April 24, 2014
Pete the Cat: Too Cool for School. By Kimberly and James Dean. Harper. $16.99.
Fancy Nancy: Just My Luck! By Jane O’Connor. Pictures by Ted Erik, based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $16.99.
Charlie the Ranch Dog: Charlie’s New Friend. Based on the books by Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat. Harper. $16.99
The Berenstain Bears: Gone Fishin’! By Mike Berenstain. Harper. $16.99.
Splat the Cat Makes Dad Glad. By Alissa Heyman, based on the books by Rob Scotton. Illustrations by Robert Eberz. Harper. $16.99.
The five-level HarperCollins I Can Read! series is a particularly happy way to get young children interested in reading, starting with reading to them and continuing as they learn bit by bit to read the books on their own. Several companies have comparable series, but Harper’s is distinguished by its clever use of familiar characters – usually as interpreted by people other than the characters’ creators – and by story lines that fit the levels of the series particularly well. The earliest, “My First” level is described as “ideal for sharing with emergent readers,” and Pete the Cat: Too Cool for School is a fine example of how it works. Parents can easily read this very simple but still-amusing story with children age three or four, and perhaps even with two-year-olds. All that happens here is that Pete gets dressed for school, but the big-eyed cat is so amusing as he puts on more and more and more clothing – trying to wear what everyone suggests – that kids will laugh at the pictures even as they absorb the words. Finally, Pete looks not cool but unpleasantly hot in all the layers of clothing, and realizes that he needs to change into what he wants to wear, not what everyone else recommends. Then he looks cool and feels comfortable – and the message, straightforwardly delivered at the end, is that it is cool to be yourself. This is a nice mixture of character comedy, amusing art and an age-appropriate bit of self-awareness, and works quite well as an “easy reader” once kids start tackling books on their own.
The remaining books here are all Level 1, “simple sentences for eager new readers,” and this is really the core of I Can Read! It is at this level that kids ages four and up will cement their relationship with characters they may well have previously met in books read to them by the adults in their lives. Fancy Nancy: Just My Luck! has the ever-charming little girl with the love of French and big words worrying about all the things that a friend tells her can bring bad luck – and going overboard, in typical Nancy fashion, trying to avoid all of them. Then, of course, she finds out that her worries are based on superstition, and she ends up with good luck. There is nothing French in this Fancy Nancy book, and the “big” words are not all that large, but at this reading level, that is just fine – and the book opens the door to reading more-complex Fancy Nancy stories later. In a similar vein, Charlie the Ranch Dog: Charlie’s New Friend is a fine entry point to more-involved books about the self-important ranch dog whose greatest talent is sleeping but who thinks he runs the show. The story has Charlie chasing a carrot-stealing rabbit, failing to catch him, and deciding to make friends instead – which he does over several days by offering the rabbit carrots so the bunny does not have to dig up the garden and steal them. Charlie naps repeatedly in the course of all this, which is quite normal for him, and eventually he and the rabbit share a carrot – to Charlie’s displeasure, since he much prefers bacon. Charlie is a particularly endearing character, and early readers will enjoy following this simple story while looking ahead to the somewhat more-complicated ones in books that go beyond the I Can Read! series.
Other popular HarperCollins characters appear in other Level 1 books, and the pattern is the same: simpler-than-usual stories designed to interest young readers and eventually move them along to other books featuring the same characters – books they may have had read to them before they learned to read on their own, and ones they will be able to read for themselves not long after they progress through the I Can Read! ones. The Berenstain Bears: Gone Fishin’! has the usual elements of this long-running series, with somewhat arrogant Papa getting his mild comeuppance and everything turning out just fine for everyone. The plot is about Papa’s use of a fancy fishing rod, while his kids use simple ones – and Papa hooking waterlogged debris rather than fish, while Brother, Sister and Honey catch plenty of fish, although they are small. Eventually Papa does catch the biggest fish of all, but not in the way he intended to – the sort of twist that is common in Berenstain Bears books. And this one has less heavy-handed moralizing than the longer ones frequently do. As for Splat the Cat Makes Dad Glad, it is a slapstick misadventure along the lines of other stories about Splat, who tries to cheer up his father after dad’s team loses a soccer game. Splat’s idea is to enter and win a three-legged race with his dad at Cat School Game Day. But when the day arrives, amusing mistakes and funny missed opportunities cost Splat and his father the victory in several events, including the climactic three-legged race – but it turns out not to matter, because the misadventures do make Splat’s dad happy, which was what Splat was after all along. The silliness of the story is appealing and is right in line with the plots of longer Splat books, to which kids who enjoy this one will likely gravitate as the I Can Read! series prepares them for more-complex stories featuring the same familiar characters.
Rosie & Rex: A Nose for Fun! By Bob Boyle. Harper. $15.99.
Build, Dogs, Build: A Tall Tail. By James Horvath. Harper. $15.99.
Pete the Cat: Old MacDonald Had a Farm. By James Dean. Harper. $9.99.
Animals and animal-like critters find all sorts of interesting things to do in these books for ages 4-8. Best friends Rosie and Rex want nothing more than to play together, but they cannot decide whether to play “robot invasion” or “princess ballerina tea party” – the problem being, as Rosie says, that “robots are not fun.” But they are fun for Rex, who keeps suggesting new things to do that involve robots – to no avail. It takes the sudden appearance of a mysterious object that could be “a vase for pretty-pretty flowers” or “a cool robot blaster” to start solving the how-can-we-have-fun problem. The friends keep trying to figure out what the object is – bird feeder? robot telescope? – until out of nowhere (well, actually from the right side of the page), someone appears who knows just what the object is and just what it would be fun to do. The result is a “princess ballerina robot tea party” that makes everybody happy and confirms that robots can indeed be fun – under the right circumstances. Bob Boyle’s whole story is silly enough and amusingly enough illustrated to captivate boy and girl readers alike.
Build, Dogs, Build: A Tall Tail, the followup to James Horvath’s Dig, Dogs, Dig, is captivating in its own way. Like the earlier book, Build, Dogs, Build is a reasonably realistic story of how the construction industry works – to create a park in the earlier book, a skyscraper in this new one. The workers are all dogs: foreman Duke and Roxy, Buddy, Max, Spot, and Spike – plus the crew mascot, Jinx (a cat, which somehow makes sense). And these dogs work mighty quickly indeed, taking young readers through all the stages of construction in what seems to be a one-day journey from old building to spanking new “Bark Avenue” skyscraper, topped with a penthouse that is labeled “The Pethouse.” The dogs knock down a crumbling old building, clear the lot where it stood, have a quick snack at the “Hot Diggity Dog” food wagon, and then start constructing. That means beginning underground with pipes, in one of Horvath’s best drawings – there are dinosaur bones down there, a broken old statue, a pirate’s treasure chest, and other artifacts, and the pipes do not always seem to run the way they should (although of course the crew takes care of everything). Then the dogs pour the building’s foundation, build its entire steel skeleton, narrowly avoid a collision as they bring in glass for the windows, and take a break for some much-needed relaxation to chase and gather all the balls being transported by the truck that almost (but not quite) collides with the panes of glass. Back at work, the dogs act as “electricians, plumbers, and carpenters too,” creating the skyscraper’s innards and its outer walls at the same time – then moving into lights, fixtures, paint and the rest of the finishing. Everything is done remarkably easily and smoothly – real-world construction should go so well! – and eventually the dogs relax in the newly built rooftop swimming pool to get ready for whatever job they will do the next day. The book’s frantic pace, bright colors, ever-cooperative characters and underlying reality of how tall buildings are constructed add up to multi-level fun.
Pete the Cat gets out of the city altogether in James Dean’s latest book about the big-eyed feline – a (+++) version of Old MacDonald Had a Farm that would have been more fun if it had done something beyond offering a recitation of the old song. It initially looks as if it will do just that – the turtle on the opening page of lyrics has possibilities – but in reality, all Dean does here is have Pete, dressed in bib overalls, strum a guitar and go see all the animals on the farm: chickens, dogs, cows, pigs, horses and so forth. Pete does not really interact with any of them – not even with the cats – so the book will be enjoyable primarily for Pete fans who know the song and want to see Pete (and the turtle) on every page, with Pete in a pickup truck or on a tractor or riding a donkey or just strolling around. The last page, showing all the animals surrounding Pete (even the turtle, which is never actually mentioned), is an amusing conclusion; but except for the usual enjoyment value of Dean’s drawing style for animal after animal, this is one of the less-attractive of the Pete the Cat books, simply because there is so little of Pete’s personality in it. Pete’s fans will certainly enjoy it, though, particularly those on the younger end of the 4-8 age range.
Big Nate: Great Minds Think Alike. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Confessions of the World’s Best Father. By Dave Engledow. Gotham Books. $18.
Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood. By Drew Magary. Gotham Books. $17.
The ongoing adventures of preteen Nate Wright, detention-getting champion and all-around hero of cluelessness, continue in the latest full-color compilation of Lincoln Peirce’s comic strip. As always, Peirce makes elements of the strip self-referential – that is, a comic strip about comic strips (and including some “drawn” by Nate himself). At one point, Nate’s friends discover him reading a “lame comic strip” called “Bethany,” which could represent any one of a variety of strips that continue to take up newspaper space (yes, newspaper space) although long past their prime. “I read ALL the comics, even the ones that STINK,” Nate explains to his friend Francis. “Do you know what it’s LIKE to read a comic strip you HATE?” Elsewhere, Nate – who is the champion of Prank Day outlandishness at school – scans a picture of the head of his teacher nemesis, Mrs. Godfrey, “onto the body of a sumo wrestler” and sends it everywhere around the school district “disguised as an urgent memo from the superintendent.” Unfortunately for Nate, there is little call in school, or out of it, for most of his particular talents, with the result that he finds he needs tutoring in math – and is assigned to be helped by Artur, the super-nice guy who speaks oddly and is unrelievedly good at everything and liked by everybody, and of whom Nate is therefore overwhelmingly jealous. Nate actually has nemeses everywhere – there is also “brainiac” Gina, regular winner of the school’s “Outstanding Scholar” medal. So of course Nate sets up a contest between Gina and Francis, who is almost at Gina’s level; and of course things do not go quite as Nate plans. They rarely do, which is one charm of the strip. But Nate’s failures are never overwhelmingly humiliating, and his willingness to bounce back from anything and everything is a major element of his attractiveness as a character. Somehow Nate comes across as basically nice, even when tormenting his father about dad’s diet or repeatedly calling local TV weatherman Wink Summers to complain about or comment on his forecasts: “You keep RAISING my hopes, then DASHING them to PIECES with your METEOROLOGICAL INCOMPETENCE!” The comic strips “by” Nate are an added and always-amusing feature, too, such as the ones in which he totally misinterprets pretty much everything about Thanksgiving. Actually, Nate misinterprets a great deal, but manages to recover from the consequences and keep readers laughing – quite an accomplishment.
What Dave Engledow is trying to accomplish in Confessions of the World’s Best Father is laughter, too, but it is laughter with a photoshopped edge – lots of them, in fact. This is one of many recent books based on material that has proved popular on the Internet; and like many such books, it has a mixture of genuinely funny and genuinely cringeworthy elements – getting an overall (+++) rating as a result. The idea here is to trace the first years of Engledow’s daughter’s life in a ridiculous way, making Engledow himself into the butt of repeated jokes based on the “World’s Best Father” mug that appears in every photo. The photos are carefully staged, and of course the extremely dangerous things going on are intended only to amuse; and on the Internet, seeing one or several of these constructed images would be fun – a glance here, a glance there, and then on to something else at some other site. But a book is different: it invites focus, allows and even encourages close examination of pages, and lets readers dwell on the elements of a scene – and lots of the ones here do not stand up well when considered for more than an “Internet second” or two. There is “Day 258,” with a blazing fire in an outdoor grill, Engledow adding more lighter fluid to the flames and encouraging little Alice Bee to roast marshmallows from her high chair. There is “Day 341,” with Alice Bee brandishing an electric carving knife at Thanksgiving as Engledow explains that “she is going to have the honor of carving her very first bird today.” On “Day 462,” Engledow is wearing a blood-spattered apron while stitching up a gash above Alice Bee’s eye, “since 911 no longer responds to my calls (long story).” On “Day 477,” Alice Bee is standing inside an outdoor hibachi within which flames burn merrily. On “Day 580,” Alice Bee has cut off Engledow’s finger with a pizza cutter, and the little girl is smiling happily at the blood all over. On “Day 669,” Engledow describes and shows a tandem bathroom break, with himself sitting on the commode while Alice Bee sits atop the tank behind him. A little of this – a very little – goes a long way, and that is often the case with Internet attractions, which are designed for the shortest possible attention span. Engledow obviously intends readers to see that the scenes he has created are so outlandish that they could not possibly be real, and he even includes a back-of-the-book “Behind the Scenes” section to give an idea of how he put some of the photos together. And that is all well and good, but the fact remains that any reader, parent or not, who spends more than a split second or two looking at the pages of Confessions of the World’s Best Father will be at least discomfited, at most appalled. Intended to be all in fun, the book requires more than the traditional “willing suspension of disbelief” to be what it claims to be.
And then there is Drew Magary’s Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood, which has much the same sensibility as Engledow’s book, but no pictures. Originally published last year and now available in paperback, Magary’s is actually a better book than Engledow’s, leavening the sarcastic humor with some seriousness and even a few touching scenes. But it is overdone and does not wear particularly well, getting a (+++) rating as a result. For one thing, Magary thinks four-letter words are cool, and he uses them incessantly. So one has to admire the comparatively mild bonding-with-his-daughter scene in which the two exchange “butt” jokes at bath time rather than ones using stronger language. In fact, Magary’s agreement to stop those jokes – at his wife’s insistence – shows more maturity, even if unwillingly, than most of the rest of what he writes about. Magary overdoes pretty much everything: when his wife is sound asleep, he says, “She was down like a gunshot victim” – just one of many tasteless and inappropriate remarks in Someone Could Get Hurt. Yet the book is periodically a pleasure to read, if only because Magary seems so clueless about just how clueless he is, or was. “You’re supposed to leave a baby in a crib alone, with no other accoutrements around, because it can roll into things like pillows and suffocate. If I propped her up on a pillow, she might die. Then again, I was very, very tired. I propped her up on a pillow.” Stylistically, Magary often manages to combine tastelessness with a rant within a page or so, as when there is a possible issue of flat head syndrome involving his son: “I kept running my hands along the boy’s head, checking for imperfections as if I were a Third Reich phrenologist. …When your child is in danger of having a flat head, you quickly learn that the money-grubbing executives at Big Helmet have gone to great lengths to make baby helmets seem like a normal, even fashionable thing.” But then, as if accidentally slipping into sensitivity, he actually comes up with an occasional touch of insight: “We live in an age of remarkable sensitivity, where other parents go to great lengths to appear tolerant and accepting of ALL children, not merely their own. But deep down, we’re just as judgmental and catty a species as we were decades ago. The patina of niceness almost makes it worse.” Magary’s nearly inadvertent thoughtfulness is displayed to its greatest and most affecting extent at the end of the book, when his third child is born and is at risk of dying – and is placed in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. This chapter, which immediately follows one filled with slapstick about making a “masterpizza” at home, finally shows that Magary is a real human being who is not always putting on a “how cool I am” act. Someone Could Get Hurt becomes, at the end, a real, affecting and memorable narrative that overcomes some of the snarkiness of earlier chapters. But not all of it, and the after-reading impression of an odd mixture of the nice and nasty is not a particularly pleasant one.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 7; Piano Concerto No. 3. Lilya Zilberstein, piano; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).
Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Raff: Symphony No. 5, “Lenore”; Abends—Rhapsody; “Dame Kobold”—Overture; “König Alfred”—Overture; “Dornröschen”—Prelude; “Die Eifersüchtigen”—Overture. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 2, arranged by Anthony Payne; Johann Strauss Jr.: Wein, Weib und Gesang, arranged by Alban Berg . Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble conducted by Trevor Pinnock. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
You would think it would be easy to say how many symphonies a composer wrote, but it is in fact one of the thornier questions in music. Haydn put his own catalogue of works together; he wrote 104 symphonies – but no, since several others subsequently turned up and were given letters instead of numbers. Mozart wrote 41 – but no, since he did not write No. 37 (everything except the first-movement introduction is by Michael Haydn), and he did write several unnumbered ones. Beethoven, obviously, wrote nine – but in fact there are fairly extensive sketches for a No. 10. Schubert certainly did not write nine – No. 7 is incomplete and almost always left out of the numerical sequence, and he left numerous sketches for incomplete symphonies. Mahler was so famously superstitious about designating a symphony “No. 9” that he refused to call Das Lied von der Erde a symphony, but it can be considered one – and besides, the one he did call No. 9 was followed by a No. 10 that was incomplete but has been finished by Deryck Cooke and others and is fairly often performed. Dvořák was long thought to have written five symphonies, until four others turned up, so he did write nine. With all these numbers flying about, it starts to seem that the fact that Brahms certainly did write four symphonies is a distinct anomaly.
And then there is Tchaikovsky, who is universally known to have written six symphonies – except that he actually wrote seven, or maybe eight. Conductors doing a Tchaikovsky cycle almost always offer only the six numbered symphonies, but Dmitri Kitajenko and Mikhail Pletnev have gone a step beyond – two steps, in Kitajenko’s case – to produce cycles that go beyond the usual six. Kitajenko’s cycle, one of the best in recent years, actually started with the unnumbered Manfred Symphony, which was written between Nos. 4 and 5 and is the composer’s longest, lasting a full hour. The cycle is now concluding with a real rarity: Symphony No. 7 in E-flat, which Tchaikovsky started writing before the Pathétique but set aside and did not live to complete. Soviet composer Semyon Bogatyrjow (whose last name is variously transliterated – two different ways on the new Oehms SACD) completed the symphony in the 1950s, and Eugene Ormandy even recorded it with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but it is very rarely heard. It is a bit of a hodgepodge and certainly lacks the dramatic intensity of Nos. 4-6, being in its effect something of a throwback to No. 3 in D, Tchaikovsky’s only other major-key symphony. No. 7 does contain a great deal of well-wrought music and a triumphal finale that stands in complete contrast to the last movement of the Pathétique, probably intentionally. And its first movement has an unusual distinction, having been turned by the composer into a concerto – the one-movement Piano Concerto No. 3, with which Kitajenko pairs the symphony and which gets a very fine performance indeed from Lilya Zilberstein. Comparing the concerto with the first movement of the symphony, from which it is derived, is fascinating, since the two are strongly parallel in many ways but differ enough so they do stand on their own as independent works. Kitajenko’s conducting is as strong, assured and powerful in this final entry in his Tchaikovsky sequence as it has been from the start, making the disc of more than curiosity value – it is an excellent completion of an excellent series.
Mikhail Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky cycle for PentaTone has been more hit-or-miss; he ends it with the Manfred, with which Kitajenko began his. The huge work is a puzzle, being labeled a symphony by Tchaikovsky himself – but being in effect a very extended tone poem, or series of tone poems (along the lines of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with which it shares sumptuous and sometimes overdone orchestration), and not being given a number by the composer. The work is far less unified than Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies, and it really does help to know the story of Byron’s Romantic antihero Manfred to make sense of the work’s progress. Yet the music is gripping even for modern listeners unfamiliar with its genesis, as many will be – Byron’s poem was highly influential in the 19th century but is much less frequently read today. The Pletnev performance is one of the best in his Tchaikovsky set, allowing the often-gorgeous themes to flow freely while not engaging in the sort of overdone rubato that has marred several other of Pletnev’s performances in this series. The beautiful second theme of the first movement and the whole of the third movement come across particularly appealingly, and Pletnev does not hesitate to pull out all the stops in the somewhat over-the-top finale, which even calls for an organ (speaking of “all the stops”!). The performance is involving and flows very well, and the SACD sound is first-rate.
SACD quality is also a big plus for the second volume of Chandos’ series of the symphonies of Joachim Raff (1822-1882) – who, by the way, definitely wrote 11 of them, including nine with subtitles. Raff’s music is rarely heard today – Neeme Järvi is leading something of a revival – but was quite popular during the composer’s lifetime. His most-popular symphony of all, and the one considered his best by many scholars, is No. 5, which is featured on Järvi’s new recording. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred in its genesis and concomitant neglect, being also based on a once-well-known literary work that is thoroughly unfamiliar today. That is the ballad Lenore by Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794). It is a suitably creepy tale of a soldier and his sweetheart in which the man goes off to war, is killed, and returns after death to claim his bride and take her on a wild horseback ride to a hellish marriage bed. (Bürger was fond of themes like this – another of his ballads, Der wilde Jäger, is about a count doomed to be chased by demons forever because he went hunting on the Sabbath; it inspired César Franck to write the symphonic poem Le Chasseur maudit.) As in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, it helps a great deal to know the story of Lenore when listening to Raff’s Symphony No. 5. The composer designates the work as being in three parts: “Joy of Love,” “Separation” and “Reunion in Death,” with the first two parts (which together include three of the work’s four movements) essentially being prologue or buildup for the last. This finale is very cleverly designed, lacking its own themes and instead opening with eerie measures that look ahead to 12-tone composition, then moving into what is essentially extended development of the other movements’ themes. Raff does not have the sheer poetic beauty (or emotional excess) of Tchaikovsky, but he does some very effective-tone painting here, and also structures his Fifth Symphony interestingly from the point of view of tempo: most of the work is at Allegro speed, with Raff changing note values rather than tempo markings to slow things down from time to time – resulting in a work that feels as if it constantly plunges headlong toward its eventual climax. The technique is unusual and quite effective. And the other works on the disc are effective as well. The nicely flowing rhapsody Abends is Raff’s orchestration of the fifth movement of his Piano Suite No. 6. The other pieces are opera openers. The earliest and most extended is for the “grand heroic opera” König Alfred (1848-49); chronologically, next comes Dornröschen (1855), based on the fairy tale “Briar Rose”; and then the comic operas Dame Kobold (1869) and Die Eifersüchtigen (“The Jealous Ones,” 1881-82). All the overtures show a sure command of orchestration and of introductory material for stage works, although Raff is sometimes rather too much on the literal side: Dornröschen opens with an undulating phrase that goes on and on and on, rather too obviously symbolizing the princess’ 100-year sleep. Järvi is obviously interested in and committed to Raff’s music, and leads it with vigor and sureness, making a strong case for its at least occasional revival.
A revival of another sort is under way in the second Linn Records recording based on Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, where, for three years starting in 1918, chamber arrangements of then-difficult, then-contemporary works were offered to an audience of knowledgeable listeners. The first SACD included Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in versions created for Schoenberg’s group. The new one takes the re-creation of the Society for Private Musical Performances a step further by offering a recently commissioned arrangement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 – on its face, scarcely a work that would seem to repay hearing in chamber-music form. The number of symphonies written by Bruckner is extremely difficult to determine: in addition to the nine numbered ones (the last of them unfinished), there are the “No. 0” (actually written after No. 1) and the school symphony designated “No. 00.” Both of these are occasionally performed and sometimes included in recorded Bruckner cycles – but not always. Complicating matters further, most Bruckner symphonies exist in multiple versions, some of which are substantially different from each other (e.g., the first version of No. 3 compared with all subsequent ones). With Bruckner, it makes sense simply to throw up one’s hands and say that the number of symphonies just does not matter. But performers still face the task of deciding which of the however-many-there-are versions of the symphonies to use, and an arranger such as Anthony Payne faces the same issue. Payne and Pinnock have opted for a Second that is primarily the work’s original, from 1871, but incorporates some elements from later versions (Bruckner kept making them until the 1890s). And Payne has done a marvelous job with the sinews of the music, allowing the symphony’s inner lines to shine forth in a way that they rarely do in full-orchestra performances, keeping the thematic groups clear everywhere, giving the climaxes appropriate scale for the instrumental complement, and generally bringing out the deep debt that Bruckner had to Schubert – perhaps more in this symphony than in the rest. As conducted by Trevor Pinnock and played by the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble, this Bruckner Second is an exhilarating experience and one like no other. This is scarcely “authentic” Bruckner; it is not even an “authentic” Society for Private Musical Performances offering. But that does not matter – Payne and Pinnock show that Schoenberg’s concept has validity for audiences today, bringing forth structural elements of great music that can be difficult to hear when the music is played as written. And the disc also offers, as an encore, a piece whose arrangement does date to the era of Schoenberg’s gathering: Berg’s fascinating handling of the Strauss “Wine, Women and Song” waltz. Berg removes the sensuality and lushness of the original and substitutes clarity of line and rhythm, making the piece less danceable and more symphonic in concept and execution – a highly intriguing approach that, like Payne’s in the Bruckner Second, creates music that differs significantly from what the composer intended but attains its own version of validity, and very considerable value.
Dvořák: Symphonies Nos. 1-9; Slavonic Dances, op. 46; Scherzo capriccioso; Carnival Overture; In Nature’s Realm; Serenade for Wind Instruments; Serenade for Strings. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis (Symphonies, Dances, Scherzo, Carnival); Sinfonieorchester des Südwestfunks Baden-Baden conducted by David Zinman (In Nature’s Realm); Marlboro Festival Wind Ensemble conducted by Marcel Moyse (Wind); Münchner Philharmoniker conducted by Rudolf Kempe (Strings). Sony. $24.98 (7 CDs).
Vadim Salmanov: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. The Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Leningrad Philharmonic Society conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky. Melodiya. $29.99 (2 CDs).
In the not-so-long-ago days before digital recording, there were some excellent analog performances of both standard and nonstandard repertoire, and these have been gradually finding their way back into availability as companies dig through their archives and look for works and/or performers and/or specific recordings that they think have a good chance of attracting today’s listeners. There are tradeoffs in these re-releases, quite obviously in terms of sonic quality and often in other ways as well, but it is good to have material available on CD that had disappeared with the end of the vinyl era – and some of these older recordings are genuinely interesting. Sir Andrew Davis’ Dvořák cycle is one of them. The preeminent sequence of the nine symphonies remains that of István Kertész and the London Symphony Orchestra, but Davis does a very fine job with another British orchestra, the Philharmonia – the British orchestras of the 1960s-1980s seemed to have a particular affinity for Dvořák. The majority of the symphonic recordings date to 1979 (Nos. 3 and 6-9); Nos. 1 and 5 were recorded in 1980, No. 2 in 1981 and No. 4 in 1982. All are designated as analog recordings even though the early 1980s marked the advent of digital sound – which, however, at that time, was not particularly good and did not match analog quality. Interestingly, it is the 1979 recordings that come off best here, with genuine enthusiasm from the orchestra and plenty of energy from Davis. The four symphonies recorded later, although certainly fine, are somewhat draggy and unenthusiastic by comparison, although they are more than serviceable. The sound quality of all the symphonies is adequate but not much more – it lacks precision and tends to seem a trifle distant. Davis’s filler items – the Slavonic Dances (recorded in 1983), Scherzo Capriccioso (1981) and Carnival Overture (1979) – are quite good, with very fine playing and solid conducting. The remaining three fillers, which fit rather oddly into the set but are certainly welcome as extras, date as far back as 1957 for the Serenade for Winds, with the Serenade for Strings recorded in 1968 and In Nature’s Realm as recently as 1988. The inclusion of works that almost fit but involve different conductors and ensembles is one oddity of some re-releases. Another is that in return for excellent pricing, which this set certainly has, you give up pretty much all the ancillary material: here, for example, there is no booklet, and the only timing and recording information about the works appears on the back of the sleeves in which the individual CDs are packed. Nevertheless, the Davis Dvořák sequence shows fine music-making and more-than-acceptable recording and production, and is certainly a winner at its very reasonable price.
Yevgeny Mravinsky’s recording of the four symphonies of Vadim Salmanov (1912-1978) is interesting in many ways, too, but it also shows some of the pitfalls of re-releases and gets a (+++) rating as a result. Salmanov was a lesser Soviet-era composer who assumed various Communist Party positions and taught at the Leningrad Conservatory. He also dedicated two of his symphonies, the First and Fourth, to Mravinsky, including the Leningrad Philharmonic in the latter dedication. So in some ways it is scarcely surprising that this orchestra and conductor became advocates of Salmanov’s music. There is also the matter of the old and frequently excellent Melodiya label (which appeared as Melodiya/Angel in the United States during the LP era). Some first-rate performances by top-quality artists were made available through the label, but it also had something of a propaganda function, showcasing a variety of lesser works created in Soviet times. The symphonies of Salmanov fall into this category. No 1 dates to 1952, No. 2 (generally considered his best) to 1959, No. 3 to 1963 and No. 4 to 1976. The First and Fourth are in three movements, the others in four. All are skillfully constructed, all have the large scope of many Russian symphonies and occasionally the piquancy and sarcasm of Shostakovich, and none is particularly original-sounding or distinctive. The performances all date to times close to the works’ composition: No. 1 was recorded in 1957, No. 2 in 1960, No. 3 in 1964 and No. 4 in 1977. The sound quality is only so-so – all four recordings are of radio broadcasts, and there are a number of balance issues. The overall style and tone of Salmanov’s symphonies comes across as somewhat warmed-over Shostakovich, with hints of Sibelius here and there. The works are pleasant to hear but of no particular consequence musically. Given that fact, plus the less-than-exemplary sound and the high price, this two-CD set is at best a specialty item for those interested in less-known 20th-century Russian/Soviet composers. It is good to have these symphonies reissued, but not all reissues are necessarily ones that today’s listeners will have any reason to rush out and buy.
Bright Sheng: The Song and Dance of Tears (2003/2013); Colors of Crimson (2004); The Blazing Mirage (2012). Hong Kong Philharmonic conducted by Bright Sheng. Naxos. $9.99.
Jocelyn Morlock: Music of the Romantic Era; Cobalt; Disquiet; Asylum; Oiseaux Bleus et Sauvages; Golden; Solace. Centredisques. $16.99.
Sean Hickey: Cursive; Ampersand; Dolmen; Ostinato Grosso; Pied-a-terre; Reckoning; Hill Music—A Breton Ramble; The Birds of Barclay Street. Philip Edward Fisher, piano; Julia Sakharova, violin; Brandon Patrick George, flute; Anne Lanzilotti, viola; Meredith Clark, harp. Delos. $16.99.
Glenn Kotche: Adventureland. Cantaloupe Music. $16.99
Titles in classical music were in the past intended mostly to describe the forms in which the music was written – symphony, partita, concerto, quartet, and so on. Even opera titles were simply ways of identifying a work by its focus or primary character: Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Flying Dutchman. But as form itself broke down and evolved in the 20th century, the titles of musical pieces came increasingly to attempt to describe to the audience what it should experience in a work – what listeners should get out of the music, based on what a composer intended to put it. This was particularly true of program music, such as Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote – the work that famously led Leonard Bernstein to comment, during one of his Young People’s Concerts, that music does not mean anything (after which Bernstein concocted a silly scenario that the Strauss work could relate to just as well as it relates to the composer’s intended scenario). But over time, and as music became both sparer and denser, more complex and more difficult to latch onto in ordinary aural terms (compared with the ease of comprehending, say, sonata form), composers started to rely more and more on using titles to “explain” their works to the audience.
It is now increasingly difficult to figure out what to say about many classical or sort-of-classical pieces (“sort-of” because the blending of musical traditions has also increased exponentially in recent decades). Works may or may not evoke the emotions associated with their titles, or may express them for some listeners but not for others. Is a work a success because it moves or engages people in a way that has nothing to do with the composer’s intentions, on the basis of which the work got its title? Or is success measured by how well a composer fulfills the promise inherent in what the work is called? These are philosophical issues rather than ones involving musical enjoyment, but they are germane to recordings of modern works, because so often the auditory landscape of the music is trekkable only with a guide of some sort – and a work’s title is the sole guide that listeners are likely to have, unless they make it a point to study a work’s provenance before listening to it (an unreasonable expectation that some contemporary composers nevertheless appear to consider reasonable).
So the recent music of Bright Sheng on a new Naxos CD is intended to be guided by its titles, but its effectiveness for listeners will lie in their emotional (and, to a lesser extent, intellectual) response to the music’s sound, which is uniformly a blend of the Chinese and the Western – this is Sheng’s style. The Song and Dance of Tears is in effect an interpretation of Chinese folk music, in which Sheng does some of the same things that composers such as Bartók and Kodály did with Hungarian music, arranging and enlarging while staying true to the music’s roots. The difference is that Sheng includes traditional Chinese instruments along with those of a Western orchestra: pipa (played by Hui Li) and sheng (Tong Wu) in addition to cello (Trey Lee) and piano (Sa Chen). There is musical fusion in The Blazing Mirage as well – the title refers to art preserved in the Dunhuang Caves, but what listeners will hear is a melding of musical styles with a particularly important role for cello (Lee again). As for Colors of Crimson, the title does point to something impressionistic, if somewhat monochromatic, but not specifically to the marimba (played by Pius Cheng) that is at the center of the work and whose sound Sheng here tries to expand into unfamiliar territory and to contrast with the colors of the orchestra.
A blend of sonorities is also common in the music of Jocelyn Morlock, who mixes influences as disparate as those of Ravel and Balinese gamelan. Morlock’s work on a new Centredisques CD is primarily orchestral, her mostly one-word titles designed to direct listeners toward specific emotional and interpretative central points but not really doing so in any particularly meaningful way. For example, you could flip the titles of Music of the Romantic Era and Oiseaux Bleus et Sauvages without having any impact on the effect or effectiveness of these two 11-minute concert overtures for orchestra. Asylum is a chamber piece and Golden a small-orchestra one featuring oboe, but there is nothing inherent in their musical communication to reflect their titles – nor is there in Disquiet for orchestra, Cobalt for violin and orchestra, or Solace for violin, cello and orchestra. Morlock’s music, all here written in the period 2001-2010 and performed by a variety of ensembles and soloists, has a number of effective moments, with more-emotive melodies and greater lyricism than will often be found in contemporary music. The music’s titles, however, are not particularly helpful guides to what Morlock is trying to communicate.
Sean Hickey’s classical influences are some of the same ones that inform Morlock’s music, although gamelan is absent. Hickey has a sure grasp of older musical forms, as shown particularly in Ostinato Grosso but also in the other chamber works on a new Delos CD. Yet here too, the alleged guiding lights of the titles are of little help in following, understanding or reacting to the music – except, interestingly, in the case of Ostinato Grosso itself, that being the one work whose title describes a form rather than an expected emotion or bit of scene-panting. Several of the other titles are clever – notably Cursive and Ampersand – but they do not really help listeners listen. Actually, guideposts are somewhat less needed in Hickey’s music than in that of many other of today’s composers, since his works are generally accessible and less inclined than those of many other composers to display compositional technique for its own (or the composer’s) sake. And Hickey does not hesitate to indulge in a bit of surprise here and there: The Birds of Barclay Street, for example, is not merely a collection of imitative chirps and coos.
In many ways, the simple title Adventureland stands as a viable one not only for Glenn Kotche’s new Cantaloupe Music CD but also for a great deal of contemporary music. Kotche, a percussionist, here offers a variety of works that showcase his own skill in collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, Gamelan Galak Tika and the group called “eighth blackbird.” There is certainly something sonically adventurous here, although not really more so than in other sort-of-classical, sort-of-jazz, sort-of-blended music. The disc’s overall title is actually more useful than the titles of its individual components, which include Anomaly Movement 1 through Anomaly Movement 7, with those seven movements interspersed with seven others called Haunted Dance, Traveling Turtle, Haunted Hive, Haunted Furnace, Haunted Viaduct, Haunted Treehouse and Triple Fantasy – none of which titles is particularly explanatory or evocative of anything at all in the music itself. There is some fun and adventure here, and the playing is particularly fine, the musicians seeming to be quite comfortable with each other as well as with the compositions. But there is nothing in the titles to attract new listeners to the CD, and nothing specific in them to intrigue listeners who already know Kotche and want to hear more from him. Adventureland would lose little, if anything, if its 14 tracks were simply numbered 1 through 14; and contemporary music in general would lose little by forgoing clever titles and aiming to have the music itself tell listeners what the composer is trying to say.
April 17, 2014
Techie Tiger 300-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle. By Robert Pizzo. Pomegranate. $14.95.
When I Am Not Myself. By Kathy DeZarn Beynette. Pomegranate. $14.95.
If books can be puzzling, it seems only fair that puzzles can be “book-ing.” Or at least book-ish. Techie Tiger is a character in Robert Pizzo’s very clever The Amazing Animal Alphabet of Twenty-Six Tongue Twisters, published by Pomegranate last year. The page devoted to him reads, “Techie Teenage Texas Tiger Texts Text To Tennessee Toads.” And there you see Techie, complete with 10-gallon hat, sprawled on a bed amid typical teen technology, with a poster of the Tennessee Toads rock band on the wall, texting “C U @ the show” to the musicians. It is a very funny scene, made more so by the realistic-looking-but-deliberately-overdone tiger art on which it is centered. It is also a very colorful scene, with primary colors splashed everywhere and complemented with judicious use of black, white and grey. It is, in fact, a scene that lends itself very well to enlargement, and now it is available in a two-foot-by-18-inch size. The catch: you have to put it together, slowly and carefully. Pomegranate has turned Techie Tiger into the star of a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle, which comes packaged in a sturdy cardboard box inside which the pieces are presented within a resealable one-gallon plastic bag – the better to keep them together. The “ArtPiece Puzzle” line is a unique bit of entertainment from Pomegranate, with puzzles drawn from fine art, architecture and other fields as well as, in this case, a book for young readers. An unusually clever spinoff, Techie Tiger 300-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle is a great deal of fun to look at, a challenge (but not an unreasonably difficult one) to assemble, and a fine tie-in to encourage reading of Pizzo’s book for anyone who may encounter the puzzle without having read the work from which it is drawn. The book itself is offbeat and unusual, the pulling of a puzzle from Pizzo’s pages perhaps proving the perceptive perspicacity of Pomegranate’s promotional penchant. See? Pizzo’s alliteration is catching.
The puzzling is of a different sort in Kathy DeZarn Beynette’s When I Am Not Myself and is altogether more existential – not that that word itself appears in a short, small-size hardcover book intended for young readers. The “who am I?” notion, though, can be a puzzle at any age, and that is what Beynette explores wittily and a touch wistfully here. Each page features a full-color illustration of a four-line piece of poetic whimsy and thoughtfulness focusing on an animal that the reader may “be” at one time or another: “When I’m a Giraffe/ My food’s high on a shelf;/ I put it up there/ To share just with myself.” Most entries also show an earlier version of the finished illustration – one in which words, art or both differed from the final product. The Giraffe, for example, has its neck bent much farther back in the early drawing than in the final one, but the quatrain is the same. For the Zebra, the animal’s entire pose changes subtly between the two pieces of art, and the original plain background becomes a checkerboard. The poem changes, too, ending up: “When I am a Zebra/ My stripes look OK,/ But I’d like to try/ Wearing checks for one day.” In the original version, the middle lines read, “I’m sure stripes look okay,/ But I just want to try.” Small differences, perhaps, but ones sufficient to induce Beynette to make changes before completing the page. There is some social commentary in When I Am Not Myself, as in the piece about kittens, which has the word “adopt” at the top: “When I am a Kitten/I wait in a row/ For someone to love,/ For someplace to go.” But by and large, the book is simply an imaginative journey through the minds and appearances of various animals as a child might think of them. And it ends, suitably and winningly, with a page that starts, “When I am Myself,” featuring eight different self-imaginings as animals – not all of which have appeared previously in the book, but all of which are both charming and amusing….as is the entire book itself.
Peanut Butter and Jellyfish. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $16.99.
Peek-a-Boo Bunny. By Holly Surplice. Harper. $9.99.
For the earliest readers, meaning from around age three or four up to age seven or eight, simple, straightforward stories with a touch of humor can have a great deal of impact – and can influence kids’ interest in learning to read more-complex books over time. Peanut Butter and Jellyfish has Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s usual slightly skewed view of the world, along with his oddball drawings: Peanut Butter, a seahorse, does look somewhat like a real seahorse; but Jellyfish, a, well, jellyfish, has a big, irregularly oval head with huge smiling mouth and big eyes, and some sort-of-tentacles trailing behind. The point here is not verisimilitude, of course: this is a simple story of friendship and of what to do if someone is not very nice to you but is basically an all-right character. That someone is Crabby, who is true to his name, sitting on a rock and taunting the two friends as they swim past: “You guys swim like humans!” “I’ve seen sea snails swim with more style.” That sort of thing. But then Crabby gets in trouble: he gets caught in a lobster trap (which Krosoczka shows being tossed into the water not during the story but beforehand, on the inside front cover). Crabby, being lifted toward the surface, admits he is frightened, and the two friends realize they have to help him even though he has never been nice to them. So Peanut Butter and Jellyfish unlock the cage – and when Crabby admits he cannot swim and is afraid of heights, they untie the trap from the rope holding it and lower it gently to the ocean floor (leaving the fisherman, who reappears on the inside back cover, looking unhappy and bewildered). Crabby is safe, he “was brave enough to apologize” for all the unkind things he has said, and now there are three friends happily exploring the ocean. Clearly having a moral but not told in a moralistic tone, Peanut Butter and Jellyfish is easy and enjoyable to read and look at, and makes its point both gently and firmly.
There is no ethical point in Holly Surplice’s Peek-a-Boo Bunny, but this too is a simple, nicely told story with a twist. The whole book is about Bunny being “it” in a game of hide-and-seek – and repeatedly missing the hiding places of his friends, because he is so enthusiastic about the game and, it must be said, so unobservant, despite attempts by his friend Mole to help him. Mole, for example, points to Turtle hiding among some rocks, but Bunny “rushes by and speeds right past.” As Owl flies directly overhead, Surplice writes, “Bunny searching on the ground –/ if only he would turn around!” But again and again, Bunny is in the right place but not focused on locating his friends. Eventually “his smile is turning to a frown,” but just then, all the other animals come out of hiding and shout, “Peek-a-Boo!” And everything ends with smiles and a little Bunny-and-Mole dance that is especially charmingly drawn. Peek-a-Boo Bunny is particularly easy to read, and the very simple rhymes are fun for young children – or adults – to say aloud. Early readers will soon move beyond the book, but until they do, they will be charmed by Bunny’s misadventures and likely want to enjoy them again and again.
Alice-Miranda 4: Alice-Miranda at Sea. By Jacqueline Harvey. Delacorte Press. $14.99.
Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits. By Michael D. Bell. Knopf. $15.99.
Lost Children of the Far Islands. By Emily Raabe. Knopf. $16.99.
The fourth adventure of ever-perky, decidedly rich, unassuming and always-helpful Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones continues in the vein of the first three by offering a mild mystery and tons of charm oozing from every page. Jacqueline Harvey’s books may be formulaic, but the formula is enough fun to keep fans of Alice-Miranda and her decidedly upscale adventures reading. The posh doings this time occur aboard a ship – a royal yacht, no less – aboard which Aunty Gee is hosting the wedding of Aunt Charlotte to Lawrence Ridley. Absolutely all the upper-crust types are there, even the insufferable Ambrosia Headlington-Bear, who is invited because she is the mother of Alice-Miranda’s friend Jacinta but who does not even realize that Jacinta is aboard until Alice-Miranda tells her: “I was invited because I always get invited to these things,” Ambrosia declares, and is less than thrilled to find out that in this case she was invited because of her daughter. Amid the family snootiness is the mystery that Alice-Miranda needs to figure out, which involves a possible jewel thief aboard and some jewels perhaps hidden in a trumpet case – and a ship’s doctor who looks entirely too familiar for someone Alice-Miranda is sure, or pretty sure, she has never met before. Alice-Miranda has a good word for everyone, as usual. Typical dialogue, from one single scene: “Please, I’m a very good listener.” “Your mother was famous.” “That’s so beautiful.” “That’s a wonderful story.” “I’m just glad that things have worked out.” In reality, it talks a little bit of effort for things to work out here, as secrets are revealed, an evil (and silly) scheme is uncovered, and bad guys make comments such as, “Keep your hair on, little one.” Eventually, parents and kids are reconciled, friendships are made or cemented, and Alice-Miranda is so sweet and nice and wonderful that she has plenty of heroism left over to share with friends and carry over to the next book.
There is heroism aplenty in Michael D. Bell’s Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits as well – much of it in the person of Lantern Sam, who is not a person at all. He is a male calico cat (those are very rare: almost all calicoes are female), looking quite bedraggled and very much the worse for wear, who lives aboard a fictional train called the Lake Erie Shoreliner in the 1930s and who just happens to be a great detective. He also talks a mighty good game – yes, talks, although only a few people can hear him. Such as 10-year-old Henry Shipley, who is aboard the train and who meets a girl named Ellie who soon disappears, with a ransom note shortly to follow and a mystery to be unraveled as the train barrels along. Lantern Sam is preoccupied with two things: solving mysteries and eating sardines that he gets from the train’s conductor, Clarence, who helps cat and boy in their search for clues and culprits. The cat detective contributes chapters called “The Almost Entirely True Autobiography of Lantern Sam” that are interleaved with Henry’s narrative of the long-ago train ride and search for Ellie. The cat’s musings are along these lines: “I give Clarence a hard time every now and again, but all in all, he’s a good egg, and he did save my life. Well, one of my lives, anyway.” Lantern Sam – he has a lantern-shaped spot on his side, and was also once, in his own words, “incinerated by a railroad lantern” – is sarcastic in expression and darn good in a fight: “The image of that calico missile flying through the air with all seventeen claws extended and teeth bared while screaming ‘Mrrrraaaaa!’ is one that no one in that dining car will ever forget.” And of course he does help Henry solve the mystery – and at the end of the book, which takes place 75 years later than the events on the train, we find out what all this ended up meaning to Henry and Ellie many years later. Actually, the book’s conclusion seems to preclude a sequel – unusual in books of this kind – but maybe, just maybe, one of Lantern Sam’s descendants will turn out to have some of his mystery-solving and communicating-with-selected-humans abilities.
A darker and more serious book whose fantasy elements are of a much more traditional kind, Lost Children of the Far Islands, by first-time author Emily Raabe, also features animals; but these are actually shape-changing humans, or rather Folk, among whom are twins Augusta (Gus) and Leo and their little sister, Ila, who never speaks (in the first part of the book). They do not know of their ancestry and special powers, though – at least not until their mother becomes ill and the children realize that what is sapping her strength is her increasingly desperate attempt to protect them from one of those ancient and unfathomable evils that inevitably crop up in fantasies of this ilk. This one is a very toothy and multi-jawed creature called the Dobhar-chú or King of the Black Lakes, which is given to the typical pronouncements of bad guys (or bad things) in gloating language whose sole purpose is to keep the plot moving – for example, saying to Ila: “Child, you are fun! …I’d almost like to keep you. But, alas, bigger plans, bigger plans! Once I am rid of you and your sister and brother, nothing will hold me on this scrubby little island.” Yes, this is yet another tale in which a super-powerful ancient being can somehow be conquered only by three modern children – admittedly, in this case, two who can change themselves into seals and one who can transform into a fox. As usual in books like this, the kids have a teacher, too, called the Mórai. And of course there is an ultimate confrontation that begins when “something swam back and forth in the water, just under the surface, something dark and massive and unmistakably evil.” The eventual rescue of Ila and saving of the world and all that results from a reconsideration of what the words “Lost Children” actually mean in a poem within a book called The Book of the Folk. It is all very mystical and very transformational and very meaningful and very, very conventional, including a conclusion in which the kids are not sure they will ever be able to shapeshift again but there is a last hint that there may be further adventures to come. Lost Children of the Far Islands is no better and no worse than many other fantasy adventures for preteens – Raabe gets the pacing right, uses old legends (notably that of the selkies) as the basis of her story, and makes sure that there are numerous coming-of-age elements to go with the straightforward elements of adventure. Young readers seeking a world of wonder – any world of wonder – may enjoy the book. But those who have read other fantasy adventures may well have the feeling that they have seen all this before, in similar if not identical guises. They will be right.
The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch. By Lewis Dartnell. Penguin. $27.95.
It is hard to imagine a book more ambitious than this one – Lewis Dartnell’s protestations of simply being engaged in an intellectual exercise notwithstanding. Dartnell, a 32-year-old astrobiologist and research fellow at the University of Leicester in England, here offers a road map for the relatively rapid restoration of human civilization after a massive worldwide disaster that wipes out virtually all human beings but not – this is a crucial assumption – all existing technology. This could be anything from an asteroid impact to a pandemic to bombardment with neutron bombs, but not all-out nuclear war, which, Dartnell correctly notes, would destroy too much of everything to make his prescriptions for technology rebuilding practicable.
Before considering those prescriptions, it can be instructive to do a small thought experiment of one’s own – a mundane, everyday one relating to a form of disaster that thousands of people face every day. Think for a moment about computer-data backup and restoration. Assume you have carefully arranged offsite backup either on standalone hard drives or in the much-hyped “cloud.” Since constant backup is an onerous task, you have automated the procedure – every available form of backup allows this, and virtually everyone does it. Assume the backup has done its job perfectly well day after day for a number of years; thankfully, you have never needed to call on it. Now assume that your computer is destroyed – utterly wrecked by whatever calamity you choose. How adept will you be at using the backup to restore your precious data?
This is not a trivial question. Do you know how to access the backup? Do you remember the passwords and other protections associated with it? Do you have a disk image, and if so, how old is it? How do you use it? Do you have data but not program backups – as most people do? How do you restore the programs? The initialization settings? How will you get your data back in a timely manner so you can use them? And if you are under understandable post-disaster stress, whether personal or work-related, or are in a significant time bind, how will you get everything you need restored quickly?
You see the problem. Even in a mundane situation, our meticulous preparations for disaster can come unglued after an actual disaster strikes, because we set things up to protect us on an ongoing basis and we do not constantly rehearse the post-disaster steps we would need in case of calamity. Yes, in the case of data restoration, anyone who wishes can practice restoring data and/or programs and/or configuration settings and/or anything else – in his or her spare time – but how many do? And how many have the spare time? How much spare time is needed? With what frequency?
And this is a simple issue by comparison with the one Dartnell presupposes. Yet he, like the legions of dismal scientists who believe that Homo economicus invariably makes rational decisions, assumes that in a post-apocalyptic world fraught with division, dismay, despair, desperation and deep depression, copies of The Knowledge will survive – or will have been committed to memory by intelligent, rational people who are prepared to begin at once the task of rebuilding technological society. And said people will not only be among the survivors of the worldwide disaster but will also be sufficiently focused on re-creation and remaking so that they will stand above the ruins of the world and begin the gigantic task of making it anew over a comparatively short time span – some hundreds of years, say, rather than some thousands or tens of thousands. A further underlying, if unstated, assumption is that when the initial Homo postapocalypticus generation passes on to its dubious reward, it will smoothly hand over the Dartnell wisdom to an equally committed and dedicated later generation – and The Knowledge will flow thence to another, another and another. Dartnell may be a fine scientist, but he would benefit from reading some good science fiction – the type that accepts the impossibility of faster-than-light travel and therefore posits the necessity of building multi-generational spaceships for interstellar transport, and focuses on the likely human scenarios as generation follows generation, getting farther and farther from “Earthhome” but having little sense of coming closer to a destination that no one in any intermediate generation will ever see. Heck, he could get some of the flavor of this by watching the Pixar movie WALL-E.
So with all these primarily psychological caveats aside – psychology not being Dartnell’s field – what do readers get in The Knowledge? They receive a remarkably thoughtful and often fascinating glimpse of the underpinnings of our current technological civilization, an explanation of the way we got where we are and of the fact that we did not have to take that specific route to get here, and a set of suggestions regarding the basics of “civilization recovery” that would allow a new form of technology-savvy humanity to arise on the remains of the old, without necessarily getting there via the same route. Dartnell is well aware that the paths we actually took to get where we are would be foreclosed for future rebuilding – the Industrial Revolution, for example, depended on the availability of cheap and readily reachable fossil fuels, but those are long gone, and there is no way a post-apocalyptic world could get at most remaining stores of coal or oil. So again and again, when discussing the items that he deems crucial to remaking civilization, Dartnell mentions ways of obtaining them that would be easier in a post-apocalyptic future than the ways in which we actually did get them in the past. Just one example: “The trick [of making sulfuric acid] is to employ a chemical pathway that was never used industrially in our development. Sulfur dioxide gas can be baked out of common pyrite rocks (iron pyrite is notorious as fool’s gold, and pyrites also form common ores of lead and tin) and reacted with chlorine gas, which you get from the electrolysis of brine…using activated carbon (a highly porous form of charcoal) as a catalyst. …Once you’ve reacquired sulfuric acid, it serves as a gateway to the production of other acids.”
This short excerpt is a fair sampling of Dartnell’s incisive thinking, willingness to make broad statements about the foundational needs of technological society, and thoroughly unreasonable expectations regarding survivors’ ability to put into practice what he recommends. To Dartnell, the single most valuable thing that humanity has produced is the scientific method – that is, the process of forming a hypothesis, testing it by observing what happens in nature or can be made to happen through experimentation, then modifying the hypothesis accordingly or granting it the stature of a theory that can then be extrapolated to other circumstances. This is a highly intriguing perspective, and scarcely a surprising one from an intellectually gifted scientist. But how many of them will likely survive an apocalypse? How many Dartnells are in the world today, compared with, say, creationists and other religious determinists, fanatical fans of professional sports, and people far more familiar with the couplings of reality-show celebrities than with any scientific theorem whatsoever? Dartnell’s handbook for a bleak future is fascinating and in many ways brilliant, and if the survivors of the putative apocalypse were a set of Dartnells or people willing to listen to and be led by Dartnells, The Knowledge – if the book itself survived – could indeed be a reasonable blueprint for starting over. But what are the odds that The Knowledge – again, if it survived – would end up in the hands of people equipped and inclined to use it? What are the chances of a future so radically different from the present day that Dartnell’s blueprint would have even a minuscule chance of adoption and implementation? These questions, which Dartnell does not address, are every bit as germane to a potential after-a-disaster future as the ones Dartnell does bring up. And, unfortunately for all of humanity, the answers to those unasked questions point toward a time when The Knowledge and all the knowledge within it is far more likely to disappear than to be used.
Orff: Carmina Burana. Sarah Tynan, soprano; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Rodion Pogossov, baritone; Trinity Boys Choir, London Philharmonic Choir and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf. LPO. $9.99.
Mozart: Requiem (reconstruction of first performance); Misericordias Domini. Joanne Lunn, soprano; Rowan Hellier, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass; Dunedin Consort conducted by John Butt. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
Bach: St. John Passion. James Gilchrist, evangelist; Matthew Rose, Jesus; Ashley Riches, Pilate; Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Sarah Connolly, alto; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Christopher Purves, bass; Choir of the AAM and Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Richard Egarr. AAM. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Shostakovich: Six Romances on Verses by W. Raleigh, R. Burns and W. Shakespeare; Annie Laurie, Scottish Ballad; Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling. Ondine. $16.99.
Excellent singing, some unusual repertoire, top-quality sound – these recordings have all it takes to delight listeners both immediately and over the long term. Not that Orff’s Carmina Burana is unusual: it may be the most-familiar music heard on any of these releases. The deliberate vulgarity of the words and avowed “primitiveness” of the scoring come through especially clearly in Hans Graf’s performance on LPO, a live recording from April 2013. This grand choral celebration of life and love has become so much a staple of the modern repertoire, both choral and orchestral, that it is easy for singers and orchestra members to “coast” while performing it – the music is so infectious that it stands up even when handled mundanely. But there is no coasting here: the London Philharmonic plays with great verve and spirit, all the soloists deliver their lines with gusto and firmness, and the Trinity Boys Choir and London Philharmonic Choir complement each other beautifully and make what is essentially a secular, choral oratorio into the deliberately over-the-top paean to worldly pleasures and their inevitable loss that Orff intended when he wrote it in 1935-36. It is worth mentioning that Orff saw the piece as a stage work, including in its full title a reference to imaginibus magicis (“magic images”); but although Carmina Burana is almost never given as originally intended – and is only rarely performed as the first part of Orff’s Trionfi, which also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite – the work has truly achieved a concert-hall life on its own merits, as music that seems simple because of its bounce, rhythmic vitality and hummable tunes (including its actual “humming chorus”). There is real brilliance in Orff’s assemblage and orchestration of these medieval poems in three languages (Latin, French and German, all in forms not much like those known today); and one thing Graf does particularly well is to allow the music to flow naturally while also letting Sarah Tynan, Andrew Kennedy and Rodion Pogossov extract from it what depth it possesses.
Plumbing the depths of Mozart’s incomplete Requiem is a more-difficult task: this is far weightier music, for all its considerably lighter scoring. John Butt and the Dunedin Consort have come up with a remarkably effective and moving way of handling the music – one that affirms the work’s greatness while at the same time allowing the imperfections of its completion by Franz Xaver Süssmayr to remain. It has become commonplace in recent decades to find “better” ways to finish the Requiem than those of Süssmayr, which have long been acknowledged as lacking, notably in the Sanctus and Osanna. As a result, the Süssmayr version is no longer as well-known as it used to be, and Butt’s decision to revive it for Linn Records is a rather bold one. Even more intriguingly, what he has done is to use David Black’s new edition of the Süssmayr version as the basis of this recording, and that edition makes some details of Süssmayr’s completion clearer than they were in the past. Black does not obscure the deficiencies of Süssmayr’s work, notably in orchestration, but his edition does allow the Requiem to flower forth as it was heard in Mozart’s own time, shortly after the composer’s death. Butt actually makes a strong attempt to re-create the first public performance of this work, on January 2, 1793, and while the extent of his success is a matter for Butt and his fellow scholars to discuss, there is no doubt that the Dunedin Consort reading is an absolutely first-rate one. It is also one that truly does sound the way it would have sounded in Mozart’s own time, to the extent that modern scholarship can determine that. This alone makes for a superb recording – that is, this plus the absolutely assured singing and historically informed, top-quality instrumental playing. And Butt provides context for the Requiem in other ways as well: the recording includes Mozart’s early Misericordias Domini, K. 222, an offertory that is in the same key as the Requiem and offers a thorough exploration of contrapuntal techniques as Mozart understood and employed them. This makes Misericordias Domini a fascinating companion piece for the Requiem – and even that is not all. Butt also offers a reconstruction of the first two Requiem movements, the Requiem aeternam and Kyrie, as they were played (or are believed to have been played) at a mass for Mozart held five days after his death – that is, on December 10, 1791. They differ in sound in some fascinating ways from the movements as we now know them – and, again, while the details of the differences will be of most interest to scholars, the excellence of the Dunedin Consort performance makes the music accessible and highly involving for every listener.
The excellent Academy of Ancient Music performance of Bach’s St. John Passion, on the group’s own AAM label, is equally penetrating and emotionally trenchant. This is the earliest surviving Passion by Bach, dating originally to 1724 (in which version it is heard here) and revised by him many times, into the 1740s. To a greater extent than the better-known St. Matthew Passion, this one is intense and highly expressive, less peace-pervaded and more dramatic. And it is the drama on which Richard Egarr’s direction focuses, with the recitatives and choruses displaying near-operatic intensity (albeit within appropriate historical bounds) that contrasts in fine fashion with the more-reflective chorales, ariosos and arias. Egarr, who conducts from the harpsichord, has a very strong sense of period style, instrumental balance, and relationship between singers and instruments – and between soloists (including Andrew Kennedy, also heard in Graf’s Carmina Burana) and chorus. One of the most-apparent excellences in this recording is the pervasive sense of appropriate balance – everyone plays or sings with just the right level of involvement with everyone else. Yet despite its technical excellence, this reading is by no means dry – indeed, it is quite the opposite, being presented with considerable flair and a greater sense of dramatic development than is heard in many readings of Bach’s solemn music. Whether the St. John Passion is in any sense “better” than the St. Matthew Passion, or alternatively of less account, is a question that is ultimately unanswerable and meaningless: Bach wrote the works at different times in his life (when considering the 1724 version of the St. John Passion) and used texts that, for all the familiarity of the story, emphasize different elements of it. There is more immediacy and personal involvement in the St. John Passion, a greater sense of transcendence and fervor in the St. Matthew Passion – and no reason whatsoever to prefer one over the other, especially when such a top-quality performance of the earlier work is now available.
The performances are also top-notch, and the music highly involving and almost completely unknown, on a new Shostakovich CD featuring Gerald Finley in his debut recording for Ondine. All three works here are sort-of or partial world première recordings: this is the first-ever recording of Annie Laurie; the first recorded offering in the original Italian of Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti (Shostakovich set the poems in Russian); and only the second time Six Romances on Verses by W. Raleigh, R. Burns and W. Shakespeare has been recorded in its orchestral version (the disc describes this as a world première, but there was a 1986 Russian recording by Gennady Rozhdestvensky with bass Anatoly Safiulin; this is, however, the first time the work has been offered in the orchestral version and sung in English). Hearing a full CD of Shostakovich’s vocal music with words in English and Italian is a rather dislocating experience, and quite a pleasant, even invigorating one. There is nothing special in his Annie Laurie orchestration, but Finley’s rich voice makes the folk song involving and heartfelt. The Six Romances on Verses by W. Raleigh, R. Burns and W. Shakespeare are more substantial, with, for example, the pessimistic intensity of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXVI dovetailing neatly with the composer’s lugubrious side – and providing a fine contrast to other views of mortality, such as Burns’ Macpherson’s Farewell. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling participates fully in the music, serving as partner rather than merely as backup – a stance that makes perfect sense when playing Shostakovich, and is particularly apt in the longest and most substantial work here, Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti. This dates to 1975, the last year of Shostakovich’s life, and was one of the final works he completed – and it has all the pointedness and carefully sculpted peculiarity of pieces such as Symphony No. 15 of 1971. The 11 poems in the suite are highly expressive in a generally forthright manner, arranged so they move cleverly between the brackets of the first, Truth, and the last, Immortality. The full participation of the orchestra is crucial to the effect of such poems as Creativity, while its willingness to remain delicately in the background is equally important in ones such as Morning. Finley performs the entire suite with high involvement and understanding, and his pronunciation is exemplary; Sanderling, who was a friend of Shostakovich, brings to the CD an intimate understanding of the composer’s mindset and compositional techniques. This is an unusual and highly rewarding disc that is a significant addition to the recorded Shostakovich repertoire.