November 27, 2019
If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em: The Twenty-Fourth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Animorphia Sea and Sky. By Kerby Rosanes. Plume. $9.99.
False Knees: An Illustrated Guide to Animal Behavior. By Joshua Barkman. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
T-Rex Tries Again…Return of the King. By Hugh Murphy. Plume. $14.
Nobody could possibly mistake the denizens of Jim Toomey’s long-running comic strip, Sherman’s Lagoon, for real-life ocean dwellers. After all, they talk, use computers, hatch money-making schemes, own virtual assistants, create musicals, use indoor plumbing (well, underwater plumbing, anyway), enjoy fancy pillow chocolates, and otherwise behave entirely like human beings. Weird human beings. But one thing Toomey has done exceptionally well for many years – and continues doing in the latest collection of the strip, If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Eat ’Em – is to bring in, amid all the amusement, honest-to-goodness realities of the watery parts of Earth, in a way that raises awareness of ecological and environmental issues. For example, one sequence in the new collection features desert-dwelling shield shrimp, fascinating “living fossils” whose characteristics Toomey describes accurately while building an absurd plot strand around them, in which ever-mercenary Hawthorne the hermit crab tries unsuccessfully to turn them into snack food. Elsewhere, in another of Hawthorne’s schemes – this one involving the creation of a circus of “little ocean oddities” – Toomey provides information on the red-lipped batfish, sea pigs or scotoplanes, and sea angels (angelic-looking sea slugs). And he builds another sequence around triton snails, whose appetite for crown-of-thorns starfish may help preserve the Great Barrier Reef. He even creates strips based on the rescue by the Sri Lankan navy of an elephant that was found swimming (or caught in the current) 10 miles off the country’s coast. Toomey plays all his informational material for laughs – Sherman’s Lagoon is not intended to be didactic, after all. So the elephant rescue, for example, turns into a series of strips in which the elephant wants other characters in the strip to help him train for the Olympics. But Toomey does a consistently fine job of making it clear where the realities of water-animal life end and the silliness begins: he actually has one character introduce the elephant-training material with the words, “Ooh, plot twist.” And certainly a great deal of Sherman’s Lagoon is played entirely for laughs, such as the characters’ discovery and derailing of a plot to merge Microsoft and Facebook into Microface. Still, social commentary lurks not far beneath the surface of the ocean and the surface of Sherman’s Lagoon, as in a series in which Sherman the shark bites through an undersea data cable and causes “a global Facebook blackout” – to which hairless beach apes (the strip’s term for humans) react as if the world has come to an end. The actual characters in Sherman’s Lagoon are as comic-strip-like as can be, but the way Toomey regularly touches base with the world gives the strip more depth (of thought as well as water) than most.
The beautifully realistic art of Kerby Rosanes in Animorphia Sea and Sky serves a different purpose. Rosanes’ elaborately detailed black-and-white drawings exist to be colored or expanded upon by adults with artistic inclinations – and also to showcase gorgeous but thoroughly unrealistic versions of the animals’ physical appearance. What Rosanes does is to provide a hyper-realistic view of creatures that turns out, on closer inspection, to contain within itself a large number of completely unrealistic elements. A superb drawing of an eagle in flight, for example, shows the bird’s head and legs, and the front section of its wings, completely realistically and very impressively. But as the viewer’s eye moves farther back along the bird, the wings turn out to be filled with tiny drawings of all sorts of items that give the overall rendition a distinctly surrealistic pedigree. Everything from postcards to a ball of yarn to a guitar to a broom to a crown-wearing fish to pieces of hardware to various indescribable oddities turns up in the eagle’s wings, increasing the challenge of coloring the picture and also simply making the page a fascinating one to look at. Another page does something similar for an owl, which not only has a wing containing a small skull and other oddities but also is portrayed as being on a tree branch filled with what appear to be pixies, tiny ghosts, some highly unusual-looking snails, and much more. As the book’s title indicates, some of the creatures in it are found in water: one page shows three sea turtles with highly elaborately decorated shells, plus a number of others given in outline only, so artists can decorate and color them at will (and then take out the page for display: the book features single-sided, removable pages, suitable for framing). Animorphia Sea and Sky will have you looking at reality in a different way, even while coloring some of the drawings at will and following Rosanes’ suggestions for others, such as “complete the pod of orcas” and “draw more jellyfish to fill the page.” An attractive gift book for anyone with an artistic bent, Animorphia Sea and Sky showcases the high quality of Rosanes’ observation of nature as well as his decidedly offbeat way of taking real animals into a world beyond reality.
Joshua Barkman does something similar in False Knees, but his approach is different. Barkman’s drawings of animals are in color and are completely realistic: he has observed the wildlife near his home in Ontario, Canada, very carefully, and he reproduces the creatures’ appearance elegantly. But what Barkman then does is imagine discussions among the animals that are as far from reality as possible. Several “How to Draw” pages in the book neatly encapsulate Barkman’s approach and provide readers with clues to the remaining pages. Each “How to Draw” page starts with a panel called “Shapes,” showing the basic way he creates a creature’s appearance. Then comes a panel called “Detail,” in which the initial black-and-white, chunky drawing is smoothed, rounded, colored and made quite realistic. And finally there is a panel ascribing some wholly human characteristic, unrealistically, to the completed drawing. In “How to Draw a Chickadee,” for instance, the last panel features “ingratitude.” In the more-general “How to Draw a Bird,” the final panel shows “hostility.” In “How to Draw a Deer,” the final panel shows “determinism” and has the deer saying, “Free will is an illusion.” In “How to Draw a Rabbit,” the last panel offers “sass.” And actually, there is considerable sass in many of Barkman’s drawings. One has a beautifully drawn blue jay say, in the first of two panels, “Some say I’m really vain about my looks,” and then in the second panel say, “But I’m also clever and hilarious!” Another has two very real-looking black birds discussing their musical tastes, with one explaining, “I’ve been getting into some ambient-anthro recently. Like, chain saws, industrial fans, rush-hour car traffic – early traffic, though. The later stuff is crap.” Elsewhere, two squirrels discuss food storage, with one saying, “I organize it chronologically by harvest date, then by species, and then further by size.” Then there are the two raccoons discussing life in general, with one commenting, “You know what I really don’t understand?” The other asks, “What’s that?” The reply: “Well, like, the vast majority of things.” And then there are the seagulls, one of them wondering, “What is the culminating result of consciousness? Where does this path end?” The other says that “it has something to do with those fries on the pier.” It is the juxtaposition of thinking and commentary like this with excellent, realistic drawing that makes False Knees always unusual, often amusing, and sometimes surprisingly thought-provoking.
There is really only one realistic element in Hugh Murphy’s little books about the trials and tribulations of a huge, carnivorous dinosaur trying to exist in the modern world. That is the way Murphy draws T-Rex’s tiny arms in comparison with the rest of his body – an anatomically accurate portrayal that, in fact, is the basis for almost all the humor in T-Rex Tries Again…Return of the King. This little (+++) book is not quite as much fun as Murphy’s two previous ones, T-Rex Trying… and T-Rex Trying and Trying: the humor here is more forced, as if Murphy himself is trying just a bit too hard. Still, some of the predicaments of T-Rex are worth a chuckle, or several. There is “T-Rex trying to wrap a tiny gift,” holding a small bag in one of those little arms while trying vainly to reach the bag with the other arm. There is “T-Rex trying to squish a spider in the corner of the room,” reaching up toward the ceiling with a swatting tool but smashing his head into it long before he can get the swatter, held in one of those little arms, close enough to accomplish anything. There is a page called “T-Rexes trying to box,” showing the boxing gloves in color on both the T-Rexes’ arms (Murphy’s drawings are otherwise black-and-white) – with neither T-Rex able to reach the other, their arms being too short. There is “T-Rex trying to use chopsticks,” being unable to get them to work together, much less able to get his little arms to reach his mouth. And there is “T-Rex trying to plunge a toilet,” in which the short arms cannot get the plunger anywhere near the commode, while the huge head is banging into the bathroom wall. Murphy’s books are essentially one-joke presentations, but there is enough amusement built into that single scenario to make a work such as T-Rex Tries Again…Return of the King an enjoyable potential stocking-stuffer for people who are less concerned with the realities of animal depiction than with the improbable situations to which humans can imagine subjecting long-extinct creatures such as T-Rex.
The Last Kids on Earth No. 5: The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.
Creature Campers #1: The Secret of Shadow Lake. By Joe McGee. Illustrated by Bea Tormo. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.
Undersea Mystery Club #1: Problem at the Playground. By Courtney Carbone. Illustrated by Melanie Demmer. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.
Everybody has gotten into the act of trying to attract so-called “reluctant readers,” young people who have little interest in picking up a book because it is a book and who have to be tempted to engage with those old-fashioned forms of communication by being shown that books are cool-by-association. That means “by association with something with which they do like to engage,” such as video games. And that is the underlying premise behind The Last Kids on Earth, which Max Brallier and Douglas Holgate have successfully maneuvered through four volumes and, now, into a fifth, The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade. This particular entry is, in fact, quite good, better than the previous couple, in which the inventiveness of Brallier (if not Holgate) seemed to flag and the story began to veer off the tracks. The whole series started as an end-of-the-world dystopia, with monsters taking over everything and four kids being the only survivors and needing to find a way to fight off the zombies that had appeared everywhere – after first developing ways to unite themselves into a cohesive zombie-fighting unit and a real post-apocalyptic team. That is not a bad setup for a sequence aimed at preteen reluctant readers, and Holgate’s usually bizarre and often clever illustrations have been a highlight of the series all along. The problems that developed in the last couple of entries had to do with the ever-widening scope of the sequence. It turned out that the last kids on Earth were not the last kids on Earth, for one thing. And it turned out that even though Earth was now overrun by zombies and other monsters, there were also good monsters out there, ones that just happened to get together with the four not-really-last kids to help them out. And then the fourth book turned into a grotesque sort of It’s a Wonderful Life thing, with a focus on the real meaning of Christmas. That was odd even by the standards of a series such as this. But The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade takes the ill-fitting elements of the most-recent series entries and does a pretty good job of pulling them together in exciting, if not particularly rational, ways. The focus remains on the foursome. The books’ narrator, Jack Sullivan, sees the world as a vast video game for him to play and win, and one he had better win since it is also, like, real life: “You fail and the controller melts in your hand – hits the ground, bursts into flames, burns a hole in the floor, and falls through to the netherworld. And while that’s happening, lest you thought, Oh, I’ll just go get another controller! your console spontaneously combusts and then the TV crashes to the floor and explodes in a raging inferno.” Accompanying Jack in his usually overwrought quests are Quint Baker, his best friend, a brainy inventor type; June Del Toro, Jack’s crush and the token savvy, as-good-as-any-boy female in the novels; and Dirk Savage, hulking brute and onetime bully who has abandoned his former dark side to bring the foursome some muscle. Dirk was bitten by a zombie and had to be unzombified in the previous book, and this one follows up that plot thread. Also, the previous book introduced another human survivor of the same age as the fearless foursome – but she is evil (as readers could immediately tell from her name, Evie Snark) and wants to help the transdimensional bad guys overcome the transdimensional good guys. That plot element gets considerable followup in the latest book as well. What is new here is the mysteriously increased importance of the broken Louisville Slicer bat that Jack wields as a weapon and that turns out to have mysterious power over the grotesque Ghazt, a super-evil creature brought to Earth by Evie at the previous book’s climax. It also turns out, very conveniently for a plot packed with coincidence and narrow escapes, that Jack’s weapon can now exercise control over zombies. Remember the zombies? They were the original maxi-threat in this series, now relegated to mini-minion status. In any case, as Jack envisions himself as a Star Wars kind of hero-in-training and his compatriots try to pick up on other threads scattered about from the earlier books, Brallier – neatly abetted, once again, by Holgate – knits a plot whose utter absurdities and incoherences never prevent it from being exciting or silly (or, often, both at the same time). It is easy to see The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade being appealing to video-game fanciers – and streaming-TV fanciers, as well, since the whole thing is being turned into a Netflix series that ought to intermingle with the books as effectively as they intermingle with the world of video games.
Video games are scarcely the only place from which reluctant-reader series can be extracted. The Internet is an even-more-fertile source of material that can be adapted into traditional-book form. A digital library of books, videos and audiobooks called “Epic!” (complete with exclamation point) is the source for two new book sequences aimed at the youngest group of kids likely to be reading on their own, roughly ages 5-8. Both of these (+++) series are formulaic in characters, events and outcomes, and the initial novels in both are in large print, quite easy to read, and amply illustrated (although they are not graphic novels, and the pictures do not move the plots along in the way Holgate’s do in The Last Kids on Earth). In the Creature Campers series, a single human, Oliver, goes to a thoroughly ordinary camp that just happens to be peopled (if that is the right word) by a grumpy gnome named Grumplestick, a bigfoot, a boy fairy whose uneven wings make it hard for him to fly, a jackalope who talks pretty much nonstop, and so forth. Unlikely friendships invariably result, since of course the book is all about accepting others no matter what they look like and how they behave – up to a point. Adults deserve no such acceptance, the bad guy in the book being a rare-creature collector named Barnaby Snoop, who wants to add a bigfoot to his holdings and spends most of his time talking to and about himself in the third person while failing to do anything even mildly nefarious. There is also a lake monster at the camp – making an appearance just at the right time. There is nothing serious or particularly meaningful here; the idea is simply that a good time is had by all – by the characters in the book and the kids reading about them.
There is some attempt to include a bit of educational material in the Undersea Mystery Club series, whose first volume has a “More to Explore” section at the back of the book, with bits of information on some real-world items that the story itself makes no attempt to look at realistically. A mermaid named Violet and her best friend, a narwhal named Wally, are the central characters here, looking into the reasons a brand-new undersea playground seems to be falling apart. This turns out to be not much of a mystery: rocklike decorator crabs have been taking pieces of the playground equipment away to decorate and camouflage themselves. Of course, as soon as they realize they should not do that, they help put everything back together, and all ends happily. Since decorator crabs really exist, this book has a tiny bit of reality attached to it. Narwhals really exist, too, for that matter, although they neither look nor behave like Wally. Mermaids – well, they exist in plenty of children’s stories and even some for adults, so having a mermaid protagonist here is scarcely a surprise. The big question surrounding extra-simple, amply illustrated series such as Creature Campers and Undersea Mystery Club is whether kids who go on to look for other types of reading – for example, by actually doing more exploration along the lines suggested in the first Undersea Mystery Club book – will have been captivated enough by reading to stick with books that are not specifically designed to grab and hold their interest on every page. The same question applies to reluctant-reader series for older groups, such as The Last Kids on Earth: will readers decide reading is just as good as video games or Internet interactivity? The answer, for now at least, remains unknown.
King Charles: The Man, the Monarch, and the Future of Britain. By Robert Jobson. Diversion Books. $27.99.
It sometimes seems that Americans, once they irrevocably broke from the British crown to establish their own nation, immediately developed a fascination with all things monarchical that has persisted to the present day. That fascination, though, is with the trappings of monarchy and its outward celebrity-like appearances, not with the nitty-gritty of how it actually works in Great Britain today (much less how it works in the other countries that retain either absolute or constitutional monarchs). The general lack of concern with the intricacies of monarchical function will stand in the way of American readers’ interest in Robert Jobson’s generally hagiographical biography of Prince Charles, because Jobson – who has reported on Britain’s Royal Family for some 30 years – assumes much greater knowledge of monarchical milestones than the vast majority of American possess. For instance, when he writes that “in 1910-11, there was the constitutional crisis caused by the veto pronounced by the Tory-dominated House of Lords over the Liberal government’s legislation,” he sees no need to explain just what went on or why it caused a crisis. That stance makes sense in Britain (although perhaps not even for everyone there, since younger generations may know less of the history of a century-plus ago than older ones do); but it is simply a puzzlement, one of many, for readers “across the pond.” Similarly, a passing reference to “the celebrated Imperial Indian Durbar of 1911, which became known as the ‘Delhi Durbar,’” might just as well be written in Cyrillic for all the understanding of what this was and why it was “celebrated” that most Americans will have.
What Americans will most enjoy in this book, in addition to its 16 pages of photos, is the material that is better reflected in the title it bore when it was originally published in Britain – Charles at Seventy: Thoughts, Hopes and Dreams. Jobson shows Charles to be a thoughtful, kind, compassionate, and surprisingly approachable man with a strong commitment to his family as well as his nation. Indeed, he seems somewhat too good to be true, but one scarcely gets to have access to the royal family for three decades of coverage by presenting negative material on its members. Jobson himself is not above self-congratulatory writing, as when he discusses the notorious affair that Charles had with Camilla Parker Bowles, whom he subsequently married: “When I broke the world-exclusive story of the royal engagement of the Prince of Wales and Camilla…the courtiers were ill-prepared. …My inside source had been right on the money and we were both elated and relieved. In the weeks that followed, the extent to which my scoop had caught Charles’s team off guard was woefully apparent. My story marked the start of a torrid time for Clarence House officials, whose grasp on the finer and legal points of this royal wedding was exposed as being tenuous at best – if not altogether incompetent.” Oh, very well, then; but it is interesting that however immodest Jobson himself comes across as being, Charles appears to be more self-effacing and more strongly committed to causes in which he believes than in self-aggrandizement.
Again and again, the writing style of Jobson’s book is at odds with the genuinely interesting elements of its topic. Sometimes it is a matter of word use, as when Jobson writes that because of Charles’ strong involvement in everyday royal matters, the British monarchy is “in unchartered waters” (rather than “uncharted”). At other times, there is repetitiveness that becomes irritating, as when Jobson writes that Queen Victoria “infuriated her eldest son and heir” and then says, just a couple of lines later, that her behavior “frequently made her infuriating to her loved ones.”
Yet what shines through in King Charles, as the book is called in its U.S. edition, is what seems to be the genuine niceness of Queen Elizabeth II’s son and heir. Indeed, to go a step further, it seems that his genuineness is what stands out about him. He demonstrably cares about many issues that are crucial to the future of both Britain and the world, such as pollution and climate change, and he seems truly determined to make his country and the world better places, to the extent that his power as an unelected and essentially ceremonial leader will allow him to do so. Jobson’s book is scarcely the last word on Charles, but it has enough interesting material in it – and enough material that, although familiar in Britain, will be new to American readers – so it should satisfy many in the U.S. who watch the distant royals with attentiveness and fascination. It is worth pointing out, though, that the book’s U.S. title has an unfortunate connotation of which Britons, if not Americans, are almost sure to be aware: the name “King Charles,” without a number following it, refers to Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649 after a civil war that led to rule by Oliver Cromwell and his followers until 1660 – the only time in a millennium or more that Britain has had no king at all.
Beethoven: Octet for Winds; Sextet for Winds; March for Wind Sextet; Rondino for Wind Sextet. David Shifrin and Paul Wonjin Cho, clarinets; Frank Morelli and Marissa Olegario, bassoons; William Purvis and Lauren Hunt, horns; Stephen Taylor and Hsuan-Fong Chen, oboes. Naxos. $12.99.
Mieczysław Weinberg: Flute Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Twelve Pieces for Flute and Orchestra; Five Pieces for Flute and Piano. Claudia Stein, flute; Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Robert Coleman; Elisaveta Blumina, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Eugène Bozza: Trois pièces pour une musique de nuit; Frank Bridge: Divertimenti; Jean Françaix: Quatuor; Richard Rodney Bennett: Travel Notes 2; Jacques Ibert: Deux Mouvements MCMXXII; Claude Arrieu: Suite en Quatre. London Myriad (Julie Groves. Flute; Fiona Joyce Myall, oboe; Nadia Wilson, clarinet; Ashley Myall, bassoon). Métier. $17.99.
Winds tended to be a source of light entertainment in the 18th century, used for serenades and such. Yes, Mozart employed them to more-serious purposes and was largely responsible for making the clarinet, in particular, an instrument worthy of symphonic solidity and concerto treatment. But even for him, and after his death, composers tended to produce the “light music” of the time for wind groupings. Even Beethoven did this, and did it to fine effect, too, as shown on a new Naxos CD featuring wind music he composed before the age of 30. "Light" is rarely an adjective applied to Beethoven, and "perky" even less so, but the first piece on this disc, a march in B-flat for wind sextet, dating to 1798-98, certainly deserves that description: it zips by in less than 90 seconds and is as frothily entertaining as can be. The more-extended works here are also somewhat more serious, although not really deep. The octet dates to 1792 and could easily be mistaken for a lesser work by Haydn: it is well-balanced, very well written for the instruments, features a Haydnesque Scherzo as its third movement (although the movement is labeled Menuetto), and makes for an enjoyable and unchallenging listening experience. The slightly later sextet (1796), which omits the oboes, begins in somewhat more-serious mode with an Adagio introduction to a first movement that is as long as the remaining three put together. But the rest of the movement, marked Allegro, is much lighter, and the second movement proper, which is another Adagio, is slow but scarcely deep. Here as in the octet, the instruments are quite well balanced, and there is an overall feeling of camaraderie rather than significant virtuosity at play. Both the octet and the sextet are pleasantries rather than works of any major significance, and it is actually rather reassuring to know that Beethoven wrote music of this type as well as his more-familiar, more-intense works. Yet there is one piece on the CD that seems like more-familiar Beethoven in its contemplative mood and the original plan for its use: the Rondino in E-flat, which dates to the same year as the wind octet and was originally intended as that work's finale. Although the piece adheres to rondo form, it is twice as long as the Presto that Beethoven substituted for it to conclude the octet, and it is slow-paced and rather crepuscular. It is certainly not tragic, but is by no means in line with what would be expected as the finale of a lighter, serenade-like woodwind piece. It is heard at the end of the disc and becomes a thoughtful conclusion to a CD that is, in the main, bright and lighthearted in sound.
Although written in a much later harmonic idiom, the first flute concerto by Mieczysław Weinberg partakes of some of the lightness of wind usage of a time that was long past when the work was written in 1961. A new Naxos disc featuring all of Weinberg’s accompanied-flute music shows this to be a good-humored, genial piece filled with pleasantries of style and even a degree of sly amusement. The work is somewhat mercurial in temperament, a fact that Claudia Stein and the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra under David Robert Coleman handle with aplomb, but it is basically upbeat and good-humored, with the flute playing in its most-comfortable range and at tempos that allow Stein to be suitably expressive without needing to search for anything particularly trenchant. The second concerto, from 1987, requires Stein and Coleman to take quite a different approach, which they do adeptly. This is a much more inward-focused work and is generally more expressive than the earlier concerto. Some of the material has a kind of fragility about it, notably in the central Largo, as if Weinberg is expressing a somewhat dark thoughtfulness through the music without ever making it sound tragic. Perhaps he was contemplating the music of the past when he wrote this concerto, since the finale specifically quotes the famous Badinerie from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 and also pays direct tribute to the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Weinberg’s close friend Shostakovich, who had died in 1975, similarly used quotations in his final symphony (No. 15), and perhaps Weinberg too felt an urge, in this piece, to meld modern harmonies and techniques with the music of earlier times. The seriousness of Weinberg’s second concerto is quickly dispelled on this disc by the other two works on it. The Twelve Pieces for Flute and Orchestra, dating originally to 1947 but here heard in a string-orchestra arrangement from 1983, are very light fare indeed: only one piece lasts as much as two minutes, and several are done in less than 60 seconds. Opening with an extended flute cadenza – the strings enter only at the end of this first item, suitably titled “Improvisation” – these character pieces are tiny dabs of specific styles, including a capriccio, nocturne, waltz, barcarolle and more. The seventh piece, “Ode,” has more warmth and eloquence than the others, and the final pairing of “Intermezzo” and “Pastorale” offers appealing melodies and a pleasant overall conclusion to the set. This is minor music, to be sure, but nicely balanced and well-constructed. The Five Pieces for Flute and Piano, also from 1947, prove less enjoyable. They include three dances, an Adagio and a Larghetto, but everything here seems rather pedantic and, in the central and longest movement (which is the second dance), even somewhat forced. Although Stein is ably backed up here by pianist Elisaveta Blumina, this work never really takes flight and remains rather unconvincing. The rest of the pieces on the CD, however, show yet again that the comparative neglect of Weinberg’s music is overdue for correction.
The six works performed by the ensemble called London Myriad on a new Métier CD are also neglected and also considerably better than that neglect would indicate. Trois pièces pour une musique de nuit by Eugène Bozza (1905-1991) sandwiches a rather puckish central Allegro vivo between two more moderately paced movements. The four Divertimenti by Frank Bridge (1879-1941) are light and generally upbeat, although the second, “Nocturne,” paints a suitable nighttime scene. The four movements of Quatuor by Jean Françaix (1912-1997) are first propulsive, then quietly rocking, then excited, and finally amusingly bouncy, resulting in an especially enjoyable totality. Travel Notes 2 by Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) consists of four very short impressionistic pieces, each barely more than a minute long, portraying travel by hot-air balloon, helicopter, “a bath-chair” (apparently a very relaxing experience), and during a “car-chase” (as speedy and hectic as would be expected). Deux Mouvements MCMXXII by Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) showcases the ever-present wit and elegance of this underrated composer. And the four-movement Suite en Quatre by Claude Arrieu (1903-1990) completes the disc with a work whose very varied moods neatly encapsulate many of the sounds and feelings explored by the other composers. There is nothing particularly profound on this CD, but everything on it is remarkably pleasant to hear and showcases the individual styles of the composers – some of whom are far better known than others – to a considerable degree. The London Myriad players do a simply splendid job with all these infrequently heard works, never overplaying them or making them seem more significant than they are, but by the same token never underplaying them or turning them into throwaways. This is a truly delightful potpourri of music that is a pleasure to hear from start to finish.
Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 4, arranged by Erwin Stein. Isabel Soccoja, mezzo-soprano; Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain conducted by Daniel Kawka. Musicaphon. $14.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Anu Komsi, soprano; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $8.99.
Recordings sometimes hang out in the electronic equivalent of a vault for years before they are released to the public, which means a “new” recording can at times be one that is not so new. This raises the question of how well a particular performance, especially a live one, stands up over time. The Mahler First conducted by Mariss Jansons, featuring the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, has been released as a new recording by BR Klassik, but it is actually a live performance from 2007. And there is no apparent reason for the very lengthy delay in bringing out the CD – indeed, most conductors will say that their conception of music changes over time, and a live performance from a dozen years ago would not necessarily reflect their thinking about the same material today. There is nothing particularly puzzling about the performance itself: it is comparatively straightforward, well-paced and exceptionally well played, with the first-rate sectional balance that is always characteristic of this excellent orchestra. Jansons does especially well with the first movement, whose smoothness of sound is notable, and the third, in which the contrasts of mood and slight piquancy of approach come through clearly. The finale tends to meander a bit too much here – always a potential issue with this movement, especially the portion that “quotes” from the discarded Blumine movement that Mahler originally placed second in the initial five-movement structure of the symphony. But toward the latter part of the finale, matters tighten appreciably, and the final climactic section is very impressive indeed. This is by any account a very fine reading of the symphony, if not a particularly adventurous or exploratory one – and its very lack of unusual elements or approaches makes it all the more puzzling that it took so long for the performance to appear on disc.
The question of whether or not something wears well is different with a new Musicaphon release, relating here not entirely to the date of the performance (2014) but, more significantly, to the music itself. For this is not Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 but the arrangement that Erwin Stein made of it for Arnold Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen, that very bold attempt to present then-modern music to Weimar Republic audiences using whatever modest forces could be assembled for 117 concerts between February 1919 and December 1921. Whatever the financial exigencies of the time may have been – it was hyperinflation that eventually killed the whole project – there is no doubt that the careful musical arrangements and transcriptions were done extremely skillfully, but for a very specific time, place, and set of performers and instruments. It is certainly justifiable to ask whether Stein’s recasting of Mahler’s Fourth for a complement of 12 instrumentalists (playing, among other things, piano and harmonium) has any value a century later. Despite the manifest inadequacies of the instrumentation – which, among many other things, completely omits brass – the answer, rather surprisingly, is yes. The reason is that Mahler used his large orchestral forces sparingly in this symphony (and others), creating chamber-music-like sections by deploying small instrumental groups and reserving the full orchestra for massive climaxes. Therefore, the more-delicate portions of this, Mahler’s most filigreed symphony, emerge surprisingly effectively in Stein’s arrangement, and Daniel Kawka and the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain are quite sensitive to them. This is a reading that is evenly paced and pays close attention to the symphony’s rhythmic qualities. Kawka clearly realizes that the whole symphony is designed as a prelude to its vocal finale (which was the first movement written), managing to build everything toward the concluding child’s view of heaven. And the sparse instrumentation draws particular attention to the straining of tonality and other forward-looking elements that attracted Schoenberg and his followers to the music. Nevertheless, this is strictly a recording for Mahler enthusiasts, because neither Stein’s work nor Kawka’s is entirely adequate to the music. When the climaxes do occur, the inevitable weaknesses of Stein’s arrangement come through all too clearly: in the first movement, the grand sound about 10 minutes in becomes a nearly unintelligible cacophony, and the “opening of the gates of Heaven” in the third movement is far less impressive and celebratory than Mahler intended. As for Kawka, he makes the peculiar decision to have the finale sung by a mezzo-soprano rather than a soprano, and Isabel Soccoja’s rich, creamy voice is entirely wrong for a song filled with childlike wonder about heavenly existence. Also, the microphone placement in the finale is such that Soccoja is more prominent than the entire instrumental complement, and the reverberation of the recording venue is such that it makes her voice more prominent still – resulting in a finale that is thoroughly out of balance, despite the sensitive handling of its instrumental component. So while much of what Stein did with Mahler’s Fourth stands up surprisingly well, this recording itself is a (+++) release that has many points of interest but combines them with a variety of disappointing elements.
There are niceties and disappointments as well in another old-but-new recording of Mahler’s Fourth, this one a (+++) reissue by SWR Music of a 2005 live performance featuring Roger Norrington and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR. Norrington, now in his mid-80s, remains a fine conductor, but he was always more-effective in some repertoire than in other areas, and Mahler has never been his forte. The orchestra plays very well for him, and the smooth sound of the first movement and effective scordatura solo violin in the second are highlights of this reading. But Norrington seems impatient with Mahler, and that is a serious mistake, especially in this evenly paced and frequently placid symphony. Mahler knew just what tempos he wanted and just when he wanted them – he was, after all, a brilliant conductor himself – and it is quite unjustifiable to create unneeded and ill-sounding rubato in his music. But Norrington does just that, to a surprising and significant degree. The way he varies speed in the first movement, speeds up the end of the second, and rushes to the conclusion of the third, significantly undermines the beauty and emotionally communicative nature of the music. And the finale does not work at all, because soprano Anu Komsi delivers the words in an operatic and distinctly adult-sounding manner, complete with periodic emotional over-emphasis: this is not a child’s view of Heaven but an adult’s unsuccessful attempt to impose something “better,” or at least more mature, on the naïveté that Mahler wanted and that he wrote so clearly into the score. Interestingly, the total length of this performance is not especially short, but that is because when Norrington is not speeding up unnecessarily, he is slowing down too much – producing a reading that is not so much unattractive (it is beautifully played) as it is unsuccessful. This is one not-too-old performance that quickly outwears its welcome for anyone but a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the conductor.
November 21, 2019
Not Sparking Joy: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
“Peanuts” Collection No. 13—Charlie Brown: All Tied Up. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Over time, good comic strips change. But the great ones evolve. Cases in point: Zits and Peanuts. From their origins, each strip had a basic, foundational premise: for Zits, what life is like with a teenager, and what life is like if you are a teenager; for Peanuts, how young children might react and interact if they could think and talk in largely adult ways (kids-talking-like-adults actually being a trope of comic strips at the time Peanuts came into being). For the two-decades-plus of Zits so far and the eventual five decades of Peanuts, the strips held fast to their roots while branching out into a wide variety of new areas that, however, remained always connected to their underlying designs. Every new collection of these strips shows how they have flowered while still being planted firmly in their original soil.
Thus, in the latest Zits collection, Not Sparking Joy, 17-year-old Jeremy Duncan (formerly 15, then 16 in an evolution with major importance when it occurred, since it allowed him to start driving) retains his trademark almost-sensible analyses of things in his world, as when he describes beef jerky as “a good source of protein that’s compact, nonperishable and an excellent study aid” – by which he means it is not only food but also a bookmark. Jeremy still has a love/hate relationship with technology, which means he uses it but does not always care for the results, as when “an app that shows what you’ll look like when you’re old” displays an aged Jeremy looking exactly like his father, Walt – leaving Jeremy wondering whether he could sell his soul for a different outcome. Jeremy also retains his trademark set of expressions, always marvelously drawn by Jim Borgman, which dad Walt and mom Connie have learned to interpret by creating a gigantic wall hanging of a “scowl chart.” Jeremy is smart enough to promise his parents not to break curfew again so he will not be grounded again, but tricky enough to make the statement replete with asterisks and similar symbols – and when Walt and Connie try to see the footnoted words, Jeremy says that “nobody reads the terms and conditions” (an example of the way excellent writing and illustration mesh seamlessly in Zits). The strip’s evolution over time has resulted in some genuine warmth and subtlety – not too much, since after all it has to be funny (and always is), but just enough for a little leavening. Thus, in one Sunday strip, Jeremy says he made Walt something for Fathers’ Day, and when Walt asks what, we see Jeremy turning down alcohol, breaking up a fight, and giving food to a homeless man – then telling his father, “Three good decisions.” The final panel of the two hugging each other is simply perfect. Indeed, the Sunday strips have always been even more outstanding than the weekday ones, since Borgman uses the additional space so creatively. For example, there is nothing particularly unusual about imagining the piled-up dirty dishes in a 16-year-old’s room, but the way Borgman shows it in a single-panel Sunday strip – with Jeremy and his pile taking up half the whole huge panel – is superb. Actually, Borgman also does exceptionally well with daily strips in single-panel form, where Scott’s pithy writing really shines – for instance, in the panel showing Jeremy and much-pierced friend Pierce at a table in a coffee shop, where Pierce has a gigantic, snarling lizard on a leash, facing three utterly terrified people. The dialogue is almost unnecessary, but it certainly emphasizes the point: Jeremy says Pierce’s “therapy iguana is freaking people out,” and Pierce replies, “And I find that very therapeutic.” That is a perfect encapsulation of Pierce’s personality. In Zits, strip after strip is used to explore the nuances of personal relationships – and, every once in a while, to pay tribute to other great strips. One example in Not Sparking Joy is the strip showing Jeremy as a baseball pitcher, making a “pitch” to his mom in hopes of getting permission to spend winter break in Cancun. The final, no-dialogue panel shows Jeremy upside-down above the pitcher’s mound, expression shocked and shoes flying off his feet, as the ball speeds past with the single word “POW!” And that is a marvelous tribute to the ever-feckless Charlie Brown and his ever-failing sports endeavors in Peanuts.
Charles Schulz’ strip lasted a full half century, until Schulz died in 2000, and long outlived the notion of kids-talking-like-adults as a formative influence. In fact, the strip evolved so brilliantly that it picked up on and discarded a whole set of trends and fads, as the many reprints continue to show decades after Schulz moved on to, presumably, draw on an even higher plane. Thus, in Charlie Brown: All Tied Up, there is a highly amusing sequence in which sports-focused D-minus student Peppermint Patty pairs up with dust-and-dirt-shedding Pigpen for a Valentine’s Day dance and ends up falling for him – a delightful focus on two of the strip’s lesser characters, and one that works despite its setting, which is the disco era. Yes, Pigpen is seen making some disco moves on the dance floor, and they will mean nothing to today’s young readers (or many of today’s adults). And Patty asks him disco-era questions that readers today may find strange, if not off-putting: “What’s your sign?” and “Do you come here often?” But Schulz, as always, homes in on the characters he has created and the way they interact as a result of their respective personalities – the specific music era in which the events happen fades into insignificance, and in fact, so does the dance, as Schulz explores his characters’ feelings after the event at much greater length. The way Schulz handled the kids-talking-and-thinking-like adults theme of Peanuts was always brilliant and is as impressive today as it was in the past – as in one Sunday strip in which Sally, trying to persuade big brother Charlie Brown to help with her homework, offers a long discussion of the way Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sonya, overcame many difficulties to help him with War and Peace by copying it for him seven times. There is no possible way Sally would know any of that in anything approaching the real world, but Peanuts, for all its real-world appearance, actually takes place in a finely tuned fantasy where Sally’s success in getting Charlie Brown’s help with homework occurs by melding her personality and his to just the right degree. Charlie Brown’s trials and tribulations were the glue that held Peanuts together, and there are certainly plenty of them in this latest collection. In one strip, he tells Snoopy the various ways it is possible to know if someone is boring – and Snoopy reacts in every one of those ways, showing readers how boring Charlie Brown is (although he is not boring to readers but only to other characters in the strip: part of the Schulz magic). In another sequence, one of the many featuring Charlie Brown’s baseball team, Lucy invents the “schmuckle ball” after explaining that she will be playing right field and can offer “a misjudged fly ball” or “nice bobbled ground ball” and will “be back in a moment” to take his order. Of course, not even the “schmuckle ball” can bring this team victory: one pitch inevitably leads to the same famous “POW!” panel, with Charlie Brown’s clothes scattered everywhere and with him flipped upside-down above the pitcher’s mound, to which Zits pays tribute. Thus does one of the greats respond to and expand upon another, without ever upstaging it. Or intending to.
Can You See Me? By Mikhala Lantz-Simmons and Mohammad Rasoulipour. Andrews McMeel. $17.99.
Happy Hair. By Mechal Renee Roe. Doubleday. $16.99.
Good Night, Little Blue Truck. By Alice Schertle. Illustrated by John Joseph. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
An exceptionally clever use of negative space – the artistic technique in which areas where nothing is drawn are perceived by viewers as creating a picture – is the concept underlying Can You See Me? Mikhala Lantz-Simmons and Mohammad Rasoulipour do something here that seems simple when seen but is difficult to pull off: they create illustrations using nothing but triangles, positioning the geometric shapes so they suggest (rather than show) a wide variety of animals. It is not a matter of the animals being camouflaged, or not exactly that – the animals are not actually there at all, but their appearances are filled in mentally by young readers, using the explanatory clues provided by the author/illustrators. The text is not up to the quality of the illustrations – the book reads as if Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour were so enamored of their artistic concept that they could barely be bothered with words – but it provides the minimum needed hints to help children decipher the drawings. For example, Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour show a large, downward-pointing triangle, next to each of whose upper points there are two smaller triangles, one of those being even smaller than the other. The text reads, “My large antlers can be a bother/ as I make my way/ from the woods to the water./ Can you see me?” This indicates that the triangle arrangement depicts the head of a deer or moose – it scarcely matters which – seen against a background of large triangles (representing mountains) and tiny airborne downward-pointing triangles (birds). Doing the entire book’s illustrations with triangles is really an impressive feat. Another page shows a large, downward-pointing triangle at the top of which are two smaller, upward-pointing ones that are clearly supposed to be ears: “Through the bush I sneak./ My bushy tail follows my leap./ Can you see me?” This is a fox, or at least a fox’s head (Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour do not attempt to show any animal’s full body). The words “Can you see me?” appear with every illustration, quite unnecessarily, but the illustrations themselves engage and enthrall readers again and again. Another shows a smaller version of the same shape used for the fox’s head floating between two much larger, downward-pointing triangles, with the words, “I use sound to navigate around./ Can you see me?” It is a bat, or at least a beautifully imagined suggestion of one. Some of the more-elaborate arrangements of triangles are particularly impressive – those representing a giraffe and a crocodile or alligator, for example – but even the simpler sets of triangles are interesting to see and fun to decipher.
Lantz-Simmons and Rasoulipour have created a picture book for the widest possible audience. Mechal Renee Roe, on the other hand, has made one for a very narrow group of children: African-American girls. Happy Hair, originally self-published in 2014, is intended to celebrate what used to be called “nappy hair” (there was a delightful children’s book with that very title by Carolivia Herron, illustrated by Joe Cepeda, but now some African-Americans find the term offensive). Like Can You See Me? with its repetitive title question, Roe’s book uses the same words with every illustration: “I love being me!” The pictures themselves simply show dark-skinned girls on one page, always with eyes closed, sporting various hairstyles, while the opposite page offers a few words of praise: “Full ’Fro,/ Cute Bow!/ I love being me!” “Smart Girl,/ Cool Curls!/ I love being me!” “Fresh Do,/ Too Cool!/ I love being me!” Speech balloons above each illustration add one-or-two-word comments, as if each girl is saying or thinking about her hair: “Cute crop!” “Blowout!” “Pattern wrap!” “Bomb braids!” The pictures are quite clearly the point here, being used to tell African-American girls that anything they do with their hair is great and that they will always look as well-put-together, nicely dressed and impressively made-up as the book’s illustrations, no matter what hairstyle they choose. The message of self-empowerment and personal pride is unexceptionable and in line with recommendations in innumerable picture books that kids simply be themselves and be true to their own feelings and appearance. This particular book is for one specific subset of kids, but it carries the same thoughts as ones intended for more-general audiences – or other specific ones.
John Joseph’s illustrations for Good Night, Little Blue Truck are “in the style of Jill McElmurry” and are intended to reach out as widely as hers do in other books, but they do not quite have the same touch of amusement that hers consistently deliver. Nevertheless, the book will be fun for kids interested in some amusing pictures of Little Blue interacting with and helping animals of all sorts. Alice Schertle makes this a bedtime story: the truck, with Toad at the wheel, heads home just as a thunderstorm is breaking, but truck and Toad soon find themselves with a number of guests in “their warm garage.” Goat asks to come into the shelter, Hen seeks “a nice safe place to hide” from the rain, Goose finds the storm “a little bit frightening,” Cow feels “safer here with you,” and so on. Eventually the garage is full of animals: “‘Beep-beep-beep!’ said Little Blue./ ‘There’s room for you, and you, and you./ Everybody gather round./ Thunder’s such a grumbly sound!’” Instead of sleeping through the night, though, the animals – along with Little Blue and Toad – listen to the storm as it moves through the area and then disappears. And then Little Blue gives a “bedtime ride” to the animals, dropping them off one by one at the places where they usually sleep. And finally, Little Blue and Toad return to the garage and go to sleep themselves. The narrative is easy to follow and will be especially appealing to very young children who are afraid of thunder and lightning: Schertle has Duck exclaim, at one point (and in all capital letters), “‘THUNDER’S JUST A NOISY RACKET!’” Joseph’s appealingly simple pictures help move the story along, and it is easy to see how parents can use the eventual dropping-off of the animals for their nightly rest as a way to get children to relax and go to sleep themselves – whether or not a thunderstorm has just blown through and blown over.
Roaring Back: The Fall and Rise of Tiger Woods. By Curt Sampson. Diversion Books. $26.99.
Some people love reading about celebrities whom they will never meet and never interact with, imagining themselves in circumstances in which they rub shoulders (or other body parts) with people who are famous primarily for being famous. Some people love reading about sports figures whose abilities to bash into each other at high speed while wearing loads of padding and helmets, throw a round ball through a hoop, swing a long piece of metal or wood, or otherwise perform acts wholly unrelated to non-sports-figures’ lives, have made them extremely rich. And some people love reading about sports figures who are celebrities, a sort of two-in-one fantasyland of imagined interaction.
For those people, there is Roaring Back. As the subtitle clearly indicates, this is about Tiger Woods, who is famous for being famous and also famous for succeeding at golf – not that he always succeeded, which is what makes the “fall and rise” portion of the subtitle possible. Like innumerable other fan-centric books, Curt Sampson’s is hagiography disguised as journalism, or at least as informational communication. Sampson is a longtime, well-respected golf writer, and his book is very clearly targeted at people who are knowledgeable about professional golf and fascinated by its intricacies and by the major players in it. The “celebrity” elements are actually somewhat downplayed here, with little attention given to Woods’ divorce and the multiple affairs that led to it, or to his eventual treatment for sex addiction – the kind of information over which celebrity worshippers positively drool. But that material is widely, maybe too widely, available elsewhere, and although Sampson needs some of it for “fall” material, his primary interest is in Woods’ “rise.”
The specific occasion of that “rise” is Woods’ victory at the 2019 Masters tournament, which golf writers unanimously proclaimed to be one of the wonders of the age. Sampson spends a lot of time giving detailed, indeed very detailed, information on that event. For example, he writes extensively about the Par Three 12th hole of the Augusta National course and its importance to Woods’ eventual victory. It helps, a lot, to be comfortable with golf jargon and Sampson’s constant use of it in his descriptive passages: just in regard to this specific course, he writes about Rae’s Creek, the Amen Corner, and much more. Sampson’s discussion of the Augusta National course comes entirely from an insider’s perspective – this is not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty of professional golf or uninterested in its minutiae. It also helps to know a bit about some golfers other than Woods, especially Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Francis Molinari, who were neck-and-neck with Woods (to mix a horse-racing metaphor with golf) well into the last round of the 2019 Masters.
Sampson inserts himself into his narrative from time to time, perhaps trying to personalize rather than “celebritize” matters for readers, but these sections come across as awkward: “Relationships require skillful give and take to work, as well as luck, magic, and some other element hidden to me, perhaps astrology.” However, his writing about golf is punchy (a boxing metaphor there) and very much in-the-know – and is quite clearly aimed at others who are equally in-the-know, or wish they were. And as usual with what is essentially a rah-rah book about someone’s heroic deeds (and do not tell a rabid sports fan that celebrity sports people are not heroic), the book concludes with a kind of “what’s next?” speculation, as Sampson wonders whether the “rise” of Woods will lead to still greater things in the future or will prove to have been a pinnacle of recovery after which matters will remain, at best, static, or will deteriorate either slowly or more quickly. Anyone who thinks about those possibilities with a “who cares?” attitude is emphatically not in the audience for Roaring Back. With its eight pages of photos inside and its big picture of an exuberant Woods dominating the cover, this is a celebrate-the-celebrity book in which the importance of professional golf and its players is never to be questioned, much less analyzed or debated. It is strictly for people intrigued by those players and how they play, not for anyone wondering why any of this matters.
Mendelssohn: Complete Organ Sonatas. Hans Davidsson, organ. Loft Recordings. $18.99.
Christmas with the 5 Browns. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Devonté Hynes: For All Its Fury; Perfectly Voiceless; There Was Nothing. Third Coast Percussion (Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore). Cedille. $16.
Jonathan Östlund: Voyages. Divine Art. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Maija Hynninen: Winnowing; …Sicut Aurora Procedit—As the Dawn Breaks; Orlando-fragments; Freedom from Fear. Maija Hynninen, electronics. Ravello. $14.99.
An exceptional reconsideration of Mendelssohn’s six organ sonatas within a religious context and by viewing them as essentially a single very large work, Hans Davidsson’s performance on the excellent 1806 Schiörlin organ in Gammalkil, Sweden is revelatory in many ways. The organ has, thankfully, not been spoiled through numerous updates, although it has been restored several times and a few non-historical elements have been added. Still, a plan to make the action pneumatic was abandoned, and the organ retains enough of its original sound to make it a superb instrument for performing Mendelssohn’s infrequently heard sonata cycle. Individual sonatas from the sequence occasionally find their way into organ recitals, but the 80-minute entirety is a rarity – yet it is decidedly more than the sum of its parts in Davidsson’s interpretation. The fact that the sonatas draw in part on Bach chorales is well-known, but the relationship between the sonatas’ themes and those of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang” – actually a kind of symphony/cantata – is less often remarked upon and explored. Davidsson finds the themes from that work and integrates them seamlessly into the totality, all while showing the distinctive ways in which the sonatas blend Bach-derived material with movements that sound much like Mendelssohn’s own “songs without words.” Davidsson shows that the sonatas are essentially two cycles made into a grand, larger whole: the first three sonatas form one grouping whose focus is human turmoil and despair, concluding with the eventual triumph over darkness through Christian affirmation; the second set of three is more joyful and positive, even though the third and longest of the second group is in D minor – fittingly, since it ends by recalling the sacrifice of Christ that is musically depicted in the very first sonata and makes human joyfulness possible. This interpretation also makes the very end of the cycle satisfying rather than puzzling: the conclusion of the last sonata is restrained, contemplative and rather pastoral, seemingly an odd capstone for such a large and impressive grouping of works – but in Davidsson’s reading, it stands as a kind of quiet, satisfied “amen” after all that has gone before, and this makes it wholly understandable and a more-than-satisfactory peroration. This very impressive exploration of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas sheds considerable light both on the music and on the thinking and belief underlying the cycle.
The 5 Browns – sibling pianists Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan – seek nothing as deep as this with their new Christmas CD on the Steinway & Sons label. But Christmas is, after all, a religious holiday for many millions of people, and the arrangements on this disc are nicely balanced between the sacred and the secular. They are also well-thought-out in terms of how the five performers’ talents are deployed: For Unto Us a Child Is Born from Handel’s Messiah, arranged by Carl Czerny, uses only a single piano – played six-hands (by Desirae, Deondra and Melody) – while O Holy Night is heard on two pianos (Desirae and Deondra) and Silent Night and Max Reger’s Mariae Wiegenlied are both played as solo works (by Gregory). These religious works all garner sensitive and caring performances, as do Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Still, Still, Still – the latter played by all five performers on five pianos, as are works with a more-secular orientation, including A Carol Symphony and the Skater’s Waltz by Émile Waldteufel. The other tracks here are four movements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite; Sleigh Ride; Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming; Greensleeves; and Carol of the Bells. Although this exploration of piano sonorities and Christmas-themed music does not stray far from a well-trod seasonal path, it mixes the religious and secular elements of holiday celebrations to fine effect, and provides a welcome chance to enjoy the ways in which the 5 Browns interact among themselves and also perform as soloists and in groups of fewer than five. Every year brings seasonal recordings of all sorts, of course, and this one is of considerable interest and musicality, offering more enjoyment than usual because it explores mostly familiar repertoire in some unusual ways.
Third Coast Percussion includes just four members, but the wide variety of instruments the ensemble plays often makes it seem as if a much larger group is performing. Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore intend just about everything they do to be exploratory in nature, which is certainly the case when it comes to a new Cedille CD featuring world première recordings of three works by Devonté Hynes, who uses the stage name Blood Orange and formerly called himself Lightspeed Champion. Third Coast Percussion has made its own arrangements of these pieces by Hynes (born 1985), of which the longest by far is the 11-movement For All Its Fury. This work partakes, to a rather surprising degree, of impressionistic textures rather than a strong sense of melody or any sort of thematic development. Its repetitiveness has something of minimalism about it. Some movements, such as “Wane,” are nothing but atmosphere; others evoke specific scenes – “Curl” has a background that sounds like a rainstorm, with foreground water drops; still others offer contrasting sounds with some underlying similarity, as in “Gather” followed by “Tremble.” Strictly on a sonic basis, For All Its Fury has many attractive elements, and Third Coast Percussion shows its usual skill in adapting and performing the material. But the music itself is not especially interesting – it may have been more effective when heard in the dance collaboration for which Hynes composed it. The one-movement Perfectly Voiceless is a more-interesting work: here the minimalist elements are not pervasive, and there is enough tunefulness to attract listeners with something beyond the sheer sound of the instruments. The piece goes on a bit too long for its content – 11½ minutes – but it is not as long as the 14-minute There Was Nothing, whose extensive synthesizer use gives it a sound distinct from the rest of the material on the CD but does not make it particularly engaging. The pleasures of this (+++) disc lie more in the performing than in the material performed: Hynes is a creditable composer who has absorbed various contemporary approaches to music, but the distinctiveness of the material here seems more to be due to the performers than to the creator of the material they play.
Hynes does seem to have some interest in reaching out to a fairly wide audience, which is not always the case with today’s composers. It is rather difficult, for example, to be sure at whom a (+++) two-disc Divine Art release of the music of Jonathan Östlund (born 1975) is directed. There is a very large amount of music here – more than two-and-a-half hours – and the pieces are exploratory in the sense that they are written for many instruments and groupings, including solo material, chamber music, and vocal works. Many are geographical explorations as well, inspired by scenes of nature, and many reflect impressions that are easily gleaned from their titles: Visions on the Wind starts with a somewhat spooky vocalise before the piano holds forth, for example, while Veils of Night uses strings to produce a slightly ominous feeling. Östlund sometimes pays tribute to earlier composers (Air on a Grieg Theme for solo violin, Fantasia on Bach’s “Badinerie” for piano) and sometimes to other forms of older music (Folklore Fantasia, Two Fantasias on Ancient Hymns). Some of his work is seasonally oriented (Autumnal Aire, Après l’hiver, Winter Cathedral). Some incorporates sounds of nature (L’al di là Theme, Syrinx et Pan). Some items call on Östlund’s Swedish heritage (Gate of Northern Lights, Erlkönig). Some pieces are small collections of musical thoughts (the pretty little five-movement Jeux pour deux, the three-movement Sonatine Lyrique). Some are more-extended single movements of somewhat greater depth, even a touch of melancholy (Dacian Prayer, Oblivion). The music is mostly tonal and accessible, but this collection is so wide-ranging that it is difficult to get a handle on it. There are 36 tracks spread between the two discs, which means that almost everything is brief: despite the overall length of the collection, not a single piece lasts as long as 10 minutes. The effect is one of hearing a lengthy series of vignettes or encores, all of them well-played and all created by a composer who writes effectively, if at times rather simply, for the various instruments he employs. Nothing really connects with anything else here, except presumably in Östlund’s own mind. The material is often atmospheric, sometimes attractive, never really deep or intense. The CDs are pleasant to listen to but leave little behind when they are finished – and little reason to return to the music in the hope of finding something more in it the second time around.
Composer Maija Hynninen (born 1977) explores some mostly familiar contemporary territory on a new (+++) Ravello CD by combining her own performances on electronics with acoustical material in three duets and one work for voice and chamber ensemble. Winnowing (2010) uses piano (played by Jaana Kärkkäinen); …Sicut Aurora Procedit—As the Dawn Breaks (2015), whose title begins with an ellipsis, uses violin (Mirka Malmi); and Freedom from Fear (2017) uses oboe (Kyle Bruckmann). The piano material consists largely of dissonant chords; the violin is at first featured very high in its range and in harmonics, then becomes part of a kind of dialogue with electronic sounds and vocal material; the oboe often sounds electronic even though it is not, its range frequently stretched in a way favored by many contemporary composers who seek to force acoustic instruments (and their players, and the audiences listening to them) beyond their comfort zone. Hynninen does have specific purposes for these duets and specific things she wants to communicate, but the music itself – without the gloss supplied by the composer – really does not put across any specific story or commentary on its own. Also like many other modern composers, Hynninen sees some of her music as just part of a presentation: Freedom from Fear is written for oboe, electronics, and lights, so it is intended as a theatrical event rather than anything that might work well in a nonvisual medium. Conceptually, the most interesting work here is Orlando-fragments (2010), based loosely (very loosely) on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando. It consists of five movements, using generally unintelligible-by-design lyrics by Henriikka Tavi, delivered with a combination of Sprechstimme and vocalise-style declamation by soprano Tuuli Lindeberg. In addition to Hynninen on electronics, the accompaniment comes from Hanna Kinnunen, flute; Lily-Marlene Puusepp, electric harp; Mikko Raasakka, clarinet and bass clarinet; and Anna Kuvaja, piano. The work is clearly intended seriously, but its formulaic use of hyper-modern vocal and instrumental techniques that are now rather passé means that it sounds almost like a parody of a contemporary piece. Woolf’s 1928 novel is a grand, satirical exploration of English literature through the centuries, featuring a central character who swaps genders (male to female) at age 30 and lives for centuries without aging – giving him/her the chance to experience changing literary tastes first-hand. But neither Tavi nor Hynninen makes much effort to explore the literary or satirical elements of the book, and Orlando-fragments, although more ambitious than the other works on this CD, is ultimately no likelier to attract an audience beyond listeners who simply prefer to hear the way many contemporary composers create their soundworlds.