January 29, 2009


Books Are for Reading. By Suzy Becker. Random House. $8.99.

Duck & Goose: How Are You Feeling? By Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade. $6.99.

Never Talk to Strangers. By Irma Joyce. Illustrated by George Buckett. Golden Books. $9.99.

     Suzy Becker’s board book, Books Are for Reading, looks really delicious – especially for infants up to age three, for whom it is intended. The reason is that two corners of the book are textured teethers – a red one with raised dots and a blue one with raised wavy lines. For children in the early, oral stage of development, who (even before they start teething) enthusiastically put just about anything in their mouths, this book teaches what is and isn’t appropriate to eat – while giving kids something on which they can literally chew. The text gives examples of what to do and not do – “Crayons are for writing, not biting” – while the illustrations explain the words lightly and amusingly (left page: child drawing with crayons while dog sits nearby; right page: child and dog with crayon points sticking out of their mouths). The one thing parents of particularly clever children should watch out for is the question: “If books are for reading, not eating, why is it okay to eat this one?” A child who thinks that through is probably ready for a board book for older kids – such as Tad Hills’ charming Duck & Goose: How Are You Feeling? Intended for ages 2-5, Hills’ book brings his delightful star birds – plus Bluebird and Thistle, supporting characters from previous books – together in scenes illustrating feelings and emotions. Hills’ expressive drawings are, as always, a big part of the book’s charm. On one page, Duck is “proud” of the tower of sticks he has built, while on the facing page, Goose is “frustrated” that his structure has fallen down. A lovely nighttime scene illustrates “scared” with the two friends holding each other as a thunderstorm looms. Equally delightful is “patient,” showing a snail on the left-hand page being watched – patiently, of course – by Duck on the right, as the snail inches along in Duck’s direction. Simultaneously straightforward and clever, Hills’ newest board book (previous ones dealt with counting and opposites) is as endearing as his characters.

     Never Talk to Strangers is for about the same age range, targeting children 2-6, but it is more of a teachy/preachy book and not quite as successful in getting its message across – so it gets a (+++) rating. Originally published in 1967, the book has the single message encapsulated in its title – which Irma Joyce repeats no fewer than nine times at the end of jaunty rhymes. The problem here is not the repetition itself, though – it is the basic concept, and the way in which Joyce’s words and George Buckett’s amusing illustrations undermine the lesson the book is trying to teach. Each rhyme-and-picture combination portrays a stranger as an animal, and both the ideas and the illustrations almost guarantee that a child, in these situations, would want to ask the “stranger” what is going on. For example, “If you are riding your bike at noon/ And you see a bee with a bass bassoon,/ Don’t stop to ask the name of his tune./ Never talk to strangers.” A reasonable 21st-century child is likely to wonder what would be so bad about asking a question of a musical-instrument-carrying bee. Similarly, “If you’re mailing a letter to Aunt Lucille/ And you see a car with a whale at the wheel,/ Stay away from him and his automobile./ Never talk to strangers.” Aside from the quaint notion of mailing a letter in these text-messaging days, we again have an Alice-in-Wonderland moment here – the whale sports a big blue cap and is driving a very old-fashioned, fully decked-out convertible – and what child wouldn’t ask what the whole thing means? Of course, Joyce’s approach is designed to teach a simple lesson without making the “strangers” seem threatening to very young children. But the only reason given for not talking to strangers is that it’s a rule, and it’s hard to believe that 21st-century kids – or, for that matter, young children in the authority-challenging 1960s – would take that non-explanation at face value. Never Talk to Strangers has an admirable goal, but the writing and illustrations too often work against the lesson it is trying to deliver.


Your Pregnancy for the Father-to-Be, 2nd Edition. By Glade B. Curtis, M.D., M.P.H., and Judith Schuler, M.S. Da Capo. $14.95.

Cancer on $5 a Day (Chemo Not Included). By Robert Schimmel with Alan Eisenstock. Da Capo. $14.

     These two books are in what the publisher Da Capo calls its “Lifelong Books” series, and that is entirely appropriate. The Curtis/Schuler book is about the start of a new life from the perspective of the baby’s father; the Schimmel memoir is about how close the Comedy Central comedian came to dying of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and what lessons he learned from the experience – and has subsequently tried to teach. The Curtis/Schuler book is careful, straightforward, and nearly encyclopedic in covering just about every imaginable baby-related topic from a serious perspective. The Schimmel one is personal, profane, often overdone and equally often hilarious. Curtis and Schuler will be helpful to any first-time father and many who already have children. Schimmel will turn off as many people as he turns on – but the ones who like his approach will like it a lot.

     The new edition of Your Pregnancy for the Father-to-Be is an expanded and somewhat refocused version of the first edition, which came out some six years ago. It starts with “The Big Picture,” a set of trimester-by-trimester lists of “The Good Part,” “You May Have to Help Your Partner Deal With” and “Pay Attention To.” There is a glossary of pregnancy-related terms, followed by chapters on lifestyle changes, how couples change as partners during a pregnancy, childbirth preparations, labor, delivery and more. It is the “more” that has largely been updated and expanded – for example, there is lengthier (and welcome) treatment of “The Financial Realities of Parenthood,” to cite one chapter title. Here you will find, for example, a set of 24 questions to ask of your health insurer – any one of which could easily take up a chapter or more in itself. This is a book that fathers-to-be can read as narrative or in little bits. The bits are boxes within the chapters, giving “brownie points” (such as “make your partner feel special whenever you can” and “if your partner exercises during pregnancy, do it together”); debunking what used to be called “old wives’ tales” and are here called “my mother-in-law said” (such as the notion that pregnant women who crave meat are carrying boys – there is no scientific relationship between food cravings and a baby’s gender); and discussing certain subjects in additional depth (for instance, whether it is worthwhile financially for a new mother and/or father to return to work). Even within the narrative chapters, the layout makes the authors’ points easy to read and absorb. For example, a brief section on unmarried expectant fathers is laid out with 10 bullet points for the father-to-be to explore with a lawyer, from grandparents’ rights to making medical decisions for the baby. In some ways, fathers-to-be will benefit more from this book than mothers-to-be will from similar books for them, including excellent ones by Curtis and Schuler themselves. The reason is that mothers-to-be are often too busy simply getting through the pregnancy to read this type of book in detail, while fathers-to-be may well be looking for something useful to do. Curtis and Schuler are excellent, no-nonsense guides to one of the greatest of all life-changing events.

     Another life-changing event, and a much less welcome one than pregnancy, is a diagnosis of cancer – which is where Robert Schimmel’s book starts. But Cancer on $5 a Day (Chemo Not Included) is as filled with nonsense as Schimmel and Alan Eisenstock can make it. Funny business is Schimmel’s stock in trade – the book is subtitled “How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life,” and Schimmel was doing very well indeed as a 50-year-old stand-up comic when he got his diagnosis in 2000. It was not exactly something he could ignore: the effects of the disease hit him while he was onstage in Las Vegas. Schimmel was then in the midst of a complicated life transition: separated from his wife, Vicki, and living with a woman half his age, Melissa. After the cancer diagnosis, he breaks up with Melissa and moves back in with Vicki, who has offered to nurse him through the treatments – and who has experience in nursing a loved one, since she and Schimmel had lost their son, Derek, to a brain tumor several years earlier. Schimmel’s comedy hero is Lenny Bruce, so it is scarcely surprising that Schimmel’s own comedy is raunchy and highly self-referential – it was that way before the cancer diagnosis (Schimmel had a heart attack in 1998) and is that way throughout his memoir. Still, a lot of what Schimmel says is fairly straightforward: “In twenty-four hours I’ve gone from a sitcom star on Fox to a cancer patient in Phoenix. I’ve switched from trying to begin a life with Melissa to trying to save my life at Mayo. Talk about whiplash. My head’s spinning like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist.” A lot simply reflects what other cancer patients might say: “Dr. [Andrew] Weil talks about the value of taking a cleansing breath, then following that by visualizing something that you really, really want. Which in my case is to live.” But these ordinary moments only set off the bizarre ones that give this book its real flavor: Schimmel talks to a cactus, eats steak at his mother’s urging even though he doesn’t eat red meat (and finds it so good that “it actually rivals my first honeymoon night”), tries crystal therapy, learns to “embrace [his] cancer” because it is his and he does not belong to it, gets stoned on pot (which he smokes for chemotherapy-induced nausea), discusses sex during chemo, and much more. The book bursts with life, and its message of fighting back – coupled with its equally strong message of trying anything when you have nothing to lose – is sure to resonate with families dealing with any type of serious disease, not just cancer. The happily-ever-after ending, in which Schimmel does marry Melissa and they improbably have two children together, seems a complete cliché, but has the advantage of being true. And in that truth, in the hope that it engenders, lies the best thing about this book, which makes so much fun of a diagnosis and a disease that are so terribly unfunny.


Schubert: Complete Overtures, Volume 1—Der Teufel als Hydraulicus; Der Spiegelritter; Overtures in D major, D. 12 and D. 26; Des Teufels Lustschloß; Der vierjährige Posten; Claudine von Villa Bella; Die Freunde von Salamanka; Overture in B flat major, D. 470. Prague Sinfonia conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $8.99.

Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 13. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Spohr: Violin Concertos Nos. 6, 8 and 11. Simone Lamsma, violin; Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $8.99.

     The fact that the works on these three CDs are uniformly unknown or little-known makes one wonder how much other splendid 19th-century music is out there waiting to be rediscovered so it can flood the 21st century with pleasant, buoyant melodies that it could certainly use. The flourishing melodic gifts of Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss Sr. and Louis Spohr give even their minor works such lilt and spirit that although none of the music on these CDs can be called “great,” all of it will give a listener tremendous enjoyment – partly because of its novelty but mostly because of its sheer beauty.

     The melodic gifts of Schubert flourished very early – it is all too easy to forget that he died younger than any other great composer, at 31 – and all the overtures played stylishly by the Prague Sinfonia under Christian Benda date to the composer’s teens. Schubert was quite determined to succeed as a theatrical composer, but has gone down in history as a songsmith and symphonist. His operas suffer from execrable plots – yes, even worse than those typically associated with opera – and dramatic inconsistency (Fierrabras, for example, has almost nothing to do with the title character). Yet Schubert’s overtures are marvels of concise melodic inspiration, starting with his very first composition for the theater, Der Spiegelritter (“The Looking-Glass Knight,” 1811). Der Teufel als Hydraulicus (“The Devil as Engineer”) followed a few months later, as did the two concert overtures in D heard on this CD. The remaining overtures here, for concert, Singspiel and opera, followed over the next couple of years, the latest being the concert overture in B flat major of 1816 – when Schubert was all of 19. What unites all these disparate works is gorgeous melody, cleverly varied instrumentation, and occasional forays into skillful tone-painting (as in Der vierjährige Posten, “The Four-Year Posting,” which includes both pastoral and military elements). A few of these overtures periodically appear on concert programs, such as Des Teufels Lustschloß (“The Devil’s Pleasure Castle”), but most will be new – and a joy – to owners of this recording.

     Johann Strauss Sr., although later overshadowed by his sons Johann Jr. and Josef, was in his own way as gifted a melodist as Schubert was in his. The 13th volume of Marco Polo’s excellent series of Strauss’ music includes six waltzes, a wonderful set of variations called Erinnerung an Ernst oder Der Carneval in Venedig (“Reminiscence of [violin virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm] Ernst or The Venetian Carnival”), and a tribute called Souvenir de Liszt, Fantasie that incorporates themes from the great pianist’s Hungarian Melodies and – typically for the financially astute Strauss – was designed to advertise his 1846 collaboration with Liszt, whose Hungarian March to the Assault had been given its first performance by Strauss’ orchestra. Every work on this CD is lively, lovely and beautifully played by the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Christian Pollack, who has studied this music in depth and has a real feel for its charms. Of the six waltzes, four date to 1840: Cäcilien-Walzer (“Cecilia Waltzes,” which quotes from Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata), Palm-Zweige (“Palm Branches”), Amors-Pfeile (“Cupid’s Arrow”) and Elektrische Funken (“Electrical Sparks,” in which Strauss gives a musical impression of flying sparks from the then-new experiments being conducted in electricity). The two remaining waltzes are from 1841: Deutsche Lust oder Donau-Lieder ohne Text (“German Joy or Songs of the Danube without a Text”) and Apollo-Walzer (“Apollo Waltzes,” which has greater unity than many of Strauss Sr.’s works because the coda returns to the music of the introduction). Strauss Sr.’s works, as the elaborate titles indicate, were occasional pieces, written for specific celebrations or gatherings and generally not expected to be heard repeatedly: audiences constantly demanded something new. Many of these pieces have in fact gone unperformed for a considerable period of time – and will give a modern audience considerable pleasure.

     Louis Spohr’s music also gets far fewer performances now than it did at the height of his popularity, when Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado referred to “Bach, interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven.” No one places Spohr’s music at the level of Bach’s or Beethoven’s nowadays, but it does not deserve total neglect – as the new CD of three of his violin concertos makes clear. It was with violin concertos that Spohr first established his reputation as a composer, and all three of these works (No. 6 from 1808-9, No. 8 from 1816 and No. 11 from 1825) show why that reputation was once so high. These are classically structured but Romantically inclined concertos, exploratory in harmony and instrumentation but generally true to the formal elements of Haydn and Mozart. It is this very blend that contributed to Spohr’s fall from popularity: like other “transitional” composers (Hummel comes to mind), Spohr was considered neither here nor there, with his backward-looking elements seeming increasingly unappealing to audiences seeking something new. Today, it is easier than it was in the past to appreciate Spohr’s music for what it is: an advance, if not a large one, beyond classical models in its handling of the solo violin parts, and music of considerable poise and elegance in its own right. Spohr, himself a violinist, wrote 18 violin concertos in all. No. 8, in A minor and labeled “in modo di scena cantante,” is particularly interesting, being a one-movement work (although with four tempo indications) with strong operatic overtones. Twenty-three-year old Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma handles this concerto with particularly appealing skill, almost but not quite overdoing its theatrical qualities. She also does a fine job with No. 6 in G minor, which in some respects is fairly straightforward but which includes a “recitative-and-aria” slow movement that looks ahead to No. 8; and with the more unusual No. 11 in G major, which offers considerable lyricism in both the first and second movements. Naxos often produces complete sets of composers’ works, but has not identified this Spohr CD as the first of a series. It deserves to be – there is a great deal of virtually unknown beauty here.


Gutbucket: A Modest Proposal. Cuneiform Records. $18.98.

     Give the decade-old hard-to-classify band Gutbucket credit for, well, guts. Bassist Eric Rockwin, saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Thomson, guitarist Ty Citerman and new-since-2007 drummer Adam Gold embrace their musical strangeness – call it eclecticism – with as much fervor as they grab their literary references. Gutbucket’s new, fourth album’s title is a nod to Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century solution to Irish starvation and overpopulation: he suggested that the adults eat their babies. The cover, showing a bird carrying another bird’s foot as food, hews to the cannibalism theme. One of the tracks, “I Am a Jelly Doughnut (Or a Commentary on U.S. German Relations Post WWII)” harks back to President John F. Kennedy’s famous attempt to show solidarity with the people of a divided city by proclaiming, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which should have been “Ich bin Berliner,” because unfortunately the inclusion of “ein” meant he proclaimed himself a jelly doughnut.

     But the titles are really just window-dressing for the music. Gutbucket is sort of jazz, sort of art-rock, sort of prog-rock – the band wears its “unclassifiable” label proudly and, one suspects, goes out of its way to live up to it. Certainly A Modest Proposal is all over the place, musically speaking. The first two tracks, “Head Goes Thud” and “A Little Anarchy Never Hurt Anyone,” are well constructed but not really very interesting – they don’t seem to go anywhere. But “Jelly Doughnut” picks things up and slams them around nicely, and is followed by “More More Bigger Better Faster with Cheese,” in which Gold (in his first studio appearance with Gutbucket) gets a drum solo, Thomson switches between sax and clarinet, and there is a pleasantly light, or at least light-ish, touch to the music.

     The central track, or at least No. 5 out of 10, is “Carnivore,” which plays directly to the album’s supposed theme and is fairly straightforward, but well-done, prog-rock. Then come the mellow (or mellow-ish) “Doppelganger’s Return” and the strange, strong, freaked-out “Lucy Ferment?” – arguably the highlight of the CD, and a tough act to follow. What follows is “C’mon It’s Just a Dollar,” with its catchy guitar; “Side Effects,” which is just about pure jazz in the middle, bookended by squonk; and “Brain Born Outside of Its Head,” which starts quietly, ends furiously, but seems more formulaic than most of what Gutbucket delivers.

     This band is a mixed bag, its music is a mixed bag, and its new CD is a mixed bag. There are some nice instrumental touches, such as Gold’s vibraphone in “Carnivore” and Thomson’s baritone (rather than alto) sax in “Brain Born Outside of Its Head,” and there is a pleasantly collaborative feeling to the music even when one or another player takes over for a solo. This isn’t really an effective “theme” album, though, and some listeners may be frustrated by Gutbucket’s refusal to settle into a particular style, or even several particular styles. Still, non-pigeonholing is a lot of what this band is about. Come to think of it, maybe that cannibalistic bird on the cover ought to have been a pigeon.

January 22, 2009


Bone, Book Nine: Crown of Horns. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $19.99.

Princess Baby, Night-Night. By Karen Katz. Schwartz & Wade. $14.99.

     Any idea that the finale of Jeff Smith’s Bone saga might somehow be appropriate for young children will be dispelled by even the slightest glance at the cover of Crown of Horns. It shows a scratched-up, disheveled Princess Thorn, an equally damaged Fone Bone (with one eye swollen shut), and the baby rat creature Bartleby, staring out from behind rocks at – what, exactly? Nothing good, for sure – and indeed, there is nothing good occurring in most of the conclusion of Smith’s epic. Crown of Horns is about the final battle between the forces of Thorn and Gran’ma Ben – here restored to her royal title as Queen Rose – and those of the Locust, led by a resuscitated Briar and consisting of thuggish men and great hordes of rat creatures. There is none of the gruff humor involving "stupid, stupid rat creatures” in this book as there was earlier in the tale: this is a story of battle, of repeated narrow escapes, of great loss (the death of one major character makes for a strong scene, and an upsetting one), and of eventual victory that may be inevitable in a good-vs.-evil epic but that scarcely feels foreordained as the viciousness and violence escalate. Crown of Horns – the title refers to a strange object that balances the dreaming and waking worlds and may be able to restore their balance if Thorn can find and touch it – is a highly dramatic book. It does have a few minor touches of Smith’s trademark humor near and at the end, but it generally proceeds with a higher level of intensity than anything that has come before in Bone. Scenes involving the mad dragon queen, Mim, scale the heights of drama in ways that Smith did not attempt earlier in this series – and those scenes, as well as many others, are made vastly more impressive through Steve Hamaker’s coloring of Smith’s original black-and-white illustrations. Bone is one of the great graphic novels, but it is arguable whether it is a story for all ages, as it is usually said to be. The earlier books will draw readers as young as seven or eight into Smith’s world, but Crown of Horns and its predecessor, Treasure Hunters, are really more appropriate for ages 10-12 and up – way up, into adulthood. Bone is a marvelous achievement, and the new Scholastic edition, thanks to its fine color, is the one to have, surpassing even Smith’s own thick single-volume edition of the saga.

     For much younger children, though, adventures need to be kept a good deal simpler and more benign. Karen Katz’s second tale of Princess Baby is just that, and as such is ideal for ages 2-5. The first book, simply titled Princess Baby, introduced a charming little girl who objected to being given all the usual endearments that adults used when addressing her: she would not be called a buttercup, cupcake or little lamb, but only Princess. In Princess Baby, Night-Night, the little girl insists she is not tired, but she listens as her parents call in from another room to ask her whether she has gone through her bedtime routines: putting toys away, getting into pajamas, brushing teeth, and so on. She doesn’t quite do the things as her parents expect her to – she washes her stuffed animals’ faces instead of her own, for example – but she keeps reassuring mom and dad that she is doing what she should. And then her parents come in to give Princess Baby a good-night kiss, and find her sound asleep on the floor, not in pajamas (but of course wearing her crown), amid all her stuffed friends. A little parental straightening-up is in order, and the final scene shows the parents kissing their sleeping princess after putting her into pajamas, putting her room in order, and putting her in her own bed. As in Katz’s earlier book, it is the illustrations that make this one so much fun: Princess Baby is clearly not obeying her parents, but she is not doing so in such an adorable way that it is impossible for her mom and dad to get angry. This is a wonderful bedtime book for young children who may not always be quite as obedient as their parents would hope – provided, of course, that it doesn’t give them additional ideas of how to get away with staying up just a little later.


Tales from Outer Suburbia. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.

     How much weirdness will your child accept? To how much do you want to expose him or her? Consider the questions with care, because your answer will have a huge bearing on how you react to one of the most peculiar children’s books to come along in a very long time indeed: Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia.

     Tan is the artist whose wonderful, sepia-toned graphic novel, The Arrival, captured the immigrant experience through astonishingly imaginative surrealistic pictures, such as ones of a city where everything was strange, from the bizarrely shaped buildings to the enormous statue of a standing birdlike figure with angel wings, holding an egg in its arms (yes, arms), to items that seemed to be gigantic decorated dinner plates standing on edge. The Arrival succeeded so well in part because it was entirely wordless: as peculiar as the pictures were, they offered a visual impression of some sort of journey toward some sort of new life, and readers (or, really, viewers) could follow along and create their own (guided) narrative.

     Tales from Outer Suburbia clearly springs from the same sensibility, and its odd illustrations, many of them existing on the fringes of nightmare, have nearly the same impact as those in Tan’s earlier book. But this is largely a book of words, and it is the uneasy intermingling of Tan’s narratives with his pictures that makes the book very unsettling but not, somehow, as full of impact as his wordless graphic novel.

     For example, the story “Stick Figures” shows odd and oddly menacing figures of sticks with featureless heads – or sometimes only their shadows – with a text that reads, in part, “With careful aim a good strike will send the head – a faceless clod of earth – flying high into the air. …What are they? Why are they here? What do they want? Whack! Whack! Whack! The only response is the sound of dead branches falling from old trees on windless evenings, and random holes appearing in front lawns, dark sockets where clods of earth have been removed during the night.” This could easily be the stuff of nightmare, but Tan refuses to treat it as such, turning it into simply one of a number of unexplained and perhaps unexplainable occurrences in the apparently placid suburban streets.

     Then there is “Grandpa’s Story,” in which the old man tells how he and Grandma got married after going on a strange and vaguely sinister scavenger hunt that ended after they discovered their wedding rings “in the hollow muddy pan of the car’s boot.” This story features five pages of narrative and 11 of illustrations, including a visual sequence in which the couple’s car drives into a black-and-white desert in which an ocean liner sits atop a distant hill (a scene reminiscent of one in The Arrival); a gigantic monster that seems to be a mutant tree separates the people from their vehicle; the two are chased by a pack of unplugged TV sets showing toothlike test patterns; and more. Again, this is, or could be, distinctly nightmarish, but Tan refuses to say that it is, or was.

     Throughout Tales from Outer Suburbia, Tan juxtaposes odd stories with even odder illustrations: a tiny alien “exchange student” accepted as having “cultural differences” in one tale, a man wearing an old-fashioned diving suit walking the suburban streets in another, a mysterious ball of paper containing remnants of poems and floating above the houses until wind or rain destroys it, an endangered dugong appearing suddenly on a lawn four kilometers from the nearest beach, a nameless holiday that occurs in August or October and features an enormous reindeer that hooks onto its antlers “objects [that] are so loved that their loss will be felt like the snapping of a cord to the heart,” and more. Sometimes touching, sometimes scary, and above all bewildering, Tales from Outer Suburbia is certainly a remarkable experience. But it is so highly personalized by Tan’s very outré visions that it will be a distinctly uncomfortable book for many people – and not one that families will necessarily enjoy experiencing. Think carefully before buying.


Norton Internet Security 2009. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $69.95.

Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $99.99.

     Once again for 2009, the eternal question arises: why pay for computer protection when there is so much of it available for free, built into operating systems and browsers, or downloadable as freeware or shareware? (Well, it seems like an eternal question.) The answer is that you don’t have to pay for most of the security offered by Symantec’s Norton product line – but if you don’t, you’ll be constantly updating programs that may or may not work well together, and you’ll spend a lot of time making sure you have everything protected that needs to be protected. If you’d rather “set it and forget it” when it comes to security, the Norton line is almost the perfect way to go.

     Almost. Because you can’t quite do set-and-forget in 2009, any more than in previous years. In fact, you can’t necessarily even do “set” particularly easily: Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 are large, complicated programs that will not necessarily install the first time you try to load them – and that require multiple reboots and update searches after you do get them installed, to be sure they are up and running with the latest software improvements, virus definitions and the like.

     Still, a certain amount of setup inconvenience is worthwhile for a large amount of protection, and that is just what you get with these products – which, despite some continued complexity that may be daunting to less-experienced computer users, are far simpler to configure, update and use than similar Symantec products from earlier years. Unfortunately, the complexity starts even before you buy the products, when you try to figure out which to buy. There are three versions of Norton SystemWorks and three versions of Norton Internet Security, although two of those three carry different names. The most basic Internet product is Norton AntiVirus, a top-notch protector that also effectively blocks spyware and other malware, shields users against infected Web sites, secures a home or small-business network, and more. Simple enough – but then things get complicated with Norton 360 and Norton Internet Security 2009, which both include Norton AntiVirus but add different things to it. Norton 360 has backup and PC-tuneup features, but Norton Internet Security 2009 updates more quickly and is faster at scanning your computer to find and eliminate any potential threats – so it is the purer “protection” product. Actually, Symantec is overdue to produce a single product combining all the features of Norton 360 and Norton Internet Security, but that hasn’t happened this year.

     What has happened is that Norton Internet Security 2009 now contains its own installer, which puts it on your computer quite quickly when everything goes right; its main interface neatly lays out all aspects of computer protection on a single screen; it includes some features previously available through such utility programs as Norton System Doctor, including CPU usage monitoring and an evaluation of trusted programs and those that need scanning; and it has a good firewall and effective browser protection built in. A number of these functions are readily obtainable elsewhere and may already be on your computer – for example, shields against phishing sites and spyware protection are built directly into some Web browsers – but there is a real advantage to having all these security elements in one place, accessible through one primary display. And Norton Internet Security 2009 has a few small but very nice features as well, notably Silent Mode – during which the program continues to function but does not interfere with gaming or with viewing full-screen movies.

     So, if Norton Internet Security 2009 does so much and works so well, what’s the purpose of Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0? That’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer definitively. Premier Edition is the top-of-the-line offering in this Symantec product line, which also includes Basic Edition (forget it; it does not even include Norton AntiVirus) and Standard Edition (which is fine if you have other arrangements for data backup and restoration: backup-and-restore functions are included only in Premier Edition). Essentially, Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 focuses more on housekeeping tasks than does Norton Internet Security, but there are major areas of overlap: both programs include Norton AntiVirus and networking protection, for example. Norton Internet Security 2009 has useful identity-protection features, while Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 offers backup and tuneup programs that can help keep your computer running smoothly and quickly. Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 seems more prone to causing a crash on installation than Norton Internet Security, although things run smoothly with both programs once they are set up. Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 does have some elements that could use further refinement: the registry editor shows registry errors by category but does not take you to the actual errors within the registry (they can be dauntingly difficult to find manually), and there is no startup manager to let you see and control which programs load when you boot your computer (this feature would be very helpful in getting rid of unneeded software that slows down operations). Despite these omissions, Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 handles its chores effectively and generally efficiently, and does a good job of keeping your computer operating as quickly and smoothly as it can.

     Some notable differences between Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 have to do with configuration and support rather than functionality. Although both products provide their services for only one year – irritatingly forcing you to upgrade or buy additional coverage in the future – Norton Internet Security 2009 allows usage on three computers, while Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 may be used on only one. And Norton Internet Security 2009 requires less processing power and less hard-disc space: 300 megabytes, vs. 500 for Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0. Furthermore, Norton Internet Security 2009 provides free support via E-mail, chat or telephone, but Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 charges for some phone support. Yes, these differences tie directly to the different elements of the two programs, but they are nevertheless noteworthy.

     Both these Symantec products have enough useful features, are well enough engineered and operate with sufficient ease to deserve (++++) ratings. But deciding which of them to buy – if either – is not simple. There is certainly too much overlap for it to be worthwhile spending $170 for both products. Backing down to a less-full-featured SystemWorks, which means losing data-backup elements, makes sense only if you have those features already or get them through Norton 360 instead of buying Norton Internet Security. There is no perfect melding of features here for anyone seeking both top-notch computer housecleaning and the best possible Internet security. And of course, programs such as Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus Free and EMC’s MozyHome backup offer some of what you get in the Norton line – at no cost.

     Symantec is long overdue to simplify its product line, creating a single top-of-the-line product with all the features of Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0, then offering lower-cost versions of the combined product that omit certain of those features. Charging, say, $150 for the combined product, and giving it a two-year lifespan, should encourage sales at the higher end, while people wishing to spend less could buy products with fewer features and continue using them for one year. Until Symantec wises up to this model – or some other arrangement less complicated than its current one – users are going to have difficulty figuring out how to get the best Symantec products for their needs at the most reasonable cost, without paying to duplicate elements of one product when they buy another. Confusion over what to purchase could easily push more people to opt for freeware or shareware – which would definitely not be good for the Norton product line. Both Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton SystemWorks Premier Edition 12.0 are excellent programs that are well worth the cost if their feature sets fit your needs closely. Unfortunately, figuring out whether they are a good fit is more difficult than using the programs once you decide which to buy.


Ries: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas, Volume 2—Sonatas in C major, Op. 1, No. 1, and A minor, Op. 1, No. 2; Sonatinas in B flat major, Op. 5, No. 1, and F major, Op. 5, No. 2. Susan Kagan, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 2—Volume VI, “Album pour les enfants dégourdis” (excerpts). Alessandro Marangoni, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Pelléas et Mélisande, Symphonie (arranged Marius Constant); Suite Bergamasque: Clair de lune (orchestrated André Caplet); Nocturnes; Berceuse héroïque; Trois Etudes (orchestrated Michael Jarrell). Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $8.99.

     Naxos’ penchant for producing multi-volume sets of composers’ music is especially happily served in these three second installments of what will eventually be complete series. The two Ries sonatas that Susan Kagan plays with idiomatic skill are both intimately related to Ries’ piano teacher and (for a while) friend, Beethoven, being in fact dedicated to him. The first sonata was written in 1806, the second earlier, in 1804, and it is intriguing to speculate about Beethoven’s involvement in both. They certainly sound in places like somewhat watered-down Beethoven, but that could be caused simply by Ries’ proximity to the greater composer. The first sonata, in four movements rather than Ries’ usual three, has a strong opening and an especially well-wrought final rondo that intriguingly dips into the minor and changes rhythm midway through. The second sonata is in A minor, but its first and most interesting movement moves back and forth between the home key and E minor. The two sonatinas here date to 1806-8 and could have been inspired by publication of Beethoven’s two Op. 49 sonatinas. In any event, the first of the Op. 5 sonatinas by Ries is a pleasant throwback to the sound of Haydn and Mozart, with three brief movements that all have moderate tempo indications. The second Op. 5 sonatina dips into the minor in its first two movements but is all brightness in its finale. The four works on this CD confirm Ries’ compositional skill while also confirming that, at least in this period, he was treading in other composers’ footsteps rather than making his own way.

     Not so Rossini in his Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”), some of the most original piano miniatures of their time. The composer created 14 volumes of these brief delights, for voice and a variety of instruments both solo and in combination, after retiring from opera composing at age 37. Many of the works are not intended to be taken seriously – some of the little songs are hilarious – but there is certainly no need to trivialize the pieces, as some performers do (except, of course, when Rossini wants them trivialized). Alessandro Marangoni handles his second foray into the piano “sins” with as much skill and enthusiasm as he brought to his first. The new release contains 11 of the 12 pieces in what Rossini called “Album for Smart Children,” unfortunately omitting (undoubtedly because of CD length limitations) the eleventh piece in the album, Étude asthmatique (which Naxos promises to include in a future release). Among the delights here are the somewhat Wagnerian-sounding Mon prelude hygiénique du matin (“My morning hygienic prelude”); the wonderful juxtaposition of the solemn Memento homo and the bright and lively Assez de memento: dansons; the tender Une caresse à ma femme; and two works that Rossini structures as “spoiled” dances: Valse torturée and Fausse couche de polka mazurka (“Miscarriage Polka Mazurka”). In these and the rest of the pieces on this CD, Rossini shows considerable skill both in writing for the piano and in creating highly satisfying miniatures; and Marangoni’s pianism imbues the works with just the right amount of emotion – of whatever type is appropriate.

     The piano is the starting point for several works in Naxos’ second volume of Debussy’s orchestral music, all of it very well played by Orchestre National de Lyon under Jun Märkl. The lovely but over-familiar Clair de lune is the third movement of Suite bergamasque; the Berceuse héroïque was written for piano, then orchestrated by the composer; and the Trois Etudes are from the set of Douze Etudes for piano. All the works sound fine in orchestral guise – the Trois Etudes perhaps a bit less so than the others – but none of these brief works is as impressive as the longer pieces here. Pelléas et Mélisande—Symphonie mostly uses instrumental episodes from Debussy’s opera, maintaining the composer’s scoring and progressing from medieval scene-setting to Mélisande’s eventual death. It is an effectively atmospheric and emotive work, although it does not entirely encapsulate the opera (and was not intended to). As for the Nocturnes, Debussy originally planned them for violin, but after completing that version in 1896, he made one for orchestra that he finished in 1900. The first and third movements are poetic (the third including a chorus, in this recording the fine MDR Radio Choir, Leipzig), while the second is celebratory, and the suite as a whole is very effective in showing why Debussy and the word “impressionist” are often considered nearly synonymous.


Stravinsky: Octet (1922-3); Concerto in E flat, “Dumbarton Oaks” (1938); Symphony in C (1940); Symphony in Three Movements (1942-5). Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

Stokowski: Bach Transcriptions, Volume 2; Transcriptions of Palestrina, Byrd, Clarke, Boccherini, Mattheson and Haydn. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

     Composers took the 20th-century orchestra in many directions, starting in the earliest days of the century, when Gustav Mahler often used it with chamber-music-like precision while Richard Strauss preferred it for overwhelming sonic splendor. As the century progressed, composers continued to find new ways to handle large ensembles. Stravinsky, for example, used the availability of multiple instruments and sections to make his characteristic off-beats surprising in his Symphony in C, and also used a deliberate reduction of orchestral forces in the work’s second movement (Larghetto concertante) to create a highly moving elegy for his eldest daughter and wife, both of whom had died of tuberculosis not long before. The Symphony in Three Movements contains a central tribute as well – the second movement was written for a film by Stravinsky’s friend, Franz Werfel, but not used – and the entire work has something of a Mahler-like “chamber” feeling in its focus on solo or paired instruments such as harp, harp and piano, and bassoons and strings (although the symphony certainly sounds like nothing Mahler wrote). This three-movement work was written in bits and pieces and is less fully integrated than the Symphony in C, but uses the orchestra just as skillfully – and Robert Craft, here as throughout his recordings for (or, as is the case with this CD, being re-released by) Naxos balances and propels the music knowingly and with consummate skill. The chamber works that complement the orchestral ones here are equally effective. The “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto, for 10 strings and five wind instruments, and the earlier Octet for winds, are both in traditional three-movement form, the Octet being neoclassical in structure (Stravinsky’s first work of this type) and the concerto being inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 – as seen through a very Stravinskian lens.

     The lens through which Leopold Stokowski saw Bach, and the orchestra, was quite different from Stravinsky’s. Original-instrument performances and academic studies of Bach’s era simply did not exist when Stokowski, who was born in 1882, studied the Baroque master’s music. Indeed, Bach’s music was far from ubiquitous in concert – it was considered rather dry and rarefied in the early to middle part of the 20th century. Stokowski’s answer to the paucity of Bach was to render it in terms that he felt audiences of the time would accept and enjoy – terms that frequently seem overblown and vastly overdone today, but that made sense in historical context and still show a great deal of cleverness and even some sensitivity to Bach’s harmonies (if scarcely to his contrapuntal mastery). José Serebrier, who studied and worked with Stokowski, is a persuasive advocate of the older conductor’s transcriptions – although nothing Serebrier can do with them can make them idiomatic or prevent them from shading time and again into grandiosity. The 11 Bach works on Serebrier’s new CD range from the famed Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, created in 1926 and memorably used in Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, to the second fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, with stops in between at Ein feste burg and Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and elsewhere. Complementing the Bach transcriptions – and shedding additional light on Stokowski’s approach – are his orchestrations of short works by other Baroque and classical composers, from Palestrina, William Byrd, Jeremiah Clarke and Johann Matheson to Haydn and Boccherini. Many of the works on this CD are now quite familiar in their original versions, with the result that Stokowski’s use of huge orchestral forces can come across as something of a desecration. Clearly, though, Stokowski had no such intention, and these transcriptions and arrangements are all well-worked and, especially in small doses, can be pleasant antidotes to the sometimes too-dry versions by performers who mistake lack of expression for authenticity. Stokowski’s transcriptions were all about expressiveness, and if they included far more of it than Bach and the other composers here ever intended, that at least shows how much Stokowski loved this music and wanted to communicate his affection, in some form, to audiences that were not familiar with the works as the composers intended them to be performed.

January 15, 2009


3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows. By Ann Brashares. Delacorte Press. $18.99.

Parties & Potions. By Sarah Mlynowski. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Teen readers who just couldn’t get enough of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the Magic in Manhattan series will be delighted that Ann Brashares and Sarah Mlynowski, respectively, have returned to their super-successful series with these sequels. Some readers will be a bit disappointed – neither of these books is quite as good as the ones that came before – but many will be so glad to revisit familiar territory (with a few new twists) that they will be enchanted from first page to last. Brashares and Mlynowski write with laser-precise targeting of their readers, making both these books sure-fire hits.

     3 Willows, like the four Traveling Pants books, is all about sisterhood, although the capital-S Sisterhood of the earlier novels has graduated from South Bethesda High School and moved on in life – as readers (and fans of the two Traveling Pants movies) know well. So the new book, set in summertime, introduces a sort of next-generation sisterhood, about to attend the same high school: Polly, who is determined to create a more glamorous life for herself; Jo, juggling issues of coolness, summer work and a cute boy; and Ama, introverted and academic but stuck for the summer in an unpleasantly outdoorsy environment. Brashares gets deeply and rather obviously into the idea of roots, sprouts and growth in 3 Willows, opening the book with a life-affirming Walt Whitman quote, then introducing the story with her own comment on the strength of willow roots, and periodically starting a chapter with a willow-ish (if not willowy) thought: “It is said that the sound of wind through willow trees is the whispering of fairies into the poet’s ear. It is also said that the willow can uproot itself, stalk travelers, and mutter at them.” All this could easily become cloying, and sometimes it does, but Brashares manages by and large to avoid treacle by capturing the realistic ups and downs of the lives of young girls on the cusp of high school. For example, Jo gets invited to an after-shift party with the other servers, but realizes she feels bad for girls who are lower in the pecking order: “None of the bus girls were invited. But now that she had been asked, she felt sorry for Bryn and Lila. And she felt backwardly sorry for herself for every night before this one.” And Polly finds herself in competition with her mother, albeit not necessarily in a healthy (or healthful) way: “She felt a tiny spark of pride that she was good at losing weight when her mother struggled and failed at it. It was so rare to be better than a grown-up at something: Polly would take this thing.” It is the believability of Polly, Jo and Ama that makes 3 Willows such a pleasantly involving book, even though it lacks the magic of the Traveling Pants series. But this is the first of a planned three books – who knows what will turn up in the next two?

     There’s magic aplenty in Parties & Potions, followup to Bras & Broomsticks, Frogs & French Kisses, and Spells & Sleeping Bags. The fact that the new book’s title is not even slightly risqué could portend a lower level of excitement, but in fact Parties & Potions has all the amusing elements of the earlier books, and is just as stylish. At one point, for instance, Rachel is worried about being magically tested by another girl, Matilda: “What if I don’t qualify? What if I don’t really have magical powers? What if everything that’s happened in the last four months has been a figment of my imagination? What if I’m completely insane? Do insane people know they’re insane?” This is Rachel all the way. And she has some new elements of life to face in this book – boy elements. Having discovered that there is a thriving teen-magic scene at her school, Rachel also finds that some of those teen witches are male – warlocks, that is – and one of them, Adam, is devastatingly cute. But what does that mean about Rachel’s relationship with Raf, whom she adores but who can’t know she is a witch – something Adam knows already, and an increasingly important part of Rachel’s life? Unfortunately, the “which boy” theme is a tired one, even with witch-boy elements thrown in, and Parties & Potions lacks some of the zing of the earlier books now that there seem to be magical teens around every corner. Still, there are some clever new elements here, notably a witches’ debutante ball called a Samsorta, which gives Rachel and her sister, Miri, a chance to shop for such magical invitations as: “A sunflower, with the date, time, and place inscribed on the petals. Candles that, when lit, write the information in smoke. Fridge magnets that magically spell out the info.” Mlynowski keeps the book mostly light and therefore mostly enjoyable, and – not surprisingly – leaves open the possibility of more teen-magic tales still to be written.


The Tales of Beedle the Bard. By J.K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $12.99.

     This is not the first book in which J.K. Rowling has expanded upon some of the inner workings of the world of Harry Potter, but it is in many ways the most interesting. Way back in 2001 – a veritable age ago in terms of the Potter saga’s progress and popularity – Rowling wrote two short books, published in paperback, that went into considerable detail about some interesting but ancillary elements of the wizarding world. One, Quidditch Through the Ages by “Kennilworthy Whisp,” was said on the cover to be the “Property of Hogwarts Library” (the last three people to check it out were F. Weasley, H. Granger and H. Potter). It included an extended history of the game, the background of the Golden Snitch, and information on worldwide variants of the sport. The other book, Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them by “Newt Scamander,” was stated on its cover to be the “Property of Harry Potter” and contained “Harry’s” (and “Ron’s”) notes about some entries, plus the occasional apparent ink smudge. The books were all in good fun – although written seriously, as if Quidditch and the various beasts really existed – and they had a real-world purpose: net proceeds from their sale went to a charity called Comic Relief, to be used in a “Harry’s Books” fund to help needy children in the world’s poorest countries.

     Something very similar is going on in The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a handsome hardcover whose title will be familiar to readers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Beedle’s work is mentioned and discussed. The book is said to be translated by Hermione Granger, with extensive notes by Albus Dumbledore (some of which refer to Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them), and with Rowling herself providing the introduction, notes and interior illustrations (the cover is by Mary GrandPré, who illustrated the U.S. editions of all seven Potter novels). Once again, there is a real-world charitable purpose to the book: net proceeds go to Children’s High Level Group, a charity that Rowling co-chairs and that is intended to promote children’s rights worldwide (as the other co-chair, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, MEP, explains in an afterword).

     The charity connection is all very well, and in fact the book is likely to bring in considerable funds as Potter fans eagerly lap up anything new from the world that Rowling so skillfully created. But what about the book itself? Well, it happens to be quite a delightful surprise, including five wizard-focused fairy tales that range from the light and amusing to the frightening and gory – and one of which, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” is genuinely important to the Potter saga. The stories are written in the simple, straightforward language typical of tales of this type, while the “Dumbledore commentary” is written in a “voice” that is noticeably that of the beloved Hogwarts headmaster. Rowling, although scarcely an elegant stylist, has become a considerably better writer since the first two books of the Potter series, and it shows in The Tales of Beedle the Bard. The interconnection of these stories with the wizard world in general and the Potter tales in particular is quite skillfully handled. “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot” is a straightforward story of a hard-hearted wizard who learns to help Muggle (non-magical) people – and it gains greater depth in commentary showing how factions within the wizard world would have reacted differently to it. “The Fountain of Fair Fortune” is an amusing tale with a twist ending – and, again, the “Dumbledore” commentary shows how, in the Potter world, it could be a source of enmity between “purebloods” and others. “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” is a scary cautionary tale of the limits of magical power, and is the closest of all these stories to the grimness of pre-Victorian fairy tales. “Babbity Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump” is a much more amusing take on the limits-of-magic idea, with commentary shedding some light on what it means in the Potter world to be an Animagus. And “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” although it is the shortest story, has the greatest resonance within the Potter world where it was previously mentioned, containing clues to several mysteries that were eventually solved only at the expense of characters’ considerable suffering. Rowling’s skill shows here in the way she has the “Dumbledore commentary,” supposedly written about 18 months before the headmaster’s death, analyze the tale quite neatly but quite incompletely – just as Dumbledore, who always held back some of what he knew or suspected, would have done at that stage of the Potter saga.

     The Tales of Beedle the Bard is scarcely a major book and scarcely a difficult one to read: Potter fans accustomed to physically and emotionally weighty Rowling will find these 107 pages quite easy to get through in a single sitting. But the book does add some genuine depth to the Potter saga, is interesting in its own right, and leaves open the possibility that Rowling – now that she has again tapped her creativity for the sake of a charity in which she believes – will continue to find reasons to flesh out her world of wonder and wizardry even though she has finished writing the main sequence of Harry’s story.


Bruckner: String Quintet in F major; Intermezzo in D minor; String Quartet in C minor; Rondo in C minor. Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans and Efrim Boico, violins; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello); Gil Sharon, second viola. Naxos. $8.99.

Vivaldi: Complete Bassoon Concertos, Volume 5. Tamás Benkócs, bassoon; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia conducted by Béla Drahos. Naxos. $8.99.

     It is not unheard of for a composer who is identified with one form of music to dabble in another. Verdi, for example, wrote a string quartet in E minor during a delay in a production of Aida in 1873. Yet many listeners will be surprised to find out that Bruckner, in addition to his massive symphonies and sacred works, wrote not one but two pieces of chamber music for strings – and that both of them are very much worth hearing. The Quartet in C minor is the earlier work, dating to 1862, and is both more accessible and less Brucknerian. It disappeared for many years and was rediscovered decades after Bruckner’s death. This is Bruckner’s only string quartet, and it sounds far more like Mendelssohn, with touches of Schubert and Schumann, than like Bruckner himself; indeed, it was written a year before Bruckner completed the student symphony now known as “No. 00,” which is not characteristic of his later symphonic writing. Filled with lyricism and passion, the quartet is a work of poise and balance, showing the composer’s understanding of Classical forms but not really advancing them. As an alternative to the compressed finale, Bruckner wrote a separate, more expansive Rondo that is, in its own way, equally effective. But nothing in this quartet matches the music of the Quintet in F, which dates to 1879, the time of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. This is a very large work, lasting 45 minutes, with a balance among movements reminiscent of that in the symphonies (albeit with a Scherzo placed second rather than third). The thematic groupings, the swelling sounds that suddenly evaporate into silence, the surprising harmonies, and the emotional intensity of the slow movement all reflect Bruckner’s symphonic approach. But the work is attractive as chamber music as well, giving the five instruments plenty of opportunities to meld, diverge and play both with and against one another. Interestingly, this work too has an alternative movement: a simpler and altogether less quirky Intermezzo that could be used instead of the very complex and much more challenging Scherzo. The Fine Arts Quartet, with Gil Sharon added in the Quintet in F, plays all this music with warmth, style and great emotional intensity: a palpable sense of joy emerging from the Quintet’s slow movement is perhaps the highlight of an altogether excellent CD.

     As Bruckner is known primarily as a symphonist, so Vivaldi is known primarily for his violin concertos; he was himself a highly talented (although somewhat controversial) violinist. Indeed, Vivaldi wrote more concertos for the violin than for any other instrument – but, curiously, he wrote an unusually large number for the bassoon; no one is quite sure why. There are 39 Vivaldi bassoon concertos, two of them incomplete, and Tamás Benkócs is skillfully and systematically making his way through all of them, ably abetted by the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia under Béla Drahos. Of the six concertos in Volume 5 of the series, three are in C major: RV 466, 469 and 473. This is the key of 14 of the concertos, so its prominence here is scarcely a surprise. One concerto, RV 491, is in F major – Vivaldi wrote seven in that key. But the most interesting concertos on this disc, placed at its start and finish, are two of the 10 that Vivaldi wrote in minor keys. RV 497 in A minor is distinguished by a particularly intense opening of its first movement, while RV 496 in G minor thoroughly explores the extremes of the solo instrument’s range. Although the bassoon was often relegated in Vivaldi’s time to a continuo position, and in later years to the role of “clown of the orchestra,” Vivaldi grants it more respect, treating it as an instrument that, when well played, is as capable of virtuosity and emotion as any other: all the concertos feature wide leaps in the outer movements, and most require considerable songfulness in their slow central movements. There is, as in all Vivaldi’s concertos, a certain sameness to the fast-slow-fast approach, and to the fact that most of the concertos are around the same length (although RV 473, with a very extended final Minuetto, is longer than usual). Yet there is considerable variety within the formal bounds in which Vivaldi worked, and his bassoon concertos, even if they are not what most listeners would expect from this composer, certainly deserve to be more widely known and more frequently played.


Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 1: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 2, 19 and 20. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 2: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Liszt Piano Transcriptions). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 3: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Idil Biret, piano; Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 4: Piano Sonatas Nos. 3, 5 and 18. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

     The sheer breadth of the Idil Biret Beethoven Edition is, well, breathtaking. Biret, who is now 67, has been playing piano for, astonishingly, 64 years. She is the only pianist ever to have performed all Beethoven’s piano sonatas, concertos and symphonies as transcribed by Liszt in public concerts – and the 19 IBA (Idil Biret Archive) CDs of her playing these works will make her the only pianist to have released this entire repertoire in recorded form.

     The first four recordings in the series show what the entire sequence is likely to provide: well played, thoughtful recordings with adequate but not exceptional orchestral accompaniment in the concertos and a rather odd arrangement of the material. Nevertheless, Biret’s Beethoven cycle will be highly attractive to collectors, not because of its completeness per se but because of the Turkish pianist’s fine musicianship and particular attention to the poetic qualities of Beethoven’s compositions (Biret is actually best known not for her Beethoven but for her Chopin).

     The IBA recordings were made over quite a long time span: Volume 2 dates to 1985-6, Volume 4 to 2001, and Volume 1 to 2002, while Volume 3 was recorded as recently as January 2008. The sonic quality is quite good throughout, though, and Biret’s pianism shows no signs of flagging; nor does her handling of Beethoven seem, on the basis of these first four volumes, to have changed radically in more than two decades. She balances the more- and less-intense elements of Beethoven’s piano music well, keeping it flowing while letting its poise and ties to the work of earlier composers such as Mozart emerge clearly. In the repertoire on these four CDs, Biret’s approach is generally a successful one. All the works here are early Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 and the latest sonata, No. 18, both date only to 1802. So these works have one foot firmly in the 18th century, despite their fair share of Beethovenian touches. It is the delicacy and poise of the 1700s that Biret brings out so effectively: the two short Op. 49 sonatas (numbered 19 and 20 but written in the 1790s), for example, sound distinctly Mozartean.

     Yet there are signs here, notably in the Liszt transcription of Symphony No. 2, that Biret has plenty of power when she wants to use it. This is the first Beethoven symphony that hints at the pathos and drama yet to come – especially in its opening and final movements – and Biret propels the music of those movements with considerable strength, yet without losing the light touch that is entirely appropriate elsewhere in the work. However, on balance, her handling of the symphony transcriptions is less successful than her playing of the sonatas. She chooses very deliberate tempos that serve to bring out the details of Liszt’s transcriptions but that often make the works drag – the Larghetto of Symphony No. 2 is just excruciatingly slow. And Biret skips almost all repeats, so the movements seem structurally out of balance.

     In the concertos, Biret is ably backed by conductor Antoni Wit, but the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra is no more than all right: there is nothing particularly distinguished in its balance or sound. The result is a rather bland accompaniment that puts the spotlight more strongly on Biret’s solo work, which is nicely nuanced and has a pleasantly light touch. Tempos are on the slow side but, unlike some of those in the symphony transcriptions, do not drag.

     None of these four volumes contains a so-called definitive performance, if indeed such a reading exists; but that is scarcely the point. What is most interesting in this series is not its comprehensiveness in and of itself, but the chance to hear so much of Beethoven’s piano music as filtered through the mind and hands of a pianist of outstanding technique and considerable sensitivity. It will be very interesting indeed to see how Biret handles later and much more massive works, such as the Emperor concerto, the Hammerklavier sonata and Liszt’s version of Symphony No. 9.

January 08, 2009


Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times. By David Rubel. Scholastic. $21.99.

Planet Earth: Baby Penguins. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Scholastic is ahead of its game in the new year, producing a new edition of its encyclopedia of presidents that actually includes Barack Obama, who is not president yet. But this is no rushed-to-print souvenir-style book: it is a very substantial volume with excellent information on every chief executive of the United States to date. The major history is all there – for example, there is detailed information on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s huge part in it. But there are also anecdotes that, much smaller and less significant in themselves, reveal far more about the nation’s history – making it come alive. For example, Zachary Taylor was supposed to learn about his nomination by letter – common practice at the time. The letter was sent without a stamp – also common practice then, as it forced recipients to pay postage due. But Taylor had told his local post office not to deliver postage-due mail, so he did not learn of his nomination for several weeks – when another letter, postage already paid, finally reached him. Or take the case of James Buchanan, generally regarded as one of the nation’s worst presidents. David Rubel gives him very even-handed treatment, explaining his lawyerly reasoning about slavery (states could decide on it, he argued), his life as the only bachelor president, and the fateful events during his presidency –from the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. More-modern presidents get balanced treatment, too, from John F. Kennedy (the Bay of Pigs as well as the man-on-the-moon goal) to Richard Nixon (opening relations with China as well as the Watergate fiasco). Obama gets a single page with some basic statistics and information on the nation’s current financial crisis. Also included here are complete presidential election results from 1789 through 2008 – fascinating in themselves – and a history of the White House. Well written, filled with solid facts and interesting sidelights, Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times should feed the increased hunger for political information that young people seem to be feeling in the wake of Obama’s coming term.

     For something far more placid, far easier to grasp and far more relaxing, young children will greatly enjoy Planet Earth: Baby Penguins, a board book filled with photos of emperor penguin chicks. Those are the fuzzy gray birds whose plumage only vaguely resemble that of their handsome black-and-white parents. The pictures of these babies’ behavior, taken by a variety of photographers, are uniformly excellent, whether the focus is on a single chick waddling along behind its mother, a group of chicks huddling together to stay warm, or a quintet of chicks in which one bird is resting (apparently happily) against another – with the caption saying “this chick has friends to lean on.” There is no overt message-mongering here; the text is simple, straightforward and descriptive of the photos. But as part of the BBC Planet Earth series, Baby Penguins is one element of a very large message indeed: these are some of the wonders of the natural world, and we humans – including the ones young enough to enjoy this book – will increasingly be charged with protecting and preserving these animals and many other elements of the planet we all inhabit together.


Persistence of Memory. By Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

The Secret Circle: The Captive Part II and The Power. By L.J. Smith. HarperTeen. $8.99.

     A genuinely harrowing story that could easily have become just another two-people-in-one-body tale, Persistence of Memory is raised to a higher-than-usual level among teen-oriented “getting to know yourself” books not by its strong supernatural elements (which are fairly common in books for this age group) but by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ close attention to mundane details. This means that discussions among psychiatric patients ring true – for example, Tina, a friend of Erin, the book’s protagonist, “knew the difference between ‘I don’t want to talk about it but I need to’ and ‘I don’t want to talk about it because I think it will trigger a panic attack and an episode.’” The underlying unbelievability of the two-people-in-one-body premise (something that does occur in real life, but very rarely and not the way it is portrayed here) is actually downplayed as readers focus on how genuine, and genuinely troubled, Erin seems to be. This is Atwater-Rhodes’ 10th book, and the first in which multiple subsidiary characters seem to have considerable depth – notably Sassy, a fellow former mental-hospital patient with whom Erin had her first kiss and who reemerges just as Erin’s internal relationship with Shevaun is coming to a crisis point. And there is Shevaun herself, the violent alter ego who emerges when Erin is stressed and whose destructiveness may be only a part of the deeper evil of vampirism. The vampire angle pushes this story further into unreality, but Atwater-Rhodes manages to control it nevertheless, partly by giving each protagonist (or each part of the protagonist) a helper: Sassy for Erin and a handsome male witch named Davila for Shevaun. Inevitably, complexities of love and loyalty emerge and become confused, and the central question – whether Erin and Shevaun are really separate people and, if so, whether they can or should be separated – looms larger as readers learn more about who the characters are, where they come from and what motivates them. Atwater-Rhodes is not a particularly elegant stylist (“The full moon outside the window began to darken as it was devoured by an eclipse”), but her sense of pacing is strong, and the revelation of a significant connection between Shevaun and Erin’s family – a key to the book’s eventual resolution – is handled with considerable skill. This is a dual-genre novel – teen self-discovery and supernaturalism – that succeeds in both its areas of focus.

     The second volume of The Secret Circle is far more ordinary, and although it is well enough written to get a (+++) rating, it contains few surprises for fans of vampiric good-vs.-evil stories. The first book, oddly titled The Initiation and The Captive Part I, introduced Cassie Blake, unwilling transplant from California to the New England town of New Salem, who faced the sorts of woes common in books of this type: misery because of the climate, worry about her mother and sick grandmother, and the fact that the school-ruling girls proved to be more than mean – they turned out to be real witches, who initiated Cassie into their coven for potentially deadly reasons. In The Captive Part II and The Power – the splitting of the section called The Captive between the two books is decidedly strange – Cassie’s growing awareness of her own abilities is matched by the strengthening of her relationship with Adam, the boy who gave her a chalcedony rose as a good-luck charm in the first volume and may thus have saved her life, her soul or both. Actually, that rose is just the first stone that proves important to Cassie. Next comes “the quartz necklace Melanie had put around her neck at the Homecoming dance, and [then] the piece of hematite she’d found at Number Thirteen.” And then comes a large piece of amethyst, “hanging from the claws of a silver owl with outspread wings,” all these stones being focuses of one sort or another; and the story becomes more intricate as genuine evil in the form of someone called Black John threatens the Coven and the entire school. Cassie’s dreams may hold the key to finding a set of Master Tools that can ensure the victory of good over evil – but at what cost, especially to Cassie’s relationship with Adam? L.J. Smith, author of The Vampire Diaries, keeps Cassie’s story moving smartly along, but little in it is really new, including the final confrontation and the eventual happy ending. It fulfills the expectations that young adults will bring to books of this genre, but makes no attempt to go beyond them.