December 29, 2016
Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of. By Martin Brown. David Fickling Books. $18.99.
It is easy to forgive this book its misleading title once you get into it and realize that even though the title is inaccurate, the information in the book is so interesting that it doesn’t really matter. The title implies that this is a book about animals with spots, and indeed, the front cover shows a large picture of an odd-looking animal (a banded linsang, as readers will soon find out) that actually does have spots. The cover also shows a second, smaller animal that may or may not have spots – it is standing up, facing the reader, and saying “hi,” so its back, where the spots would be, is not visible. (It turns out not to have them: it is a black-footed ferret.) The point is that this seems to be a book about smaller (“lesser”) animals with spots. But in fact it is about less-spotted animals of all sizes – that is, ones much less frequently seen than those to which readers (adults as well as children) are accustomed.
This is actually an issue in wildlife conservation, where so-called “marquee animals” such as tigers, koalas and polar bears draw tremendous attention and bring in the big bucks, while equally worthy, equally or even more endangered species fail to get the backing scientists need to help them because the animals are little known or, by human standards, unattractive. But although conservation is a kind of subtext of Lesser Spotted Animals, with Martin Brown indicating the status of each creature he portrays and discusses, the book as a whole is played as much for laughs as for information. Actually, the cover makes that clear, since the ferret is waving and saying “hi” (in a cartoon-style speech balloon) in response to the linsang (using its own speech balloon) saying, “Say hello to the nice people.”
What Brown does here is present information on a couple of dozen animals that may be unknown because they are very rare (the Cuban solenodon, a cat-size, tree-climbing, flexible-nosed critter with venomous saliva); because their habits make them almost impossible to study (the sand cat, a bit larger than a big pet cat, which blends perfectly into its desert home and even buries its droppings in the sand); or because – well, just because (the crabeater seal, the world’s most common seal, which exists in the tens of millions in the oceans near Antarctica and eats krill, not crabs). Indeed, in a comment that is typical of Brown’s style, he says that “there are, by far, more crabeater seals on Earth than any other large wild mammal. SO THERE.” And his illustration shows the pale brown seals crammed together tightly on the page, top to bottom and side to side, with one at the bottom right using a speech balloon to ask another, “Can you move over a bit?”
The cleverness of this book shows up throughout the pages. One animal here is the dagger-toothed flower bat, “peaceful pollinator and banana hero,” as Brown describes it – showing a small cartoon of a bat dressed as, of course, Batman, but with a banana symbol on the front of its costume (these bats are important pollinators of bananas and other fruits). The large, full-page illustration here shows four of the bats hanging upside-down, three asleep and one with eyes open, looking down at the bottom of the page with a “?” in a thought balloon – because there is some sort of very long tail down there. Turn to the next page and you find out that the appendage belongs to the long-tailed dunnart, whose tail is twice as long as its body. The dunnart is an Australian marsupial that looks like a mouse but is actually much more closely related to Tasmanian devils – it is a case of convergent evolution, although Brown does not use that term. Dunnarts are fierce little creatures that, although the size of mice, will actually eat mice and anything else smaller than or equal to themselves in size. Interestingly, the conservation status of dunnarts is uncertain: they are officially of “least concern,” because they do not seem to be endangered, but in Australia they are considered “vulnerable” because there just aren’t a lot of them. This is the sort of curious fact that makes Lesser Spotted Animals so interesting, even though most of the animals are not spotted and many are not even “lesser” – the onager is the size of a donkey, for example, and the bull-like gaur is twice as large as a cow, weighing up to 2,200 pounds and having a bellow that can be heard a mile away. (Not that the gaur is the only long-distance champ here: the zorilla, which looks and acts like a skunk but is not closely related to it – convergent evolution again – has a stink that can be smelled a mile away.) Lesser Spotted Animals could have used a better title, but it would be hard to find a better and more interesting instructive-and-amusing compilation of the stories of some amazing creatures that are scarcely “marquee” animals but that surely are as worthy of humans’ time, attention and interest as cheetahs, gorillas and the other human-designated superstars of the animal world.
Nine of Stars: A Wildlands Novel. By Laura Bickle. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
Shadow House #2: You Can’t Hide. By Dan Poblocki. Scholastic. $12.99.
Anyone living in an area in the grip of winter and finding things not cold enough can come to these books, one for adults and one for young readers, for an added helping of chills. Some of the usual willing suspension of disbelief is required, of course; and as is often the case with dark fantasy, a larger helping helps. In the case of Nine of Stars, that disbelief suspension gives entry to an unusually well-written, if entirely genre-bound, novel that is supposed to be the first of a series – but, unfortunately for readers, really isn’t. There is very considerable backstory here, and Laura Bickle uses it skillfully to give her characters greater depth than is usually accorded to participants in supernatural fantasy. The very first time readers meet geologist and protagonist Petra Dee, in a doctor’s office, Bickle draws attention to the scars on her arms: “a burned handprint, slashes, and a pale speckle from corrosive acid,” and then has Petra muse about the handprint being the last touch of a dead lover, the slashes being from an attack by a drug lord, and the speckle coming from the blood of a basilisk. This instantly and effectively shows readers that Petra lives in a world like and also quite unlike ours, and gives a hint of her background, prior adventures and how she has become the person she now is. It also immediately piques the reader’s curiosity – but Bickle does not give detailed information on Petra’s intriguing past, leaving readers hanging. The same is true for Petra’s boyfriend (and, later, husband), Gabriel: we quickly learn that he is a once-supernatural creature turned fully human. In his case, that fact does get explored more fully, because of its importance to the plot – but of his earlier life, we get at most dribs and drabs rather than the fuller explanation that Bickle makes readers eager to obtain. And then there is Petra’s father, a fascinating minor character who is an alchemist but not quite in his right mind because of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and is in a nursing home and only occasionally lucid – what exactly is his story? And what is the background of another intriguing minor character, Maria Yellowrose? These and other difficulties with Nine of Stars flow from the fact that the book is not really the first in its sequence. It is Bickle’s third book, after Dark Alchemy and Mercury Retrograde, but the first two were digital-only publications that readers of traditional printed books are unlikely to know. Nine of Stars actually continues the stories of the earlier novels, so Bickle’s brief back-references to prior events make sense to anyone reading this book as a new adventure – but remain tantalizingly opaque to people meeting Petra here for the first time. The story of Nine of Stars is nevertheless an effective and well-told genre tale. It involves supernatural evil dwelling in and emerging from the vast wilderness around Temperance, Wyoming, where Petra and Gabe live. Gabe, although now human, is 150 years old and a former Pinkerton agent, transformed by alchemical processes into something called a Hanged Man; he is the last of that kind, all the others having perished when a nasty piece of work named Sal Rutherford burned a mystical and potent tree called the Lunaria. Rutherford’s cousin, Owen, is now sheriff in Temperance, and he is probing the death of Sal and the Hanged Men (not that he knows that is what they are). This puts him on the trail of Gabe and Petra, who are themselves on the trail of a strange wolf-killing supernatural being called Skinflint Jack. There is really quite a lot going on here, and Bickle juggles the various plot elements skillfully and writes about them convincingly, pacing the book well and keeping its progress satisfying while leaving plenty of room for successor novels to explore the territory further. Nine of Stars is well crafted and well presented – although the abrupt cliffhanger ending is a cheap trick, well beneath the quality of what has come before. In general, the characters are interesting enough so readers will want to know more of them in the future. But the full flavor of the book is missing, except for digital-novel-oriented readers who already have more information on these characters’ pasts than Bickle reveals here.
The pasts do not much matter in Dan Poblocki’s Shadow House trilogy, and in any case the characters do not have them going back very far – this is a novel for preteens and young teenagers, after all. The house of the series title is described as a place “where past and present intertwine,” but really it is simply a place where various spooky things happen for no particularly discernible reason, until some sort of explanation is pulled out of pretty much anywhere or nowhere. The second book in the series, You Can’t Hide, follows essentially the same path as the first, The Gathering, in which the five protagonists of the series were brought to the house through different means: Poppy, living in an orphanage, got a letter inviting her to live in her great-aunt’s mansion; Marcus was invited to a music school; Azumi was invited to a school as well – in her case, a prestigious and academically challenging one; and brothers and sitcom stars Dash and Dylan were invited to film a horror movie. Someone nefarious is pulling the strings here – that is for sure, and is always the case in books of this sort – and You Can’t Hide starts with Dylan meeting someone who fills the evil-character bill, a person named Del Larkspur who manipulates or hypnotizes or otherwise squooshes Dylan into a role called “The Trickster.” Then the four other group members find themselves separated – of course, since that weakens the group dynamic that lies at the center of success in books for this age group. The separation happens after a confrontation with two honest-to-goodness adults who turn out to be neither honest nor good nor, it seems, adults: they are the usual shadowy and drooling figures of evil who adorn not-very-creatively-haunted houses. “What’s wrong? Only everything!” muses Dash at one point, in what passes for introspection here. Actually, that summation is just about right. The house changes shape for no apparent reason except to confuse the stalwart kids; and oddities appear as needed, such as a second Azumi – no one is sure who is who, but at least the two are readily distinguishable because one has short hair and one has long hair. “Everything here is trying to divide us up. We have to stick together,” says sensible Poppy, and she is as correct in her observation as Dash is in his. For his part, Dylan, who is a little slow on the uptake, eventually realizes that the mask Del gave him – and which Dylan finds he cannot remove – is in charge of his actions: “Dylan knows that he’s not in control anymore.” Another trenchant observation. Eventually the plucky kids meet Cyrus Caldwell, the onetime director of Larkspur Home for Children, which is what the building was before it became Shadow House – but instead of being a tower of evil, he is a sick, disfigured, stuttering old man who, when Marcus says he is evil, replies, “Oh, how I w-wish it were that simple.” Really, although matters here are not simple, they are certainly formulaic, and it is quite certain that all will be revealed and explained in the forthcoming third book of the Shadow House trilogy. And it is likely that in that book as in this one and the first, Poblocki’s creepy illustrations will do a good deal more to produce wintry chills than will his straightforward writing style and mostly easy-to-anticipate plot twists.
Raising the Transgender Child: A Complete Guide for Parents, Families & Caregivers. By Michelle Angelo, Ph.D., and Alisa Bowman. Seal Press. $17.
Depending on how you look at statistics and whose statistics you believe, there are very few transgender people in the United States – or there are lots and lots. A June 2016 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law put the percentage of transgender adults in the nation at 0.6%, twice what the same institute estimated in 2011. That is a very tiny percentage. It is a smaller percentage than the estimated prevalence of pedophiles (1% to 2%) or, for that matter, the estimated percentage of Americans who own rabbits (1%) or keep saltwater fish as pets (1.5%). On the other hand, 0.6% is not a very small number, because the United States has a population of some 320 million, so 0.6% equals about 2,000,000 people. How many of them are children? No one really knows – but certainly some children are transgender, and even if the total statistics paint a difficult-to-pin-down picture, there is no doubt that having a transgender child requires a set of parenting skills quite different from the ones most parents have or expect to need.
Raising the Transgender Child attempts to provide those skills – while bending over so far to be politically correct and sensitive that even its well-meaning recommendations must be taken with a large helping of caveats. Michelle Angelo specializes in working with transgender youth, and Alisa Bowman is a transgender advocate who has a transgender child herself, so both have the bona fides for this book. They also share a determination to normalize being transgender when it is patently not statistically normal – which does not mean it is abnormal, just that the designation does not apply to about 99.4% of the population. It is no insult to state forthrightly that being transgender is very rare, even though it is a state of being that is shared with millions of others. But Angelo and Bowman are determined to use faddish words such as “cisgender” to equate the rare with the far, far more common (asserting that some people just happen to be cisgender, while some just happen to be transgender); and they are equally determined to assert that everyone is wonderful in his or her own way: “Sure, most of the time…you’ll end up with a straight cisgender person. Some of the time, however, you get a beautiful variation, perhaps someone with male organs (penis and testes) who identifies as a female, is attracted to women, and prefers to present herself in masculine attire; female organs (ovaries, vagina, breasts, etc.) who identifies as both genders (male and female), is attracted to men, and dresses in androgynous fashions; [or] ambiguous genitalia (neither completely male nor female) who identifies as male, is attracted to everyone, and sometimes presents as masculine, other times as feminine.”
It is 100% necessary to accept the 100% inclusiveness of the authors in order to benefit from their recommendations, because everything they say is couched in the same sort of everything-is-equal language. It is also necessary to accept the authors’ tendency to downplay or handle dismissively many of the concerns expressed – rightly or wrongly – by the 99.4% of the population that is not transgender. This sometimes leads to convoluted logic. There is, for example, the hot-button issue of allowing transgender children to use bathrooms based on the sex with which they identify rather than based on their sexual organs. Angelo and Bowman will not acknowledge any reason whatsoever for people to be the slightest bit concerned about this matter. They say, for instance, that giving transgender students a private bathroom is not a good idea because those bathrooms “in some schools, require students to descend or climb several flights of stairs and cover a great distance. Often, they’re just not convenient.” In addition, “forcing any student to use a separate bathroom invades their privacy.” But this is just after they write, regarding those who are not transgender, that “any child who feels uncomfortable in a bathroom or locker room has the right to use a private accommodation, such as a single stall bathroom in the nurse’s office.” In other words, non-transgender students who are uncomfortable should use bathrooms that are far away and “just not convenient.” On the face of it, this discrimination against the non-transgendered majority – even when backed up by references to legal requirements and threats of lawsuits – is unseemly, however well-intended.
Raising the Transgender Child is, in fact, well-intended throughout. “There is nothing wrong with your child or with you,” the authors assert early and, in one form or another, repeatedly. This is an excellent and important point. And Angelo and Bowman show considerable sensitivity to areas that are of major concern to parents of all children, such as dating and sex. Their objective, as one chapter subhead has it, is to show parents “how to raise a happy, well-adjusted child,” and this is a valiant and difficult goal where transgender children are concerned. But how do parents even know that a child is transgender? This is in many ways the question for parents considering whether to buy this book; and the authors, commendably, try to deal with it early on, in a chapter on “seven signs your child may be transgender.” But none of the “signs” is really definitive, and all are couched in that “perfect PC” miasma of stretched language, such as, “Your child presents in a way that is not congruent with the gender assigned at birth.” “Is not congruent?” Is this a geometry lesson? And “assigned at birth?” What, as homework? The authors spend so much time tripping over themselves trying to be perfectly PC in their thoughts and expressions that they miss the plain-spokenness that, it can be argued, parents of possibly transgender children need more than anything. Still, there are precious few guides available to deal with this significant family trauma – even Angelo and Bowman agree that discovering that a child is transgender throws parents for a loop in major ways. And although there are many flaws in Raising the Transgender Child, wholehearted devotion to the cause encapsulated in the book’s title is not one of them. Parents who suspect they may have a transgender child – or who know a family with a transgender child and want to understand that family better – will find this a valuable starting point, even if it is scarcely as complete a guide to the many issues that families in this situation will have to face as its subtitle makes it out to be.
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (version by Yoel Gamzou). International Mahler Orchestra conducted by Yoel Gamzou. Wergo. $18.99.
Mahler, arr. Schoenberg: Das Lied von der Erde; Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano; Charles Reid, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone; Attacca Quartet (Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violins; Luke Fleming, viola; Andrew Yee, cello) and Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.95.
Mahler: Five Rückert Songs; Ich ging mit Lust; Erinnerung; Scheiden und Meiden; Dvořák: Gypsy Songs, Op. 55; Sibelius: Six Songs. Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; Brian Zeger, piano. Delos. $16.99.
More than a century after his death at the age of 50, Gustav Mahler seems more connected with the world than ever. His works seem always to have something new to say to succeeding generations of musicians and listeners, entrancing and enthralling anew as more performers and audiences have a chance to explore the exceptional modernity of his approach to music and the tremendous communicative power of his highly personal scores. All this is splendidly evident in Yoel Gamzou’s outstanding performance of his own “realization and elaboration,” as he puts it, of Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10. Gamzou is only 29 years old, and a few decades ago would have been thought too young to plumb Mahler’s depths fully – but this Wergo recording shows just how wrong such thinking would have been, because the connection between performer and composer here is a palpably strong one, and the performance by the International Mahler Orchestra is genuinely revelatory. Gamzou explains in the included booklet that he deliberately avoided looking into or listening to other completions of Mahler’s final symphony before starting his own work. There have been quite a few performing versions of the symphony, the most famous by Deryck Cooke and others by Joe Wheeler, Clinton A. Carpenter, et al. All have started from the premise that the work’s first movement and its third (“Purgatorio”) are complete and can be used as a kind of map to the other three movements. Not so Gamzou’s version. He touches up, in sometimes surprising ways, all the movements of the symphony, arguing that not even the first and third were truly finished; and he perceives in the work a philosophical arc and argument that he feels performers must follow for the work as a whole to make sense and have an effect that he clearly considers overpoweringly important. Whether or not listeners agree with Gamzou’s metaphysical take on Mahler’s Tenth, which gives short shrift to the intense autobiographical elements of the symphony in reaching for a much more universal connection, the fact is that Gamzou’s highly unusual interpretation is strikingly effective – no one who has heard other performing versions will expect the orchestration, the pacing, the instrumental emphasis, or the approaches to tempo that Gamzou takes. From his far-from-placid handling of “Purgatorio” to his attempt to take almost literally Mahler’s notion that, in the second Scherzo, “the devil dances with me,” Gamzou offers revelation after revelation in his design and performance of the symphony. Again and again, this is a reading that will make listeners sit up and take notice, all the more so if they are already familiar with earlier completions of the work. It is useless to talk about a “best” Mahler Tenth, since in many ways each performance using a different completion offers a very different piece of music. But it is certainly true that Gamzou’s reading will make listeners think as well as feel the music, and that this is a recording through which it truly seems that Mahler has reached across a century to connect anew with audiences and show them, show us, just how much he still has to say. The actual performance here was recorded in 2011, the hundred-year anniversary of the composer’s death. That seems entirely appropriate.
Even in his own time, though, Mahler’s music was perceived to reach out in ways that were wholly new and that needed a certain level of intermediation. His works were among those performed a number of times by Arnold Schoenberg’s short-lived but highly influential and important Society for Private Musical Performances – a set of gatherings where the audience members did not know in advance what music they would hear, only that it would be quite modern (for the time period of 1918-1921, when the society existed) and would be arranged for a small chamber ensemble, which was all the society’s modest budget could accommodate. Mahler and Schoenberg were mutual admirers (although Mahler admitted he appreciated but did not fully understand Schoenberg’s music); Schoenberg himself did some of the arrangements of Mahler’s works for the society. One such, a re-setting made in 1920 of Mahler’s 1896 song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, is for baritone and chamber group, and it is fascinating to hear on a new Naxos CD. With the exception of the third of the four songs, Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer, whose impact is significantly diminished with the reduced musical forces, the cycle sounds remarkably pointed and poignant, and not a little as if Schoenberg himself could have written (rather than just arranged) some parts of it. The intensity of emotion comes through with great clarity when the singer is front-and-center and not competing with a full orchestra – and it is worth remembering that Mahler, although he favored gigantic orchestral forces for most of his works, tended to treat those ensembles in chamber-music fashion most of the time. That is, he wanted a large complement of instruments so he could highlight individual sections of the orchestra (and sometimes individual instruments within the sections) to make his musical and emotional points – he reserved the full orchestral sound for times when he considered it really necessary. By and large, Schoenberg’s “reduction” of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen does not feel “reduced” at all: it sounds clear, strong and full of intensity. Baritone Roderick Williams is not ideally suited to the music – his upper register, in particular, is thin and often sounds as if he is about to slip into falsetto – but the strength of his emotional involvement with the text makes up for a great deal. And there is more, much more, here: around 1920, the Schoenberg society (although probably not Schoenberg himself) also created a chamber version of Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09), that magnificent flowering of Mahler’s late-in-life thinking and still a “vocal symphony” unlike any other. The chamber version of this monumental work is not really as satisfying as Mahler’s original or the chamber version of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The first song, for example, is largely lacking in sheer sonic impact, and the delicacy of the middle songs is not as effectively contrasted with the strength of the other comparatively short ones. However, Der Abschied, the final song – which alone lasts half as long as the whole work – comes through remarkably well here, thanks both to the sensitivity of the arrangement and to the very high quality of mezzo-soprano Susan Platt’s performance. Indeed, although tenor Charles Reid is quite fine in his three numbers, it is Platt who, in her three, gives this performance its emotional power – which is very considerable. Much credit must also go to JoAnn Falletta, the overall leader and shaper of the music, who once again shows her outstanding ability to delve into less-familiar repertoire and produce highly meaningful musical and emotional experiences. The recording itself is rather exceptional: it runs more than 81 minutes, breaking the usual 80-minute limit beyond which CD sound is thought to deteriorate, but it is clear, clean and excellently balanced throughout.
Mahler’s songs have an irresistible attraction for mezzo-sopranos, as well they should: together with the role of Carman, these songs offer just about the fullest opportunity for a mezzo’s probing virtuosity to be found in classical music. Jamie Barton is not quite as young as Yoel Gamzou – she is in her mid-thirties – but she is equally representative of a new generation of top-notch musicians to whom Mahler has much to say and through whom the performers have found they can communicate with great impact with audiences. Barton’s debut album, on Delos, offers eight Mahler songs with piano accompaniment: the five collected as Rückert-Lieder (even though they do not form a tightly knit cycle in the manner of, say, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen), and three taken from various other cycles. To all the songs, Barton brings a rich and creamy voice with an especially strong lower register, plus a sense of deep commitment in songs such as Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. Brian Zeger provides solid piano accompaniment, particularly in the Rückert-Lieder (which Mahler intended to have either piano or orchestral accompaniment). Mahler lovers will be very pleased with Barton’s handling of this material – but as so often occurs when a recording is focused mostly on a performer, Barton does not present an all-Mahler disc, instead veering off in a couple of other directions. Actually, the CD shows her voice to be beautifully suited to the music of Dvořák and Sibelius as well as to that of Mahler, so it accomplishes its purpose of highlighting her abilities and her sound. But the disc does lose some focus when Mahler’s German gives way to Dvořák’s seven-song cycle in Czech (a language with which Barton has no apparent difficulty) and then to six unconnected songs in Swedish (not Finnish) by Sibelius. The Dvořák songs are pleasantly melodic and warm, and have the expected rhythmic lilt associated with Gypsy music. The Sibelius songs – Op. 13, No. 2; Op. 36, Nos. 1, 4 and 5; and Op. 37, Nos. 4 and 5 – are more of a hodgepodge, pleasant-sounding enough but not as gripping thematically as the Mahler works or as musically warm as those by Dvořák. The three-composer mixture here shows in its own way what the single-composer focus of the Gamzou and Falletta discs shows as well: there is still more to be heard and learned from Mahler, in many ways and many forms, even after all these years and after so many performances.
Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette. Katija Dragojevic, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Staples, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass; Swedish Radio Choir and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $34.99 (2 CDs).
Donizetti and Mayr: Messa di Gloria and Credo in D. Siri Karoline Thornhill and Marie-Sophie Pollak, sopranos; Marie-Sande Papenmeyer, alto; Mark Adler, tenor; Martin Berner, bass; Simon Mayr Choir, Members of the Bavarian State Opera Chorus, and Concerto de Bassus conducted by Franz Hauk. Naxos. $12.99.
Bruch: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 3—Violin Concerto No. 3; Konzertstück, Op. 84; Romanze, Op. 42. Antje Weithaas, violin; NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Hermann Bäumer. CPO. $16.99.
Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek: Goldpirol—Idyllische Ouvertüre; Wie Till Eulenspiegel lebte; Konzertstück für Violine und Orchester; Praeludium und Fuge in C minor; Nachtstück. Sophie Jaffé, violin; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marcus Bosch. CPO. $16.99.
In writing both his music and his words, Hector Berlioz seemed always at white heat, and it is scarcely a surprise that he lavished so much attention on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (in the revised form in which he knew the play). What is a surprise is how Berlioz’ creative impulses led him to structure his Roméo et Juliette as a symphony – one just as innovative in its way as was his Symphonie fantastique, and one also inspired by actress Harriet Smithson, whom Berlioz had seen when she acted in the revised play (which had been adapted by 18th-century actor David Garrick). Berlioz never sets any Shakespeare lines in the vocal parts of his Roméo et Juliette, and there are no singers representing the young lovers – only ones for the roles of Mercutio and Friar Laurence, plus a contralto narrator. It is scarcely surprising that this sprawling work, which lasts more than an hour and a half, is rarely heard in full; but it is highly dramatic and effective when performed as Berlioz intended. And that makes the Linn records release of Roméo et Juliette under the direction of Robin Ticciati very welcome indeed. Ticciati does not really hold the work together – it is episodic by design – but he gives full and careful attention to each of its instrumental and vocal elements, allowing the wonderful, extended instrumental love scene to flower and flow beautifully, keeping the “Queen Mab” scherzo fleet and light, and eventually bringing the whole tale of pathos and heartbreak to a well-thought-out (if rather sanctimonious) reconciliation – a section that Berlioz added back after Garrick excised it. Individual and choral voices are in fine form here, and Ticciati, who has shown himself an excellent interpreter of Berlioz in several earlier recordings on the same label, once again proves adept at managing his forces and exploring the intricacies and the emotional impact of the music. And it is worth saying a word about the packaging here, which is superb: Roméo et Juliette is presented as a book, one CD bound into the inside front cover and one into the inside back cover, with an essay, translated libretto, and a series of excellent photographs – plus some very thoughtful design that even includes fine color choices – making the whole release a joy to hold as well as to hear. Other firms could learn a lot from Linn Records about giving listeners even more than they expect when they purchase fine recordings, including ones as excellent as this.
The packaging is nothing special, but a new Naxos CD called Messa di Gloria and Credo in D nevertheless gives its listeners more than they expect – in several ways. First of all, the engineers have achieved something remarkable by putting more than 86 minutes of fine-sounding music on the disc. The limit for top-quality CD sound has long been established as 80 minutes, and while recordings have occasionally pushed slightly past that – by a minute or so – this one takes the maximum time to a whole new level. It is a highly impressive technical achievement. But it would be largely meaningless if not put at the service of an impressive musical achievement. So it is a pleasure to note that, secondly, the musicians have also produced something special and highly distinctive here. Naxos has been releasing a whole series of works by Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845), an underrated early-Romantic composer whose music shows great skill in craftsmanship and some genuinely innovative ideas and techniques – and often packs strong emotional force as well. For this release, conductor Franz Hauk has returned to a 19th-century tradition of forming a complete Mass by taking individually composed movements and performing them in sequence – even though they were not written in integral mass form. To do this, Hauk has chosen selections from the little-known sacred music of Donizetti: a Kyrie, Gloria and Credo clearly intended to be the major part of a traditional Mass. Hauk has added to this another Donizetti sacred work, a short Ave Maria, and then two pieces by Mayr – Sanctus and Agnus Dei – to complete the traditional structure of a Mass. The mixing of these two composers’ music is not as outlandish an idea as it may at first seem, since it was Mayr who actually taught Donizetti (his junior by 34 years) how to set sacred texts. The result of Hauk’s efforts is a very extended and highly unusual Mass that holds together remarkably well even though its components were not produced in an integrated fashion. Donizetti’s very extensive six-part Gloria, itself lasting nearly 48 minutes, is the heart of the work, and it is impressive in its elevated tone and in sung lines that at times clearly show their composer’s more-typical operatic orientation. The performers are all more than equal to the exigencies of this music, handling it with fervor and exaltation as appropriate, with warmth and involvement as needed. Hauk leads the soloists, chorus members and instrumental musicians with a sure and practiced hand, clearly knowing what he wants to achieve with this compilation and making sure that all participants do their part to make the Messa di Gloria and Credo in D as effective as it can be. This both is and is not “authentic” sacred music by Donizetti and Mayr: the components are indisputably theirs, but the assembly of the pieces into a whole is Hauk’s. The whole production is delivered with skill and commitment and makes for a highly satisfying, even elevating, musical experience.
The Romantic temperament is, of course, reflected in purely instrumental works as well as in vocal ones – and Berlioz was not the only Romantic-era composer who threw himself into his music with a great degree of passion. Max Bruch had a notoriously prickly personality that led him to gain and drop friends and supporters frequently, often for arbitrary and even bizarre reasons. He would be a fascinating psychological study if anyone should wish to analyze him – he did, after all, live from 1838 to 1920, into the early years of psychoanalysis. But Bruch’s extremely rough personal edges stand in stark contrast to the smooth, elegant, warm and forthcoming nature of his music, and it is a shame that he is known today almost solely for his first violin concerto and Kol Nidre. Bruch was not a highly prolific composer, but he wrote a fair amount of music for violin and orchestra in addition to his famous Concerto No. 1; and Antje Weithaas has now completed her survey of all of it for CPO, with the NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Hermann Bäumer. The third and final disc in the series includes the very substantial and extended Violin Concerto No. 3, the late and quite beautiful two-movement Konzertstück of 1910, and a Romanze originally intended as part of the Violin Concerto No. 2 and sounding a great deal like something by Schumann. Weithaas plays all this material, and indeed has played everything in this series, as if the music is great or near-great, which is really more than some of it deserves: Bruch was a wonderful melodist but a somewhat haphazard structuralist, although his breaks with tradition in his Violin Concerto No. 1 are part of what makes that a truly great work. The warmth and fervor of the violin in all this music is infectious, and Bäumer contributes fine support that also emphasizes the emotionally warming effects of the material. This very fine series shows that Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 does deserve the enormously high regard in which it is held, but it also shows that the composer, as difficult as he was in the interpersonal realm, never lost his ability to enchant listeners through the sheer beauty of his melodies and their long-spun-out phrases for solo instrument and orchestra alike.
Bruch is far from the only Romantic-era composer known for a tiny part of what he created. Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945) is in much the same position, but to an even greater extent, since pretty much the only thing most listeners know by him is Donna Diana – and not even the whole opera; just the overture. That happens to be a marvelously perky piece, but really! Five minutes of music to represent the entirety of a composer’s life? It is better than being forgotten altogether, true, but since Donna Diana is also an early work (1894), Reznicek had the unenviable misfortune to live from his own initial popularity through his forthcoming obscurity. Yet it does not seem to have bothered him overmuch: he produced a considerable amount of more-than-respectable music, much of it somewhat in the mode of Richard Strauss (the two men had a relationship that was more or less one of mutual respect). CPO has released a number of discs of Reznicek’s music, the latest of which provides an interesting opportunity to compare his violin-and-orchestra writing with Bruch’s: the longest piece here is the Konzertstück für Violine und Orchester, which is really a full-length concerto and which here gets its world première recording; and there is also Nachtstück for violin (or cello) and a small orchestra of strings, horns and harp. In both these works, Reznicek is quite deliberate in turning against the late-Romantic notion of a display piece in which the soloist and orchestra seem to be in combat as much as confluence. He also turns further from late-Romantic tonality than Bruch ever did: parts of the Konzertstück of 1918 have a harshness similar to that of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto, begun in 1915 but not completed and played until 1923. Nachtstück is an earlier work (1905) and is atmospheric and pleasantly balanced among the instruments. Some of the remaining pieces are more typical of Reznicek to the extent that they employ humor, a frequent integral element of his music that distinguishes it from that of, say, Richard Strauss, for whom humor was situational but not endemic. Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche of 1894-95 is one of the composer’s best-known humorous items, but Reznicek’s Wie Till Eulenspiegel lebte (1900), although it draws on similar source material, has a very different reason for being: it is part of an opera in which Reznicek portrays Till not as a joker but as a “fool” in more of the medieval sense – a fighter and a celebrator of disobedience to the established order. There is certainly humor in the music, but here it serves a higher purpose. There is also something lighthearted, if not humorous in the sense of laughter, in the idyllic overture Goldpirol (1903), a nature portrait that at times seems to comment a touch ironically on the theme of nature as used by Mahler in his symphonies: the opening music is taken from the song of the golden oriole (hence the work’s title), a parallel to some of Mahler’s use of birdsong. The remaining work here is one of considerable seriousness: Praeludium und Fuge in C minor (1912), although certainly modeled on Bach, deliberately stretches the fugal form by working from a whole-tone subject that inevitably leads, as it is developed, to atonality – creating an intriguing mixture of the quite old and the very new, albeit one that Reznicek did not pursue in later works. All the music here gets strong performances, with Sophie Jaffé an elegant interpreter of the works including violin solo and Marcus Bosch showing a firm understanding of Reznicek’s forms and skillful use of the orchestra. Certainly nothing here has the easy smoothness of the Donna Diana overture, but there is plenty on this disc to show interested listeners that there was a great deal more to Reznicek than the one short work for which the vast majority of people know him.
December 22, 2016
How Do Dinosaurs Choose Their Pets? By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Castles. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
The latest dinosaur-themed marvel from the team of Jane Yolen and Mark Teague is even a touch odder than most. The basic approach is exactly the same: Yolen and Teague imagine kids as dinosaurs, rampaging about and doing wrong things in the first part of the book and then behaving responsibly in the latter part. The dinosaurs are draw hyper-realistically by Teague, and their real names are given, which makes these books educational on matters beyond manners. And Teague’s drawings have evolved as knowledge of dinosaurs has: quite a few of his fancifully colored dinos (actual colors remain speculative) now sport feathers, as scientific research indicates quite a lot of dinosaur species apparently did. Still, there are some distinctions in How Do Dinosaurs Choose Their Pets? The topic itself is a bit different from earlier manners-focused ones about behaving in school, acting properly with friends, saying good night or “I love you,” and so forth. It is even different from two previous Yolen/Teague “dinosaur pet” books, about the right way to show love for dogs and cats. This book is about choosing a pet in the first place, and that opens up all sorts of possibilities for hilarious mismatches between gigantic, looming dinosaurs and comparatively tiny animal companions. In fact, the inside front and inside back covers of the book are festooned with wonderful pictures showing dinosaurs interacting gently with tiny pet animals: a Yutyrannus bouncing joyfully in front of a bunny, a Qianzhousaurus about to bestow a pat on a cat’s head, an Ampelosaurus flipping onto its huge back in imitation of a puppy in the same position, and more. These dino names are unfamiliar – Teague long since finished going through the better-known dinosaurs and now offers ones that seem more and more outré – but all are shown so clearly that kids will have no problem relating to them. As for the “bad behavior” part of the book – well, that too is unusual here. One dino brings home a full-grown elephant, seen perched in a mighty large red wagon. Another acquires a fictional beast as a pet: a dragon, drawn as carefully and lovingly as are the dinosaurs themselves. Another chooses a very large boa constrictor that is seen eyeing a nearby dog “in a very odd way.” Also here are a shark in a huge bucket, a couple of zebras sitting human-style on a sofa, and more. The drawings are so delightful that they risk distracting kids from the book’s eventual message – to an even greater extent than usual. And that message involves choosing “a kitten or hamster or pup/ that he can teach manners/ as they both grow up.” Actually, the choice of pets here is a trifle on the limited side: there is no reason to exclude snakes and lizards (an iguana is in the “bad” part of the book), and options such as fish are never mentioned. But parents can supply those possibilities themselves after their own dinosaurs…err, children…finish the book and want to have a serious talk about what sort of pet the family needs to get immediately, if not sooner.
While dinosaurs are providing guidance in manners and everyday living, a certain fly named Fly Guy is offering field trips that sometimes feature learning about animals (including dinosaurs!) and sometimes are all about places. The latest of these is Fly Guy Presents: Castles, and it is even more fact-packed than most other books in Tedd Arnold’s fact-focused series featuring the pet fly that can say his boy’s name, Buzz. As in all these books, photographs of the topic – in this case, castles and the people who lived in and around them – are accompanied by cartoon drawings of Fly Guy and Buzz, with Buzz serving as primary narrator while Fly Guy pronounces words in his unique way (“Yummzie!”) and interjects occasional fly-appropriate observations (“Flies lived in castles, too!” – said next to a bucket of spilled sludge). There is a great deal of fascinating information in these books, despite the lighthearted aspects of the presentation: the first castles were built in France, of earth and wood, before construction from stone began; a catapult designed to throw heavy objects at castle walls was called a mangonel; the castle rooms of ruling families were kept pleasant-smelling by hanging fresh herbs on the walls; Windsor Castle in England is the oldest castle in the world in which people still live; and more. The photos are often quite fascinating: kids will especially enjoy the side-by-side ones of Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, which was inspired by it; and the photo of Belvedere Castle in New York City is interesting because of its location and the fact that it is really a weather station. The book ends with Buzz and Fly Guy deciding to build their own castle – a sand castle at the beach – as they contemplate their next field trip. Fans of Fly Guy will enjoy thinking about upcoming real-world adventures, too, and may be inspired by this and other Fly Guy Presents books to learn more about the books’ topics on their own.
Dog Man #2: Dog Man Unleashed. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Nobody Is Perfick. By Bernard Waber. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.
The whole point of these books is to be fun to look at – and it’s a pretty good point. Yes, Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man Unleashed has a plot – a convoluted, over-complicated one, in fact – and yes, Bernard Waber’s Nobody Is Perfick has some points to make, rather gently. But neither the story nor the homilies will be the main reason kids will enjoy these books: it is the art that will attract young readers and keep them interested. Pilkey is best known for the Captain Underpants books, “created” by made-up kids named George Beard and Harold Hutchins – this explains the drawing style and a lot of the plot elements. Dog Man Unleashed, a sequel to Dog Man, is cut from the same cloth, then woven and raveled or unraveled to provide much the same level of coverage of all things silly. Dog Man is a dog-headed cop – the stitches holding his head to his body are seen clearly – created when a bad-guy cat blew up a top cop and his top-dog canine helper, killing the man’s head (but not his body) and the dog’s body (but not his head). A touch of magical mystery surgery later and, ta da! Dog Man. In Dog Man Unleashed, our hero has to try to cope with his doggy instincts, which include licking all the bones in a pet shop and preferring smelly dead fish to live ones – and inevitably, one of his instincts, playing with a ball, eventually saves the day. He also has to deal with reporter Sarah Hatoff, rescue dog Zuzu, an evil fish, the continued depredations of Petey the Cat (the evil mastermind who inadvertently led to the creation of Dog Man in the first place), a new and completely flat Petey based shamelessly on Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley, a reanimated carnivorous dinosaur – well, the list goes on (and on), but rest assured that Dog Man is equal to all challenges, even those coming from Dr. Boog E. Feeva, the local witch doctor, whose prescriptions include “living spray” and “obey spray.” The puns and ridiculous plotting spray pretty much everywhere, and that makes Dog Man Unleashed fun for parents as well as kids (assuming kids will give up this graphic novel long enough for parents to read it). Pilkey channels his inner George and Harold so well that it is hard to be absolutely, 100% sure that Pilkey is real and George and Harold are his creations. It just might be the other way around. We ought to put Dog Man on the case: something about all this smells fishy.
Like Pilkey, Waber (1924-2013) is best known for something other than the newest release under his name: he was the author of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile and the series that followed. But back in 1971, in the days well before graphic novels, Waber created a kind of proto-graphic-novel – actually a series of stories – called Nobody Is Perfick, in which every page has a mixture of cartoon drawings and words, and the stories are told through the combination. Waber’s style here is vaguely reminiscent of Jules Feiffer’s: his characterizations come through clearly in these black-and-white drawings, in which the kids tend to be shown in less detail than their surroundings. The expressiveness of the characters’ faces is one wonderful element here. Another is the way Waber captures some of the not-wholly-intentional cruelties of children to each other. “Say Something Nice,” for instance, involves a boy named Arthur talking to a girl named Harriet and saying only things that he knows she feels are not nice, starting with “lizards,” “spiders,” and “creepy things,” and eventually escalating to “monsters” that “are crawling out of caves” and have the kids surrounded. Harriet gets more and more frightened, or seems to – but when her mother calls her to come inside, Harriet tells Arthur how much fun he is and says she wants to get together again the next day, leaving Arthur at the end with nothing to say but, “Grrr.” In “That Was Some Daydream,” a girl doing math homework is determined to focus and not have a daydream, and goes through a series of contortions (some literal) to avoid the daydream that, inevitably, she has anyway. “No Rain Again Today” is a complaint against sunny weather by a boy with new rain gear. In “Sitting Up Straight,” a boy says – and shows – how his best intentions to sit alertly in class gradually turn into a slump. These and the other stories here explore the everyday trials and tribulations of childhood in a way that makes the mundane special. And Waber’s wry humor is everywhere, most clearly in “Peter Perfect: The Story of a Perfect Boy,” which goes on and on telling about and showing all the ways in which Peter is 100% perfect, only to reveal at the end that no such boy is or ever could be real. That will be a relief to readers who rediscover Nobody Is Perfick – or, more likely, discover the book and all its charms for the first time in this new edition.
Dawn of Infamy: A Sunken Ship, a Vanished Crew, and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor. By Stephen Harding. Da Capo. $24.95.
The apparently endless appetite among some readers for stories about the minutiae as well as the grand events of World War II pretty much guarantees that the topic of Stephen Harding’s latest book will not be “the final mystery” of Pearl Harbor or anything else. There is always someone out there – Harding is sometimes that someone – digging deeply into historical records to ferret out some previously little-known or unknown information on one or another minor (or occasionally not-so-minor) event in a war that readers seem to remember, oddly, almost with fondness. Perhaps there is a sense that this was a “pure” war, with good and evil clearly defined, in a world much less complicated that the ensuing one, whose conflicts from the Korean War onward have seemed a great deal less straightforward.
Dawn of Infamy was originally published in England in 2010 as Voyage to Oblivion – a somewhat more-stirring title, but one without the Pearl Harbor resonance that attracts U.S. readers. It is the tale of an American cargo ship called the Cynthia Olsen that was attacked by a Japanese submarine designated I-26 early on December 7, 1941, as the far-better-known attack on Pearl Harbor unfolded 1,120 miles southwest of the ship and sub. This is not an unknown story, but it is inevitably something of a footnote in reporting about Pearl Harbor: the vessel and its crew of 35 never had the importance of the major warships destroyed in Honolulu. The relative paucity of information on the Cynthia Olsen gives Harding an opportunity to explore the ship and its crew in depth – and also delve into the accounts of the commander and chief gunner of the submarine that sank the cargo vessel.
The book is as much a biography of the ship as anything: it details the vessel’s origin as a military cargo ship that was built too late for use in World War I, and that ended its days carrying lumber for the U.S. Army. As such, Dawn of Infamy seems designed mostly for Harding’s fellow historians, especially ones with strong nautical as well as military interests. Certainly there are elements here that non-specialist readers may find intriguing, such as the fact that the captain of the Cynthia Olsen, Bert Carlesen, was a World War I veteran who immediately knew what was going on and what was expected of him when I-26 surfaced and fired a shot across his ship’s bow: Carlesen cut his engines, ordered his crew into lifeboats, and got everyone as far from the ship as possible before it was sunk. There is some mystery attached to what happened to the crew – no surprise, with everything else going on during the “day of infamy” 75 years ago – and Harding explores possibilities with his usual logic and thoroughness. But the attempt to make the sinking of the Cynthia Olsen more than a sidelight of the Pearl Harbor attack never really coalesces, at least for the general reader. For example, Harding wonders whether knowledge of this attack, giving the fleet at Pearl Harbor perhaps an hour’s extra notice, would have made an appreciable difference in the events of the day. The answer is pretty obviously “no,” in light of what is already known about the missed signals and poor communication that contributed to the great Japanese success in its Honolulu attack. Harding has certainly done a more-than-respectable job of exploring possible implications of the attack on the Cynthia Olsen, and has uncovered some material that explorers of history will surely find as interesting as Harding himself does. But this is a book of limited scope for a niche audience, not a work that will be of much interest to those with only a casual attraction to stories of World War II, or those not already enamored of the prospect of yet another tale about the inevitable uncertainties and unknowns that have accompanied warfare from time immemorial.
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (complete); Stravinsky: Divertimento from “Le baiser de la Fée.” Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Tchaikovsky: Ballet Suites for Piano Four Hands. Mari Kodama and Momo Kodama, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 2. Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3—original version (1873). Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Profil. $16.99.
The pairing of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker with Stravinsky’s divertimento on music from his tribute to Tchaikovsky, Le baiser de la Fée, is an unusual one – and so interesting that a new Oehms release may make listeners wonder why this combination is not offered more often. Stravinsky composed his ballet for the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death, in 1928, and included orchestrations and expansions of some early Tchaikovsky piano pieces and other little-known material in it. He filtered the Tchaikovsky originals through his own then-current neoclassical style, and the result is a work that sounds entirely like Stravinsky while at the same time clearly paying tribute to the Russian Romantic era, and lying close to that time if not actually within it. Dmitrij Kitajenko has some particularly interesting ideas about Tchaikovsky – for instance, he concluded his cycle of the symphonies with the rarely played No. 7, not with No. 6, as most conductors do. His ideas about Stravinsky bear hearing, too: Kitajenko emphasizes the balletic nature of the music while at the same time effectively bringing out details of its orchestration, with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln playing superbly, as is its wont. Kitajenko focuses on the balletic elements of The Nutcracker, too, and while this may scarcely seem surprising, in fact it produces a rather unusual performance in which tempos are nearly always held in check, as they would be to allow dancers to perform elaborate steps – rather than delivered briskly, as this music generally is in the concert hall. The result is a performance that sometimes drags – the opening scenes are simply too expansive – but that often includes felicitous touches, with a particularly effective Großvatertanz and a crackling battle with the mice, plus the unusual and delightful decision to have a children’s chorus provide the vocalise for Waltz of the Snowflakes. The character pieces in the second act are as charming as always, with the percussion in Mutter Gigoen und die Polichinelles especially enjoyable; and here the apotheosis at the ballet’s end actually carries some weight and seems a suitable rather than peremptory conclusion. Kitajenko takes a highly personal approach to Tchaikovsky in general and The Nutcracker in particular, and the pairing of the ballet with the Stravinsky makes for an unusually interesting release.
Pairing the Kitajenko recording with a new PentaTone one featuring sister pianists Mari Kodama and Momo Kodama – themselves a highly accomplished pair – is even more intriguing. This SACD offers versions for piano duo of excerpts from all three Tchaikovsky ballets. There are five movements from Sleeping Beauty as arranged by a very young Sergei Rachmaninoff; nine from The Nutcracker in an arrangement by Anton Arensky; and two separate sets of three movements each from Swan Lake, one by Claude Debussy that contains many hints of Debussy’s own music as well as Tchaikovsky’s, and one by Eduard Langer (1835-1905) – the least-known of the arrangers here, but clearly a composer with considerable affinity for Tchaikovsky and a strong sense of compositional craft. Indeed, there is a puzzle associated with Langer in this recording: he actually arranged six Swan Lake pieces for piano duo, and there is no discernible reason for omitting three of them (the recording runs just 63 minutes and there would have been plenty of room for the missing ones). Aside from that omission, there is little to which to take exception here. The playing is uniformly excellent, the pianists cooperating attentively and elegantly and handing off to each other fluidly as the music requires. The music itself is scarcely best heard in this form – the arrangements, while respectable or better, nevertheless pale before the orchestral versions of the ballets. However, there are some surprisingly revelatory elements here that make the two-piano arrangements well worth hearing. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, which a listener might expect to be among the least effective pieces because of the lack of a celesta, is in fact one of the best, with Arensky’s arrangement making the piano sound very definitely celesta-like. Debussy’s way with the Danse espagnole and Danse napolitaine from Swan Lake is also notable. All the arrangements are, at the very least, skillful and highly professional, and if they will surely never supplant the orchestral form of this music, they are highly interesting to hear, and they shed some new light on works that have been played so often in their usual form that they are always at risk of becoming over-familiar.
There is also something unusual in a pair of newly released recordings of Bruckner symphonies conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin: No. 2 on ATMA Classique and No. 3 on Profil. These are, in a sense, readings by two different Nézet-Séguins: No. 3 was recorded in 2008, No. 2 in 2015, and when a conductor is now only 41 years old, performances seven years apart can represent a significant amount of growth and rethinking. But one thing that is unusual in this pair is that – aside from the significantly superior , warm and elegant sound of the larger Staatskapelle Dresden when compared with the plucky but comparatively thin Orchestre Métropolitain – the two readings are very similar at the core. Bruckner, after all, had both these symphonies in hand when he visited Richard Wagner in 1873 and asked the man he idolized to allow one of them to be dedicated to him. The works are thus deeply similar even though their differences stand out starkly – or at least they are deeply similar when a conductor uses the original, 1873 version of No. 3. And that is something else unusual in these releases, because that version, still infrequently heard, is the one that Nézet-Séguin conducts. Both of these are robust readings, strongly paced and, in the case of No. 3, decidedly on the rapid side – presenting a challenge to the Dresden players, to which they rise admirably. Nézet-Séguin obviously knows where the Wagner quotations are in No. 3, and listeners familiar with Wagner will certainly hear them, but there is no dwelling on them and no attempt to make them a greater part of the symphony’s structure than they are: Bruckner was able to remove them in later versions of the work because they are, to a certain extent, add-ons rather than integral elements of the symphony. The huge scale of this first version of No. 3 poses no apparent difficulty to Nézet-Séguin, who shapes the work strongly and prevents its occasional meandering and bloat from overtaking its essentially well-planned scope. This is a significantly better performance than the one released in 2014 on ATMA Classique, in which Nézet-Séguin led the Orchestre Métropolitain through this version of the symphony in a rather frenetic 67 minutes. This time the work lasts five minutes longer and seems altogether better thought out. Bruckner’s later versions of the symphony are tighter as well as shorter, but even though this one sprawls, Nézet-Séguin does a good job here of keeping it under control. And the Staatskapelle Dresden, which actually gave the first performance of this version of the symphony as recently as 1946 (with entirely different players, of course), seems thoroughly at home here and delivers the sort of traditional cathedral-like sound that seems to fit Bruckner the organist so well. Certainly the audience in this live recording seems duly appreciative, although everyone seems a bit stunned when the symphony simply stops – the over-abrupt ending here is not one of Bruckner’s more-inspired conclusions.
The recording of No. 2 is also from a live performance, in Montreal rather than Dresden, and the sonic environment here is quite different from that in No. 3. The overall sound of the symphony is somewhat more modern: the Schubertian elements of Bruckner have been more frequently brought to the fore in recent performances, and it no longer seems necessary to focus always on the gigantism of his full-orchestra passages – more-delicate, more-thinly-scored sections come through just as well. The smaller orchestra here fits this approach well, and there is a cleanness of sound in this reading that is pleasantly bracing. This symphony ended up without a dedication after Wagner chose No. 3 as the one to bear his name – and No. 2 is certainly a less-compelling work than the original version of No. 3, although comparisons between these two recordings should not be attempted too precisely: Nézet-Séguin uses the Haas composite version of No. 2, which is based on the 1877 revision but contains elements from the 1872 original, so listeners are not hearing the urtext of both symphonies. What they are hearing is a young conductor with a strong sense of the propulsiveness as well as the massive elements of Bruckner, a conductor not afraid to let the symphonies unfold, at times, with greater forward motion than they usually receive. Neither of these readings is as thoroughly convincing as, say, those in the recent recordings by Mario Venzago, who also used different orchestras for different symphonies – but in his case did so to try to reflect the character of the music, not simply because different ensembles and recording companies were available. But Nézet-Séguin has real style, and in this pair of Bruckner symphonies he shows considerable understanding of Bruckner’s worldview and is able to communicate the works’ scale effectively to two very different audiences. The result is a pair of very different but equally first-rate performances.
Dario Castello: Sonate Concertante in Stil Moderno, Libro Primo. Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Richard Egarr. AAM Records. $18.99.
Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1-6. Francesco Galligioni, cello; L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.
Music for the Tsars: Works from the Russian Institute for the History of the Arts. UGA Hodgson Singers and UGA Wind Ensemble conducted by John P. Lynch and George C. Foreman. Mark Masters. $9.99.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Trio, Op. 1; Leonard Bernstein: Trio; Arthur Foote: Trio No. 2, Op. 65. Neave Trio (Anna Williams, violin; Mikhail Veselov, cello; Eri Nakamura, piano). Chandos. $18.99.
The virtuosity, delicacy and intimacy of music for small ensembles – and the many ways such music has changed over centuries – are on delightful display in a handful of recent releases that explore works with which most music lovers, no matter how sophisticated, are unlikely to be familiar. Dario Castello (c. 1590-c. 1658), for example, is almost a complete unknown, even though his music was written in Monteverdi’s time and was for a while exceptionally popular. All that survive are two books of sonatas for violin, cornetto and dulcian – highly virtuosic chamber works, the first book of which is explored with great skill and remarkable energy by members of the Academy of Ancient Music in a release on the group’s own label. The dozen sonatas heard here were certainly at the outskirts of the style of their time, being very difficult to play and calling for near-constant shifts of tempo and mood that look ahead a great many years. Some idea of the complexity of the pieces may be garnered from the fact that the first of them on this recording has 10 different sections lasting a total of five minutes and alternating constantly between Adagio and Presto. Extreme contrast is the watchword of nearly all the sonatas, and at a time when wind writing was generally sedate in the extreme, in Castello’s sonatas it is anything but that. Interestingly, a single one of these sonatas, No. 2, is almost entirely a slow piece – it contains just two short sections marked Allegro – while various sonatas heard here go beyond the standard Adagio designation to indicate degrees of Adagio. That is a practice that, like so much in the writing itself, looks forward many years. Richard Egarr, directing from the harpsichord and organ, makes a very strong case for the importance (and influence) of these “modern style” sonatas, which are played by violinists Pavlo Beznosiuk and Bojan Čičić, Josué Meléndez on cornet, Joseph Crouch on violetta, Benny Aghassi on dulcian, Susan Addison on trombone, and William Carter on theorbo. The CD will have listeners surprised at the depths and difficulties of the works and looking forward to the hoped-for future recording of Castello’s Libro Secondo.
Works for chamber ensemble by Vivaldi are far better-known than those by Castello, but not all of Vivaldi’s music has been explored to an equal extent. This makes the Brilliant Classics recording of six cello sonatas (RV 47, 41, 43, 45, 40 and 46) all the more welcome. Vivaldi was born about 20 years after Castello’s death, and his music clearly bespeaks the sensibilities, both sonic and structural, of a later age. But some of Vivaldi’s music, including these cello sonatas, is less virtuosic and to an extent more straitlaced than his other works. The interesting result is that these Vivaldi sonatas, even when played as well and enthusiastically as they are by Francesco Galligioni and members of L’Arte dell’Arco (Paulo Zuccheri, violone; Ivano Zanenghi, lute; Roberto Loreggian, harpsichord and chamber organ; Francesco Baroni, chamber organ), sound somewhat like throwbacks, while the Castello sonatas seem to look to the future. Part of the reason for this is that the sequence of movements in all six of these Vivaldi sonatas is exactly the same: Largo, Allegro, Largo, Allegro. The contrast with the frequent tempo changes and dynamic expectations of the Castello sonatas is considerable. Also, three of these Vivaldi sonatas are in the same key, B-flat; one is in F and the other two are in minor keys – A minor and E minor. Thus there is a certain sameness of sound here that contrasts vividly with the changeable, even mercurial nature of the Castello sonatas. But it would be a mistake to think too little of these cello pieces. The reality is that five of the six offer a level of expressiveness well beyond that of anything in Castello’s sequence – only Vivaldi’s sonata in F is comparatively bright and clear-voiced. These cello works explore the warmth and depth of hue of the cello to a considerable degree, and indeed to a greater degree than was usual at the time they were written, probably in the 1720s. Vivaldi is justly famed for his violin music – he was himself a considerable virtuoso, although his style was controversial – but his writing for other strings was of very high quality as well. If the explorations heard on this CD are more modest than those heard on recordings of Vivaldi’s violin music, they are highly interesting and accomplished in their own way and show a side of the composer with which listeners are likely to be less familiar.
Almost nothing is familiar about the composers heard on an intriguing Mark Music CD featuring performers and scholars from the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia. This mixture of chamber, wind-ensemble and choral music is the result of a fascinating project to explore the musical archives of the Russian Institute for the History of the Arts – archives that include, among other things, three almost wholly unknown military marches by none other than Rossini. All those are heard here, along with music by Eudoxie De Bologovsky, Osip Antonovich Kozlovsky, Alexei Fyodorovich Lvov, Eduard Wenzel, Ivan Chapievsky, August Söderman, and Alexander Hirsemann. These are scarcely household names, although Lvov is known for writing the imperial Russian national anthem, God Save the Tsar, in 1833 – that work, heard here in choral form, will be familiar to listeners from, among other things, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Rossini’s marches may be somewhat familiar, too – the reason they are only almost wholly unknown is that the composer, an inveterate self-borrower, reused the pieces in several other contexts, and it is thus possible that listeners will have heard them in different arrangements. In truth, they are not among his better compositions and are nothing special: they are occasional pieces, in this respect a bit like Wagner’s American Centennial March, and like that march have the flavor of a commission fulfilled rather than that of a piece written from the heart. Two chamber works here, on the other hand, are quite attractive: Kozlovsky’s brief Polonaise for Two Flutes and a Quintet for Two Clarinets, Two Horns, and Bassoon by an unknown composer – this being a set of four very well-made miniature movements that nicely balance and highlight the individual instruments. Another anonymous work here is the longest piece on the CD by far, and one of the most interesting: Fantasie militaire pour deux pianos et Cor de signal, a 20-minute succession of bugle calls tied to specific aspects of military maneuvers, elaborated on the two pianos in a series of unusual and attractive episodes. In truth, though, none of the music here is highly distinguished: the CD offers access to mostly obscure works of a long-gone time period and long-extinguished ruling family, and is as much an auditory document of historical interest as it is a well-planned recital. Still, everything is very well performed, and the extraction from obscurity of these pieces, minor though they be, makes for an unusual and enjoyable listening experience.
The three chamber works on a new Chandos CD featuring the Neave Trio are scarcely better known. But all three of these trios have more musical heft than anything on the Romanov-focused disc. The Korngold and Bernstein works date from very early in their composers’ careers; the Foote trio is a much more mature piece. The trio by Korngold (1897-1937) is his first published work and is something of a marvel: he wrote it at the age of 12. It is a strongly accented, atmospheric work created with compositional skill far beyond its composer’s chronological age. The style is scarcely distinctive, but the stretching of tonality and expressive intensity of the music place it squarely at the end of the Romantic era and show that even in 1909-10, Korngold had a knack for mixing emotive sensitivity with a high degree of drama – a combination that would stand him in good stead in his much later film music. Less impressive is the trio by Bernstein (1918-1990), which he wrote while at Harvard in the late 1930s. This is more clearly a piece of juvenilia than is Korngold’s work: it is replete with stylistic influences of all sorts, and while it shows some attractive jazz elements in its short middle movement, its two outer ones seem to strive and grasp for coherence and sensitivity that they never quite attain. The Neave Trio members play the Bernstein with as much tastefulness as they bring to the Korngold, but it does not repay them, or listeners, nearly as well. The trio by Foote (1853-1937) is the real gem here. It dates to 1909, which makes it clearly a work of this less-known composer’s maturity. And that maturity shows throughout: the first movement swings elegantly between propulsiveness and tranquility, and back again; the second features a particularly lovely and expressive cello theme, replete with thoughtfulness; and the finale strides confidently and with elegant rhythms through thoroughly Romantic melodies to a forceful and effective conclusion. It would be stretching things to suggest that anything here is great music, but certainly all of it has significant American roots, which is the Neave Trio’s point: the CD bears the title American Moments. Not all the moments are worthy of a repeated listening experience, but many in Foote’s work and some in Korngold’s surely are; and the chance to hear these chamber-music rarities in such fine performances is, in and of itself, a most welcome one.