May 26, 2011


The Neighborhood Sing-Along. By Nina Crews. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Everywhere Babies. By Susan Meyers. Illustrated by Marla Frazee. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $11.99.

     Interpretative illustrations of babies and children are the highlight of these two delightful rhyming books – one of which reinterprets well-known songs, the other of which creates rhymes and rhythms all its own. Nina Crews’ The Neighborhood Sing-Along offers 34 traditional songs, from “Skip to My Lou” and “The Wheels on the Bus” to “London Bridge Is Falling Down” and “Yankee Doodle,” with photo illustrations that range from the straightforward (four kids, sitting on steps and looking at the camera, for “Do Your Ears Hang Low?”) to the amusingly surrealistic (kids shown in miniature size, cavorting around the breakfast table, for “I’m a Little Teapot” and “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”). There’s a pleasantly informal game of baseball for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game!” There are closeups of bath toys for “Sailing, Sailing” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat!” There is baking fun for “Short’nin’ Bread,” and a fireworks scene with elephants in the sky for “Miss Mary Mack,” and what seems to be an impromptu jazz session with whatever instruments happen to be handy for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” There are even a couple of songs in languages other than English: “La Bamba” and “Alouette.” All the illustrations, entirely realistic or carefully constructed, are photographically based, so everything looks completely pictorial, even when particular scenes are impossible. What is not impossible at all is enjoyment – this whole book is full of it.

     Susan Meyers’ Everywhere Babies, originally published in 2001 and now available as a lap-size board book, offers fun of a different kind. Marla Frazee’s illustrations are drawings, not photos, but the babies and parents shown here look very realistic anyway, even when crying, screwing up their faces in complaint or yelling – not to mention cooing, giggling, laughing and generally having a wonderful time. Meyers’ writing is very clever, using large-print rhymes across page tops to carry the narrative forward while smaller-print words elsewhere on the pages tell children more about what is going on. For example, two successive two-page spreads say, “Every day, everywhere, babies make noise – Every day, everywhere, babies like toys.” The “noise” pages say “they cry and they squeal, they giggle, they coo,” and so on; the “toys” ones show them playing with “rattles, and tops, and books that won’t tear,” and more. This is a loving, lovely and lovable book that is as enchanting now as when it first appeared a decade ago. And the new edition includes a bonus bound into the back inside cover: a “Baby on Board” window cling that features a dozen of the adorable characters from the book. Those clings stopped getting drivers’ attention some time ago when they spawned imitations that had nothing to do with babies or safety – but this one is so cute that it ought to make drivers start noticing again.


The Wicked Big Toddlah Goes to New York. By Kevin Hawkes. Knopf. $16.99.

Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures #7: The Flying Chinese Wonders. Created by Jeff Brown. Written by Josh Greenhut. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $4.99.

Calendar Mysteries: #5—May Magic; #6—June Jam. By Ron Roy. Illustrated by John Steven Gurney. Random House. $4.99 each.

     The “wicked big” toddlah – so described in quintessential Maine language, which simply means “really big” but sounds so much better – returns for a second outing in Kevin Hawkes’ new book, which is even funnier than the original The Wicked Big Toddlah. There is no attempt here to explain the boy’s enormity (he is bigger than a diesel engine and stands, depending on the illustration, somewhere between three stories and 20 stories tall). His normal-sized parents are so used to him and so accustomed to his size that, in this book, they “misplace” him and don’t even realize it for a while. New Yorkers, of course, are famously blasé about celebrities and everything else, so it is perhaps not so surprising that they simply make plenty of room for the toddlah and otherwise do not gawk, stare or exclaim. For example, they turn over an entire section of Yankee Stadium to him and appear appreciative when he picks up a Staten Island Ferry and carries it toward the Statue of Liberty (although the souvenir that the toddlah takes Down East does raise a few law-enforcement eyebrows at the book’s very end). The most amusing part of this book, as of its predecessor, is how little the toddlah’s size matters to the other characters – although readers stay focused on it. In New York, for example, the toddlah (also called “Toddie”) runs into some other toddlahs, and all of them play a series of games just as if all were the same size. The gentle absurdity throughout is completely winning.

     Flat Stanley is a marvelous character, too, although the Worldwide Adventures series is far less interesting than the original Jeff Brown stories. The Flying Chinese Wonders, which gets a (+++) rating, has Stanley accidentally injuring a Chinese acrobat named Yang – and therefore needing to take Yang’s place in the Chinese New Year show with Yang’s partner, Yin. This, of course, requires Stanley to travel to China, where he meets Great Uncle Yang (the whole family is named Yin or Yang) – who has much wisdom and a tendency to disappear. Stanley gets to see the Terracotta Army, stand atop the Great Wall of China, and perform in the Forbidden City. There is the sort of dialogue that Westerners tend to associate with Chinese knowledge: “When you stop trying, that is when you will be ready.” And Stanley gets injured – for the first time since being flattened – but that turns out just fine, as does everything else. The tale is very slight, but Stanley’s youngest fans will enjoy it.

     Ron Roy’s month-by-month Calendar Mysteries are also thin (+++) books with slight plots, but they too have fans who will enjoy the two latest entries. May Magic is about mixed-up hypnotism – and ducks. Brian Pinto wants to raise ducks, so he and his twin, Bradley, arrange to celebrate Mother’s May (hence the May association) by having their mom hypnotized into liking ducks. Or is she hypnotized into becoming a duck? Therein lies the mystery, and a thoroughly silly one it is. Of course everything turns out to be a joke, and then there’s a joke on the joke, and everyone ends up happy. You might even say the conclusion is just ducky. As for June Jam, this time the focus is (not surprisingly) on Father’s Day – for which Bradley and Brian, plus Nate and Lucy, decide to make strawberry jam, using fresh-picked strawberries. But the kids soon discover that the strawberries have been nibbled – and the mystery is, whodunit? Again, this is a super-simple premise, and after misadventures involving scarecrow construction, an animal trap, and speculation that either a python or octopus might be the berry eater, the real culprit is found and turns out to be quite harmless – and the family finds a way to make strawberry jam after all. There’s not much to the Calendar Mysteries books – not much plot, not much characterization, certainly not much mystery – but they are pleasant, easy-to-read stories for kids just becoming interested in chapter books.


A Tale of Two Castles. By Gail Carson Levine. Harper. $16.99.

The Door in the Forest. By Roderick Townley. Knopf. $16.99.

The Unseen World of Poppy Malone: A Gaggle of Goblins. By Suzanne Harper. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Golden Ghost. By Marion Dane Bauer. Illustrated by Peter Ferguson. Random House. $12.99.

     Fantasies continue to enthrall young readers, certainly up to their teen years and even (in somewhat different form) into teenage life and young adulthood. There are some books that use traditional fairy-tale elements, some that create new forms of fantasy (or try to), some that opt for a humorous approach, some that take themselves very seriously indeed, some that are scary, some that are light – well, there are some of just about all types, as readers will see in this new crop. A Tale of Two Castles has a title that does not parallel that of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, because Two Castles is in fact just one town: Two Castles is its name. And the name of the heroine is Elodie, and she is smack dab in the middle of a world filled with ogres and dragons, noble and commoners, and mysteries. Elodie wants to become a mansioner – Gail Carson Levine’s clever name for an actress in this world – but is turned away by the master of the troupe she wants to join. This turns out to be a good thing, since it starts Elodie on a series of adventures involving the town’s most hated ogre; the local dragon detective, who takes Elodie on as an apprentice and whom Elodie always calls IT; a greedy king and rather ditzy princess; and, perhaps most improbably of all to feline fanciers, a cat trainer (and a handsome one, too). Levine keeps things light through most of the expected twists and turns of this coming-of-age tale (which also has some unexpected nooks and crannies). The language, usually straightforward, nevertheless has many charms: “The guests and their children numbered sixty-eight, and I saw twine jewelry on twenty-four of the adults. I counted eighteen cats, but more may have been out of sight under the table.” A transformed monkey, a transforming count, an imaginary moonsnake, a missing dog (the ogre’s), and other fascinating characters tumble over each other in bids for the reader’s attention. And there is a real threat to Elodie here, in the form of “eastern wasp powder [that] acted in an hour or two [and] caused chills, fever, tremors, a tight throat, and death [but] no sharp pain, no agony.” But why? Whom can Elodie trust? Who is for her and who against? And, again, why? The tale is well woven, if on rather familiar ground, but the characters keep it interesting and the conclusion knits everything neatly together.

     The Door in the Forest has a fairy-tale feeling about it, too. Roderick Townley tells of an unapproachable island in the middle of the forest, at the junction of three towns and the center of three streams – the geography alone bespeaks fairy tale. Daniel, who cannot lie, and his friend, Emily, who mother was taken away by the government and whose grandmother reads the future in bubble-bath bubbles, are determined to get to the island despite the poisonous snakes that protect it and the quicksand that encircles it. But the government’s soldiers are determined, too – and why? Captain Sloper, their leader, is after something in Daniel’s small town – perhaps a map, perhaps the island or something on it, perhaps the girl Emily. Sloper is the one-dimensional villain of the book (“I have no wish to harm your friend here, but she picked the wrong bloodline”); the other characters have more solidity, if substantially less menace. The narrative states the impossible matter-of-factly: “He felt shy to be talking to a dead person.” The one-word section titles – “There,” “Here,” “Now” – turn out to have meaning and resonance well beyond what readers might expect, and the eventual climax of the book, mixing rebellion (which seems real enough) with transfiguration (right out of fairy tales), is effective and clever – although the book’s conclusion is not really a surprise.

     A Tale of Two Castles, The Door in the Forest and Suzanne Harper’s tale of Poppy Malone are all intended for readers ages 8-12, but the angles the books take on the supernatural are very different indeed. Poppy is nine years old, the child of paranormal investigators who have never actually found anything paranormal. So readers will figure out very quickly that Poppy will encounter the supernatural, and of course she does – in the attic of the house in Austin, Texas, to which she and her family move. Poppy sees a goblin – well, maybe – she once saw a fairy, back when she was in kindergarten, but she couldn’t prove it and got laughed at by the other students. “Every single case the Malones had investigated had turned out to have a natural and logical explanation,” thinks Poppy, so undoubtedly the goblin she thought she saw will have one, too; so she had better not tell anything to her parents until she investigates the alleged goblin thoroughly and proves, or more likely disproves, its existence. Poppy doesn’t want to have to move again – her parents keep getting asked to leave town and go somewhere else – and she may even be desperate enough to ask her siblings, Franny and Will, for help with the maybe-goblin. Harper takes somewhat too long to set up the family dynamics and the oddities of Poppy’s parents, because readers will know very early that of course Poppy did see a goblin, and the real question is going to be what the sighting means and what will happen next. Poppy soon (but not too soon) becomes convinced that the goblins are after her little brother, Rolly, and in fact (midway through the book) have taken him. So then Poppy, Will and Franny go looking for the goblins, and it doesn’t go well: “Poppy had counted sixteen new mosquito bites. Franny had flicked off three spiders [and] even Will, who normally didn’t mind bugs or dirt or getting sweaty, was beginning to look frayed around the edges.” The three eventually discover a grotto of single socks (yes, really), and meet goblins with names such as Bother, Muddle and Glitch, and the last quarter of the book proves to be a great deal more fun than much of what has gone before.

     The Golden Ghost is for younger readers, ages 6-9; it is shorter than the other books considered here, and is one of a series that has previously involved blue, red and green ghosts. It is also heartwarming, which is not something you might expect of a ghost tale. This ghost is…a dog. In the story, Delsie and Todd look through a batch of abandoned houses by their town’s old mill, and find one house unlocked – and apparently in use. This mystery turns out to have a simple, real-world solution: a homeless man is living there. But another mystery, harder to solve, turns up as well: Delsie sees a golden dog, which Todd cannot see. Maybe it is just that Delsie wants to see a dog – she desperately wants one, but her father is highly allergic and will not allow her to have one (or, for that matter, a cat, hamster, guinea pig or, really, anything). But Marion Dane Bauer soon makes it clear that there is indeed something there: sections in italics give the ghost dog’s thoughts, and Todd’s pup, Bug, can see the ghost, too. The rest of the book tells how the big dog became a ghost, what happens to the homeless man, and how the ghost dog decides to come stay with Delsie – to their mutual delight. A simply told, warm story, The Golden Ghost evades the usual questions about ghosts and skirts those about homelessness in favor of finding a way for a girl who really wants a dog to get one that is just right for her – no matter what anyone else sees, or doesn’t see.


Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 18: Piano Sonatas Nos. 26 (“Les Adieux”), 30 and 32. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 19: Piano Sonatas Nos. 22, 24 and 29 (“Hammerklavier”). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Haydn: Piano Sonatas, Volume 2—Nos. 19, 20, 32, 48 and 50. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

American Music for Percussion, Volume 1: Works by Joan Tower, Felicia Sandler, Jennifer Higdon, Robert Xavier Rodríguez and Gunther Schuller. New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble conducted by Frank Epstein and Gunther Schuller. Naxos. $9.99.

American Music for Percussion, Volume 2: Works by Elliott Carter, Peter Child, Edward Cohen, John Harbison and Fred Lerdahl. New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble conducted by Frank Epstein. Naxos. $9.99.

     The piano is essentially a percussion instrument, producing its sounds through the striking of hammers upon taut strings. But it is the only percussion instrument that seems consistently at odds with its inherent nature, to such an extent that it is sometimes considered a string instrument (and of course it is that too, in a sense). Composers in the 20th century certainly celebrated the percussive piano, often by “preparing” it so it would make sounds beyond those intended by its builders. In earlier times, though, overly percussive playing was simply considered pounding and was frowned upon – unless, of course, it was done in the service of extreme virtuosity by a Kalkbrenner, a Thalberg or a Liszt.

     The final two volumes of the 19-CD Idil Biret Beethoven Edition are revelatory of the piano’s nature as well as of Biret’s interpretations. These are the ninth and tenth volumes of Biret’s versions of Beethoven sonatas, and the sonatas themselves are presented in no particular order in terms of their composition dates or the dates of the recordings (indeed, all the numbering by IBA is unnecessarily confusing and detracts from what is basically a very fine set of discs). But it is wholly appropriate that the final sonata on the final CD should be No. 29, the Hammerklavier, because it encapsulates in a single work not only Beethoven’s mastery of the piano (on which he was a virtuoso performer before he became deaf) but also the pluses and minuses of Biret’s approach. Biret’s technique is masterful and her thoughtfulness in these works unsurpassed. She generally favors deliberate tempos that give her plenty of time to explore the nuances of the music – although she is quite capable of playing exceedingly well at high speed when she wishes to (as in the very intense and difficult, and exceptionally brief, Scherzo of the Hammerklavier). Where Biret sometimes falls short is in exuberance (all her performances are tightly controlled) and emotional communication (some of her interpretations tend to sound a bit studied). Thus, Biret’s Hammerklavier as a whole is quite expansive, running more than 50 minutes, and its dense and difficult finale is exceptionally impressive. But the Adagio sostenuto, the longest movement by far and the emotional heart of the work, is not really reflective of Beethoven’s indication, Appassionato e con molto sentimento, for there is little that is sentimental about Biret’s reading, whose passion seems more a cloak to be worn than a deep and heartfelt emotion. Biret deserves substantial credit for not wallowing in excess here, but some will find that she has pulled back a little too far in the opposite direction, although always in a carefully considered rather than arbitrary way. This is a very impressive performance even though it is not always an emotionally gripping one. Biret also does a fine job in the two two-movement sonatas on this CD, her cerebral approach working particularly well in No. 22, whose first movement is rather remote and reserved; while in No. 24, she is a touch lacking in ebullience (that Biret reserve again) but has a sure command of structure and pacing.

     Beethoven’s final sonata, No. 32, is also a two-movement work, but a huge one; it is on the second-to-last release in the IBA series. Biret is at her best in the quieter and more thoughtful parts of the Arietta of this sonata, making them tender, lovely and very moving. She is somewhat less effective in the more-dramatic portions of the movement (the sonata’s second), including the section (about one-third of the way through the movement) that makes it possible to argue that Beethoven invented jazz – a touch more abandon (even apparent abandon) would have worked better here. Biret does handle the ominous portions of the opening movement quite effectively, though. On the other hand, her opening movement of Sonata No. 30 is on the heavy-handed side – more percussive than it ideally should be – and her second movement, while all right, is nothing special. But her finale is top-notch, capturing the many moods of the movement’s variations while maintaining a high level of lyricism. Yet this sonata as a whole is less effectively presented than No. 26, Les Adieux, which is a high point of the entire Biret series: sad, sonorous, reflective, expressive and joyous by turns, and expressive of delight and thorough relief in the finale, the sonata is a success, and a wonderful bit of tone painting, from start to finish.

     Beethoven claimed never to have learned anything from Haydn, and certainly Beethoven’s later sonatas go far beyond anything Haydn ever created or contemplated; but the notion that the younger composer owed nothing to the older is simply untrue. The second volume of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s very well-played survey of Haydn’s sonatas shows Haydn developing works of poise and balance, if only modest technical requirements (unlike Beethoven, Haydn was not a piano virtuoso). The formal structure here, adhered to more rigidly than in Beethoven, clearly paved the way for Beethoven’s early piano sonatas, which in turn laid the groundwork for his magisterial later ones. Three of the five Haydn sonatas here are in major keys; the other two, No. 19 in E minor and No. 32 in G minor, are somewhat more interesting, if only by contrast. In particular, No. 32, although scarcely a profound work, is in a key that was emotionally important both to Haydn himself (e.g., in his Symphony No. 39) and to Mozart (Symphonies Nos. 25 and 40). This sonata and No. 19 both carry somewhat more weight than the brighter major-key ones here, although the emotional content is more along the lines of melancholy than it is redolent of sadness, much less tragedy. Bavouzet seems to enjoy playing these sonatas, especially their more ebullient finales, and the CD conveys a satisfying impression of music-making for the sake of pleasure, without the need or intention of plumbing the depths as Beethoven was later to do.

     For a true affirmation of percussion – including pianos but very far from limited to them – listeners interested in 20th-century music will scarcely go wrong with a new Naxos series, American Music for Percussion. The longest work heard on the first volume, Gunther Schuller’s Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards (2005), is by far the most sonically overwhelming – perhaps just a bit too much so, for all its compositional skill. Piano, celesta and harp are merely the “front men” here for more than 100 percussion instruments of all types, combined in unusual ways and with considerable rhythmic skill. The point of all the cacophony (and, to be fair, some melodiousness) is not entirely clear – the work sounds like a demonstration project, showing all the things percussionists can do – but as a sheer sonic celebration, it is quite something to hear (although not necessarily something that many listeners will want to hear often). At the opposite side of the scale on this CD is Jennifer Higdon’s Splendid Wood (2006), scored simply for three marimbas, which weave a fascinating if somewhat monochromatic sonic web. Between these two extremes lie Felicia Sandler’s Pulling Radishes (2007), an evocative work inspired by a one-sentence Japanese poem; Joan Tower’s DNA (2003), which not surprisingly uses pairs of instruments to build a whole work, in parallel to the way the twin strands of DNA build a whole living being; and Robert Xavier Rodríguez’ El día de los muertos (2006), whose playfulness and joy (representing the Mexican Day of the Dead, during which departed souls celebrate with their living descendants) seem to extract the most basic elements of percussion instruments – brightness, forthrightness and rhythmic vitality.

     The same elements are found in this series’ second volume, but they are scattered among the offerings rather than concentrated in any particular one. The most celebratory music is The First Voices (2007) by Fred Lerdahl (born 1943): it is filled with exuberance and high spirits. And there is some of the same outgoing nature in Refrain (2000) by Peter Child (born 1953). But the other three works here are different in design, somewhat more subtle, and in some ways a bit more difficult to grasp. Cortège (2008) by John Harbison (born 1938) is a tribute to his fellow composer, Donald Sur (1935-1999), who was best known for an oratorio called The Slavery Documents (1990), which incorporates spirituals and folk songs as well as excerpts from the Bible and other writings. But Harbison makes no overt references to that work – or, indeed, to other music by Sur. Instead, he crafts a tribute that mixes loving elements (which listeners will expect) with some rather angry ones (which they will not). Cortège may have more personal resonance for Harbison than for a general audience, but its use of percussion is certainly adept. And its sound is easier to grasp than that of Acid Rain (1997) by Edward Cohen (1940-2002). This work is inspired by the Balinese gamelan and sometimes seems to be asking the instruments to make sounds for which they were not quite designed. Yet it is not the most intriguing piece on this CD. That is Tintinnabulation, written by Elliott Carter in the year he turned 100 (2008). Carter’s piece is for unpitched percussion instruments, with the result that the whole work is a sonic texture rather than a construction with a defined beginning, middle and end. It is, in some ways, an indulgence in sheer sound, whose meaning is likely to shift as frequently as its tonal colors. And its effect is about as far from that of the percussive piano, as used by Beethoven and Haydn, as it is possible to get.


Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1; Violin Sonata. Leila Josefowicz, violin; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo; John Novacek, piano. Warner. $18.99.

Messiaen: Theme and Variations; Ravel: Violin Sonata in G major; Mark Grey: San Andreas Suite; Esa-Pekka Salonen: Lachen Verlernt; Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 10; Brahms: Scherzo in C minor. Leila Josefowicz, violin; John Novacek, piano. Warner. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Astor Piazzolla: Tangos for Violin, Brass and Percussion Quintet, arr. Donato De Sena. Andrea Tacchi, violin; Quintetto di Ottoni e Percussioni della Toscana (Andrea Dell’Ira and Donato De Sena, trumpets; Paolo Faggi, French horn; Antonio Sicoli, trombone; Riccardo Tarlini, tuba; Roberto Bichi, percussion). Naxos. $9.99.

Alberto Ginastera: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Mark Kosower, cello; Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lothar Zagrosek. Naxos. $9.99.

The Art of Vivaldi’s Lute. Ronn McFarlane, lute; Bach Sinfonia conducted by Daniel Abraham. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Ittai Shapira: Concierto Latino. Ittai Shapira, violin; London Serenata conducted by Krzysztof Chorzelski. Champs Hill. $16.99.

     The search for repertoire to highlight string soloists and engage the audience in their performances is never-ending. Different CDs approach the issue in different ways, from the conventional to – as in the case of all these new releases – the less so. At first glance, there would seem to be nothing particularly unusual about Leila Josefowicz’s Shostakovich repertoire combination, but in fact the pairing of the composer’s first violin concerto with his only violin sonata is not at all the norm. Listeners here get a chance to hear the composer’s handling of the stringed instrument in two very different contexts, and there is in fact quite a difference that comes through from this juxtaposition. The concerto, written in 1947-48 but significantly revised (with David Oistrakh’s help) several years later, features a very intense Scherzo (which includes the composer’s D-S-C-H musical theme) that is contrasted with the rather unemotional (or emotionally suppressed) first movement, a third-movement Passacaglia that juxtaposes Beethoven’s Fifth with a theme from the composer’s own Symphony No. 7, and a finale that sounds a bit Stravinskian. Leila Josefowicz here plays with care and attentiveness, if perhaps a touch too much restraint in the wilder sections. In the much later Sonata (1968), also composed with Oistrakh’s help and dedicated to him, Josefowicz effectively brings out both the structural elements and the intense ones, although again she could have emphasized the grotesqueries a bit more effectively. The orchestral backing by Sakari Oramo and the Birmingham Symphony is fine, and the piano accompaniment by John Novacek is even better, notably in the tone row that opens the sonata.

     It does seem at times as if soloists and/or producers try a little too hard to come up with unusual or off-the-beaten-track ways to showcase performers and their instruments. Josefowicz offers fine playing on another new release – a two-CD recital of music for violin and piano or violin solo. And Novacek is an outstanding accompanist here as well. But the repertoire selection is rather odd, and the two-CD set (sold for the price of one) would seem designed to appeal mostly to Josefowicz fans rather than to listeners eager for top-notch renditions of works that range from the familiar to the unknown. Thus, we get fine performances here of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10 and Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G major, but neither is innovative or revelatory enough to make this recital a must-have. The Brahms Scherzo in C minor, presented at the end of the second CD, makes an effective encore, and the Messiaen Theme and Variations, which opens the first disc, is attractive and particularly well played. But the two modern works are rather slight: San Andreas Suite for solo violin by Mark Grey (born 1967) and Lachen Verlernt, also for solo violin, by conductor/composer Essa-Pekka Salonen (born 1958). These two pieces certainly give Josefowicz plenty of opportunities to show her mastery of her instrument, and each of them has some effective writing – the Salonen especially so. But from a strictly musical standpoint, this set does not quite hang together. And even referring to it as a two-CD compilation is a touch misleading, since the first disc contains just 41 minutes of music and the second only 46 – in all, not much more than would fit on a single CD with 80-minute capacity.

     Astor Piazzolla’s mastery of an orchestral approach to the tango is now well known, as is his Four Seasons in Buenos Aires, an increasingly common display piece for violinists. Ah, but not for violinists performing with brass quintet and percussion. That is the unusual element of a new Naxos CD that features not only the well-known seasonal work but also a whole series of additional, shorter pieces. Most of them – Violentango, Amelitango, Tristango, Undertango/Mister Tango, Novitango, Histoire du Tango: I—‘Bordel 1900,’ La Muerte del Ángel and Meditango – are heard entirely in brass-and-percussion arrangements by trumpeter Donato De Sena. But three pieces – Ave Maria, Oblivion and Libertango – also feature Andrea Tacchi as violinist, in addition to his role in Four Seasons in Buenos Aires. This is a disc whose greatest interest is in its sheer sound – it is intriguing to hear so many Piazzolla tangos in these arrangements. However, a full hour of this material does tend to pale a bit, since the sonic compass differs little from piece to piece. The CD is more enjoyable in small doses than when played straight through.

     Latin dance rhythms and folk elements are prominent as well in the two cello concertos by Alberto Ginastera. Infrequently heard and hence appealing to cellists with as much virtuosity at their command as Mark Kosower possesses, the pieces date from 1968 and 1980, respectively, and are of almost the same length – although No. 1 is in three movements and No. 2 in four. Both works are tributes to the composer’s second wife, Aurora Nátola: she gave the première of the first, and the second was written for her as a 10th-anniversary gift. The two concertos are both technically difficult and filled with dance rhythms and orchestral color. The first has highly prominent percussion – hearing it after listening to the brass-and-percussion arrangements of Piazzolla is intriguing. The second is more folkloric and more representational, including jungle sounds and an instrumental version of sunrise. The works’ folk and rustic elements (the second concludes with a Finale rustico) are especially attractive, and the pieces provide a fine opportunity for cellists to display the range of their sound, from broad singing lines to intense and speedy passages, in unfamiliar but thoroughly interesting works.

     Much quieter and more reserved string playing is the order of the day in The Art of Vivaldi’s Lute, which is neatly constructed in an “arch” shape: the CD opens and closes with a sinfonia; the second and second-to-last works are concertos; the third and third-to-last are trios; and the central work is the aria In Turbato mare irato, RV627. Lutenist Ronn McFarlane brings out the gentleness as well as the virtuosity of his instrument throughout this disc, showing that Vivaldi, although a famed (and somewhat controversial) violinist, had an excellent sense of the lute’s capabilities as well. The Concerto in D minor for Lute and Viola d’amore is particularly captivating here, with the tones of the two solo instruments intermingling beautifully and their different methods of sound production complementing each other very effectively. Vivaldi certainly had an ear for the sound of stringed instruments – and so do McFarlane and the players of the Bach Sinfonia under Daniel Abraham.

     Some string showcases have distinctly personal elements rather than interpretative ones alone. Such is the case with Concierto Latino by Israel-born composer/violinist Ittai Shapira (born 1973). This three-movement work may seem to be cast in traditional concerto form, but in fact its Latin influences (primarily from de Falla and Villa Lobos) are complemented by elements that draw on music from outside the classical world (singer Shakira). The personal matters here go beyond Shapira’s eclectic influences: the piece was inspired (if that is the right word) by an incident in which Shapira was attacked by a gang of men one night in New York City. The three movements are called “The Attack,” “Lament” and “Party,” and are obviously intended to take Shapira from the fear of what happened to him to a celebration of his recovery. The attempt is commendable, but the music, although well constructed, is not especially distinguished – although with Shapira himself as soloist, the performance must surely be deemed definitive. As with any work that is highly meaningful to a composer in a very personal way – Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll or Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, to cite two examples among many – Concierto Latino can succeed for listeners only to the extent that it is effective even when those who hear it do not know the autobiographical details on which it draws. On this basis, Shapira’s work falls short; but it certainly gives him many chances to showcase his skill as a soloist while working through what was surely a highly traumatic episode of his life.

May 19, 2011


50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). By Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler. New American Library. $18.

Young Fredle. By Cynthia Voigt. Illustrated by Louise Yates. Knopf. $16.99.

Poppy and Ereth. By Avi. Illustrated by Brian Floca. Harper. $5.99.

     Scissors are rounded, with plastic blades. Playgrounds have super-soft surfaces, squishy plastic equipment, and no slides or monkey bars. We have to protect our kids! There’s risk, risk everywhere! Danger! Danger! Danger! And we’ll keep protecting them until they go out into the larger world, at which point…uhh…they’ll have no idea whatsoever of how to handle a non-protected, non-risk-free environment. Zero-risk parenting, zero-risk teaching, zero-risk playtime – all are artificial constructs that fail to prepare children for any sort of life outside a super-protected bubble. The result: kids who are afraid to try because they might have a problem, might get hurt, could have difficulty. So much for adventure, innovation and outside-the-box thinking – it’s so much safer to stay in the box, preferably a well-padded one. Parents who find the whole notion of 100% vigilance and 100% risk avoidance offensive, or at least silly, really should turn to 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) and, if possible, get some super-cautious fellow adults to take a look at the book, too. Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler, founders of a hands-on educational program called Tinkering School, suggest controlled exposure of children to danger – that is, experiments in which there could be some level of harm, but with an understanding in advance of what the dangers are and a chance to prepare to face them. This is much closer to real-world thinking than what is practiced nowadays in most schools, where any sharp object, any chance of even the slightest injury, is met with expressions of terror and vastly overdone protective attempts. Each of the 49 suggestions in this book (the 50th is to invent a challenge of your own) comes with a how-to section, a list of requirements, a “duration” and “difficulty” scale, and warnings about possible harm resulting from the experiment. A “supplementary data” section provides information about how the experiment fits into the real world. And the value of each hands-on idea is explained at the back of the book, for adults who may be wavering in their support of the whole concept of allowing kids to do anything even remotely worrisome. For example, No. 22 is “bend steel,” and involves using open fire to shape a wire coat hanger (with adult supervision); this item includes explanations of why the hanger gets red-hot but pots on stoves usually do not, plus a note on how quenching strengthens some metals. No. 33, “dive in a dumpster,” explains where to find a trash receptacle that could contain interesting stuff – but not biohazards or other genuinely dangerous items. No. 32, “change a tire,” prepares kids for a real-world feat that even some adults do not know how to do anymore – and explains the global rate of tire production and the coding found on tire sides. No. 39, “cook something in the dishwasher,” explains how residual heat from the drying cycle can be used to prepare certain foods – and notes that “dishwashers don’t actually scrub dishes – they just squirt water relentlessly around the dish compartment until everything gets clean.” For each experiment, there is a full blank page for “field notes,” and when the book is finished, kids will have a better understanding of science, mechanics, life experiences and their own capabilities. This is a wonderful idea that seems counter-intuitive only because adults have allowed their own fears for their children to trump their common sense regarding the importance of having kids learn to function in a world where there are dangers all the time – unavoidable ones that kids need to be able to handle.

     Authors of fiction for children tend to prefer to teach real-world lessons through make-believe stories – often ones with animal protagonists. Two Newbery-winning authors, Cynthia Voigt and Avi (pen name of Edward Irving Wortis), both use that approach in, respectively, Young Fredle and Poppy and Ereth. A mouse is the protagonist of both books – or one of the protagonists, anyway. The title character in Voigt’s has a placid enough life in the kitchen until he one night finds himself outdoors, in a world filled with fascination (colors, grass, sky) and danger (snakes, rain, raccoons). Voigt never pretends that freedom is easy or is guaranteed to be pleasant, but her message is that the risks are more than worthwhile, because the rewards are so great – an attitude that hyper-safety-conscious parents would do well to bear in mind. Fredle spends considerable time with a group of raccoons – and they are planning to eat him, but not just yet. He eventually gets away, not without problems, and realizes, “If you will have only one chance, you want to make it the best it can be.” After his escape, Fredle encounters some cellar mice, who are friendly enough but obsessed with playing it safe at all times: “‘Our territory is down here, and besides, why would anyone want to leave a place where there is always food and water, and shelter, and almost never any predators?’” But Fredle cares less about comfort than about getting home, although he admits that the cellar mice seem particularly happy with their limited lot in life: “He had never seen mice like this, unworried, unafraid, contented.” Fredle does get home, eventually, and realizes how big a gulf has opened up between him and his safety-focused family – an understandable abyss, to be sure, but one that the book’s conclusion indicates can sometimes, under some circumstances, be bridged.

     The mouse in Poppy and Ereth is not a house mouse but a deer mouse, and this is the final book in Avi’s Tales from Dimwood series, which started in 1995 with Poppy and also includes Poppy and Rye (1998), Ragweed (1999), Ereth’s Birthday (2000) and Poppy’s Return (2005). The latest book dates to 2009 and is now available in paperback. Ereth is a porcupine – the name comes from that species’ scientific name, Erethizon dorsatum – and the unlikely friendship between deer mouse and porcupine is part of what drives the book. Another part is Poppy’s unending search for adventure, which in Poppy and Ereth results in a major misunderstanding: Poppy is grabbed by Luci the bat and taken to the bats’ cave, and Ereth is convinced that Poppy has died, so Ereth sets about giving her friend a wonderful funeral – while Poppy, very much alive, seeks a way to escape and find her way home. The themes of adventure and home-seeking are handled as well by Avi as by Voigt, despite the many differences between these books, and the message that it is all right to take chances as long as you face the consequences and are prepared to overcome adversity is communicated equally strongly in both novels. Indeed, Poppy needs to learn about the importance of unlikely allies – not just the bats, eventually, but also the fox, Bounder – in a climax during which all the animals are in great danger and must find a way to support each other in the face of an overwhelming threat. Although Young Fredle and Poppy and Ereth soft-pedal their lessons about risk-taking and independence instead of presenting them frontally in the way 50 Dangerous Things does, all these books are ultimately trying to show children and parents alike the same thing: the world is not risk-free, and it is far more important and far more realistic to learn how to face and overcome danger than to assume it is possible to keep it at bay at all times and in all places.


Chicken, Chicken, Duck! By Nadia Krilanovich. Tricycle Press/Random House. $14.99.

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps. By Jeanette Winter. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     Animal sounds and highly realistic appearances (in excellent acrylic illustrations) form the attractions of Chicken, Chicken, Duck! It is a book whose title is intentionally reminiscent of “duck, duck, goose”: Nadia Krilanovich says she was thinking of that game while walking in the country, and came up with the idea for this work. Whatever the inspiration, the book is a delightful introduction to animals for ages 1-4, showing them so clearly that young children will feel as if they are observing them in real life. Krilanovich manages to keep the animals’ appearance very realistic while giving them a human-like twinkle in their eyes and having them do things that real-world animals don’t do: a pig rides on a horse, for example, draped over its back, and two chickens perch on a duck. But these animals do not talk “people language.” They say “cluck,” “baa baa,” “woof,” “quack” and so on. Because they are drawn against a plain white background, not in (for instance) a farm scene, the animals are the entire focus of the book, and as the number of animals piles up, so do the animals themselves – until, at the very end, there is a huge stack of them, with a spread-winged duck on the very top. The super-simple story, which is really no story at all, combines wonderfully with the fine illustrations to create a picture book that very young children will enjoy from start to finish – without having to follow a possibly confusing narrative. All they have to do is watch and learn.

     That is what Jane Goodall did, too. The Watcher is a very simple “partial biography” of Goodall (born 1934), who is world-famous for her studies of chimpanzees in Africa. Jeanette Winter’s book, for ages 4-8, is a much-simplified story of how Goodall first became interested in scientific observation, how she became acquainted with the chimpanzees of Gombe, and what she learned through many years of observing them. A few quotations from Goodall’s own writing are included – straightforward ones, such as, “‘You have to be patient if you want to learn about animals.’” There is a certain amount of drama inherent in Goodall’s story, such as her bout of malaria and its aftermath, but Winter downplays visceral excitement in favor of the intellectual, turning Goodall’s experiences into more of a straight-line scientific quest than they in fact were. For this age group, the approach works quite well, and so do Winter’s drawings, which mostly walk the fine line of interpretative realism. However, the pictures of the jungle and the ocean are not realistic at all: they serve to show how these settings could have appeared to Goodall when she encountered them – and to communicate some of the wonders of nature to young readers. The book does get into some difficult subjects, as it must – in particular, the deforestation and poaching that threaten chimps’ survival – and it never discusses the wrongheaded but understandable motives for the problems, including Africa’s grinding and persistent poverty. So The Watcher simplifies pretty much everything, but does so in a loving way that should be especially appealing to the next generation of young Goodalls. Jane’s successors are surely out there – watching and learning, at least in part by reading.


Best of the Best. By Tim Green. Harper. $16.99.

Second Fiddle. By Rosanne Parry. Random House. $16.99.

     The settings of these two books for preteens could not be more different, nor could their concerns. And while Tim Green’s is clearly designed to appeal mostly to boys, Rosanne Parry’s will be more attractive to girls. Yet at bottom, both books are dealing with the same basic issues: what it means to win, to succeed, and what one learns about oneself through difficult circumstances. In Best of the Best, the overt focus is sports, as usual in Green’s novels. This is his third featuring Josh LeBlanc and his friends Jaden and Benji, after Baseball Great (2009) and Rivals (2010). As in the previous books, Green is at his best when writing about sporting events: interactions among the characters tend to sound forced, and dialogue is self-consciously with-it, as when Benji tries to reassure Josh, whose parents are considering a divorce: “‘Your parents splitting up isn’t the end of the world. Look at me. There are advantages. …Dude, you can play one off against the other and pretty much get anything you want.’” The big problem here for Josh isn’t playing during the summer with an all-star team (although, again, the play-by-play is what Green does best) – it’s the possible splitting up of Josh’s parents, and his dad’s taking up with a woman named Diane, one of whose children – Zamboni – is really nasty to Josh, who in turn is really nasty to him, so they get into a fight, and…well, there isn’t very much unexpected on the interpersonal side here. Josh and Benji hatch a plan to use Skype to catch Zamboni doing something he shouldn’t, to give Josh a tactical advantage, but of course they find out something unexpected that changes Josh’s attitude toward Zamboni. The book reads as if Josh’s baseball playing, which is really his focus and Green’s, gets in the way of the interpersonal matters, rather than the other way around. “‘You can’t live your life in a constant state of bleeding,’” Josh’s mom says at one point, adding that her marital problem “has nothing to do with baseball. …This is life.’” Josh says that in that case, “‘baseball is way better. You know what you have to do and you either do it and you win, or you don’t and you lose. You know who’s for you because you all wear the same colors. Nobody changes teams during a baseball game.’” Green intends, of course, to show that baseball really is like life; whether he does so successfully will depend on just how much readers like the game and how believable they find Josh to be. Best of the Best is strictly for sports lovers who want some off-the-field melodrama to go with the on-field plays.

     Second Fiddle is melodramatic, too, but considerably more intense and with a stronger emotional focus. Set in Berlin in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it too is a story of three friends: eighth-graders Jody, Vivian and Giselle. What binds them, though, is not sports but classical music: they are on the way to Paris for a competition in which they will play as a trio. And they are soon bound in another, more intense way as well: after their last lesson before the Paris trip, while walking together, they save a badly beaten Russian soldier from drowning, thus setting up a chain of events that will eventually involve “the KGB, the French National Police, and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe,” as Jody, the narrator, explains at the very start of the book. An elaborate plot to save the soldier by taking him with them to Paris lies at the heart of the book, whose plot becomes increasingly improbable as the girls learn more about the soldier, Arvo, who has told them he is a translator: “‘I am a translator who knows that renegade officers are selling poison gas to Iraq. It is not a happy thing to know.’” There is an air of reality to the book’s settings and some of the events – Parry and her soldier husband actually lived in Berlin when the Berlin Wall was coming down – but the characters never quite gel. Nor does the dialogue: “‘Our parents aren’t going to start worrying about us until Sunday night, when we don’t show up at the train station. That’s the main thing. They shouldn’t worry. We’ll get ourselves home and say we lost our passports. Our moms will be mad, but at least they won’t think– ’ ‘That we’re pathological liars who went to a foreign country with a total stranger, enemy soldier, thief, horrible bad guy –’ ‘Right. That would be bad. Let’s not tell them that.’” The line between humor and drama is a little too thin in Second Fiddle, and the ending, in which Jody comes out a winner in almost all ways (and pretty much everyone else does, too), is a little too pat. But the time and locations are exotic enough to appeal to many preteen girls, and the through-thick-and-thin friendship of the eighth-grade trio will be very satisfying to many readers, too.


Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. Sinéad Mulhern, soprano; Carolin Masur, mezzo-soprano; Dominik Wortig, tenor; Konstantin Wolff, bass-baritone; Chœur de Chambre Les Éléments and La Chambre Philharmonique conducted by Emmanuel Krivine. Naïve. $41.99 (5 CDs).

Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth. RPO. $29.99 (2 CDs).

     Emmanuel Krivine, in a brief booklet essay accompanying the new Naïve Beethoven set, directly confronts the question that some people – some critics, anyway – are likely to ask: another set of Beethoven symphonies? Who needs it? Then Krivine, more in his role as conductor than in that of writer, answers the question directly, appropriately and unarguably: we may not need another Beethoven symphony cycle, but we can certainly use this Beethoven symphony cycle. Krivine’s way with the music is absolutely wonderful – and it is not entirely Krivine’s way, which is one of the wonderful things about it. La Chambre Philharmonique, whose very name challenges convention (both a chamber group and a philharmonic?), is a collaborative orchestra, whose size and membership change depending on the music it is playing. It is a group in which Krivine, as founder and leader, is first among equals – about as far from the old, dictatorial Toscanini model as it is possible to get. And it is a period-instrument ensemble – not only when performing older music but also when playing late-19th-century works and, of course, the symphonies of Beethoven, from the early years of that century. This Beethoven set comprises nine live recordings from 2009 and 2010, and there is an immediacy, an excitement and an occasional bit of thoroughly winning imperfection in almost every symphony – the performances feel live, which, oddly enough, is not always the case with live recordings. There is palpable excitement here from the very start (a wonderfully precise plucked first note of No. 1) to the finish (a resplendently triumphant coda to the finale of No. 9).

     These are simply marvelous interpretations, not only because they sound so good (gut strings and natural horns do make a difference in presenting Beethoven’s sonic world and in showing how it differs from those of Mozart and Haydn) but also because they show, time and again, that the Beethoven symphonies were, each and every one, genuinely new, each offering an approach to symphonic construction and emotional communication different from that of the previous one. One of the many big surprises here is discovering that the great leap in the early symphonies was not so much from No. 2 to No. 3 as from No. 1 to No. 2. The first symphony is light, fleet and very, very Haydnesque in this recording; the second has considerably more weight and depth, and the relative times of its four movements are very similar to the relative times in the “Eroica,” even though each movement of No. 3 is longer than the corresponding one in No. 2. It is the second symphony that here sounds like Beethoven’s break with the past – the third comes across as an expansion of the second and a long stride into the future. And the sunny No. 4 then sounds not like a step back – not at all – but like a reinterpretation of the Haydn/Mozart model in the context of a world in which the “Eroica” already exists. These performances are, again and again, revelatory, whether showing Beethoven’s expansive side (No. 6), his compressed and dramatic one (Nos. 5 and 7), or his wonderful combination of small scale and intimacy with expansive sound (the still-misunderstood, still-underplayed No. 8, which sounds simply marvelous here). No. 9, whose recording was previously released in standalone form, thus becomes the capstone not only of this set but also of Beethoven’s symphonic thinking – and Krivine and La Chambre Philharmonique provide it with one of the most satisfyingly poetic, humanly scaled performances recorded in recent times. Krivine and the orchestra, far from turning the first three movements into mere buildups to the climactic finale, play each with strength, intensity and understanding, so that the symphony seems to climb ever higher and higher from the depths of the first movement’s opening to the emotional heights of the Adagio molto e cantabile – and it is only then, using those heights as a launching pad for something still higher, that the performers begin the finale. This is a performance in which the “recollections” of earlier movements at the start of the last one are not a mere device – they are an explanation of where Beethoven and his listeners have been and of where they still need to go. And these performers take them there, to an experience that is truly sublime. Who another Beethoven symphony cycle? Hard to say. But why this Beethoven symphony cycle? Because listeners, however familiar they may be with these works, would be poorer without it.

     There is also some very special playing by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth in the new RPO recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, but here the nonstandard elements of the performance are less fortunate and result in a (+++) rating for the two-CD set. This is Tchaikovsky’s longest ballet by far, with some 160 minutes of music – so much that the third and final act, which lasts about 45 minutes, is sometimes performed all by itself as “Aurora’s Wedding.” Unfortunately, that third act runs only about 22 minutes in this performance, and it ends not with Tchaikovsky’s finale but with the Polacca that the composer put earlier in the act. That means half the act has been excised – part of some 50 minutes of musical cuts in all. It is true that The Sleeping Beauty is often cut in stage performances, because it makes for quite a long evening and tremendous strain on the dancers. But there is little justification for making such deep cuts in a recorded performance (Wordsworth’s is not a live recording). Again and again, Wordsworth sensitively brings out the beauties of Tchaikovsky’s score, and again and again, listeners familiar with the ballet (or simply finding themselves swept up in its beauties) will wait for just a little more; but they will wait in vain, because that “little more” has been removed. This is particularly frustrating in a ballet so filled with symphonic music and symphonic treatment of themes as The Sleeping Beauty, in which Tchaikovsky creates and varies a series of leitmotifs (although of course he did not call them that) that foreshadow and comment upon the stage action. There are beauties galore in this performance, Clio Gould’s solo violin and Jessica Burroughs’ solo cello among them. The action sequences are well paced, the character pieces amusingly handled, the lovely variations and gorgeous Act I Valse played with warmth and great rhythmic beauty. But it is impossible to hear this recording as anything but a truncated Sleeping Beauty, which of course is just what it is. True, it runs nearly two hours even in this shortened form, and that may be enough for some listeners, especially those unfamiliar with the ballet or with Tchaikovsky’s original conception. For them, the beautiful playing and sure-handed conducting here will be more than enough to make these CDs highly desirable. But for anyone who really wants to hear The Sleeping Beauty rather than Some of “The Sleeping Beauty,” this RPO set, for all its quality of conducting, playing and recording, will be tinged with disappointment.


Strauss: Der Carneval in Rom. Isabella Ma-Zach, Jessica Glatte, Michael Heim, Manfred Equiluz, Marcus Günzel, Bernd Könnes; Chor und Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Rossini Arias. Julia Lezhneva, soprano; Warsaw Chamber Opera Choir and Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Marc Minkowski. Naïve. $16.99.

     Johann Strauss Jr. did not do very well as a stage composer. He had one enormous hit, Die Fledermaus (1874), and another pretty big one, Der Zigeunerbaron (1885), but the rest of his 15 operettas never made much of an impression (a 16th one, Wiener Blut, was arranged by Adolf Müller and enjoyed modest success after Strauss’ death in 1899). Strauss’ basic problem was that he tended to write wonderful dance music, then overlay text and characters on it – in fact, that was exactly how critics described his first operetta, Indigo und die vierzig Räuber (1871). Strauss realized after Indigo that he needed more of a plot, but his predilection was still for writing about parties, gaiety and joy, as he had been doing for years (and as his father, Johann Sr., had done before him). A natural solution seemed to be setting an operetta at Carnival, that often-wild pre-Lent festival in which, in Strauss’ time, ranks were reversed, morals were loosened and a good time was had by pretty much everyone. Hence the composer’s second operetta, Der Carneval in Rome (1873) – which is no more about Carnival time in Rome than Die Fledermaus is about a bat (in other words, the titles refer to something important to the plot but not central to the action). Based on Victorien Sardou's comedy Piccolino, Strauss’ operetta’s libretto was put together by Josef Braun, Richard Genée and Maximilian Steiner (and possibly others). The librettists produced something of a comedy of manners, not satirizing the politics of the day in Offenbach’s mode but playing fast and loose with morals and marriage – although certainly not salaciously. The plot centers on artists, one of whom is the beloved of the naïve heroine and another of whom cannot really paint and therefore buys the works of others and passes them off as his own; and on a countess who has a roving eye and a husband with a jealous streak. The various characters intermingle first in the Swiss Alps and then in Rome at Carnival, until eventually true love triumphs and even the count and countess are reconciled (although perhaps only until the next handsome young man catches the latter’s eye). Strauss’ music sparkles throughout, but there are no individual arias that stand so far above the rest as to be hummed and re-sung by operagoers – a shortcoming of which Strauss was to become aware. Interestingly, it is the ensemble pieces here – especially the finales to the first two acts – that are the most effective, thanks to some genuine lyricism and a fine intermingling of the voices. Furthermore, although there is a party scene in Der Carneval in Rom, it is largely incidental to a plot point involving the attempted seduction of the countess, who is staying in the convent next door. Strauss learned a great deal from what did not go quite right in this operetta, making the party absolutely central to Die Fledermaus, his next stage work – talked and sung about in the first act, displayed in all its glory in the second, and followed to its consequences in the third. There is more plot in Der Carneval in Rom, but far more elements allowing Strauss to put his strengths on display in Die Fledermaus. Nevertheless, the Dresden State Operetta performance of Der Carneval in Rom, recorded live in 2008, is a very fine one throughout, with all the singers getting to the meat of their roles (what meat there is, anyway) and with Ernst Theis conducting with a wonderful sense of style and at a pace that, while not frenetic, never seems to flag even when the plot threatens to bog the music down. The biggest problem with this CPO release is its lack of a libretto – or, for that matter, of a summary sufficiently detailed to make it clear what the sung sections have to do with the plot (which is described in detail). Given the extreme difficulty that listeners will have in trying to find a libretto of this very rarely performed work, it is really unconscionable that CPO does not, as a minimum, make a libretto available online. Nevertheless, there is so much sheer enjoyment in Der Carneval in Rom, even given its shortcomings as a stage work, that this release is a real pleasure to have and to hear on its merits – not just because the areas in which this operetta fell short became the ones, a year later, in which Strauss was triumphant.

     Rossini was a far more successful stage composer, but not all his operas went over well (the famous failure of Guillaume Tell being the most notorious case); and even some that were initially successful did not hold up very well. Soprano Julia Lezhneva brings her pleasant, versatile voice to scenes and arias from Rossini operas both popular and less so in a new CD. There is in fact something from Guillaume Tell here: “Ils s’éloignent enfin,” the only French-language excerpt on the disc. Lezhneva also gets to show her dramatic abilities in “L’ora fatal s’apressa” from L’assedio di Corinto, the Italian version of Le siège de Corinthe, Rossini’s first French opera (and a rather tedious, drawn-out affair it is, although with a splendid overture). And her serious side also comes through in “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide. In contrast, Lezhneva sings the happy-ending “Tanti affetti” from La donna del lago, bringing a bright bel canto sound to this rarely heard work. The other pieces on the CD come from better-known Rossini operas: “Assisa a’ pie d’un salice” from Otello and two excerpts from La Cenerentola – the Sinfonia, which gives Marc Minkowski and Sinfonia Varsovia a chance to shine instrumentally, and “Della fortuna istabile…Nacqui all’affanno.” This is a pleasant enough CD, worthy of a (+++) rating, with lovely singing and very fine instrumental playing. But neither the program nor its delivery is especially innovative; and while Lezhneva’s voice is a fine one, it is not noticeably better than the voices of other modern bel canto sopranos. Fans of the singer and of Minkowski will enjoy the disc, but others will find few compelling reasons to purchase it.

May 12, 2011


Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door. By Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Clarion. $16.99.

43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Three: Till Death Do Us Bark. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $15.99.

Mix & Match Drawing: A Step-by-Step Drawing Studio. By the Editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.99.

Zigzag Kids No. 3: Flying Feet. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Illustrated by Alasdair Bright. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

Pony Scouts: Back in the Saddle. By Catherine Hapka. Pictures by Anne Kennedy. Harper. $3.99.

Batman: Batman and the Toxic Terror. By Jodi Huelin. Illustrated by Steven E. Gordon. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Spider-Man: I Am Spider-Man. By Joe F. Merkel & John Sazaklis. Illustrated by Andie Tong. Colors by Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $3.99.

     The darn squirrels are at it again, as delightfully as in the original Those Darn Squirrels, as Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri return with Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door. This is a series with nearly infinite potential, because it has just the right elements to keep delighting young readers: a central curmudgeon who has a basically good heart (Old Man Fookwire), plenty of peculiar and oddly named birds (floogle birds, bonga birds and others), and of course those darn squirrels and the ginger-ale-and-cheese-puffs snacks that get their brains whirling. And they whirl most delightfully, they do, plotting and planning to handle whatever irritant may be nearby now that they have an uneasy truce with Old Man Fookwire himself. The irritant in the new book comes with the sweet lady who moves in next door. It’s not the lady herself – she makes delightful pies – but her cat, Muffins, who comes up with particularly clever and thoroughly rotten ways of terrorizing the birds and squirrels. But it’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of these squirrels, and Muffins gets his comeuppance in a completely appropriate (but non-harmful) way. What next for the darn squirrels? It is easy to guess that a romance between Little Old Lady Hu and Old Man Fookwire could develop, now that the two are neighbors and Muffin is no longer bullying birds and squirrels alike. Whether or not Rubin and Salmieri take this series in that direction, though, you can be sure that the darn squirrels will find a way to mess things up, then make them right – hilariously.

     There’s hilarity of a different sort in the third installment of the 43 Old Cemetery Road series by the irrepressible Klise sisters. This is the sequence in which a boy whose own crooked parents are in jail has been adopted by a curmudgeonly author (yes, another central curmudgeon character!) and a ghost. Boy, man and ghost communicate via letters to each other, sometimes written on paper and sometimes on computer – the latter often being interrupted when Olive C. Spence (the ghost) decides to butt into the thoughts of Ignatius B. Grumply (the curmudgeon, in case you couldn’t tell from his name). The ever-hopeful Seymour Hope, the boy (yes, “see more hope”), not only writes but also draws; in fact, his illustrations plus Grumply’s writing make up a series of books that sustain the rather odd family. The complications in Till Death Do Us Bark revolve around a different ghost, Noah Breth (yes, “no breath” – ouch!), a recently deceased gentleman whose fortune is the subject of sniping involving his two ne’er-do-well children, Kitty and Kanine, who of course fight like cats and dogs. There’s a real dog here, too: Secret (and don’t you just know this dog will be the key to an important secret, with a name like that?). Secret was greatly loved by Noah Breth, and now Seymour, who really wants a dog, is determined to keep him – even if his adoptive parents don’t approve. The plots of the Breth inheritance and the odd family’s squabbles intertwine neatly, and the book is, like the earlier series entries, told through all sorts of communications – including the local newspaper, “The Ghastly Times.” Puns abound, silliness is supreme, and even though there is not really much of a mystery here, the eventual solution knits the various story threads together neatly and amusingly, and a good time is had by all. Including readers.

     Mix & Match Drawing is not exactly part of a series – not in the same way, anyhow – except that it is the latest entry in the many-years-long series of Klutz “books-plus.” These are essentially cleverly packaged crafts projects that appear in book form, with spiral-bound instructions and all the tools needed to get a reader/craftsmaker started. The nice thing about Mix & Match Drawing is that it functions well as a basic drawing course, giving budding artists clear step-by-step instructions that show how to create characters of all kinds (astronaut, puffer fish, vampire, knight, bat and many more); objects of all types (cactus, tennis racket, volcano, flowers, speedboat, etc.); and a wide variety of backgrounds (jungle, outer space, cave, living room, and so on). The packaging here is exceptionally clever, even for Klutz: a drawing pad is attached to the spiral-bound book, and when you pull the instruction book up and out, it sits above the pad, so you can look right at the step-by-step instructions while making drawings. Very well done indeed. Also included here are a pencil with eraser, a fine-tipped drawing pen, and four colored markers (blue, green, red and yellow). The “mixing and matching” suggestions explain the book’s title: Klutz suggests a shark on the moon, a lion in the living room, a shoe-wearing octopus in outer space, and so on. And there are nontechnical explanations of, for example, size: something bigger can be closer or can simply be a funny exaggeration (a huge parrot riding on an elephant, for example). Facial expressions, shadows, turning a dinosaur into a fire-breathing dragon, eyeball positioning – Mix & Match Drawing is packed with information, hints and fun, thus putting it squarely in the ongoing Klutz series of information-hints-and-fun offerings.

     Zigzag Kids is an altogether more traditional series, featuring a dozen multiracial, multinational, variously abled and disabled kids (a hearing-impaired child is introduced in the latest entry). Intended for ages 6-9, the books focus on the relationships and foibles of the characters, their teachers (such as art teacher Mrs. Farelli, an important character in Flying Feet), and their school’s principal, Zelda A. Zigzag. The books are rather on the obvious side and tend to lay the message down a bit strongly – in fact, their plots revolve around whatever message Patricia Reilly Giff wants to communicate; the messages do not emerge from what happens but are central to the events. The messages in Flying Feet are about sibling rivalry and the feeling of being second-best; the story has to do with Charlie’s determination to create an invention that will prove he is as worthy of attention as his big brother, Larry, from whom he gets sneakers to which he attaches suction cups so he (that is, Charlie) can climb walls just as Spider-Man does. Of course, things do not work quite as Charlie plans and hopes, and matters are further complicated when Charlie is assigned to be Peter Rabbit (definitely not Spider-Man) for “Come as a Character Day.” Everything eventually works out just fine as the kids all help each other in a heartwarming – if very, very obvious – display of the power of working together. Alasdair Bright’s pleasant drawings nicely complement Giff’s writing, although the kids are distinguished more by their physical features and any handicaps they may have than by strongly defined personalities. Flying Feet gets a (+++) rating – for fans of the Zigzag Kids series only.

     Also receiving (+++) ratings are inexpensive softcover series entries for even younger children. Back in the Saddle, part of the Pony Scouts series, is all about Annie’s recovery from fear after she falls off while riding a gentle pony named Splash. This is a Level 2 book (“Reading with Help”) in the I Can Read! series – a simple story, simply told and simply illustrated. And speaking of illustrations, they are a big part of the attraction in superhero-themed books, such as the latest ones about Batman and the non-sneaker-equipped Spider-Man. These short books do not repay close attention to plot, of which they have very little – and what they do have is often inconsistent. Batman and the Toxic Terror features eco-terrorist Poison Ivy – who does good things the wrong way in trying to preserve green space. So Batman has to stop her and then, in his identity as multimillionaire Bruce Wayne, simply buy up the disputed property and keep it green. If only things were really so easy! And I Am Spider-Man features an all-new villain who has “the ability to change into anyone” but conveniently forgets to do so when Spidey pursues him, making his capture simple. Again, if only things were really so easy! But the point of these books is not to intrigue young readers with subtlety – the idea is to get them interested in reading by showing them favorite action heroes in simple stories that do little more than connect the events between one battle and the next. The books do not have much value in themselves, but for kids who are fans of the featured superheroes, they can be useful steps along the road toward reading works of more substance.