June 25, 2009


Gone with the Wand. By Margie Palatini. Pictures by Brian Ajhar. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Princess Pig. By Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Tim Bowers. Knopf. $16.99.

The Sleepy Little Alphabet. By Judy Sierra. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Knopf. $16.99.

Scholastic First Picture Dictionary. By Geneviève de la Bretesche. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $15.99.

     Some fairy tales teach. Some are pure enjoyment. Gone with the Wand is nothing but fun. Told by “Tooth Fairy Second Class, Edith B. Cuspid,” it is the sad (but not really sad) tale of Bernice Sparklestein, “once the best Fairy Godmother in the entire universe and beyond,” who has lost her wand-wielding ability (hence the book’s title). Edith and Bernice are BFFs, and when it comes to fairy-tale creatures, forever really means forever. So Edith tries to help Bernice get over the blues and come up with some new magical position to assume. The ideas, and the costumes Bernice dons as she tries out the various jobs, are hilarious – Brian Ajhar’s pictures are every bit as delightful as Margie Palatini’s story. Alas, fairy dusting, snowflake making, the sugarplum-fairy look – none proves quite right for Bernice. Edith sleeps on the problem and comes up with…well, let her tell it: “I woke up with a snort, a bit of embarrassing chin drool, and late for work, but – with one wonderful dream of a plan!” So Bernice and Edith make the tooth-fairy rounds together, and in so doing, Bernice finds her own idea (well, she thinks it’s her own) of how to be useful; and her expression and Edith’s are utterly delightful as they hatch the plan together. Gone with the Wand is exactly what a just-for-fun fairy tale should be, complete with (of course) a happy ending.

     Princess Pig is a fairy tale, too, but this is one with a message. It’s all about an adorable pig who wakes up one day to find herself bedecked with a banner that says “Princess” (the local Pickle Princess’s sash blew off in the wind). Pig tells all her barnyard friends that she is now a princess, and when they object that she needs certain things – a crown, a necklace, a pleasant smell – she makes sure to get them. Eileen Spinelli’s story is wonderfully complemented by Tim Bowers’ pictures – the expressions of Pig and her animal friends as they look at each other are just right. It is Pony who repeatedly informs Pig that she is not really a princess, but Pig will have none of it – she sits on her royal throne (the seat of an old tractor), insists on royal food (a pie instead of slop), and even has a royal bath (complete with bubbles). Then Pig attracts visitors (who show up when she wants to sleep) and a famous painter (for whom she has to pose in the hot sun); and soon she starts to realize that there is something to be said for being just plain Pig, who can do things that are not appropriate for a princess (such as rolling in the mud and going to a “regular old party”). And so she returns, happier and wiser, to being “just a regular old pig” – and a good time is had by all. Which, of course, is the whole point.

     There is a good time to be had in Judy Sierra’s The Sleepy Little Alphabet, too, but that is not the whole point of the book. It is, of course, an alphabet story – or, more precisely, “A Bedtime Story from Alphabet Town.” The capital letters – that is, the mothers and fathers – need to get the small letters (their kids) ready for bed, but the little letters aren’t ready to sleep just yet. Each letter has a reason for staying awake: “f is full of fidgety wiggles – g has got the googly giggles.” Melissa Sweet’s illustrations are, well, sweet, whether showing k refusing a good-night kiss or m being mopey. But eventually, it gets closer to bedtime, as “t tucks in her teddy bear – u takes off his underwear – v is very, very snoozy – w is wobbly-woozy.” By the end of the book, and the end of the alphabet, there are plenty of zzzzzz’s to go around, with a final two-page spread showing all the letters quietly sleeping (except for naughty n, who is about to start a pillow fight!). Both an alphabet book and a bedtime story, The Sleepy Little Alphabet is fun on two levels.

     The only level on which Scholastic First Picture Dictionary operates is the educational one: the book is packed with more than 700 words and pictures, with everything arranged in six sections focusing on the body, the house, school, the city, the grocery store, and exploring nature. The pictures are super-detailed and make it easy to understand what words go with which illustrations. There are also occasional questions related to the pictures, to give young children’s minds a simple workout – for instance, “Which animals are shown with their babies?” (The answers are upside down, right below the questions). What is slightly disappointing about this book – resulting in a (+++) rating – is the complete lack of scale (a ball, a die and a rocking horse are all the same size) and some occasional oddities in picture selection, such as “book” showing a book open to a colorful two-page illustration of someone playing a xylophone, which seems more like an illustration for the instrument (which actually is shown in the “music” pages within the “at school” section). Scholastic First Picture Dictionary has been updated since the book’s original appearance in France in 2003, but some of the pictures seem a bit old-fashioned – the analog alarm clock, for example, and the incandescent light bulb. And there are some distinctly European illustrations – for example, both black currants and red currants are shown. Nevertheless, as an introduction to hundreds of items, from headbands to pebbles to lobsters, parachutes, leaves, grapes and leeks, Scholastic First Picture Dictionary is attractive, easy to read and easy to understand – a fine introduction to the world of humans and the world around us.


Gifted, Book 1: Out of Sight, Out of Mind. By Marilyn Kaye. Kingfisher. $7.99.

Gifted, Book 2: Better Late Than Never. By Marilyn Kaye. Kingfisher. $7.99.

     Basic summer-reading-for-fun recipe for preteens and young teenagers: keep it light and maybe flirty, typecast characters so readers don’t need much brain power to figure out who behaves how, toss in some interpersonal drama, and if you really want to be trendy, add a dash of the supernatural. And there you have Gifted. Enough said.

     Well, not quite enough. Marilyn Kaye handles the formula with skill, using language transparent in its simplicity to advance plots that move quickly enough so readers ages 10-14 will be able to breeze through the Gifted books with barely a pause for some suntan lotion and a beachfront or poolside hookup or two. The underlying idea here is a clever one: what if “gifted” students weren’t necessarily smart but were actually, you know, gifted with unusual powers? What if Meadowbrook Middle School had nine of them, and all were thrown together into a special class to learn about their powers and how to control them, even though – outside the class – they have little in common with each other and don’t even necessarily like each other very much? What happens if you add a mind reader to a speaker-to-the-dead to a girl who can see the future?

     What happens is actually pretty predictable: everything gets tangled, confused and mixed up. But the “occult powers” gimmick keeps these books from being merely conflict-at-middle-school lightweights. Oh, they’re still lightweight, but with differences here and there. Out of Sight, Out of Mind focuses on Amanda Beeson, who is beautiful and popular and (what else?) the Queen Bee of the school. Her talent, if you can call it that, is jumping mentally into other people’s bodies: she’s a body snatcher. This is not necessarily a good thing, as Amanda discovers when she wakes up one morning to find that the face in her mirror belongs to Tracey Devon – an unpopular utter nobody with whom Amanda would not deign to associate. But now she is Tracey, and can’t wait not to be her anymore. “She’d thought of a way to occupy her time and actually do a good deed while she was here. (Not that good deeds were a habit with her, but she figured she might be rewarded for it by positive forces and get out of Tracey’s body even sooner.)” But nope, it doesn’t work like that, and soon enough, another of the Gifted, Jenna Kelly, figures out that the apparent Tracey is really “Little Miss I’m-Too-Cool-for-Words Amanda Beeson,” and things become even more complicated when it turns out that Tracey too is Gifted – she has the ability to become invisible. So where exactly is she while Amanda is in her body? And will Amanda learn empathy from temporarily being the sort of person she has always scorned? And what’s the deal with Serena Hancock, the new student teacher foisted on the Gifted class that has been firmly under the icy auspices of the woman known as Madame? All will eventually be revealed – well, not all, but enough to whet readers’ appetites for another volume in this series.

     And that volume is Better Late Than Never, where the focus turns to Jenna, the one who figured out that Amanda was in Tracey’s body. Jenna is the streetwise, hard-shelled rebel among the Gifted (Tracey, of course, is the mousy girl; and then there are future-seeing space cadet Emily Sanders, talk-to-the-dead handsome hottie Ken Preston, and so on). Actually, the focus here is on both Jenna and Tracey, who are evolving a friendship despite Tracey being ignored by almost everyone even when she is not invisible, and Jenna being the child of an absent father and a mother who is in and out of rehab. Emily’s prediction of a tall, handsome stranger entering Jenna’s life leads Jenna to wonder if maybe her father is about to come back: “An image flashed across her mind: a family, made up of a mother and a father and a daughter, living in a real house, having a normal life… [But] she was not optimistic by nature, and she wasn’t going to start looking on the bright side of everything now.” The pattern of these books is pretty clear by this second volume: the teens, despite their psychic powers, are going to turn out to be just plain folks with everyday worries and problems, and are going to learn to handle life partly by figuring out how to cope with their powers and partly by learning how to lean on each other. But their underlying personalities will keep peeking through – as when Amanda again takes over someone’s body in this book (on purpose this time). The phrase “if she’d known then what she knew now – about people and feelings” is applied here to one character, but is likely to be applicable to all the Gifted as the series continues, as it will after summer is over: the third volume is due out in October.


The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs. By Stephan S. Ilardi, Ph.D. Da Capo. $25.

Eating for Autism: The 10-Step Nutrition Plan to Help Treat Your Child’s Autism, Asperger’s, or ADHD. By Elizabeth Strickland, M.S., R.D., L.D. Da Capo. $17.95.

     The medical miracles of the 20th century, which vastly extended the lifetimes of millions, have become passé in the 21st, with a groundswell of people proclaiming that medications are not the answer to many diseases and chronic conditions – that, indeed, they may make matters worse rather than better. Most of the “evidence” for these positions is anecdotal rather than scientifically valid, and that is scarcely a surprise: the placebo effect shows that people given sugar pills (or their equivalent) frequently get better, largely because they believe they are getting effective medication and, equally important, are being closely observed and cared for. Opponents of medication – call them pharmaskeptics – turn their attention in particular to chronic, difficult conditions that can be mitigated but not cured by traditional medical treatment. These include mental illnesses and behavioral problems, among others.

     Many promoters of treating medical conditions without medicine are charlatans. Their claims are often transparently loopy, as in the laetrile-from-peach-pits-cures-cancer assertion a few years ago. Today, scammers and well-meaning but misguided pharmaskeptics are more likely to promote “nutraceuticals” and products with impressive-sounding chemical names that they claim (typically in ads filled with anecdotal testimonials) are available only for a limited time or in a limited way, but without a prescription – taking advantage, in the United States, of a major loophole in regulation that allows dietary supplements to be marketed without the proof of efficacy required of prescription medications.

     But – and it is a very large “but” – not all advocates of non-drug treatment of serious conditions are hucksters, and not all such treatments are valueless. There is compelling evidence that certain forms of nutrients and certain lifestyle elements, such as regular exercise, have a strong correlation to health – think of folate enrichment being used as a way to prevent serious birth defects. And both Stephen Ilardi, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, and Elizabeth Strickland, a registered dietitian and specialist in nutrition therapy, have the credentials and experience to back up their assertions about non-medication approaches to serious conditions. This does not mean their ideas will work for everyone all the time; indeed, the word “cure” in the title of Ilardi’s book is an overstatement compared with the more modest “help treat” in Strickland’s. But if you approach these books as sources of potential alternative – or supplementary – treatment plans, you can pick up a lot of valuable information and perhaps ameliorate, if not cure, some serious problems.

     Ilardi, however, does not see his approach as a supplement to drug treatment for depression, but as a replacement for it. Using patient success stories – that is, lots of anecdotes – he says that depression can be defeated by focusing on lifestyle elements that have fallen by the wayside for many people in our industrialized age. His primary dietary recommendation is to consume substantial amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, found mainly in fish; and there is indeed scientific evidence of these compounds’ benefits (although not specifically relating to depression). His other ideas are in the social and behavioral spheres: exercise to stimulate serotonin and other brain chemicals; do things you enjoy so your mind does not turn to negative thoughts; keep your circadian rhythms regular by ensuring sufficient exposure to sunlight; maintain a strong social support network; and develop healthful sleep habits. These ideas are unexceptionable and certainly have value for anyone, not only for people with depression. But for people who are depressed – certainly those with a clinical diagnosis, not ones merely “feeling blue” – they constitute a somewhat naïve prescription. Depression causes withdrawal from social situations; it makes sleep difficult; it makes it difficult to get moving at all, much less in the active way required for exercise; and it prevents sufferers from engaging in enjoyable activities or even identifying activities that would be enjoyable. This “black dog,” as Winston Churchill called his depression, is a controlling factor in life. Ilardi is aware, at least to an extent, that his prescription has flaws – “increasing social connection is easier said than done,” he writes at one point. But his upbeat ideas about overcoming difficulties are themselves much easier to suggest than to implement. In the case of social connection, for example, they include educating friends about your depression, asking them for help, maintaining video or Internet friendships, reaching out through church and volunteer groups, caring for animals, and so on – all fine ideas, but none practical for someone who is truly depressed. Indeed, Ilardi’s comment that “all of us are born to connect, hardwired to live in the company of those who know and love us,” is likely to make an isolated, indrawn depressive feel even more hopeless. Ilardi’s book is useful in many ways – his appendices, a “depression scale” and symptom tracking chart, are a particularly good idea – and his chapter “When Roadblocks Emerge” acknowledges that his book will not work for everyone, “at least not right away.” But still, Ilardi’s unrelenting certainty that depressives can be cured through lifestyle changes flies in the face of the realities of life – and disease – that many depressives, and those who care for or about them, encounter day in and day out. Churchill, after all, attempted to ward off his “black dog” with compulsive overwork and excessive drinking, but even though those approaches worked for him – to a remarkable degree – it would scarcely be responsible to recommend them to others. Similarly, Ilardi’s far more benign ideas, as useful as they can be, are far from a panacea.

     Nor does Strickland have the answer to autism, Asperger’s and related conditions – but she may have an answer for some people, some of the time. This group of conditions – not everyone calls them “diseases” – remains poorly understood. Their behavioral components vary, as do their onset and their progression before and during treatment. Treatment options also vary; none is fully satisfactory. A nutritional component makes intuitive sense: certain foods, such as refined sugar, are known to cause behavioral changes in many children, so it makes sense that they would do so in children with autism, Asperger’s or ADHD as well – and perhaps to a greater extent, since the sensory response of children with these conditions often seems to be exaggerated. Therefore, it is sensible to limit affected children’s exposure to substances that may worsen the behavioral manifestations of their conditions. This also promotes healthful eating in general, and that is certainly a good thing. Strickland talks about artificial colors and flavors, preservatives and sweeteners, trans fats and pesticides, and all the other modern bugaboos of the healthful-eating movement; but she is to be commended for doing so as a clinician, not an advocate trying to score political points. She is too quick to accept anything labeled “organic” as inherently superior, and she is naïve about parents’ stress levels and time availability in suggesting that a child get three small meals and two to three snacks a day – that is, food every three hours – and that the focus of eating be on whole grains, legumes, oatmeal, starchy vegetables and so on. This is a Puritan-ethic approach to food and is likely to increase the tension of parents already pressured by having a child with, say, ADHD – especially if they have more than one child. Still, Strickland mitigates the absolutism of her prescription by providing dozens of appealing recipes, from spaghetti and meatballs to chocolate chip muffins. She emphasizes cooking without gluten or casein – more substances that may affect some children, if not all. And she provides loads of tabular material (probably too much for most people to absorb) on foods’ protein and fiber content and calcium levels, recommended daily intakes of various food-based or supplementary nutrients, and more. She sprinkles the text with stories – those anecdotes again – of children whose conditions improved when their nutrition was modified. And she writes throughout in a straight, no-nonsense style, even when saying such things as, “Pyridoxine and Pyridoxal 5-phosphate (P5P) are not the same thing. …Some healthcare practitioners believe that autistic children may have difficulty converting pyridoxine to P5P, so they suggest using supplemental P5P or a combination of pyridoxine and P5P supplements.” Strickland’s treatment of issues such as this one is detailed to the point of nitpicking, but of course parents seeking help for a child with autism, ADHD or a related condition will want all the assistance they can get. The main thing missing in Strickland’s book is a certain level of humility. An acknowledgment that nutritional changes are not necessarily the answer to the conditions she studies would be welcome; so would a statement that she understands the additional difficulties her approach asks already frazzled parents to assume as they try to cope with children’s conditions that produce more than enough stress on their own.


Microsoft Mobile Memory Mouse 8000. Windows Vista, XP or NT/SP 4, or Macintosh OS X v.10.2-10.4X. Microsoft. $99.95.

Microsoft Wireless Notebook Presenter Mouse 8000. Windows Vista or XP/SP 2. Microsoft. $79.95.

     The interoperability of computer input devices is one of those technological wonders of which everyone is dimly aware but which few users sufficiently appreciate. Just imagine computer hardware as chaotic as cell phones, which require their own mutually exclusive chargers, and you will have a sense of gratitude for the fact that you can switch out a keyboard or mouse pretty much whenever you like for a different one made by the same or another company, and get identical or better functionality. (In fact, the major cell-phone manufacturers are moving toward the computer-hardware model by agreeing to make all their chargers interoperable within the next few years – to which users will say in enthusiastic chorus, the sooner the better.)

     The ability to switch a device such as a mouse whenever your needs change can help extend your computer’s life, enabling it to do functions you did not need when you first acquired it; or you can simply make a switch for fun, out of boredom with your previous mouse, or for any other reason. The simplicity of switching has spawned hundreds of inexpensive mice, some even available for free through rebate programs or as retailers’ loss leaders. More interestingly, it has also spawned some outstanding higher-end mice with neatly tailored functions – such as two of the many notebook-focused mice from the hardware division of Microsoft Corporation.

     Think about it: a mouse designed specifically for use with laptop/notebook computers. That in itself is a significant development. These mice need to be smaller and more readily portable than standard-size ones, but not so small that people with large hands will find them cumbersome to use. They need to be easy to transport – both the ones considered here come with their own carrying cases – and simple to use in a variety of different circumstances; hence a wireless design is significantly better than a wired one (who knows on what sort of surface, of what size, a traveler is going to be working with a computer and mouse?). The days of mice requiring mouse pads for traction are long gone, but not all mice work equally well in less-than-ideal settings. These two, using wireless laser technology, are just fine on airplane tray tables, in coffee shops, at airport lounges, even in gate areas of airports and train stations – where accommodations may be spartan at best.

     Yet the design concepts of the two mice are ultimately quite different, symptomatic of the ability to create specialized and targeted input devices for a wide variety of purposes. The Microsoft Mobile Memory Mouse 8000, which runs on both PCs and Macs, has a particularly neat recharging system, using the same type of magnetic connector found in Apple products. It also has a Bluetooth transceiver with built-in 1-GB flash memory – a wonderful accessory for travelers, since it allows you to bring all the data you are likely to need for presentations or reports in the same place as the transceiver that wirelessly connects the mouse to your computer in the first place. This not only means one thing fewer to carry and potentially forget – it also makes the chance of losing your data much smaller, since the likelihood of leaving behind the transceiver that lets you connect the mouse (and that fits into the case with the mouse itself) is not very high. The mouse is powered by a single AAA battery that is rechargeable – a nice touch, since travelers do not need to be caught in an unfamiliar location with a dead battery, and do not want to be burdened by carrying spares. The mouse even has a neat built-in battery status light that warns you when power is low and you need to recharge. And it has an on-off switch – why don’t more mice have those? – to extend battery life as much as possible. However, left-handed users will be disappointed: the mouse is optimized for righties, although using it left-handed (with a little bit of contortion) is certainly possible.

     The Microsoft Wireless Notebook Presenter Mouse 8000, although it costs less than the Microsoft Mobile Memory Mouse 8000, is even more full-featured – if and only if you have compelling needs for PowerPoint presentations and mouse-controlled media. If you do not have those needs, it is woefully over-engineered. Actually, the Microsoft Wireless Notebook Presenter Mouse 8000 is engineered to integrate particularly well with PCs running Windows Vista (although it works on ones powered by XP as well); this is not a Mac-compatible mouse, and its feature set clearly shows why. The mouse has 12 – count them, 12 – buttons. In addition to all the usual mouse functions, this unit has forward, back and blank-screen controls on the bottom for use in PowerPoint presentations; it has a button that turns the mouse into a laser pointer; and there is even a Digital Ink feature so you can draw on screen. It’s a media-center control as well, with play, pause, volume control, and next- and previous-track buttons (some of the buttons are multifunctional, for both PowerPoint and media use). Yes, it has an on-off switch; and its symmetrical design makes it equally suitable for right- and left-handed users. But this is a specialty product and needs to be seen as one: there is no value to paying for PowerPoint and media functions you will not use. Also, this mouse runs on two AAA non-rechargeable batteries – an irritation, because its really cool clear hardshell carrying case has room only for the mouse and transceiver, not for spare batteries.

     Both these mice have certain features that will be useful to and appreciated by all users, such as four-way scrolling (side to side as well as up and down) and a magnifier (by default, a right-side button – but all the buttons on both these mice can easily be reassigned, which is another very nice and highly useful part of the design). Both come with three-year warranties. And either one will be an excellent addition to your mobile computing – and easy to replace with a different mouse if your needs change. Microsoft is a software company, not a hardware firm, but it is interesting to see just how good a job its comparatively small hardware division does at creating products that make it easier and more comfortable to use computers powered by Microsoft software – or even ones run by software created by Microsoft’s competitors.


Bruch: Violin Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. Maxim Fedotov, violin; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

Franz Xaver Richter: Grandes Symphonies, Nos. 7-12 (Set 2). Helsinki Baroque Orchestra conducted by Aapo Häkkinen. Naxos. $8.99.

Henry VIII, King of England (and other composers): Motets from a Royal Choirbook. Alamire consort singers; QuintEssential sackbut and cornet ensemble; Andrew Lawrence-King, gothic harp; David Skinner, director. Obsidian. $18.99.

     Many concertgoers are not even aware that Max Bruch wrote more than one violin concerto, so popular is the first of his three, in G minor. But Bruch did write three violin concertos, the second and third both in D minor, and although neither of the later works has the verve and combination of beauty and tight structure of No. 1 – which was Bruch’s first major work – both the later concertos are quite worthy of occasional performance. And both are undeniably by Bruch, containing his signature sweet themes and rhapsodic handling of traditional forms. The first concerto was dedicated to Joseph Joachim, who in 1867 helped Bruch shape it into the form in which we know it today. The second, which dates to 1878, is dedicated to another great violinist of Bruch’s time, Pablo de Sarasate, and has many of the same expansive elements as No. 1, although its extended finale does seem to go on rather longer than its thematic interest allows. The third concerto dates to 1891 and is the longest of the three, featuring an opening movement that is practically Tchaikovskian in scale and a concluding rondo in the form of a perpetuum mobile. Maxim Fedotov makes a good case for both these works, playing them with sensitivity and, in No. 3, with a sense of grandly heroic scale. And Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra provide fine accompaniment. It is hard to be more than lukewarm about the concertos themselves – this is one case in which less-known works actually deserve to be less known – but it is even harder to justify their nearly complete exclusion from concert programs. Both have lovely elements and ample virtuosic opportunities, and if they do not seem quite as creative as the G minor concerto, that simply means that Bruch set such a high standard for himself that even he could not surpass it.

     Pretty much all the music of Franz Xaver Richter is little known nowadays, but he was a fine composer and, in his day, a well respected one as a member of the Mannheim court orchestra. Yet Richter did not wholeheartedly adopt the techniques of the Mannheim school, believing that some of them glorified form over substance – for example, the famous “Mannheim Rocket,” rapidly ascending broken chords starting in the lowest bass range and ascending to the ensemble’s very top notes. Instead, Richter sought to balance elements of Baroque style with some that were considered quite modern in the mid-18th century. Thus, his 12 Grandes Symphonies of 1744 – actually written before he joined the court at Mannheim – show considerable contrapuntal skill while also bringing more emotion to their slow movements and greater intensity to their outer ones than would have been the norm in compositions only a few years earlier. This is not to say that these are profound symphonies – they are in fact closer to the sinfonia style than to anything Haydnesque – but they are well structured and show some compositional creativity. Among the six works of Set 2 – two in C major, one in A major, one in B-flat major, one in E minor and one in G minor – are two symphonies in four movements and four in three. But one of the three-movement works (the G minor) has a finale that lasts less than a minute and is over practically before a listener gets used to it. Both the four-movement works end with minuets (which of course were generally placed in the middle, usually in third position, by Haydn), and the E minor symphony has an interesting fugue as its second movement. The pleasures of these works are in their details rather than their overall scope; the pleasures of listening to them on this new Naxos CD have a great deal to do with the verve with which the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra plays them on period instruments. Aapo Häkkinen paces the symphonies well, with suitable contrast among the movements, resulting in a disc that is worth hearing repeatedly by a composer who is not heard very much at all.

     And speaking of original instruments: a CD called Henry’s Music features some that are so authentic-sounding that the music itself seems almost to come from a different world. King Henry VIII was intelligent, cultured and musically skilled – modern views of him merely as a tyrant with six wives (and founder of the Church of England) are, to put it politely, seriously skewed. The highlights of Obsidian’s new CD are nine works written by Henry himself, plus six previously unrecorded motets taken from a famous and beautiful Royal Choirbook owned by the British Museum. Henry’s works express typical courtly sentiments of the 16th century with grace and delicacy, while the six Royal Choirbook motets present Latin texts that are beautifully harmonized and elegant. Nor are Henry’s works and those from the choirbook the only pieces here: there are 21 works in all, including ones by Robert Fayrfax, John Taverner and Philippe Verdelot – famous names in their day if not in ours. The mixture of Latin, French and English verses, the wide variety of the works’ lengths (from less than a minute to more than 16), the wonderful accompaniments on some unfamiliar instruments, and the overall harmonic beauty of these pieces, add up to a highly unusual listening experience and a fine tribute to a monarch whose court was perhaps the most musical of its time.


Korngold: Violin Concerto; Overture to a Drama; Much Ado About Nothing—Concert Suite. Philippe Quint, violin; Orquesta Sinfónica de Mineria conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. Naxos. $8.99.

Prokofiev: On Guard for Peace; The Queen of Spades—Symphonic Suite arranged and elaborated by Michael Berkeley. Irina Tchistjakova, mezzo-soprano and narrator; Niall Docherty, boy soprano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus, Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus and Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.

Harold Schiffman: Symphony No. 2, “Music for Győr”; Ninnerella Variata; Variations on “Branchwater”; Blood Mountain Suite; Overture to a Comedy. Katalin Koltai, guitar; Győr Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mátyás Antal. North/South Recordings. $12.99.

Marilyn J. Ziffrin: Moods; Sonata for Piano; Elizabeth Bell: Arecibo Sonata; Rami Levin: Passages; Rain Worthington: Hourglass; Tangents; Dark Dreams; Always Almost. Max Lifchitz, piano. North/South Recordings. $12.99.

     Well-played, largely unknown music can be wonderful to discover in recorded form – CDs provide an opportunity to hear pieces rarely, if ever, programmed in concert halls. But other works, no matter how well played, tend to fall a bit flat on CD, no matter how often you listen to them. None of the music on these four CDs could charitably be called “great,” but two of the recordings are worthy of discovery for at least some adventurous listeners – although the other two repay one’s attention less well.

     Erich Wolfgang Kongold (1897-1957) is best known as a film composer, and his works certainly have the sort of immediate melodic appeal and Romantic-era emotionalism that helped him fit well into Hollywood. His Violin Concerto, in fact, is built around a number of his film tunes. But despite this less-than-exalted provenance, it is an effective, interesting work and a genuine showpiece – if a rather superficial one – for an accomplished violinist such as Philippe Quint. Quint plays with enthusiasm and élan, never trying to elevate the music to heights that it does not seek or achieve, but making it quite effective within its limited emotional range. The Orquesta Sinfónica de Mineria plays well, if not particularly distinctively, under its music director, Carlos Miguel Prieto, both in the concerto and in Korngold’s early Overture to a Drama, which shows good command of sonata form but is not in fact especially dramatic – although it is an impressive work for a 14-year-old. Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing suite is considerably more interesting, progressing in five movements from a fine scene-setter of an Overture to a witty and virtuosic concluding Hornpipe. The most interesting movement, called “Dogberry and Verges,” is a funeral march right out of Mahler – who was impressed with the young Korngold and clearly influenced him.

     The music on the new Chandos Prokofiev CD is decidedly lesser stuff in the composer’s output, but may be worth exploring for those familiar with Prokofiev’s better-known (and better) works. On Guard for Peace, the composer’s final choral work, is strictly a political composition in Socialist Realist style. The 10-movement oratorio is accessible, bombastic, appropriately celebratory of the Soviet Union’s military strength and eternal vigilance, and easily forgettable – a well-put-together propaganda piece. As for The Queen of Spades, it is only more-or-less Prokofiev. The suite heard here is based on film music that Prokofiev created in 1936 but that he stopped writing when Stalin’s regime halted production of the movie. British composer Michael Berkeley took the relatively paltry remains of Prokofiev’s work, expanded and orchestrated them, and produced a half-hour suite that sounds, basically, like fairly undistinguished film music. Prokofiev would probably have done better himself had he been given the chance; but this is all we are ever likely to hear of this particular music. Neeme Järvi leads the Royal Scottish forces with skill in both these works, but neither piece is much more than a curiosity – the CD gets a (+++) rating and will be of interest mostly to those seeking completeness in their Prokofiev collections.

     Two new releases from North/South Recordings get (+++) ratings, too. Both offer solid performances of not-very-memorable music from composers who do not have a great deal to say but have some skill in saying it. The works of Harold Schiffman, a student of Roger Sessions, have interesting parts but are less than convincing when taken as a whole. His second symphony, written last year, was inspired by the Hungarian city of Győr and is well played by that city’s orchestra under Mátyás Antal, but it is more pedantic than loving. Blood Mountain Suite, also from 2008, is a transcription of an earlier song cycle and is affecting without profundity. The remaining three works on this CD are earlier: Ninnerella Variata (Varied Lullaby) dates to 1956 and shows a good command of orchestral color; Variations on Branchwater (1987), for guitar and orchestra, has little of the U.S. South about it even though it was inspired by that region’s fondness for “Bourbon and branch,” but it has some effective writing and pits the guitar (well played by Katalin Koltai) nicely against the ensemble; and Overture to a Comedy (1987), written for a never-completed comic opera, is pleasant and light enough, if scarcely bubbly.

     Pianist Max Lifchitz performs sensitively on his CD of works by American women composers, but none of the featured pieces is especially distinctive. Marilyn J. Ziffrin’s Moods (2005) and Sonata for Piano (2006) are well structured but not very distinguished. Elizabeth Bell’s Arecibo Sonata (1968, revised 2005) is more interesting, with some challenges both for the pianist and for listeners. Rami Levin’s Passages (2002), designed as a work expressing mixed emotions, has effective elements but as a whole is a bit scattered. The four pieces by Rain Worthington, written between 1991 and 2001, also explore varying emotions, mostly superficially but with some melodic skill. All the works on this CD are pleasant rather than intense; there is an overall mildness to the recording that makes it interesting enough on a first hearing but that is unlikely to bring listeners back to it repeatedly.

June 18, 2009


A Small Surprise. By Louise Yates. Knopf. $16.99.

Grizzly Dad. By Joanna Harrison. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

     It’s not easy being little, but Louise Yates makes it much more fun for children ages 2-6 with A Small Surprise – which is actually full of surprises. The first one is that the book starts on the inside front covers, not (as usual) after the title page. Those inside covers show a very small bunny walking past a circus poster filled with pictures of HUGE circus animals bearing such labels as “tallest,” “fiercest” and “seriously savage.” On the poster is a notice that jobs are available, but “small animals need not apply.” But this is one determined (and adorable) bunny. He admits that he is “too small to wipe [his] own nose” or “tie [his] own shoes” – matters with which the huge animals, looking a bit puzzled, help him out. The bunny needs help with eating and even with walking! But then he points out that his small size lets him easily disappear and reappear – which he does several times, as the big animals try vainly to find him. (The funniest scene has him disappearing by jumping into the huge snake, which promptly coughs him up into a hat.) This disappearance-reappearance act, the bunny points out, makes him MAGIC! And the huge animals agree – and that is the end of the book, but not of the story. For just as Yates started things on the inside front covers, she ends them on the inside back covers, where the bunny has removed the “jobs available” notice, inserted his own picture into the middle of the poster of all the animals, and is changing the wording – for example, from “magnificent menagerie” to “magical menagerie” and from “biggest tallest longest largest” to “smallest bravest most interesting.” This bunny may be small on the outside, but within, he’s a giant – and that’s a wonderful (and subtle) message for children who may be worried that they too look small and insignificant to the rest of the world.

     On the other side of the size equation, Grizzly Dad is about just what the title says: a father who woke up in a “Grrrrizzly mood” and “grrroaned” and “grrrizzled” all morning until he went back to bed “just like a bear with a sore head.” His son explains that he went to check on him, “but it wasn’t Dad in bed at all…it was a GREAT BIG GRIZZLY BEAR!” Joanna Harrison manages to make the bear’s appearance startling but not scary – in fact, the father-turned-bear seems as befuddled as his son by the transformation. What is interesting here – and will appeal to the book’s target age range of 4-7 – is how quickly son and father accept and adapt to the “beary” unusual occurrence. The father cannot talk anymore, only grunt, but his son tells him not to worry and promises to take care of him. “So I wiped his eyes, combed his hair, brushed his teeth (he was a bit SMELLY) and gave him breakfast,” explains the boy – who, however, is put off by his bear father’s bad table manners, and yells at him for “making a horrible MESS!!!” And then – well, with no logical progression whatsoever (kids will love that), the bear is driving a convertible and taking the boy for a ride to town, where they go to the movies and the park before returning home for honey sandwiches and relaxation. And of course a “GREAT BIG BEAR HUG” climaxes the story, after which Dad stops being a bear, and he and the boy start cleaning up the huge mess they managed to make around the house. A story just amusing enough and just tender enough to engage kids while providing a decidedly soft-pedaled lesson about seeing past parents’ occasional grumpiness, Grizzly Dad will readily grunt its way into plenty of cub-sized hearts.


Freedom’s Just Another Word for People Finding Out You’re Useless: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs—The Junior Novel; Buck the Amazing Dino Hunter!; The Movie Storybook; My Three Dads; Sid-napped!; All in the Family; Momma Mix-Up; Made You Look! HarperEntertainment. $5.99 (Novel); $4.99 (Buck; Made); $7.99 (Storybook); $3.99 each (Dads; Sid). HarperTrophy. $3.99 each (Family; Momma).

     Some comic-strip characters seem ideally suited to the multi-panel drawings-on-a-page mode. Scott Adams’ Dilbert is a perfect example: it could certainly be turned into an animated cartoon (and has been), but a lot of the fun of the strip resides in observing its relationship to the real business world and then imagining (rather than being told or shown) how the characters sound, move and interact with each other. How does Dilbert’s “hee hee” (at an inappropriate time) actually sound? When Wally betrays an effective employee named Jesus (“pronounced Hay-soos”) in return for 40 shares of stock, and is hit with a “Fzeeet,” what exactly does that sound like? It’s more fun to imagine than to know how the Pointy Haired Boss’s voice sounds when he complains to Wally, “You said I was stealing credit for a good idea, you lying liar!!!” And what about that “foop!” with which Admiral B-tang-B’tang demonstrates the reason his firm is the only “company in the galaxy willing to form a strategic alliance” with Dilbert’s? The latest Dilbert collection – No. 32, if you’re counting – features Dogbert as head of “Deus ex Machina Services”; a guy with “the stink of failure,” which follows him around and rubs off on Dilbert after they shake hands; Wally’s participation in “a program to cure uselessness,” in which the other students are a glass hammer and a bag of nothing; an idea that is “dumber than snake mittens,” created by a guy who asks Dilbert, “What do you have against snake mittens?”; the Dogbert Rumor Control Service (“$10 for each false rumor and $1,000 for any rumor I decide is true”); Dilbert losing his moral compass and therefore being promoted to “vice president of making employees feel miserable and helpless”; and many other instances of utterly absurd events that frequently seem more real than the ones that actually happen in corporations every day. Somehow the three-panel format (eight panels on Sundays) seems absolutely right for Adams’ brand of surreal humor.

     But it’s hard to imagine the animated characters of the Ice Age movies being as funny in comic-strip form as they are (intermittently, to be sure) in movies. The latest film in this franchise, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, has predictably spawned a passel of movie tie-in books, and “spawned” seems the right word for a film that is largely about various creatures (mammoths and dinosaurs) having babies. Like other movie tie-ins, these work at the (+++) level for families that want souvenirs of the film because the kids enjoy it so much, but get no rating at all for anyone else. Even with all the stills from the movie, and drawings of the characters, included in these books, it is hard to imagine them enticing kids to see the film. The characters just don’t live very well on the page – unlike Dilbert and his cohorts, the Ice Age denizens are all about motion. The Junior Novel, by Susan Korman, is for the oldest potential fans of the new film, ages 8-12, and includes eight pages of not-exceptionally-interesting movie stills. Buck the Amazing Dino Hunter! by Annie Auerbach – for ages 7-10 – is about a new character in Dawn of the Dinosaurs, a swashbuckling weasel; here, the film stills are rendered in black and white, which makes them less striking. The Movie Storybook, by Layla Rose, although intended for younger kids (ages 3-7), is really the best souvenir item from this film: it is an oversize, full-color volume packed with stills and containing just enough text to explain the rather thin plot. And then, for super-fans of the film, there are various books for preschoolers and kindergartners in which the focus is on only one element of the movie. My Three Dads (by A.J. Wilde) focuses on Mannie the mammoth, Sid the sloth and Diego the sabertooth, while Sid-napped! (by Ray Santos) is about a plot element in which Sid gets carried off by a mother dinosaur. All in the Family and Momma Mix-Up (both by Sierra Harimann) are Level 2 books in the I Can Read! series: both have plenty of pictures and only a few well-chosen, simple words in large type. And Made You Look! (by Nicole Congleton) is a find-the-differences book, with slight alterations of various scenes from the film (and answers in the back). Even for fans of Dawn of the Dinosaurs, the books do lose something in translation from motion picture to still drawings on a page, but kids with happy memories of the movie will have fun recalling their favorite scenes through these souvenirs.


Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness. By Nahoko Uehashi. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

A Taste for Red. By Lewis Harris. Clarion. $16.

The Strain. By Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. William Morrow. $26.99.

     The second of Nahoko Uehashi’s 10 Moribito novels to be released in the United States, Guardian of the Darkness retains the intensity and the appealing blend of Eastern settings and Western fantasy traditions that made the first book, Guardian of the Spirit, such a pleasure to read. But this volume is less of a progressive adventure and more of an attempt to recapture and understand the past; it moves at a less headlong pace, but delves into the inner life of the protagonist, Balsa, in ways that the first book did not. This does not mean that Guardian of the Darkness lacks action and adventure – Balsa is, after all, a fighter and a female bodyguard. But it does mean that there is a level of thoughtfulness here that enriches the story and takes it beyond traditional young-adult novels – and beyond the TV series based on Uehashi’s work. Indeed, every section of this book refers to darkness: “Into the Darkness,” “The Advancing Darkness,” “The People of Darkness,” “Facing the Darkness” and, as an epilogue, “Beyond the Darkness.” This is no mere conceit – there are dark forces aplenty as Balsa makes her way back to her native land, Kanbal, only to discover that the evil King Rogsam, who tried unsuccessfully to kill her in the earlier book, has now laid a different sort of trap for her. The king had sent eight assassins after Balsa and her now-dead mentor, Jiguro; now he has framed both Jiguro and Balsa for the assassins’ deaths, putting the young guard’s life in peril. Nor is this all: a conspiracy touching on the mysterious Guardians of the Darkness imperils the existence of Kanbal itself. Having returned to Kanbal seeking reconciliation with her past – her meeting with Aunt Yuka, who has not seen her in two dozen years and believes her dead, is particularly affecting – Balsa instead finds herself in the midst of conflicting clan loyalties, at odds with Jiguro’s kin, enveloped in myths and legends of her homeland, and pursued always by Rogsam’s enmity. It is only, finally, through allowing herself to endure a real-yet-unreal battle with Jiguro’s own shade that Balsa can begin to come to terms with herself, her life and her calling. In lesser hands, this climactic scene could easily deteriorate into melodrama, if not silliness; but Uehashi, having established a world in which such a thing is possible, follows the sequence through to its logical conclusion, resulting in a powerful and affecting end for this story.

     A Taste for Red moves toward what might be called the lighter side of darkness – at first. Lewis Harris’ first novel seems like a fairly standard vampire (or vampire-wannabe) story: Svetlana Grimm starts sixth grade at a new school after her parents move, and tries to cope with the kids and social pressures there while also handling her own oddities – such as sleeping under her bed every night, eating only red foods, and occasionally hearing other people’s thoughts. Svetlana is sure she is a vampire, but she isn’t sure how or why. And her suspicions and uncertainties only become heightened when she encounters the science teacher, Ms. Larch, who also seems able to read people’s thoughts – including Svetlana’s. So far, so good – but what Harris does next is to darken the story considerably. What if Svetlana isn’t a vampire? What if she and Ms. Larch aren’t potential companions but potential enemies? What if some but not all the oddities in Svetlana’s life are relevant to who or what she is? And this is where A Taste for Red starts to get really interesting, and a great deal more serious. Instead of the romanticized version of vampires that is all too common in books today (especially ones for young readers), Harris’ novel takes a strong turn toward the dark and distinctly unpleasant side. There is no overt gore or anything exceptionally scary here – the book is for preteens, after all – but there is an increasing sense, as A Taste for Red progresses, that a vampire is not what Svetlana wants to turn out to be. The trouble is that she also does not much want to be what she finds out that she actually is. How she discovers that, what she does with the knowledge, and where circumstances lead her, are the elements of a story that gets steadily more interesting as it becomes more intense, and that moves toward its conclusion (and the likelihood of a sequel) with impeccable logic.

     Logic is frequently missing, but melodrama is plentiful, in another vampire story – this one decidedly for adults. The Strain, the first book of a planned trilogy, is about (yawn) a vampire war against humans. Guillermo del Toro, director of the outstanding film Pan’s Labyrinth, ought to be too good for this sort of potboiler, which perhaps is more heavily influenced by Chuck Hogan, author of Prince of Thieves and other dramatic but formulaic novels. “Dramatic but formulaic” certainly describes The Strain. There is the airplane that arrives at its destination, then falls into a sinister silence requiring intervention by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is the elderly Jewish professor who has waited his whole life, even through the Holocaust, to confront the evil that he knows will appear. There is the dedicated CDC doctor trained to confront biological threats, but not the virus that creates vampires. There is description like this, involving the old professor, Abraham Setrakian: “His malformed hands began to ache. What he saw before him was not an omen – it was an incursion. It was the act itself. The thing he had been waiting for. That he had been preparing for. All his life until now.” There is dialogue like this, when Setrakian meets the CDC physician, Dr. Eph Goodweather (yes, Goodweather): “‘There is much you will need to let go of, Dr. Goodweather,’ said Setrakian. ‘I understand that you believe you are taking a risk in trusting the word of an old stranger. But, in a sense, I am taking a thousandfold greater risk entrusting this responsibility to you. What we are discussing here is nothing less than the fate of the human race…’” Oh, ho hum. Give the authors credit for fast pacing and a pretty good sense of the horrific, and The Strain still gets a (++) or (+++) rating, depending on how often you have read this sort of thing before and how tolerant you are of reading it again. Even many fans of horror novels (and films) will give the book the lower rating, though, because the dialogue is so often so laughably predictable. “‘Don’t demonize the sick,’ said Nora. ‘But now…now the sick are demons. Now the infected are active vectors of the disease, and have to be stopped. Killed. Destroyed.’” Well, with verbiage like that, with vampires that “turned feral” and “backed up on [their] haunches,” with the entirely typical use of silver (not just bullets – needles work, too) and fire as weapons, it is inevitable that the action will lead to the lair of “This Thing. The Master.” And so it does, but of course the Master escapes (so there can be two more books), and the scene promises to shift – at least from time to time – away from New York City, where The Strain takes place, to other environs. The Strain is immensely uncreative but is entertaining in its own frenetic way – sort of like a not-very-thoughtful vampire movie, which is perhaps what the authors want this book and its planned successors to become.


Paris Spleen: Little Poems in Prose. By Charles Baudelaire. Translated by Keith Waldrop. Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.

So Long As Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. By Clinton Heylin. Da Capo. $24.

     What do you do for an encore after you produce poetry that shakes up, enrages and captivates the public and quickly becomes both controversial and wildly influential? If you are Charles Baudelaire, you follow up The Flowers of Evil with a series of poetic observations and commentaries on Parisian life – but instead of casting them in the form of poetry, you write them as “Little Poems in Prose.” That is what Baudelaire did in Le Spleen de Paris, now newly and very poetically translated by Keith Waldrop as Paris Spleen. This makes a fine companion book to Waldrop’s 2006 translation of The Flowers of Evil, also published by Wesleyan University Press. But the thin volume – 116 pages – does not quite have the richness or the power of Baudelaire’s earlier work. “These nervous pleasantries are not without danger, and sometime quite costly. But what’s an eternity of damnation to one who has found in such an instant infinite satisfaction?” So asks Baudelaire (as here translated) in a brief story in which the narrator deliberately overdoes a practical joke in such a way as to ruin a glazier’s livelihood. It is a story that Poe could have written, complete with its parenthetical paragraph in which the narrator attempts to explain his motivation for what is essentially a cruel and vicious impulse. And Poe did write something like this, in The Imp of the Perverse, and wrote it much better. Nor is this the only time in Paris Spleen in which Baudelaire seems to deliver something a touch warmed-over. “A Hemisphere in a Head of Hair,” which lasts less than a page, begins, “Allow me long – longer – to inhale the odor of your hair, to bury my face in it, like a thirsty man at a spring, and to shake it out like a scented hanky, flinging its memories into the air.” This is mere tepid Romanticism. “An Heroic Death” is more not-quite-Poe: “This Prince was neither better nor worse than others, but an excessive sensibility rendered him, in many cases, crueler and more despotic than the rest. …Caring little for men or for morals, himself a true artist, he considered Ennui his only foe, and the bizarre efforts he took to flee or to vanquish this universal tyrant would certainly have made a serious historian classify him as ‘monster’ – if, in his domain, it had been permitted to write anything not for enjoyment (or astonishment, enjoyment in a particularly delicate form).” There are some felicitous turns of phrase in Paris Spleen, and the angry intensity and sexuality of The Flowers of Evil sometimes peek through, but not even the lovely flow of Waldrop’s translation can conceal the fact that this book does not present Baudelaire at his best.

     Shakespeare had plenty of encores – magnificent ones – to his sequence of 154 sonnets, but Clinton Heylin’s curious So Long as Men Can Breathe pays little attention to the playwright’s later work or, in a sense, to the sonnets themselves. This is not a book about Shakespeare, about poetry, about sonnets or about love (the sonnets’ primary focus). It is a book about publishing, both legal and illegal, written by a biographer of Bob Dylan and Orson Welles who happens also to be a scholar of the history of Shakespeare’s time. Perhaps Heylin’s multifaceted interests explain the direction he takes here. The great questions raised by the sonnets, including to whom they were dedicated and why Shakespeare seems to have tried exceptionally hard to conceal the identity of the person (or people) to whom they were addressed, come into Heylin’s book only in passing. He is less interested in what the sonnets say than in how they came to be printed, pirated, passed from hand to hand, altered, collected, sold, analyzed and considered and reconsidered again and again. The sonnets were first published on May 20, 1609, by George Eld and Thomas Thorpe, a pair of disreputable characters whose edition may or may not have been authorized. Heylin does a fine job exploring the hurlyburly of the 17th-century publishing netherworld, including changes that may have been made for the benefit of the publishers but that scholars have assumed for centuries to be elements of Shakespeare’s own intentions. Much of what Heylin discusses is speculative – much of everything that tries to figure out what Shakespeare “really” meant is speculative – but Heylin moves with rather too much enthusiasm into the back-and-forth of unceasing argument and counterargument, returning again and again to questions of how the method of publication of the sonnets may have influenced readers’ acceptance of their sequencing and meaning. At one point, Heylin writes of “the tortured relationship” in the sonnet sequence: “A sense of futility infuses the entire infatuation. The gulf in age, status, and feelings is stated almost ad nauseum [sic].” But he seems more comfortable tossing out the names of people whose claims and counterclaims may flow from piracy in the poems’ publishing history: “The rebuttal to Vickers’s views came soon enough, and from a not entirely unexpected quarter. Duncan-Jones was given two and a half columns in the TLS, a fortnight after Love’s review appeared, to mount her counteroffensive, [which included a claim that] Thorpe had no reason to ‘risk the wrath of’ Shakespeare by publishing something under his name that was not by him – i.e., exactly what Jaggard, Pavier, and Eld had previously done without the slightest repercussion.” It must be said that the rogues’ gallery of publishing pirates – “bookleggers,” Heylin calls them – contains some entertaining characters, and Heylin’s generally bright style makes many of the characters’ adventures and misadventures enjoyable to follow. But in all this, the genius of the sonnets’ poetry, their importance as literature, and their place within Shakespeare’s life and work, all tend to get lost. So Long as Men Can Breathe takes readers through many a byway of the past 400 years, while studiously avoiding the main roads that lead to the sparkle, wit and grace of Shakespeare’s language and poetic sentiments.


Schubert: Complete Overtures, Volume 2—Overture in D major; Overtures in the Italian Style in D major and C major; Rosamunde, D. 644, from “Die Zauberharfe”; Die Zwillingsbrüder; Overture in E minor; Rosamunde, D. 732, from “Alfonso und Estrella”; Die Verschworenen—Der häusliche Krieg; Fierrabras. Prague Sinfonia conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $8.99.

Dvořák: Symphony No. 7; The Golden Spinning Wheel. Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam conducted by Yakov Kreizberg. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Sacred Songs of the Romantic Period: Music of Dvořák, Wolf, Mendelssohn and Reger. Susanne Bernhard, soprano; Maria Graf, harp; Harald Feller, organ. Oehms. $16.99.

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 14. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Johann Strauss Jr. Waltz Arrangements: Wine, Women and Song by Alban Berg; Roses from the South, Lagunenwalzer, Emperor Waltz by Arnold Schoenberg; Treasure Waltz by Anton Webern. Linos Ensemble. Capriccio. $16.99.

     Schubert’s stage works had little success, but his overtures to them – and the overtures that he wrote for concert purposes – remain tuneful delights, with especially prominent woodwind parts and the sort of encapsulation of emotion that is a hallmark of the Romantic era. The second volume of Naxos’ recordings of all the Schubert overtures contains some well-known pieces – the two overtures “in the Italian style” and the Rosamunde overture taken from Die Zauberharfe – amid a number of unfamiliar works. The Rosamunde overture on which Schubert eventually settled flows far more pleasantly and naturally than does his original choice, which came from his opera Alfonso und Estrella. However, Christian Benda pushes the Prague Sinfonia very hard in the overture’s lovely main theme – one of the few tempo miscalculations here. The Overture in the Italian Style in D major is a particular delight on this CD – it out-Rossinis Rossini in its thematic variety and use of the orchestra. The overture to Fierrabras (misspelled “Fierabras” on the CD) is another highly effective work that deserves to be heard more often. The remaining pieces here, if not quite so inherently interesting, all have their moments of charm, and the orchestra plays everything with clarity and enthusiasm.

     The orchestra plays well for Yakov Kreizberg, too, as he continues his rather curious Dvořák cycle. What makes it odd is that Kreizberg seems to lavish more attention on the filler pieces than on the symphonies. His earlier recording, of Symphony No. 6, was truly awful: lumbering, uneven in tempo and utterly dull. But it was paired with a lovely rendition of The Water Goblin. Kreizberg does much better with Symphony No. 7, allowing it for the most part to flow naturally and without silly gimmicks or unneeded tempo changes. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam certainly does its part, presenting beautifully rounded tones and full- throated brass. It is only at the very end of the symphony that Kreizberg overdoes things with a ritard-accelerando-ritard that undercuts a mostly effective performance. On the other hand, The Golden Spinning Wheel is excellent throughout. All the Dvořák tone poems, which he wrote late in life, are based on very gory Czech fairytales, but all unfold to some of the composer’s warmest and most beautiful music. The Golden Spinning Wheel moves from episode to episode with real spirit, its martial sections strongly contrasted with its romantic ones, and its overall effect is quite marvelous. It sounds great, too – as does the symphony – thanks to PentaTone’s always outstanding SACD sound.

     Dvořák also assumes a prominent place on a CD called “Sacred Songs of the Romantic Period.” Eleven of his German-language religious songs, the Biblische Lieder, op. 99, are sung with great feeling by soprano Susanne Bernhard, who is accompanied by harpist Maria Graf in arrangements made by organist Harald Feller. The harp also accompanies two of the three songs by Max Reger on this CD. The rest of the music is accompanied by Feller on the organ – a particularly interesting choice for the two Mendelssohn songs, which were originally written for piano but which Mendelssohn said could optionally be played on organ. They certainly sound more churchlike that way; so does the third Reger song. The only pieces here that seem a touch out of place are five songs by Hugo Wolf, which do not have quite the same overtly sacred simplicity as the other works on the CD. Still, they too are beautifully sung, and the disc as a whole provides some interesting contrasts between the earlier Romantic-era songs and those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

     Of course, not all Romantic music was heavy – not by a long shot. The 14th volume in Marco Polo’s wonderful Johann Strauss Sr. series shows once again that the elder Strauss had found the secret to elevating light music to a real art form – albeit not with the elegance that his sons Johann Jr. and Josef would later bring to it. The eight waltzes and a polka on the new CD are all charming, beautifully balanced and unendingly tuneful. Adelaiden-Walzer, the waltz Egerien-Tänze, and Die Tanzmeister – cleverly named to solidify Strauss’ relationship with the dance-masters who taught people to swirl to his music – are especially well crafted, and the Beliebten Annen-Polka is so bright and lovely that it only makes sense for it to be labeled “beloved.” The other waltzes here are not quite as captivating, although each has at least one section of great beauty: Die Wettrenner, Die Debutanten, Stadt- und Landleben, Die Fantasten and Musik-Verein-Tänze. The Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Christian Pollack – who has made a specialty of this kind of music – plays with so much lightness of spirit that it brings the days of old Vienna to life once again.

     But those days were long gone by 1921, the postwar year in which three famous (some would say notorious) members of the new Viennese school of composition turned their attention to five waltzes by Johann Strauss Jr. Considering how far into atonality Berg, Schoenberg and Webern were even then pushing music, it is remarkable to find them focusing their skills on lilting, very strongly tonal dance works written as many as 52 years earlier. It is even more remarkable to hear the respect with which they treated Strauss’ music – stripping it of opulence, to be sure, but retaining (especially in the three waltzes arranged by Schoenberg) its emotional underpinnings and genuine loveliness. Four of the five arrangements use the same musical forces: string quartet, harmonium (a pump organ that sounds a bit like an accordion), and string quartet. The fifth, the Emperor Waltz, retains the piano and strings but replaces the harmonium with a flute and clarinet. The Linos Ensemble plays the works with zest, bringing out the passages in which the arrangers somewhat re-harmonized the music (notably Berg in Wine, Women and Song) while making sure that the strong three-quarter-time beat remains apparent throughout. There is some feeling of looking through the wrong end of the telescope about these arrangements, which can certainly be considered curiosities but should not be dismissed as such. Berg, Schoenberg and Webern – Schoenberg most of all – believed they were building on Romantic ideals even as they moved beyond them. Their Strauss waltz arrangements show that they could appreciate the musical structure and rhythmic vitality of Strauss’ music even as they ultimately rejected the era in which it was written.


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. François-Frédéric Guy, piano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Philippe Jordan. Naïve. $16.99.

Khachaturian: Violin Concerto; Concerto-Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra. Nicolas Koeckert, violin; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

Copland: Clarinet Concerto; William Thomas McKinley: Clarinet Duet Book II; Concerto for Two Clarinets and Orchestra. Kim Ellis and Richard Stoltzman, clarinets; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. Navona. $16.99.

Joseph Bertolozzi: Bridge Music. Delos. $12.99.

     François-Frédéric Guy and Philippe Jordan have completed their cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos with a third CD on which they take some risks, and some liberties, with tempo and balance; and this time, for the most part, the risks pay off. No. 2, actually the first of the five numbered concertos that Beethoven wrote (in addition to an early E-flat concerto and a piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto), is not quite as light and fleet here as it can be, but it bubbles along pleasantly, and some of the orchestral touches – notably the strings in the Adagio – nicely complement Guy’s piano, highlighting elements of the accompaniment that are not always brought through clearly. No. 3 has sounded both darker and more magisterial in other recordings than it does here, and some of the balance emphases try too hard to be unusual (such as the timpani just before the end of the finale). But this is a generally subtle and well-integrated performance in which the music flows naturally and the back-and-forth between C minor (the work’s nominal key) and C major is handled fluently. Guy and Jordan deserve credit for taking a fresh look at these standards of the repertoire, and even if not all their approaches prove effective, their CD is very much worth hearing for its attempt to rethink the concertos without being in any way false to their composer or the time in which they were written.

     Nicolas Koeckert’s excellent playing in Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto is the main attraction of his new CD with José Serebrier and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a passionate and warm reading of the concerto, especially strong in the first two movements. Where Koeckert and Serebrier take the most chances is in the finale, which they handle more soberly and with less freewheeling virtuosity than it usually receives. This lends weight to the concerto as a whole, but it prevents the final movement from feeling like a joyous release after the somewhat heavier material that has gone before (although this is scarcely a profound concerto). This is a well-thought-out interpretation even if not a wholly convincing one. As for the Concerto-Rhapsody, which is long enough to be a concerto of its own, it comes across rather less well. Khachaturian wrote three works with this title, one each for violin, cello and piano, and intended them to be mixtures of subtle emotionality and brilliant display. The brilliance is missing in most of Koeckert’s performance, though – not because he lacks the technical ability but because he seems to be holding it in check in order to bring forth the work’s long lines and rather surface-level feelings. As a result, the Concerto-Rhapsody often seems to drag, not because of tempo but because it wades through so much emotion. This is a valid approach to the work but not, in the end, as effective as one in which the brighter and dimmer sections are contrasted more strongly.

     Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, a staple of 20th-century clarinet repertoire, gets a fine performance from Kim Ellis, principal clarinetist of the Symphony of Southeast Texas, with a particularly strong first movement in which the lyrical elements of jazz – effectively communicated by the composer despite the lack of percussion – come through with particular sensitivity. Ellis also does quite well with the jazz elements contained in the cadenza that links the concerto’s two movements – she says she loves this music, and her affection shines through. Ellis, along with fellow clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, also shows an affinity for jazz in the two dual-clarinet works of William Thomas McKinley on this CD. McKinley is an accomplished jazz pianist as well as a composer, and he has written three solo-clarinet concertos as well as a clarinet sonata. He has worked and recorded with Stoltzman before, and Ellis says it was McKinley who suggested that she and Stoltzman work together on this CD. What matters, though, is the music; and although Ellis and Stoltzman take something of a risk in weighting this CD toward McKinley rather than the better-known Copland (who was McKinley’s teacher at Tanglewood), the approach pays off handsomely. McKinley, now 70, retains a healthy dose of youthful exuberance in the two works here, but there is also considerable tenderness and a call for substantial clarinet virtuosity. The six-movement Clarinet Duet Book II features fascinating intertwining of the instruments, while the two-clarinet concerto (which has a rather off-kilter waltz rather than a traditional slow movement at its center) showcases brightness more than deep emotion.

     It is hard to say what sort of emotion Joseph Bertolozzi wants to evoke in his Bridge Music, which is essentially a concerto for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge that crosses the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie and Highland, New York. What Bertolozzi does is look at the bridge as a huge musical instrument, then use parts of it to create sounds that he arranges into a 10-movement suite: “Bridge Funk,” “The River That Flows Both Ways,” “Steel Works” and “Rivet Gun” are among the movements’ titles. As it happens, the bridge’s designer, Ralph Modjeski, was a pianist and classmate of Ignacy Jan Paderewski before he became an engineer, so this bridge actually has a musical connection. But whether this work succeeds as music – or as any sort of art – is debatable, and will no doubt be debated. Bertolozzi, who was born in Poughkeepsie 50 years ago, apparently has an emotional attachment to this bridge, but whether Bridge Music is ultimately more than a gimmick will be a matter of opinion. Bertolozzi clearly approaches the bridge in a musical way – the CD includes s 10-minute audio tour of the structure’s various sounds – and there is enough seriousness to this project to earn it a (+++) rating. But as for what it is, aside from an attention-getter – that is something that listeners must decide for themselves.