August 29, 2013


The Great American Dust Bowl. By Don Brown. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

About Time: A First Look at Time and Clocks. By Bruce Koscielniak. Sandpiper. $6.99.

     Don Brown’s The Great American Dust Bowl looks like a graphic novel, reads like a graphic novel and is paced like a graphic novel, but it happens to be fact, not fiction – and some terrifying fact at that, every bit as scary as what graphic novels typically offer. Brown builds the book toward the climactic dust storm of April 14, 1935, by starting with that storm – shown as a roiling dark-brown cloud before which animals as well as people are fleeing – and then backtracking to the history and prehistory of the American Midwest, briefly mentioning everything from the raising of the Rocky Mountains to the switch from an unsuccessful cattle-farming economy to one based on subsistence farming. The farm economy significantly contributed to the drying out of land that had long been arid already, and by 1931, when “the rains stopped and the misery of the Southern Plains deepened,” the scene was set for dust storms the likes of which no one in the region had ever seen before. Dust does not seem like much – Brown makes the point that five specks could fit within the period at the end of one of his sentences – so the sheer scale of the dust storms that swept the Plains during the 1930s is almost impossible to imagine. Brown rises to the occasion superbly, producing a spare narration and a set of illustrations done almost entirely in earth tones, with a mixture of yellow, brown and orange visually communicating the unrelenting dryness of the region at this time. Carefully understated drawings take on considerable meaning: a farmer glances heavenward, holding his hand out, palm up, in a hopeful gesture for rain that does not come; a woman’s expression changes significantly and resignedly after she tastes food into which dust from the storms has become mixed; a child packs his stuffed bunny as his family, beaten by the weather, pulls up stakes to leave the devastated region. Throughout The Great American Dust Bowl, Brown includes comments from people who were there and who lived through the devastation – quotations from the Oklahoma Oral History Research Project (OOHRP) are especially telling and unconsciously dramatic: "We watched the weather – we’d look up there and see a little cloud. Oh, we’d be so excited to see it. Oh, I know it – just prayed, ‘Come on, give us some drops.’” By the time Brown’s book reaches the climax of the almost unbelievable dust storm of April 14, 1935 – which was by no means the last of the storms – readers will fully understand another quotation from OOHRP: “I thought it was the last day of the world!” And they will have learned about some byways of Dust Bowl times, including reporter Robert Geiger, who covered the events and came up with the “Dust Bowl” name; phony rainmakers whose kites carried dynamite to clouds to try to explode water from them; eerie blue-glowing barbed wire – an effect of the swirling dust; and much more. Evocative, moody and genuinely enthralling, The Great American Dust Bowl is both a superb graphic novel and an astonishingly inventive history book. And it ends, almost offhandedly and after the narrative concludes, with a pair of thought-provoking photographs, one showing a dust storm in Texas in 1935 and one showing a gigantic storm of the same type over Phoenix, Arizona – in 2011. The juxtaposition is intense and highly thought-provoking.

     More conventional in approach but still very effective and well written and illustrated, Bruce Koscielniak’s About Time – originally published in 2004 and now available in paperback – starts and ends with a mystery: what exactly is time? Most of the book is about how time is measured, but what exactly is being measured? The question is one for philosophers, not writers of history, but it hangs over the entire book and lends it depth beyond its discussion of the various ways time has been kept for millennia. Koscielniak starts with astronomical time, explaining years, months and days by reference to Earth and the sun; then discusses calendars from the age of the Sumerians to the Gregorian calendar that is widely used today (mentioning along the way that the ancient Greeks used three 10-day weeks per month, while the Romans used an eight-day week until about the year 200). The real fascination of the book, though, comes as Koscielniak starts writing about and showing the constructions that people have built to measure and keep track of time. There are, for example, Egyptian obelisks and water clocks – the latter being a form of timekeeping also used by the Greeks and Romans – although, as Koscielniak points out, “water can freeze, produce algae, and block spouts with sediment and corrosion, all causing loss of accuracy in timekeeping.” The contrasts of the water clocks – from highly elaborate Chinese ones to later but simpler models used in medieval Europe – are very interesting, with Koscielniak’s straightforward illustrations giving a good sense of the general appearance of the timepieces and their functional elements. Then comes the invention, in the 13th century, of the first all-mechanical clock, and Koscielniak discusses escapements, pallets, weights, cranks, verges, crown wheels and other elements of clockmaking clearly – and illustrates the various parts well. Along the way, he explains where the word “clock” itself comes from (probably from a German word meaning “bell”) and why small portable timepieces are called watches (guards – known as watchmen – carried small clocks so they knew how long to stay at each duty post). Tracing clockmaking and watchmaking through pendulums to springs, tuning forks, quartz movements and atomic vibrations, Koscielniak brings this history of timekeeping to the present. But as he points out, ever since Einstein’s theories caused people to think of time in new ways more than a century ago, we have had even more reasons than in the past to consider just what time is. The way we measure it has changed, but its mystery endures.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski. LPO. $16.99.

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem. Anna Lucia Richter, soprano; Stephan Genz, baritone; MDR Leipzig Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $9.99.

Mozart: Requiem. Anna Prohaska, soprano; Sara Mingardo, alto; Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; René Pape, bass; Bavarian Radio Choir, Swedish Radio Choir and Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. Accentus Music Blu-ray Disc. $39.99.

     Bruckner wrote three Masses and a Te Deum, but never a Requiem. Yet this highly religious composer, who dedicated more than one composition to God, certainly had the sensibility to create a Requiem if he had wanted to – as is shown in the second movement of his Symphony No. 7, written in the knowledge that his idol, Wagner, had not long to live. The symphony’s first performance, a huge triumph for Bruckner, came in 1884, the year after Wagner’s death, but whether there was anything bittersweet for the composer on the occasion is unknown. The Seventh remains one of Bruckner’s most popular symphonies and one of his most effective, and Stanisław Skrowaczewski gives it a highly impassioned, yet stately, performance in a live recording from October 2012 – just weeks after this distinguished conductor’s 89th birthday. As with most Bruckner symphonies, there are differing and sometimes competing versions of the Seventh available, the original 1883 one (played at the première) unfortunately being lost.  The 1944 Haas edition and 1954 one from Nowak are the two most often performed, but Skrowaczewski has made his own, and uses it in this performance. Details of the differences will not be apparent to most listeners, although Skrowaczewski does retain the cymbal clash and other percussion at the climax of the Adagio (as does Nowak but not Haas). What will be clear to listeners is that Skrowaczewski has a determinedly old-fashioned and, in its way, highly effective approach to the symphony, seeing it as a glorious edifice whose grandeur is its primary feature and whose Wagner-requiem second movement is its heart if not its climax. Stately, well-paced (on the slow side but without dragging), and played with warmth and sonic beauty by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, this Bruckner Seventh is testimony both to Skrowaczewski’s thoughtfulness in handling the works of this composer and to the composer/conductor’s own understanding of how to pace and build a grand work that sustains emotionally from start to finish.

     Marin Alsop could use some lessons from Skrowaczewski. Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem predates Bruckner’s Seventh by some 15 years and is its equal in scope and scale. But Alsop seems somewhat impatient with it, offering a performance that runs less than 65 minutes and often seems superficial if not overtly rushed. Alsop often evinces a certain discomfort with standard-repertoire works, especially those of the Romantic era, tending to perform them dutifully but without any special insight. She extracts very fine playing from her forces here – soloists, chorus and orchestra all are responsive, involved and clearly committed to the music – but the emotional core of this (+++) reading is not what it should be. Brahms’ work is quite different from traditional Catholic Requiems, using texts from Luther’s translation of the Bible and focusing more on the living who must go on after the death of a loved one than on the dead and the hope of their eventual resurrection. Some performances of Brahms’ work make it almost turgid, and its tempos can be painfully slow in some conductors’ readings; certainly Alsop cannot be accused of those excesses. But she tends to go too far in the opposite direction, never into actual lightness – the work scarcely permits that – but into a kind of blasé near-indifference that prevents the heartfelt sentiments of Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras and Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit from coming through as effectively as they can. Certainly this performance is well played and well sung, but it is not emotionally evocative or convincing in the way that Ein Deutsches Requiem can be, and does not leave listeners feeling either especially sad or particularly uplifted. The beauties of the music come through, but its depths do not.

     One of the great settings of the traditional Catholic Requiem is Mozart’s, and it does get a highly effective reading in a live recording from the Lucerne Festival in August 2012. Mozart’s incomplete Requiem is a surprisingly hopeful work, and it is its essence of forgiveness and consolation on which Claudio Abbado focuses to fine effect in this (++++) performance. Much of the credit for the quality here goes to the quartet of soloists: Anna Prohaska, Sara Mingardo, Maximilian Schmitt and René Pape are all first-class singers, and Abbado melds them skillfully in sections whose tonal beauty is matched by the expressiveness of the music throughout. Abbado does not use the most commonly heard version of this work, the one finished by Franz Xaver Süssmayr: the Sanctus here was completed by Robert Levin. The non-Mozart potions of the music are, in any case, true to the form and orchestration of what Mozart himself wrote. What is most impressive here is that Abbado clearly shapes the work as a totality, despite its incompleteness, and by focusing on consoling rather than mourning, he produces a reading that makes the promise of redemption the central element of the music, while not ignoring the sadness that lies at the heart of every Requiem, by Mozart or anyone else. The biggest failing of the recording is not in the performance but in the pricing: the 60-minute Requiem is the only work here, and $40 for a Blu-ray Disc of this single work – which is available in many other, equally fine renditions – seems excessive. Listeners who want to see as well as hear this specific performance and who strongly favor the Blu-ray format will, however, find Abbado’s reading a top-notch one visually and sonically as well as musically.

(+++) BYWAYS

Cantus: Music of Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich and Hywel Davies. Kuniko Kato, percussion. Linn Records. $22.99.

Possessed: Music of Santiago de Murcia, Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume Dufay, Vincent Youmans, Caitriona O’Leary and others. EX. Heresy. $16.99.

Yarlung Records: The First Seven Years—Music of Beethoven, Mahler, Adams, Bach, Lutoslawski, Harrison, des Prez and others. Yarlung. $9.99.

     Almost by definition, classical-music anthologies are limited-interest items. There may be considerable enjoyment at a concert from seeing and hearing performers handle the works of multiple composers, but with the visual element missing, recordings that hopscotch from one composer to the next and showcase the performer more than the music are likely to be satisfying primarily to those interested in hearing a considerable amount of music played on instruments that tend to get short shrift in sol roles in the concert hall – such as the classical accordion or, more to the point with the disc called Cantus, percussion. Kuniko Kato, who generally uses only the name Kuniko, is a very fine percussionist who is strongly dedicated to the music of contemporary composers – so strongly that she not only gives world premières of their music but also arranges some of their works for percussion so she can perform them as well. Given the fact that some of these pieces, in any form, are a bit of an acquired taste, it is hard to say to whom Kuniko’s percussion versions will appeal – listeners must first be interested in the works of Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich and Hywel Davies, then in percussion, to find this CD appealing. The disc will be of most interest to fans of Pärt, since four of the six works here are by him: Für Alina (1976/2012) for vibraphone and crotales; Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977/2012) for marimba; Fratres (1977/2012) for marimba and vibraphone; and Spiegel im Spiegel (1978/2012) for marimba and bells. Kuniko’s arrangements are attractive, and she certainly plays them well, although there is something of a surfeit of percussion sounds after a while: this CD is better heard over several listening sessions than all at once. The works by Pärt are interspersed with Reich’s New York Counterpoint (1985/2012) for marimba and Davies’ Purl Ground (2003), resulting in a CD whose total length of about 52 minutes seems longer if the disc is heard straight through. This is partly because of the sonic environment, which tends to blur a bit no matter how skillfully Kuniko plays, and partly because many of the composers’ techniques are sufficiently similar so that their music sometimes borders on the interchangeable.

     There is nothing interchangeable about the works of the composers whose music is performed by the early-music ensemble EX (sometimes spelled “eX”). And there is certainly something unusual in the exceptionally lurid packaging of this CD, which looks like a cross between a bad horror movie and a strip show – scarcely what classical CDs usually look like, which of course is the point. Possessed is the name of a show that EX has created around a variety of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and traditional musical works – the underlying idea being to explore ecstatic trance in the Christian tradition (although it is a bit hard to see what the picture of a woman being carried in the jaws of a giant spider has to do with that tradition). The idea here is to explore trances from Hildegard von Bingen to Joan of Arc, demonic possession as in the Salem witch trials, plus Afro-Brazilian initiation rites and a “musical exorcism” from Puglia. The result is a genuine mishmash of everything from Psalm 121 to a vibrant and enthusiastic tarantella, in 17 tracks with names in English, Spanish, Latin, Italian and so forth. The mixture of Dufay (1397-1474) with modern composers and some traditional Italian and American works is odd and more dislocating than revelatory, although it must be said that the singing and instrumental playing are very fine and the whole of Possessed has a certain infectiously endearing quality. It is not really a musical quality, however – the CD is more of a souvenir for people who have seen Possessed as a show than it is a compelling production, musical or dramatic, in its own right.

     The composers and compositions are far more mainstream on the CD called Yarlung Records: The First Seven Years, but the audience for this disc is even harder to fathom. The CD celebrates a recording company dedicated to “real sound and real music” and intending to reproduce, not literally but in feeling, the great sonic environment of top-notch firms’ recordings of the past (RCA Living Stereo, Mercury Records Living Presence, etc.). This is all well and good, and the endeavor would have been particularly welcome in the 1980s, when digital recording was new and no match whatsoever for the analog recordings that it was in the process of replacing because of CDs’ smaller size and greater convenience (decidedly not because of any superior sound quality). By this time in the 21st century, though, when companies such as PentaTone routinely produce sonically outstanding discs that are different from but in every way comparable to the highest-quality vinyl recordings, Yarlung’s quest seems a trifle quixotic – the label does offer both excellent performances and top-notch sound, but it does not stand alone in doing so, as it would have 30 years ago. Yarlung Records: The First Seven Years joins a growing list of self-congratulatory productions in which recording firms point to their successes and crow a bit. These productions can become somewhat grandiose: in 2009, Chandos notably released a 30-CD set commemorating its 30th anniversary. But the Chandos set included reissues of complete CDs, while most other offerings of this type – including Yarlung’s – simply proffer excerpts that the company considers to be unusually high-quality and/or particularly representative of what it is striving for musically and technically. There is nothing wrong with this, and indeed nothing wrong with patting oneself on the back from time to time. Yes, Yarlung has delivered some fine performances in excellent sound, and yes, that is evident from the excerpts on this CD. But at whom is the CD directed? It is a sampler – the sort of thing one would expect to be included as a bonus with other CDs, not purchased on its own. It may be a fine sampler; in fact, it is. But there is nothing on it so distinctive that it is clear why a music lover would want to pay to own it.

August 22, 2013

(++++) FUN TIME, 2014 STYLE

2014 Calendars: 365-Day—Dilbert; Pearls Before Swine; Non Sequitur; Big Nate; Signspotting. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     The box cover for the 2014 Dilbert page-a-day calendar features Dilbert telling the Pointy-Haired Boss, “There no kill switch on awesome,” and certainly fans of Scott Adams’ workplace-skewering comic strip will have an awesome time throughout the coming year with this full-color compendium featuring all the strip’s instantly recognizable characters. Adams’ art has never been the main point of the strip, and as a result it actually looks better on small calendar pages than does the more-elaborate work of other cartoonists. Shrinking Dilbert panels may not make them better, but it doesn’t hurt them all that much. Besides, the writing matters more than the art here. In one strip, Dogbert creates “fake press releases for imaginary new green energy technologies,” leading Dilbert to ask how he will know which of those technologies are real, leading Dogbert to reply, “Seriously? You think there are real ones?” And there you have social commentary, Dogbert style. In another strip, the boss refuses to send Dilbert to a class to make him more efficient because “you’re working on a government contract and billing by the hour.” And that is just about all you need to know about government contracting. In still another strip, Dogbert asks the CEO for inside information that Dogbert can use in his hedge fund, telling the big boss, “Think of it as a tax on people you don’t know.” The boss says, “That’s the best kind!” And that is about all you need to know about senior management of big companies. In fact, a year with this Dilbert calendar may teach you so much about corporate America that you’ll end up determined never to have any dealings with it again. And good luck with that.

     Another artist whose strips shrink well to the size of the pages of a tear-off calendar is Stephan Pastis, whose Pearls Before Swine owes its original success to Adams’ endorsement and has often been used to show Pastis’ gratitude through a series of insults and demeaning drawings. Yes, that is how Pastis shows he is grateful. Witness the title of his 2014 calendar: “Please move. I don’t want to catch your stupid.” In one series, Larry the croc gets drunk and rubs his behind against that of a zebra, the photo is posted online, and – well, this sort of thing happens to enough human beings nowadays so you can probably guess what comes next, although Pastis certainly gives the situation his own twists. Elsewhere, a new and incidental character, Tina Turtle, is introduced just so Pastis can show the dark side of her apparently devoted behavior: she carries her deceased husband’s shell around on her back, but only so she can store beer in it. Pastis also chronicles a war between East Coast and West Coast cartoonists and their creations, in which Pastis is kidnaped by Mutts characters and Rat refuses to ransom him because he doesn’t want him back. And then there is the strip in which Guard Duck turns a flamethrower on The New York Times because the paper does not have a comics section. Throw in some awful puns and the occasional tongue-twister, plus a strip whose punchline is, “Hey! You try coming up with 365 ideas a year!!” – and you have a year’s worth of dark, death-pervaded, often nasty and definitely not-for-children pages to take you through 2014 in, um, style…of some sort.

     Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur is more stylish and more complex in its art than the work of Adams and Pastis, but it still works well in page-a-day format, because most of the time Non Sequitur is a single-panel strip. Miller goes for intellectual and esoteric comments some of the time, as in the “Libertarian Ice Fishing” panel showing that someone has fallen through the ice and drowned, with one man telling another, “I told you the free market could determine if it’s safe or not.” Then there is the panel in which a monk is carefully lettering an illuminated manuscript with the words, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away,” while another monk looks heavenward and exclaims, “Forgive him – he’s from California.” Also here is “The Job Market for Philosophy Majors,” with a waiter telling diners that “entrées come with a choice of quotes by Nietzsche, Chomsky or Goethe.” Non Sequitur means “it does not follow,” which allows Wiley to take his work in any direction he chooses without connecting one day to the next. But sometimes he likes to make connections, as in mini-stories featuring super-cynical Danae – for which Wiley generally divides each of his single panels into four, allowing him to explore the little girl’s frequent proclamations of outrage, including outrage at her father for “not taking my outrage seriously.” A lot of the Non Sequitur punchiness comes from its passing social commentary, as in the panel in which a man using a metal detector on the beach explains, “It’s not a hobby. It’s my pension plan.” Or, in another beach scene, “The Free Market Celebration of Labor Day,” the lifeguard station has a sign on it: “Lifeguard on duty somewhere in India.” The full-color Non Sequitur panels in this calendar are perfect for a year in which – guaranteed – the days will follow each other, but what happens during them will not necessarily follow at all.

     Also in full color, but more traditional in approach and less sophisticated – and still a lot of fun – the Big Nate 2014 calendar by Lincoln Peirce celebrates the ups and downs of 12-year-old Nate Wright, genius (he says) and super-popular man-about-town (he also says) and, for that matter, a budding cartoonist himself. Nate’s lack of self-awareness, his slovenliness, and his general cluelessness about his effect on other people are among the ongoing themes of Peirce’s strip, and they come through quite well in page-a-day-calendar form. In one strip, Nate comes up with a new school motto: “Sucking the life out of students for almost a century.” In a series, Nate tries to find a store to sponsor his baseball team, and ends up asking mall kiosks to do so. In another, Nate finds out how much money romance novels bring in annually and decides to write one. And then there are the mashed potatoes in the faculty lounge for “prank day.” And the series in which Nate pulls out his eyelashes to try to get wishes to come true. And Nate’s pride in getting kept after school so often: “I like to think of all my detentions as outstanding.” Nate is quite a character – and his antics provide a full year of fun for everyone who knows him or is just getting a chance to make his acquaintance.

     Of course, comic-strip-based calendars are only for people who know the strips and enjoy them. But they are scarcely the only amusing page-a-day offerings out there for 2014. If you want amusement but are not a comic-strip fan, you can always try Signspotting, whose subtitle makes the calendar’s topic abundantly clear: “Absurd & Amusing Signs from Around the World.” Absurd they certainly are. In Ghana, there is a barber shop called “Rely on God Hair Cut.” In Colorado, an “Information” sign points to a tree – wood you expect to learn a lot that way? A sign in Ireland offers “Washed Rooster.” At a Minnesota zoo, the main sign says “open 365 days a year” and the smaller one underneath says “building closed.” A British restaurant offers “bugers.” In Vermont, a labeled emergency exit bears a second sign: “Open door slowly.” In Spokane, Washington, a highway sign proclaims, “End Future 395.” A Belgian nightspot is labeled “Delicious Floor.” A food special in Monroe, Washington, proclaims, “Buy one Fish & Chips for the price of two and receive a second Fish & Chips absolutely free!” Compiled by Doug Lansky, these signs are sometimes hilarious, sometimes silly, sometimes obvious, sometimes appropriate in a goofy way – and always amusing enough to brighten your day when you tear off one page and move on to the next. And sometimes they really do make you wonder what the sign-posters were thinking, as in the Mill Valley, California photo of two signs on the same post – the top one saying “Not a Through Street” and the bottom one pointing straight ahead and indicating “Evacuation Route.” Just the sort of daily touch of absurdity you can use to help you get through everyday foibles – day after day throughout the year to come.


Lulu Goes to Witch School. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Bella Sinclair. Harper. $16.99.

Pony Scouts: Blue Ribbon Day. By Catherine Hapka. Pictures by Anne Kennedy. Harper. $16.99.

     The Level 2 readers in HarperCollins’ “I Can Read!” series are designated as “high-interest stories for developing readers,” and these two new ones – both for ages 4-8 – certainly qualify. Jane O’Connor moves from the realm of Fancy Nancy to that of Lulu Witch in Lulu Goes to Witch School, in which (witch?) the fun comes from seeing how things are both the same and different when witch school is compared with the everyday school of the kids who will pick up and enjoy this book. Lulu is both excited and nervous about starting school, for example – it is easy to identify with that. Of course she cannot eat her “frosted snake flakes” for breakfast and feels as if bats (rather than butterflies) are in her tummy. Comparisons here are easy. But then things get a little more complicated, as when Lulu meets her teacher, Miss Slime: “Miss Slime had a long nose and a wart on her chin. Miss Slime was very pretty.” Now, that is not something most kids would think about a teacher described that way – but Bella Sinclair actually does a fine job of showing Miss Slime just as O’Connor describes her and still making her appear attractive. The rest of this school tale focuses on Lulu's relationship with a fellow student, Sandy Witch, who is just too good at everything and who bullies Lulu a bit in ways that are not exactly cruel but that, in this book's context, are certainly unkind. For example, after Lulu shows up at school wearing a brand-new grey dress with spiders on it – leading Miss Slime to compliment Lulu on how she looks – Sandy uses her magic wand to turn the dress pink and change the spiders into flowers. Miss Slime makes Sandy change the dress back, but this is only one way in which Sandy is unpleasant to Lulu, and the fact that the teacher does not do much about the situation may upset, or at least concern, young readers who are nervous about what may happen to them in school. Eventually, and not at all surprisingly, Lulu and Sandy come to a sort of truce, even if they do not exactly become friends; and the reason they get along is amusing enough to make the book’s conclusion a pleasant one. Lulu Goes to Witch School is just offbeat enough to offer early readers something different in the back-to-school arena, with a story simple enough to follow easily but fraught with enough conflict to be mildly challenging.

     Pony Scouts: Blue Ribbon Day has some built-in conflict, too, but of a different kind. This Catherine Hapka story featuring Jill, Meg and Annie is all about a county fair, at which Jill’s mother is entering the ponies, Inky and Smoky, in a driving-class competition. The conflict comes in the form of a boy named Ben, whose mother is also in the competition and who is himself something of a braggart. This is the eighth book in the Pony Scouts series, and fans of the sequence will not be surprised to see how things go. Ben and the girls enter a pie-eating contest – after the girls have already stuffed themselves with county-fair food – and Ben defeats them and boasts about it. In the driving competition, though, Jill’s mom comes in first, but instead of the girls teasing Ben the way he has teased them, Meg “knew it wouldn’t be nice” and therefore compliments Ben’s family’s horse, Champ, on doing so well and finishing in second place. This makes Ben’s mom happy, even if Ben accepts the kind words rather grudgingly. A book for young horse enthusiasts – and for readers who like the simple, pleasant illustrations with which Anne Kennedy brings the story to life – Pony Scouts: Blue Ribbon Day is an easy reader with an easy story that teaches a straightforward, not-too-preachy lesson, while providing lots of opportunities to look at horses and ponies of many types.


How to Catch a Bogle. By Catherine Jinks. Illustrated by Sarah Watts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Plants vs. Zombies: Official Guide to Protecting Your Brain. By Simon Swatman. Illustrated by Adam Howling. HarperFestival. $7.99.

Plants vs. Zombies: Brains and the Beanstalk. By Annie Auerbach and PopCap Games. Illustrated by Charles Grosvenor and Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Plants vs. Zombies: The Three Little Pigs Fight Back. By Annie Auerbach and PopCap Games. Illustrated by Charles Grosvenor and Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Batman: Battle in Metropolis. By John Sazaklis. Illustrated by Andy Smith. Colors by Brad Vancata. HarperFestival. $3.99.

     Victorian England remains a particularly fertile field for the growing of monstrous creatures, and the first book of a planned Catherine Jinks trilogy rings some familiar atmospheric bells in its approach to the subject. How to Catch a Bogle is the story of 10-year-old Bridie McAdam, whose first name has been changed to Birdie by “Alfred the Bogler,” to whom she is apprenticed – because she will not be a bride for a very long time, if ever, and she has a lovely voice (“a voice like honey”) with which she sings like a bird. That is part of her charm, and also part of the charm with which she attracts the fearsome bogles, evil and frightening creatures regarded by Alfred as mere nuisances even though readers will quickly become curious to know more about them: Alfred “had no real, abiding interest in bogles, even though they were his livelihood. To him they were just vermin, plain and simple. He didn’t worry about the whys and the wherefores.” But Jinks’ book, illustrated somewhat too simplistically by Sarah Watts, is all about the “whys and wherefores.” The two words actually mean the same thing, but the phrase is a common Victorian one and is among the many ways in which Jinks creates the period setting for this fantasy. Bits of Cockney slang, words such as “cadger” and “topher,” talk of laudanum, hawkers’ calls of “ol’ cloes,” matter-of-fact references to such bits of Victoriana as the fact that chimney sweeps would sometimes get stuck in a flue and die there – these are among Jinks’ methods of weaving a tale for preteens of a time and place that often feel grittily realistic even though the book’s central premise is far from reality. The story is a bit creaky, following just the type of plot outline to be expected in tales of this type, from a dramatic opening showing what Birdie does and what she is up against when acting as bogle bait, to the eventual appearance of a genuinely evil nemesis to whom Alfred says, “you’re the devil,” which brings the reply, “I am merely a man who wants to harness His infernal powers.” Birdie, the central character, is illiterate and ill-spoken, and not above calling a bad guy a “bloody bastard,” but she is a sympathetic and attractive character for all that – more fully formed than anyone else in the book – and likely to be strong enough to carry the weight of the whole series on her young back.

     What is being carried in the Plants vs. Zombies books is a little harder to pin down. Bogles are genuinely frightening in Jinks’ novel, but there is no intention of making these zombies really scary. They come from a PopCap game, and they look rather video-game-ish both in Official Guide to Protecting Your Brain (for ages 6-10) and in two short fairy-tale rewrites (for ages 4-8). The problem is that while they are not particularly scary, they are not really a lot of fun, either – although presumably they are enjoyable in game form, and these books are most likely to appeal to kids who already like the deliberately silly game premise. As Official Guide to Protecting Your Brains explains, “In order for you to defeat a zombie, you must first understand a zombie. This does not mean being friends with a zombie. …When zombies first appeared, our scientists tried this approach and we never saw any of them ever again.” So this book about “apocalyptic gardening needs” sets out to explain the difference among, say, the conehead zombie, pole-vaulting zombie and backup dancer zombie, not to mention the dolphin rider zombie, bungee zombie and catapult zombie. There is even Gargantuar, “all zombie muscles and stamping. You’d think he’d rather be at the gym lifting weights than standing outside your house trying to eat your brains, but clearly zombies are a dedicated bunch.” This book introduces the apparent head (so to speak) of all zombies, Dr. Zomboss, explains “crucial differences” between the dead and undead, explains that saucepans are good both for cooking dinner and for wearing to protect your brains, and discusses “plants and their uses” during the zombie apocalypse. The plants include cherry bombs that blow zombies up, peashooters that grow quickly and shoot peas at the undead, snow peas that freeze zombies, and so forth. When not presenting zombies and/or plants, the book offers “Crazy Dave’s Time Machine,” zombie TV shows, a package of “Shufflers Brain & Vinegar Potato Crisps,” “What to Do if You’re at Home When the Zombies Come,” and so on. Fans of the Plants vs. Zombies game – and, even more, those fanatical enough to love Plants vs. Zombies 2 – will probably enjoy the Official Guide to Protecting Your Brain even though it doesn’t, like, actually move or anything.

     The two fairy-tale redos, each of which comes with more than 30 stickers, are a little more offbeat, featuring zombified versions of Jack and the Beanstalk and The Three Little Pigs. The stories are not as amusing as the writers seem to think they are, but the concepts are fun in their own way – especially that of Brains and the Beanstalk, since, after all, a beanstalk is a huge plant and the overall concept here is that of Plants vs. Zombies. The idea of both books is to take familiar elements of old stories, add zombies, mix well, and see what happens. What happens in Brains and the Beanstalk is that Jack trades a lawn mower, not a cow, for beans that turn out to be magic and that produce a huge beanstalk that fights zombies and features a silver-and-gold-coin-producing flower at the top – along with a Gargantuar with a tiny Imp Zombie on its back. In The Three Little Pigs Fight Back, there are the expected three different houses, but the attack of the wolf is shortened when zombies show up and scare him away – leading to adventures in the three houses’ gardens and to the pigs’ exclaiming fearfully about zombies that “want to eat our brainy-brain-brains!” Some heavy-duty vegetables and a few bad puns later, the zombies are all defeated and the pigs are relaxing in “a big mud bath,” and fans of Plants vs. Zombies are presumably back to playing the game itself – or have moved on to the next big (or at least weird) thing.

     By comparison with Plants vs. Zombies, the adventures of old-time heroes such as Batman and Superman – and their monstrous or not-so-monstrous old-time nemeses, such as the Joker and Lex Luthor – are comparatively tame. One way to jazz things up, then, is to combine characters, upping the ante for modern young readers who want a lot more smash-bang video-game-like activity than the comics offered when some of their most famous characters were created in the 1930s. So the short and simplistic Battle in Metropolis is designed to combine super-villains and superheroes and throw them at each other to dramatic effect: “Together, the world’s finest heroes are ready for action!” There is the usual dialogue, as when the Joker spots Superman and says, “Everywhere I go there’s a big blockhead in long pajamas” – a statement rendered funnier by the fact that current drawings of Superman and the other DC Comics characters do render them in a very blocky style. Luthor, double-crossed by the Joker, laments that “we were supposed to take over the world together,” while the incessantly unfunny dialogue gives the Joker the best line of the book as he is led off to jail: “Take us away! …I can’t stand any more of these corny jokes!” For kids who do not know just how corny the jokes are, or who know and don’t care, and for anyone looking for not-terribly-monstrous bad guys to be defeated in 24 pages of action-packed, brightly colored art, Battle in Metropolis will be punchier, if scarcely brainier, than Plants vs. Zombies.


Software Takes Command. By Lev Manovich. Bloomsbury. $29.95.

     Not for the faint of heart and decidedly not for the faint of mind, Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command is a complex, highly theoretical analysis of what happens when media-specific tools such as photo editors are simulated and transformed into software that is independent of the medium for which the tools were designed. Indeed, what is a “medium” in the decidedly post-McLuhan age of Photoshop, Final Cut and Google Earth? It is no longer the medium of photography, of editing, of geographical mapmaking. Yet the new software subsumes as well as contains the media from which the software emerged, and it is the ways in which media revenants – almost, in a sense, ghosts from the machine – continue to permeate modern digital programs that particularly interests Manovich.

     Or, more accurately, this is one thing that particularly interests him, since Manovich – professor of computer science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York – has a very wide range of interests indeed. They all center, though, on creating a kind of unified field theory of technology, figuring out where the programs that so many people use today (without necessarily knowing or caring about their history) have their roots in the past; whether those roots matter and – if so – how they matter; and what the current state of technology tells us, or implies for us, about the future.

     Software Takes Command is the fifth book in a very ambitious series called International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics, and it is not easy reading. Some of what Manovich says is straightforward enough to be revelatory: “Although the ability to search through a page-long text document does not sound like a very radical innovation, as the document gets longer this ability becomes more and more important. It becomes absolutely crucial if we have a very large collection of documents – such as all the web pages on the Web.” Most of the time, though, Manovich’s writing is more philosophical in tone, more complex, and can be convoluted enough to be difficult to follow unless you proceed very slowly indeed: “The sequence of examples also strategically juxtaposes media simulations with other kinds of simulations in order to emphasize that simulation of media is only a particular case of the computer’s general ability to simulate all kinds of processes and systems.” And Manovich is sometimes given to a fineness of argument that approaches that of distinction without difference, as when he observes that "computerization of media does not collapse the difference between mediums – but it does bring them closer together in various ways.”

     Amid the abstruse, Manovich’s occasional brightly shining comments emerge with unusual clarity: “[I]t is important to remember that without software, contemporary networks would not exist. Logically and practically, software lies underneath everything that comes later.” But while this is clear, the directions in which Manovich takes an argument of this sort are extremely complex and not really intended for the lay reading (or computer-using) public. “[B]oth theoretically and also experientially – at least for the users who have more than casual experiences with media applications – ‘media’ translates into two parts which work together. One part is a small number of basic data structures (or ‘formats’) which are the foundation of all modern media software: bitmap image, vector image, 3D polygonal model, 3D NURBS model, ASCII text, HTML, XML, sound and video formats, KML, etc. The second part is the algorithms (we can also call them ‘operations,’ ‘tools’ or ‘commands’) that operate on these formats.”

     What Manovich is trying to do in Software Takes Command is to explain what makes software “the engine of contemporary societies” and what that tells us about software, about software designers, and about society itself. This is a highly ambitious goal toward which Manovich can only move through in-depth study of concepts such as “hybridity,” “deep remixability” and “compositing,” and it is perhaps inevitable that the very last portion of the book is called “software epistemology,” since epistemology in the realm of philosophy is the development and exploration of a theory of knowledge itself – and indeed a theory of philosophy. There is thus a self-referential element to epistemology, and in a similar vein there is a fair amount of navel gazing inevitably implied by the way Manovich constantly seeks the larger implications of the smallest elements of software development and design – the societal implications of decisions to handle specific media programs in a particular way rather than in another manner. Software Takes Command reads more like a book for a graduate-level course in the philosophy of silicon life (or something along those lines) than like a work for any sort of general reader. It is heady stuff, to be sure; but it is also dense, difficult and frequently very hard to wade through in search of revelation. Like many other philosophers who have thought on a grand scale, Manovich has bitten off more than he can chew in this wide-ranging exploration; but he has produced a thoughtful, complex and frequently fascinating work that one suspects he would do better to use as the basis of a course than as a book foisted upon a world that, however much it has been transformed by silicon and software, may not be quite ready yet for this level of analysis of what has happened.

August 15, 2013

(++++) WALL AND DESK FOR 2014

2014 Calendars: Desk—Dilbert; Tokidoki; Wall—The New Yorker; Pearls Before Swine. Andrews McMeel, $14.99 each (Dilbert, New Yorker, Pearls); Universe/Andrews McMeel, $14.99 (Tokidoki).

     From the abstruse to the everyday, from the funny to the offbeat, 2014 will be yet another year in which you can express your individuality and gain the occasional new and different perspective on life through the simple expedient of selecting calendars to display at home, work or both. The wonderful variety of these paeans to a year yet to come makes it possible for anyone to find one, or several, to reflect the likely moods of the day – or deflect them, as the case may be. That case may be especially apparent when it comes to Scott Adams’ Dilbert, which once again in the coming year provides a strong argument for continuing to use spiral-bound, open-flat desktop calendars instead of switching over entirely to electronic calendar displays. The 2014 Dilbert desk calendar is called “The Word You’re Trying to Think Of Is ‘Indispensable,’” and even if Wally were not the one saying the sentence, readers of Dilbert would know immediately how ridiculous it is in a world where the only indispensable things are money and, apparently, irrationality and stupidity. Each brightly colored two-page spread of this calendar offers space for taking a few notes per day (how many do you really want to take?) plus a full-page color Dilbert Sunday strip filled with typically Dilbertian difficulties. There is the one in which consultant Dogbert gets Dilbert to tell the Pointy-Haired Boss that their meeting is a waste of time and a ripoff, and Dogbert then charges the boss $400; and the one in which Wally proclaims that “being disciplined is almost the same as being useless”; and the one in which Dilbert notices that “options are only good when other people don’t have them.” Luckily for Dilbert fans, they have the option of using this desk calendar all year and laughing at the absurdities in which they regularly find themselves enmeshed.

     Even more colorful and even thicker – it is a 16-month calendar – is the Tokidoki offering from Italian manga artist Simone Legno. Filled with manga art of the “cute” style rather than the “intense” style, this calendar nevertheless has a certain edge to it, as is clear from its symbol: a heart and crossbones. Legno explains that the title means “sometimes” in Japanese, and certainly anyone looking for a mixture that is sometimes cute and sometimes offbeat will find it here. One page has a pretty, bright star with a skull inside. Another has adorable pink and blue cuddly characters with vampire teeth. Sometimes all is adorableness, as in the character selling “tokidoki donuts” and wearing a costume with sprinkled-doughnut ears. Other times are, well, different, as in the equally adorable character wearing a heavily spiked body outfit that looks like a baby’s onesie – and brandishing a gun, next to which are three bullets with expressive faces. There is a slice of strawberry shortcake with a bewildered-looking strawberry on top – and the filling between the layers looks suspiciously like blood. There is a skull-faced cupcake, and a cute little mermaid whose bra is made not of two shells but of two skulls – you get the idea. But there are also plenty of straightforwardly pleasant pictures: a multicolored seahorse, happy little crab, jewel-bedecked cake, sweet-looking cartons of milk and latte walking together. Tokidoki is cute sometimes, strange sometimes, offbeat sometimes, and an interesting desktop calendar for 2014 all the time.

     Whether or not you use desktop planning calendars, there is likely room in your room (or cubicle) for a wall calendar – not only for jotting down notes but also for creating a touch of personalized atmosphere. Andrews McMeel offers plenty to choose from for 2014, with a lot of choice depending on whether you would rather go the highbrow route or the lowbrow. The New Yorker is of course on the esoteric side, maybe even too much so for some people – but it is just right for fans of the magazine for the self-proclaimed beautiful and elegant people (and those who want to be like them). The humor in New Yorker cartoons generally comes from incongruity and juxtaposition: a lion hands money to a gunman and says, “Make it look like natural selection,” for example, and a roller coaster rushes toward a solid brick wall as one rider tells another, “I hear this is the scariest part of the ride.” If New Yorker cartoons are to your taste, you will find two dozen black-and-white ones to enjoy here, two per month (one large and one small), with plenty of room on each date to jot down a highfalutin thought or two of your own.

     Or you can go to the opposite extreme with Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, whose 2014 wall calendar is called “It’s My World, and I’ll Dominate if I Want To” – the words of the megalomaniacal Rat, of course. Do not seek the elegant here, for you will surely not find it. Each month brings a black-and-white or full-color bit of Pearls oddity or idiocy in the form of an entire sequence; a full-page blowup of one panel from the strip; and a couple of small drawings at the start and end of each page (the one at the end, “The Pig Dipper,” is the same month to month). The strip often turns on outright silliness (a house-trained German shepherd turns out to be an actual shepherd – from Germany), frequently on misinterpretation (people who are “swingers” are ones who enjoy riding on swings), and a lot of the time on utter incongruity (Pig’s goosebumps turn out to be injuries inflicted by a bat-wielding goose). Add in some atrocious puns (“a Hoffa they can’t re-fuse”) and you have a real winner of a calendar for the entire coming year. Or a real loser, depending on your point of view. Either way, it’s really…something.


The Amazing Animal Alphabet: Twenty-Six Tongue Twisters. By Robert Pizzo. Pomegranate Kids. $17.95.

What’s in the Woods? A Nature Discovery Book. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.

     When you come right down to it, strictly from the point of content, all alphabet books and pretty much all simple books about animals and nature are the same. And there are so many of them, alphabet and animal alike, that it takes very special conceptualization and execution to make books stand out as much as these two do. Robert Pizzo’s The Amazing Animal Alphabet contains the same 26 letters as any English-language alphabet book, but in the grand tradition of Dr. Seuss’ outrageous-rhyme books – the best-known being Fox in Socks and the most twisted being Oh Say Can You Say – Pizzo mixes his unusual, angular graphic style with eerily emphatic extraordinary elucidations (sorry; this is contagious) of the letters. His eventual entry for “E” goes, “Enormously Elegant Elephant wears Electric Easter-Egg Earrings,” not to mention red high-heeled shoes and bright red, stylish sunglasses. And yes, the earrings really are electric – they are plugged into the wall behind the pachyderm. Even more overtly outrageously outré (sorry again), our O: “Outlandish Octopus Orchestrates an Oboe Orchestra of One,” with a very cool-looking octopus indeed playing four oboes and using a music stand while fish flit by blowing bubbles and a wayward G clef drifts off to the left of the two-page illustration. Some smart sisters shall survive the S scene: “Stinky Skunk in Smelly Sneakers Shows off on a Skateboard” (the “odor indicators” and a mouse’s reaction to the event are wonderful). But brothers better begin B boldly: “Big Brown Bull Blasts off on Badly Built Bright Blue Bicycle.” Try the book and see if you don’t find yourself getting into the ongoing alliteration – in fact, the whole thing makes a great game for the family, with young kids reading “Crabbie Crab Cabbie Cruises in a Cool Classic Checker Cab” while adults and older kids pick out and enjoy all the detail that Pizzo crams into the drawings. And, to answer the eternal question about alphabet books, what happens with the letter X? An eXtra eXcellent eXcelsior! “X-ray fish goes eXploring on eXceptionally eXotic eXciting eXpeditions.” And what a wow! “Weak-Willed Waddling Weighty Walrus Waiter Wants Waffles,” and his name tag identifies him as William and the restaurant as Wally’s. There is so much written and visual fun to be had in The Amazing Animal Alphabet that kids and adults alike will relish rereading Robert’s rousing rendition repeatedly.

     The animals are extraordinary in a more-ordinary way, if that makes any sense, in Charley Harper’s What’s in the Woods? Harper (1922-2007) was a well-known, highly skilled nature artist who used accurate observation, a wonderful sense of color and shape, and skillful stylization to make animals seem even more real than they are in reality. Zoe Burke’s simple text portrays each animal in amusing rhyme: “A rustling movement at our feet—/ Can you identify/ The bushy tail and showy stripes?/ It’s Chipmunk dashing by!” Harper’s portrayals of the animals make the words special: the chipmunk, for example, hangs down from the top of the page, its head turned to one side, its squared-off brown body striped just so in black and white. Harper was a master of stylizing, of showing off animals in recognizable ways never found in nature but somehow seeming entirely natural. The wood duck, for instance, is seen completely from the front and is purely an assemblage of shapes: most of a circle for a body, two parenthesis-shaped wings, an elliptical head turned to one side – with everything colored carefully and with great beauty, an elegant mixture of black, white, brown, red, green, purple and orange. The snake, in contrast, is simply a solid and stolid black shape, head slightly larger than body; but skunk and raccoons are seen as if from above, with the big raccoon and the five small ones being led in perfect formation providing one of the highlights of the book. At the end, there is a delightful foldout to Burke’s words, “Our walk is done; can you recall/ The animals we met?/ The birds and plants and leaves and trees?/ You’ll find them here, I bet!” Sure enough, everything from the walk appears on the folded-out page, with a key on the following pages at the back of the book – a lovely display of what’s in the woods to conclude the delightful What’s in the Woods?


Life As We Knew It IV: The Shade of the Moon. By Susan Beth Pfeffer. Harcourt. $17.99.

The Never Girls #3: A Dandelion Wish. By Kiki Thorpe. Illustrated by Jana Christy. Random House. $6.99.

     The conclusion of the Life As We Knew It tetralogy is as dour as the first three books and, like them, goes over a good deal of the same story even while advancing the plot. The works are set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia filled with many of the types usually found in such stories: good people and bad, safe havens that prove less than safe, families and unrelated people who bond as families, death and violence and threats thereof, and so on. In the final book, readers rejoin Jon Evans and his family two years after they have left Pennsylvania in their search for a safe place to live. They have found one: a protected enclave called Sexton, where Jon is welcome along with his stepmother, Lisa, and her son, Gabe, because they have three safe-town passes and – equally important – Jon is a really good soccer player. His abilities allow him to provide some protection to his sister, Miranda, who lives outside Sexton’s walls; Miranda’s diary entries were the basis for the first book in this series, about a meteor impact with the moon that drastically alters Earth’s climate. In the latest book, Jon’s staying power depends on his continued athletic ability, which makes it a fragile thing, and in this typically paranoid and desperately unhappy world, he knows that stepping out of line in any way – on the field or off it – could be disastrous. From this he comes to a realization, quite typical in genre books like this, that a place that appears safe is really a prison of sorts, and to be truly free and true to himself, he will have to give up physical safety before it is arbitrarily taken from him. This is an old, old plot – there is little new in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s approach to her material in any of the Life As We Knew It books – but Pfeffer does handle the plot’s progress with commendable skill, even when readers are sure to realize that noble sacrifices and extremely tough decisions lie ahead not only for Jon but also for other central characters. Inevitably, the book ends with Jon salvaging some optimism from despair and looking ahead to “a future worth fighting for.” This too is scarcely surprising, but young readers who have followed the earlier books and wondered what happened to the characters in them will find The Shade of the Moon a satisfying wrapup – although it must be said that there are enough loose ends for yet another potential novel to be set in the same world.

     The world of Disney’s The Never Girls is a much brighter and more-pleasant one, even though it does have some moments of mostly mild adventure to go with plenty of all-girl bonding. Pfeffer writes for preteens and young teenagers; Kiki Thorpe writes for ages 6-10, although The Never Girls will likely be most appealing toward the younger end of that age range. The third book, A Dandelion Wish, takes the story of four normal girls who visit the fairy world a small step beyond the events of In a Blink and The Space Between. The girls get to Pixie Hollow in Never Land through a broken slat in a backyard fence, and the fence has to stay broken for the magic to work. So the question now is what happens when the fence is repaired – with one of the girls on the Never Land side. Kate, Mia, Lainey and Gabby are not particularly well-differentiated as characters – this is more a group adventure than a solo experience or individual coming-of-age story – but they affirm again and again that they are good friends and will look out for and help each other, and that is really the message underlying the magic happenings here. The dangers in the book are mostly mundane – going through the wrong board, dealing with a lawn mower – and fairies and girls have similar concerns and worries: human Gabby tells Iridessa that fairy magic will get them home, but the fairy unhappily thinks, “If only I had the right magic to help us now.” But everything does turn out just fine, to the surprise of no one – certainly not readers – and a timely end-of-book appearance by Tinker Bell (this is a Disney book, after all) sets the stage for the grand finale of the sequence, which is due in the fall and will be called From the Mist. It will surely be magical enough for fans of the first three series entries.


Wagner: Das Liebesverbot. Michael Nagy, Peter Bronder, Charles Reid, Simon Bode, Franz Mayer, Christiane Libor, Anna Gabler, Thorsten Grümbel, Kihwan Sim, Anna Ryberg, Julian Prégardien; Chor des Oper Frankfurt and Frankfurt Opern-und Museumorchester conducted by Sebastian Weigle. Oehms. $39.99 (3 CDs).

Wagner: Die Walküre. Tomasz Konieczny, Iris Vermillion, Robert Dean Smith, Melanie Diener, Timo Riihonen, Petra Lang; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $59.99 (4 SACDs).

     At first glance or first hearing, there is a world of difference between Wagner’s second opera, Das Liebesverbot, and his second Ring opera, Die Walküre. The differences are particularly apparent in performances as fine as these two – and yet because the performances are so good, they show that the two operas ultimately occupy worlds that are not so different after all. Both Das Liebesverbot (first performed a single time, disastrously, in 1836, and never again in the composer’s lifetime) and Die Walküre (first heard in 1870 and first staged as part of the Ring cycle in 1876) are ultimately about the inevitable conflict between intense erotic love and the strictures of society – with the early opera, a comedy, eventually resolving happily, while the later one ends with a fateful decision by Wotan that will soon enough doom him and all the gods. Interestingly – and in faithfulness to Shakespeare, whose Measure for Measure provided Wagner with the story that he turned into the libretto of Das Liebesverbot – the characters in the earlier opera are so stiff and mercurial that they barely seem human, while those in the later one, including the gods, are all too human in their desires and manifest foibles.

     Das Liebesverbot fairly closely follows the events although not the geographical setting of Shakespeare’s play, whose primary protagonists in Wagner’s opera are the puritanical and hypocritical regent of Sicily, Friedrich, and the insensitive and mercurial Isabella – two characters as difficult to empathize with in Wagner as in Shakespeare, and in many ways two sides of the same unpleasant coin. As in his first opera, Die Feen, Wagner in Das Liebesverbot channels and reinterprets the work of others – Marschner in the earlier work and Rossini in this one. The sheer ebullience of the model never quite emerges, even though Wagner refocuses the work’s ending to emphasize enjoyment and pleasure for all rather than justice triumphant, as in Shakespeare. Still, there are some very upbeat elements here, including a fine carnival song and the final crowd scene, and they are well juxtaposed with a more-serious overarching structure that resembles nothing less than Fidelio, with the same tyrant-prisoner-woman layout as in Beethoven’s opera and the same appearance at the very end of a more-benevolent ruler. And since Fidelio is in its form a French rescue opera, it is not surprising to find that Das Liebesverbot sports French influences as well. More interestingly, though, it also shows very early signs of forms that Wagner would later develop musically: there are no extensive leitmotifs here, but there is already the stirring of thematic identifications important to the plot and used in both anticipatory and reminiscent passages – most notably a theme representing the Liebesverbot (“ban on love”) itself. As in Die Feen, Wagner here calls for a large cast of characters and rather more soloists than it is possible to keep track of, but the Frankfurt performers handle their roles quite well: the recording is drawn from two concert performances in May 2012, and it is a very fine one both dramatically and acoustically (it was made at the Alte Oper Frankfurt, a top-notch venue). Conductor Sebastian Weigle deserves much credit for not looking down upon this as “merely” an early work of little consequence (which is how Wagner himself came to regard it): Weigle gives it plenty of weight and attention without striving to turn it into a grander or more-effective opera than it is, and without being afraid to let the seams show, as they do a number of times. English speakers will, however, be frustrated to discover that the complete libretto is given in the booklet – but only in German. Das Liebesverbot is actually an interesting and impressive work on its own merits, and would be worth an occasional hearing even if it were not by Wagner. Clearly the fact that it is by Wagner is the reason for the attention it currently receives at the bicentennial of the composer’s birth – and truthfully, it is about time that Wagner’s three operas from before Der fliegende Holländer got some attention, with the grandest and most complex of them, Rienzi, most in need of revival and most demanding of singers and staging alike. For a full understanding of Wagner and a full appreciation of his work, seeing how he handled the themes and approaches of Marschner, Rossini and (in Rienzi) Meyerbeer is invaluable. The new recording of Das Liebesverbot is therefore an important accomplishment partly because this is interesting, well-made music that is very rarely heard – and also because it shows aspects of Wagner’s style and thought (the latter in the libretto) that have far too infrequently been available to modern opera lovers.

     Die Walküre, on the other hand, is so popular that it is often performed as a standalone opera, which means that a great deal of it makes little musical or dramatic sense – but it does not seem to matter amid the excellence of the music and intense drama of the story. This is the first appearance in the Ring cycle of humans, since Das Rheingold includes only immortals, and the immediately recognizable themes of love and hate, passion and adultery, acceptance and disobedience, make a heady brew that sweeps the music drama forward from start to finish with impetuosity, lyric beauty and tremendous intensity. This new Marek Janowski reading is the eighth in the superb set of 10 PentaTone recordings of Wagner’s mature operas – only Siegfried and Götterdammerung remain to be released – and, like the Frankfurt Das Liebesverbot, this Berlin Die Walküre is a live recording of a concert performance (from November 2012). It continues the extremely high quality level of all the Janowski Wagner recordings for PentaTone – as well as the high quality of the company’s SACD sound, which is as impressive for its silences and extremely quiet passages as for its full, booming climaxes, and the excellence of the extensive booklet notes and German-English libretto. Robert Dean Smith and Melanie Diener make a strong, passionate mortal pair – very well-matched as singers – in the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the contrast with the godly duo of Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan and Iris Vermillion as Fricka is particularly pronounced here, with the immortals being distinctly pettier and more unpleasantly bound to their own strictures than are the freethinking, although doomed, brother-and-sister lovers. Timo Riihonen offers a strong, stolid reading in the thankless role of Hunding, who stands for conventionality just as Fricka does and elicits just as little respect or liking – he cannot really be made a sympathetic character, but at least Riihonen gives him a certain wounded nobility. And then there is Petra Lang as Brünnhilde, caught between mortals and immortals and beholden to both, doomed by her own headstrong nature and the curse of the ring to an end-of-opera fate that eventually drags all the gods down as well – all for love. The whole Ring cycle is about love and the consequences of denying, misusing or abandoning it, and in Die Walküre the theme coalesces into the realm of the highly personal both at the gods’ level and at that of mortals. Janowski understands this dynamic perfectly and brings it to the fore repeatedly, using the somewhat fast tempos that he generally favors to make the music even more propulsive and intense than usual. The Ride of the Valkyries, arguably Wagner’s single most famous piece, is here not only thrilling in itself but also perfectly integrated into the extreme drama of the story at the point that it occurs. Brünnhilde’s eight sisters all sing their minor roles strongly, too, which helps a great deal; they are sopranos Anja Fidelia Ulrich, Fionnuala McCarthy and Carola Höhn; mezzo-sopranos Heike Wessels, Wilke te Brummelstroete and Renate Spingler; and contraltos Kismara Pessatti and Nicole Piccolomini. As in all these PentaTone recordings, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin plays with assurance, intensity and absolute beauty of tone, and Janowski is so thoroughly in control of the proceedings that there is scarcely a moment that flags from start to finish. The contrast between this extremely well-known opera and the little-known Das Liebesverbot is a very strong one, but even more interesting than the differences – which are scarcely surprising after more than three decades of the composer’s life – are the similarities of theme and the intensity with which Wagner proclaims the importance of both love and passion, though the rule of law collapse into unremitting celebration in the earlier opera and the world itself go down in flames in the later one.


Handel: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Maria Keohane and Julia Doyle, sopranos; Benjamin Hulett, tenor; Andreas Wolf, bass; Kölner Kammerchor and Collegium Cartusianum conducted by Peter Neumann. Carus. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Clarinet or Viola and Piano (arranged for violin and piano by the composer); Brahms, Schumann and Albert Dietrich: FAE Sonata for Violin and Piano. Annemarie Åström, violin; Terhi Dostal, piano. NCA. $24.99.

Gregory Hall: Compositional Improvisations from the Mysteria, Vol. 1. Gregory Hall, piano. Ravello. $12.99.

Martin Schlumpf: Mouvements for piano and orchestra; Waves for solo cello, trumpet obbligato, string orchestra and computer; Streams for clarinet, bass trombone and 17 instruments. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vit Micka and Petr Vronský; PARMA Orchestra conducted by John Page. Navona. $16.99.

     Despite the increasing popularity of some of Handel’s operas and the perennial performances of a number of his oratorios – with Messiah being preeminent – there are some of his works in the opera/oratorio sphere that continue to get short shrift. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is one of them – perhaps in part because Handel himself was never quite sure what to call it. It is not really an oratorio and is certainly not an opera, being a two-hour vocal setting that intermingles two wonderful poems by John Milton and concludes with something of a thud with a third section whose poetry is by librettist Charles Jennens. Milton wrote L’Allegro and Il Penseroso as separate but related poems about two of the four “humors,” the sanguine and melancholic, but Jennens – a better librettist than poet (he also did Messiah) – skillfully interlaced the works’ lines, giving Handel plenty of musical opportunities to contrast the brighter sentiments with the darker and more-thoughtful ones. Handel rose to the occasion brilliantly, with arias, recitatives and occasional choruses that not only pick up on Milton’s expressive poetry but also expand it in intriguing and musically very interesting ways – for example, when L’Allegro uses traditional Baroque “grief music” to tell Il Penseroso to begone, while the latter makes the same demand of L’Allegro in a merry gigue. Very well sung by soloists and chorus alike, and performed on original instruments, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato is a marvelous experience in the performance led by Peter Neumann. To be sure, the final section, intended to proffer a “golden mean” but in fact presenting something that is closer to bronze, is of less interest both verbally and musically – Handel simply could not do as much with it as with the first two parts. But there are so many pleasures in this non-operatic non-oratorio that it certainly deserves to be heard much more frequently.

     All of Mahler’s symphonies get their due these days, but the Seventh still less so than the others – it remains a difficult work and a tough nut to crack. Even the best Mahler conductors do not always seem to know what to do with this piece, whose two Nachtmusik movements contain both the profound and the ordinary and whose C major finale jumps out with a bright sunniness wholly atypical not only of the rest of the symphony but also of Mahler’s work in general. Because the symphony contains so many elements that do not always fit easily together, every performance of it is an adventure, and Markus Stenz’s is no exception. Stenz makes some unusual decisions here: the first movement is not as depressive as usual, for example, and the second (the first Nachtmusik) is taken more quickly than its Allegro moderato tempo would indicate. The music does not really feel rushed, but it is more propulsive than listeners will likely expect. The scherzo and second Nachtmusik are more conventional – and played very well indeed, with the fourth movement’s guitar and mandolin being pleasantly evocative. The finale, though, is really something, crowning the symphony in a highly unusual way. Some conductors seem almost apologetic about this hectic, insistently positive movement, but not Stenz, who pushes its tempo, lets the almost-vulgar opening timpani solo proclaim celebration from the start, and keeps the pulse of the movement racing so that even the contrasting sections fit neatly and consistently into the whole. This is one of the most effective finales of the Seventh available on CD, really bringing forth the sheer ebullience of this most-positive of Mahler’s conclusions – an even more forthright movement than the rondo finale of the Fifth, which this later rondo resembles in important ways. The rousing conclusion to this exceptionally well-played performance certainly does not answer all the questions about this symphony: the finale seems almost to come from a different world, which in fact was part of Mahler’s point (night music followed by a tremendous burst of sunlight). But this is a thoughtful and very well-structured performance that will leave listeners pleasantly puzzling over some of the self-contradictory aspects of Mahler’s Seventh.

     In Brahms’ chamber music, the two late sonatas for clarinet or viola are performed very frequently indeed, and are gems of both the woodwind and string repertoires. The versions for violin, though, are almost completely unknown, heard so rarely that it is hard to believe that Brahms himself created them – and held back their publication for a time out of concern that they would be far more popular than the works’ clarinet and viola forms. Those two are essentially the same, the ranges of the instruments being similar enough so that few emendations were needed to reorient the music from one to the other. The violin form of the sonatas, though, differs in a number of respects from the clarinet and viola ones, and while the alterations are not in themselves major, they provide a new and different look at these late Brahms works and show them in a different perspective – not merely in an altered register because of the violin’s greater brightness. Annemarie Åström and Terhi Dostal make an excellent case for these sonatas in this form, performing with a fine sense of the works’ structure and great care for their harmonies and rhythms. The violin versions do lack some of the warmth and tonal beauty of those for clarinet or viola, but in return they offer a highly attractive fluidity of line and some very lovely expressiveness that stops short of swooning. And the Åström-Dostal CD also includes another work that is very rarely heard in its entirety: the FAE Sonata, a gift to violinist Joseph Joachim from three composer friends – the title refers to what was then Joachim’s personal motto, Frei, aber einsam (“free, but lonely”). Brahms’ scherzo for this sonata is often played on its own – and is, ironically, the only one of the four movements that does not use the “FAE” melodic theme. But hearing the sonata as a whole is a salutary experience. Schumann wrote the second and fourth movements, of which the second, designated an intermezzo, provides welcome respite from the stormier movements around it. Dietrich produced the opening Allegro, the longest movement by far, and although his compositional prowess was not at the level of Schumann’s or Brahms’, he here shows a fine command of musical form and a considerable gift for melodic beauty. This is a costly CD – a fact that may give some listeners pause – but it is a very special one in its presentation of unusual and intriguing Romantic music that, considering its very high quality, is heard surprisingly seldom.

     The FAE Sonata is too well-integrated to seem like a pastiche or improvisation, but the improvisational approach was a common one for pianists in the 19th century and remains so for some in the 21st. Gregory Hall specifically says he looked back to Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin in creating the works heard on a Ravello CD called Compositional Improvisations from the Mysteria, Vol. 1. But these are contemporary pieces through and through, created as live online concerts in 2011 and 2012 (with a short concluding Apotheosis dating to 2009). The works combine considerable dissonance and contemporary compositional techniques with periodic wanderings into the tonal world. Their titles are evocative but not especially reflective of the musical contents: Reflects dans le soleil, Introduction to “The Mysteria,” Thouros and Phosphoros, Mabou, Appledore, Symbolist Minimal and the aforementioned Apotheosis. The great improvisers of the 19th century based their performances on the popular music of the time – opera tunes or their own readily graspable themes – but Hall offers less for listeners to hold onto aurally and less clarity in the structures with which he develops his material. He is a fine pianist, though, and this (+++) CD shows that he clearly has a vision of how to use improvisation in a modern context and with a modern presentation method.

     The piano also plays an important role in one of the Martin Schlumpf concertos on a (+++) Navona CD. The three works here show some influence of earlier composers, from Ravel to Schubert, but much of the sound is drawn from the sort of “world music” that many contemporary classical composers find attractive: Asian and African sounds, electronic and computer-generated material, minimalist structure, even some improvisation. Mouvements dates to 1994/1999, Waves to 2002, and Streams to 2010, but there is no significant compositional progress observable or audible in Schlumpf’s work over this time period: all the pieces are mixtures of varying effects, and all have movements that are simply labeled as Part A, Part B, Part C, and so forth. The soloists are uniformly fine: pianist Martin Levický, cellist Petr Nouzovský, trumpeter Marek Vajo, clarinetist Matthias Müller, and bass trombonist David Taylor all handle their roles with care and skill. The orchestras are fine, too: the Moravian Philharmonic, which often performs contemporary works for Navona, and the newly formed PARMA Orchestra, heard here in its first recording and named for the company that produces Navona, Ravello and Big Round Records CDs. Like many of the releases on these labels, the one featuring these Schlumpf concertos is well-packaged, well-produced and well-played, but remains more of a limited-interest item than one that is likely to reach out to a new audience of any significant size.