April 30, 2015
Tell Me What to Dream About. By Giselle Potter. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Home Tweet Home. By Courtney Dicmas. Doubleday. $16.99.
There’s No Such Thing as Little. By LeUyen Pham. Knopf. $17.99.
Viewpoints matter. In Giselle Potter’s Tell Me What to Dream About, a little girl asks her big sister to help her come up with dreams so she can fall asleep. And big sister obliges, suggesting a dream about a breakfast of teeny-tiny waffles shared with teeny-tiny animals. But from little sister’s point of view, the little animals would be crawling all over the waffles – what kind of relaxing dream is that? So big sister suggests a dream about regular-size animals, but with little sister herself being a giant, keeping the animals as pets and listening to their “funny squeaky voices.” This does not work from little sister’s viewpoint, though: she doesn’t like the idea of “squeaky pets.” Again and again, big sister tries to come up with pleasant, enjoyable dream scenes, but again and again, the girls’ points of view conflict. A furry world? But furry friends might be scary! Living in the fluffy clouds and riding them around? “The big sister liked her own idea a lot,” but little sister thinks it would be scary living so high up. Nothing works, and eventually big sister gets too tired to think of anything further – at which point she comes up with a simple, homespun idea that both sisters like so much that they both fall asleep immediately. The underlying notion here is an old one, along the lines of “be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” even in dreams. Parents may find that worth thinking about when kids ask for help going to sleep: flights of fancy may appeal to adult and older-child minds, but sometimes it is the down-to-earth, straightforward ideas that littler children find most comforting.
Speaking of humble homes, one of them is where 10 cave swallows live in Courtney Dicmas’ Home Tweet Home. The two biggest of the distinctive and distinctly odd-looking birds (Dicmas’ illustrations are simultaneously simple and elaborate – and very amusing) are Burt and Pippi, both of whom have had enough of sharing a small nest with eight littler siblings. After all, one of the small birds, Rupert, has stinky feet, and another, Maude, practices judo, and a third, Cecil, engages in band practice that involves both cymbals and bagpipes. It is all just too much for any small nest to contain! So one night, Burt and Pippi set off in search of a better, more-spacious place for the family to live. And sure enough, they find one – or think they do. It is indeed big and sturdy, but, uh-oh, it turns out to be the shell of a large tortoise. And while the tortoise is friendly and invites the birds to live with him, Burt and Pippi realize this is not quite what they had in mind, so their quest must continue. And continue it does, with a series of equally unsatisfactory results. From being “almost lunch” when encountering one animal to being highly surprised when an apparent island turns out to be part of an octopus, Burt and Pippi find, again and again, that there just isn’t anyplace better than the nest where they already live. Even a kangaroo’s pouch “isn’t what I thought it would be,” Burt laments, while a snake’s coils are “squishy” and a fox has a soft and lovely tail but looks at the birds distinctly hungrily. So eventually the two explorers have no choice but to return home – but instead of being dejected, they are happy, having learned that the fact that the world is so big “makes coming home so much better,” even to a place with stinky feet, martial arts, bagpipes and eight littler siblings. Lesson learned.
The lesson of LeUyen Pham’s There’s No Such Thing as Little is encapsulated in the book’s title: what one person sees as “little,” another can see as something else entirely. Through a series of sweetly sentimental sentences and illustrations, Pham provides a sense of perspective that is different from, but related to, the one of Home Tweet Home. Cutouts in the pages of Pham’s book show how something can look little on one page and not little at all on the next. A little light on one page – which shows two children gazing at a candle – becomes, overleaf, the light glowing inside a lighthouse, with the two children sailing toward it on a boat and the text describing it as “a welcoming light.” A little snowflake, which the boy and girl see through a window from inside a house, becomes, on the next page, “a unique snowflake,” one of many in which the two children can play. A little fish in a bowl becomes “a brave fish” swimming in the opposite direction of a whole school of larger fish. In the book’s most amusing idea and illustration, a little idea (shown as the proverbial lightbulb within a thought balloon) becomes “a fantastic idea” – specifically, the “world’s greatest ice cream machine,” complete with “moo motor” (a rather bemused-looking cow), a series of dials and levers, a flavor list, and a robotic dispenser of very generously sized ice-cream cones. The transformation of “little” things is particularly attractive here because those things do not formulaically become big ones – instead, they become different ones, not so much large as seen in a larger context. As a result, There’s No Such Thing as Little shows kids ways in which they can think about the everyday items around them differently and discover new aspects of them – “thinking outside the box,” as the business cliché puts it. But there is nothing clichéd about the way Pham dramatizes the value of non-straight-line thinking: her approach shows many charming ways in which something that is apparently small can become very big indeed, if kids only think about it that way.
Monologue: What Makes America Laugh…Before Bed. By Jon Macks. Blue Rider Press. $25.95.
Hell from the Heavens: The Epic Story of the USS Laffey and World War II’s Greatest Kamikaze Attack. By John Wukovits. Da Capo. $25.99.
It is hard to imagine a much greater contrast in nonfiction books than the disparity between these two. Jon Macks’ is simply a sort-of-behind-the-scenes, sort-of-humorous story based on his 22 years of writing for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. That means the book is strictly for fans of that show, and even more strictly for people interested in (and familiar with) all sorts of celebrity gossip and other utter trivia that somehow make viewers’ lives seem better, or at least less bad. “The types of people and entities in the news who make the monologue have remained the same” decade after decade, explains Macks. “There’s always been the female celebrity who’s a mess, the bad-boy athlete, the bad actor, the moron in the news, the befuddled Royal Family member, the incompetent business executive, the tin-pot dictator, the clueless southerner, and the cheating male politician.” But, Macks hastens to tell us, his monologues for his on-air personality were not as nasty as others: “Jay liked to break balls, but only with those who could take it. There’s no mean streak in him that you sometimes would see emerge in other hosts.” Added to this particular bit of hagiography (there are others) are matters such as a listing of the number of Leno jokes about specific politicians during 22 years, as compiled by the Center for Media and Public Affairs – and you get some passing humor along the way, provided you are sufficiently in tune with pop and political culture to understand it: “It’s a little bit odd that [Osama] bin Laden made this list [of politicians], as he wasn’t elected. And if he was elected, I’m guessing women didn’t vote. Also I’m also [sic] guessing he did really badly with the Jewish vote. So I’d replace him with Herman Cain, because there is nothing odder than a pizza shop owner who runs for president so he can harass women.” The humor throughout Monologue is of the smirking type, clearly designed for people already quite familiar with and enamored of what late-night TV is all about. For example, when discussing jokes he did not write but wishes he had, Macks introduces the section this way: “It’s not the women I’ve had sex with that I think about, it’s the ones I haven’t. I can’t remember a lot of my jokes, but I sure remember those of others I wish I had written.” There is a bit of information offered here, pretty much in passing, about the realities of being a late-night-TV comedy writer: “As a general rule I didn’t write for the guests on the show. They had their own material, or stories that they had reviewed with the producers. But sometimes the producers would ask the writers to help out the talent with a bit they wanted to do on the show and the writers would help; or there would be times when a friend of mine was coming on the show and if he or she called needing a few lines, I’d break out the laptop.” But by and large, Monologue is an excuse for Macks to showcase his comedy abilities and give readers who liked his material on The Tonight Show (whether or not they knew it was his) some more of the same. Thus, “for some reason Republicans are much better at self-deprecation. Maybe because they believe they have God on their side. Which is the same thing ISIS says.” If you enjoy this sort of thing, there is plenty of it here.
What made the world, or at least vapid American television, safe for people like Macks to build a career in is an entirely different sort of story, one that is as intense and frightening as Mack’s is frothy and frivolous. The story of the USS Laffey is just a small part of that story, but it is one told in exhaustive detail by military historian John Wukovits in Hell from the Heavens. The readership of this book will be strictly limited to people fascinated by the minutiae of World War II and the often-forgotten, always-intense battles that brought it to an end. The particular story of USS Laffey is one from very late in the war, dating to April 16, 1945. After a variety of major battlefield defeats and vast economic destruction, the Japanese had launched kamikaze attacks in October 1944. They were highly dramatic but not very effective – only about one-fifth of kamikaze pilots managed to hit their targets. The largest single-ship kamikaze attack of all was the one on the destroyer named USS Laffey, but the ship was not sunk: 32 sailors died and more than 70 were wounded, but the ship remained afloat and managed to get home from Okinawa, where the attack occurred. Wukovits’ book about the battle follows a tried-and-true formula for modern war reporting, combining considerable research with contemporaneous correspondence from crew members and numerous personal reminiscences of survivors. Books like this need heroes, and of course the entire crew of USS Laffey is described as heroic, but one man in particular is the focus of the book and the heroism: the ship’s commander, F. Julian Becton, who took a crew whose members were inexperienced and largely untaught and molded it into a strong, adept fighting force that actually managed to shoot down nine of the 22 kamikaze attackers. Becton died in 1995 at age 87, having retired from the Navy in 1966 as a rear admiral, but it sounds from Wukovits’ book as if his men, scattered after the war as so many were, retained a special place in their hearts and memories for him. Indeed, his eulogy was given by one of the men he commanded aboard the USS Laffey. The story of this ship and its battle with the kamikaze attackers is not well known today, but it has garnered periodic attention in many places: True Comics featured the story of the attack on the destroyer in its Winter 1945 issue, for example, and the ship and its surviving crew members appeared on the NBC show Real People in 1982. The USS Laffey was permanently decommissioned in 1975, and it is now one of three ships berthed at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The detailed reporting of the kamikaze battle may make Hell from the Heavens a difficult book to read for those not already entrenched in their interest in the specifics of World War II fighting, but the overarching story of men battling long odds, fighting opponents who were not only ready but also determined to die rather than surrender, is one that continues to resonate today – making this book’s story the other side of flippant late-night-TV jokes about terrorist murderers such as the Islamic fanatics of ISIS.
Eddie Red, Undercover: Book 2—Mystery in Mayan Mexico. By Marcia Wells. Illustrated by Marcos Calo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
The Maeve’ra Trilogy, Volume II: Bloodkin. By Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Deception’s Princess 2: Deception’s Pawn. By Esther Friesner. Random House. $17.99.
The same, only more so. That is a fair description of second books, whether they are sequels, the middle books of trilogies, or part of an ongoing series that will last who-knows-how-long. The last of these categorizations fits the second volume of Eddie Red, Undercover, whose first entry was Mystery on Museum Mile. That first book introduced Eddie and his best friend, Jonah, in a mystery filled with twists and turns that contained some (mostly mild) real danger and needed to be solved with brain power rather than violence. Now comes Mystery in Mayan Mexico, which – surprise – includes Eddie and Jonah in another twists-and-turns-filled story requiring brains rather than brawn to solve a mystery. Like the earlier book, this one benefits from the detailed pencil portraits of Marcos Calo, which make the characters come alive to a greater extent than Marcia Wells’ prose generally does on its own. Unlike the earlier novel, this one includes a third amateur sleuth in the person of a girl named Julia, who becomes a sort-of-girlfriend for Jonah – to just about the right extent for a book aimed at and featuring sixth-graders. Mystery of Mayan Mexico starts with Eddie, Jonah and Eddie’s parents on a two-week Mexican vacation, where Eddie hopes to forget all about the art-heist caper that occurred in the first book and led to his being grounded (it helps to have read that book to enjoy this one, although it is not absolutely necessary). Eddie’s photographic memory is introduced quickly, so new readers will understand its importance and old ones will be reminded of it. Indeed, as Eddie explains, “Last winter, the NYPD secretly hired me because of my photographic memory and my ability to draw near-perfect pictures.” Jonah hopes to have a better adventure this time than last, when “all I got was a stupid sinus infection,” but as the book develops – of course it is not a vacation story but another mystery – Jonah’s role is, again, to get sick and stay that way (not a very flattering use of a sidekick, but Wells seems to think it is offbeat enough to be interesting to young readers). What happens here is that Eddie’s father’s fingerprints are found inside a glass case from which a valuable artifact has been stolen, so of course he is accused of the crime, and of course Eddie and Jonah work with the police (as happened before) and then realize they have to solve the case on their own (as also happened before). Eventually, thanks to a combination of unlikely events involving a real threat, real danger, a broken bone and some projectile vomiting, the case is indeed solved, Eddie’s father is exonerated, and the trip back to New York City is uneventful until – at the very end of the book – the art thief from the previous book reappears, setting the stage for the next entry in this series, to be called Doom at Grant’s Tomb.
The Maeve’ra Trilogy is intended for teenagers rather than preteens, and for that reason introduces more-adult themes than are to be found in the Eddie Red stories. Bloodkin, however, is even more of a continuation of the events of its predecessor, Bloodwitch, than the second Eddie Red book is of the events in the first. For her series, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes has created a world called Midnight in which vampires and shapeshifters have the power and the 16-year-old protagonist, Kadee, finds herself caught between them and within their machinations. Unlike the second Eddie Red book, this second one about Kadee really does require familiarity with the first novel in its series: much of what Kadee goes through and worries about in Bloodkin traces directly back to events and decisions she made in Bloodwitch. Readers need to be thoroughly familiar with the various types of beings in Midnight in order to accept and easily follow Kadee’s narration: “Though I knew all three Shantel royals, I had never met the sakkri, with her gift of prophecy. The Shantel’s most sacred witch was chosen by the land itself, and recognized at birth by the ‘white curse,’ a mark visible on both her human and animal forms. …A sakkri had no parents, no lovers, no friends.” Here as in so many other stories, prophecies are, of course, ambiguous: “That was prophecy; it was abstract and far away, talk of ‘someday’ and ‘imagine when.’” So it is no surprise that what Kadee learns (from multiple sources) becomes clear only as the book moves toward its climax. The result is lines such as, “I was reminded of what the deathwitch had said: he is broken, and does not know how to love something and let it be free.” Much of Bloodkin rehashes events of the previous novel and has Kadee trying to come to terms with what she has done as well as who she is (which was the focus of the first book). This second book deepens the story being told in the trilogy without really advancing it very much. It does end with a line common, in virtually identical words, to many other second books of trilogies: “It was time to make a stand.” So there is no question that Atwater-Rhodes has more action, and perhaps less back-and-forth talkiness, in store for the upcoming conclusion of The Maeve’ra Trilogy.
There is a Maeve in Deception’s Pawn, too: she is the princess who is the protagonist of this follow-up to Deception’s Princess. A two-book series rather than a longer sequence, Esther Friesner’s fantasy adventure is, like The Maeve’ra Trilogy, aimed at teenage readers – primarily if not exclusively girls, since Maeve of Connacht is clearly intended as a role model of a strong-willed, self-reliant would-be ruler. This pair of books takes place in a fictionalized Celtic world, which means Deception’s Pawn, like its predecessor, is filled with names such as Clothru (pronounced KLAW-rah), Eithne (EN-ah), Cineád (kee-NOD), Conchobar (koh-NA-ber), and Caer Ibormeith (KER eh-BROOM-mah). The pronunciation guide at the book’s end is worth studying before entering or re-entering Friesner’s setting, which otherwise seems unnecessarily opaque. The story itself, though, is straightforward enough, as Maeve continues asserting herself, finding out who she is and what her limits are, and discovering which relatives and other characters are really important to her now and in the future: “I was not running away, but flying to my heart’s home, to the one who had always been my shelter without ever being my prison.” Maeve eventually comes into her own through cleverness and subtle reasoning, through the realization that “people see what they expect to see, and they tell themselves the stories they want to hear.” So she spins a tale of having been abducted by the Fair Folk, and having escaped by winning a wager – a story people are so willing to believe that “the story of my abduction to the Otherworld was like a tree that grew more robust with every fact-bearing limb that was lopped off.” So Maeve learns a great deal about controlling people, and about using that ability to rule her subjects wisely, and learns as well to “wave away details when it suited [her], or when it was a necessary kindness.” She truly does come into her own by the end of Deception’s Pawn, and if her strength and steadfastness are considerably more modern than in tune with the sort-of-medieval time in which her story is set, what of it? Both the first book about Maeve and the second are designed for 21st-century readers who wish to visit an alternative version of the past only briefly, and only in the company of an author who can make sure everything turns out just as they wish it would.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. LPO. $16.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7. Philharmoniker Hamburg conducted by Simone Young. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Ailish Tynan, soprano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Artek. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Walton: Symphony No. 2; Cello Concerto; Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten. Paul Watkins, cello; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Bizet: Roma—Symphony; Marche funèbre; Overture in A; Patrie—Overture; Esquisse: Les quatre coins; Petite suite. RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud. Naxos. $12.99.
There have been many discussions in recent years about the tendency toward a kind of homogenizing of orchestral sound, so that one orchestra’s performances sound every much like those of another ensemble. This is by and large true: the circumstance is abetted by the fact that so many conductors now lead multiple orchestras, and so few stay around any single orchestra long enough to help an ensemble develop a unique sound and style (as, for example, George Szell did with the Cleveland Orchestra in his day and Herbert von Karajan did with the Berlin Philharmonic in his). A positive side-effect of this homogenization is less often remarked: it means that conductors can count on very high-quality performances from far more orchestras than in the past, thus having a better chance of communicating their own visions of the music being performed. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, might not be thought of as a particularly “Brucknerian” ensemble, but its new LPO recording of Bruckner’s Third Symphony – in a live performance from March 2014 – shows that it can handle this composer’s music with all the fullness, richness and sense of scale that conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski wants it to have. Skrowaczewski was 90½ years old when he led this performance, and his health – including his hearing – has not been good in recent years. But he is a strongly committed Brucknerian with a clear personal view of the symphonies, to such an extent that this performance uses his own edition of the Third – a work whose existence in multiple, very different versions has long produced headaches for conductors concerned about which Bruckner Third to present. Skrowaczewski’s solution, the creation of his own performing version, neatly evades questions of authenticity and allows him to pick and choose the elements that he believes make the symphony most effective and most communicative. Many listeners will not notice any significant differences between this version and others; indeed, most of what Skrowaczewski has done involves matters of emphasis and detail. As a conductor, Skrowaczewski lets the music grow and breathe expansively, especially in the first movement, and makes the Adagio second movement an emotionally involving experience. The third and fourth movements are not at quite as high a level, but both are well-paced and structurally sensitive – indeed, where Skrowaczewski excels is in finding unity within a symphony that can all too easily sprawl (especially in its first, 1873 version, which may be why Skrowaczewski’s unpublished edition draws mainly on the later, shorter forms of the work). The orchestra plays very well indeed for a conductor long known for his Bruckner affinity and now approaching the point at which any performance he gives becomes part of his distinguished legacy.
Australian conductor Simone Young is far from the “legacy” stage – she is just 54 – but is certainly establishing herself as a Bruckner conductor of note. Better known for her Wagner conducting and her handling of opera (including Wagner’s), Young is now in the midst of a Bruckner cycle for Oehms that shows her in full command of the Bruckner sound and Bruckner symphonic structure. Her reading of the Seventh, a live recording in very fine SACD sound, means only Nos. 5 and 9 have yet to be released. This Seventh relies heavily on the excellent playing of Philharmoniker Hamburg, an ensemble that has retained something of its own unique orchestral sound. There is warmth and fine ensemble work throughout the symphony, along with a strong sense of rhythm: Bruckner’s typical three-against-two passages come through clearly, and the Scherzo is strong and does not lumber. The pacing is middle-of-the-road, somewhat on the slow side from time to time, but always convincingly so. There are no particular revelations here: Young offers a very well-played version of the symphony that is thoroughly satisfactory and convincing, although it breaks no new interpretative ground. The word that comes to mind for this and her other Bruckner recordings is “solid.” She clearly understands this music and knows how to get the orchestra to handle Bruckner’s rhythmic and emotional complexities very well – the orchestra’s own skill in this repertoire and the evenness of its sectional balance being big pluses as well. The releases in this series have emerged in no particularly logical order; it will be interesting to see, when the cycle (which even includes No. 00) is complete, whether Young evinces a strong sense of the composer’s structural, harmonic, rhythmic and emotive development from the early symphonies to the late ones. On its own, this is a fine Seventh that lacks any strong personal conductorial vision but is effective in pacing, balance and the overall impression made by the music.
Yet another live recording, Gerard Schwarz’s Mahler Second with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, is less convincing. Schwarz is not an especially strong Mahler interpreter: the cycle of which this two-CD Artek set is a part has a number of high points but is, on the whole, a mixed bag. That description definitely applies to this “Resurrection” performance. The first two movements are simply drab, and the first is disconnected and episodic – there is no sense of building to the movement’s climactic conclusion, and even the orchestra plays below its capabilities here. In the third movement, though, Schwarz and the ensemble find themselves: this movement really flows, the music’s elegantly sinuous strains making up for much of the vapidity that has come before. The fourth movement is excellent, thanks to the very rich, deep mezzo-soprano (almost contralto) voice of Catherine Wyn-Rogers, whose expressiveness is of a very high order. And the finale opens with all the drama and intensity that the first movement lacks, then proceeds inexorably through its lengthy instrumental portion until the chorus eventually enters very quietly, with such a hush that it almost seems for a moment as if the singing is otherworldly. This is highly effective, and the concluding choral section (including the solo contribution of Ailish Tynan) is a worthy capstone to the symphony. This is a (+++) performance that would certainly have rated higher if the first two movements had been at the level of the third through fifth. There is also a serious production error in the packaging that could easily have been avoided. The correct place to split this symphony onto two CDs is after the first movement: Mahler even said that the orchestra and conductor should take a five-minute pause at that point (which is never observed but would be a good idea, because the ending of the opening movement is so different from the start of the second). It can even be argued that the symphony should be split after the third movement, with the two containing vocals on the second disc. The one place it should never be split is after the fourth movement: Mahler directly and clearly said that the fifth movement was to come attacca after the fourth. But that incorrect place is exactly where Artek splits the recording – a serious miscalculation.
There are no such missteps in the (++++) Chandos recording of Walton’s Symphony No. 2 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner. This is a fine followup to Gardner’s reading of Walton’s First, showing once again that he is a conductor of sensitivity and fluency in this composer’s style. The performance here is probing, idiomatic and well-paced, with special attention given to the lovely central Lento assai, which here emerges as the heart and soul of the symphony. The symphony is paired with a very fine version of the Cello Concerto, where the orchestral support is especially notable: this is another case in which fine orchestral sound simply seems expected from any high-class ensemble, but there is nevertheless something special in the way in which the BBC Symphony interacts with cellist Paul Watkins. The soloist himself is very well attuned to Walton’s moods: the rhapsodic warmth of the outer movements contrasts beautifully with the brilliant and intense central scherzo in a performance that is carefully considered, thoughtful and emotionally involving. Also here is a curiosity: Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten, in which Walton subjects a nine-bar theme from Britten’s Piano Concerto to contrasting variations and transformations that range from the lyrical to the aggressive. The first-rate SACD sound serves this work particularly well, and Gardner’s knowing conducting constitutes an argument in favor of hearing this infrequently performed work more often.
Bizet’s second symphony, known as Roma, is also heard on only rare occasions, and unfortunately, the fine performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Jean-Luc Tingaud shows why. Bizet was often a superb melodist, but not here: the work is awkward and seems to struggle throughout its four movements to find a center of some sort. Begun as early as 1860 and not completed until 1871, Roma was originally a kind of tone poem (along the lines of Respighi’s much later Roman Trilogy), but evolved into a traditional four-movement symphony that unfortunately lacks the grace and flow of Bizet’s earlier Symphony in C. Indeed, all the works on this new Naxos CD show that fine playing and a sensitive interpretation cannot rescue music that is nowhere near a composer’s best. There is little of the drama, melodic flow and sensitivity of Les pêcheurs de perles or Carmen in the grandiose Marche funèbre, the early Overture in A, or the intermittently effective but overblown Patrie—Overture, although the orchestra plays all the pieces well and smoothly and the conducting is sure-handed and idiomatic. The best things here are the miniatures: Esquisse: Les quatre coins and Petite suite, the latter in particular having Mendelssohnian fleetness and a wonderfully light touch. For listeners interested in some less-known Bizet, this will be a (++++) disc, and certainly the performances put it at that level; but for audiences in general, the quality of most of the music makes it a (+++) offering despite the undoubted skill with which these lesser works are shaped and presented.
Michael Haydn: String Quartets (complete). Salzburger Haydn-Quintett (Hiro Kurosaki and Frank Stadler, violins; Herbert Lindsberger and David Glidden, violas; Josetxu Obregón, cello). CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
The Bach Project: Organ Works, Volume 1. Todd Fickley, Schnitger Organ (1721), St. Michaëlskerk, Zwolle, The Netherlands/Hauptwerk. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Schumann: Märchenerzählungen; Charles Martin Loeffler: Deux Rhapsodies; August Klughardt: Schilflieder; Robert Kahn: Serenade in F minor. Ensemble Schumann (Thomas Gallant, oboe; Steve Larson, viola; Sally Pinkas, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Couperin: Les Nations—Sonades et Suites de Simphonies en Trio. Juilliard Baroque (Monica Huggett and Cynthia Roberts, violins; Sandra Miller, flute; Gonzalo X. Ruiz, oboe; Dominic Teresi, bassoon; Daniel Swenberg, theorbo and Baroque guitar; Sarah Cunningham, viola da gamba; Kenneth Weiss, harpsichord). Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).
Franz Joseph Haydn wrote in just about every musical form in existence in his time, but not that of the string quintet – he said no one ever asked him to. However, his younger brother, Michael (1737-1806), delved into this particular form five times, and although his quintets are so rarely performed as to be genuine oddities, a new CPO recording shows them to be highly worthy works deserving of much greater familiarity. Michael Haydn is perhaps best known nowadays for writing “Mozart’s” Symphony No. 37 – Mozart wrote only the introduction to the first movement. But he was a more-significant musical force in his own time, although never at his brother’s level. That contemporary judgment is reinforced by the performances by the very fine Salzburger Haydn-Quintett: this is music that breaks no significant new ground for its time, but is poised, elegant, well-balanced and thoroughly well-made. The composer actually designated only one of these works (in F, Perger 110, MH 367) as a straightforward “quintetto.” He called another (in C, Perger 108, MH 187) a “notturno/quintetto” and a third (in G, Perger 109, MH 189) simply a “notturno.” These designations show how Michael Haydn used the second viola to darken the overall tone of this music and give it a more “nocturnal” feeling. He also had movements dip frequently into minor-key episodes despite these works’ home major keys – an effective device managed skillfully. Each of the remaining two quintets (in B-flat, Perger 105, MH 412, and in F, Perger 112, MH 411) is labeled “divertimento.” Each of them has more than the four movements of the other quintets: each contains a second minuet and a stately, well-formed set of variations. They are not, however, appreciably lighter in structure or tone than the “notturno” and “quintetto” works. Indeed, there is little overall variation evident in the composer’s approach to this instrumental form: the pieces date to as early as 1773 and as late as 1786, but unlike his older brother, Michael Haydn tended to evolve formally to a certain point and then, having found a sort of musical comfort zone, to remain within it. Indeed, “comfortable” is the overall feeling generated by his quintets: this is music reflecting the best mid-to-late-18th-century techniques and sensibilities without pushing beyond them, reminding modern listeners of a vanished world of elegance and style, and of emotions portrayed musically only so deeply and no further.
On the face of it, there is nothing especially unusual about yet another recording of Bach’s organ music, not even one ambitiously designated the first volume of The Bach Project. Most of the works performed by Todd Fickley on a new MSR Classics release are ones with which listeners will be familiar: Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C, BWV 564; An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653; Trio Sonata No. 1, BWV 525; Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543; Partite Diverse Sopra il Corale “Sei Gegrüsset, Jesu, Gütig,” BWV 768; and Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582. Also on the face of it, Fickley’s choice of an organ on which to perform is unexceptionable and intelligent. But the superficial “just another fine recording of Bach’s organ music” response to this release is misplaced, because in fact the CD is a showcase for “virtual pipe organ” software called Hauptwerk. A visit to www.hauptwerk.com is worthwhile for anyone considering purchase of this disc, because the software itself is fascinating and its concept unusual enough to merit some serious thought about the differences between real pipe organs and digital keyboards that reproduce organ sounds. That reproduction is frequently, to put it bluntly, awful. The ease of use of a readily portable digital keyboard is inarguable, and for many people, the difference in sound between what such a keyboard generates and what pipe organs produce is meaningless when it comes to typical hymns and other church music – the main pieces with which many people associate organs and the primary ones for which organs are nowadays used. Great organ music, however – whether by Bach or such other towering figures as Widor and Vierne – always sounds constricted and compromised when performed on a typical digital organ. Hauptwerk intends to change that by a complex and well-thought-out sampling technique designed to mimic, in great detail, the exact sound of specific great organs of the world. So what Fickley plays on here is not actually the 1721 Dutch organ located in St. Michaëlskerk, Zwolle – it is the Hauptwerk version of that organ, created digitally and reproduced through a modern electronic instrument. On a strictly musical basis, Fickley’s performances are fine, historically aware although not imbued with all elements of historic performance practices. The actual sound of the music is fine as well, and largely indistinguishable from the sound of a pipe organ (only listeners who really know the specific one sampled here by Hauptwerk will be able to judge how well its sound is reproduced). The whole project raises some intriguing questions, though. Old organs, no matter how often updated and how well maintained, have inevitable quirks, reflected in clicks, balky responses, extraneous noises, and other odd little operating sounds. Hauptwerk eliminate all of these: it samples, very accurately, the exact sound made by an organ’s pipes, but not the organist’s technique in eliciting those sounds. Indeed, the whole notion is to let modern organists, wherever located, employ their technique on virtual copies of great organs located somewhere else. But is the absence of old instruments’ age-related elements a good thing? Do the difficulties of playing the old pipe organs make them sound better or worse? Do those difficulties produce a more-authentic listening experience, or one with which extraneous elements constantly interfere? A listener’s response to these philosophical questions will have a great deal to do with his or her enjoyment of, or disappointment in, Fickley’s Hauptwerk recording.
There are no electronic instrumental elements involved in another MSR Classics release, this one featuring Ensemble Schumann – but there are other unusual things about it, including the repertoire and some instrumental choices. The latter are germane to the ensemble’s recording of Schumann’s late (1853) Märchenerzählungen, a four-movement work for clarinet or violin, viola and piano. The choice of an oboe rather than Schumann’s designated instruments significantly changes the character of some aspects of this music. The oboe is less suited than the clarinet to the ominous, dark opening and other elements of the second movement, and the viola-oboe duet of the third movement is less effective than one involving viola and clarinet. To be sure, it could be argued that choosing Schumann’s option of a violin also alters the character of these sections, but Schumann was aware of the differences that would result and clearly approved them. Using an oboe, even when it is played as well as it is here by Thomas Gallant, results in tonal colors than the composer did not anticipate but could surely have called for had he wanted them. Gallant, Steve Larson and Sally Pinkas do perform very well together, and the lyricism, grace and rhythmic drive of Märchenerzählungen come through well, even if the overall sound of the piece is somewhat strange. The other works on this CD are far less frequently heard, and some listeners will not know their composers at all. Deux Rhapsodies by violinist-composer Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) dates to 1901 and bears the intriguing titles L’Étang (“The Pond”) and La Cornemuse (“Bagpipes”), and Loeffler – a careful and methodical composer, if not an especially inspired one – presents some effective tone painting in both. Schilflieder (“Reed Songs”) by August Klughardt (1847-1902) is an earlier work, written in 1872, with more of Romanticism and less of Impressionism about it. Klughardt called the five movements Phantasiestüke (“Imaginative Pieces”) and wrote them for piano, oboe or violin, and viola. They are based on poems by Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) and are suitably reflective of multiple moods: the atmosphere of Lenau’s poems comes through clearly even without a listener knowing their specifics. The final work on this disc is the Serenade in F minor by Robert Kahn (1865-1951), and it is perhaps the most historically fascinating piece here, for all that it is the shortest and is very little known. Although it dates to 1922, it is written in an essentially Brahmsian style (Kahn knew Brahms, who was so impressed with the younger composer that he offered to tutor him and did help him informally). Kahn’s is a well-crafted work, not terribly deep but elegant and genial. It is in a single continuous movement that breaks down into a relaxed first part and a moderately fast second one, each with its own contrasting middle section. What is fascinating is that when Kahn brought the work to his publisher, it was as a trio for oboe, horn and piano – and the publisher, Simrock, said it would barely sell in that form and needed to be rewritten for a standard piano trio (with violin and cello). That would have created two versions – but Kahn went overboard and ended up arranging the work for nine performance combinations: piano with oboe, violin, clarinet or viola; plus horn, viola or cello. The oboe/viola/piano version heard here serves the music well, bringing forth the contrasts within the parts (especially the Vivace section in the first part) and perhaps making listeners wonder if anyone would care to release a CD containing all the versions of this work. But Simrock would no doubt observe that it would probably barely sell.
The instrumental combinations are of a strictly Baroque cast in the very impressive Juilliard Baroque performance of François Couperin’s Les Nations, a set of four extended and elaborate works devoted to the major Catholic powers of Europe in Couperin’s time (1668-1733). The four are intended to represent France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the Savoy dynasty of Piedmont, but in fact their elements are solely French and Italian (in the dance movements, more the former than the latter) and, not surprisingly, often sound Corellian: Couperin acknowledged his debt to Corelli and in fact introduced Corelli’s Trio Sonata form to France. Each part of Les Nations includes one of those trio sonatas, followed by a dance suite, and each part is scored simply for two violins and continuo. But Les Nations is rarely performed that way: Couperin is known to have had access to a variety of chamber musicians at the court of Louis XIV, so modern performances – including this one – frequently fill out the bare bones of Les Nations with instruments such as those heard here. The result is a more-colorful performance that is arguably just as authentic as one simply using violins and continuo. Certainly the Juilliard Baroque musicians sound excellent on this Naxos release, playing individual movements with style and finesse and providing fullness that is actually lush when appropriate, as for instance in the chaconne of L’Impériale. Many movements are short, and at times the quick transitions from instrument to instrument can prevent the creation of a unified mood. Taken as a whole, though, this recording of Les Nations uses its instrumental mixture very well, producing a performance that is historically informed, nicely paced, very well played, and quite interesting to hear even some 300 years after Couperin’s original was published in 1726.
April 23, 2015
King of the Comics: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Big Nate’s Greatest Hits. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Whoever came up with the idea that comics are for kids never encountered strips such as Pearls Before Swine, Stephan Pastis’ compilation of death, misery, beer, innuendo, bad puns and surrealism (the fact that Pastis was trained as a lawyer probably contributes to that mixture). Pearls Before Swine is distinctly not for children, and in fact, when Andrews McMeel put together some of Pastis’ strips for its kid-focused AMP! Series, it was hard to believe that the editors could find enough young-person-oriented material to make a book. Certainly the latest Pastis collection, King of the Comics, needs to be rated “mature” for its sheer immaturity – of an adult type, that is. It starts with virtually the entire cast of the strip being put in jail for one reason or another (one being that Zebra and one of the crocs are found in bed together by a police officer who says “this has to be illegal in some state”). Interspersed with the jail strips are ones in which lemmings are committing suicide in various creative ways. Later, cartoon Pastis – who frequently appears in his own strip – is melted by a bucket of water that Rat throws at him because of a particularly awful pun. Also here are a battle between an orchestra’s first and second violinists, a parody of the heartwarming “Shelter Stories” from the Mutts comic strip, a new character named Gomer Goldfish whose violent tendencies lead to a barbed-wire fence atop his bowl, Rat’s definition of a cruise vacation as “being trapped in a confined space with overweight people [and] broken toilets,” a pair of “peppy penguin morning greeters” with a banjo, a Jumble puzzle whose solution mocks Pastis as having no sense of humor, a series in which the title characters from Calvin and Hobbes have become a bootleg-merchandise seller and a fanatical right-wing TV commentator, Rat taking his pet human to be neutered, a couple of appearances by vigilante deer, cartoon Pastis drawing the missing nose on cartoon Cathy, Rat declaring himself a medical doctor – you get the idea, or if you don’t get it by now, Pearls Before Swine is probably not your sort of strip. Pastis’ humor is dark, skewed, strange, pointed, sometimes right on the verge of vulgar, and offbeat enough to keep readers off balance, without any way to predict where he and the strip will go next. Pearls Before Swine somehow manages to be thoroughly adult and completely immature at the same time. That’s probably another aspect of Pastis’ legal training.
The kids who do appear in Pastis’ world are scarcely childlike – one, for example, proposes that her basketball team be named the Chandraguptas, after “a great emperor in India who voluntarily gave up all his power to become a monk.” But kids in other strips manage to remain recognizably kid-like, which means that strips such as Big Nate continue the long comic tradition of reaching out to younger readers. They also fit much better than Pearls Before Swine does into the AMP! Format, as is clear from Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City, the latest AMP! collection from Lincoln Peirce (pronounced “purse”). Nate is a sixth-grader, age 11 or 12 (depending on which strips he happens to be in), and is clearly modeled in part on Peirce himself: Peirce says he started drawing cartoons in sixth grade, just as Nate does. Unfortunately, Say Good-Bye to Dork City does not contain any “Nate-drawn” cartoons. But it does offer plenty of typical Nate antics: he dresses as Sherlock Holmes (complete with bubble-blowing pipe) to search for his allegedly stolen lucky (and filthy) socks; he gets permission for his band, Enslave the Mollusk, to perform at a school dance (things do not go as planned); he finds himself in conflict, as usual, with his feckless father and his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey (and even with her dog); his friend, Francis, uses him as an object lesson in a science project designed to show that some people’s brains retain certain kinds of information (lots of pop trivia) but cannot absorb other types (anything school-related); and he joins the “cool kids” posse of super-popular Marcus, then backs out after realizing Marcus is just a bully and not as cool as Nate’s real friends, Francis and Teddy. That last sequence is an example of the infrequent “lesson” ones in Big Nate, which usually just chronicles the foibles of a not-quite-adolescent with an inflated view of himself but a basically good heart and some genuine talents (such as chess) that help counterbalance his lack of interest in academic subjects.
Some of Nate’s talents are front and center in Big Nate’s Greatest Hits, but they do not always take him where he wants to go – which is, of course, the point. Nate, for example, is a cut-throat Monopoly player, but when he urges Francis and Teddy to be more intense in their play, they decide to team up to bankrupt him. Nate announces that he has a bond with Vincent Van Gogh, in whose style he is painting, but then Francis points out that Van Gogh was “an emotionally troubled misfit who was a total failure during his lifetime.” Nate gets over 100 people to sign his yearbook, but doesn’t notice that they have done such things as getting his name wrong and writing “Dear Ugly.” But things do go Nate’s way sometimes – otherwise Big Nate would be depressing rather than as amusing as it actually is. In Big Nate’s Greatest Hits, Nate actually gets a girlfriend, whose name is Angie. True, he only meets her when he has to go to summer school because his grades are so poor (she is attending because she has just moved to the area and needs to catch up). It turns out that she loves to draw, so she and Nate connect immediately: he shows her characters such as Doctor Cesspool, stuntman Moe Mentum, and announcers Biff and Chip, and she observes that “they all look like the same character, just with different hair” – which makes Nate happy (“she sees right through me”). Of course, Nate and Angie have rough spots because of his self-image (he lies to her about why he is in summer school, for example), but giving Nate an actual girlfriend (someone to take his mind off perpetual crush Jennie, who is tremendously happy to find Nate paired with someone else) is a neat twist here. The book also gives fans of Nate’s cartoon characters (even the ones that do sort of look alike) plenty of chances to see them – not only the ones he shows Angie but also Dr. Warren Fuzzy (host of “Feelings”), Nate’s big sister Ellen (drawn in “Ellen: The Board Game”), Abe Lincoln (refusing to take off his stovepipe hat while courting Mary Todd), Dan Cupid (“love consultant”), Claire Voyant (“celebrity psychic”), and on and on. Excluding these comics-within-comics, Nate and the characters around him – friends, family, neighbors, classmates, teachers, etc. – are the stuff of which many comic strips have been made over the years. But Peirce manages to keep the formula fresh, the interactions interesting, and Nate himself an example of a character with whom today’s young comic-strip readers can enjoy spending time – at least until they are ready to encounter Pastis’ Rat, Pig, Goat, Guard Duck and crocs.
Shivers! The Pirate Who’s Afraid of EVERYTHING. By Annabeth Bondor-Stone and Connor White. Illustrated by Anthony Holden. Harper. $12.99.
Willy Maykit in Space. By Greg Trine. Illustrations by James Burks. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $13.99.
Amelia Bedelia 6: Amelia Bedelia Cleans Up. By Herman Parish. Pictures by Lynne Avril. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $4.99.
Sometimes the fun of a book is less in the plot than in the strange, amusing, silly and/or offbeat characters. It is the peculiarity of Shivers the boy pirate (age 11) and his faithful companion Margo (age 10) that makes Shivers! The Pirate Who’s Afraid of EVERYTHING so enjoyable – not the thin and largely predictable story, which it is easy to believe is based on an idea from a nine-year-old boy (the authors actually say that, crediting a boy name Harrison Blanz for the book’s concept). Shivers is a landlubber of a pirate, living in a permanently beached pirate ship while his brave pirate parents and bold pirate brother sail the seas having piratical adventures. But parents and brother alike have been captured, and only Shivers can save them. So he gets together with Margo, daughter of Police Chief Clomps’n’Stomps, and the two set off to rescue Shivers’ family – which they do. That’s the whole plot, but it matters little, since the real attraction here is finding out just how terrified Shivers is of absolutely everything: pumpkins, because of the size of their seeds; clouds, because they look like cute fluffy pillows but can generate killing electricity; pepperoni pizza, which Shivers calls “deadly spotted cheese bread”; and more. Lots more. But Shivers is not afraid of his best friend, Albee the fish (who in one scene of the story has a crucial part to play). More to the point, he realizes he is not afraid of Margo, even when she makes scary faces at him. So maybe he can rescue his family after all! Well, of course he can, although there is a small matter of his fear of snails that gets in the way – that is, until it becomes a solution rather than a problem. Annabeth Bondor-Stone and Connor White have a great time piling absurdity on absurdity here, and the illustrations by Anthony Holden are a hoot – such as the one of Shivers doing song-and-dance time, with a grand piano in the background and a huge grin on his face, while wearing bunny slippers (one of which also eventually has an important part to play). Throw in a giant squid, some sharks with surprisingly good taste, a pirate opponent called Captain Pokes-You-in-the-Eye, and a very French master criminal, and Shivers! The Pirate Who’s Afraid of EVERYTHING turns out to be too funny to be one of a kind – readers who enjoy Shivers and Margo will surely want to see more of them.
Readers who prefer a cosmic sort of silliness may gravitate (ha, ha) to Willy Maykit in Space, in which Greg Trine comes up with passages like this: “Willy and his companions had no idea that there was a monster out there who wanted revenge. They knew there were monsters out there, sure. And they knew that they roamed around at night, looking for things to eat. But they had no idea that it was personal.” It seems that Willy has gotten himself stranded on Planet Ed during a fourth-grade field trip: the return-to-Earth ship leaves without him. It also leaves without his classmate, Cindy, who realized he was missing and, instead of telling anyone, decided to go looking for him – ending up stranded herself (logic and rationality matter not at all in character-driven books like this one). The two soon encounter and befriend an alien boy named Norp, and the three of them set off on outer-space adventures that also involve Max, an android pilot (not a very good one) with a strong preference for knock-knock jokes. Also involved is Phelps, “a bird, or whatever you call things that fly on Planet Ed.” While all this is going on, Willy’s dad, Mr. Maykit, is being held captive in the Amazon jungle on Earth by a tribe of foothunters, “and now they were staring at his feet even more than usual.” So there are several escapes, or escapes-in-progress, here. One specific monster on Planet Ed is a serious problem, though: “He’d been pooped on by a seagull, shunned by his own kind, and he’d missed the annual Monster Ball. This was one angry beast.” To see just how angry, readers need only look at James Burks’ pictures, which make this (and other things) abundantly clear. Eventually, everyone escapes from everything, waffles are served all around, and here too, readers may wonder whether there will be further adventures to come.
No such wondering is needed for the child version of Amelia Bedelia, spun off by Herman Parish from the adult version created by his aunt, Peggy Parish. Amelia Bedelia Cleans Up is already the sixth chapter book in Herman Parish’s ongoing series, and while none of the books is up to the quality of the ones by Peggy Parish, each – including this one – offers an enjoyable focus on the central character. The story here, which is as thin as the plots of others in this series (and as thin as the plots of many other character-centered books for young readers), has to do with a search for a clubhouse, maybe even a treehouse. Amelia Bedelia and her friends find what seems like an ideal place: an empty lot with a big tree in the middle. So they get together and start cleaning the lot up. And they do a good job – only to learn that the lot, although vacant, is not simply available to anyone who wants to use it. It is for sale, and of course they cannot afford to buy it. What they can do, it turns out, is prevent possible buyers from being interested in making the purchase – because the girls make comments that make buyers feel the lot is not right for them. This upsets Victor Lee, the man who is trying to sell the lot. He is not the owner, though – that is elderly Mrs. West, whom the girls meet and befriend. They ask her not to sell, but she really needs the money to fix up her house. However, Amelia Bedelia figures out a way for Mrs. West to get money without selling the lot, and Mrs. West decides to donate the land to be made into a park, and everything ends happily – not surprisingly at all. The fun here is supposed to come mainly from Amelia Bedelia’s tendency to take figurative language literally (“ants in my pants,” “hold on to your hat,” and so forth). But the use of such language in these (+++) chapter books seems overdone and forced, not natural as in the Peggy Parish originals. Young readers of Herman Parish’s books may not mind, though, and certainly Lynne Avril’s amiable illustrations help make these books into enjoyable, quick reads whose central character is pleasantly quirky.
The Whisperer. By Fiona McIntosh. Knopf. $16.99.
Genuine Sweet. By Faith Harkey. Clarion. $16.99.
Celestial Battle, Book Two: Demon Child. By Kylie Chan. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
Fantasy novels for preteens and young teenagers frequently take a straightforward coming-of-age path, but not always. Some of them weave elaborate, multi-string plot strands into webs designed to catch young readers’ imagination and keep those readers involved through sheer complexity. The Whisperer, published in Australia in 2009 but only now appearing in a U.S. edition, is decidedly on the side of complexity – but at its heart, it is a kind of the-prince-and-the-pauper story about connected boys who learn only as the story progresses just who they are and just what they mean to each other (and to those around them). One of the boys, Griff, joined the circus with his two brothers when all were quite young; this is a good place for him to do dull manual work, keeping as much to himself as possible, because Griff hears other people’s thoughts and finds it unbearable to be around too many people. An oddity of the plot, though, is that Griff hears thoughts only when they are important to the people thinking them – and that strains credulity even for a fantasy, because how, exactly, does Griff’s telepathic ability know this? In any case, the second boy – the “prince” one – is Lute, who is indeed crown prince of the kingdom of Destronia. Griff and Lute know nothing about each other, but each is in danger – Griff from Master Tyren, who runs the circus and wants to use Griff’s telepathy to make more money, and Lute from his usurping uncle, Janko. Obviously these two boys are going to meet, and they do indeed work their way toward each other after Griff starts hearing Lute’s thoughts, not knowing where they come from but telling himself that they emanate from a “whisperer.” Fiona McIntosh, who has written dozens of adult novels, carefully backs out overly adult themes from The Whisperer, turning it into a quest adventure whose eventual outcome is never really in doubt but whose twists and turns should keep young readers interested. The most involving of those involve subsidiary characters. One is Tess, with whom Griff runs away from the circus – she brings magical creatures with her. Another is a bandit dwarf named Bitter Olof who, in an intriguing twist, used to be tall and strong but had to give up his height to a witch in return for his life. A third is Olof’s former lover, Calico Grace, who had to surrender her beauty for the same reason and now commands a pirate ship – a magical one, no less. Olof and Grace intersect the story of Leto’s escape and are strongly connected to Leto through the person of his friend and bodyguard, Pilo – yet another plot complication. Eventually Griff and Leto find out just why and how they are connected, and that particular plot development is anything but surprising. In fact, few individual elements of The Whisperer are surprises (although the witch taking Olof’s height and Grace’s beauty is a neat concept); but there are so many things going on in the book that readers will be swept along from event to event, peril to peril, enjoying the ups and downs as they try to figure out just what is going to happen before the inevitable (and rather too pat) happy ending.
The magic is specific rather than pervasive in Genuine Sweet, a book whose title is the name of its narrator. She and the other females in her family are “wish fetchers,” living in the small town of Sass, Georgia, which is “full of folks who had family shines. Everyone knew Mina Cunningham was a pain lifter and the Fullers could soothe bad dreams. But granting wishes? That was hanging the basket mighty high.” Yes, that is what wish fetchers can do – but not for themselves, although sometimes “we can nudge the Lord just a little,” as Genuine’s beloved grandmother explains. Genuine – who is 12 and whose middle name, by the way, is Beauty – lives with her perpetually drunk father and her grandmother (Gram), her ma having passed on. Faith Harkey’s book constantly mixes the mundane with the mystical: Genuine and her grandmother bake wish biscuits from a “bag of miracle flour” that is always “just as full as it had been when I first brought it home,” but although the concept of biscuit-making is down-to-earth and homey, it is juxtaposed with New Age-y sounding narration: “The stars were singing. …There came a time that it felt right to raise my cup and whistle down some magic from the stars. It was then that I realized: the light was the song, which was the light. It was more than that, too, but what more, I couldn’t fathom. It was a mystery far bigger than me.” And, when the requests to Genuine from the impoverished townspeople seem too much of a burden for a young girl to bear: “I caught my mirror image in the window and pondered what it might be like to live there, on the distant side of things. Folks couldn’t demand doodly from me; I’d be nothing but a reflection, far away, where things were watery and quiet.” Genuine is clearly wise beyond her years, and more poetic in her thoughts, too. Actually, Harkey is not always sure just how mature to make her – which leads to a passage like this: “This is Travis Tromp! I reminded myself. He could be angry and pushy and – I’ll say it – a little chauvinistic, with all that ‘baby’ stuff. He was as goofy as a snaggletoothed pup, too.” The book proceeds on a standard story arc, with Genuine learning more about herself and her past, then facing a tragic (and unsurprising) loss, then erupting in anger at the unfairness of life, then losing her ability to fetch wishes, but then figuring out how to do something – well, perhaps not better, but equally satisfying, in a different way. This is a pleasant story rather than a profound one, a tale built around magic but told in a rather matter-of-fact manner, as if magic itself is mundane. Being a fantasy, it is scarcely genuine, but it does manage to be sweet.
Complex fantasies are, most assuredly, not only for young readers. In fact, adult-focused fantasies are even more complicated – and a great deal longer – than ones intended for preteens and teenagers. Kylie Chan’s Celestial Battle is typical of the genre. Demon Child is the second book, after Dark Serpent started the trilogy. As is common in adult fantasies, there are paired lovers whose fate is central to much greater matters, such as, in this case, eventual control of Earth and Heaven alike (an absurd premise that seems less so simply because of the frequency with which it is used in adult fantasies). Here the lovers’ names are Emma Donohoe and John Chen, but their names matter little, since they are filling typecast roles and are themselves simply types. Demon Child is so overloaded with mixed metaphors and mixed time periods that it tends to career off the tracks again and again. At one point there is an unintentionally funny scene in which the Dark Lord (“that’s really what he’s called?” asks one character) is in the infirmary during a meeting in which one character keeps switching his age (from 12 to 30) and appearance, and soon there is a comment, “Send the message through the network. Confirm by text when you’re sure that the Masters, Ma, Er Lang and the Winds are informed.” Then there are passages like this: “They took down the Dragon, but obviously they don’t have another cage because he came back almost immediately. They don’t have any of the Winds or the Generals, but there isn’t much left of the army and many of our senior officers are prisoners. The Jade Emperor ordered us to evacuate when Father went down and the cockroach attacked the barricades, so the last of us made it out.” Understand: all this makes sense in Chan’s fantasy world, but there is so much of it, so constantly tossed about and so frequently tumbling over itself with incoherence, that Celestial Battle is a series only for those who want to immerse themselves really, really deeply into an utterly absurd alternative universe filled with demons, opposing armies of Sidhe (pronounced “shee”) and Shen, and many portentous capitalized words: “She was Raised. …Is the Turtle still in the Grotto? …I have the Serpent with me. I’ll be at the Gates of Heaven in about ten minutes. I need a ride from there to the Mountain, as fast as possible.” Certainly Demon Child is the wrong place to start reading as lengthy and overwrought a fantasy as Celestial Battle. Readers who are truly enamored of this sort of magical-romantic-martial-arts story need to start with the first book and work their way onward to this one, and thence to the forthcoming finale.
Idil Biret Schumann Edition. Idil Biret, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit; Borusan Quartet (Esen Kivrak and Olgu Kizilay, violins; Efdal Altun, viola; Çağ Erçağ, cello). IBA. $39.99 (8 CDs).
Rossini: Guillaume Tell. Andrew Foster-Williams, Michael Spyres, Nahuel Di Pierro, Tara Stafford, Raffaele Facciolà, Giulio Pelligra, Artavazd Sargsyan, Marco Filippo Romano, Judith Howarth, Alessandra Volpe; Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań and Virtuosi Brunensis conducted by Antonino Fogliani. Naxos. $49.99 (4 CDs).
All music releases are intended to bring pleasure to listeners, but it would be exaggerating to call most of them significant in themselves. Once in a while, though, there is something truly important about a recording, or set of recordings, and that is the case with the Idil Biret Schumann Edition, an eight-disc package of previously released performances by the Turkish pianist offered as a boxed set by IBA (Idil Biret Archive) at an exceptional price. What makes this important is not the cost, however, but the value. Like any modern virtuoso, Biret is expert at the standard piano repertoire: she can handle Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff with skill and sensitivity. Also like any modern virtuoso, she makes forays into less-often-played works and excels at presenting them: music by Boulez, Ligeti and Wilhelm Kempff (the great pianist who was Biret’s mentor), among others. But beyond the “standards,” Biret has something that sets her apart from other first-rank pianists, and that something is her way with Schumann. Certain Schumann pieces are absolute “musts” for pianists: the Piano Concerto, Kinderszenen and Fantasie in C, Op. 17. And a few others are heard from top pianists from time to time. But Biret performs and records Schumann more extensively – and, significantly, with more attentiveness and involvement – than do most other pianists, and the Idil Biret Schumann Edition is important because it showcases her exceptional way with this composer’s music and her exceptional sensitivity to its many (and frequently conflicting) moods. This shows even in Schumann’s best-known piano music. In the Piano Concerto, for example, Biret opts for slower-than-usual tempos in the first and third movements, with the first in particular seeming to move at an unusually measured pace because of the evenness of Biret’s finger work and her comparatively modest use of pedals. The second movement is lyrical and warm, but not overwrought, while the finale is stately – and grander than in most other performances. It is certainly possible to critique this performance as somewhat over-thought, more intellectual than it needs to be; and this, indeed, is a periodic issue in all Biret’s performances, whose emotive nature sometimes takes a back seat to an analytical approach. But at the same time, this concerto gains stature and solidity with Biret that it rarely attains with other performers. Similarly, Kinderszenen here sounds very definitely like the attempt by an adult to look back on scenes of childhood with a mixture of nostalgia and objectivity. And the Fantasie in C is treated as something akin to (but not quite identical to) a sonata, its differing moods delineated clearly and its final, meditative section given considerable weight and a very effective conclusion.
But it is through the Schumann works that are heard less often that listeners will really come to appreciate Biret’s excellence in this repertoire. The Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op. 92 and Introduction and Concert Allegro, Op. 134 get firm, knowing and involving performances from both Biret and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Antoni Wit (this is a better ensemble than the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra, which is used in the Concerto). The Abegg Variations, Op. 1 are handled with clarity and delicacy throughout. The Toccata, Op. 7 gets full display-piece treatment. The mercurial Sonata No. 2 in G minor is explored throughout its whole variety of moods, right through its concluding faster-and-faster Presto. In Kreisleriana, Biret’s careful attentiveness to the work’s contrasting aspects produces a performance by turns agitated, expressive, stormy, gentle, frenetic and tranquil. Biret is a touch too staid in Blumenstück, which is almost but not quite salon music, but again, she does an excellent job negotiating the work’s shifting moods. Faschingsschwank aus Wien (“Carnival in Vienna”), which is not particularly profound or nuanced, gets a knowing performance that is fully attentive to the work’s melodic charms. The Piano Quintet shows Biret to be quite capable of receding toward (if not quite into) the background when necessary, becoming a full partner with strings in the first two movements before shining forth to begin the third and dominating the discussion through to the work’s end – with the Borusan Quartet being perhaps a touch too deferential to her, but offering fine ensemble support.
And so on and so forth, throughout this entire first-rate set. There are bonuses here, too. One is Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young, Op. 39, a set of 24 short movements (many under a minute) that capture old Russian childhood feelings and memories in elegant miniature – and that are correctly handled by Biret with a mood very different from that of Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Another bonus is Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite, to which Biret brings just the right mixture of sly humor, elegance, and jubilation. And the eighth and last disc in the box is a real treat for Biret fans, including her earliest radio appearances, from 1949 and 1953 (featuring interview segments as well as performances, including a substantial one in 1953 of Bach’s Fantaisie Chromatique et Fugue). Also on this CD is Biret’s 1959 version of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, which contrasts fascinatingly with the version from 2000 heard elsewhere in the set: emphases have changed and there is certainly greater overall subtlety in the later interpretation, but Biret’s musicianship was obviously already very finely honed in 1959, when she was 18 – and, for that matter, she already had excellent musical and performance instincts as far back as 1949, when she was only eight. The Idil Biret Schumann Edition is important for the performances, true, but even more so for the unusually detailed portrait it provides of an expert pianist with genuine affinity for some less-often-performed music that allows her to display her thoughtfulness, analytical ability and innate understanding of a great composer in ways that set her apart from other highly talented modern virtuosi.
The Naxos release of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is an important one for a different reason. Amazingly, there has never before been a complete recording of the sprawling, uncut four-act version of Rossini’s last opera – the work after which he retired to enjoy life, live on a pension (which he ended up having to fight to obtain), and write volume upon volume of Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”) for all sorts of instrumental and vocal combinations. This recording of Guillaume Tell was made from four live performances at the “Rossini in Wildbad” festival in Germany, with a multinational cast that makes up in enthusiasm what it occasionally lacks in sheer vocal heft. Rossini made a whole series of cuts and changes in Guillaume Tell after completing it, understanding the exigencies of theatrical production exceptionally well and having a remarkably ego-free approach to his operas. The result is that much of the music on this four-CD set will be completely unfamiliar to listeners. The opera in its original form is very long indeed – Meyerbeer length, in fact: four hours of music. It is filled with gloriously tuneful material but also with, it must be said, a certain amount of padding and some uninspired material – as, indeed, was the norm in Rossini’s operas. The themes used in the justly renowned overture all have significant roles in the action, and the famous scene in which Tell shoots an arrow through an apple that is on the head of his son, Jemmy, is one of high drama. Storms and calm, hymns to freedom and insistence on obedience, a love story involving two subsidiary characters who become germane and then crucial to the eventual happy outcome (Arnold, representing the oppressed Swiss, and Mathilde, from the oppressing Hapsburgs, who eventually joins Arnold in both love and political solidarity) – all these elements and more tumble over one another through a plot filled with rescues, defiance, lyricism, anger, patriotism and bravado. Guillaume Tell is quite an opera; and yes, it is somewhat over-long, if only because parts of it bog down here and there and because the villain of the piece, Gesler, does not even appear until the third act. The positives of the complete version far outweigh the negatives, however, and the soloists here clearly give their all to the production: if none of them is ne plus ultra, certainly none is inadequate.
Guillaume Tell is an ensemble piece through most of its length – a fact showcased in this recording in a 24-minute supplement on the fourth CD. This includes alternative versions of several numbers and the revised conclusion that Rossini prepared for the three-act version staged in Paris in 1831. In the supplementary material, different singers take some of the roles while the same singers are used in others – an indication of the overall ensemble approach evident throughout the production. Conductor Antonino Fogliani holds things together from start to finish and keeps the work moving at a deliberate, carefully chosen pace that allows the material to unfold naturally without seeming rushed or held back. This middle-of-the-road approach generally serves the opera well, although occasionally a little more fire and intensity would have been welcome. Also welcome would have been a libretto with English translation: Naxos provides an unusually thorough summary of the action in this set’s booklet, but makes only the French-language libretto, untranslated, available online. Since the complete opera has not been recorded before, there is really no readily available source for a complete, translated libretto – although the gist of what is going on is certainly clear from the summary in the booklet. Still, an undertaking as interesting and, yes, important as this one would have been better served by providing listeners with the means to follow exactly what is being said and sung. Nevertheless, this is an important release, allowing opera lovers to hear for the first time just what all the fuss was about when Rossini presented his sprawling, intense, sometimes overdone, highly patriotic final opera – capping a career that spanned two decades but leading to a life in which, for a variety of reasons, there were to be no further operas until the composer’s death 39 years after Guillaume Tell.