January 25, 2024


Dogphabet. Illustrations by Meredith Jensen. Harper by Design. $16.99.

     This book is as notable for what it does not do as for what it does. What it does not do is take the expected approach to an alphabet book built around dogs – as in “A is for Afghan, B is for Beagle, C is for Cocker Spaniel, D is for Dachshund,” and so forth. Instead, each letter of the alphabet goes with a descriptive word that applies to a certain type of dog – and then there are additional words explaining why the description is appropriate.

     Exactly who wrote the descriptions is a bit of a mystery – no author is credited, although there is an editor (Madeleine James). As for the illustrations (which are credited, to Meredith Jensen), they manage to convey what various breeds really look like while at the same time cleverly reflecting the words describing each breed’s behavior as outlined in the words.

     For example, “E is for Edgy” leads to a paragraph about Boxers, “alert guard dogs that like to protect their families and homes.” The illustration shows a Boxer wearing an official-looking cap and holding a flashlight in its mouth. “H is for Hypoallergenic” discusses Labradoodles, “used around the world as hypoallergenic assistance and therapy dogs,” and shows three people cuddling a happy pup and burying their faces in its coat. “P is for Personality” features Chihuahuas, “curious and bold, and demanding if overindulged,” and shows one sitting on a throne and wearing a suitably tiny crown.

     This clever approach to the letters makes it possible for Dogphabet to introduce some less-than-ideal aspects of certain breeds – as in the comment on the Chihuahua – while still showcasing each dog’s special charms. “S is for Stubborn” shows a French Bulldog refusing to be pulled along by a leash and notes that these dogs are “equal parts frustrating and delightful.” And “D is for Digging” notes that Border Terriers, “given a lack of supervision and enough time alone,” will “dig under, climb over or even through a fence in order to explore.”

     Despite any negatives associated with specific breeds, all the dogs shown in Dogphabet look like a lot of fun to have around. The Jack Russell Terrier, a dog well-known to be “full of boundless energy,” is on display eight times, bouncing around in a circle, because “J is for Jumping.” The Great Dane, suitably placed at “M is for Massive,” not only towers over two people holding its very long and strong leash but also looms over the tops of buildings shown in the background. Bichon Frisés, “resembling a fluffy child’s toy,” are described as “the cheerleaders of the dog world” and shown piled atop one another in a cheerleader-style pyramid – 21 of them in all, the one on top waving two pennants saying “Yay!”

     In fact, “yay!” is a pretty good word for the entirety of Dogphabet, which manages to take the scarcely unusual concept of merging the letters of the alphabet with a variety of dog breeds and turn the combination into something amusing and quite delightful, from A (Aloof = Dalmatian) to Z (Zany = Pug). And for readers who really do want the dogs in alphabetical order, there is a treat at the end of the book, where all the pups from the preceding pages are presented alphabetically and described in a few suitable and accurate words in terms of life span, likes and dislikes. Dogphabet is not intended to urge readers to seek out any specific breed of dog, but for those who are already doing exactly that, it just might tip the scales in one adorable direction or another.


Luigi Perrachio: Piano Quintet; Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Piano Quintet No. 1. David Korevaar, piano; Carpe Diem String Quartet (Amy Galluzzo and Marisa Ishikawa, violins; Korine Fujiwara, viola; Ariana Nelson, cello). Da Vinci Classics. $16.99.

     The focus and immense success of opera as the dominant form of Italian classical music in the 19th century led, inevitably, to a pendulum-swing reaction in the early 20th by Italian composers determined to chart a new, purely instrumental course that was beholden neither to the stage nor to the approach of the Germanic compositional school. Perhaps the best-known composer advocating new Italian instrumental music was Respighi, who turned decidedly to the past in seeking the future – finding forms and structures from older times that could be adapted with modern harmonies while retaining much of their original rhythmic and expressive charm. Respighi (1879-1936) managed to meld a certain degree of Russian orchestral color with some of the opulence of Richard Strauss into forms derived from earlier periods, producing music of genuine originality.

     And Respighi was scarcely the only Italian of his era seeking to reinvigorate the Italian instrumental genre. Others with similar aims were Respighi’s almost completely forgotten contemporary, Luigi Perrachio (1883-1966), and the somewhat later and better-known Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968). A fascinating new Da Vinci Classics CD provides an unusual opportunity to hear a juxtaposition of piano quintets by these two composers, including the world première recording of Perrachio’s.

     Perrachio’s Quintet, which dates to 1919, is a stylistic amalgam that mixes elements of neoclassicism with post-Romantic gestural sweep, pastoral material and outright playfulness – including multiple references to the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Its pervasive dissonance contrasts with the richness of the instrumentation – the unison passages have particular force, especially in the very extended first movement (longer than the third and fourth combined). The second, shortest movement is a puckish and ebullient Scherzo with sparer instrumentation and delicacy that contrasts strongly with the rather massive sound of the opening movement; this is where the reference to Beethoven’s Fifth first appears. This quintet lacks a genuinely slow movement of the type associated with Romanticism: the third movement is marked Allegretto semplice and has a rather pretty pastoral flavor and the sense of being an interlude or intermezzo. The finale is the opposite of profound: joyous and lithe, it has a perky ebullience that repeatedly dips into the realm of folk dances. The strong and serious unison material of the coda comes as something rather unexpected and brings this fascinating – if somewhat disconnected-sounding – work to a forceful conclusion. David Korevaar, under whose supervision the work was published (as recently as 2022!), integrates the piano sound very effectively with that of the Carpe Diem String Quartet, and the performance as a whole evinces sincerity, understanding, and a deep respect for the music and the composer.

     The first of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s two Piano Quintets is a later work than Perrachio’s, dating to 1932. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was well-known and well-thought-of in the 1920s, but was forced into exile after Mussolini matched Italy’s anti-Semitic laws to Hitler’s. In exile, Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote music in Hollywood, was the teacher of John Williams and Henry Mancini (among others), and became well-known for the guitar pieces he began composing after meeting Andrés Segovia in 1932 – the year of this Quintet. This work is in many ways more Romantic (or post-Romantic) than Perrachio’s, drawing on Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Jewish roots and his memories of his native Tuscany (his second Quintet, which dates to 1951, is actually subtitled “Memories of the Tuscan Countryside”). Like Perrachio’s work, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s is front-weighted, but it is overall a more-balanced piece: the finale is almost as long as the first movement. There is a sense of expansiveness in this Quintet from its first notes, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco sticks to traditional form and tonality to a greater extent than does Perrachio – but Castelnuovo-Tedesco uses tonality in an interesting way, moving the Quintet from a start in F to a conclusion in D while fully exploiting the differing color characteristics of those and other keys as the piece progresses. The work is pervasively tender and lyrical, its moderately slow second-movement Andante being more emotive than Perrachio’s third-movement Allegretto semplice. Castelnuovo-Tedesco neatly produces a third-movement Scherzo: Leggero e danzante that would be quite awkward to dance with its constant rhythmic changes, but that retains considerable verve and spirit throughout. The Quintet concludes with a dark, passionate movement that hints – at least to an audience hearing it retrospectively – of the societal upheavals occurring when the work was written. In all, this piece feels more thoroughly integrated and emotionally pointed than Perrachio’s somewhat more discursive Quintet. The performers, to their credit, explore Castelnuovo-Tedesco with the same sense of engagement and understanding that they bring to Perrachio – the result being a thoroughly appealing CD featuring two pieces that certainly confirm their composers’ success in helping to re-establish the importance of pure instrumental music with a distinct Italian flair.

January 18, 2024


Bad Magic: A Skulduggery Pleasant Graphic Novel. By Derek Landy with P.J. Holden, artist; Matt Soffe, colourist; Rob Jones, letterer; Pye Parr, designer. HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Derek Landy’s genre-bending Skulduggery Pleasant novels – fantasy books that mix horror, humor, crime, the supernatural and a few other oddments here and there – are so clearly descriptive of bon mots and mayhem that they are naturals for graphic-novel adaptation. The surprising thing is that it has taken so long for such an adaptation to appear: the series began in 2007. And what shows up in graphic-novel form as Bad Magic is not part of the main Skulduggery Pleasant sequence (actually sequences; there are several) – it is a standalone story (within which Landy, with his usual aplomb, sets up a sequel).

     All this is just fine. The world of Skulduggery Pleasant – who is a nattily dressed reanimated skeleton who, together with his family, was killed by an evil sorcerer in a war 400 years ago – has plenty of room for further growth. It has already blossomed into two extended series of novels, the start of a third, a batch of short stories and novellas, a choose-your-adventure tale, a reference guidebook, and more. Landy has a habit, in the novels that still make up the primary elements of the various series, of starting with books of reasonable length (around 400 pages, sometimes less) and producing longer and longer novels (600+ pages) as matters progress. So having a work as compressed as a self-contained graphic novel is something of a pleasure.

     Bad Magic provides no backstory on Skulduggery and his partner, Valkyrie Cain (who has been just as crucial to the sequence since she originally appeared in the first book as Stephanie Edgley, before discovering her own supernatural powers). Instead of trying to lay any sort of foundation, the graphic novel plunges immediately into the mystery of the town of Termoncara, “the murder capital of Ireland” (as one minor character blithely puts it). For her part, Valkyrie neatly encapsulates what she and Skulduggery are doing there: “We’re sent in to figure out who needs punching and then punch them.” And there is plenty of punching in Bad Magic, along with lots of the trademark dialogue that leavens the violence – as when Valkyrie, in the midst of a huge battle and appearing nearly explosive in her anger, loudly demands, “WHO INTERRUPTED OUR BANTER?” (This is right after someone takes Skulduggery’s hat – a major no-no.)

     The visualizations of the characters are well-done, if somewhat exaggerated. Skulduggery’s appearance is excellent, not only as a skeleton but also when he puts on human faces whose exact appearance he is never quite able to see. But Valkyrie is somewhat too chiseled-looking: a panel in which she is in an exercise pose on the floor, supported only by her toes and one finger of one hand, makes her look borderline grotesque. The renderings of the Termoncara residents are quite fine, if formulaic; and the appearances of the many and varied mostly-invisible-to-the-residents monstrosities that abound in the town are finer still – clearly Landy and his artistic supporters lavished more care on them than on the mere humans.

     The plot of Bad Magic is fairly thin and not the main point: there have been 20 years of murders of various “undesirables” in Termoncara, the reason being that a super-baddie that goes by “Mr. Friendly” is getting the town ready to be massacred because “as soon as I kill enough teenagers, I’ll be free to wander the world, just like he wants me to.” That makes no sense, but it is the setup for a followup, as in “who is this ‘he’?” In any case, Skulduggery and Valkyrie eventually mop up the mess at Termoncara, create a suitably unbelievable cover story that of course will be believed by outsiders because the truth would be far less credible, and prepare to move on to the next town in need of saving. What will stay with readers is none of that – what matters here are the numerous action scenes, the chance actually to see Skulduggery and Valkyrie using their physical and supernatural powers on grotesqueries of all sorts, and the ongoing sallies and ripostes in which the two protagonists constantly indulge. “Violence is not always the answer, Valkyrie,” comments Skulduggery at one point; to which Valkyrie replies, “What? Since when?” That is what Bad Magic is all about. And it’s not bad at all.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 8, 1890 version, transcribed for organ by Eberhard Klotz; Fanfare “Ecce sacerdos magnus” | Motet WAB 13, transcribed for organ by Hansjörg Albrecht; Thomas Daniel Schlee: “In Nomine” | Window on Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. Hansjörg Albrecht, organ. Oehms. $23.99 (2 CDs).

Heinrich Marschner: Overtures and Stage Music, Volume 2. Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $13.99.

     It is a fair bet that 2024, the bicentennial of Bruckner’s birth, will be less fraught with worldwide dislocation and near-panic than the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, for which celebrations and acknowledgments were largely derailed by the depredations of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bruckner bicentennial will surely include trouble spots and doom-laden predictions aplenty, those being a feature of every year – but one can at least hope that no worldwide catastrophe akin to the pandemic of 2020 will undermine the many plans to honor Bruckner. A great number of those plans have been in the making for years, including the quixotic but fascinating releases on Oehms of organ transcriptions of Bruckner’s symphonies, performed with tremendous stylistic attentiveness by Hansjörg Albrecht. The latest of them, featuring the monumental Eighth Symphony that was Bruckner’s final completed work in the form, is in fact climactic in its expansiveness and its confirmation that these recordings, although perhaps objectively wrong-headed, can and do shed enormous light on the “Bruckner sound” and the ability of the organ to elucidate elements of the symphonies that do not always come through with equal clarity when the works are played, as intended, by an orchestra. Like other recordings in this fascinating series, this one includes a couple of musical appetizers before getting to the symphonic main course. The first is Albrecht’s own organ transcription of Bruckner’s Fanfare “Ecce sacerdos magnus” | Motet WAB 13, originally written for choir, three trombones and organ – a very interesting work in its own right, and one whose solemnity and sense of anticipation translate well to the organ in Albrecht’s version. Next is the latest “Bruckner Window”: these symphonies-on-the-organ CDs all feature contemporary composers’ tributes to or musical comments on Bruckner. The one by Thomas Daniel Schlee (born 1957) is extended – 12 minutes long – and structurally ties interestingly to the finale of Bruckner’s Eighth in its rhythms and counterpoint. It is more a fantasy on the symphony than an introduction to it, but it serves effectively as a modern commentary on some elements of Bruckner’s music. And then Albrecht begins a very broadly conceived, spacious and elegant performance of the symphony itself, stretching the work out to a full 92 minutes – one of the longest modern recordings of this symphony. Yet if the pacing is deliberate, it is never plodding: Albrecht has clearly thought in considerable depth about the intricacies of this score, and Eberhard Klotz’s transcription does a truly excellent job of highlighting not only the main thematic groups but also the middle voices and subsidiary elements. In fact, although it might seem that performing this symphony on a single instrument, even a grand single instrument, would significantly compromise Bruckner’s sense of orchestral coloration and his attentiveness to detail within the work’s very broad canvas. Surprisingly, though, the combination of Klotz’s work and Albrecht’s performance produces a feeling of sonic balance among sections (thanks to Albrecht’s highly skillful selection of registrations); and while combinations of and contrasts among strings, winds and brass are inevitably missing, the overall sound world of the symphony comes through with considerable clarity. Klotz arranged the second (1890) version of the symphony, which has tended to fall out of favor in recent years as more conductors have gravitated to the original version of 1887. Given the inauthenticity of any organ transcription of a Bruckner symphony, this is less important than it might otherwise be: what matters here is that Albrecht fully explores the sprawling majesty of the work – the 32-minute Adagio is simply outstanding – and that Klotz shows great understanding of Bruckner’s music and, as a result, creates a transcription that, strictly on its own terms (which are not exactly Bruckner’s), is highly convincing.

     Dario Salvi’s exploration of the stage music of Heinrich August Marschner (1795-1861) has many points of interest as well, but the second volume in this Naxos series is a (+++) release simply because – like the first disc led by Salvi – the music itself is of less interest and less consequence than the conceptualization of a series highlighting it. Marschner was the most important German opera composer between Weber and Wagner, and a significant influence on the latter, whose first opera, Die Feen, is essentially Wagner’s “take” on the Marschner operatic world. Marschner’s use of melodrama, his creation of powerful antiheroic central characters, his expansion of the lower range of the orchestra, and his development of supernatural protagonists with mortal failings, all influenced Wagner to a considerable degree; and two Marschner operas – Der Vampyr and Hans Heiling – remain impressive in their own right. But Salvi’s main interest in this recording, as in the previous one, is to unearth Marschner works that are thoroughly unfamiliar: everything in Volume 2 is a world première recording. Everything is also, unfortunately, rather prosaic, more so than the best of Marschner’s stage music. The four works represented on this CD cover a 30-year period: Prinz Friedrich von Homburg dates to 1821, Klänge aus Osten to 1842, Kaiser Adolph von Nassau to 1845, and Austin to 1850-51. The specific selections heard here are nicely enough played by the Hradec Králové Philharmonic Orchestra (although the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice, used for the prior CD, is a somewhat more-polished ensemble); but there simply is not much musical meat to these small selections. From Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, for example, Salvi offers the four entr’actes and the concluding Schluss Symphonie, while the more-extended pieces from Kaiser Adolph von Nassau and Austin are ballets that are scarcely germane to the works’ action or their primary focuses. The most-interesting piece here is the overture to Klänge aus Osten – the only music Salvi offers from that work, which is a dramatic cantata rather than an opera. Occasional hints of Marschner’s innovations do appear in some of the pieces here: for instance, his use of and contrast between lower strings and brass is a recurrent element that produces some effective moments. As a whole, though, the music heard on this release is rather thin gruel – interesting because it has not previously been recorded, but in no way indicative of the importance of Marschner as a composer for the stage and an influence on Wagner and others. Hopefully there will be more-interesting Marschner to come as this series progresses.

January 11, 2024


Only You Can Be You: A Blue Penguin Tale. By Judy Petersen-Fleming and Suzy Spafford. Illustrations by Suzy Spafford. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Press. $17.99.

     Since penguins are black-and-white, it is obvious from the start – that is, from the subtitle – that Only You Can Be You is purely a work of fantasy. Except…well, it sort of is and sort of isn’t. There is a blue penguin, the smallest penguin in the world, which weighs no more than three pounds and lives in Australia. So featuring one in a nature-focused book is not altogether absurd.

     As for featuring one in a book in which penguins of just about all types join together to celebrate a birthday, speaking to each other and wearing clothes and jewelry and traveling via albatross – well, that is purely fantasy, and that is what happens in terms of plot in Only You Can Be You. Yet the book goes a bit beyond traditional anthropomorphic depictions of nonhuman creatures by being so very inclusive (in penguin terms) and by depicting accurately, in its illustrations, the basic appearance of the various types of penguins and the animals with which the book’s penguins interact, from A (albatross) to W (whale).

     Given the book’s provenance as a work from San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Press, the care in animal depiction should not be a surprise, but the melding of accurate portrayals with a charming (if rather thin) plot creates a picture book that manages to entertain very young children (it is aimed at ages 4-8) while also subtly providing them with some educational value. The story, in fact, is not really the point: Periwinkle, the little blue penguin, is invited to the birthday of one of her cousins, and so has to travel to Antarctica for a grand penguin gathering that includes one apiece of multiple penguin types. Periwinkle is the smallest attendee and the only not-black-and-white penguin, and becomes briefly self-conscious until everyone assures her that being different is just fine and that “only you can be you!”

     And that’s it. Well, there is also a brief moment of uncertainty when Periwinkle realizes she forgot to bring Cousin Crystal a birthday gift; but then she takes off the shell necklace that her mother made for her, presents it to Crystal, and all is well. To the extent that there is any sort of conflict or worry within these pages, that is indeed it.

     The “you be you” and “differences are great things” messages are formulaic (which is not a problem for the target age range), but the book’s more-lasting value is likely to be in its scientific information. Although albatrosses do not actually wear flight helmets and goggles or transport penguins atop a swinglike construction attached by a cord around their necks, they are the birds with the longest wingspan in the world – one of several fascinating facts offered on the inside back cover and facing page. Although the cousins’ decision to “huddle together like emperor penguins” seems like just a cute plot element, it is interesting to learn that emperor penguins do huddle together “to keep warm in the cold temperatures of Antarctica,” again as explained at the very back of the book. The way Only You Can Be You brings in and uses various penguin facts is non-intrusive and well-integrated with the story, making the book into more than just a super-simple tale of a penguin birthday party – although, certainly for the youngest children, it will be just fine on its most-superficial level.

     The final pages of the book itself – that is, before the inside back cover and facing page – are the ones with the most-direct educational and admonitory messages, telling kids how to “help your local wildlife and plants” and offering some photographs of real-life penguins of various types. The pictures (one of which, yes, does show blue penguins) take the simple, entertaining story up a notch and may get young children interested in finding out more about penguins from other sources – which would be a lasting benefit of a book that is, on the surface, a typically sweet kids’ story about friendship and self-acceptance.