January 16, 2020

(++++) AND AWAY WE GO!

The Best of Iggy No. 1. By Annie Barrows. Illustrated by Sam Ricks. Putnam. $13.99.

Real Pigeons No. 1: Real Pigeons Fight Crime. By Andrew McDonald. Illustrations by Ben Wood. Random House. $13.99.

     Amply illustrated book series for middle-grade readers, ages 8-12, have to start somewhere, and the way they start provides a plethora of clues to where they will be going. Annie Barrows’ The Best of Iggy, for example, will be going into hilarity by way of a certain degree of underlying seriousness that seasons the adventure without changing the taste of amusement too much. Although narrated in the third person, the first book about Iggy Frangi uses an almost-first-person style by having the narrator talk directly to readers: “All the things [Iggy] does in this book are bad. Every last one of them. It’s really a shame you have to hear about such bad things, nice children like you. You would never do these things. You say.” Now, the things themselves are, by and large, not all that bad, and part of Barrows’ point is that “things we wish we hadn’t done” fall into three categories: ones we actually just wish we hadn’t gotten caught for doing; ones we wish we hadn’t done quite as much as we did them; and ones we really wish we hadn’t done at all. The Best of Iggy is going to be a series showing how Iggy does things in all three categories – and that is emphatically what the first book shows. Along the way, Iggy interacts with characters who are standard “types” in books for preteens, such as insufferable, well-dressed, obedient, cello-playing Jeremy Greerson, with whom Iggy is stuck for a while because Jeremy’s and Iggy’s mothers are friends. There is also Iggy’s little sister, three-year-old Molly, about whom everything “was round: her face, her eyeballs, her curls, and her stomach.” And that is exactly how Sam Ricks, whose illustrations are, ahem, picture-perfect for the book, shows Molly – who, unfortunately for Iggy, takes an instant shine to Jeremy, which leads Iggy to a bad mood (a scene showing him gazing up at dark, grimacing clouds is laugh-aloud funny), and which eventually results in a hilarious scene involving Jeremy jumping from the roof of Iggy’s house. This is a scene that happens one way from Iggy’s perspective and a very different way from the adults’ perspective, and that is Barrows’ point: sometimes there are extenuating circumstances (she uses, explains and makes much of the phrase). But sometimes there are not extenuating circumstances, as when Iggy gets involved with some shaving cream and $13 lipstick (Ricks’ illustration of what Iggy does with those is another laugh-out-loud one). And sometimes there is no excuse whatsoever for doing something that Iggy, who is not really a bad kid but would probably (in the real world) be diagnosed as ADHD and perhaps medicated, really really really wishes he had not done. And that is where the latter part of the book goes, into something Iggy does at school that causes an actual injury – to a teacher, no less – and that results in perhaps fewer consequences than would happen in the real world if Iggy existed in it. Still, Iggy does not entirely “get away” with what he does, and Barrows goes out of her way to show that he is really, truly, genuinely, no-kidding sorry sorry sorry, even though she also says – without giving specifics – that Iggy fails in his determination “not to do anything bad for the rest of the year.” Iggy is a recognizable middle-school “class cutup,” fun to observe but definitely not a role model: “Most of Iggy’s brain was on vacation,” Barrows writes at one point, and that sentence pretty well describes not only his highly amusing-sounding antics (which also look highly amusing, thanks to Ricks) but also what is likely to be the ongoing plot of all the books in The Best of Iggy series.

     There is a certain level of realism to Iggy, and, oddly enough, there is also a certain level of the realistic in Andrew McDonald’s Real Pigeons series, even though it features a cadre of anthropomorphized avian crime fighters. The realism here – and, in a way, a very funny element of the concept – is that the five unreal pigeon heroes are closely based on and named for five types of real-world pigeons. The most-central central character, a “master of disguise” named Rock, is a rock pigeon – that is the super-common type familiar to just about everybody. Homey, designated a “directions champ” and determined to refer to himself and his fellow crime fighters as “pigs” for short, is a homing pigeon. Super-strong Frillback is, yes, a frillback pigeon – that is a type with curly feathers. Rather ditzy Tumbler is a tumbler pigeon, a kind that sometimes does somersaults while flying. And Grandpouter Pigeon, who brings the four youngsters together, is a pouter pigeon, complete with characteristic crop (an anatomical feature that looks like a large, protruding chest). So much for the real-world connections. But everything in the story itself – actually three stories in one book – is ridiculous. These are pigeons, and pigeons love bread crumbs more than anything else, so the initial mystery about a park where there are no more bread crumbs is up close and personal for the group. It turns out that there are no bread crumbs because there are no humans in the park to drop them (well, duh) – and that is true, it turns out, because the people are frightened: the park is haunted by a monster crow that is actually a collection of many crows under the leadership of a bad guy called Jungle Crow, who has a habit of dressing up like a cat because… Well, it doesn’t really matter, because the idea is simply to show the newly formed Real Pigeons group figuring things out and working together and eventually bringing other animals and humans back to the no-longer-haunted park so there will again be bread crumbs. Ben Wood’s pervasive pictures – the book is primarily told pictorially, although it is not designed as a graphic novel – carry this story and the two succeeding ones along very adeptly and very amusingly. The second tale is about a mysterious someone or something that is trapping bats – animals that Rock has never met but decides he really, really likes when he gets to know them. This story involves a wildlife photographer, a garbage collector (the Real Pigeons have their meetings in a garbage can, so things can and do get messy), and a bad-guy bat who turns out to be a traitor to his species. And that brings us to the third story, in which the bad guys from the first two stories team up to cause a stink (literally) at a “food truck fair” where the Real Pigeons are hoping to find “bread crumbs, more bread crumbs and even more bread crumbs.” And a sausage. Yes, sausage: it turns out that Frillback’s strength comes from eating sausages, and the Real Pigeons really need that strength to get rid of the stink bomb that would otherwise spoil everything for everybody. All ends happily, with the bad guys caged (yes, literally) by a convenient fortune teller whose parakeet the Real Pigeons have conveniently freed, leaving the cage conveniently empty and available. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, really, and none of it is intended to: Real Pigeons Fight Crime is simply an amply illustrated romp of a book. And it gives every indication of being the first in an ongoing series of equally amply illustrated, equally silly, and equally enjoyable romps.


Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     Steve Jenkins is one of a very few authors who can create nonfiction for young readers that is every bit as captivating as fiction – a blend of teachable moments and attractive visuals that both catches the eye and informs the brain. Life on Earth, originally published in 2002 and now available in paperback, is an excellent example of Jenkins’ skill both with words and with illustrations cleverly made from cut and torn paper. The book is an introduction to the principles of evolution, one of the greatest and most thoroughly researched and accepted of all scientific principles. There is really no doubt that evolution is what drives speciation, although there remain small minorities that continue to deny its existence – largely because they deem it “only a theory,” which means they thoroughly misunderstand what a “theory” is in science (it is not a guess or hypothesis but as close to a fact as it is possible to come, given that scientists always look beyond current knowledge to modify and expand whatever is currently known).

     To draw young readers into a basic explanation of evolution, Jenkins starts with the remarkable comment that all life, from cacti to bumblebees to penguins, is descended from single-celled organisms that lived in a past so distant as to be quite literally unimaginable. Jenkins takes readers through the varying epochs of Earth’s existence, from the time before life all the way to today, showing a wide variety of living things from each time period – some bizarre in appearance and some closely resembling the flora and fauna of today. Then, about half-way through this thin but information-packed book, Jenkins asks the why question: “Why have so any different forms of life developed on the earth?” And that leads into an explanation of the way most people viewed the world before Charles Darwin’s time, and the discoveries and analyses that led Darwin to formulate the scientific theory of evolution. This part of Life on Earth is splendidly done, simplifying but not oversimplifying Darwin’s findings and illustrating them to perfection. First, Jenkins’ portrayals of the beaks of four finches from the Galápagos Islands show quite clearly how the similar-appearing birds’ differing beaks are adapted to take advantage of disparate food sources. Second, Jenkins shows “natural selection at work” by starting with an animal that young readers will know, a frog, and explaining how the mother frog’s 3,000 eggs lead to only 10 tadpoles that live long enough to become frogs and only two frogs that survive long enough to reproduce. It is the why of these two frogs’ survival that provides a key to evolution, as Jenkins explains carefully and with matter-of-fact elegance.

     Then Jenkins both tells and shows the workings of genetics, illustrating with admirable clarity the way in which variation (natural differences between parents and offspring) and mutation (the emergence of unexpected and unpredictable new features) lead, together, to creatures that are either more or less likely to survive and pass on their own characteristics. And he does a fine job of showing some of the effects of evolution, providing two full pages of pictures of beetles (which have evolved new shapes and sizes to fill differing ecological niches), followed by two pages showing animals that fit their habitats so well that they have remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of millions of years (turtles, horseshoe crabs, sharks and more). After a short explanation of extinctions – whose effect on evolution is massive but would require another book to explain with even a modicum of detail – Jenkins returns to where he started Life on Earth, this time showing the progression of life as if Earth’s entire existence could be compressed into a single day. The idea is to help young readers grasp the immense time span over which life has developed and changed by relating Earth’s history to a time period with which readers are familiar. This is only moderately successful – the human brain simply cannot grasp a time period of billions of years – but it is as good an attempt as anyone else has made to engage readers’ interest and thinking about the way life on our planet has evolved. Life on Earth is an excellent introduction to its topic and a book that is fascinating enough to read again and again, even as it will likely encourage many young readers to go elsewhere for more-detailed information on the evolution of plants and animals.


Traci Mendel: Landscapes, Series II; Lines at Dusk—Hymn to the Rising Moon; Nocturne; James M. David: Batuque; Otto Ketting: Intrada; Bernhard Krol: Laudatio; Alexey Posin: Brass Quintet No. 1. Navona. $14.99.

Diane Jones: Earth Rise; Edna Alexandra Longoria: Los Ritmos Para Tres (Rhythms for Three); Ovidiu Marinescu: Sunt Numai Urechi (I’m All Ears); Christina Rusnak: Glacier Blue; Chad Robinson: Darkbloom; Clive Muncaster: Palette No. 2; Joanna Estelle: Faraway Star; Eliane Aberdam: Grisailles Vaporeuses. Navona. $14.99.

     Anthology CDs of contemporary music have a built-in plus and a built-in minus. The plus is the opportunity to hear examples of works by numerous composers with whom a listener may not be familiar – a chance to discover at least one new piece and/or composer worth exploring further. The minus is the unlikelihood of finding all the works and composers on the CD intriguing enough to explore further – a certain level of disappointment is almost inevitable. Artists and labels generally try to compensate for the “minus” by providing something other than the music itself that may make a release worthwhile – for example, by focusing on a specific performer, instrument or instrumental group that may appeal to an audience through skill and sound even if not all the music communicates effectively to everyone who hears it. Two new Navona releases take exactly this artist-focused approach to anthologies of recent music. John McGuire’s horn playing is the thread that ties together otherwise very different works by Traci Mendel (born 1964), James M. David (born 1978), Otto Ketting (1935-2012), Bernhard Krol (1920-2013), and Alexey Posin (born 1971). The works here have varying inspirations and varying ways of responding to their source materials. Mendel’s three offerings are for horn and piano (the pianist is Kevin Chance). Landscapes, Series II includes three pieces inspired by Japanese paintings and woodcuts, musically limned by generally having the piano take a background/foundational role as the horn moves the music ahead – usually with greater dissonance than fits comfortably with Japanese artistic sensibilities. The inspiration for Lines at Dusk—Hymn to the Rising Moon is the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here much of the pianistic material is chordal, while the horn, often in its higher register, sounds more strident and less warm than might be expected in Shelley-inspired material. Of Mendel’s works, Nocturne is most effective in pairing horn and piano, and there is at least a modicum of gentleness in this nighttime music. David’s Batuque is a two-movement work whose title refers to dance music of Brazil and West Africa. The piece is scored for horn, piano (Chance) and clarinet (Wesley Ferreira). The first movement explores some of the clarinet’s and horn’s singing qualities, which fit somewhat uneasily with the piano’s stridency; the second movement has distinct jazzlike qualities and considerable bounciness – it is much more engaging than the first. Ketting’s Intrada and Krol’s Laudatio are solo-horn pieces, the former a series of silences alternating with fanfare-like proclamations, the latter more fluid and flowing. McGuire’s skill on his instrument is especially evident in these two pieces, as he extracts varying sounds from the horn while exploring a multiplicity of performance techniques. The CD concludes with its most-interesting offering, Posin’s three-movement Brass Quintet No. 1, in which McGuire is heard as part of the Fortress Brass Quintet with Bradley Ulrich and Eric Yates, trumpets; Bradley Kerns, trombone; and Michael Dunn, tuba. The opening Allegro Vivo is ebullient and full of energy, with some especially nice treatment of the lower brass; the Intermezzo contrasts well, being quieter and focused more on individual instrumental lines; and the final Rondo-Tarantella, played attacca, more or less sneaks up on the listener at the start and soon becomes a propulsive whirl featuring the many coloristic effects of which this instrumental complement is capable. It is a winning conclusion to a CD that has, all in all, more high points than low.

     It is a group rather than a single instrument that unites disparate works by Diane Jones, Edna Alexandra Longoria, Clive Muncaster, Joanna Estelle, and Eliane Aberdam: all are for string trio and performed by Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). In addition, there are three pieces here for solo cello – one each by Marinescu, Christina Rusnak and Chad Robinson. Jones’ Earth Rise begins with some quiet piano scene-setting before becoming livelier and more attenuated by turns – it is supposed to be a kind of cosmic dance, and does have some dancelike rhythms as well as a certain degree of lyricism. Longoria’s Los Ritmos Para Tres is strongly jazz-inflected and is infectiously rhythmic, including percussive elements generated by the performers tapping their instruments. Muncaster’s Palette No. 2 combines some of the “cosmic” sounds of Jones’ work with some of the dancelike rhythms used by Longoria, but it also features some genuinely affecting lyricism and particularly well-managed relationships among the instruments. Estelle’s Faraway Star is a kind of extended love song in which the piano “narrates” a dialogue between violin and cello. It is a pretty piece that does not overextend its welcome – a good thing, since it is on the verge of becoming cloying throughout. Aberdam’s Grisailles Vaporeuses (“misty graynesses”) has three movements marked “Pensive,” “Lyrical” and “Joyful,” the first of which extends the mood of Estelle’s work to rather less effect. The second movement is more interesting in its instrumental combinations, and the third provides considerable contrast through short, broken themes that sound quite different from the long lines and extended melodies of the earlier movements. The work is nature-inspired but does not have a particularly strong connection with natural phenomena, and its inconclusive finish leaves listeners hanging. The music for string trio takes up the first and last part of this CD, with the solo-cello material in the middle. Marinescu’s Sunt Numai Urechi brings some flamenco-guitar elements to the cello but wears out its inventiveness after a while, although its speedy concluding material is attractive. Rusnak’s Glacier Blue is a three-movement piece intended to depict or respond to “Mountain,” “Sky” and “Water.” All the movements have interesting elements, and the work as a whole is a showcase not only for technical prowess but also for the cello’s ability to produce a wide variety of string and percussive sounds (the latter especially in the middle movement). But the piece really does not sustain for almost 15 minutes: it becomes clever rather than thoughtful and ends up seeming more interesting for a performer than for non-cellist listeners. Robinson’s Darkbloom also seeks out and finds the cello’s full expressive range, managing to make the instrument sound truly violin-like at times while allowing its potential for rich warmth to come to the forefront at others. Like Rusnak’s piece, though, it seems to be more of an étude than music intended to connect with a general audience: it is easy to appreciate the skill of the work’s construction (and of Marinescu’s accomplished performance) without being particularly moved by the musical material. The works for trio on this disc, although themselves a mixed bag, generally come across more effectively than do those for the cello alone.

January 09, 2020


The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. By Rita Lorraine Hubbard. Illustrated by Oge Mora. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     An exceptional book about a person who became extraordinary through something that young readers will find very ordinary indeed, Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s The Oldest Student is a biography of a onetime slave who lived to the amazing age of 121 and, in the process, was proclaimed the oldest student in the United States. On the surface, the life of Mary Walker (1848-1969) contained nothing highly unusual except for her longevity: she grew up, worked hard, married, had children, and eventually lived out her days in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  But as Hubbard makes clear in a book structured deliberately as well-deserved hagiography, beneath this veneer of the everyday lay a woman whose childhood determination to do something she was initially forbidden to do – read – remained with her for a century until, eventually, she was able to bring her ambition to reality.

     Hubbard neither glosses over the depredations of slavery nor dwells on them. She simply uses them to set the scene by explaining the rule that “slaves should not be taught to read or write, or do anything that might help them learn to do so” – quickly establishing just why Mary never learned to read. Hubbard invents for Mary a childhood determination to learn as well as a preoccupation with the freedom of birds flying. Neither is much of a stretch, although neither is factual; but both help Hubbard connect the early and later parts of Mary’s life thematically. Similarly, Hubbard does not explain why Mary chose to stay in the South after emancipation – parents may need to help explain the history to children – but she discusses the long hours and days of work that Mary endured for many years, thus reinforcing the notion of there never being time to learn reading. In fact, little about Mary’s life from age 15 to age 116 is known, as Hubbard explains at the back of the book, so the specifics of this story are largely made up. They ring true, however, since they are quotidian matters – and there is nothing to indicate that Mary lived an out-of-the-ordinary life through the many post-slavery decades.

     Halfway through the book, Hubbard is finally ready to focus on centenarian Mary’s determination to learn to read – and at this point, the excellence of Oge Mora’s illustrations really becomes clear. The mixed-media pictures throughout are beautifully done, but it is when the focus on Mary’s desire to read takes center stage that Mora’s design carries the story: she shows papers, signs, billboards, notices and more as a series of squiggles, making it visually clear that this is how things must have looked to Mary when she did not know the alphabet or how the letters formed words. The picture of Mary asleep at a table, resting her head on her arm, as visions of letters waft through her dreams and pages of her printing of her own name lie beneath her fingers, is a perfect encapsulation of Mary’s eventual success at learning to read. Mora’s inclusion of little bits of newspaper clippings in her designs, and of mundane-but-special items such as a piece of paper hanging on a wall and saying “Happy Birthday, Gramma Walker,” makes The Oldest Student as special visually as Hubbard’s storytelling makes it narratively. A two-page illustration showing Mary looking out a window at everyday signs on buildings – now all words she can read – is a simply beautiful way of bringing home the book’s message about the wonder of reading and of one woman’s determination to learn. A climactic scene, in which people celebrating Mary’s birthday go silent so Mary can read to them from her Bible, is as heartwarming as can be.

     Today’s children, the target audience for this lovely book, will of course be reading it (perhaps with a little adult help here and there). And they will likely think little of the wonder of knowing how to read, since it is such a small, everyday miracle, so easily taken for granted. After they finish The Oldest Student, though, at least some of them will understand just how important reading is and how much people are missing when they cannot do so. In this way, Hubbard’s and Mora’s story of Mary Walker – and, indeed, Mary Walker’s life itself – can carry a message about the importance of words to a new, video-saturated generation. It is hard to imagine Mary Walker having a better legacy than that.


Packs: Strength in Numbers. By Hannah Salyer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Helga’s Dowry: A Troll Love Story. By Tomie dePaola. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     There is little doubt that in some circumstances there is greater strength in a group than in individuals. The ancient Romans knew this well – hence their focus on the fasces, a bundle of sticks (sometimes containing an ax with its blade visible) that had been used since Etruscan times to show the power of being bound together rather than being as weak as an individual wooden rod would be. But there is such a thing as taking the concept too far, which is why the much later word fascism – directly derived from the ancient notion – has less-than-admirable connotations. Still, for many of the animal groupings explored by Hannah Salyer in Packs, being bound together is crucial to survival. Salyer makes her brief considerations of animal packs entertaining as well as informative both through her art and through two aspects of her narrative: giving the formal name for each specific collection of animals, and creating a fanciful overview of what each group does together. Thus, she explains how some ants head underground – where they are called, collectively, a nest – and gather green leaves to be used to grow food for the colony: “Together, we harvest!” And wildebeest, which move in groups as large as a million individuals in a “herd [that] is called an implausibility,” roam the Serengeti plains: “Together, we travel!” Salyer anthropomorphizes some animal groups to make a point, as when thousands of flamingos, “known as a flamboyance,” eat together and sleep together and find mates together: “Together, we dance!” The strength-in-numbers approach is frequently used by tiny animals that are individually weak, such as coral, and by prey animals that need to protect themselves against predators, such as zebras. Salyer stretches the groupings a bit by showing a pride of lions (“Together, we nurture!”) and numerous crocodiles basking in the sun: lions are actually social only to a limited degree, and crocodiles are not group animals at all, usually coming together only when a bask of them (“bask” being their collective noun, although it is one that Salyer does not provide) happens to want to, well, bask in the same warm area. Inevitably, Salyer ends the book with a city scene showing a large group of people, in the now-obligatory forms of racial, ethnic and sexual diversity (e.g., men walking hand-in-hand), and the statement that “we are better” as a grouping of people (which, in fact, might be called “a diversity of humans,” although it isn’t). Indeed, Salyer lays on the lessons a bit too thickly at the back of the book, using the final pages to discuss ways in which “animals in this book are under threat from things like climate change, poaching, or habitat loss.” That alters both the topic and the tone of Packs rather jarringly, but it does not really interfere with the well-presented basic information about animal groupings – and can be skipped if one is so inclined. Salyer’s end-of-book page giving the exact names of the creatures in the book, on the other hand, should not be skipped by any young reader intrigued by the illustrations. That page gives, for example, seven different names for the various corals shown in Salyer’s single picture. There is plenty to enjoy in Packs, and plenty of material that can be followed up elsewhere, perhaps starting with the six “Further Reading” examples that Salyer helpfully supplies.

     The binding-together element of conformity can certainly be taken too far when it comes to human beings, as the fasces-to-fascism example indicates. It can also be taken too far when it comes to trolls, as Tomie dePaola shows in Helga’s Dowry, a delightful 1977 book now available in a new paperback edition. It seems that all female trolls exist under a pronouncement from “One-Eyed Odin,” to the effect that “all unmarried Troll Maidens must wander the earth forever.” But troll maidens cannot marry unless they have a suitable dowry. And that is Helga’s problem: although Handsome Lars wants to marry her, she has no dowry at all. So Handsome Lars goes to Rich Sven for advice – and is promptly advised to marry Rich Sven’s daughter, Plain Inge. Oops. Well, Helga may be a dutiful member of the troll grouping, but she is also an individual, and she is not willing to be jilted just because of group customs – so she tucks her tail out of sight, loads her troll cart with sundries, and goes “hopping down the mountain into the Land of People.” Helga is clever enough to know when to go against the group, especially when the group is lazy: at a farm, she finds a washhouse with no smoke coming out of the chimney and lots of people just lolling about – and offers to get all the laundry cleaned by sundown in exchange for 35 cows, with the proviso that if she cannot deliver on time, she gets paid nothing at all. The greedy farmwife who is in charge of doing laundry but is not doing it can scarcely resist that deal – but by sundown, thanks to “troll powder in the water” and “troll wax on the iron,” Helga delivers a gigantic pile of beautifully cleaned and folded laundry and heads home with her 35 cows. And the next day she heads back to “the People’s Marketplace” to get something more for her dowry: gold. A bit of “juvenescent cream” containing troll magic helps old people look young again, and soon enough, the people are happy and Helga has all the gold she needs. Now all she lacks is a meadow – the last dowry requirement – and she knows how to get it: by cutting down a mountainside full of trees. But that part of her plan is foiled by none other than Plain Inge, who turns herself into a tree and prevents Helga from doing what she wishes – and there ensues a wonderfully drawn and very funny battle between Tree-Inge and Boulder-Helga. Yes, Helga turns herself into a boulder and repeatedly rolls down the mountain to try to turn Inge “into kindling wood.” But Inge dodges again and again, although Helga cleverly eventually gets the better of her – and then decides not to marry Handsome Lars, because “I want to be loved for who I am, not for what I’ve got!” And there is the moral of the story – and a finely fashioned comeuppance for Handsome Lars, who has to marry Plain Inge after all, while Helga ends up with a much better match with a troll who loves her for what she is and has “no need of riches,” for what turns out to be a very good reason. Helga’s Dowry is a delightfully told fable, in which dePaola’s storytelling skill and immediately recognizable art combine to produce a story about the value – and limitations – of being a member of a group and doing just what the group expects.


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. “0,” 2 and 6. Sophie-Mayuko Vetter, piano and fortepiano; Hamburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Ruzicka. Oehms. $14.99.

Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volumes 10 and 11: Debussy—Images, Books I and II; La plus que lente; Études, Books I and II; Suite bergamasque; Pour le piano; L’Isle joyeuse; Préludes, Book I. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     The 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth is bringing a flood of recordings of familiar works and, perhaps even more welcome, something more than a trickle of releases of less-known Beethoven. There is more of that than many people realize. Certainly his symphonies, string quartets, Missa Solemnis, piano sonatas and various concertos are so firmly anchored in the standard repertoire that Beethoven’s music is ubiquitous. In reality, though, only some of it is heard constantly, and if the 250th-anniversary acknowledgments provide a chance for further exploration, so much the better. Even among what are considered the most-familiar Beethoven works, there are surprises to be found. This is the case with his piano concertos. He wrote 8½ of them: the five hyper-familiar ones numbered 1-5, the piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto, a lost early concerto, a not-lost early one known as WoO 4 or “No. 0,” and a portion of what would have become No. 6 if Beethoven had not abandoned it for reasons unknown. A new Oehms release featuring Sophie-Mayuko Vetter and the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra under Peter Ruzicka is an especially happy exploration of Beethoven’s early concertos and late partial concerto, not only because the music itself is worth hearing but also because Vetter correctly plays “No. 0” on the fortepiano. Beethoven very specifically stated that this work was for harpsichord or fortepiano, and it sounds immeasurably better on an intended instrument than on the modern concert grands used on the still-rare occasions when pianists present it. Vetter has an excellent touch on the fortepiano and takes full advantage of the coloristic capabilities of the instrument – a characteristic it shares with the harpsichord but not with modern pianos. Beethoven, although only a young teenager when he wrote this concerto, clearly understood how harpsichord and fortepiano can color music in different ways: different parts of the keyboard produce inherently different sounds, apart from the registration differences that harpsichordists (like organists) can engage at will. The very Mozartean flavor of “No. 0” (which actually sounds somewhat more like a work by Johann Christian Bach than one by Mozart) comes through especially clearly in this recording – whose only significant flaw is an unwelcome decision to rush the finale, which is taken at an Allegro molto pace rather the designated Allegretto. This movement has one of the most delicious rondo themes that Beethoven ever wrote, and a slower pace would have brought forth much more of its charm than the headlong rush heard here. Even with that miscalculation, though, the concerto is played so well, and gets such fine orchestral accompaniment, that the recording is a delight. And No. 2, the first-composed of the five “canonical” concertos, sounds splendid as well. There is a lightness bordering on dalliance throughout the concerto, a sense of joie de vivre not often associated with Beethoven and all the more infectious as a result. Vetter and Ruzicka engage in a bit too much rubato from time to time, notably in the finale. But they mostly get away with their tempo fluctuations, because the changes are judiciously chosen and serve to highlight some elements of the music to good effect (even though, as a result, they downplay others). As for the single surviving movement of what would have been Concerto No. 6, this is a bit of a hodgepodge, having been completed and cobbled into performable form by Nicholas Cook and Hermann Dechant. Vetter’s performance here is the work’s world première recording, and it serves the music well. The use of the piano in this single-movement fragment is different from its handling in the five numbered concertos, with an integration of piano into orchestral fabric that looks ahead to the Romantic era – and a climactic three-and-a-half-minute cadenza (in a 15-minute movement) that takes the rather pedestrian thematic material and spins it into a kind of fantasy/impromptu. The result is intriguing rather than gripping, providing a sense of where Beethoven could perhaps have gone with the material if he had decided to expand upon and develop it further. In this way, Concerto No. 6 is as revelatory – but as disjointed – as Beethoven’s sketches for his Symphony No. 10. It is fascinating to hear this pianistic possibility, but it is certainly not Beethoven and is not entirely “Beethovenian,” either. Nevertheless, it is the insights into lesser Beethoven and “almost Beethoven” that make this release such a fascinating one.

     The fascination of the latest Idil Biret Solo Edition presentation, a two-CD IBA recording featuring more than two-and-a-half hours of Debussy, lies partly in the sheer pianistic prowess of Biret, who in her late 70s (she was born in 1941) retains all the expressive and virtuosic skill she has displayed through many decades; and partly in the chance to hear so much of Debussy’s impressionistic music rendered with such clarity and attention to detail. Much of the material here is thrice-familiar: Images, Suite bergamasque (including Clair de lune) and the Préludes are mainstays of pianists’ repertoires and heard very frequently in recitals and on recordings. But Biret approaches even the most-familiar of these works with the feeling of coming to them, if not for the first time, then in the spirit of discovery and rediscovery of Debussy’s tonal palette and his expressive techniques. It is worth remembering that everything here is a miniature, an encapsulation of a particular mood, feeling or approach to piano playing: there are 39 tracks on the two CDs. And Biret handles every individual piece as a kind of tiny tone poem, delving into the pictures that each elicits or the feeling each evokes and exploring the material in detail before bringing every item to a satisfactory close and then moving on to the next little jewel. Thus, each of the Préludes from Book I breathes its own atmosphere, with the result that the contrasts among the works – say, between La Cathédrale engloutie and the immediately following La Danse du Puck – are quite strong and yet carefully measured (hopefully Book II of the Préludes will be forthcoming on a later Biret recording). All six Images are beautifully turned and lovingly explored, with the last of them, Poisson d’or, especially evocative of its subject matter. The lengthy Études, whose two books together are the longest offering on this release, have little of the charm of Debussy’s favored impressionism: they really are exercises for the pianist, however well-made they may be as individual works. But even here, Biret finds ways to make the material far more expressive than it usually is, for example in Pour les sonorités opposées. Biret is a consummate stylist in much of the music she performs, and shows throughout this very fine recording that she is every bit as adept and accomplished in Debussy’s music as in the works by Liszt and Schumann with which she is more closely associated, and which dominated earlier recordings among the Idil Biret Solo Edition releases.

January 02, 2020


Rise Up: Ordinary Kids with Extraordinary Stories. By Amanda Li. Illustrated by Amy Blackwell. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     It was probably inevitable after Time magazine selected Greta Thunberg as its Person of the Year for 2019 that there would be extremely high levels of attention lavished on the teenage Swedish environmental activist in other quarters. But Rise Up is anticipatory: being a book, it was prepared long before Time made its decision, and its placement of Thunberg as the first of 30-plus stories of exceptional young people was determined some time ago. In fact, although the book is new in the United States, it was first published in Great Britain last year, so it has no Time connection at all – except for a fortuitous one.

     Nevertheless, Thunberg is the first person profiled by Amanda Li, indicating that she was already having the sort of impact that would justify using her story before any other in a book of this sort. In a sense, this is surprising, since Thunberg has not actually accomplished anything significant – she herself has reported being dismayed that more progress has not been made on environmental matters since she began agitating for greater attention to be paid to them, as if such deep and widespread societal changes need no more than a “just get it done now” attitude. Still, Thunberg has rallied large numbers of people of roughly her own age to the cause in which she believes, and that is an accomplishment to which the young readers at whom Rise Up is aimed should be able to relate.

     Many of the 29 young people around whom the book is built, and the several others mentioned in brief after the longer profiles, did in fact accomplish remarkable things in life, although not always while they were teenagers or preteens. For example, there is something genuinely inspirational in the tale of William Kamkwamba of Malawi, who in 2002, at age 15, hand-built a windmill to bring electricity to his impoverished home area during a time of famine. There is a story of boldness and the overcoming of tremendous danger and fear in the tale of Yeonmi Park, who at age 14 escaped from North Korea with her mother and subsequently became a human-rights activist. There is astonishing bravery in the tale of Desmond Doss (1919-2006), who as a combat medic in World War II, at the age of 26, saved the lives of 75 fellow soldiers by carrying them one by one down a sheer cliff face – and was awarded the Medal of Honor as a result. These specific people may not be household names (despite books and movies by or about them), but there are some more-familiar people mentioned in the book as well, such as Helen Keller (discussed briefly after a longer profile of Louis Braille, inventor of the system that bears his name); Frida Kahlo (included because of the horrendous bus accident that nearly killed her when she was 18); soccer star Pelé (chosen at 17 to play for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup); and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai (shot and almost killed by Taliban murderers when she was 15 – a defining moment that is unfortunately minimized by Li’s insensitively bland explanation that “they didn’t like what Malala was doing”).

     Rise Up delves into many time periods and many locations to assemble its stories, all of which are illustrated more-or-less realistically by Amy Blackwell. The tales are given in no particular order, and the book as a whole lacks cohesion as a result – especially since the types of events on which Li focuses vary so much, from stories of survival (after an alligator attack in one case, a shark encounter in another) to ones of heroism in war (the Doss tale, plus one about a young boy serving as a spy) to ones of dealing determinedly with birth defects (a rare disease causing facial deformity, a congenital bone condition). Nothing is grouped logically with anything else; narratively, the book is quite disorganized. It is the interest level of the stories themselves that sustains Rise Up, even when Li’s writing itself is subpar: “When they call her up and ask her how to become a pilot. She is always delighted to tell them how she did it.”

     A significant plus of the book is a feature that is genuinely useful for readers who will never find themselves in circumstances akin to those of the people profiled by Li. This is what Li includes after each short biographical sketch: information drawn from or related to the story she has just told, and doable by readers themselves. Thus, after a story about a thousand-mile walk by young girls in Australia, Li gives some facts about the Australian Outback and also explains how, if you have no way of knowing the time, you can use your hands to figure out how long it will be until darkness. After the Thunberg profile, Li offers readers “some small changes that make a big difference” and also suggests ways “to be an environmental activist.” After a story about climbing Mount Everest, she gives the symptoms of altitude sickness and then explains “how to perform an ice-axe self-arrest” to keep from sliding down a mountain’s slope. Some of the “how to” suggestions will be far more accessible to the book’s target readership than others, but the mere fact that Li includes things that young people can potentially do themselves gives Rise Up a level of usefulness that it would not otherwise have. Presentation flaws aside, the book does have the potential to inspire its target readership – as well as elicit young people’s sense of amazement at what some other young people have dealt with, accomplished or endured in the past.


Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker. Sveshnikov Boys Choir of the Moscow Choral School and State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Weber: Oberon. Clemens Kerschbaumer, Mirko Roschkowski, Dorothea Maria Marx, Grga Peroš, Marie Seidler, Dmitry Egorov, Roman Kurtz; Chor und Extrachor des Stadttheaters Giessen and Philharmonisches Orchester Giessen conducted by Michael Hofstetter. Oehms. $28.99 (2 CDs).

Albert Lortzing: Overtures to “Der Waffenschmied,” “Die Opernprobe,” “Undine,” “Der Wildschütz,” “Hans Sachs,” “Der Weihnachtsabend,” “Zar und Zimmermann,” “Andreas Hofer,” and “Regina.” Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $12.99. 
     Stage works do not always fit easily upon the stage. The original E.T.A. Hoffman story Nussknacker und Mausekönig (1816) is fascinating and dramatic, and it lies like much of Hoffman's work on the borderline between dream and nightmare. But Tchaikovsky did not know the original, and the much-watered-down version of the story on which he based The Nutcracker is always a challenge to produce: all the action is in the first act, the second is essentially just a series of character sketches, the prima ballerina and her companion do not even get a chance to show their abilities until very near the end, and the conclusion is ambiguous at best (if not dubious). But Tchaikovsky's music is so marvelous that it almost compensates for all the flaws of the story indeed, for modern audiences, it does compensate for them, since the ballet is so often staged as a pageant for children, and the tunes provide one delight after another. Vladimir Jurowski takes a somewhat-more-serious-than-usual approach to the melodious work on a new PentaTone SACD that achieves the remarkable (if no longer unique) accomplishment of putting nearly 87 minutes of music on a single disc without loss of audio quality – another of several recent proofs that the long-accepted 80-minute disc limit is now archaic, if not obsolete. Jurowski, who offered a decidedly symphonic Swan Lake on an earlier release for the same label, heightens the drama of the first act while emphasizing the careful musical structure that Tchaikovsky brought to this part of The Nutcracker. Jurowski's tempos are carefully chosen – this remains a danceable version of the ballet, as was not entirely the case with his Swan Lake – but the focus is on dramatic contrasts, as in the strong distinction between the elements of the "Scene and Grandfather Waltz." The battle of mice and toy soldiers is delivered here with more strength than usual, and there is drama as well after the battle ends and the journey to Confitourenburg begins. The orchestra is highly responsive to Jurowski's approach, although the boys' choir sounds a bit strained from time to time. In the second act, Jurowski leads the dances with good attention to rhythm, although "Dance of the Reed Pipes" and "Mother Gigogne" are perhaps pushed just a bit too hard. The eventual pas de deux for the prince and sugar-plum fairy brings a bit of drama back to the proceedings, and the final waltz and apotheosis crown the ballet with musical strength that goes beyond the rather limp ending of the story as Tchaikovsky knew it. This is an admirable performance both for the sheer quality of the playing and for Jurowski's mostly successful attempt to make The Nutcracker more than a charming spectacle for children.

     Speaking of pageants and spectacles, Weber’s final opera, Oberon, was intended to be both – and that is a major problem in staging it, or even performing it on CD. Combine a libretto that is execrable from any traditional operatic standpoint with the fact that the words are in English (the first performance, conducted by the composer, was at Covent Garden), and the fact that Weber did not live long enough to “Germanize” either the story or the dramatic structure, and you have a work that contains some splendid music but feels somehow unfinished even though it is in fact quite complete. It is a work without recitatives: the musical numbers are interspersed with spoken words that provide most of the exposition, as was long the case in opera seria even though the form of Oberon is quite different. So what little cohesion the story has must come through via the narration. But cohesiveness is not the point here: Oberon was written to be a spectacle, incorporating a great deal of the then-current European fascination with “Turkish” music and costumes: the opera dates to 1826, two years after the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, with its Turkish march in the finale. Weber’s opera has elements of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), which is also a Singspiel, but Weber’s forward-looking harmonies and highly atmospheric chorus of spirits and aria to the sea (“Ocean, Thou Mighty Monster”) place Oberon firmly in the realm of Weber’s own Der Freischütz. On stage, Oberon can work if handled as intended: as spectacle, replete with exotic costumes and knowingly unbelievable events as manipulated by the fairy realm in the name of testing humans’ ability to overcome obstacles for the sake of true love. Playing it straight on stage, and without irony, is necessary. But this does not solve the problem of recording the opera, and a new version on Oehms, directed by Michael Hofstetter, does not quite solve it, either. This (+++) recording features mostly adequate if not outstanding singing: Dmitry Egorov as Puck is particularly good, while Mirko Roschkowski as Hüon seems a bit overmatched by Weber’s vocal demands. The choral portions are the highlight, sung assuredly and with strength and intensity. However, the whole production is given in German (in the 1829 version by Karl Gottfried Theodor Winkler, using the pseudonym Theodore Hell), and this is an arguable approach at best – and Oehms provides neither a full libretto nor a translation for the altered spoken elements, which means that Roman Kurtz’s narration is intelligible only for listeners fluent in German. A number of musical elements do stand out, including the always-wonderful overture and Ozean, du Ungeheuer as sung by Dorothea Maria Marx, who is excellent in this difficult aria but less effective elsewhere. But the performance does not quite gel musically, and while Oberon is scarcely consistent from a dramatic standpoint (and is not really intended to be), it can be a more-rewarding musical experience than it is here. This is an opera (or, perhaps more accurately, a stage work of operatic proportions) that requires considerable attentiveness to overcome its manifest shortcomings. It gets some of that much-needed attention under Hofstetter, but could have used a bit more.

     Weber’s influence on German opera was immense, even though nowadays it is only Der Freischütz that is performed with any regularity. One composer very much influenced by Weber, and in his turn very influential for a time, was Albert Lortzing (1801-1851), whose skill in devising stage works reflected, in part, his own participation in them: he was his own librettist and sometimes the creator of tenor roles in his own operas, notably as Peter Ivanov in Zar und Zimmermann, which along with Der Wildschütz is the only Lortzing opera still heard with any regularity – in Germany if rarely elsewhere. Most of Lortzing’s operas and Singspiels were comedic, and several used a then-common technique by importing some music originally written by other composers – including Weber (as well as Haydn) in Andreas Hofer, and Mozart and Schubert in Der Weihnachtsabend. Lortzing was also a conductor, and knew very well how to entice audiences into the spirit of his stage works, as is quite clear in the nine overtures performed on a (++++) Naxos CD by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. The overtures neatly encapsulate Lortzing’s melodic gifts and his ability to set up the scenes not only of his comic works but also of his occasional serious ones, including Andreas Hofer, which features calls for freedom that prevented the work from being staged during the composer’s lifetime, and Regina, also unstaged for many years because of what was deemed its too-sympathetic view of issues analogous to those of the failed Viennese rebellion of 1848. There is also considerable drama in the overture to the fairy-tale opera, Undine, drawn from the same source as an earlier opera by E.T.A. Hoffmann and a later one by Tchaikovsky. Even when the overtures begin strongly – as they often do, with flourishes or emphatic chords to call the audience to attention – most soon become lighter and flow with such charm and apparent ease that every one of them is a delight to hear and could well become a curtain-raising fixture on concert programs today. Interestingly, just as Lortzing follows in Weber’s footsteps in a number of ways, so other composers followed him: Lortzing’s Hans Sachs is about the same central character used by Wagner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Wagner was well aware of Lortzing’s 1840 opera when he began sketching Die Meistersinger in 1845; indeed, the two operas share numerous plot points. Stagings of Lortzing’s works are no longer common, but on the basis of this very-well-played recording, revivals of at least some of them are worth considering – and more-frequent hearings of these sparkling overtures are very definitely worthwhile.


Tchaikovsky: String Quartets Nos. 1-3; Quartet Movement in B-flat; String Sextet, “Souvenir de Florence.” Quatuor Danel (Marc Danel and Gilles Millet, violins; Vlad Bogdanas, viola; Yovan Markovitch, cello); Vladimir Bukač, viola; Petr Prause, cello. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Elliott Miles McKinley: String Quartet No. 8; A Letter to Say I Love You, and Goodbye, for violoncello and piano; Piano Trio No. 1, “The Shadow Dancer.” Navona. $9.99.

Leo Brouwer: String Quartet No. 6; Christopher Walczak: Four Dreams; Vũ Nhật Tân & Vân-Ánh Võ: Mây [Cloud]; Alexandra du Bois: Within Earth, Wood Grows. Navona. $14.99.

     Sibelius gave his string quartet of 1908-09 the Latin title Voces Intimae, meaning “intimate voices” or “inner voices,” and the phrase is remarkably apt for many other quartets and for much chamber music in general: small-ensemble pieces usually have, by design, a high level of personal expression and of close interconnection among their performers. Tchaikovsky’s quartets certainly do, and while they are not among his best-known works, they explore much of the same territory and are often every bit as melodious as his symphonies, concertos and ballets. Striking, robust performances by Quatuor Danel on a new two-CD release from CPO provide considerable insight into the works’ structure and elicit plenty of emotion from them. The first quartet, in D, has one of Tchaikovsky’s loveliest movements, the Andante cantabile, which truly sings in this performance as it wafts gently from instrument to instrument. Well-known as a separate piece, this movement is of course only part of the total quartet, and Quatuor Danel does an excellent job of highlighting it while also showing it in context, as a respite from the preceding Moderato e semplice that ends with considerable intensity, and a gateway to a scherzo and finale that contrast effectively with the slow movement’s gentleness. This quartet is not Tchaikovsky’s earliest surviving work in the form: there is also a single movement in B-flat that is striking in its own way and that receives a strongly propulsive performance here. The second quartet, in F, shows greater compositional maturity than this movement or the first complete quartet, with a rhythmically complex second movement and a well-wrought fugue within the rondo form of the finale. Although it is less immediately appealing than the first quartet on an emotional level, the second provides strong evidence of how much Tchaikovsky developed as a composer in the few years between the two works (1871 and 1873-74). The members of Quatuor Danel make a strong case for Quartet No. 2, excelling in particular in the contrast between ensemble passages and those given to individual instruments. And the players are even better advocates for the third and most heartfelt quartet, written in the unusual key of E-flat minor and redolent of tragedy: it is in part a tribute to Ferdinand Laub, who had played first violin in the premières of Tchaikovsky’s first two quartets but who died at age 43 before the third, which is dedicated to him, was written. Intimate this quartet certainly is, but it does not wallow in grief along the lines of the finale of the Sixth Symphony: its funerary third movement is heartfelt, but its effect is that of an extended song rather than a dirge. Again, Quatuor Danel takes the full measure of the music and keeps its darker elements in perspective: Tchaikovsky very effectively balanced them with brighter, if scarcely lighter, material, and the performers handle the contrasts with nuanced skill. Joined and complemented by Vladimir Bukač and Petr Prause, they also do a first-rate job with Souvenir de Florence, a far more upbeat work despite the fact that it too is in a minor key (D minor). When played as well as it is here, this sextet sounds almost too big to be a chamber work, so well does Tchaikovsky use the massed forces of six instruments to deliver full and warm sound – and so well does he contrast the ensemble passages with more-delicate ones for single instruments or a subset of the six. The give-and-take among the performers is at the highest level here, with themes passed back and forth with apparent effortlessness that encourages listeners to engage in the beautifully managed flow of the music among the four movements and within each individual one. The combination of individual instruments’ clarity and grouped instruments’ warmth makes this Souvenir de Florence performance, and indeed this entire release, a real pleasure.

     The string-quartet medium continues to attract 21st-century composers with its promise of intimate communication, although modern harmonic language is quite different from that of Tchaikovsky. A new (+++) Navona release of chamber works by Elliott Miles McKinley shows this clearly. McKinley’s String Quartet No. 8 (2016) uses strong dissonance and techniques such as extended pizzicato passages as basic tools of communication. It does lapse into lyricism from time to time, but not for extended periods, even though that might be expected in its central and longest movement, marked Nocturne (lento e onirico). The dreamlike qualities of this movement are more agitated than comforting, if not quite nightmarish. The first and third movements are more disconnected-sounding and consciously “modern” in sound, although the finale makes occasional oblique, brief references to older musical forms. The overall quartet, though, does not come across as especially conversational among the players or as establishing an intimate connection between them and listeners – even though the performance itself, by the Auriga String Quartet (Erik Rohde and Hillary Kingsley, violins; Jacob Tews, viola; Isaac Pastor-Chermak, cello) is quite fine. A Letter to Say I Love You, and Goodbye (2011) has, on the other hand, a more personal feeling about it, owing partly to its use of only cello (Patrick Owen) and piano (Sarah Bob). Although not designated a nocturne, this piece has a nighttime quality about it, or at least a crepuscular one. Its extended (indeed, overextended) spinning-out of insistent warmth shows that McKinley is well aware of the uses of consonance and lyricism for communicative purposes, even if he somewhat overdoes it here: 10 solid minutes of music that sounds a bit like the accompaniment to a movie love scene is a bit much. Lying between these two works in its instrumental complement (three players rather than four or two), McKinley’s Piano Trio No. 1, “The Shadow Dancer”(2018) is a six-movement work in which each movement’s title starts with the words “Dancing in the Shadows of.” At nearly 40 minutes in all, this is quite an extended piece, each of whose movements is intended to be a tone painting of specific shadow-related or shadow-inducing elements: firstly, brilliant sunlight, soft moonlight, and shimmering starlight; and secondly, the more-inwardly-focused ideas of hope, dreams and infinity. This is a big concept, and certainly the members of the Janáček Trio (Irena Jakubcová, violin; Jan Keller, cello; Markéta Janačkova, piano) do their best to encompass it. But the work is not especially convincing, despite its lofty ambitions. The attempted nature focus of the first three movements is comparatively straightforward, and it is clearly the final three movements that are intended to carry listeners into the realm of thoughtfulness and deeper meaning. But they do not really do this: the plodding single-note-at-a-time opening for “hope,” the vaguely Debussy-like impressionism of “dreams,” and the insistently Ligeti-ish sound of “infinity” are intermittently interesting but do not add up to a convincing entirety. The music has intriguing elements, but does not establish as intimate a connection with the audience as chamber music can; nor does intimacy among the performers seem a priority in any of these works, except to some extent the cello-and-piano offering.

     A mixed bag of chamber music on a (+++) Navona CD features the Apollo Chamber Players and various guest artists in works of varying instrumental complement and provenance, using the traditional Western string quartet as a basis but also including the đàn bầu (a single-stringed zither from Vietnam) in two pieces and additional instruments in one of those. Leo Brouwer’s String Quartet No. 6 (2018) is called “Nostalgia de las Montañas” (“Nostalgia of the Mountains”) and intended as a tribute to Brazilian landscapes. Although well-crafted in standard contemporary atonal/dissonant mode, it is not particularly evocative of mountains or any other landscape. Brazilian dance forms, which would be expected in a piece of this sort, are absent, although Brouwer’s use of multiple rhythms vaguely recalls some of them. The piece seems more an esoteric exploration for cognoscenti than a reaching-out of any sort. Christopher Walczak’s Four Dreams (2016), also for string quartet (Anabel Ramirez Detrick and Matthew J. Detrick, violins; Whitney Bullock, viola; Matthew Dudzik, cello) has nothing dreamlike about it: the piece is supposed to explore aspects of the Australian Aboriginal notion of “Dreamtime,” a creation myth that has inspired a number of composers. Although no more aurally accessible than Brouwer’s work, Walczak’s is more effective at evoking communication among the performers, although what is transmitted to the audience is less clear-cut. Heard as pure music rather than referentially to a creation myth, Four Dreams includes a number of attractive musical elements and a strong sense of athematic forward motion, with the use of the viola being particularly engaging. Mây [Cloud] (2018) brings in the đàn bầu (played by co-composer Vân-Ánh Võ) to extend the string quartet, and the Vietnamese folk instrument immediately sets the tone for the piece at the ethereal and deliberately exotic-sounding opening. The Western instruments remain subservient to the sound of the đàn bầu pretty much throughout this 18-minute tone poem, which Vũ Nhật Tân says is supposed to reflect childhood experiences in Hanoi but which, in the absence of direct referents (at least for a Western audience), simply comes across as a chamber work using an unusual-sounding instrument to lead the more-often-heard ones. The sonically unfamiliar elements wear thin after a while, although it is fascinating to hear the low thrumming and odd (to Western ears) buzzing-with-overtones of which the đàn bầu is capable. Whatever its intent, the work is more intriguing intellectually than engaging emotionally. The same is largely true of Alexandra du Bois’ Within Earth, Wood Grows (2010), which uses the biggest instrumental complement on this disc: string quartet, additional viola, đàn bầu, and members of a wind ensemble and a wind-and-percussion one, all conducted by Jerry Hou. This is also a piece tied to Hanoi – it was commissioned to celebrate the city’s 100th anniversary – and tied as well to the ancient Chinese I-Ching. As usual when works are redolent of specific references, it is necessary to know and understand those references to get the full effect of this piece – and that is unfortunate, since it is unreasonable to suppose that listeners in general will have the needed familiarities. However, beyond the attractions of a work that engages the intellect by admirably exploring the differing tones and techniques of instruments, Within Earth, Wood Grows contains in its slow-motion progress a sense of striving, of attempting to rise in some imprecise way toward some unknown future. The music meanders rather than progressing linearly toward a knowable destination, but the colorations of the instruments make the slowly unwinding journey to wherever-it-is an involving one for listeners. This is the most musically effective work on the CD and, despite its larger-than-chamber-size instrumental complement, the one that best expresses the idea and ideal of intimate communication among musicians and between performers and their audience.

December 26, 2019


Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby. By The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn 10: The Unicorn Whisperer. By Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Once a cartoon-driven series hits its stride, new entries in the sequence have a certain pleasurable predictability mixed with just enough uncertainty to encourage existing fans of the series to keep up with it – and, ideally, enough standalone strength so that people picking up a new series entry can decide on that basis whether to stick with the whole thing, without needing to go through all the earlier volumes in order to catch up. This is true even when a cartoonist’s work is not formally a “series,” as in the case of the offerings of The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman). There are recognizable themes that Inman trots out again and again and handles in more-or-less predictable ways: cats and dogs and their relationships with humans; babies and their relationships with those around them (parents and nonparents); bodily functions of many types; and genuinely peculiar concepts of various sorts, rendered in immediately recognizable art whose exaggerations range from the outré to the utterly bizarre and back again (yes, that implies that Inman does not have much range in his art; and yes, that implication is deliberate – but irrelevant to enjoyment of his work). All Inman books stand on their own, and each provides an equally good entry point to the world of The Oatmeal, for those who wish to venture there. It is a strange but strangely almost-real world, made more intriguing by its recognizability although less so by Inman’s occasional over-fondness for four-letter words. Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby has all the Oatmealian elements. The title refers to a specific panel sequence explaining that “babies come shrieking into this world as selfish, amniotic, jam-covered goblins” while cats “come into this world as kittens, which are independent, adorable, and not at all goblin-like.” The contrasting illustrations of a monstrous-looking baby erupting from a woman and a gigantic-eyed kitten looking sweetly at the reader make the completely inaccurate and prejudiced point very clearly (umm: kittens and human babies are born through essentially the same amniotic, jam-covered process, OK?). Accept the basic premise, though, and Inman lays things on even more thickly, with the evilly cackling baby making loud noises when upset, while the gracious cat will merely “slaughter pigeons and take 16 hour naps.” There is much more along these lines. And actually, cat-bird enmity is a recurring Inman theme: later in the book, a one-page entry has a pigeon asking a cat for a cease-fire and to “stop eating my friends and leaving them on doorsteps,” to which the cat immediately and nonchalantly replies, “No deal.” Inman is not a big fan of birds in general: another one-page entry shows two seagulls at a floating buoy, with one repeatedly saying “Yeahhhhh buoyyy!” while the other tries unsuccessfully to get it to shut up. Inman is, however, a big fan of cats, even when he recognizes the difficulties inherent in their territorial instincts, as in an extended entry called “How to Comfortably Sleep Next to Your Cat,” which works out about as well as might be expected, including “learn to sleep while being gently struck in the face” and “just accept that this isn’t your bed anymore.” Inman does have some weird perceptions and weird ways of putting them on display: it is hard to imagine any other cartoonist creating the sequence called “corgi babies,” in which he copes with babies by imagining them as adorable corgi canines (re-drawing them with corgi heads to make the point), then extends his corgi thinking to other things “that I find unpleasant,” such as a rude driver (transformed into a corgi-headed chunk of adorableness) and a “strange lump growing on my leg” (changed into a happily smiling corgi head in one of the weirdest of the many weird drawings in the book). Obviously, Why My Cat Is More Impressive Than Your Baby is not for everyone. But for those who already know and enjoy Inman’s seriously skewed thinking, it fits the established mode of The Oatmeal very well indeed. And for those considering whether to spend more time with (or in) The Oatmeal, it is about as good an introduction as anything else Inman has produced.

     Aimed at young readers rather than somewhat odd adults, and written and drawn much more mildly and suitably for its target audience, the Phoebe and Her Unicorn books have also long since hit their stride, and the 10th of them, The Unicorn Whisperer, fits into the series perfectly. Newcomers will have some trouble figuring out just why things are the way they are here: everybody interacts with Phoebe’s unicorn, and there are plenty of other magical creatures around as well (dragons, goblins, fairies); exactly how the whole thing got started is never explained except through an occasional oblique reference, as when Phoebe wishes her unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, a happy new year, and Marigold says happy years can be boring, but “my finest recent year was when a child hit me in the nose with a rock, resulting in our becoming best friends!” Make of that what you will: there is no further reference in The Unicorn Whisperer to any sort of “origin story” for the series. Dana Simpson simply takes many themes she has used before and uses them again, in somewhat different ways, in this latest book. That means Phoebe has multiple run-ins with her “frenemy,” Dakota, who becomes the star of a goblin opera and invites Phoebe and Marigold to the performance because starring in the staging makes Dakota “cooler” and her “popular, cool friends wouldn’t understand that,” so she needs to have Phoebe attend because “we need uncool kids’ approval, too.” Dakota is hard to like but not quite as nasty as she could be, so Simpson gets away with having her treat Phoebe this way. And Phoebe occasionally gets back at Dakota, as when Marigold enchants a jump rope for Phoebe and Phoebe lets Dakota jump with her only if Phoebe gets to make up a jump-rope rhyme that insults Dakota (“she smells like a goat-a”). There are various soft-pedaled lessons in The Unicorn Whisperer, as in other Phoebe books, as when gold-star-student Phoebe gets so involved in reading that she does not do her homework and has to confess to her teacher, who says that “if I assigned self-awareness homework, you’d get an A on it.” And then there is the time that Phoebe wants to invite a boy, Max, to her slumber party, and her usually practical mother says that is traditionally not done, but “viva la revolución.” Phoebe is usually more in tune with her father, who watches more cartoons than she does, sports long hair and wears the back of it in a ponytail, and can discuss the various generations of “Pastel Unicorns” created by Toycorp (“I get to have a daughter who shares my interests”). Much less successful are Simpson’s heavy-handed teaching moments, as when she has Phoebe neglect Marigold for a while in order to write a history paper about “Georgia Neese Clark, the first female Secretary of the Treasury.” The subtler messages here – and some are indeed subtle – are better, as when Phoebe is frustrated about the classmates she is told to work with to make a diorama, knows she will end up doing all the work herself (as has happened before), and is shocked when the others get it all done without her because she is avoiding them: “I deserve an F for the amount of work I did, but I deserve an A for the job I would have done.” That is worth thinking about – as are some, but not all, of the elements of The Unicorn Whisperer and other books in the continuing Phoebe and Her Unicorn series.


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5. Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano; Die Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. BIS. $39.99 (2 SACDs).

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. “0”-5; Triple Concerto; Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6; Variations and Fugue in E-flat, Op. 35 (“Eroica”). Mari Kodama, piano; Kolja Blacher, violin; Johannes Moser, cello; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano. Berlin Classics. $27.99 (4 CDs).

     The most prominent number in classical-music circles during 2020 is sure to be 250: it is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. And the flood of Beethoven releases and re-releases is already well under way, with several “complete works” sets released or planned as well as any number of productions of music both highly familiar and less-known. To stand out from the huge crowd of newly issued performances – not to mention the tremendous number of releases of Beethoven’s music available long before the 250th-anniversary year – recordings need something special, even gimmicky. Excellent performances alone are not enough: the quality of playing of Beethoven’s music has been remarkably high for many years now, and pretty much any reading of his well-known music will be more than adequate. That means listeners who already may have several recordings of his better-known works – and who certainly have one – need to pick and choose among newly offered material based on factors ranging from “special-ness” of some sort to price. The two-SACD set of the piano concertos from BIS, featuring Ronald Brautigam and Die Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens, is expensive, but it ranks high on the “special” scale for the excellence with which the performers bring forth the concertos as Beethoven expected them to sound. Brautigam plays Paul McNulty reproductions of two different fortepianos, one based on a Walter & Sohn instrument from about 1805 (for the first three concertos) and one modeled on a Conrad Graf instrument from about 1819 (for the fourth and fifth). The sound of the two keyboard instruments is very different – this is one way in which fortepianos, like harpsichords but unlike many modern pianos, colored music in very different ways. The Walter & Sohn instrument, for example, had knee pedals only, while the Conrad Graf had the foot pedals familiar from later instruments – but it had four of them, including not only a moderator but also a double moderator. The tonal colorations available to fortepianists help balance the comparatively modest (to modern ears) sound of their instruments, and lead to readings of period music that can be very highly nuanced when handled with the care and sensitivity that Brautigam lavishes on them here. And speaking of “period music,” Die Kölner Akademie is a period-instrument ensemble, and an excellent one – and has previously collaborated with Brautigam on a number of fine recordings, notably of Mozart concertos. Willens leads the group through the Beethoven cycle in very fine form indeed, highlighting the Mozartean elements of the first two concertos, the transitional nature of the third (whose minor-key structure comes directly from Mozart but whose handling of the piano looks toward the future), and the significantly expanded communicative elements of the fourth and fifth – which sound both fuller and more dramatic on the later-model fortepiano. Especially effective in this set is the second movement of the fourth concerto, whose dramatic back-and-forth between soloist and ensemble offers just the right balance for an argument whose structure is genuinely new in a piano concerto and whose resolution in something like comity is handled with poise and elegance. On the surface, the music here is entirely familiar, but it sounds so different in these performances from what is usual today that the recording shines new light on Beethoven by offering readings whose sound is as close as possible to what the composer expected and what his initial audiences would have heard.

     Listeners who think of “Beethoven’s five piano concertos” are of course thinking about the five played by Brautigam and most pianists. But Beethoven in fact wrote eight-and-a-half piano concertos, including a very early one that has not survived and a much later one that he started after the “Emperor” but on which he did not make much progress. In terms of his seven playable concertos, in addition to the ones numbered 1-5, there is the piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto, which sounds quite fine as a keyboard piece and includes an unusual first-movement cadenza in which the piano is accompanied by timpani, in a clever recollection and expansion of the movement’s opening bars. And there is also a concerto by young-teenage Beethoven, dating to 1784 and assigned the number WoO 4, that predates No. 2 (the first of the five numbered ones to be composed) by about five years. A new Berlin Classics release featuring the excellent wife-and-husband musical team of Mari Kodama and Kent Nagano makes this early concerto the focal point of a four-disc set of performances dating as far back as 2006 – although the recording of “No. 0,” as it is called here, was made as recently as May 2019. The set is well-priced in part because it is something of a hodgepodge of recording dates, and because Nos. 1-5 and the Triple Concerto were previously released in these exact performances in 2014. But far from there being anything here for which Kodama, Nagano or the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin should be apologetic, the entire release is filled with excellent (although not particularly historically informed) performances. Concertos Nos. 4 and 5, handled with verve and intelligence, are the best of the standard set of five here: Nos. 1 and 2 have a bit of unnecessary rubato now and then, and No. 3 gets a somewhat surface-level interpretation, although all the concertos are very well played by both soloist and orchestra. This release is, in fact, something of a treasure trove of Beethoven’s piano concertos and related works. In addition to the five usual concertos – in readings that offer nothing particularly revelatory but much that is highly skilled and sensitively presented – and the “No. 0,” there are ancillary works that shed considerable light on the main concerto sequence. “No. 0” is no slouch of a concerto: it is derivative, yes, and to a greater extent than No. 1 or No. 2, but it is filled with fresh, well-thought-through ideas, and has a degree of lightness and almost-humor that is largely absent from later, more-mature Beethoven. It is comparable in length to No. 2, if stylistically less individual, but in one significant way it presages later Beethoven: it is in E-flat, a key that was to be enormously significant to his music. To show just how significant, this recording includes Kodama’s performance of the “Eroica” variations in the same key – which is the key, of course, of the “Eroica” symphony as well. Somehow E-flat was already assuming considerable importance to Beethoven even when he created that very early piano concerto. And this set contains another “early thoughts” piece as well: the Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6, which Beethoven originally planned as the finale of his Concerto No. 2. Once again, the piece itself is quite well-made, and it shows a slightly different direction for the concerto’s conclusion from the one on which Beethoven ultimately decided. These Beethovenian byways are complemented in this release by the Triple Concerto, in which Kodama is ably if somewhat timidly partnered by Kolja Blacher and Johannes Moser. This concerto dates to about the same time as No. 3 in C minor – and because it is in C major, it offers an interesting juxtaposition (the two are presented on the same CD in this set). Kodama tends to dominate the playing a bit too much: Beethoven deliberately downplayed the role of the piano in this concerto and brought forth the significance of the cello. The result is a rather pallid performance, although all three soloists play with considerable skill. This is a set for listeners interested in some offbeat elements of Beethoven’s work and some items heard quite rarely but presented here in a way that increases understanding of Beethoven’s development in the piano-and-orchestra realm. That is not to say that this set is “complete” in any way: it omits both the piano version of the Violin Concerto and the Choral Fantasy, with its extensive and crucial piano part. But for what it does contain, and for the quality with which the material is handled, this is a release that is worthy of inclusion in the 250th-anniversary celebration, and one that many lovers of Beethoven will be happy to own.