May 19, 2016
Pretty Minnie in Hollywood. By Danielle Steel. Illustrated by Kristi Valiant. Doubleday. $17.99.
Douglas, You Need Glasses! By Ged Adamson. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
Parents who just cannot wait to get their children intrigued by the high life, high times and high-rolling style of Danielle Steel’s protagonists can get kids ages 3-7 – that is, as young as age three – involved in the adventures of Pretty Minnie. Minnie, however, is big only in personality: she is a teacup-size long-haired white Chihuahua, and her larger-than-life adventures (the first in Paris and the new, second one in Hollywood) come with none of the angst and high drama to be found in Steel’s novels for adults. Minnie is just too adorable to be real, and her behavior is too perfect to be believed, and after all, where but in a children’s book can such perfection be found? Minnie, whose adorableness is fully realized in Kristi Valiant’s illustrations, belongs to Françoise, whose mother one day announces that the family needs to go to Hollywood to bring an actress a dress that Françoise’s mother has designed. Of course Minnie will be going, too, and Valiant’s picture of Françoise and Minnie choosing their outfits for the trip will immediately delight all fans of Jane O’Connor’s Fancy Nancy. This being a fantasy, Minnie gets to ride on Françoise’s lap or in the empty seat next to her throughout the transatlantic and transcontinental flight, and Valiant draws Minnie’s ears so large and so pointed that the dog herself seems about to take off. The wonderful airplane trip leads to a series of wonderful adventures in Hollywood – until the one negative thing in the book occurs when Minnie meets the dog star Fifi, who takes an instant dislike to the little Chihuahua. But in this adorable bit of make-believe, Fifi’s growling at Minnie leads to Fifi being sent home and, in true 42nd Street fashion, being replaced by Minnie – who promptly becomes the star of the movie, giving Valiant a chance to draw her in a Sherlock Holmes outfit, a Cinderella lost-slipper scene, and more. Being a big success does not go to Minnie’s head at all, though: as happy as she is to celebrate her success with some Pupcake Cupcakes (a great product name!), she and Françoise are even happier when they fly home to Paris and resume their far-from-ordinary everyday life. A kind of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Pooches, Steel’s book is so lighthearted and so out-and-out cute that even parents who would not think of reading one of Steel’s novels for adults can have a great time reading Pretty Minnie in Hollywood with their children.
A book about a much more ordinary-looking dog – and a work with a more serious purpose – Ged Adamson’s Douglas, You Need Glasses! manages to be quite cute in its own way. To start with, the title is printed in blurry type. And Douglas, clearly a non-pedigreed pooch and adorable in his own right, discovers the need for glasses through a series of very funny misadventures both on his own and with his owner, Nancy. He chases leaves, thinking they are squirrels, and manages to walk through fresh cement because he cannot see the warning sign. “Sometimes he even went home to the wrong house,” Adamson explains, showing Douglas happily eating from a dog bowl labeled “Barney.” When Douglas fetches a beehive instead of a ball, Nancy decides enough is enough, and she takes him to an optician, where Douglas manages to mis-identify every object on the dog-friendly eye chart. Eyeglasses are clearly called for, and Douglas gets to try on a whole bunch of them (even Pretty Minnie might enjoy the trying-on poses in this part of the story). Eventually Douglas gets just the right pair of glasses, and everything ends happily – and that is that. The ending, a bit of a letdown in story terms, makes it clear that Adamson really sees the book as a teaching tool, to be used to show kids ages 3-7 that it is fine to wear eyeglasses so you can see better. In fact, the book’s final two pages show pictures of “real kids who wear glasses” and invite readers who wear them to post their own photos online. Beneath the amusement of the book – and a lot of it is very amusing indeed – there is the serious message that if you need glasses, you should get them. It is never quite clear why Douglas has not gotten glasses already – he “had always been a very nearsighted dog,” Adamson writes – but whatever the reason, by the end of the book he is wearing them happily and seeing everything much more clearly, which is, clearly, the way things should turn out.
My Little Sister and Me. By Maple Lam. Harper. $17.99.
Samanthasaurus Rex. By B.B. Mandell. Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Hugs and hand-holding adorn the back covers of both these books for ages 4-8, but the characters being warmly familial are quite different in appearance – although beneath their exteriors, they are very much the same, which is the whole point. My Little Sister and Me features everyday human beings, an older brother (not much older, though) and younger sister. This is the first day that Mom has asked the boy to bring his little sister home from the school-bus stop – and the whole book is about the mundane but intriguing adventures that result on the walk to the kids’ house. Big brother is a bit of a worrier, as his expression makes clear the minute little sister gets off the bus and starts bouncing along the sidewalk singing a song. “Maybe she is singing it wrong,” brother worries. He worries even more when little sister “picks up all sorts of trash” as they walk – but Maple Lam shows that what little sister actually picks up are some leaves, an acorn, a penny, and other items that are not really trash. The small adventures continue as little sister chases a big dog but becomes scared of small squirrels, asks for her teddy bear and then remembers she left it at home, and so on. Then big brother spies a rain cloud and says they need to move faster, but little sister, distracted by birds, ignores him, gets scared by thunder, then trips and falls into a puddle. Big brother soon cleans up the minor mess, though, and the rain passes by, and the kids head the rest of the way home, to be greeted by their mother with big hugs and kisses. That is all there is to Lam’s book: an everyday adventure, pleasantly told and attractively illustrated. But at a time when parents are increasingly worried about letting kids walk home alone from even a very nearby bus stop, My Little Sister and Me seems like a bit of a throwback to a time when young kids and other, younger kids had joyful romps heading to and from home, not worrying about “stranger danger” or street-crossing trouble or much of anything. The idyllic undertone of Lam’s book will please some families and possibly concern others: this is a charming and sweet book, but its portrait of everyday family life may be quite different from the one in some readers’ families. Adults should decide whether Lam’s cute kids’ behavior is something they want their own children to imitate or ask to imitate; if not, they had best be prepared to explain why the children reading the book should not do what the children in the book are doing.
Kids are unlikely to want to do what Samanthasaurus Rex does, since the family here is one of dinosaurs; but these are very human-seeming dinosaurs, not only talking but also urging Samanthasaurus toward 21st-century-style personal fulfillment: “‘Girls need to be leaders,’ said her father.” There are four members of the dinosaur family, although there is a bit of uncertainty about Samanthasaurus’ brother, who is called “big brother” at first and “little brother” later (there do not seem to be two brothers). Ignoring this bit of confusion, the story meanders on its merry way, showing that Samanthasaurus sees things differently from the way the rest of the family does – but has views that are just as valid. Her mother wants help breaking through branches, but Samanthasaurus wants to weave ferns together to make a rope. Her father wants to check out the path ahead, but Samanthasaurus prefers to collect rocks: “‘I think I discovered a diamond.’” Her brother wants to stomp on geysers, but Samanthasaurus wants to “‘harness that energy,’” using a huge leaf to direct the warm water to give a pteranodon a bath. Of course, everything works out perfectly for Samanthasaurus: the family is endangered by an erupting volcano, and Samanthasaurus’ rope, diamond and helpful ways with pteranodons lead to multiple rescues. Self-actualization forever, even in the Cretaceous! Of course, B.B. Mandell and Suzanne Kaufman do not expect anyone to take these dinosaurs seriously: they are simply using them to make thoroughly modern points about being yourself and cooperating as a family. Samanthasaurus Rex lays on its message perhaps a bit too thickly, but families seeking specifically to build up young girls’ willingness to do things their own way will find it a pleasant little guidebook packed with prettily pictured prehistoric people-like protagonists.
Stick Cat #1: A Tail of Two Kitties. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.
Bedtime Stories for Cats. By Leigh Anne Jasheway. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Bedtime Stories for Dogs. By Leigh Anne Jasheway. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Biscuit Feeds the Pets. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $16.99.
Fresh from his repeated successes with the Stick Dog series, featuring drawings that are deliberately amateurish and stories supposed to have sprung from the mind of one of the preteens at whom the books are aimed, Tom Watson has now expanded his repertoire by creating Stick Cat. He has not, however, expanded it very much. Once again he has created an amiable, clear-thinking central character with rectangular body, circular head, and a modest interest in adventures. Stick Dog’s interests are invariably food-related, but it remains to be seen what Stick Cat’s will be. In A Tail of Two Kitties the focus is music, but who knows if that will continue? Watson’s new series still has some finding-of-its-way ahead of it, not only thematically but also in terms of characters. Stick Dog leads a pack, and the other four dogs have differing personalities and various ways of seeing – usually mis-seeing – the world, with the result that Stick Dog has to be the sensible center of each story even as his compatriots misinterpret pretty much everything in ways tied to each one’s personality. Cats are not pack animals, though, and Stick Cat lives in a city apartment, not somewhere that would allow him to roam freely, as Stick Dog does. So Watson gives Stick Cat one single friend, Edith – the second of the two kitties in the title of the first book – and tries to roll all the observational imperfections of Stick Dog’s pack into a single character. This does not work very well: Edith ends up being a rather unpleasant character, thoroughly unaware of pretty much everything about herself, unobservant and selfish to such a degree that she actually puts Stick Dog’s life in danger during their first adventure. Hopefully she will become more bearable, or cat-able, in later books. Thank goodness Watson’s plot rescues this one: Stick Cat likes to watch and listen to the man who tunes pianos and then plays them at the piano factory across the street, but one day the man’s arms get trapped in a grand piano when its top falls onto them – and Stick Cat decides to rescue “Mr. Music,” as he calls the man. Edith makes the rescue decidedly more difficult, but eventually it is she who gets another man in to help after she accidentally sits on Mr. Music’s dropped cell phone and it happens to dial one of his co-workers. That scene, and one in which Stick Cat puts clothespins all over his body, are funny enough to rescue the book from its less-attractive elements, all of which are named Edith. At the end, Stick Cat gets a piano recital just for himself, courtesy of the now-rescued Mr. Music, and drops happily off to sleep to await his next adventure.
Had the music not been available, Stick Cat might have availed himself of Bedtime Stories for Cats, in which Leigh Anne Jasheway retells such fairy tales as “Kitty and the Beast,” “The Three Kitty Cats Gruff,” and even – in a mildly noir-ish “detective story” way – “Puss and the Missing Boots.” Then Jasheway throws in some reconstituted and refocused nursery rhymes at the end, and the result is considerable amusement for cat lovers, if not necessary for felines themselves. Jasheway’s Bedtime Stories for Cats and its companion, Bedtime Stories for Dogs, originally date to 1996-1997, but the new books are suitably updated with references to YouTube, the “Catdashians,” and other elements of 21st-century life. The book for dogs (and their people) follows the same pattern as the one for cats, including “The Three Little Pugs,” “Goldilocks and the Three Cats,” “Cinderdane,” and the like; and yes, there are rethought nursery rhymes here as well. Each book gets sentimental toward the end. “Alanis and Her Magic Belly” is a story about the real-world wonders of rubbing a cat’s belly to make human problems “magically disappear,” and “Angel Dogs” is about pups that do not behave angelically at all but are angels as far as their owners are concerned. Really, Jasheway’s books are bedtime stories for cat lovers and dog lovers, not for companion animals themselves – but certainly humans might consider cuddling up with a canine or feline companion and reading the books aloud, if only so their voices will lull everyone to sleep at the same time.
Very young puppy fanciers will find bedtime, or anytime, a great time to read Biscuit Feeds the Pets, which actually includes both dogs and cats – and fish and guinea pigs, too. This is a “My First” book in the I Can Read! series, which means it is “ideal for sharing with emergent readers.” But unlike many books in this early-reading series, which are “based on” characters found elsewhere, this work is created by the same author and illustrator who produce Biscuit books for older kids, Alyssa Satin Capucilli and Pat Schories. As a result, the book serves as a wonderful introduction to Biscuit and the humans surrounding him, and also reflects the same sense of amusement and playfulness as other, somewhat more elaborate Biscuit books. Biscuit and his little-girl owner show up at Mrs. Gray’s house to help feed her many pets, and all goes well until Biscuit gets into his usual mild mischief after discovering a litter of new puppies that are almost as big as he is. A little too much enthusiastic play results in water and kibble spilling all over the place, but no one is upset, and Biscuit gets a compliment for finding his own way to help feed the pets. Biscuit is always cutely endearing, and kids who are just learning to read will enjoy meeting him here if they have not done so before – and will likely be encouraged by this story to seek out others by Capucilli and Schories that are just as doggone enjoyable.
81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness. By Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou. Da Capo. $15.99.
This is a fascinating 120-page book that lasts 240 pages. At its heart is one of those remarkable survival-against-all-odds stories, that of First Lieutenant Leon Crane, who bailed out of his crashing B-24 Liberator bomber over eastern Alaska on the first day of winter, 1943. The flight’s intended objective was to learn how to handle propellers when an engine malfunctions or even catches fire. But the reason for the flight is irrelevant to the story of how Crane, a young Philadelphia man with no wilderness experience, survived nearly 12 weeks of Alaskan winter and eventually returned to base, not much the worse for wear.
Not surprisingly, training, resourcefulness and luck were the ingredients that kept Crane going through the snow, ice, wind and temperatures as low as 50 below zero. Crane comes across as a vessel of survival qualities – there is little sense of him as a person – but that would be all right in a story carefully focused on one man’s ordeal. The focus of 81 Days Below Zero, however, is by no means careful. Again and again, Brian Murphy goes off in somewhat relevant or largely irrelevant directions, pausing the basic story to spend time on something marginally related – sometimes something interesting, sometimes not. A little delving into Crane’s personality and psychology would have been welcome, for example, in explaining why, after stumbling on a cabin, he wanders away from it with only some raisins because he is so sure a town is nearby – even though he knows virtually nothing about Alaska. By the time Crane realizes he has made a bad mistake, it takes him 30 hours to find the cabin again – circumstances that make it hard to identify with him, since (in the absence of a feeling for him as a person) he simply seems to have been ridiculously overconfident if not unconscionably dumb. The chances are that neither of those possibilities is quite right, but 81 Days Below Zero has a curious absence about Crane: he himself has talked little about what he went through, possibly from survivor’s guilt or perhaps from some other psychological manifestation that Murphy does not explore. Murphy never spoke with Crane: the book is based on newspaper and magazine articles about what Crane went through, and as a result reads somewhat like a newspaper or magazine article itself.
What Murphy does look into here is a lot of ancillary material, some about people other than Crane (including members of Crane’s family and the B-24 crewmen who did not survive), some about Alaskan history and the people of its interior, some about historical events, some about the search for the downed plane and the organization that spearheaded it. This discursive approach, which may have been necessary to create a story long enough for a book, does not serve the central tale of survival very well. Readers who find some of the tangents interesting will be pleased; ones who do not can easily skip many of the chapters here to return to the core survival story. There are elements of that story that really are fascinating, such as the way Crane – who had no gloves – used the silk from the parachute that brought him down safely to protect his hands against the cold. The role of luck in Crane’s survival, as in that of many others who made it through events that could easily have killed them, is intriguing as well. For instance, Crane was able to make a fire on his first night in the Alaskan wilderness because he had matches with him – which he picked up before the flight because he knew the pilot liked to smoke cigars, and part of his own job as copilot was to keep the pilot comfortable.
Ultimately, reader enjoyment of 81 Days Below Zero will turn on how each person tackles the book. In addition to the basic survival tale, it has two primary subplots. One involves attempts to figure out what caused the plane to go out of control and what happened to the pilot who went down with it. The other is about a historian whose trip to the crash site led to the eventual burial with full military honors of remains identified as those of the pilot. Those who are captivated by these subplots and Murphy’s numerous shorter excursions into history and geography will enjoy the entire book. Those who want the focus to be on Crane and his survival will find they lose little by bypassing the non-Crane elements of the story. But Crane himself remains a virtual cipher here, and that is a core failing of the story – one that Murphy may have had no way to overcome, but nevertheless one that prevents the book from generating a level of empathy to go with the amazement inherent in any recounting of events as harrowing as the ones through which Crane lived.
Beethoven: The Early String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello). AVIE. $26.99 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello). AVIE. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Beethoven: The Late String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello). Cypress Quartet. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Twenty years is, or is not, a very long time in musical life, depending on how you define the two decades. The Budapest String Quartet lasted half a century (1917-1967), but metamorphosed substantially over the years – which leads to the old philosophical conundrum that asks, if you start with a wooden boat and replace its planks one by one over the years, until eventually not a single original plank remains, is it still the same boat? Other quartets have also shown impressive longevity, but the Cypress String Quartet, which has remained intact for the full 20 years of its existence, is impressive for retaining the same membership from start to finish. And it is concluding its remarkable two-decade run in a style befitting an ensemble that takes its name from Dvořák’s set of 12 love songs for string quartet, Cypresses, created in 1887 from his 1865 set of 18 love songs (some for tenor, some for baritone). That is, just as the Dvořák work from which the quartet sourced its name has great beauty and a complex history, so the quartet itself offers performances that mix lovely sound with amazing precision of playing and a highly personal but always justifiable view of the music it performs. The sonic beauty comes both from the players’ skill and from their instruments, which include Stradivarius (1681) and Carlo Bergonzi (1733) violins, a recent excellent viola by Vittorio Bellarosa (1947), and an Amati cello (1701). The dazzling ensemble work comes from Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, Ethan Filner and Jennifer Kloetzel themselves.
It is altogether fitting that the Cypress String Quartet has chosen to end its many seasons of excellence by completing the recording of a Beethoven cycle that began in 2012 with its self-released recording of the late quartets and continued in 2014 with AVIE’s release of the middle group. The decision to start with the enormous difficulty and complexity of the late music and conclude with the comparative simplicity and straightforwardness of the Op. 18 quartets seems odd on its face, but the Cypress String Quartet brings it off with great beauty and a real sense of élan. One of the difficulties of playing comparatively early Beethoven lies in trying to perform the music as if the composer’s later works had not yet been written – a real problem when it comes to, for example, the first two symphonies and the earlier piano sonatas. The Cypress String Quartet turns this concern on its head: the players find in the Op. 18 quartets many of the signs of the mature Beethoven, treating them as an alloy of Classical-era poise with proto-Romantic emotion and the kind of dramatic expressiveness that pervades Beethoven’s music. Far from throwbacks, the Op. 18 quartets emerge in this reading as genuinely transitional works, their cohesive musical arguments beautifully reflected through ensemble playing that is remarkably well-controlled and that highlights, again and again, musical details that collectively stamp these quartets as masterful productions bound only loosely to the Haydn works that in some ways they closely parallel. This becomes very clear from the start – literally from the opening of Op. 18, No. 1, when the initial unison declaration contrasts exactly as it should with the fragmentation that ensues. Coupled with this quartet’s deeply felt second movement, this performance encapsulates the Cypress String Quartet’s always-excellent balance of technical skill with emotional involvement. And so it is throughout the early-quartets recording. For another example, the performers throw themselves into the rhythmic uncertainty of the Scherzo of Op. 18, No. 6, turning the movement into a combination of challenge and fun, and then move to a “La Malinconia” finale in which they have clearly taken to heart Beethoven’s admonition that the movement must be played with the utmost delicacy.
The early-quartets release neatly ties up a Beethoven cycle that is very much of the 21st century even though the Cypress String Quartet plays primarily on historic instruments. The exceptional ensemble playing and clarity of lines in the fast movements are thoroughly contemporary, although this does not mean the performances are in any way rushed: the faster movements of the three Razumovsky quartets, Op. 59, for example, are quick but scarcely speedy. The players’ willingness to make a strong contrast between fast movements and slow ones also has a modern edge to it – the Razumovsky quartets are, again, good examples of this. But the Cypress String Quartet never seeks modernity of approach for its own sake. The heroic sweep of its playing, the constant ebb and flow of tension, the careful, incremental buildup of emotional impact, are all characteristics that the Cypress String Quartet shares with other first-rate ensembles that have produced outstanding Beethoven cycles. The care with which these performers seek out the overall structure and intended impact of Bethoven’s quartets is remarkable. Thus, the “Harp” quartet, Op. 74, gets an emphatically lyrical interpretation here, a sense of looking ahead to the Romantic era, albeit in a touching rather than deeply felt sense. The “Serioso,” Op. 95, on the other hand, gets a reading as serious as its title (which, unlike “Harp,” comes from Beethoven himself). Drama pervades this performance, but as in the “Harp” is not overdone or pushed too hard in a Romantic direction: there is nothing self-consciously gloomy here, but much that is expressive and a great deal that is entertaining despite the music’s underlying gravity.
The Cypress String Quartet’s late-Beethoven release takes some chances – indeed, recording this part of the Beethoven cycle before the others was chancy in itself. Somewhat surprisingly, there is absolutely no lack of maturity here, no sense that the performers tried to ascend these heights perhaps a bit too soon and would have done better to record the 16 quartets chronologically, as is more typically done. Indeed, there is truly remarkable attentiveness in these performances to Beethoven’s phrasing, articulation and dynamics, an understanding that even these astonishing quartets contain movements that require a very light touch indeed (for instance, the Presto of Op. 130 and Vivace of Op. 135). Furthermore, there is tremendous drive and excitement in this performance of the Grosse Fuge, with the players showing the work’s rhythms to be genuinely obsessive (and, tellingly, offering the Grosse Fuge before the alternative finale rather than afterwards, as many quartets used to and some still do). The real question for listeners in this late-quartet recording is whether they will feel that the quartet members, in their determination to deliver masterful performances, may have overthought elements of the music. The finale of Op. 127, for instance, although beautifully played, is a bit lacking in expressivity, and the theme and variations of Op. 131 seem rather carefully artful – a studied simplicity might have served the music better. But not much better, and in many ways that is the point. Any performance, any recording of Beethoven’s quartets can be nitpicked by those so inclined, and every lover and admirer of this music will have an internally idealized version of it that results in all performances seeming, as in Plato’s famous cave metaphor, like reflections of an ideal rather than the ideal itself. And so be it. One of the great joys of the Beethoven quartets is that they are amenable to an infinite number of interpretations, with well-thought-out ones like those of the Cypress String Quartet standing among the very best without being considered, or needing to be considered, the last word. One example among many here: the vision of the players for the Op. 130 quartet, including the Grosse Fuge, is of pervasive dance. This is a fascinating way to see the quartet (and even carries through to the alternative finale). This view sets this music in the historic line of Baroque suites, especially Bach’s, while at the same time giving it a cohesiveness that those suites never had or were intended to have – and a stylization of the included dances that looks forward to the 20th century and beyond. Is this the “right” way to see this music? No, but it is a right way, and that is true of every single one of the Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven recordings. Each of them is beautifully played, attentive to Beethoven’s tempo and dynamic markings, clear and intense and transparent in sound (abetted by the recordings themselves, all of which are very fine). And each of them offers these musicians’ wholly personal, wholly convincing views of music that every listener will ultimately experience in his or her own wholly personal way. The completion of the Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven cycle is not only the capstone of the cycle itself but also an absolutely fitting, crowning achievement of the quartet’s remarkable two-decade performing history.
Grieg: Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances), Op. 72; Stimmungen (Moods), Op. 73. John McCabe, piano. SOMM. $18.99.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Ibert: Petite Suite en 15 Images; Arno Babadjanian: Six Pictures for Piano. Andrey Gugnin, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Debussy: Préludes pour Piano, Livre II; Chopin: Barcarolle in F-sharp Minor, Op. 60; Joel Feigin: Four Elegies for Piano—In Memoriam Renée Longy. Robert Cassidy, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Nathan Davis: On the Nature of Thingness; Ghostlight; On speaking a hundred names; Phyllis Chen: Hush; Chimera; Beneath a Trace of Vapor; Chen & Davis: Mobius. International Contemporary Ensemble. Starkland. $14.99.
Grieg was essentially a miniaturist, and as a result was and sometimes still is dismissed as a trifler, or at any rate a composer occupied with trifles. Composer/pianist John McCabe (1939-2015) would have none of that. For him, Grieg was a composer whose fine ear for folk tunes and delicacy of sensibility for their sound led to production of a series of fascinating short works that encapsulated both Norway as a nation and Grieg’s own personality. Indeed, the infrequently heard Slåtter and Stimmungen collections – not so much suites as groups of totally unrelated pieces – have personality aplenty in McCabe’s SOMM disc, a re-release of an old RCA recording dating to 1978. Even at a remove of almost 40 years, these performances glow with warmth (the digital remastering of the original analog recording is excellent) and are so adeptly characterized by McCabe that they will leave listeners unfamiliar with these works wondering why they are not heard and recorded more often. There are 17 Slåtter, in all the forms that Grieg managed to collect: springdans, halling, gangar, march and a couple simply described as “tune.” Originally written for folk instruments such as the hardanger fiddle and goat-horn, these melodies translate beautifully to piano in Grieg’s sensitive arrangements and under McCabe’s skilled hands. They contain surprises, too, such as marches that are anything but martial and dances with rhythms so pronounced that you can practically hear the rough work boots stomping. There are sturdy melodies lasting barely a minute and more-extended, more-developed ones lasting nearly five. There are warmly naïve tunes – and a “Bridal Procession of the Goblins” that begins with wholly unexpected delicacy before becoming more energetic and then ending quietly and sedately. The considerable variety of the melodies makes Slåtter a very winning collection. And Stimmungen, whose seven pieces explore greater emotional depths than do the tunes of Slåtter, also includes numerous folk elements, as well as a moving “Resignation” and a wholly unexpected “Studie (Hommage à Chopin)” that whisks by in two minutes and shows that Grieg’s skill – and McCabe’s – extended well beyond the requirements of preserving and presenting Norwegian folk melodies.
The pictures evoked by Grieg’s music are general ones of Norwegian landscapes, unlike the very specific Victor Hartmann works intended to be brought to mind by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Nowadays the Ravel orchestration of this work is more familiar than Mussorgsky’s piano original, but the piano version is enormously effective when played as well as it is by Andrey Gugnin on as new Steinway & Sons CD. There are differences between the piano and Ravel versions of this extended suite-cum-tone-poem – Bydlo has a wholly different effect, for example – and Mussorgsky’s pianistic coloration of the individual segments is quite distinct from Ravel’s, which impressively employs its own sound palette. Gugnin gets both the grandeur and the delicacy of Mussorgsky’s tribute to Hartmann just right, and captures all the humor as well as the seriousness that the composer brought to this variegated work. Furthermore, Gugnin couples the Mussorgsky with two wonderfully apt companion pieces. Ibert’s Petite Suite en 15 Images is also a set of miniatures, offering a neoclassical set of small, disconnected musical scenes – some without a specific program (Ronde and Romance, for example) and some intended to evoke specifics (La machine à coudre, “The Sewing Machine,” for instance). Like Mussorgsky, Ibert includes some humor in his piano suite, but it is as different from Mussorgsky’s as the French personality is from the Russian; indeed, national typecasting is almost inevitable when differences as clear as those between these works emerge. The third work on Gugnin’s CD goes even farther than Ibert’s in the direction of miniatures without specific meaning. Among the Six Pictures by Armenian composer Arno Babadjanian (1921-1983) are a Folksong quite different from any of Grieg’s and a characteristic Sassoun Dance, but the other pieces eschew programmatic significance and simply offer strongly rhythmic and chromatic explorations of piano technique. Colorful and involving, they neatly cap a CD whose pianism and musical creativity are equally captivating.
Robert Cassidy also offers a mixture of better-known and less-known piano music on a new MSR Classics CD, and here too the combination comes across, for the most part, very well. The major work here is the second book of Debussy’s Préludes pour Piano, whose constantly varying moods Cassidy captures with considerable elegance and skill. He is especially impressive in the pieces requiring a light touch, such as “Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses” and Ondine, and also does a fine job with the miniatures that ooze sadness or at least melancholy, including Feuilles morte and La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune. These are sensitive and often sensuous little works, whose significance Cassidy does not attempt to overstate: they are essentially salon-like impressionistic tidbits that come across all the more effectively when, as here, they are not overplayed or overdone. Cassidy also does a fine job with Chopin’s Op. 60 Barcarolle, whose wistfulness complements the Debussy material to very fine effect. The Debussy and Chopin are thoughtfully, if imperfectly, matched with the Four Elegies of Joel Feigin (born 1951). Written in 1979 and revised in 1986, this work is a tribute to Renée Longy, a Juilliard professor with whom Feigin studied. Although atonal, the elegies revolve around the notes D and A (‘re” and “la” in solfège) as a nod to Longy’s nickname. The music, however, is not especially attractive and does not seem connected in any particularly honorary way with Longy; it would likely have meaning to other Longy students, but for listeners who do not know the subject, it simply sounds a great deal like any other recent piano works. Placed on the CD between the Chopin and Debussy, it certainly provides contrast to both but does not offer any particular insight. Cassidy plays it with care and understanding, but the work itself does not much repay his attentiveness or that of listeners to the CD.
Whether the works by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen on a new Starkland disc are worthy of attention will depend entirely on whether a listener wants to encounter (and in some instances endure) a series of assertively contemporary pieces that, in effect, require those who hear them to accept the validity of whatever the composers choose to toss about and identify as music. The piano has a role to play here, for sure – several roles, in fact. In Davis’ Ghostlight it is a prepared piano, played (and played with) by Jacob Greenberg. In Chen’s Hush there are two pianos, one played by Chen and the other by Cory Smythe; there are also toy pianos and music boxes that Chen plays (and, again, plays with), all of which makes the work’s title a bit of a misnomer – although the piece itself is interesting and often amusing. Chen also employs musical humor within a strictly contemporary sound world in Chimers, which is written for tuning forks (Eric Lamb); clarinet and toy glockenspiel (Joshua Rubin, who also plays tuning forks); violin (Erik Carlson, who also plays tuning forks); and toy piano (Chen, who also plays, yes, tuning forks). In addition, Smythe plays both toy glockenspiel and tuning forks. This is essentially a work for tuning forks and toy instruments, and sounds about the way you would expect such a piece to sound – which is not necessarily a bad thing. The disc also includes two solo-instrument-with-electronics works: Davis’ On speaking a hundred names for bassoon (Rebekah Heller) and live processing, and Chen’s Beneath a Trace of Vapor for flute (Lamb) and tape. These are self-consciously modernistic in approach and seem designed to stretch the instruments beyond their bounds, as many contemporary composers like to do. There is also a Chen-Davis collaboration called Mobius for music boxes and electronics, performed by Chen, Lamb and Smythe. This is one of those hyper-intellectualized “look how clever I am” pieces: a performer punches a paper scroll for two music boxes; the scroll runs right-side-up through one music box and then connects as a Möbius strip to run upside-down through the other. All these pieces appear on the CD prior to the longest work on the disc, Davis’ On the Nature of Thingness, a song cycle (with soprano Tony Arnold) that features a very wide variety of mostly percussive instruments (jaw harp, toy piano, bass drum, vibraphone) as well as violin, cello, acoustic and classical guitars, mandolin, bassoon, bass clarinet and more. The work is so hopelessly over-intellectualized that one can imagine Anna Russell wryly exclaiming, as she once did of “competitive” Wagner singing, “Oh, it’s terrific!” The level of abstraction of On the Nature of Thingness is extreme – the whole thing, err, piece ends with lines from Italo Calvino about making “some things with things…an outside with an inside in it.” This is really performance art – the International Contemporary Ensemble includes a lighting designer – and might make an interesting DVD. But as music, or what passes for music, it is hopelessly self-referential, self-involved and self-important. Thanks mainly to some of the humor of some of Chen’s pieces, this is a (+++) release – even though several works on it deserve a (++) rating for listeners not automatically and instinctively enamored of anything that deems itself super-with-it and oh-so-modern.
May 12, 2016
Where Did All the Dinos Go? By Jim Benton. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Mighty Truck. By Chris Barton. Illustrated by Troy Cummings. Harper. $17.99.
The way things change and adapt is fascinating to children, who are going through changes and adaptations themselves every day. This helps make books about changes fun, especially when the authors pile plenty of humor into them. Jim Benton’s brand of amusement shows up, among many other places, in the board book called Where Did All the Dinos Go? This is not a serious question about real-world dinosaurs, of course, beyond the passing comment at the start that “some say they vanished long ago.” Benton’s dinosaurs are cartoonish, big-eyed, and “could be blue with lots of spots,/ or red and green with polka dots.” And they blend skillfully with human beings, but not so skillfully that kids reading the book won’t be able to find them. For example, there is one saying “Yee-haw!” and dressed in cowboy gear, but you would think someone might notice the green skin, bugged-out eyes and huge teeth. Nope. Even more amusingly, there is a city scene showing people walking along a sidewalk, and there in the group is someone (or something) that is green and has a Triceratops-like head, and another someone (or something) that is purple and whose neck and tail are as long as people’s bodies – both the dinos smiling happily and meandering along in human clothing. “Dinos will not bother you,” Benton assures kids, and in fact they can make good playmates if, like the children at the end of the book, you just agree to share your ice-cream cones with them. Benton’s silliness here has none of the snark that is his trademark in books such as his Happy Bunny greeting-card sendups. This is a nice book, and thus not entirely Benton-ish – but the ways it shows dinosaurs changing so they can move freely among humans is Benton-ish by being both funny and amusingly offbeat.
The transformation in Chris Barton’s Mighty Truck is the opposite of unconventional: it is the super-familiar one of an ordinary character given super powers through some mysterious event or other. In this case, the empowering event happens at a truck wash – the story is about a truck, after all. The truck’s name is Clarence, and he really enjoys getting dirty, “really wheely dirty,” and eating doughnuts. Clarence’s boss at the work site demands that the super-filthy truck get washed off before starting the day’s job, so Clarence obediently goes to the automatic truck wash, where he is in the middle of being cleaned up when a thunderstorm brings lightning that strikes the wash and makes Clarence “really wheely powerful.” Troy Cummings’ illustrations fit the superhero-style story beautifully, and the contrast between humble and dirty Clarence and transformed Mighty Truck is among Cummings’ best. Clarence comes out of the truck wash brightly shining and with wheels taller than the rest of his truck body – plus an “MT” logo on his door and a couple of gold tailfin-like decorations that make it look as if he is wearing a cape. Mighty Truck is a homage, one of many, to the original Superman comics, from those cape-like fins to the timid truck’s name (Clarence, which is pretty close to Clark Kent). The newly empowered Mighty Truck rumbles about town doing good deeds, the first of which involves freeing Clarence’s friend, Bruno, from the mud – and Bruno, of course, does not recognize the “shiny-clean stranger.” Mighty Truck meanders all around Axleburg, using his newfound turbo power to rescue a cat and then pumping his huge tires up even more so he can climb a multi-level garage and jump to an under-construction building before a dislodged girder can fall (he then uses “his brightest headlights” to weld the girder in place). Kids will have a great time with Mighty Truck – and will especially enjoy the clever reason Barton gives for keeping his identity secret: Clarence knows that if he explains his transformation, he will have to stay clean all the time, and he “really wheely” does not want that, because “getting dirty meant having fun.” Further Mighty Truck adventures seem inevitable, and will be mighty welcome when they arrive.
Half Magic. By Edward Eager. Illustrations by N.M. Bodecker. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Everland. By Wendy Spinale. Scholastic. $17.99.
A book that deserves to be called timeless even though it is not much more than half a century old, Edward Eager’s Half Magic is as winning today as it surely was when first published in 1954. It is a story of everyday life, of warmth and what are now called “family values,” and of the touches of real magic that cement a family even when some of its members can command the sorts of powers that we usually talk of when using the word “magic.” Eager’s suburban setting is a trifle quaint now, given the absence of computers and cell phones, but aside from that, Half Magic wears extremely well. The main reason is the charm of the underlying premise: taking a page from the marvelous books of E. Nesbit, whom he greatly admired, Eager (1911-1964) creates a story in which ordinary people living ordinary lives suddenly encounter something very much outside the ordinary. And they do not use it to gain great wealth or power but to try to fulfill everyday wishes, the sort that kids in 1954 – and kids today – have all the time. Or rather, in this case, the characters use the magic to try to fulfill half wishes: Eager came up with a wonderfully clever premise in which a magical object that looks a lot like an ordinary nickel is able to grant half of what its holders wish for. The four children – Jane, Mark, Katherine and Martha – have more depth and personality than kids in children’s books usually do nowadays, and while they certainly share some feelings (mostly involving the fact that their father has died and they are worried about their mother’s happiness), they are individuated enough to make very different sorts of wishes. Or, again, half wishes: the way the kids figure out the half-wish premise (especially their misadventure with their sort-of-talking cat) and then try to make wishes that will get them all they want by wishing for twice what they want is one of the many enjoyments of the book. The wishes themselves range from the exotic (a trip to Camelot and confrontation with Merlin, who proclaims the object’s magic older than his own and who proves quite quick on the uptake about using it to make successful half wishes) to the mundane (Jane’s wish to be in some other family, and her realization that that is not what she wants after all). The characters stay true to themselves throughout the book, and the eventual happy ending, in which they all realize that they already have what they wish for most – each other – is certainly sentimental but is not as oozingly treacly or forced-feeling as are many conclusions of books for young readers today. Half Magic has a pleasantly meandering, unforced narrative feel to it that is as engaging in the 21st century as it was in the middle of the 20th.
There is a Katherine in Wendy Spinale’s Everland, too – spelled Katherina – but that is about all this book has in common with Eager’s. The real-world setting here is an alternative-world one: for readers who would prefer to strip away every last vestige of charm from a magical tale and see it as dark, dour, and thoroughly downbeat, Everland is as unpleasant a reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as anyone has come up with in recent years. A straightforwardly dystopic novel in which London has been destroyed by bombs and disease and only children have survived, Everland is all about 16-year-old Gwen Darling; her younger siblings, Joanna and Mikey; a German army contingent led by Captain Hanz Otto Oswald Kretschmer (hence the acronym “Hook,” of course); the evil Marauders and their good-guy enemies, the Lost Boys; an underground city where a boy named Peter lives and spends time outfoxing the baddies; and, yes, a “second star to the right,” which is about all that this utterly charmless and frequently ugly (++) book retains of Barrie’s sense of wonder and exploration. To be sure, Barrie’s work is itself considerably darker and more adult than the many later adaptations of it, from the famous musical starring Mary Martin to the 1953 Disney film and the live-action movie made 50 years later. But if there is pervasive regret in Barrie about the necessity of growing up, and wistfulness for both the real and imagined joys and adventures (and frights) of childhood, Peter Pan has so many compensatory charms that it has rightly been a classic since first staged in 1904. Pretty much anything potentially classic has been stripped from Everland, which mixes steampunk sensibilities (lots of zeppelins) with bits of scientific absurdity (a deadly virus and, for a possible cure, a mixture of stem cells with elements that make possible autotomy – tail regrowth – in some lizards). The dim name echoes of Peter Pan, not only “Hook” but also “Smeeth,” are the primary connections that Spinale establishes with Barrie’s story, but it is quite certain that Everland is not intended for readers who have any familiarity with (much less love for) Peter Pan in any of its guises. Barrie is merely a jumping-off point for Spinale; and that would be fine if Everland had any significant originality in plotting, pacing or characterization. But it has none of these – it is just another good-vs.-evil dystopia – and it emphatically eschews humor, which might have made the whole tale more palatable. Having Gwen and Hook narrate alternating chapters would have been a good plan if doing so had created some balance and even ambiguity, showing Gwen to have some level of darkness within and Hook to have some sort of justifiable (even if twisted) motivation. But Spinale is either uninterested in nuance or unsure how to proffer it (Everland is her first novel). By the end of the book, when the good guys win and the bad guys lose, when Gwen realizes she is growing up and there is a hint that even Peter, too, may be doing so at last, readers have been subjected to a whole series of cinematic action scenes and surface-level dialogue, all without any significant portion of plot creativity; and, in fact, it is almost as hard to care about the fate of the “good guys” here as it is figure out why the “bad guys” do what they do (well, they are bad; that pretty well takes care of things). It is fire (why is it so often fire?) that eventually cleanses things here, but anything else that swept away the tatters of this disappointing story would have been equally welcome.
The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin. By Elinor Teele. Walden Pond Press. $16.99.
Lily and Dunkin. By Donna Gephart. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Quirky protagonists are generally welcome in books for preteens, and for some authors, the more quirky characters in a book, the better. This was one reason the Lemony Snicket books were quite popular for some time, and it is those books that come to mind when reading Elinor Teele’s The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin. The not-nice quirky adults determined to reel in and mistreat the nice quirky kids are everywhere in this novel, which is supposed to feel like a romp but seems a bit too forced for that. The action starts in grimy, depressing Pludgett, the town where 11-year-old John Coggin and his six-year-old sister, Page, live with Great-Aunt Beauregard after the death of their parents. The family business is coffin making: John builds caskets already, and the story gets moving when Great-Aunt Beauregard announces that John will become a partner in the business and Page will leave school to start working there as well. The two kids therefore decide to run away – John is actually good at coffin making, but he is really an inventor of wonderful machines (or so he thinks), and is stifled in the family firm. The two kids first meet Boz, a strange stranger associated with a wandering circus, who drives them away in a horse-drawn fire engine. John and Page rather like the circus, but John’s attempt to invent a steam-driven vehicle called the Autopsy comes to nothing; soon he and Page move on, this time encountering a woman named Maria, who owns a bakery. Things seem all right at first, but money is tight, and when John tries to help by creating a new oven for Maria, he succeeds only in blowing up the bakery. Again, John and Page move on, next encountering an archeologist and self-defense expert named Miss Doyle – from whom they are kidnapped by the nefarious Great-Aunt Beauregard. The question is whether John’s dubious inventing talents, and the help of the various helpful adults he and Page have met on their travels, will allow him to create something that will make it possible for him and Page to get away from Great-Aunt Beauregard and the other not-nice grown-ups. The whole story is filled with rather obscure vocabulary – another way in which it resembles the Series of Unfortunate Events books – and readers’ enjoyment will hinge in part on whether they do or do not like comments like that of Boz: “Merely a miscalculation on my weight-to-height ratio. I shall indulge in pâté de fois gras for a few days, and all will be right with the world.” There is also the question of how much readers enjoy boogers (which drop into people’s soup) and poop (which John uses to power his inventions). Teele seems to be trying too hard, if not to emulate Snicket, then to show protagonists who are plucky as well as quirky, resourceful as well as put-upon. The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin has an underlying repetitious quality: protagonists on their own, protagonists interacting with new people, all going well, all getting messed up, protagonists on their own again. Since neither John nor Page is much developed as a character, it is the action here rather than the personalities to which readers will be attracted – or not.
In contrast, Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin is strictly personality-driven, at least on the surface. But this is an IMPORTANT book, a book with THINGS TO SAY, a book to ENLIGHTEN readers, a book to be taken VERY SERIOUSLY INDEED, and thus the personalities are very carefully crafted to communicate the message, just as the “personality” of protagonist Christian was created by John Bunyan for the sole purpose of furthering the message of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Religious allegory is uncommon nowadays, doubly so in works for young people, but a secular version of it is very much present in books such as Lily and Dunkin. Once upon a time, many people urged sincerely and at length that individuals should be judged not on how they looked but on what they did – in other words, that willful blindness to a person’s race, religion or sexual orientation was the foundation of tolerance. Today the societal pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that it is considered offensive not to look first at a person’s skin, belief system or sexuality and then interact with the person on that basis. The current notion is that people can be treated fairly only when their observed externalities are seen and 100% accepted by everybody, specifically and particularly including those with different observed externalities. Color blindness is very much out; color awareness, followed by deference, is very much in. And so it is also with sexuality, which is the topic addressed in Lily and Dunkin. The book is about transgender eighth-grader Lily Jo McGrother, a girl born in a boy’s body (as Timothy). Lily cannot, of course, be a fully formed human being with worries, doubts and uncertainties – in the current societal climate, Lily must know without the slightest doubt that s/he is transgender, and must be uncertain only about how to present that certainty to the world at large. Or, for that matter, to individuals within that world, such as Norbert (Dunkin) Dorfman, who first sees Lily in a dress – clothing for which Lily makes excuses until she is ready to tell Dunkin the not-awful-at-all truth. For his part, just to create a balancing act between the title characters, Dunkin is bipolar – as if Gephart is saying, “See? Everyone has something to deal with and to figure out how and when to reveal, and to whom.” Lily and Dunkin is so determinedly well-meaning, so sure that it is on the side of right and goodness and virtue and the contemporary belief in seeing the outside of a person first and foremost and delving only later, if at all, into the person’s inner thoughts and feelings, that it becomes every bit as much a sermon as The Pilgrim’s Progress. Here there are two pilgrims, Lily and Dunkin, both progressing along the road from misunderstanding to that of tolerance and acceptance. Every right-thinking 21st-century young reader, secular or religious, is expected to follow this story from start to finish in order to arrive at the promised land of perfect understanding and appreciation of differences – and anyone who points out the extremely formulaic story and the straw-man approach that Gephart uses again and again to make points is just being churlish. Lily and Dunkin is fine for preteens who are happy being told what to think and how to think. There is much less in it for those who want to think for themselves, who are trying to tackle and come to terms with gender identity, mental illness and other extremely important topics on their own and in a thoughtful way.
Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America. By Jesse Jarnow. Da Capo. $27.99.
Fans of the Grateful Dead will be delighted to learn that they are the most important cultural influence the United States has had in the last half century. At least that is the impression that Jesse Jarnow offers in Heads, an exhaustively researched and often entertaining look at America as Psychedelic Central that starts from the premise that the members of the Grateful Dead – and the band’s followers – were and still are at the epicenter of pretty much everything societally interesting. “The Dead’s music makes a particularly good soundtrack for long highway miles as groupminds get together and keep the cosmic fire aflicker and the joints lit, because there’s something coming. There’s always something coming.” That pretty much encapsulates Jarnow’s thesis as well as his style, the latter being so determinedly with-it that it sometimes hovers on the edge of self-parody: “The biggest city in psychedelic America is a portable bopping skyline on the horizon. The little municipality moves from town to town, bringing drugs and access points to numerous alternative social networks.”
Jarnow takes the Dead very seriously, and he truly believes their impact is omnipresent, even attributing today’s use of emoji to Dead influence and what Jarnow deems to be the victory of the psychedelic revolution. That this is over the top goes without saying – well, not really, since Jarnow says it, but it is often as entertaining as it is overdone. Jarnow does a really fine job as a pop historian of figures both well-known (Ken Kesey) and known well only in limited areas (Owsley Stanley [“Bear”], 1935-2011, Bay Area audio engineer and central mover of the San Francisco hippie movement in the 1960s). Heads sprawls by design and sometimes, it seems, of its own volition, as Jarnow probes the interrelationship of psychedelic drugs and Grateful Dead music with American culture as a whole and the birth of the Internet in particular. The book’s very casual voice belies the clearly careful research that Jarnow has done, including a genuinely impressive number of interviews with key figures in the psychedelic movement in general and the Dead’s milieu specifically. Jarnow in fact comes across as so committed a Deadhead that anyone not within that particular purview is likely to be confused or put off from time to time – actually a lot of the time, since the book is crammed with insider language, references clear only to those already in the know, and a general sense of hipster cool that you either share before reading or will find it impossible to acquire within these 468 pages.
The fact is that a lot of Heads reads like a stoner memoir, with Jarnow writing as if he has been up all night while sampling a variety of the substances he is writing about – and whether this is true or merely his authorial persona is beside the point. The style is the substance here, to a great degree, even if Jarnow seems never to have heard of Marshall McLuhan (he never mentions him, in any case). Thus, the frequently revelatory cultural analysis is available only to readers who are willing and able to accept Jarnow’s meandering, discursive, tangent-filled narrative at face value and, um, “go with the flow.” There is so much of the Dead here that Jarnow’s forays into discussing intriguing and less-known elements of psychedelia-spawned culture get short shrift. It would have been nice, for example, to know more about New York’s street-art-focused Parkies and the use of psychedelics by many of the founders of what is now the technology-permeated Silicon Valley. The fact that Jarnow brings up these elements of the psychedelic subculture (or culture) at all is a strength of the book; the fact that he passes over them rather lightly, while dwelling at such great length on all things Deadhead, is a weakness.
It is absolutely necessary to accept and revel in Jarnow’s trivia-and-reference-packed style in order to get the most from Heads. “Spinning is their meditation. The lyrics of Robert Hunter, as passed through the soul of Garcia, are their texts. But even more fundamental is Garcia’s guitar playing, his note-clusters direct translations of the Logos, as valuable and real as what Terrence McKenna speaks of when describing his DMT experiences. It’s Jerry, the Spinners know.” To those for whom this sort of writing is immediately comprehensible and even profound, Heads will be revelatory and immensely involving. To those for whom it is abstruse, self-indulgent and preoccupied with minutiae, Heads will come across as much ado about – well, not “nothing,” because there is really a great deal of information here, a lot of it fascinating, but much ado about much less than Jarnow strives so mightily to deem deeply significant.
Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume IV—Violin Concerto; Piano Concerto. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Dénes Várjon, piano; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger. Audite. $18.99.
Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume V—Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 92; Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 134; Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra; Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra. Alexander Lonquich, piano; Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Paul van Zelm, Ludwig Rast, Rainer Jurkiewicz and Joachim Pölti, horns; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger. Audite. $18.99.
Victor Herbert: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Irish Rhapsody. Mark Kosower, cello; Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
First Day: Music of José Bragato, Bohuslav Martinů, Caleb Burhans, Alberto Ginastera, George Enescu, Dan Visconti, Marin Marais and Francis Poulenc. Laura Metcalf, cello; Matei Varga, piano. Sono Luminus. $15.99.
Having long since proved himself a superior oboist, Heinz Holliger is now well on the way to proving himself a very fine conductor as well. The fourth and fifth volumes of his Audite series of Schumann’s complete symphonic works, featuring the excellent playing of WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, give Holliger a chance to move into some hyper-familiar territory and show what sorts of nuances and new approaches he can bring to it. It turns out that Holliger’s view of the music is refreshingly clear-headed and generally straightforward, breaking no major new interpretative ground but at the same time not striving unnecessarily for some sort of unwarranted attention based on pushing the music in directions in which it does not necessarily want to go. This is especially clear in the ever-popular Piano Concerto, for which soloist Dénes Várjon dishes up a suitable degree of lyricism and a good sense of the finale’s dance rhythms, but neither he nor Holliger seeks to expand the work beyond its comparatively modest dimensions or treat it as more than a piano fantasy (which is what Schumann originally planned the first movement to be) with some marvelously expanded lyricism. The performance, although light and fleet, is not small-scale: it is appropriately scaled for the music, and works well as a result. The less-often-heard Violin Concerto fares quite well here, too. Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a big reason for this: she takes the music at face value and allows its essentially symphonic structure to dominate, not seeking violin supremacy when Schumann did not really provide it (the first movement even lacks a cadenza). Holliger, likely benefiting from his own role as a soloist, provides just the right balance of backup here, with the orchestra dominating much of the time but with Kopatchinskaja coming to the fore when given the opportunity. The concerto itself is on the heavy side, especially in the first movement, and can easily become turgid; but both soloist and conductor manage to prevent that from happening through judicious instrumental balance and a particularly strong sense of dance in the finale, with its pronounced polonaise rhythm.
Kopatchinskaja does a commendable job with the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra as well. Like the Violin Concerto, this is late Schumann, and like the longer work it can be problematic to interpret. The violin writing tends to be rather routine, its figurations prosaic, and the orchestral accompaniment is somewhat foursquare. Yet the urgency and lyricism of the Fantasy shine through here despite the work’s undoubted weaknesses, and as in the concerto, Holliger has a fine sense of when to bring the orchestra to the fore and when to hold it back. The two piano-and-orchestra works that Schumann designated Konzertstücke are more successful than the violin one of the same basic type, and will put listeners in mind of the first movement of the Piano Concerto in their free-ranging lyricism and the warm communicativeness of the thematic material. The pianist here, Alexander Lonquich, does a creditable enough job, although his playing does not have much personality: it is more than satisfactory technically but not especially idiomatic. Still, these two concert pieces come across quite effectively, thanks again in large part to Holliger’s sensitivity to instrumental balance and his understanding of the best way to give the soloist plenty of chances to be out in front of the orchestra and just as many to pull back and let the orchestral musicians come to the fore. Also on this CD is the always fascinating Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, one of Schumann’s experiments in instrumentation and one instance among many in which the composer attained somewhat less than total success but nevertheless produced a work filled with charm and unusual sonorities. Here the horn soloists need to perform as a quartet almost throughout, blending their different lines while accepting Schumann’s differing characterizations of horn sounds: here a signal, there a lyrical line, here a traditional hunting call, there a full symphonic calling-forth. The four horn players here are well-balanced and have nicely complementary tone: all are longtime members of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, with Paul van Zelm being principal horn and Ludwig Rast second principal. And Holliger – again with considerable sensitivity to soloists’ roles – does a fine job of balancing the horn quartet against the orchestra as a whole.
Balance with an orchestra is particularly difficult to attain when the solo instrument is a cello. One reason Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is so consistently impressive is that the composer fits the cello into the orchestral fabric so expertly, while at the same time finding ways for it to stand out without having the orchestra seem to recede totally into the background. But Dvořák’s work did not spring forth without precedent: it was in fact directly inspired by Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto No. 2, whose success in cello-orchestra balance deeply impressed Dvořák and is adeptly demonstrated by JoAnn Falletta and the Ulster Orchestra on a new Naxos CD. Dvořák chose B minor for his work; Herbert had picked E minor. But the two concertos have little in common aside from their minor keys and their composers’ skill in balancing the orchestral and solo parts so the cello would not be subsumed within the larger string ensemble. Herbert’s work is tuneful and lyrical, much smaller in scale than Dvořák’s, and in fact more tightly knit than Herbert’s own prior cello concerto in D major. Grace and a kind of modest emotionalism are the hallmarks of both the Herbert concertos, which date to 1884 and 1894. Mark Kosower handles both with just the right balance of emotion and reserve: there is nothing in either that approaches Dvořák’s concerto’s last-movement in memoriam section, and both Kosower and Falletta clearly understand that Herbert, while a skilled orchestrator and pleasant tunesmith, was not particularly innovative either in instrumental sonority or in his approach to form. Neither of the Herbert concertos is really a virtuoso showpiece, and neither is given that treatment here: the performers offer well-paced, well-thought-out readings of works of modest scale and moderate inventiveness. And the CD contains a bonus that is more fun than either concerto, if no more profound: Herbert’s Irish Rhapsody of 1892, essentially a pastiche of once-popular (and in some cases still-popular) Irish tunes, done to a turn and orchestrated with greater inventiveness than is evident in the concertos. The Irish Rhapsody is salon music writ large, which does not in any way make it less enjoyable.
The enjoyment of a new Sono Luminus CD featuring cellist Laura Metcalf and pianist Matei Varga is of a different sort. There is a tendency nowadays to produce recordings aimed at a performer’s fan base rather than at music lovers in general – an approach that is actually quite old but seems to be accentuated by the many releases touting “first this and first that.” In this case the recording is the first solo release by Metcalf, a very fine cellist with a penchant for contemporary music and unusual sounds, as shown in her work with the string quartet Sybarite5 and the cello-and-percussion group Break of Reality. The pieces on this (+++) CD are clearly of importance and meaningfulness to Metcalf, and likely to Varga as well, but they are such a varied mixture that they seem designed to be heard by the family and personal friends of the performers rather than a wider audience. The best-known piece here is Marin Marais’ Variations on “La Folia,” whose multiple moods Metcalf and Varga handle well. The most interesting works on the disc, though, are two rarities: a one-movement Sonata in F minor by George Enescu, written when the composer was 17 and already showing this child prodigy to be in full command of instrumental writing, and the folksong-based Variations on a Slovakian Theme by Bohuslav Martinů. The rest of the music is of varying quality and interest, including Francis Poulenc’s warm Les Chemins de l’amour, Alberto Ginastera’s rhapsodic Pampeana No. 2, José Bragato’s pleasant but rather inconsequential Graciela y Buenos Aires, and world première recordings of cello versions of works by Caleb Burhans (Phantasie, originally for trombone and piano) and Dan Visconti (Hard-Knock Stomp, originally for viola). Listeners interested in finding out what sort of music Metcalf and Varga like will enjoy this foray into their musical preferences; but beyond the personal connection, the recording has no underlying thematic connectivity and nothing special to offer except some very fine playing – which, to be sure, is a strong attraction, even if not all the music will be as widely appealing as is Metcalf’s skill.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Sony. $13.99.
Dvořák: Symphony No. 6; Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, No. 8 and Op. 72, No. 3. Houston Symphony conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Christopher Rouse: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4; Odna Zhizn; Prospero’s Rooms. New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert. Dacapo. $16.99.
Redes: The classic 1935 Mexican film with a new recording of the score by Silvestre Revueltas. Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos DVD. $19.99.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s death on March 5, 2016 brought an end to any prospect of a new Beethoven cycle from him, featuring his own period-instrument orchestra, the Concentus Musicus Wien. Listeners are left only with one CD, Sony’s release of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, to speculate about what could have been. The word “quirky” has to appear somewhere in that speculation. The symphonies that Harnoncourt here reconsiders – he made a recording of the full cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1991 – are exceptionally well played and very thoughtfully, if strangely, interpreted. No. 4 gets a wide-ranging, full-throated interpretation in which prominent brass (the brass are excellent throughout) give the symphony a grander and altogether larger footprint than it usually receives. Yet the performance downplays certain instruments, notably the bassoon, which gives this work an unusual flavor when a conductor chooses to draw attention to it – just as the oboe in the first movement of No. 5 and the piccolo in that symphony’s finale change the work’s character based on the degree to which a conductor focuses on them. Harnoncourt makes an effort to adhere to Beethoven’s original tempo indications, so this Fourth is fleet but by no means rushed-sounding. And Harnoncourt seeks to lend it extra gravity and heft by strongly accentuating tutti chords by pausing slightly before having the orchestra attack them vigorously – an approach that increases the music’s intensity at the expense of some of its forward flow. The same approach to chords is used in the Fifth, but much less successfully – by the very end of the symphony, Harnoncourt seems to be conducting the conclusion of Sibelius’ Fifth rather than Beethoven’s. And aside from the chordal emphasis, Harnoncourt has some other unusual ideas about the Fifth. The famous opening motto is less accentuated than usual, for one thing; and the second movement is treated as a kind of tone poem, with numerous tempo changes that are not in the score but seem intended to make the whole movement into a grand adventure along the lines of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. The third movement, on the other hand, is superb, with lower strings and brass biting and intense – and the fourth movement proceeds splendidly, with Harnoncourt drawing attention to all the instruments Beethoven added specifically for this movement (trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon) in a way that enriches the whole performance, at least until the very end stops it in its tracks. This is a carefully thought-out but, on the whole, strangely unsatisfactory reading of these symphonies, as if Harnoncourt did not so much think them through as over-think them to a point at which their emotional connectivity was diminished.
The emotional connection is on the slight side as well in the Houston Symphony’s performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 on PentaTone. The most Brahmsian of Dvořák’s symphonies, the Sixth needs grand scale, warmth and solid forward flow to come across effectively; given those, it is very effective indeed. Unfortunately, Andrés Orozco-Estrada decides that the best way to delve into the symphony is to tinker with its tempo indications, and this creates a series of speedups and slowdowns that collectively make the work seem choppy and unfocused – very different from Brahms’ Second, which is also in the key of D and which shares much of the expansiveness of Dvořák’s Sixth, including an especially long first movement. Orozco-Estrada repeatedly gives the impression of wanting to get on with it in that opening movement, then thinking better of rushing things and slowing them back down again. The result is a kind of stuttering that is out of keeping with the smooth and very beautiful flow that Dvořák produced in this symphony. The recording itself is excellent, but the unfocused interpretation makes it hard to garner full enjoyment of the fine sound and high-quality playing of the orchestra. And the disc is really unconscionably short: the only things on it are the symphony and two of the Slavonic Dances, resulting in a paltry 52 minutes of music on a premium-priced recording. Nothing here is actually bad, but nothing is thoughtful or emotionally connected enough to recommend wholeheartedly.
It is a general reconsideration of Dvořák’s symphonic output that is leading more conductors to program symphonies other than his final three. But there are other forms of reconsideration in music today as well, such as Christopher Rouse’s reexamination of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 in his own Symphony No. 3 of 2011. This is a reconsideration of a reconsideration, since Prokofiev based his work on Beethoven’s final piano sonata, No. 32. Prokofiev’s symphony is not often heard – it is a product of the experimentalism of Paris in the 1920s, and its largely unremitting intensity can be off-putting – but Rouse’s Third, after its explosive brass opening mirroring Prokofiev’s, goes off in directions more reflective of Rouse’s own style. The overall impression of Rouse’s symphony is one of hyperactivity: the work generally moves quickly, and the first variation of the second movement, which is in effect a scherzo, is the most intense of all. The juxtaposition of intense dissonance with expressiveness in that second movement, which like Prokofiev’s is a set of variations, is so extreme as to be difficult to hear at times, but it is certainly effective – and the work, which gets its world première recording on a new Dacapo CD, is very well played by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert. The three other works here are also world première recordings, all three of them having been commissioned by this orchestra while Rouse (born 1949) was its composer-in-residence. Symphony No. 4, less striking and easier to listen to than No. 3, includes some quotations from other composers’ works, for reasons that are not clear from the music itself; yet this symphony has none of the balanced uncertainty or stylistic peculiarity of others filled with or built around quotations, such as Shostakovich’s No. 15. Also on this CD are the tone poems Odna Zhizn (2008) and Prospero’s Rooms (2012). The former, whose title means “A Life” in Russian, has enough turbulence and turmoil to make it seem that the life in question was a difficult one – although the music’s quiet, peaceful conclusion suggests that it ended well. The latter tone poem is the shortest work on this disc and in many ways the most effective. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s thoroughly creepy The Masque of the Red Death, in which Prince Prospero locks himself and his hangers-on into a palace of differently colored and decorated rooms in the doomed hope of escaping a plague, Rouse’s work is highly evocative of its source and musically involving enough to be actually chilling. This recording offers a lot of Rouse’s music and will be of most interest to those already familiar with the composer; Prospero’s Rooms might well make those who do not know Rouse’s work seek out other pieces by him.
If the Rouse CD is a specialty audio item, a new Naxos DVD of the film Redes is a specialty audio and video one. Redes is the story of a fishing village near Veracruz, Mexico. Originally planned as a documentary, it was turned into a fictional film about poor fishermen struggling against exploitation. Its title means “nets,” although the film was released in English as “The Wave.” The film is noteworthy for the cinematography by Paul Strand, less so for the direction by Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel. Whatever the merits of the film itself, its music, by Silvestre Revueltas, has long been recognized as significant. Revueltas, who had not written film music before, created a dramatic and atmospheric score whose effectiveness was clear from the outset: both Revueltas and conductor Erich Kleiber made orchestral suites from it, and both those suites are still performed (Kleiber’s more frequently). Interestingly, Revueltas’ complete score has never been recorded before, so the recording by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez – one of the most inventive, clever and high-quality groups of its type – is a world première. The music rarely overlaps film dialogue, instead enhancing the story line and helping propel the narrative in highly effective program-music fashion. As a result, this recording of Redes is enjoyable from a purely musical standpoint, whatever one’s opinion of the film itself may be. This is music that does more than set scenes: it actively participates in them. It is quite possible (and quite interesting) to close one’s eyes or simply turn off the video portion of this DVD and listen to the music on its own, finding out how well it tells the same story that the filmmakers are communicating visually. To fill out the DVD after the one-hour movie, there is an additional hour of bonus material in which Gil-Ordóñez, producer Joseph Horowitz and others discuss various aspects of Redes and Revueltas from musical and sociopolitical standpoints. Like the film music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Revueltas’ work for Redes is a high point of composition for a visual medium that, when it is supported by audio as well-constructed as the best film music can be, is capable of communicating with far greater impact than the pictures can on their own.