May 26, 2016
Field Guide to the Grumpasaurus. By Edward Hemingway. Clarion. $16.99.
Alien in My Pocket 8: Space Invaders. By Nate Ball. Illustrated by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $4.99.
Fart Squad #4: The Toilet Vortex. By Seamus Pilger. Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. Harper. $4.99.
Rating at least nine out of 10 on the cuteness scale, Edward Hemingway’s Field Guide to the Grumpasaurus is an ideal book for parents to read with children who may occasionally be just a touch temper-prone themselves. Hemingway has tracked, and tracked down, this unfortunately not-very-elusive creature in its natural habitat – its room and thereabouts – and duly made note of the dark rainclouds that hover above its head constantly, the perpetual frown, the folded arms warning intruders away, the “pouty underbite,” and more. The Grumpasaurus is covered in pointy scales and has a tail that it thumps in anger on the floor, and it possesses a furrowed brow and angry eyes; and it has – as an X-ray shows – a missing heart. The Grumpasaurus is “most often seen sulking around the room after a great tragedy or mishap,” explains Hemingway – for example, when a teddy bear’s arm gets torn. As the field guide progresses, a sweet-looking black kitten tries to approach the Grumpasaurus, only to be repeatedly scared away by the roaring and loud cries of “Grump! Grump!” In fact, it looks as if the whole neighborhood can hear those grumping sounds. What can be done about a Grumpasaurus? It turns out that the only way to approach it is “bearing gifts,” such as a sewn-back-together teddy bear – which leads to a hug, a wholly unanticipated smile, and lo and behold, “the Grumpasaurus disappears without a trace.” Hemingway has come up with a simply marvelous way to show kids how they behave when upset and how they can get over the grumps – the final picture shows the former Grumpasaurus, now just a little boy, sitting in a chair with the fixed teddy bear in one arm and the purring kitten in the other. Kids who are actually having a Grumpasaurus attack will have no interest in the book, but parents who get it to them in between tantrum times will find it to be the gentlest possible weapon against future explosive bouts of being upset – and one of the funniest.
The balance of funny and serious is a bit more even in Nate Ball’s Alien in My Pocket series, which finally comes to an end in its eighth entry, Space Invaders. These books have always used genuine science education as a backdrop for their silly primary story about a pocket-size alien on Earth and the two kids, Zack and Olivia, whom the alien, Amp, befriends while trying to find a way back to his home planet. Each book ends with a science project, and Space Invaders ends with two of them, the first involving creation of a “stomp rocket” and the second being a repeat of the bottle-rocket project presented in the very first book of the sequence. These (+++) books are thin on plot, but they have pleasant Macky Pamintuan illustrations and just enough amusement value to keep kids reading. Of course, the final book has to have a tearful farewell and the return of Amp to his home, and that is exactly what Ball provides. But before that wholly expected conclusion, there has to be the threat of interplanetary war when a fleet of Erdian ships (from Amp’s planet) shows up, and Amp has to use words such as “floofy” and “brimples” when talking to his leader, the Kaloofa, and a suitably royal gift of Ritz Crackers, Swee-Tarts and sunflower seeds must be arranged, and everything has to be orchestrated by the kids while the adults (mostly military types) stand around acting befuddled and looking (in Pamintuan’s illustrations) exceedingly foolish. Kids will not take anything in the Alien in My Pocket series seriously – except the real science, offered in bold type and expanded upon in the end-of-book projects – but those who have followed the adventures through the first seven books will bid Amp, Zack and Olivia a fond farewell at the conclusion of this eighth volume.
The Fart Squad books show no signs of running out of, err, gas at this stage. But Seamus Pilger’s deliberately gross stories of four kids powered by their school cafeteria’s bean burritos, saving the world through improbable and extremely stinky adventures, reach a new low in The Toilet Vortex, the fourth and least, umm, palatable book in the series so far. In this one, the school janitor, Stan, who is the “scent-sei” of the Fart Squad, actually gets sucked down a toilet to who-knows-where. Yes, the concept is on the disgusting side, although the toilet water is clean when Stan goes in – but not so the sewers into which he is, err, deposited, and into which the four kids follow him as they attempt a rescue. The many references to what is floating in those sewers push the bounds of good taste, or any taste, too far, even for this series; and while Stephen Gilpin does not offer any close-up views of what the Fart Squad is touching and handling and walking through, Pilger makes things clear as, hmm, mud. Furthermore, even within the inherent grossness/silliness of this (+++) series, The Toilet Vortex makes little sense. The villains here are huge toilet-paper-wrapped soldiers – somehow the kids immediately know they are soldiers when they see them, even though they have no uniforms or anything else to identify them. The reason for the toilet paper is never explained, and when the kids eventually learn just who, or what, the soldiers and their leader are, the TP wrapping makes even less sense. There is lots of slipping and sliding in stinky water and on various solid objects here, and there is enough use of the Fart Squad’s unique brand of weaponry to amuse kids who really like potty humor. But there is much less actual fun and funniness in The Toilet Vortex than elsewhere in this series, and much less plot consistency, too – making this a (++) book that is not quite up to the not-very-high level of the series’ earlier entries. Maybe things will be better next time, because Pilger and Gilpin certainly have other ideas to, uhhh, churn out in this sequence before it comes to its, well, end.
The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. By Sean Carroll. Dutton. $28.
The ability to explain science, math, medicine and other complicated and technical topics in language that non-specialists can understand is very, very rare. The ability to do so while also looking at what these highly abstruse topics mean is rarer still. All of which makes California Institute of Technology theoretical physicist Sean Carroll very rare indeed. In The Big Picture, Carroll tackles the complex and difficult and makes it comparatively simple and reasonably understandable for the third time, after From Eternity to Here and The Particle at the End of the Universe. This time Carroll tries to use science to answer a philosophical, even spiritual question: do our lives matter? Anyone who thinks such a query is not the proper province of scientific investigation has not encountered Carroll yet.
Carroll firmly believes that human lives do matter, but not in any simple or simplistic way. “We are not the reason for the existence of the universe,” he states directly, but we are still “special within it.” Why? Not because we are the creations of an anthropomorphic divinity – which would, in any case, not necessarily be a good thing: “Many people may be comforted by the idea of a powerful being who cares about their lives, and who determines ultimate standards of right and wrong behavior. Personally, I am not comforted by that at all – I find the idea extremely off-putting. I would rather live in a universe where I am responsible for creating my own values and living up to them the best I can, than in a universe in which God hands them down, and does so in an infuriatingly vague way.” Readers may accept or argue with Carroll here – and elsewhere – but he does make his biases plain, and he acknowledges them as biases and states that he is aware they may skew his thinking.
What, then, does show us that our lives matter? Carroll looks for answers to his own research in the relationship between emerging complexity over time and increasing entropy (the second law of thermodynamics), also over time. This is a genuinely fascinating notion, since entropy is taught, and generally regarded, as relating to increasing disorganization – but evolution, both of living creatures and of the universe itself, undeniably leads to states of greater complexity, human beings being one such development. Carroll explains this by showing, for example, how randomness and apparent disorganization – the role of chance variation and mutation – are central to Darwin's theory of natural selection: what seems disorganized and, from one perspective, actually is, turns out to be increasingly organized when viewed from a different angle. Carroll is expert at finding the various viewing angles and at explaining them in language that flirts with the poetic when it is not being resolutely matter-of-fact.
Indeed, the paradigm that Carroll recommends for understanding the world is called poetic naturalism, and his argument in The Big Picture is that this is the way to allow science, philosophy, wonder, mystery, joy, purpose and meaning to coexist without the necessity of a godlike being but without being dismissive of those who consider such a being fundamental. Interestingly, poetic naturalism turns on the notion of vocabulary. We have different ways, Carroll says, to talk about quantum events than about those on a human scale – which is certainly true if one compares Newtonian and Einsteinian formulations. We have still other ways of discussing things at the cosmic level. The various stories we tell ourselves, Carroll argues, are both meaningful and correct within their assigned contexts – but words used in a certain way in one context may mean something entirely different when used in another.
This is complex thinking, but no less helpful for its difficulty. At the atomic level, words such as “meaning” and “purpose” have no referents. But there can be a “purpose” for simple, more-complex, still-more-complex, and eventually human organisms. Same word, different meanings – that is Carroll’s point. It follows from this formulation that errors such as creationism and “intelligent design” involve contextual misuses of words whose meanings are being applied inappropriately.
Carroll himself is expert at finding pointed and informative ways to use words – his discussion of “stable planets of belief” and “habitable planets of belief” is one example among many. At the same time, he tends to lapse periodically into language that is second nature to him but that readers may find confusing: “We aspire to be perfect Bayesian abductors, impartially reasoning to the best explanation….” But readers who get caught up in the swift flow of Carroll’s prose will rarely find these forays into technical terminology off-putting.
What is particularly attractive in The Big Picture is not its bigness but the small ways in which Carroll makes his points. Consider a mere nine-word sentence: “Science is a technique, not a set of conclusions.” That is a marvelously pithy formulation whose implications, Carroll shows, allow scientific thinking to go anywhere at all – even to supernatural explanations of events. Carroll has no fear of using the technique, alloyed with his explanatory clarity, to pursue grand questions in biology, neuroscience, astrophysics, mathematics, as well as philosophy and religion. “Understanding how the world works, and what constraints that puts on who we are, is an important part of understanding how we fit into the big picture,” writes Carroll. The Big Picture is a bracing, thoughtful, well-argued, perceptive and always fascinating attempt to attain and communicate an understanding of who and what we are, in what context we live, and, yes, for what purpose.
No Map to This Country: One Family’s Journey Through Autism. By Jennifer Noonan. Da Capo. $15.99.
The Un-Prescription for Autism: A Natural Approach for a Calmer, Happier, and More Focused Child. By Janet Lintala with Martha W. Murphy. AMACOM. $18.95.
The disdain, bordering on contempt, with which some authors treat what they dismissively call “traditional” or “Western” medicine could be said to have reached epidemic proportions – but that sounds funny, and the authors involved are a singularly humorless bunch. The notion that doctors cannot cure every patient or every disease and therefore cannot be trusted to take care of any patient or any disease is a rather offensive one, and delivered with stunning hypocrisy unless an author can conclusively show that he or she has not benefited personally from, say, antibiotics or vaccinations. Books about alternatives to traditional medical approaches to patient and disease care therefore tend to be more or less successful based on how willing their authors are to confront their own biases and consider both the pluses and the minuses of standard medical approaches. This is particularly true when it comes to an incurable condition affecting children, as in the case of autism (or, as it is now called, Autism Spectrum Disorder). Thus, Jennifer Noonan’s well-written, affecting memoir is more involving and likely to be more useful to families dealing with autism than is Janet Lintala’s well-meaning but more-strident approach to autism treatment.
The genre of first-person narratives of medical adversity is not an especially compelling one, but Noonan’s book stands out partly because of its writing style and partly because of the author’s willingness not to minimize the huge physical and mental toll that her son’s autism takes on her and on the entire family – but not to wallow in self-pity, either. There are setbacks aplenty here to balance the periodic successes; Noonan’s ingenuity in tackling intractable problems comes through again and again, whether she succeeds or fails in any particular instance. Readers familiar with autism are an obvious target audience, but in fact No Map to This Country reaches out to anyone concerned about the condition, because Noonan shows herself to have had a series of preconceptions about autism that were systematically demolished as she learned the truth about her son’s behavior and what could and could not be done to help him. Noonan does get into some of the medical evidence and medical disputes about autism, and from time to time her writing does degenerate into polemical name-calling in regard to medical and insurance personnel. By and large, though, she keeps the book’s focus firmly on her son, Paul, and on his individual circumstances and needs – indeed, it is her emphasis on the individual nature of each child with autism that is among the book’s major strengths, because this is a condition that can manifest itself at many times, in different ways, with different consequences both in childhood and in later life (hence the use of the word “spectrum” in its current medical description). The tremendous physical and emotional demands that Paul created for Noonan, and that she is well aware autistic children create in general for their families, are heightened by the fact that even as Paul’s behavioral displays became more extreme, Noonan was pregnant again – and later, heartbreakingly, her daughter began to show signs of autism as well. Ultimately, parents of autistic children want the same thing that parents of all children hopefully desire: for their child to attain his or her full potential. In the case of autism, however, it is extremely difficult to know what that potential is and exceptionally hard to bring the child along the road toward it. Certainly there are obstacles to treatment thrown up by uncaring or ignorant members of the healthcare profession and by insurance companies that by definition classify patients and diseases by group and number, not with the individuation that autism care requires. But a parent who accepts medical help when it is available and offered, turns it down when she does not believe it fits her child’s particular, unique needs, and moves on from crisis to crisis without developing a chip-on-my-shoulder attitude, has at least the potential of coming through an extraordinarily difficult time with the best possible results for her child. Noonan appears to have done just that. Her harrowing story reads like a valuable teaching tool for anyone concerned about autism, and especially for those dealing with it in their own families.
Lintala, also the parent of an autistic child, approaches the topic differently and with a more-aggressive agenda. She founded and heads a 12-state organization called Autism Health! The group’s exclamation point is indicative of Lintala’s intensity, which translates into a focus on “integrative health” (she is trained as a chiropractor) and a thorough dislike of conventional medicine. Everything autistic children need, she indicates, can be handled with non-prescription approaches. Specifically, she focuses on the gastrointestinal system: she believes that parents who get it properly regulated will find their children much calmer and better-behaved, although even Lintala stops short of calling her advocacy of probiotics and supplements a cure. Traditional medicine has in fact been placing greater emphasis in recent years on gastrointestinal issues, with the balance of gut bacteria having been shown scientifically to affect various conditions. There is no reason that autism should not be among them. And Lintala offers a variety of diagrams and examples, including ones from her own life, to back up her points – anecdotal material, yes, but sometimes parents of autistic children will learn more from anecdotes than from, say, books. Certainly Lintala is on the right track when she warns against over-medicating autistic children: in the not-too-distant past (although to a lesser extent today), these children might be treated with a host of separate medicines for constipation, rashes, sleep problems, hyperactivity, etc. And certainly it is possible that irritability, anger and hyperactivity may be traceable to digestive issues, with an autistic child unable to express himself or herself clearly as to what the problem is. But as Noonan makes clear in her book, every child, every case of autism, is different, and blanket approaches, medical or otherwise, are at the very least unwise. Besides, being dismissive of, for example, medicine to control behavioral issues, means subjecting other people’s children to an autistic child’s outbursts, and that is scarcely fair to those children (a point that neither Lintala nor Noonan ever really deals with). Lintala does agree, somewhat reluctantly, that traditional medicine may be needed for some symptoms in some cases, but her predisposition is that medical treatment of autism is by and large a bad thing. There are some genuinely useful recommendations in The Un-Prescription for Autism, including one for an enzyme that eliminates the need to go on a diet that is both gluten-free and casein-free. In fact, Lintala’s whole approach to dietary matters is a good one: she does not insist that a single diet is right in all cases. As a whole, The Un-Prescription for Autism is a (+++) book with a great number of good ideas and helpful suggestions, balanced by a foundational skepticism about medical treatment that becomes a blind spot and makes the book, unnecessarily, into part of an anti-medical crusade that in the long run does no good either for autistic children or for their families.
The Angry Birds Movie: The Junior Novel. Adapted by Chris Cerasi. Based on the screenplay by Jon Vitti. HarperFestival. $5.99.
The Angry Birds Movie: Official Handbook. By Chris Ceraci. HarperFestival. $7.99.
The Angry Birds Movie: Laughtastic Joke Book. By Courtney Carbone. HarperFestival. $5.99.
The Angry Birds Movie: Seeing Red. Based on a story by Sarah Stephens. Illustrations by Tuğrul Karacan. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The Angry Birds Movie: Big Trouble on Bird Island. Based on a story by Sarah Stephens. Illustrations by Tuğrul Karacan. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The Angry Birds Movie: Meet the Angry Birds. Adapted by Chris Ceraci. Harper. $3.99.
The Angry Birds Movie: Too Many Pigs. Adapted by Chris Ceraci. Harper. $3.99.
This was inevitable. As soon as the Angry Birds video game became super-popular, a movie featuring the characters was certain to be made to try to cash in (or cash in further) on the Angry Birds story and characters. Now, someone unfamiliar with the way Hollywood works might wonder how a movie could possibly be created on the basis of a repetitive video game in which essentially the only thing that happens is that players fire birds at pigs. Such a someone would not have reckoned with the creativity (Hollywood calls it that) of the people who make movies from plots that are, ahem, on the thin side. All that is needed is a very, very, very little bit of a story to explain why birds and pigs cannot coexist, and a very, very, very little bit of action-starting activity, and then the rest of the movie practically makes itself as birds fight pigs and pigs fight birds and birds fight pigs and pigs fight birds and…oh, it’s fantastic! To see just how fantastic, of course it is possible to see the movie – or, alternatively (or afterwards, as a souvenir to relive the whole thing), it is possible to read The Junior Novel to get the film’s entire plot in 140 large-type, easy-to-read pages.
Too extended and complicated? Hmm, it could be. After all, this is a repetitive video game, not a story worthy of being called a novel. Not to worry! There are other spinoffs of the film spun off from the video game! Official Handbook is actually the most useful of the bunch. It introduces and explains the characters, hints at quirks in their personalities (such as “heroic” Mighty Eagle’s overdone self-obsession), and includes special features that are barely hinted at in the story (such as the course listing for the Infinity Acceptance Center). There are even some of Judge Peckinpah’s favorite jokes – but why stop with those? Angry Birds fans who want jokes can get a whole book of them in the Laughtastic Joke Book. “Why didn’t Shirley like her new foot doctor? He was a real heel!” “What do you get if you cross a chicken and a bell? An alarm cluck!” “What is a bird’s favorite letter of the alphabet? Jay!” Kids who finds these jokes amazingly funny will find plenty more just like them here.
And then there are the very short books telling just some of the Angry Birds story, or just some short stories of the Angry Birds – you get the idea. Seeing Red and Big Trouble on Bird Island are about, respectively, Red’s multiple failed attempts to find a job and reporter Finch’s attempt to track down whatever bird has been vandalizing Mighty Eagle’s statue. Some familiarity with the characters and with Bird Island, where they live, is necessary to get the full flavor of these books, but it is highly unlikely that kids who want the books will lack that background, since these stories are tie-ins to the movie and designed more as souvenirs and reminders of the film than for reading in their own right. However, two Angry-Birds-themed Stage 2 books in the I Can Read! series (this stage offers “high-interest stories for developing readers”) might be used by parents to get kids who know and enjoy the Angry Birds game and/or film to try reading about the characters and maybe, just maybe, move on to other sorts of reading as well. Meet the Angry Birds is about Red and the other birds assigned to anger-management class, and the mess that results when they meet. Too Many Pigs focuses on the bad guys, the green pigs (led by Leonard and his assistant. Ross) who invade Bird Island under the guise of friendship but really have bad things in mind (such as eating eggs). This particular book does not really end – it stops when Red decides he will have to figure out what to do about the pigs – but that is really the point: the book may pull kids who like the Angry Birds into further reading about them, or maybe into seeing the movie, or maybe into seeing it again and again and again and again. The possibilities are endless, and these books, which have no literary value whatsoever but really can be fun for fans of the Angry Birds and the film about their exploits, exist to help kids explore at least some of those possibilities.
Johann Strauss Jr.: Der Zigeunerbaron. Nikolai Schukoff, Claudia Barainsky, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Khatuna Mikaberidze, Heinz Zednik, Markus Brück, Jasmina Sakr, Paul Kaufmann, Renate Pirschneider; NDR Choir and NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Lawrence Foster. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).
Antonio Lotti: Missa Sancti Christophori; Miserere in C minor; Credo in G minor; Dixit Dominus in G minor. The Syred Consort and Orchestra of St. Paul’s conducted by Ben Palmer. Delphian. $16.99.
Randall Thompson: Requiem. The Philadelphia Singers conducted by David Hayes. Naxos. $12.99.
John Rutter: Psalmfest (1993); This is the day (2011); Lord, Thou has been our refuge (2008); Psalm 150 (2002). Elizabeth Cragg, soprano; Pascal Charbonneau, tenor; Mike Allen, trumpet; Tom Winpenny, organ; St. Albans Cathedral Choir, Abbey Girls Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Lucas. Naxos. $12.99.
Einojuhani Rautavaara: Rubáiyát (2015); Into the Heart of Light (Canto V) (2012); Balada (2014); Four Songs from the Opera “Rasputin” (2012). Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Mika Pohjonen, tenor; Helsinki Music Centre Choir; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99.
The other Johann Strauss Jr. operetta that merits more than occasional performance – other than Die Fledermaus, that is – is Der Zigeunerbaron, an absurdly plotted and amazingly tuneful mishmash of some of the themes that Offenbach handled much more pointedly and amusingly in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein nearly two decades earlier. Strauss had exasperatingly poor luck with libretti; even Die Fledermaus has a third act that is more stage play and melodrama than operetta – there is little music in it. But listeners who are willing simply to sit back and revel in the composer’s almost endless tunefulness will find much to enjoy in PentaTone’s excellent recording of Der Zigeunerbaron, which does the work to a fine turn and manages to produce convincing characterizations of a number of less-than-admirable characters. Like Die Fledermaus, a domestic drama whose protagonists include a revenge-seeker, an utterly bored Russian prince and a mutually faithless middle-class husband and wife, Der Zigeunerbaron has no really heroic characters. Sándor Barinkay (Nikolai Schukoff), the nobleman of the title – not a real nobleman in the work’s context, since he is merely baron of the Gypsies – makes a ridiculously abrupt decision to wed a woman he has never seen, the daughter of his neighbor, a rich but illiterate and self-important pig farmer, Kálmán Zsupán (Jochen Schmeckenbecher). The daughter, Arsena (Jasmina Sakr), is in love with someone else, a nonentity named Ottokar (Paul Kaufmann),and when Barinkay discovers this, he flies into a rage and abruptly gives his affections to the Gypsy girl Saffi (Claudia Barainsky). Saffi is the sole human-seeming character in the whole work – but when it turns out she is of royal blood, Barinkay deserts her and goes off to war because he does not deserve her, even though he has already slept with her and (in the work’s most affecting scene) describes having been “married” to her by the forces of nature. The men march off to war and, when they return, Barinkay is made a real baron and reunited with Saffi, and arranges for Ottokar and Arsena to wed as well. Hence the happy, if ridiculous, ending. Hungarian-style music permeates Der Zigeunerbaron, and Strauss handles it expertly, although the Zigeunerlied here is curiously bloodless (when compared with, for example, Rosalinde’s faux Hungarian aria in Die Fledermaus). Barinkay’s entry couplet song is hilarious, however, and the second-act assertion of being married by nature – which Barinkay and Saffi deliver together – is genuinely magical. In the third act, the introductory waltz is wonderfully tuneful, and Zsupán’s bragging about his battlefield exploits, which consist mostly of stealing dead enemies’ belongings, is amusing in black-humor manner. The performers, including chorus and orchestra, do an absolutely first-rate job with this music, and Lawrence Foster paces the proceedings wonderfully and even assumes the small role of the Herald – who announces that the war, which takes place offstage, is over – himself. The underlying, if parodied, militaristic adventuring of Der Zigeunerbaron does not wear very well, and the typecast characters, Saffi excepted, generate little warmth or sympathy. But this excellent live recording captures all the high points of the work and glosses over the lesser ones to good effect. And PentaTone deserves special credit not only for its usual outstanding sound but also for a picture-perfect presentation of the two-CD set, with complete German-and-English libretto and helpful but not overdone booklet notes. The whole package is a thoroughly winning one.
The contrast between the froth of Der Zigeunerbaron and the seriousness of the music of Antonio Lotti (1667-1740) could not be greater. Lotti is known nowadays only for a single work, an eight-part setting of the Crucifixus. This is a beautifully balanced, elegant and emotive handling of the text, certainly worthy of the frequency with which it is performed. But it lasts less than four minutes and is in fact just one part of Lotti’s half-hour Missa Sancti Christophori – whose totality, as heard on a new Delphian CD featuring the Syred Consort and Orchestra of St. Paul’s under Ben Palmer, is even more impressive and shows Lotti to be in the first rank of Baroque liturgical composers. And he is more than that, as the other works on this recording show: Lotti wrote mostly for Venice’s Basilica of San Marco at a time when extravagance in sacred music was encouraged, and he took to the tenor of the times wholeheartedly. His forces are large, often surprisingly so, and the scale of his music surpasses what listeners will expect from having heard other Baroque church works. Furthermore, Lotti’s style hints at what is to come after the Baroque era becomes the Classical: there is true galant music here, not pervasively but from time to time, and there is a level of emotional involvement – reflected in often-daring harmonies – that looks ahead by several decades. The preponderance of minor keys is no mere affectation, either: Lotti uses them to deepen the emotional connection of the words with listeners, and he likewise employs sometimes-daring harmonies to highlight elements of the texts in ways that go well beyond what most listeners familiar with Baroque church works will expect. The excellently balanced vocal and instrumental ensembles blend beautifully in this recording, where what comes through is both the sincerity of the religious messages of the music and the determination of Lotti to deliver those messages using harmonic and coloristic techniques that push the bounds of what was generally accepted in his time.
In our own time, pretty much anything that composers choose to do to emphasize sacred messages can be acceptable, but that does not prevent certain works from standing out in their own way. One such is the 1958 Requiem by Randall Thompson (1899-1984). Thompson is well-known to amateur as well as professional choirs, and his choral music is often performed – but the Requiem is not, and the new Naxos CD featuring the Philadelphia Singers under David Hayes is its world première recording. The reason for this work’s neglect is apparent throughout. Running nearly an hour and requiring two a cappella choirs with the ability to handle music of considerable intricacy, the Requiem opens in anguish and preserves intense emotion all the way through – dispensing with the traditional Latin Requiem Mass and instead using strung-together texts from various books of the Bible, grouped by Thompson into five sections called “Lamentations,” “The Triumph of Faith,” “The Call to Song,” “The Garment of Praise,” and “The Leave-taking.” Passing references to the works of earlier composers abound here, but there is nothing overtly imitative in what Thompson has done. Instead, references to Bach in “Lamentations,” Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in “The Call to Song,” Handel in “The Garment of Praise,” and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (in mood, not any specific music) at the end of “The Leave-taking” all serve to place Thompson’s Requiem firmly in line with the works of earlier composers – without ever making it seem beholden to the past. Indeed, Thompson sometimes reaches back to even before the age of Antonio Lotti, using textual repetition in a way that harks back to Gregorian chant. This Requiem is a work of considerable substance, performed sensitively and even elegantly by singers and a conductor who spent two years preparing the full work for performance and this recording. Their care shows in the meticulous attention to detail that is evident all through a piece that is deeply involving from start to finish.
John Rutter’s liturgical works get performances of equally high quality on another Naxos CD, with the longest piece here by far, Psalmfest, being another world première recording. Like many earlier composers, Rutter (born 1945) was inspired by the psalms of David to create music expressing a wide array of emotions through a great variety of vocal and instrumental combinations. Rutter sets nine texts in Psalmfest: the first three are for chorus and orchestra, the fourth adding solo soprano and tenor, the fifth being for chorus only, the sixth again for chorus and orchestra with solo soprano and tenor, the seventh for chorus and orchestra, the eighth for soprano and tenor with orchestra (but without chorus), the ninth for chorus and orchestra. Rutter has striven mightily and for the most part successfully to match the performing forces to the emotional content of the words, which are taken, respectively, from Psalms 100, 121, 146, 23 (the ubiquitous “The Lord Is My Shepherd”), 96, 27, 47, 84 and 148. Rutter is particularly effective in evoking the contrasting emotions of, for example, Psalms 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes”) and 47 (“O clap your hands”). Andrew Lucas leads the performers, vocal and orchestral alike, with determination, a fine sense of pace, and sensitive awareness of Rutter’s orchestral colorations and rhythmic contrasts. And the disc is filled out with material that, far from being “filler,” further shows Rutter’s skill in handling psalm settings for special occasions. This is the day, for chorus and orchestra, was heard worldwide: it was composed by Rutter for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. Lord, Thou has been our refuge (for chorus, trumpet and organ) and Psalm 150 (for chorus, organ and orchestra), both occasional works as well, are equally effective in bringing forth their texts clearly while reflecting the emotional underpinning of the words through Rutter’s skillful vocal settings.
Finland’s greatest living composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928), also shows considerable skill and variety in the vocal works collected on a new Ondine CD. Rautavaara is more inclined to mysticism than to traditional religion such as the Psalms, and this CD shows him using his skill in the service of purely secular material as well as some with spiritual implications and leanings. Here too are world première recordings – of all four works on the disc. Rubáiyát, written for Gerald Finley, who performs it here, is a nine-movement song cycle that draws on the poetry of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) – the best-known lines of which are, in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, “A book of verses underneath the bough,/ A jug of wine, a loaf of bread—and thou/ Beside me singing in the wilderness—/ oh wilderness were paradise enow!” This is elegant love poetry, and Rautavaara’s setting of it is by turns emotive, sensuous and rather matter-of-fact. This voice-and-orchestra piece is followed by one written purely for strings: Into the Heart of Light (Canto V), which, as the title indicates, is the fifth in a series of works for string orchestra that Rautavaara has been writing since the 1960s. He intends each to represent his current compositional techniques and inclinations, which nowadays mix varying amounts of contemporary compositional techniques with the Romanticism that dominated in Rautavaara’s work for a time and to which he often returns. The other two pieces here are again in the voice-and-orchestra milieu. Balada sets texts by Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) for tenor, mixed choir and orchestra, creating a single-movement cantata (almost as long as the nine movements of Rubáiyát) that was first performed in Madrid only last year. Finally here are Four Songs from the Opera “Rasputin,” Rautavaara’s most-recent opera (2001-03). These are dramatic, intense works that the composer arranged for mixed choir and orchestra nearly a decade after completing the opera from which they are drawn. They stand effectively on their own in this impressive arrangement and, in fact, may make listeners more eager to see and hear the opera itself. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgårds has performed and recorded a considerable amount of Rautavaara’s music, always handling it with a sure sense of style and a strong commitment to the underlying emotional content that Rautavaara presents no matter what his stylistic preferences of the moment may be. This disc is no exception: it is well-played, well-sung and thoroughly convincing.
Rachmaninoff: Études-tableaux, Op. 39; Moments musicaux, Op. 16. Boris Giltburg, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Sebastiano Meloni: Moods and Sketches—12 Improvisations for Piano. Sebastiano Meloni, piano. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Betty R. Wishart: Sonata; Sonata II; Toccata II; Toccata III; Night Visions Suite; Variations on a Folk Melody; Remembrance. Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Margaret Brandman: Orchestral and chamber music. Navona. $14.99.
Sometimes the pleasures of a recording lie in simply hearing the performer’s mastery of his instrument. That is the case with Boris Giltburg’s new Naxos CD of music by Rachmaninoff. Giltburg here offers the second set of Études-tableaux together with the six Moments musicaux, and his readings are equally impressive in two very different ways. For the Études-tableaux, Giltburg produces what are in effect nine miniature tone poems: he treats each of the works as wholly independent of the others and makes no attempt to imply that there is any connection among them. This is a reasonable position to take with the earlier set of Études-tableaux, Op. 33, which were intended by Rachmaninoff to evoke specific unnamed scenes. But Op. 39 is a bit different: here Rachmaninoff, writing what was to be his final major work created in Russia, was influenced in significant ways by the music of Scriabin and (to a lesser extent) Prokofiev, and elements of those composers’ styles filter into these pieces through Rachmaninoff’s own sensibilities. In any case, what Giltburg primarily offers here is outstanding technique. In No. 1, he does a fine job with the constant motion of the right hand against syncopations in the left. In No. 5, his hands are wide enough to span the considerable distances required. In No. 6, the opening low octave runs contrast strikingly with the treble figures that are transformed into a march. In No. 8, the contrast between the primarily legato melodic lines and the staccato central section is especially well handled. In all, Giltburg shows sensitivity to Rachmaninoff’s tone painting as well as enough technique to make the music sound unforced. In the much earlier Moments musicaux (the two works’ dates are embarrassingly reversed on the CD: in reality, Op. 39 dates to 1916-17 and Op. 16 to 1896), Giltburg easily surmounts the technical difficulties of the forms in which Rachmaninoff casts the pieces – nocturne, barcarolle, song without words, theme and variations and so forth – and penetrates to the emotional content that the composer offers within the various formal structures. The third piece, for example, is a somber funeral march, but Rachmaninoff marks it Andante cantabile, scarcely the expected tempo indication for something funereal. Giltburg has no apparent difficulty with this potential contradiction, and the result is a stirring performance. From the extended reflective melody of the first piece to the thick texture of the last, Giltburg shows that he has thought through the way in which form and communicative function interact in the Moments musicaux and has, as a result, helped the music express itself to listeners in a clear and direct way.
Sebastian Meloni seeks similar clarity and directness of expression in his performance of his own Moods and Sketches on a new CD from Big Round Records. He does not quite find it, though, because while the titles of the 12 movements he calls “Improvisations” point in specific directions, the music does not always go there. “Transparencies,” for example, is not especially transparent; there is nothing very streamlike about “Stream,” whose stop-and-start progress is a stylistic quirk of the composer; and “Dark and Gloomy” is neither. On the other hand, “Mood Swings” does have the sort of variety and contrast that its title indicates, and “Mutations” is changeable enough to justify what it is called (although it is certainly not any sort of theme and variations). Other movements are called “Awakening,” “From a Distance,” “Point Particle,” “Inside/Outside,” “Filament,” and “Waves.” The very last movement is intriguingly titled “Absence,” but the title means nothing unless it refers to the fact that the music just stops when Meloni is finished playing it – in fact, this gently rhythmic movement is the most stylistically consistent of the 12, so if there is an absence of anything, it is of contrast. Meloni makes a fine advocate for his own material on this (+++) CD, but the music itself, which is intended to explore improvisational techniques, does not communicate very much to listeners – although it may be of particular interest to pianists who want to study and absorb the methods that Meloni uses to build the various segments.
Betty R. Wishart uses a great variety of techniques in her piano works, too, and Jeri-Mae G. Astolfi runs through them skillfully on a new Ravello CD. Here too, however, the composer seems more preoccupied with the technical methods of creating pieces than with what those pieces may say to an audience that is unfamiliar with or uninterested in the scaffolding on which Wishart erects her sonic edifices. Thus, the persistent use of seconds, fourths and sevenths in several of these works provides a musical superstructure, but listeners who are not focused on the intervallic constructs and are simply seeking some sort of composer-to-audience communication will find little to attract them here. This does not mean the music is uninteresting: the second and third movements of Sonata II, one being a very short “Capriccio” and the other simply marked “Finale,” are interestingly involving, and Toccata II is propulsive and effectively declamatory. Remembrance, on the other hand, is a touch of salon music, gracious and backward-looking both harmonically and stylistically. But Variations on a Folk Melody has little to say, and Night Visions Suite is simply repetitive and dull. The other works here have elements of interest but do not hold listeners throughout, although every piece on the CD is constructed with care and an understanding of the piano’s capabilities. This (+++) CD will interest pianists for some of its technical elements and some of the contrasts that Wishart builds into her music – in the one-movement Sonata, for example – but people who do not play the instrument and are primarily attracted by its communicative potential will not find much here to be particularly appealing.
Margaret Brandman’s music, both for piano and for other instruments, is more accessible and more immediately appealing. Brandman herself is a pianist, and on a new Navona CD she performs her own Autumn Rhapsody with a fine feel for the work’s gentle lyricism. She and fellow pianist Marcello Maio together offer Spirit Visions, a work of considerable tonal color that, like most of Brandman’s music, reflects her reaction to something specific in her native Australia. But it is not necessary to know just what that something is in order to appreciate and enjoy the music – in this, Brandman differs in a positive way from the many contemporary composers whose works are so tightly tied to specificity of setting or expression that only those “in the know” can hope to appreciate them. Brandman understands that, whatever her personal inspiration for a piece may be, the music needs to reach out to listeners who know nothing about its genesis if it is to communicate with them. They may never know what led her to compose a particular work, but if it attracts and moves them, then it has accomplished something: it has touched people. Brandman certainly wants to do that, and deserves considerable credit for her efforts to do so. It is not just her piano works that reach out to good effect. There are three violin-and-piano pieces here that do so as well, all performed by violinist Vít Mužík and pianist Lucie Kaucká: Binna Burra Dreaming, based on a world heritage site but clear in its emotive lyricism even to those who do not know that; Jicaro Rhumba D’Amor, which is Latin American rather than Australian in orientation; and The Eastern Spinebill and the Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos Herald a Blue Mountains Brush Fire. This exceptionally long-titled work is actually a violin-and-piano reduction of the first movement of Brandman’s Firestorm Symphony, an entirely programmatic work that is also given here in its orchestral entirety, with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. The symphony’s three movements refer to the before, during and after of a dangerous Australian bush fire: “Firestorm Threatening,” “Now the Tears Are Flowing,” and “All the Trees Are Growing.” It does help in this case to know how the work came to be, but a generalized acquaintance is enough; the specifics, which involve a fire that threatened Brandman’s own family home, help listeners understand the strong emotion built into the work but are not necessary to hear in it the intensity of the event that inspired it, the sorrowful response to the devastation, and the eventual rebirth and renewal of the land. The work is effective on its own musical terms. So are the other three orchestral pieces here, presented by the same ensemble and conductor: Love Brings Change for string orchestra, an upbeat work despite its slow tempo (Brandman labels it Adagio for Strings); Undulations, also for strings, whose two contrasting movements represent the moods of ocean waves but, as in the other works here, communicate even to listeners who do not know exactly what inspired the material; and Lyric Fantasy, in which Kaucká joins the orchestra for a different pair of contrasting movements – with, in this case, some especially attractive rhythmic approaches and an obbligato piano part that adds to the readily accessible emotion communicated by the orchestra. This is a (++++) recording that shows, in many ways, how contemporary composers can be true to modern harmonic, rhythmic and technical styles while still reaching out to audiences who are unaware of – or do not care about – the building blocks of the music. What Brandman has to say will come across differently to different listeners, but it will come across, which is not always the case in modern compositions that sometimes seem to be self-involved and at other times appear to be deliberately off-putting. Brandman’s music is neither of those; for that reason, it can and likely will appeal to people who might otherwise think they do not care for contemporary composers’ creations.
May 19, 2016
Pretty Minnie in Hollywood. By Danielle Steel. Illustrated by Kristi Valiant. Doubleday. $17.99.
Douglas, You Need Glasses! By Ged Adamson. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
Parents who just cannot wait to get their children intrigued by the high life, high times and high-rolling style of Danielle Steel’s protagonists can get kids ages 3-7 – that is, as young as age three – involved in the adventures of Pretty Minnie. Minnie, however, is big only in personality: she is a teacup-size long-haired white Chihuahua, and her larger-than-life adventures (the first in Paris and the new, second one in Hollywood) come with none of the angst and high drama to be found in Steel’s novels for adults. Minnie is just too adorable to be real, and her behavior is too perfect to be believed, and after all, where but in a children’s book can such perfection be found? Minnie, whose adorableness is fully realized in Kristi Valiant’s illustrations, belongs to Françoise, whose mother one day announces that the family needs to go to Hollywood to bring an actress a dress that Françoise’s mother has designed. Of course Minnie will be going, too, and Valiant’s picture of Françoise and Minnie choosing their outfits for the trip will immediately delight all fans of Jane O’Connor’s Fancy Nancy. This being a fantasy, Minnie gets to ride on Françoise’s lap or in the empty seat next to her throughout the transatlantic and transcontinental flight, and Valiant draws Minnie’s ears so large and so pointed that the dog herself seems about to take off. The wonderful airplane trip leads to a series of wonderful adventures in Hollywood – until the one negative thing in the book occurs when Minnie meets the dog star Fifi, who takes an instant dislike to the little Chihuahua. But in this adorable bit of make-believe, Fifi’s growling at Minnie leads to Fifi being sent home and, in true 42nd Street fashion, being replaced by Minnie – who promptly becomes the star of the movie, giving Valiant a chance to draw her in a Sherlock Holmes outfit, a Cinderella lost-slipper scene, and more. Being a big success does not go to Minnie’s head at all, though: as happy as she is to celebrate her success with some Pupcake Cupcakes (a great product name!), she and Françoise are even happier when they fly home to Paris and resume their far-from-ordinary everyday life. A kind of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Pooches, Steel’s book is so lighthearted and so out-and-out cute that even parents who would not think of reading one of Steel’s novels for adults can have a great time reading Pretty Minnie in Hollywood with their children.
A book about a much more ordinary-looking dog – and a work with a more serious purpose – Ged Adamson’s Douglas, You Need Glasses! manages to be quite cute in its own way. To start with, the title is printed in blurry type. And Douglas, clearly a non-pedigreed pooch and adorable in his own right, discovers the need for glasses through a series of very funny misadventures both on his own and with his owner, Nancy. He chases leaves, thinking they are squirrels, and manages to walk through fresh cement because he cannot see the warning sign. “Sometimes he even went home to the wrong house,” Adamson explains, showing Douglas happily eating from a dog bowl labeled “Barney.” When Douglas fetches a beehive instead of a ball, Nancy decides enough is enough, and she takes him to an optician, where Douglas manages to mis-identify every object on the dog-friendly eye chart. Eyeglasses are clearly called for, and Douglas gets to try on a whole bunch of them (even Pretty Minnie might enjoy the trying-on poses in this part of the story). Eventually Douglas gets just the right pair of glasses, and everything ends happily – and that is that. The ending, a bit of a letdown in story terms, makes it clear that Adamson really sees the book as a teaching tool, to be used to show kids ages 3-7 that it is fine to wear eyeglasses so you can see better. In fact, the book’s final two pages show pictures of “real kids who wear glasses” and invite readers who wear them to post their own photos online. Beneath the amusement of the book – and a lot of it is very amusing indeed – there is the serious message that if you need glasses, you should get them. It is never quite clear why Douglas has not gotten glasses already – he “had always been a very nearsighted dog,” Adamson writes – but whatever the reason, by the end of the book he is wearing them happily and seeing everything much more clearly, which is, clearly, the way things should turn out.
My Little Sister and Me. By Maple Lam. Harper. $17.99.
Samanthasaurus Rex. By B.B. Mandell. Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Hugs and hand-holding adorn the back covers of both these books for ages 4-8, but the characters being warmly familial are quite different in appearance – although beneath their exteriors, they are very much the same, which is the whole point. My Little Sister and Me features everyday human beings, an older brother (not much older, though) and younger sister. This is the first day that Mom has asked the boy to bring his little sister home from the school-bus stop – and the whole book is about the mundane but intriguing adventures that result on the walk to the kids’ house. Big brother is a bit of a worrier, as his expression makes clear the minute little sister gets off the bus and starts bouncing along the sidewalk singing a song. “Maybe she is singing it wrong,” brother worries. He worries even more when little sister “picks up all sorts of trash” as they walk – but Maple Lam shows that what little sister actually picks up are some leaves, an acorn, a penny, and other items that are not really trash. The small adventures continue as little sister chases a big dog but becomes scared of small squirrels, asks for her teddy bear and then remembers she left it at home, and so on. Then big brother spies a rain cloud and says they need to move faster, but little sister, distracted by birds, ignores him, gets scared by thunder, then trips and falls into a puddle. Big brother soon cleans up the minor mess, though, and the rain passes by, and the kids head the rest of the way home, to be greeted by their mother with big hugs and kisses. That is all there is to Lam’s book: an everyday adventure, pleasantly told and attractively illustrated. But at a time when parents are increasingly worried about letting kids walk home alone from even a very nearby bus stop, My Little Sister and Me seems like a bit of a throwback to a time when young kids and other, younger kids had joyful romps heading to and from home, not worrying about “stranger danger” or street-crossing trouble or much of anything. The idyllic undertone of Lam’s book will please some families and possibly concern others: this is a charming and sweet book, but its portrait of everyday family life may be quite different from the one in some readers’ families. Adults should decide whether Lam’s cute kids’ behavior is something they want their own children to imitate or ask to imitate; if not, they had best be prepared to explain why the children reading the book should not do what the children in the book are doing.
Kids are unlikely to want to do what Samanthasaurus Rex does, since the family here is one of dinosaurs; but these are very human-seeming dinosaurs, not only talking but also urging Samanthasaurus toward 21st-century-style personal fulfillment: “‘Girls need to be leaders,’ said her father.” There are four members of the dinosaur family, although there is a bit of uncertainty about Samanthasaurus’ brother, who is called “big brother” at first and “little brother” later (there do not seem to be two brothers). Ignoring this bit of confusion, the story meanders on its merry way, showing that Samanthasaurus sees things differently from the way the rest of the family does – but has views that are just as valid. Her mother wants help breaking through branches, but Samanthasaurus wants to weave ferns together to make a rope. Her father wants to check out the path ahead, but Samanthasaurus prefers to collect rocks: “‘I think I discovered a diamond.’” Her brother wants to stomp on geysers, but Samanthasaurus wants to “‘harness that energy,’” using a huge leaf to direct the warm water to give a pteranodon a bath. Of course, everything works out perfectly for Samanthasaurus: the family is endangered by an erupting volcano, and Samanthasaurus’ rope, diamond and helpful ways with pteranodons lead to multiple rescues. Self-actualization forever, even in the Cretaceous! Of course, B.B. Mandell and Suzanne Kaufman do not expect anyone to take these dinosaurs seriously: they are simply using them to make thoroughly modern points about being yourself and cooperating as a family. Samanthasaurus Rex lays on its message perhaps a bit too thickly, but families seeking specifically to build up young girls’ willingness to do things their own way will find it a pleasant little guidebook packed with prettily pictured prehistoric people-like protagonists.
Stick Cat #1: A Tail of Two Kitties. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.
Bedtime Stories for Cats. By Leigh Anne Jasheway. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Bedtime Stories for Dogs. By Leigh Anne Jasheway. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Biscuit Feeds the Pets. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $16.99.
Fresh from his repeated successes with the Stick Dog series, featuring drawings that are deliberately amateurish and stories supposed to have sprung from the mind of one of the preteens at whom the books are aimed, Tom Watson has now expanded his repertoire by creating Stick Cat. He has not, however, expanded it very much. Once again he has created an amiable, clear-thinking central character with rectangular body, circular head, and a modest interest in adventures. Stick Dog’s interests are invariably food-related, but it remains to be seen what Stick Cat’s will be. In A Tail of Two Kitties the focus is music, but who knows if that will continue? Watson’s new series still has some finding-of-its-way ahead of it, not only thematically but also in terms of characters. Stick Dog leads a pack, and the other four dogs have differing personalities and various ways of seeing – usually mis-seeing – the world, with the result that Stick Dog has to be the sensible center of each story even as his compatriots misinterpret pretty much everything in ways tied to each one’s personality. Cats are not pack animals, though, and Stick Cat lives in a city apartment, not somewhere that would allow him to roam freely, as Stick Dog does. So Watson gives Stick Cat one single friend, Edith – the second of the two kitties in the title of the first book – and tries to roll all the observational imperfections of Stick Dog’s pack into a single character. This does not work very well: Edith ends up being a rather unpleasant character, thoroughly unaware of pretty much everything about herself, unobservant and selfish to such a degree that she actually puts Stick Dog’s life in danger during their first adventure. Hopefully she will become more bearable, or cat-able, in later books. Thank goodness Watson’s plot rescues this one: Stick Cat likes to watch and listen to the man who tunes pianos and then plays them at the piano factory across the street, but one day the man’s arms get trapped in a grand piano when its top falls onto them – and Stick Cat decides to rescue “Mr. Music,” as he calls the man. Edith makes the rescue decidedly more difficult, but eventually it is she who gets another man in to help after she accidentally sits on Mr. Music’s dropped cell phone and it happens to dial one of his co-workers. That scene, and one in which Stick Cat puts clothespins all over his body, are funny enough to rescue the book from its less-attractive elements, all of which are named Edith. At the end, Stick Cat gets a piano recital just for himself, courtesy of the now-rescued Mr. Music, and drops happily off to sleep to await his next adventure.
Had the music not been available, Stick Cat might have availed himself of Bedtime Stories for Cats, in which Leigh Anne Jasheway retells such fairy tales as “Kitty and the Beast,” “The Three Kitty Cats Gruff,” and even – in a mildly noir-ish “detective story” way – “Puss and the Missing Boots.” Then Jasheway throws in some reconstituted and refocused nursery rhymes at the end, and the result is considerable amusement for cat lovers, if not necessary for felines themselves. Jasheway’s Bedtime Stories for Cats and its companion, Bedtime Stories for Dogs, originally date to 1996-1997, but the new books are suitably updated with references to YouTube, the “Catdashians,” and other elements of 21st-century life. The book for dogs (and their people) follows the same pattern as the one for cats, including “The Three Little Pugs,” “Goldilocks and the Three Cats,” “Cinderdane,” and the like; and yes, there are rethought nursery rhymes here as well. Each book gets sentimental toward the end. “Alanis and Her Magic Belly” is a story about the real-world wonders of rubbing a cat’s belly to make human problems “magically disappear,” and “Angel Dogs” is about pups that do not behave angelically at all but are angels as far as their owners are concerned. Really, Jasheway’s books are bedtime stories for cat lovers and dog lovers, not for companion animals themselves – but certainly humans might consider cuddling up with a canine or feline companion and reading the books aloud, if only so their voices will lull everyone to sleep at the same time.
Very young puppy fanciers will find bedtime, or anytime, a great time to read Biscuit Feeds the Pets, which actually includes both dogs and cats – and fish and guinea pigs, too. This is a “My First” book in the I Can Read! series, which means it is “ideal for sharing with emergent readers.” But unlike many books in this early-reading series, which are “based on” characters found elsewhere, this work is created by the same author and illustrator who produce Biscuit books for older kids, Alyssa Satin Capucilli and Pat Schories. As a result, the book serves as a wonderful introduction to Biscuit and the humans surrounding him, and also reflects the same sense of amusement and playfulness as other, somewhat more elaborate Biscuit books. Biscuit and his little-girl owner show up at Mrs. Gray’s house to help feed her many pets, and all goes well until Biscuit gets into his usual mild mischief after discovering a litter of new puppies that are almost as big as he is. A little too much enthusiastic play results in water and kibble spilling all over the place, but no one is upset, and Biscuit gets a compliment for finding his own way to help feed the pets. Biscuit is always cutely endearing, and kids who are just learning to read will enjoy meeting him here if they have not done so before – and will likely be encouraged by this story to seek out others by Capucilli and Schories that are just as doggone enjoyable.
81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness. By Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou. Da Capo. $15.99.
This is a fascinating 120-page book that lasts 240 pages. At its heart is one of those remarkable survival-against-all-odds stories, that of First Lieutenant Leon Crane, who bailed out of his crashing B-24 Liberator bomber over eastern Alaska on the first day of winter, 1943. The flight’s intended objective was to learn how to handle propellers when an engine malfunctions or even catches fire. But the reason for the flight is irrelevant to the story of how Crane, a young Philadelphia man with no wilderness experience, survived nearly 12 weeks of Alaskan winter and eventually returned to base, not much the worse for wear.
Not surprisingly, training, resourcefulness and luck were the ingredients that kept Crane going through the snow, ice, wind and temperatures as low as 50 below zero. Crane comes across as a vessel of survival qualities – there is little sense of him as a person – but that would be all right in a story carefully focused on one man’s ordeal. The focus of 81 Days Below Zero, however, is by no means careful. Again and again, Brian Murphy goes off in somewhat relevant or largely irrelevant directions, pausing the basic story to spend time on something marginally related – sometimes something interesting, sometimes not. A little delving into Crane’s personality and psychology would have been welcome, for example, in explaining why, after stumbling on a cabin, he wanders away from it with only some raisins because he is so sure a town is nearby – even though he knows virtually nothing about Alaska. By the time Crane realizes he has made a bad mistake, it takes him 30 hours to find the cabin again – circumstances that make it hard to identify with him, since (in the absence of a feeling for him as a person) he simply seems to have been ridiculously overconfident if not unconscionably dumb. The chances are that neither of those possibilities is quite right, but 81 Days Below Zero has a curious absence about Crane: he himself has talked little about what he went through, possibly from survivor’s guilt or perhaps from some other psychological manifestation that Murphy does not explore. Murphy never spoke with Crane: the book is based on newspaper and magazine articles about what Crane went through, and as a result reads somewhat like a newspaper or magazine article itself.
What Murphy does look into here is a lot of ancillary material, some about people other than Crane (including members of Crane’s family and the B-24 crewmen who did not survive), some about Alaskan history and the people of its interior, some about historical events, some about the search for the downed plane and the organization that spearheaded it. This discursive approach, which may have been necessary to create a story long enough for a book, does not serve the central tale of survival very well. Readers who find some of the tangents interesting will be pleased; ones who do not can easily skip many of the chapters here to return to the core survival story. There are elements of that story that really are fascinating, such as the way Crane – who had no gloves – used the silk from the parachute that brought him down safely to protect his hands against the cold. The role of luck in Crane’s survival, as in that of many others who made it through events that could easily have killed them, is intriguing as well. For instance, Crane was able to make a fire on his first night in the Alaskan wilderness because he had matches with him – which he picked up before the flight because he knew the pilot liked to smoke cigars, and part of his own job as copilot was to keep the pilot comfortable.
Ultimately, reader enjoyment of 81 Days Below Zero will turn on how each person tackles the book. In addition to the basic survival tale, it has two primary subplots. One involves attempts to figure out what caused the plane to go out of control and what happened to the pilot who went down with it. The other is about a historian whose trip to the crash site led to the eventual burial with full military honors of remains identified as those of the pilot. Those who are captivated by these subplots and Murphy’s numerous shorter excursions into history and geography will enjoy the entire book. Those who want the focus to be on Crane and his survival will find they lose little by bypassing the non-Crane elements of the story. But Crane himself remains a virtual cipher here, and that is a core failing of the story – one that Murphy may have had no way to overcome, but nevertheless one that prevents the book from generating a level of empathy to go with the amazement inherent in any recounting of events as harrowing as the ones through which Crane lived.
Beethoven: The Early String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello). AVIE. $26.99 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello). AVIE. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Beethoven: The Late String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello). Cypress Quartet. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Twenty years is, or is not, a very long time in musical life, depending on how you define the two decades. The Budapest String Quartet lasted half a century (1917-1967), but metamorphosed substantially over the years – which leads to the old philosophical conundrum that asks, if you start with a wooden boat and replace its planks one by one over the years, until eventually not a single original plank remains, is it still the same boat? Other quartets have also shown impressive longevity, but the Cypress String Quartet, which has remained intact for the full 20 years of its existence, is impressive for retaining the same membership from start to finish. And it is concluding its remarkable two-decade run in a style befitting an ensemble that takes its name from Dvořák’s set of 12 love songs for string quartet, Cypresses, created in 1887 from his 1865 set of 18 love songs (some for tenor, some for baritone). That is, just as the Dvořák work from which the quartet sourced its name has great beauty and a complex history, so the quartet itself offers performances that mix lovely sound with amazing precision of playing and a highly personal but always justifiable view of the music it performs. The sonic beauty comes both from the players’ skill and from their instruments, which include Stradivarius (1681) and Carlo Bergonzi (1733) violins, a recent excellent viola by Vittorio Bellarosa (1947), and an Amati cello (1701). The dazzling ensemble work comes from Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, Ethan Filner and Jennifer Kloetzel themselves.
It is altogether fitting that the Cypress String Quartet has chosen to end its many seasons of excellence by completing the recording of a Beethoven cycle that began in 2012 with its self-released recording of the late quartets and continued in 2014 with AVIE’s release of the middle group. The decision to start with the enormous difficulty and complexity of the late music and conclude with the comparative simplicity and straightforwardness of the Op. 18 quartets seems odd on its face, but the Cypress String Quartet brings it off with great beauty and a real sense of élan. One of the difficulties of playing comparatively early Beethoven lies in trying to perform the music as if the composer’s later works had not yet been written – a real problem when it comes to, for example, the first two symphonies and the earlier piano sonatas. The Cypress String Quartet turns this concern on its head: the players find in the Op. 18 quartets many of the signs of the mature Beethoven, treating them as an alloy of Classical-era poise with proto-Romantic emotion and the kind of dramatic expressiveness that pervades Beethoven’s music. Far from throwbacks, the Op. 18 quartets emerge in this reading as genuinely transitional works, their cohesive musical arguments beautifully reflected through ensemble playing that is remarkably well-controlled and that highlights, again and again, musical details that collectively stamp these quartets as masterful productions bound only loosely to the Haydn works that in some ways they closely parallel. This becomes very clear from the start – literally from the opening of Op. 18, No. 1, when the initial unison declaration contrasts exactly as it should with the fragmentation that ensues. Coupled with this quartet’s deeply felt second movement, this performance encapsulates the Cypress String Quartet’s always-excellent balance of technical skill with emotional involvement. And so it is throughout the early-quartets recording. For another example, the performers throw themselves into the rhythmic uncertainty of the Scherzo of Op. 18, No. 6, turning the movement into a combination of challenge and fun, and then move to a “La Malinconia” finale in which they have clearly taken to heart Beethoven’s admonition that the movement must be played with the utmost delicacy.
The early-quartets release neatly ties up a Beethoven cycle that is very much of the 21st century even though the Cypress String Quartet plays primarily on historic instruments. The exceptional ensemble playing and clarity of lines in the fast movements are thoroughly contemporary, although this does not mean the performances are in any way rushed: the faster movements of the three Razumovsky quartets, Op. 59, for example, are quick but scarcely speedy. The players’ willingness to make a strong contrast between fast movements and slow ones also has a modern edge to it – the Razumovsky quartets are, again, good examples of this. But the Cypress String Quartet never seeks modernity of approach for its own sake. The heroic sweep of its playing, the constant ebb and flow of tension, the careful, incremental buildup of emotional impact, are all characteristics that the Cypress String Quartet shares with other first-rate ensembles that have produced outstanding Beethoven cycles. The care with which these performers seek out the overall structure and intended impact of Bethoven’s quartets is remarkable. Thus, the “Harp” quartet, Op. 74, gets an emphatically lyrical interpretation here, a sense of looking ahead to the Romantic era, albeit in a touching rather than deeply felt sense. The “Serioso,” Op. 95, on the other hand, gets a reading as serious as its title (which, unlike “Harp,” comes from Beethoven himself). Drama pervades this performance, but as in the “Harp” is not overdone or pushed too hard in a Romantic direction: there is nothing self-consciously gloomy here, but much that is expressive and a great deal that is entertaining despite the music’s underlying gravity.
The Cypress String Quartet’s late-Beethoven release takes some chances – indeed, recording this part of the Beethoven cycle before the others was chancy in itself. Somewhat surprisingly, there is absolutely no lack of maturity here, no sense that the performers tried to ascend these heights perhaps a bit too soon and would have done better to record the 16 quartets chronologically, as is more typically done. Indeed, there is truly remarkable attentiveness in these performances to Beethoven’s phrasing, articulation and dynamics, an understanding that even these astonishing quartets contain movements that require a very light touch indeed (for instance, the Presto of Op. 130 and Vivace of Op. 135). Furthermore, there is tremendous drive and excitement in this performance of the Grosse Fuge, with the players showing the work’s rhythms to be genuinely obsessive (and, tellingly, offering the Grosse Fuge before the alternative finale rather than afterwards, as many quartets used to and some still do). The real question for listeners in this late-quartet recording is whether they will feel that the quartet members, in their determination to deliver masterful performances, may have overthought elements of the music. The finale of Op. 127, for instance, although beautifully played, is a bit lacking in expressivity, and the theme and variations of Op. 131 seem rather carefully artful – a studied simplicity might have served the music better. But not much better, and in many ways that is the point. Any performance, any recording of Beethoven’s quartets can be nitpicked by those so inclined, and every lover and admirer of this music will have an internally idealized version of it that results in all performances seeming, as in Plato’s famous cave metaphor, like reflections of an ideal rather than the ideal itself. And so be it. One of the great joys of the Beethoven quartets is that they are amenable to an infinite number of interpretations, with well-thought-out ones like those of the Cypress String Quartet standing among the very best without being considered, or needing to be considered, the last word. One example among many here: the vision of the players for the Op. 130 quartet, including the Grosse Fuge, is of pervasive dance. This is a fascinating way to see the quartet (and even carries through to the alternative finale). This view sets this music in the historic line of Baroque suites, especially Bach’s, while at the same time giving it a cohesiveness that those suites never had or were intended to have – and a stylization of the included dances that looks forward to the 20th century and beyond. Is this the “right” way to see this music? No, but it is a right way, and that is true of every single one of the Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven recordings. Each of them is beautifully played, attentive to Beethoven’s tempo and dynamic markings, clear and intense and transparent in sound (abetted by the recordings themselves, all of which are very fine). And each of them offers these musicians’ wholly personal, wholly convincing views of music that every listener will ultimately experience in his or her own wholly personal way. The completion of the Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven cycle is not only the capstone of the cycle itself but also an absolutely fitting, crowning achievement of the quartet’s remarkable two-decade performing history.