May 30, 2013
Zoe’s Room (No Sisters Allowed). By Bethany Deeney Murguia. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.
Fancy Nancy: Fanciest Doll in the Universe. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $17.99.
Nancy Clancy, Book 1: Super Sleuth. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $4.99.
Little sisters can be such a problem for big sisters – but in the long run, or at least by the end of these books, big sis always discovers that little sis isn’t so bad after all. In Bethany Deeney Murguia’s Zoe’s Room (No Sisters Allowed), Zoe has a room all to herself and a bedtime routine – actually after her parents put her to bed – in which she is Queen of the Universe and can do just what she wants: explore, build, watch the stars and more. But – uh, oh – one day Zoe’s mom announces that little Addie is now old enough to move out of mom and dad’s room and share Zoe’s. Zoe is not happy, and becomes considerably less so when she tries to stick to her nighttime habits and Addie keeps waking up and crying loudly enough to bring in their parents. The Queen of the Universe is feeling more and more put-upon for three nights until, on the fourth night, something unexpected happens that brings Zoe and Addie much closer – literally closer, snuggled together – and Zoe decides that there is space in her room for a Little Queen as well as a Big Queen. Yes, the story is romanticized and overly naïve, but it doesn’t really matter for girls ages 4-8 – the target age range for this book. What does matter is that Murguia tells the tale neatly and illustrates it delightfully, whether portraying the parents’ irritation, Zoe’s pouting, Addie’s wailing, or the eventual reconciliation that guarantees that everything will be fine, just fine, from now on.
Things always work out for Fancy Nancy, too, but it is a close call in Fanciest Doll in the Universe, in which little sister JoJo, while pretending to be a pirate, draws an indelible-marker tattoo on Nancy’s absolute favorite super-fancy doll, Marabelle – sending Nancy into hysterics and JoJo into a time-out. And that is not the worst of it, because there is a History Doll Gala coming up at a fancy nearby hotel, and Nancy’s mom offers to take her to help make up for what happened to Marabelle. But the whole setup makes Nancy a little more nervous than usual, even though she observes that “many dolls are wearing the same ensemble as Marabelle, [but] she is the most beautiful by far.” Still, Nancy avoids the doll dress shop, since trying on outfits might result in Marabelle’s embarrassing tattoo being seen. And then – well, with all those identical outfits, a mixup is pretty much inevitable, and when it happens, it turns out not only that tattoos have their uses but also that other big sisters have little sisters who do other awful things to their dolls. And that, while it does not make Nancy feel 100% better, at least helps her reconcile with JoJo and accept her apology. This is a nice little lesson to go with the always-amusing overdone appearance and Francophilic personality of Fancy Nancy. Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser make a splendid (that means really good) team in the Fancy Nancy books, and Nancy herself is a simply wonderful combination of characteristics: always overdone but always endearing.
Nancy Clancy, though, is not quite as much fun. Yes, this is the same character, just a bit older, and yes, traces of her younger personality remain, such as – in Super Sleuth, which was originally published last year and is now available in paperback – her rhinestone-studded magnifying glass and pink trench coat. But Nancy is not as fancy and not as big a delight in this chapter book or its sequel, Secret Admirer, because these books have her participating in very ordinary adventures that are not tied directly to her unique personality in the way that the events in the Fancy Nancy books are. There is certainly nothing wrong with Super Sleuth, in which Nancy and best friend Bree – also grown a bit older, of course – form a detective agency and, after some false starts, tackle a small but real mystery in which the solution turns out to involve, yes, JoJo. But Super Sleuth, as ably plotted and nicely illustrated as it is, remains a (+++) book, because really, how many times have authors written about tweeners and preteens trying to solve mysteries? (Nancy even refers to the Nancy Drew books, having read five of them.) The adventure here is perfectly fine, but it is an adventure that could involve any girl character of Nancy Clancy’s age, and has in fact involved quite a few of them. Because the story does not grow from Nancy’s particular character and her foibles, as do the stories in the Fancy Nancy books, this easy-to-read chapter book simply isn’t as much fun. It does, however, give young girls who are moving beyond picture books and who love Fancy Nancy a way to progress to more-complex plotting and more-challenging reading involving a character who, like those girls themselves, is growing up.
A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War. By Thomas Fleming. Da Capo. $26.99.
If there is one bit of history that Americans, who are notoriously ahistorical people, believe they truly know and understand, it is the Civil War. It was freedom vs. slavery, union vs. division, federal rights vs. states’ rights. Correct? Yet although it was all of those things, it was also a great deal more – and a great deal more complicated than most people know or are ever taught in school.
Thomas Fleming has done a genuine service in writing A Disease in the Public Mind, even though the book is unlikely to be widely enough read or widely enough adopted by academics to have a significant impact on widespread misperceptions about the Civil War or, as it is still called in much of the South, the War Between the States. Entrenched beliefs about the conflict, the bloodiest in American history because all its casualties were, at least retrospectively, American (rather than deemed Union and Confederate and kept separate), are too deeply held to be amenable to change, even by a book as thoroughly researched and well-written as this one. And the unlikelihood of changing attitudes actually makes sense in its own peculiar way, since by the time of the Civil War, beliefs of Northerners about Southerners, and vice versa, were already so deeply held that conflict was well-nigh inevitable.
Take, for example, the seemingly innocent point of pride of the state of Virginia, which calls itself the “mother of presidents.” Eight U.S. chief executives were born in the state, but with the exception of Woodrow Wilson, all were president before the Civil War: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler and Zachary Taylor. Far from being the rather innocuous distinction that it is today, this preponderance of Virginian presidents in the first half of the 19th century was a significant contributor to the bad blood between North and South, with New Englanders believing that their Puritan approach to government had been hijacked by Southerners hostile to their entire way of life.
Conflicts like this one, perceptions like this one, became so deeply embedded in government and civic dialogue in the 19th century that they had become insuperable barriers to mutual understanding by the time of the Civil War itself. This is the sort of exploration and analysis that Fleming does so very well in A Disease in the Public Mind. He also does a superb job of putting figures, well-known and less-known, in proper context, turning them into fuller human beings than the cardboard characters that they, even when their names are known to all, generally become in history books. Thus, Fleming points out that the slave Dred Scott, whose case led to the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court (the ruling said Scott, as a slave, was not a citizen and could not bring a case in federal court), was freed by his owners – together with his entire family – three months after the decision. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley, often identified as a major source calling for war in his virulently anti-slavery New York Tribune, was in fact horrified at the prospect of war but was outmaneuvered by his firebrand managing editor, Charles Dana. Southern fears of a murderous slave revolt, dismissed as nonsense by Northerners, were not only real but also justified in light of events in Santo Domingo (Haiti) and the 1831 Nat Turner uprising that was overtly based on events there. Former President John Tyler tried hard to help avoid civil war by attempting to arrange a peace conference in 1861 – but when President Lincoln said no, Tyler called for Virginia’s secession.
A Disease in the Public Mind is filled with information like this, in small matters and large, and is consistently fascinating in the new dimensions it brings to historical figures whom readers may think they know but in fact understand only imperfectly. The discussion of the Louisiana Purchase, with its insights into the motivations of both Napoleon and President Jefferson, is all by itself an extraordinary exploration by Fleming, especially in connection with his discussion of Jefferson’s supposed favoritism toward France in the early-19th-century conflicts between France and England – events that led to an embargo that in turn caused tremendous hardship in New England and further convinced residents of the area that Southerners did not have the North’s best interests in mind. And this was 50-plus years before Fort Sumter.
One of the most remarkable effects of Fleming’s book, although it is scarcely the book’s primary intent, is to show that the North-South conflicts, great and small, that persist to this day, are not caused by a small band of recidivists wishing vainly for a return to a glorious Southern past that was in fact built on a culture of abuse and brutality. Fleming, indeed, exposes the venality and serious shortcomings of many abolitionists – problems of which Lincoln himself was well aware. The Civil War was a climactic event in a multigenerational saga of conflict, misunderstanding and outright hatred between different parts of the country, areas settled by very different people under very different circumstances. The war actually exacerbated many underlying issues rather than settling them; and while it did lead to the end of slavery through the 13th Amendment, it did not do so through the Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to slaves within the Confederacy – where Lincoln at the time had no power and his proclamation no legal authority. Americans who read A Disease in the Public Mind will see their country and what was, for many, its defining conflict, in a very different way from the typical one, and will understand that the book’s title refers to an illness that neither the Civil War, nor the peace afterwards, nor the intervening century and a half, has completely cured.
When Mermaids Sleep. By Ann Bonwill. Illustrated by Steve Johnson & Lou Fancher. Random House. $16.99.
Bad Astrid. By Eileen Brennan. Pictures by Regan Dunnick. Random House. $15.99.
Twinky the Dinky Dog. By Kate Klimo. Illustrated by Michael Fleming. Random House. $3.99.
Creatures unreal and real make appearances in these books, which come with three different purposes: one for bedtime, one for teaching about bullying, and one for communicating the fun of reading. When Mermaids Sleep is a pretty and poetic large-format book in which one thing connects to the next from start to finish. Ann Bonwill’s rhymes paint a land filled with magic and magical beings – all of them, however, dozing rather than doing things. She starts with mermaids sleeping beneath the waves; moves to the top of the waves, where the ocean carries a sailing ship filled with tired pirates; goes below deck to the pirates’ treasure, which includes a lamp “dug up from sands in far-off lands/ where genies gently dream” and has a sleeping genie beside it, and then on to a sandcastle encircled by a moat filled with slumbering serpents, and so on. The concept of one thing leading to another this way is scarcely new, but the gentle flow of Bonwill’s poetry will help lull young children to sleep as they join their imagination to hers. The illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher make relaxation easy to come by, too: backgrounds are dark, muted, restful, and the creatures portrayed are interesting enough to catch a child’s attention but are not doing anything so involving as to interfere with a good night’s sleep. The snuggled-up goblins, the nesting griffins, the snoring dwarves and curled-up fairies all have beauty and personality, and the final picture – connecting the moonlight of the magic land to that of a child’s own bedroom – neatly ties the story together and should help boys and girls ages 3-5 drift gently into rest.
Bad Astrid, in contrast, is all about daytime activity – and parents who pick up the sneaky double meaning of Eileen Brennan’s book’s title will laugh at it and probably choose not to share it with their children. Astrid is a stocky, mean bulldog, “boxy and solid, like a cabinet that talks,” and is actually less interested in conversation than in taking every chance to “growl, spit, and sputter” when the book’s narrator – a more-pleasant-looking girl dog – walks by. Astrid is fairly mild as bullies go, although she does tease the narrator’s bird, squirt water on her chalk drawings and drop acorns on her head. “Such a nasty new neighbor –/ yes, it was quite a bummer./ But I would not allow her/ to ruin my summer,” says the narrator, who finds lots of things to do that do not bring her into contact with Astrid. But then, one day, Astrid accidentally crashes her bike through the narrator’s family’s hedge, along the way hitting and pulling up a stop sign, mailbox and lawn gnome (the picture of this is the funniest one that Regan Dunnick contributes). Now Astrid has to ask for help, and the narrator decides to provide it despite everything, and of course the two end up becoming friends – a pleasant, if not particularly realistic, rapprochement that may help parents talk to children about bullies and bullying or may simply be fun to read on its own as one of the many “opposites can learn to like each other” books intended for young readers ages 5-8.
The “Step into Reading” book, Twinky the Dinky Dog, is for roughly the same age range – it is a Level 3 book (“Reading on Your Own”) and features a very different canine. Twinky is a tiny dog with huge head and big pointy ears, and he is as adorable as they come. But in his heart, he knows he is really a big dog, even though his owner carries him in a purse-like bag, dresses him in silly sweaters, calls him “Twinky-Poo,” and makes him use wee-wee pads instead of going to the bathroom outdoors. Well, Twinky puts up with this for only so long – then he uses his small size to wiggle through the fence of his owner’s yard, and runs to the dog park to play with Bubba, Tank and Bertha, all of them being much larger than he is. After a small amount of teasing, the big dogs show Twinky how to strut, snarl and scowl like a big dog, and Twinky takes the lessons to heart even after his owner brings him back home. Then, one night, Twinky uses his newfound moves and sounds to scare a burglar away, and soon he is a hero and has earned his chance to run with the big dogs on a regular basis. The book is a lot of fun, and Twinky is adorable – no matter that he considers himself big-dog material – but parents may want to do a little bit of explaining about Kate Klimo’s story. In the real world, a small dog that gets out of a fenced yard is in considerable danger, and a small dog that approaches large, off-leash ones is in danger from that, too. Michael Fleming draws all the characters in pleasant and upbeat fashion, and certainly the story is not intended to influence kids to give their families’ small dogs the experiences that Twinky ends up having. But a touch of corrective real-world thinking is called for here, lest the story of a real-life small dog that thinks he is big (as many small dogs actually do) turn out to have a far less happy ending than Twinky’s story does.
Henny Penny. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Cinderella. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Tommysaurus Rex. By Doug TenNapel. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Paul Galdone’s retellings of classic folk and fairy tales have stood up quite well over the last several decades. Galdone (1907-1986) illustrated numerous books, including Eve Titus’ Basil of Baker Street series – the basis of a Disney animated film – but it is for the fairy and folk tales that young children know him today, thanks to a series of reissues of his books by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The two latest are Henny Penny, originally published in 1968, and Cinderella, originally from 1978. Designed for young readers, the books retell the stories in sanitized form, without the violence and grotesquerie frequently present in the original versions of the tales. In the case of Henny Penny, there is no way to escape discussing the fate of the foolish birds that venture into the fox’s den, but there is also no need to show what happens, and Galdone does not, simply ending the book with the happy fox family remembering “the fine feast they had that day.” And in Cinderella, the stepmother and stepsisters are only moderately mean and do not suffer the frightful revenge visited on them in the original story – Cinderella simply forgives them and asks them to love her, and arranges for them to move to court and for the stepsisters to marry well. What makes these books attractive is not so much the way Galdone adapts the tales as the way he illustrates them. The birds in Henny Penny are drawn quite realistically, but they have expressive eyes and a look of appropriate intensity as they run along to tell the king the sky is falling. The fox’s face is quite expressive, too, and Galdone’s rendering of the king sleeping on his throne with his jester and a cat at his feet, oblivious to the sky-is-falling message, is particularly humorous. In Cinderella, the contrast between the muted tones in which Cinderella is drawn and the brighter ones used for the dressed-up stepsisters is a nice touch, and the realistically portrayed mice, rats and lizards that become Cinderella’s entourage are a reminder of how good Galdone always was at portraying animals (he even throws in a cat, which appears in several scenes but has nothing to do with the story). These reissues will be pleasant additions to a young child’s library.
Doug TenNapel’s graphic novels are for older readers, and they are far less consistent than Galdone’s books. TenNapel essentially creates modern fairy tales, with all the appurtenances of 21st-century illustrated books: lots of action, minimal characterization, strong lines in the drawings, panel-by-panel progress in which panel size and shape vary significantly to help the story along dramatically, and so forth. The quality of TenNapel’s graphic novels seems to alternate from excellent to so-so, with Ghostopolis and Cardboard being first-rate and Bad Island and his new book, Tommysaurus Rex, on the so-so side. Of course, none of the books is intended to be realistic, but the better ones create worlds that are true to their premises and characters who behave in consistent ways, while the less-successful ones have confused or overdone plots, with the obviousness of the ways in which TenNapel manipulates the story becoming intrusive. And so it is in Tommysaurus Rex, in which a boy named Ely is very close to his prone-to-misbehavior dog, Tommy, who pulls his leash out of Ely’s hands, runs into the street, and is hit by a car – which leads to Ely being sent to his grandfather’s farm for the summer. Ely’s grandpa gives him a model tyrannosaur as a gift, after which Ely, while being pursued by local bullies, finds a real tyrannosaur in a convenient cave; and the whole town just kind of accepts the dinosaur’s existence, with the mayor looking for ways to use it as part of his reelection campaign and Randy, the bully who chased Ely, looking for ways to undermine Ely’s happiness because, well, he’s a bully. Is the dinosaur the model come alive? Is it some sort of reincarnation of Ely’s dog, which is what Ely comes to believe (hence the book’s title)? TenNapel never really explains what events, magical or otherwise, are moving the plot, with the result that the book creaks, even during the action scenes. Flashes of humor involving dinosaur droppings are more successful than attempts to humanize Randy, and the eventual plot maneuver of tying the fatal encounter of Tommysaurus Rex and Randy to the fatal meeting of Tommy and a man who turns out to be Randy’s estranged-or-just-temporarily-missing father is just unbelievably ridiculous. What is best about Tommysaurus Rex is the obvious delight that TenNapel takes in rendering the dinosaur from all angles and showing it doing all sorts of things, from assisting in construction projects to inadvertently fetching a police motorcycle, complete with ticket-writing officer. The book’s coloring, by Katherine Garner, is another strength, nicely reflecting the action and helping differentiate the characters and scenes. On a purely visual basis, Tommysaurus Rex is great to look at, but as a story, it falls far short of what TenNapel is capable of and what he has done elsewhere.
Berlioz: Les nuits d’été; La mort de Cléopâtre; Roméo et Juliette—Scène d’amour. Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
Nicholas Vines: The Butcher of Brisbane; Economy of Wax; Torrid Nature Scene. Navona. $16.99.
Erik Lotichius: Variations and Finale on “Mood Indigo”; Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra; Four Songs on American Poetry; Ragtime. Sandro Ivo Bartoli, piano; Miranda van Kralingen, soprano; St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $16.99 (CD+DVD).
Gordon Getty: Plump Jack. Christopher Robertson, Nikolai Schukoff, Melody Moore, Nathaniel Webster, Lester Lynch, Diana Kehrig, Bruce Rameker, Susanne Mentzer, Robert Breault, Chester Patton; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Gordon Getty: Piano Pieces. Conrad Tao, piano. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Intriguing mixtures of vocal and instrumental pieces from the 19th century through the 21st grace all of these new discs. The Berlioz SACD featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Robin Ticciati is the second Linn Records release of Berlioz’ music from this ensemble and conductor, after a very impressive recording of the Symphonie Fantastique. This time, Ticciati shows that he has considerable skill in accompanying a singer, and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill is a wonderful one to accompany. She has a strong, rich, velvety voice that is particularly impressive in La mort de Cléopâtre, composed in 1829 in Berlioz’ second unsuccessful attempt to win the Prix de Rome. This is purely occasional music, to an adequate but uninspired text by Pierre-Ange Viellard de Boismartin, but Berlioz makes a marvelous dramatic scene out of it – too dramatic, heartfelt and unconventional for the jury that year, which did not give him the prize (he won it in 1830). Cargill also brings considerable seriousness to the rather slight and thoroughly Romantic poetry of Théophile Gautier in Les nuits d’été, lending the four somewhat dour middle poems of this six-poem cycle more depth than they really deserve. A touch more of contrasting lightness in the opening and closing poems would have been welcome, but Cargill certainly sings those fluidly and with beautiful tone. And for the non-vocal portion of this disc, there is the love scene from Berlioz’ sprawling Roméo et Juliette, performed with such warmth and tenderness that it is easy to forget that this is an orchestra of only 44 players – barely half the size of the ones usually heard in this music. What makes it all work is Ticciati, whose affinity for Berlioz is considerable and whose skill in extracting beauty and even sumptuousness from a relatively small complement of musicians is very impressive indeed.
The music of Nicholas Vines (born 1976 in Australia) is also colorful and strongly communicative, although not at all in the mode of Berlioz. A new Navona CD of his vocal and instrumental music shows him to be one contemporary composer who does not feel obliged to take himself seriously all the time – for all that he constructs his music carefully and, like Berlioz in this one way, seeks new instrumental sonorities and combinations designed to elicit audience responses in some new and different ways. This is particularly evident in Torrid Nature Scene, which Vines calls “a romp in seven parts” and scores for soprano (Paula Downes), mezzo-soprano (Thea Lobo), and chamber ensemble (Callithumpian Consort – quite a name – conducted by Stephen Drury). The seven short movements are outgoing, odd, energetic, and from time to time just plain strange, inspired by a cruder and more ill-mannered Nature than the comparatively placid one favored by many composers. The other vocal piece here, Economy of Wax, is a setting of the part of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in which the scientist carefully describes how bees build honeycombs. Intricate and intense, the work is interestingly scored for soprano (Adrienne Pardee), flute/piccolo (Jessi Rosinski), viola (Derek Mosloff), and harp (Franziska Huhn), with Drury directing the small group. And in a purely instrumental work, Drury again conducts the Callithumpian Consort, this time with saxophonist Eliot Gattegno, in The Butcher of Brisbane, which is based on, of all things, a series of Dr. Who episodes known collectively as “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” Vines calls this piece a “carnival for solo saxophone(s) and chamber ensemble,” and it certainly has carnivalesque elements – grotesqueries, really – as saxophone and chamber group struggle constantly for preeminence in a seven-movement suite that ranges from the amusing to the merely cacophonous, leaving listeners wondering from moment to moment what can possibly be coming next. Sort of like the manifold confusions inherent in the long-running Dr. Who.
The music is equally well-made but not as unusually conceived on Navona’s new disc of works by Erik Lotichius (born 1929 and still apparently going strong). Like many composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Lotichius writes a sort of “fusion” music, in his case combining elements of classical form with a considerable amount of jazz, including ragtime and blues. Because of Lotichius’ firm command of underlying classical techniques, his works are more successful than many of those by younger composers who may be more facile with non-classical musical forms but have more difficulty integrating them into pieces that can hold listeners from start to finish. The vocal work by Lotichius on this CD, Four Songs on American Poetry, is a fairly straightforward art-song piece that effectively uses words by Robert Bly, e.e. cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay and is nicely sung by Miranda van Kralingen. It is not, however, as interesting as Variations and Finale on “Mood Indigo,” which takes Duke Ellington’s famous tune and subjects it to full-scale, multi-tempo, multi-mood treatment that produces a thoroughly satisfying work that zips through theme, nine variations and finale in just 14 minutes. That makes the piece shorter than the first movement alone of Lotichius’ Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, which is a large-scale work in the traditional three movements, thematically well-constructed and showing considerable formal skill even though it lacks the sheer verve and swing of the “Mood Indigo” variations. Sandro Ivo Bartoli plays it very well indeed, and the St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Lande, which shows a distinct ability to handle the American jazz idiom in Lotichius’ Ellington-based music, here does a top-notch job of backing Bartoli up while coming to the forefront when called to do so. The orchestra also handles Ragtime, a bright six-minute encore, to fine effect: the piece is filled with short solos for numerous instruments, and every one of the players comes forth with skill and apparent enjoyment of the music. The CD is packaged with a bonus DVD containing a documentary about Lotichius’ music and career, which will be of interest to listeners curious about the composer. The DVD also includes some of the recording sessions for the “Mood Indigo” variations – of interest to those wondering what goes into the smooth-sounding final release of a piece requiring considerable interpretative and performance agility.
Gordon Getty is of the same generation as Lotichius (Getty was born in 1933) and is best known for his vocal music – that is, in addition to his philanthropic endeavors and his family’s wealth. Two new PentaTone SACDs give listeners a chance to hear not only one of Getty’s major works – his Shakespeare-based opera, Plump Jack, heard here in a concert version that omits two scenes – but also quite a few of his minor ones, which is what the piano pieces are. These are recordings in which absolutely first-rate performances are lavished on music that is not exactly unworthy but also not especially distinguished. Getty is an almost entirely tonal composer, and it is actually something of a relief to hear recently composed works in which dissonance is used for specific purposes – to indicate emotional dissonance in the opera’s events, for example – rather than as the basic building block of everything. Nevertheless, Plump Jack is a rather pale take on the Falstaff legend, with the fat knight never emerging as the boisterous, larger-than-life character he is in Shakespeare’s plays and in, for example, Verdi’s final opera. The emotional involvement needed to make Hal’s eventual renunciation of Falstaff so moving is largely missing here: neither the libretto nor Lester Lynch’s performance as Falstaff manages to give the character very much depth. For that matter, there is not much to Hal (Nikolai Schukoff) either. The most impressive performance comes from Christopher Robertson as Henry IV: he has both the dignity and the self-doubt of an anguished ruler whose claim to the crown is shaky and who wishes better for his son. Plump Jack proceeds mainly in recitative, with occasional orchestral commentary on the words – a technique not all that different from the design of opera seria, and certainly one that give Shakespeare’s words their due by not subsuming them beneath music, but ultimately not a very dramatic approach. There are some very effective moments on this (+++) recording, but they are only moments, their quality not sustained throughout despite the truly excellent handling of the music by the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Ulf Schirmer.
Conrad Tao’s piano disc also gets a (+++) rating, not because of Tao’s performance, which is superior from start to finish, but because the music – composed by Getty over a period of half a century – shows little evidence of growth or development and mostly sounds like salon pieces or, in the case of Raise the Colors, like warmed-over Sousa. There are a number of small pleasures to be had here, for instance in the very brief movements of Homework Suite and in the multiple waltzes (four of them) included in the 11-movement Ancestor Suite. But all the pleasures here are small ones – the pieces are quite lovely and enjoyable as far as they go, but they do not go very far. Getty is a skilled composer technically, but not a particularly innovative one: his music stays with the listener only while it is being played and soon after simply evaporates. It is hard to imagine his works receiving better readings than the ones they get on these two PentaTone releases, but it is a bit of a shame to have so much pianistic, vocal and orchestral talent devoted to music that does not really repay the considerable investment of time and effort that these performances clearly entail.
Mozart: Symphony No. 41; Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan. ICA Classics. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Mozart: Symphony No. 39; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Debussy: Trois Nocturnes—Fêtes. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.
21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 1. Adam Levin, guitar. Naxos. $9.99.
Spellbound: Works for Orchestra and Large Ensemble by Paul Osterfield, Ronald Keith Parks, Timothy Lee Miller, Michael Murray, and Mark Eliot Jacobs. Navona. $14.99.
It is not always easy to understand the reason for the release of recordings that are clearly aimed at specialized niche audiences rather than more-general ones. On the other hand, it is easy to figure out the motivation some of the time, when the performances highlight particularly well-known artists or especially noteworthy performances. Or both, as in the case of the ICA Classics two-CD set of the April 6, 1962 concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan. This Royal Festival Hall performance, which was recorded by the BBC, was particularly noteworthy in its time for combining the world’s best orchestra with one of its best conductors – the best, in some views. Fifty years later, the concert’s luster is somewhat dimmer for reasons of both sound and repertoire, but the recording will nevertheless be of considerable interest to Karajan aficionados and anyone who may have seen references to his work with the Vienna Philharmonic – as opposed to his long-running role as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, which he brought very nearly to the same height as the Vienna ensemble. This is a monophonic recording from a time when Mozart was played with a very full orchestra and without taking most of the repeats indicated in his symphonic scores. The result here is a poised and elegant performance that is quite out of keeping with more-modern scholarship and more-recent (and more-accurate) presentations. Bruckner’s Seventh is given in the 1944 Haas edition, which omits percussion from the slow movement and makes a number of speculative changes in the score; nowadays the Nowak edition is usually preferred. Karajan gives a magisterial performance here but not an especially emotionally involving one. Anyone who knows Karajan’s Bruckner Seventh from April 1989 – his very last Vienna Philharmonic recording, also using the Haas edition – will find this rendition comparatively pale. Nevertheless, the symphony is beautifully played and the orchestra sounds excellent, even in mono. Certainly this recording is not for everyone, but it has many highly attractive elements.
So does the ICA Classics DVD of a much later Royal Festival Hall performance, this one dating to February 2, 1985 and featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its longtime music director, Sir Georg Solti. Last year’s centennial of Solti’s birth led to the rediscovery and release of many recordings as well as a slew of film and video biographies, and there are clearly still more to come. This DVD is primarily for people who want to see as well as hear Solti’s conducting. The performances are very good – by this time, the Chicago players responded almost intuitively to the direction of Solti, who had taken over the helm of the ensemble back in 1969 – but there is nothing extraordinary about them. The Mozart sounds fine, its rhythms clean and its tempos well-chosen, but the reading is more pleasant than revelatory. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, on the other hand, is top-notch in many ways, its “fate” motif ringing out clearly in the brass, its pacing handled ably from start to finish, and the pizzicati of its scherzo being especially attractive. Again, though, there is nothing really new or surprising in the interpretation. Still, this is a top-notch mainstream reading featuring tight direction and excellent playing throughout. And Debussy’s Fêtes makes a pleasant, rather unassuming encore. This is a DVD intended to appeal to Solti fans, of whom there are many.
If a conductor focus is what the ICA Classics releases are all about, a performer one is the reason for 21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 1, the first of a planned set of four CDs. Adam Levin is a very fine classical guitarist who clearly aims to move into the pantheon of Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams and Christopher Parkening. Whether he eventually will do so remains to be seen; what is clear already is that he offers an impressive combination of excellent technique with genuine musicianship – a real feeling for the pieces he performs. Or so at least is the case in the works on this CD, all of which were written between 2009 and 2011. The composers are not what will attract listeners to the disc; they are scarcely household names: Eduardo Morales-Caso, Salvador Brotons, David del Puerto, Carlos Cruz de Castro, Ricardo Llorca, Leonardo Balada and Octavio Vazquez. For that matter, the pieces themselves are not the primary attraction here, all of them being short and moderately interesting, and collectively wide-ranging in mood – from the quiet and contemplative to the bright and highly virtuosic. Five of the seven works are world première recordings, and two of those are based on earlier composers’ music and are particularly memorable: Llorca’s Handeliana (a set of variations on a theme from Xerxes) and Balada’s Caprichos No. 8: Abstractions of Albéniz. The focus of this CD, though, is far more on Levin than on any individual work, and the disc is intended for listeners who enjoy classical guitar and are interested in hearing some of the new music being created for it – and a current virtuoso interpreting that music.
The focus is also purely on hearing the contemporary on Navona’s new CD, Spellbound, an anthology disc whose five works by five composers really have very little in common and are unlikely to be of equal interest to any listener. Paul Osterfield, Ronald Keith Parks, Timothy Lee Miller, Michael Murray, and Mark Eliot Jacobs all clearly know how to write for orchestras or large ensembles, and all five choose the sorts of topics for their works that composers have picked for many years: myth and legend, stage works, evocative experiences and so forth. The various performers are all fine as well: Robert Ian Winstin conducts the Kiev Philharmonic in Parks’ Torque and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in Miller’s Alone: Suite for Orchestra; Petr Vronský conducts the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra in Jacobs’ Las Ranas de Katanchel, the orchestra’s strings in Murray’s Shakespeare-based Tempest Fantasy, and the orchestra’s chamber players in Osterfield’s Opaque Shadows. These are nicely shaped pieces, mostly in the 10-minute range, that function as miniature tone poems and, in the case of the 18-minute Las Ranas de Katanchel, full-length ones. They are well-structured and written with an understanding of orchestration and musical form, and each shows its composer’s communicative abilities. There is, however, little to choose among the pieces and little reason to look to the disc as any sort of musically coherent offering – it is simply a chance for listeners interested in contemporary compositions to hear a variety of them by a number of composers who use the sensibilities of today to tell or retell some modern stories and some old ones.
May 23, 2013
The Mighty Lalouche. By Matthew Olshan. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The Man Who Was Poe. By Avi. Scholastic. $6.99.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice II: The Watcher in the Shadows. By Chris Moriarty. Illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer. Harcourt. $16.99.
Touches of real history enliven these offbeat stories for different age groups – with two tales set in the 19th century and one in the early 20th. The Mighty Lalouche is based on the sport of French boxing, which was popular in the late 1800s and somewhat resembled modern kickboxing; and one of Sophie Blackall’s delightful illustrations is based on a photo (reproduced at the back of the book) of an electric race car from the early automotive age. The story itself – a wonderful concept by Matthew Olshan – is in the traditional “little guy makes good” mode, but is sufficiently offbeat in the telling and pictures so it is anything but formulaic. It is the tale of a small, slight postman named Lalouche who loses his job to automation (those odd-looking cars) and, desperate for money, signs up as a sparring partner for French boxers. He knows nothing of pugilism, much less the French style of the 1800s, but he soon proves to have so much talent and speed that he defeats all the huge, hulking fighters who expect to make short work of him – even those who bend the rules (and Lalouche’s body). Blackall’s illustrations really “pop” from the pages, their three-dimensional look resulting from her very clever process of assembling them in layers, then photographing them. The sense of perspective is overdone in an excellent way, and the characters’ sizes are just right: Lalouche is about the size of the trophies he wins, while his opponents are gigantic as well as very funny (their “biographies” are presented inside the front and back covers). Lalouche eventually retires undefeated and returns to his postal job when the automation attempt fails, and he gets a double happy ending: his job back and a new apartment with a gorgeous view of the Seine. Kids ages 4-8 will root for Lalouche from the start – likely knowing that he will win in the end, but not knowing how delightfully and in how many ways he, along with Olshan and Blackall, will triumph.
Avi’s The Man Who Was Poe is for older readers, ages 8-12, and was originally published in 1989. The new paperback edition offers a welcome chance to read (or re-read) this fascinating novel, in which Poe assumes the role of his famous detective character, C. Auguste Dupin, to help a young boy named Edmund whose sister has mysteriously disappeared. Avi peppers the book with reality: it takes place in 1848 in Providence, Rhode Island, where Poe did live for a time (as did Avi himself); it occurs while Poe is courting a character named Mrs. Whitman, a real woman whom the real Poe actually did court; and even the detail of Poe’s having a daguerreotype made – a scene that proves crucial to the plot – is taken from life, since Poe did have one made in 1848 in Providence at the establishment of Messrs. Masury and Hartshorn, the very place to which Poe and Edmund go in the book. The basic plot, of course, is entirely fictional, involving twins, international travel, stolen gold and a variety of nefarious doings; and the notion of Poe actually using what he called the “ratiocination” employed by his detective is rather far-fetched. But Avi interweaves reality and fiction skillfully through most of the book, even to having Poe perpetually in search of liquor and frequently besotted (in real life, it was because of his drinking that Mrs. Whitman refused him). The novel veers most strongly away from reality at its climax, which involves a boat chase; and there is one unexplained event – unusual for Avi – in which Edmund is “struck from behind” at a crucial moment but then apparently left alone by the evildoers so he can join in pursuing them. The book’s conceit, a clever one, is that Poe is trying to make Edmund’s story into a Poe story, which means it needs even more doom and death than has already occurred; and the similarity of Poe’s first name, Edgar, to that of Edmund, encourages Poe in this off-kilter attempt. Although not one of Avi’s very best books, The Man Who Was Poe stands well above typical preteen mystery adventures in its attention to detail, its sureness of pacing and the considerable interest that Avi brings both to the characters and to the setting.
The setting and details are among the major strengths of The Watcher in the Shadows as well – and this is a case where a sequel is actually superior to an original. Chris Moriarty here returns to the alternative history of New York City in the early 20th century that she began chronicling in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, but while the earlier book’s fascinating concepts were presented somewhat haphazardly, and its high-quality illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer were sometimes at odds with the text, here Moriarty and Geyer really hit their stride. The result is a taut, well-told, finely paced and genuinely frightening mystery in which family bonds are crucial – even when they are severed – and the existence and use of magic are even more enigmatic than they were in the previous book. The primary cast of characters returns here, with poor Jewish protagonist Sacha Kessler and his blue-blood friend Lily Astral helping Inspector Maximillian Wolf try to root out the improper use of magic in criminal and sometimes deadly enterprises. The polyglot New York of the real world is retained and accentuated here, with Jewish, Italian, Chinese and Irish immigrants fighting for a foothold; and the twisting of real-world names and motivations is fleshed out more satisfactorily than before, with special attention to Lily’s family (Astral rather than Astor) and to the primary evildoer, James Pierpont Morgaunt (rather than Morgan). Wolf, a rather thin character in the first book, is far more fully developed here, as we learn more about him, including where he lives and what some of his fears are. Sacha, who can see others’ magic but cannot – yet – perform any himself, also becomes a more fleshed-out character, learning far more about himself through the mistakes he makes and through a terrible loss that his family suffers at the book’s climax. The strange creature called a dybbuk reappears, of course, and even this shadowy thing becomes more solid and interesting by the book’s end – no less malevolent, but malevolent in, perhaps, a different way (a puzzle to be worked out in a later book). And there is a considerable role this time for a woman who practically oozes evil but, at the same time, exercises considerable fascination on the reader as well as on the book’s other characters: Morgaunt’s librarian, Bella de Serpa, “one of the most talked-about women in New York,” around whom “rumors flocked…like art collectors around a priceless Renaissance Madonna,” although “none of the rumors were even remotely as interesting as Bella de Serpa herself.” What gets the plot moving here and makes it possible for readers who missed the earlier book to pick this one up and start with it, if they so desire, is a very strange murder: a famous vaudeville clarinetist called the Klezmer King is fried on stage, during a show, by his electric tuxedo. Gallows humor, yes, and there is a certain amount of it here to leaven what is essentially a serious and very fast-paced adventure. Sacha grows up quite a bit in this book: in a confrontation with gangster Meyer Minsky (rather than Lansky), in his ongoing and developing relationships with Lily and Inspector Wolf, and in his meeting in Chinatown with Shen – one of the best characters from the previous book, equally intriguing this time. The period elements of The Watcher in the Shadows are effectively integrated into the invented ones, and the book as a whole succeeds on multiple levels: as mystery, as a foray into magic, as a combination of real and alternative history, and as an offbeat coming-of-age novel. There will certainly be at least one more book to come in this series – this one’s ending makes that clear – and readers will be looking forward to it for their next trip back, or sideways, in time.
A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher. By Sue Halpern. Riverhead. $26.95.
The thing about the subtitle of Sue Halpern’s book is that one word is wrong: “unlikely.” There is nothing the slightest bit unlikely about learning elements of “the good life” from dogs, whose relationship with humans is unique and whose live-in-the-moment lifestyle is one to which we non-canines can well aspire. The book’s title sounds like the start of a joke, and may bring to mind an old and highly unethical suggestion: lock your dog and your spouse in a car trunk for a day, then open the trunk – which one is glad to see you? As unpleasant as that idea would be in reality, it encapsulates something about dogs: give them many, many unpleasant moments to live through, and they will make the best of them; and then, as soon as you give them a pleasant moment (the opened car trunk), they will live in that moment with enthusiasm. It is not that they lack memory but that they use it differently from the way people do – better, some would certainly argue.
Whether dogs learn more from us or we from them is a philosophical question whose answer, like most such, largely depends on the thinking of the questioner. Halpern’s book includes the ways in which she teaches her labradoodle, Pransky, as well as those in which Pransky teaches her, and what is most striking about the lessons is that while Pransky learns practical things – including how to get certified as a therapy dog – Halpern learns ones that do not seem to be “practical” in the same way but that are, in the long run, even more valuable. She learns how to be a better human being.
A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home could easily be an exercise in treacle, and it does get rather sticky at times, but by and large, the book is an adventure in which human and dog play equal but differing roles. Halpern and Pransky spend Tuesdays visiting the residents of a public nursing home, encountering pretty much all the amusing and heartbreaking events that a reader will expect, interacting and bonding with the residents in a variety of ways, with Pransky’s instinctive compassion frequently getting the better of Halpern’s more-measured concern. Halpern arranges the book according to the seven virtues as enumerated in Catholicism: love, hope, faith, prudence, justice, fortitude and restraint. The organizing device is convenient but unnecessary, since many of the events in the book fit more than one category. Some, though, fit in only one place: it makes perfect sense for Halpern to place her leash training of Pransky under “Restraint,” with Pransky resisting not out of orneriness but from over-enthusiasm. Halpern does know why this sort of training is crucial: “While to the untrained eye a nursing home may be a hotbed of lassitude, almost everything that goes on there is an accident waiting to happen – people moving slowly, pushing walkers; people breathing with oxygen, tethered to a tank; people undergoing physical therapy in the hallways; people with bad backs who want to bend over to pet your dog – and to whatever extent possible, you want to know that your dog knows how to behave, and that it will listen to you and instantly obey your commands.”
Yes, Pransky and Halpern get certified (or there would be no book), and soon they are paying nursing-home visits that Pransky, being a dog, thoroughly enjoys. Halpern, being a human, finds them making her contemplative: “Did God or religion or faith – whatever that was – become more present and more important when you lived – not to put too fine a point on it – in the shadow of death?” And it is not just the mortality of the nursing-home patients that Halpern thinks about – she contemplates dogs’ lifespans, too, in one of her most affecting passages: “The thing about dogs – the worst thing about dogs – is that they are always dying. Even when they live relatively long lives, those lives are too short…The cratering loss experienced when a dog dies is different from the cratering loss experienced when other loved ones die because the whole relationship, at its core, is about nothing but mutual trust, a trust that is elemental, direct, and uncomplicated. The death of a dog feels like a failure. It feels like goodness itself has been extinguished.” Set against this thought are comments like the one Halpern makes about one of the nursing-home residents: “Even if Clyde did not look at his tomato plants and think, consciously, ‘Here is the cycle of life,’ growing tomatoes gave him a stake in the future, which is how hope prospers. This was a useful thought to hold onto when Clyde began to fade.” The scene that follows this observation is heartrending – as are a number of scenes in the book – but in context, it is not overdone.
Halpern does a particularly good job of balancing the emotional elements of A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home with the practicalities of the experiences that she and Pransky share. “Love was what she did at County, it was what she dispensed and what she engendered. This all came naturally, but once we stepped into County, it was also her job. For my therapy dog, specifically, as for therapy dogs in general, giving and receiving love was as much a vocation as herding was to a border collie. …This was not because she loved unconditionally, but because she loved nonjudgmentally.” And there we have, ultimately, the thinking – and feeling – at the heart of this book, and at the heart of human-canine interactions in general. “In my mind, Pransky’s love was like excess battery capacity that would dissipate if it wasn’t used, but could be shared with others who needed a boost. Once we had been at County for a while, though, I realized I was wrong about this. My dog did not have extra love to give away. Rather, she had the ability to find, tap, and release the reserves in the people she met there.” So it is for this therapy dog and her person, in a story that has something therapeutic in it for dog lovers and other humans everywhere.
How to Talk Minnesotan. By Howard Mohr. Penguin. $15.
The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age. By the Writers of SciLance. Edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Da Capo. $17.50.
Instruction manuals can be lighthearted, even frivolous, or super-serious. Here we have one of each. Howard Mohr’s 1987 book, How to Talk Minnesotan, has now been “revised for the 21st century,” which seems a bit odd in light of the fact that the book finds Minnesota largely living in the 19th. Updated or not, the book is filled with the kind of humor usually described as “homespun,” not in the Mark Twain sense but in the Prairie Home Companion sense – no surprise, since Mohr used to write for the show. “If winning is your main goal in Minnesota games of chance, you may win, but you certainly will not be taken as a Minnesotan if you make too big a deal out of it.” “Being too direct in Minnesota is a common mistake made by visitors.” “One natural response to a controversial statement in Minnesota is to end the discussion by saying that’s different.” “Nearly 50 percent of Minnesota conversations are conducted through the side window of a car or pickup while leaning on the fender or hood, 30 percent are conducted over a little lunch at the kitchen table, 15 percent in a rowboat, and the remaining 5 percent take place in movie theaters during the movie. According to a recent study.” The whole book is full of talk like this, except for the portions explaining how to talk like this. The writing is too good-humored to be insulting, too mild to get anyone’s back up (much less the back of anyone from Minnesota), and too low-key to be much fun for anyone who is not a fan of Prairie Home Companion and similar fare. There are chapters on “Lutefisk,” “Oh, for and Heckuva Deal,” “What to Say When Someone Shows You His Smartphone,” “Wyoming, Golf, and the Law, Minnesota-Style,” “Though, Groves, Seniors, and Poker Parties,” and so on. The chapter titles are pithier (the middle letters there are th) than the chapters themselves, which is to say that Mohr tends to take a while getting to the point, which is to say that there is a lot of Mohr-ian Minnesotan in the writing about Minnesota here. Updates on the 1987 edition of the book are scattered throughout, for example regarding romance and marriage: “In 2012 courting in Minnesota by e-mail, by Facebook, and even (though rather rare) by Twitter has a particular fascination for Minnesota men especially, because not one of these media has direct physical contact as a factor in finding a potential love of one’s life, and heck, that sure saves a lot trouble of the kind you can imagine if you had to be there right in person and think of something to say, or be expected to hug or something, or go to a fancy restaurant.” Clearly neither Mohr nor Minnesota has progressed significantly, except in superficial ways, since 1987, and clearly that will make not one whit of difference to anyone wishing to connect with his or her roots, real or imagined, in the Gopher State.
On the other side of the seriousness scale, the 35 members of an online science writers’ group called SciLance offer information on how to work effectively within their field in The Science Writers’ Handbook, which is about as soberly written a book as anyone could want. That leads to an issue not addressed in the book: one reason much science writing is nearly unreadable is that it pays far more attention to accuracy than to comprehensibility. Many other matters, though, are addressed here. The book is divided into three parts called “The Skilled Science Writer,” “The Sane Science Writer” and “The Solvent Science Writer,” the idea being to help readers learn the basic skills of the field, figure out how to be productive in balancing work and the rest of life, and then actually make a living on a freelance science writer’s income. Probably most people considering science writing should check out the final section first to find out about contracts, health insurance, fellowships, social networks and other elements of solvency with which would-be science writers need to be comfortable if they are going to try to make a living in the field. Since each chapter within the three sections is written by a different person, the tone of the book varies quite a bit; and to the extent that the experiences discussed are personal ones, those vary a lot, too. Thus, Emma Marris discusses creating a book about science and offers the subhead, “Writing the Damn Thing,” under which she says, “After the Sturm und Drang of seeking a book contract, it can come as rather a shock that once one is secured you actually have to write the book.” And the reader must decide whether that statement is applicable to him or her – along with such followup remarks as one about the “distraction from book writing [of] the social media and self-branding that seems to take an increasingly large share of writers’ time these days.” Marris also warns that, with a first book, “Your fear-generating apparatus is not yet tuned to the scale of a book, so The Fear may arrive just a little late.” Nor is this the only appearance of capital-F Fear. Andreas von Bubnoff, for instance, brings it up at the very start of a chapter called “Getting the Story, and Getting It Right,” with the comment, “Once you have landed that assignment and have a deadline, you may start to feel what we call ‘The Fear’: That this time, you won’t make it.” If issues of taxes and retirement savings – also covered in the book, albeit in brief – are not scary enough to turn readers away from science writing, perhaps The Fear will be. It is actually a bit difficult to be sure whether the SciLance writers want to bring new people into the science-writing fold or intimidate potential competitors. A good way to decide whether the whole science-writing area appeals to you is to look at the “SciLance says” bullet points at the end of chapters and see whether they make you want to read a chapter in detail or run the other way. “Don’t expect the same level of productivity that you had pre-kids,” says a bullet point at the end of “Children and Deadlines.” “Use envy to show what you want. If you envy a friend’s book, for example, get to work on your stalled book proposal” – this, at the end of the chapter called “Beyond Compare.” “There is no one set of ethical guidelines for science writing or journalism. Each must find his or her own path,” is a comment at the conclusion of “The Ethical Science Writer.” “Figure out how much human interaction you need and want, and plan your work schedule accordingly,” is a bullet point at the end of “The Loneliness of the Science Writer.” If these and similar remarks make you feel that science writing is dismal, dull and frustrating, then The Science Writers’ Handbook will at least have shown that the field is not for you – and indeed, freelance writing in general may be unappealing, since much that this book discusses is equally applicable to other forms of freelancing. If, on the other hand, reading the bullet points makes you feel enthusiastic about plunging headlong into the chapters themselves and getting details on what the everyday lives of science writers (at least the ones contributing to this book) are like, then you will find The Science Writers’ Handbook a useful and even uplifting guide to creating and selling journalistic reports on the many scientific advances of modern times and their impact on people’s everyday lives.
D’Indy: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français; Prelude to Act I of “Fervaal”; Saugefleurie; Médée. Louis Lortie, piano; Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $18.99.
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Lorin Maazel. BR Klassik. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Weill: Zaubernacht. Arte Ensemble with Ania Vegry, soprano. CPO. $16.99.
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Burkhard Fritz, tenor; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam, conducted by Marc Albrecht. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
The fifth excellent volume in Chandos’ survey of the orchestral music of Vincent d’Indy provides an unusually clear picture of this composer’s maturation – and, quite unintentionally, gives some hints as to why his music, as well-made as it is, has not retained as much popularity as that of d’Indy’s contemporaries Debussy and Ravel. The earliest work here, Saugefleurie, dates to 1884, when d’Indy was 33, and shows the clear influence of Wagner – whose works meant a great deal to d’Indy until he found his own voice. But the piece, an orchestral suite portraying the doomed love of a fairy for a prince and based on a thoroughly Romantic and rather naïve poem by Robert de Bonnières that Chandos helpfully includes with the CD, lacks both Wagner’s drama and his sense of impending doom. It is nicely put together and transparently orchestrated, but in all is rather pale. Two years later, d’Indy composed what was once a frequently played work: Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français (“Symphony on a French mountain air”). But this piece has not retained the popularity of two other French symphonies of the same decade: Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” and Franck’s in D minor. A likely reason is that d’Indy’s symphony, although cleverly constructed from a lovely and authentic folk melody, is comparatively monochromatic and offers minimal drama except in a short section of the finale. This is atmospheric and pleasant music that makes a strong impression when played as well as it is by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Rumon Gamba – and with Louis Lortie handling the obbligato piano part both skillfully and unobtrusively. But the symphony simply does not have the contrasts of mood and tempo that those of Saint-Saëns and Franck possess. D’Indy’s music had moved to a more-mature phase by the time he composed his first opera, Fervaal, completed in 1895, and extracted a suite from his music for Catulle Mendès’ drama Médée in 1898. By that time, d’Indy’s version of Impressionism had fully taken hold, with the quiet and atmospheric opera prelude ably portraying the sleeping title character without hinting in any way at the drama and heartbreak that are to come in the plot. Similarly, the story of Medea and Jason, as intense as any from mythic times, is smoothed over in d’Indy’s music, with sections labeled Lent et calme, Très lent (three times) and Plus lent pulling the music into a near-dreamlike state that is at odds with the drama and horror of the story. D’Indy’s tone painting is at its best in scenes of gentleness and pastoral relaxation, but that alone is not enough to sustain his longer-form music or, apparently, make it attractive to concertgoers on a continuing basis.
All the music of Schubert, on the other hand, is very attractive indeed – tuneful, often bright, and beautifully flowing. With Schubert, who lived to be only 31, it is very difficult indeed to say which works are those of youth and which are more mature; and the high quality of his music throughout his life makes the task even harder. But certainly when it comes to symphonies, it is clear that the final two – the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” – are on a different level from that of the earlier ones. Schubert actually left quite a few symphonies unfinished, and even completed one in short score (No. 7) that is almost never heard and that is responsible for the famed two-movement B minor work sometimes being called “No. 7” and sometimes “No. 8.” Lorin Maazel and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks went through the traditional Schubert cycle at a series of live performances in Munich in 2001, and it is those readings that BR Klassik has now made available. Maazel proves to have an excellent way with these works, allowing the first six plenty of lightness and vivacity while giving the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” considerably greater weight and stature. The early symphonies are far from “throwaways” in this cycle – for example, No. 1 is delivered with a fair amount of pomp, while No. 2 is presented with an almost flirtatious lightness that is very enjoyable indeed. And Maazel allows for the pathos of No. 4 while never attempting to have it live up to its rather inappropriate title of “Tragic”; in fact, the speedy finale is notably buoyant. For the “Unfinished,” Maazel does a fine job distinguishing the melodic lines and harmonies of the two movements while keeping their tempos as close to each other as Schubert rather disconcertingly intended (the first movement is Allegro moderato, the second Andante con moto, which is not all that different). And in the “Great C Major,” whose length – famously described by Schumann as “celestial” – can all too easily lead to discursive performances that sound overly drawn out, Maazel keeps the music moving smartly in the outer movements and Scherzo while allowing the Andante con moto (the same tempo designation as in the “Unfinished”) plenty of room to breathe and expand. Unfortunately, here and elsewhere in these performances, Maazel eschews the exposition repeats that Schubert wanted and that would give all the symphonies the proper scale – a now-outmoded approach common decades ago but much rarer, thank goodness, in the 21st century. There are also some miscalculations in this set, such as too-slow trios in several symphonies’ third movements and a finale of No. 6 that is much too fast (the tempo marking is Allegro moderato, not Allegro molto). Still, the orchestra plays all these works splendidly, and the set as a whole showcases the skill and beauty that Schubert, both in youth and in his far-too-truncated maturity, brought to the symphonic form.
A century after Schubert, although lives tended to be longer, many composers continued to die young. Kurt Weill was one, living to be only 50. Weill’s first stage work, composed when the composer was 22, was a children’s pantomime called Zaubernacht. The first-ever recording of the work in Weill’s original orchestration – which was rediscovered only in 2006 – is now available from CPO, and it is a real treat for anyone interested in Weill’s early cabaret-style Weimar Republic music. The work is in 25 short sections that take place between midnight and 6:00 a.m., a time when toys awaken and lead their own lives. They wake up at the behest of the Toy Fairy, whose “awakening” song is nicely sung by Ania Vegry; a concluding song returning the toys to sleep has not been rediscovered. In any case, the remainder of Zaubernacht is purely instrumental, scored by Weill for a very small ensemble of string quartet, double bass, flute, bassoon, piano and percussion – the percussion being particularly prominent and important in differentiating sections designed for the various toys. This is occasional music, although Weill later turned parts of it into a work for symphony orchestra known as Quodlibet, his Op. 9. The music is light and lighthearted, filled with attractive effects, and in some elements clearly looks ahead to The Threepenny Opera and other works of Weill’s maturity – for instance in a section called Anmutig bewegt (“graceful moves”) and in a short funeral march (there are marches, waltzes and other forms here). The Arte Ensemble handles Zaubernacht with grace and style, not trying to make it more significant than it was intended to be, but allowing its rather naïve (although sometimes rhythmically tricky) passages to flow clearly and cleanly. This is not major or mature Weill, but it is interesting for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is that it was during casting for Zaubernacht that Weill first saw Lotte Lenya (who, however, could not see him in his position behind the piano in the orchestra pit).
Gustav Mahler also died at 50 – seven weeks before his 51st birthday – but left a far larger imprimatur on classical music than Weill did. Das Lied von der Erde is very much a work of Mahler’s maturity, having been composed in 1908-09, after the Eighth Symphony, at the most deeply depressing time of Mahler’s life: his oldest daughter had just died, he had buckled to intense pressure and relinquished his position as director of the court opera, and he had been given the diagnosis of a heart ailment that would soon kill him. As personal in expression as Zaubernacht is impersonal, as intense as Weill’s work is light, as adult in focus as the Weill pantomime is child-oriented, Das Lied von der Erde would be nearly unbearable to hear had Mahler not worked his own Zauber (magic) on the music to create a piece that speaks strongly to the transient human condition but that holds out, at its conclusion, a promise of some (admittedly undefined) eternity. Written for two voices (tenor and alto or baritone, although the paired male voices are rarely used), Das Lied von der Erde is really a melding of three voices: those of the soloists and that of the orchestra, which propels the work, comments on the vocal lines, and presents a crucial non-vocal transition midway through the final Der Abschied (in somewhat the same way that the orchestra alone introduces the second part of the Eighth Symphony). The new PentaTone SACD of Das Lied von der Erde has particularly high-quality sound and really fine playing by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Amsterdam, under Marc Albrecht. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sings her three songs, which make up three-quarters of the total work, with fine, deep tone and strong expressiveness. Unfortunately, tenor Burkhard Fritz is not at the same level: he has difficulty projecting over the sound of the orchestra at times, especially in the opening Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, and his voice occasionally sounds strained. Yet he too sings with emotional involvement, and that goes a long way toward making this very dark and very mature work as effective as it can be, with a depth earned through suffering and, in Mahler’s case, a style so advanced and personal that Das Lied von der Erde proved unique: it is one of those pieces whose form no other composer has copied.
Wagner: Complete Piano Works. Dario Bonuccelli, piano. Dynamic. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Wagner: Complete Piano Works. Pier Paolo Vincenzi, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
It is scarcely a surprise that the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth has led to an upsurge in recordings of his works, including consideration or reconsideration of elements of Wagner’s music to which attention is rarely paid – such as his forays into occasional music and the symphony, and his earliest operas. Thus, the appearance on CD of Wagner’s piano music is only to be expected. But the appearance of two nearly simultaneous releases of his complete piano works – both by young Italian pianists – is something of a surprise, and as it turns out, a very pleasant one.
Both Dario Bonuccelli (born 1985) and Pier Paolo Vincenzi (born 1980) turn out to have plenty of technique and a sound stylistic understanding of this music. And the performances by both show the same thing: although Wagner wrote two large-scale piano sonatas and a Fantasia of similar extent (it lasts half an hour), it is in his smaller-scale works that more-personal elements of the composer come through. A few of these smaller pieces are salon music or thank-you notes to patrons, but several – especially those dedicated to or intended for Mathilde Wesendonck, one of the great loves of Wagner’s life and the inspiration for some of his greatest works (including Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) – display aspects of Wagner’s personality in ways that are both revelatory and charming.
There turns out to be no definitive reason to opt for one of these two-CD sets over the other. Bonuccelli’s readings tend to be slightly more dramatic than Vincenzi’s and are often, although not always, somewhat slower and more stately. Vincenzi’s have greater transparency and often feature a pleasantly light touch that is in keeping with the music but is not something one would usually associate with Wagner. Individual works may go one way or the other: Bonuccelli has a stronger grasp of the dramatic portions of the Fantasia, for example, but Vincenzi does a better job with a Polonaise in which Bonuccelli can be annoyingly heard tapping his foot throughout – a habit he also has elsewhere, but thankfully much less intrusively. Still, neither performer is consistently stronger than the other. The sound quality of the pianos does differ: Vincenzi plays a clear-sounding Fazioli, while Bonuccelli’s instrument, which is not identified, has a darker, richer tone. The sequence of works differs between the two sets, but not in a way that favors one over the other. The releases do handle the fugue that Wagner wrote for his Große Sonate, Op. 4, but then dropped, differently: Bonuccelli offers it as a separate piece, a sort of appendix, while Vincenzi plays the entire third movement of the sonata two ways – once with the fugue and once without it. The sound quality of the CDs is comparable, despite the fact that the Dynamic set costs nearly twice as much as the Brilliant Classics one – perhaps a deciding factor for some listeners. The fact is that no one will go wrong with either of these releases.
But why own either one? The reason, of course, is the music; and that takes us back to what Wagner’s output for the piano shows about the composer. Wagner was not a very good pianist, a fact that is easy to forget in light of Liszt’s pianistic brilliance in his many Wagner transcriptions and arrangements. But Wagner was quite capable of creating solid, large-scale sonatas, including a four-movement one in B-flat in 1831 and the three-movement Große Sonate in A a year later. Both are derivative – the former has some of the spirit of Haydn and Mozart; the latter contains echoes of late Beethoven, and its finale sounds a great deal like Weber – but both are well-constructed and effective in their own ways. The Fantasia, like the first sonata, dates to 1831, and Wagner seems more comfortable with its freer form than with the restrictions inherent in sonata construction – the work’s alternation of recitative-like and dramatic passages is particularly effective. Yet it is the much shorter, one-movement Wesendonck sonata, with the very personal title Eine Sonate für das Album von Frau M.W., that is Wagner’s most effective extended piano work, with a winning mixture of emotion and structural design that incorporates references both to Tannhäuser and to Tristan.
Wagner’s remaining, shorter piano works are sometimes out-and-out trifles – one is a 40-second-long polka, for example, and another is a polonaise for piano four hands that ups the number of Italian pianists in these releases to four (Bonuccelli is joined by Marco Vincenzi – presumably no relation to Pier Paolo Vincenzi, who is joined by Federica Ferrati). But pleasantries abound in the shorter works, and so does some profundity, as in Schluß zum Vorspiel von Tristan und Isolde, another piece Wagner wrote for and dedicated to Mathilde Wesendonck. And one of the intriguing differences between these two recordings has to do with a minute-and-a-half piece simply called Elegie – a work whose intensity and harmonic boldness belie its length. The booklet notes to the Bonuccelli release give the work’s date as 1881, which would make it Wagner’s last piece; but those to Vincenzi’s recording, which are by the pianist himself, give the date of the Elegie as 1859 and say it “was for a long time erroneously thought to be Wagner’s last composition.” Without getting into the arguments about this piece’s provenance, it is worth noting that in this case, the performances by Bonuccelli and Vincenzi are exactly the same length – evidence, perhaps, that the communicative power of Wagner’s piano music is more important than academic and musicological discussions of the ways in which these pieces fit within the composer’s life and oeuvre.