November 25, 2020


Cat Kid Comic Club. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

     It was inevitable, when Dav Pilkey created Cat Kid as a sidekick for Dog Man, that the super-cute, naïve and sweet kitten would become a star of Pilkey’s books (that is, those drawn as if by preteens George Beard and Harold Hutchins) all on his own. And that stardom probably made the new Cat Kid Comic Club series inevitable, since stars insist on twinkling on their own rather than in the shadow of other stars (ok, that makes no sense astronomically, but it does where Dog Man and Cat Kid are concerned).

     Inevitable or not, Cat Kid Comic Club is a lot of fun, and knowing Dog Man is quite unnecessary: nothing in the new series even refers to the previous one. Cat Kid (wearing his usual adorable black mask) is simply on hand to introduce 21 baby frogs – that is, tadpoles – to the wonders of visual storytelling. Flippy the fish, an overly serious adult who is not happy with stories about violence and poop, provides a mild counterpart to Cat Kid’s encouragement and toleration, and a specific tadpole named Molly helps the rest of the club figure out forms of storytelling .

     This sounds mild when explained so basically, but in fact the book is tremendously funny because of how it does what it does. There are the basics of cartooning discussed, to be sure, but the way the tadpoles absorb them is what makes the whole process so enjoyable. For instance, one self-important character named Melvin thinks up a story about a toothbrush named Dennis who wants to become a lawyer representing dinosaurs, draws it as a really lame comic, then includes an “About the Author” page full of self-praise for “one of the world’s most important major voices in graphic literature” who wins the “no bell prize for graphic novels” (which is a picture of a bell with a line struck through it).

     And that is only a small part of what happens here – because what Pilkey manages to do, very cleverly indeed, is to accept the likely difficulties that young would-be cartoonists might have getting started in the real world, then translate those problems into scene-stealingly funny concepts. Thus, when most of the kids in class fail to produce anything because they fear that what they write and draw would not be any good, Cat Kid gives them the assignment to fail – to make a “supa dumb” comic that would be embarrassingly awful. This really gets the students pumped, especially when Cat Kid says it is fine to work together collaboratively: “United we shall lose!” And the comics that result, while admittedly pretty awful, are also super-delightful: one is about a monster (rather than muenster) cheese sandwich, another about “The Cute, Little, Fluffy Cloud of Death,” and so on. The drawings for each comic are quite different from those for the others, as if they really were created by different artists, and the topics are just the ones that Pilkey’s usual audience will delight in – such as the story of a huge dog whose poop foils “bad ninja guys” and saves the world from destruction (Pilkey rarely loses sight of his, umm, roots as the creator of Captain Underpants).

     What Pilkey does so well here is to convey genuine information about graphic creativity even while telling a story that is full of silliness and cuteness (bundled). Thus, after Flippy self-righteously calls for an end to the gross and violent topics the class is exploring, he summons two other Pilkey characters, the doctor and Nurse Lady, to read just how awful the kids’ work is – and is promptly told that he is overreacting and that even Shakespeare’s work is “all death and violence and fart jokes.” And when two members of the club want to create something by mixing poetry and photography, Pilkey shows a genuinely intriguing (and surprisingly serious, in this context) set of haiku mixed with actual photos of birds, flowers and trees.

     Cat Kid Comic Club fits quite neatly into the Pilkeyverse (Pilkey’s universe, if you prefer) through its character use, overall appearance, skewed but age-appropriate sense of humor, and general silliness of purpose and execution. But there is some depth here as well, just as, in the Dog Man books, Pilkey creates titles that parody those of serious literature: Brawl of the Wild, for example, and Grime and Punishment. One of Pilkey’s great skills involves teaching while seeming to be doing something else altogether: yes, he loves toilet humor and hyper-exaggerated violence, but what grade-school kid doesn’t? (And Pilkey very effectively channels his grade-school self through the medium of George and Harold, even though neither appears at all in Cat Kid Comic Club.) This first entry in a new series succeeds on just about all levels: as an amusing sendup of comics of all sorts, and schools in general; as a genuinely useful guide to the basics of coming up with ideas and getting them down on paper; as a fun-to-look-at set of adventures in “comic stripping” (Pilkey never uses the phrase, but it has just enough “punniness” to fit what he is doing); and even as a mildly educational book in its own right – including, at the back, information on how some of the characters were created and where the haiku concept comes from. Fans of Dog Man and Captain Underpants will not be at all disappointed in Cat Kid Comic Club, and this is a series that can draw even more readers (and would-be visual artists) into Pilkey’s admittedly eccentric orbit. And “eccentric orbit” is a concept from astronomy that holds up perfectly well in the Pilkey realm.


Chilling Effect 2: Prime Deceptions. By Valerie Valdes. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penance, to make up for mis-hearing her assignment to apprentice young Frederic to a “pilot” and thus making him the “slave of duty” to a pirate instead, Ruth accompanies him to sea and plunder and declares herself a “piratical maid of all work.” Whether Eva Innocente recognizes her Ruthian heritage in the space-opera series by Valerie Valdes is debatable, but the comic resemblance is certainly there as Eva and her crew, aboard La Sirena Negra, make their way from this adventure to that in this star system and that doing this almost-nefarious deed and that and staying one step ahead of the real baddies and some characters who may be real baddies or may simply be kind of misguided or generally messed up mentally. Or something.

     Fans of Chilling Effect will certainly enjoy its sequel, Prime Deceptions, although this second book is not a particularly good place to meet Eva and her crew for the first time, since it relies heavily on the first novel’s story and events and does not recap them in more than a very superficial way. On the other hand, like space opera from time immemorial – or at least from the 1930s, when the term came into use as a parallel to both “soap opera” and “horse opera” – the book does a good job of zipping its characters around from place to place and problem to problem, paying virtually no attention to characterization or motivation (beyond the usual good/evil/uncertain axis) but throwing out adventure after adventure in quick enough succession to distract readers from the gaping plot holes and general absurdity of pretty much everything that is going on.

     This is to say that the book is a lot of fun and is emphatically not to be taken seriously. Valdes herself clearly knows this: her amusement at what she is doing slips through when, for example, she has characters who are about to get a dangerous assignment take an elevator in a space station to floor number 42 – a reference to the notorious “answer to everything in the universe” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

     Yet Valdes does try to give some depth to Eva – in ways that are less effective than simply letting her flit about doing various dirty or semi-clean deeds. Much of the first book referred to terrible things for which Eva had been responsible in the past at a place called Garilia, so of course Garilia comes to be a key to what happens in this second volume. Much of the first book involved Eva’s uncertain relationship with her dastardly father, a somewhat likable rogue (a bit like the Pirate King from The Pirates of Penzance) who is not above stealing Eva’s ship for his own purposes. So of course the second book requires Eva to consider and evaluate her relationship with her straitlaced mother, whose help she finds she needs on her latest foray into somewhere-out-there. And both books have Eva’s sister, Mari – aka Agent Virgo of The Forge – as a prime mover of events that prove decidedly deleterious to Eva’s health, albeit all in a good cause. Or maybe a good cause. Or a maybe-good cause.

     Eva’s real family, as is typical in space opera, is the crew of her ship, which makes Valdes’ continued lack of interest in providing any sort of more-in-depth characterization of the crew members frustrating. Returning characters include Eva’s longtime partner-in-nefarious-deeds, cybernetic-eye-equipped Rebecca Jones (known as “Pink” because of her dreadlocks); the ship’s pilot, Min, whose body wanders around while her mind is integrated with the ship’s core; and Vakar, a shrimplike quennian alien (the book is full of aliens of all types, sizes, and levels of unbelievability) who is now firmly ensconced as Eva’s lover as well as being a “wraith,” which is to say a spy whose activities are always conducted on deep background. There is an expanded role in the second book for the ship’s engineer, Sue, who has her own dark background because of family issues, these involving the supposed capture and holding for hostage of her brother, who perhaps was not a hostage after all or who may have thrown himself in with a set of bad guys collectively known as The Fridge (not The Forge, although the organizations may have more in common than good guys and bad guys really should) for reasons known only to themselves.

     Also returning from the first book is the polyglot approach to the narration, which may confuse matters for readers who are less than comfortable with Spanish and do not want to pause in their enjoyment of the headlong narrative to keep looking up Spanish words: “In retrospect, they’d had plenty of fun, playing dominoes and Cubilete and comiendo merda while stuffing themselves with albondigas and bistec de pollo and congri.” And also returning are the psychic cats that infest (or at least occupy) La Sirena Negra for no particularly good reason except that they seem to be a neat concept – unfortunately one that Valdes pursues this time with little more attention than she gave them in the first book, when they were merely cargo with which Eva got stuck because she was not paid for them upon delivery. A psychic-cats space opera is definitely a worthwhile idea, but Prime Deceptions is not that. However, the book has a somewhat surer narrative style than its predecessor, and Eva becomes a more interesting character by virtue of not spending a lot of time keeping secrets from her crew (although using the phrase “by virtue” of anything where Eva is concerned is always a bit of a stretch). Nothing in this book can be taken the slightest bit seriously, and Prime Deceptions really exists only to take readers on a thoroughly unbelievable joy ride through a universe whose vast improbability is the very stuff of space opera. On the whole, for fans of this sort of thing, both this book and the earlier one are a great deal of fun – just as, for fans of operetta, there is little to compare with the aria in The Pirates of Penzance in which Major-General Stanley proclaims himself “the model of a modern major-general” even though he knows nothing about strategy or tactics and is not sure what a commissary is. To her credit, Eva knows a bit about all those things – but never quite enough to do more than escape her latest misadventure by the skin of her teeth. And that is just fine in this particular space opera: the distances covered are vast, but the amount learned is tiny enough to ensure mistakes that are entertaining enough to be repeated again and again. As they are here and will presumably be once more in Valdes’ next novel.


Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1-7; Kullervo. Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano; Tommi Hakala, baritone; YL Male Voice Choir; Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $59.99 (4 SACDs).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7, arranged by Erwin Stein, Hanns Eisler and Karl Rankl; Mahler: Symphony No. 4, arranged by Erwin Stein. Christiane Oelze, soprano; Thomas Christian Ensemble. MDG Scene. $18.99 (2 CDs).

     Strictly speaking, it is not true that Sibelius’ symphonies move over time from the richness of Late Romantic orchestration to the spare nature of much 20th-century music. Certainly Nos. 1 and 2 have an opulence about them that is largely absent from No. 3 and, in particular, No. 4 – but No. 5 reclaims some of the warmth of the earlier works, although it uses the orchestra very differently, and Nos. 6 and 7 then employ a large orchestra in post-Romantic ways that are nevertheless recognizably connected to the style of the late 19th century. The best Sibelius conductors – and Osmo Vänskä is one of them – pay close attention to the ways in which Sibelius modified his use of the orchestra through the symphonies, but do not feel they have to make the later ones somehow more attenuated and thin than the earlier ones in order to show how the composer’s style and thinking changed from the 1890s to the 1920s. Vänskä himself has progressed in his thinking about these symphonies since his cycle with the Lahti Symphony appeared in 2001: his new sequence with the Minnesota Orchestra is on the one hand tauter and on the other more expansive than the earlier one, as if Vänskä spent considerable time thinking about the elements that make each of these symphonies distinctive and finding ways to bring those portions to the fore without in any way compromising the overall flow or structure of the works. Furthermore, although the Lahti musicians might be expected to come more naturally to a kind of Nordic sound than those from the Minnesota Orchestra, Vänskä has obviously worked with the Minnesotans with considerable care to help them evoke the elements of orchestral sonority, blending and contrast that, combined, characterize Sibelius’ tonal language.

     It all started with Kullervo, with which Sibelius in 1892 firmly established his symphonic bona fides and his ability to handle a large orchestra plus, in two of the five sections, a male chorus. Interestingly, the Vänskä Kullervo offered in the new BIS Sibelius set is the most recently recorded work, dating to 2016. The symphonies themselves were recorded between 2011 and 2015. Kullervo is certainly not a symphony, but neither is it exactly a cantata or “exactly” anything specific: it is an exploration, Sibelius’ first, of the elements of the Kalevala that would pervade his music for three decades. Vänskä gives the work a very broad, expansive performance – it lasts just under 80 minutes – and thoroughly explores the coloristic elements in which Sibelius showed his ability to manage a large-scale composition while also paying close attention to details of orchestration. Kullervo does tend to sprawl, and nothing Vänskä does can entirely prevent that; but as a whole, this cohesively conceived and very well-played performance clearly shows why the work is a kind of foundation stone for the cycle of symphonies.

     The symphonies themselves appear on disc in this set just as they did when originally released as single recordings: Nos. 1 and 4 are together, as are Nos. 2 and 5, then Nos. 3, 6 and 7. This makes a chronological aural approach to the material a bit of a chore – and it is odd that the set includes four separate booklets, one from each of the individual SACDs, several of them covering similar material repetitiously. Since this is a full-priced set and scarcely inexpensive, more attention might have been given to a better, more elegant and more integrated presentation. The true elegance, however, lies in Vänskä’s handling of the music rather than in the way the discs are packaged. Vänskä emphasizes the similarities as well as the differences between the first two symphonies, handling both with taut intensity that prevents No. 1 from seeming thoroughly Germanic in heritage while not allowing No. 2 to appear to be a great leap forward – here it is a natural, albeit significant, progression in the handling of the orchestra and the thematic material. The more-modest scale of No. 3 comes through effectively here, showing a symphony that is more compressed than the first two but scarcely “smaller” in concept or communication. And No. 4, the thorniest of the seven, emerges under Vänskä with a stark definitiveness lying somewhere on the border between fortitude and despair – all the way through to its strange mezzoforte conclusion. No. 5 has elegance, warmth, sonic clarity, and a particularly strong feeling of emergence from the natural world. No. 6 has a unique sound in the cycle, lacking both the broad scope of No. 5 and the majesty of No. 7 – and Vänskä uses this to the work’s advantage, emphasizing its smooth flow and refinement, its absence of major climaxes pointing to a kind of slow-moving iciness that becomes bracing and refreshing. And No. 7, which Sibelius originally labeled a fantasia, sounds like one here, its single movement scaling heights and exploring depths through a series of contrasts that collectively produce a large-scale sonic metamorphosis that is both intense and subtle. Vänskä thoroughly explores the internal architecture of each symphony while remaining aware of the place of each one chronologically: everything has the recognizable Sibelius style, but what Vänskä does so well is to show the subtleties as well as the broader ways in which that style evolved from the time of Kullervo to that of Symphony No. 7. With excellent sound and first-rate, very idiomatic playing throughout, this is a Sibelius cycle to cherish and to listen to repeatedly with the expectation (which turns out to be justified) of discovering new things in each successive hearing.

     Although Sibelius used a large orchestra to produce some symphonies with a spare sound, there was never anything sparse about his musical notions. The same was certainly true, to perhaps an even greater degree, in the works of Bruckner and Mahler – with the latter of whom Sibelius had his famous argument about how all-encompassing a symphony should be (with Mahler saying it should contain the whole world and Sibelius strongly disagreeing). It is particularly interesting to contrast the finely honed Vänskä performances of the less-opulent-sounding Sibelius scores with the exceptionally small-scale, much-reduced and yet impressively communicative versions of Bruckner’s Seventh and Mahler’s Fourth that were created for Arnold Schoenberg’s society for propagating then-new music by using the extremely limited resources available at the time. Founded in 1918 and offering performances from 1919 until its dissolution because of hyperinflation in 1921, the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen gave select audiences the chance to hear recently composed music in highly intelligent, carefully crafted arrangements requiring only a chamber-sized ensemble. Even today, these arrangements are more than curiosities: they are examples of skilled musicians getting to the heart of massive works whose orchestral requirements provide tremendous color to performances but whose inner skeletons, so to speak, can be foundationally rearranged to fit a small group of players effectively. Indeed, it is remarkable just how effective these small-group performances of large-scale works can be, as is especially evident on a new two-CD release from MDG Scene featuring the Thomas Christian Ensemble. Imagine Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 performed by clarinet, horn, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano four hands and harmonium; imagine Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 played by flute, oboe, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano, harmonium and percussion, and, of course, soprano. Or, much better than imagining the well-nigh unimaginable, listen to how these pieces actually sound in these excellent arrangements, and the underlying chamber-music scaffolding on which both composers erected their grand symphonic structures become clear, charming and highly convincing from a musical standpoint. This is less of a surprise where Mahler’s Fourth is concerned: his most placid symphony, it is the one in which the chamber-like elements – always present in his symphonic works – come to the fore, as he uses orchestral sections and individual instruments in finely honed style to highlight specific rhythms, harmonies and sound colors. Erwin Stein’s arrangement deserves to be called masterful: it not only tracks the symphony’s basic progress but also brings considerable clarity to the emotional points that Mahler makes in this exploration of Heaven and its surroundings. Of course this instrumental scale is not what Mahler intended: for instance, the final soprano song, no matter how well Christiane Oelze handles it, is supposed to have the voice playing out against orchestral material, not assuming the lead role in a chamber-music piece. But even in the grander portions of the symphony, such as the climax of the third movement – in which the gates of Heaven seem to open – Stein’s skilled arrangement conveys the intensity and meaningfulness of the scenes that Mahler paints.

     The success of the chamber arrangement of Bruckner’s Seventh – done by Stein with the assistance of Hanns Eisler and Karl Rankl – is more unexpected. The sheer size of the sound of Bruckner’s later symphonies, their oft-remarked resemblance to music as if played by a gigantic organ, adapts less readily to the chamber-music milieu of Schoenberg’s society. Here, listeners familiar with the symphony will certainly find a good deal lacking in warmth, sonorousness and grandeur – but the whole point of this arrangement was to make the music accessible to people who were not familiar with it: familiarity with Bruckner was scarcely a given in 1921. Today’s listeners need to set aside their preconceptions of the “Bruckner sound” in order to appreciate fully just how effective this arrangement is and how well it uses the small instrumental complement (the four-hand piano is an especially neat touch). In truth, it can sometimes be difficult to hear the structural underpinnings of Bruckner’s carefully crafted symphonies, simply because it is so easy to be swept into the beauty of their sound world. Stein, Eisler and Rankl make no attempt to “downscale” the warmth and grandiosity of Bruckner’s Seventh, instead making sure that its underlying elements, such as the composer’s fondness for three-against-two rhythms, are uncovered and presented clearly and forthrightly. The result is a “chamber symphony” that is recognizably Brucknerian even though it is quite obviously nothing that Bruckner himself would have written. The ensemble members heard on this release are all first-class musicians, all sounding strongly committed to the project (as, indeed, were the players of Schoenberg’s time), and all handling the crucial balance among their instruments with finesse and great skill. The stripped-down Bruckner Seventh and Mahler Fourth showcase both the composers’ skill with building blocks of sound and the arrangers’ skill at selecting which of those blocks are most needed to show the works’ underlying structures and to convey their basic, if scarcely complete, emotional messages.


Monteverdi: Orfeo. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Emōke Baráth, Natalie Pérez, Alix le Saux, Jérôme Varnier, Mathilde Etienne, Nicolas Brooymans, Fulvio Bettini, Zachary Wilder, Juan Sancho, Alicia Amo; Ensemble Vocal de Poche and I Gemelli conducted by Emiliano Gonzalez Toro. Naïve. $22.79 (2 CDs).

Monteverdi: Il Terzo Libro de’ Madrigali. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $11.99.

Love Enfolds Thee Round: Christmas Music. TENET Vocal Artists. Old Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     It is truly amazing to realize that more than 400 years after its first production in 1607, Monteverdi’s Orfeo continues to delight audiences and inspire considerable musical creativity among performers. The excellent new recording from Naïve, which has a triple focus on Emiliano Gonzalez Toro without ever seeming to be a mere ego trip for him, is the latest in a long line of excellent readings of the score – and now that historical performance practice is so widespread, it is also the latest evidence of how important it is to perform the music of Monteverdi’s time in the way that composers of that era intended it to be played. That triple focus on Toro results because, first of all, he is the lead tenor in this production; secondly, it is his ensemble, I Gemelli, that performs the instrumental parts; and third, he himself conducts. We have become used to early-music professionals conducting from the keyboard, but conducting “from the vocals” is something new and different – and could easily veer out of control if the conductor’s personality were to become preeminent. That is not, however, the case with Toro, who is certainly primus inter pares among the 11 soloists but who never overshadows the others when they have been placed by Monteverdi in the limelight. For example, the madrigalists (Alix le Saux, Nicolas Brooymans, Zachary Wilder and Alicia Amo) form a fine-sounding, sure-voiced quartet in addition to playing roles within the operatic drama – respectively, Speranza and Pastore; Plutone and Pastore; Pastore I and Spirito; and Pastore II and Spirito. Granted, the roles of shepherds and underworld spirits are of far less consequence than is that of Orfeo himself, but the point is that Toro understands the importance of those roles to the overall drama, and also gives the madrigal quartet its musical due on its own terms. Essentially, Toro sees Orfeo as a work in which the title character, who in ancient myth accompanied himself on the lyre, now “accompanies” himself “on” the orchestra. This is an interesting conception and quite true to the musical ideas of Monteverdi’s time, when vocal material continued to be quite dominant over instrumental music (which mainly supported or imitated the sung lines). Toro’s approach makes the instrumental material more important while at the same time increasing the dramatic flow of the narrative. Two of the many occasions on which this pays important dividends are in the Act II lament, Tu se’ morta, and the Act III arrival of Orfeo in Hell, Scorto da te. But there are also many other places where Toro’s firm command of his own vocal part merges in highly commendable fashion with the sung elements of the other 10 soloists, and with the instrumental ensemble (which is mostly viols but also, intriguingly, includes an actual chitarrone of Monteverdi’s own time). Orfeo is generally acknowledged as the first opera in anything like a modern sense, and certainly its use of drama along with vocal commentary, and its integration (still on a tentative basis) of instrumental music with the vocals, show why it deserves to be thought of that way. But what Toro does so well in this performance is to handle the work as a living example of effective music-making, not a mere museum piece that happens to get in a lot of pleasant playing and nice singing. In returning to the roots of Orfeo, Toro and the other performers here have given Monteverdi distinct contemporary power even as they have stayed true to the expectations and practices of the early 17th century.

     Monteverdi is known as much for his madrigals as for his operas – indeed, the two forms are interrelated and are closer to each other than, say, songs and operas of more-modern times. Toro formed his period orchestra only in 2018, but Monteverdi’s madrigals have received ongoing attention for more than three decades from Rinaldo Alessandrini and the ensemble he formed 36 years ago, Concerto Italiano. Although the group’s membership has changed over time, Alessandrini’s guidance has not, becoming if anything even firmer and more assured through the years – as is evident from a new Naïve release of Monteverdi’s third book of madrigals. There are 15 works here, three of them in multiple sections, and all handled with exceptional beauty of tone and assuredness of ensemble by sopranos Francesca Cassinari, Monica Piccinini and Sonia Tedla; mezzo-soprano Maria Chiara Gallo; altos Elena Carzaniga and Andres Montilla; tenor Raffaele Giordani; and basses Gabriele Lombardi and Salvo Vitale. Monteverdi (1567-1643) was only 25 when he set these works, but already his choices of poetry were pointing to his later interest in and preoccupation with the drama and emotional engagement that he was to use in his operas to such fine effect. Torquato Tasso’s Le Gerusalemme Liberata is a major source here: Monteverdi drew on it for six of the 20 tracks on the CD. But even more of the music goes with poetry by Giovanni Battista Guarini, whose poems are set by the composer nine times in this book of madrigals. The remainder of the words are by Livio Celano (two madrigals), Pietro Bembo (one), and anonymous poets (two). The words’ venue is crucial, since here as in his operas, Monteverdi is working in a style in which the verbal expressions are paramount and the music exists to support the singers – indeed, it was from this style that Monteverdi began very tentatively to diverge in Orfeo as he sought ways to heighten the drama and emotion of the narrative. In the madrigals, each work stands on its own but is connected thematically with others; and Monteverdi varies the sound world through differing mixtures of voices and changing the number of singers among the madrigals and sometimes within individual pieces. Alessandrini’s full-on commitment to original performance practice shines through everywhere here, and the singers’ comfort with historic presentation methods keeps the music alive and often surprisingly lively: there is no doubt that the secular madrigals tie, in their basic sound, to a considerable amount of church music, even though the two expressive areas were deemed quite distinct (and largely incompatible) in Monteverdi’s time. The use of madrigalists within Orfeo shows how madrigals themselves were altered in purpose and approach as the dramatic and emotional needs of opera began to emerge; at the same time, hearing these madrigals in their original purity and self-contained beauty, without the need to advance any particular dramatic agenda, makes it possible to appreciate anew just how lovely the human voice can be when employed a cappella by a composer with Monteverdi’s sensitivities to both words and music.

     The TENET Vocal Artists are also specialists in early music, but they strike out in a different and very pleasantly expressive direction on an Olde Focus Recordings disc with a Christmas-through-the-ages theme. This is a cleverly arranged CD, in which early works such as Bach’s O Jesulein süss and the very, very old Veni mater gracie/Dou way Robin (which dates to 1349 in Yorkshire) are interspersed with much later material from Vaughan Williams (Wither’s Rocking Hymn), Holst (Lullay my liking), Hubert Parry (Welcome Yule, which opens the recording), and Peter Warlock (Bethlehem Down). Far from being a collection of well-known secular tunes, this beautifully sung CD certainly includes secular elements (Francis Cutting’s version of Greensleeves) but carefully places them in the context of the sacred meaning of the Christmas holiday (the Cutting work appears between the spiritual Sweet little Jesus boy and Jonathan Woody’s arrangement of What child is this). The result is a disc that reaches out beyond the strictly religious but remains firmly rooted in the Christian concept that lies at the heart of Christmas as it is understood today and has been for centuries. The TENET Vocal Artists are just as comfortable and just as eloquent in Italian (St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Tu scendi dalle stelle) and French (the traditional Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle) as in English – not to mention Bach’s German and the Yorkshire work’s Latin. The singers pronounce words not only correctly but also feelingly, conveying the emotions underlying each of these pieces even to listeners who find the music unfamiliar and may not know some of the languages at all. This communicative skill is quite a gift. The remaining pieces on the 22-track disc are Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the apple tree, Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose, David Willcocks’ The Infant King (Sing lullaby), Woody’s arrangements of Rise up shepherd and follow and Coventry Carol, John Goss’ See amid the winter’s snow, the traditional Sussex Carol, Michael Praetorius’ Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, Walford Davies’ The holly and the ivy, Peter Cornelius’ Three kings from Persian lands afar, and Norman dello Joio’s Hush thee, princeling. The British – specifically Anglican – orientation of the disc is quite clear, but this is music that reaches out well beyond any one specific religious tradition and, indeed, beyond the spiritual sector altogether, except insofar as music itself has a spiritual dimension that elevates, inspires and delights. And that is precisely what this beautifully sung disc does: it raises the spirit, informs it with the hope and meaning of Christmas, and simply sounds wonderful.