July 27, 2017


Billy Bloo Is Stuck in Goo. By Jennifer Hamburg. Illustrations by Ross Burach. Scholastic. $16.99.

Bizzy Mizz Lizzie. By David Shannon. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $17.99.

     Billy Bloo is stuck in goo. If you were he, what would you do? A helpful book you might construe. No worries – it is here for you. And YES, the book is written in just this meter and rhyme scheme, and YES, it is so catchy and utterly ridiculous that it is well-nigh impossible to get out of your head once you start reading it. And about the only thing that would make Jennifer Hamburg’s writing even more addictive would be digital illustrations so peculiar, distorted and utterly absurd that it would be difficult not to laugh out loud at them. And YES, that is exactly what Ross Burach provides. Wow, what a book! We first meet charmingly unhappy Billy, stuck in a huge mound of something that looks like a cross between melting green ice cream and a not-yet-set lime gelatin dessert. Billy sticks up out of the green gooiness from the waist up. But it’s all right – there are LOTS of folks who will help him get unstuck! First comes a cowgirl whose horse consists about 85% of head and teeth and seems to be moving very quickly. One attempted lasso rescue later and both cowgirl and horse have joined Billy in the green goo. Well, how about “an acrobatic troupe” that promises to “pull you from this gooey goop”? The mustachioed unicycle rider at the bottom carries a gigantic muscled performer (with stick legs) on his head, and the muscle man balances two woman acrobats on his index fingers. Surely they can help Billy and the cowgirl! Umm…nope. One mishap later: “Four acrobats, the cowgirl too,/ And sadly, still, poor Billy Bloo./ The lot of them are stuck in goo.” And on and on the helpful, messy impossibilities go. A hook-handed pirate somehow sails up and “plops in on his head,” soon losing his pants. A friendly wizard is even worse: he casts a spell that, instead of freeing everyone, doubles the amount of goo – in which he gets stuck himself. An octopus, a queen attended by 17 nobles – no one, nothing, can free Billy and all his would-be helpers from the goo. Until…well, when a tiny mouse walks by and inadvertently frightens the octopus, there is a truly amazing illustration in which all the interconnected characters leap or are yanked hilariously out of the gooey mess at the same time. And all would end well, except that Billy realizes he left his shoe behind, so everybody else helpfully leaps back toward the goo and – oh NO!!!! Then Billy Bloo’s not in the goo. But in the goo remains his shoe. And all the other creatures, too. There is no more that we can do! Just close the book and weep “boo-hoo.”

     The non-rhyming narrative is less addictive in David Shannon’s Bizzy Mizz Lizzie, but this clever “stop and smell the flowers” book can “bee” a fine counter to the tendency of many kids and parents to stay active and engaged in everything all the time. The title character is indeed a bee – all the characters are – and Lizzie is the bizziest bee of all: in addition to getting straight B’s in school (B’s are better than A’s if you are a bee), she “took dance lessons, acting lessons, art lessons, and music lessons.” Shannon shows her diligently doing all those things, notably playing the piano (bee-ano?) as a bug-eyed, bee-eyed bust of Bee-thoven looks on. Lizzie also plays baseball and is “a member of the Junior Honey Scouts,” for which she sells such cookies as “Honey Pies,” “ZumZums” and “Nectaroos.” Lizzie has friends who are not nearly as intensely active as she is; and one, Lazy Mizz Daizy, constantly tries unsuccessfully to get Lizzie to lie down and relax in a big flower. Lizzie will have none of it, because she is sure that if she stays super-busy all the time, she will eventually get to meet the Queen Bee. And then she gets her chance: there will be a spelling contest (that is, a spelling bee, of course), whose winner will get to meet the Queen. So Lizzie doubles down on the intensity of her studying, working so hard at learning difficult-to-spell words that she barely gets any sleep. But when the contest takes place – with the Queen in attendance – things do not go as Lizzie wishes, even though she does know all the words. Exhausted and demoralized, Lizzie finally agrees to take it easy for a while with Daizy, who has told her about “a very nice old lady who knows lots of stories” and comes to the big flower from time to time. And the lady turns out to be none other than the Queen herself – who understands the importance of slowing down from time to time. So by the book’s end, Lizzie and Daizy and the Queen are all happily smelling the flowers, “which, when you think about it, is exactly what bees are supposed to do.” And it is also what super-scheduled, hyper-activity-focused kids could benefit from doing, if they and their parents manage to sit still long enough to read Bizzy Mizz Lizzie and pay attention to its pleasantly presented message.


Pearls Hogs the Road: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

I’m Gluten Furious! A “Get Fuzzy” Treasury. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

     Although comic strips are, by their nature, a visual medium, they are also a verbal one – and the verbal elements have become increasingly important as newspapers, the traditional milieu of comic strips, have declined in circulation and importance and have downsized strips accordingly. With so little space now allocated to comics as a whole, much less to any single strip, the ability to use the art itself as a major communicative element has declined dramatically. The days of a strip in which art and words combined to produce something far greater than the sum of its parts, as in Walt Kelly’s Pogo, are gone forever – in newspapers, anyway. So this is the age of the verbal strip, whether the words are simple and predictable to match the art (as in Garfield) or are the strip’s only real point, with the art being almost unnecessary (as in Dilbert). A few cartoonists have forged a way through this jungle of communications limitations by building their strips around wordplay, notably puns; and as Oscar Levant once trenchantly observed, A pun is the lowest form of humor – when you don’t think of it first.” Stephan Pastis has made puns one of the backbones of Pearls Before Swine, using them and other forms of wordplay continually and often torturing the language and the humor to such a degree that the strip’s denizens end the “pun” sequences by attacking Pastis himself – or rather Pastis-as-cartoon-character, himself a member of this ensemble. The oversize “Treasury” volume called Pearls Hogs the Road, which includes all the cartoons originally published in I’m Only in This for Me and Stephan’s Web, is packed with puns and other memorable (or perhaps not so memorable) verbal assaults and insults. A typical example has Goat, the strip’s intellectual, telling naïve and sweet Pig that he, Goat, wrote the City Council twice about trash in an empty lot, including a ladder lying there, then asking Pig to bring him “the latter ladder litter letter.” That is a four-panel weekday strip. Longer Sunday strips have room for more-elaborate setups. One includes the don of a local crime family, who owns a custom-built flashlight shaped like actress Elizabeth Hurley that he lends to former Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Ron Cey, giving Pig the chance to ask, “Oh, Cey, can you see by the don’s Hurley light?” You either get these or you don’t; you like their tortuous and tortured setups and payoffs or you don’t. If you don’t, there is plenty of other Pearls madness to enjoy here – or at least tolerate. There is a shark that encourages climate change because a warming world will cause oceans to rise and give him more prey. There are chickens that attack the Easter bunny for distributing eggs and becoming “world famous for handing out someone else’s stolen kids.” There is a Wheel of Fortune sequence in which two of the contestants are Andy Capp and a Christianity-promoting B.C. character. And there is a genuine big deal in several strips from 2014, which were drawn collaboratively by Pastis and Bill Watterson, the first comics from Watterson since his retirement from Calvin and Hobbes in 1985. (But the funniest Watterson-related strip is one by Pastis in which his cartoon alter ego claims to be Watterson in order to pick up a woman – the final panel shows the two in bed, an unthinkable comic-strip scene not so long ago, with the woman smiling happily in her sleep and Pastis thinking, “That was wrong.”) Pastis does more than use words as the driving force of Pearls Before Swine: he uses them in profusion in this “Treasury” volume itself to connect the strips with real life, explain which ones worked and which ones did not, provide insights into his creativity, and sometimes just make self-deprecating remarks: “I showed a butt crack on the comics page. That’s the kind of thing that makes me a pioneer of the medium.” Even fans of this strip who already have the two smaller-size collections included in this “Treasury” may want this book for Pastis’ many comments – and for covers (front, back, inside front and inside back) that are hilarious sendups of the “biker mystique.”

     The cover of the latest Get Fuzzy “Treasury” collection is a good one, too, featuring Bucky Katt glaring from inside a dresser drawer as inept Satchel Pooch – dressed in colors that appear to celebrate both the U.S.A. and the LGBTQ movement – spills food all over himself. But it is harder to argue for acquiring this book if you already have the two smaller collections whose strips it contains, You Can’t Fight Crazy and Cleanup on Aisle Stupid! The strips themselves are absolutely packed with bizarre and often delightful wordplay – indeed, Get Fuzzy is even more word-focused than Pearls Before Swine – but Conley, unlike Pastis, provides no remarks or commentary of any kind with the comics. So this is simply a collection of two earlier collections – great to have if you do not own the earlier books, but not especially necessary if you do have them. Of course, if you have read and re-read the smaller collections so often that they are falling apart, this “Treasury” will be a must-have. And it is indeed tempting to read and re-read Get Fuzzy, because a lot of the verbal byplay requires some thinking to get the point, or all the points. In one strip, self-proclaimed genius Bucky is studying the lives of “other” geniuses to find out how they handled “creative blocks,” which Satchel thinks are Legos, a word that Bucky thinks refers to a Greek philosopher. Elsewhere, Satchel tells Bucky, “I suspect you’re wrong, but I’m unable to wordify my why.” And Bucky writes a book containing a character called “the Catcher of the Dead” because “he is a collector of soles,” which leads Satchel to ask what he does with the rest of the shoe, which leads Bucky to comment on the character’s dominance over life, so Satchel says the word is “souls,” so Bucky explains “not just soles: tunas, flounders, crappies – any dead fish, really.” Also, Bucky proclaims himself king of a new club and tells Satchel, “Neil before me,” so Satchel does kneel (under protest), until Bucky notices that another cat – named Neil – is actually behind him. Elsewhere, Rob Wilco, the resident human of the strip and still far and away its weakest and least interesting character, tells Satchel he is listening to “a seminal jazz piece,” which is “some of the earliest truly American music,” and Satchel comments that they “beat Colombo [to America] by a million years or something” to “make music without using rock” and produce “Seminole jazz, rubber for chew toys, popcorn, Apache cell-phone coverage.” And Bucky then chimes in to remind Satchel and Rob about “kayak.com.” There is so much verbal byplay in Get Fuzzy, and indeed so much verbal play, that this is almost one of the comic strips that can be enjoyed without any pictures at all. But the character drawings, except those of the expendable Rob, do add to the humor of the wordplay: Bucky and Satchel have uniquely expressive facial expressions and body language. For example, Satchel’s trademark wide-eyed, vacantly bewildered look as he dons a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat to search for the missing toy that he himself hid and now cannot locate – and that turns out to be stuck in his own skin folds – is a perfect complement to Bucky’s description of Satchel as being “not Miss Marple” but “Miss Lost-Her-Marples.” That’s “complement,” not “compliment.” Or maybe, more likely, it’s both.


Noumenon. By Marina J. Lostetter. Harper Voyager. $15.99.

     There is something inherently off-putting about a book whose title alone requires some understanding of Platonic and Kantian philosophy. But it is worth struggling (if struggle be needed) beyond the title page of Marina J. Lostetter’s Noumenon to get to the meat of the adventure, because it is an adventure, and turns out to be both one of external events (phenomena) and one that occurs internally and involves matters that are unmeasurable and thus in a sense never fully knowable (noumena). The possibility than noumena may actually be no more than delusions figures into this book, too, and readers who get through the entire work will likely decide by its conclusion that the title is quite apt.

     The basic, external plot of Noumenon is straightforwardly science-fictional. In the near future on Earth (2088), a scientist finds a distant star that seems to be surrounded by something anomalous, and convinces the Planet United Consortium that LQ Pyxidis is variable in a way that may reveal important truths about solar-system formation or may at last settle the question of intelligent alien life once and for all. Humans are by now capable of interstellar travel, and the decision is made to journey, as one of 12 missions, to LQ Pyxidis – a trip that, even with faster-than-light travel, will still take multiple generations. Hence the creation of Convoy Seven, in which the central characters for narrative purposes are Reginald Straifer, discoverer of the anomalous star system; principal engineer Nakamura Akane; resource specialist Diego Santibar; and Jamal Kaeden, creator of an artificial intelligence to help maintain the fleet. That is, these are the initial central characters, because Straifer, Nakamura, Santibar and Kaeden are clones – who will produce other clones that will continue the journey through the very extended time span it will require. The clones do jobs based on talents found through DNA analysis, but Lostetter tackles the traditional nature-vs.-nurture argument in SF form here by having the abilities and bonds of the characters change from generation to generation – even when the generations are clones of clones rather than messily mixed children conceived naturally.

     Neither the clones nor DNA itself can be regarded as perfect, and the distance in both time and light years from Earth becomes in Noumenon an opportunity for exploration of the flaws that on the one hand make us human but that, if repeated, risk jeopardizing the mission of Convoy Seven and hold worrisome risks for Earth itself. The best SF tends to focus on characters rather than technology for its own sake, and that is what Lostetter does: the AI assistant here, although in some ways reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s notorious Hal, is used essentially as a supportive narrative device to allow Lostetter to pay greater attention to character interaction and to pose some intriguing questions about everything from human personalities to the limitations of predictive calculations. The notion of dual clones existing at the same time so the first can teach the second is but one intriguing element here, leading to issues of what teaching really means and how experiential learning differs from textbook instruction. Lostetter also makes good use of the Einsteinian SF trope (and an apparent fact of the universe) in which time passes more quickly on Earth than on an interstellar ship traveling at (or in this case faster than) the speed of light. In the long run – and it is a very long run indeed, feeling more extended than the book’s 400-some pages – the destination, LQ Pyxidis, matters less than the journey, for it is the journey itself that is one of small discoveries that eventually become greatly important. The discoveries are by and large not traditionally measurable and hence are noumena rather than phenomena. But Lostetter’s point, and it is one that is very well taken, is that the things we cannot directly observe, weigh and measure may be, indeed are, the things that ultimately matter as we develop technology that takes us farther and farther outward to observe phenomena. Thus, travel inward is as crucial to humanity’s future as outbound travel – scarcely a new conclusion in SF. But the way Lostetter comes around to it is very thoughtful and filled with enough drama (and philosophy) to make Noumenon an unusually interesting metaphysical treatise and analysis in the guise of an adventure novel – without ever losing sight of the grand adventure through which the philosophical concepts are explored.


Fly Guy’s Big Family. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

What if You Had Animal Eyes!? By Sandra Markle. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

     Some books are thin even by the standard of children’s books. But that does not have to stop them from being fun, informative or both. Tedd Arnold’s long-running series about Fly Guy and his owner, whose name Fly Guy can say (“Buzz!”), is always short but always packs a lot of amusement into each book’s pages. Fly Guy’s Big Family fits the mold (and the moldiness) quite well. Finding Fly Guy drawing pictures of his “muzzer” and “fazzer,” Buzz spontaneously decides to give a party for all of Fly Guy’s family, putting up little signs as invitations all over the neighborhood: in trash cans, by smelly thrown-out food, everywhere flies would be likely to see the signs. Sure enough, a fly soon shows up and introduces himself as Fly Guy’s “cuzz,” but is worried about “swatterzz” until Buzz reassures him that “it is safe here!” That is all it takes: suddenly a huge swarm of flies shows up and rushes into the house, to the delight of Buzz (who, yes, is a little strange in his enjoyment of flies; but that, after all, is the whole point of this series). A very funny series of drawings shows Fly Guy happily hugging “cuzz” after “cuzz” and a “bruzzer” and “sizzter” and, eventually, “muzzer” and “fazzer.” And then it is dinnertime. Buzz’s parents, who rarely appear in these books but must surely qualify as some of the most tolerant adults in children’s literature, sit by looking only slightly bewildered as flies dash all around them and their dinner. Then they and Buzz are delighted when they see that a garbage truck has pulled up outside and, well, “dumped garbage in the yard and drove away.” Fly Guy and his family chow down on the huge mess, which does not bother Buzz’s parents at all (very tolerant, they are), and then all the flies take off for their homes and Buzz happily packs all the remaining garbage in big bags so it can, presumably, be picked up when the trash collectors eventually return. Even sillier than the usual Fly Guy book, Fly Guy’s Big Family is all the more fun for the improbability of what happens and the amusing way Arnold plays with children’s-book conventions – for instance, by having Fly Guy’s parents show a photo of Fly Guy as a baby fly, complete with diaper and pacifier.

     Silliness blends with seriousness in the short but well-researched animal-characteristics books by Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam, the latest of which is What if You Had Animal Eyes!? The idea in all these books is to imagine what a child could do with body parts like those of various animals. “If you had chameleon eyes, you could look around the toy store fast to find exactly what you want,” for example. Why? Because although these eyes are “open just enough to peek through,” they move separately, so “the chameleon can look for prey, such as crickets, in two directions at once!” McWilliam’s pictures are a highlight of all these books: his rendition of a girl with chameleon eyes that face in two different directions is just one fine example. Another girl is shown with “golden eagle eyes,” easily watching a football game from a stadium seat so high that everyone nearby needs binoculars to see what is going on. Why? Because the golden eagle “can see up to eight times better than most people.” There is also a great picture of a boy reporter with dragonfly eyes – with those, Markle writes, “you would be a star reporter because you’d never miss any of the action.” Dragonfly eyes actually have 310,000 lenses to pick up visual information from everywhere nearby, while human eyes have only one lens – and a dragonfly also has “three small, extra eyes that help guide its flight path by sensing bright light and shadows.” Real-world photos of the creatures discussed are juxtaposed with the illustrations of people sharing the animals’ (or insects’) characteristics, so there is a visual scientific component to this book as well as an explanatory one. The facts themselves can be quite intriguing: “Each of a tarsier’s giant eyes weighs more than its brain.” But it is the way the facts are presented that will keep kids interested in What if You Had Animal Eyes!? The least intriguing element of this book, as with others in the series, comes at the end, with a discussion of human eyes and how to take care of them – but in the case of this particular book, the diagram showing how human eyes work is actually quite interesting, if not at the level of the information on other creatures’ visual capabilities. Still, for a short book, What if You Had Animal Eyes!? includes a number of thought-provoking questions and topics and presents its information in breezy, pleasantly accessible form.


Ives: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano; Bolcom: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano; Corigliano: Sonata for Violin and Piano. Ching-Yi Lin, violin; Zachary Lopes, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Lutoslawski: Recitativo e Arioso for Violin and Piano; Subito for Violin and Piano; Partita for Violin and Piano; Franco Donatoni: Argot—Due Pezzi per Violino; Boulez: Anthèmes I pour Violon Seul. Véronique Mathieu, violin; Jasmin Arakawa, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello; Honegger: Sonatina for Violin and Cello; Erwin Schulhoff: Duo for Violin and Cello. Elaris Duo (Larisa Elisha, violin; Steven Elisha, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Boyd Meets Girl: Music for Guitar and Cello by Jaime Zenamon, Fauré, Bach, Ross Edwards, Radamés Gnattali, Ástor Piazzolla, de Falla, Arvo Pärt, and Michael Jackson. Rupert Boyd, guitar; Laura Metcalf, cello. Sono Luminus. $15.99.

     It has become increasingly common for CDs to mix music in ways that concerts and recitals have done for a long time, combining more-familiar works with less-known ones so as to draw listeners into new experiences by enticing them by using material with which they are already comfortable. A new MSR Classics CD featuring Ching-Yi Lin and Zachary Lopes does not include any piece that is exceptionally well-known, but nevertheless fits this pattern fairly well through the performers’ choice of Ives’ Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano to lead off the recording – rather than, for instance, the more gnarly No. 1. The second of Ives’ four sonatas for this instrumental combination dates to the years 1903-10 (although the CD says “c. 1914,” actually the year of the third sonata’s completion). The second sonata is an accessible work, certainly by Ives’ standards, with an opening movement that is easy to follow despite its rhythmic complexity, a second movement packed with musical quotations (of which Ives was so fond) and with some strongly accented ragtime elements, and a conclusion contrasting a kind of quiet strength from the first movement with some of the exuberance of the second. The movements’ titles – “Autumn,” “In the Barn” and “The Revival” – hint broadly at their emotional content, and Lin and Lopes play them with sensitivity. William Bolcom’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1979) also sports titles for two of its four movements: “Summer Dreams” for the first and “In Memory of Joe Venuti” for the conclusion. The second movement’s designation, “Brutal, fast,” also makes its intended effect clear. The second movement actually sounds a bit like something Ives might have written, but the overall effect of this sonata is more jazzy and affectionate: Bolcom was inspired to write it after meeting jazz violinist Joe Venuti, in whose memory the finale was completed. The writing is largely tonal and somewhat conventional within its jazz orientation, and the first movement in particular has elements of “blues” about it. Lin and Lopes manage the work’s moods well, and also do a fine job with John Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963). This too is primarily a tonal work, although it has some polytonal sections and some atonality as well. The most challenging elements here for performers are the way the sonata’s rhythms change constantly – in this respect the work is similar to some by Ives – and the way the two instruments are so carefully balanced that each player must be careful not to outshine or overshadow the other. Both Corigliano and Bolcom reflect elements of Ives’ music to a certain extent, and listeners who know the Ives sonata (and his three others for violin and piano) will find their musical experience enlivened and expanded by this well-played, well-recorded CD.

     The music most likely to be familiar on a new Navona CD featuring Véronique Mathieu and Jasmin Arakawa is that of Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994), whose three violin-and-piano pieces here have a certain degree of classical poise and draw rather clearly on forms from the Romantic era and before. The five-movement Partita for Violin and Piano is a suite that is essentially an expanded sonata: there are three primary movements interspersed with two minute-long “ad libitum” sections that sound significantly more “modern” than do the movements they separate. Subito, as its name indicates, is a study in sudden musical shifts, and Recitativo e Arioso is based on operatic forms and is suitably declamatory and expressive. Even listeners not highly familiar with Lutoslawski’s work will be able to follow the Polish composer’s thinking and forays into extended tonality easily, thanks to the good pacing and balance that Mathieu and Arakawa bring to this material. The other works on the disc are for solo violin and are an altogether different experience. Argot—Due Pezzi per Violino by Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) is a strongly accented two-movement work that explores and exploits numerous violin techniques in a manner that, unfortunately, too often comes across as empty display. Mathieu handles the material with considerable skill, but the near-endless parade of rhythmic and harmonic changes, the technical challenges that constantly draw attention to themselves, the harmonics and open-string contrasts, all go on at greater length than their communicative potential justifies. This is a display piece that violinists may find congenial but that has less to say to everyday listeners. Anthèmes I by Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) is similar in many ways: it too offers a compendium of technical complexities designed to extract a wide variety of sounds form the violin; and while some portions, notably an extended pizzicato section, are intriguing, the work as a whole comes across as a series of stops and starts whose purpose for listeners (as opposed to performers) is less than apparent.

     The three works played by the Elaris Duo on a new MSR Classics release are considerably more straightforward. The most interesting thing about this CD is the pairing of violin with cello rather than either stringed instrument with piano. This means that even though music of the three composers heard here may be familiar, these specific works are unlikely to be. Ravel’s Sonata and Schulhoff’s Duo date to the 1920s (1920-22 and 1925, respectively), while Honegger’s Sonatina is somewhat later (1932). But all three works spring from a similar postwar (that is, after World War I) rethinking of musical forms, harmony and expressiveness. Ravel’s work is dedicated to Debussy, who had died in 1918, and while it is not written entirely in Impressionist mode, its expressive language clearly partakes of that musical approach. This is, however, a large-scale work with stronger accents and wider dynamic range than listeners accustomed to Debussy might expect – and the wife-and-husband team of Larisa and Steven Elisha emphasizes those elements to good effect, being especially impressive in the highly virtuosic second movement. As for Schulhoff (1894-1942), he dedicated his Duoto Master Leos Janácek,” and again, although the music here does not specifically follow anything by Janácek, it does partake of the Czech composer’s sensibilities and concerns. The second movement does so in obvious ways, being labeled Zingaresca, but the connection is otherwise more subtle: Schulhoff was following Janácek in an attempt to create new musical structures and designs that would fit the postwar world without being forced into the narrow channel of twelvetone championed by Schoenberg and his followers. Again, the violinist and cellist have a strong sense of style and play well with – and against – each other here. They are also sensitive to the pervasive polyphony of Honegger’s Sonatina, and here they show an altogether winning sense of humor in their handling of the last movement’s recitatives. The CD as a whole offers a rather unusual instrumental combination and three pieces whose differing sensibilities give the performers ample chances to express themselves both in virtuosity and in emotional involvement.

     Another married-couple CD featuring an unusual instrumental combination appears on Sono Luminus with the somewhat-too-cute title, “Boyd Meets Girl.” Perhaps the title choice reflects the impossibility of coming up with any unifying description of the nine pieces heard here: really, the works have nothing significant in common other than the interest of Rupert Boyd and Laura Metcalf in playing them. Thus, the disc is essentially a 20-track offering of encores. Some of the music is sonically interesting (four Bach two-part inventions arranged by the performers), and some blends and contrasts the instruments with considerable skill (Reflexões No. 6 by Brazilian composer and guitarist Jaime Zenamon [born 1953]). And in one work, Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt (born 1935), Metcalf intrigues by playing on the cello at the original violin pitch – showing her virtuosity and the cello’s extended-range capabilities at the same time. But really, the disc is all over the place musically and emotively. Fauré’s nostalgic Pavane is here, and so is Human Nature from the 1982 album Thriller by Michael Jackson (the song was actually composed by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis). These are curiosities more than anything else. Arafura Arioso by Ross Edwards (born 1943) is here given its première recording in the composer’s arrangement for guitar and cello – but the performers miss an opportunity by offering only the first movement, Allegretto Comodo, from the cello-and-guitar sonata by Radamés Gnattali (1906-1988). This Brazilian composer’s full sonata, contrasted with the Zenamon work and Café 1930 by Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) – the second movement of Histoire du Tango, originally for flute and guitar – would have been more thought-provoking than the somewhat thrown-together feeling of this CD. Everything here is quite well-played – the Siete Canciones Populares Españolas by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) come off particularly stylishly – but the CD never settles into any sense of musical consistency: the performers simply toss off one work and then move to the next without any sense of connectedness. Listeners intrigued by this instrumental combination and interested in hearing some very fine, virtuosic and sensitive playing will enjoy the disc. Its musical substance, however, is on the thin side.

July 20, 2017

(++++) WAYS TO WIN

Mama Lion Wins the Race. By Jon J. Muth. Scholastic. $17.99.

What This Story Needs Is a Vroom and a Zoom. By Emma J. Virján. Harper. $9.99.

     It is a strange thing about kids’ books involving competitions: virtually all of them preach the importance of being a good sport, of trying your best at all times, of enjoying the competition without necessarily expecting to emerge victorious, of celebrating your own worth no matter who comes out ahead. And then virtually all the books find ways for the protagonists to win. There was a famous Peanuts strip in which Charlie Brown listened to a very extended description of a massive come-from-behind victory by a team that had been losing until the very last minute, then proverbially snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and had a huge celebration in which all the fans joined. In the strip’s final panel, Charlie Brown asked, “How did the other team feel?” That sort of awareness, never mind pathos, is almost wholly absent in children’s books, where it is nice to compete and enjoy yourself and all that, but the ultimate message is that heroes – central characters – are winners. It therefore takes a very special author to ring some changes on the winning-ultimately-matters model – an author such as Jon J. Muth. Mama Lion Wins the Race is about a different way to be a winner, and it is a story told so delicately and delightfully that kids will be captivated by the outcome (or should be, anyway). Muth’s characters here are based on plush toys, and they are as cuddly and gangly and slightly messed up in appearance as would be expected for much-loved cuddly critters. That is one part of the book’s charm and unusual nature. The characters really have character: the Flying Pandinis are egg-shaped and utterly adorable pandas, the Knitted Monkeys are flat-faced critters wearing name tags, and there are a motorcycle-riding rabbit and a huge-eyed smiling turtle and more. The hints that this will be a most unusual race start even before the characters are introduced, when Mama Lion looks at the drinking cup being used by her partner, Tigey, and sees that it is dented and leaky. It turns out that first prize in the race is “a big, fancy trophy,” and second prize is “a nifty small cup,” and third prize is “the special Banana issue of Monkey Monthly.” Well, now, that is interesting. And so is the race itself. The monkeys toss their smallest crew member toward their car to get a head start – then apologize for breaking a rule. Then the race starts in earnest, and Mama Lion has a series of distinctly un-racelike thoughts: “The world is beautiful,” “The world is friendly,” and so on. Then Mama Lion’s car loses a wheel as Tigey swerves to avoid a butterfly, and the car right behind – belonging to the Flying Pandinis – stops to help. Clearly there is more going on here than winning at any cost: when Bun Bun later passes by on her motorcycle, she is scattering seeds that she will water after the race is over. Eventually Mama Lion and Tigey are in front – and make the decision to let the Flying Pandinis pass them at the last instant, out of gratitude for the pandas’ earlier helpfulness. “I would say that we won some very good friends today,” Mama Lion says as she pours “some nice hot cocoa into Tigey’s beautiful new cup.” And that is a winning lesson very different from the ones in most books about sports – and very much closer to what kids are, in theory, supposed to learn from teams and competitions.

     The latest Pig in a Wig book by Emma J. Virján takes a much more typical view of competitive sports in general and racing in particular. But What This Story Needs Is a Vroom and a Zoom keeps everything so light and amusing that it is possible for kids to absorb the fun of the race and the celebration of all three competitors (pig, goose and donkey) – rather than focus entirely on the fact that the Pig in a Wig is, as is only to be expected, the winner. There is a driving mishap in this book, too: going too quickly around a turn, the pig skids off the road into a mud puddle. But the “cross-country crew” that follows the whole race to help everyone out is there to change her car’s tire and get everything going again – after which there is “a vroom, a zoom, a whoosh, and a wheee,” and a photo finish with the pig first, goose second and donkey third. The book ends with all the competitors taking a victory lap in the pig’s car, so everyone is certainly shown as a good sport; and the cross-country crew cheers for everybody equally. Like Virján’s other easy-to-read, pleasantly rhyming books, What This Story Needs Is a Vroom and a Zoom tells a simple story amusingly and charmingly; and if it breaks no new ground as regards the meaning of competition, it at least gives kids a good time with some pleasant characters and a race that everyone in the book takes seriously enough to try hard to win but not so seriously that there are any bad feelings about the pig claiming the eventual victory.


Bobs and Tweets 1: Meet the Bobs and Tweets. By Pepper Springfield. Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell. Scholastic. $9.99.

Bobs and Tweets 2: Perfecto Pet Show. By Pepper Springfield. Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell. Scholastic. $9.99.

My Weirdest School #8: Mrs. Master Is a Disaster! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.

My Weird School Fast Facts: Explorers, Presidents, and Toilets. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.

My Weird School Fast Facts: Space, Humans, and Farts. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.

     The personalities of many characters in kids’ books are designed to make specific points, and much of the character comedy of the books involves personality contrasts. This is quite explicit in Pepper Springfield’s stories about the Bobs and Tweets, whose differing characteristics are simply and straightforwardly (and rhymingly) explained: the male Bobs are slobs and the female Tweets are neat. The possibilities are many, varied and delightful, and are immediately apparent in Kristy Caldwell’s covers for the first two books in the series, on which even the families’ names are shown in letters reflecting their predilections for messiness and care, respectively. The first book, in rhymes that are somewhat Seussian if not quite insouciant, introduces the two groups – the identical but different-size Tweets, looking like Russian nesting dolls that have been laid out separately, and the very-different-from-each-other Bobs. And Meet the Bobs and Tweets also focuses on one Bob and one Tweet who are the opposite of the rest of their families: Dean Bob, seventh and smallest of the Bobs, is neat and tidy, while Lou Tweet, seventh and littlest of the Tweets, is disorganized and messy. The respective families simply accept their not-quite-fitting-in members, and readers will quickly figure out that the two smallest characters will become friends. Sure, enough, the Bobs and Tweets end up living on the same block of Bonefish Street – guided by the same real-estate agent, Mo, who is later revealed to be the town’s mayor as well. “‘That Mo,’ says Bob Seven. ‘She lied to us all./ And now she has caused a huge Bonefish Street brawl.’” The dustup happens at the local swimming pool, where the Tweets want to swim in neat, synchronized lines, while the Bobs want to jump and splash and make as much commotion as they possibly can. The lifeguard takes time out from preening and using his phone to divide the pool into neat and messy halves, more-or-less solving the conflict – and setting the stage for future arguments and misunderstandings between the families. Such as the one in Perfecto Pet Show. Ms. Pat, who teaches both Dean and Lou, brings her six pets to class one day and announces an upcoming “Kid-Pet-Talent Show” for which kids can bring their own pets or borrow one of hers. This worries Dean and Lou for opposite reasons. Dean says, “My Bobs will be rowdy. Noisy. Not cool./ I worry so much when my Bobs come to school.” And Lou comments, “My Tweets will come early on the day of the show/ And insist they get six clean seats in the front row.” It turns out that Dean and Lou are both right – but that is not the half of what happens. The Tweets, determined to arrive four hours early and clean everything, inadvertently ride their bikes onto a huge skateboard ramp that was not there before and is now blocking their way – resulting in multiple crashes, wrecked bicycles, and dirt all over everything. Of course the Bobs turn out to be responsible for the ramp. Eventually, albeit reluctantly, the Bobs give the Tweets a ride to school, and even more reluctantly, the two groups have to sit near each other in the school auditorium. Up on stage, Dean Bob and Lou Tweet, who are now fast friends, end up performing together with their pets (Dean’s dog and Lou’s cat) after Dean gets stage fright so intense that he cannot do his act alone. And after the show, there is a glimmer of getting-along between all the Bobs and all the Tweets: one Bob has fixed all the Tweets’ bikes and added such touches as “Wi-Fi and a Blurpee cupholder.” This initially seems like a problem: “‘Oh no,’ gasps Dean Bob. ‘What will the Tweets say?/ Bob Four fixed the Tweets’ bikes the Bob-fashioned way.’” But the Tweets accept the help graciously and, in their turn, set about Tweet-ifying the Bobs’ bus by giving it a thorough cleaning. So all ends happily, at least for the time being, but the stage is certainly set for more personality-based (mis)adventures to come.

     Personalities are also an ever-present element of Dan Gutman’s (+++) “Weird School” series – that’s “series” plural, not “series” singular, since Gutman and illustrator Jim Paillot just keep churning them out. The current one is My Weirdest School, whose eighth entry, with the usual exclamation point at the end of the title, is Mrs. Master Is a Disaster! As usual, the title has little to do with the plot, which as usual features A.J., whose real name is Arlo and who hates being called that, which is why the other usual central character, Andrea, likes to use it. This book starts with class appearances by old fogies (grandparents), who spend their time talking about ridiculous ideas such as playing outdoors and avoiding sugary foods – but one of whom, Mrs. Masters, turns out to be an inventor. That gets the kids interested in inventing something so they can “make bazillions,” which requires them to come up with something worth bazillions in the marketplace, which leads A.J. (who is in the gifted-and-talented program even though he spends most of his time being what the old fogies would call a wiseacre) to spearhead the concept of a new kind of toilet seat. Gutman is fond of toilet seats and potty humor, and here gets to elaborate on the whole toilet topic. The Party Pooper seat is heated, glows in the dark, puts out a pleasant scent, and uses artificial intelligence to have conversations with users. The whole corporate-startup thing gets compressed into a few pages, and so does the whole corporate-success thing, and then the corporate-failure thing, so by the end of the book the kids are looking for someone to blame, such as A.J. or Mrs. Master. The book is no better or worse than others in the series, and the characters are true to form even though, in truth, they are rather formless – they move the plot along but have very little personality. Still, this easy-to-read book, like the many others in these Gutman/Paillot series, will be fun for kids who already know the characters and enjoy their adventures, even if their personalities are rather hard to pin down.

     Actually, the verbal byplay between A.J. and Andrea is somewhat more interesting in the fact-focused books that Gutman and Paillot spin off from the “Weird School” universe. Unsurprisingly, both of the most-recent fact books veer into Gutman’s usual preoccupation with toilets and bodily functions – but before they do that, both present some interesting facts (or factoids) about American history (Explorers, Presidents, and Toilets) and science (Space, Humans, and Farts). These books’ titles may not end in exclamation points, but several chapters of the history book certainly do: “The United States Is Born!” “The Colonists Are Revolting!” “It’s Getting Bigger!” “Rise of the Machines!” And, of course, “The History of the Toilet!” The narration by A.J. and Andrea, interspersed with occasional pictures, is filled with typical A.J. comments such as “nah-nah-nah boo-boo” and “I’m not going to tell you. Okay, okay, I’ll tell you.” And Andrea continually reminds readers that some things A.J. says are not true, as in, “Arlo, you totally made that up!” The mild banter is supposed to be all in good fun: Andrea really likes A.J. and periodically wonders if they will get married someday (“Over my dead body” is a typical A.J. response). The point of the fact-focused books, though, is, or is supposed to be, the facts; and there are enough of them so that kids who pay a modicum of attention will actually learn something. The balance of entertainment and information tends to be a little off: Gutman clearly enjoys the characters, not so clearly what they are communicating. Still, there is plenty of interesting material here, some of it not typically included in factual books. The history volume, for instance, discusses the disinformation campaigns of George Washington: early in the Revolutionary War, finding the colonists very low on gunpowder, he created a rumor that they had so much they did not know where to store it; and late in the war, he made elaborate preparations for what seemed to be an attack on New York, then went after Yorktown, Virginia instead. The science book follows a similar presentation pattern and has similarly mixed content. About clothing and chemistry, for example, Gutman explains that sheeps’ wool can be and is used to insulate houses – but almost half the world’s clothing is now made from synthetic fibers such as nylon, which was created in 1935 by Wallace Hume. There is also a note that racing cars are designed to work the opposite way planes do: air flow pushes planes into the air, but the cars are designed so that as they go faster, they are pushed more firmly against the road. And some elements of the science book seem as if they are kidding, but really are not, such as the notion that Earth is a planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” – a part of the solar system that is neither too hot for life nor too cold, but is just right. The “Weird School” books, fiction and fact alike, are designed to intrigue and involve kids who are not all that interested in reading for its own sake, but can be pulled into it by a combination of interesting and simply presented material and some personalities with which they enjoy spending time. For those who find A.J. and Andrea – and the other, lesser denizens of the “Weird School” world – to be congenial companions, the latest entries will be as enjoyable as the many earlier ones.


Tropic of Kansas. By Christopher Brown. Harper Voyager. $15.99.

Hidden Legacy #3: Wildfire. By Ilona Andrews. Avon. $7.99.

     The unceasing drumbeat of vitriol being produced by the self-proclaimed intelligentsia against what East Coast and West Coast illuminati contemptuously refer to as “flyover country” has become a steady, boring jeremiad. Hatred for President Trump – duly elected, despite many manifest shortcomings both personal and systemic – has become de rigueur in many bastions of higher education and among self-important literary types and so-called entertainers who seem to believe that they and their opinions actually matter. Ugly, narrow-minded, biased rants continue to proliferate, serving only to harden individual and group viewpoints and cause further ill feelings in a nation already awash in them. And now we have a let-it-all-hang-out “heartland” novel, Tropic of Kansas, a long-form debut by an author who has previously produced only short fiction. The setting here is nominally an alternative timeline: President Reagan was in fact assassinated in 1981, and the result is a militarized nation with walls on both northern and southern borders – a place called “robotland” by the people of Canada, to which many Americans have fled, only to be hunted down and deported back to the demonized U.S.A. (This alternative Canada is a lot less friendly to refugees than is the real Canada.) Tropic of Kansas is a book whose title instantly recalls Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, but one that shares none of Miller’s novel’s sensibilities and none of its once-groundbreaking sexuality and intense insistence on free speech – a combination that led to the book being banned as obscene for 27 years. Brown seems blissfully unaware of or uninterested in the irony of living in a country whose leadership he mocks and despises, but one in which he can forthrightly and without fear of repercussions write Tropic of Kansas and have it published. The novel’s protagonist is an adolescent named Sig, who has lived off the grid in Canada for years after his mother – a radical and therefore by definition a good person – was imprisoned and eventually murdered for her politics. Sig is caught, delivered to U.S. Motherland Security, and sentenced to forced labor in Detroit. He escapes, however – actually, he escapes from difficulties repeatedly – and makes contact with the radical (hence good) underground. Sig is heading for a sanctuary (therefore good) city, New Orleans, but is being pursued by his adoptive sister, Tania, who is working for the government under duress after she (gulp) insults the president. Brown actually has some very interesting ideas here, and Tropic of Kansas is at its best when he explores them rather than insisting on an utterly formulaic differentiation between good guys and bad guys. There is, for example, a pirate network with its own cryptocurrency and a method of inserting secret messages into the vertical blanking intervals of television broadcasts. Also here are an outlaw Texas billionaire, a deposed former vice president, a National Guard colonel, a series of citizen militias, drones put to nefarious purposes, and more. Dystopian, yes, but for the most part cleverly so – except when Brown’s exceedingly narrow political views (which appear to be his main reason for writing the book) intrude again and again, their inherent goodness as unquestioned here as is the inherent evil of viewpoints that differ from Brown’s and from those of his central characters. The focus of the book eventually shifts from Sig to Tania, as she rather than he starts to emerge as a potential change agent on a grand scale. The perils-of-Pauline escapes and repeated scenes of intense fighting become repetitious after a while, but Brown’s notions of revolution and counter-revolution play out with consistency and are presented in writing that moves the story along at a quick, often frenzied pace. Those who share Brown’s worldview and politics will revel in the underlying “destroy Trump and all those who resemble or follow him” mindset here. Those who find this approach tiresome and its attitude both venal and banal will not read the book anyway, so they can be safely ignored – the customary attitude of today’s self-proclaimed “good guys” of any political persuasion. It is ironic in the extreme that the eventual outcome of Tropic of Kansas, after much carnage and at very high cost, is to make America great again.

     The Hidden Legacy series by the wife-and-husband team of Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, writing as Ilona Andrews, also happens in an alternative U.S.A. – one permeated by magic – and in the central part of the country, specifically in and around Houston. But there is no politics here, zero, except for the imagined politics of various powerful magical groups (Houses) seeking leverage against each other and, frequently, using (or trying to use) protagonist Nevada Baylor to get it. This is a paranormal-romance series, and for anyone who may not realize that the characters and their connections are supposed to be hot, there are sufficiently self-explanatory titles: Burn for Me, White Hot and, now, Wildfire. After a sexually explosive connection in the second book with the ultra-powerful and of course ultra-gorgeous Connor “Mad” Rogan, Nevada is now trying to sort out her increasingly complicated life. She is a truthseeker – she knows when people are lying, a useful trait to have when operating a detective agency, as she does – and she is discovering that she is something more: she is just coming into powers so great that she would be a highly desirable match not only for Rogan but also for others of his super-potent ilk. The conspiracy to destabilize Houston so a magical dictator named Caesar can take over the city and do nefarious things is a thread connecting all three Hidden Legacy books, but there is so much else happening in Wildfire that that particular foundational element spends little time front-and-center. Instead we have a missing-persons kidnaping case, said person being a plant mage named Brian Sherwood whose wife, Rynda, just happens to be Rogan’s former fiancée. And a redhead. And gorgeous. And an empath. Of course there is nothing between her and Rogan anymore, but she is very clingy and demanding, and maybe, just maybe, she is looking to Rogan as a backup plan in case her husband never turns up. And also on the “family issues” side of things, there is Nevada’s grandmother, Victoria, as hard-hearted and apparently dark a character as any in these books – and a good deal more interesting then Nevada in many ways. Her motivations, her moves to control Nevada and the family as a whole, seem altogether more nefarious than anything coming from Caesar and his minions – unless, of course, it turns out that she actually has good reasons for what she is doing. Or is in league with Caesar. Or something. As a series conclusion – assuming it is one; the ending is decisive but does leave a glimmer of possibilities for potential future installments – Wildfire is quite well done, introducing new characters as needed, connecting the dots from the first two books, moving the Rogan-Nevada romance along smartly (or at least hotly), and creating new intricacies that are then neatly dissected, their multiple knots unraveled. And it is significant that the title of the overall series is quite explicitly explained here, when a minor character, speaking of Victoria, tells Nevada, “You’re family. …Family is all any of us have. You’re her hidden legacy, the future of her House.” But with all the solutions in Wildfire, this statement near the book’s end may be premature: “Finally. We won. Nothing was hanging over our heads.” That is not strictly true, for the very end of the book involves neither Nevada nor Rogan but the never-named Caesar, who is still very much alive and still plotting – and that is why this series conclusion may perhaps not be a genuine finale. Whether it is or not, Wildfire knits together enough disparate plot strands to be entirely satisfying to readers who have stayed with Hidden Legacy from the first book. They will not find this one disappointing – and likely will not be disappointed if there is a followup sometime in the future.


Strauss in St. Petersburg. Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.

Wagner: Parsifal. Christopher Ventris, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Mikhail Petrenko, Falk Struckmann, Petra Lang; Chorus of Dutch National Opera and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer. Challenge Classics. $44.99 (Blu-ray Disc+DVD).

Richard Strauss: Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra; Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments; Sonatina No. 2 for 16 Wind Instruments. Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons (Concerto); Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe and conducting Winds of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Serenade, Sonatina). BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Eugène Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for Solo Violin. Sharon Park, violin. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Many composers have written works dubbed Pieces Caracteristiques, usually indicating miniatures expressive of a particular time, place or emotion. But in a different sense, there are certain works, sometimes very extended ones, that come across as especially characteristic of composers’ thoughts, styles, experiences and beliefs. Those created by Johann Strauss Jr. for his orchestra’s many visits to St. Petersburg, Russia, fall into this category, most notably Abschied von St. Petersburg of 1858, a wistful and sad farewell not only to the city but also to Olga Smirnitskaya (1837-1920), with whom Strauss had fallen in love there – and whose own memento of that time, called Erste Liebe and written 20 years after she and Strauss parted, is intriguingly included on a new Chandos disc featuring the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. The CD offers a very generous helping of 20 pieces written for or about St. Petersburg by Strauss: nearly 83 minutes of music, an exceptional amount for a single disc, especially one as well-recorded as this. Aside from Smirnitskaya’s sweet memoir (nicely sung by soprano Olga Zaitseva) and the Pizzicato Polka written jointly by Johann Jr. and Joseph, everything here is by Johann himself – the works ranging from the highly familiar (Wein, Weib und Gesang! and Vergnügungszug, for example) to the very infrequently played (An der Wolga, Alexander-Quadrille and many others). Järvi occasionally pushes the music too quickly and ungently, but in the main keeps things lively without rushing them, and the orchestra plays with considerable verve and spirit. An unusually well-done set of booklet notes discusses each work briefly and lays them out sensibly in chronological order – which makes the decision to present the pieces themselves, on the CD, as a hodgepodge in no understandable order whatsoever, a highly peculiar one. It would have been much better to follow the progress of the Strauss orchestra through its years of St. Petersburg travel on a musical basis as well as with the booklet’s words. Nevertheless, having so much of this material all in one place – works redolent of the Strauss style and also “characteristic” of the city that is their focus – is a great pleasure; and the disc, with its generous helping of less-known material, makes an excellent addition to the library of any Strauss fancier.

     Pretty much everything Richard Wagner wrote for the stage qualifies as a characteristic piece, for all that he largely disavowed his first three operas, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi. But if there is one opera that sums up virtually all Wagner’s themes and concerns – indeed, including within its vast span references to a number of his earlier works, as if to make the summing-up explicit – that opera is his last one, Parsifal. Clad in traditional Christian guise, it is not really a Christian opera, instead using the setting of the Grail knights as a way to get at themes of power and energy, renunciation and acceptance, worldly pleasures and joys that transcend them. The fact that these are essentially the same themes explored in Der Ring des Nibelungen is no accident – that four-opera series is no more about Wotan’s downfall than Parsifal is about Klingsor’s, and indeed, the underlying concerns in these late operas were already present in Wagner’s earliest ones. A new Challenge Classics release, packaging a Blu-ray Disc and DVD together, provides an unusually trenchant view of Parsifal. This is a 2016 revival of a Pierre Audi production for Dutch National Opera from 2012, and – traditionalists be warned – it is an abstract spectacle, nothing like what one would expect at Bayreuth, the only opera house where Wagner believed Parsifal could be adequately presented. For those who do not insist on standard visual approaches to the opera, Audi’s direction and Anish Kapoor’s set design (with sensitive lighting by Jean Kalman and intriguing costume design by Christof Hetzer) will come across exceptionally well. A giant concave mirror suspended above the stage is a crucial feature here, literally reflecting the on-stage action and encouraging the audience to reflect on what is occurring. The mirror’s presence in some but not all scenes lends this reflective surface an unusual participatory role in the action. Yet there is in fact very little action in Parsifal, and Audi uses that fact to advantage: the stage is nearly bare during long stretches of dialogue, a minimalist approach that forces the audience’s attention onto what is being said and heard, yet offers far more visual impact than a concert performance can. The marvelous role of Kundry (Petra Lang), the last of Wagner’s woman saviors, is especially compelling here, the staging making it clear that Kundry – the most complex character in the opera – must be responsible for connecting Parsifal (Christopher Ventris, who is excellent) to his past and putting him fully in touch with a type of innocence through which he can claim both kingship and healing powers. The overt seductiveness (under duress) of Kundry and the purity and innocence (by heritage) of Parsifal come through particularly clearly in this production, and it is interesting to note that the Parsifal legend is in origin the story of an infertile ruler, a trait shared in Wagner’s opera by the suffering Amfortas (Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester) and the supposedly potent but physically self-castrated Klingsor (Mikhail Petrenko, who also sings Titurel – a genuinely fascinating pairing of parts). All the singers are excellent in the roles, presenting first-rate vocal acting that ranges from Amfortas’ wobbly vibrato to the strength and surety of Gurnemanz (Falk Struckmann). Iván Fischer meticulously follows Wagner’s many tempo indications and changes throughout the score, leading the Chorus of Dutch National Opera and the smooth-as-silk, perfectly balanced Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with consummate skill. References to Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle appear in the score as thematic resonances that complement and extend the leitmotif concept, and Fischer weaves them in skillfully but not over-obviously. There is much to be said for listening to Parsifal at home without any visual encumbrances, calling up its scenes within one’s own mind as the music flows through with studied inevitability. But, after all, the work was conceived by Wagner as a visual one; and even though watching a Blu-ray Disc or DVD at home can never be as involving or overwhelming an experience as attending a Parsifal performance in person, this Dutch staging captures so much of the spirit and spirituality of the music and story that it will truly enchant (yes, that is the right word) Wagner lovers seeking an exceptionally satisfying visual and aural experience.

     Operas are also what would be considered “characteristic pieces” for Richard Strauss, but some very different performances by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra show that this composer also had a characteristic (and firmly in-character) approach to non-vocal music. Late Strauss has a sound very different from the sumptuous, huge-orchestra one of earlier Strauss, and the 1945 Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, one of the composer’s final works, shows this quite clearly. In the Classical tradition of three-movement concertos and scored only for two flutes, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings, the work is strictly tonal (in D) and deliberately recalls the famous rhythm of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It also refers back to Strauss’s own recently completed Metamorphosen, much as Wagner in Parsifal refers back to his own earlier works with similar concerns. The live recording of the concerto for BIS by Alexei Ogrintchouk is a very fine, well-played one, and the conducting by Andris Nelsons is sensitive and nicely paced. Ogrintchouk is both oboist and conductor in the other works on the SACD, which are studio recordings. The short Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments is from the opposite, earliest part of Strauss’ career, dating to 1881, a full 64 years before the concerto. Modeled on Mozart’s Gran Partita, the work is charming, lively and quite self-assured in construction. The serenade gave Strauss an interesting connection with Wagner: its première, in Dresden, was conducted by Franz Wullner, who had conducted the first performances of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and would later present the premières of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote. The final work on this disc is much more substantial – longer than the other two put together. The label Sonatina therefore seems something of a misnomer, and in fact the work is sometimes referred to as a symphony. Its subtitle, Fröhliche Werkstatt (“Happy Workshop”) reflects its generally jovial and upbeat tone – a surprise for a work that, like the oboe concerto, dates to the closing years of World War II. The reason for the subtitle was to contrast this work with the Sonatina No. 1, which was written when Strauss was ill and was called “From the Workshop of an Invalid.”  The second Sonatina features very skillful wind writing – a Strauss characteristic that does not always get adequate attention – and an overall warm and mellow sound somewhat reminiscent of that of Brahms. Strauss’s days of musical radicalism are nowhere apparent here, and the work makes a fascinating juxtaposition with the early Serenade – because there is simply not much greater structural or instrumental skill in one than in the other. Strauss was something of a natural in wind writing, as the excellent playing on this recording makes abundantly clear.

     Sometimes composers seek to write music that will characterize and encapsulate other people, but what results may in fact show as much about the composer as about the people being musically portrayed. That is the case with the six Op. 27 solo-violin sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe, which receive first-rate performances from Sharon Park on a new MSR Classics release. Park offers passionate readings of all six works, the first being dedicated to Joseph Szigeti, the second (“Obsession”) to Jacques Thibaud, the third (“Ballade”) to Georges Enescu, the fourth to Fritz Kreisler, the fifth to Mathieu Crickboom, and the sixth to Manuel Quiroga. Ysaÿe was inspired to write these sonatas after hearing a Bach solo-violin sonata played by Szigeti, and Bach’s spirit permeates the works: No. 2, for example, directly quotes the start of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin in the first movement and then moves on to a siciliano, a sarabande and a finale quoting the Dies Irae from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. Yet the sonatas are generally written in the style of the time when Ysaÿe composed them (1923), and as such are filled with dissonance and use techniques such as quarter tones and whole-tone scales. Furthermore, as the dedications to Ysaÿe’s contemporary virtuosi make clear, the works are technically difficult and designed in some ways to highlight the particular strengths of the performers whose names they bear. All this is historically interesting, but what ultimately matters – as Park clearly realizes – is how well the sonatas work as pure music, not as mere technical displays or dedicatory pieces. And it is in bringing forth the sonatas’ musicality that Park shines. The warmth of the Lento molto sostenuto that opens the Enescu sonata is as well-handled here as the tone painting of the two movements of the Crickboom work and the intense middle section of the one-movement habanera dedicated to Quiroga. Park manages to display and at the same time transcend the sonatas’ formidable technical difficulties, in so doing producing readings that absorb compositional demands and then subsume them into an expressive whole. And that is – characteristically – exactly what Ysaÿe said violinists need to do in order to perform effectively.


Prokofiev: The Stone Flower. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Ross Crean: The Great God Pan. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Gregg Smith: Peter Quince at the Clavier; Double Sonata for Violin, Voice, and Piano; Fallen Angels. Eileen Clark, soprano; Thomas Schmidt, piano; Ari Streisfeld, violin; Evan Ziporyn, clarinet. Albany Records. $16.99.

Mark John McEncroe: Symphonic Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.

Vivaldi/Matej Meštrović: 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos. Matej Meštrović and Matija Dedić, piano; Hakan Ali Toker, piano and accordion. Navona. $14.99.

     It would be nice to think that composers continue to improve in skill and the ability to produce literally noteworthy music throughout their careers. But while there are some composers for whom that is assuredly the case – Mozart and Beethoven come immediately to mind – there are many others who produced music at essentially the same level over time (Mendelssohn), whose output showed signs of deterioration in later life (Schumann), or who stopped being productive altogether despite having many decades yet to live (Ives, Sibelius). Prokofiev is in more or less the same category as Schumann, although in Prokofiev’s case, the later-life issue was not mental deterioration but societal strictures, notably the notorious 1948 Zhdanov decree against musical “formalism,” which was deemed anti-Soviet. Unlike Shostakovich, who found ways in his later pieces to work around Soviet musical strictures, Prokofiev largely withdrew into simplicity and diminished expressiveness and creativity in his last years. The Stone Flower is one example of his works of this period. First performed in 1954, a year after the composer’s death, it is a very long ballet (two and a half hours of music) that tries hard to be “significant” in the context of the non-musical requirements of the time. It contains occasional flashes of excellence – notably the themes associated with the supernatural Mistress of the Copper Mountain, and the orchestration of sections such as “Solo of the gypsy girl and coda.” Unfortunately, there are lengthy arid stretches of music as well. Various sections (there are 46 in all) are orchestrated and repurposed versions of earlier Prokofiev works, and the pieces newly created for The Stone Flower are generally rather foursquare. Also, there is little dramatic tension in the story. It involves a craftsman named Danilo who wants to make a perfect malachite vase and hopes for magical help from the Mistress of the Copper Mountain; Danilo’s love, Katerina; and, for a nemesis, a bailiff named Severyan whose simplistic musical identification is of the twirl-your-evil-mustache variety. The orchestration of the ballet is frequently of greater interest than the thematic material, and in a new Chandos recording, the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda plays the work with considerable finesse – more, indeed, than the music really justifies. It is quite understandable that The Stone Flower is rarely heard, but it is good to have the work available in this first-rate performance – for those interested in less-known Prokofiev and those wondering what happened to the composer’s creativity when it came directly into conflict with the political environment in which he lived his final years.

     The search for meaningfulness also permeates the Navona release of a non-orchestrated version of Ross Crean’s opera, The Great God Pan. Crean wrote his libretto from a novella by Arthur Machen that was roundly condemned as horribly decadent by many critics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that was admired for its atmospheric elements by H.P. Lovecraft (albeit with reservations about its plentiful coincidences and pervasive melodrama). The story starts as science fiction and rapidly spirals into fantasy: it involves a doctor using surgery to connect a woman with the spiritual realm, which the doctor refers to as “the great god Pan,” and the terrible consequences when the operation succeeds and Pan – or a child of Pan – is loosed upon the world. This basic description makes the story sound more coherent than it actually is; its climax, in which the evil character is persuaded to commit suicide rather than be exposed as demonic, is particularly nonsensical. Crean clearly intends his opera to explore complex issues of science and spirituality, of the real and the fanciful; but the music, especially when heard with the two-piano accompaniment by John Cockerill and Stephen Uhl, rarely rises to any level of significant impact. The singing itself is the usual contemporary mixture of melodic elements plus atonality and Sprechstimme, with little variation of sound from character to character and, as a result, little enough for the audience to have a feeling of empathy, much less experience any sense of horror or even spiritual unease. The primary approach used by Crean is to create ostinato passages that are supposed to carry forward the story with a sense of inevitability, but in fact this technique quickly becomes aurally wearing and atmospherically ineffective. A couple of piano-only sections work well, as does the wordless chorus that opens “The Confrontation and Ultimatum,” but although the 10 individual singers handle their parts skillfully enough, the material itself is simply not sufficiently convincing to make The Great God Pan more than an interesting attempt to tell a strange and unusual story in operatic terms.

     Another vocal recording intended to elicit a sense of significance, on Albany Records, features three works for voice and instruments by Gregg Smith (1931-2016). The topics here are wide-ranging and the performances very fine; whether the material adds up to something meaningful, or only to well-crafted display pieces, will depend on each listener’s view of the poetry Smith sets as much as it will on his music. Peter Quince at the Clavier, a four-movement setting of Wallace Stevens’ four-stanza poem of the same title, is the shortest work here and in some ways the most effective. Stevens’ poem, despite using the name of a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in its title, offers an erotically charged version of the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the elders – essentially setting the story up as if one of Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” is telling it. Abounding in musical images (as well as ones of color), Stevens’ poem either lends itself naturally to musical adaptation or is itself so inherently musical that any notes to which it is set seem somewhat beside the point. Smith clearly respects the poem and handles its moods with delicacy and understanding. But despite the fine performance by Eileen Clark and Thomas Schmidt, the music does not add any particular degree of subtlety or expressiveness to what is already a very subtle and expressive work. Double Sonata for Violin, Voice, and Piano reaches back to an earlier era for its text, using poems of Robert Herrick and John Milton for an extended five-movement work that partakes both of sonata form and of something approaching oratorio – although Smith’s handling of excerpts from L’Allegro and Il Penseroso is quite different structurally and sonically from that of Handel, who created a full-scale oratorio using Milton’s entire exploration of characters driven by different bodily humors. In Smith’s work, the violin is almost a second vocalist. And here as with his setting of Stevens, Smith is quite clearly aware of musical elements in the poetry itself: Smith’s second movement uses Herrick’s “To Musique, to becalme his Fever” as its text. Fast-forward to modern-day big-city life and you have the third work here, Fallen Angels, to 10 poems by Kim Rich Norton. This is the least interesting and most conventional poetry on the CD, and oddly seems more time-bound than the other works. So much has been written in both words and music about New York City that yet another sampling of titles such as “Natural History,” “A Taste of City Summer,” and “New York Cabbie’s Meditation” has little to offer unless there are some genuinely original insights or perspectives in the material – which, in this case, there are not. There is nothing exceptional in what Norton has to say about New York, and while Smith’s music complements and underlines the words satisfactorily, it does not expand or deepen them to any significant degree, although the use of a clarinet does lead to some interesting soundscapes. The setting of Stevens is the most emotionally poised and involving of the three pieces here. However, the Double Sonata is the most structurally complex and musically interesting work, containing a smorgasbord of both old and contemporary compositional techniques, from canon and gigue to patter song and waltz, all within multiple meters and twelvetone writing as well as some conventional harmony.

     Mark John McEncroe is another composer who looks to the past as well as the present when seeking significance for his music. A new Navona disc of his two Symphonic Suites, which together he calls “A Medieval Saga,” shows this clearly. In the seven movements of Suite No. 1 and the six of Suite No. 2, McEncroe tries his hand at storytelling that is intended both to evoke a medieval setting and to have contemporary resonance. The suites are well-written and show a sure command of the orchestra, but they are not especially strongly tied either to the past or to the present. Their tone painting tends to be rather obvious, as in the contrast between the first suite’s third movement (“Rising Discontent”) and its fourth (“Peasants’ Uprising”). McEncroe does not seem entirely sure of whether he wants the audience to take the suites at face value or with a sense of irony, as is shown in the works’ individual titles: the first suite is “Just Another Medieval Tale” and the second is “And the Medieval Tale Continues.” The story arc, if not the musical one, begins and almost ends with a look at rulers: the first suite’s opening movement is “Entrance of the King” (suitably if conventionally celebratory), while the second suite’s penultimate movement is “Hail to the New King.” The second suite, more than the first, is essentially about warfare; but its very last movement is the somewhat puzzlingly titled “A Brave New World,” and it is never quite certain whether McEncroe here tries to move the underlying tale of nobles and peasants, rulers and ruled, into something different and more in line with our contemporary world – or whether the last movement’s title somehow reflects Shakespeare’s creation of the well-known phrase or Aldous Huxley’s ironic adaptation of it. Simply listening to these two orchestral suites without trying to impart any particular meaning to them – hearing them as a sort of film music without visuals, which is a pretty fair description of their overall sound – leads to a satisfying experience. It is only when one tries to find and accept the deeper meaning that McEncroe wants the music to have that the works fall short.

     Some composers do not just look backward for meaning – they try overtly to overlay the present on the past, musically speaking, and in so doing to produce works that retain an aura of earlier times while still speaking in modern musical language and for a contemporary audience. This approach can lead to something of a mishmash, which is where it leads on a Navona release of 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos by Croatian composer/pianist Matej Meštrović. Vivaldi’s four seasonally focused violin concertos are among the most popular of all classical works, and many composers have adopted or adapted them in various ways, or used them as springboards for other works – Ástor Piazzolla’s Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (1965-70), especially in the 1996-98 arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov, being one especially successful example. Meštrović, however, uses Vivaldi only as a springboard for wide-ranging jazz arrangements that frequently sound improvisational even though they are not. He and pianist colleagues Hakan Ali Toker (who arranged the Presto movement of “Summer”) and Matija Dedić (who arranged the Largo of “Winter,” here misspelled “L’Ineverno”) delight in adding introductions, byways, modern harmonies, over-the-top frills and runs, and much more to Vivaldi’s foundational material, which peeks through from time to time but never seems to be the primary reason for the existence of 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos. The work is undeniably fun much of the time, notably when it features interpolations from other composers’ works and makes use of an accordion. But its constant riffs on Vivaldi become repetitious and thus dull after a while, and the three players seem at times to be trying too hard to make the entire proceeding fresh and enjoyable. The pounding chord sequence that opens the finale of “Spring,” for example, just sounds silly, and the ostinato with dappled high notes at the start of the first movement of “Winter” is more an insult than a tribute to Vivaldi’s outstanding cold-weather tone painting. On the other hand, the scurrying opening of the last movement of “Autumn” comes across nicely (in a somewhat overdone way); and the finale of “Summer,” which opens essentially as Vivaldi intended, uses the tonal quality of the piano to good effect. 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos is more a discursion from Vivaldi than an excursion into his music. But when taken at face value and as an exercise in fun rather than attempted meaningfulness, it is pleasantly diversionary and has more than its share of effective pianistic exhibitionism.