In these uncertain days of being asked to stay at home to stay alive, a trip to the animal kingdom (frequently zoos or game farms) might be a welcome stress reliever. In pianist Hsiang Tu’s wonderfully chosen Menagerie disc, listeners can enjoy a covey of critters without ever having to leave their most comfortable chair.
Le Cygne (The Swan)
Tu admirably lists off his collection of “Music from the Animal Kingdom” with a sympathetically transcribed version from Leopold Godowsky. Even without the sinewy tone of the cello, the mighty bird immediately flies into memory—especially welcome in this COVID-19 year where my usual encounters with one of nature’s most majestic creatures at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Ontario) was curtailed.
Poissons d’or (Goldfish)
Of course, goldfish come in all shapes and sizes ranging from delicate “slips” to full-figured rulers of the waves (however large or slight). Debussy clearly favours the latter and Tu adds literal weight along with darting bravura in every bar. At times, the finned frolickers seem to take flight; no worries; the piano is happy to meet them in the depths or above.
La Colombe (the Dove); Le Loriot (the Golden Oriole)
This dove is a marvel of touch (Tu) and delicacy (Messiaen). Clearly birds of a feather.
The composer’s exemplary love for and depiction of our winged friends is on ample display. Tu, a worthy advocate, never misses a beat, flutter or landing. Golden majesty abounds between flights of fancy.
Quejas ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor (Laments, or The Maiden and the Nightingale)
Stately, respectful declamations, but the overall feeling of despair is never in doubt, even as bits of hope try to turn the emotional tide. Will the nightingale’s song return? It is to discover (Tu has an inkling, for sure!). And what of the maiden? Love dashed or love found? Thoughtful listeners can decide for themselves. Yet, doesn’t hope spring eternal, even in 2020?
Noctuelles (Night Moths)
Flitty, flighty! Tu provides an ideal characterization for those creatures whose presence is not always welcome! The middle section shows the moths in a decidedly different “light”.
Capricious and fun-loving, certainly not the hordes that filled the air on a fall night when my father and I lit the cottage stove…
So light and airy (the subject and the writing); memories of Palm Springs by the pool come to mind as the silent beauties go about their business, oblivious to us all. One last powerful flypast before a dry adieu.
From the Dragon of a Fly
There’s lots a-buzz in this miniature portrait of what is usually seen as a household pest. It all depends on just how you look at it.
The Night’s Music & The Chase
Bits of dissonance add spice; begging for a cinematic treatment. A touch of Gershwin; get, ready…get set…not quite yet, some unison legato lines needed first. Then, finally…after much hesitato and folk interventions, a quiet chorale…and they’re off!
One question remains: Who are they?
No matter, it’s an exhilarating ride!
Vogel als Prophet (Bird as Prophet)
A somewhat exotic, lovingly crafted intermezzo. Every bar a pearl. What do the birds know that we don’t? Probably much more than we think. Lovingly rendered.
St. François d’Assisi. La predication aux oiseaux; The Sermon to the Birds
Tu provides a marvel of touch, tone and insights into the unspoken “text”. Les oiseaux speak in their own language, from stunning plumage through lifts to the skies. Or quietly nesting to let everything sink in for reflection.
Powerful declamations cannot help but speak to all: birds or not. The final points are made unequivocally for all who choose to hear, before tenderness provides welcome solace and balance, as the case may be. Saint and subjects alike find common cause and understanding; if only the rest of the world knew how…
O Boizinho de chumbo (The Little Red Bull)
Small bull, but sporting big snorts! Punching above his weight. As with most personas (big or small) attitude is the key; this one is marvellously macho with a hint of kindness. Tu delivers an entirely believable characterization on the hoof.
Cowell’s tiger has pride, a swelling chest and remarkable strength. Do not be deceived by the great cat’s flights of fancy; when on the prowl she/he’s all business. The only thing missing is the growl.
Tabby Cat Walk
Miles away from the power of Cowell, Bolcom offers a delightful sorbet that will get all toes (and tails) tapping from initial bar to the last. Meow! It’s an animator’s dream come true. Tu succinctly understands the style, bringing everything to engaging, feline, life. The inventive hesitato finish is a gem of invention!
The Serpent’s Kiss
Drama to burn, the music entwines itself around the ear like, well, a snake!
But even serpents have need of some wee rests, before sliding back to their stalking work. It’s a “dirty work at the crossroads” for Squamata members. A few “slaps” and “wood” add fun punctuations—much better than mere hissing! Whistling also works, just fine.
The Flight of the Bumblebee
Transcription by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Catch Tu if you can—fast for last, certainly not winging it! JWR