November 25, 2015
The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York: A Yarn for the Strange at Heart. By Kory Merritt. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Heart and Brain. By Nick Seluk. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures. By Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater. Illustrations by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. $16.99.
Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #6: Live Each Day to the Dumbest. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
The stories may be fun, and funny, but sometimes the illustrations are what really make a book sing. Or shriek, as the case may be. “Shriek” is closer when it comes to The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York, an absolutely hilarious illustrated novel that feels like a graphic novel but isn’t one, quite, because it does have narrative separate from the illustrations. But without Kory Merritt’s picture-perfect picture making, the narrative would have little punch. After all, how much can one enjoy text that merely says, “What’s an eldritch abomination gotta do to get some steak sauce with its human sacrifices?” Hmm. Bad example. Well, actually, the text really is wonderful, strange and outré and peculiar and sometimes in rhyme and sometimes completely absent – hmm, then it’s not text, is it? The thing is, The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York is hard to describe without seeing it, and wonderful to experience with seeing it, because seeing what Merritt does here is the whole point. Mr. York is a typical mild-mannered hero, a clerk at a general store; he takes what he thinks is a shortcut through a swamp, and finds himself enmeshed in some outstandingly strange adventures. Speaking to a toad is the least of them: “Lost a few hours and already he was talking to amphibians,” he thinks. On the whole, it turns out that he would have been better off sticking with ectotherms. Soon Mr. York encounters three others seeking nighttime shelter in the swamp, and all four go to a place called the Cankerbury Inn, where they must pay for their rooms with stories, one story per person per room. The other people scare up – yes, scare up – some suitable tales. The first, told in rhyme, is about how Slynderfell’s Ice Cream, the most super-delicious of all, “that makes Wonka seem like cuttlefish snot,” is really made, using a torture rack to get information and draining cows of their milk until they are nothing but skin-covered skeletons, testing head-exploding flavors on monkeys in a room where a notice says “Dilbert cartoon posters will be hanged” (one of Merritt’s many subtle and hilarious references to comic strips), and much more. The second story, also told in rhyme, is about a lost engagement ring, some elaborately toothy water monsters, and a man’s discovery that for all the terrors he barely escapes, “life was saner in the deep.” The third tale, told strictly in pictures, is an alien-abduction story that results in missing eyebrows. But poor Mr. York cannot come up with a story and so is turned out into the swamp – where his story involves the evil, gnomelike C. Percival Trullus and the West Bleekport Gang (one “with a long, gar-like snoot,” a second with “eight spidery limbs,” and so forth). The gang members need Mr. York to help them recover a treasure, so they spare him and send him off to be swallowed by a Bogglemyre and then – well, there is a lot of “and then” here, all of it illustrated in such a toothily terrible and tremendously tingly way that readers will want to laugh and shiver simultaneously (try it!). The story is deliciously bizarre, the pictures are wonderfully wacky, and The Dreadful Fate of Jonathan York is an anything-but-dreadful delight.
One thing missing from Merritt’s book of monsters is a yeti, but no worries – one is readily available elsewhere. Trouble is, it’s an awkward one. Heart and Brain is a spinoff from a Web comic called The Awkward Yeti, which features a blue, bow-tied, big-eyed something-or-other (presumably a yeti) who also makes guest appearances in the Heart and Brain book. But most of the book is devoted to its title characters, who go through life with completely opposite attitudes. For instance, when they are about to confront a fire-breathing dragon with only a sword and bow-and-arrows to defend themselves, Brain says, “The odds are not in our favor, Heart,” and Heart replies, “That’ll make it feel EVEN BETTER when we win!” Nick Seluk’s whole book is like that. Heart wants a kitty, Brain asks who will take care of it, Heart says Brain can do that while Heart can “reap the benefits of companionship,” Brain says no, and Heart immediately presents Brain with a kitty. Brain, listening to music, comments that the singer is not very good, but Heart says “it’s really cool to like this band right now.” Brain calls for moderation, but Heart says that if something feels good, then more of it must be great and “TOO MUCH would be BEST” – and goes in search of “more vices.” Looking at a map, Brain points to “the most efficient route,” while Heart looks at a long and rambling one and says, “But this one could be full of ADVENTURE!” The notion of head-vs.-heart is an old one, but Seluk gives it a whole series of new, contemporary twists, and the way he draws the characters has a lot to do with how enjoyable his story lines are. Brain is a large pink blob with no features except tiny arms and legs, while Heart is bright red, has the ends of blood vessels decorating his head, and sports huge googly eyes and an almost-always-smiling mouth that combine to give him, most of the time, an expression of wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm. Much of the time, the characters’ personalities are straightforward – a fact that makes deviations from their normal interactions more effective, as when Heart is seen bandaged and injured and, when Brain asks what happened, Heart replies, “I watched the news.” Seluk manages to make both Heart and Brain interesting, each in a different way, and uses his illustrations to illuminate everyone’s heart/brain duality in ways that words alone could not accomplish so well – for instance, Brain signs “Brain” in simple block letters at the bottom of a piece of paper, but Heart says that a signature “should be an expression of your SOUL” and then produces a gigantic multi-colored mural of the word “Heart,” graffiti-style, on a nearby wall. Ultimately, of course, Heart and Brain need and complement each other – in real life as well as in Seluk’s drawings.
The drawings in Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures actually come from Jeffrey Higgleston’s Guide to Magical Creatures, the book that Pip carries around with her constantly – but Pip makes changes and additions to the illustrations as she learns more by talking to the animals. Yes, talking. And no, this is not some sort of “magical Dr. Doolittle” story – it is much funnier than that. Pip, who is nine years old, has the apparently unique talent of talking to the magical creatures that seem to pop out everywhere in her world, and they in turn can speak with her; but only she can hear them, so no one – not even her geologist father – believes she really communicates with unicorns, pegasi, Common HobGrackles and the like. So there is the basic plot of the novel by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater. But of course there is much more to it. What Pip is not good at is communicating with human beings, such as her 13-year-old cousin (who has no interest in magical creatures) and a boy named Tomas Ramirez, who is allergic to pretty much everything in the world, including magical things – which cause him to have magical allergic reactions, such as one in which he hiccups multicolored bubbles. Stiefvater, the illustrator of this jointly written book, makes the pictures absolutely integral to the story – there are drawings of both Pip and Tomas, for example, both with Pip’s comments: on her self-portrait, for example, she shows Higgleston’s book and writes, “Best book ever,” and then “Best book EVER,” and then “BEST BOOK EVER.” Well, that book may be good, but it is scarcely complete, as Pip discovers each time she encounters and communicates with something else from the magical realm. Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures actually starts with an in-school disaster in which Pip rides a unicorn and a stampede of unicorns results, which leads Pip to make multiple emendations to the Higgleston guide, all of them unflattering to unicorns. Later, Pip encounters a strange little thing called a Fuzzle, regarding which the Higgleston book offers only a one-word description: “Pest.” It falls to Pip to find out more about the creatures, starting with information from her Aunt Emma, who runs the Cloverton Clinic for Magical Creatures and with whom Pip is staying for the summer. The Fuzzle adventure becomes the main part of a book that gets more and more intricate and turns into a sort of magical mystery tour of a world that gets more interesting by the creature, if not by the minute. The story would work quite well without illustrations, but it works far better with them – and so will succeeding stories, since there is certainly more of Pip, the Guide, and magical creatures to come.
Illustrations are also crucial to the Dear Dumb Diary sequence by Jim Benton – which has now reached the sixth book of its second series, Year Two. These diaries of middle-schooler Jamie Kelly are funny enough in words, but the illustrations are what really make them hilarious. Live Each Day to the Dumbest, for instance, is funny about death. Now, that might not seem like something to be funny about in a book for middle-school readers, but Benton makes it work. What happens is that Jamie’s grandma dies, and Jamie the diarist finds her grandma’s diary and discovers that her grandma had some of the same thoughts back in the distant past that Jamie has in the present: “It sounded EXACTLY like something I would write. And it made me feel a little sick that Grandma was back there, in the past, wasting the time that I know she doesn’t have an infinite amount of, since I’m here in her future and I know – well, I know that she doesn’t have any time left at all now.” This is the way Benton writes (as Jamie) – and it is fine – but what makes it much better is the illustration showing Jamie using her cell phone to make a call to someone using a very old-fashioned phone, with the caption, “We need a way to call people in the past and tell them what we think.” Of course, then Jamie thinks of her own future, and she wonders if maybe her own granddaughter is reading Jamie’s diary and thinking Jamie is dumb, and Jamie says that is “disrespectful of your old Granny. Go spank yourself. Unless they have robots for that now. Go tell your Spankbot to spank you.” And the illustration? Well, it shows an alternative possibility: a TIMEOUTBOT sitting on a misbehaving future grandchild and using its single eye to be sure the miscreant stays in timeout long enough. Jamie’s personality remains essentially the same from book to book, and that means some of her interactions stay the same, too – for instance, with best friend and occasional enemy Isabella, of whose computer use Jamie thinks, “I figured she was doing homework, or trying to crash the Internet, or bidding on a boa constrictor.” Isabella, Jamie points out, is fond of boas: “‘They’re just like kittens,’ she always says. ‘Legless kittens that choke people sometimes.’” The illustration here gets the caption, “She also thinks spiders are just eight-eyed kittens that can shoot yarn out their butts,” and yes, the spider with a kitten face looks both cute and icky. Also here, as usual, is super-sweet and super-smart and therefore super-annoying Angeline. “I know that she is attractive on purpose, and I feel that this is a hurtful action on her part, maybe even a form of nonaggressive and deeply pleasant bullying.” And this illustration shows a two-halves Angeline, the first half being clean and cute and generally sweet and adorable, the other (wished-for) half having wrecked hair, a nasty expression and “immense hairy feet.” The thin plots in the Dear Dumb Diary series are never really the point of the books, nor are they in Live Each Day to the Dumbest. But this book does have a nice ending, in which Jamie does dumb things that work out just fine, and eventually comes to terms with her grandma’s death – not so much on her own behalf as on that of her mother, who, after all, has lost her own mom. This is more touching than Benton usually gets in this series – but it works. And why? Because of the illustration showing Jamie’s mom finally being able to laugh again, and Jamie enjoying the sound even though she has previously said it reminds her of a “goat with bronchitis that accidentally ate a crow.” And yes, there’s a picture for that.
The Ultimate Book of Randomly Awesome Facts. By Penelope Arlon, Tory Gordon-Harris, and Karen Hood. Scholastic. $8.99.
Watch Out Below! 3-D Battle of the Sharks. By Lisa Regan. Scholastic. $12.99.
Thomas Flintham’s Book of Mazes & Puzzles. By Thomas Flintham. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $12.99.
The word “factoid,” meaning a trivial or insignificant piece of information, dates only to the 1970s, but it seems to have been around forever – perhaps because so many stories and books that say they are fact-packed are actually factoid-stuffed. Indeed, The Ultimate Book of Randomly Awesome Facts could just as easily have been called The Ultimate Book of Random Factoids, because it is a compendium of true, odd, interesting tidbits of information arranged pretty much at random – a kind of feast for trivia lovers. The book is divided into sections called “The Natural World,” “Science & Tech,” and “Everyday Life,” and there is a table of contents allowing readers to look up, say, “Extreme survivors,” “Cyborgs,” “Potato chips” or “What prehistoric beast are you?” But the contents list tells little about which specific trivia appear where. A list of “10 of the Most Valuable Natural Materials on Earth,” for instance, is not in “The Natural World” but in “Everyday Life,” although the average person’s likelihood of encountering ruthenium or osmium on any given day is vanishingly small. And if you want to know which is the fastest train, that is not in “Everyday Life” but in “Science & Tech,” in a list called “9 Supercool, Superfast, Hold-on-to-Your-Hat Supervehicles” (it is the Shanghai Maglev Train, which travels at 303 miles per hour). Despite the less-than-ideal arrangement of the factoids, though, the information here is quite intriguing, and the serendipity of finding an unexpected, amazing piece of data while perhaps looking for something else, or for nothing in particular, is an experience difficult to duplicate on the Internet – where, of course, all the information in this book is available, albeit in widely scattered form. A book that lists five nearly extinct languages (led by Magati Ke, which has only three speakers, all in Australia), four ridiculously expensive toys (one of which is a $2 million Monopoly board encrusted with gold and jewels), and six unusual animal senses (including an elephant’s ability to feel thunderstorms that are 100 miles away), is full of fascination. And the book’s multiple quizzes add something participatory to reading The Ultimate Book of Randomly Awesome Facts. Based on answers to various questions, readers learn not only what prehistoric beast they are but also which endangered animal, volcanic eruption, element of the periodic table, world-changing invention and famous scientist they are or could be. There are also quizzes on where you should live, what job is right for you, and how long you would survive if a disaster happened. This last, for instance, asks (among other things) how many zombies you could fight off, what you would take with you if your house were on fire, and which of four pictured meals sounds best. The quizzes are nonsense, of course: the one on volcanoes asks what color apple and Greek god or goddess you would be, and what you do when it snows. But the answer key does include some additional interesting factoids, noting (in the volcano quiz) that Kilauea is the most active volcano on Earth and that Mount Tambora had the biggest, deadliest eruption in recorded history (in 1815). The Ultimate Book of Randomly Awesome Facts is indeed random, sometimes awesome, and certainly fun for trivia fans.
For trivia fans who like 3-D – specifically, fans of trivia about sharks – there is a very cool-looking book that comes packaged with its own pair of 3-D glasses and is called Watch Out Below! 3-D Battle of the Sharks. As usual in books about sharks, this one reminds readers that shark attacks on humans are very rare (“you are much more likely to get struck by lightning or involved in a car accident on your way to the beach”) – and then proceeds to be as scary as possible about what sharks could do to humans and sometimes do do. The idea here is to set up a “competition” between sharks and have readers figure out which of a given pair would be deadlier to people. Obviously the Great White will be included – the book asks about it and the Whale Shark, pointing out that the Whale Shark is the largest shark of all. But the Whale Shark is so gentle, the text notes, that “divers have been known to hitch a ride on its back!” Still, the picture of this huge-mouthed shark is impressive, to say the least – but no more so than the excellent photos of other sharks shown here. Sharks less commonly seen in books for young readers are the most interesting ones on display. For instance, under “Basking Shark vs. Bull Shark,” the book notes that the enormous-mouthed Basking Shark is the second-largest fish in the world (after the Whale Shark) and swims close to land, but is not dangerous to people – while the Bull Shark is the most dangerous of all to humans, because it is aggressive and can leave salt water and swim into freshwater rivers and thus get closer to human settlements. The pairing of the sharks is well-considered, although quite arbitrary. There is, for example, “Leopard Shark vs. Oceanic Whitetip,” which points out that the Leopard Shark often comes close to land and therefore may encounter people, but is not dangerous – while the Oceanic Whitetip, which lives in the deep, open ocean, was described by famed diver Jacques Cousteau as “the world’s most dangerous shark.” The 3-D glasses do make the sharks seem to “pop” from the book’s pages, although they do not really make them seem any more realistic than they already do in the photos. Still, for young readers fascinated by sharks and intrigued by the frequent TV programs about them, Watch Out Below! 3-D Battle of the Sharks is a good opportunity to learn a bit more about many shark species and understand a bit more about which ones truly are, and are not, dangerous to human beings.
Books of mazes and puzzles are not usually fact-filled, but there is at least one interesting factoid as well as a lot of fun to be had in Thomas Flintham’s Book of Mazes & Puzzles: one page has a boy asking what the difference is between a labyrinth and a maze, and getting the answer that “mazes have various branching paths and lots of dead ends,” while “a labyrinth has only one long, winding path that leads to its center.” Elsewhere in the book, which was originally published in Great Britain as two separate books in 2011 and 2012 and is now available as a single volume in the United States, there are some delightfully conceived mazes in which shapes contain multiple possible pathways. One maze is a group of octopuses – readers must find their way through the crowd by avoiding places where tentacles touch and block the way. Another maze is really two: a hot-air balloon on one page and a cloud blowing air toward the balloon on the facing page. Still another maze is a spider web – the baby spider has to find its way to the center for dinner. Also here are adventure mazes: in one, Astro Pete searches for the perfect planet, which gives readers the chance to solve multiple planet-based mazes plus ones in outer space; in another, the Little Knight must rescue a king from an enchantment by getting rid of a cursed crown – which provides a chance, during the knight’s journey, to go through a map maze, several mazes on land and sea, one in a thunderstorm, and others on the king’s own body and within a spell cast by the evil wizard who made the cursed crown. These story mazes are particularly clever, but no more so than what readers will find upon leaving Mazeland and entering Puzzleland, the second half of the book. The types of puzzles here are straightforward enough: connect the dots, find the differences, match pictures, and so on. But the presentation is special: entangled worms need help figuring out which body is whose, mushrooms have to be sorted based on their markings, two island towns are identical except for 10 small differences, two characters named Tim and Daisy need connect-the-dots, coloring and word-finding help in order to design a video game, and so on. There are adventures here, too: one involves playing the video game (well, a static version) after it is completed, and another is the story of “The Giant Knight & the Gold Thief,” in which every page has a different puzzle to solve in order to get to the next part of the tale. Flintham’s book takes some very old approaches to puzzles and mazes and gives them enough of a contemporary twist to make them plenty of fun for kids who are used to living in a visual age but can enjoy slowing down their fast-paced lives enough to do some enjoyable problem-solving on old-fashioned paper.
City on a Grid: How New York Became New York. By Gerard Koeppel. Da Capo. $29.99.
It is part of the charm or arrogance of New Yorkers – take your pick – that they assume that everyone everywhere is fascinated by absolutely everything about their city. That would include the reasons that Manhattan – which is only one of the city’s five boroughs but which is New York to most non-New Yorkers, and even to many residents – is mostly laid out in a charmless grid of streets. The clear, clean layout makes it simple for even a first-time visitor to get from one location to another (except when the numbered avenues give way to named ones such as Lexington, Park and Madison). But it also lends the small, crowded island a kind of blocky, staid, rectangular heaviness of design that is reflected again and again in the numerous blocky, staid, rectangular buildings built on and visible from so many of the streets.
Native New Yorker Gerard Koeppel considers Manhattan’s grid layout to be its defining feature, a stance for which a good argument can be made; and in City on a Grid he explains just how the crisscrossing lines of streets and avenues came to be. His book is a history lesson, which is all to the good, and an extended dwelling upon the intricacies of largely faceless bureaucrats’ machinations, which is not so good. A few of the names here are familiar, notably that of Gouverneur Morris, who not only signed the Articles of Confederation but also wrote portions of the Constitution. But most of the people Koeppel discusses are less than notable, and most of their motives appear to have been less than lofty.
This is a book for readers fascinated by the intricacies of the politics of more than two centuries ago. There is much writing of this sort: “The Council that sought the 1807 Commission was overwhelmingly Federalist. The Council voting 7-7 in October 1808 (elected in November 1807) was overwhelmingly Republican. Federalists were unanimously in favor, 3-0; Republicans were overwhelmingly opposed, 7-4; four Council members, two from each party, were absent. Of the fourteen 1808 voters, only five had been on the 1807 Council, with all four of the returning Republicans voting no and the lone returning Federalist voting yes. The division on the original 1807 vote wasn’t recorded, but the suggestion is strong that it was the Federalist majority that created the 1807 commission and the Republican majority in 1808 that wanted to undo it.”
Politics has been messy in the United States ever since the country’s establishment, and, for that matter, even before. Readers who share Koeppel’s relishing of the ins and outs of this subject will find his narrative compelling, but only such readers are likely to be pulled into it. The fact is that the grid system, which was originally laid out in 1811 and at the time did not include such features as Broadway (which cuts across other avenues) and Central Park, is a simple but boring layout, an imposition of conformity on an island whose very name, Manna-hata, is generally accepted as being a Lenape word for “island of many hills.” The grid system overrode the hills and other natural features of the land, imposing uniformity and efficiency at the price of unattractiveness, congestion, poor drainage and – issues for modern times, with buildings towering overhead on every block – limited light and air (except during the wind-tunnel effect created by every storm). It is perhaps fanciful but not out of the question to suggest that one element of New Yorkers’ well-known propensity for going everywhere super-quickly involves their unconscious desire to spend as little time as possible outdoors on Manhattan’s unpleasant grid.
Koeppel’s interest, though, is not psychology but urban planning, and the politics underlying it. Yet there is a curious absence of conflict in the story of Manhattan’s grid, resulting in a book of interest mostly to specialists and dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers. There was no recorded opposition to the 1811 grid plan until 1818, and when a complaint did arise, the complainer – none other than Clement Clarke Moore, best known as the putative author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” – was soon won over by the prospect of realizing significant profit from subdividing his land. Yes, the plan was eventually fought over in courts, and yes, there were those who deemed the grid system ugly and soul-stifling, but what is truly remarkable in Koeppel’s story is that no one in particular was charged with implementing the plan after its creation – yet it was implemented, over decades, as if it took on a life of its own once it was devised.
New York likes to think of itself as the trendsetter for the United States, and Koeppel’s book shows that to be true in important ways where urban design is concerned: the success of the Manhattan grid system encouraged the building of grids elsewhere, where flat land and open spaces made doing so easier (and even in some locations where natural features had to be taken into account, such as the water surrounding St. Petersburg, Florida). Whether New Yorkers should be proud of their trendsetting in this case is arguable: there is little beauty to Manhattan, and what there is tends to be found in areas off the grid, such as the confusing Lower Manhattan streets whose complexity was a major argument for the grid in the first place. Koeppel clearly loves New York, but is honest enough to detail both the pluses and minuses of the design that, as his subtitle indicates, made Manhattan what it is today. Certainly it is a place of power and influence, and perhaps, psychologically, the grid’s uniformity and encouragement of regularity has something to do with that. But it is also a place of extremely high stress and considerable ugliness, one whose intensity many people admire from afar but one whose design many others, including today’s urban planners, would scarcely seek to emulate.
Shostakovich: The Complete Symphonies. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $99.99 (11 CDs).
Back in 2002, when Naxos was still producing its “White Box” releases of complete series of various composers’ music, the company brought out a complete set of Shostakovich’s symphonies that had been recorded from 1986 to 1991 by the Czecho-Slovak Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ladislav Slovák. It was a good set, with some interesting instrumental touches and reasonably fine although scarcely outstanding orchestral playing. It cannot, however, hold a proverbial candle to the new Naxos complete-Shostakovich-symphonies release featuring the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. This one is a gem, a set of outstanding readings of difficult music in which conductor and orchestra are fully involved and the musicians play nearly at the level of a first-rate Russian orchestra – a huge accomplishment in this repertoire.
True, the actual presentation of this set is less than stellar: each CD originally issued in its own case is now slipped into a cardboard sleeve and placed within an outer cardboard sleeve (not a box), making it all too easy for individual discs to fall out. And the 56-page booklet, shorter than the 74-page one in the Slovák set, is in tiny type that is difficult to read – although, on the plus side, it contains a number of short but excellent comments by Petrenko on his views of the symphonies.
The reason to buy the new set, though, has nothing to do with its physical presentation and everything to do with the quality of the music-making. That is simply outstanding. The performances here were recorded between April 2008 and September 2013, and all of them are equally masterful in their understanding of the music and Petrenko’s ability to communicate what he knows and feels about it. Shostakovich’s First Symphony, begun when the composer was 18 and first played in 1926, when he was 20, is a great deal more than a school work – although it is that, having been started at the Leningrad Conservatoire. The work, especially its highly innovative first movement, already shows the sardonic humor, cleverness of instrumentation, and harmonic and rhythmic intensity that would mark all 15 of these symphonies, and Petrenko brings out all those elements effectively. In contrast, the overblown and self-consciously modernistic No. 2, known as “To October,” is a work written for the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; it concludes with a Communist-party-approved final choral section whose words are so bad that the composer himself expressed disdain for what he was setting. Yet Petrenko does about as fine a job with “To October” as a conductor can, playing up the dissonances and compositional extremes (which now seem quite dated) of the work’s first two movements, then taking the choral finale at an appropriately dignified tempo and making it as straightforward as the Soviet authorities no doubt wanted it to be.
Petrenko’s handling of Symphony No. 3 brings out the stylistic elements of the work that clearly reflect Shostakovich’s personality, which was never entirely subsumed beneath revolutionary rhetoric (a fact that later caused the composer considerable difficulty). Petrenko’s Third has much of the same brashness and youthful spirit as the First, written three years earlier; and even though the title “The First of May” makes it clear that this symphony is intended to celebrate the “workers’ holiday,” the music itself never makes that connection until the final tacked-on choral section to words by Semyon Kirsanov. Petrenko’s readings of the first three symphonies convey a telling and fascinating picture of a young composer just starting to come to terms with himself and with the political system around him.
Matters are quite different with Symphony No. 4, in which Shostakovich finds his own voice and uses it to exceptional effect. Petrenko’s sure-handed, thoughtful and emotionally wrenching performance shows this huge work, lasting more than an hour, to be a strange one, with two very long and complex outer movements of nearly equal length framing a short, eerie central one. The Fourth sprawls and can easily spiral out of control, but Petrenko knows the score so well and holds onto it so firmly that it here attains tremendous grandeur as well as considerable emotional punch. The Fourth is highly personal, rhythmically and chromatically difficult, longer than its predecessors and successor, and a stretch both formally (the first movement’s sonata form is barely perceptible) and structurally (between the finale’s funeral march and its bleak ending, the entire movement seems to grow organically). Listeners who go through this complete cycle in the order in which the symphonies were written (which is not the order in which they were recorded or in which they appear on the CDs) will by this time notice how adept the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra is at giving Petrenko just what he wants. Even if the orchestra’s massed strings are somewhat less lush than would be ideal for the music, the balance of orchestral sections is so good and the careful attention to phrasing and rhythm so impressive that the ensemble seems to have internalized Shostakovich almost as thoroughly as has Petrenko himself.
The attention that Petrenko gives to the quiet passages of the well-known Symphony No. 5 is unusual and is a significant strength of his interpretation. The approach would seem to make more sense in, say, Mahler, than in Shostakovich, who often comes across with all the subtlety of a battering ram. But Petrenko finds subtleties here that most other conductors miss or gloss over, such as the solo violin passages. Because Petrenko is at such pains to get the details and quiet passages of the symphony right, the more bombastic – and simply louder – music comes off far better as well. Thus, the problematic finale of No. 5 starts with speed and triumphalism, but by the last section – which Petrenko, like some other conductors, takes quite slowly – there is an ambiguity about the movement that fits well with current thinking that this work was less a celebration of Socialist Realism than a necessary accommodation to it.
In Symphony No. 6, Petrenko makes the most of the work’s very unusual structure: 20 of its 33 minutes belong to the opening Largo, a movement of very grand scale indeed, and one that pulsates with intensity in this heartfelt reading. Warm, emotional, thoughtful and tense, the movement pulls listeners into one of Shostakovich’s most interesting sound worlds – which then switches quite abruptly into the contrasting second movement and a finale that the composer particularly liked but that barely seems related to what has gone before. This is an odd and gripping symphony that Petrenko and the orchestra handle particularly well.
A conductor who can make Shostakovich’s vast, sometimes vulgar Seventh Symphony as moving and impressive as Petrenko makes it has an understanding of this music at the absolutely highest level. Petrenko makes this stepchild of Shostakovich’s maturity rise above the very specific occasion for which it was written – an occasion, the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), that catapulted the work into international wartime prominence despite its manifest musical shortcomings. The deliberately trivial first-movement theme representing the Nazi invasion, repeated and repeated for a full 11 straight minutes in the midst of a movement that lasts nearly half an hour, here makes absolutely perfect sense: Petrenko starts the theme so softly and distantly that it scarcely seems to be there at all, growing its power very gradually as it moves among sections of the orchestra, increasing its grotesquerie with such subtlety and care that it is impossible to say just when the silly little theme becomes genuinely threatening, even overpowering – although that is certainly what happens. Petrenko manages to make the whole symphony cohesive, which is a near impossibility. The second movement, an intermezzo rather than the usual Shostakovich scherzo, here offers respite but never full relaxation after the depredations of the first, while the third movement has warmth and emotional depth far beyond what it usually achieves in performance. The fact that the first three movements all end softly makes perfect sense here, as if everything fades out, no matter what has come before and no matter what listeners have experienced. This beautifully sets the stage for the triumphalism of the finale – and although Petrenko cannot make this movement stronger than it is (it is the weakest and most surface-level of the four), he attacks it with vigor and contrasts its insistent positivism with the more-nuanced and darker elements of the first three movements. This is a very expansive reading of the symphony and is about as elegantly paced and structured a performance as this work is likely to receive.
The Eighth is excellent, too. It is more complex structurally than the Seventh – among other things, its fourth movement is the composer’s first orchestral passacaglia – but is every bit as subject to bombast and overstatement if a conductor does not control it carefully. Petrenko maintains firm control of the music throughout. From the start, when the orchestra’s lower strings growl with burnished darkness, it is clear that Petrenko has taken the measure of this music and found a way to communicate its depths to the players. There is tremendous drama and vitality here – the symphony’s moods shift frequently, and there is conflict aplenty, but in the end there is positive affirmation instead of the rather wan hope offered in an almost obligatory way in its predecessor (which, to be sure, was written in darker days of World War II). As the Eighth progresses, Petrenko handles each movement on its individual terms while maintaining a solid overview of the entire work. The second-movement Allegretto is filled with rudeness and crudity – but there are also flashes of elegance, notably in the high winds. The third movement is astonishing, perhaps the best ever recorded. It is raucous to the point of vulgarity: a nonstop clatter of screeching winds, pounding timpani and cutting trumpets atop snare-drum exclamations. It is so intense that the contrast with the fourth-movement Largo is even starker than usual. This movement is sweet, restrained and very moving – and leads directly into a finale that features a whimsical bassoon early on, but soon becomes so intense (and loud) that it is nearly overwhelming. But Petrenko shapes this concluding Allegretto carefully, allowing it to blare but making sure there is something ineffable about its quiet coda.
As for the much shorter and in some ways very strange No. 9, here Petrenko makes sure that the work’s classical balance and sardonic modernism exist in an uneasy melding – witness, among many examples, the piccolo tune in the first movement. Here as in No. 5, Petrenko focuses to an unusual degree on quiet passages, resulting in an exceptionally carefully considered view of the work as a whole. But this is not to say that he is unwilling to take chances. Especially impressive is the quicksilver flashiness of the third movement – here taken at a true Presto, which is how it is marked but which is a tempo that conductors rarely attempt for it. The orchestra comes through remarkably well here, with this and other touches resulting in a symphony that keeps listeners slightly off-balance in a very engaging and thought-provoking way.
Shostakovich expanded his symphonic scale again with his Tenth, and again Petrenko proves quite equal to the work’s interpretative demands. Symphony No. 10 is a complex and difficult work, filled with personal elements (including the very prominent D-S-C-H motto representing the composer’s initials) but also clearly striving to depict societal concerns in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin – and doing so in such a way as to avoid having the composer again run afoul of the censors and apparatchiks (who did not know quite what to make of this symphony). The huge first movement is not so much dark as bleak, having a little of the flavor of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 even though constructed on entirely different principles and on a different scale. The thoughtfulness of some themes is contrasted with the deliberate dullness of others, and just when it seems there will be some rhythmic uplift, as in a waltz-like treatment of the second theme, the composer quickly snuffs out any sense of bounce or joviality. Petrenko paces this movement broadly, bringing out its internal contrasts – and contradictions – to very fine effect. Then he throws everything at the second movement, which is one of Shostakovich’s shortest at barely four minutes but also one of the composer’s most intense – violent, explosive, dramatic and very tense. And then come the third and fourth movements, in both of which the D-S-C-H motto is featured and in one of which (the fourth) it is played against the notes E-A-E-D-A, representing a pianist with whom Shostakovich had an intense correspondence during the symphony’s composition. The exact personal meanings of the uses of these mottos are impossible to fathom and, in truth, unnecessary to know, since Petrenko makes the symphony work so well on a purely musical level – quite independently of any personal subtext. The changing rhythms and tempos, the orchestration that ranges from oboe and bassoon solos to clattering percussion, the themes that emerge and combine, conflict and subside, and then emerge again – Petrenko pays attention to all these elements, and the orchestra explores them with style and sensitivity, producing a highly impressive reading of a work whose depths remain difficult, if not impossible, to plumb.
The first release in Petrenko’s Shostakovich cycle was that of Symphony No. 11 – a rather odd choice. The Eleventh is a commemoration of the 1905 “Bloody Sunday” massacre of demonstrators by Czarist forces: a four-movement, hour-long work that is played straight through, with each of the first three movements leading directly into the succeeding one. Petrenko gives the work an outstanding performance in which the symphony rises far above its propaganda value (its primary use to the Soviet regime under which it was composed). Petrenko makes it a work of high drama, and while its full effect requires understanding the events on which it is based, it is emotionally involving from start to finish in Petrenko’s interpretation – even for listeners unfamiliar with the history it interprets. Among highlights here are the excellent playing of the timpani, the juxtapositions of consonance and dissonance, the long line of the revolutionary song “You Fell as Victims” on which the third movement is based, and the multiple thematic transformations that drive the work. The high drama of this piece, its brass-driven intensity, its (admittedly somewhat overdone) emotionalism, and its powerful conclusion filled with bell strokes add up in Petrenko’s performance to a viscerally involving experience.
Soviet triumphalism comes off less well in Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917,” of which even the composer did not think all that much. Shostakovich is not at his best here. A celebration of events of the Bolshevik Revolution, in four movements played continuously, the Twelfth is a work of somewhat surprising classical balance (which Petrenko brings out nicely), but one that ultimately seems not to have much to say – climaxing as it does in bombast that one would wish to see as ironic or deliberately overstated but that the composer, who had previously been quite chastened by run-ins with Soviet authorities, may well have meant sincerely.
The contrast with Symphony No. 13 is extreme. This is a vocal work so tightly knit into symphonic form that it is nearly impossible to say at which point one shades into the other. In No. 13, known as “Babi Yar” for the poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that is the basis of the first movement, Petrenko conducts a work that sounds like the sort of symphony Mussorgsky would have written if he had worked in the form. The rumbling, growling bass of Alexander Vinogradov and the full-throated men’s voices from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society produce, in their back-and-forth antiphonies and their combined power, a paean and challenge to the Russia of 1962, when this symphony was written and had its première. Petrenko paces the work magnificently, the expansiveness of the “Babi Yar” movement standing in striking contrast to the following scherzo on humor, and the three final movements, played attacca, building relentlessly from the drudgery of everyday Soviet life to an affirmation of individual power and accomplishment – a progression that still resonates deeply but that was surely very uncomfortable for Soviet authorities even in the comparative openness of Khrushchev’s rule. Petrenko does an excellent job of keeping the vocal elements in the forefront most of the time, while allowing the purely orchestral ones to weave in and out among the voices and enhance or comment upon the words. By the time the symphony fades into silence, looking forward as it does so to the conclusion of Shostakovich’s final symphony, No. 15, Petrenko has taken the full measure of this work and shown how much more it is than its “Babi Yar” title indicates.
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 is closer to a Mahler song cycle than any of the composer’s other symphonies, but without the structural unity that Mahler brought to, say, Das Lied von der Erde. Shostakovich here sets 11 poems about death, considering the end of life from many perspectives – from the legendary (“Lorelei”) to the highly personal (“At the Santé Prison”). Petrenko’s soloists are particularly well-suited to the music, with Gal James’ slightly shrill soprano fitting the texts well and the deep, resonant baritone of Alexander Vinogradov slipping warmly and firmly into the music from start to finish. But what Petrenko does that sets his reading of this symphony on such a high plane is to regard the work as a true symphony, accepting the groupings of poems as being, in effect, symphonic movements, and bringing out very cleanly the elements that appear here and are clearly symphonic in Shostakovich’s non-vocal works – the very beginning of “On Watch,” for example. This is a deeply pessimistic work by most standards, but Petrenko has an interesting way of drawing some level of comfort from it – not the comfort of some sort of life after death (in which Shostakovich did not believe), but an affirmation of the essential humanity of all people, united through their inevitable facing of death in some way and at some time. The performance is a well-organized and deeply moving one.
And then we have Shostakovich’s final symphony, No. 15, yet another that deserves the adjective “odd.” Shostakovich looked back to earlier music with considerable piquancy here: this symphony contains snippets of everything from Rossini’s William Tell to Wagner’s Ring cycle and Shostakovich’s own previous works. Petrenko presents the Fifteenth in a very carefully balanced reading that highlights Shostakovich’s elegant (and sometimes strange) instrumentation, brings forth the various quotations without making them seem to be the primary point of the work, and turns this eccentric final symphony into a work of elegance and poise through his handling of the passacaglia in the final movement – the passacaglia being itself a significant nod to the musical forms of the past. This collection of Petrenko’s performances deserves to be in the hands of all lovers of Shostakovich’s symphonies. It is a cycle that takes many chances, succeeds with almost all of them, and delivers an overall impression of eloquence and understanding throughout – plus exceptionally fine orchestral playing at the behest of an absolutely first-rate interpreter of Shostakovich’s complex, sometimes self-contradictory and often difficult music.
Wagner: Das Rheingold. Matthias Goerne, Michelle DeYoung, Kim Begley, Oleksandr Pushniak, Charles Reid, Anna Samuil, Deborah Humble, Peter Sidhom, David Cangelosi, Kwangchul Youn, Stephen Milling, Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak, Hermine Haselböck; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).
There are no human characters at all in Wagner’s Das Rheingold, but there are plenty of human characteristics on display – pretty much a laundry list of foibles, errors, poor conduct, weakness and meretriciousness. The only absent one of the seven deadly sins (pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth) is sloth, although there is even a hint of that when Wagner introduces Wotan and Fricka sleeping al fresco because the gods are apparently too, well, slothful to build their own castle. It is difficult to decide which of the sins is the primary plot driver, since they play into each other so clearly: Alberich’s lust for the Rhinemaidens turns to anger as he seizes their Rheingold; the giants’ covetousness of Freia and envy of the gods’ use of her powers to stay always young are among the reasons they agree to build Valhalla; Wotan’s pride demands the castle in the first place, leads him to offer Freia in return for it, then merges with envy and covetousness when he learns about Alberich’s Ring, which by this time Alberich is using to satisfy his gluttony for ever-higher mounds of gold in the Nibelung realm; and on and on. The first three operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen can be seen (and effectively staged) as Wotan’s story, with the greatest of the gods diminishing in stature from opera to opera until he is left powerless in Siegfried and disappears altogether from Götterdammerung, a downfall even before the final collapse.
But in Das Rheingold we need to see a grand Wotan, a commanding presence whose mistakes are as outsize as his power. This makes Matthias Goerne’s role as Wotan crucial in the new Das Rheingold production on Naxos – the first release in a four-year project that will eventually produce the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen as played by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Jaap van Zweden. This is a major undertaking – every recording and, indeed, every performance of Wagner’s cycle requires a huge investment of time and energy – and one with several “firsts.” It will be the first-ever Ring cycle performed by a Chinese orchestra, and it marks the debuts both of Goerne as Wotan and of Michelle DeYoung as Fricka. The question is whether Goerne and van Zweden have the necessary heft to make the tetralogy as effective as it can be.
On the basis of Das Rheingold, the answer is somewhat equivocal. Goerne certainly has the necessary vocal equipment to be a first-rate Wotan. A well-known lieder singer, Goerne knows how to enunciate clearly and deliver lines with strength and passion. He has a solid range, an effective lower register, and the ability to color his voice to communicate emotions strongly and involvingly. But he seems not quite sure what to make of Wotan’s character: his performance hints at psychological complexity but not at any real rationale for Wotan’s actions. From the start, he makes Wotan seem manipulated by events rather than active in making them happen – a justifiable approach, perhaps, but one that will leave the character with nowhere to go as the events do spiral out of his control in the succeeding operas. A hint of recklessness or shrewd calculation would be welcome in Goerne’s Wotan – either would help explain the bad bargain that eventually precipitates his fall – but neither is forthcoming here: there is a matter-of-fact quality to this Wotan that makes him less central than he should be.
As a result, the strongest characters in this Das Rheingold turn out to be Kim Begley as Loge and Peter Sidhom as Alberich. Begley is quick-witted, smart, sharp and clearly very dangerous, wheels within wheels turning in his head as he tries to decide in what ways to help the gods and in which to hinder them, seeking his own place in a world where he does not fit in (he is a demigod, not a full god) but one where he has the ultimate power (his fire will eventually bring down all the gods). Sidhom is far more one-dimensional, and that works well for a narrow character whose single-minded determination is crucial to the unfolding of the multi-opera plot. Sidhom is so self-involved, almost to the point of psychosis, that he lets the clever Begley manipulate him into his own downfall – indeed, he seems toadlike even before he transforms himself into a toad, the form in which he can be captured. There is genuine malevolence in Sidhom’s Alberich, showing itself most clearly in his vicious treatment of Mime (David Cangelosi), a scarcely admirable character for whom it is impossible not to have some sympathy when he is subjected to the level of abuse that he suffers here.
There is little for DeYoung to do in her first outing as Fricka – her most telling moment is her thought about the sort of power she might get from the Ring – but she handles herself well. The question of her suitability for the role will have to wait for Die Walküre, in which she must stand up to Wotan and force him into a corner because of her own disturbed emotions, born of frustration. There is no hint here of how she will handle that crucial scene. The remaining singers manage their roles well, if without significant insight. Deborah Humble sings Erda effectively, but a little more portentousness would not have hurt. Kwangchul Youn is more emotionally compelling as the doomed Fasolt than is Stephen Milling as the murderous Fafner. As Freia, Anna Samuil is suitably put-upon; her protectors, Oleksandr Pushniak as Donner and Charles Reid as Froh, are as thin in character as she is. The three Rhinemaidens are better differentiated here than in many performances: Aurhelia Varak (Wellgunde) is strong and determined, Hermine Haselböck (Floßhilde) lighter and more playful, and Eri Nakamura (Woglinde) even more flighty.
However good the singers may be, Das Rheingold and its successor operas rise or fall on the quality of the orchestral playing and the skill of the conductor. The reasons for the uncertainty surrounding the eventual success of this Der Ring des Nibelungen lie even more in van Zweden’s performance than in Goerne’s. This is a spacious, well-paced interpretation with some excellent instrumental touches: the anvils of Nibelheim are unusually effective, the bass trumpet and Wagner tuba are used to good effect, and the full sound of the six harps is notable. The conducting is energetic, the orchestral sound transparent, the flow of the action clearly communicated even though this recording comes from two concert performances rather than staged ones. There is a cleanliness to the sound of the orchestra that is abetted by the clean and clear sound with which this Das Rheingold has been recorded. But this is not a monumental interpretation: there is nothing grand in what happens here, and there is no attempt by the conductor to make it sound as if earthshaking events are occurring. There is precision, yes, but it is a surface-level precision, one that – in the absence of any human characters – reduces the bickerings and betrayals of the gods, giants and dwarves to human level. There is something petty about everything that happens, underlined by the overall fleetness of van Zweden’s approach. Of course, in a sense this is what Wagner intended: potent beings these may be, but the composer wrote his libretto specifically to show just how small their motivations could be despite their vast powers. But the music has tremendous power, the power to sweep audiences into Wotan’s (and Wagner’s) fatally flawed world, the ability to show at once how grandiose these beings and their schemes are and how mundane and small-minded are their motivations. It is grandeur that van Zweden’s approach lacks: he offers clarity and consistency in its stead. Whether that proves to be enough – indeed, whether his approach will remain the same in the three other parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen – is something listeners will have to wait to find out.
November 19, 2015
Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business. By Esphyr Slobodkina. HarperCollins. $17.99.
More Caps for Sale: Another Tale of Mischievous Monkeys. By Esphyr Slobodkina with Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer. Harper. $18.99.
Seventy-five years ago, Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002) created an amusing little book about a stereotypical peddler, complete with mustache and slicked-down hair parted in the middle, who sold hats by piling them atop his head and walking around town calling “Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!” The streets where he peddled his wares were clearly European, but for some reason they were populated by an entire troop of monkeys – 16 of them, in fact – and the monkeys just happened to love caps, snatching them off the peddler’s head as he napped beneath a tree and wearing them sportily in the tree branches. This simple and highly amusing tale – it is hard to remember that it was written during World War II – continues as the peddler yells at the monkeys, who in the best “monkey see, monkey do” tradition imitate his gestures and yell “tsz, tsz, tsz” right back at him. The angrier the peddler gets, the more he gestures and stamps his feet and acts out, the more amusing the book becomes as the monkeys imitate everything he does – until, with impeccable logic, Slobodkina has the furious peddler throw down his own cap in disgust, with the result that the monkeys thrown all their caps down as well, and the peddler gathers all of them up and is able to resume his hat-selling day. Highly stylized, very amusing drawings, wonderfully colored caps (gray, brown, blue and red, plus the peddler’s own black-and-white one), and delightfully mischievous monkeys that, except for their smiles, are drawn quite realistically, combine to produce a gentle fable with no particular point except to amuse young readers (ages 4-8) and delight their parents. The handsome 75th-anniversary edition of Caps for Sale offers a wonderful opportunity to rediscover a genuine classic, or encounter it for the first time and find out why it is a classic. Except for the fact that the blue caps are closer to green, the illustrations have stood the test of time marvelously, and so has a story that nowadays seems like pure fantasy (elegantly dressed street peddlers?) but that retains all the simplicity and charm that have helped it endure generation after generation.
And now there is a sequel. Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer, president of the Slobodkina Foundation and the author’s friend and business associate for the last six years of Slobodkina’s life, incorporates original Slobodkina art (from multiple sources) and follows a story arc that, although created by Sayer, hews closely to what Slobodkina might have written if she had wanted to continue the tale of the peddler and the monkeys. For that is what More Caps for Sale does: it picks up where the classic story leaves off, as the peddler heads home in frustration – since the adventure with the monkeys kept him from making any sales. However, the monkeys, it turns out, are not finished with him: they follow him home, arrange themselves in a tree outside his house, and continue to make mischief. But not much mischief, really. Yes, they eat bananas in the tree while the peddler has his own supper; but when the peddler picks up a banana peel and throws it in the trash, they follow suit and clean up everything else. Yes, they insist on staying in the tree despite the peddler’s demand that they go home (wherever that might be); but that turns out well, because when the peddler is restless and cannot sleep, he looks out at the tree and sees the peacefully sleeping monkeys – a sight that helps him get to sleep as well. And then, the next day, as the peddler sets out again to try to sell his caps (the blue ones really looking blue this time), he focuses on keeping the caps balanced atop his head, not noticing all the monkeys following him. Sayer goes out of her way to include pictures showing a multicultural, multi-ethnic town, which does not fit with the ethos of the original book, but otherwise she moves the story ahead neatly, as the monkey parade so amuses the townspeople that they buy every hat the peddler is carrying – with him being all the while unaware of the monkeys walking along directly behind him. The book’s ending is a trifle disappointing: the peddler at last notices all the monkeys following him, but instead of appreciating their unwitting help, he again shakes his finger at them and again demands they go home. They do not, though – or maybe they do, since it looks at the book’s end as if the peddler’s home is going to be their home as well, whether he likes it or not. Today’s young readers will likely wonder why the peddler is not friendlier to the monkeys, especially after they help him sell all his caps, and parents may want to try to figure that out before reading the book to or with their children, since it really does not make much sense. The rest of More Caps for Sale, though, is a worthy successor to its wonderful predecessor: it stands as a fine tribute to Slobodkina as well as an attractive bit of picture-book amusement in its own right.
The “Mutts” Winter Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Snoopy: Contact! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The Octopuppy. By Martin McKenna. Scholastic. $16.99.
8: An Animal Alphabet. By Elisha Cooper. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
Patrick McDonnell’s super-sweet Mutts comic strip is a delight in any season and for any reason – the reason behind The “Mutts” Winter Diaries, which is in Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Comics for Kids series, being to acquaint young readers with the strip if they are not yet familiar with it. These cold-weather adventures of Earl the dog and Mooch the cat, extracted from strips drawn in various winters, contain the strip’s trademarked (well, it should be trademarked) homespun humor, attentive concern for all animals (domestic and otherwise), and – important for this particular collection – warmth. Certain themes recur throughout the book, and it is wonderful to see the subtle ways in which McDonnell plays with them. For instance, the fact that Earl needs to be walked even in cold, snowy, windy weather leads Mooch to repeated assertions of feline superiority: “You owe me,” Mooch comments at one point to sort-of-co-owner Frank (who ever really owns a cat?). The notion of hibernation to escape the cold gets worked and reworked here, with Earl and Mooch doing a much better job of bulking up for a long sleep than actually sleeping. Bip and Bop, the squirrels preoccupied with beaning other characters with nuts, stay true to form in winter: they drop nuts onto both Earl and Mooch at one point as white flakes drift down, leading Earl to comment, “A heavy snow.” (“Yesh,” Mooch agrees.) But there is more than humor in this collection and in Mutts generally. One delightful sequence (originally run on a Sunday) has snowflakes explaining, as they fall toward the ground: “We’re little snowflakes…from heaven…we are all unique…just like you…we’re here on Earth…to become one” – at which point McDonnell shows an unbroken blanket of snow. And then, in the final panel, Earl and Mooch comment: “It’s deep.” “Yesh.” Mutts invites, even insists on this sort of thoughtfulness about the world around us and our place in it. In a sequence in which Earl and Mooch watch a deer that is behind the house, Mooch asks, “What is the deer ‘problem’?” Earl explains, “What else? Overpopulation – there’s just too many and not enough space.” Mooch responds, “Yesh. Shometimes they can be a nuisance.” And in the final panel, dog and cat together say, “People.” That turns the well-known issue of deer overpopulation in certain areas into something much broader – the sort of thing at which McDonnell is particularly adept. But although Mutts sometimes becomes rather preachy, it does not stay that way for long, and McDonnell’s wonderful art rescues the strip from treacle again and again. So does his occasional foray into a purely visual and very funny idea, such as a Sunday strip tilted at an angle and showing only pieces of panels – just enough to see that the topic is slipping on the ice and falling, which the strip’s layout mimics beautifully; and another Sunday offering, a wordless three-long-panel strip showing a snowman and snowdog indoors, near a fireplace, and then the snow starting to melt, and then at last the revelation that the two are Earl and his owner, Ozzie. Mutts is a winter wonderland in itself, and a marvelous contemporary version of old-fashioned dog-and-other-animal strips.
There was a mutual admiration society between Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and McDonnell, and no wonder: their two strips share some sensibilities and approaches, Schulz’s clearly influenced McDonnell’s, and the multifaceted Snoopy is an ancestor of sorts of Earl. However many times Earl and Mooch try new and different things, though, and however far they wander from home or imagine they wander – as in a strip in which Earl and Ozzie feel as if they have walked to the South Pole (or North Pole: they see both penguins and a polar bear) – they do not approach Snoopy for sheer audacity of make-believe. Much of the new AMP! Comics for Kids collection called Contact! focuses on Snoopy’s imaginary (but sometimes eerily almost-real) adventures as a World War I Flying Ace, always in search of the notorious Red Baron and generally coming out on the short end of things when the two have their encounters. The first few strips collected here show a close relationship with Mutts, as Snoopy makes things difficult for Charlie Brown’s snowman building because Snoopy is having a little too much fun, and then Snoopy gets rolled right into a huge snowball that Charlie Brown is creating. But matters soon get odder, and stay that way. Snoopy, atop his doghouse, goes after the Red Baron and quickly finds his craft (the doghouse) spewing smoke; another time, he is forced to bail out after being attacked by the Red Baron, and land s in his supper dish; at yet another time, he challenges the enemy by saying “Nyahh, nyahh, nyahh! You can’t hit me!” (and then admits that “tough flying aces” do not really say that). In this collection, Snoopy dons other personae as well: he becomes a member of the Foreign Legion, marching across the desert; a swimmer practicing dives into a backyard kiddie pool, using Charlie Brown with a plan held over his head as a diving board; the Masked Marvel, a champion arm wrestler; a piranha; a “Cheshire Beagle,” Alice in Wonderland style, who disappears from view leaving only his smile behind; even a vulture perched in a tree and objecting to being called “sweetie.” Of all the Peanuts characters, Snoopy is the most multifaceted, and that may be have been part of Schulz’s message in creating him: people are people (even when they are small people – that is, children), but dogs are what people want them to be, and who really knows what dogs themselves want to be? Peanuts remains a wonderful example of a comic strip that can be read purely for amusement but that has a “wheels within wheels” flavor to it for those who choose to look a bit more deeply at the things that change and the ones that remain the same in it over time.
However, not even Snoopy takes on as many roles as Martin McKenna’s Octopuppy, an absolutely hilarious picture book about straitlaced, dog-focused Edgar and the pet he actually gets as a gift: Jarvis, an octopus. There is no explanation whatsoever of why this happens, and it matters not a whit, because the book offers one hilarity after another about Jarvis’ capabilities and Edgar’s frustrations, and there is simply no time for readers to do anything but laugh like crazy at the various antics. Actually, readers get a foretaste and aftertaste of the wonders of Jarvis on the inside front and back covers, where he is shown costumed as a superhero, a little girl, a Viking, a paint-splattered artist, a lion tamer (snail tamer, actually), a spaceman, a Shakespearean actor, a wizard, Count Dracula, and more – every idea that McKenna comes up with is more outlandish than the previous one. Within the actual story, matters progress from a scene in which Jarvis is wearing a variety of shoes and gloves to one in which he is dressed in a tuxedo and doing Fred Astaire-style dance moves. Edgar’s problem is that he really, really wants a dog, so he decides to train Jarvis to do doggy things. But Jarvis fails miserably, being far too clever and inventive to act on simple commands. Told to play dead, for example, he emerges from a sarcophagus-like armoire swathed in bandages and making horror-movie-mummy-like moans. Edgar’s determination to make Jarvis doglike leads to a disastrous time at a big dog show, where Jarvis simultaneously dances ballet, plays piano, does card tricks, juggles flaming torches, and plays a drum set, all while wearing a bow tie and a Carmen Miranda-style hat. Humiliated, Edgar takes Jarvis home, and Jarvis leaves Edgar a note apologizing for being a bad dog – then flushes himself down the toilet. Soon, though, Edgar realizes how special Jarvis is, but now Jarvis is gone – and the rest of the book is Edgar’s search for the octopuppy, including an absolutely hilarious two-page illustration (with echoes of Dr. Seuss) in which Edgar calls down into the toilet for Jarvis to come home and the message is passed from animal to animal through a network of underground pipes that snake their way around a convict digging a tunnel with a spoon, a pirate’s treasure chest, some dinosaur bones, and more. The eventual reuniting of boy and octopuppy is inevitable and suitably celebratory, and of course the two are now bound to live happily ever after. With any luck, McKenna will create a sequel to Octopuppy showing some of what “happily ever after” entails. He could call it Octodog.
There is an octopus in Elisha Cooper’s alphabet book, and there is a dog, too, but even more interestingly, there is the number eight – not because an octopus has eight arms, but because Cooper comes up with a book about letters that is also about numbers, or at least one particular number. What he does in 8: An Animal Alphabet is to present an assortment of animals for each letter of the alphabet, and then include drawings of eight of one particular creature per letter. Thus, there are eight ants under A, eight dolphins (no, not dogs) under D, eight koalas under K, eight urchins (sea urchins, that is) under U, right on to eight zebra finches under Z (but only one zebra dove). There is no particular significance to the number eight, except that Cooper says it is his favorite number – but it gives this animal-alphabet book an intriguing structure and gives young readers something to do beyond looking at the pictures. At the bottom of each page, Cooper lists the animals that appear on that page, and at the end of the book, he provides very brief but highly intriguing information on each of them – yes, all 184 of them. This is not traditional information, such as where the creatures are found or how long they live. Instead, Cooper offers facts such as: “Most ants are female.” “Dogs can sniff seven times a second.” “When excited, guinea pigs hop.” “Lizards smell with their tongues.” “Octopuses have three hearts.” “Ticks only eat three times in their lives.” The combination of an unusual thematic connection through the number eight, a fine selection of animals to illustrate every letter of the alphabet, and fascinating bits of information on every creature, make 8: An Animal Alphabet an unusually interesting book of its kind. As for the difficult letters: Cooper finds three animals for Q (quail, quetzal and quoll, two birds and an Australian marsupial) and one for X (xerus, an African ground squirrel). For more-common letters, he really packs the pages: there are 14 animals on the C page and 18 for S. There are also some number games in addition to the one in the title – Cooper tells what they are at the end of the book (26 animals on the title page, for example). Cooper’s solid research and offbeat approach combine to make 8: An Animal Alphabet an A-to-Z winner.
The Only Child. By Guojing. Schwartz & Wade. $19.99.
Paddington and the Christmas Surprise. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
Pinkalicious and the Snow Globe. By Victoria Kann. HarperFestival. $4.99.
There have been some remarkable children’s books released in recent years in which illustrations without words tell either the whole story or at least a great deal of it. The works by Shaun Tan and Brian Selznick stand as prime examples. To this rarefied group may now be added The Only Child by Chinese illustrator Guojing. A tale of the inward effects of the recently reversed one-child-only policy in China, this is the entirely wordless story of a young child – intended as a girl, but drawn androgynously – whose loneliness at home, after her mother goes to work, leads her on a journey that starts in the mundane world but soon leads, through the child’s sighting of a marvelous stag in the woods, to a place of beauty in the clouds. It is a world that may or may not be imaginary – Guojing carefully leaves both possibilities open – and it is one in which the child encounters a playful, roly-poly, panda-like cloud creature, a whale whose enormity is almost beyond description or depiction, and a series of exhausting adventures that eventually bring her home to her distraught parents and grandmother and to a peaceful sleep at a window outside which tree branches look just stag-shaped enough to leave readers wondering about what has happened. Certainly the story is a highly sentimental, even maudlin one, but Guojing’s black-and-white pencil illustrations take it beyond the treacly notion of a child who, feeling unloved, visits a place of delight (and modest danger), a realm where wonders just may be real and the loneliness of childhood most certainly is. There are a few mildly frightening scenes here, but the overall impression is one of wonder in discovery and delight in finding playmates – even cloud-based ones – to relieve a pervasive feeling of aloneness that, one senses, not even the happy family reunion at the end of the book can fully dispel. The Only Child can be read purely as a wondrous adventure, and will surely seem that way to young children; but adults will see more in it than that – and will understand how Guojing’s own experience as an only child under China’s government mandate would have instilled in her the feelings that she brings out so effectively here without a single word.
Michael Bond’s Paddington is no longer lonely and no longer wandering after he comes to live with the Browns in London, and his adventures are more mundane than those of Guojing’s child – and filled with words. In Paddington and the Christmas Surprise, matters are also distinctly seasonal. Originally published in 1997, revised in 2008, and now reissued, this is the story of Paddington’s trip to a department store that has seen better days, Barkridges, to see Santa Claus and ride the train through a display called Winter Wonderland. The store trip is Paddington’s treat for the family – he has “been saving his bun money for ages,” Mrs. Brown says – but the experience proves less than enthralling. The store is rather dingy and the winter displays are distinctly rundown, to such a degree that an annoyed Paddington at one point “was counting the number of buns it had taken to pay for the outing.” Of course, for both seasonal and Paddington-story reasons, matters cannot remain so downbeat. Nor do they. Paddington finds trouble, as he always does, through his usual well-meaning attempts to make things better – and by the end of the book, everyone is happy, big crowds have again thronged to Barkridges, and even the ultra-crabby store manager, who at first refers to Paddington as “a large creepy-crawly,” is left talking about how “honored” the store is that the bear from Darkest Peru paid it a visit. Everything ends, of course, with a huge jar of marmalade and a very happy bear. Paddington and the Christmas Surprise is not really one of the best Paddington books, and gets a (+++) rating. But Bond’s portrayal of the mistake-and-accident-prone bear remains endearing, and if R.W. Appel’s illustrations are on the straightforward side, they are colorful and expressive enough so that young readers will find them a seasonal treat.
Speaking of colors, Pinkalicious and the Snow Globe serves up Victoria Kann’s usual heaping helping of pinkness, with this short seasonal book (which contains more than a page of stickers) informing readers who may have forgotten that Pinkalicious’ family is the Pinkertons and the town where they live is Pinkville. Pinkalicious and her younger brother, Peter, are frustrated at the lack of snow, so they try making their own with shredded newspaper in the living room – resulting in predictable chaos. To give them something less messily confetti-ish to do, their mom takes them to a gift shop whose owner, Maggie, makes snow globes – but there is no snow yet this winter, so she has not been inspired to make any. However, thanks to Pinkalicious and her family, Maggie finds her inspiration after all, and thanks the Pinkertons with a special snow globe that contains, among other things, pink snow. At that point, the only thing missing from this pleasant little (+++) story is a happy ending that includes snow, and that is just what Kann delivers at the conclusion. Pinkalicious and the Snow Globe is a brief and modest entry in the extensive Pinkalicious series, but as with Paddington and the Christmas Surprise, it is a book that existing fans of the title characters will enjoy looking at – and whose words they will enjoy reading.
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 102-104. Cappella Coloniensis conducted by Bruno Weil. Ars Produktion. $19.99 (SACD+DVD).
Hummel: Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 35, 36 and 41 arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano. Uwe Grodd, flute; Friedmann Eichhorn, violin; Martin Rummel, cello; Roland Krüger, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.99 (SACD).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.99 (SACD).
The days in which the conductor ruled symphonic performances, with the composer taking a back seat to the conductor’s view of the music, are long gone. Those were the days in which Mahler completed Weber’s opera Die Drei Pintos and reorchestrated Beethoven to “improve” his sound, the days in which Bruno Walter subsequently “improved” Mahler by expanding and contracting his carefully noted tempos and dynamics at will in order “better to communicate” Mahler’s underlying wishes and emotions. Nowadays, or at least from a few decades ago until quite recently, the pendulum swung very far in the other direction, with the written or printed score ruling above all and even rather metronomic performances being deemed “right” if they followed the music as written – for yet another Mahler example, there is Gilbert Kaplan’s meticulous but rather flaccid reading of the “Resurrection” symphony. Throw in modern preoccupations with original instruments or careful copies and with historic performance practices, and the result is – or can be – readings in which pure fidelity to the urtext produces undeniably accurate but curiously vapid results: some of the personal fire that informed the intense (if sometimes misguided) conductors of the not-too-distant past, such as Leonard Bernstein, has simply gone out. But perhaps it has merely been banked, because now there are increasing instances in which conductors are again asserting their right, even their obligation, to interpret music, not merely beat time with a stick and ensure that players follow precisely what the score says. The extent of this new leadership paradigm, and the way it will progress, are uncertain and in flux, but this new conductorial assertiveness undeniably produces some exceptionally interesting and involving versions of even the most familiar works. And it follows on a longstanding tradition of reinterpreting music in a more-up-to-date guise, a tradition still preserved by playing many Bach harpsichord works on piano but otherwise pretty much fallen into disfavor.
The resurgence of rethinking extends into all sorts of familiar music. Haydn’s penultimate symphony, No. 103, for example, begins with and is named for its famous “Drum Roll,” but Haydn gave no indication of whether the timpani were to play loudly or softly, or how prominent they were to be when their front-and-center appearance returns at the end of the first movement. This is just one element that Bruno Weil confronts head-on in an excellent new Ars Produktion SACD featuring Haydn’s final “London” symphonies: Weil chooses to have the drum roll resound loudly, clearly and in fanfare-like manner, with a decrescendo at the end. Cappella Coloniensis has the world’s longest history of historical performance practice, dating back to 1954, but the understanding and implementation of such practice has changed over time as scholars and musicians have learned more about the instruments and sounds that composers such as Haydn expected. The meticulous attention that Weil gives to the scores of these Haydn symphonies is clear from the very first notes – and German speakers are offered additional clarity on a DVD that accompanies the SACD and includes excerpts from each symphony, with Weil explaining matters of technique, balance, rhythm and emphasis. Even those without the ability to understand Weil’s commentary will perceive its results in every movement of these symphonies, from the mysterious and very carefully balanced opening of No. 102, to the wonderful violin solo in the second movement of No. 103, to the exuberant conclusion of No. 104. Haydn’s surprises, his unexpected alternation of piano and forte phrases, his cleverness in using and stretching sonata form, his ability to build entire movements out of single themes, his sonic outbursts in the midst of otherwise propulsive movements – all these are familiar nowadays but were highly original in Haydn’s time, and it is tremendously exciting to hear the ways in which Weil and the orchestra emphasize these unusual elements while providing performances that are excellently paced and as historically accurate as it is possible to make them. These are revelatory readings: no matter how often listeners have heard these wonderful works, and indeed no matter how frequently they have heard other historically aware handlings of them, they will find new things in the ones by Weil and Cappella Coloniensis – a detail here, a sectional balance there, a point of emphasis again and again. Haydn sounds fresh and new in this recording, which can help even a jaded modern audience understand why he had so strong a reputation for innovation.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel was a first-rate conductor as well as a virtuoso pianist and respected composer – and, when he was eight years old, a member of Mozart’s household, where he studied music in ways that would remain with him throughout his life. Haydn influenced Mozart and was in turn influenced by him, but the Hummel-Mozart relationship was on a different level: it was genuinely formative of Hummel’s mature musical style. Yet Hummel, who lived until 1837, was well aware of changes in musical tastes in the years after Mozart’s death in 1791. In the years 1823 and 1824, Hummel made chamber-music arrangements of Mozart’s last six symphonies, managing to retain all their poise, brilliance and harmonic clarity while adding touches in line with taste in the early Romantic era. The new Naxos recording of Nos. 35, 36 and 41 is every bit as fine and every bit as interesting as the previous release of Nos. 38-40 with the same performers. What Hummel did here was to find ways to bring out orchestral color through an expansion of the piano part, using the more-developed pianos of the 1820s to fine effect. He also incorporated elements that were much to Romantic-era taste but less prevalent in Mozart’s time, notably crescendos, which are frequent in these arrangements but were reserved by Mozart for occasional use as a special effect. More-extreme dynamic markings – fortissimo rather than forte, and pianissimo rather than piano – are also features of these arrangements; Mozart sought this level of intensity much less often. Mozart’s harmonies always remain the same and his tempo indications usually do, although Hummel marks the second movement of Symphony No. 36 Poco adagio while Mozart wrote it as an Andante. These emendations do not significantly change the sound of the symphonies; certainly not for most modern listeners. What they do is make the music more fitting for consumption in Hummel’s time while preserving its essential contours, which Hummel knew first-hand from his time with Mozart and to which he was also sensitive as a composer and performer. In their chamber-music form, the symphonies do lose some grandeur (notably No. 41), but their basic spirit comes through quite well, and the balance among flute, violin, cello and piano (with the piano frequently taking the lead) is such that inner voices and harmonic structure come across with considerable clarity. Hummel designed these arrangements as much for informal amateur performance as for concert use, but they are not really simplifications of Mozart: they are reduced-instrumentation adaptations with some concessions to then-modern tastes, but with a strong determination to retain the “Mozart sound” and the elements of symphonic structure that made Mozart’s work in this form unique. And that they do exceptionally well, as these sensitive and very well-balanced performances show.
Even the most-canonic of symphonies, such as Beethoven’s Fifth, can accept some careful reconsideration by a sufficiently sensitive conductor, such as Manfred Honeck. An exceptionally fine Reference Recordings SACD featuring Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra provides as refreshingly bracing a view of Beethoven as any recent release of his music. In fact, it would be necessary to reach back to the mid-1970s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh with Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic to find a disc as noteworthy for these two symphonies as this Honeck/Pittsburgh one. True, the orchestra does not have the near-perfect intonation and sectional balance of the masterful Viennese, but occasional slight crudities of intonation, especially in the brass, actually make the music more exciting and convincing, if less warm. In fact, the Pittsburgh has not sounded this good since the heyday of William Steinberg. And Honeck’s consideration of Beethoven – make that reconsideration – leads to some immensely enthralling performances. The very end of each symphony, for example, is jump-out-of-your-seat exciting, the conclusion of the Fifth so speedy that the orchestra’s precision is nothing sort of amazing, and the last measures of the Seventh so quick that the movement is less Wagner’s “apotheosis of the dance” and more a frenetic bacchanal. Both these conclusions work, even if they mean some tempo variations that are not in the score: both crown the symphonies in just the way that Beethoven likely intended, even if he did not write things quite this way in his notoriously difficult-to-decipher scrawl. And it is not just the endings of the symphonies that bear repeated wonder-struck listening here. The famous motto theme of the first movement of the Fifth is taken by Honeck at a slower tempo than the main part of the movement, making it more portentous, and paving the way, to an extent, for the odd little oboe cadenza that interrupts the movement’s headlong flow later on. The second movement of the Seventh is unusually speedy, but still retains its grace, while the third movement is brassy and brilliant, almost frenetic. Honeck gets marvelous playing from the orchestra, and the nuances of his interpretations make this disc one worth hearing repeatedly: yes, he departs from a literal reading of the scores, but he does so quite knowingly and for a specific purpose each time. It is certainly possible to disagree with these interpretations, but it is hard to imagine not being moved and exhilarated by them.
Honeck’s careful rethinking applies as well to his Bruckner Fourth, another superb-sounding Reference Recordings SACD. Here, some of what Honeck does is bolder than anything he attempts with Beethoven: he adds a horn trill at one point in the finale and uses plenty of rubato in the third movement and, indeed, throughout the symphony. But the tempo changes are not intrusive: Honeck has thought them through so well that they seem integral to the music even though listeners familiar with Bruckner’s “Romantic” symphony will know they are not. Honeck also balances the orchestra rather unusually here, bringing woodwinds to the fore so their delicacy and clarity stand in strong contrast to the warmth of the strings (which, although not at the level of those in the best European orchestras, are wonderfully rounded and full). The attention to wind/strings balance means, of necessity, some downplaying of the brass, which is about as counter-intuitive an approach to Bruckner as can be imagined. But Honeck scarcely lets the brass disappear – instead, he balances the brass choir on a more-or-less-equal basis with strings and woodwinds rather than having it dominate the rest of the orchestra, as it often does under conductors determined to give this and other Bruckner symphonies an organ-like sound. Honeck wants something else: he sees the “Romantic” symphony as essentially an expansion of Schubert, a lyrical and deeply felt work with deep folk (or Volk) roots, a kind of tone painting in symphonic form. This approach is actually justified by the program that Bruckner originally attached to the symphony, although he did not include the whole “guide” in the score. For Honeck, the point is that Bruckner’s Fourth is a flowing, highly expressive work in which flexible tempos are necessary throughout; and if the “organ sound” so common in Bruckner is not rigidly sought, what emerges here is a piece that, although scarcely lighthearted, is more affable than Bruckner is generally considered to be. There is elegance aplenty in this Bruckner Fourth, and certainly there is passion, but the main impression it produces is one of geniality. This is pleasant music, that being an adjective rarely associated with Bruckner. The fact that Honeck brings out this side of the composer shows just how different this Fourth is from other interpretations. It is neither right nor wrong – there is no one “right” way to conduct, play or hear Bruckner’s music (or Beethoven’s, Mozart’s or Haydn’s, for that matter). It is this reality, that many views of great works can be equally meaningful and therefore equally “correct,” that it can be easy to lose sight of in the search for historical literalism – just as the notion that the score is at best a guideline can be taken too far by interpreters who think they know more about what the composer intended to communicate than the composer did. Honeck’s Beethoven and Bruckner recordings are valuable not only in themselves but also in their reopening of the notion of classical-music performance as a collaborative endeavor between composer and conductor, between the expectations of the time when the music was created and the capabilities of the time in which it is performed, between the performance style for which the works were written and the different one in common use when, many years later, they reach out to an audience accustomed to hearing things in a very different way.