October 29, 2020


BB3X: “Baby Blues” Collection 37. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     In the halcyon days of yore, the bygone heyday of newspapers (remember them?), reporters (remember them?) would conclude the stories they wrote for transmission on wire services (remember them?) with the designation “-30-.” Probably derived from an original conclusion of “XXX,” the reportorial version of “the end” was created with a typewriter (remember them?) and used to give a sense of finality to non-opinionated news stories (remember them?).

     Well, now here we are with Rick Kirkman’s and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues comic strip at the stage designated “XXX,” but this is decidedly not “-30-” for the strip even if it something like “-29-” for many of the newspapers in which it appears. The 30th-anniversary Baby Blues book is not quite as elaborate as the 20th-anniversary hardcover, BBXX – hey, print publishers have their own issues nowadays – but it is packed with the usual wonderful collection of recent strips plus, in the middle, 23 pages of reminiscences, photos, commentaries, memorabilia and trivia. You might think that Kirkman and Scott would use this section to answer some of the burning questions about Baby Blues, such as why there are three characters whose names rhyme (Wanda, Rhonda and Yolanda). You might think they would discuss the reasons that father Darryl has the world’s largest nose – one of which the comic-strip characters themselves are well aware, since in one sequence here, in which Zoe is overdoing her demands, Darryl comments, “She needs drama practice like I need a nose extension.” You might think they would discuss the exigencies of cartooning in the ever-shrinking newspaper world – to which they in fact refer once, when Kirkman explains that Scott wanted a single-panel strip to show Hammie tying Darryl’s shoelaces together, but that was not possible to do while keeping the characters larger, so instead the panel shows “Hammie stuffing tennis balls up Darryl’s sleeves.” You might think they would explain why a hilarious Sunday strip in which Wanda is scolding the kids at great length – through words placed in a delightfully meandering ribbon that wanders all over the place – is carefully designed to make every single word visible except when she says “if you think,” which apparently is mostly behind her head as she drives the minivan and therefore comes out as “if hink.”

     You might think about all these things, but you would be better off counting how many times the word “ding!” appears in the third panel of a strip about baby Wren using the newly installed and soon-to-be-uninstalled bell on Wanda’s bicycle (24 “dings” and two halves, lettered as “ng!”). Kirkman and Scott do have a lot to say and a lot to show, but after 30 years of this family stuff, they know enough to tell readers just so much and no more. And most of what they explicate is the everyday reality of raising young children – in a way that is much, much funnier than the real-world version, even though Baby Blues is so firmly grounded in reality that anybody with kids will instantly recognize many of the situations (which Kirkman and Scott, who both have kids, continue to base in part on their own family experiences – at least as they remember those experiences, because, hey, kids don’t stay kids for 30 years anywhere except in comic strips).

     What continues to be amazing about Baby Blues is the way Kirkman and Scott come up with variations on what is essentially the same theme – and then come up with variations on the variations. One of the best sequences in BB3X has Wanda thinking she has morning sickness – which could mean a fourth pregnancy. Darryl finds himself thinking “please let it be the flu,” although of course he would never say that out loud. Wanda says she feels as if “my sentence was almost up, and my uterus just denied me parole.” For readers wondering how Darryl and Wanda would ever have time for another conception, there is Darryl’s comment that “we should never have gotten HBO,” followed by Wanda’s “it wouldn’t have mattered – you get frisky watching HGTV.” And when it turns out that Wanda is not pregnant after all, there is the moment of regret from her (“I’ll miss that new baby smell”) followed by the moment of reality from Darryl (“That’s only at one end, Wanda”).

     That particular sequence is a classic, or will be in the future when some historian looks back on the newspaper age and searches for the real value in papers, beyond all that reportorial stuff and commentary and opinion and editorializing solely on the editorial page (remember that?). Kirkman and Scott themselves are well aware of the passing of time, not only in their own lives (witness the middle section of BB3X) but also, in a more limited way, in the lives of their characters – as in a five-strip series called “Back Then…and Now,” with (in one strip) pre-kid Darryl and Wanda having a quiet dinner as he says, “You look radiant tonight,” and post-kid Darryl and Wanda at a very messy table as he says, “You have a Froot Loop in your hair.” Those are the realities of having and raising children, and have been for the past 30 years and far longer. The heck with halcyon days – thanks to the leavening and lightening effect of Baby Blues, the days parents have with kids are plenty halcyon enough, for all their small (and sometimes large) problems and frustrations. And that’s the way it is. (Look it up.)  



Cat Ninja 1. By Matthew Cody. Illustrated by Yehudí Mercado. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Undersea Mystery Club #3: The Puzzling Paintings. By Courtney Carbone. Illustrated by Melanie Demmer. Andrews McMeel. $6.99.

     The sheer adorableness of the characters in some books for young readers can help save the works from thin and formulaic plots. In fact, adorableness can seem to be the main point of some books, such as the first in a planned graphic-novel series, Cat Ninja. Who could be hardhearted enough not to be charmed by a kitten with head as big as the rest of his body, wearing a nattily designed ninja suit and the inevitable doesn’t-really-conceal-anything mask (and in stylish red, not black)? Toss in some equally adorable villains – the first story in the book features a very plump, monocle-wearing hamster who happens to be a genius inventor riding around in a Transformer-style suit of articulated armor – and you have the recipe for a lot of fun. And never mind that this particular recipe has been followed by so many writers and illustrators in so many other books. Even the words are well-worn: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of hamsters?” dates all the way back to the 1930s radio serial about The Shadow (where evil lurked in the hearts of men, not hamsters). Kids can look it up. And maybe they will, since Cat Ninja has inevitable tie-ins to everyday online life in the 21st century, with young bystanders noticing Cat Ninja (usually after he has an epic fail) and snapping cellphone pictures to be uploaded to the Internet – turning the brave crime fighter into just another meme. In his everyday life, Cat Ninja is “the pampered house cat of an eleven-year-old boy” named Leon – whose sister’s pet, Mr. Squeaks, is none other than the dastardly Master Hamster. The adorableness of the whole arrangement persists even after Cat Ninja triumphs and Master Hamster decides it’s just as well to stuff himself with food and roll around in his hamster ball as to terrify the residents of Metro City. But the cute-ification continues in a story featuring the dapper international jewel thief, Le Chat – and a large, ungainly (but still cute) dog named Adonis who turns out, even later in the book, to be a robot designed for nefarious purposes but just too darned cute to carry them out when the alternative is being a much-loved member of a sweet and loving family (in which the parents are in the middle of a divorce – a plot element given very short shrift, since it could detract from all the endearing charm everywhere). There are some genuinely funny things in Cat Ninja – whose title character, incidentally, has the only non-speaking role, for reasons never explained (he grimaces and points and gestures, but that’s all). Lord Elan Mollusk (an obvious nod to businessman Elon Musk) is hilarious: he is a mollusk, complete with a bodyguard brigade of “flail-wielding snails” who grimace toothily but cannot move quickly enough on their trails of slime to do anything to anybody. Also here is the traditional robot rampage through the city, in which the monstrous machine yells “Take that, fire hydrant!” and “Take that, car!” (Can’t have young readers think any living characters might be harmed, after all.) There is even a brief exploration of the difference between types of on-air and on-Internet commentators: “Newspeople report the news. Pundits shout.” The usual good-vs.-evil stories – the ultimate villain turns out to be named Doctor Von Malice – are much less the point here than the cast of characters. With any luck, future books in the series will give more centrality to a bit player in this first book called The Fury Roach. Yes, an adorable cockroach.

     Being cute-as-can-be is also the main point of the Undersea Mystery Club series, even though the supposed point is the solving of minor mysteries in the undersea city of Aquamarina. But the mysteries are so simple and so un-mysterious, and the central characters so adorably portrayed, that the plots become largely irrelevant – even for very young readers. The two protagonists are Violet the mermaid, with her adorably pointy ears and sweet fish tail and great big eyes and ever-present pearl necklace; and her best friend, Wally the narwhal, with his twisty unicorn-like horn and equally big eyes and nearly constant smile. In the third (+++) book of this series, The Puzzling Paintings, Violet and Wally have to figure out who has put splashes of black swirls on various buildings in Aquamarina. Well, let’s see – early on, a character named Ollie the Octopus is introduced, and he shows Violet and Wally the art he creates using his own black ink, and the art consists of black swirls, and there is always a small “o” at the bottom, and the paintings around town all have that “o,” so who could possibly be responsible? It actually takes a while for Violet and Wally to figure this out; it will take young readers about a second and a half. Of course, since there are no “bad guys” here and since Ollie, like everyone else, is adorable, it turns out that the paintings – which Violet and Wally learn are called graffiti – are all a misunderstanding: Ollie thought he was beautifying things by creating murals, but he neglected to get permission and therefore has to apologize and make amends by cleaning everything up. And at the end of the book, of course he gets to create one of his paintings in a public space with permission. Rather than good-vs.-evil, Undersea Mystery Club is along the lines of good-vs.-gooder, or something like that. But it is the sweetly rendered drawings that are the real attraction here. Even when Violet is imagining that the graffiti could have been done by a would-be robber, the illustration shows an adorable seal with a black hood over his head, pulling what is presumably a bag of loot; and when Wally thinks maybe aliens did the art, those aliens and their flying saucer are just, well, adorable. Undersea Mystery Club is extremely thin on the plot side – but is at least as much fun to look at as it is to read.


Moritz Moszkowski: Orchestral Music, Volume One—Johanna d’Arc. Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

Moritz Moszkowski: Orchestral Music, Volume Two—Suites Nos. 2 and 3 for Orchestra. Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Ian Hobson. Toccata Classics. $18.99.

     Audiences tend to think of classical music as a calling, an artistic endeavor motivated by the need to express certain feelings, beliefs and emotions, sometimes while satisfying the specific requirements of a particular group or individual (as Bach’s Goldberg Variations were created at the behest of a noble patron needing something to calm him during his frequent bouts of insomnia). However, composers themselves are well aware that their musical creations are a business – a state of affairs readily accepted when it comes to pop music but less so when concert halls, recital rooms and opera stages are involved. It was probably the realization of the “business” element of composition that led to the near-obliteration of the name of Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) as a composer of large-scale, serious works. Quite well-known for a time around the turn of the 20th century, Moszkowski is now remembered only for a handful of pianistic trifles and encores – and that is partly his own fault, since he realized early on that his larger-scale, more-serious works were not catching on in the way that his smaller ones were. Besides, his piano pieces could serve the dual purpose of getting his name out there and giving him something to play at his own recitals: he was a notable virtuoso for a decade, until prevented from performing by a physical ailment – after which he became a successful conductor.

     Moszkowski’s disappearance from the ranks of well-known composers was not solely the result of his focus on smaller works: his musical conservatism in an era of considerable artistic change did him no good, and the tremendous upheavals at the time of World War I not only ruined him financially through unwise investments but also relegated his music to being deemed material from a bygone era. However, the earlier part of the 20th century has in recent decades been rediscovered, and it turns out that even some of its lesser lights had considerable communicative skill and produced music that deserves a far better fate than the oblivion to which history has consigned it. So now we have, from Toccata Classics, a planned four-volume series of Moszkowski’s orchestral music – and on the basis of the two volumes now available, this will be a genuine delight of a rediscovery.

     The first CD is devoted entirely to a four-movement symphonic poem – sometimes referred to as a symphony, but a work that is more loosely knit, in the mode of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade of 1888. Moszkowski’s Johanna d’Arc is more than a decade older, dating to 1875-76, and is based not on the historical record but on Friedrich Schiller’s fictionalized 1801 play. This massive work, receiving its world première recording with Ian Hobson conducting Sinfonia Varsovia, is essentially a full-hour tone poem, or rather four related tone poems, opening with a portrayal of Joan before her famous vision and ending with her death and Verklärung (“transfiguration” or “apotheosis”). Although the performance here is quite fine, with extra credit due to Jakob Haufa, who handles the solo-violin parts in the first and fourth movements, it has to be said that Moszkowski’s Johanna d’Arc sprawls, especially in its very extended first movement (23 minutes of the work’s total of 59 in this reading). The naïveté of the pastoral opening is nicely delineated and is well-contrasted with the increasingly dark and serious mood later in this movement, but the movement as a whole goes on at very considerable length without having sufficient fluidity or melodic attractiveness to make the auditory journey worthwhile. The three other movements are, all in all, more successful. The second represents Joan’s inner struggles effectively; the third is a very well-composed march that would not be out of place in the Hollywood historical epics of 50 years later, and that includes (probably unintentionally) one section identical to a portion of Liszt’s Les Préludes; and the finale is suitably dark at first, building to a well-considered reappearance of first-movement material relating to Joan’s original vision – before the foregone triumphal conclusion, which concludes the work with suitable uplift if without a great deal of originality. Moszkowski’s Johanna d’Arc shows the composer capable of handling large forms and a large orchestra, skillfully enough if not with any particular innovation. By itself, it does not really indicate any good reason for a “Moszkowski revival,” but it does whet the appetite for additional orchestral material from the same source. And that is what the second CD in this series provides.

     Moszkowski wrote three non-programmatic orchestral suites (in 1885, 1890 and 1908); all are on a considerably more modest scale than Johanna d’Arc and are more varied in mood, melodious in content, and satisfying in total effect. No. 2, a six-movement work receiving its première recording here, is a real gem, moving unerringly from a serious opening Lento to a complex and surprisingly well-constructed Fuga. There is a suitable Scherzo to lighten the mood, then an extended Larghetto to deepen it again and to show Moszkowski, at least in this case, to be a master of melodiousness and lyricism – the movement is quite lovely by any measure. The fifth movement is an Intermezzo that is essentially a minuet and trio, and the finale is a brisk and upbeat Marcia that, as in some of the material from Johanna d’Arc, looks ahead to the film scores of many decades in the future. This suite is thoroughly satisfying on its own terms, and is surely worthy of at least occasional revival for its fine construction and its many original touches of orchestration: it includes not only a solo violin (played by Haufa) but also a harp (Zuzanna Elster) and, truly surprisingly, an organ Damian Skowroński). The third suite pales a bit beside the second, but is also well-made and pleasant in its effect. It is a four-movement work that opens with material well-written for winds and brass and then moves to a second movement with the clever title La note obstinée, referring to the harp playing C, in eighth notes, almost throughout, even when the rest of the ensemble is doing something with which that note does not really fit. It is the third movement, though, that is the most immediately appealing: it is a lovely Tempo di valse that is filled with a sense of nostalgia and faint tinges of regret, as if for the century concluded not that long before (Moszkowski, mindful of the business realities of music, knew it would work well as a piano solo and accordingly made a transcription himself). This suite’s finale is straightforward and upbeat, building to a restatement of material from the first movement to give the work as a whole some sense of unity – although there is really very little that intrinsically connects the four movements. Both the suites are on the superficial side emotionally, but both work quite well as examples of something beyond “light music” that does not, however, strive for the seriousness and depth of spirit that Moszkowski was after in Johanna d’Arc, where, on the whole, it eluded him. These two very well-played recordings, in which Hobson takes the full measure of the music and Sinfonia Varsovia plays with enthusiasm and élan, certainly do not make Moszkowski out to be a major composer whose works have unaccountably vanished from the repertoire – but they do show him to have created very listenable music with considerable skill, sometimes trying to do a bit more than his talent could accommodate (as in Johanna d’Arc, which, after all, he started writing when he was only 21), and at other times channeling his ambitions into more-modest productions that deserve something better than total obscurity and make it easy to look forward to the upcoming releases in this Moszkowski series.


Kenneth Fuchs: Wind Music—Discover the Wild; Point of Tranquility; From the Field to the Sky; Rush: Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Band; United Artists; Christina’s World; Forever Free. United States Coast Guard Band conducted by Adam Williamson. Naxos. $11.99.

Luis Pine: Times of Day for Wind Quintet; Dawn for Flute/Piccolo and Cello; Evening for Flute/Piccolo and Cello; Solar Midnight for Clarinet and Piano. Dorian Wind Quintet (Gretchen Pusch, flute/piccolo; Gerrard Reuter, oboe; Benjamin Fingland, clarinet; Karl Kramer-Johansen, horn; Adrian Morejon, bassoon); Karen Schweitzer, flute/piccolo; Jason Lippmann, cello; Jonathan Szin, clarinet; Jeffrey LaDeur, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     There are many ways to group the seven wind-band works by Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956) heard on a new Naxos CD. Five are world première recordings: only United Artists and Christina’s World have been recorded before. Two are described as idylls for band: Christina’s World and Point of Tranquility, both of which are responses to or interpretations of paintings (by Andrew Wyeth and Morris Louis, respectively). Three are somewhat more extended and somewhat more developed pieces – the two idylls and Rush. Two are described as fanfare-overtures: Discover the Wild and Forever Free. These works were created over a span of decades – for example, Christina’s World dates to 1997 and Point of Tranquility to 2017 – but all show similar skill in the handling of wind instruments, making clear Fuchs’ own performance history as a flautist. Listeners who deem recent wind-band music engaging will find a great deal to enjoy here, and it is interesting to hear how idiomatic the music sounds even when it was originally written for orchestra, as is the case with the concerto Rush. There are some intriguing compositional elements here, such as the fact that Point of Tranquility never gets louder than mezzoforte but still manages to be highly expressive – thanks in part to the absolutely first-rate playing by the United States Coast Guard Band under Adam Williamson. Indeed, the performances here are so good that they, as much as the music, are a strong reason to own this disc. The saxophone concerto, with saxophonist Greg Case and guest conductor Jeffrey Renshaw, is a bit less impressive than the other more-extended works on the disc, since the soloist tends to blur a bit into the ensemble; but certainly the playing itself is excellent. The two idylls are in fact idyllic, with Point of Tranquility exploring wind-band colorations as it interprets the colors used by Louis, and Christina’s World being an effective tone painting of the famous Wyeth work featuring a wheat field, distant farmhouse and young woman lying in the field and facing toward the horizon. The comparative subtlety of the three longer works here is juxtaposed with more-celebratory material in the four shorter pieces that are interspersed with the lengthier ones. Those four are all 21st-century works in the five-minute range. Discover the Wild (2010) is outgoing and almost brash; From the Field to the Sky (2012) celebrates the U.S. Air Force and is, not to create too awful a pun, quite uplifting; United Artists (2008) is forthright and good-spirited; and Forever Free (2013), based on a theme from the West Virginia state anthem, is, to risk another pun, decidedly stately. Fuchs is a composer of considerable range and a skilled orchestrator. When abetted by performers as good as these, his wind-band works – even ones not originally designed in this form, such as Forever Free and United Artists – come across as well-conceived, skillfully developed, and quite effective in their blend of brightness and subtlety.

     The four works by Luis Pine (born1957) on an MSR Classics release use winds quite differently, and not just because these are chamber pieces rather than ones for a full wind band. This is an entire CD of world première recordings and is intended to reflect circadian rhythms while having a circadian rhythm of its own: all the pieces reflect some element of time passing. The quintet Times of Day is a five-movement work entirely focused on, well, times of day: the movements are “Daybreak,” “Morning,” “Noon,” “Afternoon,” and “Nighttime.” The first emerges with a blending and contrasting of lower registers and higher ones; the second is bubbly and upbeat – apparently Pine is a morning person, at least in instrumental guise; the third is chordal and somewhat static at the start, then moves into rapid figurations representative of what appears to be very hectic midday activity; the fourth slows down and relaxes quite a bit – marked Andante, it is a slow walk, not a quick one; and the fifth is quiet, gentle, relaxed and rather somnolent. This is a trip through the day in less than 20 minutes – and if there is nothing unexpected in the way things progress, neither is there anything to which to take exception. The quintet lies nicely on the instruments and explores their ranges with skill and without pushing the players – or the audience – too far. The rest of the disc, though, is somewhat less engaging. Dawn and Evening are both quite slow and, at nearly 13 minutes each, longer than their exploratory natures can really justify. In the absence of a full five-instrument wind grouping, these paired pieces sound more inward-looking and thoughtful than does anything in the quintet – but neither really seems to need to go on as long as it does, and when heard back to back, they are somewhat soporific. Solar Midnight has a somewhat different sound because of the inclusion of the piano, and here the marking Moderate, Dreamy fits the music well. The music explores the clarinet’s lower range to good effect, and the mostly quiet blending of wind instrument with piano is nicely handled. But this piece too rambles and ambles, going on for more than 11 minutes when it has already made its points near its beginning and then has nothing in particular to do except emphasize the mood even further. The pleasant and unassuming Times of Day is certainly the highlight of this (+++) CD. The remainder of the material, although it focuses on pretty much the same concept, is less interesting to hear in its quotidian expressiveness, which tends too frequently to become merely mundane.

October 22, 2020


You Can Change the World: The Kids’ Guide to a Better Planet. By Lucy Bell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     All too often, the descriptive is the enemy of the prescriptive: it is comparatively easy to point out where things are wrong and exceedingly difficult to say how to make them better. So Lucy Bell’s You Can Change the World is welcome, since most of its focus is on what can be done: there are plenty of descriptions of troubles of all sorts, but what Bell does most of the time, and what she does best, is to tell young readers how they can contribute to solving those problems. The book is divided into eight sections called “Plastic,” “Ethical and Environmentally Friendly Clothing,” “Waste,” “Food,” “Gardening and the Outdoors,” “Energy, Electricity, and Waste,” “Animal Activism,” and “An Act of Kindness.” Within each section, Bell lays out the area of concern, gives specific suggestions on what readers can do to address the issue, and gives examples of young people (mostly from Australia, where the author lives and where the book was first published) who are already, in their own way, doing more than their share to help.

     Importantly, Bell explains right at the start that “changing the world won’t happen in a day, and you don’t have to do everything at once. It’s all about making a few changes at a time.” This is crucial in a world of instantaneous communication, instantaneous condemnation, and demands by people of all ages (many of them cynically self-serving politicians) that such-and-such a concern be addressed instantaneously and corrected 100% by tomorrow. Bell’s comment that “every day we can do something to help the fight” is far more mature and intelligent than much of what young readers are exposed to online and through media in general, and if they can only internalize it, they will accomplish much more than if they bemoan the slow pace of massive change.

     To reuse and repurpose items that would usually be thrown away, for example, Bell suggests using glass jars to organize small items or make decorations by filling the jars with pebbles or shells; and she says egg cartons can be used to sprout seedlings or sort jewelry. When packing a lunch, she recommends eating fruits and vegetables that do not have to be packed in anything besides their own skins, then bringing home the peels for composting; and she says to buy bread from a bakery and bring your own bag to carry it home (although this is one of many well-meaning suggestions that imply the economic ability to purchase costlier items). To control garden pests without using chemical insecticides, she explains how to make soap spray and garlic spray – two natural pest-control methods that are often (although not always) effective. She also presents the intriguing idea of “companion planting,” which means putting plants near each other so they can help each other control bugs – for instance, planting garlic, chives or spring onions near flowers.

     Some of Bell’s suggestions are straightforward, easy to implement, and have intriguing bonus ideas. For example, she talks about saving water by taking shorter showers – while also putting a bucket in the shower, so some of the used water is collected and can be used to water plants. And in the “An Act of Kindness” section, she says to smile at people, listen before responding, and thank people who do something for you – and also to do a chore without being asked and without telling anyone. Other concepts are considerably more complicated – specifically, the ones implemented by the young people she profiles, who can be role models for readers if the readers are able to adapt their thinking and success to their own personal situations. For example, Josh Murray, from Australia, started an egg-selling business at age nine and by age 18 was running Josh’s Rainbow Eggs, producing 55,000 eggs a week from pasture-raised chickens. And nine-year-old “Ruby the Climate Kid,” also from Australia, was inspired by living next to a national park to begin doing a series of climate-friendly things, including making recyclable fabric bags and growing fruit trees from seeds.

     There are occasional missteps in You Can Change the World. At one point Bell says that “every single known species of turtle has been found with plastic in or around its body,” but that actually applies to sea turtles, not all species. Elsewhere, Bell suggests “using bar shampoo instead of shampoo in plastic bottles” and tells readers they “can get bar shampoo from cosmetic stores like Lush,” which happens to be a very expensive place to shop – not a reasonable alternative for many people (although Bell does note that it is also possible to look for bar shampoo online). But even if some elements of Bell’s book misfire, most of them do not, and her focus on what young people can actually do, day in and day out, to improve life on our shared planet, places You Can Change the World several steps above the more-typical rants and complaints that are so common in discussions of resource allocation and attention to issues affecting everyone on Earth. The solid simplicity of Bell is far more engaging than the usual agenda-driven drivel on similar topics. As she says, and as will be quite clear to young readers and the adults in their families, “A cleaner world is a nicer world, and a safer place for plants and animals.” For humans, too.


Khorasan Archives, Book Four: The Bladebone. By Ausma Zehanat Khan. Harper Voyager. $17.99.

     The seminal work of virtually all modern heroic fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, goes on for some 1,200 pages and includes Tolkien’s creation of about a dozen different languages for the various races portrayed. Grand in scale and broad in scope, The Lord of the Rings proceeds at a measured, carefully controlled pace that many readers today find on the too-leisurely side, especially if they know the Peter Jackson films based on Tolkien but have not read any of his actual prose. Consider, then, that Ausma Zehanat Khan needs 1,850 pages, 50% more than Tolkien required, to tell her Khorasan Archives stories, and you will have a sense of how the tetralogy is paced and how much time is spent exploring the world where it takes place.

     There is certainly no Tolkienian grandeur here, although Khan makes some passes at it through frequent disquisitions on religion, love, sacrifice, philosophy and more. Foundationally, though, this is a “quest quartet,” in which feminist warriors, who represent positivity and virtue (even when they are flawed, as they usually are), face off against the viciously murderous, paternalistic Talisman (the similarity with “Taliban” is no coincidence) and its leader, the One-Eyed Preacher. Religion and the interpretation of religious texts are foundational to the Khorasan Archives books, while the uses of magic, as well as mundane matters of assassination and slaughter, are equally germane and pervasive. Khan clearly wants her epic to be taken very seriously indeed – one thing it entirely lacks is humor – and invites comparisons with Tolkien through discussions of, for example, the different ways in which various geographical areas and landmarks are named by people from varying races and backgrounds. But all this portentousness, which tends to shade over into pretentiousness, seems tacked-on: this is essentially a tale of warfare with magical overtones, and it is quite clear which side is good and which evil – and therefore which will triumph in the end, undoubtedly after many reverses and much heartache and all the other accouterments of heroic fantasy today.

     As this long-spun-out epic winds to its foregone conclusion, it is important for readers to remember its foundation. The underlying premise is that a group called the Companions of Hira preserves the magicoreligious sacred heritage of a scripture known as the Claim, which is generally known only through fragments but supposedly exists in complete form in an artifact called the Bloodprint. Early in the Khorasan Archives series, the One-Eyed Preacher was determined to destroy the Bloodprint for a variety of spurious reasons that all came down, eventually, to a hunger for power. By the time of The Bladebone, the One-Eyed Preacher has found it more expedient to use the sorcerous powers of the Bloodprint in his bid for conquest and ultimate rule. Since one good weapon deserves another, the Council of Hira, for its part, is seeking a counterweapon in the form of the magical Bladebone – whose whereabouts, however, nobody knows. This is an ongoing element of Khan’s books: the Bloodprint itself was impossible to locate until it wasn’t, and now the Bladebone is in much the same circumstances.

     What all this means is that central character Arian, known as the First Oralist of Hira, must undergo the mystical ritual called Ascension and swear to serve justice, equity and peace – which readers of this series know she has been serving all along – before she can seek out the Bladebone. Her quest is aided not only by the loyal members of the Companions of Hira but also by Daniyar, Arian’s lover, known as the Silver Mage – whose path, however, diverges from Arian’s in the traditional mode of tales in which important characters must find their own way, face their own demons, then reunite at the end (as in Tolkien’s arranging to have Frodo and Sam rescued by the eagles after the fall of Mordor). So Arian focuses mainly on her search and Daniyar mainly on direct, often brutal battle against the Talisman hordes, which are besieging the capital city of Ashfall. There are many political machinations and debates both within Ashfall and in Hira, which is the Citadel of the Companions. Khan surely thinks these serve to deepen the story, but in fact they frequently manage only to bog it down.

     In The Bladebone as in the three previous Khorasan Archives novels, it is the descriptive passages, many drawn from old tales of the Middle East, that make much of the discursive narrative worthwhile. But readers of The Bladebone may have a distinct sense of déjà vu as the book progresses, since its quest so closely parallels that of the previous book, The Blue Eye, in which Daniyar led the fight against the Talisman while Arian was on a separate mission to find something (the Sana Codex) that could supposedly turn the tide of the conflict. The Sana Codex and Bloodprint certainly figure in The Bladebone, just as the title object does, and the eventual climactic confrontation between Arian and the One-Eyed-Preacher pits the various mystical objects’ powers against each other effectively. But Khan takes a long time getting to that climax; and as has been the case throughout the tetralogy, the “Cast of Characters” at the end (five pages) and the accompanying Glossary (12 pages) are absolute necessities to keep the narrative straight and understand, among other things, the multiple titles given to the same characters and multiple names for the same places. To be sure, other extended series – The Lord of the Rings most definitely included – have considerable material appended, but much of it tends to be explanatory and not absolutely necessary to follow the story, as is the case with the Khorasan Archives. Certainly this fourth book stays true to the first three in its characterizations and narrative pace, and does a good job of tying up loose ends (a lot of them). It is thoroughly satisfactory for readers who joined the sequence with The Bloodprint and stayed with it through The Black Khan and The Blue Eye. But although the word “impressive” comes readily enough to mind when describing the overall Khorasan Archives series, that is mostly for the sheer heft of the whole thing and for the author’s ability to weave all its threads into a satisfying garment. It is not, however, for anything especially memorable in the overall concept and structure of the four books, and certainly not for anything in their often molasses-like pacing.


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-6 (arrangement of Violin Concerto); Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6. Gottlieb Wallisch, fortepiano; Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselböck. CPO. $33.99 (3 CDs).

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8 (“Pathétique”), 13 and 14 (“Moonlight”). Leslie Tung, fortepiano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Beethoven was not kind to his pianos. His temper tantrums as he tried to extract more from them than they were capable of delivering, his actual breakage of some of them, are the stuff of legend (in this case, legend firmly rooted in reality). But no matter how much Beethoven might have wished for an instrument along the lines of a modern concert grand – had he been able to conceptualize one – the fact is that what he actually had available was a very different sort of keyboard instrument, the fortepiano. With a span of five to six octaves rather than the modern 11, with a much smaller footprint and strings attached very differently, with up to five pedals for changing tonal quality rather than the usual three of modern pianos, fortepianos showed their relationship to the harpsichord much more closely than does any piano of today. Furthermore, while there is a certain sameness of sound to most (although not all) modern pianos, the makers of fortepianos were proud to produce instruments with very different actions, key spacing and travel, and damping. Fortepianos also had definite national characteristics, the ones from London being quite different in sound from those made on the European continent – and those coming from one continental nation being quite distinct from those made in another. Beethoven played the fortepiano, not the modern piano; and like it or not (he often did not), it was the fortepiano for which he composed. So although it has long been customary to hear Beethoven played on modern pianos, it is flat-out wrong to think that his music, heard that way, sounds the way he intended it to sound. Had he had access to the pianos that started to be made half a century after his death, Beethoven would surely have written very different music; but the music that he did write belongs to the instruments available during his lifetime.

     In this 250th year since Beethoven’s birth, there has been a veritable flood of recordings of his music – including, thank goodness, some that use historically accurate instruments and performance practices. The best of these are genuinely revelatory, letting listeners hear now-familiar music that sounds very considerably different from the way it usually comes across in large modern concert halls with contemporary instruments (piano and orchestral), up-to-date acoustics, and higher and brighter tuning than was used in Beethoven’s time. The CPO set of six piano concertos – the five numbered ones plus the piano version of the Violin Concerto – is so good that it almost argues against hearing this music on anything but a fortepiano (although of course that notion is absurd). Everyone involved in this project is an artist of the first rank, from fortepianist Gottlieb Wallisch to organist/conductor Martin Haselböck to the two dozen members of Orchester Wiener Akademie, which Haselböck founded in 1985 and still leads 35 years later. The fortepianos used here are themselves stars. For the first and second concertos and the rondo WoO 6 (the original finale of what is now Piano Concerto No. 2), there is a Conrad Graf instrument from 1818 that is known to have been played by Beethoven himself. It spans six octaves and has five pedals that can change the sound significantly. For the third and fifth concertos, there is a different Conrad Graf instrument, made several years later in 1823-24, somewhat larger than the 1818 fortepiano, with a span of six-and-a-half octaves and four pedals. And for the fourth concerto and piano version of the violin work, there is a Franz Bayer fortepiano from 1825, a six-octave instrument with four pedals.

     The distinctions among the fortepianos are by no means merely academic. The sound of the concertos is very different from work to work, based on which fortepiano is in use, and the sound of all the concertos differs dramatically from what is usually experienced in these works. The lightness, fluidity, and exceptional sense of integration between soloist and ensemble in these performances are quite remarkable – no expertise whatsoever is needed to hear how very different these readings sound from ones using modern instruments. There is far greater intimacy here than is usually heard in these pieces – a sound that fits Concerto No. 4 and the arrangement of the violin concerto exceptionally well and that also, surprisingly, pays remarkable dividends in the “Emperor” concerto, which becomes quietly outgoing, not overtly celebratory and buoyantly anticipatory of the full-fledged Romantic era. In the early concertos, No. 1 (actually finished second) and No. 2 (finished first), the fortepiano’s decidedly quiet sound (compared with that of modern pianos) emphasizes the almost neo-Baroque aspects of the music and certainly makes clear how indebted Beethoven was to Mozart. In addition, the small size of the orchestra and the authentic instruments it uses are a big part of the sound world here – as is the fact that the recordings were made in a Vienna venue used in Beethoven’s own time. Interestingly, Concerto No. 3 assumes a truly transitional role in this recording, because it quite clearly looks back to the earlier concertos in terms of structure and ensemble, yet just as clearly looks ahead to the greater emotionalism of No. 4 and the overall broader canvas of No. 5. This recording is time travel at its best: far from being fussy, mannered or in any way straitlaced, these historically informed and wonderfully nuanced performances are strong, involving, beautifully played and altogether remarkable in the insight they provide into the real Beethoven keyboard concertos, the ones intended for exactly the types of fortepianos featured here.

     Using a fortepiano for Beethoven’s sonatas – certainly the earlier ones – is as important for hearing them as the composer intended as it is to use fortepianos for the concertos. But it takes a fortepiano performer of very high quality to make this music sound moving and intense, not studied and academic – that is, to do for the sonatas what Wallisch and Haselböck do for the concertos. Just such a top-quality player is Leslie Tung, who offers three of the sonatas, including two of the best-known, on a splendid MSR Classics release. Tung plays not an original fortepiano but a well-constructed modern copy of an older instrument than any used by Wallisch. Built in 1983 by Janine Johnson and Paul Poletti, this fortepiano is based on a 1795 original by Johan Lodewijk Dulcken of Munich. This is a five-octave fortepiano, meaning it has a lesser span than any used by Wallisch, and it fits perfectly with sonatas composed in 1798 (No. 8) and 1801 (Nos. 13 and 14). These are some of the most impressive sonatas from Beethoven’s early period, and all have elements of fantasia – not just No. 13 and 14, each of which is actually labeled “Sonata quasi una fantasia.” The “Grande Sonata Pathétique,” No. 8, gets an especially thoughtful reading from Tung, who plays it essentially as an extended single movement with three contrasting parts, making clear the connections among the themes that collectively bring the work a strong sense of unity. The four-movement No. 13 actually does have all movements played without pause, and this work – the least popular of the three heard here – has some truly remarkable elements, such as the recollection of the Adagio con espressione toward the latter part of the concluding Allegro vivace. As for No. 14, the “Moonlight,” Tung does something here that eludes most other performers and that is very specifically made easier and clearer on the fortepiano than on a modern concert grand: he plays the opening Adagio sostenuto exactly as Beethoven wishes, Sempre pianissimo e senza sordino, and the effect is truly magical – this is not just moonlight but moonlight over fairyland. The sound of Tung’s fortepiano fits this music like a glove, which simply means that this is just the type of instrument that Beethoven had in mind when composing these highly creative and often exceptionally beautiful works. He would surely have done something very different had he been given access to another type of keyboard instrument – but what he did with this instrument, the fortepiano, was to explore areas of emotional depth and extraordinary beauty beyond anything that had come before, finding in the fortepiano an ideal vehicle for taking music past the Classical era and into a new and ever-more-expressive age.


Messiaen: Catalogue d’oiseaux, Book 1; Szymanowski: Piano Sonata No. 3; David Gorton: Ondine. Roderick Chadwick, piano; Peter Sheppard Skærved and Shir Victoria Levy, violins. Divine Art. $18.99.

Hormoz Farhat: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; Toccata; Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour: Yasna; Shabahang; Pendar for Piano; Celebration at Pasargadae. Mary Dullea, piano. Métier. $18.99.

     Pianists explore some less-than-familiar places on new recordings on the Divine Art and Métier labels. Roderick Chadwick takes listeners on a journey to and beyond Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, Book 1, which he plays with considerable panache, by doing more than simply offering Messiaen’s effectively coloristic tone painting representing the alpine chough, golden oriole and blue rock thrush. The pianism itself is impressive enough: the juxtaposition of the piano’s higher and lower registers and its intermittent stop-and-start sections (lapsing into silence and extreme quietude) in the first movement; the repeated, repetitive outbursts and use of the piano’s very highest notes in the second; the chordal dissonance of the third and the way it leads eventually to the quietest of endings. But Chadwick is not content to provide a first-rate piano performance: he also includes two-minute two-violin interludes after the second and third Messiaen movements, resulting in a presentation that is not exactly true to Messiaen’s intentions but that widens his sonic palette to create a kind of chamber-music expansion of material originally intended for solo piano. And this is not the only exploratory element on the disc. After the Messiaen production comes Ondine by David Gorton (born 1978), an eight-minute profile of the water spirit that here gets its world première recording. The piece has the expected “dripping” sounds from the piano at its opening, but instead of drops becoming a torrent, as might be expected, Gorton’s work remains mostly quiet and gentle throughout, as if portraying tracks of rain sliding down a window. The piece is atmospheric, although not especially memorable, and nicely complements the sound (although not the intended impressionistic portrayals) of Messiaen’s bird-focused one. Interestingly, the final work on the CD, Szymanowski’s Piano Sonata No. 3, begins with much the same sound offered by Gorton and, to some extent, by Messiaen – although Szymanowski’s piece is not overtly impressionistic. The mood soon changes, in any case, as the sonata becomes more wide-ranging and sweeps into more-intense territory as its first movement progresses. It is a four-movement work in which the movements run into each other seamlessly, and Chadwick plays it in such as a way as to highlight the distinctions among the various sections within each movement – of which there are many. The harmonic language here is no surprise for its time (1917), but sounds quite modern – even when compared with that of Gorton – because of the way Szymanowski makes use of the differing parts of the keyboard. His willingness to explore slower and more-chordal passages in the second movement contrasts effectively with his interest in very short, even abrupt material in the one-minute-long third movement, and comes through clearly here. And the finale, a fugue (a form Szymanowski also used in his previous piano sonata), has a surprisingly lightweight theme and a willingness to take this hyper-serious form less than hyper-seriously. Chadwick plays the sonata with strength and understanding, although following its conclusion with yet another two-violin piece – a minute-long “Postlude” – is a rather curious thing to do. The CD comes across as an interesting intellectual exercise with some very high-quality playing, even though the connections among the pieces are only surface-level and the music itself seems unlikely to attract a substantial audience, being more for connoisseurs of piano works of a particular type and approach.

     The pieces played by Mary Dullea, by Hormoz Farhat (born 1928) and Amir Mahyar  Tafreshipour (born 1974), are notable not so much for their respective time periods as for their composers’ geographical provenance: Farhat and Tafreshipour are Iranian, although their half-century separation in age means they know their homeland in very different ways. Farhat, the first Iranian to study music in the United States, is first represented here by his 1952 Toccata, based on a Persian folk song and constructed with skill of a rather old-fashioned sort. Piano Sonata No. 1 dates from the mid-1950s and shows the influence of Lukas Foss, with whom Farhat studied at the time and to whom the work is dedicated. This is a four-movement piece, but a compressed rather than expansive one. It is gestural rather than emotive, even in the second-movement Adagio con finezza. Farhat here seems comfortable with standard mid-20th-century compositional techniques: the work is less backward-looking than the Toccata but is very much of its time, as is shown through frequent metrical and rhythmic changes and extremes of dynamics. The three-movement Piano Sonata No. 2 is much more recent, dating to 2007; is considerably longer (23 minutes vs. 13); and is a good deal more impressive musically. Farhat here does not feel obliged to stick rigidly to techniques of the 21st century, or even the 20th, instead allowing the music to flow more naturally and in a less-forced way than in the earlier sonata. The first movement, itself almost as long as the entire previous sonata, is dynamic, expressive and emotionally convincing without ever being particularly lyrical – this is no neo-Romantic work, but one that insists on coming across in its own version of contemporary musical language. The slow second movement begins with delicacy and develops into increasing complexity, while the Molto animato finale is bright, forthright and seems always on the verge of ebullience without ever quite indulging in it: its final portion becomes quietly expressive and fades away quite effectively. Mary Dullea catches all the moods of this variegated work very well indeed, also doing a fine job with Farhat’s other music and, for that matter, with the four very different works by Tafreshipour. The first of those, Yasna, portrays a Zoroastrian religious ceremony with delicacy and refinement, but it makes its points early and then spins them out at rather too much length. Shabahang, which Dullea commissioned, has a title that literally means “nocturne,” but it is somewhat too restless for a relaxing nighttime, especially in its sharp contrast between quieter passages and louder, chordal ones. Pendar for Piano has similar strong contrasts between sections – a characteristic of Tafreshipour’s music as heard on this disc – and seems rather over-insistent on differentiating between its quieter passages and louder ones. Celebration at Pasargadae, the title referring to the capital city of Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BCE, is the shortest and most interesting of Tafreshipour’s works here. The opening is strong and impressive, continuing long enough so the eventual contrast – when it inevitably comes – is quite effective, presenting a feeling of quiet and thoughtfulness before broken chords and sudden drops back into near-silence lead once more to a strongly accented passage that finishes the work in impressive fashion. Certainly the music on this CD will be unfamiliar to practically all listeners, and certainly it will not be to every taste – even the taste of those looking for interesting examples of piano works of the 20th and 21st centuries. But there is one genuinely intriguing piece here in the second sonata by Farhat, and there are elements of interest throughout the disc, making it worthwhile for listeners who are interested in visiting some less-explored regions of contemporary music to consider taking this particular trip to Iran – or, more accurately, to the memories of Persia in the days before the modern nation known as Iran.

October 15, 2020


Breaking Cat News 4: Elvis Puffs Out—A “Breaking Cat News” Adventure. By Georgia Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

100 Ways Your Two-Year-Old Can Hurt You: Comics to Ease the Stress of Parenting. By Chen Weng. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

     The ins and outs of living with kids and/or animals have always been of interest to cartoonists – and as anyone who does live with kids and/or animals is aware, a lot of things that happen in everyday living are very funny. And those that are not would benefit from being thought of as funny – a humorous perspective goes a long way when you are tired, stressed, overcome and overwhelmed by the needs and demands of children, pets or both. Some contemporary cartoonists have found new ways to plumb the depths of family life while skimming the surface of its more-serious elements. In a few cases, such as the Breaking Cat News series by Georgia Dunn, the artists have even figured out how to create comics that will appeal to kids while also having something to say to adults. The fourth of Dunn’s collections, Elvis Puffs Out, is best read by people (from preteens to adults) who already know the cast of characters from the three earlier books. That is because the basic setup is assumed here rather than explained, and some of the recurring characters have “back stories” that it helps to know when following their adventures this time. Still, it is possible to read this fourth book on its own – but if you do, be prepared to want to track down the earlier ones for a better sense of everything that is going on. The foundational premise here is that the Man and the Woman and their two children share their household with three cats named Lupin, Elvis and Puck, and the cats – who are nattily dressed in TV-anchor-or-reporter-style clothing – have their own Cat News Network that reports on matters of interest to cats (such as food, outdoor weather conditions, cats that live in another apartment in the building, troublesome mice that are “local rodent criminal masterminds” and somewhat resemble the thieving Beagle Boys of old Disney comics, and more). Using news-studio settings and remote cameras, to which the Man and the Woman are oblivious, the cats report on household events from a feline perspective, each cat displaying unique personality traits as well as a distinctive appearance and set of expressions (Dunn handles those particularly well). The adventures are, from a human perspective, mundane, but the “feline angle” on them makes them amusing and enjoyable. For example, after a big snowstorm blanks out the view through the home’s windows (“cats woke up today to find everything gone”), a tiny kitten turns up in the snow; and while the humans arrange with a friend who runs a cat rescue to take care of the little one – and end up agreeing to foster her – the cats take her into the fold as a news intern. She soon proves to be more determined and dynamic than anyone expected, and a better organizer of office supplies than Lupin, Elvis and Puck could have anticipated. The different but overlapping realities of humans and cats are a big part of the fun here. For example, the new kitten, Beatrix, keeps moving a particular plant a short distance along a shelf, for reasons that the Man and the Woman cannot understand, assuming this is just a cat thing. It turns out, as the friendly owner of a local bookstore explains when coming to visit the family, that “a maidenhair fern shouldn’t be in direct sun,” which is what Beatrix has been trying to show all week. A fine friendship soon ensues, leading to Beatrix becoming a “bookstore cat,” because she cannot stay with the Man and the Woman (who had to get special permission to have three cats: apartment rules allow only two). This then leads to additional Cat News Network reporting based at the bookstore, and – well, this is the pleasantly meandering, always amusing, sometimes heartwarming way things go in the Breaking Cat News adventures. Like the earlier books, Elvis Puffs Out is a great antidote to the dismal news reporting that goes on in the real world.

     Although both younger readers and adults will enjoy Dunn’s comics, the ones by Chen Weng are strictly for grown-ups – specifically, parents. Essentially, what Weng does is to chronicle, observe and comment on her own family’s life through cartoons that generally feature caricatures of herself, her husband and her children against a plain white background, ruminating on elements of being a family with kids or simply trying to cope with everyday realities. Parents will surely recognize many of the uncertainties and struggles in 100 Ways Your Two-Year-Old Can Hurt You, some of which are tied directly to the realities of 21st-century life. There is, for example, the “learn patience” talk in which cartoon Chen tells her daughter, “wait for your birthday” for a much-desired item, because “delayed gratification is a virtue” – after which, in a drawing labeled “later,” an infuriated cartoon Chen (red-veined eyes practically popping out of her head) is railing against Amazon’s two-day shipping because “I want it TODAY.” So much for that lesson. For lessons of a different sort, there are multiple then-and-now entries here. For example, “Packing for Vacation” contrasts “When I Was Young” (huge suitcase containing a different outfit for every day) with “Now” (big suitcase for kids’ stuff, tiny personal adult bag containing one pair of jeans, one pair of comfortable shoes and one warm jacket). And then there is “Noise,” in which a loud “thump” in the days before kids scares cartoon Chen and her husband into defend-our-home mode – with the fright even greater “after kids” when “it’s been quiet for an unusual amount of time.” Also here are several multi-page “First and Second” entries, showing different parental responses to the first child and the next – under “Hygiene,” for example, feelings go from being sure everything is “washed, sterilized, and air-dried” for baby No. 1 to noticing how funny it is that baby No. 2 is licking the floor. As for the book’s title – well, there may not be a full 100 ways a toddler can hurt her parents, but cartoon Chen and her husband experience a fair number, with each presented based on “weapon” and “target” and ranked with up to five stars for “damage.” For instance, the “weapon: feet” and “target: face” scene shows an adorable little one sleeping next to mom, then suddenly (while still sleeping) kicking full-force at mom’s nose, causing “damage: four stars.” And “weapon: poop” and “target: respiratory system” shows mom and dad inhaling and holding their breath while getting ready to change a particularly stinky diaper – which, when removed, causes “damage: four stars” in a scene that shows the parents nearly passed out, stumbling and retching and with eyes watering. All right, this sort of thing is an exaggeration – all good cartooning is – but it is not much of an exaggeration, as anyone who has been through this sort of thing (that is, any parent) will know. Weng is far from the first cartoonist to explore family life with a humorous touch and try to make some sense of the whole experience, and she will surely not be the last. But her immediately recognizable drawing style, and her considerable cleverness in rendering everyday activities in ways that are just unreal enough to give them an edge, result in a really delightful (and not at all mean-spirited) look at the many challenges (and some of the joys) of raising young children. There may be 100 ways a toddler can hurt parents, but Weng’s book is one way to help parents feel better fast.


The Best 386 Colleges, 2021 Edition. By Robert Franek with David Soto, Stephen Koch, Aaron Riccio, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/PenguinRandomHouse. $24.99.

     The four most-dangerous words on Wall Street are said to be “this time it’s different,” showing the folly of trying to out-guess the stock market and investors as a group by intimating that the fundamentals of investing have been upended by some dire event or other (or even some positive event or other). It is tempting to apply the same thinking when it comes to higher education: every year is different in some ways, but thinking that the overall field and the criteria for judging individual colleges have fundamentally changed is a mistake. Yet this year is different for the long-running The Best 386 Colleges book from The Princeton Review, and not just because last year’s book contained 385 colleges. Nor does the difference lie in the sorts of everyday tweaks that are customary in any long-lasting project, such as the decision this year to create a new “best” category called “Best Counseling Services.” Two of the top five schools in that category are, unsurprisingly, special-purpose military academies: the U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy. But the other three – Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt University and Washington State University – may get extra attention from families this year because of what really is different: the COVID-19 pandemic.

     Among the many elements of everyday life upended by the pandemic is education, including college education; and the ways in which adjustments have or have not been made is not always obvious. For example, colleges do have overhead costs for maintenance of their campuses and to pay their staff (academic and non-academic alike), which means they have a strong financial incentive to bring students to campus – thus creating a conflict with the need to create the safest possible environment for education, which is quite obviously a distance-learning model. The result is a lot of hybrid education (some done at a distance, some in classrooms), combined with the now-standard precautions involving frequent cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces (and people!), social distancing, mask wearing, and the rest of pandemic-driven life. This is certainly a good year for The Princeton Review to create that “Best Counseling Services” category, since the psychological effects of the pandemic will likely be deeper and longer-lasting for many people than its physical effects.

     Yet even within this pandemic-tainted year, The Best 386 Colleges has managed to retain some stability of approach and presentation, and that is one area in which its value lies. What is different now is the way families are likely to handle the book’s information. Aside from giving weight to “Best Counseling Services” and the similar “Best Health Services” list (also featuring the U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Military Academy but in this case including Kansas State University, University of Utah and Rice University in the top five), families should look closely at categories such as “Best-Run Colleges” for a sense of which schools may be most able to adjust to pandemic-caused disruption (the top three in that category are Elon University, Vanderbilt University and Rice University). On the other hand, families may pay somewhat less attention to the “Best Classroom Experience” list (top three: Reed College, U.S. Military Academy, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering) at a time when classrooms are less central to the overall learning experience than they usually are. Similarly, “Best College Dorms” (top three: High Point University, Washington University in St. Louis, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering ) may be less important now than in the past. And in light of the significant spread of COVID-19 under circumstances that involve crowding, families may want to be extra-cautious about the top “Party Schools” (University of Alabama—Tuscaloosa, University of Delaware, Syracuse University) and ones where “Students Pack the Stadiums” (Arizona State University, Syracuse University, Auburn University).

     What is interesting about this, though, is that these changes in usage patterns are, foundationally, simply a revised instance of using The Best 386 Colleges as this book series has always been used. The “best” lists toward the front also include some “worst” lists: “Best Campus Food” is followed by “Is It Food?” and “Town-Gown Relations Are Great” by “Town-Gown Relations Are Strained.” And there are useful matter-of-opinion lists as well: “Most Conservative Students” and “Most Liberal Students,” “Most Religious Students” and “Least Religious Students,” and so forth. Every single list – as in previous years – serves as a starting point for families with their own hopes, worries, concerns and, yes, fears to use to explore individual schools in much greater detail in the two-page sections devoted to each one. Those pages are packed with information, as always, with everything from selectivity data to filing deadlines to financial facts and figures to the very helpful “applicants also look at and often prefer,” “and sometimes prefer,” “and rarely prefer” notes – giving families that may have heard of College X or may want to look at it for geographical reasons a cross-listing of others worth considering (or likely not worth considering). What The Best 386 Colleges does so well is to throw a lot of information, from numerical data to student opinions to comments by the colleges themselves, at prospective students and their families. There is so much here that the book can be overwhelming, but it is highly useful if the material is used as intended. The book does not point any individual student to any individual college; it never has. By intent, it is an unequaled starting point that families can use to explore a high-quality subset of the list of 5,000 or so U.S. colleges – getting plenty of information that will allow students and their families to narrow their search still further through that most time-honored approach, additional self-guided research. As it turns out, although “this time it’s different” in academia because of the depredations of the pandemic, it is reassuring to discover that thanks to the clarity and consistency of approach of The Best 386 Colleges, it is not in fact that different after all.


Hummel: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano; Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 20. Aurélia Visovan, piano; Anna Besson, flute; Cecilia Bernardini, violin; Marcus van den Munckhof, cello. Ricercar. $18.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 0, transcribed for organ by Erwin Horn; Overture in G minor, transcribed for organ by Rudolf Innig; Philipp Maintz: choralvorspiel LI (kyrie XI, orbis factor – brucknerfenster I). Hansjörg Albrecht, organ. Oehms. $14.99.

     There were excellent reasons in the 19th century to take works that are now considered canonical and transcribe, rearrange and generally (by modern standards) do violence to them and to the composers who conceptualized them in specific ways. In the lifetime of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) – student of Mozart, friend and sometime rival of Beethoven, famed virtuoso pianist in the days just before the super-virtuosi such as Liszt entered the limelight – orchestral concerts were few and far between. Access to the concerts was limited and often difficult. Travel to the concerts was time-consuming and sometimes impossible. Recordings did not exist. There was simply no way for most people to hear “canonical” works, which at the time were anything but commonly known and certainly not universally acknowledged as masterpieces. But this was also a time when amateur musical performances, both for the nobility and for the growing middle class, were increasingly common – a time when being a cultured European citizen meant playing at least one instrument at least passingly well. And thus Hummel, as a small but important part of his musical production, created versions of Mozart and Beethoven works that could be played at home or in small spaces by reasonably talented amateurs – spreading the word, spreading the music, in the only reasonably effective way available. The Hummel transcriptions are uniformly well-done, sensitive to their creators’ intentions, and produced with the adeptness of a composer who was quite skilled in his own right. These transcriptions are no longer “needed” for their original purpose, which has long been supplanted by recordings and easy access to live performances. But for their insight into the original works as they were seen in or near their own time, and for the simple pleasure of hearing skillful chamber-music reductions of wonderful music, the Hummel transcriptions are decidedly worthwhile.

     One of Hummel’s efforts that appears on a new Ricercar CD is especially creative and, in its own way, rather amazing: Hummel’s transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, the amazing and deeply moving C minor piece that is the only piano concerto that Mozart ended in the minor key rather than the relative major. Hummel was here faced with a significant problem in needing the pianist to be both the soloist and a member of the accompanying quintet – and his solution is quite delightful, if (by modern standards) rather sacrilegious. Hummel used his own skill as composer/pianist to rewrite the concerto’s solo part into a more-virtuosic one – something more typical of the early Romantic era. He takes the piano through a wider range, a full octave above Mozart’s, and creates a whole series of embellishments and ornaments (especially noticeably in the slow movement) that very effectively distinguish piano-as-soloist from piano-as-ensemble-member. In the process, the changes alter the feeling and effect of the concerto – and not to its betterment, by the standards of a time when it is very well-known. But that was not Hummel’s time, and when this transcription was done, it surely seemed more a tribute than a graffito. It is quite fascinating to hear in Aurélia Visovan’s performance, doubly so because she plays it on a fortepiano of Hummel’s own era: a very fine Conrad Graf instrument dating to 1835. This is historically informed music-making at its best, providing a wonderful connection with a time long past and with music in a form long since supplanted – but filled with charms all its own. Also on the disc is Hummel’s transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, a more-respectful arrangement that hews more closely to the original because it can hew more closely to it: there is no dual role for the piano here, and Hummel can (in the main) simply give the wind parts to the flute, the string parts to the violin and cello, and the total-ensemble material to the piano. Even here, though, Hummel-as-composer finds small ways to emphasize elements that are clear in the full-orchestra version but would be difficult to communicate with only four instruments: he changes the flute line at the start of the symphony, for example, better to reflect an orchestral sound that the quartet cannot by itself duplicate. Anna Besson, Cecilia Bernardini and Marcus van den Munckhof play in fine chamber-music form with Visovan in both the Mozart and Beethoven transcriptions, both of which turn out to be worth hearing on their own in addition to offering listeners a kind of musical time travel. And the disc also includes one of Hummel’s own works, which helps put his transcription skill into perspective: his fantasia-like F minor sonata, Op. 20, which uses the darkness of its minor key quite differently from the way Mozart used C minor and which mixes early-Romanic intensity with a level of classical poise that Hummel retained throughout his compositional life. Unfortunately, this recording omits the exposition repeat in the first movement, offering it only in an alternative online version of the music. This was done, supposedly, because the repeat would not fit on a commercial CD – but CDs are no longer strictly limited to 80 minutes, and while this one does indeed run just under 79 minutes without the repeat, it would last only 82 with it, and that should no longer have been an issue. In any case, Visovan performs this dramatic and emotive sonata very well, and in it, Hummel shows how thoroughly he understood the abilities and limitations of the fortepiano of his time, using its capabilities to their fullest effect. This is a distinctive and unusual disc – and an unusually interesting one.

     The reason for transcribing Bruckner’s symphonies for organ is harder to come by – in simple fact, there is none. But that is not stopping various musicians from doing so anyway, and a new Oehms CD featuring Hansjörg Albrecht playing the Bruckner-Organ at the Stiftskirche St. Florian in Linz, Austria, is in fact projected to be the first of a series featuring all the symphonies except the “No. 00” that was written when Bruckner was a student. It is certainly true that Bruckner was himself an organist, and more famous as one, at least for a time, than as a composer. It is also certainly true that Bruckner’s symphonic style frequently has him using the instruments of an orchestra as if to duplicate organ sonorities: both his use of dynamics and his handling of orchestral sections show his familiarity with the organ and are evidence of his uniquely “organ-like” approach to symphonic construction. Yet despite these factors, it is undeniably the case that Bruckner wrote very little music for organ, only about half a dozen pieces. It was for improvisation on his chosen instrument that he was known in his time, and his improvisations have not been passed down. So this brings back the question of transcribing Bruckner symphonies for organ – and in truth, the only answer to “why?” is that performers like the idea of trying it. Matthias Giesen, for instance, transcribed Symphony No. 5 and recorded it, and that was an impressive endeavor even if, objectively speaking, a somewhat unjustifiable one. In the same way, this new set of Albrecht performances, which intends to use various organs with which Bruckner was associated, is fascinating in its own right, even with no very solid reason for being. Interestingly, Symphony No. 0 – composed after No. 1 but withdrawn by the composer – sounds quite good on the organ in Horn’s transcription, and Albrecht does a fine job of selecting registers and sonorities that reflect the emotional ebb and flow of the music. Pairing the symphony with the Overture in G minor, one of the composer’s student works, is an intriguing decision, allowing listeners to hear – perhaps more clearly on the organ than in the orchestral versions – just how far Bruckner had progressed between 1863 and 1869, the year he composed the symphony. Just to make this production even more interesting, it includes the first of what will be 10 newly created contemporary compositions collectively to be called “Bruckner Windows,” each by a different 21st-century composer and each planned to accompany the symphony with which it appears. The one by Philipp Maintz is certainly well-thought-through, incorporating material from some of Bruckner’s own Mass settings and producing a choral prelude that is effective enough, if perhaps a bit studied (or over-studied). As a five-minute break between the overture and symphony, though, it serves well enough, and adds to the attractiveness of a CD that is, on the surface, entirely wrong-headed, but despite that is very worthwhile to hear and will be of considerable interest to dedicated Brucknerians.


Liszt: Two Scenes from Lenau’s “Faust”; Dvořák: Slavonic Dances Nos. 1, 2 and 8; Gounod: Love Duet and Waltz from “Faust”; Benjamin Godard: Berceuse from “Jocelyn”; Bizet: Overture from “Carmen”; Milhaud: Le Boeuf sur le toit. Zeynep Ucbasaran and Sergio Gallo, piano four hands. Divine Art. $18.99.

Luigi Dallapiccola: Musica per tre pianoforte; Ahmet Adnan Saygun: Poem, Op. 73; Server Acim: Fikir Hücreleri (Idea Cells); Edson Zampronha: S’io esca vivo (If I Escape Alive); José Zárate: Petit Nocturne Noir; Kamran Ince: Requiem for Mehmet. Zeynep Ucbasaran, Miguel Ortega Chavaldas and Sergio Gallo, pianos. Divine Art. $18.99.

     Sometimes the sheer quality of music-making makes a disc worth having even if the repertoire is on the light side and scarcely unfamiliar. Zeynep Ucbasaran and Sergio Gallo are such a wonderful piano-four-hands team that their new Divine Art offering of music by Liszt and Milhaud, with a few shorter works thrown in to fill out the disc, is a genuine pleasure. This is true even though the CD is rather oddly arranged: it has a distinct Faustian focus, but with material scattered somewhat arbitrarily. The two comparatively substantial Liszt works are heard first; then the three short ones by Dvořák; then the arrangement of O nuit d’amour from Gounod’s Faust; then the pleasant little Berceuse by Godard (1849-1895), that composer’s best-known work; then the Bizet; then Gounod’s Faust again, the opera’s famous waltz this time; and finally the delightfully jazzy Milhaud work, a piece more on the scale of Liszt’s. Ucbasaran and Gallo seem very much at home in the piano-four-hands material here, playing everything sure-handedly (so to speak) and complementing each other in exactly the right way to make these versions of the works as effective as possible, even if none comes across quite as well as in their more-familiar orchestral guise. The Liszt pieces are standouts: Der nächtliche Zug is far less familiar than Der Tanz un der Dorfschenke, better known as Mephisto Waltz No. 1, but both are excellently illustrative of their material (drawn from a Faust verse drama, not from Goethe’s version) and played very impressively. The more-lyrical short pieces also come across quite well: Slavonic Dance No. 2, Godard’s Berceuse, and the Gounod waltz. Where the performances pale a bit is in the brighter and more-upbeat or more-intense material: Slavonic Dances Nos. 1 and 8 could use more verve, the Carmen overture has less exoticism and menace than it can possess, and Milhaud’s often-silly foray into distinctly jazz-inflected composition really needs more insouciance and faster pacing than it gets here. The absence of familiar orchestral touches is also felt especially acutely in the Bizet and Milhaud works, in which the instrumentation is responsible for a considerable amount of the effect and effectiveness of the music. Ucbasaran and Gallo make a formidable piano-four-hands team, and the quality of their playing will be enough to endear this recording to pianists and to listeners who enjoy hearing the piano played with considerable aplomb, if not always with abandon.

     Joined by Miguel Ortega Chavaldas, Ucbasaran and Gallo offer a recital of a very different kind on another Divine Art disc, whose audience will likely be somewhat limited by the nature of the repertoire – but, again, certainly not by the very high quality of the playing. This CD bears the title “The 3-Piano Project,” and that designation helps explain the unusual material it offers: neither the works nor their composers (from Turkey, Brazil, Spain and Italy) will likely be well-known to most listeners. The attraction here involves listening to a little-used instrumental combination, since “ensembles” of pianos are something of a rarity: with the exception of the 5 Browns, there are no well-known groups specializing in multiple-piano offerings. The paucity of three-piano compositions is of course part of the reason for this; and while several of the works on this CD are interesting enough, at least in part, none is sufficiently compelling to make it likely that three-piano groups will spring up as regular concert or recital features. The best-known composer here is Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975), whose fame rests on his serial compositions but who was doing some aural exploration even before he wholeheartedly embraced the Second Viennese School. Musica per tre pianoforti, also called Inni (“Hymn”), is one of Dallapiccola’s earlier pieces, dating to 1935, and it shows considerable command of writing for the piano. The first movement is comparatively straightforward, but the second, with its deep, grumbling opening, shows what can be accomplished in the three-piano vein, and the third, which opens with a single line and gradually layers on greater and greater sonic complexity, is a fascinating blend of lightness and chordal strength. The other major piece on this disc is Poem by Ahmet Adnan Saygun (1907-1991), which here receives its world première recording. It is a pleasant enough work, well-constructed and attentive to the interactions among the three pianists, and it manages a degree of lyricism despite its use of sometimes-acerbic 20th-century compositional techniques. But it has a hesitant quality about it, as if not quite sure how poetic it wants to be, and it does not sustain especially well over its 15-minute length. The remaining four works here are shorter and less ambitious. Fikir Hücreleri by Server Acim (1961-2019) stops and starts at irregular intervals and does indeed seem to be a series of “Idea Cells” rather than anything developed in any significant way. S’io esca vivo by Edson Zampronha (born 1963) is scalar and repetitive, its dissonances used to no particular purpose. Petit Nocturne Noir by José Zárate (born 1972) is suitably moody and dark, slow-paced and repeatedly fading to silence, the reasons for its need for three pianos being less than apparent. Requiem for Mehmet by Kamran Ince (born 1960) is, in contrast, big-boned and strongly scored, dramatically portentous from the start and quite determined to use the full sonic capabilities of the three instruments. Unfortunately, it never really goes anywhere: it keeps hinting that it will, that it is building up to something, but all that happens, eventually, is a kind of dissolution. The attraction of this disc lies in its concept (three pianos) and the quality of the performances (excellent), but much less so in the music itself. Except for Dallapiccola’s work, nothing here is gripping enough or sufficiently intriguing in its use of the pianos to make a listener wish for a great deal more three-piano material of the same kind.