November 21, 2019
Not Sparking Joy: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
“Peanuts” Collection No. 13—Charlie Brown: All Tied Up. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Over time, good comic strips change. But the great ones evolve. Cases in point: Zits and Peanuts. From their origins, each strip had a basic, foundational premise: for Zits, what life is like with a teenager, and what life is like if you are a teenager; for Peanuts, how young children might react and interact if they could think and talk in largely adult ways (kids-talking-like-adults actually being a trope of comic strips at the time Peanuts came into being). For the two-decades-plus of Zits so far and the eventual five decades of Peanuts, the strips held fast to their roots while branching out into a wide variety of new areas that, however, remained always connected to their underlying designs. Every new collection of these strips shows how they have flowered while still being planted firmly in their original soil.
Thus, in the latest Zits collection, Not Sparking Joy, 17-year-old Jeremy Duncan (formerly 15, then 16 in an evolution with major importance when it occurred, since it allowed him to start driving) retains his trademark almost-sensible analyses of things in his world, as when he describes beef jerky as “a good source of protein that’s compact, nonperishable and an excellent study aid” – by which he means it is not only food but also a bookmark. Jeremy still has a love/hate relationship with technology, which means he uses it but does not always care for the results, as when “an app that shows what you’ll look like when you’re old” displays an aged Jeremy looking exactly like his father, Walt – leaving Jeremy wondering whether he could sell his soul for a different outcome. Jeremy also retains his trademark set of expressions, always marvelously drawn by Jim Borgman, which dad Walt and mom Connie have learned to interpret by creating a gigantic wall hanging of a “scowl chart.” Jeremy is smart enough to promise his parents not to break curfew again so he will not be grounded again, but tricky enough to make the statement replete with asterisks and similar symbols – and when Walt and Connie try to see the footnoted words, Jeremy says that “nobody reads the terms and conditions” (an example of the way excellent writing and illustration mesh seamlessly in Zits). The strip’s evolution over time has resulted in some genuine warmth and subtlety – not too much, since after all it has to be funny (and always is), but just enough for a little leavening. Thus, in one Sunday strip, Jeremy says he made Walt something for Fathers’ Day, and when Walt asks what, we see Jeremy turning down alcohol, breaking up a fight, and giving food to a homeless man – then telling his father, “Three good decisions.” The final panel of the two hugging each other is simply perfect. Indeed, the Sunday strips have always been even more outstanding than the weekday ones, since Borgman uses the additional space so creatively. For example, there is nothing particularly unusual about imagining the piled-up dirty dishes in a 16-year-old’s room, but the way Borgman shows it in a single-panel Sunday strip – with Jeremy and his pile taking up half the whole huge panel – is superb. Actually, Borgman also does exceptionally well with daily strips in single-panel form, where Scott’s pithy writing really shines – for instance, in the panel showing Jeremy and much-pierced friend Pierce at a table in a coffee shop, where Pierce has a gigantic, snarling lizard on a leash, facing three utterly terrified people. The dialogue is almost unnecessary, but it certainly emphasizes the point: Jeremy says Pierce’s “therapy iguana is freaking people out,” and Pierce replies, “And I find that very therapeutic.” That is a perfect encapsulation of Pierce’s personality. In Zits, strip after strip is used to explore the nuances of personal relationships – and, every once in a while, to pay tribute to other great strips. One example in Not Sparking Joy is the strip showing Jeremy as a baseball pitcher, making a “pitch” to his mom in hopes of getting permission to spend winter break in Cancun. The final, no-dialogue panel shows Jeremy upside-down above the pitcher’s mound, expression shocked and shoes flying off his feet, as the ball speeds past with the single word “POW!” And that is a marvelous tribute to the ever-feckless Charlie Brown and his ever-failing sports endeavors in Peanuts.
Charles Schulz’ strip lasted a full half century, until Schulz died in 2000, and long outlived the notion of kids-talking-like-adults as a formative influence. In fact, the strip evolved so brilliantly that it picked up on and discarded a whole set of trends and fads, as the many reprints continue to show decades after Schulz moved on to, presumably, draw on an even higher plane. Thus, in Charlie Brown: All Tied Up, there is a highly amusing sequence in which sports-focused D-minus student Peppermint Patty pairs up with dust-and-dirt-shedding Pigpen for a Valentine’s Day dance and ends up falling for him – a delightful focus on two of the strip’s lesser characters, and one that works despite its setting, which is the disco era. Yes, Pigpen is seen making some disco moves on the dance floor, and they will mean nothing to today’s young readers (or many of today’s adults). And Patty asks him disco-era questions that readers today may find strange, if not off-putting: “What’s your sign?” and “Do you come here often?” But Schulz, as always, homes in on the characters he has created and the way they interact as a result of their respective personalities – the specific music era in which the events happen fades into insignificance, and in fact, so does the dance, as Schulz explores his characters’ feelings after the event at much greater length. The way Schulz handled the kids-talking-and-thinking-like adults theme of Peanuts was always brilliant and is as impressive today as it was in the past – as in one Sunday strip in which Sally, trying to persuade big brother Charlie Brown to help with her homework, offers a long discussion of the way Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sonya, overcame many difficulties to help him with War and Peace by copying it for him seven times. There is no possible way Sally would know any of that in anything approaching the real world, but Peanuts, for all its real-world appearance, actually takes place in a finely tuned fantasy where Sally’s success in getting Charlie Brown’s help with homework occurs by melding her personality and his to just the right degree. Charlie Brown’s trials and tribulations were the glue that held Peanuts together, and there are certainly plenty of them in this latest collection. In one strip, he tells Snoopy the various ways it is possible to know if someone is boring – and Snoopy reacts in every one of those ways, showing readers how boring Charlie Brown is (although he is not boring to readers but only to other characters in the strip: part of the Schulz magic). In another sequence, one of the many featuring Charlie Brown’s baseball team, Lucy invents the “schmuckle ball” after explaining that she will be playing right field and can offer “a misjudged fly ball” or “nice bobbled ground ball” and will “be back in a moment” to take his order. Of course, not even the “schmuckle ball” can bring this team victory: one pitch inevitably leads to the same famous “POW!” panel, with Charlie Brown’s clothes scattered everywhere and with him flipped upside-down above the pitcher’s mound, to which Zits pays tribute. Thus does one of the greats respond to and expand upon another, without ever upstaging it. Or intending to.
Can You See Me? By Mikhala Lantz-Simmons and Mohammad Rasoulipour. Andrews McMeel. $17.99.
Happy Hair. By Mechal Renee Roe. Doubleday. $16.99.
Good Night, Little Blue Truck. By Alice Schertle. Illustrated by John Joseph. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
An exceptionally clever use of negative space – the artistic technique in which areas where nothing is drawn are perceived by viewers as creating a picture – is the concept underlying Can You See Me? Mikhala Lantz-Simmons and Mohammad Rasoulipour do something here that seems simple when seen but is difficult to pull off: they create illustrations using nothing but triangles, positioning the geometric shapes so they suggest (rather than show) a wide variety of animals. It is not a matter of the animals being camouflaged, or not exactly that – the animals are not actually there at all, but their appearances are filled in mentally by young readers, using the explanatory clues provided by the author/illustrators. The text is not up to the quality of the illustrations – the book reads as if Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour were so enamored of their artistic concept that they could barely be bothered with words – but it provides the minimum needed hints to help children decipher the drawings. For example, Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour show a large, downward-pointing triangle, next to each of whose upper points there are two smaller triangles, one of those being even smaller than the other. The text reads, “My large antlers can be a bother/ as I make my way/ from the woods to the water./ Can you see me?” This indicates that the triangle arrangement depicts the head of a deer or moose – it scarcely matters which – seen against a background of large triangles (representing mountains) and tiny airborne downward-pointing triangles (birds). Doing the entire book’s illustrations with triangles is really an impressive feat. Another page shows a large, downward-pointing triangle at the top of which are two smaller, upward-pointing ones that are clearly supposed to be ears: “Through the bush I sneak./ My bushy tail follows my leap./ Can you see me?” This is a fox, or at least a fox’s head (Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour do not attempt to show any animal’s full body). The words “Can you see me?” appear with every illustration, quite unnecessarily, but the illustrations themselves engage and enthrall readers again and again. Another shows a smaller version of the same shape used for the fox’s head floating between two much larger, downward-pointing triangles, with the words, “I use sound to navigate around./ Can you see me?” It is a bat, or at least a beautifully imagined suggestion of one. Some of the more-elaborate arrangements of triangles are particularly impressive – those representing a giraffe and a crocodile or alligator, for example – but even the simpler sets of triangles are interesting to see and fun to decipher.
Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour have created a picture book for the widest possible audience. Mechal Renee Roe, on the other hand, has made one for a very narrow group of children: African-American girls. Happy Hair, originally self-published in 2014, is intended to celebrate what used to be called “nappy hair” (there was a delightful children’s book with that very title by Carolivia Herron, illustrated by Joe Cepeda, but now some African-Americans find the term offensive). Like Can You See Me? with its repetitive title question, Roe’s book uses the same words with every illustration: “I love being me!” The pictures themselves simply show dark-skinned girls on one page, always with eyes closed, sporting various hairstyles, while the opposite page offers a few words of praise: “Full ’Fro,/ Cute Bow!/ I love being me!” “Smart Girl,/ Cool Curls!/ I love being me!” “Fresh Do,/ Too Cool!/ I love being me!” Speech balloons above each illustration add one-or-two-word comments, as if each girl is saying or thinking about her hair: “Cute crop!” “Blowout!” “Pattern wrap!” “Bomb braids!” The pictures are quite clearly the point here, being used to tell African-American girls that anything they do with their hair is great and that they will always look as well-put-together, nicely dressed and impressively made-up as the book’s illustrations, no matter what hairstyle they choose. The message of self-empowerment and personal pride is unexceptionable and in line with recommendations in innumerable picture books that kids simply be themselves and be true to their own feelings and appearance. This particular book is for one specific subset of kids, but it carries the same thoughts as ones intended for more-general audiences – or other specific ones.
John Joseph’s illustrations for Good Night, Little Blue Truck are “in the style of Jill McElmurry” and are intended to reach out as widely as hers do in other books, but they do not quite have the same touch of amusement that hers consistently deliver. Nevertheless, the book will be fun for kids interested in some amusing pictures of Little Blue interacting with and helping animals of all sorts. Alice Schertle makes this a bedtime story: the truck, with Toad at the wheel, heads home just as a thunderstorm is breaking, but truck and Toad soon find themselves with a number of guests in “their warm garage.” Goat asks to come into the shelter, Hen seeks “a nice safe place to hide” from the rain, Goose finds the storm “a little bit frightening,” Cow feels “safer here with you,” and so on. Eventually the garage is full of animals: “‘Beep-beep-beep!’ said Little Blue./ ‘There’s room for you, and you, and you./ Everybody gather round./ Thunder’s such a grumbly sound!’” Instead of sleeping through the night, though, the animals – along with Little Blue and Toad – listen to the storm as it moves through the area and then disappears. And then Little Blue gives a “bedtime ride” to the animals, dropping them off one by one at the places where they usually sleep. And finally, Little Blue and Toad return to the garage and go to sleep themselves. The narrative is easy to follow and will be especially appealing to very young children who are afraid of thunder and lightning: Schertle has Duck exclaim, at one point (and in all capital letters), “‘THUNDER’S JUST A NOISY RACKET!’” Joseph’s appealingly simple pictures help move the story along, and it is easy to see how parents can use the eventual dropping-off of the animals for their nightly rest as a way to get children to relax and go to sleep themselves – whether or not a thunderstorm has just blown through and blown over.
Roaring Back: The Fall and Rise of Tiger Woods. By Curt Sampson. Diversion Books. $26.99.
Some people love reading about celebrities whom they will never meet and never interact with, imagining themselves in circumstances in which they rub shoulders (or other body parts) with people who are famous primarily for being famous. Some people love reading about sports figures whose abilities to bash into each other at high speed while wearing loads of padding and helmets, throw a round ball through a hoop, swing a long piece of metal or wood, or otherwise perform acts wholly unrelated to non-sports-figures’ lives, have made them extremely rich. And some people love reading about sports figures who are celebrities, a sort of two-in-one fantasyland of imagined interaction.
For those people, there is Roaring Back. As the subtitle clearly indicates, this is about Tiger Woods, who is famous for being famous and also famous for succeeding at golf – not that he always succeeded, which is what makes the “fall and rise” portion of the subtitle possible. Like innumerable other fan-centric books, Curt Sampson’s is hagiography disguised as journalism, or at least as informational communication. Sampson is a longtime, well-respected golf writer, and his book is very clearly targeted at people who are knowledgeable about professional golf and fascinated by its intricacies and by the major players in it. The “celebrity” elements are actually somewhat downplayed here, with little attention given to Woods’ divorce and the multiple affairs that led to it, or to his eventual treatment for sex addiction – the kind of information over which celebrity worshippers positively drool. But that material is widely, maybe too widely, available elsewhere, and although Sampson needs some of it for “fall” material, his primary interest is in Woods’ “rise.”
The specific occasion of that “rise” is Woods’ victory at the 2019 Masters tournament, which golf writers unanimously proclaimed to be one of the wonders of the age. Sampson spends a lot of time giving detailed, indeed very detailed, information on that event. For example, he writes extensively about the Par Three 12th hole of the Augusta National course and its importance to Woods’ eventual victory. It helps, a lot, to be comfortable with golf jargon and Sampson’s constant use of it in his descriptive passages: just in regard to this specific course, he writes about Rae’s Creek, the Amen Corner, and much more. Sampson’s discussion of the Augusta National course comes entirely from an insider’s perspective – this is not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty of professional golf or uninterested in its minutiae. It also helps to know a bit about some golfers other than Woods, especially Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Francis Molinari, who were neck-and-neck with Woods (to mix a horse-racing metaphor with golf) well into the last round of the 2019 Masters.
Sampson inserts himself into his narrative from time to time, perhaps trying to personalize rather than “celebritize” matters for readers, but these sections come across as awkward: “Relationships require skillful give and take to work, as well as luck, magic, and some other element hidden to me, perhaps astrology.” However, his writing about golf is punchy (a boxing metaphor there) and very much in-the-know – and is quite clearly aimed at others who are equally in-the-know, or wish they were. And as usual with what is essentially a rah-rah book about someone’s heroic deeds (and do not tell a rabid sports fan that celebrity sports people are not heroic), the book concludes with a kind of “what’s next?” speculation, as Sampson wonders whether the “rise” of Woods will lead to still greater things in the future or will prove to have been a pinnacle of recovery after which matters will remain, at best, static, or will deteriorate either slowly or more quickly. Anyone who thinks about those possibilities with a “who cares?” attitude is emphatically not in the audience for Roaring Back. With its eight pages of photos inside and its big picture of an exuberant Woods dominating the cover, this is a celebrate-the-celebrity book in which the importance of professional golf and its players is never to be questioned, much less analyzed or debated. It is strictly for people intrigued by those players and how they play, not for anyone wondering why any of this matters.
Mendelssohn: Complete Organ Sonatas. Hans Davidsson, organ. Loft Recordings. $18.99.
Christmas with the 5 Browns. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Devonté Hynes: For All Its Fury; Perfectly Voiceless; There Was Nothing. Third Coast Percussion (Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore). Cedille. $16.
Jonathan Östlund: Voyages. Divine Art. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Maija Hynninen: Winnowing; …Sicut Aurora Procedit—As the Dawn Breaks; Orlando-fragments; Freedom from Fear. Maija Hynninen, electronics. Ravello. $14.99.
An exceptional reconsideration of Mendelssohn’s six organ sonatas within a religious context and by viewing them as essentially a single very large work, Hans Davidsson’s performance on the excellent 1806 Schiörlin organ in Gammalkil, Sweden is revelatory in many ways. The organ has, thankfully, not been spoiled through numerous updates, although it has been restored several times and a few non-historical elements have been added. Still, a plan to make the action pneumatic was abandoned, and the organ retains enough of its original sound to make it a superb instrument for performing Mendelssohn’s infrequently heard sonata cycle. Individual sonatas from the sequence occasionally find their way into organ recitals, but the 80-minute entirety is a rarity – yet it is decidedly more than the sum of its parts in Davidsson’s interpretation. The fact that the sonatas draw in part on Bach chorales is well-known, but the relationship between the sonatas’ themes and those of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang” – actually a kind of symphony/cantata – is less often remarked upon and explored. Davidsson finds the themes from that work and integrates them seamlessly into the totality, all while showing the distinctive ways in which the sonatas blend Bach-derived material with movements that sound much like Mendelssohn’s own “songs without words.” Davidsson shows that the sonatas are essentially two cycles made into a grand, larger whole: the first three sonatas form one grouping whose focus is human turmoil and despair, concluding with the eventual triumph over darkness through Christian affirmation; the second set of three is more joyful and positive, even though the third and longest of the second group is in D minor – fittingly, since it ends by recalling the sacrifice of Christ that is musically depicted in the very first sonata and makes human joyfulness possible. This interpretation also makes the very end of the cycle satisfying rather than puzzling: the conclusion of the last sonata is restrained, contemplative and rather pastoral, seemingly an odd capstone for such a large and impressive grouping of works – but in Davidsson’s reading, it stands as a kind of quiet, satisfied “amen” after all that has gone before, and this makes it wholly understandable and a more-than-satisfactory peroration. This very impressive exploration of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas sheds considerable light both on the music and on the thinking and belief underlying the cycle.
The 5 Browns – sibling pianists Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan – seek nothing as deep as this with their new Christmas CD on the Steinway & Sons label. But Christmas is, after all, a religious holiday for many millions of people, and the arrangements on this disc are nicely balanced between the sacred and the secular. They are also well-thought-out in terms of how the five performers’ talents are deployed: For Unto Us a Child Is Born from Handel’s Messiah, arranged by Carl Czerny, uses only a single piano – played six-hands (by Desirae, Deondra and Melody) – while O Holy Night is heard on two pianos (Desirae and Deondra) and Silent Night and Max Reger’s Mariae Wiegenlied are both played as solo works (by Gregory). These religious works all garner sensitive and caring performances, as do Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Still, Still, Still – the latter played by all five performers on five pianos, as are works with a more-secular orientation, including A Carol Symphony and the Skater’s Waltz by Émile Waldteufel. The other tracks here are four movements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite; Sleigh Ride; Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming; Greensleeves; and Carol of the Bells. Although this exploration of piano sonorities and Christmas-themed music does not stray far from a well-trod seasonal path, it mixes the religious and secular elements of holiday celebrations to fine effect, and provides a welcome chance to enjoy the ways in which the 5 Browns interact among themselves and also perform as soloists and in groups of fewer than five. Every year brings seasonal recordings of all sorts, of course, and this one is of considerable interest and musicality, offering more enjoyment than usual because it explores mostly familiar repertoire in some unusual ways.
Third Coast Percussion includes just four members, but the wide variety of instruments the ensemble plays often makes it seem as if a much larger group is performing. Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore intend just about everything they do to be exploratory in nature, which is certainly the case when it comes to a new Cedille CD featuring world première recordings of three works by Devonté Hynes, who uses the stage name Blood Orange and formerly called himself Lightspeed Champion. Third Coast Percussion has made its own arrangements of these pieces by Hynes (born 1985), of which the longest by far is the 11-movement For All Its Fury. This work partakes, to a rather surprising degree, of impressionistic textures rather than a strong sense of melody or any sort of thematic development. Its repetitiveness has something of minimalism about it. Some movements, such as “Wane,” are nothing but atmosphere; others evoke specific scenes – “Curl” has a background that sounds like a rainstorm, with foreground water drops; still others offer contrasting sounds with some underlying similarity, as in “Gather” followed by “Tremble.” Strictly on a sonic basis, For All Its Fury has many attractive elements, and Third Coast Percussion shows its usual skill in adapting and performing the material. But the music itself is not especially interesting – it may have been more effective when heard in the dance collaboration for which Hynes composed it. The one-movement Perfectly Voiceless is a more-interesting work: here the minimalist elements are not pervasive, and there is enough tunefulness to attract listeners with something beyond the sheer sound of the instruments. The piece goes on a bit too long for its content – 11½ minutes – but it is not as long as the 14-minute There Was Nothing, whose extensive synthesizer use gives it a sound distinct from the rest of the material on the CD but does not make it particularly engaging. The pleasures of this (+++) disc lie more in the performing than in the material performed: Hynes is a creditable composer who has absorbed various contemporary approaches to music, but the distinctiveness of the material here seems more to be due to the performers than to the creator of the material they play.
Hynes does seem to have some interest in reaching out to a fairly wide audience, which is not always the case with today’s composers. It is rather difficult, for example, to be sure at whom a (+++) two-disc Divine Art release of the music of Jonathan Östlund (born 1975) is directed. There is a very large amount of music here – more than two-and-a-half hours – and the pieces are exploratory in the sense that they are written for many instruments and groupings, including solo material, chamber music, and vocal works. Many are geographical explorations as well, inspired by scenes of nature, and many reflect impressions that are easily gleaned from their titles: Visions on the Wind starts with a somewhat spooky vocalise before the piano holds forth, for example, while Veils of Night uses strings to produce a slightly ominous feeling. Östlund sometimes pays tribute to earlier composers (Air on a Grieg Theme for solo violin, Fantasia on Bach’s “Badinerie” for piano) and sometimes to other forms of older music (Folklore Fantasia, Two Fantasias on Ancient Hymns). Some of his work is seasonally oriented (Autumnal Aire, Après l’hiver, Winter Cathedral). Some incorporates sounds of nature (L’al di là Theme, Syrinx et Pan). Some items call on Östlund’s Swedish heritage (Gate of Northern Lights, Erlkönig). Some pieces are small collections of musical thoughts (the pretty little five-movement Jeux pour deux, the three-movement Sonatine Lyrique). Some are more-extended single movements of somewhat greater depth, even a touch of melancholy (Dacian Prayer, Oblivion). The music is mostly tonal and accessible, but this collection is so wide-ranging that it is difficult to get a handle on it. There are 36 tracks spread between the two discs, which means that almost everything is brief: despite the overall length of the collection, not a single piece lasts as long as 10 minutes. The effect is one of hearing a lengthy series of vignettes or encores, all of them well-played and all created by a composer who writes effectively, if at times rather simply, for the various instruments he employs. Nothing really connects with anything else here, except presumably in Östlund’s own mind. The material is often atmospheric, sometimes attractive, never really deep or intense. The CDs are pleasant to listen to but leave little behind when they are finished – and little reason to return to the music in the hope of finding something more in it the second time around.
Composer Maija Hynninen (born 1977) explores some mostly familiar contemporary territory on a new (+++) Ravello CD by combining her own performances on electronics with acoustical material in three duets and one work for voice and chamber ensemble. Winnowing (2010) uses piano (played by Jaana Kärkkäinen); …Sicut Aurora Procedit—As the Dawn Breaks (2015), whose title begins with an ellipsis, uses violin (Mirka Malmi); and Freedom from Fear (2017) uses oboe (Kyle Bruckmann). The piano material consists largely of dissonant chords; the violin is at first featured very high in its range and in harmonics, then becomes part of a kind of dialogue with electronic sounds and vocal material; the oboe often sounds electronic even though it is not, its range frequently stretched in a way favored by many contemporary composers who seek to force acoustic instruments (and their players, and the audiences listening to them) beyond their comfort zone. Hynninen does have specific purposes for these duets and specific things she wants to communicate, but the music itself – without the gloss supplied by the composer – really does not put across any specific story or commentary on its own. Also like many other modern composers, Hynninen sees some of her music as just part of a presentation: Freedom from Fear is written for oboe, electronics, and lights, so it is intended as a theatrical event rather than anything that might work well in a nonvisual medium. Conceptually, the most interesting work here is Orlando-fragments (2010), based loosely (very loosely) on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando. It consists of five movements, using generally unintelligible-by-design lyrics by Henriikka Tavi, delivered with a combination of Sprechstimme and vocalise-style declamation by soprano Tuuli Lindeberg. In addition to Hynninen on electronics, the accompaniment comes from Hanna Kinnunen, flute; Lily-Marlene Puusepp, electric harp; Mikko Raasakka, clarinet and bass clarinet; and Anna Kuvaja, piano. The work is clearly intended seriously, but its formulaic use of hyper-modern vocal and instrumental techniques that are now rather passé means that it sounds almost like a parody of a contemporary piece. Woolf’s 1928 novel is a grand, satirical exploration of English literature through the centuries, featuring a central character who swaps genders (male to female) at age 30 and lives for centuries without aging – giving him/her the chance to experience changing literary tastes first-hand. But neither Tavi nor Hynninen makes much effort to explore the literary or satirical elements of the book, and Orlando-fragments, although more ambitious than the other works on this CD, is ultimately no likelier to attract an audience beyond listeners who simply prefer to hear the way many contemporary composers create their soundworlds.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 5, transcribed for organ by Matthias Giesen. Matthias Giesen, organ. Gramola. $18.99.
Scarlatti and Clementi: Keyboard Sonatas. John McCabe, piano. Divine Art. $25.99 (2 CDs).
Hommage to Women Composers: Piano Music by Clara Wieck Schumann, Germaine Tailleferre, Louise Talma, Miriam Gideon, Barbara Pentland, Marga Richter, Thea Musgrave, Ruth Lomon, Jacqueline Fontyn, Marta Ptaszynska, and Shulamit Ran. Iris Graffman Wenglin and Ruth Lomon, piano. Navona. $14.99.
For all the talk of the ways in which Bruckner sought organ-like sonorities in his symphonies, the notion of actually playing one of the symphonies on an organ seems quixotic in the extreme. Or it would to most people – but not to Matthias Giesen, who undertook a fascinating transcription project by turning Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 into a work for organ. Not the best-known Bruckner symphony by a long shot, No. 5 is the most contrapuntal of them and in some ways the most difficult to interpret, because the entire work builds to a climax that appears only at the very end of the last movement – yet everything that comes before needs to make perfect sense and be handled in correct proportion. Giesen’s transcription is immensely absorbing for anyone fascinated by Bruckner, even though it by no means supplants the orchestral version of the work – and was never intended to. It is really a tour de force for organ, and the fact that Giesen performs it on what is called the “Bruckner Organ” of the St. Florian Monastery, near Linz, Austria, only makes the entire enterprise more piquant. Bruckner’s exact involvement with this organ is unknown. The instrument dates to 1774 and was reconstructed in 1873, possibly but not certainly with some input from Bruckner. A later reconstruction, in 1931-32, was done under the auspices of the Anton Bruckner Society, and the instrument’s designation dates to that time. Apart from the name by which it is known, this is an organ that Bruckner certainly played – in November 1875, its inaugural use after the 1873 reconstruction. None of these historical facts, though, fascinating as they may be, has much bearing on the way the Symphony No. 5 sounds when transcribed for organ. What Giesen has done is a transcription, not an interpretation or modification, although of necessity he has had to select certain instrumental lines to emphasize or deemphasize because, after all, he has only his feet and two hands to perform a full orchestra’s worth of music (aided by a third hand, belonging to a second organist, in part of the finale, which simply did not work otherwise). Giesen’s choices are carefully considered and very intelligent, and the symphony’s structure comes through exceptionally clearly as a result – more clearly than it sometimes does in orchestral performances. Giesen also takes a very broad approach to the material, resulting in a reading that lasts a full 85 minutes (even though, remarkably, Gramola fits it on a single CD without any apparent loss of sound quality). This puts Giesen’s timing almost at the level of the other Bruckner Fifth on Gramola, conducted by Rémy Ballot, which lasts 90 minutes and as a result is spread over two discs. Generally, performances of this symphony are in the 70-to-75-minute range, although an outlier among them, conducted by Mario Venzago, runs a mere 60 minutes. The reality that this symphony can last anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half provides a clue to just how complex and how subject to interpretation it is. Giesen sheds no particular new light on the work’s structure and plan, but his well-considered tempo choices and very clever methods of using the organ pipes to explore a variety of differently colored sounds (without ever attempting to duplicate the sounds of orchestral instruments) make this a completely fascinating recording to experience. This is definitely not the “right” way to perform Bruckner’s Fifth, and should certainly not be any listener’s first choice for the music. But just as the chamber-music transcriptions of Mahler symphonies, done under Arnold Schoenberg’s auspices in the early 1920s, are “wrong” but extremely intriguing and at times revelatory, so this Bruckner Fifth is a kind of by-blow of the orchestral version – but one whose relationship to it is abundantly clear. It is an astonishing undertaking and a remarkable accomplishment, even though it is unlikely ever to have wide-ranging appeal.
The appeal of a new Divine Art release featuring pianist/composer John McCabe (1939-2015), on the other hand, is likely to be wide-ranging, even though McCabe’s renditions of works by Domenico Scarlatti and Muzio Clementi are neither historically correct nor performed on the instruments intended by the composers. Both Scarlatti (1685-1757) and Clementi (1752-1832) wrote for the harpsichord or, in some works by Clementi, the fortepiano, and playing this music on a full-size modern Bösendorfer piano, as McCabe does, is simply not correct. It is, however, mostly wonderful: McCabe does not overdo his pedal use, performs each work with care and clarity, and – with a few notable exceptions – does not make the pieces sound as if they belong in the Romantic era. This is not a new recording: it was made in 1981 and originally released on two Hyperion discs, and it was recorded, mixed and edited on analog equipment before being digitally mastered for CD release. But McCabe’s pianism on these works certainly stands the test of time – and, for that matter, so does the sound, which has greater warmth and richness than did most digital recordings from this time period. Whether warmth and richness are apt for this music is, however, a reasonable question to ask. Scarlatti’s 555 harpsichord sonatas are notable for their clarity of line, their exploratory techniques (many from his middle period feature difficult hand-crossings), and their complexity within their brief one-movement form. Their numbering is mostly arbitrary and does not reflect their dates of composition, so performers tend to come up with their own ways to arrange them, as McCabe does here. He offers three major/minor pairs, in G major/minor (K105/426), D minor/major (K517/490), and F minor/major (K69/518); then a pair in E major (K28/215); and finally a set of four in C, G, G minor and C (K133, 259, 43, 460). Only two of these do not quite work: K517 simply sounds too strongly Romantic with the emphasis McCabe gives to its bass line, and K133 is emphatically chordal on the piano in a way that it would not be on the harpsichord. In the remaining works, though, McCabe’s sensitivity to the music’s structure and his willingness to downplay the piano sound rather than emphasize it lead to a highly enjoyable listening experience, even though it is historically inappropriate. McCabe actually makes a better case for playing Clementi on a modern concert grand, thanks to an excellent selection of music. The Sonata in G minor, Op. 50, No. 3 (Didone Abbandonata – scena tragica) is the highlight of this two-CD release. It is Clementi’s last piano sonata and the only one to which he gave a programmatic title. And it is quite marvelous, evoking the despair of Dido upon the departure of her faithless lover, Aeneas, in three movements whose tempo indications sum up the work’s emotional superstructure exceptionally well: Largo patetico e sostenuto – Allegro ma con espressione; Adagio dolente; and Allegro agitato e con disperazione. This really is a proto-Romantic (if not quite fully Romantic) sonata, and McCabe handles its moods and moodiness with exceptional sensitivity. It is a piece that definitely deserves to be heard more often, providing it can be played with this level of power and beauty (which, however, is by no means assured). The other two Clementi sonatas, although not at this level, are fine works in their own right: the two-movement Sonata in F, Op. 33, No. 2, in which the forceful main section of the first movement is especially impressive; and the three-movement Sonata in D, Op. 40, No. 3, which has a tragedy-pervaded mood despite its major key, the central slow movement being particularly heartfelt. Between those two sonatas, McCabe plays three of the 12 little salon pieces called Monferrinas, Op. 49 – Nos. 4 in C, 3 in E and 12 in C. These are versions of Italian folk dances (from Montferrat; hence the title), and McCabe handles them with considerable spirit and a welcome lightness of touch that contrasts well with his approach to the tragic moods of the Op. 40 and Op. 50 sonatas. McCabe’s skillful presentation of this material occurs, in the main, in spite of his use of the modern concert grand, not because of it: he holds back on the full force of the piano so as to communicate the textures of Clementi’s music more effectively than would be possible otherwise. But this simply draws attention to the reality that Clementi (and Scarlatti) did not write for this sort of instrument at all. True, they might well have been impressed if it had existed in their time. But if it had, they would not have written this music for it – they would have written music to take advantage of what a modern concert grand can do. That said, McCabe provides a generally excellent listening experience in these works, despite presenting them on an instrument quite different from what the composers wanted.
The instrument is not the “correctness” issue on a new Navona CD featuring pianists Iris Graffman Wenglin and Ruth Lomon. Here the issue with the disc is more one of presentation – packaging, if you will – than one of pianistic provenance. Yes, it has become de rigueur in many circles to bemoan the relative lack of attention to women in a wide variety of fields, and to attempt to redress the imbalance by focusing on something – in this case, music – because the creators were female. But that does a disservice to the composers, implying that their music somehow cannot stand on its own and would not have been programmed if it were not for their gender. True, not all the works by the 11 composers on this very well-played disc are of equal value and interest, but the same tends to be true of any anthology CD: it would be very rare indeed for an entire disc of works by disparate, little-known composers to contain nothing but music of top quality. This has nothing to do with gender. Furthermore, one composer here – Clara Schumann, here called “Clara Wieck Schumann,” presumably to emphasize her feminine identity, although that is not what she called herself – needs no apology for her compositions and even less for her fame as a performer: she was one of the great pianists of the 19th century, as well as the great love of not one but two major composers (Schumann and, obviously although in no overtly romantic manner, Brahms). The brief, graceful Clara Schumann works here are the only pieces on the disc played by a solo pianist (Wenglin), and they cement the composer’s reputation as a fine miniaturist: the Five Caprices of 1832 and a Polonaise in E-flat from 1831. The remaining pieces on the disc are all from the 20th century. Germaine Tailleferre’s “Cache-cache mitoula” from Jeux de Plein Air (1917) and Louise Talma’s Four-Handed Fun (1939) are both short, light and playfully intricate. Miriam Gideon’s Homage a ma jeunesse: Sonatina for two pianos (1949) is pretty rather than profound, and it is nicely structured in three short movements, including a more-elaborate finale. Barbara Pentland’s Three Piano Duets after pictures by Paul Klee (1958) is both impressionistic and rather self-consciously modernistic in compositional style; as is usually the case with “illustrative” music, listeners need to know the specific works (“Small Fool in Trance,” “Surfaces in Tension,” and “Fish Magic”) to get the full effect of the music. Marga Richter’s Variations on a Theme by Latimer: piano, four hands (1969) moves from a somber beginning through a series of rather dissonant and often atonal elements. The eight tiny movements of Thea Musgrave’s Excursions (1965), seven lasting less than a minute and one just a bit longer, combine into another impressionistic piece, this one micro-miniaturized, with each scene gone almost by the time it is established and all the little pieces dealing with automotive matters (“The Road Hog,” “The Drunken Driver,” “Roadside Repairs,” “Backseat Driver,” and so forth). Lomon herself contributes Soundings for piano four hands (1975), a work that never really goes anywhere even though it takes full advantage of its dual-pianist construction. Jacqueline Fontyn’s Spirales pour 2 pianos (1974) offers even greater intensity and an emphasis on percussive sound, but to no particular point. Marta Ptaszynska’s Interlude I and Interlude II (both 1979) are two episodic studies featuring many contrasts of volume and tempo. Finally, the 10 miniatures in Shulamit Ran’s Children’s Scenes (1970) – eight under a minute and two not much longer – make up another case of micro-miniaturization, but with greater playfulness than in Musgrave’s suite and with some particularly nice touches: the slightly off-kilter “Rag Doll Valse,” Mussorgsky-ish “A Game,” insistent “A Little Toccata,” and concluding “The Steel Soldier” are highlights. The music on this CD is diverse and always well-crafted, the composers’ intentions differing and their skill in bringing those intentions across to an audience differing as well. Listeners interested in piano duets will likely find at least some of these pieces attractive, with the solo-piano pieces by Clara Schumann having the widest appeal of all. This has nothing to do with paying homage (or “hommage”) to women composers because of their gender – it is only a matter of recognizing well-conceived, very skillfully composed music.
November 14, 2019
Surviving the Great Indoors: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 36. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Nancy’s Genius Plan. By “Olivia Jaimes.” Andrews McMeel. $7.99.
Virtuosity is its own reward. And its own challenge. Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott somehow continue to manage to create infinite variations on a theme – of parents and their kids, a longtime fixture in the world of comic strips – in ways that make the perennial challenges of child-rearing seem ever-new. And, of course, ever-messy and ever-frustrating. Both newspaper readers (a fast-declining bunch) and lovers of webcomics (a fast-rising bunch) tend to skim comic strips quickly, enjoy them briefly, maybe stick particularly good ones to the refrigerator (hint: do not stick your computer to the refrigerator). Most such readers have not the slightest idea of how much thought and work and fine-tuning goes into the best comic strips, of which Baby Blues is very definitely one. That is, most do not know unless they buy collections of the strip, the latest of which is Surviving the Great Indoors. Throughout the book, Kirkman and Scott make comments on their work, explain their thinking, and – a particular source of enjoyment – even show some of the “blue lines,” the rough sketches that eventually turn into final strips and sometimes differ from those final ones in small or not-so-small ways. The content of all the Baby Blues collections can be described the same way: Darryl and Wanda MacPherson deal to the best of their ability with the everyday troubles, traumas and occasional terrors of raising their three kids, Zoe, Hammie and Wren. (And just consider those three names. Lots of thought obviously went into them.) However, the “plot” of Baby Blues is only as important as the initial statement of a theme in a set of musical variations: it is a starting point, but not what really matters or what makes the whole thing worthwhile for an audience. For instance, the fact that Wanda would love a much-remodeled, much-improved house is no surprise, but the words about her dreamed-of “French farmhouse kitchen” with “wide-plank flooring, and a stone fireplace” – plus the marvelous illustration superimposing her dream on the family’s real, barely adequate kitchen – are exceptional. Add the fact that she then throws her arms around an imagined hunky remodeler named Chip, while in fact hugging unprepossessing Darryl, and the exceptional becomes even better. Then add Zoe’s last-panel line, “When Mom goes into fantasy remodeling mode, she goes all out,” and you have a perfect encapsulation of how Baby Blues works. And then add, as a bonus, the rough panels in which “Chip” is named “Bruce,” and the explanation of the change, and you have a kind of super-ultimate-amazing-wonderful-insightful view of how a great comic strip is made. Baby Blues is timeless in its portrayal of family life, at least for thirtysomethings such as Darryl and Wanda, but it does have some characteristics that reflect on the ages of Kirkman and Scott, who are, ahem, a bit more seasoned (if not necessarily more mature). There are, for instance, the references to classic films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Blazing Saddles (1974). And there are the tributes to other first-rate cartoonists such as Sergio Aragonés of Mad magazine, whose marginal drawings get some fond imitation (although they would likely be nearly invisible in today’s comic-strip layouts), and Charles Schulz, whose Peanuts character interaction visibly influences one strip and whose concept of the Great Pumpkin is the topic of another. On the other hand, there are elements in Surviving the Great Indoors that could only appear in a Baby Blues collection, such as the hilarious strip (laid out here on two full pages) in which Wren counts Darryl’s nose hairs, leading to a marginal discussion of what size the nostrils should be when someone possesses a nose the size of his entire head, from forehead to chin. The only real criticism that can be leveled at Surviving the Great Indoors is that it will be a disappointment to nitpickers. There are three errors in the book: a missed period in one strip, the word “tablet” misspelled “tab let” in another, and the word “look” instead of “lock” in a third. But alas, Kirkman (who hand-letters the strip) calls attention to them all, making it impossible for readers to say “neener, neener, neener” to the cartoonists. Those who are disappointed will just have to be glad that Darryl gets to say “neener, neener, neener” to Zoe in one of the strips.
The exact elements that make a comic strip “classic” can be argued (and often are: academics have to have something to do), but certainly the amount of detail in the art is not a determining factor. A strip such as Baby Blues is exceptionally intricate, while Nancy by Ernie Bushmiller (1905-1982) was simple to the point of a Zen kōan. Those needing proof of some cartoonists’ versatility should note that Jerry Scott not only co-creates Baby Blues but also writes the equally elaborately illustrated Zits – and in addition, for more than a decade after Bushmiller’s death, did Nancy. Now, though – specifically since 2018 – Nancy is under the aegis of the pseudonymous “Olivia Jaimes,” a Web cartoonist who for some reason chooses to remain anonymous. “Jaimes” has reimagined the deliberately bland style of Nancy for the Internet age, keeping the precocious eight-year-old as super-simple as always in drawing style but having her interact on a regular basis with modern technology. And she also interacts with readers – at least in the form of a board book, something Bushmiller would never have created (although he did do plenty of comic books, initially focused more on Aunt Fritzi than on Nancy). Nancy’s Genius Plan is a particularly interesting blend of “old Nancy” and “new Nancy,” although the very young children for whom board books are created (and their parents) will not know Nancy’s history and have no reason to consider it. The “plan” here is simply for Nancy to get the warm cornbread that Aunt Fritzi made for everyone to share, but that Nancy wants for herself. Nancy enlists readers to help – through some clever interactivity that the youngest children can easily accomplish, such as knocking on a window to distract Aunt Fritzi and turning the book upside down so Nancy can walk on the ceiling and walls. Of course, selfishness cannot be encouraged in kids’ books, so by the end of this one, Nancy is happy to be sharing the cornbread with her friends – who include not only the traditional Sluggo but also, in accordance with contemporary inclusive sensibilities, African-American and Hispanic buddies. The book is clever and its reinterpretation of Nancy is quite well done, keeping the character’s extreme simplicity of appearance while adapting her behavior for a time when comic strips, if thought through carefully, can be new-fashioned out of distinctly old-fashioned material.
Radio Boombox. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $24.99.
As the height of gift-giving season approaches, why not consider giving the gift of music? How about music heard through a device that the gift-giver creates on his or her own? How about making the whole thing amusing, functional, interesting-looking, maybe a bit silly, and very much in line with the current emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM subjects? It all sounds like a job for Klutz, that delightful purveyor of “books-plus” crafts projects. And lo and behold, Klutz has developed something that fits the bill perfectly: Radio Boombox, an entry in its “Klutz Maker Lab” series.
Like all things Klutz (but not klutzy), Radio Boombox contains a fascinating project, all (well, almost all) the items needed to complete it, a super-clear explanatory book saying just what to do and written in nontechnical language that is easy to follow, and plenty of information on the underlying science that makes everything work. Radio is, when you think about it (as Klutz wants you to do), something of a marvel: invisible something-or-others perpetually zipping around in the air that can be plucked out of apparent nothingness and produce sounds. Radio receivers are perfect examples of what are called “black boxes,” not because of their color but because their inner workings are generally unknown to the people who use them. Actually, radios have been a go-to project for curious young people for many decades, from the days of vacuum tubes to those of integrated circuits. And now technology has advanced so far that this Klutz kit contains printed circuit boards – literally printed – that have all the electronic connections necessary to produce a working FM radio. It is, when you think about it, rather astonishing.
Klutz, however, seeks neither to astonish nor to render the creation of a boombox entirely mundane – it looks for, and finds, a middle ground. The circuitry is as up-to-date as can be: it is extremely light and surprisingly small, and the only reason Radio Boombox has a large form factor is that it contains the pieces needed for the case – which is avowedly “retro-inspired,” since boomboxes are not exactly commonly used at home or carried around these days.
Radio Boombox is intended for ages eight and up, but this is one project that may be as enthralling for parents as for kids. The instruction book is not long – 32 pages – but it is as clear and complete as usual in Klutz products, and is able to be so compact because the various circuits and stereo FM radio receiver module basically just need to be connected properly, without a lot of wiring and certainly without soldering and other techniques once required for building radio receivers. The book does go beyond assembly instructions, explaining simply and clearly just how a radio works – that is, how it pulls those unseen waves out of the air and interprets them so they turn back into the music that they were at their original sources. Simple-and-clear is a Klutz watchword, and when it comes to Radio Boombox, the truth is that assembly of the case is as complicated as creation of the radio itself, if not more so. The biggest issue in creating the radio is the need for three AAA batteries, which are not included in the Klutz box itself – as usual, Klutz assumes that some things are so common around the house that they need not be supplied, and as usual, Klutz is probably right about that. But be prepared to buy some batteries if you do not already have some that are readily accessible.
In line with its self-imposed mandate to make science and crafts fun, Klutz goes beyond requiring users of Radio Boombox to connect the receiver module, speaker and battery compartment: the book also includes a few simple, relevant games, which are certainly unnecessary for the basic concepts but may add a little enjoyment to the pleasure of the whole project. It is important for parents who use “Klutz Maker Lab” products to engage their children in the STEM subjects to make it clear that not everything in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is as forthright and easily accomplished as a Klutz project: failing to communicate this can lead to frustration when kids encounter real-world (or just school-world) ideas and experiments that do not fit together as neatly as Klutz crafts do. But at the same time, parents can reinforce the underlying Klutz idea that STEM subjects, whatever complexity and drudgery they may sometimes entail, can also be fun, and can involve discovery and use of some remarkable things, such as invisible radio waves. Parental guidance is suggested for STEM topics, and parental involvement in Radio Boombox will be fun for parents and kids alike. But parents who think their children are ready for some self-guided learning about radio and electronics can feel comfortable letting them create this project on their own – with all the feeling of accomplishment that success with Klutz crafts produces.
Escaping Exodus. By Nicky Drayden. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Nicky Drayden is an absolutely marvelous world creator and scene setter – who hopefully, as she continues to mature as a writer, will become equally adept at producing well-rounded, believable characters. Drayden’s third novel, Escaping Exodus, is a typical example of a fantasy book masquerading as science fiction: although set in deep space long after the destruction of Earth, it has none of the carefully researched science on which true SF builds but simply uses its framework to produce an exotic environment within which some far-from-exotic, indeed thrice-familiar, human emotions and concerns can play themselves out.
Drayden writes of an Africa that never was, projected into a future that never will be. No longer living on a planet (or even looking for one), or on starships (except during the “exodus” of the title), humans exist as parasites inside moon-sized interstellar beasts that somehow thrive in the vacuum of space. How this can be is never explained; this is one way in which Escaping Exodus is pure fantasy. The beasts exist purely for exploitation by humans even though they turn out (inevitably) to have consciousness and even intelligence – just expressed in ways humans can never understand (again, this is fantasy, so there is not even an attempt to say how this can be).
As for the human society that hops from beast to beast, in “exodus” when the hulk of one beast eventually proves unable to sustain it, that society is cruel, hidebound, and inflexible. It is mired in longstanding traditions that are understood poorly if at all and are designed to fend off the slightest disturbance of a wholly irrational order of existence filled with ancient African tribal rituals, belief in ghosts, and other vestiges of a long-abandoned kind of thinking that apparently has gone with the remains of humanity to the stars and beyond.
This society, whose depredations Drayden describes in fascinating and highly involving ways, is of course a typical dystopia, but the ins and outs of its functioning are so enthralling that the book is gripping whenever Drayden explores the triumphant tribalism that was apparently ascendant when humans headed into space and with which they are still very much encumbered. The society is intensely and absolutely matriarchal, and anyone who thinks an unbending matriarchy would do a better (or just more humane) job of handling societal needs than patriarchies have done will quickly have that notion laid to rest in Escaping Exodus. The entire society is built on mass murder, on outright genocide, on specifically defining certain people (“grisettes”) as tools unworthy of life and quickly deprived of it: after they are done nearly working themselves to death, the rulers (“contour class”) finish them off. And the pervasive class system is full of rules, rules, rules, for everyone at every level. In this completely stratified fantasy world, which has overtones of Animal Farm but with humans who are of less consequence than Orwell’s animals, everybody exists within never-questioned requirements, ranging from “names are given only to sufficiently high-class individuals” to “no touching during courtship.”
This rigidly stratified society, still encumbered by triumphant tribalism in all its activities, would be laughable if there were the slightest hint of humor in Escaping Exodus. But there is no such thing: the book is deeply, darkly, intensely serious throughout. Obviously, a dystopic society such as this will eventually be challenged from within or without as it rots, and that is where the two narrators of the book, upper-class Seske and lower-class Adalla, come in. Unfortunately, try as she might (and she does), Drayden never makes either of them nearly as interesting as the social structure which they exist in and eventually try to upend. “This way of life, something has to give, or it’s all going to break,” narrates Seske at one point, and that, in a nutshell, is the theme of Escaping Exodus. Seske inadvertently makes a connection, mental and physical and emotional, with the latest beast, and soon finds herself wondering “if there is more to the beast than just a convenient package of flesh for us to consume.” Well, cancers do not, as far as we know, wonder if there is more to the human body than something to consume, so perhaps Seske and a few others are slightly better than other cancer cells. But make no mistake: humans are a malignancy in Escaping Exodus, treating each other and the interstellar beasts with the same complete abandonment of anything that makes people human.
Seske, who is about to assume ultimate authority over the human colony by inheriting power from her mother, is supposed to seem more human, if not necessarily humane, because of the way she cares for lower-class Adalla (whom she subjects to horrendous torture because, well, she has to); Seske is also supposed to be seen as traumatized because she has a sister, that being a curse word in a society built around the notion of the “Rule of Ten: nine parents, and one child to share between them.” This “Sisterkin” exists because of a bad (that is, non-rule-adhering) decision by Seske’s primary mother, and it is obvious from the first introduction of Sisterkin that she will undermine Seske and challenge her for rule as soon as she can. When she does, it is scarcely a surprise. It is also unsurprising that the lower-class workers – plus the colony’s men, who are below just about everybody because men are, you know, male – will eventually decide they have had enough, and that Adalla will lead a failed rebellion against the status quo. When she does, it is, again, scarcely a surprise. Indeed, the various personalities, behaviors and interactions among the characters are thoroughly unsurprising, as is the eventual working-out of the plot. The characters are so unimportant as individuals – to Drayden and therefore to the reader – that, to cite one example, when Sisterkin abandons Seske to certain death and mounts a grand coup, Seske announces that she will deal with it, and after that, Sisterkin literally disappears from the novel, never mentioned again. That particular cardboard puppet has served its purpose.
The characters are all equally flat – although narrators Seske and Adalla, inevitably, are less so than the rest. Virtually all of Drayden’s creativity, of which she possesses quite a bit, has gone into constructing the horrific society of Escaping Exodus, leaving little left over to produce multidimensional characters with seemingly genuine motivations and some depth of personality. That is too bad, but this is only Drayden’s third novel, after The Prey of Gods and Temper, each of them excellent in its own way: this author has plenty of time to lavish her considerable skills on character development in the future, if she so chooses.
In Escaping Exodus, one clever element is the way different classes use language. In the downtrodden “beastworker” class, for example, Adalla explains that “‘sure’ is akin to a very soft ‘maybe.’ ‘Sure is sure is sure’ means you’d stake your life on it. And ‘sure is sure’ – well, that’s something drenched in doubt. Not a hard no, but about as close as you can ride up on it without it biting your head clean off.” Thus, in Escaping Exodus, Drayden has written a fine and compelling novel, sure is sure. But her characterizations have a considerable distance to go before they will be as good as her world building and descriptive talents, sure is sure is sure.
Dvořák: Piano Concerto; Martinů: Piano Concerto No. 4, “Incantation.” Ivo Kahánek, piano; Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jakob Hrůša. Supraphon. $19.99.
Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky (cantata); Lieutenant Kijé (suite). Alisa Kolosova, mezzo-soprano; Utah Symphony Chorus, University of Utah A Cappella Choir, University of Utah Chamber Choir, and Utah Symphony conducted by Thierry Fischer. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
Bruckner: Piano Music (complete). Francesco Pasqualotto, piano. Brilliant Classics. $9.99.
It is symphonies, and specifically late symphonies, for which many composers are best known: Dvořák’s Symphonies Nos. 7-9 (with No. 6 also heard moderately often), Prokofiev’s Nos. 5 and 6 (and, to some extent, No. 7), Bruckner’s Nos. 7-9. An occasional other work, symphonic or not, is also closely associated with these composers – but much of the rest of what they wrote is heard far less frequently. Yet there is considerable material of interest in their less-heard pieces, which sometimes merely require exceptional performances to showcase their value. Of course, exceptional performances are, by definition, outside the norm – but when they are available, they really allow some less-often-encountered music to shine forth. In the case of Dvořák, his cello concerto and, somewhat less often, his violin concerto receive frequent readings and are considered first-rate. His piano concerto, by contrast, languishes. But not in the new Supraphon recording by Ivo Kahánek and the Bamberger Symphoniker under Jakob Hrůša. This concerto traditionally suffers from being comparatively non-virtuosic and from having some awkward technical elements, attributable to Dvořák having been a string player with limited familiarity with the piano. But in other contexts, including his chamber works with piano, Dvořák showed that he could write quite well for the instrument in a collaborative sense, and that is the way in which Kahánek and Hrůša approach the concerto. This turns out to be a key to the work’s effectiveness. It is far from a display piece for the soloist – instead, it is a bit like an expanded chamber-music piece, in which the piano is featured but not exactly dominant. Furthermore, the concerto is essentially a lyrical work that requires a focus on the warmth and smooth flow of its themes, and that is just the way it is handled here. The result is a remarkably cogent and tightly knit rendition of a concerto that does not fit the standard 19th-century mold as a display piece for the soloist with subsidiary orchestra, but makes its own way as a smooth, warm and convincing work whose piano highlights shine forth from the orchestral fabric but remain almost obbligato elements much of the time. The concerto shows itself to be unusual for its time but scarcely unsuccessful – as it can seem when performers try to fit it into the mold of a virtuoso showpiece. The pairing of this work from 1876 with Bohuslav Martinů’s Fourth Concerto (1956) also proves to be a particularly happy one. The Martinů is a short, two-movement piece with much of the rhythmic angularity to be expected of a work from the middle of the 20th century. But it also contains a considerable amount of the lyricism that permeates Dvořák’s music – altered, to be sure, in such a way that its dreamlike passages are evocative almost of something surreal. This Martinů concerto is packed with fast-changing emotional landscapes as well as technical challenges, and it is to Kahánek’s credit that he masters them all with seeming effortlessness. Hrůša partners him ably, supporting all the ins and outs of this very varied work, and the Bamberger Symphoniker – not an orchestra particularly known for playing Martinů – proves itself more than capable of sounding idiomatic and thoroughly convincing. It would be hard, after hearing this release, to consider either of the works on it minor or inconsequential.
It is somewhat easier to deem Prokofiev’s film scores to be among his less-important musical productions, but even if that is true, it does not diminish the enjoyment they can generate when played as well as they are by the Utah Symphony under Thierry Fischer on an excellently recorded Reference Recordings SACD. Alexander Nevsky is essentially an extended patriotic cantata in seven movements, the longest by far being “The Battle on the Ice,” which accompanies the most amazing footage in the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film for which Prokofiev wrote the score. The historical Nevksy was a 13th-century ruler and warrior, later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, who repelled various invasions, including the one shown in the film. He has been a hero in Russian thought for centuries and was carried over on that basis by the Soviet Union. Eisenstein’s celebratory film, whatever its propaganda value, does not actually stray far from the longtime Russian attitude toward Nevsky. Prokofiev’s music is suitably solemn, even tragic in one section, with the dramatic battle scene being so striking that even listeners unfamiliar with the film will be able to imagine some of what must be going on as the opposing armies clash. The singing, both solo and choral, is very fine, even though the Utah Symphony and Utah University choruses can scarcely be intimately familiar with Russian. Fischer keeps the music moving smartly along in a way that unifies the cantata despite its elements being drawn from different sections of the film. Alexander Nevsky contrasts interestingly with the suite from Lieutenant Kijé, which was written four years earlier and was Prokofiev’s first film score. Although Alexander Nevksy is not often performed, Lieutenant Kijé is heard much more frequently – it may be minor Prokofiev, but it is written in a highly popular, accessible style that even led Woody Allen to feature some of the suite in one of his films (Love and Death, 1975). There is opportunity in the story for some of Prokofiev’s wit and sarcasm to come through, and it is this that likely made the music popular and has kept it that way. The underlying tale is of a nonexistent lieutenant who is created through a bureaucratic error, comes to the attention of Tsar Paul I, and then must be kept “alive” until those who accidentally brought him into existence can have him die and receive a suitably heroic funeral. This is, essentially, a fairy tale, and the notion of “putting one over” on an incompetent Russian ruler surely figured in Soviet authorities’ acceptance of the story. Be that as it may, Prokofiev’s suite sparkles and shows the influence of the musical circles of 1920s Paris, where he lived for almost a decade before returning to his homeland. Fischer conducts it with just the right light touch, plus a dose of expressive piquancy that is properly absent from the far more serious Alexander Nevsky. Neither of these works really qualifies as “major” Prokofiev, but both have much to recommend them – and they work especially well when juxtaposed as they are on this recording.
Just how “minor” Prokofiev’s film music and Dvořák’s piano concerto are may be arguable, but the same cannot be said of Bruckner’s piano music: by any measure, the one hour of music he composed for this instrument is very, very incidental to the rest of his oeuvre. Bruckner did not mature as a composer until he was in his 40s, but virtually all his piano music dates to the period 1850-1862, at the end of which he was 38. And the vast majority of these works are student pieces, having appeared in the Kitzler-Studienbuch, a notebook containing works by students of Otto Kitzler (1834-1915) – with whom Bruckner studied for a time. Francesco Pasqualotto is to be commended for assembling these works onto a Brilliant Classics recording: many of them have never been recorded before, and Pasqualotto plays them quite well. However, the usual enjoyment of finding hints in a composer’s early or minor works of what he was to do later and in more-significant form is largely absent here. None of the piano pieces is long: the lengthiest, lasting a bit more than seven minutes, is Bruckner’s only piano sonata, a work so highly derivative of Beethoven that it gives few clues to the innovations for which Bruckner would later be responsible. There are some very short dance pieces here (quadrilles, minuets, a polka, even two miniature waltzes); there is one theme-and-variations; there are even a couple of brief marches, one of which, in D minor, does have a bit of heft to it. But for the most part, one searches in vain for significance in these piano works. Two Andante movements, one in D minor and one in E-flat, are attractively lyrical; a set of four fantasias shows some influence of Schumann, not a composer usually thought of in connection with Bruckner; another, standalone fantasia has a lovely, sentimental slow first section, although the faster portion that follows is quite conventional. The works on this disc that make it a worthwhile musical experience – and more than just a curiosity – are two expressive pieces with a crepuscular feeling about them. They are Stille Betrachtung an einem Herbstabend (“Silent Reflections on an Autumn Evening”), which dates to 1863, and Erinnerung (“Memory”), written five years later – in the last year in which Bruckner composed anything at all for piano. It would be stretching things to call either of these works major or even particularly significant, but both possess budding forms of some of the emotions that would later flower to such wonderful effect in the composer’s later symphonies. Bruckner was an organist, not a pianist, and the differences between the two keyboard instruments surely account for much of the low impact level of his piano compositions. In addition, the piano works were written either as student exercises or for amateurs to perform at home, so they were never intended to be particularly groundbreaking or technically challenging. They are a sidelight in Bruckner’s music, but it is worth pointing out that even sidelights do produce illumination, faint though it may be. Listeners interested in a side of Bruckner that is almost never experienced will find it thoroughly explored here.