March 23, 2017
Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere. By Elise Gravel. Harper. $12.99.
There are lots and lots of stories out there about kids who are not very good with other kids, or with adults, but who are super-good with something else, such as animals. But this book is not like all the others.
There are lots and lots of stories out there in which the pictures and text are equally important even though the works are not exactly graphic novels, being more of a hybrid form in the Dear Dumb Diary mode. But, again, this book is not like all the others.
And there are lots and lots of stories out there where an alien being or otherwise unimaginable creature of some sort is imagined and turns out to be very important indeed, or at least very interesting, or very strange, or some combination of those. But, yet again, this book is not like all the others.
Why not? Because Elise Gravel’s Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere combines elements of all three of the “lots and lots of stories” designed for preteens, and is hilarious – as well as slightly, ever so slightly, meaningful.
It all starts with the unusually weird title, which turns out to refer to a thing that turns up in Olga’s trash can one day. It smells like the trash, or maybe the trash smells like it; it is hard to be sure. The thing is the size of a piglet and has pink, trash-covered fur, plus a long, skinny, rat-like, prehensile tail. It says nothing but “meh” (constantly) and is terrified of bananas. It is in love with Olga’s Michael Jackson poster, does not speak Spanish, and does not seem to want to eat anything – not even Olga’s favorite food, macaroni and cheese with pickles. Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere features Olga trying to find out more about the smelly thing: she is a budding scientist, as she does not hesitate to explain (repeatedly), and her idol is Jane Goodall. Olga is initially fascinated by the smelly thing, which she has not yet seen, because she discovers that its poop is “the size of green peas, and shiny like marbles, but multicolored, like Skittles.” So, yes, there is a bunch of poop-related stuff here, which is scarcely surprising in an amply illustrated book for ages 8-12. But Olga’s interest in poop is scientific, not scatological, so there is purpose to it, all right?
Anyway, Olga – who likes to wear the same sack-like dress all the time and does not like to wear socks or shoes – explores the likes and dislikes of the smelly thing, which she dubs Olgamus Ridiculus (a pretty good name, all things considered), eventually finding out what it likes to eat (olives, which she discovers while visiting a store that sells, among other things, tuna flavored toothpaste and transparent diapers). But Olga fails to discover what the smelly thing actually is, despite a library trip during which she consults Weird Animals, Strange Animals, Bizarro Animals, Strange Life Forms, Cute Animals, and so on. It is during this library visit that Gravel shows her desire to have Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere be a bit more than its title and plot indicate: just as there are multiple references to Jane Goodall in the text, so is there some science in the library trip – Olga learns about the blobfish, naked mole rat, axolotl, tarsier and other strange real-world animals (which, however, Gravel’s cartoons show in not-at-all-real-world ways). True, this is not a major part of the book, but the underlying current of scientific exploration, which includes Olga using the scientific method by taking constant notes on the smelly thing and listing and numbering her observations, makes Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere a bit more than a pure romp.
Back in the “romp” material, though, Gravel offers hilarious illustrations of differently shaped dogs (because Olga decides to take the smelly thing to the dog park), and one of the funniest pictures in the whole book has Meh (the smelly thing’s name, of course) – threatened by big dogs – “puffing up like a giant puffer fish” and making a “FWEEE-EEEEK!” noise that looks as funny as it sounds when you see Meh making it. Eventually, thanks to Meh, Olga makes friends with some neighborhood girls she has always disliked – this is another bit of underlying seriousness in the book – and learns, among other things, that Meh tries to communicate with flies and only sleeps facing the North Pole. With a combination of ideas, attributes and attitudes like the one in Olga and the Smelly Thing from Nowhere, can a sequel about Olga and Meh be far behind? Young readers will certainly hope the answer is not “meh” but “no.”
Life after the Diagnosis: Expert Advice on Living Well with Serious Illness for Patients and Caregivers. By Steven Z. Pantilat, M.D. Da Capo. $16.99.
As awful as it is to be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, it can be almost equally awful to try to negotiate the morass of medical, legal and personal/family issues that follow such a diagnosis – while attempting to make what are literally life-or-death decisions about treatment. Steven Z. Pantilat’s Life after the Diagnosis is difficult, at times unpleasant reading, but it is so clear-headed and understanding (and understandable) that it can be an invaluable guide for individuals facing a horrendous diagnosis, family members trying to help, and caregivers trying to figure out the best way to deal with rapidly approaching end-of-life necessities.
Pantilat’s writing is clear, easy to understand, and filled with the warmth and caring that are so often absent in modern medicine. As usual in books for lay people about serious medical matters, Life after the Diagnosis is packed with examples taken from the experiences of patients Pantilat has treated – but unlike many such books, this one uses the experiences to highlight real-world issues that readers may very well encounter, and helps in the discovery of the right questions to ask and the sorts of answers that one may expect to get. Indeed, Pantilat’s combination of the frank and honest with the compassionate is what doctors treating patients near life’s end should seek as an ideal.
There is detailed advice here on accepting and living with a fatal disease, plus information on how to prepare for the disease’s later stages and how to help loved ones prepare as well. In particular, Pantilat is a strong advocate of palliative care, which he explains with the same clarity that he brings to other topics. “In trying to eradicate an illness, traditional treatments often do more harm than good, especially late in an illness. Palliative care, which is given along with standard medical treatments, provides an extra layer of support that helps patients function better, be more comfortable, and experience less pain and stress. …It reflects the realization that serious illness involves numerous factors, including pain, stress, emotions, spiritual beliefs, culture, finances, nature, and values. Palliative care focuses on the whole person…” Indeed, it is through the lens of whole-person focus that Pantilat discusses pretty much everything in Life after the Diagnosis. His approach shows the difference between treating a disease and treating a person who has a disease – which are two very different things.
Take, for instance, Pantilat’s treatment of hope. He says he tries to find out from his own patients what their hopes are for the rest of their lives – and then find ways to make those hopes come true, within the limited time people have available. For example, he tells of two patients who wanted to live until their children could be married – with neither patient likely to be alive that long. And he shows how the situations were handled: one with an elaborate-as-possible wedding within the intensive care unit of a hospital, the other by moving the wedding much earlier than originally planned. These stories illuminate Pantilat’s trenchant observation, “Often, both doctors and patients misplace their energies. They continue to concentrate on survival and ignore other goals that could still be attained.”
Pantilat is direct even when saying things that patients, families and caregivers will likely not want to hear. The hope about which he writes is directed hope, practical hope, not pie-in-the-sky hope for something that is vanishingly unlikely to occur. “When you’re seriously ill, it’s natural to hope for a cure, but a cure may not be possible. If you focus all your time and energy on being cured, it can keep you from taking care of other important business, making crucial decisions, and accomplishing achievable goals. …The pursuit of a cure can undermine the very reason you want a cure: to have more time with loved ones. In the end, you lose out on both.”
Life after the Diagnosis is a book that no one will want to need to read; if there is any doubt, just consider that one chapter is called “The News Goes from Bad to Worse,” and it is scarcely the only chapter in which the material discussed is difficult to bear. Consider as well a passing comment such as, “Doctors usually have more information than they share.” This seems obvious when you are healthy – but it can become deeply ominous in the context of a serious illness, as patients understandably wonder, “What is my doctor not telling me? Can I even trust what I hear?” And then there is the issue of medical jargon, which doctors routinely use and may be more likely to employ as a kind of self-protective mechanism when talking to patients with serious diseases. Pantilat is typically blunt in noting, for example, that “the word positive usually means ‘good’” but that “in medicine, positive is often bad,” and also that when a doctor talks about progress or says something is progressive, patients must ask whether things are getting better or worse. Language can feel like a mine field, one among many, when you have a serious illness or a loved one does; it is just one topic through which Pantilat leads readers skillfully.
The final part of the book explains palliative care in detail and also discusses hospice care (which is not quite the same thing) as well as “Difficult Treatment Decisions and Discussions” (another chapter title). This section may be especially difficult reading. But it provides some of the most valuable practical advice in the book. Pantilat is amazingly clear-headed about end-of-life care, saying that although families often try to protect loved ones from knowing they are dying, patients themselves “know that they’re getting weaker. Patients hear the hushed tones outside their rooms. Everyone treats them too nicely. Family and friends cry when talking to them, and visitors suddenly arrive from the four corners of the earth. Your loved ones don’t cross borders for pneumonia, but they cross the ocean if you are dying from lung cancer.” The plainspoken, knowledgeable comments and advice here are often hard to take, especially if you come to this book only because you or someone you care for has been diagnosed with a serious and probably terminal illness. But at a time of life – the time of its anticipated ending – when there are precious few practical, real-world guides to what to expect, Life after the Diagnosis can be and will be invaluable. Pantilat’s words may be unwanted in the abstract, but in the concrete, practical reality of extremely serious illness, they are very much needed and will be deeply appreciated.
The Pyes, No. 1: Ginger Pye. By Eleanor Estes. Illustrated by the author. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
The Pyes, No. 2: Pinky Pye. By Eleanor Estes. Illustrations by Edward Ardizzione. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown. By Crystal Allen. Illustrations by Eda Kaban. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $6.99.
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs No. 2: The Wall of Fame Game. By Crystal Allen. Illustrations by Eda Kaban. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Not so long ago, books for young readers did not need a lot of plot or action to succeed – they could simply meander pleasantly through family stories, offering low levels of drama and exploration and reveling in characterization rather than events. Hmm. Maybe that was a long time ago. Eleanor Estes (1906-1988) created quite a few books of this type, in particular her stories of the Moffats (1940s) and Pyes (1950s), largely based on her own memories of turn-of-the-20th-century childhood. In truth, the books have not worn particularly well, being too bound up in their time period to translate well to the far more frenetic pace of life in the 21st century. They have an air of faintly faded nostalgia about them and may be better as read-alouds nowadays than as books for preteens to read on their own – their slow pace and gradual unfolding of events are just too different from what young readers are now accustomed to in both literature and life for them to be readily enjoyed. This observation applies to both animal-focused books about the Pyes of Cranbury, Connecticut, the first of which, Ginger Pye (1951), includes Estes’ own pleasant illustrations and was a Newbery Medal winner. Indeed, it was Estes’ only Newbery winner, although three of her other works were Newbery Honor books. Today it is a trifle hard to see what all the fuss was about. The title character in Ginger Pye is the family dog, a puppy that appears and then sort-of-mysteriously disappears. The family is designed to be gently quirky: Mr. Pye is a “bird man” (ornithologist) who is supposed to solve the nation’s bird problems; Mrs. Pye is a homemaker known for being the youngest housewife in town, because she was 17 when she literally bumped into Mr. Pye, who was 35; and the kids, who have little unusual about them and are intended as “everykids,” are 10-year-old Jerry and nine-year-old Rachel. There are also Mrs. Pye’s brother, Bennie, who is only four and became an uncle at age three, and an old cat named Gracie who is able to unlock the front door. The modesty of the story is shown in the way that one of Ginger’s big accomplishments is finding a pencil and bringing it to school; the not-very-hard-to-figure-out mystery of Ginger’s disappearance hints slightly at animal cruelty when it turns out he was tied up in a shed. The book is essentially a slice-of-small-town-life story, written in the time of today’s preteens’ grandparents and set decades earlier – sweet and mostly pleasant in its way, but scarcely likely to engage many modern young readers.
The sequel is Pinky Pye (1958), and this time the title character is a kitten found during the Pye family’s summer vacation on Fire Island. There are a couple of slight twists here, the most interesting being that Pinky can type – a throwback to a really old notion created in 1916 by newspaper columnist Don Marquis, of a cockroach-and-alley-cat pair that contributed humorous social commentary through stories written entirely in lower-case letters, because the authorial cockroach could not hold down the shift key when jumping on the typewriter. The characters were named archy and mehitabel and were illustrated by George Herriman of Krazy Kat fame. And yes, in some quarters they are still remembered: a wonderful editorial in Science magazine, of all places, written in 2007, of all years, was said to be dictated by mehitabel and typed by archy. Whether or not Estes intended homage to Marquis through Pinky’s typing, the fact is that the story of Pinky Pye has the same distinctly old-fashioned flavor as the old pieces by Marquis, and the same sense of rather fusty charm. Apt adjectives for this tale are “gentle,” “sweet,” “rambling,” “charming,” “cute,” “light-hearted,” “adorable” – positive words one and all, but indicating a bit of a surfeit of happiness and a distinct lack of drama that many contemporary preteens will find on the dull side. The new paperback editions of these Estes books are welcome, and both books deserve to be called classics of children’s literature; but much like classics of literature for adults, they may be honored by the title while still being rather off-putting to residents of a later time.
Some similar adjectives apply to Crystal Allen’s books about The Magnificent Mya Tibbs, but these books are designed to have more-contemporary flair. The first, Spirit Week Showdown, was originally published last year and is now available in paperback; the second, The Wall of Fame Game, is new. Intended for ages 8-12, these books will probably be of most interest to the narrower age range of 8-10, just as Estes’ Pye books are likely to be most engaging for children younger than preteens. In Allen’s novels, Mya is a nine-year-old who is stereotypically well-meaning but prone to making mistakes. She is obsessed with cowgirls and inclined to tell tall tales. In the first book, her predilections get her in trouble and result in her being nicknamed “Mya Tibbs Fibs” and ostracized by the whole school. She also ends up being paired for Spirit Week with the school bully, Connie Tate. Initially desperate to get her friends back – at least the girls she thinks are her friends – Mya keeps getting more deeply into minor but, for a fourth-grader, emotionally significant trouble. All this occurs against the background of the upcoming Spirit Week, which means Mya has no choice but to deal with Connie, whom she discovers to be different from what everyone thinks and maybe not so bad at all. Everything ends well, and Allen is careful throughout to put only small bumps in exuberant Mya’s road to understanding, happiness and success.
The second book follows the same pattern, albeit with a few differences. Mya returns, of course, along with her brother, Nugget, and their father and mother. But this time their mom is pregnant, and Mya is eagerly awaiting the birth of her new baby sister, already named Macey. Instead of Spirit Week, this time the challenge is the “Wall of Fame Game,” a rather odd contest in which children’s names are put on a wall if they are able to recite lists of facts. This seems as if it would be off-putting to Mya, and to readers of the books about her, but Allen makes it a big deal and an important part of the plot. Another major element is Mya’s determination to enter her mother in the annual chili cookoff – because one of the competitors, Mrs. Frazier, has commented that Mya’s pregnant mom has to stay off her feet and cannot possibly take part. Mya and her now-friend Connie, another returning character from the first book, work together to get everything to come out just right (this time Mya has a new nemesis, Naomi Jackson). Sure enough, everything does go nicely, if not always in quite the way that Mya expects. That, in fact, is the underlying message of both Mya books: things will be fine and all will be well, but life does not go just the way you want it to. Some young readers, and some parents, may find Mya rather cloying and annoying, with the odd expressions she sometimes uses and her pink cowboy boots; others will consider her quirky in a pleasant way for the 21st century, just as the Pye family was pleasantly offbeat for young readers in the middle of the 20th.
Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science. By Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $10.99.
Essentially yet another anti-slavery screed, though disguised as a book on history and economics, Sugar Changed the World – originally published in 2010 and now available in paperback – touches on the families of the husband-and-wife authors to try to personalize a story dating back to thousands of years before the Greeks. It was in those times, in New Guinea, that sugar was first cultivated – a laborious process that was largely responsible for pretty much every evil in the world thereafter.
Well, the authors do not say exactly that – not quite – but they make and remake their points about sugar and slavery to such an extent that readers will quickly find they are being lectured, indeed hectored to, rather than informed. This is a real shame, because the photos and illustrations enliven the story and do a great deal to show that history is as much about everyday life, about things we now take for granted, as it is about great battles and famous figures. But the book is so busy portraying slave owners as horrible, bloodthirsty murderers – every single one of them, without a single exception through all the ages in which slavery existed – that they lose track of narrative style (the book is sometimes in third person, sometimes in second person) and lapse frequently into hyperbole: “The punishing work [of cane planting] had just one aim: to plant a crop that would end up taking the life of every worker how touched it.” Really? Sugar cane killed 100% of the people who touched it? The business owners of cane plantations had as their aim the death of every single slave who worked their plantations? That is quite a way to run a business – kill all your workers.
The problem with Sugar Changed the World is that it, like many other books about things that changed the world – guns, oil, birth control pills, Henry Ford’s assembly lines, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and many, many more – never stops insisting that its topic is the matter of importance. The only one. The Louisiana Purchase, for example, should be called the Sugar Purchase, Aronson and Budhos argue, because Napoleon only offered the land to Thomas Jefferson (who, by the way, was evil because he was a slaveholder) because sugar-producing Haiti had recently gained independence. The whole notion that Napoleon needed the money and was stretched too thin on numerous fronts in and beyond Europe, with Haiti and the Americas being of relatively little importance, gets not even a mention here – it is, or was, all about sugar. Only sugar.
Incidentally, Haiti, celebrated in this book as a republic founded by former slaves, has been an economic basket case since its independence and remains the poorest nation in its region. The authors go out of their way to celebrate the country: “Haiti was born free; human rights won over property rights.” But they have to acknowledge, in some small way, that the new nation was a failure and remains one, since denying that really would fly in the face of fact. Their answer is to say that “Haiti floundered. In part that was because of internal conflicts in which outsiders had no role.” That is it – the sole reference to 200 years of internal warfare, tribal loyalties, corruption, dictatorship, mismanagement, and suppression of the rights of former slaves and their descendants by other former slaves and their descendants. Admitting all that would fly in the face of the authors’ nobility-vs.-evil narrative, so they allow the one brief reference and then never bring up the subject again.
Actually, the whole Haiti story brushes anything negative about slaves and former slaves under the rug. Writing of the Haitians’ fight against crack British troops, Aronson and Budhos downplay the role of weather and disease in Haitian victories – although they do acknowledge, in another of their quick mentions, “malaria and yellow fever.” Their emphasis, though, is elsewhere, as they say that “the Haitians were disciplined, smart fighters. …Many of the Haitian soldiers were recently arrived Africans, warriors in their home countries.” Even young readers – the book’s target audience – may pause here to wonder how these excellent and disciplined warriors, scourge of well-trained British fighters, ended up as slaves in the first place. Wouldn’t their fighting and tactical abilities have kept them free in Africa? The answer – that a great many African slaves were enslaved by other Africans, from competing tribes, and not by the prototypical ultra-evil white plantation owner – would grate on the authors and undermine their carefully crafted, simplistic narrative, so they deliberately avoid mentioning it.
Certainly all authors of histories choose what to put in and what to leave out. But here, the skewed nature of much of the writing undermines the fascinating elements and the sort of behind-the-scenes flavor, so to speak, of a book about a sweet substance with an anything-but-sweet background. Aronson and Budhos go so far as to assert, “Only sugar – the sweetness we all crave – could drive people to be so cruel…” So extreme is this viewpoint that it makes it seem there have never been wars and other forms of violence over land, over gold and other raw materials, over religious beliefs, but only over sugar. Sugar Changed the World is far too limited and one-sided in its presentation to be as useful as it could have been in exploring an important element of history that is rarely covered in students’ history classes. There is a great deal in the book that is genuinely interesting, and students who focus on the illustrative material will by and large have a better experience than those who follow the skewed presentation of events and facts, and perhaps swallow the biased arguments. A spoonful of sugar will do little to help these limited viewpoints go down.
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Roberto Saccà, tenor; Stephen Gadd, baritone; Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Alma Mahler: Lieder und Gesänge; Patrizia Montanaro: Canto di Penelope. Catharina Kroeger, soprano; Monica Lonero, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99.
Mahler’s late works probe the post-Romantic era in ways that make it clear why Schoenberg and others of the Second Viennese School so admired them, yet they straddle the world of the 19th and 20th centuries in every way that matters – remarkably so, considering the fact that Mahler died before reaching his 51st birthday. Even when they are very much works of their time, as Das Lied von der Erde is of a time when artists of all types were fascinated by Orientalism, they are uniquely Mahlerian in sensibility and in the way they look inward while describing, in elegant musical as well as verbal terms, a variety of external scenes. Mahler designed Das Lied von der Erde for tenor and contralto or baritone, but the baritone option is rarely used – although Leonard Bernstein famously did so at a time when Mahler’s music was less firmly in the standard repertoire than it is today. Jonathan Nott, an exceptionally attentive Mahler conductor, chooses tenor and baritone for his new Das Lied von der Erde on Tudor, and uses the darker color that the combination imparts to this already-dark work to excellent effect. The voices of Roberto Saccà and Stephen Gadd complement each other very well, and their elocution styles are sufficiently different to maintain a distinction of sound even when Saccà sings in his low range and Gadd in his high one. Gadd’s is, on the whole, a stronger voice for this work, not only because of its evenness of tone throughout its range but also because Gadd uses it with such subtlety, to the point that parts of Der Abschied are essentially whispered – but without breathiness. Saccà is strongest in Die Trunkene im Frühling, conveying a sweeping sense of despairing assertiveness that makes this song, which in less-sensitive hands can sound like a ditty, into something altogether more meaningful, and a fitting setting to precede Der Abschied. Unfortunately, Saccà is overmatched by the opening Der Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, having difficulty projecting above the orchestra and struggling to give different shades of meaning to the repeated line, “Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.” Part of the issue here is that Nott really punches this song to the utmost in pacing and sheer volume: the excellent Bamberger Symphoniker simply overmatches the singer. It is a thrillingly intense reading of the song, but a flawed one because it leads Saccà somewhat beyond his zone of excellence. The remainder of the performance, however, is uniformly well-balanced, sensitively and beautifully played as well as elegantly emoted. As a whole, this is a deeply emotional reading that connects with listeners on a visceral rather than intellectual level – with all the intensity that Mahler surely intended.
Mahler moved on from Das Lied von der Erde, which he described as a symphony but hesitated to designate as his Ninth, to his actual Symphony No. 9, the last he was to complete. It is fashionable to see this whole symphony as an extended Abschied of its own, but it comes across more effectively when handled as a door to a new kind of music, the hints of which become even more apparent in the unfinished Tenth. Mahler in his Ninth is always on the verge of discarding tonality – except when he dips back into it for the work’s most emotive moments. He uses themes that are barely themes at all – except when he develops ones with amazing cleverness, as by transforming the grotesqueries of the third movement into the gorgeousness of the finale by simply (but not really simply) slowing down a theme to a substantial degree. He revisits his much-loved Alpine meadows and abandons them – but not before spinning a lovely second movement whose tempo is designated as being not merely that of a Ländler but that of a gemächlichen (leisurely) one. Mahler’s Ninth is a pivotal work, and even though Mahler did not long enough to show in detail what he was pivoting toward, Schoenberg and others certainly figured it out and developed their own direction partly as a result. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks plays the Ninth beautifully for Mariss Jansons on a new BR Klassik release, but Jansons himself is not fully equal to the earlier portion of the music. The first movement, in particular, seems formless if not gormless, the thematic drifting clear but the structure within which Mahler created the drift much less so. The movement meanders, but in fact it is a goal-oriented movement, albeit one whose goal is not fully clear until the finale. The remainder of this performance is, happily, better. The second movement is nicely paced and well-balanced. The third is somewhat too well-mannered: Mahler clearly asked that it be played Sehr trotzig, “very defiantly,” and indeed it is most effective when delivered on the verge of hysteria – but Jansons is altogether too refined for that, here holding matters in check in a way that he does not in the first movement. The result is that there is less contrast than would be ideal between the grotesqueries here and the beauties of the finale – although the finale as Jansons handles it is so beautiful that it makes up for pretty much every way in which the other movements fall short. Far from being music of despair or resignation, as it often seems to be, this is for Jansons music of acceptance, of acknowledgment of the inevitable and tremendous composure through understanding its approach. The very end of the movement and the symphony is ineffable here in a way that may well have listeners holding their breath for what comes next. There is no “next” here, of course, and only a partial “next” in the Tenth, but Jansons so whets the appetite for what might have been that the conclusion of this Mahler Ninth leaves behind a feeling of nothing less than awe.
Mahler’s sometime muse and sometime despair, his wife, Alma, has a longstanding reputation as a femme fatale for her multiple affairs and her three marriages to artists of distinction (Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel). It is easy to forget, though, that she was herself a composer – whose work Mahler forbade her to continue as a condition of their marriage. Later realizing that he had erred, Mahler withdrew the prohibition and encouraged Alma, and she did produce a small volume of music of high but not outstanding quality – likely fewer works and lower-quality ones than she would have written if her muse had not been prematurely stifled before being set free again. The songs offered by Catharina Kroeger and Monica Lonero on a new Brilliant Classics CD are all 14 of those published during Alma’s lifetime (1879-1964). Mostly using the words of contemporary poets – including, in one case, Franz Werfel – the songs do not look beyond the Romantic era in their themes or their structure. Their lengths vary significantly, from one minute to five, but their underlying emotional themes are largely the same and fairly conventional – although the appearance in several of them of erotic tension and a sense of solitude may hint at Alma’s personal feelings. Only the first group of five songs was published during Gustav’s lifetime, in 1910; later came a group of four in 1915 and then a group of five in 1924. But not even the intervening war made for significant changes in Alma’s means of expression: there is considerable feeling in the songs, well communicated by the performers here, but there is simply not enough that is individual in the settings to show Alma as a composer of significance. The songs are interestingly paired with a very different sort of vocal work, a kind of quasi-operatic scena that imagines an extended monologue and tirade by Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, after the return home of her husband. Canto di Penelope is by Patrizia Montanaro (born 1956), and it uses the expected techniques of modern vocal composition, including atonality, declamation, Sprechstimme, and outright acting, all for the purpose of having Penelope complain to Odysseus about her lot during his decades-long absence and about the emotional and sexual neglect she endured through all the years in which he wandered about being heroic. Something of a feminist work, Canto di Penelope is not musically exceptional, and there is little surprising for the modern era in the attitudes it expresses. Its musical elements are subsidiary to its storytelling and, while they fit the words well enough, they are not particularly notable in themselves. The pairing of Montanaro’s theatrical scene with Alma Mahler’s often-dramatic miniatures encapsulating emotions is actually more interesting than is the music of either composer heard here.
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; Octet. Liza Ferschtman, violin; Het Gelders Orkest conducted by Kees Bakels; Itamar Zorman, Elina Vähälä and Corina Belcea, violins; Krzysztof Chorzelski and Marc Desmons, violas; Sebastian Klinger and Antoine Lederlin, cellos. Challenge Classics. $18.99 (SACD).
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 20, D. 959; Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel; David Del Tredici: Ode to Music. Beth Levin, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Schubert: Winterreise—visualized by William Kentridge. Matthias Goerne, baritone; Markus Hinterhäuser, piano. C Major DVD. $34.99.
Bach: Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043; Vivaldi: Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 8; Franck: Violin Sonata in A. David and Igor Oistrakh, violins; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Franz Konwitschny; Anton Ginsburg, piano. Berlin Classics. $18.99.
Who would have thought that the thrice-familiar Mendelssohn Violin Concerto would turn out to be chamber music? That is essentially what it sounds like on a new Challenge Classics recording featuring Liza Ferschtman and Het Gelders Orkest conducted by Kees Bakels. On the face of it, there is scarcely a pressing need for yet another disc of this gorgeous but overplayed and over-recorded concerto: its beauties, lyricism, structural inventiveness, warmth and cleverness have been explored many, many times before. But Ferschtman and Bakels actually manage to shine some new light on the work, helped by very fine SACD sound that integrates the solo violin with the orchestra to a greater-than-usual extent, while still allowing it to stand out more than satisfactorily. There is an overall collaborative feel to this performance that is reminiscent of the conversation-among-instruments nature of chamber works, and as a result Ferschtman is able to take some chances that might otherwise not work – for instance, a headlong rush to the end of the first movement that then highlights the bassoon transition to the second in an unusually clear way. The overall feeling of this reading is one of surpassing lyricism and beautifully flowing lines: the performance has a seamless quality that is both surprising and engaging. And as a result, the concerto reading fits very well with a rendition of the Octet that, unlike the concerto performance, was recorded live. Here Ferschtman is joined by members of the Belcea Quartet and other like-minded players, and the ensemble work is an absolute delight, especially in the marvelously lightfooted Scherzo, which might well derail at this tempo if performed by lesser musicians. The hardest movement of the Octet to bring off is the lengthy opening one, so out of proportion to the other three that it can drag the whole work down – or at least overbalance it and make the later movements seem to come from another, lighter piece. Not so here. The performers’ structural adeptness holds the movement together, and their excellent individuation of parts – Mendelssohn treated all eight instruments separately rather than handling them as four pairs, as would be more usual in an octet – leads to a movement that is expressive in multiple ways but that holds together well when the instruments play in unison. Throughout the Octet and, indeed, throughout this disc, there is a sense of rediscovering well-known music, of finding little niceties of balance and tempo that bring out elements of the scores in ways just a touch different from the usual. The result is an exhilarating recording that does not exactly break new interpretative ground but that hones the performances of both these gorgeous pieces into subtly shining smoothness.
The rethinking on the Mendelssohn disc is done by the performers, while it is the composers who do it on a new Navona CD featuring pianist Beth Levin. This is most noticeable in Ode to Music by David Del Tredici (born 1937), which takes Schubert’s three-minute song An die Musik and crafts an 11-and-a-half-minute fantasy around it. This sort of thing is very much of the Romantic era, but Del Tredici’s piece would never be confused with a similar expansion by Liszt, Thalberg or Kalkbrenner: it does remain largely tonal, but its treatment of the material is quite different from what would have been accorded the Schubert-song foundation in the composer’s own time. Ode to Music, written as recently as 2015, uses the Schubert work as a jumping-off point for Del Tredici’s creation of his own ode. Its relationship to Schubert is not always apparent, but it expands the underlying material in logical and ultimately satisfying ways. In this, Del Tredici somewhat follows in the footsteps of Schubert himself, who in his Sonata No. 20, the middle of his three huge and prepossessing final piano sonatas, expands not only upon some of his own earlier works but also upon the sonata model of Beethoven. It is interesting to compare Levin’s handling of this grand and very large sonata with her approach to Del Tredici. She brings expansive flow to the contemporary work, letting it grow well beyond the bounds of the song at its heart; but in the Schubert, she keeps matters tightly controlled, refusing to let the music veer off-track despite a certain lack of formal cohesion that long led to the neglect of this sonata and the two other final ones by Schubert. The lyrical concluding rondo – the longest of the four movements in Levin’s performance, its main theme taken from the much earlier Sonata No. 5 and used in vastly more expansive form here – balances the opening movement quite clearly in Levin’s reading, while the poignancy of the Andantino and playfulness of the Scherzo provide respite and at the same time add to the sonata’s overall cyclicality. The Schubert and Schubert-based pieces are interestingly joined on this recording by Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, which is quite obviously a Romantic rethinking of Handelian material – but a piece in which Brahms took considerable pains to restrain the virtuosity that was expected in variations in the 1850s and with which he himself, as a fine pianist, was certainly familiar and comfortable. Brahms sought something different from virtuosic display here, taking a theme originally written for harpsichord and bringing it into an age in which full, even grand piano sounds were the norm – then insisting that the material be handled with a certain degree of restraint and even delicacy. Levin understands this, and her nicely balanced, very musicianly handling of the Brahms sits particularly well between the Schubert sonata and Del Tredici’s Schubert-based fantasy. This is an unusual combination of material to find on a CD, but Levin’s sensitivity to the differences among the works, as well as their similarities, makes a strong case for all the pieces, both individually and in this particular combination.
Not all rethinkings are quite this felicitous, however. Sometimes a reinterpretation can be a touch too clever for its own good. That is the case with William Kentridge’s illustrated version of yet another Schubert work, Winterreise. As seen on a new C Major DVD recorded live at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in France in July 2014, Kentridge’s contribution to these 24 songs is a set of 24 animated films that do not illustrate the music but use it as a jumping-off point for a visual journey of Kentridge’s own. There are parallels here with Del Tredici’s personalized journey through and beyond An die Musik, to be sure, but Kentridge’s introduction of largely unrelated visual elements to a work that invites emotional involvement and internal visualization does Schubert no good. Schubert’s music itself represents an addition, of course – to Wilhelm Müller’s poems. But the interweaving of words and music is so expertly done that in a truly fine performance, anything further that is added to the music-and-words combination seems a detraction, or at least a distraction. And the reading by Matthias Goerne and Markus Hinterhäuser is a very fine one indeed. Goerne plumbs the emotional depths of these songs from start to finish, his legato and dramatic strength equally impressive, and Hinterhäuser is a first-rate partner, the piano part interweaving with the poetry, accentuating here, supplementing there, contrasting a bit in another place. Adding such visual elements as an African ibis to Die Krähe and creating references to Kentridge’s homeland of South Africa and its troubles may be intended to show the universality of Schubert’s emotional expressiveness; but really, the music itself does that quite well enough on its own. Visuals such as a scene in which a man at a desk struggles to control the mundane multiplicity of elements of his life (shown during Im Dorfe, “In the Village”), and one in which Goerne’s shadow is seen taking a shower (during Wassserflut, “Torrent”), actually make Winterreise more earthbound and more stuck in modern times than the original song cycle is in Schubert’s era. This is not to say that Kentridge’s images are ineffective: some, such as melting letters of the alphabet (in a scene in which Kentridge himself walks across pages of a dictionary) and snow made of black-paper confetti (accompanying Erstarrung, “Frozen”), are undeniably interesting and can even turn into distractions from the music. But that is exactly the problem: the visuals are either irrelevant to Winterreise or a distraction from it. Certainly Kentridge has thought through his visualizations carefully, as is made clear on the DVD in a bonus documentary featuring him as well as Goerne and Hinterhäuser. But this production is nevertheless a (+++) offering of a Winterreise performance that, without the intruding visual elements, would have deserved a (++++) rating.
The rethinking is of a different sort in a (+++) Berlin Classics reissue of 1950s recordings of Bach, Vivaldi and Franck with David Oistrakh. Performed in 1957 and 1958, the readings here are old-fashioned ones, dating to well before the era of historic performance practices, and they are of interest mainly as historical documents of their own – so listeners need to rethink contemporary expectations as to performance style, orchestral size, etc. Those who do so will hear considerable rapport in the way David and his son Igor play the Bach together, although the lower strings of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig under Franz Konwitschny sound somewhat undifferentiated and even muddy – likely a function of the recording rather than the orchestra’s playing. This is strong, straightforward Bach of 50-plus years ago, testament to an interesting father-and-son collaboration (although the personalities of David and Igor were generally acknowledged to be very different, the elder Oistrakh being far more easygoing than the younger). The Vivaldi, from L’Estro Armonico, is actually more interestingly interpreted than the comparatively bland Bach: the sturdiness of the outer movements stands in strong contrast to the desolate feeling of the central Larghetto e spiritoso (this concerto is RV522 – wrongly identified as “RV822” on this recording). The Bach and Vivaldi works together last less than half an hour, so there is a so-called “bonus” that is about as long as both of them together. This is Franck’s oft-played Violin Sonata in A, with David Oistrakh and pianist Anton Ginsburg. The performance is all right but not particularly compelling, filled with portamento, weighty tone and an overall seriousness that collectively tend to make the music drag – it sounds slower than it actually is, and comes across as a rather inflexible interpretation of music that is best when it flows most easily. Although this disc will be a treat for fans of the Oistrakh father and son, it is a limited-interest item, because enjoying it requires rethinking the niceties of performance as listeners have come to know them in the half-century since these recordings were made.
March 16, 2017
Frankie. By Mary Sullivan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
Shell, Beak, Tusk: Shared Traits and the Wonders of Adaptation. By Bridget Heos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Frankie is the story of a real dog, more or less: it starts with an adoption from an animal shelter and is dedicated by Mary Sullivan “to Sue, Leslie, Cali, and Barkley, for adopting Frankie.” But the story is told with cartoon drawings and Frankie’s imaginary thoughts as she moves to her new home and settles in there, not without some difficulty – so it is not 100% real. Nevertheless, every bit of the story is quite clearly recognizable to anyone who has ever brought a dog home, in particular anyone who has ever brought a second dog home. It is the first dog, here named Nico rather than Barkley, who is Frankie’s main problem. Frankie is an adorable black-and-white bundle of enthusiasm, perhaps a Jack Russell terrier or JRT mix, with stand-up-straight ears as big as her entire head; Nico is larger, mostly brown, and with a perpetual scowl. Unfailingly upbeat, Frankie explores her new home and tries to find things to call her own: “Frankie’s ball?” she wonders as she looks at a red-and-white polka-dotted ball, and “Frankie’s bone?” for a teething bone, and so on. But every single time, Nico shows up, takes the item away, and asserts, “No. Nico’s ball” and “No. Nico’s bone.” And so on. Frankie becomes increasingly downcast until she sees yet another possible toy for her; then she is every bit as enthusiastic as the previous time. But Nico is totally unaccepting of this intruder, yanking a blanket from under her and flopping on top of her in the dog bed. “Poor Frankie,” writes Sullivan, showing all the things Frankie wants but cannot have. “No nothing,” laments Frankie. But then, in all capital letters, “FRANKIE’S IDEA!” And off streaks Frankie around the house to assemble her own pile of objects: a ball of yarn, a bone-shaped toilet-tissue roll from the trash, a sock for a rope toy, even a cardboard box for her very own bed. Frankie and Nico find themselves on opposite sides of the room, protecting their turf and glaring at each other – until there comes a cry of “FRANKIE!” and the hyper-happy new dog in the house goes running toward it. And there stands Frankie’s human companion (only her legs are visible) with all sorts of non-makeshift things just for Frankie – everything with a tag reading “Frankie” on it, and everything looking so desirable that now Nico walks over with a slight smile, gazing at one of the toys and saying, “Nico’s frog?” And Frankie’s answer? The last page has Nico playing with the frog and Frankie playing with the red-and-white polka-dotted ball, each acknowledging the other in a heart-shaped thought balloon. This is clearly the beginning of a beautiful friendship – and a realistic-yet-amusing way of showing how dogs adapt to each other. And to top off the story, the back cover of the book jacket shows the real-life Frankie on whom the book is based – and notes that, yes, Frankie was fostered by Sullivan, who does indeed have a dog named Nico. The line between reality and almost-reality gets mighty thin here.
The animals in Bridget Heos’ Shell, Beak, Tusk are entirely of the real world, and the photos of them (by a variety of photographers) show their distinguishing characteristics quite clearly. Certain of those characteristics are what the book is all about: Heos here discusses convergent evolution, in which unrelated animals may over time develop very similar characteristics because they have similar needs regarding food gathering or self-protection. The result, for example, is that both anteaters and aardvarks have long, super-sticky tongues that they use to slurp up insects – even though anteaters live in South America and are related to sloths, while aardvarks live in Africa and are related to elephants. Some of Heos’ chosen comparisons are unexpected and fascinating: although readers will not be surprised to learn how strong a parrot’s beak is, the opposite page surprisingly shows an octopus – which has a parrot-like beak that is “the only hard part of its body.” Heos explains that both creatures need the beak to get food: the parrot to crush nuts and seeds, the octopus to break the shells of crabs and mollusks. Unfortunately, Heos also here commits one of several narrative missteps when she points out that the parrot’s bite is “five times stronger than the bite of a deadly python.” Pythons are not “deadly” in the sense readers would usually expect – they are non-venomous constrictors – and, in fact, certain pythons are often kept as pets. The snakes are certainly deadly to the animals they eat, but that is not the way Heos means this; she could have chosen a better comparison. At another point, Heos confusingly writes that “the mole cricket got its name because its forelegs look like a mole’s, which it uses to dig underground just like its namesake.” To be clearly understandable, that would better have read, “…look like a mole’s. And like a mole, this cricket uses its forelegs to dig…” But if Heos’ writing is not always of the best, the book’s topic and the way the photos show how convergent evolution works in a wide variety of creatures and circumstances are uniformly intriguing. The book is short and discusses only 10 paired examples, but those are more than engrossing enough to arouse young readers’ curiosity and inspire them to learn more about convergent evolution elsewhere.
Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, 4th Edition. By William Bridges, Ph.D., with Susan Bridges. Da Capo. $16.99.
Although published by Da Capo in a division called “Lifelong Books,” the new edition of Managing Transitions is actually an example of a beyond-lifelong book: William Bridges died in 2013, and this iteration of a book that originally dates to 1991 was prepared by his widow and consulting-business colleague. Although somewhat adapted for the increasingly frenetic pace of the Information Age and the companies striving to succeed and grow in it, the book retains the essential insights of earlier editions and shares their significant pluses and somewhat less prominent weaknesses.
The book’s title and subtitle are a trifle misleading, implying a certain equivalence between transition and change, when in fact Bridges’ basic argument is that the words refer to very different matters: “change” is situational and essentially external, while transition is a psychological “three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.” Thus, change is comparatively fast and reasonably easy to pinpoint; transition is slow, individualized, and takes place over time, often considerable time.
Managing Transitions is specifically about workplace change, although elements of the book could be applied to personal circumstances as well – even more so now that so many people carry their work with them, figuratively and sometimes literally, wherever they go and at all times. The three basic elements of transition that Bridges identifies are ending/losing/letting go, “the Neutral Zone,” and a new beginning. The first of these requires separation from old ways of thinking or behaving to which people have become attached – the parallel between business processes and psychological counseling is especially clear here – with the result that staff members can become scared, depressed, anxious, confused and otherwise unable to handle the necessary movement to whatever new circumstances have arisen. One of Bridges’ best insights has to do with the importance of respecting this phase by creating a clear demarcation between then and now – and treating the past with respect rather than dismissiveness, thus helping make up for the sense of loss that people are sure to feel when the way things used to be (which worked very well for some time for them and the company) is no longer satisfactory (which is not the same as no longer being valued).
Getting this first phase right is crucial to moving into the rather inelegantly named “Neutral Zone” (something along the lines of “Transition Zone” would have been better and clearer). Here, risk and opportunity are in balance as people vacillate between the old that is gone and the new that has not yet fully taken hold. This is the time for exploring alternative ways of doing things so that the new beginning – in which employees take on new, more-suitable-for-the-future identities and behaviors – can form and solidify. Interestingly, Bridges makes a distinction between “start” and “beginning,” arguing that starts are scheduled and result from decisions, while beginnings occur gradually and on a schedule determined by psychological adaptation rather than fixed timetables.
Bridges’ emphasis on the human side of change is what still makes Managing Transitions a strong book, and the specific tools, lists and recommendations here remain highly useful and reasonably easy for companies to implement. However, the way Bridges parses his important distinctions between “change” and “transition,” and between “start” and “beginning,” is less than fully clear and smacks somewhat of semantic nitpicking. He is also somewhat unclear about how the three transition phases work, at one point saying they must occur in order and at another point saying they can all take place in overlapping fashion, essentially at the same time. Also, the emphasis here on individual psychological transitions, a significant strength in some ways, becomes a weakness to the extent that Managing Transitions does not effectively show how major change, especially rapid change, has huge effects beyond the individual – that is, effects on employees’ collective identity and on a company’s shared values and behaviors. The imbalance between the individualized emphasis of this book and the collective emphasis of many others is salutary to the extent that other change-management books tend to overlook individual psychological impact unless it looms so large as to disrupt the whole working environment. However, companies are ultimately collections of individuals functioning in ways that are greater (one hopes) than the sum of the individual parts. Bridges’ redressing of the balance between individual and company-wide effects of change and transition is a very good thing, but his comparative neglect of the real-world nature of companies as collective entities makes Managing Transitions less readily applicable to the often-frenetic pace of workday circumstances than it might have been, whether in its original incarnation or in its latest update.
Haydn: Symphony No. 6, “Le matin”; Symphony No. 82, “L’ours”; Violin Concerto No. 4. Aisslin Nosky, violin; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.
Haydn: Symphony No. 7, “Le midi”; Symphony No. 83, “La poule”; Violin Concerto No. 1. Aisslin Nosky, violin; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.
Haydn: Symphony No. 8, “Le soir”; Symphony No. 84; Violin Concerto No. 3. Aisslin Nosky, violin; Handel and Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers. CORO. $18.99.
A daring and delicious presentation of Haydn, these three live-recording CDs from the Handel and Haydn Society under Harry Christophers offer something quite different from the normal approach to recordings of this music and are unalloyed successes in their handling of it. The Society was founded in 1815 to perform music that was then old (Handel) and then new (Haydn), and while it is in many ways quite different today – no, there are no 200-plus-year-old musicians – its commitment to the music of its original time is strong and sure two centuries later. But this is not just another original-instrument, historic-performance-practice group. It is one that thinks about music in context: the context of the time in which it was originally written, the context of today’s audiences, and the context of certain specific pieces within the overall musical output of a particular composer.
It is this last context that is especially apparent and enlightening on three CORO discs that offers performances from 2013, 2015 and 2016. The works here are the three early symphonies that Haydn certainly conceived as a trilogy, but spread over three CDs instead of offered on a single one; the three surviving violin concertos that are certainly (well, almost certainly) by Haydn; and the first three of the six “Paris” symphonies. This is a rather aberrant way to present this music, but by taking chances and offering it like this, Christophers and the orchestra make an unusually trenchant case for the similarities and differences among various Haydn works, and give listeners an unusual opportunity for a clear comparison of what stayed the same during Haydn’s career and what changed, sometimes a great deal.
This is scarcely a perfect approach, if any such exists. For example, the 30-or-so-piece orchestra is just the right size for the early symphonies and concertos, but not for the “Paris” symphonies, which were written for an orchestra much closer in size to a full-scale modern one, with 40 violins and 10 (!) double basses. But what the Handel and Haydn Society lacks in sheer heft, it more than makes up for in clarity, responsiveness, and the sheer verve and joy that permeate all these performances. This is unusually apparent in the concertos, which are not among Haydn’s most-significant works. For years, nine violin concertos were attributed to him; eventually it was determined that only four of the nine were authentic; one of those four was lost; so there are now three remaining, oddly numbered Nos. 1, 3 and 4. Of them, No. 4 remains somewhat doubtful in authorship, although it has enough Haydn flavor so that it is most likely the earliest surviving concerto rather than one created by someone else. What is delightful here is that Aisslin Nosky refuses to treat any of the concertos as throwaways or minor works, insisting that their poise, balance, elegance, and sense of fun make them worthy Haydn offerings despite their uncontested “throwback” nature as to structure. The concertos, placed between the symphonies on all these discs, thus provide some aural breathing space for listeners as well as being finely wrought pleasantries in their own right.
Symphonies Nos. 6, 7 and 8 are among the most virtuosic that Haydn ever wrote, containing a wealth of solo passages for violin, cello, double bass, bassoon, flute and horn. They were intended to impress Haydn’s then-new employer, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, and likely also to engage the appreciation of the orchestra members, with many of whom Haydn was on friendly terms. There is a sense of camaraderie in these symphonies that stands out time and time again and that seems particularly well-suited to the approach of the Handel and Haydn Society players. The symphonies have a bit of tone painting – a sunrise here, some birdsong there, a storm elsewhere – but they are not really any sort of program music in the way that, say, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 would later be. Instead, they show Haydn shaping the form of the symphony itself, determining what to carry over from earlier times and what to introduce that is new, how to balance groups of instruments against each other, when to allow solo passages to stand out, and so forth. The Handel and Haydn Society treats them as essentially expanded, virtuosic chamber music, a stance that fits the music very well indeed.
More than 20 years later, Haydn had fully solidified symphonic structure in essentially the form in which composers still use it today. The first three “Paris” symphonies show this quite clearly: there is a sureness to the themes and their development, a careful arrangement of keys, strikingly clear modulation from one to another, and orchestral balance that seems so right and natural that it is hard to believe it scarcely existed a few decades earlier. The subtitles of Symphonies Nos. 82 and 83 are not by Haydn – he did assign those of Nos. 6, 7 and 8 – but it is musically clear why those subtitles were thought up in the 19th century. It is also clear that Haydn was not consciously imitating a bear, a hen or anything else in these expanded, beautifully formed and often wryly, wittily amusing works of pure music. Christophers and his players present the symphonies with strength, clarity, rhythmic certainty, and exemplary sectional balance, so the music flows with a sense of inevitability that makes Haydn’s occasional, characteristic veering in unexpected directions that much more attractive. All the performances on these CDs are ones of great style, wonderfully informed historic authenticity, and enjoyment of the music, a totality of approach that renders these works, even the best-known among them, fresh, new, and thoroughly engaging.
Mendelssohn: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2. Julia Fischer, violin; Jonathan Gilad, piano; Daniel Müller-Schott, cello. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Brahms: Piano Quintet; Schumann: String Quartet No. 1. Menahem Pressler, piano; Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello). Cedille. $16.
Henri Marteau: Serenade, Op. 20; Clarinet Quintet, Op. 13; Alexander Zemlinsky: Trio, Op. 3. Members of the Phoenix Ensemble. Navona. $14.99.
Sergio Cervetti: Chamber Music. Navona. $14.99.
Alla Elana Cohen: Chamber Music. Ravello. $14.99.
Michael G. Cunningham: String Quartets Nos. 1-7. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).
The attraction of the conversational and intimate nature of chamber music transcends the eras in which individual pieces are written, but certainly the nature of the conversation changes over time. Mendelssohn’s two piano trios, the first from 1839 and the second from 1845, share minor-key construction (D minor and C minor, respectively), a strong piano part that at times overshadows the strings, and elegant interweaving of the three instruments. But the topics, so to speak, of the trios are quite different, and it is the balance of similarities and differences that comes through so well on a new PentaTone release featuring Julia Fischer, Jonathan Gilad and Daniel Müller-Schott. There is lightness and exquisite balance throughout the recording, abetted by unusually clear SACD sound. But there is also a firm understanding of the differences between the two works. The first is filled with joy and lyricism, but has a yearning and wistful undertone that the performers bring out with particular skill: the first movement, after all, is marked Molto allegro agitato, and the underlying agitation is apparent here. The second trio is darker, more imbued with the implications of its minor key, and features a seriousness evidenced by a quotation from Bach’s Herr Gott, Dich fürchten wir alle. There is greater chromaticism in this trio, a move further away from the classical models that Mendelssohn always respected and employed in variously modified form throughout his life. Fischer, Gilad and Müller-Schott play the works with carefully modulated intricacy, pacing them well and successfully balancing their poise with their heartfelt emotion. As conversations go, these are unusually thoughtful ones.
Schumann dedicated his String Quartet No. 1 to Mendelssohn; it was written midway between Mendelssohn’s trios, in 1842. Its short and fleet Scherzo is especially Mendelssohnian, but the work as a whole has poise and balance that are reminiscent of much of Mendelssohn’s music, and a certain sunniness of disposition that shines through again and again, especially in the lovely and gently flowing Adagio, despite the quartet’s home key of A minor. A sparkling new recording by the Pacifica Quartet on Cedille plumbs all the depths of the music while keeping the conversation among the instruments flowing easily and in a spirit of superb cooperation – the ensemble work of the members of this quartet is remarkable for balance and style. Yet as good as it is, the Schumann rendition is surpassed by that of the Brahms Piano Quintet, in which Menahem Pressler, who was 90 years old when this performance was recorded in 2014 and is now 93, joins the much younger string players in a knock-your-socks-off reading whose intensity, involvement, strength and emotional punch are nothing short of extraordinary. This is well-known music that these players seem to know, and feel, better than just about anyone else who has recorded it. How is it possible that Pressler has never recorded this piece before? His technique seems made for it, precise and emotive and exceptional both in the way it blends with the strings as appropriate and with the way it stands out from them when that is apt. From the wonderfully expansive first movement, its warmth and cragginess equal factors in its effect, to the lovely respite of the Andante, un poco Adagio (perfectly paced here), through a Scherzo that aspires to the heights of emotional conveyance, to a finale that glides with apparent effortlessness from beauty to beauty, this is an exceptional reading that every lover of this music will be delighted to hear. Pressler and the Pacifica Quartet shed new light on the quintet again and again through a superb mixture of technique and musical understanding. Anyone who thinks there is nothing more to be learned from the instrumental conversation in this captivating work deserves to spend time with this revelatory performance. This CD has all the hallmarks of an honored “legacy” recording – which, given Simin Ganatra’s departure from the quartet and Menahem Pressler’s age, it is likely to become.
Written during Brahms’ lifetime but far less frequently performed than Brahms’ chamber music, Alexander Zemlinksy’s Trio, Op. 3 is for a complement of instruments quite different from those used by Mendelssohn in his trios: clarinet (Mark Lieb on Navona’s new recording), cello (Alice Yoo), and piano (Wayne Wang). This is a highly involving and emotionally expressive work with distinct late-Romantic flavor, as befits a piece written in 1896. The extended first movement, as long as the second and third together, grows and develops in ways that highlight the aural similarities of clarinet and cello while allowing the piano to interject brighter sounds and more directly compelling arguments – in contrast to the sweeping lyricism of the other two instruments. The second movement is a rather placid Andante, its expressiveness fairly ordinary, but the concluding Allegro is a gem: bright and warm, filled with interesting rhythms and unusual turns of phrase, all delivered with wonderful ensemble writing that nevertheless maintains the clarinet as first among equals. The other two works on this disc are even less-known than Zemlinsky’s. They are by Henri Marteau (1874-1934), a French violinist and composer whose Clarinet Quintet, Op. 13 (1908) has a distinctively French sound that is immediately apparent in the way the clarinet plays off against the strings at the start of the work. The performers here are Lieb, who is founder and artistic director of the Phoenix Ensemble, and Ensemble members Igor Pikayzen and Bryan Hernandez-Luch (violins), Eva Gerard (viola), and Carrie Bean Stute (cello). The performers successfully seek a sense of difference within similarity in this music, whose overall pacing is moderate in all four movements: tempo indications for the first two include the word moderato, while those for the third and fourth include sostenuto. The music does tend to meander rather too much from time to time, while having a disconcerting stop-and-start quality at other times. The result is a work that feels as much like a suite as a carefully shaped piece of chamber music. There is a kind of monochromaticism to the instrumental sound that can be pleasantly lulling but that drags after a while – and this is not a short work (it runs 32 minutes). The relative lack of attention that has been given to this piece is easier to understand than is the comparative neglect of Zemlinsky’s. The total absence of attention to Marteau’s Serenade, Op. 20 (1922) is, however, much harder to comprehend: this is the world première recording of the piece. This really is a suite, its four movements only loosely connected and its moods shifting while remaining essentially lighthearted. It is a nonet for winds, which in itself makes the work unusual. The performers are Catherine Gregory and Andrew Rehrig (flutes), Arthur Sato and Michelle Farah (oboes), Lieb and Moran Katz (clarinets), Angela Shankar (bass clarinet), and Daniel Hane and Edward Burns (bassoons). From the clever opening Entrata, the work moves to a sweet little Adagietto, a Scherzino that bubbles along infectiously, and a concluding Tema con variazoni that is well-crafted, clever and altogether winning. Lieb and his ensemble deserve considerable credit for essaying these less-known works and showing just how much pleasure listeners can find in unfamiliar chamber music.
Chamber works are much more recent and use many more instrumental combinations on a new Navona CD featuring Sergio Cervetti’s music and a disc from Ravello devoted to pieces by Alla Elana Cohen. These are (+++) recordings that will primarily appeal to listeners already familiar with the composers and interested in their particular way of handling their respective ethnic heritages. Cervetti’s roots lie in France, Italy and South America, and the six pieces hear draw on all of them. Two are for solo piano and are performed by the composer: Some Realms I Owned (2010) and I Can’t Breathe (2014, for piano and percussion). The first of these is largely tonal, declamatory and rather repetitive; the second is dissonant, jazz-inflected and quite short (just over two minutes). There is also an interesting work here for solo harpsichord: Ofrenda Para Guyunusa (2011), played by María Teresa Chenlo. One of the remaining works is a clarinet quintet that barely sounds as if it uses the same instruments employed by Zemlinsky. It is called And the Huddled Masses (2015), and its complexities of sound and expression – typical for much contemporary music – are such that it requires a conductor (Enrique Pérez Mesa) in addition to Alden Ortuño Cabezas (clarinet), Leonardo Pérez Baster and Luis Alberto Mariño Fernández (violins), Yamed Aguillón Santa Cruz (viola), and Lester Monier Serrano (cello). Unceasingly dissonant and multithematic, it is more a collection of sounds that a structurally unified piece of music – although the multiplicity of elements appears to be included by design. The dissonance in Sunset at Noon (1995), for violin (Vit Muzik) and viola (Dominika Mužíková) fits the material better: this is a four-movement work in which each movement is marked “In Memoriam” of a different individual. The first, second and fourth movements of this 18-minute piece are largely what one would expect for a memorial work: slow and somber. The third, however, is a pleasant surprise, upbeat and propulsive, with attractive pizzicato elements, presumably reflective of the personality of the person in whose memory Cervetti created the music. The final movement is explicitly labeled Hymn, and sounds like one; but the very last piece on the disc is even more explicitly hymnlike, being an a cappella setting of Lux Lucet in Tenebris that dates to 2002 and has a distinctly Baroque sound as performed by the Kuhn Choir conducted by Marek Vorlicek. Listeners familiar with Cervetti’s compositional versatility will get a considerable dose of it here.
The heritage on which Cohen draws is a Jewish one, and her approach to composition is almost self-consciously inventive, as if she tries through instrumental combinations and even through works’ titles to communicate just how creative the material is. In fact, all the works here – each of them consisting of multiple short movements – contain interesting and even clever elements, but after a while the cleverness seems somewhat forced and the music comes across as if Cohen is trying a little too hard. For example, there is a vocal work on this CD, but the difference between Cohen’s approach and Cervetti’s is evident from the very first notes. Cohen’s piece is called “Inscriptions on a Bamboo Screen” series 4 for soprano and viola in 6 movements (with addition of cup gong in the last movement), and it is performed by the composer (lyrics and cup gong), Rachel Schmiege (soprano), and Alexander Vavilov (viola). The most interesting element here is not the vocals but the combination of cup gong with plucked viola in the final movement. There are three pieces here in a series that Cohen calls “Inner Temple.” They are “Inner Temple” volume 2 series 1 “Brachot” (“Blessings”) for string quartet in 3 movements, played by Marissa Licata and Melissa Bull (violins), Alexander Vavilov (viola), and Sebastian Baverstam (cello); “Inner Temple” volume 1 series 12 “Brachot” for Chamber Orchestra in 3 movements, whose 10 performers are Bianca Garcia (flute), Izumi Sakamoto (oboe), Todd Brunel (clarinet), Timur Rubinshteyn (timpani), Aaron Trant (vibraphone), Matt Sharrock (marimba), plus the quartet of Licata, Bull, Vavilov and Baverstam; and “Inner Temple” volume 1 series 11 “Shabbat Nigunim” in 4 movements, this one featuring 11 performers – the same 10 as in the previously mentioned work plus the composer on piano. The instrumental combinations are a big part of what Cohen employs as communicative devices: the complex intertwining of individual instruments and instrumental groups comes across as enough purpose for these works to have – the specific matters they communicate are secondary to the way they communicate them. This is a very different approach to chamber music from that of earlier composers or, indeed, many other contemporary ones. This is clear throughout the CD, but perhaps particularly so in Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano “Red Lilies of Bells, Golden Lilies of Bells, White Lilies of Bells” in 3 movements, with Licata on violin, Baverstam on cello, and the composer on piano and providing the recitation of a Russian poem – twice, once in the original language and then, after a central instrumental section, in English. The two remaining works on this CD are Triptych for Chamber Orchestra “Homage to Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais,” with some performers heard elsewhere and some different ones: Garcia, Sakamoto, Brunel, Rubinshteyn, William Manley on vibraphone, Sharrock, Licata and Ethan Wood on violins, Vavilov, Baverstam, and the composer on piano; and a work that comes as something of a relief from the complexly planned multi-instrument ones, “Hoffmanniana” series 3 for solo Cello in 4 movements, nicely played by Baverstam. The musicians certainly give their all to this music, and Cohen herself handles her piano parts and other roles well, but the CD comes across as strictly a limited-interest item for audiences that already know what Cohen seeks to communicate and how, and want to hear a considerable amount of it at one time.
The instrumentation is much more traditional and straightforward in the seven quartets of Michael G. Cunningham heard on a new two-disc release from Navona. The quartets were written over nearly half a century, from 1959 to 2005, and show very definite changes in Cunningham’s compositional style. They also show ways in which his style did not change, such as fondness for glissandi and other special sounds. The quartets are given in the order in which they were composed, a wise decision that allows fans of Cunningham’s music – clearly the target of this (+++) release, which offers too much material from this single composer to be appealing to listeners not already interested in his output – an easy way to trace his compositional thinking over quite a long time. All the performers handle the music with skill: the Sirius Quartet (Nos. 1 and 2), Moravian Quartet (Nos. 3 and 7), Pedroia Quartet (no. 4), New England String Quartet (No. 5), and Millennium Quartet (No. 6). Except for the first quartet (1959), all these works have titles: No. 2 (1967) is “Three Satires,” No. 3 (1975) is “Partitions,” No. 4 (1985) is “Interlacings,” No. 5 (1988) is “Aggregates,” No. 6 (2001) is “Digital Isorhythm,” and No. 7 (2005) is “Back Home.” The titles are in some cases reasonably good guides to Cunningham’s intentions, but not always. Individual quartets and, indeed, individual movements contain distinctive elements that make them stand out: the lyrical second movement of No. 1; the unison proclamation that opens No. 2; the play of glissandi against pizzicati in No. 3; the second, Scherzo movement of No. 4, which sounds a bit like Mendelssohn run through a blender; the juxtaposition of trill and glissandi in the first movement of No. 5; the odd combination of march-like certainty and drifting in the finale of No. 6; the surprisingly long lines of the first movement, Con Carita, of No. 7; and many more. Listeners who enjoy explorations of stretched tonality, outright dissonance, rhythmic strength (with frequent rhythmic variation), and a skilled and thoroughly modern approach to writing for string quartet will find the musical conversations embodied by these works to be involving ones with clear contemporaneity in evidence throughout.