April 23, 2015
King of the Comics: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Big Nate’s Greatest Hits. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Whoever came up with the idea that comics are for kids never encountered strips such as Pearls Before Swine, Stephan Pastis’ compilation of death, misery, beer, innuendo, bad puns and surrealism (the fact that Pastis was trained as a lawyer probably contributes to that mixture). Pearls Before Swine is distinctly not for children, and in fact, when Andrews McMeel put together some of Pastis’ strips for its kid-focused AMP! Series, it was hard to believe that the editors could find enough young-person-oriented material to make a book. Certainly the latest Pastis collection, King of the Comics, needs to be rated “mature” for its sheer immaturity – of an adult type, that is. It starts with virtually the entire cast of the strip being put in jail for one reason or another (one being that Zebra and one of the crocs are found in bed together by a police officer who says “this has to be illegal in some state”). Interspersed with the jail strips are ones in which lemmings are committing suicide in various creative ways. Later, cartoon Pastis – who frequently appears in his own strip – is melted by a bucket of water that Rat throws at him because of a particularly awful pun. Also here are a battle between an orchestra’s first and second violinists, a parody of the heartwarming “Shelter Stories” from the Mutts comic strip, a new character named Gomer Goldfish whose violent tendencies lead to a barbed-wire fence atop his bowl, Rat’s definition of a cruise vacation as “being trapped in a confined space with overweight people [and] broken toilets,” a pair of “peppy penguin morning greeters” with a banjo, a Jumble puzzle whose solution mocks Pastis as having no sense of humor, a series in which the title characters from Calvin and Hobbes have become a bootleg-merchandise seller and a fanatical right-wing TV commentator, Rat taking his pet human to be neutered, a couple of appearances by vigilante deer, cartoon Pastis drawing the missing nose on cartoon Cathy, Rat declaring himself a medical doctor – you get the idea, or if you don’t get it by now, Pearls Before Swine is probably not your sort of strip. Pastis’ humor is dark, skewed, strange, pointed, sometimes right on the verge of vulgar, and offbeat enough to keep readers off balance, without any way to predict where he and the strip will go next. Pearls Before Swine somehow manages to be thoroughly adult and completely immature at the same time. That’s probably another aspect of Pastis’ legal training.
The kids who do appear in Pastis’ world are scarcely childlike – one, for example, proposes that her basketball team be named the Chandraguptas, after “a great emperor in India who voluntarily gave up all his power to become a monk.” But kids in other strips manage to remain recognizably kid-like, which means that strips such as Big Nate continue the long comic tradition of reaching out to younger readers. They also fit much better than Pearls Before Swine does into the AMP! Format, as is clear from Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City, the latest AMP! collection from Lincoln Peirce (pronounced “purse”). Nate is a sixth-grader, age 11 or 12 (depending on which strips he happens to be in), and is clearly modeled in part on Peirce himself: Peirce says he started drawing cartoons in sixth grade, just as Nate does. Unfortunately, Say Good-Bye to Dork City does not contain any “Nate-drawn” cartoons. But it does offer plenty of typical Nate antics: he dresses as Sherlock Holmes (complete with bubble-blowing pipe) to search for his allegedly stolen lucky (and filthy) socks; he gets permission for his band, Enslave the Mollusk, to perform at a school dance (things do not go as planned); he finds himself in conflict, as usual, with his feckless father and his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey (and even with her dog); his friend, Francis, uses him as an object lesson in a science project designed to show that some people’s brains retain certain kinds of information (lots of pop trivia) but cannot absorb other types (anything school-related); and he joins the “cool kids” posse of super-popular Marcus, then backs out after realizing Marcus is just a bully and not as cool as Nate’s real friends, Francis and Teddy. That last sequence is an example of the infrequent “lesson” ones in Big Nate, which usually just chronicles the foibles of a not-quite-adolescent with an inflated view of himself but a basically good heart and some genuine talents (such as chess) that help counterbalance his lack of interest in academic subjects.
Some of Nate’s talents are front and center in Big Nate’s Greatest Hits, but they do not always take him where he wants to go – which is, of course, the point. Nate, for example, is a cut-throat Monopoly player, but when he urges Francis and Teddy to be more intense in their play, they decide to team up to bankrupt him. Nate announces that he has a bond with Vincent Van Gogh, in whose style he is painting, but then Francis points out that Van Gogh was “an emotionally troubled misfit who was a total failure during his lifetime.” Nate gets over 100 people to sign his yearbook, but doesn’t notice that they have done such things as getting his name wrong and writing “Dear Ugly.” But things do go Nate’s way sometimes – otherwise Big Nate would be depressing rather than as amusing as it actually is. In Big Nate’s Greatest Hits, Nate actually gets a girlfriend, whose name is Angie. True, he only meets her when he has to go to summer school because his grades are so poor (she is attending because she has just moved to the area and needs to catch up). It turns out that she loves to draw, so she and Nate connect immediately: he shows her characters such as Doctor Cesspool, stuntman Moe Mentum, and announcers Biff and Chip, and she observes that “they all look like the same character, just with different hair” – which makes Nate happy (“she sees right through me”). Of course, Nate and Angie have rough spots because of his self-image (he lies to her about why he is in summer school, for example), but giving Nate an actual girlfriend (someone to take his mind off perpetual crush Jennie, who is tremendously happy to find Nate paired with someone else) is a neat twist here. The book also gives fans of Nate’s cartoon characters (even the ones that do sort of look alike) plenty of chances to see them – not only the ones he shows Angie but also Dr. Warren Fuzzy (host of “Feelings”), Nate’s big sister Ellen (drawn in “Ellen: The Board Game”), Abe Lincoln (refusing to take off his stovepipe hat while courting Mary Todd), Dan Cupid (“love consultant”), Claire Voyant (“celebrity psychic”), and on and on. Excluding these comics-within-comics, Nate and the characters around him – friends, family, neighbors, classmates, teachers, etc. – are the stuff of which many comic strips have been made over the years. But Peirce manages to keep the formula fresh, the interactions interesting, and Nate himself an example of a character with whom today’s young comic-strip readers can enjoy spending time – at least until they are ready to encounter Pastis’ Rat, Pig, Goat, Guard Duck and crocs.
Shivers! The Pirate Who’s Afraid of EVERYTHING. By Annabeth Bondor-Stone and Connor White. Illustrated by Anthony Holden. Harper. $12.99.
Willy Maykit in Space. By Greg Trine. Illustrations by James Burks. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $13.99.
Amelia Bedelia 6: Amelia Bedelia Cleans Up. By Herman Parish. Pictures by Lynne Avril. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $4.99.
Sometimes the fun of a book is less in the plot than in the strange, amusing, silly and/or offbeat characters. It is the peculiarity of Shivers the boy pirate (age 11) and his faithful companion Margo (age 10) that makes Shivers! The Pirate Who’s Afraid of EVERYTHING so enjoyable – not the thin and largely predictable story, which it is easy to believe is based on an idea from a nine-year-old boy (the authors actually say that, crediting a boy name Harrison Blanz for the book’s concept). Shivers is a landlubber of a pirate, living in a permanently beached pirate ship while his brave pirate parents and bold pirate brother sail the seas having piratical adventures. But parents and brother alike have been captured, and only Shivers can save them. So he gets together with Margo, daughter of Police Chief Clomps’n’Stomps, and the two set off to rescue Shivers’ family – which they do. That’s the whole plot, but it matters little, since the real attraction here is finding out just how terrified Shivers is of absolutely everything: pumpkins, because of the size of their seeds; clouds, because they look like cute fluffy pillows but can generate killing electricity; pepperoni pizza, which Shivers calls “deadly spotted cheese bread”; and more. Lots more. But Shivers is not afraid of his best friend, Albee the fish (who in one scene of the story has a crucial part to play). More to the point, he realizes he is not afraid of Margo, even when she makes scary faces at him. So maybe he can rescue his family after all! Well, of course he can, although there is a small matter of his fear of snails that gets in the way – that is, until it becomes a solution rather than a problem. Annabeth Bondor-Stone and Connor White have a great time piling absurdity on absurdity here, and the illustrations by Anthony Holden are a hoot – such as the one of Shivers doing song-and-dance time, with a grand piano in the background and a huge grin on his face, while wearing bunny slippers (one of which also eventually has an important part to play). Throw in a giant squid, some sharks with surprisingly good taste, a pirate opponent called Captain Pokes-You-in-the-Eye, and a very French master criminal, and Shivers! The Pirate Who’s Afraid of EVERYTHING turns out to be too funny to be one of a kind – readers who enjoy Shivers and Margo will surely want to see more of them.
Readers who prefer a cosmic sort of silliness may gravitate (ha, ha) to Willy Maykit in Space, in which Greg Trine comes up with passages like this: “Willy and his companions had no idea that there was a monster out there who wanted revenge. They knew there were monsters out there, sure. And they knew that they roamed around at night, looking for things to eat. But they had no idea that it was personal.” It seems that Willy has gotten himself stranded on Planet Ed during a fourth-grade field trip: the return-to-Earth ship leaves without him. It also leaves without his classmate, Cindy, who realized he was missing and, instead of telling anyone, decided to go looking for him – ending up stranded herself (logic and rationality matter not at all in character-driven books like this one). The two soon encounter and befriend an alien boy named Norp, and the three of them set off on outer-space adventures that also involve Max, an android pilot (not a very good one) with a strong preference for knock-knock jokes. Also involved is Phelps, “a bird, or whatever you call things that fly on Planet Ed.” While all this is going on, Willy’s dad, Mr. Maykit, is being held captive in the Amazon jungle on Earth by a tribe of foothunters, “and now they were staring at his feet even more than usual.” So there are several escapes, or escapes-in-progress, here. One specific monster on Planet Ed is a serious problem, though: “He’d been pooped on by a seagull, shunned by his own kind, and he’d missed the annual Monster Ball. This was one angry beast.” To see just how angry, readers need only look at James Burks’ pictures, which make this (and other things) abundantly clear. Eventually, everyone escapes from everything, waffles are served all around, and here too, readers may wonder whether there will be further adventures to come.
No such wondering is needed for the child version of Amelia Bedelia, spun off by Herman Parish from the adult version created by his aunt, Peggy Parish. Amelia Bedelia Cleans Up is already the sixth chapter book in Herman Parish’s ongoing series, and while none of the books is up to the quality of the ones by Peggy Parish, each – including this one – offers an enjoyable focus on the central character. The story here, which is as thin as the plots of others in this series (and as thin as the plots of many other character-centered books for young readers), has to do with a search for a clubhouse, maybe even a treehouse. Amelia Bedelia and her friends find what seems like an ideal place: an empty lot with a big tree in the middle. So they get together and start cleaning the lot up. And they do a good job – only to learn that the lot, although vacant, is not simply available to anyone who wants to use it. It is for sale, and of course they cannot afford to buy it. What they can do, it turns out, is prevent possible buyers from being interested in making the purchase – because the girls make comments that make buyers feel the lot is not right for them. This upsets Victor Lee, the man who is trying to sell the lot. He is not the owner, though – that is elderly Mrs. West, whom the girls meet and befriend. They ask her not to sell, but she really needs the money to fix up her house. However, Amelia Bedelia figures out a way for Mrs. West to get money without selling the lot, and Mrs. West decides to donate the land to be made into a park, and everything ends happily – not surprisingly at all. The fun here is supposed to come mainly from Amelia Bedelia’s tendency to take figurative language literally (“ants in my pants,” “hold on to your hat,” and so forth). But the use of such language in these (+++) chapter books seems overdone and forced, not natural as in the Peggy Parish originals. Young readers of Herman Parish’s books may not mind, though, and certainly Lynne Avril’s amiable illustrations help make these books into enjoyable, quick reads whose central character is pleasantly quirky.
The Whisperer. By Fiona McIntosh. Knopf. $16.99.
Genuine Sweet. By Faith Harkey. Clarion. $16.99.
Celestial Battle, Book Two: Demon Child. By Kylie Chan. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
Fantasy novels for preteens and young teenagers frequently take a straightforward coming-of-age path, but not always. Some of them weave elaborate, multi-string plot strands into webs designed to catch young readers’ imagination and keep those readers involved through sheer complexity. The Whisperer, published in Australia in 2009 but only now appearing in a U.S. edition, is decidedly on the side of complexity – but at its heart, it is a kind of the-prince-and-the-pauper story about connected boys who learn only as the story progresses just who they are and just what they mean to each other (and to those around them). One of the boys, Griff, joined the circus with his two brothers when all were quite young; this is a good place for him to do dull manual work, keeping as much to himself as possible, because Griff hears other people’s thoughts and finds it unbearable to be around too many people. An oddity of the plot, though, is that Griff hears thoughts only when they are important to the people thinking them – and that strains credulity even for a fantasy, because how, exactly, does Griff’s telepathic ability know this? In any case, the second boy – the “prince” one – is Lute, who is indeed crown prince of the kingdom of Destronia. Griff and Lute know nothing about each other, but each is in danger – Griff from Master Tyren, who runs the circus and wants to use Griff’s telepathy to make more money, and Lute from his usurping uncle, Janko. Obviously these two boys are going to meet, and they do indeed work their way toward each other after Griff starts hearing Lute’s thoughts, not knowing where they come from but telling himself that they emanate from a “whisperer.” Fiona McIntosh, who has written dozens of adult novels, carefully backs out overly adult themes from The Whisperer, turning it into a quest adventure whose eventual outcome is never really in doubt but whose twists and turns should keep young readers interested. The most involving of those involve subsidiary characters. One is Tess, with whom Griff runs away from the circus – she brings magical creatures with her. Another is a bandit dwarf named Bitter Olof who, in an intriguing twist, used to be tall and strong but had to give up his height to a witch in return for his life. A third is Olof’s former lover, Calico Grace, who had to surrender her beauty for the same reason and now commands a pirate ship – a magical one, no less. Olof and Grace intersect the story of Leto’s escape and are strongly connected to Leto through the person of his friend and bodyguard, Pilo – yet another plot complication. Eventually Griff and Leto find out just why and how they are connected, and that particular plot development is anything but surprising. In fact, few individual elements of The Whisperer are surprises (although the witch taking Olof’s height and Grace’s beauty is a neat concept); but there are so many things going on in the book that readers will be swept along from event to event, peril to peril, enjoying the ups and downs as they try to figure out just what is going to happen before the inevitable (and rather too pat) happy ending.
The magic is specific rather than pervasive in Genuine Sweet, a book whose title is the name of its narrator. She and the other females in her family are “wish fetchers,” living in the small town of Sass, Georgia, which is “full of folks who had family shines. Everyone knew Mina Cunningham was a pain lifter and the Fullers could soothe bad dreams. But granting wishes? That was hanging the basket mighty high.” Yes, that is what wish fetchers can do – but not for themselves, although sometimes “we can nudge the Lord just a little,” as Genuine’s beloved grandmother explains. Genuine – who is 12 and whose middle name, by the way, is Beauty – lives with her perpetually drunk father and her grandmother (Gram), her ma having passed on. Faith Harkey’s book constantly mixes the mundane with the mystical: Genuine and her grandmother bake wish biscuits from a “bag of miracle flour” that is always “just as full as it had been when I first brought it home,” but although the concept of biscuit-making is down-to-earth and homey, it is juxtaposed with New Age-y sounding narration: “The stars were singing. …There came a time that it felt right to raise my cup and whistle down some magic from the stars. It was then that I realized: the light was the song, which was the light. It was more than that, too, but what more, I couldn’t fathom. It was a mystery far bigger than me.” And, when the requests to Genuine from the impoverished townspeople seem too much of a burden for a young girl to bear: “I caught my mirror image in the window and pondered what it might be like to live there, on the distant side of things. Folks couldn’t demand doodly from me; I’d be nothing but a reflection, far away, where things were watery and quiet.” Genuine is clearly wise beyond her years, and more poetic in her thoughts, too. Actually, Harkey is not always sure just how mature to make her – which leads to a passage like this: “This is Travis Tromp! I reminded myself. He could be angry and pushy and – I’ll say it – a little chauvinistic, with all that ‘baby’ stuff. He was as goofy as a snaggletoothed pup, too.” The book proceeds on a standard story arc, with Genuine learning more about herself and her past, then facing a tragic (and unsurprising) loss, then erupting in anger at the unfairness of life, then losing her ability to fetch wishes, but then figuring out how to do something – well, perhaps not better, but equally satisfying, in a different way. This is a pleasant story rather than a profound one, a tale built around magic but told in a rather matter-of-fact manner, as if magic itself is mundane. Being a fantasy, it is scarcely genuine, but it does manage to be sweet.
Complex fantasies are, most assuredly, not only for young readers. In fact, adult-focused fantasies are even more complicated – and a great deal longer – than ones intended for preteens and teenagers. Kylie Chan’s Celestial Battle is typical of the genre. Demon Child is the second book, after Dark Serpent started the trilogy. As is common in adult fantasies, there are paired lovers whose fate is central to much greater matters, such as, in this case, eventual control of Earth and Heaven alike (an absurd premise that seems less so simply because of the frequency with which it is used in adult fantasies). Here the lovers’ names are Emma Donohoe and John Chen, but their names matter little, since they are filling typecast roles and are themselves simply types. Demon Child is so overloaded with mixed metaphors and mixed time periods that it tends to career off the tracks again and again. At one point there is an unintentionally funny scene in which the Dark Lord (“that’s really what he’s called?” asks one character) is in the infirmary during a meeting in which one character keeps switching his age (from 12 to 30) and appearance, and soon there is a comment, “Send the message through the network. Confirm by text when you’re sure that the Masters, Ma, Er Lang and the Winds are informed.” Then there are passages like this: “They took down the Dragon, but obviously they don’t have another cage because he came back almost immediately. They don’t have any of the Winds or the Generals, but there isn’t much left of the army and many of our senior officers are prisoners. The Jade Emperor ordered us to evacuate when Father went down and the cockroach attacked the barricades, so the last of us made it out.” Understand: all this makes sense in Chan’s fantasy world, but there is so much of it, so constantly tossed about and so frequently tumbling over itself with incoherence, that Celestial Battle is a series only for those who want to immerse themselves really, really deeply into an utterly absurd alternative universe filled with demons, opposing armies of Sidhe (pronounced “shee”) and Shen, and many portentous capitalized words: “She was Raised. …Is the Turtle still in the Grotto? …I have the Serpent with me. I’ll be at the Gates of Heaven in about ten minutes. I need a ride from there to the Mountain, as fast as possible.” Certainly Demon Child is the wrong place to start reading as lengthy and overwrought a fantasy as Celestial Battle. Readers who are truly enamored of this sort of magical-romantic-martial-arts story need to start with the first book and work their way onward to this one, and thence to the forthcoming finale.
Idil Biret Schumann Edition. Idil Biret, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit; Borusan Quartet (Esen Kivrak and Olgu Kizilay, violins; Efdal Altun, viola; Çağ Erçağ, cello). IBA. $39.99 (8 CDs).
Rossini: Guillaume Tell. Andrew Foster-Williams, Michael Spyres, Nahuel Di Pierro, Tara Stafford, Raffaele Facciolà, Giulio Pelligra, Artavazd Sargsyan, Marco Filippo Romano, Judith Howarth, Alessandra Volpe; Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań and Virtuosi Brunensis conducted by Antonino Fogliani. Naxos. $49.99 (4 CDs).
All music releases are intended to bring pleasure to listeners, but it would be exaggerating to call most of them significant in themselves. Once in a while, though, there is something truly important about a recording, or set of recordings, and that is the case with the Idil Biret Schumann Edition, an eight-disc package of previously released performances by the Turkish pianist offered as a boxed set by IBA (Idil Biret Archive) at an exceptional price. What makes this important is not the cost, however, but the value. Like any modern virtuoso, Biret is expert at the standard piano repertoire: she can handle Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff with skill and sensitivity. Also like any modern virtuoso, she makes forays into less-often-played works and excels at presenting them: music by Boulez, Ligeti and Wilhelm Kempff (the great pianist who was Biret’s mentor), among others. But beyond the “standards,” Biret has something that sets her apart from other first-rank pianists, and that something is her way with Schumann. Certain Schumann pieces are absolute “musts” for pianists: the Piano Concerto, Kinderszenen and Fantasie in C, Op. 17. And a few others are heard from top pianists from time to time. But Biret performs and records Schumann more extensively – and, significantly, with more attentiveness and involvement – than do most other pianists, and the Idil Biret Schumann Edition is important because it showcases her exceptional way with this composer’s music and her exceptional sensitivity to its many (and frequently conflicting) moods. This shows even in Schumann’s best-known piano music. In the Piano Concerto, for example, Biret opts for slower-than-usual tempos in the first and third movements, with the first in particular seeming to move at an unusually measured pace because of the evenness of Biret’s finger work and her comparatively modest use of pedals. The second movement is lyrical and warm, but not overwrought, while the finale is stately – and grander than in most other performances. It is certainly possible to critique this performance as somewhat over-thought, more intellectual than it needs to be; and this, indeed, is a periodic issue in all Biret’s performances, whose emotive nature sometimes takes a back seat to an analytical approach. But at the same time, this concerto gains stature and solidity with Biret that it rarely attains with other performers. Similarly, Kinderszenen here sounds very definitely like the attempt by an adult to look back on scenes of childhood with a mixture of nostalgia and objectivity. And the Fantasie in C is treated as something akin to (but not quite identical to) a sonata, its differing moods delineated clearly and its final, meditative section given considerable weight and a very effective conclusion.
But it is through the Schumann works that are heard less often that listeners will really come to appreciate Biret’s excellence in this repertoire. The Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92 and Introduction and Concert Allegro, Op. 134 get firm, knowing and involving performances from both Biret and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Antoni Wit (this is a better ensemble than the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra, which is used in the Concerto). The Abegg Variations, Op. 1 are handled with clarity and delicacy throughout. The Toccata, Op. 7 gets full display-piece treatment. The mercurial Sonata No. 2 in G minor is explored throughout its whole variety of moods, right through its concluding faster-and-faster Presto. In Kreisleriana, Biret’s careful attentiveness to the work’s contrasting aspects produces a performance by turns agitated, expressive, stormy, gentle, frenetic and tranquil. Biret is a touch too staid in Blumenstück, which is almost but not quite salon music, but again, she does an excellent job negotiating the work’s shifting moods. Faschingsschwank aus Wien (“Carnival in Vienna”), which is not particularly profound or nuanced, gets a knowing performance that is fully attentive to the work’s melodic charms. The Piano Quintet shows Biret to be quite capable of receding toward (if not quite into) the background when necessary, becoming a full partner with strings in the first two movements before shining forth to begin the third and dominating the discussion through to the work’s end – with the Borusan Quartet being perhaps a touch too deferential to her, but offering fine ensemble support.
And so on and so forth, throughout this entire first-rate set. There are bonuses here, too. One is Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young, Op. 39, a set of 24 short movements (many under a minute) that capture old Russian childhood feelings and memories in elegant miniature – and that are correctly handled by Biret with a mood very different from that of Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Another bonus is Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite, to which Biret brings just the right mixture of sly humor, elegance, and jubilation. And the eighth and last disc in the box is a real treat for Biret fans, including her earliest radio appearances, from 1949 and 1953 (featuring interview segments as well as performances, including a substantial one in 1953 of Bach’s Fantaisie Chromatique et Fugue). Also on this CD is Biret’s 1959 version of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, which contrasts fascinatingly with the version from 2000 heard elsewhere in the set: emphases have changed and there is certainly greater overall subtlety in the later interpretation, but Biret’s musicianship was obviously already very finely honed in 1959, when she was 18 – and, for that matter, she already had excellent musical and performance instincts as far back as 1949, when she was only eight. The Idil Biret Schumann Edition is important for the performances, true, but even more so for the unusually detailed portrait it provides of an expert pianist with genuine affinity for some less-often-performed music that allows her to display her thoughtfulness, analytical ability and innate understanding of a great composer in ways that set her apart from other highly talented modern virtuosi.
The Naxos release of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is an important one for a different reason. Amazingly, there has never before been a complete recording of the sprawling, uncut four-act version of Rossini’s last opera – the work after which he retired to enjoy life, live on a pension (which he ended up having to fight to obtain), and write volume upon volume of Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”) for all sorts of instrumental and vocal combinations. This recording of Guillaume Tell was made from four live performances at the “Rossini in Wildbad” festival in Germany, with a multinational cast that makes up in enthusiasm what it occasionally lacks in sheer vocal heft. Rossini made a whole series of cuts and changes in Guillaume Tell after completing it, understanding the exigencies of theatrical production exceptionally well and having a remarkably ego-free approach to his operas. The result is that much of the music on this four-CD set will be completely unfamiliar to listeners. The opera in its original form is very long indeed – Meyerbeer length, in fact: four hours of music. It is filled with gloriously tuneful material but also with, it must be said, a certain amount of padding and some uninspired material – as, indeed, was the norm in Rossini’s operas. The themes used in the justly renowned overture all have significant roles in the action, and the famous scene in which Tell shoots an arrow through an apple that is on the head of his son, Jemmy, is one of high drama. Storms and calm, hymns to freedom and insistence on obedience, a love story involving two subsidiary characters who become germane and then crucial to the eventual happy outcome (Arnold, representing the oppressed Swiss, and Mathilde, from the oppressing Hapsburgs, who eventually joins Arnold in both love and political solidarity) – all these elements and more tumble over one another through a plot filled with rescues, defiance, lyricism, anger, patriotism and bravado. Guillaume Tell is quite an opera; and yes, it is somewhat over-long, if only because parts of it bog down here and there and because the villain of the piece, Gesler, does not even appear until the third act. The positives of the complete version far outweigh the negatives, however, and the soloists here clearly give their all to the production: if none of them is ne plus ultra, certainly none is inadequate.
Guillaume Tell is an ensemble piece through most of its length – a fact showcased in this recording in a 24-minute supplement on the fourth CD. This includes alternative versions of several numbers and the revised conclusion that Rossini prepared for the three-act version staged in Paris in 1831. In the supplementary material, different singers take some of the roles while the same singers are used in others – an indication of the overall ensemble approach evident throughout the production. Conductor Antonino Fogliani holds things together from start to finish and keeps the work moving at a deliberate, carefully chosen pace that allows the material to unfold naturally without seeming rushed or held back. This middle-of-the-road approach generally serves the opera well, although occasionally a little more fire and intensity would have been welcome. Also welcome would have been a libretto with English translation: Naxos provides an unusually thorough summary of the action in this set’s booklet, but makes only the French-language libretto, untranslated, available online. Since the complete opera has not been recorded before, there is really no readily available source for a complete, translated libretto – although the gist of what is going on is certainly clear from the summary in the booklet. Still, an undertaking as interesting and, yes, important as this one would have been better served by providing listeners with the means to follow exactly what is being said and sung. Nevertheless, this is an important release, allowing opera lovers to hear for the first time just what all the fuss was about when Rossini presented his sprawling, intense, sometimes overdone, highly patriotic final opera – capping a career that spanned two decades but leading to a life in which, for a variety of reasons, there were to be no further operas until the composer’s death 39 years after Guillaume Tell.
Charles Wuorinen: Brokeback Mountain. Daniel Okulitch, Tom Randle, Heather Buck, Hannah Esther Minutillo; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Real de Madrid conducted by Titus Engel. BelAir Classiques DVD. $29.99.
Michael Murray: Five Blake Songs; Four Songs of Solomon; Neutral Tones; Three Donne Songs. Navona. $16.99.
Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 4—Orpheus with His Lute Made Trees. Navona. $16.99.
Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 5—Full Fathom Five. Navona. $16.99.
Bruce Babcock: Chamber, Vocal and Choral Music. Navona. $16.99.
Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn: Fireworks and other music. Navona. $14.99.
Conservatives often accuse the homosexual community of having a “gay agenda,” while members of that community – and their supporters outside it – deny that such an “agenda” exists. Charles Wuorinen’s operatic treatment of Annie Proulx’ story, Brokeback Mountain – for which Proulx herself wrote the libretto – is likely to intensity the argument. Wuorinen handles the tale of two doomed gay lovers in the American West in 1963 and thereafter as a straightforward modern opera. He assumes that audiences will relate to and empathize with the characters just as much as they would with Puccini’s Bohemians or Schoenberg’s Moses, characters that are inarguably remote in time and circumstances from the audience but that nevertheless provoke and invite audience involvement. This is at best an arguable underlying assumption outside the artistic community itself (where gays make up a higher percentage than in the general population). It is simply the sexual behavior of Ennis and Jack that sets them apart and sets up the pathos of their story – and it is that very behavior that gay-rights groups repeatedly state is none of anyone’s business and not a reason for discrimination or, indeed, any undue attention being paid to homosexuals. But that behavior is the linchpin of Brokeback Mountain as a story, a libretto and an opera, an in-your-face (although of course not actually shown) element, without which Ennis and Jack have no character or meaning whatsoever. So the opera requires audiences to feel resonance with a story whose central behavior the vast majority of people do not practice, behavior that may indeed cause deep revulsion. This is quite a mountain for the music to climb. The opera never really surmounts it. Wuorinen underlines the emotions of Proulx’ libretto, which expands on her original short story in ways that the film version of Brokeback Mountain did not: the movie was rather sentimental, but the opera tries to be meaningful and relevant and have something to say about society in general, and as a result it overreaches. Wuorinen has some clever ideas, the best of which is using Schoenbergian Sprechstimme as a way to show Ennis’ awkwardness and difficulty expressing himself in the first act, allowing this lead character sung lines only beginning in Act Two, as he begins to realize who he is. By and large, though, Wuorinen’s music comments on the events instead of enhancing them, leaving Proulx’ story – with its requirement of strong sympathy for its central characters – as the main driving force. It will likely drive many listeners away. The soloists, chorus and orchestra are all fine, and Ivo Van Hove’s stage direction is well-thought-out and effective, if somewhat overdone – a sparer setting might have dovetailed better with the societal implications that Proulx and Wuorinen seek to emphasize. Opera is itself a niche form of music these days, very far from its role as the popular entertainment of its day in the 19th century and early 20th. Brokeback Mountain is strictly for a niche audience within the niche audience that finds the form of opera attractive.
There is an interesting contrast between the sexual theme of Brokeback Mountain and the setting by Michael Murray of Four Songs of Solomon. Murray’s songs, performed by tenor Andrew Childs with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský, celebrate sexual intimacy in both explicit and implied ways through biblical words. There is a sense of immediate listener connection with these sentiments of thousands of years ago that is largely absent in Brokeback Mountain, which at times seems more an advocacy piece than a musical exploration of one aspect of human sexuality. Murray’s settings, in any case, are effective in exploring the complexities of physical intimacy. And they contrast interestingly with his Three Donne Songs, which feature mezzo-soprano Ann Moss and a string quartet: violinists Zola Bologovsky and Amy Ripka, violist Justin Oullet, and cellist Dorothy Braker. Donne’s words, and Murray’s supportive treatment of them, take a decidedly cynical view of love that stands in opposition to its more-typical idealization. Equally intriguing are Murray’s settings of Five Blake Songs, which are simply for voice (Moss) and clarinet (John Ferraro). The emotions of William Blake, from the secular and irreverent to the deeply and mystically religious, resound through these short pieces in a way that the spare settings make clear. The fourth song cycle on this Navona CD is somewhat less involving: Neutral Tones is also for just two performers (baritone Chris Thompson and violist Peter Sulski), but the material here – from Thomas Hardy – is more forthright than is Blake’s, with Hardy exploring such entirely mundane themes as aging. Instead of providing a stronger connection with listeners, this fairly straightforward focus, as interpreted musically by Murray, just comes across as rather wan. Still, the disc as a whole offers some worthwhile areas for listeners to explore.
So do the Shakespeare Concerts Series discs that Navona has been releasing from time to time, primarily featuring music by Joseph Summer. Shakespeare has always offered composers a marvelous vehicle for connecting directly with audiences, and the fourth volume in this series shows many ways of doing so: it includes music not only by Summer but also by Karol Szymanowski, Thomas Chilcot, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. There are some genuinely fascinating contrasts here, for example between Vaughan Williams’ Orpheus with His Lute for soprano (Kathryn Guthrie) and piano (John McGinn) and Summers’ Orpheus with His Lute & Sonnet CIII for soprano (Guthrie again) and violin (Josef Špaček), and between Walton’s Daphne (Guthrie and McGinn) and Summers’ Leda and the Swan (Guthrie and pianist Miroslav Sekera). In addition, Korngold’s Four Pieces from “Much Ado about Nothing” (Špaček and Sekera) show how effectively elements of Shakespeare can be translated into non-vocal settings and still communicate effectively. In the fifth Shakespeare volume, Summer’s works are complemented by ones by Thomas Linley, Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, Michael Tippett – and Beethoven, whose Piano Sonata No. 17 (“The Tempest”), played well (although without any particularly new insight) by Sekera, concludes the CD. This disc focuses on Shakespeare The Tempest, one of his most powerful and enigmatic late plays, in which the air spirit Ariel sings “Full Fathom Five” to music that is long since lost. Settings by Summer, Tippett, Ives and Stravinsky are sufficiently varied to show just how deeply these words have affected composers of very different orientations, while pieces looking at other elements of and characters in the play, including Caliban and Miranda, show just how rich a trove of musical ideas Shakespeare’s work has provided, and continues to provide.
Like the Shakespeare discs, a Navona release called Time, Still mixes vocal and instrumental music in an attempt to communicate different feelings and emotions; but all the works here are by a single composer, Bruce Babcock, and while the works are generally pleasant and sometimes emotive, they tend to a sort of compositional sameness that makes the disc better heard in bits than straight through. Babcock’s settings of four Dorothy Parker poems, This Is What I Know (featuring Juliana Gondek, soprano, with Rakefel Hak on piano and Doug Masek on alto saxophone), nicely evokes the moods of the words, but these rather extended pieces are less effective than All unto Me, a hymnlike choral work that communicates quite directly and movingly in a performance by the Coventry and Canterbury Cathedral Choirs of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, conducted by James Walker. The remaining pieces here are a mixed bag. Irrational Exuberance for alto saxophone (Masek), cello (David Speltz) and piano (Louise Thomas) offers enjoyable contrasts between lyrical and propulsive passages, while Metaphor Two for piano solo (Robert Thies) is effectively quiet and contemplative. The two remaining pieces on the disc are less interesting and sound more formulaic: Springscape for harp (Marcia Dickstein), flute (Angela Wiegand) and viola (David Walther) and Imagined/Remembered for cello (Armen Ksajikian) and piano (Thies). Both are well-made but less emotionally convincing than the other works here.
All the music is instrumental on a Navona CD featuring works by Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn. Lovers of contemporary writing for woodwinds will especially enjoy this release, whose more-virtuosic pieces come across better than those that try to be emotionally moving. Joker’s Wild (played by the Kiev Philharmonic under Robert Ian Winstin) and Fireworks (featuring Robert Young on soprano and alto saxophone, with the Wichita State University Symphonic Wind Ensemble conducted by Victor Markovich) open and close the disc very brightly and effectively, but the rest of the material here is variable in quality and interest level. Variants (Leonard Garrison on flute and piccolo, Jeffrey Savage on piano) and Swarm (Garrison on flute and alto flute, Shannon Scott on clarinet) are straightforward, if well-constructed. A piece called ...and I will love the silence... (with ellipses at the title’s start and end) seems designed to contrast sound and sound’s absence, but it does not really have much to say, despite fine playing by Keri McCarthy on English horn and Ruth Boden on cello. Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano (Eric Palmquist and Emily Sternfeld-Dunn, respectively) compresses forceful, somber and agitated elements into three short movements titled to tell audiences exactly what the composer is trying to put across, and Firecracker for solo clarinet (Shannon Scott) starts very stridently and then provides some opportunities for the performer to show how an essentially legato instrument sounds when played staccato. There are interesting elements within Sternfeld-Dunn’s pieces, but most of these works are less effective in their totality than in some of the elements of which they are constructed.
April 16, 2015
I Was a Child: A Memoir. By Bruce Eric Kaplan. Blue Rider Press. $25.95.
Blackbird Fly. By Erin Entrada Kelly. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Angst and childhood go together – as do angst and adulthood, of course, but that is another matter. Different memoirs and novels tend to handle the stresses and worries of being young in different ways, thus connecting with readers at different levels. Bruce Eric Kaplan’s approach is almost insidious in its effectiveness. Kaplan is a television writer and producer who also contributes single-panel cartoons to The New Yorker regularly. I Was a Child uses his TV-honed narrative skill (brief, to-the-point sentences) and his cartooning ability to produce a bittersweet story of his childhood, up until the deaths of his parents. Nearly every page has some sort of illustration, often more than one: a crying bee (an image from a dream he had), a Cub Scout uniform (with the parts labeled), an enormous pinball machine (from a failed TV game show), pictures of bad haircuts (his own and those of his brothers, Michael and Andrew), a matchbook offering a free talent test (“there were tons of matchbooks offering ways of improving your life”). The illustrations go with a series of anecdotes, such as one about the family getting lost while searching for a tunnel entrance and the father stopping to ask directions from a man who “had a creepy hollow expression on his unwashed face, and his clothes looked like he had been wearing them for weeks. He was barefoot and was carrying a bucket of dirty dishwater. …The only sane reaction to him would be to drive quickly away. …The man mumbled something incoherent. My father asked again. Again, the man mumbled something incoherent. Then, finally, we just drove away. At that moment, I realized my parents really might not know how to do anything at all.” Elsewhere are the small memories that somehow stay with adults, as of Kaplan’s mother’s “square glass ashtray she always flicked her ashes in. She looked so happy carrying her ashtray into the living room. I would give anything to have that ashtray now.” And the revelations of childhood: “I knew in that moment that neither [my mother] nor my father could ever handle knowing the truth about anything.” And the maybe-revelations: “I was only invited to that kid’s birthday once. I was in his class that year and was his friend. Then summer came, and the following year I wasn’t in his class, so I stopped being his friend. That’s a real life lesson, but I am not sure what the lesson is. If anyone knows, please tell me.” Sometimes the pictures pull the story along: one shows a jam-packed swimming pool, the next an empty pool after a child has a bathroom accident in the water, the one after that a packed pool again after the water has been cleaned. More often, though, the pictures supplement text that often seems to be holding back tears: “I remember one drive-in movie where I was struck by the fact that we were all pretending that this was a good experience, but it wasn’t. That became a very familiar feeling.” And: “I remember being in a gas station and looking at other families parked at the other pumps, studying them. They seemed like real families and we seemed like we were pretending to be a real family.” Of course, Kaplan’s family was a real one, as real as any, with all the pluses and minuses and small happinesses and small (but seemingly great, to a child) disappointments that are inevitable in families. I Was a Child manages at once to be a highly personal look at the positives and negatives of a particular family – and a surprisingly convincing treatise on the foibles that affect families everywhere and that resonate into children’s adults lives and thence, one must assume, to a whole new set of families.
The problems of being young are given more forthrightly in novels intended to be read by young readers themselves – and so are the solutions, which tend to be pat, without any implication that issues of childhood will carry over in any way into adult (or even teenage) life. Novels, after all, have a neat beginning, middle and end, especially novels for ages 8-12. The debut book by Erin Entrada Kelly, Blackbird Fly, is a case in point. Kelly’s 12-year-old protagonist, who bears the unlikely name of Apple Yengko, moved from the Philippines to Louisiana when she was little, and is now – in middle school, a time of significant change and worry for a great many students – confronting all the ways in which she is different from her classmates. Apple thinks there are three IFs (interesting facts) about everyone, but unfortunately hers are problematical: slanted eyes, her strange nickname (her real name is Analyn), and a mother who continues to cook Filipino foods and complains that Apple is becoming too Americanized. Soon Apple faces the usual issues in books like this: boys, bullying, bullying by boys, an absence of friends, and so forth. But Apple has an escape: music, specifically Beatles music (the Beatles’ Apple Corps distributed their songs). Already labeled the third-ugliest girl in school, Apple determines to get enough money to buy a guitar, which she will learn to play and thus change her life and everyone’s attitude toward her: “I thought about New Orleans. I imagined strumming a guitar and singing until my voice blended in with all the sounds of the city. No one would know me there. Maybe I could meet other musicians and join a band.” Readers of this (+++) book will be totally unsurprised to discover that things do not work out as Apple hopes they will, and that the ties of friendship rather than music – in the form of two new friends – are what really matter and really help Apple stabilize herself and improve her self-image. At the end, not surprisingly in a story like this, Apple learns family secrets, comes to terms with her mother (as her mother comes to terms with her own past), and does find some musical success. Finally, Apple triumphantly changes her IFs to reflect what she has learned about herself, and music, and friendship. The story arc here is hyper-familiar and is about as effective as tales of preteen outsiders finding themselves usually are: moderately so for preteen readers who consider themselves outsiders, as so many do.
The Luck Uglies #2: Fork-Tongue Charmers. By Paul Durham. Illustrations by Pétur Antonsson. Harper. $16.99.
The Maze Runner Collector’s Edition: The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials. By James Dashner. Delacorte Press. $19.99.
Continuations of series aimed at preteens and teenagers are often structured simply to give readers more of the same: whatever the first book delivered, the next will deliver with some new characters and settings but with an adventure closely modeled on the initial one. This is on the basis that readers come to the second part wanting just what they got in the first one, only more so. Both Paul Durham and James Dashner clearly understand this. Durham’s The Luck Uglies sequence moves in its second entry, Fork-Tongue Charmers, only a short distance from where the first book went. We return to the village of Drowning and return to protagonist Rye O’Chanter. We return to a world where lies and deceit make it difficult for Rye to know whom to trust – although the “lies and deceit” trope is present in virtually every book for this age group, as it is in so many books intended for adults. The event that moves the plot this time is the arrival in Drowning of a new constable – who declares Rye an outlaw and forces her to escape (on a pirate ship, no less) to the Isle of Pest. The interactions, uncertainties, fights and betrayals here are nothing particularly new, although the introduction of some new characters (including Belongers, Intuitives and Uninviteds) expands Durham’s fantasy world to some extent. The events, though, are scarcely out of the ordinary, and they tend to be telegraphed through formulaic prose. For instance, when Rye spots a place called the Wailing Cave and asks another character, Waldron, what is in it, she gets this response: “‘Nothing,’ Waldron said quickly. ‘At least nothing anyone should go looking for.’ He seemed to hesitate. ‘Many a young man has entered the mouth of that cave. But none have ever returned.’” So of course the mystery of this cave is going to be one that Rye has to unravel; and the book is filled with similar instances of the writing pointing with unerring clarity at every upcoming plot point. The plot itself is, not surprisingly, full of twists and turns, but Fork-Tongue Charmers is not as suspenseful as the first novel in the sequence – although the conclusion is exciting enough to keep readers involved and likely leave them waiting for the next book. The illustrations help, too: Pétur Antonsson, his work often looking as if it was inspired by Mary GrandPré’s illustrations for the U.S. editions of the Harry Potter books, conjures up a more-interesting and often scarier world than does Durham’s prose.
Durham is, however, a better writer than Dashner, which may explain why The Maze Runner is so appealing to a Hollywood that is always looking for the next big thing that duplicates the last big thing but is different – and is very easy to understand. In this case, the last big thing was Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Dashner’s The Maze Runner trilogy is seen as the foundation of more blockbuster films that will, however, skew more toward boys than girls. It is easy to see why Dashner’s exceptionally formulaic plotting and simple writing are appealing to the film industry. And it is equally easy to understand why a new “Collector’s Edition” paperback of The Maze Runner has now been brought out as a film tie-in, with a front-cover sticker reading “Now a Major Motion Picture” and a bound-in-book removable “fan sticker” with the ominous phrase, “WICKED is good” (a climactic revelation from the second novel). The new edition itself is a bit of an oddity, containing only the first two books of the series while omitting the concluding The Death Cure (although a small amount of “bonus material” is included as a lure). Perhaps there are plans to release a “Collector’s Edition” with the final novel as well the series’ prequel, The Kill Order. In any case, fans wanting the first two books in a single almost-400-page paperback are the target audience for this edition. What those unfamiliar with The Maze Runner will find here is an extremely uninteresting heroic central character (Thomas) with no personality whatsoever, who shows up in a “Box” in a mysterious place one day with his entire memory wiped except, conveniently, for his name. The place he shows up has only teenage boys in it – until, inevitably, a teenage girl later arrives, for reasons initially unexplained but absolutely necessary so the author is not accused of leaving girls out. Anyway, the boys are uniformly unfriendly and unhelpful, refusing to tell Thomas anything about their home, which they call the Glade. The Glade is surrounded by high walls, outside of which is the Maze, which has evil (but not especially scary) creatures called Grievers in it, and they are bad news for anyone who gets trapped in the Maze at night. The Grievers can climb to get their victims, but for some reason never climb the walls into the Glade – oh wait, the reason is that then there wouldn’t be a book. Anyhow, the Grievers can kill, dismember, or merely sting people, but the sting may be the worst option, since it results in the boys needing Grief Serum that then triggers the Change, and you will notice that there are lots of Capital Letters in describing What Happens and Where and How, because that is the Style of Books Like This One, for No Apparent Reason. There is also Silly Slang, also for No Apparent Reason. Anyway, the plot moves ahead quickly at first, through a series of Unbelievable Coincidences in which there is plenty of Violence. Then Thomas, inevitably, ends up in the Maze at night, and then the girl who showed up the day after Thomas did starts telling him things – not before, only during his night in the Maze, through an exceptionally creaky plot device – and bit by bit, secrets that there was no reason to keep secret start being revealed, until eventually the boys learn how the walls of the Maze move and what happens when they do, and Thomas inevitably goes through the Change, and things progress from frantic to silly and back again as the book lurches toward a cliffhanger ending. In the second book, The Scorch Trials, readers find out more about WICKED (a silly acronym for the very silly “World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department"), and Thomas finds out more about the girl, Teresa, to whom he is telepathically connected but whom he (big surprise) is not sure he can trust. Indeed, his failure to trust her seems like good common sense here (about the first time Thomas has exhibited any such thing), but eventually it turns out that maybe Thomas should have trusted her all along, so then he tells her to go away, and she does. Apparently. It is she who gives Thomas that ominous parting “WICKED is good” message, setting up the plot of the final book. Plot holes and absurdities abound throughout The Maze Runner series, but there is certainly enough surface-level excitement to sustain and even intrigue readers who do not want to look particularly closely at matters such as personalities and character development. The extreme simplicity and obviousness of the plot and the over-the-top handling of it make The Maze Runner and its sequels (++) books. But not-particularly-good-or-original books can sometimes be turned into not-particularly-good-or-original movies that are nevertheless financial successes. That is obviously Hollywood’s hope – and anyone who does see and enjoy The Maze Runner film without having read the book first may want this “Collector’s Edition” as a way to relive the movie experience.
The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health. By Justin Sonnenburg, Ph.D., and Erica Sonnenburg, Ph.D. Penguin Press. $27.95.
Let’s see. There are 168 hours in a week. How many do you think it would take to put into practice all the multifarious suggestions/recommendations of health professionals to exercise a certain way, consume certain things, supplement foods with pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals and such, and pay particular attention to specific organs of your body, including the brain, heart, stomach, lungs, kidneys, gall bladder, islets of Langerhans, appendix and more? Probably about 168. Never mind per week – that’s per day.
So, not to take anything away from The Good Gut, but this is a book that joins an astonishingly large coterie of volumes designed to tell people just what is wrong with some particular element of their lives and/or bodies and just what to do to make that particular thing better/healthier/happier. Been there; probably haven’t done that, though, because there is such an unending parade of things to watch and observe and do and not do and pay attention to and ignore and eat and not eat that there is simply no way any reasonably sane person can even try to accommodate all the well-meaning, well-researched, well-thought-out, well-designed prescriptions, proscriptions and descriptions.
Well, just in case you have spare time (which is what, exactly?) to devote to the microbiota in your intestines, husband-and-wife Stanford University School of Medicine scientists Justin and Erica Sonnenburg have, you will be relieved to hear, something with which to fill it. Actually, your gut is filled already: there are some 10 trillion human cells in the human body, but there are 10 times as many – approximately 100 trillion – bacterial cells in the gut. The premise of The Good Gut is that imbalances in gut bacteria, and mistreatment of the environment in which those bacteria live, lie at the root of a great many diseases and of the rampant obesity now found in the United States and other wealthy countries.
There is an old saying that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In science, when you are a super-specialist in one field, you tend to develop tunnel vision, through which you can see that the solution to every problem lies in your particular area of expertise. The Sonnenburgs are – surprise! – experts in microbiota. So it is absolutely to be expected that they will trace a great many human ills, if not quite all, to the gut bacteria they have been studying for more than a decade. They deem the collection of gut bacteria so all-powerful, so crucial to health, that they approvingly discuss a colleague’s actions at the birth of his child by C-section – birth being the time when bacteria first colonize the human gut: “Being keenly aware of the differences that exist between the microbiota of C-section and vaginally delivered children, Rob and his wife took matters into their own hands. Using vaginal swabs from the mother, they inoculated their daughter at multiple body sites to ensure that she was exposed to the bacteria she would have encountered had she gone through the birth canal.”
This may sound like fanaticism to some (perhaps many) readers, but the Sonnenburgs say it makes good sense in light of the overweening lifelong importance of gut bacteria for whole-body health. They argue that gut bacteria regulate the immune system and our metabolic functions, affecting moods and behavior; thus, when the gut bacteria are the wrong kind or out of balance, we get weight gain, cancer, depression, and such immune-system-related diseases as allergies, eczema, dermatitis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and multiple sclerosis. The evils undermining proper gut bacteria types and levels are the familiar ones so avidly condemned by so many researchers who have a particular type of tunnel vision: our dietary choices, our medicine choices (especially antibiotics), and our overall environment (which the Sonnenburgs argue is too sterile to allow proper proliferation of health-improving types of bacteria). Their answer: “Our family consumes microbes regularly, usually in the form of fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir. When an illness seems imminent, our bacteria consumption increases. …Because of the individual nature of each person’s microbiota and the inability to predict which type and how much probiotic might be helpful and for what conditions, it is important to find probiotics that work well with your microbiota. …It may require a little trial and error with various types of probiotic-containing foods or supplements to find one that agrees best with your system. …In the search for the right probiotic, it is important to systematically try different ones until you find something that seems to work for you.” Now that is a breathtaking argument: management of gut bacteria is crucial, but there is no way to predict what sort of consumption of what sort of item will do what your individual gut bacteria require, and therefore you must have plenty of time to devote to finding the correct health-enhancing foods and/or supplements that are just right for you, and if you cannot find them, you are doing something wrong – certainly you cannot blame the Sonnenburgs.
Well. It looks as if 168 hours a day devoted to all those can’t-fail-absolutely-true dietary and lifestyle prescriptions will not be enough. No, now you need time for experimentation and rearranging your food choices (being sure not to interfere with other rearrangements made in line with other people’s equally certain and equally crucial recommendations); and in your spare time, of which you had better have plenty, you can worry about “microbiota diversity loss,” which dates back even farther in time than to a child’s birth and initial contact with gut bacteria. This dire circumstance ties to “technological innovation in food processing,” which of course is a bad thing (it is amazing what level of agreement there is among scientists with tunnel vision about how bad technology is, except of course when they use it intensively in their own work). The solution: “A healthy diet coupled with plenty of sleep can synergize to help keep sickness at bay.” Be sure to allot some of that more-than-168-hours-a-day schedule to plenty of sleep, of course unencumbered by worry about diet, gut bacteria, health, technological innovation, or – heaven forfend – the daily vicissitudes of earning a living, caring for yourself and your family, and otherwise doing anything that is not directly related to an appropriate gut-bacteria focus.
The non-tunnel-vision reality is that the Sonnenburgs are correct about gut bacteria being important to health, but not to the exclusion of many other physical, mental, psychological and emotional parts of life. Adding huge stress to people’s lives through warning them about yet another bodily process to which they are paying insufficient attention and on which they must focus intensely and immediately is a recipe for mental and psychological overload – and, more to the point, a recipe for failure in the management of that bodily process. The Sonnenburgs make some very good points about gut bacteria and their significance; their concerns about the elderly having compromised microbiota because of long-term antibiotic use and poor institutional diets are particularly cogent and well-presented. And they are to be commended for including a section of menus and recipes at the end of their book – although their count-the-grams-of-fiber approach is a depressing one, and their specific recommendations are at once esoteric and likely to be unappealing to many readers (lunch of “kale salad with chia seeds, pomegranate seeds, and pistachios” one day, then “sandwich on whole wheat bread with fermented cream cheese, smoked salmon, cane artichoke hearts, tomato slices, and capers” the next day).
Ultimately, what the Sonnenburgs argue in The Good Gut is that everybody should be like them: thinking their way, eating their way, raising a family their way. For families in which the parents are not Stanford University professors (with their commensurate salaries and work flexibility), this is more than a tall order – it is an impossible expectation. The Good Gut would have been much better if the Sonnenburgs had acknowledged that theirs is just the latest in a long line of “treat your body better” books and if they had given specific recommendations on incorporating their ideas into the many, many, many others emerging from scientific research done by other people. Because they chose not to do this, because they decided that their narrow niche provides the one and only health solution that people need, they have created a book that is filled with intriguing research findings and well-meaning arguments, but that will cause most readers – those who do not have 168 hours a day to devote to such things – to feel not as if the book helps them take control of their weight, mood and long-term health, but simply as if they have been punched in the gut.
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Gil Shaham, violin. Canary Classics. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1; Fauré: Elegy in C minor; Lalo: Cello Concerto. Kim Cook, cello; Philharmonica Bulgarica conducted by Valeri Vatchev (Saint-Saëns, Fauré) and Grigor Palikarov (Lalo). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Zemlinsky: The Mermaid—Symphonic Fantasy; Sinfonietta. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99 (SACD).
Sibelius: Complete Works for Mixed Choir. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Heikki Seppänen. Ondine. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Sometimes the sheer beauty of the sound on a recording is the first thing that strikes a listener, particularly if the recording features music that is well-known and familiar. This is the case with Gil Shaham’s excellent new Canary Classics release of Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006. These are works that Shaham has played for decades: all modern virtuosi consider them standard works as well as a pinnacle of the violin literature. They are also ones he has thought carefully about, as his comments and analyses in this release’s booklet make clear. And they are pieces for which Shaham – better known for his performances of 19th- and early 20th-century music – has modified his usual approach to his instrument. Here he plays the 1699 Stradivarius “Countess Polignac” violin with a Baroque bridge (made by Adam Crane) and Baroque bow (by Marcus Laine). He uses wound-gut strings, not ones of traditional sheep gut, but Shaham is not striving for historical accuracy in these performances: he is chasing his own personal vision within and around Bach’s, an approach that permeates his interpretation, which features playing that is sensitive to the soft passages as well as the louder, more-forthright ones. The Baroque bow is lighter than the ones Shaham usually uses, making it easier to play passages of these Bach works more quickly – and Shaham takes full advantage of this, presenting some tempos that are very speedy indeed. The entire set of these works runs 118 minutes here, which is really extraordinarily speedy. Ilya Kaler’s set, for example, is a full 30 minutes longer, and Jaap Schröder, using a Baroque violin, takes 25 minutes more. This means that Shaham’s version seems, on the face of it, to be a once-over-lightly; but in reality it is no such thing. There is some initial shock at hearing the overall speediness of the tempos, but the relationship among the movements is so clear, the relative pacing of them so well done, that Shaham quickly becomes convincing in these interpretations and sweeps listeners into a world in which the dances really do sound dancelike while the serious slow movements, fugues and the Ciaccona of Partita No. 2 all come across as weighty and very carefully considered. They also simply sound beautiful, not only thanks to the inherent loveliness of the violin’s tone but also because Shaham makes expressiveness – at a level appropriate to this music – a priority throughout his readings. This is a truly lovely and highly engaging recording that captures listeners with sonic beauty and keeps them with its skilled and thoughtful interpretative insights.
Kim Cook’s interpretations of Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Lalo are not as revelatory as Shaham’s of Bach, but her new MSR Classics release is also a recording in which the loveliness of the sound of the solo instrument is immediately apparent and is a big part of the CD’s attractiveness. The Saint-Saëns is a particular pleasure here, very well-paced in a tightly knit performance in which Cook’s handling of the virtuoso passages flows so naturally and with such apparent effortlessness that the music’s lyrical charm emerges as an organic rather than created element. Saint-Saëns once famously said that he produces music as an apple tree produces apples, and that is just how Cook’s handling of this familiar concerto from 1872 makes it sound. Fauré’s Elegy, written for cello and piano in 1880 and orchestrated by the composer in 1897, is a primarily meditative and thoughtful work; it gives Cook plenty of chances to showcase the wonderfully warm sound of her instrument while also allowing the mood change in the middle of Elegy, in a section filled with passion, to emerge with intensity and drama. As for the Lalo concerto, which dates to 1877, it is inherently somewhat less effective than the Saint-Saëns, being more episodic and calling on virtuosity more for its own sake than because of the emotional needs of the material. For this display piece, Cook shows just how well she can handle the Spanish rhythms and fast scale passages without losing the fine sound that she evokes from her instrument throughout. The sheer beauty of the cello and skill of Cook’s playing are the attractions here, although there is less of a sense of delving deeply into this music than in the other works – in truth, there is less depth to be had in this concerto. Where this well-recorded release is not quite at the top level is in the orchestral accompaniment: Cook deserves an ensemble with a sumptuous tone that complements hers, but the Philharmonica Bulgarica is not it. The orchestra is certainly serviceable, as are its two conductors on this disc, but there is nothing scintillating about any of the accompaniment, nothing more than workmanlike in the conducting. The result is a CD that highlights the soloist to an even greater degree than might be expected – a state of affairs that will delight listeners from a sheer aural standpoint, but that leaves something to be desired interpretatively.
Cook would have sounded even better if accompanied by an ensemble as good as the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and a conductor as sensitive as John Storgårds – at least on the basis of a new Ondine SACD of music by Alexander Zemlinsky. The symphonic fantasy The Mermaid (Die Seejungfrau), based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Little Mermaid, absolutely demands warm, effusive tone and an orchestra able to play this work as if it had been written by Richard Strauss – whose tone poems it in fact resembles, although Zemlinsky’s fantasy is far more extensive and really qualifies as a symphony in all but name. The Helsinki players rise to the occasion from start to finish, and Storgårds’ interpretation has all the sweep, drama, passion and intensity that the music demands – which is to say, quite a lot. The work is in three sections, corresponding more or less to symphonic movements, and can be difficult to hold together as it explores elements of the Andersen story (some of which are apparent, even though Zemlinsky withdrew his original detailed explanation of what certain portions of the work referred to). Storgårds sees the piece as a connected whole, a dramatic cantata-without-words that tells a story through use of a large orchestra and very adept scoring. Zemlinsky was primarily a composer of dramatic music, and that certainly shows here – with Storgårds bringing out and even somewhat over-emphasizing the intensity of feeling in a way that, like the orchestration, makes this work seem akin to those of Richard Strauss, with which Zemlinsky was quite familiar. This is the world première recording of a new critical edition of the score by Anthony Beaumont (who has himself conducted and recorded it): this version restores some five minutes of music that Zemlinsky cut, for unknown reasons, before the piece went into rehearsals for its January 1905 première. The restored material, which occurs in the middle of the second section/movement, fits so well that even listeners who know The Mermaid already may be surprised at the seamlessness of its inclusion – although it does have a climax that stands out quite distinctly. It is interesting to hear this version of The Mermaid along with another world première recording, that of a chamber-orchestra version of Zemlinsky’s much later Sinfonietta. This piece dates to 1934; the chamber version was created as recently as 2013, by Roland Freisitzer. The Sinfonietta requires an orchestra whose sound is nearly the opposite of what The Mermaid needs. Sinfonietta is spare music, lean and concise, its structural elements showing through clearly – even more so in the chamber version than in the original. The Helsinki Philharmonic manages to change its sonic colors quite effectively here, and Storgårds does as good a job of bringing out the Second Viennese School elements of Sinfonietta as he does with the late Romanticism of The Mermaid. The result is a recording that showcases two very different sorts of sound from the very same ensemble, both of them equally effective and appropriate – and both very well recorded indeed.
Another new Ondine release dispenses with instruments altogether, but still offers tonal beauties that are immediately attractive and remain so throughout. This is a two-disc set of the complete works for mixed choir by Sibelius – an element of his musical life with which listeners accustomed to his symphonies and theatrical music may be wholly unfamiliar. Speaking of world premières: this is the first-ever recording of the totality of this music, and would be welcome on that basis alone. But there are other reasons to be grateful for it: the music itself, while not always substantial, is almost always interesting, and the singing is so accomplished, so smooth and elegant, that listeners need not know the Finnish and Swedish words at all in order to enjoy the effect of the performances. The words are readily available, though: they are included with the recording, as are English translations. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, one of the finest of its kind, is led here by one of the leading Finnish choir directors, Heikki Seppänen, who has conducted a large number of professional choirs in Finland and elsewhere. Many of these pieces are quite short, running from 30 seconds to a minute or so; but others are more substantial – Sibelius shows himself capable of writing quite a variety of choral music and focusing on subjects from the patriotic (To the Fatherland, Festive March, The Song of the Men of Uusimaa) to the educational and comparatively mundane (March of the Primary School Children, The Way to School, School Song, and even Three Songs for American Schools). The unusual repertoire, the very-high-quality performances, and the exceptionally fine sound of the choir combine to make this release, occasioned by the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth, a genuinely enthralling one for listeners interested in some Sibelius music that is decidedly out of the ordinary.