November 26, 2014
The Zombie Chasers #5: Nothing Left to Ooze. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by David DeGrand. Harper. $6.99.
The Zombie Chasers #6: Zombies of the Caribbean. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by David DeGrand. Harper. $16.99.
Double Vision #3: The Alias Men. By F.T. Bradley. Harper. $16.99.
Adventure series for preteens, ages 8-12, often seem to become less realistic and more fantastic as they go on – even series that have been pretty far-out to begin with. John Kloepfer’s The Zombie Chasers has always been even sillier than most don’t-take-things-too-seriously zombie stories, because it involves people being turned into zombies – that is, dead and resurrected into shambling, bodies-crumbling-into-pieces form – and then being turned back into non-dead people whose skin grows back normally, whose rotted and fallen-out teeth miraculously reappear, and so on. David DeGrand’s illustrations have always made it abundantly clear just how difficult such a re-transformation would be, but hey, that’s what happens, and there’s no reason for readers to turn away from the premise if they have already made it through the first books of the series. The fifth entry, Nothing Left to Ooze, which is now available in paperback, includes finding and then losing a zombie-virus antidote, thanks to the attempt by Rice – one of the intrepid band of preteen zombie hunters – to make the antidote even stronger so it will cure the even-stronger zombies infected by the even-stronger virus. Get it? Anyway, pretty much everything goes wrong, leading the anti-zombie brigade, which by the end of this book includes six kids – Rice, Zack, Zoe, Madison, Ozzie and Olivia – to head for the private Caribbean island fortress of a zombie expert who may be the only one who can help them. Unfortunately, other “only one who can help us” types have all proved less than effective, but maybe this time...but no such luck. In Zombies of the Caribbean, the kids do indeed locate an explorer named Nigel, who is as knowledgeable as they had hoped. But it turns out that he lost a leg in a zombie attack and therefore cannot help them on their latest quest, which involves hunting for a gigantic “rare breed of giant frilled tiger shark” that preys on a certain jellyfish that is needed for a new and improved zombie antidote. The kids are careful to bring Nigel up to date when they meet him, with Rice explaining, “I was a zombie for a while, too, because Madison mistakenly lost her vegan antidote powers to a piece of pepperoni pizza. But then I ate the Band-Aid in Central Park and was unzombified. Man, being a zombie was cool.” And now that that clears everything up, readers will find that the kids are, as usual, on their own in their latest adventure, facing down zombie vacationers, zombie spring breakers, zombie pirates (hey, it’s the Caribbean), and the usual cast of ridiculousness, at the end of which they (of course) do capture the elusive tiger shark and it turns out that (of course) that is not enough, so they have to go on an even longer voyage – this one will be to Madagascar – to find the really-truly-no-kidding last piece of the puzzle to get rid of the zombies once and for all. Maybe. (Probably not.) The kids have no distinguishing personality traits whatsoever, because the point of this series is that the group as a whole is heroic and friendship is what matters when fighting zombies or doing, well, pretty much anything.
On the other side of the coin in fantasy-adventureland is the “lone wolf” type of protagonist, such as Lincoln (Linc) Baker in F.T. Bradley’s Double Vision, Code Name 711, and the concluding book of the trilogy, The Alias Men. Linc is the usual type of solo preteen hero: “On my first mission, to Paris, I was just there to take the place of the junior agent I looked like, Ben Green. On my second mission, in Washington, D.C., Pandora [the super-secret secret-agent organization at the heart of these books] had invited me to throw the bad guys off Ben’s trail (but I kind of ended up saving the day).” Actually, the first book of the series was primarily a mystery/thriller, despite the presence of a painting that could hypnotize people, but the second one moved firmly into the fantasy realm by prominently featuring a jacket that could make people invulnerable – and by having kids break into the CIA’s headquarters in the course of a story in which, when the president’s life is in danger, a preteen agent is assigned to handle the case. The Alias Men moves all the way into fantasy in a prime geographical location for the unbelievable: “Hollywood, all full of lies and agendas,” as Linc’s grandfather accurately puts it. This time the story revolves around the Dangerous Double of Charlie Chaplin’s famous bowler hat: Linc is supposed to help the regular Pandora agents prevent a master thief named Ethan Melais from using the object’s invisibility power to take over the world (what else?). And if that isn’t enough fantasy, there is also the small matter of Linc accidentally getting a role in a major film called The Hollywood Kid. And there is a climax when a certain someone wins, or appears to win, an Oscar. And an epilogue in which, totally unsurprisingly, it turns out that Linc will have his very own chance to become a junior secret agent because of his very own abilities, not because of his resemblance to the “annoying know-it-all” Ben. The clichés flow freely in F.T. Bradley’s trilogy, and the silliness more freely still, but like Kloepfer’s ongoing zombie series, the Double Vision books are intended simply to entertain in an amusing and thoroughly unrealistic way, showing kids the same age as the intended readers doing tremendously heroic (if often ridiculous) things that adults are incapable of doing, thereby building up young readers’ self-image and self-esteem to a degree that will certainly serve them well the next time they have to live in a fantasyland. Until then, Bradley and Kloepfer do serve up easy-to-read, fast-paced, inconsequential but often-engaging stories requiring a heaping helping of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” but not a lot of time or intellectual investment.
First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit. By Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo. $25.99.
American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal. By John Oller. Da Capo. $25.99.
Written well, every life has the makings of a novel. All of us live with heartache, emotional upheaval, the seeking of love and success and wealth and perhaps the occasional finding of at least some of what we are after. So there are plenty of places for authors to go to delve into the past and produce “untold stories” featuring bravery, heartache, great themes, small successes, and the like. For a military historian such as Patrick K. O’Donnell, wartime is an unending source of stories of the good and the bad, innovation and creativity, the mundane and the exceptional, of bravery and heart and success and failure and a kind of rough beauty that emerges even under the most awful circumstances. O’Donnell’s latest foray into this world is a fascinating narrative even though it is mistitled: his book is not really about First SEALs but about the first swimmer-commando group within the American military, an outfit called the Maritime Unit. It is O’Donnell’s contention, one he backs up quite well, that the strategies, tactics and techniques of this group became the prototype for what would eventually, in 1962, become the Navy’s Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) Teams. Hence the title. But O’Donnell is less interested in trying to draw a straight line between the Maritime Unit and the SEALs than in exploring the Maritime Unit itself. And it is quite a story: people involved with the group, which was under the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence agency that eventually spawned the CIA, invented shark repellent and an early form of underwater breathing apparatus called LARU that would later be developed as scuba gear. The people themselves are just the sort of motley crew beloved of war-movie producers – this story would make a good old-fashioned film. As O’Donnell sets forth at the start, the players here were “a dentist, a Hollywood star, a British World War I veteran, an archaeologist, California surfers, a medical student, and even former enemies of America.” How Hollywood dentist Jack Taylor, Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden, and members of the Italian commando group called the San Marco Battalion – who had previously fought for the Axis – got together in the first place, and how they worked jointly on developing underwater commando strategies that were used in operations in the Aegean Sea, southern Pacific Ocean and elsewhere, makes an amazing tale of the sort of cooperation and innovative thinking that happens so often in wartime. There are plenty of individual stories here. For example, there is that of Christian Lambertsen, who – while a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania – invented the LARU (Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit) and was later nicknamed “Dr. Scuba.” And there is the story of Commander H.G.A. Woolley, the British Navy veteran of World War I who was largely responsible for creating the Maritime Unit and who advised the OSS throughout World War II – and who, in another of several Hollywood connections, was a screenwriter for movies. There are gadgets and training sessions and raids and even first-person insight into the horrors of the Mauthausen concentration camp, where Taylor was imprisoned in 1945 – becoming one of very few Americans to survive being held there. Why has it taken so long to tell these stories? Because, in typical military fashion, most of the material was classified until recently – the Maritime Unit worked for the nation’s spy agency, after all. O’Donnell has done a service to the survivors of World War II and of the Maritime Unit, and to their families, by bringing this recounting to life. It is only one among many untold tales of the war, and will understandably be of interest primarily to those with direct or family memories of the war or a special interest in it: the times, people and events will seem hopelessly remote to those not already involved in the subject matter in some way. The story is nevertheless a worthy one that deserves to be more than a historical footnote.
An earlier footnote tied to a different conflict, the Civil War, lies at the heart of John Oller’s American Queen. The book’s title is taken from the Cincinnati Enquirer obituary of Kate Chase Sprague, a native of that city who died weeks before her 59th birthday, in 1899: "No Queen has ever reigned under the Stars and Stripes, but this remarkable woman came closer to being Queen than any American woman has." Yet few non-historians today know anything about her – a situation that Oller sets out to rectify. This is primarily a book for political and Civil War fanciers, because the fortunes of Kate (referred to by first name throughout the book) were intimately tied to 19th-century American politics and politicians. Kate was the daughter of Salmon P. Chase, who was President Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary and later appointed by Lincoln to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice of the United States. What Chase really wanted, though, and what his daughter wanted perhaps even more strongly, was the presidency, and American Queen details the maneuvers, the backroom deals and the political backstabbing that brought Chase close to a nomination but never quite got him there. Kate was hostess for her widowed father during the Civil War – an important social and political role at the time – and further cemented her position when, in 1863, she married textile magnate William Sprague, then the governor of Rhode Island and later that year elected to the U.S. Senate. Sprague was a rather unsavory character, as Oller points out: “a troubled person who caused much pain to himself and many around him.” The marriage was a rocky one that produced four children – their only son committed suicide at age 25 – and led to divorce, a major scandal at the time, in 1882. Prior to the divorce, there was a salacious affair between Kate and powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who was also married, with Sprague at one point coming after Conkling with a shotgun and threatening to throw Kate out a second-story window. The affair and divorce pulled Kate down from her high societal position. Her political ambitions for her father had ended earlier, when he failed to gain the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination for which he supposedly had the inside track – a state of affairs that Kate blamed on, among others, Samuel Tilden, who became the 1876 nominee and won the popular vote, only to have the election thrown to Rutherford B. Hayes through the machinations of Conkling. The intricacies of this political and personal infighting are today the stuff of reality television and everyday scandal, but they loomed even larger in Kate’s time; and once she fell from social grace, there was no way back – she eventually died in poverty, although Oller suggests that her spirit and determination were stronger at the end than they had been for years before. American Queen is the slice-of-life story of an important participant – largely behind the scenes, as was inevitable for a woman at the time – in Civil War Washington and post-Civil-War politics. It is a story about the possibilities and limitations affecting women in 19th-century America, and about the ultimately failed attempts of one highly ambitious woman to be kingmaker at a time when there were plenty of male kingmakers around. Well-told and frequently intriguing, it is nevertheless a story with little direct relevance today, except insofar as it reminds modern readers – if they need to be reminded – that politics was every bit as nasty, messy, confrontational and complex in the United States in the 19th century as it is in the 21st.
Dvořák: Requiem. Christine Libor, soprano; Ewa Wolak, alto; Daniel Kirch, tenor; Janusz Monarcha, bass; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $19.99 (2 CDs).
The Wonder of Christmas. Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison. Naxos. $9.99.
Vaughan Williams: An Oxford Elegy; George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad—Rhapsody for Orchestra; Gerald Finzi: Requiem da Camera; Ivor Gurney: The Trumpet. Roderick Williams, baritone; Jeremy Irons, speaker; City of London Choir and London Mozart Players conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton. Naxos. $9.99.
Villa-Lobos: Symphony No.10, “Amerindia” (Sumé, Father of Fathers). Leonardo Neiva, baritone; Saulo Javan, bass; São Paulo Choir and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Isaac Karabtchevsky. Naxos. $9.99.
Hannibal Lokumbe: Can You Hear God Crying? Janice Chandler-Eteme, soprano; Rodrick Dixon, tenor; Homayun Sakhi, Afghan rubâb; Paula Holloway, vocalist; choirs, Music Liberation Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia conducted by Dirk Brossé. Naxos DVD. $19.99.
Three of these new releases include works that, despite their specificity, seek universality and attain it to the extent of the quality of the performances. The other two make no real attempt to reach out beyond a core audience and therefore limit their effectiveness, despite the skill with which they are sung and played. Dvořák’s Requiem, like the many other settings of the Latin text, is essentially church music and essentially Catholic, but like Verdi’s somewhat earlier Requiem (1874; Dvořák’s dates to 1891), it looks for wide involvement in and acceptance of its underlying message of peace and compassion. Dvořák’s work is in many ways the antithesis of Verdi’s, which is strikingly operatic and tends to bowl listeners over through sheer intensity and a kind of exuberance whose appropriateness may be arguable but is scarcely to be ignored. Dvořák, on the other hand, here creates a reflective, moving work that looks back to the early years of the 19th century (Cherubini’s Requiem, which Dvořák’s somewhat resembles, was first performed in to 1816) and seeks to comfort rather than dismay – even in the Dies irae and Tuba mirum sections. The piece’s very gentleness tends to work against it in some performances: it goes on for more than an hour and a half without any significant drama beyond that of the text and the events to which the words refer. It is a reverent work but can easily become a dull one – which makes the moving performance led by Antoni Wit for Naxos all the more welcome. Wit in no way downplays the beauty and religious fervor of the music, but he manages to keep the Requiem moving at a pace that retains audience attention and involvement without ever seeming rushed. The result is a well-sung, well-played performance that is highly involving even for those from different religious traditions or none – a work that suggests an underlying interconnection of humanity on a profound spiritual level.
The mixture of 18 pieces sung by the Elora Festival Singers under Noel Edison on a Naxos CD called The Wonder of Christmas is altogether less complex; it is also more accessible and easier to absorb. Unlike most Christmas releases, which tend to present a secular-and-sacred mixture, this one focuses on the holiday’s religious underpinnings (which were actually adopted and adapted by early Christians from the Roman Saturnalia and other winter festivals). To the Latin songs Nesciens mater virgo virum and Ecce concipies are here added English-language ones celebrating the Christian belief in God’s birth in human form: Once in Royal David’s City, O Holy Night, Who Is He in Yonder Stall, Gabriel’s Message and others. Even familiar carols that are frequently sung in secular Christmas celebrations here resonate with their underlying religious meaning: Ding Dong! Merrily on High, The First Nowell, The Holly and the Ivy and more. The reverence with which the works are performed, and the sheer beauty of the singing, make this a first-rate seasonal disc that attempts to show the universality of the traditional message of peace on Earth by exploring in some depth the notion of a loving divinity appearing in person, in human form. The non-Christian and non-religious may not find the message particularly appealing, but the joy and warmth of the performances are winning even for those for whom the words are only words, devoid of substantial spiritual significance.
The spirituality of the four works on a Naxos CD called Flowers of the Field is tied not to a time of celebration or peace but to the opposite: a time of terror and war. All four are, in part or whole, composers’ reactions to World War I, and all reach out far beyond those directly affected by the war and its depredations to everyone who has experienced loss in wartime, and by extension to all who have known loss in any form and under any circumstances. The moving extension in which mourning for individuals becomes something of greater scope is especially clear in Vaughan Williams’ An Oxford Elegy, for narrator, small mixed (and mostly wordless) chorus, and small orchestra. The work, using elements of Matthew Arnold’s poems The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis, is far from typical for Vaughan Williams, its pervasive melancholy and nostalgia recalling the composer’s lost friends and resolving only at the end toward a sort of resignation that seems to stop somewhere short of full acceptance. Movingly performed under the direction of Hilary Davan Wetton, it crowns a disc that also includes music by lesser composers who, in the case of these specific works, express themselves with equal intensity. George Butterworth, killed in action during the Great War at the age of 31, is best known for his settings of poems by A.E. Housman from A Shropshire Lad, but his rhapsody based on the poems is much less familiar. It continues in purely orchestral form the theme of transience with which the poetry is preoccupied, and stands both as an epilogue to the vocal settings and as a meaningful work in its own right. Also on this CD are two world première recordings. The short The Trumpet by Ivor Gurney, who survived World War I despite being shot and gassed in 1917, is a fairly straightforward but nevertheless heartfelt plea to abandon war. It is heard here as edited and orchestrated by Philip Lancaster. Also here is Requiem da Camera by Gerald Finzi, as edited and completed by Christian Alexander – a work mourning the deaths of fellow artists and in particular that of composer, pianist and organist Ernest Farrar, killed on the Western Front in 1918 at the age of 33. An expansive and emotive piece, Finzi’s reaches out beyond individual artists to mourn the destruction, by implication, of art itself, and thus of the uplift that it can provide. The sensitivity of the music is well-communicated here, and the performers make the entire CD into a very moving experience.
Elements of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Tenth Symphony are moving as well, but this large-scale work from 1954 makes little attempt to go beyond its original intention, which was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of São Paulo and to pay tribute to the city’s founder, Saint José de Anchieta. Villa-Lobos’ designation of this piece as a symphony is somewhat puzzling, since it is much closer to a cantata or oratorio despite its purely orchestral first movement. In fact, the new Naxos recording describes it as an oratorio, and certainly it has many elements of that form – although it is, in totality, something of a hybrid. The first movement, called “The Earth and Its Creatures,” has rhythmic vitality but never engages listeners in the way the first movement of Mahler’s Third or the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, both of which have analogous purposes, do. Villa-Lobos becomes more convincing in the second movement, “War Cry,” which is gentle rather than stentorian and closer to a lament than a battle scene. The third movement, a scherzo called “Iurupichuna” for a type of monkey known for its restless movement, leads into the heart of the work: the fourth movement, which takes up nearly half the piece’s overall length and is called “The Voice of the Earth and the Appearance of Father Anchieta.” Here, several structural elements come together: Villa-Lobos uses the Tupi language for the natives, Latin for the Christian missionaries and Portuguese for the European settlers of Brazil, and he also mixes simple native melodies with tonally unsettled music for the outsiders, birdsong, percussive effects, and syncopation intended to represent Afro-Brazilian people. The final movement presents “Glory in Heavens and Peace on Earth,” a paean to the founding of the city, and has a rather conventional triumphalism about it. The overall piece is only intermittently effective: parts are quite beautiful, others sound like not-very-creative film music, and what ties the work together will be meaningful only to listeners steeped in the history that it celebrates – others will find the piece overlong, overindulgent and at times simply tiring. Isaac Karabtchevsky handles the possible dullness primarily by using brisk tempos, most of which work, although they sometimes give a lovely melody short shrift. Karabtchevsky makes an unusual decision by having the entire tenor section of the choir sing the passages that Villa-Lobos allocated to solo tenor, and this gives those sections added emphasis but leads to them overshadowing the parts for solo baritone and bass. As a whole, this reading is fine, but the work itself is too constricted in ambition and too limited in appeal to give the recording more than a (+++) rating.
A Naxos DVD of Hannibal Lokumbe’s Can You Hear God Crying? also makes little attempt to go beyond a core audience and also gets a (+++) rating. Lokumbe, a fine trumpeter and leading exponent of expressing African-American experiences through music, calls this work a “spiritatorio,” an awkward designation that simply means that, like Villa-Lobos’ Tenth, it is a mixture of forms that does not easily fit into any one musical category. It does, however, fit into a narrative category, being yet another work among many bemoaning the suffering and hardship of Africans sold into slavery (generally by other Africans, although the work does not mention this), the forced migration to the New World on a slave ship of Lokumbe’s own great-grandfather, and the endurance and courage of African-Americans that eventually lead to healing and celebration. There is not a single element here that has not been told many times before, in many forms; nor is there anything especially creative in Lokumbe’s mixture of classical forms (primarily chamber music) with jazz, gospel, spirituals and West African prayers. Just as many Jewish composers endlessly create works dealing with Biblical hardship and the horrors of the Holocaust, so African-American ones rehash again and again the same themes of slavery and its aftermath in much the same way. Can You Hear God Crying? is effective enough in both music and storytelling (Lokumbe wrote the libretto himself), and this world première recording nicely captures an enthusiastic and heartfelt performance in Philadelphia – the piece was commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the city’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Those interested in yet another tale of African-American hardships, the evils of slavery, and the celebration of African heritage, told like so many others in a combinatorial and eclectic musical language, will find this a work that plays directly to their concerns and predispositions. It does nothing to move beyond them or to draw in a wider audience, but that is clearly not its intent: unlike, say, the Dvořák Requiem, Lokumbe’s work wants only to preach to the choir and bring forth from it a chorus of “amens.”
Schumann: String Quartets Nos. 1-3. Ying Quartet (Ayano Ninomiya and Janet Ying, violins; Phillip Ying, viola; David Ying, cello). Sono Luminus. $24.99 (Blu-ray Disc+CD).
Rued Langgaard: String Quartets, Vol. 3—Nos. 1 and 5; String Quartet Movement “Italian Scherzo.” Nightingale String Quartet (Gunvor Sihm and Josefine Dalsgaard, violins; Marie Louise Broholt Jensen, viola; Louisa Schwab, cello). Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).
Bartók: Sonata for Solo Violin; Bach: Violin Sonata No. 3; Korngold: Violin Concerto. Nigel Armstrong, violin; The Colburn Orchestra conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Yarlung Records. $19.99.
Belle Nuit—Music of Debussy, Chabrier, Fabien Gabel, Franck, Henri Duparc, Jean-Baptiste Singelée, Ravel, Honegger, Messiaen, Fauré, Bizet, Massenet and Offenbach. Kathryn Goodson, piano. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Mark Zanter: String Quartet; Three Movements for Cello Quintet; Letters to a Young Poet; Lament and Dream. Navona. $14.99.
Fleet and lively, yet introspective and thoughtful, the Ying Quartet’s performances of Schumann’s three string quartets are involving in the manner of the best chamber music: there is intimacy here as well as drama, inward focus among the players as well as outward expressiveness directed at a larger audience. To be sure, Schumann’s structuring of these works, which are among the more-neglected in his oeuvre, facilitates the expression of this inward-and-outward duality: although strongly influenced by Beethoven and to a lesser extent by Haydn and Mozart, Schumann in these pieces created a new approach to quartet writing by producing works that unfold gently and eventually blossom, rather than ones that stride forth with nobility or intensity and use their initial presentation as a jumping-off point. One reason the quartets are not heard as often as other music by Schumann is that they are wrongly considered to be pianistic rather than string-friendly. But on a new Sono Luminus release that includes both a CD and a Blu-ray audio disc, the Ying Quartet shows how wrong this belief, which is more in the nature of a prejudice, really is. Taking Schumann’s metronome markings more or less at face value, which means playing several of the movements more quickly than listeners will likely have heard them before, the quartet members show just how effectively Schumann adapted his pianistic knowledge to strings while creating music that, for the most part, lies idiomatically on the instruments. Yes, there are places where strings are asked to perform “pianistically,” as in the scales in broken thirds in the finale of Quartet No. 1; but there is nothing here that first-rate string players cannot handle, and the music in the main is highly rewarding for both performers and listeners. All three quartets were written in the span of just a few weeks, but there are considerable differences among them as well as a number of similarities. The Ying Quartet handles each work as an individualistic piece, exploring the emotions and expressiveness of each and bringing forth their different characters to very fine effect.
The effects of the music of Rued Langgaard are highly varied and by no means universally enjoyed – Langgaard (1893-1952) never achieved the acceptance he sought in his native Denmark, for example. Part of the problem is that Langgaard did himself no favors in making his music presentable. The Nightingale String Quartet has now completed a survey of Langgaard’s string quartets, which number more or less 10 but are hard to pin down because of numerous revisions, reuse of movements in different contexts, and Langgaard’s failure to number the works in any reasonable order (one chronological sequence goes 6, 3, 5, 4). Four of the quartets were all called Rosengaardsspil (“Rose Garden Play”), referring to a summer during which the young Langgaard fell in love, but the composer later changed three of the works’ designations, keeping the title for the fourth work but not giving that one a sequence number. Langgaard was difficult compositionally, too, with some of his works sounding genuinely modern more than half a century after they were composed. The latest Dacapo release of Langgaard’s quartets includes both his first significant work in the form and his last one. Indeed, the Quartet No. 1, completed in 1915, is Langgaard’s first major chamber work of any sort. It has never been recorded before and was performed only once, in private, in 1916. Langgaard subsequently tore it apart, reusing some elements and discarding others, then remade the whole thing in 1936. Quotations from Goethe songs and a hymnlike tune in the finale are among the work’s distinguishing features. Its most interesting movement is its third, the slow movement, in which very modern-sounding, almost motionless music is periodically interrupted by sudden agitated injections that seem to be commenting on the main material dismissively. At the other end of Langgaard’s production for string quartet is the very brief Italian Scherzo from 1950, which also gets its first-ever recording here. It was one of a number of draft elements that Langgaard wrote over the years without develop[ping them further – in this case, he said he could not be bothered to compose the remaining parts. Also on this CD is String Quartet No. 5, the last-conceived of Langgaard’s quartets, whose first form dates to 1925; it was significantly revised in 1926-28 and then modified again in 1938. This is the easiest music on the disc to listen to: Langgaard specifically wrote it as an alternative to then-modern music that he considered horrible to hear, and it has a sweetness, an idyllic flow, that is uncomplicated and comes with an old-fashioned pastoral cast. The Nightingale String Quartet handles these very different pieces with skill and understanding, allowing the thorny elements their difficulties and the expressive ones their beauties, thus showing how extreme the mood swings tend to be in all Langgaard’s music.
Things are considerably more placid on a new Yarlung Records release featuring Nigel Armstrong, a young violinist (born 1990) with lovely technique and a high degree of comfort with music of very different eras and approaches. That is not to say that matters here are uninteresting, though – quite the opposite. Armstrong gets to show his abilities as a soloist, in chamber music and as soloist with orchestra, in an interestingly selected program that also includes the Colburn Orchestra under Sir Neville Marriner. This is a conservatory orchestra and a very fine one, but it is not the focus of the CD despite the fine support it provides in the Korngold Violin Concerto. The composer’s only work in this form, the 1945 concerto is one of Korngold’s attempts to show that he was more than a film composer, but it keeps referring to his film music, including elements from Another Dawn (1937), Juarez (1939), Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Prince and the Pauper (1937). The result is a work that adheres to classical forms but tends to feel as if it lapses into the Hollywood idiom from time to time. Armstrong plays it straight, neither accentuating nor bypassing its film-derived elements, and the result is a performance that is lush, lyrical and something of a stylistic throwback – the music is quite effective but not especially memorable. On the chamber-music side of things, Bartók’s 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin really shows a violinist’s technical abilities, requiring left-hand pizzicati played against a right-hand melody, multiple stops, artificial harmonics and other difficult techniques. It also requires interpretative subtlety to make it more than a display piece. Armstrong shows that he can certainly handle the virtuoso requirements, although he falls a bit short of making the work wholly convincing as music rather than display – one of the few ways he indicates some degree of interpretative immaturity on this disc. The performance is nevertheless an involving one; and so is Armstrong’s handling of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3, BWV 1005, whose technical difficulties are also considerable. The first movement requires a slow stacking-up of notes – a demanding technique once thought impossible on a bowed instrument – and this work’s fugue is the most complex and extensive of those in the three sonatas of Bach’s Sonatas and Partias (Partitas) for solo violin. Armstrong shows himself quite capable of handling Bach’s complex counterpoint, and he makes the fugal subject (derived from the chorale Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott) clear and expressive. In totality, this is a CD whose focus on Armstrong is well-justified by the sensitivity and skill that the violinist brings to chamber and orchestral repertoire alike.
The focus is on a pianist, Kathryn Goodson, and the repertoire is also varied on a new two-CD set from Navona called Belle Nuit. The accent here is French throughout, although the 14 works of the 13 composers represented provide considerable variety. Of particular interest here is the way the piano mingles and contrasts with a variety of wind and brass instruments. The first CD includes four substantial pieces: Debussy’s Rhapsodie pour Saxophone et Orchestre, Chabrier’s Larghetto pour Cor et Orchestre, Gabel’s Fantaisie dans la Style de Richard Strauss, and Franck’s Sonate pour Piano et Violon, the Debussy and Franck arranged for alto saxophone and the Chabrier for horn. These four pieces highlight not only Goodson but also saxophonists Donald Sinta and Timothy McAllister, horn player Gail Williams, and bass trombonist Randall Hawes. The same four players appear as well on the second CD, which consists entirely of shorter works. These are Duparc’s Mélodies, Singelée’s Duo Concertant, Debussy’s Beau Soir, Ravel’s Pièce en Forme de Habanera, Honegger’s Mimaamaquim, Messiaen’s Vocalise, Faure’s Mélodies, Bizet’s Au Fond du Temple Saint, Massenet’s Baigne d’Eau Mes Mains et Mes Lèvres, and Offenbach’s Belle Nuit – the last three being from operas. This is a substantial release – nearly two hours of music in all – and one showcasing Goodson, Sinta, McAllister, Williams and Hawes in music both familiar and virtually unknown. The Gallic fragrance of the works produces enough similarity of sound to make the release seem well-unified, while the contrast between the deeper and more-extended pieces on the first CD and the generally lighter and shorter ones on the second makes for a very enjoyable two-recital program. Gabel’s Fantaisie, the first of the Duparc Mélodies (called La Fuite and featuring both horn and bass trombone), Honegger’s psalm setting (originally for voice and piano; the title means “Out of the Depths”), and the chamber setting (horn, bass trombone and piano) of Offenbach’s Belle Nuit (the lovely Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann) are among the highlights here; but every track has something of interest and something to recommend it.
The chamber music of Mark Zanter on a new Navona release is more sound-oriented than melody-oriented, as is often the case with contemporary composers, and its intricacy and sonic qualities will be appealing primarily to those already fond of today’s compositional techniques and sonorities. This (+++) CD contains four works, all of them quite recent. String Quartet (2011), performed by the Ankara University Soloists String Quartet (Ellen Jewett and Orhan Ahiskal, violins; Çetin Aydar, viola; Sinan Dizmen, cello), tries to use the most modern forms of composition to bring listeners into a deeply emotional world – and works best for those already comfortable with those forms. Three Movements for Cello Quintet (2007), featuring Şőlen Dikener, also tries to pull emotions from technique, and is most interesting for its overall sonic environment. Letters to a Young Poet (2013), inspired by the correspondence of Rainer Maria Rilke with Franz Xaver Kappus, is for violin (Kristen Alves) and guitar (Júlio Ribeiro Alves), and it too is more interesting for the sound combinations of the instruments than for anything particularly stirring in its six short movements. There is also an orchestral work by Zanter on this CD: Lament and Dream (2013), played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek. The scoring is for strings, piano and percussion, and the music is a series of seven mostly brief episodes (three lasting less than a minute apiece) intended to be evocative of the concepts of the title but sounding only intermittently expressive or dreamlike. None of the music here will stay with most listeners for very long: it sounds too much like other contemporary works created with similar techniques. But everything is well-played and given plenty of chances for the expressiveness that Zanter seeks – it is just that a certain spark of originality in the creativity of the music is, if not missing, rather dim.
Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals; Percy Grainger: Shepherd’s Hey; Bernstein: Turkey Trot; Georgia Stitt and Jason Robert Brown: Waiting for Wings Overture; Johann Strauss Jr.: Nightingale Polka; Liadov: The Mosquito; Mussorgsky: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks; Respighi: The Cuckoo; Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee; Elgar: The Wild Bears; Gershwin: Walking the Dog (Promenade); Copland: Happy Ending from “The Red Pony.” Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by John Morris Russell. Fanfare Cincinnati. $16.99.
Carlos Kleiber in Rehearsal & Performance—Carl Maria von Weber and Johann Strauss. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Carol Kleiber. EuroArts DVD. $29.99.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Elsa Cavelti, alto; Ernst Haefliger, tenor; Otto Edelmann, bass; Lucerne Festival Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Audite. $18.99.
Asphalt Orchestra Plays Pixies. Cantaloupe Music. $16.99.
Michael G. Cunningham: Counter Currents; Trumpet Concerto; Piano Concerto; TransActions; Islands; Schubert Honorarium. Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský and Vít Micka; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ovidiu Marinescu. Navona. $14.99.
In a classic case of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conductor John Morris Russell has decided to try to bring classical music to young people by making a horrible mishmash of overdone depravity out of Saint-Saëns’ elegant, amusing, carefully orchestrated, wry and witty Carnival of the Animals. Never mind that the composer himself was very careful, in creating this work featuring two pianos (originally with chamber ensemble, later with orchestra), to make the presentations funny as well as subtle. Subtlety, Russell clearly thinks, is something to which young people cannot possibly respond. So he has re-orchestrated, rearranged and re-ordered the work. Tortoises dancing the can-can in slow motion? Get rid of it! (Russell omits the movement.) Pianists pacing up and down like caged animals? Too hard to understand! (He omits that one, too.) Elephants lumbering about? Well, all right, but start out with a trumpeting elephant call to make everything super-obvious. Oh – and put the elephants after the kangaroos instead of before them (that is really inexplicable). Russell’s execrable re-orchestration of Carnival of the Animals completely lacks the sensitivity of the original and turns it into an ugly cartoon version of itself – and it is worth remembering that the composer thought his original too personal and “unmusical” to be published. Russell even overdoes “Fossils” to such an extent that the xylophone seems like an afterthought, not a focus. This is a truly bad idea for a truly good purpose. Adults who do not give kids credit for having some musical taste, who have to dumb down a composition to try to reach some imagined lowest common denominator, are really doing young listeners a disservice. And what Russell does with Carnival of the Animals is even more of a shame because the rest of the CD containing the Saint-Saëns is played as the composers wished – no tinkering with Ravel’s orchestration of Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks from Pictures at an Exhibition, for instance, or with Respighi’s The Cuckoo from The Birds. The music that is played as intended proves far more effective than that with which Russell tampers. Indeed, Elgar’s The Wild Bears from the second suite from The Wand of Youth is a high point of this Fanfare Cincinnati CD, as is Johann Strauss Jr.’s Nightingale Polka (despite being unnecessarily preceded by some actual birdsong). There is even a work here written specifically for children: Waiting for Wings Overture by Georgia Stitt and Jason Robert Brown, inspired by Lois Ehlert’s children’s book. And it has none of the talking-down-to-kids elements that mar Russell’s approach to Carnival of the Animals. The CD as a whole is much better than its featured work. A little more respect for children, please.
One of the most respected conductors of modern times was Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004), who remained something of an enigma to audiences because of his near-fanatical meticulousness, his insistence on multiple rehearsals of even the most familiar works, and his reluctance to appear on the podium with any significant frequency. As a result of all this, Kleiber left only a small recorded legacy, and many of his recordings produce near-fanatical admiration from his fans. They are the niche audience for a EuroArts DVD called Carlos Kleiber in Rehearsal & Performance—Carl Maria von Weber and Johann Strauss. Dating to 1970, this black-and-white presentation is a fascinatingly intimate look at Kleiber’s extensive rehearsals with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR. It shows his preoccupation with detail and precision while also showing his unusual manner on the podium: he is genuinely respectful of the orchestra and unfailingly polite to its members, bringing them along on the paths of his own imagination with charm and a certain winning elegance. Unfortunately for anyone not already steeped in Kleiber fandom, the 102-minute DVD, directed by Dieter Ertel, contains only 20 minutes of actual music-making: Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz and Johann Strauss Jr.’s overture to Die Fledermaus. Both performances are very well done – not a surprise after all the rehearsals beforehand – but they seem scarcely to be the point of this recording, which is more a portrait of an important artist in rehearsal than a concert, more a DVD about music than one of music. The recording is actually quite enlightening for anyone who wonders why there is so much fuss about conductors, who in concert seem to do little more than wave a baton about: it is what happens before the concert, not during it, that is the conductor’s real job and real focus. So the DVD may be useful to potential conductors and those who want to understand better how an orchestra leader works. In the main, though, it is for those who just cannot get enough material on Kleiber.
Like Kleiber, Wilhelm Furtwängler has achieved near-cult status among his admirers. Unlike Kleiber, Furtwängler is very well represented in recordings, having made multiple ones of certain works – such as Beethoven’s Ninth – with various orchestras over a period of many years. Furtwängler (1886-1954) is a polarizing figure among music lovers, as are other super-high-profile conductors of the 20th century such as Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini and Herbert von Karajan. The issue with Furtwängler is that he took tempos as suggestions rather than indications, always felt free to modify speed and emphasis within a portion of a work even when the composer did not indicate that he should do so, and was generally more concerned with extracting maximum emotional effect from music on his own terms than in doing so on the terms of the composer. This entire style of conducting has largely gone out of favor nowadays in favor of literalism, historic performance practice and other attempts to bring modern audiences the sound and approach that composers would have heard in their own time. So listeners unfamiliar with Furtwängler will have some difficulty understanding what all the devotion is about. They will not likely be convinced of his greatness by the new Audite release of Furtwängler’s last recording of Beethoven’s Ninth, which was made at the Lucerne Festival on August 22, 1954, just three months before the conductor’s death. Audite has remastered the live recording from the original tapes, and has generally done a fine job; and Furtwängler was usually at his best in live performances rather than in the recording studio. So this is a version of the Ninth that is about as good a reflection on Furtwängler and his legacy as anyone is likely to get. It will likely cement the opinions of his fans without necessarily making any new ones. It has all the trademarks of intensity and emotional expressiveness associated with Furtwängler, and also his trademark capriciousness with tempos and sometimes even with rhythms. There is passion aplenty here, but it is at least as much the passion of Furtwängler as it is the passion of Beethoven. And that, finally, is the dividing line between those who revere Furtwängler and those who do not: his fans find his personal visions exemplary and revelatory, while non-fans are more interested in the composers’ views and intentions than in those of the conductor interpreting the music.
The interpretations of the Asphalt Orchestra on a new Cantaloupe Music CD fall into another sphere entirely. This influential 12-piece New York ensemble here takes on a seminal alt-rock album by the Pixies, Surfer Rosa (1988), reworking and reimagining it in a series of new arrangements intended to stay true to the original while finding new things to say about it. As in classical works that pick up a composer’s intentions and move far beyond them in an expansive way – such as Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, notwithstanding the fact that the theme is not by Haydn – the Asphalt Orchestra’s work with the Pixies’ album is intended to go beyond the original while paying extended homage to it. The ensemble, which despite its name is really a marching band (even a marching-and-dancing band), explores and expands the innovations of the Pixies in ways that shed new light on what made the original recording special. Or at least they do so for people who are intimately familiar with the Pixies’ recording and genuinely interested in exploring it as more than what it sounds like on the surface, which is typically noisy rock-and-roll. In the absence of any visual, street-theater, performance-art aspect, which is a big element of the Asphalt Orchestra’s approach and its reason for being, Asphalt Orchestra Plays Pixies is strictly a recording for people who were so moved and fascinated by what the Pixies produced a quarter of a century ago that they want to explore the songs and sounds more deeply, and from different angles, today. That is a decidedly limited audience, but by definition a strongly committed one.
The likely audience for a new Navona CD of the music of Michael G. Cunningham will be one interested in interactions among and within sections of a traditional orchestra. All six works on the disc are essentially orchestral, even though two are labeled as concertos: Cunningham’s primary interest is not in solo instruments but in the way in which solos are balanced with and opposed to larger groups. And although Cunningham follows essentially classical forms and orchestrations, he joins many other contemporary composers in drawing on types of music other than classical (principally jazz) and on nonmusical sounds as well. Thus, Counter Currents sounds themes and phrases against each other, leaving listeners to sort out the cacophony. The Trumpet Concerto uses a kind of expanded chamber-music approach by having “conversations” not among all instruments but primarily between the trumpet and the orchestra as a whole, while the Piano Concerto simply treats piano and orchestra as equals and is structured accordingly. The remaining works here are concerned more with contrasts in density – full or sparse – than with thematic development or emotional communication. As a whole, this is cerebral rather than emotive music, created to explore elements of orchestral music-making itself – a kind of navel-gazing that can be involving for those interested in the intricacies of how parts of an orchestra relate to themselves and each other, but not an approach likely to appeal to many people beyond a group sharing Cunningham’s rather rarefied musical interests and inclinations.
November 20, 2014
Noodle Magic. By Roseanne Greenfield Thong. Illustrated by Meilo So. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
Parenting with a Story: Real-Life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share. By Paul Smith. AMACOM. $16.
Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors. By Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash. Roaring Brook Press. $17.99.
The instructional value of stories lies in their ability to encapsulate, within well-defined boundaries, information and lessons that in real life are considerably more diffuse. Stories with a well-defined beginning, middle and end can also be used to communicate things that are new; in fact, a “novel” is something new. Even as adults, we are prone to accept new information more readily when it comes in the form of stories – or analogies, which are in essence mini-encapsulations of stories. But it is children for whom story-based learning is particularly effective, and many kids’ books use tale-telling quite effectively. Noodle Magic is a new story told in the form of an old Chinese folk tale, focusing on young Mei and her noodle-making-expert Grandpa Tu. A lovely blend of fantastic and realistic elements, with Meilo So’s brushstroke-like illustrations beautifully capturing Roseanne Greenfield Thong’s narrative, Noodle Magic is only incidentally about Mei figuring out how to make noodles as delicious as Grandpa Tu’s famous ones. It is about finding magic in yourself, discovering what you know but are not aware that you know, and applying yourself to create something truly new and wonderful. Thus, Grandpa Tu has no difficulty making jump ropes, kite strings and more out of noodle dough; he and Mei can even fish for fluffy pink clouds with noodle fishing line. Mei repeatedly compliments Grandpa Tu for his noodle-making magic, but the old man tells Mei that this year, for the crucial celebration of the emperor’s birthday, it is her turn to make noodle magic. And Mei tries, but just cannot do it, asking Grandpa Tu for some of his magic and being told she already has “all the magic you need.” Mei does not think so, and so she makes noodles as a gift for the Moon Goddess, hoping she will bring magic to Mei. With some help from Grandpa Tu, “Mei spun the dough into a huge ball of noodles and tossed it skyward” – So’s illustration is especially delightful here – and the Moon Goddess catches and appreciates it, but reminds Mei that “magic must come from within.” A marvelous noodle tug-of-war between Mei and the Moon Goddess ensues, at the end of which “the sky rained noodles” in all shapes and sizes as Mei discovers the magic that “was inside her all along.” Young children will quickly realize that this is not a story about making noodles, or not just one about that – it is a tale about finding out what you are good at, learning from those around you, and using your own abilities to make something that builds on what others have done but that is truly your own. A very pretty story indeed.
Paul Smith’s point in Parenting with a Story is that moms and dads can and should use storytelling as an integral part of everyday life, with the tales intended to build and reinforce 23 separate character traits. Smith recommends using real-life occurrences and turning them into stories, rather than telling or retelling fairy tales or myths. He divides the character traits into two sections, “Who You Are” and “How You Treat Other People” – although the first of these certainly has a lot to do with the second. The first area includes, among other things, ambition, creativity, curiosity and learning, courage, self-reliance, health, and a positive mental attitude. The second includes kindness, patience, friendship, forgiveness and gratitude, appreciation of beauty, and more. Smith’s technique is to choose a common statement made to children by parents, explain why kids may not “get it,” then show how directed storytelling can make the point clear. For instance, “your word is your bond” may not mean much to a child, but the story of a teacher who, as a little girl, signed a contract to complete many pages of math in order to get an A – even though she did not know how to do the math – should bring the point home (the girl and her mom stayed up working together until 3:00 a.m. after the mom explained that no matter how tired the girl might be, she had given her word and had to follow through). The importance of compound interest may seem like an academic matter if explained in typically pedantic fashion, but a story showing that giving someone a penny one day, two the next, four the next, and so on for a month, will result in 21 billion pennies at month’s end – that’s $21,000,000 – makes the notion clearer. “Be kind to strangers” is just words, but the story of a man with scoliosis who, as a child, tried to hang out with athletes until they humiliated them, and then went to sit with “nerds” he had previously disdained and found himself accepted at once, provides visceral understanding. Smith’s writing is on the formulaic side – again and again, he gives a common statement, explains that it is not enough, then gives an illustrative story and explains why it is better than simply saying something. And not all the stories fit the character-related statements perfectly; Smith has to twist things a bit to bring them in line. Still, there is considerable value here. The book is at its best when it is most personal: Smith’s story about his own lesson in humility, involving his realization of why his mother-in-law was making a big production out of carving a Thanksgiving turkey, is a high point of the narrative. Another is his explanation of how he learned about forgiveness and gratitude after, at the age of 10, being tricked into making an unintentional, racially insensitive remark to an African-American bus driver. These personal experiences no doubt are one reason for Smith’s decision to write this book in the first place; more than that, they contribute to a significant degree to the effectiveness of Smith’s argument. It is a touch naïve to indicate that there are plenty of easily found, easily told stories out there to use in helping kids learn 23 separate character traits (or more), but the general notion that using stories – including stories about one’s own childhood – as instructional material for children, rather than giving them platitudes and pronouncements, is a sound one. Smith is to be commended for showing some ways to make the approach not only worthwhile but also successful.
And it is worth remembering that stories can be useful ways of relating to children even when kids are too young to follow along as parents read – indeed, even when they cannot yet understand words. There are occasional pantomime books, entirely wordless, that convey their narratives through pictures striking and interesting enough so that kids, pre-readers and early readers alike, can follow them while adults explain, when necessary, what is going on – or simply let a child’s imagination roam. Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors is a wonderful example. The delightful cartoon dog here faces having his dog bed taken out the window by some mischievous ghost cats – a theft at which Bow-Wow howls as loudly as he can, albeit completely silently (the very clever visual is a four-panel “pullback,” starting inside the dog’s wide-open mouth and showing in three further panels that he is at a second-floor window, howling as his bed is carried across the lawn). Running downstairs and giving chase, Bow-Wow soon finds himself at a ghost-cat-occupied haunted house where felines are everywhere (behind him, all over a room, in a huge pile in a hall, and so forth) but also nowhere (they disappear whenever he looks around). Amusing adventures involving a dressmaker’s mannequin, a would-be burglar, trap doors beneath individual stair steps, cats in the toilet and bathroom sink, and a stuffed-to-the-max closet lead eventually to Bow-Wow’s discovery of a gigantic ghost cat that needs Bow-Wow’s bed, and many others, in order to have something on which to sleep. What to do? A fortuitous lightning strike forces the ghost cats to a find a new place to live, and the understanding Bow-Wow takes all of them home with him for a final scene with everyone curled around everyone else and sleeping peacefully, mischief-making set aside for at least the time being. The story is not scary at all, although parents may have to explain the title to young children. It is in part a tale of a tail (Bow-Wow’s keeps getting bitten), but in the main is a story of unlikely friendship and hospitality, giving parents a wonderful chance to use their words of explanation of a story that needs no words of its own.
Scholastic Year in Sports 2015. By James Buckley, Jr. Scholastic. $9.99.
5 Seconds of Summer: Hey, Let’s Make a Band! Harper. $21.99.
Professional sports, college sports, Olympic sports, pop music – these are, above all, big businesses. But unlike other major businesses, they generally go out of their way to distract people’s attention from the fact that their primary reason for existence is moneymaking. Instead, they seek to develop the largest fan base possible for their activities and then encourage the fans to focus exclusively on the entertainment value of what they produce, not on the underlying motivation to produce it. And so we get books like these, which are 100% intended to pump up fans’ enthusiasm and get them to spend money not only on the books themselves but also on all sorts of ancillary products relating to the athletes and musicians portrayed in the books. Scholastic Year in Sports 2015 is, of course, really about the year 2014, and not all of it – anything after summer happened too late for inclusion. The basic information here has been known to fans ever since the events occurred, so what the book does is act as a sort of souvenir, packed with photos and statistics and as many “gee whiz” moments as possible for fans of particular sports. It is not and cannot be an in-depth coverage of anything, but it gives the once-over-lightly treatment to professional and college football, the 2014 Winter Olympics, soccer, baseball, professional and college basketball, NASCAR and other motor sports, “action sports” such as the X Games, golf, tennis, and miscellaneous sports such as the America’s Cup, horse racing and lacrosse. The target audience is young readers who are obsessed with sports in general, not focused on any specific sporting event – for that, they would turn to books covering a particular sport at greater length. The underlying assumption here is that all sorts of organized competitions will fascinate young people through bright and bouncy layouts, action photos, and lots of statistics: every World Series winner since 1903, NCAA Men’s Division champions since 1939, complete 2014 Winter Olympics medal counts for the top 10 countries, top fuel dragsters and funny cars of the 21st century, all-time men’s and women’s Grand Slam tennis champions, and much more. Narration is as brief and punchy as live play-by-play coverage, with paragraphs of just a few lines and complete stories lasting less than a page. As fast-paced and intense as the businesses it celebrates, Scholastic Year in Sports 2015 makes a great holiday gift for young readers who, the sports business hopes, will become long-term consumers of the events, people and products it promotes and sells.
Concerts, downloads and CDs; posters, outfits and instruments; these are among the things the pop-music business sells and wants to encourage preteens to buy in greater and greater quantities. And so there are thrown-together books about thrown-together bands such as Australia’s “5 Seconds of Summer.” These books are filled with photos and supposed behind-the-scenes information in which fans – who are thanked early and often for making the band a success, as if there were no packagers, impresarios or producers involved – get to find out lots of “in” things about the performers. In this case, frontman Luke Hemmings, guitarist Michael Clifford and bassist Calum Hood are 18, and drummer Ashton Irwin is 20 – all are likely older than the readers of “the official 5SOS book,” which is the subtitle of 5 Seconds of Summer: Hey, Let’s Make a Band! So what will readers find out here? Michael doesn’t like his signature! “It was awful, it looked like the MasterChef symbol and now I’m stuck with it and I hate the way it looks.” Luke loves the fans! “It hasn’t taken me long to realize that we’d be nothing without our fans – they’ve been behind us all the way, from the very first minute.” Ashton discovered how to handle arena performances! “We had to learn to be great in big venues and rock amazing shows.” Calum played paintball with a character dressed as the Predator from the movies! “If you saw him you weren’t allowed to move otherwise he’d shoot you. That was fun times.” Indeed, there are lots of “fun times” in this book, and very little introspection, difficulty, uncertainty or anything else negative – those things might make fans doubt the wonderfulness of the band, which would be totally unacceptable. The band members talk about learning to do better on stage, learning to make their music even more appealing to fans, and so on, but that is about as thoughtful as anything gets – or ought to get. The point of this book, after all, is to be a souvenir of the band, something brought home from a bookstore or purchased online that could well have been picked up at a “5 Seconds of Summer” concert. Fans who coo and “aww” at the grimacing-and-tongues-sticking-out front cover of this “100% official” book will find in its pages just what they want and just what they expect – and the pop-music business will chalk up another sale and, hopefully, bring fans of this band into its wonderful world of merchandise until the next band of the same type comes along with its many products.
Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 13: Brahms—Variations on a Theme by Handel; Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.
Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 14: Prokofiev—Sonata No. 7; Bartók—Romanian Folk Dances Nos. 1-6; Suite, Op. 14; Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (Mikrokosmos, Book VI, Nos. 148-153); Allegro barbaro. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.
Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volumes 16-17: Brahms—Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, transcribed by Idil Biret; Hungarian Dances Nos. 1-4, 6-7; Paganini Variations; Capriccios, Op. 76, Nos. 1 and 5. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $19.99.
Bach: Goldberg Variations. Zhu Xiao-Mei, piano. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.
Haydn: Sonata in D, H. XVI/51; Adagio in G, H. XV/22; Capriccio in G, H. XVII/1; Maria Hester Reynolds Park: Sonata in E-flat, Op. 4, No. 2; A Waltz in E-flat; Sonata in F, Op. 4, No. 1; Sonata in C, Op. 7. Patrick Hawkins, piano. Navona. $16.99.
Chopin: Polonaise-fantaisie, Op. 61; Nocturnes in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, and E, Op. 62, No. 2; Bolero, Op. 19; Nouvelle Etude No. 1; Ballades Nos. 1, 3 and 4; Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45. Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes; In a Landscape. Kate Boyd, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Instruments, like those who play them, have personalities, and the way they interact with performers has a great deal to do with the effectiveness of performances. Liszt’s “orchestra in miniature” treatment of the piano, for example, was not merely the result of the way he composed – it was also a reflection of the way he handled the instrument, which was quite different from its handling by, say, Friedrich Kalkbrenner or Sigismond Thalberg. Turkish pianist Idil Biret is a contemporary performer whose handling of the piano shows considerable sensitivity to the instrument and whose performances themselves are affected by the particular pianos on which she plays. The ongoing Idil Biret Archive series, which is releasing some of her older recordings as well as some newer ones, is a perfect demonstration of her versatility as well as her virtuosity. The series now contains 16 volumes (the numbers go through 17 but, for some reason, Volume 15 does not exist in the United States), and its most recent ones are studies in considerable contrast. The two volumes designated 16 and 17 are especially interesting because of their focus on Biret’s own transcriptions of Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies. The Fourth is wonderful in every way, with Biret’s handling of the material bringing out the strong Bach influence in the symphony quite effectively and her playing creating a reading of very careful structure and tremendous elegance. The rather slow-paced first movement here comes across as laying a foundation in much the way that Bruckner’s first movements do, and the succeeding movements build on it effectively, with the final passacaglia being a beautifully realized capstone that Biret handles as if she was indeed playing Bach: it has that same sense of clarity, purpose and musical inevitability. Her Brahms Third, in contrast, is less compelling: here it is easy to hear the elements used to build the symphony, but its rich and warm orchestration is sorely missed, and the intensity of its communication disappears – the scaffolding here is less revelatory and more skeletonic, despite the fact that Biret’s actual playing is excellent. It is nevertheless fascinating to hear these recordings, which date to 1995 and 1997, both for Biret’s skill at transcription and for her exceptional playing of what she has transcribed.
The remaining works included in Volumes 16-17 are a mixed bag. The six Hungarian Dances from Brahms’ first set – Nos. 5 and 8 are omitted – make a nice contrast to the symphonies and have a very different sound, partly due to their different venue (the symphonies were recorded at concerts in Paris, the Hungarian Dances at the Lille Festival in 1993) and partly because Biret handles the piano in a different way for the lighter music. These pieces are very effective in their own way. The remaining works here, on the other hand, are distinctly disappointing: the Paganini Variations and two Capriccios from Op. 76 were recorded in concert in 1972, and the sound is simply awful, being muddy and echoey and overly compressed. Biret’s virtuosity in the Paganini Variations is far from apparent: it must be there, but the sound is so poor that it is difficult to detect. Fortunately, an earlier version of Biret playing the same work, recorded in Paris in 1961, appears as part of Volume 13, and it is all the things that the later one is not: clear, well-paced, filled with exceptional finger work and altogether convincing. It is also in monophonic sound, which will make modern audiophiles cringe – but the sound is good for its time, and this version shows Biret’s abilities in a way that the later stereo one does not. Actually, Volumes 13 and 14 are both monophonic and of the same vintage, having been released in France in the early 1960s. They represent early Biret interpretations (the pianist was born in 1941) and still very good ones. Modern listeners should note, though, that these are simply remastered CD versions of LPs, so they are LP-length releases: Volume 13 runs 46 minutes and Volume 14 runs 42. Nevertheless, as archival products they are more than worthwhile. Biret’s handling of the Variations on a Theme by Handel is just as exemplary as is her 1961 performance of the Paganini Variations, being bright, assured, and of the highest virtuosity. As for Volume 14, its highlight is Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, which is clear, precise and rhythmically lively. Here Biret’s focus is not only on the work’s virtuosity but also on its many surprises, its contrasts of runs and chords, its passion and intensity. Biret sometimes comes across as a rather cerebral pianist rather than one with deep emotional commitment – one reason her Brahms Fourth is superior to her Brahms Third. In the Prokofiev, though, her thoughtfulness is thoroughly welcome, shining a fine interpretative light on the music and making it very rewarding indeed. The rest of this CD is devoted to Bartók and is quite fine, with special sensitivity to the composer’s dance rhythms and the angularity of the music. The performances are not as blazingly attractive as that of the Prokofiev, but they are sensitive and adept, and they fit the music very well indeed.
Whether the Goldberg Variations performance by Zhu Xiao-Mei fits the music will depend on listeners’ feelings about piano renditions of Bach’s work, compared with ones on the harpsichord. Xiao-Mei plays the work with considerable skill on a new Accentus Music DVD, recorded live at the 2014 Leipzig Bach Festival, and certainly she shows considerable pianistic sensitivity to the music. But it is pianistic sensitivity, which means the tonal colors and emotional expression are those of a later time than Bach’s. The universality of this work, and indeed of Bach’s music in general, has long led to pieces being played on instruments other than those for which they were written, and there is continuing debate – when they are played that way – as to whether it is better to approximate the sound of the originally intended instrument (the Glenn Gould approach) or to take advantage of the sonic differences in the instrument being used (the more common approach, and the one Xiao-Mei follows). There are many admirable elements in this performance, touches of elegance and refinement and simple prettiness, but it is not an especially idiomatic handling of the music, despite Xiao-Mei’s fine technique. Also, the DVD format is less than effective here, since there is not all that much to see visually in a work for solo keyboard, and the visuals tend to be more distracting than involving. That makes this a (+++) release even with the inclusion of an interesting documentary by Michel Mollard called The Return is the Movement of Tao, in which Mollard not only follows Xiao-Mei on tour but also goes with her to the quiet of the French Alps and gets from her a series of insights into her technique and her feelings about the Goldberg Variations. Fans of Xiao-Mei will delight in this release, and they should: it is a very fine personal and musical profile of a first-rate pianist. From a strictly musical perspective, though, it is somewhat unconvincing.
The fascinating Navona CD of music by Haydn and Maria Hester Reynolds Park, on the other hand, is a (++++) recording even if the use of a piano rather than harpsichord in some of this music is questionable. The reason this is such an involving disc lies in the personality of this particular piano – indeed, this particular type of piano. It is a square piano, an instrument that even many knowledgeable music lovers may never have seen – and one that is thoroughly obsolete. Gorgeous as furniture, these early-19th-century instruments were almost impossible to tune and keep in tune, and they rapidly fell out of favor as pianos closer to the modern concert grand came into being. Very few square pianos are even playable nowadays, but the one Patrick Hawkins uses, an 1831 William Geib model, certainly is. Restored in 2013, it has a six-octave range and a sound quite unlike that of other pianos or, for that matter, fortepianos. This is definitely an instrument with a character, a personality, all its own. Hawkins is an early-keyboard specialist and is clearly comfortable with the instrument, on which he gives poised, stately performances of the Haydn and Park works. The pieces themselves are of less interest than the instrument on which Hawkins performs, but they certainly show off that instrument in the best possible light. The Haydn works here are on the slight side, but display all the clarity, balance and elegance for which Haydn was justly renowned. The music of Park (1760-1813) is far more of a curiosity, although only two of these works are world première recordings: A Waltz in E-flat Major and the Sonata in E-flat, Op. 4, No. 2. Park (née Reynolds) was both a pianist and a piano teacher, and her works are more of the salon or drawing-room type than are those of Haydn and other composers of greater consequence. They are pleasant, easy to listen to, and generally easy to perform: Park did not try to challenge her pupils unduly, but created music that could allow them to showcase their talents even when those talents were comparatively modest. Of the three short sonatas recorded here, Op. 7 is the most interesting and the most Mozartean in flavor; it is also the most substantial, although none of these works is really very musically meaty. This is music that would in fact likely have been performed on just the sort of instrument on which it is heard here, in the fashionable homes of the early part of the 19th century. Hearing this disc is thus an invitation to a bit of most enjoyable time travel. The one peculiarity of the CD lies in Navona’s insistence on giving its releases titles. This one is called “Haydn and the English Lady,” which is accurate (Park was indeed English) but which seems on the verge of scandal-mongering. Still, Haydn did know Park and her husband, Thomas, and one Haydn work here, the Sonata in D, may actually have been written for Park – so there is a connection, although scarcely a sensational one.
The connection between Chopin and pianists is one of the firmest in classical music, so it is no surprise when yet another CD of self-selected Chopin works appears, performed by a fine interpreter. The new Steinway & Sons release featuring Andrew Rangell is a particularly personal assortment of music, the works appearing in no particular order except what is dictated by the changing moods that Rangell wants to evoke. The Polonaise-fantaisie is a fine choice for an opening piece here, allowing Rangell free rein to indulge in performing a highly imaginative work whose twists and turns remain surprising even today. The rest of the disc’s sequence is fairly straightforward and mood-oriented: the free-ranging opening work is followed by the dreamlike Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2, which is succeeded by the flashy Bolero, then the crepuscular Nouvelle Etude No. 1, and so on. Rangell is particularly good at drawing out the varying moods of these pieces, which means his handling of three of Chopin’s four Ballades is especially intriguing – although the omission of No. 2 is a distinct disappointment. Despite Rangell’s clear intention of using this disc to show Chopin first in one mood, then another, contrasting one, and so on, there is something a bit capricious in the choice of the music and its sequencing. However, Rangell plays the pieces with such verve, involvement and understanding that the CD deserves a (++++) rating simply as an exercise in excellent pianism, even though the connections among the works are at some times fairly forced and at others rather slight.
Speaking of slight: that describes the connection of John Cage’s piano music with that of earlier composers. Cage (1912-1992) would not allow pianos to display their inherent personalities, which are a blend of strings and percussion. He created the “prepared piano,” turning the piano into much more of a percussion instrument than it inherently is by having each pianist modify each piano in his or her own way – and then use the modified instrument to play music with aleatoric elements as well as Eastern and mystical influences that predate and portend the arrival of minimalism. A little of Cage tends to go a long way, but the 20-movement Sonatas and Interludes is a lot of him: at more than 65 minutes, it is one of the longest works he ever wrote. To understand this piece, which dates to 1946-48, it is necessary to know something about Cage’s musical and philosophical beliefs – putting this work in the vanguard of a slew of later pieces that insist music cannot and should not be expected to stand on its own for purposes of communication. In fact, Cage did not really believe in the communicative ability of music, claiming that listeners misunderstood things he was saying musically when those things were perfectly clear – to him. This too points toward the solipsism of later composers, and it is an element of importance in listening to Sonatas and Interludes. Also, the work is intended to express the eight permanent emotions of an Indian tradition called rasa, and the whole thing is built using rhythmic proportions determined by natural numbers and fractions. The insistence that listeners have information of this sort in order to comprehend the music is one of the off-putting things about Cage and his successors, making his work and theirs often seem like navel-gazing, at which audience members are intruders more than participants. Still, Cage’s influence is widespread, and Sonatas and Interludes is a substantial doorway to his aesthetic, so Boyd’s well-delineated performance is worth hearing for those seeking insight into what Cage was trying to do. And the lengthy work contrasts interestingly with In a Landscape (1948), which is much shorter and lighter and vaguely reminiscent of the music of Erik Satie. This (+++) Navona CD is by no means for everyone, but for those committed to the principles of a certain sort of contemporary composition, and interested in where some modern composers got their ideas and philosophical concepts, it will be highly worthwhile.