December 31, 2015
The White House: A Pop-Up of Our Nation’s Home. By Robert Sabuda. Scholastic. $29.99.
Coloring Crush. By the editors of Klutz. Illustrations by Angelea Van Damm. Klutz. $16.99.
Books can be much more than just words and illustrations on paper. Special designs can turn books into something beyond the sequential-reading norm, even making them approximate works of art. Robert Sabuda’s pop-up books are a good case in point: they are elegant, involving and informative all at once, their cut-out designs and three-dimensional presentation making the material they communicate more real-seeming than the same information when presented in traditional words-and-illustrations form. Of course, the pop-up format does not allow a lot of information to be communicated, so it works best with material that is highly visual and can be shown fairly easily. A tour of the White House fits the bill nicely, and with 2016 being a presidential election year, Sabuda’s The White House is timely as well as attractive. Obviously the book does not try to show all 132 White House rooms – it focuses on the best-known ones and also offers looks at the North Face and South Face of the building. There is a bit of history written here (e.g., the fact that every president since John Adams has lived in the White House), and there is some material that is even more interesting because it is shown here: the transformation of what used to be Abraham Lincoln’s study into the Lincoln bedroom is presented visually through a particularly clever bit of paper design. Less fortunate than this element of The White House is the connective tissue that Sabuda supplies in the form of a somewhat adapted version of the poem Inauguration Day by Richard Watson Gilder (1844-1909). The poem’s verbal simplicity undoubtedly made it attractive to Sabuda, but its simplistic, rather jingoistic nature and poor poetic quality pull down the overall effect of what is otherwise a strong and very attractive presentation. Still, it is not for the words that most people will want this book, and not on the words that most families will focus while unfolding the pages and peeking into the nooks and crannies that Sabuda delineates with such skill. This is a visual work above all, and as such is highly effective in providing a once-over-lightly look at one of the most-recognizable, enduring symbols of the United States.
Works with the Klutz imprint have been more than “mere” books for decades – since 1977. Klutz creates not books but “books-plus” projects, in which spiral-bound, lie-flat narrative sections explain how to do all sorts of crafts, while attached supplies provide all or almost all the material needed to follow the instructions. This is a highly attractive all-in-one approach that really has stood the test of time. Coloring Crush is a fine example of the well-designed cleverness that is a hallmark of these project-oriented offerings. This is no mere coloring book – there is nothing “mere” about a Klutz production – but a book whose perforated pages are easy to remove and can in some instances be readily transformed into postcards or greeting cards. From generalized psychedelic-like designs to pictures as varied as two intertwined seahorses, a cactus in a pot, a couple of pairs of sunglasses whose elaborate frames cry out for color, and butterflies and hearts – and much more – Coloring Crush gives kids wonderful ways to express their creativity. It gives them the means to do so, too: it is packaged with five double-tipped pencils, providing 10 different colors. And the book has genuine instructional value: the opening pages explain the differences that result when the pencil is held at various angles, show some techniques that produce colors in several ways, and give examples of color blending that can be done using the included pencils. To-the-point tips (to the pencil point, that is) explain what is possible when using a single color in several ways, what happens when darker colors are placed adjacent to light ones, and more. Coloring Crush is a lot of fun, and Klutz is careful to emphasize that “there’s no wrong way to color” and that no matter how elaborate the provided line drawings may be, it is fine to color outside them: “lines are more like suggestions, anyway.” Kids from the meticulous to the wild will find plenty here to engage their inner artists and put them out there on super-colorful display.
Clean Up on Aisle Stupid: A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Pete the Cat: Robo-Pete. By James Dean. HarperFestival. $4.99.
Pete the Cat’s Big Doodle & Draw Book. By James Dean. HarperFestival. $12.99.
There have been many notable cartoon cats over the decades, from Krazy and Felix to the cats of Gorey and Kliban, from Skippy and Cicero’s Cat to the cat in Polly and Her Pals, from Tom of Tom and Jerry to Warner Brothers’ Sylvester, from Disney’s Figaro in Pinocchio and the two Siamese in Lady and the Tramp to the underground comics’ Fat Freddy’s Cat and Pat of Nard and Pat – to today’s Garfield and Mooch of Mutts. And then there is Bucky, single-fanged master of mayhem and eternal failure in his many and varied self-aggrandizing plots in Get Fuzzy. Bucky is so modern that he is almost post-modern: a self-proclaimed political conservative in an ultra-liberal household, where his foils are Satchel Pooch (who, despite being rather dim, outwits Bucky constantly, or at least outlasts Bucky’s schemes) and alleged pet owner Rob Wilco (the strip’s weakest, most feckless and arguably most unintelligent character, who at most provides a modicum of stability amid the various antics). Get Fuzzy has become, over the years, a more and more verbal strip – Bucky’s elaborate, always bizarre plans need more and more verbiage, and Satchel’s mangling of language through misunderstandings that somehow make perfect sense also requires lots of word balloons. Thus, when Bucky’s delusions of grandeur lead him to say that today he is “a humble, misunderstood genius,” but that tomorrow “my name will be synonymous with power,” Satchel cannot figure out why Bucky wants his middle name to be “with” and suggests “synonymous Austin Power” would be better. Get Fuzzy is like that – you have to follow the verbal byplay and ins and outs of pop-culture references to make sense of the strip. Again: when Bucky, in his typical arrogance and self-importance, misstates a proverb as “the weak enemy of my strong enemy, I will pretend to befriend,” Satchel can only comment, “That verb isn’t so ‘pro.’” These bits of byplay occur, in Clean Up on Aisle Stupid, in the context of stories that go on longer and are better tied together than in previous Get Fuzzy collections. There is one series of strips that starts when Bucky meets “the keeper of the keeper of the secret” of “the bowl of eternal salmon treats,” which it turns out that Satchel already knows about – and it isn’t eternal, just really big, thanks to Costco. There is one sequence in which Satchel becomes a writer for the “Daily Crate Liner” newspaper, which is published “annually. Unless we forget. Then it’s semi-annual. But we slept through last year’s date, and the year before that, Moby’s printer was out of ink. So we print it every four years.” There are still occasional individual strips that tie to what may be called the ethos of Get Fuzzy without being part of a continuing story, such as one in which Rob and Satchel happen upon Bucky doing something incomprehensible that involves baseball caps, a large pot, a vacuum cleaner, stuffed animals and various knickknacks and other objects: Bucky says “this isn’t what it looks like” and Rob, in one of his few useful lines in the book, says, “Dude, it isn’t what anything looks like.” Get Fuzzy takes some getting used to – hey, it’s about a dog, cat and human sharing living space, after all, not to mention the other cats and other dogs and occasional ferrets that populate the environs. But this particular dog and cat really are beyond the pale, or outside the norm, or something of that ilk. Just consider Bucky asking Satchel what superpower Satchel would pick if he could have one, and Satchel responding that he would take America and that Bucky shouldn’t be tricked into taking Mongolia. The whole superpower sequence only gets more convoluted after that – even when Bucky is able to get Satchel to understand what he means by “superpower,” as in “special power of a superhero.” Thanks partly to the increasing intricacy of the wordplay and partly to there being less of Rob in this collection than in prior ones, Clean Up on Aisle Stupid is among Conley’s best.
Young readers need a cat much easier to follow, understand and enjoy than Bucky, and that is where James Dean’s Pete the Cat comes in. Two new (+++) books about Pete will be enjoyable for existing fans of the big-eyed, sleepy-looking cat with a fondness for music and the ability to have all sorts of mild adventures. The plot of Pete the Cat: Robo-Pete is typically simple, with Pete wanting to play baseball but finding that all his cat friends are busy doing other things. So Pete invents a robot that will do whatever Pete wants, and that works out just fine for a while – until trouble arises when the robot does things too well (using a homing device to win at hide-and-seek, a jet pack to speed away on a skateboard, and so on). Eventually Pete decides that he would rather do things, any things, with his friends, than with the robot, which ends up helping everyone out and then joining in playtime, so of course all ends happily. There is a page of stickers, more than 30 in all, bound into the book, so Pete’s fans have something to play with here as well as something to read. Like other Pete the Cat books, this one is mildly adventurous and mildly amusing, fun for those who enjoy Pete as a character and find that the easy-to-learn lessons, like the one here about friendship, are not too cloying.
Instead of stickers, Pete the Cat’s Big Doodle & Draw Book offers 128 black-and-white pages to color – and a number of simple puzzles to solve. Dean carefully tells Pete’s fans what to do: on a book Pete is reading, draw a cover; make a picture on an easel; connect the dots to make various pictures; decorate a flag for Pete to plant on the Moon, then draw your own flag; find various things that do not belong (such as shoes, a flower and a clock in a refrigerator); match identical pictures before coloring them; solve easy mazes; and so on. Since everything here is Pete-themed, the book will be fun for kids who just can’t get enough of this particular cartoon feline. And even though the puzzles are quite simple, Dean is good enough to include the solutions at the end of the book – to avoid frustrating kids in the 4-8 age range, who are the targets for Pete’s adventures. For them, the book is a good combination of puzzles, pictures to color and white space in which to let their imagination roam a bit while following Dean’s instructions – for instance, he offers a picture of Pete at the beach to color, and on the next page provides a big blank space in which kids can draw their own sand castle to replace the one that Pete built and a wave knocked down. Neither Pete the Cat’s Big Doodle & Draw Book nor Pete the Cat: Robo-Pete will likely entice kids who are not already fans of Pete to begin reading the books about him. But for those who have seen Pete elsewhere and are looking for more of the same – with some participatory elements in the form of stickers, drawings and puzzles – these books will offer a plenty of Pete-focused fun.
Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 15. Marine Band of the Royal Netherlands Navy conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $12.99.
Grieg: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume V—Music to Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”; Six Orchestral Songs; Two Lyric Pieces; The Mountain Thrall; Norwegian Dances. Camilla Tilling, soprano; Tom Erik Lie, baritone; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Eivind Aadland. Audite. $19.99 (SACD).
Vivaldi: Twelve Concertos, Op. 7. Federico Guglielmo, violin and conducting L’Arte dell’Arco; Pier Luigi Fabretti, oboe. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
The risk of providing complete, or simply extended, series of pretty much any music is that no one produces material of the same quality all the time. There is lesser Mozart, lesser Bach, lesser Beethoven. On the other hand, the great thing about hearing the totality of a composer’s production in one form or another is to have a chance to make up one’s own mind as to whether the less-known works deserve their relative obscurity – or whether they are less frequently heard just as an accident of history or because of factors incidental to their musical quality. The excellent Naxos series of Sousa’s music for wind band, whose 15th and penultimate volume features Keith Brion conducting yet another of the international bands that seem thoroughly at home with this quintessentially American music, contains not a single Sousa piece that could be described as well-known. Indeed, four works here – including the three longest on the CD – are world première recordings. But it is very difficult to understand why these pieces are so rarely played, compared with better-known ones, for everything on the disc has the same naïve charm, fine sense of rhythm and excellence of band orchestration for which Sousa is justly famous. If there is nothing here with the lilt and sheer verve of The Washington Post, The Liberty Bell or The Thunderer, there is also nothing that deserves to languish as these pieces have. The longest work on the disc, The Band Came Back, is also the oddest: a collection of tune snippets used at Sousa band performances to reassemble the musicians on stage after intermission. Created in 1895 and differing at different performances, it is heard here in a version from 1926 by Sousa’s assistant conductor, cornetist Herbert L. Clarke. The other world premières are excerpts that Sousa assembled in 1894 from his 1884 operetta, Désirée; the “electric ballet” from Act II of his 1899 retelling of the Aladdin story, Chris and the Wonderful Lamp; and a fascinating arrangement that Sousa made of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 11, which includes offstage as well as onstage brass instruments. The remaining pieces here, although they have been recorded from time to time, are mostly rarities. They are the marches Prince Charming (1928), Across the Danube (1877), Magna Charta (1927), Legionnaires (1930), Volunteers (1918), Pet of the Petticoats (1883), Ben Bolt (1883), and Yorktown Centennial (1881), plus a rather odd tango-with-foxtrot-elements called Gliding Girl (1912). The wide date range of the music offers listeners an ideal chance to hear the ways in which Sousa’s style changed – and did not change – over time. And individual pieces have standout elements showing just how creative Sousa could be: Ben Bolt, for example, is made up of multiple popular tunes transformed into march rhythm, while Volunteers, written to honor workers building warships, includes riveting, sirens and anvils. Like the earlier volumes in this first-rate series, this one shows Brion to have a thorough understanding and appreciation of Sousa’s music and to be a band conductor of considerable élan.
The fifth and last Audite SACD of Grieg’s symphonic works, conducted by Eivind Aadland, also fulfills the promise of the earlier issues. Little on this disc will be familiar to most listeners: the recording includes Grieg’s orchestral arrangements of his own songs as well as various dances and short lyrical pieces. One thing confirmed here is Grieg’s reputation as a miniaturist: the works range in length from two minutes to six-and-a-half. Grieg captures multiple moods by juxtaposing short works rather than by developing sections of longer ones; that is especially apparent here. The only work with any real continuity is the Norwegian Dances, in whose four movements Grieg explores a march and three Hallings; the suite, originally written for piano four hands, is quite effective in this form. Two Peer Gynt excerpts sound quite interesting in the orchestral versions here, especially Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter, whose orchestration includes piano, harp and xylophone. Moodiness comes through clearly in the two orchestrated Lyric Pieces, while Six Orchestral Songs – taken by the composer from a wide variety of his song cycles – are all affectingly sung by soprano Camilla Tilling. There is also a single, extended song here for baritone, The Mountain Thrall, which Tom Erik Lie handles with appropriate drama and anguish. But Audite provides no texts for any of the songs, and that is a significant lack in a CD that is half made up of vocal music – especially since the booklet spends four pages on the background of the two singers, which is really overkill. Nevertheless, for listeners intrigued by Grieg and able to track down the songs’ words online, this disc brings its series to a very fine close, with Aadland showing once again that he is highly sensitive to the rhythmic and harmonic nuances that are so important for thorough appreciation of Grieg’s music.
Vivaldi’s concertos provide tremendous enjoyment all the time, and particularly so when played by a violinist such as Federico Guglielmo, with his superb understanding of period style and his use of authentic instruments not only for himself but also for the ensemble he leads, L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics has already released absolutely first-rate recordings of Guglielmo’s readings of the Op. 3 and Op. 4 concertos, among others, and it is reasonable to ask why those collections are heard so often while Op. 7 is almost completely unknown. The reason is that at least some of these concertos are not by Vivaldi at all, and there is scholarly argument over which ones are. The dozen works in Op. 7 may have been rushed out by an unscrupulous music publisher, of which there were many in Vivaldi’s time, to take advantage of the popularity of the composer’s other concertos. Little is certain, or is likely to become certain, about just how Op. 7 came to be – but many of these works, whether by Vivaldi himself or by someone imitating his style, have considerable interest in their own right; and their very rarity makes it interesting to hear them, especially when one can do so in such a wonderfully played and well-priced recording as this. Op. 7 includes two six-concerto portions, each starting with an oboe concerto and proceeding with five violin concertos. Scholars agree that the oboe concertos are certainly not by Vivaldi; Guglielmo includes them here anyway, as a sort of appendix, and they are quite harmless if not particularly noteworthy. Listeners can play their own guessing game with the violin concertos, which are arranged helter-skelter on the discs for no apparent reason (they appear in the sequence 11, 10, 4, 2, 3, 6, 12, 8, 9, 5). Trying to decide whether a given concerto is or is not by Vivaldi can be fun, but it is worth remembering, again, that even great composers did not produce works at the same high level all the time, so a lesser piece here may simply be lesser Vivaldi. For example, of the two minor-key concertos, No. 4 in A minor has so many deficiencies of sound and structure that it is hard to imagine it being by Vivaldi, while No. 3 in G minor has enough felicitous touches so that it certainly seems that it could be a Vivaldi work. The chance to form one’s own opinion about the provenance of the music is one pleasure to be had here. The other is simply the quality of the playing: no matter who wrote these pieces, Guglielmo and his forces deliver them with as much enthusiasm and authenticity as they are ever likely to receive.
Beethoven: Fidelio. Tom Krause, Theo Adam, James King, Eva Marton, Aage Haugland, Lilian Watson, Thomas Moser; Chor der Wiener Staatsoper and Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Lorin Maazel. Orfeo. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 1; “Blumine.” Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. Ondine. $16.99.
There is a delicious irony in the fact that the best-known, most-performed and most-respected French rescue opera is neither French nor an opera but a German Singspiel. Beethoven’s Fidelio encapsulates the concept of French rescue opera perfectly and follows it through elegantly and eloquently from start to finish. But it does have its rough edges, and one challenge for conductors and singers alike is how to handle them. Lorin Maazel’s answer at the Salzburg Festival in 1982 and 1983 was to smooth them over, to avoid everything from over-emoting to scenery-chewing villainy and to focus on the music and structure of Fidelio. The result was a very musicianly reading of the opera – but, unfortunately, not a very emotionally convincing or compelling one. A new Orfeo release, a live recording of the Maazel-led performance from 1983, makes the strengths and weaknesses of the conductor’s approach abundantly clear. One thing Maazel does very well is to integrate the first act into the opera’s totality: instead of being a rather trivial prelude to the far stronger second act, the first act here has its own shape and a clear relevance to the overall drama. Yet even here, the limitations of Maazel’s approach are apparent. The overture is straightforward: everything is in its place and as it should be, and the orchestral playing is absolutely first-rate, but there is something tepid about the performance. Likewise, Mir ist so wunderbar, the quartet that is the highlight of this act, is calm, wonderfully balanced but emotionally empty, with Eva Marton – elsewhere a very forceful Leonore – seeming to hold back her capabilities for better use later on. Pizarro’s I-am-Evil-incarnate aria, Ha! Welch ein Augenblick! – whose words will be perfectly and carefully echoed to very different effect at the end of the second act – is strongly delivered by Theo Adam, and the march is poised and carefully shaped, but the act proceeds throughout with a kind of placidity and measured pace that drains it of strong emotional connection.
It is in the second act that emotional connection is front-and-center, and certainly James King’s opening aria exploring Florestan’s despair and flickering hope is both dramatically and musically effective. But his later confrontation with Adam is less intense than it can be, despite Marton’s very strong intercession; and although O namenlose Freude! cannot be anything but the emotional climax of the opera, here it is a touch too well-mannered to reach out to listeners with as much impact as it is capable of having. Interestingly, by far the most effective music-making here comes in the Leonore Overture No. 3, which Maazel, like some other conductors of Fidelio, offers after the rescue and before the final scene of triumph. Here, in what is essentially a tone poem encapsulating the entire opera, the Vienna Philharmonic explores the emotions of Fidelio to perfection, balancing the dramatic and the heartfelt, and Maazel leads with a sure hand and tremendous power. A full-length opera with this level of intensity would have been one for the ages. Instead, what listeners get here is a performance with musical strength and clarity, one in which smaller roles are elevated – Aage Haugland as Rocco is particularly good – while the main ones are somewhat diminished. This is an effective Fidelio, but Maazel seems to have thought so seriously about the musical aspects that he somewhat overlooked the work’s intended (and admittedly somewhat overdone) emotional intensity.
Hannu Lintu seems likewise to have thought a bit too much about Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The issue here is not the inclusion, as a postscript, of the dropped Blumine movement – the movement has been offered with the symphony numerous times, either as an addendum or in its original place as the second movement of what then becomes a five-movement work. What is a concern is what Lintu has done by trying to push Mahler’s music into a shape beyond that of naïveté and intense expression – an approach that pays few dividends when dealing with a composer who was also a superb conductor and knew exactly what effects he was trying to extract, and how. Certainly the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays well for Lintu, with crisp rhythms and well-handled sectional balance, including some impressive turns by the brass. But Lintu asks the ensemble to do some things that do not fit Mahler’s symphonic narrative particularly well. The first movement, for example, is supposed to represent the awakening of Nature, but Lintu handles the very quiet opening as if Nature is already half-awake and eager to get on with the day. Then the movement, after proceeding at a mostly measured pace, becomes at the end a frantic rush to its conclusion – certainly not what Mahler was looking for. Lintu presumably thinks the speeded-up ending will generate additional excitement, but in fact it does the opposite, leaving listeners a touch breathless, perhaps, but likely wondering what all the tumult was about. The unwillingness to let Mahler’s tempos, especially the slower ones, unfold as the composer intended, permeates this performance, and the finale, which is admittedly episodic, particularly suffers as a result. By the symphony’s conclusion, there is a let’s-get-this-over-with feeling that is at odds with what Mahler certainly intended as a grand triumph over adversity. Blumine, in contrast, is handled gently and pleasantly, with fine solo trumpet work by Jouko Harjanne. The symphony’s finale actually contains reminiscences of Blumine – a fact that, if Mahler considered it when excising the movement, he decided did not much matter – and it is always pleasant to hear whence those remembrances come. But the main offering here, the symphony in its familiar four-movement form, comes across with less impact than it would have had if Lintu had paid more attention to Mahler’s thoughts on structure and tempo and less to his own.
Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze; Anders Eliasson: Disegno 2; Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2. Beth Levin, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Zoran Šćekić: Just Music—Music for Piano in Five Limit Just Intonation. Ana Žgur, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
CME Presents, Volume 1: Piano Celebration. MSR Classics. $12.95.
ONYX: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 29. Navona. $16.99.
Incidental music is written by composers for a specific purpose: to accompany a play, perhaps, or celebrate a military victory. But music itself sometimes seems to become almost incidental in releases that seem intended to showcase particular people, groups or purposes – the focus ends up being less on the music than on the performers, the cause being espoused, or some other extra-musical element. A new Navona CD featuring pianist Beth Levin, for example, includes works by two very well-known composers and one, Anders Eliasson (1947-2013), who is much less familiar. Why this particular combination? The answer appears to be not the music but the personalities of the composers, which Levin seeks to bring out through her interpretations. Since music is, like other art forms, a highly personal matter, it certainly makes sense to try to get at a composer’s personality this way – but perhaps one actually locates only a persona, since any given work merely expresses what that specific composer was feeling at that specific time and under those specific creative circumstances. Really, the Schumann “personality” of Davidsbündlertänze seems to have little in common with that of, say, the “Spring” symphony. Be that as it may, Levin does a fine job with the 18 highly varied vignettes, taking particular delight in the contrast between adjacent movements, such as the seventh (Nicht schnell) and eighth (Frisch). This is a very fine performance – but what is its relationship to Eliasson’s Disegno 2, which immediately follows it? This work from 1987 is propelled by nothing much to pretty much nowhere: other Eliasson works incorporate influences as varied as Bach and jazz, but this one sounds more like a self-parody of bland “contemporary music” than anything else, and it is hard to see it illuminating either the composer’s personality or anything particularly musical. Having thrown in this perplexing piece, Levin then presents a very fine, deeply felt and emotionally trenchant reading of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, usually called “Funeral March” after the designation of its third and longest movement. Making that movement truly expansive, Levin follows it with a quicksilver version of the very short concluding Presto, completing a strong and interesting interpretation. But to what end? The Schumann work on this disc dates to 1837; the Chopin probably also dates to that year, although it was not finished until 1839; but if the former reflects Schumann’s personal worries, hopes and concerns, the latter seems more indicative of Chopin’s handling of musical themes and approaches of the time as a whole – there seems less connection between it and the composer as a person than in the case of the Schumann. And the Eliasson work does not connect with very much at all. What this disc offers is some very high-quality piano playing of works that do not fit together particularly well and do not seem, as a totality, to express much on a purely musical basis; nor do they offer trenchant nonmusical connections.
There is certainly musical precedent of a sort for the new Ravello CD featuring five works by Croatian composer Zoran Šćekić: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, it should be remembered, was created as a demonstration of “well temperament,” one of several tuning systems of Bach’s time. Similarly, Šćekić is interested in these pieces in demonstrating what he calls “five limit just intonation,” which is a mathematical system in which intervals are based on the prime numbers 2, 3 and 5. The result is, however, nothing, nothing like what Bach produced: Šćekić offers neither mathematics for musicians nor music for mathematicians. This is music composed as demonstration rather than for any sort of audience connection. For instance, Autumn Fantasy of Martin the Mouse starts boldly and then simply stops; the audience is supposed to wait until it starts again, in a different mode; then it stops again; and so forth. The over-extended silences are mingled with piano runs that are often almost identical, chords that come out of nowhere and go back there, and delightfully silly little sections that give the ear something to accept until they too dissolve and dissipate without any apparent rhyme or reason (that is, aurally apparent: the mathematical structure of the music presumably dictates its progress). Other pieces here are the sedate Evening Bells and bouncy Morning Bells, both being short works labeled “traditional,” and the very extended 23.10, whose minimalism might be tolerable at a two-minute length but quickly wears thin in a piece running more than 20. Also here are two versions of Strong Man, the first performed by Ana Žgur, who handles all this music with more flair than much of it deserves, and the second played by the composer himself at a slightly faster tempo. In both versions, the work is largely chordal and rather dull – presumably yet another demonstration of “five limit just intonation,” but not a work that communicates very effectively as music; any value it has lies elsewhere.
The value of two new anthology discs – CME Presents, Volume 1 from MSR Classics and ONYX from Navona – lies in their showcasing of organizations and performers, not in the music offered. This is not to say the music is uninteresting; it is just that it is hard to figure out why anyone other than a member of the organization highlighted, or someone who knows a performer heard on the recording, would want either CD. CME is the Center for Musical Excellence, which helps gifted young pianists obtain advanced musical education in the United States. That is a laudable goal, and there are a number of skilled pianists – six in all – heard on the disc, singly and in combination, performing brief works by Brahms, Barber, Rachmaninoff, Milhaud and Piazzolla, others by pianists Earl Wild and Vladimir Horowitz, and some by various less-known composers, with encores of Over the Rainbow and Moon River thrown in for good measure. The CD proves that there are indeed good young pianists being helped by CME, and that those pianists can handle works lasting up to eight minutes (the longest being a much-abridged version of Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit) with style and skill. Listeners wanting to further CME’s mission, those already involved in it, and family members and friends of the performers may all want this recording, just as friends and family members of music students anywhere will want recordings of those students’ recitals. But the disc has no reaching-out value on a strictly musical basis: it simply shows that CME is one among many well-meaning organizations trying to further music education and music itself by encouraging and supporting talented young performers. It is the sort of recording that CME might consider giving away to people who provide it with donations, but not a disc that those uninvolved with the organization will find compelling in any way.
The same is true in a slightly different way where ONYX is concerned. Here the music is the point only insofar as it reflects on the half-century commitment of the Society of Composers, Inc. to contemporary music and musicians. None of the 10 works here is going to attract listeners on its own merits. The pieces are Adolescent Psychology by Shawn Crouch, Persistence of Memory by Mark Zanter, Gangrel by Anne Neikirk, Greed by Christopher Biggs, Between Logic and Rhetoric by Ferdinando DeSena, Rivir by Federico Bonacossa, Utmost Attack by Chi-hin Leung, Tensile Strength by Kyong Mee Choi & Timothy Ernest Johnson, Ignis Fatuus by Kai-Young Chang, and Echoes from the Past by Andrián Pertout. The works’ techniques vary widely, as does their instrumentation, but despite their evocative titles, many of the pieces sound very much the same to anyone not versed in advance in their intent. And while the composers show themselves adept in the usual techniques of modern classical music – lots of harmonics, range extensions, extraction of sounds from instruments beyond what the instruments have traditionally produced, unusual instrumental combinations, jazz and other influences, and so forth – there is little that is truly distinctive about any of these pieces, little that listeners to music of this type will not have heard before. As with the CME recording, this is a disc that seems designed entirely for people involved with the organization that the CD celebrates: friends and families of the composers whose works are heard here will want the disc as a souvenir and an affirmation of someone they know personally. But there is no reason for most people – even contemporary-music enthusiasts – to pick up this particular anthology, whose elements are not connected in any meaningful musical way, but only through their affiliation with a particular organization.
December 24, 2015
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. By Randall Munroe. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.95.
This review will not even attempt to do what Randall Munroe does in Thing Explainer. If it had attempted to do the same thing, it would have failed before its headline was finished. That is because one word in the headline is not among the thousand – sorry, “ten hundred” – words people use the most, and those are the words Munroe uses to explain everything in this book. Can you find the word? It is “indeed.” Very good!
Really, what Munroe has done here is something amazing. He has taken extremely complex concepts, some from everyday life and some that are more abstruse, and worked down to their basics. Their very basics. The level of understanding that Munroe must possess in order to provide these explanations is substantial. And the level needed to explain in the words he has chosen to use – there is a list at the back of the book – is truly impressive, akin in its own way to the marvel of Dr. Seuss writing The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words.
Thing Explainer is a book that not only explains how things work but also gives readers a whole new perspective on items with which they only thought they were familiar. For example, it is not difficult to see that the page called “Food-Heating Radio Box” refers to a microwave oven – many people already know that radio waves are what these ovens use for heating and cooking, and the diagram on the page looks like a picture of a microwave oven except for Munroe’s humorous interpolation of names for the many rarely used buttons (humor being one defining characteristic of Thing Explainer). Thus, there are three buttons labeled “controls you actually use,” and they are “time heat,” “how hot,” and “just be a timer” – notice that there is some humor even in these simple-words labels. In addition, there are 18 buttons collectively labeled “lots of other controls they always add even though no one ever wants them,” and these include “plastic food,” “leaves,” “knives,” “flowers,” “teeth,” “money” and “fire.” Real microwaves do not have these labels, of course, but they might as well, given how infrequently the multiple settings on microwaves are usually used – so Munroe’s humor here makes a good point. At the same time, his explanation of how a microwave does what it does is scientifically accurate and really does make the appliance’s function intelligible in the simplest possible way. For instance, the mesh in the door is the “radio wave stopper,” which “stops radio waves from getting out,” because although “they can’t really hurt you…they could hurt other radios or make little flashes of light.” Munroe even manages to tell readers why microwaves and computer hot spots operate at exactly the same wavelengths, and why ice remains in foods even after microwave ovens heat them.
All this is highly informative and clearly shows what makes a common, easily identifiable object work. But the very next page of Thing Explainer shows a different aspect of the book. It is all about a “shape checker.” And what might that be? It is not at all clear from the diagram, which shows a rectangular something-or-other with something sticking out of the top that is shaped like the letter U, but upside-down and with one side longer than the other. Within the rectangular object are five parallel tubes of some kind. What exactly could this thing be? Well, Munroe explains that the rectangle is a “strong box” that “stops you from touching or seeing the inside of the machine.” The inverted-U-shaped thing has a “bar pusher” at one end and, at the other, a “tooth pusher” that “pushes the tooth into [a] hole, so you can’t get it out by shaking the machine.” The five parallel thingies are “stick pushers,” and at the very bottom of the “strong box” is a “turner hole.” This highly mysterious item turns out to be – an ordinary lock. Munroe calls it a “shape checker” because it “checks whether you have a piece of metal with a certain shape. If you do, it lets go of whatever it’s holding on to.” This is a remarkably perceptive and fascinatingly phrased description of what a lock is and how it works, and when Munroe gets to the point of “lying to the checker” – a section on lock picking – the whole discussion becomes even more intriguing.
Complementing the full-page descriptions of many things in Thing Explainer are some foldouts. One goes with a description of “Earth’s surface,” where the otherwise unlabeled island of St. Helena is used for a short description of the entire career of Napoleon, who is never named but referred to as “a man [who] took over part of the world.” On the same foldout, Australia, also not named, has an arrow pointing to it with the words “big animals with big pockets,” and the note on the (yes, unnamed) Galápagos Islands says, “Someone once became very well known for going here to look at bird faces and learn how life works.” This is just one super-clever foldout. Another is at the back of the book: a really big foldout that shows a “Sky Toucher: A look inside a really tall house,” analyzing a skyscraper. This one includes “fear porches” (balconies that are very high up), “car slides” (ramps in the underground parking garage), “parts that don’t do anything” (because “sometimes people making buildings worry that they’ll look boring, so they put in holes or parts that stick out”), and a dinosaur (with the label “not allowed”).
Throughout the book, Munroe’s wide-ranging scientific knowledge is paired with a truly delicious sense of humor – and his very simple yet exceedingly offbeat explanations will have readers first laughing, then searching for just what he is talking about. His periodic table, for example, is called “The Pieces Everything Is Made Of,” does not name a single element, and is a classic, or should be. It includes “metal that’s not very interesting,” “metal named after a god, but only after a long fight over what to call it,” and “metal used to make very fast sky boat pushers.” It also includes elements described in terms of how long they exist before decaying into something else: “stuff that lasts for an hour and a half,” “stuff that lasts for a day,” “stuff that lasts for two minutes,” “stuff that lasts for eight seconds,” and so on. This is wonderful, err, stuff. So is the page on “Tall Roads” (bridges), which explains the pluses and minuses of a “bendy road,” a “road hanging under a stronger shape,” a “road hanging from sticks,” and much more, and includes the admonition, “When you hold up a road by hanging it, you have to be very careful” about the effects of wind. In fact, all the pages here are absolutely marvelous, and although the oversize book has only 60-some pages (it’s a little hard to know how to count the foldouts), it is so detailed and written with such careful quirkiness, such quirky care, that it manages to be intriguing and eccentric enough to engage readers for a lot more time than a typical multi-hundred-page novel requires. Thing Explainer explains things of all sorts, and it also sends readers out on their own to learn just what Munroe’s seemingly simple descriptions refer to. This is a true voyage of discovery to parts that, if not really unknown, are highly unfamiliar in the simplicity of the complexity with which they are here analyzed, described and wonderfully elucidated.
Won’t You Be My Kissaroo? By Joanne Ryder. Illustrations by Melissa Sweet. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Scholastic Year in Sports 2016. By James Buckley, Jr., with Jim Gigliotti. Scholastic. $9.99.
As the year’s end approaches – and with it, of course, a new year’s beginning – there are some traditions, beyond holiday celebrations, in which families can indulge again and again. Reading or re-reading much-loved books is one of the more pleasant of these. There is always time to rediscover, or discover for the first time, Joanne Ryder’s warmly silly Won’t You Be My Kissaroo? Originally published in 2004 and now available in paperback, it takes the made-up word “kissaroo,” which is what Ryder says she always calls her loved ones, and applies it to a variety of anthropomorphic animals in a number of different situations. There is the sheeps’ morning kiss, “full of sun,” and the bears’ breakfast kiss, “nice and sweet” because of all that honey, and a butterfly’s hello kiss, “soft as rain,” and a playful kiss from a little frog wearing black-polka-dotted red galoshes. The expressions of the animals, both the kiss givers and the kiss recipients, are adorable, and there is even a bit of a plot to go along with the kissing – carried forward by wordless pages on which Melissa Sweet’s illustrations, which really are sweet, move the story along. That plot involves “a gotcha kiss” that turns out to be the start of a surprise birthday party with, of course, a birthday kiss – and with all the kissing and kissable animals in attendance. Ryder and Sweet carry the book charmingly past the sheep’s birthday party into nighttime and “a bedtime kiss” to “tuck you tight/ and keep you cozy through the night.” Won’t You Be My Kissaroo? does make a wonderful bedtime story, but it is really a tale for anytime, a kissably cute and cutely kissable little touch of enjoyment that makes for a lovely little holiday tradition or, for that matter, an any-time-of-the-year tradition.
A tradition specific to the end of each year, at least for sports fans, is a look back at how their favorite teams and players fared in the year that is ending. For young sports lovers, Scholastic Year in Sports 2016 can be an enjoyable and highly visual way to do just that. The book is a (+++) volume, not so much because its title really should refer to 2015 as because the exigencies of traditional book publishing mean the information in the book includes only results through August 2015 – that is, through the first eight months of the year prior to the year given in the book’s title. Even young sports fans will presumably understand that a book made available during 2015 cannot possibly be a “2016” book (it’s a 2016 edition, from the publisher’s viewpoint, but that is not the same thing); and readers immersed in the Internet will presumably comprehend that old-style printed books cannot have up-to-the-minute information in them. What, then, would the attraction of this book be? Well, it is brightly, breezily and briefly written, with an attractively busy layout and lots and lots of player pictures. Its information on 2014 is complete, and it offers some interesting commentary, for example by calling 2014 a “season of surprises” in major league baseball and then explaining why. For sports events that were completed by August 2015, it offers both accuracy and, in many cases, historical perspective: the 2015 NCAA Men’s Division I championship was won by Duke, the Women’s Division I by Connecticut, and the book lists all winners going back to 1939 for men and 1982 for women. There are many lists of past winners here, and they will interest fans of multiple sports. There is a complete list for the Super Bowl, for example, going back to the very first one, in 1966, and giving for each game the winning team, losing team, score, and place where the game was played. Super Bowl XLIX was played in 2015 but was for the 2014 season, and it is included, although of course there is no way to give information on the actual 2015 National Football League results. Fans of the major professional and college sports will find a fair amount of material in Scholastic Year in Sports 2016; fans of less widely followed sports get only a smattering of material. The Triple Crown victory by American Pharoah [sic], for instance, gets only brief coverage, although it was arguably one of the most significant sports occurrences of 2015. Ice skating gets almost none: two short paragraphs, a total of less than half a page – substantially less space than is given to kabbadi, a game with elements of tag and wrestling that is popular in India and Pakistan. Yet learning a bit about sports that are unknown in North America can be fun, and is one thing young fans will get from a book like this one but not from the Internet, where serendipity is difficult to come by. Taken as a whole, Scholastic Year in Sports 2016 is a pleasant, highly visual, once-over-lightly look at a variety of 2014 and early-2015 events – a book without much staying power, but one that fans will enjoy reading as the new year approaches, to remind themselves of some game and player highlights from the recent past. Looking back is, after all, a common tradition for sports fans and non-fans alike.
The Hypnotists, Book Three: The Dragonfly Effect. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.
Floors, Book 3: The Field of Wacky Inventions. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $6.99.
The 39 Clues: Doublecross—Book Two: Mission Hindenburg. By C. Alexander London. Scholastic. $12.99.
The Elementia Chronicles, Book Two: The New Order. By Sean Fay Wolfe. Harper. $9.99.
There is a certain point at which multi-book adventure series for preteens seem to continue of their own volition to their inevitable conclusions. Pretty much anyone who is pulled deeply enough into the world of a trilogy to read the first two books is going to want to find out what happens in the third and last one. And if the endings are, more often than not, quite predictable, that almost does not matter, since young readers will want to know how things get to the grand finale just as much as they want to find out what eventually happens. So The Dragonfly Effect and The Field of Wacky Inventions both have built-in audiences. Neither is really worth reading on its own, and neither makes a good entry point to the series that it concludes, but both wrap up their respective sequences satisfactorily, although unsurprisingly. In Gordon Korman’s final part of The Hypnotists, Jackson (Jax) Opus has been pressed into the service of the U.S. government, which wants to harness his ability to hypnotize anyone – even over a video link – for the Hypnotic Warfare Research Department. Predictably, Jax finds out that even though his nemesis, Dr. Elias Mako, has been jailed, there may be even more nefarious bad guys out there. In fact, Jax may not be the only person with the distance-hypnotism power – and as is to be expected, if there is someone else who can do what Jax does, that person is evil (there are never just two people with extraordinary powers on the same side in tales like this). Eventually, after – no kidding – 11 million traffic accidents in which there is not a single fatality, Jax’s friend, Kira, says that “maybe hypnotism is just too dangerous to be used by anybody,” but Jax himself has to use his power in spite of himself to set things right and return his life to an even keel. Korman is a reliable author for ages 8-12, knitting his plots together skillfully if not really very surprisingly. Readers who made it through the first two parts of The Hypnotists will find little to surprise them in the last novel – including the eventual fate of Dr. Mako – but will breathe a formulaic sigh of relief when Jax comes through his trials in fine form.
Matters are lighter and more amusing in The Field of Wacky Inventions, written by another trustworthy purveyor of preteen adventures, Patrick Carman. This is the last book about one of those all-too-typical eccentric adults with a basically good heart and a determination to make preteens jump through innumerable hoops in order to gain a great reward at the end. Here protagonists Leo and Remi become part of a competition to own the entire Whippet hotel empire – the whole thing engineered by Merganzer D. Whippet, whose name shows how offbeat he is (or something like that). The best character here has a much simpler name: Phil. He is a tiny Tyrannosaurus Rex and a scene-stealer if there ever was one. The rest of the book is less interesting: the roofs of the many Whippet hotels fly off and are reassembled into a brand-new building at which competitors from the various parts of the Whippet empire must solve puzzles in order to decide who, at the end, will be in charge of everything. Miniature dinosaurs are part of all this, along with anti-gravity, a gigantic roller coaster, and so forth. Carman throws the challenges out willy-nilly in the reasonable expectation that readers will know that Leo and Remi will overcome all of them in the end. There is a bit of a surprise when Leo gets a girlfriend named Lucy during his puzzle-solving quest: she is as resourceful as he and helps him make it through all the difficulties. Much less surprising is the continued attempt by the evil Ms. Sparks to foul everything up – but this plot thread gets less attention here than it might, with Carman introducing a typical spy-in-our-midst puzzle that turns out to get little attention and have little importance. Despite the book’s title, The Field of Wacky Inventions is not really about a field of wacky inventions – it is about (yet another) competition involving (yet another) set of challenges to be solved by (yet another) resourceful preteen protagonist backed up by (yet another) set of friends. Readers who stayed with the first two books will find this third one a satisfying, if scarcely revelatory, conclusion of the trilogy.
A trilogy is little more than a drop in the bucket where the continuing saga of The 39 Clues is concerned. This multi-author, multimedia extravaganza, with its online participation and trading cards and multiple book series, includes (in its book portion) 11 novels from the original sequence, six in Cahills vs. Vespers, four in Unstoppable, and – so far – two in Doublecross. The second of those, Mission Hindenburg, continues the ever-more-implausible plotting and standardized writing – this time assigned to a new author in the series, C. Alexander London, whose style is (as it should be) indistinguishable from that of the other writers. The underlying premise of Doublecross is that someone called simply the Outcast has been banished from the Cahill family and is now seeking revenge by re-creating four famous historical disasters and giving the Cahill kids, Amy and Dan, just days to stop each of them (presenting them, of course, one after the other rather than all at once, which would be unstoppable). The first book was Mission Titanic, which obviously pointed to a disaster in the ocean even if not to the Titanic itself. In the second book, there is obviously going to be some sort of air disaster, but since nobody travels by airships such as the Hindenburg anymore, Dan and Amy have to figure out just what the Outcast’s aim is – aided, or perhaps complicated, by the usual sorts of cryptic clues that encourage readers to solve the mystery along with the Cahill kids. The one intriguing element of all the various series of The 39 Clues is that they include some historically accurate information alongside all the nonsensical plotting and general silliness. That is the case here, too; and also here is the typical world-spanning travel that is integral to these books, with chapters set in Athens, Moscow, Massachusetts, “the stratosphere (134,000 feet over Europe and falling),” the troposphere, and the thermosphere. This time there really is an explosion aboard an airship – a bit of a twist there – but of course it is not a ship carrying Amy or Dan or any of the other primary characters in the series. That allows Mission Hindenburg to come to a somewhat ambiguous conclusion that, at the very end, presents a revelation that may, just may, point toward the identity of the Outcast – although not to the reason for his diabolical plotting. That may be revealed when this part of The 39 Clues continues: the next book will be called Mission Hurricane.
There is nothing quite so grandiose at stake in The Elementia Chronicles, a trilogy in which Sean Fay Wolfe presents adventures set in the world of the video game Minecraft and starring the block-headed, Lego-like characters from the game. The New Order, the second book in the series, continues the unsurprising adventures of Charlie, Kat and Stan after their successful ousting of King Kev. Unfortunately for the good guys but fortunately for the plot, King Kev’s followers are still at large and still plotting mischief, and an entirely new group called the Noctem Alliance is emerging as an even bigger threat. The way the books point to the video-game origin of the story is one of their few unusual elements – for example, Stan’s full name is Stan2012, and after defeating King Kev, Stan became president of the Minecraft server, Elementia (hence the series’ overall title). Wolfe wrote this book when he was 17 years old, so the super-simple descriptions and wooden dialogue are scarcely a surprise; indeed, older authors of heroic fantasies often do no better. Still, the things the characters say wear thin after a short while and thinner still as they continue saying much the same things in much the same way, again and again. Here, for example, is a character named DZ practicing introspection (ellipses in the original): “‘Well, you see…look, Stan, it’s like this. You, Charlie, Kat, and everybody else are my best friends, and it’s awesome hanging out with you. And I know that you need my help to run the city and all. And even if you didn’t, it’s something that I really enjoy doing. I honestly love my life on this server, I really do. It’s just…every now and then, I miss how simple everything was out in the desert. There was no war, no conflict, not much of anything, it was just me, by myself, living a life of solitude, and it was never boring, ’cause I was constantly fighting mobs and nomads and crap just to stay alive.’” This sort of comment – about there being no war or conflict except for constant fighting to stay alive – rolls off the page without a shred of irony, and the book is full of unintentional silliness like this in the middle of what is supposed to be a grand adventure. But this is, after all, a book aimed purely at young readers who are devoted to Minecraft: the book’s relationship to the game is strictly unofficial and unauthorized by the game’s manufacturer, but The Elementia Chronicles is clearly written by someone who is strongly attached to the game, for others who are equally attracted to it. As such, it will please those looking for a more-of-the-same continuation of the first book, Quest for Justice; and since this second book ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, fans will be looking forward to the upcoming conclusion of the trilogy, which will be called Herobrine’s Message.
Anne Boleyn’s Songbook. Alamire conducted by David Skinner; Claire Williamson, voice; Jacob Heringman, lute; Kirsty Whatley, harp. Obsidian. $27.99 (2 CDs).
Brahms and Bruckner: Motets. Tenebrae conducted by Nigel Short. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Cavalcade of Martial Songs. The Band of the Welsh Guards. British Military Music Archive. $16.99.
William Bolcom: Canciones de Lorca (2006); Prometheus (2009). René Barbera, tenor; Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony conducted by Carl St. Clair. Naxos. $12.99.
John Rutter: The Gift of Life; Seven Sacred Pieces. Cambridge Singers and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Rutter. Collegium Records. $16.99.
The expressiveness of the human voice, although used in different ways over the centuries, has always offered a direct musical connection to listeners, and continues to do so today, as evidenced by works that stretch from the time of Elizabeth I of England to Elizabeth II, the current queen. The mother of the first Elizabeth was Anne Boleyn, second of the six wives of King Henry VIII, none of whom managed to produce the male heir that the king desperately wanted – so desperately that he created the Anglican Church in large part so he could move from wife to wife after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment of his first marriage. Anne (1501-1536) is usually seen as a tragic figure, accused of multiple adulteries – at least some of them certainly false – and beheaded so that the king could move on to Jane Seymour. A new Obsidian release featuring the vocal ensemble Alamire, conducted by David Skinner, sees Anne somewhat differently, through the lens of a songbook assembled for her after she developed very cultivated musical tastes at the French court. This recording is particularly intriguingly arranged, focusing primarily on music written by the greatest composers of the 15th and early 16th centuries, including Josquin Desprez and Jean Mouton, but interspersing their vocal works with French chansons of the time and a few instrumental interludes performed on lute and harp. The Desprez works are the most substantial here and the most affecting, including Stabat mater dolorosa, Liber generationis and Praeter rerum seriem. But the music by Mouton and less-known composers Loyset Compère, Antoine de Févin, Antoine Brumel and Claudin de Sermisy is also very well-made. There are some anonymous works here, too, the most affecting being the final piece on the second CD, O Deathe rock me asleep, which is not from the Anne Boleyn songbook at all but is offered as a kind of reminder of the young queen’s sad fate. The release is subtitled “Music & Passions of a Tudor Queen,” and although the passions for which Anne was executed were of a distinctly worldly sort, there is something transcendent in the ones communicated by these poised, fervent and beautifully performed works.
Centuries later, with many musical, social and spiritual developments having occurred, music remained uniquely communicative of a striving for higher realms, often continuing to be written in the same Latin that was used in Anne’s time – indeed, sometimes to the exact same words. An exceptionally well-sung Signum Classics recording of motets by Brahms and Bruckner shows how strongly old words continued to communicate right through the Romantic era. Bruckner is here represented by nine works that will likely be quite unfamiliar even to listeners well-versed in his music, since it is for his symphonies and Mass settings that he is best known. The ensemble Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short, brings great feeling to Aequalis Nos. 1 and 2, Virga Jesse, Ecce sacerdos, Christus factus est, Locus iste, Os justi, Ave Maria, and Tota pulchra es. The sincerity and straightforward belief of Bruckner are everywhere apparent in these beautifully set works. And the Brahms material, which is intermingled with Bruckner’s, is even more interesting. Brahms was a fine composer for the voice, although he is not often thought of as favoring vocal works; and although he was not devout in the rather unquestioning way that Bruckner was, he was quite capable of producing works of religious beauty and sincerity. Indeed, his version of Ave Maria contrasts with and complements Bruckner’s quite well. The canonic writing of Geistliches Lied, which in some ways anticipates Ein deutsches Requiem, and an actual excerpt from that grand work, How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings, bear further testimony to Brahms’ expressive vocal skill. But the most interesting Brahms pieces here are two late ones: Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109 and Drei motetten, Op. 110. The first of these includes three hymns of praise for what was then a newly united German nation, with the first and third using text from the Old Testament and the second drawing on the New Testament. Brahms’ sensitivity to the vocal colors of a mixed chorus is especially telling here – many of his earlier choral works were for men’s or women’s groups, not both together – and the combination of religious and secular meaning of the hymns is noteworthy, especially in the third, whose message is that Germany must stand united to defend itself. The three motets in Op. 110, Brahms’ last work for mixed choir, look back for inspiration into the distant past – not quite to the time of Anne Boleyn, but to that of Gabrieli and Schütz. No. 1 draws on the Old Testament, while Nos. 2 and 3 are Lutheran chorale poems; and the settings, which emphasize antiphonal effects, are judiciously managed and very effective. The first-rate performances on this CD will open for at least some listeners a new world in terms of Brahms’ and Bruckner’s music, showcasing infrequently heard works that are as germane to the composers’ output as are their much-better-known large-scale pieces.
Not long after the 1890s, the decade during which both Brahms and Bruckner died, the world was at war, and the old certainties of both religion and earthly life seemed far less sure. It was midway through the Great War, in 1916, that The Band of the Welsh Guards was established, and a new recording issued by British Military Music Archive commemorates a century of the band’s existence and performances. The CD offers old recordings, made between 1931 and 1940; that fact and the focus on this specific ensemble’s history make this a limited-interest (+++) release. The remastering is quite well done, and the decision to leave in some of the surface noise and other occasional aural distractions of the original recordings was a wise one, giving the historical importance of the performances greater immediacy. The works themselves, both vocal and instrumental, range from the very familiar (Sousa’s marches The Stars and Stripes Forever and The Washington Post) to the little-known outside Wales (eight Welsh National Songs performed with tenor David Lloyd). Ten of the offerings here are songs and marches with vocal choruses: the two Sousa works, The Changing of the Guard, Blaze Away, Marche Lorraine, Cupid’s Army, The Chelsea Pensioners and The Aldershot Tattoo, plus two multi-tune works called Cavalcade of Martial Songs and Songs by the Camp Fireside. And there are two rather jingoistic but quite effective items offered midway through the recording, featuring bass-baritone Foster Richardson, a children’s choir and a grand organ: Let Us Sing unto Their Majesties and Land of Hope and Glory, whose words are set to the middle section of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. The CD is something of a curiosity, of interest mainly to those who feel a special connection to historical military music and/or to Wales. For such listeners, this disc comes across as a welcome rarity.
The unique expressiveness possible through vocal music continues to attract composers in the 21st century, as shown in a (++++) Naxos CD featuring recent works by William Bolcom. Bolcom is a particularly facile composer for the voice, and his extended Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1984), which sets 46 poems by William Blake and lasts three hours, is a masterwork. Canciones de Lorca and Prometheus are lesser pieces but are still showcases for Bolcom’s easy skill in stylistic blending and exceptional ability to produce music that reflects and enhances multiple emotions. Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) was a theater director as well as a poet and playwright, and Bolcom here shows himself sensitive to the theatrical elements of García Lorca’s multifaceted works, which are by turns passionate, mysterious and amusing. Bolcom also accepts the surrealism that pervades García Lorca’s poetry, using an understanding of flamenco and other Spanish music to create a series of nine evocative, involving and mercurial songs that collectively make up a fine tribute to García Lorca as well as an exceptional musical work in its own right. The performance led by Carl St. Clair is a strong one, attentive to the work’s rhythmic variety and the coloristic effects that Bolcom skillfully evokes. The performance of Prometheus is fine, too – here pianist Jeffrey Biegel and the Pacific Chorale have important roles and fulfill them skillfully – but the music itself is less involving. The reason may be that the material is simply more conventional: Bolcom draws on the legend of Prometheus chained to a rock after delivering fire to humans to make a point about the modern world being “chained” to technology – but hopefully being able to use it to move toward understanding and peace. The naiveté of the message is somewhat at odds with the sophistication of Bolcom’s musicianship, and while Prometheus has effective moments and is undeniably well-constructed both vocally and instrumentally, it does not sustain interest as well as some other Bolcom works – although it is certainly heartfelt in this fine performance.
Equally heartfelt and at least equally naïve is the featured work on a new (+++) CD from Collegium Records featuring John Rutter conducting his own The Gift of Life. Subtitled “Six Canticles of Creation,” this 40-minute celebratory choral piece is essentially an extended hymn to how wonderful Earth and all the things upon it are. The moods are no less varied – and no more varied – than those found in the music of Anne Boleyn’s time: from contemplative and prayerful to inspirational. Rutter specifically sees this piece as a sort of anti-Requiem, celebrating life in all its majesty in a way analogous to that in which a Requiem acknowledges death and its inevitability while seeking to provide peace to those left behind. Requiem words are well-known, but for his life-focused work, Rutter had to choose his own texts, and in some cases write them. For example, the third movement, Hymn to the Creator of Light, was originally written in 1992 in memory of composer Herbert Howells. The relentless affirmation of The Gift of Life, its studied optimism and certainty of positivism, become cloying after a time: there is considerable beauty in parts of this broadly conceived work, but just too much brightness and insistence on goodness – as wonderful as the sun is, staring at it too long is scarcely good for the eyes. The remaining seven pieces on the CD, which are shorter and were written for a variety of occasions, come across somewhat better through the variety of their moods and the felicity with which they are orchestrated (five of them were originally composed for voices with organ or small ensemble; here all seven pieces are accompanied by full orchestra). The first four of these shorter works are Give the king thy judgements [sic], O God; A flower remembered; The Quest; and Psalm 150. The last three pieces are Christmas carols, which in their simplicity and melodiousness speak feelingly to the season: Christ is the morning star, All bells in paradise, and Rejoice and sing. Rutter is certainly adept and tuneful (rather cloyingly so) in both large-scale and smaller works. Here it is the briefer pieces that more-effectively encapsulate his thoughts and feelings, communicating clearly to listeners without evincing any particular need to dull the quality of their messages by bringing them to an audience repeatedly or at too-extended a length. Rutter’s sentiment – indeed, his sentimentality – is apparent throughout this CD; it becomes treacly, however, only in the extended realm of The Gift of Life.
Leo Brouwer: Music for Bandurria and Guitar. Pedro Chamorro, bandurria; Pedro Mateo González, guitar. Naxos. $12.99.
Michael Eckert: Brazilian Dreams—Chamber Music for Piano and for Clarinet and Piano. Unison Piano Duo (Du Huang and Xiao Hu); Amanda McCandless, clarinet, with Polina Khatsko, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Shades of Sound: Chamber Music for Flute and Piano. Lisa Garner Santa, flute; Nataliya Sukhina, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The lute-like bandurria is an instrument little known in North America but quite popular farther south, where it has been in use, in various forms, since the 16th century. Leo Brouwer (born 1939) blends the bandurria with its cousin, the guitar, in some intriguing ways on a new Naxos CD that also shows Brouwer’s ability to write solo works for each of the instruments. The most intriguing pieces here are the two for bandurria and guitar together: Música Incidental Campesina (Music of the Countryside) and Micropiezas (Micropieces) para Bandurria y Guitarra. The first of these dates to 1978 and celebrates the style of folk music popular in Brouwer’s native Cuba, the four short movements (only about a minute each) combining into an attractive mini-suite. The second of the combination works, written in 1957, is rhythmically more varied and slightly more extended, its five movements lasting nine minutes and being less rustic and more classically balanced – the concluding Andante tranquillo is especially engaging. Also here is Sonata para Bandurria (2011), written for Pedro Chamorro, who handles this extended three-movement work with considerable rhythmic attentiveness and impressive virtuosity, especially in the toccata that concludes the final movement. The two guitar-only pieces, which both date to 2007, are Variaciones sobre un tema de Víctor Jara and Sonata del Caminante (The Wanderer’s Sonata). Pedro Mateo González plays both with fine tone and admirable technique. The CD as a whole, though, is a trifle on the pale side: the tones of bandurria and guitar, although different, are not distinct enough to provide major aural variety when the instruments play together for an extended period; and although Brouwer writes well for both instruments, the solo sonatas come across as somewhat monochromatic except in sections where their rhythmic vitality shines forth. Listeners interested in the bandurria will find this CD involving, but others may find an hour of Brouwer’s music for these instruments, whether separate or together, a bit much. In fact, the music gains when pieces are heard individually, coming across to better effect than when the recording is played straight through.
Farther south than Brouwer’s Cuba lies Brazil, whose music has proved intriguing to numerous composers – including some, such as Michael Eckert (born 1950), who have never been there. Brazilian music is well-known for its bossa nova rhythms but much less so for the type of material that interests Eckert: the chôro, a late-19th-century form that meshes elements of formal European dances with Afro-Brazilian rhythms. It sounds something like a combination of early jazz and ragtime – and was largely supplanted by bossa nova when that form became popular in the mid-20th-century, although chôro later regained some popularity. Eckert uses chôro as a jumping-off point, much as Heitor Villa-Lobos did in some of his music, and much as Astor Piazzolla used Argentine tango as the basis of concert works that went well beyond that form’s dance-hall origins. Actually, Eckert works in tango form, too: Three Tangos for Piano Four Hands (2002-06) opens a new MSR Classics CD stylishly, while Three Pieces for Two Pianos (2011-12) concludes the recording in more-expansive vein, with works that draw to a greater extent on European models. Eckert thinks in threes: all six works on this disc are triples. Sandwiched between the piano pieces are four compositions for clarinet and piano that show their Brazilian connections quite clearly. They are Three Chôros (2006-07), Three Pieces in Brazilian Style (2007), Three for the Road (2008), and Three Scenes (2010). Eckert’s writing for the clarinet is assured and idiomatic, tending to sit mostly in a comfortable span within the instrument’s middle range. Virtuosity takes a back seat here to lyricism and rhythmic acuity, and most of the 12 pieces in the four clarinet-and-piano works run about the same amount of time: three minutes or so. One result of this is that Eckert’s style becomes readily apparent from these recordings, all of which are world premières. Another, less fortunate result is that there is a certain sameness to the music, which nicely adopts or adapts its dance models but tends to treat the chôro and other dances in pretty much the same way time after time. Like the Brouwer CD, this one of Eckert’s music comes across better when heard in several sessions rather than straight through – played from start to finish, it has a tendency to blend a bit into the background. However, it is worth mentioning that all the performers clearly find the music involving, and all handle it with the requisite skill and a strong level of commitment.
What sounds unexpected in a new MSR Classics CD featuring flautist Lisa Garner Santa is not the featured instrument (as on the Brouwer disc) and not any particular musical form underlying the works (as on the Eckert CD). Rather, it is the juxtaposition of the particular pieces that Santa and pianist Nataliya Sukhina perform that results in a disc whose overall sound is beyond the usual. This is by design: Santa says the recording is intended to inquire, musically, into elements of shade and light. “Do we require shadow in order to grow into the radiance of our full expression of self?” she asks. A philosophical query, to be sure, but the musical question is whether the works here shine light on what Santa is seeking to explore. The honest answer is that, while the works are well-played and evoke varying emotions within themselves individually and among themselves as a total recital, they are not especially evocative of a light/dark duality to any degree greater than that of other pieces that also offer varying musical sounds. Santa chooses six composers here, from various time periods and with quite different styles. The CD opens with Black Anemones (1980) by Joseph Schwantner (born 1943); next are three short, almost Scarlatti-like flute sonatas – Nos. 14, 13, and 16 (in that order) – by Giuseppe Rabboni (1800-1856); then the much broader and more extended flute sonata of 1946 by Edwin York Bowen (1884-1961); First Sonata for Flute and Piano (1945, although the CD gives its date as 1951) by Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959); a 2007 flute sonata by Matthew Santa (born 1970); and, finally, Soliloquy for Flute and Piano (2011) by Jake Heggie (born 1961). It is interesting to hear, among other things, some flute works by the little-known Rabboni and the way in which Martinů repeatedly brings forth and emphasizes the call of the whippoorwill in the finale of his sonata; and Schwantner’s and Heggie’s works, essentially miniatures, are an effective opening and closing for the more-substantial pieces heard between them. But it is a stretch to suggest that the works chosen here are somehow more reflective of darkness and light, of the human condition, or of other extramusical matters than are other pieces for flute and piano (or for other instruments). The philosophical underpinnings of this disc are weak, no matter how well-meaning; the performances, however, are strong, and listeners interested in these particular pieces – shorn of any unnecessary metaphysical gloss – will find Santa and Sukhina effective advocates for the music as music.