December 29, 2022


The Indestructible Tom Crean: Heroic Explorer of the Antarctic. By Jennifer Thermes. Viking. $19.99.

     This is one of those byways-of-history stories that, when you read it, makes you shake your head in wonder both at the tale itself and at the fact that you never heard it before – even though it deals with subject matter of widespread interest, about which a great deal has been written. It is the story of a man who was an important part of no fewer than three Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century, a grand age of exploration and a time of tremendous triumph and equally tremendous tragedy. Apparently undefeatable and nearly indefatigable, Tom Crean was a member of the 1901-1904 expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott; Scott’s later (1910-1913) famed and ill-fated voyage; and the equally famous and eventually triumphant 1914-1917 journey led by Ernest Shackleton. Educated men and fine chroniclers, Scott and Shackleton wrote extensively about their adventures and in so doing became the stuff of legend, as did the trials and tribulations and sometimes terrors of exploring the Antarctic vastness. Crean, modest and lightly educated, did his duty and often went well beyond it, but communicated very little about it in later life and wrote nothing substantive – one explanation of his near-total obscurity. In addition, he was Irish and returned to Ireland after long service with the British explorers and elsewhere in the British Navy. But by the time he retired, Ireland was in the throes of rebellion against British hegemony, and it would have been imprudent, possibly even unsafe, for Crean to have drawn too much attention to himself. So he did not.

     Thank goodness, though, that Jennifer Thermes is shining a long-overdue spotlight on him in a picture book intended for children but every bit as fascinating, even awe-inspiring, for adults. With simple, clear maps, beautifully impressionistic scenes of Antarctic landscapes, and well-imagined visualizations of the explorations’ highlights and traumas, Thermes takes readers to and into a long-vanished time period still widely considered the Heroic Age of polar exploration. On his first voyage, Crean is rescued when he falls through the thick ice – twice – while helping clear channels for the Discovery, and rejoices with the rest of the explorers when, after two years, the ship can finally emerge from the ice pack and head home. On his second trip, the famously fatal race to the South Pole between Scott and Roald Amundsen. Crean goes snow-blind after helping rescue crew members beneath whom an ice floe breaks off – and eventually, astonishingly, trudges 35 miles across the ice, all alone, to save the lives of two fellow crew members. He earns a medal for exceptional bravery – but is unable to save Scott, who freezes to death after reaching the South Pole later than Amundsen did.

     Crean was not yet done with Antarctica, nor it with him. His third voyage, with Shackleton, is better-equipped in many ways, but the unrelenting pressure of ice crushes Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, and everyone abandons ship. This leads to Shackleton, Crean and three other crew members making an almost unbelievably harrowing two-week journey in a 23-foot boat through some of the most violent and treacherous waters on Earth, eventually making it to an extremely remote island where Shackleton, Crean and one other crewman have to climb mountains thought to be impossible and impassable. They not only survive but also are able to rescue all the members of the crew of the Endurance, a survival story still justifiably celebrated today.

     Thermes manages to bring much of this incredible adventure tale vividly to life without emphasizing its terrors to an extent that would overwhelm young readers. She fills in additional information on Crean at the back of the book – and both younger and older readers will likely be so captivated by Crean’s story that they will want to find more-in-depth versions elsewhere. Despite this book’s title, Crean was not, of course, indestructible – a burst appendix killed him in 1938, at the age of 61 – but he was intrepid, committed, dutiful and duty-bound, and an exemplar of a kind of quiet heroism that still tends to get short shrift today in favor of greater flamboyance and self-aggrandizement. Thermes does not try to teach any specific lessons from Crean’s life, but his life teaches them on its own – and sensitive, nurturing adults would do well to learn them and pass them along to their children after reading and discussing this book with them.


Hugo Alfvén: Symphonies Nos. 1-5 (complete); Festival Overture; Suite from “The Mountain King”; Uppsala Rhapsody; Suite from “The Prodigal Son”; Dalecarlian Rhapsody; Festival Overture; Andante religioso; Synnöve Solbakken Suite; A Country Tale Suite; Bonus disc including music of Alfvén, August Söderman, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Lars-Erik Larsson, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, and Dag Wirén. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Niklas Willén; Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu. Naxos. $46.99 (7 CDs).

     With its broad and deep catalog filled with excellent performances of music both familiar and little-known, Naxos has often found that re-releases of existing material in new guise can attract listeners through the revised packaging and bring back into the marketplace music that may have fallen out of favor or simply been forgotten for reasons not necessarily related to its quality. The company’s single-disc re-releases tend to work well when simply reissued, but multi-disc sets consisting of recordings from many different time periods tend to be much more of a mixed bag. A new seven-CD box focused on Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) is one such potpourri; and while it contains far more positive elements than negatives, it is rather difficult to negotiate and ends up being somewhat less satisfying than the music itself and the quality of the readings would indicate.

     Most of the performances are conducted by Niklas Willén, for whom Alfvén’s music is something of a cause: Willén understands it deeply and gets to the heart of it again and again. But the scattershot nature of the performances here somewhat undermines their enjoyability. Instead of working with a single orchestra and refining its musicians’ playing of Alfvén’s works, Willén is heard here with five different orchestras in performances recorded between 1996 and 2005. All the ensembles are quite competent, but despite the internationalization of orchestral sound, they do have differing strengths, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland not quite as well-suited to the material, or perhaps not quite as comfortable with it, as are the other orchestras.

     The recordings of Alfvén’s five symphonies, which have substantially different characters and were written during more than half a century (the original version of No. 1 dates to 1897, the final version of No. 5 to 1952), are the main attraction here. The rest of the music is scattershot, since the individual discs included in the box are here simply re-released in their original form. So Symphony No. 1 is coupled with an overture, a suite from a ballet-pantomime, and the second of the composer’s three Swedish rhapsodies. No. 2 is joined by a ballet suite, No. 3 by the third Swedish rhapsody and a tone poem, and so on. The dates of the various works are all over the place, so the shorter pieces do nothing to put the symphonies in context, and the track arrangement of the CDs is not chronological, so it is very hard to hear stylistic and expressive changes over time in Alfvén’s approach to composition. These flaws, which are inherent in the original discs rather than created by the boxed set itself, but which are accentuated as they accumulate in boxed-set form, become increasingly irritating if a listener tries to impose some order (chronological or by type of music or on some other basis) on the material. Constant disc-switching and track-switching within discs is not conducive to enjoyment of the music. And a few things resulting from this arrangement are particularly galling, such as the fact that the very first Swedish rhapsody, which is by far the best-known, does not show up until the seventh CD, which is labeled “bonus” and is even more of a mishmash than the previous six – to such an extent that it contains three additional Alfvén pieces (one of which is also included on another of these CDs), with one by Dag Wirén appearing between the first and second by Alfvén for no discernible reason. This “bonus” features an entirely different orchestra and conductor from the other six discs, which means that, very oddly, Willén presents the two less-familiar Swedish rhapsodies and Okko Kamu gets the best-known one. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with Kamu’s disc: the performances, which date to 1994, are the earliest in the entire set, but are all well-balanced and played skillfully by the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. Still, the overall feeling created by this set is one of slapdash presentation: by simply re-releasing seven CDs of various vintages this way, Naxos does a disservice to the highly interesting music of a major Scandinavian composer.

     However, the company also does him a major service – and for that reason, this remains a very desirable, even important release, for all the shortcomings of its presentation. Swedish classical music does not have the international currency and prominence of the music of other Scandinavian nations: Sweden lacks a composer such as Norway’s Grieg, Denmark’s Nielsen, or Finland’s Sibelius (although his native language was Swedish). Alfvén is the most-prominent Swedish composer of his time, and the chance to hear a good selection of his music in well-played performances led by knowledgeable conductors is very worthwhile indeed. There are many ways in which this boxed set could have been better-arranged and better-presented, but all would have required remastering or at least a level of rearrangement of the material, with all the attendant technical and financial challenges that would be involved. So although buyers of this box may wish for a more user-friendly offering of a substantial amount of Alfvén’s music, listeners should be grateful for what is offered here: the chance to listen to a great deal of fascinating, expertly crafted music that carefully and intelligently explores many aspects of Swedish life, legends, folk songs and literature. Alfvén is definitely a composer worth knowing, and this boxed set, although flawed, is an excellent way to make his acquaintance – or deepen it, for listeners who are already familiar with a smattering of his music.


Albéniz: Suite from “The Magic Opal”; Ravel: Don Quichotte à Dulcinée; Enrique Granados: Cinco Pièzas Populares; Joaquín Turina: Poema en Forma de Canciones; Manuel de Falla: Cuatro Pièzas Españolas. The Great Necks Guitar Trio (Adam Levin, Scott Borg and Matthew Rohde). Navona. $14.99.

Georges Raillard: Guitar Music. David William Ross, guitar. Navona. $14.99.

20 for 20: New Music for Cello. Inbal Segev, cello. AVIE. $27.99 (2 CDs).

     The guitar is irrevocably linked to Spain and Spanish music, and to the music of Spain-influenced or formerly Spain-ruled parts of the world – but the Great Necks Guitar Trio, in addition to having an especially clever name, clearly believes there is not quite enough guitar music by Spanish composers or associated with the nation. Hence their delightful Navona CD featuring three-guitar arrangements of suites by five composers who were well-versed in the Spanish musical idiom, whether by birth or adoption. Pirates, ghosts and the usual-for-the-stage impossible love are the plot elements of Isaac Albéniz’ The Magic Opal, a two-act comic opera dating to 1893. Albéniz is not often thought of as a major composer for the stage, but his music for The Magic Opal has just the right light touch for the material, as the three excerpts here show – and the interplay among the guitars in this arrangement is quite effective, especially in the extended “Intermezzo” and the bouncy “Ballet.” Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée is the composer’s final completed work (1932-33), and this three-song cycle translates more effectively than might be expected to guitar trio: each song is brief and has a picturesque quality that the performers communicate effectively. Granados’ Cinco Pièzas Populares are all more extended than any of the three Ravel pieces, and present a pleasantly evocative set of interpretations of dance forms, with “Zapateado” and “Moresque” using the three-guitar arrangement to particularly good effect. Turina’s Poema en Forma de Canciones, a five-song cycle from 1918, adapts somewhat less well to three-guitar format than Ravel’s more-atmospheric song cycle. Like all the music on the disc, it is played very well indeed, but in this case the absence of a voice does not serve the music to particularly good effect. The well-known Cuatro Pièzas Españolas by Manuel de Falla, on the other hand, come across exceptionally well here. These works have a clear resemblance to the music of Albéniz, to whom they were dedicated, but they are harmonically inventive and filled with elegant contrapuntal passages that fit the three-guitar arrangement very nicely. Although 70 minutes of short pieces arranged for three guitars will be a bit much for many listeners, the first-rate performances and the chance to hear some distinctly Spanish-sounding music in attractive (if not original) guise will make this CD enjoyable for many audiences.

     The enjoyment is a bit more attenuated on another guitar-focused Navona disc, this one featuring 10 contemporary single-guitar pieces by Georges Raillard (born 1957). Almost as long as the Great Necks Trio’s recording, this CD featuring David William Ross shows the limitations of a single guitar in comparison to a guitar trio: once again the material is played with great skill, but the solo-guitar sound wears thin rather quickly, especially since Raillard does not use the instrument nearly as evocatively as do the composers whose arrangements appear on the three-guitar disc. Rapsodia costera ambles along; the five-movement En el pinar varies from a near-static presentation to a sprightlier one and back again; Fading Sounds does not so much fade as go through a series of stops-and-starts; Cut Flowers, a two-and-a-half-minute miniature, is pleasant rather than expressly evocative; and the two-movement Winter Threat sounds neither particularly wintry nor particularly threatening. Longer than those two movements together, the single-movement Diverging Spirits uses the guitar’s sound in some interesting ways, although it tends to make the same point over and over again, while Lighthouse, another two-and-a-half-minute work, also meanders but also uses various guitar sonorities well. Stray Thoughts differs a bit from the other pieces on the disc through its quotidian focus: its three movements are “Digging in the Backgrounds,” “Escaping Bird,” and “Indian Siesta.” The titles directly invite listeners to envision specific scenes – but unfortunately the music does seem especially closely connected to those scenes, although the final movement does have a certain soporific quality. The last two pieces on the disc contrast significantly with each other. Feverish Freezing (Nocturne) features a pleasant rocking motion, although its thematic material is not particularly relaxing, while Alive perks things up to a considerable degree. Ross’ admirable handling of all these works cannot conceal the fact that the music itself is rather thin, and while elements of many pieces are intermittently interesting, there is very little here that sustains well or sounds like something with ongoing appeal except to guitar aficionados in search of contemporary, most likely unfamiliar music.

     The sonorous nature of the cello and its fundamentally warm and beautiful tone make it easier to compose works with emotional connection than is the case when writing for guitar. But contemporary composers are as likely to write “against” the cello’s inherent sound as for it – although it is worth remembering just how wrongheaded conductor Josef Hellmesberger now seems with his quip that Brahms' Violin Concerto was "a concerto not for, but against the violin." A new two-CD set from AVIE, featuring cellist Inbal Segev, provides a highly unusual opportunity to hear how 20 of today's composers regard the instrument –and also how they connect music to the world around them, since Segev commissioned them to use music to document the world's current difficult times. This is a tall order and not one especially well-suited to music, but the project is nevertheless an interesting one, in part because of its sheer difficulty and overreach. Segev performs the music here on two cellos, a 1673 Ruggieri and a 1957 Becker, and actually combines the two instruments intriguingly, through overdubbing, for the opening work, Room to Move for cello octet, by Viet Cuong (born 1990). The other composers here are Fernando Otero (born 1972), James Lee III (born 1975), Timo Andres (born 1985), Sophia Bass (born 1996), Bruce Wolosoff (born 1955), Avner Dorman (born 1975), Vijay Iyer (born 1971), Christopher Cerrone (born 1984), Angélica Negrón (born 1981), John Luther Adams (born 1953), Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941), Gloria Coates (born 1938), Agata Zubel (born 1978), Christopher Tyler Nickel (born 1978), Molly Joyce (born 1992), Camille el Bacha (born 1989), Oscar Bettison (born 1975), Immanuel Wilkins (born 1998), and Stewart Goodyear (born 1978). A 21st "bonus" composition called Beyond is by Segev herself, and features a cello quartet including Segev, Caleb van der Swaagh, Karen Ouzonian, and Brook Speltz. The vast majority of these composers will be wholly unknown to most listeners; and as is inevitable in an extended anthology, some of the music will be far more congenial for some listeners while other works will be more appealing to different people. The pieces are all short, ranging from just under three minutes to just under 10, so anyone who happens not to care for a particular work will not have long to wait for the next – which may make it worthwhile to hear pieces all the way through instead of skipping those whose earlier sections prove less than engaging. Most of the pieces are self-contained, although Otero's is an arrangement for cello, string quartet, and double bass of his Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra. The way composers combine the cello with other instruments is one of the most-intriguing elements of this project: Bass' Taal-Naad Naman is for cello, tabla and tanpura; Dorman's Elegy for the Victims of Indifference is for cello and accordion; Negrón's Ruta Panorámica is for cello, bandoneón and electronics; Adams' A Weeping of Doves is for eight cellos; Hailstork's Hora is for cello and marimba; Zubel's Unisono III incorporates voice as well as cello and electronics; and so on. The occasional work for cello solo (e.g., Coates' Berceuse) becomes a welcome pause in the multiple colorations offered in the other music, and several pieces for cello and piano help ground the whole project reasonably firmly in more-traditional treatment of such a rich-sounding stringed instrument. Some of these pieces insist on their relevance through titles intended to reflect the circumstances of the commission: Nickel's Fractures of Solitude and Joyce's It Has Not Taken Long, for instance, as well as the pieces by Adams and Dorman. Other titles are more enigmatic but are also intended to reflect the composers' views of recent world events: Iyer's The Window, Wolosoff's Lacrymae, and Cerrone's The Pleasure at Being the Cause, for example. There is no single work that stands out here as highly memorable, although every piece is well-constructed and appears to have been thoughtfully created to reflect Segev's commission and, in many cases, her thoughtful and often-elegant performance style. The reality is that none of these pieces is really a standalone work: each can be heard entirely on its own, but the whole point of this multifaceted collection is not to hear them that way, but to listen to the totality of the music and thus have a sense of how these composers have absorbed and reflected the circumstances of the world in which they created this material. This is a very, very rarefied release that will inevitably become dated quite quickly – at which point it will be easier to hear the works as individual pieces. But for now, it is something to produce enjoyment and thoughtfulness for listeners who want to contemplate, on their own, the difficult recent circumstances through which they and these composers have lived, with at best some measure of solace to be taken from Segev's playing and her cello's interactions with a variety of other instruments.

December 22, 2022


Uni the Unicorn: Reindeer Helper. By Christy Webster. Illustrations by Alejandro Mesa and Chiara Fiorentino. Random House. $10.99.

Uni the Unicorn: The Haunted Pumpkin Patch. By Christy Webster. Illustrations by Sue DiCicco. Random House. $6.99.

Uni the Unicorn: How to Say Thank You. By Christy Webster. Illustrations by Sue DiCicco. Random House. $6.99.

     Unless you are a thoughtfully self-protective creative artist such as Charles Schulz, who made it quite clear that Peanuts was not to be continued by anyone else after his death, any characters and settings you create during your lifetime – if they become sufficiently popular – will likely outlive you, perhaps to a significant degree. So the Flat Stanley series by Jeff Brown (1926-2003), to cite one recent example, has continued for decades under the title Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures, with books by various writers. By the same token, the Uni the Unicorn series that is now being created for prereaders and the youngest readers (ages 3-7) is derived from Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krause Rosenthal (1965-2017), with series illustrations based on the work of Brigette Barrager. The new books in the continuing series are a little on the too-simplistic side – fine for ages three or four but maybe not for much older children, and certainly not for more-advanced readers of any age. But they do have many simple charms, and the trustees of the Amy Krouse Rosenthal Revocable Trust – which supervises the ongoing use of the material – have found (or at least approved) ways to give Uni stories specific contexts instead of just having everything be about a unicorn and a friendly but unnamed little girl.

     One focus of the new Uni books, for example, is holidays; hence, for Christmastime, Reindeer Helper, a new hardcover in which, on Christmas Eve, Uni encounters a little lost reindeer that has become separated from Santa and cannot catch up to the magical sleigh in time to help deliver all the gifts. Uni and the reindeer use their magic to catch up to Santa – almost – and then notice that the sleigh is unbalanced and some gifts are falling out. So instead of merely catching up, Uni and the reindeer magically, rapidly gather the dropped presents and deliver them all over the place and then catch the sleigh, after which Santa thanks Uni and has the unicorn deliver one last gift – to the little girl who is Uni’s best human friend.

     Two other new Uni holiday books are paperbacks that contain more than the stories themselves. The Haunted Pumpkin Patch is a Halloween-focused book in which Uni, while trying to grow pumpkins, discovers nibbled blossoms, a broken fence, and a squished squash. Uni’s friends are convinced that something scary is going on, and they join Uni in an all-night vigil to figure things out. Kids, even the very youngest, will of course know that there is nothing the slightest bit scary happening – not in Uni’s world. But Uni’s friends all become frightened while staying in the garden overnight, leaving Uni to sneak up on whatever creature is playing havoc with the pumpkins. This turns out to be a hungry, adorable little bunny – and Uni quickly makes a deal to give the bunny a whole pumpkin in return for the rest of the pumpkin patch being left alone. To complement this sweet little story (all these Uni stories are sweet and little), there are two pages of pleasantly designed stickers bound into the front and back covers of the book – more than 30 stickers in all – including some of Uni, some of the other unicorns, some of the bunny, some of pumpkins, and some of stars and flowers.

     How to Say Thank You includes something different: two thank-you cards, bound into the front and back of the book and perforated for easy removal, with instructions to “draw a picture or write a note to tell someone you love why you are thankful for them!” The holiday tie-in here is Thanksgiving: that is not strongly emphasized in the story, but there is one double-page illustration featuring a turkey, cornucopia and other typical Thanksgiving-related elements to make the connection clear. The idea is that Uni wants to thank a friend, Silky, for figuring out that a dry-looking apple tree simply needs water – which the two unicorns then supply through magical rain creation. Somehow, Uni not only is unfamiliar with dried-out soil but also does not know how to say thanks, and therefore consults the little girl for instructions. The girl suggests a card and/or a big hug and/or finding a way “to share and celebrate together!” So Uni and the little girl get together to implement all the girl’s suggestions – after which Uni knows to thank the girl herself for her help. All these Uni books are rather cloying and really suitable only for very young kids, who may believe that Uni does not know how to say “thank you” (a notion more far-fetched than unicorns themselves). Although the books seem to be mildly teachable, especially How to Say Thank You, they are really best seen (and best read) as slight, simple, sweet adventures with a very small tinge of the exotic – not exactly what Amy Krouse Rosenthal had in mind, but close enough so that these follow-up books may make some kids curious enough to want to read the original Uni the Unicorn.