August 25, 2011


You Are My Cupcake. By Joyce Wan. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Birthday? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $6.99.

Bad Island. By Doug TenNapel. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.

     The phrase “picture books” means very different things for different age groups. In the form of board books, picture-focused works for the youngest children are pure and simple delights – even delicious ones, as in the case of You Are My Cupcake. Joyce Wan cleverly creates endearing drawings based on the silly names that parents give very young children: “my mushy little sweet pea,” “my honey-baked peanut,” and so on. Each food is shown with a face, including a big, happy smile. And of course the book ends with something that plenty of parents say to their little ones: “Baby, I could just eat you up!” The concept and art here are equally adorable, and the very simple text is all that parents will need to communicate the joys of calling small children “my sticky little gumdrop,” “my oven-baked cutie pie,” and more.

     Cake also figures in the latest Jane Yolen-Mark Teague board-book collaboration, How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Birthday? The delightful dino series continues to offer Teague’s excellent art, showing realistically rendered dinosaurs (whose scientific names are given in small print) doing decidedly non-dino-like things – behaving, in fact, just like modern kids. The kids-as-dinos approach works wonderfully, thanks to the expressiveness that Teague brings to his art and the wonderful positions he contorts the dinosaurs into: a ceratosaurus sticking out its tongue at partygoers while pulling the cake away from them, for example. Each of the dino books shows kids – that is, kids-as-dinosaurs – behaving badly, then explains the right way to do things. Emily Post it isn’t, but this “manners” message is wonderfully well tailored to today’s visually oriented environment. How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Birthday? does not, unfortunately, feature Yolen’s best writing: several rhymes do not scan quite correctly. One example: “When the party is over, she thanks Mom and Dad/ for the very best birthday she’s ever had.” This should be “for the very best birthday that she’s ever had.” Still, the pictures – the main attraction here – are as wonderful as ever, with one of a velociraptor slurping ice cream being especially amusing. Indeed, the misbehavior is more fun to see than the correct behavior – a bit of a problem for all these books. But there is plenty of enjoyment here from start to finish.

     Bad Island is a graphic novel for preteens and teenagers, and the enjoyment it brings is of a different order – as are its illustrations. It is not up to the best work of Doug TenNapel – it gets a (+++) rating – because the adventure becomes unintentionally funny a few too many times. The plot is straightforward: family with difficulties takes a boat trip together, gets shipwrecked, and ends up on an island filled with monsters and various strange beings. A “framing tale” opens the book with a battle among aliens, and that element returns during the island story at various points – until the family story and alien story are joined at the end. The human characters are pure types: well-meaning and quietly courageous father, irritated but good-hearted mother who will fight intensely to protect her kids, surly son with issues that have almost led him to run away from home, and younger sister whose pet snake, Pickles, is the most interesting of the characters even though it spends most of the book being dead. Some of the writing is pure cliché: “No one can hear you scream out here,” spoken from space, for example. And some of the setups are just plain silly, like the one noting that intruders on the island “will be met by some of the most hostile creatures in the universe” – which turn out to be spear-carrying pygmies that prove unable to injure, much less kill, a single family member. What keeps the book interesting and exciting are TenNapel’s renditions of the various monsters, such as a carnivorous tree and a weird thing with six legs, five eyes of different sizes, and four horns that resemble tools for uncorking wine bottles. Some individual panels are standouts – often ones with very little action. In one, the boy, Reese, looks wide-eyed at a scary beast and simply says, “Oh, crud,” as sister Janie runs away. In another, a full-page one, an alien “pow” scares off a beast that looks like a giant rat-faced porcupine. In yet another, dad and daughter are almost entirely in darkness except for their wide-open eyes – as they listen to mysterious sounds from below. The whole Bad Island experience leads to renewed family bonds and the rescue of an alien good guy imprisoned for more than 1,500 years. But the plot isn’t the main point here – the pictures are. And although they are very different from the sorts of pictures that appeal to younger readers (and pre-readers), they are as well targeted for their age group as board-book illustrations are for babies and their doting parents.


A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. By Nassir Ghaemi, M.D. Penguin. $27.95.

     There is nothing new, psychiatrically speaking, in finding a linkage between madness, or at least deep-seated neurosis, and genius: one of Sigmund Freud’s important works was a psychoanalytic biography of Leonardo da Vinci (1910), and Freud’s protégé Marie Bonaparte’s psychoanalytic study of Edgar Allan Poe (1933) remains a classic. But Nassir Ghaemi, psychiatry professor at Tufts University and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, takes matters a step further in A First-Rate Madness, arguing forcefully that it is the mental illnesses of various leaders that made them as successful as they were. That is, depression and mania, in particular, were not burdens to be overcome by such leaders as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and General William Tecumseh Sherman – instead, they were keys to their abilities to lead extremely difficult circumstances.

     This is an intriguing viewpoint, if not a wholly convincing one. Ghaemi argues that four elements crucial to crisis leadership – realism, empathy, creativity and resilience – can be enhanced by certain forms of mental illness. Mania can make someone more creative, for example, or depression can make the person more empathetic. This is arguable – depression tends to lead to a deep inward focus, the opposite of outward-oriented empathy – but it is an idea worth exploring when applied to specific cases. In other words, what psychiatrists would diagnose as mental illness may, in the cases of such people as John F. Kennedy and Mohandas Gandhi, become a foundation for improvements in leadership behavior. The key is that this effect is far from universal: individuals must have particular personality characteristics (which Ghaemi never attempts to codify) in order to benefit from mental illness rather than be severely damaged by it.

     A First-Rate Madness is not easy reading, even when Ghaemi goes out of his way to italicize points he tries especially hard to make: “We come now to the paradox of trauma – its steeling effect. Not only can it make a person psychiatrically ill, but it can make someone psychiatrically healthier. There is post-traumatic growth: trauma itself might not harm some people psychologically at all; it might in fact help them. It is not a matter of getting better despite the trauma, but rather because of it.” Or: “The vaccine metaphor leads to another metaphor (Nietzsche once said that truth is a mobile army of metaphors): immunity.” Enjoyment of the cadences of Ghaemi’s style is a prerequisite for following and taking pleasure in his arguments.

     Ghaemi’s analysis of motivations is strong on the psychological side but tends to be weak on the political one, and is even tinged at times with hero worship: “Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t worried about any accusation, nor even of bringing about piecemeal socialism in the United States. He knew only that people were hurting; he knew what it was like to hurt; and his personality would not allow him to sit still. He tried whatever worked, and with that method he achieved astounding success.” Ghaemi also analyzes Roosevelt’s great World War II adversary, Adolf Hitler, saying that Hitler “most probably [had] bipolar disorder” (other writers have suggested he may have had syphilis). Ghaemi seeks to make a specific, comparative point about Hitler: “Kennedy’s leadership was eventually enhanced by steroids, interacting with his hyperthymic personality; Hitler’s leadership was eventually destroyed by amphetamines interacting with his bipolar disorder.” Like many assertions in A First-Rate Madness, this one is both arguable and fascinating.

     Equally fascinating are Ghaemi’s remarks on “healthy failures,” or “failed homoclite leaders,” as Ghaemi terms them. Mental health can actually hamper leadership, Ghaemi argues, citing George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Richard Nixon as examples (and he admits that identifying Nixon as normal “will not satisfy some readers”). Anticipating argument on this point, Ghaemi writes, “I realize that some readers may be thinking of counterexamples: what about Reagan, Eisenhower, Truman? They all seemed levelheaded and relatively successful. I would say they were homoclites, but that their presidential successes did not include handling major crises, like World War II (almost over when Truman took office), or nuclear standoff (Reagan never faced a Cuban Missile Crisis), or the civil rights crisis (Eisenhower briefly intervened in Little Rock, and otherwise avoided conflict).” This counterargument by Ghaemi falls short: Truman, for example, had to decide to use atomic weapons against Japan, fight the Korean War, and fire General Douglas MacArthur. But even when Ghaemi is wrongheaded, he is never less than interesting. And that is the ultimate value of A First-Rate Madness: this is a book for thinkers, written by a thinker, and it will make readers look at forms of mental illness differently than they have in the past – whether or not they ultimately agree with Ghaemi’s arguments and conclusions.


Butterflies. By Seymour Simon. Collins. $17.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Special Edition 2012. Scholastic. $16.99.

     The redoubtable Seymour Simon does it again with Butterflies, his latest exploration of nature for ages 5-9. Simon is a master of his craft: his books are factually correct, simply but not too simply written, and illustrated with gorgeous photos that show off Earth’s natural wonders to superb effect. This is a bit easier in Butterflies than in some other books, since these insects are so gorgeous and familiar that kids in the target age range likely know and enjoy looking at them already – as opposed to, say, gorillas or spiders, the subjects of two other Simon books. One thing Simon does exceptionally well is gather unusual facts about his subjects in addition to more straightforward ones – in the case of this book, for example, the facts that butterflies taste with their feet and have eyes that can look in multiple directions at the same time. Simon also explains how to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth (antenna shape is the best method); discusses the parts and functions of each segment of a butterfly’s body (head, thorax and abdomen); and explains that there are about 10 times as many kinds of moths as there are types of butterflies. To the information, add wonderful closeups of brilliantly colored butterflies (and one that has gorgeous colors on one side of its wings and dull ones, for camouflage, on the other), a photo sequence showing a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, extremely close views of parts of butterfly and moth bodies, a list of butterfly families whose members are commonly seen in the United States, and suggestions on how to make a “butterfly garden” to attract more of these fascinating insects, and you have a book so packed with information that it is something of a shock to realize that it is only 32 pages long. Like other Simon science books, Butterflies delivers a great deal of interesting material while showing numerous beautiful pictures. These are entry-level science books, to be sure, but they are so well done that they should entice many young readers to go looking for more in-depth information elsewhere – good places to start being the Web sites mentioned at the end of the book.

     Animals also figure in many entries in the latest annual edition in the Scholastic series of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! The interest here, though, is not scientific exploration but a mild form of tabloid-style exploitation. There is an elephant here – about to step on a woman’s back, because of an odd massage craze in Thailand. There is a dog – actually an X-ray of a dog that swallowed five pottery cats. There are cows, sheep and mice – etched on glass milk bottles by an artist in England. There is a llama – trained as a golf caddy. And of course there are plenty of human animals as well: one who backed through the seventh-floor wall of a parking garage, leaving the trunk of his car hanging precariously 80 feet above the street; one who made a life-size cardboard cutout of her deceased husband and took it to his own funeral and a friend’s wedding; one wearing a Body-Laptop Woolly Sweater that covers the head, hands and computer; two wrestling in a giant pool of chocolate; one who made a bulletproof handkerchief, to be worn in the breast pocket; one cruising around Sydney (Australia) Harbour in a giant guitar; one playing a piano made entirely of ice, and another setting fire to an old piano; and so on. “What fools these mortals be,” Puck might say, but anything Shakespearean would be a far cry indeed from this (+++) book of assorted oddments. From conjoined fruits to number games to odd facts (“more people in India have access to a cell phone than to a lavatory”), this punchy, easy-to-read, factoid-packed, brightly colored, highly pictorial compendium is fun for a while, silly for a while, and downright strange for a while. It is a read-it-once sort of book, not the type of volume to which people return again and again; but in its own oddball way, it can be amusing and enjoyable, at least for a time.


Bach: Harpsichord Concertos Nos. 1-7; Concerto for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord; Brandenburg Concerto No. 5; Italian Concerto. Murray Perahia, piano and conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Sony. $24.99 (3 CDs).

     Despite the current penchant for labeling them as “keyboard” concertos, Bach’s seven solo concertos were written for harpsichord and should be properly labeled as such. They can be played on other instruments, to be sure, but the “keyboard” label is intended to make it seem somehow authentic to perform them on a full-size, modern concert grand piano – and this is distinctly not all right in anything approaching historical terms. That does not mean that piano performances are bad as a foregone conclusion, however. The best of them – and those by Murray Perahia are definitely among the best – have a strength and validity all their own. They are inauthentic in every possible way, and blurring the distinction between what Bach wanted and what modern pianists choose to provide does no one any favors: Bach was actually familiar with very early versions of the piano, but never wrote or arranged anything for the instrument. The choice to use a large-scale modern piano for Bach’s delicately scored concertos is therefore one of hubris from the start – for all that well-played piano versions have charms all their own.

     The first piano version of these concertos to make a strong impact was that of Glenn Gould, now more than 50 years old. It may seem sacrilegious to say so, but Perahia’s renditions are better. Gould was a clear, careful and cerebral interpreter, and his Bach has many striking moments and is frequently revelatory. But Perahia’s is warmer and altogether more satisfying for anyone interested in hearing these pieces on a modern piano. Furthermore, Perahia is an intelligent and clever editor of the concertos: this is a case in which the dual roles of soloist and conductor make possible some very attractive music-making indeed. For example, in the finale of Concerto No. 5, Perahia changes a bowed two-note string figuration to a pizzicato one, thus giving the piano the legato element and letting the strings provide the plucked effect that Bach intended to have in the harpsichord. True, this takes the movement even farther from Bach’s intentions than does the use of the piano; but once you accept the piano as the solo instrument, this emendation makes perfect sense – and is sonically delightful. Perahia also seems to want to reinforce plucked elements of these scores by including a theorbo, but this is a less happy alteration, since the sound of the bass lute is frequently almost absent and never prominent enough to make a significant difference in the overall sonic environment generated by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

     From a purely interpretative standpoint, the second disc in Sony’s new three-CD compilation – containing concertos Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 7 – is the highlight. The playing of both Perahia and the orchestra is warm and assured, the interpretations effective and highly communicative, the lyricism brought out in ways that stretch Bach here and there but never to the breaking point. Details are elegantly produced, and the balance between orchestra and piano – which can easily be thrown off, because a modern concert grand is so much weightier than Bach’s intended harpsichord – is beautifully managed, with Perahia paying as much attention to his role as conductor as he does to that of soloist. There is not only style but also joy in Perahia’s playing, and anyone who gets past an initial reluctance to accept these works on piano will find this CD a real pleasure.

     The disc of concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4 is almost as good. Recorded slightly earlier (this entire three-CD set is a reissue of recordings made nearly a decade ago), these performances are a touch more tentative, as if conductor/soloist and orchestra had not quite reached a complete comfort level with each other. The theorbo is even less audible here, and Perahia’s playing, although still exciting, pushes more into Romantic-era traditions that simply do not belong in Bach. This is not to say, though, that the CD is less than enthralling: Perahia is a thoughtful as well as superbly skilled musician, and the flair and delicacy with which he handles these concertos will be more than enough to make this CD as attractive to many listeners as that of concertos Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 7.

     The third CD in this set, though, is a mistake, or at best a curiosity. It is neither stylistically nor interpretatively justifiable, no matter how well Perahia plays on it. The Italian Concerto sounds fine in an overdone way, and Perahia’s technique is, as always, at a very high level. But it does not sound stylistically appropriate at all, and the other two works on this CD are worse. The delicate balances of the least known of these concertos – that for flute, violin and harpsichord, BWV 1044 – are obliterated by the modern piano; and this work (a rearrangement by Bach of older harpsichord and trio-sonata material) simply sounds askew. And using a modern concert grand in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 – which in many ways deserves to be called the first harpsichord concerto ever written – is simply bizarre. It does not matter how well Perahia plays the work, because what he is playing sounds like a Stokowski-era attempt to bring that “old-fashioned” Bach into modern times through grotesque bloat and overindulgence in the capabilities of instruments of which Bach knew nothing. Perahia gets away with a modern-piano rendition of the solo harpsichord concertos through his intelligence, musicality, splendid technique and obvious involvement in the music. But the third CD in this set is a throwaway: fanatical Perahia fans will undoubtedly enjoy it, and certainly the playing is excellent, but this is Bach as played in the days before anyone even knew what authentic Baroque music sounded like. It is simply inappropriate, and not really justifiable, in the 21st century. By all means buy this set for Perahia’s subtle and warmly embracing view of the solo concertos; but it is probably best to consider the third CD here as either a throwback or an aberration.


Elliott Miles McKinley: String Quartets Nos. 4-6. The Martinů Quartet. Navona. $16.99.

Craig Madden Morris: Chamber Music—Violin Concerto (piano reduction); Piano Trio; Dream Songs; Cello Rhapsody (piano reduction); Tropical Dances. Christine Kwak, violin; Eduard Laurel and Martha Locker, piano; Nan-Cheng Chen, cello. Ravello. $12.99.

Patricia Morehead: Disquieted Souls; The Handmaid’s Tale; It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers; Ladders of Anxiety; Good News Falls Gently. Carolyn Hove, English horn; Abraham Stokman and Philip Morehead, pianos; Barbara Ann Martin and Jonita Lattimore, sopranos; Caroline Pittman, flute; Philip Morehead, conductor. Navona. $16.99.

McDuo: Works for Flute and Percussion by James Lewis, Daniel Adams, Paul Reller, Stephen Montague, Howard Buss, Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee, and Hugo Weisgall. Kim McCormick, flute; Robert McCormick, percussion. Ravello. $12.99.

Sculpting the Air: Modern Works for Wind Instruments by Samuel Barber, James Adler, Russ Lombardi, Jan Van der Roost, Barry Seroff, Brian Gillett, Juan Sebastian Lach Lau, and Richard Crosby. Solaris Quintet, Daniel Speer Trombone Quartet, Juventas New Music Ensemble, Black Sea Brass Quintet and others. Navona. $16.99.

Heavy Pedal: Works for Organ by Tadd Russo, Curt Cacioppo, Ron Nagorcka, Wilhelm Middelschulte, and Michael Summers. Michael Kraft, Robert Gallagher, Brink Bush and Karel Martinek, organ. Navona. $16.99.

     It is not just the future of classical music that is uncertain – it is the definition itself. What exactly does “classical” mean at a time when so many composers meld recognizably classical forms with elements of jazz, rock, all sorts of pop music, electronic and aleatoric segments, and more? Some of this melding has been going on for a very long time – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, for example, dates to 1924 – but works that used non-classical elements were almost always, until recent years, recognizably classical at the core. There were exceptions – some pieces by Edgard Varèse, for example – but by and large, it was clear that even as classical music adapted to new times and adopted new forms and new elements, there was something fundamentally different about it when compared with, say, pop music. This is no longer the case. “Crossover” music is its own field now, and even composers writing ostensibly classical works, using demonstrably classical forms, frequently present listeners with a sound that is difficult to construe as “classical” in any foundational sense.

     How to showcase this sort of new-but-classical music? There are two basic approaches: CDs devoted to a single composer’s work and ones that are thematically structured and include the work of multiple composers. The single-composer approach presents material in more depth and will be attractive to those who already know a particular composer, but can be tough going for listeners unfamiliar with a particular person’s music (or uninterested in hearing a full disc of it). The anthology approach provides a sampler that is guaranteed to have higher and lower points (different ones for different listeners) and that more readily appeals to people interested in the particular theme selected – wind music, for example, or music focused on percussion or a particular extramusical theme. Labels such as Navona and Ravello offer interested listeners numerous opportunities, both in single-composer and anthology form, to hear some interesting music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The well-produced and generally well-played CDs, however, are unlikely to find a wide audience, since by definition this is recent and little-known music that may be seeking broad appeal but has not yet found it.

     New discs focusing on the music of Elliott Miles McKinley (born 1969), Craig Madden Morris (born 1968), and Patricia Morehead (born 1940) provide interesting views of these composers’ approach to classical form and substance. McKinley’s fourth, fifth and sixth string quartets, commissioned by the Martinů Quartet and played by them with skill and a strong sense of commitment, are complex and filled with virtuosic requirements – no surprise in any quartet written in the shadow of Bartók and Carter. But these works are often (although not always) more accessible than those of the better-known modern quartet masters, thanks to McKinley’s interest in and absorption of the rhythms and harmonies of jazz. The music sometimes bounces, sometimes flows, sometimes meanders. Quartets Nos. 4 and 6 are in four more-or-less traditional movements, but No. 5 has a very unusual structure: it is in three “parts,” the first containing six short elements, the second having two, and the third including four. Several of these building blocks last less than a minute (“With a Touch of Swagger,” for instance), and only one lasts more than two minutes – so this quartet has an episodic, suite-like feeling about it that makes a nice contrast with the ones preceding and following it. The Chris Madden Morris disc features a variety of styles, from the intimate (Piano Trio) and gentle (Dream Songs) to the passionate (the piano reduction of the Violin Concerto). Here too the pieces are complex and difficult to play, their accessibility to listeners varying based largely on their mood: Tropical Dances, a piano suite consisting of “Salta (Jump),” “Colores” and “Habanera,” is probably the best starting point, although the Cello Rhapsody, which is just as lyrical as its title indicates, also has immediate appeal. Morris handles the instruments well and does especially well writing for the violin and piano, both of which he plays. Patricia Morehead’s instrument is the oboe, and although Morehead is from an earlier generation than McKinley and Morris, her works featured on the new Navona CD are no less up-to-date. The earliest, Good News Falls Gently, which sets poems by Regina Harris Baiocchi, dates to 1995; the latest, Disquieted Souls, was written in 2009. Morehead has a talent for setting words, not only in the Baiocchi cycle but also in It Is Dangerous to Read Newspapers, to poems by Margaret Atwood. And she shows in Ladders of Anxiety that she can write as well for the flute as for the oboe. But a full CD of her work is a bit much to take, since her outlook tends to be bleak and her subjects rather dour – The Handmaid’s Tale, although not a vocal work (it is a two-piano suite), is also based on Atwood, specifically on a chilling futuristic dystopian story. The preponderance of fear and anxiety underlying these pieces can make them heavy going when the disc is heard from start to finish, although there is no denying Morehead’s communicative abilities.

     Three other new contemporary-classical CDs fall within the anthology model. McDuo features husband-and-wife performers Robert and Kim McCormick in works that combine and contrast the heights of the flute with the depths (and occasional subtleties) of various percussion instruments. The works are variable in approach and interest level, with the contrasts built into Stephen Montague’s 2 Dirges – 3 Dances being especially interesting. Also worth multiple hearing is Tangents by the best-known composer here, Hugo Weisgall (1912-1997), who was most highly regarded for his opera and vocal works but here shows an attractive insouciance in instrumental guise. Sculpting the Air also includes one work by a well-known composer: Summer Music by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). There is a certain evanescence to all the works on this CD, which focus largely on brass and flute and range from political commentary of a sort (A Forum for Abandoned Euro Leaders by Barry Seroff) to reinterpretations of older and once-controversial classical pieces (Juan Sebastian Lach Lau’s recasting of one of Eric Satie’s Gymnopédies). One attractive work here is in fairly strict classical style: a sonata for trombone and piano by Richard Crosby. The other pieces have mostly their moods rather than their approaches in common. What the compositions on Heavy Pedal have in common is, of course, the fact that all were written for organ, an instrument long since freed from its spiritual associations (thanks largely to Liszt, who then, in later life, restored many of the instrument’s religious connotations). But even in secular guise, the organ seems to invite the use of Baroque forms, with the result that the five composers on this CD offer a total of eight works that include, among other things, a prelude, passacaglia and ciaconna (chaconne). There is something decidedly old-fashioned and highly attractive in these pieces, as if the composers connected more easily to traditional forms of classical music by virtue of writing for an instrument with such a venerable history. Two works by Tadd Russo (born 1976) hark back to the organ’s church uses, as do two by Ron Nagorcka (born 1948) – with Nagorcka calling for, in addition to the organ, instruments such as a clarinet, a trombone and the didjeridu of Australia’s aborigines (played here by Nagorcka himself). Wilhelm Middelschulte, the oldest composer here by far (1863-1943), is represented by two Bach-imbued pieces, one of them written for pedals only (in 1903) and based directly on a Bach theme, and the other a passacaglia dating back even further – to 1896. Curt Cacioppo (born 1951) draws on Mozart rather than Bach for a well-proportioned “ciaconna-fantasia” on themes from Don Giovanni. And the final composer on the CD, Michael Summers (born 1973), draws on the past as well, albeit in a different way, with a four-part set of Variations on an English Folksong. Like the other pieces on the CD, it is well written for its magisterial instrument and manages to partake of both modern sensibility and an attractively old-fashioned regard for the roots of classical music – no matter where its branches may be growing in the 21st century.

August 18, 2011


The Magicians. By Lev Grossman. Plume. $16.

The Magician King. By Lev Grossman. Viking. $26.95.

Shadowcry. By Jenna Burtenshaw. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     There is magic post-Potter. Or, more accurately, post-Lewis. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback) and its set-five-years-later sequel, The Magician King, are based loosely (and sometimes not so loosely) on C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and also will remind readers frequently of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But this is grown-up Potter and dismal rather than religiously uplifting Lewis. From the start, when Brooklyn teenager Quentin Coldwater takes a very peculiar test for college admission, Grossman shows that he is not writing for young readers or for those inclined to unquestioning acceptance of orthodox organized religion. “The test gave him a passage from The Tempest, then asked him to make up a fake language, and then translate the Shakespeare into the made-up language. He was then asked questions about the grammar and orthography of his made-up language, and then – honestly, what was the point? – questions about the made-up geography and culture and society of the made-up country where his made-up language was so fluently spoken. Then he had to translate the original passage from the fake language back into English, paying particular attention to any resulting distortions in grammar, word choice, and meaning.” This is not a book for the non-intellectual, nor one for the faint of heart.

     There is certainly some humor here, in individual scenes as well as in the underlying five-book series called Fillory and Further that lures Quentin into magical thinking in the first place and that turns out to be about a real land, although the place is not at all what Quentin thought it would be. An early scene in The Magicians shows the sort of humor that Grossman offers, as Quentin and fellow student Eliot share a smoke: “Quentin accepted the cigarette. He was in unfamiliar territory here. He’d handled cigarettes before – they were common props in close-up magic – but he’d never actually put one in his mouth. He made the cigarette vanish – a basic thumb palm – then snapped his fingers to bring it back. ‘I said smoke it, not fondle it,’ Eliot said curtly. …Quentin leaned in and inhaled. It felt like his lungs had been crumpled up and hen incinerated. He coughed for five solid minutes without stopping. Eliot laughed so hard he had to sit down. Quentin’s face was slick with tears. He forced himself to take another drag and threw up into a hedge.”

     The Magicians is about Quentin’s education at Brakebills, his discovery of the difference between stage magic (such as palming cigarettes) and real magic, and his far more significant discovery that Fillory is real but that its wonders (which range from moving trees with clock faces to giant animals fighting with medieval weapons) are more sinister than naïvely adventurous. The Fillory stories’ creation (within Quentin’s world) in Britain in the 1930s makes the connection with Narnia clear, as do a number of events in The Magicians itself; and Brakebills certainly resembles Rowling’s Hogwarts in many ways – but it is a much darker place, not only in itself but also in what is taught and how it is taught (Quentin’s thought that one teacher “is batshit insane” seems about right). Eventually making his way through Brakebills, Quentin emerges not triumphant but burdened – and the nature of those burdens becomes more fully clear in The Magician King. After a first chapter that strongly echoes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Grossman’s new book becomes a sort of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as Quentin and his friend Julia (a self-taught magician who had failed the Brakebills entrance exam) go on a quest together, aboard a magical ship, to the outer limits of Fillory. The adventure here has the characters partly in Fillory, partly in Massachusetts (at Quentin’s parents’ house) – just as the Lewis adventures alternate between Britain and Narnia. But there is pervasive darkness in Grossman’s writing that is beyond anything in Lewis, as if 21st-century secular cynicism has invaded and pervaded the naïve religiosity that is the foundation of the Narnia books. It would be a mistake to regard The Magicians and The Magician King as an answer to or expansion of the work of Lewis or Rowling (or, for that matter, T.H. White, whose writing is also echoed from time to time). Rather, the books are reinterpretations of the magical lore and magical thinking that have now become pervasive and that tend to carry with them the constant scent of uplift, of ultimate good-against-evil confrontation in which good will ultimately (after many difficulties) prevail. The impression left by Grossman is that the whole good-and-evil thing is more slippery than other authors indicate, and that the eventual triumph of one over the other is by no means assured; nor is there any certainty, if there is to be victory, of what it will consist. There is plenty of adventure in Grossman’s books, but above all they are books that make readers think, consider, and reconsider the whole field of magical fantasy, within which they lie at best uneasily. It takes time to read and absorb these books – they are so packed with ideas and plot points that skimming is well-nigh impossible – but it is time that is very well spent indeed.

     A much more conventional book that is a more straightforward fantasy with roots in the past, Shadowcry gets a (+++) rating for the quality of its writing and pacing, if not for its largely unexceptional plot and largely nonexistent characterizations. Jenna Burtenshaw is merely the latest of a slew of writers to look to the obvious elements of dark fantasy for a coming-of-age tale. Shadowcry centers on Kate Winters, a 15-year-old girl who discovers she is one of the Skilled when she brings a dead blackbird back to life. Her magical ability makes Kate the target of thugs who kidnap people and conscript them into the army for a war that is being waged just as a crucial time approaches: the Night of Souls, when the barrier between living and dead is at its thinnest. Kate’s ability means she can cross between life and death – and learn the secrets of an ancient book called Wintercraft. She is captured and brought to a city filled with secrets of its own: tunnels, underground villages and betrayals galore. This is one of those books in which a character declaims at length about the land’s history and the start of the current war, ostensibly to inform Kate but transparently to give the reader background that would not otherwise come out in the rather ordinary plotting. The dialogue is full of familiar portentousness: “The woman smiled kindly. ‘If you are who we think you are, then it has been many years since we last met,’ she said. Perhaps if we introduce ourselves, you will understand why we are here.’” Kate must come to the full fruition of her powers in order to save herself and those who help her, including a killer who proves a most valuable ally. As for the evil ones – they are evil for its own sake: “Kate could feel something dark inside that woman. She did not care about Albion or anything else. She enjoyed the destruction and uncertainty of endless war. She wanted to damage people. She wanted to see them suffer, using her position on the High Council to wield the ultimate power of life and death.” This simplistic presentation is much more typical of modern fantasy than is the far more nuanced and complex approach of The Magicians and The Magician King. Indeed, even Rowling’s books are straightforward in this regard, with the exception of a single character, Snape. So the fact that Shadowcry follows a formula is no surprise – and it does follow that formula well enough to be a good read for anyone content to live through the same experience offered by many other modern fantasy novels. It also ends in a way that makes a sequel possible, and readers who enjoy the book will hope that one is forthcoming.


Scary Science: 24 Creepy Experiments. By Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone. Illustrations by Ashley Spires. Scholastic. $6.99.

Shark-A-Phobia. By Grace Norwich. Scholastic. $5.99.

Phobiapedia: All the Things We Fear the Most! By Joel Levy. Scholastic. $8.99.

     If you make scientific material sufficiently frightening, gross or peculiar, will young readers find it more interesting? Scholastic, longtime purveyor of intelligently written, age-appropriate nonfiction, has apparently decided that the answer is yes – at least in books like these two. By taking legitimate scientific inquiry and dressing it up with cartoons, dramatic layouts, tabloid-style paragraphs, and the most superficially worrisome emphasis possible, the publisher hopes to…well, what, exactly? Kids who become interested in science through these books are due for a major disappointment if they decide to pursue matters in school or in extracurricular activities, only to discover that experimentation, fact-gathering and the scientific method are methodical, mundane and even (horrors!) dull. Of course, to put the best possible face on things, it may be that kids who become interested in these books will be so captivated by the information that they will seek out more of the same and devour it even when it is not presented with quite so heavy an emphasis on entertainment. Nothing wrong with these books becoming gateways to more-sober material – if in fact they do.

     The very amusing illustrations in Scary Science are as much of an attraction as the two dozen experiments in the book, which are explained in paragraphs with such headings as “Gross! What Happened?” and “Eeew! What happened?” What happens is that a variety of simple ingredients can be used to create substances that, well, gross people out. Festering ooze, zombie food, bubbling alien blood and other foul features are here, all presented with practical-joker enthusiasm. For example, ghost writing on a bathroom mirror can easily be created by writing a message on a fogged-up mirror after someone takes a shower – the message will reappear the next time the bathroom gets steamy. Or rubbery alien eyes can be created by soaking hard-boiled eggs in vinegar for two weeks (there is no way to make these experiments occur in accelerated time). The recipes here are full of admonitions to use an adult helper, plus red-lettered warnings: “Do not put [homemade festering ooze] in your eyes, nose, or any other open body part,” and “This experiment must be performed in a well-ventilated area away from open flames, preferably outdoors,” and so on. The warnings – undoubtedly necessary for legal reasons – take some of the fun out of the yuckiness, but at least some kids will enjoy this sort of slimy science anyway. And the book does contain some actual, factual material labeled “Strange…but True” – appearing after certain experiments. For example, “there is an extremely rare medical condition called hypertrichosis that has only been seen in about 50 people in the world” and is sometimes called “Werewolf Syndrome.” And “there is a condition called porphyria that is a possible source of the vampire myth [because, among other things, sufferers] often have receding gums due to light exposure, which can make their teeth look longer, like vampire fangs.” Scary Science is a noble (well, maybe not exactly noble) attempt to interest kids in real science by connecting it with the sort of stuff seen in movies and on TV, making things just bizarre enough, perhaps, to show that science can be fun when used in certain very specific ways. It could be an enjoyable book for a Halloween-themed party or spooky birthday bash. And its concluding “afraid of the dark” experiment includes an interesting list of the scientific names of phobias, ranging from brontophobia (fear of thunder and thunderstorms) to triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13).

     Omitted from that list is the title of another Scholastic souped-up science book, Shark-A-Phobia – which is not the correct term for fear of sharks, anyway. As the book itself points out, the right word is selachophobia, but that wouldn’t make much of a title for a work aimed at young readers. This book gets right to the point on the cover, which shows a gigantic open-mouthed shark supposedly about to bite the head off a suitably scared-looking boy – although the picture is so obviously a composite that it is not really frightening. The book itself gets to its point pretty quickly: “Let’s learn more about what makes a shark a shark.” Then, in short paragraphs that fit around impressive photos of the toothy fish (including some extreme close-ups of their teeth), there are pages labeled “Fright Bite” and “The World’s Most Dangerous Sharks,” along with such interesting information as: filter-feeding sharks use a gill raker to get small plants and animals from seawater; sharks can dislocate their jaws from their skulls, the better to swallow large prey; sharks can pick up the odor of a single drop of blood dissolved in 25 gallons of water; pores at the front of a shark’s head, called ampullae of Lorenzini, detect electrical waves; and so on. The information here is solid, but is unlikely to be the reason kids will be attracted to the book. It is those wide-gaping jaws, those dark fins slicing through water, that will be the primary reading motivators here – followed by some of the more peculiar facts about sharks, such as their having up to 20,000 teeth in a lifetime and roaming up to 10,000 miles a year looking for food.

     Fear of sharks and of thunder and lightning appear as well in Phobiapedia, a compendium of scary stuff – well, scary to some people, anyway. The phobias discussed here are real enough, but many may come as surprises to young readers: aichmophobia (fear of pointy things), mottephobia (fear of moths), and ereuthophobia (fear of the color red), for example. This is a more factually dense book than the others, with genuinely intriguing information and a format that, while punchy and visually attractive, complements the material well. Here readers learn that the most common animal phobia is arachnophobia (fear of spiders); that claustrophobia (fear of very small spaces) may be partly inherited; that acrophobia (fear of heights) can be treated by the use of “virtual cliffs”; and that aquaphobia (fear of water) may be so severe that a person will refuse to take a bath. The book makes it clear that “phobias involve more than just being nervous about or disliking something. Ophidiophobes may be terrified by pictures of snakes, toy snakes, or even just thinking about snakes.” The illustrations in the book would make it a nightmare for anyone actually suffering from the phobias. “Entomophobia” (fear of insects), for example, shows extreme closeups of a green mantis, a huge-jawed stag beetle, and a stick insect that resembles a walking tank from some alien world. And “odontophobia” (fear of teeth) not only shows an open-mouthed great white shark but also has a gharial displaying its set of 110 chompers. Phobiapedia is somewhere between gross and entertaining…or, more correctly, somewhere among gross, entertaining and informative. If it doesn’t scare you, it will likely enlighten you. Like Scary Science and Shark-A-Phobia, it shares the worthy aim of attempting to interest kids in scientific information, pulling them in with overdone histrionics in the presumed hope that they will retain their fascination long enough to get beyond the presentation and become enthralled by the underlying material. This is certainly worth a try, although there is bound to be a letdown among young readers when they find out that science, real science, just doesn’t lend itself to the wham-bang punchiness of these introductory volumes.


Paul on Mazursky. By Sam Wasson. Wesleyan University Press. $35.

     What an opportunity for an auteur: a book-length chance to discuss himself, his work, his views of life, and himself. This is what Sam Wasson, frequent chronicler of filmdom (with previous books focusing on Audrey Hepburn and Blake Edwards), offers director Paul Mazursky, and Mazursky takes up the non-challenge with relish. No book in this format – essentially a very long interview with its subject – is going to muckrake, and hagiography hovers above it from the start. But Wasson actually does a pretty good job of getting behind Mazursky’s self-image and into his importance as a director, thanks partly to the fact that the book is not all Mazursky-on-Mazursky: there are also bits in it from Mel Brooks, Meg Mazursky (Paul’s daughter), scriptwriter Josh Greenfeld, casting director Juliet Taylor, actress Jill Clayburgh, film editor Donn Cambern and several others. Given the fact that all these contributors work or worked with Mazursky and would scarcely want to offend him (well, Brooks probably wouldn’t care, but he doesn’t say anything nasty anyway), these additional perspectives are guaranteed to be complimentary, but at least they turn a one-sided book into something with a few more sides. Even if the sides are similar.

     What Wasson offers here is a behind-the-scenes (or inside-the-head) discussion for readers who think highly not only of An Unmarried Woman, Moscow on the Hudson, Blume in Love, Harry and Tonto, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, but also of Willie & Phil, Moon Over Parador and The Pickle. Mazursky gets Wasson involved in his methods of eliciting genuine reactions from actors (“Paul throws his eyeglass case at me”), and offers such non-profound observations as this about Greenwich Village in New York City: “The Village was a village then. It was safe.” He talks about meeting Fellini and getting the great director to appear in Alex in Wonderland, and the most interesting thing is Mazursky’s memory of what Fellini initially said: “‘You don’t want me. Use a puppet. Use a giant. Get a dwarf. You don’t need the real Fellini. It’s in your imagination. It will spoil your movie.’” That particular movie was spoiled anyway – even Wasson notes at the end of this chapter that it was not very good: “The naturalistic scenes…make the fantasy sequences look labored and do little to illuminate Alex’s predicament. …[But] the film’s flagrant disavowal of Hollywood norms makes it a noble miss.” That is about as negative as Wasson ever gets.

     The most enjoyable parts of Paul on Mazursky are not the ones in which the director discusses his films – although they are the meat of the book – but the ones in which he comes up with offhanded thoughts and ideas. For example, in the midst of discussing An Unmarried Woman, Mazursky suddenly comes out with a bizarre concept, Hannibal Lecter Gets Married, that he humorously suggests he could pitch to producer Dino de Laurentiis: “I’m guaranteeing you right now this movie will get made. Hannibal Lecter is now sixty-five, meets a woman and goes crazy for her. She’s lovely and understanding and knows about his past. She’s very smart – a gestalt therapist. Hannibal’s totally reformed now; he doesn’t even eat meat. They have their honeymoon in Venice and while they’re there he has a slight relapse and eats a gondolier.”

     Wasson clearly admires Mazursky and is not afraid to show it in his questions to the director and others. That is all to the good: if there is bias here, it is up front and readily visible. And by letting Mazursky talk on and on, Wasson elicits some remarkable information – not so much about the director and his films (although there is plenty of Hollywood-insider material for those interested in it) as about the locations where Mazursky worked. There is, for example, this comment in the chapter on Moscow on the Hudson: “[T]his guy took us to the zoo. We’re watching as the attendant puts meat into the tiger cage, and when he walks out, a well-dressed gentleman with a fur-collar and a cane and a briefcase approaches the cage, looks around, and quickly slips his cane between the bars and pulls out the piece of meat and puts it into his briefcase. Then I knew I was in the right place. That’s how bad things were.” Mazursky is a shrewd observer who often incorporates telling details into his films, and he is certainly highly familiar with others’ movies – several of his are based on or contain elements of earlier films. Wasson has a tendency to overstate the importance of the Mazursky oeuvre: “The idea of nirvana is very important in your work. People are always going to new places in search of happiness.” Mazursky himself tends to downplay grandiose statements – after that one, he says to Wasson, “Ask me a question.” But the director does have a vision, or several visions, and Wasson certainly gives him plenty of time and space to explain his viewpoint and how he tries to communicate it. Paul on Mazursky gives a great deal of attention to its subject – more than will be of interest to most moviegoers. But Mazursky fans will greatly enjoy the chance to hear the director’s voice at length, and will surely appreciate some of his straightforward comments about his films, such as, about Harry and Tonto, “I wanted to give you adventures. Ordinary things, but ones that don’t ordinarily happen to old people.”


Epic Fail. By Claire LaZebnik. HarperTeen. $9.99.

Bright Young Things. By Anna Godbersen. Harper. $9.99.

     Modern romances – whether set in today’s prep schools or yesterday’s flapper era – are not designed to challenge readers with intricacy of characterization or plot. They are intended to be swiftly paced and not-very-demanding escapist books that allow readers (mostly teenage girls) to identify with one character or several, live vicariously through a set of fictional ups and downs, and eventually emerge with a sense of completion, if not catharsis. Within this formula, both these books do a creditable job. Epic Fail is the one set in a school: Coral Tree Prep in Los Angeles (that oh-so-superficial city where author Claire LaZebnik herself lives). The central character is Elise Benton, and she has a problem: she is the daughter of the school’s new principal, so she is of course an immediate outsider. Yes, outsider, not insider – she may be “inside” in terms of the school itself, but what matters in this superficial pecking order is (of course) who the students’ parents are. And Elise cannot compete with, for example, Derek Edwards, hottest hunk in school and coolest guy of all by virtue (if “virtue” is the word) of the importance of his parents in Hollywood circles. Elise and her three sisters are fish-out-of-water types at Coral Tree until Derek’s best friend and one of Elise’s sisters become an item, which means Derek and Elise start to spend more time together. There are the usual complications of this sort of thing: difficulties within Elise’s family (including other students’ expectations that the principal’s daughters will intervene to prevent punishments and embarrassments), revenge-motivated phony text messaging, and comparatively innocent make-out sessions. There is some with-it Hollywood commentary: “Yeah, right. I could just picture my mother, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie all trooping off to Malaysia together and becoming besties on the way.” And there is the eventual discovery of true love (true for the time being, anyway): “I got lost in him, and it was the kind of lost that’s exactly like being found.” And so the various paired people reach their happy endings without an Epic Fail after all. Total superficiality, to be sure – but pleasant enough in its own formulaic way.

     Bright Young Things differs mainly because of its Jazz Age setting. The first book in a planned series, it interweaves the stories of three young women who, Anna Godbersen tells readers, are deeper than they seem on the surface. Good thing she makes that point, since the characterizations don’t. Astrid Donal is portrayed as the quintessential flapper hiding secrets, Cordelia Grey as the obsessed-with-dad searcher for a family connection, and Letty Larkspur as the fame seeker. Those very brief descriptions are all readers need to know about the characters, who otherwise behave in thoroughly expected ways and do thoroughly expected things. For example, Letty and roommates Fay, Kate and Paulette pore over Weekly Stage looking for leads: “They all hoped to make it on the stage one way or another, but Fay was currently the only roommate who earned money at it, as a chorus girl in one of the big variety shows. Glimpsing her long, coltish legs crossed and dangling from the edge of the couch, Letty found herself wondering if she would ever have the height for a job like that.” Ambiguous reference aside – Godbersen must have meant to write that Letty was glimpsing Fay’s coltish legs – this is just one of numerous entirely typical scenes that are intended to make it clear that the book is set in 1929 rather than, say, 2009. The scene-setting pervades the book: “He was wearing the tweed trousers of a knickerbocker suit, his rust-colored socks visible to his knees, although the jacket was nowhere in sight. That was what they called ‘natty,’ Letty supposed, except that everything about him was just slightly askew.” As Bright Young Things veers here and there with the stories of its three central characters, there is plenty of time for “a hot, salty torrent” of tears and other entirely unsurprising emotional ups and downs. There is little to make the characters interesting to modern readers except for a certain exoticism of the time in which their stories are set. This means that readers have to get used to the 1920s meaning of such lines as, “I’m very happy to be someplace like this, where everything is gay.” And then they have to care enough to see beyond the gaiety to the supposed emotional upheavals of the central characters. Bright Young Things is a period piece whose setting tends to be more interesting than the characters appearing in it.


Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Christiane Oelze, soprano; Michaela Schuster, mezzo-soprano; Kartäuserkantorei Köln, Bach-Verein Köln, Madrigalchor und Kammerchor der Hochschule für Musik Köln, Figuralchor Bonn, and Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Johann Strauss Sr., Edition, Volume 18. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Ernst Märzendorfer. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Johann Strauss Sr. Edition, Volume 19. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Christian Sinding: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-3; Legende, op. 46; Romanze, op. 100; Suite, op. 10; Abendstimmung, op. 120. Andrej Bielow, violin; NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     In small works as well as grand ones, there can be a level of elegant construction that makes the music’s emotional connection come through especially clearly, and makes listening to the pieces highly pleasurable. If the performances of those works are themselves poised and elegant, the pleasure is doubled.

     The words “poise” and “elegance” are more often associated with Haydn and the Classical era than with Romantic and modern works, but they fit newer music equally well, although in different ways. There is tremendous elegance in the construction of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, which, for all the work’s vastness, creates a brilliantly tied-together structure that bridges from the heroism and cloud-storming intensity of the First to a conclusion of affirmation – in a religious but decidedly non-orthodox sense – that there is something to come even beyond death. The first movement, originally conceived by Mahler as a standalone tone poem, harks back quite deliberately to the First Symphony; the composer said it represented the funeral for that symphony’s hero. But the mood of the remaining movements of the Second is quite different – so much so that Mahler said there should be a pause of at least five minutes between the first and second. Sensitive producers are attentive to this: they put the first movement on one disc and the others on a second; and that is what happens in the new Oehms recording. Sensitive conductors also pay attention, allowing the first movement to storm the heights and then presenting the second as a naïve pastoral scene; and Markus Stenz gets this contrast just right. There is little that is acerbic in the “Resurrection” symphony – the bitterness of Mahler’s later scherzos is a far cry from the mildly sardonic comparable movement in the Second. What this symphony does have is anguish in its “Urlicht” movement, which is very well sung by Michaela Schuster, and in much of the sprawling finale – the uplift of the vocal sections does not occur until quite late in the more-than-half-hour-long movement. Stenz has considerable experience in operatic and choral conducting, and he marshals the members of five different choruses to very fine effect in this recording, creating a warm and focused sound picture in which, despite the sheer number of singers, the words come through quite clearly (thanks in part, no doubt, to the fine SACD sound). The sole significant disappointment here is that Oehms provides the texts only in German – although listeners can find translations easily enough. Musically, this is a sensitive and, yes, elegant performance, with warm and fully committed playing by the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln that pulls listeners along through intense drama, to mildness and uncertainty, to an eventual feeling of relief and joyous affirmation. Surely those are the valleys and peaks through which Mahler wanted his audiences to journey.

     The vistas are much smaller, by design, in the music of Johann Strauss Sr. The great master of the most popular music of the 1840s was, after all, writing occasional pieces – for a wide variety of specific circumstances – and was not designing his works for longevity: the constant production of something new was his hallmark, and he was so good at what he did that critics of the time said that every new waltz by the elder Strauss was his best. Within his chosen field, though, Strauss Sr.’s music is every bit as carefully constructed and beautifully assembled as the works of Mahler – or, for that matter, of Haydn, to whose minuets it owes a great deal of its poise and rhythmic certainty. The outstanding Marco Polo survey of Strauss Sr.’s music has been showing, CD after CD, just how well-made this music is – and how unjustifiably neglected it has been in favor of the admittedly stronger works of Strauss Sr.’s sons, Johann Jr. and Josef (who brought symphonic structure and deeper emotion to their ostensibly-for-the-dance-only music, turning many of their works into tone poems in miniature).

     Volume 18 was recorded by Ernst Märzendorfer in late April and early May 2009, shortly before the conductor died that September at the age of 88. It would be stretching things to say that conducting this music helped keep Märzendorfer sprightly right to the end, but certainly his handling of the material shows no indication that he was tiring or, indeed, that his own creativity had declined at all. There is one polka on this CD – the lovely Marianka – and it shows that Strauss Sr. had compositional skill even in forms for which he did not care very much. He preferred the quadrille – a formulaic type of music in which Strauss Sr. excelled through the sheer joy of his themes and the apparent ease with which he assembled them. Märzendorfer here conducts Die vier Haimonskinder, a quadrille on themes from the once-popular opera The Four Aymon Sons (by long-forgotten Irish composer Michael William Balfe), and the effective Musen-Quadrille (“Muses Quadrille”). The remaining pieces here are waltzes: Rosen ohne Dornen (“Roses without Thorns”), Wiener-Früchteln (“Viennese Fruits”), Willkommen-Rufe (“Shouts of Welcome”), Maskenlieder (“Songs of the Maskers”), Eunomien-Tänze (“Eunomia Dances,” named for a daughter of Zeus who was thought to direct human legal affairs – and written for law students), and Odeon-Tänze (“Odeon Dances,” created for the opening of the eponymous gigantic, opulent new dance hall). These are works written by Strauss Sr. at the height of his creative powers, beautifully played by an orchestra that handles this music with expressiveness and constant attention to detail, and led by a conductor whose enthusiastic handling of these ebullient works belies his age and the imminent end of his life.

     Volume 19 in the Strauss Sr. cycle includes seven waltzes and three quadrilles; the quadrilles here – Flora-Quadrille, Stradella-Quadrille (on themes from Friedrich von Flotow’s hugely popular opera, Alessandro Stradella), and Amoretten-Quadrille, are all highly melodic, very well orchestrated and handled with great verve and style by the orchestra under Christian Pollack – a real specialist in this music. The waltzes on this CD offer more-substantive music and an interesting insight into Strauss Sr.’s dedication: most were written just as Johann Strauss Jr. was beginning, against his father’s wishes, to establish himself as a composer and conductor; yet despite the incipient rivalry between father and son, there is no heaviness, much less any bitterness, in these bright and beautifully balanced works. Two of the waltzes are written in the style of the Ländler, the folk dance of the 18th and early 19th century in which Joseph Lanner excelled (Strauss Sr. had played in Lanner’s band before becoming Lanner’s rival). These Ländler-influenced works are Faschings-Possen (“Carnival Antics”) and Die Landjunker (“Country Squires”). The remaining five waltzes here show Strauss Sr. at the height of his powers, creating ballroom celebrations that are eminently danceable and also highly listenable: Geheimnisse aus der Wiener Tanzwelt (“Secrets of the Vienna Dance World”), Österreichische Jubelklänge (“Austrian Sounds of Rejoicing”), Sommernachts-Träume (“Summer Night’s Dreams,” with an especially endearing and hummable final waltz tune), Heitere Lebensbilder (“Merry Pictures of Life”), and Concordia-Tänze (“Concordia Dances”). It is easy, on the one hand, to dismiss this music as frivolous, facile and at times formulaic; but on the other hand, its manifest beauties and ever-present grace provide as sure a tonic for the cares of everyday life in the 21st century as they did for those of the 19th.

     The elegance of the music of Christian Sinding (1856-1941) lies somewhere between that of Mahler and Strauss Sr. in terms of scale. Sinding was a major Norwegian composer and, apart from Edvard Grieg, Ole Bull and Johan Svendsen, the only one of his time to have an international reputation. But his works fell into obscurity for largely political reasons: late in life, he expressed approval of the aims of the National Socialists in Germany, with the result that his music was embraced by the Nazi regime when it assumed full power – while the rest of the world turned its collective back on it. Seventy years after Sinding’s death, it is at last possible to evaluate his music on its own terms – and it turns out that, in his works for violin and orchestra, there is a great deal of dignity, serenity and expressive power, although his later works are not quite the equal of his earlier ones. Like Sibelius, Sinding wrote very little late in life – in Sinding’s case, after 1920. But his compositions before that time show strength of orchestration, frequent whiffs of Norwegian spirit despite their avoidance of actual folk tunes, and a strong sense of the capabilities of the solo instrument. Like Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Sinding’s first concerto is in three movements but is really a one-movement structure, distinguished by its finely honed use of older forms (notably the passacaglia) and its use of a first-movement theme as the basis for one in the slow movement as well (an approach used by Sinding in all three of his violin concertos). Concerto No. 1 work is strong, dramatic and lyrical by turns, and easy to listen to – although not to play. Concerto No. 2 is longer and more conventional in form, with three clearly differentiated movements; it ends with a highly danceable finale that sounds as if it is derived from folk music even though the tunes are all original. Concerto No. 3 is relatively late Sinding (1916-17) and was never published – it exists only in a single manuscript. It displays no hint of its wartime origins and is somewhat more straightforward than the earlier concertos, offering the soloist plenty of opportunities for display (especially in first-movement double-stop passages) but giving the orchestra a lesser role and a generally less-interesting one. The shorter works on the new two-CD CPO recording are played by Andrej Bielow with as much attentiveness and as lovely a tone as he brings to the concertos. Legende is a nicely constructed, well-orchestrated piece featuring a prominent trumpet part; Romanze is more extended and more dramatic; the Suite in A minor offers three short movements that hark back periodically to Bach and Vivaldi, with the slow movement including a solo viola and cello as well as violin; and Abendstimmung, which is comparatively late Sinding (1915), presents a fairly simple violin part in a poised but not overly sentimental overall structure. Frank Beermann leads the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover with sensitivity and skill throughout all these pieces, and if none of them quite establishes Sinding as a first-rate composer, the best of them show him bringing structural skill, nicely honed emotive balance, and a kind of suave serenity to music that deserves to be far better known and more frequently performed.