August 04, 2022

(++++) WALL-TO-WALL ENJOYMENT

Calendars (wall for 2023): Heart and Brain; A Year of Snarky Cats; Coffee. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 (Heart; Cats); $17.99 (Coffee).

     Most people may not repaint or re-wallpaper very frequently, but there is one wall decoration that is easily and enjoyably updated every year: the wall calendar. Never mind the fact that everybody seems to track everything electronically all the time these days – technology has its place, but that place is not on one’s wall. There is something especially enjoyable about changing the look of a room by simply hanging a new calendar there – although, given the fact that the change is quite noticeable, it is important to pick just the right calendar, one that you will enjoy looking at day after day, month after month, throughout the year to come. The good thing is that there are lots of wall-calendar options out there, from the clever to the amusing to the clever and amusing. Heart and Brain, for example, is one of those “combo” types. Nick Seluk’s decade-old comic cleverly imagines our internal organs (specifically those of a blue, furry, bow-tie-wearing character known as “The Awkward Yeti,” who is a bit like Cookie Monster with neuroses) in constant combat, despite their obvious need to work together to keep the body functioning. Although Seluk has, over the years, created anthropomorphic versions of multiple organs (eyes, spleen, stomach, tongue and many more), it is Heart and Brain that remain the center of his cartooning, and they are the exclusive focus of the 2023 version of the Heart and Brain wall calendar. The heart/brain idea works so well not only because Seluk’s conceptualization of the organs is so good – huge-eyed, ever-enthusiastic Heart and spherical pink square-eyeglasses-wearing Brain – but also because the conflicts between the organs are ones with which it is so easy to identify. Heart simply wants to go and do and enjoy without regard to consequences – or even any awareness of them. Brain wants to plan and think and analyze, evaluating everything and being very careful about what the body does, how and when. This 16-month calendar – the last four months of 2022 on a single page, followed by individual pages for each month of 2023 – has several illustrations that fit both cartoon heart-and-brain and real-world heart-vs.-brain situations perfectly. One illustration, for instance, shows Brain atop a ladder, pouring from a container labeled “Hard Earned Money” into a glass jar labeled “Savings” – while Heart has used a mallet to knock a hole in the bottom of the jar and is throwing its contents down a hole labeled “Frivolous Nonsense.” Anyone who does not find that both funny and wry is missing a bit of heart, a bit of brain, or both. And then there is the panel in which Heart tells Brain, “I’m ready to try that one again,” and Brain exclaims loudly (in all caps) that “we can’t go back in time after you make a terrible decision!” Also here are several four-panel offerings, such as one in which Heart unexpectedly announces, “I feel motivated,” and Brain tries to channel that into getting something productive done, only to have Heart explain that “I mean I feel motivated to do nothing today.” In addition to the large single-panel or four-panel presentations atop each month, there are smaller four-panel strips at the bottom: a double helping of Heart and Brain monthly, plus occasional small renditions of the characters within the squares allocated to the days of the month. Walls in homes containing people with hearts and brains will be appreciative of anyone who hangs this calendar on them.

     Homes containing cats are the place for the 2023 A Year of Snarky Cats calendar by Dan DiPaolo. This too is a 16-month item, with one large illustration for the final four months of 2022 and one apiece for each month of 2023. In this case, though, every month gets just a single flair of felinity atop the dates – one that will be instantly recognizable to anybody who shares space with cats (without owning them: no one owns a cat, as cats continuously make clear). DiPaolo has the “cat-eye glance” down pat: these cats do not look directly forward, making eye contact, but off to one side or the other, as if deigning to give the calendar user some attention but never full attention. And the words given to each cat seem like just the ones that real-world cats are already thinking, if not saying: “Let’s play the stop talking game.” “I wasn’t hungry but I see you have sushi.” “Why don’t you have a seat and explain to me why you smell like another cat” – that one featuring a cat wearing glasses and assuming a lawyer-like pose. And then there is the comment that encapsulates felinity-with-humans-present most clearly: “I’m just here to sprinkle happy glitter on your soul – and also control your life.” Well, yes. These cats are certainly snarky, but there is no malice in their snark, just as there is no malice in cats’ habit of tormenting small creatures while satisfying the ancient feline hunting instinct. Snark and hunting are just things cats do, and the fact that DiPaolo has managed to overhear (or imagine overhearing) some of cats’ snarkiness, suitable for contemplation throughout the year, makes this calendar an excellent fit for any home whose cats allow humans to co-occupy the space and operate the can opener. There is even one cat here that manages to mix felinity with being a morning person or not being one: sitting with a steaming cup ready for drinking, this cat is putting forth the thought, “Coffee first – then I’ll pretend to listen to you.” (If you’re lucky!)

     Speaking of luck and coffee, the extra-elaborate, extra-large 16-month Coffee calendar for 2023 and the last four months of 2022 is even bigger than the Heart and Brain and A Year of Snarky Cats offerings; and it shows a different side of Dan DiPaolo’s art and witticisms. The illustrations here are ultra-simple, mostly consisting only of coffee cups or mugs and almost all done in shades of coffee colors, from very light tan to black. The underlying thought here is nicely summarized by the September illustration: “Life happens. Coffee helps.” But even though that is a perfect encapsulation for the entire year, DiPaolo serves others for other months, and some of them are especially notable, such as April’s “Coffee gives me the strength to screw up everything every single day – with passion.” That’s another darned good summation for true coffee lovers. Other months include straightforward reminders, worth noting for any coffee aficionado who happens to glance at the wall anytime: “There’s always time for coffee” (March) and “Me time” with a picture of a steaming mug of the brew (November). It is also worth remembering the way this particular calendar begins the upcoming year, with a January illustration featuring the words “COFFEE FIRST because…eew, people.” Of course, if you happen to be feeling generous with this calendar (if not with coffee), it comes enclosed in a specially made ultra-large outer envelope that makes the whole thing quite suitable for gift-giving. You know – that thing people do with calendars in December, a month in which this particular wall offering shows a pine tree in silhouette and some stylized snowflakes (the only month without a coffee cup or mug), and the words, “Drink more coffee, be more jolly.” Now that’s an espresso ho-ho-ho. Errr, expressive ho-ho-ho…

(+++) SMALL DISCOVERIES

Henri Tomasi: Trio à cordes en forme de divertissement; Jean Cras: Trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle; Émile Goué: Trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle; Jean Françaix: Trio; Robert Casadesus: Trio à cordes; Gustave Samazeuilh: Suite en trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle; Gabriel Pierné: Trois pièces en trio. Black Oak Ensemble (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; Aurélien Fort Pederzoli, viola; David Cunliffe, cello). Cedille. $12 (2 CDs).

Georg Goltermann: Nocturnes and Romances. Katherine Decker, cello; Eun-Hee Park, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     There may be missing masterpieces out in the unexplored wilds of classical music, but most works now being mined from long-fallow portions of the repertoire are of lesser quality – not dross, certainly, but not precious metals, much less gems. It can be pleasantly engaging to hear works that have long been neglected in performance and, in many cases, never recorded before, as long as one does not set expectations of originality or excellence of compositional execution too high. The seven pieces played by the top-notch Black Oak Ensemble on a very well-priced new Cedille release are all well-wrought, smooth, intermittently delightful trifles, finely crafted and serving well as salon or background music – but never genuinely gripping or enthralling enough to be likely to become repertoire mainstays for string trios. Three of the pieces – by Henri Tomasi (1901-1971), Robert Casadesus (1899-1972), and Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967) – are world première recordings, and are neither more nor less engaging than the other four. The title of this release, “Avant l’orage” (“Before the Storm”), refers to the period after World War I but before World War II, an interwar era during which all the music was created. The time period and the fact that everything here is French are among the elements that the works have in common. They also share a certain refined sensibility and pleasant urbanity, ruffling no feathers and offering a consistently pleasing, unchallenging listening experience. Tomasi’s four-movement trio (1938) includes an especially affecting, gently swaying second-movement Nocturne – whose sweetness is relieved by well-considered use of dissonance – and a bouncily folklike finale. The 1926 trio by Jean Cras (1879-1932), also in four movements, interestingly combines references to folk music with a tribute to Beethoven’s Op. 132 string quartet in its slow second movement – which also has the instruments imitating the sound of a Breton bagpipe. The three-movement offering by Émile Goué (1904-1946) dates to 1939 and has a more-modern sound than most of the other works heard here, with extended tonality, changing meters and unashamed dissonance even in the lullaby-like second movement. The four-movement trio by Jean Françaix (1912-1997), one of the best-known composers included in this release, is a work from 1933 that is especially well-constructed and filled with playfulness, energy, brightness, and agility, relieved in its slow movement by a charmingly songful melody. Casadesus’ 1938 trio, in three movements, is pleasant enough, although rather scattered in its effect. Samazeuilh’s 1937 Suite en trio pour violon, alto et violoncelle is a six-movement piece tied clearly through its sequence of dance forms to the Baroque era. It was originally written for piano – the “world première” element here refers to the first recording of the composer’s version for strings. The individual dances are well-constructed and reflect their Baroque origins nicely, with the somewhat overdone emotionalism of the third-movement Sarabande contrasting especially well with the bouncy, pizzicato-infused Divertissement that follows. The final piece offered in this recording is the three-movement set by Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937), which dates to the last year of the composer’s life. Pierné, like Françaix, is better-known than the other creators heard here. Pierné’s construction is particularly clever in light of the work being dedicated (as are several of the others in this release) to the once-renowned Trio Pasquier: Pierné musically spells out the notes of the first name of each brother in the trio (each in the clef played by the brother’s instrument), then builds the trio around the “brother” themes. Many composers indulge in this sort of structural cleverness, with the name of Bach often used and with composers such as Shostakovich incorporating numerous self-references into their music. What matters to listeners, though, is whether the music works and is appealing – it should not be necessary to study and analyze the thematic background in order to enjoy the piece. And indeed, Pierné’s work is enjoyable on its own merits, including an amusing finale based on a work by Honoré de Balzac that, again, one need not know in order to find the music pleasant and pleasurable. Pierné’s piece flows well, uses the instruments skillfully, and offers a winning mixture of lyricism and, in the finale, rather mild satire. All the music offered in this recording is performed with considerable skill and apparent enjoyment – and, in turn, it offers enjoyment of a mild and agreeable type to listeners, proffering nothing of great consequence but much that is abundantly entertaining.

     Music intended as pleasant rather than profound is sometimes referred to dismissively as salon music, but in fact there is much to be enjoyed in music written originally for performance in informal salon settings rather than formal concert or recital halls. Much of the music by Georg Goltermann (1824-1898), including everything on an MSR Classics CD featuring Katherine Decker and Eun-Hee Park, is of the “salon” type; and if nothing here is especially memorable, nothing is at all displeasing, either. Goltermann was a cellist of considerable skill, composing eight concertos for cello and orchestra as well as many shorter pieces for his chosen instrument. Decker, ably backed up by Park, offers a very good selection of the composer’s cello-and-piano nocturnes, romances and similar pieces. Goltermann was a skilled tunesmith – his melodies are invariably sweet, hummable and pleasant, if not genuinely memorable: many of these pieces, despite their different titles and provenance, could easily be swapped for each other. Decker and Park offer three sets of three pieces each: Trois Romances Symbolique, Op. 95; Trois Romances Sans Paroles, Op. 90; and Trois Nocturnes, Op. 125. The “symbolic” set includes the designations “Faith,” “Charity,” and “Hope,” but there is nothing particularly representational in any of these works or, indeed, in any of those in the other complete sets. The remainder of the disc is devoted to individual works taken from sets of Morceaux Caractéristiques, Morceaux Faciles, Morceaux de Salon, and so forth. There is nothing particularly challenging to the ear in any of this music – and, in truth, not much that is challenging to play, either: to the extent that Goltermann’s music is still heard, it is generally in teaching settings. Certainly the warm expressiveness that Decker finds in the cello parts of all these works was put there quite intentionally by the composer, who seems to have cared more about pleasing the aural palate than about trying to create music incorporating any particular creative spark or intensity. This may sound like damnation with faint praise, and to some extent it is; but really, there is no reason to condemn this inevitably ear-pleasing, pretty, sweetly lyrical if rather soulless music. It sounds good, it lies well on the cello, it does not strain performers or listeners overmuch, and it can be a restful experience – the sort of thing worth hearing on a grey, drizzly day, or perhaps as night begins to fall (some of the works have a crepuscular quality). By no stretch of the imagination is this great or even important music, but it never pretends to be: Goltermann clearly wrote to please and instruct, and the pieces here, inconsequential though they may be in musical terms, accomplish their aims with skill and sensitivity.