August 29, 2019
The Mysterious Giant of Barletta. By Tomie dePaola. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Mystery Club: Wild Werewolves; Mummy Mischief. By Davide Cali. Illustrated by Yannick Robert and AnnaLisa Ferrari. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $21.99 (hardcover). $9.99 (paperback).
Real and unreal mysteries alike can be fun for young readers if presented well – and a bit of tinkering with reality never hurts. Tomie dePaola’s The Mysterious Giant of Barletta wears well – it originally dates to 1986 and is now available in paperback. But the “giant” referred to in the title (actually known as the Colossus of Barletta) wears even better, being a bronze statue of a Roman emperor from the empire’s late, Christian times. The exact personage is uncertain but is probably an emperor from the 4th, 5th or 6th century. There is a folktale in Barletta, a small Italian town on the Adriatic Sea, about the statue coming to life and saving the city from destruction by the Saracens; and it is this tale, modified to make it appealing to children, that dePaola retells. To do this, he keeps one major visual feature of the statue – the orb in its left hand – but removes the other, which is a cross held aloft in its right fist. DePaola also makes the clear young-adult features of the statue into those of a child, the better to heighten his book’s appeal to young readers. He does, however, keep the basics of the save-the-town story, which is an amusing one because it violates expectations. Instead of looming over the invading army and threatening it with its giant stature, the colossus, both in the original tale and in dePaola’s version, waits for the army’s approach and then cries. Why? It laments its role as the smallest and weakest of Barletta’s inhabitants and talks about wanting to be as big as everyone else someday. The army, understandably wary of encountering an entire town occupied by much-bigger-than-the-colossus giants, decides that the better part of valor is discretion, and accordingly flees. DePaola dresses up the story nicely by inventing an old woman to be a friend of the giant. It is this woman, Zia Concetta, who makes plans with the giant to save the town, and those plans include finding a very large onion (another dePaola modification) so the giant can cry suitable tears. The underlying story has the sort of good humor characteristic of many folktales, and dePaola heightens its humorous elements to make The Mysterious Giant of Barletta more appealing to its target audience. And appealing it truly is – as much so now as when it was first published more than 30 years ago to delight kids who are now likely to be the parents of the next generation that will be charmed by this book.
Mystery Club, a two-stories-in-one graphic novel, is a more-recent creation, having originally been published in France in 2016. It is also a less-successful attempt than dePaola’s to take traditional legends – in this case, of werewolves and mummies – and make them appealing to contemporary young readers. The problem here is that Davide Cali never quite decides, at least at the outset, whether the basic mystery is whether werewolves and reanimated mummies exist or why they exist and are being used to commit various nefarious deeds. He eventually comes down on the latter side of things, having the mystery-club kids as well as all adults in London (where both stories are set) simply accept the existence of werewolf transformations and mummy invasions, as if such things are a standard part of London life. This does not work very well – nor does the fact that Davide waits until the end of the first story, Wild Werewolves, to have the mystery-club kids informed that they “have an enemy,” who lets them know he is a bad guy by sending them an E-mail signed, “Your enemy, Harnak.” So much for mysteries. The club members themselves are the standard hyper-competent preteens who are supposed to reflect the diversity of the book’s intended readership. Kyle is white-skinned and red-haired, determined to photograph monsters so he can sell the pictures and get rich. Zoey is dark-skinned, hyper-smart and says she does not believe in monsters, until suddenly she (like everyone else) believes in them and decides they are just part of the way things are, ho hum. These two core characters are later joined in Wild Werewolves by white-skinned, green-haired Ashley, who helps Kyle and Zoey figure out what various maybe-werewolves have in common and who actually comes up with the name “Mystery Club.” And still later, large and somewhat overbearing Tyler, whose primary interest is skateboarding, comes along to fill the “typical athlete” role – Kyle being the “typical protagonist/hero,” Zoey the “typical brain,” and Ashley the “typical fashion plate.” The club members, whose quest is started when a stranger giving his name as Lon Chaney tells Kyle and Zoey that he is worried about becoming a werewolf, eventually trace the werewolf epidemic to a baldness cream, whose apparent magic properties everyone takes as much in stride as they take the werewolves themselves. And then, after the announcement by the enemy that he is an enemy (using the name Lon Chaney, which the kids learn belongs to a famous actor in old monster movies), it is time for Mummy Mischief, in which a whole crowd of mummies lurches and prances around until the mystery-club members get all of them back where they belong. This is all for no purpose whatsoever, except to show that Harnak is now using his real name and reanimating mummies because, well, just because he can. Yannick Robert’s illustrations for the first story are colorful but flat, a bit like the tale itself; the second story features art by AnnaLisa Ferrari that is “based on” Robert’s, although why Robert’s itself was not used is a, well, mystery – and a bigger one than either of Cali’s stories. Mystery Club is a (+++) book that is certainly fun at times, but that is neither wholeheartedly humorous enough nor emphatically spooky enough to be completely effective. It will be most enjoyable for young readers who are new to the graphic-novel genre and not quite ready to take either the format or the stories told within it particularly seriously.
Calendars (page-a-day for 2020): Non Sequitur; The Little World of Liz Climo; Medical Cartoon-a-Day. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.
One of the longstanding traditions of page-a-day calendars is to offer something light and/or witty every day in the form of a cartoon – sometimes by an artist tackling multiple topics, sometimes by a cartoonist focusing on a single subject. The nice thing about this is that it brings a known sense of humor every day to one’s desktop, dresser, kitchen counter, end table, or wherever these stand-up calendars may be placed, creating a small element of both predictability and humor in days that may otherwise be both humorless and unpredictable. The only difficulty lies in choosing a particular one of these daily-page offerings (usually with a single page for both Saturday and Sunday): the choice depends on one’s individual sense of humor and sense of the world. Luckily, there are so many excellent cartoonists out there, and so many first-rate calendars showcasing their work, that there really is something for just about everyone. Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur, for example, is one of the cleverest and most neatly drawn cartoon sequences around, and even though the title means “it does not follow,” Wiley’s followers (there are many) have no trouble following his particularly, peculiarly out-of-kilter worldview and the characters through which he expresses it (some of which, the comic’s title aside, do recur). One thing Wiley (who goes by that name rather than “Miller”) does repeatedly is to imagine aspects of modern life being projected back to “caveman” days. Thus, “the birth of social media” shows one primitive-looking man who has just clubbed another over the head and who now explains to two listeners, “I call it ‘instant messaging.’” Yep – that’s often the effect of IM today. And then there is a panel called “the dawn of the boardroom,” in which cavemen stand around an obviously nonfunctional square wheel as one of them, clearly the boss, says, “What’s important here is that it came in under budget.” Again, that is adept social commentary, highlighting the modern (and, alas, longstanding) tendency to measure exactly the wrong thing. Also here is a panel featuring two traditional-looking sidewalk newsstands, one label “Facts” with no one paying attention and the other labeled “Shmacts” with a big crowd in front of it. Umm…yep. That panel is on the same wavelength as one showing two people in front of a store labeled “Outrage Inc.,” which has a sign outside reading, “Spring Line of Talking Points Coming Soon” – the man in the couple is telling the woman, “See? We still have things manufactured in America.” That one manages to make a comment in several areas at once. For something a bit lighter (well, usually), there are sequences involving Lucy the pygmy Clydesdale and Danae, Willy’s cynical little-girl anti-heroine – two of the few recurring characters (as opposed to recurring character types, of which there are many) in Non Sequitur. Wiley’s wit and humor pervade the pages of this 2020 calendar and are a great recipe for enjoyment for anyone sharing his skewed sense of strangeness and penchant for periodic political jabs.
For those for whom Wiley may be a wee bit too sociopolitical in orientation, who figure there is enough of that sort of thing in the real world and an additional smidgen from a daily calendar page is just too much, there are plenty of alternatives. The Little World of Liz Climo, for example, is also filled with occurrences that “do not follow,” is also very funny and offbeat in its outlook, but generally manages to make its contact with reality weird without making it politically correct (or, for that matter, politically incorrect). For example, Climo shows a briefcase-carrying anteater arriving home, obviously after a day’s work, to find a note: “I’ll be home late. Dinner is on the table.” And on the table there is – an ant farm. Well, that makes perfect sense once you accept the idea of anteaters having office jobs. Then there is the dinnertime scene of a rabbit and a bear, the rabbit saying, “I made us a healthy dinner” and the bear saying, “I had a terrible day.” So the rabbit removes the tablecloth, on which two small plates of food have been resting, showing that the table itself is actually a stack of boxed pizzas, and saying, “Don’t worry. I have a backup dinner.” (And yes, it should be “healthful” dinner, but hey, no one is perfect – certainly not cartoonists.) Then there are the two characters in the water, with one of them spotting a fin moving toward them and saying, “OMG! SHARK!!!” To that, the other character responds, “Dude, we’re sharks.” And so they are: “Oh. Right.” Elsewhere, there is the sloth with a to-do list: “Hang from a tree branch. Relax.” Yes, that will do it. And there is the piglet saying, “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!” to a groggy sow who asks what time it is – the reply being, “It’s 4 a.m. Will you make me breakfast?” That is about as humanlike an interchange as will be found in any cartoons featuring nonhuman characters. The Little World of Liz Climo mixes and matches these various animals, and others, in situations both likely and unlikely, using their interactions not so much to shed light on human society as to make it easier to handle the everyday oddities of the human world. Not a bad way to start every day.
Wiley and Climo set their sights on human foibles of all sorts, but some page-a-day calendars have a narrower focus – or rather a more-precise one. Jonny Hawkins’ drawings for Medical Cartoon-a-Day can be a great way for people in the healthcare field – or people who have health challenges that they must face each day – to make life a little bit lighter. One cartoon shows an “A.D.D. Clinic” outside of which an enterprising person has set up a stand selling fidget spinners. One has an M.D. who is clearly no longer young saying he likes being a geriatric doctor because his patients call him “kiddo.” One shows the entrance to a maternity ward: a set of doors bearing the word “PU-U-U-SH.” Then there are the side-by-side medical offices of an orthodontist (labeled “we got your front”) and a chiropractor (“we got your back”). And, in a separate cartoon, there is a podiatrist’s office with a parking spot in front that is marked “toe-away zone.” An occasional cartoon offers self-reflection of a sort: “Which path less traveled should I take, the osteopath or the psychopath?” A lot of these cartoons are determinedly old-fashioned, but some have up-to-date themes, just to keep things interesting: one has a hospital patient falling onto a just-arriving, unattended gurney marked “Uber,” and another has a doctor telling a patient, “Yes, it’s an out-patient procedure. Actually, I can do it with my smart phone.” And then there is the comment on a current nutritional focus, with a doctor saying to a patient, “You’re starting to grow gills. Ease up on the fish oil.” A lot of the humor here, however, is timeless, as in a panel showing the desk of a respiratory therapist with three boxes of papers on top: “In,” “Out,” and “In Again.” There are occasional animal cartoons here, in one of which a snake is told, “I’m afraid you have athlete’s belly.” And, rarely, there is something genuinely serious, which is all the more meaningful because of its rarity: a Memorial Day cartoon shows “Veterans Memorial Hospital” with the flag in front at half-staff, and the entire caption reads, “Never forgotten.” By and large, though, the idea of Medical Cartoon-a-Day is to keep things light and amusing. As with page-a-day calendars in general, the notion here is that life may be serious, any given day may have its own heaping helping of uncertainty and difficulty and unpleasantness, but there should be at least one thing on which people can count every day of the year for a smile.
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Lélio, ou le Retour à la Vie. Cyrille Dubois, tenor; Florian Sempey, baritone; Ingrid Marsoner, piano; Jean-Philippe Lafont, narrator; Wiener Singverein and Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; from Lélio—Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare. Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
The first capital-R Romantic symphony and arguably the most capital-R Romantic of them all, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique has exercised an enduring fascination on listeners – even ones who do not listen to a great deal of classical music – for nearly 200 years. It is a symphony that tells a story, one that is well-known to classical-music lovers and not difficult to explain to those less familiar with the field: despondent over a desperately desired woman who is unresponsive to his feelings, a man takes opium for solace and has a series of increasingly bizarre hallucinations that lead to one of him killing his “immortal beloved,” then being executed for the crime, and at the end seeing her spirit after death in a wild Witches’ Sabbath. That is a one-sentence summation of a nearly-hour-long work of extraordinary brilliance of conception and orchestration, a piece that encapsulates Berlioz’ amazing way with instrumentation as well as what appears to have been his lifelong extremely overdone emotional state. The best performances of Symphonie fantastique move this five-movement tour de force steadily from dream to nightmare, using the musical structure, as well as the celebrated idée fixe representing the artist’s beloved, to hold together a work that constantly threatens to burst the bounds of symphonic form (and, it could be argued, did in fact burst them). Philippe Jordan gets the approach to Symphonie fantastique just right in a live recording with the Wiener Symphoniker on the orchestra’s own label. The five-minute start of the symphony, before the appearance of the idée fixe, often seems a throwaway that does not quite fit the rest of the symphony, but Jordan accurately handles it as a setup for all that comes later, showing the meandering life and thoughts of the protagonist and the way they eventually settle on his beloved and then become obsessed with her. Berlioz subtitled the symphony Épisode de la vie d’un artiste, “Episode in the life of an artist,” and that is how Jordan treats it, pacing each early movement appropriately – the second, Un bal, waltzes along particularly well in a dreamlike way – and then building the Marche au supplice effectively to the climactic descent of the guillotine. The final Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat here sounds as if it is barely kept under control, and that is exactly right: this is music on the edge of madness and ought to come across that way.
But this Épisode, which is Berlioz’ Op. 14, does not end with the drama that concludes Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz conceived the symphony as part of an entire evening’s theatrical presentation, to be succeeded by his Op. 14b, Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie. This is a much harder work to put across for modern audiences, because its form is a now-archaic blend of stage presentation and music – Berlioz labeled it Monodrame lyrique – and it is, by design, completely episodic, using mostly music that Berlioz wrote before Symphonie fantastique to provide further illumination of the troubled artist’s life. Lélio opens right after the opium dreams of Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat, with the artist exclaiming with some surprise that he is still alive. And then the work – as long as the symphony but with much less music in it – proceeds to reflect the central character’s disordered mind and his hyper-Romantic attempts to bring his thoughts and feelings far enough under control so he can continue to live, since it seems that Death is not yet ready to claim him. The sections of Lélio show, again and again, just how innovative Berlioz was both musically and theatrically, including everything from a piano integrated into the orchestra (an entirely new concept) to musicians playing offstage to a conclusion in which Lélio, the narrator, comments on musical performance and then compliments the singers and players on how well they have done – a fascinating instance of “metamusic” and “metatheater.” The thread that runs through Lélio is Shakespeare, with the narrator musing again and again on Shakespeare’s genius and eventually, climactically, having his “students” present a Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare that is “by” Lélio but of course actually by Berlioz, bringing “meta” matters to a head. The Shakespeare connection ties directly, biographically, to the impetus for composition of both Lélio and Symphonie fantastique, since they were written after Berlioz became entranced (that is not too strong a word) by Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. But even without knowing that element of Berlioz’ life, it is possible to see the unifying effect that the Shakespeare references have on Lélio and the dramatic appropriateness of its final fantasy, which is the work’s longest section by far. A first-class narrator is an absolute necessity to hold Lélio together, and Jean-Philippe Lafont does a fine job for Jordan and the Wiener Symphoniker, while the solo singers and excellent Wiener Singverein make this performance a thoroughly satisfying one. Lélio is an oddity and a difficult work to make convincing without a thorough understanding of and immersion in its autobiographical intensity, but Jordan handles it with aplomb and, by skillfully bringing forth its mingling of bits of Symphonie fantastique (including the idée fixe) with material created specifically for the Monodrame lyrique, offers listeners a genuinely involving theatrical experience in addition to a very satisfying musical one.
Matters are not quite as satisfactory on a new Chandos release featuring Symphonie fantastique as interpreted by Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The sheer sound quality of this SACD is superb, but the disc as a whole shows the difficulty of treating Symphonie fantastique as “just” a symphony: Davis is simply too well-mannered, too unwilling to cut loose as the bizarrerie increases, for this to be a wholly satisfying performance. All the elements are certainly there, including some fine sectional playing from the Toronto ensemble (which, however, is not at the level of the Wiener Symphoniker, which is one of the world’s best-sounding orchestras). Davis shapes everything in Symphonie fantastique with care, so much care that his attentiveness to detail tends to get in the way of the overall sweep and deliberate excess of the work as a whole. There is less of horror in Marche au supplice than there can be, and the concluding Witches’ Sabbath, although it is scarcely well-mannered, comes across as being considerably more orderly for Davis than it is for Jordan. The precision of the bells, for instance, is admirable in terms of how they sound but somewhat lacking in the chills that the repeated tolling is intended to elicit. And Davis’ pairing of the symphony with the Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare from Lélio shows the hazards of presenting an excerpt of the paired work rather than the whole thing. Yes, the fantasy is worth hearing anytime, and yes, it is the piece toward which all of Lélio builds, and yes, this performance is well-shaped and well-sung, if its pacing is perhaps a trifle on the slow side. But what is missing is context: Lélio, for all its oddities and presentation difficulties, has, as the reason for its existence, the Symphonie fantastique that it follows, and the absence of the fantasy’s framework (abetted by its placement before the symphony on this recording) prevents it from adding anything substantive to the experience of Symphonie fantastique. Nevertheless, this is a very fine recording, one whose sound quality and first-rate playing will make it attractive to listeners who are uninterested in trying to absorb all the ins and outs of Lélio and prefer to see the Shakespeare fantasy as a bonus rather than as integral to Berlioz’ portrayal of a troubled artist’s deeply felt but often disorganized thoughts and feelings.
Sigismond Thalberg: Fantaisie sur des motifs de l’opera “Les Huguenots” de Meyerbeer; Grand Caprice sur des motifs de l’opera “Charles VI” de F. Halévy; L’art du chant appliqué au piano, Nos. VII and XIX; Grande Fantaisie sur des motifs de l’opera “La Muette de Portici” de D.F.E. Auber; Grand Caprice sur la Marche de “l’Apothéose” de Berlioz. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 9; Debussy: Deux Arabesques; Paul Turok: Passacaglia; Henco Espag: Herinneringe; James Adler: Elegy for Norman. James Adler, piano. Albany Records. $16.99.
Bach Transcriptions by Ferruccio Busoni, Ignaz Friedman, Harold Bauer, Franz Liszt, Alexander Siloti, Leopold Godowski, and Percy Grainger. Jean Alexis Smith, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Opera was the pop music of its day in the 19th century, and virtuoso pianists who created works based on hyper-popular operatic tunes were the equivalent of rock stars. And there were no greater rock-star pianists than Sigismond Thalberg and Franz Liszt – who, like Brahms and Wagner, were pushed as rivals by their fans but who actually had a closer, more-complex and more-cordial relationship than their supporters realized (or, perhaps, wanted to realize). Posterity has been far, far kinder to Liszt than to Thalberg (1812-1871), whose many piano innovations and compositional developments were so popular and, indeed, so over-popularized by others, that they were already being overdone, over-imitated and mocked in the last decade of his relatively short life. Certainly Thalberg was not innovative to the extent that Liszt was, or in the same way, and certainly he saw himself as almost entirely a performer, while Liszt saw himself as composer, performer, Hungarian patriot, musical reformer, champion of music filled with literary allusions (including, of course, the works of Wagner), and perhaps as anointed by God in all those roles. But, invidious and unnecessary comparisons aside, Thalberg was a very considerable presence at the piano in his time, and the works he composed for his own performances were extraordinary in the way they extended piano technique and elicited a broad range of emotions from the audiences that heard them. It is possible to admit the superficiality of much of the music, and the facile nature of the emotions evoked by it, without in any way diminishing the sheer quality of the pianistic creativity that Thalberg displayed – both in writing his works and in playing them. Mark Viner, a modern pianist of exceptional skill and a knowing student of piano history, has just the right combination of intelligence, understanding and virtuosic ability to revive Thalberg’s works at a time when opera is deemed suitable strictly for the elite – and in so doing, Viner displays the “popular” qualities that made this music so attractive to so many people when Thalberg flourished in the mid-19th century. Viner’s new Piano Classics CD of Thalberg’s music shows just how neglected this onetime giant of the piano is today: the works based on Charles VI, La Muette de Portici and the final movement of Berlioz’ Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale have never been recorded before. Yet they are all amazingly effective display pieces, and not just display pieces: the choice of musical material is in each case exemplary, and the decisions on what to emphasize and how to do so show Thalberg’s exceptional musical taste as well as his showmanship. For instance, the use of the onetime showstopper from Charles VI, an aria called “A minuit,” and the way Thalberg ties it to the famous and highly patriotic “La France a l’horreur du servage,” shows great subtlety of understanding as well as the ability to produce breathtakingly difficult piano passages (which Viner handles superbly). The focus of the fantasy based on La Muette de Portici on the Act III “Tarantella” is also highly clever, giving what could otherwise be a sprawling 14-minute work considerable focus. And the Berlioz elaboration – which Berlioz directly told Thalberg was “superb” – condenses and then elaborates all the fervor of the original. The other pieces here are equally impressive and equally well played. The fantasy on Les Huguenots accepts the opera’s focus on the Lutheran hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, and effectively intertwines that building block with various other tunes that audiences in Thalberg’s time would have known intimately. And all these fantasies stand in interesting contrast to the two excerpts played by Viner from Thalberg’s L’art du chant appliqué au piano, which includes 24 works in all: No. VII is from Mercadente’s Il Giuramento and No. XIX from Bellini’s Norma. Although scarcely simple, these transcriptions remain faithful to the originals on which they draw, and lack the complex passages and extensive ornamentation of Thalberg’s more-grandiose works – serving, Thalberg hoped, as lessons for pianists of his time in better cantabile playing. Viner is an outstanding advocate for Thalberg’s music, and if the operatic foundation on which this material was constructed is now deemed rarefied rather than popular, that in no way diminishes the quality of the works that Thalberg created at a time when the emotions of opera seemed more in tune with everyday feelings than they seem to be today.
A great deal of the emotion of Thalberg’s music is feigned, just like a great deal of the emotion in today’s pop music: his works’ primary intent is to entertain. But that need not be the sole purpose of piano works, even virtuosic ones, as is shown on a new Albany Records release featuring pianist/composer James Adler. The disc bears the title “Homages & Remembrances,” and its emotional underpinning is clearly genuine: the whole recital was inspired by the death of Adler’s older brother, Norman. The question for listeners, though, is not one of sincerity – that is surely present here in abundance – but one of whether the recording works from a strictly musical standpoint. The answer is a qualified “yes,” qualified because the CD contains so disparate a mixture of music that its primary attraction will likely be the playing of Adler rather than the works themselves. It is unfair to ask an audience to share the deep feelings that led Adler to create this particular mixture of musical material – indeed, it is impossible for listeners to do so, since each of us has a different reaction to personal tragedy and associates different music (among other things) with our own experiences. Listeners will not pick up this disc with the intent or expectation of sharing the meaning that the six works on it have for Adler. They will choose it on the basis of their associations with these pieces and their enjoyment of the way Adler handles them. The six pieces are presented in a highly personal order that probably will not resonate with many listeners: Turok’s (1977), Mozart’s (1777), then those by Debussy (1888 and 1891), Adler himself (2017-18), Espag (2017), and Mussorgsky (1874). The back-to-back works by Adler and Espag are overt memorials to Adler’s brother, and they are distinguished by a high level of gentleness and even pleasantness rather than by any sense of deep mourning and tragedy – celebrations of life rather than a wallowing in death. They are far more in tune with the way many people would prefer to be remembered than are most depressive and dour memorial pieces. Espag’s, whose title is Afrikaans for “Remembrance,” actually becomes jazzily upbeat at the end. Adler’s, which is for flute (played by Cain-Oscar Bergeron) and piano, is gentle and rather sweet, holding the depth of its feeling in check rather than letting it spill over. Together, these two works – which, combined, last just 10 minutes – make an effective memorial for Adler’s brother; although they are not going to be most people’s reason for owning this disc. Nor is Turok’s Passacaglia, which opens the CD in a mood of seriousness and a certain degree of disharmony, the primary attraction here. It is Adler’s sensitivity and interpretative skill in the older music that is most impressive on the disc. His Mozart is light, fleet, delicate, and played with fine accentuation and just the right degree of attention to ornamentation. The contrast with the Debussy works is considerable: here Adler plays with sensitivity and emotional involvement, making the two little pieces into individual musical gems. But the best piece on the disc, and the one most likely to attract listeners to it, is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which gets an absolutely first-rate rendition here. The wonders of this piece lie in the skill with which Mussorgsky paints, musically, a series of very different scenes that had been painted on canvas by his deceased friend Viktor Hartmann. The work requires the ability to make the piano sound highly atmospheric (Il Vecchio Castello, Catacombae), light and fleet and almost trifling (Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells), monumental and affirmative (The Great Gate of Kiev), and more. And it is in this piece that Adler shows his emotional (as opposed to merely technical) virtuosity, as he grasps the essence of each miniature and presents it with skill and refinement. Yes, Mussorgsky’s work is a memorial piece, and as such fits the overall theme of this disc. But it is not the “memorial” aspect that has given Pictures at an Exhibition such longevity – it is its sheer musical quality. And that is what Adler brings out here to such fine effect.
A mixture of pianistic brilliance and emotional resonance can be found in a fascinating MSR Classics CD featuring Bach transcriptions created by seven important piano virtuosos of the 19th and early 20th century. Thalberg is not among them – Bach transcriptions were not to his taste – but Liszt is here, with the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, transcribed surprisingly straightforwardly and thus showing Liszt’s willingness to subsume his own hyper-virtuosity into the needs of Bach’s music, at least on this occasion. There is a purity to Liszt’s work here, despite the fact that modern pianos (or even those of Liszt’s time) sound nothing like any instruments to which Bach had access, and the resulting sonorities of Bach’s works are as thoroughly inauthentic as they are impressive when played well – as they most certainly are here, by Jean Alexis Smith. One composer especially well-known for his Bach transcriptions was Busoni, and Smith here plays the Toccata in C and Adagio in A minor, both from Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564, although for some reason Smith places other pieces between them on this disc. The pieces are nicely reflective of the underlying music, but even better is Busoni’s handling of I Call unto Thee, O Lord, from the Orgelbüchlein, BWV 639, which maintains the deeply emotional plea of the original while moving it very effectively to a new instrument. The other composers on this disc are not as familiar as Bach transcribers, but all approach the Baroque master’s work with sensitivity, if not always reverence. Ignaz Friedman preserves the joy of My Heart Ever Faithful, from Cantata No. 68, BWV 68. Harold Bauer finds and displays the underlying patience and calm of The Soul Rests in Jesus’ Hands, from Cantata No. 127, BWV 127. Alexander Siloti interestingly uses the piano’s ability to evoke the sound of other instruments in the bell-like elements of the Prelude in B minor, BWV 855a (originally in E minor). Leopold Godowsky, far from presenting the sort of intensely virtuosic material for which he is known, makes the Adagio in C from Violin Sonata No. 2, BWV 1003, into a sweet, lovely and quiet work of considerable beauty on its own terms. And Percy Grainger, who is scarcely associated with Bach transcriptions at all, creates a version of Sheep May Safely Graze from Cantata No. 208, BWV 208, that highlights the work’s pastoral elements and ends with an exciting if somewhat inappropriate burst of joy. (In fairness, Grainger called this not a transcription but a “free ramble,” and even retitled it Blithe Bells.) Smith clearly enjoys exploring the varying approaches to Bach heard here, and she offers enthusiastic playing throughout. In one sense, none of this material is Bach – certainly none of it is Bach as Bach intended his music to be heard – but in another sense, in terms of communicating the feelings and emotions of the music to much later times, when the harpsichord, clavichord and organ had given way to pianos approximating those we know today, these pieces are very effective indeed.
August 22, 2019
Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster for a Pet. By David Goodner. Pictures by Louis Thomas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Hats Are Not for Cats! By Jacqueline K. Rayner. Clarion. $17.99.
Absolutely not. There are just some things that characters in children’s books cannot have, cannot do, cannot wear. And the authors are determined to explain why. In fact, David Goodner is so determined to show what the ultra-adorable Ginny Goblin cannot do in her search for an appropriate pet that he brings readers along with Ginny on her quest: “Let’s take Ginny down to the beach.” “Let’s take Ginny out to the hills.” “Let’s take Ginny to the forest.” And so on. The problem is that ever-smiling Ginny – shown by Louis Thomas with two large, sharp, protruding lower teeth, huge head, and standard horns and goblin-green skin – goes to perfectly nice, safe, sweet locations only so she can search for some potential pets that are definitely not nice, safe or sweet. This all starts because Ginny has a habit of keeping goats in the house as pets, and goats are smelly and difficult – one is shown munching on Ginny’s unicorn’s tail. So the narrator and readers accompany Ginny on her search for something more suitable. At the beach, she gets into a Ginny-sized submarine and heads down, down, down in the water, worrying the narrator: “She is not allowed to find the great and terrible kraken.” But of course that monster is just what she does find. Nope! The narrator will have none of that! Then, in the hills, instead of cute and fluffy bunnies, Ginny finds her way to “the ancient misty mountains,” using “a magic map…to wake up a dragon and make him her pet.” Nope! No dragon! Head for the forest! No, no, not “the spooky, twisty part of the forest where all the trees are dead and the grass is scorched.” But that is just where Ginny goes – to catch a basilisk, yet another of the many monsters that she cannot, must not have for a pet. Eventually, Ginny takes a rocket from the space museum – something else the narrator says she is not allowed to do – and journeys to a place where she plans to “catch a space alien that spits acid.” Nope, nope, nope! “Ginny Goblin cannot have a monster for a pet!” So what can she have? Aww…how cute! “Ginny Goblin has a baby goat. Goats don’t crush things in their tentacles or set them on fire or petrify them or try to eat them.” What a great pet for Ginny! Except…wait…just how and why did this pet quest start in the first place? Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster for a Pet is one of those laugh-out-loud books in which the pitch-perfect narration and delightfully apt illustrations work so well together that it is hard to believe they come from two different people – everything just fits together exactly as it should.
What is not fitting, at least according to a certain dog as described and illustrated by Jacqueline K. Rayner, is a hat-wearing cat. No, Hats Are Not for Cats! Why not? Well, Rayner’s dog never quite explains that, but is quite clear in stating: “Hats, you see, are for dogs. Like me.” They are certainly not for cats. No matter what sort of hat the cat tries on, it does not pass muster: “Not hats that are big/ or hats that are small./ Hats are not for cats at all.” Rayner’s rhyming text, reminiscent of that of Dr. Seuss, fits well with a story in which both the dog and the cat are drawn in shades of gray, while the hats re multicolored as well as multi-shaped. But they are not for cats: “Not pink or stripy or polka dot./ Dogs wear hats and cats do not!” So the dog proclaims, pointing to a wall-mounted drawing showing a happy dog wearing a hat next to a cat that is wearing one but has a big X through it. The fun here comes from the voiceless cat’s many attempts to come up with some sort of hat that the dog will agree makes sense for felines. But everything falls short, even a super-silly hat composed of fruit that the cat wears while riding a skateboard. Rayner has a great sense of the styles of the chapeaux and some wonderful ways of showing cat poses reflecting each hat of which the dog disapproves: “Not fine hats or flapper. /Not dashing and dapper!/ Not pirate or party!/ Not odd hats or arty!” So says the dog, as the cat cavorts about the page wearing everything from a 1920s-style purple feathered hat to one bedecked with skull and crossbones to a beret that apparently comes with two dripping paintbrushes for the cat to hold in its paws. Eventually the dog’s condemnation of cat hats gets so loud – shown by enormous letters – that the words cover a two-page spread and scare the cat right off the right side of the right-hand page: Hats Are Not for Cats! And so the dog is left alone, surrounded by unworn cat hats. But of course things do not, cannot end there. Back comes the cat, which now does speak, saying, “Hats – ARE for cats.” And a whole troupe of cats, of all sizes and now in all colors, shows up to wear all the various hats that the dog – now hatless – has said are not for cats. But the original cat, after leading the triumphally bedecked feline parade, comes back to the now-sad pup to devise a happy, catty, doggy ending for a thoroughly delightful book, as all the cats (and a few dogs that have now shown up) proclaim together, “Hats are for everyone!” Hats off to Rayner for this rambunctious romp!
Calendars (wall for 2020): Farmer’s Market; It’s All Good; Heart and Brain. Universe/Andrews McMeel, $14.99 (Market); Andrews McMeel, $14.99 each (Good, Heart).
One of the pleasures of wall calendars is their artistic enhancement of whatever wall they hang on: suddenly a bare space reflects your pictorial taste while also giving you an at-a-glance look at the month and at any notes you may have made or appointments you may have coming up. In fact, some wall calendars reflect your taste in, well, taste – such as Farmer’s Market, every page of which displays a mouth-watering display of homegrown or homemade goodies of one sort or another. The art here, by John Burgoyne, makes everything look absolutely scrumptious: a whole set of oranges and tangerines one month offers a brilliant splash of orange and similar colors, while a portrayal of cooking greens makes flat-leaf spinach, collards, curly kale and other green-colored vegetables appear delightfully appetizing. Everything here looks just delicious, with the art showing more-perfect fruits and vegetables than cooks are likely to encounter in real life – for example, a kind of idealization of summer squashes in one month, Latin American vegetables in another. The shapes and colors are genuinely artistic and beautifully arranged and juxtaposed, and the selection of items to put on display is very well done. One month, for example, features exotic mushrooms, including blewit, fairy ring, pioppini and others than may well be unfamiliar even to many cooks but that here look truly tantalizing; another month is called “rustic bread shapes” (after all, farmers’ markets sell more than produce!) and includes ciabatta, boule, baguette and others. What is particularly nice about Burgoyne’s prints is that you do not have to be a dedicated “foodie” to enjoy them: even if you do not care for, say, eggplants, the display of a dozen types of them in many different colors turns part of your wall into an art gallery. As for where to hang this calendar – well, the kitchen is an obvious place, but the shapes and colors will actually enhance any wall space in any room.
The It’s All Good calendar by Thaneeya McArdle fits anywhere, too, but only if you find a place where both its art and its sentiments mesh with your décor. This is a positive-thinking, 16-month calendar that offers 13 homespun, upbeat sayings rendered in elaborate splashes of colors and shapes – the It’s All Good title itself for September-December 2019 and 12 sayings for the individual months of 2020. The loops, whorls, swirls and intensely bright colors will hark back to “flower power” art of the 1960s for some and will simply be a relentlessly bright-and-light approach for those who do not remember that time period (or do not remember it fondly). For those who do recall the Age of Aquarius, one month proclaims, “Love without Limits,” and another (bedecked with butterflies and flowers) urges, “Let Yourself Be FREE.” McArdle’s style is immediately recognizable on every calendar page, but McArdle – who was born in 1979 and therefore certainly does not remember the Sixties – keeps things varied and interesting by altering her mix of colors, her size and style of letters, and the shapes she uses to communicate her positive messages. “Start Where You Are,” for instance, has the four words running vertically from the top of the page within a ribbon or tube that extends beyond the page’s upper limit and past its lower margin – and while the ribbon/tube is mainly white inside, so the letters stand out, the rest of the illustration is a darker, multicolored, vibrant mixture of flower petals, teardrops and similar shapes, and even a butterfly. In contrast, “Do What You Love” presents the four words prominently and rather starkly, mostly in italics, in shades of orange/red, against a dark brown background with blue and green stripes framing it to the left and right. Of course, this calendar is only for someone for whom the sentiments resonate – you will be looking at each of them for a month, after all, and at the It’s All Good phrase for four months if you start using the calendar at its earliest point. But who doesn’t need a little uplift? And why not get it each time you glance at a nearby wall? You can even create your own additional page to put up anywhere you like: the calendar includes a bonus black-and-white page by McArdle, without dates, offering the sentiment, “Love Blooms Here” – with flowers everywhere that can be colored exactly as you like, whenever in the year you choose.
In a way, wall calendars represent a merger of the practical (the neatly laid out dates, each with space for little notes) and the emotional (the art that appears above the dates and sometimes below them as well). You might say that wall calendars are a combination of brain and heart – but you don’t have to say that, because Nick Seluk has said it for you in his Heart and Brain wall calendar. Seluk has one of the cleverest comic-strip ideas of recent times, the sort of notion that you look at and wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It seems obvious but has never been put together this way before: the ongoing conflict between the human heart (emotion-driven, seeking pleasure before anything else, doing whatever is necessary to obtain immediate gratification) and the human brain (planning for the future, figuring things out logically, keeping the impulse-driven heart under control to the extent possible). Actually, in Seluk’s concept, these are not exactly human organs: they belong to “the awkward Yeti,” a blue-furred, anxiety-packed humanoid character about whom it is not necessary to know anything in order to appreciate the Heart and Brain dynamic. What Seluk has done so well with these characters is to keep them true to their clichéd roles while giving them, well, character of their own. They are constantly at odds but are, after all, in the same body, and therefore have no choice but to come to some sort of rapprochement, however unwillingly. Seluk actually peoples his Heart and Brain comics with other organs as well (which means that “peoples” is scarcely the right word), and this calendar shows that in one illustration: the lungs hand a ball labeled “O2” to Heart, who exclaims, “I love it! I’m going to share it with EVERYONE!” And of course that is just what real, honest-to-goodness hearts do by pumping oxygenated blood through the entire body. Clever! So is the rest of this calendar, which features a large heart-and-brain illustration atop each month; a four-panel sequence above September-December 2019, this being another 16-month calendar; and a multi-panel strip running along the bottom of each page for the year 2020 beneath the month’s dates. Occasional character illustrations within the date grid enliven the proceedings further. There is something endearing as well as silly about everything Seluk does with these characters, starting with their appearance: Heart looks sort of like a heart, is red, has huge eyes, and is almost always accompanied by a butterfly that stands, in part, for his flightiness; Brain looks sort of like a brain, is pink, and has no visible eyes, instead wearing glasses with square-to-slightly-rectangular frames. Sometimes these characters get along, as in the December illustration showing them ice skating, with Heart exuberantly pulling Brain into the air as the butterfly hovers between them. But more often, the two have conflicts that every human with a heart and brain will recognize. Heart makes a bad decision and reminds Brain that Brain is supposed to stop him when he is wrong – but when Brain tries, Heart exclaims, “I’m never wrong!” Heart tries to get Brain to pay attention to a large pile of green balls labeled “good,” but Brain is fixated on a single black ball labeled “bad.” With a mess everywhere, Brain tells Heart that chores cannot be put off forever, to which Heart replies, “I have to try!” The amusement of the Heart and Brain calendar is tinged with just enough wisdom and silliness to make this a great choice for any possessor of a heart, brain, and sense of humor – a combination that will surely help anyone get through 2020 or any other year.
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 24. Orli Shaham, piano; St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson. Canary Classics. $16.
Lachlan Skipworth: Piano Trio; Piano Quartet; Clarinet Quintet; Intercurrent; The Night Sky Fall. Akiko Miyazawa, violin; Aleksandar Madžar, Emily Green-Armytage and James Guan, piano; Ashley William Smith, clarinet and bass clarinet; Anna Pokorny, Jon Tooby and Umberto Clerici, cello; Bella Hristova, clarinet; Kate Sullivan, violin; Ben Caddy, viola; Louise Devenish, marimba and psalterphone. Navona. $14.99.
Bill Whitley: Then Elephant Speaks; The Circles, 2017; The Circles, 2010. Elena Talarico and Bill Whitley, piano; Lucia Foti, harp; Stefano Grasso, vibes; Francesco Zago, electric guitars and electronics. Ravello. $14.99.
There are endless ways to interpret Mozart, endless reasons for doing so, and endless explanations of why one interpretation or another “works” or does not. The reality is that all interpretations “work” if they interest, intrigue, move, engage, attract the audience; in that sense, whether they are academically correct, historically informed, careful to play what the composer expected to hear or more concerned with being heard in a modern setting by contemporary audiences, is largely irrelevant to their “rightness.” This is important to remember at a time when ongoing arguments about piano type, orchestra size, recording venue and more seem never-ending when it comes to music from before the 20th century (and even some from the 20th century). Mozart’s music, like Bach’s, communicates effectively, often brilliantly, whether or not played in the way Mozart played it himself or expected others to play it. Academics can argue whatever points they will, but what ultimately matters is whether performers have something valuable to say, to communicate to listeners, and have found an effective way of bringing it forth. What is striking about the Orli Shaham/David Robertson collaboration in two well-known Mozart piano concertos, on the Canary Classics label, is how well it communicates feelings and expressions that seem “Mozartean” even though there is nothing historically accurate about the recording at all. The orchestra is too large for Mozart’s time, the piano far too big and resonant, the cadenzas not at all in Mozart’s style (especially in the first movement of Concerto No. 24), and Shaham’s playing is far too focused on the emotionally expressive passages of the music – not only in the enormously powerful No. 24 but also in the slow movement of No. 17. Purists will not care for what Shaham and Robertson have done here, although they will (or at least should) appreciate the consistency of these interpretations and the excellent support that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra accords Shaham. But as a reaching-out CD, as a deeply felt production that connects beautifully and meaningfully with an audience 230-plus years after these concertos were written, the recording is absolutely first-rate. Shaham and Robertson clearly have deep feelings for Mozart that they know how to translate into feelings to be shared with an at-home audience. It is extraordinarily difficult to listen to this recording without giving it full attention: it insists that what it has to say is more important than anything else that may be in a listener’s environment while the disc plays. This is by no means always the case with recorded music, or even with recorded Mozart, which can descend into mere prettiness without the counterbalancing pathos that is one of the signposts of Mozart’s genius. It would be facile and rather silly to say that Shaham and Robertson “channel” Mozart; better to say that they understand Mozart with a thoroughness that allows his music to flow through them and through these performances in a way that connects directly with an audience that, objectively, is immeasurably different from any for which Mozart wrote or could have written. The way Shaham shapes each individual variation of the finale of Concerto No. 17, the considerable drama of the coda of that movement, the unbridled intensity Shaham insists on presenting from the start of Concerto No. 24, the almost unbearable heights to which she takes that intensity in the finale of the latter concerto – these and many other touches illuminate aspects of Mozart that have always been there in the score (and of which, to be sure, other performers have also been cognizant), but that Shaham and Robertson connect with tremendous skill in performances that are fully and beautifully integrated from start to finish. This is not “correct” Mozart in the historical sense, but it is hard to escape the feeling that it is very much correct in its effects, its meaning, and its emotional impact. The ultimate test of performances for most listeners is not whether they are historically accurate but whether they are convincing – and these certainly are.
It is the piano’s percussive elements rather than its expressive ones that tend to be most thoroughly explored by many 21st-century composers, often in contexts that would mystify Mozart and may well mystify many of the people who garner meaning from Mozart’s approach to the instrument and to music in general. In a (+++) release from Navona of the music of Lachlan Skipworth, an Australian composer originally trained as a clarinetist, the piano might seem logically to be a focus of the Piano Trio and Piano Quartet, but in fact it is something of an also-ran among the other instruments in these works and throughout the disc. The reason is that all the Western instruments he writes for are much less meaningful to Skipworth than the shakuhachi, a five-hole bamboo flute – blown into at the end, not transversely – that Skipworth studied for three years in Japan. Although the shakuhachi does not itself appear in any of the music on this disc, the tonal world of the instruments is redolent of Japanese sensibilities, and even the treatment of the clarinet seems informed by Skipworth’s experiences in Japan. Indeed, Skipworth is at pains to try to re-create Japanese musical experiences and sounds using Western instruments, with the result that he builds these pieces from strange-to-Western-ideas rhythmic (and non-rhythmic) groupings, mathematical principles of the sort that underlie the work of many modern Western composers who have become dissatisfied with the traditional tools and sounds of Western music, and so on. His interest seems to be primarily in using the form of pieces for shakuhachi without employing the instrument itself. The result, pleasingly for some listeners but certainly not for all, is a set of pieces in which the basic sound is at least vaguely familiar, while the structural elements are either outré or appear absent altogether. Subsumed within the soundworld of Japanese-style music but limited in performance by the strictures of design of Western instruments, the performers on this CD all work hard to convey Skipworth’s “audio vision.” But the extent to which they succeed is hard to determine. The reason is that it is difficult to know just what Skipworth wants an audience to absorb from his music – as opposed to what he wants to put into it. He clearly wants to duplicate and expand upon some of the musical and spiritual feelings evoked in him by his time in Japan and his studies there. But what does this bring to the audience? For instance, iIf Skipworth uses a somewhat aleatoric principle that he calls floating time to try to make performers respond intuitively, rather than at the composer’s direction, to each other, then he is inventing (not exactly “composing”) music that will be different each time it is played – as is always the case with “chance” music. But what about the audience? Is its response left to chance as well, or is Skipworth seeking something more specific? That question is not answered by any piece on this CD. Clearly the sheer sound of these pieces is preeminent in Skipworth’s thinking, which is why he even invented one of the instruments heard on this recording: the psalterphone, a set of metal rectangular tubes. And certainly listeners who enjoy modern sounds for their own sake – athematic, arrhythmic, unmelodic, uneven in tempo and loudness – may be intrigued by Skipworth’s pieces and their unusual melding of Western and Japanese elements. However, it is obvious that Skipworth is not reaching out to a wide audience but to the cognoscenti, however defined.
A (+++) Ravello disc featuring music by Bill Whitley takes a somewhat more conventional approach to the piano and other instruments, at least part of the time. It also incorporates electronic sounds of various sorts, in the way that many contemporary composers do, setting acoustic instruments against enhanced ones or against actual electronics. Whitley’s music is not the same each time it is heard, but unlike Skipworth’s, this is not because it is filled with chance elements – instead, it is because Whitley offers the music in different mixes and therefore uses it to produce different effects. Then Elephant Speaks in its first iteration here features quiet and basically conventional piano sounds for the first half, before other instruments enter; the pacing is deliberate and the mood quiet and even wistful. The remixed version leans far more heavily on vibes and electric guitars, producing a more otherworldly sound in which there are many echoes of the first version but the context has changed throughout. The Circles, 2017, in its first version, again features a moderately paced, mostly traditionally harmonized piano part, with clear but relatively modest contributions by electronics. The second version of the same piece makes the electronics far more prominent, to the point that the piano sounds as if it is accompanying them rather than the other way around. Aurally much less pleasing, this second version has a more overtly “modern” sound to it as it keeps the electronics front and center. And there is a third version of the same piece – which Whitley wrote seven years earlier than the first two. This is The Circles, 2010, in which the piano is the only instrument present, offering the basics of what would become the more-elaborate works from 2017. Whitley plays this 2010 version himself. This disc provides some interesting insight into the thinking and methods of a contemporary composer, but here as in the Skipworth CD, it is worth asking what the audience is supposed to receive from and then take away from hearing the material. The Whitley disc includes 17 minutes of the two versions of Then Elephant Speaks and 12 of the three versions of The Circles, so listeners get 29 minutes’ worth of five pieces that are really two pieces played and mixed in different ways. Is the result worthwhile? As an audio experiment, it certainly has its moments, and those who enjoy dissecting modern compositional techniques will find the different versions of these works interesting to compare. But listeners without that strong intellectual interest in deciphering Whitley’s musical/electronic thinking will likely find the not-quite-half-hour of material on this disc to be quite a bit more than enough.
Lehár: Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow). Iurii Samoilov, Marlis Petersen, Barnaby Rea, Kateryna Kasper, Martin Mitterrutzner, Theo Lebow, Michael Porter, Gordon Bintner; Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester conducted by Joana Mallwitz. Oehms. $28.99 (2 CDs).
There really should be no apology necessary for operettas, especially ones such as Franz Lehár’s most famous, Die lustige Witwe. But modern opera companies persist in trying to find reasons that it is still all right to stage works such as this – as if, somehow, the operetta genre is less worthy of preservation than that of opera, simply because operettas are generally (but scarcely always) lighter in tone and often involve spoken dialogue rather than recitatives and…well, this is all nonsense, since there are plenty of operas that are fluffier than almost any operetta (Il Barbiere di Siviglia) and plenty of operas that are really stage plays with music and without recitatives (Carmen as Bizet originally conceived it). The notion that there is something inherently déclassé about operetta nevertheless persists, more because of the genre’s reputation for escapism and frivolity that because of any inherent lesser worth. Some operettas, like some operas, deserve to be taken at face value and staged accordingly, and Die lustige Witwe is among them. But presenters persist in looking for ways to make them somehow “more respectable” and thus allegedly more acceptable to modern audiences.
So the Frankfurt Opera’s 2018 presentation of Die lustige Witwe, preserved in a live recording on the Oehms label, treats Lehár’s work as a play within a play, a venerable approach when trying to take a “meta” view of a work and tell the audience that they and the performers are too worldly and knowledgeable to accept the piece if it is simply offered as the composer intended. CDs do not include visuals, of course, but the 16 pages of photos in the middle of the booklet included with this release show the staging clearly, including the cameras on stage supposedly shooting the whole story for a visual presentation. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and it is a common approach for maintaining audience distance from the characters in the original work. But why do that in Die lustige Witwe? It makes no dramatic sense: the operetta’s principal couple is as modern as can be – onetime lovers separated by circumstance and family issues, and so wounded that she marries a much older man who conveniently dies before the drama starts, while he throws himself into work, drink, and a series of meaningless affairs. And the second couple, if coached and played properly, is damaged in its own way: Camille and Valencienne have an affair despite her being married to a prominent man, but she realizes that they have no future together and he very reluctantly accepts the necessity of parting after proclaiming his deep and genuine love (which she will no longer experience) in the wonderful Wie eine Rosenknospe. Valencienne’s crucial notation on her fan, “I am a respectable woman,” is less a statement of fact than one of determination for the future and resignation to her marital fate – and that makes its importance in the operetta’s denouement all the more bittersweet.
Virtually none of this comes through in the Frankfurt production. What it offers is basically a “party piece,” which is indeed a legitimate way to stage Die lustige Witwe but which undermines its emotional heft. In this approach, the first act is built around an embassy party, the second around Hanna’s “Pontevedro party” with its celebrated Vilja song, and the third around the party that Hanna stages with the grisettes of Maxim’s so she can prove to Danilo that she truly loves him and get him to admit his feelings to her as well as himself. But take all the posing inherent to partygoing and run it through the notion of everything on stage being acted for the benefit of cameras shooting it for some future purpose, and you make Die lustige Witwe less than it can be and less than Lehár intended it to be.
What saves the production and makes this two-CD set worth hearing is the quality of the singing and orchestral playing. Iurii Samoilov as Danilo and Marlis Petersen as Hanna are vocally well-matched and handle their arias with skill (although their dialogue tends to be stilted rather than passionate). Barnaby Rea makes a suitably blustery Baron Mirko Zeta, while Kateryna Kasper is a tender Valencienne and Martin Mitterrutzner a reasonably effective Camille – although their relationship is downplayed by having their homespun wishes (Ein trautes Zimmerlein) sung by Danilo and Hanna instead. This was actually done at the operetta’s première, but then the duet was in the third act and carried a different meaning – here it is placed in the first act, as usual when sung by Camille and Valencienne, but it is given to the first couple rather than the second and is sung before Danilo’s entrance aria, which makes no sense whatsoever.
Joana Mallwitz is a conductor to watch, and hear, in this repertoire: from the first bars of Die lustige Witwe, she leads the production with heady, headlong pacing and superb attention to orchestral detail, bringing out the richness of Lehár’s scoring to a greater extent than most conductors do. She does tend to rush some of the faster music instead of giving Lehár’s wonderful melodies time to breathe their magic, but by and large, she has a strong sense of the beauties of this score. The Frankfurt musicians are absolutely top-notch, and Mallwitz keeps her expectations of them at the highest possible level – with the result that they deliver a first-class performance.
The overall CD packaging, on the other hand, is third-class. There is a 68-page booklet that includes, in addition to the portfolio of stage photos and other scattered pictures, five pages promoting other Oehms releases, and 26 pages of information on the performers, including extended listings of the accomplishments of singers whose roles are barely visible or audible in Die lustige Witwe. There is no libretto and no link to a place to find it online, and even though the dialogue here is both abridged and altered, none of it is given in the booklet (even in German, much less in translation); and, again, there is no indication of anywhere to find it online. As for the actual story, that is tossed off in a three-page summary, while the music and its innovative elements are barely discussed at all. The result is a presentation that makes the importance and continued popularity of Die lustige Witwe incomprehensible. This is a very fine performance for listeners who speak German and already know this work well, and thus will welcome a chance to hear a good cast present it, in the main, effectively. But it could have been so much more. And it should have been – both the composer and this operetta deserve better than they are given here.
August 15, 2019
Just Like Us! Crocs. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Earth by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Dinosaurs by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
No one is ever likely to accuse the long-running Just Like Us! series by Bridget Heos and David Clark of profundity. These short factual books, by combining photography with Clark’s art work, are designed to engage children in nature by pointing out ways in which various animals – and even plants – are a lot like humans, despite the many other ways in which they are quite different. The “a lot like us” concept is, of course, just a hook to get kids interested: those things can’t possibly be much like us, can they? The books’ appeal lies in a response of “you’d be surprised!” And so it is in the latest series entry, which is about crocodilians – not only crocodiles but also alligators, caimans, gharials and muggers, those last being a particular type of crocodile. With their elongated heads, big teeth, and long tails, crocodilians are excellent subjects for caricature, and Clark takes advantage of all their characteristics in his drawings, while the photos throughout the book show how these powerful reptilian water predators really look (for one thing, they are not nearly as big-eyed and bug-eyed as Clark makes them!). Heos does her usual fine job of finding things that these critters have more-or-less in common with humans: they have multiple ways to communicate with each other, from bellowing to making a slapping noise by clamping their mouths shut on the water’s surface; they protect their young, with both mothers and (sometimes) fathers taking care of the little ones; and they love spending time in the sun. The specifics of the comparisons, of course, show how different crocodilians are from humans rather than how similar they are: that sun-basking, for instance, is used by crocodilians to adjust their body heat, since these animals are “ectothermic, or cold-blooded” – kudos to Heos for using both the correct scientific term and the more-common but less-accurate popular one. Heos does her usual good job of mixing interesting facts with the compared-to-us information: again using sun-basking as an example, she points out that because crocodilians do not sweat, they keep their mouths open while sunning so the air can cool them enough to stabilize their body temperature. This neatly explains the very commonly seen pictures in which on-shore crocodilians have their mouths wide open. The lineage of crocodilians is a long one, far longer than the measly one of human beings: Heos points out that modern crocodilians are directly descended from ones that survived the worldwide catastrophe that nearly wiped out the dinosaurs. By the end of Crocs, young readers will likely conclude that crocodilians are not really very much like us after all – but the real point here is not to emphasize similarities that, to the extent that they exist, are very much surface-level. The point is to get kids interested in delving more deeply into the topic – and the fine bibliography at the back of the book provides a number of good places to start doing just that.
Steve Jenkins’ books of infographics – diagrams, charts and graphs – are no more in-depth than the Heos/Clark series, but they too communicate a good deal of interesting factual information in an appealing, easy-to-grasp form. Books such as Earth by the Numbers and Dinosaurs by the Numbers fit well into our video-focused age by being visually striking, very easy to look at (all the illustrations “pop” against plain white backgrounds), and just informative enough to provide the basics on various subjects and point children toward sources with more-in-depth material (the bibliographies of Jenkins’ books are short, but the sources are well-chosen). Earth by the Numbers contains some material that will likely be genuinely surprising both to young readers and to parents. For instance, it is well-known that most of Earth’s surface is covered by water, and Jenkins shows that visually, but his next visual shows that fresh (drinkable) water represents only a tiny, tiny portion of all the water on Earth, and the visual after that shows that of the very small amount of potable water worldwide, the vast, vast majority is either underground or frozen. Parents and children alike may pause to consider the implication of this – one of many times in Earth by the Numbers that Jenkins visually displays evidence of the fragility of our world and our place in it, without ever saying directly just how delicate our existence is. Earth by the Numbers also includes an explanation of the reason that Mount Everest is Earth’s highest mountain but not its tallest: that distinction goes to Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which is more than 4,000 feet larger in vertical measurement but which has its base deep under the ocean and is therefore highest but not tallest. There are some excellent explanations of natural processes here: “A speedy glacier moves about as fast as a snail crawls.” And there are some genuinely surprising facts: the driest place on Earth is the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, where no rain has fallen for thousands of years. (Chile’s Atacama Desert, which gets about one-twelfth of an inch annually, earns an honorable mention.) And just like Heos and Clark, Jenkins includes a timeline in Earth by the Numbers – starting with our planet’s formation in the unimaginably distant past of 4.5 billion years ago and proceeding to the comparatively recent first appearance of dinosaurs (235 million years ago) and to and beyond the time 66 million years ago when “an asteroid hits the earth and wipes out the dinosaurs.”
Jenkins’ statement on dinosaurs in Earth by the Numbers is not quite correct, though, and he is well aware of that, as shown in Dinosaurs by the Numbers, which says at the very start that “about 66 million years ago, almost all of them vanished.” That “almost” is important, not so much because crocodilians are still around – they did survive the end of the dinosaur age, but they are not dinosaurs – but because birds are everywhere today. “Birds are living dinosaurs!” exclaims Jenkins, and this is just one of the intriguing pieces of information in Dinosaurs by the Numbers – although it is one that parents and even some children may have heard already. Still, the infographics format of Jenkins’ book makes the facts visually interesting: Jenkins shows a dinosaur skeleton that looks much like the skeleton of a modern bird, and he gives a size comparison among that feathered dinosaur, a modern pigeon, and a human hand. The ability to put things in perspective – whether through timelines or illustrations – is a strength of Jenkins’ books. His creative timeline for “when did the dinosaurs live?” is made up of circles, each representing a million years, and therefore shows in a very striking way just how long the age of dinosaurs lasted and just how short the age of humans has been (humans get just two circles, and that includes going back to the very earliest forms identifiable as human, not the much-more-recent start of Homo sapiens). The scale drawings comparing dinosaurs with modern-day animals also show size in a visually compelling way, including one illustration indicating that the largest dinosaur discovered to date, Patagotitan, was a bit longer than a modern blue whale but definitely less hefty: the blue whale remains the largest animal Earth has ever seen. Dinosaurs by the Numbers includes intriguing comparisons, examples being one of the skulls of extinct and modern creatures, and one of the speed of dinosaurs and that of modern animals – with an explanation of how scientists figure such things out. A two-page “dinosaur facts” presentation after the infographics is a useful feature of Dinosaurs by the Numbers, giving more details on specific dinosaurs and showing how to pronounce the animals’ scientific names. Jenkins’ presentations in his infographics books are not always 100% accurate: the “wipes out the dinosaurs” remark in Earth by the Numbers is one example of this, and another, in Dinosaurs by the Numbers, is his definition of reptiles as “a group of egg-laying animals with scaly skin” – many reptiles give birth to live young (and some dinosaurs may have, too). Nevertheless, Jenkins’ attractively designed, easy-to-look-through books can be a fine foundation for families that want an introduction to some difficult and complex topics – and these books, like those of Heos and Clark, may well inspire parents and children alike to move on to the many more-thorough studies that can be found elsewhere.