March 30, 2017
Pig the Winner. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.
Animal Planet: Baby Animals. By Dorothea DePrisco. Liberty Street. $12.95.
Animal Planet: Animals on the Move. By Dorothea DePrisco. Liberty Street. $12.95.
Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Pug is adorable in spite of himself. He is selfish, nasty, picky and, as we find out in Pig the Winner, a cheater who – if he loses despite cheating – throws enormous temper tantrums until he is told he has won. Then he celebrates his “victory” as annoyingly as possible. It takes some skill to portray this pampered, self-centered pug as an enjoyable character, but Blabey has that skill: he makes sure that Pig’s behavior is so over-the-top that, although it is recognizable, it is simply too funny to make kids mad. The wide-eyed, bemused expressions of Trevor, the dachshund who shares a home with Pig, help keep things light, and so do the two dogs’ costumes (Trevor dressed for racquet sports is a hoot) and Pig’s own unbelievably huge and bulging eyeballs. Blabey makes sure that Pig’s exaggerated need to win gets him in trouble – for instance, Pig declares a speed-eating contest in which he gobbles so quickly that he swallows not only the food but also his bowl, requiring rescue by Heimlich-maneuver-performing Trevor. Still, Blabey is careful to ensure that Pig does not learn much from his misadventures – that would undermine his whole personality. Thus, after Trevor rescues him, Pig does not say thanks – he just proclaims, “I WIN!” Pig does, of course, get his comeuppance, or in this case come-downance, when the bowl he swallowed bounces off the ceiling after being forcibly ejected from his throat, then hits him and knocks him smack into the trash (in another highly amusing illustration). But the point is that Pig learns only part of his lesson here, just as he learned only part of it in Blabey’s previous book, Pig the Pug. This time, Blabey says Pig now “plays to have fun,/ and his tantrums have ceased./ Yes. Trevor can win now!/ Well, sometimes, at least.” That final line, on the last page, goes with an illustration of the apparently cooperative Pig cheating in the card game that he and Trevor are playing. Pig is ridiculously overdone and, as a result, ridiculously cute, although certainly not worthy of being imitated in real life. That would be ridiculous.
There is adorableness in real-life animals, without any of the angst associated with Pig’s fictional misbehavior. The cuteness is pervasive in the two latest collaborations between Animal Planet and Time Inc. books, Baby Animals and Animals on the Move. The baby creatures are just so utterly yummy that readers will have to remember, if they can, that these are, after all, wild animals, not pets – well, except for the ones that are pets or farm animals or otherwise involved with humans. Reptile babies generally look like miniature versions of adults, but mammal babies have distinctive features that render them astonishingly endearing to mammalian eyes (those of humans as well as those of their parents). This is a survival characteristic, since mammals generally require considerable time to develop before they can manage on their own, while reptiles are generally ready to be out and about almost as soon as they are born or hatched. This is some of the information in Baby Animals, which also deals with creatures that undergo metamorphosis as they grow – tadpoles into frogs, for example, and caterpillars into monarch butterflies – and shows ways in which animal behavior carries over to humans: one page has photos of a baby alligator riding on its mother’s back, a small sloth atop its mother in the trees, and a daughter-and-father pair in a piggyback ride. There are a couple of pages called “handful of cute” that are definitely awwwwww-some, featuring close-up views of baby animals being held by kids: sugar glider, bog turtle, rabbit, squirrel, piglet, hamster and more. The photos throughout the book are excellent, whether showing a much-blown-up closeup of a baby planthopper (the insect is actually just an eighth of an inch long) or explaining how the characteristics of a baby red panda suit it perfectly for its ecological niche and diet. The book is entertainingly laid out and packed with information, although individual facts are presented only very briefly: “Bobcat kittens have bright blue eyes that become green or golden brown by the time the kittens are adults,” for instance, and “a baby giant anteater nurses for about a month.” Baby Animals is well-written by Dorothea DePrisco at an appropriate level for young readers, roughly through the preteen years; and the photos will enthrall kids of all ages, and their parents, too.
DePrisco’s Animals on the Move features plenty of cuteness, too, although that is not its primary point. Here there are some in-motion pictures and facts that are very commonly included in books about animals, such as the cheetah’s running speed of 70 miles per hour for short distances and the basilisk lizard’s ability to run on water. But there are also less-commonly-cited facts, such as the 45-mile-per-hour speed of the red fox and the fact that the sailfish, which grows up to 11 feet long, is the fastest fish in the ocean. There are creatures here that jump (Himalayan blue sheep, kangaroo rats, fleas) and ones that ease along through life (Aldabra giant tortoise, three-toed sloth). And although there are plenty of creatures here that humans would scarcely consider cute – red sea urchin, red claw scorpion, mako shark, slug – there are others that are enjoyable to see as well as learn about: Adélie penguins, flying lemurs, flying squirrels, a handsome group of coyotes. Both this book and Baby Animals do a first-rate job of presenting information easily and in small bites, while showing excellent photos that keep the books visually interesting and make the animals’ anatomy and adaptation to the way they live abundantly clear.
Eye of the Storm: NASA, Drones, and the Race to Crack the Hurricane Code. By Amy Cherrix. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
There are storms, and then there are STORMS, and then there are STORMS. The latest entry in the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series focuses on the last category: hurricanes, which “can release the energy equivalent of ten thousand nuclear bombs and produce enough water to wash entire communities from the map.” Unlike some scientists, those pictured and discussed in Amy Cherrix’s book are not engaging in any abstruse or difficult-to-understand endeavor. They are working on something that affects people all over the world and that, to the extent we understand or fail to understand the phenomenon, can lead to massive destruction and loss of life – or protection of millions of people.
Cherrix explains the basics of hurricanes clearly and simply. The lower the pressure in their centers, the stronger the storms are, and the tighter and more organized a storm is, the faster and more dangerous it becomes – a fact Cherrix aptly explains by suggesting that readers imagine an ice skater spinning faster and faster by pulling her arms closer to her body. Cherrix tells the difference between a hurricane watch and warning, explains the scale used to measure the storms’ winds, notes that the winds around the eye are the strongest, and states that the storms have killed a frightening number of people in the past 200 years: they have claimed two million lives.
All this, though, is prologue to the book’s main topic, which is the search for better ways of forecasting not only the timing of a storm but also the danger it poses to human settlements: “It’s not enough to predict when a storm will happen. The future is predicting how strong.” This is crucial not only for damage control but also because of human nature: erroneous predictions that lead to evacuations that turn out to be unnecessary can cause people to disbelieve future predictions that may be far more accurate – and if people then do not leave, because the earlier predictions were wrong, the storm may prove far deadlier.
Cherrix gives plenty of examples of the enormous dangers posed by hurricanes and other tropical storms (similar storms are designated differently in different parts of the world). For example, she discusses the Bhola cyclone of November 1970, which smashed East Pakistan in the middle of the night, striking without warning because the area it hit had poor communication, creating a 35-foot storm surge, and resulting in a terrifying half a million deaths. Cherrix explains that the government’s failure to help people after the cyclone had a great deal to do with the warfare that resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in December 1971: “A single storm has the power to divide countries and create nations.”
Nor are devastating storms confined to poor countries. Inevitably, Cherrix cites the case of Hurricane Katrina, discussing its effects on New Orleans and other hard-hit areas, and quoting from the investigative congressional report issued after the poor handling of the storm and its aftermath became abundantly evident: “The response to the Katrina catastrophe revealed – all too often, and for far too long – confusion, delay, misdirection, inactivity, poor coordination, and lack of leadership at all levels of government.”
If there is plenty of blame to go around when hurricanes and other massive storms strike, there is also a great deal that scientists can do and are doing to mitigate the storms’ effects. Cherrix explores ways in which scientists study the storms, the technology they bring into play to evaluate and try to predict storms’ strength and direction, and the increasing use of drones to evaluate conditions that spawn and nurture these massive weather systems. “Field science isn’t always as exciting as jammed chutes and last-minute malfunctions – it usually includes more mundane tasks like taking notes,” Cherrix points out. True, and she does a good job of balancing the exciting and the mundane in Eye of the Storm, giving a good sense of the dedication of the scientists trying to make hurricanes more predictable and therefore less deadly – while at the same time showing just how far we still are from being able to forecast these events with enough accuracy to be sure of protecting lives and property.
Who Let the Gods Out? By Maz Evans. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.
Immortal Unchained: An Argeneau Novel (No. 25). By Lynsay Sands. Avon. $7.99.
Ah, immortality. Consider Tithonus, brother of King Priam of Troy, lover of Eos, goddess of the dawn, and one of the saddest characters in all Greek mythology. At Eos’ request, Zeus granted Tithonus immortality, but because she forgot to ask for him to have eternal youth, Tithonus aged and deteriorated and eventually withered – into a cicada, in some versions of the tale. Consider this a cautionary story about getting what you want, or think you want – although neither Maz Evans, writing for young readers, nor Lynsay Sands, writing for adults, will have any of that nonsense about the perils of living forever. There is amusement to be had within the adventures here, yes; but serious points about eternal life and its possible difficulties? Look elsewhere.
What readers will find is an exceptionally amusing preteen fantasy-adventure in Who Let the Gods Out? In this book, the first of a series, Charon ferries characters among the four realms of Elysium, Earth, the Asphodel Fields, and the Underworld, delightedly accepting a blue button instead of 3,000 drachma as his fare and explaining that it is so valuable that it includes his tip. This is a book in which the old gods have retired after Zeus destroys all the Daemons, except for one called Thanatos (the personification of death in Greek mythology), whom he imprisons and who manages to escape by hoodwinking a mortal boy who ends up beneath Stonehenge, where Thanatos has been kept chained. It is a book in which the family farm of said boy, Elliott Hooper, is under threat from development-crazed next-door neighbor Patricia Porshley-Plum, cruelly but aptly nicknamed Horse’s-Bum. It is a book in which the sacred code of the immortals begins with number 1 and then progresses immediately to b, then 7, then xic, then F2, then 39.4, and then xy, and includes everything from “immortals cannot break an oath” to “immortals cannot herd giraffes on a Tuesday.” It is a book in which one immortal, a mere child of 1,964 years named Virgo (as in the constellation of which, yes, she is a personification) makes the mistake of seeking something different in eternal life and ends up on Earth, covered in cow poop, and eventually held responsible for Thanatos’ escape and told (by more-adult personifications of constellations) that she must recapture him without using any of her immortal powers. It is a book with touches of underlying seriousness: Elliott’s mom’s mind is giving way, and the two of them (no dad here) are completely out of money and on the verge of being evicted and having their tumbledown farm foreclosed. But this is really just a plot device to explain why Elliott goes along with Virgo to try to recapture Thanatos – in the same way that Virgo’s entanglement with Elliott is just a plot device to free Thanatos so he can snarl and threaten and generally be the bad guy. Really, there is nothing especially well-plotted in Who Let the Gods Out? But really, it does not matter much. Evans does not hesitate to pull ideas out of nowhere, bring in coincidences willy-nilly, and otherwise manipulate the reader in unconscionable ways that she gets away with only because the book is so doggoned funny and fast-paced and frenetic. A typical line: “‘Don’t worry about matters that your suboptimal mortal intellect can’t understand,’ she said haughtily, her sneakers squelching across the field.” And then there is the matter of the kardia, a kind of soul pendant that is made of different substances depending on what type of immortal is wearing one: Thanatos’ is black, of course, while the one worn by Charon (who announces himself as “proprietor of Quick Styx Cabs”) is glass because he is a Neutral who can “get on fine with all sides.” That includes the fairy yelling loudly into a cell phone, “I CAN’T TALK NOW! I’M ON THE SHIP OF DEATH!” And there is much more of this sort of thing. Young readers will not exactly laugh forever at the happenings in Who Let the Gods Out? But they will laugh throughout the book, and that will be quite enough.
There are amusing elements in Lynsay Sands’ writing, too, and in fact they are much of what distinguishes her from other authors of supernatural fantasy for adults. In other ways, Sands’ books are very much of their genre. For instance, you can tell they are for adults because they are filled with romance and, yes, sex (definitely a no-no in books for preteens, whose fantasies are not supposed to be on that level yet). Immortal Unchained is in fact offered as an “Avon Romance,” but it is that on top of being a fantasy-adventure, not instead of it. Books like this have little in common with the old-fashioned so-called “bodice rippers,” and not only because there is nary a bodice to be seen or ripped. Here the female protagonists are every bit as strong, intense, involved, savvy and, yes, sexy as the men. Sands is quite good at producing books of this type: Immortal Unchained is no less than the 25th book in her Argeneau series. It is a (+++) book partly because it is formulaic but mostly because it is difficult to figure out everything that is going on, and what everyone has to do with everyone else, without already having read at least some of the series’ earlier entries. For example, the central male character here is Domitian Argenis (men in these books invariably have names like Domitian – never, say, John or Pete). Domitian is the brother of Drina, and readers who are not quite sure who Drina is and why the relationship matters will not get many clues here. There is also a character from earlier books named Dr. Dressler, and he is crucial to this book’s plot, but what is also crucial – and not easy to figure out if this is one’s first delving into the Argeneau sequence – is why he was supposed to be one of the good guys in earlier books and why that mattered. In any case, here we have Sands’ version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, with mysteries and diabolical experiments and a fairly hot romance involving Domitian and a cop named Sarita whom Domitian knows to be his “life mate” but who has some growing up (experientially, not chronologically) to do before the two can be as thoroughly and permanently mated as they are destined to be. Actually, it has to be said that Immortal Unchained starts rather slowly and rather obviously, with a character named Lucian (again, it helps to know the earlier books here) telling Domitian not to get onto a helicopter that Domitian promptly gets onto, with the result that Domitian is soon chained to one of those ever-present tables in one of those ever-present secret labs before Sarita frees him, and then – well, there is some of Sands’ welcome trademark humor between the two, as well as a strong physical connection. And of course there is plenty of action, much of it tied to earlier books’ plots involving the mysterious disappearance of immortals for reasons unknown and by means uncertain. All of which Domitian tries to unravel. With Sarita’s help. At bottom, this is little more than yet another of the innumerable rethinkings of Wells’ tale, one of the most frequently updated and imitated of all SF/fantasy stories (and none of the updates, including this one, really holds a candle to the original). On the other hand, there is a certain level of silliness here that is quite different from anything in Wells and also different from the type of humor that is common in books for younger readers, such as Who Let the Gods Out? And Sands does a generally good job of using that silliness to make Immortal Unchained into something more than just another vampire story with vague overtones of Wells’ tale of strange beasts on a strange island. This is not much more than a formulaic series entry, but it is a little more, and that will keep Sands’ fans’ happy – although anyone wondering why people become her fans in the first place will not find out from this book and really needs to go back to earlier novels in the series. Then a newfound fan can look forward to the forthcoming 26th Argeneau book, to be called Immortally Yours.
Teddy Mars, Book #2: Almost a Winner. By Molly B. Burnham. Illustrated by Trevor Spencer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Teddy Mars, Book #3: Almost an Outlaw. By Molly B. Burnham. Illustrated by Trevor Spencer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Pages Between Us. By Lindsey Leavitt and Robin Mellom. Harper. $6.99.
Although many attempts are now being made – some of them sincerely – to write book series that will appeal equally to preteen boys and girls, it still usually seems that the sequences’ target audiences are one gender or the other. The Teddy Mars books are clearly boy-oriented. Teddy is 10, the sixth of seven children in the “Mars Menagerie” (his dad actually calls it that), and desperate to stand out among his siblings: five older sisters and a five-year-old brother, Jake, whom Teddy calls The Destructor. The books are very easy to read, not only because of the numerous illustrations but also because every chapter is amply subdivided. A two-page spread may contain as many as four subheads plus an illustration, or two, or three. The books’ characters are standard silly-suburbia and family-oriented preteen-novel types, such as Teddy’s two best friends, Lonnie and Viva, and Grumpy Pigeon Man, whose real name is Mr. Marney and who lives next door to the Mars family. The intent here is clearly to create a series of heartwarming scenes of suburban life in a large, sort-of-madcap family, but Molly B. Burnham’s approach is less than wholly successful: the various characters in these books simply are not interesting enough in themselves to sustain the events – they are defined by what they do (Teddy tries to break records, The Destructor messes things up), not by anything they are or have inside.
The illustrations by Trevor Spencer are a big part of the attraction of the Teddy Mars books, including Almost a Winner, originally published last year and now available in paperback, and the new and final book in the sequence, Almost an Outlaw. Like the first book, Almost a World Record Breaker, the second has a strong “records” focus. Almost a Winner revolves around the decision by Teddy’s entire class to go into record-breaking-attempt mode, leading to rivalries and hurt feelings – and to Teddy’s discovery that maybe, for a change, he ought to try not to break a record, because maybe there are more important things in life than that. In Almost an Outlaw, the focus is a little different from that of the previous two books: here Teddy is not trying to break records (although there are plenty of references to them) – instead, he needs to cope with a record-breaking number of rules imposed on him and The Destructor by Great-Aunt Ursula, who moves in with the Mars family to help out after Teddy’s mom gets a job. Ursula has lots of rules, about everything from record-breaking to being a good big brother. The rules may be a way to control The Destructor at last, Teddy thinks, but then Ursula comes up with a rule that says pigeons are not pets – and that quickly resets Teddy’s thinking and makes him consider becoming a rule-breaker and maybe even teaming up with The Destructor. The Teddy Mars books seem to be aimed at “reluctant readers,” especially boys, who will find Teddy’s antics and basically well-meaning attitude toward life and family to be engaging. In fact, despite the overbearing nature of Great-Aunt Ursula, Teddy eventually realizes that “even though I’m mad at Aunt Ursula, I also feel really bad for her, too.” The whole record-breaking thing becomes part of the eventual happy ending of the book and the series (happy for the pigeons, too); and if the Teddy Mars books are ultimately inconsequential, they are inconsequential in a warm-hearted way that preteen boys – at least ones who identify with Teddy – will find satisfying.
The Pages Between Us, originally published last year and now available in paperback, starts a series rather than ending one. But its target is girls as clearly as the target of the Teddy Mars books is boys. This is a middle-school-girls story in every way. The focus is on Olivia and Piper, longtime best friends who are distressed to find they have only one class together in sixth grade. To stay in touch through the school day, they write back and forth to each other in a sort of diary/chronicle. The setup of the premise is awkward, with odd nicknames and initial pages reminiscent of Jim Benton’s Dear Dumb Diary series, warning readers not to read the book – but without any of Benton’s offbeat humor. Readers who endure the start will encounter some accurate descriptions of middle-school life, including the difficulties of fitting in and making new friends, plus everyday dramas involving the cafeteria and boys. The book really comes into its own, though, when the girls’ longtime friendship is challenged as they start making decisions that keep them apart when they could be spending time together. This comes about because they start joining clubs. The spelling club is boring, and things do not work out in the Lego club even though Olivia’s crush is in it. Olivia finally makes a connection with the chess club – leaving Piper feeling left out and still unable to find her own niche and her own friends. To make matters well-nigh unbearable, Olivia cannot go to a big event at Piper’s church, and then a chess tournament is scheduled on the same day as Piper’s birthday party, forcing difficult choices into the girls’ lives and leading to a rift between them. The ill will cannot last, though – after all, this is the start of a series, and besides, the girls have years of close friendship behind them. The low point of the book is cleverly shown through two blank pages, representing the silence between the girls after they have their falling-out. Then Olivia returns to the notebook with an unsurprising “I know you won’t read this” comment, but of course Piper does read it, and gradually the girls rebuild their friendship on a changed and even stronger foundation. The Pages Between Us is slight in content and straightforward in writing style, but its presentation is appealing, including notes and occasional pictures and online communications (blog and E-mail) and homework assignments – the book’s plot is less interesting than the way Lindsey Leavitt and Robin Mellom show the events unfolding. Olivia and Piper are not especially interesting characters, but because the things they go through are similar to those that other middle-school girls experience, The Pages Between Us and later series entries will likely appeal to the very audience for which the sequence has been carefully designed.
Poulenc: Mass in G; Salve regina; Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence; Litanies à la Vierge Noir; Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël; Un soir de neige; Ave verum corpus. The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.
Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil. Gloriæ Dei Cantores and members of The St. Romanos Cappella, The Patriarch Tikhon Choir and The Washington Master Chorale conducted by Peter Jermihov. Paraclete. $28.99 (SACD).
Mark John McEncroe: Natalie’s Suite—Three Faces of Addiction; Natalie’s Theme; Symphonic Poem—Echoes from a Haunted Past; The Pendulum. Helen Kennedy, piano; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore. Navona. $14.99.
Gaudete Brass: The John Corigliano Effect. Cedille. $16.
It often takes a tragedy to instill or revive a person’s religious feelings, and that was certainly the case with Francis Poulenc, who returned in earnest to the Catholic faith of his youth only after learning of the death of his friend and fellow composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, in a car accident in 1936. Poulenc was then 37 years old and starting on a path that would eventually lead to Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) and La Voix humaine (1959). The latest CORO recording by The Sixteen, under Harry Christophers, shows some of the steps the composer was to take along that path – and in so doing displays some very beautiful music in a series of excellent performances. Included here is the first work Poulenc wrote after Ferroud’s death, Litanies à la Vierge Noir, for three-part choir of women or children, plus organ. The title refers to a famous black statue at the shrine of Rocamadour. The work’s dissonant organ part is as striking as Poulenc’s accomplished use of chant-like textures. Also here is the Mass in G of 1937, actually a missa brevis because it lacks the Credo. Scored for soprano soloist and mixed choir a cappella, this work contrasts strikingly with Litanies à la Vierge Noir, having a sense of purity about it that is reflected in music that is on the cool side rather than as deeply heartfelt as might be expected. A work that is heartfelt, by any measure, is Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence (1938-39), for four unaccompanied voices, the Latin texts performed here with understanding and a strong sense of involvement. A later set of four motets, Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1952) for mixed chorus, also gets sensitive and well-balanced treatment. The variety of vocal forces used by Poulenc is one element that makes this recording so interesting to hear. Another is the excellence of The Sixteen in all the vocal combinations, confirming the uniformly high quality of the ensemble. Also on the CD are Salve regina for mixed chorus (1941), Un soir de neige for six voices (1944), and Ave verum corpus for soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto (1952). Of varying lengths and on varying topics, these vocal works all show Poulenc’s skill in vocal writing and his ability to extract differing feelings based on different arrangements and mixtures of voices.
Rachmaninoff’s skill in his a cappella Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil (1915) is of a different order. This is a work of great scope and depth, lasting an hour or more, in 15 movements – the first six setting texts from the hour of Vespers, which sometimes leads to the work as a whole being incorrectly called “Vespers.” This is worth mentioning in connection with the splendid new Paraclete recording of the music conducted by Peter Jermihov, because the whole point of this beautifully sung and elegantly packaged reading is to sweep away misconceptions and misunderstandings of the music and try to perform it as Rachmaninoff himself would have heard it and wanted it to be heard by others. The dynamism and strength of the music come through particularly strongly here, and the 77-member choir has a rich, round and very warm tonal center around which the soloists build impressively. Those soloists are very fine singers from the National Opera of Ukraine, contralto Mariya Berezovska and tenor Dmitry Ivanchenko. Ivanchenko is also one of the two singers delivering the clergy exclamations that are integral to the work’s structure; the other is Vadim Gan, protodeacon under the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The bona fides of this performance are clearly substantial – but more than that, Jermihov and the singers make an exceptional case for the inherent quality of the music that Rachmaninoff produced here, not long before Russian Orthodoxy was to be officially suppressed under the avowedly atheistic Soviet Union. The Nunc dimittis, which Ivanchenko delivers particularly feelingly, was sung at Rachmaninoff’s own funeral, at his request, and it is easy to see why this beautiful and heartfelt music so attracted the man who composed it. It is an exceptionally difficult movement for the basses to sing, requiring them to go almost unbelievably low in their range – a feat the singers here manage to fine effect. All-Night Vigil actually contains three different forms of chant, the varying intricacies of which will likely not be apparent to most listeners – but what matters is how well Rachmaninoff fits them together, and how seamlessly this entire sprawling work comes together in a performance whose SACD sound makes the whole experience of the All-Night Vigil all the more moving.
It is not, of course, necessary to use voices to express deep feelings, whether positive or negative. Mark John McEncroe tries to do so purely instrumentally in the works on a new Navona CD – particularly Natalie’s Suite, a three-movement piece in which he seeks to explore the addiction and depression with which his daughter has tried to cope and with which he himself is familiar from his own life. The work is a very extended one, its three movements lasting some 50 minutes. And the vast majority of it is very dark indeed: “Facing the Demons” runs 22 minutes and “Into the Dark Spaces” 21, while the concluding “Moving into the Light” is a seven-minute attempt to deliver optimism that does not really work – there is simply too much darkness in the first two movements for the small amount of balance here to be effective. McEncroe takes a clever approach to the obsessive negativity of the topic he explores musically by having the work stay in the home key throughout. But while this sounds like a good idea and in some respects does help show what it feels like to be trapped in a seemingly endless cycle, it is not an approach that works very well from a strictly musical standpoint. Natalie’s Suite simply goes on too long, revisiting the same territory again and again – or, perhaps more accurately, becoming trapped in a single place and struggling vainly to get out of it. True, this is a compelling image for addictive behavior and depressive feelings, but that does not make the music itself any more involving. Pianist Helen Kennedy and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Armore explore the work with care and consistency, probing what depths it has – but the music’s gestures repeat themselves after a while, and while its intentions are certainly of the best, it is not ultimately very successful in conveying the depths and difficulties of the subject it tries to illustrate. Also on this (+++) CD are three much shorter pieces that explore essentially the same territory as the extended suite. Natalie’s Theme is a solo-piano work focusing on the composer’s daughter in much the same way the orchestral suite does, while The Pendulum, also for solo piano, is a further exploration of a negative emotional cycle from which one tries to break out, only to return to the depths yet again. Symphonic Poem—Echoes from a Haunted Past is for orchestra without piano, and it too is an attempt to face one’s inner demons and understand them, if not necessarily overcome them. Al the music here is thoughtfully planned and well-constructed, but there is a bleakness throughout the CD that, no matter how intentional in terms of the emotional undercurrents of the material, works against any sort of penetrating connection with listeners. This is a monochromatic release that insists, again and again, that it has something important and meaningful to say – indeed, insists to such a degree that the importance and meaningfulness turn out to be less than McEncroe clearly wants them to be.
If the sampling of McEncroe’s music is uniformly downbeat, that of John Corigliano and his students on a new Cedille release is uniformly positive in emotion and appeal. The concept of this CD by the brass quintet Gaudete Brass and other performers is an intriguing one: to celebrate Corigliano’s 75th birthday (which he reached in 2013) with suitably celebratory fanfares, dances and, well, celebrations. Only two pieces here were originally written for brass by Corigliano himself: Antiphon and Fanfares to Music, the latter interestingly filled with references to Schubert’s famous song, An die Musik. A third work on the CD, Gazebo Dances: Overture, is also by Corigliano, but this is a brass arrangement by Cliff Colnot – and a highly effective one it is. Much of the success of this disc rests with the fine playing by the members of Gaudete Brass: Bill Baxtresser and Charles Russell Roberts (trumpets), Phil Kassel (horn), Paul Von Hoff (trombone), and Scott Tegge (tuba). There is plenty of warmth in the ensembles and not a little bite when that is called for, as it sometimes is on this disc in the works by composers other than Corigliano. They include David Sampson, whose brief Entrance is the one work here that is not a world première recording, and who also offers Still; Jonathan Newman, whose Prayers of Steel is an interestingly contrasted four-movement suite that veers from stylized dance to cityscape; Steven Bryant, whose short sevenfive nicely complements Corigliano’s Antiphon, which follows it on this recording; Jeremy Howard Beck’s Roar; and Conrad Winslow’s interestingly conceived The Record of a Lost Tribe, whose three evocative movements are called “Artifacts,” “History” and “Ceremonies.” Most of these works are Gaudete Brass commissions in connection with the Corigliano tribute, although Still and the brass arrangement of Gazebo Dances: Overture were created later – specifically for this recording. Fans of Corigliano who want to experience the tribute to him vicariously are the natural audience for this (+++) disc, in which the playing is uniformly first-class but the works themselves are somewhat variable in interest and in how well they lie on the brass instruments. There is a certain “in crowd” feeling to the project as a whole, which is fine for Corigliano fanciers but may wear a bit thin for others during the CD’s 56 minutes: the composers’ styles are not highly distinctive, except for Corigliano’s own – which especially shows creativity in Fanfares to Music, in which two brass ensembles (quintet and sextet) play from different locations so as to keep their sounds separate. This CD is a specialty item, but one that will especially enjoyable for listeners who enjoy Corigliano’s music and ones impressed by the quality of the playing of Gaudete Brass.
March 23, 2017
Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere. By Elise Gravel. Harper. $12.99.
There are lots and lots of stories out there about kids who are not very good with other kids, or with adults, but who are super-good with something else, such as animals. But this book is not like all the others.
There are lots and lots of stories out there in which the pictures and text are equally important even though the works are not exactly graphic novels, being more of a hybrid form in the Dear Dumb Diary mode. But, again, this book is not like all the others.
And there are lots and lots of stories out there where an alien being or otherwise unimaginable creature of some sort is imagined and turns out to be very important indeed, or at least very interesting, or very strange, or some combination of those. But, yet again, this book is not like all the others.
Why not? Because Elise Gravel’s Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere combines elements of all three of the “lots and lots of stories” designed for preteens, and is hilarious – as well as slightly, ever so slightly, meaningful.
It all starts with the unusually weird title, which turns out to refer to a thing that turns up in Olga’s trash can one day. It smells like the trash, or maybe the trash smells like it; it is hard to be sure. The thing is the size of a piglet and has pink, trash-covered fur, plus a long, skinny, rat-like, prehensile tail. It says nothing but “meh” (constantly) and is terrified of bananas. It is in love with Olga’s Michael Jackson poster, does not speak Spanish, and does not seem to want to eat anything – not even Olga’s favorite food, macaroni and cheese with pickles. Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere features Olga trying to find out more about the smelly thing: she is a budding scientist, as she does not hesitate to explain (repeatedly), and her idol is Jane Goodall. Olga is initially fascinated by the smelly thing, which she has not yet seen, because she discovers that its poop is “the size of green peas, and shiny like marbles, but multicolored, like Skittles.” So, yes, there is a bunch of poop-related stuff here, which is scarcely surprising in an amply illustrated book for ages 8-12. But Olga’s interest in poop is scientific, not scatological, so there is purpose to it, all right?
Anyway, Olga – who likes to wear the same sack-like dress all the time and does not like to wear socks or shoes – explores the likes and dislikes of the smelly thing, which she dubs Olgamus Ridiculus (a pretty good name, all things considered), eventually finding out what it likes to eat (olives, which she discovers while visiting a store that sells, among other things, tuna flavored toothpaste and transparent diapers). But Olga fails to discover what the smelly thing actually is, despite a library trip during which she consults Weird Animals, Strange Animals, Bizarro Animals, Strange Life Forms, Cute Animals, and so on. It is during this library visit that Gravel shows her desire to have Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere be a bit more than its title and plot indicate: just as there are multiple references to Jane Goodall in the text, so is there some science in the library trip – Olga learns about the blobfish, naked mole rat, axolotl, tarsier and other strange real-world animals (which, however, Gravel’s cartoons show in not-at-all-real-world ways). True, this is not a major part of the book, but the underlying current of scientific exploration, which includes Olga using the scientific method by taking constant notes on the smelly thing and listing and numbering her observations, makes Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere a bit more than a pure romp.
Back in the “romp” material, though, Gravel offers hilarious illustrations of differently shaped dogs (because Olga decides to take the smelly thing to the dog park), and one of the funniest pictures in the whole book has Meh (the smelly thing’s name, of course) – threatened by big dogs – “puffing up like a giant puffer fish” and making a “FWEEE-EEEEK!” noise that looks as funny as it sounds when you see Meh making it. Eventually, thanks to Meh, Olga makes friends with some neighborhood girls she has always disliked – this is another bit of underlying seriousness in the book – and learns, among other things, that Meh tries to communicate with flies and only sleeps facing the North Pole. With a combination of ideas, attributes and attitudes like the one in Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere, can a sequel about Olga and Meh be far behind? Young readers will certainly hope the answer is not “meh” but “no.”
Life after the Diagnosis: Expert Advice on Living Well with Serious Illness for Patients and Caregivers. By Steven Z. Pantilat, M.D. Da Capo. $16.99.
As awful as it is to be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, it can be almost equally awful to try to negotiate the morass of medical, legal and personal/family issues that follow such a diagnosis – while attempting to make what are literally life-or-death decisions about treatment. Steven Z. Pantilat’s Life after the Diagnosis is difficult, at times unpleasant reading, but it is so clear-headed and understanding (and understandable) that it can be an invaluable guide for individuals facing a horrendous diagnosis, family members trying to help, and caregivers trying to figure out the best way to deal with rapidly approaching end-of-life necessities.
Pantilat’s writing is clear, easy to understand, and filled with the warmth and caring that are so often absent in modern medicine. As usual in books for lay people about serious medical matters, Life after the Diagnosis is packed with examples taken from the experiences of patients Pantilat has treated – but unlike many such books, this one uses the experiences to highlight real-world issues that readers may very well encounter, and helps in the discovery of the right questions to ask and the sorts of answers that one may expect to get. Indeed, Pantilat’s combination of the frank and honest with the compassionate is what doctors treating patients near life’s end should seek as an ideal.
There is detailed advice here on accepting and living with a fatal disease, plus information on how to prepare for the disease’s later stages and how to help loved ones prepare as well. In particular, Pantilat is a strong advocate of palliative care, which he explains with the same clarity that he brings to other topics. “In trying to eradicate an illness, traditional treatments often do more harm than good, especially late in an illness. Palliative care, which is given along with standard medical treatments, provides an extra layer of support that helps patients function better, be more comfortable, and experience less pain and stress. …It reflects the realization that serious illness involves numerous factors, including pain, stress, emotions, spiritual beliefs, culture, finances, nature, and values. Palliative care focuses on the whole person…” Indeed, it is through the lens of whole-person focus that Pantilat discusses pretty much everything in Life after the Diagnosis. His approach shows the difference between treating a disease and treating a person who has a disease – which are two very different things.
Take, for instance, Pantilat’s treatment of hope. He says he tries to find out from his own patients what their hopes are for the rest of their lives – and then find ways to make those hopes come true, within the limited time people have available. For example, he tells of two patients who wanted to live until their children could be married – with neither patient likely to be alive that long. And he shows how the situations were handled: one with an elaborate-as-possible wedding within the intensive care unit of a hospital, the other by moving the wedding much earlier than originally planned. These stories illuminate Pantilat’s trenchant observation, “Often, both doctors and patients misplace their energies. They continue to concentrate on survival and ignore other goals that could still be attained.”
Pantilat is direct even when saying things that patients, families and caregivers will likely not want to hear. The hope about which he writes is directed hope, practical hope, not pie-in-the-sky hope for something that is vanishingly unlikely to occur. “When you’re seriously ill, it’s natural to hope for a cure, but a cure may not be possible. If you focus all your time and energy on being cured, it can keep you from taking care of other important business, making crucial decisions, and accomplishing achievable goals. …The pursuit of a cure can undermine the very reason you want a cure: to have more time with loved ones. In the end, you lose out on both.”
Life after the Diagnosis is a book that no one will want to need to read; if there is any doubt, just consider that one chapter is called “The News Goes from Bad to Worse,” and it is scarcely the only chapter in which the material discussed is difficult to bear. Consider as well a passing comment such as, “Doctors usually have more information than they share.” This seems obvious when you are healthy – but it can become deeply ominous in the context of a serious illness, as patients understandably wonder, “What is my doctor not telling me? Can I even trust what I hear?” And then there is the issue of medical jargon, which doctors routinely use and may be more likely to employ as a kind of self-protective mechanism when talking to patients with serious diseases. Pantilat is typically blunt in noting, for example, that “the word positive usually means ‘good’” but that “in medicine, positive is often bad,” and also that when a doctor talks about progress or says something is progressive, patients must ask whether things are getting better or worse. Language can feel like a mine field, one among many, when you have a serious illness or a loved one does; it is just one topic through which Pantilat leads readers skillfully.
The final part of the book explains palliative care in detail and also discusses hospice care (which is not quite the same thing) as well as “Difficult Treatment Decisions and Discussions” (another chapter title). This section may be especially difficult reading. But it provides some of the most valuable practical advice in the book. Pantilat is amazingly clear-headed about end-of-life care, saying that although families often try to protect loved ones from knowing they are dying, patients themselves “know that they’re getting weaker. Patients hear the hushed tones outside their rooms. Everyone treats them too nicely. Family and friends cry when talking to them, and visitors suddenly arrive from the four corners of the earth. Your loved ones don’t cross borders for pneumonia, but they cross the ocean if you are dying from lung cancer.” The plainspoken, knowledgeable comments and advice here are often hard to take, especially if you come to this book only because you or someone you care for has been diagnosed with a serious and probably terminal illness. But at a time of life – the time of its anticipated ending – when there are precious few practical, real-world guides to what to expect, Life after the Diagnosis can be and will be invaluable. Pantilat’s words may be unwanted in the abstract, but in the concrete, practical reality of extremely serious illness, they are very much needed and will be deeply appreciated.
The Pyes, No. 1: Ginger Pye. By Eleanor Estes. Illustrated by the author. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
The Pyes, No. 2: Pinky Pye. By Eleanor Estes. Illustrations by Edward Ardizzione. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown. By Crystal Allen. Illustrations by Eda Kaban. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $6.99.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs No. 2: The Wall of Fame Game. By Crystal Allen. Illustrations by Eda Kaban. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Not so long ago, books for young readers did not need a lot of plot or action to succeed – they could simply meander pleasantly through family stories, offering low levels of drama and exploration and reveling in characterization rather than events. Hmm. Maybe that was a long time ago. Eleanor Estes (1906-1988) created quite a few books of this type, in particular her stories of the Moffats (1940s) and Pyes (1950s), largely based on her own memories of turn-of-the-20th-century childhood. In truth, the books have not worn particularly well, being too bound up in their time period to translate well to the far more frenetic pace of life in the 21st century. They have an air of faintly faded nostalgia about them and may be better as read-alouds nowadays than as books for preteens to read on their own – their slow pace and gradual unfolding of events are just too different from what young readers are now accustomed to in both literature and life for them to be readily enjoyed. This observation applies to both animal-focused books about the Pyes of Cranbury, Connecticut, the first of which, Ginger Pye (1951), includes Estes’ own pleasant illustrations and was a Newbery Medal winner. Indeed, it was Estes’ only Newbery winner, although three of her other works were Newbery Honor books. Today it is a trifle hard to see what all the fuss was about. The title character in Ginger Pye is the family dog, a puppy that appears and then sort-of-mysteriously disappears. The family is designed to be gently quirky: Mr. Pye is a “bird man” (ornithologist) who is supposed to solve the nation’s bird problems; Mrs. Pye is a homemaker known for being the youngest housewife in town, because she was 17 when she literally bumped into Mr. Pye, who was 35; and the kids, who have little unusual about them and are intended as “everykids,” are 10-year-old Jerry and nine-year-old Rachel. There are also Mrs. Pye’s brother, Bennie, who is only four and became an uncle at age three, and an old cat named Gracie who is able to unlock the front door. The modesty of the story is shown in the way that one of Ginger’s big accomplishments is finding a pencil and bringing it to school; the not-very-hard-to-figure-out mystery of Ginger’s disappearance hints slightly at animal cruelty when it turns out he was tied up in a shed. The book is essentially a slice-of-small-town-life story, written in the time of today’s preteens’ grandparents and set decades earlier – sweet and mostly pleasant in its way, but scarcely likely to engage many modern young readers.
The sequel is Pinky Pye (1958), and this time the title character is a kitten found during the Pye family’s summer vacation on Fire Island. There are a couple of slight twists here, the most interesting being that Pinky can type – a throwback to a really old notion created in 1916 by newspaper columnist Don Marquis, of a cockroach-and-alley-cat pair that contributed humorous social commentary through stories written entirely in lower-case letters, because the authorial cockroach could not hold down the shift key when jumping on the typewriter. The characters were named archy and mehitabel and were illustrated by George Herriman of Krazy Kat fame. And yes, in some quarters they are still remembered: a wonderful editorial in Science magazine, of all places, written in 2007, of all years, was said to be dictated by mehitabel and typed by archy. Whether or not Estes intended homage to Marquis through Pinky’s typing, the fact is that the story of Pinky Pye has the same distinctly old-fashioned flavor as the old pieces by Marquis, and the same sense of rather fusty charm. Apt adjectives for this tale are “gentle,” “sweet,” “rambling,” “charming,” “cute,” “light-hearted,” “adorable” – positive words one and all, but indicating a bit of a surfeit of happiness and a distinct lack of drama that many contemporary preteens will find on the dull side. The new paperback editions of these Estes books are welcome, and both books deserve to be called classics of children’s literature; but much like classics of literature for adults, they may be honored by the title while still being rather off-putting to residents of a later time.
Some similar adjectives apply to Crystal Allen’s books about The Magnificent Mya Tibbs, but these books are designed to have more-contemporary flair. The first, Spirit Week Showdown, was originally published last year and is now available in paperback; the second, The Wall of Fame Game, is new. Intended for ages 8-12, these books will probably be of most interest to the narrower age range of 8-10, just as Estes’ Pye books are likely to be most engaging for children younger than preteens. In Allen’s novels, Mya is a nine-year-old who is stereotypically well-meaning but prone to making mistakes. She is obsessed with cowgirls and inclined to tell tall tales. In the first book, her predilections get her in trouble and result in her being nicknamed “Mya Tibbs Fibs” and ostracized by the whole school. She also ends up being paired for Spirit Week with the school bully, Connie Tate. Initially desperate to get her friends back – at least the girls she thinks are her friends – Mya keeps getting more deeply into minor but, for a fourth-grader, emotionally significant trouble. All this occurs against the background of the upcoming Spirit Week, which means Mya has no choice but to deal with Connie, whom she discovers to be different from what everyone thinks and maybe not so bad at all. Everything ends well, and Allen is careful throughout to put only small bumps in exuberant Mya’s road to understanding, happiness and success.
The second book follows the same pattern, albeit with a few differences. Mya returns, of course, along with her brother, Nugget, and their father and mother. But this time their mom is pregnant, and Mya is eagerly awaiting the birth of her new baby sister, already named Macey. Instead of Spirit Week, this time the challenge is the “Wall of Fame Game,” a rather odd contest in which children’s names are put on a wall if they are able to recite lists of facts. This seems as if it would be off-putting to Mya, and to readers of the books about her, but Allen makes it a big deal and an important part of the plot. Another major element is Mya’s determination to enter her mother in the annual chili cookoff – because one of the competitors, Mrs. Frazier, has commented that Mya’s pregnant mom has to stay off her feet and cannot possibly take part. Mya and her now-friend Connie, another returning character from the first book, work together to get everything to come out just right (this time Mya has a new nemesis, Naomi Jackson). Sure enough, everything does go nicely, if not always in quite the way that Mya expects. That, in fact, is the underlying message of both Mya books: things will be fine and all will be well, but life does not go just the way you want it to. Some young readers, and some parents, may find Mya rather cloying and annoying, with the odd expressions she sometimes uses and her pink cowboy boots; others will consider her quirky in a pleasant way for the 21st century, just as the Pye family was pleasantly offbeat for young readers in the middle of the 20th.
Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science. By Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $10.99.
Essentially yet another anti-slavery screed, though disguised as a book on history and economics, Sugar Changed the World – originally published in 2010 and now available in paperback – touches on the families of the husband-and-wife authors to try to personalize a story dating back to thousands of years before the Greeks. It was in those times, in New Guinea, that sugar was first cultivated – a laborious process that was largely responsible for pretty much every evil in the world thereafter.
Well, the authors do not say exactly that – not quite – but they make and remake their points about sugar and slavery to such an extent that readers will quickly find they are being lectured, indeed hectored to, rather than informed. This is a real shame, because the photos and illustrations enliven the story and do a great deal to show that history is as much about everyday life, about things we now take for granted, as it is about great battles and famous figures. But the book is so busy portraying slave owners as horrible, bloodthirsty murderers – every single one of them, without a single exception through all the ages in which slavery existed – that they lose track of narrative style (the book is sometimes in third person, sometimes in second person) and lapse frequently into hyperbole: “The punishing work [of cane planting] had just one aim: to plant a crop that would end up taking the life of every worker how touched it.” Really? Sugar cane killed 100% of the people who touched it? The business owners of cane plantations had as their aim the death of every single slave who worked their plantations? That is quite a way to run a business – kill all your workers.
The problem with Sugar Changed the World is that it, like many other books about things that changed the world – guns, oil, birth control pills, Henry Ford’s assembly lines, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and many, many more – never stops insisting that its topic is the matter of importance. The only one. The Louisiana Purchase, for example, should be called the Sugar Purchase, Aronson and Budhos argue, because Napoleon only offered the land to Thomas Jefferson (who, by the way, was evil because he was a slaveholder) because sugar-producing Haiti had recently gained independence. The whole notion that Napoleon needed the money and was stretched too thin on numerous fronts in and beyond Europe, with Haiti and the Americas being of relatively little importance, gets not even a mention here – it is, or was, all about sugar. Only sugar.
Incidentally, Haiti, celebrated in this book as a republic founded by former slaves, has been an economic basket case since its independence and remains the poorest nation in its region. The authors go out of their way to celebrate the country: “Haiti was born free; human rights won over property rights.” But they have to acknowledge, in some small way, that the new nation was a failure and remains one, since denying that really would fly in the face of fact. Their answer is to say that “Haiti floundered. In part that was because of internal conflicts in which outsiders had no role.” That is it – the sole reference to 200 years of internal warfare, tribal loyalties, corruption, dictatorship, mismanagement, and suppression of the rights of former slaves and their descendants by other former slaves and their descendants. Admitting all that would fly in the face of the authors’ nobility-vs.-evil narrative, so they allow the one brief reference and then never bring up the subject again.
Actually, the whole Haiti story brushes anything negative about slaves and former slaves under the rug. Writing of the Haitians’ fight against crack British troops, Aronson and Budhos downplay the role of weather and disease in Haitian victories – although they do acknowledge, in another of their quick mentions, “malaria and yellow fever.” Their emphasis, though, is elsewhere, as they say that “the Haitians were disciplined, smart fighters. …Many of the Haitian soldiers were recently arrived Africans, warriors in their home countries.” Even young readers – the book’s target audience – may pause here to wonder how these excellent and disciplined warriors, scourge of well-trained British fighters, ended up as slaves in the first place. Wouldn’t their fighting and tactical abilities have kept them free in Africa? The answer – that a great many African slaves were enslaved by other Africans, from competing tribes, and not by the prototypical ultra-evil white plantation owner – would grate on the authors and undermine their carefully crafted, simplistic narrative, so they deliberately avoid mentioning it.
Certainly all authors of histories choose what to put in and what to leave out. But here, the skewed nature of much of the writing undermines the fascinating elements and the sort of behind-the-scenes flavor, so to speak, of a book about a sweet substance with an anything-but-sweet background. Aronson and Budhos go so far as to assert, “Only sugar – the sweetness we all crave – could drive people to be so cruel…” So extreme is this viewpoint that it makes it seem there have never been wars and other forms of violence over land, over gold and other raw materials, over religious beliefs, but only over sugar. Sugar Changed the World is far too limited and one-sided in its presentation to be as useful as it could have been in exploring an important element of history that is rarely covered in students’ history classes. There is a great deal in the book that is genuinely interesting, and students who focus on the illustrative material will by and large have a better experience than those who follow the skewed presentation of events and facts, and perhaps swallow the biased arguments. A spoonful of sugar will do little to help these limited viewpoints go down.
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Roberto Saccà, tenor; Stephen Gadd, baritone; Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Alma Mahler: Lieder und Gesänge; Patrizia Montanaro: Canto di Penelope. Catharina Kroeger, soprano; Monica Lonero, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99.
Mahler’s late works probe the post-Romantic era in ways that make it clear why Schoenberg and others of the Second Viennese School so admired them, yet they straddle the world of the 19th and 20th centuries in every way that matters – remarkably so, considering the fact that Mahler died before reaching his 51st birthday. Even when they are very much works of their time, as Das Lied von der Erde is of a time when artists of all types were fascinated by Orientalism, they are uniquely Mahlerian in sensibility and in the way they look inward while describing, in elegant musical as well as verbal terms, a variety of external scenes. Mahler designed Das Lied von der Erde for tenor and contralto or baritone, but the baritone option is rarely used – although Leonard Bernstein famously did so at a time when Mahler’s music was less firmly in the standard repertoire than it is today. Jonathan Nott, an exceptionally attentive Mahler conductor, chooses tenor and baritone for his new Das Lied von der Erde on Tudor, and uses the darker color that the combination imparts to this already-dark work to excellent effect. The voices of Roberto Saccà and Stephen Gadd complement each other very well, and their elocution styles are sufficiently different to maintain a distinction of sound even when Saccà sings in his low range and Gadd in his high one. Gadd’s is, on the whole, a stronger voice for this work, not only because of its evenness of tone throughout its range but also because Gadd uses it with such subtlety, to the point that parts of Der Abschied are essentially whispered – but without breathiness. Saccà is strongest in Die Trunkene im Frühling, conveying a sweeping sense of despairing assertiveness that makes this song, which in less-sensitive hands can sound like a ditty, into something altogether more meaningful, and a fitting setting to precede Der Abschied. Unfortunately, Saccà is overmatched by the opening Der Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, having difficulty projecting above the orchestra and struggling to give different shades of meaning to the repeated line, “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.” Part of the issue here is that Nott really punches this song to the utmost in pacing and sheer volume: the excellent Bamberger Symphoniker simply overmatches the singer. It is a thrillingly intense reading of the song, but a flawed one because it leads Saccà somewhat beyond his zone of excellence. The remainder of the performance, however, is uniformly well-balanced, sensitively and beautifully played as well as elegantly emoted. As a whole, this is a deeply emotional reading that connects with listeners on a visceral rather than intellectual level – with all the intensity that Mahler surely intended.
Mahler moved on from Das Lied von der Erde, which he described as a symphony but hesitated to designate as his Ninth, to his actual Symphony No. 9, the last he was to complete. It is fashionable to see this whole symphony as an extended Abschied of its own, but it comes across more effectively when handled as a door to a new kind of music, the hints of which become even more apparent in the unfinished Tenth. Mahler in his Ninth is always on the verge of discarding tonality – except when he dips back into it for the work’s most emotive moments. He uses themes that are barely themes at all – except when he develops ones with amazing cleverness, as by transforming the grotesqueries of the third movement into the gorgeousness of the finale by simply (but not really simply) slowing down a theme to a substantial degree. He revisits his much-loved Alpine meadows and abandons them – but not before spinning a lovely second movement whose tempo is designated as being not merely that of a Ländler but that of a gemächlichen (leisurely) one. Mahler’s Ninth is a pivotal work, and even though Mahler did not long enough to show in detail what he was pivoting toward, Schoenberg and others certainly figured it out and developed their own direction partly as a result. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks plays the Ninth beautifully for Mariss Jansons on a new BR Klassik release, but Jansons himself is not fully equal to the earlier portion of the music. The first movement, in particular, seems formless if not gormless, the thematic drifting clear but the structure within which Mahler created the drift much less so. The movement meanders, but in fact it is a goal-oriented movement, albeit one whose goal is not fully clear until the finale. The remainder of this performance is, happily, better. The second movement is nicely paced and well-balanced. The third is somewhat too well-mannered: Mahler clearly asked that it be played Sehr trotzig, “very defiantly,” and indeed it is most effective when delivered on the verge of hysteria – but Jansons is altogether too refined for that, here holding matters in check in a way that he does not in the first movement. The result is that there is less contrast than would be ideal between the grotesqueries here and the beauties of the finale – although the finale as Jansons handles it is so beautiful that it makes up for pretty much every way in which the other movements fall short. Far from being music of despair or resignation, as it often seems to be, this is for Jansons music of acceptance, of acknowledgment of the inevitable and tremendous composure through understanding its approach. The very end of the movement and the symphony is ineffable here in a way that may well have listeners holding their breath for what comes next. There is no “next” here, of course, and only a partial “next” in the Tenth, but Jansons so whets the appetite for what might have been that the conclusion of this Mahler Ninth leaves behind a feeling of nothing less than awe.
Mahler’s sometime muse and sometime despair, his wife, Alma, has a longstanding reputation as a femme fatale for her multiple affairs and her three marriages to artists of distinction (Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel). It is easy to forget, though, that she was herself a composer – whose work Mahler forbade her to continue as a condition of their marriage. Later realizing that he had erred, Mahler withdrew the prohibition and encouraged Alma, and she did produce a small volume of music of high but not outstanding quality – likely fewer works and lower-quality ones than she would have written if her muse had not been prematurely stifled before being set free again. The songs offered by Catharina Kroeger and Monica Lonero on a new Brilliant Classics CD are all 14 of those published during Alma’s lifetime (1879-1964). Mostly using the words of contemporary poets – including, in one case, Franz Werfel – the songs do not look beyond the Romantic era in their themes or their structure. Their lengths vary significantly, from one minute to five, but their underlying emotional themes are largely the same and fairly conventional – although the appearance in several of them of erotic tension and a sense of solitude may hint at Alma’s personal feelings. Only the first group of five songs was published during Gustav’s lifetime, in 1910; later came a group of four in 1915 and then a group of five in 1924. But not even the intervening war made for significant changes in Alma’s means of expression: there is considerable feeling in the songs, well communicated by the performers here, but there is simply not enough that is individual in the settings to show Alma as a composer of significance. The songs are interestingly paired with a very different sort of vocal work, a kind of quasi-operatic scena that imagines an extended monologue and tirade by Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, after the return home of her husband. Canto di Penelope is by Patrizia Montanaro (born 1956), and it uses the expected techniques of modern vocal composition, including atonality, declamation, Sprechstimme, and outright acting, all for the purpose of having Penelope complain to Odysseus about her lot during his decades-long absence and about the emotional and sexual neglect she endured through all the years in which he wandered about being heroic. Something of a feminist work, Canto di Penelope is not musically exceptional, and there is little surprising for the modern era in the attitudes it expresses. Its musical elements are subsidiary to its storytelling and, while they fit the words well enough, they are not particularly notable in themselves. The pairing of Montanaro’s theatrical scene with Alma Mahler’s often-dramatic miniatures encapsulating emotions is actually more interesting than is the music of either composer heard here.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Octet. Liza Ferschtman, violin; Het Gelders Orkest conducted by Kees Bakels; Itamar Zorman, Elina Vähälä and Corina Belcea, violins; Krzysztof Chorzelski and Marc Desmons, violas; Sebastian Klinger and Antoine Lederlin, cellos. Challenge Classics. $18.99 (SACD).
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 20, D. 959; Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; David Del Tredici: Ode to Music. Beth Levin, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Schubert: Winterreise—visualized by William Kentridge. Matthias Goerne, baritone; Markus Hinterhäuser, piano. C Major DVD. $34.99.
Bach: Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043; Vivaldi: Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 8; Franck: Violin Sonata in A. David and Igor Oistrakh, violins; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Franz Konwitschny; Anton Ginsburg, piano. Berlin Classics. $18.99.
Who would have thought that the thrice-familiar Mendelssohn Violin Concerto would turn out to be chamber music? That is essentially what it sounds like on a new Challenge Classics recording featuring Liza Ferschtman and Het Gelders Orkest conducted by Kees Bakels. On the face of it, there is scarcely a pressing need for yet another disc of this gorgeous but overplayed and over-recorded concerto: its beauties, lyricism, structural inventiveness, warmth and cleverness have been explored many, many times before. But Ferschtman and Bakels actually manage to shine some new light on the work, helped by very fine SACD sound that integrates the solo violin with the orchestra to a greater-than-usual extent, while still allowing it to stand out more than satisfactorily. There is an overall collaborative feel to this performance that is reminiscent of the conversation-among-instruments nature of chamber works, and as a result Ferschtman is able to take some chances that might otherwise not work – for instance, a headlong rush to the end of the first movement that then highlights the bassoon transition to the second in an unusually clear way. The overall feeling of this reading is one of surpassing lyricism and beautifully flowing lines: the performance has a seamless quality that is both surprising and engaging. And as a result, the concerto reading fits very well with a rendition of the Octet that, unlike the concerto performance, was recorded live. Here Ferschtman is joined by members of the Belcea Quartet and other like-minded players, and the ensemble work is an absolute delight, especially in the marvelously lightfooted Scherzo, which might well derail at this tempo if performed by lesser musicians. The hardest movement of the Octet to bring off is the lengthy opening one, so out of proportion to the other three that it can drag the whole work down – or at least overbalance it and make the later movements seem to come from another, lighter piece. Not so here. The performers’ structural adeptness holds the movement together, and their excellent individuation of parts – Mendelssohn treated all eight instruments separately rather than handling them as four pairs, as would be more usual in an octet – leads to a movement that is expressive in multiple ways but that holds together well when the instruments play in unison. Throughout the Octet and, indeed, throughout this disc, there is a sense of rediscovering well-known music, of finding little niceties of balance and tempo that bring out elements of the scores in ways just a touch different from the usual. The result is an exhilarating recording that does not exactly break new interpretative ground but that hones the performances of both these gorgeous pieces into subtly shining smoothness.
The rethinking on the Mendelssohn disc is done by the performers, while it is the composers who do it on a new Navona CD featuring pianist Beth Levin. This is most noticeable in Ode to Music by David Del Tredici (born 1937), which takes Schubert’s three-minute song An die Musik and crafts an 11-and-a-half-minute fantasy around it. This sort of thing is very much of the Romantic era, but Del Tredici’s piece would never be confused with a similar expansion by Liszt, Thalberg or Kalkbrenner: it does remain largely tonal, but its treatment of the material is quite different from what would have been accorded the Schubert-song foundation in the composer’s own time. Ode to Music, written as recently as 2015, uses the Schubert work as a jumping-off point for Del Tredici’s creation of his own ode. Its relationship to Schubert is not always apparent, but it expands the underlying material in logical and ultimately satisfying ways. In this, Del Tredici somewhat follows in the footsteps of Schubert himself, who in his Sonata No. 20, the middle of his three huge and prepossessing final piano sonatas, expands not only upon some of his own earlier works but also upon the sonata model of Beethoven. It is interesting to compare Levin’s handling of this grand and very large sonata with her approach to Del Tredici. She brings expansive flow to the contemporary work, letting it grow well beyond the bounds of the song at its heart; but in the Schubert, she keeps matters tightly controlled, refusing to let the music veer off-track despite a certain lack of formal cohesion that long led to the neglect of this sonata and the two other final ones by Schubert. The lyrical concluding rondo – the longest of the four movements in Levin’s performance, its main theme taken from the much earlier Sonata No. 5 and used in vastly more expansive form here – balances the opening movement quite clearly in Levin’s reading, while the poignancy of the Andantino and playfulness of the Scherzo provide respite and at the same time add to the sonata’s overall cyclicality. The Schubert and Schubert-based pieces are interestingly joined on this recording by Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, which is quite obviously a Romantic rethinking of Handelian material – but a piece in which Brahms took considerable pains to restrain the virtuosity that was expected in variations in the 1850s and with which he himself, as a fine pianist, was certainly familiar and comfortable. Brahms sought something different from virtuosic display here, taking a theme originally written for harpsichord and bringing it into an age in which full, even grand piano sounds were the norm – then insisting that the material be handled with a certain degree of restraint and even delicacy. Levin understands this, and her nicely balanced, very musicianly handling of the Brahms sits particularly well between the Schubert sonata and Del Tredici’s Schubert-based fantasy. This is an unusual combination of material to find on a CD, but Levin’s sensitivity to the differences among the works, as well as their similarities, makes a strong case for all the pieces, both individually and in this particular combination.
Not all rethinkings are quite this felicitous, however. Sometimes a reinterpretation can be a touch too clever for its own good. That is the case with William Kentridge’s illustrated version of yet another Schubert work, Winterreise. As seen on a new C Major DVD recorded live at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in France in July 2014, Kentridge’s contribution to these 24 songs is a set of 24 animated films that do not illustrate the music but use it as a jumping-off point for a visual journey of Kentridge’s own. There are parallels here with Del Tredici’s personalized journey through and beyond An die Musik, to be sure, but Kentridge’s introduction of largely unrelated visual elements to a work that invites emotional involvement and internal visualization does Schubert no good. Schubert’s music itself represents an addition, of course – to Wilhelm Müller’s poems. But the interweaving of words and music is so expertly done that in a truly fine performance, anything further that is added to the music-and-words combination seems a detraction, or at least a distraction. And the reading by Matthias Goerne and Markus Hinterhäuser is a very fine one indeed. Goerne plumbs the emotional depths of these songs from start to finish, his legato and dramatic strength equally impressive, and Hinterhäuser is a first-rate partner, the piano part interweaving with the poetry, accentuating here, supplementing there, contrasting a bit in another place. Adding such visual elements as an African ibis to Die Krähe and creating references to Kentridge’s homeland of South Africa and its troubles may be intended to show the universality of Schubert’s emotional expressiveness; but really, the music itself does that quite well enough on its own. Visuals such as a scene in which a man at a desk struggles to control the mundane multiplicity of elements of his life (shown during Im Dorfe, “In the Village”), and one in which Goerne’s shadow is seen taking a shower (during Wassserflut, “Torrent”), actually make Winterreise more earthbound and more stuck in modern times than the original song cycle is in Schubert’s era. This is not to say that Kentridge’s images are ineffective: some, such as melting letters of the alphabet (in a scene in which Kentridge himself walks across pages of a dictionary) and snow made of black-paper confetti (accompanying Erstarrung, “Frozen”), are undeniably interesting and can even turn into distractions from the music. But that is exactly the problem: the visuals are either irrelevant to Winterreise or a distraction from it. Certainly Kentridge has thought through his visualizations carefully, as is made clear on the DVD in a bonus documentary featuring him as well as Goerne and Hinterhäuser. But this production is nevertheless a (+++) offering of a Winterreise performance that, without the intruding visual elements, would have deserved a (++++) rating.
The rethinking is of a different sort in a (+++) Berlin Classics reissue of 1950s recordings of Bach, Vivaldi and Franck with David Oistrakh. Performed in 1957 and 1958, the readings here are old-fashioned ones, dating to well before the era of historic performance practices, and they are of interest mainly as historical documents of their own – so listeners need to rethink contemporary expectations as to performance style, orchestral size, etc. Those who do so will hear considerable rapport in the way David and his son Igor play the Bach together, although the lower strings of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Franz Konwitschny sound somewhat undifferentiated and even muddy – likely a function of the recording rather than the orchestra’s playing. This is strong, straightforward Bach of 50-plus years ago, testament to an interesting father-and-son collaboration (although the personalities of David and Igor were generally acknowledged to be very different, the elder Oistrakh being far more easygoing than the younger). The Vivaldi, from L’Estro Armonico, is actually more interestingly interpreted than the comparatively bland Bach: the sturdiness of the outer movements stands in strong contrast to the desolate feeling of the central Larghetto e spiritoso (this concerto is RV522 – wrongly identified as “RV822” on this recording). The Bach and Vivaldi works together last less than half an hour, so there is a so-called “bonus” that is about as long as both of them together. This is Franck’s oft-played Violin Sonata in A, with David Oistrakh and pianist Anton Ginsburg. The performance is all right but not particularly compelling, filled with portamento, weighty tone and an overall seriousness that collectively tend to make the music drag – it sounds slower than it actually is, and comes across as a rather inflexible interpretation of music that is best when it flows most easily. Although this disc will be a treat for fans of the Oistrakh father and son, it is a limited-interest item, because enjoying it requires rethinking the niceties of performance as listeners have come to know them in the half-century since these recordings were made.