April 27, 2017
The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship. By Philip Pullman. Illustrated by Fred Fordham. Graphix/Scholastic. $19.99.
Philip Pullman does nothing straightforwardly. Whether reinterpreting the Miltonic universe in his best-known work, the His Dark Materials trilogy, or working with John Aggs on a comic strip for The DFC (David Fickling Comics) – or reconsidering traditional fantasy/adventure and fairy-tale tropes in Clockwork, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Mossycoat, I Was a Rat! and elsewhere – Pullman brings along a unique sensibility, a willingness to stretch forms and topics, a desire to communicate well beyond any strictures of age, and an interest both in the outré and in the everyday, humdrum world (which is never quite humdrum in Pullman’s hands). It is tempting to think of Pullman as trying to pull man (and woman, and child) in some entirely new directions, just as P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins was someone who popped in now and then with a bit of magic and the occasional dose of harsh reality. The fact that Poppins is fiction and Pullman reality is at most an accident of birth.
And now Pullman has turned his attention to the graphic novel, taking that comic strip he created for The DFC and taffy-pulling (or taffy-pull-man-ing) it into a work of mystery, adventure, fantasy, science, science fiction, time warps, geography, nautical travel – a massive potential mishmash that, in actuality, is so exciting and variegated that even its most absurd elements become ones in which readers will want to believe, or will fear they have no choice but to believe.
It is the simple (no, not simple at all) story of a young girl named Serena who is knocked overboard from a small boat during a storm and rescued by a young boy named John Blake, whose ship is lost, not at sea, but in time – crewed by people from various time periods (from ancient Rome to the modern day) and trying to get back where various people belong. The drifting-in-time theme connects to a story of an Einsteinian experiment gone wrong, which connects to the tale of an always-connected cotemporary device called an apparator, which connects to a story of murder and industrial theft, which connects to a story of overweening corporate ambition and greed, which connects to a story of obsession not only of the evil corporate mogul but also of a determined young woman who is tracking the ship-out-of-time and therefore finds herself in danger.
The story threads, so elaborate and so beautifully interconnected, bespeak Pullman’s style. But this is a graphic novel, and it can succeed only to the extent that the illustrations complement and enhance the story. Fred Fordham’s do that and more than that: they tell the story, often through wordless panels whose subtle colors do an excellent job of reflecting the various characters and events. The critical set-in-motion event in which John Ford is set adrift in time is presented as a two-page spread, almost entirely white, with an alarmed-looking boy either drifting into clouds or becoming cloudlike himself as he recedes toward the background. Other pages are done in hues that reflect the story’s time periods and events, from sepia tone for older scenes to dark reds and browns in a corporate environment to dark, dark grey and brown with occasional touches of red in a climactic fight scene – and much more. Fordham is especially adept with eyes: the characters’ expressions and attitudes, their truthfulness or prevarication, their sensibility or madness, are reflected in their eyes to an extraordinary degree. Pullman manages, and Fordham illustrates, a massive climax that knits together multiple threads of the story, but leaves open plenty of possibilities for one or more sequels to this engrossing book – perhaps focused on John Blake’s ship, the Mary Alice, itself. Or is it herself? That is one question left tantalizingly unanswered here. But the book’s title is, after all, The Adventures of John Blake. That is “adventures,” plural, and implies that Mystery of the Ghost Ship is but one of a series of voyages. We can only hope.
Bridget Wilder 2: Spy to the Rescue. By Jonathan Bernstein. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Bridget Wilder 3: Live Free, Spy Hard. By Jonathan Bernstein. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Everland 2: Umberland. By Wendy Spinale. Scholastic. $17.99.
Sometimes the contrast between the formula used in adventure series for preteens and those for teenagers is especially stark. Jonathan Bernstein’s Bridget Wilder trilogy is clearly for the 8-12 age group, focusing on middle-school angst, the contrast between a seemingly ordinary girl and her actual exciting non-school life, and a whole series of rather trumped-up family issues. There is also a lot of humor in this series, although the funny and exciting parts never quite meld – it is as if Bridget is two separate characters rather than a single one with multiple facets. Actually “facets” is not quite the right word, implying a polished gem and a wide variety of angles – Bridget is at best semi-polished and semi-precious, and the entirety of her characterization consists of her being an average everyday middle-schooler (to whom the intended preteen-girl audience can therefore relate) and at the same time a wonder-working, heroic, behind-the-scenes (and eventually in-front-of-the-scenes) super spy (the fantasy of which is something else to which targeted readers can relate). The first book of the series, Spy-in-Training, had Bridget become a spy at the behest of her birth father, whom she had never known or even seen in a photo (an over-convenient plot twist there). Eventually it turned out that her recruitment into a super-secret spy agency was nothing but an evil ploy to get at her dad; so by the start of Spy to the Rescue, the second book (originally published last year and now available in paperback), Bridget has been forced to become just a normal middle-school student of average abilities and with the usual friendship-and-family issues. Since that scenario would make for a very boring book, Bernstein does not let it last long. Soon Bridget is getting framed by someone at school for a series of petty misdeeds, such as stealing cheerleader secrets; and then her super-spy father goes missing, so Bridget obviously has to take on the world (or at least the bad guys in it) to rescue him. Having the book start with Bridget being kidnapped by evil cheerleaders is a pretty neat touch, but other elements of Spy to the Rescue are just too formula-driven to keep readers interested unless they have low expectations. Exploding toilets; magnetic chewing gum; an annoying older brother named Ryan, who is Bridget’s chaperone on a trip to New York and who brings along his drip of a girlfriend, Abby; said brother’s unexpected protective streak when Bridget needs protecting. OK, got it all. And then there is some supposedly straight talk to Bridget, when she is told, “You think you can be a spy when it suits you and then go back to your normal life. But you can't…. You have to commit or walk away, Bridget. You can't just show up for a weekend and then go back to school like nothing happened.” Uh-huh.
So, anyway, then we get to the series finale, Live Free, Spy Hard, where those words of warning have evaporated into thin air. This time, Bridget’s dad, Carter Strike, like, totally upsets Bridget by assigning someone else to protect Bridget’s favorite boy band on a world tour. And then the president’s daughter is kidnapped (oh, that’s original) during the presidential campaign, forcing Bridget to go undercover to get the drop on a plot to take over the United States through the use of evilly programmed “Font phones.” This eventually leads to the sort of pronouncement inevitably made by defeated adult super-villains who get their comeuppance because of the pluck and integrity of average preteen girls: “I’ve still got more money than anyone else. I can still remake the world the way I want it.” But no! No while Bridget is in the spy game – whether or not she is fully committed to it! On the other hand, there is that little bit about Bridget’s mom, who is about as dim as parents usually are in books like this, discovering that Bridget has been lying about her extracurricular activities and has actually been engaging in spy stuff instead of, you know, regular extracurricular stuff. Bernstein can’t seem to let go of this series: the third book ends with a chapter called “The Fall,” and then again with a chapter called “Aftermath,” and then yet again with one called “Mommy and Me,” and then with “The Final Chapter,” which ends with the presumed start of yet another adventure, whether Bernstein intends to chronicle it or not. This just-can’t-end-it conclusion seems to indicate that Bernstein genuinely likes Bridget, and certainly he has gone out of his way to make her likable from readers’ perspective. The near-constant touches of sometimes-goofy humor and the determinedly superficial nature of Bridget’s relationships with pretty much everyone scarcely give her any realism as a character – but as in many other spy books and many, many other books for preteens, reality is seen mostly as a barrier to enjoyment.
Not that there is necessarily anything real-seeming about books for older, teenage readers. There is, however, determined grittiness and an attempt to pretend that events are genuinely important and deeply meaningful in books such as Umberland, a sequel to the singularly charmless Everland, which took Peter Pan into steampunk territory in a way that stripped it of every bit of its warmth and made it unengaging to the point of ugliness. Having dumped Peter Pan into a dark and dismal Neverland, Wendy Spinale now takes on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and gives them similar treatment. If Bernstein seems genuinely to like his central character in the Bridget Wilder series, Spinale seems genuinely to dislike pretty much everyone and everything in Everland and Umberland, and does not seem to care much for the classic models that she twists and distorts, either. Umberland is sort of a sequel, but its connections to the previous book are rather thin. In a way this is just as well, because it means that Umberland pretty much stands on its own after the first few chapters, which tie into Everland because it turns out that the supposed cure for the virus that figured largely in Everland was not a cure at all, but has turned into something worse – something that can only be defeated (or defused) through the use of a poisonous apple that, however, appears to be extinct. Unless it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it is in the middle of a very dangerous labyrinth, into which someone must venture to try to find what may or may not be at the center. So much for the tying-together of the two books. It turns out that the person who must undertake the quest is Duchess Alyssa, who will be helped by Maddox Hatter. Yes, here we have Spinale’s version of Alice and the Mad Hatter (Maddox is described as “the host of the grand Poison Garden Tea Party”), and that is about the extent to which Umberland pays tribute to anything by Lewis Carroll. Peter, from the first book, does continue to be a character here, but is even more annoying than in Everland and seems less realistically motivated – while, somewhat surprisingly, Alyssa and Maddox actually make sense as characters, and their actions tend to flow fairly reasonably from their personalities. This puts them in stark contrast to Peter, whose impetuosity and lack of concern for consequences, although not totally out of keeping with the Peter Pan model, are so extreme that they become a distraction. Somehow Spinale thinks a perpetually angry, pushy, clingy Peter is a worthy and positive character – an odd viewpoint, to put it mildly, even though it is not surprising that a book intended for teenagers would have at least one constantly bitter character in it. Spinale is determined to do not only steampunk but also almost-horror, as in a scene in which Alyssa is trapped beneath a dangerous gryphon that she has killed, while a character who calls himself the Colonel kills a whole group of the creatures, so that “the ground is littered with dead gryphons, their blood staining the earth.” Spinale again uses the Everland structure of having different characters narrate different chapters, but as in the earlier book, this is a narrative device only, not a way of deepening characters or giving additional insight into their feelings or motivations. Umberland is a marginally better-told tale than Everland, which was a (++) book; the sequel ekes out a (+++) rating. But teenagers with any slight familiarity with Carroll’s books – even to the point of wanting to make fun of them as “for little kids,” which they are not – may still be disappointed to find that Spinale treats her classic models here with nearly as much contempt as she heaped on J.M. Barrie’s work in the first book of this sequence.
The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War. By James McGrath Morris. Da Capo. $27.
Ernest Hemingway has been gone since 1961, John Dos Passos since 1970. They are survived by their writings and their differing influence – and, it seems, by unending examples of literary criticism, biographical information, historical tidbits and the like. Hence, for those who are enamored of literary biographies, James McGrath Morris’ The Ambulance Drivers. Friends for 20 years before Hemingway precipitated one of his many infamous breakups with supporters – readers unfamiliar with those are decidedly not the audience for this book – Hemingway and Dos Passos were both ambulance drivers late in World War I. Hence the book’s title. Their reactions to the war, and their strongly contrasting personalities and outlooks, encapsulate their differences so starkly that the fact of their having any friendship at all is surprising: Hemingway is well-known for his love of danger and heroism and old-fashioned manliness and bloodshed, while Dos Passos was sickened by the destructiveness of war and became an ardent left-winger determined to change the world for the better through his writing. Meeting briefly in World War I and parting acrimoniously during the Spanish Civil War, whose opposing sides they viewed very differently, the two writers were between those two wars united mostly as voices of the so-called “lost generation” that found Paris in the 1920s far more congenial and meaningful than anywhere in the United States.
Hemingway is today far better known than Dos Passos, and remains a far more interesting character in this book even though Morris sheds no new light on his personality. His Paris years, his fame because of The Sun Also Rises, his belligerence and downright meanness, his many betrayals, his life in Key West (to which he moved on the recommendation of Dos Passos), his time in Havana, and his suicide are all here. But anyone sufficiently interested in Hemingway to want to read yet another book about his comings and goings will know all this already.
Even the ambulance driving was scarcely a big connection for Hemingway and Dos Passos: many literary and artistic figures of the post-World-War-I era had volunteered to drive ambulances during the war, including e.e. cummings, Walt Disney, and Ray Kroc of later McDonald’s fame; and W. Somerset Maugham, trained as a doctor, was even more intimately involved with the horrors of the war. Interestingly, the reason neither Hemingway nor Dos Passos served directly in combat was that both failed vision tests. Also interestingly, Hemingway’s revenge on Dos Passos for slights real or imagined did not emerge until three years after Hemingway killed himself: in the posthumous A Moveable Feast, he depicts Dos Passos as a parasite, sponging off rich friends.
And what of Dos Passos? The most revelatory information here comes from the selections from his writing: Morris presents works that both writers produced at significant points in their lives and strives to show why they chose specific subject matter and handled it in specific ways. The result is a book of both literary criticism and biography – and a definite slog for anyone who is not devoted to one or the other of these writers and is not a specialized literary scholar focused on 20th-century material. The elements of the book that may reach a wider audience are, interestingly, ones that appear almost nowhere in the works of either Hemingway or Dos Passos. They are bits of humor, often crude humor: Hemingway accidentally shooting himself in both legs while trying to haul a shark onto a fishing boat, and Dos Passos leaping onto the wall of a bullring in fear of the enraged and doomed animal (Dos Passos actually went to a bullfight four years before Hemingway ever did). But there is little enough humor in anything either man wrote for public consumption – one reason neither writer is to everyone’s taste today, if either of them ever was in the past.
This is a well-written book for specialists and enthusiasts, a cleverly structured attempt to pull biography and literary criticism together, an attempt to re-create the passion and verve of 1920s Paris as seen through the eyes of American expatriates of nearly a century ago. It is scarcely a book for a mass audience – not even Hemingway’s works qualify as mass reading anymore (except under compulsion in teaching environments), and Dos Passos’ once-admired U.S.A. trilogy (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) scarcely generates a flicker of interest or familiarity in most quarters nowadays. The people who bemoan that reality, especially those who bemoan it loudly and proclaim the deterioration of taste regarding all that is good and important and meaningful in American literature, are the audience for The Ambulance Drivers. The vast majority of Americans today would be more interested if the book’s title had referred to Walt Disney and Ray Kroc.
Brahms: Serenades No. 1, Op. 11, and No. 2, Op. 16. Gävle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martín. Ondine. $16.99.
Ives: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4; Orchestral Set No. 2. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7; Othello Overture. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. LPO. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Years before he felt self-confident enough to write a full-fledged symphony, Brahms indulged in some interesting orchestra experiments in his two Serenades. The first is longer and genuinely symphonic in many ways – not structurally or thematically, but in the contrast among the movements and the comparative sure-handedness of the handling of orchestral sections. The second is more chamber-music-like and cleverer in design, eliminating violins altogether so as to give the music as a whole an unusually mellow tone and change the character of the entire work in a way that would lead to so much later Brahms being described as “autumnal.” Yet there remains a youthfulness and brightness to this second serenade that, if less overt than in the first, provides a very pleasant contrast with the darkening of the instrumentation. Jaime Martín and the Gävle Symphony Orchestra do a particularly good job of contrasting the sound worlds of the two works on a new Ondine CD. The first serenade is bright and upbeat throughout, its admittedly somewhat trivial themes handled with lightness above a level of rhythmic solidity that turns the work into a worthy “developmental” piece on Brahms’ journey toward full symphonic form – in this way somewhat paralleling Mendelssohn’s early string symphonies as predecessors of his five numbered ones. The second serenade has a greater chamber-music feeling than usual here, perhaps because the Gävle Symphony Orchestra has only 52 members – reduced significantly in this case by the absence of violins. Certainly there is warmth to the performance, but it is offered in the context of this work’s stylistic homage to the past: the counterpoint and Bach-like elements here were not to recur to this extent in Brahms’ symphonies until the fourth and last. The scale of this serenade is that of a Haydn symphony rather than that of one from the Romantic era, with the darker sound palette mixing intriguingly with the comparatively small orchestra. These are very fine performances in themselves – and are illuminating in the way they can help listeners look ahead to the symphonies that Brahms was to compose in later years.
Although Ives, like Brahms, wrote four symphonies, Ives’ symphonic notions were well beyond those of Brahms and, indeed, on a different branch of the symphonic family tree – or at least an offshoot of the main trunk. Even works that might be looked at as studies for Ives’ symphonies are quite different from the two Brahms serenades. An excellent new Chandos SACD featuring Ives’ Third and Fourth and the Orchestral Set No. 2 shows Ives’ unique compositional thinking exceptionally well. Ives often aimed for broad, slow tempos that made his music hymnlike even when it did not include actual snatches of hymn tunes – although those did appear frequently, either as the emotional heart of movements (or sections of movements) or in contrast to the dissonance and multitonality with which Ives juxtaposed them. Orchestral Set No. 2 starts “very slowly” with a movement called “An Elegy to Our Forefathers,” continues into a second movement marked “slower” two times and “gradually slower” at the end, and concludes with a fascinating movement that also starts “very slowly” and reproduces musically (and with chorus) the reaction of people to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis plays the work broadly and with fervor – and Davis finds a sense of overall unity in music that can easily come across as three disparate pieces that just happen to be played one after the other. Davis brings a similar sensibility to Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting,” a small-orchestra work intended to showcase open-air Presbyterian religious services of Ives’ time. The three movements are all balanced temporally – that is, all are nearly the same length – and are also structurally balanced in ways that Orchestral Set No. 2 is not. The first is a “gathering” movement, the second a kind of scherzo called “Children’s Day,” and the largo finale is a broad work of very traditional religious sentiment called “Communion” and being suitably sober and warmly heartfelt. Yet the highlight of this recording is neither in Orchestral Set No. 2 nor in the Third Symphony, but in the Fourth. This is a notoriously difficult work to perform, to understand and to listen to – it traditionally requires two or even three conductors to handle the simultaneous multiple time signatures, overlapping tempos and extremely complex instrumental entries and exits (Davis is here assisted by Anthony Pasquill). Yet the work has, as its heart, a straightforward philosophical program, a question about life presented in the first movement with the poem “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” and answered in various ways in the three other movements. None of the answers is completely satisfactory, with the result that the symphony’s overall meaning is along the same lines as that of The Unanswered Question, albeit in far grander and more-complex form. The challenge for a conductor here – one to which Davis responds with great skill – is to take the tremendous instrumental complexity in parts of the symphony, contrast it effectively with the deliberate simplicity of other parts, and make the entirety into a satisfying religious/philosophical journey for an audience that cannot be expected to understand or care about the very high level of difficulty involved in presenting the quest. Davis quite clearly understands this: the symphony must transcend the difficulties inherent in its performance, drawing attention to its underlying premises rather than to the means by which those premises are explored. The orchestra plays here with exceptional clarity: even the cacophonies are clear. And Davis manages to keep the work as a whole from sounding episodic (even in the second movement, which features more than 30 tempo changes). The symphony hangs together and provides an experience that is highly satisfying both intellectually and emotionally, even if its central questions about the meaning of existence remain, inevitably, unanswered.
If Brahms was studying ways to write a symphony in a post-Beethoven world, and if Ives was in effect studying ways to expand the notion of a symphony into new and far more complex and meaningful directions, then Dvořák’s symphonic “studies” must be deemed far more modest. The main thing that Dvořák was seeking was his own symphonic voice – one reflective of his Czech roots but still in line with his essentially Brahmsian outlook on music. Dvořák’s struggles in this regard are apparent in his first five symphonies, but in his Sixth he at last succeeds in forging something genuinely personal and new. This happens, ironically, when he tracks Brahms most closely: this symphony is in the same key as Brahms’ Second (D major), and the finale opens with a theme so close to that of Brahms that listeners may be forgiven for wondering, for a moment, whose music they are listening to. But the overall shape of the symphony, its thematic choices, the handling of the broad first movement and the third-movement Furiant – these and other elements give this symphony a personal stamp beyond the melodiousness and lyrical beauty that Dvořák already offered in his earlier symphonies. A newly released performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, on the orchestra’s own label, shows a young conductor also feeling his own way in this music. This release features live recordings, and certainly Nézet-Séguin knows how to play to an audience: there is palpable excitement in this Sixth, with enough joy and drama in the finale so the enthusiastic post-performance reaction of the audience is wholly understandable. But Nézet-Séguin falls into a trap several times in this symphony, most notably in the first movement, by using the work’s expansive themes as excuses for unwarranted rubato that significantly slows the forward momentum of the material – momentum that, ironically, Dvořák here figured out, for the first time, how to sustain successfully. Recorded in 2016, this Sixth, although it has many elegant instrumental touches and is very well played, is less successful than the Seventh, recorded in 2009. There is occasional unneeded and harmful rubato here as well, but much less, and this grand minor-key symphony (D minor) swells and flows with greater inevitability of form and structure than does the Sixth. This is a deeply meaningful work, the composer’s most profound symphony, and remains somewhat underplayed perhaps for that reason: its feelings seem stronger than those to which listeners are accustomed in Dvořák’s other symphonic works. Nézet-Séguin carries the music forward effectively, eventually building to a dramatic finale that, unfortunately, misfires at the very end, with a speeding up that robs it of impact and then a slowing down that brings it to a screeching halt. Nézet-Séguin certainly knows how to handle an orchestra, but this (+++) recording indicates that he still has some studying of Dvořák to do in order to handle the symphonies as well as he does the Othello overture (another live recording from 2016). Here the taut drama comes through with effective intensity – it would be interesting to hear Nézet-Séguin’s handling of the three tone poems Nature, Life and Love, in which Othello is the third. Certainly Nézet-Séguin is a conductor to watch, and to listen to, in this repertoire, as he becomes more thoroughly familiar with and comfortable in it.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo: Celebrating the completion of the recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred cantatas. Bach Collegium Japan conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. BIS. $29.99 (Blu-ray Disc).
Puccini: Complete Songs for Soprano and Piano. Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Maria Prinz, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Verismo: Arias by Puccini, Cilea, Mascagni, Catalani, and Giordano. Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Pavel Baleff. BR Klassik. $22.99.
There are ways to package an excellent general-interest recording to turn it into an excellent limited-interest one. That is what BIS has done with a Blu-ray release called Gloria in Excelsis Deo. The centerpiece and the glory of this release is its offering of the last three Bach cantatas to be recorded by Bach Collegium Japan under the direction of Masaaki Suzuki. They are Gloria in excelsis deo, BWV 191; Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69; and Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30. All three get poised, beautifully balanced readings, with considerable attention to detail. In Part I of BWV 30, the brilliant bass aria and alto aria on the same basic motive are highlights, with bass Peter Kooij and countertenor Robin Blaze quite impressive (as are soprano Hana Blažíková and tenor Gerd Türk in their appearances). A highlight of BWV 69 is the expressive tenor recitative, with its unexpected dissonant and chromatic passage in the middle. And in BWV 191, Bach’s only cantata to a Latin text, the work’s overall festivity is thoroughly winning. Any listener interested in Bach’s cantatas will find these readings more than worthwhile – but they are not the reason-for-being of the release. Instead, this is a documentary, made in 2013, that marks the completion of the performers’ 18-year musical odyssey through all the Bach cantatas, with interviews with Suzuki and various singers, plus behind-the-scenes footage, intended as primary attractions. They will be – but only for a rarefied audience whose interests are as much in these specific performers and this specific cycle as in Bach’s actual music. The result is a nicely presented visual production in which the cantatas, although important, are not the sole point and in some ways not even the most-central one. The recording is for fans of the performers and for people interested in and impressed by the major undertaking of recording all Bach’s cantatas. This is a release about a journey through time, not so much one of a journey through music, and certainly not one focused on the spiritual journey through which Bach’s music has taken listeners for three centuries.
A group-performance-centered classical-music release is somewhat rarer than one focused on an individual performer and aimed at that person’s fans. The single-performer focus is especially common when it comes to singers, and is designed to give fans a heaping helping of one particular artist’s approach to material of greater or lesser familiarity. The new Naxos CD featuring soprano Krassimira Stoyanova would be a straightforward case in point were it not for the repertoire. Yes, everything here is by Puccini, and that is scarcely a surprise – but all 19 tracks on the CD are Puccini songs, which are very infrequently performed and which it is fair to say that most listeners will find unfamiliar. Whether they will find them congenial is another matter: the songs are more conventional and less emotive than the Puccini arias to which listeners generally come, and while there are a couple of fascinating items here – especially two songs in Latin for soprano and mezzo-soprano, with Stoyanova singing both parts through the miracle of engineering and the flexibility of her voice – for the most part the songs are rather ordinary. Accompaniments are straightforward and, by and large, so are the comparatively restrained emotions expressed in these short works. The topics are typical for Puccini’s time, especially for his early career, when many of these pieces were written: they include life and death, love and faith, nature and home. Stoyanova seems comfortable with the songs’ simplicity, and in her mid-50s (she was born in 1962) also appears content with the somewhat limited vocal range required by most of the works. Pianist Maria Prinz provides fine backup, but there is not all that much for her to do: the piano parts are generally even more straightforward than the lyrics. Fans of Stoyanova are clearly the target audience for hearing this unusual but rather formulaic music – the fact that the CD lasts just over 46 minutes makes it even more of a for-fans-only offering.
Stoyanova’s fans will get more music (70 minutes), albeit at a significantly higher price, and will find a great deal more emotional expressiveness on another new CD, this one from BR Klassik and titled Verismo. Stoyanova, who is especially well-known for her work in La Juive, is in her element here in 15 tracks – the longest of which, and one of the most impressive, is a real rarity: the death-scene aria of the protagonist of Mascagni’s Lodoletta, in which Stoyanova works effectively with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Pavel Baleff to extract every possible bit of wrenching emotion from the highly melodramatic material. One other Mascagni track, from L’amico Fritz, is fine but does not hold a candle to the extended scene. Much of this CD is devoted to Puccini – the familiar, deeply emotional, lyrical and even overdone Puccini, not the one heard in his songs. Manon Lescaut (twice), Turandot (also twice), Madama Butterfly (again, twice), Suor Angelica, Edgar and Tosca are all here – it seems inevitable that the CD will end, after the Lodoletta scene, with Vissi d’arte, and it does. Also on display here are two arias from Cilea’s Andrea Lecouvreur, one from Catalani’s La Wally, and one from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier – none of them the slightest bit surprising in an extended recital by a soprano, and all sung with skill, a resonant vocal tone, and a fine sense of nuance. These excerpts require more of a voice than do the Puccini songs, and Stoyanova has what they need: her middle range is deep and sonorous, her attacks on high notes are elegantly handled, and her overall vocal sound is pleasingly resonant. She is well accompanied throughout the disc, and her fans will surely enjoy hearing how she handles so many examples of operatic hyper-emotion. Even those who do not yet know Stoyanova’s considerable abilities may enjoy hearing her perform this material – but the disc does give a rather one-sided view of her singing, and therefore remains more likely to be a “fan” recording than a really good introduction to a first-rate soprano voice. In truth, not everything here is verismo in the traditional sense, but the level of emotional expression is such that the CD’s title is understandable – and the material downplays Stoyanova’s abilities in other types of opera, notably bel canto. For listeners who know her other work, though, this focus on a particular form of scene-setting will be quite enjoyable.
April 20, 2017
The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors. By Drew Daywalt. Pictures by Adam Rex. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Plankton Is Pushy. By Jonathan Fenske. Scholastic. $14.99.
One of the cleverest, oddest and most successfully offbeat picture books of recent times, Drew Daywalt’s The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors is a near-perfect melding of utter absurdity with storytelling panache and absolutely superlative Adam Rex illustrations. It has such a mundane thing at its foundation – and that is what makes it so fabulous. It is a super-heroic telling of the entirely fictional and utterly hilarious “origin” of the rock-paper-scissors game that kids (and some adults) love to play: rock crushes scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper wraps rock, and so on and so forth. What Daywalt and Rex do so brilliantly here is turn this silly, simple game into a ridiculously overblown story of legendary heroes – a melodramatic-but-mundane masterpiece of overstatement and over-earnestness. It starts in “the Kingdom of Backyard,” where scowling hero Rock (in the utterly ordinary setting of a lawn, with a garden hose behind him) sets off for “the mysterious Forest of Over by the Tire Swing” in search of a challenge to his prowess. And he encounters “a warrior who hung on a rope, holding a giant’s underwear” – that is, a clothespin. And Rock challenges the “ridiculous wooden clip-man” to battle, and the clothespin promises to “pinch you and make you cry,” and the exaggerated angles used to display the scenes are right out of the basic playbook of movie and TV directors seeking to build up the size and importance of their characters. The words “Rock versus Clothespin!” are so huge that they barely fit on one page, and “Rock Is Victorious!” covers half of the next one as Rock smashes the clothespin into pieces. But Rock, “still unsatisfied,” continues his quest, and soon ridiculously accepts the challenge of “an odd and delicious fruit” – an apricot – after Rock says it looks “like a fuzzy little butt” and it promises to defeat Rock with its “tart and tangy sweetness.” One smooshed apricot later and the quest continues – and we cut, in perfect cinematic style, to another quest, this one from “the Empire of Mom’s Home Office,” where Paper, “the smartest warrior in all the land,” also seeks his equal. Threatened by a computer printer, he causes a paper jam in the “giant box-monster,” and he too progresses against other astonishing foes, including the absolutely hilarious “half-eaten bag of trail mix.” And then there is the third quest, from “the Kitchen Realm, in the tiny village of Junk Drawer,” from which Scissors emerges to do battle with a “tacky and vaguely round monstrosity” with “adhesive and tangling powers.” Scissors defeats the roll of tape and, soon afterwards, encounters and conquers the “dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets” from “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer.” The three quests eventually bring the three battle-hardened heroes together, and each defeats each in the time-honored way of the kids’ game – and each is happy to be defeated, for all have sought only to meet their match, which they finally do. And thus begins a friendship for the ages, memorialized in the game that children (and some adults) still enjoy playing today – and anyone who does not enjoy this fabulously fabricated “origin” story deserves to be pummeled by Rock, tightly wrapped by Paper, and cut up by Scissors, all at the same time.
Jonathan Fenske’s Plankton Is Pushy is not at this level – very, very few kids’ books are – but it is hilarious in its own way, which is very much the way of Fenske’s previous book, Barnacle Is Bored. There is something particularly engrossing and intriguing in Fenske’s super-simple drawings and super-brief narratives with an edge to them. Plankton Is Pushy starts with pink, sort-of-shrimplike Plankton swimming along (in a scene in which Barnacle makes a cameo appearance) and encountering large, squat, huge-eyed, scowling Mister Mussel. Plankton likes to greet everyone he sees, and expects a greeting in return – sort of like Br’er Rabbit, whose pleasantries ended with him stuck fast to the tar baby. But that’s another story – although possibly a precursor of and influence on this one. For here, as in that much older tale, the protagonist gets no response, and that bothers him. And then upsets him. And then makes him angry. And then makes him furious. And as Plankton goes through all those feelings about Mister Mussel, who he says is “just RUDE,” Mister Mussel simply sits there doing nothing. He does nothing when Plankton gets louder. Nothing when Plankton slows down the words of his greeting. Nothing when Plankton goes “Grrrrrr” or “Hmmmph.” Nothing when Plankton taps his foot…or whatever appendage that is. Nothing when Plankton gets down on his knees…or whatever body parts those are…and begs Mister Mussel to say something. But then, finally, finally, finally, Mister Mussel responds to Plankton, gradually, gradually, gradually opening his shell as Plankton drifts closer and closer and closer. Kids will immediately know where this is going to end up, or where Plankton is going to end up, and yup, sure enough, “SNAP!” And then, at the very end, Mister Mussel does have something to say – for which Plankton, pushing the closed shell open, is suitably grateful. The absurdity here is on a level wholly different from that of The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors, but in its own less-violent, much-less-elaborately-drawn way, Plankton Is Pushy is just as much fun. However, Plankton is darned lucky not to have encountered Rock, Paper or Scissors during their heroic quests.
North, South, East, West. By Margaret Wise Brown. Pictures by Greg Pizzoli. Harper. $17.99.
Places to Be. By Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Renata Liwska. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Kids in the 4-8 age range have a great deal to learn and balance, including the wish to explore and the simultaneous wish to stay with what is familiar. This desire lies at the core of North, South, East, West, a previously unpublished story by Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952) brought charmingly to life by Greg Pizzoli with illustrations that superimpose simple shapes like layers of tissue paper and in so doing produce lovely color changes: a bird’s light-blue wings, for instance, when seen over her red body, turn a darker shade that blends both hues. The story, as befits a tale for this age range and as is typical of Brown’s work, is at its core very simple and charmingly poetic. A mother bird gets her nestling ready to fly away to a home of her own by teaching her “to fly above and below the storms,/ and to glide on the strength of the wind.” But where shall the young bird go? She wonders aloud, “When I fly away, which is best?/ North, South, East, or West?” This is left for her to discover on her own, just as young readers must eventually discover it for themselves. And so the little bird flies “to the North,/ to a land of ice and snow,” but finds it too cold. Then she flies to the South, but “it was too hot there to build a nest,” so she rests a bit and flies to the West – only to find herself thinking that for all the interesting things she has seen in the North, South and West, “the East was home.” And so she flies back “to where the land was soft and green with rain,/ and the sycamore trees grew tall,” and that is where she remains to grow bigger and have a family of her own. And of course, when her nestlings come out of their eggs, they ask exactly the same question that the bird asked at the beginning of the book – which way is best to fly? Now the bird and her mate (who has one of his wings wrapped delicately around her) smile at the three little ones asking the question; and the very last page of the book, which has no words at all, shows the small birds flying off in three different directions – to discover their own “best” place or, perhaps, to return, as their mother did, to the place that will always be home. North, South, East, West has a deeply reassuring message that is beautifully conveyed by Brown’s text, and Pizzoli’s art fits so well with the words that it is almost as if the previously untold story was waiting for these illustrations to come into being so its message could be properly conveyed.
Mac Barnett’s Places to Be has some of the same simplicity of style as books like Brown’s, and Renata Liwska’s illustrations fit it very well (if not quite as seamlessly as Pizzoli’s fit North, South, East, West). But Places to Be is a different sort of book, about an older and younger sibling – bear cubs, in this case – who together explore both their neighborhood and their emotions. Together they find “places to be tall” (the smaller one stands on the larger one’s head to reach a ball stuck in a tree), “places to be loud” (they yell as the bike they are on careens down a hill), “places to be mad” (they face opposite ways on a bench after a quarrel), “places to be brave” (a high diving board), “places to be picky” (at the table with nothing on their plates but vegetables), and so on. What makes Barnett’s book special is that it does not sugarcoat childhood or the bears’ relationship. The bigger bear’s place “to be bored” is in a hospital bed while his broken leg heals; there is a place “to be sullen” (a good vocabulary word, explained by the two bears being unable to buy ice cream because the stand that sells it is closed); and there is a place “to be jubilant” (another good vocabulary word, associated with a fireworks display). The interaction of the two bear siblings seems completely natural and unforced, certainly with the inevitable ups and downs that all brothers and sisters face, but with an underlying current of real love. This is shown through a kind of “framing story” in which, near the book’s start, the bigger bear’s skateboard breaks, putting him in a place that is “blue and purple” – and at the end, the two bears work together to make a new skateboard that the bigger bear rides on the final page as the smaller one rides a bike. The warmth of the bears’ relationship does not prevent all problems or solve all difficulties – a very good lesson for kids in the target age range – but it persists despite the inevitable bumps in the emotional road, and that is what really matters. Places to Be would be an especially good read-aloud book for a child, whether younger or older, who is trying to cope with the irritations and hassles of a brother or sister. The book shows that the ultimate place to be is together – a worthy lesson for kids of any age.
American Gods. By Neil Gaiman. William Morrow. $19.99.
This book, Neil Gaiman’s first major solo novel, has been around since 2001, and was released in its expanded “author’s cut” version on a limited basis in 2003 and then for the mass market in 2011. It is certainly fair to ask why the book is coming around again, and what is left to say about it.
Well, the “why” is easy enough to explain: this is a TV tie-in edition for a series based on the book. (Gaiman is also reputed to be working on American Gods 2, but that is not relevant to this reissue.) The “what to say” is less evident. Gaiman was amazingly accurate when he said that this was the kind of book that people would either love or hate. Long after its initial publication, it is still a book that inspires strong emotions, one way or the other. The literary community itself adored and presumably still adores it: the book won multiple awards in multiple genres, which if nothing else provide testimony to the difficulty of placing it in any specific category. And American Gods sold gobs and gobs of copies, first in its original incarnation and then in its subsequent, 12,000-word-longer one (the one that is here reissued).
But there are nagging problems with the book that make it understandable if a minority of readers, perhaps a sizable minority, finds it exceedingly off-putting. Its underlying premise is nothing new: gods are only as powerful as people’s belief in them. (When you stop to think about it, that is not even a premise – it is a description of how religion works.) And it is certainly possible to posit that old gods, Norse and Native American and so on, might resent the coming of new gods (of wealth, technology and such) that have taken over all those worshippers. It is even possible to imagine that the old gods might want to engineer a war against the new gods with the aim of ousting or destroying them – although the method of doing so is a bit obscure, since what the old gods need is not victory in battle but a vast increase in people’s belief in them.
However, in American Gods the promised battle royal never happens: the climax of the book is that Shadow, the central Everyman character, prevents it by the simple expedient of explaining that the old gods have been pulling everyone’s strings in order to foment hostilities. But these are, you know, gods, whether old or new, and their inability to figure out what has been going on without some help from the rather dim Shadow strains credulity even in a fantasy novel (which is one thing that American Gods is).
Shadow is rather weak and rather dull for a central character – for example, it takes him an unconscionably long time to figure out that Mr. Wednesday is the American incarnation of Odin (for whom the weekday Wednesday is named). But in a picaresque novel (another thing that American Gods is), an overly naïve central character who makes discoveries along with readers, or even after readers have figured things out, is perfectly acceptable. Less clear are some of Gaiman’s foundational premises, such as the whole nation-based incarnation thing: there are different versions of gods in different places, but given the fact that nations are themselves artificial constructs whose borders can and do change, it is hard to justify the idea that the power of a particular god-incarnation rests with the belief of humans who happen to inhabit what happens to be a nation whose boundaries happen to be what they are at any given time. At the very least, this would seem to mean that gods fade in and out as nations’ boundaries contract or expand (actually, that is an intriguing notion, but not one that appears in American Gods).
And yet for all its structural flaws, and some narrative ones as well, American Gods is a powerful, involving, intricate novel that stands up very well in its episodic way. It is deliberately episodic, filled with subplots and cutaways and explanatory sections and other techniques that will be as maddening to some readers as they will be intriguing to others. It is a book packed with clever names, such as Mr. Nancy for Anansi the spider god, Low Key Lyesmith for the Norse trickster Loki, Whiskey Jack for the much-less-known trickster Wisakedjak (from Algonquian mythology), Mr. Jaquel for the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis, and so on; again, though, some readers will find the whole naming thing overdone, overused or just over-the-top. And not everyone will enjoy the occasional bit of subtle sociopolitical commentary in American Gods, such as the creation of the Intangibles as modern gods of the stock market – personifying the famous notion of an “invisible hand” and wanting to avoid direct confrontation with the old gods because they think market forces will take care of any dispute. Certainly the book has its over-obvious elements, such as the idyllic town of Lakeside that anyone familiar with horror stories or films will realize must hold a gruesome secret. But it also has considerable subtlety, including Shadow’s use of coin tricks and his eventual departure without waiting to see how his last such trick turns out.
Ultimately, American Gods is a mishmash – a deliberate one – with elements of fantasy, horror, mystery, science fiction and more. Readers looking for consistency of tone, voice or plot will not find it here; whether this is deemed a strength or a weakness will depend on each individual who picks up American Gods. And that, in the final analysis, is what is still (or again) worth saying about Gaiman’s book. It is admiration-provoking, anger-provoking, and, more important than either of those, thought-provoking. The new edition offers readers familiar with it an excellent chance to reacquaint themselves with what they like or hate about it, while giving those who do not yet know the book a perfect excuse to become involved in disputes about it that have already stretched through the better part of two decades.
Tin Can Titans: The Heroic Men and Ships of World War II’s Most Decorated Navy Destroyer Squadron. By John Wukovits. Da Capo. $28.
Followers of World War II stories can, it seems, never get enough of them, and authors such as John Wukovits are there to continue supplying them before the war’s survivors are gone forever. It is hard to feel anything less than admiration for the fighters whose stories are chronicled in books such as Tin Can Titans and Wukovits’ previous foray into writing about destroyers of the era, Hell from the Heavens. And yet these books will likely produce a sense of weariness in all readers but those most committed to the subject matter, because while the individual stories of ships, crews and battles differ, the basic underlying narrative – of turmoil, trouble, and eventual triumph – remains essentially the same in book after book.
This time the focus is on Destroyer Squadron 21 (DesRon 21), which Wukovits follows from mid-1942 to its remaining ships’ eventual honor of leading the United States Fleet into Tokyo Bay to accept Japan’s surrender in August 1945. In many ways, the earlier sections of the book, which is in three parts, will be the most interesting for war buffs, since Wukovits here details the origins of the destroyers in the squadron, the way the squadron itself was organized, and how matters fared when DesRon 21 faced its initial long and bloody campaign at Guadalcanal. One thing readers will learn here – and it may be genuinely new to anyone not already steeped in knowledge of World War II – is that destroyers were the jacks-of-all-trades of the U.S. Navy in the war’s early days, simply because the U.S. economy had not fully recovered from the Great Depression and was not yet capable of the level of warship construction that would eventually turn the tide (so to speak) in the Pacific. Indeed, there is an ongoing dispute as to whether World War II was an economic necessity, albeit a terribly grim one, for reviving a moribund economy, or whether the policies instituted by President Roosevelt and Congress through the 1930s were finally beginning to have a salutary effect by the early 1940s. Such issues are absent from Tin Can Titans, however, and are of no apparent interest to Wukovits or the readers he seeks. But they are worth keeping in mind as the author explains the necessity of destroyers doing such a long list of duties: fighting enemy surface vessels, hunting submarines, escorting larger warships and supply ships, doing anti-aircraft duty, and more. In a very real sense, destroyers were the workhorses of the war, especially in the early days of U.S. involvement in it. Their crucial role explains why they and not a larger and more elegant ship were chosen to enter Tokyo Bay at the war’s end.
In the book’s third part, Wukovits follows DesRon 21 through the latter part of the Pacific war, discussing the well-known island-hopping concept that forced the Japanese back from island after island and eventually to Okinawa. Wukovits details the elements of the strategy and the campaigns within it, emphasizing the loss of ships as well as crew members – often from mines and kamikaze attacks. And then, at the book’s end, Wukovits brings the three surviving destroyers to Tokyo Bay – and, in an epilogue, summarizes the squadron’s accomplishments and tells briefly of the postwar lives of a few of the many officers and crew members of the ships. The approach is wholly conventional throughout the book, mixing strategic information with personal stories and eventually (in two appendices) detailing the squadron’s awards and showing where each vessel was at the war’s conclusion. There are the usual photos, some of ships and some of crew members, and the book as a whole draws on the usual mixture of first-person stories and contemporary coverage of DesRon 21’s activities. The result is a well-researched, well-paced book that will certainly have considerable meaning for the families of the crews that served in DesRon 21, and that will please readers who simply cannot get enough of World War II minutiae. However, Wukovits makes no attempt whatsoever to turn this book into anything more than yet another untold (or previously imperfectly told) tale of war heroism. The book is strictly for people who are already enamored – that is not too strong a word – of the exploits of fighters in a war three-quarters of a century ago that remains, for many, a shining example of pure and just combat whose every nook and cranny deserves full exploration and consummate praise.
Franz Reizenstein: Sonata in G-sharp; Geoffrey Bush: Sonata; John Ireland: Sonata No. 2 in A minor. Louisa Stonehill, violin; Nicholas Burns, piano. Lyrita. $18.99.
Martinů: Variations on a Theme of Rossini; Ariette for Cello and Piano; Seven Arabesques; Suite Miniature; Nocturnes for Cello and Piano; Variations on a Slovakian Theme. Meredith Blecha-Wells, cello; Sun Min Kim, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Karl Höller: Fantasie for Violin and Organ; Triptychon for Organ Solo; Improvisation for Cello and Organ. William Preucil, violin; Roy Christensen, cello; Barbara Harbach, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Altius Quartet: Dress Code. Joshua Ulrich and Andrew Giordano, violins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello. Navona. $14.99.
Stories for Our Time: Contemporary Music for Trumpet by Women Composers. Thomas Pfotenhauer, trumpet, flugelhorn and E-flat trumpet; Vincent Fuh, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Zhen Chen: Music for Piano and Chinese Folk Instruments. Zhen Chen, piano; Jiaju Shen, pipa; Feifei Yang, erhu; Yixuan Pang, voice. Navona. $14.99.
Three little-known wartime violin-and-piano sonatas from two different wars show just how effectively composers can communicate with a paucity of instruments. Franz Reizenstein (1911-1968) wrote his Sonata in G-sharp in 1945. There is a reason that the sonata is not designated as being in G-sharp major or G-sharp minor: it moves restlessly between the major and minor keys, which the piano establishes at the outset. The uncertainty is a formative element of the work’s first movement. The second movement is a bouncy Scherzo with some obeisance to Shostakovich. The third and last is complex, abrupt and fast-changing, and eventually leads to a juxtaposition of B natural and B-sharp that reinforces the work’s ambiguous tonality. The underlying feeling of being deeply unsettled by a world at war comes through far more clearly than the work’s tonality does. Louisa Stonehill and Nicholas Burns, who call themselves the Steinberg Duo, play the work sure-handedly and with empathetic understanding. They do an equally fine job with the sonata by Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998), who wrote this piece in the same year as Reizenstein’s in G-sharp, 1945. This is the world première recording of the single-movement work, whose thoroughgoing chromatic uncertainty somewhat parallels that of Reizenstein: Bush never allows any key to establish and maintain itself for more than a few measures. The melodies of the work are quite lovely and perhaps reflective of Bush’s hopes for a better postwar world (he was an avowed pacifist); but the setting within which those melodies are heard is that of a world that is at best uncertain of where it stands and where life is going. The second sonata by John Ireland (1879-1962) dates to the previous world war and was first heard in 1917, at which time it caused such a sensation that the first printed edition sold out even before publication. It is an attractive three-movement work whose instant popularity, from the standpoint of a century later, is a bit hard to comprehend. Certainly, though, it has effectively expressed emotional ups and downs: there is clear anguish in parts, balanced by warm lyricism that elicits pity for the horrors of the conflict. The central second movement is the most interesting, evoking the feeling of a death march but containing a beautiful, optimism-filled tune in the center that surely reflected the initial audience’s hopes for the future. The Lyrita recording is technically fine but has bizarre errors in the dates of both Bush and Ireland (the enclosed booklet is correct).
Many of the works of Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) were also influenced by war, but that is not the focus of the new Navona CD on which cellist Meredith Blecha-Wells and pianist Sun Min Kim offer five of his suites of short pieces plus a very brief Ariette. Although one of the four Nocturnes lasts six minutes and another almost four, nothing else on the CD reaches three minutes in length: this is Martinů as miniaturist. The style of the works is generally conservative, but the frequent overlay of Czech folk music gives the works a distinctive touch that is typical of Martinů. The brightness of the Rossini variations contrasts nicely with the flowing, lyrical line of the Ariette. The Arabesques are generally upbeat and pleasant and not very consequential. Suite Miniature, in seven movements, has the delicacy and some of the flippancy of a piece for or about children, although it is neither. The Nocturnes are somewhat more expansive and the only works here with a modicum of depth of feeling, although even here the overall impression is mostly one of gentle play and contemplative relaxation. The Variations on a Slovakian Theme show Martinů’s skill in variation form even better than do those on Rossini’s theme, and they allow the cello a kind of broad folkloric expressiveness that fits the material very well and that Blecha-Wells carries off with considerable skill. The interplay between cellist and pianist and their fine ensemble work are major attractions of this disc of mostly lightweight music.
The three Karl Höller works on a new MSR Classics release focus neither on violin nor on cello, although both are present. The dominant sound here is that of the organ, which is scarcely an instrument usually associated with chamber music. Barbara Harbach, a very fine organist as well as a skilled composer in her own right, clearly finds the music of Höller (1907-1987) congenial. The tonal language here is primarily that of the late Romantic era, but it is blended, generally rather seamlessly, with the neoclassicism of Paul Hindemith and some of the approaches to organ music favored by Max Reger. Indeed, two of the works on this disc have neo-Baroque sensibilities despite their more-modern harmonic structure. Triptychon is a three-movement solo organ work “on the Easter sequence ‘Victimae paschali laudes,’” and Improvisation is a five-movement piece “on the spiritual folksong ‘Schönster Herr Jesus.’” The religious underpinning of both these works ties to the traditional centrality of the church in organ music, yet Höller’s use of a folksong as the basis for Improvisation pulls the instrument our of a strictly ecclesiastical setting and into the wider world. Unlike Martinů, Höller does not seem to take the folk elements of his underlying material deeply to heart, at least in this work, but he writes just as effectively for cello and organ as Martinů does for cello and piano – and in fact Höller’s integration of the stringed and wind instruments is so well done that listeners may wonder why the combination is so rare. As for Triptychon, it is a more conventional piece in its sacred theme and in Höller’s handling of the material, and at nearly half an hour it is somewhat overly expansive, without the tight integration of form that, for example, Widor and Vierne brought to their organ symphonies. Harbach certainly plays the piece very well, though. As for the somewhat slighter Fantasie, here the balance of violin and organ is attractive – and in some ways more immediately appealing than that of the lower, more-resonant cello with the organ in Improvisation. Again, though, the single-movement Fantasie uses the two instruments in such interesting ways that listeners may wish for further examples of this type of strings-and-organ combination, which in skilled hands like Höller’s offers a very intriguing mixture of sounds.
There is nothing unusual in the instrumental combination on a new Navona release featuring the Altius Quartet – but the quartet itself is determined, absolutely determined, to make the recording as unusual as possible. Thus, while the performers do play one of Haydn’s wonderful, balanced, carefully structured quartets (Op. 74, No. 1), they apparently think it would be beneath them to perform the piece as Haydn intended. Oh, no – that would not have sufficient “contemporary chic.” So after the first movement of the quartet, the players perform two other, entirely unrelated works; then they give the quartet’s second movement; then another unrelated piece; then the third movement; then two more pieces having nothing to do with Haydn; and then the finale – followed by something else. The whole approach is reminiscent of the classic Monty Python line, “And now for something completely different” – an indication of a deliberate non sequitur. And that does indeed seem to be what the Altius Quartet here pursues. Among the pieces that interrupt Haydn is William Bolcom’s Three Ghost Rags, given here in the order 2-1-3 (for no apparent reason): this work itself suffers from being broken up into component parts. And then there is something called Take It that meshes Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” And a medley of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir.” And Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” And, at the CD’s very end, there is “Take on Me” by a-ha (sic). Certainly the disc is intended to be playful and with-it and all that, and certainly there are playful elements both in Haydn’s quartet (1793) and Bolcom’s music (1970). And in everything else here, for that matter. But a juxtaposition of, say, the Haydn (played as a whole) with the Bolcom (played in the order the composer intended) would have made for quite a fine contrast without the necessity of breaking the pieces up into their component parts and tossing in little bits of this and that as well. The Altius Quartet – which, by the way, plays all the music quite well – seems to be trying too hard to be cool and contemporary and cognizant of the extremely short attention span of many listeners today. The longest track on the CD runs less than seven minutes, while the full Haydn quartet would require that people pay attention for (horrors!) 23 minutes. This CD turns out to be testimony to the superficiality of far too much music and far too many listeners in our time.
There is contemporary flair as well on a new MSR Classics CD that is also trying perhaps a bit too hard to be, well, contemporary. It features the very fine trumpeter Thomas Pfotenhauer in six world première recordings of six pieces by six female composers. It is the combined emphasis on all-new material and all-female material that makes this into something of a “cause” recording – which is actually a shame, since the works here all contain elements of considerable interest independent of their provenance. That simply means they are worthy when judged as music, not as music from a specified era or by someone of a specified gender – that kind of musical “identity politics” is really quite unnecessary here. Jazz Professor Glasses for solo trumpet and flugelhorn (2008) by Anne Guzzo (born 1968) is especially interesting, its three movements exploring some of the outer reaches of both instruments to good effect – and with a strong flavoring of Chinese influence in the first movement and of jazz in the finale. All the other works pair Pfotenhauer with pianist Vincent Fuh, who provides very able backup and accompaniment. The longest piece is Framed (2009) by Cecilia McDowell (born 1951), an interesting seven-movement Pictures at an Exhibition derivative intended to capture the artistic styles of Auguste Renoir, James McNeill Whistler, Alberto Giacometti, Hendrick Avercamp, Andy Warhol, Simon Marmion, and Alexander Rodchenko. Whether it does so or not will depend on each listener’s response and on how well an individual knows the painters – but whether or not the musical portraits are wholly successful, they certainly do show the wide range of colors and emotions of which the trumpet is capable. Two nicely compressed three-movement works here effectively contrast the trumpet’s lyrical capabilities with its martial side: Concertino (1989) by Ida Gotkovsky (born 1933) and Sonata (2002) by Elaine Fine (born 1959). There is also the disc’s three-movement title work by Faye-Ellen Silverman (born 1947), Stories for Our Time (2007), and this piece takes trumpet style further than the others do, through greater dissonance, a wider variety of performance techniques, and stronger contrast among the movements. Silverman’s work follows and stands in strong contrast to the lovely single movement called Look Little Low Heavens (1992) by Hilary Tann (born 1947). Inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Spring, Tann’s work is gentle, serene and lyrical except for a central dramatic section. Tann, interestingly, is another composer who, like Guzzo, has drawn inspiration from the Orient, although in Tann’s case from Japan rather than China.
Neither Guzzo nor Tann has, however, absorbed the influence of Chinese music in the way than Zhen Chen has – as is abundantly clear from a new Navona CD. The 10 works here sound as if they are drawn from Chinese folk music, but in actuality they are not – instead, Chen has studied and analyzed the sounds of the music and brought it into forms that allow some of the material to be played on the piano. The other instruments here are the lute-like pipa and bowed erhu. Two pieces, Jade and Dance Floor Banter, are for piano and pipa; two, Regret and Longing, are for piano and erhu; two, Plum Blossom Chant and Lament, are for piano and voice; two, Springfield and Turpan Tango, are for piano, pipa and erhu; one, Stroll by the Lake, is for piano, pipa and voice; and the final work on the disc, Recollection, is for solo piano. The combinations show clearly that Chen has carefully thought through the ways in which these instruments (including the voice, which is used here primarily as an instrument, whether speaking words or singing a vocalise) can interweave with and complement each other. To ears more accustomed to Western music, the works here have a sameness of sound that makes them seem longer than in fact they are: the CD runs just 42 minutes but seems to stretch out much farther. As background music or music designed to enhance meditation or contemplation, the works come across well; but except for Turpan Tango and Dance Floor Banter, which are more upbeat than the other pieces and have some Western-style dance rhythms at their core, there is little to distinguish the pieces here except for their titles. As a showcase for the ways in which Oriental and Occidental musical thinking can be blended and hybridized, Chen’s creations are interesting. But the hybridization wears thin rather quickly and seems more appropriate for contemplative mood-setting than for any focus on the music as music.
April 13, 2017
Lines and Triangles and Squares, Oh My! By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Carey Hall. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.
Claire Winteringham’s Alphabet Parade. By Claire Winteringham. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.
I Love My Daddy. By Sebastien Braun. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $7.99.
I Love My Mommy. By Sebastien Braun. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $7.99.
Intended as they are for ages from birth through three or four, board books would seem to offer little room for creativity in writing, illustration and design. In fact, however, the opposite is the case: the short, restricted form of these books frequently inspires authors and illustrators to produce very pleasant and highly creative stories and ways of communicating information. Two new offerings from Pomegranate Kids are particularly intriguing for their educational value. Zoe Burke’s Lines and Triangles and Squares, Oh My! is exceptional. Starting with straight, colored lines and using the services of a cartoon cat named Bluebell, Burke and illustrator Carey Hall show young children how a triangle is made and what sorts of things are triangle-shaped (mountains, Bluebell’s hat and ears, and so on). Then, starting with four straight lines, Burke and Hall create a square and show all the square-shaped things around Bluebell. And then they spin the square to make a diamond – using the same four lines in the same four colors, so kids can easily see what is going on – and show diamond-shaped objects. And then they stretch the diamond – the visualization here, using arrows, is quite clear and easy to follow – and now have a rectangle, which they can once again show in a number of places that kids will be able to identify (a table, a door, a bed, etc.). Finally, Bluebell is seen playing with a wiggly line that is smoothed and tied to itself to form a circle – and, yet again, there are plenty of circles to be found in the book’s illustrations. This is a lot of learning to pack into board-book format, and the final two pages – in which Bluebell appears as a train engineer in a scene containing all the shapes explained in the book – make an excellent conclusion. Both the concept and the execution here are well beyond what parents would likely expect from a board book – an impressive achievement.
Almost as intriguing is Claire Winteringham’s Alphabet Parade, which has no story at all: it simply shows attractive watercolor illustrations of various animals and objects beginning with each letter of the alphabet. The fun here is in the quality of the pictures, the unusual choices of some items to illustrate the letters, and the attractive juxtapositions on some pages. The letter E, for instance, includes elephants and egg – no surprise there – but the egg is balanced right on the end of one elephant’s trunk, and that makes the illustration quite interesting. Furthermore, this letter’s page also mentions egret and eucalyptus tree, and neither that bird nor that plant is commonly found in alphabet books (and the egret is actually perched in the tree). This is Winteringham’s approach throughout the book. The letter I has only two entries, iguana and insects, but there are 11 different insects shown, from beetles to butterflies. The letter N includes not only a nest but also the baby birds in it, referred to as nestlings – and the specific bird species is nuthatch (there is a newt in the picture, too). The letter D has a dinosaur following a duck past date palms and daisies as a dragonfly soars overhead. The letter R has the unusual combination of rabbits, rhinoceros and rocket. And the letter O is an ocean scene (“ocean” is one of the words) in which a very large octopus has one tentacle gently wrapped around an owl and two others cradling oranges. Colorful and clever, Claire Winteringham’s Alphabet Parade makes a fine introduction to the letters of the alphabet, the typical sturdy board-book format making it particularly easy for little hands to hold.
Other board books, although quite pleasant, are considerably more conventional in telling simple stories and illustrating them pleasantly but not in any exceptional way. Two by Sebastien Braun, I Love My Daddy and I Love My Mommy, fit this description. Each two-page spread of the “daddy” book shows a big brown bear and his small cub together as the cub tells, in just a few words, something that the two of them do: “My daddy wakens me.” “My daddy washes me.” “My daddy chases me.” The bears play hide-and-seek in the forest, run about in a meadow, sit looking out at a mountain vista, play a tickling game, cuddle, and more – and the final page, “I love my daddy,” simply shows the cub curled up in the sleeping big bear’s arms, about to fall asleep himself. I Love My Mommy follows a somewhat different path: here, the basic narrative is similar, but every two-page shows a different animal-mom-and-child scene. “My mommy watches me while I play” features rabbits; “my mommy takes me swimming” has river otters; “my mommy helps me to climb” shows squirrels; “my mommy works really hard” uses beavers; “my mommy cuddles me” features foxes; and the final “I love my mommy” shows a mother bird with two little ones, one tucked within each wing. Braun’s books are simple, straightforward, warmhearted and designed for reading aloud to children who are too young to read themselves. They are sweet and cozy, even a little overdone in their determined delicacy – fine for the very youngest infants, but likely of less interest as babies start becoming interested in reading on their own and are ready to absorb the more-complicated concepts found in Claire Winteringham’s Alphabet Parade and Lines and Triangles and Squares, Oh My!