December 18, 2014

(++++) FNURGLES, PIGS AND OTHERS


Where’s My Fnurgle? By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Five Stinky Socks. By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Piggy Paints. By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Robot Kitties. By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

     Leave it to Jim Benton, creator of Happy Bunny and other suitably weird and thoroughly amusing characters, to come up with thoroughly delightful animal-character board books, including one featuring something that has never been seen in a book before. The “something” is a Fnurgle. And if you have to ask what one is, well, you are just like everybody else, because this green, polka-dotted, big-eyed, huge-nosed, ever-smiling whatever-it-is is entirely fnurglian and not much of anything else. The fnurgle does not do much of anything and in fact spends most of its (his?) time not being where the book’s narrator expects it (her?) to be. Hence the title, Where’s My Fnurgle? Readers will see all or most of the fnurgle on all the pages of this board book, but the narrator has a problem. For example, “My fnurgle’s on the chair” is what a left-hand page says, but the chair is clearly empty and the fnurgle is outside the window, smiling. “My fnurgle’s in the sink!” Um, well, no – actually, the fnurgle is hiding in the, well, toilet. Whether sitting calmly amid six kittens or eating the narrator’s lunch, the fnurgle is inevitably up to some sort of mischief or mystery, for no other reason than the apparent fact that that is apparently what fnurgles do. Filled with the usual silliness at which Benton is adept, but presented in board-book format – simple language and a minimal number of pages – this introduction to fnurgling will be a lot more fun than are many board books. It is admittedly a lot less educational, too, but being informative is not what Benton does best. Nor, apparently, what fnurgles do. The first three letters in “fnurgle” are, however, an acronym for “fun.”

     The monster thingie that narrates Five Stinky Socks isn’t a fnurgle – it’s hard to tell just what it is – but it does have considerable fondness for super-smelly footwear. The huge-eyed, huge-nosed, five-footed character explains that it used one sock to wash dishes, has a second one that smells like a skunk, found the third in a trash can, and so on – you get the idea, and so will kids, who will enjoy the narrator’s poses while he makes comments such as, “They’re smelling up my feet” and “I have to hold my nose.” Eventually the socks have all been suitably described – and drawn, with each looking equally colorful and smelly in its own way – and what now? Well, it’s time to play outside, and that means putting the stinky feet, encased in stinky socks, in – you guessed it – stinky shoes. The only real problem here will be persuading kids that no matter what monster thingies may do, children do not go out of their way to wear the stinkiest possible socks. Or shouldn’t, anyway.

     At least Benton makes the central character of Piggy Paints a familiar animal: a pig, of course. But not just any pig. This is a Benton pig, which means he wakes up with “big painting plans” one morning, grabs a brush as big as he is, and paints on the wall – then puts on magnifying glasses so he can see well enough to paint something really, really small. He paints some recognizable things (“pigs with a kitty in the middle,” frogs, sheep), but mostly abstract ones – including a purple splotch so large that he has to paint it by piloting a helicopter beneath which a gigantic paintbrush is tied. Pig’s painting turns into an all-day project, at the end of which Piggy is right back where we saw him first: in bed, but this time paint-spattered and with brushes and cans on the floor and newly painted art on the wall of his room. As with Five Stinky Socks, there is an issue for parents with Piggy Paints, which is to explain that no matter what Benton-drawn pigs do, children do not paint on walls, or by flying helicopters, or by making huge messes everywhere (not intentionally, anyway).

     The characters in Robot Kitties are familiar animals, too – well, more or less. This board book has subtle tie-ins to Piggy Paints (one robot kitten is seen painting a picture of a pig) and to Five Stinky Socks (another is shown trying on socks and shoes that, if not necessarily stinky, are certainly as ill-matched as those in the stinky-socks book). On its own, though, Robot Kitties is simply about – well, the title says it all. There is no explanation of where the robot kitties come from or what relationship they have to humans or other creatures – in fact, the only characters in the book are the robot kitties themselves. Not that there is anything threatening about them – not at all. They are simply amusing as they walk on four legs, or upright on two; fly with a propeller tail, with airplane wings or by hanging onto a balloon; scoot along with their bottom parts having car-like wheels or a single unicycle-like one; or explore underwater within a submersible or simply by using their own robot fins. The fun here lies in looking at all the things the robot kitties do: “You’ll see them here. You’ll see them there. Robot kitties everywhere.” There you have it: short, simple and enjoyable. Indeed, the point of all these Benton board books is plain and simple fun – with which the books are neatly and completely packed.

(++++) MONEY, MONEY, MONEY


Paying for College without Going Broke, 2015 Edition. By Kalman A. Chany, with Geoff Martz. Princeton Review/Random House. $20.

     Anyone heaving a sigh of relief at being admitted to the college of his or her choice hasn’t looked at the bills yet. In fact, getting into one’s preferred college may be a lot less challenging than paying for it. Kalman Chany and Geoff Martz cite a highly interesting statistic in the 2015 edition of Paying for College without Going Broke: “According to a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 77.8% applicants to colleges in the United States were accepted by their first-choice school.” This probably indicates considerable care in selecting a first-choice school – considerable credit is due to students and families for that – but what it does not say is how many applicants actually get to attend their first-choice school. The percentage is undoubtedly lower, simply because higher education has become so enormously expensive. And that is the issue that Chany and Martz set out to handle in their book – demystifying the financial-aid process as they go.

     They do not really demystify it, though. As a matter of fact, after 300-plus oversized pages about financing one’s education, readers may be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and ready to throw up their hands in despair. There are so many tricks of the trade to getting financial help for school – and they are not necessarily tricky but are often highly time-consuming and elaborate – that even Chany and Martz admit they cannot explain all of them, much less show how each individual reader can apply the various approaches to his or her personal situation. Still, the authors’ guidelines are as clear and helpful in the latest edition of this book as in prior ones, and there is a lot – make that a lot – of information packed in here. One problem for families is that so much of the terminology itself is confusing and one-time-use-only, important for considering the financial realities of colleges but not for anything else in life. Chany and Martz do what they can to familiarize readers with FAFSA, FAOs, preferential packaging, “the automatic zero-EFC,” federal vs. institutional methodologies, the four “need” categories (extremely high, high, moderate and low), and much more, and their explanations are clear and as straightforward as it is possible to be; but the fact is that college financing is enormously complex and has a jargon all its own, making the study of the subject worthy of, well, a college course in itself.  This is not something for which many students or parents will likely have much appetite.

     Chany and Martz cannot provide the necessary stick-to-it-iveness to get through their book, but readers who do have the motivation will find almost the entire volume enormously useful in a highly practical and pragmatic way. Skip the self-serving and politically disingenuous Foreword by former President Bill Clinton and start with the honest question in the Introduction, “If this is so good for me, why does it feel so bad?” Typically, the authors give a plainspoken reason: the cost of four years in college is more than $150,000 at many schools, which “is enough to cause even the most affluent parent to want to sit down and cry.” After the tears – and really, there is no reason to hold them back; this is a huge expense, one of the biggest families will ever face – Chany and Martz show their usual acumen in talking readers through ways to apply for grants, scholarships, loans, what-have-you, while maximizing an incoming student’s attractiveness to schools in ways both subtle and overt. They warn that financial-aid packages last only one year, so families must be prepared to go through the whole process four times at a four-year school, and they offer suggestions for minimizing taxes, increasing aid eligibility, understanding financial-aid formulas well enough so you can use them to save money, and – in an especially useful section – choosing colleges that will give the best aid packages. Some of their ideas are particularly helpful, such as their recommendation that every student apply to a “financial safety school” that he or she is pretty much sure to get into, that the family can afford even with no aid at all, and that the student is willing to attend: “We’ve met some students who freely admit they wouldn’t be caught dead going to their safety school. As far as we are concerned, those students either haven’t looked hard enough to find a safety school they would enjoy, or they have unreasonable expectations about what the experience of college is supposed to be.”

     In a book as thick and complex as this one, there are bound to be some misfirings, and there are. Sometimes a statement is puzzling, and sometimes one is unintentionally hilarious: “The federal government has a great break for parent(s) in the household who…can file the 1040A or the 1040EZ tax form (or are not required to file a tax form at all because they are not required to do so).” Skimming over points of unplanned confusion like this one is fine, though, since so much of the book explains points of what appears to be planned confusion in the design and implementation of federal and institutional college-funding assistance. There is simply no way to make this subject easy, and it would be naïve of parents and students to think that the most important aspect of college planning is academic and/or geographical and/or career-oriented. All those factors are crucial, but unless a student can afford to attend a college that provides the academic and/or career focus that he/she wants, in a geographic region where he or she will be comfortable, the whole college experience may be ruined even before it begins. The practical, clear, results-oriented writing contained in Paying for College without Going Broke will scarcely make students or families happy with the realities of handling a college education financially: schools’ expectations of what families will pay in order to get any financial aid whatsoever are “designed to include money that you have earned in the past (assets) and money that you will obtain in the future (loans) as well as the income you are currently earning.” This is profoundly uncomfortable, and it is to the credit of Chaney and Martz that they do not sugarcoat the reality’s unpleasantness. If they cannot make it pleasing, though, they can at least make it palatable by helping families take as much control of college financing as possible. That is the bottom-line value of the 2015 edition of Paying for College without Going Broke.

(+++) GETTING ANGSTY


Bogle Trilogy #2: A Plague of Bogles. By Catherine Jinks. Illustrated by Sarah Watts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Little White Lies. By Katie Dale. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

     The doubts, uncertainties and feelings of not fitting in that collectively come across as angst in many books for preteens and teenagers are in full bloom – if that is the right word – in both of these novels. A Plague of Bogles, the sequel to Catherine Jinks’ How to Catch a Bogle, returns readers to an alternative version of Victorian England, in which monstrous, child-eating bogles roam London and professional boglers are called upon to dispatch them. Birdie McAdam, bogler’s assistant and the central character of the first book, plays a subsidiary role here, having moved up in the world (at least by traditional standards) and finding herself doubting who she really is and where she fits in. She was a more interesting character in the first book, and her lack of assurance and altogether lower level of intensity here are unfortunate. “Last time I saw her,” says the new book’s protagonist, Jem Barbary, “she were living with a fine lady near Great Russell Street, eating plum cakes every day and wearing lace on her petticoats.” This is not the Birdie readers of the first book will want to see – and, thank goodness, some elements of the original Birdie do reappear in the course of A Plague of Bogles. But Jem is, in the main, the central character, and neither he nor his adventures are as interesting as were Birdie’s in the series opener. Jem, an orphan, was apprenticed, so to speak, to an old thief named Sarah Pickles, who would be pretty much straight out of Oliver Twist except for the fact that she operates in an environment saturated with magic. Jem worked for her as a pickpocket until she betrayed him, and then he ended up on the streets, hoping to become a bogler’s apprentice. Indeed, Jem has already helped dispose of a bogle, and he does eventually get together with Alfred Bunce, to whom Birdie was apprenticed, and become Alfred’s new assistant. And so there ensue a series of new adventures, in which bogles seem to cluster in ways they did not in the first book – hence the title of this sequel. Eventually everything ties back to Sarah Pickles, who turns out to be even more unpleasant than Jem originally thought her to be; and after a series of close calls, and Jem’s capture and near destruction by bogles, it is clear that he and Birdie will be involved with Alfred in the next entry in the series. Second books of trilogies are always in a difficult position: they need to make sense on their own while advancing the overall story line, starting in the middle of things and ending up somewhere else in the middle of other things. A Plague of Bogles feels a bit too much like a placeholder to be fully effective, and Jem is not as interesting or fully delineated a character as Birdie. But Jinks paces the story well and skillfully delivers more of the thrills and chills she provided in the first book – although here as in How to Catch a Bogle, the illustrations by Sarah Watts add little to the story and are significantly less grim than the tale itself. Birdie will presumably overcome her uncertainty and self-doubt in the next installment, and with her experience added to Jem’s – and the likely reappearance of villains who managed to escape in the first two books – the scene is set for a bang-up conclusion.

     London is different – modern and more realistic – and the angst is dialed up multiple notches in Katie Dale’s Little White Lies. This is in part simply a matter of the reader age targeted by the book: Dale’s is for 14 and up, Jinks’ for 8-12. But it is also a matter of the story’s focus. Little White Lies is intended as gritty realism (or pseudo-realism), with nary a whisper of magic or anything particularly outré.  There is, however, plenty of room here for overplotting, over-coincidence and a general sense that things are overdone. The first-person narrator, Lucinda (Lou), meets an attractive young man named Christian Webb, who has a mysterious past about which he will not talk. Christian keeps his blond hair dyed black and has no family photos anywhere. He is clearly not what he seems to be – but then, it turns out, neither is Lou. Christian’s house is burned one night and his motorbike is destroyed, leaving Lou to rescue him from who-knows-what and take him to the only place he says he can go, to a friend named Joe. Then it just happens to turn out that Joe leaves and locks the apartment from outside. And just then the TV comes on to announce that a criminal named Leo Niles is on the run. And Leo is Christian! And Lou knew it all along! And she has been on a crusade against Leo because Leo’s crime involved a break-in at Lou’s house, leading in turn to two deaths and Lou’s uncle being imprisoned, leading to headlines such as “Convicted Criminal Released as Hero Dad Rots in Jail,” leading to Lou telling readers how she ended up putting Leo’s/Christian’s “phone number on fake taxi cards, jogging past his house every day to discover his routine, bumping into him in the café and ‘accidentally’ spilling coffee on him so I could nick his wallet, giving me an excuse to see him again and a reason to trust me.” And pretending to twist her ankle, and stealing Christian’s keys to frame him for a crime he did not commit, and – well, suffice it to say that Leo may be no angel, but neither is Lou. Leo and Lou – isn’t that cute? Too cute, actually, and so is what happens next, because all these revelations happen mid-book, after which, well, Lou and Leo kiss. Oh my. Now Lou may be falling for the evil criminal who destroyed her family! But Leo soon reveals what really happened, and in a way that Lou believes. But who else will believe it? What can Lou do? What should she do? Follow her heart, her feelings, her concern for family, her instincts, her intellect? Oh my, oh my!  Suffice it to say that the book’s second half is no more believable than the first; maybe less. Revelation piles on revelation, with one such eventually showing that Lou’s beloved uncle was not so innocent after all, not so deserving of the “hero” designation he got in the press, and that Lou’s also-beloved aunt had an unwitting hand in the whole mess, and – well, my gracious and my goodness, there is so much to work out here. To give Dale credit, she keeps twisting the plot until it practically shrieks “enough already,” thereby pulling readers along from point to point, event to event, surprise disclosure to surprise disclosure, with a sure hand and sufficient speed to prevent many of those readers from laughing at the plot’s absurdities and holes. Intended as a book for “mature” teens, with its panoply of love, death, crime, infidelity (sort of), and other “adult” themes, Little White Lies is as much a fantasy as any fairy tale rewritten for six-year-olds. But its language and headlong pace make it feel like a book for older readers, and teens trying to convince themselves that this is a foretaste of literature for adults will enjoy what Dale offers. And, to be completely honest, adults should admit that many genre-bound, angst-soaked page turners written for adult readers are no more believable or realistic than Little White Lies. Not that that is much of a compliment to the readers – or the books.

(++++) CONSIDER THE SOUND


Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—A Night at Karlštejn Castle; Comenius—Festival Overture; The Jew of Prague—Overture; Hedy—Ballet Music; Hippodamia’s Death—March; Tableaux Vivants—Prologue to the Opening of the New Czech Theatre, The Great Musical Monograph of the Building of the National Theatre, Music for the Reopening of the National Theatre, Music for the Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Jan Amos Comenius. Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri. Duke Vespers Ensemble and Cappella Baroque conducted by Brian Schmidt. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Sax Spectrum 2: New Music for Alto and Soprano Saxophone. Glen Gillis, alto and soprano saxophone; Bonnie Nicholson, piano; Richard Gillis, trumpet; James Cunningham, didgeridoo. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Ástor Piazzolla: Five Tango Sensations; Oblivion; Robert Di Marino: Concerto for Bandoneon and String Orchestra. Cesare Chiacchiaretta, bandoneon; Croatian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Naxos. $9.99.

     Here are some CDs that derive much of their pleasure from the sounds that the composers create and the performers elicit – that is, the appeal here is not so much one of form or mental appreciation as it is one of simple enjoyment of the skill with which composers create aural beauty and performers bring it out. Of course, this is not to say that the music is intended, like (say) much New Age and minimalist music, simply as sound in which one’s consciousness floats. Every work here has its point – but after listening to the recordings, a listener is as likely to be carried away by the sheer sonic experience as by the more intellectual elements underlying the musical works. The fourth volume of Naxos’ fine survey of the orchestral works of Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900) includes some of his shorter works and ones for theatrical projects, all of them very well played by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Marek Štilec. None of the pieces has significant depth; none seems designed to have any. Instead, what each does is encapsulate a particular mood and explore it effectively and in brief, with some very well-done orchestration. Inspired by a play, the concert overture A Night at Karlštejn Castle contrasts horn calls and wistful woodwinds with expressive string themes. A more celebratory piece, Comenius—Festival Overture was written in honor of the important 17th-century Czech writer and teacher, Jan Amos Comenius; but it is not the history but the sound of its ominous opening, Fibich’s use of lower brass, and the eventual triumphant conclusion that will most engage listeners. The overture to the tragedy The Jew of Prague has memorable episodes of menace and drama. The ballet music from Fibich’s fourth opera, Hedy, features picturesque and effective use of percussion, a solo cello, and considerable grace in the strings. The march from Hippodamia’s Death, third in a trilogy of musical melodramas, has strong pacing and a memorable use of harp. And then there are four works for the now-obsolete form of tableaux vivants: “staged pictures” presented a single time for a specific occasion and not intended to be seen, nor their music to be heard, again. The four examples by Fibich are short and to the point, with an appropriately celebratory sound, showing the composer’s skill with (again) the harp, as well as his particular ability to weave pleasant combinations of strings and woodwinds. Interestingly, Music for the Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Jan Amos Comenius was written at the same time as Comenius—Festival Overture and uses the same theme, but is as brief and simply triumphal as the overture is extended and multifaceted.

     The sound world is very different but equally enthralling in the performance by the Duke Vespers Ensemble of Dietrich Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri. The work’s full title, Membra Jesu Nostri Patientis Sanctissima, means "The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus" and consists of seven cantatas addressing seven parts of Christ’s body – with stanzas of a Medieval hymn interwoven with Biblical words (mostly from the Old Testament) that are taken to be about Jesus’ feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head. Considered the first Lutheran oratorio, Membra Jesu Nostri contains no fewer than 43 movements and is scored for two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass, plus two violins, basso continuo, and (in the sixth cantata, Ad cor or “To the heart”) a viola da gamba consort). The work is an extended one, lasting nearly an hour, and highly expressive within the Baroque framework in which Buxtehude composed. This MSR Classics recording features somewhat expanded forces – the Duke Vespers Ensemble has about 20 members – and some subtle, engaged and highly reverent phrasing of the musical material. A live recording, made at the Duke University Chapel in 2013, the performance is particularly notable for the warmth of the singers’ voices and the resonant beauty of the sound quality of the university’s neo-Gothic chapel. Cappella Baroque, founded by Brian Schmidt – who is Assistant Conductor of Chapel Music at Duke – uses period instruments, which add an underpinning of richness and solidity to the vocal material here. It is not necessary to follow the Latin or share Buxtehude’s (and Bach’s) Lutheran faith to be transported by this work, written in 1680, to a region of very considerable aural beauty.

     The sound is also the big attraction in an MSR Classics release featuring saxophonist Glen Gillis, but here the music is somewhat too slight to be as involving as the works of Fibich and Buxtehude, with the result that this CD gets a (+++) rating. It is nevertheless a feast for the ears of saxophone lovers. Gillis (born 1956) includes four works of his own and two co-written with others, all of them as new as can be, dating to this year: Fantasia, Aurora Australis, Celtic Air, Doppler Wah Wah Air Jig, Canis Lupus (with James Cunningham, born 1954), and Spectrum Mashup (with Wayne Giesbrecht, born 1964). The works’ titles are reasonably descriptive of their sound, but they are not quite as distinctive as those titles would seem to indicate: all showcase the saxophone’s sonic qualities in somewhat different styles and somewhat different ways, but all come across as being written more as display pieces than for the purpose of communicating any particular non-superficial emotion or viewpoint. Sonically, the most interesting of these is Canis Lupus, because the blend and contrast of saxophone and didgeridoo is unusual and sufficiently exotic to capture the ear effectively. Also on the CD are two works by Richard Gillis: Shades (2014) and Blues & Remembrance (2009, on which the composer hauntingly plays the trumpet). There is a 2014 sonata called Making Changes by Barbara York (born 1949) and a brief but effective two-movement work from 2012 called Narrative by David Kaplan (born 1923). Also here is a 2014 piece by Paul Suchan (born 1983) called Danse Exotique des Gros Papillons, whose intended exoticism would have been brought forth somewhat more effectively if it had been directly followed on the CD by the Glen Gillis/Bonnie Nicholson arrangement of part of The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by He Zhanhao (born 1933) and Chen Gang (born 1935). This concerto is unusually effective in its original instrumentation in the way it combines solo violin playing using Chinese techniques with tonal music written for a Western orchestra. The Gillis/Nicholson arrangement shows that the piece can be interesting to hear when arranged for saxophone and piano, although the aural experience does not match that of the original work. There are a few fairly substantial pieces on this CD, but by and large, the disc comes across as a saxophone-encore showcase of sorts – and there is nothing wrong with that, although nothing particularly profound about it either.

     The sound of the bandoneon, which is popular in several countries but seems to be a quintessentially Argentinian instrument because of the way Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) not only played it but also used it to transform the entire experience of the tango, pervades a new Naxos CD with a strongly international flavor. Hearing an extended bandoneon concerto by an Italian composer – Roberto Di Martino (born 1956) – is itself enough to make a listener’s ears perk up. And hearing the concerto played by an Italian virtuoso, Cesare Chiacchiaretta (who started as an accordion player and then moved to the bandoneon), with a Croatian orchestra and conductor, certainly gives a worldly flavor to the whole listening experience. Di Martino’s concerto, which here receives its world première recording, is in the traditional three movements and does a good if not outstandingly distinctive job of exploring the emotional compass of the bandoneon, from its virtuoso capabilities to a rather surprising amount of sensual expressiveness. This 22-minute work nevertheless pales before the four-minute Oblivion by Piazzolla, whose intensity is quite striking and shows a sonic character that even listeners familiar with the bandoneon may not realize that the instrument possesses. More familiar in sound and expression are Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations, which explore the dance form with which the composer is most strongly associated. They perhaps try a bit too hard for the sort of emotional involvement that comes across more meaningfully in Oblivion, but they have notable elements of their own – and a particularly intriguing contrast between the third movement, “Anxiety,” and the fifth, “Fear” (the others being called “Asleep,” “Loving” and “Despertar”). Taken as a whole, this is a (+++) CD that, like the Glen Gillis saxophone offering, will be of greatest interest to listeners who simply want to immerse themselves in a particular instrument’s unique sound and discover ways in which composers make that instrument expressive in a variety of ways.

(++++) THE LYRICAL PIANO


Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano. Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Orion Weiss, piano. Telos Music. $16.99.

American Lyricism: Piano Music by American Composers Christopher Theofanidis, Richard Danielpour, Monica Houghton, Justin Merritt and Pierre Jalbert. Christopher Atzinger, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

James Adler: Suite Moderne for Strings; Psalm for Michael; Six Little Variations on Noël Ancien; Twisted Tango; 3 Introspections; Kevin Cummines: Three Works for James Adler; Paul Turok: Clarinet Sonata; Seth Bedford: Three Postcards for Piano—Beneath the Moonlight Tower; Pike-Pine March. James Adler, piano; “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jason K. Fettig; Virginia Brewer, oboe; Eugene Moye, Jr., cello; Cain-Oscar Bergeron, flute; Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet; David Babich, tenor saxophone; Malcolm J. Merriweather, baritone. Albany Records. $16.99.

     There are many excellent recorded performances of Brahms’ three sonatas for violin and piano, works whose depth and emotional complexity make it possible to focus on and emphasize them in very different ways while still producing effective, affecting, meaningful and involving performances. Arnaud Sussmann and Orion Weiss look to the lyrical beauty of these works for inspiration more than to their drama, intensity and compositional complexity. The result is a warm, involving performance in which, even though some tempos are rather faster than usual, the overall sense of the music is one of expansiveness. Sonata No. 1 benefits to a particularly great degree from this treatment, its manifest beauties at the service of a level of intimate expressiveness that is wholly convincing. The finale’s melancholy, which eventually blends into a conclusion that straddles feelings of resignation and calm, comes across especially well in this very fine reading. Sonata No. 2 has more grace and arguably less depth than No. 1, its inventive second movement (part scherzo, part slow movement) coming across particularly effectively here; the conclusion of this finale, like that of No. 1, is something of an emotional question mark, lying between the pensive and the nostalgic. Sonata No. 3 is a touch less appealing in this performance than the others, but very beautifully played nevertheless. This is a sonata of high drama and almost violent emotions, but Sussmann and Weiss tend to downplay some of the more intensely dramatic elements in favor of an emphasis on the work’s passages of tenderness and contemplation. The result is an unusually lyrical approach to the sonata, an entirely legitimate way of looking at it if perhaps one not quite as satisfying as a rendition that more strongly embraces the divergent, strongly contrasted moods that Brahms displays here. The Telos Music CD’s sound is very fine, emphasizing the careful balance between the instruments and allowing the piano as much lyrical intensity as is heard in the violin.

     Lyricism pervades a new MSR Classics disc of recent piano music by American composers, as the CD’s title, American Lyricism, makes clear. There are five piano works here, two of them world première recordings, and like so much contemporary music – American and otherwise – they are something of a mixed bag. In a sense, the very names of the composers constitute a celebration of the inclusiveness that is so characteristic of the United States: Theofanidis, Danielpour, Houghton, Merritt, Jalbert. In another sense, the music itself is evidence of inclusion: styles, approaches and moods vary all over the place, and although the appellation “lyricism” is appropriate enough for some parts of some of the works, it is not descriptive of them as a whole. Christopher Atzinger approaches all these pieces with considerable understanding and finely balanced technique, whether playing the compressed four-movement Sonata for Piano (1998) by Monica Houghton (born 1954) or the slightly longer, more emotionally trenchant four-movement All Dreams Begin with the Horizon (2007) by Christopher Theofanidis (born 1967) – a sonata-like work whose first movement is interestingly designated “lucid, present.” The most extended piece here is The Enchanted Garden: Preludes, Book II (2009) by Richard Danielpour (born 1956), in which the composer skillfully weaves a variety of emotions into a suite-like seven-movement sequence that, like many suites, is somewhat disconnected thematically. The two shorter pieces on the CD are more consistent in expressiveness than the three longer ones: Chaconne: Mercy Endures (2009) by Justin Merritt (born 1975) and Toccata (2001) by Pierre Jalbert (born 1967). The Houghton and Merritt pieces are the world premières. The disc as a whole is the sum of not-very-strongly-related elements, resulting in a (+++) overall rating: the very fact that contemporary American music is so variegated makes it difficult to home in on any specific unifying factor among these works except for the fact that they are American in origin, and this makes the disc an interesting sampling of modern American piano compositions but not a particularly focused one.

     There is focus to the contemporary music on another lyricism-oriented (+++) CD, this one from Albany Records and featuring James Adler. The focus comes through Adler himself, who composed five of the eight works here and performs as pianist in seven of the eight. As a display disc for Adler, this is certainly a triumph, but for listeners not already enamored of him as composer and/or pianist, there is less to celebrate. His pianism is fine and sensitive, and his compositions are nicely put together and more than adequately reflective of the emotions they intend to convey. But there is nothing particularly inspirational here, nothing likely to stay with listeners long after the recording has played – except perhaps for admiration of the skill with which Adler creates music for a variety of different instruments and instrumental combinations. The disc opens with the five short movements of Suite Moderne for Strings (1982) as performed by “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Chamber Orchestra under Jason K. Fettig, and this modern update of the Baroque suite has a pleasantly old-fashioned sound. Adler’s other pieces here, even when tonal, are more firmly planted in the 20th and 21st centuries. They include Psalm for Michael (2003) for oboe, cello and piano; Six Little Variations on Noël Ancien (1986) for flute and piano; Twisted Tango (2012) for tenor saxophone and piano; and 3 Introspections (2014) for baritone, oboe and piano, using lyrics by David Cote. Adler knows when to make the piano more prominent in these works and when to let it subside into the background, and his lyrical propensities are pleasantly evident time and again, even if the music comes across as being well-crafted rather than genuinely inspired. The piano writing is particularly intriguing in Kevin Cummines’ Three Works for James Adler (2013-14: “Toccata,” “Torque” and “Termination”), and Adler handles the music with aplomb. Paul Turok’s Clarinet Sonata (2011) and two of Seth Bedford’s Three Postcards for Piano (2011-13) are, like Adler’s own music, well put together but ultimately not especially memorable. However, for fans of Adler as composer, pianist or both, this CD will provide some noteworthy insights into Adler’s thinking while creating music and his expressiveness when performing it.

December 11, 2014

(++++) FANTASIES OF VARYING SILLINESS


Big Bad Detective Agency. By Bruce Hale. Scholastic. $4.99.

What if You Had Animal Feet!? By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

Batman: The Penguin’s Arctic Adventure. By Donald Lemke. Illustrated by Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Batman: Winter Wasteland. By Donald Lemke. Pictures by Steven E. Gordon. Colors by Eric A. Gordon. Harper. $3.99.

     Bruce Hale has a thing about weird detectives, and so will anyone who stumbles upon Big Bad Detective Agency, which features Wolfgang the misunderstood and unfairly accused wolf and his enthusiastic helper, Ferkel the tiny pig, both of whom are on the trail of housebreakers in the kingdom of Fairylandia, which is ruled by a prince rather than a king for reasons best known to the rather choleric prince himself. Anyway, fans of Hale’s Chet Gecko series (Chet is the fourth-grade lizard detective at Emerson Hicky Elementary School) will welcome this new take on the detecting biz, which lacks some of Chet’s wisecracks and nemeses but makes up for it by standing the whole Three Little Pigs fairy-tale concept on its head (the little pigs here are hugely oversized porkers, and nasty ones, to boot). Big Bad Detective Agency features chapters “in which nobody is turned into a newt,” “in which the world’s ugliest granny comes to call,” and in which there are guest appearances by Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and other favorites from, well, Fairylandia, where “giants accidentally stepped on houses, and you couldn’t get insurance to cover the damage. And don’t even get me started on the magic goose poop.” Hale’s typically skewed sense of humor is hard at work (or hard at play) here, with Wolfgang getting increasingly desperate to prove that he was not the one who trashed the pigs’ houses and should not therefore be thrown into a dungeon forevermore and fed, yuck, porridge. The twists and turns through which Wolfgang and his porky helper go in order to pursue and eventually track down the culprit are amusing in Hale’s typically ridiculous way, and the eventual solution – with everyone living more or less happily more or less after – is both satisfying and the recipe for a sequel. Which readers will no doubt eagerly await.

     Animals take on a different role, and for that matter so does fantasy, in a rather odd fact-based book called What if You Had Animal Feet!? Here, Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam present things that make various animals’ feet special, then show cartoon kids with those feet doing things that they could do if they actually had those feet, which of course they don’t. A housefly’s feet have tiny claws for gripping, for example, so the fly can stick anywhere, even upside down – and a basketball-playing kid with fly feet “could run up the wall and across the ceiling to drop the ball through the hoop.” A green basilisk lizard’s back feet “have long toes fringed with skin,” which spreads out when the lizard slaps its foot on water – allowing the lizard to run on top of the water for at least 15 feet; so a kid with these feet “wouldn’t need a bridge to cross a stream.” A duck-billed platypus has feet with skin connecting the toes, which are “perfect swimming flippers,” plus (in the males) back feet with spur-like nails that can inject venom, so a kid with those feet would be “a fast-swimming superhero with a built-in weapon.” There are 11 creatures’ feet discussed in all – including, among  others, those of the aardvark, cheetah, and giant African millipede – and then matters get serious (and, to tell the truth, less interesting) with a discussion of human feet and how kids can take good care of them. Well, there probably had to be some sort of educational orientation here, beyond the descriptive material about animals and their appendages, and the concluding “keep your feet healthy” section is harmless enough and actually contains reasonable advice. The real attraction of the book, though, lies in the fanciful notion of kids with decidedly non-human feet – and in drawings that manage to make the use of such feet look like a tremendous amount of fun.

     The fun is more limited in two new (+++) books featuring the redoubtable comic-book superhero, Batman, who is nowadays shown with a craggier and generally angrier look than he used to have as he battles villains who seem far more incompetent than they really ought to be. Kids who are fans of the modern incarnation of Batman will briefly enjoy these books, which are super-simply written and instantly forgettable once read. The Penguin’s Arctic Adventure involves disappearing businessmen, courtesy of the human Penguin, who hatches a nefarious scheme (of course) that draws in both Batman and his equally craggy sidekick, Robin (whose mask appears to stay put by magic and who seems to have no eyeballs). The slight story pits B&R against “the evil sorceress Circe,” who really does do magic – which is countered when Batman gets some help from Zatanna, who is able to rescue the Dynamic Duo but cannot figure out what to do next (a rather sexist story twist, if anyone happens to notice), so she has to follow the guys’ lead. Winter Wasteland is a Level 2 book in the “I Can Read!” series (this level consists of “high-interest stories for developing readers”), and it includes not only Batman (without Robin) but also the Flash and Wonder Woman. The three team up to stop “a group of frosty felons” called the Ice Pack. The baddies, Captain Cold, Mr. Freeze, and Killer Frost, are using weapons to make everything, like, really cold and frozen, for no apparent reason other than mischief-making – but hey, after all, they are baddies, so the goodies get together and stop them. These Batman-based books are very thinly plotted and clearly intended only as very quick reads requiring little attention and no real involvement with the characters. As fantasies, they fall short, but for providing a modicum of short-term excitement to existing Batman fans, they do have a niche to fill.

(+++) MEMORIES OF A FORGOTTEN WAR


A Christmas Far from Home: An Epic Tale of Courage and Survival during the Korean War. By Stanley Weintraub. Da Capo. $26.99.

     Christmas in wartime is always a little strange. Strangest of all was Christmas 1914, when British and German troops met in no man’s land in exactly the spirit of comity and good will that was notably absent during (and before and after) that devastating conflict – and then, when the day was done, immediately resumed trying to kill each other. It is testimony to the inherent peculiarities of the human mind, and perhaps to the special madness that is all-out war, that this World War I story, while extreme, is scarcely the only one relating to a holiday of peace and good will at a time and place dedicated to mass killing and destruction.

     Stanley Weintraub’s A Christmas Far from Home shows the importance – and, alas, the ultimate irrelevance – of the Christmas spirit in a different way, during a different war. The Korean conflict, which has never formally ended (it concluded with a cease-fire agreement, not a peace treaty), is sometimes considered a forgotten war in the United States, where the historical focus in recent decades has been more on World War II and Vietnam. But Weintraub has certainly not forgotten: he served in Korea, being awarded a Bronze Star there, and in this book – the latest of several Christmas-themed war books he has written, others being Silent Night and Pearl Harbor Christmas – he gives readers a “you are there” feeling for the Christmas season of 1950, five months after the war started.

     This is not a place or time that readers will be comfortable visiting. Weintraub tells the story largely through first-person accounts by troops, but at the same time he puts what happened in perspective through his own looks at tactical plans and the political strategies that largely shaped those plans. This means that the book is, on the one hand, the story of General Edward Almond’s X Corps and General Oliver Smith’s Marine division within it – and, on the other hand, the story of President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur at a time before the famous clash that led Truman to fire MacArthur in 1951. In A Christmas Far from Home, MacArthur is riding his success at Inchon with an eye toward his own political future, in the course of which he promises to have the troops home from Korea by Christmas 1950. MacArthur as seen here is arrogant, ego-driven and politically ambitious, scarcely the strong and determined military leader that his many defenders still make him out to be. And Truman comes across as weak-willed and passively accepting of MacArthur’s proclamations, strategy and tactics, even though MacArthur himself was only occasionally in Korea: he was stationed in Tokyo, and he relied for intelligence on such military “yes men” as Major General Edward “Ned” Almond, MacArthur’s Far East Command deputy.

     The result of these circumstances is chilling – and was literally chilling for troops forced to fight a brutal and relentless winter campaign in some of the most rugged mountains in Asia. MacArthur’s ego and his overreaching through his Christmas-themed promise made him oblivious to the brilliant strategy of Mao Zedong, who allowed the United Nations troops under MacArthur’s command (most of them American) to advance with little resistance to positions near the Yalu River. These troops of the X Corps – which was newly created as an east coast parallel to the Eighth Army, which was marching up Korea’s west coast – were unaware that the North Koreans and their Chinese helpers were massing their forces at the Manchurian border, secretly slipping them across the Yalu River by night in sub-zero temperatures. Soon the X Corps faced overwhelming numbers of highly disciplined and determined enemy troops – forcing a casualty-laden retreat through ice-clogged mountains where the very landscape, which included a 4,000-foot-deep abyss, seemed to turn against MacArthur’s forces. Eventually, led by the Marines in their midst, the surviving soldiers of X Corps did escape, with the ship waiting for them ironically weighing anchor on Christmas Eve. MacArthur’s strategy lay in ruins, and the foundation was laid for the eventual unresolvable conflict between him and Truman.

     The heroes here are the fighters on the ground, not most of their commanders and certainly not the politicians directing them (and Weintraub makes it clear that MacArthur here acted more like a politician than a commanding general). A Christmas Far from Home includes the same sorts of scenes of fear and courage, trial and triumph, death and survival that are central to Weintraub’s other military-history books and many others in the genre. Also like those other books, it is a celebration of the common soldier and a condemnation of the know-nothing (or know-little) command structure. Well-written, with a strong sense of place, by an author who, after all, himself served in the conflict, the book will be of most interest to other Korean War veterans and to those interested in military history for its own sake. It is decidedly a niche publication, but it is a very well-done one that contains some genuinely thoughtful reconsideration of the more-common notions about the determination and heroism of MacArthur and Truman – suggesting that the truly determined people, the true heroes, were the members of X Corps desperately trying to escape from overwhelming odds so that at least some of their number would indeed be out of Korea by Christmas.

(++++) PIANO DELIGHTS


Franz Hummel: Diabelli Variations. Angela Cholakian, piano. TYXart. $18.99.

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5; Africa—Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra. Gabriel Tacchino, piano; Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg conducted by Louis de Froment. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Alkan: Sonatine in A minor, Op. 61; Capriccio alla soldatesca; Le tambour bat aux champs, esquisse; Trois Menuets, Op. 51; Une fusée, introduction et impromptu; Nocturnes Nos. 2 and 3, Op. 57. Costantino Mastroprimiano, piano. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

Idil Biret Chamber Music Edition, Volume 1: Schumann—Piano Quintet; Symphonic Etudes. Idil Biret, piano; Borusan Quartet (Esen Kivrak and Olgu Kizilay, violins; Efdal Altun, viola; Çağ Erçağ, cello). IBA. $9.99.

Uncommon Ground: Contemporary Works for Trumpet with Horn, Trombone, Piano and Organ. Amy Schendel, piano; Gregory Hand, organ; Bernhard Scully, horn; Todd Schendel, trombone and euphonium; Réne Lecuona, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     As outrageously bold musical attempts go, the Diabelli Variations by Franz Hummel (born 1939) has to rank very close to the top. Training one’s sights on Beethoven, using the same theme that inspired Beethoven to create what may the greatest set of variations ever written – perhaps even, as Alfred Brendel said, the greatest piano work of all time – and creating one’s own work with the same number of variations (33) and the same extraordinary length (nearly an hour)….well, Hummel here set himself a task that even his Beethoven-era namesake, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (no relation), would never have attempted. The fact that today’s Hummel does not fall flat on his musical face with this work and the fact that it does not sink beneath the weight of arrogance are themselves remarkable. The fact that this Diabelli Variations is not at all imitative of Beethoven’s greater set, but is instead an exploration in its own right and something of a homage, is a huge tribute to Hummel’s  tastefulness, his musical understanding, and his own considerable abilities – as a fine pianist in his own right – in writing for piano. Angela Cholakian gives a simply splendid performance for her recording on the TYXart label, moving with ease from variation to variation, elegantly contrasting the speedy with the slow and the emotional with the staid, carrying the work as a whole from start to finish with a remarkable sense of its daring elements as well as its imitative ones. This is a tour de force performance of a really remarkable piece. Hummel keeps the music tonal and bases his approach to the rather trivial Diabelli waltz at the work’s core on the same foundation used by Beethoven. That is to say that these are not variations in which the basic theme is ever readily discernible, because Hummel, like Beethoven, takes the theme apart, using tiny bits of its smallest elements to build dozens of miniature tone poems that showcase aspects of the waltz’s rhythm, intervals, turns, harmonies and other building blocks. Hummel does not follow slavishly in Beethoven’s harmonic footsteps: Beethoven’s variations are harmonically daring for their time, but Hummel’s understandably go farther even as they pull back from contemporary extremes. Hummel’s strongest variations are the fast, complex ones: it is in the slower ones that he seems to become self-conscious about what he is evoking, so that the Adagio cantabile (variation 11), Molto rubato, passionato, parlando (variation 14), and Intermezzo nostalgico (variation 23) draw attention to themselves as too deliberately sweet. And the longest variation, Marcia funebre (variation 28), is disappointingly ordinary. On the other hand, the lovely little Ländler, marked Comodo, is a gem, several variations without tempo markings are intricately impressive, and the final variation – which leaps unapologetically and unashamedly into jazz, the only out-and-out anachronism here – is an absolute delight. Even listeners who come to Hummel’s Diabelli Variations predisposed – with reason – to be deeply skeptical, will likely find themselves captivated by this bold and fascinating foray into Beethovenian territory.

     There is much that is fascinating as well in Saint-Saëns five piano concertos, of which No. 2 is heard fairly often but the others are comparatively rarely encountered. A fine release of the full cycle by Brilliant Classics makes the relative neglect of most of these works much harder to understand. Gabriel Tacchino handles Saint-Saëns’ music highly idiomatically, with all its warmth, flourishes, runs, arpeggiation, cadenzas in unexpected places, and the other elements that set these concertos apart from others of their time. Admittedly, Concerto No. 1 is somewhat less than highly engaging for the soloist – the orchestral writing is actually more imaginative and daring than that for the piano, which is a major surprise in light of Saint-Saëns’ own keyboard virtuosity. But Tacchino gamely handles the many charms of his part, and when he does get a chance to cut loose, at the work’s very end, he does so in splendid style. In No. 2, Tacchino’s light touch is in the forefront, making the concerto into a fleet, dashing, elegantly glittering exercise in pianism filled with mischief, playfulness and light. No. 3 is a more conventional work, its most distinguished movement being the second, a lovely nocturne in which strings rather than the piano dominate. The Orchestra of Radio Luxembourg is not one of Europe’s best – the musicians play gamely and with considerable understanding, but their overall sound is rather thin, and the sections are not always as well-balanced as they could be. In this movement, though, Louis de Froment guides the players with particular skill, and the interplay between woodwind and piano is especially charming. Concerto No. 4, which is more strongly reminiscent of Liszt than the other concertos, has well-balanced elements of warmth and severity within a structure that broadly parallels that of Liszt’s Concerto No. 1. Saint-Saëns’ skillful reuse of the piece’s early themes late in the work is well brought out by Tacchino, who infuses the music with considerable severity and grandeur to balance its more-affectionate elements. Concerto No. 5, called the “Egyptian” because of where it was written and because it uses actual Egyptian and Arabian themes, is a particularly lyrical work and one with a distinct Oriental (not just Middle Eastern) cast. Here Tacchino emphasizes the music’s exoticism, the virtuosity of the final movement, and the overall delicacy of the concerto. As what amounts to an encore, the recording includes the fantasy for piano and orchestra called Africa, which also shows Saint-Saëns’ willing and able use of exotic elements in the context of a virtuoso display piece – and which caps a very fine, exceptionally well-priced offering of music whose manifest pleasures are deserving of much more frequent hearing.

     Speaking of music deserving of more-frequent performance, the piano works of Charles-Valentin Alkan emphatically fit that description. One reason they may not be played more often is simply how difficult they are. Yes, even in a century marked by the piano works of Liszt and Chopin, Alkan’s music stands out for its unique combination of drama, intensity, intricacy and delicacy. Much of it is extraordinarily complex and filled with echoes of Chopin (Alkan’s close friend) and prefigurings of later composers such as Mahler (in the military-like Le tambour bat aux champs). Alkan does not hesitate to demand differing techniques for different pieces – each of the Trois Menuets, for instance, represents a different social class and needs to be performed with more or less suavity and gentility. Nor does Alkan shrink from confounding expectations – for example, Nocturne No. 2 on a new Brilliant Classics CD seems to have the wrong pace for a nocturne, requiring performer and listener alike to consider the meaning of the title and take it as evocative of nocturnal atmosphere in general. Other Alkan titles must be taken with a grain or two of salt: the Sonatine, Op. 61, the major work played by Costantino Mastroprimiano, is an extended four-movement piece with clear debt to Beethoven and considerable complexity of thought and performance requirements throughout – scarcely a “little sonata” at all. Mastroprimiano, who specializes in historically informed performances of less-known 19th-century piano repertoire, offers his Alkan recital on a very fine, beautifully restored 1865 Pleyel instrument with almost the full complement of a modern grand piano: it has 85 keys. It fits these specific works very well indeed: the Sonatine is from 1861, and all the other pieces date to 1859. Furthermore, Mastroprimiano has thoroughly explored Alkan’s relationship with Chopin, not only in terms of their personal relations but also regarding their piano methods and approaches – and the result is a knowing, unusually idiomatic performance of music whose sheer technical requirements can be off-putting for both performers and audience. Not so here: everything is very well-considered to make use of the formidable virtuosic elements of these pieces for the purpose of bringing a multitude of pleasures to listeners.

     The pleasures of Idil Biret’s pianism are displayed in an ever-increasing series of recordings on the IBA label: an Archive Edition, a Beethoven Edition and a Solo Edition – and now an Idil Biret Chamber Music Edition. Unlike most recordings in the other editions, the first volume here includes very recent performances, recorded in May 2014 and featuring a string quartet formed only in 2005. This new sequence is off to a very good start with a disc highlighting works by a composer who is one of Biret’s particular specialties: Schumann. The composer’s sole Piano Quintet was a climax of a year (1842) in which he devoted himself wholeheartedly to chamber music. Written not in haste but with great speed (it was sketched in five days and finished in two weeks), the quintet highlights the piano but rarely allows it to dominate the strings, although it is preeminent in the Scherzo. The work is tightly written and filled with interestingly contrasted themes, notably the rather sinister minor-key march that opens the slow movement and the contrasting major-key theme that provides some respite. The performance here is a strong one: there is some sense that the quartet members defer to Biret, but never unduly so, with the balance among the players generally finely honed and nicely cooperative. The quintet is coupled with Biret’s highly impressive performance of the Symphonic Etudes, a long work with a complex publishing history that makes the numbering of its sections complicated but does nothing to diminish its very considerable complexity and virtuosic demands. Biret handles these with apparent effortlessness, whether Schumann is looking for extended arpeggios, lightly traced passages, delicate triplet figures, counterpoint, expansiveness or sheer speed – these and more are the building blocks here, and Biret uses them to construct a highly impressive edifice of sound, technique and musicianship.

     The piano is just one of several accompaniment instruments on a trumpet-focused MSR Classics release featuring Amy Schendel and entitled Uncommon Ground. An anthology of contemporary compositions that are largely unrelated except for their use of the trumpet in a chamber-music context, this (+++) CD has the typical pluses and minuses of a recording of music that will be largely unfamiliar to listeners: there are some fine elements, some less-fine ones, and little reason for listeners to buy the disc unless they are fans of Schendel or are already familiar with one or more of the composers. Even in the latter case, they will not likely know these specific works, since five of the six are world première recordings – only the 1971 Sonate für Trompete in C und Orgel by Harald Genzmer (1909-2007) has been recorded before. The other works on this CD are Fanfare for Trumpet and Organ (2007) by Patrick Schulz (born 1975); French Suite by Joseph Blaha (born 1951); Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (2007) by Wayne Liu (born 1970); and two pieces by Jean-François Michel (born 1957) – Suite pour Trompette, Cor et Trombone (1994) and Eveils pour Trompette, Trombone et Piano (1993). Listener enjoyment here may turn less on the specific composers, none of whom has an especially distinctive style – although Blaha’s suite is an attractive updating of its Baroque model – than on the works’ varying sonorities. In particular, the trumpet and organ have complementary sounds that merge to fine effect in the pieces by Schulz and Genzmer, and Michel’s melding of trumpet, horn and trombone makes for some interesting mingling of brass in three short but nicely distinguished movements. Schendel and the other performers here do a uniformly fine job with the music, and the CD as a whole is pleasant to hear even if none of the works on it is really exceptional.

(++++) WORDS, MUSIC, PICTURES


Verdi: Requiem. Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Marina Prudenskaja, mezzo-soprano; Saimir Pirgu, tenor; Orlin Anastassov, bass; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik, $37.99 (2 CDs); Arthaus Musik DVD, $29.99.

Carl Davis: Last Train to Tomorrow; Liberation—A Film Suite; National Songs. Children’s Opera Prague and Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. Carl Davis Collection. $24.99.

Granados: Goyescas—La Maja y el Ruiseñor; Canciones Amatorias; Falla: Siete Canciones Populares Españolas; Turina: Tres Arias. Danielle Talamantes, soprano; Henry Dehlinger, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Astor Piazzolla: Tango Nuevo—arrangements for violin and piano. Tomas Cotik, violin; Tao Lin, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

     An unusually well-integrated Verdi Requiem in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the performance by Mariss Jansons and the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks provides a welcome opportunity to consider the pluses and minuses of music-only vs. music-and-video presentation. What Jansons has here is an absolutely first-rate chorus and orchestra, with a quartet of soloists who are all right but scarcely outstanding – but who, in the context of the work as a whole, sound just fine for their roles and help produce a highly impressive reading. Verdi’s Requiem is more theatrical, more operatic, than any other Requiem in the repertoire, notwithstanding the drama and sometimes even greater flair of Berlioz’. It is always tempting to overdo Verdi’s extremely dramatic Dies irae, which is not only tremendously impressive in itself but also repeated frequently as the work progresses. But Jansons eschews this approach, keeping the Dies irae and the rest of the Latin funeral rite in the perspective of the Requiem as a whole, giving considerable weight to the eight-part double fugue of the Sanctus and allowing the lovely Ingemisco to flow freely and with considerable beauty – although Saimir Pirgu’s voice does not seem ideally suited to the music. The beauties and terrors of the presentation get equal weight in this performance, with the choral sections exceptionally effective. As to the question of whether to choose the performance on CD or on DVD (with the visual version being, unusually, less expensive than the audio-only one): the decision depends on whether a listener believes the visuals of people singing and orchestral musicians playing add to the work’s effect or detract from it. This is music that is sublime as well as highly dramatic, and there is much to be said for simply listening to it in audio form – preferably in an otherwise quiet setting, without surrounding distractions. In that form, using the BR Klassik CD version, this Verdi Requiem is at its most impressive. Watching Jansons conduct and the soloists and chorus perform on the DVD tends to be distracting rather than enlightening – and it is always true that a recorded performance requires the viewer’s eye to go where the director wants it to go, which is different from attending a live concert and deciding, on one’s own, where to look at any given time. One can always close one’s eyes during the DVD, of course, but that undermines the purpose of having the work in a visual format. As operatic as Verdi’s Requiem is, it is not an opera, and it is at best arguable whether seeing formally dressed musicians and singers on a stage adds to or distracts from the impact of the performance. Jansons extracts very fine sound and very involving performances from orchestra and singers, but it is not really necessary to see how he does so in order to get the full effect of what he has done. The Arthaus Musik video is well done, and director Michael Beyer is sensitive to the music and tries not to make the visuals of this 2013 performance at the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein overly distracting. But the video elements really add little here, and they do, to some extent, pull attention away from the excellence of the music.

     On the other hand, visuals would have helped the Carl Davis Collection release of Davis’ score for Last Train to Tomorrow, a song cycle written by children’s author Hiawyn Oram. The cycle tells the story of the Kindertransport, a rescue mission launched by the British government after Kristallnacht in 1938. Through the Kindertransport, some 10,000 children, ages 3-17, found refuge in Britain from the Nazi regime. They left by train from Vienna, Berlin, Prague and other cities in Europe, and very few saw their families again. Oram tells their story through songs including “Night of Breaking Glass,” “A Big Adventure,” “Goodbye to Our Treasures,” and “Sun Rising on Another World.” And the Children’s Opera Prague and Czech National Symphony Orchestra, under Davis’ direction, sing the texts with feeling – the songs are mostly in the words of the rescued children themselves, and the whole story is told from their perspective. As one of many, many remembrances of World War II and the Holocaust, the song cycle is effective enough – but Davis created the music not for the concert hall but for a film, and in the absence of the visual element, Last Train to Tomorrow comes across as just another well-meaning, well-written bit of accessible movie music, designed to support a story being told primarily in a visual medium. The inclusion of a complete libretto is a nice touch and a meaningful one, but it is no substitute for seeing what Davis created the music to enhance. Over a period of decades, some excellent composers have written some first-rate film works: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Korngold, Tiomkin and many others. Davis’ work is, by comparison, rather ordinary, however well-meaning and sincere. That applies as well to Liberation—A Film Suite, which is another work designed to explore and lend impact to the story of Nazi oppression and murder. The movements here bear titles such as “Annihilation,” “Massacre of Children,” “The Death Camps,” and “Free at Last: Liberation,” and Davis does his best to have the music make the titles’ meaning self-evident. Listeners strongly committed to any and all memorials of World War II and the depredations of the Nazi regime will surely find these accessible works to their liking. But for listeners in general, the music is insufficiently dramatic or moving – that is, insufficiently distinctive in storytelling – to mark the release as important. This (+++) CD also includes, as an encore or afterthought, La Marseillaise, Rule Britannia and Hatikvah, with those three national songs collectively underlining the purpose of the other music on the disc.

     Less portentous and considerably lighter are the songs performed by soprano Danielle Talamantes and pianist Henry Dehlinger on a new MSR Classics CD. Redolent of Spanish rhythms and strongly imbued with a sense of national identity, these works by Enrique Granados, Manuel de Falla and Joaquín Turina are by and large not especially substantive, but they are uniformly attractive in their handling both of the voice and of the piano. The most substantial piece is Turina’s Tres Arias, which sets texts by three different Spanish authors: Ángel de Saavedra, Duque de Rivas (1791-1865), a poet and playwright who became Prime Minister of Spain; José de Espronceda (1808-1842), a Romantic poet well-known for his radical politics; and Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870), an influential poet from Turina’s birthplace, Seville. Turina makes Rivas’ heroic ballad Romance quite dramatic; offers gentle, wavelike rocking motion for Espronceda’s El pescador (“The Fisherman”); and in Bécquer’s Rima (“Rhyme”), picks up on the passionate intensity of the poem with a thrilling vocal line that Talamantes handles particularly well. The Granados and Falla songs are comparatively mild, although La Maja y el Ruiseñor from the opera Goyescas comes across with considerable feeling. What is interesting about all the music on this (++++) disc is that, even in the absence of any visuals whatsoever, it makes it easy to envision Spanish scenes and Spanish landscapes, so vividly do the composers capture the mood of the words and so feelingly do Talamantes and Dehlinger brings the songs to life. The CD may contain little of deep meaning, but it offers much of beauty and a great deal of impressionistic music that allows and encourages listeners to envision the Spanish landscapes and culture from which these texts and settings sprang.
     The performances are also first-rate on a new Naxos CD of the music of Argentine composer and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla – who is best known for The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and an apparently inexhaustible series of tangos, which Piazzolla rethought from their wrong-side-of-the-tracks roots and turned into concert-hall music ranging from the smooth to the energetic and incorporating the influences of jazz, rock and klezmer music. Piazzolla’s music has a strongly visual element: it clearly bespeaks its country of origin and often calls up images of the dance halls where tango originated and developed. The attractively edgy playing of Tomas Cotik and Tao Lin – with additional violinist Glenn Basham heard in two works – is the main attraction of Tango Nuevo, which is musically something of a hodgepodge. Of the dozen pieces here, seven were arranged by Cotik himself; other arrangers represented are Dmitriy Varelas and Sofia Gubaidulina. The disc begins and ends with high points: the fast and virtuosic La muerte del ángel and the bright Libertango, respectively. The material in between is more of a mixed bag. The four movements of Histoire du Tango neatly trace the dance’s evolution through the 20th century; two excerpts from María de Buenos Aires are atmospheric stage accompaniments, the second (No. 3 in the score) being especially evocative; Melodía en la menor (Canto du Octubre) is particularly emotionally evocative, while Le Grand Tango is elegant and striking. The works, however, are not presented in any especially intelligible sequence, either chronologically or based on their moods or other factors. The remaining pieces here are also served up willy-nilly: Tanguano (No. 1 from Dos piezas breves), Milonga sin palabras, Aire de la zamba niña, and two pieces from Henry IV, an Italian film from 1984—Ave María (Tanti anni prima) and Oblivion, the latter being another milonga (a kind of cousin of the tango). Clearly some thought has gone into the arrangement of the disc – otherwise, why would Ave María appear between the two excerpts from María de Buenos Aires? But the overall effect of the CD is of a series of disconnected and rather random encores, with the result that the totality seems to go on longer than it actually does. The performances by Cotik (who is himself from Argentina) and Lin – by turns warm, sultry, bright, rhythmically intense and brilliantly ornamented – are what give this CD its (+++) rating. Fans of the violinist and/or pianist will be especially drawn to it, but those not already familiar with the performers or with Piazzolla’s music may find themselves a bit puzzled by the choice of pieces and their sequencing.

(+++) VISITS TO THE UNUSUAL


Simon Mayr: Il sogno di Partenope. Andrea Lauren Brown, Sara Hershkowitz, Caroline Adler, Florence Lousseau, Cornel Frey, Robert Sellier, Andreas Burkhart; Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble conducted by Franz Hauk. Naxos. $9.99.

Chant: Missa Latina. Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz and Ensemble Vox Gotica. Obsculta Music. $18.99.

Chant: Into the Light. Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz. Obsculta Music. $18.99.

Jake Schepps Quintet: Entwined—Music of Marc Mellits, Matt McBane, Matt Flinner and Gyan Riley. Fine Mighty Records. $12.99.

     Here are some fascinating discs that are of limited rather than general interest but that can be just the thing for people looking to explore some less-often-visited corners of musical repertoire. Il sogno di Partenope on Naxos is part of a rather strange work, described on the CD as a “cantata opera,” that was written for a specific occasion by Simon Mayr (1763-1845). The reason it is only part of the piece is that the first act of the two-act work has disappeared, so only the second act is presented in this world première recording. Dedicated to King Ferdinand l on his birthday, the 1817 piece has a libretto by Urbano Lampredi (1761-1838), well known in his time as a classicist and intellectual. Lampredi and Mayr here create an allegorical cantata performed with recitatives and arias that make it sound like an opera – in fact, Il sogno di Partenope is a kind of bridge between opera seria and 19th-century operatic melodrama. Very little is obvious to modern listeners here. Even the title requires explanation: it refers to the dream (really a nightmare) of Parthenope, the tutelary goddess of Naples. The city’s Teatro San Carlos had been destroyed by fire on November 12-13, 1816, and Il sogno di Partenope was written for the opening of the rebuilt theater 11 months later. The missing first act of Mayr’s work focused on the fire and the character who caused it, Polyphlegon, an entirely imaginary mythological representation created to give the allegory a negative personage to balance the positive ones. Gods, muses, genii and evil spirits (the last group led by Polyphlegon) are involved in the cosmic cause at whose center is the theater, which is deemed the Temple of the Muses. After the first-act decline and destruction, the second act – the one recorded here – involves restoration of the theater by Olympic forces. The sad event vanishes like a bad dream – Mercury’s wand puts Parthenope to sleep – and a character known as Time Personified allows the rebuilt theater to shine anew. At the very end, Ferdinand is praised on his birthday for his beneficence and his gift to Naples of the rebuilt, shining theater. Il sogno di Partenope was intended to be performed only once, as was also the case with other works in its genre, and hearing it (or half of it) shorn of context is a distinctly odd experience. What we have here is part of a piece whose totality would have been strange if it were available. Il sogno di Partenope happens to be quite well sung by the seven soloists (three sopranos, mezzo-soprano, two tenors and bass) and nicely handled by chorus members and instrumental musicians alike. A quartet with chorus and the final chorus of jubilation are musically fairly interesting; the remaining sections, all with their accompanied recitatives, are straightforward within the allegorical context. There is good music here, if scarcely great music, and the whole curiosity that is Il sogno di Partenope shines a light on a long-neglected musical form. But it is one whose neglect is rather understandable: there is little on this CD that bears repeated hearings.

     Two new Obsculta Music CDs featuring the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria feature not allegory but straightforward and entirely orthodox religious material, much of it traditional and anonymous and all of it sung with great purity of tone and a strong sense of the singers’ involvement not only in the music but also in the sentiments and beliefs underlying it. Both discs are expressions of supreme and sublime faith, and both draw forth great beauty of sound from the Cistercian Monks – all to proclaim and highlight the Latin texts. Missa Latina is the more interesting of the two CDs: its primary offering is Ordo Missæ in Lingua Latina (Missa de Sacratissimo Corde Jesu), but it also contains the simple, straightforward and very moving Missa sine Nomine by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), sung by Ensemble Vox Gotica, plus – performed by the same group – the Dufay hymns Veni Creator Spiritus, Pange lingua and Ave, maria stella. Dufay, although writing in the same style as that of others of his time, found ways to exalt and entrance listeners while celebrating deeply held religious beliefs, and his music retains considerable power even after an astonishing 600 years. Into the Light has a more interesting arrangement of its music, although no settings here match Dufay’s. The disc is set up in six sections: Missa Beatæ Mariæ Virginis, Magnificat, Amor, Passio, Silentium, and Iubilatio, the last two of these being particularly heartfelt in sound and interestingly unfamiliar in content.  These are CDs for listeners deeply committed to a faith shared with the singers, or one of considerable similarity: the discs are more forms of heightened worship than they are performances, and one must share in their sincerity in order to get their full effect.

     At the opposite musical extreme, in many and various ways, is a CD released by Fine Mighty Records and called Jake Schepps Quintet: Entwined. It is not just that this disc is wholly secular, nor that it is as up-to-date as the Cistercian Monks’ recordings offer sound that is old and honored. The entire spirit of the music and performances here is as wild and extroverted as that of the Cistercian Monks is focused and inward-looking. The four pieces here are Flatiron by Marc Mellits, Drawn by Matt McBane, Migrations by Matt Flinner, and Stumble Smooth by Gyan Riley – all jazzlike titles that do indeed reflect one of the myriad of influences upon this combinatorial music. The performers are Jake Schepps on banjo, Flinner on mandolin, Enion Pelta-Tiller on violin, Ross Martin on guitar, and Eric Thorin on bass – plus Ryan Drickey on violin in Drawn and Grant Gordy on guitar in Flatiron. The music uses the many capabilities of a bluegrass ensemble to explore works whose provenance ranges from classical to jazz to pop to machine and electronic sounds and techniques. Flatiron is in eight movements that explore a wide range of emotions and a considerable number of rhythms, contrasting hectic sections with almost-lyrical ones. Drawn, a five-movement work, is an odd mixture of bluegrass instruments with modernistic compositional techniques. Migrations becomes modernistic, too, but it builds to that category by starting with an old-time bluegrass approach and working its way through a development connected loosely with traditional classical music. And Stumble Smooth, which functions as something of an encore, mixes multiple musical types in a piece designed to show off the instrumentalists’ capabilities. Only listeners enamored both of the bluegrass sound and of experimentation in the name of combining multiple musical forms will likely appreciate this CD fully. The prominence of banjo and mandolin can become rather grating over time, and the composers’ various attempts to combine musical approaches are scarcely seamless. Heard as an experimental disc that unites a particular performance sound with forms of music for which that sound is not traditionally thought to be suited, the CD is interesting, even intriguing, at least from time to time. But the individual works are not particularly distinguished, and none of the composers seems to have anything especially novel to say: all have written a form of display piece that explores performers’ abilities but has little communicative impact beyond an occasional “oh wow” moment resulting from a neat turn of phrase or unusually virtuosic bit of instrumental ostentation.