October 29, 2015
Do I Have to Say Hello? Aunt Delia’s Manners Quiz for Kids and Their Grownups. By Delia Ephron. Drawings by Edward Koren. Blue Rider Press. $24.95.
Emily Post this isn’t. Or, rather, Emily Post this is, sort of, but with a far lighter approach to life and far less concern about minutiae. Delia Ephron spends no time on matters such as the correct order in which to use utensils in a fancy restaurant. She is much more interested in asking what you should do in that fancy restaurant if you notice a fly swimming in your soup. The three choices: “Do you swat it?” “Do you eat it?” “Do you say, ‘Excuse me,’ to the waiter, ‘but a fly is swimming in my soup’?” Lest there be any uncertainty about the best response (there is no answer key here!), Edward Koren’s perfectly apt but marvelously outlandish illustrations show a little girl standing by a giant bowl of soup, wielding a fly swatter; a little girl about to devour a fly that is as large as her head and is sporting a bewildered expression; and a little girl talking politely to the waiter as a fly almost the size of the soup bowl does what appears to be the Australian crawl.
Ephron and Koren have so much fun with matters of manners that kids (and parents) will inevitably have fun with the topic, too. And a good thing: upcoming holidays are always fodder for figuring out the right thing (and many wrong things) to say. For example, “Which of these are appropriate subjects for Thanksgiving dinner conversation? Whether the turkey knew it was going to die. The time cousin Michelle laughed so hard while eating that a hot dog came out of her nose. Stink bombs. Pilgrims.” Remember, there is no answer key!
Most pages of Do I Have to Say Hello? are filled with questions and potential answers, but a few are crammed with illustrations that may make some adults wonder whether they have wandered by mistake into The New Yorker, to which Koren frequently contributes cartoons. For example, one two-page spread is called “The Noise Chart” and asks, “Which noises are acceptable at the dinner table?” There are 10 possibilities here, and examining the kids’ expressions will not provide any clues: whether going “cluck,” “ugh,” “moo” or “yech,” the kids are smiling and appear to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Parents should warn of incipient expression changes if their kids are caught making most of these sounds (“mmmmMMMMMM” is acceptable).
There are the usual subjects here for kids interested in manners (or being forced to pay attention to them): visiting, eating, car, school, playground, birthday party. But there are some unexpected areas as well, and some possible responses that may take a bit of time to think through. Under “Beach Manners,” for instance, is the question, “Which of these things is it okay to say in a loud voice at the beach?” There are six possibilities given: “Oh, it’s so beautiful here.” “The sand in my suit is making my butt itch.” “Why is that man so fat?” “Boy, did that bathroom smell.” “Aunt Delia, that woman isn’t wearing a top.” “Sharks! Sharks!” Now, the first of these is clearly intended to be the right answer, but maybe it would be all right for a child to comment on a topless beachgoer, and it would certainly be acceptable to shout about sharks if there were in fact any swimming around. Do I Have to Say Hello? invites kids and their parents to discuss just these sorts of issues – that is, to consider what it is appropriate to say, where and when, and under what circumstances.
Among the other out-of-the-ordinary sections here are ones on soccer manners (including goalie and referee bonus questions), movie manners (including bonuses for the candy counter and for popcorn – with response ratings ranging from G to R), and video game manners. From this section: “Yikes, a zombie is coming after you. Aunt Delia says, ‘How was school this week, sweetie?’ What is the most polite answer?” The choices are: “Not now, I’m busy.” “NOT NOW, I’M BUSY!” “May I please tell you later? I’ve got zombie problems.” “You just made me die.” Now there’s a scenario missing from all old-fashioned etiquette books!
The point is that Do I Have to Say Hello? is distinctly and deliberately not old-fashioned, and yet there is an undercurrent of politeness and deference to others here that is just as important as in more-traditional etiquette books. And just as Ephron is expert at coming up with three or more bad choices for every good one, so Koren does a wonderful job of finding lots of wrong things to show and just one or a few that are right. The Ephron-Koren team is a winning one throughout. One page in the video-game section, for instance, is a “Facial Expression Chart” proffering the question, “Which expressions are the most likely to get you more time for playing video games? Which are the least likely?” Kids can look at the eight possibilities, then look in a mirror, and try to figure that one out on their own. There is a pervasive sense of fun here – not something usually associated with manners books. Even soup can be fun, and not just when there are flies in it. A page called “Tricky Question 4” asks, “Who is using the soupspoon properly?” There are only three drawings here, one showing a girl eating soup, one showing a girl using a gigantic spoon as a canoe paddle, and one showing a boy during a downpour, using a huge spoon as an umbrella. The answer, obviously, is that all three are proper soupspoon uses – if you happen to have a gigantic spoon and no paddle or a huge spoon and no umbrella during heavy rain. This is probably not the intended answer, but at least kids who use the spoons those ways won’t end up eating flies. But beware, parents, of children who think about their responses too creatively: they may grow up with a sense of humor akin to those of Ephron and Koren. Uh-oh.
Imaginary Fred. By Eoin Colfer. Illustrations by Oliver Jeffers. Harper. $18.99.
Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues. By Kimberly and James Dean. Illustrations by James Dean. Harper. $17.99.
Books call on and celebrate the imaginary all the time, but Imaginary Fred does so in a most unusual and thought-provoking way. Eoin Colfer’s tale is about the sort of imaginary friend that so many children have – except that Fred, it turns out, is sort of not imaginary, even though he sort of is. It is the uncertainty of just what Fred is and what he can be that so enlivens Colfer’s book. The story starts simply enough: Fred is clearly imaginary, appearing as needed to various children who enjoy his company until they make real-world friends and no longer need Fred – at which point he fades away and blows into the clouds, where he waits until another “lonely little child” needs him. Oliver Jeffers’ illustrations, mostly done in black-and-white with small dips or slashes of color, are quite wonderful, and his way of portraying Fred as a boy-shaped grouping of small blue dots lends the character just enough solidity and just enough otherworldliness. We see Fred as the imaginary friend of quite a few children – and then we get to the meat of the story, as Fred “dreamed of a friend who liked reading, music, and drama like [sic] he did” and, most importantly, with whom he could stay without fading away. Sure enough, Fred seems to make just the right connection when he is wished for by “a lonely boy named Sam,” and soon the two are inseparable, listening to music together, acting together in plays they write, and walking along reading books together (in an amusing in-joke, Sam is seen reading Colfer’s Artemis Fowl). Sam and Fred become so close that they proclaim themselves the Dramatic Duo – but Fred knows that, just as in the past, at some point Sam will find a real friend and that will be the end of the relationship. What happens, though, is stranger and more unexpected than that. Sam does find a real friend, a girl named Sammi, and Sammi has an imaginary friend of her own named Frieda (the similar names of the friends are part of the book’s charm). The four characters, two real and two imaginary, become a quartet – literally, since they play instruments together and Sammi’s dream is to perform at Carnegie Hall. A happy ending? Not quite – and this is where the book gets strange. The four do perform together at a school concert, under the name “the Quarrelling Quartet,” but the audience sees only two of them even though readers see all four (Fred made of blue and Frieda of yellow ones). And then, Colfer explains, in time the friends do grow apart, with the two real ones spending more time doing what they like and the two imaginary ones going their own, more-musical way – a way that leads them to, yes, Carnegie Hall, as the Dramatic Duo (the name now applying to the two imaginary friends), “much to the confusion of the audience.” Colfer and Jeffers deliberately leave matters unexplained: one audience member is saying “aren’t they wonderful?” while another is asking “when does it start?” Are the imaginary friends playing or not? Are they visible or not? Audible or not? What exactly is going on? Well, Colfer says that imaginary scientists do not know either, so they – one a constellation of pink dots, another a grouping of green ones – study and do research and finally can agree only that “friendship is friendship. Imaginary or not, the same laws apply.” What those laws are, neither Colfer nor Jeffers makes clear – and that is all to the good, as the book ends happily but with a distinct lack of certainty about just what has happened and why, leaving it up to young readers (and perhaps their equally puzzled parents) to figure out just what friendship really means, and just what Imaginary Fred is all about.
Matters are much clearer in Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues, in which Pete, Alligator, Gus the platypus, and Grumpy Toad are having so much fun at the beach that they do not want the day to end, so they decide to have a sleepover. Good idea, but things do not go quite as planned, because one by one, Pete’s friends think of things they want to do other than sleep: Grumpy Toad wants to clap, Gus wants to jam (music makes its way into all the Pete the Cat books), and Alligator wants to eat. For his part, Pete is tired and knows there has to be a way to get all his friends to relax and sleep. His “groovy idea” is to read “his favorite bedtime story” out loud – it happens to be called Pete the Cat and the 10 Little Monsters, so there is a bit of self-reference in this book just as in Imaginary Fred. Pete’s reading engages the friends’ attention, and soon he notices that things have gotten quiet, and sure enough, “They all settled down. No one made a sound.” And so all the friends go to sleep and dream of the fun they will have the next day. Like many Pete the Cat books, this one has a thin plot and mildly amusing drawings. In fact, the numerous small pictures of Pete on the pages after the story ends are more fun than many of those within the main pages: the little ones show Pete in green-and-white-striped pajamas and holding a big tube of toothpaste, dressed in a Super Cat T-shirt, playing in a cardboard box, wearing a floppy hat that says “Pete,” playing guitar, and more. Also attractive is the door hanger bound into the book, which says, on one side, “Shhh! This cool cat is trying to sleep.” On the other side, it says “Come in and hang out!” and shows Pete playing with the friends featured in the book. Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues is strictly a book for existing fans of the title character – there is not very much to it that will likely attract kids unfamiliar with Pete’s personality, and it is not an especially good introduction to the many books about Pete. So it gets a (+++) rating for those not already enamored of the perpetually sleepy-eyed cat, although for those who have enjoyed other Pete productions by Kimberly and James Dean, this will be a (++++) book and a pleasant, uncomplicated bedtime story.
Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet: Lose Up to 5 Pounds in 5 Days. By Liz Vaccariello. Reader’s Digest. $25.99.
Pretty much all diets work. Yes, they do. It’s people who don’t work. The reason dieters almost inevitably fail to take weight off and keep it off has to do with motivation, stick-to-it-iveness, will power, whatever you want to call it. Oh, and human nature: deprivation is not something to which most people willingly attach themselves. And diets are a form of deprivation: their creators tell you what you can eat, what you must eat (most people do not take kindly to being ordered around, especially when bodily functions are involved), and what you must not eat. So the question for anyone wanting to lose weight is which yes-it-works diet he or she will follow until the deprivation and demands become too much, leading to quitting that diet, gaining the weight back, and finding another diet that will work – as long as the dieter is sufficiently dedicated and obedient, preferably for the rest of his or her life.
This is a distinctly unpleasant scenario, and these days purveyors of diets know that a big part of what they must do in order to obtain adherents and make money from their diet books is to make a diet easy, simple, uncomplicated, and easy (yes, twice as easy is better) – and if they can make a diet fun, or at least make it seem to be fun, so much the better. Until someone comes up with a pill that magically melts fat, especially in specific body areas where people want the fat to disappear, a diet that is easy to follow and even fun is akin to the Holy Grail.
So, yes, Liz Vaccariello’s latest entry in the grail sweepstakes will work for those who follow it. The editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest has been down this road before (The Digest Diet, 21-Day Tummy Diet) and knows the formula for convincing people that this book is the answer to all their dieting needs, the solution to all their weight woes. It does help, however, to read the disclaimers carefully. That subtitle, “Lose Up to 5 Pounds in 5 Days”? Well, “up to” could mean losing zero pounds, or half of one. That’s called the English language. And in tiny type on the back cover, attentive readers will find the eternal legalese associated with all diet books in our hyper-litigious culture: “How much weight you lose will vary depending on your gender, age, and starting weight, plus what you typically eat and how much you exercise, among many other factors. Even using the same program of diet and exercise, individual results will vary. Losing 1 pound a day is not a typical result.” Gives a whole new perspective to the words “up to,” doesn’t it?
But just as pretty much all diets work, pretty much no diet makes it into book form without a touch of hype. Make that a touch and a half. Vaccariello’s latest is no different. Nor is it different in the inside-the-book disclaimers that, like the one on the back cover, tell readers that things are not quite as simple and not quite as guaranteed as the book's overstated title and subtitle (and Vaccariello’s cover quote, “My easiest plan yet!”) would indicate. Just how easy, flexible and simple to follow is this diet? “It’s best to eat meals approximately 4 hours apart. And try to allow no more than 5 hours between meals.” “While the plan is designed so that you don’t need to count calories, it’s best to be aware of your overall calorie intake.” “For best results, I suggest that you measure or weigh the food in your plan as frequently as possible…” “You can enjoy a 12-oz glass of beer or 6-oz glass of wine in place of a snack once or twice a week.” Get those scales, schedulers and substitution lists ready, folks – for this diet as for all the others!
So what is different about Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet? The presentation is relentlessly perky, for one thing, and Vaccariello’s discussions and recommendations are straightforward, written in easy-to-understand language, and presented in the pithy style for which Reader’s Digest has long been known. The book has a reasonably easy-to-follow approach to weight loss: three types of meals called “kickstart” (to get things going), “steady loss” (to keep them going) and “maintain” (essentially a lifetime eating plan to use after reaching your goal weight). It has color coding that makes it easy to follow what Vaccariello is recommending: generally, columns in red are “don’t eat this” and ones in green are “eat this instead” (although some “yes” colors vary confusingly). It has side-by-side layouts of “bad” and “good” meals that make it very simple to see where your calories come from and how much you can reduce them by making different food choices – although some of the “bad” meals shown are deliberately structured to overstate Vaccariello’s case (e.g., a lunch including potato salad, deli coleslaw and a Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie in addition to a hamburger on Kaiser roll with two slices of American cheese).
What really makes the book special, though, is Vaccariello’s willingness, even eagerness, to name names. She gives specific brand-name foods and restaurant meals to eat and not to eat: one “kickstart dinner” includes Lean Cuisine Culinary Collection Herb Roasted Chicken, for example, and another uses “Marie Callender’s Chicken Pot Pie (remove the top crust),” while one snack is a Klondike No Sugar Added Krunch bar and another combines a Starbucks Chocolate Cake Pop with a Starbucks Tall (12 oz) nonfat cappuccino. Hyper-specific recommendations like these make it much easier for dieters to follow the Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet both at home and when out-and-about.
The very best pages here, which are also the most visually striking, are the ones with “stop eating” recommendations in the left-hand column and “start eating” ones on the right. The words “stop eating” are in red, and each listed item is preceded by a red “x.” The words “start eating” are in green, and the recommended foods (many of which are pictured) are listed with green check marks. The specificity here is what makes these pages so useful. Among packaged cereals, for example, one item that Vaccariello says to stop eating is half a cup of Grape-Nuts (210 calories); instead she suggests, among other possibilities, three-quarters of a cup of Kellogg’s All-Bran Original (120 calories, 15 g fiber). Instead of Au Bon Pain Eggs on a Bagel with Bacon and Cheese (560 calories, 22 g fat), she suggests Au Bon Pain Egg Whites, Cheddar, and Avocado Breakfast Sandwich (310 calories, 17 g fat) or a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin (300 calories) – or perhaps certain specified items from Starbucks, Tim Horton, Taco Bell or Panera. By acknowledging that many people prefer to eat restaurant food (“fast” or not) and buy packaged foods, and finding ones that can reduce caloric intake without requiring people to change their food-buying habits dramatically, Vaccariello provides a real service. She recognizes that serious dieting is itself a life-changing experience, and by telling readers (and showing them through the book’s photos of meals and products) that it need not be completely wrenching, she makes it possible to attempt the Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet without feeling in advance that the diet’s demands are more than you can bear – a self-defeating attitude that rapidly leads to dietary self-defeat.
However, a reality check: the vast majority of people who try the Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet will not succeed. This is why Vaccariello gets to write multiple diet books. Depending on which source you consult, you will find that 65% to 90% of dieters are not successful at getting to their desired weight and staying there. The time to regain varies, but the weight does come back. There are many explanations for this universally acknowledged reality, ranging from will-power deficit to genetic determinism to a failure to incorporate sufficient exercise into one’s life (this last being a recipe for all the “easy exercise” books out there). In truth, the reasons people regain weight vary substantially, and there is probably some truth to all the analyses and complete truth to none of them. This does not mean you should throw up your hands in despair if you truly want to lose weight – but neither does it mean that you should deem Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet the perfect solution to weight loss. It is not; pretty much all diets work, but pretty much all dieters fail. The most basic requirement of dieting is one that is extremely simple to state but extremely difficult to manage in everyday life: take in fewer calories than you burn (a calorie is a measure of heat as well as energy), and increase the number you burn by becoming more physically active. Ultimately, if you boost your physical activity and reduce your food intake, it does not much matter how you get to a state of fewer-calories-in-than-out – the basic approach is foundational to all diet books, including Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet. If this book helps you focus on food differently so that you can succeed in rebalancing calories in and calories out, then it will be a valuable resource. If not, you can always wait for Vaccariello’s next diet book.
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (version by Deryck Cooke). Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Mahler: Songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”; “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”; “Rückert-Lieder.” Peter Mattei, baritone; Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jochen Rieder. Ladybird. $19.99.
Saint-Saëns: Symphony in F, “Urbs Roma”; La jeunesse d’Hercule; Danse macabre. Marika Fältskogh, violin; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. Naxos. $12.99.
Smetana: Má Vlast. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Theodore Kuchar. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 8 (“Unfinished”) and 9 (“Great”). Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $17.99.
Schubert: Rosamunde—complete incidental music; Overture to “Die Zauberharfe.” Ileana Cotrubas, soprano; Rundfunkchor Leipzig and Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Willi Boskovsky. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Toward the end of his short life – he died before his 51st birthday – Mahler wrote music that, while still psychologically and emotionally autobiographical, became increasingly forward-looking in its disruptions of tonality and use of unusual instrumental effects. Both the Ninth Symphony and the unfinished Tenth bear witness to this, the Tenth above all – because even though Mahler left the work incomplete, its full shape and virtually its entire structure were finished, and only matters of orchestration were left behind at his death. Given the likelihood that this brilliant conductor-composer would have refined many instrumental touches as he moved the music toward completion, it is impossible to produce the Tenth that Mahler would have written had he lived to finish it. But a performing edition is relatively easy to create – at least by comparison with, say, a four-movement version of Bruckner’s Ninth, whose finale was left woefully incomplete. With all due respect to Joe Wheeler, Clinton A. Carpenter and others who have created performable versions of Mahler’s Tenth, the best available one remains the creation of British musician and musicologist Deryck Cooke (1919-1976), which was first performed in 1964 and finally published, in revised form, in the year of Cooke’s death. This version gets a highly sensitive, elegantly phrased and very well-paced reading from Orchestre Métropolitain under Yannick Nézet-Séguin on a new ATMA Classique CD. From the very quiet, not-quite-ominous start of the first movement to the bizarre-sounding muffled drum that ends the fourth movement and opens the fifth, Nézet-Séguin focuses on instrumental details to excellent effect. Mahler always brought chamber-music clarity to his orchestrations, and Nézet-Séguin is sensitive to this persistent nuance, which is especially important in the Tenth. Yet when Mahler calls for a very full sound, as in the notorious dissonant chord that climaxes the first movement and reappears in the fifth, Nézet-Séguin gets it in from the orchestra in a strikingly effective way. A firm understanding of the symphony’s structure underlies this performance: extended opening and closing movements, scherzos for the second and fourth movements, and a very short central movement dubbed “Purgatorio” by Mahler create an archlike arrangement that parallels that of the Seventh but to very different effect (the Seventh has two Nachtmusik movements framing a central scherzo). Nézet-Séguin chooses tempos that keep the music moving at a leisurely but firm pace, and he pays close attention to Mahler’s careful rhythmic contrivances and his increasing willingness to use significant dissonance to highlight important emotional elements of the score. This is a very convincing reading of Mahler’s Tenth, one that shows Nézet-Séguin emerging as a Mahler conductor of considerable sensitivity and understanding, and one that places the unfinished Tenth quite firmly in the Mahler pantheon even though, had the composer lived, he would surely have modified it in ways that will be forever unknowable.
Mahler’s later symphonies no longer draw directly on the songs that were so central to his first four, but there remains something extraordinarily songful about them, up to and including the Tenth. The yearning phrases, the soaring solo instrumental lines above sections or the full orchestra, the sense of an inward as well as physical journey – all these Mahler retained and continued to employ even after he ceased to use his song cycles directly in symphonic construction. A well-sung CD such as the new Ladybird release featuring Swedish baritone Peter Mattei shows just how strongly the orchestral-song form permeated Mahler’s music, late as well as early. There are 15 songs here, six from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the four that make up Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, and the five Rückert-Lieder. It would be good to hear Mattei sing all the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs – his strong, sure, sturdy voice fits those offered here particularly well. The six on this disc are Der Schildwache Nachtlied, Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, Lob des hohen Verstandes, Revelge, and Der Tambourgesell. In all the songs, martial or light, serious or amusing, Mattei delves into the words’ meaning and helps bring out Mahler’s expressiveness through his clear enunciation and careful phrasing. The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under Jochen Rieder backs him up sensitively, coming to the fore when appropriate but generally playing in partnership in a way that highlights the songs’ emotional content. This is true in the two complete song cycles as well: the Schubertian feelings of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen come through clearly here, and the Rückert-Lieder are particularly effective, although they conclude in a downbeat (or at least equivocal) mood in the sequence Mattei uses, which places Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen last. The biggest lack here is the complete absence of texts for the songs – yes, they are available with an online search, but there is no good reason to fail to include them with a CD such as this one. Nevertheless, this is a disc that amply shows the importance of song to Mahler’s symphonic music – as well as in its own right.
Symphonies are far less crucial to Saint-Saëns’ oeuvre than to that of Mahler, for whom they were central. Saint-Saëns did write five symphonies, but only the last, the “Organ,” is still played with any frequency – and is listed as No. 3, since two of the symphonies remain unnumbered. One of those two, written in 1856 and called “Urbs Roma,” is the centerpiece of Marc Soustrot’s third and last Naxos CD of Saint-Saëns’ symphonies. This work is a large but not grand-scale offering in F that was so well received at a competition organized by the Bordeaux Société Ste. Cécile that it won the group’s prize. However, the composer himself did not think especially highly of the symphony, which was not published during his lifetime – and Soustrot’s performance helps show why. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra plays well, but the symphony is generally rather turgid, Saint-Saëns’ usual thematic fluidity and lightness of orchestration being largely absent here. The best movement is the finale, a theme and variations in which Saint-Saëns shows his skill in the form; the second movement, a scherzo, also has some pleasantly Mendelssohnian moments. As a whole, though, “Urbs Roma” (which, despite its title, has no apparent connection to the city) is rather underwhelming: well-constructed, certainly, but not especially convincing and not among Saint-Saëns’ best works. It is offered on this CD with two of the composer’s four symphonic poems, La jeunesse d’Hercule (1877) and Danse macabre (1874), the most popular of the four (the other two symphonic poems, Le rouet d’Omphale  and Phaéton , were included with the symphonies heard on the two earlier releases in this series). Danse macabre, lightly and interestingly orchestrated (with scordatura tuning of the solo violin), sweeps by quickly, tunefully and evocatively, justifying its popularity. La jeunesse d’Hercule, more than twice as long and with much more elaborate orchestration, sounds somewhat overdone and over-complex, although it has many melodic and rhythmic felicities that would repay more-frequent hearings. This CD is a worthy conclusion of Soustrot’s cycle of the Saint-Saëns symphonies and symphonic poems, and certainly worthwhile for anyone interested in forays into some of the composer’s large-scale but infrequently heard music.
Saint-Saëns’ symphonic poems are independent of each other, for all that three of the four draw on mythological themes. In this respect they follow Liszt’s, which were Saint-Saëns’ models. Smetana, however, used symphonic poems differently. He too was strongly influenced by Liszt, especially the Faust Symphony and Die Ideale. But Smetana used the Liszt influence in the cause of Czech nationalism – somewhat as Liszt himself used his musical abilities in the service of Hungary. The six-symphonic-poem cycle Má Vlast is Smetana’s crowning orchestral achievement, and although it is not thematically united to the extent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, it offers several recurrent musical passages that give it considerable unity and turn it into something approaching a vast nationalistic symphony. For example, the theme of the first movement, Vyšehrad, recurs near the end of the second, Vltava, when the river flows majestically past the ruins of the old castle; and the thematic connections of the final two movements, Tábor and Blaník, are so numerous that it would make no sense to perform one of them without the other. A 2007 performance of this cycle by Theodore Kuchar and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, now available on Brilliant Classics, gives the music its full weight and a great deal of martial heft into the bargain. The orchestra sounds somewhat harsh at times, particularly in the brass, and Tábor and Blaník come across perhaps a bit too jingoistically – although the effectiveness of their music, notably the march that concludes the whole cycle, is considerable. Kuchar does particularly well with the intense episodes of all the symphonic poems – for example, giving relatively short shrift to the contrasting emotional sections of Šárka while driving the intense passages vividly. The cycle generally works well with this treatment, except in the most relaxed symphonic poem, From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests, which comes across rather too stridently. As a whole, though, this performance gives Má Vlast plenty of symphonic heft and all the drama that Smetana packed into it.
Unlike Smetana, who wrote only one symphony, the early Triumphal Symphony (sometimes called Festive Symphony), Schubert wrote symphonies throughout his life, frequently completing only portions of them. The famous “Unfinished” is in fact just one that he did not get all the way through. Schubert left so many symphonies incomplete that even their numbering is confusing: the “Unfinished” is often referred to as No. 8 (because No. 7 exists in short score only) and the “Great C Major” as No. 9 (its title distinguishing itself from the “Little” No. 6 in the same key). However, sometimes the “Unfinished” is designated No. 7 and the “Great C Major” No. 8, as if No. 7 does not belong in the numerical sequence at all; this is how the two are numbered on a new CD featuring Philippe Jordan conducting the Wiener Symphoniker – a live recording on the orchestra’s own label. Whatever numbering one prefers, it is these two symphonies that are generally acknowledged as the pinnacle of Schubert’s symphonic achievement, and they give orchestras as warm and well-rounded as the Wiener Symphoniker ample opportunity to showcase their expressive skill. Jordan’s performances are beautifully lyrical, emphasizing the dynamic contrasts in both symphonies – starting with an almost growling opening for the “Unfinished” that soon turns into smooth flow that is in its turn interrupted by outbursts that sound as surprising as they are dramatic. An unusual characteristic of this truncated symphony is that its two finished movements (Schubert did sketch part of a third) are close to the same length and in essentially the same tempos: Allegro moderato and Andante con moto. Clearly aware of this, Jordan handles the second movement as largely an extension of the first, with strong sforzandi and more strongly contrasted dynamics than conductors typically seek. The result is a very vivid reading that makes Schubert’s failure to complete this work all the more unfortunate. Jordan’s way with the Ninth is equally convincing and equally winning. Again he focuses on the work’s dynamic contrasts and sudden shifts in tonality, here also allowing the symphony’s constant forward motion to sweep the orchestra and audience along with what feels like inevitability. Abetted by unusually clear and well-balanced recorded sound, the orchestra – which itself plays with exceptional clarity and sectional balance – shows again and again a sublime taste for lyrical phrasing and rhythmic pungency. This is an exceptionally convincing performance of Schubert’s final symphony, sensitive to the work’s overarching structure and embracing its length without making excuses for it: the melodies flow on and on, and Jordan encourages them to do just that, choosing tempos judiciously, never rushing, never pushing the music unduly. This is one of the best recent pairings of these familiar works, giving them a freshness that speaks as clearly to their beauty of sound as to their structural innovations.
Schubert’s symphonic characteristics – the unending flow of gorgeous melody, the unexpected and abrupt key changes, the warmth and lyricism – also pervade his other orchestral music, a case in point being his incidental music to Rosamunde. This was a very unsuccessful play (it lasted all of two performances) written by the same “bluestocking” who created the rather incoherent libretto for Weber’s Euryanthe, another work with wonderful music in the service of a less-than-wonderful plot. Schubert wrote the Rosamunde music in haste, reusing some earlier material as well as composing new pieces. For example, for the overture he reused a piece intended for his opera Alfonso und Estrella, then later decided a better overture would be one he originally wrote for Die Zauberharfe. A new Brilliant Classics release of a decades-old analog recording of the complete Rosamunde music provides an unusual opportunity to hear a first-rate performance of first-rate material written for a second-or-third-rate play. Dating to 1977, the recording features the lovely voice of soprano Ileana Cotrubas, fine choral singing by Rundfunkchor Leipzig, and absolutely lovely orchestral playing by Staatskapelle Dresden. Willi Boskovsky, one of the very best conductors of his time for semi-light music (notably that of the Strauss family), paces the 12 numbers (including both overtures) sensitively, carefully and with elegance aplenty. Like the release of Mahler songs with Peter Mattei, this recording offers no texts – an omission that is even more unfortunate here, since the words to Rosamunde are not as readily available as are those to Mahler’s vocal works. On the other hand, the verbal elements of Rosamunde were never considered a strength, and vocal segments such as the choruses of the shades and the huntsmen come through very effectively thanks to Schubert’s music, even if the precise words will be unclear to non-German speakers. What will be very clear indeed are the manifest beauties of the score – even those who saw and savaged the play took note of Schubert’s wonderful music. The same loveliness that Schubert brought to his symphonies is very much in evidence here, and a performance as fine as this one shows why the Rosamunde music has so long outlived the stage work for which it was created.
Hindemith: Sonatas for Viola and Piano. Geraldine Walther, viola; David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Arnold Cooke, Boaz Avni, Verne Reynolds, Edouard Flament, Richard Cioffari, John Boda and Halsey Stevens: Works for Bassoon and Piano. Matthew Morris, bassoon; Christopher Fisher and Youmee Kim, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Amaryllis: Music for Recorder and Percussion. Nina Stern, recorder and chalumeau; Glen Velez, frame drums and percussion. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Monteverdi and Bach did it. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did it. Dvořák did it professionally. Yes, they all played the viola – which makes the paucity of solo works for the instrument all the more puzzling. The viola came into its own soloistically only in the 20th century, thanks in large part to violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), in part to the concertos of Walton and Bartók, and in part to the instrument’s frequent promotion by Hindemith – who, among other things, gave the first performance of the Walton concerto that had been written for Tertis. Hindemith’s music can be on the prickly and somewhat academic side, without easy access for either performers or listeners, but there is no question that his sonatas for viola and piano (and those for solo viola) are foundational for contemporary violists and highly significant for the history of the instrument. Geraldine Walther and David Korevaar give fine accounts of three of the viola-and-piano sonatas on a new MSR Classics CD that will do nothing to dispel the notion of Hindemith as a difficult-to-listen-to composer but that nevertheless presents an excellent opportunity to hear just how skillfully he found ways to make the viola into an important instrument for chamber music. The three sonatas heard here include Hindemith’s first and last for these instruments. Op. 11, No. 4, from 1919, essentially indicates Hindemith’s decision to make the viola his favored performance instrument instead of the violin, which he also played well. The sonata has an odd three-movement structure, with a short opening Fantasie succeeded by two longer theme-and-variation movements that both ring changes on the same theme. Tonality is stretched to and past its limits here, and expressiveness can be on the strange side, as in an outré fugal variation that Hindemith said should sound “bizarre and clumsy.” There is little charm to this sonata, but much of intellectual interest. Op. 25, No. 4, from 1922, is more conventional in some ways, but not in others: the piano rather than viola takes center stage at many points, and the finale’s insistent rhythms sound as if they had been penned by Bartók. The last Hindemith viola-and-piano sonata, which bears no opus number, dates to 1939 and actually shows a somewhat softer side of the composer, to the extent that he has one. This is a four-movement work whose second movement has a fresher, more open sound than is usual for Hindemith and whose third, marked Phantasie, is written in a more-melodic style than would be expected after hearing the other viola-and-piano sonatas on this disc. It is unlikely that Hindemith’s music will become as appealing to mainstream listeners as it is to professional musicians – like Reger, Hindemith had vast knowledge but great reluctance to share any personal emotions or feelings with audiences, with the result that his music, again like Reger’s, tends to come across as distant and cold. But this is a very fine disc for people who do like Hindemith and, in particular, cherish his contribution to the viola literature.
Not that the viola is the only instrument of longstanding use that has had a dearth of solo material. The bassoon long had a similar fate: although Vivaldi wrote more than three dozen concertos for it, and Mozart contributed one, the bassoon was relegated to clown-of-the-orchestra status starting in the early 19th century (despite its lovely presence in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4). Like the viola, the bassoon has flowered as a full-fledged solo instrument in more-recent times, as is evidenced by the seven bassoon-and-piano pieces played by Matthew Morris on a new MSR Classics release. Three of these works – by Arnold Cooke (1906-2005), Boaz Avni (born 1965) and Verne Reynolds (1926-2011) – are full-fledged three-movement sonatas. Two pieces are three-movement sonatinas, one by Richard Cioffari (born 1947) and the other by Halsey Stevens (1908-1989). Edouard Flament (1880-1958) contributes a one-movement Concert Piece, and John Boda (1922-2002) is represented by a two-minute Caprice that would stand as a fine encore were it not placed second-to-last on the disc rather than at the end. Actually, the first and last pieces on the CD, those by Cooke and Stevens, are in many ways the most traditionally constructed and classically balanced, so they make good metaphorical bookends for works that treat the bassoon in some more-contemporary ways, such as Avni’s contrast of a first-movement doloroso with a second-movement festivo and Reynolds’ piece with its “Riffs and Responses” finale. Both pianists give Morris strong support that keeps him front-and-center – Fisher in the works by Cooke, Avni, Cioffari and Stevens, Kim in those by Reynolds, Flament and Boda. None of the works here is really an undiscovered treasure, at least for listeners, although bassoonists unfamiliar with these mostly modern pieces will likely welcome the chance to hear them and perhaps perform at least some of them. The main attraction here is Morris’ playing: he has excellent breath control, a very even sound throughout his instrument’s range, and the ability to make even the often rather squeaky high notes of the bassoon sound as if they are an integral part of its compass rather than an afterthought. There is also some pleasant, old-fashioned fun with the bassoon sound here, in Boda’s work and the fast movements of several others.
Even more old-fashioned than the bassoon is the chalumeau, although both instruments can be traced back to roughly the same time (the four-key bassoon, for which Vivaldi, Bach and Telemann wrote, dates to about 1700, as does the most-advanced chalumeau, before the clarinet began to supplant it). The recorder was also in its heyday – actually toward the end of it – at this time. There has been something of a recorder revival recently, but it takes a musician with the skill and determination of Nina Stern to attempt something similar for the chalumeau. The MSR Classics release called Amaryllis offers a dozen tracks of almost entirely unfamiliar music (although it does conclude with a Telemann Fantasia and, at the very end, Greensleeves) performed by Stern on recorder (actually various recorders) and chalumeau, with percussionist and frame-drum expert Glen Velez providing not so much backup as full partnership. The CD is perhaps too highly personal in its musical selections to reach out to a wide audience – the music is, in truth, all over the place, drawn from various time periods and including both instrumental and originally vocal works, both ones written for the instruments heard here and ones that are transcribed. Certainly Stern’s and Velez’s interests are wide-ranging: they have to be, to offer pieces from 12th-century Armenia as well as Baroque-era Germany. The longest and shortest works here are both by Jacob van Eyck (c. 1590-1657), clearly one of Stern’s favorites: four pieces here are by him. But although individual works here have their own attractions, it is the disc as a whole that is really of aural interest: hearing these woodwind and percussion instruments in these particular combinations in music of such different provenances is, to put it simply, an unusual experience – and a salutary one for ears accustomed to less-varied and more-familiar fare. However, unconventionality does not in and of itself produce staying power: this is not the sort of disc that is likely to bear repeated listenings for most people once its original novelty (which is considerable) wears off. It represents some very personal music-choosing and music-making by both Stern and Velez – a fact that makes it initially attractive but that means it is somewhat too individualized to wear well over time.
October 22, 2015
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Illustrated Edition. By J.K. Rowling. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $39.99.
It is hard to accept that it has been the better part of a generation – 18 years, since 1997 – since we first met Harry Potter, “the boy who lived,” and were first immersed in J.K. Rowling’s astonishingly vivid world of magic and muggles through Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (unfortunately retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for American consumption, losing some resonance and sense of real-world history through the change). Once ensconced in the consciousness of young readers and adults alike – Rowling’s books were extraordinarily rare in their ability to bridge very large age gaps – Harry and his cohorts never went away, becoming societally ubiquitous through seven books, eight feature films, spinoffs and Web-based sequels and expansions and a great deal more. The visual elements of Rowling’s books were always important to their effectiveness: Jonny Duddle did the British children’s editions, Andrew Davidson the British adult paperback versions, and Mary GrandPré the U.S. editions published by Scholastic. But as fine as these illustrators’ works were, they were incidental to the story Rowling told, not integral to it. Now that the Harry Potter books are affirmed as modern classics on the level of the works of C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, perhaps even J.R.R. Tolkien (three other British authors known by their initials rather than their full names), it is possible to envision them with illustrations that pervade the pages from start to finish, drawing upon and expanding the textual elements and turning the series into something lying somewhere between graphic novels and traditional illustrated books.
This can work only if the illustrations are exceptional ones, and those by Jim Kay most assuredly are. Kay does darkness particularly well, hinting even in this earliest and least-dark of the novels at some of the demonic depths that will emerge later. The spiders in Harry’s under-the-stairs cubbyhole, which emerge from a very darkly tinted scene to walk across the next page, are just one example of foreshadowing here (whether intended or not). For that matter, Hagrid, although a decidedly good and at times a comic character, shows in Kay’s illustrations as a great bear looming over everyone and everything he encounters, a coiled mass of power just waiting to erupt. Kay is simply brilliant at capturing visually the essence of characters such as Draco Malfoy (thoroughly chilling as a handsome but deeply cold preteen) and Albus Dumbledore (more careworn, older-looking and somewhat more cerebral than when seen elsewhere). The ghosts that appear before the Sorting Hat does its duty are genuinely chilling here, and the hat itself, a kind of patchwork Easter bonnet, is simultaneously hilarious and more than a touch scary: a long green feather protruding from it looks disturbingly like a Lovecraftian tentacle. Even more doom-shadowed is Severus Snape, the first view of him showing him so dark – in front of a wall of many mysterious objects and potions – that he seems more background than foreground, more an absence than a presence, and all the more intimidating as a result.
Nor is it only the characters that are beautifully interpreted, or reinterpreted, here. The first sight of Hogwarts makes it far more chilling than Rowling’s prose describes it as being. Hagrid’s hut is a burst of color and cheer, but faintly ridiculous – just the sort of place where Hagrid, who is faintly ridiculous himself, belongs. A two-page, black-and-white spread of “Newt Scamander’s Guide to Trolls” provides a surprising level of amusement in the midst of the otherwise scary sequence in the girls’ bathroom: Kay includes “Inside a Troll’s Mind,” where there is a little bit of room for “kittens” and even less for “keep thinking it’s Tuesday,” and also shows a “trollwig,” known to “feed on troll earwax.”
Harry, Ron and Hermione look only a little like the characters as seen in the original novels, whether British or American, and even less like their portrayals in the eight-film sequence. But they look remarkably like themselves: Kay has done a wonderful job of envisioning them as rather gangly, still-finding-their-way-in-life preteens, a jumble of nerves and awkwardness with their magical powers and all-too-human bodies barely beginning to develop. Kay has also done simply splendidly in letting his imagination roam into visual areas that are not crucial to the story but that enhance it significantly. There is, for example, a gorgeous full-page display of dragon eggs “from ‘Dragon-Breeding For Pleasure and Profit,’” from the prickly, bright-red “Chinese Fireball” to the large, pineapple-like “Ukranian [sic] IronBelly.” All these illustrations and many more – and, on pages without illustrations, blobs of color that could be anything from paint spatters to blood – make this illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone an experience not to be missed by existing and all-new Rowling fans alike. At the end, when Gryffindor’s triumph over Slytherin is affirmed, the main impression left by Kay’s illustration is of how young the principals of the story are, how little they know of what lies ahead for them and their world, how little they understand that the darkness they have faced and overcome in this first book is but a small foretaste of what will envelop them in later volumes. Kay has done something remarkable here: he has not improved Rowling’s material so much as enlarged it and re-envisioned it, putting his own stamp on the characters, the world they inhabit, and the trials they endure. The Harry Potter books are deservedly acclaimed as modern classics; their illustrated versions, if Kay continues to produce them at a level this high, will deserve the same designation – at a different place on home and library bookshelves.
Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’. By Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler. Harper. $17.99
Little Critter: Just a Special Thanksgiving. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $4.99.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, the optimistic saying goes – or, in the case of Thanksgiving, when life gives you a whole series of food-related setbacks, make liverwurst sandwiches. That is what the Tappleton family ends up doing in Eileen Spinelli’s deliciously silly Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’, a book that is as amusing and warmhearted today as when it was first published in 1982. The new revised edition – thankfully not too much revised – flies in the face of today’s notion of Thanksgiving as a secular and increasingly commercial holiday: it is fully family-focused and ends with a nonsectarian prayer that fits the holiday wonderfully and helps turn disappointment into delight. Most of the book is about the disappointment, but everything is told with such a light touch – and illustrated so comfortingly by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, who did the original 1982 illustrations and then created new ones a decade later – that young readers will know from the start that all will eventually turn out just fine. Spinelli spins a story of calamity after calamity: startled by the early-morning arrival of the milkman (parents may have to explain to today’s children what a milkman is, or was), Mrs. Tappleton drops the turkey she is about to start preparing, and it bounces down the steps of the house, then slides on the ice outdoors all the way to a nearby pond – where it sinks. Concealing the disaster from Mr. Tappleton, Mrs. Tappleton sends him off to buy the traditional pies, but there is such a long line at the bakery that he decides to stop for coffee – and by the time he gets back to the shop, all the pies are gone. So, unsure what to do, he brings home empty boxes. Similar holiday disasters befall the kids: Kenny cannot make the salad because he fed all the vegetables to rabbits at school, and Jenny gets distracted by a phone call (on a corded phone, of course) while puréeing the potatoes in the blender, resulting in an all-over-the-kitchen mess that she barely manages to clean up before the Tappleton parents arrive home after picking up the rest of the family members: Uncle Fritz, Grandmother and Grandfather. Now what? One by one, the mishaps are revealed, with everyone becoming increasingly unhappy – and increasingly hungry – as it turns out there is no special holiday food in the house at all. It takes the tradition of Grandmother’s Thanksgiving prayer to make everything all right again: she reminds everybody that “we’re together,/ That’s what matters –/ Not what’s served upon the platters.” And so begins a search for any food that may be in the refrigerator and cupboards, which is how the Tappleton Thanksgiving dinner turns out to involve liverwurst, cheese, pickles and applesauce. Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’ is quaint in some ways and certainly a tad dated in others, but explanations of the elements that may be unfamiliar to 21st-century kids are very much worthwhile, since they will give today’s children a perspective on the family-focused elements of Thanksgiving that have tended to fall by the wayside far too often in the last few years.
Family focus is important in Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter: Just a Special Thanksgiving as well. But here readers get an up-to-date story that nevertheless retains some timeless qualities (and comes with a page of 20 stickers, just for extra fun). This too is a tale in which things go wrong, but not primarily with food. Instead, Little Critter manages to get mixed up and messed up in several ways, although – as always in Mayer’s books – everything turns out just fine at the end. In the Thanksgiving play, for example, Little Critter forgets his lines (he is dressed as a turkey and is supposed to say “gobble, gobble”), so he bursts out in song instead, embarrassing the rest of the cast (if not himself). At the Thanksgiving Day Parade, he and his friends are marching in their costumes from the play, but Little Critter gets tired, so he climbs onto a float and disrupts that part of the parade: “‘Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!’ I called. They didn’t look too happy.” A policeman gets him off the float, and the family is not in the best of moods afterwards. Later, during a shopping trip, Little Critter drops the turkey and spills the cranberries. But on Thanksgiving Day itself, he helps with the cooking (as well as he can) and then goes with the family to dinner at the community center. “Everyone from town was there. …They invited all the critters who couldn’t have a nice dinner. That way everyone could enjoy it together.” It is that message, of inclusiveness and concern for those less fortunate, is the one that makes everything all right in Little Critter’s special Thanksgiving – and can become a discussion point for a good parent-child talk about the meaning of the holiday beyond food, football and family festivities.
Big Nate: Welcome to My World. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Clark the Shark: Afraid of the Dark. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $17.99.
The thing about Nate Wright, chronic sixth-grade academic underachiever, is that he is not unintelligent and not unteachable – he just has no interest in learning in an academic environment. He much prefers to play chess, at which he excels, and to draw comics, at which he thinks he excels. There is something resonant in Nate’s personality for adults as well as for the younger readers at whom the Big Nate comic strip is directed; in fact, cartoonist Lincoln Peirce (pronounced “purse”) says Nate is largely modeled on himself at Nate’s age (which is variously given as 11 or 12). The latest Nate collection in the AMP! Comics for Kids series is missing a few of the elements that make Peirce’s strip particularly attractive: no Nate chess games, no samples of Nate’s own comics (“Doctor Cesspool” and the like), not even any scenes in the detention room (Nate is the reigning detention champ of P.S. 38 – a distinction he relishes). Instead, Welcome to My World has strips that show ways in which Nate may be right in thinking that life is just plain unfair to him a lot of the time. For example, he buckles down and really studies for a test when challenged by his brainy and arrogant student nemesis, Gina: Nate is determined to score a perfect 100, which would give him a B for the class. And almost against his will, thanks to tutoring from a super-brainy first-grader, he learns everything he needs to know – he can learn when sufficiently motivated – but then gets a 99 because he did not write his name in the correct space. This episode casts his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, in an unfavorable light: she is usually tough but fair, genuinely concerned with the students and fed up with Nate because he refuses to live up to his potential. Here she seems unnecessarily cruel, not only through the nitpicking about name placement but also because she refuses Nate’s request for a B for the course – which a good teacher would see as a worthwhile motivator, since Nate fell short by a single point. Well, so it goes: welcome to Nate’s world. In another sequence, Mrs. Godfrey comes off no better: she sentences Nate to detention on Grandparents Day because he arrives 20 seconds late after showing his grandmother and grandfather around; then she decides to give a pop quiz not only to the students but also to the grandparents. This series of strips illuminates some of Nate’s personality – he seems to take after his grandfather – but makes Mrs. Godfrey a less attractive character. Elsewhere here, Nate’s feckless father tries to get Nate to stop eating so many Cheez Doodles – an attempt that falters when Nate insists that in that case, his father has to stop scarfing down so much ice cream. Nate’s involvements with sports teams, art (a class he enjoys), the reading club (he comes for the snacks), junior lifesaving class and School Picture Guy (who wears a smiley-face tie and always has a Band-Aid on his forehead) are here in Nate’s world as well – as are his interactions with best friends Francis and Teddy, crush Jenny, sister Ellen and the rest of the characters who populate Peirce’s strip and keep Nate too busy to learn as much as he is capable of learning (especially about his own limitations).
Bruce Hale’s Clark the Shark picture books have the oversized-kid-in-toothy-guise learning things, too, although Afraid of the Dark is not quite at the level of the earlier books in the series. A lot of the fun in these books comes from seeing Clark, so much bigger and so much potentially fiercer and potentially scarier than all the other denizens of the deep, dealing with the same issues of school and sharing and affection that everyone in the 4-8 age range deals with, whether living on land or under water. Earlier books about Clark worked well because they avoided being too directly learning-oriented, escaping the preachiness that can make series such as the Berenstain Bears books tiresome. Afraid of the Dark, though, spends a little too much time on its title topic and not quite enough letting Clark be Clark. There is only a single page showing Clark overdoing things in his usual clumsy-but-endearing way (Hula-Hoops, karaoke, Freeze Dance). The rest of the book focuses on Clark’s first outdoor sleepover with friends and his attempt to deal with his fear of the dark by repeating “a little rhyme” to himself. Unfortunately, what he says does not rhyme and becomes a tad irritating as he repeats it again and again: “Take heart, be smart, sharks aren’t afraid of the dark.” (This could easily have rhymed; for example, “Take heart, smart shark – don’t be afraid of the dark.” But it doesn’t.) As for the story, Hale has Clark and his friends telling ghost stories (illustrated in a decidedly non-threatening way by Guy Francis), then becoming so “shivery” that they jump with fear at a piece of driftwood, at Clark’s mother carrying a flashlight, and at a clump of seaweed. Eventually all the kid fish admit they are scared of the dark, so they all get together and create a longer not-scared rhyme that is, if anything, more banal than Clark’s original. They set their rhyme to music and all fall asleep. Lesson learned, perhaps, but the narrow focus here and the insistence on using the book as a teaching tool make Clark the Shark: Afraid of the Dark a less-enjoyable entry than earlier Clark books. It is still a (+++) book – Clark remains an attractive character, thanks largely to Francis showing him as so outlandishly toothy but not at all frightening – but there simply isn’t as much amusing involvement with Clark’s antics here as in earlier books, and the teaching seems a bit too forced.
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos. 1-6; Manfred Symphony; Original version of Symphony No. 2’s first movement; Capriccio Italien; Coronation March; Francesca da Rimini; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture; Marche Slave. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $69.99 (7 SACDs).
It is easy, but facile, to assume that the standard repertoire invites standardization of performances – that, all in all, good readings by fine conductors leading first-rate orchestras tend to sound more or less the same nowadays, especially with the generalized homogenization of orchestral sound in recent decades and with the same conductor frequently serving as music director of multiple orchestras at the same time. There is in fact some truth to this rather cynical viewpoint: the days in which George Szell gave the Cleveland Orchestra an unmistakable sound and Herbert von Karajan brought a unique perspective and sonic blend to the Berlin Philharmonic are certainly over. But like most generalizations, this one takes things a bit too far. There remain orchestras that are simply better than the vast majority around the world, and there are still conductors whose view of well-known music is unusual enough and is delivered with enough intensity so that it stands out despite there being numerous more-than-adequate performances available from a wide variety of sources. The BR Klassik release of live recordings of the Brahms symphonies featuring the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons.is a case in point. This is one of the world’s great orchestras, and it plays Brahms with so much warmth, solidity, and excellence of sectional balance that a listener can simply sit back, whether in concert or at home, and revel in the gorgeous ebb and flow of sound. But there is more: Jansons has his own distinct interpretative way with these symphonies, one that will not necessarily be to all tastes but that certainly shines new light on the works’ structure and evocative emotionalism. These recordings were made over a period of several years: Symphony No. 1 dates to 2007, No. 2 to 2006, No. 3 to 2010, and No. 4 to 2012. But Jansons’ firm grasp of the music and his determination to guide it down the paths where he wishes it to go are equally clear throughout. This is most apparent in Symphony No. 1, which is handled very broadly indeed, not to the point of over-expansion but right on the verge of it. The first movement swells and then swells again, growing in expansiveness to a degree that could easily overshadow the rest of the symphony if Jansons did not reserve analogously broad and elegant treatment for the finale. No. 2 then gets equal weightiness, so that instead of coming across as a contrasting and altogether lighter work than No. 1, it emerges as an elegantly paired symphony springing in large part from the same compositional impulses that produced its predecessor. These are unusual and highly involving approaches, although that of No. 2 is marred by the omission of the exposition repeat in the first movement – which makes it possible to present Nos. 2 and 3 on a single disc but which mars the overall scale of both the symphony and Jansons’ reading.
The paired sound of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 is complemented by a similar sense of duality in Nos. 3 and 4. Brahms tended to think in pairs, although not necessarily consciously – his two very different orchestral serenades, which were in some ways precursors of the symphonies, provide another example. In Jansons’ Brahms cycle, No. 3 retains its inevitable unity of sound and structure – it is the most tightly knit of the four symphonies – but Jansons somewhat dials back the emotion here, preventing the work from having an overdone swooning effect, as it sometimes does in other readings. He nevertheless makes clear its rhythmic drive and the way in which the movements seem so closely related to one another that the symphony comes across as practically a single extended movement. Interestingly, Jansons then applies a somewhat similar approach to No. 4, even to the point of pulling forth more intensity (even, arguably, a bit too much) from the second movement than it normally offers. Jansons gives Brahms’ final symphony a greater sense of unity than it usually has, to the point that the concluding passacaglia crowns the work without seeming out of place or overdone merely because of its unusual-for-its-time-period style. Not all elements of these performances will immediately enthrall listeners, but those that do not captivate emotionally at the outset will likely do so on a second hearing – and all four performances show, from start to finish, a thoughtful and thoroughly engaged conductor leading a top-of-the-line orchestra in music that, for all its familiarity, still retains its freshness when handled as well as it is here.
The personal element is even more pronounced in the boxed-set version of Mikhail Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky symphonies, which were originally released on individual SACDs from 2011 through 2014. Like Jansons, Pletnev has an outstanding orchestra: the Russian National Orchestra, which Pletnev founded in 1990, vaulted rapidly to the top ranks of ensembles in Russia, which puts it very high in the European and worldwide orchestral pantheon. Indeed, the orchestra’s first recording, of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, was one of the work’s best recorded performances ever, so beautifully articulated, perfectly played and nuanced in interpretation that a full Tchaikovsky cycle at the same level would have been one for the ages. Unfortunately, that is not this one: this cycle is far too uneven and quirky to deserve wholehearted endorsement. It gets a (+++) rating despite, or rather in large part because of, the excellent orchestral playing, but many of Pletnev’s interpretations are just too unfocused to be fully convincing. Indeed, Pletnev’s ideas can be simply bizarre. For example, he changes tempo repeatedly and confusingly in the four-minute slow introduction to the first movement of the Symphony No. 1 – but wait! There is no slow introduction to the movement. Pletnev invents one, turning the start of this Allegro tranquillo opening movement into something sleepy and dreamlike (perhaps because Tchaikovsky called the movement “Dreams [or Daydreams] on a Winter Journey”). Then Pletnev plays the next section of the movement at such a breakneck pace that a lesser orchestra would have had real difficulty avoiding sloppiness. Later in the movement, we get further speedups and slowdowns placed hither and thither, resulting in a disjointed, mixed-up and altogether peculiar performance. In the lovely second movement, Pletnev again starts slowly, speeds up (but thankfully not so much), and manages to bring out the cantabile in the Adagio cantabile ma non tanto tempo designation only because of the great warmth and beauty of the orchestra’s strings. At the end of the movement, though, Pletnev slows down the proceedings so much that listeners may find themselves nodding off: it is the orchestra that makes this recording worth hearing, not the conductor’s view of the music. The much-better third and fourth movements do not make up for the odd first two. Symphony No. 2, heard as usual in its 1879-80 version, is also very well played, and there is a wealth of fine detail in the first three movements. But the fourth movement is peculiar: it is taken unusually quickly, albeit convincingly, at first – until the gong that heralds the final section, which here leads to complete stoppage of the forward impetus, then a very slow accelerando, and then eventually a conclusion so fast that even this first-class orchestra barely keeps up. The recording also offers the original (1872) version of the first movement, a rather paltry supplement (the entire CD runs only 48 minutes) but an intriguing one that shows how Tchaikovsky rethought the opening of his most folk-music-influenced symphony.
The first two symphonies’ lacks do not extend to the Third, which is a winner. The tempos are well chosen, the balletic elements so important to this symphony are well communicated and thoroughly understood, the lighter moments are nicely contrasted with the more-serious ones, and the overall effect is of a substantial work with considerable drive, brightness and elegance. The only disappointment is the third of the fifth movements, the central Andante, which Pletnev takes too slowly and deliberately, so that it somewhat overweighs the symphony as a whole in its direction. The interpretation is justifiable, but in light of the mostly jaunty tempos elsewhere, the movement seems a bit overthought and overdone. In all, though, this is a well-done interpretation and as well-played as are all the works in Pletnev’s cycle. The Fourth fares very well, too. From the opening proclamation of the “fate” motif on burnished brass, through a first movement handled with tone-poem flair so its length does not seem ungainly and its episodic nature makes perfect sense, Pletnev shows his clear understanding of and empathy for Tchaikovsky’s music – at least here. A second movement that nicely balances the first, rocking gently and not wallowing in the emotionalism of the lengthy opening, is followed by a quicksilver pizzicato Scherzo that flits and dances here and there and enfolds a rollicking trio in which the woodwind playing is outstanding. Then the finale bursts like thunder on the scene, with Pletnev’s pacing and the excellent playing of the orchestra combining to produce a thrilling and highly dramatic conclusion. If the First and Second are mannered and fussy in Pletnev’s readings, the Third and Fourth are well-thought-out and well-managed.
The problem is that when Pletnev fails, he does so on a large scale – and his Tchaikovsky Fifth is, not to mince words, a failure. It is an odd failure, a throwback to the days when the conductor mattered more than the composer, when Tchaikovsky’s deep emotionalism (over-emotionalism to some) invited swooning on the podium and a level of rubato that, far from bringing out the inner workings and feelings of the music, inevitably imposed the conductor’s feelings on it, and on the audience. This is simply unforgivable today, even when the conductor is Pletnev. His Tchaikovsky Fifth is well-nigh incoherent, the tempos varying so much in the first and final movements that listeners will be whipsawed rather than pulled along through this most carefully structured of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works. The finale is little short of a disaster, slowing down so much that the rhythm flags, then speeding up to such a point that the beauties and the musical lines themselves are simply lost. And the coda, which always hangs uneasily onto this otherwise profound symphony, is a mess, so perfunctory that it seems as if Pletnev had simply had enough of the symphony and wanted to get it over with. The orchestra’s superb playing is not nearly enough to compensate for all the conductor’s quirks, which result in an inelegant and ill-considered interpretation. But just when it is tempting to give up on Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky sequence, something comes along to redeem it, such as the Sixth. Although the reading included here lacks the elegance and some of the interpretative nuances of Pletnev’s 1991 recording of the work for Virgin Classics, this version (which dates to 2010) is amazingly well-played, exceptionally well-recorded (much better than the older one), and filled with highly sensitive touches. The opening bassoon, for example, sounds particularly gloomy here, while the gorgeous main theme of the first movement has a yearning wistfulness that is deeply felt without being mawkish or overdone. Pletnev has broadened his view of the symphony in the decades since the 1991 recording: the first and last movements on PentaTone are both longer than on Virgin Classics, where they were already expansive. But nothing in them feels stretched; nor do the middle movements sound rushed. The second movement flows with considerable beauty and elegance, while the scurrying, speedy opening of the third effectively introduces a movement whose increasingly frenetic tone makes the depressive start of the finale all the more pathétique. The last movement starts almost languidly, moving more deeply into despair as it progresses and eventually fading into nothingness with a very moving sigh of resignation. This performance reaffirms the symphony’s firm place in the classical-music canon and Pletnev’s expertise with the work.
As for the Manfred Symphony, written between Nos. 4 and 5, Pletnev’s performance is one of the best in this set, allowing the often-gorgeous themes to flow freely while not engaging in the sort of overdone rubato that mars Nos. 1, 2 and 5. The beautiful second theme of the first movement and the whole of the third come across particularly appealingly here, and Pletnev does not hesitate to pull out all the stops in the somewhat over-the-top finale, which even calls for an organ (speaking of “all the stops”!). The performance is involving and flows very well, and the SACD sound is first-rate. The bonus elements in this seven-disc package are the same ones included when the SACDs were individually released, and they are scarcely generous. The performances are at least serviceable, at best exhilarating, and it is pleasant to have some shorter and mostly lighter Tchaikovsky to complement the symphonies’ length and seriousness. It is for the symphonies, though, that listeners will want this set – if they do want it. It is such an odd mixture of excellence and ineptitude that Tchaikovsky aficionados will definitely want to think twice, or maybe three or four times, before committing to a purchase.