December 12, 2019

(++++) LESSONS LEARNED


You Loves Ewe! By Cece Bell. Clarion. $17.99.

More. By I.C. Springman. Art by Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

A Is for Audra: Broadway’s Leading Ladies from A to Z. By John Robert Allman. Illustrated by Peter Emmerich. Doubleday. $18.99.

     Some kids’ picture books are specifically intended to teach – and not just the nonfiction ones. Some authors and illustrators use the picture-book format to try to put across lessons of all sorts: grammatical, experiential, moral/ethical, informational. How well the books work depends not only on the clarity of their lessons and the quality of the writing and illustrations, but also on the extent to which the books soft-pedal their serious underlying content. The lessons are more easily absorbed when not laid on too heavy-handedly. This can often be done with humor, of which there is plenty in You Loves Ewe! Cece Bell uses the extremely unlikely anthropomorphic combination of a donkey and a talking yam to explore words that sound alike but have different meanings – ones that are, as Yam explains, homonyms (actually homophones, because homonyms are ones that are spelled exactly the same way but mean different things; but why quibble?). It all starts when Yam introduces Donkey to Ewe, a female sheep, by saying, “This is Ewe.” And of course Donkey replies, “That is me? I yam so cute and fluffy!” And we’re off to and through a series of misunderstandings that Yam is never quite able to correct. “You are not cute and fluffy. Ewe is,” says Yam, leading Donkey to say, “I yam confused.” Kids will initially be, too, but not to the same extent, because Bell’s very funny drawings and the care she takes to repeat explanations and use boldface to highlight words as necessary make these aural oddities of English comparatively easy to follow. In trying to get Donkey to understand the difference between “ewe” and “you,” Yam introduces other words pairs that are similar, including “doe” and “dough,” “moose” and “mousse,” and “hare” and “hair.” This will help young readers figure things out, even though it does not help Donkey very much. Nor is all well for Yam, who proclaims himself “in love with Ewe,” which Donkey thinks means, “You is in love? With me?” Eventually matters get more-or-less straightened out when Donkey asks Ewe whether she loves a ram that conveniently happens by, and Ewe holds up two signs reading, “Eye Dew” – and that makes other characters cry (tears being, of course, a kind of “eye dew”). Bell makes sure to leave kids laughing, though, with a final page proclaiming, “Love is grate. Butt it can bee confusing!” Well, yes – as can many aspects of the English language. This particular one, though, is somewhat less confusing at the end of the book than it was at the beginning.

     The lesson in I.C. Springman’s More is a moral and ethical one – and the language in this book is kept to a minimum. But despite the excellent illustrations by Brian Lies, More is a bit too heavy-handed to be entirely satisfactory as a teaching tool. This (+++) book is a fable about possessions, originally published in 2012 and now available in paperback. It starts when a mouse gives a bird who has “nothing,” and looks suitably sad about that, the gift of a marble, which the bird happily flies to its nest, where it now has “something.” This gets the bird interested in accumulating things, such as a LEGO block and a coin, so it has “a few,” then “several,” and “more and more and more.” Lies’ illustrations carry the weight of the story, showing the bird collecting all manner of odds and ends: a string of pearls, keys, a pacifier, a spoon, a toothbrush, a comb, and so forth – “lots” and then “plenty.” The acquisitiveness inevitably backfires, becoming “a bit much” and then “much too much” and “way too much,” despite the mouse’s attempt to intervene and get the bird to stop. “Enough!” calls the mouse, and in fact there is “more than enough,” as the branch on which everything is piled breaks and the whole horde comes tumbling down right on top of the bird. Rescue time! The mouse and some friends dig the bird out while reducing the pile to “less and less,” eventually leading to the realization that “not much at all” can still be “enough.” The “live simply” lesson is certainly given clearly, and Lies’ illustrations pack their usual punch in communicating the story and the personalities of the characters, but More comes across a bit too much as a lecture or sermon to be fully satisfying. It will probably work for some children in some families, but others may find it too simplistic or just not very convincing in its insistence on the “right” way to live.

     The issue in A Is for Audra is not the skill of John Robert Allman’s writing, which is quite good, or the appropriateness of Peter Emmerich’s illustrations, which fit the material beautifully. The question for this (+++) book is for whom exactly its lesson about female stage professionals is intended. It is a New York City book above all, focusing on women who have held the stage at live theatrical performances on Broadway. And since it is neither more nor less than a more-or-less alphabetical listing by last name of some of those star female performers, it is clearly aimed at families in which the adults are highly familiar with the Broadway theater scene and want to educate their children in the history of New York theatrical productions. But for whom does that mean the book is intended? The targeting seems very narrow, since the vast majority of families, even in New York City, will not be in the theatrical business or even able to afford the sky-high prices of tickets to Broadway shows. And while there are plenty of people who enjoy “celebrity watching,” that does not necessarily translate into an interest in seeing a very well-done illustration of Barbara Cook singing in The Music Man in 1957, or Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon in 1991. So A Is for Audra comes across as a beautifully rendered but very quirky book that will be wonderful for New York City parents or grandparents who want to reminisce about the glory days of some performers (Mary Martin in Peter Pan in 1954, Leslie Uggams in Hallelujah, Baby! in 1967, Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I in 1951) and celebrate some more-recent female stars as well (Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens in 2006, Kelli O’Hara in South Pacific in 2008, Kristin Chenoweth in On the Twentieth Century in 2015). The visual portrayals of the performers are done with considerable skill, and Allman’s quatrains are very well put together: “J is for Julie’s sweet,/ silvery soprano,/ as bright as a bell/ and as pure as a piano” (Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady in 1956); “S is for Sutton,/ whose singing and tapping/ keep spectators chanting/ and cheering and clapping” (Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002). A Is for Audra is an odd picture book that looks like a volume aimed at children but really seems far too rarefied for all but a very, very small coterie of them. It may be a great book for certain showbiz-focused New York City kids to give to their theatrically inclined parents or grandparents, though.

(+++) MIX AND REMIX


Heartstone #3: Flamebringer. By Elle Katharine White. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     It is a truth universally acknowledged that as fantasy sequences progress, they will inevitably begin to sound more and more like each other. And thus, although Elle Katharine White’s Heartstone trilogy opened with a novel that was balanced (somewhat uneasily) between traditional fantasy tropes and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and its tropes, her second series entry, Dragonshadow, began to lean more heavily on standard fantasy-world elements. And the final book in the group, Flamebringer, moves even more strongly in that direction.

     This is not necessarily bad. White’s original concept, although clever, made the opening book less attractive to lovers of sword-and-sorcery novels than it might otherwise have been – it was really aimed at people who, like White herself, enjoy such fantasies and Austen’s work in equal measure. Dragonshadow moved further from Austen and more toward the innumerable other post-Tolkien heroic fantasies of recent decades, giving up some of its conceptual originality but making for a more tightly structured and convincing adventure novel. In Dragonshadow, White really started to develop her characters within their own world, with fewer references to the one from which she originally brought them forth.

     And in Flamebringer, the separation from Austen is even more evident. The intense attraction between heroic protagonists Alastair and Aliza remains as strong as ever. Here, though, White engages in the redoubtable task of bringing forth all sorts of fantasy-novel traditions and grafting them onto the Heartstone story. There is, for example, a secondary character who practically steals every scene in which he appears through both his appearance and his name: Mephistrophomorphinite Ignaat. He is a gargoyle with “a grinning, malformed head with goblin ears and a nose like a bat’s” and, perhaps inevitably, eyes that “burned like live coals.” Of course he is hostile to Alastair and Aliza when they first meet him as they seek the help of dragons to counter a burgeoning evil that threatens the world – and of course he later becomes helpful as well as amusing. Readers will likely wish White had included more scenes with him.

     As for that growing evil, Alastair and Aliza get hints of it from the usual-in-fantasy isolated, keep-to-themselves characters who are unendingly hostile to outsiders but who accept the protagonists in their midst temporarily, just long enough to provide a key to the book’s plot: “The Eskatha came from the first things the gods shaped from emptiness, the four great guardian spirits bound to the world at its birth. We call them Elementari, for their true names were banished in the breaking…” But these things cannot be, protests Alastair, for if they existed, those of all species who preserve knowledge of times long past would know of them. Ah, but this is heroic fantasy, in which when nothing is known, that indicates truth: “Telling, this silence, is it not? …[D]ragonkind has chosen to forget. …Humans are no different. The Oldkind who do remember do not speak of them anymore, for the Elementari rose against their makers, and for that, they were unmade. Broken without remedy, their sundered spirits faded into the wood and water, stone and storm.”

     Well, not quite, for if that were true, there would be no overarching evil for the heroics of Flamebringer to overcome. But there is, and it appears in the form of the mysterious Silent King of Els, who has gone unseen outside his own land for hundreds of years and who, it turns out, has spent all those centuries accruing power and evil that, wonder of wonders, are overcome by Aliza in the space of a few minutes. The climax is, in fact, a bit of a disappointment, for although some cared-for characters meet their end and suitable tears are suitably shed, the notion that an essentially all-powerful, essentially eternal being that has brooded and nourished its evil and grown its power for many centuries can be vanquished so quickly (if admittedly painfully) is somewhat unsatisfying. A little more apocalyptic terror would have been helpful.

     And there are some inelegances in White’s writing and plotting that may distract readers from her main points. On the writing side, for example, the slight humor involving the gargoyle is intentional, but amusement is not the aim when, in the midst of Aliza’s deadly battle with a fearsome ghoul, White writes that the ghoul’s “mouth fell open in a ghoulish grin.” Well, yes…what other sort of grin would you expect? More significantly, the plot makes much of the reactions, or lack of them, of the actual gods of this world, which seem curiously impotent not only to stop the great evil that they themselves created but also to provide any clear guidance or direction to the good and righteous characters. The very end of Flamebringer is the only time that a god actually does anything, and what it does is so minor in the grand scheme of the trilogy that it seems almost laughable, despite the seriousness with which White paints the scene and the neat-wrapping-up element that the occurrence represents. Flamebringer is true to the world building and character development of the Heartstone trilogy, and readers who stayed with the first two books will find it a mostly satisfactory wrapup, with even a few Pride and Prejudice reminiscences and echoes at the end. So as a genre novel within a delimited genre trilogy, Flamebringer is just fine. It is, however, missing most of the Austen-derived elements that originally made it seem as if White would push the boundaries of heroic fantasy a bit harder than she actually pushes them.

(++++) BRAHMS AND BEYOND


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Ernő Dohnányi: Symphony No. 1; Symphonic Minutes. Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Roberto Paternostro. Capriccio. $16.99.

Brahms: Three Intermezzi, Op. 117; Six Klavierstücke, Op. 118; Robert Chumbley: Brahmsiana II; Jonathan Cziner: Echoes of Youth. Steven Masi, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     Although Brahms spent many years worrying about following in the symphonic footsteps of Beethoven, and although toward the end of his life he became unsure of his own place in music as Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, and Schoenberg began their ascent, his influence was in fact extremely wide-ranging and continues even today. Tonal and non-descriptive his music certainly was, but for that very reason it has a purity and emotional power that many other composers, for all their contortions in seeking meaning, found difficult if not impossible to attain. The first release in Edward Gardner’s cycle of Brahms symphonies for Chandos shows yet again just how distinctive Brahms’ work was and, as a result, how much influence it had and continues to have. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra does not have the full warmth of sound, especially in the strings, of the best European orchestras, but it has welcome clarity of its entire string complement, so that there is not a hint of the muddiness that occasionally afflicts Brahms performances. The orchestra’s winds are quite fine and its brass, although it too does not have as burnished a sound as some brass sections of other top orchestras, plays with strength and fervor that helps makes parts of these familiar symphonies especially effective – in particular, both finales benefit from the orchestra’s sound. Gardner paces the music well and without fussiness – another aspect of the overall clarity of these performances – and if one occasionally wishes for a bit more heft (at the end of the introduction to the last movement of No. 1, for example), there are plenty of instances in which Gardner’s no-nonsense approach pays considerable dividends. This is somewhat streamlined Brahms, with a directness in its communication that shows Gardner to be willing to step back from forcing a specific ebb and flow and simply let Brahms’ music proceed as the composer intended (which means close and welcome adherence to most of the tempo markings). The Third actually benefits more from this than does the First: the later symphony begins strongly and propels itself ahead vigorously, and its finale recaptures that mood in a way that is not exactly light but also not at all portentous, with the quiet ending thus coming across as especially effective. Brahms’ symphonies are ever-new, and there always seems to be something additional to be found in them – in this case, by Gardner and thus by listeners.

     Ernő Dohnányi (equally well-known as Ernst von Dohnányi) certainly found a great deal in Brahms, and indeed, Dohnányi’s Symphony No. 1 (1900) comes across as an expanded version of Brahms’ already expansive symphonic works. Dohnányi here produces a five-movement symphony longer than any by Brahms (55 minutes) and quite determinedly in a minor key (D minor). It is a sprawling work without the tightly knit focus of Brahms’ symphonies, yet its debt to them is abundantly clear in the sheer sound that Dohnányi seeks: the music requires tremendous heft, excellent sectional balance, and tonal warmth from the entire orchestra. It gets all that from the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Roberto Paternostro on a new Capriccio recording that displays the symphony in its best light – and, as a result, also shows its flaws. These are partly in the degree to which Dohnányi follows Brahms harmonically and tonally, and partly in the somewhat unwieldy sheer scale of the symphony. Dohnányi’s first and final movements are the symphony’s longest and, as in Brahms’ First, are almost equal to each other in length; indeed, it takes roughly the same amount of time to perform all four of these movements. But while Brahms relieves tension with his Andante sostenuto and then presents a kind of intermezzo rather than a scherzo, Dohnányi opts for a large slow movement marked Molto adagio and then adds both a scherzo and an intermezzo. It is all a bit too much for the musical material to bear, especially in light of the fact that Dohnányi’s concluding movement does not have the heft or forward propulsiveness of Brahms’. On the other hand, Dohnányi wrote his Symphony No. 1 at the age of just 23, while Brahms’ First was not completed until the composer was 20 years older than that, so a certain amount of understanding is in order – especially when a performance is handled as well as Paternostro manages this one. And it is worth noting that Dohnányi absorbed and then moved past his attachment to Brahms – quite certainly so by the time of Symphonic Minutes, a neat little five-movement suite from 1933. Here the movements zip by in 15 minutes, less than the time needed for just the first movement of Symphony No. 1, and here Dohnányi’s stylistic élan and personality are fully formed and very much in evidence throughout. Symphonic Minutes was originally written to be danced, and the work is bright and upbeat throughout, sometimes sparkling and witty, other times elegant, still other times dreamlike. The tonality is still essentially that of Brahms, but the miniaturization of the material is highly contrasted with the expansive nature for which both Brahms and earlier works by Dohnányi are known.

     Brahms’ own later pieces, however, often have a succinctness that in no way reduces their communicative potential. In particular, his final four works for solo piano, Opp. 116-119, are intimate, personal, nostalgic, mostly quiet, and very much unlike his earlier, expansive, virtuosic and large-scale piano music. Pianist Steven Masi uses this fact to excellent effect on a new Navona CD on which he plays Brahms’ Op. 117 and Op. 118 – plus two contemporary pieces that are responses to and commentaries upon Brahms’ music. This could easily degenerate into an exchange of consonance for dissonance, a set of variations unrecognizable in their relationship to Brahms’ original material, or some other form of “tribute” that would be self-aggrandizing and would not elucidate anything. But that is not what happens here, thanks to the genuineness of Robert Chumbley’s and Jonathan Cziner’s respect for Brahms and for what Masi is trying to do (Cziner’s work was actually commissioned by Masi). First, Masi plays the Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, sensitively and pensively, bringing forth their rather resigned and elegiac elements – ones that are usually described in Brahms as “autumnal,” an overused adjective that actually fits this music well. “Crepuscular” and “nocturnal” are other apt descriptions of these three works, especially in the sensitive way in which Masi handles them. He follows them with Chumbley’s Brahmsiana II, itself a set of three intermezzos – which contain no quotations at all from Brahms’ Op. 117 but are directly inspired by it in their mood, overall feeling, and most of their pacing. They do look beyond Brahms harmonically, but they are not filled with dissonance for its own sake, and in fact Chumbley shows himself determined to maintain Brahms’ essential lyricism while bringing his musical language into the present day. After this work, Masi plays Brahms’ Op. 118, which includes four intermezzi, a ballade and a romance, and which alternates in mood between intensity and deep resignation – these pieces were dedicated to Clara Schumann, whom Brahms obviously adored for decades but who only respected him. Although the overall mood of the six pieces, taken as a totality, is somewhat lighter than the mood of the three works in Op. 117, the final piece in Op. 118 is genuinely tragic in feeing and leaves a lasting impression of almost unbearable sadness. Masi is at his best here, capturing the multiplicity of moods of the whole set of six pieces while dwelling to just the right degree on the emotional depth of the last one. Cziner’s Echoes of Youth follows this, and while the juxtaposition is a trifle awkward – it is hard for anything to follow Op. 118, No. 6 – Cziner is as attuned to Brahms’ feelings and musical approaches in his way as Chumbley is in his. Cziner offers four pieces, including two intermezzi, a romance and a ballade – and intriguingly gives the intermezzi titles that are well-known to Brahmsians: Frei Aber Einsam, “free but lonely,” which violinist Joseph Joachim considered his personal motto, and Frei Aber Froh, “free but joyful,” which was Brahms’ counter to his friend’s downbeat statement. Yet Cziner uses the Joachim motto for the second intermezzo, which is the last of the four pieces, and that fact, along with the character of the music, results in a final feeling of reflective melancholy that fits very well indeed with the deeper and more troubling impression left at the end of Brahms’ Op. 118. Cziner, like Chumbley, does not hesitate to use more-modern compositional materials than Brahms employed, but here too they are employed judiciously and never simply for effect. What Chumbley and Cziner do here, led and abetted by Masi, is to have a kind of pianistic conversation with late-in-life Brahms, empathizing with him while showing that his feelings, thoughts and music remain quite relevant to musicians and audiences in the 21st century. That is a very impressive accomplishment for everyone involved: Masi, Chumbley, Cziner, and Brahms himself.

(+++) GRECIAN HERITAGE


Cilia Petridou: Asmata; Byzantine Doxology. Alison Smart, Lesley-Jane Rogers and Jenni Harper, sopranos; Susan Legg, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, tenor; Jeremy Birchall and Patrick Ardagh-Walter, basses; Cilia Petridou, electric piano; Katharine Durran, piano. Divine Art. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Lydia Kakabadse: Odyssey; Songs. The Choir of Royal Holloway conducted by Rupert Gough; Cecily Beer, harp; Clare McCaldin, mezzo-soprano; Paul Turner, piano. Divine Art. $17.

Anthony Brandt: Ulysses, Home; Maternity; David Eagleman: The Founding Mothers. Karol Bennett, soprano; Liam Bonner, baritone; Del Sol String Quartet (Kate Stenberg and Peter Masek, violins; Charlton Lee, viola; Kathryn Bates, cello); Jerry Hou, conductor (Ulysses, Home); River Oaks Chamber Orchestra conducted by Alastair Willis (Maternity); David Eagleman, reader (The Founding Mothers). Navona. $14.99.

Basil Athanasiadis: Book of Dreams II; Five Pieces; Circles; Dream of a Butterfly II; Eyes Are Now Dim. Shonorities (Shie Shoji, vocals; Naomi Sato, shō; Keiko Hisamoto, koto; Lin Lin, alto flute; Nao Tohara, violin; Basil Athanasiadis, piano); Elena Abad Martinez and Chloë Meade, violins; Daichi Yoshimura, viola; Henry Hargreaves, cello; Noah Max, conductor. Métier. $17.

     Ancient Greece is often referred to as the cradle of Western civilization, its influence extending not only into governance but also into architecture, statuary, frescoes and other art forms. Its relationship to music is less often explored. But both ancient and more-modern Greece have considerable musical significance for some composers, whether because of their own heritage or because they find significant inspiration in Greece’s past. Cilia Petridou (born 1944) relates to Greece both personally and as a source of musical material, as a new two-CD Divine Art release clearly shows. Greek Orthodox liturgical texts form the basis of Byzantine Doxology, a very extended setting (lasting almost an hour) of sacred material whose general elements (such as Hosanna in the Highest, Peace to All and Rest the Souls) will be familiar to many listeners even if the specifics of the Greek words will not. The setting uses a small vocal ensemble – two sopranos, mezzo-soprano, tenor and two basses – that Petridou employs to produce considerable purity of sound in music that is essentially tonal but harmonically more modern than many traditional settings of religious texts. The vocal writing is skillful, although the limited number of voices means that the material – which is straightforward in meaning – tends after a while to drag a bit. There is greater variety in the 15 songs, split between two soprano voices and based on more-modern poetry, that Petridou collectively calls Asmata. The songs’ length varies quite a bit, with the first lasting less than a minute and the last more than nine minutes. The words’ sources are quite varied and not 100% by Greek poets: although six are by Dimitris Libertis (1866-1937), two by Kostis Palamas (1859-1943), two by Alexander Pallis (1851-1935), and one by Nikos Kambas (1857-1932), there are also three traditional folk poems (Lullaby, The Nun, and Red Lips); and one song, The soul selects her own society, uses words by Emily Dickinson. The use of an electric piano for the last and longest song, Sunset, produces a somewhat otherworldly effect, but most of the settings are rather straightforward, with the piano generally remaining firmly in the background even as it supports the voice. When the piano is used for mood setting, however, as in Away from You, the result is quite effective. Petridou is clearly comfortable setting the Greek words both in Asmata and in Byzantine Doxology, and the release provides English translations of all the material, so listeners unversed in the Greek language can follow along with Petridou’s evocations.

     The nine songs and one choral work on a Divine Art recording of works by Lydia Kakabadse (born 1955) are in English and are more musically varied than those by Petridou. And the sources of the texts clearly show Kakabadse’s many interests: there are words by Charlotte Brontë, Arthur Hugh Clough, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amelia Earhart, Kakabadse herself, Thomas Hood, Thomas Hardy, John Clare, Rudyard Kipling, plus the Latin Sancte Ioseph. These are individual songs, not a cycle, but they display certain themes that interest Kakabadse, including ghostly tales (Longfellow’s Haunted Houses and Kipling’s The Way Through the Woods); memories of long ago as another kind of ghostliness (Brontë’s The House Where I Was Born and Hood’s I Remember); and the somewhat sullied pleasures of material things (Clough’s As I Sat at the Café and Hardy’s The Ruined Maid). Indeed, Kakabadse’s wide-ranging interests are made even clearer in Odyssey, which is a cycle, and a fascinating one, drawing not only on Homer’s tale of Odysseus’ wanderings after the Trojan War but also on material from many times in Greek history. The seven movements of this work trace Greece from Homer’s era to today, and Kakabadse’s music reflects, to at least some extent, the forms of music in each of the seven eras: monophonic and unharmonized in “Archaic,” dramatic and intense in “Classical,” and so through “Hellenistic,” “Roman” (which uses elements of Greek Orthodox liturgy), “Byzantine,” “Post-Byzantine,” and finally “Modern” (which opens with Greece’s national anthem). The material of Odyssey is more specialized than that of Kakabadse’s songs and perhaps not as widely appealing: the work is a 2018 commission for the 25th anniversary of the Hellenic Institute at Royal Holloway University of London. But even listeners who are not steeped in Greek history and may not be familiar with all the texts in Kakabadse’s Odyssey will find much of the musical material intriguing, and the work as a whole does a very fine job of taking an audience through thousands of years of experience in not much more than half an hour.

     It is certainly not only those of Greek heritage who continue to extract meaning from Homer’s Odyssey, a work that truly belongs to the whole world and continues to offer fertile ground for interpretation and reinterpretation. American composer Anthony Brandt (born 1961) takes the Homeric story into modern times in Ulysses, Home, whose title recalls Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria but whose subject matter is far less celebratory. Brandt, using a libretto by Neena Beber, sees Ulysses as a modern soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, returning to his contemporary Penelope but never quite able to shake off the sounds and suffering of battle. Written in a prologue and five scenes, Ulysses, Home is declaimed rather than sung in traditional operatic style, and the music is generally dissonant and often deliberately unpleasant, to fit the work’s theme. Even when Brandt dips into lyricism, he does so only briefly and imperfectly, as if to acknowledge that a soldier never fully separates from his battlefield experiences. The ending is ambiguous and implies that, in some ways, anticipating Ulysses’ return was better for Penelope than actually having him come back. The work is a thoughtful one and effective as a play, although the musical elements are not really central to it and serve mainly to underline what is presented in the words. Also on this Navona CD is Maternity, for soprano and chamber orchestra, an interpretation of David Eagleman’s short story, The Founding Mothers – which Eagleman himself reads in full after Brandt’s piece concludes. Maternity is much less acerbic than Ulysses, Home, and has a very different purpose: instead of updating an old tale, it moves backward in time from the present – sort of the opposite of what Kakabadse does in her Odyssey – to offer very short comments on women in earlier ages. Those who came before led, inevitably, to those who are here now, and Eagleman and Brandt move back and back and back, through “my great-great-grandmother had a tightly twisted temper” to “she lived in a quarrelsome village by the Nile” to “she fashioned the first flutes,” and back further and further in time, to “she can bark with such ferocity that she saves her pack again and again” to “she is amphibious” and even beyond that. It is a fascinating journey in reverse, speeding through known and unknown history, through humanity and past its origins, in words representing 21 mothers. This material is both spoken and sung, and here the music comments upon some of what is spoken in addition to providing background. Brandt’s handling of the verbiage is quite different from Eagleman’s own, and the pairing of the musical and purely spoken versions makes for a fascinating contrast, if a somewhat overdone one.

     There is contrast aplenty in the five works by Basil Athanasiadis (born 1970) on a new Métier CD – a disc showing one way in which a strong Greek heritage may be altered by and even subsumed within other cultures. Athanasiadis spent years living and studying in Tokyo, and the pieces on this CD are permeated by Japanese and Chinese aesthetics and sonorities. They also draw on the sorts of sources favored by many of the more avant-garde contemporary composers: minimalism, ambient music, aleatory, electroacoustics, prepared piano, and of course jazz. Like many contemporary composers who want to explain their techniques and approaches to listeners, Athanasiadis has a good deal to say about how and why each piece on this disc came into being. But audiences will be more interested in how the works sound, and what effects they produce for listeners, than in their provenance. Book of Dreams II, for alto flute and string quartet, is a compilation of melodic fragments taken from Chinese folk music, and it has a pleasant overall character without any sense of progress – it simply is, from start to finish (and at 18 minutes, goes on rather too long, although listeners who enjoy Western minimalism or background music will not find that to be an issue). Five Pieces for Female Voice and Prepared Piano sets Japanese haiku – sometimes with virtually no piano involvement, sometimes with the instrument overcoming the voice. Circles is improvisational, using solo piano plus electronics created from a recording of Athanasiadis’ voice singing a single tone. Like Book of Dreams II, it is a form of minimalism, here intended to reflect Buddhist chant and quiet places in Tokyo – neither of which, however, is especially apparent from the music itself. Again, this is a work that overstays its welcome, lasting more than 10 minutes without any sense of progress – but here as in Book of Dreams II, it is a piece that fanciers of minimalism will find congenial. The seven-movement Dream of a Butterfly II was created to showcase the capabilities of the electroacoustic Fender Rhodes piano, whose sound is somewhere between that of chimes and that of a marimba. The work focuses on different sounds that this specific now-discontinued instrument is capable of creating. As a demo piece, it is interesting, and the individual elements are short enough to offer a sound sampler that does not profess to any particular meaning. Whether the totality is anything beyond a sound sampler is, however, another matter. Finally on this CD, Eyes Are Now Dim, at 20 minutes the longest piece here, is another work with a haiku connection, being intended to reflect the wide-ranging concerns embedded within those famously brief poetic structures. Written for female voice, shō, koto, violin, and Chinese gongs, the work has a distinct Oriental tinge but does not seem, strictly from a musical perspective, to offer much more than repetitiveness and some aural experimentation in instrumental combination. That may be enough for listeners who simply find the none-too-familiar instrumental sound attractive – although whether it remains so throughout this extended work is a matter of opinion. Interestingly, given the paucity of Greek elements in the music of Athanasiadis on this disc, Eyes Are Now Dim is the one work connected directly to Greece: it is dedicated to Greek musicologist, composer and music critic George Leotsakos. In concept and sound, however, it is as far from modern Greece as is Homer’s Odyssey.

December 05, 2019

(++++) GIFTS OF LEARNING OR LAUGHTER


Splash and Bubbles: Penguins! By Margie Markarian. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

Splash and Bubbles: Sharks! By Margie Markarian. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

The World’s Best Jokes for Kids, Volume 3: Dad Jokes. By Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

The World’s Best Jokes for Kids, Volume 4: Knock Knock Jokes. By Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

     When you are in the heart of gift-giving season, bombarded with all sorts of demands for electronic this and video that, and are looking for something a bit more sedate and possibly a good deal longer-lasting, it is always a fine idea to turn to those old standbys, books. Even in our video-saturated age, and maybe because it is video-saturated, there is considerable pleasure to be had through physical interaction with a medium that you can explore at as leisurely a pace as you wish, going back and forth at will without needing to push any buttons or issue any voice commands. And books continue to be excellent sources of information – even when they are based on material originally presented in video form. That is the case with two “Level 2” readers, aimed at kids ages 5-7, that draw on the Splash and Bubbles show that ran for almost two years on PBS. The Jim Henson Company was co-producer of this program, which featured a yellow fusilier fish named Splash and his friend Bubbles, a Mandarin dragonet. They are joined in the books about penguins and sharks by their friends Dunk, a pufferfish, and Ripple, a sea horse. The simply written books, replete with photos, offer kids short guided tours of the specific animals being profiled. For example, Splash says, “I swam with chinstrap penguins in the chilly waters of Antarctica,” and there is a picture of one such penguin right below the comment. Sometimes the computer-generated fish guides make comments of their own, as when Bubbles says about erect-crested penguins, “That penguin has a style that really rocks!” And some of the narrative material is given in between the photos rather than in speech bubbles attributed to the make-believe fish: “A penguin returns to the place where it was born to lay eggs.” Most of the age-appropriate facts in these books are quite straightforward, but that does not stop some of them from being fascinating: “Penguins do not have teeth. They have sharp barbs on their tongue. The barbs help them catch slippery fish.” Or, in the book on sharks, “Sharks have rubbery cartilage instead of bone. It helps sharks move fast and bend. Whoosh!” And: “Sharks lose thousands of teeth a year!” The Splash and Bubbles books aim to demystify learning about the ocean while showing some intriguing photos of sea dwellers and providing young readers with reassurance where that is appropriate: “Sharks do not have a taste for people. Sometimes a shark mistakes a swimmer or surfer for a sea animal. But shark attacks on people are rare.” Parents looking to get young children interested in the sort of material that Splash and Bubbles present – whether or not they and their kids were fans of the PBS show – will find the books on penguins and sharks eminently giftable.

     Parents looking for something lighter and a good deal sillier, for kids in roughly the same age range, can turn to The World’s Best Jokes for Kids, an every-joke-illustrated series by Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar in which there are plenty of groaners – in which, in fact, groaners are the whole point. The two newest books in the series are the third and fourth volumes, and unlike the first two entries, these have themes. The Dad Jokes book is not jokes about Dad but ones that dads might perhaps tell, at least based on the cover cartoon showing two kids reacting with a grimace and rolled eyes, respectively. The jokes themselves are actually no worse (and no better) than those in earlier volumes of The World’s Best Jokes for Kids. “What do you find on a very tiny beach? Microwaves.” “Why was the glowworm disappointed? The kids weren’t all that bright.” “What’s the best thing about elevator jokes? They work on so many levels.” “What’s black, red, black, red, black, red, black, red? A zebra with a sunburn.” “What’s green and sits moping in the corner? The Incredible Sulk.” With jokes like these, some amusing illustrations couldn’t hurt – but actually, the cartoons are about at the same level as the writing. A picture of two candles talking to each other goes with, “What did the one candle say to the other? I’m going out tonight.” Taxis falling from the sky go with, “What’s worse than raining cats and dogs? Hailing taxis.” A tree wearing a smile goes with, “How did the tree feel in spring? Releaved.” Dad jokes or not, these frequently punny items can be fun for young kids to tell each other – and parents can always pretend to be amused. The same applies to the volume of knock-knock jokes, which is, yes, an entire book containing only ones of that type. Every single entry begins, “Knock knock. Who’s there?” This makes the book an even faster read than Dad Jokes, since the start of every bit of jollity is exactly the same. And the illustrations also parallel these jokes closely. A girl carrying a mixing bowl goes with, “Anita who? Anita borrow some eggs for this cake please.” A smiling girl accompanies, “Wendy who? Wendy bell gets fixed, I won’t need to knock.” A clearly unhappy dog is shown with, “Fangs who? Fangs for letting me in at last!” A frowning woman goes with, “Emma who? Emma bit annoyed that you don’t know who I am!” A snowsuited child is shown with, “Snow who? Snow-body.” Clearly these jokes do not lend themselves to even the modest amount of cartoon creativity found in Dad Jokes – the vast majority of the illustrations in Knock Knock Jokes simply show people of one sort or another. But the book will certainly be fun for kids (and parents) who enjoy this particular brand of humor. Neither of these (+++) books really lives up to its “world’s best” title, but both make likable little stocking stuffers or, in fact, gifts for just about any occasion on which a chuckle, or a groan, is in order.

(++++) FAMILY DRAMAS AS AMUSEMENTS


Fowl Language: Winging It—The Art of Imperfect Parenting. By Brian Gordon. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood: Berkeley Mews Comics. By Ben Zaehringer. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Poorlier Drawn Lines. By Reza Farazmand. Plume. $15.

     Family-focused comics have been around just about since the dawn of comic strips: The Katzenjammer Kids, for example, dates back to 1897. But families being families, there is always an appetite for more of this sort of thing, and tastes in the comics change with the times. Now we are in a period of wry amusement, acceptance of four-letter words, and acknowledgment that there is not necessarily anything idyllic or amusing about everyday life and kids’ antics. Thus, although kids may not come with instruction manuals, Brian Gordon’s Fowl Language, for one, seeks to provide just that – more or less – for today’s parents. Gordon’s latest collection is a hybrid of short essays and cartoon panels, including such topics as “Sleep,” “Siblings,” “Endless Arguing,” and “Coping Mechanisms,” each introduced with a couple of pages of words and then moving into panels featuring, well, ducks. Yes, Gordon’s personal take on family life shows parents and kids alike as waterfowl. And the title Fowl Language is more than a pun, since profanity that would never have been allowed in comics in decades past is common here. But it is not the main point of Gordon’s production – just a symptom of Fowl Language being a 21st-century creation. The essays that introduce the sections will certainly have parents nodding in agreement when they are not sighing in exasperation: “One might assume that after a long night of torturing their parents, little ones might want to sleep in a bit. On the contrary, my kids will happily get up at an hour that would make a rooster blush.” “Despite their lousy diets and efforts to avoid sustenance, my kids keep growing at an almost alarming rate.” “I can usually predict when and where the arguments will happen, but I’m always nearly helpless to stop them. It’s like watching clouds roll in and trying to reason with them not to rain.” But pithy as Gordon’s observations are, they do not match the to-the-point nature of the illustrative cartoons, such as the one about tattling, in which a duckling tattles to the father duck, “He said he’s gonna tattle on me, but you said we had to stop!!!” Or the two-panel one in which “My Kids Are Invincible” (one standing in snow saying “I don’t need a jacket”) but “And Yet – So Helpless” (one sitting in a chair asking for help reaching the remote a few inches away). Or the one in which a duckling refuses to try something different to eat because it’s “the grossest, most disgusting food in the world,” and when dad points out that he has never tasted it, responds, “Why would I eat the worst food in the world?” Gordon has clearly “been there,” and still is, and has found a way to share “being there” with others who, like him, remain “there,” usually wondering just where “there” is.

     Gordon never says anything directly such as Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood, but then, his cartoons are not quite as edgy as Ben Zaehringer’s Berkeley Mews Comics, whose main purpose is to ruin childhood. Somebody’s childhood. Anybody’s childhood – at least that of anybody who gets the pervasive pop-culture references. A Sesame Street parody has the characters pitch in to get garbage-can-dwelling Oscar the Grouch a brand-new, bright and shiny home – and the next panel shows the spotless kitchen, with Oscar living in the trash can. A Harry Potter sendup has a boy offered a broom when arriving at Hogwarts, only to discover that his broom is for him to use as the mundane groundskeeper, not for flying or magic. A Transformers sequence has Robocar change from a robot to an ambulance when someone is badly injured – then, when told the victim is “not gonna make it,” changing into a hearse. A Pokémon battle shows a cowboy duel, with one calling on Charmander – and the other pulling out a gun and shooting down his opponent. And then there are strips that comment more directly on family life, such as one in which a mom starts crying when she gets a fortune cookie saying, “You will find true love.” That’s dark. And there is one in which a dying man asks his son to promise to publish his manuscript, which turns out to be a book called “My Rotten Son.” That’s dark. And there is one in which a father takes his son to the office for “Take Your Kid to Work Day,” only to be fired by the boss and his son. Some comics here are just bizarre, such as one in which two ghosts call an exterminator to get rid of the bedbugs in their haunted house, and the final panel shows them surrounded by bedbug ghosts; and one in which everybody in the office celebrates when the boss proclaims that morale is at an all-time low, because it turns out this is a management meeting in Hell. Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood may not actually ruin anyone’s childhood, or adulthood for that matter, but there’s a good chance it will cause a certain, umm, rethinking of a whole set of pop-culture references.

     The “family” in Reza Farazmand’s Poorlier Drawn Lines is an adopted interspecies one, which is to say it is a group of friends and frenemies of various types rather than a traditional family. But Farazmand’s Poorly Drawn Lines series, of which this is the third collection, shares many sensibilities with Zaehringer’s cartoons, albeit without the specific references to popular-culture tropes. The oddity here transcends relationships as well as species. One man complains to another that he is often confused, showing a photo to prove how confused he was the day before – it is a photo of someone else. “The Many Moods of Kevin” features a recurring bird character being “upbeat” about getting fries, “optimistic” about how good they will be, then “devastated” when “they’re out of fries.” A ghost complains about having died because it was “the one thing I was trying not to do.” A recurring human character named “Tanya” is so sad that “nothing can fill the void” until another character, a bear named Ernesto, asks, “Not even snacks?” – leaving Tanya to contemplate, “What kind of snacks?” Kevin and Ernesto discuss ways to kill a mouse, with Kevin first suggesting “kindness” and then “a gun,” leading Ernesto to remark, “I appreciate that you think in extremes.” At another point, Ernest asks a banged-up-looking Kevin where he has been, and Kevin explains, “To Hell and back. And then to Hell again because I forgot my phone. And then to the phone store because my screen broke.” A strip called “City Tree” simply has a city tree thinking about life: “I live in concrete. The air is cigarettes. But there are really good restaurants.” And there is a strip in which Tanya says she needs to see things to believe them but “can be, like, 50 percent convinced by a smell.” And one with Ernest watering a plant and saying, “Have some life,” then thinking, “So, this is how the gods feel.” Hmm…well, maybe not. But it is how some people feel. And maybe some birds, bears, plants, turtles, ghosts, and the other denizens of Farazmand’s oddly assorted, frequently peculiar, but curiously thoughtful sort-of-family.

(++++) DECISIONS, DECISIONS


The Grand Dark. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $26.99.

A Talent for Trouble. By Natasha Farrant. Clarion. $16.99.

     There is an old saying that “bad decisions make good stories,” and on that basis, Richard Kadrey’s stories are very good indeed. They are chock-full of people making bad decisions. Again and again. Even knowing they are bad. Even knowing they will have bad consequences. And in this way, if no other, Kadrey’s tales are very, very much like everyday adult life, so much of which seems to revolve around deciding which available bad decision is slightly less bad than all the other bad ones available. In his best-known novels, featuring Sandman Slim, Kadrey buries the badness of decision-making beneath a consummately noir style and the convenience of people being able to come back to life after death – although that too, come to think of it, is frequently a bad decision. In his standalone books, such as The Grand Dark, Kadrey dispenses with some of the Sandman Slim conveniences and in so doing opens the door to a whole ocean of potential mistakes against which his protagonists can take up weapons (along the lines of Hamlet’s “take arms against a sea of troubles”). In addition, a book such as The Grand Dark gives Kadrey a chance to exercise his talent for world building and descriptive excellence – something always present in his books, but often getting short shrift in the relentless action. Not that action is lacking in The Grand Dark – this would scarcely be a Kadrey book without plenty of it. But Kadrey here steps back from mayhem just a bit, spending a significant amount of time creating and embellishing the world in which his characters live – and that makes The Grand Dark feel very different from the Sandman Slim series and other Kadrey novels. The difference is there from the start, which features not a monstrous emergence or giant explosion but a quiet bike ride by the central character, a drug-addicted courier named Largo Moorden. Kadrey is at pains to show that Largo lives in a world both recognizable and deeply bizarre. It is Weimar Germany, after the Great War, with many place names and people’s names in or approximating German – but with a few robots here and there to indicate it is not quite the doomed Weimar Republic. Bit by bit, Kadrey builds up the weirdness – not hitting readers over the head with it, as in his other books, but allowing it to emerge at a deliberate pace that will remind Brecht/Weill fanciers not only of The Threepenny Opera but more specifically of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and even, from time to time, of Der Silbersee. The accumulating peculiarities of Largo’s city, which is called Lower Proszawa (its twin, High Proszawa, having been essentially leveled during the Great War, that being the recently ended conflict’s name here as well as what people used to call World War I in our world), come over the course of the book to be centered on the Theater of the Grand Darkness. This is where Largo’s lover, Remy, works, under the auspices of Una Herzog, whose specialty is twice-nightly stagings of the most gruesome murders imaginable (which Kadrey, of course, imagines in detail). The pervasive decadence of Lower Proszawa seems to be increasing as the threat of another war looms imprecisely but with increasing certainty; this, of course, is another parallel with Weimar days. But for all the Weimaresque sex, drugs and bizarrerie in The Grand Dark, all of which give Largo plenty of opportunities to make bad decisions, there are elements that spring directly from Kadrey’s uniquely skewed imaginative sensibilities. Among them are “city silver,” a strange dust that coats the city and may be connected with a fast-rising plague and/or with a mysterious illness appropriately called “the Drops” because it causes people simply to drop dead. The increasing strangeness of The Grand Dark makes the book more fascinating as it progresses, a phenomenon thanks in part to a wonderful narrative technique that Kadrey has not used before but here employs virtuosically: there are bits of supposed histories, manifestos, diaries, even a travel brochure sprinkled throughout the book, giving the world of Lower Proszawa considerable depth – and a fascination that goes even beyond Kadrey’s inclusion in it of an art movement called Xuxu (clearly derived from Dada); a group of radicals using eugenics to create exceedingly strange creatures; sentient robots called automata; and a shadowy secret-police group called the Nachtvogel, both singular and plural (it would be Nachtvögel, plural, in our world’s German) that it is tremendously tempting to identify with the Sturmabteilung (S.A.) of the rising Nazis of the Weimar world. Kadrey also does his usual expert job of making his characters come alive – not only Largo and Remy, whose complex relationship rings as true as does Largo’s drug addiction, but also Herr Branca (Largo’s mysterious and sinister boss), the aforementioned Una Herzog (sufficiently sinister in a different way), Baron Hellswarth (a customer who may have the ultimate power over Largo’s life), and many others. The Grand Dark is stylistically recognizable as a Kadrey novel, filled as it is with cinematic sensibilities of the Blade Runner type and packed with Kadrey’s trademark expertise in creating weirdnesses and piling them atop each other. And although it is a standalone book, with a satisfying conclusion, it leaves some important questions unanswered. Indeed, it contains so many elements that are worthy of further exploration that if Kadrey wishes, he can certainly return to the world of Lower Proszawa. Kadrey’s fans will wish for him to bring them back to this place of darkness, depravity and devious, demented decision-making.

     It would be fair to say that all Kadrey’s protagonists, and most of his less-central characters, have a talent for getting into trouble, but the actual book title A Talent for Trouble belongs not to anything by Kadrey but to a (+++) novel for preteens by Natasha Farrant. Yet even in this much-milder world, there are instances aplenty in which bad decisions are available, and are made, and lead to good stories. There is, in fact, a bit too much piling-on in this tale of a Scottish boarding school where three young students – led by 11-year-old Alice Mistlethwaite, the book’s protagonist – go on a series of increasingly improbable adventures that they get through with a mixture of pluck and camaraderie. The story does not actually begin at Stormy Loch Academy but at Alice’s home, Cherry Grange, where a spectacularly bad decision launches the novel. This is not a decision by Alice but one by her Aunt Patience: to sell the house, which has been in Alice’s family for a century, in order to give Alice a fresh start after her mother’s death. This is also a rather bad decision by Farrant, because her initial description of Cherry Grange makes the house seem so interesting that readers will likely want to spend more time there, or at least revisit it occasionally – but no, it is off to Scotland with Alice. And that is where she meets Jesse Okuyo, a multiracial boy who is careful to follow the rules even when doing so may itself be a bad decision; and Fergus Mackenzie, a prototypically rule-breaking and mercurial redhead. Fergus and Jesse do not get along at all, and Jesse initially does not hit it off with Alice either, so inevitably, in a book of this sort for an audience of this age range, the three turn out to need and lean on each other as they embark on their decidedly off-campus roamings. These revolve around Alice’s unreliable and frequently absent father, Barney, who sends her a message that leads her to think she needs to meet him at a castle on the isolated island of Nish. This in turn leads Alice to team up with Jesse and Fergus for adventures involving everything from international jewel thieves to a bout of food poisoning (not to mention some gunplay and an island chase). Some of the tropes of British “children’s adventure” literature are here: Stormy Loch Academy’s very name, for example, and the fact that it is a castle containing forbidden towers. And Farrant’s narrative itself seeks a kind of old-fashioned portentousness: the boarding school requires capitalized Challenges as students discover their capitalized Talents while learning that actions have capitalized Consequences. The book’s third-person narrative style is also capital-letter heavy, an approach that wears rather thin rather quickly. So does Farrant’s habit of tossing about dashes and ellipses: “We are nearly at the moment now when everything comes together—the runaways on their quest, the people chasing them, Barney, the police, the major. That troublesome parcel in Alice’s rucksack. . .You can see just by looking at your book that we are nearly there—wherever there may be. But that’s all for tomorrow.” As a whole, A Talent for Trouble is more quirky than genuinely engaging, and its three central characters are more typecast than fully fleshed out. But for preteen readers, this will matter less than it likely would for adults such as those for whom Kadrey writes. Whether getting into trouble is or is not actually a talent, it is certainly a basis for building stories in which protagonists of any age have the opportunity to make a good number of decisions. Authors like to ensure they make enough bad ones to keep the plot bubbling and bring readers along on a journey in which their decision to read a story turns out not to be a bad one.

(++++) PIANISTIC PROWESS


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4; Triple Concerto. Inon Barnatan, piano; Stefan Jackiw, violin; Alisa Weilerstein, cello; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Alan Gilbert. PentaTone. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 80 and 81; Piano Concerto No. 11. Lucas Blondeel, fortepiano; Le Concert d’Anvers conducted by Bart Van Reyn. Fuga Libera. $18.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 18 and 23 (“Appassionata”); Rondo in C, Op. 51, No. 1. Young-Ah Tak, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Haydn: Piano Sonatas Nos. 48, 50, 54, 59, and 60. John O’Conor, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Charles-Valentin Alkan: 25 Préludes dans Touts les Tons Majeurs et Mineurs, Op. 31. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99.

     The inevitable flood of releases marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth has begun, and quite a few of those releases are sure to be of his works for piano. Since 2020 is, after all, such a notable anniversary year, it is a fair bet that the recordings will generally be high-level performances and, at least in some cases, interesting combinations of music. The new two-CD PentaTone release featuring pianist Inon Barnatan certainly fits the bill: the interpretations are exceptional and the combination of music rather unusual (the package is labeled “Beethoven Piano Concertos, Part 1”). These are Beethoven’s second, third and fourth piano concertos –No. 1 is later than No. 2, although it was published first – and Barnatan plays them with lightness and transparency that recall Leon Fleisher’s recordings from the mid-1960s. Furthermore, Alan Gilbert conducts the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with precision and balance that are reminiscent of the way George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra accompanied Fleisher in his classic readings. This is quite an accomplishment, made even more interesting by the fact that the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has never recorded a Beethoven concerto cycle before. Apparently the 250th-anniversary celebration will bring some genuinely new elements with it. What impresses the most about Barnatan’s performances is not their strength, although they certainly have that when needed, but their delicacy: Piano Concerto No. 1 sounds positively Mozartian in its pose and balance, and even in the cadenzas, which Barnatan plays with considerable flair, there is nothing the slightest bit proto-Romantic. The comparative lightness of Piano Concerto No. 3 is even more of a surprise, since this minor-key concerto is often presented with a certain portentousness that the music can certainly handle but that is not quite in keeping with a sensibility that remains closer to Mozart’s than to that of the Romantics or of Beethoven’s own later works. It is only in Piano Concerto No. 4 that Barnatan and Gilbert let a degree of emotional expansiveness begin to emerge clearly. That is entirely appropriate, and this still-underrated concerto, with its exceptional slow movement, here sounds like a piece in which Beethoven definitely began stretching the piano-concerto form even while maintaining elements from the Classical era. “Part 2” of these performers’ Beethoven cycle will include the composer’s first and last concertos, and this “Part 1” certainly whets the appetite for what can be anticipated as showcasing the significant contrasts between those two. The current release also has a most-welcome bonus in the form of the Triple Concerto, in which Barnatan is joined to very fine effect by Stefan Jackiw and Alisa Weilerstein. This work is essentially a concerto for piano trio and orchestra – still a very unusual concept – and it leans more heavily on the cello than might be expected from Beethoven’s other music. The key to a fine interpretation – and this one is very fine indeed – is to handle the three solo instruments’ roles in the “conversational” manner familiar from chamber music, not in any competitive or assertive way. And that is just what Barnatan, Jackiw and Weilerstein do: this sounds like an intimate music-making session among friends, despite the presence of an orchestra (which Gilbert avoids using to compete with, much less swamp, the soloists). This entire release is a genuine pleasure and, one hopes, a harbinger of further excellences in the Beethoven celebration.

     Despite writing a great deal more music than Beethoven did, Haydn has not attained the same performance regularity for his concertos. This is partly because he was not himself a virtuoso performer and partly because he focused so strongly on symphonies when he was not producing works to order, such as puppet-theater operas, for his princely employers. There is also still uncertainty about just which concertos Haydn wrote: he was so immensely popular that many works were circulated as his but were certainly written by others. In terms of piano concertos, there is no doubt that he did not write 11 of them, even though the most popular nowadays is the one labeled No. 11, in D. It was intended for fortepiano (it is worth remembering that Beethoven also wrote his concertos for instruments quite different from today’s); and hearing this Haydn work played on an appropriate instrument by Lucas Blondeel on a new Fuga Libera disc shows just how sparkling and wonderfully balanced this concerto is. Haydn sought neither emotional depths nor significant virtuosity in his concertos, whether for piano or for other instruments: these were works of courtly pleasure, but with some sly humor and intriguing thematic material, such as the delightful Rondo all’Ungarese that concludes No. 11. Blondeel handles Haydn’s keyboard writing with just the right touch, and Le Concert d’Anvers, a 24-member period-instrument ensemble, provides just the right balance and backup. Bart Van Reyn also leads the group in two of the less-often-played later Haydn symphonies, Nos. 80 and 81 – the second and third of a group written by Haydn just before he accepted the commission that led to the six “Paris” symphonies. No. 80 features a particularly energetic first movement that does not, however, plumb any significant depth even though the symphony is in D minor. Indeed, the work is more upbeat than would be expected, and when there is serious material, it tends to be balanced quickly by lightness. No. 81, in G, is actually a more subdued work, with its gentle second-movement siciliano a highlight. The disc as a whole is an effective and somewhat unusual one, thanks to its choice of repertoire and its keen attention to historically informed performance practice.

     The pianistic contrasts between Beethoven and Haydn are as clear in their sonatas as in their works for accompanied piano. Beethoven’s sonatas are sure to receive numerous performances and recordings throughout the 250th-anniversary year, and the high quality of the new Steinway & Sons one featuring Young-Ah Tak will likely be found in other releases as well. But the Beethoven sonatas admit of so many interpretations that fine playing is not the first thing one notices about any given release. It is the underlying approach to the material that stands out – which in Tak’s case is reflected in a light touch that places most of the sonatas she plays on this CD firmly in the orbit of Mozart, if not Haydn. Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 10, No. 2, an early and less-often-heard work, is a real gem here, light and bright and beautifully balanced throughout. It juxtaposes nicely with the Rondo in C, Op. 51, No. 1, which is quite an early piece despite its misleading opus number. Tak plays both the sonata and the rondo with relaxed charm and very smooth flow, never pushing the works beyond their modest boundaries but letting them emerge with charm and a fine sense of tastefulness. The slightly later, four-movement Sonata No. 18, Op. 31, No. 3 also gets a highly commendable reading. It is an interestingly structured work without a designated slow movement – instead, the third movement, Menuetto (Moderato e grazioso) fills that role, contrasting with the second movement, Scherzo (Allegretto vivace). Having both a minuet and a scherzo in the same work is rare, and Beethoven’s contrasting use of the two movements is quite unusual. Tak does a fine job showcasing their differences and their centrality to the overall structure and argument of the sonata. It is only in the best-known work on this disc, Sonata No. 23, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”), that Tak’s approach falls a bit short. This is not for any technical reason – her ability to play the music is certainly never in doubt – but because the intensity of this F minor work never quite comes through here as effectively as it can. The opening movement is fine, if a bit on the episodic side. But the second movement is marked Andante con moto and is definitely not supposed to be an Adagio, much less a dirge. Tak tries to make it over-serious, continuing much of the feeling of the first movement, but Beethoven quite deliberately wanted to lighten the sonata’s mood here, making the second movement almost an intermezzo, so as to heighten the effect of the finale. Tak’s second movement drags the sonata down – not to a great extent, but enough so that the finale does not have the power of contrast that it should, ideally, possess. And while Tak never struggles technically with the final movement, neither does she come entirely to grips with its intensity, with the result that when the concluding Presto arrives, it seems a lightening of the entirety rather than an insistence on its minor-key power. Yet Tak’s technical prowess is undoubted, as is the thoughtfulness of her playing, so this disc is a worthwhile addition to the considerable library of Beethoven sonata recordings even if the reading of the Appassionata somewhat misfires.

     Today, Haydn’s piano sonatas require something very different from what Beethoven’s are accorded automatically: respect. That is, in modern times, what they especially need is not to be regarded as unimportant or as throwaways – which is how they tend to be seen when compared with Beethoven’s or, for that matter, Mozart’s (and even Mozart’s do not always get the respect they deserve). A Steinway & Sons release featuring five Haydn sonatas played by John O’Conor is an unalloyed pleasure because it handles these works exactly as they should be handled, treating them as unassuming but not naïve, and showing how they share the poise, balance, delicacy and (frequently) humor that are characteristic of so much of Haydn’s music. The unusual tempo marking of the first movement of the two-movement Piano Sonata No. 54 can almost stand for a foundational approach to Haydn’s sonatas in general: Allegro Innocente. There is a straightforwardness to these sonatas that can make it difficult to remember exactly which pleasure comes from which work (Vivaldi’s concertos have a similar issue); but as O’Conor shows, what matters is the sheer amount of pleasure in all the sonatas, even though they (again like Vivaldi’s concertos) have mostly the same structure. Indeed, aside from the two-movement No. 54, the sonatas O’Conor offers all have a fast-slow-fast arrangement, with all the middle movements marked Adagio. But details matter in Haydn, and it is no accident that the longest single movement in any of these five sonatas is the central one of No. 59, which is the only movement in which the word Adagio comes with a qualifier: e Cantabile. O’Conor is so well attuned to Haydn’s sonata design and structure that he manages to bring out the singing quality of this movement without in any way pushing the music beyond the strict Classical boundaries to which Haydn always adhered. All the performances here are equally impressive. The five sonatas are all in major keys: No. 48 in C, No. 50 in D, No. 54 in G, No. 59 in E-flat, and No. 60 in C. But just as in his major-key symphonies, Haydn expertly dips the music into the minor from time to time, always appropriately and tastefully, hinting at slightly more inward-looking material without ever turning the atmosphere significantly darker. O’Conor’s pianistic delicacy – even on a modern concert grand, which is decidedly not the historically correct instrument for this music – keeps the sonatas in the realm of elegance and, in general, stateliness; but Haydn’s sparkle and occasional puckishness come through as well, just as in his other works, and O’Conor’s skill at eliciting them is just one of this recording’s many pleasures.

     The contrast between the solo-piano writing of Beethoven and Haydn is considerable, but the contrast between both of them and Charles-Valentin Alkan is far greater – truly a stylistic abyss. Twenty years after Beethoven’s death, in 1847, Alkan created an astonishing set of 25 piano preludes in all the major and minor keys – yes, 25, adding a second C major one at the end to bring the grouping full circle. Even the stylistic and harmonic amazements of Beethoven’s late solo-piano music scarcely prepare listeners, or pianists, for what Alkan did. This cycle, 25 Préludes dans Touts les Tons Majeurs et Mineurs, Op. 31, is comparable to almost nothing else in the piano literature except other, later Alkan works. Marc Viner, a young pianist (born 1989) with stupendous technique and a strong commitment to performing less-known music, presents the sequence on a Piano Classics CD that really does have to be heard to be believed. This is especially true of the best-known of the preludes, No. 8, whose title translates as “The song of the madwoman on the seashore.” It is almost unbelievable to hear what Alkan has the piano do here: the sound is truly otherworldly and sends chills up one’s spine. The method Alkan uses can certainly be analyzed: he keeps the left hand entirely in the piano’s lowest reaches while confining the right entirely to its highest, and contrasts largely chordal lower material with higher portions in individual notes. But who thinks like this? What sort of composer even comes up with something this outré? The answer is that Alkan was one of a kind (even Liszt thought so), and his music sounds like nobody else’s. Again and again this comes through in Viner’s recording. Three of the preludes are marked as prayers, and very different prayers they are; in addition, one has a title relating to Psalm 150, and another refers to a specific passage of the Biblical Song of Songs. Still another is designated Ancienne mélodie de la synagogue, reflecting Alkan’s Jewish heritage and beliefs; yet another is a decidedly solemn piece even though it is marked Anniversaire – a word that turns out to refer to a Jewish day of lamentation. Yet the considerable religious gloss of these pieces shows nothing about the sheer pianistic amazement they possess: most are on the slow side, reflective and inward-looking, but some are so ebullient that they barely seem to have been written by the same composer; some are extensively ornamented, others plain; some rely on heavy chordal elements and ostinato material, while others require so much lightness of touch that they practically seem to float to and beyond the ear. Alkan’s music is so variegated and so difficult that even today many pianists will not attempt it. Specialists in it, such as Viner – who plans to record all of it, a monumental project if there ever was one – are extremely rare, and their recordings, definitely including this one, are must-haves for anybody interested in hearing just how far it is possible to stretch the communicative power of the piano.