October 01, 2015
Lazy Dave. By Peter Jarvis. Harper. $17.99.
Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars. By Constance Lombardo. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.
Here are a couple of very old ideas given some very new twists and, thanks to wonderful drawings, coming across as brand-new notions that are very funny indeed. Lazy Dave is the answer by Peter Jarvis (who uses just the one name, “Jarvis”) to the old question of what a dog does when his human family is away. In this easy-to-read picture book, we find out that Dave loves to sleep – including in the bathtub and bed of his human owner, a little girl named Lilly, who deems Dave “the laziest dog in the world.” So Lilly heads off to school each day, confident that Dave will be there – still sleeping – when she gets home. But in fact, Jarvis explains, Dave is a sleepwalker, or, to be more accurate, a sleep-adventurer, who sleepwalks “where no dogs had ever been.” Increasingly improbable and ridiculous scenes show Dave, sound asleep, climbing a mountain, dancing under the sea with an octopus, donning a space helmet and flying beyond the atmosphere, and more. Back on Earth, Jarvis follows sleepwalking Dave along the street to a jewelry shop that has just been robbed of a fortune in diamonds – and Dave bravely trips the thief (well, Dave would have been brave if he had been awake at the time). Proclaimed a hero, Dave, still sound asleep, shakes hand-to-paw with the mayor, and soon people all over town are clamoring to have their photos taken with the heroic dog – who remains sound asleep throughout. Somehow acquiring a skateboard, Dave manages to escape all the commotion and get home “just before Lilly returned from school” to look at him with an annoyed expression and exclaim that he hasn’t “moved all day!” She takes Dave for a walk, and when they pass a newsstand featuring a headline about a dog that “stopped the biggest diamond crook in history,” Lilly briefly regrets that her dog is not more like that one. But she decides that “I love you just the way you are,” as Dave, back home, falls happily asleep in her lap. And that is what dogs do on their own!
Now, as for cats – well, Constance Lombardo’s Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars is aimed at kids who are a bit older than picture-book readers, being a picture book of a different sort: a novel with profuse illustrations that are integral to the story and help tell it. This is a format somewhere between traditional novel and graphic novel, an attractive one for preteens – especially those labeled “reluctant readers.” There is little reason for reluctance to tackle Lombardo’s amusing take on the old story of making it big in Hollywood: just about all the tropes of the books and movies on this topic are neatly included here and suitably twisted to fit a feline-centric narrative. Determined from kittenhood to become a big star like his idol, El Gato, Mr. Puffball journeys to Tinseltown from his home in New Jersey so he can audition at Metro-Golden-Meower Studios and follow in the footsteps (pawsteps?) of his Great-Grandma Zelda, who had once starred in the big, indeed monstrous, hit film, Cleocatra Meets the Mummy. Mr. Puffball, after the usual cross-country adventures, arrives in the town of his dreams, where he goes immediately to Ms. Lola’s Feline Divine for a makeover – which includes, among other things, bathing (which means he is carefully licked by four cat “bathers,” that being, after all, how cats take baths). However, very little goes right for Mr. Puffball at first: MGM proves to be a wreck, “a bit less excellent than I had originally thought,” our feline narrator explains. However, Mr. Puffball is fortunate enough to meet some old-time has-beens from the movie industry, cats who have been chewed up and spit out (well, not literally) by the uncaring, unfeeling nature of Hollywood – but who still know a thing or three about the town and how to succeed there. Indeed, one of the faded experts proves to be the director of Cleocatra Meets the Mummy – not to mention Catsablanca, The Sound of Meowsic and other huge hits. Soon he and the other onetime “A listers” take Mr. Puffball under their wings (so to speak) and groom him (well, at this point he actually grooms himself) for an audition. But things there do not go as planned, and Mr. Puffball soon finds himself chosen not as a star but as a stunt cat, trained by a gigantic cat named Bruiser who is given to remarks such as, “TUCK! ROLL! No break neck if can!” and “We go to top of huge boulder so I push you off! Too much scraping and bleeding on boulder! Make body stronger!” This leads Mr. Puffball to say: “Ouch. Ouch. Ouchie. Ow. Could we take a break now, Bruiser? No? Ow. Please? Yeow! Arrrgghhh!!!” The illustrations, here and throughout, are hilarious, and they remain so as Mr. Puffball gradually comes into his own in stunt-cat work, finding himself working with none other than El Gato – who turns out to have the proverbial feet of clay, being well-known to Mr. Puffball’s group of backers and, indeed, known to be not a nice cat at all. One thing leads to another, and another and another, just as in innumerable Hollywood “a star is born” movies – parents will recognize all the clichés and delight in them, even if the young readers for whom the book is intended may not understand all the resonance. Eventually everything ends happily and with everybody glad about everybody else (even El Gato turns out to be an OK guy), and Lombardo then concludes the book with “special features” such as a “Hollywood Gazette Celebrity Opinion Page” and comments by various characters beneath the headline, “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Book” (this is where Mr. Puffball asks, “What about the time I was set on fire?”). After a “blooper reel” and some “coming attractions” pages, Lombardo is clever enough to include an amusing glossary that refers to the original movies whose titles and plots are parodied in the book (for instance, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, which in the book is given as Attack of the 50 Foot She-Cat). There are some genuinely useful definitions here (“audition,” “chanteuse,” “director,” “grip”) and some thrown in purely for additional amusement: “The Mashed Potato is a dance that does not involve potatoes in any way. Though my feeling is if potatoes want to dance, who am I to stop them?” (That entry comes with a drawing of dancing potatoes.) Lombardo has done a wonderful job here of accepting, using and going beyond a plethora of clichés to create a book that is tons of fun in its own right and that stands perfectly well on its own – but contains, at the end, the almost-promise of a sequel (and how Hollywood-like is that?). And for parents, a reading of Lombardo’s biography, on the book’s very last page, is highly recommended. Laughing out loud is permitted, even encouraged, and possibly inevitable.
The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book II: The Terror of the Southlands. By Caroline Carlson. Illustrations by Dave Phillips. Harper. $6.99.
The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book III: The Buccaneers’ Code. By Caroline Carlson. Illustrations by Dave Phillips. Harper. $16.99.
Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
The gargoyle sidekick is something new, but most of the elements of Caroline Carlson’s The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy are those to be expected in novels for preteens: a protagonist who is more than he (or, in this case, she) realizes, twists and turns in which good guys turn out to be bad and vice versa, a soupçon of magic, a whole passel of friends to help the central character and/or to be rescued and helped in their turn, and enough humor to keep the adventure light when nothing of special moment happens to be going on. Magic Marks the Spot, the first book of the series, pulls all of these elements into a story centered on Hilary Westfield, who wants desperately to become a pirate despite the disapproval of her father, who is Admiral of the Royal Navy and, naturally, a sworn enemy of pirates. Besides, the piracy apprenticeship program accepts only boys. So Hilary is sent to Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for classes in etiquette, embroidery, and fainting. Unsurprisingly, she runs away, joining freelance pirate Jasper Fletcher, known as “The Terror of the Southlands.” And they have, as Hilary’s first adventure, a quest for the lost magic of the Enchantress of the Northlands. The second book is actually called The Terror of the Southlands and is now available in paperback after originally being published last year. The title, however, now refers to Hilary herself. She has become a full-fledged pirate, but is about to be kicked out of the ranks of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates because she isn’t doing all the fighting and treasure-finding that membership requires. This could be an interesting angle: what happens if a fictional character, heretofore following all the tropes of the action/adventure format for preteen readers, attains her goals and finds they were not worth seeking? But Carlson prefers to go in the tried-and-true genre direction instead of looking for ways to bend it. Thus, Hilary is clearly in need of another quest, and in this book she sets out to find one and succeed in it. In keeping with the amusingly off-kilter narrative style that is the best thing about these novels, that quest turns out to involve not only the mysterious and dangerous group called the Mutineers but also the even scarier thing known as a High Society Ball. The whole balancing act of high-seas adventure and societal expectations is a tad repetitious here, and the quest itself fairly closely echoes the one in the first book, but these are common issues in the middle books of trilogies, and readers who enjoyed Magic Marks the Spot and wanted more of the same will find it in The Terror of the Southlands.
And then there is the all-new and final series entry, The Buccaneers’ Code. Here Hilary is at odds with the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, which has turned out to be less than very nearly honorable: its leader, the villainous Captain Blacktooth, has betrayed all the good (or very nearly good) that the league stands for, and Hilary has rejected him and the league itself. Indeed, she hopes that the league will one day have a different and very nearly honorable leader – and guess what? Her loyal crew thinks she should be that individual. So Hilary challenges Captain Blacktooth to a pirate battle on the high seas – and this requires Hilary to lead a third quest, this time for supporters who will make her eventual victory possible. Carlson’s approach here is one of throwing everything from the first two books, and then some, into the final one, and letting all the characters mix things up until Hilary eventually and inevitably emerges victorious (in her own way). So there are enchantresses and High Society girls here as well as pirates, and reformed villains and good friends and overprotective mothers and chickens and molasses. This third book is somewhat more madcap than the first two, although it recognizably follows them and flows from the same source (flowing, indeed, far more quickly than molasses does). Dave Phillips’ attractive illustrations, and a format that includes not only straight narrative but also letters, forms, and quotes from the handbook of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, combine to help keep the entire trilogy interesting. And although Carlson never veers far from the usual path of preteen fantasy adventure novels, she does manage to decorate that path in some amusingly offbeat ways – not only by replacing the traditional pirate parrot with the gargoyle but also by having the land of Augusta be a place where pirates grow beautiful flower gardens, letters mysteriously get to ships within hours, and the dungeons contain crocheted rugs. The Buccaneers’ Code is a rollicking conclusion to a trilogy that is, if not be a cut above the usual adventure for this age group, at least half a cut above. With a cutlass.
Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! also completes a trilogy, this one of graphic novels; and this trilogy also follows a story arc that is typical for series of its type. In James Burks’ first book, Bird & Squirrel on the Run, the two title characters meet and become friends, bonding through their mutual difficulty, which comes in the form of Cat, who is intent on eating them both. The two have opposite personalities: Bird is carefree, reckless, and always looks on the bright side, while Squirrel is nervous and easily frightened of almost everything. In the first book, they head south for the winter (and to escape Cat), and learn entirely expected lessons about friendship and teamwork. In the second book, Bird & Squirrel on Ice, the friends are way south, in the Antarctic, after they crash-land at the South Pole. They soon encounter a spear-carrying penguin named Sakari, who thinks Bird may be the predicted Chosen One, who will rid the penguins of the threat they face from a killer whale. Unfortunately, it turns out that this will involve Bird becoming whale food. So Squirrel and Sakari devise a plan to save Bird and, they hope, the rest of the village. Mission accomplished, Bird and Squirrel head home, which brings readers to Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! They have only to cross the Great Mountains to get their lives back to normal – including having Squirrel once again be afraid of absolutely everything, including death-dealing house dust. But near journey’s end, they encounter a bear cub being set upon by hungry wolves, and Bird insists on stopping their journey to drive the wolves away and save the cub’s life. Squirrel, although he tries to help brave Bird, succeeds only in conking Bird on the head – hard – with a pine cone. This causes amnesia and a personality reversal, in which Bird is now afraid of everything, forcing Squirrel to be the brave one and help Bird and the bear cub past a series of obstacles, including repeated reappearances by the determined wolf pack. Eventually, Bird gets another knock on the noggin, which perfectly reverses the effects of the first one, and the friends make it home, happier and wiser and all that sort of thing, encountering the cub’s mother at just the right point so the bears can have a happy ending as well. The Bird & Squirrel series is a good entry point to graphic novels for younger readers: the stories are simple, the characterization is straightforward, the art is attractive and unchallenging, the colors are bright, and the use of panels that have different shapes and mesh into each other at times while bursting the bounds of their edges at others helps keep the action well-paced. There are no unexpected lessons or particularly quirky occurrences in Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! But there is enough pleasant camaraderie and sufficient adventure and amusement to make this a fine conclusion to Burks’ series and a pleasant work to read and look at in its own right.
The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne. By M.L. Longworth. Penguin. $15.
A murder mystery in which the murder is almost beside the point – or, in this case, in which the murders, plural, seem scarcely central to the narrative – this fifth of M.L. Longworth’s series featuring examining magistrate Antoine Verlaque and his law-professor girlfriend, Marine Bonnet, proceeds at the same comfortable, familiar pace as earlier series entries. Like its predecessors, The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne is a book into which a reader immerses himself or herself gently and gingerly, as if into a bath whose water is perhaps a touch too hot at first but will surely feel delicious once one is surrounded by it for a time.
The immersion here is into a very French world, specifically one centered on Provence and its artists – Cézanne above all, but also Cézanne’s friends and contemporaries: Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Zola. Longworth is equally comfortable in French and English, having even written a bilingual essay collection, but the sensibility of this novel and its predecessors is distinctly that of France, and readers need to understand that to get the books’ full flavor. Indeed, flavor is much of what The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne is about, containing as it does loving descriptions of various meals and their ingredients, a variety of wines, and the pleasures of cigars and cigar clubs.
Ah yes, the murders. Well, there must be some plot mover beyond that of the relationship between Verlaque and Bonnet, after all (although elements of that relationship are in their way every bit as important in this book as is the criminal investigation). It seems that someone may have found a previously unknown painting by Cézanne, a portrait of an unknown Aixoise with whom he had an affair in 1885 (the affair really did happen, although Longworth invents the specifics). The discoverer of the maybe-authentic painting is soon dispatched, and when Verlaque arrives on the scene shortly after the killing, he finds an American art expert standing over the man’s body. This instant suspect – who thus, by the usual standards of murder mysteries, cannot possibly be guilty – is the stunningly attractive Rebecca Schultz, who describes herself as “a black Jewish woman who had worked all her life to finally get a white Anglo-Saxon man’s job,” and explains her failure to call the police immediately by telling an investigator that if “you were caught trespassing and entering where there had just been a murder, you, too, would have thought twice before deciding to phone for help instead of running straight out the door.”
Ah, but Schultz is not quite as innocent as she seems, or not quite as innocent as she ought to seem in light of how guilty she seems – this sort of twist is a Longworth specialty and part of the charm of The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne. A further twist here is the killing of the person who apparently killed the discoverer of the possible Cézanne; but this is more of a necessary plot element, to keep the story going somewhere, than a reason to sink comfortably into the novel. A better reason is the subtlety with which Longworth continually pauses in the narrative to deepen readers’ relationships with the central characters: Verlaque “smiled, thinking of the conversation with the Alsatian shop owner, thankful that he could have interesting chats such as the one they had just had, with people he didn’t know intimately.”
Another good reason for staying with the slow unraveling of the mystery is to experience some unalloyed Francophilia. Readers must be prepared for unexplained references to the TGV (France’s high-speed train); a chapter entitled “Dedans/Dehors” (which is simply “inside/outside,” but sounds so much better in French); a reference to “gendarmes and police [who] work together” that will puzzle readers unfamiliar with the French law-enforcement system; repeated instances of the bise, that quintessentially French “air kiss” greeting; and several wry comments on what it means to drive a Renault Kangoo (a Google Image search helps). The best reason of all for full involvement here, though, is to watch and be privy to the increasingly intricate and altogether believable relationship of the almost-but-not-quite-world-weary Verlaque and the intelligent, attractive, successful – yet in some ways unsure of herself and her hopes and desires – Bonnet. The determined lack of visceral detail about the murders, the murder scenes and the minds of criminals is matched by an equally determined level of attention to the ins and outs of the intertwined lives of Verlaque and Bonnet, and the way in which those lives, plural, are slowly but surely becoming a life, singular. This is, in the end, the greatest attraction of this pleasant (yes, pleasant) murder mystery: this is a novel for those less interested in “whodunit” than in why it was done, what wines were drunk with which freshly prepared meals while it was being investigated, and what thoughts the principal characters had while discussing the whole situation with thoroughly Gallic aplomb.
Julius Fučík: Orchestral Music. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Auguste Franchomme: Chamber Music and Chopin Arrangements. Louise Dubin, Julia Bruskin, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir and Katherine Cherbas, cellos; Hélène Jeanney and Andrea Lam, piano. Delos. $16.99.
Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Serenades for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 69; Nielsen: Violin Concerto. Baiba Skride, violin; Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Orfeo. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Gabrieli: Sacrae Symphoniae—Excerpts; John Williams: Music for Brass. National Brass Ensemble. Oberlin Music. $19.99 (SACD).
Everybody, but everybody, knows one work by Julius Ernst Wilhelm Fučík (1872-1916) – or, more accurately, part of one work. And virtually nobody, except for band enthusiasts in the Czech Republic and some German-speaking areas of Europe, knows anything else by or about the composer – or even knows the balance of the work whose beginning is utterly, totally and completely familiar. Fučík was, especially in the early 20th century, the most famous Czech composer of light music, writing hundreds of works – especially for wind bands, being himself known as a bandmaster of considerable skill. Wind and military bands still play his music frequently, but his works for strings and full orchestra have languished, and outside the band world, almost nothing he wrote is heard on concert programs. And what a shame that is, as Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra demonstrate again and again on a simply marvelous new Chandos SACD that really ought to, if there is any justice at all in the music world, revive Fučík as a name to be reckoned with. There are 14 works recorded here, all of them tuneful, elegant, beautifully proportioned, and – it is worth saying twice – tuneful. Fučík was a master melodist, writing marches as peppy as Sousa’s and waltzes as winsome as Johann Strauss Jr.’s (and some with a hint or two of Lehár). It is nearly unbelievable that music this good, produced with this level of consistency, should have disappeared so thoroughly – but given Fučík’s short life and the fact that he was most productive in the band realm and in the years after Johann Strauss Jr.’s death, it is perhaps understandable. Nevertheless, this ebullient recording makes a simply splendid case for a Fučík revival and for much more frequent performances of his works. Every piece here has its own set of charms, from the sort-of-American march The Mississippi River (Fučík never actually visited the United States), to the comic polka Der Alte Brummbär (“The Old Grumbler,” featuring a delightful bassoon part that is played very well here by David Hubbard), to the march Die lustigen Dorfschmiede (“The Merry Blacksmiths,” whose trio calls for two anvils and will remind some listeners of Josef Strauss’ Feuerfest Polka), to the oddly titled and unusual march Onkel Teddy (“Uncle Teddy”). None of these works is as often heard in any form as the military march Die Regimentskinder (“Children of the Regiment”), which retains more than a modicum of popularity – but even that work pales in recognition before the opening of Einzug der Gladiatoren (“Entry of the Gladiators”), a highly chromatic march for large orchestra that has become 100% identified with the circus and almost as thoroughly popularized in innumerable cartoons, wrestling matches and other sports events. Talk about unimagined popularity – and what an astonishing development for a work intended to reflect Roman gladiatorial combat! But there is little expected about the rediscovery of Fučík, and a great deal to enjoy in becoming acquainted with his tremendous creativity and compositional skill.
There are equal pleasures of rediscovery to be had in hearing the works of Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884), friend to Chopin and frequent transcriber of Chopin’s music for one or more cellos. Franchomme was the most highly regarded French cellist of his time, and not surprisingly wrote a number of works for his own performance – just as was done by violinists aplenty and also by string players such as double-bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini. It would be a mistake to look to Franchomme’s works for profundity, but looking to them for beauty and a fascinating exploration of the range and emotive capabilities of the cello is another and more fruitful matter. Louise Dubin, lead cellist and prime mover of what is called on this Delos CD “The Franchomme Project,” offers five Chopin arrangements and nine of Franchomme’s compositions. Some arrangements stand out, in particular three of Chopin’s works: the Andantino from Ballade No. 2, the Prelude, Op. 28, No. 9, and the Marche Funèbre from Sonata No. 2 – each heard here on four cellos. Students of the history of musical humor may remember a Chopin arrangement for four very different instruments: Mazurka No. 47 played on four tubas in the first Hoffnung Musical Festival. Rest assured that the four-cello arrangements are nothing like that: they are serious, warm, expressive and surprisingly effective at getting to the emotional heart of the music. The other two Chopin arrangements, which are for cello and piano, stand up well, too: Mazurka, Op. 33, No. 3 and Polonaise Brillante Précédée d’une Introduction, Op. 3. Franchomme’s own music is uniformly well-constructed, with a tendency toward elegance, and not surprisingly uses the cello – already an instrument of many, many moods – to very fine emotional effect. Franchomme is not above including ornamentation for its own sake (as in his version of Chopin’s Polonaise Brillante, for example), but he is equally concerned with the sheer beauty of his instrument’s sound and its ability to elicit emotional reactions from the audience. This makes his opera-derived works of special interest: Caprice sur Preciosa de Weber and La Norma de Bellini from Dix Mélodies Italiennes, the latter here arranged for cello and piano. But Franchomme’s combination of sensitivity and virtuosity is evident as well in the other music on this CD: Nocturnes for Two Cellos, Op. 14, No. 1 and Op. 15, Nos. 1, 2 and 3; Caprices for Two Cellos, Op. 7, Nos. 1 and 9; and Solo pour le Violoncelle, Op. 18, No. 3, heard here with piano. None of this rises much above the level of salon music, but it is worth remembering that salon music itself was often better than the somewhat sneering references to it would indicate. This is music that serves a particular purpose, that of combining performer challenge with listener enjoyment; and while it never reaches for or attains anything approaching greatness, it is highly enjoyable to hear and filled with small touches of stylistic piquancy. Dubin and the other performers play with relish, clearly enjoying exploring some out-of-the-way parts of the cello repertoire, and Franchomme’s music is good enough so that this disc may well pave the way for it to start appearing with greater frequency on recital programs. Nothing here is really substantive enough to become a centerpiece of a concert, but in intimate settings and as encores, Franchomme’s works definitely deserve a place. And his arrangements of well-known Chopin pieces provide a new way to hear familiar music and bring out some beauties even beyond those that these works are already known to possess.
Violinist Baiba Skride is certainly capable of bringing out the beauties of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, which remains something of a rediscovery even though it has received occasional performances in recent years. Nielsen’s 1911 work receives the most effective reading among those on a new two-CD release from Orfeo, in which Skride also performs the better-known Sibelius Violin Concerto and the Finnish composer’s two Op. 69 Serenades for Violin and Orchestra. Nielsen’s concerto is a two-movement work, with each movement prefaced with an extended introduction. Essentially neoclassical in concept despite its structure, the work eschews overt displays of virtuosity even though it is quite difficult to play. It is one of those early-20th-century works that lie somewhere between Romanticism and full-fledged embrace of serialism and other new techniques: Nielsen, who had his own way of straddling compositional eras (for example, although his music is mostly tonal, he was fond of beginning a work in one key and ending it in another), reaches here for a kind of acerbic emotionalism that is not immediately appealing – perhaps a reason for the relative neglect of this concerto. What Skride does particularly well here is to plumb the emotional depths of the music, reaching for the connective tissue that unites the introductory material of each movement with the main sections that follow, and using what opportunities Nielsen provides for virtuosic display (such as the cadenza near the end of the finale) to heighten the concerto’s emotional elements. What is missing here, though, is a strong sense of “conversation” between soloist and orchestra – another characteristic of this concerto, and one that gets comparatively short shrift from the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under the workmanlike but uninspired direction of Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Skride makes a stronger case for the work than Rouvali does. And neither soloist nor conductor comes off particularly well in the Sibelius concerto. Skride here seems determined to “do the concerto differently,” engaging in considerable portamento and deemphasizing the work’s cragginess and rhythmic bite as she turns it into more of a Romantic (or post-Romantic) display piece than it usually comes across as being. Her playing itself is very fine – and so, for that matter, is the orchestra’s, even when Rouvali takes a noticeably quirky approach (as in the particularly odd-sounding beginning of the finale). What this performance lacks is any sense of inwardness: a concerto that features distinctly introverted elements is here almost entirely made into an extroverted piece – an approach that sounds good but that is antithetical to many elements of the music. The two serenades, In D major and G minor, make interesting filler pieces, and the emotionalism that Skride brings to both the concertos fits these shorter works rather well. Neither short work comes across as particularly substantial, however. This is a (+++) release with some very fine playing but some interpretations that simply sound wrongheaded in significant ways.
The playing is also very fine – in fact, often outstanding – on a new Oberlin Music release of music from Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae, in arrangements by Tim Higgins. This is a (++++) recording for those interested in the wonderful sound of modern brass instruments – played by 26 members of seven major U.S. orchestras – but a (+++) recording for those who prefer more authentic, less overtly bright and intensely punchy sound of the sort that is historically correct for the music of Gabrieli (1554/1557-1612). By intent, this is a recording steeped in sonic splendor, one simply to be enjoyed for the marvelous way in which the performers explore the music, blending their instruments to fine effect and expertly bringing out Gabrieli’s rhythmic and contrapuntal elements and his finely honed concern for dynamics (for example, in Sonata Pian e Forte). The 16 Gabrieli works heard here include nine Canzoni, the aforementioned sonata, plus Buccinate in Neomenia, O Magnum Mysterium, Hic est Filius Dei, Magnificat a 12, Sancta Maria, and Exaudi me Domine. The works with religious themes and the essentially secular canzoni fit the National Brass Ensemble equally well and are played with equal warmth and equally high levels of skill. And the short Music for Brass by John Williams, offered at the end of this very well-recorded SACD as a kind of encore, neatly connects Gabrieli’s brass music with our own time. There are no particular interpretative insights here, but there is a great deal of excellent music-making, and the CD as a whole represents the kind of “sonic spectacular” in which the aural delights, rather than any significant interpretative nuances, are the recording’s reason for being. For lovers of brass music, those delights will be more than enough reason to own the disc.
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem. Genia Kühmeier, soprano; Gerald Finley, bass; Netherlands Radio Choir and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. RCO Live. $21.99 (SACD).
Arthur Gottschalk: Requiem for the Living. Lauren Snouffer soprano; Andrea Jaber, alto; Daniel Mutlu, tenor; Timothy Jones, bass; St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $16.99.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 10; Sir Andrzej Panufnik: Symphony No. 10. Markus Butter, baritone; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. LSO. $14.99 (SACD).
Benjamin C.S. Boyle: Lenoriana; Laurie Altman: Two Songs from Mountain Interval; Daron Aric Hagen: Larkin Songs; Martin Hennessy: Three Dickinson Songs. Elem Eley, baritone; J.J. Penna, piano. Affetto. $15.99.
A certain level of lugubriousness is inevitable in music focused on death, and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem sometimes comes across as even more downcast than analogous works by, say, Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. But when performed with the sensitivity and emotional involvement it receives from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, this requiem leaves a primary impression of, perhaps surprisingly, beauty. The new release on the orchestra’s own label is a live recording made from two September 2012 performances dedicated to Kurt Sanderling, one of the ensemble’s best-regarded guest conductors, who had died the year before. Jansons was still chief conductor of the Concertgebouw at this time, and the entire recording shows him in firm command of the orchestra as well as the soloists and chorus. Indeed, the singers have a great deal to do with making this such a moving reading. Genia Kühmeier has an unusually pure, well-focused soprano voice, and her emotion-charged performance sweeps the audience into Brahms’ sentiments without ever overdoing them or making them seem maudlin. Gerald Finley’s voice is a sturdy one, and his singing is here distinguished by the clarity of his diction and the ease of his delivery. The Netherlands Radio Choir is beautifully modulated, sensitive and involved in the music’s sentiments, and the orchestra is simply outstanding, showing yet again why it is one of the world’s greatest. It is rare to hear a choir and orchestra as intimately bound together as they are here, and rarer still to hear a performance that starts at such a high level of quality and stays there consistently for the work’s full span. An absolutely first-rate reading of a sometimes problematic work, offered in top-quality SACD sound, Jansons’ Ein Deutsches Requiem fully plumbs the depths of the emotions that Brahms sought to invoke and evoke through his setting of the mass for the dead.
Although scarcely at so high a level, several other new recordings that also involve music about death – in one way or another – have many intriguing elements of their own. Requiem for the Living by Arthur Gottschalk (born 1952) certainly does not lack for ambition. Like Brahms’ work, Gottschalk’s is as much about life as about death; and both works refuse to be bound by the traditional text of the Requiem Mass. There, though, the resemblances end. In eight movements for four soloists, chorus and orchestra, Gottschalk combines the traditional Latin words of the Requiem with ones ranging from those of Buddha to those of Mohammed, from George Eliot to Duke Ellington. He does so in a very complex mixture of musical styles, not only including multiple classical-music genres – some from past centuries (e.g., Renaissance madrigals), some from today – but also tossing in jazz, pop, blues and other nonclassical forms. To some extent, this is unsurprising: many contemporary composers throw Western and Eastern music and thought together willy-nilly, to greater or lesser effect. But context matters – and in the case of Requiem for the Living, it matters a great deal. What Gottschalk does here is take a strictly religious concept and try to move it into a kind of secular humanism that does not, however, deny or downplay its spiritual roots. He also tries to honor the philosophical thinking and music of multiple places and eras, and to do all of this within a coherent framework that even in its Western portions stretches back to a time before Christianity produced the notion of a Requiem Mass: the first and last sections of Gottschalk’s work juxtapose the Kyrie with the Jewish memorial Yizkor. Certainly one of the more ambitious choral works of recent years, both musically and philosophically, Requiem for the Living ultimately tries to do too much, juggling so many elements and approaches that it becomes difficult for listeners to know how to listen to the work and to feel in what direction their emotions are being pulled (indeed, they are usually stretched in several directions at once). Vladimir Lande, a conductor who has shown considerable affinity for complex contemporary music, leads the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra gamely and with a good sense of vocal/orchestral balance, and the four soloists all handle their parts admirably, although none has a really distinctive voice. This Navona release gets a (+++) rating, but listeners who hear the recording and find themselves intrigued rather than exhausted by everything that happens in Gottschalk’s work will likely give it even higher regard, especially after multiple hearings – if they can manage them.
If Gottschalk’s Requiem for the Living is ultimately a celebration of life, so, in a different way, is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Tenth Symphony, whose first performance (February 2014) is now available in a live recording on the London Symphony Orchestra’s own label. Davies was hospitalized when he wrote much of this work, being treated for leukemia, a cancer whose five-year survival rate remains stubbornly low despite many recent advances in treatment. And the work itself deals with the life and death of Italian architect Francesco Borromini (1559-1667), a noted but notably difficult architect, largely self-taught, whose life also inspired the seventh of Davies’ Naxos Quartets. The four-part Tenth Symphony incorporates several vocal elements: a 17th-century sonnet to Borromini, some words by the architect himself, and some of the highly lyrical poetry of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1831). There is a certain darkness throughout Davies’ symphony, emphasized by the extensive use of low woodwind and brass; and the large percussion section (which requires six players) brings a variety of exotic sounds to the music thanks to the inclusion of multiple metallic instruments, including crotales and a temple bowl. Although the work is harmonically comparatively approachable, it tries, as does Gottschalk’s, to cram a great deal into itself, and a knowledge of and empathy for the rather prickly personality of Borromini is almost a necessity (and certainly a big help) in navigating the symphony’s ups and downs. In this respect, Davies’ Tenth somewhat resembles Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, which requires familiarity with Byron’s poem to be fully comprehensible; but while Tchaikovsky’s music sweeps even unknowing listeners along through its sheer thematic beauty and its drama, Davies’ craggier work is more difficult to become fully involved in for those who know little about its rather abstruse subject matter. This is so despite the very fine singing the symphony receives from soloists and chorus, and the strongly committed playing that Sir Antonio Pappano elicits from the orchestra. Davies’ symphony is paired on this recording with a much briefer Tenth, that of Andrzej Panufnik. Dating to 1988 and written for the centenary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned it, Panufnik’s symphony is not the virtuoso showpiece that its provenance might lead one to expect. Instead it is something of a sonic exploration, in which Panufnik melds various sections in different ways, as if to show the versatility not only of the whole orchestra but also of each part of it. Panufnik’s compositional approach, which includes three-note cells and an attempt to depict geometric forms in music, is ever-present here as well, creating a kind of academic superstructure for the symphony – and, unfortunately, distancing it somewhat from the audience. This well-recorded SACD is a (+++) release that will principally be of interest to listeners already familiar with the music of Davies and Panufnik, especially those who are fans of Davies’ large-scale works.
An intriguing CD featuring songs by four contemporary composers who are significantly less-known than Davies and Panufnik also has a peripheral connection to the topic of death – and in some cases an explicit one. The works of Edgar Allan Poe are never far from being death-obsessed, and the nine songs in Lenoriana by Benjamin C.S. Boyle (born 1979) – two of them entitled Lenore – focus as much on the dead as on Poe’s complex philosophical thinking. Annabel Lee and The Conqueror Worm are poems whose aural resonance is as telling today as when they were written nearly two centuries ago, and Boyle sets them with feeling, if without any exceptional distinction in his approach to the material. In addition to those and the Lenore movements, the other pieces here are To (one of two that Poe wrote with the same two-letter title), Intermezzo, El Dorado, A Dream within a Dream, and To Helen (again, one of the two of that title). The Poe cycle, its rhythms attractive but its subject matter ranging from the dour to the abstruse, contrasts well with Two Songs from Mountain Interval by Laurie Altman (born 1944) – because Altman’s settings are of poems by Robert Frost, whose distinct sensibilities are quite different from Poe’s (although the final words of The Sound of Trees, “I shall be gone,” are enigmatic enough). Baritone Elem Eley and pianist J.J. Penna do a fine job together in bringing out the intricacies of the settings of the Poe and Frost poems – Eley seems to have a strong affinity for the cadences of both poets. The performances are also fine in the other works on this CD on the Affetto label. Daron Eric Hagen (born 1961) brings some of the dramatic sense that he includes in his opera libretti to settings of poems by Philip Larkin, and he arranges those poems interestingly, into a kind of suite for voice and piano that designates two of the settings as interludes and presents the eight others as four pairs. Larkin’s poetry lends itself well to this arrangement of connectedness – while, in contrast, the Three Dickinson Songs set by Martin Hennessy stand better on their own as individual pieces. Hennessy has his own involvement with Poe – he wrote a musical called Edgar, based on The Tell-Tale Heart – and he is sensitive to the nuances of Dickinson’s poetry as well, with all three brief poems set here receiving careful arrangements that go well with the words. Indeed, one of these poems has distinctly Poe-esque overtones: Let down the bars, O Death! Taken as a whole, this is a (+++) release whose well-crafted settings are generally workmanlike rather than inspired. There is little in these contemporary art songs that will likely disappoint listeners already familiar with the poems, but also little that will deepen their understanding of the poetry or significantly enhance their enjoyment of it.
September 24, 2015
Skip School, Fly to Space: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The Berenstain Bears: When I Grow Up. By Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The Berenstain Bears Are SuperBears! By Mike Berenstain. Harper. $16.99.
There are many ways to try to get kids interested in books and their special method of communicating in our video-saturated age, and plenty of different approaches to take – depending on what authors and publishers want to communicate. Most of the material in Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strip exists for purely comedic purposes, and much of the strip is dark, sarcastic and very much of the adult world (with smoking, beer drinking and other behaviors that no one wants to encourage in kids). This makes the inclusion of Pastis’ material in Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Comics for Kids series rather problematic – but doggone it, a lot of what Pastis creates really is funny, and just wry enough to amuse kids and maybe help them see the world around them a bit differently from the way they did before they encountered Pig, Rat, Goat, the always inept crocodiles, and Pastis’ other poorly drawn but immediately recognizable characters. Hence we have Skip School, Fly to Space, whose title is taken from the very last strip in the book – one of the more thought-provoking ones Pastis has produced. In it, the ever-playful and ever-optimistic Pig invites neighbor boy Willy into a cardboard box “to fly to Mars,” but Willy explains that he cannot play, because he has to study to do super-well in school to get into a super-good college to work super-hard for a super-long time and make a super-large amount of money so he can have a super-comfortable retirement for “maybe…a couple years left before I die.” Then there is a wordless panel, with Pig and Willy considering the implications of what Willy has laid out for life, and the final (also wordless) panel has the two of them heading off in the cardboard “Rockitt Ship.” Clearly this is not a suggestion that kids should skip school – it is Pastis’ way of sneaking some perspective on life into a strip that often seems to lack it. And it is well-placed at the end of the book, since young readers by then will have absorbed a lot of other Pastis material, such as the sad tale of “Kiko, the lonely cactus,” whose spines prevent anyone from giving him the hugs he wants; Rat’s erection of a “cool fence” for himself and a much smaller “uncool fence” for Pig; croc dad Larry’s suggestion that his son could dissect a frog for class much more quickly by using a blender; Pig’s creation of an “Internet happy box” that escapes online meanness because it is “not hooked up to anything and you can’t communicate with anyone and it’s dark”; the hapless crocs’ attempt to create their own Fantastic Four, even though there are only three of them, and (in a separate sequence) the crocs’ attack on the all-knowing force known as “Da Google”; and much more. There are a few misfirings in this collection, such as a strip in which “J. Rutherford Shrimp” wants Pig and Goat to sign a petition giving shrimp their rights, including the right not to be eaten simply because they are tasty – at which point Pig eats him (which is out of character: it is something Rat would do, but does not really fit Pig’s personality). By and large, though, this selection of Pearls Before Swine strips is both funny and occasionally insightful, and manages to convey the overall spirit of Pastis’ work without including any of its beer-and-smoking elements and not even having very much death in it – quite an accomplishment, since Pastis is noted for killing off characters as casually as he disposes of J. Rutherford Shrimp.
There is nothing remotely like the sensibilities of Pearls Before Swine in the long-running Berenstain Bears sequence, which has been around for more than half a century and is now handled by Mike Berenstain. The humor in Berenstain Bears books is always gentle if it is present at all, and the books’ avowed purpose is to teach, inform and instruct as well as entertain. Unfortunately, they tend to become preachy and to overdo some of the instructional elements, and Mike Berenstain is even more prone to these flaws than were Stan and Jan Berenstain, who started the series – not that the creators of this family of bears would consider the preachiness a problem. The pluses and minuses of the Berenstain Bears books are equally apparent in two new (+++) entries, When I Grow Up and The Berenstain Bears Are SuperBears! The first of these simply has Brother and Sister Bear riding around with Professor Actual Factual and his nephew, Ferdy, to see all the jobs available in Bear Country. Things are, however, laid on a touch too thickly, as usual. For instance, the professor offers to give Brother and Sister a ride, then says they “can use my cell phone to ask your mama and papa” – which, all right, is a small manners lesson and perhaps especially useful in our can’t-be-too-careful age. But then, on the very next page, the professor calls Mama and Papa a second time about taking a little longer with Brother and Sister so he can show them various jobs – and that really is overdoing the “phone home” safety angle. Also overdone are the job portrayals themselves – not because they are simplified, which is inevitable in a short picture book, but because virtually everyone doing virtually every job is smiling all the time, even including almost all the firefighters and paramedics battling a blaze and doing rescues. Construction workers smile; farmers smile; doctors smile; painters, mechanics, road crews – everyone smiles. And then comes the final suggestion: that doing “the job of a parent…may be about the most important job there is!” All right, yes, fine, this is good to know and good to say – but it is all just a bit overstated and overemphasized, as is often the case in Berenstain Bears books.
Things are slightly different in The Berenstain Bears Are SuperBears! That is because this is an entry in the “I Can Read!” series – specifically a Level 1 book, featuring “simple sentences for eager new readers.” So there is less overt preachiness here, although some lesson-learning is certainly implied. The setup is that Brother likes to pretend to be Bat Bear and Sister pretends to be Spider Bear; little Honey is their sidekick, Cubby Bear. The three pretend that the adults they see doing everyday things are baddies who need to be stopped: the mail carrier is “Dr. Sleezo,” the trash collectors are evil Space Grizzlies, someone repairing power lines is “the mad villain Joker Bear,” and so on. Every “bad guy” accepts what the young bears say, plays along, and even talks like a stereotypical villain: “Curses. Foiled again!” Then the “SuperBears” encounter a more-mundane matter when a neighbor cub falls while riding a bike and hurts his knee. Brother, Sister and Honey help get him home and patched up, the cub’s mom says they really are super, and of course everything ends happily, the lesson being that “super-ness” begins at home and in small, everyday ways. That is actually not a bad thing to learn, even if it is told here in a somewhat overdone manner – but overdoing in the name of teaching goodness is integral to a lot of the reaching-out of the Berenstain Bears books .
Brain Games: The Mind-Blowing Science of Your Amazing Brain. By Jennifer Swanson. National Geographic Kids. $12.99.
As a book that combines basic physiological science with the highly visual orientation and continual interactivity that seem to be de rigueur for today’s books for young readers, it would be hard to beat Brain Games. Jennifer Swanson neatly mixes easy-to-try but less-than-easy-to-explain material – then explains things, if not always easily, then with clarity and style. “What exactly is happening?” is the repeated question here, leading into explanations of why we perceive and interpret things the way we do – that is, why the brain, the body’s control center, creates particular perceptions under particular conditions.
Thus, Swanson asks readers to stare at a picture of yellow and red flowers and determine which seem to be coming out of the page, as if in 3-D. Of course, neither flower type is really three-dimensional, but one seems to be. What exactly is happening? “Our eyes can’t see in 3-D. They only see in 2-D, or width and height. Your brain adds the depth.” And this leads to brief discussions of binocular vision, eye location in animals, how 3-D glasses work, and more. Swanson makes no attempt at completeness, which would scarcely be possible in a short (112-page) book dealing with a large subject, although some omitted elements would have been fun to include – for example, a picture and explanation of Old World chameleons, whose eyes rotate and focus independently, in the section on eye placement.
The chameleon is not here, but what is here connects with the intended young readership with clarity and in a genuinely interesting way. Brain Games tells kids what causes déjà vu (“something in the new place or action triggers an old memory”); how to improve their mood (“if you make yourself smile, in a few seconds you will start to feel happy”); how many muscles are needed to swing a baseball bat (“more than 15 different muscle actions”); why shaking your head back and forth makes you feel dizzy (“sometimes the information from the eyes, inner ear, or cerebellum gets mixed up”); and a great deal more. The use of the word “cerebellum” is noteworthy: Brain Games includes proper scientific names for brain sections and other body parts, although it does not dwell on jargon – and Swanson is careful to give the correct pronunciations of unfamiliar terms (usually: “cerebellum” is given as “sair-uh-bell-um,” as if no syllable is accented, when it should be “sair-uh-BELL-um”).
What is especially attractive in Brain Games is the way Swanson mixes the mundane activities of everyday life with information that sheds light on some unusual aspects of the human body. For example, she discusses the huge number of adjustments the brain must make every second in order to make it possible to swim, ice skate or play the violin. This leads to a discussion of the way the brain takes shortcuts through information stored in the unconscious mind; and this in turn gives Swanson an opening to explain how parts of the brain work together: “Both unconscious and conscious actions travel through the motor cortex, but the unconscious actions are planned in the parietal lobe.” And before the scientific elements become overdone, Swanson explains in this section – adjacent to a brief discussion of how pain “can stop us dead in our tracks” – that “there are no pain receptors in the brain, so your brain can feel no pain.” Intriguing facts like this are well-sprinkled throughout Brain Games, helping give the book an interest level akin to that of a “fascinating trivia” tome as well as that of an introductory science/anatomy work.
Brain Games could sometimes use a little tweaking to be even more effective. The section on the conscious and unconscious mind, for example, refers to Freud’s comparison of the mind to an iceberg, with the conscious mind being the visible part and the unconscious being, as it were, under water and therefore not perceivable by us (at least when we are awake). However, Swanson never says forthrightly that the below-water portion of an iceberg is about nine times as big as the visible part. Understanding that the unconscious is far larger and broader than the conscious mind is important to knowing how we function in everyday life and is a major reason Freud chose the metaphor – but while Swanson does refer to “the large iceberg underneath the water,” the scale of the relationship between visible and invisible, or conscious and unconscious, is never stated clearly.
Most flaws in Brain Games, however, are minor, and do not detract from Swanson’s skill in presenting scientifically accurate information in an attractive and simple way, but for the most part not too simplistically. And the book’s title makes sense despite the overall seriousness of the presentation, because there really are “brain games” included: Swanson calls them “Brain Breaks,” and they include optical illusions, pictures that can be seen different ways depending on how you look at them, anagrams, and word puzzles such as deciphering the meaning of “i right i” (“right between the eyes”). Interspersed with discussions about competitiveness, stress, emotions, decision-making, multitasking and much more, these “think about it” activities help young readers exercise their brains while learning about them – resulting in a first-rate combination of facts and fun.
Raising Your Spirited Child, 3rd Edition: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic. By Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D. William Morrow. $17.99.
We live in an age when every bug is a feature. Nothing is supposed to be “wrong” anymore, just “part of the package.” OK, perhaps that is not entirely true when it comes to computers, where the whole bug/feature debate has raged for years, but it is most assuredly true when it comes to human beings. There is no such thing as hyperactivity or over-intense inward focus in children anymore – instead there is “spiritedness,” as in the title of Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child.
On one level, this is a very good thing. Growing up, in this or any age, is difficult enough for children without their being typecast by other kids, adults, and “the system” of school and healthcare. It is all too easy to dismiss a child when one can label him or her “hyperactive” and prescribe Ritalin or some other psychoactive drug to tamp things down. It is much harder to see the “spirited” personality as whole and integrated in and of itself and to handle it accordingly. And parents of children with this personality, however it may be labeled and however it may manifest itself, need all the help they can get, as Kurcinka makes clear in the latest edition of her well-thought-out book.
On the other hand, the “spirited” label reeks of political correctness run amok, and hasn’t there really been enough PC-ism already? It is very difficult to draw the line between a child whose personality lies outside the norm in terms of intensity and one who lies so far outside the norm that some sort of medical intervention (through mental-health counseling if not with drugs) really is indicated. But drawing such a line is extremely important, because all the “mainstreaming” in the world will not help kids who are genuinely hyperactive or severely withdrawn – nor will it help their parents. And it is distinctly detrimental to other children who must interact with a hyperactive child and who get less attentive treatment and less help with their own needs because there is, after all, only so much time and effort available to a given adult in a given day, and the “spirited” child takes up a disproportionate amount of it.
Kurcinka’s generally no-nonsense, well-considered approach does smack a bit too much of political correctness – not for parents of “spirited” children, perhaps, but for parents and kids who may encounter the “spirited” child or happen upon this book. The underlying theme here is a kind of raising of self-esteem for “spirited” kids and their families: “labels spoken and unspoken” can be deleterious, parents of “spirited” kids must be “empowered” to redefine who they and their children are in the face of a lack of understanding and empathy from others, and so on. Although admirable for parents facing everyday life with “spirited” children, this approach smacks a bit too much of entitlement to be fully comfortable for those who do not have such children but must interact with the “spirited” ones. Calling “spirited” children “more than normal” does not help matters: it tries to counter others’ perception of there being something “wrong” with the “spirited” child by denigrating “non-spirited” ones, and there is nothing admirable about that.
Most of the book, though, is better than this, thank goodness. Parents with “spirited” children really do need a way to cope with a kind of manic-depressive everyday family dynamic, in which the “spirited” child may deliver outsize joy one day and equally outsize trouble the next (or even later on the same day). The most valuable part of Kurcinka’s book is Part Two, “Working with Spirit,” whose 10 chapters deal in some detail with intensity, meltdowns, persistence, sensitivity, distractibility, adaptability and other major issues. Again and again, Kurcinka states, “As you work to understand your spirited child, you also need to understand yourself,” emphasizing the importance of knowing yourself in order to know and interact with your child in the ways that will be most appropriate for your own health and well-being. It is easy for a parent to forget to take care of himself or herself in the everyday intensity of raising a “spirited” child, and Kurcinka’s reminder that self-care matters as much as child care is important – even if her comments on the importance of addressing your own needs do not always connect with reality (it sounds fine to say adults should have uninterrupted conversations and time for lovemaking, but between the press of work and the intensity of child-rearing, which is even greater for “spirited” children than for others, these good-sounding notions can easily turn into pipe dreams). Kurcinka’s reminder that parents do not “make” their children “spirited” is welcome, and her suggestion to reach out to relatives and friends for help is a good one, provided that relatives live nearby and/or friends are close enough emotionally and geographically to be brought into the family dynamic – again, the reality of life may not be quite as neat as Kurcinka wants it to be.
Although not all the suggestions and prescriptions in Raising Your Spirited Child will be practical for all families, and some families will be hard-put to implement any of them at all, one thing that Kurcinka urges makes especially good sense. And that is to celebrate your child – not his or her “differentness,” but the positive aspects of his or her outsize personality. This is not necessarily easy – Kurcinka speaks at one point, almost poetically, of “spirited” children who are “drenched in their perceptions or fired by their intensity.” But it is important, perhaps even more important in the case of “spirited” children than in others, that parents accept their kids for who and what they are and provide them with a safe haven. They will likely need it as they learn that people outside their families, including adults as well as children, simply will not give them the levels of attention and sufferance that Kurcinka says are important for “spirited” children to have in order to reach their full potential and function within society as they grow toward and into adulthood. “Establish Realistic Expectations,” as one chapter subheading says – and those must include the expectation that other people will not bend over backwards to accommodate the special needs of “spirited” children, no matter how “PC” it may be to demand that they do so. The strength of these children, like that of all young people, must ultimately come from within – after being formed and guided by parents who can provide them with much more time and special attention than the rest of the world can or will.
American Originals: Songs by Stephen Foster and other works. Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by John Morris Russell. Fanfare Cincinnati. $16.99.
The Genius of Film Music: Hollywood Blockbusters 1960s to 1980s. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 31 (“Hornsignal”), 70 and 101 (“The Clock”). Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
There is not the slightest requirement that music be profound in order to be enjoyable – quite the opposite, in fact. Much enjoyable music is determinedly surface-level and straightforward, not only in the pop-music world (which is built almost entirely on superficiality) but also in classical music. After all, no matter how wonderful the works of Vienna’s Strauss family were, the basic purpose of the pieces was to be danceable and melodious. So no apology is necessary for the enjoyment listeners will receive from a new Cincinnati Pops recording of arrangements of Stephen Foster songs, released on the orchestra’s own label. The 17 tracks here include Foster’s most-popular, most-loved tunes (even though the songs’ words, written largely for 19th-century minstrel and blackface shows, have often been amended in recent times in accordance with modern sensibilities). There are arrangements of O! Susannah, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, My Old Kentucky Home, Old Folks at Home (“Swanee River”), Beautiful Dreamer and Camptown Races. There is also some less-known Foster here, and it is particularly delightful to hear the less-often-performed music of this first great American songwriter: Slumber My Darling; Ring, Ring de Banjo (the third word here given as “the”); Hard Times Come Again No More; and Why No One to Love? The more than 200 songs by Foster (1826-1864) are honored here in true modern musical-crossover style, with the orchestra under John Morris Russell joined by Rosanne Cash, Aoife O’Donovan, Joe Henry, Don Flemons and other performers – and with Foster’s music complemented on this live recording by spirituals and other works deemed quintessentially American, which means the disc includes Amazing Grace, Rolling River: Sketches on Shenandoah, Kumbaya, Aura Lee, Foster’s Folly, Red River Valley, and The Battle Cry of Freedom. Warmly and enthusiastically played throughout, this is music that often tugs at the heartstrings, especially if listeners know the original lyrics (to My Old Kentucky Home, for example), but whose poignancy is at the service of a generally upbeat upwelling of emotion.
The emotions intended to be conveyed or reinforced by film music (such as warmth, joy, and pathos rather than tragedy) are in some ways quite similar to those associated with Foster’s works. In other ways, film scores must be created in the same way as certain great ballets: the music for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, for example, was constructed according to the needs of the choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, just as film music is developed according to the needs of the director. The visual elements in both cases come first and are dominant. Tchaikovsky’s music has long outlasted the ballet’s original staging, but standalone film music, even by great composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, has a more checkered history. The reason is that even when film scores are at their best, they are intended as part of a multimedia experience – one in which the visual element dominates and drives everything else. Still, the new London Philharmonic Orchestra recording on the orchestra’s own label shows just how worthy certain film scores can be – although in all cases, familiarity with the movie for which the score was written will enhance the effectiveness of John Mauceri’s well-paced conducting. The nine composers represented on this two-CD set are among the best-known names in Hollywood film-music history: Alex North (Cleopatra Symphony), Nino Rota (The Godfather: A Symphonic Portrait), Franz Waxman (Taras Bulba: The Ride of the Cossacks), Bernard Herrman (Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra), Bronislaw Kaper (Mutiny on the Bounty), Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The New Enterprise), Ennio Morricone (Once Upon a Time in America: Deborah’s Theme), Maurice Jarré (Lawrence of Arabia: Lawrence and the Desert), and Alfred Newman (the very brief 20th Century Fox Fanfare). The shorter pieces here are often the most evocative: Waxman’s and Morricone’s pieces are highly effective even for listeners unfamiliar with the films. The longer works essentially compress their movies’ stories, or parts of them, and depend more on listeners’ knowing what the films were about (although there is no question what type of film Herrman, for one, was writing for). Much recent film music is quite forgettable; some, notably the John Williams score for the original Star Wars, deserves to stand with the great film scores, even if not quite at the level of, say, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. But greatness or long-term popularity has never been the primary point of film music: it is designed to enhance moviegoing, and as this LPO release shows, can provide pleasant if scarcely soul-stirring experience even outside the theater.
The original venues for Haydn’s symphonies were concert halls, whether at the Esterházy palace or in London for impresario Johann Peter Salomon, and it is worth remembering that these works’ primary purpose was always entertainment: Haydn managed to advance the symphony extensively and in very significant ways, but without the heaven-storming intensity that Beethoven (Haydn’s onetime pupil) brought to the form in ushering in the Romantic era. Haydn’s works are far from simple but are invariably pleasant, generally light in scoring if not “light” in the sense of communicating only on a surface level. A new Linn Records SACD featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Robin Ticciati offers an unusual combination of Haydn symphonies and in so doing highlights just how distinctive Haydn’s works in this form were. Ticciati is not an especially idiomatic interpreter of Haydn, but the orchestra plays very well indeed and the enthusiasm of conductor and musicians is palpable. This is especially so in Symphony No. 31, the unusually scored “Hornsignal,” which in addition to four horns calls for a solo flute and pair of oboes and includes solo parts for violin, cello and double bass. This highly inventive work sparkles here, with the horns if anything a touch too bright (natural horns fit this music much better); the gentle Adagio, where solo and pizzicato strings are prominent, comes off especially well. Symphony No. 70 is a rather odd choice for this disc: written in 1779, 14 years after No. 31, it is rarely performed and is generally rather conventional for a work of its time. It is also short – only about 19 minutes – and its longest movement, the Andante, is rather cold. Austere scoring and contrapuntal structure are this work’s hallmarks. Ticciati leads it in rather workmanlike fashion – there is nothing particularly distinctive in his approach, although the playing is again first-rate. Symphony No. 101, the popular “Clock” of 1794, fares better, the contrast between the rather eerie opening of the first movement and the bright main section handled very well, and the tick-tock sound in the second movement (whence the work’s nickname) given in proper context and not overemphasized. The dramatic closing of the symphony is rousing and attractive, and the overall impression of this recording is the happy one of musicians having as good a time with the music as Haydn intended his audience to have.
Schumann: Dichterliebe; Schubert: Songs—Du bist die Ruh; Die Forelle; Frühlingsglaube; Gretchen am Spinnrade; Nacht und Träume; Beethoven: Adelaide. Andrew Parker, oboe; Alan Huckleberry, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on the Bare Mountain; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 3; Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1; Prelude for left hand alone, Op. 9, No. 1. Alessio Bax, piano. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Bartók: 14 Bagatelles; Two Romanian Dances; 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs; Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs; Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from “Mikrokosmos.” Terry Eder, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
There are several specific classical forms in which works sound like songs and may even be overtly songlike, but do not include words. Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, written from 1829 to 1845 and presented in six volumes, are well-known and have been often imitated; here the title indicates a songlike approach to music that never had a vocal element but sounds as if it could, perhaps even should, have one. Then there is the concept of vocalise, presented (for example) in Rachmaninoff’s Op. 34, No. 14, and in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, in which a singer is present but his and/or her voice is treated entirely as an instrument, producing sounds but no words – narrative is absent, but this is very clearly singing. A new MSR Classics release featuring oboist Andrew Parker offers wordless singing of a different sort, through transcriptions for oboe and piano of music originally intended to be sung. Whether the oboe is the instrument that best approximates the human voice is a matter of opinion – arguments could be made for the clarinet, cello, even French horn – but attempting to duplicate vocal sounds through the oboe is not the point here. Instead, Parker and pianist Alan Huckleberry offer thoughtful, emotionally involving interpretations of works whose storytelling was always uppermost in their composers’ minds but that communicate effectively even in the absence of words. Or at least the pieces are effective in this form for listeners who know the originals. A point worth repeating is one famously made by Leonard Bernstein, to the effect that music does not mean anything – a statement he backed up amusingly in his Young People’s Concerts by playing some of Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote and telling the audience that it was all about Superman, which indeed made as much sense as the work’s original program. In an analogous vein, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a 16-song cycle with specific material to communicate from a longer set of poems by Heinrich Heine, does not tell any specific story as heard here. Yet lack of knowledge of the narrative material does nothing to diminish the fine quality of Parker’s and Huckleberry’s playing and nothing to reduce the emotional involvement to which they invite listeners – but Dichterliebe does not mean anything in this form; it is simply a collection of brief oboe-and-piano pieces that collectively make for pleasant but not exceptionally telling listening. Similarly, Beethoven’s 1795 proto-Romantic song Adelaide loses something in its transformation to an oboe-and-piano piece: its oddly ecstatic final stanza, in which the poet exults over his coming death and transfiguration, makes an effective capstone for the work as heard on oboe and piano, but, again, it does not mean anything: it is simply a march that caps earlier, more dreamy material. It is the five well-known Schubert songs that come across best as oboe-and-piano works, perhaps because Schubert himself led the way from song to instrumental work by building the famous “Trout” quintet around Die Forelle. Listeners who know this original song or its quartet version will find the Parker-Huckleberry transcription quite appealing, and indeed, all of these Schubert songs sing forth here with delicacy, lyricism and a kind of compelling purity. They no longer say what Schubert intended them to say, it is true, but they do speak out pleasantly and emotionally.
Singing was much on Scriabin’s mind in regard to his Piano Sonata No. 3. After initially calling this sonata “Gothic,” he later rethought what he was trying to communicate and declared it to represent “States of the Soul.” The soul wants to sing and flourish, he wrote of the second movement, and there is a song of triumph prominent in the fourth and final movement. Indeed, there are songful elements throughout this work, as well as in the Etude and Prelude that accompany it on a new Signum Classics CD featuring pianist Alessio Bax. The poetry and intricate intensity of the Scriabin sonata come through forcefully in Bax’s reading, and although the work ends in defeat, Bax effectively communicates Scriabin’s notion that the failure is only temporary, even if the form of eventual victory is not apparent within the sonata itself. The turbulent colors of Scriabin are well-balanced here by the elegant miniatures of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which Bax handles less as a virtuoso showpiece than as a vivid visit to an artist’s world – or rather two artists’ worlds, those of Mussorgsky and of Viktor Hartmann. The contrasts between the lighter, piquant pictures and the darker, dour ones are brought forth particularly well here, with the final Great Gate of Kiev a potent capstone for the work. Also on this CD is Night on the Bare Mountain, which Bax himself has here edited and arranged. On the piano, this orchestral showpiece inevitably loses some of the brilliant characterization that Mussorgsky achieved through instrumentation and Rimsky-Korsakov (in the best-known version) subsequently polished and moderated. But the anarchic pleasures of the earlier parts of the work come through especially well under Bax’s hands, and the tone poem as a whole retains a kind of craggy beauty.
In the case of the songs underlying piano works by Bartók on a new CD from MSR Classics, the original sung texts are absent by design: the songs are building blocks used by the composer as some of his studies, elaborations and explorations of folk music. What Terry Eder plays here is an entire disc of miniatures: the CD runs 78 minutes and includes 45 tracks. No individual song or element stands out from the others or is intended to: Bartók’s aim in all the works heard here was to express himself through folk music while at the same time utilizing the generally simple tunes and harmonies of folk material to produce works of greater emotional compass and impact than folk tunes themselves possess. Thus, the 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs and Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs take off from simple material and sometimes present it more-or-less straightforwardly while at other times offering it in expanded, more-complex form. The songs that form the basis of these works are neither more nor less foundational to Bartók’s construction of the pieces than the dances that underlie Two Romanian Dances and Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm. The danceable elements remain present in these works, although not always on the surface, but the composer’s purpose here is the creation and use of a compositional method focusing on folk elements without being fully beholden to them. This makes the works sound academic, however, and that is not at all how they sound in Eder’s performances, which are light and lithe when they should be and strongly accented and emphasized when that is the appropriate approach. The most interesting piece on the CD is 14 Bagatelles, which shows a transitional stage in Bartók’s compositions as he sought to use more Eastern European folk music in his works and also incorporated some of the influences of Debussy. There is a distinctly modern sound here, even though 14 Bagatelles is early Bartók (Op. 6, 1908). Experimental harmonic passages are frequent throughout these character pieces, and Eder does a fine job of exploring the modern-sounding elements while also staying true to the essentially folklike material on which Bartók built this work.