December 14, 2017

(++++) THE CANINE-FELINE CONNECTION


#LOVEMUTTS: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

Catabunga! A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

Snoopy: What’s Wrong with Dog Lips? A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Dogs and cats are among the most venerable of all cartoon characters, both in comic strips and in animation. And cartoonists continue to find new ways to use them, exploring their imagined personalities and their interactions with each other and with humans and others around them. The gentlest and most warm-hearted dog-and-cat strip currently being drawn is Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts, in which Earl the dog and Mooch the cat are best friends despite (or because of) their opposite personalities – and each explores the Mutts world in his own way. The latest wonderful Mutts collection, with the unpronounceable Twitter-ese title of #LOVEMUTTS, includes many of the multi-day-sequence strips that have become standard fare for McDonnell. Characters make New Year’s resolutions (Mooch’s is that he will not scratch the furniture “where they can see it”), deal with the issue of fur coats (Mooch: “I’m a fur foe for faux fur”), and show up in heartwarming “Shelter Stories” urging the adoption of all sorts of animals (not just cats and dogs). McDonnell continues to show his knowledge of older comic strips by subtle tributes to them – and some that are not so subtle, as when Mooch kicks a football and says “That’s for you, Charlie Brown,” in a Sunday strip whose opening panel has Mooch flipped over exactly as hapless Charlie Brown used to be when trying to kick the football or throw a good baseball pitch in Peanuts. Then there are the special elongated daily strips in which McDonnell combines all the usual sequential panels into a single extended one, puts a quotation in it, and provides an illustration using Mutts characters. For instance, there is one showing Earl rushing delightedly to the door when Ozzie comes home, with the quote, “If I know what love is, it is because of you. – Hermann Hesse.” Also here are animal-centric news reports, Mooch in his role of “the all-knowing Shphinx,” some wonderful turn-the-page-sideways panels in which the excellence of the art is the main attraction, and various “cause” strips in which McDonnell moves into advocacy territory while staying true to his characters. A single-long-panel strip in which Earl and Mooch sit beneath a tree looking out on a lovely landscape, agreeing that “every day is Earth Day,” is an example; so is a Sunday panel for “Be Kind to Animals Week” that has Mooch allowing critters of all sorts into the house for food and relaxation – frogs, a snake, a bear, a raccoon, various birds, a skunk, and more, all drawn in inimitable Mutts style. There are a few surprises here, too, such as “Cat Comix by Mooch,” three-panel strips in which the first two are done in “Mooch’s” style and the third in McDonnell’s usual one – with punchlines mentioning Peanuts, The Family Circus and even underground comics. Mutts is a wonderfully inventive strip, through which McDonnell consistently uses the central dog-and-cat pair to communicate his apparently limitless love both of animals and of cartooning itself.

     Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy has a more-traditional view of the cat-and-dog dichotomy, with Bucky Katt and Satchel Pooch being basically “frenemies” as they share their apartment with feckless and generally uninteresting human Rob Wilco. The latest installment featuring this particular odd couple (plus Rob) is Catabunga! And something new has been added: the book is entirely in color instead of having color only for the Sunday strips. Whether that makes the characters look better, or just different, is a matter of opinion. Actually, the look of the characters is generally less important in Get Fuzzy than what they say: this is one of the most word-focused of all modern comic strips, with constant verbal misstatements and misinterpretations being key to the humor: “showdown at the okra corral,” “call me fishmeal,” and dialogue such as, “Do cats have souls? …Depends how long their fishing line is.” Bucky at one point here says, “Words matter, Satchel. Your choice of words matters.” And he explains that George Lucas did not choose to “devote twenty years of his life to film “Star Squabbles,’” while J.R.R. Tolkien did not “write a thousand pages about the Lord of the Bangles.” And so it is throughout Get Fuzzy. Satchel points out to Bucky that having free will also means having “free won’t.” Rob discovers that the pages of Catch-22 are hollowed out and filled with eight dead rats, which Satchel explains happened because Bucky “still needs to catch fourteen more.” Bucky takes pictures of himself and another cat, but hogs most of the frame, so the photos are dubbed “selfishies.” And he stinks up the entire house making “purrpourri.” And then there are the Get Fuzzy comments on specific elements of contemporary life, as when Rob tells Satchel not to bring Bucky a box “full of tools and fire” and Satchel says, “Rob, if cats aren’t allowed to do stupid things with boxes, we may as well just shut down YouTube right now.” Get Fuzzy is character comedy with a strong verbal focus, but enough of the real-world personalities of dogs and cats leaks through so that it is barely believable that if a dog like Satchel and cat like Bucky did exist and did need to coexist, their coexistence would be much like what Conley puts on display.

     Even Conley has been known to make reference to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and McDonnell does so on a regular basis – not only in the latest Mutts collection. And that makes sense in thinking about cartoon dogs and cats, because one of the great ones is Schulz’s Snoopy – who reappears yet again in another all-color collection aimed primarily at younger readers and titled What’s Wrong with Dog Lips? The cover shows Snoopy offering to kiss Lucy, who is recoiling at the whole notion – but really, Snoopy is about as kissable as they come, at least when he chooses to be. Lucy and Snoopy make pretty good antagonists in the Peanuts world – in one strip here, Snoopy is ice-skating while wearing a stocking cap, comes up to Lucy with a smile and a thought balloon saying “how about a skate, sweetie?” – and in the last panel has had the stocking cap pulled all the way down to the two paws on which he has been standing. Elsewhere, Lucy compliments Snoopy for writing a story about greed – which turns out to be about a man named Joe Greed, not about the sort of greediness that Lucy admires. Snoopy’s interactions with the other Peanuts characters always gave the strip much of its flair, as when Charlie Brown answers the phone in the middle of the night and informs Snoopy that “there’s no room service after midnight”; when Charlie Brown observes Snoopy dressed as “Joe Motocross” preparing for a race; and when Snoopy appears as a tennis player commenting, “I didn’t invent the double fault – I merely perfected it.” There are also sequences of the type that have become classic, such as the ones with Charlie Brown trying to manage his always-losing baseball team (on which Snoopy is a player). And there are occasional surprises outside the realm of the usual characters – as when Sally stands outside her school and bemoans her poor grade on a report, leading the school itself to complain about all the grousing it hears and to think, “Someday I’d like to get ’em all in the same room and drop a ceiling on ’em!” (The building later bonks Linus with a brick because its dreams of “being a liberal arts college on a big university campus” did not come true and “I have a right to be bitter.”) The Schulz inventiveness continues to delight nearly 18 years after the cartoonist’s death. For example, at one level, Peanuts is actually a dog-and-cat strip, but the cat – Snoopy’s nemesis – is never seen. Its presence is certainly felt, though, as when Snoopy awaits a visit from his brother, Spike, and threatens to have Spike punch the cat in the nose – which leads to a panel with the word “SLASH” in big letters and then one in which a big chunk of Snoopy’s doghouse has been unceremoniously torn away. And there is a followup strip in which an even bigger threat by Snoopy leads to an even bigger attack on his doghouse, this time with an exclamatory “RIP!!” Cats and dogs are not the main point of Peanuts, but one dog is certainly central to the strip – and the fact that McDonnell’s Earl has almost exactly the same coloration as Schulz’s Snoopy is far from a coincidence.

(++++) FUN WITH MANY WORDS – OR FEW


Pine & Boof: The Lucky Leaf. By Ross Burach. Harper. $17.99.

Meow! By Victoria Ying. Harper. $15.99.

     Both these books are for ages 4-8, but the way they tell their animal-centric stories could not be more different. Ross Burach’s Pine & Boof: The Lucky Leaf really is a story, a narrative. The illustrations are an integral part of it, and some of them are marvelously funny, but the basic tale here is a verbal one. It starts with Boof, a big, roly-poly bear cub who is afraid of bears (adult ones, anyway) and therefore carries around a can of anti-bear spray. Boof collects and names things, such as a stick named Mr. Stick and a rock named Mr. Rock. His favorite collectible is a bright red leaf with which he plays constantly, but not very successfully: despite Boof’s enthusiastic urging, the leaf cannot use a see-saw, throw a ball, or munch a campfire-cooked marshmallow. Enter Pine, a porcupine – who in fact enters by banging into Boof as Boof sits teary-eyed on the forest path. Boof is crying because the wind has suddenly picked up and taken his favorite leaf who-knows-where. Pine, who considers himself an expert on lots of things but is mostly rather muddled in his thinking, promises to help Boof find the missing leaf, and the two set off on a leaf quest that leads to some very funny encounters with a boar and a snake. Burach’s illustrations are at their best during the search, as when Boof lifts up a boulder to look for the leaf under it and Pine then lifts up boulder-shaped Boof to look for the leaf under him. A stuck-in-a-log scenario eventually and hilariously ensues, but in the end, the wind is just too much for the intrepid duo. However, they realize that having a friend to search for things with and generally play with is better than having a leafy companion, anyway. So all ends happily, with Pine and Boof cooking apology pancakes for the boar and making a very amusing apology card for the snake. This is a funny story, amusingly told and illustrated with cartoonish panache, with the pictures carrying a lot of the humor but the words being central to telling the tale.

     Not so in Victoria Ying’s Meow! In fact, the word of the title is almost the only one in this sweet little feline-focused book, which is such a simple story that multiple words really are not required. An adorable little kitten, childlike in being dressed like a human and drawn by Ying with a head as large as the rest of his body, wanders around the family home carrying a ball of yellow yarn and asking everyone, “Meow?” This clearly means, “Will you play with me?” But nobody will: mom is busy in the garden, dad in the kitchen, and sister in a chair, where she is reading a book. Frustrated, the kitten starts to unravel the yarn ball and play by himself – but what he does is to entangle everything and everyone in the yarn, as the word “meow!” gets angrier and angrier (cleverly shown by the style of the lettering, which mirrors the expressions on the kitten’s face). Mom, dad and sister finally band together to stop the kitten from messing everything up, putting him in a time-out with their own obviously very irritated “Meow!!” The sad little kitten apologizes – the same word serves a new purpose this time – and sets about disentangling everything and cleaning up the mess he has made. Then he helps mom in the garden, helps dad bake mouse-shaped cookies, and sits in the chair with his sister to read her book with her. Then everyone gets together for games with the yarn, after which it is get-ready-for-bed time in a household that is clearly much happier than it was earlier. The various expressions of “meow” eventually end with the kitten happily asleep, purring with contentment, his ball of yarn beside him on the pillow. Ying does a lovely job of making what is essentially a single-word book into one expressing a wide variety of recognizable emotions and feelings, showing that while some stories are best told through a whole series of words, others can be just as well expressed with very little in the way of verbal elements.

(+++) WINTRY WARMTH


The Afterlife of Holly Chase. By Cynthia Hand. HarperTeen. $17.99.

The Lost Frost Girl. By Amy Wilson. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Feel-good stories with twists for teenagers and preteens are scattered throughout most Christmas seasons, and this one is no exception. Cynthia Hand’s The Afterlife of Holly Chase is a contemporary retelling of Charles Dickens’ inevitable-in-the-season A Christmas Carol, assembled in somewhat muddled fashion from a bit of gadgetry, a touch of time travel, and a fair number of paranormal-romance elements. It is a story that initially does not go the way Scrooge’s did: wealthy, super-selfish 16-year-old Holly, the daughter of a big-time movie director, is given a chance to mend her ways after doing a nasty number on the family maid one Christmas Eve. But she does not cooperate with the ghosts that warn her – so when she conveniently dies (conveniently for the plot, that is; not for Holly), she clearly needs some sort of penance. There is no Marley-like chain clanking here: Holly “wakes up,” if that is the right term, in New York City, where she is forcibly recruited into something called Project Scrooge – a kind of company that tries to redeem one otherwise lost soul every year through interventions like the one Holly ignored. The best part of The Afterlife of Holly Chase is Hand’s description of the secrets of how Project Scrooge operates – this is where the gadgetry and time travel come in. But the book’s focus quickly turns to the paranormal-romance stuff, which is pretty thin gruel. Five years after becoming part of Project Scrooge, Holly finds out that the redemption target of the year is a super-hot, super-rich 17-year-old named Ethan Jonathan Winters III.  Yes, “Winters.” Holly has remained 16 for the past five years, and now she actually takes an interest in her job because it involves Ethan – with whom she secretly (and against the rules of Project Scrooge) becomes romantically involved. In fact, Holly is seen to develop both a genuine romance (genuine by the standards of teen-focused books like this, anyway) and a friendship with the still-alive Stephanie, whose pre-death condition makes it possible for her to bring coffee. These events are supposed to be part of Holly’s redemptive efforts, which proceed almost in spite of herself. The Afterlife of Holly Chase never manages to be madcap, although it seems to want to be. It does, however, periodically qualify as quirky, and even though the ending is a foregone conclusion, it is pleasant enough when it happens. The getting-to-the-ending can be a bit of a chore, though: Holly’s narration is often pointed and attractive, but at other times it turns to treacle that would not be out of place (except for the vocabulary) in Dickens’ time: “I felt so close to him then, a connection that I was sure was not just based on attraction or circumstance, not the accumulation of a bunch of fake stories I’d told him. Something we could build on. Something that would last.” This sort of thing seems much better when taken in the joyous and forgiving spirit of the season.

     Aimed at preteens rather than teenagers, with a narrator who is 12 rather than 16, Amy Wilson’s The Lost Frost Girl has a more-unusual premise than The Afterlife of Holly Chase, although Wilson’s frequent use of fairy-tale tropes makes her novel somewhat less intriguing than it might otherwise be. The protagonist here is named Owl (yes, Owl) McBride, and she somewhat resembles the bird, with a slightly beaky nose, near-yellow eyes and white-blond hair. She lives with her mom, knows nothing at all about her dad, and has a close girlfriend named Mallory and, soon after the book’s beginning, a new boy in class who seems unusually interesting: Avery, who “has tawny-brown hair in a long braid snaking down his back” and “the strangest copper-colored eyes.” Owl’s mom won’t discuss Owl’s dad at all, until eventually she does, revealing that he is none other than Jack Frost, the elemental spirit of winter. This explains the bedtime stories Owl’s mom has long told her about meeting Owl’s father in “magical wintry lands.” Soon enough, as winter begins to develop, Owl’s skin turns bluish white and sparkles with frost – and she wonders if perhaps she has inherited some powers of her own from her father. Now Owl just has to find Jack Frost himself, and she does, but their first encounter is decidedly frosty: he is wild and uncaring and denies that he is her dad. The increasingly determined Owl decides to go to Jack’s winter kingdom and get him to help her understand and control her emerging powers. And that leads to a series of encounters with battling elemental spirits representing the various seasons, with Jack joining the North Wind against the Queen of May and the Earl of October – and none other than Mother Earth eventually having to step in as a kind of Gaea ex machina to sort things out. Wilson tries to balance the otherworldly elements with normal, everyday concerns of human 12-year-olds, such as school and poor grades and friendship problems. This does not work particularly well, since it is hard to believe that Owl – who, after all, is the narrator – would mentally and emotionally balance mundane life against the marvels she encounters in and around Jack Frost’s kingdom, not to mention what happens when the Queen of May maneuvers things so that Owl is supposed to take over Jack’s role for a time. So The Lost Frost Girl creaks a bit in the plot department and does not always hold together terribly well, but its unusual underlying premise is more interesting than the basis of many other preteen adventures and fantasies. And even though the reason eventually revealed for the enmity between Jack and some of the other elementals is quite thin, it suffices in this context to produce a satisfying climax and a conclusion that ties the book up neatly while leaving open the possibility, just the possibility, of a sequel.

(+++) PROCEEDING AS EXPECTED


Argeneau Novel No. 26: Immortally Yours. By Lynsay Sands. Avon. $7.99.

Andromedan Dark, Book Two: Darkness Falling. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.

     You get what you pay for and you get what you expect when you pick up books by accomplished genre authors who deliver just what you would anticipate them delivering, time and time again. Books that fit their series snugly, in series that fit their genre with precision, are in a sense beyond criticism, since they do not pretend to be anything more than they are and do not reach out to anyone except readers who are already enamored of their approaches and/or authors. The long-running Argeneau series about the usual contemporary sort of strong, appealing, sexy and determined vampires – a whole, wide-ranging clan of them – continues with remarkable consistency in Lynsay Sands’ capable hands. These are the sorts of books that would once have been called “bodice rippers,” and their cover illustrations still tie them to that old-fashioned genre, but nowadays the women are taking off their clothing on their own, and with alacrity – no ripping necessary. There remain carryovers from the human world to the immortal one of vampires, however, and that is the linchpin of the plot of the 26th Argeneau book, Immortally Yours. The female protagonist here, Beth Argenis, is a strong and capable Rogue Hunter, tracking down dangerously violent immortal fiends. She has a longstanding crush on another strong and capable Rogue Hunter, Cullen “Scotty” MacDonald; and these being immortals, this is a crush of very long standing – well over a century. Why have these hyper-attractive, sexually uninhibited vampires not acted on the attraction? Why, because then there would be no tension in Immortally Yours! All right, that is not the official reason: Beth, when a human, was sold into prostitution and brutalized by scores of men, and she believes that Scotty (who is a laird, no less) thinks he is too good for her. It is obvious where this is going to lead; the only question is when and how. The “when” is “soon enough,” and the “how” comes in the form of threats to Beth’s immortal existence – threats from which Scotty is determined to protect her, but from which she considers herself quite  capable of protecting herself, thank you very much. The push-pull of the budding Beth-Scotty relationship climaxes, well, often. But it first climaxes with a kiss that shows the two of them to be “life mates,” this being one of those Argeneau series inventions that help justify, or at least explain, the intensity of the characters’ physical attraction. Now Beth and Scotty have a lot to work out, in bed and elsewhere, including the difficulties of both their pasts. And in the present, Beth needs to protect herself and Scotty needs to protect her even when she wants to assert her own abilities, and it turns out that it takes the two of them working together to keep Beth safe. No surprise there. In fact, no surprises anywhere, really, in Immortally Yours, but the Argeneau series is not noted for surprises – it is a paranormal-romance series with fast pacing, recognizable-within-the-genre characters, plenty of adventure, and a heaping helping of sexual attraction. For those who like this recipe, Sands invariably prepares it with skill.

     The skill set is different, or at least the topics are, in the work of Ian Douglas (one of the pen names of William H. Keith Jr.). Keith uses the Douglas alias for books of science fiction with some fantasy elements and a strong military flavor. And that is just what the Andromedan Dark series is. Although intended as more-or-less “hard” SF, Darkness Falling and the prior book, Altered Starscape, partake of fantasy because they project a far, far, far distant future, four billion years from more or less our present time, in which far, far far less has changed than genuine “hard” SF would assume. Really, the extreme distance in time is a stand-in for extreme distance in, well, distance, the idea being to isolate the characters and force them to confront their own needs, abilities, shortcomings, etc. That element is common in SF of all types, so in that sense this series fits neatly into a sci-fi box. It also fits well into the civilian-vs.-military conflict that Douglas has explored before and that he made an important element of Altered Starscape. In the second book, the conflict between military leader Grayson St. Clair and political leader Gunter Adler continues, but there is really no contest between the noble, upstanding St. Clair and the sniveling, power-hungry Adler, so the book’s primary drama must come from elsewhere. The sexual politics of the humans and “gynoids” (female androids) provides some of the conflict here, but the ultimate concern involves one of those everlasting tropes of SF, or more specifically space opera: some sort of all-powerful civilization-destroying something-or-other that the heroic humans must figure out how to stop. The humans are hampered primarily, it seems, by their dialogue. This is the distant future, after all, and was distant even before the four-billion-year trip. But when St. Clair asks the colony’s AI what the ship’s alien hosts want, the AI replies, “Primarily our expertise,” which leads St. Clair to say, “Huh? They’re 4 billion years ahead of us! What do we know that they don’t?” That is a good question, if inelegantly phrased, but the answer is essentially gobbledygook, being that “once technology reaches a certain level, further advances become little more than refinements to what exists already. And with no need for radical advances, technological growth tends to stagnate.” Oh, please – that sounds like the far-future version of the notorious quote attributed (incorrectly) to Charles Holland Duell, commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 1898 to 1901, to the effect that “everything that can be invented has been invented.” Surely Douglas does not want people to think about that quotation, which long ago captured the popular imagination even though Duell never said it. But Douglas’ “technology” explanation smacks of the same sort of warped (and scarcely warp-speed) thinking. Well, no matter – Darkness Falling, and the series of which it is a part, are not intended to be considered with too much philosophical or analytical exactitude. These books have action, adventure, excitement and some interesting (if formulaic) personal conflicts going for them, and for the sorts of readers at whom Andromedan Dark is aimed, that mixture will be more than enough.

(++++) VISITS TO SPECIFIC TIMES AND PLACES


Carl Millöcker: Waltzes, Marches and Polkas. Nürnberger Symphoniker conducted by Christian Simonis. CPO. $16.99.

Black Manhattan, Volume 3. The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra conducted by Rick Benjamin. New World Records. $15.99.

Music of Granados and others. Concerto Málaga String Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. SOMM. $12.50.    

     Carl Millöcker (1842-1899) is one of those also-rans of 19th-century Vienna, a composer and conductor well-known in his own day but nowadays remembered, if he is remembered at all, only for Der Bettelstudent (1882). That was Millöcker’s biggest success and the stage work that prompted him to give up conducting and become a full-time composer – after which he never wrote anything that became remotely as popular. On the basis of a new CPO disc featuring 13 works by Millöcker, his relative lack of success is hard to understand, since he quite obviously produced tuneful, enjoyable, danceable music that, if not quite at the level of the works of the Strauss family, certainly comes across as worthy of more-frequent performances and certainly not worthy of the total obscurity in which the material languishes. Christian Simonis and the Nürnberger Symphoniker essentially take listeners on a visit to old Vienna with this release, and the trip proves highly engaging. There is one piece here from Der Bettelstudent, its overture, which is suitably frothy and attractive and yet, really, no more worthy of attention than the other material on the CD. In fact, Der Bettelstudent is merely one of the nine operettas that Millöcker composed to libretti by Richard Genée and Friedrich Zell, deepening the mystery of the other works’ lack of popularity in and after their time. And Millöcker wrote 21 stage works in all – an ample oeuvre from which to choose the material heard here. The CD includes waltzes from Das Sonntagskind (1892) and Der Probekuss (1894); a march from Apajune, der Wassermann (1880); a galop from Das Nordlicht (1896), Millöcker’s final operetta; and a polka from a farce called Der Untaugliche (1878). Non-stage-related material here includes an Ouvertüre in E-flat; Ida—Polka française; Cyprienne—Polka schnell; Melitta—Polka mazurka; Carnevalslaunen—Polka schnell; Pizzicato-Walzer; and Quecksilber—Polka schnell. If the naming of the dance tunes for specific people or times recalls the habit of Johann Strauss Sr., and the titles of some works are reminiscent of those of Strauss’s famous sons, that is no accident, since Viennese music in this time had many characteristics in common, including its naming conventions. It cannot be said that the music of Millöcker stands dramatically above or apart from that of other contemporaries of the Strauss family such as Carl Michael Ziehrer, Joseph Hellmesberger Jr., Philip Fahrbach Jr., and Karl Komzák II. But for that very reason, listening to Millöcker’s works produces a feeling of being transported in time and space to the milieu in which these pieces were written – which, from a purely musical perspective if not from a sociopolitical one, proves a very pleasant place to visit indeed.    

     Two (+++) anthology discs provide more-rarefied enjoyment, largely because they lack the focus of the all-Millöcker one, which manages both to keep the composer in the spotlight and to connect listeners with the time and place where he flourished. Black Manhattan, Volume 3, from New World Records, certainly aims to bring listeners into aural contact with a particular place – and a specific time period (1879-1922). The music intended to do this, however, is scarcely of uniform interest and quality, and for that matter scarcely of uniform familiarity or unfamiliarity. Well-known composers and/or pieces heard here include Eubie Blake (I’m Just Wild about Harry and Love Will Find a Way), Scott Joplin (Wall Street ‘Rag'), and James A. Bland (Oh Dem Golden Slippers). And listeners will likely have particular favorites among the other, less-known works – perhaps The Dancing Deacon: Clef Club Fox-Trot by Frederick M. Bryan, Dear Old Southland by J. Turner Lyton, The Slow Drag Blues by Q. Roscoe Snowden, or Delicioso: Tango Aristocratico by Will H. Dixon. Certainly everything on the CD is played with style and enthusiasm by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra conducted by Rick Benjamin. And certainly this third release in a series that started in 2003 effectively shines the light on a time and a set of composers that have been given short shrift for a century or more. There is an unevenness to the quality of the music, though, and while listeners will find much to enjoy here, they will also likely find themselves uninvolved in some of the material, which fits the cause of documenting African-American composers and compositions of a particular time but does not offer, in and of itself, anything approaching a uniformly compelling auditory experience.

     The new SOMM recording featuring the Concerto Málaga String Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier also has a curious lack of focus despite its title, “Serebrier Conducts Granados.” The fact is that Serebrier does not here conduct only music by Enrique Granados (1867-1916), and as a result the release becomes an anthology of variable quality rather than a focused one paying attention to one of Spain’s most important composers. Once again here there is very well-performed material that varies a good deal in musical quality and interest; and the string-orchestra arrangements of works originally written for other instruments, although effective enough, stop short of being fully authentic. The material by Granados himself is uniformly interesting, but there is not much of it – only two of the Danzas españolas, a string-quartet movement, El Himno de los Muertos, and the lovely Intermezzo from Goyescas. Also of interest here are two works by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909),Tango and Mallorca, and two by Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Gran Vals. But the other material on the CD is generally weaker, whether contemporaneous with that of Granados or composed in tribute to or recognition of him and his time. The other composers represented are Eduardo Toldrà (1895-1962), Joaquim Malats (1872-1942), Ruperto Chapí (1851-1909), Enric Morera (1865-1942), Jesús de Monasterio (1836-1903), and Ricard Lamote de Grignon (1899-1962). None of the 16 pieces on the CD lasts much more than five minutes, not even those by Granados, and most are even shorter; so what listeners get here is essentially a collection of snippets and encores that provide some evidence of vibrant Spanish musical life during and after Granados’ time, but that – like the works heard on Black Manhattan, Volume 3 – are of greater interest from a documentary standpoint than they are from a strictly musical one. Still, those wishing to return for a time to 19th- and early 20th-century New York City and Spain, respectively, will find themselves transported there for an hour or so by these two diverse recordings.

(+++) MAKING IT PERSONAL


Verdi: Rigoletto. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Nadine Sierra, Francesco Demuro, Andrea Mastroni, Oksana Volkova; Men of the Kansas State Choir and Kansas City Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $22.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826; Italian Concerto in F, BWV 971; The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I—Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 847; The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II—Preludes and Fugues in C-Sharp, BWV 872, and D Minor, BWV 875; Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. Simone Leitão, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Terry Riley: The Palmian Chord Ryddle; At the Royal Majestic. Tracy Silverman, electric violin; Todd Wilson, Martin Foundation concert organ; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.

     It is often the highly personal connection of some recordings to the performers and/or composers that represents their biggest attraction. The primary reason for having the new Delos recording of Verdi’s Rigoletto is to hear baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role – especially so now that the release stands as a memorial to the much-admired singer. Hvorostovsky, who recently died of brain cancer, had officially retired from the opera stage in 2016, a year after the brain-tumor diagnosis was made. As a result, this two-CD set – his only complete recording of Rigoletto – must be seen as a major event for his fans. That would be so even if he gave a less-than-stellar performance in the tile role. But in fact, if Hvorostovsky is not quite at his best here, he is very close to it, in part because he is willing to sing against the usual super-mellow vocal sound that his fans knew and loved. His very first appearance, in which he snarlingly mocks the cuckolded Count Ceprano, is so coarse that listeners may wonder what happened to the Hvorostovsky smoothness. It turns out, though, that he is simply holding it for the right time – that being his tender and feelingly sung duet with his daughter, Gilda (Nadine Sierra, whose voice is delicate but has enough body to stand up to Hvorostovsky in that duet and to punch through the orchestra when necessary). If there remains any doubt about Hvorostovsky’s command of the Rigoletto role, it is dispelled in the second act with his strong, impassioned Cortigiani, vil razza dannata. However, when Hvorostovsky is not front-and-center in this production, the performance, while fine, lacks a certain sparkle. Francesco Demuro has a rather thin and nasal tenor sound as the Duke of Mantua, certainly not unpleasant but scarcely compelling – except at one crucial moment, when he actually hits the high D in his cabaletta, Possente amor mi chiama. Bass Andrea Mastroni is a one-dimensional hulk of an assassin as Sparafucile, and mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova is alluring but rather characterless as his sister, Maddalena. The choir and Kansas City Symphony Orchestra are rather characterless, too, or perhaps “colorless” describes the fairly bland sound better. Whichever it is, the issue appears to be conductor Constantine Orbelian, whose long association with Hvorostovsky here leads to so intense a focus on the baritone that pretty much everything else about Rigoletto fades toward the background. This recording will bring Hvorostovsky’s fans a great deal of pleasure, all the more so as a memorial release. But it is scarcely an ideal presentation of Verdi’s hyper-melodramatic opera, whose original title of La maledizione ideally would inform all the activity.

     There is nothing cursed – quite the opposite – in the Bach recital by Simone Leitão on a new MSR Classics CD. In fact, the playing here is blessedly sensitive and rhythmically aware, and there is no question that Leitão feels the music deeply. Indeed, Leitão says that the works she plays here are among the ones she has known and loved for many years, and often uses in her recitals. Under the circumstances, the fact that she takes a somewhat Romantic view of the music is entirely understandable, as is her willingness often to employ dynamic shadings on the piano that did not exist on the harpsichord, for which the music was actually written. And this brings up the eternal and ultimately unanswerable question of whether there is a “right” way to perform Bach’s keyboard works and, if so, what it is. Leitão would surely argue that her handling of the music is emotionally correct and in line with her feelings about it and the way she has grown with it over the years. And certainly Leitão is very, very far from the first pianist to take this music to heart and handle it pianistically – in fact, the version she plays of the Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 is by Busoni. In terms of specific performances here, that of the Italian Concerto is especially fine, rhythmically strong and with well-thought-out contrasts among the three movements. The three preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, on the other hand, are somewhat less successful, being sturdy and solid but not as involving as some of the other music on the disc. And the fact remains that Bach’s keyboard sound world was not that of the piano: whatever the truth of the common statement that Bach’s music is so “purely musical” that it can be played on any instrument, that is not the same as saying that it sounds as it should on any instrument. There is a richness and emotional involvement to Leitão’s performances of Bach on this disc that will draw in listeners who, like the pianist herself, believe that the music transcends its time and the circumstances of its composition. But as good as the performances are, they are not of Bach’s time, not even of the emotions of that time, and lack a certain level of essential purity that comes through when Bach’s keyboard works are played on the keyboards for which he intended them.

     The personal elements on a new Naxos CD of the music of Terry Riley (born 1935) are of a different sort, involving the composer himself as much as the performers. The Palmian Chord Ryddle (2011) is actually intended by Riley as a somewhat autobiographical work, displaying his exploratory minimalism (now so common as to be trite, but scarcely so when Riley began employing it) and incorporating into it the continuing experimentation of Tracy Silverman, a significant developer and advocate of the six-string electric violin. The Palmian Chord Ryddle is in eight sections played without pause, and it is long, or seems so despite an overall time of a fairly modest 35 minutes. The electric violin does not possess the exceptional tonal variety of the traditional acoustic instrument, or at least such variety is not much in evidence here; and while Silverman certainly plays his instrument with skill, the sounds that emerge from it tend to be quite similar throughout its range and tend to deaden the ear over time instead of involving it. Part of the issue here is Riley’s carefully spare orchestration, which keeps any emotionalism at a distance in a work that has enough conceptual evenness to come across as trying to assert its modernity without ever having a particularly good reason for doing so. The other piece on the CD – both the works here are receiving their world première recordings – is more interesting. At the Royal Majestic (2013) is a three-movement tribute to the “mighty Wurlitzer” organs used in movie houses – really movie palaces – in the days of silent films. This work is nearly as long as The Palmian Chord Ryddle, and two of the three movements of At the Royal Majestic are very extended indeed, but here the music pulls listeners along on a journey that is intriguing, even enthralling, despite the fact that its eventual destination is nowhere exceptional. Organist Todd Wilson shows thorough familiarity and comfort with the many musical styles that Riley employs here, including jazz, boogie, ragtime, gospel, and even Baroque chorales. There may be no particular expectation that such a combinatorial clash of material would come across successfully, but in this case it does more often than not; and Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony show themselves to be involved and enthusiastic throughout – indeed, they make the most of both works on the CD. At the Royal Majestic may not have any particular meaning in the autobiographical way that The Palmian Chord Ryddle is intended to have, but for audiences at large rather than for the composer himself, it is a more intriguing work that better repays the time spent listening to it.