November 19, 2015
Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business. By Esphyr Slobodkina. HarperCollins. $17.99.
More Caps for Sale: Another Tale of Mischievous Monkeys. By Esphyr Slobodkina with Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer. Harper. $18.99.
Seventy-five years ago, Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002) created an amusing little book about a stereotypical peddler, complete with mustache and slicked-down hair parted in the middle, who sold hats by piling them atop his head and walking around town calling “Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!” The streets where he peddled his wares were clearly European, but for some reason they were populated by an entire troop of monkeys – 16 of them, in fact – and the monkeys just happened to love caps, snatching them off the peddler’s head as he napped beneath a tree and wearing them sportily in the tree branches. This simple and highly amusing tale – it is hard to remember that it was written during World War II – continues as the peddler yells at the monkeys, who in the best “monkey see, monkey do” tradition imitate his gestures and yell “tsz, tsz, tsz” right back at him. The angrier the peddler gets, the more he gestures and stamps his feet and acts out, the more amusing the book becomes as the monkeys imitate everything he does – until, with impeccable logic, Slobodkina has the furious peddler throw down his own cap in disgust, with the result that the monkeys thrown all their caps down as well, and the peddler gathers all of them up and is able to resume his hat-selling day. Highly stylized, very amusing drawings, wonderfully colored caps (gray, brown, blue and red, plus the peddler’s own black-and-white one), and delightfully mischievous monkeys that, except for their smiles, are drawn quite realistically, combine to produce a gentle fable with no particular point except to amuse young readers (ages 4-8) and delight their parents. The handsome 75th-anniversary edition of Caps for Sale offers a wonderful opportunity to rediscover a genuine classic, or encounter it for the first time and find out why it is a classic. Except for the fact that the blue caps are closer to green, the illustrations have stood the test of time marvelously, and so has a story that nowadays seems like pure fantasy (elegantly dressed street peddlers?) but that retains all the simplicity and charm that have helped it endure generation after generation.
And now there is a sequel. Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer, president of the Slobodkina Foundation and the author’s friend and business associate for the last six years of Slobodkina’s life, incorporates original Slobodkina art (from multiple sources) and follows a story arc that, although created by Sayer, hews closely to what Slobodkina might have written if she had wanted to continue the tale of the peddler and the monkeys. For that is what More Caps for Sale does: it picks up where the classic story leaves off, as the peddler heads home in frustration – since the adventure with the monkeys kept him from making any sales. However, the monkeys, it turns out, are not finished with him: they follow him home, arrange themselves in a tree outside his house, and continue to make mischief. But not much mischief, really. Yes, they eat bananas in the tree while the peddler has his own supper; but when the peddler picks up a banana peel and throws it in the trash, they follow suit and clean up everything else. Yes, they insist on staying in the tree despite the peddler’s demand that they go home (wherever that might be); but that turns out well, because when the peddler is restless and cannot sleep, he looks out at the tree and sees the peacefully sleeping monkeys – a sight that helps him get to sleep as well. And then, the next day, as the peddler sets out again to try to sell his caps (the blue ones really looking blue this time), he focuses on keeping the caps balanced atop his head, not noticing all the monkeys following him. Sayer goes out of her way to include pictures showing a multicultural, multi-ethnic town, which does not fit with the ethos of the original book, but otherwise she moves the story ahead neatly, as the monkey parade so amuses the townspeople that they buy every hat the peddler is carrying – with him being all the while unaware of the monkeys walking along directly behind him. The book’s ending is a trifle disappointing: the peddler at last notices all the monkeys following him, but instead of appreciating their unwitting help, he again shakes his finger at them and again demands they go home. They do not, though – or maybe they do, since it looks at the book’s end as if the peddler’s home is going to be their home as well, whether he likes it or not. Today’s young readers will likely wonder why the peddler is not friendlier to the monkeys, especially after they help him sell all his caps, and parents may want to try to figure that out before reading the book to or with their children, since it really does not make much sense. The rest of More Caps for Sale, though, is a worthy successor to its wonderful predecessor: it stands as a fine tribute to Slobodkina as well as an attractive bit of picture-book amusement in its own right.
The “Mutts” Winter Diaries. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Snoopy: Contact! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The Octopuppy. By Martin McKenna. Scholastic. $16.99.
8: An Animal Alphabet. By Elisha Cooper. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
Patrick McDonnell’s super-sweet Mutts comic strip is a delight in any season and for any reason – the reason behind The “Mutts” Winter Diaries, which is in Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Comics for Kids series, being to acquaint young readers with the strip if they are not yet familiar with it. These cold-weather adventures of Earl the dog and Mooch the cat, extracted from strips drawn in various winters, contain the strip’s trademarked (well, it should be trademarked) homespun humor, attentive concern for all animals (domestic and otherwise), and – important for this particular collection – warmth. Certain themes recur throughout the book, and it is wonderful to see the subtle ways in which McDonnell plays with them. For instance, the fact that Earl needs to be walked even in cold, snowy, windy weather leads Mooch to repeated assertions of feline superiority: “You owe me,” Mooch comments at one point to sort-of-co-owner Frank (who ever really owns a cat?). The notion of hibernation to escape the cold gets worked and reworked here, with Earl and Mooch doing a much better job of bulking up for a long sleep than actually sleeping. Bip and Bop, the squirrels preoccupied with beaning other characters with nuts, stay true to form in winter: they drop nuts onto both Earl and Mooch at one point as white flakes drift down, leading Earl to comment, “A heavy snow.” (“Yesh,” Mooch agrees.) But there is more than humor in this collection and in Mutts generally. One delightful sequence (originally run on a Sunday) has snowflakes explaining, as they fall toward the ground: “We’re little snowflakes…from heaven…we are all unique…just like you…we’re here on Earth…to become one” – at which point McDonnell shows an unbroken blanket of snow. And then, in the final panel, Earl and Mooch comment: “It’s deep.” “Yesh.” Mutts invites, even insists on this sort of thoughtfulness about the world around us and our place in it. In a sequence in which Earl and Mooch watch a deer that is behind the house, Mooch asks, “What is the deer ‘problem’?” Earl explains, “What else? Overpopulation – there’s just too many and not enough space.” Mooch responds, “Yesh. Shometimes they can be a nuisance.” And in the final panel, dog and cat together say, “People.” That turns the well-known issue of deer overpopulation in certain areas into something much broader – the sort of thing at which McDonnell is particularly adept. But although Mutts sometimes becomes rather preachy, it does not stay that way for long, and McDonnell’s wonderful art rescues the strip from treacle again and again. So does his occasional foray into a purely visual and very funny idea, such as a Sunday strip tilted at an angle and showing only pieces of panels – just enough to see that the topic is slipping on the ice and falling, which the strip’s layout mimics beautifully; and another Sunday offering, a wordless three-long-panel strip showing a snowman and snowdog indoors, near a fireplace, and then the snow starting to melt, and then at last the revelation that the two are Earl and his owner, Ozzie. Mutts is a winter wonderland in itself, and a marvelous contemporary version of old-fashioned dog-and-other-animal strips.
There was a mutual admiration society between Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and McDonnell, and no wonder: their two strips share some sensibilities and approaches, Schulz’s clearly influenced McDonnell’s, and the multifaceted Snoopy is an ancestor of sorts of Earl. However many times Earl and Mooch try new and different things, though, and however far they wander from home or imagine they wander – as in a strip in which Earl and Ozzie feel as if they have walked to the South Pole (or North Pole: they see both penguins and a polar bear) – they do not approach Snoopy for sheer audacity of make-believe. Much of the new AMP! Comics for Kids collection called Contact! focuses on Snoopy’s imaginary (but sometimes eerily almost-real) adventures as a World War I Flying Ace, always in search of the notorious Red Baron and generally coming out on the short end of things when the two have their encounters. The first few strips collected here show a close relationship with Mutts, as Snoopy makes things difficult for Charlie Brown’s snowman building because Snoopy is having a little too much fun, and then Snoopy gets rolled right into a huge snowball that Charlie Brown is creating. But matters soon get odder, and stay that way. Snoopy, atop his doghouse, goes after the Red Baron and quickly finds his craft (the doghouse) spewing smoke; another time, he is forced to bail out after being attacked by the Red Baron, and land s in his supper dish; at yet another time, he challenges the enemy by saying “Nyahh, nyahh, nyahh! You can’t hit me!” (and then admits that “tough flying aces” do not really say that). In this collection, Snoopy dons other personae as well: he becomes a member of the Foreign Legion, marching across the desert; a swimmer practicing dives into a backyard kiddie pool, using Charlie Brown with a plan held over his head as a diving board; the Masked Marvel, a champion arm wrestler; a piranha; a “Cheshire Beagle,” Alice in Wonderland style, who disappears from view leaving only his smile behind; even a vulture perched in a tree and objecting to being called “sweetie.” Of all the Peanuts characters, Snoopy is the most multifaceted, and that may be have been part of Schulz’s message in creating him: people are people (even when they are small people – that is, children), but dogs are what people want them to be, and who really knows what dogs themselves want to be? Peanuts remains a wonderful example of a comic strip that can be read purely for amusement but that has a “wheels within wheels” flavor to it for those who choose to look a bit more deeply at the things that change and the ones that remain the same in it over time.
However, not even Snoopy takes on as many roles as Martin McKenna’s Octopuppy, an absolutely hilarious picture book about straitlaced, dog-focused Edgar and the pet he actually gets as a gift: Jarvis, an octopus. There is no explanation whatsoever of why this happens, and it matters not a whit, because the book offers one hilarity after another about Jarvis’ capabilities and Edgar’s frustrations, and there is simply no time for readers to do anything but laugh like crazy at the various antics. Actually, readers get a foretaste and aftertaste of the wonders of Jarvis on the inside front and back covers, where he is shown costumed as a superhero, a little girl, a Viking, a paint-splattered artist, a lion tamer (snail tamer, actually), a spaceman, a Shakespearean actor, a wizard, Count Dracula, and more – every idea that McKenna comes up with is more outlandish than the previous one. Within the actual story, matters progress from a scene in which Jarvis is wearing a variety of shoes and gloves to one in which he is dressed in a tuxedo and doing Fred Astaire-style dance moves. Edgar’s problem is that he really, really wants a dog, so he decides to train Jarvis to do doggy things. But Jarvis fails miserably, being far too clever and inventive to act on simple commands. Told to play dead, for example, he emerges from a sarcophagus-like armoire swathed in bandages and making horror-movie-mummy-like moans. Edgar’s determination to make Jarvis doglike leads to a disastrous time at a big dog show, where Jarvis simultaneously dances ballet, plays piano, does card tricks, juggles flaming torches, and plays a drum set, all while wearing a bow tie and a Carmen Miranda-style hat. Humiliated, Edgar takes Jarvis home, and Jarvis leaves Edgar a note apologizing for being a bad dog – then flushes himself down the toilet. Soon, though, Edgar realizes how special Jarvis is, but now Jarvis is gone – and the rest of the book is Edgar’s search for the octopuppy, including an absolutely hilarious two-page illustration (with echoes of Dr. Seuss) in which Edgar calls down into the toilet for Jarvis to come home and the message is passed from animal to animal through a network of underground pipes that snake their way around a convict digging a tunnel with a spoon, a pirate’s treasure chest, some dinosaur bones, and more. The eventual reuniting of boy and octopuppy is inevitable and suitably celebratory, and of course the two are now bound to live happily ever after. With any luck, McKenna will create a sequel to Octopuppy showing some of what “happily ever after” entails. He could call it Octodog.
There is an octopus in Elisha Cooper’s alphabet book, and there is a dog, too, but even more interestingly, there is the number eight – not because an octopus has eight arms, but because Cooper comes up with a book about letters that is also about numbers, or at least one particular number. What he does in 8: An Animal Alphabet is to present an assortment of animals for each letter of the alphabet, and then include drawings of eight of one particular creature per letter. Thus, there are eight ants under A, eight dolphins (no, not dogs) under D, eight koalas under K, eight urchins (sea urchins, that is) under U, right on to eight zebra finches under Z (but only one zebra dove). There is no particular significance to the number eight, except that Cooper says it is his favorite number – but it gives this animal-alphabet book an intriguing structure and gives young readers something to do beyond looking at the pictures. At the bottom of each page, Cooper lists the animals that appear on that page, and at the end of the book, he provides very brief but highly intriguing information on each of them – yes, all 184 of them. This is not traditional information, such as where the creatures are found or how long they live. Instead, Cooper offers facts such as: “Most ants are female.” “Dogs can sniff seven times a second.” “When excited, guinea pigs hop.” “Lizards smell with their tongues.” “Octopuses have three hearts.” “Ticks only eat three times in their lives.” The combination of an unusual thematic connection through the number eight, a fine selection of animals to illustrate every letter of the alphabet, and fascinating bits of information on every creature, make 8: An Animal Alphabet an unusually interesting book of its kind. As for the difficult letters: Cooper finds three animals for Q (quail, quetzal and quoll, two birds and an Australian marsupial) and one for X (xerus, an African ground squirrel). For more-common letters, he really packs the pages: there are 14 animals on the C page and 18 for S. There are also some number games in addition to the one in the title – Cooper tells what they are at the end of the book (26 animals on the title page, for example). Cooper’s solid research and offbeat approach combine to make 8: An Animal Alphabet an A-to-Z winner.
The Only Child. By Guojing. Schwartz & Wade. $19.99.
Paddington and the Christmas Surprise. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
Pinkalicious and the Snow Globe. By Victoria Kann. HarperFestival. $4.99.
There have been some remarkable children’s books released in recent years in which illustrations without words tell either the whole story or at least a great deal of it. The works by Shaun Tan and Brian Selznick stand as prime examples. To this rarefied group may now be added The Only Child by Chinese illustrator Guojing. A tale of the inward effects of the recently reversed one-child-only policy in China, this is the entirely wordless story of a young child – intended as a girl, but drawn androgynously – whose loneliness at home, after her mother goes to work, leads her on a journey that starts in the mundane world but soon leads, through the child’s sighting of a marvelous stag in the woods, to a place of beauty in the clouds. It is a world that may or may not be imaginary – Guojing carefully leaves both possibilities open – and it is one in which the child encounters a playful, roly-poly, panda-like cloud creature, a whale whose enormity is almost beyond description or depiction, and a series of exhausting adventures that eventually bring her home to her distraught parents and grandmother and to a peaceful sleep at a window outside which tree branches look just stag-shaped enough to leave readers wondering about what has happened. Certainly the story is a highly sentimental, even maudlin one, but Guojing’s black-and-white pencil illustrations take it beyond the treacly notion of a child who, feeling unloved, visits a place of delight (and modest danger), a realm where wonders just may be real and the loneliness of childhood most certainly is. There are a few mildly frightening scenes here, but the overall impression is one of wonder in discovery and delight in finding playmates – even cloud-based ones – to relieve a pervasive feeling of aloneness that, one senses, not even the happy family reunion at the end of the book can fully dispel. The Only Child can be read purely as a wondrous adventure, and will surely seem that way to young children; but adults will see more in it than that – and will understand how Guojing’s own experience as an only child under China’s government mandate would have instilled in her the feelings that she brings out so effectively here without a single word.
Michael Bond’s Paddington is no longer lonely and no longer wandering after he comes to live with the Browns in London, and his adventures are more mundane than those of Guojing’s child – and filled with words. In Paddington and the Christmas Surprise, matters are also distinctly seasonal. Originally published in 1997, revised in 2008, and now reissued, this is the story of Paddington’s trip to a department store that has seen better days, Barkridges, to see Santa Claus and ride the train through a display called Winter Wonderland. The store trip is Paddington’s treat for the family – he has “been saving his bun money for ages,” Mrs. Brown says – but the experience proves less than enthralling. The store is rather dingy and the winter displays are distinctly rundown, to such a degree that an annoyed Paddington at one point “was counting the number of buns it had taken to pay for the outing.” Of course, for both seasonal and Paddington-story reasons, matters cannot remain so downbeat. Nor do they. Paddington finds trouble, as he always does, through his usual well-meaning attempts to make things better – and by the end of the book, everyone is happy, big crowds have again thronged to Barkridges, and even the ultra-crabby store manager, who at first refers to Paddington as “a large creepy-crawly,” is left talking about how “honored” the store is that the bear from Darkest Peru paid it a visit. Everything ends, of course, with a huge jar of marmalade and a very happy bear. Paddington and the Christmas Surprise is not really one of the best Paddington books, and gets a (+++) rating. But Bond’s portrayal of the mistake-and-accident-prone bear remains endearing, and if R.W. Appel’s illustrations are on the straightforward side, they are colorful and expressive enough so that young readers will find them a seasonal treat.
Speaking of colors, Pinkalicious and the Snow Globe serves up Victoria Kann’s usual heaping helping of pinkness, with this short seasonal book (which contains more than a page of stickers) informing readers who may have forgotten that Pinkalicious’ family is the Pinkertons and the town where they live is Pinkville. Pinkalicious and her younger brother, Peter, are frustrated at the lack of snow, so they try making their own with shredded newspaper in the living room – resulting in predictable chaos. To give them something less messily confetti-ish to do, their mom takes them to a gift shop whose owner, Maggie, makes snow globes – but there is no snow yet this winter, so she has not been inspired to make any. However, thanks to Pinkalicious and her family, Maggie finds her inspiration after all, and thanks the Pinkertons with a special snow globe that contains, among other things, pink snow. At that point, the only thing missing from this pleasant little (+++) story is a happy ending that includes snow, and that is just what Kann delivers at the conclusion. Pinkalicious and the Snow Globe is a brief and modest entry in the extensive Pinkalicious series, but as with Paddington and the Christmas Surprise, it is a book that existing fans of the title characters will enjoy looking at – and whose words they will enjoy reading.
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 102-104. Cappella Coloniensis conducted by Bruno Weil. Ars Produktion. $19.99 (SACD+DVD).
Hummel: Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 35, 36 and 41 arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano. Uwe Grodd, flute; Friedmann Eichhorn, violin; Martin Rummel, cello; Roland Krüger, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.99 (SACD).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.99 (SACD).
The days in which the conductor ruled symphonic performances, with the composer taking a back seat to the conductor’s view of the music, are long gone. Those were the days in which Mahler completed Weber’s opera Die Drei Pintos and reorchestrated Beethoven to “improve” his sound, the days in which Bruno Walter subsequently “improved” Mahler by expanding and contracting his carefully noted tempos and dynamics at will in order “better to communicate” Mahler’s underlying wishes and emotions. Nowadays, or at least from a few decades ago until quite recently, the pendulum swung very far in the other direction, with the written or printed score ruling above all and even rather metronomic performances being deemed “right” if they followed the music as written – for yet another Mahler example, there is Gilbert Kaplan’s meticulous but rather flaccid reading of the “Resurrection” symphony. Throw in modern preoccupations with original instruments or careful copies and with historic performance practices, and the result is – or can be – readings in which pure fidelity to the urtext produces undeniably accurate but curiously vapid results: some of the personal fire that informed the intense (if sometimes misguided) conductors of the not-too-distant past, such as Leonard Bernstein, has simply gone out. But perhaps it has merely been banked, because now there are increasing instances in which conductors are again asserting their right, even their obligation, to interpret music, not merely beat time with a stick and ensure that players follow precisely what the score says. The extent of this new leadership paradigm, and the way it will progress, are uncertain and in flux, but this new conductorial assertiveness undeniably produces some exceptionally interesting and involving versions of even the most familiar works. And it follows on a longstanding tradition of reinterpreting music in a more-up-to-date guise, a tradition still preserved by playing many Bach harpsichord works on piano but otherwise pretty much fallen into disfavor.
The resurgence of rethinking extends into all sorts of familiar music. Haydn’s penultimate symphony, No. 103, for example, begins with and is named for its famous “Drum Roll,” but Haydn gave no indication of whether the timpani were to play loudly or softly, or how prominent they were to be when their front-and-center appearance returns at the end of the first movement. This is just one element that Bruno Weil confronts head-on in an excellent new Ars Produktion SACD featuring Haydn’s final “London” symphonies: Weil chooses to have the drum roll resound loudly, clearly and in fanfare-like manner, with a decrescendo at the end. Cappella Coloniensis has the world’s longest history of historical performance practice, dating back to 1954, but the understanding and implementation of such practice has changed over time as scholars and musicians have learned more about the instruments and sounds that composers such as Haydn expected. The meticulous attention that Weil gives to the scores of these Haydn symphonies is clear from the very first notes – and German speakers are offered additional clarity on a DVD that accompanies the SACD and includes excerpts from each symphony, with Weil explaining matters of technique, balance, rhythm and emphasis. Even those without the ability to understand Weil’s commentary will perceive its results in every movement of these symphonies, from the mysterious and very carefully balanced opening of No. 102, to the wonderful violin solo in the second movement of No. 103, to the exuberant conclusion of No. 104. Haydn’s surprises, his unexpected alternation of piano and forte phrases, his cleverness in using and stretching sonata form, his ability to build entire movements out of single themes, his sonic outbursts in the midst of otherwise propulsive movements – all these are familiar nowadays but were highly original in Haydn’s time, and it is tremendously exciting to hear the ways in which Weil and the orchestra emphasize these unusual elements while providing performances that are excellently paced and as historically accurate as it is possible to make them. These are revelatory readings: no matter how often listeners have heard these wonderful works, and indeed no matter how frequently they have heard other historically aware handlings of them, they will find new things in the ones by Weil and Cappella Coloniensis – a detail here, a sectional balance there, a point of emphasis again and again. Haydn sounds fresh and new in this recording, which can help even a jaded modern audience understand why he had so strong a reputation for innovation.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel was a first-rate conductor as well as a virtuoso pianist and respected composer – and, when he was eight years old, a member of Mozart’s household, where he studied music in ways that would remain with him throughout his life. Haydn influenced Mozart and was in turn influenced by him, but the Hummel-Mozart relationship was on a different level: it was genuinely formative of Hummel’s mature musical style. Yet Hummel, who lived until 1837, was well aware of changes in musical tastes in the years after Mozart’s death in 1791. In the years 1823 and 1824, Hummel made chamber-music arrangements of Mozart’s last six symphonies, managing to retain all their poise, brilliance and harmonic clarity while adding touches in line with taste in the early Romantic era. The new Naxos recording of Nos. 35, 36 and 41 is every bit as fine and every bit as interesting as the previous release of Nos. 38-40 with the same performers. What Hummel did here was to find ways to bring out orchestral color through an expansion of the piano part, using the more-developed pianos of the 1820s to fine effect. He also incorporated elements that were much to Romantic-era taste but less prevalent in Mozart’s time, notably crescendos, which are frequent in these arrangements but were reserved by Mozart for occasional use as a special effect. More-extreme dynamic markings – fortissimo rather than forte, and pianissimo rather than piano – are also features of these arrangements; Mozart sought this level of intensity much less often. Mozart’s harmonies always remain the same and his tempo indications usually do, although Hummel marks the second movement of Symphony No. 36 Poco adagio while Mozart wrote it as an Andante. These emendations do not significantly change the sound of the symphonies; certainly not for most modern listeners. What they do is make the music more fitting for consumption in Hummel’s time while preserving its essential contours, which Hummel knew first-hand from his time with Mozart and to which he was also sensitive as a composer and performer. In their chamber-music form, the symphonies do lose some grandeur (notably No. 41), but their basic spirit comes through quite well, and the balance among flute, violin, cello and piano (with the piano frequently taking the lead) is such that inner voices and harmonic structure come across with considerable clarity. Hummel designed these arrangements as much for informal amateur performance as for concert use, but they are not really simplifications of Mozart: they are reduced-instrumentation adaptations with some concessions to then-modern tastes, but with a strong determination to retain the “Mozart sound” and the elements of symphonic structure that made Mozart’s work in this form unique. And that they do exceptionally well, as these sensitive and very well-balanced performances show.
Even the most-canonic of symphonies, such as Beethoven’s Fifth, can accept some careful reconsideration by a sufficiently sensitive conductor, such as Manfred Honeck. An exceptionally fine Reference Recordings SACD featuring Honeck conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra provides as refreshingly bracing a view of Beethoven as any recent release of his music. In fact, it would be necessary to reach back to the mid-1970s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh with Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic to find a disc as noteworthy for these two symphonies as this Honeck/Pittsburgh one. True, the orchestra does not have the near-perfect intonation and sectional balance of the masterful Viennese, but occasional slight crudities of intonation, especially in the brass, actually make the music more exciting and convincing, if less warm. In fact, the Pittsburgh has not sounded this good since the heyday of William Steinberg. And Honeck’s consideration of Beethoven – make that reconsideration – leads to some immensely enthralling performances. The very end of each symphony, for example, is jump-out-of-your-seat exciting, the conclusion of the Fifth so speedy that the orchestra’s precision is nothing sort of amazing, and the last measures of the Seventh so quick that the movement is less Wagner’s “apotheosis of the dance” and more a frenetic bacchanal. Both these conclusions work, even if they mean some tempo variations that are not in the score: both crown the symphonies in just the way that Beethoven likely intended, even if he did not write things quite this way in his notoriously difficult-to-decipher scrawl. And it is not just the endings of the symphonies that bear repeated wonder-struck listening here. The famous motto theme of the first movement of the Fifth is taken by Honeck at a slower tempo than the main part of the movement, making it more portentous, and paving the way, to an extent, for the odd little oboe cadenza that interrupts the movement’s headlong flow later on. The second movement of the Seventh is unusually speedy, but still retains its grace, while the third movement is brassy and brilliant, almost frenetic. Honeck gets marvelous playing from the orchestra, and the nuances of his interpretations make this disc one worth hearing repeatedly: yes, he departs from a literal reading of the scores, but he does so quite knowingly and for a specific purpose each time. It is certainly possible to disagree with these interpretations, but it is hard to imagine not being moved and exhilarated by them.
Honeck’s careful rethinking applies as well to his Bruckner Fourth, another superb-sounding Reference Recordings SACD. Here, some of what Honeck does is bolder than anything he attempts with Beethoven: he adds a horn trill at one point in the finale and uses plenty of rubato in the third movement and, indeed, throughout the symphony. But the tempo changes are not intrusive: Honeck has thought them through so well that they seem integral to the music even though listeners familiar with Bruckner’s “Romantic” symphony will know they are not. Honeck also balances the orchestra rather unusually here, bringing woodwinds to the fore so their delicacy and clarity stand in strong contrast to the warmth of the strings (which, although not at the level of those in the best European orchestras, are wonderfully rounded and full). The attention to wind/strings balance means, of necessity, some downplaying of the brass, which is about as counter-intuitive an approach to Bruckner as can be imagined. But Honeck scarcely lets the brass disappear – instead, he balances the brass choir on a more-or-less-equal basis with strings and woodwinds rather than having it dominate the rest of the orchestra, as it often does under conductors determined to give this and other Bruckner symphonies an organ-like sound. Honeck wants something else: he sees the “Romantic” symphony as essentially an expansion of Schubert, a lyrical and deeply felt work with deep folk (or Volk) roots, a kind of tone painting in symphonic form. This approach is actually justified by the program that Bruckner originally attached to the symphony, although he did not include the whole “guide” in the score. For Honeck, the point is that Bruckner’s Fourth is a flowing, highly expressive work in which flexible tempos are necessary throughout; and if the “organ sound” so common in Bruckner is not rigidly sought, what emerges here is a piece that, although scarcely lighthearted, is more affable than Bruckner is generally considered to be. There is elegance aplenty in this Bruckner Fourth, and certainly there is passion, but the main impression it produces is one of geniality. This is pleasant music, that being an adjective rarely associated with Bruckner. The fact that Honeck brings out this side of the composer shows just how different this Fourth is from other interpretations. It is neither right nor wrong – there is no one “right” way to conduct, play or hear Bruckner’s music (or Beethoven’s, Mozart’s or Haydn’s, for that matter). It is this reality, that many views of great works can be equally meaningful and therefore equally “correct,” that it can be easy to lose sight of in the search for historical literalism – just as the notion that the score is at best a guideline can be taken too far by interpreters who think they know more about what the composer intended to communicate than the composer did. Honeck’s Beethoven and Bruckner recordings are valuable not only in themselves but also in their reopening of the notion of classical-music performance as a collaborative endeavor between composer and conductor, between the expectations of the time when the music was created and the capabilities of the time in which it is performed, between the performance style for which the works were written and the different one in common use when, many years later, they reach out to an audience accustomed to hearing things in a very different way.
Bruckner: String Quintet; String Quartet; Intermezzo in D minor. Fitzwilliam String Quartet (Lucy Russell, Jonathan Sparey and Colin Scobie, violins; Alan George, viola; Heather Tuach, cello); James Boyd, viola. Linn Records. $19.99.
Don Gillis: Suites 1-3 for Woodwind Quintet. Madera Wind Quintet (Amy Thiemann, flute; Jason Paschall, oboe; Rachel Yoder, clarinet; Jorge Cruz, Jr., bassoon; Angela Winter, horn). Ravello. $14.99.
Libby Larsen: Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano; Sifting Through the Ruins; Viola Sonata; Up, Where the Air Gets Thin; Four on the Floor. Curtis Macomber, violin; Norman Fischer, cello; Jeanne Kierman Fischer and Craig Rutenberg, piano; Susanne Mentzer, mezzo-soprano; James Dunham, viola; Deborah Dunham, bass. Navona. $16.99.
Eleanor Cory: Things Are (2011); String Quartet No. 3 (2009); Epithalamium (1973); Violin Sonata No. 1 (2012); Celebration (2008); Fantasy (1991). Jayn Rosenfeld and Sue Ann Kahn, flute; Stephen Gosling and Blair McMillen, piano; Momenta Quartet (Emilie-Anne Gendron and Adda Kridler, violins; Stephanie Griffin, viola; Michael Haas, cello); Curtis Macomber, violin; William Anderson, guitar; James Baker, percussion. Naxos. $12.99.
Solitudes: Baltic Reflections. Mr McFall’s Chamber. Delphian. $19.99.
Bruckner’s only mature chamber work, the String Quintet, is a complex piece and a very difficult one to approach as either performer or (to a lesser degree) listener. Written between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, it is a surprisingly sonorous piece, considering its use of only five stringed instruments, and it has remarkable parallels to the symphonies as well as some distinctions wholly its own – including the fact that the first movement is the only opening movement that Bruckner wrote in triple time. An expansive work with some of the Schubertian elements common in the symphonies and some unusual juxtapositions of long-breathed lyricism with earthiness, this is a piece that gains a great deal by being played with close attention to the way it would have been performed in Bruckner’s own time, using gut strings and bowing that was then common but in later years became less so. The Fitzwilliam String Quartet does an extraordinarily fine job with this symphony-length (45-minute) chamber work, with a sensitivity to rhythmic changes and understanding of scale and balance born of 40 years of performances of the piece. The quintet unfolds at a leisurely pace that listeners who know the symphonies will recognize immediately, but it has so many structural and sonic differences from Bruckner’s even more grandly scaled, better-known orchestral music that it takes several hearings to separate the unique elements of the quartet from those carried over from the symphonies – or, in many cases, carried to them from this chamber work. This excellent Linn Records disc is a remarkable showcase for the Fitzwilliam String Quartet’s thoughtfulness and interpretative skill, and the quintet heard here is a not-to-be-missed experience for anyone intrigued by Bruckner as a composer who offered more than symphonies and Masses – but not much more. The quintet is accompanied on the CD by two lesser works. One, an Intermezzo, was written by Bruckner as an alternative scherzo for the quintet after violinist Joseph Hellmesberger, who had commissioned the quintet, expressed reservations about the difficulty of the scherzo; but Bruckner ended up keeping the original movement, leaving this longer and somewhat cozier piece as a standalone work. The other piece here is Bruckner’s String Quartet, a student work whose strongly contrasted moods – now dramatic, now lyrical, now passionate – are more striking than its themes and structure, which are redolent of models including Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven and Haydn. It is quite a well-made quartet but is clearly, with hindsight, a piece of juvenilia – worth occasional revivals but not approaching the stature, intensity or seriousness of the five-year-later quintet.
Chamber music need not, of course, be wholly serious to be successful. The three woodwind-quintet suites by Don Gillis (1912-1978) are bright, light and amusing cases in point. They all date from the late 1930s – the first from 1938 and the others from 1939 – and are all cast as three-movement tonal works whose titles, for each entire piece and for each work’s individual movements, are intended to guide listeners to what is being expressed. Thanks to Gillis’ fine sense of woodwind blending and the first-rate playing by the Madera Wind Quintet on a new Ravello CD, this first-ever recording of these three pieces is a delight from start to finish. The first suite, “The Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare,” recounts the famous “slow and steady wins the race” story with a first movement called “They’re Off,” a second in which the over-confident rabbit sleeps and dreams, and a finale in which the lumbering-but-untiring tortoise is heard quite clearly throughout, passing the sleeping rabbit and triumphantly crossing the finish line. The second suite, “Three Sketches,” offers more-personal music with a focus on the letter S, not only in its overall title but also in each individual movement: “Self Portrait,” “Sermonette (Southern Style),” and “Shadows.” Here the music moves from geniality to mild intensity with perhaps a hint of parody, and eventually to a quiet, attractive and somewhat mysterious conclusion. The third suite, “Gone with the Woodwinds,” draws most directly and heavily on jazz, although all three quartets incorporate it in significant ways. All three movements here – the first designated a combo, the second as a blues number, and the third a “frolic” – have a jazz-band and improvisational feel about them, with the individual players given plenty of chances to put their performance abilities on display front-and-center. None of this music is great or profound, and it could certainly be argued that it is backward-looking for its time; furthermore, the entire CD runs just 43 minutes, making it a rather niggardly offering. But the whole recording is so good-humored, the playing so well-balanced and so filled with verve, that the disc is simply a joy to hear and an example of 20th-century compositions that are, yes, in the popular vein, but that are as well-constructed as more-somber works – and all the more enjoyable because the recording does not demand that listeners approach it with deep understanding or intense focus.
The focuses of Libby Larsen’s works on a new Navona CD are more varied and altogether more serious. Larsen (born 1950) is very prolific, with more than 500 works to her credit, and any selection of her pieces is bound to reveal only a small amount of her intent and expressiveness. That is certainly the case in this recording, whose elements have little in common beyond their origination within the same composer’s mind. Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano takes some of the same jazz influences that Gillis uses and incorporates them into a more-traditional piece whose movement titles quite clearly express the work’s moods: “Sultry,” “Still” and “Bursts.” Sifting Through the Ruins is one of many composers’ works written in response to the terrorist murders of September 11, 2001. Words and music are more straightforward than in some comparable memorial works; the emotional content is carried more by mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer’s singing than by the music itself. The Viola Sonata is a rather restrained, or constrained, work, focusing more on the instrument’s tonal qualities (as complemented by and contrasted with those of the piano) than on a wide range of expressiveness. Up, Where the Air Gets Thin is a bit of a sonic experiment for cello and bass, requiring the instruments to play high in their ranges and produce a series of sounds quite different from their usual deep, warm ones – a kind of against-the-grain auditory experience that wears thin rather quickly. Four on the Floor, a strongly contrasting work, adds violin and piano to the two lower strings and has dynamism, rhythmic flair and bounce to spare – a very attractive conclusion to a CD that, as a whole, gets a (+++) rating.
A Naxos disc of world première recordings of music by Eleanor Cory (born 1943) is also a (+++) release. Cory’s music mixes many of the same elements that other contemporary composers’ works contain: jazz, tonal and atonal portions, and tributary material – Things Are, for example, is a flute-and-piano tribute to Milton Babbitt. Cory’s String Quartet No. 3 veers from almost-lyrical melancholy to playfulness, often highlighting instruments in pairs as well as in a foursome. Epithalamium for solo flute takes the instrument through its paces well enough but not in any especially surprising way, while Violin Sonata No. 1 – for the traditional violin-and-piano combination – adds modal elements to its mixture of tonality, atonality and jazz influences, emerging as a well-crafted but emotionally rather vapid work. Celebration, basically a four-movement, 12-minute piano sonata, explores the range and emotional extent of the piano much as Epithalamium does that of the flute, but Celebration comes across somewhat more effectively in its contrasting tempos, dynamics and rhythms. The final work here, and one of the most pleasant, is Fantasy, written for the unusual combination of flute, guitar and percussion. The unconventional instrumentation seems to have inspired Cory to produce a work that, although light in mood, hints at some depth of communication in the interplay of the instruments – and has an attractively open, airy sound throughout, with Cory showing particular skill in percussion writing that complements the comparatively light sound of flute and guitar without covering up or overwhelming the instruments.
The determination to be unconventional pervades a new Delphian CD called Solitudes: Baltic Reflections, featuring the chamber group known as Mr McFall’s Chamber – which includes Robert McFall on violin, Brian Schiele on viola, Su-a Lee on cello, Rick Standley on double bass, and various other instrumentalists who join the core group of four on an as-needed basis. The 11 works here are an odd but often intriguing mixture: Olli Mustonen’s Toccata, Zita Bruźaité’s Bangos for solo piano, Aulis Sallinen’s Introduction and Tango Overture, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Dedication for cello and piano, Kalevi Aho’s Lamento for two violas, Pēteris Vasks’ Little Summer Music for violin and piano, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina for solo piano, Toivo Kärki’s Täysikuu, Unto Mononen’s Satumaa, and two short pieces by Sibelius: Einsames Lied (Solitude, from “Belshazzar’s Feast”) and Finlandia Hymn. That last work, which concludes the disc, features Lee on musical saw, plus piano quintet – a fair representation of the way this disc is intended to mix the familiar and unfamiliar, the comfortable and outré. Sibelius, Mustonen, Sallinen, Pärt and Vasks may be known to many listeners, albeit to different degrees, but the other composers likely will not be. Certainly this disc offers some wonderful contrasts – having Pärt’s bleak work immediately followed by Kärki’s, for instance, pulls listeners from desolation to somewhat ambiguous relief (Kärki’s piece is a minor-key tango). The six brief movements of Vasks’ work stand at the center of the CD structurally and emotionally, communicating summer sunshine, yes, but only in veiled fashion. All these pieces offer something of interest: Aho’s is scored for two violas, Sallinen’s uses tango rhythm unusually imaginatively, Mustonen’s includes such neat effects as a pizzicato double bass, and so on. McFall is responsible for many of the arrangements here; they range from intriguing to in-your-face unconventional, to greater or lesser effect. It is hard to tell whether McFall is being capricious or wants to be taken seriously – or is seeking to indicate that the two elements can coexist peacefully. Most of the works here are quite short, and the CD comes across as a showpiece for McFall and the other performers rather than any sort of clear musical statement: much here is fun, much is serious, much seems to be both at once, but the overarching message of the CD – if it is supposed to have one – is somewhat muddled. It is a (+++) recording containing some excellent playing and a highly individualistic choice of material, all of it performed very well; but its overall purpose is less then crystal-clear.
November 12, 2015
Ollie’s Valentine. By Olivier Dunrea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Harry Potter Coloring Book. Scholastic. $13.99.
Take well-known series and move them into new areas and you have what are called “line extensions,” items (books in this case) that clearly belong with others using the same characters and topics but that are different enough to take fans in directions in which they have not yet gone. This is not a simple matter in the “gosling” books by Olivier Dunrea – the short books about various adorable goslings do not seem to have anywhere new to go, although Dunrea has previously enlarged the series by simply introducing new characters. However, Ollie’s Valentine does find a way to do something different from what Dunrea does with most other books about the goslings’ simple, endearing adventures. This board book has little Ollie finding out that all his friends have brightly colored foil valentines – the illustrations of the hearts are especially enjoyable – but he does not. He wants one for his own, but everyone carrying a valentine has just received it from someone else: Gossie from Gertie, Gertie from BooBoo, BooBoo from Peedie, Peedie from Gideon. Everyone, it seems, is someone’s valentine, except for poor Ollie. But fear not! Dunrea comes up with a clever conclusion that makes perfect sense in the context of these stories and that directly involves the reader (or pre-reader, if an adult is reading Ollie’s Valentine to a very young child) in making Ollie’s wish come true and making him happy. The way the book ends ties up the slight tale very neatly, and it is easy to imagine very young children getting to the conclusion, looking up at the adult reading to them, and happily saying, “Again!”
Older kids – and even some adults – looking again to immerse themselves in the world of Harry Potter now have their own way of getting directly involved in the story. The Harry Potter Coloring Book is just what it says: a series of black-and-white pages showing scenes from Harry’s world and designed to be colored by artists of any age. These are not drawings from Scholastic’s recent and excellent pictorial edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, illustrated by Jim Kay. Nor are the pages based on Mary GrandPré’s illustrations for Scholastic’s U.S. edition of J.K. Rowling’s novels. Instead, the pages are drawn from the eight films that brought Harry and his adventures to the screen – and 16 pages of stills from the films, appearing at the back of the book, provide guidance on the colors used by the filmmakers and also help artists remember the movies and all the amazement they generated in theaters. The line drawings in the book were actually used in the making of the films, so it is no surprise that some of the book’s scenes look familiar – but not all of them do, at least in their black-and-white versions. Part of the fun of this book, in addition to the enjoyment of the coloring, comes from trying to remember which movie each scene comes from and what exactly was happening at the time. There are action scenes here (winged keys flying, the Sorting Hat in use) along with portraits of characters (Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dobby, Hagrid, Voldemort) and views of important objects (the Golden Snitch, coats of arms of the competing Hogwarts Houses, wands, even the Weasley brothers’ “Compendium Box of Pyrotechtrix”). Just leafing through the book should be enough to jog the memory of Rowling’s readers and those who enjoyed the films. And while the stills from the movies can be used to provide guidance regarding how the filmmakers saw various characters and elements of Harry’s world, they can also be used to come up with different ways to portray the same things shown on screen. After all, who says the poster advertising the 422nd Quidditch World Cup has to be colored just as it was at the movies?
The Zombie Chasers #6: Zombies of the Caribbean. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by David DeGrand. Harper. $6.99.
The Zombie Chasers #7: World Zombination. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by David DeGrand. Harper. $16.99.
As long as zombies remain popular – they are currently the go-to supernatural monsters, having displaced those so over that vampires – there will be authors available to, ahem, feed them. Or rather, to feed the young readers who, err, devour them. That is, devour stories about them. Well, The Zombie Chasers certainly fits in there somewhere. John Kloepfer and David DeGrand appear to be having a simply wonderful time with this extended series, in which getting unzombified is as much a plot point as getting zombified in the first place (which is, umm, kind of weird, since to get zombified you are supposed to have to be, like, dead, but in these books you just have to be reversibly infected, which makes as much sense as anything else here). This is as good a point as any to recap the story so far, since the sixth book, Zombies of the Caribbean, is now available in paperback after originally being published last year. In the sixth entry, the anti-zombie brigade has grown to include six kids – Zack, Rice, Zoe, Madison, Ozzie and Olivia – who head for the private Caribbean island fortress of a zombie expert who may be the only one who can help them. Unfortunately, other “only one who can help us” types have all proved less than effective, but maybe this time...but no such luck. In Zombies of the Caribbean, the kids do indeed locate an explorer named Nigel Black, who is as knowledgeable as they had hoped. But it turns out that he lost a leg in a zombie attack and therefore cannot help them on their latest quest, which involves hunting for a gigantic “rare breed of giant frilled tiger shark” that preys on a certain jellyfish that is needed for a new and improved zombie antidote. The kids are careful to bring Nigel up to date when they meet him, with Rice explaining, “I was a zombie for a while, too, because Madison mistakenly lost her vegan antidote powers to a piece of pepperoni pizza. But then I ate the Band-Aid in Central Park and was unzombified. Man, being a zombie was cool.” And now that that clears everything up, readers of the sixth book will find that the kids are, as usual, on their own in their latest adventure, facing down zombie vacationers, zombie spring breakers, zombie pirates (hey, it’s the Caribbean), and the usual cast of ridiculousness, at the end of which they (of course) do capture the elusive tiger shark and it turns out that (of course) that is not enough, so they have to go on an even longer voyage – to Madagascar – to find the really-truly-no-kidding last piece of the puzzle to get rid of the zombies once and for all. Maybe.
And that brings us to the all-new seventh book, World Zombination. Hmm, the whole world is a sort of “zombie nation” here, isn’t it? But that is not the point of the title, which is about world domination by zombies, hence “zombination.” Anyway, this is clearly a bad thing, which is why the intrepid kids are trying to prevent it. And they do prevent it, apparently once and for all, because World Zombination is – wait for it – the final book in The Zombie Chasers series. What happens here is neatly summed up at the end by Zack himself – and there are no spoilers in this, because what happens in these books has never been as important as how it happens. So, here is the story of the sixth and seventh books. These novels tell “how they had met Nigel Black and tracked down the giant frilled tiger shark. How they had flown to Madagascar and then to China in search of the mayfly larvae and the ancient ginkgo tree root to complete the super zombie antidote. How they had ambushed the super zombies in Florida with their antidote-filled Super Soakers and water balloons…and then how they had traveled back to BurgerDog headquarters…and remade the popcorn antidote that had reversed the first outbreak. …And how they had spent weeks unzombifying the undead masses across the globe.” Victory!! Well, really, what did readers expect? But, again, the fact of the eventual triumph matters less than the way it happens, and in this finale as in the other books, Kloepfer makes sure that a lot happens, while DeGrand makes sure to show as much of it as possible in as gross a way as will be acceptable to preteen readers. Among the highlights of the series finale are zombie lemurs, which are not nearly as cute as unzombified ones, and zombie mummies, which give Kloepfer the chance to create a new word: zummies. (“Zummies are yummy” is not, however, a statement here.) Another important element of the series’ conclusion, also carried through from the earlier books, is that the kids have no distinguishing personality traits whatsoever, because the point of this series is that the preteen group as a whole is heroic, and friendship is what matters when fighting zombies or doing, well, pretty much anything. And so all returns to normal and World Zombination does not, after all, occur, but enough things do occur in the book so that readers who have followed the series from the start will be happily sated as they consume the end.
Scholastic 2016 Book of World Records Special Edition: Epic Wins and Fails. By Jennifer Corr Morse. Scholastic. $10.99.
Well, the word “access,” which is a noun, has been turned into a verb, as in “I need to access that data” (which should really be “those data,” but singular and plural are another matter). So it seems only fair that the word “fail,” which is a verb, should be turned into a noun, as in “Epic Wins and Fails” in the subtitle of the latest book of world records from Scholastic. Trivia books (sorry: “factoid” books) have a hard time of it these days, with so many bits of insignificant information available on the Internet and with so many events occurring between the time a book is laid out and the time it reaches readers, which means information in fact-oriented books now has an even more limited lifespan than it used to. In some cases that span can be measured in days, if not hours or minutes.
So a book such as Scholastic 2016 Book of World Records simply must call itself a Special Edition to attract attention, and if it can create a topic or approach that differentiates it from the flood of Internet information, so much the better. Hence the “Epic Wins and Fails” part of the subtitle. But don’t take those words too seriously, at least not the “Fails” one. Many of the matters mentioned here as “Fails” are anything but, no matter what the book’s layout and words say. “The stonefish is the most poisonous fish in the sea,” the book says on one page, labeling the fish an “Epic Fail.” Two pages later, it notes that the “Smallest Lake” is Benxi Lake in China, but even the book is unconvinced that this is the “Epic Fail” it is labeled as being, since the text goes on to say that the natural lake “though small[,] is considered a place of beauty.” On the other hand, the largest desert, the Sahara, is laid out in the “Epic Wins” section; and for that matter, “actor with the lowest returns per salary dollar: Adam Sandler” is laid out in “Epic Wins” as well. So the book’s layout is itself something of an “Epic Fail.”
Still, some of the information really is fascinating. Readers who have often heard that McDonald’s is the world’s largest restaurant chain will be surprised to find that it is only the world’s second-biggest global food franchise, with Subway being No. 1. People wondering what the best-selling vehicle in the United States is – Toyota Camry is often mentioned – will find out that the best-seller is actually a truck (or group of trucks), the Ford F-Series. Anyone who remembers Titanic as the top-grossing movie of all time may be surprised to learn that it is actually No. 2, behind Avatar. How about figuring out which state has the most lightning strikes? It is Florida – which for some reason is an “Epic Fail.”
Some items here are so well-known that their inclusion, while understandable, seems superfluous: the elephant is the heaviest land mammal and the cheetah the fastest, the California Redwood is the world’s tallest tree, the Pacific is the largest ocean (although the fact that it is twice the size of the Atlantic is interesting), the Great White is the most dangerous shark, the gorilla is the largest primate, the reticulated python is the longest snake, and so on. These “Epic Wins” are unlikely to change year after year, so the attraction of finding them in this book mostly has to do with seeing the photos of them and looking at the graphics showing how the No. 1 this-or-that compares with Nos. 2-5. What can potentially change annually are sports, film and popular-culture records, with which, not surprisingly, the book is packed. True, not all of those records change frequently: the major-league ballplayer hit the most times by a pitch (287) was shortstop Hughie Jennings, whose career lasted from 1891 to 1918; and the NFL coach with the worst win-loss percentage, Fay Abbott, won exactly zero games from 1928 to 1929. In fact, odd facts like these are a reason that books like this provide information that readers will probably not find online: you have to know what you are looking for on the Internet in order to search for it, while coming across this sort of fact in a book is a form of serendipity.
Still, most people who want to own Scholastic 2016 Book of World Records probably want to relive and discuss the “Epic Wins”: Justin Bieber is the highest-paid celebrity under age 30; Apple is the world’s most valuable brand; The Phantom of the Opera is the longest-running Broadway show; Tumblr is the fastest-growing social-media site; Amazon.com is the most popular e-reader service; the top-grossing animated movie of all time is Disney’s Frozen; the most-watched video ever on YouTube is “Gangnam Style”; the NBA player with the most career points is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; the golfer with the most tournament wins is Jack Nicklaus; and on and on. Individually, any of these records – whether defined as Wins, Fails or simply interesting facts – is super-simple to find online. The attraction of a book such as Scholastic 2016 Book of World Records is that it pulls all of them into one place and gives readers sidelights they may not know (even if they know the basic facts) – plus the opportunity, while thumbing through the pages, to discover some matters of interest that they could discover online but would have no reason to look for and therefore wouldn’t find.
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (complete, arranged for solo piano). Stewart Goodyear, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99 (SACD).
R. Nathaniel Dett: Complete Piano Works. Clipper Erickson, piano. Navona. $18.99 (2 CDs).
Ravel: Complete Piano Works; Alfredo Casella: À la manière de…Ravel; Arthur Honegger: Hommage à Ravel; Kendall Briggs: Hommage à Ravel; Marcus Aydintan: Encore avec Ravel; Anton Plate: Erinnerung an Maurice Ravel; Benedict Mason: Galoches en d’août. Hinrich Alpers, piano. Honens. $20 (2 CDs).
Scarlatti: Sonatas K3, 54 and 502; Messiaen: Quatre études de rythme—No. 4, Île de feu II; Préludes—Les sons impalpables du rêve, Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu; Webern: Variations, Op. 27; George Benjamin: Shadowlines—Six Canonic Preludes for Piano; Debussy: Préludes deuxième livre—Feux d’artifice; Masques; D’un cahier d’esquisses; L’isle joyeuse. Gilles Vonsattel, piano. Honens. $15.
Valentin Silvestrov: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3; Classical Sonata; Children’s Music I; Nostalghia. Simon Smith, piano. Delphian. $19.99.
Most of Stewart Goodyear’s performance of his piano arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s complete The Nutcracker is so good that a listener can do little more than sit back slack-jawed at the constant stream of revelatory moments in this exceptionally well-played version of thrice-familiar music that sounds amazingly fresh and new on an outstanding Steinway & Sons SACD. There has simply never been anything like this before: pianists have essayed the Nutcracker Suite, but Goodyear offers the entire ballet, start to finish, in his own arrangement, and the engineers have managed to fit the whole 82½ minutes onto a single marvelous-sounding disc even though the medium is supposed to have an 80-minute limit to avoid quality loss. There is not a scintilla of sonic diminution here, and the performance is, plainly and simply, an utter joy. The scenic connections of the ballet come through better here than in the orchestral version, thanks to perfectly chosen tempos and an arrangement that highlights similarities that are integral to the score even as it brings out far more coloristic elements than one would expect any piano version of a brilliantly orchestrated work to do. Everyone from young would-be ballet dancers to parents oversaturated with The Nutcracker ought to hear what Goodyear does with it, and in fact this would make a marvelous ballet-school rehearsal disc if it weren’t so involving that dancers would likely keep stopping in the midst of their pliés to pay special attention to one touch of elegance or another. There are plenty of those, from the bright yet piquant March to the tremendously vivid The Presents of Drosselmeyer, from a genuinely exciting (and surprisingly dramatic) battle scene to the warm elegance of the Coffee dance. And more – much more. Every number of the ballet gets loving and lovely handling here, and when there are occasional missteps, they are mostly just ones of trying a bit too hard: Galop and Dance of the Parents is a touch too heavy-handed and clumsy; Waltz of the Snowflakes does not really capture the magic of this gorgeous number (although the piano does almost sound like a wordless chorus at the end); the start of Chocolate is a touch awkward and its rhythm slightly flaccid. But it is almost embarrassing to nitpick this arrangement and this performance, because so much in it is absolutely splendid. When Goodyear wants to cut loose, he does so with consummate skill and at a pace that is almost unbelievable: no one could possibly dance this Trepak, but listening to it and then hearing the contrast with the bouncy Dance of the Reed Pipes immediately afterwards is an experience not to be missed. Indeed, this entire recording is not to be missed: it is one of the best piano releases of the year and, even more amazingly, it is simply one of the very best versions of The Nutcracker available.
The pianism is not as spectacular as Goodyear’s and the music is as little-known as Tchaikovsky’s is familiar, but Navona’s excellent two-CD release of the complete piano works of R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) is a winner in its own way. Dett, who was black, was born in Canada and remains better known there than in the United States; the chapel of the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the city where Dett was born, is named for him – he was church organist there for five years. Dett actually lived in both Canada and the U.S., performing as a pianist and choir leader in Boston and at New York’s Carnegie Hall, as well as at Canadian venues. His piano music nevertheless represents a major discovery, or rediscovery: unlike his near-contemporary Charles Ives, who incorporated hymn and folk tunes into many works but used them as jumping-off points for forays into complex polytonality, multiple rhythms and sonically adventurous pieces, Dett made hymns, especially black spirituals, and folk tunes into the center of entirely tonal, beautifully harmonized works that applied European Romantic musical notions to pieces of American origin. Inspired in part by hearing Dvořák’s works that incorporated New World themes, Dett created piano suites and individual character pieces with striking rhythms and harmonies, a fine flow of musical ideas, and pianistic settings requiring virtuosity but never becoming empty fireworks displays. In fact, there is little that is explosive and much that is expressive in these pieces, all of which Clipper Erickson plays with beauty and understanding. The recording takes most of the works in chronological order, which is a useful approach for showing how Dett’s music developed and how, near the end of his life, he adopted more-contemporary compositional methods while remaining true to his lifelong incorporation of folk and spiritual thematic elements. Magnolia (1912) tries impressionistically to evoke specific settings: “Magnolias,” “The Deserted Cabin,” “My Lady Love,” “Mammy” and “The Place Where the Rainbow Ends.” The music is naïve but skillfully crafted. In the Bottoms (1913) is less specific in its scene-painting but still impressionistic, its movements being called “Prelude – Night,” “His Song,” “Honey – Humoresque,” “Barcarolle – Morning,” and “Dance – Juba.” Enchantment (1922) is more abstract still, offering “Incantation,” “Song of the Shrine,” “Dance of the Desire” and “Beyond the Dream.” The standalone Nepenthe and the Muse (also 1922) is also dreamlike, drifting along pleasantly. The four movements of Cinnamon Grove (1928) show Dett fully comfortable with classical-music style, being marked only with tempo indications such as Adagio cantabile and Allegretto. This work also has forward propulsiveness and a certain stylistic elegance that mark it as a mature piece. Tropic Winter (1938) returns to specificity in movement titles but combines the words with music of considerable sophistication and more of a 20th-century feel than Dett’s earlier piano pieces. It includes “The Daybreak Charioteer,” “A Bayou Garden,” “Pompons and Fans (Mazurka),” “Legend of the Atoll,” “To a Closed Casement,” “Noon Siesta,” and “Parade of the Jasmine Banners.” Dett’s final piano suite, Eight Bible Vignettes (1941-43), goes as far into contemporary techniques as Dett was ever to go, which is not very far – but here the somewhat extended harmonic language lends a piquancy and vibrancy to pieces drawing their themes and seriousness of manner from the Bible. After these chronologically presented works, Erickson offers three encores from early in Dett’s career: After the Cakewalk (1900), which is as high-stepping and exuberant as anyone could wish; Cave of the Winds (1902), which features a somewhat Joplinesque bounce and straightforward rhythms and harmonies; and Inspiration Waltzes (1903), which in truth are less than inspired musically but do show Dett’s ability to produce pleasant pieces in three-quarter time. The slightly harsh piano tone throughout the recording is actually fitting: it seems to place Dett and his music firmly in their time and transport listeners there as well, giving them the chance to meet a pianist/composer whose music neatly straddles the line between American classical and folk/spiritual idioms.
Whether the Dett recording truly includes his complete piano music depends on one’s definition: his American Ordering of Moses suite (1937) is absent, but since it is based on his oratorio The Ordering of Moses, it could be argued that it need not be included in a Dett piano survey. The picture is more complicated, however, when it comes to Ravel, whose supposedly complete piano works are played with a finely honed mixture of sensitivity and virtuosity by Hinrich Alpers on a new Honens release. The two-CD set is attractive in numerous ways, for its clever inclusion of supplements to Ravel’s works (commissioned by Alpers) as well as for those pieces themselves. But in this case, calling it a “complete” recording is simply incorrect. There is a lot of Ravel piano music here, more than most listeners will likely have heard, and there are some genuine rarities as well as familiar works. Alpers plays Sérénade grotesque (1892-93), Menuet antique (1895), Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899), Jeux d’eau (1901), Sonatine (1903-05), Miroirs (1904-05), Gaspard de la nuit (1908), Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn (1909), Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911), À la manière de…Borodine and Chabrier (1912-13), Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17), Menuet in C-sharp minor (1904), and the solo-piano version of La valse (1919-20). However, he omits a number of brief early works, a series of unpublished fugues (including one interestingly designated as Fugue à quatre voix on a theme of Napoléon Henri Reber), and the Danse gracieuse de Daphnis suite. The omissions do nothing to diminish the importance and high quality of this release, and Alpers’ fine handling of Ravel’s difficult-to-balance piano music (which must be played on the fine line between simplicity and virtuosity to have its full effect) makes this a first-rate recording even though it should not really be called a “complete” one. Particularly interesting here are the piano versions of works more familiar in orchestral guise, not only La valse (which sounds rather pale on piano, although Alpers handles its rhythms adeptly) but also Le tombeau de Couperin and Pavane pour une infante défunte. One of the enjoyments of this recording is the chance it offers to hear high-quality piano readings and consider how differently Ravel’s particular sensibilities come through on keyboard and when orchestrated – the disparities are surprisingly significant, and they are revelatory in a very different way from that of Goodyear in his handling of his arrangement of The Nutcracker. Alpers’ finely honed technique is particularly well-suited to Ravel, whose music, even at its most virtuosic, tends to sound pale or shapeless if not handled with genuine insight and well-thought-out balance between its technical demands and its expressiveness. Gaspard de la nuit, which comes across quite well here, is a perfect case in point. Alpers’ inclusion of multiple composers’ short tributes to or musical comments on Ravel makes this release even more interesting. The works by Casella (1883-1947) and Honegger (1892-1955) reflect their composers’ styles as much as Ravel’s, and the three more-modern works by Briggs (born 1959), Aydintan (born 1983) and Plate (born 1950) include some very interesting contemporary compositional elements that reflect on post-Ravel music as well as on Ravel himself (Aydintan’s 38-second piece is about as minimalist as it is possible to be). And the final work here, evocatively titled “Galoshes in August,” shows that a modern composer such as Mason (born 1954) can channel some of Ravel’s sensibilities in very intriguing and fitting ways. Ravel continues to speak to 21st-century composers and listeners not only through these tributes and interpretations but also through his piano music itself, when the performances are as adept as are those by Alpers.
Another new Honens release features another fine pianist, Gilles Vonsattel, in a varied program that unfortunately does not hold together particularly well when heard straight through. It sounds as if Vonsattel really wants to do a recital of contemporary music with a strong focus on George Benjamin (born 1950): in addition to Benjamin’s own Shadowlines (2001), the disc includes several pieces by Messiaen, whose final work Benjamin was involved in orchestrating. And the inclusion of Webern, the most minimalist composer of the Second Viennese School, enhances the impression of a CD trying to sound as modern (perhaps modernistic) as possible. But the first and last portions of the disc, containing works by Scarlatti and Debussy respectively, point to an attempt to put the “moderns” in a context that is not quite as acerbic as the inclusion of Webern and Benjamin would seem to indicate. There is some justification for this: Scarlatti’s sonatas can in fact be seen as harbingers of modern minimalism – it is a stretch, but not a totally unjustified one. However, Scarlatti wrote for harpsichord, not piano, and whatever forward-looking elements his sonatas contain must be seen within that context: each of the three sonatas included here is about the same length as the third of Webern’s Variations, but the music’s purpose, structure and intent are quite different, and all are tied to the instrument for which Scarlatti composed his sonatas and on which he played them. As for Debussy, there are some intriguing connections between the effects of the pieces Vonsattel performs and those of Messiaen, whose impressionist and coloristic effects, although quite different, overlap in ways that show the two composers to be not as far apart in sensibility as they are in the elements from which they construct their piano pieces. There is much of interest on this recording, and certainly Vonsattel’s pianism is of a high order, but the (+++) CD ultimately has more to offer on an intellectual and analytical level than on an emotionally communicative one: the thoughts underlying the production are stronger than the music selected in an attempt to elucidate those thoughts.
The piano works of Valentin Silvestrov (born 1937) on a new Delphian CD in some ways serve on their own to showcase the forms of 20th- and 21st-century piano communication that Vonsattel displays through the works of multiple composers. Silvestrov – himself a pianist – is sometimes neoclassical, sometimes tonal, sometimes modal, sometimes postmodern (although that word is a slippery one where his music is concerned). What unites his works, including those played with considerable élan by Simon Smith, is their drama and forthright emotion, the latter being something encountered all too rarely in contemporary classical pieces. Silvestrov’s music nevertheless requires some getting used to. There is a pervasive sense of melancholy in much of his output, and even when he writes in what seems on the surface to be a clear form – as he does in the Classical Sonata, which predates the three numbered ones – things are not quite as they appear on the surface (just as Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is not quite what its title indicates). Silvestrov believes that we are in the “end times” of music itself, and many of his works seem to reflect that depressive proposition: three bear the name of Postludium, two the title Epitaph, and there are a Requiem and a Lacrimosa in addition to a symphonic poem called Metamusic. Much of Silvestrov’s output, including the piano works heard here, combines elements of structural minimalism with yearning but not especially lyrical passages that seem to want to communicate more than they actually do. The title of the concluding piece on this (+++) CD, Nostalghia, could stand for pretty much all the music here: in its short duration, it delivers the yearning and expressiveness, the searching for meaning and emotional connection, that the sonatas seek at their greater length. Children’s Music I fits rather oddly into this grouping: although certainly no Jeux d’enfants or Children’s Corner Suite, it lies in the same tradition, including seven movements (played without pause) with titles including “Gratitude,” “Astonishment” and “Morning Ditty.” Lighter and less fraught with meaning than the rest of the music on this disc, it is a pleasant change of pace placed mid-way through the CD, providing a touch of respite before Smith resumes his pursuit of Silvestrov’s weightier, more-intense pianistic productions.