July 02, 2015

(++++) BETTER BOARD BOOKS


Charley Harper’s Animal Alphabet. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.

Charley Harper’s Count the Birds. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.

Charley Harper’s Book of Colors. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.

The Doghouse. By Jan Thomas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     In retrospect, board books featuring the art of Charley Harper (1922-2007) seem inevitable. Harper had just the sort of remarkable clarity in his vision, just the sort of blend of reality and make-believe, that fits the board-book format (and, in general, works for pre-readers and young readers) exceptionally well. But it is only now that Pomegranate Kids is bringing out a series of Charley Harper board books – which, however, are very much worth the wait. Zoe Burke, who has written the words for other books featuring Harper’s art, has taken three straightforward, traditional board-book concepts – the alphabet, numbers and colors – and given them treatments that mesh wonderfully with Harper’s geometric-but-always-recognizable drawings of wildlife. The text itself flows very well, as in Charley Harper’s Animal Alphabet: “Dog and Dolphin./ Duck and Dove./ Elephants and Eagles/ All need love.” But it is Harper’s drawings that make these books so very special. The “D” page here has an angular beagle sniffing at a very rounded dove, with a dolphin’s carefully shaped snout above and a beautifully colored duck below. The “E” page reflects the “all need love” line with a baby elephant posed perfectly beneath its mother as an eagle, up above, gazes at its just-hatched chick. Harper’s unapologetic use of geometric shapes – which artists almost always use to start their drawings, but subsequently erase or modify substantially – lends his pictures both stateliness and clarity. The stylized hummingbirds, the mother giraffe whose long tongue is licking the head of the giraffe baby, the amazing porcupine that completely fills a square within another square, the straight line of seven quail overlapping so as to seem like a seven-headed bird – all these and more are enthralling in a way quite different from that of most of the simplified drawings in books for very young children. Indeed, one of the charms of Harper’s art is that it does not really seem simplified at all: it appears impressionistic, providing insight into animals in highly intriguing ways. The fan-shaped vulture, the triangular-eared calico cat whose coat is all made of colored circles and parts of circles, the monkeys with intertwined tails and sideways glances, the overlapping owls that (like the quail) seem to blend into one bird – these and more are a feast for young eyes (older ones, too!), and a highly appealing introduction to the letters of the alphabet.

     The books about numbers and colors are just as effective and just as enjoyable. Harper especially loved drawing birds, and they are all over Charley Harper’s Count the Birds, in a style that even young children will recognize if they see the alphabet book first. Two hummingbirds, for example, seem stationary, almost carved from wood, except that their wings are shown as a series of curves, representing speedy fluttering. Four puffins appear in two groups of two, moving from one side of the page to the other and seeming to blend into each other as they do so – while, in contrast, six pelicans are lined up one next to the other, perched atop pilings, all facing the reader and each looking exactly like the next (except, in a bit of the subtle humor that is often present in Harper’s work, the pelican on the far right has only one foot on a piling and the other dangling in mid-air). As for Charley Harper’s Book of Colors, here the calico cat returns (featured because some of its spots are orange), and there are also striking pictures of an immediately recognizable fox (also orange), a plump red cardinal, and a tall pink flamingo in the foreground of a group of many flamingos and flamingo babies (one of the latter being white – another touch of Harper’s gentle humor). The black and gray face of a raccoon stares out of the page here, while a brown chipmunk with perfectly parallel stripes looks off to the side – and the solid black eyes of a white seal seem to stare nowhere in particular. Interestingly, there is not (at least yet) a Charley Harper’s Book of Shapes, but there certainly could be one, since, in a sense, all the art in these three delightful board books is about shapes, and the special way in which Harper used them. In fact, adults visiting the books with young children can go beyond the “official” purpose of each volume by showing kids just what shapes Harper uses, and how he combines them, to make highly distinctive depictions of so many different animals.

     The animals in The Doghouse, originally published in 2008 and now available in board-book form, are drawn in far more typical fashion, and Jan Thomas’ story is – well, more of a story. Four animal friends – Mouse, Cow, Duck and Pig – are playing ball when cow accidentally kicks the ball into the dreaded doghouse, which looms over the four on a nearby hill, its black opening leading to who-knows-where and who-knows-what. As soon as the ball goes inside, Thomas shows lightning and thunder –there is a sense of doom. Mouse announces that Cow will get the ball, because Cow is big, brave and strong; but after Cow goes into the doghouse, she does not come out. Now the three remaining friends are really scared. Mouse and Duck decide that Pig should go into the doghouse because he is smart, wise and stinky – to the last of which adjectives Pig objects. But he goes inside anyway – and does not come out. Now there are scary bats flying over the doghouse, and scary-looking tree limbs around it, and now it is Duck’s turn to go in, even though all that Mouse can say is that Duck is noisy (and, indeed, never says anything but “quack”). Duck too does not come out, and now there are eyes peering out of the doghouse, and teeth visible, and – well, now it is time to show that there was nothing to be afraid of after all. Thomas does that very amusingly, even pulling Mouse into the doghouse at the very end for a concluding scene that is as bright and upbeat as the earlier scenes have been dark and gloomy. The Doghouse offers a lot of silly fun and some very well-done cartoonish drawings. Indeed, they are deliberately overdone – in one, for example, Mouse is so scared that his frightened, open-mouthed face seems about to come right out of the page (and in fact is too big to fit on one page: only part of his ears can be seen). This is highly amusing storytelling for the youngest children – and fun for adults looking for something just slightly spooky (but ultimately reassuring) to read to them.

(++++) SCHOOLS’ RULES


Goose Goes to School. By Laura Wall. Harper. $12.99.

Eva and Sadie and the Best Classroom EVER! By Jeff Cohen. Illustrated by Elanna Allen. Harper. $17.99.

Little Critter: Just a Teacher’s Pet. By Mercer Mayer. Harper. $16.99.

     Learning what is and is not acceptable in school and in social situations is a big part of life for children ages 4-8 – and some books do a fine job of gently nudging kids in the right direction. A goose in the classroom, for example, is clearly not okay – but how can Sophie go to school without her beloved Goose? The characters, who first discovered each other and bonded in Goose, have developed an even closer relationship by the time of Goose Goes to School, and Sophie really wants her friend in class with her. Sophie’s mom says that is not allowed, and then walks Sophie to class and leaves Goose behind. But Sophie soon hears “flappy footsteps,” and while at the school playground, is “sure she sees a familiar face.” Young readers will enjoy finding where Goose is almost-hiding in Laura Wall’s amusing drawings, which accompany this slight but enjoyable story. Sophie has trouble concentrating in class because she wishes Goose could be there – and sure enough, Goose turns up, to the delight of Sophie and the other students. But Sophie knows Goose should not be at school and therefore has Goose hide under a table: the students know Goose is there but the teacher does not. At recess, Goose runs outside with the kids and everyone has a grand time playing, but then the kids go back to class and Goose is left outside to wait on the swings for school to end. It turns out that all the kids who saw Goose use Goose as the model for the pictures they draw in the afternoon, and Sophie’s new friends are eager to see Goose the next day – even if Goose is not really supposed to come back. A final “honk!” leaves it up in the air about what Sophie and Goose will do, but it seems pretty clear that the first day of school will not be Goose’s last.

     First-day-of-school issues are also front-and-center in Jeff Cohen’s Eva and Sadie and the Best Classroom EVER! This is also a second book – the first was Eva and Sadie and the Worst Haircut EVER! This time, older sister Sadie, who is about to start second grade, wants to help little sister Eva get ready for her first day of kindergarten. Sadie remembers all the things she learned when she was Eva’s age and decides to set up an in-home classroom to teach Eva what to do. That means not only classroom learning but also such things as a lack of nap time in kindergarten (so Sadie prevents Eva from taking naps on weekends – by making lots of noise) and an understanding of how lunchtime works (which means pretending to stand in line at the cafeteria). Eva clearly looks up to Sadie, and she does her best to go along with everything Sadie does; but after a while, Eva is so exhausted that she cannot pick her head up to say hello when Dad comes home. “That’s when I know things aren’t working out the way I planned,” says Sadie, who narrates the book. Dad reminds Sadie that Eva is only five years old and does not have to know everything about kindergarten on her first day there. So Sadie lowers the stress level, and even accommodates Eva (as do the girls’ rather bemused parents) when Eva makes her own lunch for her first day: “peanut butter and chocolate syrup on an onion bagel.” The girls walk to school together, Sadie reassures Eva that all will be fine, and sure enough, everything is : the book ends with Eva playing with two new friends and Sadie being glad that Eva is happy. This is a gently reassuring book whose touches of amusement (such as that bagel lunch) are nicely handled both by Cohen and by illustrator Elanna Allen, who portrays both girls as sweet, pleasant and as close as sisters can be. Sadie and Eva make good role models for real-world families with older and younger siblings who are both facing a new school year.

     There is nothing especially real-world about Little Critter and his friends – in appearance, anyway – but Mercer Mayer’s stories always handle everyday human issues entertainingly and sensitively through this odd-looking bunch of critters. Just a Teacher’s Pet is a book that children just learning to read can easily go through on their own: it is a “My First” book (“ideal for sharing with emergent readers”) in the I Can Read! series. It is not Little Critter who is the teacher’s pet here but a new student, a girl named Bunella. Bunella quickly makes her presence known, giving the teacher an apple, sitting in the front row, giving out work sheets, turning in her paper first, and so on. There is budding resentment among other class members, including Little Critter, but it never goes too far – Mayer carefully minimizes jealousy in this story for the youngest readers. Bunella’s teacher’s-pet ways continue on a field trip, where she tells the other students how to behave and counts them before they board the bus to return to the classroom. But then, at an after-class ball game, Bunella shows that she can be a team member as well as a teacher’s pet – and wins everyone over with her sports skills. The book ends, satisfyingly if predictably, with Bunella fully accepted into the group and onto the team – the lesson being that even sometimes-intrusive teacher’s-pet behavior may be only part of a student’s personality, and that it is worth looking for things the teacher’s pet has in common with everyone else so everybody can be friends. The message is a simple one, appropriate for a book at this level, and although the school rule it enforces – giving everyone a chance and playing with everyone – is never stated outright, it is clear from Mercer’s writing and drawing, which give parents something to discuss before their non-critter kids head back to the classroom.

(+++) THE HUNT FOR HEALING


The Pain Antidote: The Proven Program to Help You Stop Suffering from Chronic Pain, Avoid Addiction to Painkillers—and Reclaim Your Life. By Mel Pohl, M.D., and Katherine Ketcham. Da Capo. $16.99.

     This book dangles a promise that it cannot possibly deliver on for most people, and in that respect it is immeasurably cruel. Whether it is crueler than the promise of relief from chronic pain through long-term use of medication, especially opioids, is a matter of opinion and an ongoing source of debate in the medical community. Dr. Mel Pohl’s book (and it is really his: all first-person references are to him, with Katherine Ketcham apparently having the primary role of style polisher) approaches chronic pain – a condition affecting one-third of Americans – from the perspective of a family practitioner who believes much of modern medicine is misguided. Pohl runs the Las Vegas Recovery Center, a pain-and-addiction treatment facility where he personally and apparently enthusiastically supervises a program to wean people with chronic pain from medicines and provide them with healthful-living alternatives through better diet, more exercise, and other improved lifestyle choices.

     Nothing in The Pain Antidote is really new. The debate about potent opioids and similar medicines for use in long-term pain management (as opposed to the handling of acute trauma) has been ongoing for years, and has been the subject of many books and countless shorter articles (both scholarly and nonprofessional), meetings, seminars and research projects. There is general agreement that drugs developed for treatment of intense, acute pain are inappropriate for long-term use, and that there are ways to remove patients from them and substitute alternative approaches in some cases, if not all, through intense, long-lasting counseling, careful ongoing management, substantial social support, and a medical team committed to spending a great deal of time with each patient.

     This is exactly the medical model that is unavailable to most people in the United States these days – and has become even less available since the advent of the Affordable Care Act, which has resulted in overworked physicians generally needing to spend even fewer minutes with patients than in the past (when those minutes were very few already). Programs like Dr. Pohl’s at the Las Vegas Recovery Center are few and far between, and they are generally extremely time-consuming, extremely costly, and available only in very limited geographical areas. Whatever successes Dr. Pohl has attained must be seen, therefore, as ones that are not readily replicable in the everyday lives of the vast majority of people with chronic pain.

     Thus, The Pain Antidote will be most useful for helping people with chronic pain understand why their bodies are going through such ongoing misery; and it may point people toward possible dietary or lifestyle changes that they can attempt to incorporate into their everyday living in part, even if not in full – even if Dr. Pohl would insist on an all-or-nothing, my-way-or-the-highway approach to changing pain management.

     The book starts with five unexceptionable  observations: all pain is real; emotions affect how pain is experienced; opioids may make pain worse over time; functional improvement rather than pain elimination is an appropriate goal for chronic-pain sufferers; and “expectations influence outcome.” This last point is crucial to Dr. Pohl’s approach: you must believe that his proposals will work for them to do so. (This is reasonable on one level, as is known from studies of the placebo effect, which the book discusses at one point. However, it is all too readily subject to abusive interpretation: if you do not improve when using Dr. Pohl’s plan, the fault lies in your lack of belief rather than in the plan itself.)

     Dr. Pohl is fond of providing information in grouped form. There are “Six Basic Points” about pain and the brain; seven possible “secondary gains” that people with chronic pain may receive, thereby reinforcing their pain; “12 Behaviors That Might Signify an Addiction Problem”; “12 Ways of Thinking That Get Us into Trouble”; and so forth. He likes to present ideas in simplistic chart form, even when the ideas themselves are far from simple to implement – for example, there is a “Thought Pattern Chart” in which an initial thought about being in too much pain to get out of bed, or even move, is supposed to lead to the “reasonable response” of, “The pain isn’t going to kill me and I know movement is good for me – so I’d better get moving!” Eventually, Dr. Pohl gets to the heart of his belief, in a chapter called “Reviving the Spirit: Finding Meaning and Purpose in Your Life.” Here he presents “The Basic Spiritual Principles Underlying the Twelve Steps” used in many anti-addiction programs. He urges chronic-pain sufferers to find ways to feel and express gratitude, to move toward acceptance, to practice forgiveness, and more. And if this sounds more like a spiritual manifesto than a medical one, that is because it is – one of Dr. Pohl’s bigger understatements, two-thirds of the way through The Pain Antidote, is, “You probably have gleaned by now that I am not a fan of opioids for the long-term treatment of chronic pain.”

     Where The Pain Antidote eventually takes readers is to recommendations for specific changes in one’s diet and lifestyle – changes that have been put forward many times in many other contexts: eat less red meat and more fish; work out 15 to 30 minutes a day; try massage and/or yoga; etc. There are also some recommendations that will be less familiar: locate specific acupuncture/acupressure points and massage or press them yourself to “influence the energy flowing through your body, thereby reducing inflammation and pain” (which is in fact the Chinese theory underlying acupuncture, but not a belief system supported by scientific research); and learn and use specific breathing techniques such as prana breath and breathing Om. To reinforce his message about the importance of proper nutrition for pain management, Dr. Pohl provides an appendix of “Delicious and Nutritious Pain-Reducing Recipes” such as “slow cooker ginger tea,” “curried butternut squash soup,” and “gluten-free peanut butter cookies.”

     There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying the approach recommended in The Pain Antidote, and it may be quite effective when used in a highly supportive institutional setting providing patients with long-term, extended interactions with medical professionals. This is just what the Las Vegas Recovery Center appears to offer. The underlying difficulty with this book for the majority of pain sufferers, though, lies in the sad reality that what works when carefully monitored and strongly supported by a professional staff is much, much less likely to work in people’s individual, highly stressed, time-pressed, frequently isolated, pain-filled lives. This fundamental disconnect between what Dr. Pohl urges readers to do and the circumstances under which his patients actually do these things risks making chronic-pain sufferers, already burdened by unceasing hurt, feel even worse because they simply cannot do all the things that The Pain Antidote suggests, rather too glibly, that they ought to be doing.

(++++) IN SEARCH OF SONIC AUTHENTICITY


Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselböck. Alpha. $18.99.

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5. Nils-Erik Sparf, violin; Uppsala Chamber Orchestra. Swedish Society. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Hummel: Sonata for Piano and Flute (or Violin), Op. 50; Grand Sonata for Piano and Violin (or Flute), Op. 64; Variations alla Monferina for Cello and Piano, Op. 54; Adagio, Variations and Rondo on a Russian Theme for Piano, Flute and Cello, Op. 78. Linde Brunmayr-Tutz, flute; Jaap ter Linden, cello; Bart van Oort, piano. Fra Bernardo. $18.99.

Brahms: Piano Trios Nos. 1-3. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Tanja Tetzlaff, cello; Lars Vogt, piano. Ondine. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Nowadays the use of original instruments or replicas, original-size orchestras, and original manuscripts and tempos for well-known works may not always be enough. Some enterprising conductors and ensembles want to give modern audiences the actual sound of music as composers originally intended it – by performing it with as much historical accuracy as possible and in as historically correct a setting as can be. When this approach is well done, it can be truly revelatory, as it is in the new Beethoven CD from Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselböck, on the Alpha label. Haselböck is an erudite, meticulous conductor with impeccable historical/academic credentials and a fine feel for Beethoven’s music. This disc and the ones to follow in his Beethoven cycle will take 21st-century listeners on an aural tour of the venues where Beethoven’s symphonies were originally performed – to the extent possible (only four of the six original locations remain). Add Haselböck’s careful attention to the size of the orchestra and the instruments within it, his study of Beethoven’s indicated tempos, and his overall sense of the structure of the music not only of Beethoven but also of other composers of the time, and you have a recipe for a very unusual Beethoven cycle with some genuinely new elements. It is, however, important not to take this “authenticity” matter too far: obviously the venues that survive are no longer in exactly the same shape they were in during Beethoven’s lifetime, and obviously even instruments from that time have required maintenance and repair in the last 200 years – and so forth. Nevertheless, there is something exhilarating about experiencing the sound of Beethoven as closely as possible to the way it was heard by the people who were first exposed to these now-iconic pieces of music – and Haselböck provides as close an approximation of that experience as modern listeners are ever likely to receive. Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 were recorded at Landhaussaal, Palais Niederösterreich, in Vienna, and these live performances are simply brimming with ebullience, enthusiasm, bounce and an appropriate level of Classical-era poise and balance. Beethoven’s debt to Haydn and Mozart comes through particularly clearly here – as do the many ways in which, even in these first two symphonies, he was staking a claim to territory of his own. This is, in a sense, a recording for specialists – many listeners will not really hear substantial differences between these readings and others using instruments of this type and an orchestra of this size. But anyone who listens to Haselböck’s rendition of the symphonies will enjoy the careful pacing, the ease with which the orchestra handles the music (although the Second, at least, was not particularly easy for those who played it originally!), and the overall feeling of elegance that comes through so clearly here.

     The approximation of the sound of Mozart’s violin concertos in a new Swedish Society recording featuring Nils-Erik Sparf comes largely from Sparf’s delicacy of tone and careful attention to phrasing – coupled with the sensitive and very well-paced playing of the Uppsala Chamber Orchestra, of which Sparf is leader. Having the concertmaster as soloist and conductor was far more common in Mozart’s day than it was to become in later times – after all, even the Strauss family and their competitors in 19th-century Vienna dance halls led from the soloist position. So this is one way in which these concertos sound notably authentic. Another comes from the harpsichord continuo – which is thoroughly appropriate but very rarely heard. And yet another is the result of Sparf’s full understanding of the clarity and lightness inherent in these works, even in their more virtuosic and serious sections. These are nothing at all like the virtuoso concertos of the following century and beyond: yes, the soloist has an important part to play, but his role is closer to that of primus inter pares than to that of a pedestaled antagonist taking on the entire orchestra as if his one instrument is the equal of all the others (that was to be the mode of Paganini and his successors). In Sparf’s hands and those of his orchestra, these concertos are essentially chamber works, reflective conversations among players of equal skill who all have something important to bring to the dialogue. Interestingly, this makes the first three, lesser concertos particularly appealing here: No. 1 clearly shows its ties to the works of Vivaldi and Viotti, No. 2 displays operatic elements in its slow movement, and No. 3 proffers a kind of gentle intimacy that is altogether winning. The last two concertos are also very fine: No. 4 is beautifully crafted and beautifully balanced, with its folksong-like finale especially attractive here, and No. 5 shows itself to have far more attractions than its designation as “Turkish” would indicate – here the orchestral part is as impressive as the improvisation-like elements given to the soloist, especially in the first movement. This is a lovely version of these ever-fresh works that gives the impression of making them sound very much as Mozart himself would have heard them.

     The sound of the music of Mozart’s onetime pupil, Hummel, is that of transition – a fact that relegated Hummel’s music to obscurity for many years, since it seemed “neither here nor there” in its position straddling the Classical and Romantic eras. Thankfully, this invariably well-formed, well-balanced music has been heard more and more frequently in recent times, to the point that the “Hummel sound” is now becoming reasonably familiar and is allowing listeners to familiarize themselves with an important element of musical development in the early part of the 19th century. Hummel wrote quite a lot of music to be played by amateurs, which is one reason scholars used to scoff at a good deal of his work – but now listeners have a chance, as in a new Fra Bernardo recording, to hear just how much skill Hummel lavished on this sort of drawing-room music and just how good it can sound when professionally performed. It was as a piano virtuoso that Hummel was most famous in his own time – and very famous he was, too – but in the four works played on this CD, although the piano is frequently dominant, Hummel shows himself highly adept in creating pleasing and technically interesting works for other instruments as well. The Op. 50 and Op. 64 flute-and-piano sonatas both require considerable dexterity on the part of the pianist (they were written for pianos incorporating a number of then-recent innovations), while also needing flute playing of sensitivity, delicacy and considerable skill: like the piano, the flute was changing quickly at this time, and Hummel shows in these works that he understood its capabilities quite well. Linde Brunmayr-Tutz plays an eight-keyed transverse flute here, and it nicely complements Bart van Oort’s 1830s fortepiano sonically, giving listeners aural insight into how Hummel’s sonatas were intended to sound. The two sets of variations provide further involvement in the composer’s sound world. The Op. 54 variations for cello and piano are based on a northern Italian dance called the Monferrina (with two “r’s,” although Hummel’s title uses only one), and here van Oort’s piano blends very well indeed with Jaap ter Linden’s 1703 Milanese cello. And then listeners have a real treat in the form of a trio for piano, flute and cello, an extended and elaborate set of variations on a Russian theme (actually a Ukrainian folk song) popularized in the German-speaking world as Schöne Minke. The little ditty is turned and twisted in multiple directions by Hummel through a set of six variations and a finale, with each of the three performers having a chance to show his or her solo abilities while, at the same time, needing to cooperate fully with the other two to produce a genuinely harmonious musical whole. None of these four pieces is of great significance in musical history, but all are evidence of the vibrancy of amateur as well as professional musical performance in Hummel’s time – and of the very high quality that Hummel brought even to works that were never intended to be heaven-storming in their intensity.

     The sound of Hummel’s piano-violin-flute trio is on the unusual side; that of Brahms’ piano-violin-cello trios is far more common. Brahms’ music in his three trios (or four, depending on how you count) is considerably more serious than Hummel’s in his works for home and amateur performance. Brahms’ trios span much of his creative life, from 1854 to 1889, and contain more-personal elements than does much of the rest of his music. A new Ondine recording of the trios by the brother-and-sister team of Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff, along with Lars Vogt, is sensitive to the trios’ many moods and very well played by all three performers. Trio No. 1, heard here in its 1889 revision, is a somewhat uneven blend of youthful enthusiasm, related especially to Brahms’ relationship with Robert and Clara Schumann, and Brahms’ later, more-serene style. The introspective elements get their full due in this performance, which is warm and involving throughout – although, as a result, the Scherzo, which Brahms retained unchanged from the 1854 version, fits a bit uneasily into the whole. Trio No. 2 (1882) is a work of contrasts, with lyrical tenderness and intensity played against each other and a particularly effective set of variations in the not-very-slow slow movement (marked Andante con moto). Trio No. 3 (1884) is the shortest of these works and the only one in a minor key (C minor). Its passionate first movement, surprisingly gentle Scherzo, dancelike third movement (again not very slow, here Andante grazioso), and urgently driving finale produce a work whose contrasts are its defining characteristic – but whose totality comes across as effective and unified here. Despite the fine performances, though, this is a (+++) release – because it is unconscionably overpriced. The total time of the three trios in these performances is 83 minutes, just over the 80-to-81-minute limit for a single CD; so splitting the recording onto two discs is necessary. But charging full price for those two discs is simply unfair to listeners – all the more so because a simple, elegant solution to the cost issue was readily available. Brahms’ Trio No. 1 exists not only in the 1889 version heard here but also in its original version of 1854, in which three of the four movements are wholly or substantially different. It would have been fascinating (and instructive) to hear both versions of this trio, and obviously there is ample room for both on the CDs, the first of which runs just 49 minutes and the second only 34. It is most unfortunate that this interesting approach was not taken here and that a decision was made to charge so much for a set of fine performances that, however, will not be, for most listeners, worth what they cost on this recording.

(++++) WAYS OF BEING BRILLIANT


Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; Variations on Diabelli’s Waltz by 50 Composers. Pier Paolo Vincenzi, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4. Virtuosi Saxoniae conducted by Ludwig Güttler. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

Brahms: Serenades No. 1, Op. 11, and No. 2, Op. 16; Academic Festival Overture; Tragic Overture; Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Dresdner Philharmonie conducted by Heinz Bongartz (Serenades); London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (Academic Festival); Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by Günter Herbig (Tragic; Variations). Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

     At its best, the Brilliant Classics label deserves its name, offering first-class performances, often very cleverly conceived, showing clearly that a label dedicated to bargain-priced classical music ($7.99 for single CDs, $11.99 for two-CD sets) need not stint on repertoire selection or performance quality. The Diabelli-focused release featuring pianist Pier Paolo Vincenzi is a perfect example of this. Vincenzi has undertaken unusual repertoire for Brilliant Classics before, admirably recording all of Wagner’s piano music. Now he has done something even more interesting: in addition to performing Beethoven’s famed variations on Anton Diabelli’s trivial waltz theme, Vincenzi has gone back to the original concept that led Beethoven to create his masterwork. This was Diabelli’s plan to have 51 composers of his time provide one variation apiece – the project aiming to help unite the disparate peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, demonstrate the capabilities of the newly evolved and still-developing piano, and (not merely incidentally) cementing Diabelli’s own relationship with numerous composers for the sake of future publishing business. So this was what we now call a marketing tool as well as a musical one, and a very clever idea it turned out to be (it is intriguing to wonder whether Hummel, who contributed to Diabelli’s project and later became quite a “musical marketer” himself, picked up some of his ideas from Diabelli). What we have here from Vincenzi is therefore a performance of, first, one of the greatest solo works in the piano literature; and, second, a rendition of a musical curiosity that was very much of its time (akin in its way to Liszt’s later Hexameron) but that also is of considerable interest to anyone wondering about the great, near-great and not-so-great composers of Beethoven’s era. Most of the variations by the 50 composers other than Beethoven are about one minute long, as is Diabelli’s theme, but there are some surprises, such as a three-minute Quasi Ouverture by Joseph Drechsler, a five-and-a-half-minute Capriccio by A. Emanuel Förster, and a three-minute Fuga by Archduke Rudolf of Austria. Hummel’s variation, on the other hand, lasts just 33 seconds and is the shortest of all. Other moderately or highly recognizable names among the contributors include Carl Czerny, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, Frederic Kalkbrenner, Franz Liszt (a 35-second piece by a composer then just 11 years old), Ignatz Moscheles, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, Johann Peter Pixis, and Franz Schubert. It would be stretching a point to call any of these brief items important, but their context is fascinating, the collection provides listeners with a highly unusual sonic journey to a significant time in musical history, and Vincenzi’s handling of the huge and tremendously challenging Beethoven work is also absolutely top-notch. Vincenzi here shows himself just as capable in grand and important music as in miniatures and trivia – the whole two-CD set, recorded from May to December of 2014, is a joy to hear.

     There is also much joy to be had in the Brilliant Classics release of a considerably older recording, that of Bach’s four orchestral suites by Virtuosi Saxoniae under Ludwig Güttler. In addition to releasing new performances, Brilliant Classics brings back ones recorded in the past, often in what used to be East Germany: this one was made at the Lukaskirche in Dresden in 1990, 1991 and 1992, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. There was excellent music-making in much of the old Soviet empire, just as in the old Austro-Hungarian one, and CDs like this one provide a window into what was a largely closed society while at the same time – and more importantly – offering 21st-century listeners readings that are highly worthy on their own, independent of the venue where they originated. Güttler (born 1943) is an expert performer on the Baroque trumpet, piccolo trumpet and corno da caccia, and Virtuosi Saxoniae is one of several ensembles that he himself founded. The players, members of Staatskapelle Dresden, are uniformly excellent, and Güttler’s own skill as both conductor and performer is everywhere evident in this first-rate recording. Indeed, Güttler assumes the first-trumpet role in the third and fourth suites, in addition to that of the ensemble’s leader. The performances here are well-paced, with fast-movement tempos on the speedy side (leading to more than a few exhilarating moments); yet slower movements are paced with tremendous sensitivity (the Air from the third suite has never sounded more affecting). The readings are filled with understanding of Bach’s rhythms and of the dances on which most movements of the suites are based. The verve and spirit of the playing are infectious. The oboists in the first suite, flautist in the second, and trumpeters in the third and fourth are especially noteworthy for their instrumental control, smoothness of sound, and equal ability to stand out from the overall ensemble or to blend into it, depending on what the music calls for. This is by any standards a top-quality performance of Bach’s suites, and its availability at a bargain price makes the Brilliant Classics business model seem all the more impressive and attractive.

     It does not, however, always operate at this rarefied level. A newly released two-CD set of Brahms orchestral music is a perfectly respectable (+++) recording, but that is all – there are better performances of these pieces, and much better-sounding ones, readily available. This release is a hodgepodge of analog recordings – the only digital one is the Academic Festival Overture, recorded in 1989, when digital technology was still only so-so in reproducing classical music without unduly squashing the sound. The Tragic Overture was recorded in 1978, the Haydn Variations in 1979, and the two serenades all the way back in 1962 – and although their sound is good for that era, it is not really up to modern standards. The serenade performances do show the quality of East German music-making at the time they were made, with the Dresdner Philharmonie playing at a high level throughout and Heinz Bongartz (1894-1978) bringing expansiveness to the music and, in particular, considerable warmth to the slow movements. Günter Herbig (born 1931) is similarly effective, and the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester similarly impressive, in the Haydn Variations, while the Tragic Overture here gets considerable heft and a slow tempo that effectively brings out the unnamed tragedy it represents – although sections in the middle do drag a bit. The contrasting lightness of the Academic Festival Overture, whose recording is brighter than that of the other works here, is abundantly clear, and the lighter sound of the London Symphony Orchestra under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos fits the music very well indeed. Nevertheless, in totality, this potpourri of Brahms’ non-symphonic orchestral music is the sort of release that can be recommended with little hesitation only to listeners unfamiliar with the repertoire – ones looking for a low-cost entry point to a selection of works they do not know, so they can decide for themselves whether to seek out more-recent, more-impressive readings elsewhere. Brilliant Classics actually performs a welcome service by making recordings like this one available: people with only a modicum of interest in classical music, including ones pressed for money (say, college students), will welcome a two-CD set like this one even though it is not quite at the pinnacle of performance or sound quality. So even if releases of this type are less than brilliant, they are very worthy on a musical basis and very much appreciated for the price at which they make great classical works available.

June 25, 2015

(++++) WHEN PLANS DERAIL


The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles. By Dave Wasson. Harper. $17.99.

B. Bear and Lolly: Catch That Cookie! By A.A. Livingston. Illustrated by Joey Chou. Harper. $15.99.

Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules. By Alison Friend. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Kids ages 4-8 like to think big – they do not even realize there is a box outside of which to think, because they are too busy with their wide-ranging, unboxed thoughts. Dave Wasson’s The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles is a celebration of just this sort of thinking. Buster is as imaginative as they come, waking up in a chaotic room containing everything from a dinosaur attacking a toy train to a snare drum played with one drumstick and one fork, and immediately thinking of all sorts of things. Unfortunately, his ideas run afoul of mundane reality: instead of plopping fried eggs onto his face to give himself “EGGS-ray vision,” he is supposed to be getting ready for school. Things are not much better there: Buster’s show-and-tell offering of a rampaging robot (with, yes, fried eggs for eyes) only brings him mockery. After school, to help Buster feel better, his mother drops him off at the laboratory of his Uncle Roswell (name taken from supposed alien-landing site definitely intentional) – where there is a brand-new “What-If Machine” that cannot work unless someone feeds it big ideas. But alas, Uncle Roswell is fresh out. What to do? Buster is in his element now, and soon he and his uncle are walking on the ceiling, watching a rain of guinea pigs, flying a rocket-powered cow, and living in a world made of ice cream. Buster’s ideas get bigger and bigger until – well, obviously there is going to be trouble, and of course there is, but it is not terribly troubling trouble, and clever Buster soon thinks his way out of it and returns to school with a show-and-tell presentation that the class will never forget. Wasson’s drawings look a lot like stills from modern cartoons, on which he has in fact worked for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. So The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles will be especially enjoyable for kids who watch those animations and will immediately “recognize” Buster and the plot of this book even before they have seen it. But even kids unfamiliar with today’s cartoons will be captivated by the sheer enthusiasm with which Buster imagines just about everything – the more impossible, the better.

     Imagination is somewhat more restrained in A.A. Livingston’s fairy-tale-based B. Bear and Lolly: Catch That Cookie! But only somewhat. The story starts with the title characters (formerly known as Baby Bear and Goldilocks, although that is not explained within this book, which is the second featuring their adventures) making porridge that just does not come out the way it should: it is too thick, slick, lumpy, jumpy, sticky and altogether icky.  Suddenly the Gingerbread Man comes running right past them, toppling their Porridge Perfecter and speeding off. B. Bear and Lolly give chase, but the cookie is just too fast for them, and the traps they set for him misfire – until the two friends figure out a way to use the inedible porridge to stop him in his tracks. They quickly assure the Gingerbread Man that they do not want to eat him – they just want him to clean up the mess he made. He apologizes and does just that – and then shows them how they can make perfect porridge after all. So the book ends with three friends, not just two, all of them enjoying porridge and sharing it with a bird, bear, squirrel, pig and dragon. Might as well get all those fairy-tale types in there! Joey Chou’s gently rounded illustrations are a big part of this book’s attraction (and a big contrast with Wasson’s in his book). There are plenty of other fairy tales out there, and B. Bear and Lolly seem sure to return to mix and stir up more of them.

     Mixing and stirring, and friendship, are prime ingredients in Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules as well. Freddy, a fox, and Frito, a very large mouse (or perhaps an endearingly drawn rat), are best friends with a problem: each enjoys playing at the other’s house, but their respective parents make too many rules, interfering with the friends’ enjoyment of Jumping Jelly Beans, Rock Star Pirates and other games they have invented. So Freddy and Frito decide to create a place of their own, where there will be no rules at all: a treehouse, which they furnish with many of their favorite things. Or try to furnish: it soon turns out that Freddy does not like some of Frito’s stuff, and Frito does not like some of Freddy’s things, and everything is crowded and headache-inducing and smelly and just no good. The friends quarrel and run home to their families, but then decide the thing to do is to make the clubhouse bigger, so everything will fit and both of them will have places for whatever they want. Freddy and Frito are so excited after expanding their just-for-them place that they decide on a grand-opening celebration for the tree house, inviting lots of family members – and Alison Friend’s illustration of the grand-opening scene is so big that kids have to turn the book sideways to see everything that is going on. In fact, though, some of what is happening is not to Freddy and Frito’s liking, and they start to realize that it makes sense to have some rules after all. This is where the mixing and stirring come in: to get the guests to go home and stop messing everything up, Freddy and Frito prepare a “special dinner” consisting of pond water, an old shoe, a dead fish, and some moldy cheese. Sure enough, the smell of the stinky stew leads everyone to decide to go somewhere else for supper – giving Freddy and Frito the time and space they need to clean up, calm down, relax for a while, and create “the only rule they needed,” which is simply, “Freddy + Frito RULE!” Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules is a well-told story with more complexity than is often found in books for this age group. And the drawings of the friends, their families, and the unintentional (and intentional) messes that everyone makes all fit the tale and characters exceptionally well – not only in the bigger events but also in the smaller ones, such as a scene showing a “shortsighted neighbor” (a mole) taking a bath in a cooking pot that he has mistaken for a bathtub. Friendship, family, frustration and fun: Freddy and Frito and the Clubhouse Rules has them all.

(++++) SAY IT ISN’T SO! WELL, IT ISN’T


Spurious Correlations: Correlation Does Not Equal Causation. By Tyler Vigen. Hachette Books. $20.

     It is the bane of every scientist, every researcher: the eager journalist, blogger, or other non-scientist who is so excited about that new study that proves Phases of the Moon Cause Cancer! Or Eating a Pound of Blueberries a Day Keeps You Alive for 200 Years! Or Drinking Wine Protects Your Liver!

     Or, more seriously: eating eggs will raise your cholesterol…too much salt endangers your heart…blood pressure above 140/90 is an invitation to cardiovascular disease and early death.

     The first three correlations are ludicrous, and it is hard to imagine anyone believing them. But the second, reasonable-seeming three are no more believable – and in fact, scientists have recently reversed these supposed “scientific discoveries,” saying that eggs and other foods are not major culprits in too-high cholesterol; too little salt may be a bigger danger than too much; and systolic blood pressure in the 150 range is probably just fine and does not require the lifetime medication that doctors prescribed to so many people under the 140/90 standard.

     There is no evil conspiracy behind this sort of scientific study and re-study, determination and re-determination.  And it is perfectly fine to scoff at ill-reported findings that say high calcium intake causes eye disease, heartburn causes esophageal or stomach cancer, and red wine keeps you alive longer. Virtually all reporting outside scientific journals falls victim, through ignorance and/or space limitations, to the confusion of correlation and causation.

     To put it simply: just because two things are both observed in people or in life in general, that does not mean one of them causes the other. People who take large amounts of calcium supplements are indeed more likely to have advanced macular degeneration, a serious eye disease, in later life – which could mean that they have a systemic condition or genetic predisposition to the eye disease and just happen to be calcium users; it does not mean that calcium causes the disease. Heartburn is sometimes seen in people with esophageal or stomach cancer, but most heartburn is simply a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, and heartburn does not cause cancer. There is a correlation between drinking red wine in moderation and longer life in some people – but their overall lifestyle may be what leads them both to drink the wine and to have longer lives. Correlation Does Not Equal Causation, as the subtitle of Tyler Vigen’s book states.

     Indeed, as the book’s title states, it is extremely easy to find Spurious Correlations – apparently connected events or circumstances that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Some of these are so well-known that they have passed into common parlance in their fields: the hemline indicator and Super Bowl indicator are well-known on Wall Street, for example, each of them supposedly predicting the future direction of the stock market (based, respectively, on the length of women’s dresses and whether a team from the old AFL or original NFL – or, in a variant, a team from the current AFC or NFC – wins the Super Bowl). Interestingly, traders scoff at these correlations but sometimes also weave elaborate stories to explain how they might, just might, have a grain of truth in them. These specific items are not in Vigen’s book, but he does produce a graph showing an 81.4% correlation between closing values of the New York Stock Exchange Composite Index from 2004 to 2011 and the ranking of the TV program Two and a Half Men against that of other CBS shows.

     There is not even a micro-grain of veracity in the correlations that Vigen has dug up for his book – but they are so amusing that Spurious Correlations manages both to teach a matter of genuine importance and to insist that readers laugh about it. Vigen’s approach is a wonderful one: he provides graphs that show eerily parallel patterns between entirely unrelated sets of data – graphs that seem to prove that one thing causes the other, or at the very least is intimately related to it, when in fact they prove absolutely nothing. Thus, there is a definite correlation between cheese consumption in the United States between 2000 and 2009 and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in bedsheets during the same period – the graph shows it with 94.7% correlation. And margarine consumption during the same decade is even more clearly correlated with the divorce rate in the state of Maine: a 98.9% correlation. Also – oh my – there was 96.4% correlation between E-mail spam and the use of genetically engineered soybeans between 2001 and 2010. Quick! Someone pass a law!  And let’s boost our competitiveness in information technology by making graduate school free for comic-book readers: there was 99.5% correlation between computer-science doctorates and comic-book sales between 2003 and 2009.

     Vigen’s charts are highly amusing – and they are also highly instructive. There are so many statistics available about so many things that finding correlations between unrelated events is just a matter of doing a well-directed search. Then, to show those correlations clearly enough to imply causation, be sure to choose the right scale for your graph (Y axis) and the right time period (X axis). This is exactly what Vigen does – but other people do the same thing for far less humor-inducing reasons. Politicians and issue advocates are experts at manipulating statistics to try to make people think there is causation when there is only correlation: debates about everything from illegal immigration to abortion are filled with manipulation of this sort. And even when correlation and causation are confused only through ignorance or space limitations, rather than through malice, there are serious consequences. Journalistic credibility, to the extent that that phrase still means anything, is seriously damaged by stories reporting that A leads to B when the research says only that A and B both occur under the same specific circumstances or in the same group of people. Scientific literacy, to the extent that that phrase still has meaning, is badly undermined by widely disseminated reports that lead people to believe some important causality has been discovered, when all that has really been found is an interesting correlation.

     Vigen clearly intends Spurious Correlations as a humor book, giving his graphs amusing headlines: “Save the planet! Knock down the old bridges!” “A ltr 4 u.” “Beer always makes basketball better.” “Money doesn’t grow on trees, unless that money is for bingo and those trees are houseplants.” So by all means laugh at the absurdity of the unconnected connections that he offers on page after page. There is, indeed, causation here: many of these graphs will certainly elicit amusement. But remember that this book has appeared at a time when more people than ever are ignorantly sounding off on the Internet and elsewhere about all the causes of all the terrible things happening in the world. That is only a correlation – right?

(++++) FEARSOME FASCINATIONS


When the Earth Shakes: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis. By Simon Winchester. Viking. $18.99.

     There have been many books for young people about the wonders of the world, about how nature works, about the amazing and sometimes frightening things that occur regularly on our planet; and there have been plenty of profiles of the scientists who study these things, try to make sense of them, and help (in the case of natural disasters) to predict dire events and restore order after they occur. Simon Winchester’s When the Earth Shakes, for ages 10-14, is similar to these books, but it is different, too, for it is a highly personal account of natural disasters by someone whose primary role is that of journalist – someone who takes readers where he has himself gone to explore the wonders and fearful power of geological forces.

     It is not until his Afterword that Winchester states explicitly what is implicit throughout his narrative: “Each of these activities [earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis] happens as a normal part of the functioning of planet Earth. …Part of being a responsible custodian of our planetary resources must also include a respect for the way the planet itself operates.” Everything in the book revolves around this: the enormous human cost of natural disasters must be set against the reality that these are natural events, ones endemic to Earth and ones that will occur again and again, as they have been occurring for millennia beyond count. We humans live as if Earth is stable – even those who live in unstable parts of the world do this, such as those along the San Andreas Fault in California and around the Ring of Fire in the Pacific. But the planet is inherently unstable: what appears otherwise “over time…cannot and will not last.”

     When Earth shrugs, when natural events intersect with human life, it is human life that is bound to be lost. It may be the 185 lives lost in February 2011 in an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, or the 57 who died when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, or the 40,000 killed when Krakatoa blew itself to smithereens in 1883, or the 230,000 who lost their lives in the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Tsunami. These lives are huge to us humans but insignificant to a planet that is unaware of them and that dances to its own tune. Indeed, Winchester shows that plate tectonics, which are responsible for many of the most frightening and dramatic natural disasters, really are a sort of dance, with molten rock below the Earth’s surface causing 15 huge, solid plates and about 50 smaller ones to move slowly, constantly and steadily.

     Winchester expertly mixes his personal experiences and knowledge with scientific explanations, photographs both modern and historical, and highly informative graphics – one of which, for example, shows where all 15 of Earth’s major plates lie. He explains the Richter scale and volcanic explosivity index, discusses (and shows in photos) the devastation of the 2011 tsunami in Japan (contrasting its horrific effects with the grandeur of the famous Hokusai painting of a great wave), briefly and tellingly profiles a couple of the victims of the Mount St. Helens eruption, mentions the heroic and unnamed telegraph operator who died immediately after telling the world in Morse code about the Krakatoa eruption, and is generally very effective in meshing the small, human and personal stories occurring in the course of gigantic natural disasters with a discussion of the scientific study and understanding of what occurs.

     When the Earth Shakes is part of a series created in collaboration with, and using information from, the Smithsonian Institution. This is what gives the book much of its scientific gravitas. What comes through, page after page and photograph after photograph, is the astounding power lying just beneath our feet and bursting through again and again, always unpredictably despite increasingly sophisticated efforts to anticipate (if not control) its effects. What also comes through is the resilience of human beings affected by these disasters – not individually, perhaps, but collectively: the refusal to give in to Nature’s might despite the fact that humans are grossly overmatched when it comes to events that are literally earthshaking. Winchester is at his best when describing, first, what people saw and experienced during horrendous natural disasters; and, second, how they responded afterwards. His comments on Japan after the March 2011 tsunami are particularly telling – he notes that the Japanese “did not give up in the face of nature’s onslaught. They did not wait for government to help. …They rationed food and medicine, found fresh water, repaired roads, cleared debris and sorted it into neat piles, reopened schools with volunteer teachers, and kept the children amused and as content as possible. The spirit of Japan in the face of a tsunami catastrophe is something that disaster planners all around the world have come to admire and hope that their own communities might use as a model.” In the final analysis, it is the contrast between what is awe-inspiring and fear-inspiring in nature and what is admirable and determined in humans that makes When the Earth Shakes a book that fascinatingly balances the nearly unlimited potency of the forces that shape Earth with the indomitability of the human spirit – although not of individual humans – confronted by that overwhelming power.

(++++) DELICACY AND POWER


Brahms Inspired. Orli Shaham, piano. Canary Classics. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Poulenc: Complete Music for Winds and Piano. The Iowa Ensemble (Nicole Esposito, flute and piccolo; Mark Weiger, oboe; Maurita Murphy Marx, clarinet; Benjamin Coelho, bassoon; Kristin Thelander French, horn; Alan Huckleberry, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Poetry in Motion: Music by Adrienne Albert, Dan Locklair, Claude Debussy, Manuel Moreno-Buendia, and Sonny Burnette. Fire Pink Trio (Debra Reuter-Pivetta, flute; Sheila Browne, viola; Jacquelyn Bartlett, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Peter Lieuwen: Overland Dream; Sonata for Guitar; Windjammer for Woodwind Quintet; Rhapsody for Violin and Piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

James K. Wright: Letters to the Immortal Beloved; Michael Oesterle: Centennials; Brian Current: These Begin to Catch Fire; Andrew Staniland: Solstice Songs. Julie Nesrallah, mezzo-soprano; Gryphon Trio (Analee Patipatanakoon, violin; Roman Borys, cello; Jamie Parker, piano). Naxos. $12.99.

     Solo and small-ensemble works, both classics and contemporary, have their own form of communicative expressiveness, inviting listeners into a more intimate relationship with the performers than larger-scale pieces usually do. Orli Shaham’s highly personal Brahms Inspired recording is even more strongly personal than solo recitals usually are. Shaham’s two-CD Canary Classics release explores late Brahms piano music in juxtaposition with works that inspired Brahms and ones – including three world première recordings – that were inspired by him. The way in which Shaham mixes and matches the pieces is noteworthy. The first CD starts with Brahms’ six piano pieces from Op. 118, to which Shaham brings vigor, delicacy and a rather old-fashioned willingness to employ rubato – at times a touch more than needed to make these works fully effective. She does especially well in capturing the ardor of the Intermezzo in F minor, brings nobility to the Romanze in F, and nicely controls the concluding Intermezzo in E-flat minor, with its Dies Irae quotations. Shaham follows this with My Inner Brahms (an intermezzo) by Bruce Adolphe (born 1955), which takes off from Brahms’; Op. 118, No. 6, and gives it a decidedly dissonant slant. Next is Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. 90, No. 3, handled in no-nonsense fashion; then Schumann’s Romanze, Op. 28, No. 2, played reflectively and thoughtfully; and, next, Chopin’s Berceuse, Op. 57, a lullaby here performed very affectingly. Then Shaham turns back to Brahms to conclude the first disc with Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, effectively “bookending” the CD with expansive readings that parallel her handling of Op. 118 at the disc’s beginning. The second CD opens with After Brahms – 3 Intermezzos for Piano by Avner Dorman (born 1975). The first of these turns Brahms’ Op. 118, No. 1 into a more-chromatic work; the second adds a bluesy feel to Brahms’ Op. 119, No. 1; and the third and most interesting is wholly original, starting as simply as Brahms might have and building gradually in complexity and with some distinctly non-Brahmsian dissonance. Shaham follows this with a rather unfortunate reading of Bach’s Partita No. 1, which she handles with Romantic-era rubato that may be intended to show parallels with Brahms but that does not match the music very well. The next piece, though, is as elegant and poised as can be, and very effective as a result: Sechs kleine Klavierstücke by Schoenberg, a great admirer of Brahms. The final work on this disc is actually two interwoven compositions: Brahms’ six-movement Op. 119 pieces with Hommage à Brahms für Klavier by Brett Dean (born 1961), which was specifically written to be performed within Brahms’ Op. 119. This is an audacious move by Dean, leading to a seven-movement dual-composer work in which Dean’s pieces are the second, fourth and sixth. The first and third of Dean’s pieces are called Engelsflügel (“Angel Wings”) 1 and 2, while the second Dean piece is decidedly more earthy and is called Hafenkneipenmusik (“Harbor Pubs Music”). Dean comments on and contrasts with the four Brahms pieces, and the full seven-movement work that results certainly expands upon Brahms’ original and broadens what it has to say. But even in Shaham’s able hands and with her sensitivity to the music, the totality seems more like a gimmick than a fully realized interpretation or reinterpretation of Brahms. Taken as a whole, the disparate yet related pieces on this fascinating release are not all of equal interest, but the material by Brahms himself is very well performed, and Shaham does manage to shed light interestingly on a number of Brahms’ influences and influencers – just as this collection intends to do.

     There is expressiveness of a different sort, more straightforward and in some ways more immediately appealing, on a new MSR Classics recording of the complete wind-and-piano music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). This is witty and well-written music, more effective in the main than are Poulenc’s chamber works for strings, for which he did not write particularly well. These seven pieces span much of Poulenc’s career and provide some fascinating stylistic contrasts. Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano dates to 1926 and is rather mischievous.  Sextet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn and Piano is from 1932 (revised 1939-40) and is similarly lighthearted, although there is greater expansiveness here – especially in the first movement – and some very effective contrasting writing for individual instruments as well as the ensemble. The other major works on this very well-played CD are considerably later: Sonata for Flute and Piano dates to 1956-57, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano to 1962, and Sonata for Oboe and Piano also to 1962. There is more beauty, more sense of looking inward, and a greater exploration of the technical capabilities of the wind instruments in these works than in the earlier ones. They retain the fluidity and fluency of Poulenc’s earlier compositions for winds, but they expand it into new realms of expressiveness and technical challenge. Also on this CD are a very short Villanelle for Piccolo and Piano, a kind of miniature intermezzo, and a moving Elegy for French Horn and Piano that was written in 1957 in memory of justly famous horn player Dennis Brain (1921-1957), who had recently died in a car crash. A distinguishing feature of this heartfelt work is that it contains a rare-for-Poulenc use of a Schoenbergian tone row. The Iowa Ensemble makes all this music highly attractive, and the contrasts among the pieces themselves make the disc as a whole a fascinating one to which to listen.

     The Fire Pink Trio plays exceptionally well, too, on a new MSR Classics CD entitled Poetry in Motion, but most of the music here is of somewhat less interest – although the CD still deserves a high rating for its sheer exuberance, its willingness to juxtapose interestingly related pieces, and the delightful and infrequently heard sound of an hour of music for the unusual combination of flute, viola and harp. Debussy’s 1913 Sonata is, not surprisingly, the highlight of the disc, its three movements showing the composer’s ever-present sensitivity and its patterns being typical of his late style. It flows now sinuously, now resolutely, and gives the players many opportunities to showcase themselves individually while producing expressive ensemble sections. Two five-movement suites by contemporary composers bracket the Debussy, which has the central position on the CD. These works are less fully integrated then Debussy’s, but they feature nicely contrasted movements and mostly successful forays into music outside the traditional classical realm. Dream Steps – A Dance Suite (1993) by Dan Locklair (born 1949) has a bluesy central movement and opening and closing movements that both include barcaroles. The scoring is attractive and the pacing winning. Suite Popular Española (1985) by Manuel Moreno-Buendia (born 1932) is a more old-fashioned collection of short dancelike movements that have enough Spanish flair to provide both performers and listeners with considerable enjoyment of their rhythmic features. The CD opens and closes with shorter contemporary works that are pleasant but less immediately appealing than those by Locklair and Moreno-Buendia – although each of them has engaging moments and uses the instruments cleverly. Doppler Effect (1998) by Adrienne Albert (born 1941) is the curtain-raiser here, while Cruisin’ with the Top Down (2000) by Sonny Burnette (born 1952) provides a suitably enjoyable conclusion to an off-the-beaten-track recording that hits a number of high points and more than a few high notes.

     Another MSR Classics release, featuring the chamber music of Peter Lieuwen, is somewhat less engaging, although here too there are interesting moments within all four works – all receiving world première recordings. Lieuwen’s music tends to have familiar inspirations, including nature and legends, and like that of many other contemporary composers, it reaches beyond traditional classical roots into jazz and non-Western music. Lieuwen is also a fan of minimalism, which at this point is a rather tired technique; but thankfully he does combine it with other compositional approaches rather than employing it in reasonably pure form. Lieuwen has his own approach to the traditional conversational nature of chamber music, expanding that conversation so that it occurs not only among the musicians but also between the players and the audience. He essentially invites listeners to make up their own narrative (or forgo narrative altogether) when hearing his music, while at the same time he challenges the performers’ technical abilities. The result can be intriguing but can also come across as somewhat dry and studied, as it often does in this (+++) recording. Lieuwen does not so much put drama into his music as invite players to find it and listeners to discover it – a reasonable enough position if the music seems to have considerable depth to it. But by and large, the works here are on the straightforward side and do not evoke any particularly deep emotional resonance. The most interesting aspect of the recording is the way in which Lieuwen writes for four different sets of instruments. Sonata for Guitar (2009) is a virtuosic solo work (played here by Isaac Bustos) in the traditional three movements but with decidedly untraditional sound. Rhapsody for Violin and Piano (2013), performed by violinist Andrzej Grabiec and pianist Timothy Hester, is a somewhat over-extended duo that seems to meander rather than head anywhere in particular. Overland Dream (2011) requires four players: clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The SOLI Chamber Ensemble handles it nicely, and the clarinet writing, in particular, has some attractive elements. Windjammer (2009) needs the most performers among the works here, being for woodwind quintet. The Cumberland Wind Quintet takes its measure effectively, but here the blending of instruments seems more on the competitive than cooperative side, and the actual sound of the music can be off-putting. Hearing one or two works by Lieuwen on a CD might result in a better listening experience than hearing four – at least these four.

     There are four contemporary composers represented by one work apiece on a new Naxos CD featuring music by Canadian musicians – and here too there are some interesting and attractive elements, but also some that tend to drag or that simply seem to be trying too hard. The Gryphon Trio commissioned all these works, all of which are world première recordings. The most interesting of them is Letters to the Immortal Beloved (2012) by James K. Wright (born 1959). The three pieces, sung by mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah, are attempts to delve emotionally into Beethoven’s relationship with his Immortal Beloved, the still-unknown woman to whom he wrote passionately in 1812. Taking extended excerpts from Beethoven’s prose as its basis, the work explores the composer’s intense longing and becomes a codicil of sorts to the mystery still surrounding the woman to whom Beethoven wrote – although it is a touch odd to have these passionate words sung by a female performer. A tribute of another sort is Centennials (2012) by Michael Oesterle (born 1968). This piece’s three movements mark what would have been the 100th-birthday year of three very different people: chef Julia Child, American composer Conlon Noncarrow, and painter Jackson Pollock. The pieces are best heard as homages rather than direct attempts to reflect the work and lives of the people whose names they bear. Also here is the intriguingly titled These Begin to Catch Fire (2012) by Brian Current (born 1972). This is a sun-focused tone poem inspired by sunlight patterns on Lake Muskoka in Ontario – a kind of miniature version of Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, but written for much more modest forces and accordingly making its impression with greater delicacy and less sense of brilliance and grandeur. The fourth piece here is also sun-related in a way: Solstice Songs (2011) by Andrew Staniland (born 1977). Despite the title, there are no words here – the three-movement work is intended to evoke the passage of time through purely instrumental means, its first and longest movement flowing in almost congealed fashion, its second a brief Interlude, and its third a brighter, almost perky conclusion. The Gryphon Trio members throw themselves into all these works with enthusiasm, and it is fair to say that these performances are as close to definitive as any reading is likely to be. However, the CD is, as a whole, rather uneven and disconnected, with parts of each work more involving than other sections and with the four works themselves having little to tie them together musically except for the fact that the Gryphon Trio commissioned them all. In its totality, this is a (+++) recording that will, however, be of particular interest to listeners who want to familiarize themselves with some of the music of contemporary Canadian composers.

(+++) WHERE OPERETTA WENT


Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II: Show Boat. Heidi Stober, Michael Todd Simpson, Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, Angela Renée Simpson, Harriet Harris, Kirsten Wyatt, John Bolton; San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by John DeMain. EuroArts DVD. $29.99.

     The decade of the Roaring Twenties in the United States and the Weimar Republic in Germany was one of tremendous musical as well as social ferment. One central trend was the increasing seriousness of operetta, which had been largely fluff and nonsense in the years leading up to World War I. Leading the push to give operetta some of the heft of Puccinian opera was Puccini’s friend and colleague, Franz Lehár, who in this decade produced Paganini (1925), his first collaboration with tenor Richard Tauber, and then Der Zarewitsch (1926), Friederike (1928), and Das Land des Lächelns (1929), all of them bittersweet works with ambiguous and pathos-drenched endings, all of them reflective of a darker and less frothy world than that portrayed in Die lustige Witwe and Der Graf von Luxemburg.

     In the United States, where there was little tradition of homegrown operetta despite the contributions to the form by John Philip Sousa, darker and more-serious themes emerged on Broadway, led in large part by Show Boat (1927), whose handling of racial prejudice and poignant love stories – all taken from Edna Ferber’s novel – offered a level of seriousness that was as new to the Ziegfeld Theater in New York as Lehár’s important 1920s works were to Vienna’s Johann Strauß-Theater and Berlin’s Deutsches Künstlertheater and Metropol Theater.

     Show Boat paved the way for many musicals that later handled complex and difficult themes, such as South Pacific. And it is certainly arguable that a work like Show Boat gets its full due only in a full-scale operatic production like that delivered by the San Francisco Opera and now available on a EuroArts DVD.  Indeed, the leitmotif of the river’s theme, so memorably captured in that most classic of Broadway songs, Ol’ Man River, recurs so frequently, tying so many strands of the plot together, that the overall feeling of Show Boat is distinctly operatic – especially when a full orchestra performs the music, as it does here.

     What works beautifully in this production is that orchestra, led by John DeMain with enthusiasm, involvement, majesty and rich musical color. What works are the sprawling sets created by Peter J. Davison, along with perspective-bending stage pieces that contain the action while at the same time framing and focusing it. What works are Paul Tazewell’s bright and attractive costumes, many of them in red, white, and blue, emphasizing that this is a quintessentially American story.

     What works rather less well is Michele Lynch’s choreography: there is a lot of dancing here, but after a while the steps and patterns start to seem repetitious, no matter how enthusiastically the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps performs them. As for the overall direction by stage director Francesca Zambello, it is solid and generally lively, making for fine entertainment. The solos, ensembles, and larger choral scenes generally mesh well, as is important for the dramatic effect of Show Boat. The splashiness seems overdone at times, almost veering into triviality here and there, but that is arguably an effective way to prevent the production from becoming too gloomy – even if the approach creaks a bit.

     The singing and acting here are where matters do creak. There is considerable dialogue in Show Boat, as in the operetta form and the Singspiel before it – but here the area mikes used to amplify the words do their job with varying levels of effectiveness. The miking is not a benefit to the singing, either. Bass Morris Robinson, the emotional heart of the work, brings barely controlled anger and a deeply moving sense of acceptance with forbearance to Ol’ Man River, making the river’s indifference to the petty fates of those plying their trade upon its waters the anchor of the entire production. And baritone Michael Todd Simpson, whose role is normally sung by a tenor, makes a fine flawed hero, his voice firm and full and melding elements of operatic and Broadway style, his untrustworthy character both realistic and overdone in an appealing way. Also highly engaging is Angela Renée Simpson, notably when singing Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’.

     Other singers, though, are not at this level. Patricia Racette is disappointing as Julie, victimized by a charge of miscegenation: her two big numbers, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man in Act I and Bill in Act II, are stiffly sung and have far too much vibrato. Kirsten Wyatt as Ellie Mae Chipley is too far on the lighthearted side to be fully effective. And as Magnolia Hawks, Heidi Stober projects a remote, almost chilly personality, and her acting is more posed than poised – she is distanced from the other characters and thus from the audience.

     The chance to see Show Boat performed in an operatic setting by a first-class American opera troupe is a welcome one, and the gravitas of the show’s themes is certainly communicated well in this production – although the DVD’s bow to political correctness in a note that “this production contains occasional explicit racial language” is simply dumb. Half an hour of interviews with performers is included on the recording, making for a thorough vision both of Show Boat as a stage work and Show Boat as a period piece that nevertheless speaks to concerns that have persisted into the 21st century. This is a substantial work that showed how far Broadway could go in exploring significant societal issues if it so chose. Like Lehár’s later operettas, it brought depth to a field that had almost always been pleasantly shallow before: it seems altogether fitting that the primary image of Show Boat is that of an ancient and powerful, if ultimately indifferent, river.