November 20, 2014

(++++) STORY TIME


Noodle Magic. By Roseanne Greenfield Thong. Illustrated by Meilo So. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

Parenting with a Story: Real-Life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share. By Paul Smith. AMACOM. $16.

Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors. By Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash. Roaring Brook Press. $17.99.

     The instructional value of stories lies in their ability to encapsulate, within well-defined boundaries, information and lessons that in real life are considerably more diffuse. Stories with a well-defined beginning, middle and end can also be used to communicate things that are new; in fact, a “novel” is something new. Even as adults, we are prone to accept new information more readily when it comes in the form of stories – or analogies, which are in essence mini-encapsulations of stories. But it is children for whom story-based learning is particularly effective, and many kids’ books use tale-telling quite effectively. Noodle Magic is a new story told in the form of an old Chinese folk tale, focusing on young Mei and her noodle-making-expert Grandpa Tu. A lovely blend of fantastic and realistic elements, with Meilo So’s brushstroke-like illustrations beautifully capturing Roseanne Greenfield Thong’s narrative, Noodle Magic is only incidentally about Mei figuring out how to make noodles as delicious as Grandpa Tu’s famous ones. It is about finding magic in yourself, discovering what you know but are not aware that you know, and applying yourself to create something truly new and wonderful. Thus, Grandpa Tu has no difficulty making jump ropes, kite strings and more out of noodle dough; he and Mei can even fish for fluffy pink clouds with noodle fishing line. Mei repeatedly compliments Grandpa Tu for his noodle-making magic, but the old man tells Mei that this year, for the crucial celebration of the emperor’s birthday, it is her turn to make noodle magic. And Mei tries, but just cannot do it, asking Grandpa Tu for some of his magic and being told she already has “all the magic you need.” Mei does not think so, and so she makes noodles as a gift for the Moon Goddess, hoping she will bring magic to Mei. With some help from Grandpa Tu, “Mei spun the dough into a huge ball of noodles and tossed it skyward” – So’s illustration is especially delightful here – and the Moon Goddess catches and appreciates it, but reminds Mei that “magic must come from within.” A marvelous noodle tug-of-war between Mei and the Moon Goddess ensues, at the end of which “the sky rained noodles” in all shapes and sizes as Mei discovers the magic that “was inside her all along.” Young children will quickly realize that this is not a story about making noodles, or not just one about that – it is a tale about finding out what you are good at, learning from those around you, and using your own abilities to make something that builds on what others have done but that is truly your own. A very pretty story indeed.

     Paul Smith’s point in Parenting with a Story is that moms and dads can and should use storytelling as an integral part of everyday life, with the tales intended to build and reinforce 23 separate character traits. Smith recommends using real-life occurrences and turning them into stories, rather than telling or retelling fairy tales or myths. He divides the character traits into two sections, “Who You Are” and “How You Treat Other People” – although the first of these certainly has a lot to do with the second. The first area includes, among other things, ambition, creativity, curiosity and learning, courage, self-reliance, health, and a positive mental attitude. The second includes kindness, patience, friendship, forgiveness and gratitude, appreciation of beauty, and more. Smith’s technique is to choose a common statement made to children by parents, explain why kids may not “get it,” then show how directed storytelling can make the point clear. For instance, “your word is your bond” may not mean much to a child, but the story of a teacher who, as a little girl, signed a contract to complete many pages of math in order to get an A – even though she did not know how to do the math – should bring the point home (the girl and her mom stayed up working together until 3:00 a.m. after the mom explained that no matter how tired the girl might be, she had given her word and had to follow through). The importance of compound interest may seem like an academic matter if explained in typically pedantic fashion, but a story showing that giving someone a penny one day, two the next, four the next, and so on for a month, will result in 21 billion pennies at month’s end – that’s $21,000,000 – makes the notion clearer. “Be kind to strangers” is just words, but the story of a man with scoliosis who, as a child, tried to hang out with athletes until they humiliated them, and then went to sit with “nerds” he had previously disdained and found himself accepted at once, provides visceral understanding. Smith’s writing is on the formulaic side – again and again, he gives a common statement, explains that it is not enough, then gives an illustrative story and explains why it is better than simply saying something. And not all the stories fit the character-related statements perfectly; Smith has to twist things a bit to bring them in line. Still, there is considerable value here. The book is at its best when it is most personal: Smith’s story about his own lesson in humility, involving his realization of why his mother-in-law was making a big production out of carving a Thanksgiving turkey, is a high point of the narrative. Another is his explanation of how he learned about forgiveness and gratitude after, at the age of 10, being tricked into making an unintentional, racially insensitive remark to an African-American bus driver. These personal experiences no doubt are one reason for Smith’s decision to write this book in the first place; more than that, they contribute to a significant degree to the effectiveness of Smith’s argument. It is a touch naïve to indicate that there are plenty of easily found, easily told stories out there to use in helping kids learn 23 separate character traits (or more), but the general notion that using stories – including stories about one’s own childhood – as instructional material for children, rather than giving them platitudes and pronouncements, is a sound one. Smith is to be commended for showing some ways to make the approach not only worthwhile but also successful.

     And it is worth remembering that stories can be useful ways of relating to children even when kids are too young to follow along as parents read – indeed, even when they cannot yet understand words. There are occasional pantomime books, entirely wordless, that convey their narratives through pictures striking and interesting enough so that kids, pre-readers and early readers alike, can follow them while adults explain, when necessary, what is going on – or simply let a child’s imagination roam. Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors is a wonderful example. The delightful cartoon dog here faces having his dog bed taken out the window by some mischievous ghost cats – a theft at which Bow-Wow howls as loudly as he can, albeit completely silently (the very clever visual is a four-panel “pullback,” starting inside the dog’s wide-open mouth and showing in three further panels that he is at a second-floor window, howling as his bed is carried across the lawn). Running downstairs and giving chase, Bow-Wow soon finds himself at a ghost-cat-occupied haunted house where felines are everywhere (behind him, all over a room, in a huge pile in a hall, and so forth) but also nowhere (they disappear whenever he looks around). Amusing adventures involving a dressmaker’s mannequin, a would-be burglar, trap doors beneath individual stair steps, cats in the toilet and bathroom sink, and a stuffed-to-the-max closet lead eventually to Bow-Wow’s discovery of a gigantic ghost cat that needs Bow-Wow’s bed, and many others, in order to have something on which to sleep. What to do? A fortuitous lightning strike forces the ghost cats to a find a new place to live, and the understanding Bow-Wow takes all of them home with him for a final scene with everyone curled around everyone else and sleeping peacefully, mischief-making set aside for at least the time being. The story is not scary at all, although parents may have to explain the title to young children. It is in part a tale of a tail (Bow-Wow’s keeps getting bitten), but in the main is a story of unlikely friendship and hospitality, giving parents a wonderful chance to use their words of explanation of a story that needs no words of its own.

(+++) SERIOUS AMUSEMENTS


Scholastic Year in Sports 2015. By James Buckley, Jr. Scholastic. $9.99.

5 Seconds of Summer: Hey, Let’s Make a Band! Harper. $21.99.

     Professional sports, college sports, Olympic sports, pop music – these are, above all, big businesses. But unlike other major businesses, they generally go out of their way to distract people’s attention from the fact that their primary reason for existence is moneymaking. Instead, they seek to develop the largest fan base possible for their activities and then encourage the fans to focus exclusively on the entertainment value of what they produce, not on the underlying motivation to produce it. And so we get books like these, which are 100% intended to pump up fans’ enthusiasm and get them to spend money not only on the books themselves but also on all sorts of ancillary products relating to the athletes and musicians portrayed in the books. Scholastic Year in Sports 2015 is, of course, really about the year 2014, and not all of it – anything after summer happened too late for inclusion. The basic information here has been known to fans ever since the events occurred, so what the book does is act as a sort of souvenir, packed with photos and statistics and as many “gee whiz” moments as possible for fans of particular sports. It is not and cannot be an in-depth coverage of anything, but it gives the once-over-lightly treatment to professional and college football, the 2014 Winter Olympics, soccer, baseball, professional and college basketball, NASCAR and other motor sports, “action sports” such as the X Games, golf, tennis, and miscellaneous sports such as the America’s Cup, horse racing and lacrosse. The target audience is young readers who are obsessed with sports in general, not focused on any specific sporting event – for that, they would turn to books covering a particular sport at greater length. The underlying assumption here is that all sorts of organized competitions will fascinate young people through bright and bouncy layouts, action photos, and lots of statistics: every World Series winner since 1903, NCAA Men’s Division champions since 1939, complete 2014 Winter Olympics medal counts for the top 10 countries, top fuel dragsters and funny cars of the 21st century, all-time men’s and women’s Grand Slam tennis champions, and much more. Narration is as brief and punchy as live play-by-play coverage, with paragraphs of just a few lines and complete stories lasting less than a page. As fast-paced and intense as the businesses it celebrates, Scholastic Year in Sports 2015 makes a great holiday gift for young readers who, the sports business hopes, will become long-term consumers of the events, people and products it promotes and sells.

     Concerts, downloads and CDs; posters, outfits and instruments; these are among the things the pop-music business sells and wants to encourage preteens to buy in greater and greater quantities. And so there are thrown-together books about thrown-together bands such as Australia’s “5 Seconds of Summer.” These books are filled with photos and supposed behind-the-scenes information in which fans – who are thanked early and often for making the band a success, as if there were no packagers, impresarios or producers involved – get to find out lots of “in” things about the performers. In this case, frontman Luke Hemmings, guitarist Michael Clifford and bassist Calum Hood are 18, and drummer Ashton Irwin is 20 – all are likely older than the readers of “the official 5SOS book,” which is the subtitle of 5 Seconds of Summer: Hey, Let’s Make a Band! So what will readers find out here? Michael doesn’t like his signature! “It was awful, it looked like the MasterChef symbol and now I’m stuck with it and I hate the way it looks.” Luke loves the fans! “It hasn’t taken me long to realize that we’d be nothing without our fans – they’ve been behind us all the way, from the very first minute.” Ashton discovered how to handle arena performances! “We had to learn to be great in big venues and rock amazing shows.” Calum played paintball with a character dressed as the Predator from the movies! “If you saw him you weren’t allowed to move otherwise he’d shoot you. That was fun times.” Indeed, there are lots of “fun times” in this book, and very little introspection, difficulty, uncertainty or anything else negative – those things might make fans doubt the wonderfulness of the band, which would be totally unacceptable. The band members talk about learning to do better on stage, learning to make their music even more appealing to fans, and so on, but that is about as thoughtful as anything gets – or ought to get. The point of this book, after all, is to be a souvenir of the band, something brought home from a bookstore or purchased online that could well have been picked up at a “5 Seconds of Summer” concert. Fans who coo and “aww” at the grimacing-and-tongues-sticking-out front cover of this “100% official” book will find in its pages just what they want and just what they expect – and the pop-music business will chalk up another sale and, hopefully, bring fans of this band into its wonderful world of merchandise until the next band of the same type comes along with its many products.

(++++) THE MANY MOODS OF PIANOS AND PIANISTS


Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 13: Brahms—Variations on a Theme by Handel; Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 14: Prokofiev—Sonata No. 7; Bartók—Romanian Folk Dances Nos. 1-6; Suite, Op. 14; Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (Mikrokosmos, Book VI, Nos. 148-153); Allegro barbaro. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volumes 16-17: Brahms—Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, transcribed by Idil Biret; Hungarian Dances Nos. 1-4, 6-7; Paganini Variations; Capriccios, Op. 76, Nos. 1 and 5. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $19.99.

Bach: Goldberg Variations. Zhu Xiao-Mei, piano. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.

Haydn: Sonata in D, H. XVI/51; Adagio in G, H. XV/22; Capriccio in G, H. XVII/1; Maria Hester Reynolds Park: Sonata in E-flat, Op. 4, No. 2; A Waltz in E-flat; Sonata in F, Op. 4, No. 1; Sonata in C, Op. 7. Patrick Hawkins, piano. Navona. $16.99.

Chopin: Polonaise-fantaisie, Op. 61; Nocturnes in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, and E, Op. 62, No. 2; Bolero, Op. 19; Nouvelle Etude No. 1; Ballades Nos. 1, 3 and 4; Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45. Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes; In a Landscape. Kate Boyd, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     Instruments, like those who play them, have personalities, and the way they interact with performers has a great deal to do with the effectiveness of performances. Liszt’s “orchestra in miniature” treatment of the piano, for example, was not merely the result of the way he composed – it was also a reflection of the way he handled the instrument, which was quite different from its handling by, say, Friedrich Kalkbrenner or Sigismond Thalberg. Turkish pianist Idil Biret is a contemporary performer whose handling of the piano shows considerable sensitivity to the instrument and whose performances themselves are affected by the particular pianos on which she plays. The ongoing Idil Biret Archive series, which is releasing some of her older recordings as well as some newer ones, is a perfect demonstration of her versatility as well as her virtuosity. The series now contains 16 volumes (the numbers go through 17 but, for some reason, Volume 15 does not exist in the United States), and its most recent ones are studies in considerable contrast. The two volumes designated 16 and 17 are especially interesting because of their focus on Biret’s own transcriptions of Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies. The Fourth is wonderful in every way, with Biret’s handling of the material bringing out the strong Bach influence in the symphony quite effectively and her playing creating a reading of very careful structure and tremendous elegance. The rather slow-paced first movement here comes across as laying a foundation in much the way that Bruckner’s first movements do, and the succeeding movements build on it effectively, with the final passacaglia being a beautifully realized capstone that Biret handles as if she was indeed playing Bach: it has that same sense of clarity, purpose and  musical inevitability. Her Brahms Third, in contrast, is less compelling: here it is easy to hear the elements used to build the symphony, but its rich and warm orchestration is sorely missed, and the intensity of its communication disappears – the scaffolding here is less revelatory and more skeletonic, despite the fact that Biret’s actual playing is excellent. It is nevertheless fascinating to hear these recordings, which date to 1995 and 1997, both for Biret’s skill at transcription and for her exceptional playing of what she has transcribed.

     The remaining works included in Volumes 16-17 are a mixed bag. The six Hungarian Dances from Brahms’ first set – Nos. 5 and 8 are omitted – make a nice contrast to the symphonies and have a very different sound, partly due to their different venue (the symphonies were recorded at concerts in Paris, the Hungarian Dances at the Lille Festival in 1993) and partly because Biret handles the piano in a different way for the lighter music. These pieces are very effective in their own way. The remaining works here, on the other hand, are distinctly disappointing: the Paganini Variations and two Capriccios from Op. 76 were recorded in concert in 1972, and the sound is simply awful, being muddy and echoey and overly compressed. Biret’s virtuosity in the Paganini Variations is far from apparent: it must be there, but the sound is so poor that it is difficult to detect. Fortunately, an earlier version of Biret playing the same work, recorded in Paris in 1961, appears as part of Volume 13, and it is all the things that the later one is not: clear, well-paced, filled with exceptional finger work and altogether convincing. It is also in monophonic sound, which will make modern audiophiles cringe – but the sound is good for its time, and this version shows Biret’s abilities in a way that the later stereo one does not. Actually, Volumes 13 and 14 are both monophonic and of the same vintage, having been released in France in the early 1960s. They represent early Biret interpretations (the pianist was born in 1941) and still very good ones. Modern listeners should note, though, that these are simply remastered CD versions of LPs, so they are LP-length releases: Volume 13 runs 46 minutes and Volume 14 runs 42. Nevertheless, as archival products they are more than worthwhile. Biret’s handling of the Variations on a Theme by Handel is just as exemplary as is her 1961 performance of the Paganini Variations, being bright, assured, and of the highest virtuosity. As for Volume 14, its highlight is Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, which is clear, precise and rhythmically lively. Here Biret’s focus is not only on the work’s virtuosity but also on its many surprises, its contrasts of runs and chords, its passion and intensity. Biret sometimes comes across as a rather cerebral pianist rather than one with deep emotional commitment – one reason her Brahms Fourth is superior to her Brahms Third. In the Prokofiev, though, her thoughtfulness is thoroughly welcome, shining a fine interpretative light on the music and making it very rewarding indeed. The rest of this CD is devoted to Bartók and is quite fine, with special sensitivity to the composer’s dance rhythms and the angularity of the music. The performances are not as blazingly attractive as that of the Prokofiev, but they are sensitive and adept, and they fit the music very well indeed.

     Whether the Goldberg Variations performance by Zhu Xiao-Mei fits the music will depend on listeners’ feelings about piano renditions of Bach’s work, compared with ones on the harpsichord. Xiao-Mei plays the work with considerable skill on a new Accentus Music DVD, recorded live at the 2014 Leipzig Bach Festival, and certainly she shows considerable pianistic sensitivity to the music. But it is pianistic sensitivity, which means the tonal colors and emotional expression are those of a later time than Bach’s. The universality of this work, and indeed of Bach’s music in general, has long led to pieces being played on instruments other than those for which they were written, and there is continuing debate – when they are played that way – as to whether it is better to approximate the sound of the originally intended instrument (the Glenn Gould approach) or to take advantage of the sonic differences in the instrument being used (the more common approach, and the one Xiao-Mei follows). There are many admirable elements in this performance, touches of elegance and refinement and simple prettiness, but it is not an especially idiomatic handling of the music, despite Xiao-Mei’s fine technique. Also, the DVD format is less than effective here, since there is not all that much to see visually in a work for solo keyboard, and the visuals tend to be more distracting than involving. That makes this a (+++) release even with the inclusion of an interesting documentary by Michel Mollard called The Return is the Movement of Tao, in which Mollard not only follows Xiao-Mei on tour but also goes with her to the quiet of the French Alps and gets from her a series of insights into her technique and her feelings about the Goldberg Variations. Fans of Xiao-Mei will delight in this release, and they should: it is a very fine personal and musical profile of a first-rate pianist. From a strictly musical perspective, though, it is somewhat unconvincing.

     The fascinating Navona CD of music by Haydn and Maria Hester Reynolds Park, on the other hand, is a (++++) recording even if the use of a piano rather than harpsichord in some of this music is questionable. The reason this is such an involving disc lies in the personality of this particular piano – indeed, this particular type of piano. It is a square piano, an instrument that even many knowledgeable music lovers may never have seen – and one that is thoroughly obsolete. Gorgeous as furniture, these early-19th-century instruments were almost impossible to tune and keep in tune, and they rapidly fell out of favor as pianos closer to the modern concert grand came into being. Very few square pianos are even playable nowadays, but the one Patrick Hawkins uses, an 1831 William Geib model, certainly is. Restored in 2013, it has a six-octave range and a sound quite unlike that of other pianos or, for that matter, fortepianos. This is definitely an instrument with a character, a personality, all its own. Hawkins is an early-keyboard specialist and is clearly comfortable with the instrument, on which he gives poised, stately performances of the Haydn and Park works. The pieces themselves are of less interest than the instrument on which Hawkins performs, but they certainly show off that instrument in the best possible light. The Haydn works here are on the slight side, but display all the clarity, balance and elegance for which Haydn was justly renowned. The music of Park (1760-1813) is far more of a curiosity, although only two of these works are world première recordings: A Waltz in E-flat Major and the Sonata in E-flat, Op. 4, No. 2. Park (née Reynolds) was both a pianist and a piano teacher, and her works are more of the salon or drawing-room type than are those of Haydn and other composers of greater consequence. They are pleasant, easy to listen to, and generally easy to perform: Park did not try to challenge her pupils unduly, but created music that could allow them to showcase their talents even when those talents were comparatively modest. Of the three short sonatas recorded here, Op. 7 is the most interesting and the most Mozartean in flavor; it is also the most substantial, although none of these works is really very musically meaty. This is music that would in fact likely have been performed on just the sort of instrument on which it is heard here, in the fashionable homes of the early part of the 19th century. Hearing this disc is thus an invitation to a bit of most enjoyable time travel. The one peculiarity of the CD lies in Navona’s insistence on giving its releases titles. This one is called “Haydn and the English Lady,” which is accurate (Park was indeed English) but which seems on the verge of scandal-mongering. Still, Haydn did know Park and her husband, Thomas, and one Haydn work here, the Sonata in D, may actually have been written for Park – so there is a connection, although scarcely a sensational one.

     The connection between Chopin and pianists is one of the firmest in classical music, so it is no surprise when yet another CD of self-selected Chopin works appears, performed by a fine interpreter. The new Steinway & Sons release featuring Andrew Rangell is a particularly personal assortment of music, the works appearing in no particular order except what is dictated by the changing moods that Rangell wants to evoke. The Polonaise-fantaisie is a fine choice for an opening piece here, allowing Rangell free rein to indulge in performing a highly imaginative work whose twists and turns remain surprising even today. The rest of the disc’s sequence is fairly straightforward and mood-oriented: the free-ranging opening work is followed by the dreamlike Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, which is succeeded by the flashy Bolero, then the crepuscular Nouvelle Etude No. 1, and so on. Rangell is particularly good at drawing out the varying moods of these pieces, which means his handling of three of Chopin’s four Ballades is especially intriguing – although the omission of No. 2 is a distinct disappointment. Despite Rangell’s clear intention of using this disc to show Chopin first in one mood, then another, contrasting one, and so on, there is something a bit capricious in the choice of the music and its sequencing. However, Rangell plays the pieces with such verve, involvement and understanding that the CD deserves a (++++) rating simply as an exercise in excellent pianism, even though the connections among the works are at some times fairly forced and at others rather slight.

     Speaking of slight: that describes the connection of John Cage’s piano music with that of earlier composers. Cage (1912-1992) would not allow pianos to display their inherent personalities, which are a blend of strings and percussion. He created the “prepared piano,” turning the piano into much more of a percussion instrument than it inherently is by having each pianist modify each piano in his or her own way – and then use the modified instrument to play music with aleatoric elements as well as Eastern and mystical influences that predate and portend the arrival of minimalism. A little of Cage tends to go a long way, but the 20-movement Sonatas and Interludes is a lot of him: at more than 65 minutes, it is one of the longest works he ever wrote. To understand this piece, which dates to 1946-48, it is necessary to know something about Cage’s musical and philosophical beliefs – putting this work in the vanguard of a slew of later pieces that insist music cannot and should not be expected to stand on its own for purposes of communication. In fact, Cage did not really believe in the communicative ability of music, claiming that listeners misunderstood things he was saying musically when those things were perfectly clear – to him. This too points toward the solipsism of later composers, and it is an element of importance in listening to Sonatas and Interludes. Also, the work is intended to express the eight permanent emotions of an Indian tradition called rasa, and the whole thing is built using rhythmic proportions determined by natural numbers and fractions. The insistence that listeners have information of this sort in order to comprehend the music is one of the off-putting things about Cage and his successors, making his work and theirs often seem like navel-gazing, at which audience members are intruders more than participants. Still, Cage’s influence is widespread, and Sonatas and Interludes is a substantial doorway to his aesthetic, so Boyd’s well-delineated performance is worth hearing for those seeking insight into what Cage was trying to do. And the lengthy work contrasts interestingly with In a Landscape (1948), which is much shorter and lighter and vaguely reminiscent of the music of Erik Satie. This (+++) Navona CD is by no means for everyone, but for those committed to the principles of a certain sort of contemporary composition, and interested in where some modern composers got their ideas and philosophical concepts, it will be highly worthwhile.

(++++) DREAMS ON DISPLAY


Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius; Sea Pictures. Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; David Soar, bass; BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $39.99 (2 SACDs).

Rob Kapilow: Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express; Dr. Seuss’s Gertrude McFuzz. Sung by Nathan Gunn, with the Polar Express Children’s Choir (Polar); sung by Isabel Leonard, with Olivia Lombardi as Gertrude (Gertrude); Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra. GPR. $19.99.

Nicola Porpora: Arias. Franco Fagioli, countertenor; Academia Montis Regalis conducted by Alessandro De Marchi. Naïve. $16.99.

     A dream of death and beyond, and one of the many moods of the ocean and those who encounter it, are paired and performed beautifully on a new Chandos release of music by Elgar. The Dream of Gerontius gives a primarily Catholic view of life’s end and what comes after (although its final portrayal of Purgatory is not entirely orthodox). It is a sort of extended “death and transfiguration,” using vocal lines to make the action clear and to guide listeners through an abridged version of a poem by Cardinal (John Henry) Newman. The poem is sufficiently reverent in a wholly conventional sense so that the words are less meaningful to non-Catholics than they might be if the text were more spiritually inclusive – but Elgar clearly responded to the poem with emotional intensity that led him to create music that transcends his chosen source. Whether The Dream of Gerontius sustains adequately for its considerable length – an hour and three-quarters – depends largely on the quality of the performance, and the one led by Sir Andrew Davis is particularly fine. Stuart Skelton is especially praiseworthy as Gerontius, nearly managing to make this typecast “old man” figure into something more than a cardboard character through the sheer emotive power of his singing and the sincerity with which he declaims the dream of a dying man. Bass David Soar intones the lines of the Priest with appropriately dark and polished tones, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly makes a highly affecting Angel by singing with what sounds like genuine concern and an otherworldly kind of love toward the human she is charged with bringing from the mundane world, to Heaven, and thence to Purgatory. A problem with The Dream of Gerontius is that it is so earnestly one-sided that it gives almost no scope for drama, but what little exists – as in the two brief choruses of quite non-threatening demons – is well-presented here. Indeed, the choral and orchestral work is so fine that the music’s power and beauty come through clearly whether or not a listener accepts or agrees with the argument of the text. And this sacred work is very well complemented by the secular Sea Pictures, in which Connolly delivers five songs of varying moods, to words by different poets, with understanding and emotional resonance. Sea Pictures has music more varied than that of The Dream of Gerontius, with the ocean’s moods ranging from serenity to storminess; and here too the playing of the orchestra rises to every occasion within the cycle, painting in toto a picture that has depth, beauty and strong emotional resonance – all captured in particularly fine SACD sound.

     The dreams are for the youngest listeners rather than the oldest on a new GPR recording of two works by Rob Kapilow, one based on Chris Van Allsburg’s moving Christmas dream/fable, The Polar Express, and the other taking off from a much lighter fantasy by Dr. Seuss, Gertrude McFuzz – a work that does, however, have a moral as clear as Van Allsburg’s. This is a CD for families already familiar with the two works that Kapilow sets, because the text is almost identical to that in the books but, of course, does not have the pictures that render these two very different works so intriguing and enthralling in printed form. Kapilow is especially sensitive to Van Allsburg’s pacing: listeners can easily hear the places where the composer moves from one page of the book to the next. The music is supportive of the narration but also has a delightful character all its own. In The Polar Express, for instance, snatches of Christmas carols are woven into the musical tale, while in Gertrude McFuzz, little bits of well-known tunes are included in a score that nicely characterizes the participants – Gertrude’s Uncle Dake, for example, gets a jazzy beat, while Gertrude herself is accompanied by rather whiny notes that neatly complement her temper tantrums. The performers are all first-rate, not over-intellectualizing any of the words but not talking down to the intended audience, either. Nathan Gunn narrates with seriousness befitting that of an older man looking back on childhood while retaining a sense of wonder and communicating it to children, while Isabel Leonard offers bounce and brightness and just enough snottiness to show a narrative disapproval of the demands of Olivia Lombardi, who gets her comeuppance in typically gratifying and amusing Seussian fashion. This CD is not inexpensive, considering the fact that it runs just 34 minutes and that CDs of books’ readings are sometimes included at no extra charge within the books themselves. But the fine music and wholehearted involvement of all the performers make the disc a very worthwhile seasonal gift, especially for families that see it as a complement to The Polar Express and Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (in which Gertrude’s tale, and tail, appear).

     It is primarily dreams and dramas portrayed on the opera stage that Franco Fagioli brings vividly to life on a new Naïve CD featuring a dozen arias for countertenor (originally for castrato) by Nicola Porpora (1686-1768). Porpora is best known as the teacher of famed castrato Farinelli and as an instructor of Haydn, Pergolesi and Alessandro Scarlatti, but he was also in his time a very considerable composer of opera seria, writing more than 50 operas in a lengthy career that spanned the years 1708 to 1760. Porpora’s arias are quite difficult to perform, being filled with display elements such as trills and coloratura passages and also demanding excellent legato when at their most serious and melancholic. It is worth remembering that Baroque opera arias rarely advanced the stage action: they were expressions of characters’ feelings, emotions and motivations, with the action handled through recitative. This is one reason so many composers engaged in self-borrowing – Handel is especially well-known for plucking an aria from one of his works and plunking it down in another where similar emotional expression is called for. What this means in performing Porpora is that the technical demands must be placed at the service of the emotional communication – as is not the case in the much later bel canto period, when technique alone can and does carry many singers through difficult passages. Fagioli has a firm grasp of the emotive elements of these arias, and although the specifics of the operas from which the arias are drawn are not especially important, Fagioli fully understands the need to be as expressive as possible in everything he does. The CD includes one aria from Ezio (1728), two from Semiramide riconosciuta (1729, revised 1739), one from Didone abbandonata (1725), two from Meride e Selinunte (1726), one from the oratorio Il verbo in carne (1748), one from the cantata Il ritiro (1735), two from Poliferno (1735), one from Carlo il Calvo (1738) and one from the cantata Vulcano (1735). All skillfully evoke specific emotional states while presenting considerable technical challenges to the performer – ones that Fagioli, ably abetted by Academia Montis Regalis under Alessandro De Marchi, fully understands and conquers. The dreams of the Baroque may not be those of today, but performances like these keep them alive and meaningful even after hundreds of years.

(+++) MINGLED MUSICS


Christina Rusnak: Chat; Chill; Highline. Big Round Records. $12.99.

Kim Halliday: Halflight and other works. Ravello. $14.99.

Gerald Cohen: Works for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble. Navona. $16.99.

Paul Osterfield: Sound and Fury and other chamber music. Navona. $14.99.

     The PARMA Recordings labels – Navona, Ravello and Big Round Records – provide useful and consistently well-played samplings of music that is available elsewhere only rarely, if at all. Collectively, the labels not only show the continuing dynamism of today’s classical composers but also give interested listeners a chance to hear the many ways in which composers, whether they self-identify as “classical” or not, make use of the increasing hybridization of musical forms. For various reasons, these recordings are not usually the sort that will attract a wide audience, but as niche products, they are almost always of interest to listeners already familiar with the composers and/or the forms in which they choose to work. For example, few listeners who do not know Christina Rusnak’s esthetic will want to spend $12.99 for 26 minutes of her music arranged for big band and large jazz ensemble. But this Big Round Records release will be attractive to people who respond to Rusnak’s atmospheric compositional sense and the ways in which she tries to reflect aspects of modern life through instrumentation. Thus, Chat uses instruments to represent intermingling human voices and experiences as found in Internet chat rooms. Chill is intended to showcase “cool jazz,” with jazz’s typical mixture of relaxed sections and livelier ones with a “swing” feeling to them. Highline is designed to represent outdoor spaces and the opportunities they offer in a crowded urban environment for reflection and aimless wandering. The works are pleasant to hear even without knowing their intended topics, and they sound quite good in these arrangements by Dave Richards.

     Kim Halliday’s music is influenced more by rock than jazz and is most often heard at the movies, for which he often composes. A new Ravello CD offers 17 short tracks by him, some vocal and some instrumental, with elements drawn from film, rock and electronic music. Halliday himself performs on guitar and is responsible, with Martin Lister, for the arrangements, loops and programming that are central to all this music. Lister, the disc’s producer, is also heard on keyboard and drums, and several other performers get “vox” credits for specific tracks: Angie Giles, Laura Glover, Dave Maybrick, and Lara and Alexis Siougas. The technical elements of this music are more central to its effect than the specific performers, and there is not all that much to distinguish any particular track from any other except for different instrumental emphases and changing uses of physical and electronic sounds. The tracks’ titles are supposed to point listeners in particular aural directions – “Cold Moon,” “Creepers,” “Hellingly Hospital,” “Deluge,” “7 Deaths” and so forth – but these are at most indications of atmosphere, not topics to which the music adheres slavishly. The pieces suggest emotions of various sorts without ever delving into any of them particularly deeply – a not-surprising state of affairs for a film-music composer – and will mainly interest listeners who find their combinations of form and instrumentation intriguing.

     The instrument that is the primary focus of a new Navona CD of music by Gerald Cohen is the clarinet. Cohen’s music here shows jazz and traditional-Jewish influences as well as an appreciation of elements of classical forms. Vasko Dukovski is the clarinetist in all four works on the disc, and Alexandra Joan appears as pianist in them all. Two of the four pieces are in single movements: Variously Blue for clarinet, violin (Jennifer Choi) and piano, and Grneta Variations for clarinet duo (Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski) and piano – the trio collectively called the Grneta Ensemble. Both of these one-movement works are in variation form, the first using a strongly blues-influenced theme and the second designed to highlight interplay between the two clarinets as well as among the three-performer ensemble. Also on this CD, the Grneta Ensemble performs Sea of Reeds, which the composer calls “Five Songs for Clarinet Duo and Piano” and which changes five Jewish, Hebrew-language vocal works that Cohen has written into instrumental clarinet showpieces. There is strong Jewish influence as well in Yedid Nefesh for clarinet, viola (Maria Lambros) and piano. Based on a Sephardic song, the five-movement work explores the melody in considerable detail, from the inward-looking to the exuberant. This is the longest work on the disc, nearly twice the length of any of the others, and gives Cohen the chance to take a single kernel of an idea and run it through some very wide-ranging paces indeed. The use of viola makes this a particularly mellow-sounding piece, with the string instrument complementing the clarinet’s range to fine effect. The disc will be of particular interest to clarinet fanciers and to listeners interested in the adaptation of Jewish melodies and songs to a series of trios with differing instrumental makeup.

     Two of the four works on a new Navona CD of the music of Paul Osterfield are also trios, but here the composer’s inspiration lies in nature and in specific performers’ capabilities rather than in a particular religious or cultural context. Sound and Fury was written for and is here played by the Blakemore Trio (Carolyn Huebl, violin; Felix Wang, cello; Amy Dorfman, piano). It is a three-movement work of considerable contrasts, using lyricism as a springboard to virtuosic and intensely rhythmic passages. Smoky Mountain Autumn, also in three movements, is an attempt to portray Tennessee nature scenes, its three movements designed to be musical visions of the region’s fall foliage, as interpreted through the sounds of violin (Andrea Dawson), horn (Angela DeBoer) and piano (Lynn Rice-See). There is nothing particularly distinguished in the tone painting here, but the music is certainly well-crafted. So it is as well in Kandinsky Images for violin (Michael Jorgensen) and piano (Caleb Harris) – a piece intended to interpret four of the painter’s works in musical terms. The work does not stand on its own particularly well, although listeners familiar with the specific Kandinsky paintings will enjoy deciding for themselves how well Osterfield has reflected them. Pianist Harris is both the performer and the person for whom Osterfield wrote the final work on this CD, Études for Piano, Book 1, an interesting set of six pieces in which, as the title indicates, the composer sets out to give pianists chances to display their prowess – specifically, in syncopation, arpeggiation, runs, chords and other elements of keyboard performance. These works do not extend significantly beyond the “display” range: there is not much musical meat on their bones, aside from the technical elements they showcase. But they are, like the rest of the music on this disc, well-constructed by a composer who has filtered the influences of the past through his own clear sensibility.

November 13, 2014

(++++) CHRISTMAS PAST, IN THE PRESENT


A Very Marley Christmas. By John Grogan. Illustrated by Richard Cowdrey. Harper. $9.99.

Pete the Cat Saves Christmas. Created and illustrated by James Dean. Story by Eric Litwin. Harper. $17.99.

Mary Engelbreit’s Nutcracker. By Mary Engelbreit. Harper. $9.99.

Backhoe Joe. By Lori Alexander. Illustrated by Craig Cameron. Harper. $15.99.

The Fairy Bell Sisters #6: Christmas Fairy Magic. By Margaret McNamara. Illustrations by Catharine Collingridge. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     Christmas is a time of tradition, and one tradition in publishing is the reissuing of Christmas-themed books just in time for new seasonal celebrations. The best of these are evergreens that are delightful year after year, their new editions (or new printings of old editions) providing a fine opportunity for families to reacquaint themselves with books from earlier years or to make those books’ acquaintance for the first time. A Very Marley Christmas dates to 2008 and is a typical story of the world’s most trouble-prone dog and the family that loves him anyway (or, more accurately, because he’s so endearing even as he destroys everything in sight). Marley stops Daddy from bringing in a Christmas tree by playing tug-of-war; he gets tangled in Christmas lights as Mommy tries to string them; when the tree is finally up, he runs toward it enthusiastically and knocks it over; he wears his Christmas stocking on his face; and so on. But Marley inevitably brings more joy than irritation: Cassie and Baby Louie wish for snow on Christmas Eve, but there is none – until, on Christmas Day, Marley pushes through the closed curtains to get someone to open them, and lo and behold, there is snow everywhere. Of course, Marley promptly runs out into it, skids and slides, gets covered in the white stuff, then brings it indoors and shakes it all over everything. But the ever-tolerant family thinks all of that is wonderful – resulting in a typically warmhearted conclusion for John Grogan’s book, in which the story is ably illustrated with realistic-looking scenes by Richard Cowdrey.

     There is nothing realistic in Pete the Cat Saves Christmas, but realism is scarcely the point of this 2012 book, in which Santa comes down with a cold and decides to call on Pete to handle Christmas deliveries. Huge-eyed Pete is on his surfboard in Key West, Florida, when the emergency call comes in. Can Pete save the holiday? Well, of course he can, with the oft-repeated refrain, “And although I am small,/ at Christmas we give,/ so I’ll give it my all” to encourage him. A road trip in Pete’s minibus soon takes him to the North Pole, where the bus gets packed with presents and pulled aloft by Santa’s reindeer, and Pete delivers gifts to every single child on Santa’s list, finishing just as dawn breaks – and kids everywhere are delighted. The collaboration of James Dean and Eric Litwin, which includes a link to a free song and story download, is an amusingly offbeat variation on the “someone unexpected saves Christmas” motif and will be a real treat for Pete’s fans.

     Fans of Mary Engelbreit’s stylized drawings and simplified storytelling will enjoy Mary Engelbreit’s Nutcracker, originally published in 2011. It tells the Nutcracker tale as seen in Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular ballet, with a couple of references to the E.T.A. Hoffmann story on which Tchaikovsky’s work is based – but not too many such references, because the original Nussknacker und Mausekönig is a very dark story indeed. The ballet lightens it considerably, and Engelbreit does so to an even greater degree, to make her book suitable for young children. Engelbreit’s characters are all roly-poly and pleasant, with little Marie, who is supposed to be seven years old, looking even younger than in most stage productions of Tchaikovsky’s work, whie Godfather Drosselmeyer looks more like a Disneyesque fairy than the faintly sinister figure he is even on stage (never mind the very sinister and complex one he is in the original tale). “The very fierce Mouse King” does not seem especially scary here and is not intended to be, and has only a single head (not seven, as in the original tale and some stage productions), and is defeated fairly easily and without visible bloodshed. And so Marie and the Nutcracker Prince journey to his kingdom, which Engelbreit calls Toyland rather than the Land of Sweets. Here, the illustrations encapsulate some of the marvelous “character dances” from the ballet, and eventually Marie and the Prince return to the real world – where the prince promises to make Marie Queen of Toyland “when you are grown.” And so there is a happy ending, Engelbreit-style, and a book that Engelbreit fans will cherish whether or not  their families go to see one of the inevitable Christmas-season performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

     The proliferation of reissues of seasonal books does not, of course, prevent the emergence of entirely new ones that fit, indirectly if not directly, into this time of year. There is nothing particularly Christmas-oriented about Lori Alexander’s Backhoe Joe, for example, but the book goes well with one such as A Very Marley Christmas and the not-uncommon request that kids make for a puppy as a gift. Alexander tells about a little boy named Nolan who has always wanted – not a puppy, but a backhoe. And one day, this little boy encounters a stray, yellow, smiling, big-eyed backhoe in his neighborhood, but the heavy equipment is so shy that it backs into some nearby bushes and “wouldn’t budge. The rocks in Nolan’s backpack gave him an idea.” Nolan likes to collect rocks, and now he lays them out in a line to tempt the backhoe with “tasty treats,” which the backhoe happily scoops up. “Nolan gave the backhoe a pat behind the loader, which made his bucket wiggle like crazy.” The notion of a pet backhoe equipped with doglike mannerisms is a highly amusing one, made more so by Craig Cameron’s illustrations, which show the backhoe doing lots of doglike things: “he leaked all over the driveway,” and “he buried his cone in the flower bed,” and he “revved at the mailman,” and so forth. Nolan names the backhoe Joe, and his bemused parents say he has to train it if he wants to keep it, so Nolan tries techniques such as playing catch, visiting the park, and letting Joe dig at a delayed construction project. The two soon bond, but then Nolan sees a “lost backhoe” sign on a tree and realizes that “someone’s missing you” and “I think you miss them, too” – and indeed, Joe looks downcast as Nolan examines the sign. So Joe goes back to his construction-crew owner, and Nolan’s parents compliment him for how well he took care of Joe, saying he is ready for a pet of his own. But “then Nolan remembered how much work Joe was” and thinks he would be better off with “something that will sit still – and purr.” Such as…a cement mixer! The hilarious ending to this unusual pet-focused book may not stop kids from insisting that they really want a puppy or kitten for Christmas, but it may distract them long enough for parents to change the subject.

     Some kids old enough to be distracted from hectic Christmas preparations by a longer book will have fun with the new, sixth entry in Margaret McNamara’s series about The Fairy Bell Sisters. This sequence imagines that Tinker Bell has five siblings named Clara, Rosy, Goldie, Sylva and Squeak (the last a tiny baby fairy). In Christmas Fairy Magic, it is just 10 days before Christmas, and all five sisters are eagerly anticipating Tink’s return home. She has promised to bring decorations and gifts from Neverland, and has insisted that she is taking care of everything – her sisters are not to do any work at all preparing for the holiday. But things are so busy and happy in Fairyland that Clara, Rosy, Goldie and Sylva really want to take part; and besides, when there are only five days until Christmas, Tink is not home yet, and the Christmas Fair is about to take place on Sheepskerry Island, the sisters just have to be each other’s Secret Christmas Fairy and search for nice presents for each other. Things go awry, though, and it takes some fairy-carol singing to make the Fairy Bell sisters feel better – for a time. But soon, matters get even more complicated, as Squeak disappears, and the sisters have to search far and wide, despite a cold wind that chills their wings, until they find Squeak and a very, very special Christmas gift: a brand-new fairy baby that they name Noel. And of course Tink does eventually show up, and everyone is happy, and the whole book simply oozes sweetness that may be too much for readers except at the very youngest end of the book’s recommended age range of 6-10. Christmas Fairy Magic is too predictable and too sugary in many ways, and the Catharine Collingridge illustrations are too ordinary to add much to it; but it gets a (+++) rating because at least some little girls who love holiday stories about other little girls will enjoy it – and because Christmas is, among other things, a time to be generous.

(++++) GRAND ADVENTURES, ANCIENT AND MODERN


Jason and the Argonauts. By Apollonius of Rhodes. Translated by Aaron Poochigian. Penguin Classics. $15.

TodHunter Moon, Book One: PathFinder. By Angie Sage. Illustrations by Mark Zug. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99

The Magic Thief, Book Four: Home. By Sarah Prineas. Illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo. Harper. $17.99.

     The roots of modern mythmaking run deep, eventually traveling all the way back in time to the epics of the ancient Greeks and Romans. And those epics can still thrill and even enthrall modern readers, as becomes clear in Aaron Poochigian’s first-rate new translation of Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes – a poet of the third century BCE of whom very little is known. The story of the Golden Fleece, told in many versions and with many variations, is familiar, however, and Apollonius’ epic poem is the primary source for much of that familiarity. By Homeric standards, it is a brief epic – fewer than 6,000 lines, compared with more than 15,000 in the Iliad. It is also a far more modern-seeming work than Homer’s, actually discarding many notions of heroism that were already considered old-fashioned in Apollonius’ time and instead presenting a conflicted, frequently weak and ambiguous character in Jason – and a story that turns not on manly deeds and martial homosexuality but on intense heterosexual love between Jason and Medea, princess of Colchis and a powerful sorceress. Indeed, it can be argued that Medea, more than Jason, is the central character of the work: it is her thinking, her emotion, her willingness to abandon her homeland and help Jason, that make the success of the quest possible. Poochigian does a fine job of retaining the ancient epic style, which includes numerous heroic similes – extended comparisons of one thing or emotion to another, woven in language that entwines the reader. For example, soon after Medea and Jason meet, Poochigian’s translation goes as follows: “As when a workwoman, a hireling drudge/ whose livelihood is spinning yarn from wool,/ piles kindling around a burning brand/ so that there might be light beneath the roof/ at night, since she has woken very early,/ and from that one small brand a fire spreads/ marvelously and eats up all the twigs,/ so all-consuming Eros curled around/ Medea’s heart and blazed there secretly.” This is a wonderful and in some ways very modern depiction of the internal heat generated by sexual and emotional passion, and is typical of Poochigian’s handling of Apollonius’ material. Jason and the Argonauts is in four books, the third and fourth focusing on the relationship between Medea and Jason and being more interesting to modern eyes than the first two – although the passage through the Clashing Rocks in the second book is one of the most famous scenes from the whole work. So effective are the poet’s depictions of characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, especially Medea’s, that Jason and the Argonauts at times reads like a prototype of a romance novel as well as a source for modern mythic fantasies. And Jason’s behavior, often “unmanly” by Homeric standards, also gives Jason and the Argonauts a distinctly modern tinge. For example, it is Medea (not Jason) who conquers (through enchantment) the Golden Fleece’s guardian serpent – “Jason, terrified, came on behind her” – and it is this that enables Jason at last to obtain the garment; and at this point, Apollonius compares Jason not to a figure such as Herakles (who appears several times in Jason and the Argonauts as an old-fashioned contrast to “modern” adventurers) but to a young woman: “Just as a maiden catches in a gauzy gown/ the shimmer of the full moon as it rises/ above her lofty chamber, and her heart/ rejoices as she looks upon the light,/ so, then, did Jason hold the great fleece up.” And, a few lines later, “He started with the fleece around his neck/ dangling from his shoulder to his ankles,/ then rolled it up and stroked it, fearing greatly/ some man or god would come and take it from him.” Jason and the Argonauts is a wonderful story, easier to read in Poochigian’s translation than in many earlier ones, and a delight to discover or rediscover as an ancestor of so many lesser, modern “epics.”

     These days, with the exception of such epic fantasies for adults as those of J.R.R. Tolkien, the notion of heroic quests tends to take a back seat to matters of magic, psychology and personal relationships, in works as different from each other as those of Deborah Harkness, Lev Grossman and Kim Harrison. The heroic-quest model is more the province of books for young readers nowadays, examples being the Septimus Heap tales by Angie Sage and the Magic Thief sequence by Sarah Prineas. Both of those series have new entries now, and although neither is as fully satisfying as earlier books by Sage and Prineas, both will please readers ages 8-12 who enjoyed the earlier novels. PathFinder is the first book of a sequence spun off from the Septimus Heap tales, set seven years after the last of those books and focusing on a set of new characters plus a number from the earlier series – resulting in a book with rather too many characters and a work that, while it can be read on its own, will be much more interesting for readers who followed Septimus’ adventures. The main focus here is on Alice TodHunter Moon, nicknamed Tod, and her siblings, Oskar and Fergie. Tod’s mother is dead; her father disappears early in the book; and her aunt, who is supposed to take care of her, is abusive. The village where they live is in some sort of trouble: children keep disappearing – Fergie is gone one night, leaving Tod and Oskar to go on a rescue quest and uncover an evil plot. None of this is particularly original, and while there are some good action sequences here – and some intriguingly evil monsters – there are also distracting sections referring to the Septimus Heap books. PathFinder starts rather slowly and hits its narrative stride rather late, although, again, fans of Septimus will enjoy revisiting characters and events from the earlier series and will not find that matters drag or become confusing – as readers unfamiliar with the earlier books will. Sage’s style here is somewhat uneven: characters change disconcertingly (for instance, Oskar is sometimes impulsive and sometimes thoughtful, with no apparent reason for the difference), and adults in the story sometimes believe the kids but sometimes don’t. The book is a bit of a hodgepodge, becoming really interesting only when, later in the story, the action focuses more firmly on Tod and the references to the past diminish. This is a (+++) novel, clearly intended primarily for fans of Septimus who longed for a return to his world.
     The Magic Thief: Home is also a (+++) book aimed at readers who want to revisit the fictional past – in this case, earlier Prineas books – and find out more about the story of Connwaer (Conn), the dragon Pip, and the city of Wellmet. In fact, this is what can best be regarded as the fourth book of a trilogy. It picks up where the third left off: Conn, Nevery, Benet, Rowan, Embre and Captain Kerrn are all here, as of course is Pip. The third book, Found, ended with Conn bringing a new, “younger” magic to Wellmet to supplement the older, weakening magic there, but in Home, the two magics are working poorly together and things are not going well. Rowan, ruling with resolve as duchess despite her youth, wants Conn to be the head wizard (known as the ducal magister) and solve the problem; Conn is not particularly interested; but then locus magicalicus stones are stolen and Conn is suspected of being the thief – putting him, in a sense, right back where he started. So he has to find the stones, clear his name, and figure out who has been taking them and why – and what that has to do with magic being in disarray. There is the same blend of magic, action, intrigue and politics here as in the first three books, marking Home as a continuation of what has come before rather than an extension of the story into new realms. The main benefit of Home, which eventually brings the series (now a quartet) to a satisfying conclusion, is that it ties up some loose ends. Conn has to grow into his personality, figuring out just who he is and where he belongs: he has always felt too much a gutterboy for the palace, too civilized for Twilight, and not respectable enough for the mages. Conn also finds out here that doing things entirely on his own, as he must in Home, is not as good an idea as he thought when he accepted the help of others only reluctantly in the earlier books. In other words, Conn matures here in a way that he did not in the earlier books, and for that alone, Home is worth reading for fans of the Magic Thief sequence. But it is only for such fans – it moves the tale beyond the earlier books but makes no attempt to recap them, so anyone interested in finding out the whole story needs to start with the first book (simply called The Magic Thief) and work through Lost and Found before getting to Home.

(+++) FOOD STUFF FOR ALL AGES


Best Food Writing 2014. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $15.99.

Tales for Very Picky Eaters. By Josh Schneider. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $5.99.

Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures #12: Escape to California. By Josh Greenhut. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $15.99.

     Any self-proclaimed food elitist worth his or her salt – super-expensive sea salt only, please, and never mind that it is identical to generic salt from the (shudder) supermarket – will find Best Food Writing 2014 very tasty indeed.  This is prose by foodies, for foodies, arranged in categories called “The Way We [that is, the cognoscenti] Eat Now,” “A Table for Everyone [who agonizes over having everything just so],” “Back to Basics [as those of us in the know define them for everyone else],” “Home Cooking [for people with plenty of time and money],” “Stocking the Pantry [also for people with plenty of time and money],” “Someone’s in the Kitchen [who has lots and lots and lots of time to be there],” “Personal [highfalutin] Tastes,” and “Extreme [and bizarre and overindulgent] Eating.” Well, the section titles do not really include the bracketed words, but those are implied not only in the book’s organization but also within virtually all of the 50 essays collected here and edited by Holly Hughes. This annual collection strikes out similar territory every year, with a very strong “urban intelligentsia” and coastal (rather than Middle American) orientation and an apparently total ignorance of the belief of some people that food is, you know, fuel for the body…and, like, costs money. “Five Things I Will Not Eat” by Barry Estabrook, for instance, is about the inherent evils of supermarket ground beef (“buy a whole cut like a chuck steak or sirloin and grind it yourself”), salad greens packed in plastic bags (“Buy whole heads or bunches and chop them yourself”), bluefin tuna (“International organizations that are charged with setting catch limits for bluefins regularly set quotas far above what their own scientists recommend”), out-of-season tomatoes (“the real problem with winter tomatoes is the abuses suffered by the farmworkers who harvest them”), and farmed salmon (“It’s far better to raise fish like tilapia that can be fed a vegetarian diet”). If these sound like your everyday concerns, then you are in the target audience for this book. You can read “Cooking as the Cornerstone of a Sustainable Food System” by Kim O’Donnel (“home cooking…is a conscious decision to turn raw ingredients into a meal to nourish ourselves and the people we love”); “Bread and Women” by Adam Gopnik (“In order to supply the unique amount of care that children demand, we have to enter into a contract in amnesia where neither side is entirely honest about the costs”); “The 16.9 Carrot” by Dan Barber (“Back in the kitchen, Jack brought out his refractometer to test another batch of mokums”); “A Day on Long Island with Alex Lee” by Francis Lam (“Casual millionaires were taking their seats for the barbecue on the veranda”); and many more. The writing here is almost impossible to parody, since so much of it is self-parodistic to anyone except the writers themselves, who take what they are saying and thinking and eating and saying about eating and thinking about eating very, very, very seriously indeed. Depending on your viewpoint, there is almost no humor in Best Food Writing 2014 or there is almost nothing but humor in it. Food can be (and ideally should be) more than just nourishment all the time – and there is nothing wrong with making it a hobby or even an occasional indulgence. But in a nation with a growing obesity problem accompanied by huge issues involving improper or inadequate nourishment of a large percentage of the population, there is something a trifle unseemly about turning food into an obsession, then celebrating the fanaticism that goes with writing as self-indulgent and self-celebratory as is found here.

     There is something refreshing about the humorous and matter-of-fact treatment of food in kids’ books as a contrast to the esoterica of Best Food Writing 2014. Want to have real fun with food? Try Tales for Very Picky Eaters by Josh Schneider, originally published in 2011 and now available in a very-low-priced paperback edition. The five stories here are about disgusting broccoli, smelly lasagna, repulsive milk, lumpy oatmeal and slimy eggs – those descriptions being the way James, the boy in the book, characterizes those particular foods. James’ father makes the foods and serves them, but James, being a very picky eater, prejudges all of them and turns them down. So his dad makes up outlandish stories about what will happen if James does not at least try the foods: instead of broccoli, James can have pre-chewed gum or a very sweaty sock; refusing the lasagna will put the basement troll who made it out of a job and force him to go back to his previous position with the rat circus; failing to drink milk – which builds strong bones – will result in James having bones too soft for kickball, baseball or scratching the dog; and so on. Each short tale ends with James reluctantly accepting the food he initially does not want – and discovering that it is not so bad after all. By the time of the final chapter, on eggs, James knows what his father is going to say, and he makes up extreme stories about what will happen if he does not try the eggs. But now his father simply says he thinks James might like the eggs if he tries them – so James does, and yes, he likes them after all. This (++++) book’s simple, to-the-point writing and highly amusing imaginary scenes make it a delectable morsel for parents whose children are, have been, used to be or have considered becoming very picky eaters themselves.

     Food is not the main point of the Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures series, which is based on Jeff Brown’s character but not written by him. But Stanley’s name is, after all, Lambchop, so in a sense, Escape to California is a food story through and through. The plot is not primarily food-oriented, though: Stanley meets a wheelchair-bound girl named Lily who is determined to prove that someone in a wheelchair can do just about anything – including escaping from Alcatraz, the once-notorious prison on an island near San Francisco. Lily knows of Stanley’s prior worldwide adventures (even though readers picking up this book may not), pointing out that Stanley “found [his] way out of a pyramid in Egypt” and “trained with Oda Nobu in Japan and performed with the Flying Chinese Wonders in Beijing,” so he seems the ideal person to help arrange the escape stunt. Over a sumptuous meal of California-grown food – yes, food really does play a meaningful, if not central, role in this book – Stanley learns that the state grows “artichokes, arugula, asparagus, avocados, basil, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, celery, corn, cucumbers, edamame, eggplant, escarole,” and that is only letters A through E. Dessert is blackberries, blueberries and boysenberries with cream, and then the primary plot returns, with Lily explaining that she wants Stanley to be her kite in the escape plan. So the kids figure out how that would work, and practice, and eventually go through with Lily’s idea and, yes, show that Lily and her wheelchair can escape from Alcatraz. And then Stanley and his family have a crab dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf, so food again is in the limelight, if only briefly. Escape to California is determinedly upbeat, but it is so improbable and overdone that the (+++) book will really be of interest only to families enamored of California or of the rather weak Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures sequence – in which it is a perfectly respectable but scarcely distinguished entry.

(++++) THE EXTENT OF THE SYMPHONY


Franz Ignaz Beck: Symphonies, Op. 4, Nos. 1-3 and Op. 3, No. 6. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 8. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.

Gounod: Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Oleg Caetani. CPO. $16.99.

Grieg: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume IV—Symphony in C minor; Piano Concerto. Herbert Schuch, piano; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Eivind Aadland. Audite. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. RCO Live DVD. $29.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Gewandhaus-Orchester Leipzig conducted by Riccardo Chailly. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.

     From Mozart’s time to Mahler’s, the symphony developed, grew, expanded and changed to fit new times, new composers, new forms of emotional expression, and new methods of using the orchestra to communicate everything from formal elegance and balance to deep feelings that push the boundaries of symphonic form and force it to be redefined. Not all the composers who helped the symphony evolve were necessarily well-known; in other cases, they were known and admired, but not for symphonic works. Through the years, the symphony showed unending plasticity as composers took it in many different directions. Franz Ignaz Beck (1734-1809), an almost exact contemporary of Haydn – the man who solidified symphonic form in ways recognizable ever since – is scarcely a well-known composer, and his symphonies of the 1760s are not at the level of Haydn’s of that time or Mozart’s soon after. But these works, which Beck identified by the older term “Sinfonia,” helped lay the groundwork for much that came later. A new Naxos CD – one of several Beck symphony discs from the label, presented by different ensembles – showcases the first three of Beck’s Op. 4 set (each in four movements) and the final one from Op. 3 (a three-movement work). What is notable about these pieces is Beck’s willingness to start exploring emotion and drama within individual movements and in the symphonies as a whole. Also, Beck gives the winds far more independence than was customary in his time – anticipating, in this, Mozart’s later and greater liberation of the wind section. And while there is nothing profound in Beck’s slow movements, he uses them to provide moments of relative rest within works that are otherwise propulsive and forward-looking. This helps establish the symphony as music in which contrast, within an overarching structure, is the driving force. The Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Marek Štilec plays these pieces with fine style and just enough dramatic flair to show Beck’s largely unknown but nevertheless significant contribution to symphonic development in the 18th century.

     Beethoven’s contributions are far, far better known, and they have remained both directly and indirectly influential ever since his symphonies were written.  However, there are still intriguing elements of Beethoven to explore, evidence being the fascinating live recording by John Eliot Gardiner and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique of the two least-played and perhaps least-understood of the Beethoven symphonies, Nos. 2 and 8. These are period-instrument performances, but more importantly, they are period-practice performances, which mean that Gardiner and the orchestra have gone back to Beethoven’s own time, insofar as that is possible, to make decisions on balance, phrasing, tempo, rhythm, and dynamics. It also means that Gardiner has carefully avoided performing No. 2 as an anticipation of No. 3, the “Eroica,” but instead has highlighted its Mozartean elements and shown the ways in which it is clearly a successor to No. 1 – but with a whole slew of uniquely Beethovenian elements (most notably in the finale, but by no means only there). This performance is tremendously exciting and nothing short of revelatory. And No. 8 is on the same very high level. Beethoven’s Eighth is often looked at as a “small” symphony and sometimes even as a throwback, but Gardiner takes seriously the things that Beethoven did to indicate that this is not a light or lightweight work at all – for example, the composer’s insistence on parts of the first movement being played fff, a designation very rare in Beethoven and one clearly intended to get the orchestra to give all that it can to the music. Gardiner also plumbs the humor in this symphony-without-a-slow-movement, and manages to make the highly unusual finale (whose form is unique in Beethoven’s music) into a very speedy, very well-articulated tour de force as well as an extended exercise in musical wit. What this SDG disc shows with considerable clarity is how Beethoven, in No. 2, brought the symphony into new territory after absorbing lessons from Mozart’s and Haydn’s works – and then, in No. 8, lifted it into even newer realms by showing how a work that is Haydnesque on the surface can contain elements that pave the way not only for Beethoven’s own later symphonic work (the Ninth) but also for the music of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and others.

     Indeed, Beethoven’s influence can scarcely be overestimated: it is, in a different way, as strong as that of Haydn. One composer whose symphonies show both Beethovenian and Haydnesque influence is Charles Gounod, who is best known for his operas but who did create two symphonies in the mid-1850s. Both these works have a French flair atop their essentially Germanic symphonic structure – the difference is especially evident in their lyrical passages – but both nevertheless display their influences unashamedly. No. 1 is clearly indebted to Haydn, whom Gounod very much admired. Interestingly, however, although its third movement, marked Scherzo, is in fact closer to a minuet, it is one in a French rather than Austrian style. No. 2 has more of Beethoven about it, although here the pleasantly undulating Larghetto possesses pastoral elements more evocative of the French countryside than of anything Germanic. On a new CPO disc, Oleg Caetani and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana offer performances of these works that are straightforward, expressive and very well-paced, with Caetani nicely bringing out some of Gounod’s interesting instrumental touches. And the CD contains a very intriguing bonus: an eight-minute fragment of a third symphony, a piece that Gounod worked on just a few years before his death in 1893. Never before recorded, this work – part of a first movement and a short but apparently complete second – has a darker atmosphere than do the first two symphonies, despite its home key of C. And it shows greater individuality of style than do the two complete symphonies, although it scarcely seems to have progressed as dramatically as symphonic writing in general did during the 35 or so years after Gounod wrote his first two symphonies.

     Beethoven’s influence continued to be highly significant throughout the 19th century and even beyond, not only directly but also through the works of composers who were strongly influenced by him and, in their turn, influenced others. Thus, the sole symphony of Edvard Grieg, written when the composer was barely into his 20s (in 1864), exhibits derivative elements not so much of Beethoven directly but of Beethoven as filtered through Schumann, Mendelssohn and, even more clearly, Niels Gade – the most prominent Danish symphonist of his time and the man who directly told Grieg to write something of significance (which turned out to be this symphony). The fourth volume of Audite’s first-rate survey of Grieg’s complete orchestral music, performed by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Eivind Aadland, features the symphony in a performance that gives it everything it is due – which is to say that Aadland does not overestimate the work’s value but plays it straight, allowing its manifest charms to display themselves but also permitting its structural imperfections to come through clearly. For example, the finale features a chorale theme that seems to be about to bring the work to an apotheosis but instead merely disappears, leaving the movement to continue as before. Grieg himself withdrew the symphony after several partial performances and wrote that it was never to be played, but stopped short of destroying it; it disappeared into archival status until it was revived in the Soviet Union in 1980. It is certainly worth hearing, especially when played as well as it is here, but it is scarcely central to Grieg’s output. His Piano Concerto, however, is of crucial importance, and it shares the SACD with the symphony and gets a grand, sweeping and altogether winning performance from Herbert Schuch. Grieg wrote the concerto just a few years after completing the symphony, in 1868, but its far greater maturity and more-expert handling of the orchestra are evident throughout. Grieg was himself a pianist, and he managed in the concerto to make the instrument pre-eminent without ever making the orchestra subsidiary; he also succeeded here in producing a work of Norwegian nationalism, the finale in particular drawing on folk dances and rhythms of Norway. Throughout the concerto, the influence of Schumann –whose sole piano concerto is in the same key of A minor – is quite clearly felt, and since Schumann’s orchestral music ties quite clearly to Beethoven’s, the influence of Beethoven as symphonist pervades Grieg’s concerto to at least the same degree as it does his symphony.

     A decade after Grieg wrote his symphony, Bruckner wrote his Fifth, which is nowadays his least-performed mature symphony and in many ways his most problematic. Filled with contrapuntal elements, structured so that the first movement lays a broad and deep foundation on which the other three movements are constructed until the finale provides a long-delayed climax, and pervaded by pizzicato to an extent that has sometimes led to it being called the “pizzicato symphony,” Bruckner’s Fifth is nevertheless redolent of earlier symphonic influences – notably that of Schubert. A sprawling work that can easily degenerate into an episodic series of poorly connected parts, Bruckner’s Fifth gets a knowing, sure-handed and very well-played rendition from the excellent Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on a DVD recorded live in October 2013 and released on the ensemble’s own label. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is far better known for his Bach and other Baroque work than for his handling of the Romantics, but he has certainly taken the measure of this Bruckner symphony, shaping it knowingly and intelligently and with the same attention to its architectural elements that he brings to Bach’s music. Indeed, Bruckner’s chorales here, which trace back to Bach, are handled with particular care, and the overall architectural sense of the symphony comes through with a stature that recalls the larger, cathedral-like structure of Bach’s Passion settings.  Harnoncourt does drive the tempo rather hard from time to time, but he is almost always convincing in doing so – and the only real issue with this recording is that it is a DVD rather than CD or SACD, which means its visuals are a big part of its impact. They are not always to its benefit. At a live concert, audience members can decide where to look and when, and can even elect to close their eyes from time to time and simply bask in the musical experience. Certainly eyes-closed listening is possible with a DVD as well, but it somehow misses that point to make a purchase issued in a visual medium and then bypass the visuals. Watching the DVD, though, requires watching just what the director chooses to show at any given time, and the visuals are not always the ones that a listener at a concert would select. Also, the DVD contains no bonus material and is thus a costly way of obtaining a performance of Bruckner’s Fifth; but Harnoncourt’s reading is so good that listeners – that is to say, viewers – may decide that the investment is worthwhile.

     A similar form of thinking is needed for another fine DVD recording, the Accentus Music release of Mahler’s Ninth featuring the Gewandhaus-Orchester Leipzig led by Riccardo Chailly. Interestingly, Chailly made a recording of this symphony a decade ago with the Concertgebouw Orchestra – but his new one, recorded live in September 2013, is tauter and altogether more focused. The symphony as conceived by Mahler, expanded to the point of gigantism (some would say beyond that point) and filled with a degree of emotionalism never before attempted, much less attained, reached a pinnacle beyond which it never quite moved – later symphonists needed to go in different directions. Still, the underlying symphonic structures were very much respected by Mahler even as he expanded them and pulled them into new shapes – just as Beck and Beethoven did in their time. The Ninth, Mahler’s last completed symphony, gets a committed, strongly emotive performance from Chailly, and the orchestra – whose experience with Mahler dates back to the days when Bruno Walter was its conductor, from 1929 to 1933 – plays the music with strength and the utmost commitment. In some ways, the video format here is more useful than in Harnoncourt’s Bruckner Fifth, because this DVD includes a half-hour bonus in which Chailly discusses the music and his feelings about interpreting it. In other ways, the issues of having the performance on video rather than in audio-only format remain the same – and in one case, the video is unintentionally amusing, when the camera shows a triangle being gently struck during the second movement but no triangle sound is heard. A disconnect between audio and video is inevitable in classical-music DVDs – audio cannot pick up everything that video sees, and no video director can go along perfectly with the interpretation as it is being presented live. So any issues of this type involving this recording are common to the field, not unique to this specific release. They are still worth considering for listeners/viewers, however. Chailly’s very understanding, very well-played performance and his interesting discussion of the symphony may make this a worthwhile acquisition for Mahler lovers despite the inevitable clash between the sonic and visual elements of the presentation.