December 26, 2013
The Runaway Hug. By Nick Bland. Pictures by Freya Blackwood. Random House. $16.99.
Sea Turtle Scientist. By Stephen R. Swinburne. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Love comes in different forms and different levels of complexity in fiction for kids and in the real world of adults. But at bottom, it is still love. The Runaway Hug is a charming little story for ages 3-7, about a girl named Lucy who asks her mother for a hug – at which point her mother jokes that she only has one left, and that Lucy can have it. Well, Lucy immediately decides that something so precious as that last hug has to be preserved. She promises to bring it back to Mommy as soon as she is finished with it – and runs to all the members of the household to deliver the hug and then get it back. She starts with Daddy, who accepts a hug from her and then gives it back “stronger than before, but just as nice.” She then takes it to her two older brothers, twins who return it “twice as big as before, but just as nice.” Then she takes it to baby Lily, who also accepts it and returns it: “It smelled like peanut butter, but it was just as nice as before.” But then Lucy runs into a problem when she delivers the hug to Annie, the family dog: Annie runs away with it, and Lucy is so upset that she almost starts to cry. But then Annie returns with a hug “a lot more slobbery than before, but just as nice.” So Lucy gives Mommy back the hug – “a little sleepier, but just as nice as before” – and settles into bed, asking for a good-night kiss. And Mommy gives her that immediately, saying she has plenty of those. Nick Bland’s simple, repetitive writing and Freya Blackwood’s warmly winning illustrations make this a lovely bedtime tale about a family sharing and re-sharing the love that holds families together.
But little girls grow up, and love becomes more complicated and is expressed in more ways – including, sometimes, in the choice of one’s profession. It is remarkable how often love is the driving force behind the activities of the researchers in the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series – as it assuredly is in Stephen R. Swinburne’s Sea Turtle Scientist. Right at the start, the book introduces Kimberly Stewart, the only sea turtle scientist on the island of St. Kitts, who explains straightforwardly that ever since childhood, “I loved everything related to animals. …I knew I was going to be a vet.” Now Stewart runs a sea turtle monitoring program that she herself established – helping to save these fascinating, endangered reptiles at St. Kitts and, as part of an international scientific community, around the world. Stewart’s personal story quickly turns into a very well-told introduction to sea turtles in general, including everything from their inability to retract their limbs into their shell to their amazing weight: one leatherback turtle, a member of a critically endangered species, weighed more than a ton. It becomes easier and easier as the book goes on to understand why Stewart loves these animals, whose grace and beauty underwater are coupled with an endearing awkwardness when the females emerge on beaches to lay eggs – and when the hatchlings make a mad dash from the beach toward the relative safety of the ocean. But as Stewart explains, only one sea turtle egg out of a thousand will eventually produce an adult sea turtle. That tremendously high mortality rate has been worsened by human depredation, against which scientists are now trying to fight back through beach cleanups, habitat improvement, modification of fishing techniques that often inadvertently catch and kill sea turtles – and attempted cultural change, since there are many areas where sea turtles or their eggs are deliberately harvested for food. Because the people who deliberately hunt and kill sea turtles are often subsistence fishermen who see no other way to keep themselves and their families alive, building trust in order to help preserve the turtles is difficult and time-consuming, and Sea Turtle Scientist explores that issue along with many others. Swinburne’s well-paced, straightforwardly written book is packed with his photos of turtles on land and under water, of Stewart going about her daily tasks, of volunteers helping out, of kids at Sea Turtle Camp, and of adult islanders learning about the importance of preserving these marine reptiles for their children and grandchildren. From scenes of a classroom where Stewart teaches about sea turtles to a page explaining the contents of a “turtle-watching toolkit,” Swinburne’s book packs a lot of information, a lot of enjoyment and, yes, a lot of love into this story of a scientist whose research and conservation efforts are clearly very strong reflections of her personality as well as her education and professional commitment.
Walking with Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie—Encyclopedia; Handbook; Friends Stick Together; The Winter Ground; Patchi’s Big Adventure; The Great Migration; Reusable Sticker Book. HarperFestival: $12.99 (Encyclopedia); $9.99 (Handbook); $4.99 each (Adventure; Migration); $6.99 (Sticker). Harper: $16.99 each (Friends; Winter).
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Sticker Book! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
It is a sure bet that any major motion picture directed at kids will spawn a series of books designed to thrill, or at least intrigue, families that go to the movie and enjoy it. The books tend to follow the film fairly closely, so they are generally more in the nature of souvenir items than in-depth looks at whatever the movie may be about. And they are of course aimed only at people who have seen the movie and liked it.
The books connected to Walking with Dinosaurs fall neatly into this pattern, but are at the same time of higher value than most tie-ins. The reason is that the film is based on a high-quality BBC documentary and is packed with science – albeit in the background of a typical kids’-movie story – and also filled with the wonderful visuals for which the BBC is rightly renowned. With an Encyclopedia and Handbook intended for ages 8-12 and five other books targeting ages 4-8, the Walking with Dinosaurs tie-ins have something, if not for everybody, then for everyone who finds the concept and its BBC visualization intriguing.
The “separation and quest” plot of the movie will be familiar to anyone who has seen pretty much any child-oriented film in recent years. There are two adorable young dinosaurs, a larger and stronger one and a smaller and perkier one, who have a series of adventures after becoming separated from their parents and herd – and eventually manage a dangerous trek on their own, with a suitably happy ending. But it is not the clichéd plot that will attract most people to the movie or, for that matter, the books. The visualization of dinosaur life – romanticized life, to be sure, but scientifically accurate to the extent possible – is just wonderful, and really will make families feel they have become part of the dinosaur world for a short time.
The books draw on this level of involvement. Encyclopedia not only discusses the history of dinosaurs, from their evolution to their extinction, but also introduces a number of specific types of dinosaurs and some of the scientists who study them and have made important discoveries in the field of paleontology. Handbook retells the story of the film and is packed with scenes from it, and also includes sections in which specific information on dinosaurs and their world is presented – again, with scientific accuracy.
The books for younger children are tied more completely to the film, downplaying science and study and playing up adventure. Friends Stick Together and The Winter Ground are Level 2 books (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in the I Can Read! series. The former is about Patchi, the cuter young dinosaur, meeting another Pachyrhinosaurus, Juniper, and facing challenges with her. The latter gets into some of those adventures more specifically as Patchi and Juniper head for their eventual destination.
Patchi’s Big Adventure and The Great Migration are picture books showing various scenes from the movie and featuring special elements of their own. The former includes a pullout poster and a pair of 3D glasses that are designed to more-or-less duplicate the three-dimensional appearance of the film when showing specific elements of it in book form. The latter not only shows scenes from the movie but also includes more than 30 stickers that kids can use to play out the story or enhance it. And the Reusable Sticker Book is just what it says: a thin book containing more than 50 stickers that kids can use to place different dinosaurs and other creatures from the film in a variety of settings drawn from the movie. Families truly enthralled by Walking with Dinosaurs may want several of these books, while those who find the film fascinating but not overwhelming may want at least one – especially for children in the 8-12 age range, for whom the Encyclopedia and Handbook provide some solid educational information as well as recapitulations of scenes from the screen.
And on the subject of sticker books, it is worth noting that they sometimes tie into series of regular books rather than to films or other entertainments. Lucille Colandro has produced a whole series of oversize paperbacks, with illustrations by Jared Lee, based on the well-known “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” rhyme – some of them cleverer and more innovative than others. Now there is a sticker-book spinoff from the series, and it is cleverer than most books in the series itself. The old lady is simply shown in various locations, smiling and with mouth open, with a few simple words: “There was an old lady who swallowed a zoo” or “There was an old lady who swallowed outer space,” for example. Except for a very few scene-setters, the backgrounds of the pages are blank – providing plenty of room for kids to place more than 100 stickers that are bound into the center of the book and clearly marked as to the pages with which they go. The “swallowed a playground” section includes, among other things, a kite, jump rope, swing set, water fountain and game of horseshoes; the “swallowed an ocean” one has a lobster, shark, submarine, lighthouse, mermaid and more. Kids can place the stickers anywhere they like on the appropriate pages – and it won’t take most kids long to realize that they can put the stickers on inappropriate pages, too. After all, given the absurdity of the whole premise of this series, why not place “farm” elements, such as a scarecrow, fence and tractor, on the pages on which the old lady “swallowed a street”? Colandro and Lee have thought of something like this already: the final pages of the book go with stickers taken from all the places where the old lady has been swallowing things – a sort of concluding mishmash that is right in line with all the books in this series. This is all so clever that it becomes a (++++) tie-in to a series that is more often at the (+++) level – although for full enjoyment, kids will have to know at least some of the books in the series itself.
What to Do When You Can’t Get Pregnant: The Complete Guide to All the Options for Couples Facing Fertility Issues, Second Edition. By Daniel Potter, M.D., and Jennifer Hanin, M.A. Da Capo. $18.99.
The 30 Minute Vegan: Soup’s On! By Mark Reinfeld. Da Capo. $17.99.
The concept of broadcasting is well known: transmitting information, usually via TV or radio but also via the Internet, to the largest possible audience. Less well known is the notion of narrowcasting, in which material is sent out – nowadays often via cable television or AM radio – to a specific slice of the potential audience. There is no intent to reach as many people as possible – only to reach people with a strong interest in a particular topic. Some print media have become narrowcasters because of changes in audience habits: newspapers, because more people get their news electronically now than in the past, and books, because – to be blunt about it – fewer people read for pleasure. But people still read for information, and there is something about a physical book, its heft and air of seriousness, that continues to attract people looking for solid, well-researched material relating to a particular subject. The audience for a book may be narrow even within the narrowcast world of books in general, but if it is a meaningful and highly engaged audience, the book can be a success.
And so we have a book such as the updated version of What to Do When You Can’t Get Pregnant, which is quite obviously intended only for couples who want children and have had difficulty conceiving. Reproductive endocrinologist Daniel Potter, with an assist from freelance journalist Jennifer Hanin, offers an exceptionally wide-ranging and mostly approachably written guide to fertility issues and what to do about them, starting with a definition of infertility and ending, 16 chapters later, with some fascinating looks at where reproductive medicine may go in the future: sections called “Probable,” “Possible” and “Plausible” are genuinely intriguing. Potter does not shrink from using medical terminology – a fact that sometimes makes the book rather heavy going – and also does not avoid difficult and controversial issues. In general, though, the book’s style is open and forthright enough to make the tougher elements reasonably easy to handle. For example, “The Art of ART” is the title of a chapter on assisted reproductive technology, while “Sometimes It Takes Four” is the title of one on third-party reproduction. And each chapter ends, perhaps overly cutely, with a summation called “In an Eggshell” rather than “in a nutshell.” Potter not only talks about the various methods of becoming pregnant when the traditional approach fails, but also deals with the ramifications of those methods and of the whole wanting-a-baby feeling – things such as blaming one’s partner for the failure to conceive, grieving after one or many miscarriages, and having ongoing sexual difficulties after being required, for a time, to have sex on a medically mandated schedule. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to infertility, and Potter wisely makes no generalized recommendations – preferring simply to lay out the many options so couples can think them through and decide which will fit their personal circumstances. There are occasional writing or editing errors in the book that undermine its careful, generally sober approach: at one point, for example, there is a comment that critics of stem cell use “believe stem cell therapy is immoral, unethical, and an irreprehensible [sic] waste of human life.” But most of the time, Potter does a good job of accurately presenting both the pluses and the minuses of approaches to the whole infertility issue. This book is only for a limited audience, but for that audience, it will be enormously helpful.
Issues of vegan eating are less consequential and less fraught with angst than ones involving bearing children, but vegans too are a small group for whom narrowcast books can be nicely targeted and very useful. Mark Reinfeld, who has written several of them, now offers one focused entirely on vegan soup preparation. The recipes are the main thing here, of course, but Reinfeld sets them up well, starting with a chapter called “The Art of Soup Creation” that explains specific stocks (mushroom, roasted vegetable, etc.) and also offering a clear list of specialty ingredients required in various recipes – including his specific choices within some of those ingredients. For example, Reinfeld suggests using Earth Balance vegan butter, Tofurky or Field Roast vegan sausages, and Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free baking mix. Ingredients not recommended by brand name often get usage information or other advice: for Chipotle chile powder, “a little goes a long way”; for liquid smoke, “only a small amount is necessary”; when it comes to miso paste, “purchase unpasteurized, for maximum nutritional benefits”; and so on. This is not a book that attempts to convert the unconverted to vegan eating – it is strictly for people already dedicated to this lifestyle and eating style. The soups themselves come in a wide variety of forms, and Reinfeld helpfully divides the book into sections on vegetable-based, creamy blended, raw and dessert soups, plus other souplike dishes, such as stews. Specific recipes will be, of course, a matter of taste. Readers will find vegan variants on familiar foods here, such as “Un-Chicken Noodle Soup,” “New England Chowder,” and “Cream of Mushroom Soup.” They will also find “Savory Brazil Nut Soup with Jicama,” “Raw Thai Coconut Soup,” “Holy Mole Soup with Veggies,” “Bavarian Asparagus Soup with Hazelnuts,” “Lavender-Infused Watermelon Soup,” and many other less-familiar concoctions. Vegan soup lovers would do well to read the recipes thoroughly before deciding which to undertake, since the complexity and time requirements of these dishes vary widely – take the title’s reference to “30 minutes” with a grain of Celtic or Himalayan salt. Part of the before-trying-it reading should be the “Variations” section at the end of most recipes, which can discuss anything from making a soup gluten-free to changing its taste dramatically by replacing specific ingredients (tortilla chips instead of polenta in “Black Bean Tomato Soup,” for example, will produce a very different flavor and texture). Committed vegans who enjoy soups and like spending time in the kitchen will find plenty to keep them busy and satisfied here. They may be a niche market, but they are an enthusiastic one and will respond with enthusiasm to the narrowcasting of The 30 Minute Vegan: Soup’s On!
Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7; Tapiola. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano. ASO Media. $18.99.
Weber: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Konzertstück; Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Overtures—“Oberon,” “Peter Schmoll and His Neighbors,” “Der Beherrscher der Geister,” “Preciosa,” Jubel, “Euryanthe.” Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner; Peter Rösel, piano, with Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Herbert Blomstedt; Emma Johnson, clarinet, with English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jan Pascal Tortelier and Gerard Schwarz; Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Otmar Suitner; Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Marek Janowski. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (4 CDs).
It remains a puzzlement and a searing disappointment to music lovers that Sibelius’ crowning symphonic achievements date to the 1920s, with nothing further from the composer in the three decades of life remaining to him. Neither the Sixth nor the Seventh gives any indication of being a “final” symphony in any sense; indeed, both show ever-mounting mastery of the orchestra and an increasingly sure, unique compositional voice. But there is perhaps some hint of what was to happen to Sibelius’ creative spark after these symphonies in the letters he wrote describing them – which, as it happens, describe works that are nothing like the ones he actually composed. Clearly some sort of disconnect was developing between what Sibelius thought he would produce and what he actually did create; perhaps it was this, added to his increasing self-criticism and his continuing use of alcohol, that led to the creative silence of those final decades. In any case, listeners have much to be grateful for in these last Sibelius symphonies, especially when they are played so vibrantly and with such emotional truth as they are in the new recording by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Spano, released on the orchestra’s own label. These are immensely sure-handed readings, elegant, sensitive and nuanced, attuned to the many subtle colors of No. 6 and the wide scope and shifting moods of No. 7. Spano extracts from the orchestra a string sound that is particularly apt for Sibelius, precise and comparatively thin rather than lush and broad; and the other orchestral sections, especially the brass, perform with strength and beauty throughout. These are, somewhat surprisingly, quite idiomatic readings of the symphonies, on par with good ones from Scandinavian orchestras – which would be expected to take to the music more readily than an ensemble from Atlanta. The performance of Tapiola, Sibelius’ last major work, is sensitive and very well played, too. This is a tone poem about a vast forested Finnish landscape and the spirit dwelling therein, and Spano leads it with sensitivity, a fine sense of instrumental balance, and very careful attention to the work’s changes of mood, tempo and rhythm. As disappointing as it is that Sibelius wrote nothing of significance after Tapiola, it is wonderful to hear the tone poem played as well as it is on this recording.
Although Sibelius wrote a considerable amount of theater music, he is known primarily as a symphonist. Carl Maria von Weber, on the other hand, wrote two symphonies and a fair amount of other orchestral music, but is known primarily for his theater works: operas that were enormously influential throughout the 19th century. Yet Weber’s instrumental music was also highly influential in bridging the gap between the Classical and Romantic eras, and also because of his highly creative approach to the expanding capabilities of instruments in the early 1800s. A four-CD Brilliant Classics compilation of performances recorded between 1974 and 1984 showcases Weber’s skills in a variety of forms, to very good effect. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner plays the two very spirited, Haydnesque symphonies with a fine blend of enthusiasm and humor. Pianist Peter Rösel and Staatskapelle Dresden under Herbert Blomstedt give strong, upbeat performances of the two piano concertos and the highly Romantic Konzertstück, which is essentially a single-movement concerto that points directly toward the two by Liszt. It would have been nice to have the Concertino for Clarinet in this set along with the two clarinet concertos – the three works neatly parallel the three piano-and-orchestra pieces – but even in that work’s absence, the concertos are brought off with fine virtuosity and stylishness by Emma Johnson. The accompaniments by the English Chamber Orchestra are a touch more spirited under Yan Pascal Tortelier in No. 1 than they are under Gerard Schwarz in No. 2, but the playing is top-notch throughout. The only slight disappointment in this very well-priced set is in the overtures, which are the earliest recordings here (and which are analog). The sound is fine, but the five overtures featuring Staatskapelle Berlin are pushed somewhat too hard by Otmar Suitner, the fast sections very fast, the slow ones very slow, and the result somewhat choppy and not as convincing as these works can be. The Euryanthe overture, the sole contribution here from Staatskapelle Dresden under Marek Janowski, is much better, filled with drama and lyricism and both played and conducted with enthusiasm. Despite some minor performance imperfections here and there, this collection of Weber’s orchestral music is generally first-rate and highly enjoyable, shedding considerable light on the composer’s skill outside the operatic world where he is best known.
Paganini: 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, Op. 1. Ilya Gringolts, violin. Orchid Classics. $16.99.
Schubert: String Quintet in C, D. 956. Anne Gastinel, cello; Quatuor Diotima (Yun-Peng Zhao and Guillaume Latour, violins; Franck Chevalier, viola; Pierre Morlet, cello). Naïve. $16.99.
Ravel: String Quartet in F; Introduction et Allegro; Chansons madécasses; Cinq mélodies populaires grecques. Ellie Dehn, soprano; Yolanda Kondonassis, harp; Alexa Still, flute; Richard Hawkins, clarinet; Spencer Myer, piano; Jupiter String Quartet (Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violins; Liz Freivogel, viola; Daniel McDonough, cello). Oberlin Music. $15.99.
Joseph Summer: The Fair Ophelia. Navona. $16.99.
The King’s Singers: Great American Songbook. Signum Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).
Sultans of String: Symphony! McKhool. $12.98.
Music lovers might anticipate that the one-to-one communication between solo instrument and listener would be the most-personal music experience of all, but whether that is so really depends on the specific music being played. Paganini’s Op. 1 Caprices are so wide-ranging, so symphonic in scope, so deep in terms of the technique they require and the auditory rewards they provide, that spending 75 minutes with them – certainly in a performance as outstanding as that of Ilya Gringolts on Orchid Classics – seems more expansive than inward-looking. The hardest thing to do in these works – and something on which Gringolts’ interpretation focuses, to marvelous effect – is to get past their enormous technical challenges to the musicianship underneath. These are certainly display pieces, with many serving as marvelous encores in innumerable recitals, and they are certainly études of the most elevated kind (although Paganini pointedly did not call them that); but they are also small gems of music-making, a fact that tends to get lost in the displays of sheer virtuosity that they require. Gringolts has so mastered the extreme difficulties that he takes listeners to, through and beyond the fireworks into a realm of sensitivity, fascination in the sheer variety of sounds that can be called forth from the violin, and even into puzzling and unusual musical structures, such as that of No. 12. Never overdone but always done to a turn, Gringolts’ Caprices are anything but capricious: they are carefully thought-through and elegantly presented in a manner that subsumes their technical intricacies beneath a covering of genuine beauty.
There is beauty of an altogether different kind in Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D. 956, although this too is a highly challenging piece to perform. True chamber-music intimacy is very much central to the gorgeous Adagio, which gets particular attention and care from Anne Gastinel and Quatuor Diotima. The movement is so lovely, so intimately involving, that it has been picked up as an atmosphere-setter in a wide variety of films – but it is far deeper than those superficial uses would indicate, and the performers on this Naïve CD show just how much depth it truly has. This is Schubert’s only string quintet and his final chamber work (composed just two months before his death). It is quite pensive but not at all death-haunted, although some commentators have tried to find ways in which it presages the composer’s demise. There is more of an autumnal quality to some elements of the quintet than is usual in Schubert – perhaps one reason that it inspired Brahms’ Piano Quintet (which was originally scored for the same instruments used here by Schubert). It is the use of the second cello – rather than a second viola, which is more common in string quintets – that gives Schubert’s work its burnished sound and contributes to its richness. And the performers here give the music plenty of time to unfold: this is a stately, even slow reading, although it never drags – rather, it dwells. The intimacy of this recording is at the highest level and is a great deal of what the best chamber music is all about.
A new Oberlin Music CD, featuring performers from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, is certainly cognizant of chamber music’s intimate nature: the disc is actually entitled “Ravel: Intimate Masterpieces.” None of the works here is at or near the level of Schubert’s quintet, but all have much to commend them and all are quite well played. The earliest and longest piece is the string quartet, which dates to 1903 and shows Ravel still seeking a voice entirely of his own: the subtlety of his melodic and harmonic thinking is present already, but there is some uneasiness in the work between its formal elements and its expressiveness. Introduction and Allegro is from only two years later, but written with a surer hand, and here the harp part is particularly well played by Yolanda Kondonassis. Cinq mélodies populaires grecques (1906) pairs Kondonassis with soprano Ellie Dehn in a work that does not sound much like what listeners expect from Ravel but that is filled with clever formal touches, essentially being a presentation of forthright folk melodies over “Ravelian” harmonies – an uneasy combination and a very winning one as interpreted here. The latest work on the CD, by far, is Chansons madécasses (1926), and here again Dehn is instrumental (no pun intended) in making the piece effective: these songs not only include lyrics that were controversial in their day but also utilize Schoenbergian sound to an extent that many would not expect in Ravel’s music. The “Intimate Masterpieces” title for the CD is a bit of an overstatement, since not all these works are especially intimate and none really deserves a “masterpiece” designation. But a touch of hyperbole is understandable when one has such interesting music to present and such fine performers presenting it.
The second “Shakespeare Concerts Series” CD from Navona is far less focused on the music of Joseph Summer than was the first, which was called Shakespeare’s Memory. This disc is entitled The Fair Ophelia and is entirely devoted to music inspired by Hamlet, including four works by Summer plus a very intriguing mixture of ones by other composers: Brahms, Richard Strauss, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Schumann and John Cage. Actually, the connection of the pieces to Hamlet is not always direct, as in the case of Schumann’s Herzeleid. But the sheer variety of the music within the overall Hamlet context makes this a more-intriguing CD than the earlier one. The Shakespeare Concerts series, which began in Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin islands in 2003, is but one recent attempt to find new or additional ways in which the Bard of Avon can connect with the audiences of today. The atmosphere of Shakespeare’s plays is actually established in part through music – there are songs throughout them, and instrumental music is frequently called for – so the concept of this concert series is right in line with Shakespeare’s own intentions. Whether a work such as Cage’s Ophelia makes sense in a Shakespearean context is really beside the point – what matters here is the intelligence with which this CD has been assembled, the interesting ways in which Summer himself creates Hamlet-related pieces (two longer and two shorter), and the nicely wrought performances of these works by vocalists and instrumentalists alike. Hamlet is, among other things, a very intimate tragedy, a tale of family betrayal and ruination, and the sad role of Ophelia within the play is well established and nicely filled out through the works heard here.
The singing is excellent but the music itself of less consequence in the (+++) Signum Classics release, The King’s Singers: Great American Songbook. The singers’ presentations vary from the intimate to the ebullient in one disc of 17 songs delivered a cappella and one presenting eight of the same songs with orchestral accompaniment. The setup is a trifle odd, except perhaps for listeners interested in hearing different ways to offer, among others, At Last, The Lady Is a Tramp and My Funny Valentine. The blending of The King’s Singers’ voices is as finely honed as always, and the orchestral arrangements by Alexander L’Estrange are well handled by the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Firman. The greater intimacy and more-effective communication, however, are to be found in the a cappella tracks, where the natural interweaving of the vocal sextet is attractive throughout. All the songs here are from the early 20th century, and an hour of them (plus another half hour of the orchestral versions) is a bit much, although certain pieces clearly stand out – such as Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye and Let’s Misbehave. Fans of The King’s Singers will enjoy their foray into this repertoire, although the music itself is somewhat too light to take full advantage of the sextet’s considerable vocal capabilities.
The quintet known as Sultans of String (Chris McKhool, Kevin Laliberté, Eddie Paton, Drew Birston and Rosendo “Chendy” León) also goes beyond its usual more-intimate presentations on a new (+++) CD on its own label. The music here is crossover of a sort, although what sort is difficult to say: the quintet uses six-string violin, multiple guitars, basses and percussion, among other instruments, plus vocals by McKhool, and on its new CD not only performs with symphonic musicians but also brings in guest artists for additional singing and to play oud, ukulele, trumpet, pennywhistle and Uilleann pipes – all being added to a 55-piece orchestra conducted by Jamie Hopkings. The 10 tracks here are all over the place geographically and to some extent musically as well, as the Sultans of String go out of their way to show all the ways they can extract sound from their instruments and juxtapose it with the sound of a traditional symphonic complement. The songs themselves are less intriguing than the way in which the performers deliver them, resulting in a CD that is fun to hear once but is unlikely to have a great deal of staying power after the ingenuity of the presentation wears off. Symphony! is scarcely symphonic, but it is far enough off the beaten track to be enjoyable for listeners hoping to hear some new and different sounds, including a smattering of exotic ones blended or contrasted with others that are more familiar.
December 19, 2013
Superworm. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Dinosaurs. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
Jackpot. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.
Heroes in kids’ books turn up in the unlikeliest places – even underground. That is where Superworm makes his home, emerging as needed to become a lasso, skipping rope, fishing line or anything else his shape allows. In Julia Donaldson’s simply and neatly told rhyming story, Superworm – long and pink and with two googly eyes perched atop his head (and a definite tail at the other end, thanks to Axel Scheffler’s highly amusing illustrations) – is “super-long” and “super-strong,” and the bugs and other creatures in the tale repeatedly say, “Watch him wiggle! See him squirm!/ Hip, hip, hooray for SUPERWORM!” This is about as unlikely a hero as kids are likely to find, and of course he gets into an unlikely predicament: Wizard Lizard has his “servant crow” capture Superworm so the lizard can force the hero to “tunnel, writhe and coil/ To find me treasure in the soil.” There isn’t much there, though – only “two small buttons, half a cork,/ A toffee, and a plastic fork.” Oh no! Will Superworm’s failure lead Wizard Lizard to feed him to the crow? Not to worry: the creatures that Superworm has helped band together to help him this time, and a rescue ensues that involves a honeycomb, petal-eating caterpillars, leaves and a spiderweb. All ends happily for everyone (except Wizard Lizard, who finds himself in the rubbish dump), and the book concludes with Superworm transforming himself into everything from a hula hoop to a belt – anything to help out the “toads and beetles, bees and bugs,/ Brother snails and sister slugs,” and anyone else who needs some utterly absurd and thoroughly delightful super-assistance.
One thing Superworm does not do is speak. Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy does, though – more or less. Pretty much anything with a “zzzz” sound is fair game for Fly Guy’s narrative abilities, including dinosaur-related items that Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz, see during a field trip to the Natural History Museum in Fly Guy Presents: Dinosaurs. Rather than an adventure featuring a boy and his fly at home or school, the Fly Guy Presents books (or, as Fly Guy calls them, “bookzzz”) use the characters as teaching aids for readers from kindergarten through second grade. In this dinosaur exploration, Buzz and Fly Guy learn about “bonezzz,” dinosaur “vegetarianzzz,” “nutzzz”(because Stegosaurus’ brain was the size of a walnut), and more. Photos of dinosaur skeletons and artists’ representations of how the animals might have looked in life appear throughout the pages, and there are plenty of basic facts for young readers just getting interested in these extinct creatures: Tyrannosaurus rex was as long as a school bus, some dinosaur eggs were as big as footballs, and so on. There is some good science here, including an explanation of how we know that dinosaurs were closely related to modern birds. Pronunciations are helpfully given for many long words (although, oddly, not for “paleontologist”), and there is even a brief discussion of scientific mistakes involving dinosaurs – such as the error that led to the naming of Brontosaurus, which turns out not to have existed. This is a very good little introduction to the world of dinosaurs – Fly Guy fans (fanzzz?) will enjoy it and likely find themselves buzzing with interest to learn more elsewhere.
Insects are not the featured creatures in Gordon Korman’s books about Griffin Bing (“The Man With The Plan” – actually multiple plans, all of them over-complicated and most of them of somewhat less than sterling character). But there is one animal that looms large – really large – in all these novels: Luthor, an oversize (150-pound) Doberman originally trained as an attack dog and now living happily (and sloppily) with Griffin’s friend, Savannah Drysdale. Jackpot is the sixth book in this ongoing series, and as usual features a mystery and some mild derring-do in the town of Cedarville. The doings here involve an unclaimed, soon-to-expire lottery ticket worth $30,000,000, which Griffin – like everyone else in town – is eager to find. Among the “everyone else” people are Darren Vader, Griffin’s arch-enemy (probably no relation to Darth Vader, but who knows?), and a new kid named Victor Phoenix – who, for some reason, Griffin’s friends are helping in the hunt. So the mystery of the missing ticket contains a second mystery of what Griffin’s friends are up to. Griffin’s plans to figure everything out are as complex as usual and about as effective, or ineffective. For his part, Luthor gets into about as much trouble as usual, as when he knocks over Griffin’s bike while Griffin is indoors, and Griffin asks Darren for help tracking the dog down, leading to this exchange: “‘Don’t look at me,’ said Darren. ‘That dog hates me.’ ‘He hates everybody! Don’t take it personally.’” Eventually the lottery-ticket searchers realize that they need Griffin’s abilities to bring the hunt to a successful conclusion: “Griffin had come up with some harebrained schemes before, but never once had he let a plan crash and burn.” And then Griffin realizes something he has not been aware of before, in this book or the earlier ones – that he has been monopolizing the whole planning thing, thereby being unfair to his friends and causing more problems than he solves. So he becomes more cooperative than usual. And that, of course, leads to Griffin figuring out where the missing ticket must be – with almost no time left before the ticket will become invalid because it has not been claimed for a year. But the answer turns out to have one last wrinkle in it, leading (predictably) to despair, leading (equally predictably) to the comment that “Griffin was unwilling to admit defeat,” leading (yes, predictably) to some last-last-last-last minute chases and problems and the deployment of Griffin’s dad’s latest peculiar invention against Darren, resulting (yes, yes, predictably) in success for “the eight kids who had moved heaven and earth to track down” the missing lottery ticket. Oh – Luthor helps, too. Predictably. But one of the delightful things about the Griffin Bing books is that readers can guess pretty much everything that will happen, but not how things will happen, and Korman pulls the strings of the over-complex plots together so neatly that the books, definitely including Jackpot, provide a great deal of entirely meaningless, completely escapist enjoyment.
SPEED: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster—and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down. By Stephanie Brown, Ph.D. Berkley. $16.
Happily Ever After: The Life-Changing Power of a Grateful Heart. By Trista Sutter. Da Capo. $24.99.
The key word on the cover of Stephanie Brown’s book is in the subtitle: “addiction.” Brown, a psychologist who directs an outpatient addiction clinic in California and herself went through the Alcoholics Anonymous program when she was a recovering alcoholic in the 1970s, argues in SPEED that Americans’ preoccupation with technological connection and other forms of being “always on” has all the symptoms of a classic addiction and must therefore be treated as such by anyone who wants to break the habit. Brown is a strong believer in the well-known AA alcoholism-treatment program and is not so sure about the effectiveness of traditional forms of her own field, psychology: “While psychology believed in the human power to restore lost control, AA was based on a deep acceptance of the loss of control over one’s drinking and the inability to ever reclaim control. AA was founded on a fundamental acceptance of human limits.” Technology and other aspects of life have, of course, pushed those limits farther and farther, resulting in a great deal of good as well as considerable feelings among many people that they are incessantly stressed and unable to slow down, much less shut off, even for a brief period of time. So far, so good. But the AA model requires unquestioning acceptance of God or some God-substitute, some overarching being to whom one willingly cedes control after admitting that one cannot control one’s own habits and behavior. Brown likes this approach a lot and believes in it implicitly: “A concept of spirituality has always been a part of the Alcoholics Anonymous program, though what that spirituality means is open to interpretation by every autonomous member of this fellowship. In my view, it involves an acceptance of human limits and human need, with a reliance on ‘a power greater than ourselves.’ …We are caught in a fundamental spiritual ailment – a belief in self-power gained through the push of a button, a belief in speed and action for their own sakes, and a belief in the power of endless input, stimulation, and information.”
Readers who accept this assertion at face value will have little trouble following Brown’s argument for an AA-based approach to slowing down and disconnecting from endless stimulation – an approach grounded in the 20 questions that AA uses to help people decide whether they are alcoholics. Readers not so enamored of the AA model – which is a major turnoff for numerous people precisely because of its requirement of belief in a supreme being and in one’s inability to control one’s life – will find Brown’s harping on the AA approach at least unhelpful, at most counterproductive. Chapters including “Behaving Like an Addict,” “The Feelings of an Addict” and “Thinking Like an Addict” lead to one called “The End of the Line,” after which Brown turns to the second part of her book, “Recovering from a Lifestyle of Speed.” This is the proscriptive part of what until this point has been descriptive, and this “Recovering” section makes a variety of recommendations that, once again, are largely AA-based, including “recovery development,” behavioral changes, and eventually “Living a New Kind of Life.” This life, it turns out, is one requiring a fundamental reorientation of Americans’ traditional preference for individuality over group cohesion and community – that is, a deliberate turn toward “acknowledgment of a higher purpose and a greater good than individual power.” By this time, Brown has gotten far beyond the addiction model of AA into sociopolitical arguments that are likely to be more than readers bargained for if they picked up her book in the hope of getting some help in restraining their preoccupation – whether or not one chooses to call it an addiction – with speed and connectivity. “Our focus on individual rights has led us to chaos,” Brown says, but that comment is several steps beyond what readers will likely sign up for if they recognize that they have a fast-life, constant-connection problem. Brown’s unquestioning AA acceptance and belief in community to the exclusion (or at least diminution) of individuality limit the value of her analysis of the trends that have so many people feeling overly connected and constantly time-and-situation-pressed.
One thing that likely has many people feeling disconnected from reality and a reasonable pace of life is the change in the definition of the word “reality” itself, thanks in part to the profusion of so-called “reality” TV shows – carefully scripted programs that pretend to be unscripted and that retain a veneer of truth, using it to promote the notion that the activities of the actors on the shows are somehow as “real” as those of the people viewers encounter in their everyday lives. Take, for example, the notion of a young Florida woman being wooed by a poetry-writing firefighter in luxurious places around the world. Utterly ridiculous in most people’s lives – but that is exactly the scenario created by the producers of The Bachelor and lived by TV’s first Bachelorette, Trista Rehn Sutter. This all happened 10 years ago, and since then, Trista and Ryan Sutter have actually made a life together: they have two children and live in Colorado, where Trista is a stay-at-home mom when not appearing on other faux reality TV shows or writing simple, gushy prose for lightweight publications. Fans of the Sutter fairy tale –one of the very, very few reality-show romances that actually has had some staying power – will enjoy Happily Ever After, a book that thankfully does not focus on the wonders of reality TV but instead tries to reach beyond the screen to discuss living a thankful life. In other words, this is supposed to be a book about gratitude rather than about Trista Sutter, but it is unlikely that anyone unfamiliar with Trista Sutter will have any interest in it. The book gushes constantly. “It’s in his [husband Ryan’s] bones and his blood and his upbringing to be the best he can be.” “We feel truly blessed that Ryan’s parents live only a couple of hours away.” “If you are stuck in a job full of negative energy, don’t let it overflow into your home life.” “To keep my head in the game of life, I had to keep moving forward and not allow the weight of others’ evil actions to take me down.” “If you’re anything like me, you want to be happy.” Happily Ever After practically sinks under the weight of all the treacle, but this will be wholly unimportant to people who coo and sigh over the “reality TV” ethos and such wholly unexceptionable (and unexceptional) notions as making the most of whatever time you have for yourself, writing down positive thoughts and carrying them around with you, and inventing reasons to celebrate – or celebrating for no reason at all. People who find this sort of thing cringe-worthy will give Sutter’s ever-enthusiastic delivery of clichés at most a (+) rating, but they are emphatically not the intended audience for this book. Even those who are the expected readers, including celebrity watchers and devotees of reality TV, may find that Sutter lays things on somewhat too thickly for them. But they will enjoy the surface-level pseudo-wisdom here and, perhaps more importantly, the unending perkiness with which the ideas are delivered – as if these very old, rehashed thoughts are shiny and new.
Wagner: Götterdämmerung. Lance Ryan, Petra Lang, Matti Salminen, Markus Brück, Edith Haller, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Marina Prudenskaya, Julia Borchert, Katharina Kammerloher, Kismara Pessatti, Susanne Resmark, Christa Mayer, Jacquelyn Wagner; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $69.99 (4 SACDs).
Sullivan: The Beauty Stone. Toby Spence, David Stout, Stephen Gadd, Richard Suart, Alan Opie, Elin Manahan Thomas, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Madeleine Shaw, Rebecca Evans, Olivia Gomez, Sarah Maxted, Llio Evans; BBC National Chorus of Wales and BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Rory Macdonald. Chandos. $37.99 (2 CDs).
Here are two lavish, brilliantly mounted productions of operas that are in their own way conclusive for their composers, even though neither work was its composer’s very last – and even though one of the operas is tremendously well-known and the other so obscure that the new recording is its first ever. Marek Janowski’s new rendition of Götterdämmerung is the culmination of a tremendously ambitious and wholly successful project to mark the composer’s bicentennial: Janowski led concert performances of Wagner’s 10 major, mature operas, and all were recorded by PentaTone in truly splendid SACD sound – with Götterdämmerung, performed on March 13 of this year, being the final one of the 10 as well as the conclusion and capstone of the Ring cycle. This is not Janowski’s first recorded Ring: his 30-year-old version with Staatskapelle Dresden (the first-ever digital recording of the cycle) has stood the test of time very well indeed. But the conductor has matured and in some significant ways rethought his interpretations since then, and the new version is even better than the very fine earlier one. Generally brisk tempos prevent the extended scenes from flagging, but Janowski never pushes the music overmuch, and indeed is quite willing to slow things down when trying to make points of contrast – of which there are a great many in Götterdämmerung. This is a simply splendid recording in almost every way, allowing the music its full scope while also giving dedicated Wagnerites plenty to discuss. For example, is Stephen Gould’s naïve and rather bumbling Siegfried in Janowski’s PentaTone Siegfried better than Lance Ryan’s harsher-voiced, somewhat more focused (although still fatally trusting) version here in Götterdämmerung?
This is the opera where the Ring cycle began, as well as the one with which it ends: Wagner started the concept with Götterdämmerung, then realized he needed a prologue, then came up with a prequel to the prologue, and finally conceptualized the start of the whole gigantic epic with Das Rheingold. Of course, it is with the music of the start of the tetralogy that the entire grand sequence concludes – after the last words of the opera are sung by, of all characters, Hagen (suitably dark and devious in the interpretation of Matti Salminen, who sang Fafner in Janowski’s PentaTone Siegfried). It is always interesting to realize that the prime mover of the first three operas, Wotan, is entirely absent from Götterdämmerung, a fact that lends this opera a different character from the others from the very beginning – in addition to the unique character it receives from the three Norns (Susanne Resmark, Christa Mayer and Jacquelyn Wagner), who re-tell the plot of the first three works in condensed and increasingly portentous form. Everything works in this production. It is a particular pleasure to have Petra Lang return as Brünnhilde, a role she sang in PentaTone’s Die Walküre but one essayed by Violeta Urmana in the new Siegfried. Lang handles Brünnhilde’s cascading and ever-changing emotions with sureness and sensitivity, and makes her eventual sacrifice of the whole world and the gods themselves on the altar of love highly dramatic. The other singers are similarly well cast, with Jochen Schmeckenbecher particularly effective in reprising his Siegfried role as Alberich. Janowski conducts throughout with tremendous confidence and a level of thoughtfulness and involvement that is quite outstanding, while the Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin turn in their usual absolutely first-rate performances. This Götterdämmerung is a fully fitting conclusion both to Janowski’s new Ring and to PentaTone’s very ambitious and thoroughly wonderful Wagner bicentennial presentation: it is absolutely first-rate from its opening to its conclusion four hours later.
And speaking of marvelous productions, Chandos has lavished one of the best opera presentations in years on a genuine rarity and real oddity: The Beauty Stone, a decidedly strange late opera by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Dating to 1898, it is not his last opera: he wrote The Rose of Persia the next year and later began work on The Emerald Isle, although he did not live to complete it. But The Beauty Stone is distinguished in many ways – few of them, unfortunately, positive. The libretto, a collaboration between the then-well-known Arthur Wing Pinero and Joseph William Comyns Carr, is extremely unwieldy and is written in dated and overdone language. Many lines from it are far too extended and complex for easy setting to music, although Sullivan came up with some very clever solutions involving unusually extended thematic material. The work was the least successful Savoy opera ever, closing after 50 performances and barely making it that far. And it fits no category particularly neatly: it is definitely not comic, but neither is it a serious grand opera along the lines of Sullivan’s Ivanhoe. Indeed, the librettists saw it as a play with music: many, many plot developments take place in the dialogue rather than the musical numbers. But it is not a very good play with music, certainly in no sense a “music drama” on Wagnerian lines. Yet for all its failings, and they are very numerous, The Beauty Stone contains some exceptionally well-wrought music, with Sullivan composing in serious vein but without the overdone seeking of the lofty that pervades Ivanhoe. The opera’s story revolves around a stone that, worn on a person’s breast, brings him or her extreme beauty – a version of the “lozenge” plot that moved Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer but that Sullivan thereafter disavowed whenever Gilbert again suggested a similar device. It is strange that Sullivan accepted this plot at all, but likely that the serious handling of the material attracted him to it. For the stone comes from the Devil – albeit a rather ineffectual Devil, more an Eastern European character than a potent purveyor of fire and brimstone. And, as the Devil himself explains, the stone always returns to him in the end – as it does here, after being worn by three separate characters in the opera. The overarching theme is the clichéd one of beauty’s impermanence and surface-level appeal; the work ends with a nobleman who has long been seeking beauty but has now been blinded in battle choosing to be united (to the Devil’s chagrin) to a severely crippled young woman who, the lord realizes, has genuine inner beauty.
Chandos has given this peculiar work, which has never before been recorded in its entirety, a simply splendid presentation, including complete libretto, very extended booklet notes, and ample illustrations showing what the original production looked like and how contemporary operagoers reacted to the staging. And the performance by the BBC’s Welsh forces is absolutely top-notch. Rory Macdonald has clearly studied the score carefully and figured out how to extract from it the largest possible amount of pathos and drama (the work was in fact described by its creators as “an original romantic music drama in three acts,” which is accurate enough to help explain why the work is so difficult to categorize). There is more than two hours of music here; the libretto very effectively encapsulates the action between musical numbers, sparing listeners dialogue that even in its time was considered long-winded and tiresome. Lovers of Sullivan’s music will absolutely rejoice to discover the tremendous skill that he brought to The Beauty Stone. Finely honed orchestrations, beautifully set arias, ensembles and choruses filled with drama and intensity – this opera has them all. One of its many fascinating aspects is a character named Saida, who has been the lover of Lord Philip for years but now, like him, is aging and fading. She could have been just another comic “older woman” along the lines of those in the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, but here she has real pathos and enough energetic attractiveness and emotional wherewithal so that she almost, but not quite, wins Lord Philip back. The Beauty Stone is a deeply flawed work that is nevertheless tremendously fascinating. The Chandos recording, which deserves to be called definitive (it even restores some ill-considered cuts made after the opening proved to be a four-hour marathon), is simply splendid throughout, and while it is almost 100% certain that The Beauty Stone will never again hold the opera stage, its rediscovery is an event of some importance – and its manifest beauties, which are scarcely of the devilish kind, are as welcome to experience as they are unexpected to unearth.
Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 3—Maometto II (1822 Venice version); L’Italiana in Algeri; La Cenerentola; Grand’ overtura ‘obbligata a contrabbasso’; Matilde de Shabran, ossia Bellezza, e cuor di ferro; La cambiale di matrimonio; Tancredi. Prague Sinfonia Orchestra conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $9.99.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Capriccio Italien. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).
Grieg: Scenes from Olav Trygvason; Two Choruses and Incidental Music from Sigurd Jorsalfar; Landkjenning; Edmund Neupert: Resignation (orch. Grieg). Yngve Søberg, Helge Rønning, Magne Fremmerlid, Nina Gravrok, Marianne E. Andersen; Malmö Chamber Choir, Lund Student Singers, Malmö Opera Chorus, Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Malmö Opera Orchestra conducted by Bjarte Engeset. Naxos. $9.99.
Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Valses nobles et sentimentales; Gaspard de la nuit (orch. Marius Constant); Le tombeau de Couperin; La Valse. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.
The Naxos label offers a number of truly wonderful musical series, giving listeners the opportunity to hear and, if they are so inclined, study a composer’s entire output in certain forms. Rossini, for example, is well-known for only a relative handful of his overtures, but the top-notch series of his complete overtures is providing a chance to hear those famous ones and also experience some that are heard rarely, if at all. Actually, listeners interested in the excellent performances by the Prague Sinfonia under Christian Benda have little choice but to hear familiar and unfamiliar works in juxtaposition, since all three releases in this series so far have mixed the often heard with the rarely heard. The overtures to L’Italiana in Algeri and La Cenerentola are concert-hall staples, for example, and Tancredi and La cambiale di matrimonio show up from time to time. The version of Maometto II on this recording, on the other hand, is almost wholly unknown, as is the Grand’ overtura ‘obbligata a contrabbasso,’ an early work that nevertheless shows Rossini firmly in command of melody, harmony and orchestration. As for Matilde de Shabran, ossia Bellezza, e cuor di ferro, even its title is almost never heard (the subtitle translates as “Beauty, and heart of iron”). No matter: all these works are well-made, well-orchestrated, tuneful and attractive in instrumentation, and all are done to a turn by Benda and the Prague players. This ongoing series is a continual delight.
The final entry in Dmitrij Kitajenko’s Tchaikovsky cycle for Oehms confirms Kitajenko as one of the best Tchaikovsky interpreters today and one of the most sensitive to the changing moods of the symphonies. The huge tone-poem-like first movement of the Fourth is highly dramatic here, and indeed Kitajenko is more concerned with extracting drama from the entire score than in dwelling on its more-lyrical elements – although he certainly does not give those short shrift. There are a few excesses in the performance, a touch too much rubato here and there, but by and large, what Kitajenko does is to give Tchaikovsky his due both in pacing and in orchestration, allowing the music its natural flow and making the symphony both expansive and highly dramatic. Capriccio Italien is nicely done, too, helped by the outstanding playing of the brass of the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. The tempo excesses are somewhat more intrusive here than in the symphony, but again, most do not detract unduly from the overall flow of the music and the effectiveness of Tchaikovsky’s scoring. This is a notably successful recording whose very fine SACD sound aptly complements Kitajenko’s careful attention to instrumental balance and the overall presentation of works that, despite their familiarity, still seem fresh and new when conducted with this level of care and enthusiasm.
Back at Naxos, the company’s “Grieg Edition” reaches its seventh volume with a wonderful exploration of Grieg’s forays into overt nationalism through his fascination with the Viking Age and, in particular, the times of Olav Trygvason, who was king from 995 until his death in the year 1000. Bjarte Engeset leads soloists, choruses and orchestras from Malmö with sure-handed, idiomatic elegance in extended scenes from Grieg’s unfinished opera about Trygvason – and also in Landkjenning (“Land-Sighting”), which depicts the moment when Trygvason and his men first sighted the Norwegian coast on their voyage from England. The choruses and incidental music from Sigurd Jorsalfar (“Sigurd the Crusader”) are also suitably martial and triumphal – all this music is overtly nationalistic, and if little of it shows Grieg at his absolute best (because his best work has considerable lyricism, which is in short supply here), all of it displays the ways in which he was capable of skillfully weaving musical tales of importance to him and to Norwegians in general. Grieg was essentially a miniaturist; works on the grand scale did not come particularly naturally to him. But he can certainly handle large orchestral and choral complements when called upon to do so, and his nationalistic works are quite effective as a result. This CD ends with a curiosity that is a world première recording: Resignation by Edmund Neupert (1842-1888), a slight work that Grieg skillfully orchestrated after its composer’s death. In the delicate passages on this CD as well as the martial ones, Engeset shows himself fully attuned to Grieg’s music and highly adept at displaying it as effectively as possible.
Yet another Naxos series features Leonard Slatkin, not with the Detroit Symphony but with Orchestre National de Lyon (of which Slatkin is also music director), in orchestral works by Ravel. And it is surely because of the French ensemble’s easy, natural way with this music that the recordings are so successful, with no sense of strain by the musicians and with an orchestral sound that seems just right for the music. This CD offers a very interesting contrast between Valses nobles et sentimentales of 1911 and La Valse of 1920, the latter being a work in which Ravel essentially disowned the sensibility that led him to produce the former. The impressionism of the earlier waltz set is nicely contrasted with the post-World-War-I laying to rest of the imperial times in which the waltz flourished – and Slatkin makes the most of the differentiation of the wit and delicacy of the earlier work from the lament and dismissal of the later one. Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17), a tribute to friends who died in the Great War as well as an evocation of the works of the Baroque composer, also comes across well here, with solid rhythms and a strong sense of looking back much farther into the past than does La Valse. The fourth work on this CD, Marius Constant’s 1990 orchestration of Gaspard de la nuit (1908), is a touch less successful than the other three, largely because the piano version of this music is so splendid and Constant’s handling of it is adequate but not particularly distinguished (in comparison, say, with Ravel’s own way with the orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano work, Pictures of an Exhibition). This three-movement suite, a tribute to the poetry of Aloysius Bertrand, is filled with pianistic effects that work well enough in the orchestra; but the instrumentation here adds little to the piano original. The Lyon musicians handle the work with aplomb, though, and Slatkin’s conducting is sensitive and well-paced. Like so many other Naxos series, this one bids fair to be a continuing success.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (arr. Shumway); Holst: The Planets (excerpts) (arr. Anderson); Anderson/Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre. The 5 Browns. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Gheorghe Costinescu: Theme and Variations; Sonata for the Piano; Evolving Cycle of Two-Part Modal Inventions for Piano; Essay in Sound. Stephen Gosling, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Stephen Scott and the Bowed Piano Ensemble: Ice & Fire. Navona. $16.99.
Kirk O’Riordan: Chamber Music. Ravello. $14.99.
Roger Bourland: Four Quartets of Songs & Arias. Juliana Gondek, soprano; William Lumpkin, piano. Navona. $16.99.
As Long as There Are Songs. Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; Craig Terry, piano. Innova. $14.99.
“Oh, the thinks you can think,” wrote Dr. Seuss. Had the good doctor been near a piano at the time, he might have added, “And the things you can do once you think of them!” The piano is so versatile – even to the point of being two forms of instrument at the same time, percussion and strings – that its possibilities in traditional and non-traditional use are nearly endless. Take the fascinating CD by the 5 Browns (Deondra, Desirae, Greg, Melody and Ryan), for example. There is no reason whatsoever to arrange Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for five, count them, five pianos – except that the arrangement makes possible huge gouts of sound and all sorts of intriguing effects among the instruments, creating a genuine sonic spectacular that is absolutely not Stravinsky but at the same time absolutely is. Stravinsky was a highly innovative thinker – The Rite of Spring itself is evidence of that – and might well have been intrigued by this decidedly odd but truly fascinating approach to his ballet. Who knows? What listeners will know is that the arrangement by Jeffrey Shumway is highly intriguing and is exceptionally well-played – providing a variety of new sonic insights into the music, whether or not they are ones that Stravinsky intended. A curiosity, yes, but a truly fascinating one. The three movements from Holst’s The Planets (Mars, Neptune and Jupiter) are somewhat less successful: the pounding rhythms of Mars are marvelous and the jocularity of Jupiter only a bit less so, but the mysticism of Neptune falls short of evanescence in this arrangement. This movement is clearly placed between the other two as a sort-of intermezzo in a sort-of suite from what is already a suite; but in that position, it loses its intended climactic role and merely sounds pale. Not so the Danse Macabre, though, aptly described as a “Bacchanal for Five Pianos,” which bounds and bounces all over the place and frequently sounds genuinely devilish as well as truly danceable. Both the Holst and the Saint-Saëns are very ably arranged by Greg Anderson of the piano duet Anderson & Roe. All in all, this is a fascinating disc from Steinway & Sons, showcasing the firm’s pianos in unexpected and thoroughly interesting ways.
Far more straightforward but in its own way equally successful, the new Gheorghe Costinescu piano CD on Ravello takes the piano through paces that range from those of the Baroque to those that are explicitly of the 21st century. Many contemporary composers continue to look back hundreds of years for inspiration, but few have rung changes on the old forms as successfully as Costinescu does here. Theme and Variations (1956) is simply a set of 14 variations and coda on a chorale-like theme stated forthrightly at the beginning – and if the harmonies are modern, the overall sensibility is of the Classical era. To some extent, the same may be said of Sonata for the Piano (1957; revised 2007-08), which is in traditional three-movement form and of modest 15-minute length, but which is too broad and large-boned to be deemed a sonatina: both the scale of the themes and the handling of their development show this work to be an effective Classical-style sonata, although, again, the treatment of the material is quite clearly of the 20th and 21st centuries (the work includes pronounced jazz and ragtime elements). Costinescu reaches farthest back in time for Evolving Cycle of Two-Part Modal Inventions for Piano (1964), which includes a one-part invention and six two-parters – very much in the mode of Bach, although scarcely in his harmonic style. Stephen Gosling plays all these works with strong involvement and a fine sense of their structure and the older structures on which they are built. Gosling also does a bang-up job –the adjective seems particularly appropriate – with Essay in Sound (2011), which is the most modern-sounding of all the works here. This is not necessarily a compliment: it is sound that predominates in this piece, not music in the sense in which music dominates the other three works. Listeners who become intrigued by Costinescu’s skillful adaptations of old forms to the modern era may be somewhat taken aback by his thoroughgoing modernism here – although it cannot be denied that this “essay” showcases one element of the piano quite clearly: its ability to make a great deal of percussive sound.
It is the “strings” element of the piano that comes through in Navona’s (+++) CD of music by Stephen Scott, which showcases a Colorado College group called the Bowed Piano Ensemble that Scott founded. This is entirely experimental music, with all the pluses and minuses the term implies. The 10 ensemble members perform by opening a grand piano and bowing, plucking, striking and otherwise manipulating its strings to produce sounds ranging from almost painfully extended lines to staccato exclamations and deep, resonant bell-like tolls. There is nothing particularly new about the notion of playing the inside of a piano, although it is certainly clear why this is not a release on the Steinway & Sons label: the piano was never intended by its makers to be used this way. Nevertheless, John Cage’s “prepared piano” and other non-traditional approaches to the instrument laid the groundwork for Scott’s approach many decades ago. Scott’s music is inescapably of the moment, and it is hard to imagine it having much staying power, especially because he sometimes ties it directly to events of the day: Afternoon of a Fire (2012), for bowed piano and improvised Native American flute, is so titled because of a particular wildfire in Scott’s native Colorado. Also here are New York Drones (2006), whose title hints at its sonic landscape; Vocalise on “In a Silent Way” (2001) and “La Guitarra” (2002), both of which feature soprano Victoria Hansen; Aurora Ficta (2008), the most elaborate piece on the CD; and Baltic Sketches (1997), a set of five pieces that do have somewhat different characters but are in no way particularly “Baltic.” This is a disc for devotees of contemporary music and unusual sonorities more than for people interested in what a piano can do (or be made to do).
One traditional use of the piano, and one still used by modern composers, is within chamber groups – and Kirk O’Riordan uses it that way as well as in a solo capacity on a (+++) Ravello CD featuring six of his works. Water Lilies (2000) and Lacrimosa (2011) are solo-piano works, both played affectingly by Holly Roadfeldt, but neither of them – despite their titles – is especially evocative of its designated subject. Sonata rapsodica (2009) for clarinet and piano, in which Roadfeldt is joined by Marianne Gythfeldt, is more interesting, its two movements both flowing freely and with frequent changes of emotional expression. Pressing Forward, Pushing Back (2005) is equally long, but in a single discursive movement. It is written for flute and piano – Ruben Councill is the flautist – and has some effective moments, although the piece as a whole never quite gels. The same may be said of Dying Light (2004), which again is about the same length but is scored for violoncello (designated that way, not as “cello”) and piano and which features cellist Lawrence Stomberg. Interestingly, it is a piece in which O’Riordan uses flute and violoncello with piano that comes across particularly well: A Strange Flower for Birds and Butterflies (2012), despite its overdone title and a sense that it is often trying too hard to be expressive, is a well-wrought work with many intriguing passages.
Another traditional use of piano is as accompaniment for vocal cycles or individual songs. Two new (+++) releases show the piano in this role. The Roger Bourland CD on Navona showcases four quartets called Four Apart Songs, Four End Songs, Four Marian Songs and Four Xmas Songs. Bourland nicely handles traditional art-song territory, most feelingly in the Marian songs and most amusingly in the final Xmas song, “The Crocodile’s Xmas Ball.” The works are effective enough, if stylistically unexceptional, and are very well performed by Juliana Gondek and William Lumpkin. The performances by Stephanie Blythe and Craig Terry on an Innova disc are fine, too, although the territory here is popular music rather than anything approaching the classical. The 14 songs here include ones by Sammy Cahn, Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and others, dating as far back as 1919 (“Look for the Silver Lining” by Buddy DeSylva and Jerome Kern) and being as recent as 1965 (Gordon Jenkins’ “This Is All I Ask”). Blythe has a rich, resonant mezzo-soprano voice, and she handles these vocal standards well and feelingly on a disc that is particularly well-recorded but not, in the end, especially revelatory of much in the music that has not been revealed before. The piano’s role here and on the Bourland CD is clearly a subsidiary one, and that in itself is of some interest, since here is an instrument that can resound throughout the concert hall but can equally well take a back seat to a singer in a far quieter and more intimate setting. One thing you can certainly think of when it comes to the piano is versatility.