April 25, 2024


Reflections: A Celebration of Strange Symmetry. By Kerby Rosanes. Plume. $18.

     Kerby Rosanes’ amazingly intricate black-and-white art, although collected in coloring books for adults, always looks just fine – and even better than fine – in its original form. A major reason for this is the attention to detail: whether interpreting scenes from nature or creating fantasy worlds and beings, Rosanes creates with so much care that even when creatures could not possibly exist, it seems that if they did exist, they would look as he portrays them.

     A side effect of this attentiveness to precision creativity is that some of Rosanes’ art is bilaterally symmetrical – to an extent not actually found in most of the real world, but one that makes perfect sense in Rosanes’ environments. Reflections extracts numerous examples of bilateral symmetry – and bilateral not-quite-symmetry – from multiple Rosanes collections: Alien Worlds, Animorphia, Fantomorphia, Fragile World, Geomorphia, Imagimorphia, Mythic World, Mythomorphia, and Worlds Within Worlds. As all those “morphia” titles indicate, Rosanes is preoccupied with transformative art, and the use of mirror images is a characteristic of his style. Thus, some pages in Reflections are perfect mirrors of each other: on two facing pages, ducklike animals face each other, their feathers sprinkled with identical (but mirror-imaged) jewels, crowns, scepters, rings, necklaces and more, while on two other facing pages, mirror-image human-or-godlike female figures are entwined with large and beautifully rendered snakes, one figure holding hers in her left hand and the other holding hers in her right.

     As interesting as the perfect reflections on facing pages are the ones that are not quite perfect: seeing how Rosanes alters similar drawings can inspire colorists to make their own subtle changes on pages opposite each other, just as viewing perfect reflections may lead to a decision to color the pages identically or differentiate them through color selection. One almost-reflected woodland scene, for instance, has two female fairy-like characters facing each other, but the face of the one on the left is in three-quarter view, while that of the one on the right is in profile; the one on the left holds out a flower to a hovering hummingbird, while the one on the right is inviting a butterfly to land; and there are other subtle and not-so-subtle differences as well. And then there are scenes where facing pages only seem to show reflections – instead, they show variations on a theme, like the two in which intricate multi-tentacled machines face off against each other.

     Rosanes’ use of similar left-and-right-page art sometimes invites readers – whether or not they want to color the renditions – to examine things very closely indeed. One two-page spread in Reflections features two similar but, on close inspection, very differently detailed crowns, which somehow are not crowns at all, since each contains an ocean or other watery environment with clearly but differently drawn waves and carefully delineated but, again, differently drawn ships making their way here and there. Another double-page display features facing roosters with anatomical details that are only slightly different – but their feathers are filled with not-at-all-similar sprites, critters of various sorts, and even a playing card on one side and a miniature rocket ship on the other.

     Whether looking at the perfect symmetry of a double-page set of elephant heads – atop which are stairways to a ruined building plus various monkey-like creatures, raising the question of whether these are “real” elephants or part of a fantasy landscape – or at a fascinating single-page view of an owl that is half feathers-and-bones and half gears-and-metal, readers (whether or not they choose to color these works) will be fascinated by the way Rosanes pulls the eye into, around and through these many scenes. For those unsure of whether they want to color the art – or of how they want to color it – the book offers, at the beginning, six examples of colored versions of its contents, credited to different colorists, with a brief discussion of the ways in which each example uses color to make specific visual and perceptual points. Reflections thus invites reflections on symmetry, contrast, color use, and meaning, as well as on the thin line between highly realistic portrayals and ones that seems to be drawn carefully from real life but that in fact show beings from alternative realities or from the realm of pure fantasy.


Music for Guitar by Mauro Giuliani, W.T. Matiegka, Antoine L’Hoyer, Napoléon Coste, Giulio Regondi, Fernando Sor, and Andrés Segovia. David Starobin, guitar. Bridge Records. $16.99.

Paolo Marchettini: Music for Solo and Multiple Clarinets. Paolo Marchettini, Meng Zhang, and Ka Hei Chan, clarinet; Tommy Shermulis, bass clarinet. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The ability of solo performers to explore the full range and virtuosity of their instruments is sometimes taken for granted, as with pianists and violinists. In other cases, the expressiveness and proficiency of musicians are less often put on display, either because less solo music is available for their instruments or because the instruments themselves occupy something of a niche within classical music – rather than being central to it. The latter is the case for the guitar, which has a longstanding presence in the compositional realm – dating to Vivaldi and even earlier – but which does not immediately come to most listeners’ minds as offering significant solo-performance opportunities. Audiences may have at least a passing familiarity with Julian  Bream, Pepe Romero, Andrés Segovia and Christopher Parkening, but few other guitarists – much less guitarist/composers – likely spring to mind. That makes a new Bridge Records release featuring David Starobin especially welcome – although the CD is not entirely new, being a compilation of new and previously released material. Starobin does an outstanding job with everything on the disc, one of whose two first-release items happens to be by none other than Segovia. This is Five Anecdotes, a set of charming miniatures (one to three minutes apiece) in which the guitar’s emotional and technical range are both put effectively on display. The warmth of the fourth piece, Molto tranquillo, is especially notable. The other new item on the disc is a set of three unrelated pieces by the nearly unknown W.T. (Wenzel Thomas) Matiegka (1773-1830).  All three works turn out to be quite well-made: a Menuetto (Presto) is rhythmically strong and thematically engaging, an extended Sicillienne is warmly communicative, and a Rondo (Prestissimo) has a thoroughly delightful lilt. The remaining material on the CD comes from five composers and has been issued before in various guises. Two of the composers are comparatively familiar. The Grand Overture that opens the disc is by Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) and lives up to its title: it has scale and scope and something approaching grandeur, allowing the guitar to display the considerable elegance of which it is capable. And the Septième fantaisie et variations brillantes by Fernando Sor (1778-1839), the longest work on the disc, is even more expansive – and quite variegated in its contrasting elements and their development. Filling out the disc are three shorter pieces by little-known composers. The Exercise, Op. 27, No. 2 by Antoine L’Hoyer (1768-1852) was actually arranged by Giuliani as a three-minute prelude; its cascading notes, which require some very adept finger work, appear to give Starobin no trouble whatsoever. The Caprice sur l’air ‘La Cachucha’ by Napoléon Coste (1805-1883) bubbles along pleasantly and showcases the guitar’s lighter side to good effect. And Etude No. 5 by Giulio Regondi (1822-1872) is a solidly rhythmic two-minute study in scales and intricate fingering. The charm of all the music and adeptness of all the playing combine to make this CD a real treat for anyone interested in the expressive and technical capabilities of classical music for solo guitar.

     Clarinetist Paolo Marchettini has his own solution to the relative paucity of music for solo clarinet: he writes some himself, then performs it. His new CD for New Focus Recordings is all-clarinet – actually all-clarinets, plural, since it includes not only solo pieces but also ones for as many as four clarinets. This disc shows Marchettini (born 1974) being quite conversant with 21st-century compositional techniques as well as with the capabilities of his chosen instrument. An hour-plus of this material is, however, a bit much – non-clarinetists may wish to sample the (+++) disc instead of listening to it straight through. But certainly the CD shows how much can be communicated in contemporary terms by the clarinet, whether as a solo or in a group. The solo pieces are scattered throughout the disc. Cinque Oraculi (2022) includes five short pieces written with quarter-tones and calling on varying approaches to melody and rhythm – the contrast with the far more melodic Five Anecdotes by Segovia is notable on multiple levels, not just that of the differing instrumental qualities. Prayer (2011) is quiet, meditative and less experimental-sounding than Cinque Oraculi, although it calls on some similar performance techniques. Three Sketches (2010) consists of three minute-and-a-half displays of specific elements of clarinet sound and technique. Tratto (2016/2019) is more extended and makes a greater attempt to explore some of the clarinet’s emotionally evocative capabilities. There is also an interesting short work for solo bass clarinet (played by Tommy Shermulis): Entrée (2006) is a series of disconnected fragments showing the instrument in multiple registers and with multiple sounds, not all of them particularly pleasant. As for the multi-clarinet works here, one of them both opens and closes the CD: the first movement of Due Canti (2022), for clarinet trio, starts the recital, and the second movement concludes it. The opening piece begins as a solo and then becomes more expansive as the other clarinets join, while the closing one starts with all three instruments and becomes more expressively lyrical than most of the other works on the disc. The other music on the CD mixes clarinets (and sometimes bass clarinet) in varying ways. Preludio e Corrente (2009) for clarinet quartet has one stop-and-go movement and one that contrasts constant motion with an occasional broader passage. Cinque Fanfare Napoletane (2020) for clarinet trio is light, pleasant and somewhat more readily accessible than much of the rest of the disc, being based on Neapolitan songs that become the foundation for various brief flights of fancy. Epitaffio (2022) for clarinet quartet is in part suitably solemn, in part staccato, in totality rather meandering. There are also two works for clarinet ensemble, meaning multiple clarinets overdubbed onto themselves. Music of Color (2020) and Nec Clari (2006) are both sound clouds, the former more hectic and the latter quieter and more expressive. This is a self-limited recording in the sense that it will really appeal only to listeners fascinated by solo and multiple clarinets and by ways of using the instrument within a thoroughly modern context that is frequently at odds with the clarinet’s typical rich tone and emotive capabilities. Clarinetists themselves will find much of interest here if they are looking for something new for their own explorations of their instrument. Other listeners will likely be somewhat bemused, if not over-saturated, if they listen to the disc in its totality.

April 18, 2024


Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Simon Rattle. BR Klassik. $19.99.

Smetana: Má Vlast. Czech Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Pentatone. $17.99.

     Music can be intimate, in the sense of being personally revealing and communicative, without being intimate structurally: a composer may use very large forces to communicate highly personal, inward-looking emotions. Mahler was especially adept at this, employing large orchestras (and sometimes choruses) but frequently insisting on chamber-music delicacy from small sections or individual players. His Symphony No. 6 is full of this dichotomy, its memorable full-orchestra salvos starkly contrasting with sections in which the music barely rises above silence and is presented by a very small number of players. Simon Rattle’s BR Klassik performance with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is notable for its understanding of this element of the symphony, and is also noteworthy for the uniformly excellent orchestral playing, which makes both the broad strokes of the symphony and its delicate touches exceptionally clear. The first movement’s forceful march is reminiscent of the Wie ein Kondukt from Symphony No. 5: the tempo very regular, the drumbeat portentous before the major/minor chord that becomes a kind of leitmotif for the symphony. There is a strong sense of yearning in the contrasting “Alma” theme, which is relaxed and expansive rather than urging matters forward as the martial theme does. All sections of the orchestra fit seamlessly into each other, with the low strings especially impressive in underpinning the martial elements, and the brass exceptional throughout. Interestingly, the percussion contributes significantly both to delicacy and to emphasis, as needed. Rattle pays close attention to the solo violin/chamber sound a bit more than halfway through, providing moments of respite before the march reasserts itself. There is near-exuberance toward the movement’s end, propelled by the timpani, until the dissonant full-orchestra chord abruptly halts it. Rattle places the Andante moderato second, which does seem the right choice after the first movement’s intensity (Mahler never quite made up his mind about which movement should be second and which third). Here the sweetness and delicacy contrast strongly with the mood of the first movement (placing the Scherzo second would accentuate and intensify the mood). Rattle’s performance presents a sylvan setting and pastoral feel; the cowbells are not prominent but are just part of the ambiance. However, the mood becomes increasingly fraught, if not overtly dark, as the movement builds to a climax. Then the Scherzo reintroduces a marchlike rhythm, but now it is contrasted with wind-dominated dancelike elements. Here the timpani are again prominent in introducing sections and setting the scene, with the percussion-and-brass sections particularly effective. The movement peters out uncertainly at the end. And then the mood changes immediately as the fourth movement begins, the timpani tattoo returns, and darkness sweeps back in. Rattle creates a strong sense of dark anticipation here: the brass heralds an uncertain future, the themes emerging in fractured and dissonant guise. When something finally does coalesce, it is the major/minor chord, after the music repeatedly hints at an approach to something uncertain. There is, for a while, a sense of being directionless: Rattle builds the elements of the movement gradually, giving the impression that cohesiveness is achieved only in time and after struggle. He does a fine job with the further moments of surprising delicacy here: with additional use of instrumental solos, the chamber-music sound momentarily eclipses the full-orchestra power elsewhere. The first hammer blow, less than halfway through, sounds in this performance as if it introduces some emotional near-hysteria. Indeed, the slight weakness of this reading is that the movement as a whole tends to be somewhat scattered rather than obsessively tragic: it seems constantly, or at least intermittently, to strive for a level of calm and quiet that never remains long. The second hammer blow, a bit more than halfway through the movement, accentuates this feeling; and like most modern conductors, Rattle omits the third, which Mahler superstitiously crossed out. After the second blow, the uncertainty of the textural elements is such that the symphony threatens to come apart at the seams: Rattle’s version is not as tightly knit as some other very intense performances. But if the finale lacks a pervasive aura of gloom – there is more struggle and less oppressive resignation here – the very end of this reading is entirely apt. The nearly evaporative ending, a perfect example of Mahler’s use of quiet, brings on a concluding burst of despair that is genuinely frightening in its exclamatory intensity.

     There is nothing quite this striking in the six tone poems of Smetana’s Má Vlast, which collectively last about as long as Mahler’s Sixth, but Smetana here offers his very own blend of the broadly conceived and the highly personal. Although Vltava (Die Moldau), the second tone poem, is by far the best known, its Impressionism is reflected only in one other section: the fourth, From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, which meanders pleasantly through a sylvan landscape quite different from the idealized one in the second movement of Mahler’s Sixth. Smetana’s Má Vlast is a cultural excavation and, at the same time, the composer’s personal exploration of his homeland’s history, suffering, beauty, uncertainty, and hoped-for eventual triumph – the last of these, with its religious underpinning, being especially important to Smetana, who devoted both the fifth and sixth tone poems to the topic. No orchestra is better equipped to bring forth both the large-scale portions of this work and its small-scale emotional touches than the Czech Philharmonic, which plays beautifully (and, unsurprisingly, entirely idiomatically) under Semyon Bychkov on a new Pentatone recording. Bychkov emphasizes the expansiveness of Má Vlast, choosing uniformly broad tempos that give the cycle a large scale commensurate with its mythic and historic elements, albeit at the expense of some more-personal touches here and there. The opening tone poem, Vyšehrad (The High Castle), works well here, the ruins assuming a musically statuesque position and being given the stature of a metaphor for Czech grandeur created and then lost (and hopefully to be found once again through the final paired works, Tábor and Blanik). Bychkov retains some of the mood of Vyšehrad in Vltava, but it does not work quite as well in this familiar music: the river seems rather sluggish, lacking the sparkle that other conductors find in it and that makes for a more-effective contrast when, toward the end of the second tone poem, the water flows past the castle portrayed in the first. The more-delicate portions of Vltava sound better here than the ones that could flow a bit more swiftly. As for the third tone poem, Šarka, Bychkov makes it a very human experience indeed, turning the mythic tale of female warriors revenging themselves on male fighters into an expansive exploration of the incompatibility of emotional warmth with the desire for vengeance. Šarka pairs with From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields to showcase two sides of the Czech land and character, the indomitable and intense on the one hand, the caring and nature-loving on the other. Bychkov effectively contrasts these two middle-of-cycle sections before moving on to the Tábor and Blanik pairing, which here comes across as strong and stately but a bit lacking in intensity: the outright march sections could use a touch more of a genuinely martial air about them. Nevertheless, the playing throughout the cycle is excellent, the orchestra’s sections are very well-balanced, and the underlying sense of commitment to the music and the stories within it comes through very clearly here. There is more grandiosity than grandeur from time to time, but on the whole, this version of Má Vlast does a fine job of communicating the human elements of the Czech experience in Smetana’s time as well as the historic ups and downs of Czech society as a whole.


Bach: Mass in B Minor. Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; Rhianna Cockrell, alto; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Paul Max Tipton, bass-baritone; Cantata Collective conducted by Nicholas McGegan. AVIE. $26.99 (2 CDs).

Kate Soper: The Hunt. Hirona Amamiya, soprano & violin; Christiana Cole, soprano & ukulele; Brett Umlauf, soprano & ukulele. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Intended to confirm belief and lead to inspiration, Bach’s Mass in B Minor has long been a subject of veneration itself, acknowledged as one of the greatest of all works in the classical canon. Religiously surprising – Bach, although a Lutheran, here created a complete Catholic Mass – and subject to the usual musicological discussions and arguments as to its provenance, dates, and reasons for being, the Mass in B Minor transcends all the back-and-forth to become an audience experience that is deeply moving strictly on a musical level, whether or not listeners share the faith underlying it. It is stylistically remarkable: in it, Bach reaches back to Renaissance forms and combines them with his own preferred contrapuntal techniques and a level of chromaticism considered highly modern by the standards of his time. Filled with intricacy and elaborate ornamentation, the Mass in B Minor is often at its most effective when Bach deliberately reduces his vocal and instrumental forces to chamber-music levels – as when, near the work’s end, the Benedictus includes only tenor, flute and continuo. Written in parts over much of Bach’s life (between 1714 and 1749, the year before his death), the Mass in B Minor has a level of consistency in communication that may as well be ascribed to faith as much as to musical skill. It surely partakes of both. Nicholas McGegan, whose history with the work dates back some 50 years, brings all his longstanding knowledge of Bach, and of this music in particular, to a splendid new recording on the AVIE label, featuring the Cantata Collective chorus and orchestra. McGegan’s understanding of the music and its underlying spiritual impetus – and the thorough knowledge of Baroque vocal and instrumental techniques evinced by singers and orchestra members alike – add up to a performance that is musically uplifting and that, through the music, can be emotionally engaging as well. For those not spiritually moved, the musical elements alone make this first-rate recording a deeply involving experience. It is easy, for those so inclined, to dissect elements of the Mass in B Minor structurally as well as musically – for example, the work contains 27 sections, which is 3 x 3 x 3, the Trinity to the third power. But the music itself argues against over-intellectualizing, so varied are those 27 parts, so adeptly does Bach mix choral elements with solos and duets, and so carefully does he manage musical building blocks such as key structure: only five of the sections are actually in B minor, while 12 are in its relative major key (D). Bach organized the work in four folders – an arrangement followed by the titling of the McGegan recording – and all four end in the uplifting major key of D. What is significant in this release is that while McGegan and Cantata Collective are surely well aware of the work’s organizational, structural and foundational designs, the performance sounds anything but hidebound: the music sweeps along from section to section with a seamlessness that belies its creation during an extended time period, and the performers convey the beauty and intended uplift of the material without ever having the work sound straitlaced. Again and again, the beauties of detail come through: flute obbligato with muted strings in Domine Deus, bass with obbligato corno da caccia and two bassoons in Quoniam tu solus sanctus, the many differences of sound in sections with four-part, five-part or six-part chorus, and more. McGegan and Cantata Collective show that the Mass in B Minor is, in significant ways, always new and always contemporary, even in a time period so much more secular than Bach’s and so much less inclined to the creation of musical expressions of the highest order.

     Today’s composers are a great deal more likely to use vocal works to make sociopolitical points – even when they reach well into the past for inspiration. Some composers can do this quite cleverly, one such being Kate Soper (born 1981), whose chamber opera The Hunt is packed with contemporary approaches and sensibilities that are unlikely to sustain over the long term but do not appear to have any such concerns, staying focused on the here-and-now in a kind of forced philosophical manner. The Hunt – which happens to have 26 sections, although the number has no significance – is unusual in design, using three sopranos to tell the story and having each of them play an instrument instead of being accompanied by a separate ensemble. This is diegetic music – that is, the on-stage performers play pieces within the context of the work and can themselves hear the music, thus “breaking” a kind of “fourth wall” of sound as they participate in a narrative, and are aware that they do so, even as they function as characters within it. This and other sensibilities of The Hunt are quite contemporary in nature, even though the work was inspired by medieval tapestries illustrating the hunt for a unicorn through the use of a virgin as bait: lured by purity, the unicorn approaches and can then be captured by hunters. Soper, unsurprisingly for a modern composer, chooses to use the old legend as the basis of a critique of societal attitudes toward gender and sexuality, thus deliberately denying the tale any level of universality that it might otherwise have. She does employ a mixture of styles, including folk and chorale and parlor song and musical theater, and she even uses a mixture of Latin and English to establish the opening scene. Her musical language is unabashedly contemporary: hearing Latin homophony declaimed in strong dissonance with overlays of Sprechstimme is at the very least an intriguing experience. The verbiage (most of it also by Soper, with bits by Christina Rossetti and symbolist poet Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D.) is often self-consciously self-aware, and the vocal techniques tend to make much of the argument difficult to follow even when the underlying music itself is modest in scale. The Hunt is an intriguingly experimental bit of avant-garde sort-of-opera, with some elements of genuine creativity (for instance, the voices in First Sighting speak so rapidly over each other that they sound like electronics, while those voices’ high level of clarity in The Noble Unicorn creates a brief Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque moment). The presentational quirkiness of this (+++) release is actually its most attractive element. It does undermine the intended seriousness of the messages that Soper wants to communicate, but that is perhaps all to the good, since the structure and sound of The Hunt are more unusual and innovative than the rather formulaic meanings it seeks to convey.