September 16, 2021

(++++) SECRETS SET IN STEAMPUNK

City of Secrets. By Victoria Ying. Color assistant: Undram Ankhbayar. Viking. $14.99.

City of Illusion. By Victoria Ying. Colorist: Lynette Wong. Viking. $14.99.

     The inherent absurdity of steampunk is a huge part of its charm and attraction. By using Victorian-style technology (gears, wheels and, of course, steam) and, in most cases, Victorian-style clothing and architecture, then incorporating traditional science-fictional tropes such as airships and robots, authors of books in steampunk mode get to pick and choose among an exceptionally wide variety of nonsensical combinations that, in context, make perfect sense. Steampunk is essentially an extension of the imaginings of H.G. Wells, who envisioned time travel using Victorian equipment – but while Wells tried to project his concepts into a future that he could scarcely imagine, steampunk creators are in that future already, and they project backwards into the appurtenances of times past while being fully cognizant of modern technology and potential future developments. Wells’ works were most definitely science fiction; steampunk is much closer to fantasy in its assumption that technology and societal arrangements somehow stalled in the 19th century or early 20th, while the ability to communicate, travel and (above all) have adventures moved onward in Victorian/Edwardian garments (both figuratively and literally).

     Victoria Ying’s paired graphic novels, City of Secrets and City of Illusion, are particularly adept at exploring the steampunk genre while keeping readers firmly focused on preteen adventure and the slow unraveling of mysteries within the context of (mostly mild) danger. The protagonists are an upper-crust girl named Hannah and an orphaned “street rat” named Ever – who, over the course of the first book, find out that they have a great deal more in common than their mutual taste for adventure. Actually, Hannah’s adventurousness is stronger: she is a proto-feminist, reacting to her mother’s horrified comment that “no proper girl would ever wear trousers” by saying, “Maybe I’m not a proper girl! Maybe I don’t want to be one!” Of course it turns out that her mother is not exactly a proper upper-class woman after all, but that revelation occurs only at the end of City of Secrets. Most of the book revolves around the growing friendship between Hannah and Ever, and Ever’s attempts to deflect deadly attention from himself while keeping a secret given to him by his father before his dad was killed by a dastardly ring of Dickensian villains, one of whom looks much like Uriah Heep and laments to a fellow baddie that “I woulda ’ad one less strike against me” by eliminating Ever.

     What is particularly clever in City of Secrets is the centrality to the story of the Switchboard Operating Facility, where women use old-fashioned plugs and cords to interconnect people who wish to speak with each other – that is, this is the headquarters of the telephone company in the days long before automatic switching, when you would call an operator who would then connect you manually to your desired phone number. This fits the steampunk ethos beautifully, and when Ying shows a cutaway view of the six-level facility (three floors and three basements), the appearance of a setting of gears, wheels, staircases, and levers galore makes it clear that this building is more than it appears.

     And of course it is, just as Hannah and Ever are more than they appear – in the grand tradition of pretty much every fantasy adventure in pretty much every tradition. The mystery elements in City of Secrets involve competing cabals, the usual good-vs.-evil standoff, and incipient warfare between the protagonists’ city, called Oskars, and the nearby city of Edmonda (these are more like city-states). The secrets are a touch too pervasive – for instance, before he is killed, Ever’s father reveals just enough of a super-crucial piece of information to whet Ever’s appetite, but not enough for Ever to protect himself when events spiral out of control. Eventually, Ever accepts help from Hannah (he has little choice, having been wounded and rendered unconscious); the two of them discover they have a great deal in common; and together they uncover the biggest secret of all – just in time to save Oskars from incoming missiles fired by the chief villain, who is the ruler of Edmonda. The giant gears-and-brass-plates robot that Hannah and Ever fly (it only works if they control it together, of course) fits the steampunk universe perfectly, although, in one of the few remarks here that do not fit Ying’s otherwise careful construction very well, Hannah makes a reference to a weapon that comes out of nowhere: “Laser zappers?!”

     The one element of City of Secrets that does not quite work is the color, provided by Undram Ankhbayar. Most of the book is simply drab – lots of browns and greys – and while this certainly works for nighttime scenes and others requiring atmospheric presentation, it becomes a little too much through the course of the book, to such an extent that occasional touches of brightness (such as the red dress that Hannah wears for a while) seem discordant. The color work by Lynette Wong in City of Illusion is much better, giving characters more individuality and even enlivening the presentation of multiple mechanical constructs. City of Illusion is not a standalone book – there is no recap of its predecessor, and the many passing references to earlier events will make no sense at all to anybody who has not read City of Secrets. What City of Illusion does is to expand and extend the first book’s story: now that the big secret involving robotic protection of Oskars has been revealed, and the chief bad guy (whose name is Vash) has been defeated, it turns out that there is a third city (or city-state), called Alexios, and that is where Hannah and Ever go on the inevitable-in-steampunk airship. Here they meet more preteens with secrets, worries and better-than-adult perception; and here Vash appears as puppet master, manipulating adults and kids alike in a typical-for-fantasy quest for power for its own sake (his position as the leader of a single city-state clearly not being enough for him). Various adult characters from the first book reappear here in expanded roles, but the main story arc involves the kids from different places gradually setting aside mutual mistrust and discovering that they can do remarkable things when they work together. In fact, they have to work together to overcome Vash, who in this book has harnessed out-and-out magic.

     The use of magic melds a bit uneasily with the steampunk model: City of Illusion does have sleight-of-hand and apparently magical comings and goings throughout, but when real magic suddenly appears, then proves central to the plot, the effect is rather jarring. This is Ying’s world, of course, and she can do whatever she wishes with it and in it. And it is possible that she will create a third book about Hannah and Ever that will explore the “magic” angle more fully – although City of Illusion ends wholly satisfactorily, with all three cities saved and Vash captured and imprisoned, so a followup is scarcely necessary. In fact, City of Illusion concludes with the words “The End,” which City of Secrets did not, so perhaps Ying has had enough of this particular steampunk (or steampunk-plus-magic) setting and is ready to move on. Given the skill with which she handles these two graphic novels, it will be worth following her to whatever world she may choose to go next.

(++++) UNASHAMEDLY ROMANTIC

Music for Piano by Schumann, Liszt, Scriabin, Busoni, and Berg. Burkard Schliessmann, piano. Divine Art. $29.99 (3 CDs).

Philipp Fahrbach Sr. and Philipp Fahrbach Jr.: Dance Music. Nürnberger Symphoniker conducted by Christian Simonis. CPO. $16.99.

Music for Clarinet and Orchestra by Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Vittorio Monti, and Robin White. Ian Scott, clarinet; Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Robin White. Divine Art. $18.99.

     Fine performances of fine music stand the test of time on two levels: that of the music itself and that of the interpretations. Burkard Schliessmann proves a first-rate interpreter of a variety of Romantic piano music on a new three-CD release on the Divine Art label – and in so doing, affirms or reaffirms the quality of the works he plays. The performances are not new: all date to 1990, 1999 or 2000 and were released on CD before, except for those of Busoni’s Chaconne and Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1, which are of the same vintage (1994) but have not previously been issued. The entire set of recordings has been remastered, but that is not an especially significant matter in recordings that were originally digital, although certainly everything here sounds fine – and has been remastered in such a way that any sound changes associated with the use of different Steinways are not apparent. What does matter is the quality of Schliessmann’s playing and the service of the music at which he puts it. On that basis, this is a very fine release/re-release indeed. It is dominated by Schumann, for whose works Schliessmann clearly has particular affinity. The Symphonic Études, Op. 13 have elegance and sweep in addition to attention to the fine detail inherent in the carefully crafted variations. And the Fantasie in C, Op. 17 scales emotional heights with unerring skill, giving full expression to the “Florestan” and “Eusebius” elements of Schumann’s personality. Similar expressiveness, combined with truly impressive power to evoke the piano’s near-orchestral capabilities, is present in Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, which inhabits an emotional landscape different from Schumann’s but which, to Schliessmann, is cut from similar cloth in terms of the relationship between technique and the evocation of feelings. Schliessmann very effectively makes a similar argument regarding Scriabin, whose place on the cusp of Romanticism’s end is one thing that makes his music difficult to interpret successfully. Schliessmann deals with this by simply accepting Scriabin’s substantial debt to the Romantic era, whether or not he fits easily into it. Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 23 has a distinctive mixing of Baroque underpinnings with virtuosic technique – a thoroughly Romantic combination. Two Études – Op. 2, No. 1 and Op. 8, No. 12 – are charming, almost pastoral. And Schliessmann gives plenty of evocative individuality to a considerable selection of Préludes, offering Op. 11, Nos. 1, 3, 9, 11, 13 and 14; Op. 16, Nos. 3 and 4; Op. 27, Nos. 1 and 2; Op. 37, Nos. 2 and 3; and Op. 51, Nos. 2 and 4. In truth, this rather scattershot mixture of material – with the Op. 11 works not even offered in the order in which they appear in the total set – is something of a disappointment, not because of the playing or interpretation but because there is a feeling of disorganization bordering on disorientation in the choice to present these specific pieces in this specific and rather arbitrary order. This becomes clear in the other Scriabin works here, the Deux Danses, Op. 73, and the entire Cinq Préludes, Op. 74. In both those instances, especially the latter, it is easy to hear each small piece’s independence and clear communication, while also picking up on the context in which Scriabin places it. This makes Schliessmann’s finely honed interpretations all the more impressive. His finely balanced and carefully considered handling of the remaining two works heard here are first-rate as well. These two pieces – one of which appears first on the first disc and the other of which is heard last on the third – are the least overtly Romantic pieces Schliessmann plays, yet both show their ties to that era quite clearly in these performances. Busoni’s Chaconne in D minor, after Bach’s Partita No. 2, BWV 1004, uses Bach as a jumping-off point for a work whose sound differs as much as possible from that of Baroque times – but, in that reinterpretation of an earlier era, reflects the way in which many Romantic composers rethought Bach and altered his works for their own purposes (as in, for example, Brahms’ Symphony No. 4). And Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1, which retains the tonal clothing of the Romantic era, at the same time contains hints that music itself is changing in as-yet-undefined ways to something derived from Romanticism but quite different from it. The skill with which Schliessmann makes this point, without ever being untrue to the music as Berg created it, is just one pleasure among many in this three-hour-plus offering of top-notch interpretations of multifaceted works.

     Music that is every bit as Romantic as anything Schliessmann plays, but much more lighthearted – to the point of almost being frivolous – is delightfully performed by the Nürnberger Symphoniker conducted by Christian Simonis on a new CPO release. This is thoroughly Viennese music from a music-making family of which very few listeners will have heard. There is certainly nothing new about music as a “family business” – think of “old Bach” (Johann Sebastian) and sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Johann Christian, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, and Johann Christoph Friedrich. In 19th-century Vienna, of course, the dominant “family business” belonged to the Strausses (Johann Sr., Johann Jr., Josef and Eduard). But the Strausses had colleagues and rivals, such as the Komzáks (Karel I, II and III – father, son and grandson); and then there were the Fahrbachs. Two members of the family, Philipp Sr. (1815-1885) and Philipp Jr. (1843-1894) turn out, on the basis of this CD, to have just as much ability as their peers to create bright, tuneful, eminently danceable music, including some with distinctive elements that are much the same as those used by the Strausses in their better-known pieces. Of the 14 works here, 11 are by Philipp Jr., although Philipp Sr. was actually more prolific, writing about 700 works to his son’s 500. Either of those numbers is enormously impressive, in any case – and the uniformly high quality of the selections led by Simonis indicates that there must be many long-unheard gems among the Fahrbach creations, which are only now being rediscovered. Fahrbach Sr. and Jr. both held military-band positions, and both produced a considerable number of marches. The two on this disc – both by Phillip Jr. and both produced in connection with the 1893 Columbian Exposition – are suitably celebratory and well-structured; they are called Columbus and Wiener Weltausstellungs. More interesting and also by Philipp Jr. are the galop Storchschnäbel, in which the rustling and pecking of storks is well-imitated by the instruments, and the fast polka Zirkus, in which wide leaps indicate the excitement as a trained horse jumps over hurdles. Philipp Sr. here contributes a well-done fast polka called Talmi, the word referring to a form of imitation gold and metaphorically standing for something phony – the musicians repeatedly shout pfutsch (“botch”) during the piece. The waltzes on the disc are less engaging than the shorter works, although there are interesting elements to Philipp Sr.’s offering “im Ländler Style,” whose title is given in Austrian dialect: s’Schwarzblàtl aus’n Weanerwald. The Romantic era was a time of great upheavals on many levels, music certainly being one. The gulf between the hyper-serious music of Wagner, Liszt, Brahms and others and the far lighter productions of the Viennese light-music masters seems unbridgeable. But it is worth remembering that the composers themselves did not deem the gap as wide as critics and scholars considered it to be – Brahms famously wrote down a few notes of the Blue Danube Waltz for Strauss’s stepdaughter and then wrote, “unfortunately not by Johannes Brahms.” The Fahrbachs’ pleasant, unpretentious music is further evidence, if any were needed, that there is enjoyment aplenty to be had both in grand Romantic works and in smaller, semi-precious gems.

     The Fahrbachs, Strausses, Komzáks and others wrote mostly frothy music by design, but music that comes across as light was not always intended that way by the composers. That is the case with the works on a new Divine Art CD featuring the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Robin White. This is essentially an entire disc of encores, all of them Russian in origin or at least Russian-sounding (or Slavic-sounding). White is the arranger and conductor of the entire presentation, and while he certainly approaches the material with enthusiasm – and has a good understanding of the capabilities of the clarinet, which features prominently throughout – the CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating because it simply spends too much time (all of its 53 minutes) trivializing non-trivial music. Individually, the pieces here are certainly enjoyable, and Ian Scott’s clarinet playing is worth hearing throughout. But White’s own five-movement Russian Suite really encapsulates the disc’s approach: he latches onto highly familiar, upbeat tunes for the first and last movements, and arranges emotionally fraught folk material for the three middle ones. It is all fine but quite inconsequential. Among the other works here are the Introduction and Gopak from Mussorgsky’s Sorochinsky Fair; an orchestral arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Clarinet Concerto (originally written for military-band accompaniment and really a brief, single-movement Konzertstück); and four little bits of Tchaikovsky that are so familiar as to be inevitable in a program like this one: Andante Cantabile from the first string quartet; Humoresque, Op. 10, No. 2; the hyper-familiar None but the Lonely Heart from Six Romances, Op. 6; and the pretty little Valse from Album for the Young, Op. 39. White then ends the CD with his arrangement of a Slavic (not Russian) work by an Italian (not Russian) composer: Vittorio Monti’s Czardas, just about the only piece for which Monti is known. This happens to be a rousing work that thoroughly deserves its popularity as an encore, and it is played here – as all the music is – brightly and with a kind of pop-music flourish. Certainly the CD is fun, at least in small doses, and certainly the clarinet playing is worth hearing – the Rimsky-Korsakov is the highlight of the disc. Most of this music, though, was meant to be taken seriously, and White’s determination not to do so, while understandable in the context of creating a series of encores, is ultimately not very satisfying – certainly not to anyone who knows these works in their original forms and contexts.

(+++) MURDER MOST FOUL, AS IN THE BEST IT IS

The Queen’s Six Murder the Songs of Tom Lehrer. The Queen’s Six. Signum Classics. $17.99.

     One of the very few highlights of the utterly miserable pandemic year of 2020 was the announcement in October that Tom Lehrer was releasing all his songs and music into the public domain, for anyone to use in any desired way. Technically, he could not do this – one cannot place one’s creative products in the public domain – but he announced that his works should be treated as if in the public domain, which amounts to the same thing. By doing this, Lehrer single-handedly (all right, two-handedly, since he used both hands to play piano) made it possible to uplift the dark and dismal spirits of anyone who may have wondered how this Harvard-educated academician, creator of a mere three dozen or so songs, had enthralled (if not exactly enchanted) some four generations of satire-and-sarcasm-prone listeners for no fewer than 70 years (Lehrer was born in 1928).

     Now we have the answer to Lehrer’s astonishing longevity as a social critic, and that answer is: we have no idea how he did it.

     This is not in any way to minimize The Queen’s Six, as fine an a cappella (well, mostly a cappella) singing group as is to be found anywhere. This melding of two countertenors, two tenors and two bass-baritones really does sing for the Queen and other British royalty, and is expert in forms ranging from the polyphonic to the madrigalic to the folk and popular – with a healthy helping of church music, with which the singers engage more regularly than any other type.

     The sheer incongruity of The Queen’s Six performing Lehrer ought to make this new Signum Classics release a perfectly marvelous one. Instead, though, it simply shows that when it comes to Tom Lehrer’s music, only Tom Lehrer can really do it justice (or injustice, as the case may be). And that is despite the fact that Lehrer long since lost interest in creating or performing music, which is why he has not done so for decades.

     It is almost impossible not to have the highest hopes for this recording, and almost impossible not to be disappointed by it. The singers (Tom Lilburn, Dan Brittain, Nicholas Madden, Dominic Bland, Andrew Thompson, Simon Whiteley) are marvelous, their ensemble picture-perfect (perhaps that should be “sound-perfect”), their individual voices outstanding , their musicianship undoubted. The arrangements of a dozen Lehrer songs – originally for solo voice and piano – are well-done, although occasionally overdone. And the mostly straightforward way the ensemble delivers Lehrer’s decidedly oddball messages and near-rhymes is admirable (from The Masochism Tango: “Your heart’s hard as stone or mahogany,/ That’s why I’m in such exquisite agony”).

     But it is all too smooth, too knowing, too elegant, and from time to time too British: it is fine to hear “iodine” pronounced “eye-o-deen” in The Elements, rather than Lehrer’s “eye-o-dine,” but not fine to change the lines “Your lips were like wine (if you'll pardon the simile);/ The music was lovely and quite Rudolf Friml-y” (in The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz) to “Your face was aglow, but your teeth rather yellowish;/ The music was lovely, quite Ivor Novello-ish.” Nor are the occasional uses of instruments necessarily beneficial: the church bells for The Vatican Rag are at best ineffective, although the accordion in Poisoning Pigeons in the Park works well.

     Lehrer did not so much break the bounds of good taste as tickle them: he was puckish, never mean. I Got It from Agnes is a song about venereal disease, and everyone hearing it should know that, even though he never says so; and the slight smarminess of the casual handling of the serious topic is a Lehrer trademark (he does the same thing when singing about Christmas, in a song not offered here, and in ones that are presented on the CD, such as the nuclear-war-themed We Will All Go Together When We Go). The members of The Queen’s Six never quite manage to figure out how to straddle the line between the meaningful and the tasteless. The underlying wink-and-smirk of Oedipus Rex is wholly missing (Lehrer’s delivery of the line “he loved his mother” was perfect). And the singers seem to miss the entire point of My Home Town, that parade of violent, over-the-top grotesqueries in which the only thing Lehrer holds back is a comment on “kindly Parson Brown” – Lehrer says “I guess I'd better leave this line out just to be on the safe side” or “we’re recording tonight, so I have to leave this line out,” but the members of The Queen’s Six just whistle a little.

     Most of what is here almost works, but not quite – Pollution, which has obvious contemporary relevance that the singers overemphasize; She’s My Girl, where the ensemble members wholly miss Lehrer about to say his girl’s coffee tastes like champagne, turning it at the last instant into “shampoo”; and Alma, to which the group adds a wholly unhelpful and unneeded prologue, sung to the tune of Frère Jacques.

     The members of The Queen’s Six probably had fun making this recording – why would they present these songs if they did not enjoy them? But little of the fun comes through, and even less of the unique blend of high intellect and kindergarten-level outrageousness that Lehrer himself brought to his performances of these songs. This is a short CD – only 35 minutes – but it seems longer, if not quite tiresome. While the disc might be expected to whet an audience’s appetite for further Lehrer from this excellent singing group, all it does is make any listener who has heard Lehrer perform his own material wish again to hear him “murder” his music instead of sitting through others’ efforts to do so on his behalf.

September 09, 2021

(++++) MULTICOLORED MIXTURES

The Smell of a Rainbow. By Dawn Goldworm. Illustrated by Andres Landazabal. Dial. $11.99.

rAinbowZ. By Michael Arndt. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

     Synesthesia, the mixing of senses, is not something that can be taught: some people have it and some do not. For those who do, sense blends could mean, for example, that the color green sounds tinkly and tastes acidic. Dawn Goldworm’s The Smell of a Rainbow does not exactly try to induce or reproduce synesthesia in very young children, but this fascinating board book does give kids (and adults) a chance to associate most of the colors of the rainbow with specific scents. This is done very cleverly. Each left-hand page suggests how a specific color smells – and when the page is rubbed, a whiff of the suggested odor can actually be perceived. Each right-hand page then says how each color feels, and some of those suggestions are a bit on the “well, maybe” side of things – but even if parents and/or kids do not quite agree with Goldworm’s notions, the ideas become great talking points and, put simply, are a lot of fun. Andres Landazabal’s outgoing, gently amusing pictures are another big plus of this charming little book. So Goldworm writes that red, for example, smells “sugary, berrylicious, spicy,” and Landazabal supplies pictures of smiling and dancing hot peppers, among other things; Goldworm says red feels “ticklish, lovable,” and Landazabal shows two kids laughing beneath a huge smiling Valentine’s-Day-style heart. Orange, “juicy, sweet, fresh,” features a couple of oranges (the fruit) with bright smiles; and here Goldworm suggests that orange feels “friendly, brave” – which works well with Landazabal’s picture of two kids hang-gliding above mountaintops as a smiling sun watches, but which may or may not reflect the feelings of the book’s readers. No matter: each color gets a delightful words-scent-pictures combination that makes the book a joy to visit and revisit. Some of the built-in smells work better than others: orange, for example, is not nearly as distinct as yellow (which is definitely lemony). But the book’s concept is so good and its mixture of senses so endearing that it works well even if readers do not see (and smell) things exactly as Goldworm does. There are only six of the rainbow’s seven colors here –indigo and violet are combined into purple, which makes sense for children in the target age range of 2-5 – but the final statement that kids have now “smelled a whole rainbow” feels accurate even if it is not quite precise. Through its overall charm and its unusual mixture of senses, The Smell of a Rainbow is a real delight.

     Michael Arndt’s rAinbowZ is a “combination” book as well, the title showing just what is combined: the letters A and Z are larger than the others and, on the cover, differently colored (silver, with the other letters in white). In other words, this is a color-plus-letters book, and a very clever one it is, too. All seven colors of the rainbow make repeated appearances here, but Arndt does not try to present them in the order in which they actually show up in rainbows (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Instead, he mixes and matches colors in all sorts of attractive ways while marching board-book readers through the alphabet. “Xylophone,” for example, has seven wooden bars, but none of them is orange – the entire background of the page is. “Hair” is shown on a clown face, with the facial features as well as the hair in multiple bright colors. “Nails” are the five fingernails on one hand, each a tricolor design – and the designs, collectively, do in this case include all seven rainbow colors. “Gelato” (an interesting word choice for the letter G) features pastels rather than the bright colors used for most words here; the illustration shows seven scoops of the treat stacked in an ice-cream cone. “Wand” uses muted colors, too, with the dominant one being silver, even though that is not a rainbow color. “Jelly beans,” in contrast, are on a page bursting with brightness in, well, all the colors of the rainbow. Somewhat similarly, the page for “Sprinkles” (another interesting word choice) shows many of them in many colors, being sprinkled onto the white icing of a cupcake. rAinbowZ is a learning tool, and a particularly intriguing one because Arndt picks quite a few atypical-for-this-age-group words (Aura, Mohawk, Oz, Piñata, and Tie-dye are all here). The book is also beautiful to look at, with the illustrations so engaging that kids may not even notice how well they are learning the alphabet as they return to rAinbowZ again and again to marvel at the colors and designs.