October 08, 2015
The Marvels. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $32.99.
Pearls Gets Sacrificed: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
The story-presentation format invented by Brian Selznick in his brilliant The Invention of Huge Cabret is no longer new, having been used again by Selznick in Wonderstruck and now appearing for a third time in The Marvels. But the approach is, visually, as amazing and compelling as ever. Half of this more-than-660-page novel is drawings, all of them wordless or with a few words seen on, for example, a piece of paper – never in characters’ mouths. The drawings themselves tell the first part of the story with wonderfully cinematic pacing and tremendous impact, inviting readers to race along from page to page to find out just what is happening and what it all means. This is virtuoso storytelling, easy to get through and quick to absorb – and far more involving than illustrations are when they are merely adjuncts to a written tale or integrated into it in a form such as the graphic novel. There is nothing else quite like Selznick’s approach to The Marvels – except his use of the same approach twice before. But The Marvels is structurally different from the earlier books, being arranged as two separate stories – one visual, one in words – whose interconnectedness only gradually becomes clear. Thus, there is a mystery here, one that unites the entire book and appears to cover the years from 1766 (when the visual story begins) to 1990 (when the written one takes place). “Appears” is the operative word here, however, because as young Joseph Jervis – protagonist of the contemporary story – starts to unravel the oddities of the strange London home of his uncle, Albert Nightingale, inconsistencies begin to emerge along with connections that somehow do not quite tie together. Albert’s own reticence, unexplained until its source eventually comes out and clears up much of what is going on, is only one issue that Joseph faces. A runaway from school and from absent and uncommunicative parents, Joseph is also trying to figure out who he himself is, what his background is, where he belongs – the usual quests of a preteen in a mystery/adventure. But as The Marvels goes on, the revelations prove anything but usual. The entire first half of the book – that is, the visual part – is about a theatrical family known as the Marvels, which passes its love of Shakespearean acting down through generation after generation until, in 1900, young Leontes Marvel is banished from the theater when it turns out he would rather draw than perform on stage. On the verge of boarding a ship for India, Leontes returns to the theater when he sees the glow of a fire, and he realizes what must have caused it, so he – there the visual story breaks off and the one in words begins. But this halt at a climax is scarcely a cheap trick – Selznick is too good for that. Readers will surely be disappointed at first, but as the modern, told-in-words story progresses, they will be drawn further and further into it and start to see how it connects with the older, told-in-pictures one. Or they will think they see the connections, but in fact, Selznick masterfully misdirects readers’ attention (and Joseph’s), so that when revelations finally occur, they come as genuine surprises.
So far, so good – better than good. Unfortunately, the last part of the book does not live up to the wonderful buildup, even though it makes sense in terms of the novel’s overall structure – and the return of illustrative material at the end knits matters together very cleverly. Selznick is too determined here to write something meaningful, to question reality and make-believe, to look into the importance of storytelling itself, to explore ways in which fiction can be realer than reality. These are big aims, ones undertaken by many other authors in many works for adults and not often attempted in a book for young readers. The problem is that they overweigh The Marvels. It soon becomes clear that the title refers not only to the family introduced in the early part of the book but also to the marvelous aspects of storytelling itself, as well as to the marvelous things to be found in Uncle Albert’s house and – well, there are marvels aplenty here, rather too many for the book to be fully coherent. The intertwining of reality and make-believe extends to the creation of the book itself, as Selznick explains in an Afterword – but this is all rather abstruse and convoluted, and takes some of the joy out of following the story lines of The Marvels and learning how the various characters relate to each other. There is also a politically correct but narratively gratuitous inclusion of homosexuality in the book – with the narrative bent and twisted around the subject matter, because in the real world, the real real world in which Selznick created the book, homosexuality was a factor in the story whose elements Selznick modified for the novel. The Marvels is a wonderful read despite these flaws, thanks to a format that, although no longer new, is very far from stale. But there is already so much in the book that adding more and more and more to it as the narrative progresses makes it, in the end, far more unwieldy than it would be based on its structure and length alone.
Part of the success of Selznick’s books lies in the way they defy expectations: readers expect a novel to be told primarily in words, so elevating pictures to an equal level of importance makes these books something special and unusual from the start. In another medium, comic strips, readers expect the visual elements to dominate – otherwise, why use the format at all? But a number of contemporary strips have art that is passable at best, and rely on words rather than pictures to make their points. The snarkiest of them is Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, whose new oversize Treasury volume – containing the cartoons previously published in the collections Breaking Stephan and King of the Comics – continues this lawyer-turned-cartoonist’s approach of offering even more words than in the previous, smaller-size books. Whether those extra words, sprinkled among the reprinted strips, are reason enough to buy Pearls Gets Sacrificed is a matter of opinion. The remarks sometimes do provide interesting insights into the strip – at one point, Goat is seen reading a book about theoretical physics that Pastis says he actually read himself, adding, “Despite not understanding almost any of it, I really enjoyed it.” At other times, the comments relate to Pastis’ less-than-first-rate artistic abilities: “This is one of those strips where Rat’s snout is inexplicably long. I cannot explain that.” “It’s surprisingly hard to draw babies. They always end up looking like tiny old men.” At still other times, what Pastis says is silly, juvenile or both, as in several comments on his sister’s Jell-O molds and multiple remarks on a sequence in which cartoon Pastis is thrown out of his house by his wife – which, real-world Pastis assures readers, did not happen in real-world Pastis’ home.
One strong argument for buying this book even if you already have the earlier collections is the cover of Pearls Gets Sacrificed, which is complex and hilarious (the back of the book shows some of the elements involved in creating it). The cover has real-world Pastis (not the cartoon version seen in the strip) about to be burned alive in Joan of Arc mode, standing – with cartoon Rat and Pig strapped to him – beneath a sign saying “Le Punster” (Pastis being notorious for the elaborate puns in Pearls Before Swine, some of which are actually funny). Crowded around the about-to-be-set-on-fire wood beneath the platform on which Pastis stands are various realistic humans and a whole batch of angry cartoon characters that Pastis has made fun of in his strip: Wanda from Baby Blues, Cathy from Cathy, Garfield, Duke from Doonesbury, Dilbert, Alice from Cul de Sac, Jason from FoxTrot, and several members of The Family Circus (with Jeffy, having followed his dotted line all over the place, carrying a burning torch on the back cover). The Pearls strips within Pearls Gets Sacrificed may put those who remember the past hilarity of Mad magazine in mind of the phrase, “the usual gang of idiots,” because that is what Pastis proffers here: lemmings repeatedly jumping off a cliff (yes, Pastis knows this does not really happen), inept crocodiles repeatedly failing to catch and consume Zebra, megalomaniacal Rat repeatedly abusing everyone and taking things out especially on sweet and gentle and not-very-bright Pig, educated but unfunny Goat repeatedly trying to set himself above all the riffraff, and so forth. Pastis’ art may not be the biggest draw (ha ha) of the strip, but his writing – which goes very well indeed with his peculiar characters – makes an extended visit to Pearls Before Swine worthwhile for anyone with a sufficiently offbeat sense of humor. And Pastis retains the ability, from time to time, to surprise readers with something genuinely touching – the more so because it is so unexpected. In Pearls Gets Sacrificed, a sequence that qualifies involves the always-chained small dog named Andy. He breaks his chain and escapes because he wants to see his father, who is dying in a hospital, but finds his dad snappish and uncommunicative to the very end – yet Andy gets a thoroughly surprising and uplifting message after the very end. Pastis never hesitates to deal with death – he kills off all sorts of characters in the strip, although he sometimes brings them back to life later – but this is a case where he actually handles the topic with sensitivity, something that is scarcely his hallmark. Pearls Gets Sacrificed is certainly not for everyone, nor is Pearls Before Swine. But those who “get it” will, it seems fair to say, want to get it.
Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $25.99.
Compromise is a dirty word in Washington, D.C., nowadays, a sign of weakness and being untrue to one’s principles. Those principles may, of course, change as it is expedient to have them change, for example in running for the nation’s highest office. Long gone are the days in which anyone would be naïve and simplistic enough to declare, “I’d rather be right than president.” How long gone are they? They disappeared after February 7, 1839, the day on which Henry Clay uttered those very words.
Clay (1777-1852) is one of the most famous early politicians of the United States, and a somewhat enigmatic one. He was a Virginia-born slaveholder (he had 60 slaves) who strongly opposed slavery (he wanted to free the slaves and return them to Africa) even in the knowledge that his position would likely cost him the presidency that he wanted so much to win. His 1839 remark was about being correct regarding the evil of slavery – but some saw the comment as sour grapes, not a ringing denunciation of an institution from which Clay benefited even as he decried it.
Nominated three times for the presidency (1824, 1832, 1844), Clay never attained it; some say that if he had become president, there would have been no Civil War – that he was the only person who might have averted it. This feeling is based on his reputation as “The Great Pacificator” or “The Great Compromiser”: he was architect of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (admitting Missouri to the Union as a slave state and balancing it with Maine as a free state), the Compromise of 1850 (which admitted California as a free state and cleared up four years of political infighting dating to the Mexican-American War), and other compromises in 1821, 1833 and 1836. There is a notion that Clay might have found a way around the apparently irreconcilable demands of North and South, much as he found a way to get the Compromise of 1850 through Congress by taking a large bill and breaking it down into small component pieces that could pass even though the larger version could not. Or, the thinking goes, Clay might have used something like his American System to bind the nation. This was, among other things, a network of federally financed roads, canals and railways linking the states, a system that Clay managed to push through and expand into 20 states despite widespread state opposition to what was seen as a federal takeover of state-level rights and responsibilities.
Harlow Giles Unger, frequent chronicler of early American political life, brings his usual lucidity and attentiveness to detail to Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman. Unger strongly believes in his subtitle, but it carries some unintended irony in the form of President Harry Truman’s remark that “a statesman is a politician who’s been dead 10 or 15 years,” which was later echoed in the Bloom County comic strip as: “A statesman is a dead politician. Lord knows we need more statesmen.” Unger sees Clay as having been a highly admirable political figure throughout his life, not merely becoming one in hindsight. He regards Clay as someone aware of the fact that intractable problems have no solutions, only compromises, and a man who tried to follow his personal human values even when they cost him his ambitions, notably that of the presidency. Unger makes much of Abraham Lincoln’s high regard for Clay, noting that Lincoln voted for Clay in 1832 and worked for Clay’s campaign in 1844. Unger traces Lincoln’s famous remark to the New York Tribune about slavery directly to Clay – that is the comment that Lincoln made about being focused on saving the union, whether that meant freeing all slaves, freeing no slaves, or freeing some and leaving others alone. And Unger points out that some of Clay’s accomplishments in the political sphere have stood the test of time: for example, he remains the youngest-ever Speaker of the House of Representatives and, indeed, is largely responsible for making that position the powerhouse it has remained until today. It is also interesting that in 1809, Clay was elected at age 29 to fill retiring Senator John Adair’s unexpired term – even though the constitutionally required age was 30. Either no one noticed or no one was bothered by this.
Interspersing stories about Clay’s political acumen with tales of his difficult personal life, including long-term poor health and the death of all six of his daughters by 1835, Unger also shows that today’s depths of political enmity have their roots in the early years of the United States: Clay threw his votes in the 1824 presidential runoff election (which was decided in the House of Representatives) to John Quincy Adams and against Andrew Jackson, whom Clay considered too uneducated and temperamental to be president. Adams later made Clay his Secretary of State, and Jackson condemned the arrangement as a “corrupt bargain,” starting a campaign that undermined Adams’ presidency, eventually led to Jackson’s ousting of Adams (and Clay) in the 1828 election, and later led to Jackson (1767-1845) working successfully against Clay’s own presidential ambitions. In a sense, Clay’s troubles outlived him: once the Civil War erupted, one of his sons died fighting for the North and one died fighting for the South. And Clay’s legacy? It can certainly be argued that in the long run, the very long run, Clay’s economic and political vision of the United States was to a large degree fulfilled. But Unger makes no attempt to craft a Clay legacy, beyond Clay’s influence on Lincoln. Certainly there is no one in modern American politics who would qualify as a “great compromiser,” or who would consider it an honor to be known by that sobriquet.
A Song for Ella Grey. By David Almond. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Love Is Everywhere. By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Ever since Skellig (1998), his expansion and reinterpretation of Gabriel García Márquez’ short story, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, David Almond has reveled in a kind of magical realism directed not at adults in the García Márquez manner but at younger readers. A Song for Ella Grey is his latest foray into this field, combining the tropes of modern teen romance with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to produce a book that aims for a conflation that does not quite come off. Almond creates a narrator named Claire Wilkinson to tell the story of the mysterious and musically inspired Orpheus and his intense and ultimately doomed relationship with Ella. Claire’s essentially matter-of-fact voice helps ground the story until the crucial descent to the ill-defined land of Death, where Orpheus rather awkwardly takes over the narrative (since Almond does not push the myth so far as to have Claire accompany him). Orpheus’ musical winning of the right to bring Ella back to the land of the living, his ultimate failure, and his eventual death and dismemberment, are all here, all sprinkled with heaping helpings of teen angst and the frequent use of the mild curse word “bliddy” (a British dialect variation of “bloody,” itself not much of a curse on the western side of the pond). “How did all this happen to us, Claire?” a minor character, Bianca Finch, asks near the end. “We’re just kids. We’re just us.” But Almond spends the entire book suggesting that the protagonists and their friends are not “just” anything, but are actors in an age-old drama of life, death and resurrection that, as the book’s ending indicates, is likely to be repeated yet again in some other time, some other venue. Almond makes a great deal out of the importance of the old myths, transformed though they be, in modern times, as when Bianca – ultimately a more interesting character than Ella, whose role is merely to fall hopelessly in love and then die – erupts with frustration and anger in class: “‘Paradise Lost!’ Bianca went on. ‘Let’s all go abliddy Maying, and my ending is despair and blablablablablablabla. We’ve got our lives to live. We’re young!’” The shouting match continues, but the point is made: the characters in A Song for Ella Grey are the young people of today, but that is not all they are, for they are also characters in a kind of world-without-end drama that calls on, and calls up, the ghosts of ancient times. And those ghosts – made manifest in modern guise – in turn call up other ghosts, such as the one that Ella becomes. All this is convoluted and frequently over-clever, as in the section in the realm of Death, presented on black pages with white lettering as a visual reversal of the rest of the book. Certainly there are many affecting moments in A Song for Ella Grey, but they are of the “awwwww” type typical in contemporary tales of doomed teenage lovers, not possessing the intended resonance of the old tale of Orpheus, a story whose updating and adaptation here seems forced and too self-enamored to be fully effective. Almond writes as well here as always, but he is so determined to impress on readers how important and significant the story is that he keeps showing his manipulative authorial hand as the events unfold. The result is that, ultimately, Orpheus and Ella Grey have much less substantiality here than Orpheus and Eurydice do in the tale on which this one is based.
Almond’s highly serious book is very much in character for him, but a much lighter treatment of love – one suitable for gift-giving or for sharing with young children – is somewhat out of character for Jim Benton, an author whose specialty is a wry, funny, slightly snide look at positive emotions (such as joy in the Happy Bunny books). Benton wants to be more positive in Love Is Everywhere, and he deserves some credit for trying, but positivity and Benton do not go particularly well together. This is an oversize board book in which Love is seen in the form of a big pink heart with, at times, wide-open eyes, arms and hands, or teeth. The heart peeks out here and there in both rain and shine (turning yellow to represent the bright sun), and Benton tries hard – a little too hard – to keep the short poetry in the book as amusing as the words in his more-sarcastic productions: “You might not always see my love, but it goes everywhere./ Even if you go out walking in your underwear!” (The illustration here has a young child walking down the street in briefs while the pink heart, on the sidewalk behind him, is giggling.) The problem here is that the words tend to come across as somewhat forced: Benton does not do straightforward cuteness very well. For instance: “Underneath a turtle could be where [love] might hide./ Or among some pink flamingos (providing you’re outside).” The most Benton-ish scene here has a sleeping girl snoring “louder than a bear,” while her toys laugh or cover their ears, the moon outside the window looks bemused, and the “love heart” is thoroughly enjoying itself. But really, Benton does not do sweetness very effectively, and the final two-page spread – showing bunnies, snakes, flowers, trees, clouds even hills smiling and/or cuddling – is just asking for some of the more-usual Benton sarcasm. So give Benton credit for trying to change his image a bit in Love Is Everywhere, but do not look here for his trademark silliness or his usual willingness to confront the sappy and overdone rather than becoming sappy and overdone himself.
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2; Berceuse, Op. 57; Mazurkas—Op, 17, No. 4; Op. 24, No. 1; Op. 63, Nos. 2 and 3; Op. 68, Nos. 2 and 4. Adolfo Barabino, piano; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lee Reynolds. Claudio Records. $16.99.
French Music for Harp—Works by Fauré, André Caplet, Philippe Schoeller, Marcel Lucien Tournier, Debussy, and Bruno Mantovani. Sivan Magen, harp. Linn Records. $21.99 (SACD).
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8; Schumann: Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra; Liszt: Les Préludes; Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries. Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim. EuroArts DVD. $19.99.
Prokofiev: Cinderella. Mariinsky Ballet & Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Mariinsky Blu-ray Disc+DVD. $42.99.
Jan Jirásek: Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols. JITRO Czech Children’s Chorus conducted by Jiří Skopal. Navona. $16.99.
There is an underlying gentleness to Italian pianist Adolfo Barabino’s performances of Chopin, and it permeates his fourth release on Claudio Records – even in the Second Piano Concerto, which it can certainly be justifiable to interpret in more dramatic fashion than is heard here. Barabino opts for a lyrical approach, bringing out the warmth and lucidity of the music and in so doing making this early work (the first of Chopin’s two concertos to be composed, although the second to be published) more forward-looking than it usually appears to be. There is a certain meandering quality to the interpretation, both Barabino’s and that of the London Symphony Orchestra under Lee Reynolds: the music is never exactly directionless, but it does not have as much get-up-and-go as in other readings. The result is a pleasant but not exceptional recording – and a disc on which the solo piano music is more attractive than the piano-and-orchestra offering. In the Berceuse recorded here, and the six Mazurkas, Barabino’s laid-back style is more effective. In these short works he brings out all sorts of nuances, voices and emotional expressions, keeping the rhythms fluid and the pacing sensitive and sensible. The Chopin recordings by Barabino present a not-always-coherent mixture of pieces, as this volume shows: the discs seem to be aimed at people who are, or will become, fans of Barabino, and simply want to hear how he handles Chopin. They are not for listeners interested in a single disc with the two concertos, or a disc focusing on the mazurkas, and so on. This makes them of limited appeal to all the listeners who already have recordings of Chopin by the many fine interpreters of his music. Barabino’s offering here is mainly interesting for the warm, singing quality he imparts to these disparate works.
Warmth and beauty are much in evidence as well in Sivan Magen’s recital of French harp music on the Linn Records label. The works here span more than a hundred years and are offered in a way that will be most attractive to those simply wanting to hear how fascinatingly varied harp music can be. United by a sensibility that sees the harp as highly expressive and emotionally varied, the pieces are otherwise quite different in their technical requirements and structure. The musical bookends here, the works that open and close the SACD, are by Fauré: Une chatelaine en sa tour, Op. 110, and Impromptu, Op. 86. Between them are Divertissements à la Française and à l’Espagnole by André Caplet (1878-1925); Esstal by Philippe Schoeller (born 1957); Sonatine, Op. 30 by Marcel Lucien Tournier (1879-1951); the second and third movements of Estampes by Debussy, in Magen’s own arrangement; and Tocar by Bruno Mantovani (born 1974). The mixture of Impressionism and contemporary sensibility here proves interesting in that it shows how little the communicativeness of the harp has changed in more than a century: even the deliberately modernistic works have something old-fashioned about them, and the delicacy of the harp comes through in every piece, with harpist Magen – like pianist Barabino – searching for the lyrical elements in every work, finding them and accentuating them. The recording bogs down a bit from time to time, with an hour of solo harp lacking the aural diversity of an hour of music for the piano. And not all the works are equally effective: Tournier’s Sonatine, for example, is well-made in traditional three-movement form, but its stop-and-start central slow movement seems always on the verge of going somewhere without ever arriving; and Schoeller’s Esstal seems rather self-indulgent in the way it suspends delicate high elements above sustained bass tones. As a sampler of expressive harp music with a French accent, though, the recording is an attractive one.
There is attractive playing as well on a new EuroArts DVD featuring the Berlin Philharmonic – and no wonder, given the consistency of this orchestra’s excellence. The video recording of this April 1998 concert at Staatsoper Unter den Linden, however, raises yet again the question of whether a DVD of an orchestral concert adds much to it, in comparison with a CD – indeed, whether it adds anything at all, or perhaps even detracts from the music. The issue is inherent in the visual medium: at a concert, each audience member decides where to look and when, how and on what to focus visually as well as mentally and emotionally; but with a recording, the visual impression is dictated by whatever the video director chooses to highlight at any given time – so viewers must go, visually, where the presentation takes them (unless they close their eyes, which defeats the purpose of having a video!). In this particular case, the visuals add nothing to the quality of the performances, even when four horn players (Dale Clavenger, Stefan Dohr, Ignacio García and Georg Schreckenberger) stand in front of the orchestra as soloists in Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra. There is nothing particularly visual about the tonal warmth and interpretative skill of the soloists, nor is there anything especially interesting to see in Daniel Barenboim’s conducting when the video focuses on him. There is, however, much worth hearing here: the Schumann has attractive bite and bounce, and the rest of the music – all of it quite familiar – is presented with sure-handed skill in top-quality performances that never hint at the frequency with which these musicians have played these works over many years. Barenboim brings little that is interpretatively new to Beethoven’s Eighth, and the Liszt and Wagner showpieces are really designed more for impact than for musical profundity, at least when taken out of their symphonic-poem and operatic contexts, respectively. Taken as a whole, this is a very well-played concert with some genuinely exhilarating moments for the ear – if not for the eye.
On the other hand, the Mariinsky Ballet & Orchestra recording of the Alexei Ratmansky choreography of Prokofiev’s Cinderella definitely needs visuals to be effective. Just how effective a viewer/listener finds it will depend on how he or she reacts both to the music and to Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography. The music is highly chromatic (unlike that for the composer’s more-accessible Romeo and Juliet), and many numbers do nothing to advance the action. The characters are not particularly gripping, either: the good ones are dull and the evil ones simply grotesque. The usual setting of Cinderella is at an 18th-century court, either French (because the story comes from Charles Perrault) or Russian or both. Not so for Ratmansky, whose design dates to 2002. The time of the action here is the 1920s/1930s; the set is urban, steel-framed and austere; there is a bit of a feeling of the film Metropolis about the proceedings; and the choreography, in addition to classical ballet, uses contemporary movements and a touch of mime. The grotesquerie is certainly present: the corps de ballet prances about at the ball in a twisted, vaguely unsettling manner that leads to an awkward conga; Cinderella’s stepsisters move in spiky, exaggerated ways that highlight the dissonances of the score; Cinderella’s stepfather is a drunk, and her fairy godmother is a bag lady. So many elements are outré that Diana Vishneva as Cinderella commands the performance, narrating the tale with her arms and eyes as well as with the easy fluidity that she brings to all her movements. The gradually increasing confidence that she displays in Act II is especially well communicated. There are charms aplenty here, but also questionable elements. For example, the four seasons are men in bright face paint and over-the-top wigs, and the Prince is dressed at the ball in a cheap-looking white suit. There is a sort of Stalinist feeling to the overall production that does not wear particularly well, although it certainly sets off Vishneva’s lovely, elegant movements: they clearly do not fit in this world. Valery Gergiev directs the production with his usual intensity, and it is good that the score is given largely uncut (although the Andantino of the Summer Fairy is dropped and replaced by the Grasshoppers and Dragonflies variation). The Mariinsky Orchestra plays with wit and bite, the cackling of the woodwinds and declamatory sound of the brass being particular highlights. This is an unusual Cinderella that will certainly not please everyone, but those willing to adjust to its oddities – which include some start-and-stop dance moves that look sloppy until it becomes clear that they are deliberate – will find it a salutary experience that is well worth both seeing and hearing.
The gentleness and warmth of Prokofiev’s Cinderella exist almost wholly within the title character. Those seeking such feelings on a more extended basis – and looking for some seasonal music that differs significantly from the usual – will be pleased with a new Navona CD entitled Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols. That title may make it seem as if these are traditional carols of a particular region, but not so: the 20 works here were written by Jan Jirásek (born 1955), a well-known creator of film music who has also composed in various classical forms. For these modern carols, all written in Czech, Jirásek keeps the music determinedly tonal and simple, exploring multiple emotions among the carols – but only one feeling at a time. He complements the superb voices of the JITRO Czech Children’s Chorus under Jiří Skopal with neat little instrumental touches: a bit of percussion here, a smidgen of brass there, and various electronic and toy-instrument sounds both here and there. Although there are certainly devotional elements in some of the music, the overall impression is one of playfulness: the wonderfully sweet-voiced children’s chorus is at its best in the lighter carols, the occasional solo voice emerging from the group (as in, for instance, Hey Happy Tidings) adding to what is almost the sense of a playground group bouncing about enthusiastically, barely able to contain itself while experiencing the pleasures of the season. The only real weakness of this disc is that there is a bit too much of it: 67 minutes of similar-sounding singing, with instrumental effects that initially seem highly unusual but that soon become repetitious, is just too much to listen to straight through. Of course, no one has to do that: interspersing some of these Jirásek carols with some more-traditional ones from other recordings will enhance the delights of all the music and help make the Christmas season a time for tidings of great joy.
Bright Sheng: Dance Capriccio for Piano and String Quartet; String Quartet No. 5, “The Miraculous”; A Night at the Chinese Opera for Violin and Piano; My Song for Solo Piano; My Other Song for Solo Piano. The Shanghai Quartet (Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violins; Honggang Li, viola; Nicholas Tzavaras, cello); Peter Serkin and Bright Sheng, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Gordon Chin: Cello Concerto No. 1; Symphony No, 3, “Taiwan.” Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Taiwan Philharmonic conducted by Shao-Chia Lü. Naxos. $12.99.
Isang Yun INBETWEEN North and South Korea—A Film by Maria Stodtmeier. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.
Bright Sheng (born 1955) and Gordon Chin (born 1957) exemplify a generation of composers from Oriental countries for whom a melding of Eastern and Western influences and sounds is paramount: their music tries to reach audiences accustomed to very different forms, aural experiences and instruments. The extent to which listeners believe their mixing of influences creates a new experience rather than an auditory mismatch will determine how interesting audiences find their music to be. The new Naxos CD of Sheng’s chamber music opens with Dance Capriccio, written in 2011 for Peter Serkin and the Shanghai Quartet, who perform it here. Inspired by the dance music of the Sherpas of Nepal – a group best known in the West for accompanying climbers of Mount Everest and other peaks – the work whirls by in a series of contrasting sections that range from tender to wild, slow to fast. The tunes sound vaguely exotic but not noticeably more so than others from the same region. String Quartet No. 5 (2007) is an unusually stark representation of contrasting musical ideas: the work is built around two very different themes that never really change or develop but that eventually achieve a kind of rapprochement – coexistence if not full blending, and a metaphor, whether intended or not, for much of Sheng’s music. A Night at the Chinese Opera (2005), the one work on this CD in which Sheng himself performs on piano, uses music from a well-known-in-China work called Farewell My Concubine as the basis for a piece in which the violin represents the female singing voice from the stage work while the piano is primarily rhythmic in support. Also on this CD are two solo-piano suites, My Song (1989), which, like the Dance Capriccio, was written for Peter Serkin, and My Other Song (2007). Like String Quartet No. 5, these four-movement piano works have a very overt form of musical blending: Sheng uses Chinese folk music and dance as the basis for virtuoso pieces whose inventiveness clearly fits within the tradition of Western piano music. My Song, for example, opens with a movement based not on Western polyphony but on Eastern heterophony, while the finale of My Other Song is based on a Buddhist chant. In drawing directly and clearly on folk material and then expanding and interpreting it in Western classical style, Sheng follows in the tradition of composers such as Bartók and Kodály while evolving a blended musical language that first-rate performers such as those on this CD bring eloquently to life.
The Chin works on another new Naxos disc are orchestral and large-scale rather than chamber music, but their blending of influences is equally clear. Cello Concerto No. 1 (2006) is an essentially tonal work whose three movements – marked Allegro, Dreams trapped inside the Mirror, and After Great Pain – progress from intensity to concluding sadness, the entire effect being of a kind of world-weariness that is emphasized by the quotations from Shakespeare, Blaise Pascal and Samuel Johnson that preface the movements. Wen-Sinn Yang, former principal cellist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, tackles this technically demanding piece with playing that shows strength and a very considerable dynamic range – which the music requires. The music is a bit more of an intellectual exercise, designed to reflect literary thoughts, than a strictly musical communication, but it is certainly a challenge for soloist, orchestra and listeners alike. The Taiwan Philharmonic under Shao-Chia Lü does a fine job of support and balance in the concerto, and really comes into its own in Chin’s Symphony No. 3 (1996), another three-movement work with a definite program. Chin’s storytelling through music is one way in which he mixes the influences of East and West; in the case of this, his “Taiwan” symphony, the topic itself is intended to communicate, through a traditional Western orchestra, a distinctly Eastern story. The symphony looks at Taiwan’s history and tries to project its future, using outer movements created with many techniques of modern Western composition: bursts of brass, dueling timpani, multiple string glissandi, aleatoric passages and more. This generally unsettled music – the first movement is called “Plunder,” the third “Upsurge” – contrasts with that of the middle movement, which is called “Dark Night” and based on the melody of a Taiwanese song. But here too matters are far from placid, as ominous-sounding interruptions occur repeatedly. The symphony conveys feelings of uncertainty and distress, plus a sense of urgency to get on with and into the future, however unsettled it may be.
The world première recordings of the works by Sheng and Chin offer musical insights into cultures trying, however uneasily, to blend – at least at the margins – and coexist. The Maria Stodtmeier film called Isang Yun INBETWEEN North and South Korea, in contrast, looks at two cultures – ones very closely related by their history until recent times – that are forced into coexistence by physical proximity but that generally seem to have little interest in getting along with each other. North and South Korea remain technically at war – the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty – and their mutual belligerence remains a frequent subject of news headlines more than 60 years after the ceasefire. What interests Stodtmeier is whether music can be a force bridging the enormous gaps between the two countries (or one divided country, depending on who is describing the Korean peninsula). This is not a new question: the New York Philharmonic’s 2008 trip to North Korea was an overt attempt to use music as a cultural fence-mender, and although it was not successful in any significant political way, it is still held out as an approach that may bear fruit in the future. Stodtmeier makes the music-as-bridge story a more individual one by focusing her documentary on an earlier time, specifically on composer Isang Yun (1917-1995). Sometimes dismissed as an apologist for North Korea – he was close to the regime of Kim Il-sung – Yun was actually one of the few musicians or other artists with a level of prominence in both North and South. He traveled repeatedly to North Korea to try to introduce his own music and Western compositional techniques there, and the Isang Yun Music Institute was founded in Pyongyang in 1984. But Yun also, in 1988, pushed for a joint concert featuring musicians from both North and South – and although that concept did not come to pass, South Korean artists were invited to the North in 1990. Yun’s own works were performed in South Korea in 1982, and Yun was invited in 1994 to attend a festival of his music in South Korea – although, again, this came to naught because of political tensions. These are some elements of the background against which Stodtmeier creates her film, using its 60-minute running time to explore elements of the musical (in addition to political) differences between North and South – she was allowed to film in both places, although obviously with restrictions. The film argues that Yun, who became a German citizen in 1971 and eventually died in Berlin, was a figure of reconciliation, a man who tried to mix and blend the influences of North Korea and South Korea and to use music to further their mutual understanding and ultimately bring about reunification. Obviously, this did not happen, and a reuniting of North and South now seems less likely than ever, if contemporary political analysis is to be believed. But the notion of art as a method of overcoming differences, the possibility that music could become a gateway through which bitterly opposed people and systems could find common ground, remains a persistent one. Stodtmeier’s film, available as an Accentus Music DVD, is narrow in its focus on Yun and is based on events involving earlier leadership of both North and South. It will nevertheless be intriguing for those who think music has the potential to be far more than a medium of entertainment and emotional expression.
October 01, 2015
Lazy Dave. By Peter Jarvis. Harper. $17.99.
Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars. By Constance Lombardo. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.
Here are a couple of very old ideas given some very new twists and, thanks to wonderful drawings, coming across as brand-new notions that are very funny indeed. Lazy Dave is the answer by Peter Jarvis (who uses just the one name, “Jarvis”) to the old question of what a dog does when his human family is away. In this easy-to-read picture book, we find out that Dave loves to sleep – including in the bathtub and bed of his human owner, a little girl named Lilly, who deems Dave “the laziest dog in the world.” So Lilly heads off to school each day, confident that Dave will be there – still sleeping – when she gets home. But in fact, Jarvis explains, Dave is a sleepwalker, or, to be more accurate, a sleep-adventurer, who sleepwalks “where no dogs had ever been.” Increasingly improbable and ridiculous scenes show Dave, sound asleep, climbing a mountain, dancing under the sea with an octopus, donning a space helmet and flying beyond the atmosphere, and more. Back on Earth, Jarvis follows sleepwalking Dave along the street to a jewelry shop that has just been robbed of a fortune in diamonds – and Dave bravely trips the thief (well, Dave would have been brave if he had been awake at the time). Proclaimed a hero, Dave, still sound asleep, shakes hand-to-paw with the mayor, and soon people all over town are clamoring to have their photos taken with the heroic dog – who remains sound asleep throughout. Somehow acquiring a skateboard, Dave manages to escape all the commotion and get home “just before Lilly returned from school” to look at him with an annoyed expression and exclaim that he hasn’t “moved all day!” She takes Dave for a walk, and when they pass a newsstand featuring a headline about a dog that “stopped the biggest diamond crook in history,” Lilly briefly regrets that her dog is not more like that one. But she decides that “I love you just the way you are,” as Dave, back home, falls happily asleep in her lap. And that is what dogs do on their own!
Now, as for cats – well, Constance Lombardo’s Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars is aimed at kids who are a bit older than picture-book readers, being a picture book of a different sort: a novel with profuse illustrations that are integral to the story and help tell it. This is a format somewhere between traditional novel and graphic novel, an attractive one for preteens – especially those labeled “reluctant readers.” There is little reason for reluctance to tackle Lombardo’s amusing take on the old story of making it big in Hollywood: just about all the tropes of the books and movies on this topic are neatly included here and suitably twisted to fit a feline-centric narrative. Determined from kittenhood to become a big star like his idol, El Gato, Mr. Puffball journeys to Tinseltown from his home in New Jersey so he can audition at Metro-Golden-Meower Studios and follow in the footsteps (pawsteps?) of his Great-Grandma Zelda, who had once starred in the big, indeed monstrous, hit film, Cleocatra Meets the Mummy. Mr. Puffball, after the usual cross-country adventures, arrives in the town of his dreams, where he goes immediately to Ms. Lola’s Feline Divine for a makeover – which includes, among other things, bathing (which means he is carefully licked by four cat “bathers,” that being, after all, how cats take baths). However, very little goes right for Mr. Puffball at first: MGM proves to be a wreck, “a bit less excellent than I had originally thought,” our feline narrator explains. However, Mr. Puffball is fortunate enough to meet some old-time has-beens from the movie industry, cats who have been chewed up and spit out (well, not literally) by the uncaring, unfeeling nature of Hollywood – but who still know a thing or three about the town and how to succeed there. Indeed, one of the faded experts proves to be the director of Cleocatra Meets the Mummy – not to mention Catsablanca, The Sound of Meowsic and other huge hits. Soon he and the other onetime “A listers” take Mr. Puffball under their wings (so to speak) and groom him (well, at this point he actually grooms himself) for an audition. But things there do not go as planned, and Mr. Puffball soon finds himself chosen not as a star but as a stunt cat, trained by a gigantic cat named Bruiser who is given to remarks such as, “TUCK! ROLL! No break neck if can!” and “We go to top of huge boulder so I push you off! Too much scraping and bleeding on boulder! Make body stronger!” This leads Mr. Puffball to say: “Ouch. Ouch. Ouchie. Ow. Could we take a break now, Bruiser? No? Ow. Please? Yeow! Arrrgghhh!!!” The illustrations, here and throughout, are hilarious, and they remain so as Mr. Puffball gradually comes into his own in stunt-cat work, finding himself working with none other than El Gato – who turns out to have the proverbial feet of clay, being well-known to Mr. Puffball’s group of backers and, indeed, known to be not a nice cat at all. One thing leads to another, and another and another, just as in innumerable Hollywood “a star is born” movies – parents will recognize all the clichés and delight in them, even if the young readers for whom the book is intended may not understand all the resonance. Eventually everything ends happily and with everybody glad about everybody else (even El Gato turns out to be an OK guy), and Lombardo then concludes the book with “special features” such as a “Hollywood Gazette Celebrity Opinion Page” and comments by various characters beneath the headline, “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Book” (this is where Mr. Puffball asks, “What about the time I was set on fire?”). After a “blooper reel” and some “coming attractions” pages, Lombardo is clever enough to include an amusing glossary that refers to the original movies whose titles and plots are parodied in the book (for instance, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, which in the book is given as Attack of the 50 Foot She-Cat). There are some genuinely useful definitions here (“audition,” “chanteuse,” “director,” “grip”) and some thrown in purely for additional amusement: “The Mashed Potato is a dance that does not involve potatoes in any way. Though my feeling is if potatoes want to dance, who am I to stop them?” (That entry comes with a drawing of dancing potatoes.) Lombardo has done a wonderful job here of accepting, using and going beyond a plethora of clichés to create a book that is tons of fun in its own right and that stands perfectly well on its own – but contains, at the end, the almost-promise of a sequel (and how Hollywood-like is that?). And for parents, a reading of Lombardo’s biography, on the book’s very last page, is highly recommended. Laughing out loud is permitted, even encouraged, and possibly inevitable.
The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book II: The Terror of the Southlands. By Caroline Carlson. Illustrations by Dave Phillips. Harper. $6.99.
The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, Book III: The Buccaneers’ Code. By Caroline Carlson. Illustrations by Dave Phillips. Harper. $16.99.
Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
The gargoyle sidekick is something new, but most of the elements of Caroline Carlson’s The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy are those to be expected in novels for preteens: a protagonist who is more than he (or, in this case, she) realizes, twists and turns in which good guys turn out to be bad and vice versa, a soupçon of magic, a whole passel of friends to help the central character and/or to be rescued and helped in their turn, and enough humor to keep the adventure light when nothing of special moment happens to be going on. Magic Marks the Spot, the first book of the series, pulls all of these elements into a story centered on Hilary Westfield, who wants desperately to become a pirate despite the disapproval of her father, who is Admiral of the Royal Navy and, naturally, a sworn enemy of pirates. Besides, the piracy apprenticeship program accepts only boys. So Hilary is sent to Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for classes in etiquette, embroidery, and fainting. Unsurprisingly, she runs away, joining freelance pirate Jasper Fletcher, known as “The Terror of the Southlands.” And they have, as Hilary’s first adventure, a quest for the lost magic of the Enchantress of the Northlands. The second book is actually called The Terror of the Southlands and is now available in paperback after originally being published last year. The title, however, now refers to Hilary herself. She has become a full-fledged pirate, but is about to be kicked out of the ranks of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates because she isn’t doing all the fighting and treasure-finding that membership requires. This could be an interesting angle: what happens if a fictional character, heretofore following all the tropes of the action/adventure format for preteen readers, attains her goals and finds they were not worth seeking? But Carlson prefers to go in the tried-and-true genre direction instead of looking for ways to bend it. Thus, Hilary is clearly in need of another quest, and in this book she sets out to find one and succeed in it. In keeping with the amusingly off-kilter narrative style that is the best thing about these novels, that quest turns out to involve not only the mysterious and dangerous group called the Mutineers but also the even scarier thing known as a High Society Ball. The whole balancing act of high-seas adventure and societal expectations is a tad repetitious here, and the quest itself fairly closely echoes the one in the first book, but these are common issues in the middle books of trilogies, and readers who enjoyed Magic Marks the Spot and wanted more of the same will find it in The Terror of the Southlands.
And then there is the all-new and final series entry, The Buccaneers’ Code. Here Hilary is at odds with the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, which has turned out to be less than very nearly honorable: its leader, the villainous Captain Blacktooth, has betrayed all the good (or very nearly good) that the league stands for, and Hilary has rejected him and the league itself. Indeed, she hopes that the league will one day have a different and very nearly honorable leader – and guess what? Her loyal crew thinks she should be that individual. So Hilary challenges Captain Blacktooth to a pirate battle on the high seas – and this requires Hilary to lead a third quest, this time for supporters who will make her eventual victory possible. Carlson’s approach here is one of throwing everything from the first two books, and then some, into the final one, and letting all the characters mix things up until Hilary eventually and inevitably emerges victorious (in her own way). So there are enchantresses and High Society girls here as well as pirates, and reformed villains and good friends and overprotective mothers and chickens and molasses. This third book is somewhat more madcap than the first two, although it recognizably follows them and flows from the same source (flowing, indeed, far more quickly than molasses does). Dave Phillips’ attractive illustrations, and a format that includes not only straight narrative but also letters, forms, and quotes from the handbook of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, combine to help keep the entire trilogy interesting. And although Carlson never veers far from the usual path of preteen fantasy adventure novels, she does manage to decorate that path in some amusingly offbeat ways – not only by replacing the traditional pirate parrot with the gargoyle but also by having the land of Augusta be a place where pirates grow beautiful flower gardens, letters mysteriously get to ships within hours, and the dungeons contain crocheted rugs. The Buccaneers’ Code is a rollicking conclusion to a trilogy that is, if not be a cut above the usual adventure for this age group, at least half a cut above. With a cutlass.
Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! also completes a trilogy, this one of graphic novels; and this trilogy also follows a story arc that is typical for series of its type. In James Burks’ first book, Bird & Squirrel on the Run, the two title characters meet and become friends, bonding through their mutual difficulty, which comes in the form of Cat, who is intent on eating them both. The two have opposite personalities: Bird is carefree, reckless, and always looks on the bright side, while Squirrel is nervous and easily frightened of almost everything. In the first book, they head south for the winter (and to escape Cat), and learn entirely expected lessons about friendship and teamwork. In the second book, Bird & Squirrel on Ice, the friends are way south, in the Antarctic, after they crash-land at the South Pole. They soon encounter a spear-carrying penguin named Sakari, who thinks Bird may be the predicted Chosen One, who will rid the penguins of the threat they face from a killer whale. Unfortunately, it turns out that this will involve Bird becoming whale food. So Squirrel and Sakari devise a plan to save Bird and, they hope, the rest of the village. Mission accomplished, Bird and Squirrel head home, which brings readers to Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! They have only to cross the Great Mountains to get their lives back to normal – including having Squirrel once again be afraid of absolutely everything, including death-dealing house dust. But near journey’s end, they encounter a bear cub being set upon by hungry wolves, and Bird insists on stopping their journey to drive the wolves away and save the cub’s life. Squirrel, although he tries to help brave Bird, succeeds only in conking Bird on the head – hard – with a pine cone. This causes amnesia and a personality reversal, in which Bird is now afraid of everything, forcing Squirrel to be the brave one and help Bird and the bear cub past a series of obstacles, including repeated reappearances by the determined wolf pack. Eventually, Bird gets another knock on the noggin, which perfectly reverses the effects of the first one, and the friends make it home, happier and wiser and all that sort of thing, encountering the cub’s mother at just the right point so the bears can have a happy ending as well. The Bird & Squirrel series is a good entry point to graphic novels for younger readers: the stories are simple, the characterization is straightforward, the art is attractive and unchallenging, the colors are bright, and the use of panels that have different shapes and mesh into each other at times while bursting the bounds of their edges at others helps keep the action well-paced. There are no unexpected lessons or particularly quirky occurrences in Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! But there is enough pleasant camaraderie and sufficient adventure and amusement to make this a fine conclusion to Burks’ series and a pleasant work to read and look at in its own right.
The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne. By M.L. Longworth. Penguin. $15.
A murder mystery in which the murder is almost beside the point – or, in this case, in which the murders, plural, seem scarcely central to the narrative – this fifth of M.L. Longworth’s series featuring examining magistrate Antoine Verlaque and his law-professor girlfriend, Marine Bonnet, proceeds at the same comfortable, familiar pace as earlier series entries. Like its predecessors, The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne is a book into which a reader immerses himself or herself gently and gingerly, as if into a bath whose water is perhaps a touch too hot at first but will surely feel delicious once one is surrounded by it for a time.
The immersion here is into a very French world, specifically one centered on Provence and its artists – Cézanne above all, but also Cézanne’s friends and contemporaries: Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Zola. Longworth is equally comfortable in French and English, having even written a bilingual essay collection, but the sensibility of this novel and its predecessors is distinctly that of France, and readers need to understand that to get the books’ full flavor. Indeed, flavor is much of what The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne is about, containing as it does loving descriptions of various meals and their ingredients, a variety of wines, and the pleasures of cigars and cigar clubs.
Ah yes, the murders. Well, there must be some plot mover beyond that of the relationship between Verlaque and Bonnet, after all (although elements of that relationship are in their way every bit as important in this book as is the criminal investigation). It seems that someone may have found a previously unknown painting by Cézanne, a portrait of an unknown Aixoise with whom he had an affair in 1885 (the affair really did happen, although Longworth invents the specifics). The discoverer of the maybe-authentic painting is soon dispatched, and when Verlaque arrives on the scene shortly after the killing, he finds an American art expert standing over the man’s body. This instant suspect – who thus, by the usual standards of murder mysteries, cannot possibly be guilty – is the stunningly attractive Rebecca Schultz, who describes herself as “a black Jewish woman who had worked all her life to finally get a white Anglo-Saxon man’s job,” and explains her failure to call the police immediately by telling an investigator that if “you were caught trespassing and entering where there had just been a murder, you, too, would have thought twice before deciding to phone for help instead of running straight out the door.”
Ah, but Schultz is not quite as innocent as she seems, or not quite as innocent as she ought to seem in light of how guilty she seems – this sort of twist is a Longworth specialty and part of the charm of The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne. A further twist here is the killing of the person who apparently killed the discoverer of the possible Cézanne; but this is more of a necessary plot element, to keep the story going somewhere, than a reason to sink comfortably into the novel. A better reason is the subtlety with which Longworth continually pauses in the narrative to deepen readers’ relationships with the central characters: Verlaque “smiled, thinking of the conversation with the Alsatian shop owner, thankful that he could have interesting chats such as the one they had just had, with people he didn’t know intimately.”
Another good reason for staying with the slow unraveling of the mystery is to experience some unalloyed Francophilia. Readers must be prepared for unexplained references to the TGV (France’s high-speed train); a chapter entitled “Dedans/Dehors” (which is simply “inside/outside,” but sounds so much better in French); a reference to “gendarmes and police [who] work together” that will puzzle readers unfamiliar with the French law-enforcement system; repeated instances of the bise, that quintessentially French “air kiss” greeting; and several wry comments on what it means to drive a Renault Kangoo (a Google Image search helps). The best reason of all for full involvement here, though, is to watch and be privy to the increasingly intricate and altogether believable relationship of the almost-but-not-quite-world-weary Verlaque and the intelligent, attractive, successful – yet in some ways unsure of herself and her hopes and desires – Bonnet. The determined lack of visceral detail about the murders, the murder scenes and the minds of criminals is matched by an equally determined level of attention to the ins and outs of the intertwined lives of Verlaque and Bonnet, and the way in which those lives, plural, are slowly but surely becoming a life, singular. This is, in the end, the greatest attraction of this pleasant (yes, pleasant) murder mystery: this is a novel for those less interested in “whodunit” than in why it was done, what wines were drunk with which freshly prepared meals while it was being investigated, and what thoughts the principal characters had while discussing the whole situation with thoroughly Gallic aplomb.
Julius Fučík: Orchestral Music. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Auguste Franchomme: Chamber Music and Chopin Arrangements. Louise Dubin, Julia Bruskin, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir and Katherine Cherbas, cellos; Hélène Jeanney and Andrea Lam, piano. Delos. $16.99.
Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Serenades for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 69; Nielsen: Violin Concerto. Baiba Skride, violin; Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Orfeo. $22.99 (2 CDs).
Gabrieli: Sacrae Symphoniae—Excerpts; John Williams: Music for Brass. National Brass Ensemble. Oberlin Music. $19.99 (SACD).
Everybody, but everybody, knows one work by Julius Ernst Wilhelm Fučík (1872-1916) – or, more accurately, part of one work. And virtually nobody, except for band enthusiasts in the Czech Republic and some German-speaking areas of Europe, knows anything else by or about the composer – or even knows the balance of the work whose beginning is utterly, totally and completely familiar. Fučík was, especially in the early 20th century, the most famous Czech composer of light music, writing hundreds of works – especially for wind bands, being himself known as a bandmaster of considerable skill. Wind and military bands still play his music frequently, but his works for strings and full orchestra have languished, and outside the band world, almost nothing he wrote is heard on concert programs. And what a shame that is, as Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra demonstrate again and again on a simply marvelous new Chandos SACD that really ought to, if there is any justice at all in the music world, revive Fučík as a name to be reckoned with. There are 14 works recorded here, all of them tuneful, elegant, beautifully proportioned, and – it is worth saying twice – tuneful. Fučík was a master melodist, writing marches as peppy as Sousa’s and waltzes as winsome as Johann Strauss Jr.’s (and some with a hint or two of Lehár). It is nearly unbelievable that music this good, produced with this level of consistency, should have disappeared so thoroughly – but given Fučík’s short life and the fact that he was most productive in the band realm and in the years after Johann Strauss Jr.’s death, it is perhaps understandable. Nevertheless, this ebullient recording makes a simply splendid case for a Fučík revival and for much more frequent performances of his works. Every piece here has its own set of charms, from the sort-of-American march The Mississippi River (Fučík never actually visited the United States), to the comic polka Der Alte Brummbär (“The Old Grumbler,” featuring a delightful bassoon part that is played very well here by David Hubbard), to the march Die lustigen Dorfschmiede (“The Merry Blacksmiths,” whose trio calls for two anvils and will remind some listeners of Josef Strauss’ Feuerfest Polka), to the oddly titled and unusual march Onkel Teddy (“Uncle Teddy”). None of these works is as often heard in any form as the military march Die Regimentskinder (“Children of the Regiment”), which retains more than a modicum of popularity – but even that work pales in recognition before the opening of Einzug der Gladiatoren (“Entry of the Gladiators”), a highly chromatic march for large orchestra that has become 100% identified with the circus and almost as thoroughly popularized in innumerable cartoons, wrestling matches and other sports events. Talk about unimagined popularity – and what an astonishing development for a work intended to reflect Roman gladiatorial combat! But there is little expected about the rediscovery of Fučík, and a great deal to enjoy in becoming acquainted with his tremendous creativity and compositional skill.
There are equal pleasures of rediscovery to be had in hearing the works of Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884), friend to Chopin and frequent transcriber of Chopin’s music for one or more cellos. Franchomme was the most highly regarded French cellist of his time, and not surprisingly wrote a number of works for his own performance – just as was done by violinists aplenty and also by string players such as double-bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini. It would be a mistake to look to Franchomme’s works for profundity, but looking to them for beauty and a fascinating exploration of the range and emotive capabilities of the cello is another and more fruitful matter. Louise Dubin, lead cellist and prime mover of what is called on this Delos CD “The Franchomme Project,” offers five Chopin arrangements and nine of Franchomme’s compositions. Some arrangements stand out, in particular three of Chopin’s works: the Andantino from Ballade No. 2, the Prelude, Op. 28, No. 9, and the Marche Funèbre from Sonata No. 2 – each heard here on four cellos. Students of the history of musical humor may remember a Chopin arrangement for four very different instruments: Mazurka No. 47 played on four tubas in the first Hoffnung Musical Festival. Rest assured that the four-cello arrangements are nothing like that: they are serious, warm, expressive and surprisingly effective at getting to the emotional heart of the music. The other two Chopin arrangements, which are for cello and piano, stand up well, too: Mazurka, Op. 33, No. 3 and Polonaise Brillante Précédée d’une Introduction, Op. 3. Franchomme’s own music is uniformly well-constructed, with a tendency toward elegance, and not surprisingly uses the cello – already an instrument of many, many moods – to very fine emotional effect. Franchomme is not above including ornamentation for its own sake (as in his version of Chopin’s Polonaise Brillante, for example), but he is equally concerned with the sheer beauty of his instrument’s sound and its ability to elicit emotional reactions from the audience. This makes his opera-derived works of special interest: Caprice sur Preciosa de Weber and La Norma de Bellini from Dix Mélodies Italiennes, the latter here arranged for cello and piano. But Franchomme’s combination of sensitivity and virtuosity is evident as well in the other music on this CD: Nocturnes for Two Cellos, Op. 14, No. 1 and Op. 15, Nos. 1, 2 and 3; Caprices for Two Cellos, Op. 7, Nos. 1 and 9; and Solo pour le Violoncelle, Op. 18, No. 3, heard here with piano. None of this rises much above the level of salon music, but it is worth remembering that salon music itself was often better than the somewhat sneering references to it would indicate. This is music that serves a particular purpose, that of combining performer challenge with listener enjoyment; and while it never reaches for or attains anything approaching greatness, it is highly enjoyable to hear and filled with small touches of stylistic piquancy. Dubin and the other performers play with relish, clearly enjoying exploring some out-of-the-way parts of the cello repertoire, and Franchomme’s music is good enough so that this disc may well pave the way for it to start appearing with greater frequency on recital programs. Nothing here is really substantive enough to become a centerpiece of a concert, but in intimate settings and as encores, Franchomme’s works definitely deserve a place. And his arrangements of well-known Chopin pieces provide a new way to hear familiar music and bring out some beauties even beyond those that these works are already known to possess.
Violinist Baiba Skride is certainly capable of bringing out the beauties of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, which remains something of a rediscovery even though it has received occasional performances in recent years. Nielsen’s 1911 work receives the most effective reading among those on a new two-CD release from Orfeo, in which Skride also performs the better-known Sibelius Violin Concerto and the Finnish composer’s two Op. 69 Serenades for Violin and Orchestra. Nielsen’s concerto is a two-movement work, with each movement prefaced with an extended introduction. Essentially neoclassical in concept despite its structure, the work eschews overt displays of virtuosity even though it is quite difficult to play. It is one of those early-20th-century works that lie somewhere between Romanticism and full-fledged embrace of serialism and other new techniques: Nielsen, who had his own way of straddling compositional eras (for example, although his music is mostly tonal, he was fond of beginning a work in one key and ending it in another), reaches here for a kind of acerbic emotionalism that is not immediately appealing – perhaps a reason for the relative neglect of this concerto. What Skride does particularly well here is to plumb the emotional depths of the music, reaching for the connective tissue that unites the introductory material of each movement with the main sections that follow, and using what opportunities Nielsen provides for virtuosic display (such as the cadenza near the end of the finale) to heighten the concerto’s emotional elements. What is missing here, though, is a strong sense of “conversation” between soloist and orchestra – another characteristic of this concerto, and one that gets comparatively short shrift from the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under the workmanlike but uninspired direction of Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Skride makes a stronger case for the work than Rouvali does. And neither soloist nor conductor comes off particularly well in the Sibelius concerto. Skride here seems determined to “do the concerto differently,” engaging in considerable portamento and deemphasizing the work’s cragginess and rhythmic bite as she turns it into more of a Romantic (or post-Romantic) display piece than it usually comes across as being. Her playing itself is very fine – and so, for that matter, is the orchestra’s, even when Rouvali takes a noticeably quirky approach (as in the particularly odd-sounding beginning of the finale). What this performance lacks is any sense of inwardness: a concerto that features distinctly introverted elements is here almost entirely made into an extroverted piece – an approach that sounds good but that is antithetical to many elements of the music. The two serenades, In D major and G minor, make interesting filler pieces, and the emotionalism that Skride brings to both the concertos fits these shorter works rather well. Neither short work comes across as particularly substantial, however. This is a (+++) release with some very fine playing but some interpretations that simply sound wrongheaded in significant ways.
The playing is also very fine – in fact, often outstanding – on a new Oberlin Music release of music from Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae, in arrangements by Tim Higgins. This is a (++++) recording for those interested in the wonderful sound of modern brass instruments – played by 26 members of seven major U.S. orchestras – but a (+++) recording for those who prefer more authentic, less overtly bright and intensely punchy sound of the sort that is historically correct for the music of Gabrieli (1554/1557-1612). By intent, this is a recording steeped in sonic splendor, one simply to be enjoyed for the marvelous way in which the performers explore the music, blending their instruments to fine effect and expertly bringing out Gabrieli’s rhythmic and contrapuntal elements and his finely honed concern for dynamics (for example, in Sonata Pian e Forte). The 16 Gabrieli works heard here include nine Canzoni, the aforementioned sonata, plus Buccinate in Neomenia, O Magnum Mysterium, Hic est Filius Dei, Magnificat a 12, Sancta Maria, and Exaudi me Domine. The works with religious themes and the essentially secular canzoni fit the National Brass Ensemble equally well and are played with equal warmth and equally high levels of skill. And the short Music for Brass by John Williams, offered at the end of this very well-recorded SACD as a kind of encore, neatly connects Gabrieli’s brass music with our own time. There are no particular interpretative insights here, but there is a great deal of excellent music-making, and the CD as a whole represents the kind of “sonic spectacular” in which the aural delights, rather than any significant interpretative nuances, are the recording’s reason for being. For lovers of brass music, those delights will be more than enough reason to own the disc.
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem. Genia Kühmeier, soprano; Gerald Finley, bass; Netherlands Radio Choir and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. RCO Live. $21.99 (SACD).
Arthur Gottschalk: Requiem for the Living. Lauren Snouffer soprano; Andrea Jaber, alto; Daniel Mutlu, tenor; Timothy Jones, bass; St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $16.99.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 10; Sir Andrzej Panufnik: Symphony No. 10. Markus Butter, baritone; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. LSO. $14.99 (SACD).
Benjamin C.S. Boyle: Lenoriana; Laurie Altman: Two Songs from Mountain Interval; Daron Aric Hagen: Larkin Songs; Martin Hennessy: Three Dickinson Songs. Elem Eley, baritone; J.J. Penna, piano. Affetto. $15.99.
A certain level of lugubriousness is inevitable in music focused on death, and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem sometimes comes across as even more downcast than analogous works by, say, Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. But when performed with the sensitivity and emotional involvement it receives from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, this requiem leaves a primary impression of, perhaps surprisingly, beauty. The new release on the orchestra’s own label is a live recording made from two September 2012 performances dedicated to Kurt Sanderling, one of the ensemble’s best-regarded guest conductors, who had died the year before. Jansons was still chief conductor of the Concertgebouw at this time, and the entire recording shows him in firm command of the orchestra as well as the soloists and chorus. Indeed, the singers have a great deal to do with making this such a moving reading. Genia Kühmeier has an unusually pure, well-focused soprano voice, and her emotion-charged performance sweeps the audience into Brahms’ sentiments without ever overdoing them or making them seem maudlin. Gerald Finley’s voice is a sturdy one, and his singing is here distinguished by the clarity of his diction and the ease of his delivery. The Netherlands Radio Choir is beautifully modulated, sensitive and involved in the music’s sentiments, and the orchestra is simply outstanding, showing yet again why it is one of the world’s greatest. It is rare to hear a choir and orchestra as intimately bound together as they are here, and rarer still to hear a performance that starts at such a high level of quality and stays there consistently for the work’s full span. An absolutely first-rate reading of a sometimes problematic work, offered in top-quality SACD sound, Jansons’ Ein Deutsches Requiem fully plumbs the depths of the emotions that Brahms sought to invoke and evoke through his setting of the mass for the dead.
Although scarcely at so high a level, several other new recordings that also involve music about death – in one way or another – have many intriguing elements of their own. Requiem for the Living by Arthur Gottschalk (born 1952) certainly does not lack for ambition. Like Brahms’ work, Gottschalk’s is as much about life as about death; and both works refuse to be bound by the traditional text of the Requiem Mass. There, though, the resemblances end. In eight movements for four soloists, chorus and orchestra, Gottschalk combines the traditional Latin words of the Requiem with ones ranging from those of Buddha to those of Mohammed, from George Eliot to Duke Ellington. He does so in a very complex mixture of musical styles, not only including multiple classical-music genres – some from past centuries (e.g., Renaissance madrigals), some from today – but also tossing in jazz, pop, blues and other nonclassical forms. To some extent, this is unsurprising: many contemporary composers throw Western and Eastern music and thought together willy-nilly, to greater or lesser effect. But context matters – and in the case of Requiem for the Living, it matters a great deal. What Gottschalk does here is take a strictly religious concept and try to move it into a kind of secular humanism that does not, however, deny or downplay its spiritual roots. He also tries to honor the philosophical thinking and music of multiple places and eras, and to do all of this within a coherent framework that even in its Western portions stretches back to a time before Christianity produced the notion of a Requiem Mass: the first and last sections of Gottschalk’s work juxtapose the Kyrie with the Jewish memorial Yizkor. Certainly one of the more ambitious choral works of recent years, both musically and philosophically, Requiem for the Living ultimately tries to do too much, juggling so many elements and approaches that it becomes difficult for listeners to know how to listen to the work and to feel in what direction their emotions are being pulled (indeed, they are usually stretched in several directions at once). Vladimir Lande, a conductor who has shown considerable affinity for complex contemporary music, leads the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra gamely and with a good sense of vocal/orchestral balance, and the four soloists all handle their parts admirably, although none has a really distinctive voice. This Navona release gets a (+++) rating, but listeners who hear the recording and find themselves intrigued rather than exhausted by everything that happens in Gottschalk’s work will likely give it even higher regard, especially after multiple hearings – if they can manage them.
If Gottschalk’s Requiem for the Living is ultimately a celebration of life, so, in a different way, is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Tenth Symphony, whose first performance (February 2014) is now available in a live recording on the London Symphony Orchestra’s own label. Davies was hospitalized when he wrote much of this work, being treated for leukemia, a cancer whose five-year survival rate remains stubbornly low despite many recent advances in treatment. And the work itself deals with the life and death of Italian architect Francesco Borromini (1559-1667), a noted but notably difficult architect, largely self-taught, whose life also inspired the seventh of Davies’ Naxos Quartets. The four-part Tenth Symphony incorporates several vocal elements: a 17th-century sonnet to Borromini, some words by the architect himself, and some of the highly lyrical poetry of Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1831). There is a certain darkness throughout Davies’ symphony, emphasized by the extensive use of low woodwind and brass; and the large percussion section (which requires six players) brings a variety of exotic sounds to the music thanks to the inclusion of multiple metallic instruments, including crotales and a temple bowl. Although the work is harmonically comparatively approachable, it tries, as does Gottschalk’s, to cram a great deal into itself, and a knowledge of and empathy for the rather prickly personality of Borromini is almost a necessity (and certainly a big help) in navigating the symphony’s ups and downs. In this respect, Davies’ Tenth somewhat resembles Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, which requires familiarity with Byron’s poem to be fully comprehensible; but while Tchaikovsky’s music sweeps even unknowing listeners along through its sheer thematic beauty and its drama, Davies’ craggier work is more difficult to become fully involved in for those who know little about its rather abstruse subject matter. This is so despite the very fine singing the symphony receives from soloists and chorus, and the strongly committed playing that Sir Antonio Pappano elicits from the orchestra. Davies’ symphony is paired on this recording with a much briefer Tenth, that of Andrzej Panufnik. Dating to 1988 and written for the centenary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned it, Panufnik’s symphony is not the virtuoso showpiece that its provenance might lead one to expect. Instead it is something of a sonic exploration, in which Panufnik melds various sections in different ways, as if to show the versatility not only of the whole orchestra but also of each part of it. Panufnik’s compositional approach, which includes three-note cells and an attempt to depict geometric forms in music, is ever-present here as well, creating a kind of academic superstructure for the symphony – and, unfortunately, distancing it somewhat from the audience. This well-recorded SACD is a (+++) release that will principally be of interest to listeners already familiar with the music of Davies and Panufnik, especially those who are fans of Davies’ large-scale works.
An intriguing CD featuring songs by four contemporary composers who are significantly less-known than Davies and Panufnik also has a peripheral connection to the topic of death – and in some cases an explicit one. The works of Edgar Allan Poe are never far from being death-obsessed, and the nine songs in Lenoriana by Benjamin C.S. Boyle (born 1979) – two of them entitled Lenore – focus as much on the dead as on Poe’s complex philosophical thinking. Annabel Lee and The Conqueror Worm are poems whose aural resonance is as telling today as when they were written nearly two centuries ago, and Boyle sets them with feeling, if without any exceptional distinction in his approach to the material. In addition to those and the Lenore movements, the other pieces here are To (one of two that Poe wrote with the same two-letter title), Intermezzo, El Dorado, A Dream within a Dream, and To Helen (again, one of the two of that title). The Poe cycle, its rhythms attractive but its subject matter ranging from the dour to the abstruse, contrasts well with Two Songs from Mountain Interval by Laurie Altman (born 1944) – because Altman’s settings are of poems by Robert Frost, whose distinct sensibilities are quite different from Poe’s (although the final words of The Sound of Trees, “I shall be gone,” are enigmatic enough). Baritone Elem Eley and pianist J.J. Penna do a fine job together in bringing out the intricacies of the settings of the Poe and Frost poems – Eley seems to have a strong affinity for the cadences of both poets. The performances are also fine in the other works on this CD on the Affetto label. Daron Eric Hagen (born 1961) brings some of the dramatic sense that he includes in his opera libretti to settings of poems by Philip Larkin, and he arranges those poems interestingly, into a kind of suite for voice and piano that designates two of the settings as interludes and presents the eight others as four pairs. Larkin’s poetry lends itself well to this arrangement of connectedness – while, in contrast, the Three Dickinson Songs set by Martin Hennessy stand better on their own as individual pieces. Hennessy has his own involvement with Poe – he wrote a musical called Edgar, based on The Tell-Tale Heart – and he is sensitive to the nuances of Dickinson’s poetry as well, with all three brief poems set here receiving careful arrangements that go well with the words. Indeed, one of these poems has distinctly Poe-esque overtones: Let down the bars, O Death! Taken as a whole, this is a (+++) release whose well-crafted settings are generally workmanlike rather than inspired. There is little in these contemporary art songs that will likely disappoint listeners already familiar with the poems, but also little that will deepen their understanding of the poetry or significantly enhance their enjoyment of it.