January 28, 2021


Paolo Marchettini: Mercy; The Months Have Ends; Notturno; Concertino; Aere perEnnius. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Herbert Howells: Requiem; Palestrina: Sicut Cervus; Howard Hanson: Prayer of the Middle Ages; Stephen Paulus: Pilgrims’ Hymn; Traditional: Down to the River to Pray; The Wayfaring Stranger. Résonance conducted by A. Barron Breland. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Composers’ decisions on combining instruments, including voices, constitute unique musical signatures that make individual pieces, as well as their creators, distinctive. The six Paolo Marchettini works on a new CD from New Focus Recordings certainly have elements in common, both as strengths and as weaknesses, but also show Marchettini’s differing approaches to the use of instrumentation, depending on what he is trying to communicate. Three works on the disc are entirely orchestral: Mercy, Notturno, and Aere perEnnius. All are most effective in their darker, more atmospheric elements, which open Mercy and Aere perEnnius and constitute the whole of Notturno. Those elements are integral to the music in ways that come through clearly no matter what ensemble performs the material: Mercy features the Orchestra della Toscana conducted by Francesco Lanzillotta; Notturno is played by the MSM Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Gilbert; and Aere perEnnius is offered by Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta conducted by Gabriele Bonolis. The most-effective of the works is Notturno, its mood remaining uneasy and mysterious throughout. This is the shortest of the three pieces – a fact that helps explain its impact. Marchettini tries to do more with the other works, with Mercy becoming increasingly complex and emphatic before returning to the sensibility of its opening, while Aere perEnnius seeks rather cinematic emotional intensification before, again, returning to its opening mood. Marchettini handles the orchestra skillfully in all three works, but his attempts to pull additional color and expanded sonorities from specific sections of the ensemble (and of the longer pieces) are not as emotionally convincing as his somberly lyrical material. Marchettini seeks even more variability of effect in his Concertino for clarinet and orchestra, which he performs as soloist with the MSM Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kyle Ritenauer. This seven-movement work gives Marchettini plenty of opportunities to show his skill as a performer – and to showcase the wide range of notes and emotions of which the clarinet is capable – but the overall impact of the music is rather underwhelming. Concertino is the kind of piece that will certainly appeal to performers, given its near-constant calls for virtuosity and sensitive playing; but it does not have much to say to an audience beyond offering a sonic environment for its own sake. It is impressive to hear once but does not have much staying power for listeners. And the other work on this CD, The Months Have Ends, is even more disappointing. This would logically seem to be a highly emotive piece, setting five poems by Emily Dickinson for soprano and orchestra. But Alda Caiello – accompanied by the Orchestra della Toscana under Carlo Rizzari – does not make much of a case for the poetry; or rather, Marchettini does not ask her to do so. The settings range from the self-consciously screechy (the opening “Wild nights”) to arrangements that seem intended to be evocative but are simply unconvincing, with Caiello’s so-so enunciation mixing rather uneasily with Marchettini’s orchestrations. There is considerable variety in the Dickinson poems set here, which include After great pain, A train, I shall keep singing! and the poem that gives the overall work its title. But there is a sameness and a sense of pushing the material too hard throughout this work: it never conveys the emotions expressed by Dickinson with anything like the clarity of the words themselves.

     The vocal communication is far clearer in a series of works performed on MSR Classics by the vocal ensemble Résonance under the direction of A. Barron Breland. Here the combinatorial aspect relates entirely to the voices. The blending and contrasting elements of the vocals are quite apparent in the first two works on the CD, arrangements of the traditional spirituals Down to the River to Pray and The Wayfaring Stranger. The heartfelt delivery of these pieces fits well with the two that follow, Sicut Cervus by Palestrina (1525-1594) and Prayer of the Middle Ages by Howard Hanson (1896-1991) – a juxtaposition that seems odd on its face but, thanks to the sensitive ensemble work, in fact comes across effectively despite the pieces’ differing harmonic languages. All these works constitute an introduction of sorts to Requiem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983), which takes up more than half of the very short length of this disc (the whole of which runs just 36½ minutes). Like Hanson, Howells is sensitive both to the time period in which he is composing and to those that came before. Howells’ Requiem does not use the traditional elements of works with this title, instead splitting “Requiem Aeternam” into two short parts and mixing them with “Salvatore Mundi,” Psalms 23 and 121, and finally “I Heard a Voice from Heaven,” an English-language conclusion whose insistence on uplift is somewhat overdone despite being well-sung by soloists and chorus alike. The overall effect of the Howells work is uplifting but strangely devoid of overt religiosity, despite the topic and choice of texts. This Requiem produces a feeling of peacefulness and warmth rather than a prayer to a Creator on behalf of those who have left their earthly existence. The CD concludes with Pilgrims’ Hymn by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), which combines some of the feeling of the traditional spirituals with that of Howells’ Requiem. Like everything on the CD, Paulus’ work is very well-sung, with warmth aplenty and fine blending of voices. The overall title of the disc is “Pilgrimage,” although there is not really much sense of spiritual progress here, the works all being on or aimed at a higher plane from start to finish. Furthermore, if there is travel, it is strictly short-distance, given the brevity of the disc. Fans of fine choral performance will nevertheless find a plenitude of enjoyment here, if perhaps not as much of a journey toward spirituality as the CD’s title would indicate.


Liszt: Piano Music. Jerry Wong, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Unaccompanied Bassoon by Paul Genin, Vincent  Persichetti, Alexandre Ouzounoff, Antonio Lauro, Willson Osborne, Libby Larsen, Russell Brown, George Perle, Werner Schulze, and Chris Arrell. Scott Pool, bassoon. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The communicative power of some instruments, such as the piano, seems on its face to be far more obvious than that of others, such as the bassoon. But as two MSR Classics releases show, composers and performers can find ways to make both these instruments effectively expressive when played unaccompanied. It was Franz Liszt who largely brought the piano – which evolved into its modern form during his lifetime and partly because of him – to the heights of solo-expression capability that are now so familiar, given his determination to turn the instrument into an “orchestra in miniature.” So recitals consisting entirely of Liszt’s music are nothing new. Jerry Wong’s well-played selection of Liszt contains nothing exceptional and nothing that listeners already enamored of Liszt’s solo-piano pieces will find surprising or unusual. There are five excerpts from Années de pèlerinage. Four are from the first (Suisse) book: Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, Au lac de Wallenstadt, Les cloches Genève, and Vallée d’Obermann. The fifth is from the second (Italie) book: the inevitable-in-Liszt-recitals Sposalizio. There are several other thrice-familiar (or at least twice-familiar) pieces: Nuages gris; La lugubre gondola; Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro; and Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. And there are two Wagner-derived pieces: Lohengrin’s Admonition and the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Taken together, these 11 works provide a generous (hour-and-a-quarter) display of Liszt’s devotion to the solo piano’s ability to convey and transmit deeply felt emotions. The disc bears the overall title “Of Love and Longing,” which is accurate enough but which somewhat misses the point of Liszt’s (and Wagner’s) larger-than-real-life approach to those topics. Wong brings suitable (and, indeed, necessary) virtuosity to the music, especially in the scene-painting of the earlier Années de pèlerinage pieces. And his treatment of the Wagner material is fine, if not especially distinguished from that provided by many other pianists. But what is more intriguing here is his handling of the late, more inward-looking works: Nuages gris; La lugubre gondola; Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro; and Funérailles. Contemplative, melancholy (and even beyond melancholy), dark (and even death-obsessed), these pieces require a pianist to delve deeply into Liszt’s later preoccupation with religious and spiritual matters, subsuming their undoubted performance difficulties beneath an extraction of meaning that can strain even the compass of a modern concert grand. Wong rises to this challenge well, allowing Liszt’s increasingly stretched harmonies to flow beneath his fingers with thoughtful quietude that is never far from ominous and even eerie. It is, however, distinctly peculiar that Wong does not make these four pieces the final ones in this recital – instead, he plays the late works in the middle of the CD, following them with the two Wagner-based ones and then Sposalizio and Vallée d’Obermann at the end. This makes no pianistic or emotional sense – indeed, following Funérailles with anything at all seems nearly sacrilegious. So what listeners have here is evidence that Wong can play Liszt very well, think carefully about the meaning of his music and the way he uses the solo piano to express that meaning, and then seem to lose his way in deciding how best to assemble and present a Liszt-focused recital so as to maximize the music’s impact.

     The solo-bassoon works played by Scott Pool include one by a composer of Liszt’s time: Paul Genin lived from 1832 to 1903. But they are mainly much more recent, which means their approach to the instrument reflects contemporary musical thinking rather than the focus on the bassoon’s emotional and expressive capabilities as used by Vivaldi in his three dozen bassoon concertos, and by other composers of that time. An hour-and-a-quarter solo-bassoon recital like Pool’s is far rarer than a piano recital of similar length, and indeed is somewhat harder to sit through, the bassoon having neither the musical compass nor the full expressive capabilities of a modern piano. There is nevertheless some very interesting material here. Genin’s Carnival of Venice is actually an arrangement (by Ryohei Nakagawa), and it certainly puts the bassoonist through his paces. Genin will likely be unfamiliar to most listeners, as indeed will virtually all the composers here – except perhaps Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987), whose Parable for Solo Bassoon focuses particularly on the instrument’s lower register. Lawson by Alexandre Ouzounoff (born 1955) uses some extended-breath techniques and “wa-wa” sounds rather self-consciously. The five-movement Lauro by Antonio Lauro (1917-1986), arranged by Paquito D’Rivera, paints five short portraits with warmth, effective contrast, and a mixture of lyricism and dancelike verve that sweeps the listener along while certainly challenging the performer: Pool’s breath control here is especially impressive. Next on the disc is Rhapsody by Willson Osborne (1906-1979), in which the bassoon’s ability to convey yearning is effectively displayed; then comes a piece called Jazz Variations by Libby Larsen (born 1950), which is neither as jazzy nor as effectively varied as its title would indicate; and then a work for bassoon and electronics called Kyrie, by Russell Brown (born 1976) – this being a piece that tends to undermine the bassoon’s basic tonal warmth by having electronic sounds dominate whenever the instrument becomes expressive. Electronics are not necessary to produce something that tends to run counter to the bassoon’s inherent capabilities, however, as is shown in the first of the Three Inventions by George Perle (1915-2009). The main inventiveness here involves making the bassoon sound like something other than itself – stretching its range beyond aural comfort. The second and third of the Three Inventions mainly contrast faster and slower playing, with some venturing into the instrument’s higher and lower ranges. Next on the CD is Fibonacci Haiku by Werner Schulze (born 1952), which not only sports a title intended to intrigue but also proffers evocative names for its five short movements, which range in length from half a minute to two minutes: “Flooded with Wind,” “Even Without,” “A Ray of Light Warms,” “The Smallest Spring Brook,” and “Many Times.” The designations generally do not seem to relate in any significant way to the music, however, and in fact are more interesting than the rather pedestrian expressiveness of the work itself. The disc concludes with Blur by Chris Arrell (born 1970), which runs more than 14 minutes and is the longest work offered here. It does require the performer to contrast long notes and extended technique with very short notes played at speed, although the idea is the opposite of blurring anything: Pool makes the differences among the piece’s sections very clear indeed. However, once the work establishes its pattern, it does little more than repeat it again and again – not, on the whole, an approach satisfying enough to sustain a piece of this length. All in all, Pool’s CD showcases his performance skill in music that is not always worthy of the care and attention that he lavishes on it. There are interesting elements in several works on the disc, but nothing that is likely to impress listeners in evocative ways – although several pieces show Pool’s performing capabilities to be substantial.

January 21, 2021


Dbury@50: The Complete Digital Doonesbury. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $125.

     What a difference a decade makes – and what a difference it doesn’t make. For the 40th anniversary of its syndication in 2010, Doonesbury appeared in a gigantic 695-page slipcased book at the then-exceptional price of $100, laid out as a series of 18 focuses (each with its own explanatory introductory pages) and containing an excellent central four-page foldout that both narrated and showed the tremendously complex web of relationships among the amazingly broad range of characters in the strip. And all this was done while downplaying the political focus for which Doonesbury had so long been known – since, after all, everyday politics plays mighty poorly for insight, much less humor, many years after the events and the participants in them are more-or-less forgotten.

     Fast-forward to the 50th anniversary of the start of Doonesbury in syndication on October 26, 1970, and you get an entirely different form of presentation that is very much in tune with modern ways of offering comics (that is, electronically) and modern ways of referring to just about everything (the name “Doonesbury” takes up so many letters). This is Dbury@50, and the only thing that hasn’t changed very much is the price: $100 in 2010 equals $119.17 in 2020, which remains excessive but does not really seem all that out-of-the-ordinary anymore – a typical cell phone price in 2010 was $199, equal to $236.81 in 2020, and that is decidedly low-end now, when the average price of a phone is about $580. So by some measures, Dbury@50 is quite a bargain.

     That depends, of course, on what is being measured. Doonesbury is a polarizing strip that has sometimes been placed by newspapers on the editorial page when its political stances have become a bit too hot for comics-page editors to handle. It is scarcely the first strip to have been treated this way: Walt Kelly’s superb Pogo, for example, ran afoul of editorial sensibilities as far back as the 1950s, and it too was sometimes exiled (if you can call it that) to the editorial pages. But Garry Trudeau (trivia: his first name is actually Garretson) tends to use a sledgehammer politically, while Kelly was more inclined to employ a stiletto – for instance, when Kelly was told not to let Communist-pursuing Senator Joe McCarthy show his face again in Pogo, Kelly drew a caricature with the face entirely covered by a speech balloon whose verbal style perfectly captured McCarthy’s way of speaking. Trudeau has never done anything that subtle or pointed – nor has he wanted to.

     In reality, the political material in Doonesbury is the least inventive and most predictable portion of the strip: the sentiments are reliably liberal and thoroughly lacking in the subtlety of thought that Trudeau brings to non-political societal matters. Above all, the political strips become dated very quickly, which is why politics was largely absent from the 40th-anniversary collection. But societal progress, in technology if not necessarily in other areas, has made it possible to understand and even appreciate the political side of Doonesbury – even for those who have no idea what Trudeau was talking about all those years ago and may not have been born yet. This is because Dbury@50 is not a book at all, although it contains a book. It is, instead, a multimedia presentation, offering all 15,000-some-odd Doonesbury strips from October 1970 through the middle of 2020 on a flash drive (protected by a neat screw-on cap and attached to a handsome woven lanyard for effect). But that’s not all! There is also a 16-inch-by-20-inch poster showing 63 of the strip’s main characters and the year in which each was introduced (the jacket copy for the package says there are 64 characters portrayed, so one is apparently invisible, or someone could not multiply seven rows of characters, containing nine characters per row, and come up with 63). But that’s not all! There is a book here – a spiral-bound User Manual that takes readers…well, ok, users…through the strip year by year, explaining what happened from 1970 onwards and providing a list by week of the primary topic of all the daily and Sunday strips.

     It’s nice to have a little fun with the elaborate and actually rather elegant packaging of Dbury@50, because the whole production seems to take itself so seriously – although the narrative material does not, and can be as much fun as the strip itself. However, one thing missing in Dbury@50 is introspection: Trudeau’s drawing style noticeably, dramatically, vastly improves with time, but nothing in this package indicates that his view of life (or politics) has changed very much in half a century. That makes Dbury@50 a highly attractive retrospective offering but not a particularly insightful one. Still, longtime readers and newly honed ones alike will discover some seminal and some crucial-in-context elements here if they only pay attention. There is, for example, the strip from May 1973 in which a campus radio host, talking about then-attorney general John Mitchell during the Nixon/Watergate years, addresses Mitchell’s legal problems by suggesting he is “guilty, guilty, guilty” – a very modest comment by 21st-century standards, but one that caused a huge uproar in its day. And there is the April 2004 strip in which the very first central Doonesbury character, who is not Michael Doonesbury but football player B.D. (named, or rather initialed, for a Yale quarterback), loses a leg while fighting in Iraq – and, equally astonishing to longtime readers, is seen without his helmet for the first time ever. There are many, many moments like these among an even larger number of less-trenchant strips and some that come across as propagandistic and rather simple-minded. Which are which? That is left as an exercise for the reader – or rather the reader-and-flash-drive-user.

     Like the very differently packaged 40th-anniversary Doonesbury collection, the new Dbury@50 reflects the times in which it appears even as it reflects back on the times through which Trudeau has marched (and occasionally lurched) the strip. Trudeau has long been a wonderful storyteller when he is not sidetracked by political exigencies, and there are ways in which he is more innovative than he sometimes gets credit for being – not in the political sphere but in the structural elements of the strip, from having characters narrate their own stories (an early and very interesting concept) to bringing utterly fantastic creations into the “real” world (such as Mr. Butts and Mr. Jay, underground-comics-inspired personifications of tobacco and marijuana smoking, respectively). Whether Doonesbury survives the apparently inevitable death of (or at least dearth of) newspapers and makes it through another decade or not, Trudeau has produced an astounding and often fascinating volume of work that fully deserves the splendor of the presentation it receives in Dbury@50. But speaking of the dependence of Doonesbury on the fast-fading newspaper industry, it is accurate, if a bit churlish, to point out that if you stand up the handsomely designed, distinguished-looking box in which Dbury@50 is packaged and look at it from the front, focusing on the bright white lettering that elegantly adorns it, the whole thing looks remarkably like a tombstone.


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 (complete). Konstantin Scherbakov, piano. Steinway & Sons. $49.99 (9 CDs).

     One positive thing that the year 2020 brought was a mass of excellent releases of Beethoven’s music on the 250th anniversary of his birth. In addition to “complete” sets purporting, more or less accurately, to present all the music he ever wrote, there were innumerable issues and reissues focused on his symphonies, piano concertos, string quartets, etc. etc., etc. – and, of course, his piano sonatas. And among the highest-quality and most compelling recordings of the sonata cycle is the nine-disc Steinway & Sons release featuring Russian pianist Konstantin Scherbakov.

     This is not a cycle focused on historically informed performance: Scherbakov unashamedly uses a modern concert grand and does not hesitate to bring forth its tonal and expressive capabilities when he believes they add to the impact and understanding of the music. However, this is an exceptionally carefully-thought-through cycle, reflecting not only Scherbakov’s comprehension of the music and comfort with its many technical challenges, but also his perception of Beethoven’s compositional progress throughout the sonatas: Scherbakov recorded the works in order between October 2019 and June 2020, they appear in numbered sequence on the discs, and there is a definite sense of development and continuity here that makes Beethoven’s experimentation – when it comes – all the more apparent and impressive.

     Certain elements of Scherbakov’s performances are scarcely a surprise: the technical mastery, the generally quick tempos that are almost always quite convincing, the ability to bring out left-hand and right-hand focuses with equal adeptness, the strength of chords and willingness to play them very forcefully indeed. Other elements, though, come as a pleasant surprise: many listeners do not realize how often Beethoven ended his sonatas softly, but Scherbakov skillfully draws attention to the times this occurs, with the result that when Sonata No. 32, the last of them all, ends both its movements quietly, this seems altogether fitting and a capstone for the cycle. By the same token, Scherbakov very skillfully makes the sonatas that are in only two movements – the early Nos. 19 and 20 (both of which he plays seriously and refuses to trivialize) and the later Nos. 22, 24, 27 and, yes, 32 – sound complete and as well-thought-out as the three-movement and four-movement ones. Scherbakov also treats every sonata as a character piece of its own, never allowing the less-known ones to be given short shrift simply because they are heard less frequently than the most famous pieces. Thus, Sonata No. 13, Op. 27, No. 1, which comes between the “Funeral March” and “Moonlight,” gets an exceptionally fine performance here that fully justifies Beethoven’s indication that it should be played “Quasi una fantasia.” And the unnamed Sonata No. 16, Op. 31, No. 1, comes into its own here and shines just as brightly as No. 17, Op. 31, No. 2 (“Tempest”) and No. 18, Op. 31, No. 3 (“The Hunt”).

     Scherbakov’s handling of Sonata No. 16 also brings out something specific that many performers underplay or miss altogether: humor. The second movement of this work, marked Adagio grazioso, is exceptionally funny, a parody of the overdone styles of other composers of Beethoven’s day and of Italian opera in general. The movement – Beethoven’s longest slow movement except for those in Sonatas Nos. 29 and 32 – is full of unneeded cadenzas, overdone technical display and multiple cascades of ornamentation. Scherbakov handles it with exactly the right light touch, refusing to try to make it any more serious than it is. The result is exhilarating and provides a wonderful counterbalance to the many much more serious elements in Beethoven’s sonatas. The exuberant handling of the first three sonatas, Op. 2, is another of the many instances when Scherbakov’s willingness to present the sonatas light-handedly pays substantial dividends.

     Where Scherbakov sometimes misfires a bit is in the best-known sonatas, as if he is determined to put his personal imprimatur on hyper-familiar music and perhaps trying a bit too hard to do so. Thus, in No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”), he interrupts the flow repeatedly by holding notes just a touch too long. And he employs similar mannerisms, such as holding back briefly before proceeding to the next phrase – not always, but occasionally – in No. 21, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”) and No. 23, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”). In the latter case, though, the overall performance is so praiseworthy than it seems like carping to notice the small instances of inelegance. Scherbakov is also exceptionally thoughtful in most of the late-period sonatas. No. 28, Op. 101, is a standout, and No. 31, Op. 110, is also highly impressive, despite somewhat overdone bass octave sforzando playing – a consequence both of Scherbakov’s interpretation and of the sound of a modern piano. No. 29, Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”) does not fare as well: often accused of simply going on too long, that is how it sounds here, with a very intense and driving first movement and a somewhat too-heavy-sounding second-movement Scherzo – although the playing in the concluding Fuga is exceptionally clear. Scherbakov also tosses off the variations that conclude No. 32, Op. 111, with trills that sound nearly effortless – testimony to his remarkable technical prowess.

     The Beethoven 250-year celebration proved to be far less than it would have been if 2020 had not also been a year of pandemic and international societal upheaval. In fact, Beethoven’s music can be and ideally would have been a unifying force for the disparate elements so often at odds, and even at war, throughout the year: that is how Leonard Bernstein handled Symphony No. 9 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to cite just one famous example. Troubling events unfortunately got the better of most of humanity during the 250th-anniversary year, leaving the uplift and affirmation of Beethoven – including some music, for piano and other instruments, in which he is clearly heard progressing from illness to health – with insufficient impact. Over time, though, Beethoven’s struggles and successes will surely become transcendent again, and that means that performances such as Scherbakov’s Beethoven piano-sonata cycle will resound and impress, and will move audiences, far beyond the tumultuous time period in which these recordings were made and released.