June 14, 2018

(++++) DELIGHTS OF EVERYDAY LIFE


New Shoes. By Chris Raschka. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Good Night, Little Monsters. By Kara LaReau. Illustrated by Brian Won. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.

     For the youngest children, from pre-readers to early readers, it can be a special delight to find themselves – or kids very much like themselves – in books, dealing with exactly the same issues of everyday life that young kids experience. Chris Raschka takes this situation to a logical and charming extreme in New Shoes, a book with which any shoe-wearing child can identify – since Raschka never shows the child at all. The entire book consists of pictures of a child’s legs and feet, plus an adult hand or arm here and there. And the story is simplicity itself. It starts when “Mommy is going to put my shoes on me,” and that is just what she does – but the child discovers that the shoes “have a hole here” (pointing to one edge), “and a hole here” (pointing to the sole). This is actually fun: “I can put my finger in. Hee-hee!” But it also means it is time for new shoes – so child and mother head for the shoe store, where “a man takes off my old shoes” and measures the child’s feet, discovering that they “are bigger than before!” Then it is time to look at possible replacement shoes, try some on to find ones that are comfortable, and head home – all part of one of those mundane adventures that really are adventures for children doing them for the first time, or one of the first times. Not surprisingly, the child is so excited by his new shoes that he wants “to show Emma,” his friend (the child himself is unnamed). And he does so – and when he does, Raschka offering pictures of the feet and shoes of two children. The watercolor-and-gouache illustrations, very simple in appearance and pleasantly rounded, fit the story quite well, and while Raschka never reveals definitively whether the child who gets new shoes is a boy or a girl, he does use the visual medium cleverly to show that the book’s central character has white skin, while his friend, Emma, is African-American. There is no particular message to that except one of inclusivity – but the inclusiveness nicely complements the underlying theme of New Shoes, which is that kids of all sorts have small adventures like this one all the time, and inevitably want to share them with friends.

     And how does one turn bedtime, a standard nightly event, into something amusing and enjoyable for young book readers and pre-readers? Kara LaReau has a highly amusing idea: show all the kids getting ready for bed as various types of monsters – harmless ones – and have text in which their monster moms and diabolical dads wish them good night and a good rest. Thanks to deliciously silly Brian Won illustrations, Good Night, Little Monsters is a monstrously enjoyable board book. For example, it begins, “Good night, Frankenbaby./ Lay down your green head./ Let’s loosen your bolts/ and tuck you in bed.” And little Frankenbaby, sporting a big smile and proudly displaying his two teeth, is seen sitting quietly while a grown-up arm holding a screwdriver reaches toward him, preparing to loosen one of the two bolts in his neck. And so the whole book goes, with “precious zombie” having a bedtime snack, “dear vampire” hanging upside-down from the shower-curtain rod while preparing to brush her teeth, little “Loch Nessie” cuddled in the lake between two large versions whose heads and bodies form the shape of a heart, and so forth. There is a “bed-tomb story” for “mummy honey,” a howled lullaby for “darling wolfboy,” a big cuddle for “little Bigfoot,” and some bed bouncing for two “gleeful goblins.” And then, at the very end of the book, all the little monsters pack themselves into a tent by a campfire and doze off, with Loch Nessie’s tail sticking all the way through and out of the tent, the wolfboy sleeping on top rather than inside, and the child vampire hanging upside-down from a nearby tree branch. It is a monstrously peaceful scene that is just the thing for parents to show their own little monsters at bedtime – a great example of turning a case of the “nothing special” of getting ready to sleep into something very special indeed.

(++++) THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING IN EARNEST


College Admission 101: Simple Answers to Tough Questions about College Admissions and Financial Aid. By Robert Franek. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $12.99.

     If you have to lie, do it with sincerity. That would seem to be solid, basic advice to college-bound students now that college is increasingly being seen the way high school used to be: as the necessary foundation of whatever career one may wish to have. Robert Franek is not quite so cynically plainspoken about college admissions, but he offers plenty of smart and substantial answers to questions that students and families are likely to be asking about the admissions process in College Admission 101. The very first question is the underlying one for a great many families nowadays: “Is a college degree worth the cost of tuition?” And of course Franek answers with a resounding “yes,” since otherwise there would be no book. But families need to understand that “the cost of tuition” is only a small part of the overall cost of college: room and board are separate matters, often costing as much as tuition itself, and there are psychological and experiential costs associated with college as well – ones that some students and parents learn can outweigh the financial ones. Franek does not try to deal with the totality of college costs, direct and indirect, but he does a very fine job of helping students and parents negotiate the practical decision-making that goes into college admission and the options available to get into an appropriate school and afford to attend it.

     Franek starts by stating that there is no “best” college, only a school that is the best fit for each individual student – an oft-repeated truism, yes, but one worth asserting again and again. He then offers, in tables and boxes – a design characteristic of this book from start to finish – information on salaries of graduates of various schools, and responses to a survey asking the biggest benefit of college. There is no surprise there: the largest group of respondents, 42%, say the major benefit is “potentially better job and higher income,” the notion of students becoming “well-rounded” or “better people” having long since been eclipsed by more-pragmatic matters. Only 26% say “the education” is the biggest benefit. This should immediately disabuse families of any traditional notions about college, if they still have any.

     By organizing College Admission 101 as a series of questions and answers, Franek makes it easy for readers of the book – perhaps “users” would be a better term – to zero in on specific issues that matter to them. Want to know what criteria to use when choosing a college? There is a question for that, with a seven-page, carefully considered answer. To how many schools should a student apply? Here the answer essentially boils down to a single paragraph. In other words, Franek wisely devotes more time to questions requiring greater thought and analysis, and less to ones that are, in the long run (and sometimes the short run), of less significance. Along the way, he also tosses in deadpan statistics that readers/users of College Admission 101 may find amusingly enlightening: 50% of parents say they would prefer that a child attend a school fewer than 250 miles from home, while 68% of students say they want to be more than 250 miles away.

     Franek really does cover just about all the basics of college application and admission, although not always in depth. He deals with researching schools, types of standardized tests, how admissions officers look at extracurricular activities (hint: as a matter of considerable importance), financial aid and the inevitable FAFSA form, the Common Application, the importance of the application essay (including a very useful five suggestions to make the essay as appealing as possible), how admissions offices actually function, and more. Franek certainly knows his stuff, having worked in this field for 20-plus years – and equally important, he knows how to communicate some difficult and even frustrating truths in a plainspoken way. Thus, “While it’s true that it looks better to take difficult classes and not always get sky high grades than to take easy classes and always excel, a high overall GPA is crucial.” This may not be reassuring to students, but it is honest.

     What College Admission 101 does not include is some of the most controversial material relating to the real-world, non-idealized admissions process: favoritism for less-qualified children of alumni, preferences accorded based on race in the name of “diversity” or “making up for past societal wrongs,” and so forth. Some of these matters have become increasingly important in the admissions process in recent years, and a forthright discussion of them would have been welcome – even if the conclusion had simply been that there is nothing a student can do about, say, his or her racial or ethnic background. College Admission 101 can thus be faulted for making the same erroneous assumption that most college textbooks about economics continue to make: assuming that decisions are made rationally and in a balanced way. This is no truer of deciding which person to admit to a specific school than it is of figuring out whether an Apple or Android phone is “better.” Still, to the extent that the college-admission process is rational and explainable, College Admission 101 is a first-rate guide to it, from someone who clearly knows the ins and outs of the field as well as the ups and downs experienced by all those (parents as well as students) who are trying to negotiate it in the hope of eventually landing a better job – and maybe even learning a thing or two.

(+++) THE BIOLOGY OF UNFAITHFULNESS


Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat. By Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, M.D. Da Capo. $26.

     Sex gives pleasure. Genetically, some people have higher pleasure needs than others. Those people are more likely to seek sex with someone other than the person to whom they are married or otherwise committed. End of book.

     Well, no. More like “start of book.” Yes, Kenneth Paul Rosenberg clearly states that “affairs of the heart and journeys of sexual desire overtake the reward centers of the brain. New sex and love clouds or subverts the frontal lobes’ decision-making abilities, and these biological, evolutionarily adaptive processes are hard to surmount.” But there is more here. Rosenberg fills 266 pages with examples, discussions, research reports and analyses of the reasons people cheat, the consequences when they do, and ways (he says) to mitigate those consequences. Rosenberg certainly has the credentials to present all this: he is an addiction psychiatrist and sex-addiction counselor with more than two decades of experience. And he writes well.

     Nevertheless, there is something rather unsatisfying about Infidelity. It is not the research, such as the findings about dopamine and the brain’s pleasure centers, including studies showing that some people really do have a genetic predisposition toward greater needs for pleasure and therefore may be more likely to cheat on a partner if that partner cannot provide the level of stimulation the genetically inclined person needs. Actually, a good deal of the science will be familiar to people who keep an eye on studies of human behavior, but not everyone does this, and having the research collected in one place and presented cogently is a big plus for Infidelity.

     The minus comes from the fact that every book analyzing human behavior and seeking to help people change and improve it falls into two basic sections: descriptive and prescriptive. Rosenberg’s is no exception. And while it is quite strong (if sometimes rather obvious) on the descriptive side, it is much less useful on the prescriptive side – the “what to do if this happens to you” portion. The prescriptive material is not neatly gathered at the end of the book but is presented throughout, and the comparative weakness of this material pulls down the overall effectiveness of the book’s communication.

     Thus, at one point Rosenberg writes that for a cheated spouse or partner who learns of an affair, “Sleep is difficult. The quiet darkness of night invites images of the affair, which you may have gleaned through texts and emails or your own imagination, replaying over and over through your mind.” This seems pretty obvious, despite Rosenberg’s attempt to present the feelings empathetically. He then goes on to tell cheaters not to “gaslight” their partners, meaning not to “deny and undermine your spouse’s sense of reality in order to gain power in the relationship or win an argument. …Not only will that approach fail, but it’s also a crappy way to treat someone – especially someone to whom you’ve pledged your love.” Um, well, yes. And Rosenberg then continues further, in a section called “What Do We Tell Other People?” Here he gets to prescriptive matters immediately: “My prescription – Chill! – involves pausing before you take steps that might cause further damage.” Again – um, well, yes.

     Again and again, Rosenberg says things that sound good and sound right, that showcase his experience of dealing with infidelity and explain how people (cheaters and cheated) respond to it, that indicate he knows how infidelity can wreck some relationships while eventually strengthening others that have been repaired and have grown as a result of the trauma. And Rosenberg certainly understands that in contemporary life, attitudes toward sex – and emotional attachment – have been changing, not least because of technology: “With so many choices available at the swipe of a thumb, this app [Bumble] likely stimulates its users’ brain’s reward centers, instilling in them the hope that the next swipe will be better than the last. But what is ‘best’ anyway?”

     The difficulty with Infidelity seems primarily to be that its prescriptive elements make sense and appear to have a good chance of success only within a therapeutic context. That is, Rosenberg is able to detail approaches that have worked for the patients he has seen, but trying to apply those approaches – such as that exclamatory “Chill!” – without the assistance of a trained professional is substantially more difficult than Rosenberg makes it out to be, if not out-and-out impossible. In the swirl of emotions, recriminations, anger and uncertainty likely to occur as a result of infidelity, the intercession of a neutral third party seems crucial to putting a damaged relationship back on an even keel. Not that all relationships involving infidelity are damaged: Rosenberg discusses a decades-married couple, two people in their 50s, who agreed to open their marriage, with positive results. “Through their consensual nonmonogamy they not only became closer but also began having hot sex with each other again. The long-married couple became more affectionate. …Both partners thought the experience helped the marriage.” But these two people assert that what they did was not infidelity, because each knew what the other was doing and they “had rules” and “were very thoughtful.” So this unconventional approach to sex with someone other than one’s spouse or long-term partner is a bit misleadingly included in a book called Infidelity, except insofar as readers may interpret any sex outside marriage or a committed relationship as meriting the book’s title.

     Rosenberg has a great deal of scientific and interpersonal knowledge on the topic of sexual function and dysfunction, and in Infidelity he does well when explaining why cheating (however it may be defined) happens and what its results can be. But when it comes to discussing ways in which individuals, on their own, can handle those results or change them from something negative to something positive, or at least neutral, Infidelity falls short. The ultimate take-home message from the book is that coping with cheating on one’s own is extremely difficult, so it is important, if one commits or discovers infidelity, to track down and work with an experienced professional who can guide you through your options and potential responses – that is, to track down and work with Rosenberg, or someone very much like him.

(++++) HIGHLY PERSONALIZED


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $34.99 (2 SACDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. SWR Classic. $12.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

     Famous conductors of the past were well-known for putting their personal imprimatur on the works they led, sometimes subsuming the composers’ intentions within the conductors’ own worldview. Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Leonard Bernstein – these names and others call up specific styles, specific approaches to music that go beyond the more-standardized (if often exceptionally well-played) versions of music conducted by most of today’s orchestra leaders. But there are exceptions to standardization, even today, often when a particular conductor has a special interest in and affinity for the works of one composer and leads them with an unusual degree of insight. This is the case with Rémy Ballot and Bruckner: all the symphonies released to date as Gramola SACD recordings are utterly unlike performances by anyone else, so distinctive as to be instantly recognizable. Ballot’s Bruckner sequence is emerging at a snail’s pace, one symphony per year, and in an exceptionally strange order that clearly reflects the conductor’s personal preferences: No. 3 was released first, then No. 8, No. 9, and No. 6. And now we have Ballot’s version of No. 5, which is every bit as distinguished and distinctive as the others – and requires every bit as great a rethinking (and re-feeling) of the work on the part of listeners. Bruckner’s Fifth is by any measure a strange symphony, a highly contrapuntal work with the composer’s only slow first-movement introduction and his only Scherzo in sonata form. It is also a work whose climax is reserved for the very end of the finale, literally the last minute or so, with everything that comes before building to the monumental conclusion – an extraordinary challenge to conductors. This helps explain the long-discredited rewrite by conductor Franz Schalk, used at the work’s first performance in 1894: Schalk reorchestrated the symphony to sound more Wagnerian, significantly truncated the sprawling last movement, and added triangle, cymbals and an offstage brass band to the conclusion to make it abundantly clear that here was the climax toward which the work was building all along. Wrongheaded Schalk may have been, but understandably so: this is a very difficult work to absorb in the terms intended by Bruckner. Ballot has certainly absorbed it, though. All Ballot’s readings are expansive to a point that would approach bloat if they were not so beautifully handled, so sensitive to every nuance of each score, so carefully balanced and paced. Ballot’s Bruckner Fifth runs a remarkable 88 minutes. This is a symphony that typically lasts 70 to 75 minutes, and in one notable recent recording (by Mario Venzago, another conductor with a highly personalized view of this composer) zips by in 60. But Ballot’s reading never plods and never feels stretched. Instead, from the pizzicato opening to the monumental conclusion, the work sounds as if it is being assembled, brick by brick and stone by stone, like a skyward-mounting cathedral eventually topped by a spire that reaches for the heavens. That is in fact not a bad image for this work, which the deeply religious Bruckner informally called his “Fantastic” symphony. Ballot appears to have thought the work through in reverse order, fully comprehending the fugal, multithemed finale that ends with a splendid chorale in which the first movement’s first theme returns to conclude the piece. Everything that Ballot does builds, as it should, to this climactic moment: the majesty with which the whole symphony opens, the extended second movement whose thematic material returns almost verbatim (although of course at different speed) in that unusual Scherzo, and then the complex and elaborate finale – which opens in the same way and at the same tempo as the first movement, then broadens the work’s canvas dramatically for nearly half an hour before returning to its first-movement roots. The Altomonte Orchester St. Florian plays with unerring attentiveness for Ballot, who insists on the importance of Buckner’s inner voices even as he elegantly frames and juxtaposes the primary themes. Listening to Ballot’s Bruckner Fifth requires absorption into a different sense of time from what is typical in hearing symphonies: Ballot has the work envelop listeners, to such an extent that only when the audience breaks into applause at the end is it clear that this is a recording of a live performance – everything has been whisper-quiet throughout, and that quietude, physical and emotional and psychological, is exactly what Ballot requires for full appreciation of his interpretation. Once again he here delivers an extraordinary listening experience that connects those who hear it with Bruckner’s ethos in a way that stands out quite clearly from that of any other contemporary Bruckner conductor.

     Unlike Ballot and Bruckner, Kirill Kondrashin and Mahler do not seem inextricably intertwined. But Kondrashin’s 1981 performance of Mahler’s Sixth, now available as an SWR Classic release, nevertheless offers some highly personal moments that showcase Kondrashin’s particular skill with this music. This is a very late Kondrashin recording, dating to the last year of the conductor’s life: he lived from 1914 to 1981. Kondrashin has been somewhat underrated ever since, being primarily known for his accompaniment of Glenn Gould in the pianist’s spectacular reading of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. In fact, Kondrashin was a versatile and well-rounded maestro whose readings inevitably included carefully calibrated touches that helped listeners absorb the music in new ways. That is certainly the case with this Mahler Sixth. Already in Mahler’s lifetime, this symphony was being called the “Tragic,” but in Kondrashin’s view, it would more appropriately be designated the “Dramatic.” It is the underlying drama of the work, from its first-movement march through to the three hammer blows of fate in the finale (all of which Kondrashin includes, although some conductors omit the third), that Kondrashin emphasizes. In so doing, he affirms the symphony’s structure as being best with the Scherzo placed second. Mahler could never quite make up his mind whether this movement should come second (thus tending to expand a mood already set in the opening movement) or third (thereby introducing and adding to the already-extended finale). Kondrashin’s placement of the Scherzo second makes this sequence of movements seem definitive: here the first and second movements together are not much longer than the finale alone, lending the work an arch-like balance with the Andante moderato third movement as its central point. Kondrashin’s performance is scarcely lacking in emotion – his handling of the gorgeous second theme of the first movement is especially notable – but he does not try to bring out any Tchaikovsky-like pathos in the symphony and, indeed, does not appear to find anything like that in it. There is a stateliness, a sturdiness in this Mahler Sixth, a kind of Ein Heldenleben quality that, however, concludes with the heroic figure overcome by the tribulations of life – almost literally hammered down by fate. The remastered analog recording of the Südwestfunk-Orchester Baden-Baden is not quite as warm and full as listeners may wish, but the orchestra’s playing is first-rate, and the comparative coolness of the sound actually adds to Kondrashin’s dramatic-but-not-deeply-tragic approach to the music. Although this is unlikely to be most listeners’ first choice as a recording of Mahler’s Sixth, it is an interesting and very worthy performance that many lovers of this music will want to own for the insights it offers into the symphony itself and into Kondrashin as a conductor.

     The sound quality is far better on a new BIS SACD featuring Mahler’s Sixth performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. Indeed, this recording is something of a sonic spectacular: the single disc contains Vänskä’s full 87-minute performance, which may be a record length for a compact disc – they are usually limited to 80 minutes or just a tad more, after which quality deteriorates noticeably. Not so here: there is not even a smidgen of quality loss, which is quite an accomplishment for the engineers and may set a new standard for the release of Mahler’s works – which are often just a bit over what has been considered to be the 80-minute limit. Sound quality aside, though, it is reasonable to wonder why Vänskä’s recording is so drawn-out as to need this special treatment – for example, Kondrashin’s runs just over 68 minutes, although that is admittedly on the faster-than-usual side for a performance of Mahler’s Sixth. It is the sheer length of Vänskä’s interpretation in which there lies one aspect, by no means the only one, of personalization in this recording. It is worth remembering that while Mahler famously told Sibelius that a symphony should include the whole world, what Mahler’s symphonies really contain – collectively if not individually – is “the whole Mahler.” A sense of the expansiveness of Mahler’s personality, the heights he sought to scale and the tragedies he experienced, is what Vänskä seems to be trying to convey in his very broad reading of the Sixth. This means that Vänskä looks at the symphony not in the context of the rather happy time when Mahler wrote it (1903-04) but in terms of the composer’s overall life, particularly the later years – in which a series of personal and professional tragedies steadily ground him down. This is clear from the very outset of Vänskä’s reading, in a first movement that sounds a great deal like a “dead march” akin to that in Mahler’s Fifth. The music slogs along, its brass calls and dissonances strongly emphasized, with the peaceful scene symbolized by the cowbells midway through the movement seeming more like a naïve wish for a childlike heaven (along the lines of the Fourth) than like a temporary Alpine respite from the movement’s conflicts. Indeed, Vänskä almost stops the music entirely here – a curious decision that is as personal an approach as possible, and that makes the resumption of the martial music quite startling. Vänskä then places the slow movement second, an approach whose difficulty this performance shows quite clearly: the slow pace of the first movement means the Andante moderato provides no respite from what has come before but rather presents the continuation of a very similar pulse. The playing is very beautiful, but any contrast of mood with the first movement is largely absent: by the end of this movement, Vänskä’s Sixth seems already to have stretched, if not to infinity, then certainly to a great extent. Structured this way, Mahler’s Sixth splits into two parts: the first and second movements have a very similar feeling, as do the third and fourth. Vänskä retains his slow tempos throughout, however, and this renders parts of the Scherzo flaccid rather than heavy (Wuchtig is Mahler’s designation). All these decisions converge in a final movement in which there are some very fine elements, including an opening that is more intense than anything offered earlier by Vänskä; some questionable choices, such as the omission of the third hammer blow – an approach admittedly taken by many conductors, but one that limits the narrative power of the symphony, especially in a performance such as this one; and some matters that simply do not work, such as Vänskä’s slowdowns to the point of sclerosis, which vitiate the power of other portions of the movement. A highly personal interpretation of a highly personal symphony, Vänskä’s (+++) Mahler Sixth is no more likely to be most listeners’ first choice of a recording than is Kondrashin’s version – for very different reasons. What these two distinctive and highly dissimilar readings show is just how personal Mahler’s music, like Bruckner’s, inherently is, and just how many ways conductors’ own personalities can be brought to bear in presenting the material to audiences.

(++++) SOME UNANTICIPATED SOUNDS


Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Sergei Gorchakov); Prokofiev: Cinderella—Selections. Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. FWSO Live. $20.

Sergei Bortkiewicz: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. Stefan Doniga, piano; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Porcelijn. Piano Classics. $20.99.

Christopher Keyes: An Inescapable Entanglement; Diego Vega: Red Rock; Ferdinand De Sena: Deciphered Reverence; Willem van Twillert: Branches of Singularity; Andrew Schultz: Symphony No. 2, “Ghosts of Reason.” Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.

Coro del Mundo: Music of L. Peter Deutsch, Conrado Monier, Adalberto Álvarez, Guido López Gavilán, José Antonio Méndez, Electo Rosell, Rafael Hernández, Cynthia Folio, J. A. Kawarsky, Michael Murray, and Meira Warshauer. Ansonica. $14.99.

     Sometimes listeners only think they know what they will be getting when they pick up a new CD. Most people who know orchestral versions of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are really familiar with one specific such version, the 1923 one made by Ravel. It is justifiably enormously popular, filled with French coloration of the time and cognizant of the many Russian expatriate musicians then working in France. Even though it is based on a score of Pictures that contains some errors, even though it omits one of the reappearances of the Promenade from Mussorgsky’s piano original, even though it changes the composer’s approach to some of the material – for instance, turning Bydlo into a crescendo-and-diminuendo piece, which is not what Mussorgsky intended – it is so firmly established in orchestral repertoire, and so sonically attractive, that it is often thought of as the orchestral Pictures. But it is not: there have been quite a few such versions, and conductor Leonard Slatkin has even made a point of performing a “compiled” Pictures with orchestrations by everyone from Leopold Stokowski to Vladimir Ashkenazy to Sir Henry Wood. And some conductors find qualities in non-Ravel versions of Pictures that justify playing them in their entirety. One such is Miguel Harth-Bedoya, whose new recording with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra highlights the very high quality of an ensemble that is not usually mentioned among the best in the U.S. It may not be at the very, very highest level, but on the basis of the new live recording on the orchestra’s own label, this is a group that is certainly coming into the upper ranks of U.S. orchestras and delivering considerable pleasure to audiences while doing so. The orchestra plays with enthusiasm, follows Harth-Bedoya very well, and has a particularly strong string section – a good thing, since the version of Pictures on this CD, by Sergei Gorchakov (1905-1976), is in large measure quite string-focused and needs first-rate strings to have its full effect. It gets that effect here. Gorchakov, clearly sensitive to the intent of his countryman in the original piano version of Pictures, restores elements that Ravel left out and tries for greater authenticity in the ones that Ravel included, such as the aforementioned Bydlo. Gorchakov follows Ravel’s lead in some ways, but with a twist, as by using a muted trumpet to represent the troubadour in Il vecchio castello, where Ravel chose a saxophone. On the other hand, Gorchakov does use a saxophone in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, where it was Ravel who used a muted trumpet. These and other choices are matters of taste, and it is scarcely possible (or useful) to say that one orchestral version is “better” than another. What is possible to say is that Gorchakov’s approach, although often somewhat bombastic, is quite well-thought-out and performed very well indeed by the Fort Worth musicians. Harth-Bedoya is not only an adept conductor but also a musically thoughtful one, as shown both in the version of Pictures he chooses and in the excerpts from Prokofiev’s Cinderella that fill out the CD. Prokofiev himself made suites of this ballet’s music – no fewer than three of them – but in doing so he was seeking musical coherence and contrast, not narrative consistency. Harth-Bedoya takes a different approach, returning to the original ballet music and choosing selections that, taken as a whole, tell the entire story, so familiar from Charles Perrault’s original tale and its many adaptations. As a result, listeners to this disc hear 13 ballet excerpts that collectively provide the entire story as Prokofiev intended it to be staged. Once again, the question of whether Harth-Bedoya’s approach or that of the composer in his own suites is “better” is not a useful one: Harth-Bedoya simply handles the musical material differently from the way Prokofiev did in the suites, and his excerpts produce a satisfyingly convincing musical narrative that, like his Gorchakov version of Pictures, makes for an interesting and meaningful musical experience that goes beyond what audiences familiar with this material would normally expect.

     Audiences would have no idea of what to expect if told they were going to be hearing music by Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952), since almost nobody nowadays is familiar with his music. But what is really unanticipated in the new Piano Classics recording of Bortkiewicz’ second and third piano concertos is how clearly the music fits into the Russian musical mode of, among other, Mussorgsky and Gorchakov. In fact, to be precise, these concertos are in what might be called the “expansive Russian mode,” specifically represented by Rachmaninoff – of whose concertos they are reminiscent to an exceptional degree. Bortkiewicz wrote three piano concertos, but the first is lost and presumed destroyed. The second, which dates to 1923, is one of the famous concertos for left hand only commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein – who liked this Bortkiewicz work very much. The reasons are immediately apparent in the excellent performance by Stefan Doniga and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under David Porcelijn. The concerto is a wonderful display piece, but it is also a work of substance and even of some formal cleverness: its slow movement is included within its first movement and becomes the emotional linchpin of the movement and of the whole work. And within that slow movement – or, perhaps more accurately, extended slow section – Bortkiewicz takes a page from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2, creating chamber-music-like sections in which the piano interacts with solo instruments from the orchestra. The result is a complex and multifaceted movement (or combination of movements) that Bortkiewicz wisely chooses not to follow with anything else on the same level: he concludes the concerto with a straightforward dance containing folk-music-like elements. The third concerto, first heard in 1927, bears the title Per aspera ad astra, “through adversity to the stars,” possibly reflecting Bortkiewicz’ own very difficult life during and after the Bolshevik Revolution. The title makes the concerto’s structure plain: it starts darkly in C minor and eventually wins its way, after considerable technical and emotional difficulty, to C major. And here as in the second concerto, Bortkiewicz offers themes distinctly reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s: long, fluid melodic lines of great beauty, with a piano part of exceptional difficulty that seems never to stop flowing from one idea to the next. These concertos are so strongly conceived and so well-crafted that listeners will likely wonder why they, and their composer, are so poorly known today. As fine as these performances are, they provide the answer to that question: Bortkiewicz comes across as derivative, working wholly in late-Romantic style and sounding somewhat too much like Rachmaninoff – his work is just not very distinctive. It is, however, very beautiful, and very challenging for a pianist. Even if Bortkiewicz is unlikely to get a full-scale revival, he is certainly deserving of an occasional hearing, and listeners who enjoy Russian music in general, late-Romantic style in particular, and Rachmaninoff-like piano works specifically, will surely take this Bortkiewicz disc to their hearts.

     Contemporary composers often seem to create sound worlds not to reach an audience’s emotions but for shock or surprise value, or at least “differentness,” however defined. The first work on a new Navona CD, Christopher Keyes’ An Inescapable Entanglement, is an example of this approach. This is more or less a piano concerto, although it bears little resemblance to anything by Bortkiewicz or other composers who use the instrument in conventional ways. The key elements here involve spatial orientation and amplification: microphones are placed just above the piano’s strings, eight loudspeakers are placed behind and to the sides of the area where the audience sits, and Keyes uses digital signal processing to expand and enhance the effects of the piano (played by Lucie Kaucká) and orchestra. The work is actually more accessible, jazzy and even Copland-esque than might be expected from its design, which blends minimalism with older concepts of concertos and uses the piano mostly in obbligato fashion rather than as primus inter pares. The piece is, however, more clever than emotionally trenchant. The remaining works on this (+++) anthology disc are generally more conventional in sonic approach. Diego Vega’s Red Rock is an impressionistic symphonic poem using modified sonata form to portray a trip through a scenic canyon landscape. Ferdinando De Sena’s Deciphered Reverence is a more inward-focused symphonic-poem/fantasia whose use of whole-orchestra and instrumental-section color is intended to reflect multiple moods but comes across as rather disjointed and feels over-long (although the piece runs only 10 minutes). Branches of Singularity by Willem van Twillert offers eight very short movements in differing styles that turn the work into a pastiche containing everything from faux Baroque material to film music, resulting in a moderately pleasant concoction without any particular meaning. Andrew Schultz’s Symphony No. 2, “Ghosts of Reason,” is a much more ambitious work, whose single movement includes considerable quiet and spaciousness that turns rather flaccid after a while. There is little forward motion in the music until the last two of its 21 minutes, when it finally seems to strive for affirmation beyond bleakness. It is a long time to wait for a sense of the positive. As for the performances here, the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra is increasingly becoming a go-to ensemble for contemporary music of all types, and acquits itself particularly well on this CD: Petr Vronský handles issues of sectional balance, frequent rhythmic changes and a wide variety of dynamic contrasts very well indeed. The disc is nevertheless one of those that, because the works are essentially unrelated, may appeal in part to listeners with a general interest in contemporary orchestral music, but is unlikely to be attractive as a whole to more than a very small audience.

     The attractions of a new Ansonica CD bearing the title Coro del Mundo (“Choir of the World”) lie primarily in the sheer sonic variety of its 18 tracks. The unexpected blending and contrast of instrumental sounds with vocal performances by the ensembles Vocal Luna and Schola Cantorum Coralina lies at the heart of this (+++) disc, which will appeal in large part to listeners interested in the continuing musical and cultural thaw between the United States and Cuba – all the tracks were recorded in Havana in November 2017. As befits a project of this type, both U.S. and Cuban composers are represented, and the individual pieces – many heard in arrangements rather than their original scoring – include the sounds of dumbek (a goblet-shaped drum), sleigh bells, other percussion, double bass, clarinet, saxophone and piano in various permutations and combinations. Music sung a cappella appears here as well. It is hard not to see some rather self-indulgent political motivation behind some of the works here, such as Dance to the Revolution by L. Peter Deutsch (although the words Deutsch sets are those of Emma Goldman, who was actually an anarchist rather than someone whose revolutionary thoughts would be welcome in Cuba); and Sacred Rights, Sacred Song, by J.A. Kawarsky, and We Are Dreamers by Meira Warshauer, both of them focusing on Israel and Judaism (although, again, parallels with life in Cuba are less than apparent). Shorn of its sociopolitical elements, Coro del Mundo is a celebration of a certain instrumental and vocal sound that carries, in varied form, through the entire CD. Aural surprises emerge enjoyably from time to time, such as the wordless exclamations in Canto del Bongó by Conrado Monier and in Guido López-Gavilán’s Qué Rico É! The disc is essentially an audio sampler of works in a Cuban context, whether created by American or Cuban composers. It is testimony to the lessening of the decades-long chill between Cuba and the U.S., and also indicative of the vibrancy of the current Cuban musical scene, at least insofar as can be determined through the sessions where these works were recorded. Strictly musically, the material is on the thin side, the pieces often being interesting to hear once and in the main short enough to be heard again from time to time. However, nothing here stands out individually as a work of any particular significance: the disc is more a snapshot of a musical working-together at a particular moment in time than it is a CD with significant staying power based on the quality or meaningfulness of its content.

June 07, 2018

(++++) NURSING A RHYME


Jack B. Ninja. By Tim McCanna. Illustrated by Stephen Savage. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Just when it seems that nursery rhymes are no longer much fun for today’s young people, along comes Tim McCanna with a brand-new take on the old “Jack be nimble” rhyme – one that, accompanied by delightfully off-kilter drawings by Stephen Savage, shows there is still plenty of life in those old bits of nonsense. Actually, nursery rhymes were generally very well-disguised social comments, dating to a time when criticism of the powers-that-be could result in penalties up to and including death – so people whose names are long lost found ways of making fun of and critiquing feudal society through rhymes that only seemed to mean nothing. Nowadays, though, the nonsensical elements are all that anyone pays attention to, and in all the excitement of our video-saturated, technologically savvy age, who has time for that sort of wordplay?

     Well, McCanna and Savage certainly do, and so will kids lucky enough to add this picture book to their collection. The book starts with a small, completely round-headed ninja, his eyes the only part of him that is visible, peeking out from behind vaguely Oriental architecture – and then the narrative itself begins, on the next page: “Jack B. Ninja! Jack, be quick!/ Jack, jump over the bamboo stick!” That is just what Jack does, running toward – where? He is on “a secret mission” amid pagodas, atop walls and roofs in a place where faceless, spear-carrying guards march past in formation. What exactly is the mission? It involves getting past the guards, and then, “Jack B. Ninja keeps his cool./ Dips into the garden pool.” And he swims to the shore, then quietly sneaks into “a bandit cave” to find a “stolen treasure chest.”

     There is plenty more excitement to come: a trip wire drops Jack into a trap, and the bandits are after him – he needs to use his grappling hook and rope to escape. But there is something rather unthreatening about the three bandits: Jack jumps on their heads, from one to the next to the third, until he grasps the rope and flees – with the bandits watching from a rooftop as Jack “brings the prize to Ninja Master.” But – oh, no! The bandits pursue Jack, and there is about to be a big fight, when…everything changes. And that is the delight of Jack B. Ninja: it starts as a stylized adventure story but eventually becomes a wonderful family celebration. Of what? It turns out that the whole dress-up activity is in recognition of Jack’s birthday – with, sure enough, a suitable cake: “Jack B. Ninja flips and kicks./ Cartwheels over the candlesticks.” And everybody celebrates, then heads home over the rooftops to leave behind one slice of cake that remains visible just as the sun comes up.

     Gently surreal, warmly amusing and just silly enough to keep young readers and pre-readers interested, Jack B. Ninja keeps the cadence of the “Jack be nimble” nursery rhyme, preserves some elements of the original (such as those candlesticks near the end), and offers wonderfully cartoony illustrations that bounce all the ninja moves and ninja determination all over the book’s pages. A short, simple and thoroughly amusing retelling/reorientation of the even shorter “Jack be nimble” original, Jack B. Ninja is enough fun so that it may inspire parents to grab a book of original nursery rhymes and see whether contemporary children can in fact be captivated by these very old “nonsense” stories to the same extent that the parents themselves surely were when they were kids.

(++++) A MULTIPLICITY OF FEARS


We Are Where the Nightmares Go and Other Stories. By C. Robert Cargill. Harper Voyager. $26.99.

     Give the man credit: he finds weirdness everywhere and horror just about anyplace. The 10 tales in C. Robert Cargill’s We Are Where the Nightmares Go and Other Stories have settings ranging from Appalachia to Australia to an anteroom of Hell, with characters from ordinary humans to Cretaceous-era dinosaurs and things even more outré than that. Not everything in the book works, but even the stories that do not really gel have their intriguing moments, and Cargill’s style is both involving enough and variable enough to make it worthwhile to stay with a narrative that does not quite seem successful – because of the possibility that he will pull the proverbial rabbit out of the proverbial hat. And sometimes he does. But it tends to be in small, bloody pieces.

     There is plenty of fear and horror in this book, but most of the stories are not written only to elicit a frisson of terror, and are the better for striving for something beyond shivers. Take The Last Job Is Always the Hardest, for example. It is about a man named Brian who is about to blow up a train and kill 238 people, and who suddenly encounters someone who knows exactly what he is planning and has no intention of stopping him because he – the other man – has a job that is “much bigger than that. Much bigger.” Or Jake and Willy at the End of the World, in which two stereotypical good ol’ boys contemplate the incipient apocalypse with banter and beer. Or the title story, which starts with a little girl entering one of those magical portals so dear to authors of children’s stories – but not for a grand adventure: “No one talks about the other children, the children who walk through basement doors and rabbit holes never to return. …Their adventures are not the things of pageants and matinees. Rather, they are the things we try not to think of, the things instead we dream about when we would rather be dreaming of something else.”

     Those three stories, packed with eeriness and oddity, are thoroughly successful by virtue of not pulling out all the traditional stops of horror writing. But Cargill is quite capable of writing full-fledged terror tales when he wishes: The Town That Wasn’t Anymore is a genuinely scary ghost/zombie story about angry, vengeance-obsessed dead miners whose spirits must be contained, whatever the cost – and the cost is very high indeed. But pulling out all the stops does not always work in this collection: Hell They Call Him, the Screamers, is intended as a nightmare tale along the lines of Harlan Ellison’s 1967 I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, but Cargill here lacks Ellison’s horrific élan and makes the mistake of not actually setting the story anywhere – it becomes a tale of monstrous brutality without even a soupçon of explanatory justification. And A Clean White Room (co-written with Scott Derrickson), which strives for depth as well as fright in its portrait of an Iraq war veteran assigned to punish the damned for a year in order to find his own way to peace, goes off the rails because it is never quite clear why this punisher has so much difficulty doling out the suffering that he is required to deliver, yet that “why” is supposed to be the core of the story’s intended moral complexity.

     Other pieces here succeed in some ways and not in others. As They Continue to Fall is a rather jaggedly written story about a man who hunts evil angels, unless everything he does is only happening in his own unbalanced mind. Hell Creek, the dinosaur tale, has a fascinating concept – an attempt by individual dinosaurs to survive for a bit longer just as their world is coming to an end – but ultimately founders in its weak attempt to anthropomorphize the creatures enough to try to elicit empathy for the unlikely alliance of two herbivores of different species.

     And then there are two tales that really work only for readers of earlier material by Cargill and others. I Am the Night You Never Speak Of is reprinted from a collection called Midian Unmade, a group of stories set in the Nightbreed universe created by Clive Barker. It takes place after the destruction of Midian – and without knowing what that means, and understanding what the whole Midian concept entails, readers will find Cargill’s narrative disjointed and puzzling. And The Soul Thief’s Son, a novella that concludes this collection and is the longest entry in it, is a “further adventures” story focusing on Colby Stevens, protagonist of Cargill’s Queen of the Dark Things. It is certainly possible to read this story, and enjoy parts of it, without knowing much about Colby, but the tale gains immeasurably for readers familiar with the earlier novel. Cargill himself is clearly aware of this: he includes a glossary after the story “for those new to Colby’s adventures or for those in need of a refresher.” But the nine glossary entries really do not help much and, indeed, raise as many questions as they answer. On balance, We Are Where the Nightmares Go and Other Stories is an uneven collection by an author who generally writes very well even when specifics of his plots are handled in a somewhat-less-than-articulate way. His style in these stories sometimes underlines and enhances their effectiveness. At other times, it almost, almost, conceals the tales’ lack of clarity.

(++++) THE POWER OF THE SOLO


Biber: Mystery Sonatas. Christina Day Martinson, violin; Martin Pearlman, harpsichord and organ; Michael Unterman, cello; Michael Leopold, theorbo and guitar. Linn Records. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Thomas Bowes, violin. Navona. $14.99 (3 CDs).

Prokofiev: Sonata for Solo Violin; Timo Andres: Violin Sonata; Libby Larsen: Blue Piece; Judith Lang Zaimont: Grand Tarantella; Rain Worthington: Jilted Tango; Michael Daugherty: Viva; Benjamin Ellin: Three States at Play. Moonkyung Lee, violin; Martha Locker, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     One of the absolute marvels of Baroque music by one of the most innovative composers of the time, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Mystery Sonatas are musically enthralling, emotionally captivating and spiritually uplifting in a way more usually associated with Bach – who was not born until a decade after Biber wrote this music. Biber was a highly accomplished violinist, to such an extent that he stretched the bounds of violin performance capability in directions previously unheard-of. The word “stretched” can be taken literally: the Mystery Sonatas use scordatura tuning, tuning different from the standard one for the violin, and in some cases this requires stretching the strings (which were, of course, made of gut – which is quite stretchable). It also requires violinists to stretch their technique, since their fingerings in scordatura tuning do not produce the same notes as in traditional tuning. Just how differently Biber made the violin sound for these 15 sonatas is made clear by Christina Day Martinson in her splendid new performance on Linn Records: she opens each sonata by playing the specific four notes to which the violin is tuned for that particular work. The complexity of the tunings and the difficulties associated with them lead Martinson, a superb period-instrument player, to use multiple violins for this performance – a clever and instrument-and-string-sparing approach. There are scarcely enough superlatives to say how well Martinson’s handling of this magnificent music works. There are 15 sonatas because there are 15 Mysteries of the Rosary, and Biber clearly intended the sonatas to accompany Rosary devotions – probably as, in most cases, a generic aid to contemplation, since the sonatas have few direct connections to the scenes of Christ’s and Mary’s lives to which they are attached (each sonata is, in the sole surviving manuscript, preceded by an illustration of the relevant scene, all of which are reproduced in the booklet accompanying this performance). It is not necessary to be Catholic, or even particularly religious, to be uplifted by hearing this marvelous sonata cycle, more than two hours long, from start to finish. And it is almost impossible not to be enthralled by the different sounds that Biber uses scordatura tuning to have the violin produce and that Martinson brings out so beautifully: the brighter sounds of the first five sonatas (collectively, “The Joyful Mysteries”) contrast so strongly with the opening of the sixth, “The Agony in the Garden” (which starts the second set of five, “The Sorrowful Mysteries”) that it is almost impossible not to sit up and take astonished notice. And the final set of five sonatas, “The Glorious Mysteries,” is so bright and clear that it tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection and Mary’s assumption and coronation more effectively than any words can on their own. Martinson is at the forefront of a highly welcome trend in Baroque performance practice, which involves not only the scholarly rediscovery of correct instrumental use and technique but also – and equally important – the re-learning of the very intense emotions sought and elicited by Baroque composers in their compositions. Decades of dry performances of music of this era will not prepare listeners for the extraordinary intensity of feeling in the Mystery Sonatas and Martinson’s highly sensitive evocation of it. After the 15 sonatas, an extended concluding Passacaglia, which uses traditional violin tuning – also employed only in the very first sonata, “The Annunciation” – becomes a capstone that gives listeners a chance to breathe a monumental sigh of relief and to contemplate the amazing beauty and variety to which Biber and Martinson have exposed them. The members of Boston Baroque who accompany Martinson are one and all first-rate, thoughtful musicians whose involvement in Biber’s material is not only audible but also almost palpable. Indeed, this is music that one does not only hear: one feels it, and the feeling with which Martinson plays it underlines the devotional fervor that Biber surely intended to explore in his own time and that is here transferred beautifully and meaningfully to our own, far more secular age.

     There is also a great deal to admire in Thomas Bowes’ cycle for Navona of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, especially on the emotional scale: Bowes sees these works as essentially inward-looking and contemplative, and accordingly performs them with manifest sincerity and a greater sense of profundity than is usually accorded them in most of their movements (the astonishing Chaconne that ends the second Partita always excepted). The structure of this release is interesting: priced as a single CD, it includes three – most recordings put the material on two – and as a result, Bowes offers one sonata and its associated prelude per disc. This encourages thoughtful listening to the ways in which the pieces are (and are not) musically and emotionally comparable, and in particular lends some pleasantly upbeat conclusiveness to the third partita, which can in some readings come across as a rather lightweight end to the set of pieces. Here the third partita becomes an affirmative kind of “musical offering” after the third sonata, with its complex and highly extended second-movement fugue. Bowes also does a fine job throughout the works of emphasizing the way the more-rigid structure of the sonatas contrasts with and is complemented by the more-free-flowing approach of the partitas. What Bowes does not do is to offer a fully historically informed reading of the music. There is less ornamentation and more vibrato in these readings than historic practices would indicate, and there is compromise between the historic and the modern in Bowes’ choice of instrument: the violin dates to 1659 but has modern fittings, and only three of the four strings are gut. When Bowes’ communicative instincts take him in a direction different from what historically accurate performance would indicate, he goes with his feelings rather than the scholarship, as a result producing highly emotive readings that are not quite in line with the type of emotional connection that Bach would have sought. It is certainly possible to stick strictly to Baroque style and bring out the deepest possible emotions – Martinson’s handling of Biber shows that in the most exemplary way possible – but few performers are able to do this, and the hybrid approach used by Bowes is generally more congenial for those playing the music. It works well for listeners, too: Bowes’ interpretations here are heartfelt and come across feelingly, with warmth and in a suitably atmospheric manner. The beauty and profundity of these solo-violin works come through in many different ways in the many different versions of them available to listeners. Bowes’ treatment of the material, if not 100% authentic, is 100% sincere. And it is beautifully paced and played, providing a highly involving listening experience to which one can return repeatedly for added insights.

     The solo-violin pieces on a Navona CD featuring performances by Moonkyung Lee are scarcely at the level of the music of Biber and Bach, and Lee’s playing, while quite fine, does not have the deep-seated conviction and intensity of the performances by Martinson and Bowes – at least in the repertoire heard here. Three of the seven works on this (+++) disc are for solo violin: those by Prokofiev, Daugherty and Ellin. The Prokofiev and Ellin, which open and close the release, make for the most interesting material here and the best-contrasted: each is in three movements, the second being the most relaxed, and each is a fairly short (10-to-12-minute) work giving the violinist plenty of opportunities for display. Unsurprisingly, the tonal language of Ellin’s piece is more contemporary than that of Prokofiev, and Ellin’s work actually sounds more challenging to perform (Prokofiev’s was written as a study piece, albeit for highly talented violin students). Lee clearly relishes the showy aspects of both works and accepts the respite of the works’ middle movements as a necessary interlude: she seeks no particular depth, and in truth, neither composer offers much. The third violin-alone piece, Daugherty’s Viva, is a short showpiece that is all about display and that Lee tosses off with appropriate abandon. The remaining works here also keep the violin as the primary focus even though it is paired with the piano – which Martha Locker balances appropriately with Lee in all cases. The sonata by Andres somewhat recalls Prokofiev both in sound and in its comparative simplicity; there is also something rather Schubertian about it. Larsen’s Blue Piece is laid-back and pleasant, if rather forgettable. Zaimont’s Grand Tarantella comes across well, with the jauntiness to which the title points: here as elsewhere, Lee seems especially comfortable with and adept at dealing with bright, upbeat material. And Worthington’s Jilted Tango, another dance-inspired work, is a neatly superficial bit of musical lovemaking. Because of the Prokofiev, Ellis and Andres works, this CD does not come across as solely a collection of encore-like display pieces. But the comparative lightness of the three sonata serves to emphasize Lee’s apparent comfort with the lighter side of violin music and performance: because the material here lacks profundity (although certainly not all music must possess it), the disc as a whole provides little substantive to which a listener is likely to return repeatedly for psychological or emotional nourishment.

(++++) IMPRESSIONS AND FEELINGS


Debussy: Préludes for Piano, Books I and II (complete). Terry Lynn Hudson, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95 (2 CDs).

Debussy: Suite Bergamasque; Ballade; Pour le Piano; Arabesque No. 1; Images, Books I and II. Eliane Rodrigues, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Mother: A Musical Tribute. Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson, pianos. SWR Music. $18.99.

     Although there is no musical reason to perform all 24 of Debussy’s Préludes for Piano as a set – unlike similar works by Bach and Chopin, Debussy’s do not follow a specific tonal sequence – the full grouping is a tour de force for pianists and produces an intriguingly involving effect on listeners who hear the works from start to finish, or at least listen to Book I straight through and subsequently to all of Book II. The connections among these works are subtle rather than structurally dictated – for example, the works in the first book, from 1910, are more directly impressionistic, while those in the second, from 1913, delve more deeply into strictly musical issues of their time, such as dissonances and tonal ambiguity. Terry Lynn Hudson’s exemplary reading of both books of Préludes, a two-CD set from MSR Classics that is being sold for the price of a single disc, is an excellent introduction to the music for anyone unfamiliar with it – and stands up very well against other recordings, for those who know the material already. Hudson is especially adept at gently evoking Debussy’s scenes of quietude and sadness, notably in Brouillards (“Mists,” which opens the second book) and La cathédrale engloutie (”The Sunken Cathedral,” tenth in the first book). Debussy’s piano music, generally speaking, is subtle and understated, and that is particularly true of these two pieces and several others in the Préludes. And this is precisely where Hudson excels. She does not over-sentimentalize these pieces and, indeed, does not over-interpret the ones that benefit from direct and straightforward presentation, such as La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with Flaxen Hair,” the eighth piece in the first book). If there is a single word that seems to describe both books of Préludes, it would be “fluidity” – of expression, or rhythm, of tempo, of coloration, of texture. Hudson is quite sensitive to this characteristic, with the result that her performance imparts a certain overarching connectedness among the works even in the absence of a predetermined relatedness through keys. Hudson also has a keen sense of wit and humor when those are called for, as in Général Lavine – eccentric (the cakewalk-like sixth piece in the second book). By any measure, these are neatly tied-up performances, both of individual pieces as miniatures and as an entire set of 24 little pianistic gems.

     Debussy’s piano music is also handled with style and sensitivity on a new Navona CD featuring Eliane Rodrigues. The contrasts among the six pieces in the two books of Images are particularly effective here. The books of Images date to 1905 and 1907 and are, like the two books of Préludes, somewhat different in focus, the first being more readily accessible and the second denser and more complex both to play and to hear. On the basis of this disc, Rodrigues sees Debussy as a composer whose piano music is filled with contrasts: she brings out the works’ differing moods strongly, again and again. Thus, the four movements of Suite Bergamasque (1890-1905) are filled with a mixture of feelings – and yes, the mix specifically appears in the third, longest and most familiar, Clair de lune, which for Rodrigues presents a feeling of being bereft and uncertain in the moonlight, not simply experiencing enjoyment of the beauties of the landscape below the bright orb. All the works here get sensitive, thoughtful treatment, from the earliest, Arabesque No. 1 (1888-1891) to the later Ballade (1890-1903) and Pour le Piano (1896-1903). The CD is a generous length, nearly an hour and a quarter, which explains a decision that is unlikely to please listeners who prefer the CD medium to online music: Rodrigues also offers a lovely, lilting and thoroughly enjoyable version of the Children’s Corner suite, but it is available only online – its 16 minutes would not quite have fit onto the CD with everything already on it. Listeners may decide for themselves whether they would have preferred to have something else omitted and Children’s Corner included on the disc, where it would have been the latest work offered (it dates to 1908). Even without the bonus, though, this is a CD that lovers of Debussy will enjoy, especially insofar as Rodrigues views some of the music, such as Clair de lune, in atypical ways.

     A new SWR Music recording featuring the Anderson & Roe piano duet offers two pianos and two pianists rather than one of each, but that is scarcely to the CD’s benefit, despite the performers’ excellent playing. The reason is that this is one of those “theme” discs and is also a very deliberate crossover recording – and is therefore only for people who accept and enjoy the topic (the disc’s title is “Mother: A Tribute”) and who also are comfortable with the rather weird juxtapositions that the performers offer. Listeners to this (+++) recording should be prepared to hear Dvořák (“Songs My Mother Taught Me”) immediately followed by an excerpt from Queen’s 1975 “A Night at the Opera,” succeeded by Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos, followed by a rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” – and so forth. There is Grieg’s “A Mother’s Grief” and then “What a Wonderful World” by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss – the juxtapositions of meaning are as strange here as are those of music. Schubert’s (perhaps inevitable) “Ave Maria” is followed by the Lennon/McCartney “Let It Be,” then the (definitely inevitable) Brahms “Lullaby,” and finally a version of the humming chorus from Madame Butterfly, in which the a cappella singing group Accent cooperates to produce a jazzy recasting of the music that is somewhat at odds with the emotional underpinnings of Puccini’s original. The point of this whole release is to mix genres in such a way as to fulfill the CD’s title, and also create a tribute to the pianists’ own mothers, whose preferences are partly responsible for the choice of works to record. That makes this a nice family project, for sure; and Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson are both fine performers who seem to relish all the material and who handle the works with sensitivity and enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the disc is one of very limited appeal, because for listeners to enjoy it, they have to like these specific mother-oriented works in these specific arrangements, presented in this specific way. Only people who are closely in tune with or tuned into the pianists (so to speak) will be likely to appreciate this particular “tribute” CD and come to it as an audience with the same enthusiasm that Anderson and Roe bring to it as performers.

May 31, 2018

(++++) THE ANIMAL-KID CONNECTION


How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? By Jane Yolen. Illustrations by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

A Werewolf Named Oliver James. By Nicholas John Frith. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

Moo Moo & Mr. Quackers Present: What’s Cooking, Moo Moo? By Tim Miller. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Although it is a longstanding feature of kids’ picture books to have animals take the place of children and stand in for them during adventures ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous (and including the everyday), many authors continue to find new and clever ways of extending this convention and keeping it alive and lively. Jane Yolen and Mark Teague are particularly adept at this in their long-running series showing kids as dinosaurs – anatomically accurate dinosaurs (based on the latest scientific knowledge) doing distinctly un-dinosaur-like things in typical human-middle-class settings. This lets Yolen and Teague accentuate both kids’ bad behavior (in the early part of each book) and their good actions (in the later part of each entry). And Teague’s fanciful colors for the dinosaurs – very little is known about the colors that dinosaurs actually sported – enhance the presentations tremendously. The latest book in the series ends differently from earlier ones and becomes overtly instructive – an interesting twist. Yolen and Teague start out with typical enthusiasm and abandon in How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? A Kileskus misbehaves by using a book to bat a ball; a Brachyceratops plays book-throwing games with a cat and a dog; a hilariously overacting Amazonsaurus (one of the ultra-heavy, long-necked dinosaurs) is caught in mid-leap, having a temper tantrum that is about to lead to a book being crushed by her gigantic body; and so on. Human adults are sprinkled through the pages to react with suitable dismay to the antics of the kidosaurs: the Dryptosaurus sitting on the toilet in a thoroughly messed-up bathroom, reading a book called “Potty” as a parent stares at the mess all around, is a classic among Teague’s pictures. What is wonderful about this series is that even when things turn preachy later in each book, the dinosaur pictures are so much fun to see that the lessons go down easily: there is an irresistible picture of a mom about to turn out the light while a huge-billed, multicolored, vaguely birdlike Zhejiangopterus is still happily reading in bed. The final three pages here, instead of extending the story, display all 26 letters of the alphabet (capital and small) and give information on learning to read – complete with small dinosaur pictures as illustrations. That makes this particular book into a fine teaching tool for pre-readers and the earliest readers. And it neatly responds to the question in the book’s title: How Do Dinosaurs Learn to Read? The answer: with this book itself.

     There is nothing hyper-realistic in the illustrations for Nicholas John Frith’s A Werewolf Named Oliver James, because, after all, who really knows what a werewolf looks like? But if a child could turn into one on the way home from band practice, he might look just like Oliver James after his transformation – which turns the boy into a really cute and really huge-toothed version of the mythical wolf-human hybrid. Frith uses mostly dark colors in the book, implying without ever specifically saying that the full moon is what transforms Oliver James – who does not quite know what has happened to him, but is delighted to discover that he now has super-speed, super-strength and the ability to do super-leaps. He also has a problem: dinner is at 6:00, and he knows he has to be home by then, but buses will not stop for a werewolf, and trains, bikes and cars are not really options. So Oliver James heads for home on foot (or paw) – speedily, to be sure, despite the fact that it is now raining. The rain stops soon enough, but Oliver James still has a problem: should he be late and have his parents be upset, or should he just walk into the house in his werewolf form and risk scaring them, as he has scared all the other people he has encountered since his transformation? Might as well go in, he decides – and gets a surprise when his parents are not the slightest bit troubled or concerned about his werewolf form, having changed into werewolves themselves. The change lasts only overnight: the next morning, there is no full moon anymore and everyone has returned to human appearance. But now, at least, Oliver James knows why he changed – and kids who read this lighthearted and very amusingly illustrated book are likely to be frustrated when they find out that their parents have not given them any lunar transformational powers.

     Tim Miller’s restaurant-themed adventure of Moo Moo the cow and Mr. Quackers the duck may not be directly comparable to anything that human kids can do, but these two characters certainly mess things up as much as boys and girls would if they tried to run a restaurant. There is something especially clever in the design of Moo Moo & Mr. Quackers Present: What’s Cooking, Moo Moo? The book has a standard wraparound dust jacket, but unlike almost all such protective wrappers, this one is very different from the book covers that it conceals. Those covers show “The Daily Quack” (“price: a lot”), which features the cow and duck on the front page (the book’s front cover) and classified ads on the back page (the book’s back cover) – the ads asking for ballerinas (“no cows or ducks allowed”), offering a can of worms for sale, and more. And oh yes, the restaurant that Moo Moo and Mr. Quackers open turns out to be a can of worms. Yes, literally: worms are not officially on the menu, but they do turn up. What is on the menu is everything else, since the Moo Moo Special (“all my favorite foods mixed together, of course”) includes sardines, carrots, “Jell-O in a bag,” popcorn, mayonnaise, frozen fish, pineapple, cupcakes, watermelon, and a few other ingredients that turn out to be about as appetizing in combination as they sound. The restaurant is Moo Moo’s idea, paid for with the money from the long-suffering Mr. Quackers’ piggy bank, but after customers’ initial enthusiasm for trying something new, the project quickly collapses and the establishment has to be sold. To make up for everything and have a chance for the two friends to spend more time together, Moo Moo suggests a vacation – but as the last page of Miller’s book shows, matters are again going to get out of hand (or, for Mr. Quackers, out of wing) very, very soon. The cartoonish illustrations and overall silliness of the situations, added to the unexpected additional-but-related “Daily Quack” story, make this book a great deal of fun for kids who would never, ever think of making a huge mess of, say, the kitchen. Nope. Wouldn’t ever happen.