June 26, 2014
Jerktastic Park: A “Get Fuzzy” Treasury. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Bedlam: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 30. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
The fact that we live in an age in which the whole notion of “family” has changed dramatically, and continues to change, makes it much easier to accept some of the highly unusual “family” combinations to be found in comic strips – such as Darby Conley’s mixture of human adman and professional nonentity Rob Wilco, single-fanged apartment terror (according to himself, anyway) Bucky Katt, and dumb-but-always-endearing Satchel Pooch. The “Do Not Feed the Freaks” sign on the cover of the latest Get Fuzzy “Treasury” volume, Jerktastic Park, makes perfect sense when it comes to this distinctly non-Brady-Bunch bunch. The cover of this oversize volume is particularly good, from its parallel with the famous “eat the lawyer” scene in the original Jurassic Park (with Bucky as T. Rex and Rob as the unfortunate morsel, complete with outhouses in the background), to its casting of Satchel as one of the long-necked, rather dim sauropods that played bit parts in Steven Spielberg’s hyper-popular movie. The actual contents of the book are really good, too, but they are also really repetitious, because – like other Andrews McMeel “Treasury” volumes – this one consists of previously released material. If you are a Get Fuzzy fan and already have the collections Birth of Canis and The Fuzzy Bunch, the interior of Jerktastic Park will hold no surprises: unlike some other cartoonists, Conley does not dress up his “Treasury” collections with commentary, self-praise, or other adornments. Of course, if you do not have those collections or have worn them out through constant rereading, you can get all the strips in one place here. That will give you Bucky’s discovery of “the La Brea family bucket,” including chicken bones found near an artifact “commonly referred to as ‘Flintstones Chewables.’” And repeated reappearances of Mac Manc McManx, the Manchester feline whose Britishisms help him steal every scene he appears in. And the introduction of Ibid Q. (I.Q.) Muttly, the intellectual-trash-talking dog who tells Bucky that “my research would indicate that you exhibit symptoms of being what is referred to colloquially as a ‘jerk.’” And the combination keep-your-rear-end-cool fan-wallet that Rob, being a dimwit, agrees to wear after Bucky invents it as one of his “new hybriproducts.” And the “threrret level,” which is the perceived threat level from ferrets. And the time Satchel throws Bucky out of the window as a result of said threrret level. And Bucky’s decision to rename himself Steve, for reasons that are barely comprehensible. Actually, many things in Get Fuzzy are barely comprehensible, but then, families do tend to evolve their own communication methods that may be difficult for outsiders, such as everybody else on Earth, to understand. But everything almost makes sense – including Bucky’s redesign of soccer, in which, among other things, “all the substitutes are knife-wielding monkeys. Except the backup goalie. He has a slingshot.” Hey, if you were in the Get Fuzzy family, that would be all in a day’s comprehension.
Now, if you think only strange animal-human hybrid families have communication issues, then you probably don’t know enough about Baby Blues, the outstanding Rick Kirkman/Jerry Scott collaboration about an entirely ordinary, fully human family (without even any pets – that is, without ones that survive more than a couple of days). Darryl and Wanda MacPherson and their three kids – Zoe, Hammie and Wren – are simple modern suburbanites, with a minivan for stay-at-home mom to use ferrying kids hither and yon, a sensible sedan for dad to use when commuting to and from work, a house with a yard and barely affordable mortgage, nice neighbors, and all the other appurtenances of 21st-century middle-class life. So there is nothing strange, offbeat or in the slightest bit amusing about them at all, right? Well, there is the fact that Darryl and Wanda have to go outdoors and stand next to a street worker using a pneumatic drill so they can have enough quiet to talk. And that Hammie likes to sled off the roof. And Zoe wants to see her mom’s body art, so Wanda shows her “some stretch marks and a mole” because “if you squint, it kind of looks like a rose.” And then there is down-in-the-dumps Zoe playing with Wren and discovering that “a bare tummy makes an excellent antidepressant.” And Wren chewing on the TV remote and managing to order an adult movie. And Zoe going online and discovering a perfect day camp for Hammie, until Wanda notices that “all those boys [are] wearing striped suits and ankle chains.” And Wanda writing a blog, even though Darryl comments that “our life is mostly predictable routine…punctuated by moments of sheer insanity.” Actually, that is a darned good description of Baby Blues as a whole – and of modern middle-class life with young children. It’s all just funnier, and somehow more true to life, when it happens to the MacPhersons than when it hits the rest of us. And “hits” is exactly the right word: there is nothing gentle about the repercussions of family living. Certainly things are percussive around the MacPhersons: after taking Wren to a hilariously drawn birthday party that only seems overstated and overdone if you have never been to one, Darryl tells Wanda that he has TPSD. No, not PTSD – TPSD. “Toddler Party Stress Disorder.” What family with young kids cannot relate to that?
Sweet Dreams: 5-Minute Bedtime Stories. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
The Very Cranky Bear. By Nick Bland. Scholastic. $16.99.
Lives of the Artists: Masterpieces, Messes (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
New editions, or ones that are in effect new, provide a great chance to see whether books have staying power – including books for children. Sweet Dreams is a compilation of 10 short and sweet tales by various authors and from various times: Sweet Dreams, Curious George (2013); I Will Not Read This Book! (2011); Go to Bed, Monster! (2007); Won’t You Be My Hugaroo? (2007); Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime (2011); Blanket (1990); Very Hairy Bear (2007); The Dream Jar (2005); What Did You Do Today? (2002); and Piggies (1991). The subjects are predictable, from fighting against bedtime to settling down and relaxing into sleep. The characters are of all sorts, from the redoubtable Curious George (in a story by Cynthia Platt, illustrated by Mary O’Keefe Young, not an original H.A. Rey tale), to pint-sized pirate Charlotte Jane (story by Myra Wolfe, illustrated by Maria Monescillo), to the soothing, cuddlable and recently washed Blanket (written and illustrated by Margot Apple). Discovering or rediscovering these characters and scenes is delightful, although it is worth mentioning that some of the stories take a lot more than five minutes to read – and be sure to allow even more time for enjoying the pictures! Whatever way a child likes to go to sleep, with a quiet and calming tale or one filled with adventure, he or she will find something to enjoy here. And if one story does not quite work, the next is only a few pages away – the advantage of a well-assembled anthology like this one, whether its tales have been available for decades or only for the last few years.
The Very Cranky Bear has been around since 2008, but only for people who could get hold of the Australian edition. So Scholastic’s release is sort of a new edition of an existing book and sort of something altogether new, since Nick Bland’s book has not been published in the U.S. before. One way or another, the book is silly and a lot of fun: four sort-of-3D-looking animal friends get out of the heavy rain in the Jingle Jangle Jungle by going into a cave, only to find a very cranky bear inside, trying, unsuccessfully, to sleep. The bear chases Moose, Lion, Zebra and Sheep out, back into the rain, so the four friends decide to do something about the bear’s crankiness and thus get him to let them return to a place where it is warm and dry. Now, three of the four have something special about them: Zebra’s stripes, Moose’s antlers, and Lion’s golden mane. Each is sure that if Bear only had the same thing, he would stop being cranky. Assembling tools consisting of mud, grass and branches, the three leave plain-looking Sheep out in the cold and wet and go back to the cave to make Bear look better – an attempt that fails hilariously, in Bland’s funniest illustration. So it is left to plain little Sheep to figure out how to make Bear happy and get the friends back into the cave, in a thoroughly satisfactory ending that is not so much a twist as it is a bit of logic applied to an illogical situation.
An even older book, Kathleen Krull’s Lives of the Artists dates to 1995; it is now available in paperback. The Lives of… books are always delightful, offering a mixture of short and offbeat biographies with first-rate Kathryn Hewitt illustrations in which the people profiled are shown with oversize heads in scenes that display their particular expertise and fame. In this book, for example, Katsushika Hokusai is portrayed wearing a kimono from the front of which his most-famous scene, The Great Wave, seems to emerge. And Krull’s text says, among other things, that Hokusai sometimes “painted while hanging upside down, or with the brush held in his mouth or between his toes” (indeed, the illustration shows a between-the-toes brush). The whole book is like this: Rembrandt’s students dressed like him, he sometimes signed their paintings and passed them off as his own, and “he laughed between his trips to the bank.” Henri Matisse lived “on a diet of rice when he had to, resisting the temptation to eat the fruit he bought for his still lifes.” In Marcel Duchamp’s New York apartment, “two nails, one with a piece of string hanging down, served as art on the otherwise bare walls.” Most of the 20 artists in this book are quite well known: Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Peter Bruegel, Mary Cassatt, Picasso, Chagall, Dali and others. But as usual, Krull and Hewitt include a few whose names and work may not be familiar to many young readers or even some adults: Sofonisba Anguissola, Käthe Kollwitz, William H. Johnson. The eclectic selection mixes art styles and purposes as well as artists of many times and skill levels. And as usual in the Lives of… books, the result is something both entertaining and informative, as well as a work that will send interested young readers searching for more information on the people profiled and perhaps into an exploration of other artists altogether.
Virtual Unreality. By Charles Seife. Viking. $26.95.
Don’t believe everything you hear. Or see. Or interact with in any way whatsoever. At least not where the Internet is concerned. That is the message of New York University journalism professor Charles Seife’s Virtual Unreality, and while it is scarcely a new message or a unique one, Seife delivers it so tellingly, so skillfully and with such a good combination of serious analysis and humor that he makes it very much worth readers’ attention. You can probably even believe what he says. Most of it, anyway.
Seife trots out a lot of the issues with which careful Internet users are already familiar: the downside of Wikipedia’s openness to its entries being edited by anyone, for example, and the ease with which the Internet makes it possible to deceive people through use of a false identity (sockpuppetry). He talks about the frequency with which people create online personas suffering from disease or disability and then make use of the outpouring of sympathy from strangers – a phenomenon now identified within psychological circles and called “‘virtual factitious disorder’ or, more snappily, ‘Munchausen by internet.’” Seife discuses dating sites, robot scammers, and the use of Twitter to gather damaging information on people (such as politicians).
He also delves into some genuinely significant and potentially worrisome societal changes wrought by the extent of our everyday interconnectedness. For example, he writes that “an audience used to be a precious and rare commodity,” using as an example the Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park in London, which provides “an opportunity to speak in front of a receptive crowd of a respectable size – a size that few speakers are dynamic and interesting enough to draw on their own.” Speakers’ Corner, though, now coexists with an audience-gathering tool far more powerful and far-reaching (literally far-reaching, across the globe): “Then came the internet. The audience problem had vanished. The internet’s vast interconnectivity made it possible for everyone to hear everyone else – and to be heard by everyone else. This is perhaps the most important and radical change wrought by digital information. …Your audience is potentially the world.”
And other changes, arguably of almost the same level of importance, abound, and Seife talks about them as well. “A digital copy, if properly done, is absolutely identical to the original – in some sense, there’s no point in talking about ‘original’ and ‘copy,’ because neither has any greater claim to authenticity. …The advent of cheap, perfect digital copies completely destroyed a number of ways we humans used to think about information. For one thing, it utterly demolished the basis for a market in goods made out of information, such as books, newspapers, movies, and recordings of music. …[The] replication barrier was fundamental…. Digital information dynamited the very foundations of the market for information goods.”
And there is more in Virtual Unreality, a short (248-page) book whose contents go way, way beyond its page count. However, it is a book, not an Internet screed. And it is one that uses the medium of print in ways that digital media cannot quite match – Seife has, for example, a “Chapter 5½.” Clearly there is still a place for ink-on-dead-trees, comparatively-difficult-to-reproduce information – a fact that is clear from the very existence of this book, although not from the arguments within it. Seife correctly points out that although information dissemination is, or can be, free and instantaneous, information itself “is expensive. It takes time and effort to uncover something unexpected and to turn that information into something that’s usable and interesting.” The ethical and moral issues of information creation and distribution are ones with which Seife has been personally involved, and he writes about them trenchantly as well as entertainingly – the latter when, for example, he discusses being asked to find out if there were any plagiarism or reuse problems in a certain writer’s work: “Why, yes. There were.”
In fact, Seife handles complex and difficult issues of the digital society with intelligence and understanding throughout Virtual Unreality, his knowledge and analytical ability making the book one absolutely worth reading. But there is a caveat here, and it has to do with the point of the book. There is always a push-pull in analytical works about societal issues between the descriptive and the prescriptive, and it is usually in the latter area – what to do about what the author describes – that social-commentary books fall short. Seife’s prescriptions, presented in an appendix aptly titled “The Top Ten Dicta of the Internet Skeptic,” make a far better effort than most to help readers cope with the problems that the book elucidates. Examples include “Everybody’s a fake. At least that’s what you should assume” and “The early bird gets the worm. The late bird gets the early bird.” These are excellent notions as far as they go, although in fact it may be better to be an Internet cynic than a mere skeptic. The real concern here, though – and perhaps Seife will address it in yet another traditionally published book, this one being his sixth – is in knowing how to be a sensible and informed “Internet consumer,” not sucked into the marketing morass of instantaneous interconnection and not victimized by rumor and innuendo and generalized misinformation, but being able to maximize the value of the most powerful communications medium we humans have yet devised. Stay tuned, as they (whoever “they” are) say. Or used to say.
The American Fairy Trilogy, Book Three: Bad Luck Girl. By Sarah Zettel. Random House. $17.99.
The United States of Asgard, Book 2: The Strange Maid. By Tessa Gratton. Random House. $17.99.
Hexed. By Michelle Krys. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
If only things could be different. Really, really different. Except, you know, also the same. Like, a totally different world, but one where everybody thinks and talks and does things and, you know, relates the same way everybody does in this one. How cool would that be? Pretty cool, it seems, if the sheer volume of books for readers ages 12 and up – primarily female readers – is any indication. All of these series books combine real-ish settings and real-ish characters with fantasy elements that are designed to bring a sense of wonder and magic into circumstances that, at bottom, are very much the same ones facing everyday teenagers in our own everyday world. Sarah Zettel’s Bad Luck Girl is actually set in an alternative past: a 1930s Chicago in which fairies and other magical creatures abound. But this conclusion of The American Fairy Trilogy remains firmly rooted in the approaches and typical interpersonal elements of other “young adult” novels. Callie LeRoux, the trilogy’s protagonist, has at this point accomplished something important in all books of this type: she has brought her splintered family together. True, in this case the family is otherworldly – her father is an Unseelie fairy prince – but the rescue-and-uniting theme is quite ordinary. The fact that Callie’s action has provoked serious trouble – in this case, a war between the fairies of the Midnight Throne and the Sunlit Kingdoms – is also expected, however supernatural the combatants may be. And the fact that the war forces Callie and her inevitable best friend, Jack, to flee for their lives, is also scarcely unusual. The most interesting thing in Bad Luck Girl is Callie’s discovery of magical creatures called Halfers, genuinely unusual make-believe entities that are half fairy and half anything from a steel girder to an electric spark. A book about them could be genuinely intriguing, but they are subsidiary (although important) characters here. As usual in works of this type, Callie is not merely a fairy but a child of prophecy, someone ultra-special, as readers of these fantasy books would like to consider themselves to be; and although the problems Callie encounters lead the fairies to dub her the Bad Luck Girl, it is certain that she will win through the challenges she faces and emerge stronger and more firmly tied to her family than ever: “My father smiled down at me, approval shining in his eyes.” Readers who enjoyed Dust Girl and Golden Girl will find this conclusion of Callie’s story satisfying if scarcely surprising, and will relish the fact that the final word of the book, complete with ellipsis, is, “Until...”
Things are barely getting going in The Strange Maid, which is merely the second book of Tessa Grafton’s planned five-book series, The United States of Asgard. This series is a mashup, different from but in the same general vein as steampunk: dragon slaying and rune casting coexist here with cell phones and rock bands. Much as in The American Fairy Trilogy, the idea here is to mix familiar real-world things with creations of fantasy, stir everything together, and see what emerges. In The Strange Maid, what shows up is the story of Signy Valborn of Vinland, this novel’s protagonist – Grafton plans to build the first four novels around four different characters, then bring everyone together for the grand finale. Signy is an entertainer: she dresses like a Valkyrie for Vinland tourists. And it is important to remember that in this world, Valkyries are real: they help the president of the United States run the country (the Norse gods are real, too, and are celebrities of a sort, with Baldur the Beautiful being the most popular – which makes a certain amount of sense, actually). Signy also helps put a tame mountain troll on display; the creature belongs to troll hunter Ned Unferth, who is predictably young and handsome. But all is not well in Signy’s world: Baldur, scheduled to rise and live among people during spring and summer, does not do so, for one thing; for another, mountain trolls attack and destroy Signy’s town – and after the destruction, Ned and his troll are missing. So Signy sets out to find them, and that is her quest in this five-part series of related and somewhat interlinked quest stories. Signy dreams of becoming a warrior, and of course finds during her adventure that she really does have the warrior spirit, but not in quite the way she imagined. Nordic or not, this is a coming-of-age story, for all that it contains such Beowulf-and-Norse-mythology-inspired lines as “I can’t help thinking that we need our own King Hrothgar to make the cycle complete” and “I think of the bright pearl of Odin’s mad eye, and the laughter of his ravens, so like the echo of seagulls crying outside.” The clever scaffolding that Grafton uses to erect her tale has less sense of wonder in this second book than in the first, The Lost Sun, since it has now become part of the background rather than itself being a major element of the story. As a result, The Strange Maid becomes a more-straightforward adventure than its predecessor, but the unusual world setting remains interesting, and readers who found the first book’s concept and characters engaging will enjoy this one as well.
A fantasy series does have to start somewhere, and Michelle Krys’ starts with Hexed, which is also the author’s debut novel. The standard elements of fantasies, recognizable in The American Fairy Trilogy and The United States of Asgard as well, are all here: a protagonist who is more than she seems and more than she knows; a search for self that leads toward a grand destiny; a war between powerful supernatural opponents; and a series of concealed truths that the central character must uncover in order to save herself and others. The protagonist here is Indigo (Indie) Blackwood, a kind of high-school queen bee with a strong social network: she is a cheerleader and has a clichéd football-star boyfriend. She has the usual oddball parental unit (her mom runs an occult shop and is ridiculously possessive of a family Bible). And she becomes involved with the usual mysterious stranger, whose name is Bishop and who is predictably sexy and predictably infuriating. Krys knows the right elements to put into this particular genre formula, but she mixes them rather uncertainly: the seams of the plot show through, and there is the feeling, again and again, that characters do things because the unseen author needs to manipulate them into doing those things. That is, there is even less sense here than usual of real-seeming characters motivated by their own personalities. The creakiness does not really matter, though, because the plot moves along predictable vectors: the Bible is stolen, and Indie finds out that she must get it back because failure to do so would doom all witches, and by the way, she is a witch herself. And, oh yes, there is a lengthy ongoing war between witches and sorcerers, and Indie, like it or not, is now right in the middle of it. The writing here fits the formula but does not go beyond it: “The grandfather clock in the dining room ticks away the seconds of silence.” “I make a promise to myself that if I somehow, miraculously, make it out of this mess alive, if I somehow am a witch, I’m going to get good at magic.” “A bloodcurdling scream pierces the air…” “‘You can be happy, you know. It’s okay for you to be happy again.’” The plotting is formulaic, too, with uncertain alliances, betrayals, difficult occult training, and so forth. By the time readers get to the expected words, “It’s over,” which of course mean it’s not over, they will either have whetted their appetite for the upcoming sequel, Charmed, or will have moved on to some other blend of fantasy and reality in the teen-escapism mode.
Bach: Concerto for Two Violins in D minor; Suite for Violin and Strings in A minor; Geminiani: Concerto grosso in C after Corelli; Concerto grosso in D minor; Schmelzer: Sonata 3 from “Sonatae unarum fidium”; Biber: Partia V from “Harmonia artificioso-ariosa”; Vivaldi: “Summer” from “The Four Seasons.” Jeanne Lamon, violin and conducting Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Tafelmusik Media. $18.99.
Haydn: Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4; Johann Peter Salomon: Romanze für Violine und Orchester. Midori Seiler, violin and conducting Concerto Köln. Berlin Classics. $18.99.
Ysaÿe: Sonatas Nos. 1-6 for Solo Violin. Tianwa Yang, violin. Naxos. $9.99.
Paganini: 24 Caprices, Op. 1, arranged for solo flute by Marina Piccinini. Marina Piccinini, flute. Avie. $17.98 (2 CDs)
Night Stories: Nocturnes. Jenny Lin, piano. Hänssler Classic. $18.99.
Norman Lloyd and Peter Mennin: Piano Music. Myron Silberstein, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Splendid solo playing is almost enough reason to own many CDs – but for an incontrovertible recommendation, the music played also has to be worth listening to, not just once but time and time again. Indeed, “time and time again” is the reason for being of the new CD featuring Jeanne Lamon on the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s own label: everything on the CD was recorded between 1990 and 2011 and has been released before, mostly on Sony (the Bach A minor suite was an Analekta release). All the music here dates to the Baroque period, but it is nevertheless not music often heard on the same disc, and one decision – to release Vivaldi’s “Summer” without the three accompanying seasons – may strike some listeners as distinctly odd. The reality, though, is that this CD of works chosen by Lamon herself showcases her as both violinist and conductor, and gives listeners a chance to hear just how much variety there is in the Baroque repertoire. The Bach suite (known primarily in its flute version) and concerto (featuring Lamon and Linda Melsted) and the Vivaldi are very well known indeed, and Lamon and the orchestra handle them with the sureness and subtlety of long familiarity. Lamon is particularly adept at a kind of understated virtuosity that fits Baroque music particularly well: the violin parts are often difficult, but they are not there merely for display, and the soloist remains primus inter pares even when taking the lead in the music. This is perhaps clearer in the less-familiar music here, all of which is very well constructed and often requires considerable skill. The two concerti by Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) show excellent contrapuntal command, with the one in C “after Corelli” (who was Geminiani’s teacher) being an effective reworking of the older composer’s original. The Biber work (in which Lamon and Melsted are again featured) shows this composer’s usual strong command of form and harmonic subtlety. And the sonata by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (ca. 1620-1680) is poised and pleasantly balanced among the instruments. What this disc shows is that Baroque-style virtuosity requires the ability to play as part of an ensemble as well as “fronting” a larger group – an approach that Lamon has down pat.
The three surviving Haydn violin concertos (a fourth is lost) are not especially demanding of the soloist: No. 4 is the least so, followed by No. 1 and No. 3, but even No. 3 does not require very much virtuosic intensity. The challenge of these concertos is to play them without overdoing them or making them seem to be more difficult or soloistic than they in fact are. This requires the soloist to assume a posture somewhat akin to that of Lamon in Baroque works, although Haydn’s style is more advanced and makes considerably more use of effects such as double-stopping. Midori Seiler – who, like Lamon, serves as both soloist and ensemble director on her new CD – manages to restrain her considerable ability to focus attention on her playing, handling Haydn’s style well and not overdoing her role in these relatively modest works. The result is a Berlin Classics CD that is very well played and quite nicely recorded, showcasing the music more than the soloist – even as it gives listeners the treat of hearing some less-often-performed Haydn interpreted by a very fine solo violinist and a first-rate period-instrument ensemble that brings considerable charm as well as a high level of understanding to the music. And the CD has a fascinating bonus in the form of a romance by Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815), the impresario who brought Haydn to London and will always be associated with the great symphonies that Haydn wrote for that city. Salomon was a composer, violinist and conductor as well, and clearly had some talent in composition, on the basis of the brief work heard here. The piece has charm and balance and fits nicely into the music of its time – it is nothing outstanding, but is quite pleasant and well-constructed.
Far more virtuosic in the modern sense, and fascinatingly constructed to reflect the styles of their six dedicatees, the Sonatas for Solo Violin by Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) are beautifully performed by Tianwa Yang on a new Naxos CD. There are ways in which these works look back all the way to the Baroque: No. 1, for instance, directly reflects the first of Bach’s solo-violin sonatas, while No. 2 quotes the beginning of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin. Indeed, elements of Bach are pervasive in this set; but the sensibilities of these works are very much of the Romantic and post-Romantic era, and often reflect concerns that Ysaÿe shared with other composers – Sonata No. 2, for instance, makes much use of the Dies irae theme that obsessed Rachmaninoff. This sonata is dedicated to Jacques Thibaud. No. 1 is dedicated to Joseph Szigeti, No. 3 to George Enescu, No. 4 to Fritz Kreisler, No. 5 to Mathieu Crickboom, and No. 6 to Manuel Quiroga (who never played the work in public). The last two dedicatees are less known today than the others, and Enescu is nowadays familiar as a composer rather than a violinist. So the extent to which Ysaÿe’s careful craftsmanship accurately reflects the styles of his contemporary virtuosi may not be immediately apparent to modern listeners. What is apparent is that these sonatas are written in very different forms: Nos. 1 and 2 in four movements, No. 4 in three, No. 5 in two, and Nos. 3 and 6 in one. And the works sound different, too – in fact, collectively they use the solo violin in an extremely wide variety of ways, showcasing the instrument’s capabilities to quite a considerable extent. Wang is the equal of all this music, whether in dancelike sections or in speedy runs that take the violin to its highest register; whether in the expressive ballade of No. 3 or the chromatic habanera of No. 6. Her playing is fluid, technically proficient, musically knowing and altogether winning. The Ysaÿe sonatas stand, nearly a century after they were composed in 1923, as monuments to seven great violinists – the seventh being their composer. In Wang’s performances, they sing at the highest level.
The works that in a sense introduced the modern concept of superb violin virtuosity – Paganini’s 24 Caprices, Op. 1, published in 1819 – have ever since remained at the summit of difficulty for their instrument. And not only for the violin: some or all of these works have been transcribed, transmuted, or become the basis for other music of all sorts, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini being one of the most famous examples. It is fair to say, though, that they have never had an arrangement quite like the one from Marina Piccinini: she transcribes them all for solo flute. Piccinini is an artist who pushes boundaries – she has recorded Bach’s Flute Sonatas with a guitar duo, for example – and here she pushes them very far indeed. These flute arrangements are very strange indeed for anyone familiar with the music: it takes several hearings to absorb them without constantly comparing them with the violin originals pacing along in the back of one’s mind. Once accepted, they are surprisingly effective, intelligently and resourcefully prepared and respectful not only of the musical notes but also of the emotional expressiveness that underlies the enormous technical requirements. Intonation is a major issue for violinists essaying these works; not so for a flautist, and this is an advantage. On the other hand, violinists need not worry about breath control and depth of sound, as flautists must. Piccinini surmounts the technical complexities of the music with great flexibility and understanding, and her creativity and fluency are admirable throughout. Calling this two-CD Avie release a tour de force is almost understating the case. And yet there is something missing here, something evanescent and difficult to define, but nevertheless quite real. It is not technical: Piccinini’s solutions to the violin’s double stops, for example, are uniformly elegant and thoughtful (although not all elements of violin playing translate to the flute: the tremolo under a tune in Caprice No. 6, for example, cannot be duplicated). What is missing in this recording is a sense of danger. Paganini was a showman – think, for example, of his scordatura tuning requirement for the solo violin in his first concerto, which would be unplayable with standard tuning. Paganini built into the 24 Caprices place after place where even the best violinist must almost fail, must come close to missing notes or phrasing, just as the best high-wire walkers must almost fall, or seem to, in order to give the audience a frisson of terror. It is in the conquering of these numerous instances that these caprices attain the sense of visceral excitement, of outright danger, that they possess even when played by the greatest virtuosi. And it is precisely that sense of danger that is missing in Piccinini’s recording, a consequence of the very excellence and care that make her adaptation so fascinating in the first place. The result is a performance that astonishes on many levels and deserves its (++++) rating, but that is unlikely to have the sheer staying power of the best violin versions of Paganini’s enormously challenging music.
Violin virtuosity, or flute virtuosity for that matter, are certainly not the only types that can draw listeners who want to hear first-rate performances: solo piano can be every bit as thrilling and inspiring. But remember that top-quality playing is not enough to give a CD lasting value if the music itself is of lesser quality. This is the issue affecting a Hänssler Classic CD entitled Night Stories: Nocturnes and featuring Jenny Lin. Lin’s pianism is excellent, and the disc is clearly intended for her fans and fans of top-quality piano performances in general. Its title also makes it clear that the CD offers night music – more than an hour of it, in fact, in 15 snippets. There is nothing to fault here in Lin’s performances or the quality of the recording, but the music itself is another matter. Some of it is wonderful, if expected to the point of cliché in a CD with this title: Debussy’s Clair de Lune, two Chopin Nocturnes (Nos. 1 and 13), Liszt’s Nocturne No. 3 (Liebestraum). Other works are pulled out of context: Schumann’s In die Nacht from Fantasiestücke, Joaquin Turina’s Silueta nocturna from El Castillo de Almodóvar. The remaining pieces, including some that are almost completely unknown, appear willy-nilly, with no particular reason for them to show up in the order in which they are presented and with little attention to the overall flow of the disc: Debussy’s Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon, Glazunov’s La Nuit, Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne, Op. 10, No. 1, Fauré’s Nocturne, Op. 33, No. 3, Grieg’s Nocturne, Op. 54, No. 4, a work by Arthur Vincent Lourié (1892-1966) called A Phoenix Park Nocturne, Paderewski’s Nocturne, Op. 16, No. 4, a piece by Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) called The Night Winds, and Glinka’s Nocturne “La Separation.” All those nocturnes, all that nocturnal atmosphere, threaten to become soporific, and the similar mood of many of the pieces on this (+++) disc does interfere with full enjoyment of Lin’s playing. This is a case in which the music is very well performed, but is of variable quality and rather too much sameness of mood for the CD to be fully effective or fully satisfying.
The issue is somewhat different with the (+++) Naxos CD featuring Myron Silberstein playing solo-piano works by Norman Lloyd and Peter Mennin. Five of the six works here are world première recordings, and everything is played very well indeed, but much of the music is simply not distinguished or interesting enough to get a wholehearted recommendation. The best pieces here are the most ambitious: Lloyd’s piano sonata of 1958 and Mennin’s of 1963. Lloyd’s work is large-scale and carefully crafted, while Mennin’s is even more impressive in its craggy intensity. Neither work really breaks new compositional ground – both are firmly rooted in the ideas and techniques of American music in the middle of the 20th century – but both neatly encapsulate the sonata form as it was developed and solidified at that time. The other music here is not at the same level. Mennin’s Five Pieces for Piano (the only work on this disc that has previously been recorded) and Lloyd’s Five Pieces for Dance, Episodes for Piano and Three Scenes from Memory are all brief assemblages of moderately attractive miniatures, somewhat interchangeable in sound even though Lloyd and Mennin generally had differing compositional styles. There is nothing really uninteresting about any of this music, all of which Silberstein plays with sure-handed understanding, but neither is there anything particularly compelling here except in the two sonatas.
Out of Darkness. Caitlin Lynch, soprano; Sarah Larsen, mezzo-soprano; Morgan Smith, baritone; Music of Remembrance conducted by Mina Miller. Naxos. $9.99.
Eric Whitacre: Choral Works, Volume 1. BYU Singers conducted by Ronald Staheli. BYU Records. $16.99.
Eric Whitacre: Choral Works, Volume 2. BYU Singers conducted by Ronald Staheli; BYU Concert Choir conducted by Rosalind Hall; BYU Women’s Chorus conducted by David M. Thomas. BYU Records. $16.99.
Jean-Philippe Grégoire: Sounds from the Delta. Big Round Records. $14.99.
The multifaceted uses of the human voice allow it to be employed not only in varied vocal styles and with varied intensity but also in a multiplicity of musical forms – with contemporary composers not only utilizing and adapting approaches of the past but also finding new ways to create music centered on vocal expression. Out of Darkness by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, for example, is a collection of three works related to the Holocaust; and the works, singly and together, are something akin to an opera, something like a song cycle, and something along the lines of a cantata. The subject matter is well-worn and quite heavy, and may be a turnoff for potential listeners, given the frequency with which the Holocaust has in recent years been addressed with tremendous seriousness in music of all sorts and in many media. The pieces that make up Out of Darkness personalize the monumentality of one of the 20th century’s defining events by making it into a story of individuals affected by the horrors – a common technique of synecdoche that, when as well done as it is here, makes the larger story more comprehensible than statistics and overviews ever can. Another Sunrise (2012) opens Out of Darkness with the story of a composer and Polish Resistance member named Krystyna Żywulska, who was captured and sent to Auschwitz – where she created songs that circulated clandestinely and helped maintain some semblance of defiance among the prisoners. Farewell, Auschwitz (2013) actually uses some of Żywulska’s lyrics, adapting them into a generalized set of proclamations urging listeners to focus on their own humanity even when trapped in a place where bestial behavior is the norm. Finally, For a Look or a Touch (2007/2013), a song cycle within this larger cycle, looks at Nazi persecution of homosexuals, returning to the personalization of Another Sunrise by telling its own story of loss and intimacy. The overall effect of Out of Darkness is intended to be uplifting and to provide some sense of closure, and the performers bring sensitivity and musicality to the entire project. But it feels like a project, a work conceived in and executed for extramusical purposes and using music as a conduit for social and political feelings and statements. Very well recorded by Naxos, and certainly heartfelt and emotive, Out of Darkness is also manipulative of its audience, which needs to be predisposed to engage in and ultimately transcend the horror of long-ago brutality in order to get the full effect of the work.
To get the full effect of Eric Whitacre’s choral music, or at least a great deal of the effect, the two Brigham Young University CDs on the university’s own BYU Records will be plenty, if not more than enough. The primary element of Whitacre’s choral music is its density, which increases or decreases depending on the effect that Whitacre wants at any given time. Using poetry by Octavio Paz, Federico García Lorca, E.E. Cummings, Charles Anthony Silvestri, Emily Dickinson, Edmund Waller, Edward Esch, Hila Plitmann, and Jalal al-Din Rumi – with a little James Joyce, Ogden Nash, Leonardo da Vinci and Old Testament thrown in – Whitacre’s works on these CDs show how adept he is at choral writing that frequently divides voices into a very large number of parts. There is a great deal of calculated dissonance in this music, with plenty of seventh and ninth chords (some of them augmented or expanded) arranged in unusual progressions. The rhythms of many of these pieces are often unusual and quite complex, and they change frequently. Whitacre is also enamored of aleatoric sections and unusual instructions to the singers – to use hand actions or props, for example, although those of course do not come through on CD. If all these elements make Whitacre’s music sound dry or academic, though, that is only the case part of the time. When Whitacre chooses to be amusing, as in the three little Ogden Nash poems on the second BYU disc, his techniques accentuate the humor and piquancy of the words. When he chooses to be highly serious, as in Lux Aurumque on the first CD, here too his studied approach to choral writing produces a surprisingly moving effect. And in the one piece here with James Joyce words, She Weeps over Rahoon on the second disc, Whitacre’s techniques effectively bring out the sentiments of the girl weeping at the grave of her lover. However, while Whitacre’s music is affecting in small doses, and individual pieces come across quite well, the effect of a full disc of his choral works – not to mention two – is rather less successful. Techniques that elucidate specific words are applied so often to other, emotionally different words that the pieces tend to blend and clump, interfering with each other’s meaningfulness. Despite (or perhaps because of) the elaborate use of complex compositional elements, handled differently for the varying purposes of the music, there is something wearing about extended listening to Whitacre’s music – possibly for singers as well as listeners, although the BYU choruses handle the music with sensitivity and a sense of considerable involvement. There are certainly plenty of high points on these two CDs. But there are also long stretches of what sounds like sameness, even though an academic analysis would show the differences among the selections.
The mixture of sameness and difference is a large part of what jazz is all about, and composer-guitarist Jean-Philippe Grégoire – who studied classical guitar before moving into the jazz realm – fully understands the medium’s hybrid elements. He understands how to create stylistic hybrids, too, mixing French and American jazz styles on a Big Round Records release called Sounds from the Delta. The 10 tracks here have some classical influence – some rock and blues elements, too, for that matter – but all ultimately fit within the jazz milieu. Some are rhythmically intense, driven and highly syncopated in ways that look back past jazz classics all the way to ragtime. Others are slow in tempo and sinuous in sound, but tend to turn into speedier improvisational tours de force before they conclude. Grégoire is joined on this CD by Baptiste Herbin (saxophone), Martin Guimbellot (bass), and Nicolas Charlier (drums); the disc also includes guest appearances by guitarist Manu Codija, saxophonist Jean-Charles Richard, and pianist Laurent Fikelson. The performers work well together and seem to enjoy the variations and back-and-forths that permeate Grégoire’s music, which has an attractive vibrancy that contrasts nicely with passages of some delicacy and intimacy. No single track, however, is really a standout: Grégoire has a style that asserts itself in similar ways throughout the disc. Listeners who find that style congenial will enjoy hearing 50 minutes of it with an ensemble as comfortable with it as this one appears to be.
June 19, 2014
Scholastic “Discover More”: Ancient Egypt. By Penelope Arlon. Scholastic. $12.99.
Scholastic “Discover More”: Birds. By Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris. Scholastic. $7.99.
Magic Tree House #52: Soccer on Sunday. By Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $12.99.
Magic Tree House Fact Tracker (#29): Soccer. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Bryce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $5.99.
The Scholastic "Discover More" series is now several series, including one “for confident readers” and one “for brand-new readers.” The books look somewhat different, depending on their target readership, but their basic approach is the same: a highly visual handling of information, with text limited to a few paragraphs per page, most of them in the form of captions or brief introductory material. Ancient Egypt is for older readers, Birds for younger ones, and both are packed with intriguing bits of information on their subjects. In Ancient Egypt, for example, readers get to see a wooden toe found on a mummy – the earliest prosthetic device ever discovered, and evidence of how advanced the ancient Egyptians were in medicine. There is information on some of the 2,000 Egyptian gods and goddesses, a well-laid-out timeline of ancient Egypt (including the information that Cleopatra, actually Cleopatra VII, was its last ruler), material about everyday life, a look at some of the pharaohs, even information on “how to make a mummy.” Ancient Egyptian artifacts abound, so the illustrations for this book are authentic and fascinating, from war weapons to paintings to jewelry, mirrors and hairpins. An interview with an Egyptologist completes this thoroughly involving look at a major civilization.
Birds is simpler but no less informative. From a definition of a bird as an animal with feathers, wings, two feet and a beak, to a simple explanation of how most birds are able to fly and a look at some that cannot, to close-up looks at various beaks (showing how the shape of each makes it easier for birds with that beak to eat their particular foods), the book is colorful, informative and clear. In addition to expected focuses – on nests, for example – there are some unexpected ones: on birds’ feet and on their special senses (storks can feel fish brushing past their beaks; kingfishers can see underwater, which helps them catch fish). The looks at birds with the longest beak (the Australian pelican) and longest feather (the male crested argus) are fascinating, as are the short notes on the heaviest flying animal (the kori bustard) and the smallest bird (the bee hummingbird, which really is about the size of a bee). Kids who enjoy Birds and other "Discover More" books at its level will soon move on to Ancient Egypt and others at that level – and hopefully be inspired to get information in even more detail afterwards.
The information in the Magic Tree House series comes in two flavors: direct and incidental. The incidental material is in the main books, which are rather silly, lightly plotted “missions” that Jack and Annie undertake on behalf of Merlin (yes, that Merllin); the current mission series, which is completed in Soccer on Sunday, is to bring Merlin the four secrets of greatness, which for some reason he cannot find or figure out on his own. No matter – logic is scarcely a primary element of these easy-to-read (+++) adventure stories, which move through time and space with abandon. This one does not move very far through time – only to 1970, where its focus is soccer superstar Pelé. Actually, Jack and Annie spend most of the book interacting with a young soccer player who idolizes Pelé, rather than with the star himself; but yes, the intrepid explorers do find what Merlin wants, and yes, they have enough of an adventure to keep fans of this long-running series interested. The bits of soccer information in Soccer on Sunday are less concentrated than those in the accompanying Fact Tracker: Soccer, which is entirely factual and includes photos as well as illustrations. The book includes profiles not only of Pelé but also of Abby Wambach, David Beckham, Mia Hamm and other players, and it also offers some history of the game and its predecessors – plus a diagram of a soccer pitch, a list of soccer skills, and more. Like the books they accompany, the Fact Tracker volumes are quite formulaic and get a (+++) rating; but they are to be commended for giving kids who become interested in the subjects underlying the adventure books a chance to find out a little bit more about the ways in which those books touch on reality.
The Ways of the Dead. By Neely Tucker. Viking. $27.95.
Neely Tucker is no Ben Hecht or Charles MacArthur, but he certainly knows how to channel them and darken their vision considerably. When Hecht and MacArthur wrote The Front Page in 1928, newspapers were in their heyday, rapid-fire dialogue was in the ascendant, and extracting comedy from corruption and venality seemed like a natural (or naturally twisted) thing to do. Fast forward to 2014, though, and newspapers have lost most of their relevance, many of their advertisers, a great number of their readers, and an entire generation of potential users – who gravitate to instant news sources and could not care less about the investigations of political and administrative corruption in which newspapers have long excelled and on which they have long based their reputation as protectors of the public (which is itself a laughable notion to many today). Small wonder that in a recent survey of the 200 worst jobs in the United States, based on such factors as pay, hours and ability to control one’s own workplace destiny, “newspaper reporter” placed 199th (ahead of lumberjack).
So Tucker, a Washington Post reporter, reverses gears a bit, going back 15 years or so, to a time when newspapers were not quite on the way out yet and not quite as irrelevant as they have since become, in order to portray a very-old-school investigative reporter whose noir world is filled with corruption and double-dealing and venality about which there is nothing amusing whatsoever. It is as if Tucker runs the Hecht/MacArthur sensibility through that of Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown, transplanting the events from Chicago in 1928 and Los Angeles in 1937 to Washington, D.C., at the turn of the 21st century.
The nominal story is about the killing of the 15-year-old daughter of a prominent D.C. judge who is expected to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the real story is about the requisite tough-but-fair, hardened-and-damaged-but-upstanding clichéd reporter who will stop at nothing (including gun-toting, breaking and entering and more) in pursuit of truth, justice and the American (or at least Washingtonian) way. This is Sully Carter, onetime war correspondent, wounded in both body and soul in Bosnia, a man with a disfigured face, a limp, and a hole where his heart should be (figuratively, that last item): “It was better when he was on one continent, sending stories back to his newspaper on a different one. That was swell.”
Sully really is a walking, talking, hard-boiled cliché: “He knew where he was going and what he was going to do. There was risk attached, yeah, but if he’d learned anything from eleven years in the worst hellholes on earth, it was that reporting without risk was an oxymoron.” This book is not for anyone who doubts the sincerity of those sentences or, worse, laughs at them. Sully is 100% sincere, 100% of the time. The book’s title comes from his “hand-sketched homicide map of the city,” on which he notes where murders occur and what sort of people’s lives are claimed. “It was his manner of understanding the living, by studying the ways of the dead…”
The oh-so-world-weary Sully needs something to ground him, other than the Basil Hayden’s bourbon that he drinks incessantly (settling for beer or wine if he must), because “it had all gotten out of hand, this story, his life, everything, since he’d come back from Bosnia, from Romania, from Afghanistan, from Gaza, from Nagorno-Karabakh. He had lost the ability to draw lines, to compartmentalize, to keep one part of his life separate from another.”
Indeed, Sully would not be the bold, unstoppable-but-flawed good guy of countless murder mysteries if he did not have an unsatisfactory love life (because of a disastrous loss in wartime) and a bunch of powerful enemies, among them one of his bosses and the judge whose daughter has been killed. He also has the inevitable unsavory not-quite-friends, people who know the grey areas of the law and live within or just beyond them, bad guys from whom good information can be obtained in exchange for a small, hardly noticeable piece of Sully’s soul. The Ways of the Dead has much to do with the trade becoming, by the end, all too noticeable; hence the noir element.
There is nothing amusing at all in Tucker’s book, but there are occasional passages that are at last wry, as in the description of one of the newspaper management types: “He hitched his pants up slightly and his fingers found his slim golden belt buckle and fussed with it until it was perfectly in between the first and last loops of his slacks and directly beneath the point of his tie. He crossed his left arm across his chest and propped his right elbow against his left hand, holding the arm upright so that the fingers on his right hand could stroke his chin.” Most of what goes on here, though, is serious in the extreme, with Tucker delving into issues of white privilege, the dividing lines of race and income in D.C., and – oh yes – the little matter of that murder, which Sully is sure is part of a pattern. The reporter’s inevitable dogged persistence leads him down a series of blind alleys until he eventually upends everybody’s expectations, including his own, by cutting this particular Gordian knot – only to discover, this being a noir novel, that he got it all (or most of it) wrong, and cannot do anything to make matters right. At least not in this book – a sequel is inevitable.
The Ways of the Dead is better than the sum of its frequently formulaic parts, because despite the numerous clichés in the portrayal of Sully and those around him, despite the obviousness of some blind alleys and red herrings, despite the certainty that things will never be quite what they seem to be, the pacing and dialogue make it possible to look past plot holes and overdone misdirection and revel in a long-ago world (seemingly much longer ago than 15 years) in which intrepid journalistic do-gooders could face down impossible deadlines and their own internal demons in order to ensure that justice (or what looks like justice) is done, all in time for broadsheet delivery in the morning.
Much, much has changed since the time in which this book is set. A few things have not, though, such as the eternal need for better editing. Someone needs to let Tucker know that there is no such word as “alright.” The Washington Post would, one hopes, never have let that get through, as it does repeatedly in The Ways of the Dead.
Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature’s Mysteries from Perilous Places. By Donna M. Jackson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.
The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds. By Matt Adrian. Blue Rider Press. $15.95.
The image of scientists wearing white coats and spending their days doing minutiae in laboratories filled with glassware and microscopes is given the lie, again and again, by the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series, which in Extreme Scientists shows just how wrong the clichéd notion of science can be. Originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback, Donna M. Jackson’s book focuses on three scientists whose work is very much outdoors and very definitely risky by most people’s standards. Paul Flaherty is a hurricane tracker; Hazel Barton searches for microbes that live deep within caves; and Stephen Sillett studies life high in the sky by climbing redwoods in the United States and scaling giant Australian eucalyptus trees. Flaherty is a meteorologist who flies aboard planes that go into hurricanes to measure the storms and learn enough about them to make understanding and predicting their paths easier. His matter-of-fact descriptions of the three types of radar the plane carries, and of the fact that wind shear is more dangerous than wind speed, are accompanied by his comments that “the rewards of hurricane hunting far outweigh the risks” – a sentiment that Flaherty shares with field scientists in general. Barton, who has explored ice caves in Greenland and underwater caves in Mexico, is a discoverer of multiple new microbial species and would surely agree that the substantial risks she takes are worthwhile. And there are certainly plenty of them: among the photos showing her rappelling and wading through water is one in which her arm is in a sling, the result of a boulder breaking loose in a New Zealand cave. “After surgery and thirty-seven stitches, Hazel soon returned to caving,” writes Jackson. As for Sillett, the photos of him and other scientists climbing enormous trees are dizzying, and so is his story of almost dying in a fall from a giant redwood when his line passed over a broken branch that he had no way to see from below. What is amazing about all these scientists is how devoted they clearly are to their work and how little they consider themselves risk-takers – although they are acutely aware of the risks of their work. Yes, there are straightforward laboratory elements to these scientists’ work – Barton, for example, grows cave microbes in a traditional-looking lab so she can study them as their colonies expand. But anyone looking for excitement in the real world will find plenty of it here, all in the service of advancing the scientific understanding of our planet and, perhaps, others as well: discoveries in Earth caves can help indicate the likelihood of the existence of some sort of life on Mars.
Thank goodness scientists do not need to investigate the denizens described in The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds. This is a strange little 64-page book that looks like a gift book but that it is doubtful most people would want to give (or receive) as a gift. It is laid out like a library book that has been pulled permanently from the shelves, with a trompe l’oeil front-inside-cover pocket for a circulation card and the word “discard” looking as if it has been stamped near the title; the word “withdrawn” looks as if it is stamped on the inside back cover. The brainchild, if that is the right word, of Matt Adrian, the book contains drawings of various birds in various close-up poses, saying various things (or having various things said about them) that almost make sense, but not quite. “He had a violent, uncontrolled temper, which sent him literally insane when he was annoyed, but he was good-looking.” “‘This is wonderful!’ ‘This is going to be fine!’ ‘I love this!’ I was soon to change my mind, however.” “The ability to remain sober and gracious is, indeed, a form of mild insanity.” A few pages have headlines that are then followed by short paragraphs; among the headlines are “Baby, Not This Again,” “Chicken Cannot Abide Flinchers,” and “This Is a Bird Feeder, Not a Chinese Buffet.” The last page of the book is called “Bird Attack Statistics 1974” and also includes four decidedly odd “Study Questions,” the second of which, for example, is, “What species of bird makes its nest in the body cavity of a dead bird?” The humor of the book may be clear to some, for whom it will have a (+++) rating, but it will be obscure or simply missing for others, for whom it will be a (++) book. And that, as part of one page’s headline notes, “is being mighty generous.”
The New Greenmarket Cookbook: Recipes and Tips from Today’s Finest Chefs and the Stories Behind the Farms that Inspire Them. By Gabrielle Langholtz. Da Capo. $24.99.
The Pregnant Athlete: How to Stay in Your Best Shape Ever—Before, During, and After Pregnancy. By Brandi Dion & Steven Dion, Ed.D., with Joel Heller, M.D., and Perry McIntosh. DaCapo. $17.99.
These days, with fewer and fewer people reading traditional printed books, it can be argued that books of any kind are a niche product. Some, however, trumpet their “niche-ness” more directly than others. The New Greenmarket Cookbook is entirely focused on New York City, offering opinions and recipes from more than 90 chefs, authors and other food-involved people (e.g., Martha Stewart) who live in, work in or are focused on the Big Apple. Its underlying premise involves such elitist (although certainly well-intentioned) matters as “cultivating ecologically aware eaters” and “food access and justice” – easy concepts to support in the abstract and amid great wealth, but not ones within reach of the vast majority of everyday food consumers. And speaking of elitism, a sampling of the recipes includes “Dandelion Green Salad with Market Pancetta,” “Sugar Snap Pea and Whipped-Ricotta Tartines,” “No-Bake Goat Cheese Cheesecake with Nectarine Compote,” “Sautéed Fluke with Roasted Jerusalem Artichokes, Toasted Pumpkin Seeds, and Pickled Celery,” and “Smoked Green Wheat and Parsnips.” These are not recipes for people who shop at neighborhood supermarkets, and are not for tyros in the kitchen: esoterica abounds here. And that is exactly the point. The book fits within one of the food fads of the moment, the “locavore” movement, which urges people to eat only what is seasonally available in their immediate vicinity (in fact, the book’s recipes are arranged by season). There are good reasons to “eat local,” including more-healthful produce, a reduced carbon footprint (because locally grown foods do not have to be transported long distances), support of small farmers, etc. Ease of shopping, simplicity of preparation and low cost, though, are not on the “locavore” menu, and are entirely missing in The New Greenmarket Cookbook. But the book is emphatically not for everyone – it is for those “in the know,” those for whom convenience, time and cost of ingredients are largely irrelevant. The recipes will be quite appealing to people already predisposed to favor New York City’s brand of elegant eating. And the stories of the small farms from which the ingredients come have resonance beyond the recipes: they are short, often involving portraits of people whose passion is to grow plants and raise animals in better ways (although “better” has different definitions in differing circumstances). The New Greenmarket Cookbook is not for everyone and is indeed intended to set apart those it targets from the great mass of consumers. Its appeal is strong within its deliberately self-limited niche.
The target readership of The Pregnant Athlete is obvious from the book’s title, the word “athlete” being as crucial to understanding the audience as the word “pregnant.” This is not a book for people who exercise lightly or moderately for health: it is for intense, highly dedicated people for whom athletic endeavors include triathlons, marathons, performing dance, intense swimming, long-distance bicycling, etc. Starting “Before You Conceive” and continuing through a chapter called “After Delivery: Back on Track, Back to Fit,” The Pregnant Athlete is intended to help serious, highly devoted athletes maintain fitness routines – modified ones, that is – throughout pregnancy, so they can resume their fitness-focused lives as quickly as possible after childbirth. One of many quotations in the book actually sums things up pretty well: “My approach was to keep doing what I was doing for as long as I could do it.” The women who will read this book are ones who will gravitate to its multiple warm-up routine options, who will be comfortable doing five rounds of 10 push-ups and 10 squats while pregnant, who will find the dozen photos for the “stretch or foam roller routine,” including “downward facing dog” and “spider-man stretch,” comfortable and appealing. Each chapter starts with a “Your Body Now” list that says how readers should feel in terms of strength, agility, stamina and other characteristics from month to month. In “Nutrition” under Month 3, for example, this says, “Eat small meals to fuel your workout through any morning sickness.” In “Modifications” under Month 7, the list says, “Protect your pelvic ligaments from overstretching from bouncing (jogging) or impact (jumping).” Each chapter includes specific exercises, quotations from athletes with children, and advice that is intended to be perky but tends to come across as flat: “One thing you can do is keep a positive attitude.” There are also boxes that debunk old wives’ tales, such as “exercise can cause premature delivery or low birth weight” and “running will cause the membrane to break.” The specificity of the recommended exercises and the reassurance that intense athletes can continue doing most of what they consider of primary importance during pregnancy will make this book attractive to its intended readers. It is far too intense for the vast majority of pregnant women, but it is not written for them or their partners: it is for elite or would-be-elite athletes who want to be sure not to feel they are “slacking off” during pregnancy and in the months after giving birth.
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1; Grieg: Piano Concerto. Stewart Goodyear, piano; Czech National Symphony conducted by Stanislav Bogunia. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Grieg: Violin Sonata No. 3; Enescu: Violin Sonata No. 2; Janáček: Violin Sonata. duo526 (Kerry DuWors, violin; Futaba Niekawa, piano). Navona. $16.99.
Strauss: Die Fledermaus; Emperor Waltz; Voices of Spring; Annen-Polka; Neue Pizzicato-Polka; On the Beautiful Blue Danube. Eberhard Waechter, Hilde Gueden, Erich Kunz, Gerhard Stolze, Giuseppe Zampieri, Walter Berry, Peter Klein, Rita Streich, Elfriede Ott, Josef Meinrad, Giuseppe di Stefano; Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Andromeda. $14.99 (3 CDs).
A new generation of top-notch soloists and chamber musicians is making its way steadily through concert and recital halls and onto recordings, and in some cases shining new and intriguing light on even the most well-worn works in the classical repertoire. Thirty-five-year-old Stewart Goodyear, for example, tackles the piano concerto written by 35-year-old Tchaikovsky with more than technique: he brings a tempestuous spirit and firm control of the music to a work that can easily sprawl, providing plenty of fire when it is called for and taking the music at brisk tempos that do not feel rushed because Goodyear allows the music plenty of time to breathe when that is appropriate. Young pianists have built careers on Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto – Van Cliburn is the best-known example – but Goodyear is better known for his Beethoven than for his handling of the Romantic repertoire. And indeed, Goodyear’s sense of structure, his insight into Tchaikovsky’s construction of a well-built edifice despite choices that seemed distinctly odd to the composer’s contemporaries (such as the failure of any opening material from the first movement to reappear later), can be traced to the pianist’s immersion in the inevitable and complex logic of Beethoven’s sonatas. This Steinway & Sons recording is the label’s first with orchestra, and in truth, the orchestra itself is acceptable without being in any way outstanding: Stanislav Bogunia aptly backs Goodyear up but does so with little flash or particular insight, and the Czech National Symphony plays well but without the lushness that one would ideally want in Russian (and, for that matter, Czech) music. Still, the orchestra’s contribution here is more than adequate, if not at the level of the pianist’s. The orchestra handles its part in Grieg’s Piano Concerto well, too, but here again, the limelight is deservedly on Goodyear. This concerto was written earlier than Tchaikovsky’s First (1868 vs. 1875) and by a younger composer: Grieg was just 25 when he finished it. The youthful exuberance of the work, especially in its dancelike finale, often gets short shrift when compared to its broad Nordic themes, but not here. Goodyear does not exactly make the music ebullient – which it is not – but he allows its folklike elements to come strongly to the fore, and his attentiveness to detail (along with the orchestra’s, which is clearer here than in the Tchaikovsky) helps make this both a strong performance and a genuinely interesting one.
Grieg was essentially a miniaturist, as the episodic elements of his Piano Concerto show. His Violin Sonata No. 3 shows his orientation even more clearly. Like the concerto’s finale, this sonata has many dancelike elements, and in fact the work as a whole has something of the feel of an elaborate partnership between the players. First violin leads piano along, then cedes control, then piano takes the lead, then violin follows, and so on – the conversational elements of chamber music are particularly clear here, especially so when the performers choose to bring them out. And that is just what Kerry DuWors and Futaba Niekawa do: performing under the name “duo526,” they explore the music as partners in a nuanced reading that accepts and heightens the folk-music elements used by Grieg here, as in the Piano Concerto, and at the same time they allow the chamber work’s lyrical flow to carry listeners along effectively. The other pieces on this new Navona CD get equally strong performances. Like the Grieg, both the Enescu and the Janáček include folk elements, but each work here uses them for different purposes. If Grieg is lyrical and dancelike, Enescu is melancholy if not actually depressive. Enescu’s harmonies are bolder and more modern in sound, but his emotions are just as much those of the Romantic era, using long-sustained melodies to pull players and listeners alike along through a darker emotional landscape than Grieg’s, for all that both these are minor-key sonatas (Grieg’s in C minor, Enescu’s in F minor). More modern-sounding still is the Janáček Sonata, whose handling of the instruments is at the opposite pole from Grieg’s. Here violin and piano frequently seem to be at cross-purposes, interrupting each other and introducing new material or reacting strongly to what has come before. Taken together, the three sonatas here show three very different approaches to violin-and-piano writing, and one of the most impressive things about the partnering of DuWors and Niekawa is the way they take on these significantly different works with equal effectiveness and understanding. The juxtaposition of Grieg, Enescu and Janáček is an unusual one, but one that works very well indeed in the hands of performers as skilled as these.
There is surely no doubting the skill of the best performers of yesteryear, and even as listeners admire today’s up-and-coming virtuosi, modern digital remastering makes it possible to enjoy performances by some of the truly great names of many decades past. But the digital age also makes some slipshod practices all too easy, and the truly execrable packaging of the Andromeda release of the New Year’s Eve 1960 live performance of Die Fledermaus is a case in point. Every principal in this recording has died, so there is no one in the cast to object to the horrendous presentation of what was obviously a thoroughly charming staging in which Herbert von Karajan, sometimes thought of as a humorless and stereotypically Teutonic conductor, seems thoroughly to enjoy himself in a light, frothy and very well-acted (as well as well-sung) version of Johann Strauss Jr.’s most famous operetta – which, by the way, dates to one year before Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. This remastered mono recording is in fact more a stage play than what we now think of an operetta: these days, dialogue is shortened or even rewritten and music is emphasized, but half a century ago (and, for that matter, in Strauss’ own time), the spoken parts of an operetta were every bit as crucial as the music. Indeed, one reason Strauss’ operettas were by and large unsuccessful – despite their wonderful melodies – was that the libretti were generally poor, which meant audiences were getting only a percentage of what they paid for in a night out at the theater. Today’s listeners get only a percentage of what they pay for in this release, too, despite the very low price for a three-CD set. It is understandable that a budget re-release would contain no libretto. But this one contains no synopsis, either. And no information on the performers. And nothing about the recording except the date. And no timings for any of the tracks! This is beyond unforgivable: it is simply idiotic. It is particularly galling for English-language listeners not to know how long the dialogue sections, which the audience finds thoroughly amusing, are: they often run to 10 minutes. And it is genuinely irritating for listeners to have no information on the “gala sequence” inserted toward the end of Act II, which includes, in addition to orchestral music, Erich Kunz (who plays Frank, the prison warden) singing Vienna’s famous Fiakerlied and guest artist Giuseppe di Stefano (who has no role in the operetta itself) performing the famous Neapolitan song O Sole Mio and Franz Lehár’s lovely Dein ist mein ganzes Herz. There is treasurable beauty here, ruined by awkward, clumsy and uncaring packaging decisions. The five non-operetta works offered as supplements to the stage production were recorded earlier – in Brussels on May 7, 1958 – and their sound is significantly poorer than is that of Die Fledermaus. But they have charms, too, with Hilde Gueden singing the concert-aria form of Voices of Spring and the Wiener Männergesangsverein presenting the choral version of On the Beautiful Blue Danube. There is a great deal of fine music, fine playing and fine acting here, enough to give the release a (+++) rating even though it is presented in a subpar package that is thoroughly unworthy of the material.