consistently excellent. And the String Quartets are well-handled by the Kodály Quartet (which, however, uses two different violists). The String Quintets are played by the Fine Arts Quartet with Gil Sharon as additional viola, and the Violin Sonatas are handled (very adeptly) by Nishizaki and Jandó. It is difficult to keep track of just who is playing what piece without a scorecard of sorts – and this shows the wisdom of Naxos’ booklet design, which very clearly indicates who is performing what specific track on every CD. Listeners will quickly note that the less-known pieces, including some world première recordings of juvenilia and rediscovered items, are often handled by different musicians from those who play more-familiar works for the same instruments.
Because nearly all these CDs are re-releases in new packaging, their sequencing can lead to some presentation oddities that listeners need to accept for full enjoyment of this substantial set. For instance, it would be reasonable to expect the four overtures to Fidelio to appear on the same disc, but they do not – and they are in fact difficult to find. Nos. 1 and 3 are in the “Orchestral” section, performed by the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stephen Gunzenhauser. To find No. 2 and the Fidelio overture, one must turn to the “Stage” section and the two operas there: Fidelio in its familiar form (1814) and its earlier incarnation as Leonore (1805), which is one of the most unusual offerings in the entire set and predates the era of digital recording – it features Staatskapelle Dresden under Herbert Blomstedt and was recorded in 1976 (this is one of the items originally released on Brilliant Classics).
Most of the unfamiliar material sprinkled throughout the 90 CDs is far less consequential than the complete Leonore, but the lesser pieces often shed new light on Beethoven and humanize him in the process. For example, his Op. 109, the monumental “Hammerklavier” sonata (No. 29), contrasts strikingly with Op. 107, a set of national variations for flute and piano, and Op. 108, a group of Scottish songs – one set among many written to words in various languages and intended for amateur performance. Beethoven was not exactly happy about being commissioned to write such material, but he did, after all, need money, and hearing what he created on this level is revelatory even though the music is not. Indeed, there are a lot of small-scale songs in the “Vocal” section of this release, and there is something delightful in hearing Beethoven’s setting of Auld Lang Syne.
It is worth remembering that Beethoven, in addition to being a towering genius who was largely responsible for ushering in the Romantic era in music, was an occasional composer – that is, he often wrote material for specific occasions, and some of it was decidedly pedestrian. Even such pieces gain new insight in this collection. For example, Wellington’s Victory has become popular as an orchestral showpiece, but it is virtually unknown in its piano version (which Petersson plays with relish). And Das glorreiche Augenblick (“The Glorious Moment”), intended to celebrate the Congress of Vienna’s attempt to return Europe to pre-Napoleonic status, is almost never heard today; the same is true of the cantatas on the death of Emperor Joseph II and the accession of Emperor Leopold II. Also, although The Creatures of Prometheus is at least occasionally performed as a complete work in its orchestral form, it, like Wellington’s Victory, has a piano version that is nearly unknown (Warren Lee performs it in this set).
Naxos’ “complete” Beethoven mixes the fascinating with the frustrating. Musically, there is a preponderance of the former. Organizationally, there are periodic irritations to which listeners simply have to adjust. The booklet occasionally puts Beethoven’s name before a specific piece for no discernible reason – probably those instances are typesetting carryovers from the original recordings. Listeners who already own certain Naxos discs may find their contents incorporated into this collection but spread around differently here from the way they were originally collected, perhaps leading to some confusion: for instance, the six tracks of Yoo’s CD of piano variations (Naxos 8.572160) show up on three separate discs here (Nos. 27, 28 and 30); and the wind music originally on Naxos 8.573942 is also on three separate CDs (Nos. 59, 61 and 62). Labeling is not always correct in this compilation: for example, one CD (No. 47) says that “tracks 1-18” date to 1993, but the disc has only eight tracks; another (No. 26) refers to tracks "12-15" but has only 14 tracks. Also, the “overview” essay states that the Appassionata sonata (No. 23) was “completed in 1905” rather than 1805, while the listing for disc 31 gives the dates of the four-hand sonata, Op. 6, as "1896-97" rather than 1796-97. And so on – there are little errors and inelegances like these throughout. But this is a monumental project and, on the whole, a remarkably successful undertaking. Given the multiple sources from which these recordings are drawn, and the very large number of pieces of music included, it is scarcely shocking that there are occasional mistakes and slip-ups, even if ideally there would be none. What is quite surprising is that there are so few of them, and that the ones that do appear have so minor an effect on the overall quality of the production and of the release as a whole. What Naxos calls Beethoven: Complete Edition may not be complete and may not offer anything truly revelatory either in the well-known music or in the tidbits and trifles peppered throughout. But it is an exceptional bit of one-stop shopping for the music, from the highly familiar to the almost totally unknown, of a giant of the music world, whose birth 250 years ago is entirely deserving of the tributes now being offered. And this specific tribute is one of which Naxos can certainly be proud.
Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Emily Newton, Michaela Kaune and Ashley Thouret, sopranos; Iris Vermillion and Mihoko Fujimura, altos; Brenden Patrick Gunnell, tenor; Markus Eiche, baritone; Karl-Heinz Lehner, bass; Tschechischer Philharmonischer Chor Brno, Slowakischer Philharmonischer Chor Bratislava, Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund, and Dortmunder Philharmoniker conducted by Gabriel Feltz. Dreyer Gaido. $29.99 (2 SACDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Manuela Uhl, Polina Pastirchak and Fatma Said, sopranos; Katrin Wundsam, mezzo-soprano; Katharina Magiera, alto; Neal Cooper, tenor; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone; Peter Rose, bass; Choir of the Städtischer Musikverein zu Düsseldorf, Philharmonischer Chor Bonn, Kartäuserkantorie Köln, Clara-Schumann-Jugendchor Düsseldorf, and Düsseldorfer Symphoniker conducted by Adam Fischer. Avi. $17.99.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 attained its famous sobriquet after the composer led the first performance, on September 12, 1910, with a complement of 1,008 musicians and singers. Yet even that number would not be enough in the future, Mahler suggested: he preferred that the two harps be doubled and suggested that in very large halls, the first player in each woodwind section should be doubled and the number of strings increased. But then what to do in smaller halls and less-grandiose circumstances? The composer left no suggestions on that topic and would perhaps not have approved of the work being played in any venue that could not accommodate a thousand or more performers. That has left some very basic decision-making about this gigantic symphony/cantata to conductors and to producers of concerts and recordings. Two excellent new versions of the symphony make very different decisions about it – and, in testimony to just how transcendent this music is, both lead to highly convincing and deeply moving performances that nevertheless differ in fundamental ways.
Gabriel Feltz’s recording on Dreyer Gaido uses the lesser complement of performers, “only” about 300, as befits a release assembled from live performances at Konzerthaus Dortmund. The acoustics of the hall are such that the sound of the work is remarkably full, and the engineering of the two-SACD set provides depth and clarity that further refine the overall auditory experience. It was not really necessary to spread the release onto two discs: Feltz’s pacing brings the symphony in at about 82 minutes, and quite a few recent recordings have been released of that length or longer without any diminution of audio quality (the elimination of the unnecessary applause at the work’s very end would have reduced the time a bit as well). Be that as it may, Feltz offers a magisterial performance with exceptional attention to the thematic unity that Mahler brought to a work whose two parts are, on the surface, as different as they can possibly be. By using and reusing themes from the opening Veni, creator spiritus in the Schlußszene aus “Faust,” Mahler draws attention to the way in which the creative spirit permeates this entire work and also inspires (literally “breathes into”) both the ninth-century hymn and the 19th-century work of Goethe. Feltz gets the grandeur (and, in truth, the grandiosity) of this conception exactly right, and the combination of motivic connections with especially strong attention to the portions of the work using massed voices results in a performance whose beauty is that of a cantata/oratorio on a massive scale. Feltz certainly knows how to bring forth the effect of his choruses: the utter silences of this performance punctuate it elegantly, and the almost-silences are particularly impressive, notably when the chorus barely emerges for the first time in the work’s second part (a technique Mahler first used in his “Resurrection” symphony). The very last chorus, with its celebration of a mystical union of souls with the Virgin Mary – called not only “the eternal feminine” by Goethe and Mahler but also “goddess,” a decidedly nontraditional appellation that is at variance with accepted Christian thinking – crowns this performance with the resounding magnificence that Mahler sought, even using less than one-third the complement of musicians he called for and himself used.
Adam Fischer’s recording on the Avi label is a bit faster-paced – 77 minutes on a single disc – and uses far more performers than Feltz’s, nearly 600. Yet this is a more-ethereal reading than Feltz’s. Fischer focuses not on Mahler’s ability to generate enormous levels of sound but on his skill, so evident in other symphonies, for creating delicate, chamber-music-like effects through use of individual instruments, or small groups of them, within an overall very large force. Fischer’s choruses enunciate more clearly than do Feltz’s, and when individual voices are called for within choruses or between them, those sections are very distinct indeed. The same is true of purely instrumental portions of the symphony: the instrumental interlude in the first movement is exceptionally well-handled here, as is the truly lovely strings-and-harp section in the second movement, just before the words Dir, der Unberührbaren. Like Feltz’s, Fischer’s release is assembled from several live performances – mounting this symphony as a studio recording is quite unusual nowadays, given the sheer scale of the requirements – and Fischer seems energized by the perfectly quiet audience in indefinable but somehow clear ways. The solo voices here are somewhat lighter than those used by Feltz – Fischer even chooses a mezzo-soprano instead of one of the two altos Mahler calls for – but far from detracting from the seriousness of the musical message, the comparative lightness produces a clearer and more-direct sense of communication with the audience than in Feltz’s grander and broader conception. The very end of the symphony in the two performances is indicative of the different approaches: Feltz builds to a final chorus that sweeps over the audience and carries it and the music into a flood of emotion; Fischer focuses strongly on the instrumental section immediately before the last chorus, producing an effect that is genuinely magical, but the chorus itself is somewhat more matter-of-fact than under Feltz – it is heartfelt, yes, but in a way that is perhaps more human and less heavenly. Feltz’s overall pacing is likely closer to Mahler’s in 1910: that performance reportedly ran 85 minutes. But Fischer’s brisker tempos never seem rushed, and they make the symphony appear, if anything, more eager to communicate its message of overwhelming and unending heavenly bliss and the ultimate acceptance of wer immer strebend sich bemüht (“whoever always strives and aspires”). Lovers of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” will not go wrong with either of these recordings – or both. They show quite clearly just how astonishing is the communicative power of this amazing (and in some ways very strange) symphony-that-is-more-than-a-symphony. And they show that in very different ways and with very different-sized complements of performers. Neither of these releases is the “Symphony of a Thousand” by numerical count, but both connect quite clearly with the intent that led Mahler to put together so gigantic an assemblage for the work’s première.