July 24, 2014

(++++) FANTASIES TAKING FLIGHT


Bats in the Band. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Charley Harper’s A Partridge in a Pear Tree. By Charley Harper. Pomegranate. $9.95.

     One of the best-drawn of the always engaging Bats books by Brian Lies, Bats in the Band more than makes up in illustrative endearment for poetry that does not scan quite as well as it does in Lies’ other books. The wonderfully pictured bats, which are highly realistic and at the same time thoroughly anthropomorphic in their postures and behavior, get together this time to make music – all kinds of music. “And every last one of us knows where to go:/ a summertime theater, after a show.” (That second line is a syllable short unless “theater” has three; this is one of many rhythmic shortcomings here – a trifle odd in a book about something as rhythm-driven as music!) The bats assemble in the darkened theater and soon start putting together the concert to end all concerts – using a riotous mixture of real instruments plus “things [made] up out of straws, out of spoons.” Backstage chatter, with some bats hanging upside-down while practicing as others stand and compare, umm, notes, makes it clear that this will be a concert like no other: guitar, sitar, bagpipes, pocket comb and serpent (an old wind instrument) are all shown in loving detail. The bats perform both standing and hanging upside-down, too, with a chorus that fills the entire page (top and bottom as well as side to side) and includes a wide variety of bat species, from big-eared to flying fox. A classical string quartet is shown playing upside-down, its instruments and music stands held aloft by stage wires, its members’ feet clinging to matchsticks arrayed like trapeze bars. A hilariously depicted “one-bat band” includes instruments from the violin to the bass drum to the unnamable – no wonder just watching tires the audience! There is country-and-western music, music for bat kiddies “who can’t sit through a concert yet,” a bat wailing the blues on a page that is entirely blue-tinted, and of course a rock band that has everybody (or everybatty) dancing: “We bounce, we hop, we twirl, we groove –/ the music makes our bodies move.” The sounding of a gong, whose vibrations are shown gradually diminishing to silence, eventually ends a concert filled with a multiplicity of melodies, leaving the bats to return to their roost at dawn with a new realization: “Heading for home, we hum or we sing,/ and discover there’s music in everything.” (Again, that last word needs to be in four syllables for the line to scan – a note for metrical purists.) The delights of Lies’ books about humanlike bats in unlikely locations – beach, library, ballpark – are many, and the celebratory mood of this latest entry fits beautifully into the series.

     The celebration is a seasonal one, but the amusement is for anytime in Charley Harper’s A Partridge in a Pear Tree, which takes the familiar carol about the gifts of the 12 days of Christmas and adds some gentle commentary to a series of drawings created by Harper (1922-2007) not originally for publication but for his own family to enjoy. Now other families can delight in them , too: pastel sketches of the various, increasingly elaborate gifts are accompanied by the well-known text of the song, with just a line added here and there. The initial partridge in a pear tree gets the parenthetical comment, “(He always gives me something unusual.)” As the birds, which Harper differentiates beautifully and with his usual ability to encapsulate a creature’s essence in just a few lines and shapes, begin to mount in number, the recipient comments, “(My place began to look like an aviary.)” Eventually there are swans swimming in the bathtub, one French hen is re-gifted, the cow for the maids a-milking has to be tied up outside, and by the time the nine pipers piping arrive, gaily bedecked in alternating red and green outfits, “(I began to wish I’d never heard of Christmas.)” A neighbor calls the police because of the noise the drummers make, the leaping lords “knocked over the Christmas tree and frightened the cat,” and eventually the entire house is shown simply crammed with the evidence of the giver’s enormous, if misplaced, generosity. And this leads to an absolutely marvelous conclusion that sets just the right tone of acceptance, love and humor: “On the first day after Christmas, I, carrying on though daunted,/ Called the zoo, a hotel, and my love,/ And said, ‘You dear! Just what I wanted!’” Anyone who does not laugh at that ending needs a heaping helping of Christmas spirit – and had better start developing it in midsummer to be sure there is enough of it before December 25. Charley Harper’s A Partridge in a Pear Tree is, or should be, a book for all seasons.

(++++) COLD WORLD, COLD WAR


The Bone Seeker: An Edie Kiglatuk Mystery. By M.J. McGrath. Viking. $27.95.

     M.J. McGrath is really hitting her stride in the third and best of her mystery stories featuring Inuit hunter, guide and reluctant detective Edie Kiglatuk. Both Edie and the supporting cast emerge as more fully human, better-developed characters in The Bone Seeker than in White Heat and The Boy in the Snow, and the largest character of all – the remote High Arctic setting – is more thoroughly plumbed and is a fuller participant in the action this time. As before, the region is a source of bitter cold, of multiple kinds of ice (each with its own dangers), and of the rich Inuit history in which all the books are steeped – a history that McGrath cleverly connects with southern readers (meaning anyone from Alaska on down the map) by having Edie herself be half Inuit and half qalunaat (meaning southerner or non-Inuit; her father’s desertion of the family when Edie was a child thus stands for qalunaat neglect of or unconcern for all things Inuit). But here there is more: the distant Arctic is a staging ground, chosen for its extreme remoteness, for now-decaying observation posts left over from the Cold War, for modern-day military training and maneuvers, and maybe for something so dangerous and shadowy that secretive arms of the Canadian and U.S. governments will to go frightening lengths to conceal its existence.

     The government-conspiracy angle could easily drift into cliché, and in fact has some weaknesses that almost cause the book’s otherwise tight plotting to unravel: a too-dedicated investigating lawyer from Guatemala who is “disappeared” in a less-than-believable scene, and a change of heart from a character that is crucial to the wrapup of the plot but is quite unrealistic in context and never satisfactorily explained. Nevertheless, the Cold War overlay is what makes The Bone Seeker more than a murder mystery – it begins as one but soon, as Edie and her associates seek the killer, starts to have resonance that reaches well beyond the killing of one of the girl students that Edie teaches in the remote hamlet of Autisaq. That resonance comes from the past, or rather from two different pasts: that of the southerners who have long exploited the Arctic for their own political and military purposes and that of the Inuit, for whom the past lives side-by-side with the present in a land where bones do not decay and remnants of history may reappear anytime as the ice shifts unpredictably.

     This is not the first time McGrath has explored the ways in which these two pasts intersect in Edie’s life and the life of those around her. For example, White Heat refers to the contamination of Arctic sea life by PCBs whose source may have been “Russian nuclear plants [or] wartime radar stations [or] U.S. naval submarines.” But McGrath pulls the elements of this story together with a surer hand than she has shown before. The difficult and crotchety Inuit elders, long a thorn in Edie’s side, are crucial to the plot of The Bone Seeker, and the old Inuit beliefs and superstitions turn out to have completely germane connections both to the murder and to the mysteries of the Arctic’s military past and present. The way in which McGrath ties together Inuit reproductive difficulties and government indifference to Cold War policy effects makes this book far more tightly knit than the previous two, and far more chilling in ways that go beyond the bleakness (to southern eyes) of the landscape in which the events play out. The fact that The Bone Seeker is loosely based on real events may be one thing that gives it particular resonance, but it is McGrath’s growing skill at showing Edie and the other fictional characters as real human beings – whose actions are intimately connected with their personalities rather than dictated by the exigencies of the plot – that really gives this novel its impact.

     The Bone Seeker contains passing references to events of the two prior Edie Kiglatuk novels, and it does help to have read them in order to have a full appreciation of what happens here – Edie’s attitude toward alcohol, for instance, after her abuse of it (a common problem among the Inuit) ruined her marriage and nearly destroyed her life, as well as her feelings toward her ex’s son, Willa, in light of what happened to Willa’s brother, Joe, in White Heat. However, it is perfectly possible to read and understand The Bone Seeker without being familiar with the prior books – and given the skill with which McGrath handles matters here, this novel may be a better entry to the series than either prior one. Readers who start here are very likely to want to go back to the earlier Edie Kiglatuk books to gain additional perspective, much as Edie herself finds that she must delve into the past, hers and the Arctic’s, to solve intertwined mysteries whose tragic consequences are personal and intimate and wide-ranging and far-reaching, all at the same time.

(+++) LIFE ADJUSTMENTS


Choosing Raw: Making Raw Foods Part of the Way You Eat. By Gena Hamshaw. Da Capo. $19.99.

Does This Plug into That? Simplify Your Electronic Life. By Eric Taub. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     As life continues to get more complicated – which seems to occur every day, if not every hour – books that can simplify it are more welcome than ever. Nutritionist Gena Hamshaw’s Choosing Raw is intended to simplify decision-making for people who want to include more raw foods in their diets – without being fanatical about it. That is a welcome approach: Hamshaw says forthrightly that she is “not a raw foodist” and therefore does not insist only on “foods that haven’t been heated above a certain temperature (105°-115°).” She likes stir-fries, roasted vegetables and cooked grains, and at times eats less than 75% raw food – especially when traveling or eating out. Hamshaw thus makes an unusually sensible guide to one of those approaches to food that can all too easily descend into perfectionism and fanaticism. “I want you to approach raw foods as a choice,” she writes, adding that there are two basic reasons for making that choice: health, “the ways in which plant foods might benefit your body and help to protect you from chronic disease,” and compassion, “respect for our animal neighbors and an effort to tread lightly on mother earth.” This will still be too New Age-y and touchy-feely for many readers, but it is at least within the realm of possibility that people wondering what is involved in increasing their intake of raw food will be willing to listen to Hamshaw’s comparatively reasonable advocacy – although it is worth pointing out that she is a dedicated vegan and says that “animal rights are the defining feature of my relationship with veganism.” In any case, it is possible, and for non-vegans even desirable, to skip over Hamshaw’s opening advocacy chapters and start to explore one’s interest in raw foods in the chapters featuring “Frequently Asked Questions” and “Myths and Misconceptions.” The latter, for example, says it is a myth that vegan diets are expensive and hard to maintain – “veganism is what you make of it.” The issue of “raw diet” and “vegan diet” tends to blur and blend as the book goes on, but at least Hamshaw often makes comments such as, “This section will help you ease into vegan and raw foods,” repeatedly reminding readers that they are two (somewhat) separate things and that her purpose is to help non-vegan, non-raw-food eaters explore vegan and raw diets and (she hopes) convert to them. The practical side of this involves explaining what foods and ingredients to have on hand at all times (from agave nectar, amaranth and avocado oil to young Thai coconut); how to plan meals 21 days at a time; and what recipes to try – there are 125 of them here, from “basic massaged kale salad” and “no-bake sunflower oat bars” to “toasted pumpkin granola with homemade hemp milk” and “heat-free lentil and walnut tacos,” and many more. Hamshaw arranges recipes in three levels, from easiest to most challenging, so readers who want to experiment with raw and vegan foods can start with some simpler dishes and move into more-complex ones if they wish. What they will or will not wish will be entirely a personal matter: Hamshaw’s “tread lightly” arguments are unlikely to convince anyone not already supporting them, and her health-related ones, although reasonably solid, are by no means universally accepted. But for people already thinking about eating more raw foods – for whatever reason – Choosing Raw can be a reasonable place to get more information on how, if not why, to move into the raw-food arena.

     And speaking of simplicity: whatever you choose to eat, it is likely that you choose to use a considerable amount of technology. Maybe “choose” is not even the right word: food types are a choice, but technology use is much less so (even the famously technologically averse Amish are now using  cell phones). Technology consultant Eric Taub offers to simplify everyone’s tech life in his short (170-page), easy-to-read Does This Plug into That? And he does in fact labor mightily to clarify and simplify, although he is hampered by a couple of things. One is that technology changes so quickly that some elements of his book are already outdated, and others will soon be. Another is that Taub has a distinct point of view that is not revealed unless you enjoy reading notes (it is the very first note, but on page 165): “If you want an unbiased guide to consumer electronics, this is not the book. I have many opinions (e.g., that Apple’s products are generally better than the competition’s) gleaned over years of writing about technology.” Well, that certainly limits the book’s usefulness. To cite just one example: Apple’s business model involves getting users of its equipment to stampede to stores and replace every iteration of technology with a newer one every year or two – cletely ignoring the environmental impact of discarding so much perfectly good technology for technology that is often only marginally better, and sometimes not even that. And another part of the business model involves locking Apple users into proprietary, carefully managed, tightly controlled Apple-only offerings, from apps to power cords – stifling competition and allowing Apple to jack up prices and boost its profits. There is nothing wrong with any of this – a company’s strategy is its provenance, and there are plenty of alternatives for people who do not like it. But Taub’s admitted bias prevents him from even discussing these downsides of Apple products – and that can be a significant negative for people who are already confused enough by technology to need Does This Plug into That? That caveat aside – and it is a big one, but not big enough to invalidate much of what Taub says – the book has a lot of solid, basic information that can be helpful to anyone who finds modern technology at best confusing, at worst genuinely burdensome. For example, he explains what Dolby Digital and DTS are; why speaker bars work, and how they can be placed in the front of a room to simulate sounds as if they come from all around; why plasma televisions are better than LCD sets for viewing in normally lit rooms; how to find things on your computer (separate instructions for Macs and PCs running Windows 7 or 8); how to set up a DVR; why you may not want to give up your landline for a cell phone; how to call overseas inexpensively; why you might want a tablet – and why you might not; and much more. The book is a grab-bag, and because it is one, it omits some major technology issues. For instance, in discussing tablets, Taub looks exclusively at their pluses and minuses for consuming information (watching movies and TV while traveling is one plus; comparative lack of software is one minus). But Taub never deals with doing anything creative, such as writing papers or reports – something that is far harder on tablets than on traditional computers. This is a major negative for anyone who, whether traveling or not, needs or wants to make some sort of contribution to the information flow; yet it passes unnoticed in Does This Plug into That? Still, there is enough plain-spokenness here, about enough subjects, with enough specificity, to make the book valuable – at least as a starting point – for people who simply feel overwhelmed by computers, printers, TVs, cell phones and other ubiquitous examples of our increasingly technological society.

(++++) TRIBUTES TO MENDELSSOHN


Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Symphony No. 1; Scherzo from Octet, Op. 20. Alon Goldstein, piano; Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Yoav Talmi. Centaur. $16.99.

Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Songs without Words: Op. 30, No. 5; Op. 38, No. 6; Op. 67, Nos. 2-4; Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54. Christian Chamorel, piano; Orchestre de Chambre Fribourgeois conducted by Laurent Gendre. Fondamenta. $21.99 (CD+bonus CD).

Schumann: Kinderszenen; Abegg-Variationen; Fantasie, Op. 17. Lisa de la Salle, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Michael J. Evans: Cipher—Variations on a Theme by Felix Mendelssohn. Karolina Rojahn, piano; Kyle Milner, spoken word. Navona. $16.99.

Greg Bowers: Gestalt Figures; String Quartet No. 2—By-Products of Mass Media; Perception Etudes; Eurydice Returns. Navona. $16.99.

     Mendelssohn’s two piano concertos neatly encapsulate both the enormous talent of the composer and the reasons he was, in the past, held in less esteem than he is today. No. 1 is absolutely splendid, filled with beauty, virtuosity and a sense of rhythmic and harmonic daring that sweeps the listener along from start to finish and leaves him or her wanting more. No. 2 is more considered, more carefully assembled, every bit as well-thought-through – but lacking a certain spark of sheer ebullience for which its greater maturity of purpose never quite compensates. The two concertos’ lengths allowed them easily to fit on a single vinyl record, so they were often paired at that time; and in the CD era, they tend to be offered together as well. But it is quite difficult for even the best pianists to handle them the same way without losing something in the process. In two new recordings of the works, both of them first-rate in terms of the skill of the soloists, Christian Chamorel’s is the more successful because it offers No. 2 as an entirely different work from No. 1, not in any way a continuation or attempt to recapture the verve of the earlier concerto. Alon Goldstein’s version, while also very well and effectively played, makes No. 2 into something of a pale successor – which many in the 19th century thought Mendelssohn’s later music to be in general (hence the lower level of appreciation of him as a composer at the time). Goldstein’s performance, with the Israel Chamber Orchestra under Yoav Talmi providing strong and committed backup, was recorded live in March 2013, and it has some of the involvement and intensity of a good live performance – but also some of the excesses, such as overuse of rubato, for example in the piano entry in the finale of No. 1. The tempos here are well-chosen and the interplay between soloist and orchestra is well managed, as is the balance between piano and ensemble. Goldstein handles the youthful fervor of No. 1 with considerable élan, but No. 2 is more earthbound: the notes are all there, but the work’s spirit is rather thin, as if the pianist himself does not care for it as much as the earlier concerto. The performance is fine, but it never really catches fire. The concertos are offered on this Centaur CD with Mendelssohn’s First Symphony – like both concertos, a minor-key work – and this gets a strong reading from Talmi, although a less emotionally satisfying one in the Andante than it sometimes receives. As an encore, the orchestra offers the Scherzo from the utterly delightful Octet, Op. 20 – a movement orchestrated by Mendelssohn himself and used by him in the première of the First Symphony instead of the Menuetto, which the composer restored when the symphony was published.  The delicacy of the movement comes through in this recording just as well as it does in the music’s chamber version, with the CD as a whole showcasing the tunefulness and beautiful balance that are characteristic of Mendelssohn’s music, particularly the earlier pieces.

     Chamorel’s handling of the concertos is perhaps more mature, perhaps simply more considered. It is fascinating to hear how different these works can sound even when performers take them at essentially the same tempo: the difference between Chamorel’s No. 1 and Goldstein’s is less than 40 seconds, the difference in No. 2 a mere 12 seconds. Chamorel’s First Concerto is just as fiery and extravagantly youthful as Goldstein’s, with Chamorel paying even more attention to the con fuoco indication in the first movement while using rubato more judiciously in the finale (although still a bit too much). No. 2 shows the different approaches even more clearly. Chamorel gives the concerto expansiveness that it lacks in Goldstein’s version, allowing the first movement to flow more broadly and the second to emphasize its molto sostenuto marking clearly – even though Chamorel’s reading is almost a minute faster than Goldstein’s. Chamorel gets excellent backup throughout from Orchestre de Chambre Fribourgeois under Laurent Gendre: the ensemble’s suppleness and adaptability match the pianist’s. And Chamorel’s handling of the solo-piano pieces that fill out the CD is exceptional: he treats each of the Songs without Words as a perfectly formed miniature with strong emotional import, and gives the Variations Sérieuses a reading that balances structure and emotional content to fine effect. Fondamenta provides top-notch sound and a very unusual bonus called a “Mobility CD” that is designed to be played on computers, in cars and on other sound systems with audio characteristics noticeably different from those for which the primary “Fidelity CD” is made.

     It was Schumann who was largely responsible for the high regard in which Mendelssohn was held in his own lifetime, Schumann who deemed Mendelssohn the Mozart of the 19th century (a somewhat back-handed compliment, since Schumann then noted that if there is another Mozart, there must also be another Beethoven out there). Mendelssohn in turn was a strong advocate of Schumann’s music. The composers’ pieces have many affinities as well as differences, and Lisa de la Salle’s excellent performance on Naïve of three very different Schumann solo-piano works is a fine complement to Chamorel’s handling of some of Mendelssohn’s. De la Salle is a sensitive and highly nuanced performer. She casts a spell of wistfulness over Kinderszenen while neatly encapsulating the individual pieces, so different from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words but just as personal in their own way. The Abegg-Variationen, Schumann’s Op. 1, get a sturdy, solid reading that contrasts interestingly with Chamorel’s handling of Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses. And the Fantasie, Op. 17, is expansive and involving, with strong flow within and between its sections, as de la Salle manages to connect the strongly emotional first and third movements with the more-martial second, giving each its own characteristic flow while uniting the three into a work of both strength and expressiveness. The connection of this piece with Mendelssohn is quite clear, not so much in the music as in the circumstances of its composition: both it and the Variations Sérieuses were contributed to a fund appeal for a monument to be erected to Beethoven in his birthplace, Bonn. As different as the works’ scale and effects are, this point of similarity shows yet another way in which Mendelssohn and Schumann were connected in their lifetimes.

     Many years later, in the 21st century, Michael J. Evans has turned directly to Mendelssohn for inspiration in ways both musical and extra-musical. Cipher is an interestingly odd construction that spends an hour using both Mendelssohn’s words and a theme from one of his Songs without Words to explore the different communicative potential of verbiage and music. The original words are spoken, then given in 13 translations – they are transferred between English and other languages and then back – and then, in the 14th variation, they fade into the musical theme, which is subjected to 24 variations and then becomes the basis of an extended final fugue. The pianism required of Karolina Rojahn here is quite different from that needed to perform Mendelssohn or Schumann, but it has roots in the same need to bring out both formal structure and emotional content – the latter being more important in Cipher. The difficulty in this (+++) Navona release is that Evans’ intellectual exploration of the abstraction of music as a more-effective communicator than the specificity of language is somewhat abstruse and not particularly involving, especially in the overuse of words in the first five minutes or so of the work. It is never entirely clear how the variations on the words and those on the musical theme relate to each other – that is, it is clear philosophically, but not by simply listening to Cipher, which has a fascinating intent that does not quite come off in the execution, despite Rojahn’s sensitive playing.

     Evans is scarcely alone in wanting to explore the relative efficacy of music and words, the psychological connection between what music is and what it communicates to listeners. On another (+++) Navona CD, this one entitled Rational Passions, Greg Bowers looks into exactly the same subject. Rojahn is the pianist here, too, in Perception Etudes, a nine-movement suite whose weighty intention is to explore ways in which audience, performer and the music itself combine to produce the musical experience. Somehow it seems wholly appropriate that the final movement is called “Confusion,” although the work is not so much confused as rather unfocused. Clearer, at least in strictly musical terms, is String Quartet No. 2—By-Products of Mass Media, whose three movements all try to come to terms with aspects of pop culture: rave music, channel surfing and the online world. The Boston String Quartet (Christopher Vuk and Angel Valchinov, violins; Chen Lin, viola; Christina Stripling, cello) gamely essays a work whose sounds wander around and about without ever settling on any specific meaning – which may be Bowers’ point but can leave listeners feeling somewhat dislocated. Also here are an intellectual exercise and an emotional one: Gestalt Figures (played by Vuk and Stripling with pianist Keun Young Sun) tries to suggest composer-listener connections by showing musically how the parts of a work are used to assemble a sense of the whole; the exercise in toto is about as dry as its description. Eurydice Returns, on the other hand, is a psychologically oriented approach to the Orpheus myth that never quite evokes the drama or pathos of the story, which at its heart is as much about music as about love. The title of this CD is an accurate one in showing what Bowers is trying to do, which is analogous to what Evans seeks with Mendelssohn as a springboard. The issue with the Bowers disc is that its cerebral approach requires an explanatory framework that never allows the emotional content of the music – to the extent that it has any – to shine through. The result is pieces to be ingested rather than experienced.

(++++) STRINGS AND OTHER THINGS


Hindemith: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11, No. 4; Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1; Der Schwanendreher; Trauermusik. Antoine Tamestit, viola; Markus Hadulla, piano; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi. Naïve. $16.99.

Hindemith: Nobilissima Visione; Five Pieces for String Orchestra. Ko-ichiro Yamamoto, trombone; Emma McGrath, violin; Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Berlioz: Harold in Italy; Rêverie et Caprice; Overtures—Roman Carnival; Benvenuto Cellini. Lise Berthaud, viola; Giovanni Radivo, violin; Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

Bartók: Chamber Works for Violin, Volume 3—44 Duos for Two Violins; Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano; Sonatina for Piano, transcribed for violin and piano by Endre Gertler. James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violins; Michael Collins, clarinet; Andrew Armstrong, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Brahms: Violin Concerto; Sibelius: Violin Concerto. Erich Rühn (Beethoven), Gioconda de Vito (Mendelssohn), Yehudi Menuhin (Brahms) and Georg Kulenkampff (Sibelius), violins; Berliner Philharmoniker (Beethoven, Sibelius), Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI (Mendelssohn), and Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Brahms) conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Andromeda. $12.99 (2 CDs).

     The violin continues to get most of the attention as a solo stringed instrument, but that is not for want of skill in both compositions and virtuoso-level performances focusing on the viola. Although pickings are scarce for violists in Baroque and Classical times (Telemann’s Viola Concerto and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante are among the few often-played works), matters certainly improved in the 20th century, thanks partly to violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) and partly to composers such as Walton, Bartók and, especially notably, Hindemith. Hindemith’s music tends to be thorny, even dense, making its acceptance – even half a century after his death – less than a sure thing. But when well performed, especially as well performed as it is by Antoine Tamestit on a new Naïve CD, it makes a compelling case for the special virtues of an instrument tuned just a fifth lower than the violin but having vastly expanded emotional capabilities as a result of its larger size and that bottom C string. In Hindemith’s Sonata for Viola and Piano with Markus Hadulla, Sonata for Solo Viola, and two works with orchestra – Der Schwanendreher and Trauermusik – Tamestit consistently offers beautiful tone and a vibrant understanding of Hindemith’s emotional as well as structural depths. These are deeply committed performances throughout, with Tamestit – abetted by very fine work from the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Järvi – paying special attention to the close relationship between the two viola-and-orchestra works. Trauermusik was written on January 21, 1936, the day after King George V of England died, and received its première the same evening – and it quotes from Der Schwanendreher, whose scheduled performance on January 22 was cancelled because of the king’s death. Trauermusik also quotes from Hindemith’s 1934 Symphony: Mathis der Maler, as listeners familiar with that work will quickly notice. But Trauermusik is more than its components: it is a highly engaging work that takes full advantage of the viola’s ability to mourn both movingly and with beauty. Der Schwanendreher, a full-fledged viola concerto from 1935, is based on folk songs and handles them with considerable compositional skill – Tamestit giving a particularly involving reading of the first movement, “Between Mountain and Deep Valley.” The chamber works are equally effective in their own ways, with Hadulla performing as a true partner in the viola-and-piano sonata and Tamestit’s gorgeous tone and sure stylistic sense keeping the solo-viola sonata involving throughout. Here is a CD that shows just how unfair is the comparative neglect of both the viola and the music of Hindemith.

     Hindemith was quite capable of giving the violin as well as the viola a starring performance role, or at least one of first among equals: his Five Pieces for String Orchestra (1927) do just that, delivering effective contrasts between slow, moving vignettes and quicker, more-spirited ones. A new Naxos CD offers them played very well indeed by violinist Emma McGrath and the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz. The main event on the disc is the complete ballet, Nobilissima Visione, a 1938 work in 11 musical numbers that is almost wholly unknown today, although the three-movement suite that Hindemith created from it is one of his more frequently performed works. The suite contains less than half the ballet’s music, however, and this recording is, surprisingly, the first one of the complete ballet. The ballet traces the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and although the specific elements of the stage work are not directly audible in most of the music, the movements are well individuated: it is easy to hear Hindemith’s attempt to create a piece to complement dance and become part of a theatrical experience. Sections such as “March,” “Festival Music” and “Meditation” are self-explanatory, while ones such as “Appearance of the Three Women” and “Wedding with Poverty” are effective in themselves, even for listeners unfamiliar with the scenes to which they were attached in the choreography by Léonide Massine. Schwarz conducts this work with considerable sensitivity, and Ko-ichiro Yamamoto handles the prominent trombone part with a smooth, well-rounded sound.

     Smoothness is also the main impression given by violist Lise Berthaud in her recording of Berlioz’ Harold in Italy, one of the few real masterpieces for viola and orchestra dating to Romantic times. Originally written for Paganini, who was as adept with viola (and guitar) as with violin, the work was famously rejected by him for having insufficient virtuoso requirements and too many sections in which the viola was silent – that is, Berlioz had written something other than a soloist’s showpiece. Paganini eventually realized the work’s quality, and violists have long enjoyed its combination of warmth and out-and-out (but carefully calculated) display. The Orchestre National de Lyon under Leonard Slatkin delivers a spirited, sensitive and highly idiomatic performance on a new Naxos CD that showcases the ease and naturalness with which this ensemble handles the music of Berlioz. The two well-known overtures on the disc get equally warm and knowing treatment, the fine points of their orchestration – Berlioz was a ne plus ultra orchestrator – coming through clearly, with Slatkin’s tempo changes well chosen to reflect the works’ changing moods. Also here is the only work Berlioz wrote for solo violin and orchestra, his Rêverie et Caprice, a short and elegant piece handled skillfully and feelingly by soloist Giovanni Radivo and showing again the sensitive understanding of Slatkin and the ensemble.

     The violin’s dominance over the viola did not end in the 20th century, even though the viola repertoire was immensely enriched during that time period. Long before Bartók wrote his concerto for viola – which was left unfinished at his death – he created a number of works focusing on the violin, of which one of the most significant is the 44 Duos for two violins (1931; the composer arranged six of them for piano in 1936, under the title Petite Suite). The importance of the duos lies in their being pedagogical rather than concert-oriented. Intended for young students’ use, they are scarcely simple – and they show with considerable clarity how Bartók used folk music, since all 44 are based on Eastern European folk tunes that are treated with considerable rhythmic and harmonic freedom. When they are as well played as they are by James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti on a new Chandos disc – the third entry in the label’s recordings of Bartók’s chamber music for violin – the 44 Duos rise above their provenance both as folk music and as educational aids, becoming a microcosm of the composer’s interest in folk tunes as well as an exploration of his methods of enlarging and elaborating the simple songs and dances that he spent so many years collecting. The comparative simplicity of the 44 Duos mixes well on this CD with Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, a late work (1938) that takes Hungarian and Romanian folk melodies considerably further. This is actually music in a single mood, despite its three movements’ contrasting speeds. The violin and clarinet parts are well developed and contrast nicely with that of the piano, with Ehnes, Michael Collins and Andrew Armstrong melding well in a performance both poetic and pointed. Ehnes and Armstrong also offer a pleasant reading of the short Sonatina of 1915, as transcribed in 1925 by Endre Gertler. This is a work of some charm but not very much consequence, nicely placed to separate this disc’s two longer offerings and provide some respite – or a palate cleanser – between them.

     The point of the best-known violin concertos is to focus attention on the soloist, with the orchestra and conductor assuming a subsidiary role, if a crucial one. It is, however, the conductor who is the focus of a new two-CD set – and perhaps not surprisingly, since the conductor is Wilhelm Furtwängler, frequently described as one of the two greatest conductors of the first part of the 20th century, the other being Furtwängler’s great rival, Arturo Toscanini.  Music historians know that Furtwängler and Toscanini represented opposite temperaments, but not as might be expected: Toscanini, the Italian, was the more-rigid, intense and driven conductor, while Furtwängler, the German, although equally driven, was the one focused on pulling emotion from scores. To Toscanini, the score was everything, to be followed carefully in order to convey what the composer intended; to Furtwängler, it was a starting point from which performers extracted the feelings that the composer put into it – even when that meant playing pieces with many tempo and emphasis changes that did not appear anywhere in the works themselves. Furtwängler was not alone in this view: he shared some of it in his own time with Bruno Walter, for example, and Leonard Bernstein exemplified it to some extent among later conductors. But Furtwängler took his approach to scores to extremes, resulting in performances that were often sloppy, imprecise and quite distant from what modern-day listeners have come to expect. The four concertos on the new Andromeda release feature only one soloist who is well-known today, Yehudi Menuhin. The other violinists are certainly skilled and handle the music well, though, and Georg Kulenkampff (1898-1948) – widely considered one of the finest violinists of his time – performs at the absolutely highest level. The two readings with the Berlin Philharmonic have considerable historical value, having been made in Berlin during the Nazi era: the Sibelius on February 7 and 8, 1943, and the Beethoven on January 12, 1944. Furtwängler’s relationship with the Nazis was intricate, complex and controversial, and included more than one shouting match between him and Hitler because Furtwängler unsuccessfully demanded respect for Jewish musicians and composers. The Brahms performance dates to August 29-31, 1949, and the Mendelssohn to March 11, 1952, some two-and-a-half years before Furtwängler’s death. The new remasterings presented here cannot bring the sound anywhere close to modern standards, although they are perfectly respectable; and the performances will likely be of only historical interest to the vast majority of listeners – they sound capricious, overdone and frequently rhythmically flabby when compared with the best (or even the better) recordings of more-recent times. Furtwängler’s attempt to get to the emotional core of the music flounders in a sea of imprecision that modern listeners will find difficult, if not impossible, to accept. (Toscanini’s performances, which often sound rushed and emotionally unconvincing, have not worn particularly well, either.) The low price of this set, and its historical interest, give it a (+++) rating, especially for anyone interested in Furtwängler himself and the era he represents. Strictly on a musical basis, though, none of the performances here – however well played – will likely be a modern listener’s first or even second or third choice.

(++++) TRAVELS ALL AROUND


Lars-Erik Larsson: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Symphony No. 1; Four Vignettes to Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”; Music for Orchestra; Pastoral for small orchestra; Lyric Fantasy for small orchestra. Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze. CPO. $16.99.

Matthew Malsky: Chamber Works. Ravello. $14.99.

Sydney Hodkinson: A Keyboard Odyssey—Music for Piano and Organ. Barry Snyder, piano; Boyd Jones, organ. Navona. $16.99.

Ute Lemper: Forever—The Love Songs of Pablo Neruda. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Stravinsky in Hollywood: A Film by Marco Capalbo. C Major DVD. $24.99.

A Tribute to Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima; Duo Concertante for violin and double bass; Concerto Grosso for three cellos and orchestra; Credo. Soloists, choruses and Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Charles Dutoit, Valery Gergiev and Krzysztof Urbański. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.

     Music is not entirely independent of place, any more than it is independent of the era in which it is written. This is a given for some composers and a matter for others to explore: think of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien as two clear examples. Other geographical areas are less well-represented than Italy. Sweden, for example, has a rich musical heritage dating back at least to Franz Berwald (1796-1868), but its composers are frequently unknown outside Scandinavia. Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986) is one who deserves wider recognition. From early works that lie within the Romantic tradition but contain his personal stamp, to late ones that adapt 20th-century compositional techniques to Larsson’s unique viewpoint, Larsson’s music is unfailingly well-crafted and repays both initial hearings and repeated ones. The first volume of CPO’s planned survey of Larsson’s orchestral music is a fine place for those unfamiliar with this composer to make his acquaintance. His First Symphony is a youthful work, dating to 1927-28, and is obviously influenced by Sibelius and Nielsen; but for all that, it already shows a composer with a firm grasp of large forces and a willingness to tackle complex musical forms. And it simply sounds good. The Four Vignettes to Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” (1937-38) and Pastoral for small orchestra (1937) are far more delicate, even lilting at times, with these theater scores combining immediate accessibility with thoughtfulness about the subject matter being offered on stage. Music for Orchestra (1949) is a knottier work and far more modern in sound, with dissonance throughout and austerity that contrasts strongly with the lushness of the early First Symphony. And the Lyric Fantasy for small orchestra (1967), a work with a distinct 20th-century sound, is complex in construction but not so when heard: it communicates effectively with the listener in a way that many pieces of its time do not. Andrew Manze has clearly studied Larsson’s music carefully, conducting all of it with care and involvement, and the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra seems to have no difficulties at all with its complexities, all of which are at the service of a more direct reaching-out to the audience than is evinced in music by many of Larsson’s contemporaries.

     Matthew Malsky takes the geographical approach of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and so many others directly to heart on a (+++) Ravello CD whose title, Geographies & Geometries, neatly encapsulates its intentions. The works here are intended to evoke emotions musically, based on those felt by people – or, more accurately, by Malsky – at certain locations or in certain circumstances. Escaping the Delta (2005), for example, is inspired by the blues, specifically as exemplified by the music of Robert Johnson; but it combines a Johnsonian sensibility with elements of traditional chamber music. The work is a duet for flute and cello, performed here by the duo C-Squared (Lisa Cella, flute; Franklin Cox, cello). Another riparian work, Same River Twice (2008/2013) for wind quintet, is designed to use a geographical feature as a metaphor for having a familiar experience and finding something new in it. Members of the Radius Ensemble – Sarah Brady, flute and piccolo; Jennifer Montbach, oboe; Michael Norsworthy, clarinets; Sally Merriman, bassoon; and Anne Howarth, horn – offer a well-blended sound here. A third geographically inspired work is tied by its title quite directly to Malsky’s intentions in writing it: Archipelago of Regrets (2012) is a theme and variations intended to illustrate, bit by bit, the experience of disenchantment and the way through it to an eventual acceptance that puts one in mind of the conclusion of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “A sadder and a wiser man/ He rose the morrow morn.” The other two works on the CD fall under the “geometries” rather than “geographies” label. The rather ridiculously titled -42.489° 108.756° (elegy) (2011), for two violas, is palindromic; that fact and the work’s overdone name are about all that need be said about it – except that violists Mark Berger and Peter Sulski approach it gamely. Finally, there is Subtending the Right Angle (1999/2013), again featuring Radius Ensemble members Brady, Montbach and Norsworthy, plus Kent O’Doherty on bassoon; Benjamin Wright on trumpet; John Faieta on trombone; Linda Osborn-Blashke on piano; and Susan Hagen on bass, with the ensemble conducted by Jeffrey Means. Once again here, there is a somewhat abstruse and overthought attempt to integrate musical sensibilities with those from other fields. The ultimate question for music, though, is whether it works as music, for people who do not know (and perhaps do not care) about the composer’s thought processes or compositional techniques. It is in this area of connection with the audience that Malsky’s works fall short, for all that they are clearly thought through with considerable attentiveness.

     The journey enshrined on a (+++) CD called A Keyboard Odyssey is one that explores two forms of keyboard instrument: piano and organ (the latter being more of a wind instrument in terms of how its sound is produced: analogously, one would scarcely call an accordion a keyboard instrument just because a keyboard is used to alter the sound of the wind that produces the notes). Everything on this Navona CD is short: there are seven works in all, but the longer ones are essentially suites of brief, disconnected pieces, being in their totality heirs to the suite of Bach’s and Telemann’s day. Curiously, five of the seven Sydney Hodkinson pieces here are excerpts, the only two complete works being the pleasantly bouncy Mini-Rag for Right Hand Alone (1990) and Organmusic: Six Tableaux for Solo Organ (2009), which mixes old forms with modern sensibilities. The disc’s other contents are Nos. 1, 4 and 5 from Episodes: Five Thoughts for Solo Piano (2007); No. 3 from Dance Overtures (1981); Nos. 1, 2 and 5 from Faded Anecdotes: Five Images for Solo Piano (2009); Nos. 3 and 2, in that order, from Stolen Goods: Four Preludes for Solo Piano (2008); and Nos. 1 and 2 from Snapshots: Three Miniatures for Solo Piano (2007). The short-form works are often effective in their small ways, with the Snapshots vignettes (“A Strange Dream” and “A Faded Dance”) being particularly affecting, and several of the fast-paced items tumbling neatly over themselves and over the piano keys. Barry Snyder and Boyd Jones do a good job throughout, although the reasons for including only bits and pieces of Hodkinson’s various suites are rather obscure.

     The journey in Ute Lemper: Forever is one of both geography and time. English, French and Spanish songs appear here, all written by Lemper as well as performed by her; string arrangements are by Juan Antonio Sanchez. This is a Lemper production through and through: concept and direction, as well as melodies and vocals, are by her, with some assistance from composer and bandoneon player Marcelo Nisinman. The actual words, as the disc’s full title indicates, are by Pablo Neruda, but – and this is the traveling-in-time element – the settings place the songs directly in the cabaret tradition. It is quite easy to imagine Lemper singing them in a smoky British pub or its equivalent in France or Spain in the years of the Weimar Republic; indeed, Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair dates to the Weimar years (1924). Lemper’s rich, throaty voice, mingled with strings, bandoneon, and the sound of the lutelike charango (played by Freddy Torrealba), takes listeners through a multilingual song cycle that tends to dwell a bit too much on the obviously emotive as it meanders from La nuit dans l’ile (a first night together) to The Saddest Poem / Nr. 20 (a predictable finale of heartbreak and despair). Lemper’s voice has enough variety to encompass the various emotions of the 12 poem settings, but not enough to carry listeners along effectively through more than an hour of music that not only features sameness of topic but also is all set by Lemper herself in ways that quickly become familiar. It is difficult not to be swept into the emotional intensity that opens this (+++) CD on the Steinway & Sons label, but equally difficult to remain at that level of involvement throughout the recording. In a live concert, Lemper’s stage presence and the setting itself would contribute to and presumably enhance the mood of the performance. In recorded form, however, what works well for five minutes, or 15, or even 25, becomes a bit much at a length of nearly 65.

     The travels chronicled in Marco Capalbo’s film, Stravinsky in Hollywood, are both geographical and emotional. Stravinsky was not just an old-world European trying to accommodate himself and his ambitions to the new world of Hollywood. He was also, by the time he moved to California in 1939, world-famous for his groundbreaking music of the years before World War I and for his neoclassicism of the 1920s. He left Europe as World War II was breaking out and ended up living in Los Angeles longer than in any other city – but his relationship with his adopted country (he became a U.S. citizen in 1945) was complex and not always a happy one. This is what Capalbo explores in his film, a niche production that lasts just 53 minutes and appears on a C Major DVD without bonus material. The entire (+++) DVD may be regarded as a bonus by Stravinsky fans, however, and will be of special interest because it is one of the few Stravinsky-related offerings in recent decades that does not come from the ever-present Robert Craft, longtime molder and keeper of the Stravinsky legacy. This is not to say that Stravinsky in Hollywood contains anything to which Craft or other legend managers would be likely to object. It is, in fact, somewhat on the bland side. There is the usual archival footage, including some not previously seen, and there are the to-be-expected interviews with Stravinsky himself, and there are scenes from some of the films whose music he created: several 20th-century Russian composers, including Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg as well as Stravinsky, had quite an affinity for film scores. There is nothing revelatory in Capalbo’s film, which is a once-over-lightly covering more than three decades of Stravinsky’s life in less than an hour. The pacing is good, and fans of Stravinsky will enjoy seeing him in a Hollywood context (he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). Those seeking insight into the composer and his reasons – other than the obvious financial one – for spending so much of his life in the Hollywood milieu will be disappointed, but those who deem Stravinsky a celebrity and are interested in him in the context of the celebrity culture of his time will enjoy Capalbo’s offering.

     If Stravinsky was often considered a citizen of the world, Krzysztof Penderecki is intimately associated with his native Poland. A new Accentus Music DVD chronicles the November 23, 2013 concert at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, at which numerous artists paid tribute to Penderecki on his 80th birthday. Conductors Charles Dutoit, Valery Gergiev and Krzysztof Urbański were featured, along with Anne-Sophie Mutter and Roman Patkoló in the Duo Concertante for violin and double bass; Daniel Müller-Schott, Arto Noras and Ivan Monighetti in the Concerto Grosso for three cellos and orchestra; plus vocal soloists, along with the Chorus of the Polish National Opera, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Warsaw Boys Choir, and Sinfonia Varsovia. The DVD includes the entire concert plus a 15-minute discussion of it by Penderecki himself as a bonus. Invariably, events like this are respectful to the point of being hagiographic, and that is certainly the case here. The four works are all performed with devoted attention and consummate skill, with the 1960 Threnody especially impressive half a century later and still sounding ultra-modern through its use of unusual textures, peculiar bowing techniques and considerable use of tone clusters. The DVD is, as usual in a visual version of a concert, intended primarily for people who want to feel as if they were present during the performance – and who do not mind having their visuals guided by the choices of the director. There is nothing especially dramatic or unexpected in those choices, but also nothing that adds significantly to the experience of the music in this (+++) release. Devotees of Penderecki’s music, who want to have a keepsake of the concert marking his 80th birthday, will be highly pleased to take a virtual trip to Poland through this offering. Listeners with a more-casual interest in Penderecki’s work will have  little reason to own this visualization rather than any of the many fine audio recordings of his individual compositions.

July 17, 2014

(++++) READING EMERGES


Learn to Read with Tug the Pup and Friends! Box Sets 1-3. By Julie M. Wood, Ed.D. Illustrations by Sebastien Braun. Harper. $12.99 each.

Comics Squad #1: Recess! Edited by Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm & Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Random House. $7.99.

     Ever since the creation of Bob Books in 1976, it has been clear to educators and parents that there is a place for small-size, super-simple, carefully directed books that very gradually introduce young children to reading through easy-to-master stories accompanied by pleasantly engaging drawings. And even before the Bob Books (which continue to be available from Scholastic), HarperCollins had the I Can Read! series, which dates all the way back to 1957. Now the two concepts have merged in an entirely new level of the I Can Read! grouping called “My Very First.” Each of the three boxed sets includes 11 small, very short, simple books with a guide for parents and a two-page sheet of reward stickers. Unlike the Bob Books, which are phonics-based, the new ones featuring Tug the Pup and other animal characters focus on the Common Core State Standards that most U.S. states now incorporate into elementary education. Educational consultant Julie M. Wood not only wrote the books but also included a “Parents’ Corner” in each inside back cover, offering activities designed to reinforce each book’s skills. In addition, the parent guide in each box gives suggested general approaches to the books, such as previewing the book with your child before actually reading it, helping him or her understand that letters stand for particular sounds, showing how to become accustomed to phonemes, and so on. The first box contains very simple, rhythmic and repetitious stories: “This is the barn. This is the nest. This is the egg.” The second box introduces dialogue and slightly more complex plots and sentences: “‘How can I get the corn?’ asks Big Pig.” The third box offers somewhat more-advanced vocabulary and more-complicated plots, although the overall books remain very easy to follow: “‘It walks like a skunk,’ said Tug. ‘It has black-and-white stripes like a skunk.’” Progress from book to book and box to box is easy and pleasant, thanks to the careful storytelling and the attractive characters, which do not have much personality but are fun to follow through their everyday adventures at Little Blue Farm. Sebastien Braun’s illustrations are pleasantly cartoonish, with suggestions of expression nicely done and character motions being clear and easy to follow. Parents especially concerned about teaching emergent readers in a way that will conform to Common Core State Standards will especially appreciate these boxed sets, but even adults who are not focusing specifically on those standards will find Learn to Read with Tug the Pup and Friends! (and the Bob Books, too) to be very helpful series for getting the youngest children interested in books and written words and starting them on the road toward reading on their own.

     Cartoon drawings can also be a way of keeping older children interested in books even when the kids are what are euphemistically called “reluctant readers.” This partly explains the popularity of graphic novels and the interest publishers show in books such as Comics Squad #1: Recess! This is certainly not a book intended to teach or re-teach reading or to pull kids toward non-pictorial books. It is, however, interesting and fun in its own right. Edited by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, joint creators of the Babymouse books, and Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who developed the Lunch Lady series, Comics Squad #1 includes eight entries – from the editors and from Dav Pilkey, Dan Santat, Raina Telgemeier & Dave Roman, Ursula Vernon, Eric Wright and Gene Luen Yang. The very different drawing styles of the contributors are a bigger attraction than the plots of the stories, most of which are straightforward and overly familiar. Among the highlights are Pilkey’s comic, “drawn” by two students who insist on being creative even though the school insists they do what everyone else does; Vernon’s distinctively drawn tale of two squirrels and a “magic acorn” that turns out to be a small spaceship; and Santat’s surprisingly moving look at homework and middle-school angst. The Babymouse and Lunch Lady entries are plenty of fun, too. Comics Squad #1 is unlikely to turn reluctant readers into ones eager for, say, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but it will at least make them less reluctant to pick up other graphics-heavy books, including, of course, future entries in this series itself.

(++++) TRAGEDY OF A LONG-GONE WORLD


The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia. By Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade. $18.99.

     They are saints now, canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, but in their lifetimes they were reviled, their fall celebrated, their ignominious deaths either unremarked or deemed an occasion for joy. They were the last Romanovs, the final rulers of Imperial Russia, the victims of vicious Bolshevik murder in the waning days of World War I.

     Although it proved not to be “the war to end war,” World War I was the war that ended empires: at its conclusion, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were gone, and so was Russia’s. The fall of Russia and its Romanov rulers was particularly dramatic: the last czar, Nicholas II, had been the wealthiest monarch in the world, and the holdings of the czars were so fabled, so extensive, so celebrated, that in their operetta Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan dealt with a matter of impossibility by comparison: “Get at the wealth of the czar (if you can).”

     But the end of the Romanovs had been coming for quite some time before Nicholas was shot dead, along with his entire family and their household servants, in July 1918. The assassination of Alexander II in 1881 was a major precipitating factor. A reformist who emancipated the serfs, abolished capital punishment and promoted local self-government, Alexander was murdered by radical revolutionaries for whom his reforms did not go nearly far enough or fast enough: he was killed by a bomb in the fifth attempt on his life. This convinced his son, Alexander III, that reforms would never satisfy extremists, and he cracked down on dissent – hard. The result was a solidifying of opposition to his rule and to the czars in general. Alexander’s son, Nicholas II, would reap the proverbial whirlwind: lacking forcefulness and a hard edge, unable to contain the worker unrest that manifested itself in major strikes in 1905, Nicholas vacillated, signing the October Manifesto granting increased rights but then cracking down brutally on protests in a wave of terror that resulted in more than 20,000 executions.

     “Promises Made, and Promises Broken,” reads the subhead of one part of one chapter in Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov, and those five words say a great deal about the entire story told here in simplified but nevertheless highly detailed form. The last czar earned the name “Bloody Nicholas” through the depredations of his secret police and soldiers. But his story is more complicated than the name would suggest. Fleming delves into the ins and outs of a long-ago time, and into family matters ranging from Nicholas’ son’s hemophilia to the curious relationship between the czar’s family and self-proclaimed “holy man” Gregory Rasputin. The family tragedy – and it surely was a tragedy on a family level, whatever one may think of the social and political currents against which it played out – is at the heart of Fleming’s book, but she tells it within the context of a world changing far too fast for the old autocrats to keep up, a world where people such as Vladimir Ulyanov, always known by his chosen name Lenin, would control the future as czarist days receded rapidly into the past. Indeed, in some ways, the fall of the Romanovs seems only a matter of time: the very first item in Fleming’s 32 pages of photos and other visual material, a graphic showing the approximate breakdown of Russia’s social classes at the start of the 20th century, indicates that 1.5% of people were nobility or state officials, while 84% were peasants. Surely it was only a matter of time before the vast, vast majority rose up and demanded its rights in a nation from whose riches the lower classes had always been excluded.

     And perhaps the destruction of the Romanovs was indeed inevitable, although the specific method of cold-blooded murder of the entire family in the name of Communism remains shocking even today. Fleming nevertheless manages to show the positives as well as the many negatives of the last czar and his family. Nicholas even attains something approaching nobility in his reaction to Lenin’s decision – for his own self-preservation – to sign a peace treaty with Germany that gave up Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Ukraine and the Crimea: 32% of Russia’s land, 54% of its factories and 89% of its coal mines. Nicholas may have been on the wrong side of history; for all his religious piety (the basis of his and his family’s eventual canonization), and he may never have had either the sensitivity or the administrative skill to be an effective ruler, much less to control a land as huge, sprawling and complex as Russia. But his successors scarcely did better for the Russian population than Nicholas had. Lenin died in 1924 and was succeeded by the incredibly brutal and vicious mass murderer, Stalin, whose brand of Communism “ruled by repression, fear, and iron-fisted control” and lasted 67 years. The Romanovs, both for better and for worse, had ruled for more than 300.

(+++) EVEN BEYOND HAGIOGRAPHY


Good Morning, Mr. Mandela: A Memoir. By Zelda la Grange. Viking. $28.95.

     Imagine approaching a publisher with a book that chronicles your life with a man beyond goodness, a true saint on Earth, someone who worked tirelessly for his people all his life with never a thought for himself or his own welfare, the purest and highest expression of everything a human can be. And imagine that his name is Winthrop Morris-Huntington III. Will your book get even the slightest consideration? Will any publisher believe your description of it and of its central personality is anything other than self-serving, the creation of privilege, oppression of others and gross miscarriages of justice? Now imagine using the identical description of the book and its central character, but saying that his name is N’dgondo N’bibwe. Will any publisher be Iess than intrigued, willing at the very least to hear you out and find out the wondrousness of this marvelous person?

     This is the way subtle, insidious prejudice works today when it comes to the modern sainted, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Whether the willingness to see these people as vastly better than the rest of humanity is fair and reasonable redress for the centuries in which darker-skinned people were viciously oppressed is an open question. But it is a question that is rarely asked, since even to ask it invites identification of the questioner as being that pariah among pariahs, a dyed-in-the-wool racist – and therefore immediately dismissible, under the unwritten but harsh laws of political correctness, without any need to listen to anything he or she may say. Again, whether this is fair recompense for the past is a worthy question, if anyone dares to ask it; but the refusal to ask it masks a fear of reasoned discussion that no avalanche of books about the holiness-on-Earth of men such as King and Mandela can entirely conceal.

     As it happens, the fanciful notion of differing treatment has, in the case of Mandela, a clear, real-world demonstration. Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, but he did not win it alone. He shared it with F.W. de Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, the man who released Mandela from prison after 27 years, the man who skillfully dismantled the nation’s old apartheid system and laws and earned, on his own, the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize in 1991 and the Prince of Asturias Award in 1992. Yet to mention him in the same breath as Mandela is close to sacrilege. There are no shelves-upon-shelves of books devoted to de Klerk, who at age 78 is still alive and active.

     De Klerk gets a passing mention, and only a passing one, in Zelda la Grange’s Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, one of the latest in the shelves-upon-shelves of books proclaiming Mandela to be beyond great, indeed almost beyond human in his wonderfulness. La Grange’s book is the inspiring story – they are all inspiring stories – of how she, a white South African woman, overcame her personal prejudices because of Mandela, worked in his government as a ministerial typist, later became one of his three private secretaries, and eventually (in 2002) left government to work full-time for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Being la Grange’s autobiography as much as another biography of Mandela, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela has personal touches that set it apart from the many, many other books of its ilk. Its style, unfortunately, is not always equal to its wholehearted and good-hearted attempts to communicate: “Change is inevitable and I was ready to drive myself past the finish line, probably for the first time in my life at full speed. …I probably missed some valuable opportunities to get a deeper understanding of what was historically happening around me.”

     Mandela, to whom la Grange often refers by his honorific clan name, Madiba, is never less than wonderful throughout this book: “Madiba was well known to be an outstanding fundraiser.” “Madiba was always well groomed and took great care in making sure that his skin was well moisturized…” “He could never speak of ‘me’ or ‘I.’ It was part of the humble man that he was and everything included everyone around him.” “Madiba had the ability to trust people unconditionally.” There is nothing new here, nothing surprising, nothing revelatory.

     There is more of interest in some of the things la Grange writes about herself. “I had to face the fact that a young white Afrikaner woman caring for [Mandela] was always going to be an unlikely and unpopular situation. Yet I was determined to never abandon him for as long as he wanted me.” “People often asked me over the years what exactly my job entailed. I didn’t know where to start but would say, ‘I can type, answer telephones, call press conferences and export springbok and oryx to Saudi Arabia.’” But la Grange tends to retreat quickly from self-revelatory comments, as if unwilling to seem to be sharing even the smallest part of the spotlight with Mandela.

     The problem with the near-deification (“sanctification” seems an inadequate word) of Mandela, in Good Morning, Mr. Mandela and elsewhere, is that in the long run it dehumanizes the man, just as similar treatment dehumanizes Martin Luther King, Jr. La Grange mentions occasional flare-ups of temper and other minor peccadillos of Mandela, but by and large, she takes great pains to portray him as very much of the world but not entirely in the world – a pretty good description of a saint or deity on Earth. What was truly remarkable about Mandela, though – and about King and the few others like them – was that they were human, complete with flaws and foibles and mistakes aplenty, in their personal lives as well as their political ones. This does not take anything away from them – in fact, it adds to the profundity of their accomplishments to realize that some people, a very few, are fully human and at the same time truly able to transcend the worst of humanity and maybe, just maybe, take some of the rest of us a step or two higher along with them. Good Morning, Mr. Mandela is ultimately about a figure that no reader can aspire to emulate; he is simply on an unattainable level. And that is too bad, because we need more like Nelson Mandela, many more, and to the extent that their accomplishments seem those of an otherworldly giant, to that extent they appear forever out of the reach of the rest of us – brilliance foreclosed  to mere mortals who can only read books like this one and gasp in wonder.

(++++) ROMANTICISM PLUS


Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1; Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 1; Korngold: Violin Concerto; Williams: Theme from “Schindler’s List.” Glenn Dicterow, violin; New York Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel (Bruch), Alan Gilbert (Bartók), David Robertson (Korngold) and John Williams (Williams). New York Philharmonic. $16.99.

Reinecke: Cello Concerto; John Tavener: Threnos, for cello solo; Schumann: Adagio and Allegro for Cello and Orchestra; Bloch: Suite No. 1 for cello solo; Osvaldo Golijov: Mariel, for cello and marimba. Michael Samis, cello; Eric Willie, marimba; Gateway Chamber Orchestra conducted by Gregory Wolynec. Delos. $16.99.

Fauré: Masques et bergamasques; Fantaisie for Flute; Pelléas et Mélisande Suite; Berceuse for Violin and Orchestra; Élégie for Cello and Orchestra; Dolly; Pavane. Demarre McGill, flute; Alexander Velinzon, violin; Efe Baltacigil, cello; Seattle Symphony Chorus; Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

Dohnányi: Symphony No. 2; Two Songs. Evan Thomas Jones, baritone; Florida State University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Jiménez. Naxos. $9.99.

Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie. Angela Hewitt, piano; Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, ondes Martenot; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. Ondine. $16.99 (SACD).

     The position of concertmaster is one about whose intricacies audiences know little. It carries considerable administrative leadership responsibility as well as a requirement that the individual have virtuoso-level talent that he or she is willing to subsume within the requirements of leading the violins and, in effect, the entire ensemble – no matter who may happen to be conducting at any given concert. Glenn Dicterow’s amazing 34-year tenure as New York Philharmonic concertmaster, the longest in the orchestra’s history, is therefore quite deserving of the celebration it receives in a new CD and handsome booklet on the orchestra’s own label. Dicterow’s solo-quality playing finally gets a chance to flourish for listeners at home, as he shows himself to be master of the Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire – playing four works under four different conductors with sure-handedness, interpretative solidity and great skill. The Bruch concerto was recorded in 2009, the Bartók concerto in 2012, Korngold’s concerto in 2008, and the short Schindler’s List encore in 2006, so none of these performances dates to the early years of Dicterow, for whom the 2013-14 season was his last. Now 65, Dicterow shows considerable maturity in all these readings, providing sumptuous tone, unfailingly careful integration with the orchestra he led for so many years, and sensitivity to the nuances of the four conductors with whom he works on this CD. It cannot be said that soloist or conductors bring any significant surprises to the performances or that Dicterow finds more in the music than others have discovered: these are essentially middle-of-the-road interpretations that explore the works’ beauties, emotions and structures without delving especially deeply into them. It is the sheer skill of Dicterow’s playing that is attractive here, more than any way in which he elicits specific meaning from the music. Yet he is at home quite as thoroughly in the better-known and less-known pieces, as comfortable with the Romanticism of Bruch as with the post-Romantic approach of Bartók. And perhaps that is what stands best as a tribute to Dicterow’s skill: of necessity, a concertmaster has to be adept at handling a huge number of works – far more than a typical virtuoso soloist must know – and has to be willing and able to sound good in a wide variety of styles, while accepting and enhancing each conductor’s individual handling of each piece of music. This is what Dicterow did so well for more than three decades; and if this tributary release shows only one aspect of his skill, it shows it to very fine effect indeed.

     The solo-cello skill of Michael Samis is displayed more conventionally on a new Delos CD that gives Samis plenty of chances to show his virtuosic mettle. But this is an unusual disc, and a particularly enjoyable one, because of the works selected and the inclusion of solo pieces as well as ones for cello and orchestra. Furthermore, the CD provides a chance to explore some less-known corners of the cello repertoire. The 1864 concerto by Carl Reinecke (1824-1910), here receiving its world première recording, was written smack in the middle of Romanticism and early in Reinecke’s compositional life. Even today, Reinecke is far better known as a conductor, pianist and, most of all, teacher (of Bruch, Grieg, Stanford, Janáček, Albéniz and many others), than as a composer. This concerto indicates that a reconsideration may be in order: although it is very much of its time, it is elegantly crafted and highly sensitive to the cello’s capabilities, and has genuine musicality underlying its virtuoso requirements. It contrasts interestingly with the Schuman Adagio and Allegro – a slighter work of effective contrasts and pleasant sonorities, heard in an orchestration by Ernest Ansermet. Bloch’s suite and the very modern works by Tavener and Golijov give Samis chances to show his considerable abilities to produce lovely sounds while exploring the technical and emotional range of his instrument. The contrast between cello and marimba in Golijov’s work is particularly interesting from a sonic point of view, although the music itself does not have much to say. In all, this is a highly intriguing disc whose contrast between Romantic and much later music is only one of its attractions.

     The quality is also quite high in the new Seattle Symphony CD on the orchestra’s own label, another disc showing the excellence that conductor Ludovic Morlot brings to French music, with which he has considerable affinity. Seventy minutes of Fauré may be more than most listeners are accustomed to hearing at one time, but the CD certainly shows the variety of the composer’s music, which became more personal from his early works to his late ones, the latter including jazz and somewhat atonal elements while the earlier ones were firmly in the Romantic tradition. Morlot misses an opportunity to present some of Fauré’s most interesting and unusual works, such as the complete eight-movement Masques et bergamasques rather than the much more often heard four-movement suite; actually, the 1887 Pavane, heard on this disc with the optional choral part, later became the eighth and final movement of Masques et bergamasques. Morlot explores each short piece here with delicacy and care – and in fact, every piece on the CD is short, if you look at Masques et bergamasques as four separate movements, the Pelléas et Mélisande Suite as another four, and Dolly (the 1894-97 suite for piano four hands, as orchestrated by Rabaud in 1906) as a set of six. Although Fauré was not a miniaturist per se, he had considerable skill in evoking a mood or particular form of expression within a brief period of time, and it is that skill that comes through most clearly on this CD. Fauré, like Reinecke, was a well-known and highly respected teacher – of Ravel, Enescu, Koechlin and Nadia Boulanger, among others – and this was a role in which his clear familiarity with instrumental capability surely stood him well. That comfort level is evident in the works for flute, violin and cello on this CD, and indeed, the disc as a whole shows Fauré to be highly accomplished in instrumental combinations of all sorts.

     Fauré (1845-1924) was strongly imbued with Romantic sensibility, even when he moved beyond it, while Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) embraced Romanticism as a technique without having lived through the period of its flourishing. The Two Songs on a new Naxos CD date to 1912 and show, in this world première recording, the vestiges of Romantic art-song settings: both Gott and Sonnensehnsucht (“Longing for the Sun”), using texts by Wilhelm Conrad Gomoll (1877-1951), are very much in the lieder tradition as interpreted and reconfigured by Mahler, although their sound is quite different from that of Mahler’s songs for voice and orchestra. Dohnányi’s Second Symphony is considerably later, written in 1945 and not put into final form until 1957, but its roots in Romanticism are apparent. It is passionate and intense, filled with struggle and intensity that seem to emerge from within rather than being, as might be expected in light of the work’s date, in some way connected to World War II – although there is an air of controlled militarism to some portions of the work. The longest and most complex movement is the finale, which harks back, in Brahmsian fashion, to Bach (although, again, without sounding like Brahms, any more than the songs sound like Mahler). The principal part of the last movement consists of variations and a fugue on Bach’s Komm Süsser Tod, which at the movement’s end is combined with the symphony’s opening theme to produce the work’s climax. The Florida State University Symphony Orchestra plays the music gamely under Alexander Jiménez, but it is not really an ideal ensemble for a work of this scale and scope, sounding somewhat thin and strained at various points. Jiménez himself is not the piece’s best advocate: the symphony tends to drag in spots and lacks an overall sense of scale and scope, and the molto con sentimento element of the second movement gets short shrift. This is thus a (+++) recording: the music has considerable interest that is not fully communicated in the performance.

     Nor is the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, although a fine one in many ways, worthy of complete recommendation – although it certainly deserves a high (+++) rating. Hannu Lintu paces most of this huge work well, and Ondine’s SACD sound is quite helpful in elucidating the difficult piano part as well as the otherworldly impression of the ondes Martenot. Both solo instruments are played very well indeed. The difficulty with the music lies in keeping the 10-movement work flowing, finding a way for its disparate elements to coalesce around the theme of romantic love and death, which is the symphony’s central concern. It is here that this performance falls a bit short: the work sprawls a little too much for cohesiveness, and while individual elements are convincing, other specific parts (such as the sixth movement) are less so. The three primary recurring themes – love theme, flower theme, and intense and frightening “statue theme” – are not always brought forth clearly in their multiple guises, so the careful structural underpinnings of the music are less clear than they could be. Nevertheless, this Turangalîla-Symphonie interpretation has many salient points, with Lintu having a strong sense of the driving rhythms of the frenetic fifth movement and not shying away from the complexities of the entirely atonal seventh. The details of Lintu’s reading are pointed and careful; what the performance lacks is an overall feeling of connectedness – an admittedly difficult thing to achieve in a work that was originally intended to be in the conventional four movements (Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 10) and that grew by accretion to its 10-movement final structure. The transcendent quality of love – specifically the love of Tristan and Isolde – is the foundation of the Turangalîla-Symphonie, but Messiaen does not always make that love and its transformational-yet-frightening elements easy for the audience to perceive and explore. The symphony dates to 1946-48 – essentially the same time period as Dohnányi’s  Second Symphony – and Lintu’s recording shows the care with which Messiaen built the symphony, but does not fully deliver its impact.