August 25, 2016
Miss Muffet or What Came After. By Marilyn Singer. Pictures by David Litchfield. Clarion. $16.99.
Duck on a Tractor. By David Shannon. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.
Some picture books only seem to be designed for children. Every once in a while, an author and artist cut loose in picture-book form to produce something that may be just fine for kids but that is certainly intended for adults as well. Maybe even primarily for adults. After all, how many kids know about operetta? Hmm…for that matter, how many contemporary adults know about it? Well, Marilyn Singer – what a perfect last name for this situation! – clearly knows a lot about how the lighthearted works of Gilbert and Sullivan and other famous operetta creators work. They all have “or” subtitles, for one thing: The Mikado or the Town of Titipu, and HMS Pinafore or the Lass That Loved a Sailor; hence Miss Muffet or What Came After. They all have complex and often absurd plots that include highly amusing individual characters plus a chorus that comments on and participates in the action, changing clothing and attitudes as necessary; hence the “two maids and a gardener” who “take on different costumes and occupations depending on the location.” Anyone who doubts the G&S model for Singer’s elaborate (and suitably elaborately illustrated) book should note that Miss Muffet, we are told, has the given name of Patience – as in Patience or Bunthorne’s Bride by, yes, Gilbert and Sullivan. The country-manor home, elaborately dressed family and supporting cast, and rollicking poetic verbiage of this supposed kids’ book are right in line with Gilbert’s words. And one can easily imagine music like Sullivan’s permeating the pages, since the entire book is staged as, yes, an operetta. For instance, Miss Muffet’s father is a bug collector, and he sings to the tuffet-delivering furniture maker: “This creature’s a mole cricket./ Yes, go ahead and pick it/ up. It will not bite./ Observe the upper mandible./ An insect’s understandable,/ predictable, quite.” Of course the main insect here – arachnid, to be accurate – is the spider that frightens Miss Muffet in the nursery rhyme. But here the spider, far from being frightening, is an Aranea locutus, “an exceptional spider that’s able to speak,” and a music lover as well. He especially enjoys listening to Miss Muffet play the violin, which is what she wants to do in life. And thereby hangs a tale – this tale, in which Miss Muffet, unwilling to conform to her mother’s straitened notions of appropriate feminine activities, sets off with the spider (whose name is Webster) to make her fortune with her violin. And soon Patience and Webster encounter sheepless, violin-playing Little Bo Peep: “I have a fiddle. I’ll earn my keep.” And the three travelers later meet yet another fiddler, whose wife sings a villanelle and lapses periodically into French (there’s a bit of this sort of thing in G&S as well); and everyone goes to Old King Cole’s court, where the king has been looking for a new set of “fiddlers three,” and all ends in joy and complexity and amusing turns of phrase: “‘Happily ever after’ is such a fine cliché!/ It’s even more delightful/ than a bowl of curds and whey!” David Litchfield’s illustrations are pitch-perfect – no surprise from the creator of a superb earlier music-focused book, The Bear and the Piano. And Singer’s libretto (which is more or less what this book is) is tremendous fun from start to finish, even more for adults who pick up on all the musical references and delights than for kids who “only” get a super-funny, super-silly, superlatively told singing story.
The complexities, both written and pictured, are of a different but no less entrancing sort in David Shannon’s Duck on a Tractor. Here the plot is straightforward: farm animals, led by an ambitious and determined duck, get aboard a tractor that the duck drives all the way from the farm into town and along the street, while townspeople gape and gawp and remark on what they cannot believe they are seeing. But Shannon makes the book far from ordinary by a style of in-your-face illustration that pulls readers into the goings-on through sheer exuberance and the constant use of close-up views and unusual angles. For instance, one scene is almost filled with a single wheel of the tractor – it takes up more than a page – as Goat starts to climb aboard, Chicken is swept around the turning wheel, and Mouse stands atop the fender gazing ahead. The very next scene features Horse and Cat, and Horse is shown so large that his body sprawls across two pages after he has landed awkwardly on the tractor while his wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression fills almost half the right-hand page. The text here is special as well, being laid out in “what they said/what they thought” form: “‘Meow,’ said Cat. But what she thought was, ‘I was going to take a nap, but this should be very interesting!’” And: “Pig and Pig took a seat in back. ‘Oink!’ said Pig and Pig. But what they thought was, ‘This sure beats walking!’” As the animal-packed tractor heads along the town’s main street and past the local diner – Cow’s role as an oversized hood ornament is especially funny – the people in the restaurant have their own “what they said/what they thought” moments: “Deputy Bob blabbered, ‘If that don’t beat all!’ But what he thought was ‘How am I gonna explain this to the sheriff?’” And: “The Mayor almost choked on his pie. ‘Good gravy!’ he sputtered. But what he thought was, ‘Those pigs are even fatter than I am!’” Eventually all the people run after the tractor, led by Farmer O’Dell, who has realized that it is his tractor. Shannon’s picture of the crowd running, as seen from overhead, is another highly distinctive visual element here. By the time the people reach the tractor, though, the animals have jumped off and run away, so everyone rationalizes: it couldn’t possibly have happened – “Farmer O’Dell said he must have left his tractor running by accident,” and of course everyone only thought the animals were riding on it. But wait! There is proof! A little boy named Edison has a camera, and he is shown with it in the diner and in several outdoor scenes! But, alas, in a final joke that parents may have to explain to children, Edison’s photo is shown on the book’s last page, and it is unclear, out of focus and mis-aimed – it shows nothing at all useful. But kids and their parents, and the farm animals themselves, know what really happened here, even if the townspeople never seem to figure it out.
Mervin the Sloth Is About to Do the Best Thing in the World. By Colleen AF Venable. Illustrated by Ruth Chan. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Wonderfall. By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
The story lines are thin to the vanishing point in some picture books that are nevertheless worthy of celebration for the sheer joy provided by looking at them. Colleen AF Venable and Ruth Chan have a marvelous collaboration in Mervin the Sloth Is About to Do the Best Thing in the World, a book in which the words themselves are central to the visual presentation. The inside front cover and facing page simply show two dozen identical outline pictures of Mervin the sloth – the key here is that sloths move very, very slowly. Turn to the first page of the actual book and there is a single picture of Mervin, standing completely still, looking out at the reader. Turn again and the left-hand page, the one with copyright information and other usually-ignored legal details, shows the bottom part of a portion of the book’s title falling downward from above, with a cricket riding on them and saying, “Whee! Falling letters!” On the facing page is Mervin in exactly the same position as before, but with his eyes turned just enough to see the letters falling. Turn the page again and things get stranger and funnier: the cricket hops off as Mervin’s friend the raccoon walks on to ask Mervin what is happening – and as more letters making up part of the book’s title descend from above. It takes several more double-page spreads before all the letters of the long title are fully displayed, the first part of the title on a left-hand page and the second on the right-hand one opposite it. And just as the title becomes fully visible, a bird flying in from the left collides with it and starts demanding to know just what “the best thing in the world” might be. Mervin, for his part, just stands there, not saying a thing. But lots of other animals start showing up: prairie dogs that know the best thing is digging, a gazelle that praises “gazelling” and blocks the words of the title by leaping repeatedly in front of them, and plenty of other animals with their own opinions. For instance, a spider thinks Mervin is going to fight a shark, a giraffe thinks Mervin is going to turn into a robot, and so on and so forth. For his part, Mervin just stands there, very very s-l-o-w-l-y raising his arms from his sides. Soon the pages are jammed with animals standing on, in front of, above and around the book’s title, all getting thoroughly bored as Mervin does nothing, or almost nothing. Everyone eventually leaves, fed up with waiting and in some cases mocking Mervin. But the raccoon stays until big new words suddenly rain down from above: “Hug his best friend.” And that, very very very very slowly and at the very very very very end, is just what slow-moving, still-silent Mervin does. And after the end, on the inside back cover and facing page, Mervin is seen hugging all the other animals in the very very very very bestest possible ending for a very very very very special book.
Michael Hall’s books are special as well, consistently so, whether he builds a story around cut-through pages and carpenter ants that are increasingly fearful of what the colors they see may mean (It’s an Orange Aardvark!) or around a troupe of crayons whose members believe they are being menaced by a huge and threatening scribble that turns out to have a surprising secret (Frankencrayon). Hall’s visual cleverness is on display again in Wonderfall, a celebration of autumn for which Hall creates 14 blended words reflecting the season – and an oak tree to narrate the story. There is “peacefall,” with a gentle breeze and falling acorns; “beautifall” to describe the colors of leaves and seasonal produce; “frightfall” for Halloween, for which the digitally rendered images are especially effective in evoking the spirit (and spirits) of the night; “thankfall” for, of course, Thanksgiving; and on and on, the tree’s leaves getting fewer and fewer, until they are bagged for mulch (“resourcefall”) and the tree becomes “wistfall” as birds fly off for winter – which eventually arrives with the first “snowfall,” they non-invented word to which all the invented ones lead. The main part of Wonderfall is strictly visual, with no real narrative – but then, after “snowfall,” the final five pages make up a section called “Getting Ready for Winter,” in which Hall explains what various animals seen in the book do as cold weather approaches, and what trees do, too. The basic story, such as it is, is so simple that even very young children will enjoy it, and the illustrations are apt and attractive. The five final pages are for older kids and for parents to read to children, providing a science-based narrative packed with interesting facts that neatly complement the tree’s presentation of the earlier part of the book: “I offer the squirrels my leaves and twigs so they can make nests in my branches. Most often, there is one squirrel to a nest, and most squirrels have several nests to sleep in. …If you happen to leave a mitten on the ground, a squirrel might very well snatch it and build it into its nest.” There are plenty of seasonal books out there, but few as wonderful as Wonderfall.
Mustache Baby. By Bridget Heos. Illustrations by Joy Ang. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Hooray for Hat! By Brian Won. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
I Love Music: My First Sound Book. By Marion Billet. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
This is a welcome trend: take kids’ books that were highly entertaining in their original picture-book format and re-release them as board books so that even-younger children can enjoy them. This will not work with all picture books, but when it does, the results are absolutely delightful, as they are with Mustache Baby and Hooray for Hat! Bridget Heos’ thoroughly silly story of a baby born with a great big mustache – with his parents warned to be on the lookout to see whether it is a good-guy type or a bad-guy type – translates wonderfully to board-book form. Billy starts out with a “noble and just” mustache, using his power of goodness to take care of the household pets and fix things for his big brother; then the mustache, in some of Joy Ang’s funniest illustrations, accompanies Billy as he becomes a pint-sized Spanish painter (a la Salvador Dali), a circus ringmaster (called “ringleader” here for some reason), an aviator, a veterinarian, a sword fighter, and a no-nonsense lawman – oh, Billy does all sorts of wonderful mustache-y things! But then – uh-oh – Billy’s mustache starts to curl up at the ends and turns into a “bad-guy mustache,” making his parents cringe and cry. Now Billy misbehaves in all sorts of ways, even becoming “a train robber so heartless that he even stole the tracks” (toy trains and toy tracks taken from other kids his age). Finally, Billy’s mom has had enough, and she throws him in jail (his crib), where he stays until he can behave properly and his mustache reverts to good-guy form. So all ends happily, with Billy getting ready for a playdate – which turns out, on the last page of the book, to be with a little boy who sports a full-face beard. The silliness of the whole story will appeal even to very young children, and parents will enjoy acting out some of the good-guy and bad-guy parts of the book while having fun with Heos’ word games – as when Billy becomes a “cat burglar” (running around carrying the cat) and “cereal criminal” (sneaking cereal out of his older brother’s bowl). Originally published in 2013, Mustache Baby works just as well in its new board-book form as it did in its original layout.
So does Hooray for Hat! Brian Won’s book first appeared in 2014, and its story is even simpler than that of Mustache Baby. It is merely the tail…err, tale…of animal fiends who are in grumpy moods and are cheered up, one and all, by getting to wear hats. It all starts when Elephant wakes up in a bad mood, stomps downstairs, and finds a box on his doorstep – containing a hat so tall and elaborate that “it was hard to stay grumpy now.” Actually, this is a hat made up of lots of hats, as soon becomes clear when Elephant walks over to see Zebra, who is equally grumpy but is soon cheered up when Elephant gives him a hat from the hat group he is wearing. “They both cheered,” writes Won, and both shouted “HOORAY FOR HAT!” – with the word “hooray” in multiple colors. Now Elephant and Zebra move on together, this time to Turtle, whose grumpiness is relieved by yet another of the hats that Elephant is wearing – each hat being quite different from the others. On and on the friends go, but when they reach the cave of Lion, it turns out that he is not only grumpy but also sad, because Giraffe is not feeling well. Clearly something hat-related must be done to resolve this, and so all the friends take off their hats, reassemble them into their original multi-hat form, repack them in the box in which Elephant found them in the first place, and go to visit Giraffe. And of course all ends hattily…err, happily. Won’s book, like Heos’, is one that young readers and pre-readers will enjoy on their own, and also one that parents will have fun reading to children, especially ones who might themselves feel just a tad grumpy from time to time. Getting kids to listen to this book when they feel grumpy may be a bit of a challenge, but parents who can do that will find Won’s writing and illustrations to be a great antidote for everyday moodiness. There is just no way to be down in the grumps after reading Hooray for Hat!
Nor can anyone be downcast after experiencing Marion Billet’s wonderfully clever I Love Music, a board book that dates to 2011 in a Gallimard Jeunesse version in French but is an original as an English-language board book. It is original in other ways as well. With 14 pages of text and illustrations, it is even shorter than many board books, but it does not seem short, because it is genuinely interactive. Parents lift a flap in the book’s inside back cover – a flap designed to be difficult for little fingers to open – and set the switch inside to the “on” position; again, the switch is not for little fingers, being tiny and even a bit tough for adults to maneuver (which in this case is all to the good). When the switch is thrown, a battery-operated music chip is powered up, allowing kids – yes, with their little fingers – to hear musical instruments played by animals in half a dozen pleasantly drawn cartoon scenes. All it takes is pressing a small round spot located on each animal’s instrument: Pig’s recorder, Elephant’s piano, Cat’s violin, Zebra’s guitar, Bear’s drum, and Mouse’s xylophone. The music generation is pretty good – much better-sounding than in those ubiquitous musical greeting cards – and the musical tidbits run from four to nine seconds and include a nice mixture of jazzy and classical sounds (the violin even plays a bit of Brahms). After the individual-instrument pages, a final page shows all six animals and instruments and asks kids, “Which one would YOU like to play?” That is an invitation to go back and try all the instruments again and again. Yes, the batteries powering the sounds will eventually wear out, but they are replaceable (getting to them requires removing two tiny screws – no chance kids will be able to do that). And the notes are realistic-sounding enough so that very young children who become acquainted with the instruments here for the first time will readily identify the way they sound when they hear them later in recorded or played-in-real-life form. I Love Music really can help engender a love of music, and that is quite an accomplishment for any board book.
Lucy & Andy Neanderthal. By Jeffrey Brown. Crown. $12.99.
Full of Beans. By Jennifer L. Holm. Random House. $16.99.
The educational component of Lucy & Andy Neanderthal is what rescues Jeffrey Brown’s graphic novel from being just another situation comedy that happens to be set 40,000 years ago. Some of this actually looks a bit like The Flintstones (who are mentioned in “A Brief History of Cavemen” at the end of the book), but Brown goes out of his way to provide some accurate scientific information along with the fun – even though he takes many, many liberties with life in Neanderthal times, from having the characters use modern English slang to giving them a pet cat to having them present scientific names for animals (Apodemus sylvaticus rather than wood mouse, for example). Nevertheless, when it comes to showing some aspects of everyday life for Neanderthals (pronounced, as Brown explains, “NeanderTals”), the book stays on solid scientific ground. And it includes two contemporary characters who drop in periodically to explain, at the end of a section, what things were really like 40,000 or so years ago – for instance, that mammoths, which Neanderthals hunted, weighed about as much as a Tyrannosaurs rex. The basic story lines here will be familiar to anyone who is used to standard preteen-brother-and-sister family comedy: Lucy is older and comes up with most of the clever ideas in the family, Andy wants to be bigger and stronger than he is and go on mammoth hunts and generally grow up, neighbors Phil and Margaret stir the pot of annoyance and helpfulness from time to time (Andy has a crush on Margaret), and so on. Although the family-centered elements here are nothing special, and Brown’s drawing style is pleasant but scarcely very distinctive, what makes Lucy & Andy Neanderthal both enjoyable and worthwhile is the extent to which it provides educational material that slips in so easily as to be almost unperceived until readers figure out that they have actually learned something. The way Neanderthals sought the best rocks for tool-making, the way they actually worked to create their tools and weapons, the way they probably handled the hunt for a mammoth, the fact that Neanderthals split animal bones to extract marrow, how Neanderthals made cave art – all this and more is here, some of it speculative but even then based on what information scientists have been able to glean from the fossil record so far. Actually, as the modern characters point out, although art from 40,000 years ago is known, the earliest done by Neanderthals came about 10,000 years later; and the way cave paintings were colored is unknown, but may have involved charcoal from fires and the easy-to-find mineral ochre. Lucy & Andy Neanderthal, the first book of a planned series, is enjoyable enough as a fictional graphic-novel tale of a make-believe family – most of whose members, it should be noted, look more like modern humans than like Neanderthals, presumably so Brown could more easily establish a connection with contemporary readers. But it is as fiction derived from and sprinkled with fact that the book really shines.
Full of Beans returns to a more-recent past, the 1930s, as Jennifer L. Holm revisits the time and setting she previously explored in Turtle in Paradise. This is a companion novel and a prequel, its focus being on Beans Curry, the first cousin of the protagonist of Holm’s earlier book based on some of her own family’s experiences in Depression-era Key West. The story focuses on Beans’ barefoot Diaper Gang and the characters who cross their path, from a Bermuda-shorts-clad New Deal representative trying to turn Key West into a tourist mecca (something that was actually done quite successfully) to a Cuban rum smuggler named Johnny Cakes whom Beans helps to earn money for his family but whose criminal activities soon make the basically honest and good-hearted Beans feel awful. Beans ends up trying to make amends by helping beautify the whole town, whose down-on-their-luck residents (including Beans’ mom, who does laundry to make a little money while Beans’ dad heads north to seek a factory job) need more than the distractions of Sears catalogues and Shirley Temple movies to keep them going. Beans does love films, and so does a reclusive adult he encounters, whose leprosy keeps him isolated from everyone (this particular subplot feels somewhat tacked-on). Holm is smart enough to evoke the time and place effectively, including mentions of prominent writers who really did spend time on Key West in this era; she is also clever enough to end Full of Beans with a bit of a scene from Turtle in Paradise, thus tying the two books neatly together. Certainly fans of the earlier book (which came out in 2010) will enjoy this one. But Holm tones down Beans’ personality more here than in the earlier book; there are so many narrative elements that Holm loses track of some of them, and they remain unresolved after the rather tacked-on happy ending; quite a few of the many characters here are lackluster and two-dimensional; and the book is written at a simpler level than Turtle in Paradise – it may appeal to younger readers, even though the pace of Full of Beans is on the slow side and both books are intended for the same age range of 8-12. This (+++) historical novel is better for the vividness of its historical elements than for its rather vapid and predictable story line.
Vivaldi: La Cetra—12 Concertos, Op. 9. Federico Guglielmo, violin and conducting L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
Classical String Trios—Music by J.C. Bach, Carlo Antonio Campioni, Boccherini, Haydn, Christian Cannabich, Felice Giardini and Giuseppe Maria Cambini. The Vivaldi Project (Elizabeth Field, violin; Allison Edberg Nyquist, violin and viola; Stephanie Vial, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; Five Melodies, Op. 35bis. Jameson Cooper, violin; Ketevan Badridze, piano. Afinat. $16.99.
Scott Brickman: French Suite; Wind Power; Divertimento for Cello and Piano; Partita for Viola and Piano; Ninety-Six Strings and Two Whistles. Eight Strings and a Whistle (Suzanne Gilchrest, flute/alto flute; Ina Litera, viola; Matt Goeke, cello); Beth Levin, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
The Crossroads Project—Laura Kaminsky: Rising Tide; Libby Larsen: Emergence. Fry Street Quartet (Robert Waters and Rebecca McFaul, violins; Bradley Ottesen, viola; Anne Francis Bayless, cello). Navona. $14.99.
There is nothing else quite like the Vivaldi performances by Federico Guglielmo and his ensemble, L’Arte dell’Arco. These are more than historically informed performances on period instruments: they sound as if Guglielmo and the other musicians have only just discovered a treasure trove of new music that just happens to be hundreds of years old, and they are playing it as if no one ever heard it before. The sheer exhilaration of these readings is infectious, and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that Vivaldi sounds entirely different here, and better, than when others play his music. The reality is that Vivaldi can stand up to lots of differing interpretations, from the well-informed to the misinformed; like Bach, he wrote music that to some extent transcends its time. Unlike Bach, though, Vivaldi wrote string music that seems perfectly wedded to strings (except, of course, when rearranged for other instruments by, ahem, Bach). And Guglielmo and his colleagues play these works for all they are worth. The title of La Cetra, the 12 concertos from 1727 (seven in major keys, five in minor), means “the lyre,” a reference to Apollo and Orpheus as well as the Habsburgs’ coat of arms, of which the lyre is a part. This La Cetra (there are other collections with the title, including others by Vivaldi) was dedicated to Charles VI, so the Habsburg reference was an apt one. And this is a fascinating set of pieces, including one concerto for two violins (No. 9 in B-flat) and two for violins with scordatura tuning; that is, tuning different from the norm (No. 6 in A and No. 12 in B minor). The virtuosity these pieces require is considerable, looking ahead to the increasing demands placed on the violin by soloists including Locatelli and Tartini. But even the more-straightforward concertos of the set show all the care of construction and excellence of balance that listeners expect in Vivaldi – and Guglielmo is careful to bring out the distinctive features of every piece, even to the point of presenting the works in an order that he considers more effective than Vivaldi’s (the first Brilliant Classics CD includes Nos. 1, 5, 4, 12, 3, and 7; the second disc has Nos. 9, 10, 8, 2, 11, and 6). Guglielmo’s use of a somewhat quirky Tommaso Balestrieri violin is exemplary throughout, and the L’Arte dell’Arco musicians give him first-rate support and accompaniment from start to finish.
A period-instrument string trio with the intriguing name of The Vivaldi Project offers seven almost wholly unknown works – none by Vivaldi – on a new MSR Classics CD devoted to trios composed at a time when trios were thought not to be composed. Indeed, with the exception of Mozart’s superb Divertimento, K.563 and a few works by Beethoven and Schubert, the Classical-era string trio is generally absent from the repertoire. But, it turns out, that is not because it does not exist – it is only because no one has looked very hard for it. All the world première recordings on this splendid disc are worthy of a place in chamber recitals, even if it is a bit of a stretch to look at all of them as “trios” in a more-modern sense. Two are really duets with bass: J.C. Bach’s Sonata in D (ca. 1755) and the Sonata in G minor (1756) by Campioni (1720-1788), which specifies either harpsichord or cello in addition to two violins. The other works all have the Trio label and all have more of a three-player flavor about them, even though the cello still tends to have a lesser role than the higher instruments: Boccherini’s Op. 2, No. 4 (1760); Haydn’s Divertimento in B minor (sometime after 1750); Op. 3, No. 1 (1773) by Cannabich (1731-1798); Op. 20, No. 2 (1778) by Giardini (1716-1796); and Op. 33, No. 1 (1780s) by Cambini (1746-1825). There are many surprises on this fascinating CD, including the fact that several of the composers, not just Haydn, had unusually long lives for their time. It would be a stretch to call any of this music profound: these are true chamber pieces, intended for what was in effect salon performance, often by amateur musicians of royal households; to some extent, these trios were the “background music” of their era. But this detracts not a whit from their charms. Melodies flow easily, harmonies are pleasant, and balance is always carefully thought through (with, as noted, a general bias toward the two violins or, in the case of the Giardini and Cambini works, the violin and viola). The members of The Vivaldi Project, who apparently had a great time digging out these works from the dust heaps of musical history, also appear to have a grand time performing them: none of the pieces has the fully “conversational” feeling of a Haydn quartet, but all are on display here as genial and highly attractive – if admittedly minor – examples of small-chamber-group thinking in the Classical era. And one thing this disc does, although this is surely not its purpose, is to show that Mozart’s deeply emotional, beautifully balanced and very extended K.563 was an even more spectacular accomplishment than it is generally known to be.
As emotional evocation by strings became increasingly important in the years after the Classical era, some composers created works of vast size and corresponding density. Others, however, found they could continue to communicate quite effectively in chamber music, and one of those, perhaps somewhat surprisingly for many listeners, was Prokofiev. Not really thought of as a chamber-music composer, he wrote some works for violin and piano that collectively span just as many moods as his better-known pieces for larger ensembles: two sonatas and five vocalise arrangements known as Five Melodies. A top-notch new CD from Afinat offers thoughtful and beautifully played versions of all this music, with Jameson Cooper and Ketevan Badridze showing a fine sense of the works’ very different moods and a truly commendable give-and-take in their performances of the music. Prokofiev worked on the two violin sonatas with David Oistrakh, and in fact the first written – which is known as No. 2 – is a 1943 transcription of a 1942 flute-and-piano sonata, made by Prokofiev at Oistrakh’s explicit request. This is essentially a neoclassical work, for all that Prokofiev is not usually thought of as a neoclassicist despite his Symphony No. 1. Sonata No. 2 requires a violinist capable of balancing its virtuosic elements with a kind of elegance that would not be out of place in the Classical era, and this is just what Cooper brings to this reading. Indeed, the balance of display and lyricism in the sonata harks back to its origin as a work for flute; yet as a violin piece it is wholly convincing when played with the conviction it receives here. Sonata No. 1 (1938-46) is longer, deeper, darker, and more difficult for listeners, with violin scales in the first and fourth movements that the composer notably described as “wind passing through a graveyard.” This is disturbing music, its dark key (F minor) standing in strong contrast to the D major of the other sonata. There is so much angst in Sonata No. 1 that the music seems barely able to hold it all, and performers sensitive to the content – as Cooper and Badridze clearly are – need to keep the darkness at bay while making it clear just how urgently the abrasive elements want to burst through. In that vein, an especially effective element of this performance of Sonata No. 1 is the apt, very strong contrast between the work’s first and second movements. It is difficult to listen to the two sonatas one after the other, as they are arranged here: the Five Melodies, placed first on the CD, might better have been positioned between the two sonatas. Created from Five Songs without Words, a set of vocalises for mezzo-soprano and piano, the Five Melodies have beauties of form and expression that lie somewhere between the emotional extremes of the two sonatas. Five Melodies is an earlier work than either sonata, dating to 1925 (the original cycle was composed in 1920). Yet these five brief pieces partake fully of Prokofiev’s style, and invite a level of expressive warmth that they receive in full from the performers here.
Composers not even born until Prokofiev’s twilight years have continued to produce some neoclassical works even though they, like Prokofiev, would scarcely be deemed neoclassicists. Scott Brickman (born 1963), for example, shows evidence of this predisposition in several of the works on a new Ravello CD – but in Brickman’s case, as in those of so many other contemporary composers, older classical forms and approaches are consciously (and sometimes rather awkwardly) mingled with deliberate forays into much newer material and into non-classical musical forms, such as punk rock. Brickman’s French Suite (2012-13) recalls the similarly titled works of Bach, for example, and the sonata form of the first movement and dance elements of the finale have some tie-ins to the earlier composer; but the entire work is based on Schoenbergian principles and is designed to highlight the individual instruments of the ensemble called Eight Strings & a Whistle. Wind Power (2011), for flute and piano, also takes Schoenberg as a model and also uses sonata form and some dancelike elements – indeed, the sonata-Schoenberg-dance triumvirate is a characteristic of Brickman’s style. Divertimento (2012), for cello and piano, has a direct Bach connection: the third movement is based on the Sarabande from Bach’s English Suite No. 3. But, again, the piece as a whole is constructed using (modified) Schoenbergian methods and incorporates passing elements, if not specific musical material, attributable to several other composers. Partita (2013), for viola and piano, has more now-familiar Brickman elements: sonata form in the first movement, homage to Schoenberg in the second and Bach in the third, and an intense finale. Brickman affirms his attachment to aspects of the past when composing works whose titles represent their forms: French Suite, Divertimento and Partita. But he also makes it clear that, like other modern composers, he likes to use evocative titles to lead listeners in a particular direction in some pieces, including Wind Power and, to an even greater degree, Ninety-Six Strings and Two Whistles. This 2014 work, in five short movements, was written for the performers heard here, with Eight Strings & a Whistle joined by the 88-key piano and, in this case, the flute and alto flute both being called for (hence the “two whistles” of the title). Up-to-date the title and concept may be, but the work’s format is an old one, with a dramatic opening movement followed by alternating lyrical and intense ones, resulting in three propulsive movements and two that are meditative. All the pieces are very well played on this (+++) CD, which comes across more as a series of showpieces for the performers than as a highly communicative audience-focused recording.
A Navona disc called “The Crossroads Project” certainly does intend audience focus, but only for a specific type of audience and only in connection with a kind of consciousness-raising and sociopolitical agenda that are not really reflected in the music. This short CD (44 minutes) includes works by Laura Kaminsky and Libby Larsen that are intended to promote activism in the field of climate change. Thus, this is chamber music with a distinct purpose, aiming to draw the audience into a predetermined set of perceptions set out by the composers in collaboration with physicist Robert Davies and under the aegis of the Fry Street Quartet, which commissioned both pieces. The performers want the works to elicit passionate devotion and transformational impulses in audiences – a great deal of freight for any music to carry, and a burden that these specific pieces do not handle particularly well. Kaminsky’s four-movement Rising Tide starts with a cleverly designed movement focusing on water, taking a snippet of a folklike tune to greater and greater strength as the movement progresses – although without any of the impact or grandeur of, say, Smetana’s Vltava. The second movement pulses with what is supposed to be the basic life force; the third features scurrying sounds intended to represent animals foraging; and the finale, the longest movement, starts with a simple chorale that becomes increasingly complex over time. Exactly how all this is supposed to motivate intense devotion to a response to climate change is not at all clear, although the music as music has a number of effective moments. Larsen’s Emergence, which the composer says is based on the water cycle, evokes varying emotions at various times, its movements’ titles telling the audience what listeners are supposed to experience in two adjectives and three nouns: “Radiant,” “Reactive,” “Rage,” “Resolve” and “Reverence.” Again, the intent is to produce a work larded with meaning, but again, the piece has some effective musical elements but in no way connects with the specific sociopolitical notions on whose foundation it was built. The Fry Street Quartet seems to have a belief that contemporary chamber music can somehow motivate listeners – some listeners, anyway – to do more to create a sustainable planet. That is a very distinct First World concept; meanwhile, in the Third World, population growth and aspirations to a better life are combining to produce a tidal wave of resource demands that no amount of First World navel-gazing and apologetic behavior has any chance of holding back. This is a (+++) CD whose rating is due entirely to the inherent musical quality of the material, not at all to the naïve social-activism agenda that the works are intended to further.
August 18, 2016
When the World Is Dreaming. By Rita Gray. Pictures by Kenard Pak. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Faraway Fox. By Jolene Thompson. Illustrated by Justin K. Thompson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle was renowned for being able to talk to the animals. Today’s children’s-book authors prefer to spin tales based on the notion that they can communicate well enough with animals to know what they are thinking – essentially to “think to the animals.” In the case of Rita Gray’s When the World Is Dreaming, this leads to a remarkably beautiful bedtime book whose sweet Kenard Pak illustrations beautifully complement Gray’s sensitive, thoughtful and imaginative text. The book opens with a quotation from Fukuda Chiyo-Ni (1703-1775), a Japanese poet whose verse asks the butterfly what it dreams of when folding its wings. This sets Gray off on a journey into the thoughts and dreams of various animals watched by a wide-eyed little girl. In the girl’s thoughts, each animal plays – and does other things – during daytime, then finds shelter, sleeps and dreams. The snake rests “after the wriggling, the sunning, the play”; the deer does so “after the walking, the grazing, the play”; the newt does so “after the watching, the crawling, the play”; and so forth. The little girl, Gray’s stand-in, gives each animal a vivid imaginary dream life, and Pak’s illustrations are so lovely that children may just sit and look at them again and again. The snake, for instance, dreams of being the tail of a high-flying kite, the deer of being “tucked beneath a mushroom cap” during a rainstorm, the newt of being transformed into a leaf to stay hidden. For each animal, Gray produces a haunting refrain: “Sleep, Little Newt,/ safe and warm./ Dream until the light of morn.” And “Sleep, Little Rabbit,/ safe and warm,/ Dream until the light of morn” (in this case dreaming of flying, using cabbage leaves as wings); and “Sleep, Little Mouse,/ safe and warm./ Dream until the light of morn” (dreaming of using a boat made of tree bark and a pea pod oar to row across a pond, away from a cat). At the book’s end, the little girl herself is “in a cozy bed, all tucked in,” as all the creatures she has thought about come to visit her sleep and give her “the best of all dreams.” This is so gentle, so lovely a book, that it will cosset children sweetly into slumber night after night and help them awake in the morning with warm and wonderful feelings about nature and the things that animals might, just might, dream about.
The wife-and-husband team of Jolene and Justin K. Thompson has produced a beautiful nature book as well: Faraway Fox. But this is a different sort of book, one intended to make a point about human encroachment on animal habitats and the ways in which humans can help make right some of the things they have done wrong by spoiling the natural places. The argument itself is the weakest part of the book, being very simplistic and overdone – every single picture showing human habitation is ugly, and there are no people to leaven the dismal scenes, not even children in a playground. The story follows the fox of the title as he bemoans the loss of “the forest where I lived with my family” and searches through the angular, uncaring, dismal landscape of homes and yards and culverts that has replaced “the great shade trees” where he and the other foxes used to rest “after playing all day.” Of course, foxes do not really play all day – like other animals, they forage for food and try to avoid enemies – and there is nothing idyllic about animals’ existence or uniformly ugly about human settlements (many of which have foxes in them: this is an animal that is quite adaptable). The Thompsons want to make a point, though, so they show Faraway Fox, for example, huddling beneath a parked car during a rainstorm, thinking about his big brother and how the two foxes “both loved the water and we’d have contests to see who could swim the fastest and the farthest.” Faraway Fox is terribly lonely when thinking of his absent family: a scene of him crossing a deserted street amid fallen leaves and trash cans has real pathos despite being tremendously overdramatized, as is one of him standing in a deserted commercial parking lot. Finally, though, humans are seen in the book, at a place where there is a sign designating a future wildlife preserve, which the humans are building – and which includes a “new burrow” that runs beneath a highway and that Faraway Fox walks through to find, wonder of wonders, woodland on the other side, and his family waiting for him within it. “I am home!” he exclaims at the end, and children will surely celebrate the happy ending and rejoice with him – while adults will be interested in the author’s note explaining about engineered solutions for displaced wildlife and showing examples of accommodations that have been built in The Netherlands and Canada. Faraway Fox is so well-meaning and so tender in its imagination about how a fox that becomes separated from its family might feel that adults and children alike will be moved by the story and perhaps even want to learn more about how it relates to the real world – using the list of organizations at the book’s conclusion as a starting point. The problem with the book is that it is so determinedly one-sided as to make humans into caricatures and foxes into exemplars of perfection – an understandable approach in a picture book, but one that can be effective without needing to go as far overboard as the Thompsons do. Still, author and illustrator draw attention to some significant issues here, and succeed in producing a thought-provoking story that includes animals that are as beautiful to look at as the human elements are ugly. Reconciling the tale with kids’ real-world experiences and everyday lives will be a necessary task for parents who read the book with their children.
Ghosts. By Raina Telgemeier. Color by Braden Lamb. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.
Dog Man. By Dav Pilkey. Color by Jose Garibaldi. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Graphic novels are now firmly established as a genre unto themselves, not quite traditional narrative (not even traditional narrative with ample illustrations) and not quite comic books. But not all creators of graphic novels use the form the same way or with equal skill. Raina Telgemeier has an immediately recognizable drawing style and a firm grasp of ways in which graphic novels can communicate more effectively than all-words novels can. Ghosts is not what most people will think of as a “ghost story” – that is, it is not designed to scare, and most of the spookiness is in the mind of the protagonist, Catrina (Cat), not in the ghosts themselves. Oh yes, there are plenty of ghosts here, but the book is mostly about loneliness, disaffection, worry, and the meaning of family. That is a lot of freight for a traditional novel for young readers to carry; Ghosts bears it better than an all-words novel would, thanks to Telgemeier’s illustrative skill and the complementary, well-thought-out color work by Braden Lamb. The story is about preteen Cat and her younger sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. Because of that, the family moves to a Northern California town called Bahía de la Luna, where the climate is supposed to make it easier for Maya to breathe. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but what it certainly does is make Cat unhappy and uneasy, all the more so when she hears constantly from residents about the ghosts that are to be found everywhere in and around town. These are not evil, scary, haunted-house ghosts but matter-of-fact spirits that interact from time to time with the living residents, especially on Día de los Muertos, November 1. The book starts in August as Cat’s family moves; it climaxes on Día de los Muertos. What makes it work so well is the sure-handed way Telgemeier shows the relationship between Cat (who initially scoffs at the idea of ghosts and then becomes terrified of them, even after she meets some and finds them harmless – because she is afraid they will take away her little sister, whose disease is progressive and incurable) and Maya (whose joy-filled personality shines through her illness and who wants to interact with the ghosts to learn more about them and about what it is like to be dead). The third major character here is Carlos, a boy Cat’s age who leads “ghost tours” in town and whose introduction of the girls to a large number of the spirits inadvertently lands Maya in the hospital. Unsurprisingly, the adults in the book get short shrift – Cat’s parents’ insensitivity to Cat’s fears and worries is particularly irksome – but this is, after all, a book about and for preteens. And Telgemeier’s use of the graphic-novel format is consistently impressive. At a street fair, for example, a full-page wordless drawing shows Cat and two friends walking along as well-differentiated people all around them engage in everyday activities that are immediately apparent in the art but would require considerable descriptive text. Later, four pages of panels showing the town’s celebration of Día de los Muertos bring the scenes of interaction with ghosts to life more immediately and clearly than words would, so that when Cat eventually says, “This is incredible,” readers will surely agree. There is no great drama here, but the matter-of-fact acceptance of ghosts leads to a fully satisfying, family-centered conclusion that wraps up the story neatly without trying to force readers to accept anything outlandish, such as a miracle cure for Maya.
Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man is a much lighter book, intended for younger readers, but it too makes good use of the graphic-novel format, although in this case it tilts toward the comic-book side of things. Pilkey is best known for the Captain Underpants series that was supposedly created by two friends, George Beard and Harold Hutchins, in first grade. Dog Man is presented as an earlier (kindergarten) collaboration between George and Harold, but one they have now updated and improved. It is still ridiculous, but that of course is the point. The title character comes into being when the nefarious cat Petey blows up the city’s top cop and his dog: the cop’s head is dying, doctors say, and so is the dog’s body. The solution they come up with is to remove the dog’s head (which could always think better than the cop’s could) and sew it onto the cop’s body (which was always stronger and tougher than the dog’s). The result is Dog Man, the stitches between his head and body always clearly visible as he runs around foiling the plots of Petey and various other evildoers. The funniest story is about the criminal activities of the city’s mayor, who manipulates Petey as well as the police force, creating a robot to take the place of the chief of police and make sure the cops do not get in the way of her commercial enterprises (stores such as Tim’s Burglar Supplies, Illegal Stuff 4 Sale and Supa Scam). One effective way Pilkey uses the graphic-novel format is to show these various stores and leave their contents to readers’ imaginations. And other stories are hilarious, too, such as the one in which hot dogs become conscious and try to take over the world. That tale certainly benefits from the graphic-novel approach. Another thing that does is Pilkey’s periodic inclusion of a flip page. No, not a full flip book – it is simply one page that needs to be flipped with the following one, back and forth and back and forth, to create a very crude form of almost-animation. Pilkey tosses a few sly elements into Dog Man that are clearly for adults. For instance, the first-grade teacher who objects to the drawings of George and Harold is named “Ms. Construde.” And at the book’s end, Pilkey offers several how-to-draw-them lessons for characters in Dog Man – including “Invisible Petey” (he is invisible in the criminal-mayor story). That lesson shows eight steps, all of them blank, then gives four examples of expressions, also all blank, the last blank spot being labeled “obsequious.” These drawing lessons alone show the strength of the graphic-novel format for this story, and the fun Pilkey has with his plots – such as one in which Petey gets rid of the words in all the world’s books so everybody will be dumber than he is – comes through more directly and amusingly in graphic-novel form than it would if Pilkey had to produce a traditional, coherent narrative. Graphic novels, it would appear, have definitely come of age – different ones for different ages, all the good ones using the blended words-and-pictures format to very good effect indeed.
The Dolphins of Shark Bay. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Scott Tuason. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.
Snakes. By Nic Bishop. Scholastic. $3.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Weather. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
Young readers, from those who are just learning to read on their own to those with more-advanced reading skills, have plenty of books that can help them understand the world around them in accurate but still entertaining ways. The excellent “Scientists in the Field” series skews toward older children and a comparatively straightforward approach to narrative – and its looks at the everyday lives of real-world scientists are invariably fascinating. Pamela S. Turner’s The Dolphins of Shark Bay, originally published in 2013 and now available in paperback, is about the only known tool-using dolphins on Earth. These marine mammals find and tear off sponges, use them to uncover edible fish, drop the sponges to eat the fish, remember where they dropped the sponges so they can go back and get them again, and then repeat the process. These dolphins live in the waters off Australia and have been studied for more than 25 years by a research team led by Janet Mann, whose work is at the center of the book. The interaction between humans (scientists or not) and dolphins is unpredictable. For example, at one point Mann discovered that humans were unwittingly raising infant mortality rates among a group of dolphins, at a place called Monkey Mia, by feeding them: dolphin mothers who took food from people learned to beg from beachgoers and boaters, but did not spend enough time nursing their calves or protecting them from sharks. As a result, the calves had a high mortality rate: “Monkey Mia’s baby dolphins starved in a stew of good intentions.” Yet this book is scarcely a generalized condemnation of human behavior toward dolphins; it is more nuanced than that. Still, it shows again and again just how delicate – and amazing – the balance of nature can be. Scott Tuason’s photographs bring the scientific research to life in truly remarkable ways: a dolphin leaps high out of the water, possibly to dislodge an irritating lamprey or possibly just for fun; a shark makes a meal of a dugong carcass; a newborn dolphin calf pops above water to breathe; a dolphin hydroplanes in the shallows to catch a fish; another holds a trumpet shell out of the water and shakes it. These and other photos, along with Turner’s narrative, never quite answer a question posed early in the book: why are dolphins intelligent? This is a query with profound implications – after all, sharks have small brains, as Turner points out, but are extremely successful in evolutionary terms. Brain power is only one survival strategy – one to which we humans gravitate, since we share it, but not necessarily the “best” in any significant way. Turner ends the book with a discussion of whether dolphins can be said to have culture, and what “having culture” really means. There is no answer here – whether the query is even answerable is a matter of opinion – but this is the sort of thoughtfulness that can get young readers interested in these scientists in particular and in science in general. After all, as Mann remarks, “The dolphins’ interactions with each other are far richer, more complex, and more interesting than any interactions they have with us.”
Shorter, simpler, illustration-heavy books for much younger readers – as young as kindergartners – are invariably less thought-provoking, but can provide a good basis for kids to read more-complex works later as they become more interested in the world we live in. Two new Scholastic “Level 2 Readers” are good examples of this form of real-world learning. Snakes by nature photographer Nic Bishop, a simplification of his book of the same title from 2012, features Bishop’s wonderful close-up pictures of snakes’ appearances and activities. From an astonishing view of an egg-eating snake swallowing a meal four times the size of its head, to a hognose snake pretending to be dead to fool predators, to a beautiful close view of an infant Honduran milk snake emerging from its egg, Bishop captures snakes’ colors and distinguishing characteristics with a precision that would make any herpetologist (a scientist who studies snakes) proud. But his narrative is not equal to his photography. The first three words in the book are “snakes are scary,” which is not a good way to introduce young children to fascinating animals with which they may be unfamiliar. And Bishop shows a disproportionate number of venomous snakes, presumably because so many have such striking appearances – even though only about 11% of all snake species are venomous, and few of those have venom strong enough to harm humans. Bishop’s Level 2 Snakes, like the longer version on which it is based, is lovely to look at as an example of gorgeous photography of fascinating animals. But its spare text, while it provides very basic information on snakes in an age-appropriate way, is best seen as a doorway through which young readers can go on their way to get more-detailed, more-balanced information elsewhere.
Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy Presents: Weather is at the same reading level, and like other entries in the Fly Guy Presents series, will be particularly enjoyable for kids who are already fans of the fictional adventures of Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz. The book is narrated by Buzz, with occasional comments from Fly Guy but, more often, with Fly Guy being used as visual comic relief – for instance, when Buzz explains that weather originates in outer space, Fly Guy is seen flying about in a space suit, and when Buzz mentions that cumulus clouds look like cotton candy, Fly Guy is hovering nearby eating cotton candy. There is good basic information here on how weather happens, and some material that young readers will likely find especially interesting, such as the fact that a rainbow’s colors always appear in the same order (Arnold shows what they are but does not give the “Roy G. Biv” acronym). Fly Guy is amusing in a rain slicker and a snow suit; Buzz’s drawing of a pinwheel to illustrate the shape of a hurricane as seen from space is a useful visual aid; and the explanation of Earth’s four basic climates (desert, polar, temperate and tropical) is nicely done and readily understandable. In fact, adults may appreciate some of the simple, straightforward explanations here, which are not often provided in standard weather reports: “A hurricane forms when a group of thunderstorms spins over warm oceans. As this group of storms becomes stronger, winds rush to its center. This causes the entire group to spin, forming one massive storm.” The basics of the water cycle are also well explained and clearly illustrated. Fly Guy Presents: Weather is a good example of how skillful writing and attractive illustrations – including lots of photos, plus the drawings of Buzz and Fly Guy – can combine to provide early readers with a solid introduction to science in a way that will encourage them to continue learning as time goes on.
The Man Who Wasn’t There: Tales from the Edge of the Self. By Anil Ananthaswamy. Dutton. $16.
Readers interested in a blending of scientific research with philosophical speculation and forays into artistic endeavors will be fascinated by Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, originally published last year and now available in paperback. The front cover gives the subtitle as “Tales from the Edge of the Self,” but the title page is more informative, giving it as “Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self.” In fact, although there are tales, and parts of tales, in the book, it is the science underlying the anecdotes and stories that primarily interests Ananthaswamy, a consultant to New Scientist, where he was formerly a deputy news editor. Unlike a book that it appears on the surface to resemble, neurologist Oliver Sacks’ 1985 The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Ananthaswamy’s work does not dwell on the personal elements of the stories the author tells, using them instead to set up scientific discussions. Thus, the reports about people with schizophrenia, autism, body image integrity disorder (BIID), and other conditions are less the focus than the conditions themselves – the result being a comparatively clinical and at times dry look at the brain and the way its functions are reflected in everything from mental illness to modern art, rather than a series of human-interest stories told from a foundational scientific perspective.
The way a reader approaches Ananthaswamy’s book will thus determine a great deal of what he or she gets out of it. Those interested in the neurological and biological bases of conditions such as autism, ecstatic epilepsy, even Alzheimer’s disease, will absorb more from The Man Who Wasn’t There than those looking for stories about the impact of these conditions of the everyday lives of the people who have them – and on those around them. Ananthaswamy’s narrative is more textbookish than empathetic. For instance, rather than discussing the tremendous impact of Alzheimer’s disease on caregivers as well as patients, Ananthaswamy prefers to look at what Alzheimer’s indicates about whatever the notion of “self” may be. Referring to a scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, he writes, “Pia Kontos is not comfortable with claims that Alzheimer’s disease patients ultimately have no self. She argues that even in the face of severe cognitive decline evident in Alzheimer’s patients a form of selfhood persists, a precognitive, prereflective selfhood that’s embedded in the body.” In a similar vein, rather than provide a seamless narrative about a schizophrenic man who eventually committed suicide, Ananthaswamy pauses midway through the story for a paragraph of history: “Schizophrenia was originally called dementia praecox, a term coined in the 1890s by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin. It was Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler who renamed it schizophrenia in 1908. …Yet another stereotype, popularized by the antipsychiatry movement and some of the literary avant-garde, was of the schizophrenic as a romanticized wild man, in touch with his deepest desires and instincts.”
It is difficult to get a handle on where Ananthaswamy is going with the various case histories and scientific analyses he presents, at least until he ties things up in an epilogue that is managed rather neatly. The case-by-case instances are more problematic. For instance, the BIID chapter does not get into what form of selfhood is involved in people wishing to conform externally to their internal identity as amputees. People who have amputations out of necessity are often greatly determined to use prostheses to reduce the chance of being perceived as amputees and evaluated through that lens; but people with BIID wish to match their external appearance to their internal self-image by having amputations done unnecessarily. What this implies about the self, Ananthaswamy does not explore. He has less interest in this sort of individual-person-centered query than in more-general matters: “In adults, a set of brain regions is strongly correlated with theory of mind: the temporoparietal junction (TPI), the precuneus (PC), and the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These brain regions are activated when you think about what others are thinking. MIT’s Rebecca Saxe studied these brain regions in children five to eleven years old, ages when they are developing and honing their theory-of-mind abilities. Turns out the same brain regions are implicated in these children in tasks that require theory of mind. In fact, the right temporoparietal junction (rTPI) is most strongly correlated with theory-of-mind abilities in children.”
This sort of objective, analytical narrative pervades The Man Who Wasn’t There, and readers who find this rather coolly removed style conducive to thoughtful exploration of issues of self and identity will be drawn to the book. So will readers who are interested in philosophical debates that are couched in terms more dense and abstruse than they are transparent and accessible: “One hard-nosed way of looking at the self is to ask whether it can exist independent of all else – as a fundamental part of reality, giving it a unique place in the basic categories, or ontology, of things that make up reality – a self that could not be explained away as being constituted of things with a more basic ontological status.” Readers who find this sort of thinking and argument prolonged to the point of tedium are not the intended audience here; neither are those hoping to learn much of real-world, everyday applicability from Ananthaswamy’s case histories. This is a book for thinkers with a penchant for scientific research into philosophical questions. For others, it is neither particularly accessible nor, ultimately, particularly revelatory.
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths. Klanglogo. $18.99.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23; Violin Concerto No. 5. Francesco Corti, fortepiano; Thibault Noally, violin; Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski. C Major DVD. $24.99.
Concerto: A Beethoven Journey—A Film by Phil Grabsky. Seventh Art DVD. $27.99.
The increased interest in historically informed performances of Classical-era and Romantic music – not just Baroque works – has led to some reevaluations regarding the way well-known pieces “should” sound. Some appropriate-to-their-time changes are fairly straightforward, if not necessarily easy to put into practice: violins seated left and right of the podium rather than clustered to the left; much-diminished use of vibrato, reserving it only for special effects; gut strings; natural horns; and so forth. But there are also matters of considerable subtlety, relating to how composers thought in particular time periods – how they assumed (without writing anything down) that their music would sound. Listeners know some of this already: ornamentation was a foundational element of the Baroque era but of course was not written out by composers, since some of the creativity of performers involved devising it in performance, and cadenzas in later music might or might not be written by composers (and if they were, might or might not be intended as the only suitable cadenzas to play). Matters get murkier in the Romantic era, which is why Howard Griffiths’ Brahms cycle with the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt is so interesting. Griffiths has gone back to the notes of conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), considered one of the preeminent Brahms interpreters in Brahms’ own time, and a man who played a large part in establishing Brahms’ symphonies as part of what we now think of as the classical canon. Griffiths has also worked with a book by Steinbach’s student Walter Blume (1883-1933) that incorporates many of the approaches and specific recommendations made by Steinbach with regard to the symphonies. A lot of this material is technical and, unsurprisingly, detail-oriented; Griffiths’ use of the approaches gleaned from interpreters of Brahms’ time may seem to modern listeners to make little difference. But some historically informed elements come through with considerable clarity, such as an easy flexibility of tempo that is by no means rubato but that allows careful accentuation of themes and countermelodies, especially ones that are heard across bar lines. The orchestra plays for Griffiths with care and beauty, and that makes his performance of Symphony No. 3, in particular, an outstanding one. In some performances, this symphony seems to blend and blur, as if its tightly knit sound and structure in fact add up to a single extended movement rather than four related ones. Not so here: Griffiths gives each movement its own character while at the same time highlighting the flow from one to the next and the eventual circularity of a work whose final bars recall its first ones. The repeat of the exposition of the first movement gives the symphony just the right scale (and unfortunately highlights the biggest disappointment in this cycle, the omission of the exposition repeat in Symphony No. 2). The mixture of warmth and clarity in the orchestra’s strings fits Griffiths’ interpretation of the Third particularly well. Symphony No. 4 is less successful, notably in its rather plodding first movement. This is the most Bach-infused of Brahms’ symphonies, and here a clear line and rhythmic sensitivity are absolutely necessary; the work also contains the only true Scherzo in the four symphonies – which here lacks the brightness that it makes it most effective. The overall interpretation of the Fourth is, surprisingly, rather pedestrian – all the other symphonies seem to engage Griffiths in a way that the last does not. It is by no means an inadequate performance, and the orchestra’s playing is again exemplary; but it is primarily the high quality of the Third that makes this Klanglogo release worthy of a top rating.
The search for authenticity takes a different direction when Marc Minkowski is involved. This is a conductor as intrigued by Offenbach as by Mozart, and as willing to look for the most appropriate, historically informed way to perform them both. For Mozart Week 2015 in Salzburg, Minkowski delivered an unusual approach to historic-performance practice that has now been released as a C Major DVD. In this reading of two wonderful A major scores, the piano concerto K488 and “Turkish” violin concerto K219, Minkowski’s soloists use instruments that Mozart himself once owned. This is a wonderful idea – if not quite the “oh wow” moment of revelatory performance perfection for which listeners might long. These instruments are, after all, more than 200 years old, and although both are in good repair and still sound quite fine, it is highly unlikely that they now sound just as they did in Mozart’s time. They do, however, shed considerable light on Mozart’s own performance capabilities and his attitude toward concertos. This is particularly true for the fortepiano, whose sound is very, very different from that of a modern concert grand and whose compass is much smaller. Seeing Francesco Corti’s hands spanning this instrument and working within its capabilities gives a very different impression from that of a typical performance of the Piano Concerto No. 23. Everything here is lighter, more transparent, cleaner as well as clearer, with Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre providing appropriate-size backup that shows the work to be more a partnership than a display piece. The earlier Violin Concerto No. 5, on a violin from the workshop of Pietro Antonio Dalla Costa, comes across quite well, too, although Thibault Noally’s fingering and drawing forth of considerable brilliance from the violin is not quite as special as is Corti’s handling of the fortepiano – the violin has, after all, changed far less over the centuries than have keyboard instruments. In addition to the two concertos, this well-recorded DVD brings the soloists together for the Violin Sonata No. 21, K304 – but unfortunately only for the second movement, Tempo di Menuetto. Just as a listener starts enjoying the way these instruments sound together, the movement ends – a frustration. The other “bonus” here is even odder: the finale of Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony, which Minkowski and the orchestra handle with beauty and enthusiasm but which really does not fit the rest of this program at all. Nevertheless, for a chance to see and hear two of Mozart’s own instruments in some of his music, this DVD is fascinating.
There is less fascination, although plenty of brilliant piano playing, in Phil Grabsky’s film featuring pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, Concerto: A Beethoven Journey. The journey of the title is both a geographical one, as Andsnes performs in various venues around the world, and a compositional one, in terms of Beethoven’s development through his five well-known concertos (the sixth, an arrangement of the Violin Concerto, is not included). Andsnes decided to spend four years seeking an authentic view of and feel for Beethoven by playing and recording the concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Grabsky’s film presents elements of the performances as well as commentary, by Andsnes and others, on the music and on Beethoven the composer. The film is well-made but scarcely revelatory: Andsnes plays a modern piano, the orchestra’s compact size works well for the music but sometimes leads to imbalances between soloist and ensemble, and there is nothing revelatory in the biographical information on Beethoven or the discussions of ways to interpret his music. The interpretations themselves are quite fine: Andsnes plays beautifully and thoughtfully, repeatedly bringing nuances of phrasing and emphasis to the fore in well-paced readings that shine a clear light on Beethoven’s development of the piano concertos even though they reveal no new depths in the works. It is worth remembering that, although Beethoven’s oeuvre is traditionally divided into early, middle and late periods, there are no late-period piano concertos: by the time he wrote No. 5, Beethoven could not even give the première, because of his increasing deafness. So there is no “journey” in these concertos comparable to that made by Beethoven in the symphonies and, to an even greater degree, the string quartets. Indeed, the musical journey here is a truncated one, no matter how far the physical journey takes Andsnes, the orchestra and the filmmakers. For fans of Andsnes – and he deserves to have many of them, based on his playing here – the DVD provides a chance to linger over his ideas and thoughts as well as his musicianship. But the whole hour-and-a-half film can offer only snippets of Beethoven’s concertos, and listeners who start to get involved in the music rather than the visuals and discussions will be frustrated to be unable to follow Andsnes through the entire Beethoven cycle. This Seventh Art release is a (+++) presentation that is visually attractive but, inevitably, musically lacking. It may entice viewers into a journey through Beethoven’s piano concertos, but it will not escort them along the way.
Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano; Scherzo from FAE Sonata. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Lars Vogt, piano. Ondine. $16.99.
Hakki Cengiz Eren: Buffavento; Six Studies on Archipenko; Music for Strings No. 1 (Doors); Four Pieces for Solo Viola. Ravello. $14.99.
New Music for Clarinet: Another Look—works by William O. Smith, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Adolphus Hailstork, Dana Wilson, F. Gerard Errante and Sydney Hodkinson. F. Gerard Errante, clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone; Nyle Steiner, evi (electronic valve instrument); Lee Jordan-Anders and William Albright, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Maya Beiser: TranceClassical. Maya Beiser, cello. Innova. $14.99.
There are two primary difficulties with the Brahms Violin Sonatas. One is that, for all the differences among them that can be explored analytically, they tend to have a certain sameness of overall sound, and performers do not always do a good job of differentiating them. The other is that Brahms, being a pianist, gave a lot of the heft of the sonatas to the piano rather than the violin, which means the pianist in a performance must be quite restrained, even modest, to avoid swamping the stringed instrument. These issues are worth mentioning in connection with the new Ondine recording of the sonatas, featuring Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, simply because neither issue is of any real significance here. These are warm, expressive readings throughout, always beautiful and very nicely paced: they actually feel somewhat slower than they are, since Tetzlaff and Vogt emphasize the works’ extended lines and thematic subtleties – bringing the latter out effectively in the sort of true partnership that Tetzlaff and Vogt have evolved through longstanding performance together and that stands them in particularly good stead in these works. The flow, the lyricism here are beautifully shaped, and while there is noticeable rubato from time to time, it never seems out of keeping with the spirit or intent of the music: Tetzlaff and Vogt approach these sonatas with as much thoughtfulness as virtuosity. The two recorded these works before, in 2002, and those readings were released as a live recording, but their performance here is even more assured and beautifully blended than the earlier one, and the sound quality is significantly better. As something of an afterthought, Tetzlaff and Vogt offer Brahms’ contribution to the three-composer FAE Sonata: Albert Dietrich wrote the first movement, Schumann the second and fourth, and Brahms the third, the scherzo heard here. The sonata as a whole deserves to be performed more frequently – it is an occasional piece, but of more than passing interest. But the scherzo often stands alone when musicians offer a Brahms recital, and in that case, it can come across as a pleasing trifle and fine encore – which is how it emerges here.
Brahms actually extended the scope of violin sonatas in his three works, especially the final one, which is larger in scale and less intimate than the first two. But whatever Brahms did for chamber music was done within a clearly delineated Romantic context that sets his violin sonatas firmly in their time period. These days, contemporary composers of chamber works seem far more interested in new boundaries for their music, sometimes stylistic ones and sometimes ones that incorporate multiple musical approaches. Thus, on a new Ravello CD featuring works by Turkish composer Hakki Cengiz Eren, the first piece, Buffavento for large chamber ensemble (Thornton Edge conducted by Donald Crockett) is both highly dissonant (based loosely on earlier works by Gyorgy Ligeti) and impressionistic (intended as a depiction of castles in Cyprus). Without knowing the work’s provenance, listeners will simply hear sounds that could have come from innumerable other works of our era. Six Studies on Archipenko for quartet (ECCE: Diamanda Dramm, violin; Paolo Vignoroli, flute; Vasko Dukovski, B-flat and bass clarinet; Virginie Tarrête, harp) has a more interesting sound – the instruments both complement and contrast with each other to good effect – but it too depends for full understanding on listeners knowing that it was inspired by an Alexander Archipenko painting called “La Coquette.” Music for Strings No. 1 is for string quartet (Argus Quartet: Clara Kim and Jason Issokson, violins; Diana Wade, viola; Joann Whang, cello) and proceeds by contrasting layered contrapuntal elements, which have a kind of “horizontal” motion characterized by grace notes, with evenly rhythmic interjections that provide a sort of “vertical” set of punctuation points. Four Pieces for Solo Viola attempts to paint four short scenes – “Wandering,” “Scenic,” “Insistent” and “Dialogue” – by having the performer (Garth Knox) take the instrument through contortions that sometimes sound dramatic and sometimes merely painful. Like so much contemporary music, the pieces on this (+++) CD are carefully constructed along lines chosen and understood by the composer but by no means evident to listeners – and, indeed, the audience seems almost irrelevant to works that appear to be intended to show compositional bona fides but not to communicate anything in particular except to those “in the know.”
The primary focus of another (+++) Ravello CD seems to be the performer, clarinetist F. Gerard Errante, rather than what he performs. The chamber-music works here, originally recorded on vinyl by Errante some years ago and mostly dedicated to him, are among many that take instruments (and not only the clarinet) as building blocks for sounds that work against what the instruments’ construction and sonic range were intended to be, all in the name of expanding performers’ (and, theoretically, listeners’) auditory experience. This is not really a new concept: it dates at least as far back as Charles Ives’ notion that music should stretch the ears. But Ives always cared about listeners’ ears as well as his own; the focus is much less certain in the works heard here. Errante’s own piece, Souvenirs de Nice, for example, is a clarinet improvisation punctuated by prepared piano and including, among other things, Errante playing two clarinets at the same time. To what end? To Errante’s, certainly, and theoretically to other performers’, but not noticeably to an audience’s. Two William O. Smith pieces, Solo for Clarinet with Delay System and Asana, use technology that makes real-time changes in the clarinet’s sound – a collaboration between composer and performer, certainly, but with the audience largely left out. Sonic difference is also the main point of Vladimir Ussachevsky’s Four Studies for Clarinet and Evi, the latter being essentially a breath-actuated synthesizer. Adolphus Hailstork’s A Simple Caprice is more fun than the other pieces here, with a certain bouncy irreverence to its handling of clarinet and piano; it does, however, go on much too long (at nearly 15 minutes, it is the longest work on the CD). A contrast to Hailstork’s outgoing work is the introverted Piece for Clarinet “Alone” by Dana Wilson, which uses a multitude of techniques, often to good effect. The final piece here, Sydney Hodkinson’s The Dissolution of the Serial, is actually fun to listen to as clarinet and piano together make fun of multiple musical genres and styles of composition – including, knowingly or not, some of the ones employed in all seriousness elsewhere on the disc.
Errante is scarcely the only contemporary performer whose interest is pushing musical boundaries as far as possible, even if that means breaking some of them; in fact, especially if that means breaking some. The same approach is something of a stock-in-trade for cellist Maya Beiser, whose well-played but vapid (+++) Innova release, TranceClassical, bears a title suggesting that this music is entrancing (which it is not) and also transclassical – across and beyond the classical (which it is). Self-indulgent CDs like this are strictly performer-focused and very much an acquired taste: listeners who think that Beiser is fascinating/important/intriguing and that a cello altered and augmented to such an extent that its underlying tonal beauty and range are largely concealed will delight in the disc; everyone else will wonder what all the fuss is about and/or simply dislike the whole self-important production. Beiser can certainly play Bach – she offers a Bach arrangement to open the proceedings here – but what she wants to play is music that shows how clever she, as a performer, can be, which is why the other bookend of the CD is a Beiser arrangement of a piece by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) that celebrates the divine power of wisdom. The seven works between those of Bach and von Bingen include three world première recordings and pieces ranging from a Kol Nidre by Mohammed Fairouz to Lou Reed’s Heroin in an arrangement by David Lang that actually includes some arpeggiation. This is a disc for people who do not especially like the cello (although the von Bingen arrangement is actually rather affecting) but who very much like celebrity performances. In a live recital or on DVD, Beiser might well be mesmerizing to see: getting the variety of sounds that she extracts from her instrument surely requires circus-worthy contortions and intensity. An audio recording, though, rises or falls on the basis not only of playing but also of what is being played. The material here, intended to be variegated, is really just a hodgepodge connected by Beiser’s interest in it and her skill at playing arrangements (her own and ones by others). This sort of production can no longer be considered defiantly different or consciously contemporary – it is simply one more performer-as-celebrity offering in which the material presented is mostly thin and the focus is more on the person delivering the musical message than on the message’s content.