July Short Fuses – Materia Critica

Each month, our arts critics — music, book, theater, dance, and visual arts — fire off a few brief reviews.


A Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition of CSNY’s Deja Vu — an amazing package, a worthy tribute to possibly the best album any of the talented members ever did, together or apart.

Delayed by COVID, the 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of what rock-critic-turned-film-director Cameron Crowe called “one of the most famous second albums in rock history,” was released this year, a lovingly compiled retrospective of one of the greatest records of all time with dozens of previously unreleased demos, outtakes, and alternate takes. I’m speaking of 1970’s Déjà vu, by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

The 4CD/1LP edition has the look and feel of the original, right down to the faux-leather textured cover, gold-leaf printing, and hand-glued sepia-toned photograph of the band that sang harmoniously but never could get along with each other. The real magic, of course, is inside. The first CD is a remaster of the original album with wonderful sonic clarity. CD2 offers a generous selection of demos, and it’s worth pointing out that their demos are for the most part close-to-final renderings. They are not sketches at all but fully realized tunes, some of which never made it to the final release. A particular highlight is Graham Nash’s “Our House” featuring a harmony vocal from Joni Mitchell, for whom it was written. CD3 is filled with outtakes, the best of which are by Stephen Stills, including a couple that ended up on his 1971 solo album, Stephen Stills 2. The final CD has early or alternate mixes, which allow us to gaze at this jewel of a recording from different perspectives. A beautifully illustrated booklet with essay by Crowe completes this amazing package, a worthy tribute to possibly the best album any of the talented members ever did, together or apart.

— Jason M. Rubin

Classical Music

These readings are conspicuously transparent: texturally, rhythmically, melodically, and expressively, this is Brahms as he’s not usually heard.

What can a new recording of Johannes Brahms’s two piano concertos possibly hope to reveal about these popular, familiar, oft-recorded warhorses? In the case of András Schiff’s new disc (ECM New Series) with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), quite a bit.

Schiff is no stranger to this music: he recorded the First Concerto in the ’80s with the Vienna Philharmonic and Georg Solti. While the Second came later to his repertoire, Schiff’s as thorough-going and intelligent a Brahmsian as they come. For this recording, he went back to the manuscripts, uncovering little details along the way (like a metronome marking in the first movement of No. 1 that didn’t make it into the printed edition). He also chose to play the solo parts of both concerti on an 1859 Blüthner keyboard, which does more than a little to clarify Brahms’s thick keyboard textures.

As a result, these readings are conspicuously transparent: texturally, rhythmically, melodically, and expressively, this is Brahms as he’s not usually heard. But it’s what Schiff and the OAE highlight as a result of this cobwebs-be-damned approach that carries the day.

Their take on the sprawling First Concerto, for instance, is at once colorful, well-balanced, nimble, and smartly driven. The outer movements pack plenty of energy — but also weight of force: the OAE’s horn playing shines and, while the orchestral performance is ever lucid and dancing, its harmonic foundation is rock solid.

Schiff’s traversal of the solo part blends discreetly with the ensemble, nowhere more so than in his beautifully voiced and phrased account of the sublime second movement.

Much the same can be said for the Second Concerto.

Tempos move purposefully, balances are carefully handled, and there’s a captivating unanimity of articulation between Schiff and the OAE.

Granted, there are a couple of moments of strain: the Blüthner feels a bit underpowered at some of the first movement’s climaxes. But the second movement is torrid; the third marked by an incredibly delicate, tender account of its F-sharp-major apotheosis; and the finale thoroughly charms.

In all, this is some truly fresh, inspired, revelatory Brahms. Even if you know this music well — perhaps especially if you do — Schiff’s and the OAE’s are accounts you won’t want to miss.

You’ll be hard-pressed to hear this challenging music played better elsewhere.

Violinist Elizabeth Chang’s new album, Transformations, takes, for its concept, relationships between students and teachers. Pairing chamber music by Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, and Arnold Schoenberg (Kirchner studied with Sessions and Schoenberg; Chang worked with Kirchner while an undergraduate at Harvard), it’s a thoughtful effort, even if some of its offerings remain challenging.

In many ways, the most affecting piece on the disc is Kirchner’s Duo no. 2. Written in 2002, the Duo offers a remarkable synthesis of modernist technique and Romantic soul. Indeed, it’s filled with soaring, intensely expressive gestures, both when the going is lyrical and when it’s motoric. Also, Kirchner’s writing is also highly contrapuntal: the musical line is almost constantly active, but never mindlessly so — there’s a purpose to each gesture in its quarter-hour duration.

Chang and pianist Steven Beck intuit all of this and deliver a fervent performance of the piece. There’s a beguiling sweetness to Chang’s account of some of the Duo’s reflective passagework around the middle, while Beck’s take on the vigorous keyboard writing is exquisitely clean, focused, and energetic.

The pair likewise engage in Schoenberg’s 1949 Phantasy. In this reading, the pizzicato attacks at the beginning really bounce and, throughout, violinist and pianist ably tease out the music’s dancing impetus.

The Sessions selections — his 1953 Solo Violin Sonata and 1978’s Duo for Violin and Cello – offer much of the technical rigor of the Kirchner and Schoenberg but, generally, lack the former’s warmth and the latter’s subtle (if somewhat dour) wit.

The Sonata’s four movements are strict and dissonant. Only the last — an ironic parody of a march — offers a hint of playfulness. Likewise stern is the Duo, with its alternations of mellifluous and combative episodes.

Chang plays the Sonata brilliantly: her tone gleams, intonation is spot on, she’s got the music’s notes — as well as its shape, mood, and Sessions’s larger style — perfectly in hand. The same goes for the Duo. Here, Chang and cellist Alberto Parrini prove perfectly amenable jousting partners.

That neither piece is redeemed by these excellent performances speaks, perhaps, more to personal prejudice than not — or, maybe, it reflects the the limits of Sessions’s musical language. Either way, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear this music played better elsewhere. And, in the case of the Kirchner, his is a Duo well worth getting to know.

— Jonathan Blumhofer

An immensely appealing collection of mostly short pieces and arrangements, by such remarkable pianist-composers as Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Grainger, and Godowsky.

I raved last November about Scottish pianist Kenneth Hamilton’s then-latest solo disc, entitled More Preludes to Chopin. On that CD, he brought great freshness to a number of Chopin’s works, including the First Ballade and the great Polonaise-Fantaisie, in part by including variant readings that stemmed from Chopin himself and in part by toying with the meter and forward flow in a spirit of quasi-improvisatory freedom.

Well, here he is again, less than a year later, with Romantic Piano Encores (Prima Facie), a collection of delectable pieces, most of them short, all of which he considers appropriate as encores for a recital that might otherwise consist of longer, more self-consciously “serious” sonatas and such.

All the pieces are, as encores should be, immensely appealing, and most are on the short side. Many are arrangements by renowned pianist-composers such as Liszt (his reworking of Schumann’s lovely song “Widmung”) and Rachmaninoff (who reworks, in his own luxuriantly soulful style, a song by Tchaikovsky entitled “Lullaby”). The beginning of each track can be heard here.

One can put this CD on in the background for the sheer pleasure of the sounds that it emits, and for the familiar tunes that float up: Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” (arranged by Lawrence Glover), “Irish Tune from County Derry Danny Boy” (in the version that Percy Grainger made of that tune before it got texted as “Danny Boy”), or Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Artist’s Life Waltz,” which is turned into a fifteen-minute “symphonic metamorphosis” by Leopold Godowsky; the only other long piece is another Strauss waltz, the equally beloved “Voices of Spring,” spun into pianistic gold by Ignaz Friedman (best known for his supremely idiomatic recordings of Chopin).

I was pleased to discover some utterly delightful pieces I had never heard before, including Elgar’s “In Smyrna” (including a central section that apparently derives from a muezzin call that he had heard during a trip to Turkey). And Percy Grainger makes the music of John Dowland (1563-1626), sound fresh and a bit jazzy: more up-to-date, in a way, than it does in the much-lauded CD and DVD that pop-performer Sting and lutenist Edin Karamazov recorded in 2006.

And there’s more: a Paderewski nocturne, Mendelssohn’s fantasy on the Thomas Moore song “The Last Rose of Summer,” imaginative arrangements of Bach by Alexander Siloti and by Charles Valentin Alkan, and Grainger’s “ramble” (to use his own term) through some themes from Der Rosenkavalier.

Oh, if all piano CDs were put together with such imagination! And played with such spontaneity and grace—yet with total precision. How does he do it exactly?

Best news of all: Hamilton has announced two forthcoming CDs of Liszt, and one more each of Chopin and yet another pianist-composer, Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015).

— Ralph Locke


Natsuki Tamura intends this solo album to be fun, a word that pops up regularly when he talks about music.

Koki Solo (Libra Records) is trumpeter Natsuki Tamura’s celebration of his 70th year, a milestone in Japan. The title can be translated as “rare in ancient times.” It’s a solo album, and Tamura intends it to be fun, a word that pops up regularly when he talks about music: “When I play, I enjoy myself first. I am even more happy if the audience enjoys it, too. I don’t analyze what I do or what I think, I just pursue my feelings. I’m just like a child.”

The recording was made via what we may end up calling “Covid-style.” Tamura recorded himself in a small, soundproof room, the space mostly taken up by his wife Satoko Fukii’s piano. Inevitably, given the setup, Tamura ended up taking a couple of nonvirtuosic turns on the piano. “Bora” begins with two repeated notes on piano that are answered by a chord, and held. It’s like the start of a sober conversation. There are long pauses and also sudden jumps.  It’s an amusingly thoughtful piece. As he recorded, Tamura began to remember his youth, when he learned to play on the drums. He was unable to fit a drum set into his room, so he substituted pots and pans. “Karugamo” is a Proustian testament to the past. Again, it’s a curiously thoughtful piece, with space in between various tinny clangs and bangs; given the different pitches, there also a kind of songfulness.

To my ears, the highlight of the album is the beautifully expressive, open horn trumpet solo “Kawau.” The performance reflects the lifelong consistency of his solo performances: his tendency to open with a fragmentary idea — whether on trumpet, pots and pans, piano, or trumpet mouthpiece — to pause, and then, in an child-like manner, to see what he can make of it. It’s an antic adventure, and one this audience member enjoyed as well.

— Michael Ullman


Perhaps philosopher Simon Critchley had to hold back in order to cater to the tender sensibilities of NYTimes readers.

I looked forward to reading Bald: 35 Philosophical Short Cuts (Yale University Press, 264 pp), philosopher Simon Critchley’s collection of short essays originally written for the New York Times. I very much enjoyed his 2019 book, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us (it bolstered my recent column’s argument about the value of staging Sophocles and company as a way to comprehend the Climate Crisis) and a while back I relished 2002’s On Humor, a cerebral look at comedy that was as amusing as it was insightful. The tragicomedy of Euripides was the guiding spirit behind those two books but tragedy (aside from a couple of pieces on our need to properly understand the genre) is pretty much missing in Bald. Perhaps Critchley had to hold back in order to cater to the tender sensibilities of NYTimes readers. There’s some interesting stuff here, but the emphasis is on amiability rather than incisive analysis.

Part of the problem is that, despite being hosted on such a prominent public forum, there doesn’t seem to be all that much at stake in these pieces. For example, Critchley’s defense of cynicism becomes no more than gently rousing: “Cynicism is basically a moral protest against hypocrisy in politics and and excess and thoughtless self-indulgence in the conduct of life.” More compelling is his belief that theater is “the place where the tensions, conflicts, and ambiguities of democratic life are played out in front of people…. Theater is the night kitchen of democracy.” Empowerment is thankfully marooned in the wings. A series of pieces based on a a trip to Greece to check out where Plato lectured fall somewhat flat, as does an attempt to explain that, despite the fact that the word “nothing” often pops up in his lyrics, David Bowie wasn’t a nihilist. But the “Gospel According to Me” is a nicely cutting attack on the ungodly power of the cult of personal authenticity.

Unfortunately, Critchley’s provocations are often mushy. An essay that makes an interesting case for the theological charisma of the Mormon God (“[He] does not create matter. He organizes it.”) takes time to tweak the anti-Mormon prejudices of his “horribly overeducated and hugely liberal friends.” It doesn’t mention the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-​day Saint’s legacy of racism and misogyny as well as its continuing ill treatment of indigenous peoples and political/economic support of Climate Change denial in Utah. A trio of essays on the gnosticism of sci-fi giant Philip K. Dick is right on in their exploration of how this virulent brand of paranoia (everyone is evil but me) has infiltrated society and popular culture. But then the culprits behind this irrationality turn out to be “reputable, often prize-winning scientists” who package their reductive vision in best-selling books: “The irrepressible rise of a deterministic scientific world view threatens to invade and overtake all of those areas of human activity that we associate with literature, culture, history, religion, and the rest.” A more powerful force behind the rise of alienated selves “in a heartless world of anomie” is our super-charged transformation into a technological society, and that’s a change many in Critchley’s admired areas of human activity are racing to embrace.

— Bill Marx

This is another self-empowerment retelling of a canonical children’s literature heroine with a distinctly welcome feminist edge.

We have all been indoctrinated into the verities of Neverland.

The crowing boy and his troop of “lost boys” embarked on playful escapades with pirates, mermaids, and “Indians” have been embraced by the public ever since Scotsman J.M. Barrie introduced the character of Peter Pan in his adult novel The Little White Bird in 1902. Peter Pan has inspired a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, loaned metaphors to a psychological study of arrested masculine development, and launched a million Disney backpacks. The list of derivative works is long.

In her just-published debut novel, Wendy, Darling, (Penguin/Random House) Canadian-born fantasy writer A.C. Wise unbars the window that brings Wendy, John and Michael home to the nursery at Number 14.  Toggling between London in years between 1917 and 1931, Wendy’s adamant insistence on the reality of her experiences in Neverland and the precious memories of the friends she believes she made there leads her now-adult brother John to have her committed to an asylum. John feels he has no choice: after their parents have perished on the Titanic, he is the guardian of a sister he believes to be mad and a younger brother stunned and disabled by his experiences on the battlefields of The Great War. Institutionalized in the brutal environment of St. Bernadette’s, she makes a single friend, a sullen girl she first mistakes for Tiger Lily but who instead is a child of the Blackfoot Confederacy, another displaced girl. This novel is a world without fairy dust or Tinker Bell.

As in Barrie, in this modern retelling Wendy grows up and takes her place at the head of a family — and at spring cleaning time, Peter flies off with her young daughter, Jane. Yet instead of being the “wet-eyed,” Wendy of “ever so much more than twenty” who readers leave staring resignedly out the window at the end of Barrie’s novel, A.C. Wise’s Wendy determines to fight for her daughter and bring her home. By returning to Neverland older, chastened, and with room for doubts, the adult Wendy sees Peter Pan’s bullying, petulance, and bravado with fresh eyes.

Following in the steps of Gregory Maguire  — self-empowerment retellings of canonical children’s literature heroines with a distinctly welcome feminist edge — Wise explores the nature of adulthood where adults have the capacity to question “who made the rules” and enter into relationships based on empathy and compassion. Wise threads her narrative with subtle catchphases and references that twinkle like directional stars.

Oh the cleverness of she!

— Debra Cash

Visual Arts

There is still an iconic red barn or two, but painter Ken Rush’s latest series, somewhat improbably, focuses on swimming pools.

Ken Rush, “Afloat (Marnie).” Photo: courtesy of the artist.

What happens when an artist known for beguiling landscapes studded with utility poles and Vermont barns turns his attention elsewhere? Ken Rush, of Brooklyn, New York, has just opened his biennial exhibition Ken Rush—Summer Days at 3 Pears Gallery, Dorset VT, through August 15. There is still an iconic red barn or two, but his latest series, somewhat improbably, focuses on swimming pools.

Rush explains his left turn by citing the pandemic, which encouraged him to reflect and re-imagine. The result was the production of an impressive number of new works during the past year. Isolated in his studio, he thought back to his youth and found himself remembering how swimming pools were popular venues for socializing. His new works are often populated with tiny human figures — another departure for Rush — alone, or in companionable small groups. In “Afternoon at the Club,” he presents an image of a pool around which people are gathered at a country club. That kind of human density was either what the pandemic-weary craved — or feared — the most.

Rush turned to Hollywood for further inspiration, watching films with pool scenes, such as  The Swimmer and The Graduate. Regarding the latter, he was drawn to the protagonist’s sense of being “in between” the past of college and the as-yet-undetermined future. (The famous “plastics”scene). The pandemic had a similar feel — a past world shuttered, a future uncertain, yet to be defined. One painting,“Afloat (Marnie),” supplies a bird’s eye perspective of a lone swimmer dozing on a raft. It was inspired by a Hitchcock film and does not lack that director’s trademark soupçon of dread.

Rush’s style is different in this exhibit as well. His barns tend toward the tactile, paint thickly applied as though with a palette knife. These swimming pools are built out of saturated colors — a thin wash of glaze adds shadow. In the past, Rush worked in the rectangular, but decided for this exhibition to embrace (at least in part) the tondo. The circularity of the paintings mimics how the eye shapes its field of vision, the artist self-consciously playing against the angled corners and stairs of pools.

— Susan B. Apel

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