January 12, 2017

(++++) HISTORY, HER-STORY


A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies. By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Anna DiVito. Harper. $16.99.

Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation. By Cokie Roberts. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Harper. $17.99.

     The notion that there is more to history than traditional rulers-and-battles accounts include is nothing new; history itself has become fragmented into writings that attempt to “right wrongs” (by strictly contemporary standards) by discussing “under-represented” ethnic, racial or religious groups and alleging that “true” history is correctly understood only when seen from those groups’ perspective instead of – or in addition to – the more commonly known one. In reality, the vast majority of what we think of as “history” is resolutely mundane: people simply live within the strictures of their time and do their best to get through each day, each week, each month, each year. A large amount of what we make a big deal about nowadays is neither more nor less than the vicissitudes of everyday life in a past that we can never fully understand, because we never experienced it and never can. It is worth remembering, just to cite one small example, that Thomas Jefferson, a polymath and one of the greatest presidents of the United States, did not consider the presidency important enough to be mentioned on his tombstone. It states – and these were Jefferson’s explicit instructions, “not a word more” – that he was “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” The fact that most people nowadays deem the omission of the presidency unaccountable is a failing of modern thinking, not a problem with Jefferson’s beliefs or values.

     That said, there is value to understanding multiple perspectives on lives lived and ended long ago, and well-written books that explore such lives can give young readers (and, for that matter, adults) some insight into the past that traditional histories do not. Generally, the key to the books’ value is whether or not they are cause-driven – the ones determined to “redress” some sort of imagined (or even actual) “imbalance” in standard histories tend to lecture and hector, while the more matter-of-fact ones often provide genuine insight. Kathleen Krull generally does a fine job with books of this type, and A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies is no exception. Jefferson, as it happens, is one of the few presidents who did not have a “first lady” in the form of a wife: his beloved Martha had died nearly 20 years before Jefferson assumed the presidency. The wives of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Chester A. Arthur also died before those men became president; and James Buchanan never married. A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies briefly mentions how those presidents handled the expected hostess duties and other functions that First Ladies traditionally assumed – but of course it spends most of its time on presidential wives and the things they did. In doing so, Krull offers some genuine insight. For example, Edith Wilson’s commanding role in government after Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke is well enough known to appear in most histories – but the connection of what she did with the 25th Amendment, which states that the vice president takes over when the president is incapacitated, is not always explained clearly. And the fact that Edith Wilson supported John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, and rode in the parade during his inauguration, is mentioned even less frequently. Furthermore, the fact that there was (informal) precedent for what Edith Wilson did is rarely mentioned – but Krull notes that Julia Grant, the devoted wife of Ulysses S. Grant (who was equally devoted to her), “was an active adviser in private” and was the first First Lady to issue a press release and regularly inform the media (that is, the newspapers) of the activities of the First Family. Krull also humanizes each First Lady – again using Julia Grant as an example, Krull says she had “one eye that moved uncontrollably” and therefore “walked awkwardly if she didn’t have someone guiding her,” but Ulysses talked her out of having corrective surgery because he loved her just as she was. Small, heartwarming bits of information like that, although scarcely the main point of A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies, make the book all the better. For instance, Bess Truman, when asked which earlier First Lady she most identified with, chose Elizabeth Monroe – who had followed super-popular Dolley Madison just as Bess followed the very dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt. One thing that becomes clear from A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies is that the majority of these women were very much of their time – subservient when that was the expectation, then increasingly assertive as women gained additional legal rights. Some, however, helped lead women into more-modern times: for example, Caroline Harrison was the first to deliver a speech in public that she had written, and Ida McKinley was the first First Lady to come out in public as supporting women’s right to vote. A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies includes illustrations by Anna DiVito that are nothing particularly special but that do help give a sense of what the First Ladies looked like. They do a good job in their supporting role – much as most First Ladies did in theirs.

     Cokie Roberts’ Ladies of Liberty is more of an agenda-driven book: its subtitle, The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, is more an assertion than a fact. There are two First Ladies here – James Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth, and John Quincy Adams’ spouse, Louisa Catherine. There is also Martha Jefferson Randolph, who did the duties of First Lady for her father, Thomas Jefferson. But most of the book is about women who contributed in other ways. Some are now quite well-known, such as Sacagawea, famed for her work with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Others are known in limited circles but not generally, such as Isabella Graham, founder of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children and originator of Sunday school. Abetted by atmospheric, stylish Diane Goode illustrations – which, unlike those in Krull’s book, are a significant element of the stories – Roberts gives two-page biographies of 10 women and discusses many more in brief on pages labeled “Women Through the Years” (the years being 1727 to 1825), “Women Educators and Reformers,” and “Women Writers.” There are some genuine surprises here, such as the inclusion of Louise D’Avezac Livingston, an early environmental activist who was the wife of Edward Livingston, the U.S. ambassador to France under President Andrew Jackson; and Rebecca Gratz, founder of the first Jewish orphanage in the United States and possibly the source of the character Rebecca in the novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, whom she had met while in England. The picking and choosing of the women here seems designed to cover as many contemporary focuses as possible, from environmentalism and Judaism to Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, and so forth. The inclusiveness is not especially intrusive, but it does give a somewhat misleading view of the roles played by women in the American colonies and early United States. Still, Ladies of Liberty is a brief and interesting foray into the lives, adventures and concerns of a few women who, if they did not quite shape the new nation, certainly contributed in important ways to some aspects of the way it developed.

(++++) THE FANTASTICS


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Character Guide. By Michael Kogge. Scholastic. $14.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Magical Movie Handbook. By Michael Kogge. Scholastic. $7.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Beasts—Cinematic Guide. By Felicity Baker. Scholastic. $8.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Beasts Poster Book. Scholastic. $7.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Coloring and Creativity Book. Scholastic. $8.99.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Fashion Sketchbook. Scholastic. $15.99.

     Rarely are the inevitable movie tie-in books more valuable or interesting than souvenirs of a short-term infatuation with a particular film. Some of the books that take off from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are therefore exceptional – if not in themselves, then because they are genuinely interesting and could lure people to the film instead of simply being ways for those who already know the movie to remember it. The latest entry into the world of Harry Potter, the first of a planned five-movie sequence, got only mixed reviews, its heavy emphasis on computer-generated imagery and plot exegesis making it less enthralling to many than the coming-of-age story involving Harry, Ron and Hermione, which takes place 70 years later and an ocean away from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. However, the new film’s handsome staging and intriguing use of a muggle (called “no-maj” in this movie) as a major character give it a different angle on magic from that of the original eight-film sequence, while the use of the director of the last four Harry Potter films – David Yates – provides some continuity of pacing and visualization. In any case, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers plenty of reasons to revisit J.K. Rowling’s original books and spinoffs from them, and a number of these half-dozen movie tie-ins proffer more magic and involvement than is usual in film-derived, film-dependent books.

     The Character Guide and Magical Movie Handbook are actually both character-focused, giving brief biographies of the movie’s central character, “magizoologist” Newt Scamander, and the various characters, beasts and objects with which he interacts in the film: witch sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein, no-maj Jacob Kowalski, the anti-witch Second Salemers, the powerful Shaw family, members of the U.S magic-ruling organization known as MACUSA, and of course the beasts. Character Guide spends most of its time on people and their relationships with each other and the society in which they live, a reimagined 1920s New York City. Magical Movie Handbook gives less space to characters and more to the beasts, organizations and locations of the movie – and even has a section on wands and spells, the differentiation of wands’ appearance being an intriguing (if scarcely central) element in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

     For an even stronger focus on the beasts of the film there is The Beasts—Cinematic Guide, which gives at least a few pages to every one of the 14 beasts seen in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, even those that make little more than a cameo appearance (although, of course, they could always play a greater role in films yet to come). At 64 pages, this is a very short hardcover book, but one that does an unusually good job of explaining what the beasts are supposed to be and do. It offers fewer scenes from the film than the Character Guide and Magical Movie Handbook, but the ones it does show are well-chosen. And then, for viewers really intrigued by the movie’s CGI creations, The Beasts Poster Book is a visual treat, offering 24 pull-out pages showing the creatures (and some of the human characters) in full, resplendent color and large 8½-by-11-inch size.

     The tie-ins to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them also include, not surprisingly, some activity books; these seem aimed at younger viewers and really do function mostly as souvenirs of the film. The (+++) Coloring and Creativity Book, which includes stickers as well as black-and-white pages to color, offers a chance to reimagine the beasts of the movie as well as some of the characters and even some objects, such as a MACUSA identification card and the Magical Exposure Threat Level Clock. And a close look at the to-be-colored pages occasionally reveals a certain level of subtle humor, as on a page showing some of the items that Newt uses to track beasts and care for them: the five Ministry of Magic classification levels for beasts range from the serious XXXXX, “impossible to train or domesticate,” to the basic X, described with the single word “boring.” This book will make sense only to readers who have seen the film already, which is why it is best thought of as a souvenir rather than an involving work in its own right. And much the same is true – in fact, to an even greater degree – when it comes to Fashion Sketchbook. This book is largely based on the notion that Queenie, the younger of the sister witches with whom Newt interacts, is a 1920s version of what would now be called a fashionista: she is preoccupied with clothing, hair, and her overall “look.” In truth, the period costumes of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are a high point of the film, whatever its structural lacks may be, and for those interested in fashions and fashion design, Fashion Sketchbook will be a lot of fun. It shows how various characters (not only Queenie) and objects look in the movie, then gives readers a chance to “interact” with the film’s scenario. For instance, one of Newt’s beasts, a Niffler, is attracted to shiny objects, so this book offers four drawings of hands and arms that can be used to create ring and bracelet designs. Queenie wears her hair in short curls, a popular 1920s style, and the book provides three drawings of heads on which to create and color hairstyles. There is even a page showing seven different wand designs, with an opposite blank page for creating a wand. The (+++) Fashion Sketchbook is of limited appeal, but will be quite enjoyable for those intrigued by this aspect of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Interestingly, though, several other books among these tie-ins have the potential to reach out beyond people who have already seen the film and perhaps get them interested in viewing it – and for those who have seen and enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the tie-ins will make it easier to wait for the next movie in the series while remembering the high points of this one.

(++++) ONWARD! UPWARD?


The Bad Guys #2: Mission Unpluckable. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.

Bird & Squirrel on Fire. By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series is just settling in for what looks to be a long stay. This delightful heap of ridiculousness posits that four known do-badders want to become do-gooders, led by Mr. Wolf and including Mr. Snake, Mr. Shark and Mr. Piranha. In their first outing, the four managed to make a mess of pretty much everything through a series of missteps that led to the eventual freeing of all the dogs imprisoned in the local dog pound – the point being that the dogs fled out of fear of the bad-guys-turned-good-guys. Mission Unpluckable picks up there, with a rehash of the end of the first book, as intrepid TV reporter Tiffany Fluffit talks about the “crazed gang” whose attack caused “200 terrified puppy dogs to run away in fright.” This does not make Mr. Wolf, leader of this particular pack, happy – nor is Mr. Piranha overjoyed at being described, and not for the first time, as a mutant sardine of some kind. Clearly the gang needs to do something even better than rescuing dogs, and Mr. Wolf has just the thing: break into a local chicken farm and let the poultry out. The idea seems as silly to the other characters as it will to readers – although Mr. Snake proves super-enthusiastic about the job because he, well, eats chickens. He therefore shouts “Let’s go!” no fewer than 13 times, in ever-larger type, before Mr. Wolf reveals that there are some difficulties with the plan: this particular chicken farm, in which the chickens are confined constantly in cages and generally treated cruelly, is heavily guarded; also, it has 30-foot-high steel walls that are eight feet thick, plus floor and wall alarms, plus laser beams, and more. Obviously someone with a high level of technical knowledge would be needed to disarm the place – and luckily, Mr. Wolf knows just such a someone, in the form of yet another bad guy who is willing to try being good: Mr. Tarantula. But…well, it turns out that Mr. Tarantula scares all the other gang members, especially Mr. Shark, who promptly faints with the words “Spider…with no pants…on my head…” Hmm. Clearly this is going to be some sort of team-building thing, along the lines of the best “caper” dramas. And so it is – including scenes of self-sacrifice (Mr. Piranha voluntarily placing himself inside a sardine sandwich), personality turnarounds (Mr. Snake coughing up all the chickens he ate and doing something heroic to make up for following his bad-guy nature), and best-guy-buddy stuff (Mr. Tarantula and Mr. Shark, of course). The books in The Bad Guys series are not quite graphic novels and not quite comic books: the drawings propel the action, but the layout is that of amply illustrated word-driven books rather than comics or graphic novels. Whatever they may be, these books are hilariously silly. At the conclusion of Mission Unpluckable, Mr. Wolf suddenly notices a creepy house near the now-empty chicken farm, but it is empty except for a box containing an utterly adorable “widdle guinea pig” that the gang rescues as an afterthought to their chicken release. Hoo boy, is that going to turn out to be a mistake – as Blabey shows in a look ahead toward the next book in the series, in which the cute little furball will be revealed as a menacing monster and a “REALLY bad guy.” But that shall be then. Mission Unpluckable is now.

     It is easy to see where Blabey’s books are going, but not so simple to tell what James Burks has planned for his Bird & Squirrel graphic-novel series, a trilogy that is now in its fourth book. Yes, this is the fourth of three. First there was Bird & Squirrel on the Run, in which the opposite-personality title characters met and became friends, both of them avoiding Cat, who was intent on eating them. Then came Bird & Squirrel on Ice, in which the friends crash-landed at the South Pole and Bird was mistaken for the predicted Chosen One, who would rid the penguins of the threat of a killer whale by himself becoming whale food. And then came the supposed end of the trilogy, Bird & Squirrel on the Edge! In the third book, the friends headed home, stopping along the way to save the life of a bear cub threatened by wolves; here the two had a temporary personality reversal, with Bird being afraid of everything for a change and Squirrel being the brave-to-the-point-of-recklessness character. Eventually the friends’ personalities were switched back and the two made it home, happier and wiser and all that sort of thing, encountering the cub’s mother at just the right point so the bears could have a happy ending as well. The end? Umm…nope. In Bird & Squirrel on Fire, the adventure takes place at home, after the characters have returned to normal life, or tried to. And it is a big adventure, much like the first three, involving mysterious disappearances, an underground labyrinth, an evil pack stalking the good guys (rats rather than wolves this time), a strange beaver whose gigantic dam has cut off all the other animals’ water, and an adorable red squirrel named Red who becomes an actual love interest for Squirrel. The book’s title refers to a climactic blaze that forces the title characters into super-heroic mode once again, eventually brings all the animals together, and leads to the disappearance and presumed demise of Bird – which of course does not happen, this being a book for comparatively young readers, for whom it would  not do to lay on too much angst. Actually, the Bird & Squirrel series is a good entry point to graphic novels for younger readers: the stories are simple, the characterization is straightforward, the art is attractive and unchallenging, the colors are bright, and the use of panels that have different shapes and mesh into each other at times while bursting the bounds of their edges at others helps keep the action well-paced. And this time the Bird & Squirrel series is clearly, obviously finished and final and ended in a thoroughly satisfactory way – although, hmm, that was true after the previous book, too, so who really knows?

(++) MISERABLE AND HAPPY


Which Is Worse? Crazy Questions to Ask Your Friends. By Lee Taylor. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything. By Neil Pasricha. Putnam. $16.

     If you have any friends left after asking them the questions posed by Lee Taylor in Which Is Worse? you can be pretty sure they are friends indeed. Taylor offers about as unpleasant a set of either-or choices – all of them, yes, illustrated – as readers are likely to encounter. Which is worse, eating a cup of mayonnaise or chugging a cup of raw eggs? All right, that is an easy one – some people really like mayonnaise, and raw eggs are actually used in some extreme sports-oriented diets. How about deciding whether it is worse to be haunted by ghosts or to become a ghost? A heaping helping of death, anyone? How about the death-or-death choice between being buried alive and being sunk at sea? Yet again, those are pretty mild examples of what is here. How about deciding between “one thousand tiny ants in your kitchen” and “one humongous ant in your bedroom,” when the big one is about the size of your bed’s pillow? Or a choice between “having food stuck in your teeth all day” and “drooling every time you talk,” with very explicit pictures? Or the choice between “a rat stealing your snack” and “a rat walking all over your snack”? And would you rather have “a baboon’s butt” (shown in all its bright-red glory) or “a porcupine’s hair”?  Still have any friends to whom you would like to pose these questions, and who might like to see these illustrations? How about the choice between “never-ending diarrhea” and “never-ending vomiting”? Or between “using toenails as ice cream sprinkles” and “dandruff to season your fries”? Taylor obviously goes for increasingly gross either-or possibilities in this book, although it does not actually build in that direction – the unpleasantness of any particular set of alternatives shows up at random, so you never know, when turning a page, just how yucky the next choices will be. Would you rather cough up hairballs or eat already-chewed gum? Have the diet of a vulture or that of a dung beetle? Have whole-body poison ivy or perpetual lice? Never be able to flush the toilet, or never be able to take a shower? Leaving out the issue of what sort of mind Taylor must have to think of these possibilities, the question is who came up with the photo illustrations on all the pages. There is a list of the photo sources at the very end of the book, for those interested in such things – but be warned that the list begins on the page facing the one with the final inquiry, which is whether it would be worse to eat a sundae topped with blood or one topped with bird poop.

     Which Is Worse? is presumably intended to be funny as well as gross, even though it overdoes the grossness to such an extent that the humor generally disappears. Neil Pasricha’s The Happiness Equation is presumably intended to be taken seriously despite its hard-to-believe elements, but in its own way it turns out to be just as gross as Which Is Worse? Originally published last year and now available in paperback, the book runs more than 280 pages but can be summed up with these nine short sentences on page 269: “Be happy first. Do it for you. Remember the lottery. Never retire. Overvalue you. Create space. Just do it. Be you. Don’t take advice.” Everything else in the book is explication, expansion and exegesis. Pasricha is a wealthy and successful author, but that is nothing for which he wants readers to strive. Oh, no. Here is what he says: “To want nothing. That’s contentment. To do anything. That’s freedom. To have everything. That’s happiness.” That is not Pasricha’s happiness, but do as he says, not as he does, and all will be fine (and he will not face competition from readers who think they can write pseudo-philosophical self-help books). Pasricha tosses about simplistic affirmations with vaguely homespun stories, fairy-tale scenarios, and illustrations ranging from a “Keeping Up with the Joneses” comic strip from 1913 to more-modern “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Dilbert” comics. Pasricha has an answer for everything (although it helps that he himself formulates the questions). For example, “The way to make more money than a Harvard MBA isn’t to get your annual salary over $120,000 or $150,000 or $500,000. It’s to measure how much you make per hour and overvalue you so you’re spending time working only on things you enjoy.” Great! Now – how much does Pasricha make? Hmm. Seems to be missing. He actually reveals little about how his thought system has affected his own life – unlike, say, Scott Adams, creator of Pasricha-cited “Dilbert,” in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. No, Pasricha will have none of that: he is all about success, not failure, and about defining success in such a way that you get it without any particular hardship. The Happiness Equation is filled with inconsistencies. For example, Pasricha talks about how wonderful  former pro football player Rosey Grier is for having written a book about needlepoint “after retiring from the NFL.” But only 100-plus pages earlier, Pasricha strongly advocates living the way centenarians in Okinawa do, stating (yes, in italics), “They don’t even have a word for retirement.” So the idea is never to retire, never even think about it – and also to retire after a highly lucrative career and do something else. Pasricha seeks to deflect criticism by stating up front that “you will not agree with all nine secrets [given here] the first time you read them,” then offering “3 ways to get the most out of this book” (numbered 3, 2, 1). So this is an author who clearly deems himself beyond criticism and, by implication, considers those who follow his precepts (or at least pay money to hear him deliver them, whether in this book or at his Institute for Global Happiness) to be beyond it as well. By all means try The Happiness Equation if you think this sort of book really offers the secrets of joy and wealth not only to Pasricha but also to you. But take note of two things. First, Pasricha’s comment, “Don’t take advice,” is advice you are supposed to take. And second, Pasricha is, yes, a Harvard MBA.

(++++) THE LESS AND BETTER KNOWN


Respighi: Solo Piano Music—complete. Michele D’Ambrosio, piano. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Volume 3—Nos. 22-32. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $37.99 (3 CDs).

Shostakovich: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; String Quartet No. 2—Waltz: Allegro; String Quartet No. 8. Boris Giltburg, piano; Rhys Owens, trumpet; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $12.99.

     Although Respighi’s solo piano music is little known and mostly consists of student pieces, it sheds some interesting light on his later, better-known works. The chance to hear all of this music is a very unusual one, and the Brilliant Classics release featuring Michele D’Ambrosio is therefore highly welcome. Respighi lived from 1879 to 1936, and almost all his works for solo piano date to the late 19th century or very early 20th. It is therefore scarcely a surprise that many have derivative elements, notably echoing Schumann. The Sonata in F minor (1897), Sonata in A minor (1895-96), Andante in F (1895-96), Andante in D (1895-96), Allegro in B minor (1895-96), Preludio in B-flat minor (1898), unfinished Preludio from “Suite per pianoforte” (1903), and Preludio in D minor (1903) are all nicely constructed works and, in the case of the sonatas, ones showing a sure command of classical forms and the ability to sustain musical ideas over multiple movements. None of the material is especially distinctive in terms of what it has to say, however. The five-movement Suite of 1898, though, is a pleasant surprise: the material is light and harks back to music considerably earlier than Schumann’s – the third movement, for instance, is marked Sarabanda – but there is a fleetness and assurance to the piano writing that gives the work a distinctive stamp. The same is true of the piano version of Variazioni sinfoniche (1900), heard here in a world première recording that shows this piano piece to be different in significant ways from the much-better-known orchestral version. And the loosely connected Sei pezzi (1903) are also a pleasant discovery, resembling the earlier Suite in several ways and containing a waltz, nocturne, Canone and Minuetto – all of which Respighi shows himself to understand well and to be able to create with care and solidity. Nevertheless, all these pieces together, their total time nearly an hour and three quarters, have less to show or tell listeners about the elements that make Respighi’s music special than the only two comparatively late piano works he wrote. These are the Antiche danze ed arie per liuto (1917-18) and Tre preludi su melodie gregoriane (1919). Respighi’s first suite of Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute and his four-movement Church Windows are among his best-known orchestral compositions. These piano works offer an opportunity to hear the pieces in their formative stages. The dances are transcriptions, not free adaptations, and as such sound as straightforward and accomplished on piano as they do in orchestral guise, although less interestingly colored. Tre preludi differs from Church Windows in lacking a finale – Respighi added that in 1925 when he made the orchestral version – and here the absence of elegant orchestration makes the piano piece seem rather pale. Nevertheless, these two works provide considerable insight into Respighi’s thinking and compositional process, and are worthwhile on that basis as well as a purely musical one. D’Ambrosio’s performances are, like Respighi’s piano music itself, straightforward and forthright, a fine melding of the performer’s approach with that of the composer.

     Far more often heard than Respighi’s piano music, and available in innumerable fine performances, the final 11 piano sonatas of Beethoven get elegant, classically balanced readings from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in a three-CD Chandos release that completes Bavouzet’s Beethoven cycle. These performances have all the considerable strengths and occasional shortcomings of those in the two earlier volumes. The readings are uniformly clean, elegant and graceful, the pedaling discreet, the emotions kept carefully in control to a degree that means that even when they flow, as in the last three sonatas, they do so within firm boundaries that Bavouzet sets. Bavouzet has technique to spare, and there is no evident strain at all in his handsome reading of No. 29, the Hammerklavier. He is also quite comfortable with a work as small and slight as No. 25, Op. 79, which is as much a sonatina as a sonata; indeed, he gives this work just the right weightiness to show that it reflects Haydn and Mozart while not being beholden to either. No. 23, Appassionata, and No. 26, Les adieux, are a trifle less satisfying: here a listener may be waiting for Bavouzet to cut loose a bit, to let the emotional impact of the music become nearly overwhelming, but the performances are entirely too well-mannered for that, and as a result come across as a bit too poised. The playing itself is excellent, however. The last three sonatas are a collective puzzle as well as three individual ones, and Bavouzet has obviously thought carefully about how to handle them as entirely separate works that nevertheless form a trilogy of sorts. The final variations of No. 30, Op. 109, are a high point here, with Bavouzet characterizing each variation with care while nevertheless being sure they all fit within an overarching concept. The emotive nature of the finale of No. 31, Op. 110, is somewhat underplayed here, but the fugal material does not come across as dry – merely as a touch more distanced from an emotional center than might perhaps be ideal. Bavouzet’s handling of No. 32, Op. 111, is likely to be controversial: it is quite quick, the whole lasting only about 24 minutes – many performances run 30 minutes or more. Bavouzet does not give short shrift to anything specific here, but he keeps the whole sonata moving along smartly, never dwelling on its unusual elements or the surprises that other performers find in it (such as the section of the second movement in which Beethoven appears to invent jazz). The performance is in a sense emblematic of Bavouzet’s entire Beethoven cycle: thoughtful, well-balanced, clearly articulated and leaning more toward the Classical era than the Romantic, Bavouzet proffers Beethoven sonatas that are technically excellent, carefully (if not always traditionally) paced, and at times rather lacking in the deep emotional connections that other pianists find in them. The general coolness of the approach will certainly appeal to listeners who have had their fill of overwrought emotionalism in Beethoven; it will not, however, please those who find greater expressive depth in these sonatas than Bavouzet brings forth.

     There is no shortage of expressiveness in the Shostakovich works performed by pianist Boris Giltburg and conducted by Vasily Petrenko on a new Naxos CD – but there are some curious juxtapositions of types of expressiveness. Aside from his theater music, Shostakovich’s oeuvre is scarcely thought of as light or bright – even his excellent scherzos, whether in orchestral or chamber form, include more bite than light. But his two piano concertos are unusual in this regard: both the first in C minor (1933) and the second in F (1957) convey an overall impression of brightness, if not exactly ebullience. The first concerto makes a solo trumpet essentially equal to the solo piano, in impact if not in total number of notes, both in the haunting central movement and in outer ones in which the brass instrument keeps interfering mischievously with the percussive one and insisting that matters be kept in a kind of Till Eulenspiegel realm of trickery. The second concerto offers some genuinely surprising balance of soloist and orchestra in the first movement, a quirky and parodic finale immediately recognizable as typical of Shostakovich, and in the center a movement of surprising emotional impact in which the sad and tender are mixed and stirred. Giltburg plays both concertos with verve and style, and Petrenko, whose stature as an interpreter of Shostakovich is very high indeed, expertly interweaves the orchestral elements with those of the soloist and knows just which ones should dominate at just what time. And there is more to this excellent recording: two arrangements by Giltburg of material from Shostakovich’s 15 quartets. The strange, quick, shadowy waltz from No. 2 (1944) is as unsettling in isolation, and in Giltburg’s piano version, as it is in the quartet itself. But the real capstone here is the entire eighth quartet, the most often performed of the cycle, which is intensely autobiographical and was written later than either piano concerto (in 1960). Shostakovich’s musical signature, D-S-C-H, is featured throughout the quartet’s five movements, and the work is full of striving and attempts that are designed so they never quite gel, as when the start of a first-movement fugue degenerates – if that is the right word – into self-quotation. The quartet is a complex work, difficult both to play and to hear, and Giltburg has done a remarkable job of reducing it to piano form without having it sound like a reduction. Instead, it sounds a bit like an extended single-movement sonata/fantasia, a dark work (in C minor) evocative not quite of despair but surely of deep unhappiness, yet one whose central bitterness (carried through three movements) leads eventually to something of acceptance, if never quite affirmation, in the finale. Giltburg’s arrangement comes across as a tribute to Shostakovich, an argument that this composer’s music, like that of Bach, can at least sometimes be independent of the instruments on which it is performed, its underlying emotional resonance coming through differently but equally strongly on an instrument for which the work was never intended – but one that is quite capable of evoking the feelings that Shostakovich strove so hard to elicit.

January 05, 2017

(++++) ALL THAT ADORABLENESS


Love Is My Favorite Thing. By Emma Chichester Clark. Nancy Paulsen Books. $16.99.

Plenty of Love to Go Around. By Emma Chichester Clark. Nancy Paulsen Books. $17.99.

     There is always room for one more book about an ultra-adorable dog and the human family with which it bonds and in which it occasionally misbehaves. Or two more books. Actually, Emma Chichester Clark’s stories of Plum are so cute that two will scarcely be enough for most readers – not only the kids for whom the books are written, but also adults, who will surely find themselves reading over their children’s shoulders and chuckling, perhaps a bit wryly, at the unintentional mischief that big-hearted but rambunctious Plum gets into.

     Plum is very definitely based on Clark’s own dog, a whippet-poodle-Jack Russell terrier mix, and anyone who knows those breeds will immediately realize that Plum will be shown as smart, quick, and pretty much unable to keep still – not to mention being hard to catch when on a run. Clark created the Plumdog Blog online to explore the adventures of her dog, but these two books go beyond utterly real antics into the sort of heartwarming stories for which first-rate picture books are an ideal medium. In the first book, Love Is My Favorite Thing, Plum explores, through utterly charming and disarming illustrations, all her favorite parts of life: different kinds of weather, her toy bear, her bed, sticks of all sorts, and the two children who live next door to Emma and Rupert, Plum’s human family. A park scene is particularly intricate and well-done, including a couple of people picking up after their dogs as Plum comments on how she gets praised “when I do a poo, as if it’s so, so clever.” Yes, dog owners behave exactly that way. Unfortunately, irrepressible Plum gets so excited at the park that she does not listen to Emma, runs through a fence, and splashes around in a pond, because she loves water so much – and later, at home, after a scolding, she tries to apologize by bringing the neighbor kids, Sam and Gracie, a pillow. But then she forgets the apology and starts playing tug-of-war – with wholly predictable (and wonderfully drawn and extremely messy) results. Poor Plum is in the doghouse (figuratively) and worried that no one will love her anymore – by far her biggest worry and, one assumes, the biggest worry of any well-loved dog. Things do not get better as the day goes on: released from her time-out and back in the park, Plum cannot help but notice all the kids eating ice cream, especially one toddler who drops his cone in a bag without his parents noticing. Plum loves ice cream and just has to have what has, after all, been dropped, so she snatches the bag – and ends up being chased by a crowd that seems to include everyone in the park. Plum runs home and realizes that she has made “THE MOST ABSOLUTELY AWFUL MISTAKE!” Emma marches her downstairs and leaves her in her bed in the dark, with Plum worrying, “Would they ever love me again?” Plum’s apologetic and worried postures are perfectly shown, as is her enthusiasm when she runs and grabs and generally overdoes everything through unending canine enthusiasm. Of course Emma and Rupert hold and cuddle her at the book’s end, and everything ends with Plum promising to try to be good – an attempt belied by the hilarious final picture.

     Love Is My Favorite Thing is so wonderful that it is hard to see where its newly released sequel,  Plenty of Love to Go Around, can go. But have no fear! There is more to Plum’s story! In this sequel (which, however, can easily stand on its own), Plum encounters an interloper: Binky, a cat who moves in next door. Plus has many favorite things, but cats are not among them – and besides, if the people in Plum’s life love Binky, will there be enough love left over for Plum? This sounds like a rather treacly plot, but it does not come across that way, because Plum’s worries are handled so endearingly and with so much understanding – and Binky is not a foil for Plum but a fine neighbor and would-be friend, following Plum everywhere (even to the park, which Plum has always thought is just for dogs, and which Clark shows in another of her very best illustrations). Watching Binky imitate Plum in everything – even peeing when Plum pees, assuming the same position to do so – is highly amusing. And when cat and dog accidentally get locked in a shed and Binky escapes and brings help, readers will take Binky immediately to heart (for her part, Plum is seen worrying after Binky squeezes out under the shed door, “Now no one will ever find me”). Sam and Gracie certainly adore the cat and compliment him for rescuing Plum, but Plum only feels worse as Binky climbs a tree – something Plum cannot do – and Sam says, “He can do anything.” Plum laments, “Now Binky was the Special One.” Clearly some raising of self-esteem is in order – even after Plum’s friend Rocket assures her that “there’s plenty of love to go around.” Plum, not believing it, does something rather mean, leaning against the cat door so Binky, who wants to come in to play, cannot get back inside. Even when it starts to rain, Plum does not relent – and Emma, fortuitously returning and bringing a damp-but-not-sodden Binky inside, figures out what happened and explains to Plum that “there’s room in our hearts for him and for YOU!” And at last, Plum realizes that she too has room in her heart for Binky. The final picture of the two of them sleeping peacefully in Plum’s dog bed promises the beginning of a beautiful friendship – which kids and parents alike will fervently hope that Clark will continue to chronicle in additional Plum books.

(++++) ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER PILE OF IDIOCY


I’m No Scientist, but I Think Feng Shui Is Part of the Answer: A “Dilbert” Collection. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     Year after year, things just get weirder – and more understandable at the same time – in the world of Scott Adams’ Dilbert. The comic strip is a kind of Kafka for the post-industrial age, with “knowledge workers” whose knowledge is largely irrelevant to the people who actually run things and make the workers’ lives into a series of unending frustrations, small and large (and sometimes extra-large). Unlike Kafka’s feckless and doomed protagonists, the characters in Dilbert have nothing as final as a horrible, lonely, demeaning death to look forward to: they are doomed to continue in the same unending hamster wheel of meaningless work pretty much forever. It is not Hell, exactly, but neither is it Purgatory, since that comes with some hope, however faint, of eventual release. There is no such hope here – and that explains the ways in which Adams’ characters have changed over the years, becoming more and more assertive in their misery through full awareness of the fact that what they say and how they behave will make no more difference than how they feel.

     The deliberately surrealistic elements of Dilbert fit this not-quite-alternative world well: the robot co-worker who shows up at meetings, is always on the verge of taking someone’s job, occasionally reads news headlines, and becomes less-well-adjusted when given an artificial soul; bright red Catbert and his endless human-resources schemes to make the human characters’ lives worse; the bullet-headed (and, thanks to a compliant Board of Directors, bulletproof) CEO; Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light, somehow a far more fitting overseer of this domain than an out-and-out devilish prince of darkness would be; and of course the Pointy Haired Boss, long ago revealed to be Phil’s brother, his hair resembling the devil’s horns and his personality leaving open the possibility that perhaps there is an out-and-out devil here after all – a singularly unintelligent one, to be sure, but also one of unceasing, small-scale, nitpicky malevolence. Dilbert hits the nail on the head when, in one strip here, he reminds hyper-cynical Dogbert that “my life is an endless string of useless tasks orchestrated by idiots.” Yep, that about covers it.

     The latest Dilbert collection uses plenty of up-to-the-minute jargon and fads to make its usual demotivating points. Demotivation is the literal effect when the company injects nanorobots into Wally’s blood to make him a better employee: his anti-work-ethic bloodstream destroys them all. On the Dilbert side of things, Adams’ title character begins each day with a suitable corporate affirmation: “Gaaaa!!! My life is meaningless and nothing I do will ever matter!!!” (He then starts to work, with his usual diligence and misplaced determination.) Super-competent Alice is asked by the Pointy-Haired Boss to mentor girls interested in STEM careers, and refuses because it is sexist to ask a woman to do the task – so the PHB gets Wally to do it instead, and he creates gender balance by telling boys “to pursue restaurant work because it’s a better way to meet women.” Perpetual intern Asok, who is from India, is accused by the PHB of being a terrorist because of his skin color – and when he responds that the PHB is being racist, the PHB reasonably (for him) asks, “Is it more of a sympathizer situation?” Speaking of which, a coworker asks Dilbert for advice when her son wants an ear piercing, and Dilbert says it seems like no big deal; then the son wants a small tattoo, and Dilbert says that seems all right if it doesn’t show; and so on until the son joins the ISIS murder cult and Dilbert says he “forgot to mention that I’m not good at giving advice.”

     In these strips and many others, Adams shows that he keeps up with the news and the latest corporate babblespeak: one Sunday strip is packed in all its panels with such terms as “uberize the slide deck,” “trans-domain kick-off,” “disintermediating,” and “growth-hack the analytics.” Everything, no matter how meaningless, filters down to the hapless pawns in the Dilbert universe, skewed just enough to fit their miserable world and make it just a bit more rotten. But Adams always makes sure that readers understand this is the business world, which has its own skewed ways of handling reality – for instance, when Dilbert runs tests that show the company’s product underperforming competitors’ in nine measurements out of 11, the PHB says, “Give the two good ones to Marketing. We can’t be more honest than that.” And when the PHB refuses to give Dilbert a raise, he explains that Dilbert’s performance was only average, based on comparing him “to imaginary people doing your exact job.” That certainly sounds corporate.

     In recent months, Adams has given guest artists a chance to draw Dilbert when Adams has taken time off – a neat, Wally-ish way of doing even less work than usual while still getting full credit for meeting all deadlines (Adams still writes the “vacation” strips). Readers can judge for themselves how well this works in I’m No Scientist, but I Think Feng Shui Is Part of the Answer, which contains strips by John Glynn, Eric Scott, Josh Shipley and others. Readers who prefer any of these drawings to Adams’ own will have to wait for Adams’ next vacation (actually a chance to rest his drawing hand) to see more of them. Interestingly, although the quality of the cartooning has never been a major attraction of Dilbert, these “vacation” strips do show that Adams’ style has evolved to a point where it is instantly recognizable and not easy to surpass, or even approximate. Once a “niche” comic strip, Dilbert has turned into something more: a strip that seems to encapsulate the modern feeling of being on an endless, demeaning treadmill at work, with no way off and no way out because, after all, every other company has just as endless and demeaning a treadmill of a workplace as yours. If Adams did not make the situation so funny, it would be at least pathetic, at most genuinely chilling – which is to say, Kafka-esque.

(++++) TRANSITION TIME


Scholastic Book of Presidents. By George Sullivan. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Presidential inauguration years such as 2017 inevitably result in publication of innumerable books about presidents and politics. Despite the unusually high levels of angst and argument during the 2016 presidential campaign, the United States has every reason to expect a smooth transition of power between people who disagree with each other extremely strongly – one of the salient features of American democracy, and one that is quite rare in the world. Telling this to kids is an excellent idea, no matter what one’s personal politics happen to be. And showing them something about previous presidents, in an age-appropriate way, is an excellent idea as well. That is just what George Sullivan does in Scholastic Book of Presidents.

     This is a once-over-lightly book, to be sure, but it is a well-organized and generally thoughtful one that contains some very interesting information and presents its data in accessible form. For example, Sullivan notes that “the remarkable Thomas Jefferson” was not only devoted to public service but also “a successful lawyer, farmer, architect, musician, and inventor” – and spoke six languages, including Latin and Greek. James Monroe, who crossed the Delaware with George Washington and studied law with Jefferson, was shot in the shoulder during the Revolution and carried the bullet embedded there for the rest of his life. John Tyler was a president without a party: he was a Whig, but opposed so many Whig policies that the party threw him out and his entire Cabinet resigned. And Grover Cleveland, the only president elected to two non-consecutive terms, was also the only president who had once had the job of public executioner.

     Information like this helps these people of a much earlier time come across as human beings, not mere figureheads. Sullivan also includes important events that occurred during each presidency – plus amusing trivia, such as the fact that more presidential birthdays have occurred in October than in any other month (six). Young readers will also learn here about presidential families: two fathers and sons who became president (John Adams and John Quincy Adams; George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), and a grandfather and grandson (William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison). They will learn about some controversies associated with various presidents, too, although Sullivan’s selection of which ones to highlight is sometimes questionable. For example, despite the brief nature of all the presidential portraits, he goes on at some length about the demand by a small student faction that Woodrow Wilson’s name be removed from the Princeton school named in his honor because of “charges that the 28th president was a racist who supported segregation in government workplaces.” Giving that much publicity to an extremist rant is at best unseemly. And some comments by Sullivan are outdated, such as his remark that since the time of Rutherford B. Hayes, “the Southern states have typically voted as the ‘Solid South’” – which was true for a time but is now, at best, arguable.

     Despite its flaws, though, Scholastic Book of Presidents is by and large a useful, informative introduction to the American presidency and the people who have held the office since the nation’s founding. It is heavily weighted toward the most-recent presidents, the ones with whom young readers are most likely to be or become familiar: even Abraham Lincoln gets only five pages here, but Bill Clinton gets six, George W. Bush gets eight, and Barack Obama gets 10. And there are nine pages introducing Donald Trump, the president who is likely to have a significant effect on the lives of this book’s young readers during the next several years – whether four or eight. Scholastic Book of Presidents is not exactly a “warts and all” report on U.S. presidents, nor should it be, given its intended young audience. Neither is it a jingoistic celebration in which everyone who ever held the office is automatically held in the highest esteem. It strikes a reasonable middle ground, reporting things that presidents have done well, things that they have done poorly, and things that simply happened for good or ill during their terms of office. Indeed, as a basic introduction to the American presidency, it is far more reasonable and balanced than are many of the campaigns through which people attain the nation’s highest office.

(++++) PIANOS PLUS


Liszt: Songs for Tenor and Piano. Benjamin Brecher, tenor; Robert Koenig, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Ginastera: Piano Concerto No. 2; Panambí. Xiayin Wang, piano; Manchester Chamber Choir and BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena. Chandos. $18.99.

Bernstein: Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah”; Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety.” Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.

Kenji Bunch: Four Flashbacks; Anthony Constantino: Ritual Songs; Dana Wilson: A Thousand Whirling Dreams; Michael Kimber: Vanishing Woods; Libby Larsen: Ferlinghetti. Waldland Ensemble (Jeremy Reynolds, clarinet; Hillary Herndon, viola; Wei-Chun Bernadette Lo, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Justly famed for his exceptional piano prowess, Franz Liszt nevertheless knew when it was appropriate to create music in which the piano was an accompaniment rather than the primary focus. But perhaps because of the intense identification between Liszt and the piano, his piano-using but not piano-dominant works have never attained the popularity of his other music. This is especially evident in his songs, of which he wrote more than 120. It is certainly true that Liszt’s melodies do not have the easy flow of, say, Schubert’s, nor do many of his songs have the naïve but immediately affecting Romantic concerns of that pre-eminent composer of Lieder. But Liszt’s songs nevertheless have considerable power and a willingness – shown also in his other music – to tackle some more-complex subjects than those that attracted other composers of the time. All this is abundantly clear on a fascinating MSR Classics release of a dozen Liszt songs for tenor and piano – songs so infrequently heard that half of these are world première recordings. Liszt’s songs are not completely unknown – the three collected as Sonetto del Petrarca, for instance, are comparatively familiar. Even to these, tenor Benjamin Brecher and pianist Robert Koenig bring a sense of freshness and emotional involvement that is striking and thoroughly apt. Other songs that listeners may recognize are La Loreley, actually the third version of this work, to words by Heinrich Heine; Elégie, to words by Etienne Monnier;  and Die tote Nachtigall, with words by Philipp Kaufmann. The remaining songs, however, are wholly unfamiliar, including the longest and in many ways most dramatic, the first version of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, to words by Alexandre Dumas. Here in particular, Liszt delves beneath the words’ surface to extract the feelings and emotions of the scene, and Brecher brings out the underlying pathos and implicit triumph to fine effect. Also intriguing are the first version of the song titled, in German in this version, Die Lorelei, and the first version of another Heine song, Vergiftet sind meine Lieder. Liszt, it turns out, did have a way with comparatively simple, straightforward material, such as Angiolin dal biondo crin, to words by Cesare Bocella. And he could also bring forth the full flavor of Victor Hugo’s Quand tu chantes bercée. The author of the words to the remaining song, Wenn die letzten Sterne, is unknown, and the work is slight, but it is intriguing because it was not published until 2007. Indeed, many of these songs are true rarities, and if they certainly do not represent Liszt at his compositional pinnacle, neither do they deserve their near-total obscurity. Brecher and Koenig deliver wholehearted performances that fans of Lieder in general and Liszt in particular will surely welcome.

     The piano plays a role that, if not exactly subsidiary, is also not entirely as expected in Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 2. By 1972, when he wrote this work, Ginastera was working heavily under the influence of Alban Berg; and although he did eventually integrate Berg’s approach and the Second Viennese School as a whole into his music, in this piece Ginastera sees the piano more as a percussive noisemaker than as an instrument with emotive or communicative power. This is a spare work, and one that seeks to interpret and reinterpret a wide variety of influences: the first movement is a set of Beethoven-based variations (in which Beethoven’s presence is in large part undetectable); the second is a scherzo for the left hand, reminiscent of the works famously written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein after his right arm was amputated; the third is a quasi-fantasia with none of the Romantic characteristics that the term tends to call up; and then there is an extended cadenza section, marked Maestoso e drammatico, followed by a concluding Prestissimo that is not so much a perpetuum mobile as a chance for the pianist to prove just how quickly fingers can leap around the keyboard. Xiayin Wang tackles this very difficult work with aplomb and no apparent strain on a new Chandos release, and she is quite effectively backed up and abetted by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. This concerto is scarcely an endearing work and not one that listeners are likely to take to heart, but it is filled with unusual twists and turns and makes for more-satisfactory intellectual than emotional enjoyment. What makes this disc – the second in a series featuring Ginastera’s orchestral works – really worthwhile is the excellent complete recording of the ballet Panambí. This is really complete, even including the choral portion at the end that is almost never heard. Panambí is Ginastera’s Op. 1 but is scarcely a student work: the composer destroyed 50 or more earlier pieces that he did not consider worthy of preservation, and this is simply the first that he allowed to be published. It was written from 1934 to 1937, long before the Berg influence took over, and in many places sounds remarkably like Stravinsky’s works of several decades earlier. The section called Invocación a los espíritus poderosos (“Invocation to the Powerful Spirits”) is remarkably reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, for example, while the final depiction of dawn sounds like a transmutation of The Firebird to the Argentine pampas. The more-tender sections of the ballet have something of Debussy about them, but the orchestration and rhythms mark Panambí with a style of its own, and the work as a whole comes through remarkably effectively and with considerable beauty in this well-wrought performance.

     As in the Ginastera concerto, the piano is a key component, but not the leading element, in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, called “The Age of Anxiety” and modeled on the W.H. Auden poem of that name. The poem won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 but now seems rather thematically dated in its exploration of the quest for substance and identity in an increasingly industrialized world. It remains interesting for being written in the form of ancient bucolic poetry while being set in an anti-pastoral landscape – specifically, an urban bar during World War II. Bernstein finished the symphony in 1949, when the topic surely seemed fresher, and then revised it in 1965 to make the ending into a strong and clear affirmation of faith. Today that uplift seems rather forced, but Marin Alsop, who has long given herself the mantle of an heir to Bernstein, takes it and the whole symphony at face value, resulting in an unironic performance that seems a bit of a throwback – like the ones that used to deem the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony a movement of sheer, unalloyed triumph. Certainly the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays the work well, and the section called “The Masque,” in which the piano is front-and-center with syncopated percussion until the keyboard drops out altogether in a symbol of emotional and spiritual exhaustion, comes through especially effectively. Jean-Yves Thibaudet handles his part quite well throughout. Similarly, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano does a fine job in Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” a deep plunge into Old Testament doom-laden prophecy and into the composer’s Jewish roots. Written in 1942 and containing three sections labeled “Prophecy,” “Profanation,” and “Lamentation,” the programmatic work uses biblical Hebrew texts to lament the fall of Jerusalem and, by extension in the middle of a devastating war, of all the positive things for which ancient Jerusalem stood. The work is dour and, unlike Symphony No. 2, offers no respite from lamenting and no bright statement of faith at the end. Alsop’s reading is on the cool side: she seems to stand at a distance from the material, trying to handle it as pure music when it is in fact very explicit storytelling. Again, the orchestra plays very well, but again, the conductor seems to be trying hard to put her personal stamp rather than Bernstein’s on the material. This (+++) Naxos CD certainly has some attractive elements, primarily in the playing of orchestra and the playing and singing of the solo performers; but the depth of feeling that these symphonies can evoke – and did evoke when Bernstein himself conducted them – is largely absent here.

     The piano is simply one part – one-third part, to be accurate – of the instrumental complement on a new MSR Classics CD containing world première recordings of works by five contemporary composers. Like most anthologies, this one is a mixed bag, held together by the use of the same instruments in all the works but otherwise offering music that comes at its topics in very different ways. Three of the five pieces here seem to wish they were vocal rather than purely instrumental: Ritual Songs by Anthony Constantino (born 1995) is a set of three short, mood-evoking movements that seem a bit like modern versions of Songs without Words, although this material is scarcely reminiscent of Mendelssohn. A Thousand Whirling Dreams by Dana Wilson (born 1946), another three-movement piece, offers poetic titles, the first two ending in ellipses, that the music itself does not really reflect and that seem to call out for verbiage to expand on and explain them: “To smash the night…,” “To break this shadow…,” and “Into a thousand lights of sun.” Indeed, the titles are more interestingly expressive than the music itself. And Ferlinghetti by Libby Larsen (born 1960) is a well-constructed six-movement work in which some of the music does effectively bring forth and interpret the lines of poetry that head each section, but the poetic material is so interesting that listeners may be forgiven for wishing there could be more here than the instrumental movements. One of those, for example, is called (with ellipses) “…a man with a mirror for a head…,” and the last is titled (again with ellipses) “…fifty-one clowns in back all wearing nothing but Stars and Stripes…” Music is certainly able to go beyond words and elicit expressiveness in ways that words cannot – but sometimes, as in these three works, matters are the other way around, and there is a feeling that the illustrative musical material is somehow less than the verbiage that inspired it. The other two pieces here depend less on anything verbal for their effects. Vanishing Woods by Michael Kimber (born 1945) is pleasantly evocative and well-constructed, and the viola part is, not surprisingly, especially well handled – Kimber is himself a violist. The single-movement work is a bit over-extended for what it has to say, but is all in all a nicely made and well-balanced piece. Four Flashbacks by Kenji Bunch (born 1973) is a bit of a mixed bag in and of itself. The four pieces’ designations are clear, and the music clearly fits them: “”With bustling energy,” “Gentle,” “Driving,” and “Quiet, calm.” But the material, except for being rather forthrightly illustrative of the titles, does not seem to have much reason for being. What the works flash back to is not apparent from the music, and there is a certain level of superficiality about the movements that results in a suite (which is essentially what this is) on the mild side. The Waldland Ensemble plays all the music with considerable skill and a particularly fine sense of ensemble. This (+++) CD will be of interest primarily to listeners interested in the contemporary use of this particular instrumental combination and to those who already know and like other music by one or more of these composers.

(+++) SOUNDS OF THE SACRED AND SECULAR


Pierre de Manchicourt: Missa Reges Terrae; Reges Terrae; Caro Mea; Ne Reminiscaris; Vidi Speciosum; Regina Caeli. The Choir of St. Luke in the Fields conducted by David Shuler. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Hilary Tann: Choral Music; Hildegard von Bingen: O Deus; Rex Noster Promptus Est. Capella Clausura conducted by Amelia LeClair. Navona. $14.99.

Leonard Lehrman and Joel Mandelbaum: Harmonize Your Spirit with My Calm. Ravello. $14.99.

Scott Perkins: The Stolen Child; A Word Out of the Sea; The World of Dream. Audivi conducted by Scott Perkins. Navona. $14.99.

     Sacred choral music of the 16th century is certainly a niche interest, and such music from a now-little-known composer even more so. Yet there are undiscovered beauties aplenty in the works of Pierre de Manchicourt on a new MSR Classics CD. Manchicourt (c. 1510-1564) is yet another of the many composers who, famous in their own time, soon fell into obscurity after their death – and the music on this disc helps show why. It is uniformly beautiful – Manchicourt was clearly highly skilled at vocal writing in the forms of his time (principally masses and motets). But even though Manchicourt adopted some more-forward-looking approaches in his later motets, producing smoother melodic lines and frequent imitative vocal sections, all his music sounds firmly planted within his lifespan and more old-fashioned than that of such near-contemporaries as Nicolas Gombert. Manchicourt’s innovations were modest ones, surely sufficient to make his music interesting when it was composed but not enough to give it staying power thereafter. Nevertheless, there is extraordinary vocal beauty here, whether in the extended five-movement Missa Reges Terrae or in the five shorter works performed with great vocal smoothness and lovely blending by the Choir of St. Luke in the Fields under David Shuler. This choir is diligent about following historic performance practices, and the result is a recording whose lovely flow is evident from start to finish. The voices themselves are excellently balanced, and Shuler draws attention to the occasional unexpected elements of Manchicourt’s music – including unexpected dissonances and some difficult-to-negotiate vocal leaps – without allowing them to dominate what is essentially music planted firmly in the time in which it was written. This is a disc for people whose love of Renaissance-era music encompasses less-known as well as familiar composers, as long as their works sound as warmly convincing as they do here.

     Lyricism and fine formal balance are also characteristic of the contemporary music of Hilary Tann (born 1947), although of course what she creates is for ears attuned to very sounds from those of Manchicourt’s time. Yet Tann has a strong sense of the past, and this is quite explicit on a new Navona recording featuring not only her own music but also several arrangements of music by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), one of the earliest female composers whose works have survived. For example, there is an unusual sequence in the beginning of the first work on the CD, von Bingen’s O Deus (from her opera Ordo Virtutum), that Tann quotes in some form in most of her own works on this disc. Tann is Welsh and uses several texts by Welsh poets in the music on this CD; she also sets words written by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), the first published female writer from England’s North American colonies. Tann is given to combinations as well as to straightforward settings of existing texts: Exultet Terra, the most interesting work here and the longest by far (its five movements last more than 40 minutes), includes both biblical verses and poems by well-known Welsh poet George Herbert (1593-1633). Amelia LeClair leads the ensemble Capella Clausura with great fervor and intensity in all these works, both the a cappella pieces and Exultet Terra, which uses double choir plus English horn, two oboes and two bassoons – with each movement having different but complementary instrumentation. Tann’s music and LeClair’s performances are, to be sure, on the rarefied side, but this material has significant communicative power for listeners interested in modern vocal works that interpret and reinterpret the religious experiences of long ago and the spiritual (if not traditionally religious) ones of more-recent times.

     The Tann CD is in many ways a collaborative effort between her and LeClair – and a Ravello disc featuring works by Leonard Lehrman and Joel Mandelbaum is an even more tightly knit collaboration. This seems to be a CD celebrating the friendship of Lehrman and Mandelbaum, intended for their circle of mutual friends rather than for listeners unfamiliar with their work. Some pieces here are instrumental; some are vocal. Some use Russian poetry; some use American words. Some music is for large ensemble (performed by the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande); some is for a chamber group (Meridian String Quartet). Some is written by Mandelbaum and performed by Lehrman as pianist (Prelude, Love Is Not All); some is written by Lehrman and conducted by Mandelbaum (Bloody Kansas); some has Lehrman as both composer and performer (An Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Love Song Cycle). The pieces themselves are as varied and variegated as the performances, sometimes using the alternative tunings of which Mandelbaum is fond (although more often using conventional tunings); sometimes being based on twelvetone serialism and microtonality; sometimes being serious, sometimes playful; sometimes emotionally expressive, sometimes reserved and rather cold. It is very difficult for a listener unacquainted with these composers to get a handle on what is happening on this disc, which is essentially a miscellany of 23 tracks that switch form, substance and sound repeatedly not only among themselves but also within individual pieces. Assembled with skill and (in the vocal pieces) sung with feeling by soprano Helene Williams and bass-baritone Alexander Mikhalëv, the music never really gels, never seems to have a particular direction or purpose, instead progressing hither and thither in a fashion that seems arbitrary even though it is no doubt clear to Lehrman and Mandelbaum (and perhaps to those who know them well). Individual items here are evocative and interesting, but the CD as a whole has an insularity about it that makes it seem more of an “in crowd” experience than one designed for listeners who are not already part of the inner circle of these composer/performers.

     Like the vocal works of Lehrman and Mandelbaum, those of Scott Perkins – as heard on a new Navona CD – are essentially (if not completely) secular rather than sacred in orientation. But these Perkins choral works tie clearly to older choral music in ways somewhat similar to those employed by Hilary Tann, although not used as explicitly. The textures of Perkins’ choral music are clearly contemporary, and some of his techniques (such as his elaboration of the sound of a single letter) are quite modern; yet his vocal colors, frequent use of modal language, and direct expressiveness recall the old a cappella tradition and do not deviate much from it. The Stolen Child, featuring tenor Tyler Ray and baritone Dan Moore, is a dark six-movement work using poems by Yeats, Whitman, Auden, and Walter de la Mare. Its skillful combination of the solo voices with those of the ensemble Audivi (three each of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses) is especially well handled by Perkins as conductor: he flawlessly interweaves the choral and solo sounds to produce a performance of considerable expressiveness. The five movements of A Word Out of the Sea are similarly expressive, if not as tightly knit into a focused narrative; here the ensemble and tenor Tim Keeler engage in complementary tone-painting in which the final movement, “Whereto Answering, the Sea,” achieves something approaching serenity, if scarcely finality. The five movements of The World of Dream are strictly choral and emphatically nocturnal, with the work’s overall impression more monochromatic than that of the other two pieces here: even brief forays into lighter, speedier territory soon fall back into a kind of somnolence. The vocal writing is assured and well-designed throughout all these works, if not especially distinctive: it is more a blend of multiple styles than a single style all its own. Perkins nevertheless shows himself a fine vocal craftsman, sure in his techniques and in devising effective ways of communicating solely through the human voice. A cappella music of any time is not to all tastes, but Perkins shows that it can still be effective in modern (if often backward-looking) guise, reaching out effectively to those who appreciate the medium.

December 29, 2016

(++++) SEEING THE LESS SEEN


Lesser Spotted Animals: The Coolest Creatures You’ve Never Heard Of. By Martin Brown. David Fickling Books. $18.99.

     It is easy to forgive this book its misleading title once you get into it and realize that even though the title is inaccurate, the information in the book is so interesting that it doesn’t really matter. The title implies that this is a book about animals with spots, and indeed, the front cover shows a large picture of an odd-looking animal (a banded linsang, as readers will soon find out) that actually does have spots. The cover also shows a second, smaller animal that may or may not have spots – it is standing up, facing the reader, and saying “hi,” so its back, where the spots would be, is not visible. (It turns out not to have them: it is a black-footed ferret.) The point is that this seems to be a book about smaller (“lesser”) animals with spots. But in fact it is about less-spotted animals of all sizes – that is, ones much less frequently seen than those to which readers (adults as well as children) are accustomed.

     This is actually an issue in wildlife conservation, where so-called “marquee animals” such as tigers, koalas and polar bears draw tremendous attention and bring in the big bucks, while equally worthy, equally or even more endangered species fail to get the backing scientists need to help them because the animals are little known or, by human standards, unattractive. But although conservation is a kind of subtext of Lesser Spotted Animals, with Martin Brown indicating the status of each creature he portrays and discusses, the book as a whole is played as much for laughs as for information. Actually, the cover makes that clear, since the ferret is waving and saying “hi” (in a cartoon-style speech balloon) in response to the linsang (using its own speech balloon) saying, “Say hello to the nice people.”

     What Brown does here is present information on a couple of dozen animals that may be unknown because they are very rare (the Cuban solenodon, a cat-size, tree-climbing, flexible-nosed critter with venomous saliva); because their habits make them almost impossible to study (the sand cat, a bit larger than a big pet cat, which blends perfectly into its desert home and even buries its droppings in the sand); or because – well, just because (the crabeater seal, the world’s most common seal, which exists in the tens of millions in the oceans near Antarctica and eats krill, not crabs). Indeed, in a comment that is typical of Brown’s style, he says that “there are, by far, more crabeater seals on Earth than any other large wild mammal. SO THERE.” And his illustration shows the pale brown seals crammed together tightly on the page, top to bottom and side to side, with one at the bottom right using a speech balloon to ask another, “Can you move over a bit?”

     The cleverness of this book shows up throughout the pages. One animal here is the dagger-toothed flower bat, “peaceful pollinator and banana hero,” as Brown describes it – showing a small cartoon of a bat dressed as, of course, Batman, but with a banana symbol on the front of its costume (these bats are important pollinators of bananas and other fruits). The large, full-page illustration here shows four of the bats hanging upside-down, three asleep and one with eyes open, looking down at the bottom of the page with a “?” in a thought balloon – because there is some sort of very long tail down there. Turn to the next page and you find out that the appendage belongs to the long-tailed dunnart, whose tail is twice as long as its body. The dunnart is an Australian marsupial that looks like a mouse but is actually much more closely related to Tasmanian devils – it is a case of convergent evolution, although Brown does not use that term. Dunnarts are fierce little creatures that, although the size of mice, will actually eat mice and anything else smaller than or equal to themselves in size. Interestingly, the conservation status of dunnarts is uncertain: they are officially of “least concern,” because they do not seem to be endangered, but in Australia they are considered “vulnerable” because there just aren’t a lot of them. This is the sort of curious fact that makes Lesser Spotted Animals so interesting, even though most of the animals are not spotted and many are not even “lesser” – the onager is the size of a donkey, for example, and the bull-like gaur is twice as large as a cow, weighing up to 2,200 pounds and having a bellow that can be heard a mile away. (Not that the gaur is the only long-distance champ here: the zorilla, which looks and acts like a skunk but is not closely related to it – convergent evolution again – has a stink that can be smelled a mile away.) Lesser Spotted Animals could have used a better title, but it would be hard to find a better and more interesting instructive-and-amusing compilation of the stories of some amazing creatures that are scarcely “marquee” animals but that surely are as worthy of humans’ time, attention and interest as cheetahs, gorillas and the other human-designated superstars of the animal world.