January 30, 2020
Up on Bob. By Mary Sullivan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Is it possible to have a surfeit of cuteness? Where children’s books are concerned, the answer appears to be no. Sometimes a rather loud “no.” Case in point: Mary Sullivan’s latest foray into the unbelievably cute world of animals. Up on Bob is a less-heart-tugging version of Sullivan’s previous book, Frankie, which was about the trials and tribulations of an adorable, just-adopted pup coming into a household that already contained a dog and trying to adjust (ultimately successfully, but not without some heartache along the way). Up on Bob also features two cute-as-buttons critters, and also highlights behavior that “pet parents” will surely recognize. But this story is a very slight and very amusing one, played entirely for fun.
There are no humans at all in Up for Bob: they are presumably gone for the day, leaving Bob at home. Dachshund-shaped Bob (his snout is too pointy for the breed; maybe he is a mix) is first seen on a very neatly made bed in a child’s room. This is not what Bob wants to see, however. The pillows, dolls, bedspread, even the books on the night table are arranged just so – wrong! “Bob has work to do,” writes Sullivan, showing just what “dog people” will have seen their pups do, or will have imagined them doing. Bob wants things his way, not the way those pesky humans have left them. “The work is hard. But Bob does not mind,” explains Sullivan, delightfully illustrating Bob’s determination to get those neatly placed dolls off the bed completely, that perfectly positioned bedspread rumpled, those books and reading lamp out of the way, until things can be arranged as Bob wants them arranged. “Hard work pays off,” writes Sullivan, showing Bob’s intensity by having little sweat drops appear on him even though dogs do not sweat.
At last, success! “Now everything is perfect,” which means all the stuff on the bed and table has been strewn all around the room, the bed is a complete rumpled disaster area, and Bob is as happy as can be. He cuddles into the messed-up bed: “Now Bob can sleep all day.” Things could end right there – and the book would be just delightful. But Sullivan has a twist coming. “Suddenly everything is not perfect,” she writes, showing just the upper portion of a little kitten – ears, top of head and half the eyes – peeking over the edge of the bed in Bob’s direction. Now Sullivan puts Bob on the receiving end of the same writing that she previously used for his activities. Pretending to sleep does not work “if Someone is watching,” and all of a sudden, in the funniest picture in the book, there is a two-page spread featuring a horrified Bob looking up as the entire tiny kitten is seen in mid-air, leaping toward him, as Sullivan serves the single huge-lettered word, “POUNCE!”
And now it is the kitten’s turn to apply the same diligence to Bob that Bob previously applied to the bed and surroundings. “Someone has work to do” (the kitten’s name is apparently “Someone”). “The work is hard,” explains Sullivan, as the kitten sweats while kneading and then carefully licking Bob’s ears. “But Someone does not mind.” And eventually we get to, yes, “Hard work pays off,” as the kitten, responding not a bit to Bob’s grimaces, finishes grooming the dog and then curls into a tiny ball right next to Bob: “Now everything is perfect.” And so, finally, it is, as pup and kitten curl around each other, one of Bob’s paws gently enfolding Someone: “Now Bob can sleep all day.” And so can Someone – until whatever humans co-occupy the space return and find out what has happened to the now-perfect room. But that would be a story, and a book, for another time. Right now, everything really is, as Sullivan and Bob and Someone all agree, just perfect.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 1 (1891 version). Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $17.99.
Brahms in Transcription. Uriel Tsachor, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Bruckner is well-known for his penchant for revising his symphonies and offering them in multiple versions at different times, frequently to increase the likelihood of their performance and often in accordance with the recommendations of well-meaning but often ill-informed and overly musically conservative friends and colleagues. Most of his symphonies exist in several forms, and as interest in Bruckner’s music has grown in recent years, so has the interest of conductors in the various variants. Indeed, it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense that a conductor with a strong commitment to Bruckner would want to lead and record at least some of the symphonies in different versions, allowing musicians and the public at large to explore the differences and debate to their hearts’ content the positives and negatives of the alterations that Bruckner made. This is the road down which Gerd Schaller, one of the preeminent Brucknerians of our time, is currently traveling, with his plans to have recorded multiple versions of the Bruckner symphonies and also to have played them in concert by the 200th anniversary of Bruckner’s birth – that is, by 2024. Schaller is distinguished, among other things, for the tremendous seriousness with which he handles every Bruckner symphony, treating each of them – no matter which version he is using – as a unified and integrated whole. Thus, having previously recorded the 1866-68 version of Bruckner’s First, for a recording released in 2012, Schaller has now turned to the 1891 revision that Bruckner made of the score. His recording for Profil of a live performance is deeply committed and has about it not only authority but also a kind of implacability, as if this symphony could only develop and be performed in exactly this way – despite the obvious reality that Schaller and other conductors can and do perform it other ways as well. Schaller delivers the work with a level of conviction that makes the entire symphony sound tightly knit and inevitable in its progress from start to finish. The first movement, in particular, marches along with steadiness and steadfastness, and with a consistency that shows the skill at orchestration that Bruckner brought to the 1891 “Vienna” version – which differs from the earlier “Linz” version mainly in orchestration rather than through substantive changes in the themes and their working-out. Schaller follows the steady march of the first movement with a warm and elegant Adagio, after which the Scherzo emerges with certainty but also a certain level of gentleness. The finale here sounds much less disconnected or meandering than it does in some performances – indeed, it comes across as tightly knit and a worthy capstone to the entire work. Schaller’s pacing throughout is moderate and carefully considered; indeed, this whole performance exudes thoughtfulness and deep understanding of the music. And Philharmonie Festiva, which Schaller founded in 2008, plays, as always, with superb ensemble, tremendous authority, and absolute attentiveness to every nuance of Schaller’s leadership. The 1891 Bruckner First represents the composer’s reconsideration of a much earlier work at a time when he had attained considerable success. This recording represents Schaller’s apparent belief that both the earlier version and the later one are equally worthy, equally meaningful, and equally worthy of being heard again and again.
One way in which orchestral works of the Romantic era were rethought and re-heard – and re-played in circumstances where no orchestra was available – was through transcriptions, which were a major part of musical life throughout the 19th century and for some time afterwards. There is quite a wealth of transcription out there, from Hummel’s arrangements of six Mozart symphonies for chamber group to Liszt’s famous and Friedrich Kalkbrenner’s less-famous transcriptions for piano of Beethoven’s symphonies. Indeed, piano transcriptions were for many years crucial to familiarizing audiences with a great deal of music, the piano being not only a crucial instrument and compositional tool for musicians but also a central part of many families’ homes. There were so many piano transcriptions of so much music that it is quite possible to put together a recital featuring “big-name” music with “big-name” transcribers and have it filled with world premières. That is just what pianist Uriel Tsachor has done on a new MSR Classics release: eight of the 12 pieces he plays are world première recordings. The disc focuses entirely on Brahms, with one interesting element of the program being that Brahms is both transcriber and, as it were, “transcribee.” The CD includes Brahms’ own transcriptions of Hungarian Dances Nos. 1 and 7, which absolutely have to be declared definitive, as well as Brahms’ transcriptions of the Scherzo from Schumann’s Piano Quintet and the Gavotte from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide. These four works, in and of themselves, show Brahms’ skill both as composer and as transcriber – and he was, after all, a considerable pianist, with thoroughgoing knowledge of the instrument’s expressive capabilities. But these four transcriptions have all been recorded before, and it is the other eight – five by Max Reger and three by Brahms’ close friend Theodor Kirchner – that are the real discoveries here. Kirchner’s three are all of Hungarian Dances, specifically nos. 15-17, and are all worthy to stand alongside Brahms’ own transcriptions for their sure command of the rhythmic material and their virtuosic but not too virtuosic demands on the performer. Tsachor plays all the dance transcriptions, the two by Brahms and three by Kirchner, with considerable élan and a fine sense of style – and even seems to have more than a bit of fun with the balance and color of the compositions. The real gems here, though, are Reger’s transcriptions from all four Brahms symphonies: the Andante sostenuto from No. 1, Adagio non troppo from No. 2, Andante and Poco allegretto from No. 3, and Andante moderato from No. 4. Reger, whose own music can sometimes be turgid, here provides considerable clarity, bringing his obviously firm understanding of Brahms’ style to these transcriptions, which are especially notable for retaining the slow movements’ expansiveness while effectively elucidating their overall structure. The virtuosic requirements here lie as much in balance and tonal expression as in handling a sheer proliferation of notes, and Tsachor’s admirable restraint, subtle understanding of the material, and great sensitivity to balance and tonal color, result in performances that are genuinely revelatory – of the art of excellent transcription, if not so much of the underlying art of music that is now, after all, quite familiar in its original form. The CD comes across as a tribute not only to Brahms but also to Reger and Kirchner, who handled these transcriptions with a substantial depth of knowledge and a finely tuned (pun intended) sensitivity to Brahms’ intentions and the unique sound of his music.
Mahler: Symphony No. 4. Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
Showpieces for Piano and Orchestra: Music by Richard Addinsell, Gershwin, Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Paul Turok, Liszt, Duke Ellington, and Henry Litolff. Joshua Pierce, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Mahler’s symphonies have been in the standard repertoire for so long now, more than half a century, that their formerly assumed extraordinary performance difficulties have tended to disappear or at least be disregarded. Now, even semiprofessional orchestras will occasionally attempt them, and sometimes will even handle them quite well. But that does not change the fact that the works require exceptional virtuoso performances by musicians. It is just that the virtuosity is not the main point of the music. This is particularly evident in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, the sunniest of them all and arguably the shortest (the First is a bit shorter as a four-movement work but a bit longer if the original Blumine movement is included, as it sometimes is). The lightness, almost transparency of Mahler’s Fourth belies the extreme care that a conductor must take to contrast its chamber-music-like qualities with its occasional full-orchestra climaxes, which are all the more powerful because of their infrequency. The work mixes classical poise and delicacy with an avowedly Romantic temperament and some utterly gorgeous melodies, such as the beautifully lyrical, yearning one that appears within two minutes of the symphony’s beginning – a start that requires very judicious planning and balance to prevent the appealing sound of sleighbells from appearing to trivialize what comes afterwards. The notion that this entire symphony seems to be written in the “key” of sky blue (to adopt a notion from synesthesia) is not a new one, but its meaning is crucial to the work’s performance: in a nearly cloudless sky, barely perturbed even by a slightly strange intrusion (the scordatura violin in the second movement), the details of phrasing and emphasis stand out and are crucial to the work’s effect. Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra handle those details with exceptional sensitivity on a new SACD from BIS, abetted by exceptional sound quality that helps encapsulate the symphony’s important silences within a crystal-clear sound cocoon: for example, the pause before the last few measures of the first movement is a moment of extraordinary lucidity. Vänskä engages in more rubato than do most conductors of this symphony – a big risk and generally a questionable practice, since Mahler, a deservedly famous conductor himself, knew just how he wanted his symphonies to be paced. But in the vast majority of instances in this case, the tempo alterations work as Vänskä surely intends them to, emphasizing pinpoints of pacing and orchestration even though that de-emphasizes others. Conducting this way is itself a form of virtuosity, albeit one not necessarily obvious to listeners. Even when Vänskä’s choices here initially seem suspect – his very slow opening of the third movement, for example, turning the indicated Poco adagio into an out-and-out Adagio – they soon prove convincing, placed by the conductor at the service of a well-thought-through and very moving overview of the symphony. The climactic “opening of the gates of Heaven” is exceptional here: a triumphal affirmation after which the music quickly returns to a much quieter passage that truly sounds as if a newly admitted visitor is gazing about in utter wonder. The entire work is capped by a finale in which Vänskä and Carolyn Sampson take to heart Mahler’s insistence that the words be sung utterly without irony: Sampson’s voice has minimal vibrato and, as a result, a kind of childlike purity that is exactly right for this material. The sense of marvels that the words gently convey is matched by just-right orchestral accompaniment that leads to a final verse about heavenly music that is itself a marvel: this is indeed music of heavenly beauty that fades into ethereality and a sense of the eternal. This overall performance is one of the very best available recordings of Mahler’s Fourth – an essay in virtuoso interpretation that is all the more impressive for its subtlety.
The virtuosity is far more direct, explicit and unsubtle on a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Joshua Pierce. This is an entire disc of show-stoppers, none with significant meaning or emotional punch but all designed as display pieces that demonstrate the pianist’s technical ability for the pleasure of the audience. That is a perfectly worthwhile goal: there is no reason that all music must be profound, and it is good that some of it is as superficial but thrilling as the eight works heard here. The CD opens with the Warsaw Concerto, written by Richard Addinsell (1904-1977) in near-perfect, non-parodistic Rachmaninoff style for a film called Dangerous Moonlight, to which Rachmaninoff himself declined to contribute music. Orchestrated by Roy Douglas, the work neatly encapsulates the grand neo-Romanticism of Rachmaninoff and is suitably heart-on-sleeve emotional (it serves, in part, a romantic role in the film). Next are Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” variations, which Pierce – a particularly accomplished interpreter of Gershwin – tosses off with aplomb and considerable spirit. Then another set of variations – Chopin’s on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni – offers more-substantial fare and a very different approach to the piano. Pierce seems just as comfortable here as he is with the century-later Gershwin, and so, for that matter, do Kirk Trevor and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, who accompany all the music on this CD with equal portions of supportiveness and apparent enjoyment. After the Chopin comes Saint-Saëns’ Caprice-Valse, Op. 76 (“Wedding Cake”), a delicious bit of fluff and frosting. It is followed by the world première recording of Ragtime Caprice by Paul Turok (1929-2012), a work based on Scott Joplin’s music although it does not (unlike an earlier Turok work) incorporate any of Joplin’s actual tunes. This sparkling offering is succeeded by another one that is equally heady: Liszt’s 1851 orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber’s Polonaise Brillante, Op. 72, which follows the structure of the original (a solo piano piece) fairly closely after an initial, very Lisztian and very much purely-for-display introduction. Pierce and Trevor next collaborate for the first release of New World A-Comin’ – a piece initially written by Duke Ellington for a radio documentary, then expanded by him into a 12-minute concerto, then arranged and edited by Maurice Peress. Like Addinsell’s music, it transcends its original purpose while retaining vestiges of it. The central, minor-key section, called “Gut Bucket” and containing everything from a series of “wrong” notes to a “blues” bit for piano, is a highlight. This for-fun-only CD concludes with just about the only piece still performed today by Henry Litolff (1818-1891), to whom Liszt dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1849). That work famously (indeed, at the time, notoriously) included a triangle – an instrument also prominent in the Litolff work heard here, which is from a concerto of his own, Concerto Symphonique No. 4 (1852). It is that work’s second-movement Scherzo. And even on a disc packed with encore-like pieces, this one stands out – not only for the high level of display it requires but also for the speed with which Litolff skillfully takes the music through a bewildering succession of keys that keep listeners’ ears (and possibly pianists’ fingers, although apparently not those of Pierce) quite uncertain about where things are going and what could possibly be coming next. Litolff was himself a piano virtuoso, and this movement indicates the gyrations of which he was capable – and will likely make listeners wish Litolff’s works were heard more often. That is not to be on this CD, however: the aim here is strictly to impress, to demonstrate a high level of skill in the service of music that may not be “great” but that serves its purpose – to delight and entertain – very well indeed.
January 23, 2020
Alkan: Symphonie pour piano seul, Op. 39, Nos. 4-7; Concerto pour piano seul, Op. 39, Nos. 8-10. Paul Wee, piano. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
Hummel: Piano Concertos, Volume 2—Concerto in A, WoO 24a; Concerto for Piano, Violin and Orchestra, Op. 17. Alessandro Commellato, fortepiano; Stefano Barneschi, violin; La Galante and Milano Classica conducted by Didier Talpain. Brilliant Classics. $9.99.
Thanks to some remarkable performers with a strong commitment to reviving the undeservedly neglected works of undeservedly neglected composers, a great deal more attention is being paid nowadays to people who for many years languished in obscurity – such as Charles-Valentin Alkan and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. It can be argued that, to a certain extent, Alkan and Hummel were victims of their own decisions, or at least their own time periods. Alkan shut himself almost completely away from the public eye for decades, and Hummel became better known for his occasional quarrels with Beethoven than for his own compositional and pianistic skill – besides which, he was a musical transition figure, studying with Mozart and later adopting a highly skilled form of piano performance that nevertheless did not mount to the levels already expected of virtuosi by the time Hummel died in 1837. Those levels were raised to astonishing heights by, among others, Alkan. Interestingly, there are some direct connections between Alkan and Hummel, one of the most musically interesting being the fact that both made solo-piano transcriptions of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. A musically adept and sufficiently clever pianist really ought to record both versions on the same CD. One nomination for that recording: Paul Wee, a full-time attorney and part-time piano virtuoso who, on the strength of his new Alkan recording for BIS, could take his pianism to the world’s concert halls anytime if he tires of the world of law. Wee’s pairing of two major works made up of seven of Alkan’s 12 Études dans tous les tons mineurs is an inspired one, showing how the composer’s enormous compositional and performance skills, in combination, led him to create piano-only versions of a symphony and a piano concerto so adeptly that the orchestral parts scarcely seem to be “missing” in any sense (given that, of course, they do not exist). The primary way in which these two works fit into the set of minor-key études is through their key structure: to conform to the sequence needed to circle through all the minor keys, the movements of the Symphonie and Concerto must be written in specific, successive keys. And so they are. Beyond that, they are “études” only in the grandest and most expansive sense of the word, being “studies” in pretty much every pianistic technique that Alkan could muster. And he knew just about all of them. Wee is thoroughly unintimidated by this music, his technical prowess being matched by interpretative intelligence that skillfully brings forth the highly skilled and intricate manner in which Alkan makes the solo piano sound like an orchestra or an orchestra-with-piano-soloist. In Wee’s readings, these works actually sound as if they are transcriptions (although scarcely reductions) of orchestral music: a listener can practically assign certain melodic lines to particular instruments and, in the Concerto, can more or less hear where the solo piano would come to the fore and where the “orchestra” would take the lead. These are performances that are as remarkable for their carefully modulated elegance as for their sheer virtuosity. Wee is especially sensitive to the dark, even funereal elements of both pieces, the Marche funèbre of the Symphony and portions of the curiously mercurial Adagio of the Concerto. But the single most impressive movement here is the enormous Allegro assai that opens the Concerto. This movement is a monster, running a full 30 minutes – longer than the entire four-movement Symphonie. It is structured with tremendous care and for maximum effect, building logically throughout and adhering to traditional form – all while expanding every thematic and developmental element without ever sounding as if it is stretching anything beyond some theoretical maximum. Simply getting through this movement is a major feat for a pianist; getting through it with a pacing and as clear a structural feeling as Wee has for the material is truly remarkable. Alkan’s Symphonie and Concerto test the limits of any piano player: it is partly because of the sheer complexity and performance difficulty of his music that Alkan remained so long in obscurity. However, some pianists – still only a handful – now find in Alkan challenges that include those of technique but go well beyond them into interpretative realms that border on the philosophical. Wee shows with this recording that he is one of that select group.
Nothing in Hummel’s piano music is as splendidly adventurous as Alkan’s creations, but that is scarcely a justification for the infrequency with which Hummel’s keyboard concertos are performed. It is past time for a full presentation of them – on fortepiano, for which Hummel wrote, and with period instruments. And it is possible that Brilliant Classics is in the process of producing a cycle featuring the very fine Alessandro Commellato on fortepiano. However, it is only possible, not certain, because the new Volume 2 featuring Commellato is appearing seven years after the first volume, and it offers recordings from 2018, while the prior release included ones from 2009 and 2010. If this is an ongoing project, it is certainly one with a long time horizon. And the specifics of the releases are curious: the first included one mature concerto (Op. 85, in A minor), a concertino (Op. 73), and the Introduction & Rondo brillant, Op. 127 – that is, only a single full-scale piano concerto. Volume 2 also includes just one piano concerto, and it is a very early one in A (WoO 24a, the second that Hummel wrote). It is paired with another early work, the Op. 17 concerto for piano, violin and orchestra. So after the release of two volumes quite a few years apart, we have but one of Hummel’s four youthful keyboard concertos and just one of the six from his maturity. It is hard to see the rhyme or reason of this. What is not hard to see, however – or, more to the point, to hear – is the beauty and poise that Hummel brought to his writing for piano and orchestra. That is everywhere apparent in both the pieces on the new release. The concerto dates to sometime between 1795 and1800 and is far closer in spirit to Mozart’s world than to that of, say, Beethoven, whose Concerto No. 2 (the first written of the set of five for which he is primarily known) dates to the same time period. Yet Hummel’s distinctive sensibilities are already in evidence here. He favors the upper reaches of the fortepiano – the instrument’s very first entry is notably high – and is already writing in the display-prone “brillant” style that he was to employ many times in later works (including in Op. 127 from Commellato’s earlier volume). Hummel’s penchant for dramatic contrast comes through in the finale of the concerto in A as he dips into F-sharp minor for a central episode within what is otherwise a cheery rondo. This is music written for effect rather than deep expression, and it does indeed come across effectively here. So does the piano-and-violin work, which dates to about 1805, a year after Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, but which again may be said to suffer by comparison if one seeks high seriousness rather than more-surface-level enjoyment. Hummel’s work again reflects Mozart and again is something of a display piece. Here the very high writing is more for the violin than the piano – and Hummel produces a first-movement cadenza that is elaborate, complex and altogether intriguing. Hummel leaves the third-movement cadenza up to the performer, and Commellato has an especially delightful way with it, among other things making considerable use of his 1825 Böhm fortepiano’s “janissary stop,” a special pedal designed to get the piano to reproduce what were at the time considered “Turkish” percussion sounds. The “double concerto,” like the fortepiano concerto also heard on this disc, features a pleasant final rondo that, once again, includes a strongly contrasting middle section – here in G minor – that only adds to the theatricality of the whole. These early Hummel works show a composer very much at home in his keyboard writing and very much attuned to the taste of his audience: the music is light but not flippant, very well-constructed, and elegant in mixing echoes of an earlier time with newer approaches to harmony, key structure and orchestral emphasis (notably in the woodwinds). Hummel may still be a bit too much “of his own time” to be fully engaging for today’s listeners, but if this apparent series of piano concertos continues to showcase such fine keyboard and original-instrument-ensemble playing as Commellato and Didier Talpain offer in Volumes 1 and 2, it is reasonable to hope that Hummel will again find an audience appreciative of the balance and grace that are everywhere apparent in his music.
Beatles Go Baroque, Volume 2. Peter Breiner and His Orchestra. Naxos. $12.99.
Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 7—Summer’s Distillation. Navona. $14.99.
Chan Yi: Memory; Kai-Young Chan: Away Alone Aloft; Yao Chen: Miles upon Miles for solo violin; Austin Yip: Miles upon Miles for solo violin and electronics; Michael-Thomas Foumai: Relics. Patrick Yim, violin. Navona. $14.99.
A decade ago, Naxos released a curious and curiously appealing CD called Beatles Go Baroque, featuring Peter Breiner conducting what was then called His Chamber Orchestra. Unlike some other releases putting Beatles tunes into classical context – notably Joshua Rifkin’s clever and exceptionally amusing 1965 The Baroque Beatles Book, featuring arrangements played by the “Baroque Ensemble of the Merseyside Kammermusickgesellschaft,” no less – Breiner’s Baroque-ifying of Beatles music was constructed entirely seriously and with the intent of showing respect both for Baroque forms (in particular the concerto grosso) and for the works of (primarily) John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The long-awaited (or at least long-delayed) second volume of Breiner’s creations, conceived on a larger scale and played by a group no longer sporting the adjective “chamber,” goes further than Breiner’s earlier CD by actually placing the Beatles and Baroque masters (Bach and Vivaldi) on an equal footing. To do this, Breiner has actual elements of selected Bach and Vivaldi works played, interspersing quotations from Beatles songs within the Baroque composers’ material. The extent to which this is convincing is a matter of opinion and, indeed, depends largely on the definition of “convincing.” Nothing on the disc is intended to sound exactly like Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1052) or Violin Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1041), much less like the Mass in B Minor – except for the notes taken directly from those three works. The cleverness here lies in the way Breiner makes elements of the songs Come Together, Blackbird and Drive My Car fit into BWV 1052, while I Want to Hold Your Hand, Something and Day Tripper appear within BWV 1041, and Here, There and Everywhere, Yesterday, and Hello, Goodbye show up inside or side-by-side with portions of the Mass in B Minor. Most of what Breiner does is musically motivated, although there are some nice extramusical touches, such as using Hello, Goodbye with the Et resurrexit. These connections, however, are neither numerous nor clear enough to drive the CD as a whole; indeed, they are perhaps a bit too subtle. So are certain ingredients of the music – for example, the transformation of an accompanying rather than melodic element of Day Tripper into a triplet melody for cellos. Indeed, considerable familiarity with Beatles songs is pretty much a necessity for full enjoyment of this disc, which otherwise could come across as “spoiling,” in some odd but clearly intentional way, not only various Bach pieces but also selected movements from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There is, however, no intent to be a “spoiler” in any sense here, and when the Beatles/Baroque mixture is at its best, it works surprisingly well. That is the case in Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (BWV 1047): here the first movement begins with a flourish from Nowhere Man before the actual Bach notes enter, and the inclusion in the later movements of While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da somehow sounds particularly fitting. Like its predecessor, Beatles Go Baroque, Volume 2 is designed as a mixture of “high” and “low” art, undoubtedly with an eye (or ear) to showing that the distinction between the two is artificial. It never quite makes a convincing case for elevating Beatles tunes to the level of Bach and Vivaldi, but it never seems to want to: the CD seeks to be fun and at the same time a bit thought-provoking, and it manages, rather surprisingly, to be both.
The seventh release in Navona’s ongoing series drawn from Joseph Summer’s Shakespeare Concerts looks to the past rather differently from the way prior discs did. The Shakespeare connection is still very much present, in seven settings by Summer himself – five sonnets and excerpts from The Tempest and All’s Well That Ends Well. But the main focus of this (+++) CD is on the past of the Romantic era, not that of Elizabethan times. That is because the two most-substantial works here are song cycles by Schumann and Brahms: Drei Gesänge, Op. 95 by the former and Vier Gesänge, Op. 17 by the latter. There is a slight touch of Shakespeare in the Brahms, one of whose songs sets a German translation of lines from Twelfth Night, but what really connects the Romantic song cycles with the music written by Summer is not the words but the way in which those words are set. Schumann’s texts are from Lord Byron’s Hebrew Melodies and are written for soprano and harp, but rarely heard with that accompanying instrument. This makes them especially welcome in this performance, in which Jennifer Sgroe’s soprano blends and contrasts quite well with Franziska Huhn’s playing. Huhn is in some ways the musical glue tying the whole CD together, being heard on every track except Summer’s setting of O God, That I Were a Man, which features mezzo-soprano Thea Lobo and Kevin Owen on horn. It is the horn, singular, or horns, plural, that provide additional accompaniment – with or without harp – throughout this disc. The Brahms songs feature four voices (Lobo, Sgroe, Jessica Lennick, and Sophie Michaux), Huhn’s harp, and Owen and Josh Michal on horns – these are the most substantively scored pieces heard here, and come across with both warmth and delicacy in this performance. The Schumann and Brahms may have at most an oblique connection with Shakespeare, but they are well worth hearing in their own right. As for Summer’s own works – plus one by Benjamin Pesetsky to words from As You Like It, used here to end the CD – they are nicely produced and appropriate in allowing the language to remain front-and-center. The straightforward single-voice-and-accompaniment arrangements of sonnets CIV and XCI, and of If by Your Art and O God, That I Were a Man, work particularly well. The use of additional voices for sonnets V and VI (set as part of the same piece), LXXIII, and CXXXIII, plus Pesetsky’s setting (which uses three voices, harp and two horns, a grouping similar to that of Brahms), draw more attention to the singers and somewhat less to what they are singing. This is fine from the standpoint of aural variety, although a focus directly on Shakespeare’s words remains the best way to accentuate their beauty and penetrating thoughtfulness. The material on this CD is a bit oddly assorted, but fans of Summer’s compositional work will enjoy it, and the chance to hear the Schumann and Brahms song cycles is a particularly welcome one.
A new (+++) solo-violin CD featuring Patrick Yim is permeated by the past in yet another way, with the title of Chen Yi’s Memory also being used as the overall name of the recording. In terms strictly of sound, the disc will mainly be of interest to violinists and lovers of the instrument, since a full hour of solo-violin music has a certain sonic monotony to it even when the works themselves come from five different composers. In this case, all the pieces are contemporary and all of them have a strong flavor of China; and three of the five pieces tie specifically to an exhibit at the Hong Kong Museum of History about the cultural importance of the ancient Silk Road. This is a lot of freight for the music to bear, and the works will be somewhat rarefied for a general audience, although they will likely appeal both to lovers of fine violin playing and to those with a strong interest in China and in Asia’s past. Yi’s work, the only one not commissioned by Yim himself, is actually a tribute not to a grand ancient time but to her late violin teacher, and it is suitably heartfelt and melancholy. Kai-Young Chan’s Away Alone Aloft, both commissioned by and dedicated to Yim, has a much older referent, being based on an ancient Chinese tale that it would be unreasonable to expect most Western listeners to know. Taken simply as music, the piece evokes a variety of emotions that range from the intense to the placid. The three other pieces on the disc are those with a Silk Road focus. Yao Chen and Austin Yip both produce three-movement works called Miles upon Miles. Chen’s uses different specific performance techniques in each movement: tremolos, trills, open strings, pizzicati and more. Yip’s is for amplified violin and electronics and relies heavily on the aural modifications for which it calls. Yim seems quite comfortable playing it, although listeners may find at least some of the electronic effects intrusive rather than enhancing. Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Relics is a set of eight pieces specifically intended for performance at the Silk Road exhibit in Hong Kong: each miniature goes with an artifact put on display at the museum. These are accompaniment pieces rather than ones intended to stand on their own, and it is hard, in the absence of visuals, to make sense of what the music is saying. “Jeweled Loops,” for instance, lies high on the violin and keeps striving even higher, while “Galloping Jade” sounds a bit like a horse’s gallop at first but soon becomes rhythmically irregular in a way that could indicate a horse having difficulty finding its footing – which is probably not the intent. Yim plays very well throughout this CD, but the narrow focus of the material makes it strictly a limited-interest release.
January 16, 2020
The Best of Iggy No. 1. By Annie Barrows. Illustrated by Sam Ricks. Putnam. $13.99.
Real Pigeons No. 1: Real Pigeons Fight Crime. By Andrew McDonald. Illustrations by Ben Wood. Random House. $13.99.
Amply illustrated book series for middle-grade readers, ages 8-12, have to start somewhere, and the way they start provides a plethora of clues to where they will be going. Annie Barrows’ The Best of Iggy, for example, will be going into hilarity by way of a certain degree of underlying seriousness that seasons the adventure without changing the taste of amusement too much. Although narrated in the third person, the first book about Iggy Frangi uses an almost-first-person style by having the narrator talk directly to readers: “All the things [Iggy] does in this book are bad. Every last one of them. It’s really a shame you have to hear about such bad things, nice children like you. You would never do these things. You say.” Now, the things themselves are, by and large, not all that bad, and part of Barrows’ point is that “things we wish we hadn’t done” fall into three categories: ones we actually just wish we hadn’t gotten caught for doing; ones we wish we hadn’t done quite as much as we did them; and ones we really wish we hadn’t done at all. The Best of Iggy is going to be a series showing how Iggy does things in all three categories – and that is emphatically what the first book shows. Along the way, Iggy interacts with characters who are standard “types” in books for preteens, such as insufferable, well-dressed, obedient, cello-playing Jeremy Greerson, with whom Iggy is stuck for a while because Jeremy’s and Iggy’s mothers are friends. There is also Iggy’s little sister, three-year-old Molly, about whom everything “was round: her face, her eyeballs, her curls, and her stomach.” And that is exactly how Sam Ricks, whose illustrations are, ahem, picture-perfect for the book, shows Molly – who, unfortunately for Iggy, takes an instant shine to Jeremy, which leads Iggy to a bad mood (a scene showing him gazing up at dark, grimacing clouds is laugh-aloud funny), and which eventually results in a hilarious scene involving Jeremy jumping from the roof of Iggy’s house. This is a scene that happens one way from Iggy’s perspective and a very different way from the adults’ perspective, and that is Barrows’ point: sometimes there are extenuating circumstances (she uses, explains and makes much of the phrase). But sometimes there are not extenuating circumstances, as when Iggy gets involved with some shaving cream and $13 lipstick (Ricks’ illustration of what Iggy does with those is another laugh-out-loud one). And sometimes there is no excuse whatsoever for doing something that Iggy, who is not really a bad kid but would probably (in the real world) be diagnosed as ADHD and perhaps medicated, really really really wishes he had not done. And that is where the latter part of the book goes, into something Iggy does at school that causes an actual injury – to a teacher, no less – and that results in perhaps fewer consequences than would happen in the real world if Iggy existed in it. Still, Iggy does not entirely “get away” with what he does, and Barrows goes out of her way to show that he is really, truly, genuinely, no-kidding sorry sorry sorry, even though she also says – without giving specifics – that Iggy fails in his determination “not to do anything bad for the rest of the year.” Iggy is a recognizable middle-school “class cutup,” fun to observe but definitely not a role model: “Most of Iggy’s brain was on vacation,” Barrows writes at one point, and that sentence pretty well describes not only his highly amusing-sounding antics (which also look highly amusing, thanks to Ricks) but also what is likely to be the ongoing plot of all the books in The Best of Iggy series.
There is a certain level of realism to Iggy, and, oddly enough, there is also a certain level of the realistic in Andrew McDonald’s Real Pigeons series, even though it features a cadre of anthropomorphized avian crime fighters. The realism here – and, in a way, a very funny element of the concept – is that the five unreal pigeon heroes are closely based on and named for five types of real-world pigeons. The most-central central character, a “master of disguise” named Rock, is a rock pigeon – that is the super-common type familiar to just about everybody. Homey, designated a “directions champ” and determined to refer to himself and his fellow crime fighters as “pigs” for short, is a homing pigeon. Super-strong Frillback is, yes, a frillback pigeon – that is a type with curly feathers. Rather ditzy Tumbler is a tumbler pigeon, a kind that sometimes does somersaults while flying. And Grandpouter Pigeon, who brings the four youngsters together, is a pouter pigeon, complete with characteristic crop (an anatomical feature that looks like a large, protruding chest). So much for the real-world connections. But everything in the story itself – actually three stories in one book – is ridiculous. These are pigeons, and pigeons love bread crumbs more than anything else, so the initial mystery about a park where there are no more bread crumbs is up close and personal for the group. It turns out that there are no bread crumbs because there are no humans in the park to drop them (well, duh) – and that is true, it turns out, because the people are frightened: the park is haunted by a monster crow that is actually a collection of many crows under the leadership of a bad guy called Jungle Crow, who has a habit of dressing up like a cat because… Well, it doesn’t really matter, because the idea is simply to show the newly formed Real Pigeons group figuring things out and working together and eventually bringing other animals and humans back to the no-longer-haunted park so there will again be bread crumbs. Ben Wood’s pervasive pictures – the book is primarily told pictorially, although it is not designed as a graphic novel – carry this story and the two succeeding ones along very adeptly and very amusingly. The second tale is about a mysterious someone or something that is trapping bats – animals that Rock has never met but decides he really, really likes when he gets to know them. This story involves a wildlife photographer, a garbage collector (the Real Pigeons have their meetings in a garbage can, so things can and do get messy), and a bad-guy bat who turns out to be a traitor to his species. And that brings us to the third story, in which the bad guys from the first two stories team up to cause a stink (literally) at a “food truck fair” where the Real Pigeons are hoping to find “bread crumbs, more bread crumbs and even more bread crumbs.” And a sausage. Yes, sausage: it turns out that Frillback’s strength comes from eating sausages, and the Real Pigeons really need that strength to get rid of the stink bomb that would otherwise spoil everything for everybody. All ends happily, with the bad guys caged (yes, literally) by a convenient fortune teller whose parakeet the Real Pigeons have conveniently freed, leaving the cage conveniently empty and available. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, really, and none of it is intended to: Real Pigeons Fight Crime is simply an amply illustrated romp of a book. And it gives every indication of being the first in an ongoing series of equally amply illustrated, equally silly, and equally enjoyable romps.
Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Steve Jenkins is one of a very few authors who can create nonfiction for young readers that is every bit as captivating as fiction – a blend of teachable moments and attractive visuals that both catches the eye and informs the brain. Life on Earth, originally published in 2002 and now available in paperback, is an excellent example of Jenkins’ skill both with words and with illustrations cleverly made from cut and torn paper. The book is an introduction to the principles of evolution, one of the greatest and most thoroughly researched and accepted of all scientific principles. There is really no doubt that evolution is what drives speciation, although there remain small minorities that continue to deny its existence – largely because they deem it “only a theory,” which means they thoroughly misunderstand what a “theory” is in science (it is not a guess or hypothesis but as close to a fact as it is possible to come, given that scientists always look beyond current knowledge to modify and expand whatever is currently known).
To draw young readers into a basic explanation of evolution, Jenkins starts with the remarkable comment that all life, from cacti to bumblebees to penguins, is descended from single-celled organisms that lived in a past so distant as to be quite literally unimaginable. Jenkins takes readers through the varying epochs of Earth’s existence, from the time before life all the way to today, showing a wide variety of living things from each time period – some bizarre in appearance and some closely resembling the flora and fauna of today. Then, about half-way through this thin but information-packed book, Jenkins asks the why question: “Why have so any different forms of life developed on the earth?” And that leads into an explanation of the way most people viewed the world before Charles Darwin’s time, and the discoveries and analyses that led Darwin to formulate the scientific theory of evolution. This part of Life on Earth is splendidly done, simplifying but not oversimplifying Darwin’s findings and illustrating them to perfection. First, Jenkins’ portrayals of the beaks of four finches from the Galápagos Islands show quite clearly how the similar-appearing birds’ differing beaks are adapted to take advantage of disparate food sources. Second, Jenkins shows “natural selection at work” by starting with an animal that young readers will know, a frog, and explaining how the mother frog’s 3,000 eggs lead to only 10 tadpoles that live long enough to become frogs and only two frogs that survive long enough to reproduce. It is the why of these two frogs’ survival that provides a key to evolution, as Jenkins explains carefully and with matter-of-fact elegance.
Then Jenkins both tells and shows the workings of genetics, illustrating with admirable clarity the way in which variation (natural differences between parents and offspring) and mutation (the emergence of unexpected and unpredictable new features) lead, together, to creatures that are either more or less likely to survive and pass on their own characteristics. And he does a fine job of showing some of the effects of evolution, providing two full pages of pictures of beetles (which have evolved new shapes and sizes to fill differing ecological niches), followed by two pages showing animals that fit their habitats so well that they have remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of millions of years (turtles, horseshoe crabs, sharks and more). After a short explanation of extinctions – whose effect on evolution is massive but would require another book to explain with even a modicum of detail – Jenkins returns to where he started Life on Earth, this time showing the progression of life as if Earth’s entire existence could be compressed into a single day. The idea is to help young readers grasp the immense time span over which life has developed and changed by relating Earth’s history to a time period with which readers are familiar. This is only moderately successful – the human brain simply cannot grasp a time period of billions of years – but it is as good an attempt as anyone else has made to engage readers’ interest and thinking about the way life on our planet has evolved. Life on Earth is an excellent introduction to its topic and a book that is fascinating enough to read again and again, even as it will likely encourage many young readers to go elsewhere for more-detailed information on the evolution of plants and animals.
Traci Mendel: Landscapes, Series II; Lines at Dusk—Hymn to the Rising Moon; Nocturne; James M. David: Batuque; Otto Ketting: Intrada; Bernhard Krol: Laudatio; Alexey Posin: Brass Quintet No. 1. Navona. $14.99.
Diane Jones: Earth Rise; Edna Alexandra Longoria: Los Ritmos Para Tres (Rhythms for Three); Ovidiu Marinescu: Sunt Numai Urechi (I’m All Ears); Christina Rusnak: Glacier Blue; Chad Robinson: Darkbloom; Clive Muncaster: Palette No. 2; Joanna Estelle: Faraway Star; Eliane Aberdam: Grisailles Vaporeuses. Navona. $14.99.
Anthology CDs of contemporary music have a built-in plus and a built-in minus. The plus is the opportunity to hear examples of works by numerous composers with whom a listener may not be familiar – a chance to discover at least one new piece and/or composer worth exploring further. The minus is the unlikelihood of finding all the works and composers on the CD intriguing enough to explore further – a certain level of disappointment is almost inevitable. Artists and labels generally try to compensate for the “minus” by providing something other than the music itself that may make a release worthwhile – for example, by focusing on a specific performer, instrument or instrumental group that may appeal to an audience through skill and sound even if not all the music communicates effectively to everyone who hears it. Two new Navona releases take exactly this artist-focused approach to anthologies of recent music. John McGuire’s horn playing is the thread that ties together otherwise very different works by Traci Mendel (born 1964), James M. David (born 1978), Otto Ketting (1935-2012), Bernhard Krol (1920-2013), and Alexey Posin (born 1971). The works here have varying inspirations and varying ways of responding to their source materials. Mendel’s three offerings are for horn and piano (the pianist is Kevin Chance). Landscapes, Series II includes three pieces inspired by Japanese paintings and woodcuts, musically limned by generally having the piano take a background/foundational role as the horn moves the music ahead – usually with greater dissonance than fits comfortably with Japanese artistic sensibilities. The inspiration for Lines at Dusk—Hymn to the Rising Moon is the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here much of the pianistic material is chordal, while the horn, often in its higher register, sounds more strident and less warm than might be expected in Shelley-inspired material. Of Mendel’s works, Nocturne is most effective in pairing horn and piano, and there is at least a modicum of gentleness in this nighttime music. David’s Batuque is a two-movement work whose title refers to dance music of Brazil and West Africa. The piece is scored for horn, piano (Chance) and clarinet (Wesley Ferreira). The first movement explores some of the clarinet’s and horn’s singing qualities, which fit somewhat uneasily with the piano’s stridency; the second movement has distinct jazzlike qualities and considerable bounciness – it is much more engaging than the first. Ketting’s Intrada and Krol’s Laudatio are solo-horn pieces, the former a series of silences alternating with fanfare-like proclamations, the latter more fluid and flowing. McGuire’s skill on his instrument is especially evident in these two pieces, as he extracts varying sounds from the horn while exploring a multiplicity of performance techniques. The CD concludes with its most-interesting offering, Posin’s three-movement Brass Quintet No. 1, in which McGuire is heard as part of the Fortress Brass Quintet with Bradley Ulrich and Eric Yates, trumpets; Bradley Kerns, trombone; and Michael Dunn, tuba. The opening Allegro Vivo is ebullient and full of energy, with some especially nice treatment of the lower brass; the Intermezzo contrasts well, being quieter and focused more on individual instrumental lines; and the final Rondo-Tarantella, played attacca, more or less sneaks up on the listener at the start and soon becomes a propulsive whirl featuring the many coloristic effects of which this instrumental complement is capable. It is a winning conclusion to a CD that has, all in all, more high points than low.
It is a group rather than a single instrument that unites disparate works by Diane Jones, Edna Alexandra Longoria, Clive Muncaster, Joanna Estelle, and Eliane Aberdam: all are for string trio and performed by Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). In addition, there are three pieces here for solo cello – one each by Marinescu, Christina Rusnak and Chad Robinson. Jones’ Earth Rise begins with some quiet piano scene-setting before becoming livelier and more attenuated by turns – it is supposed to be a kind of cosmic dance, and does have some dancelike rhythms as well as a certain degree of lyricism. Longoria’s Los Ritmos Para Tres is strongly jazz-inflected and is infectiously rhythmic, including percussive elements generated by the performers tapping their instruments. Muncaster’s Palette No. 2 combines some of the “cosmic” sounds of Jones’ work with some of the dancelike rhythms used by Longoria, but it also features some genuinely affecting lyricism and particularly well-managed relationships among the instruments. Estelle’s Faraway Star is a kind of extended love song in which the piano “narrates” a dialogue between violin and cello. It is a pretty piece that does not overextend its welcome – a good thing, since it is on the verge of becoming cloying throughout. Aberdam’s Grisailles Vaporeuses (“misty graynesses”) has three movements marked “Pensive,” “Lyrical” and “Joyful,” the first of which extends the mood of Estelle’s work to rather less effect. The second movement is more interesting in its instrumental combinations, and the third provides considerable contrast through short, broken themes that sound quite different from the long lines and extended melodies of the earlier movements. The work is nature-inspired but does not have a particularly strong connection with natural phenomena, and its inconclusive finish leaves listeners hanging. The music for string trio takes up the first and last part of this CD, with the solo-cello material in the middle. Marinescu’s Sunt Numai Urechi brings some flamenco-guitar elements to the cello but wears out its inventiveness after a while, although its speedy concluding material is attractive. Rusnak’s Glacier Blue is a three-movement piece intended to depict or respond to “Mountain,” “Sky” and “Water.” All the movements have interesting elements, and the work as a whole is a showcase not only for technical prowess but also for the cello’s ability to produce a wide variety of string and percussive sounds (the latter especially in the middle movement). But the piece really does not sustain for almost 15 minutes: it becomes clever rather than thoughtful and ends up seeming more interesting for a performer than for non-cellist listeners. Robinson’s Darkbloom also seeks out and finds the cello’s full expressive range, managing to make the instrument sound truly violin-like at times while allowing its potential for rich warmth to come to the forefront at others. Like Rusnak’s piece, though, it seems to be more of an étude than music intended to connect with a general audience: it is easy to appreciate the skill of the work’s construction (and of Marinescu’s accomplished performance) without being particularly moved by the musical material. The works for trio on this disc, although themselves a mixed bag, generally come across more effectively than do those for the cello alone.
January 09, 2020
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. By Rita Lorraine Hubbard. Illustrated by Oge Mora. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
An exceptional book about a person who became extraordinary through something that young readers will find very ordinary indeed, Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s The Oldest Student is a biography of a onetime slave who lived to the amazing age of 121 and, in the process, was proclaimed the oldest student in the United States. On the surface, the life of Mary Walker (1848-1969) contained nothing highly unusual except for her longevity: she grew up, worked hard, married, had children, and eventually lived out her days in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But as Hubbard makes clear in a book structured deliberately as well-deserved hagiography, beneath this veneer of the everyday lay a woman whose childhood determination to do something she was initially forbidden to do – read – remained with her for a century until, eventually, she was able to bring her ambition to reality.
Hubbard neither glosses over the depredations of slavery nor dwells on them. She simply uses them to set the scene by explaining the rule that “slaves should not be taught to read or write, or do anything that might help them learn to do so” – quickly establishing just why Mary never learned to read. Hubbard invents for Mary a childhood determination to learn as well as a preoccupation with the freedom of birds flying. Neither is much of a stretch, although neither is factual; but both help Hubbard connect the early and later parts of Mary’s life thematically. Similarly, Hubbard does not explain why Mary chose to stay in the South after emancipation – parents may need to help explain the history to children – but she discusses the long hours and days of work that Mary endured for many years, thus reinforcing the notion of there never being time to learn reading. In fact, little about Mary’s life from age 15 to age 116 is known, as Hubbard explains at the back of the book, so the specifics of this story are largely made up. They ring true, however, since they are quotidian matters – and there is nothing to indicate that Mary lived an out-of-the-ordinary life through the many post-slavery decades.
Halfway through the book, Hubbard is finally ready to focus on centenarian Mary’s determination to learn to read – and at this point, the excellence of Oge Mora’s illustrations really becomes clear. The mixed-media pictures throughout are beautifully done, but it is when the focus on Mary’s desire to read takes center stage that Mora’s design carries the story: she shows papers, signs, billboards, notices and more as a series of squiggles, making it visually clear that this is how things must have looked to Mary when she did not know the alphabet or how the letters formed words. The picture of Mary asleep at a table, resting her head on her arm, as visions of letters waft through her dreams and pages of her printing of her own name lie beneath her fingers, is a perfect encapsulation of Mary’s eventual success at learning to read. Mora’s inclusion of little bits of newspaper clippings in her designs, and of mundane-but-special items such as a piece of paper hanging on a wall and saying “Happy Birthday, Gramma Walker,” makes The Oldest Student as special visually as Hubbard’s storytelling makes it narratively. A two-page illustration showing Mary looking out a window at everyday signs on buildings – now all words she can read – is a simply beautiful way of bringing home the book’s message about the wonder of reading and of one woman’s determination to learn. A climactic scene, in which people celebrating Mary’s birthday go silent so Mary can read to them from her Bible, is as heartwarming as can be.
Today’s children, the target audience for this lovely book, will of course be reading it (perhaps with a little adult help here and there). And they will likely think little of the wonder of knowing how to read, since it is such a small, everyday miracle, so easily taken for granted. After they finish The Oldest Student, though, at least some of them will understand just how important reading is and how much people are missing when they cannot do so. In this way, Hubbard’s and Mora’s story of Mary Walker – and, indeed, Mary Walker’s life itself – can carry a message about the importance of words to a new, video-saturated generation. It is hard to imagine Mary Walker having a better legacy than that.
Packs: Strength in Numbers. By Hannah Salyer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Helga’s Dowry: A Troll Love Story. By Tomie dePaola. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
There is little doubt that in some circumstances there is greater strength in a group than in individuals. The ancient Romans knew this well – hence their focus on the fasces, a bundle of sticks (sometimes containing an ax with its blade visible) that had been used since Etruscan times to show the power of being bound together rather than being as weak as an individual wooden rod would be. But there is such a thing as taking the concept too far, which is why the much later word fascism – directly derived from the ancient notion – has less-than-admirable connotations. Still, for many of the animal groupings explored by Hannah Salyer in Packs, being bound together is crucial to survival. Salyer makes her brief considerations of animal packs entertaining as well as informative both through her art and through two aspects of her narrative: giving the formal name for each specific collection of animals, and creating a fanciful overview of what each group does together. Thus, she explains how some ants head underground – where they are called, collectively, a nest – and gather green leaves to be used to grow food for the colony: “Together, we harvest!” And wildebeest, which move in groups as large as a million individuals in a “herd [that] is called an implausibility,” roam the Serengeti plains: “Together, we travel!” Salyer anthropomorphizes some animal groups to make a point, as when thousands of flamingos, “known as a flamboyance,” eat together and sleep together and find mates together: “Together, we dance!” The strength-in-numbers approach is frequently used by tiny animals that are individually weak, such as coral, and by prey animals that need to protect themselves against predators, such as zebras. Salyer stretches the groupings a bit by showing a pride of lions (“Together, we nurture!”) and numerous crocodiles basking in the sun: lions are actually social only to a limited degree, and crocodiles are not group animals at all, usually coming together only when a bask of them (“bask” being their collective noun, although it is one that Salyer does not provide) happens to want to, well, bask in the same warm area. Inevitably, Salyer ends the book with a city scene showing a large group of people, in the now-obligatory forms of racial, ethnic and sexual diversity (e.g., men walking hand-in-hand), and the statement that “we are better” as a grouping of people (which, in fact, might be called “a diversity of humans,” although it isn’t). Indeed, Salyer lays on the lessons a bit too thickly at the back of the book, using the final pages to discuss ways in which “animals in this book are under threat from things like climate change, poaching, or habitat loss.” That alters both the topic and the tone of Packs rather jarringly, but it does not really interfere with the well-presented basic information about animal groupings – and can be skipped if one is so inclined. Salyer’s end-of-book page giving the exact names of the creatures in the book, on the other hand, should not be skipped by any young reader intrigued by the illustrations. That page gives, for example, seven different names for the various corals shown in Salyer’s single picture. There is plenty to enjoy in Packs, and plenty of material that can be followed up elsewhere, perhaps starting with the six “Further Reading” examples that Salyer helpfully supplies.
The binding-together element of conformity can certainly be taken too far when it comes to human beings, as the fasces-to-fascism example indicates. It can also be taken too far when it comes to trolls, as Tomie dePaola shows in Helga’s Dowry, a delightful 1977 book now available in a new paperback edition. It seems that all female trolls exist under a pronouncement from “One-Eyed Odin,” to the effect that “all unmarried Troll Maidens must wander the earth forever.” But troll maidens cannot marry unless they have a suitable dowry. And that is Helga’s problem: although Handsome Lars wants to marry her, she has no dowry at all. So Handsome Lars goes to Rich Sven for advice – and is promptly advised to marry Rich Sven’s daughter, Plain Inge. Oops. Well, Helga may be a dutiful member of the troll grouping, but she is also an individual, and she is not willing to be jilted just because of group customs – so she tucks her tail out of sight, loads her troll cart with sundries, and goes “hopping down the mountain into the Land of People.” Helga is clever enough to know when to go against the group, especially when the group is lazy: at a farm, she finds a washhouse with no smoke coming out of the chimney and lots of people just lolling about – and offers to get all the laundry cleaned by sundown in exchange for 35 cows, with the proviso that if she cannot deliver on time, she gets paid nothing at all. The greedy farmwife who is in charge of doing laundry but is not doing it can scarcely resist that deal – but by sundown, thanks to “troll powder in the water” and “troll wax on the iron,” Helga delivers a gigantic pile of beautifully cleaned and folded laundry and heads home with her 35 cows. And the next day she heads back to “the People’s Marketplace” to get something more for her dowry: gold. A bit of “juvenescent cream” containing troll magic helps old people look young again, and soon enough, the people are happy and Helga has all the gold she needs. Now all she lacks is a meadow – the last dowry requirement – and she knows how to get it: by cutting down a mountainside full of trees. But that part of her plan is foiled by none other than Plain Inge, who turns herself into a tree and prevents Helga from doing what she wishes – and there ensues a wonderfully drawn and very funny battle between Tree-Inge and Boulder-Helga. Yes, Helga turns herself into a boulder and repeatedly rolls down the mountain to try to turn Inge “into kindling wood.” But Inge dodges again and again, although Helga cleverly eventually gets the better of her – and then decides not to marry Handsome Lars, because “I want to be loved for who I am, not for what I’ve got!” And there is the moral of the story – and a finely fashioned comeuppance for Handsome Lars, who has to marry Plain Inge after all, while Helga ends up with a much better match with a troll who loves her for what she is and has “no need of riches,” for what turns out to be a very good reason. Helga’s Dowry is a delightfully told fable, in which dePaola’s storytelling skill and immediately recognizable art combine to produce a story about the value – and limitations – of being a member of a group and doing just what the group expects.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. “0,” 2 and 6. Sophie-Mayuko Vetter, piano and fortepiano; Hamburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Ruzicka. Oehms. $14.99.
Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volumes 10 and 11: Debussy—Images, Books I and II; La plus que lente; Études, Books I and II; Suite bergamasque; Pour le piano; L’Isle joyeuse; Préludes, Book I. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $19.99 (2 CDs).
The 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth is bringing a flood of recordings of familiar works and, perhaps even more welcome, something more than a trickle of releases of less-known Beethoven. There is more of that than many people realize. Certainly his symphonies, string quartets, Missa Solemnis, piano sonatas and various concertos are so firmly anchored in the standard repertoire that Beethoven’s music is ubiquitous. In reality, though, only some of it is heard constantly, and if the 250th-anniversary acknowledgments provide a chance for further exploration, so much the better. Even among what are considered the most-familiar Beethoven works, there are surprises to be found. This is the case with his piano concertos. He wrote 8½ of them: the five hyper-familiar ones numbered 1-5, the piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto, a lost early concerto, a not-lost early one known as WoO 4 or “No. 0,” and a portion of what would have become No. 6 if Beethoven had not abandoned it for reasons unknown. A new Oehms release featuring Sophie-Mayuko Vetter and the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra under Peter Ruzicka is an especially happy exploration of Beethoven’s early concertos and late partial concerto, not only because the music itself is worth hearing but also because Vetter correctly plays “No. 0” on the fortepiano. Beethoven very specifically stated that this work was for harpsichord or fortepiano, and it sounds immeasurably better on an intended instrument than on the modern concert grands used on the still-rare occasions when pianists present it. Vetter has an excellent touch on the fortepiano and takes full advantage of the coloristic capabilities of the instrument – a characteristic it shares with the harpsichord but not with modern pianos. Beethoven, although only a young teenager when he wrote this concerto, clearly understood how harpsichord and fortepiano can color music in different ways: different parts of the keyboard produce inherently different sounds, apart from the registration differences that harpsichordists (like organists) can engage at will. The very Mozartean flavor of “No. 0” (which actually sounds somewhat more like a work by Johann Christian Bach than one by Mozart) comes through especially clearly in this recording – whose only significant flaw is an unwelcome decision to rush the finale, which is taken at an Allegro molto pace rather the designated Allegretto. This movement has one of the most delicious rondo themes that Beethoven ever wrote, and a slower pace would have brought forth much more of its charm than the headlong rush heard here. Even with that miscalculation, though, the concerto is played so well, and gets such fine orchestral accompaniment, that the recording is a delight. And No. 2, the first-composed of the five “canonical” concertos, sounds splendid as well. There is a lightness bordering on dalliance throughout the concerto, a sense of joie de vivre not often associated with Beethoven and all the more infectious as a result. Vetter and Ruzicka engage in a bit too much rubato from time to time, notably in the finale. But they mostly get away with their tempo fluctuations, because the changes are judiciously chosen and serve to highlight some elements of the music to good effect (even though, as a result, they downplay others). As for the single surviving movement of what would have been Concerto No. 6, this is a bit of a hodgepodge, having been completed and cobbled into performable form by Nicholas Cook and Hermann Dechant. Vetter’s performance here is the work’s world première recording, and it serves the music well. The use of the piano in this single-movement fragment is different from its handling in the five numbered concertos, with an integration of piano into orchestral fabric that looks ahead to the Romantic era – and a climactic three-and-a-half-minute cadenza (in a 15-minute movement) that takes the rather pedestrian thematic material and spins it into a kind of fantasy/impromptu. The result is intriguing rather than gripping, providing a sense of where Beethoven could perhaps have gone with the material if he had decided to expand upon and develop it further. In this way, Concerto No. 6 is as revelatory – but as disjointed – as Beethoven’s sketches for his Symphony No. 10. It is fascinating to hear this pianistic possibility, but it is certainly not Beethoven and is not entirely “Beethovenian,” either. Nevertheless, it is the insights into lesser Beethoven and “almost Beethoven” that make this release such a fascinating one.
The fascination of the latest Idil Biret Solo Edition presentation, a two-CD IBA recording featuring more than two-and-a-half hours of Debussy, lies partly in the sheer pianistic prowess of Biret, who in her late 70s (she was born in 1941) retains all the expressive and virtuosic skill she has displayed through many decades; and partly in the chance to hear so much of Debussy’s impressionistic music rendered with such clarity and attention to detail. Much of the material here is thrice-familiar: Images, Suite bergamasque (including Clair de lune) and the Préludes are mainstays of pianists’ repertoires and heard very frequently in recitals and on recordings. But Biret approaches even the most-familiar of these works with the feeling of coming to them, if not for the first time, then in the spirit of discovery and rediscovery of Debussy’s tonal palette and his expressive techniques. It is worth remembering that everything here is a miniature, an encapsulation of a particular mood, feeling or approach to piano playing: there are 39 tracks on the two CDs. And Biret handles every individual piece as a kind of tiny tone poem, delving into the pictures that each elicits or the feeling each evokes and exploring the material in detail before bringing every item to a satisfactory close and then moving on to the next little jewel. Thus, each of the Préludes from Book I breathes its own atmosphere, with the result that the contrasts among the works – say, between La Cathédrale engloutie and the immediately following La Danse du Puck – are quite strong and yet carefully measured (hopefully Book II of the Préludes will be forthcoming on a later Biret recording). All six Images are beautifully turned and lovingly explored, with the last of them, Poisson d’or, especially evocative of its subject matter. The lengthy Études, whose two books together are the longest offering on this release, have little of the charm of Debussy’s favored impressionism: they really are exercises for the pianist, however well-made they may be as individual works. But even here, Biret finds ways to make the material far more expressive than it usually is, for example in Pour les sonorités opposées. Biret is a consummate stylist in much of the music she performs, and shows throughout this very fine recording that she is every bit as adept and accomplished in Debussy’s music as in the works by Liszt and Schumann with which she is more closely associated, and which dominated earlier recordings among the Idil Biret Solo Edition releases.