September 24, 2020

(++++) PICTURE IT!

Calendars (page-a-day for 2021): Cats; You Had One Job! Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.

     So many of the visuals of 2020 have been horrifying and alarming that it is quite understandable to look for far more calming, or amusing, pictures for 2021. While those may not be available through traditional news channels or the Internet – those sources feed on harm, hurt, and horror – there is a way to be sure that every day of the new year has something pictorial about it that is relaxing or amusing. Or both. Simply get a calendar that offers suitably cute and/or funny and/or wry pictures for every day of the year – one per day for weekdays, plus one per weekend. A perfect choice of this type is Cats, and never mind the fact that cat pictures and cat memes already permeate the online world. Those don’t stay still long enough to be appreciated, and they require searching, tapping, pointing, clicking, and other ways to find them – plus, there is always another one out there that might be funnier, sillier, or odder than the one you just saw, so you have to search for it, and that can all too easily turn into a “never-ending story” of looking for who-knows-what, who-knows-where, to the exclusion of doing who-knows-what-else. No, the page-a-day-calendar approach is superior when it comes to Cats. You simply remove the previous page and find a new example of felinity to enjoy and contemplate for the day. Some pages are wordless and, for that very reason, especially calming, such as one showing a lovely, white-pawed longhair with front feet on a log, looking off to its left (the right side of the calendar page) with a typically feline mixture of curiosity and indifference; or one showing two hefty specimens, one off-white and one black, next to each other, their heads turned toward one another just enough to define personal space vs. shared space. But many other pages include human comments of some sort to go with the feline photos. One cat looks directly upward, as if peering out of the page, on which Rod McKuen’s words are given: “There has never been a cat who couldn’t calm me down by walking slowly past my chair.” Another cat, in a prone position with front paws outstretched, has bright blue eyes that look out of the page; here the words are by Joseph Méry: “God made the cat to give man the pleasure of stroking a tiger.” And then there is the frowning cat that gets a perfectly apt comment from Elizabeth Peters: “There is no creature better at delicate rudeness than a cat.” But the comment that sums up all the reasons for using the Cats calendar as an alternative to pervasive online and on-screen negativity goes with a photo of a rather plump orange-and-white cat with a slightly quizzical look. The words are from Marie Helvin: “To be honest, the reason I have my cats is to force myself to think about something other than myself.” There you go!

     Or perhaps here you go, to the 2021 version of the calendar called You Had One Job! Photos are the point here as well, as is amusement, but very little of the funny stuff is as mean-spirited as you are likely to encounter in everyday on-screen visuals. Each page of this calendar is a photo, taken somewhere-or-other in the world, of a job that has not quite been done as it should have been. One page shows a road lane ending, with an arrow showing what direction to drive in and the word “MREGE.” Well, not exactly a word – which is the whole point. Spelling seems to be a problem in a lot of places, such as the snack-food label offering “Choocolatey Sunlfower Seeds,” the disposal container with the sign saying “This Dumpter for Tenants Only,” and the display of ducks in a children’s counting book that illustrates the word “Seveteen.” Calendars themselves, although not this one, are known to be a bit off from time to time: one page here shows a month containing March 29 twice in a row, and another displays Saturday, May 223. And speaking of numbers, there is a temperature- display graph that goes up from 69, to 73, to 80, and then up to 66. Elsewhere, there is a supermarket sign saying “Personal Watermelons” at a display of pineapples, and a cake decorated with the word “Suprize” (well, almost a word). One crafts store is selling a “Harnging Frame,” and another shop offers something labeled “Fragle.” Getting to either store could be complicated if you take the road with the words “POTS” painted on it, and going in could be difficult if you follow the sign reading “ADMISSNOIS.” Of course, you could always park just outside, in the spot labeled “RESEAVED,” once you get past the big truck displaying a warning sign about its “OVERZSIZED LOAD.” The point of all this is that people, companies, even machines make all sorts of mistakes all the time – even individuals who enjoy page-a-day calendars surely make one occasionally. There is something refreshing in starting each new day with a look at an error that is probably meaningless in the grand scheme of things, probably more evident than any mistake you yourself are likely to make at any given time, and just amusing enough to counter all the very definitely unfunny things to which you are likely to be exposed and subjected throughout 2021 – although there will hopefully be far fewer hyper-serious worries, troubles and traumas than there have been in 2020.


Escape from a Video Game 1: The Secret of Phantom Island. By Dustin Brady. Illustrations by Jesse Brady. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Escape Book: Mystery Island. By Stéphane Anquetil. Illustrations by Marcel Pixel. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Soul Riders 2: The Legend Awakens. By Helena Dahlgren. Translated from Swedish by Tara Chace. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

     There is no question that video games lose something when translated to book form: they lose the video and all the motion and interactivity associated with it. But there is also no question that the temptation to expand games into the world of books appears well-nigh irresistible – the problem being to figure out how to retain the essence of the gaming world while offering readers at least a somewhat similar experience and, if possible, giving them things to do that are different from video-game interactivity but just as enjoyable. One way to do this is to turn games into pick-your-path books, such as the first volume in Jesse Brady’s Escape from a Video Game series, The Secret of Phantom Island. There is nothing particularly innovative about the format here: you read a page of text, come to a multiple-choice option at the bottom, pick one of the possibilities, and turn to that option’s indicated page. Then you may advance in the story, go down a blind alley, or die – video-game die, that is, meaning you lose a life and get sent back to somewhere earlier. In fact, the book offers three “difficulty levels,” with “easy” giving infinite lives, “medium” giving 10, and “hard” offering five. There are, of course, none of the special effects associated with succeeding or failing in an actual video game, but The Secret of Phantom Island tries to make up for them (or some of them) by a complicated-but-silly, convoluted plot: the whole book starts with “back story” that then turns out to be the story in which the reader is participating. It is a pretty typical good-vs.-evil-on-a-mysterious-island tale, with narrative that includes the occasional hand-written letter or other video-game-style found object to move the quest along. The writing is not exactly profound: “You grab the vine and shimmy until you reach a greenhouse. What’s the purpose of an underground greenhouse, anyway? There’s no sun down here. That’s a super question that you’d probably investigate were you not busy trying to keep down your lunch. This greenhouse stinks…” After a couple of paragraphs of this, you get to choose whether to escape by going through a hole or by climbing one of three vines: green, blue or yellow. Each option, of course, leads to a different page and a different tangle (so to speak) in the story. And to up the complexity level a bit, the book includes a sort-of “Easter egg” in the form of a series of “secret letters” that show up at every point of achievement. The idea is to beat the game, then go back, find each ending, record all the secret letters, and use them with a back-of-the-book code that “unlocks” an entirely new story, which can be found online. This is actually a pretty good print-medium adaptation of standard video-game features, although it does not really provide readers with an experience comparable to the one they would get as gamers. Still, video-game lovers who for some reason find themselves unable to play electronically and who have access to The Secret of Phantom Island will get enough enjoyment from this first episode in Escape from a Video Game so that they may even look forward to the next one.

     And what is it, exactly, about islands in video games and in the books derived from or resembling them? Presumably “island” equals “isolation” and therefore allows authors and game developers to present a self-contained world within which adventures take place – with no hope of outside assistance or worry about outside interference. Stéphane Anquetil’s Mystery Island is shorter and less intricate than The Secret of Phantom Island, and the story is more straightforward even though it uses the same choose-your-path approach. The idea is that the reader (presumably a younger reader than for The Secret of Phantom Island) is stranded on a volcanic island and must figure out how to get away before the volcano erupts. There are specific “Rules of the Game” that, in fact, are called just that. There is a map showing locations on the island, each designated by a multiple of 10 (that is, 10, 20, 30, 40 and so on); when you get to one place, you can choose which of several others to try to reach next. There are objects to be found in various locations, as is common in video games; the reader must keep an inventory of found objects, since there is no way to have that done automatically and electronically in a book. Objects can be used individually – or combined with other objects, according to rules set forth in a table. And the idea is to focus on getting from place to place until eventually reaching a location from which you can escape the island. Oh, and to give the whole adventure a suitably piratical angle, the book includes a talking parrot named Harry, who gives the reader advice – which, however, is not always clear or particularly useful. This sort of “spirit guide” is another video-game feature adapted to book form in Mystery Island. And how well does the adaptation work? Well, that depends on how much readers like being reminded, when turning a page, to follow only the paths they have chosen. Again and again, words appear in red: “Warning! Do not keep reading unless you’ve solved a puzzle to unlock access to this area. If you haven’t, go back to where you were before.” If you do solve the various puzzles and use the various found objects correctly and are therefore able to escape, you will have “learned the power of compassion, kindness, and intelligence,” as an Epilogue explains. And that, of course, is something to celebrate – even if you end up with the same pirates with whom you started out at the book’s beginning.

     The connection between video gaming and reading is somewhat different in the Soul Riders series by Helena Dahlgren. The books in this sequence – The Legend Awakens is the second, although the legend really awoke in the first book, Jorvik Calling – tell straightforward adventure stories of four friends named Lisa, Alex, Linda and Anne, who bond not only with each other but also with four horses on the island of Jorvik. The island is magical in ways that the friends are just learning to understand as they, inevitably, discover that they have special powers and are, equally inevitably, joined mystically in some way for the purpose of protecting the world against a great evil. As usual in magical-quest books for all ages (including ones for adults), the bad guys already know how everything works, have spent decades or even centuries preparing their nefarious schemes, and have the ability to manipulate matters affecting their evil designs with great aplomb. But somehow they cannot quite outmaneuver, much less dispose of, four young girls who have no real idea of what is going on or what they themselves are doing, and who – inevitably – ended the first book by making the clearly erroneous decision to go off in four different directions instead of pursuing matters of the good and righteous by sticking together, even though they had already learned that their budding powers were magnified by use in a team context. Well, of course things go badly in this second book for the girls and their horses, or perhaps that should be “for the horses and their girls,” since the characters have equal importance here and just about equal intelligence. The whole story revolves around some kind of attempt to “free” something called Garnok, an immensely powerful evil thing that is not quite potent enough to do anything for himself (itself?) and has to rely on a malevolent man named John Sands and his horrific Sweetness and Light Corporation. No, just kidding! Of course the bad guys operate through a group called Dark Core, and are careful to display that evil-sounding name all over the place – just to be sure that any nearby good guys know where the baddies are. And, also of course, the baddies have to announce themselves and taunt the Soul Riders: “My name is Katja, but for you I will be death.” Add to all this a translation that sometimes comes across as unintentionally funny: “With eternal life he would be able to build an empire of money and power such as had never before been seen before.” And there you have The Legend Awakens. As for what all this has to do with video gaming: the Soul Riders books are derived from an online adventure game called Star Stable, which gives girls (both the game and the books are girl-focused) the chance to have horsey adventures with real-world (or at least online) friends. The Star Stable and Soul Riders worlds are clearly echoes of one another, although it is not necessary to participate in both in order to find either of them satisfactorily self-contained. Teenage girls who love horses and imagine all the adventures they could have with other riders of the same age – and who do not look too closely at the numerous plot holes and sillinesses of the Soul Riders series – will find The Legend Awakens a pleasant temporary escape from reality and a satisfying continuation of a sequence that is satisfactorily engaging, if scarcely very original.


Bruch: Symphonies Nos. 1-3; “Hermione”—Prelude, Funeral March and Entr’acte; “Die Loreley”—Overture; “Odysseus”—Prelude. Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Robert Trevino. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     The music of Max Bruch, arch-conservative of the 19th-century musical world (indeed, pretty much self-proclaimed as such), his extremely difficult personality at odds with his own creativity as well as with the world at large, had fallen almost completely out of favor even during his own lifetime (1838-1920). Like his near-contemporary Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), Bruch clung to compositional models of the early-to-middle 19th century long after newer trends had taken over – but unlike Saint-Saëns, who continued to produce works of considerable interest as he aged (the “Organ” symphony and Carnival of the Animals when he was 51, the “Egyptian” piano concerto when he was 61), Bruch stuck pretty closely to the models of his youth as time progressed, making his work all too easy to dismiss. And that is a shame, because however prickly his personality and however deep his unwillingness to conform to what he saw as unjustifiable fads of the later 19th century, Bruch was a master melodist and a careful, knowing, often elegant orchestrator.

     These characteristics are in the forefront in Bruch’s three symphonies, which receive splendidly played and very well-paced performances on a new two-CD release from CPO that features the always excellent Bamberger Symphoniker under Robert Trevino, whose sensitivity to this music is quite exceptional for an American-born conductor. Trevino favors grandeur and comparatively slow tempos in all the Bruch works heard here, and his approach proves quite successful.

     One highlight of the set is the first-ever recording of Bruch’s Symphony No. 1 in its original, five-movement version. Bruch, like Mahler in his Symphony No. 1 (written 20 years after Bruch’s), originally planned a five-movement work, but dropped the second movement after early performances (just as Mahler discarded “Blumine”). Bruch’s five-movement First Symphony starts with a gently swelling introduction and very warmly conceived main section. The use of horns is particularly notable. The first movement builds effectively and with considerable drama combined with nicely contrasted lyricism. The second movement, the soon-to-be-dropped Intermezzo, opens with a brass chorale contrasted nicely with flowing string passages. The predominant impression is of a gentle rocking motion, and the effect is sweet even in the fanfares toward the end. The third movement, a scurrying Scherzo, is a dramatic contrast and is played particularly well here. It is playful and bright, nicely scored, with effective brass writing and some vibrant touches for flute that are distinctly Mendelssohnian. The fourth movement, Quasi Fantasia, is expansive and string-focused. Although marked Grave, it is not deeply serious: it is expressive and emotional, but more gestural than deeply heartfelt. The use of lower strings is particularly well done. Conducted very expansively by Trevino, this movement lends the symphony more gravitas than it would otherwise possess. The finale starts with quiet timpani, then an anticipatory passage that soon leads to a bright, positive section, followed by a second theme with a pleasantly flowing, almost pastoral character. The movement is marked Allegro guerriero, a designation Bruch also used in the Scottish Fantasy, but it is hard to see anything warlike in the rather sweet and gentle character of this movement. The five-movement version of this symphony is actually better balanced than the four-movement one, and inclusion of the Intermezzo brings the work to the same length (a bit under 40 minutes) as Bruch’s two other symphonies.

     Actually, in Trevino’s performances, Symphony No. 2 is the longest, although not by much. This is notable, though, because this is only a three-movement symphony – and is the only one Bruch wrote in a minor key (F minor). It has a highly dramatic start, the first movement sounding like the curtain-raiser for a tragic opera. The movement proceeds with a high level of emotion throughout, but it has a certain sense of “churn,” as if it never quite gets to a definitive point. The second movement continues the dark mood of the first. Bruch’s lyricism is in full flow here, with expansive string themes and dark-hued brass emphases. The movement unfolds broadly and expressively. The finale has the unusual tempo marking of Allegro molto tranquillo: Bruch clearly was not looking for anything triumphal or anything to contradict the mood of the other movements. The finale is played attacca after the second movement, sneaking in so gently that it is hard to know just when it starts. Despite its slightly greater speed, it has the same degree of warmth and placidity as the second movement. The mood gradually lightens as the finale progresses, with upper-woodwind touches helping balance the greater seriousness of strings and brass. The movement eventually wins through to a degree of optimism and positivity, something a bit beyond resignation – more a combination of satisfaction and acceptance.

     Symphony No. 3, in the traditional four movements, swells from the start and has rising themes in brass and winds. There is an almost operatic feeling of anticipation that leads to a cadenza-like flute passage, after which the ascending strings become ever more anticipatory. The main section of the first movement strides forward sturdily, but soon becomes slower and quieter, more thoughtful. The second movement opens as a nearly static scene of considerable beauty. The strings carry most of the mood, with brass emphasizing individual passages. Woodwind touches are expertly handled and enhance the mood. The movement, however, is somewhat more expanded than the themes can bear: its beauties are manifest but somewhat over-extended, and when it gets to its conclusion, it sounds as if it ends twice. Oddly, the first and second movements are about the same length (12 to 13 minutes), which is the length of the third and fourth put together. Partly for this reason, the symphony sounds somewhat bifurcated. The third movement contrasts strongly with the second, with a bubbly, rhythmically emphatic opening and exclamatory passages that create a mood approaching exuberance. The joviality continues throughout, even in the more-lyrical Trio, whose pleasantries are accentuated by well-considered woodwind touches that reappear, amusingly, at the very end. The fourth movement then returns to the more-somber mood of the first two, afterwards becoming propulsive in its forward momentum – and eventually becoming assertive in ways that the first two movements are not, so the symphony ends quite decisively.

     This very interesting release also includes selections from Bruch’s stage music. His first opera, Die Loreley, is represented by its overture, which is filled with Mendelssohnian themes and flow. There is very sumptuous scoring for strings, with only hints of the tragic story heard behind the lyricism. Although there are passages indicating unhappiness, that troubled feeling is expressed through music of great beauty.

     From Bruch’s second opera, Hermione, based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, there are three excerpts. The Prelude starts with almost religious first notes that then move into slow, very gradual, expansive themes, and then to an exceptionally beautiful, lyrical cantilena. The warmth of the strings is outstanding here. The Funeral March is quiet and suitably sad at the start, with effective use of pizzicato strings throughout, along with very expressive brass. Eventually the work builds to trumpet calls and a brass chorale with percussion – a section that is dramatic but somewhat overdone. Trevino also conducts a short Entr’acte that contrasts quick sections with slower and more-dramatic ones, ending with a flowing pastoral section.

     Also here is the Prelude from Bruch’s secular oratorio Odysseus, after Homer’s epic. There is quiet yearning in the strings’ middle range at the opening, likely reflecting Odysseus’ feelings because of his long-delayed return home; afterwards, the brass chorale sets a stately mood, and harp touches are repeatedly and effectively employed.

     All Bruch’s music here shows exceptional skill in thematic construction, great lyrical beauty in orchestration and presentation, and a sure sense of dramatic cohesion both in stage works and in the pure music of the symphonies. What is quite clear from this excellent release is that Bruch, however much he may have deserved to have his contemporaries turn their backs on him because of his musical conservatism and unpleasant personality, produced music of lasting beauty and lasting value. Trevino’s performances argue strongly that it is time to get past Bruch’s mixed-at-best reputation and allow more of his finely crafted music to be heard both in concert and in recorded form.


Geoffrey Allen: Sonata for bassoon and piano; Outback Sketches, for clarinet and piano; Pastorale, for bassoon and piano; Sonatina for bassoon and piano; Fantasy Trio for flute, clarinet and piano. Allan Meyer, clarinet; Michael Waye, flute; Katherine Walpole, bassoon; David Wickham, piano. Métier. $18.99.

Music for Trumpet and Piano by Jeffrey Holmes, Eric Ewazen, Anthony Plog, Joseph Turrin, Jacques Castérède, and Herbert L. Clarke. Eric Berlin, trumpet; Greg Spiridopoulos, trombone; Ludmila Krasin, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Songs for Sir John: A Tribute to Sir John Manduell. Lesley-Jane Rogers, soprano; John Turner and Laura Robinson, recorders; Richard Simpson, oboe; Benedict Holland, violin; Susie Mészáros, viola; Nicholas Trygstad, cello; Keith Swallow, piano; Richard Baker, narrator. Divine Art. $18.99.

Vanishing. Fides Krucker, vocalist; Tim Motzer, acoustic-electric guitar, electronics, bow. 1K Recordings. $15.

     Geoffrey Allen (born 1927) is one of many modern composers looking for ways to take the bassoon beyond the “clown of the orchestra” role with which it was saddled for many years after it had been used for its serious virtuoso capabilities by composers from Vivaldi to Mozart. Allen’s 1964 Sonata for bassoon and piano, Op. 9, is actually as interesting for its complex piano part as for its bassoon elements, which are comparatively straightforward mid-20th-century in sound. This is one of three bassoon-focused chamber works on a very well-played new Métier recording, and it is the earliest by far. The Pastorale and Sonatina both date to 1998 and are Nos. 1 and 2 of Allen’s Op. 34. These are not intended as particularly virtuosic works – they were written in response to a call for music suitable for high-school or slightly more-advanced performers – but both have a pleasant sound about them, and in fact both partake of pastoral elements. There is gentle rocking motion throughout the brief Pastorale, while the Sonatina has a similar first-movement texture, followed by an expressive but not overdone Adagietto and a finale whose light bounciness brings the bassoon closest to a bright and slightly comical role, albeit not without expressive passages that show the instrument’s lyrical capabilities. The bassoon-and-piano works are combined on this CD with other essays in modern wind writing by Allen. Outback Sketches, Op. 58 (2004-05) includes three impressions of Australia, where Allen, who is from Great Britain, lived for a decade and thereafter continued working through a series of appointments and projects. The three movements of this impressionistic work for clarinet and piano are Aubade, Desert Noon, and Bush Sundown. The first is soft and gentle, giving the clarinet plenty of opportunities for expressiveness. The second offers the most-effective tone painting, with a spare and dry, often piercing sound reflective of the aridity of a great deal of Australia: the whole center of the country is desert. The finale features stillness of a different, warmer kind. The whole work is slow-to-moderate in pace, giving the impression of torpidity and a kind of placid acceptance of a harsh environment. The four-movement Fantasy Trio, Op. 70 (2007) is considerably more varied. The first movement’s sensibility is close to that of the Outback Sketches, but the second is a good deal more lively, and the interplay between the two winds is handled effectively – with the piano cementing their relationship. The third movement is interestingly marked Andante di sogno, and dreamlike it is – spun out at some length, with the two wind instruments mainly going in different directions but both reflecting a kind of gently contemplative world. The finale is the most colorful and rhythmically varied movement, encompassing moods from the rhapsodic to the mildly martial, and giving the winds more chances to intermingle than they have had through much of the piece. The performers are very fine throughout this well-made recording, which contains no truly outstanding music – there is a faint, persistent feeling of having heard material much like this before – but which provides an interesting chance to hear an accomplished composer’s way of handling woodwinds in a modern chamber-music context.

     A new MSR Classics release offers insight into how six different composers handled chamber works for winds – in this case, brass instruments rather than woodwinds – over more than a century, up to the present day. The earliest work here is Cousins (1904) by Herbert L. Clarke (1867-1945), and it offers a nice blending of trumpet and trombone with the sprightly feeling of some popular music of its time. The Concertino by Jacques Castérède (1926-2014) dates to 1958 and partakes of mid-20th-century esthetics in its harmonies and the way the instruments are contrasted. The slow second movement has the sound of folk or film music, while the third features irregular rhythms, unexpected entries and a mostly jovial attitude. A later 20th-century work here is the 1999 Concertino by Anthony Plog (born 1947). This is more like a five-movement suite, with a bubbly first movement, a gently moving second with a prominent piano part, a hectic and exclamatory third, and a fourth marked Valse triste that lurches a bit too much to seem like genuine dance music. None of these movements lasts longer than two-and-a-half minutes. The finale is a touch longer, at three-and-a-half minutes, and has a kind of percolating quality to the phrases and the irregularly spaced entries of trumpet and trombone. The Fandango by Joseph Turrin (born 1947) dates to one year later than Plog’s piece (2000) and does feature some elements of the dance of its title, although much of its interest comes from the places where an instrument interrupts the music’s regular flow. The two remaining works here both date to 2012. Continuum by Jeffrey Holmes (born 1955) actually has little feeling of continuity – trumpet and trombone simply intersect from time to time, with what continuous material there is being offered mainly by the piano. The Double Concerto by Eric Ewazen (born 1954) is the largest-scale and most ambitious work on this disc. The piano actually strives for grandeur in the first movement, with trumpet and trombone playing forcefully above it. The second movement is an extended and expanded chorale for the brass, with some nicely developed lyricism. The third movement is more dissonant than the others and fits somewhat uneasily with them, and its trumpet and trombone calls are more pedestrian than the instruments’ material earlier in the work. This is nevertheless a well-developed piece that, like all the music on this nicely played and well-recorded CD, offers the chance to experience repertoire that is not often heard, by composers of some talent but without a wide-ranging reputation.

     The winds heard on a new Divine Art recording of music by no fewer than 16 composers are used in the service of a particular concept: a tribute in chamber music to Sir John Manduell (1928-2017), a well-known producer, teacher, and artistic director in Great Britain, and a composer as well. Manduell is virtually unknown in the United States in any of his roles, in all of which he functioned in the United Kingdom, and while he is famed within the music profession in Europe, he is not exactly a household name outside the music field, even there. So the CD called Songs for Sir John, although certainly well-meaning and assembled in exemplary fashion, reaches out to a very limited audience indeed. The composers themselves are scarcely household names: Robin Stevens (born 1958), Elis Pehkonen (born 1942), Martin Bussey (born 1958), Geoffrey Poole (born 1949), Sally Beamish (born 1956), Michael Ball (born 1946), David Home (born 1970), David Matthews (born 1943), Kevin Malone (born 1958), Gary Carpenter (born 1951), Peter Dickinson (born 1934), Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989), Robin Walker (born 1953), Jeremy Pike (born 1955), Nicholas Marshall (born 1942), and Naji Hakim (born 1955). To the extent that the disc has a theme – and a level of interest beyond that of tribute – it lies in the use by many of the composers of the poetry of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939),whose works were chosen because Yeats was Manduell’s favorite poet. The various Yeats settings use instruments in different ways and different combinations: Stevens and Pehkonen, for example, combine soprano with recorder, oboe, violin and cello; Bussey omits the oboe; Beamish contributes an instrumental Yeats Interlude for recorder, oboe, violin and cello; Dickinson turns to a contemporary of Yeats, James Joyce, for a work for soprano, recorder, violin and cello; Berkeley, who of course was not alive at Manduell’s death, is represented by Three Duets for Two Recorders, which are attractive and very short pieces; Walker sets Four Nursery Rhymes, which are certainly not by Yeats, for narrator, recorder and piano. The comparatively limited instrumental complement is employed skillfully by all the composers, and both the singing and the playing are very fine, although the works that stand out most clearly are the ones not using Yeats’ poetry – simply because they offer verbal coloration of a different kind. The composers’ writing for winds as well as strings is quite good throughout the disc, and even though this is scarcely a CD that will have wide appeal, it is one that offers a considerable number of well-thought-through settings that provide listeners who have a taste for modern British chamber music with the chance to hear quite a few interesting examples of it. 

     Vocals that are even more specialized, and even more of an acquired taste, are offered by the voice-and-guitar combination of Fides Krucker and Tim Motzer on a new CD from 1K Recordings. This is an hour of avowedly and straightforwardly avant-garde material, presented as six works called Scintilla, Vanishing, Ruins, Rime, Density and Eema. The phrase “straightforwardly avant-garde” is not a contradiction in terms: both the proponents of this type of music and those who do not care for it will immediately recognize the sound. Much of the vocalizing is chromatic vocalise, with Motzer’s instrumental material wending its way into, around and through Krucker’s voice. Two of the longest tracks here, Vanishing at 11½ minutes and Density at 18½, also include drums and metals, added by Jeremy Carlstedt. The entire disc has an improvised feel, as does much hyper-contemporary music – and in this case that is entirely apt, since the compositions were created spontaneously, with one participant starting something, the other reacting to it, the first re-reacting, the second re-re-reacting, and so forth. Then the entirety was, at least in some cases, re-edited and altered to enhance one or another of its effects. This is not easily describable music, occupying as it does a sound world that is closer to repetitive chant, Eastern notions of silence, and Western thinking about the “music of the spheres,” than to anything usually heard in a concert or recital. That is to say that the CD flows naturally from John Cage’s notion that silence itself is a kind of music, that a performer listening to the audience is every bit as involved in “making music” as when the same performer does something-or-other with some sound-producing item. The rhythms and sounds of Krucker and Motzer are frequently hypnotic, whether Krucker is expressing only sound units rather than meaningful words or is, as in Ruins, saying words that listeners will almost certainly find simultaneously clear and unintelligible. The disc often partakes of a minimalist aesthetic, at times reveling in the production of what are essentially sounds of emptiness, as in Rime. It also functions as “background music” of a sort, the kind of sound that one might hear faintly in an ashram, an auditory canvas inviting the absorption of thought and feeling; or, on another level, it can be an invitation to focus on a sonic experience beyond the ordinary – Density seems particularly evocative in this regard. Nevertheless, those seeking specific, defined “meaning” in these pieces will be disappointed and will miss the essential experiential point: like a great deal of avant-garde material, the offerings by Krucker and Motzer are not designed to push listeners in specific directions but to pull them, lead them, in directions of their own choosing. This CD is very definitely not a mass-market item – but it will connect with a certain specific group of listeners in definite and meaningful ways.

September 17, 2020


Calendars (page-a-day for 2021): Everything Happens for No Reason; You Might Be a Redneck If… Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.

     Given the kind of year that 2020 has been, it would seem natural for people to turn to warm, uplifting, positive-message calendars for 2021. Some people, anyway. There are plenty of others whose response to the figurative “take THAT!” coming repeatedly from events in 2020 is something along the lines of, “no, YOU take THAT!” Well, if you are one of that group, you too can find a fitting calendar to take you day by day through the new year – which, let’s face it, even the most cynical among us will be hoping to find less drama-filled and less like an ongoing horror movie than 2020 has been.

     For example, the page-a-day inspirational calendar is a mainstay of the tear-off-a-page-at-a-time format, offering some thoughtful, positive, hopeful or otherwise sunny bit of advice to help people get through the trials and tribulations of everyday life. But for those whose response to inspirational tidbits is along the lines of “yuck,” there is the Everything Happens for No Reason calendar, which proclaims itself right on the box to be “unspirational.” This is neither more nor less than a sendup – occasionally a pointed one – of the whole daily-inspiration concept. Every page has just the sort of illustration expected from a “make your life better” calendar: rainbows, majestic mountains, seashores, country roads, butterflies, and so forth. But in this calendar, the words that go with those backgrounds are the antithesis of what the backgrounds would offer in a traditional inspirational offering: “Being brave and being stupid are often the same thing.” “Ninety-nine percent of conversations are an unbelievable waste of time.” “Life is just a long stretch of anxiety interrupted by naps.” “Today is not going to change anything.” “Mondays are great because no one blames you for being in a bad mood all day.” On top of all this, some days’ comments come across as direct insults to the person turning the page: “In space, no one can hear you scream. On Earth, no one wants to hear you talk.” “Leave ambition to the people with talent.” “May all of your incoming calls be from telemarketers.” On the other hand, some comments are simply light and offbeat, and really do offer a different-from-the-usual perspective: “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy avocados, which is close!” True, a comment like that last one is not for everybody; and neither are the occasional pages on which Elan Gale, who assembled the material for this calendar, lapses into four-letter words – which are really unnecessary to make the points. Ultimately, the question for potential year-long users of the Everything Happens for No Reason calendar has to do with their reaction to the comment offered on one day of the coming year: “Looking at this calendar is probably going to be the highlight of your day.” If you have always suspected that that would be the case – on a number of days, if not all of them – then this calendar may make your passage through the year 2021 at least a bit more bearable.

     If, on the other hand, you consider yourself an example of a certain old-style, old-fashioned, old rural way of life – or wish you could be one – then the long-running You Might Be a Redneck If… calendar series has something just for you, or rather for you and creator Jeff Foxworthy (who considers himself a major-league redneck) and anyone else who remains defiantly anti-urban and proud to identify with dirt roads, tailgate parties and dead squirrels. It has to be emphasized, in the exceptionally humorless time in which we find ourselves – never more so than in 2020 – that this calendar is not to be taken seriously and not intended to insult anybody, ok? That being said, it probably will insult somebody, and that’s just fine as long as that somebody hustles his or her rear down the unpaved driveway to somewhere else. Got it? Speaking of zipping along from here to there, many pages of this calendar complete the title – that is, they fill in the rest of the sentence after the ellipsis (that’s the three dots, ok?) – with something car-related, such as “your honeymoon cruise was up and down a dirt road in a Trans Am,” and “birds are nesting in your project car,” and “you use four-wheel drive more than you use cruise control,” and “more than half of your rear windshield is obscured by bumper stickers.” But not everything here is automotive. The phrase You Might Be a Redneck If… is also completed by “you have no idea how many pets you have,” “there’s more water on your trampoline than in your pool,” “your state flower is a dandelion,” “your home is only accessible during dry weather,” “you wore a tank top to work,” “you take ketchup packets with you to nice restaurants,” and so on. Nothing here is mean-spirited, and everything is intended to be in good fun, especially of the “poking fun at yourself” variety – something of which far too many people have lost sight in recent times. If “your mosquito bites are camouflaged by your sunburn” or “you checked Facebook while on the witness stand,” or if you just imagined those possibilities and laughed at them, you may be just the sort of person who will benefit from the You Might Be a Redneck If… calendar for 2021 – the sort of down-to-earth type who thinks “pest control consists of a fly swatter and a BB gun.”


Big Nate: The Gerbil Ate My Homework. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

Little Big Nate: No Nap! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $7.99.

     Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate has been caught in a time warp for more than a quarter of a century. Big Nate is, when you think deeply about it (which you probably shouldn’t), a rather strange comic strip. Nate is a perpetual sixth-grader, either 11 or 12 years old (that has varied a little bit over the years). But he moves through a normal school-year calendar, with Peirce showing him arriving after summer, going through the usual holidays (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.), taking midterm and (eventually) final exams, and then bouncing joyously out of school and into summer vacation. But then, after some summertime hijinks, Nate goes back to school – and sixth grade starts all over again, as if the previous school year (indeed, many previous school years) never happened. This goes even beyond the usual “willing suspension of disbelief” (apologies to Coleridge) that comic strips, like other creative works, require. And it is harder to accept in some Big Nate collections than in others. The Gerbil Ate My Homework poses a particular puzzle. It opens with continuations of two stories collected previously, one involving the health emergency of art teacher Mr. Rosa and one involving Nate dating a seventh-grader named Trudy. Clearly these stories must progress through time, and so they do. Things quickly return to normal in Mr. Rosa’s class, which again exists in a kind of eternal present. But matters are more complicated with Nate and Trudy: he breaks up with her because he misses spending time with his sixth-grade friends, while she insists on doing things only with other seventh-graders. Nate’s friends do not believe he would initiate a breakup with such a good catch, but they eventually understand that he did, and Nate claims to be moving on with some newfound maturity (to which his behavior quickly gives the lie, of course). Trudy too is shown (briefly) to have moved on. But now what? Is Trudy going to be a perpetual seventh-grader and Nate’s ex? Will she transfer out of P.S. 38 so Peirce can ignore any awkwardness of keeping her around? What will happen in the future, or rather the “future present,” in which Nate lives? This gets complicated. In contrast, many of the things that happen in Big Nate are time-independent. The Gerbil Ate My Homework has a title that comes from a sequence in which Nate, who has forgotten to do homework for his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, gets the class gerbil to chew up a piece of paper so Nate can claim he did the work but the fact that it is gone is the gerbil’s fault. Nate’s friend, Francis, asks Sherman, the gerbil, “How’s it feel to be drawn into a tawdry web of lies and deceit?” And Sherman gets a thought balloon showing him thinking, “It’s a living.” That scene could happen anytime, in any of Nate’s many sixth-grade years. And so could the sequence in which Nate tries to think up alternative names for Francis, mentioning that if he had not been Nate, his name would have been Ethan. That is interesting: could it be that his name is really Nathan, with Nate being a nickname? Peirce provides no further information on that compelling topic. What he does do, here as in all the Big Nate collections, is cycle through an apparently endless series of variations on a theme, that theme being Nate’s personality and the way it interacts with those of his friends, including Francis, Teddy, and Dee Dee (who is becoming a more important part of the group); with his hapless father and teenaged older sister; and with the various denizens of P.S. 38 – principal, teachers, and classmates. Big Nate works so well precisely because so much of it is timeless. But every once in a while, time-sensitive elements such as the Mr. Rosa and Trudy stories draw a bit more attention than usual to the fact that the eternal present of the strip is really more of a Möbius strip, always circling back on itself and never giving Nate – or his fans – a chance to embrace a real-world timeline.

     Yet there is some sense in which Nate has surely progressed in time – witness Peirce’s board books for younger readers and pre-readers, featuring not-so-big Nate. The new one in this series is called Little Big Nate: No Nap! It is fun to look at this book and The Gerbil Ate My Homework side by side and see just how Peirce modifies Nate’s traditional six-grade look for toddler purposes. The same strange seven-clump hair appears at both ages, as do the semicircular ears, but Little Big Nate has a much more rounded face, almost but not quite in Charlie Brown mode. More importantly, Nate’s attitudes and fantasies have continuity between his two ages. The new Little Big Nate book appears to take place at preschool. No adults are seen, but the book starts with someone saying “Nap time, everybody!” to younger versions of Francis, Teddy and Dee Dee. “Ugh. Nate hates naps,” writes Peirce, and unhappy Nate’s scowling, one-eyed teddy bear reflects the feeling. Nate obediently lies down (as does the teddy bear) and starts to think of all the things he would like to do instead of taking a nap – each thing shown in a drawing style intended to be more or less what Little Big Nate himself would produce (just as, in the sixth-grade Big Nate books, Nate is responsible for cartoons whose style differs from the one usually employed by Peirce). So we see Nate sitting on huge piles of cookies and happily munching them, flying a kite, being a crime-fighting superhero, riding a mammoth, even walking on the moon. Then, suddenly, Nate wakes up! Yes, all that imagining, it turns out, happened while Nate had the nap that he didn’t want to have – and at the end he admits, “That was fun!” And his teddy bear, now smiling, clearly agrees. These short board books show a side of Nate that differs from the one displayed in the usual Big Nate comic strips and the books that collect them – and young kids who enjoy the board books will presumably, at some point, be drawn into the adventures of an older Nate. The question remains, though: at what point did Little Big Nate morph into Big Nate, and at what point did Big Nate enter into the endless circle (or Möbius strip) that represents his sixth-grade life? There is probably a deep philosophical explanation of all this somewhere out there, but readers – both of the Little Big Nate board books and the Big Nate collections – will most likely be too busy enjoying Peirce’s productions to search hard for the answer. Besides, the gerbil probably ate it.

(++++) 20 FINGERS, 88 TO 176 KEYS

Rachmaninoff: Complete Music for Piano Duo. Genova & Dimitrov Piano Duo (Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov). CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Rachmaninoff – composer, conductor and famously virtuosic pianist – produced an amazing amount of wonderful and largely unknown music for two pianists, either playing separate instruments or performing on one piano, four hands. The neglect of this material seems both impossible to understand and perfectly comprehensible in light of the superb new CPO recording in which the Genova & Dimitrov Piano Duo present all of it. The impossibility of understanding comes from the fact that these pieces span Rachmaninoff’s entire compositional life, from his student days until his very last major work: it seems simply unconscionable that these pieces are not better-known. But the neglect becomes perfectly understandable through listening to this remarkable release: these are exceptionally difficult works to play, and it requires pianists who are not only virtuoso performers but also in perfect accord as to the handling of this music to put it across successfully. How many piano duos are there that can do this?

     Thank goodness there is at least this one. The near-intuitive way in which Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov present this music is simply wonderful to hear: the performances reach beyond exceptional to the level of remarkable. No matter how familiar listeners are with Rachmaninoff’s music, this two-CD set will give them new perspectives on what he wrote, how he wrote it, and what he intended it to communicate. This release is a genuinely enlightening experience.

     This is not to say that all the music here is “great,” by any means. Most of it dates to the 1890s, when Rachmaninoff was in his 20s and just feeling his way into compositional territory beyond that of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Arensky. But even the earlier and/or lesser works here are revelatory. Capriccio bohémien on Gypsy Themes, Op. 12, shows Rachmaninoff channeling Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, not fully effectively but with considerable sensitivity to what can be done with a single piano played with four hands. The little Polka Italienne, also for piano four hands, shows Rachmaninoff delightfully donning the guise of Johann Strauss Jr., as big a surprise as can be contained in a work lasting less than two minutes. And the composer’s two-piano version of the ubiquitous Prélude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2 takes that exceptionally familiar work to a new communicative level that displays it in a different aspect from the usual – highly successfully.

     There are fascinating contrasts in this release, which shed light of distinct types on Rachmaninoff’s thinking about composition and about the uses to which the piano or pianos can be put. The very early Russian Rhapsody for two pianos, for example, emerges as a set of variations on a folklike tune that Rachmaninoff apparently composed himself – and in addition to its rhapsodic feeling and variations form, it also displays elements of symphonic construction, with a clear opening section, scherzo-like passages, an Andante portion, and then a finale. Written when the composer was just 18, four years before his Symphony No. 1, this piece already shows Rachmaninoff figuring out his own approach to large-scale musical works – and doing so in a piece that lasts less than 10 minutes. There is a strong contrast between the Russian Rhapsody and the version for piano four hands of The Rock, Op. 7, written just two years later and one of the more-familiar pieces played by the Genova & Dimitrov Piano Duo. The Rock is a moving tone poem that is packed with the sort of dour emotion heard so often in Rachmaninoff’s music – and in the piano-four-hands version, the elements that bring forth the melancholy impression of the material come through with even more clarity than in the orchestral version.

     Then there are the two suites for two pianos – the earlier from 1893, the later from 1901. Each is in four movements, but the way Rachmaninoff uses the form is quite different in the two pieces and provides considerable insight into the contrasts in his thinking before the disastrous debut of his Symphony No. 1 and after his recovery from the period of compositional aridity that followed that work’s first performance. Suite No. 1 “Fantaisie (Tableaux),” Op. 5, is straightforwardly pictorial and has some lovely tone painting of a type not often associated with Rachmaninoff. Its movements are “Barcarolle,” “Night…Love,” “Tears,” and “Easter,” with the cascading notes of the third movement and the ringing of bells in all registers of the pianos in the fourth being highlights of the many well-chosen effects. Suite No. 2, Op. 17, is much more orchestral in construction. Its movements are “Introduction,” “Valse,” “Romance,” and “Tarantella,” and the first three of them all fade away instead of ending decisively – a curious and oddly affecting effect that allows the highly extroverted finale to wrap things up particularly clearly.

     And there is still more fascination in this compelling release. 6 Morceaux, Op. 11, for piano four hands, would seem a relative trifle on the basis of its title and the bland designations of its movements: “Barcarolle,” “Scherzo,” “Thème russe,” “Valse,” “Romance,” and “Glory (Slava).” But while the first three movements are comparatively straightforward, as befits a piece intended as much for amateur players as for a professional recital, the other three are anything but ordinary. “Valse” comes across as a dramatic operatic scene in three parts – all in less than four minutes. “Romance,” far from being straightforwardly tender, is eerie and considerably more chromatic than would be expected in the mid-1890s for a work of this type. And “Glory (Slava)” is on an altogether larger scale than the other movements, to such an extent that it somewhat overshadows a work it is intended to complete. The Genova & Dimitrov Piano Duo also treat listeners to another piano-four-hands piece aimed at amateur players, a Romance in G that, unlike the one in 6 Morceaux, comes and goes pleasantly in less than two minutes and does not strive to be more than a salon piece.

     And then there is the climactic work offered here: Rachmaninoff’s two-piano version of his remarkable Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. Hearing this culmination of the composer’s creativity in two-piano guise proves genuinely revelatory: the intricacy of the music comes through beautifully, the rhythmic changes and highlights are exceptionally clear, the mood changes throughout the three movements are communicated with tremendous skill, and – not to put too fine a point on it – this version proves every bit as satisfying as the orchestral one, and that is really saying something. Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov are truly exceptional performers and truly exceptional interpreters of Rachmaninoff: the two-and-a-half hours spent with their readings of his works for dual pianists not only provide tremendous listening pleasure but also offer, again and again, substantial insight into the composer and some new and enthralling ways of hearing and responding to his music.


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 7, 8 (“Pathétique”), 14 (“Moonlight”), 21 (“Waldstein”), 23 (“Appassionata”), and 25; Piano Concerto No. 5; Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra; Symphony No. 5 & Symphony No. 9—Finale (Liszt Piano Transcriptions). Idil Biret, piano; Turkish State Polyphonic Chorus and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. IBA. $16.99 (4 CDs).

     The 250th-anniversary celebration of Beethoven’s birth has also turned into a celebration of some of the performers who have long been associated with his music. Turkish pianist Idil Biret (born 1941) is a distinguished member of that group, and to this day is the only pianist who has both recorded and performed in concert all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, his five numbered piano concertos, and the nine symphonic transcriptions prepared by Franz Liszt. The IBA (Idil Biret Archive) label presented all this material to the public in an exceptional 19-CD series released between 2009 and 2011 – but the actual recordings making up the series extended over a far longer period of more than two decades. Now, in recognition both of Beethoven and of Biret, IBA has assembled a four-CD “Idil Biret: Best of Beethoven” anthology, complete with a booklet that rather awkwardly merges Biret’s head with a famous bust of Beethoven, as if to emphasize, visually, the close connection between the two.

     Marketing and packaging aside, what matters here is the music – and although the performances are uniformly impressive and played with a high level of skill, they are also, in many cases, throwbacks to an earlier style of playing Beethoven. It is the style of performers such as Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Backhaus, with all of whom Biret was acquainted – and all of whom taught her or admired her pianism. Biret was also highly praised by her famous teacher, Nadia Boulanger. But all this is to say that Biret’s is a style that now often seems so old-fashioned as to be quaint: Kempff died in 1991, Cortot in 1962, Backhaus in 1969, Boulanger in 1979. The big sound favored by pianists of earlier generations, taking full advantage of the resources of a modern piano whose range and timbre differ significantly from anything Beethoven knew, was their trademark, and it remains Biret’s. But recent scholarship and understanding of historical performance practice – plus the ability to play Beethoven on fortepianos of his own time, or well-made reproductions of them – have rendered the old-fashioned “grand” style of performance archaic, if not obsolete.

     Biret, however, remains true to the old style, and offers it in ways that listeners who enjoy the approach will find simply wonderful. Biret has, after all, been playing this way – and recording these works – for a very long time. Sonatas Nos. 7, 21 and 25 were recorded in 1994; Nos. 8 and 23 in 2001; and No. 14 in 2008. Piano Concerto No. 5 and the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra were recorded in 2008. The Liszt transcription of Symphony No. 5 was recorded in 1985; that of No. 9 dates to 1986. So this release offers material recorded over a 23-year time period – and all of it, remarkably, has a consistency of sound (piano sound, although not always recorded sound) and technique that shows just how carefully Biret has thought about how she wants to approach this music and present it to audiences.

     On the whole, the sonatas are the least successful offerings here. That is partly because it no longer sounds quite right to hear them played so sonorously and with so much pedal, on modern pianos with such enormous and strong soundboards and such a high degree of resonance. But it is also partly because of decisions Biret makes that, although intelligent, are out of keeping with recent Beethoven scholarship and musicianship. These are especially apparent in her tempo choices: Biret opts, again and again, for the grand, even grandiose, making this material so stately that it sounds like a series of pronouncements rather than anything incorporating intimacy or inter-human communication. The very slow first movement of the “Pathétique” never gets close to its Molto allegro e con brio tempo marking, for example, and the second movement of the “Appassionata” is so far from Andante con moto that it actually drags. These are clearly considered decisions by Biret: it is not that she cannot play at breakneck speed, witness her handling of the Prestissimo conclusion of the “Waldstein,” but that she chooses to present the sonatas in a mannerly and indeed rather mannered way. They come across here more as museum pieces than as emotion-driven, living music – although, interestingly, the very short and not especially well-known No. 25 (which lasts less than10 minutes) has a pleasant delicacy to be found nowhere else in these interpretations.

     The works with orchestra hold up better. The “Emperor” concerto is a first-rate performance for those who want to hear this in the grand style, as an early Romantic work rather than a piece from Beethoven’s middle compositional period, still retaining some elements of the Classical era. Biret’s handling of the opening cadenza-like material is thoroughly Lisztian – so much so that when Antoni Wit brings along the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra, it almost sounds as if the ensemble is playing a piece from a different time period. The balance between piano and orchestra here leans firmly toward the keyboard, with Biret’s presence dominating throughout, from the decidedly Romantic feeling of the second movement to the proclamatory manner in which she handles the thematic material of the finale. Perhaps all this is somewhat wrong-headed in terms of how Beethoven intended the music to sound, but it is wrong-headed in a way that is thoroughly convincing on its own terms. The Choral Fantasy comes off rather less well: Biret gives the same “proclamation” feeling to the extended piano solo that opens the work, but this material is supposed to sound improvisational – indeed, it was improvised by Beethoven at the first performance – and the rather staid piano sound, abetted by Biret’s pedaling, gives a feeling of grandiloquence to music that is really, by intent, on the slight side. The latter part of the work comes across well, with chorus and soloists handling the vocal parts with care and sensitivity. But the piece does not hang together as well as it can, and its overall effect is an underwhelming one.

     The Liszt transcriptions require somewhat different ears from those needed for the other works here. Liszt undoubtedly did pull Beethoven into the Romantic era and undoubtedly did want the transcriptions he made to have the grand sound that Liszt sought in so much of his own music. Furthermore, it was during Liszt’s lifetime that the piano evolved into the huge, heavy, reverberant instrument it is today, although it was only near the end of Liszt’s life (he died in 1886) that instruments approximating modern ones were fully deployed – by which time, ironically, Liszt himself had largely abandoned his over-the-top earlier pianism and compositional approach in favor of something far more delicate, intimate and intricate. The Beethoven transcriptions, however, were published as a set in 1865, and Liszt completed several of them as early as the 1830s. And the use of the resources of a modern piano for these enormously difficult works is less questionable than it is for Beethoven’s own original music. Nevertheless, some listeners may well find Biret’s handling of the excerpts heard here rather questionable. The famous four-note motto that starts No. 5 is pounded out with far greater portentousness than it usually receives either in orchestral or pianistic guise. The tempo contrasts within the first movement are pronounced, to such a point that the section played in the orchestral version by a solo oboe is practically static. The second movement is taken at a very slow, even ponderous pace, while the third retains none of the mystery that Beethoven put into it – a difficult element to include, admittedly, but one that Biret had the power to introduce had she wanted to. And the finale never takes flight: it is triumphal in its original orchestral guise and in other readings of Liszt’s version, but here it is rather plodding and does not sound at all like a capstone for the work.

     As for the finale of the Ninth: the first issue with it involves taking it thoroughly out of context by offering it on this four-CD set by itself. This is not, after all, a standalone movement, but the culmination of an hour-long work whose transcription presented enormous difficulties even to Liszt – and Biret has been quoted as saying a performer really needs three hands to make it work. She does make it work, with only two tremendously skilled hands, but the music never really takes flight, much less become transcendent. The opening four minutes, reintroducing the themes of earlier (here unheard) movements, have a tentative feeling to them, and when the main theme of this movement finally emerges, Biret plays it slowly and with tremendous delicacy – an approach that would have been more justifiable if the first part of the movement had been presented with greater drama and intensity. As is, the main theme sounds mostly like a pleasant nocturne, not a proclamation of unity or a hope for humanity. On the other hand, Biret builds effectively from this modest beginning: as the music grows in complexity, she shapes it well, allowing it to develop organically until the point at which, in the original symphony, the voices enter. From here on, the music becomes nearly unplayable – the notion of needing three hands is not far-fetched! – and Biret shows her mettle by continuing to build the movement organically, bringing out some of Liszt’s clever touches, such as the way he presents the “Turkish march” section in the two hands. The bounciness at that point is welcome, since Biret is otherwise quite serious, even somber, to perhaps a greater degree than the music necessitates. In the original orchestral version, the second half of the movement comes across as a striving for ever-greater emotional heights, straining the performers (especially the vocal soloists) to the breaking point in doing so. Not so for Biret: she actually plays the second half of this movement with greater assurance than the first. On the other hand, she favors very slow tempos most of the time – it is hard to imagine singers being very effectively expressive at these speeds – and the result is that parts of the movement’s second half become somnolent, even though others are rousing, even sparkling. Biret’s playing is never less than carefully considered, and her technical command of the music is exceptional – not only here but also in every work throughout this four-CD collection. Indeed, this recording is in many ways a tribute to Biret rather than, or at least in addition to, a tribute to Beethoven. The performances are decidedly “old school” and will not, in and of themselves, likely be first choices for listeners who have become more accustomed to hearing Beethoven in historically aware readings and with historically accurate performance practices – they will certainly not suffice for those who prefer to hear his music on the instruments for which he wrote it. But there remains a place in the sound world of Beethoven for sheer heft, for sending forth his music with abundant flourishes and with all the tonal grandeur of which more-modern instruments are capable. This Biret recording is a chance to hear someone who has mastered that now-old-fashioned approach to Beethoven and who knows how to make it heartfelt and, much of the time, convincing on its own terms, even if those terms are not quite Beethoven’s.

September 10, 2020


Calendars (page-a-day for 2021): Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff; Life’s Little Instruction Calendar. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.

     An old story has children being told to help on a farm by mucking out a particularly messy and smelly barn. All of them poke listlessly at the task, except one, who goes at it with enthusiasm. Asked why, the child replies, “With all this crap all over the place, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!” It is in the spirit of that child that so many of us will surely be looking toward 2021 with more than the usual degree of hope for a better new year – a hope that can be reinforced, day after day, by desktop/tabletop/countertop calendars whose pages offer a daily dose of positivity and are torn off to reveal, underneath, another dose of the same. We can definitely use a full year of positive thinking right now. The Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff calendar has been presenting it for quite some time: it derives from a 1997 book of the same title by Richard Carlson, with the calendar put together by his widow, Kristine, using material from the original book and its multiple followups. This is straightforward self-help and self-teaching material, serious and even earnest in tone, which may be just what many of us need now to counteract the state of advanced hysteria in which lots of us are living our daily lives. The comments here are frequently in multiple paragraphs, carrying over from one date to the next, sometimes several “nexts,” instead of trying to be pithy and epigrammatic. But the underlying messages always come through. “Rather than waiting for other people to provide the love we desire, we must be a vision and a source of love.” “As you practice living in appreciation, it will become as natural to you as breathing.” “When in doubt about whose turn it is to take out the trash, go ahead and take it out.” “The trick is to be grateful when your mood is high and graceful when it is low.” That last notion is the sort that seems especially apt in a time of super-high stress, social and political turmoil, severe worldwide health and financial problems, and constant negative input from the Internet and other mass media – all matters with which we have been living at a super-intense level for less than a year, but which feel as if they have been ever-present. Although Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff can be somewhat on the obvious or treacly side for some tastes, many of us will find its brand of straightforward advocacy of calm, gratitude and a sense of humor to be exactly what we need to counteract the continued difficulties that will likely carry into 2021 – plus any new ones that the new year may bring (although hopefully none!).

     Similar hope and hopefulness from a somewhat different angle are available in the 2021 version of the Life’s Little Instruction Book calendar. Here the ideas are self-contained on each day and designed to be quick to read and absorb: the original concept comes from a 1991 book in which H. Jackson Brown, Jr., presented advice for his son, who was about to start college. The individual pages here are often a bit like motivational posters: “Remember that you manage things, but you lead people.” “Don’t confuse activity with accomplishment.” “To be taken seriously, dress the part.” “Forgive your parents and ask them to forgive you.” “Glamour fades. Character remains.” “Sometimes a good night’s sleep is the best decision.” “People will treat you the way you allow them to treat you.” “Waste time with someone you love.” The suggestions may seem old-fashioned to some – charmingly so if you like them, unrealistically so if you do not. But a little reflection will show how applicable they remain to the year 2021, even if they originated 30 years ago. The notion of getting a good night’s sleep, for example, may sound naïve, but it is right in line with current thinking on the importance of proper rest for stress reduction and effective performance at work – or simply in everyday life during a time of major life difficulties affecting pretty much everyone. And just being with someone you love, taking it easy with that person, scarcely seems like “wasting” time at all – especially under current circumstances, it can be the least-wasteful thing you do in a day. So whether you favor the longer and more-detailed, multi-day discussions of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (which notes, as a subtitle or aside that is as meaningful as the title itself, “and It’s All Small Stuff”) or the to-the-point daily approach of Life’s Little Instruction Book, you can find a calendar that brings you something to look forward to every day of the coming year and hopefully makes stressors, both the continuing ones and any new ones that show up, a little bit less stressful.


Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw 3: Who Is the Bucks Bandit? By Gina Loveless. Illustrations by Andrea Bell. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.

     Once again the Merry Men…err, Merry Misfits…stride forth in Nottingham…err, Nottingham Elementary School…led by Robin Hood…err, Robin, wearing a hoodie. The third Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw series entry is a distinct case of more-of-the-same, filled with minor arguments and major (well, seemingly major) misunderstandings involving Robin Loxley (a nod to the Robin Hood legend, whose central character was the outlaw Robin of Loxley, or Locksley) and her friends. The friends are also minor reflections, very minor ones, of characters in the Robin Hood tale: there is Mary Ann instead of Maid Marian, for example, and there are rapping twins Allana and Dale, a slight nod to minstrel Allan-a-Dale. But the underlying premise requires Gina Loveless to redefine just what an “outlaw” is, since it would be thoroughly unacceptable to build stories around someone who, you know, actually operates outside the law. Thus, Robin directly states to her friends (and to readers) that something like stealing, even in a good cause, is “not what being an outlaw means to me. It doesn’t mean breaking the law or school rules. Being an outlaw means doing what’s right when nobody else is going to and not caring what other people think, because you know it’s the right thing to do.”

     Everybody got that? Throw out your dictionaries and any books you might have about Robin Hood and his praiseworthy reasons for breaking the law (many times): being an outlaw means not going against the law (or rules).

     The audience for this book series consists of fifth-graders (more or less) who will not think to question this underlying premise and will simply enjoy the hijinks, antics and attempted underlying seriousness of purpose with which Loveless presents the stories. Loveless actually builds the books around concerns that are supposed to be serious, using the scaffolding of the Robin Hood connections to erect tales of life lessons onto which she tries to graft enough humor (abetted by Andrea Bell’s illustrations) so that the serious stuff comes through clearly and goes down easily.

     This means that it seems that Nottingham Elementary continues to have the same issues with its student-rewards program that it has had through the first two books in the third, Who Is the Bucks Bandit? It helps to read these books in order, since this third one makes only brief and passing references to events in the first two – which are important to know and understand in order to follow the ins and outs of the students’ relationships, arguments and territorial disputes. In the third book, a new character named Wilu Johnson comes to the school and is soon suspected by some students of being responsible for the mysterious disappearances of “bonus bucks” from various teachers’ desks. That leads to accusations and counter-accusations among the students, with Robin, who narrates the book, trying to sort everything out fairly, but ending up being blamed – by Wilu himself – for the supposed thefts. “‘How could you think it’s me?’ I shouted. ‘I’m the only one who’s been nice to you all week long!’ Wilu squinted his eyes at me. ‘You were probably just getting close to me so you could make it look like it was me, when really it was you all along.’” Standard misdirection, conspiracy theories and elementary-school-sized paranoia are the name of the game throughout the Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw books, so this exchange fits right in.

     Of course, neither Wilu nor Robin is actually responsible for the bonus-bucks problem. They and Nadia, who was Robin’s main nemesis in the first book but with whom Robin now sort of gets along, end up being summoned to the principal’s office; the illustration showing the three with concrete blocks on their feet as they unwillingly shuffle to the office is one of Bell’s best, showing their figurative unhappiness at going to see Principal Roberta. It then turns out that the bonus bucks were missing because of an ill-conceived plan by the principal herself to alter or eliminate the whole bonus-bucks program – a plan that the principal apparently thought to further by concealing what she was doing and letting the kids get into arguments and accusations about what was going on. This is clearly a principal who would fit in just fine in fifth grade. In any case, everything ends happily for the students, and Wilu becomes one of the Merry Misfits, and it is a fair bet that the next book in the Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw series will offer still more of the still-the-same – which, for kids who enjoy this easy-to-read, lightly plotted, emotionally unchallenging series, will be just fine.


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 5. Eugene Albulescu, piano and conducting Orchestra of Friends. AMP Recordings. $14.99.

Ignaz Moscheles: Piano Sonatas (complete). Michele Bolla, fortepiano. Piano Classics. $18.99.

Oscar Straus: Piano Concerto; Serenade for String Orchestra; Reigen-Walzer; Tragant-Walzer. Oliver Triendl, piano; Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $16.99.

     It is exceedingly rare to hear a recording for any ensemble above chamber size in which it sounds as if all the participants are making music together just for the pleasure of it – simply because they are enjoying each other’s company so much. But that is the distinct impression given by the new AMP Recordings release of Beethoven concertos played and conducted by Eugene Albulescu. Indeed, many “ex” words apply to this CD: exhilarating, exciting, extroverted, exceptional. “Excellent” comes to mind as well. And this word play is in the spirit of the musical play itself: “play” can mean both “perform” and “have fun with,” and that combination is just what Albulescu and his Orchestra of Friends sound as if they are doing. Indeed, the orchestra is one consisting of Albulescu’s friends, assembled specifically for this recording: it is a somewhat augmented and altered group of 38 players, most of them members of the Bethlehem Southside Sinfonia, which usually performs ballets. That provenance may explain some of the bounce and rhythmic sensitivity of this recording. Albulescu’s interesting decision to play the concertos on a modern Steinway, with the top removed, jutting into the orchestra at a 45-degree angle, may also explain some of the sound. This is scarcely an authentic or historically informed recording, despite the appropriately small ensemble size, but it is one of great vivacity and exuberance (another “ex” word). Indeed, the first thing a listener is likely to notice is that the finales of both concertos are taken at quite a clip, that of No. 1 in particular. The speediness is outside the norm for these works, but during this 250th year after Beethoven’s birth, all sorts of original and interesting approaches to his music have cropped up, and this one certainly has a lot going for it. Actually, the choice of repertoire itself makes for an interesting contrast. Piano Concerto No. 1 is Beethoven’s first-published, but was composed after No. 2 and also after WoO 4, a work in E-flat that is sometimes called “No. 0” and has been recorded several times in this celebratory year. So No. 1 is really Beethoven’s third completed piano concerto, and No. 5 is his sixth – well, seventh if the piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto is included. Numbering matters aside (they are actually even more convoluted than this), Concerto No. 1 dates to 1795 (revised in 1800) and No. 5 to 1811, so they cross a “century line” as a late piece in the Classical era and an early one in the Romantic (more accurately, proto-Romantic). What Albulescu and the orchestra manage to do in this recording is to highlight the very significant differences between the two works while at the same time showing them to have been cut from essentially the same cloth; indeed, they are even the same length in these performances (No. 1 running 37 minutes, No. 5 lasting 38). Albulescu shows real flair for the music, giving No. 1 a light touch that keeps it vivacious and appropriately expressive, but allowing expansiveness in the first movement that clearly shows the front-weighting favored by Beethoven even at this stage. In the “Emperor,” that leaning toward the first movement is always evident, but here it is more so than usual, as if Albulescu has decided to show that, architecturally, Beethoven in No. 5 did not stray all that far from No. 1 – although he had certainly moved on harmonically and in some elements of structure, notably through the opening piano flourish and extended cadenza-in-effect that most clearly portend the Romantic era that was still to come. The seriousness of Beethoven is a given, but his music did have a lighter side that allows it to be played to good effect with the touch that Albulescu and the orchestra provide here. The piano’s sound is really too big for this music, for all the cleverness that Albulescu brings to the seating arrangement of the performers: Beethoven wrote for fortepianos and early pianos with a span of five to six octaves and a far more delicate frame than modern Steinways possess. But what ultimately makes a performance successful – and enjoyable – is the way the musicians interact with the music and each other, the way they shape the listening experience for the audience. And in that respect this recording (to cite one more “ex” word) excels.

     The four piano sonatas of Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) all belong to the fortepiano era as well, and all are only slightly later than Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, dating to the middle of the 1810s. Moscheles’ pianistic skill certainly impressed Beethoven: he entrusted Moscheles with preparation of the piano score of Fidelio. For his part, Moscheles dedicated his third piano sonata to Beethoven – and was one of the few people who remained close to the notoriously difficult composer in his later years. Moscheles’ sonatas are the work of a young composer, in his 20s, who has not yet found a unique voice. But they are all well-made and sound particularly good when played on the instrument for which they were written. The fortepiano used in a very fine new Piano Classics recording by Michele Bolla is a reproduction of a Conrad Graf model from 1819, and the sonatas fit it very well. The first, Op. 22 in D, and second, Op. 27 in B-flat, are three-movement works featuring particularly well-done central variation movements. Op. 22 is a bold-sounding piece with martial tones, especially in the first movement. Op. 27, which Moscheles called Sonata caracteristique, is an occasional piece that is intended to evoke positive emotions toward Francis I (1768-1835), the first emperor of Austria; its variations are on a popular song, Freut Euch des Lebens (“Rejoice in Life”). The largest-scale of Moscheles’ four sonatas is the one dedicated to Beethoven, which is Op. 41 in E. In four movements and styled Grande Sonata, the piece displays more drama than the three-movement sonatas and has an interesting second movement marked Minuetto o Scherzo, thus straddling the line between what was thought of as an older form and a newer one (although even Haydn, usually associated with minuets, wrote works containing scherzos). Yet the most interesting of Moscheles’ sonatas is not this comparatively extended one but the fourth, a single-movement piece that is the shortest of them all. Called Sonate mèlancolique and written in the very dark key of F-sharp minor, this is a much more chromatically exploratory piece than the other sonatas and one that strongly contrasts intensely expressive sections with ones of brilliant virtuosity that, like some works by Beethoven, prefigure other composers’ Romantic explorations in the future. Despite the fact that this work bears Op. 49, it was in fact written earlier than Op. 41 (1814 vs. 1816), so it would be a mistake to think that Moscheles somehow grew into greater expressiveness as the sonatas progressed. In fact, he never revisited the piano-sonata form after producing these four early works, so they constitute a compositional dead end for him. But they are fascinating nevertheless, both because of Moscheles’ connections with Beethoven at the time of these sonatas and because, when played as sensitively as Bolla plays them and on an appropriate instrument, they clearly show where the sound of the piano stood in and around Beethoven’s time.

     There is a full century between Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and the sole piano concerto by Oscar Straus (1870-1954), who produced his while he was a dissatisfied student of Max Bruch: Bruch apparently thought well of Straus, but the feelings were not reciprocated, since Straus was more harmonically daring than Bruch found acceptable and was far more interested in light music and stage music. Indeed, it was as a composer of operettas and other light works, including films, that Straus eventually made his reputation – and one of his most-famous pieces dates to his 80th year. That is the thematic waltz that he wrote for Max Ophuls’ 1950 film, La Ronde, a piece known in German as Reigen-Walzer and sounding like a wonderful reminiscence of times past on a new CPO disc featuring the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Ernst Theis. Indeed, the four-minute waltz somewhat overshadows Straus’ 27-minute piano concerto: it is worth remembering that Straus was a highly skilled waltz composer, even though he was careful to spell his name with a single “s” so he would not be erroneously thought to be a member of the famous Strauß (that is, Strauss) family. (Interestingly, it was Johann Strauss Jr. who advised Oscar Straus not to be tempted to write a series of dance tunes but to opt for more-lucrative stage works – an approach that did not work out particularly well for Strauss himself.) The Oscar Straus Piano Concerto takes full advantage of the late-Romantic version of the piano, which is much closer to today’s pianos than to the fortepianos of Beethoven’s and Moscheles’ time. This concerto is a big, broad work with soaring themes, in three movements played without pause but nevertheless clearly differentiated, and it is put forth with considerable grandeur and strength by Theis and pianist Oliver Triendl. Nevertheless, it is not a particularly convincing work: it does not have a great deal to say, even though it says what it does have to say effectively and with well-considered orchestration. But the other non-waltz work on this CD, the Serenade for String Orchestra, is actually more attractive. This is a light, five-movement work, written a bit earlier than the piano concerto and also during Straus’ days as a student with Bruch. Largely Classical in form and style, it bears comparison with the string serenades by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, having some of the same cheeriness and lightness of spirit, and even including, as its fourth movement, a lovely little, yes, waltz. Waltzes, all of them very short, also appear at the end of this CD: the Tragant-Walzer on themes from Straus’ Der Prinzessin von Tragant, a ballet score from 1912. These are four miniature gems, actually cast as an introduction, three waltzes and a coda, and they serve to show that Straus always had considerable skill in dance music, even though he came to include it only within stage and screen works. Indeed, in addition to Die tapfere Soldat (“The Gallant Soldier,” usually known in English as “The Chocolate Soldier”) of 1908, the works for which Straus is best-remembered today are the operetta Ein Walzertraum (“A Waltz Dream”) of 1907 – and his final film composition, for Ophuls’ La Ronde, including the highly memorable waltz that became famous along with the movie.