July 28, 2016
Day Dreamers: A Journey of Imagination. By Emily Winfield Martin. Random House. $8.99.
When Crocs Fly: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The notion that “little things mean a lot” applies to books as well as many other things. Emily Winfield Martin’s Day Dreamers, originally published in 2014, is now available as a board book for the littlest readers and pre-readers, who will get more than a little bit of pleasure from it. Martin here offers “A Journey of Imagination,” as the book’s subtitle puts it – a demonstration that magic resides not in the traditional notion of wands, words, or special doors, but in every child’s imagination. “Is it the wind that moves the clouds?” asks Martin on one page, where her illustration shows a boy lying on the grass, looking up at clouds shaped like a top hat, a whale, a sailing ship and a sinuous curving something-or-other. “Or a dragon as he flies?” asks Martin on the next page, where the curving cloud has now become a fire-breathing (but not scary-looking) dragon, and the boy is riding on its back as it flies through the air, surrounded by other creatures of imagination and a few from the real world (bird, spaceship, airplane). Elsewhere, “in a place of hushed and quiet things” – a museum, where a little girl stares at a huge fossilized egg, one of many monochromatic objects, including fossilized and stuffed animals – “you might hear a phoenix call,” Martin writes on the next page. And now everything is brightly colored and action-packed, as the camera-carrying girl flies on the phoenix’s back, taking photos of dinosaurs. Day Dreamers is all about the things you can imagine seeing, and therefore can see, simply by letting your imagination take hold. The contrast between “quiet time” and imagination recurs page after page, as when a little boy sits in an old-fashioned, book-and-bookshelf-filled library, reading a volume called “Book of Beasts,” and Martin asks whether the sounds you hear when reading are “the whispering of pages” – and then turn the page – “or the sound of griffin wings?” (complete with brass band of animals dressed like marching-band members and walking on two legs while playing their instruments). A short book, Day Dreamers is all about thinking big, thinking magically, and letting your imagination grow as big as it can.
The thinking is smaller – or narrower, anyway – in Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strip, but some of the laughs are big ones, even in collections specifically aimed at younger readers and issued under Andrews McMeel’s AMP! Comics for Kids imprint. Just how much kids will understand of the goings-on here is uncertain: choosing strips appropriate for younger readers (which many of Pastis’ strips are not) requires taking lots of incidents and characters way out of context, and that can make some of what is going on hard to follow. True, the misadventures of the always-hungry crocs in their never-ending attempts to overcome their own stupidity long enough to eat Zebra are solid material for younger readers. But Pastis’ fondness for wordplay may or may not be effective: an occasional standalone pun strip gets in here, as when Pig considers jumping into the water from a pier but is afraid to – and the pier suddenly tells him to do it, leading Pig to complain about “pier pressure.” Then there are the sequences that include some of the small characters in the strip – lemmings at the top of a cliff and penguins trying to avoid a polar bear who really shouldn’t be stalking them at the South Pole – and these may be a little hard to figure out in the truncated form in which the sequences show up here. On the other hand, Pastis frequently introduces characters, uses them for a few days, drops them for a while, then brings them back, so When Crocs Fly has pretty much the same rhythm as his everyday work. And some strips here will almost certainly work well for young readers: in one, Pig tells Goat that he just returned from getting “some great stuff” at the apple store, and when Goat asks what equipment Pig got, Pig dumps out a bag of apples and says, “I’m from a simpler age.” On the other hand, a strip in which Rat is allowed to come up with his own amusement-park character and invents “Depresso, The Overgrown Sad Kid,” may be a bit much for non-sad kids to take. Or for their parents, anyway. Pearls Before Swine is an acquired taste, to be sure, and a salutary one for those who find its cynical, snarky panels a refreshing contrast to the bland and often unfunny humor of other strips. Will kids acquire a taste for Pastis’ work from this latest collection? The only reasonable answer is: When Crocs Fly.
The Shepherd’s Crown. By Terry Pratchett. Harper. $18.99.
Now that Terry Pratchett (“Sir Terry” since being given a knighthood in 2009) has been gone for more than a year, it has become more possible to look at his last works with clear rather than tear-misted eyes and have a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses. The conclusion of such an examination is that of his three final books, The Shepherd’s Crown, nominally intended for younger readers, is a far better envoi for Pratchett’s long and distinguished career than the last “Discworld mainstream” novel, Raising Steam, or the coauthored conclusion of the interminable The Long Earth series, The Long Cosmos.
The Shepherd’s Crown reads like a book in which Pratchett suggests how he prepared for his own inevitable end, and how he thinks readers would do well to prepare for theirs – and even more, it suggests how he would prefer that readers think about him after he is gone. It seems only fair to try to do so. Pratchett, who became a strong advocate of assisted suicide after he was diagnosed with an unusual form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, focuses in The Shepherd’s Crown on accepting the inevitability of death (or, in Discworld terms, Death, with a capital D) and preparing suitably for it, but not rushing matters unduly (in the real world, Pratchett kept writing almost until his own passing at age 66 in March 2015). The Shepherd’s Crown marks the final appearance of young witch Tiffany Aching and her mentor, Granny Weatherwax. Things are very definitely final for the older, much-feared witch, who in this book makes careful preparations for her own death and then comes to it. Or rather it, or he, comes to her: Death, a skeleton with glowing blue eyes, always-capitalized conversation and a courteous manner, takes Granny Weatherwax so gently she does not even notice what she considers the “inconvenience” of leaving her life. This is a wonderful part of The Shepherd’s Crown and is written with more detail and more care than other sections of the book – which, in parts, is definitely rushed and unpolished: Pratchett finished the novel but did not live long enough to smooth out its many rough edges.
The book’s plot makes perfect sense: the death of so powerful a figure as Granny Weatherwax inevitably causes imbalances in Discworld, allowing the evil Queen of Fairyland – a longstanding enemy of Tiffany – to return. Tiffany must confront the overt menace of the Queen and the bored and violent King while also dealing with subtler issues, including her relationship with her boyfriend, the ongoing sneers of older witches such as Mrs. Earwig, and the helpful but thoroughly irresponsible (and irrepressible) little blue men known as the Nac Mac Feegles, who get many of the best lines and best chances for fights in The Shepherd’s Crown. These Wee Free Men are, in their own way, as brilliant a creation as Death and Granny Weatherwax are in theirs, and living with them one final time is one of the great pleasures of this novel. Indeed, The Shepherd’s Crown presents quite a few “one final time” characters and references – unusually many for a Discworld installment, as if Pratchett here is deliberately drawing the series together. For example, The Shepherd’s Crown has passages about the way the rise of railroads in Raising Steam has changed the world forever – which, readers will realize, means turning it from something vaguely Medieval in style and soaked in magic into something more science-driven, realistic and altogether more familiar and, as a consequence, mundane. Indeed, Granny Weatherwax's death itself symbolizes the end of a Discworld era and the need to make peace with increasingly prominent technology as a driver of events.
The Shepherd’s Crown is rough-hewn, with some subsidiary matters playing out at length and some central ones passing so quickly as to lose substance, and with some characters appearing and disappearing less adeptly than is usual in Pratchett’s work – all these matters being traceable to the novel’s unfinished state. But what is finished, what is complete in the best sense in this book, is the underlying kindness of Pratchett and the consequent kindliness of his world. Bad things certainly happen here, and Tiffany herself is responsible for one of them when, in a moment of fury, she kills some elves that are kidnaping a baby. But even then, violence is not an answer and is scarcely triumphant, with Tiffany realizing that it leads only to the grim stuff of Grimm fairy tales, “to, oh, to poisoned apples, spinning wheels, and a too-small stove…and to pain, and terror, and horror and the darkness.” As Tiffany explains to the Queen – actually former Queen, since she has been ousted in a coup – it is wrong to be selfish, nasty and spiteful, and kindness is worthwhile because it makes you feel better and because other people matter. What a treacly notion to find at the end of the Discworld saga and the end of Pratchett’s life! And yet anyone who reads – and re-reads – the Discworld novels will find this sentiment underlying them again and again. Rarely stated as explicitly as it is in The Shepherd’s Crown, this foundational, unforced goodness is what made Pratchett’s Discworld different in kind from other great British fantasy worlds, such as Narnia and Middle-earth. The Shepherd’s Crown is in some senses a summation of the Discworld canon and in others simply the last entry in it, an indication that things would have gone on much as they were going if Sir Terry had been there to chronicle them, and perhaps are going on much that way in whatever place Death has taken their chronicler to now.
Urban Allies: Ten Brand-New Collaborative Stories. Edited by Joseph Nassise. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Well, now, this is just silly. But it is also a great deal of fun for those in the know – one of those books in which the in crowd has a great time and everyone else gets left out, wondering what the heck is going on and what all the fuss is about.
Urban Allies contains 10 stories by 20 authors in the “dark urban fantasy” genre, which basically means a lot of supernatural stuff, plenty of dramatic fighting and bleeding and conjuring, a fair amount of cursing, and action of all sorts. In each story, characters from two authors’ series are thrown together for a mutual adventure, or passing encounter, or cooperative collaboration, or something. Each story stands on its own and occurs within the universe of both its authors – even though not all the universes fit seamlessly together. For that matter, neither do all the characters: the machinations of getting them together tend to creak almost audibly, and their respective powers and abilities do not always mesh very well with each other.
Nevertheless, this is a lot of fun for readers familiar with the authors and their worlds. In fact, even when the stories are dark to the point of being dismal, there is an undercurrent of fun, in much the same way that the jam sessions in jazz are enjoyable even if the music being made is distinctly on the bluesy side. Or, perhaps a better example, there are the visual “jam sessions” used by many underground cartoonists in the 1960s and 1970s, in which one would draw his or her character in some setting and another would add his or hers to the same setting or expand the visual canvas to somewhere else, and then yet another would come in with yet another character to be superimposed on the first one or two, and everything would become messy and sometimes incoherent – but a great deal of fun for anybody interested in picking apart the art and determining just who did what where.
That is the sort of pleasure to be had in Urban Allies – not guessing which author wrote what (that is usually clear, and is completely obvious in the tales here that are told from alternating points of view), but enjoying the twists and turns of each short story while picking up on the known powers and characteristics of each tale’s protagonists. However, it is crucial to know who the characters are and what worlds they inhabit for these stories to make sense. When Verity Price from Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series encounters Elena Michaels from Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld while both are investigating a very minor mystery in the woods in a story called Tailed, the enjoyment is not so much in the thin plot as in the differing ways known characters respond to events. To repeat, known characters: anyone who does not know them will not get it. Likewise, when C.E. Murphy’s Joanne Walker encounters Kat Richardson’s Harper Blaine at a haunted house in Spite House, what is primarily interesting and enjoyable is the character interaction, not the events. Caitlin Kittredge’s Ava the hellhound and Jaye Wells’ Sabina, who helpfully explains that she is “the Chosen of the Dark Races,” along with their respective partners and hangers-on, track a necromancer in New Orleans in Ladies’ Fight, but it is the Ava-Sabina interaction that is the main interest in what is otherwise a very clunky tale. In fact, most of the stories here are clunky: the reasons the characters get together are usually strained, the way they work together is usually strained, and the forces they face are more faceless than bad guys usually are in urban fantasy – and generally have strained reasons for doing whatever bad things they happen to be doing. There is some gore here and some humor as well, sometimes coexisting uneasily, and the blending of the authors’ styles is, well, usually strained. This is essentially a 410-page fanzine, a compilation of characters and authors thrown together to celebrate many of the dark worlds of urban fantasy – enjoyable for those who already know the writers and the worlds and characters they have thought up, but impenetrable (and, yes, simply silly) for readers who come to the book without prior knowledge of the whos and whats behind it.
AARP Meditations for Caregivers: Practical, Emotional, and Spiritual Support for You and Your Family. By Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., and Julia L. Mayer, Psy.D. Da Capo. $15.99.
Deeply well-meaning and structured with the intent to be pragmatic rather than overly optimistic and blue-sky in nature, AARP Meditations for Caregivers attempts to answer the needs of those who selflessly answer the needs of others – such as aging parents and seriously ill family members. Husband-and-wife clinical psychologists Barry J. Jacobs and Julia L. Mayer clearly intended to write a book both practical and inspiring. That is, in fact, the book’s structure: its 28 chapters on specific topics are subdivided into sections that begin with a short story taken from a real-life situation, then continue with a comment or suggestion on how to apply the lessons of that story to one’s own situation. The structure is not unlike that of a typical church homily.
The attempt here is to deal with a comprehensive list of caregivers’ feelings and concerns: among the chapter titles are “Anger or Resentment,” “Devotion and Dedication,” “Forgiveness,” “Gratitude,” “Humility,” “Humor,” “Know Your Limits,” “Optimism and Hope,” “Sacrifice,” and “Stress Management.” Really, though, the entire book is about stress management: some 40 million Americans provide unpaid care to family members and others in any given year, and even when such care occurs only for a set period rather than for many years – because the person needing it recovers or dies – the stresses associated with it are enormous. Whether those stresses are adequately met by the sermonette-like comments of Jacobs and Mayer will be a highly personal matter: people soothed by traditional religious observances, for example, will likely respond better to these ideas than ones who are less spiritual or less comfortable with organized religion (even though the summations and recommendations are generally secular in orientation). For instance, an observation about sibling anger during caregiving says, “By leading with empathy, we forge new bases for understanding and support.” One about forgiveness says, “As we gain greater understanding, our hearts grow.” One about understanding one’s limits notes, “By knowing the limits of our energies and capabilities, we are better able to find compromises to please others and ourselves the best we can.” One about respect says, “Even when it comes to difficult situations, when we take the time to listen to our loved ones, we can better treat them with the respect that they deserve.”
All these comments, and many others, are extremely well-intended; but they have a tendency to be more simplistic, more push-button, one-size-fits-all in their orientation, than Jacob and Mayer likely are in their professional practice. What is missing in the book is nuance – exactly the sort of thing that is needed to differentiate between responses and forms of support that may be just right for one caregiver but off-base for another. This directly parallels the reality that a useful way of providing caregiving to one individual may be unhelpful and even deleterious for another – because those needing aid are individuals, no matter how physically or mentally compromised they may be and no matter how similar their diagnoses. Identical treatment of identical conditions may not work equally well – a point that it would have been helpful for Jacobs and Mayer to make explicitly.
AARP Meditations for Caregivers also omits some very practical issues that caregivers face: it is a book about feelings, not one about the need to cope in the real world with financial hardship, job loss, deterioration of relationships with children because of the time and effort needed to care for parents (a “sandwich generation” situation), and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of finding the time to do certain things that a caregiver knows are desirable – for instance, saying “Seek Out Other Caregivers” (one chapter title here) is all well and good, but “Find the Time to Seek Out Other Caregivers” would have been more useful if the authors were really able to show how to do it.
One of the most important things that caregivers must do, and one of the most difficult, is to find time for themselves. Call it recharging, unwinding, destressing or whatever you will, it is crucial both for a caregiver’s own coping needs and for his or her ability to provide better care. AARP Meditations for Caregivers does not deal with this much-needed element of caregiving except occasionally in passing, as when Jacobs and Mayer write, “If we aim for perfection in our caregiving, we will be wracked with disappointment and guilt. Our loved ones need good enough caregivers. With humility and planning, we can manage that.” Yes – with humility and planning and time, time to get in touch with one’s own needs (practical, family, emotional, psychological) and to separate, however briefly, from the needs of the person requiring care. AARP Meditations for Caregivers is a valuable book for those seeking solace from the emotionally draining elements of caregiving, and able to find it in the warm and well-meaning words of encouragement the authors offer. The book does not, however, deal with some of the most stress-provoking and difficult elements of caregiving: readers looking for that sort of help may actually do better with an earlier book by Jacobs, The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent. It would be even better to read and absorb both that book and this one – provided one can find the time to do so. And there we come again to the issue of time – ultimately, one that neither of the books successfully addresses, and one that may not be realistically addressable, no matter how much one wishes to do so.
Schubert: Complete String Quartets. Diogenes Quartet (Stefan Kirpal and Gundula Kirpal, violins; Julia Barthel and Alba González i Becerra, viola; Stephen Ristau, cello). Brilliant Classics. $34.99 (7 CDs).
Weber: Complete Piano Sonatas; Rondo brillante; Invitation to the Dance. Michelangelo Carbonara, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99 (2 CDs).
Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works, Volume VI—Symphony in G minor, “Zwickauer”; Overtures—Manfred, Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Goethe’s “Herrmann und Dorothea,” Genoveva, Schiller’s “The Bride of Messina,” Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Heinz Holliger. Audite. $18.99.
The complete works of a composer in a particular form offer pleasures beyond the individual ones: a full cycle allows listeners to hear each piece in context and to trace the composer’s development over time. Cycles also provide, frequently, the opportunity to hear unfamiliar music that has been overshadowed by better-known pieces created by a particular composer in a particular form. That is certainly the case with regard to Schubert’s String Quartets: a few late ones have so overwhelmed his earlier productions that the chance to hear the earlier ones is not to be taken lightly. The chance to hear them played as well as they are by the Munich-based Diogenes Quartet is even less to be missed: the seven-CD Brilliant Classics repackaging of individual performances by these musicians, recorded between 2012 and 2015, is a splendid experience on every level. It is tempting to suggest that if this quartet, named for a Swiss publisher, were actually the famous Greek Diogenes and were searching not for an honest man but for an honest musician, it would need to seek no further: all four performers are strong, both individually and collectively, and their handling of phrasing, legato vs. staccato, and dynamics is well-thought-out in every single work. As always in an extended compilation, individual listeners familiar with the repertoire may or may not consider the Diogenes Quartet the “best” in a given work, but the reality is that there is no “best” for this music – there are only differing ways of viewing it, and that of the Diogenes Quartet is careful, consistent and beautifully played throughout. The string tone and excellent ensemble work of the four players shine through in every piece here.
The set also provides a series of bonuses – one of the lovely things about an urge to completeness. Sprinkled throughout the CDs are short and little-known works, including some receiving their first performances ever thanks to completions by producer, engineer and digital editor Christian Starke, who also provides particularly well-done booklet notes on the music. There are also some chances here for listeners to hear alternative versions of music that Schubert approached more than once. In truth, the arrangement of material on the discs can be a touch confusing: the apparent aim was to provide contrast of later, better-known Schubert with earlier, less-often-played material, and while this works quite well from a programming standpoint, it does make it hard to make chronological sense of the quartets. Thus, the first CD includes String Quartet No. 7 in D major, D94 (probably misnumbered in the Deutsch catalogue and more likely the composer’s second quartet); a Starke-completed Andante in C, D3; and the famous String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D804 (“Rosamunde”), here played particularly interestingly, with a touch more edginess than this supremely lyrical music usually receives. The second disc starts with the Overture in B-flat, D470, completed by Starke in quartet form and showing evidence through its unison writing and fanfares that Schubert was thinking orchestrally when he wrote it; continues with String Quartet No. 8 in B-flat, D112, originally a string trio; and then moves to String Quartet No. 11 in E, D353. On the third disc are the very first quartet, D18, written in a mixture of G minor and B-flat; 5 Minuets and 5 German Dances, D89, plus later versions of a couple of the items – a clear example of completeness-seeking; and String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat, D68. The entirely early focus of this CD contrasts strongly with that of the fourth disc, which includes the justly famous String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 (“Death and the Maiden”) and contrasts it with the early String Quartet No. 6 in D, D74, and a short Menuet in D, D86. On the fifth CD are String Quartet No. 4 in C, D46; the rather Haydnesque Overture in C minor, D8a; String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat, D87; and String Quartet No. 12 in C minor, D703, the fragment known as the “Quartettsatz.” The sixth disc includes the String Quartets Nos. 2 in C, D32, 3 in B-flat, D36, and 9 in G minor, D173. On the seventh CD is the always-amazing pinnacle of Schubert’s work in this form, String Quartet No. 15 in G, D887, interestingly paired with Starke’s completion of a quartet movement in C minor, D103. Clearly this is a very rich and multifaceted release, reflecting the richness and wide artistic range of the composer whose music it proffers and celebrates. The interspersing of later works with earlier ones increases a listener’s appreciation of Schubert’s genius while also showing how early it developed: there are already hints in the earliest of these works, which Schubert wrote in his early teens, of the harmonic exploration and unending lyricism that he would produce in later music. There are also some fascinating what-might-have-been moments here, parallel to those found in Schubert’s many unfinished symphonies. For instance, the single “Quartettsatz” movement is played rather frequently, but here it is coupled with a three-and-a-half-minute smidgen of what would have been an Andante second movement, and clearly a lovely one – but this breaks off as abruptly and tantalizingly as does the tiny bit of the third movement of the Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished,” although scarcely the only such in Schubert’s symphonic oeuvre). The excellence of playing and strong musicianship of the performers shine through everywhere in this cycle, and every reading is convincing on its own terms while also making sense as part of the larger whole. The overwhelming brilliance of the later quartets of course outshines the comparatively modest successes of the earlier music heard here – yet not to the point of totally eclipsing some beautiful, sometimes imitative but sometimes innovative quartet writing that shows Schubert, again and again, to be taking these four-voice musical conversations in new and highly personal directions that culminate at last in the great quartets that have become so familiar.
There is a touch of Schubert in the piano sonatas of Carl Maria von Weber, too, in the expansive opening movement of the fourth and last of these works. But the issues of completeness with regard to these little-played pieces are different from those relating to Schubert’s quartets. Weber was a forward-looking figure in many areas, including opera and wind concertos, and a carefully backward-looking one in others, as in his two deliberately Haydnesque symphonies. But in his piano sonatas, he was a transitional figure, and this has done him and them little good with performers and listeners. Like Hummel, another fine composer positioned between the Classical and Romantic eras and not fully a member of either, Weber in these sonatas requires great technical skill of pianists but does not repay their work with the sort of emotional outpouring available to them from Beethoven, Chopin or Liszt. The difficulty of the Weber sonatas should not be underestimated. No. 1 in C (1812) starts like a Beethoven sonata and then forces the performer to jump around the keyboard with truly Romantic-era abandon and a series of trills that hover on the edge of impossibility, and the same work’s concluding perpetuum mobile zips up and down the keys with an almost equal level of amazement. No. 2 in A-flat (1816) is much closer to Romanticism in its introspection, with a particularly inward-looking slow movement – although the following Menuetto is playful enough. No. 3 in D minor (1816) is even more serious and is the most operatic of the sonatas, with an insistent darkness that not even the somewhat flashy finale fully dispels. And No. 4 in E minor (1822), with that proto-Schubertian opening movement, offers a genuinely strange Menuetto with dark, almost demonic overtones, and a finale that also has bizarre moments and ends in an inconclusive and rather disquieting manner. Italian pianist Michelangelo Carbonara certainly has the technique for these sonatas, and for the most part he has the interpretative ability to put them across well, too. The first movements of Nos. 3 and 4 are especially well done, with decisiveness held in close control, and Carbonara nicely balances sections of these works where Weber requires contrast between smooth lines and biting chords. The fourth sonata’s final movement is not taken as fast as its Prestissimo tempo indication suggests it should be, but Carbonara brings plenty of bounce to it and embraces its oddities. As in his operas, Weber brought drama and passion aplenty to his piano sonatas, mixing them with some of the wit and elegance of Classical times. The result is a sound that may not be to the taste of all performers or listeners, being “neither here nor there” in terms of its place in musical history – but it can also be looked at as a sound that combines elements of two types of composition and communication, and does so effectively more often than not. Carbonara’s inclusion of well-played versions of Weber’s Rondo brillante and Invitation to the Dance, the former at the end of the first CD in this Piano Classics release and the latter at the end of the second disc, results in pleasantly virtuosic encores after the much greater length and complexity of the sonatas themselves.
The sixth and final volume in oboist/conductor Heinz Holliger’s survey of Schumann’s symphonic works also combines some better-known music with some that is less familiar. Most of the works here are overtures, all of them written fairly late in the composer’s life (after 1847) and all of them reflecting on the symphonies much as Schumann’s Konzertstücke reflect on his concertos. Like the concert pieces, the overtures are more compressed and more directly communicative than the longer works they help elucidate. They are, in a word, more focused, and perhaps for that reason, Holliger’s handling of this final CD in the Audite series is among the sequence’s very best. The overtures were seen by Schumann partly as opera, oratorio or stage-work preludes and partly as independent concert pieces intended to give the audience, in brief and clearly accessible form, the emotional kernel of a particular story. The better-known overtures, to Genoveva and Manfred, certainly do this effectively, but so do the other works here, which are heard much less frequently. Indeed, all the overtures bear testimony to the influence of literature on Schumann’s musical production – he was, after all, a fine writer and critic as well as a composer. Holliger pulls out all the stops in the overtures, with the result that each of these 10-minute-or-less works (only Manfred is longer, at 13 minutes) packs a genuine emotional punch and shows listeners very clearly just how intensely communicative a composer Schumann could be. The completeness element comes through here not only thanks to the presentation of the six overtures but also because Holliger offers the two-movement “Zwickau” symphony, which was Schumann’s first symphonic work to be performed publicly, even though it was never finished. Actually, only the first movement was performed – and in addition to the completed but unperformed-in-Schumann’s-lifetime second movement, there exists a fragment of a scherzo and a sketch of a finale. What survives in finished form and is heard here has some ingenious elements but is rather shapeless, its emotion clearer than its formal means of expression. It is good to have the work as part of this survey of Schumann’s complete symphonic output: one of the consistent pleasures of all these full cycles is the chance to hear music that is admittedly not at a composer’s highest level but that clarifies, through comparison with better-made and better-known works, how Schubert, Weber and Schumann eventually attained the quality for which they deservedly remain famous.
Bach: The Six Partitas for Harpsichord from the “Clavier-Übung” I, BWV 825-830. Sergey Schepkin, piano. Steinway & Sons. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Philip Glass: Glassworlds, Volume 4—On Love: The Hours; Modern Love Waltz; Notes on a Scandal; Music in Fifths. Nicolas Horvath, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Charles Reskin: Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (2007); Anthony Plog: Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (2010); Martin Rokeach: Running at the Top of the World (2012). Paul Futer, trumpet; Susan Nowicki, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
There will never be a definitive answer to the question of whether Bach “ought to” be played on an instrument that did not exist in his time, the modern concert grand. Some people will always prefer that his keyboard music be heard as he intended it to be – others will insist that the color, nuance and overall impressiveness of Bach’s scores come through better on a modern piano than on a harpsichord or clavichord, and that Bach would undoubtedly have written for the modern instrument if he had had one available. That latter comment is likely true, but it is also true that he would not have written music such as his six harpsichord partitas for a piano: they are designed for the harpsichord, their contrapuntal lines and overall sound intended to be brought forth by a plucked-strings instrument without deep bass resonance, sustaining pedal, and sheer immensity of size. Still, pianists cannot help themselves: the partitas are simply so wonderful that performers who do not know the harpsichord can certainly be forgiven for wanting to play this marvelous music on the instrument that they do know. Sergey Schepkin’s handling of the partitas is quite personal (in much the same sense that Wanda Landowska’s was on harpsichord), and Schepkin provides a view of the music that listeners are unlikely to have heard before. It is surely not the way Bach himself imagined this music, but for a contemporary audience, Schepkin offers a set of preludes that is highly attractive. Schepkin is clearly aware of historical performance practices, but considers them a jumping-off point rather than a mandatory way of handling Bach’s music. Ornamentation, for example, was integral to Bach’s music, and Schepkin knows this. But his notion of ornamentation is very much that of a modern pianist: he rolls chords, changes dynamics in a way that is not possible on the harpsichord, goes well beyond the sonic changes possible through altered registration, and pulls emotion and drama from the music in ways that sound thoroughly modern and very little like Bach. It is not that the notes are wrong: Schepkin seems to have no difficulty at all with these very difficult works, even when the piano is poorly suited to the separation of the partitas’ musical lines and has a tendency to blend, if not blur, them. Schepkin’s playing has a free, almost improvisatory quality about it, combining warmth and wit, fantasy and imagination, in a way that pulls the listener deeply into Schepkin’s sound world and provides a great deal of pleasure. However, this is not Bach’s sound world, and therein lies the issue with these jaunty, dancelike and frequently very clever interpretations. Listeners unfamiliar with Bach will find Schepkin's performances exhilarating and thoroughly involving throughout. Those who know the partitas as Bach wrote them, for the harpsichord, may well still find themselves captivated by the sheer joie de vivre that Schepkin offers in this Steinway & Sons two-CD release. It really is a wonderful recording and it really is thoroughly inauthentic. Each listener will need to decide how to balance those two characteristics.
The main work on a new Grand Piano recording of music by Philip Glass is also a transcription: The Hours, a nearly 50-minute suite taken from a 2002 film, has been arranged for solo piano by Michael Riesman and Nico Muhly. Here there is no profound question about the intended audience for the recording: this is a CD for fans of the film and diehard Glass advocates, one of whom is the pianist, Nicolas Horvath. Like so much of Glass’ minimalist music, The Hours as heard here is barely there at all: its 14 sections undoubtedly relate to specifics of the film, but in recorded form they simply sound repetitious and unconvincing. There is some mood changing from time to time, presumably reflective of events on screen (which the CD’s booklet briefly describes). But there simply is not much of interest either aurally or pianistically here. Of greater interest is the shortest piece on the disc, Modern Love Waltz, which is not particularly danceable – actually not danceable at all – but does have more rhythmic vitality than is usual in Glass and is intellectually interesting as a combination of minimalism with Viennese dance. Also here is one world première recording, Notes on a Scandal: The Harts – I Knew Her, which combines two excerpts from the music to a 2006 film. The CD ends with Music in Fifths, which dates back to 1969 and is clever in an in-joke way (it is written entirely in parallel fifths, traditionally a compositional no-no) but which goes on and on and on until it stops, which is what Glass intended but which provides little of genuine auditory interest to listeners.
The piano plays second fiddle, so to speak, on a new recording featuring three 21st-century works for trumpet and piano. The Sonata for Trumpet and Piano by Charles Reskin (born 1946) is a fairly standard-for-our-time combination of classical and jazz elements, distinguished by the way it pays homage to composers of the mid-20th century and by its substitution of a flugelhorn for the trumpet in the second of its three movements. That movement starts with an unusually simple theme that increases in complexity as the movement progresses, until the closing brings back the initial tranquility. The flugelhorn movement is placed between one that strongly contrasts intense and lyrical themes – but with the lyrical one first rather than the other way around, which is more typical – and a finale that is bright and lighthearted. Both trumpeter Paul Futer and pianist Susan Nowicki seem to have a good time with the music – and, indeed, with the other works on this CD as well (all three pieces are world première recordings). The four-movement Sonata for Trumpet and Piano by Anthony Plog (born 1947) has a fairly straightforward structure: bright and open first movement, quiet and inward-looking second, brief and playful third, and energetic finale. The work is well-made but not especially distinctive. The most interesting piece here is a sort of sonata/fantasia called Running at the Top of the World, by Martin Rokeach (born 1953). Both the pianist’s fingers and the trumpeter’s lips get quite a workout here, and the way Rokeach mixes the instruments’ sounds is intriguing. The piece draws somewhat too much attention to how clever it is, but it never sounds overdone or self-referential to the point of diminishing listeners’ interest in what it has to say. In the long run, its innovations may be more attractive for performers than for an audience, but it has enough emotional heft to get through effectively to listeners on its own terms. It is essentially a work that rises emotionally from start to finish, from a kind of bleak darkness in the first movement (marked Fantasia) to near-despair in the second (Desolato) to a burst of bright energy and optimism in the finale, whose title is also the title of the work as a whole – and of the MSR Classics release on which it appears.
July 21, 2016
My Favorite Pets: By Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class. By Jeanne Birdsall. Pictures by Harry Bliss. Knopf. $16.99.
Woodpecker Wants a Waffle. By Steve Breen. Harper. $17.99.
Harry Bliss and Steve Breen are outstanding cartoonists who regularly produce delightful material for adults, Bliss in The New Yorker and elsewhere, Breen in the San Diego Union-Tribune, through his Grand Avenue comic strip, and in other venues. Turning them loose on children’s books would seem a calculated gamble: high artistic quality will surely result, but perhaps matters will be a touch abstruse for the picture-book set. Not to worry: as it turns out, Bliss (abetted by Jeanne Birdsall, best known for the Penderwicks series) and Breen have an absolutely delightful sense of what works for kids ages 4-8, including some nearly surreal scenes and just enough amusing absurdity to attract young readers and keep them coming back again and again. Anyone familiar with the Bliss style will immediately recognize the look of the characters in My Favorite Pets: By Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class, and anyone who does not know the style will be thoroughly familiar with it by the end of the book. The story is cast in the form of a homework report by Gus, who lives on a farm where the family keeps 17 sheep – all 17 shown with Gus in a single two-page illustration early in the book. Gus is quite a troublemaker, almost but not quite endearingly so – he does overdo things, as Bliss makes clear in the pictures even though Birdsall resolutely keeps the writing on the level to be expected if Gus himself had written the book…err, report. Thus, Gus blandly writes that a ram’s horns do not come off, but Bliss shows how Gus knows that: he tied a rope around the horns and pulled with all his might (and managed to escape injury; that is one tolerant ram). Gus has a thing about his little brother, Sammy, at one point swapping him for a lamb and at another putting Sammy’s favorite pajamas on a sheep’s head and taking cell-phone pictures of the result. Gus is busy reading comics when a sheep eats a scarf that his teacher, Ms. Smolinski, lent him; he cuts enough wool from one sheep to make himself a fake beard; he forces a crying Sammy to ride on top of a sheep; he tries to put a sheep on a bicycle – again and again, Bliss shows Gus making more than his share of mischief, while Birdsall produces words that make everything seem innocent and even inventive. Worst of all, Gus lets the sheep into the house, where they make a major mess of the kitchen, eat part of a rug and part of a pillow and several orchids, and destroy many household items – as Gus uncaringly uses several of them as an obstacle over which to jump on his skateboard, then tries to blame Sammy for everything. In truth, Gus is not a very nice boy and not a very nice brother, but Bliss manages to make him endearingly disobedient rather than genuinely nasty; and Birdsall’s writing wonderfully captures the flavor of a must-do homework report that a clever child might produce – with some unexpected twists. The fact that Ms. Smolinski gives the report a B+ and compliments Gus’s handwriting is right in line with the book’s skewed but eminently relatable sensibilities.
Breen, as both writer and illustrator of Woodpecker Wants a Waffle, lets his creativity flow in a different way. Bliss’s sheep mostly act like real animals, despite an anthropomorphic expression here and there; but Breen’s Benny the woodpecker is more a Looney Tunes character than a genuine woodland creature. Benny lives in the woods, true, but as soon as he smells something delicious when a waffle restaurant opens nearby, he sets off to investigate. He has no idea what waffles might be, but they look good and smell good and, Benny thinks with impeccable logic, must taste good, too. So he tries to get into the restaurant – in a series of scenes that really are reminiscent of ones in Warner Brothers cartoons. He clings to the bird-patterned dress of a woman entering the restaurant, for instance, and disguises himself in several improbable ways (including as a carton of milk and as a health inspector with Groucho Marx face mask). But he is always discovered and booted or broom-swept out. The other animals, talkers one and all, mock Benny’s wafflemania in sentences that perfectly fit the ethos of kids’ books: “Lizards don’t eat lasagna!” “Skunks don’t eat scones!” “Turtles don’t eat turnovers!” “Snakes don’t eat snow cones!” And so on. Benny refuses to accept what they say, asking why woodpeckers don’t eat waffles. That’s a poser – and the only answer anyone can come up with is Bunny’s “because I SAID so,” which does not satisfy Benny at all. So Benny devises a super-elaborate plan (not exactly along the lines of a Wile E. Coyote plot, but with similar complexity), in which he will singlehandedly put on a spectacular entertainment routine that will surely get him some waffles. The animals scoff, snicker and head back into the woods – but the next morning, they cannot resist turning up for Benny’s big show. And sure enough, Benny’s plan does get him into the diner and does get him a waffle – not at all in the way he told the animals it would, but in a manner showing just how clever a planner Benny is and just how determined he is to give the other animals (and the waitress who repeatedly tossed him out of the restaurant) their comeuppance. The ending is a sweet one – for Benny, anyway – and the whole book has a kind of sendup-of-children’s-books vibe even as it makes a thoroughly delightful children’s book itself. And th-th-th-that’s all, folks.
Rocks, Minerals & Gems: The Definitive Visual Catalog of the Treasure Beneath Your Feet. By Sean Callery and Miranda Smith. Photos by Gary Ombler. Scholastic. $19.99.
The amazement of the ordinary is what drives this wonderful look at things we encounter constantly but to which we generally pay very little attention. “We could not live without rocks – we would have nothing to stand on and build with!” explain Sean Callery and Miranda Smith, and when you think about things that way, rocks are absolutely remarkable. Yet they are mundane, too, so familiar and commonplace that it is hard to recognize the astonishing processes that create them: a simple curbstone, for example, is “born in magma; blasted from a volcano; collected, ground up, and transformed into an unnoticed, everyday part of our world.”
That is, rocks would be unnoticed if it were not for authors like Callery and Smith and, to at least as great an extent, a photographer as skilled as Gary Ombler, whose work – added to a great many photos taken from a great variety of other sources – makes the nonliving rocks, minerals and gems in this book seem to come alive. For one thing, the extreme closeups of rocks show details of their appearance in ways not normally seen in our daily life, and those details, the crystalline regularity and layered beauty and hugely varied colors, make for splendid viewing. Add to that the many photos showing how rocks and minerals are used structurally and decoratively: the malachite foyer in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, the Aztec sacrificial knife with a chalcedony blade, the 11th-century Peruvian mask using pigment made from cinnabar, the fossil-containing shale in which creatures from half a billion years ago may be found – there are wonders aplenty here, and a great deal to explore and marvel at.
The uses of rock are nearly infinite. Rocks, Minerals & Gems shows an airplane whose fuselage is based on graphite, a 300-year-old flintlock pistol in which the explosion that fires the bullet is made by striking a piece of flint, a camera lens whose focusing ability is due to fluorite, the magnificent Pantheon dome built out of pumice during the rule of the Roman emperor Hadrian, a set of 34 monasteries and temples carved out of a basalt cliff in India, and much more. And then there are gemstones: as the authors point out, only 130 of the 5,000 or so minerals on Earth are considered good enough to become gemstones, and only about 50 of those 130 are commonly used. Here readers encounter topaz and citrine, beryl and carnelian, agate and morganite, aquamarine and ametrine, as well as the more-familiar diamond, garnet, ruby, and emerald.
This is a visual book above all, but there is also plenty of well-put-together information in it for readers. It is easy to forget, with all the areas into which Scholastic has moved (notably including U.S. publication of the Harry Potter books), that the company has its roots in education – and still handles that field remarkably well when it comes to books like this one. For example, in the discussion of quartz, the most common mineral on Earth, there are photos and clear explanations of the ninth-century enamel-and-quartz Alfred Jewel, the use by Roman soldiers of tigereye, the belief that rose quartz can heal a broken heart, the association of chalcedony with the goddess Diana, the use of smoky quartz in crystal balls, and more. The authors explain why opal is referred to as a mineraloid rather than a mineral (mainly because it does not have a crystalline structure), and tell readers that many gems in crowns around the world are said to be rubies but are actually spinels. This is a book to read in any direction, choosing pages sequentially or at random, paying attention for any amount of time – a work to explore at your own pace and browse through as your curiosity motivates you. Parents and children alike will find here a mixture of science and beauty, fact and myth, fascinating history (arsenic has been used in mineral baths and to improve breathing, as well as to kill) and up-to-date information (graphene, a layer of graphite only one atom thick, is 100 times stronger than steel). Rocks, Minerals & Gems is a book that makes the ordinary extraordinary – or, more accurately, shows that what seems to be mundane is in reality quite remarkable.
The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life. By Rodney Dietert, Ph.D. Dutton. $28.
It has recently become fashionable to regard the human body not as an integrated organism but as a colony of trillions of microorganisms. On that basis, some 90% of human cells are microbial. This is reductio ad minimum if not ad absurdum, but it is not as peculiar or scientifically or philosophically abstruse as it may at first seem to be. The fact that our bodies are populated by trillions of bacteria is not news, nor is it revelatory to state that an appropriate balance of “good” bacteria helps protect us against periodic invasions by “bad” bacteria – and that, indeed, maintaining such a balance is a key to overall health.
A key, not the key. The distinction matters, because stating that microbial balance is the key to health opens the door to any number of scammers, “nutraceutical” peddlers, “probiotics” pushers and others who are only too eager to jump on the latest bandwagon and use it to make all the profits possible before the next big thing comes along.
Rodney Dietert, thankfully, is no peddler or pusher, even if he is a trifle too intense in his advocacy of microbiome balance as the key to living well. Dieter starts from the inarguable premise that despite many decades of advancement in medical technology, nearly two-thirds of deaths today are caused by illness – and particularly by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Furthermore, says Dietert, a professor of immunotoxicology at Cornell University, there is an epidemic of non-fatal but nevertheless serious diseases that can also be tied to microbiome disturbance, including celiac disease, psoriasis, asthma, osteoarthritis, autism, depression and many more. All these diseases share an improperly regulated immune system, Dietert argues, and because that is what they have in common, appropriate alteration of our microbiome can return our biological superorganism to health through a rebalancing act that involves treatments such as prebiotics and probiotics.
The problem, Dietert asserts, is that we as a species have spent so much time in recent decades deregulating rather than balancing our microbiome. Here he cites the usual suspects, including antibiotic overuse and insufficient nutritional diversity. We have pushed our bodies into a state of chronic inflammation, says Dietert, and that in turn makes us susceptible to an ever-increasing number of chronic illnesses.
Little of this is really new, although Dietert is to be commended for backing up his assertions with so many citations of responsible research, much of it cutting-edge. The notion that we live symbiotically with helpful bacteria that, for their part, protect us against a host of diseases caused by lack of homeostasis, allows us to imagine a fairly simple rebalancing act that will end the inflammatory response and present us with a holistically healthy future. But of course things are not as simple as that. Pretty much every aspect of modern life needs to be rethought in order to restore microbiome balance, Dietert suggests, ranging from altered birth practices (no more elective C-sections, no excuses for failing to breastfeed) to new approaches to geriatrics. The basic problem, Dietert says, is that in waging war against harmful microorganisms, we have been causing collateral damage to the helpful ones that are crucial to our health – in effect, fighting ourselves and defeating the very elements of our biological makeup that keep us healthy. We have suffered “the loss of a higher order of self-integrity involving our microbiome,” and medical treatments make matters worse insofar as they ignore the preeminent importance of microbiome management.
Dietert veers perilously close to fanaticism as he brings up instance after instance in which a problem, pretty much any problem, is caused by mismanagement of the microbiome. His strong scientific background and research-based arguments prevent his book from sounding entirely like a jeremiad, but there is a certain hectoring tone about his insistence that whatever may be the matter, he, Dietert, knows what the problem is, and what can be done about it. Of course, what can be done differs for every individual, so there is, after all, no easy solution in The Human Superorganism. In fact, Dietert’s insistence on the importance of personalized medicine is right in line with the increasing realization among clinicians that one-size-fits-all treatments really fit almost no one: individual people respond differently to an identical dose of the same medicine given for the same condition, for example. Unfortunately, Dietert’s statement that everyone can benefit from a microbiome makeover (“rebiosis,” he calls it) runs head-on into his statement that “what works wonderfully for one person might not work as well for someone else,” which rather begs the question of how to implement the program that Dietert recommends.
“The bottom line is that even with some uncertainties, more information to come out, and risks greater than zero, there is little reason simply to live with NCDs and treat the end-process with heavy-duty pharmaceuticals while never addressing the root of the problem,” Dietert opines. That certainly makes sense – as does Dietert’s emphasis on exercise and improved nutrition, the latter meaning that “you need to consume a diet that allows the microbes you are installing in your gut to thrive, to have an ecological advantage in you, and to function fully.” Even non-holistic medical practitioners would surely agree with the notion of improving diet and increasing physical activity, although they might not accept the specific terms in which Dietert presents his ideas. In the absence of specificity, however, Dietert’s well-meaning recommendations to reset one’s microbiome in a way that one discovers for oneself after substantial research and experimentation turn into just another of the many “here are the start and finish on a map so you can find your own road” healthcare self-help tomes. Some of what Dietert discusses is exceptionally interesting, especially his research-based assertions and his comments on ways in which he personally has applied his “rebiosis” approach. However, readers looking for the how of microbiome reorientation rather than the why of it will likely be disappointed to learn that the best Dietert can tell them is to figure out what to do on their own.
In the Shadow of the Gods: A Bound Gods Novel. By Rachel Dunne. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
The Fog Diver. By Joel Ross. Harper. $6.99.
The Fog Diver 2: The Lost Compass. By Joel Ross. Harper. $16.99.
There is a reliability to genre novels that makes them attractive to adults and young readers alike. Without knowing a specific author or a specific setting, readers can nevertheless pick up heroic adventure/fantasies with the knowledge that good and evil will be clearly delineated, quests will be undertaken, “guidance” figures will appear as needed, settings will be designed to seem exotic but not so exotic that readers will be genuinely puzzled (as can happen in science fiction), characterization will take a back seat to action, and descriptive passages will be used primarily to heighten tension or elucidate plot points. There are more standard elements than these, but this is a good basic set of them, and all are to be found – for better or worse – in both In the Shadow of the Gods and The Fog Diver and its sequel. Being intended for adults, In the Shadow of the Gods has a particularly gritty feel about it, starting with a first chapter whose sudden outbursts of violence in a suitably portentous setting are intended to convey the seriousness of the issues to be explored. The issues themselves, however, are nothing special, involving the rebellion of certain gods against others and the determination of the defeated ones to return one day and overthrow their oppressors. That those oppressors are the god-father and god-mother of the losers is scarcely unusual in genre novels like this or, for that matter, in many of the mythic systems on which books like Rachel Dunne’s draw willy-nilly. Unfortunately for those seeking a genuine feeling of dark designs within the entirely formulaic setup of the book’s premise, Dunne has assembled a world that is supposed to be totally unlike ours but that somehow seems to use Latin (or at least vaguely Latin-sounding) roots for almost everything of significance. Thus, the elder, “parent” gods are “father” Patharro and “mother” Metherra (pater and mater plus the respective “o” and “a” endings); a helpful priest of those gods is Parro (as in padre); and the numbered acolytes of the fallen Fratarro (frater, brother) and Sororra (soror, sister; and again one “o” ending and one “a”) include Uniro (first), Duero (second), Trero (third), Noviro (ninth), Quindeira (fifteenth), Septeiro (seventeenth), and so on. This is just plain silly – laughably so if you know Latin and Latinate words, as Dunne apparently assumes readers will not. However unintentional, it is also the only thing laughable in a book distinguished as much by its complete humorlessness as by its preoccupation with gore. The novel’s plot jumps and meanders about as plots in this genre generally do, and certainly there is plenty of scheming and violence and plotting and fighting – and some hard-to-fathom plot twists, such as the decision that all twins must be killed at birth because otherwise they will somehow lend strength to Fratarro and Sororra, whose desire, incidentally, is simply to return, overthrow Patharro and Metherra, and plunge the world into everlasting darkness. Ho, hum. Or maybe fee, fi, fo, fum. Dunne does have a generally sure sense of pacing, despite some tendencies to meander and to stretch scenes to and beyond the breaking point; and her limning of the cold wastelands where many scenes take place is well done and produces more chills than does the action. In the Shadow of the Gods is Dunne’s debut novel, and the second part of its title, A Bound Gods Novel, makes it quite clear that there is more to come. So does the book’s conclusion, which unfortunately descends into vastly overdone “revelatory mode” and near incoherence – all in the name of setting up future novels. It is safe to assume that the followups will also be written with a sure hand; a mostly strong, if somewhat inconsistent, sense of pace; and a set of highly predictable occurrences fitting neatly within the book’s well-defined genre.
The genre is the same for The Fog Diver, originally published last year and now available in paperback, and its brand-new sequel, The Lost Compass. The intended audience is different, though: these are books for preteens and young teenaged readers, and as such offer somewhat less extreme violence, a somewhat reduced intensity of action, and fewer grandiose “adult” themes. There is plenty of action, though, even more than Dunne offers, because the fantasy/adventure genre for this age group does not spend time being atmospheric. It is all about camaraderie, the bonds of friendship, ways to support each other, and a constant stream of “Perils of Pauline” occurrences (even though virtually no readers of these books will have any idea as to what Pauline and her perils might mean). Genre stories like this one emphasize the importance of friends and of one’s peer group rather than individuality, and frequently dwell on the evils of the adult world. There is usually a positive adult character or two, cast in the role of mentor and/or rescuer, but the main action and the main success belong emphatically to the young people featured in the story. These two Joel Ross novels fit these elements together neatly. The books take place in a standard-issue future dystopia; in this one, the Earth is cloaked in a white mist that is deadly to people but not to other living things. The mist conceals within it the precious objects of long ago that poor slum dwellers like the four protagonists of the books must hunt for and trade to survive. The first novel neatly sets the scene while presenting the essentially formulaic characters. It is inevitable in stories like this that the members of the central group are different but complementary, and that the most-central of them all has a deep secret that will eventually be revealed. Chess, the 13-year-old “tetherboy” who makes the actual dives into the fog, has that secret: one of his eyes actually appears to contain some of the fog, the result of a vicious experiment conducted by the evil Lord Kodoc in years past. This feature may (or may not) help him survive longer and perhaps find things that others cannot locate. The other young people who crew the airship from which Chess explores are Hazel, the captain; Swedish, the pilot; Bea, the mechanic; and Loretta, the best fighter in the group. All are one-dimensional and are as bold and supportive of Chess as can be. And all four are involved with Mrs. E, a woman who serves as mentor and rescuer but in the course of the story comes (unsurprisingly) to need rescuing herself: she develops a fog-related sickness that subsides long enough for her to play a commanding role one single time, at exactly the right moment in the narrative. There are some clever aspects of The Fog Diver, including misstatements of what the past must have been like (the kids believe there were once a ruling Burger King and Dairy Queen), decisions on what things from olden times have real modern value (paper money is only good for toilet paper), and the fact that Lord Kodoc’s airship is a kind of transformer whose “harmless” version is called the Teardrop while the name of its battle version is an anagram: Predator. Aside from these elements, the book is predictable, including its cliffhanger ending, in which the young people escape from Lord Kodoc and head for the supposed sanctuary of a place called Port Oro.
The Lost Compass picks up there. Far from being a sanctuary – it is a trope of novels like this that supposed havens turn out to be anything but – Port Oro is in danger of being swallowed by the mist. This can only be prevented if someone can find a long-lost object known as the Compass – and, naturally, the only one who may be able to find it is Chess. And so this book’s quest begins. The Compass is said (by legend, of course) to be “a nano-machine that controls the Fog,” and of course legend also says that the Compass “would emerge when the time was right.” The “nano” reference makes sense in context: it was revealed in the first book that the Fog is actually made of nanoparticles, originally designed to stop pollution but then becoming a threat to humanity after a spate of self-determination leads them to conclude that humans are pollutants. This is not particularly believable, but it is important to remember that this story is genre fantasy, not genre science fiction, despite a smattering of science thrown over it as a veneer. What matters here is the seeking and the finding, the revelations of how special Chess is and why, and the true meaning of some of those legends – one character aptly comments, “Sometimes old stories get garbled.” Actually, sometimes language does, too, not only in amusing post-apocalyptic ways but also when Ross has a character use some very old slang indeed as if this sort of language just happened to survive the destruction of most of Earth nearly unchanged: “After hundreds of years, everything got cattywampus.” Eventually, with an inevitable additional confrontation between Chess and Kodoc as a climax, everything gets sorted out, and this particular chess game (surely that is why Ross gave his hero that name) leads inevitably to checkmate of the bad guys. The Lost Compass wraps up the story begun in The Fog Diver, although Ross could probably figure out further adventures to tag onto this second one – and probably will, if fans of the books decide they want once again to revisit this particular version of an exciting but ultimately unsurprising genre adventure.
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (version by Deryck Cooke). Seattle Symphony conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Brahms: Symphony No. 2. Chloë Hanslip, violin; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $17.
Schumann: Cello Concerto; Dvořák: Cello Concerto. Carmine Miranda, cello; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.
John Corigliano: Symphony No. 1; Michael Torke: Bright Blue Music; Copland: Appalachian Spring—Suite. National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
Arthur Butterworth: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 4. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arthur Butterworth (No. 1) and Christopher Adey (No. 2); BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson (No. 4). Lyrita. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Rudolf Haken: Music for Viola. Rudolf Haken, viola; Rachel Jensen, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life—A Film by Georg Wübbolt. C Major DVD. $24.99.
The pull of the Romantic era extended well beyond the 19th century, with which it is usually associated, and indeed continues in the 21st. The bending of form to emotional expressiveness, one of the most salient characteristics of Romanticism, continues to attract composers even as their techniques for evoking expression evolve. Thus, those who try to determine a Romantic endpoint are doomed to failure. Was Sibelius, who died in 1957, the last Romantic? Then what about Einojuhani Rautavaara, also Finnish, born in 1928 and self-described as a Romantic? He still writes music with a Romantic bent – and Sibelius himself stopped composing anything new of significance about the time Rautavaara was born. Perhaps Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943 and wrote his final work, the Symphonic Dances, in 1940, was the last of his kind? But there is really no “last.” There are only composers who accepted, adopted and adapted the approaches and techniques of Romanticism and bent them to their will in new ways, whether by deliberately turning their backs on key elements (as Schoenberg did) or by accepting those elements and giving them a new, distinctive and highly personal stamp (as Mahler did). Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10 manages to be both a pinnacle of Romanticism and a very clear bridge beyond it. It is a work whose artist-as-tragic-hero elements are abundantly clear, to an even greater degree than in his Sixth Symphony: by the time of the Tenth, Mahler’s wife, Alma, was having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius and Mahler was desperately trying to cope. Mahler’s final symphony is both intensely emotional (and emotive) and extremely carefully structured. It is an arch whose central movement, “Purgatorio,” is the shortest symphonic movement that Mahler ever wrote; and it is a work whose unique-in-Mahler elements range from an extremely dissonant climactic first-movement chord to the genuinely eerie sound of a muffled bass drum at the conclusion of the fourth movement and in the fifth. It seems inevitable that the symphony end peacefully but with a measure of inconclusiveness, and it does, in a quietly ambivalent close. Mahler completed the first and third movements of his Tenth and left the others tantalizingly close to being playable. The first and still best performing version of the entire symphony, by Deryck Cooke, is spare, at times even harsh, in ways that show how far past Romanticism Mahler looked in this work – or would have looked if he had finished it as Cooke did. Of course that would not have happened, but perhaps Mahler would have made his Tenth even more intensely ascetic than it is in Cooke’s performing version. It is best to regard Cooke’s Mahler Tenth as a very fine completion of an extended sketch of a work whose shape Mahler had determined but whose ultimate orchestration and overall sound would likely have been different in important respects from the ones Cooke proffers. Yet ultimately this does not matter: Mahler, whose temperament was even more wholly Romantic than his techniques, so clearly communicates anguish and uncertainty in his Tenth that a conductor has only to follow the music, scarcely to lead it, for it to have a deeply moving effect. Thomas Dausgaard seems fully to understand the emotional underpinnings of the Tenth, and his live November 2015 performance with the Seattle Symphony, presented on the orchestra’s own label, glows with fine playing, abundant emotional involvement and a clearly articulated sense of the music’s careful structure. This is in every way a very fine Mahler Tenth – not the one Mahler would have created if he had lived to and beyond his 51st birthday, but as convincing a reading of this more-than-sketched, less-than-finished work as listeners are likely to encounter.
Backing up a few decades into the height of Romanticism lands listeners amid some of the most popular classical works of all time – which retain their appeal despite the many, many times audiences have heard them both in concerts and in recorded form. The opportunity to make a new recording of such works can be irresistible, but it is one best approached cautiously, since the bar for a quality performance is extremely high when a work has been played and recorded so many times. The new Buffalo Philharmonic recording of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, offering readings recorded live in January 2016 on the orchestra’s Beau Fleuve label, has one hit and one miss and gets a (+++) rating. The Tchaikovsky concerto is a delight. Twenty-nine-year-old Chloë Hanslip treats this work by the 38-year-old composer as a burst of youthful joy and passion, subsuming its darker elements beneath warmth, lyricism and a joie de vivre that one rarely experiences in Tchaikovsky but that makes perfect sense in this particular piece. JoAnn Falletta goes along with and helps heighten the effect of the interpretation with accompaniment that carefully includes Hanslip’s instrument at times and holds back and thus heightens the soloist’s effects at others. Ultimately this is a superficial performance, making no attempt to discover, much less plumb, any depths in the concerto. But this piece happens to be one that can survive and even thrive under this kind of treatment, especially when the soloist simply sounds so good. The orchestra sounds excellent here as well, with plenty of warmth and fine ensemble work. It almost seems to be a different orchestra and a different conductor in Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. This reading is a genuine disappointment, almost wholly without warmth and filled with the sort of unnecessary rubato that lesser conductors use to try to heighten audience involvement but to which a leader of Falletta’s caliber should not have to resort. The very end of the symphony, for example, proves only that the musicians can stay together at a breakneck pace that is wholly inappropriate for the music. Also, for some reason, Falletta omits the exposition repeat in the first movement – a serious error that badly damages the expansiveness of the movement and the overall balance of all the symphony’s elements. Falletta is better than this. So is Brahms.
A new Navona CD includes two other highly popular and very Romantic concertos, those for cello by Schumann and Dvořák, and here too one performance is more attractive than the other – although the disparity is less than in the Buffalo Philharmonic’s case. Carmine Miranda, another superb twentysomething soloist (he is 26), is filled with fire and expressiveness in the Dvořák. There is nothing surface-level here: Miranda delves deeply into the work’s emotional core, contrasting its occasional ebullience with a level of dark intensity that never seems far away. Many cellists emphasized the considerable disparity between the basic march tune and the emotion-soaked slow section in the final movement, but Miranda goes beyond this, finding similar antitheses throughout the work and highlighting them again and again. This is an unusual interpretation and one that bears repeated listening. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský is not quite as convincing as is Miranda – tutti passages here will often make listeners eager for a return of the soloist – but the musicians’ playing is very good and quite idiomatic, even if the conducting is rather foursquare. Soloist and conductor seem more fully attuned to each other in the Schumann concerto, but the result is a somewhat weaker reading of this work than the Dvořák receives. Miranda’s approach is similar: he looks for areas of strong contrast and seeks to highlight them repeatedly. But Schumann’s concerto is more thoroughly through-composed than Dvořák’s and offers fewer opportunities for delving into disparate moods and emotions. Here Miranda’s handling of the concerto seems somewhat forced, as if he is trying to make Schumann’s expressiveness into something akin to Dvořák’s when in fact it is quite different. Again, the interpretation is unusual and interesting enough to be worth hearing repeatedly, and the CD deserves a (++++) rating for its innovation as well as the sheer quality of Miranda’s playing. But on balance, the intriguing approach here fits Dvořák more comfortably than it fits Schumann.
Romantic expressiveness, if not the officially designated Romantic era, persisted into a time very remote from that of Schumann and Dvořák. By the late 1980s, nearly a century after Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and more than that after Schumann’s, a distinctly modern composer, John Corigliano (born 1938), turned to a Romantic form and approach to communicate the same sort of strong emotions for which Romantic music is known – but using techniques honed many decades later. Composed in 1988 and first heard in 1993, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 used a very large, certainly late-Romantic-scale orchestra to try to express feelings associated with what he described as a “world-scale tragedy,” in the form of AIDS. This is essentially a war symphony, of AIDS as a war against Corigliano’s friends and of the medical war against the disease. Corigliano uses an orchestra large even by Mahlerian standards, primarily because of a gigantic percussion component that includes two glockenspiels, crotales, two vibraphones, xylophone, marimba, chimes, snare drum, three tom-toms, three roto-toms, field drum, tenor drum, three bass drums, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, three temple blocks, tambourine, anvil, metal plate, brake drum, triangle, flexatone, police whistle, whip, and ratchet – plus harp, piano, four mandolins and a large complement of more-traditional orchestral instruments. But where Mahler used his huge orchestras primarily as extended chamber groups, presenting individual elements within them with tremendous delicacy and using the full instrumental complement with care and in contrast to the sections involving relatively few instruments, Corigliano goes for all-out intensity and noise time and again, seeking an epic scale by piling on climax after climax at insistently high volume. The symphony is filled with personal references, not personal to Corigliano himself, as in Mahler’s works (which are largely about himself), but references to three specific people who died of AIDS and were meaningful to the composer. Listeners need to know the references to get the full effect of the music – one reason this rather bloated symphony has not aged very well, even when played as effectively as it is on a new Naxos recording by the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. For all its brashness and intensity, the symphony is less effective than another work on the CD, Michael Torke’s Bright Blue Music (1985), which offers a much more downplayed form of Romantic-style communication through its lyricism and beauty. And the simplicity of the suite from Copland’s well-known Appalachian Spring (1945) trumps both the newer works precisely because of its simplicity: the music is actually constructed with great skill, but it does not constantly call attention to itself and its message, instead unfolding with balletic warmth and a deliberately naïve but nevertheless heartfelt style of communication that shows one effective direction composers were able to use when going beyond Romanticism while not abandoning some of its precepts, such as tonality. The orchestra here is made up of conservatory students, and it sounds fine in all these pieces; the CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating because the three works on it fit rather uneasily together and the main piece, Corigliano’s, simply does not wear very well in its overdone intensity.
Corigliano is not, by a long shot, the only post-Romantic composer to have gravitated to the symphony when seeking to communicate on a large scale. The relatively little-known British composer Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014) composed seven symphonies, along with more than 150 other works in forms usually thought of as Romantic (including concertos for violin, viola, cello, guitar, bassoon, trumpet and organ). Like Charles Ives in the United States, Butterworth was inspired by band music, becoming a trombone, cornet and trumpet player because of his love of the sound of massed brass. Although he was a professional orchestral trumpeter for a time, he gave up performing when in his late 30s in order to focus on composition. His works are well-constructed and show considerable sensitivity to the real-world requirements of performance. A new two-CD release on the Lyrita label offers the unusual chance to hear three Butterworth symphonies and listen to the composer himself conducting his favorite, the First, which was his breakthrough work. This symphony was first played in 1957. This recording, from 1976, is unfortunately of poor quality (it was made from a BBC transmission), but it is an interesting historical documentation of music that might be called post-post-Romantic – because the symphony, with its strong British and Scandinavian flavor, clearly recalls (but does not slavishly imitate) Vaughan Williams, Sibelius and Nielsen, each of whom found his own way past the Romantic era and into new forms of symphonic expressiveness. Butterworth’s Symphony No. 2 (1964), heard here in a 1975 performance, offers less tone-painting and a greater sense of drama and lyricism in a kind of film-music package. It is a work of considerable variety, with pastoral elements, periods of calm, folklike material, a bit of a march, and an effective contrast of jollity and solemnity. Symphony No. 4 (1986), presented here in a recording of its première performance, is closer to No. 1 in spirit, the first movement in particular reminiscent of Sibelius (the ostinato passages are directly in the Finnish composer’s debt) but with a Nielsen-like passage of insistent timpani at its climax. The second movement starts suspensefully, then lightens; the third has stillness at its core but is occasionally interrupted by brass outbursts using more-dissonant harmonies than Butterworth generally employed; and the finale, a moto perpetuo, recalls elements of the first three movements and whirls to a well-wrought climax. Strictly in performance terms, this is the best reading of the three here, but all the recordings, despite some technical imperfections, are well worth having for anyone interested in exploring Butterworth’s music. The limited reach of the composer, and the less-than-ideal sound, make this a (+++) recording, but it is one well worth hearing for those interested in 20th-century British symphonies as they evolved from works of the Romantic era.
Butterworth was unapologetic about writing music that remained largely within the Romanic purview. The same is true of Rudolf Haken (born 1965), a fine violist whose early works for his favored instrument – heard on a new MSR Classics CD – are so firmly within Romanticism as to qualify as throwbacks. Four of the five pieces here are the creations of a teenager – a remarkably skilled one who, by age 10, had conducted his own orchestral music. The most-recent work on the CD is Polonaise for Viola and Piano (1990), a virtuoso showpiece filled with unexpected harmonic and rhythmic twists. It keeps sounding as if it is veering off the tracks into unexpected territory, then abruptly pulls back, as if Haken is having fun at the expense of performer and listener alike. It contrasts well with Für Fritz (1980), also for viola and piano, a playful, harmonically rich and very difficult display piece in the Kreisler mode, filled with chromaticism and delicacy that are almost impossible to balance – although Haken himself clearly knows how to produce the effects he wants. This is the earliest work on the CD: Haken was 14 when he wrote it. The remaining three pieces here – all five works are world première recordings – date to only one year later, 1981. One is the Suite in A minor for Solo Viola, a classy updating of the Baroque suite that invites, indeed requires, Romantic interpretation: there is some of the poise of Bach and Telemann here, and the movements’ dance titles are those of the old suites, but the music itself has definite Romantic flair and expressiveness. Also here is Fantasia in F-sharp minor for Viola and Piano, an easier work to play than some of the others on the CD, but no less attractive for its comparative simplicity. Indeed, the grace of its first movement, brevity and panache of its Scherzo, lyricism of its Adagio and drama of its finale make it a particularly satisfying piece for both performer and listener. The last work on this (++++) disc is Sonata in D minor – Haken has a notable fondness for minor keys, another of his Romantic leanings. This is the longest and most substantial piece on the CD, its three movements running a full half-hour and requiring intensity of focus from both violist and pianist (Rachel Jensen is a very fine accompanist and partner throughout the recording). The sonata is firmly Romantic in structure and almost equally so in tonality. The first movement uses sonata form effectively and includes a nicely integrated central fugato section; the second is a well-wrought theme and variations; and the finale is all energy and joy – a very impressive conclusion to a work that it is hard to believe was created by a contemporary composer in his mid-teens. Haken has moved away from Romanticism more recently, falling into the now-familiar contemporary habit of mixing classical elements with ones from genres such as jazz, rock and Oriental music. But his early and largely Romantic viola works are in many ways more intriguing than his later ones, because they explore territory on which so many modern composers have turned their backs and show that there is still a great deal to be said in the Romantic idiom.
Romanticism had its time on the podium as well as in composition – indeed, Mahler as composer-conductor exemplified it in both venues. In more-recent times, another composer-conductor was often considered to be the epitome of the Romantic temperament. That was Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), a strong advocate and prolific conductor of Mahler’s music and a podium showman whose excesses and exploits have been the stuff of musical legend for decades. There have been many attempts to explore Bernstein’s complex personality, none of them fully satisfying but virtually all offering some degree of insight. A 52-minute documentary by Georg Wübbolt fits the pattern well, if not particularly innovatively. It offers the usual mixture of scenes of Bernstein, snippets of his activities (conducting and otherwise), background on his life and his musical interests, and comments by those who knew and interacted with him. Actually, the film is most notable for those comments, because there are so many of them – not only from fellow conductors (Gustavo Dudamel, Kent Nagano, Marin Alsop, Christoph Eschenbach) and from Bernstein’s own children but also from members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Additional comments by Dudamel, Nagano and Alsop appear in a 24-minute bonus section of the C Major DVD on which the film has been released, resulting in an hour and a quarter of material on Bernstein in all. Wübbolt makes an attempt to showcase aspects of Bernstein’s life and career that sometimes get short shrift, such as his roles as an educator and as a sort of American musical ambassador to the world. Unfortunately, this material gets short shrift here as well, since Wübbolt packs his film with so much of the usual material on Bernstein: his highly involving (and, to some, vastly overdone) podium performances; his popular compositions (but there is virtually nothing here on his more-serious, less immediately appealing music); his accomplished pianism; his use of television to reach young people; and so on. One of the things that made Bernstein a Romantic figure was his larger-than-life emoting on the podium and sometimes off it, including his willingness, even determination, to play to the largest audience possible – as when he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at Christmas 1989, with "Freiheit" ("Freedom") replacing "Freude" ("Joy") in the final movement. A consummate showman, Bernstein was nevertheless not always the best advocate of the music he conducted: his many unwarranted tempo changes, his stretching and compressing of works (especially Romantic ones) in ways the composers never intended, were as much a part of his conducting as were his sometimes surprising attentiveness to music with which he was not usually identified (some of his Haydn, for example, was excellent). What Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life misses are some of the controversies and negatives that balance the positive elements with which the film is filled. Romantics of all kinds lived and worked on a grand scale, but their lives writ large were scarcely perfect exemplars for their time or the times that came afterwards. Wübbolt’s film is a (+++) production that plumbs no new depths where Bernstein is concerned, but does a fine and generally forthright job of showing the many ways in which he was admired and some of the many people who admired him. It will take a more nuanced director than Wübbolt to produce a more-balanced view of Bernstein, one showing how his Romantic temperament sometimes betrayed him and brought him, at least in some quarters, as much disdain as admiration – a fate indeed befitting many Romantic figures as far back as the 19th century.