October 17, 2019

(++++) WHEN ART MATTERS, AND WHEN IT DOESN’T


Dilbert Turns 30. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

The Little Red Pen. By Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

     What a difference a decade makes. When Scott Adams’ Dilbert reached the 20-year mark, the event was celebrated with an expensive, oversize hardcover book – slipcased! – that included a 25-page introductory narrative by Adams and then was arranged chronologically, with considerable commentary by Adams on various strips’ themes and on the way in which Dilbert evolved, or failed to evolve, over the years. Now, for Dilbert Turns 30, we get a standard-size paperback with single-page Adams introduction akin to those in previous Dilbert collections, with standard numbering on the spine (this is Dilbert book No. 47), and with no real acknowledgment of the third-decade milestone except for inclusion at the end of “50 of the most popular Dilbert comic strips from the past decade.” Says who? Who knows? That information is not provided. In fact, precious little information is provided in Dilbert Turns 30, except for the knowingly snarky comment in Adams’ introduction, “I’m proud to say Dilbert is still poorly drawn, but at least it made me rich, and that takes a lot of the sting out of the insults. I call that progress.” Well, yes, there is that redeeming pecuniary quality. Still, Dilbert Turns 30 is not as celebratory as it could have been. The near-collapse of the newspaper business in the past decade may have something to do with the diminished acknowledgment of 10 more years of Dilbert, and perhaps Adams’ recent personal ventures into the political sphere are a factor as well – although politics has not invaded Dilbert’s cubicle world itself. Adams actually wrote, accurately, in the decade-ago book, “Every time I tried political humor, I regretted it,” and “I thought my calling might be in political commentary. Clearly it wasn’t.” What Adams’ calling turned out to be – and still is, as Dilbert Turns 30 makes clear – has to do with a super-sarcastic view of big-corporation mindlessness, mind-numbing bureaucracy, and other things that employees mind a great deal but are powerless to change. “I don’t see a path to victory here,” says one minor character, to which Wally comments, “Have you tried lowering your expectations?” That exchange can stand for a lot of what happens in Dilbert, even as Dilbert’s company adopts all possible fads and trends (such as casual dress, with everyone wearing ID badges) while never changing its approach to work or its contempt for its customers and employees. “Why can’t people just listen to my words???” a frustrated Dilbert asks Dogbert after a day in which everyone “believed I was privately thinking the opposite of what I was saying.” Dogbert, the voice of cynicism about pretty much anything, replies, “Have you tried not being boring?” And all Dilbert can say in response is, “Whenever I tell you I have one problem, I leave with two.” That is, in fact, pretty much what Dilbert is all about. Even the victories in Dilbert’s world are losses: he makes a sales video that offends the nation of Elbonia, which assigns ninjas to kill him in his sleep; he comments that that would be the best way to die; so the Elbonians “decided it was more cruel to keep you alive and working here.” Yup. Sounds about right – after 20 years or 30. And counting.

     Being aimed at adults, Dilbert can get away with less-than-enthralling art and rely instead on topical humor and clever (and/or wry) writing. Kids have higher standards, or at least different ones: they expect to be grabbed by a book’s illustrations as well as captivated by its narrative. Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel are very much equal to this task in The Little Red Pen, a marvelous flight of fancy that was originally published in 2011 and is now available in paperback. The sisters’ narrative and Janet Stevens’ illustrations endow everyday classroom objects with fascinating and distinct personalities, turning a mundane story (test papers need to be graded) into one with apocalyptic sweep. The red pen of the title – her removable cap resting atop her head like a huge hat, her eyeglasses (yes, eyeglasses) perched on her nose as she calls on other school supplies for assistance – warns that if papers are not graded, students won’t learn, the school might close, the walls and floors could disintegrate, the sky might fall, and “It might be the end of the world!” But nobody else wants to help her save the world: the huge-toothed stapler has a bad back from being pounded all day, the scissors have been cutting up and are getting dull, the eraser forgets the question because “my head is shrinking,” and so on. The visualizations of these characters are absolutely superb, and the use of different typestyles and letter sizes to show their different communication styles adds to the strong visual appeal of the book. Everyone, it turns out, is worried about ending up in “the pit of no return,” the trash basket, so everyone tells the little red pen to look to the class hamster, Tank, for help – not to the other desk denizens. But Tank is so lazy that he does not even use his hamster wheel, and the little red pen decides she has no choice but to grade all the papers herself. But she can’t – the job is too big – and wonderfully conceived illustrations show her getting more and more exhausted until she topples off the desk into, yes, the trash. Hearing the noise of the pen falling into the trash can, the other implements fear the world really is coming to an end, and they emerge from the drawer where they have been hiding to check on things. Is it the end of the world, or not? Will the little red pen ever be rescued from the trash? Will the papers be corrected? Will anyone learn a lesson about helping out? Will Tank ever wake up? These and other questions are brilliantly posed (visually as well as in words) and delightfully answered in a way that is perfectly consistent with each character’s personality and with the overall setting of a classroom that just happens to harbor sentient pens, pencils, erasers, highlighters, and so on. Teamwork, including some help from a broken but still useful ruler, eventually wins the day, with some unwitting assistance from Tank after Señorita Chincheta the pushpin pushes herself into just the right place on Tank’s rear end. Tank emerges as Tankzilla, some of the desk accessories run around Tank’s wheel as the lettering revolves in circles, and there is an eventual triumphal parade that puts all the desktop characters on wonderful display. The Little Red Pen is a genuine tour de force in both writing and illustration, showing both the power of words and the potency of excellent art – an unbeatable combination.

(+++) SERIES STARTERS


My Pet Slime. By Courtney Sheinmel. Illustrated by Renée Kurilla. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw. By Gina Loveless. Illustrations by Andrea Bell. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.

     The cross-pollination of the online world and traditional publishing continues apace in standard-looking books whose content is taken from material originally created online. A digital library called “Epic!” (complete with exclamation point) is the source for two new book sequences, one aimed at third-graders and one at fifth-graders. Both series are formulaic in characters, events and outcomes, and the initial novels in both are in large print, quite easy to read, and amply illustrated (although not graphic novels). They may, in fact, appeal more to children a grade or even two grades below their intended audience, than to children in the designated grades – although that, of course, depends on individual kids’ reading levels.

     My Pet Slime is about a girl named Piper Maclane who wants to be an artist and wants to have a pet. But she is allergic to everything with hair or fur, and does not want a lizard or fish or frog because “I want a pet that can sleep in bed with me at night.” Somehow this translates into using her artistic talents to make a batch of slime (in her room, which is against her parents’ rules) and sculpting it into cute-pet shape. The slime gets all over everything when Piper makes it, and a massive cleanup is necessary, but somehow all this does not mean that the slime will get all over the bed at night if Piper’s new pet sleeps with her. Anyway, Piper also has a standard school-type problem in the person of a girl named Claire, who is “really popular” and with whom other kids always agree: “Out loud, I agree with her, too. Life is easier when you agree with Claire.” So we have the standard not-quite-a-bully and the standard not-quite-an-outcast in a standard school setting, and My Pet Slime proceeds mostly in standard ways. But there has to be a gimmick (that is standard, too), and in this case it comes in the form of Piper’s Grandma Sadie, who works for some sort of top-secret space-exploration organization (apparently the book is set somewhere in the future, despite everything appearing to be present-day). Grandma Sadie brings Piper a gift of “space dust collected from around the cosmos,” and it just so happens that this space dust, when Piper opens it near her slime pet, brings the slime to life. Now Piper really has a pet! And she names it Cosmo, of course. But, um, it has to obey the usual rules of magic in books for third-graders, which means that nobody actually believes Cosmo is alive, because Cosmo isn’t alive when an adult is anywhere nearby. So Piper’s parents think she is making up the notion of a slime pet, and so at first does irritating Claire, with whom Piper gets into a big argument at school because Piper thinks Claire has taken Cosmo out of Piper’s backpack and thrown the cute little purple thing in the trash. Eventually everything gets sorted out, and Claire can also see that Cosmo is real, and so all would be well and everybody would be happy if this were not a series-starting book. But it is, so there has to be a cliffhanger at the end – which, in this case, is that Grandma Sadie has mysteriously gone missing. The next book will revolve around what happened to her.

     As for Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw, here too the focus is on school bullying, and on interpersonal relationships in which adults get involved primarily to make things worse through lack of understanding. But since this series is aimed at slightly older readers, it is marginally more intense. Here the protagonist is a girl named Robin Loxley – a distinct nod to the Robin Hood legend, whose central character was Robin of Loxley (or Locksley). The outlaw of legend was an archer and swordsman, but Robin Loxley in Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw is a basketball player, and a good one. That leads her to challenge an arrogant classmate, and win – but she inadvertently injures him when she bounces the ball to him and it rebounds into his nose. As it that were not enough, Robin is victimized – as are all her classmates – by a nasty bully of a girl named Nadia, who steals the “bonus bucks” given out at school by creating a “tax” (another reference to the Robin Hood legend) for kids who want to use the school playground. Well, Robin – who wears a hoodie, hence the whole Robin Hood thing – has to negotiate the whole bully-in-school mess, and the way she does it is by teaming up with some other “outlaws” to steal back the stolen bonus bucks and return them to the kids from whom Nadia took them. (Rob the rich to give to the poor, and all that.) Unfortunately, Assistant Principal Johnson soon gets involved, and Robin gets detention for leaving a note describing Nadia as “evil,” and matters escalate from there. Oh – the school’s name is Nottingham Elementary, which makes Johnson, in effect, the sheriff of Nottingham. The likelihood is that most fifth-graders today will not pick up on all the Robin Hood references, or even most of them – although Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw could actually become a teachable book if parents used it to encourage their children to read about the Robin Hood legend and find all the ways in which this book draws on it. Matters get increasingly complicated as the book goes on, and it eventually turns out that there is a family relationship between Nadia and the boy whose nose Robin inadvertently bloodied – but it also turns out that, just as King Richard returns in the Robin Hood stories to rescue the outlaws from King John, so Principal Roberta returns to wrap things up and take over from the unkind Assistant Principal Johnson. Also here is also a plot point in which Robin is estranged from her onetime best friend because Robin did not attend the friend’s birthday party, which she couldn’t do because she couldn’t get a ride, and the message left for the friend never got there because…well, it was all a misunderstanding, and of course things are looking up friendship-wise at the end of the book, except that friendship issues are hinted at as being the main topic of the next book in the series. Both Diary of a 5th Grade Outlaw and My Pet Slime are fine for series openers, introducing basic characters and themes that will be used in later volumes; and both are aptly (if not very creatively) illustrated, making them even easier to read (because they are already short, and there is even less text than expected as a result of all the pictures). Nothing in either book is the slightest bit out of the ordinary in a series for the targeted age ranges, but the point here is not creativity or genre-bending – it is simplicity and straightforwardness, taken from an online world in which those characteristics are predominant and made available in book form for young readers who are not spending 100% of their lives online.

(++++) PLEASURES OF THE RARELY HEARD


Charles Villiers Stanford: The Travelling Companion. David Horton, Julien Van Mellaerts, Kate Valentine, Pauls Putnins, Ian Beadle, Felix Kemp, Tamzin Barnett, Lucy Urquhart; New Sussex Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Toby Purser. SOMM. $39.98 (2 CDs).

Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4; Johann Bernard Bach: Ouverture (Suite) in E minor; Johann Ludwig Bach: Ouverture (Suite) in G. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $19.98 (2 CDs).

     There are so many ways in which the word “rare” applies to the new SOMM recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s The Travelling Companion. The composer himself is something of a rarity in the concert hall, although his music has been gradually getting more attention in recent years. He is very definitely rare on the opera stage, and exceptionally rare when it comes to opera on disc. The Travelling Companion is super-rare in recorded form: this live recording is its world première on CD. And here is a particularly interesting element of rarity for a work from 1916: this is a subtle, thoughtful and highly affecting opera, one that shows no significant signs of the tumultuous war year during which it was written. And one more rare thing: the opera is successful not only because of Stanford’s music but also because of an unusually intelligent and cogent libretto, which Henry Newbolt adapted from a fairy tale by none other than Hans Christian Andersen. Like so many of Andersen’s tales, the eponymous one on which The Travelling Companion is based is strongly anchored in a highly orthodox and somewhat straitlaced Christianity, despite its magical-fantasy framework. But being an intelligent adapter, Newbolt essentially dispenses with the preachiness and focuses on the fantastic elements – which, however, Stanford (1852-1924) refuses to use in an over-the-top fashion. There is only one named character in the opera: John, around whom the plot revolves. He is also the only high male voice (sung here by tenor David Horton): all the other men are baritones or bass-baritones, the lowest voice being that of the perpetually “perplext” king (Pauls Putnins). This use of vocal ranges effectively sets John apart from the world through which he moves – and Newbolt, like Andersen, sets him apart in other ways as well, through his essential goodness and desire to help others even at great personal expense (in Andersen’s story, this is because he is a simple, godly man; that motivation is less central to the opera). At one point in his wanderings to seek his fortune, John is joined by a “travelling companion” (baritone Julien Van Mellaerts), who, in Andersen’s tale, engages in a variety of magical matters: healing an old woman’s broken leg, bringing puppets to life, and more. Newbolt drops those elements, simply having the two men get to the heart of the tale by coming to a kingdom whose coldhearted princess demands that her suitors answer a question (three questions in Andersen) and kills them if, or rather when, they fail to do so – shades of Puccini’s Turandot a decade later! It turns out that the princess is in thrall to a troll in Andersen, an evil wizard in the opera. The Travelling Companion comes up with a way to thwart and destroy the evil one and break his spell’s hold on the princess (Kate Valentine) so that she can love John wholeheartedly – indeed, in the opera but not the original story, she has already begun to love him when he first appears. After John wins the princess and asks his companion to stay on in the kingdom, the answer is no: it turns out, in a wonderful twist used by both Andersen (explicitly) and Newbolt (implicitly), that the companion has done so much to aid John because he is repaying a debt – he is the revenant of a dead man whose corpse John prevented two ruffians from despoiling, even though doing so cost John all the money he had in the world. Toby Purser leads the New Sussex Opera Chorus and Orchestra with skill and enthusiasm throughout the opera, and all the casting is first-rate. Horton’s bright vocal tone complements Valentine’s powerful soprano very well, while Ian Beadle as the wizard and Felix Kemp as the Herald both show very well-tuned, flexible vocal instruments – so flexible that the baritones double as the two ruffians who had planned to desecrate the dead body. The orchestra overwhelms the singers every once in a while, and the chorus is not always as tightly knit as would be ideal, but these are minor imperfections in an exceptional recording whose packaging, thank goodness, includes the full libretto. The Travelling Companion was the ninth and last of Stanford’s operas and is generally deemed his best. Be that as it may, the release of this rarity whets the appetite for hearing more of what Stanford composed for the stage.

     And what could possibly be considered rare in a recording of Bach’s orchestral suites (ouvertures)? Several things, as it turns out, when it comes to a marvelous new recording by Concerto Italiano under its founder, harpsichordist and conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini, on the Naïve label. Original-instrument recordings of Baroque music are no longer rare, true, but Alessandrini’s determination that Bach’s suites would have been played with a single instrument to a part leads to a full-voiced but decidedly chamber-music-like set of performances using a total of only 14 musicians (15 in Suite No. 4, which requires a third oboe). In addition, Alessandrini presents six Bach orchestral suites rather than the customary four – because he includes two by some of Bach’s second cousins, who turn out to be skilled composers in their own right. From Johann Bernard Bach (1676-1749) there is an extended minor-key suite that compares interestingly with Johann Sebastian’s No. 2, the only one of his four in a minor key. And from Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731) there is a short, snappy and upbeat suite in G that is pleasant and very tuneful. Alessandrini inserts one of the second-cousin suites between two of those by Johann Sebastian on each disc of the two-CD set, providing a fascinating opportunity to hear the similarities and differences among the three composers’ approaches while affirming that these suites – which are collections of popular dances of their time – were very much in favor in the early 18th century. The arrangement of Johann Sebastian’s suites is not the usual one: Nos. 3 and 1 appear in that order on the first disc, Nos. 4 and 2 in that order on the second. But since the numbering is known to be arbitrary and not necessarily reflective of the order in which the pieces were written, this does not really matter: the sequence here presumably reflects Alessandrini’s thinking about the most interesting way to juxtapose Johann Sebastian’s suites with those by Johann Bernard and Johann Ludwig (although Alessandrini’s otherwise detailed booklet notes do not actually say this). What is particularly interesting in this sequencing is that it leads up to Suite No. 2 as a finale, and that flute-focused piece, with its brilliant concluding Battinerie (Badinerie), does come across as the climax of the entire recording. The flexibility and attentiveness to detail of Concerto Italiano are evident throughout all six of these suites, and the charm, rhythmic contrast and differing emotional states of the various dances are brought out to very fine effect. The only discordant note (so to speak) in the whole production is the art, an element that is not usually worth mentioning one way or the other. Here, though, it draws attention to itself through sheer bizarrerie, featuring a man wearing sunglasses and dark blue surgical gloves who has apparently just parted the sort of plastic wrapping that is sometimes placed around seriously ill patients in hospitals. Appearing on the cover of both the package and the booklet, with an inside-the-package closeup of one of the man’s gloved hands, this self-consciously avant-garde photo illustration – done in blue and yellow to complement a release featuring one blue CD and one yellow one – distracts from the excellence of music and performances alike. But it is worth putting up with the silliness of the visual presentation in return for the chance to bask in the excellent of the aural one.

(+++) KEYBOARD MOODS AND OTHERS


Clara Schumann: Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann; Robert Schumann: Impromptus on a Theme by Clara Wieck; Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses; Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann; Nico Muhly: Small Variations; Vijay Iyer: Hallucination Party (from a Theme by R. Schumann). Mishka Rushdie Momen, piano. SOMM. $18.98.

Dora Bright: Piano Concerto No. 1; Variations for Piano and Orchestra; Ruth Gipps: Piano Concerto; Ambarvalia. Samantha Ward and Murray McLachlan, piano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Peebles. SOMM. $18.98.

Music for Oboe and English Horn by Pavel Haas, Glen Roven, Asha Srinivasan, Vladimír Soukup, and Hugo Godron. Sara Fraker, oboe and English horn; Casey Robards, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Music for Bassoon with Piano, Percussion and Electronics by Graeme Shields, Jess Hendricks, Steven Moellering, Gene Koshinski, Bruce Grainger, Brad Bombardier, and Steven Sondheim. Jefferson Campbell, bassoon; Alexander Sandor, piano; Gene Koshinski, percussion. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     One of the great love stories in classical music is that of Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck, later Clara Schumann. It was almost a love triangle, of a sort: Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms were a mutual admiration society musically, and after Schumann’s death in 1856, Brahms became even closer than he had been to Clara – who outlived her husband by 40 years. For Brahms, a lifelong bachelor with a notoriously prickly personality, it is probably no exaggeration to declare Clara the love of his life, albeit on a strictly platonic and musical basis. It is always fraught with peril to try to draw too close a relationship between composers’ lives and their music, but in the case of the Schumanns and Brahms, doing so is inevitable – for reasons made crystal-clear by a particularly thoughtfully produced SOMM recording featuring pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen. Everything here revolves around Robert Schumann, either directly or indirectly. Clara Schumann’s Variations, Op. 20, were a birthday present to her husband in 1853. They directly inspired Brahms’ Variations, Op. 9. Robert Schumann’s Impromptus, Op. 5, originally date to 1832, when the composer was 22 years old and his future wife just 13 – but already a fine musician who did indeed create the theme on which this work is based. The Impromptus are modeled on Beethoven’s Eroica variations, and that is the rather tenuous connection they have with Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, Op. 54, which spring from the same model. The very recent pieces (both written in 2019) by Nico Muhly (born 1981) and Vijay Iyer (born 1971) are also tenuously connected to Robert Schumann, but in a different sense than is the Mendelssohn work: both sort of take off from the same theme that inspired Clara Schumann, but both are concerned primarily with using contemporary techniques to twist, turn and taffy-pull the theme in ways that render it largely unrecognizable (the opposite of what happens in traditional variation sets). Momen is to be commended for the quality of her playing as well as the quality of the works in this recital – it is really only the Mendelssohn that seems, intellectually, a bit out of place, but she plays it with such warmth and style that it is worth having here. The very best performance on the disc, though, is of the Clara Schumann Variations, whose simplicity and beauty go hand-in-hand and whose understated loving tone provides considerable insight into the closeness of the relationship (both musical and marital) between the Schumanns. The remaining 19th-century works all get essentially similar treatment from Momen, but it does not work quite as well in them. The quieter, slower sections of the Mendelssohn are first-rate, but the Agitato fifth variation and Poco a poco più agitato Variation 15 are entirely too calm and collected. In the Brahms Variations, Momen fails to distinguish between Andante and slower tempos: even when Brahms clearly marks the eighth variation Andante (non troppo lento), Momen keeps the pace quite slow, and there is little differentiation between Variation 14’s Andante and Variation 15’s Poco Adagio. The Schumann Impromptus are generally more convincing, although the power called for in No. VIII, Mit grosser Kraft, is understated at best. As for the two contemporary works, Iyer’s Hallucination Party is mostly concerned with drawing attention to itself; Muhly’s Small Variations has a better sense of the quiet and warmth of Robert Schumann’s original theme from Bunte Blätter. This is a notably interesting recording, even though it is not difficult to nitpick a number of its individual contents and performances. Momen is not only a skillful pianist but also, on the basis of this disc, a particularly thoughtful one.

     The Variations for Piano and Orchestra by Dora Bright (1862-1951), heard on another new SOMM recording, fit the 19th-century model for this musical form well even though they were written in the 20th (in 1910). They are closer than Clara Schumann’s very personal Variations to being salon-like music, which simply means they are pleasant and easy to listen to in a rather impersonal way. The theme is marked Semplice and the seven variations themselves, by and large, equally merit that designation. There is certainly prettiness here, and even some elegance, but only in the sixth variation, marked Lento, is there much feeling of emotional involvement. The extended concluding variation-and-finale, representing six-and-half minutes of the whole work’s 16-and-a-half, maintains an upbeat and cheerful tone pretty much throughout – which makes the unexpected delicacy at the very end quite surprising, and the most interesting element of the whole piece. Samantha Ward plays this world première recording very adeptly, and is well supported by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Charles Peebles. Ward and Peebles also make a fine team in Bright’s more-substantial Piano Concerto No. 1 – also a world première recording – although here, too, Bright offers rather superficial pleasures, even pleasantries, rather than anything more profound. This is not to denigrate the concerto, which is very well written and nicely paced, and shows some real skill in orchestration. The surface-level appeal of the music, however, may help explain why this work has lain in obscurity for so long. This recording makes as good a case for it as it will likely get, and it is certainly a piece worth hearing for anyone interested in the byways of Romantic piano music, but there is little in the concerto that would likely encourage more-frequent performances of it. The other concerto on the CD, by Ruth Gipps (1921-1999), is somewhat more substantial and, indeed, at times on the portentous side, as in its strong orchestral opening and intense piano entry (here the pianist is Murray McLachlan). The first movement is by far the longest of the three here (as is also the case in the Bright concerto), and it is well-orchestrated and features some attractively lyrical elements – plus a section in which the piano is accompanied by timpani, along the lines of Beethoven’s first-movement cadenza for his piano arrangement of his Violin Concerto. Gipps’ second movement features some pleasant woodwind touches, and indeed the word “pleasant” describes much of the concerto as a whole. The bright, lively and cheerful finale leaves a particularly positive impression of the whole piece. The CD concludes with a work sans piano: Ambarvalia, a late piece by Gipps (written in 1988 as an in memoriam). This is the third world première recording on the disc (Gipps’ concerto was recorded once before), and it is in some ways the most attractive work of all those here. Written for small orchestra, with celeste but otherwise without percussion, it has a mood of simplicity and acceptance about it rather than anything tragic or monumental. The title, which refers to an ancient Roman festival of blessing of the fields, helps explain the somewhat pastoral impression of the music. This is a subtle and understated memorial work of considerable sensitivity – and a piece perhaps more likely to bear repeated hearings than are the three other, more-ambitious works on this CD.

     There is a fairly ambitious agenda underlying a new MSR Classics CD featuring oboist Sara Fraker and pianist Casey Robards – but the grandiose overlay is somewhat at odds with the comparatively modest music. Titled “Botanica,” the disc is supposed somehow to call on notions of environmental and social justice (whatever those slippery concepts may mean to different listeners). But it really does no such thing: it simply presents six works, by five composers, that in some cases are supposed to call up sociopolitical thoughts and in others are not. The single composer represented by two works is Pavel Haas (1899-1944), who has recently received new attention in large part because of his death in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II. However, that particular sociopolitical element is not the point here: the two Haas works open and close this disc in a way that shows the composer’s considerable skill at wind-and-piano writing in which the oboe or English horn stands in for voice. The Suite for Oboe and Piano (1939) was apparently originally written for tenor; certainly the oboe here seems to declaim unheard words, while the first two movements’ tempo indications – Furioso and Con fuoco – indicate what sorts of words are absent, before the Moderato finale brings a level of calm, or perhaps resignation and acceptance. Four Songs on Works of Chinese Poetry (1944) was actually written in Terezin, for bass voice and piano. Fraker has cleverly arranged the vocal part for English horn, an instrument that does a good job of communicating the underlying (although unheard) words, especially in the third and fourth songs, “Far Is My Home, O Moon,” and “A Sleepless Night.” One other work on the CD is from the same time period as those by Haas: Suite Bucolique (1939) by Hugo Godron (1900-1971). This is a considerably lighter piece than either of those by Haas, its four short movements having a pleasantly outdoorsy aura without attempting to paint any specific pictures. The remaining three works on this CD are, on the whole, less effective. Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1970) by Vladimír Soukup (1930-2012) offers two contrasting-tempo movements in standard 20th-century musical language. And then there are two works commissioned for this recording and therefore partaking more closely of its intended nonmusical meaning. Braiding (2017) by Asha Srinivasan (born 1980) is for oboe, electronics and natural sounds; it is inspired by a book called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It communicates nothing of particular note (or notes) to listeners unfamiliar with that book. And Elegy for Oboe and Piano (2018) is one of the last works by Glen Roven (1957-2018), a bit ironically in light of its title and its conclusion with a Bach-like chorale. It is intended to further Fraker’s purpose: the two movements are called “Blight-Killed Eucalypts” and “Pale Pink, Dark Pink.” But really, the music does not speak in any meaningful way to environmental issues: its elegiac nature could apply to just about anything.

     Piano and winds appear in much lighter guise on another new MSR Classics CD, this one featuring bassoonist Jefferson Campbell. This disc is chock-full of commissioned pieces: Campbell has been arranging for contemporary composers to create music that bassoonists will enjoy playing. He and his accompanists – Alexander Sandor on piano and Gene Koshinski on percussion – do seem to get considerable pleasure from playing these works. Listeners enamored of the sound of the bassoon and interested in hearing works written for it in today’s musical styles (popular as well as classical) will also enjoy the disc. There is nothing particularly profound here, but there is a fair amount of fun to be had. There are four multi-movement pieces on the disc. Four Onomatopoeias for Bassoon and Piano by Graeme Shields (born 1992) is by far the most interestingly titled, both overall and in its four movements: “Buh-uh,” “Ba Doo-ah,” “Wah Bit-itty Doo-Wah,” and “Gah-da-Bah.” Yes, the music sounds as you would imagine it to sound based on those silly but evocative titles. Concertino for Bassoon and Electronics by Jess Hendricks (born 1972) also tries to reflect the titles of its three movements: “Aria,” “Dance and Fugue,” and “Adventurous.” Here, though, the electronics get somewhat in the way of the bassoon’s expressiveness, although the finale certainly seems adventurous enough. Sonata for Bassoon and Piano by Steven Moellering (born 1977) is the most conservatively planned piece on the disc, with movements called “Improvisation,” “Lullaby,” and “Rondo.” It uses both bassoon and piano well in music that nicely reflects the movement titles. Pocket Grooves for Bassoon and Percussion by Gene Koshinski (born 1981) – the percussionist on this recording – has titles that will not likely be clear to many listeners: “Joropo” (a fandango-like Venezuelan dance), “Samai” (a Turkish form), and “Choro” (Brazilian popular music). All the music “grooves” in a jazz sense, with the percussion elements equal to if not more prominent than those given to the bassoon. There are four other pieces on the disc. Get It! for Bassoon and Percussion is an additional, short work by Koshinski. A Steamboat Lullaby for Bassoon and Piano is by Bruce Grainger (born 1954) as arranged by Truman Bullard. Bassoon Rawk for Bassoon and Bassoon Ensemble by Brad Bombardier (born 1960) has one of those titles that could indicate anything from a raptor’s cry to “rock,” as in rock music. And Send in the Clowns by Steven Sondheim (born 1930), arranged by Campbell, has become one of those inevitable crossover tunes offered by all sorts of instruments and ensembles – rarely, however, to the same effect as the original. Bassoonists will likely have more fun with this release than will listeners in general, but there are elements in all four of the longer works that are interesting and attractive even for an audience of non-bassoon players.

October 10, 2019

(++++) PUTTING IT SIMPLY


Dogs Don’t Die—Dogs Stay. By Chris Shea. Andrews McMeel. $7.99.

Believe in Yourself and Do What You Love. By Kate James. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Dog lovers are, in a sense that non-dog-lovers will never understand, the sum of all their beloved canines. Although dogs are often abused, misused, maltreated and trained to be hostile and aggressive, these characteristics always flow from dog owners, never from the dogs themselves. And owners who mistreat dogs are never dog lovers. They are at least dog users, at most dog abusers. The vast majority of people who share their lives with dogs, however, exist with canines in a kind of symbiosis whose benefits flow equally in both directions. As a result, when a dog dies, a dog lover feels – correctly – that he or she has lost a part of himself or herself; and it can be harder to bear the loss of a beloved canine than to handle the loss of a human friend or even family member, not because humans are worth less to dog lovers but because dogs are worth more. Again, this is inexplicable to non-dog-lovers – but they are not the audience for Chris Shea’s tiny, elegant and moving Dogs Don’t Die—Dogs Stay. This is an ideal gift book for someone who has recently lost a beloved dog to death – and true dog lovers know this happens many times in a human lifespan, since a dog is old after 10 to 12 human years and some large breeds rarely live even a decade. It is the extreme simplicity of the book, both in words and in drawings, that is the key to the charm and heartfelt nature of what Shea expresses. Shea shows a “Dog Design and Creation Manual” resting on a cloud and says that God was the first to tell dogs, “Stay. Good dog.” This divine element can be taken literally by those so inclined and figuratively by everyone else. In fact, Shea balances the whole book between literal and figurative, showing one dog realistically about to bury a bone at “a sunny spot for digging,” then one in “a shady spot for resting” sitting quite unrealistically in a chair beneath a beach umbrella. What dogs want – and Shea is far from the first to make this simple statement – is “a person to love forever,” and Shea’s point is that “forever” extends beyond a dog’s earthly lifespan. Dogs, he writes, teach us “unconditional love, unconditional devotion, and loyalty that never ends,” and it is the loss of those things when a dog passes on that makes the loss so hard to bear. The sweet, gentle drawings that Shea offers to go with his simple, direct words enhance those words’ quality, and Dogs Don’t Die—Dogs Stay becomes almost unbearable to read (again, for a dog lover) when Shea talks about what happens “one day” when a beloved dog is gone. Gone for all time? Not really, this little book says, “because loyalty, companionship, and faithfulness last forever,” and a true dog lover does not forget them and is made a better person because of them – made, ultimately, into the sum of all the canines with which he or she has experienced life. Shea has a lovely little ending to this lovely little book, suggesting that “when they think we’re ready,” dogs that have passed on help us find another wonderful companion offering “unconditional love, unconditional devotion, and loyalty that never ends.” The idea is naïve, simplistic, even rather silly when looked at rationally – but dog lovers know that that is exactly how it feels when a new dog captures and captivates them after the passing of an old one. Shea evokes the feeling beautifully, and dog lovers will shed tears – cleansing tears – at experiencing it.

     Simplicity of an entirely different sort, at an entirely different level, permeates Kate James’ (+++) self-help book, Believe in Yourself and Do What You Love. The title really encapsulates the book: if the title seems reasonable and attainable, you will find the book filled with explication (not necessarily explanation) of how to accomplish the dual goals; but if the title seems like just another in a long line of overly simplistic, feel-good admonitions with little contact with the real world, you will find the entire book lacking, since most of what it offers is more of the same. James runs a business called “Total Balance” and describes herself as a life coach and mindfulness teacher. Her entire book is predicated on the notion of being mindful of who you are and what you want, in order to take steps to get where you want to go. There are 50 very short admonitory chapters here. For example, the one titled “Be mindful” says, “When you create the headspace to step back and look at your life in a mindful way, you’ll often discover a different perspective and become better able to identify the things that matter.” The one called “Peak experiences” talks about being “rapturously in sync with the world and what you are doing.” The one titled “Look on the bright side” says, “Positive people are smarter, they do better in their careers, they make more money, have happier relationships, get depressed less often, and are healthier.” There is really nothing unusual or unfamiliar in James’ book, which is assertively upbeat and insists that readers should be that way, too. But the often rather flighty language does not mean that James is wholly out of touch with reality: she does make some specific recommendations. For example, to connect with work that you really want to do, she says to research the industry, learn how to network, and – if you are already in a job you like and want to get promoted and take on more responsibility – speak up more and take on extra responsibilities to prove you can handle a larger role. James’ other work-related notions are similarly straightforward. They include finding role models to imitate, creating a routine that works for you, and accepting that money alone will not make you happy: “It’s far better to focus on finding meaningful, creative work and creating a life that you love than it is to just go after the big bucks.” If comments like this seem well-thought-out and actionably useful, you will find quite a few of them in Believe in Yourself and Do What You Love. If they seem like surface-level observations or twice-told tales gleaned from innumerable other self-help and career-oriented books, you will find little that is useful in James’ writing. Yet her ideas, even when naïve and simplistic, are basically good ones. For instance, “Appreciate small pleasures and proactively intersperse them throughout your week,” she suggests at one point. She does not follow it up by suggesting her readers get a dog or other fill-life-with-small-pleasures pet – but that would certainly be one way to implement many of the notions found in relaxation-and-self-help books, including this one.

(+++) VENTURES AND ADVENTURES


Timeless. By R.A. Salvatore. Harper Voyager. $7.99.

Boundless. By R.A. Salvatore. Harper Voyager. $27.99.

     There is tremendous pleasure in observing virtuosity in action. It matters not what the field is: people who make complex tasks look easy are a joy to observe, and the worlds they create and share with the rest of us non-virtuosi are fascinating to contemplate and explore. So visits to the Forgotten Realms of virtuoso fantasist R.A. Salvatore are a thoroughly immersive experience, and Salvatore’s latest trilogy, set in the world he has delved into in more than 30 prior novels, is every bit as gripping as his earlier explorations of his self-created universe.

     To be completely fair, it is not entirely self-created: much of it blends the sensibilities of J.R.R. Tolkien (as virtually all post-Tolkien heroic fantasies do) with elements of “Dungeons & Dragons” (whence comes, for example, the name of “a filthy little tavern with terrible food and worse liquor,” where deeds are done and plots are hatched: the Oozing Myconid) and similar role-playing games. And the characteristics of Salvatore’s novels fit the modern heroic-fantasy genre like a skintight glove: there is nothing here, not a single thing, that shakes the genre’s boundaries or tries to expand them. So lovers of the genre can slip into the Forgotten Realms with the surety of comfort. There is nothing humorous in these books: parodies of this genre offer humor, but the genre itself is intended to be taken very, very seriously. There is plenty of gore, but not an excessive amount for the genre: this is heroic fantasy, not horror. There are naming conventions intended to be taken as exotic, not silly: Horroodissomoth does not refer to ghosts making sounds directed at a butterfly-like insect, Catti-Brie is not a mixture of felinity and French cheese, the brothers Bouldershoulder are not introduced for comic relief, and there is no amusement intended in the name of Thibbledorf Pwent. The peculiar coexistence of vaguely Germanic place and character names (Thornhold, Gauntlgrym, Guenhwyvar) with prosaic English-language ones (The High Forest, Sword Mountains) and occasional ones referring to gods who do not exist in Salvatore’s reality (Baldur’s Gate) is to be taken at face value. So is the sprinkling of apostrophes (Tr’arach, K’yorl, Syn’dalay, Sos’Umptu, D'aerthe, Q’Xorlarrin). Readers who engage with Salvatore’s world and disengage from their own critical faculties regarding these genre elements will have a thoroughly satisfying time with Timeless, the first book in the new trilogy (originally published last year and now available in paperback) and Boundless, the sequence’s newly released second book.

     This trilogy is built around one of Salvatore’s most-popular characters, Drizzt D’Urden, a dark elf (drow) sired by the hyper-powerful weapon master of a minor, now-destroyed House upon the ambitious and nymphomaniacal Matron (ruler, in a matriarchal world) of the House of Do’Urden. Drizzt’s father is named Zaknafein, and he appears in two forms in the two time periods in which Timeless and Boundless take place: in the past, among the never-ending machinations of drow houses as they eternally jockey for power and for the favor of the spider goddess Lolth, who (despite Salvatore’s intentions) is not at all Lovecraftian, and whose sole reason for existence is to promote chaos (never mind whether that make sense); and in the “present” in which this series takes place, when Zaknafein has been reincarnated after heroically drowning himself in acid for the sake of his son (again, never mind). The frequent passing references to earlier Forgotten Realms books – including that acid bath – will have no resonance for readers unaccustomed to Salvatore’s machinations and world-creation, but will make perfect sense to existing fans who are familiar with earlier Forgotten Realms novels. Timeless and Boundless can actually be read – in that order – without knowing prior Salvatore books, for readers who enjoy the genre and are not too picky about exposition or too worried about plot holes. Timeless turns on the question of who revived Zaknafein and why, and whether he really is Zaknafein or is some nefarious revenant creature or other. A subsidiary theme that pops up periodically is that the drow know they are the best and greatest race in all the realms, but Drizzt consorts with beings deemed inferior by Zaknafein, including halflings, dwarves and elves, and even consorts with humans – literally consorts, since he is married to one: these magical, mystical beings from a deep and dark realm totally unlike Earth for some reason have Earth’s marriage customs. And Drizzt’s wife is pregnant with what will be Zaknafein’s grandchild, whether or not the resurrected warrior will ever be able to accept that reality.

     The swift shifts between timelines and the constant changes of focus in Timeless make the book hard to follow for readers seeking narrative consistency, but fast-paced and involving for ones who enjoy movie-like (or TV-like) quick cuts from one scene and one set of characters to another, usually leaving someone in a perils-of-Pauline situation while Salvatore shifts his attention elsewhere. Some characters serve to hold the bulging narrative more or less together: Drizzt, Zaknafein, and Jarlaxle, a mercenary and rogue (and something of a dandy) whose own origin lies at the highest levels of drow society and who manages, despite being male, to create a kind of “House” of his own by building up a gang of other clever, ambitious and pretty much ruthless misfits.

     Boundless is essentially a continuation of Timeless and not really readable on its own. It starts with a typically hectic, even frantic Salvatore touch in the form of an invasion of demons – and with some typical Salvatore stylistic oddities, such as a scene in which demons about to pounce on and destroy the “good guys” suddenly and inexplicably turn on and attack each other instead, because…well, just because that is what demons do, since they are creatures of chaos and servants of Lolth, except that they are suspiciously well-organized when that suits the book’s narrative purpose. Boundless further explores the ongoing sociopolitical intrigue that permeates Timeless and features in other Forgotten Realms books as well: ultimately, everything is supposed to be about power, which the drow Houses lie, cheat, steal, and murder to attain so they can eventually be among the eight ruling Houses of the vast and sprawling city of Menzoberranzan, at which point Houses below them will try even harder to destroy them. Well, fine points of narration are not germane to Timeless or Boundless or Salvatore’s many other books. What matters is the unending series of thrills, battles, swordplay (often described in great detail), betrayals, and Salvatore’s unashamed use of every possible cliché of villainy to be found in the heroic-fantasy genre. Boundless ends in a way that would give readers pause, in fact a great deal of pause, if Timeless had not shown that it is possible to be reincarnated even after being dissolved in acid. Where the third book of this trilogy will go after the highly dramatic conclusion of the second one is anybody’s guess, but have no fear: the finale will be fast-paced, exciting, intense, and largely incoherent in ways that will matter not at all to fans of Salvatore, Drizzt, Zaknafein, Jarlaxle, and the genre in which each of them excels in his own way. It would be an altogether fitting reflection on Salvatore’s virtuosity in creating more and more novels of the Forgotten Realms if he were to title that third book, perhaps, Endless. Or Limitless.

(++++) OLD SCHOOL AND NEW


Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Suzanne Danco, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Josef Krips. Cameo Classics. $14.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

     In the 1950s and early 1960s, before Mahler’s music had become widely accepted and part of conductors’ and orchestras’ standard repertoire, there were, broadly speaking, two schools of thought about how to perform it. The Bruno Walter approach was emotion-centered, flexible in tempo, broad in conception and detail-oriented. The Leonard Bernstein approach was intense and dramatic, driven and penetrating, not always precise in detail but offering at all times a conceptual context for all the turmoil of the material. There were other conductors of some note performing Mahler at this time – Bernard Haitink, Maurice Abravanel – and there were a few who offered his music rarely but with unusual thoughtfulness. Those included Kirill Kondrashin and Josef Krips. Krips (1902-1974) was never considered a major Mahler advocate, but his view of the Fourth Symphony in a January 1957 performance that is now available on the Cameo Classics label shows just how carefully he thought about and presented Mahler when he did turn his attention to this music. Krips was always comfortable with letting music breathe, allowing the lines to extend and extend again, often resulting in performances of great expansiveness that, despite their length, only rarely seemed slow: his Schubert Symphony No. 9, for example, typically lasted more than an hour. This Mahler Fourth also takes an hour, and it is a remarkably immersive experience throughout – marred, alas, by an unusually noisy audience (the recording comes from a live BBC broadcast), but nevertheless pulling listeners into Mahler’s sound world to an exceptional degree. If one were to assign colors to Mahler’s music, it would mostly be multihued, with slashes of brightness against a frequently dark background – except in the Fourth Symphony, which almost throughout shines a nearly perfect sky-blue. Krips gets this exactly right in his leisurely pacing and careful attention to details of Mahler’s marvelous orchestration. The first movement’s sleigh bells, for example, are just prominent enough without drawing too much attention to themselves. And the second movement’s scordatura tuning of the solo violin is unusually effective at Krips’ pace: there is a level of eeriness and disquiet here that rarely appears in other performances. As a result, the very extended third movement genuinely counteracts the feelings generated by the second, and the gradual ascent to heaven comes through both as a struggle and as an inevitability. And the finale, around which Mahler built the whole symphony, really does crown the work: Suzanne Danco (1911-2000) sounds just childlike enough to make this child’s view of heaven fit with all that has led to it. With a pure tone and limited vocal vibrato, she delivers the words with apt naïveté; and the orchestra, which has played exceptionally throughout, carries along the illustrative music – and the recollections of material from earlier in the symphony – to truly moving effect. This is an old-fashioned approach to Mahler, placing him firmly in the realm of earlier Central European music – and for this specific symphony, it works wonderfully well.

     Today’s conductors are much more likely to cut loose and focus on Mahler’s stormy, troubled side. And today’s orchestras are quite accustomed to playing Mahler, whose works are now firmly ensconced in the standard repertoire – so the quality of performances is, by and large, very high. Certainly the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä handles Mahler’s First with all the precision, intensity and attention to the work’s varying emotions that listeners could want – and with excellent focus on the minute details of Mahler’s careful orchestration, brought forth in exceptional SACD sound on a new BIS recording. Having already delivered impressive-sounding but sometimes rather quirky recordings of Mahler’s Second, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Vänskä here offers a pull-out-all-the-stops Mahler First that accentuates the numerous contrasts within the music. The very opening of the first movement, for example, is so quiet and so extended that the single note A seems to transport listeners immediately to a world beyond reality, or one in which reality is perceived with far more clarity than usual. This opening is a brilliant stroke by Mahler and is always effective, but Vänskä gets even more than usual from it by the evenness with which the orchestra’s strings hold the note: it is almost as if the sound is electronically generated. The result is that the jaunty main theme, when it appears, offers an even-stronger-than-usual contrast to the initial tone painting. This performance is full of such touches: comparison and contrast are everywhere. The differing qualities of the start and middle of the third movement, for example, are accentuated here, and the end of that movement slides quietly into near-inaudibility before the beginning of the finale slams the ears with even more strength and sheer volume than usual. Indeed, the emphasis Vänskä places on contrast is at times almost too strong: when the initial outburst of the finale subsides into quiet for the recollection of the (now-absent) Blumine movement, for example, the music pretty much descends into stasis. This is obviously a deliberate effect on Vänskä’s part, but it is one that undercuts the forward motion of a movement that is always difficult to hold together cohesively. On balance, though, Vänskä here offers a highly convincing reading that is very much in the style of Mahler conducting today: assertive and confident in the interpretation of music that it is now fair to assume will already be familiar to most listeners and that therefore bears rethinking and reconsideration – especially when this nicely played – very well.

(++++) YOUTHFUL DISCRETIONS


Weber: Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn. Paul Armin Edelmann, Thorsten Grümbel, Ilona Revolskaya, Sebastian Kohlhepp, Christoph Seidl, Johannes Bamberger; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Roberto Paternostro. Capriccio. $16.99.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 4, 11 and 12. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The modern concept of wunderkind is scarcely equal to the task of describing the many amazingly youthful composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who were producing outstanding music when they were young teenagers, preteens and even young children. Mozart is the best-known by far, but Mendelssohn and Schubert were almost equally astonishing in their earliest years. And so was Carl Maria von Weber, already an accomplished (and published) composer at age 12, when he wrote his first opera. That one has not survived, but his second, Das Waldmädchen, was partly turned into his later Silvana. And his third opera has come down to us intact, at least as far as the music is concerned. The libretto of Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (“Peter Schmoll and His Neighbors”) has disappeared, but the sparkling score – 20 numbers, plus an overture that has rightfully made its way into the concert repertoire – is now available on a new Capriccio CD. The recording shows just how skillful Weber was in the years before he created his final three operas, which among them ushered in full-fledged Romanticism on the stage: Der Freischütz, Euryanthe, and Oberon. Unlike those grand and sometimes grandiose works, Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn is a simple musical comedy – and, indeed, seems to exist in a direct line with many of the light and frothy stage entertainments of the 20th and 21st centuries. The arias make the plot clear, even though the actual spoken dialogue is missing: Peter Schmoll seeks to wed his much younger niece, Minette, believing that both Minette’s lover and Peter’s own brother (Minette’s father) are dead; but the two turn up alive, upending Peter’s plans, and eventually the brothers are reconciled and the young people are suitably joined. The whole plot is frothy, and Weber produces appropriately joyful and witty music to go with it. He also shows, even at this early stage of his career, his fondness for the sort of exceptional wind writing that would characterize his later work: one aria has the bassoon bubbling happily along, several use flutes to good advantage, and one is introduced by a clarinet passage that will remind listeners that Weber wrote two high-quality concertos and a concertino for that instrument. All the male singers manage their formulaic roles with panache and no trace of irony – the plot is a typical one and needs to be handled straightforwardly for maximum effect. The sole female in the troupe, Ilona Revolskaya as Minette, is not quite as effective as the men, her voice tending to be a bit shrill and her delivery sometimes on the breathy side. But she is certainly more than adequate in the role – and Roberto Paternostro does a very find job indeed directing the ensemble and the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, which plays neatly and enthusiastically throughout. Capriccio thoughtfully provides an attractive 54-page booklet that includes all the sung texts – but only in German, putting English speakers at a distinct disadvantage. However, the intent of the words comes through quite clearly thanks to Weber’s expert settings, and it is always possible to look up translations of their exact meanings online – not that the verbiage is particularly distinguished. The music, however, is of very high quality, and Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn is certainly worth a listen. And it is worth remembering, sadly, that the musical prodigies of Weber’s time flourished early but did not live long: Mozart died at 35, Schubert at 31, Mendelssohn at 38, and Weber at 40.

     Beethoven had a longer life, to age 57, and his first published music did not appear until he was 25, although he had begun composing before that. Still, when one thinks of early Beethoven, it is generally of music he wrote in his 20s and up to about 1800, when he turned 30. It is music of that time period that James Brawn explores in the sixth release of his Beethoven cycle for MSR Classics. The three sonatas here date to 1796-97 (No. 4 in E-flat), 1799-1800 (No. 11 in B-flat), and 1800-01 (No. 12 in A-flat). Apart from all being in “flat” keys and all in four movements, the sonatas are not clearly related: this series gets a (+++) rating because Brawn’s excellent performances are presented in a somewhat scattershot manner. The readings themselves, however, are very impressive: Brawn is a thoughtful pianist who draws attention not to his own technique but to the intricacies of the music, and that approach works very well in these sonatas. No. 4 is both the earliest piece here and the longest, and indirectly foreshadows some of the demands that Beethoven was to make of himself and other pianists in later works: he not only violates expectations in the design of the usual Minuet-or-Scherzo third movement (here marked Allegro & Minore) but also creates highly challenging scalar passages in the first movement and a finale in which sforzando chords play a significant role. The CD then proceeds to Sonata No. 12, which opens, unexpectedly, with an Andante con variazioni – a structure more usually expected as a slow movement or finale – and then places the Scherzo second, following it with a rather short but very impressive funeral march sulla morte d’un Eroe. Although this does not look directly ahead to the “Eroica” symphony of 1805, it certainly shows Beethoven’s evocative skill: the piano offers everything from drum rolls to musket fire. The finale of this sonata is on the perfunctory side, but Brawn handles it as skillfully as he manages the other movements. Then, placed last on the disc, comes Sonata No. 11, and here Brawn skillfully unites disparate elements that can seem jarring in less-skilled readings. The sonata includes orchestra-like flourishes and techniques on the one hand and, on the other, an especially lovely slow movement, marked Adagio con molta espressione, which Brawn makes very expressive indeed. There is also a bright and fairly extended final Rondo in which, unexpectedly, a sweetly lyrical theme appears midway, recalling the slow movement in mood if not in actual notes. Firm control and a strong sense of the sonata’s overall structure are needed to bring this work off successfully, and Brawn has both. As in his five earlier recordings in this series, Brawn plays cleanly and with feeling, delving into the sonatas’ proto-Romantic elements without overdoing them and without exaggerating the works’ tempos or rhythms. His focus on getting the dynamics right is notable, and if there is a weakness in his concepts, it flows from his willingness to use the resources of a modern concert grand piano, so different from anything Beethoven knew, unashamedly – although Brawn is certainly not the only pianist to do this, and his approach to his instrument is as well-considered and tasteful as is his handling of the sonatas themselves.

October 03, 2019

(++++) THE TINIEST KILLER


Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918. By Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     A genuinely terrifying graphic novel whose topic seems to be a century old but actually stretches – as is explained at the end – to today, Fever Year is an important book, brilliantly conceived although imperfectly executed. Don Brown knows how to make significant but little-remembered past events dramatic and involving for younger readers, without sensationalizing them – his previous book, The Great American Dust Bowl, did so to excellent effect. But the past is largely a closed book for today’s young people, whose visual focus and future orientation – and preoccupation with electronics – make it very hard to explain the significance of an event that happened more than a century ago.

     Thus, Fever Year could have used a setup that Brown does not provide. He does explain that this was a time of war (not that World War I likely has much meaning for this book’s intended audience), but he does not open by explaining how different medical care was at the time from the way it is now. There was little understanding of disease transmission; there was little knowledge of microscopic disease-causing organisms; there were no antibiotics at all (not that they would have worked against the flu, which is a viral rather than bacterial disease); sanitation in healthcare was still an iffy proposition; etc. Some of these facts creep into the latter parts of Fever Year, and the war comes back again and again, not only because so many soldiers were stricken but also because doctors and nurses were in very limited supply because so many had been called to Europe to assist the war effort. But an overview of medical science and pseudo-science at the start of Fever Year would have helped set the dismal scene.

     However, if Brown can be faulted for how he sets up the story, or does not set it up, there is little to criticize in the way he actually tells it. It was a brilliant stroke to illustrate the entire book in tints of brown and gray, casting a pall of colorlessness and, by implication, a dull, drab sense of hopelessness over the story. And the matter-of-fact way in which Brown narrates the tale, interspersing the story with comments by officials of the time – most of them seriously wrongheaded – creates a cumulative sense of wrongness, of a time that is distinctly out of joint in ways that people can never quite grasp. Brown’s sensitivity to his young readership shows in the way his illustrations downplay just how awful victims looked in the throes of this devastating flu, but again and again, he discusses the toll of the disease and the vastly different populations that were struck by it, in no discernible pattern.

     The attempts to cope with the disease are handled gingerly, lest they seem silly – this is an area where a better initial setup would have helped, but Brown is at least careful not to mock people who bathed in mouthwash to try to kill germs, wore nightcaps to protect against the flu, used mustard plasters and mustard footbaths as anti-flu weapons, mingled coal smoke with sulfur or brown sugar, and sprayed water everywhere in the belief that dust transmitted the disease. Nothing worked; nothing could. The Spanish flu had to run its course, taking its major toll during 1918 but recurring for years afterwards, through 1922. And why “Spanish” flu? That is one of the interesting facts that Brown presents, and it is tied to war: although the disease struck people worldwide, neither side in the war wanted to publicize news of severe medical problems, fearing that the enemy could take advantage – but Spain did not take sides in World War I, so it reported on the disease honestly, leading people to believe, wrongly, that Spain must have been the source of the disease. Hence “Spanish flu.”

     There is so much in Fever Year that is so good that its shortcomings stand out all the more strongly. There are, for example, a number of errors in the writing that Brown or a good editor really should have caught. Page 12 has “the work of the the [sic] heavens.” Page 13 has “great swatches [sic] of the globe,” rather than “swathes.” Page 24 tells of sickbeds that “spilled out of the wards and on to [sic] porches,” rather than “onto.” Page 60 says “rest and calm insured [sic]” rather than “ensured.” And in writing a book about medicine, an author really should learn that “bacteria” is plural and “bacterium” singular. Brown writes of “the link between a bacteria and a particular illness” (page 55) and “the bacteria responsible” (pages 67 and 68). Despite the overall excellence of the story, errors of this sort undermine its quality.

     On the whole, though, Fever Year is a substantial accomplishment, and one that today’s young readers should find informative – and frightening. For even though we now have flu shots designed to protect us from the ravages of modern strains of the flu – a job the shots do moderately well but by no means perfectly – the exceptionally virulent Spanish flu, whose deadliness has never been fully explained, still lurks on the horizon. That is because the actual virus was re-created in the laboratory early this century – giving scientists the ability to study it and hopefully protect against an outbreak like the pandemic that killed a staggering 20 million to 50 million people a century ago. But if scientists now have a sample of this exceptionally virulent pathogen, how do we know that others who are far from well-meaning do not also have it? And how can we be sure that the Spanish flu will not one day re-emerge – or be deliberately released – in a world still largely unprepared for it and unable to fight it effectively?

(++++) CHARACTERS WITH CHARACTER


Big Nate: Hug It Out! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

A Mustache Baby Christmas. By Bridget Heos. Illustrations by Joy Ang. Clarion. $17.99.

     One thing that makes books fun for older and younger readers alike is the recognizability and distinctiveness of recurring characters – who have different adventures in each volume of a series, but remain within their well-honed personalities at all times. Readers of the long-running Big Nate comic strip and the books that collect it are quite familiar with Nate, the self-involved and self-important preteen with “hair resembling a tangled mass of jet-black seaweed” (so described, accurately, by another character in the strip); Nate’s wisecracking and tolerant best friends, Francis and Teddy; Nate’s feckless father, Mr. Wright; Nate’s in-school nemeses, Gina (fellow student) and Mrs. Godfrey (teacher); and so on. All these characters appear, inevitably, in the latest Big Nate collection, Hug It Out! And so do less-often-seen characters who nevertheless have distinctive looks and personalities: the never-named School Picture Guy, who perpetually wears a Band-Aid at the edge of his thinning hair and is seen doing odd (very odd) jobs ranging from radio DJ to balloon-sculpture maker; sadistic Coach John, whose obsession with making Nate and friends do wind sprints extends to the beach in summer and who at one point says he knows all the new and more-humane approaches to coaching and rejects all of them; cross-eyed, cat-loving, perpetually Elizabethan-collar-wearing dog Spitsy; and others. What Peirce has done so well for more than a quarter of a century is to weave these characters into, out of and around plots that always include Nate but that effectively showcase the many others in Nate’s world as well. In this collection, Vern and Marge, Nate’s grandparents, turn up as chaperones in a sequence about a school trip to an art museum – complete with misinterpretations of paintings and a search for Junior Mints at the gift shop. Principal Nichols outthinks Nate after Nate slips in the hall and threatens legal action – although Nate, as always, has a comeback: he charges other students a dollar each to visit “the site of the near-tragedy.” Plump, sweet and adorable Chad proves, as usual, unwittingly attractive to girls, who cannot resist his unforced niceness – and Chad is also featured in a story in which he goes to “fat camp,” returns looking substantially thinner, then regains his usual body shape immediately after taking a single bite of Nate’s brownie. Longtime readers of Big Nate will notice not only the expected character interactions but also an inexplicable oddity in Hug It Out! Nate is 11 or 12 years old (both ages have been referred to in the strip at different times); and he is always a sixth-grader – that is the foundational premise of the whole strip. So how does it happen that he and his friends go through an entire summer in this book, return to school, and start asking about what is going to happen in sixth grade? That would mean they were fifth-graders before the summer, but they were not. Nate and friends appear to be locked into a perpetual repeat of sixth grade – a matter to which Peirce here draws unintentional attention, and one that creates ongoing angst for Nate and a whole slew of other characters. However this happens, though, it also creates ongoing amusement for anyone reading Big Nate – and that, of course, is what Peirce aims to do.

     The Mustache Baby picture books by Bridget Heos and Joy Ang are aimed at younger readers, but here too familiar characterization in new settings is the basis of the enjoyment the books produce. A Mustache Baby Christmas is obviously a seasonal entry, but what makes it fun is the way Heos and Ang rearrange their underlying idea to accommodate all the ho-ho-ho associated with the season. They open by showing Baby Billy, who was born with a mustache, standing side-by-side with Baby Javier, who was born with a beard – and then they have Baby Javier’s beard turn white and fluffy, changing him into Santa Baby just in time for Christmas. Santa Baby is seen doing all sorts of Santa-ish things, from asking other babies what they want for Christmas to sampling the treats being made in the kitchen: “It was his duty to test each and every one.” But then Santa Baby realizes he has not yet made toys for the other babies! To the rescue comes Baby Billy, dressed as an elf and ready to handle toy-making. But – uh-oh – Baby Billy, now called Elf Baby, likes the toys he makes so much that he decides to keep them all for himself. That is a bad impulse that leads to a transformation seen in other Mustache Baby books: Elf Baby develops a “bad guy mustache” as he turns “the winter wonderland into a winter plunder-land.” Santa Baby retaliates by putting Elf Baby on the naughty list, and matters escalate from there as Elf Baby runs away while Santa Baby gives chase in a sleigh pulled by reindeer (actually two dachshunds). Well, everything soon enough works out, friendship and facial hair appearances are suitably restored, and the real Santa Claus makes an appearance at the book’s end to engage both babies’ help and to shout, “Merry mustache to all and to all a beard white!” The whole book is thoroughly silly and thoroughly endearing, which means it fits perfectly into the Mustache Baby series, in which it is the fourth entry after Mustache Baby, Mustache Baby Meets His Match, and Arrr, Mustache Baby! By making their central characters readily recognizable and packing them with heaps of personality, Heos and Ang show again and again that all they need to do is tweak the settings and the season a bit to come up with yet another heaping helping of adorableness in which very young readers – and their parents – will delight.