January 19, 2017

(++++) FRIENDS, OBVIOUSLY


No More Bows. By Samantha Cotterill. Harper. $17.99.

Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match. By Megan Mayor. Illustrated by Rosalinde Bonnet. Harper. $17.99.

Adrift: An Odd Couple of Polar Bears. By Jessica Olien. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Books for ages 4-8 sometimes tend to lay their messages on rather too thickly, but even when they do, the books can be rescued by a certain lightness in storytelling and by illustrations that make the educational elements go down more easily. Samantha Cotterill’s No More Bows is a good example of how this can work. It is a simple story of friendship – between a little girl named Milly and her dog, Hugo – but the cover picture of an obviously irritated pooch with an enormous polka-dot bow on his head offers immediate insight into what is going on here. The story’s lesson has to do with the importance of friendship and how friends make compromises for each other, but what makes the book work so well is its amusement level, especially when it comes to Hugo’s expressions. The two friends are clearly devoted to each other, but Milly loves to dress Hugo up with bows before they go on walks, and does not understand how humiliated he feels when he has to walk past a large number of other neighborhood dogs, watching from apartment windows and laughing at how ridiculous he looks. The first time Milly dresses Hugo up, Hugo’s enthusiastic “Zip…Zap…Zoom” at the prospect of a walk with Milly soon turns into “a tug…a pull…and a POP” to get the bow off. But the very next day, Milly has another, even larger bow for Hugo, and the whole scene is repeated, with the other dogs laughing even more loudly. Hugo gets rid of this bow as well, but then Cotterill shows two pages of laugh-out-loud drawings of poor Hugo wearing a wide assortment of bows, each more humiliating than the last. Fed up, Hugo runs away from home! But he soon feels lonely, and so does Milly, who posts “missing dog” posters everywhere. And then Hugo sees another dog wearing a bow and looking happy – so he realizes what he needs to do. He comes back to Milly and leads her to a pet store in whose window there is a simple, elegant bow, “neither frilly nor sparkly” and with “no buttons or jewels.” Milly likes the bow, too, and soon the two are walking happily as Hugo proudly shows off his new bow – and, since it is raining, the yellow dog booties he also got at the store, which match Milly’s yellow rain boots perfectly. Compromise and understanding: the recipe for a continuing beautiful friendship.

     Milly’s and Hugo’s boots may match, and their taste in bows does, too – eventually – but complete matching is not necessary for a solid friendship. That is the message of Megan Mayor’s Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match, the second book about these two adorable friends. Mayor makes her point about friendship a touch too strongly and obviously, but the delightful illustrations by Rosalinde Bonnet help keep the story light and somewhat playful. The tale has Ella insisting that Penguin be just like her, because friends just must be alike and do the same things. So if Ella wears a tutu, Penguin cannot wear pants – even if a tutu makes Penguin uncomfortable. If Ella loves peppermint candies, then Penguin has to love them, too, because friends need to be “matchy-matchy.” And if Ella wants to finger paint, of course Penguin has to finger paint as well. But clearly things are not going well for Penguin, who “waddled after Ella in his too-tight tutu, fanning his minty breath.” Penguin tries to match Ella, he really does, but he simply does not like finger paint. Or mints. Or wearing a tutu. So obviously – a bit too obviously – the two can no longer be friends, and they separate to different parts of the house and cry. It is obvious where this will go, and it goes there: Ella and Penguin realize it is all right to match some of the time but is not necessary to match all the time, “because friends don’t always match.” And everything ends happily, with Mayor and Bonnet successfully lightening the theme by having Penguin decide to wear his pants on his head, while Ella decides to wear something on her head as well: a pair of socks. The simplicity of the lesson here makes the book most appropriate for readers toward the younger end of the 4-8 age range – and, of course, for ones who met Ella and Penguin in their previous outing and have been eagerly awaiting a new, homespun adventure.

     Cold-weather critters from the North Pole rather than the South figure in Jessica Olien’s Adrift, but Karl and Hazel look less like polar bears than Penguin looks like a penguin. Karl wears prominent eyeglasses, and Hazel wears a yellow scarf with orange polka dots – and sits by herself, reading, first Moby-Dick and later, amusingly in an in-joke-for-adults way, Camus’ The Stranger. Karl is talkative, a classic extrovert, and smells of old fish, while Hazel is shy and prefers things to be quiet. Inevitably, when a chunk of ice breaks off one day, the two mismatched characters are on opposite sides of it. They soon discover each other and build a wall to keep their portions of the ice floe separate. But then, also inevitably, they get lonely and start to communicate, eventually sharing games, food, songs and the view. And when they finally drift to land, they realize that they do not want to go their separate ways, because they are now best friends and want to stay together. So they do just that, the final story page showing Hazel sitting on the floor eating cookies as Karl – yes, Karl – sits in a chair and reads a book (Pride and Prejudice, of all things). The story of mismatched characters learning to get along is straightforward and quite simple, but it does not quite end there: Olien rather jarringly turns the last couple of pages of the book into a lecture on climate change, how it could affect polar bears, and what kids can do “to help save polar bears and their Arctic habitat.” Actually, there is nothing wrong with any of this, but it meshes oddly with a book whose central characters did not have to be polar bears at all – any different-personality people or animals would do, and there is nothing particularly polar-bear-ish about Karl and Hazel or their adventures. Although Olien does offer several Web sites to visit to “learn more about polar bears,” Adrift is not really about the bears at all and is therefore unlikely to spur kids’ interest in them. Still, it works nicely as yet another of the many, many “odd couple” stories, in which friendship takes root in unlikely soil – or, in this case, on ice.

(++++) THE DRAMA ABOVE


When the Sky Breaks: Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and the Worst Weather in the World. By Simon Winchester. Viking. $22.99.

     Although officially intended for ages 10 and up, Simon Winchester’s When the Sky Breaks has so much well-presented and important information in it that parents will be as eager to read it as will their children. Weather, after all, affects every one of us, every single day, and despite the famous statement that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it (Charles Dudley Warner, wrongly attributed to Mark Twain), the urge to learn about weather and try to predict it is a strong one. Maybe we cannot do anything about the weather itself, after all, but maybe we can better prepare ourselves for whatever the weather may be.

     Or maybe not. Weather events are far more complicated, hence unpredictable, than most people realize, and Winchester shows just how complicated that is. It was mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz who coined the term “the butterfly effect” to describe major weather changes caused by small, seemingly inconsequential events – although perhaps nothing quite as small as the flapping of a distant butterfly’s wings – and the observation is shown to be correct, time and time again, in Winchester’s book. For example, “Who would have thought that the existence of the Sahara Desert, with its pale and reflective yellow sands and equatorial heat bearing down upon it, would cause disturbances in the atmosphere that could in turn cause storms in the Carolinas or Texas or New York?” Yet this is exactly how hurricanes form, thanks to an event called an African easterly wave (AEW) that is caused by air moving from the Indian Ocean and encountering the heat and aridity of the Sahara. Winchester explains what happens and how, and also why there are not constant hurricanes – here his ability really shines, as he uses the example of a fully fueled car that is ready to go anytime but does not go all the time, because some small thing (the turning of an ignition key) is necessary to start it. That is a small, humdrum version of the butterfly effect, one so common that most readers will likely never have thought of it in these terms – yet it is the very mundanity of the example that helps Winchester clarify the strangeness and enormity of cyclonic storms.

     Winchester humanizes weather forecasting, too. Again in his section on hurricanes, he does not merely present the inevitable discussion of the devastating storm that in 1900 smashed into and nearly destroyed Galveston, Texas – still the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. What Winchester does is build his story around that of forecaster Isaac Cline, who lived in Galveston and was largely responsible for the erroneous forecasts of the storm’s track – but who was repeatedly right about the storm’s earlier path, which changed in a bizarre way because of “a strange and unseen ripple in the upper atmosphere” that the science of the time could not possibly have known about or understood.

     As the subtitle of When the Sky Breaks indicates, the book discusses tornadoes as well as hurricanes – and also deals with cyclones, the Southern Hemisphere version of hurricanes. The pages about Cyclone Tracy, which hit Darwin, Australia on Christmas Day 1974, are especially harrowing. Like the Galveston hurricane three-quarters of a century earlier, this cyclone “quite unexpectedly…made a sharp right-angled swerve [and] bore down with withering accuracy toward the dead center of Darwin. …Ten thousand houses, 80 percent of the city, were totally destroyed, reduced to matchsticks and pulverized concrete.” The death toll was modest for so intense a storm – 71 people were killed, compared with some 8,000 in Galveston – but “Darwin was brought to its knees,” and did not even have regular communication with the outside world for three days. “In the end, almost the entire city of Darwin had to be evacuated. Forty-one thousand of its forty-seven thousand inhabitants were without home, shelter, water, food, medicine, or communication.” But the city was rebuilt, essentially from the ground up, and today is thought to be cyclone-proof – not that a storm as strong as Tracy has ever tested it. Yet.

     That “yet” matters. The human ability to rebuild after disaster is sorely tested by vast storms, but rebuilding does occur, hopefully with major lessons learned – including those discussed in When the Sky Breaks about severe weather being both predictable and unpredictable. And that has much to do with tornadoes. Winchester accurately describes the tornado as “America’s national storm,” since most of the world’s tornadoes happen in the United States. The conditions under which a tornado will form are well-known, but the actual formation of a particular tornado remains unpredictable – and the speed of formation and movement are such that when a tornado does occur, there is very little time to respond. And safety is harder to come by than in hurricanes: tornado winds are so strong that they cannot be accurately measured, because “even the sturdiest of anemometers, or wind-speed instruments, is invariably destroyed by the strongest tornado.” There are plenty of photos of the destruction wrought by tornadoes and other storms in When the Sky Breaks, but this is not primarily a picture book: it is descriptive and explanatory. The tornado section, for instance, contains a fascinating explanation of why the “accident of geography” of the United States makes tornadoes likelier in the U.S. than anywhere else: the deadliest tornado ever was actually in Bangladesh in 1989, but 14 of the 50 worst have occurred in the U.S. When the Sky Breaks is packed with information, but even with everything scientists and researchers now know, Winchester acknowledges the limitations of meteorology, noting that “little is certain” even though “global forecasting is less of an enigma, less of a throw of the dice, than it once was.” The fascinating material in this book will not make it any easier for readers to decide what clothing to wear the day after reading it, but it will help them understand the vast, interconnected global patterns of which their local weather events, however severe, are just one small part.

(++++) WONDERS REVISITED


Harry Potter Cinematic Guides: Harry Potter; Hermione Granger; Ron Weasley; Albus Dumbledore. Scholastic. $8.99 each.

Harry Potter Magical Places & Characters: Poster Coloring Book. Scholastic. $24.99.

Harry Potter Magical Places & Characters: Postcard Coloring Book. Scholastic. $9.99.

     The recent release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and the earlier opening of the play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, have together expanded the “Potterverse” created by J.K. Rowling in ways intended to reach out to audiences that may not have grown up with the original seven books and eight movies about “the boy who lived.” At the same time, the new entries are intended to revive the flagging interest of people who did grow up with Harry, Hermione and Ron and have now, as adults, presumably moved on to other fantasies and other entertainments.

     It is largely for this second group, or perhaps for the children of its members, that Scholastic has released a series of very well-done reminders about the original Harry Potter films. Each slim hardcover book uses multiple scenes from the movies and brief connective copy to remind readers of key film events and how they tied into the overall story of Harry, his friends and their adventures. Every Cinematic Guide follows this pattern, and all are well done within their self-imposed restrictions. The one about Harry mentions his survival as a baby when Voldemort killed his parents and provides cinema stills of Harry, his parents, Hagrid straddling the motorcycle on which he brought Harry to the Dursley home, the detestable Dursley family – and, later in the short (64-page) book, highlights of Harry’s time at Hogwarts, portraits of some of the people with whom he interacted in the film sequence, and his eventual final duel with Voldemort. The Hermione Granger book focuses on her intelligence, some of the unexpected difficulties she encounters at Hogwarts, her cleverness in helping solve various mysteries (including several stills showing the effects of the identity-disguising Polyjuice Potion that she proves adept at making), her role in the final battle against Voldemort, and her eventual pairing with Ron Weasley – one element of the books and films that many fans found rather hard to accept. The guide to Ron does little to explain what the whip-smart Hermione sees in him: it shows him as the pleasant, rather feckless hanger-on who is a good person to have with you in a pinch (as Harry repeatedly discovers) but who has altogether less personality and less depth of character than either Harry or Hermione. However, the book about Ron does a good job of summing up his and his family’s involvement with Harry and with the dramatic story arc of the films. And then there is the guide to Albus Dumbledore, who was played in the first two films by Richard Harris and in the others – after Harris died – by Michael Gambon. In some ways this is the most interesting of these guides, because it gives some prominence to matters that are on the incidental side in the other books: Dumbledore’s brother and sister; his first meeting with the student who would become Voldemort; his relationships with Snape and with his former friend, Gellert Grindelwald; his death and the larger plan that it sets in motion; and more. Taken as a set, these four books provide a handy, if surface-level, overview of the Harry Potter films and their main characters: they will help fans familiar with those films to remember them and will provide some useful background to anyone for whom the Fantastic Beasts franchise, which is intended to last for five movies, represents first contact with Rowling’s created world.

     For those of an artistic bent, some additional entry into the world of Harry Potter is available in the form of one large coloring book and one small one. Each contains 20 black-and-white scenes from the films, including some overlap between the volumes. The scenes are not identified, so these are books for the real Potter-film enthusiast. The smaller book, for that matter, is best for people who know what traditional postcards are and who still send them: each perforated page is exactly the size and shape of a card, with room on the back for an address and blank space to wrote a few words. The poster book, much larger and more elaborate (and thus considerably more expensive), is best for a really committed Potterphile artist: some of the scenes, such as one of Diagon Alley and one showing Hagrid sitting on the steps in front of his house in the woods, are very intricate indeed, and will try the patience of anyone not fully committed to this imaginative world. What the coloring books provide – and what the Cinematic Guide books offer in different form – is a chance to re-live one’s entry into the Harry Potter world as it appeared on film, and (in the case of the coloring books) the opportunity to reimagine the appearance of that world in one’s own way, using whatever colors one likes so as to highlight the characters and settings in the poster and postcard volumes. Whether or not the theatrical and cinematic expansions of the original Harry Potter franchise are worthwhile is arguable and is in fact being widely argued – but whatever disputes those extensions of the original novels may create, what is not in dispute is the fact that Rowling created one of the most fascinating and apparently durable fantasy worlds of modern times, one that garnered many millions of now-adult young fans and has the potential (through the new film entries) to bring in even more. Certainly these various guides and coloring books “exploit,” in a sense, the popularity of Harry Potter’s adventures. But it is hard to argue that that is an inherently bad thing, given the pleasure that Rowling’s writings – and the films made from them – have brought to so many, and the likelihood that the purchasers and readers (or colorers) of these books will relive the events that brought them enjoyment and maybe even get some additional Potter-themed gratification for themselves and perhaps for the next generation of Potter fans.

(+++) SMALL PROBLEMS NEATLY SOLVED


Confidentially Yours #5: Brooke’s Bad Luck. By Jo Whittemore. Harper. $6.99.

Roxbury Park Dog Club #5: A New Leash on Life. By Daphne Maple. Harper. $6.99.

Roxbury Park Dog Club #6: A Bone to Pick. By Daphne Maple. Harper. $6.99.

     Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club novels, which have sold a remarkable 175-million-plus copies through 35 books by Martin and many more by other writers, have inspired a whole set of “preteen girls doing good things and having occasional minor difficulties” novel groupings, including Confidentially Yours and Roxbury Park Dog Club. The four original members of Martin’s club, when her series started in 1986, were Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia and Stacey. In today’s many sequences along the same lines, there is little that differs from series to series except the names of the girls (and an occasional boy) and the specific activities around which the four-person groups’ interactions revolve. For example, Confidentially Yours features Brooke, Heather, Vanessa and Tim; Roxbury Park Dog Club includes Taylor, Kim, Sasha and Brianna.

     Multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity are part and parcel of the new book groupings, and some of the family circumstances are updated to reflect modern family groupings, but by and large, the central issues of these book series are minor ones in which the protagonists have to confront something troublesome (although small in the grand scheme of things), figure out what to do about it, and as a result become wiser and more tightly bound in friendship. Thus, Brooke’s Bad Luck is all about superstition. Brooke visits a psychic who warns her about an upcoming run of bad luck, and the prediction seems to come true because of a series of little things that Brooke blows out of proportion, such as spilling food and playing soccer poorly. What connects Brooke’s troubles with the overall theme of Confidentially Yours is that the advice column that gives this series its title, and the newspaper that she and her friends put out together, are competing in a contest that Brooke fears they will lose because her luck has turned bad. So she creates a good-luck charm to counter the bad luck, and sure enough, it works! But anyone who remembers stories such as, say, Dumbo, will know that it is belief in good-luck charms – and bad-luck predictions – that gives them their power, and this is the lesson that Brooke has to learn in order to take charge of her own life again and stop believing she is somehow “destined” to have things go poorly for her. It even turns out that Brooke’s soccer troubles were engineered – by another player, who is jealous of her – and Brooke gets to mend that particular fence while conquering her worries about superstition. “The fear is in your head,” Brooke concludes, and everything ends, expectedly, in upbeat fashion.

     The two latest entries in the Roxbury Park Dog Club series follow a very similar story arc. A New Leash on Life focuses mainly on Brianna, who came to the club late – she was invited by the three other girls – and feels somewhat left out of the trio’s close friendship. So she bonds more closely than ever with the dogs in the club, which the girls started to help dogs whose owners had to work all day and to raise money for the local animal shelter. In fact, Brianna (Bri) bonds especially closely with one particular dog, an older shelter resident called Lily, and ends up deciding that she would like to foster Lily – if she can get her mother to agree to take the dog into their home. So the issues here involve friendship among the girls, bonding both with humans and with dogs, and family matters – in effect, increasing the size of a family by bringing a dog into it. Eventually, things work out even better than Bri ever thought they would, as she develops a new and closer bond with her mother as well as her friends, and Lily does in fact get to join the family. So all is smiles as the book ends. But there are frowns, of course, as the next one starts. A Bone to Pick focuses on Sasha: in all these series, different books focus on different members of the central ensemble. Sasha feels she does more work for the dog club than her friends do, and as a result she is starting to harbor resentment toward them. The question is whether the friendship can withstand this sort of thing, in which the girls find they just cannot communicate effectively with each other. It gets so bad that even well-meant comments are taken the wrong way: “Maybe she was trying to be nice, but it came out like she was being condescending.” Clearly something has to give, and it must not be the girls’ friendship or their commitment to the club. But matters get to such a point that Sasha eventually finds it “impossible to be happy about anything.” So then, of course, the girls realize it is “time to get our priorities straight,” and everybody apologizes to everybody else, and the club is restructured to be sure all duties are apportioned fairly, and happiness abounds for everyone – until, of course, another small crisis gets blown out of proportion. But that can wait for the next entry in the series. Fans of the preteen-focused Roxbury Park Dog Club and Confidentially Yours sequences will just be happy that things have, once again, turned out so well…until the inevitable next time.

(++++) THE STRINGS HAVE IT


Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin; NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester conducted by Alan Gilbert. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Paganini: 24 Caprices, Op. 1, with piano accompaniment by Schumann. Maristella Patuzzi, violin; Mario Patuzzi, piano. Dynamic. $19.99.

Vivaldi: Twelve Concertos, Opp. 11 and 12. Federico Guglielmo, violin; Pier Luigi Fabretti, oboe; L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Cimarosa: Opera Overtures, Volume 5: Atene edificata; Componimento drammatico; La bella Greca (Il matrimoni impensati); La felicità inaspettata; La villana riconosciuta; I due supposti conti, ossia Lo sposo senza moglie; Le trame deluse, ossia I raggiri scoperti; Il marito disperato (Il marito geloso); L’Olimpiade; La ballerina amante; Il fanatico burlato. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $12.99.

     There is very little that is straightforward in the music of Shostakovich, and this is nowhere clearer than in his two complex, difficult and variegated violin concertos. Frank Peter Zimmermann gives splendid readings of both on a new BIS release, wallowing fully in what sentimentality there is, then switching without apparent effort to the dry acerbity so common in Shostakovich’s music, finding ways both to highlight and to balance the numerous (and almost mutually exclusive) demands of the disparate movements. There is something deeply unsettling in the way Shostakovich repeatedly juxtaposes musical forms and musically expressed emotions that do not fit each other particularly well – and makes everything work, at least in hands as skilled as those of Zimmermann and conductor Alan Gilbert, who whips up the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester (better known under its former name, NDR Sinfonieorchester) into a froth of intensity that fits these works with glovelike precision. The odd scherzo of the first concerto, superficially bright but always containing a hint of darkness, comes through especially well here, but Zimmermann also makes much of the crepuscular Nocturne that opens the concerto and even manages to find a way to tie the initially trivial-seeming Burlesque to all that has come before, including the technically demanding cadenza that immediately precedes it. Zimmermann does just as well with the second concerto, with the mixed emotions of the central Adagio – now despairing, now merely sad, now quietly contemplative – coming through especially effectively. These are excellent, highly knowing performances that, although thoughtful, give the impression of flowing naturally from an intuitive understanding of the complexity of Shostakovich’s personality and the way it is reflected in music of so distinctive a character – or, more accurately, of so many distinctive characters.

     The new Dynamic release of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, Op. 1, featuring violinist Maristella Patuzzi, reflects two characters in particular: that of Paganini the virtuoso showman and surprisingly adept composer, of course, and also that of Robert Schumann – who, influenced by Paganini in important ways early in his own career, produced at the end of that career (and of his life) a set of piano accompaniments for these solo violin works. On the face of it, this was an exercise in futility and, it could be argued, further evidence of the deterioration of Schumann’s mind and creative spirit after he was institutionalized. Certainly these 24 wonderful miniatures (some of them not so miniature!) need no instrumentation beyond that of the violin. But in Schumann’s time, music for unaccompanied violin was thought to be thin and somehow incomplete, at least in some quarters; and besides, by producing pianistic elements to go with the solo-violin ones, Schumann was quite clearly paying tribute to Paganini, not in any way diminishing or minimizing his accomplishments. The Schumann material is of course wholly unnecessary, but it is fascinating: Schumann had so much respect for Paganini’s music, and such understanding of it, that he created piano elements that neatly complement the violin material without ever overwhelming it or preventing it from remaining in the forefront – all this despite the fact that Schumann was himself a pianist. The exceptional interweaving of violin and piano here may owe a little something extra to the fact that Maristella Patuzzi performs with her father, pianist Mario Patuzzi, with whom she has made other recordings: the two have a familial bond that seems to extend to deeply similar understanding of the material and strong mutual respect for each other’s contributions to these readings. Certainly this is an unusual and, in the most literal sense, inauthentic performance of the 24 Caprices. But it is an excellent interpretation of the authentic Schumann elements of a composition that remains wholly Paganini’s while at the same time offering fascinating glimmers of Paganini’s tremendous influence on one of his great contemporary admirers.

     Vivaldi’s contemporaries were beginning to have significant influence on his violin compositions by 1729, the year of Vivaldi’s sets of concertos published as Op. 11 and Op. 12. This was the time of Tartini and Locatelli, who – like Vivaldi himself – were top-flight violinists and substantial composers for their chosen instrument. It was also the time in which galant style began to make itself widely known, and Vivaldi proved himself as sensitive to stylistic developments as to the changing technical capabilities of violinists. Most of the concertos in these sets – each containing six works rather than the 12 of earlier groupings – are not particularly well-known, perhaps because they have something of a “transitional” feeling about them, as Vivaldi expanded and modified his style to stay abreast of new harmonic and rhythmic expectations among performers and listeners alike. It is not certain whether Vivaldi himself actually authorized these specific groupings, although his authorship of the concertos themselves is not in dispute. Most of these concertos are somewhat longer than Vivaldi’s earlier ones, and the slow movements, in particular, tend to be spun off at greater length and with greater emotional impact, if scarcely to the extent that those of later composers would possess. The performances on Brilliant Classics by Federico Guglielmo and his ensemble, L’Arte dell’Arco, are as historically informed and consistently outstanding as all the Vivaldi readings by these players seem to be. There are a few oddities in the groupings as heard here, such as the way Guglielmo continues to arrange the concertos rather capriciously (the Op. 11 sequence is 5, 4, 2, 3, 1, 6; for Op. 12, it is 5, 1, 4, 2, 6, 3). But some of the unexpected material traces directly to Vivaldi: one of these works (Op. 11, No. 6) is actually an oboe rather than violin concerto, and one (Op. 12, No. 3) is for strings and continuo without solo violin – Vivaldi’s only known work of this type. There are also some pleasant surprises to be heard here, such as the lovely pizzicato accompaniment in the central movement of Op. 12, No. 6, and the greater depth of feeling throughout the minor-key concertos (three in Op. 11, including the oboe concerto, and two in Op. 12). The stylistic sensitivity and easy virtuosity of playing in these performances are winning, and the chance to experience these mostly less-known but beautifully shaped concertos is one that fans of Baroque music in general, and Vivaldi’s in particular, will very much enjoy.

     There is enjoyment to be had in the fifth Naxos release of Cimarosa overtures as well – and here too the primary aural elements are the strings, although in a few of these works Cimarosa also shows himself able to use winds effectively. Cimarosa wrote more than 80 operas, most of them light in a kind of pre-Rossinian Rossini mode. As with many other composers (Rossini included), Cimarosa would sometimes reuse overtures, and because Cimarosa’s overtures were not typically built around themes from the operas that they opened, this was particularly easy to do. Furthermore, many of his operas were performed under multiple titles, not only in different stagings and different languages but also within Italy itself, as they moved from Naples or other points of origin to other city-states within a not-yet-united country. This explains the multiple titles of some overtures on this CD and the others discs in this series. Cimarosa also wrote overtures in two different styles: single-movement ones of the type now generally thought of as fitting the word “overture,” and two-or-three-movement ones that may be considered “sinfonias.” Since there is nothing that inherently links the overtures heard here to their operas with any specificity, what this disc – like its predecessors – offers is simply a wealth of well-made instrumental music that is very much of its time and is performed with considerable élan by the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Patrick Gallois. This is not to say that the overtures are all of a piece: in length alone, they range from the three-movement, more-than-11-minute one to La bella Greca (also known as I matrimoni impensati) to the charming, barely-there, one-and-a-half-minute opening of La felicità inaspettata. And although nine of the 11 works on this CD are opera overtures, two have different provenances: Atene edificata comes from a cantata that Cimarosa wrote at the court of Catherine the Great of Russia, and Componimento drammatico was produced for a cantata celebrating the birth of the firstborn son of France’s ill-fated King Louis XVI. These pieces, in two and three movements respectively, share the characteristics of the opera overtures: they are well-constructed, focused primarily on the orchestra’s string section, and sound like miniature sinfonias with no obvious connection to the circumstances for which they were created. Cimarosa was an adept composer who was very much in and of his time. His overtures are very pleasant to hear but are, in the most part, not especially innovative and thus not, on an individual basis, highly memorable.

January 12, 2017

(++++) HISTORY, HER-STORY


A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies. By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Anna DiVito. Harper. $16.99.

Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation. By Cokie Roberts. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Harper. $17.99.

     The notion that there is more to history than traditional rulers-and-battles accounts include is nothing new; history itself has become fragmented into writings that attempt to “right wrongs” (by strictly contemporary standards) by discussing “under-represented” ethnic, racial or religious groups and alleging that “true” history is correctly understood only when seen from those groups’ perspective instead of – or in addition to – the more commonly known one. In reality, the vast majority of what we think of as “history” is resolutely mundane: people simply live within the strictures of their time and do their best to get through each day, each week, each month, each year. A large amount of what we make a big deal about nowadays is neither more nor less than the vicissitudes of everyday life in a past that we can never fully understand, because we never experienced it and never can. It is worth remembering, just to cite one small example, that Thomas Jefferson, a polymath and one of the greatest presidents of the United States, did not consider the presidency important enough to be mentioned on his tombstone. It states – and these were Jefferson’s explicit instructions, “not a word more” – that he was “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” The fact that most people nowadays deem the omission of the presidency unaccountable is a failing of modern thinking, not a problem with Jefferson’s beliefs or values.

     That said, there is value to understanding multiple perspectives on lives lived and ended long ago, and well-written books that explore such lives can give young readers (and, for that matter, adults) some insight into the past that traditional histories do not. Generally, the key to the books’ value is whether or not they are cause-driven – the ones determined to “redress” some sort of imagined (or even actual) “imbalance” in standard histories tend to lecture and hector, while the more matter-of-fact ones often provide genuine insight. Kathleen Krull generally does a fine job with books of this type, and A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies is no exception. Jefferson, as it happens, is one of the few presidents who did not have a “first lady” in the form of a wife: his beloved Martha had died nearly 20 years before Jefferson assumed the presidency. The wives of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Chester A. Arthur also died before those men became president; and James Buchanan never married. A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies briefly mentions how those presidents handled the expected hostess duties and other functions that First Ladies traditionally assumed – but of course it spends most of its time on presidential wives and the things they did. In doing so, Krull offers some genuine insight. For example, Edith Wilson’s commanding role in government after Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke is well enough known to appear in most histories – but the connection of what she did with the 25th Amendment, which states that the vice president takes over when the president is incapacitated, is not always explained clearly. And the fact that Edith Wilson supported John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, and rode in the parade during his inauguration, is mentioned even less frequently. Furthermore, the fact that there was (informal) precedent for what Edith Wilson did is rarely mentioned – but Krull notes that Julia Grant, the devoted wife of Ulysses S. Grant (who was equally devoted to her), “was an active adviser in private” and was the first First Lady to issue a press release and regularly inform the media (that is, the newspapers) of the activities of the First Family. Krull also humanizes each First Lady – again using Julia Grant as an example, Krull says she had “one eye that moved uncontrollably” and therefore “walked awkwardly if she didn’t have someone guiding her,” but Ulysses talked her out of having corrective surgery because he loved her just as she was. Small, heartwarming bits of information like that, although scarcely the main point of A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies, make the book all the better. For instance, Bess Truman, when asked which earlier First Lady she most identified with, chose Elizabeth Monroe – who had followed super-popular Dolley Madison just as Bess followed the very dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt. One thing that becomes clear from A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies is that the majority of these women were very much of their time – subservient when that was the expectation, then increasingly assertive as women gained additional legal rights. Some, however, helped lead women into more-modern times: for example, Caroline Harrison was the first to deliver a speech in public that she had written, and Ida McKinley was the first First Lady to come out in public as supporting women’s right to vote. A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies includes illustrations by Anna DiVito that are nothing particularly special but that do help give a sense of what the First Ladies looked like. They do a good job in their supporting role – much as most First Ladies did in theirs.

     Cokie Roberts’ Ladies of Liberty is more of an agenda-driven book: its subtitle, The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, is more an assertion than a fact. There are two First Ladies here – James Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth, and John Quincy Adams’ spouse, Louisa Catherine. There is also Martha Jefferson Randolph, who did the duties of First Lady for her father, Thomas Jefferson. But most of the book is about women who contributed in other ways. Some are now quite well-known, such as Sacagawea, famed for her work with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Others are known in limited circles but not generally, such as Isabella Graham, founder of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children and originator of Sunday school. Abetted by atmospheric, stylish Diane Goode illustrations – which, unlike those in Krull’s book, are a significant element of the stories – Roberts gives two-page biographies of 10 women and discusses many more in brief on pages labeled “Women Through the Years” (the years being 1727 to 1825), “Women Educators and Reformers,” and “Women Writers.” There are some genuine surprises here, such as the inclusion of Louise D’Avezac Livingston, an early environmental activist who was the wife of Edward Livingston, the U.S. ambassador to France under President Andrew Jackson; and Rebecca Gratz, founder of the first Jewish orphanage in the United States and possibly the source of the character Rebecca in the novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, whom she had met while in England. The picking and choosing of the women here seems designed to cover as many contemporary focuses as possible, from environmentalism and Judaism to Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, and so forth. The inclusiveness is not especially intrusive, but it does give a somewhat misleading view of the roles played by women in the American colonies and early United States. Still, Ladies of Liberty is a brief and interesting foray into the lives, adventures and concerns of a few women who, if they did not quite shape the new nation, certainly contributed in important ways to some aspects of the way it developed.

(++++) THE FANTASTICS


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Character Guide. By Michael Kogge. Scholastic. $14.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Magical Movie Handbook. By Michael Kogge. Scholastic. $7.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Beasts—Cinematic Guide. By Felicity Baker. Scholastic. $8.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Beasts Poster Book. Scholastic. $7.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Coloring and Creativity Book. Scholastic. $8.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Fashion Sketchbook. Scholastic. $15.99.

     Rarely are the inevitable movie tie-in books more valuable or interesting than souvenirs of a short-term infatuation with a particular film. Some of the books that take off from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are therefore exceptional – if not in themselves, then because they are genuinely interesting and could lure people to the film instead of simply being ways for those who already know the movie to remember it. The latest entry into the world of Harry Potter, the first of a planned five-movie sequence, got only mixed reviews, its heavy emphasis on computer-generated imagery and plot exegesis making it less enthralling to many than the coming-of-age story involving Harry, Ron and Hermione, which takes place 70 years later and an ocean away from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. However, the new film’s handsome staging and intriguing use of a muggle (called “no-maj” in this movie) as a major character give it a different angle on magic from that of the original eight-film sequence, while the use of the director of the last four Harry Potter films – David Yates – provides some continuity of pacing and visualization. In any case, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers plenty of reasons to revisit J.K. Rowling’s original books and spinoffs from them, and a number of these half-dozen movie tie-ins proffer more magic and involvement than is usual in film-derived, film-dependent books.

     The Character Guide and Magical Movie Handbook are actually both character-focused, giving brief biographies of the movie’s central character, “magizoologist” Newt Scamander, and the various characters, beasts and objects with which he interacts in the film: witch sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein, no-maj Jacob Kowalski, the anti-witch Second Salemers, the powerful Shaw family, members of the U.S magic-ruling organization known as MACUSA, and of course the beasts. Character Guide spends most of its time on people and their relationships with each other and the society in which they live, a reimagined 1920s New York City. Magical Movie Handbook gives less space to characters and more to the beasts, organizations and locations of the movie – and even has a section on wands and spells, the differentiation of wands’ appearance being an intriguing (if scarcely central) element in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

     For an even stronger focus on the beasts of the film there is The Beasts—Cinematic Guide, which gives at least a few pages to every one of the 14 beasts seen in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, even those that make little more than a cameo appearance (although, of course, they could always play a greater role in films yet to come). At 64 pages, this is a very short hardcover book, but one that does an unusually good job of explaining what the beasts are supposed to be and do. It offers fewer scenes from the film than the Character Guide and Magical Movie Handbook, but the ones it does show are well-chosen. And then, for viewers really intrigued by the movie’s CGI creations, The Beasts Poster Book is a visual treat, offering 24 pull-out pages showing the creatures (and some of the human characters) in full, resplendent color and large 8½-by-11-inch size.

     The tie-ins to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them also include, not surprisingly, some activity books; these seem aimed at younger viewers and really do function mostly as souvenirs of the film. The (+++) Coloring and Creativity Book, which includes stickers as well as black-and-white pages to color, offers a chance to reimagine the beasts of the movie as well as some of the characters and even some objects, such as a MACUSA identification card and the Magical Exposure Threat Level Clock. And a close look at the to-be-colored pages occasionally reveals a certain level of subtle humor, as on a page showing some of the items that Newt uses to track beasts and care for them: the five Ministry of Magic classification levels for beasts range from the serious XXXXX, “impossible to train or domesticate,” to the basic X, described with the single word “boring.” This book will make sense only to readers who have seen the film already, which is why it is best thought of as a souvenir rather than an involving work in its own right. And much the same is true – in fact, to an even greater degree – when it comes to Fashion Sketchbook. This book is largely based on the notion that Queenie, the younger of the sister witches with whom Newt interacts, is a 1920s version of what would now be called a fashionista: she is preoccupied with clothing, hair, and her overall “look.” In truth, the period costumes of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are a high point of the film, whatever its structural lacks may be, and for those interested in fashions and fashion design, Fashion Sketchbook will be a lot of fun. It shows how various characters (not only Queenie) and objects look in the movie, then gives readers a chance to “interact” with the film’s scenario. For instance, one of Newt’s beasts, a Niffler, is attracted to shiny objects, so this book offers four drawings of hands and arms that can be used to create ring and bracelet designs. Queenie wears her hair in short curls, a popular 1920s style, and the book provides three drawings of heads on which to create and color hairstyles. There is even a page showing seven different wand designs, with an opposite blank page for creating a wand. The (+++) Fashion Sketchbook is of limited appeal, but will be quite enjoyable for those intrigued by this aspect of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Interestingly, though, several other books among these tie-ins have the potential to reach out beyond people who have already seen the film and perhaps get them interested in viewing it – and for those who have seen and enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the tie-ins will make it easier to wait for the next movie in the series while remembering the high points of this one.

(++++) ONWARD! UPWARD?


The Bad Guys #2: Mission Unpluckable. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.

Bird & Squirrel on Fire. By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series is just settling in for what looks to be a long stay. This delightful heap of ridiculousness posits that four known do-badders want to become do-gooders, led by Mr. Wolf and including Mr. Snake, Mr. Shark and Mr. Piranha. In their first outing, the four managed to make a mess of pretty much everything through a series of missteps that led to the eventual freeing of all the dogs imprisoned in the local dog pound – the point being that the dogs fled out of fear of the bad-guys-turned-good-guys. Mission Unpluckable picks up there, with a rehash of the end of the first book, as intrepid TV reporter Tiffany Fluffit talks about the “crazed gang” whose attack caused “200 terrified puppy dogs to run away in fright.” This does not make Mr. Wolf, leader of this particular pack, happy – nor is Mr. Piranha overjoyed at being described, and not for the first time, as a mutant sardine of some kind. Clearly the gang needs to do something even better than rescuing dogs, and Mr. Wolf has just the thing: break into a local chicken farm and let the poultry out. The idea seems as silly to the other characters as it will to readers – although Mr. Snake proves super-enthusiastic about the job because he, well, eats chickens. He therefore shouts “Let’s go!” no fewer than 13 times, in ever-larger type, before Mr. Wolf reveals that there are some difficulties with the plan: this particular chicken farm, in which the chickens are confined constantly in cages and generally treated cruelly, is heavily guarded; also, it has 30-foot-high steel walls that are eight feet thick, plus floor and wall alarms, plus laser beams, and more. Obviously someone with a high level of technical knowledge would be needed to disarm the place – and luckily, Mr. Wolf knows just such a someone, in the form of yet another bad guy who is willing to try being good: Mr. Tarantula. But…well, it turns out that Mr. Tarantula scares all the other gang members, especially Mr. Shark, who promptly faints with the words “Spider…with no pants…on my head…” Hmm. Clearly this is going to be some sort of team-building thing, along the lines of the best “caper” dramas. And so it is – including scenes of self-sacrifice (Mr. Piranha voluntarily placing himself inside a sardine sandwich), personality turnarounds (Mr. Snake coughing up all the chickens he ate and doing something heroic to make up for following his bad-guy nature), and best-guy-buddy stuff (Mr. Tarantula and Mr. Shark, of course). The books in The Bad Guys series are not quite graphic novels and not quite comic books: the drawings propel the action, but the layout is that of amply illustrated word-driven books rather than comics or graphic novels. Whatever they may be, these books are hilariously silly. At the conclusion of Mission Unpluckable, Mr. Wolf suddenly notices a creepy house near the now-empty chicken farm, but it is empty except for a box containing an utterly adorable “widdle guinea pig” that the gang rescues as an afterthought to their chicken release. Hoo boy, is that going to turn out to be a mistake – as Blabey shows in a look ahead toward the next book in the series, in which the cute little furball will be revealed as a menacing monster and a “REALLY bad guy.” But that shall be then. Mission Unpluckable is now.

     It is easy to see where Blabey’s books are going, but not so simple to tell what James Burks has planned for his Bird & Squirrel graphic-novel series, a trilogy that is now in its fourth book. Yes, this is the fourth of three. First there was Bird & Squirrel on the Run, in which the opposite-personality title characters met and became friends, both of them avoiding Cat, who was intent on eating them. Then came Bird & Squirrel on Ice, in which the friends crash-landed at the South Pole and Bird was mistaken for the predicted Chosen One, who would rid the penguins of the threat of a killer whale by himself becoming whale food. And then came the supposed end of the trilogy, Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! In the third book, the friends headed home, stopping along the way to save the life of a bear cub threatened by wolves; here the two had a temporary personality reversal, with Bird being afraid of everything for a change and Squirrel being the brave-to-the-point-of-recklessness character. Eventually the friends’ personalities were switched back and the two made it home, happier and wiser and all that sort of thing, encountering the cub’s mother at just the right point so the bears could have a happy ending as well. The end? Umm…nope. In Bird & Squirrel on Fire, the adventure takes place at home, after the characters have returned to normal life, or tried to. And it is a big adventure, much like the first three, involving mysterious disappearances, an underground labyrinth, an evil pack stalking the good guys (rats rather than wolves this time), a strange beaver whose gigantic dam has cut off all the other animals’ water, and an adorable red squirrel named Red who becomes an actual love interest for Squirrel. The book’s title refers to a climactic blaze that forces the title characters into super-heroic mode once again, eventually brings all the animals together, and leads to the disappearance and presumed demise of Bird – which of course does not happen, this being a book for comparatively young readers, for whom it would  not do to lay on too much angst. Actually, the Bird & Squirrel series is a good entry point to graphic novels for younger readers: the stories are simple, the characterization is straightforward, the art is attractive and unchallenging, the colors are bright, and the use of panels that have different shapes and mesh into each other at times while bursting the bounds of their edges at others helps keep the action well-paced. And this time the Bird & Squirrel series is clearly, obviously finished and final and ended in a thoroughly satisfactory way – although, hmm, that was true after the previous book, too, so who really knows?

(++) MISERABLE AND HAPPY


Which Is Worse? Crazy Questions to Ask Your Friends. By Lee Taylor. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything. By Neil Pasricha. Putnam. $16.

     If you have any friends left after asking them the questions posed by Lee Taylor in Which Is Worse? you can be pretty sure they are friends indeed. Taylor offers about as unpleasant a set of either-or choices – all of them, yes, illustrated – as readers are likely to encounter. Which is worse, eating a cup of mayonnaise or chugging a cup of raw eggs? All right, that is an easy one – some people really like mayonnaise, and raw eggs are actually used in some extreme sports-oriented diets. How about deciding whether it is worse to be haunted by ghosts or to become a ghost? A heaping helping of death, anyone? How about the death-or-death choice between being buried alive and being sunk at sea? Yet again, those are pretty mild examples of what is here. How about deciding between “one thousand tiny ants in your kitchen” and “one humongous ant in your bedroom,” when the big one is about the size of your bed’s pillow? Or a choice between “having food stuck in your teeth all day” and “drooling every time you talk,” with very explicit pictures? Or the choice between “a rat stealing your snack” and “a rat walking all over your snack”? And would you rather have “a baboon’s butt” (shown in all its bright-red glory) or “a porcupine’s hair”?  Still have any friends to whom you would like to pose these questions, and who might like to see these illustrations? How about the choice between “never-ending diarrhea” and “never-ending vomiting”? Or between “using toenails as ice cream sprinkles” and “dandruff to season your fries”? Taylor obviously goes for increasingly gross either-or possibilities in this book, although it does not actually build in that direction – the unpleasantness of any particular set of alternatives shows up at random, so you never know, when turning a page, just how yucky the next choices will be. Would you rather cough up hairballs or eat already-chewed gum? Have the diet of a vulture or that of a dung beetle? Have whole-body poison ivy or perpetual lice? Never be able to flush the toilet, or never be able to take a shower? Leaving out the issue of what sort of mind Taylor must have to think of these possibilities, the question is who came up with the photo illustrations on all the pages. There is a list of the photo sources at the very end of the book, for those interested in such things – but be warned that the list begins on the page facing the one with the final inquiry, which is whether it would be worse to eat a sundae topped with blood or one topped with bird poop.

     Which Is Worse? is presumably intended to be funny as well as gross, even though it overdoes the grossness to such an extent that the humor generally disappears. Neil Pasricha’s The Happiness Equation is presumably intended to be taken seriously despite its hard-to-believe elements, but in its own way it turns out to be just as gross as Which Is Worse? Originally published last year and now available in paperback, the book runs more than 280 pages but can be summed up with these nine short sentences on page 269: “Be happy first. Do it for you. Remember the lottery. Never retire. Overvalue you. Create space. Just do it. Be you. Don’t take advice.” Everything else in the book is explication, expansion and exegesis. Pasricha is a wealthy and successful author, but that is nothing for which he wants readers to strive. Oh, no. Here is what he says: “To want nothing. That’s contentment. To do anything. That’s freedom. To have everything. That’s happiness.” That is not Pasricha’s happiness, but do as he says, not as he does, and all will be fine (and he will not face competition from readers who think they can write pseudo-philosophical self-help books). Pasricha tosses about simplistic affirmations with vaguely homespun stories, fairy-tale scenarios, and illustrations ranging from a “Keeping Up with the Joneses” comic strip from 1913 to more-modern “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Dilbert” comics. Pasricha has an answer for everything (although it helps that he himself formulates the questions). For example, “The way to make more money than a Harvard MBA isn’t to get your annual salary over $120,000 or $150,000 or $500,000. It’s to measure how much you make per hour and overvalue you so you’re spending time working only on things you enjoy.” Great! Now – how much does Pasricha make? Hmm. Seems to be missing. He actually reveals little about how his thought system has affected his own life – unlike, say, Scott Adams, creator of Pasricha-cited “Dilbert,” in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. No, Pasricha will have none of that: he is all about success, not failure, and about defining success in such a way that you get it without any particular hardship. The Happiness Equation is filled with inconsistencies. For example, Pasricha talks about how wonderful  former pro football player Rosey Grier is for having written a book about needlepoint “after retiring from the NFL.” But only 100-plus pages earlier, Pasricha strongly advocates living the way centenarians in Okinawa do, stating (yes, in italics), “They don’t even have a word for retirement.” So the idea is never to retire, never even think about it – and also to retire after a highly lucrative career and do something else. Pasricha seeks to deflect criticism by stating up front that “you will not agree with all nine secrets [given here] the first time you read them,” then offering “3 ways to get the most out of this book” (numbered 3, 2, 1). So this is an author who clearly deems himself beyond criticism and, by implication, considers those who follow his precepts (or at least pay money to hear him deliver them, whether in this book or at his Institute for Global Happiness) to be beyond it as well. By all means try The Happiness Equation if you think this sort of book really offers the secrets of joy and wealth not only to Pasricha but also to you. But take note of two things. First, Pasricha’s comment, “Don’t take advice,” is advice you are supposed to take. And second, Pasricha is, yes, a Harvard MBA.

(++++) THE LESS AND BETTER KNOWN


Respighi: Solo Piano Music—complete. Michele D’Ambrosio, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Volume 3—Nos. 22-32. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $37.99 (3 CDs).

Shostakovich: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; String Quartet No. 2—Waltz: Allegro; String Quartet No. 8. Boris Giltburg, piano; Rhys Owens, trumpet; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $12.99.

     Although Respighi’s solo piano music is little known and mostly consists of student pieces, it sheds some interesting light on his later, better-known works. The chance to hear all of this music is a very unusual one, and the Brilliant Classics release featuring Michele D’Ambrosio is therefore highly welcome. Respighi lived from 1879 to 1936, and almost all his works for solo piano date to the late 19th century or very early 20th. It is therefore scarcely a surprise that many have derivative elements, notably echoing Schumann. The Sonata in F minor (1897), Sonata in A minor (1895-96), Andante in F (1895-96), Andante in D (1895-96), Allegro in B minor (1895-96), Preludio in B-flat minor (1898), unfinished Preludio from “Suite per pianoforte” (1903), and Preludio in D minor (1903) are all nicely constructed works and, in the case of the sonatas, ones showing a sure command of classical forms and the ability to sustain musical ideas over multiple movements. None of the material is especially distinctive in terms of what it has to say, however. The five-movement Suite of 1898, though, is a pleasant surprise: the material is light and harks back to music considerably earlier than Schumann’s – the third movement, for instance, is marked Sarabanda – but there is a fleetness and assurance to the piano writing that gives the work a distinctive stamp. The same is true of the piano version of Variazioni sinfoniche (1900), heard here in a world première recording that shows this piano piece to be different in significant ways from the much-better-known orchestral version. And the loosely connected Sei pezzi (1903) are also a pleasant discovery, resembling the earlier Suite in several ways and containing a waltz, nocturne, Canone and Minuetto – all of which Respighi shows himself to understand well and to be able to create with care and solidity. Nevertheless, all these pieces together, their total time nearly an hour and three quarters, have less to show or tell listeners about the elements that make Respighi’s music special than the only two comparatively late piano works he wrote. These are the Antiche danze ed arie per liuto (1917-18) and Tre preludi su melodie gregoriane (1919). Respighi’s first suite of Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute and his four-movement Church Windows are among his best-known orchestral compositions. These piano works offer an opportunity to hear the pieces in their formative stages. The dances are transcriptions, not free adaptations, and as such sound as straightforward and accomplished on piano as they do in orchestral guise, although less interestingly colored. Tre preludi differs from Church Windows in lacking a finale – Respighi added that in 1925 when he made the orchestral version – and here the absence of elegant orchestration makes the piano piece seem rather pale. Nevertheless, these two works provide considerable insight into Respighi’s thinking and compositional process, and are worthwhile on that basis as well as a purely musical one. D’Ambrosio’s performances are, like Respighi’s piano music itself, straightforward and forthright, a fine melding of the performer’s approach with that of the composer.

     Far more often heard than Respighi’s piano music, and available in innumerable fine performances, the final 11 piano sonatas of Beethoven get elegant, classically balanced readings from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in a three-CD Chandos release that completes Bavouzet’s Beethoven cycle. These performances have all the considerable strengths and occasional shortcomings of those in the two earlier volumes. The readings are uniformly clean, elegant and graceful, the pedaling discreet, the emotions kept carefully in control to a degree that means that even when they flow, as in the last three sonatas, they do so within firm boundaries that Bavouzet sets. Bavouzet has technique to spare, and there is no evident strain at all in his handsome reading of No. 29, the Hammerklavier. He is also quite comfortable with a work as small and slight as No. 25, Op. 79, which is as much a sonatina as a sonata; indeed, he gives this work just the right weightiness to show that it reflects Haydn and Mozart while not being beholden to either. No. 23, Appassionata, and No. 26, Les adieux, are a trifle less satisfying: here a listener may be waiting for Bavouzet to cut loose a bit, to let the emotional impact of the music become nearly overwhelming, but the performances are entirely too well-mannered for that, and as a result come across as a bit too poised. The playing itself is excellent, however. The last three sonatas are a collective puzzle as well as three individual ones, and Bavouzet has obviously thought carefully about how to handle them as entirely separate works that nevertheless form a trilogy of sorts. The final variations of No. 30, Op. 109, are a high point here, with Bavouzet characterizing each variation with care while nevertheless being sure they all fit within an overarching concept. The emotive nature of the finale of No. 31, Op. 110, is somewhat underplayed here, but the fugal material does not come across as dry – merely as a touch more distanced from an emotional center than might perhaps be ideal. Bavouzet’s handling of No. 32, Op. 111, is likely to be controversial: it is quite quick, the whole lasting only about 24 minutes – many performances run 30 minutes or more. Bavouzet does not give short shrift to anything specific here, but he keeps the whole sonata moving along smartly, never dwelling on its unusual elements or the surprises that other performers find in it (such as the section of the second movement in which Beethoven appears to invent jazz). The performance is in a sense emblematic of Bavouzet’s entire Beethoven cycle: thoughtful, well-balanced, clearly articulated and leaning more toward the Classical era than the Romantic, Bavouzet proffers Beethoven sonatas that are technically excellent, carefully (if not always traditionally) paced, and at times rather lacking in the deep emotional connections that other pianists find in them. The general coolness of the approach will certainly appeal to listeners who have had their fill of overwrought emotionalism in Beethoven; it will not, however, please those who find greater expressive depth in these sonatas than Bavouzet brings forth.

     There is no shortage of expressiveness in the Shostakovich works performed by pianist Boris Giltburg and conducted by Vasily Petrenko on a new Naxos CD – but there are some curious juxtapositions of types of expressiveness. Aside from his theater music, Shostakovich’s oeuvre is scarcely thought of as light or bright – even his excellent scherzos, whether in orchestral or chamber form, include more bite than light. But his two piano concertos are unusual in this regard: both the first in C minor (1933) and the second in F (1957) convey an overall impression of brightness, if not exactly ebullience. The first concerto makes a solo trumpet essentially equal to the solo piano, in impact if not in total number of notes, both in the haunting central movement and in outer ones in which the brass instrument keeps interfering mischievously with the percussive one and insisting that matters be kept in a kind of Till Eulenspiegel realm of trickery. The second concerto offers some genuinely surprising balance of soloist and orchestra in the first movement, a quirky and parodic finale immediately recognizable as typical of Shostakovich, and in the center a movement of surprising emotional impact in which the sad and tender are mixed and stirred. Giltburg plays both concertos with verve and style, and Petrenko, whose stature as an interpreter of Shostakovich is very high indeed, expertly interweaves the orchestral elements with those of the soloist and knows just which ones should dominate at just what time. And there is more to this excellent recording: two arrangements by Giltburg of material from Shostakovich’s 15 quartets. The strange, quick, shadowy waltz from No. 2 (1944) is as unsettling in isolation, and in Giltburg’s piano version, as it is in the quartet itself. But the real capstone here is the entire eighth quartet, the most often performed of the cycle, which is intensely autobiographical and was written later than either piano concerto (in 1960). Shostakovich’s musical signature, D-S-C-H, is featured throughout the quartet’s five movements, and the work is full of striving and attempts that are designed so they never quite gel, as when the start of a first-movement fugue degenerates – if that is the right word – into self-quotation. The quartet is a complex work, difficult both to play and to hear, and Giltburg has done a remarkable job of reducing it to piano form without having it sound like a reduction. Instead, it sounds a bit like an extended single-movement sonata/fantasia, a dark work (in C minor) evocative not quite of despair but surely of deep unhappiness, yet one whose central bitterness (carried through three movements) leads eventually to something of acceptance, if never quite affirmation, in the finale. Giltburg’s arrangement comes across as a tribute to Shostakovich, an argument that this composer’s music, like that of Bach, can at least sometimes be independent of the instruments on which it is performed, its underlying emotional resonance coming through differently but equally strongly on an instrument for which the work was never intended – but one that is quite capable of evoking the feelings that Shostakovich strove so hard to elicit.

January 05, 2017

(++++) ALL THAT ADORABLENESS


Love Is My Favorite Thing. By Emma Chichester Clark. Nancy Paulsen Books. $16.99.

Plenty of Love to Go Around. By Emma Chichester Clark. Nancy Paulsen Books. $17.99.

     There is always room for one more book about an ultra-adorable dog and the human family with which it bonds and in which it occasionally misbehaves. Or two more books. Actually, Emma Chichester Clark’s stories of Plum are so cute that two will scarcely be enough for most readers – not only the kids for whom the books are written, but also adults, who will surely find themselves reading over their children’s shoulders and chuckling, perhaps a bit wryly, at the unintentional mischief that big-hearted but rambunctious Plum gets into.

     Plum is very definitely based on Clark’s own dog, a whippet-poodle-Jack Russell terrier mix, and anyone who knows those breeds will immediately realize that Plum will be shown as smart, quick, and pretty much unable to keep still – not to mention being hard to catch when on a run. Clark created the Plumdog Blog online to explore the adventures of her dog, but these two books go beyond utterly real antics into the sort of heartwarming stories for which first-rate picture books are an ideal medium. In the first book, Love Is My Favorite Thing, Plum explores, through utterly charming and disarming illustrations, all her favorite parts of life: different kinds of weather, her toy bear, her bed, sticks of all sorts, and the two children who live next door to Emma and Rupert, Plum’s human family. A park scene is particularly intricate and well-done, including a couple of people picking up after their dogs as Plum comments on how she gets praised “when I do a poo, as if it’s so, so clever.” Yes, dog owners behave exactly that way. Unfortunately, irrepressible Plum gets so excited at the park that she does not listen to Emma, runs through a fence, and splashes around in a pond, because she loves water so much – and later, at home, after a scolding, she tries to apologize by bringing the neighbor kids, Sam and Gracie, a pillow. But then she forgets the apology and starts playing tug-of-war – with wholly predictable (and wonderfully drawn and extremely messy) results. Poor Plum is in the doghouse (figuratively) and worried that no one will love her anymore – by far her biggest worry and, one assumes, the biggest worry of any well-loved dog. Things do not get better as the day goes on: released from her time-out and back in the park, Plum cannot help but notice all the kids eating ice cream, especially one toddler who drops his cone in a bag without his parents noticing. Plum loves ice cream and just has to have what has, after all, been dropped, so she snatches the bag – and ends up being chased by a crowd that seems to include everyone in the park. Plum runs home and realizes that she has made “THE MOST ABSOLUTELY AWFUL MISTAKE!” Emma marches her downstairs and leaves her in her bed in the dark, with Plum worrying, “Would they ever love me again?” Plum’s apologetic and worried postures are perfectly shown, as is her enthusiasm when she runs and grabs and generally overdoes everything through unending canine enthusiasm. Of course Emma and Rupert hold and cuddle her at the book’s end, and everything ends with Plum promising to try to be good – an attempt belied by the hilarious final picture.

     Love Is My Favorite Thing is so wonderful that it is hard to see where its newly released sequel,  Plenty of Love to Go Around, can go. But have no fear! There is more to Plum’s story! In this sequel (which, however, can easily stand on its own), Plum encounters an interloper: Binky, a cat who moves in next door. Plus has many favorite things, but cats are not among them – and besides, if the people in Plum’s life love Binky, will there be enough love left over for Plum? This sounds like a rather treacly plot, but it does not come across that way, because Plum’s worries are handled so endearingly and with so much understanding – and Binky is not a foil for Plum but a fine neighbor and would-be friend, following Plum everywhere (even to the park, which Plum has always thought is just for dogs, and which Clark shows in another of her very best illustrations). Watching Binky imitate Plum in everything – even peeing when Plum pees, assuming the same position to do so – is highly amusing. And when cat and dog accidentally get locked in a shed and Binky escapes and brings help, readers will take Binky immediately to heart (for her part, Plum is seen worrying after Binky squeezes out under the shed door, “Now no one will ever find me”). Sam and Gracie certainly adore the cat and compliment him for rescuing Plum, but Plum only feels worse as Binky climbs a tree – something Plum cannot do – and Sam says, “He can do anything.” Plum laments, “Now Binky was the Special One.” Clearly some raising of self-esteem is in order – even after Plum’s friend Rocket assures her that “there’s plenty of love to go around.” Plum, not believing it, does something rather mean, leaning against the cat door so Binky, who wants to come in to play, cannot get back inside. Even when it starts to rain, Plum does not relent – and Emma, fortuitously returning and bringing a damp-but-not-sodden Binky inside, figures out what happened and explains to Plum that “there’s room in our hearts for him and for YOU!” And at last, Plum realizes that she too has room in her heart for Binky. The final picture of the two of them sleeping peacefully in Plum’s dog bed promises the beginning of a beautiful friendship – which kids and parents alike will fervently hope that Clark will continue to chronicle in additional Plum books.