December 05, 2013
The Snow Queen. By Hans Christian Andersen. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Harper. $17.99.
Dot. By Randi Zuckerberg. Illustrated by Joe Berger. Harper. $17.99.
Pinkalicious Cupcake Cookbook. By Victoria Kann. Recipe development by Patti Paige. Photographs by Kristen Hess. Harper. $14.99.
Gorgeous gouache illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline are the immediate attraction in a new retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, one of his more-complex and in some respects more-puzzling fables. This is a rescue story, but not just a rescue story. It is a coming-of-age tale, but not just a coming-of-age tale. It is a love story, but not just a love story – and the kind of love story it tells is ambiguous. Like all of Andersen’s tales, this one is firmly grounded in his traditional Christian beliefs, although it is far less pushy in that regard than stories such as The Little Mermaid. The coming of evil into the world is what opens The Snow Queen – in a scene often omitted in modern adaptations but, thankfully, included here – but it is never quite clear whether the title character represents evil or is just an amoral force of nature, and whether she kidnaps the boy Kai because it is in her nature to do so or because she, in a twisted way, loves him (for she kisses him twice). Certainly, though, whatever love the Snow Queen may offer is a cold love, contrasted throughout with the warm (and entirely platonic) love of the girl Gerda for her playmate, a love that not only takes Gerda past multiple obstacles to the frozen wastes of Lapland but also results in Kai magically forming the word “eternity” from ice and thereby winning his freedom. Mystical and in some ways unsettling, The Snow Queen is far more than a children’s story, even though most versions of it – this one included – are intended for young readers. Ibatoulline’s atmospheric, brooding and dark-hued pictures relating to winter and the Snow Queen stand in beautiful contrast to his superb renditions of other characters, both human and nonhuman (the latter including a crow, a reindeer and many flowers). The portrayal of the robbers in the forest is particularly outstanding, and the twinkling eyes of the dark-haired robber girl set her in perfect contrast to the sad-but-determined ones of blonde-haired Gerda. Every page here is a delight, whether Ibatoulline is showing the Northern Lights in all their brilliance (with a small, dark cottage in which a single window is lit up in the background) or portraying Gerda struggling, bootless and with numb feet, through an all-encompassing snowstorm. The Snow Queen can be enjoyed and interpreted on many levels, and the excellent illustrations in this new version will encourage young readers and adults alike to return to the story again and again to plumb its depths.
Dot, eponymous protagonist of Randi Zuckerberg’s amusing book, is as modern a little girl as Gerda is an old-fashioned one, and Dot’s concerns are as contemporary as Gerda’s are timeless. Dot – endearingly drawn by Joe Berger – is obsessed with modern electronics, spending all her time tapping, touching, tweeting, tagging and otherwise connecting without really making any connections (except through the Internet and WiFi networks). Zuckerberg’s cleverly alliterative story also shows how Dot likes to surf, swipe, share and search – and, using every electronic means possible, to talk and talk and talk. But inevitably, Dot – watched at all times by her long-suffering dog, who simply cannot get her to do something as mundane as throw a ball – overloads on all the electronic communication and ends up quite dazed. So her mother (who is heard but not seen) urges her to get herself outside so she can “Reboot! Recharge! Restart!” And Dot does, soon reinterpreting all the electronic-world words in the world of sunshine and genuine friendships: “tap” becomes tap dancing, “touch” now involves a flower rather than a screen, “tweet” means imitating birdsong, and so on. By the end of the book, Dot and her friends have figured out how to balance electronic and in-person communication, and everyone – including the dog – is happy. Dot is a nicely soft-pedaled lesson in the problems and pleasures of living real life as well as the electronic kind.
Pinkalicious is a differently obsessed character, with colors (often but not always pink) constantly on her mind. Now Victoria Kann offers a whole book of “pinktastic recipes” that not only feature Pinkalicious as guide (“I like to mix in a large bowl so nothing goes over the edge!”) but also end up with some cupcakes designed to look like characters from the Pinkalicious stories. The recipes in Pinkalicious Cupcake Cookbook are straightforward and generally easy to follow, their most distinguishing feature being that they mention specific brand names and types of products to use – gel food coloring rather than liquid, for example. In line with recent trendiness, there are gluten-free cupcakes here as well as traditional ones, and there are also such unexpected delights as a “teeny tiny pinky cupcake” the size of a thimble, a “purple power tower” (purple being another favored color of Kann’s character), and recipes that tie into Goldilicious, Emeraldalicious and the other Kann books. A cute seasonal touch is “I’m Dreaming of a Pink Christmas,” in which there are recipes for Christmas trees, snowmen and more. And then the book moves on to “cupcakes that look like some favorite PINKALICIOUS characters,” which are really amusing and will be a great treat for fans of Kann’s books. Helpful templates for specific recipe items are included at the back off the book, and the whole thing will be a lot of fun for kids and parents who enjoy working together in the kitchen as well as reading together elsewhere.
Here on Earth: An Animal Alphabet. By Marcia Perry. Pomegranate Kids. $15.95.
When Your Porcupine Feels Prickly. By Kathy DeZarn Beynette. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.
Sometimes the purpose of a book, even a children’s book, emerges only gradually as you read it. This is the case with Marcia Perry’s Here on Earth, which only seems to be the “animal alphabet” that its title proclaims it to be. The book is clever enough from the start, presenting multiple creatures for each letter of the alphabet and connecting the narratives about them with words whose sounds also reflect each letter: “Dazzling Dragonflies dance. Dandy Ducks dawdle in the drink. Delightful Dolphins dive in the depths.” The unusual illustrations, showing the animals clustered around each other in a diamond-shaped frame that is itself within a square-within-a-square, make the book visually attractive even as the narrative makes it intriguing to read. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Perry is doing more than stringing alliterative words together. Again and again, she introduces a letter by prefacing her list of animals with the words, “Here on Earth,” making it clear that all the animals she mentions, all the things she talks about them doing, are all happening right on our own planet. And slowly but surely, a message of ecological and zoological awareness emerges, as the wording becomes less a listing of animals and more a plea for understanding their importance: “The various Vipers, the vulnerable, velvety Voles, and the vigilant Vultures are all vital.” By the time the letter Y arrives, the message is explicit: “There are Yaks, Yellowhammers, and Yapoks sharing this world with You and me.” (Yes, yapoks – Perry includes little-known animals along with common ones.) By the end, inevitably, the triangle-shaped frame has receded into the background, leaving a round one in the foreground, and that round one is transmuted to the planet Earth at the book’s close – a clear reminder of the reality that almost all the animals in the book live, just like its readers, on the same small planet, all occupying their own places and all worthy of acknowledgment, concern and consideration. Here on Earth gently metamorphoses from an alphabet book to a message book as it progresses, but it does so so gently that it never seems preachy or overbearing. Indeed, Perry delves into a touch of humor with the one animal in the book that does not live on our planet, noting that “Every urchin is unique. Umbrella birds are common. Unicorns, though unreal, are very common.” But perhaps even the unicorns, in a sense, “live” (or exist, at least in imagination) on the same Earth where all the other creatures are found.
Kathy DeZarn Beynette’s aims are more modest and her approach more overtly humorous in When Your Porcupine Feels Prickly. Using paintings that resemble and are based on children’s art, Beynette poetically explores the possible things to do with and for a variety of likely and unlikely pets. “When your bee is feeling down,/ maybe she should wear a crown./ Anytime I’m feeling blue,/ nothing but a crown will do.” “If you make a rude remark,/ I hope it won’t be to your shark./ Don’t say, ‘That’s a stupid sweater,’/ or ‘I like sharks, but whales are better.’/ Keep your shark relations happy!/ Rudeness makes us all feel snappy.” Even without the picture of a shark wearing a sweater, the amusement value here is obvious. Beynette presents a spider wearing four pairs of bunny slippers, a goat sitting in a time-out chair, a flounder that forgets to floss, and a highly amusingly drawn insect with distinct male legs and a mustache – this last illustration going with the admonition: “Treat your ladybug like a lady,/ unless your ladybug is a man./ In that case, call him ‘Sir Lady’/ and get along as best you can.” Beynette’s non sequiturs are often zany, but sometimes she slips in a few more-thoughtful words, such as reminding an owl “that work we love feels more like play” and commenting, in regard to both a cat and a human, “You cannot be perfect; you’re sure to have flaws.” When Your Porcupine Feels Prickly is an amusing little book that goes beyond pure amusement from time to time – not only fun but also, here and there, more than funny.
Mozart: A Life. By Paul Johnson. Viking. $25.95.
Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes—from Cleopatra to Camus. By Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd. Zest Books. $17.99.
Many thousands of pages have been written about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the man and his music, abetted by the extensive family correspondence in which Mozart engaged throughout his life. So it would seem the height of folly to try to encompass the story of this towering musical genius in 164 pages – but that is just what Paul Johnson attempts in Mozart: A Life. A noted historian and author of biographies of Socrates, Napoléon, Darwin and Churchill, Johnson plumbs no significant new depths in this short and eminently readable book, but the work will be particularly attractive in its biographical (as opposed to musical) elements to people who know little or nothing about the composer. Johnson manages scene-setting in a few words: “Musicians were exactly in the same position as other household servants – cooks, chambermaids, coachmen, and sentries. They existed for the comfort and well-being of their masters and mistresses. The idea that you took on a composer or performer simply because he was outstanding…was absurd.” And Johnson goes on to explain that the only way to get ahead in the society of Mozart’s time was through “interest,” a word that in the 18th century roughly combined the meaning of “patronage,” “nepotism” and “connections” (although Johnson does not explain it quite that way). The extent to which lack of this form of interest influenced history is explained by quick references to George Washington and Napoléon as well as to Mozart – one of many attractive passages in which Johnson puts something across in a few words that other authors would dwell on at considerable length.
When it comes to music, though, readers unfamiliar with Mozart may find that the compression of information makes the narrative a bit hard to follow: “Among the best [piano sonatas] are the one in C Minor (K. 457) and K. 576, written for Princess Frederica of Prussia, K. 457 (1784), which is the apotheosis of pianoforte power, the Sonata in F (K. 533), written in 1788, ‘which makes you sweat,’ as Mozart put it, and the one in D, which in places makes the piano sound like a brass instrument and is known as the Trumpet Sonata (K. 576).” In such passages, Johnson’s erudition may get in the way of easy understanding for some readers – although those who do know Mozart will find a series of interesting opinions and insights here. For example, Johnson discusses Beethoven’s timpani effects in his Ninth Symphony in connection with Mozart’s timpani use, commenting that what Beethoven did was “the only case I know of where Mozart missed an opportunity to create a new sound.” And in writing about the opera Idomeneo, Johnson mentions the work’s emotional intensity and suggests that “events in [Mozart’s] life did not transform his music. What did so were events in his imagination.” These are arguable assertions, but Johnson does not take the time to argue them – he is too busy moving on to other matters.
Quotations from letters by Mozart and those around him are inevitable in any Mozart biography, and there are a number of them here, with even the well-known ones standing out because Johnson places them carefully in context – as when Mozart, discussing The Abduction from the Seraglio, notes that “passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of exciting disgust, and…music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener…” Also inevitable are discussions of Mozart’s family life, both when growing up and in adulthood, and his eventual sad end – which, however, Johnson suggests was far less tragic than it has often been portrayed as being: Johnson says Mozart was far from a pauper when he died, his burial in a mass grave reflected the custom of the times, and allegations of foul play (such as those against Antonio Salieri) are fantasies, totally unsupported by evidence. More interesting than these assertions are the comments Johnson makes, often almost in passing, about what could be called the Mozart experience; indeed, Johnson writes, “we can never experience the true and full Mozart completely.” One reason among many: “When he was alive, his cadenzas were always wholly or in part improvised. Those he wrote down were never his best work.” This improvisational element of Mozart’s music-making is one of many in the book that could easily be spun out at much greater length, but Johnson is content to make his comments and continue. Along the way, he occasionally indulges in a bit of poetic description, as when he calls the Clarinet Concerto “a golden universe of sound, with ecstatic flashes of pure light.” But he is more often matter-of-fact without being argumentative or particularly intense in propounding his viewpoints. Johnson’s Mozart biography is scarcely definitive, but it covers a surprising amount of territory in a small number of pages, and does so with sufficient skill and sensitivity to delight those who already know Mozart’s life and intrigue those who do not.
Mozart could well have been included in Historical Heartthrobs, but although a couple of his near-contemporaries, Marie Antoinette (whom Mozart met) and Lord Byron, are in the book, Mozart is not. Perhaps it is just as well. This is a very clever mashup of history and romance that unfortunately is marred by poor writing and/or editing that results in some hilarious errors. It is nevertheless a (+++) book for the sheer effrontery of the presentation by Kelly Murphy and Hallie Fryd. Among the 50 apparently arbitrarily selected historical figures profiled briefly here are ones as obvious as Cleopatra and as obscure as filmmaker Maya Deren. The way they are profiled is what gives the book its character. Each gets vital statistics, a brief life story, and short sections – the heart of the book – called “The Story of His [or Her] Sex Life,” “Why He [or She] Matters,” and “Heat Factor” (on a scale of 1 to 5). The idea is for readers to decide whether they would bed or wed each of these people if given the chance – certainly an offbeat way to make history more interesting and lively. And then each short profile ends with quotations by or about the person. Historical Heartthrobs includes quite a mixture of people: Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter and a computer pioneer), Annie Oakley, Mata Hari, Coco Chanel and Leni Riefenstahl are among the women; Nikola Tesla, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Duke Kahanamoku, Bugsy Siegel and double agent Eddie Chapman are among the men. The mixture of very-well-known names with ones that are much less familiar is intriguing, and the inclusion of some obvious people (Cleopatra) is balanced by the omission of others (no Marilyn Monroe). The subtitle is misleading: Cleopatra is indeed the first person in the book (based on date of birth), but Albert Camus is only No. 36; the most recent is assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. The “Heat Factor” ratings are arguable and often just plain silly: Fidel Castro is a 3, Jane Goodall a 5, bisexual George Sand a 3.5, Dorothy Parker a 4.5, Wild Bill Hickok a 2, John Wilkes Booth a 1. But these ratings are the most unusual element of the book and will surely be the most attractive for many readers. What is not attractive is the parade of factual mistakes, some of which invite hilarity and appropriate rejoinders. Byron’s Don Juan was “criticized for its apparent immortality”? Umm…that’s “immorality.” George Sand “did not attend Chopin’s funeral in 1848”? Neither did anyone else – Chopin died in 1849. Frederick Douglass made his way in the face of “statues which thralled him”? Were those marble statues or bronzes – or perhaps statutes? One of Eddie Chapman’s two fiancées had “born him a daughter”? That had better be “borne,” unless someone thinks Chapman was transsexual. Even when the errors are howlers, there is a real risk that they may be believed by readers unfamiliar with history or with the specific people discussed in Historical Heartthrobs. The book is clever, offbeat and often intriguing, but it plays too loosely with the facts – apparently quite unintentionally – to be anything more than an amusing curiosity.
Game Slaves. By Gard Skinner. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Seven Wonders No. 1: The Colossus Rises. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $6.99.
Seven Wonders No. 2: Lost in Babylon. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.
White-hot pacing and all the subtlety of a kick in the teeth distinguish Gard Skinner’s first book, Game Slaves, whose plot is wholly derivative but whose progress is so breakneck that many readers will not notice or, noticing, will not care. This is a war story for the digital age, focusing on six NPCs (non-player characters) in a video game, characters who form collateral damage when they are blown up and are agents of mayhem when they are not, all of them totally stereotyped (ripped physiques, both male and female) and equipped with plenty of ways to do mayhem. Reno is into laser machete and sniper cannon, York favors knives and a rocket launcher, Mi goes for ranged weapons and explosive ordnance, and Jevo likes fists and teeth. Each of them has tens of millions of confirmed kills. And so do the team leader, Phoenix, whose relatively modest weaponry (shotgun, machine pistol) has brought him more kills than anyone else (96,598,322), and the newbie sniper, Dakota, who favors a combat rifle, has not even reached three million kills yet, and has a disconcerting habit of asking too many questions about what the game is and what the relationship is between the NPCs and the real-world gamers who set them in motion and, as often as not, destroy them so they have to be reformulated, reconstituted, whatever. Of course there ensues, amid the organized and carefully modulated destructiveness, a slew of questions about what is real and what is created within the game, and whether the NPCs can possibly move from one world to the next and, if so, how. Anyone who has seen The Matrix, or even heard of it, will find none of this story arc surprising, but Skinner pushes his novel with such speed and intensity that those looking for a quick adrenaline rush will not care how formulaic the whole thing is and will not be disappointed in the story’s progress. Eventually, there is an inevitable confrontation with the inevitable creator of the whole gaming world – who bears the truly unfortunate name of Max Kode – and the erstwhile NPCs win through to real-world existence by discovering and uncovering secrets and making things just a bit too hot for Kode to, um, decode. Or do they eventually escape? Are they perhaps simply trapped in worlds within worlds within worlds? How can they ever know for sure? Again, this sort of infinite loop (or Möbius strip) is scarcely new and scarcely original in the way Skinner handles it, but it has been entertaining and intriguing in other works – in many media, not just books – and remains so here. Game Slaves is no more than a thrill ride, but that will be more than enough for many of the preteens at whom it is aimed.
Seven Wonders goes for the same audience and has the advantage of a highly experienced author, Peter Lerangis, calling the shots. The series’ plot, however, is even sillier than that of Skinner’s book. Thirteen-year-old Jack McKinley and several friends all have genetic abnormalities that would grant them enormous powers if their bodies could handle the changes – which their bodies cannot, which means they are all going to die soon. Unless, of course, they visit the sites of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and discover the lost Loculi whose magic can save them. The Loculi were stolen and hidden by the last prince of Atlantis, from whom Jack and the others are descended. And they must be returned to Atlantis, which unfortunately no longer exists. But then, neither do six of the seven Wonders, which complicates matters. Got that? The objective is to get it without laughing and without looking at the absurdities closely – or, in fact, at all. Manage that and you can enjoy the first book of the series, The Colossus Rises, now available in paperback, in which Jack, Marco, Aly and Cass are introduced and begin their quest by meeting the prototypical oddball professor, Bhegad, who explains that Jack must somehow sustain himself through the quest not only to save his own life but also to, you know, save the world. This turns out to involve defeating the Colossus, which also involves dealing with a griffin, and – well, there is nothing but fantasy in this adventure, but the story is well-managed by Lerangis, who does a fine job of ratcheting up the tension periodically while letting it subside slightly from time to time in order to get readers ready for the next pulse-pounding event. The pattern holds, not at all surprisingly, in the newly released Lost in Babylon, which centers on the Hanging Gardens (which, like the Colossus of Rhodes, are long gone). At the start of this book, Marco has disappeared, along with the first Loculus, but he rejoins the team (with an apparently reasonable explanation) soon enough, enabling all the protagonists to engage in scintillating dialogue, including such random examples as these: “Those farms outside the city are pretty awesome.” “What do we do now? Wait here under lock and key until Prince Sadist reports to his dad…?” “Are you nuts?” “You found the invisibility Loculus!” “That guy bugged me.” “Get us out before the place blows.” Although not set in a video-game world, Seven Wonders proceeds with all the unsubtlety and cardboard characterization to be expected in such a venue, all handled by Lerangis with sufficient aplomb so that readers gripped by the series’ first installment will be entirely satisfied with the second and looking ahead to the third. Lerangis is particularly good at ending a book with a cliffhanger, and the one he chooses in Lost in Babylon is good enough to frustrate readers who will be unable to find out immediately just what it implies. Seven Wonders may be silly, but its mixture of thrills and mystery will hit the mark again and again for readers who remember not to take any of it the slightest bit seriously.
The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Programs 1 & 2; 3 & 4; 5 & 6; 7 & 8. Naxos DVDs. $19.99 each.
Comparisons between Gerard Schwarz’s All-Star Orchestra TV series and the justly famous Young People’s Concerts led by Leonard Bernstein from 1958 to 1972 are inevitable. Like Bernstein, Schwarz offers a series of programs on various aspects of classical music, with commentary in the Schwarz series by composers, performers and various experts rather than – as in Bernstein’s material – by the conductor himself. Unlike Bernstein, Schwarz offers programs designed for listeners of all ages, not just young people – and, more intriguingly, mixes well-known works from the standard concert repertoire with new pieces that even people steeped in classical music may never have heard before. Bernstein’s programs reached across age lines by virtue of the strength of Bernstein’s personality and the excellence of his conducting. Schwarz is a lesser conductor and by no means a raconteur; his shows reach across generational lines because of the choice of music and form of commentary. The Schwarz shows are much better produced – they were done in HD with 19 cameras, and of course all are in color – but the technical capabilities are not always fully realized. It would have been good, for example, to show just why passages in Beethoven were considered unplayable in the composer’s time, or to delve into some specifics of the difficulties inherent in performing modern works.
Some lines from the Bernstein shows deservedly became classics, such as the conductor’s remark that “music does not mean anything” and his demonstration of that observation by conducting bits of the Richard Strauss tone poem Don Quixote while offering a narrative totally different from that actually associated with the music. There is nothing even remotely that clever in The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. But this series has pleasures of a different sort – many of them lying in the selection of music, the juxtaposition of old works and new, and the truly interesting aspects of music that the eight programs explore.
Most of the works here are presented complete, as those in the Bernstein series were not – although the word “complete” has to be stretched a bit in some cases. The first program, “Music for the Theatre,” offers the complete suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, but not the complete ballet, and the complete second suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé but, again, not the full work from which the suite is drawn. Still, the suites appear in concert more often than the full ballets, and the narrative about the Ballet Russes and Sergei Diaghilev is an interesting one – as is the pairing of the Stravinsky and Ravel pieces with Bright Sheng’s Brahms-inspired Black Swan.
The pairing is less engaging on the second program, since it involves one towering masterpiece, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, along with Harmonium Mountain by Philip Glass. But the topic here is an intriguing one: “What Makes a Masterpiece?” The interviews, including ones with orchestral musicians, make the show interesting, and the extremely different ways in which Beethoven and Glass employ short rhythmic and melodic elements are intriguing.
There is something worth watching – and hearing – in every one of these programs. The third, “The New World and Its Music,” inevitably includes Dvořák’s “New World” symphony, pairing it with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Avanti! The latter is a very different take on the American experience, but this program is one of the lesser ones here – while the fourth, “Politics and Art,” is one of the most interesting. This focuses on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, a long-popular and long-controversial work specifically stated by the composer to be his response to “justified” Soviet criticism but thought by many to conceal critiques of Stalin’s regime in its apparently triumphal finale. By raising real issues of music’s place in society, this program delves more deeply into issues than do many of the others.
The fifth program, “Relationships in Music,” could have been more intriguing than it is. It explores the relationship of the Schumanns (Robert and Clara) with Brahms, which is indeed fascinating, but it avoids some of the more-turbulent and not unrelated musical relationships of the same time, such as those swirling around Wagner. And the illustrative works here are not the best choices: Schumann’s Third Symphony (“Rhenish”) works well, but Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture is largely atypical of the composer and not the best representation of him – however delightful it is. The sixth show, “The Living Art Form,” is perhaps the least successful of the eight, since it is the most didactic and includes only modern works: the third movement of Richard Danielpour’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (the complete movement, but not the complete piece); Samuel’s Jones’ Cello Concerto; and Joseph Schwantner’s “The Poet’s Hour – Soliloquy for Violin.” Although all this music has points of interest, none of it is especially distinguished, so it does not pull viewers/listeners into the narrative as does the music in the other programs.
The final DVD in this series, containing the seventh and eighth programs, is more gripping. The seventh show, “Music’s Emotional Impact,” could well have been the first, since it discusses a major element of music’s appeal and does so through the lens of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 – a popular and immediately accessible work. The modern work here – Blast! by David Stock – is intended to show a contemporary composer’s handling of the “fate” motif, but succeeds mostly in showcasing Tchaikovsky’s far greater talent at pulling an audience’s emotions in the directions in which he wants them to go. The eighth show, the only one with a composer’s name in its title, is a bit odd and disappointing. It is called “Mahler: Love, Sorrow and Transcendence,” and includes a few Rückert-Lieder sung by mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, the first movement (and only the first movement) from the Symphony No. 2, and two modern works that do not complement Mahler’s very well: Augusta Read Thomas’ Of Paradise and Light and Bernard Rands’ Adieu. The problem here is interpretative – not in terms of Schwarz’ handling of the music, which is fine here as in all these shows, but in terms of picking these specific Mahler pieces to illustrate the show’s theme. The first movement of the “Resurrection” symphony is indeed funerary, but it marks the funeral of the hero of the First Symphony, as Mahler himself said – and is supposed to be followed by five minutes of silence before the work’s second movement, which leads eventually to the transcendence of the finale. This is not a good movement to take out of context, but that is what is done with it here. And the two modern pieces, which ostensibly represent contemporary contemplations of the age-old themes of life and death, are simply not very effective when juxtaposed with Mahler’s works.
The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz has its share of ups and downs, and without a central guiding light of Leonard Bernstein’s caliber, the series never develops the sort of personal audience connection that Bernstein’s did in a way that makes the Bernstein series timeless despite its comparatively primitive production techniques and the long-out-of-date fashions worn by everyone seen in it. Nevertheless, the Schwarz shows have a great deal going for them, presenting some genuinely thoughtful analysis and some very involving commentary, with a generally good (if not always convincing) mixture of masterpieces of the past with works exploring similar themes in more-recent times. Schwarz himself lacks Bernstein’s considerable charisma as either host or conductor, but he does a solid, workmanlike job as the central figure in these musical presentations, and his orchestra – whose members came together for these shows from multiple U.S. ensembles – plays efficiently if not always passionately. These are, on balance, fine made-for-TV programs that will be of most value to people with some interest in classical music but little understanding of it – although the issues raised in certain shows will resonate with longtime classical-music lovers as well.
Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston: Alcatraz—Eberbach. Starkland DVD. $18.99.
Gozaran: Time Passing. Directed by Frank Scheffer. EuroArts DVD. $19.99.
Bloody Daughter: A Film by Stéphanie Argerich. Idéale Audience. $29.99 (2 DVDs).
Sometimes the visual impact of films and DVDs with a classical-music connection is clear and undeniable, but the musical interest and value of the productions is less certain. That is the case with all these new releases. Alcatraz—Eberbach is a set of two works, running 30 and 18 minutes respectively, built around striking still photos by Jim Bengston and evocative music by Ingram Marshall. The two pieces are intended to provide atmospheric, interpretative tours of the former island prison in San Francisco Bay and a monastery in Germany’s Rhine Valley that Marshall and Bengston encountered in 1984 while they were touring with Alcatraz, their earlier work. Both these visual pieces use multimedia as it is currently understood (not as it was understood when its prime example was opera). The photos themselves highlight, showcase, play up and downplay specific visual elements of the two geographical locations, while the electronically processed sounds accentuate specific photographic elements or are used for scene-setting and emphases of various sorts – much as is done in film music. The result is not quite musical works, not quite performance pieces, not quite filmmaking in any traditional sense, but emotion-seeking visual displays that interpret, through Marshall’s and Bengston’s eyes and ears, the vistas, angles, solidity and airiness of two architectural creations. The concept is more conceptually interesting in Alcatraz, since the subject is scarcely a masterpiece but becomes quite intriguing when seen heard through these collaborators’ senses. But the actually more interesting work is Eberbach, because the monastery is just gorgeous inside and out, its curves, angles and overall structure simply fascinating. The environment within which Alcatraz and Eberbach sit is a big part of the works created here, so the pieces give a sense of place as well as one of structure. These are involving works, experimental in the sense that they bend and rearrange genres; and if they are not really “music” in any significant sense, they are not intended for listening so much as for immersion – they will be of most interest to those inclined to try out new forms of mixed media.
Gozaran: Time Passing has music at its core, but it is as much about music not being made as about its creation, and this is what renders it unusual. This 85-minute documentary focuses on Iranian composer Nader Mashayekhi, who in 2005 returned to Tehran from his studies in Vienna in response to an invitation to lead the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. The difficult geopolitical undercurrents of the Middle East and of Iran in particular are barely present here, but they are a decided factor in the outcome of Mashayekhi’s journey, which was at best a mixed success. Director Frank Scheffer emphasizes the personal elements of Mashayekhi’s attempts to bring some Western and contemporary music to his home country and to show young musicians how to play works with which they are thoroughly unfamiliar. Along the way, Mashayekhi seeks inspiration for his own compositions, and the documentary’s most beautiful scenes are the ones in which he wanders through desolation, both that of the desert and that of an empty village, seemingly gathering his thoughts. Indeed, Mashayekhi’s thoughts dominate the film from start to finish, as the work becomes an extended internal monologue in which the composer looks for things to write music about, tries to figure out how to bring the great music of the past to a land unfamiliar and uncomfortable with it, and contemplates in general philosophical terms the time-bound and societally constrained meanings of music and of poetry. Gozaran: Time Passing is an intellectual journey more than a musical one, for all that music lies at its center, and is of distinctly limited interest in light of its subject matter and its handling of the material. It is a rarefied documentary for those interested in modern cross-cultural aesthetic issues, as seen through the eyes of a composer with a foot in two worlds: his homeland, which he loves, and his working city, where he is much better able to function productively.
Bloody Daughter is, on the face of it, a far more traditional film, a kind of “bio-pic” with an emphasis on dysfunctional family relationships and what it is like to grow up in the shadow of celebrity. The fact that music is central to Stéphanie Argerich’s work is almost incidental – an accident of the director’s birth to internationally renowned pianists Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich. Of course, music is crucial to the narrative here, both in the 94-minute film and in the 54-minute bonus, in which Martha Argerich performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. But the main thrust of the movie – for which Stéphanie Argerich served as one camera operator as well as the director – is the relationship between two strong, artistic women, with the inevitable personality clashes and disagreements complemented by periodic instances of considerable insight and bonding. Like the careers of her virtuoso parents, Stéphanie Argerich’s film takes place around the world, in Warsaw and London, Japan and Belgium, Argentina and Switzerland. But it has little sense of place except for scene-setting, being far more focused on family intimacies than on where those interactions take place. Rehearsal and performance footage is intermingled with the domestic scenes and squabbles, and the movie nicely mixes matters of everyday life with ones involving the very high pressures of performance on the international concert scene. There is nothing particularly revelatory in Bloody Daughter, which despite its lurid title is a film about a family like many others – even artistic disagreements are simply fodder for exploring the different ways in which parents and daughter (primarily mother and daughter; Kovacevich is a much smaller presence) interact. A well-made film that is especially nicely photographed (Stéphanie Argerich is a professional photographer), Bloody Daughter is an “art house” production throughout, designed to showcase the pluses and perils of the artistic life both on stage and off. Fans of Martha Argerich and/or Kovacevich will be especially interested in it, but film and music aficionados in general will not have any particular reason to watch it except to see yet another interesting movie about the differences between life in and out of the public eye.
November 27, 2013
Fossil. By Bill Thomson. Two Lions. $17.99.
Charlie the Ranch Dog: Charlie’s Snow Day. Based on the books by Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat. Harper. $16.99.
Zoomer’s Out-of-This-World Christmas. By Ned Young. Harper. $17.99.
Biscuit’s Christmas Storybook Collection. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $11.99.
Whether in a wordless “anytime” story or in seasonally focused books, dogs provide a wonderful way to connect kids to the events happening around them. Bill Thomson’s Fossil is simply about a boy and dog walking by a lake – until things become anything but simple after the boy trips while holding a rock, the rock shatters, the fossil of a fern appears inside the stone, and then the fern starts growing. Reality and fantasy blend seamlessly as the boy finds another rock, this one containing a fossilized dragonfly, and again the fossil comes to life; and then a third rock reveals the claw of a pteranodon, and sure enough, the flying reptile appears in the sky – and soon the dog is riding on its back. The boy finally figures out a way to restore present-day reality, leaving himself and the dog happy at the lakeside – although some young readers may be disappointed at the boy’s ready abandonment of a world filled with wonders from the past. Thomson’s elegant paintings, done by hand rather than computer, lend solidity and vitality to Fossil, as they did to his previous book, Chalk. This is a tale of marvels for ages 3-7, told both strikingly and artfully.
Charlie’s Snow Day, created by Amanda Glickman and Rick Whipple from the “Charlie the Ranch Dog” stories of Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat, is a Level 1 book (“Beginning Reading”) in the I Can Read! series, and as such emphasizes words rather than pictures and is intended for ages 4-8. This level is described as having “simple sentences for eager new readers,” and that is just what Charlie’s Snow Day provides. The story is an everyday sort of outdoor tale, made amusing by Charlie’s usual personality quirks: he first enjoys sliding down a big hill in the snow, but then gets tired when climbing back up and decides that all he wants is to return to the ranch house and get warm. Then, though, he notices that his companion dog, Walter, has gone down the hill again – and Charlie concludes that Walter may be buried in the snow and in need of rescuing. This turns out, like so many of Charlie’s analyses, to be somewhat “off,” although it does get Charlie to go down the hill again and dig into a mound of snow where Walter has ended up. Eventually Charlie gets a ride back up the hill, courtesy of his human family – so he can get back to the warmth and relaxation that he loves so much. Easy to read and pleasantly warmhearted, Charlie’s Snow Day is a (+++) book that will be fun for kids who already know Charlie the Ranch Dog and are primed to enjoy him in a wintry setting.
A (++++) seasonal book for the same 4-8 age range, Ned Young’s Zoomer’s Out-of-This-World Christmas is all about Zoomer the dog and his big brothers, Hooper and Cooper, watching for Santa Claus the day before Christmas – when, sure enough, something lands in the back yard of their house. But it isn’t Santa’s sleigh – it’s a spaceship! And out comes a friendly space family with a pet called a “yarple-headed gigantaziller,” which is purple and has a trunk like an elephant’s, plus lots of legs. Soon the space family has invited the dogs to a picnic at which “kookaloon sandwiches, zablookee salad” and other delicacies are on the menu. Then everyone plays a robot-intensified game that is sort of like soccer, and then everybody goes for a swim (despite the time of year) after the aliens create “a force-field swimming pool.” Unfortunately, the spaceship turns out to have been damaged in landing, and the only way to fix it is for Zoomer to let the aliens have his favorite toy, his tricycle – which he does. Much later, after the spaceship’s takeoff and the pups’ Earth dinner, night of sleep and Christmas-morning awakening, Zoomer learns that Santa was aware of his good deed on behalf of the aliens and has brought him something special as a result – a happy ending all around for an unusual Christmas-themed story in which the highly amusing illustrations (including alien-related ones that owe a distinct debt to Dr. Seuss) neatly complement the narrative.
The pictures are far more straightforward and the stories far more earthbound in the nine-tale collection called Biscuit’s Christmas Storybook Collection. The stories in this (+++) book were originally published between 2000 and 2011 and are only partially Christmas-themed. Alyssa Satin Capucilli offers not only Biscuit’s Christmas, Biscuit’s Christmas Eve and Biscuit Gives a Gift but also nonseasonal stories, including Biscuit’s Show and Share Day, Biscuit Wants to Play, Biscuit Visits the Big City, Biscuit’s Snowy Day, Biscuit and the Lost Teddy Bear, and Biscuit Goes to School. These are very simply plotted and written stories, much in the mode of the old Dick-and-Jane “easy readers,” a parallel that extends to Pat Schories’ pleasant, rather old-fashioned illustrations. The writing will likely be too repetitious for all but the youngest children: “The little boy lost his teddy bear, Biscuit, but you found it! Woof, woof!” “Here comes the school bus! Woof, woof!” “Stay with me, Biscuit. It’s very busy in the big city! Woof, woof!” “Woof, woof, woof! Biscuit can help the kittens!” Biscuit is a cute puppy in that roly-poly way in which puppies were drawn for kids’ books decades ago, and the simplistic suburban back-yard adventures he has with his family will be enjoyable for pre-readers and perhaps for children just learning to read. The official target age range for the book is 4-8, but it will be far too easy for most children in the upper part of that range. Indeed, even parents of younger kids should not be surprised if they quickly lose interest in Biscuit and outgrow these simple, mild little tales.
Santa Claus and the Three Bears. By Maria Modugno. Illustrated by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer. Harper. $17.99.
The Twelve Days of Christmas. By Susan Jeffers. Harper. $17.99.
Mia’s Nutcracker Ballet. By Robin Farley. Illustrated by Olga & Aleksey Ivanov. Harper. $9.99.
Christmas traditions, both sacred and secular, are lovely to hold onto and can provide bonding experiences within and between families. Some families, though, may tire of the same stories and ideas year after year, and for them, there are always Christmastime books that ring some changes on classic tales. Santa Claus and the Three Bears, for example, takes jolly old St. Nick and combines him with the decidedly non-seasonal story of Goldilocks and the three bears. The results are amusing, if scarcely unexpected. Maria Modugno essentially retells the Goldilocks story straightforwardly, simply adding details to make it seasonal – for example, she has it take place on Christmas Eve, when the bears have decorated their house “with holly and berry and icicles.” And of course she makes one major change by having the intruder at their home be not a little girl but Santa himself. The bears’ pudding (no porridge here) attracts Santa, who has finished his Southern Hemisphere deliveries and is halfway through the Northern Hemisphere when he shows up at the bears’ home. Tempted by the pudding after a night filled with nothing but milk and cookies, he does all the things that Goldilocks does in the original story: tasting from three bowls and eating the smallest portion; sitting in three chairs and choosing the littlest, but breaking it when he puts his full weight on it; then going upstairs for a short nap and ending up asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. And the bears return, discover the Santa-wrought chaos, make the expected exclamations of surprise and dismay, and then discover Santa – who wakes up and gives the bears, amusingly, a great big present for Baby Bear, a middle-sized one for Mama and a small one for Papa. He also promises to replace Baby Bear’s broken chair next year – and then takes off in his sleigh to finish his duties. Readers never find out what gifts the bears receive – the final page shows them just starting to open the boxes – but kids may enjoy speculating. And parents looking for something new to read and discuss about Santa may enjoy Modugno’s approach, which is quite nicely illustrated by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer.
Susan Jeffers’ illustrations are a major attraction of her retelling of The Twelve Days of Christmas, whose story modifications resemble Modugno’s. Again there is a classic story retold in straightforward fashion, but modified in some key ways to make it a Christmas tale. The book starts on Christmas Eve, with a girl named Emma opening a gift earlier than she should: it is a Santa-decorated box containing a glass globe inside which is a partridge in a pear tree. Happy and excited, Anna does not watch where she is going: she trips on a rug and drops the globe, which breaks. Emma sadly puts the globe back in the box and, holding it to her (as another little girl, Clara, does in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker), falls asleep. And just as in the ballet, something magical happens: Santa and his sleigh emerge from the box and take Emma on a wonderful, world-spanning ride during which they encounter all the gifts listed in The Twelve Days of Christmas – but here they come not from “my true love” but from Santa. Jeffers not only creates lovely drawings but also comes up with some amusing elements, such as the seven swimming swans flying into the midst of the eight maids a-milking, with a touch of predictable (but harmless) chaos. Eventually, the 12 pipers pipe Santa and Emma to the door of Santa’s workshop, where Emma shows Santa the broken globe – which Santa repairs while Emma goes to sleep. All just a dream? Perhaps – but when Emma wakes up on Christmas morning and rushes downstairs, the package she opened the night before is still intact, and the globe inside is undamaged. It is a lovely fairy-tale ending to a story that reinterprets its source without diverging from it in any significant way.
Jeffers’ rethinking has so many parallels with The Nutcracker that the ballet’s story may well have been in her mind when she redid The Twelve Days of Christmas. And The Nutcracker itself gets a remaking this season, too, in Robin Farley’s Mia’s Nutcracker Ballet, featuring the balletic kitten learning for the first time about Tchaikovsky’s much-loved seasonal tale – which her grandfather, who has brought her a nutcracker as a gift, tells her as “Mia closes her eyes and listens very, very carefully.” As the story unfolds, Mia imagines the whole ballet – with herself as Clara, of course, and her friends in the other major roles, from the Nutcracker Prince to the Mouse King. The book follows the plot of the ballet closely, including the trip to the Land of Sweets and the character dances that Mia/Clara sees there. Mia imagines her older sister, Ava, who is a full-fledged ballerina, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Grandpa’s retelling of the story ends as a sleepy Mia finds herself thinking of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance – after which Mia’s mother puts Mia to bed and Mia falls asleep while gazing at her very own nutcracker. A pleasant, nicely illustrated version of The Nutcracker for budding ballerinas who are already fans of Mia, Mia’s Nutcracker Ballet can serve as an introduction to a Christmastime musical treat – and would go particularly well with a trip to an actual performance of Tchaikovsky’s work.
Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse. Windows 7/RT/8 or Mac OS X v.10.6. Microsoft. $39.95.
Microsoft Sculpt Mobile Mouse. Windows 7/RT/8 or Mac OS X v.10.6. Microsoft. $29.95.
Surface-level similarities are often just that: on the surface. When searching for the best mouse for your particular needs, it helps to delve below names, marketing strategies and even apparent shapes of mice to determine what you really need and what can best give it to you. When dealing with a company that produces as many high-quality mice as Microsoft does through its hardware division, it can be particularly important to consider each mouse’s features very carefully in order to determine which will be the best possible fit.
On the surface, the Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse and Microsoft Sculpt Mobile Mouse appear very similar, with the same sculpted look (as indicated in their near-identical names) and even the same packaging. Differences seem superficial – slightly different sizes and prices, for instance, and the fact that Sculpt Comfort has a “Windows touch tab” while Sculpt Mobile has a “Windows button.” But the disparities between these input devices are far more significant than they appear at first – different enough so that choosing the right one for your individual needs will have a big impact on your satisfaction level.
Sculpt Comfort is a Bluetooth mouse, which is great if you are using it with a computer or tablet that has Bluetooth capability but (of course) makes it completely useless in other cases. The absence of a transceiver – one of those small things that it can be all too easy to lose – is a positive aspect here, providing you can use the Bluetooth connectivity. This is a right-handed mouse that is optimized for Windows 8 (or 8.1): that touch tab, a blue section on the left side of the mouse, where a right-hander’s thumb can reach it conveniently, takes you from an app to the Start screen when pressed. It lets you cycle through all open apps (when you swipe the touch tab up) or reveal all open apps so you can pick whichever one you want (when you swipe the touch tab down). This is therefore a mouse optimized for touchscreen computers and for tablets – indeed, it works with many Android tablets and offers full functionality only to hardware with touchscreen capability. This does not mean the mouse fails to work in Windows 7: in that operating system, pressing the touch tab takes you to the Start menu, while swiping up or down moves you forward or back in a Web browser. But these moves are less intuitive and less convenient than the ones that this mouse provides for Windows 8. Furthermore, although Sculpt Comfort does work on Macs, its use there seems like an afterthought: it is fine but certainly nothing feature-rich or special. The four-way scroll wheel does work well anywhere, allowing left, right, front and back motion. And the mouse’s design is quite comfortable for right-handers – it is sculpted in such a way that its ergonomics allow lengthy use without discomfort. So this mouse is definitely worth considering if you are right-handed and using a touchscreen device, especially one running Windows 8. Oh – and it helps if you like the color black, which is the only one in which Sculpt Comfort is available.
Sculpt Mobile is really a different design – and not just because it comes in no fewer than four colors (black, blue, red and pink). This mouse is symmetrical – it looks little different from Sculpt Comfort, but feels quite different even to right-handers, and is entirely suitable for left-handers as well. Sculpt Mobile uses a USB mini-transceiver, which may seem an odd decision for a mobile-oriented mouse, since the tiny plug-in would seem to be easy to lose. However, the transceiver stores neatly in the mouse and can also be left plugged into a USB port, so concerns about losing it may be more apparent than real. On the other hand, if you are prone to losing small items (computer-related or otherwise), be aware of the need for this transceiver before you opt for this mouse. The Windows button on Sculpt Mobile is centrally placed, which makes sense for an ambidextrous product, and is less tightly integrated with Windows 8 than is the touch tab on Sculpt Comfort. Pressing the Sculpt Mobile Windows button takes Win 8 users to the Start screen and pulls up the Start menu for users of Win 7. This mouse is not significantly smaller than Sculpt Comfort, at least if you measure its dimensions, but it feels considerably smaller, in part because of the symmetrical design – which, however, is less ergonomically supportive than the shape of Sculpt Comfort. The four-way scroll wheel works the same way for Sculpt Mobile users as for users of Sculpt Comfort, allowing left, right, front and back motion.
Looking at these mice side-by-side tends to emphasize their similarities, and it is clear that they both belong in Microsoft’s Sculpt series. But in everyday use, their differences are far more pronounced than you might expect from simply viewing them. Both are very fine products, durable and offering good battery life; both look good, with that sculpted Sculpt appearance, and both use Microsoft’s “BlueTrack Technology,” thanks to which they are usable on almost any surface except glass or mirrors. The price difference between them is insignificant in the long run – and it does make sense to look at either of these mice for long-term use, since they are so well-built that they can last through multiple upgrade cycles (including an upgrade from a computer to a tablet). Sculpt Mobile is a more-conservative design because of its use of a mini-transceiver and its easy adaptability to multiple operating systems. Sculpt Comfort points more clearly in the direction that Microsoft has gone with Windows 8 (and 8.1), toward a world in which touchscreen use is more common and tablets are increasingly taking market share from desktop and laptop computers. Depending on where you and your company stand in the upgrade cycle and in the use to which you tend to put a mouse – for instance, whether you commonly travel with one – you will find one or the other of these products a better fit for your needs. In a sense, you cannot go wrong with either one: both work very well and will do everything you want a mouse to do, and you can expect both to be long-lasting and sturdy. But in another sense, choosing the mouse that is more in accord with your input-device usage is important, because the niggling little irritations of an ill-matched mouse with your everyday requirements can build over time to a point of high frustration that can make you discard an otherwise perfectly good piece of equipment – simply because you did not choose the one best-suited for your needs in the first place.
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Toby Spence, tenor; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. LPO. $16.99.
Mahler: Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Wolfgang Rihm: Rainer Maria Rilke—4 Gedichte für Singstimme & Orchester. Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Bochumer Symphoniker conducted by Steven Sloane. CPO. $16.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. DSO Live. $16.99.
Gustav Mahler died at age 50, seven weeks before his 51st birthday, a fact that makes his splendid musical output – not to mention his tremendous accomplishments as a conductor and arranger – all the more remarkable. There are not very many Mahler works, but most of those he created have become so much a part of the standard repertoire that it is hard to realize how rarely heard they were as recently as the 1960s. Practically every conductor on the world stage now essays a Mahler symphony cycle, or at least dips into the composer’s work with an eye toward saying something new about it – the latter task made possible by the fact that there is so much packed into the composer’s powerful, large-scale compositions. It might be questioned whether Yannick Nézet-Séguin (born 1975) has the emotional maturity for Das Lied von der Erde: Mahler was only 48 when he wrote it but was already aware of the heart disease that would soon claim his life, and in many ways was old beyond his years. But Nézet-Séguin’s live February 2011 performance, newly released on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label, shows sure-handedness in the conducting and a fine sense of the structure and symphonic layout of this hybrid work (part symphony, part oratorio, part song cycle). Nézet-Séguin shapes the six individual sections carefully, bringing out both the work’s flowing lines and its jagged elements. And the orchestra plays with warmth and all the understanding befitting music with which major ensembles worldwide are now thoroughly familiar. The soloists are fine, showing emotional involvement in the music and singing their contrasting sections feelingly. Sarah Connolly is the better of the two, with a smooth, warm voice that nicely picks out the many chinoiserie elements of her first two songs and then progresses with considerable depth into Der Abschied (in which, however, she loses the forward impetus from time to time). Toby Spence has more enthusiasm than technique: he tends to sound shrill, especially in his high register, and is actually harsh at the beginning of Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde, although he soon rights himself. As a whole, this is a more-than-creditable performance that shows Nézet-Séguin to have considerable Mahler ability – which will no doubt develop over time as he delves more fully into the composer’s oeuvre.
For a much better sense of Mahler’s vocal possibilities, an excellently sung CD featuring tenor Christoph Prégardien offers a daring program combining six selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (including Urlicht, which is usually heard only in the Second Symphony) with the four-song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and four songs by Wolfgang Rihm. The juxtaposition of Mahler’s orchestral songs with Rihm’s – indeed, with anybody else’s – is highly unusual, and it is only to be expected that the non-Mahler songs will pale in comparison to Mahler’s. But something else happens on this fine CPO disc. Even though Des Knaben Wunderhorn is mostly early Mahler, some of the settings have many forward-looking elements – and when Urlicht ends and the CD proceeds immediately to the Rihm songs, which are placed between the two Mahler sequences, Mahler’s stretching of tonality and his very personal use of the human voice come into sharper focus. The Rihm songs, remarkably, end up shining considerable light on Mahler’s – and when, after the Rihm sequence (which dates to 2000-04), Prégardien begins Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Mahler’s first song cycle (1884-85), both the contrast and the comparable elements are striking. Steven Sloane’s highly sensitive conducting, and the excellent playing of the Bochumer Symphoniker, have a great deal to do with this disc’s success, but Prégardien’s handling of the vocal elements is the primary factor. Prégardien is as comfortable with the Aesopian satire of Lob des hohen Verstandes and the delicacy of Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht (despite some slight breath-control issues) as with the intensity of Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (which gets a particularly striking reading). And Prégardien, to whom Rihm dedicated the voice-and-piano version of the Rilke songs and who gave the first performance of them in their voice-and-orchestra form, handles the spare aesthetics of Rihm – which well match Rilke’s complexly knotted thoughts – as well as he manages Mahler’s broader, deeper and more emotionally intense music. Mahler’s music generally does not mix particularly well with anyone else’s, but the juxtaposition of Mahler and Rihm on this CD is surprisingly revelatory.
Revelations are harder to come by in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra recording of the Sixth Symphony on the orchestra’s own label. The problem with Mahler as a fixture of modern concerts is that the familiarity of the music can all too easily lead to pedestrian performances. Jaap van Zweden’s is better than that, but it is scarcely inspired. For every very fine touch (the intensity of the first hammer blow in the finale, for example), there is something that does not quite measure up (e.g., the bland handling of the main march rhythm of the first movement). The Dallas ensemble is a good orchestra but not a great one: it can handle Mahler, but the strain tends to show, most noticeably in the brass. Van Zweden’s interpretation is short on emotional punch: the entire first movement lacks a strong and effective contrast between the march elements and the beautiful theme representing Mahler’s wife, Alma; and it feels less propulsive than it should for maximum effect. The Scherzo is all right but, again, not as intense as it can be; as a result, the slow movement, although very beautifully played, provides less of a contrast than it ideally should. And while van Zweden gets the scale of the finale right, he does not hold it together particularly well: the dark elements (except for that first hammer blow, which is much stronger than the second – van Zweden omits the third) evoke more pathos than tragedy. There is nothing major wrong with this (+++) performance, and music lovers who have heard the Dallas Symphony in concert may even consider it a worthy souvenir of the orchestra. But just as there are plenty of adequate-but-ordinary performances of the masterpieces of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and other standard-repertoire symphonists, so there are nowadays of Mahler. This Sixth is fine, but ultimately not nearly as special as Mahler can be.
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (4 CDs).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
There is nothing new in the assertion that symphonic style changed dramatically during the 19th century, but listeners sometimes are unaware of how much it changed within the output of a single composer – two particularly clear cases in point being Schubert and Bruckner. Brilliant Classics’ release of some very fine 1978-1981 recordings of Schubert symphonies by Staatskapelle Dresden under Herbert Blomstedt makes the stylistic difference between earlier and later Schubert symphonies particularly clear. Schubert’s first six symphonies are generally light, fleet, and strongly influenced by Haydn and Mozart, even though their handling of both form and harmony is quite different from the earlier composers’ approaches. No. 4, called the “Tragic,” would more appropriately be designated the “Pathétique” if Tchaikovsky’s far more depressive work had not rendered that description inappropriate for Schubert’s lighter one. This is a work that makes some passes at pathos in the first movement and then rapidly reverts to typically Schubertian melodic warmth and beautifully lyrical themes. The first three symphonies, their first movements all being their longest and all opening with slow sections, all flow with apparent effortlessness from theme to theme and oftentimes from key to key, as Schubert does not so much develop themes as pile them upon each other and repeat them out of what often seems like sheer joy. No. 5, the most popular of these early Schubert works, eschews the slow opening and is lighthearted and poised throughout. No. 6, the “Little C Major,” melds Rossinian influences with those of Haydn and Mozart and sounds like a transitional work – but a transition to what? The answer is the Symphony No. 7, which exists only in short score and is, alas, almost totally neglected, even though several attempts have been made to complete it and it has very occasionally been recorded. Like most “complete” sets of Schubert symphonies, Brilliant Classics’ omits this work, and that is a shame, because without it, the two final and very famous Schubert symphonies seem to have sprung from a world entirely different from that of the first six. No. 8 is called “Unfinished” even though Schubert actually left a number of symphonic fragments behind, some of them quite good. Blomstedt gives this work all the grandeur possible in its two surviving movements (part of a third movement exists but, as with the whole Seventh, is almost never heard). The two movements are at essentially the same tempo (Allegro moderato more or less equals Andante con moto), and it is the shaping of them rather than their pacing that distinguishes them. They come across here almost as a single extended fantasy-like movement. As for Symphony No. 9, the “Great C Major,” Blomstedt handles it quite expansively, allowing its frequent repetition of themes (a major structural building block) plenty of time to coalesce and build. Extended passages of this work remain in a single key – in contrast to what happens in the earlier symphonies, when Schubert often simply drops one key and picks up a new one – and this can produce either serenity (when the work is well-played) or boredom (when it is not). Staatskapelle Dresden’s sureness with the music, and Blomstedt’s willingness to give the symphony all the time it needs to flower, produce a very fine reading that caps this Schubert cycle in a way that makes the composer’s stylistic changes abundantly clear.
In Bruckner’s case much later in the 19th century, changes of style and emphasis often show up within the same symphony, as the composer made revision after revision – either because of changes he wanted or because he was urged to make alterations in order to gain better or more-frequent performances of his works. There are three very different versions of the Symphony No. 4, which Bruckner himself called the “Romantic,” dating to 1874, 1878-80, and 1886-89. The one that is most often heard, and the one performed on a new PentaTone release by Marek Janowski and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, is the middle one, which includes changes to the first, second and fourth movements from 1874 plus an entirely new third movement that is usually called the “hunting scherzo” because of its persistent horn calls. Stylistically, Bruckner’s Fourth in this version represents a move by the composer away from the pervasive influence of Wagner (which is most apparent in the Third, especially that symphony’s first version) and in the direction of finding and developing a voice entirely his own – although highly “Brucknerian” elements had been present in the earlier numbered symphonies as well. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is not, in terms of its sound, as well-suited to Bruckner as some other fine European orchestras, notably in Germany and Austria, but it is a first-rate ensemble in terms of the balance of its sections and precision of its playing – something that has been noticeable throughout Janowski’s Bruckner cycle. Janowski is a particularly thoughtful and analytical conductor, and his recording of the Fourth, while certainly not lacking passion, never wallows in emotion and never seems on the verge of spinning out of control or sprawling, which Bruckner symphonies can so easily do. Janowski is an outstanding conductor of Wagner operas, and some of his operatic instincts stand him in good stead in his Bruckner symphonies: his Fourth is a series of individual scenes that nevertheless build to a final, all-encompassing climax in which the various elements of the earlier movements are skillfully brought together in an entirely satisfactory conclusion. It is still sometimes said that Bruckner’s symphonies sound very much alike, but Janowski gives the lie to that canard by tailoring his performances to each work’s individual stylistic elements. In the case of the Fourth, this results in a work that does indeed sound Romantic and, at the same time, grand – without being grandiose.
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht; String Quartet No. 1; Four Canons. Fred Sherry String Quartet and Sextet. Naxos. $9.99.
Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Piano; Sonata for Two Violins; Sonata for Violin Solo; Five Melodies for Violin and Piano. James Ehnes, violin; Amy Schwartz Moretti, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $37.99 (2 CDs).
Peter Maxwell Davies: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 5 and 6. James Clark, violin; Catherine Marwood, viola; David Nicholson, flute; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxell Davies. Naxos. $9.99.
Philip Glass: Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra; John Rutter: Suite Antique; Jean Françaix: Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental. Christopher D. Lewis, harpsichord; John McMurtery, flute; West Side Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $9.99.
Howard Blake: Wind Concertos. Jaime Martin, flute; Andrew Marriner, clarinet; Gustavo Núñez, bassoon; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Dimitar Nenov: Piano Music. Viktor Valkov, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Stopping By: American Songs. Kyle Bielfield, tenor; Lachlan Glen, piano; Michael Samis, cello. Delos. $16.99.
I Am in Need of Music: Songs on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Suzie LeBlanc, soprano; Blue Engine String Quartet; Elizabeth Bishop Players conducted by Dinuk Wijeratne. CMC. $16.99 (CD+DVD).
Vittorio Grigòlo: Ave Maria. Vittorio Grigòlo, tenor; Francesca Dego, violin; I Pueri Cantores della Cappella Musicale Pontificia detta Sistina and Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta conducted by Fabio Cerroni. Sony. $12.99.
Van-Anh Vanessa Vo: Three-Mountain Pass. Innova. $14.99.
The definition of “modern music” starts for many listeners with Arnold Schoenberg, even though Schoenberg’s works date back all the way to the end of the 19th century. And this raises the interesting question of just what it means to be “modern,” as opposed to “contemporary,” which is simply a synonym for “of today.” The two notions do tend to blend and blur, but certainly “modern” in classical music has a great deal to do with a work’s sound, which is why Schoenberg’s music is still classified that way well over a century after much of it was written. Verklärte Nacht, for example, dates to 1899, and was considered by the composer to be the first tone poem ever written for chamber ensemble. It retains hints of modernity even for 21st-century ears, although it is certainly less dissonant and more wedded to tonality than many later Schoenberg works. In the fine Naxos performance by cellist Fred Sherry and other skilled interpreters, both this work and the technically similar and even more extended String Quartet No. 1 (1904-05) show both their roots in Romanticism and the way Schoenberg, even when in his 20s, was starting to move beyond it to create a new language that remains “modern” in sound even today. Four Canons (taken from Thirty Canons, 1905-1949) shows the composer reaching further into the realms he was later to explore in considerable and often controversial detail.
Prokofiev’s explorations were wide-ranging, too, and his sound also retains significant Romantic elements while still having the tinge of modernity about it, both through the composer’s handling of dissonance and through the sardonic wit heard frequently in his music. James Ehnes’ excellent survey of the composer’s complete solo-violin works showcases music both straightforward (the first concerto) and masterly (the second), and provides an opportunity to hear some comparative rarities (the two-violin sonata and the one for solo violin). The performances here are exemplary precisely because Ehnes does not insist on a strictly “modern-sounding” interpretation of Prokofiev’s violin works, allowing their angularity and rhythmic complexity to coexist side-by-side with their post-Romantic themes and their general adherence to traditional musical forms. Abetted in the two sonatas for violin and piano by excellent readings by Andrew Armstrong, and complemented with sure skill by Amy Schwartz Moretti in the two-violin sonata, Ehnes turns in soloist-focused performances that are nevertheless clearly designed to maintain the balance between his own elements and those of the other musicians. Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic get the nuances of accompaniment just right, stepping to the fore or merging into the background as appropriate and with a fine sense of collaboration. This very well-recorded two-CD Chandos set equally displays the skill of Ehnes as a performer and Prokofiev as a composer true to his own vision while at the same time redolent of the times in which he wrote.
The times are far more recent for Peter Maxwell Davies (born 1934) and his Strathclyde Concertos, two of which he conducts with sensitivity and aplomb on a new Naxos CD (actually a re-release of a 1993 Collins Classics recording). Davies’ musical language, like that of Prokofiev, looks back as well as forward, and his structure for these concertos is fairly traditional: each is in three movements, although the tempos of the movements are not always in accord with what one would expect. Still, the sound of the works has both “modern” elements and distinctly old-fashioned ones. No. 5 was inspired by Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, although it uses those two solo instruments in very different ways, while No. 6, for flute and orchestra, is distinctively scored and combines a Classical-era lightness and transparency of sound with a modern handling of the orchestra and of the balance between ensemble and solo instrument. Davies has a fine sense of how his works should sound and considerable skill at bringing the sound out – he is in fact a fine conductor of works other than his own. And the soloists all handle their roles with skill and careful involvement. These pieces sound in some ways less “modern” than those of Schoenberg and Prokofiev, even though both of Davies’ date to as recently as 1991. So this CD again raises the question of just what a “modern” sound is.
Another fine Naxos disc makes the question even more complex. Philip Glass (born 1937) is one composer whose distinctive style and sound would surely be designated as “modern” by supporters and detractors alike. But Glass is quite capable of putting his sonic and compositional approaches at the service of forms with a very long history indeed, as he does in his Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra. No one could possibly mistake this for a Bach harpsichord concerto, yet its three movements (which are numbered rather than bearing tempo indications) fit broadly within the framework of sensibilities that are hundreds of years old – although the approach to the writing, and indeed to the harpsichord itself, is undeniably modern. The situation is much the same in Suite Antique by John Rutter (born 1945): here too an old form, dating to the Baroque, and an old instrument, the harpsichord, are at the service of a work that quite deliberately mixes the “antique” and the new – for example, containing both an Ostinato movement and a “jazz waltz.” Matters are somewhat more complex, though, in the case of Jean Françaix’ Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental, because Françaix (1912-1997) takes Baroque models more seriously as a framework for modern reinterpretation than do Glass and Rutter – this harpsichord concerto does not view Bach’s time as a jumping-off point but as an era that still has something to say to today’s listeners. As a result, the Françaix work has about it a stronger sense of neo-classicism (or neo-Baroque-ism) than do the Glass and Rutter pieces, even though it dates from essentially the same time period. The inescapable conclusion is that “modern” sound means different things to different composers – or to the same composer under different circumstances.
Furthermore, the whole issue of what is “modern” is somewhat fraught with confusion, as is clear from a PentaTone SACD bearing the overly cute title “The Barber of Neville.” The title reflects the fact that composer Howard Blake (born 1938) and conductor Sir Neville Marriner use the same barber, and it was the barber who introduced the two and thus set this recording in motion. Be that as it may, what is of greater interest here is the way Blake, who is primarily a film composer, interprets “modern” sound. Essentially, he ignores the notion – in favor of producing approachable, pleasant music that is of no great consequence and is not highly innovative, but that is undeniably enjoyable to hear in a way that the works of many more self-consciously avant-garde composers are not. Of the four works on this disc, the Flute Concerto (1996), Bassoon Concerto (2009) and Serenade for Wind Octet (1990) all stray very little from classical models and all provide a pleasing mixture of virtuosic display and nicely structured (if scarcely innovative) ensemble material. The Clarinet Concerto (1984/2011) is somewhat different in its use of programmatic material (the three movements are “Invocation,” “Ceremony” and “Round Dance”), but is musically more of the same. The sameness is quite easy on the ears, and the very well-played and well-recorded disc earns a (+++) rating even though the music is on the forgettable side.
The Grand Piano release of music by Dimitar Nenov also gets a (+++) rating, again because the music itself is interesting but not highly distinctive even when it is performed by as high-quality a pianist as Viktor Valkov, who approaches it with fervor and understanding. Nenov (1901-1953), a fine pianist and noted pedagogue at the Sofia Conservatoire, ran afoul of the Communist regime installed in Bulgaria in 1944, with the eventual result that an apparatchik had virtually all recorded performances by Nenov destroyed. The personal tragedy of the composer did not prevent his music from surviving, though, and one of his works – Toccata (1939), whose chromaticism and sense of building to a climax are quite attractive – is still heard from time to time. It appears on this CD, as does the more-interesting Theme and Variations in F sharp minor (1932), in which Nenov shows a firm grasp of variation form as well as the ability to write a work requiring considerable virtuosity. How “modern” Nenov’s music sounds depends largely on which work one is hearing. Cinema Suite (1924-25) is sufficiently dissonant and technically demanding to sound “modern” even today, but other pieces here – Miniatures (1945), Dance (a 1941 essay in folk music), Etude No. 1 (1931), and Etude No. 2 (1932) – all have the feeling of miniatures with little that is “modern” about them. The latest work on the CD – Fairy Tale and Dance (1947, another folk-music piece) – is Nenov’s final piano composition and yet another miniature, well put together but not particularly distinctive. Valkov’s very impressive pianism stays with the listener after the end of this recording in a way that the music itself does not.
Part of what makes classical music “modern” in sound seems to be the willingness of composers and performers to blur the lines between musical genres, as seen clearly in two recent (+++) vocal releases featuring tenor Kyle Bielfield and soprano Suzie LeBlanc, respectively. Delos’ Bielfield disc, the singer’s first recording, includes a wide variety of American songs from some composers considered classical (Carter, Copland), some deemed popular (Foster, Berlin), and some who straddle both worlds (notably Bernstein). There are three separate settings of the poem that gives the disc its title, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” – by Barber, Rorem and John Woods Duke (1899-1994). And there are works here ranging from “Beautiful Dreamer” to “Simple Gifts.” The disc is a potpourri designed to showcase Bielfield’s pleasant but not particularly distinguished voice, the overall presentation sounding “modern” not because of anything specific in the music but because of the singer’s willingness to tackle vocal works in a variety of fields that are usually seen as separate. Somewhat similarly, the CMC disc featuring LeBlanc focuses on a particular poet, Elizabeth Bishop, rather than a specific style – although in this case all the composers are modern (Alasdair MacLean, John Plant, Emily Doolittle and Christos Hatzis). LeBlanc has a clear, pleasant voice and pronounces and accentuates the words well. None of the music stands out especially from the rest structurally or in effectiveness – all the settings are well done but not very striking. Whether there are many listeners interested in LeBlanc, in Bishop and in these four composers is an open question – the CD would seem to be designed for a very limited audience. The bonus DVD, a 36-minute video called Walking with EB, makes the production even more of a narrowly targeted one.
A third new vocal disc, Ave Maria from tenor Vittorio Grigòlo on Sony, deliberately reaches into the past – the musical one and the singer’s own – but also includes distinctly modern elements that are nevertheless redolent of earlier times. Grigòlo (born 1977) was a chorister with the Sistine Chapel Choir in the Vatican from ages 11 to 14, and this disc is in many ways his return to his past. That means the music includes a number of inevitable works – the Ave Maria of Schubert, Ave verum corpus of Mozart, Verdi’s Ingemisco and Franck’s Panis angelicus – plus traditional sacred music and pieces by church composers. But it also contains four pieces by choirmasters whom Grigòlo personally knew during his time in the choir, Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci and Padre Giovanni Maria Catena. These are “modern” works that in sound are anything but contemporary, their uplifting intent clear throughout and their obeisance to church and musical tradition complete. There is a single secular piece on the CD – Offenbach’s orchestral version of La Sérénade de Schubert – but everything else is intended to showcase Grigòlo’s background and the intensely religious experience of serving in the Sistine Chapel Choir. Grigòlo has a very fine tenor voice and is quite clearly involved deeply in this music of beauty, serenity and religious expression. However, the CD will be a bit much for many listeners, particularly those who are not Catholic, to take, since even the most recently composed music here fits so seamlessly into the older works that the disc has a feeling of sameness approaching monotony. For most listeners, this will be a (+++) CD, although those who are strongly religious or who especially enjoy Grigòlo’s voice will delight in it – and it seems to be targeted precisely at them.
But at whom is Three-Mountain Pass targeted? This (+++) Innova recording is a genuine curiosity, again blurring the classical and popular boundaries but this time blurring a variety of others as well. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo, whose name is sometimes spelled with a variety of accents and sometimes without, is a virtuoso on the Vietnamese đàn tranh, a 16-string zither. She is also a composer: she wrote the CD’s title work. And she is an arranger: the oddest track on the disc is her arrangement of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3. She performs most of the tracks alone, but is accompanied on one called Green River Delta by the Kronos Quartet – and the sonic environment for this piece is peculiar and fascinating. The music itself, though, is mostly just peculiar to Western ears, and not terribly interesting despite the quite obvious skill with which it is played. It is hard to know what to call a CD like this, which is neither classical nor pop, not exactly “world music” and not really a production focused on an artist – although it is clearly an artistic showcase. The sound of the đàn tranh tends to wear thin after a while, and even though the disc lasts only 46 minutes, it seems longer. It is impossible not to admire the skill with which Van-Anh Vanessa Vo performs, but it is not so easy to enjoy hearing her at such length. This is one music CD that, oddly, might have been better as a DVD, since visual elements would have made the somewhat monotonous sound of the music more interesting. Certainly the disc sounds “modern” because of the way it combines so many elements and refuses to be confined to a single form of music, but it is nevertheless a CD whose potential appeal it is difficult to pin down – as is often the case with “modern” music and the recordings that capture it.