October 26, 2023


Summer Is for Cousins. By Rajani LaRocca. Illustrated by Abhi Alwar. Abrams. $17.99.

     No matter what season the calendar tells us it is, there is always room for some warm-weather fun – and it can be found in books, even when real-life weather may be a touch on the chilly side. Rajani LaRocca’s Summer Is for Cousins is as warm and warm-hearted as can be, neatly presenting the simple summer story of a large and varied Indian family enjoying vacation with “all of us cousins,” as the caption on one photo puts it. Indeed, there are no fewer than seven cousins, plus the parents of narrator Ravi, plus two uncles, two aunts, and a set of grandparents (Thatha and Pati). LaRocca makes the straightforward tale entertaining by including small homespun touches (“I used to be the youngest, but now there’s baby Leela”) and a little bit of uncertainty/mystery (will Ravi’s oldest cousin, Dhruv, still share Ravi’s preference for a certain specific flavor of ice cream?).

     The inside front and back covers and their facing pages, very nicely illustrated by Abhi Alwar, encapsulate the mood of the entire book, showing what appear to be Polaroid photos (certainly not cellphone ones) that make everyday occurrences into the stuff of which memories are made. One photo is captioned “Headstand Contest” and shows two of the kids standing on their heads; one shows a double-scoop ice-cream cone and is captioned “MMMMM”; another, showing a rowboat being paddled in the lake near the summer home where everyone is staying, is captioned “Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily”; still another shows everyone gathered around a birthday cake and is captioned “Surprise!!”

     And those are just the non-narrative parts of the book. The actual story starts with everyone arriving at “a house that’s not any of ours” but is near both the ocean and a lake, after which everyone tumbles inside and then comes right back out again to go for ice cream. There are beach scenes and lake scenes, experiments and gentle competitions involving paddleboarding and floating and mini golf, games with a rope swing, and lots of time in the water. “We spend our days biking, playing, reading, napping,” Ravi explains, and Alwar’s illustrations of these ordinary-but-meaningful activities bring LaRocca’s simple narration alive and help cement the underlying idea of the book, which is as much about family togetherness as it is about summertime fun.

     Nothing derails the pleasures of this time for this group, even when the weather occasionally fails to cooperate: “When it rains, we stay inside and work on a huge puzzle with tiny pieces.” And food – not just ice cream – is a big part of the extended get-together. Some of it is ethnic (fish curry with naan, lemon rice and korma), some of it is quintessentially American (veggie burgers and corn, “pizza oozing with gooey cheese”), and all of it is thoroughly enjoyed by everyone – as the illustrations make abundantly clear. And the theme of ice cream recurs again and again, not only through Ravi’s mild concerns about Dhruv’s flavor preference (which, of course, turns out not to have changed) but also through an amusing scene in which Ravi offers to make dessert for everyone, does some things in the kitchen, then brings a big and heavy ball outside and gets everybody to roll the ball around – it turns out to be an ice-cream-making ball, so the game concludes with a delicious homemade after-dinner treat.

     Everything is delicious, literally and figuratively, in Summer Is for Cousins: the time of year, the travel, the temporary residence, the games and other activities, and, most of all, the interactions among the many members of the family (including the dog). There is no conflict, no trouble, no arguing, no sign of unhappiness anytime or about anything – it is about as perfect a summertime as anyone could wish for, no matter what season it may be when kids read the book and imagine experiencing or re-experiencing similar times in their own lives. It is simply a very sweet story, and not just because of the ice cream – although that certainly helps.


Dark Art Supernatural: A Sinister Coloring Book. By François Gautier. Plume. $16.

     There are designated times of year for spookiness, sometimes seasonal, sometimes based on time of month (the full moon), sometimes relating to specific days (Halloween, the dark first day of winter). But would-be colorists of the weird – the people who will find François Gautier’s Dark Art Supernatural immediately appealing – will look forward to making any day, at any time of year, a chillier one. Gautier has done quite a lot of that already: although some of his intricate black-and-white illustrations have ties to specific stories (for those who know those tales), nothing here relates to a specific date, season or time of year. These are illustrations that can provide a “jump scare” just about anytime, even before they are colored in suitably brilliant or dour or even pastel hues.

     Gautier drags all the familiar tropes of horror illustrations into this book: squatting monstrosities, leering vampires, skulls of all sorts (some clearly not human), clusters of rats, massed and individual skeletons, ghostlike/skull-like things with mouths gaping as if in the painting “The Scream,” monstrous animals that blend at their edges into the landscape, and much more. The impressive level of detail that Gautier brings to all these pages makes them quite scary enough exactly as they are – and also opens the floodgates to all sorts of scary coloristic potential, to be determined by each person’s notion of what would make these frightful scenes even more horrific.

     Some of the illustrations appear to be Gautier’s accentuation of frightening elements of particular stories. One page shows a winged ballet dancer on tiptoe, tears streaming down her face, surrounded by swans that are entwined with vines and seem to be suffering – a scene out of Tchaikovsky’s already-dark ballet Swan Lake. Another page shows a bearded man, his wooden shield broken, looking up in despair at a huge and terrifying dragon that is clearly very much alive despite being pierced with arrows and stabbed by a sword that is apparently the man’s own – a scene reminiscent of the final battle in Beowulf. Still another page has a demonic-looking horse being ridden by a human body that is holding its grimacing head in its right hand – apparently an over-the-top reference to Washington Irving.

     Literary and musical referents aside, though, the pages here speak (or shriek) to anyone who fancies the horror genre and wants to contribute to it in a small way by turning these black-and-white flights of fear into colored ones. There is something here to appeal to or enchant or disturb pretty much anybody with an interest in wading into these suitably murky waters. Indeed, one horizontally divided page has a bird expressing itself full-throatedly in the top half – and seen as a skeleton, reflected in water, in the page’s bottom portion. Another page has innocent-looking Ferris wheel cabs that merge into a grinning, gap-toothed, bulging-eyed monster. Another is a nautical nighttime scene in open water, featuring a Flying Dutchman sort of ship whose hull and elaborate sails are bedecked with all manner of bones and skeletal remains. Yet another features a book whose spine and covers include multiple eyeballs; out of the book’s pages, ferocious things are emerging and attacking the screaming reader unfortunate enough to have opened it.

     Nothing quite that outré happens upon opening Dark Art Supernatural, but who knows? Perhaps some colorist will combine just the right shades of just the right colors in such a way that they will interact in unspeakable ways and pull the doomed artist right into Gautier’s pages, never to be seen again except in the guise of the grinning skull on one page, or the rat-eaten body on another, or the exceedingly scary scarecrow on yet another, or even the once-adorable child’s doll that has become a kind of voodoo figurine in still another place. Gautier certainly gets the emotions churning, even before anything is done to alter his black-and-white art through the addition of color that it scarcely needs to produce a strong effect of gothic horror.


Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Czech Philharmonic conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Pentatone. $15.99.

Mendelssohn: Songs without Words, Op. 19, Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 6; Op. 30, No. 6; Op. 38, Nos. 2 and 6; Op. 53, No. 1; Op. 62, No. 1; Op. 67, Nos. 3 and 5; Op. 85, No. 4; Op. 102, Nos. 3 and 4; Price Walden: Songs without Words. Bruce Levingston, piano. Sono Luminus. $16.99.

     For most composers, most of the time, a song is just what listeners expect it to be: music with words delivered by a human voice, with some sort of accompaniment. But some composers have stretched the term “song” in interesting ways, whether by making vocalise (wordless singing) an important part of a work (as in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3) or by building larger, more-complex structures around songs – as Mahler did in his Symphony No. 1 (and indeed in all four of his first symphonies). From the moment the long-held opening note of Mahler’s First gives way to Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld from the composer’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the symphony is pervaded by tunes from Mahler’s song cycles, combined with songs from other sources, including the unlikely use of Bruder Martin (Frère Jacques) as the basis of the third movement. The song elements are a major contributor to the symphony’s mixture of drama and lyricism – and a new performance on Pentatone, featuring the Czech Philharmonic under Semyon Bychkov, really makes the music sing, focusing strongly on the symphony’s lyrical elements. The first movement opens quietly, a bit slowly, so the woodland scene emerges gradually, the main song theme sounding very sweet. Bychkov makes the rhythm almost danceable, and the instrumental balance is very good. This is an expansive reading, the wayfarer (Mahler used the word in the sense of “journeyman” rather than someone just gadding about idly) meandering through the fields rather than being in any particular hurry to get anywhere. The movement is elegantly played, the evenness of orchestral sections being especially notable. The second movement is again strongly rhythmic, its brass interjections sounding more clearly than they often do. Here the Ländler elements come to the fore, with joyousness pervasive in the final section amid really fine-sounding brass. The third movement opens very quietly, with an eerie sound on which the orchestra slowly builds. Bruder Martin was sung in the minor in Austria in Mahler’s time, but Mahler’s use of it as the basis of a minor-key funeral march was new and remains effective. Under Bychkov, the march rhythm is understated, the klezmer roots of the movement’s middle portion are brought forward, and the sectional balance of the orchestra is carefully managed throughout. The finale starts with more intensity than anything earlier in the performance, providing the strong contrast that Mahler envisioned. There is a definite sense of strength and conflict until the recollections begin of earlier movements (including music from the discarded Blumine, the original second movement). After the first quieter section, Bychkov returns with clarity to the warmth and smooth flow so evident earlier. Structurally, this movement meanders somewhat, but Bychkov holds it together by keeping its momentum strong and managing the balance among sections carefully. The quieter and slower passages become intervals in a movement that ends up sounding both like a summation of what has come before and like a tone poem building to eventual triumph over adversity. Throughout, the underlying songlike elements of the music remain, pointing to warmth and lyricism beneath even the greatest turmoil.

     Decades before Mahler adapted some of his lieder for symphonic purposes, Mendelssohn came up with his own way of creating songs that were not quite songs in the traditional sense. These are the Songs without Words – 48 of them, eight volumes of six pieces each (the seventh and eighth volumes were published posthumously). Pianist Bruce Levingston has an intriguing and rather quirky way of presenting some of them: he offers 14, split into two groups of seven, with a third group of seven somewhat similar piano works in the middle. That middle group was composed by Price Walden (born 1991) and has enough in common with Mendelssohn’s works – and enough that is different from them – to make for an interesting centerpiece of the recording. Harder to understand is Levingston’s way with the Mendelssohn pieces themselves: the composer did have reasons for gathering his Songs without Words into specific groupings, and even though each of the pieces can be played out of context at any time, Levingston’s mixture of them is a helter-skelter affair. The Songs without Words are actually typical of a form that became quite popular during the Romantic era: short, self-contained works, most of them lyrical, generally designed for pianists to play at home – in general, the material is scarcely virtuosic. What is important in these pieces is their emotive ability, and this is where Levingston excels: Mendelssohn may have written what would later be called “salon music,” but if so, it is high-level salon music, imbued with sensitivity and lyrical beauty to which a pianist must pay close attention if the works are to have their very pleasing effect. Levingston excels at extracting the warmth and beauty of these pieces without overstating their importance or trying to turn them into something grander than they are. The pleasantries here are many, but the choice of which works to play and in what order is decidedly peculiar: this Sono Luminus CD opens with Op. 102, No. 4, then moves to Op. 67, No. 3, then Op. 38, No. 2, and then Op. 38, No. 6 (which Mendelssohn called Duetto because of its two “vocal” lines). The second Venetianisches Gondellied appears seventh on the disc; the first is track No. 18. Neither contrasts of key nor those of mood can explain why Levingston chose to play these works in this order, so it is best for listeners to regard the CD as a highly personal one, reflecting the performer’s tastes – which means the recording will be most enjoyable for audiences that find they share those tastes. The success of the disc also hinges on responses to Walden’s contribution. No. 1, Prelude, features gentle note cascades and sufficient dissonance, especially in its later, chordal passages, to come across as a contemporary nocturne. No. 2, for the left hand (the title is all lower case), ripples pleasingly throughout. No. 3, Love Song – Duet, is not much like Mendelssohn’s Duetto but has its own charm and sense of dialogue. No. 4, Berceuse, is more irregular in rhythm than a lullaby would usually be, but its mostly quiet, rocking motion is pleasant. No. 5, Elegy, starts very softly indeed and continues in that vein through much of its length, sounding quietly mournful throughout and finally fading into oblivion. No. 6, Protest, opens gently – there is pervasive gentleness in Walden’s whole set of pieces – but becomes, midway through, much more emphatic, its dissonant chords leading to a somewhat more-headlong and equally dissonant section and eventual intense, if enigmatic, conclusion. No. 7, Lullaby, is prettier and sweeter than Berceuse and is genuinely soporific in its steady, slow meandering. None of Walden’s works possesses the easy tunefulness of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, but all of them are pleasantries in their own right, and as a whole they make a very nice complement to the Mendelssohn miniatures. Played by Levingston with sensitivity and limpidity, all the music on this CD is gentle, engaging and contemplative – a fine contrast to the hecticness and stressors of so much in everyday life.


Arvo Pärt: Odes of Repentance. Cappella Romana conducted by Alexander Lingas. Cappella Records. $17.99.

Handel: Israel in Egypt—adaptation by Jeannette Sorrell. Apollo’s Singers and Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra conducted by Jeannette Sorrell. AVIE. $17.99.

     Arvo Pärt (born 1935) has a longstanding intimate relationship with the Orthodox Church’s liturgy and Byzantine poetry reflecting Orthodox beliefs. Cappella Romana is expert in presenting sacred music ranging from medieval Byzantine chant to Greek and Russian Orthodox choral works. Thus, saying that the Cappella Romana presentation of Pärt’s Odes of Repentance seems an ideal merger of composer and performers borders on cliché – which does not make the assertion any less true. What the chorus under Alexander Lingas does in this new recording on the ensemble’s own label is to create an Orthodox Service of Supplication that includes three odes from the composer’s Kanon Pokajanen (Kanon of Repentance) plus hymns, prayers, and even a central Gospel reading from Matthew 26:6-13 – the story in which a woman pours precious ointment from an alabaster box onto Jesus’ head, the Disciples say it would have been better to sell the ointment to get money for the poor, and Jesus explains that the poor will always be present but that He will not, and the woman has poured the ointment for His burial. Pärt has his own compositional technique and tends to be thought of as a minimalist composer who uses his own special approach to creativity – but what is remarkable is the way in which his very modern understanding of musical creation encapsulates and draws deeply on Gregorian chant, by which he has been heavily influenced. Exceptional purity of tone is de rigueur for Gregorian chant and works derived from it, and Cappella Romana possesses such purity – along with an exceptional ability to enunciate unfamiliar words with so much clarity that listeners can easily follow the singing even without necessarily understanding what is being presented. In the case of Odes of Repentance, the music is drawn from a variety of Pärt’s creations, yet hangs together seamlessly through the beauty and evident sincerity with which Cappella Romana presents it. It should be noted, though, that this hour-and-a-quarter presentation sounds very much like a church service: the pacing is deliberate throughout, the chorus sings everything a cappella, and the music has been carefully selected to make its disparate sources come together into an overall assertion of faith and prayer for divine understanding. Only listeners who are versed in or at least thoroughly familiar with the Orthodox liturgy will find it meaningful that the CD opens with Apolytikion for the Holy Icons and concludes with Apolytikion for Saint Nicholas, but anyone coming to this recording from any spiritual direction cannot but be moved by the care and sensitivity with which the music is sung. There remain significant doctrinal differences between the Christian East and West, as is especially clear in this recording from the intensity of prayer directed at Mary, “virgin Mother of God,” in addition to lines such as ones that translate, “Now I lift my hands to you, holy martyrs, hermits, virgins, righteous ones and all the saints” – which are not typical of those used in the West. Yet to Christians with an eye and an ear for the use of music to elevate what is secular to the realm of the sacred, this sort of thing will be of far less consequence than the excellence with which Cappella Romana uses Pärt’s music to produce a convincing service focused on the hope and prayer for repentance and eventual unification with God. The very deliberate pace of the music allows the singers fully to bring forth its many beauties, but will make it difficult for those not steeped in Pärt and/or Gregorian chant to sit through the CD from start to finish. Thus, the disc is by design an offering for a limited audience – an audience that will welcome it and embrace its spirituality as well as its musicality.

     There is considerably more drama in Handel’s Israel in Egypt, which after all is labeled “A Dramatic Oratorio” and which contains many operatic elements. Jeannette Sorrell has gone out of her way to make the work even more dramatic, and thus hopefully more appealing to a contemporary audience, for her new recording with Apollo’s Fire on the AVIE label. Handel, who generally had finely honed theatrical instincts as well as a propensity for reusing effective music in new contexts (parts of Israel in Egypt were later to turn up in Messiah), somewhat erred in his original version of Israel in Egypt, which lasted more than three hours and pleased neither the secular audience nor the religious establishment – being too focused on choral material from the point of view of the former, and too churchlike for theater presentation from the viewpoint of the latter. A major issue was the extended Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph at the work’s beginning – and that section is generally dropped in modern performances, allowing a focus on the plagues brought by God upon the Egyptians, the fleeing of the Jews from slavery, and the eventual parting of the Red Sea and destruction of Pharaoh’s warriors beneath the waves. Sorrell has done something intriguing in restoring a 16-minute version of Part I of the work, thus giving it Handel’s originally intended story arc from lamentation through disaster to ultimate triumph. But she has also done something less admirable in reducing Parts II and III, the balance of Israel in Egypt, to less than one hour, with the explicit intent of making the totality more appealing to modern listeners and their presumably reduced attention spans. The result is some very un-Handelian Handel, with entire portions of the oratorio excised, numerous portions of the music truncated, and the elimination in many places of typically Handelian ornamented repeats and other characteristic vocal flourishes. To be sure, these changes will make the work more acceptable to some audiences: even Handel aficionados sometimes find the extent of his repetitiveness wearing and wish he would get on with it a bit sooner. But Sorrell has made so many excisions and emendations that this Israel in Egypt is better thought of as a Handel/Sorrell co-production or co-composition than as a work by Handel interpreted by Sorrell. Regarded thus, as a cooperative endeavor, it is certainly effective, and the performance itself is of the highest quality by any standards. The use of period instruments is a big plus: Handel was a master at interweaving instrumental and vocal lines, and the clarity of his thinking and care of his musical construction come through much more clearly and effectively when period instruments are used. Sorrell paces the oratorio quite ably, focusing throughout on its dramatic elements, of which there are many. The chorus enunciates and emotes well, and all the soloists fulfill their roles to very good effect: sopranos Margaret Carpenter Haigh and Molly Netter, countertenor Daniel Moody, tenor Jacob Perry, and baritone Edward Vogel. The aptness of Sorrell’s adaptation of Israel in Egypt is certainly arguable: surely there could be some compromise between the 75 minutes of this version and the 180-or-so of the original. But for those who share Sorrell’s vision of making the oratorio more listenable for a less-patient contemporary audience, this will unquestionably be an inviting recording that gives listeners a welcome chance to hear and appreciate some percentage of Handel’s understanding of and flair for drama within the context of a serious Biblical story.