May 28, 2015
Whose Shoe? By Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier. Clarion. $16.99.
The LOUD Book! By Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Brief, neatly rhymed and thoroughly engaging, Eve Bunting’s Whose Shoe? is the simple story of a helpful mouse who finds a single shoe and decides to locate the animal that lost it: “Finders keepers? That’s not true./ I’ll find the owner of this shoe.” This mouse lives in a place, winningly and wittily illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier, where tigers ride scooters and myna birds keep shelves of books, and where all the animals wear shoes – most amusingly, Spider, who wears eight whose size makes them difficult to locate and therefore important to lace tight: “If I lost one, I’d be upset—/ spider shoes are hard to get.” Mouse proceeds on his quest, unable to find the shoe’s owner but garnering plenty of praise from the other animals for trying to do the right thing, as when Hippo says, “I want to thank you for inquiring./ Your honesty is quite inspiring.” Hippo’s choice of footwear is designed to prevent him from getting mud between his toes; Elephant prefers high heels, but the shoe found by Mouse is a flat – every animal turns down the shoe, but determined Mouse marches on with it. And of course, eventually he finds its owner – who explains how the shoe ended up in “the tall bamboo” and turns out not to want to keep it. The result: the shoe becomes a gift for Mouse, and although it is much too big for him, he figures out just what to do with it to put it to good use and bring this genuinely adorable book to an apt and amusing conclusion.
There are animals aplenty in The LOUD Book! as well. And there is a heaping helping of charm in the new padded-board-book version of Deborah Underwood’s 2011 companion to The Quiet Book. The various kinds of loudness are situational, and that is what makes the book so clever: Renata Liwska does a wonderful job showing just why “applause loud” is different from “thunderstorm loud,” and both are different from “candy wrapper loud” in a movie theater. Some forms of “loud” are connected: “oops loud” shows the hole in a window after a ball is hit through it, and then “unexpected entrance loud” shows the excitement when the same ball flies into the middle of a play being performed on stage, inside the building whose window was just broken. Other forms of “loud” are simply silly: “spilling your marbles in the library loud.” And some require a bit of thinking: “deafening silence loud” shows a clearly irritated mother rabbit looking down at the two children who are taking cookies out of the jar they have knocked off a shelf. The bunnies, bears and other animals in The LOUD Book! do not speak, but their expressions say a great deal about what each type of “loud” is and how they are participating in or reacting to it. “Ants loud,” for instance, shows the insects crawling over apples in a picnic basket that a clearly distraught little rabbit has just opened – it is her crying, even though not made explicit in words or sounds, that is loud. A treat for pre-readers and young readers to discover or for families to rediscover in a new format, The LOUD Book! promises plenty of quiet enjoyment – unless, of course, kids decide to fill in some of the sounds so artfully communicated through its silent scenes.
Masterminds. By Gordon Korman. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Platypus Police Squad 3: Last Panda Standing. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Walden Pond Press. $12.99.
In searching for ways to engage more readers ages 8-12, experienced authors such as Gordon Korman and Jarrett J. Krosoczka are increasingly looking to expand the boundaries of traditional stories for this age group – but not by too much. This leads to their coming up with adventures that contain many of the same story elements as in other novels for preteens – a group of protagonists rather than a single one, an encounter with noir-ish forces, a strong subtext on the importance of “finding yourself, who you really are and where you fit in” – but that use the elements in new ways. You can almost see Korman’s creative wheels turning. Kids have to escape captivity? Been done. But what about if it’s pleasant captivity? How about a town that’s a little too perfect to be believed, like something out of The Stepford Wives, which no one in this age range will know about? And how about the kids themselves? Why are they kept captive there? Can’t be bad parents or bad guys holding them – wait! What if the kids are the bad guys? But not really bad guys. Maybe the parents – if they are the kids’ parents – think they’re bad. But why would they think that? Some mastermind must have convinced the parents – wait! Mastermind! What if the kids themselves are thought to be criminal masterminds? But they’re just kids. Maybe they’re trained to be bad? No, that’s been done…maybe they’re the children of bad guys? No, wait – maybe they’re the clones of bad guys! That would do it! And so we have Masterminds, the first book of a series built on exactly that premise: that a supposedly perfect town of 185 contains within it a number of kids who have been cloned from some really, really bad people, as part of a nature-vs.-nurture experiment run by a mastermind named Hammerstrom (whose name gives away that he’s controlling and probably evil). Masterminds is entirely typical in having a central character (Eli Frieden) who is first among equals in the typical group of friends and compatriots that is at the heart of this adventure. Eli in turn has a friend named Randy, and Randy is a prime mover of the plot because he pushes limits – specifically by heading for the edge of town (something that has never occurred to Eli, who is something of a dim bulb at the start of the book, as the central character usually is). When Eli and Randy get too close to the town’s border, Eli gets violently ill and has to be rescued by the Surety, the local enforcement-of-order corps called the Purple People Eaters by all the kids – and Randy soon finds himself expelled from “America’s Ideal Community” under a transparent pretext. He manages to get word back to Eli, and soon little details that don’t quite add up start to trouble Eli and a number of the other kids. Bit by bit, the kids start to figure out that something is deeply wrong in Serenity and that their parents are not to be trusted – another common theme in books for this age group, although one handled a bit differently here, as when one “mom” upbraids a “dad” for not moving fast enough to save a child from a rattlesnake, because the boy is “valuable.” The kids eventually learn just why and in just what way they are “valuable,” and the revelation is not a pleasant one – leading several of them to stage a daring escape (what other kind is there?), after which they eventually show up at the place to which Randy has been sent. And that ends the first book and sets up the next. Korman, as always, plots things with a sure hand and paces them well for his intended audience. Also as always, his plotting is so over-the-top and unbelievable that it takes more than the usual willing suspension of disbelief to accept what is going on, never mind the motivations of the one-dimensional characters. Still, Masterminds works as an easy-to-read, exciting series opener that is just different enough to attract readers and just similar enough to other preteen adventures to keep them comfortable as the story unfolds.
Krosoczka’s Platypus Police Squad series takes a different approach. The stories are right out of a noir-ish police procedural, suitably toned down for younger readers and told in a straightforward cops-solving-crimes tone. But the characters are all animals, and the central ones are indeed platypuses, albeit ones that walk upright, dress in detectives’ suits, carry weapons (boomerangs, not guns), do not appear to lay eggs (that we know of), and do not have the poison-injecting spines on their feet that real male platypuses have. For Krosoczka, absurdity is stock-in-trade; witness his Lunch Lady graphic novels, about a lunchroom chef who fights school-related crime using modified kitchen utensils as weapons. So Platypus Police Squad is not much farther-out than Krosoczka’s other work – but it is farther out than other authors’ work, and that is one thing what should attract young readers to it. Another thing is Krosoczka’s illustrations: watching platypus detectives barking commands into cop-car microphones, a giraffe pushing a wounded panda out of a building, a moose applying TV makeup, a scraggly chameleon doing his job as a news reporter, and a lab-coated squirrel discussing nut processing, is enough to appeal to any preteen with a penchant for the offbeat and silly. To counter the visual absurdity, what Krosoczka does is to keep the narrative absolutely straight and familiar almost all the time: “I want the perp in custody YESTERDAY!” “Well, that’s a theory. Where are you getting that from?” “I’m really trying hard to keep an open mind.” “He was one of the best. …Heart of gold, spine of steel, that one had.” “Platypus Police Squad! FREEZE!” The story here involves a mayoral campaign in which one candidate, Frank Pandini Jr., is rich, but comes from a suspect background – his father served as mayor, was thoroughly corrupt, and was eventually jailed as a crook. The other candidate, a bulldog named Patrick McGovern, appears honest, but may be behind a series of attacks on Pandini by flying squirrels – or rather squirrels that seem to fly but may actually be regular squirrels decked out with phony wing flaps. Prior books in this series introduced Detectives Corey O’Malley and Rick Zengo; this time the partners are separated – Zengo being assigned to stay with Pandini’s campaign while O’Malley gets a new, female partner, Jo Cooper. Zengo and O’Malley both have a bad history with Pandini’s father (this is one of many noir elements Krosoczka employs), but both must now focus on protecting Pandini Jr. O’Malley and Cooper are both careful and methodical, but both find they need some of Zengo’s intuition and disorganization to come up with leads in the case. Remember, these are platypuses, and reading about (and seeing) them go through typical detective plot points is a big part of the fun here. Eventually, in the best noir tradition, the detectives solve the mystery, the bad guys appear beaten, but a final twist ending shows that what everyone (including readers) thought was the right solution has really left the fox in charge of the henhouse. Or something like that – there’s no actual fox or hen here, but there are plenty of other animals playing human roles. Last Panda Standing is best read after reading the first two books, although doing so is not strictly necessary. This book is also most appropriate for preteens who already know the tropes of detective stories, since its humor depends heavily on ways in which it mirrors or overturns those standard elements. For the right audience, it is a lot of fun; but it will miss the mark for those who cannot quite figure out what is so funny about what seems to be a fairly standardized crime tale featuring anthropomorphic animal characters.
A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General. By General Ann Dunwoody (U.S. Army, Ret.) with Tomago Collins. Da Capo. $25.99.
Here is a book that is very successful on one level, that of autobiography, and much less so on another, that of advice dissemination. Ann Dunwoody became the first four-star female general in United States history when President George W. Bush nominated her to that rank in 2008. It was a remarkable accomplishment – just how remarkable becomes clear from A Higher Standard. She had to “hang tough with the boys” at a time when that simply was not done. She had to endure hazing rituals that are no longer allowed in the more-humane, more politically correct U.S. Army. She had to find ways to compete on others’ terms, including some that she declines to share with readers: “I asked…whether I might offer a joke to prove my worthiness. I will not tell the joke here, but suffice it to say it was one of [the] crassest jokes ever told and would have made the saltiest of sailors hoot and holler. The crowd roared its approval, five thumbs immediately raised from the board, and it was done.”
Hmm. This is not exactly what is meant by a “higher standard,” but the book’s title nevertheless resounds with meaning as readers follow Dunwoody’s career from her first command (leading 100 soldiers) to her final one before retirement (heading the U.S. Army Materiel Command, a supply chain that included 69,000 employees and supported the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan). There is plenty that is uplifting in her story. She stands for values that many now consider old-fashioned but without which there might never have been a United States, certainly not one as powerful as the nation is today (for all that some say the power is being vitiated). Readers need to be comfortable with Dunwoody’s straightforward thinking in order to appreciate the full impact of her story. “I felt a personal responsibility to prepare our American sons and daughters for war. …[The] Quartermaster Creed – ‘I can shape the course of combat, change the outcome of battle’ – this has resonated with me for almost thirty years…[and] the Soldier’s Creed…takes precedence for me over every creed I hold dear except the Apostles’ Creed.”
The Soldier’s Creed says, in part, “I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat. I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.” Anyone uncomfortable with these sentiments, strongly stated and clearly strongly felt, will find A Higher Standard very difficult to read, detailing as it does Dunwoody’s rise through the ranks and the challenges she faced throughout her career. A self-described “Army brat,” she relished her father’s frequent reassignments, considering them new adventures – an attitude that stood her in good stead in her own career. She is plainspoken about what she often faced and how she handled herself: “I’ve walked, crawled, and skipped through many open doors and even had to kick in a few. With each opening comes the challenge of proving I can handle the job…[but] for me it was never about becoming the first anything; it was about being able to make a difference and being respected as a soldier and a leader.”
Those seeking to make a difference and gain respect in civilian life, however, will quickly realize that Dunwoody’s tactics in a rigidly hierarchical system, where everyone clearly understands the chain of command and knows the rules and the consequences of failing to play by them, will be of little value in, say, a typical business situation – although certainly some large companies continue to operate with a military-style approach. Dunwoody’s recommendations for success in the civilian world are certainly not wrong, but they are naïve and have been put forth many times before. Among them are to recognize when something is wrong and hold people accountable for it; to learn how to cultivate your advocates and deal with your detractors; to see yourself always as part of a team, and to reward team members’ good performance and correct performance that is subpar; and to value diversity as an inherent strength that improves management and leadership. The last of these recommendations is more arguable than the others, at least in the way “diversity” is so often implemented – on the basis of meaningless, superficial characteristics, such as skin color, rather than meaningful ones, such as differing cultural backgrounds, viewpoints or thought patterns. But to at least some extent, all these notions are positive, values-driven ones in which Dunwoody surely believes. And she also surely believes very strongly in herself, as she had to in order to attain the heights to which she rose. Even her self-deprecating comments have an underlying ring of positivism: she was a strong, multi-talented athlete in college, a “hyper tomboy,” but still has “nightmares about falling off the balance beam, and this remains a great source of humor for my husband. He laughs at the fact that I’m afraid of static heights, particularly ledges of any kind, even though I never thought twice about jumping out of airplanes anywhere, anytime. I guess trying to perform four feet off the ground on a four-inch-wide beam can be more intimidating than jumping out of a plane from one thousand feet while strapped with military equipment.”
Clearly, Dunwoody had a remarkable Army career, and a remarkably successful one; and her recounting of what she did and how she did it is engaging, involving and often fascinating. A Higher Standard is certainly worth reading to learn about the substantial accomplishments of its author – but with the exception of her can-do attitude (which comes across as a can-do-anything attitude), readers are unlikely to find advice and suggestions here that they have not heard before and that they can emulate in their own, more-mundane, everyday civilian lives.
Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. Fernando Guimarães, Jennifer Rivera, Aaron Sheehan, Leah Wool, João Fernandes, Owen McIntosh; Boston Baroque conducted by Martin Pearlman. Linn Records. $39.99 (3 SACDs).
Dvořák: Alfred. Petra Froese, Ferdinand von Bothmer, Felix Rumpf, Jörg Sabrowski, Peter Mikuláš; Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Heiko Mathias Förster. ArcoDiva. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Lehár: Paganini. Kristiane Kaiser, Eva Liebau, Zoran Todorovich, Martin Zysset, Jörg Schörner, Philipp Gaiser; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Long unaccepted as a genuine opera by Monteverdi, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (1640) has been acknowledged, since being proven authentic in the 1950s, as a work every bit as worthy as Orfeo (1607) and L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642). A splendid Boston Baroque recording of Martin Pearlman’s own new edition of the opera, released by Linn Records, shows this work to be richly textured and – thanks to fine performances by tenor Fernando Guimarães as Ulisse and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera as Penelope – emotionally trenchant. This is more than a simple tale of revenge, which is to say that Giacomo Badoaro’s libretto retains some of the ambiguity of books 13-23 of Homer’s Odyssey, on which it is based. On the one hand the story of the return home at last of an aging warrior who finds the world changed around him and his faithful wife under unending assault by demanding suitors, this is on the other hand the tale of a man portrayed as heroically noble and tremendously crafty – who commits an act of extreme violence that leaves the audience pondering his legacy and the extent of his humanity. Pearlman does a first-rate job in his edition of filling in the many gaps in the surviving manuscript of this opera, producing a version with fine attention to detail and full, clear appreciation of period style. By using a continuo of seven instruments, and 13 players in accompaniments of arias, Pearlman gives the opera a tonal richness that it does not always possess in accounts that hew more closely to what survives of the manuscript but not, perhaps, to Monteverdi’s original intentions and performance plans. Pearlman uses recorders and cornetti in ritornelli, but stops short of so expanding the ensemble as to overweight the non-verbal portions of the score: this is an opera that belongs to the singers. And the youthful cast here is particularly fine, with Guimarães tremendously moving in the recognition scene with Aaron Sheehan as Telemachus, and Rivera displaying a voice of beauty and expressive power, with an especially impressive lower range. All the singing roles are well filled, and the orchestral playing is outstanding throughout, as Pearlman conducts with a firm hand and precise cuing that keeps the action moving ahead smartly while showcasing the beauties and emotional depths of Monteverdi’s score. Since the surviving manuscript does not fully indicate instrumentation, any edition of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria requires guesswork, and Pearlman’s offers a well-chosen approach throughout that always sounds right – and that lets the emotional impact of the story come through clearly. There have been several high-quality recordings of this opera with conductors whose knowledge of historic performance practice is strong, including Raymond Leppard and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Pearlman’s stands up to any of them, and its emphasis on the psychological depth of the opera gives this 375-year-old work considerable resonance today, likely causing listeners to confront their own feelings about the use of extreme violence in a good cause.
Far less known than Monteverdi’s work, Dvořák’s first opera, Alfred, received its first-ever performance in its original language as recently as September 2014. That original language is German: this is Dvořák’s only opera using a German libretto. (The opera was first performed in 1938, translated into Czech.) The subject of Alfred the Great, the ninth-century King of Wessex who repelled a Viking invasion, had attracted a number of composers before Dvořák came to it, and the actual libretto, by Karl Theodor Korner, had already been set to music by Friedrich von Flotow in about 1835, long before Dvořák wrote Alfred. This was in 1870, when the composer was 29. He had already composed two symphonies and a number of chamber works, including a string quartet and quintet and a clarinet quintet, plus other vocal and orchestral music, and had begun to establish his style firmly. Thus, Alfred already sounds like Dvořák’s better-known works, with its lush orchestration and generally strong sense of vocal writing – although the crucial parts of Alvina (soprano Petra Froese in the new ArcoDiva release, a live recording) and Harald (Ferdinand von Bothmer) are quite exposed and hard to manage, causing the singers some difficulty despite their obvious commitment to the material. Alfred is intended as a heroic opera, although not on the massive historical scale of the works of Meyerbeer; in structure, though, it is much more a “rescue opera” along the lines of Fidelio. Interestingly, Harald, the villainous Viking chieftain, is a tenor, while Alfred, the hero (Felix Rumpf) is a baritone. The two are competing not only for territory but also for possession of Alvina, who repeatedly proclaims herself a true Briton and refuses Harald’s offered hand despite all his threats. The opera progresses from Alfred’s initial defeat in Act I through his rebuilding of his forces and eventual triumph over Harald, whom he magnanimously offers to free but who kills himself rather than accept Alfred’s generosity, which the Viking believes would shame him. As in other rescue operas, this plot is a straightforward one, but Dvořák works it through skillfully, paying special attention to the Viking Gothron (baritone Jörg Sabrowski), who is uncertain that Harald’s initial triumph will last and tries repeatedly and unsuccessfully to warn his leader of the coming resurgence of Alfred and his forces. Alfred is a very assured work, with a strong sense of musically supporting the dramatic story and moving it ahead at an appropriate pace. The musical material is not highly noteworthy in itself – there are no grand and glorious arias that listeners will want to hear again and again – but it is well-crafted throughout and remarkably assured for the content of a first opera. About a decade after composing the opera, Dvořák created a concert version of its overture, now known as the Tragic Overture, Op. Posth. B. 16a. This work – itself not performed during the composer’s lifetime and only published in 1912 – has heretofore been the only chance for listeners to familiarize themselves with any of the music from Alfred. The opportunity to experience the complete work in this generally very fine performance, with Heiko Mathias Förster skillfully leading the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, is a most welcome one.
The new recording of Lehár’s Paganini is welcome as well, and while this is structurally an operetta rather than an opera, it is clearly more than just an operetta – as Richard Tauber, whose long and mutually fruitful association with Lehár began with this 1926 work, knew well: criticized by some of his fellow opera singers for his involvement with this work, he indignantly remarked, “Whatever do you mean by ‘merely operetta’? I don’t sing operetta, I sing Lehár. That’s something quite different…” Indeed it is, with a richness and emotional strength every bit as telling and involving as most of the works of Puccini, Lehár’s friend and longtime colleague. Paganini is not really about the historical violinist, except incidentally: it is a story of the conflict between love and duty, of devoting oneself to another person or to one’s artistic calling, with the latter eventually winning out for Paganini despite the heartbreak it brings to his inamorata, Princess Maria Anna Elisa (Kristiane Kaiser). The renunciation of love for the sake of art is scarcely an unexplored theme, but Lehár’s lush, hyper-romantic music lends it special intensity here, enough so that the work’s “second couple” – opera singer Bella Giretti (Eva Liebau), mistress of Anna Elisa’s husband, and court chamberlain Giacomo Pimpinelli (Martin Zysset) – provides genuinely welcome relief that goes beyond the typical lighthearted comedy for which “second couples” are usually responsible in operetta. All these singers do fine jobs in their roles, and solo violinist Henry Raudales handles the many Paganini-like violin passages in the score with real élan. The title role, though, as sung by Zoran Todorovich, is a touch disappointing: Todorovich’s voice comes perilously close to cracking in higher passages, and although his lower range is strong, he never produces the full-throated warmth and expressive intensity that made this part such a plum one for Tauber. He is certainly a serviceable Paganini, but scarcely a great one. The presentation of the recording is serviceable as well, with an unusually detailed and clear synopsis that very much helps in following the action but with, as occurs constantly in these CPO operetta releases, no full libretto and no link to one online – a particularly distressing omission in the world of operetta, where the dialogue carries forward so much of the action. Something is also unconscionably sloppy in the timing list for the second CD, with multiple incorrect and reversed timing indications. On the other hand, Ulf Schirmer, a first-rate conductor of repertoire like this, paces the performance with his usual excellence and attentiveness to musical and dramatic detail. And the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester show themselves yet again to be among the best performers of this repertoire to be found anywhere. Paganini has remained popular in parts of Europe but has not held the boards worldwide, partly because Die Lustige Witwe continues to overshadow everything else by Lehár and partly because the very elements that make this an operatic work make it difficult for many audiences to figure out how to respond to it. Hearing it on CD shows that the only response needed is one from the heart.
Salomon Jadassohn: Symphonies Nos. 1-4; Cavatine for Violin and Orchestra; Cavatine for Cello and Orchestra. Klaudyna Schulze-Broniewska, violin; Thomas Georgi, cello; Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Carl Czerny: String Quartets in A minor, D minor, D, and E minor. Sheridan Ensemble (Yuki Kasai and Matan Dagan, violins; Florian Donderer, viola; Anna Carewe, cello). Capriccio. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Alkan: Études dans Touts les Tons Mineurs, Op. 39; Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique, Op. 15; Grande Sonate “Les Quatre Áges,” Op. 33; Sonatine, Op. 61; Étude, Op. 76, No. 3. Vincenzo Maltempo, piano. Piano Classics. $27.99 (3 CDs).
Josef Suk: About Mother, Op. 28; Chausson: Four Dances, Op. 26; Reger: From My Diary, Op. 82, Vol. 3. Paul Orgel, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
As the long-delayed rush to rediscover now-little-known composers of the Romantic era proceeds headlong, those rescued from oblivion become more and more obscure. Few have been as thoroughly forgotten as Salomon Jadassohn (1831-1902). A noted pedagogue who taught, among others, Delius, Grieg, Busoni, Felix Weingartner, Emil von Reznicek and George Chadwick, Jadassohn was so conservative as a composer that he himself admitted, in 1899, that he had fallen behind the times musically and no longer understood what others were writing. Jadassohn’s conservatism was different from that of his near-contemporary, Saint-Saëns, who had strong esthetic reasons for sticking to harmonic approaches and compositional techniques that had served him well for decades. In Jadassohn’s case, his compositions – his four symphonies in particular – had a distinctly academic cast, being created in furtherance of a philosophy that deliberately harked back to and largely duplicated the sounds of Mendelssohn and Schumann and that incorporated a belief that (among other things) everything of value had to be heard twice. This, not surprisingly, resulted in works that were long on repetition and rather short on development of themes, and that made no attempt to reach beyond the harmonic boundaries of Jadassohn’s models. Indeed, Jadassohn explicitly stated his tripartite approach to creating music: “melody is the soul of a musical composition,” counterpoint is essential to developing musical themes, and “in every composition everything important has to be repeated.” Notably absent from this formulation is any of the emotionalism generally attributed to the Romantic era. And indeed, Jadassohn’s symphonies, even in performances as nuanced and attractive as those of the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths, have a certain pervasive coolness about them, their slow movements studied rather than heartfelt, their fast ones right on the edge of being formulaic (with speedups at ends of finales being one predictability among many). The four symphonies (from 1860, 1863, 1876 and 1888) are uniformly well-crafted, attractively assembled, and nicely if not innovatively scored. The first two (in C and A) are upbeat pretty much throughout, the latter pair more thoughtful, as befits minor-key works (D minor and E minor, respectively, although in a couple of places CPO wrongly lists No. 3 as being in D major). But there is little profundity to be had anywhere in these works, and little musical inventiveness beyond that of the time of Wagner’s Lohengrin (1850), a work that Jadassohn much admired. These symphonies are nevertheless quite interesting to hear as examples of the sort of music being produced in and around conservatories in the 19th century by composers with talent but without genius. And Griffiths certainly handles the music with sensitivity and considerable skill. The presentation of the symphonies is also broken up interestingly, with two works written in the operatic style of a Cavatine – one for violin and one for cello – that are in some ways more appealing than the symphonies themselves. Jadassohn worked in many forms, but not that of opera; he nevertheless shows in these two pieces – especially the one for cello, which was his last orchestral work – an affinity for the lyrical expressiveness of opera, as well as skill in composing for the solo instruments, which (especially in the violin work) carry essentially all the interest of the material. Jadassohn may justifiably be only a footnote as a composer, but hearing his compositions will be fascinating for listeners looking for a wider-than-usual perspective on the thriving musical world of the Victorian era.
Much of what is said about Jadassohn also applies to Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who even today is known for his pedagogy but already in his own time was deemed at most an adequate or pedantic composer. Czerny’s case, though, is different from Jadassohn’s, for Czerny divided his work into segments and was well aware that the exercises and salon-style pieces that he created for students and popular entertainment were different from what he called his “serious” music. He was quite capable of producing virtuosic and superficial piano works based on themes from operas while at the same time putting together thoughtful, well-proportioned and often quite impressive string quartets – witness the four performed by the Sheridan Ensemble on a new Capriccio release. Two of these works, in A minor and D, have never been recorded before, and the other two are scarcely better known: interest in Czerny’s music has barely begun to revive, part of the same increasing attention being paid to less-known 19th-century composers that has brought Jadassohn back to a measure of public awareness. Czerny shows in these quartets a genuinely impressive command of instrumental voices, of thematic balance, of the conversational elements of chamber music, and of the expressive potential of a small string ensemble. The three minor-key quartets delve more deeply into emotion than does the one in D, the emotive characteristics of the music here appearing quite genuine and less studied than those in Jadassohn’s symphonies. And Czerny offers some genuine cleverness of musical design in these works: in the D minor, for example, the first theme of the first movement is introduced by viola and cello rather than violin, and the second theme is a variation on the first one – in the relative major. Certainly there are influences of other composers audible here: a touch of Mendelssohn in the first movement of the A minor work, a bit of Haydn in the finale of the quartet in D, even a bit of Schubert here and there. But there is a stylistic solidity to Czerny’s quartets that shows him to have had his own compositional style, one that did more than choose bits and pieces of the approach of other composers. These very fine quartet performances show that Czerny’s more-serious music is certainly worthy of at least occasional revival.
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) has been getting something of a revival for a while now, although much of his often-astonishing piano output remains quite obscure (and beyond the technical reach of many modern pianists, for all their virtuosity in other composers’ works). The first great modern proponents of Alkan’s music were the formidable if somewhat dry Ronald Smith (1922-2004) and the more-theatrical Raymond Lewenthal (1923-1988). Both of their Alkan recordings deserve to be re-released, along with the notes Lewenthal provided about the music: his technique was not always perfect, not always as strong as Smith’s, but Lewenthal’s knowledge, enthusiasm and breezily accessible writing style made Alkan’s music come quite vibrantly alive. A few pianists in more-recent times have made some first-rate Alkan recordings, notably Marc-André Hamelin – and Vincenzo Maltempo, whose name might as well be “bontempo” in this music, so assured is his handling of the repertoire. Several of his recordings on the Piano Classics label have now been combined into a first-rate three-CD set whose primary attraction is an extraordinary presentation of all 12 of the Études dans Touts les Tons Mineurs, pieces so complex that Alkan labeled four of them a symphony for solo piano and three others a concerto for the solo instrument. The composer surely knew that the labels did not fit: the techniques called for are such purely pianistic ones that these pieces could never have been thought of as working in a piano-and-orchestra combination, much less for an orchestra alone. But in terms of communicating the scale and intention of these works, Alkan’s labels make perfect sense: this is music that is truly symphonic in scope, and concerto-like mostly in terms of a work such as Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, itself essentially a symphony with piano. Indeed, Alkan was always pushing the boundaries of musical definition: his Grande Sonate “Les Quatre Áges,” for example, is really much closer to a fantasy in the sense of Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie, a point made explicitly by Maltempo, who, like Lewenthal, offers his own notes on the works he performs. Alkan’s music is so difficult to play that it is tempting to dismiss the works as mere showpieces, like Czerny’s variations on operatic tunes; but in fact Alkan’s pieces flow from a very personal and difficult-to-encompass esthetic. Like Liszt, Alkan was interested in making the piano an orchestra-in-miniature, but he also sought to find expressive potential in what is essentially a percussion instrument – potential realized not in a Chopinesque manner but through intimate understanding of the piano’s capabilities and full, knowing exploitation of them. Le festin d’Ésope, the last and most famous of the Études dans Touts les Tons Mineurs, is a particularly trenchant example, refusing to provide listeners with a guide to the attendees at Aesop’s feast but leaving it up to listeners to decide just which animals are on hand (Lewenthal wrote that in one section he heard fleas). It is the combination of distinctive use of the piano’s capabilities with an insistence on taking the performer’s ability to an absolute extreme that lends Alkan’s music its unique character. The challenge for any pianist trying to scale these particular heights is not to make the virtuosity seem easy – that runs counter to the sensibilities of the music – but to harness the extreme difficulty in the service of the expressive potential of the material. Maltempo clearly understands this, getting the scale of the works just right – the Sonatine, for example, is a typical example of Alkan’s understatement in his titles, since it is very much a sonata even though its scale is less than that of the Grande Sonate “Les Quatre Áges.” Alkan’s music does not always rise to the level of the profound, but it is always interesting music, with characteristics of expression and expressiveness not found in the works of most other composers of his time. Maltempo plays it not only with tremendous skill but also with considerable understanding, of the heart as well as the head: he “gets” Alkan in a way that helps listeners “get” him, too. Maltempo writes that Alkan’s music offers “a constant contrast between the angelic and the demonic,” and that is a good formulation as far as it goes. But Maltempo’s performances go further: this music not only contains beauty and challenges, but also requires that performers find the beauty through the challenges. And that is what Maltempo does in this exhilarating release.
Matters are less intense and complex in the repertoire on a new MSR Classics CD featuring Paul Orgel, but there is still plenty of room for fine pianism here, and for sensitive interpretations of yet more little-known Romantic music. At least two of the three composers featured on this recording, Chausson and Reger, are better-known than Jadassohn and Czerny, although not many of their compositions are performed with any frequency; and Josef Suk (1874-1935) is known almost entirely for his relationship with his father-in-law, Dvořák, rather than on his own account. It turns out, interestingly, that About Mother is a work in which Suk was moving beyond the Dvořák influence that is clear elsewhere in Suk’s work. Despite its title, this set of five character pieces is a reminiscence of Suk’s wife – that is, it was written for Suk’s children about their mother. Suk actually subtitled it “simple pieces for my children,” but the pieces – although often charming in their straightforward emotional expression – are not easy to play, in part because Suk was not a pianist and may have been unaware of some difficulties he created for the performer. These pieces are 19th-century in feeling and approach, despite having been written in 1907: they have enough of Impressionism about them to seem very much of their time, and enough of introspection to reflect a thoroughly Romantic emotional temperament. Orgel plays them with appropriately tender feeling, with the simplicity of the middle piece, “How Mother sang at night to her sick child,” especially affecting. Chausson’s Four Dances (1896) is also a contemplative work, despite its title, with three of its four movements slow or moderate and only the concluding Forlane marked Animé. There is some sense of Impressionism here as well, some resemblance between the moods of these dances and those of works by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel, but Chausson’s emotional connection is somewhat more rarefied, less personal, than that communicated by Suk. As for Reger, a composer frequently considered dry and formal, not emotional at all, Volume 3 of From My Diary (Aus meinem Tagebuch) is a surprisingly lush work and another piece that is clearly in the late-Romantic idiom despite being written after the turn of the 20th century (in 1910-11). The structural parallels between Reger’s six movements and Chausson’s four are interesting, since in Reger too the predominant pacing is slow-to-moderate: two Andante sostenuto movements, an Allegretto, two more marked Andante sostenuto, and only at the end a Vivace. Reger, like Chausson, is a touch more emotionally removed from his subject matter than is Suk from his, although there is a certain pervasive moodiness through most of the Reger suite. Orgel’s playing is sensitive to the emotional ups and downs of all these works, which do, however, tend to pall a bit if heard straight through – largely because of the tempos chosen by the composers (even Suk’s five movements consist of four slow-to-moderate ones plus a not-much-faster Allegro molto moderato). The attraction here lies in the chance to be exposed to some less-known works by some only moderately well-known composers, and to experience the emotions generated by piano pieces that clearly partake of Romantic sensibilities even when their dates of composition range from the end of the 19th century to the early part of the 20th.
May 21, 2015
Bear and Duck. By Katy Hudson. Harper. $17.99.
My Bike. By Byron Barton. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Some picture books just exude charm, while being simple enough in the stories they tell to delight the youngest readers – and even pre-readers who are just starting to pick out a word or two. The message of Katy Hudson’s Bear and Duck is a tried-and-true one: be who you are, be the best “you” you can be, and don’t try to be anyone or anything else. But Hudson’s story is so winningly illustrated that even kids who have encountered the theme before will enjoy it all over again here. Bear has an identity crisis: tired of needing to sleep all winter, wear a fur coat in summer, and deal with the angry bees when he tries to get some honey to eat, Bear decides to become – a duck. He sees ducks waddling by and decides that they have a better life than he does, so why shouldn’t he join them? And he does, hilariously walking in the middle of the line of ducks without being noticed at all until he lets out a presumably bear-size “quack.” Duck, leading the line of ducklings, tells Bear he does not belong with them, but when Duck sees how sad that makes Bear feel (and look), Duck pulls out a handy book called How to Be the Perfect Duck and agrees to help Bear follow the book’s recommendations. Soon Bear is learning about nest-building, egg-sitting, swimming, and – uh-oh – flying. Things do not go well, but they go badly in such amusing ways that kids will delight in Bear’s expressions, notably those in which his tongue hangs out as he climbs a tree to get Duck an apple. Eventually and inevitably, Bear realizes that being a duck is harder than it looks – at least for a bear – and resigns himself to staying a bear after all. But Duck reassures him that he makes “a really good bear and a really good friend,” so all ends happily, with Duck and Bear sharing some Bear-procured honey while bees fly about, perhaps being angry but not displaying any ire toward the pair of friends. The combined messages of self-awareness and friendship blend beautifully here, and the illustrations are, well, picture-perfect for the story.
Even simpler in concept and appearance, Byron Barton’s My Bike features drawings that almost look as if they were made by a child in the 4-8 age group, for whom both this book and Bear and Duck are intended. Barton’s story here is barely a story at all, beginning, “I am Tom. This is my bicycle,” and then showing the basic parts of a bike. Tom is then seen riding his bike to work – he looks like a child but is clearly supposed to be an adult. Tom rides his bike past vehicles that have some strange aspects to them: one is a truck marked “circus,” another a bus in which a dog sits in one passenger seat, another a bus in which both a dog and a cat are seated. Tom rides past people heading for the circus, past the crowds going into the tents, and deeper into the circus – past lions and tigers and elephants and the ringmaster. So it seems that Tom’s work is at the circus – but what does he do? Barton reveals that in the last few pages, showing Tom getting ready for his job – which turns out to have something to do with a bike (more or less). The simplicity of story and childlike drawings combine to make this easy-to-read book (with text in very large type) an easy-to-follow and easy-to-understand one as well. And the small mystery of what Tom does after he goes past all those other vehicles and people will have pre-readers and young readers trying to figure out how the book will end – which means they will enjoy the pleasant and amusing surprise at its conclusion.
Sinbad and Me. By Kin Platt. Page Publishing. $26.99.
All those writers desperate to connect with the so-called “young adult” audience – preteens and young teenagers in particular – through hyper-“relevant” books steeped in modern concerns such as split families, gender uncertainty and perfect racial-and-ethnic balance of protagonists would do well to take a page from Kin Platt (1911-2003). Platt was preoccupied with exactly none of those oh-so-up-to-date matters when he created Sinbad and Me, the first book of a trilogy about a mystery-solving boy and his bulldog. This is actually the second book of a tetralogy if you count The Blue Man (1961), which also features Steve Forrest but unconscionably omits Sinbad. The Edgar Award-winning Sinbad and Me, now (finally!) available in a new edition, dates to 1966, with its sequels being The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t (1969) and The Ghost of Hellsfire Street (1980).
And what will modern sleuth-creating writers discover in Sinbad and Me? They will learn that complex but fair-to-the-reader plotting, amusing and well-wrought characters (even formulaic ones), and a whole series of plot twists and turns, add up to a compulsively readable book that easily outpaces most newer ones in its genre. In fact, they will learn that Sinbad and Me works despite being somewhat frozen in its time, despite some inaccuracies, despite (or perhaps because of) its clear resemblance to even earlier boy-detective books, such as those featuring the Hardy Boys. They will learn that a dog can be a full participant in a mystery/adventure while remaining 100% dog, behaving in a realistically doglike manner: “When I got back to the house I had a quick conference with man’s best friend. Sinbad hadn’t been consulted all day but he wasn’t the type to bear a grudge. He lay and listened and didn’t interrupt once.” There is nothing Scooby Doo-ish about Sinbad, no almost-speech, no taking the lead and helping the rather dim humans around him see what ought to be obvious. But Sinbad is nevertheless a full participant in this mystery/adventure, and his presence is part of what makes Sinbad and Me stand out with such distinction half a century after it was written.
Half a century does bring societal changes, of course. The underlying premise of the novel, which involves Steve being left on his own for a considerable time while his parents head out of town to help relatives, is out of place in an age like ours, where tales of hovering “helicopter parents” alternate with ones about “free-range parents” whose children sometimes get taken away by authorities because the parents allow them to (horrors!) walk home from school unsupervised. The use of printed encyclopedias and the greatest code-breaking technology ever invented – the human brain – seems impossibly quaint today, when people with half a brain or less command enough computer power to solve just about any cipher. The idea of bad guys zipping around in big stolen cars and making largely ineffectual, only semi-scary threats, seems disturbingly over-familiar, to the point of cliché. And having the bad guys use a snake as a weapon – in a scene that any herpetologist would find laughably inaccurate – scarcely increases the story’s verisimilitude.
But so what? Strict realism has never been the point of young-adult adventures. Nowadays, “coming of age” is the main thing that matters, but in Sinbad and Me, what counts is something more straightforward: solving a mystery. Yet the mystery itself is so convoluted that kids of any age (that includes the grown-up kids known as adults) will be captivated by its ins and outs. There are in fact multiple interlocking mysteries here: one involving a sunken gambling ship, another having to do with a harmless “little old lady” who has attracted the attention of some unsavory characters for no apparent reason, another about a lawyer who is a little more close-mouthed than the facts would seem to justify, another about a science teacher with a suspiciously intense interest in skin diving in a certain area, and several concomitant and highly specific mysteries of messages written in code in a cave and on a painting. What Platt does in facile style and with a fine sense of pacing is to weave all these mysteries into a single story built around 12-year-old Steve and his bulldog, with a variety of subsidiary characters to spice up the narrative (notably a sheriff who always seems to stumble upon Steve at just the wrong moment). The result is a story that remains engrossing even though the societal framework in which it is set is long gone – but great art, after all, transcends its time, and if Sinbad and Me is not exactly “great art,” that proves only that pretty doggone good art can be transcendent, too, in its own dogged way.
Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception. By Jani R. Jensen, M.D., and Elizabeth A. Stewart, M.D. Da Capo. $23.99.
Sex: An Uncensored Introduction. By Nikol Hasler. Illustrations by Michael Capozzola. Zest Books. $14.99.
How to get pregnant – and how to enjoy sex if you do not want to get pregnant – are the subjects of, respectively, Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception and Sex: An Uncensored Introduction. The Mayo Clinic book is exactly what anyone familiar with this outstanding medical establishment would expect: thorough, engaging, fact-packed and plainspoken. It is also full of surprises – for example, Jani Jensen and Elizabeth Stewart suggest that both partners, not just the woman, should have good body-mass index (BMI) numbers to maximize the chance of a pregnancy. The book is also upbeat in some rather surprising ways, explaining, for example, to “forget about positions and routines” when trying to get pregnant, because “there’s no scientific basis for the idea that certain positions during sex will enhance conception. By all means, though, feel free to get creative if you like!” The highly positive tone of this book makes some of the more-complex elements of it much easier to accept; the personal stories sprinkled throughout are helpful, too. But it is a fair bet that most people who buy Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception will do so because they want to know how to start or expand a family – the writing style and other people’s stories will be subsidiary. The book proves to be just as helpful (and, not surprisingly, scientifically accurate) as anyone could wish. The authors have impeccable credentials, Jensen as co-director of the In Vitro Fertilization Program at the Mayo Clinic and Stewart as chair of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility. The 20 chapters here focus clearly on just about all aspects of getting pregnant, and each chapter breaks down its topic into accessible, easy-to-follow, clearly written sections. “Ovulation and Fertility Signs,” for example, includes “Your menstrual cycle,” “Your fertility window,” “Products that can help,” and a personal story – and each of the first three of these parts is itself broken down into smaller subsections. This makes the very complex topic of fertility and conception much easier to understand, and has the added advantage of letting readers skip sections in which they are not interested and get right to the ones on which they want to focus. There is, for example, a chapter called “Miscarriage and Ectopic Pregnancy” that includes “Miscarriage,” “Recurrent pregnancy loss,” “Ectopic pregnancy,” “Trying again,” and the usual personal case history. Turn to “Trying again,” for instance, and there is the expected statement that “Pregnancy loss can be an extremely difficult experience. …Keep in mind that you and your partner may deal with a pregnancy loss in different ways. It may not always be easy to recognize that the other person is hurting.” But you will also find the unexpected here: a short description, with photo, of the Japanese custom of making offerings to Jizo, an enlightened being thought to watch over miscarried and aborted fetuses. Of course, Jensen and Stewart do not suggest purchasing a Jizo statue and dressing it in a cap and bib, as is done in Japan; here as elsewhere, they explain more than they recommend. But by including this unfamiliar-to-Westerners custom, they subtly show that the pain of the ending of a desired pregnancy takes many forms and generates many different coping mechanisms. It is this sort of inclusiveness, this openness to multiple approaches to becoming pregnant and carrying a baby to term, that makes Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception so valuable. The book really does go through pretty much every possible child-related alternative, including surgery, reproductive assistance, third-party reproduction, single parenthood, adoption – and child-free living. The expertise of Jensen and Stewart is matched by their empathy, and anyone seeking to start a family or expand one, and who is looking for some sound, scientifically grounded advice and cheerleading, will find them served up here.
Mayo Clinic Guide to Fertility and Conception of course includes a “How Babies Are Made” chapter with illustrations of male and female sexual organs and diagrams of fertilization, implantation, and even the different ways twins develop in the womb. Sex: An Uncensored Introduction includes reproductive-organ illustrations, too, but this is a book primarily targeting teenagers, and its style is therefore very different – starting with the bird and bee shown on the front cover. Nikol Hasler aims for a mixture of accuracy, humor and nonjudgmental, uncensored advice here, and manages a pretty good mix some if not all of the time. Hasler, a mother of teens, hosts a Web series about sex and works in public TV, and she is scarcely a medical expert, but Sex: An Uncensored Introduction is scarcely a medical book. In trying to speak to a teenage audience, Hasler includes elements such as occasional boxes called “There are no stupid questions – except for this one.” An example: “Can I get my mom pregnant if I masturbate in a sock and then my mom washes the dirty sock, gets dried semen on her hand, and later wipes herself?” Also here, in addition to what Hasler calls “the basics” about sex, are entries such as “What’s in a name?” – where she says “there are lots of great (and not so great) names for your body parts! Here are some of our faves.” Those include, for breasts, “airbags…tittybojangles, tracks of land, chesticles…dairy pillows,” and for penis, “one-eyed trouser snake, schlong, purple-headed yogurt slinger…tallywhacker…pork sword.” Clearly this is not a book as straightforward as the Mayo Clinic’s. But there is an underlying seriousness of purpose to Sex: An Uncensored Introduction, as shown in answers to a variety of questions that raise concerns ranging from “My penis is kind of small” to “I’m an openly gay kid, and I am really sensitive to guys thinking I want them”; from “I was raped as a young girl, and because of this I feel like I have lost the magic” to “Will my new boyfriend still want to have sex with me when he finds out that I am all loose and stretched out?” Hasler takes all these questions seriously and answers them carefully and nonjudgmentally – indeed, the nonjudgmental aspect of the book is one of its strongest points. A weaker element is the way Hasler bends over backwards to stay with-it and trendy, probably because she wants teens to pay attention. Thus, her first entry under “Gender Identifications” is: “Cisgender: People who are comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth.” Assigned at birth? By whom? What exactly does that mean? But the basic advice in the book is sound and is delivered forthrightly: “Sex or foreplay should be consensual every time you have it, no matter what kind of sex it is and who [sic] you are having it with.” If anything, Hasler errs on the side of caution, as when discussing sexually transmitted infections: “If you are sexually active, you should be getting tested every six months, even if you are using condoms (which you’d better be).” There is nothing pandering or smarmy in Sex: An Uncensored Introduction, despite the fact that it lives up fairly well to Hasler’s promise to discuss “everything that has to do with sex.” The book is not an advocacy tract: “This book is not here to tell you to have or not to have sex – it’s to tell you what you need to know if you are having sex, or ever will.” Yes, some of the attempts at humor fall flat, such as the chapter title, “Oral, Vaginal, and Anal Sex: You’re Going to Put That Where?” And whether some items are humorous is a matter of opinion, such as this “no stupid questions” entry: “If I want to make it to third base on the first date, does it help to bring a baseball bat?” However, the biggest issue with Sex: An Uncensored Introduction is that the humor and seriousness sometimes coexist uneasily and imperfectly, with the funny elements tending to override the far more important serious and health-related ones. For the intended teen audience, though, that may be no issue at all, although it is sometimes difficult to remember that Hasler is addressing teens – as when, for example, she feels obliged to write a definition implying far more naïveté than teenagers are likely to possess: “Some people like to look at pictures or movies of people having sex. This is called pornography, or porn.” Still, the bottom-line message here, and it is one that Hasler delivers effectively, is, “We’re all wired differently, and we all like different things for different reasons.” That is a comment that teens – and parents of teens, such as Hasler herself – can hopefully take to heart…not just to their sex organs.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Copenhagen Phil conducted by Lan Shui. Orchid Classics. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9; Erinnergung an Marienbad. NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).
Bruckner: The Complete Symphonies (Nos. 1-9); Mass No. 3 in F Minor. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski; Lenneke Ruiten, soprano; Iris Vermillion, mezzo-soprano; Shawn Mathey, tenor; Franz Josef Selig, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin. PentaTone. $89.99 (10 SACDs).
No matter how many times complete recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies are made, there is always room for another – so deeply do these works communicate through the ages, so susceptible are they to multiple readings and interpretative nuances. The first portion of the Beethoven cycle by the very strangely named Copenhagen Phil (founded as a Tivoli dance orchestra in 1843!) is exceptionally revelatory, even to those who feel they have heard just about every possible variation on Beethoven interpretation. Conductor Lan Shui does a number of things that, in combination, set his interpretations apart. For one thing, his orchestra uses original instruments or replicas – resulting in a sound very different from that of modern orchestras, especially in the brass, which Beethoven often has playing quite loudly but which, even at maximum volume, never overshadows the remainder of the musicians (because older brass instruments simply could not attain the volume of modern ones). Secondly, Shui insists on adhering to Beethoven’s own tempo indications, which remain controversial to this day, with some musicians and scholars insisting that Beethoven’s Maelzel metronome was defective or simply that the composer could not possibly have meant his music to be played as quickly as some of the tempo markings indicate. Thirdly, Copenhagen Phil itself is an orchestra of modest size, about 70 players, so there is a cleanness of sound and an inherent sectional balance here that is far more difficult to attain in orchestras of 90 to 100 musicians. The combination of these factors results in performances of Beethoven’s first four symphonies that are exhilarating, dynamic and dramatic to a very substantial degree. The sheer fleetness of the outer movements of No. 1 is delightful to hear, and indeed rather amazing. No. 2 sounds like a genuine transitional work, with much of the structure and overall approach of No. 1 but very clear hints of what was to come in No. 3. The “Eroica” itself gets a revelatory reading: from the first two chords, which are emphatic but not overwhelming (as in so many other performances), to a funeral march that moves ahead smartly rather than at a glacial pace, to a finale that seems to test the strings to their limit, this is a reading that makes Beethoven’s expansion of symphonic style quite clear while at the same time showing his indebtedness to earlier masters of the form. And Symphony No. 4, so often under-appreciated, fares splendidly here, too, seeming not at all a step back from the “Eroica” (as some commentators and conductors still consider it to be) but a decided move forward, with subtleties of instrumentation and a significant expansion of Beethoven’s expectation of performers’ capabilities. The finale of No. 4 here sounds like nothing less than a giant leap in the direction of Mendelssohnian scurrying. This Orchid Classics release is the start of one of the most interesting Beethoven cycles in years, and listeners who hear the freshness and brightness of the performances will be looking forward eagerly to Shui’s handling of the remainder of the symphonies.
One cycle begins, another concludes: all 10 Louis Spohr symphonies (numbered 1-9, with a tenth without opus number) have now been released by CPO in a series of recordings featuring Howard Griffiths and the NDR Radiophilharmonie. Spohr was for a time considered the leading symphonist after Beethoven’s death, and Griffiths’ five CDs clearly show a modern audience why that was so – and why the composer’s reputation did not last. Spohr had some highly innovative concepts for symphonies, but his ability to implement them convincingly was often far less than those ideas deserved. This is quite clear in the contrast between Symphonies No. 7 and 9. No. 7 is one of Spohr’s best, a symphony roughly modeled on his once-famous double quartets: it is in effect a double-orchestra symphony, setting a small group of 11 players against a larger, full-size ensemble. But it is not just the orchestration that is special – there is also a program here, with the smaller group representing Good and the larger one Evil, all within the context of the work’s title, “The Earthly and the Divine in Human Life.” This is a lot of freight for a symphony to carry, but in this case Spohr brings off the concept with élan and considerable skill. The work’s three movements represent childhood and its innocence, adulthood and its secular concerns, and old age and its decided turn toward the divine. Furthermore, the work’s structure is highly unusual: it lacks both a slow movement and a scherzo, instead containing two moderate-tempo movements followed by a fast finale. Spohr appended mottos to all three movements, and it does help to know them to get the full flavor of the music; they are included in this release’s accompanying booklet. But even without knowing the words, listeners will be swept along through the drama and the contrasts between the smaller and larger orchestral groups. A highly unusual work, Spohr’s Seventh is a high point of his symphonic production. His Ninth, however, is altogether less successful. Written in 1849, eight years later than No. 7, Spohr’s Ninth also has programmatic elements, being called “The Seasons” – but starting in winter and progressing through to autumn, rather than beginning with spring as Vivaldi and Haydn did. Again here there is an unusual structure: two parts, the first including winter, introduction to spring and spring, the second containing summer, introduction to autumn and autumn. But in this case, Spohr’s creativity flagged in the implementation of what is essentially a simple program. There is nothing wrong with the symphony, but nothing especially right about it either: it goes through the motions harmonically and descriptively (although less so in a descriptive sense than other works on the same topic), but it never really grabs the listener, and it tends to sound mundane and even plodding as it progresses. There is a thunderstorm, for instance, but only in the distance, and there are hunting horns, but only briefly and only as a lead-in to a rather ordinary rondo theme. Spohr’s creativity seems to have flagged late in life – this is also why he withdrew his Symphony No 10, although he did not destroy it. His No. 9 is well-crafted but ultimately not especially memorable. Griffiths concludes his Spohr survey with Erinnergung an Marienbad (“Souvenir of Marienbad”), a work from 1833 in which Spohr shows himself capable of producing a workmanlike if not particularly distinguished waltz. Written for small orchestra, it is a pleasant piece with few affectations and, as such, of more interest than some of Spohr’s more-pretentious works that seek grandeur and meaningfulness but never quite attain them.
The grandeur of Bruckner’s symphonies comes through quite clearly in the newest cycle of those works, featuring Marek Janowski and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Like Beethoven cycles, those of Bruckner come in many forms and with many approaches – and, in the case of Bruckner, with different counts of symphonies. Bruckner wrote 11 symphonies, including a very early one now numbered “00” and a later one, created between Nos. 1 and 2, that is known as “No. 0.” Conductors have to decide which symphonies to include in a Bruckner cycle, and Janowski opts only for Nos. 1-9 – a justifiable position, although No. 0 is certainly worth hearing (No. 00 is more conventional and of less interest, although a truly comprehensive cycle should incorporate it). So whether this cycle is “complete” depends on one’s definition of completeness where Bruckner is concerned. Conductors also have to decide which versions of the symphonies to use, and this is a notorious problem for the many symphonies that exist in multiple forms. Janowski opts for Nowak versions throughout, except for the new and well-regarded Carragan version of No. 2; however, the specific Nowak versions Janowski chooses are not always the best: the 1889 version of No. 3, for example, is a distinct disappointment, no matter how well it is played. And the playing itself is another issue in Bruckner cycles, even more so than in sequences of other composers’ symphonies, because Bruckner’s unique sound requires thorough familiarity with and understanding of the composer’s Masses, his predilection for the organ, and the German (and, even more specifically, Wagnerian) sound of orchestras in Bruckner’s time. This last matter is a significant one for Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, whose distinctive sound is far more French than German – which results in Bruckner that is smoother, more flowing and more even (that is, less craggy) than in many other readings. Add to this sonic element the fact that Janowski, a first-rate opera conductor, sees Bruckner’s symphonies as works of high drama and tremendous drive, and you have a cycle that sheds a different sort of light on the composer while arguing (admittedly not always convincingly) that his worldview was essentially operatic and driven by grand emotional outbursts. Janowski is quite capable of giving listeners heartfelt, warm and religiously committed performances – the best example here is the Mass No. 3 in F Minor, included as a sort of bonus disc with the symphonies (and fitting well with them: Bruckner often drew on his Masses, including this one, for symphonic material). But the emotionalism of the slow movements of Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8, and of the third movement of the truncated No. 9, comes through clearly as well, with Janowski giving the music plenty of room to breathe and with the orchestral players letting it flow with substantial, almost oceanically engulfing warmth. The most memorable movements here, though, are the ones from which Janowski can extract maximum dramatic impact, including in particular the finales: Nos. 2, 3, 6 and 7 come across especially well. The scherzos also receive dynamically engaging performances, their Ländler rhythms brought forth distinctively and their intense elements played with great strength that leads to a strong contrast between their main sections and their central trios. Janowski also has particular sensitivity to misterioso elements of Bruckner – the opening of the first movement of No. 9, which has never sounded more dramatic than it does here, and the same symphony’s weirdly flickering scherzo, are but two examples, although particularly good ones. This cycle – offered in PentaTone’s usual splendid SACD sound, and also sounding excellent on standard CD equipment – will probably not be Bruckner aficionados’ first choice, because of the orchestra’s sound, the choice of editions of the symphonies, the failure to include Nos. 00 and 0, and the absence of a compelling musical argument carried throughout the symphonies (such as that of Mario Venzago’s recent and very Schubertian sequence, employing different orchestras to highlight distinctive elements of each symphony). The sheer power of Bruckner, though, comes through forcefully here, and many of the movements – if not necessarily entire symphonies – are so impressive as to make listeners sit up and take notice. This cycle is certainly not definitive, if that word has any meaning where Bruckner is concerned, but it is highly interesting and even intriguing in its emphasis on the grand, even grandiose elements of symphonies by a composer who was, in his everyday life, as modest and unassuming as they come.
Gian Francesco Malipiero: Sinfonia degli eroi; Ditirambo tragico; Armenia; Grottesco; Dai sepolcri. Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Amaury du Closel. Naxos. $12.99.
Zhou Long: The Rhyme of Taigu; The Enlightened; Symphony “Humen 1839” (written with Chen Yi). New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Darrell Ang. Naxos. $12.99.
Chiayu: Urban Sketches; Huan; Journey to the West; Twelve Signs; Sparkle; Zhi. Members of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Philadelphia Orchestra; Ciompi Quartet (Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku, violins; Jonathan Bagg, viola; Fred Raimi, cello). Naxos. $12.99.
Sergio Cervetti: Concertino; Exiles; Guitar Music (the bottom of the iceberg); El Río de los Pájaros Pintados; Candombe. Navona. $16.99.
Lionel Sainsbury: Andalusian Fantasy; Nocturne; South American Suite; Twelve Preludes; Esquisse; Cuban Fantasy. Lionel Sainsbury, piano. Navona. $16.99.
Isabel Leonard: Preludios. Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano; Brian Zeger, piano. Delos. $16.99.
The City of Tomorrow: Nature—works by David Lang, Luciano Berio, Denys Bouliane and Nat Evans. City of Tomorrow Wind Quintet (Elise Blatchford, flute; Stuart Breczinski, oboe; Camila Barrientos Ossio, clarinet; Laura Miller, bassoon; Leander Star, horn). Ravello. $14.99.
Emotional content that subsumes the formal within itself, or eschews it altogether, is a characteristic of the work of Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973). Malipiero had little patience with any formal musical approaches handed down over the centuries, preferring a kind of organic growth of his works in a manner that, when it worked, could be decades ahead of its time. His music grows from motivic rather than thematic elements, and he preferred free-range musical growth to anything that would allow listeners to grasp, through their knowledge of formal structures, the essence of his music. Even in his early and lesser works – including all five on a new Naxos CD – Malipiero was groping toward a later style that actively opposed the German symphonic tradition and attempted to look forward by utilizing such past approaches as Gregorian chant and Italian music of the 18th century. Thus, Sinfonia degli eroi (“Symphony of Heroes”), from 1905, is less a symphony or sinfonia in a classical sense than a tone poem – without, however, having any specific program, since Malipiero also disdained program music. Ditirambo tragico (“Tragic Dithyramb”), from 1917, reflects its wartime composition atmospherically but without specificity. Armenia, also from 1917, stands in strong contrast, using traditional Armenian melodies in a work whose primary characteristics are charm and relaxation. The aptly titled Grottesco (“Grotesque”), from 1918, seems to reflect both the Great War and the musical approaches of Stravinsky in its variety and pungency. And Malipiero’s earliest surviving work, Dai sepolcri (“From Tombs”), which dates to 1904, carries whiffs of death through an extended tone-poem format that, as is the case with Sinfonia degli eroi (the composer’s second-earliest surviving piece), is nevertheless without formal structure or a carefully delineated program. Four of the five works played here by the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra under Amaury du Closel are world première recordings; only Grottesco has been recorded before. Malipiero’s music is not especially approachable, despite its adherence to diatonic principles: its organizational methods take some getting used to, and the effort is not always repaid by the music’s communicative abilities. Yet elements of these works speak effectively of content that cannot easily be captured within traditional forms.
The forms used by Zhou Long (born 1953) in three world première recordings on a new Naxos CD are more conventional, but the material around which the works are built is not. The Rhyme of Taigu (2003) is, in essence, a symphonic poem, but it is one using traditional Chinese percussion instruments to very good effect in an attempt to pull modern listeners’ ears back to the world of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). An orchestral expansion and reconsideration of an earlier chamber work, this piece includes the dagu (Chinese bass drums) and uses modern winds to evoke the sound of the old double-reed guanzi. Similarly, The Enlightened (2005) ties to an earlier work – in this case, The Immortal, written a year earlier. The Enlightened has a sociopolitical purpose, attempting to assert ways in which music can improve listeners’ relationships with other people and, indeed, the entire planet. Its unusual sounds come from standard orchestral instruments; its tempo is slow throughout; and its texture becomes denser as the piece progresses. It is not an especially easy piece to hear, and goes on rather longer than its purely musical elements justify, but it has moments of effective sonic display and ones that are evocative of unnamed mysteries. Symphony “Humen 1839,” co-created by Zhou Long and his wife, Chen Yi (born 1953), dates to 2009 and is intended to evoke the events leading up to the First Opium War between Great Britain and China. In four movements that roughly approximate the traditional ones of a Western symphony, the piece pays specific tribute to Lin Zexu (1785-1850), the scholar and government official whose opposition to the opium trade is considered largely responsible for the First Opium War (1839-42). The work progresses from a first movement based on traditional melodies through a mournful section expressing the humiliation of China during the war, eventually ending with an assertion of pride, power and an expectation of a better future. Tied so directly to a conflict of which most modern Westerners know little, if anything, the symphony has less resonance for a Western audience than in China, where its referents are clear and its eventual sense of triumph only to be expected. Like the other works here, this is a melding of matters Eastern and Western done with considerable technical skill but without the sort of emotional connection that would successfully bridge a cultural gap that still exists today.
Chiayu (born 1975), who was born in Taiwan and uses only one name, also tries to bridge gaps with her music, a point she makes quite directly in Journey to the West (2010) for string quartet – one of the six works, all of them world première recordings, on a new Naxos CD. Based on a classic Chinese novel about a trip to India by a monk and his disciple – the monkey king – in search of sacred texts, Journey to the West uses a string quartet to imitate the sound of Chinese instruments (in a manner not unlike that employed by Zhou Long); and it includes techniques ranging from chords made entirely of harmonics to a perpetuum mobile representing a battle with monsters. Writing is also the inspiration for Huan (2006), a work based on a book about the Limberlost swamplands in Indiana and the wildlife found there. Written for a harp competition, this piece uses the harp in some unusual ways, including clusters and scraping effects on the strings. There is a mixture of Impressionism and rather self-conscious tone-painting here, and some of the effects seem overdone, such as the use of a cloth threaded between harp strings in the third and final movement. Even more elaborate is Twelve Signs (2008), whose 12 movements reflect the signs of the traditional Chinese zodiac as grouped into four sections: the first fast and energetic, the second meditative and tonally unsettled, the third fragmented, the fourth slow and lyrical. These four “overviews” are combined with instrumental effects designed to showcase each of the 12 animals of the zodiac – a complex structure that actually works surprisingly well in communicating a sense of the multiplicity of personalities for which the 12 signs of the zodiac stand. Sparkle (2011) for brass quintet is somewhat less successful in its purpose of evoking fireworks imagery – the clicking and popping sounds called for seem both obvious and unclear. Zhi (2005) has a title that refers to weaving or interlacing to form a design. It is a twelvetone work, containing many of the compositional techniques that seem designed to distance the music from those not fully in the know about its creation: three variations on a series of 12 chords, with three principal chords recurring in different transpositions; a repetitive five-note pattern in augmentation and diminution; and so on. This is music as intellectual exercise, not a work likely to or intended to appeal to more than a rarefied audience. Urban Sketches (2013) is more engaging, although it wears thin long before its 11 minutes are over. Written for piano trio and electronic sounds, it is yet another of the innumerable sound portraits of New York City, including the expected whistles, sirens and brakes with the less-expected sounds of salsa music, jazz, and the Chinese bamboo flute. The combination of styles here is quite typical of what many contemporary composers offer. Chiayu handles it well, integrating the electronic elements skillfully, but the piece leaves behind it a certain sense of having heard all this before.
Electronics also figure in Exiles for piano and electronics, a 1980 minimalist work by Sergio Cervetti that is featured, along with four other pieces, on a new Navona CD. The overall impression left by this disc is that Cervetti has dabbled in multiple styles, has assimilated them (or at least elements of them), but has never quite found an individualized voice that integrates elements of the compositional approaches within his own vision. Exiles basically starts with a slow piano version of a patriotic Uruguayan theme, then has electronic sounds overwhelm the theme and swamp it. Somewhat similarly, Guitar Music (the bottom of the iceberg), from 1975, is also minimalist in construction and also includes a touch of South America (flamenco in this case), using the solo guitar as part of one of those modernist experiments in pitch that seem to be of far more interest to composers than to any potential audience. More interesting is another piece with electronic elements, in this case combined with bandoneon: El Río de los Pájaros Pintados, whose title is the Spanish translation of the native Guarani Indian word “uru-guay,” meaning “River of the Painted Birds.” Relying for its effects on a Uruguayan national dance, this piece is more involving and less self-referential than either Exiles or Guitar Music. And there is another work here that leans on the same dance: Candombe, a 1996 orchestration of a 1984 piece for harpsichord – no electronic elements here, but the orchestration is facile and the piece as a whole nicely crafted. More interesting still, though, and the most effective work on this disc, is Concertino, a 2013 work for piano, woodwinds and timpani that brings South American rhythms to the fore and mixes them, improbably, with a quote from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. It sounds as if the combination cannot possibly work, but it does, thanks in large part to the extreme contrast between the primary sounds of the three movements and the very different aural appearance of Mahler’s music. The orchestration of Concertino helps a great deal, too: it is for four different types of saxophones as well as more-traditional wind instruments, plus piano and timpani.
Piano stands alone on a new CD of music by Lionel Sainsbury, performed by the composer. South American rhythms, in particular those of the flamenco, loom as large here as on the Cervetti disc, if not larger. But other elements are even more evident in these pieces – specifically, jazz and blues, with classical sensibilities making themselves felt as well. Two well-made fantasies, Andalusian and Cuban, are the bookends of this release, both of them showing Sainsbury’s attentiveness to the dance rhythms of the regions he is profiling and both of them straddling the line between more-serious music and what used to be called salon pieces. The seven-movement South American Suite steps over that line: it is highly blues-inflected and sounds, in the composer’s somewhat over-the-top performance, like a work designed for a nightclub. Sainsbury’s Twelve Preludes, on the other hand, make his command of classical forms quite clear, although oftentimes in an overdone way: Maestoso (No. 1) sounds more like pomposo, for example, while Allegro non troppo (No. 4) is more like allegro gershwiniana, and Lento sostenuto (no. 5) is closer to lento quasi lugubrioso. As for Con malinconia (No. 11), it sounds more as if someone has a chill and fever than a melancholy temperament or episode. On the other hand, Nocturne does sound suitably nocturnal, which in this case means Chopinesque; but it does not have a great deal of individuality or much that is unexpected in its expressiveness. The shortest work on this CD, Esquisse, is one of the more effective pieces here, neither over-ambitious nor over-extended, with a pleasant lilt despite some rather halting rhythms. Listeners who have enjoyed other works by Sainsbury on Navona, for which he records regularly, are a natural target audience for this CD of six world premières.
Sometimes a South American and/or Spanish focus is clearer and stronger in vocal works than in ones that are entirely instrumental – for example, on a new Delos disc featuring Argentinian mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard performing works by Mompou, de Falla, Lorca, Sanjuán, Granados and Montsalvatge. Two folk-based and dark-hued songs by Lorca come across particularly well here, as do Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciónes negras, whose varied moods both Leonard and pianist Brian Zeger seem to understand intuitively and thus handle with a strong sense of empathy. Leonard seems particularly at home with works that are a touch unsettling and ones filled with pathos, if not exactly tragedy. Part of her effectiveness comes from the rich timbre of her voice, which often imbues the mezzo-soprano range with fullness almost worthy of a contralto. More comes from her sensitivity to rhythm, the suppleness of her vocal delivery, her attentiveness to phrasing both verbal and musical. Joaquín "Quinito" Valverde Sanjuán’s song Clavelitos (“Little Carnations”), for example, is a favorite of many sopranos, but Leonard makes it her own and shows how her lower-range voice can add piquancy and emotional intensity to the song. For that matter, even the Spanish folk lullaby that serves as an encore on this CD has a warmth and level of emotional connection that are unusual in so simple and straightforward a song. This CD is called Preludios, referring to de Falla’s Op. 16, but in fact the disc may be a prelude to something else: increasing listener interest not only in these songs but also in Leonard, whose warmth and involvement in this largely less-than-familiar repertoire are winning.
Sometimes the impressions that contemporary composers seek to showcase are entirely extra-musical ones, despite being evoked through music. The four works on a new Ravello CD featuring the City of Tomorrow Wind Quintet are of this type. The most interesting of the pieces is Ricorrenze by Luciano Berio, in which a single unison note is used to “grow” a variety of virtuosic display elements that test the players’ mettle significantly. The title means “Celebrations,” and although the celebratory nature of the material is less than obvious, the sheer virtuosity the work calls for – and this ensemble’s delivery of it – are impressive. At something of the opposite extreme is David Lang’s Breathless, one of those works in which instruments play and replay the same phrase, falling all over each other in overlapping lines intended to add up to something more than cacophony but sounding much like other works of similar structure. More interesting in its complexity, although somewhat pretentious in its attempt to comment upon art while being art, is a work by Denys Bouliane whose title includes the quotation marks and ellipses that some composers seem to believe lend their music an air of authority: “…A Certain Chinese Cyclopaedia…” Finally, there is a work by Nat Evans – also with pretensions to philosophical profundity – called Music for Breathing and intended to reflect varying aspects of biological events. There is actually a certain pleasing balance in opening the CD with Breathless and concluding it with Music for Breathing, but all four works here somewhat overreach in their attempts to be about matters of importance, as if music itself were not important enough. Berio’s seems most comfortable with what it is and is therefore of greatest impact – although the sound of all these pieces, Berio’s included, will not likely please listeners used to a more-mellow, gentler use of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn.