November 27, 2013
Fossil. By Bill Thomson. Two Lions. $17.99.
Charlie the Ranch Dog: Charlie’s Snow Day. Based on the books by Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat. Harper. $16.99.
Zoomer’s Out-of-This-World Christmas. By Ned Young. Harper. $17.99.
Biscuit’s Christmas Storybook Collection. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $11.99.
Whether in a wordless “anytime” story or in seasonally focused books, dogs provide a wonderful way to connect kids to the events happening around them. Bill Thomson’s Fossil is simply about a boy and dog walking by a lake – until things become anything but simple after the boy trips while holding a rock, the rock shatters, the fossil of a fern appears inside the stone, and then the fern starts growing. Reality and fantasy blend seamlessly as the boy finds another rock, this one containing a fossilized dragonfly, and again the fossil comes to life; and then a third rock reveals the claw of a pteranodon, and sure enough, the flying reptile appears in the sky – and soon the dog is riding on its back. The boy finally figures out a way to restore present-day reality, leaving himself and the dog happy at the lakeside – although some young readers may be disappointed at the boy’s ready abandonment of a world filled with wonders from the past. Thomson’s elegant paintings, done by hand rather than computer, lend solidity and vitality to Fossil, as they did to his previous book, Chalk. This is a tale of marvels for ages 3-7, told both strikingly and artfully.
Charlie’s Snow Day, created by Amanda Glickman and Rick Whipple from the “Charlie the Ranch Dog” stories of Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat, is a Level 1 book (“Beginning Reading”) in the I Can Read! series, and as such emphasizes words rather than pictures and is intended for ages 4-8. This level is described as having “simple sentences for eager new readers,” and that is just what Charlie’s Snow Day provides. The story is an everyday sort of outdoor tale, made amusing by Charlie’s usual personality quirks: he first enjoys sliding down a big hill in the snow, but then gets tired when climbing back up and decides that all he wants is to return to the ranch house and get warm. Then, though, he notices that his companion dog, Walter, has gone down the hill again – and Charlie concludes that Walter may be buried in the snow and in need of rescuing. This turns out, like so many of Charlie’s analyses, to be somewhat “off,” although it does get Charlie to go down the hill again and dig into a mound of snow where Walter has ended up. Eventually Charlie gets a ride back up the hill, courtesy of his human family – so he can get back to the warmth and relaxation that he loves so much. Easy to read and pleasantly warmhearted, Charlie’s Snow Day is a (+++) book that will be fun for kids who already know Charlie the Ranch Dog and are primed to enjoy him in a wintry setting.
A (++++) seasonal book for the same 4-8 age range, Ned Young’s Zoomer’s Out-of-This-World Christmas is all about Zoomer the dog and his big brothers, Hooper and Cooper, watching for Santa Claus the day before Christmas – when, sure enough, something lands in the back yard of their house. But it isn’t Santa’s sleigh – it’s a spaceship! And out comes a friendly space family with a pet called a “yarple-headed gigantaziller,” which is purple and has a trunk like an elephant’s, plus lots of legs. Soon the space family has invited the dogs to a picnic at which “kookaloon sandwiches, zablookee salad” and other delicacies are on the menu. Then everyone plays a robot-intensified game that is sort of like soccer, and then everybody goes for a swim (despite the time of year) after the aliens create “a force-field swimming pool.” Unfortunately, the spaceship turns out to have been damaged in landing, and the only way to fix it is for Zoomer to let the aliens have his favorite toy, his tricycle – which he does. Much later, after the spaceship’s takeoff and the pups’ Earth dinner, night of sleep and Christmas-morning awakening, Zoomer learns that Santa was aware of his good deed on behalf of the aliens and has brought him something special as a result – a happy ending all around for an unusual Christmas-themed story in which the highly amusing illustrations (including alien-related ones that owe a distinct debt to Dr. Seuss) neatly complement the narrative.
The pictures are far more straightforward and the stories far more earthbound in the nine-tale collection called Biscuit’s Christmas Storybook Collection. The stories in this (+++) book were originally published between 2000 and 2011 and are only partially Christmas-themed. Alyssa Satin Capucilli offers not only Biscuit’s Christmas, Biscuit’s Christmas Eve and Biscuit Gives a Gift but also nonseasonal stories, including Biscuit’s Show and Share Day, Biscuit Wants to Play, Biscuit Visits the Big City, Biscuit’s Snowy Day, Biscuit and the Lost Teddy Bear, and Biscuit Goes to School. These are very simply plotted and written stories, much in the mode of the old Dick-and-Jane “easy readers,” a parallel that extends to Pat Schories’ pleasant, rather old-fashioned illustrations. The writing will likely be too repetitious for all but the youngest children: “The little boy lost his teddy bear, Biscuit, but you found it! Woof, woof!” “Here comes the school bus! Woof, woof!” “Stay with me, Biscuit. It’s very busy in the big city! Woof, woof!” “Woof, woof, woof! Biscuit can help the kittens!” Biscuit is a cute puppy in that roly-poly way in which puppies were drawn for kids’ books decades ago, and the simplistic suburban back-yard adventures he has with his family will be enjoyable for pre-readers and perhaps for children just learning to read. The official target age range for the book is 4-8, but it will be far too easy for most children in the upper part of that range. Indeed, even parents of younger kids should not be surprised if they quickly lose interest in Biscuit and outgrow these simple, mild little tales.
Santa Claus and the Three Bears. By Maria Modugno. Illustrated by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer. Harper. $17.99.
The Twelve Days of Christmas. By Susan Jeffers. Harper. $17.99.
Mia’s Nutcracker Ballet. By Robin Farley. Illustrated by Olga & Aleksey Ivanov. Harper. $9.99.
Christmas traditions, both sacred and secular, are lovely to hold onto and can provide bonding experiences within and between families. Some families, though, may tire of the same stories and ideas year after year, and for them, there are always Christmastime books that ring some changes on classic tales. Santa Claus and the Three Bears, for example, takes jolly old St. Nick and combines him with the decidedly non-seasonal story of Goldilocks and the three bears. The results are amusing, if scarcely unexpected. Maria Modugno essentially retells the Goldilocks story straightforwardly, simply adding details to make it seasonal – for example, she has it take place on Christmas Eve, when the bears have decorated their house “with holly and berry and icicles.” And of course she makes one major change by having the intruder at their home be not a little girl but Santa himself. The bears’ pudding (no porridge here) attracts Santa, who has finished his Southern Hemisphere deliveries and is halfway through the Northern Hemisphere when he shows up at the bears’ home. Tempted by the pudding after a night filled with nothing but milk and cookies, he does all the things that Goldilocks does in the original story: tasting from three bowls and eating the smallest portion; sitting in three chairs and choosing the littlest, but breaking it when he puts his full weight on it; then going upstairs for a short nap and ending up asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. And the bears return, discover the Santa-wrought chaos, make the expected exclamations of surprise and dismay, and then discover Santa – who wakes up and gives the bears, amusingly, a great big present for Baby Bear, a middle-sized one for Mama and a small one for Papa. He also promises to replace Baby Bear’s broken chair next year – and then takes off in his sleigh to finish his duties. Readers never find out what gifts the bears receive – the final page shows them just starting to open the boxes – but kids may enjoy speculating. And parents looking for something new to read and discuss about Santa may enjoy Modugno’s approach, which is quite nicely illustrated by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer.
Susan Jeffers’ illustrations are a major attraction of her retelling of The Twelve Days of Christmas, whose story modifications resemble Modugno’s. Again there is a classic story retold in straightforward fashion, but modified in some key ways to make it a Christmas tale. The book starts on Christmas Eve, with a girl named Emma opening a gift earlier than she should: it is a Santa-decorated box containing a glass globe inside which is a partridge in a pear tree. Happy and excited, Anna does not watch where she is going: she trips on a rug and drops the globe, which breaks. Emma sadly puts the globe back in the box and, holding it to her (as another little girl, Clara, does in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker), falls asleep. And just as in the ballet, something magical happens: Santa and his sleigh emerge from the box and take Emma on a wonderful, world-spanning ride during which they encounter all the gifts listed in The Twelve Days of Christmas – but here they come not from “my true love” but from Santa. Jeffers not only creates lovely drawings but also comes up with some amusing elements, such as the seven swimming swans flying into the midst of the eight maids a-milking, with a touch of predictable (but harmless) chaos. Eventually, the 12 pipers pipe Santa and Emma to the door of Santa’s workshop, where Emma shows Santa the broken globe – which Santa repairs while Emma goes to sleep. All just a dream? Perhaps – but when Emma wakes up on Christmas morning and rushes downstairs, the package she opened the night before is still intact, and the globe inside is undamaged. It is a lovely fairy-tale ending to a story that reinterprets its source without diverging from it in any significant way.
Jeffers’ rethinking has so many parallels with The Nutcracker that the ballet’s story may well have been in her mind when she redid The Twelve Days of Christmas. And The Nutcracker itself gets a remaking this season, too, in Robin Farley’s Mia’s Nutcracker Ballet, featuring the balletic kitten learning for the first time about Tchaikovsky’s much-loved seasonal tale – which her grandfather, who has brought her a nutcracker as a gift, tells her as “Mia closes her eyes and listens very, very carefully.” As the story unfolds, Mia imagines the whole ballet – with herself as Clara, of course, and her friends in the other major roles, from the Nutcracker Prince to the Mouse King. The book follows the plot of the ballet closely, including the trip to the Land of Sweets and the character dances that Mia/Clara sees there. Mia imagines her older sister, Ava, who is a full-fledged ballerina, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Grandpa’s retelling of the story ends as a sleepy Mia finds herself thinking of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance – after which Mia’s mother puts Mia to bed and Mia falls asleep while gazing at her very own nutcracker. A pleasant, nicely illustrated version of The Nutcracker for budding ballerinas who are already fans of Mia, Mia’s Nutcracker Ballet can serve as an introduction to a Christmastime musical treat – and would go particularly well with a trip to an actual performance of Tchaikovsky’s work.
Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse. Windows 7/RT/8 or Mac OS X v.10.6. Microsoft. $39.95.
Microsoft Sculpt Mobile Mouse. Windows 7/RT/8 or Mac OS X v.10.6. Microsoft. $29.95.
Surface-level similarities are often just that: on the surface. When searching for the best mouse for your particular needs, it helps to delve below names, marketing strategies and even apparent shapes of mice to determine what you really need and what can best give it to you. When dealing with a company that produces as many high-quality mice as Microsoft does through its hardware division, it can be particularly important to consider each mouse’s features very carefully in order to determine which will be the best possible fit.
On the surface, the Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse and Microsoft Sculpt Mobile Mouse appear very similar, with the same sculpted look (as indicated in their near-identical names) and even the same packaging. Differences seem superficial – slightly different sizes and prices, for instance, and the fact that Sculpt Comfort has a “Windows touch tab” while Sculpt Mobile has a “Windows button.” But the disparities between these input devices are far more significant than they appear at first – different enough so that choosing the right one for your individual needs will have a big impact on your satisfaction level.
Sculpt Comfort is a Bluetooth mouse, which is great if you are using it with a computer or tablet that has Bluetooth capability but (of course) makes it completely useless in other cases. The absence of a transceiver – one of those small things that it can be all too easy to lose – is a positive aspect here, providing you can use the Bluetooth connectivity. This is a right-handed mouse that is optimized for Windows 8 (or 8.1): that touch tab, a blue section on the left side of the mouse, where a right-hander’s thumb can reach it conveniently, takes you from an app to the Start screen when pressed. It lets you cycle through all open apps (when you swipe the touch tab up) or reveal all open apps so you can pick whichever one you want (when you swipe the touch tab down). This is therefore a mouse optimized for touchscreen computers and for tablets – indeed, it works with many Android tablets and offers full functionality only to hardware with touchscreen capability. This does not mean the mouse fails to work in Windows 7: in that operating system, pressing the touch tab takes you to the Start menu, while swiping up or down moves you forward or back in a Web browser. But these moves are less intuitive and less convenient than the ones that this mouse provides for Windows 8. Furthermore, although Sculpt Comfort does work on Macs, its use there seems like an afterthought: it is fine but certainly nothing feature-rich or special. The four-way scroll wheel does work well anywhere, allowing left, right, front and back motion. And the mouse’s design is quite comfortable for right-handers – it is sculpted in such a way that its ergonomics allow lengthy use without discomfort. So this mouse is definitely worth considering if you are right-handed and using a touchscreen device, especially one running Windows 8. Oh – and it helps if you like the color black, which is the only one in which Sculpt Comfort is available.
Sculpt Mobile is really a different design – and not just because it comes in no fewer than four colors (black, blue, red and pink). This mouse is symmetrical – it looks little different from Sculpt Comfort, but feels quite different even to right-handers, and is entirely suitable for left-handers as well. Sculpt Mobile uses a USB mini-transceiver, which may seem an odd decision for a mobile-oriented mouse, since the tiny plug-in would seem to be easy to lose. However, the transceiver stores neatly in the mouse and can also be left plugged into a USB port, so concerns about losing it may be more apparent than real. On the other hand, if you are prone to losing small items (computer-related or otherwise), be aware of the need for this transceiver before you opt for this mouse. The Windows button on Sculpt Mobile is centrally placed, which makes sense for an ambidextrous product, and is less tightly integrated with Windows 8 than is the touch tab on Sculpt Comfort. Pressing the Sculpt Mobile Windows button takes Win 8 users to the Start screen and pulls up the Start menu for users of Win 7. This mouse is not significantly smaller than Sculpt Comfort, at least if you measure its dimensions, but it feels considerably smaller, in part because of the symmetrical design – which, however, is less ergonomically supportive than the shape of Sculpt Comfort. The four-way scroll wheel works the same way for Sculpt Mobile users as for users of Sculpt Comfort, allowing left, right, front and back motion.
Looking at these mice side-by-side tends to emphasize their similarities, and it is clear that they both belong in Microsoft’s Sculpt series. But in everyday use, their differences are far more pronounced than you might expect from simply viewing them. Both are very fine products, durable and offering good battery life; both look good, with that sculpted Sculpt appearance, and both use Microsoft’s “BlueTrack Technology,” thanks to which they are usable on almost any surface except glass or mirrors. The price difference between them is insignificant in the long run – and it does make sense to look at either of these mice for long-term use, since they are so well-built that they can last through multiple upgrade cycles (including an upgrade from a computer to a tablet). Sculpt Mobile is a more-conservative design because of its use of a mini-transceiver and its easy adaptability to multiple operating systems. Sculpt Comfort points more clearly in the direction that Microsoft has gone with Windows 8 (and 8.1), toward a world in which touchscreen use is more common and tablets are increasingly taking market share from desktop and laptop computers. Depending on where you and your company stand in the upgrade cycle and in the use to which you tend to put a mouse – for instance, whether you commonly travel with one – you will find one or the other of these products a better fit for your needs. In a sense, you cannot go wrong with either one: both work very well and will do everything you want a mouse to do, and you can expect both to be long-lasting and sturdy. But in another sense, choosing the mouse that is more in accord with your input-device usage is important, because the niggling little irritations of an ill-matched mouse with your everyday requirements can build over time to a point of high frustration that can make you discard an otherwise perfectly good piece of equipment – simply because you did not choose the one best-suited for your needs in the first place.
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Toby Spence, tenor; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. LPO. $16.99.
Mahler: Lieder aus “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Wolfgang Rihm: Rainer Maria Rilke—4 Gedichte für Singstimme & Orchester. Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Bochumer Symphoniker conducted by Steven Sloane. CPO. $16.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. DSO Live. $16.99.
Gustav Mahler died at age 50, seven weeks before his 51st birthday, a fact that makes his splendid musical output – not to mention his tremendous accomplishments as a conductor and arranger – all the more remarkable. There are not very many Mahler works, but most of those he created have become so much a part of the standard repertoire that it is hard to realize how rarely heard they were as recently as the 1960s. Practically every conductor on the world stage now essays a Mahler symphony cycle, or at least dips into the composer’s work with an eye toward saying something new about it – the latter task made possible by the fact that there is so much packed into the composer’s powerful, large-scale compositions. It might be questioned whether Yannick Nézet-Séguin (born 1975) has the emotional maturity for Das Lied von der Erde: Mahler was only 48 when he wrote it but was already aware of the heart disease that would soon claim his life, and in many ways was old beyond his years. But Nézet-Séguin’s live February 2011 performance, newly released on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label, shows sure-handedness in the conducting and a fine sense of the structure and symphonic layout of this hybrid work (part symphony, part oratorio, part song cycle). Nézet-Séguin shapes the six individual sections carefully, bringing out both the work’s flowing lines and its jagged elements. And the orchestra plays with warmth and all the understanding befitting music with which major ensembles worldwide are now thoroughly familiar. The soloists are fine, showing emotional involvement in the music and singing their contrasting sections feelingly. Sarah Connolly is the better of the two, with a smooth, warm voice that nicely picks out the many chinoiserie elements of her first two songs and then progresses with considerable depth into Der Abschied (in which, however, she loses the forward impetus from time to time). Toby Spence has more enthusiasm than technique: he tends to sound shrill, especially in his high register, and is actually harsh at the beginning of Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde, although he soon rights himself. As a whole, this is a more-than-creditable performance that shows Nézet-Séguin to have considerable Mahler ability – which will no doubt develop over time as he delves more fully into the composer’s oeuvre.
For a much better sense of Mahler’s vocal possibilities, an excellently sung CD featuring tenor Christoph Prégardien offers a daring program combining six selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (including Urlicht, which is usually heard only in the Second Symphony) with the four-song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and four songs by Wolfgang Rihm. The juxtaposition of Mahler’s orchestral songs with Rihm’s – indeed, with anybody else’s – is highly unusual, and it is only to be expected that the non-Mahler songs will pale in comparison to Mahler’s. But something else happens on this fine CPO disc. Even though Des Knaben Wunderhorn is mostly early Mahler, some of the settings have many forward-looking elements – and when Urlicht ends and the CD proceeds immediately to the Rihm songs, which are placed between the two Mahler sequences, Mahler’s stretching of tonality and his very personal use of the human voice come into sharper focus. The Rihm songs, remarkably, end up shining considerable light on Mahler’s – and when, after the Rihm sequence (which dates to 2000-04), Prégardien begins Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Mahler’s first song cycle (1884-85), both the contrast and the comparable elements are striking. Steven Sloane’s highly sensitive conducting, and the excellent playing of the Bochumer Symphoniker, have a great deal to do with this disc’s success, but Prégardien’s handling of the vocal elements is the primary factor. Prégardien is as comfortable with the Aesopian satire of Lob des hohen Verstandes and the delicacy of Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht (despite some slight breath-control issues) as with the intensity of Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (which gets a particularly striking reading). And Prégardien, to whom Rihm dedicated the voice-and-piano version of the Rilke songs and who gave the first performance of them in their voice-and-orchestra form, handles the spare aesthetics of Rihm – which well match Rilke’s complexly knotted thoughts – as well as he manages Mahler’s broader, deeper and more emotionally intense music. Mahler’s music generally does not mix particularly well with anyone else’s, but the juxtaposition of Mahler and Rihm on this CD is surprisingly revelatory.
Revelations are harder to come by in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra recording of the Sixth Symphony on the orchestra’s own label. The problem with Mahler as a fixture of modern concerts is that the familiarity of the music can all too easily lead to pedestrian performances. Jaap van Zweden’s is better than that, but it is scarcely inspired. For every very fine touch (the intensity of the first hammer blow in the finale, for example), there is something that does not quite measure up (e.g., the bland handling of the main march rhythm of the first movement). The Dallas ensemble is a good orchestra but not a great one: it can handle Mahler, but the strain tends to show, most noticeably in the brass. Van Zweden’s interpretation is short on emotional punch: the entire first movement lacks a strong and effective contrast between the march elements and the beautiful theme representing Mahler’s wife, Alma; and it feels less propulsive than it should for maximum effect. The Scherzo is all right but, again, not as intense as it can be; as a result, the slow movement, although very beautifully played, provides less of a contrast than it ideally should. And while van Zweden gets the scale of the finale right, he does not hold it together particularly well: the dark elements (except for that first hammer blow, which is much stronger than the second – van Zweden omits the third) evoke more pathos than tragedy. There is nothing major wrong with this (+++) performance, and music lovers who have heard the Dallas Symphony in concert may even consider it a worthy souvenir of the orchestra. But just as there are plenty of adequate-but-ordinary performances of the masterpieces of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and other standard-repertoire symphonists, so there are nowadays of Mahler. This Sixth is fine, but ultimately not nearly as special as Mahler can be.
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (4 CDs).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
There is nothing new in the assertion that symphonic style changed dramatically during the 19th century, but listeners sometimes are unaware of how much it changed within the output of a single composer – two particularly clear cases in point being Schubert and Bruckner. Brilliant Classics’ release of some very fine 1978-1981 recordings of Schubert symphonies by Staatskapelle Dresden under Herbert Blomstedt makes the stylistic difference between earlier and later Schubert symphonies particularly clear. Schubert’s first six symphonies are generally light, fleet, and strongly influenced by Haydn and Mozart, even though their handling of both form and harmony is quite different from the earlier composers’ approaches. No. 4, called the “Tragic,” would more appropriately be designated the “Pathétique” if Tchaikovsky’s far more depressive work had not rendered that description inappropriate for Schubert’s lighter one. This is a work that makes some passes at pathos in the first movement and then rapidly reverts to typically Schubertian melodic warmth and beautifully lyrical themes. The first three symphonies, their first movements all being their longest and all opening with slow sections, all flow with apparent effortlessness from theme to theme and oftentimes from key to key, as Schubert does not so much develop themes as pile them upon each other and repeat them out of what often seems like sheer joy. No. 5, the most popular of these early Schubert works, eschews the slow opening and is lighthearted and poised throughout. No. 6, the “Little C Major,” melds Rossinian influences with those of Haydn and Mozart and sounds like a transitional work – but a transition to what? The answer is the Symphony No. 7, which exists only in short score and is, alas, almost totally neglected, even though several attempts have been made to complete it and it has very occasionally been recorded. Like most “complete” sets of Schubert symphonies, Brilliant Classics’ omits this work, and that is a shame, because without it, the two final and very famous Schubert symphonies seem to have sprung from a world entirely different from that of the first six. No. 8 is called “Unfinished” even though Schubert actually left a number of symphonic fragments behind, some of them quite good. Blomstedt gives this work all the grandeur possible in its two surviving movements (part of a third movement exists but, as with the whole Seventh, is almost never heard). The two movements are at essentially the same tempo (Allegro moderato more or less equals Andante con moto), and it is the shaping of them rather than their pacing that distinguishes them. They come across here almost as a single extended fantasy-like movement. As for Symphony No. 9, the “Great C Major,” Blomstedt handles it quite expansively, allowing its frequent repetition of themes (a major structural building block) plenty of time to coalesce and build. Extended passages of this work remain in a single key – in contrast to what happens in the earlier symphonies, when Schubert often simply drops one key and picks up a new one – and this can produce either serenity (when the work is well-played) or boredom (when it is not). Staatskapelle Dresden’s sureness with the music, and Blomstedt’s willingness to give the symphony all the time it needs to flower, produce a very fine reading that caps this Schubert cycle in a way that makes the composer’s stylistic changes abundantly clear.
In Bruckner’s case much later in the 19th century, changes of style and emphasis often show up within the same symphony, as the composer made revision after revision – either because of changes he wanted or because he was urged to make alterations in order to gain better or more-frequent performances of his works. There are three very different versions of the Symphony No. 4, which Bruckner himself called the “Romantic,” dating to 1874, 1878-80, and 1886-89. The one that is most often heard, and the one performed on a new PentaTone release by Marek Janowski and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, is the middle one, which includes changes to the first, second and fourth movements from 1874 plus an entirely new third movement that is usually called the “hunting scherzo” because of its persistent horn calls. Stylistically, Bruckner’s Fourth in this version represents a move by the composer away from the pervasive influence of Wagner (which is most apparent in the Third, especially that symphony’s first version) and in the direction of finding and developing a voice entirely his own – although highly “Brucknerian” elements had been present in the earlier numbered symphonies as well. The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is not, in terms of its sound, as well-suited to Bruckner as some other fine European orchestras, notably in Germany and Austria, but it is a first-rate ensemble in terms of the balance of its sections and precision of its playing – something that has been noticeable throughout Janowski’s Bruckner cycle. Janowski is a particularly thoughtful and analytical conductor, and his recording of the Fourth, while certainly not lacking passion, never wallows in emotion and never seems on the verge of spinning out of control or sprawling, which Bruckner symphonies can so easily do. Janowski is an outstanding conductor of Wagner operas, and some of his operatic instincts stand him in good stead in his Bruckner symphonies: his Fourth is a series of individual scenes that nevertheless build to a final, all-encompassing climax in which the various elements of the earlier movements are skillfully brought together in an entirely satisfactory conclusion. It is still sometimes said that Bruckner’s symphonies sound very much alike, but Janowski gives the lie to that canard by tailoring his performances to each work’s individual stylistic elements. In the case of the Fourth, this results in a work that does indeed sound Romantic and, at the same time, grand – without being grandiose.
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht; String Quartet No. 1; Four Canons. Fred Sherry String Quartet and Sextet. Naxos. $9.99.
Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Violin and Piano; Sonata for Two Violins; Sonata for Violin Solo; Five Melodies for Violin and Piano. James Ehnes, violin; Amy Schwartz Moretti, violin; Andrew Armstrong, piano; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $37.99 (2 CDs).
Peter Maxwell Davies: Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 5 and 6. James Clark, violin; Catherine Marwood, viola; David Nicholson, flute; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxell Davies. Naxos. $9.99.
Philip Glass: Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra; John Rutter: Suite Antique; Jean Françaix: Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental. Christopher D. Lewis, harpsichord; John McMurtery, flute; West Side Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $9.99.
Howard Blake: Wind Concertos. Jaime Martin, flute; Andrew Marriner, clarinet; Gustavo Núñez, bassoon; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Dimitar Nenov: Piano Music. Viktor Valkov, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Stopping By: American Songs. Kyle Bielfield, tenor; Lachlan Glen, piano; Michael Samis, cello. Delos. $16.99.
I Am in Need of Music: Songs on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Suzie LeBlanc, soprano; Blue Engine String Quartet; Elizabeth Bishop Players conducted by Dinuk Wijeratne. CMC. $16.99 (CD+DVD).
Vittorio Grigòlo: Ave Maria. Vittorio Grigòlo, tenor; Francesca Dego, violin; I Pueri Cantores della Cappella Musicale Pontificia detta Sistina and Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta conducted by Fabio Cerroni. Sony. $12.99.
Van-Anh Vanessa Vo: Three-Mountain Pass. Innova. $14.99.
The definition of “modern music” starts for many listeners with Arnold Schoenberg, even though Schoenberg’s works date back all the way to the end of the 19th century. And this raises the interesting question of just what it means to be “modern,” as opposed to “contemporary,” which is simply a synonym for “of today.” The two notions do tend to blend and blur, but certainly “modern” in classical music has a great deal to do with a work’s sound, which is why Schoenberg’s music is still classified that way well over a century after much of it was written. Verklärte Nacht, for example, dates to 1899, and was considered by the composer to be the first tone poem ever written for chamber ensemble. It retains hints of modernity even for 21st-century ears, although it is certainly less dissonant and more wedded to tonality than many later Schoenberg works. In the fine Naxos performance by cellist Fred Sherry and other skilled interpreters, both this work and the technically similar and even more extended String Quartet No. 1 (1904-05) show both their roots in Romanticism and the way Schoenberg, even when in his 20s, was starting to move beyond it to create a new language that remains “modern” in sound even today. Four Canons (taken from Thirty Canons, 1905-1949) shows the composer reaching further into the realms he was later to explore in considerable and often controversial detail.
Prokofiev’s explorations were wide-ranging, too, and his sound also retains significant Romantic elements while still having the tinge of modernity about it, both through the composer’s handling of dissonance and through the sardonic wit heard frequently in his music. James Ehnes’ excellent survey of the composer’s complete solo-violin works showcases music both straightforward (the first concerto) and masterly (the second), and provides an opportunity to hear some comparative rarities (the two-violin sonata and the one for solo violin). The performances here are exemplary precisely because Ehnes does not insist on a strictly “modern-sounding” interpretation of Prokofiev’s violin works, allowing their angularity and rhythmic complexity to coexist side-by-side with their post-Romantic themes and their general adherence to traditional musical forms. Abetted in the two sonatas for violin and piano by excellent readings by Andrew Armstrong, and complemented with sure skill by Amy Schwartz Moretti in the two-violin sonata, Ehnes turns in soloist-focused performances that are nevertheless clearly designed to maintain the balance between his own elements and those of the other musicians. Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic get the nuances of accompaniment just right, stepping to the fore or merging into the background as appropriate and with a fine sense of collaboration. This very well-recorded two-CD Chandos set equally displays the skill of Ehnes as a performer and Prokofiev as a composer true to his own vision while at the same time redolent of the times in which he wrote.
The times are far more recent for Peter Maxwell Davies (born 1934) and his Strathclyde Concertos, two of which he conducts with sensitivity and aplomb on a new Naxos CD (actually a re-release of a 1993 Collins Classics recording). Davies’ musical language, like that of Prokofiev, looks back as well as forward, and his structure for these concertos is fairly traditional: each is in three movements, although the tempos of the movements are not always in accord with what one would expect. Still, the sound of the works has both “modern” elements and distinctly old-fashioned ones. No. 5 was inspired by Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, although it uses those two solo instruments in very different ways, while No. 6, for flute and orchestra, is distinctively scored and combines a Classical-era lightness and transparency of sound with a modern handling of the orchestra and of the balance between ensemble and solo instrument. Davies has a fine sense of how his works should sound and considerable skill at bringing the sound out – he is in fact a fine conductor of works other than his own. And the soloists all handle their roles with skill and careful involvement. These pieces sound in some ways less “modern” than those of Schoenberg and Prokofiev, even though both of Davies’ date to as recently as 1991. So this CD again raises the question of just what a “modern” sound is.
Another fine Naxos disc makes the question even more complex. Philip Glass (born 1937) is one composer whose distinctive style and sound would surely be designated as “modern” by supporters and detractors alike. But Glass is quite capable of putting his sonic and compositional approaches at the service of forms with a very long history indeed, as he does in his Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra. No one could possibly mistake this for a Bach harpsichord concerto, yet its three movements (which are numbered rather than bearing tempo indications) fit broadly within the framework of sensibilities that are hundreds of years old – although the approach to the writing, and indeed to the harpsichord itself, is undeniably modern. The situation is much the same in Suite Antique by John Rutter (born 1945): here too an old form, dating to the Baroque, and an old instrument, the harpsichord, are at the service of a work that quite deliberately mixes the “antique” and the new – for example, containing both an Ostinato movement and a “jazz waltz.” Matters are somewhat more complex, though, in the case of Jean Françaix’ Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental, because Françaix (1912-1997) takes Baroque models more seriously as a framework for modern reinterpretation than do Glass and Rutter – this harpsichord concerto does not view Bach’s time as a jumping-off point but as an era that still has something to say to today’s listeners. As a result, the Françaix work has about it a stronger sense of neo-classicism (or neo-Baroque-ism) than do the Glass and Rutter pieces, even though it dates from essentially the same time period. The inescapable conclusion is that “modern” sound means different things to different composers – or to the same composer under different circumstances.
Furthermore, the whole issue of what is “modern” is somewhat fraught with confusion, as is clear from a PentaTone SACD bearing the overly cute title “The Barber of Neville.” The title reflects the fact that composer Howard Blake (born 1938) and conductor Sir Neville Marriner use the same barber, and it was the barber who introduced the two and thus set this recording in motion. Be that as it may, what is of greater interest here is the way Blake, who is primarily a film composer, interprets “modern” sound. Essentially, he ignores the notion – in favor of producing approachable, pleasant music that is of no great consequence and is not highly innovative, but that is undeniably enjoyable to hear in a way that the works of many more self-consciously avant-garde composers are not. Of the four works on this disc, the Flute Concerto (1996), Bassoon Concerto (2009) and Serenade for Wind Octet (1990) all stray very little from classical models and all provide a pleasing mixture of virtuosic display and nicely structured (if scarcely innovative) ensemble material. The Clarinet Concerto (1984/2011) is somewhat different in its use of programmatic material (the three movements are “Invocation,” “Ceremony” and “Round Dance”), but is musically more of the same. The sameness is quite easy on the ears, and the very well-played and well-recorded disc earns a (+++) rating even though the music is on the forgettable side.
The Grand Piano release of music by Dimitar Nenov also gets a (+++) rating, again because the music itself is interesting but not highly distinctive even when it is performed by as high-quality a pianist as Viktor Valkov, who approaches it with fervor and understanding. Nenov (1901-1953), a fine pianist and noted pedagogue at the Sofia Conservatoire, ran afoul of the Communist regime installed in Bulgaria in 1944, with the eventual result that an apparatchik had virtually all recorded performances by Nenov destroyed. The personal tragedy of the composer did not prevent his music from surviving, though, and one of his works – Toccata (1939), whose chromaticism and sense of building to a climax are quite attractive – is still heard from time to time. It appears on this CD, as does the more-interesting Theme and Variations in F sharp minor (1932), in which Nenov shows a firm grasp of variation form as well as the ability to write a work requiring considerable virtuosity. How “modern” Nenov’s music sounds depends largely on which work one is hearing. Cinema Suite (1924-25) is sufficiently dissonant and technically demanding to sound “modern” even today, but other pieces here – Miniatures (1945), Dance (a 1941 essay in folk music), Etude No. 1 (1931), and Etude No. 2 (1932) – all have the feeling of miniatures with little that is “modern” about them. The latest work on the CD – Fairy Tale and Dance (1947, another folk-music piece) – is Nenov’s final piano composition and yet another miniature, well put together but not particularly distinctive. Valkov’s very impressive pianism stays with the listener after the end of this recording in a way that the music itself does not.
Part of what makes classical music “modern” in sound seems to be the willingness of composers and performers to blur the lines between musical genres, as seen clearly in two recent (+++) vocal releases featuring tenor Kyle Bielfield and soprano Suzie LeBlanc, respectively. Delos’ Bielfield disc, the singer’s first recording, includes a wide variety of American songs from some composers considered classical (Carter, Copland), some deemed popular (Foster, Berlin), and some who straddle both worlds (notably Bernstein). There are three separate settings of the poem that gives the disc its title, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” – by Barber, Rorem and John Woods Duke (1899-1994). And there are works here ranging from “Beautiful Dreamer” to “Simple Gifts.” The disc is a potpourri designed to showcase Bielfield’s pleasant but not particularly distinguished voice, the overall presentation sounding “modern” not because of anything specific in the music but because of the singer’s willingness to tackle vocal works in a variety of fields that are usually seen as separate. Somewhat similarly, the CMC disc featuring LeBlanc focuses on a particular poet, Elizabeth Bishop, rather than a specific style – although in this case all the composers are modern (Alasdair MacLean, John Plant, Emily Doolittle and Christos Hatzis). LeBlanc has a clear, pleasant voice and pronounces and accentuates the words well. None of the music stands out especially from the rest structurally or in effectiveness – all the settings are well done but not very striking. Whether there are many listeners interested in LeBlanc, in Bishop and in these four composers is an open question – the CD would seem to be designed for a very limited audience. The bonus DVD, a 36-minute video called Walking with EB, makes the production even more of a narrowly targeted one.
A third new vocal disc, Ave Maria from tenor Vittorio Grigòlo on Sony, deliberately reaches into the past – the musical one and the singer’s own – but also includes distinctly modern elements that are nevertheless redolent of earlier times. Grigòlo (born 1977) was a chorister with the Sistine Chapel Choir in the Vatican from ages 11 to 14, and this disc is in many ways his return to his past. That means the music includes a number of inevitable works – the Ave Maria of Schubert, Ave verum corpus of Mozart, Verdi’s Ingemisco and Franck’s Panis angelicus – plus traditional sacred music and pieces by church composers. But it also contains four pieces by choirmasters whom Grigòlo personally knew during his time in the choir, Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci and Padre Giovanni Maria Catena. These are “modern” works that in sound are anything but contemporary, their uplifting intent clear throughout and their obeisance to church and musical tradition complete. There is a single secular piece on the CD – Offenbach’s orchestral version of La Sérénade de Schubert – but everything else is intended to showcase Grigòlo’s background and the intensely religious experience of serving in the Sistine Chapel Choir. Grigòlo has a very fine tenor voice and is quite clearly involved deeply in this music of beauty, serenity and religious expression. However, the CD will be a bit much for many listeners, particularly those who are not Catholic, to take, since even the most recently composed music here fits so seamlessly into the older works that the disc has a feeling of sameness approaching monotony. For most listeners, this will be a (+++) CD, although those who are strongly religious or who especially enjoy Grigòlo’s voice will delight in it – and it seems to be targeted precisely at them.
But at whom is Three-Mountain Pass targeted? This (+++) Innova recording is a genuine curiosity, again blurring the classical and popular boundaries but this time blurring a variety of others as well. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo, whose name is sometimes spelled with a variety of accents and sometimes without, is a virtuoso on the Vietnamese đàn tranh, a 16-string zither. She is also a composer: she wrote the CD’s title work. And she is an arranger: the oddest track on the disc is her arrangement of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3. She performs most of the tracks alone, but is accompanied on one called Green River Delta by the Kronos Quartet – and the sonic environment for this piece is peculiar and fascinating. The music itself, though, is mostly just peculiar to Western ears, and not terribly interesting despite the quite obvious skill with which it is played. It is hard to know what to call a CD like this, which is neither classical nor pop, not exactly “world music” and not really a production focused on an artist – although it is clearly an artistic showcase. The sound of the đàn tranh tends to wear thin after a while, and even though the disc lasts only 46 minutes, it seems longer. It is impossible not to admire the skill with which Van-Anh Vanessa Vo performs, but it is not so easy to enjoy hearing her at such length. This is one music CD that, oddly, might have been better as a DVD, since visual elements would have made the somewhat monotonous sound of the music more interesting. Certainly the disc sounds “modern” because of the way it combines so many elements and refuses to be confined to a single form of music, but it is nevertheless a CD whose potential appeal it is difficult to pin down – as is often the case with “modern” music and the recordings that capture it.
November 21, 2013
Squared Away: A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $25.
Zits en Concert. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Talk about a story that spans the generations: Doonesbury is in its third generation of characters as well as its fifth decade of production, and shows no sign of slowing down, much less stopping. The latest handsome hardcover, full-color collection, Squared Away, is as sprawling and complex as this saga has been for many years – as reliably leftist in political orientation – as focused on issues and on characters as illuminations of those issues rather than as developed individuals – as elegantly drawn and carefully plotted as always – and as well-integrated a mixture of the real world and a kind of surreal one as you will find anywhere. That Doonesbury is a phenomenon all its own is old news, as is the fact that G.B. Trudeau continues to paint an ever-larger canvas in the strip. Squared Away combines a broad view of the world with small family issues, such as 12-year-old Alex getting rid of the dolls she no longer plays with – talking to them as she throws them away and having them reply. It has the “Occupy Wall Street” crowd chanting a demand for “nothing!” (“When do we want it? NOW!”) It has the usual political forays (which as usual seem much more dated than the rest of the strips), such as one with airport security going through Newt Gingrich’s personal baggage (“pee-YEW!”) and another “celebrating” his malapropisms and misstatements. It has Alex proposing marriage to Leo, with the attendant wedding jitters and some elements that Trudeau handles masterfully, such as Leo worrying about donkey carcasses and having an Afghanistan-war flashback while driving, resulting in his turning their truck into a cornfield. Duke, one of Trudeau’s best characters, is here, too, although not as often as his fans might like – still slimy, still representing brutal dictators, still disconnected from reality in some ways while connected all too closely to it in others. Iraq and Afghanistan still loom large in Trudeau’s consciousness, and so do the political classes (almost always Republican) that he likes to attack, upbraid and demean. Trudeau is quite well aware of the expansion of his strip into a focus on newer-generation characters, even having one Sunday presentation of “Mike’s Summer Daydream” (a recurring feature) involve Mike, the original Doonesbury, “giving the helm to Alex” and thus saving the newspaper industry. Indeed, Doonesbury is very much a creature of the newspaper industry, and Trudeau is well aware of it, as several strips here show; it is also very much a creature of a certain political viewpoint, about which Trudeau is quite unapologetic. Whether sea changes in news dissemination and politics will ever disrupt Trudeau’s comfortable positioning is impossible to know – but on the basis of Squared Away, it certainly seems that he is staying the course for the duration (a phrase he would mock if a GOP politician said it), and is doing so very well indeed.
Zits, the marvelous strip by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, is multi-generational by design and far less fraught than Doonesbury – and, as a result, far more timeless. The Scott/Borgman blend of reality and the surreal is subtler and more elegant than Trudeau’s, and the smaller, family-focused canvas of Zits is a great deal easier to take in – and a great deal funnier. The two strips actually show, between them, just how much can be accomplished in newspaper-comic form. Zits en Concert is all about being a teenager or raising (if “raising” is the right word) a teenager – from handing food through the window of your house because “everything tastes better served through a window,” to knowing you are in love because you adore the way your girlfriend says that “cold slaw” is her “Achilles tooth.” Borgman’s art is wonderfully consistent: Jeremy is in the jaws of a huge crocodile at one point, as his oblivious mom says she bets he is ready for “that beast of a chemistry test,” and he is carrying a huge pyramid labeled “crushing expectations” as he goes to take his S.A.T. There is a marvelous full-week series in which Jeremy, responding to various everyday questions, is drawn as all sorts of objects: a gigantic clam when asked about his day, a dripping faucet when asked several parental questions, a chained and locked safe when asked how things are going between him and Sara, and so on. Scott’s writing is every bit as delightful: Jeremy gets a pizza-delivery job, receives a nice tip at one house, and announces he has just become a capitalist; he comes down with PDRD (Parental Directive Retention Disorder); he considers Harvard as a safety school in case all his other choices – all party schools – don’t work out; and he insists that his mom provide the “elevator pitch version” of her day. The best Zits strips seamlessly mix writing with picture-perfect pictures, such as one in which Jeremy and Sara argue and she throws the verbal equivalents of a razor blade and a couple of knives at him, leading Pierce to ask “sharp words with the little woman?” while Borgman’s picture shows Jeremy neatly filleted. Throw in the occasional genuinely brilliant Sunday strip – such as one in which very long arms emerge from Jeremy’s brain and wrap all around Sara, who asks him to “stop mind-groping me” – and you have all the elements of consistent newspaper-comics-page superstardom. Now if only someone can figure out how to prevent newspaper comics pages from lurching to oblivion….
Fortunately, the Milk. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Skottie Young. Harper. $14.99.
The Spindlers. By Lauren Oliver. Harper. $8.99.
Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk is one of those books filled with “a ZOOM, a TWORP, and a THANG,” featuring time travel in which a huge spiny-backed creature calculates that if two objects from different times ever come in contact, either the universe will cease to exist or “three remarkable dwarfs will dance through the streets with flowerpots on their heads.” It is one of those books in which walking the plank is about to occur into a swarm of sharks and piranhas until someone points out that piranhas are fresh-water fish. It is one of those books in which wumpires normally eat “vigglyvorms, with orange juice on them,” for breakfast, but will make do with the occasional professor and/or time traveler if necessary, at least until they (the wumpires, not the time travelers) dissolve “into a cloud of oily black smoke.” It is one of those books featuring globby people who think plastic flamingoes “are the highest and finest art form that Earth has achieved.” It is a book featuring aliens, one of which is “so green and small and so globby and crusted that he might have been an enormous snot-bubble blown by an elephant with a terrible head-cold.” It is one of those books in which Space Dinosaurs sing songs such as “Don’t Go Down to the Tar Pits, Dear, Because I’m Getting Stuck on You.” It is, in short, one of those super-creative bursts of utter nonsense of which only the very best authors, such as Neil Gaiman, are capable, and it is about as far from works such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book as it is possible to get without falling off the edge of the world, or out of time, or something. Throw in some marvelously goofy illustrations by Skottie Young, and the result is one of those books in which every page is filled with hilarity until the whole thing overflows, if not with milk, then with utter absurdity and timeless (or time-traveling) delight.
The Spindlers has its moments, too, although not quite as many of them. Lauren Oliver’s novel, originally published last year and now available in paperback, is a modern remaking of an old plot about changelings. One morning, Liza notices that things are not quite right with her younger brother, Patrick, and even though their preoccupied parents do not notice anything, Liza decides that the real Patrick has been taken by spindlers – spiderlike creatures from the world below. The spindlers gain power from the souls of kids they steal – and the changelings they leave behind produce more spindlers. Unsurprisingly, Liza decides to go to the spindlers’ world and retrieve Patrick’s soul, soon meeting a talking rat named Mirabella who says she can take Liza to the spindler queen. In the usual way of quests like this, it turns out that Mirabella may not be quite as helpful as she seems – she may be hiding something. The journey of the two companions leads them to encounter the usual sorts of creatures found in fantasies for preteens, including some amusing ones, some lovely ones and some scary ones. Not unexpectedly, it turns out that what is at stake is more than Patrick’s soul – and Liza and Mirabella must face their own tests of courage in order to save Patrick, themselves and all the creatures Below. There is considerable imagination in this nicely written fantasy, but there is also a great deal that is wholly conventional, from the feckless and oblivious parents to the sorts of creatures encountered on the quest – even though some specific creatures, such as dream-carrying nocturni and cannibalistic shape-shifting scawgs, are quite original. The female characters are strong and self-reliant, although no more so than female protagonists of other modern preteen fantasies. The result is that this (+++) book does not have a strong feeling of originality even though the specific events in it, and some of the specific characters, do. The Spindlers is a touch too much of a genre adventure to be wholly engaging, although Oliver’s writing does put it a cut above many lesser fantasy rescue novels for young readers.
Thanksgiving Day Thanks. By Laura Malone Elliott. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Pete the Cat: The First Thanksgiving. By Kimberly & James Dean. HarperFestival. $6.99.
Best Food Writing 2013. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $15.99.
Thankfulness and food, the primary elements of Thanksgiving in the United States, are inevitably served up in some combination in kids’ books designed specifically for the holiday. Other elements are mentioned as well in Thanksgiving Day Thanks, when Sam’s class talks about giving thanks for football and shopping – but Sam himself, a rather quiet bear cub, isn’t quite sure what he is thankful for. As Laura Malone Elliott’s book progresses, with the class involved in Thanksgiving projects that range from pumpkin-pie making to donating food to the needy, Sam simply cannot think of a project to do – until eventually, he prepares a surprise that he tells his best friend, Mary Ann (a squirrel), can be found outside the classroom. It turns out to be a set of balloons that Sam plans to use to create a Thanksgiving Day parade – but a storm whips up some high gusts of wind that spoil his work. Still, the loss of the balloons reminds Sam of why he likes the parade – because his whole family watches it together – and that makes him realize that time with his family is what he is most thankful for. Thanksgiving Day Thanks is a pleasant holiday book for ages 4-8, with nicely done illustrations by Lynn Munsinger that complement the text well. It is nothing particularly special, but works well as a straightforward look at the holiday and its traditions.
Pete the Cat: The First Thanksgiving is a shorter book for the same age range, and a more-participatory one – it is a lift-the-flaps book. Its focus is a class play about the first Thanksgiving, with Pete playing a pilgrim and wearing “a pilgrim hat, which was really cool.” Lifting the flaps moves the story along – the 65-day voyage of the Mayflower, for example, is shown with a calendar with September 6, 1620 circled for the day they set forth, and calendar months beneath the flap showing the days at sea and the eventual arrival on November 9. Elsewhere, lifting flaps shows vegetables growing and transforms a long, empty table into one covered with food. The book ends with Pete and his family at their own Thanksgiving dinner, thinking of what they are thankful for – those items shown by lifting flaps over their heads. There is little of Pete’s personality in this book, which as a result is less engaging than it could be if his quirks came through more clearly. But kids who enjoy Pete’s other adventures will like having him as a guide to the history of the Thanksgiving holiday.
And of course Thanksgiving is not the only time of the year when food is people’s major focus. For some people – food critics – it is not only a year-long obsession but also their, well, bread and butter (sorry about that). The exigencies of publishing mean that Best Food Writing 2013 actually includes only material from the first part of the year, but there is still plenty here to chew on (sorry again). The kind of writing showcased in this long-running series, which has been around since 2000, is not hearty meat-and-potatoes stuff (sorry yet again) but the crème de la crème (all right, enough) of essays from newspapers, newsletters, Web sites, magazines and books. The essays are more about societal attitudes toward food than anything else, and as such give a sense of what sorts of esoterica and trendiness are on the rise and which are declining. Best Food Writing 2013 clearly shows that certain forms of high-end food preparation, such as foams and gels, are no longer “in,” while certain specific foods, such as kale, are increasingly appearing as the features of the day. Most of the writing here is by the food-focused and for the food-focused, such as articles arguing that the “eat local” movement is a triumph while others argue that it deserves to be viewed with skepticism. Some of the writers here do concern themselves with everyday, plebian topics: there is a piece on food trucks and another on McRibs. But food writers look on these subjects with disdain, and their essays indicate they are slumming. The McRib one is an example: “This was a terrible thing to have eaten and I had no real excuse to do so. …The ‘pork’ inside the McRib tastes quite obviously fake. …It’s not like [sic] you’re eating real meat at all, but something materialized on the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise or a piece of food that’s fast-fading in some airport during the course of the Langoliers. It’s just … [sic] weird.” The writing here really is, by and large, quite good, and some of the subject matter should stand up well over time even as other topics fade quickly from comestible consciousness. But elements of the book will be strange, and likely off-putting, to many readers, such as the essay on pig slaughtering in rural Spain, including “holding the head to direct the blood flow,” “the smell of burning hair is strong, but somehow not unpleasant,” “the viscera are dragged down, out and into a plastic bowl,” and so forth. Ultimately, this book has more to do with personal experiences of food than with food itself, even though only one section is actually labeled “Personal Tastes.” Best Food Writing 2013 is for people who take food and food-related topics and esoterica very seriously indeed – perhaps even a touch too seriously. If you are one such, de gustibus non est disputandum and bon appétit.
Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland. By Beau Riffenburgh. Viking. $32.95.
Honor and Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Navy SEALs Who Captured the “Butcher of Fallujah”—and the Shameful Ordeal They Later Endured. By Patrick Robinson. Da Capo. $26.99.
Not all wars are declared as such; not all wars are between nations. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States, after the Civil War, was often at war with itself in nonmilitary ways, as the Industrial Revolution fully took hold, the nation became less agricultural in focus, cities expanded dramatically, immigrant issues proliferated, and robber barons ruled the manufacturing sector with a ruthlessness matched only by that of those determined – for reasons of their own – to oppose them. This is a period largely forgotten and little understood today: who remembers William Jennings Bryan’s once-famous “cross of gold” speech and the reasons behind it, or the Panic of 1893 (one of those reasons) and the near-destruction of the silver industry? Beau Riffenburgh brings that time to vivid life – and skillfully limns some of the major figures within it – in Pinkerton’s Great Detective, nominally the story of James McParland (1843 or 1844-1919) but also a story of a rough-and-tumble, deadly time. It was an era that comes across as far more exciting in Riffenburgh’s book than it likely was to the people who had to live through and endure it. McParland was a colorful and highly controversial figure, often thought to be in league with mine owners as they fought back against unionization attempts that, in the 19th century, were fraught with vicious coercion up to and including murder. McParland is perhaps best known today for his successful infiltration of the Molly Maguires, a miners’ group whose violent tactics were fed in part by the fact that they were Irish Catholics at a time when there was substantial prejudice against them. There is little doubt that the Molly Maguires committed murder and other violent acts, but there is, to this day, doubt about whether McParland and the Pinkerton agency caught the culprits, or caught all the culprits, or caught a mixture of criminals and innocents. And so it was to be through much of McParland’s career – a career that Riffenburgh traces largely through recently released Pinkerton archives that, not surprisingly, cast both the agency and its famed detective in a highly favorable light. Riffenburgh does make some attempts at balance, but he mostly uses his research to re-create in meticulous detail a series of investigations and court cases that many readers will find tiresome and difficult to follow, so filled are they with names, places, dates and acronyms. One random example: “During cross-examination by Kaercher, Butler suddenly admitted that leaders of the AOH had proposed many crimes, including when Dennis ‘Bucky’ Donnelly had ordered him and a man named Pat Shaw to murder Sanger. He also told of Hurley’s plans to murder Gomer James, Hurley’s subsequent claims, and Kehoe’s decision for him and McParlan to investigate.”
Notice that “McParlan” spelling. That is the name with which McParland was born, and the two spellings coexist uneasily during this book. Riffenburgh eventually explains that the detective’s relatives in Ireland added the final “d” in the mid-1870s and “by 1879, the Pinkerton’s operative had added a final ‘d’ to his name as well.” This is straightforward, but the coexistence of the names within the narrative makes things unnecessarily confusing – not only in the text but also in the captions of the photos, where one photo caption features “McParlan testifying” and another, two pages later, refers to someone involved in “one of McParland’s most high-profile cases.” The photos themselves are most welcome, lending a sense of the real world to stories that could easily spin out of control: McParland was a legend in his own time, partly a legend of his own making, and separating fact from fiction in his life and cases is by no means easy. It is hard to know how successfully Riffenburgh has done this. His reliance on the Pinkerton documents skews his interpretations in a particular direction, but there is no reason to think there is anything wrong with that. Still, McParland’s detractors, and there were many of them, get somewhat short shrift here. So do some famous disagreements associated with him: he was included in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale, The Valley of Fear, as the character Birdy Edwards, but the positive portrayal of McParland did not sit at all well with Pinkerton and caused a rift between him and Doyle – for complex reasons that are barely touched upon in Riffenburgh’s book. Still, despite its flaws, Pinkerton’s Great Detective brings to life a fascinating man, a fascinating time, and a series of genuinely interesting cases: McParland worked for, among others, railroad tycoon Jay Gould; he helped catch the man who committed the largest theft of gold bullion in U.S. history; he probed the assassination of an Idaho governor who was killed by an explosive device attached to the gate of his picket fence; and on and on. Unfortunately, what is wholly missing from Riffenburgh’s book – a lack he himself admits – is any significant authorial detective work about the detective’s private life; there is “no proof of what McParland was like as a husband, a father, a brother, or a son,” and no solid information about his emotional life or his reaction to tragedies such as the deaths of two young daughters. Riffenburgh’s bland concluding statement that McParland will “forever remain an enigma” is disappointing: a thorough biography needs to get behind the public face of its subject, especially one whose career is as filled with controversy and mythmaking as McParland’s was. In this respect, Riffenburgh falls short; but in many others, he provides considerable information and a thorough recounting of the events in the professional life of a genuinely intriguing historical figure.
The history is far more recent, the undeclared war far fresher, and the men at the center of the narrative far different in Patrick Robinson’s Honor and Betrayal, one in a lengthy series of books about the worldwide fight against terrorism and the excesses that accompany the successes. This is the story of Matthew McCabe, Jonathan Keefe and Sam Gonzales, three Navy SEALs who were part of a team that stormed an al Qaeda desert stronghold and captured the terrorist known as the “Butcher of Fallujah” for arranging the 2004 murder and mutilation of four American contractors. Told largely from the viewpoint of McCabe and Keefe, who have left the service and can therefore speak freely, the book details the SEALs’ own difficulties to a greater extent than it discusses the battle against terrorist murderers and the SEALs’ place within it. Acting in accordance with terrorist battle plans, Ahmad Hashim Abd al-Isawi claimed shortly after his capture that he had been beaten by the three SEALs, who were summarily placed under house arrest and pressured to sign confessions. They refused, demanding courts-martial, and thus setting the stage for a legal drama in which – according to Robinson – high military commanders were determined to get convictions and the SEALs were equally determined to prove their innocence. Robinson likes to write, or rather overwrite, in a slam-bang action-movie style, perhaps with an eye toward an eventual film: “Matt and his men may have been well under the radar, but they sure as hell were not above suspicion, not to some desert nomad being scared half to death by six turbo-shaft engines screaming above his head in the middle of the night, shattering the quiet of these biblical lands.” And there is no doubt at all about Robinson’s viewpoint on the situation: the book starts with “open letters” from McCabe and Keefe to Admiral Sean Pybus, commander of the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Command, with comments about, among other things, “a proud US Navy SEAL, branded a bully, idler and a liar, on the word of a mass murderer and terrorist.” In case the letters do not make it clear enough that Robinson’s purpose is to exonerate the SEALs fully and completely, the author offers such chapter titles as “We Want This Maniac Alive,” “A Presumption of Guilt,” and “Scapegoats of Empire.” By the book’s epilogue, Robinson is writing of McCabe and Keefe after their trials, “a flame deep within them had flickered. It had not died; after all, they were both supremely well trained and dedicated special operators. But it would never burn so brightly again.” As an apologia for McCabe and Keefe, and by extension for Gonzales, Honor and Betrayal is effective: it reads like a skilled defense attorney’s brief (a very extended one) to a higher court. But as a book, it is less so, precisely because it is so one-sided. There is really little doubt that McCabe and Keefe were the good guys and al-Isawi a vicious murderer. But the factors leading military higher-ups to prosecute (Robinson would say persecute) the SEALs, even in light of massive public condemnation of the courts-martial and despite a congressional uproar, are much less clear. Robinson’s eventual comment that “once the commanders had crossed that line, had determined to establish ‘prisoner abuse,’ there was no way back,” is at best facile and incomplete. McCabe and Keefe get a rousing, self-guided defense in Honor and Betrayal, but they would have been better served with a more-nuanced book, even if it turned into one that showed them in a less-favorable light than Robinson’s does.
Marschner: Der Vampyr. Jonas Kaufmann, Franz Hawlata, Regina Klepper, Anke Hoffmann, Markus Marquardt, Thomas Dewald, Yoo-Chang Nah; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln and WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln conducted by Helmuth Froschauer. Capriccio. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Offenbach: La Périchole. Sabine Brohm, Ralf Simon, Gerd Wiemer, Bernd Könnes, Marcus Günzel, Jessica Glatte, Elke Kottmair; Chor der Staatsoperette Dresden and Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
To mix a metaphor: the byways of operatic history sometimes toss up on their shores some works of quite substantial interest and value. High-quality performances of these underappreciated operas reveal so much quality that their neglect becomes difficult to understand, except perhaps in a context noting that the less-often-heard music inspired better-known works that eclipsed the earlier material. Helmuth Froschauer’s nuanced, well-balanced and thoroughly musicianly interpretation of Heinrich Marschner’s Der Vampyr (1828) is a perfect case in point. Marschner was so influential on Richard Wagner that Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, has distinct elements parallel to those of Marschner; and Wagner not only attended performances of Der Vampyr but also conducted the work, in 1833. Furthermore, one of the notable references in Marschner’s opera, to der bleiche Mann (the pale, or pallid, man), is reused word-for-word and with emphatic intensity by Wagner in his fourth opera, Der fliegende Holländer. Wagner noted in his autobiography that he was much more impressed by Der Vampyr than by Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (1831), which was a longer-lasting success. Marschner’s work is based on a translation of John Polidori’s story The Vampyre (1819), and it is filled with Romantic-era fears and frights. A modern audience will be particularly interested in the way Lord Ruthven, the title character, remains alive and gains strength: rather than drinking blood to prolong his life directly, he does so in connection with a required sacrifice of brides to gain extra life for himself. Also, when injured, Lord Ruthven is revived by being brought into the moonlight – there is nothing here, except perhaps by implication, about being vulnerable to the sun. Marschner’s work invites over-the-top performances, and although it does not quite get them in Capriccio’s recording (of a performance from 1999), what it does get is considerable intensity and a musical approach that makes it clear how Marschner picked up Weber’s famous “Wolf Glen” scene from Der Freischütz (1821) and expanded it into a series of scenes that create an atmosphere of gloom and darkness that is sustained almost throughout the work. Soloists, chorus and orchestra all handle their roles admirably, with the recording’s biggest disappointment being the lack of an included libretto or a link to one online. There is an adequate scene-by-scene summary, but the full libretto would have added much to the enjoyment of a piece of operatic history that deserves a more-regular place in the repertoire because of its own qualities, not merely as the result of its considerable influence on Wagner.
The relative obscurity of Offenbach’s La Périchole is harder to understand – although the work is performed regularly in France, it is not often heard elsewhere. This is one of Offenbach’s best operettas, filled with charm and winning characterizations, with people who come alive instead of being mere containers for comedy; the libretto is tightly knit and intelligent; and the music, packed with boleros, seguidillas and galops, neatly sets the exotic scene and keeps the plot moving ahead propulsively. The story has a loose factual basis in the life of Micaëla Villegas, a Peruvian entertainer who was the mistress of Manuel de Amat y Juniet, the Viceroy of Peru from 1761 to 1776. The operetta’s title, based on a semi-affectionate, semi-derogatory term actually used by Amat in reference to Villegas, translates roughly as “the half-breed bitch,” which is surely why this particular operatic title is always given in the original language. The operetta itself should be, too, but some companies continue to perform Offenbach in translation, and the new CPO recording from Staatsoperette Dresden gives it in German – a language that does not fit Offenbach’s music and wordplay particularly well, even when the singers are as adept as they are in this 2009 performance (although, in fairness, it should be noted that the work has been given in German for many years, its first Vienna performance occurring only months after its world première in Paris). Some numbers from La Périchole are heard fairly frequently, such as the “letter song” from Act I and La Périchole’s “tipsy” aria from the same act. And Offenbach’s work is often mentioned in a footnote about Gilbert and Sullivan, since Trial by Jury was specifically written as a companion piece for a performance of this Offenbach operetta. Parts of La Périchole also found their way into the pastiche known as Gaité Parisienne. But the operetta itself is much better than the small elements of it that have been referenced and picked up here and there. Offenbach here places many of his trademark approaches, such as the singing of nonsense syllables or parts of words, in the service of genuinely interesting events and an endless succession of lovely tunes – this is one of the most purely melodious scores he ever created. The Dresden performance is somewhat hobbled by the language and the use of a newly crafted libretto – unnecessary in this work’s case, and doubly irritating because the libretto is not provided with the recording or made available online (the synopsis is adequate but not enough). Also, Ernst Theis conducts what is essentially the original 1850 version of the operetta, although he does include one of the gems created for the 1874 Vienna production, the third-act aria entitled, in French, Tu n'es pas beau, tu n'es pas riche. Also interpolated, oddly but amusingly, is the chorus of carabiniers from Les Brigands. A couple of other elements from the 1874 version are appended to the main performance – with a different cast, from 2010 – but the work would flow better with the later material incorporated. Despite these reservations, this is a first-class reading of La Périchole, thanks to fine singing and really wonderful choral and orchestral contributions. It is not at the level of, say, the 1960s performance led by Marc Soustro with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which is sung with abandon by a cast led by Maria Ewing, Neil Rosenshein and Gabriel Bacquier. But the verve and spirit of the operetta and the fine sound of CPO’s recording nevertheless make Theis’ Dresden reading of La Périchole a joy to hear – re-raising the question of why this work is not mounted far more frequently on international stages.