September 24, 2015
Skip School, Fly to Space: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The Berenstain Bears: When I Grow Up. By Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The Berenstain Bears Are SuperBears! By Mike Berenstain. Harper. $16.99.
There are many ways to try to get kids interested in books and their special method of communicating in our video-saturated age, and plenty of different approaches to take – depending on what authors and publishers want to communicate. Most of the material in Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strip exists for purely comedic purposes, and much of the strip is dark, sarcastic and very much of the adult world (with smoking, beer drinking and other behaviors that no one wants to encourage in kids). This makes the inclusion of Pastis’ material in Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Comics for Kids series rather problematic – but doggone it, a lot of what Pastis creates really is funny, and just wry enough to amuse kids and maybe help them see the world around them a bit differently from the way they did before they encountered Pig, Rat, Goat, the always inept crocodiles, and Pastis’ other poorly drawn but immediately recognizable characters. Hence we have Skip School, Fly to Space, whose title is taken from the very last strip in the book – one of the more thought-provoking ones Pastis has produced. In it, the ever-playful and ever-optimistic Pig invites neighbor boy Willy into a cardboard box “to fly to Mars,” but Willy explains that he cannot play, because he has to study to do super-well in school to get into a super-good college to work super-hard for a super-long time and make a super-large amount of money so he can have a super-comfortable retirement for “maybe…a couple years left before I die.” Then there is a wordless panel, with Pig and Willy considering the implications of what Willy has laid out for life, and the final (also wordless) panel has the two of them heading off in the cardboard “Rockitt Ship.” Clearly this is not a suggestion that kids should skip school – it is Pastis’ way of sneaking some perspective on life into a strip that often seems to lack it. And it is well-placed at the end of the book, since young readers by then will have absorbed a lot of other Pastis material, such as the sad tale of “Kiko, the lonely cactus,” whose spines prevent anyone from giving him the hugs he wants; Rat’s erection of a “cool fence” for himself and a much smaller “uncool fence” for Pig; croc dad Larry’s suggestion that his son could dissect a frog for class much more quickly by using a blender; Pig’s creation of an “Internet happy box” that escapes online meanness because it is “not hooked up to anything and you can’t communicate with anyone and it’s dark”; the hapless crocs’ attempt to create their own Fantastic Four, even though there are only three of them, and (in a separate sequence) the crocs’ attack on the all-knowing force known as “Da Google”; and much more. There are a few misfirings in this collection, such as a strip in which “J. Rutherford Shrimp” wants Pig and Goat to sign a petition giving shrimp their rights, including the right not to be eaten simply because they are tasty – at which point Pig eats him (which is out of character: it is something Rat would do, but does not really fit Pig’s personality). By and large, though, this selection of Pearls Before Swine strips is both funny and occasionally insightful, and manages to convey the overall spirit of Pastis’ work without including any of its beer-and-smoking elements and not even having very much death in it – quite an accomplishment, since Pastis is noted for killing off characters as casually as he disposes of J. Rutherford Shrimp.
There is nothing remotely like the sensibilities of Pearls Before Swine in the long-running Berenstain Bears sequence, which has been around for more than half a century and is now handled by Mike Berenstain. The humor in Berenstain Bears books is always gentle if it is present at all, and the books’ avowed purpose is to teach, inform and instruct as well as entertain. Unfortunately, they tend to become preachy and to overdo some of the instructional elements, and Mike Berenstain is even more prone to these flaws than were Stan and Jan Berenstain, who started the series – not that the creators of this family of bears would consider the preachiness a problem. The pluses and minuses of the Berenstain Bears books are equally apparent in two new (+++) entries, When I Grow Up and The Berenstain Bears Are SuperBears! The first of these simply has Brother and Sister Bear riding around with Professor Actual Factual and his nephew, Ferdy, to see all the jobs available in Bear Country. Things are, however, laid on a touch too thickly, as usual. For instance, the professor offers to give Brother and Sister a ride, then says they “can use my cell phone to ask your mama and papa” – which, all right, is a small manners lesson and perhaps especially useful in our can’t-be-too-careful age. But then, on the very next page, the professor calls Mama and Papa a second time about taking a little longer with Brother and Sister so he can show them various jobs – and that really is overdoing the “phone home” safety angle. Also overdone are the job portrayals themselves – not because they are simplified, which is inevitable in a short picture book, but because virtually everyone doing virtually every job is smiling all the time, even including almost all the firefighters and paramedics battling a blaze and doing rescues. Construction workers smile; farmers smile; doctors smile; painters, mechanics, road crews – everyone smiles. And then comes the final suggestion: that doing “the job of a parent…may be about the most important job there is!” All right, yes, fine, this is good to know and good to say – but it is all just a bit overstated and overemphasized, as is often the case in Berenstain Bears books.
Things are slightly different in The Berenstain Bears Are SuperBears! That is because this is an entry in the “I Can Read!” series – specifically a Level 1 book, featuring “simple sentences for eager new readers.” So there is less overt preachiness here, although some lesson-learning is certainly implied. The setup is that Brother likes to pretend to be Bat Bear and Sister pretends to be Spider Bear; little Honey is their sidekick, Cubby Bear. The three pretend that the adults they see doing everyday things are baddies who need to be stopped: the mail carrier is “Dr. Sleezo,” the trash collectors are evil Space Grizzlies, someone repairing power lines is “the mad villain Joker Bear,” and so on. Every “bad guy” accepts what the young bears say, plays along, and even talks like a stereotypical villain: “Curses. Foiled again!” Then the “SuperBears” encounter a more-mundane matter when a neighbor cub falls while riding a bike and hurts his knee. Brother, Sister and Honey help get him home and patched up, the cub’s mom says they really are super, and of course everything ends happily, the lesson being that “super-ness” begins at home and in small, everyday ways. That is actually not a bad thing to learn, even if it is told here in a somewhat overdone manner – but overdoing in the name of teaching goodness is integral to a lot of the reaching-out of the Berenstain Bears books .
Brain Games: The Mind-Blowing Science of Your Amazing Brain. By Jennifer Swanson. National Geographic Kids. $12.99.
As a book that combines basic physiological science with the highly visual orientation and continual interactivity that seem to be de rigueur for today’s books for young readers, it would be hard to beat Brain Games. Jennifer Swanson neatly mixes easy-to-try but less-than-easy-to-explain material – then explains things, if not always easily, then with clarity and style. “What exactly is happening?” is the repeated question here, leading into explanations of why we perceive and interpret things the way we do – that is, why the brain, the body’s control center, creates particular perceptions under particular conditions.
Thus, Swanson asks readers to stare at a picture of yellow and red flowers and determine which seem to be coming out of the page, as if in 3-D. Of course, neither flower type is really three-dimensional, but one seems to be. What exactly is happening? “Our eyes can’t see in 3-D. They only see in 2-D, or width and height. Your brain adds the depth.” And this leads to brief discussions of binocular vision, eye location in animals, how 3-D glasses work, and more. Swanson makes no attempt at completeness, which would scarcely be possible in a short (112-page) book dealing with a large subject, although some omitted elements would have been fun to include – for example, a picture and explanation of Old World chameleons, whose eyes rotate and focus independently, in the section on eye placement.
The chameleon is not here, but what is here connects with the intended young readership with clarity and in a genuinely interesting way. Brain Games tells kids what causes déjà vu (“something in the new place or action triggers an old memory”); how to improve their mood (“if you make yourself smile, in a few seconds you will start to feel happy”); how many muscles are needed to swing a baseball bat (“more than 15 different muscle actions”); why shaking your head back and forth makes you feel dizzy (“sometimes the information from the eyes, inner ear, or cerebellum gets mixed up”); and a great deal more. The use of the word “cerebellum” is noteworthy: Brain Games includes proper scientific names for brain sections and other body parts, although it does not dwell on jargon – and Swanson is careful to give the correct pronunciations of unfamiliar terms (usually: “cerebellum” is given as “sair-uh-bell-um,” as if no syllable is accented, when it should be “sair-uh-BELL-um”).
What is especially attractive in Brain Games is the way Swanson mixes the mundane activities of everyday life with information that sheds light on some unusual aspects of the human body. For example, she discusses the huge number of adjustments the brain must make every second in order to make it possible to swim, ice skate or play the violin. This leads to a discussion of the way the brain takes shortcuts through information stored in the unconscious mind; and this in turn gives Swanson an opening to explain how parts of the brain work together: “Both unconscious and conscious actions travel through the motor cortex, but the unconscious actions are planned in the parietal lobe.” And before the scientific elements become overdone, Swanson explains in this section – adjacent to a brief discussion of how pain “can stop us dead in our tracks” – that “there are no pain receptors in the brain, so your brain can feel no pain.” Intriguing facts like this are well-sprinkled throughout Brain Games, helping give the book an interest level akin to that of a “fascinating trivia” tome as well as that of an introductory science/anatomy work.
Brain Games could sometimes use a little tweaking to be even more effective. The section on the conscious and unconscious mind, for example, refers to Freud’s comparison of the mind to an iceberg, with the conscious mind being the visible part and the unconscious being, as it were, under water and therefore not perceivable by us (at least when we are awake). However, Swanson never says forthrightly that the below-water portion of an iceberg is about nine times as big as the visible part. Understanding that the unconscious is far larger and broader than the conscious mind is important to knowing how we function in everyday life and is a major reason Freud chose the metaphor – but while Swanson does refer to “the large iceberg underneath the water,” the scale of the relationship between visible and invisible, or conscious and unconscious, is never stated clearly.
Most flaws in Brain Games, however, are minor, and do not detract from Swanson’s skill in presenting scientifically accurate information in an attractive and simple way, but for the most part not too simplistically. And the book’s title makes sense despite the overall seriousness of the presentation, because there really are “brain games” included: Swanson calls them “Brain Breaks,” and they include optical illusions, pictures that can be seen different ways depending on how you look at them, anagrams, and word puzzles such as deciphering the meaning of “i right i” (“right between the eyes”). Interspersed with discussions about competitiveness, stress, emotions, decision-making, multitasking and much more, these “think about it” activities help young readers exercise their brains while learning about them – resulting in a first-rate combination of facts and fun.
Raising Your Spirited Child, 3rd Edition: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic. By Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D. William Morrow. $17.99.
We live in an age when every bug is a feature. Nothing is supposed to be “wrong” anymore, just “part of the package.” OK, perhaps that is not entirely true when it comes to computers, where the whole bug/feature debate has raged for years, but it is most assuredly true when it comes to human beings. There is no such thing as hyperactivity or over-intense inward focus in children anymore – instead there is “spiritedness,” as in the title of Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child.
On one level, this is a very good thing. Growing up, in this or any age, is difficult enough for children without their being typecast by other kids, adults, and “the system” of school and healthcare. It is all too easy to dismiss a child when one can label him or her “hyperactive” and prescribe Ritalin or some other psychoactive drug to tamp things down. It is much harder to see the “spirited” personality as whole and integrated in and of itself and to handle it accordingly. And parents of children with this personality, however it may be labeled and however it may manifest itself, need all the help they can get, as Kurcinka makes clear in the latest edition of her well-thought-out book.
On the other hand, the “spirited” label reeks of political correctness run amok, and hasn’t there really been enough PC-ism already? It is very difficult to draw the line between a child whose personality lies outside the norm in terms of intensity and one who lies so far outside the norm that some sort of medical intervention (through mental-health counseling if not with drugs) really is indicated. But drawing such a line is extremely important, because all the “mainstreaming” in the world will not help kids who are genuinely hyperactive or severely withdrawn – nor will it help their parents. And it is distinctly detrimental to other children who must interact with a hyperactive child and who get less attentive treatment and less help with their own needs because there is, after all, only so much time and effort available to a given adult in a given day, and the “spirited” child takes up a disproportionate amount of it.
Kurcinka’s generally no-nonsense, well-considered approach does smack a bit too much of political correctness – not for parents of “spirited” children, perhaps, but for parents and kids who may encounter the “spirited” child or happen upon this book. The underlying theme here is a kind of raising of self-esteem for “spirited” kids and their families: “labels spoken and unspoken” can be deleterious, parents of “spirited” kids must be “empowered” to redefine who they and their children are in the face of a lack of understanding and empathy from others, and so on. Although admirable for parents facing everyday life with “spirited” children, this approach smacks a bit too much of entitlement to be fully comfortable for those who do not have such children but must interact with the “spirited” ones. Calling “spirited” children “more than normal” does not help matters: it tries to counter others’ perception of there being something “wrong” with the “spirited” child by denigrating “non-spirited” ones, and there is nothing admirable about that.
Most of the book, though, is better than this, thank goodness. Parents with “spirited” children really do need a way to cope with a kind of manic-depressive everyday family dynamic, in which the “spirited” child may deliver outsize joy one day and equally outsize trouble the next (or even later on the same day). The most valuable part of Kurcinka’s book is Part Two, “Working with Spirit,” whose 10 chapters deal in some detail with intensity, meltdowns, persistence, sensitivity, distractibility, adaptability and other major issues. Again and again, Kurcinka states, “As you work to understand your spirited child, you also need to understand yourself,” emphasizing the importance of knowing yourself in order to know and interact with your child in the ways that will be most appropriate for your own health and well-being. It is easy for a parent to forget to take care of himself or herself in the everyday intensity of raising a “spirited” child, and Kurcinka’s reminder that self-care matters as much as child care is important – even if her comments on the importance of addressing your own needs do not always connect with reality (it sounds fine to say adults should have uninterrupted conversations and time for lovemaking, but between the press of work and the intensity of child-rearing, which is even greater for “spirited” children than for others, these good-sounding notions can easily turn into pipe dreams). Kurcinka’s reminder that parents do not “make” their children “spirited” is welcome, and her suggestion to reach out to relatives and friends for help is a good one, provided that relatives live nearby and/or friends are close enough emotionally and geographically to be brought into the family dynamic – again, the reality of life may not be quite as neat as Kurcinka wants it to be.
Although not all the suggestions and prescriptions in Raising Your Spirited Child will be practical for all families, and some families will be hard-put to implement any of them at all, one thing that Kurcinka urges makes especially good sense. And that is to celebrate your child – not his or her “differentness,” but the positive aspects of his or her outsize personality. This is not necessarily easy – Kurcinka speaks at one point, almost poetically, of “spirited” children who are “drenched in their perceptions or fired by their intensity.” But it is important, perhaps even more important in the case of “spirited” children than in others, that parents accept their kids for who and what they are and provide them with a safe haven. They will likely need it as they learn that people outside their families, including adults as well as children, simply will not give them the levels of attention and sufferance that Kurcinka says are important for “spirited” children to have in order to reach their full potential and function within society as they grow toward and into adulthood. “Establish Realistic Expectations,” as one chapter subheading says – and those must include the expectation that other people will not bend over backwards to accommodate the special needs of “spirited” children, no matter how “PC” it may be to demand that they do so. The strength of these children, like that of all young people, must ultimately come from within – after being formed and guided by parents who can provide them with much more time and special attention than the rest of the world can or will.
American Originals: Songs by Stephen Foster and other works. Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by John Morris Russell. Fanfare Cincinnati. $16.99.
The Genius of Film Music: Hollywood Blockbusters 1960s to 1980s. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 31 (“Hornsignal”), 70 and 101 (“The Clock”). Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
There is not the slightest requirement that music be profound in order to be enjoyable – quite the opposite, in fact. Much enjoyable music is determinedly surface-level and straightforward, not only in the pop-music world (which is built almost entirely on superficiality) but also in classical music. After all, no matter how wonderful the works of Vienna’s Strauss family were, the basic purpose of the pieces was to be danceable and melodious. So no apology is necessary for the enjoyment listeners will receive from a new Cincinnati Pops recording of arrangements of Stephen Foster songs, released on the orchestra’s own label. The 17 tracks here include Foster’s most-popular, most-loved tunes (even though the songs’ words, written largely for 19th-century minstrel and blackface shows, have often been amended in recent times in accordance with modern sensibilities). There are arrangements of O! Susannah, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, My Old Kentucky Home, Old Folks at Home (“Swanee River”), Beautiful Dreamer and Camptown Races. There is also some less-known Foster here, and it is particularly delightful to hear the less-often-performed music of this first great American songwriter: Slumber My Darling; Ring, Ring de Banjo (the third word here given as “the”); Hard Times Come Again No More; and Why No One to Love? The more than 200 songs by Foster (1826-1864) are honored here in true modern musical-crossover style, with the orchestra under John Morris Russell joined by Rosanne Cash, Aoife O’Donovan, Joe Henry, Don Flemons and other performers – and with Foster’s music complemented on this live recording by spirituals and other works deemed quintessentially American, which means the disc includes Amazing Grace, Rolling River: Sketches on Shenandoah, Kumbaya, Aura Lee, Foster’s Folly, Red River Valley, and The Battle Cry of Freedom. Warmly and enthusiastically played throughout, this is music that often tugs at the heartstrings, especially if listeners know the original lyrics (to My Old Kentucky Home, for example), but whose poignancy is at the service of a generally upbeat upwelling of emotion.
The emotions intended to be conveyed or reinforced by film music (such as warmth, joy, and pathos rather than tragedy) are in some ways quite similar to those associated with Foster’s works. In other ways, film scores must be created in the same way as certain great ballets: the music for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, for example, was constructed according to the needs of the choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, just as film music is developed according to the needs of the director. The visual elements in both cases come first and are dominant. Tchaikovsky’s music has long outlasted the ballet’s original staging, but standalone film music, even by great composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, has a more checkered history. The reason is that even when film scores are at their best, they are intended as part of a multimedia experience – one in which the visual element dominates and drives everything else. Still, the new London Philharmonic Orchestra recording on the orchestra’s own label shows just how worthy certain film scores can be – although in all cases, familiarity with the movie for which the score was written will enhance the effectiveness of John Mauceri’s well-paced conducting. The nine composers represented on this two-CD set are among the best-known names in Hollywood film-music history: Alex North (Cleopatra Symphony), Nino Rota (The Godfather: A Symphonic Portrait), Franz Waxman (Taras Bulba: The Ride of the Cossacks), Bernard Herrman (Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra), Bronislaw Kaper (Mutiny on the Bounty), Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The New Enterprise), Ennio Morricone (Once Upon a Time in America: Deborah’s Theme), Maurice Jarré (Lawrence of Arabia: Lawrence and the Desert), and Alfred Newman (the very brief 20th Century Fox Fanfare). The shorter pieces here are often the most evocative: Waxman’s and Morricone’s pieces are highly effective even for listeners unfamiliar with the films. The longer works essentially compress their movies’ stories, or parts of them, and depend more on listeners’ knowing what the films were about (although there is no question what type of film Herrman, for one, was writing for). Much recent film music is quite forgettable; some, notably the John Williams score for the original Star Wars, deserves to stand with the great film scores, even if not quite at the level of, say, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. But greatness or long-term popularity has never been the primary point of film music: it is designed to enhance moviegoing, and as this LPO release shows, can provide pleasant if scarcely soul-stirring experience even outside the theater.
The original venues for Haydn’s symphonies were concert halls, whether at the Esterházy palace or in London for impresario Johann Peter Salomon, and it is worth remembering that these works’ primary purpose was always entertainment: Haydn managed to advance the symphony extensively and in very significant ways, but without the heaven-storming intensity that Beethoven (Haydn’s onetime pupil) brought to the form in ushering in the Romantic era. Haydn’s works are far from simple but are invariably pleasant, generally light in scoring if not “light” in the sense of communicating only on a surface level. A new Linn Records SACD featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Robin Ticciati offers an unusual combination of Haydn symphonies and in so doing highlights just how distinctive Haydn’s works in this form were. Ticciati is not an especially idiomatic interpreter of Haydn, but the orchestra plays very well indeed and the enthusiasm of conductor and musicians is palpable. This is especially so in Symphony No. 31, the unusually scored “Hornsignal,” which in addition to four horns calls for a solo flute and pair of oboes and includes solo parts for violin, cello and double bass. This highly inventive work sparkles here, with the horns if anything a touch too bright (natural horns fit this music much better); the gentle Adagio, where solo and pizzicato strings are prominent, comes off especially well. Symphony No. 70 is a rather odd choice for this disc: written in 1779, 14 years after No. 31, it is rarely performed and is generally rather conventional for a work of its time. It is also short – only about 19 minutes – and its longest movement, the Andante, is rather cold. Austere scoring and contrapuntal structure are this work’s hallmarks. Ticciati leads it in rather workmanlike fashion – there is nothing particularly distinctive in his approach, although the playing is again first-rate. Symphony No. 101, the popular “Clock” of 1794, fares better, the contrast between the rather eerie opening of the first movement and the bright main section handled very well, and the tick-tock sound in the second movement (whence the work’s nickname) given in proper context and not overemphasized. The dramatic closing of the symphony is rousing and attractive, and the overall impression of this recording is the happy one of musicians having as good a time with the music as Haydn intended his audience to have.
Schumann: Dichterliebe; Schubert: Songs—Du bist die Ruh; Die Forelle; Frühlingsglaube; Gretchen am Spinnrade; Nacht und Träume; Beethoven: Adelaide. Andrew Parker, oboe; Alan Huckleberry, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on the Bare Mountain; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 3; Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1; Prelude for left hand alone, Op. 9, No. 1. Alessio Bax, piano. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Bartók: 14 Bagatelles; Two Romanian Dances; 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs; Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs; Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from “Mikrokosmos.” Terry Eder, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
There are several specific classical forms in which works sound like songs and may even be overtly songlike, but do not include words. Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, written from 1829 to 1845 and presented in six volumes, are well-known and have been often imitated; here the title indicates a songlike approach to music that never had a vocal element but sounds as if it could, perhaps even should, have one. Then there is the concept of vocalise, presented (for example) in Rachmaninoff’s Op. 34, No. 14, and in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, in which a singer is present but his and/or her voice is treated entirely as an instrument, producing sounds but no words – narrative is absent, but this is very clearly singing. A new MSR Classics release featuring oboist Andrew Parker offers wordless singing of a different sort, through transcriptions for oboe and piano of music originally intended to be sung. Whether the oboe is the instrument that best approximates the human voice is a matter of opinion – arguments could be made for the clarinet, cello, even French horn – but attempting to duplicate vocal sounds through the oboe is not the point here. Instead, Parker and pianist Alan Huckleberry offer thoughtful, emotionally involving interpretations of works whose storytelling was always uppermost in their composers’ minds but that communicate effectively even in the absence of words. Or at least the pieces are effective in this form for listeners who know the originals. A point worth repeating is one famously made by Leonard Bernstein, to the effect that music does not mean anything – a statement he backed up amusingly in his Young People’s Concerts by playing some of Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote and telling the audience that it was all about Superman, which indeed made as much sense as the work’s original program. In an analogous vein, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a 16-song cycle with specific material to communicate from a longer set of poems by Heinrich Heine, does not tell any specific story as heard here. Yet lack of knowledge of the narrative material does nothing to diminish the fine quality of Parker’s and Huckleberry’s playing and nothing to reduce the emotional involvement to which they invite listeners – but Dichterliebe does not mean anything in this form; it is simply a collection of brief oboe-and-piano pieces that collectively make for pleasant but not exceptionally telling listening. Similarly, Beethoven’s 1795 proto-Romantic song Adelaide loses something in its transformation to an oboe-and-piano piece: its oddly ecstatic final stanza, in which the poet exults over his coming death and transfiguration, makes an effective capstone for the work as heard on oboe and piano, but, again, it does not mean anything: it is simply a march that caps earlier, more dreamy material. It is the five well-known Schubert songs that come across best as oboe-and-piano works, perhaps because Schubert himself led the way from song to instrumental work by building the famous “Trout” quintet around Die Forelle. Listeners who know this original song or its quartet version will find the Parker-Huckleberry transcription quite appealing, and indeed, all of these Schubert songs sing forth here with delicacy, lyricism and a kind of compelling purity. They no longer say what Schubert intended them to say, it is true, but they do speak out pleasantly and emotionally.
Singing was much on Scriabin’s mind in regard to his Piano Sonata No. 3. After initially calling this sonata “Gothic,” he later rethought what he was trying to communicate and declared it to represent “States of the Soul.” The soul wants to sing and flourish, he wrote of the second movement, and there is a song of triumph prominent in the fourth and final movement. Indeed, there are songful elements throughout this work, as well as in the Etude and Prelude that accompany it on a new Signum Classics CD featuring pianist Alessio Bax. The poetry and intricate intensity of the Scriabin sonata come through forcefully in Bax’s reading, and although the work ends in defeat, Bax effectively communicates Scriabin’s notion that the failure is only temporary, even if the form of eventual victory is not apparent within the sonata itself. The turbulent colors of Scriabin are well-balanced here by the elegant miniatures of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which Bax handles less as a virtuoso showpiece than as a vivid visit to an artist’s world – or rather two artists’ worlds, those of Mussorgsky and of Viktor Hartmann. The contrasts between the lighter, piquant pictures and the darker, dour ones are brought forth particularly well here, with the final Great Gate of Kiev a potent capstone for the work. Also on this CD is Night on the Bare Mountain, which Bax himself has here edited and arranged. On the piano, this orchestral showpiece inevitably loses some of the brilliant characterization that Mussorgsky achieved through instrumentation and Rimsky-Korsakov (in the best-known version) subsequently polished and moderated. But the anarchic pleasures of the earlier parts of the work come through especially well under Bax’s hands, and the tone poem as a whole retains a kind of craggy beauty.
In the case of the songs underlying piano works by Bartók on a new CD from MSR Classics, the original sung texts are absent by design: the songs are building blocks used by the composer as some of his studies, elaborations and explorations of folk music. What Terry Eder plays here is an entire disc of miniatures: the CD runs 78 minutes and includes 45 tracks. No individual song or element stands out from the others or is intended to: Bartók’s aim in all the works heard here was to express himself through folk music while at the same time utilizing the generally simple tunes and harmonies of folk material to produce works of greater emotional compass and impact than folk tunes themselves possess. Thus, the 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs and Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs take off from simple material and sometimes present it more-or-less straightforwardly while at other times offering it in expanded, more-complex form. The songs that form the basis of these works are neither more nor less foundational to Bartók’s construction of the pieces than the dances that underlie Two Romanian Dances and Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm. The danceable elements remain present in these works, although not always on the surface, but the composer’s purpose here is the creation and use of a compositional method focusing on folk elements without being fully beholden to them. This makes the works sound academic, however, and that is not at all how they sound in Eder’s performances, which are light and lithe when they should be and strongly accented and emphasized when that is the appropriate approach. The most interesting piece on the CD is 14 Bagatelles, which shows a transitional stage in Bartók’s compositions as he sought to use more Eastern European folk music in his works and also incorporated some of the influences of Debussy. There is a distinctly modern sound here, even though 14 Bagatelles is early Bartók (Op. 6, 1908). Experimental harmonic passages are frequent throughout these character pieces, and Eder does a fine job of exploring the modern-sounding elements while also staying true to the essentially folklike material on which Bartók built this work.
September 17, 2015
Mary Poppins Boxed Set: Mary Poppins; Mary Poppins Comes Back; Mary Poppins Opens the Door; Mary Poppins in the Park. By P.L. Travers. Illustrated by Mary Shepard. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.99.
The real magic of Mary Poppins is that she keeps popping in, generation after generation, and never gets old. With no disrespect intended to the wonderful 1964 Disney movie based on P.L. Travers’ books, the works themselves – there are eight of them – are deeper, more insightful, and even more enjoyable than that widescreen romp with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (although it cannot be said too often that Andrews and Van Dyke were absolutely marvelous in their roles, and the animated penguin waiters are as superb and as funny today as they were 50 years ago).
The first four Mary Poppins books – now available in fine new paperback editions, bundled in a cardboard slipcase – show from the start a conception of the magical British nanny that differs from the Disneyfied version. Mary is far from a sweetness-and-light character: in keeping with a long British tradition of tough-but-fair child-raising helpers, she is moody, irritable, can be short with the children, and is not to be crossed (characteristics that were hinted at in the movie but never brought to the fore). As for the children, there are four of them, which would have been unwieldy on film: the twins, John and Barbara, are integral to the activities of the books (although, being babies, not to the same extent as Jane and Michael), and Mary’s interactions with them show sides of her character different from the ones evidenced by her handling of her older charges.
In terms of time sequence, there are really only three Mary Poppins books: the first three (from 1934, 1935 and 1943) have her popping in at the start and popping out at the end; starting with the fourth (1952), Travers’ books recount adventures of the nanny and the children that actually occurred during the time frame of the first three volumes. None of this will really matter to 21st-century children first encountering the books – and discovering Mary Shepard’s excellent illustrations, which are as bound up with the words as are those of her father, E.H. Shepard, with A.A. Milne’s tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. What today’s young readers will find in these books are far more stories of gentle magic than will fit into any movie – and a sense of wonder that ages exceptionally well. Mary Poppins introduces the Banks family and has Poppins popping in for the first time after Katie Nana storms out (that is, she storms out and Mary is brought in by a strong, stormy wind, all of which shows the stormy character of life in the Banks household when the book begins). This book includes an on-the-ceiling tea party and meeting with the Bird Woman, both of which film viewers will recall, plus (among other things) a Christmas shopping trip with Maia – a star from the Pleiades cluster. In Mary Poppins Comes Back, kite flying is central, since that is how Mary returns: Michael’s high-flying kite comes back to earth with Mary aboard, and this time the kids get to visit a circus in the sky. This is the book in which Mary takes a return ticket so she can come back if needed again – and sure enough, she uses it in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, which includes a ride on peppermint horses (which will remind viewers of the film of the merry-go-round scene in which the horses gallop off) and a visit to a statue that has come to life.
Mary Poppins in the Park, the first “retrospective” book in the series, has half a dozen stories of adventures in the park along Cherry Tree Lane. These take place, chronologically, during the second or third book. But the timing does not much matter, since the whole point of these books is to be timeless. There is yet another party here – the Mary Poppins books are full of very British tea parties and parties of other sorts, such as the Halloween party here, featuring the kids’ shadows. There is also a visit to cats on a different planet – again, extraterrestrial (but scarcely science-fictional) visits are a mainstay of these books. What Travers does so well is to take similar ingredients from book to book, but vary them enough so that each work in the series feels both refreshingly new and comfortably familiar.
It is true that not everything in the Mary Poppins books wears well. The whole “British nanny” setup is certainly quaint, but no more so than other make-believe settings for kids’ books; the fact that it was originally grounded in reality will not matter much to today’s young readers. However, it was inevitable that some of what Travers wrote would encounter changing tastes during her long life (1899-1996). This most famously occurred in the first book, in which a compass helps Mary and the children visit various spots around the world in a chapter called “Bad Tuesday.” Because the original story included Chinese, Eskimo, sub-Saharan African, and Native American people, increasing sensitivity to stereotyping and an increasing fear of offending anyone in any way led to criticism of the chapter – to which Travers responded in 1981 by having animals rather than people appear in the story (with Shepard revising the illustrations accordingly). In truth, the earlier version – for anyone who cares to track it down – works better and has a kind of naïve charm that the later one lacks. But hypersensitivity has made the humans from the original “Bad Tuesday” personae non gratae for today’s readers.
Still, it is remarkable that so few elements of the Mary Poppins books have had, or required, emendation or excising over the years. The new edition of the first four will hopefully keep Mary very much alive and well and flitting about for a whole new generation of readers. There is one quibble here, though: the box art, by Genevieve Godbout, is very much overdone and oversimplified, and the solid black dots that are the eyes of the children make the kids look a little bit, well, creepy. Few modern artists can compare with Shepard, so the fact that the box illustrations do not measure up to the ones in the books is not the issue – it is just that the pictures on the box are not really in keeping with the spirit of the books themselves. Remove the books from the slipcase, though, and that spirit flowers and flourishes, and hopefully will continue to do so for many years to come.
A Passion for Elephants: The Real Life Adventure of Field Scientist Cynthia Moss. By Toni Buzzeo. Illustrated by Holly Berry. Dial. $16.99.
Happy! By Pharrell Williams. Putnam. $19.99.
What motivates someone to a lifelong commitment to a particular focus, a specific way of living? Certainly strong passion for a particular idea or activity can become the foundation of one’s life work – and parents can explain that to young readers who become engaged with the story of Cynthia Moss as Toni Buzzeo tells it in A Passion for Elephants. This is the biography of a woman who, Buzzeo says, has spent her life facing BIG challenges and learning about BIG things and accomplishing an ENORMOUS amount – the words “big” and “enormous” are highlighted and given in all capitals throughout the book. The point for young children is that there is nothing wrong, and a great deal right, in thinking BIG and dreaming BIG and being unafraid to tackle BIG projects as Moss (born 1940) has done. There is little here to explain Moss’ engagement with elephants – Buzzeo simply suggests that letters from a friend encouraged Moss, then a magazine reporter, to visit Africa, where Moss fell in love with the land and then with elephants. That is surely an oversimplified version of Moss’ story, but it is entirely appropriate for kids as young as age three – and Buzzeo’s book is intended for ages three and up. So it is best just to accept Moss’ interest in elephants as given and learn, through pages filled with pleasant illustrations by Holly Berry, how Moss photographed elephants, learned to distinguish individuals by carefully examining their ears, and slowly became more and more knowledgeable about the animals, their way of life, their family groupings and their behavior patterns. Then the book takes a turn into advocacy, explaining about hunters killing elephants for their ivory tusks and about the way Moss helped rally people around the world to end the trade in ivory – although some countries still allow it, as the book makes clear. Buzzeo does a fine job of humanizing the elephants without actually making them anthropomorphic: her writing and Berry’s illustrations adhere to realistic descriptions and depictions of the animals, but at the same time show how elephant behavior could certainly have fascinated Moss for decades and how it can continue to interest people today (and presumably, in the future, intrigue the children who read this book or have it read to them). There is nothing conclusive in A Passion for Elephants: saving the remaining ones, Buzzeo writes, is yet another ENORMOUS job in which Moss is involved and in which the author implies that children who are unafraid of BIG things can also develop an interest. A sensitive blend of biography and animal advocacy, A Passion for Elephants has a low-key attractiveness both in the story it tells and in the way it tells it.
Things are significantly brighter, bouncier and more overtly enthusiastic in Happy! As befits the title – which is also the title of the Pharrell Williams song whose lyrics the book illustrates – everything here is brightly colored and full of style and motion and sing-along enthusiasm for ages 3-7. The book has no plot at all; the words are simply those of the song, with photos of perfectly ethnically and racially balanced kids looking as if they are doing suitably happy things on every page. There is a lot of super-bright yellow here! The book’s title is bright yellow, the inside front and back covers are bright yellow with white polka dots, the front and back flaps are bright yellow, and on the very first page, kids will see a boy in bright yellow pants and a girl wearing a skirt with bright yellow and white stripes. Everything here is about sunshine (although, oddly, the sun, when it is shown in cartoonish form, is orange!) and happiness and silly, amusing images: a hot air balloon heading into outer space, kites crisscrossing in the sky, a little girl photoshopped to look like a judge for the words “clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth,” three kids holding bright yellow smiley faces in front of their own faces, and on and on and on. This is actually a short picture book, but it feels jam-packed – not with words but with images, because there is so much happening on every page. Yes, it is necessary to know the Williams song in order to appreciate everything the book offers, but even families uninterested in the song will be able to enjoy some of the sheer daffiness of the photos here: the girl with a megaphone and hearts on her knees, the one who seems to be floating in the clouds while actually wearing a cloud as a tutu, the three kids seeming to hang in the air to the words “bring me down, can’t nothing bring me down.” The typical illiteracy of the lyrics may bother some parents, although it is right in line with ordinary pop-music norms; and at least there is nothing objectionable in the words or the sentiments behind them. This is a book that is purely for fun and almost entirely targeted at fans of Williams and people enthusiastic about this specific song. What helps the book work even for people not enamored of the music (or not aware of it) is the sheer joy that emanates from every page – and, after all, who can object to that?
Guardians of Tarnec, Book II: Silver Eve. By Sandra Waugh. Random House. $17.99.
Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training. By Jonathan Bernstein. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
There are always secrets. Deep, dark ones. And tragedies, real or incipient. And always, always, a central character who does not know his or her depths, his or her destiny, his or her importance. The handling of these elements differs from adventure series to adventure series, but in sequences of novels for preteens and teenagers, the only question is how the elements will be used – not whether they will be there. They always are. And they are most certainly present in Guardians of Tarnec, whose first book, Lark Rising, was also Sandra Waugh’s first novel. That book had all the expected elements: a 16-year-old protagonist who turned out to be more than she ever thought she was, specifically the Guardian of Life – one of four Guardians whose powers must be brought into play in order to recover four crucial protective amulets that collectively keep the world in balance. The other three Guardians of Tarnec, it turned out, were those of Death, Dark and Light; hence the tetralogy progresses to Silver Eve, in which 17-year-old healer Evie Carew discovers she is Guardian of Death. Like Lark in the first book, Evie must balance her importance to the world with her own personal issues: her beloved has died, killed by the evil Troths, and Evie wants only to lose herself forever in a convenient marshland; but a suitably knowledgeable old seer tells her she is destined for greater things. Evie’s curiosity keeps her going, and so, after a time, does her attraction to one of the Riders of Tarnec, the handsome Laurent. The adventure is told throughout in a kind of take-it-seriously heroic style, not only in terms of events but also in the dialogue, which is straight out of what the target audience of young readers may imagine that people in imaginary lands may have sounded like in the imaginary past or an imaginary alternative world: “Be on your guard, my lady.” “Do you not understand my wretched duty, Rider? No harm. ’Twas born into me; I cannot reject it!” “If a Guardian is lost, there will be another to wake.” “The day is wasting.” “’Twas only a catch of stares, only the briefest of moments.” And so forth. This faux exotica carries the tale along to the usual sort of parlous statement: “Pages that are not yet set, not yet lived, could be burned or ripped out. And then the person whose fate they hold would die.” There are the usual twists and turns, the usual discovery of “what a terrible mistake I’d made. About everything.” And then, after a suitable climax and appropriate level of understanding at last, this part of this particular quest is accomplished and the scene is set for the next book in the series.
Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training is much lighter stuff and, besides, is the first book of a series, so it has specific things it must do to get matters up and running (lots of running: it is a spy novel, after all). This means meeting the eponymous protagonist, who of course is a nobody whom no one acknowledges, even on her birthday, and therefore is obviously going to turn out, soon enough, to be someone very important. Aimed at ages 8-12 – unlike Guardians of Tarnec, which is for ages 12 and up, thus accounting for its more-serious mien – Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training repeatedly stirs in some humor with its adventure. This is a common recipe for sequences of this sort, and Jonathan Bernstein, here offering his first novel for this age group, clearly understands how to go about it. The whole “birthday” thing is a key: Bridget’s birthday brings her a bag containing dorky glasses, gross lip gloss and a broken phone – which, soon enough, rings, inviting her to become nothing less than a CIA agent. But not just any agent: she is going to work for Section 23, a department so secret that even the CIA itself is unaware of it. Hmm. Maybe Section 23 isn’t exactly what Bridget is told it is – but that is getting ahead of things (although only a little). Now, what is missing here is some sort of family connection – books like this always have one – so it turns out that Bridget’s biological father, whom she has (conveniently for the plot) never met and never seen a picture of, is the reason for her mysterious and unexpected invitation to the spy world. He is a top Section 23 agent, and he is going to get his daughter into the family business; so says Bridget’s newfound CIA contact. OK, this all strains the bounds of credulity even more than books of this sort usually do, but the point here is adventure and amusement, not believability. So, soon enough, there is this super-secret character called Spool managing Bridget’s early training, and saying things like this when Bridget says she wants to speak with her biological father: “He’s deep under cover. The balance of global power depends on him right now.” As for Bridget herself, she is trying to negotiate the usual middle-school hurdles while taking in all the spy-related issues, and isn’t doing a very good job of it. “It turns out that I am not old news,” she says after deciding that some of her escapades will have passed through everyone’s mind and out the other side quickly; and, soon thereafter, “It turns out that I am not too tough” – that is, not too tough to let the backbiting and backstabbing of her fellow students get to her. But which fellow students really are students, and for that matter, which teachers really are teachers, and, for the matter of that matter, which spies really are spies and which are evil manipulators eager to start wars because they are good for business? So many questions, so few answers – although the answers do start coming quickly as the book goes on and a talking Smart Car ferries Bridget around while making snarky comments to her. Improbabilities pile on improbabilities in a not-fully-mixed mixture of fun and fright, as Bridget and friends (which ones really are friends?) get captured and released, used and misused. Bridget is really two characters, and Bernstein never quite brings them together: the passages in which she is a trying-to-cope middle-schooler read quite differently from those in which she is a super-successful budding spy with powers of which even she is unaware until she has to call on them. The point of Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training is that Bridget goes from being “Invisible,” the title of the first chapter, to being “Visible,” the title of the last one, and at the same time cements her family relationships (including the one with her biological father) and her place in school (including ever-changing friendships and groupthink). Bernstein packs a little too much into this first series book, and the balance of serious-vs.-amusing is sometimes off: for example, a climactic scene in which a car is cut in half, with both halves continuing down the road, is supposed to be dramatic but ends up on the funny side of things. But the book certainly works as a scene-setter, or rather scene-setter-up, for a planned ongoing sequence about Bridget; and while it is hard to imagine the next book being much, um, wilder than this one, the preview pages about dastardly cheerleaders and an adorable kitten at least promise that Book 2 will follow in the footsteps of Book 1.
Mendelssohn: Complete Chamber Music for Strings. Mandelring Quartet (Sebastian Schmidt and Nanette Schmidt, violins; Andreas Willwohl, viola; Bernhard Schmidt, cello); Gunter Teuffel, viola; Quartetto di Cremona (Cristiano Gualco and Paolo Andreoli, violins; Simone Gramaglia, viola; Giovanni Scaglione, cello). Audite. $29.99 (4 CDs).
Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 5; Suite from Dracula; String Sextet. Carducci String Quartet (Matthew Denton and Michelle Fleming, violins; Eoin Schmidt-Martin, viola; Emma Denton, cello); Cian O’Dúill, viola; Gemma Rosefield, cello. Naxos. $12.99.
Szymanowski: Violin Sonata in D minor, Op. 9; Nocturne and Tarantella, Op. 28; Reynaldo Hahn: Romance in A; Sonata for Violin & Piano in C; Nocturne in E-flat. Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violin; Huw Watkins, piano. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Haydn: Violin Concerto No. 1; Sinfonia Concertante. Pinchas Zukerman, violin and conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. PentaTone. $15.99 (SACD).
Transparency of sound and clear interplay of instruments are hallmarks of chamber music, and there is also, in the best performances, a high degree of emotional connection that comes through clearly to listeners as it develops through the close interaction of a small instrumental group. This is the impression that emerges with the greatest clarity from the four-CD Audite set of Mendelssohn’s complete chamber music for strings, performed by the Mandelring Quartet. Originally issued in SACD format as four separate discs, these recordings from 2011 and 2012 sound just as strong and just as involving as CDs. The release itself is strangely packaged, though. It never gives the names of the Mandelring Quartet’s members or those of the members of the Quartetto di Cremona, which joins the Mandelring Quartet for Mendelssohn’s fleet-footed octet – a distinct highlight of the release, flowing easily and with sure understanding and grace. The only person named is Gunter Teuffel, the violist who joins the Mandelring Quartet for Mendelssohn’s two unfairly neglected quintets. Those works get exceptionally understanding readings here, with the distinctly Mozartean elements of the first quintet brought to the fore and well contrasted with the broader, more symphonic approach of the second quintet, written nearly two decades after the first. There are pleasures in every work recorded here: the seven quartets (including one in E-flat that was written when the composer was 14 years old), the two quintets, the octet, and the four posthumously published string-quartet movements. What is remarkable in the Mandelring Quartet’s presentation is the fluidity with which the performers move through each individual piece and through this cycle as a whole. Every work gets its own special characteristics highlighted, yet there is a cohesiveness to the performances that makes the impact of each separate piece that much greater. There are many especially impressive moments here. The pathos of the opening of the A minor quartet, Op. 13, is particularly telling. The structural understanding that the Mandelring Quartet brings to the three Op. 44 quartets is substantial, and the intensity and conviction with which these works are played are highly impressive. As for the harrowing Op. 80 quartet, in which Mendelssohn stretches his emotionalism and sense of structure to the utmost in agonizing response to the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, here the Mandelring Quartet members communicate the composer’s despair with such palpable intensity that the work is actually difficult to listen to, so deeply felt is its evocation of anguish. This is an absolutely first-rate release of Mendelssohn’s chamber music for strings, paying as much tribute to the performers as to the composer – and showing just how much impact music for a small ensemble can have when the group is as talented and committed as this one is.
The pleasures are somewhat more rarefied in the music of Philip Glass on a new (+++) Naxos CD. Glass’ String Quartet No. 5 is less than typical of Glass’ approach, and different in sound from his first four quartets. Indeed, it does not really sound like Glass until the second movement: the first movement is more pensive and delicate than listeners who know other works by the composer will likely expect. The third, scherzo-ish movement is rhythmically vital, the fourth is somewhat stolid in its melancholy, and the fifth – which is the longest – is surprisingly vibrant and polyphonic, ending in a mixture of moods in which slow, chromatic material (taken from the first movement) alternates with more-playful elements. The work is interesting and occasionally genuinely involving, but does not really seem to have very much to say, despite the fine performance it receives from the Carducci String Quartet. Suite from Dracula is a more intriguing creation. Written in 1998 to accompany the famous Tod Browning Dracula of 1931 that starred Bela Lugosi, Glass’ music assiduously avoids horror clichés in favor of creating an atmospheric, aesthetically pleasing depth that actually goes beyond that of the film itself. Glass seems to want to pull listeners into the attractive, even seductive elements of the vampire tale, and thus uses his music to tempt and intrigue rather than to accentuate any sort of fright. This is, however, clearer in the full version of Glass’ score, which runs more than an hour, than in the 19-minute suite heard on this CD, where it receives its world première recording. Here there are eight short movements that can best be described as boilerplate Glass. There are the repeated, rhythmically steady chords, minor thirds and other building blocks of the “Glass sound,” and not much that is genuinely distinctive. Whether or not the Glass score helps the film is a matter of taste and opinion; but when heard simply as music, this suite from the Dracula music neither helps nor harms – it does not do very much one way or the other. As for the String Sextet, this is an arrangement by Michael Riesman of Glass’ Third Symphony, “Heroes.” The symphony dates to 1995, the sextet version to 2009. Hearing the symphony in sextet form is not as big a stretch as might be expected: the work was originally written for the 19-member Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and Glass’ commission called for him to treat each player as a soloist. So the six-player version, although it inevitably sounds different from the chamber-orchestra one, gives up little in terms of sonic impact. The work is rather traditionally classical by Glass’ standards, written in four movements and focusing especially on the third, which is essentially the slow movement and most clearly gives the individual musicians their own lines and their own roles to play. In sextet form, this movement gains somewhat in clarity of the lines but loses a sense of the sheer number of layers: the movement is in the style of a chaconne. Like the other works on this CD, and indeed like much of Glass’ music, the String Sextet has points of interest and points of familiarity (at least for those who have heard music by Glass before). What it does not have is the sort of visceral emotional connection at which chamber music can excel.
Emotional impact is certainly what Karol Szymanowski was looking for in his 1904 Violin Sonata, Op. 9. A turbulent and intense work showing some influence of Chopin and even more of Scriabin, the sonata tends to be dragged down a bit by the chordal piano writing, which holds back its intended emotive flow. But the slow movement, which neatly contrasts bowed and pizzicato elements, is effective. The intense, virtuosic Nocturne and Tarantella (1915) draws on different influences: Debussy, to an extent, with a soupçon of Stravinsky and some traces of Middle Eastern culture and folklore. These are not among Szymanowski’s most important works, but they have many intriguing and colorful elements, and are very well played on a Signum Classics release featuring Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Huw Watkins. The rest of the CD, though, is of somewhat less interest. Reynaldo Hahn’s C major Violin Sonata of 1926, although a work of Hahn’s maturity, looks back some 50 years to Gabriel Fauré’s sonata in A of 1877. There is expressiveness here, to be sure, but it is restrained almost to the vanishing point; and while the scherzo-like second movement comes across well, the third and concluding one meanders rather aimlessly through gentleness, melancholy and nostalgia. The sonata is pleasant enough but somewhat overextended: the second movement, which provides the only respite from the work’s otherwise rather tentative tone, lasts just three minutes out of a total of 23. The other two Hahn works on this CD, Romance and Nocturne, fulfill the promise of their titles in fairly short order and nicely break up the musical sequence on the disc; but both pieces are rather slight. And the combination of Szymanowski with Hahn is rather strange – certainly in the case of these specific pieces – resulting in a (+++) recording that is more notable for the quality of its playing than for what is played.
The playing is also first-rate on a new PentaTone release of music by Haydn – music that, although written for small orchestra, has all the fluidity and easy charm of chamber music – and the remastering of the 1977 and 1979 performances for this SACD is technically top-notch. But there are disappointments of several sorts in this (+++) recording. For one thing, it is the length of an LP – 44 minutes – but through a significant printing error or some sort of peculiar intentional mislabeling, its length is given as 76 minutes. For another, Pinchas Zukerman is a wonderful violinist, but he is not an especially skilled Haydn interpreter; and what passed for good Haydn in the 1970s, before the rise of the historic-performance movement and a greater understanding of the way music of Haydn’s time should be played, no longer passes muster in the 21st century. Both the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Sinfonia Concertante sound lovely here, and the obbligato performances by Ronald Leonhard (cello), Barbara Winters (oboe) and David Breidenthal (bassoon) nicely complement and contrast with Zukerman’s. But although these are good mainstream readings from nearly 40 years ago, there is nothing particularly special about them for modern listeners – certainly not for ones who have become familiar with the tuning, bowing, gut-stringing, absence of vibrato, and overall clean sound that Haydn sought to create and that he expected performers of his time to produce. Fans of Zukerman will enjoy this recording, and certainly from a strictly aural standpoint, it sounds very good indeed. But these renditions show their age through their approach to the music; and only a dedicated Zukerman fan is likely to want to spend this amount of money for such a brief foray into the way Haydn used to be performed.
Divine Redeemer: Music of Bach, Gounod, Franck, Nadia Boulanger, Lili Boulanger, Puccini, Wolf, Reger and Handel. Christine Brewer, soprano; Paul Jacobs, organ. Naxos. $12.99.
Stephen Paulus: Choral Music. True Concord Voices & Orchestra conducted by Eric Holtan. Reference Recordings. $16.99.
Craig Madden Morris: Circle of Love and Other Choral Offerings. Ravello. $16.99.
Thomas Juneau: Te Deum; Five Latin Motets; Magnum Mysterium; Gaudete. Summit Chorale and Juneau Vocal Alliance conducted by Thomas Juneau. Ravello. $16.99.
Although the traditional method of musical prayer and devotional expression is a vocal one, instrumental music can also be an effective way for a composer to express thoughts about what is sacred and encourage listeners to contemplate the divine. That is the realization to which a Naxos CD called Divine Redeemer will bring those who hear it. The CD is actually a rather curious mixture, being as much a showcase for Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs as it is for the works they perform: Brewer has a wonderful voice for this varied repertoire, and Jacobs’ playing is enticing and highly involving throughout. It is the mix of music that is a bit hard to pin down beyond the obvious connection of all works with the disc’s title. Bach’s Bist du bei mir, very sensitively sung, is followed by his Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547, resulting in an instrumental counterbalance to the vocal work. So far, so good. But much that comes afterwards is arranged rather arbitrarily. There is Gounod’s O Divine Redeemer! There is Franck’s beautiful Panis angelicus from Messe à 3 voix. Then there are the Trois Pièces pour Orgue by Nadia Boulanger, followed by the vocal Pie Jesu in a lovely setting by her sister, Lili. And next are other short vocal appeals to and interpretations of the divine: Puccini’s Salve Regina and three Wolf songs in voice-and-organ arrangements by Reger – Nun wandre, Maria and Führ mich, Kind, nach Bethlehem! from Spanisches Liederbuch and Gebet from Mörike-Lieder. Then comes another organ interlude, in the form of Reger’s upbeat Toccata and Fugue, Op. 59, which Jacobs handles particularly well. And then the CD closes with But oh! What art can teach from Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day – a fitting conclusion for a recording that does indeed show what art can teach about the relationship between music and the divine.
Still, listeners interested in affirmation of or appeal to divine forces are more accustomed to gravitating to sung works rather than a mixture of the vocal and non-vocal; and for those who find contemporary appeals to powers beyond the everyday especially appealing, a new Reference Recordings release of choral works by the late Stephen Paulus will be of considerable interest. Paulus (1949-2014) was a fine composer and a prolific one, with more than 500 works to his credit. He specialized in opera and vocal music, and frequently wrote for ensembles such as True Concord Voices & Orchestra: The Incomprehensible and Prayers and Remembrances, the first written for the group’s fifth anniversary in 2009 and the second in recognition of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist murders, were both commissioned and given their premières by this ensemble and are here recorded for the first time. What stands out in these pieces and the five others on this disc are two things: Paulus’ fine feeling for lyrical expression, which is apparent throughout this music, and his skill in orchestration, which results in instruments commenting on and adding to the words rather than merely supplementing or simply backing them up. There is a freshness to Paulus’ melodic invention even when he is dealing with sentiments and emotions that are largely familiar, as in Grant That We May Love, Nunc dimittis, I Have Called You By Name, Little Elegy and When Music Sounds – the last of these being the final work on the CD and as fitting an affirmation of the connection between music and the spiritual as is Handel’s aria on the Naxos CD. Whether writing works focusing on solo voices (Grant That We May Love features two sopranos, tenor and baritone), ones where the light shines on instruments (The Incomprehensible has sensitive parts for oboe and harp), or ones where the focus is purely choral, Paulus brings textual and textural understanding to the music and helps connect it clearly to listeners’ feelings and experiences.
The choral works of Chris Madden Morris, as heard on a new Ravello CD, seek a similar connection, in this case through use of some biblical texts and some that are secular – although with mystical overtones. The Bible’s Song of Songs seems particularly attractive to Morris, providing the basis for three of the nine pieces here: Arise My Love, How Sweet Your Love and Oh, For a Kiss. Other Bible-sourced works are Wherever You Go from the Book of Ruth, Two Are Better Than One from Ecclesiastes, And Abraham Remained Standing Before the Lord from Genesis, and The Touch of Memory, whose text is partly from Malachi and partly by Morris himself. The primary focus of the disc is love and human relationships, as is clear from the chosen biblical passages and also from the non-biblical sources: The Rubaiyat is taken from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and The Tiger from William Blake’s poem, although Blake’s work is both mystical and ambiguous in its title and its references, which merge the secular and the sacred. Like Paulus, Morris is a contemporary composer who is unafraid of lyricism and emotionalism; he is also a child psychiatrist, and as such has a keen sense of the ways in which words and music can touch us at many levels. Circle of Love is an apt title for this recording, since its elements deal with love in many guises and at many times of life, from falling in love while young, to forging an ongoing intimate and caring relationship, to (in Two Are Better Than One) seeing love as a late-in-life experience that helps smooth the inevitable difficulties of aging and the passage of time. The Blake poem (whose title the poet spelled “tyger”) and the Genesis excerpt do not quite fit with the other works here, being placed next-to-last and last on the CD and moving the material beyond that of human love to that of the puzzles of presumed divine love and the difficulties inherent in understanding it. As a result, the CD ends with less affirmation and rather less sense of human devotion than it would if it concluded with Two Are Better Than One. But Morris does make the salient point that love in all its human guises and puzzles is only one form of the feeling and experience, one whose connection to a greater and more all-encompassing love is not always clear.
The focus of Thomas Juneau on another new Ravello release is distinctly on matters of the divine; and Juneau communicates here in the language most closely identified with Christian-era celebrations of divine love and grace, Latin. Yet even when using old texts and old forms, Juneau seems to seek some new types of expression. Te Deum, for example, is a forthright, affirmative, outgoing and bright work, some of its instrumental fanfares recalling those brought to the forefront in the sacred music of Berlioz and Verdi. This is celebratory music throughout, its interplay of solo and choral sections designed to heighten the upbeat message of the well-worn text. The Five Latin Motets, in contrast, include both exuberant material and thoughtful, even tender passages, and their harmonic language is somewhat more acerbic than is that of the Te Deum. Their requirement of choral virtuosity, however, is at the same level. The three-movement Magnum Mysterium, a Christmas-focused work, is interestingly scored for treble chorus and harp, and moves from first-movement mysticism to a lovely central Ave Maria and celebratory final Resonet in Laudibus. The CD concludes with even greater exultation and exaltation in Gaudete, in which Juneau takes a 16th-century text and builds it from one height to the next, increasing its exclamatory power through to its conclusion. Like the works of Morris and Paulus, those by Juneau heard here will be primarily attractive to listeners who are interested in modern choral writing and in music that focuses on and celebrates love secular and sacred, old-fashioned and eternal.
September 10, 2015
Toys Meet Snow. By Emily Jenkins. Pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Tulip and Rex Write a Story. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Illustrated by Sarah Massini. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
A thoroughly endearing book with the magic of a winter wonderland on every page, Emily Jenkins’ Toys Meet Snow is a beautifully conceived and wonderfully executed picture-book spinoff from the Toys chapter-book trilogy: Toys Go Out, Toy Dance Party and Toys Come Home. The same improbable toy trio, each with a well-defined personality and each possessing adorable quirks, is featured here: Lumphy, a stuffed buffalo; StingRay, a plush, dry-clean-only sting ray; and Plastic, a rubber (not plastic) ball. They belong to the Little Girl, but she is not in Toys Meet Snow: she has gone away on winter vacation. So when the first snow of the season falls, Lumphy and StingRay and Plastic encounter it on their own, trying to figure out just what snow is and where it comes from. Lumphy is the questioner and the quester: he wonders why snow falls and is the one who suggests that the toys go out in it. StingRay is the poet: she says snow means “the clouds are sad and happy at the same time” and suggests that the snow has turned a familiar evergreen in the yard into a candy tree. Plastic is the realist, bolstered by book learning, explaining that snow is really frozen water and the “candy tree” has not really changed: “I recognize the branches.” How easy it would be, when reading the back-and-forth among them, to forget that these are toys! But Paul O. Zelinsky’s illustrations make that happily impossible. Zelinsky works wizardry with this story. A five-panel sequence, spread over two pages, showing the toys trying to open the door so they can go out, is hilarious and perfectly apt. A subtle illustration showing clouds being happy and sad at once is marvelous, and the way it shades over into the same scene without the emotional clouds – as Plastic gives the matter-of-fact explanation about what snow is – is even more wonderful. A snowman-building scene is delightful, and a scene of snow angels, without the toys in it – just showing the shapes they have made in the snow – is almost unbearably cute. This is a treasurable book, from the sparks of curiosity that ignite the small adventure to StingRay’s poetic assertion, when Lumphy asks what a sunset is, that “it’s strawberry syrup pouring over the world to make it sweet before nightfall” (and what a fine illustration Zelinsky creates for that comment). A beautiful bedtime book, a to-be-cherished winter story, a tale of friendship and poetry and warmth and beauty, Toys Meet Snow is an extraordinary seasonal work in which families can delight during any season at all.
The weather is warm, and so are the sentiments, in Tulip and Rex Write a Story, the second book featuring a little girl who loves dancing more than anything, and a “rather large” and rather ungainly-looking dog. Rex was discovered in the first book, Tulip Loves Rex, wearing a sign saying “I am not quite like other dogs” on one side and, on the other, asking someone to adopt him – which Tulip and her indulgent parents promptly did. The Tulip-Rex relationship moves to a new level in Tulip and Rex Write a Story, which starts with the arrival of a package from Grandma that includes a notebook for Tulip and a new leash for Rex; continues with a romp in the park; and then becomes a celebration of words and their effects. “H-O-P is such a happy word,” says Tulip, and “Flutter is a lovely word,” she adds after she and Rex see a butterfly. The word collecting goes on: feather, float, shadow, run and more – until Tulip falls into a little stream and, after Rex helps her out, proclaims him “the bravest and kindest dog in the world.” And that gives Tulip an idea for using all the words she and Rex have collected to create a once-upon-a-time story – which Tulip promptly does, imagining herself as Queen Tulip and Rex as King Rex and thinking up a dragon and a floating feather and magical happenings interrupted only by the mundane need to sit down for a picnic lunch with Tulip’s parents. Trippingly told by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illuminatingly illustrated by Sarah Massini, Tulip and Rex Write a Story manages to celebrate little girls, big dogs, the emotional impact of words, the way stories are made, and, of course, friendship and family. That sounds like a big order for a short picture book, but it proves to be one that Capucilli and Massini fill enchantingly in this sweet and gentle tale.