December 31, 2008


Children of the Lamp, Book 5: The Eye of the Forest. By P.B. Kerr. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

The 39 Clues, Book 2: One False Note. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $12.99.

     Pairs of young adventurers are on trails that lead them all over the place in these new, exciting and well-wrought entries in two mystery series. P.B. Kerr’s latest Children of the Lamp novel follows the now-familiar pattern of involving djinn twins John and Philippa in a quest filled with exotic locales, magical danger, and confrontation with strong forces of evil. There is something formulaic in the elements of the book, but the specifics of the plot are intriguing enough – and the writing good enough – to conceal the familiarity of Kerr’s approach. In The Eye of the Forest, rare Incan artifacts are missing, and John and Philippa – together with their Uncle Nimrod – are sent to recover them. This lands them in the Amazon rain forest, at a powerful spell-guarded doorway that some unknown force of evil wishes to open – which is why the artifacts have been stolen. There is an overlay of ecological concern here, with the risk that the opening of the portal could devastate the rain forest as well as disturb the Incan empire, which is deemed to be sleeping rather than destroyed. The portrait of the Amazon region and its creatures is a straightforward one: “All he could hear was the myriad sound of the birds twittering tunelessly, monkeys laughing like hyenas, frogs creaking like old ropes, and insects whirring like dozens of small clockwork toys. …He was beginning to realize just what a strange place the rain forest really was and how your mind could play tricks on you: sticks that turned out to be insects, leaves that turned out to be lizards, logs that turned out to be alligators.” But the portrayals of odd magical objects, such as a frightening engraving, are nicely done: “Dressed all in black, with a white hourglass on his back, the strange man had long, horribly thin arms and legs, tiny hands and feet, and a head bent down so that only a white domelike forehead and a few straggling hairs could be seen. Not so much a spider man as a sort of human-spider.” The eventual outcome of The Eye of the Forest involves both magic and such scientific concepts as the potential creation of a critical mass of uranium as large as a mountain – in fact, it is a mountain, which could mean “building an atomic weapon that is going to destroy the world,” or rather both worlds, the everyday one and the magical one in which a multi-part ritual could produce atomic disaster. Vampire plants, gestalt slippers from Kublai Khan, and a variety of other strange and fascinating items keep The Eye of the Forest entertaining right through to the end – which, in typical series fashion, makes it clear that there will be more djinn adventures to come.

     The 39 Clues is an adventure that is just getting up to speed, with the second book of the planned 10-book series that began when wealthy and eccentric Grace Cahill changed her will in her last minutes of life, setting her relatives off on the trail of a series of clues that will eventually lead successful mystery solvers to a huge fortune, great power or maybe both. This is a very well-done interactive series, which includes the books themselves (by various authors), clue-containing card packs bound into each volume (there are six cards in One False Note), and a Web site,, where readers can play an online game while waiting for new books to come out. In the second book featuring various Cahills, upright and unscrupulous, scouring the world for clues, protagonists Amy and Dan Cahill are everywhere. In fact, that’s a problem here: the orphan brother and sister are seen on a train; but they are also suspects in a burglary at a hotel; and they have been spotted in a car, and a speedboat, and being pursued by an angry mob, and…well, what exactly is going on? Part of what is happening involves the fact that even though “the official contest began at the funeral,” as Amy points out to Dan, “the clues have been around since Mozart’s time – maybe even before.” And since the Cahills are related to Mozart – and to Houdini, Napoleon and many another famous figure – there must be all sorts of clues in all sorts of places. The 39 Clues is more a romp than a serious adventure, but there are enough confusions, near disasters, close calls, booby traps and nasty bad guys to keep things percolating along at a brisk pace. One False Note (whose title is itself a clue to one dramatic scene) is fun, fast-paced and a fine second entry in a thoroughly engaging (if rather mindless) series.


Shape Up with the Slow Fat Triathlete: 50 Ways to Kick Butt on the Field, in the Pool, or at the Gym—No Matter What Your Size and Shape. By Jayne Williams. Da Capo. $15.95.

Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life. By Brian Raftery. Da Capo. $16.

     Both these books are, at their cores, about believing in yourself – being willing to put yourself “out there” without self-consciousness for the greater good of improved health or just plain fun. Shape Up with the Slow Fat Triathlete is a cut above many other “fitness recipe” books because it omits pictures of people whose bodies most readers will never attain and focuses on functional fitness. Its illustrations are small cartoon drawings of a woman who is clearly larger than those seen in most fitness books – but who is willing to move, push and sweat for the sake of her health and, Jayne Williams suggests, just to have a good time. Enjoyment is a big part of Williams’ attitude toward fitness, in this book as in her prior one, which was simply called Slow Fat Triathlete. In many ways, the best thing in this sequel is “The Imperfect Athlete’s Bill of Rights,” which appears early in the book and sets the tone for what follows. Among the provisions in this list are, “You have the right to wear Lycra, no matter what shape your body has,” and “You have the right to eat chocolate” – not, as Williams later explains, with the excuse that it contains antioxidants, but simply because it tastes great and is one of those little pleasures of life that you should not deny yourself. Williams argues that fitness is a pleasure, too: “We all get to be athletes if we want to, are willing to declare it, and are willing to put in sustained physical and mental work to reach our stated goal.” However – and there is a “however” – Williams, who is indeed a triathlete and a sports enthusiast despite being “a chunky, middle-aged woman,” often seems to protest too much when trying to be folksy while emphasizing the essentially egalitarian nature of athletics: “I ain’t about winning no competitions. (Though if I happen to do so, or even place third in the over-forty Athena division of a 180-person race, I’m just as delighted as the next person. Maybe even more so.)” Williams deserves considerable credit for trying to show couch potatoes (she says she used to be one) how to get themselves going – how many fitness books have a chapter entitled, “”Embrace the Awesome Power of Fun”? But no matter how often she says “your body is way cool,” she is writing from the perspective of someone who genuinely believes that – for the benefit of many people who don’t. And some of those people may have trouble sorting out a few of Williams’ ideas – which include “don’t hate” but do tap into aggressive impulses. “Movement is its own reward, in my book,” writes Williams – but that is not the case for many sedentary people, and Williams’ hopes and personal experiences cannot make it so.

     Brian Raftery’s personal experiences in Don’t Stop Believin’ are of a different type, but his prescriptions for would-be karaoke singers contain some of the same admonishments as Williams’ for would-be athletes. Don’t worry about what other people think, says Raftery – they are barely paying attention to you. Remember that even if the worst happens, whatever that might be, the strangers around you will soon forget it. And so on. But Raftery’s book is not just a guide to performing in karaoke joints – it is also his personal memoir of doing just that. As a result, the book is a little of this, a little of that – part travelogue, part history, part discussion of a social phenomenon, part how-to guide. Whether you enjoy it will depend largely on how much you like Raftery’s writing style. For example, he writes that, in a Japanese hotel, “I stared at the overworked neon outside my window and constantly checked an international cell phone that I’d borrowed from the magazine, just in case my ex decided to call me and get back together. No matter how many Ambiens I took, I could only get two to three hours of sleep at a time, and during the day, we walked around temples and ancient dojos.” Another example: “Dimples bills itself as ‘The First Karaoke Bar in the Western Hemisphere,’ a claim that’s impossible to either verify or refute, for there’s little documentation of the early-’80s karaoke scene in, say, Uruguay.” One more: “On the plane ride over [to a karaoke competition in Thailand], however, it occurred to me that I had no idea what ‘[One Night in] Bangkok’ was actually about. What if its lyrics were in reference to some civil war or unwanted foreign annexation? Was it just coincidence that [British actor and musician] Murray Head disappeared after the song’s release, or had he been abducted and flayed by a Thai mob?” Even from these short excerpts, it should be clear that Raftery is all over the place, literally in his round-the-world visits to karaoke spots and figuratively in trying to decide just what sort of book he is writing. If you enjoy both karaoke and Raftery’s freewheeling approach, you will find Don’t Stop Believin’ an enjoyable read – but only if you like both those elements in combination.


Weber: Overtures—Euryanthe, Peter Schmoll und Seine Nachbarn, Oberon, Der Beherrscher der Geister, Turandot (Overture and Act II March), Preciosa, Silvana, Jubel-Ouvertüre, Abu Hassan, Der Freischütz. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $8.99.

Sibelius: Night Ride and Sunrise; Pan and Echo; Suite from “Belshazzar’s Feast”; Two Pieces for Orchestra; Kuolema. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $8.99.

     Carl Maria von Weber and Jean Sibelius are best known as composers of long-form works – operas and symphonies, respectively. But they excelled in small doses as well, as these CDs show. The Weber disc includes excerpts from the incidental music for Turandot and Preciosa, plus the standalone Der Beherrscher der Geister (“Ruler of the Spirits” and Jubel-Ouvertüre (the latter containing an exuberant version of “God Save the King”) – as well as opera overtures, including those for Weber’s final three and most famous works, Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon. What is interesting about this music is how uniformly well-constructed it is, from the earliest piece here (Peter Schmoll und Seine Nachbarn, 1801-2) to the latest (Oberon,1825-6). Weber, who died at age 40 of tuberculosis, was enormously influential on the development of German Romantic opera. These overtures help explain why: they are tightly knit, dramatically structured and very well orchestrated (the orchestra plays a more important role in German opera than in Italian). They often have internal “tone poem” consistency, using themes from an opera to tell its story even before the curtain rises, as Beethoven did with his Leonore overtures before discarding them for the Fidelio overture. Among Weber’s overtures, that for Der Freischütz is most impressive for encapsulating the opera in 10 minutes – but without leaving listeners feeling as if they have had all the emotional highs and lows before the first scene (which was the defect, from a staging perspective, in the Leonore overtures, especially No. 3). Weber’s music is vivid and intense, and even his minor pieces, such as Jubel-Ouvertüre, are skillfully put together and carry a listener along very effectively. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra plays these pieces very well; and except in the Euryanthe overture, where he overdoes some tempo fluctuations, Antoni Wit lets the music unfold naturally and with a minimum of gimmickry – a good decision, since Weber speaks best when presented straightforwardly.

     The same orchestra does an equally fine job under Pietari Inkinen with some of Sibelius’ less-known pieces. Inkinen has a fine feel for Sibelius’ rhythms and harmonies, which are every bit as intricate in his theater music – of which he wrote quite a bit – as in his symphonies. For example, Sibelius composed six pieces of incidental music for Kuolema (“Death”), a play by his brother-in-law, Arvid Järnefelt. The first two, Valse triste and Scene with Cranes, date to 1904-6 and are very well known. Inkinen offers the entire orchestral suite, which also includes Canzonetta and Valse romantique, less-known but equally interesting short works composed in 1911 (the other two pieces that Sibelius wrote for the play are songs). From Sibelius’ incidental music to Hjalmar Procopé’s play Belshazzar’s Feast, Inkinen presents a four-movement suite with an Oriental flavor. Also on this CD are Two Pieces for Orchestra, of which The Dryad is moodily impressionistic and Tanz-Intermezzo is lighthearted (and includes castanets, a rarity in Sibelius’ music). There is also another Tanz-Intermezzo on the disc – No. 3, a mythic evocation called Pan and Echo. And there is one of Sibelius’ substantial symphonic poems: Night Ride and Sunrise, a tripartite work that starts with an extended and very modern-sounding galloping section, moves into a hymnlike portion, and concludes with a lovely sonic portrayal of a Northern sunrise. If none of these works (except Valse triste) is likely to supplant any of Sibelius’ symphonies as a “signature” of the composer, all of them show aspects of his style to excellent effect, proving that he – like Weber – could communicate as effectively in smaller works as in larger ones.


Elliott Carter: 100th Anniversary Release. New Music Concerts Ensemble conducted by Robert Aitken. Naxos. $8.99 (CD+DVD).

Bartók: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano; Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Ahmed Adnan Saygun: Suite, op. 3; Sonata, op. 20. Tim Vogler, violin; Jascha Nemtsov, piano. Profil. $16.99.

Elgar: Violin Concerto. Gil Shaham, violin; Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Zinman. Canary Classics. $16.99.

     Personal elements involving the composers, the performers or both abound in these new releases of music from the 20th and 21st centuries. The Elliott Carter release, which marks the composer’s 100th birthday, provides a fascinating overview of 10 of his short pieces – plus a reminder of just how long Carter has been a huge force in American music: One of the works, from 2001, is called Figment No. 2 (Remembering Mr. Ives), and Carter did indeed know Charles Ives, whose “Concord” Sonata and Hallowe’en this work for solo cello recalls. There is also Figment No. 1 (1994), another work for solo cello – Carter’s first, written when the composer was a mere 86. The two longest works on the CD are Mosaics (2005), for solo harp with seven instruments, and it too has an Ives connection, being inspired by a harpist who was involved in both Ives’ life and Carter’s in the 1920 and 1930s; and Dialogues (2004), an attractive one-movement work for piano and orchestra. The remaining pieces here are Scrivo In Vento (1991), for solo flute; GRA (1993), for solo clarinet (the title is the word “play” in Polish); Enchanted Preludes (1988) for flute and cello; Steep Steps (2001), an unusual work for solo bass clarinet; and Riconoscenza (1984) and Rhapsodic Musings (1999), both for solo violin. Carter’s skill in writing for individual instruments and small groups is evident throughout this attractive, well-performed CD – and the included DVD is a nice bonus, presenting a 22-minute documentary from 2006 in which the composer talks with conductor Robert Aitken, plus excerpts from some of the works presented on the CD. The whole package provides a strong feeling of personal connection between Carter and listeners/viewers, and provokes renewed admiration for a composer who is venerable in years but clearly still agile of mind and exploratory in creating new music.

     The new music created by Béla Bartók and the less-known Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun was personal in a different way, as was their relationship. Both men were dedicated to studying their nations’ folk music and developing works based on it. In collecting folk tunes, Bartók had decided that the music of Anatolia (which includes most of modern Turkey) had Arabian-Persian roots. Not so, said Saygun in a letter to Bartók – and the communication so intrigued the Hungarian composer that he went to Istanbul and spent three months with Saygun, studying the music of the region and collecting folk songs. The fascinating new CD of Bartók’s and Saygun’s music shows how both composers applied their findings from the folk realm when writing chamber music for concert performance. Bartók’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (1922) includes Hungarian peasant music, while his Rhapsody No. 1 (1928) focuses more on Gypsy tunes. Both pieces incorporate their folk elements and go beyond them to become fully developed chamber works. Saygun’s music sounds less familiar but is no less conscientiously attentive to its folk roots. His Sonata of 1941 (which gets its first recording here) and Suite of 1956 are both four-movement works, the former more closely adhering to a “Bartókian” model by subsuming folk elements within modern classical compositional techniques, the latter relying more heavily on the folk music itself for some very effective dance-like writing. Tim Vogler and Jascha Nemtsov play all the works idiomatically and with spirit, their personal interest in this music coming across in strong performances that shape the works well while never losing sight of their folkloric underpinnings.

     There are also personal elements in both the composition and the performance in Gil Shaham’s new CD of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, but here they do not meld quite so happily. The lengthy and technically demanding concerto, which dates to 1910, is filled with longing and deep emotion, and is built entirely from a six-note B minor phrase that first appears in the orchestra as the work begins. This can be a deeply moving piece, but Shaham seems unwilling to give it its full emotional due, with the result that there is something of a mismatch between him and David Zinman, who leads the Chicago Symphony with strength and intensity. Canary Classics is Shaham’s own label, so of course he can release whatever he likes on it, but this is a case in which it might have helped to have a producer willing to tell the violinist that, for all his technical skill, he dilutes the potential emotional impact of the music. The producer might have added that it would have been nice to put something additional on the CD: the concerto is alone here, resulting in a 48-minute disc that will be attractive only to listeners who are determined to have Shaham’s version of the concerto, whatever its shortcomings may be. Thanks to Zinman’s sensitivity and a certain amount of eloquence in Shaham’s playing, the CD gets a (+++) rating, but the concerto here is not as effective as it can be, and the disc, despite some undeniable merits, is certainly no bargain.

December 24, 2008


2009 Calendar: Desk—Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783. By Brendan Simms. Basic Books. $39.95.

     Although it was the Roman god Januarius, from whom we get the month called January, who used his two faces to look both backward and forward, it has become traditional to do that at the end of a year rather than the beginning of a new one. Anglophiles have some particularly interesting ways to contemplate the times ahead and behind this season. The new desk calendar with scenes from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – the sixth movie in the spectacularly popular series, based on the sixth of the even more spectacularly popular J.K. Rowling novels – has the distinction of offering an advance look at the film. Half a year of advance looks, in fact: the movie is not due out until July 2009. This makes the unexplained full-color movie stills that adorn the calendar’s left-hand pages all the more intriguing. Perhaps Severus Snape, standing and scowling at Hogwarts, would fit into any Potter film; so would Albus Dumbledore, his eyes glancing behind him and his left hand outstretched toward…hmm, what exactly? Well, the pictures of Harry, Ron and Hermione are clear enough, but just who are some of those other characters portrayed in fairly mystifying poses? And what exactly is going on to cause those expressions – of fear, wonder, anticipation, uncertainty and so on – on the characters’ faces? Readers of the Potter books will have a great deal of fun figuring out just what is happening – and then confirming their suspicions, or finding them out to be wrong, when the movie finally appears. Oh – and calendar buyers will also have a well-made, spiral-bound, open-flat desk calendar whose right-hand pages can be used to jot down just about anything of interest or significance as the year goes on. Such as, say, the number of days until the new movie comes out.

     Brendan Simms’ monumental Three Victories and a Defeat is just as British as anything by Rowling – Simms is a Cambridge University professor – and is far more firmly grounded in the real world. It looks in a rear-view mirror rather than one of fantastic distortions, although Simms actually argues that there have been distortions aplenty in previous histories relating to what he calls the “First British Empire.” The most important of these, Simms asserts, is the notion that Britain built its empire through naval power. Indeed, this has become a truism: the British Navy protected the island nation as effectively as a moat protects a castle. But Simms argues strongly and convincingly that this was not the case: Britain’s dominance at sea gave it a bridge to other countries, he says, not a means of keeping them at bay. To protect Britain and further its imperial ambitions, more important than the sea was the land – and the old-fashioned politicking that went on there. In particular, Britain’s strategies in mainland Europe, which involved alliances with Germany (to which Britain’s monarchs had blood ties) and opposition to France, became the linchpin of its successful building and maintenance of empire. Simms’ very extensive research backs up this controversial assertion convincingly. Indeed, his well-chosen quotations for the beginnings of his chapters are themselves arguments in support of his thesis – in the words of the statesmen of the time themselves. The Wars of the Polish and Austrian Successions, the Seven Years War and the War of Grand Alliance against Louis XIV of France all figure in Simms’ sweeping analysis of 18th-century geopolitical struggle. The United States – or rather the colonies of Britain in America – will come to play a crucial role in Britain’s imperialism: the year 1783 marked Britain’s defeat and the emergence of a newly independent nation across the Atlantic. But the American Revolution was scarcely a simple matter of colonists rebelling against distant government and onerous taxes, as books on the American side of “the pond” so often have it. Simms shows that there was tremendous imperial ambition in America, and that Britain’s policies were considered a danger to it. Consider John Adams’ comment in 1755, more than two decades before the colonies declared their independence: “Soon after the Reformation, a few people came over into this new world, for conscience sake. Perhaps this apparently trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America. It looks likely to me. For if we remove the turbulent Gallicks…it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas, and then the united force of Europe will not be able to subdue us.” This is an extraordinarily revelatory quotation – one of many in Simms’ book – that will give Americans (who are largely unfamiliar with the struggles within Europe at the time their own nation came into being) a new and surprising view of their own Founding Fathers. At 802 pages and filled with very dense footnotes, Simms’ book may be difficult reading for many despite its accessible style and very careful arguments. Those arguments themselves will not convince everyone – for example, in his ambition to minimize others’ focus on the role of Britain’s sea power as a mainstay of empire, Simms goes rather too far the other way, downplaying it unnecessarily. But Three Victories and a Defeat is an enormously thoughtful and thought-provoking book that should be of considerable interest on both sides of the ocean that now serves more to unite England and America than to keep them apart. It looks back, but it has lessons that are well worth learning as we move inexorably forward into a new year and its new challenges.


Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker. San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Ballet Orchestra conducted by Martin West. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4; Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon. François-Frédéric Guy, piano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Philippe Jordan; Hélène Devilleneuve, oboe; Jérôme Voisin, clarinet; Antoine Dreyfuss, horn; Jean-François Duquesnoy, bassoon. Naïve. $16.99.

Fauré: Requiem. Cantique de Jean Racine. Sandrine Piau, soprano; Stéphane Degout, baritone; Accentus and members of L’Orchestre National de France conducted by Laurence Equilbey. Naïve. $16.99.

Messiaen: Fête des Belles Eaux for Sextet of Ondes Martenot; Feuillets Inédits for Piano and Ondes Martenot; Ravel: String Quartet, 1st movement, arranged for four Ondes Martenot. Ensemble d’Ondes de Montréal (Marie Bernard, Suzanne Binet-Audet, Geneviève Grenier and Estelle Lemire) with Louise Larose and Jean Laurendeau; Louise Bessette, piano. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Debussy: Complete Works for Piano, Volume 4. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

     Anniversaries can provide a welcome opportunity, or maybe just an excuse, to look at familiar works in a different way. The San Francisco Ballet is now in its 75th season, and the inventiveness of which it is capable comes through particularly clearly in its staging of Tchaikovsky’s venerable Nutcracker. Helgi Tomasson’s choreography gets only part of the credit here, for it is graceful and often clever but not in itself the most distinguished element of the production. The scenic design by Michael Yeargan also deserves a great deal of praise: the ballet is set in San Francisco itself in the year 1915, and this works quite well in light of the timeless nature of the story, so much of which occurs in fairyland rather than in a bourgeois household (the original tale, by E.T.A. Hoffmann, is altogether darker than the ballet, but Tchaikovsky knew only an adaptation by Alexandre Dumas père). The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are top-notch, notably the fierce-looking Mouse King – who has only a single head, but a very scary one – and the wonderful Madame du Cirque. And who might that be, you may wonder? She is an indication of the clever rethinking of this production, being a substitute for Mother Ginger in Act Two. And before you comment that the circus is not a “sweet” (since the act is in the Land of Sweets) – well, neither are the mirlitons (reed flutes) or flowers, and where would the act be without them? Madame du Cirque is voluminously gowned in a red and white circus tent from which she eventually coaxes forth a dancing bear – an unusual and effective touch. There are many such here, including the giant mousetrap that Clara (Elizabeth Powell) uses instead of a shoe to rescue the Nutcracker Prince in the first act. The dancing is uniformly at a very high level, and Uncle Drosselmeyer (Damian Smith) is particularly effective at tying the disjointed story together. The music is well played throughout, and the staging – first used in 2004 – makes this Americanized Nutcracker a highly memorable delight.

     There is a more recent anniversary being celebrated by the Naïve label – its 10th. For a decade, this French producer of CDs has stuck to its mission of showcasing music by French composers, on the one hand, and performances by French artists of non-French music, on the other. Most Naïve CDs are of very high quality, and their design and packaging are unique. But they are not necessarily the best versions of the music they offer. François-Frédéric Guy’s playing in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 is a little too tentative in the first two movements, and Philippe Jordan’s conducting seems more to follow Guy’s lead than to move in partnership. Guy and Jordan take some chances with the music in terms of tempo and rubato, and these work well at times – but less well at others. And the pairing of the concerto with the earlier quintet for piano and winds is a chance itself – and a trifle odd. The quintet is well played, but its juxtaposition with the concerto seems arbitrary. This CD gets a (+++) rating.

     The Naïve recording of Fauré’s Requiem gets (++++), though, despite its unusual brevity – the disc runs just 41 minutes, including the infrequently heard Cantique de Jean Racine. But the performance is exemplary, with both soloists and the 32-voice chorus called Accentus fully exploring the sublime beauty of this Requiem – heard here in the original 1893 version, which was rediscovered only in 1980. Fauré’s music requires a touch both light and sensitive, and that is exactly what it gets here.

     No touch at all is required for the strange electronic instrument called the ondes Martenot, invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928 and produced until 1988. Olivier Messiaen – the100th anniversary of whose birth is now being celebrated – was a great champion of this instrument, which is played by sliding a metal ring in front of a keyboard without touching the keys (although players can depress them if they prefer). Messiaen’s first work for ondes Martenot was Fête des Belles Eaux (1937), in which the instrument’s strange sounds and unbroken glissandi create an otherworldly impression through eight movements. ATMA’s CD of the work, which has never been recorded before, is simply splendid, as is the interplay of piano and ondes Martenot in another first-ever recording: Feuillets Inédits – with the piano sounding like a bit of a sonic interloper once the ear is well attuned to the electronic instrument. In some ways, the most interesting aural experience on this (++++) CD is the arrangement for four ondes Martenot of the first movement of Ravel’s String Quartet. The quartet dates to 1903, before the ondes Martenot was invented, but the sonorities of Ravel’s strings translate surprisingly well to the electronic quivering of four ondes Martenot. This arrangement is a curiosity, of course, but it is a curiously involving one that reveals different beauties in Ravel’s writing from those that appear in the original string quartet.

     Of course, it is not necessary to be celebrating Naïve’s 10th anniversary or Messiaen’s 100th in order to produce French music of high quality and exceptional interest. The final volume in Chandos’ four-CD set of Debussy’s piano works needs no reason for being other than Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s wonderful way with some of the composer’s most difficult pieces. This volume includes the first and second books of Images and the first and second books of Études, plus Étude retrouvée as realized by Roy Howat. Bavouzet, whose third volume was devoted to short and generally unexceptional pieces, here handles some of Debussy’s most complex works with rare insight and outstanding technique. The Images (1901-5 and 1907) are reflections of Debussy’s interest in art and in Baudelaire; in playing them, Bavouzet expertly conveys the composer’s sensitivity. And the Études (1915) are simultaneously poetic and contrapuntal, filled with technical difficulties that seem to trouble Bavouzet not at all as he thoroughly plumbs Debussy’s exploration of the piano’s harmonic and textural possibilities. This is a (++++) conclusion to Bavouzet’s journey through the very personal world of Debussy’s piano music.


Bach: Cantatas for the Nativity, BWV 61, 122, 123 and 182. Charles Daniels, tenor; Monika Mauch, soprano; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Matthew White, countertenor; Montréal Baroque conducted by Eric Milnes. ATMA Classique. $16.99 (SACD).

Assisi Christmas Cantatas: Music of Alessandro Melani, Nicola Antonio Porpora, Fra Francesco Maria Benedetti, Fra G.M. Po del Finale, Fra Ferdinando Antonio Lazzari and Arcangelo Corelli. Ruth Ziesek, soprano; Reinhold Friedrich, trumpet; Ingeborg Danz, contralto; L’Arte del Mondo conducted by Werner Ehrhardt. Phoenix Edition. $16.99.

Scandinavian Christmas: Music of Jean Sibelius, Leevi Madetoja, Gustaf Nordqvist, Otto Kotilainen and Ruben Liljefors; Traditional Songs. Synve Lundgren, soprano; Johanna Fernholm, contralto; Christian Gurtner, traverso; Wolfgang Kogert, organ; Markus Vorzellner, piano. Phoenix Edition. $16.99.

O Nata Lux: Choral Chamber Works by Alejandro Carillo, Seth Garrepy, Eric Whitacre, Peter Matthews, Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Rathbone. Musica Intima. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

The Gospel Christmas Project. Jackie Richardson, Alana Bridgewater, Kellylee Evans, Chris Lowe and Sharon Riley and Faith Chorale, vocalists. CBC Records. $16.99.

Leroy Anderson: Sleigh Ride & Other Holiday Favorites. BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

     The Christmas season invariably brings forth innumerable retreads of familiar religious and worldly songs, and the days and weeks after Christmas just as invariably consign most of the repackagings to the nearest dustbin – or at least to the closet or attic, to be dragged out (perhaps) in a later year. Yet some Christmas-themed CDs are more deserving of year-round attention than others – with recordings of Bach at the top of the list. It scarcely matters at what time of year a person listens to Bach’s Weinachtsoratorium (“Christmas Oratorio”) – or the four cantatas beautifully performed by Montréal Baroque on a new ATMA Classique SACD. This is timeless music in the best sense, rising above Bach’s own era to involve and move listeners 300-plus years in the future. And the same is true of some of the pieces on Assisi Christmas Cantatas. Many pieces on this CD are not cantatas at all, including the framing ones: Alessandro Melani’s Sonata à 5 is a simple and lovely work for two trumpets, two violins and continuo, while Corelli’s G minor Concerto Grosso Fatto Per la Notte di Natale, Op. 8, No. 6, is not to be confused with his better-known “Christmas Concerto” (which, confusingly, is in the same key and is Op. 6, No. 8) – but it is equally heartfelt and emotionally satisfying. So are the cantatas and motets offered in between the instrumental works, with Oh Quam Jubilat by the virtually unknown Fra G.M. Po del Finale (ca. 1700) especially interesting for its use of two trumpets in addition to soprano, alto and basso continuo. These are works that will give musical pleasure at any time of year.

     Scandinavian Christmas is more closely tied to the season, although its traditional songs of the region are certainly different from those with which North Americans are familiar – and hearing the works sung in Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Danish lends the CD an exotic air. But even with three songs by Sibelius included, plus works by several other notable Scandinavian composers, there is a monochromatic feeling to the disc that makes it more a seasonal curiosity than a CD likely to be played all year. O Nata Lux is even more of a Christmas-only CD, despite the lovely singing of the Vancouver-based 12-voice chamber ensemble, Musica Intima. Songs in English, French and Latin all get sensitive, well-balanced and emotive treatment here, but the music is unlikely to seem inspirational except when associated with the time of year for which it is intended.

     The Gospel Christmas Project is also intended just for a specific season, but the vocals here are unusual and interesting enough so this CD just might get a few additional plays at other times. The 17 tracks are mostly jazz-inflected, although there is plenty of gospel swing to them as well – and the very familiarity of such songs as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” makes these arrangements more attractive specifically because they are atypical. Throw in an organ interlude and a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah and you have an unusual CD that keeps the spirit of the holiday but gives its music more bounce than usual.

     For the most bounce of all, though, a disc that really ought to be played throughout the year is Naxos’ Leroy Anderson compilation, a CD as secular as Bach’s cantatas are sacred. It consists of tracks taken from the first four volumes of the company’s ongoing release of Anderson’s complete orchestral works. Anderson was a clever composer and a better one than critics often realized: he neatly bridged the classical and popular-music worlds of his time, and even stayed on top of what was then the field’s primary technology by writing pieces that would fit on a single side of a 78-rpm record. Sleigh Ride & Other Holiday Favorites includes not only the title tune (probably Anderson’s most famous piece) and his three suites of carols (for brass, woodwinds and strings), but also Horse and Buggy, Song of the Bells, A Christmas Festival, The Golden Years and China Doll – plus two delicious short-form works, The Waltzing Cat and Bugler’s Holiday. Not all these pieces are specifically seasonal, and that is all to the good, since the lack of total tie-in to Christmas may encourage listeners to hear this Anderson CD throughout the year – and maybe buy some others, too. Anderson’s music is fun, and fun is something that ought not to be seasonal.

December 18, 2008


Thirty Days Has September: Cool Ways to Remember Stuff. By Chris Stevens. Illustrated by Sarah Horne. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914. By Philipp Blom. Basic Books. $29.95.

     The popular song “The Way We Were” talks about “misty, water-colored memories,” but most people would settle for something less sentimental and more accurate, at least in their day-to-day lives. Thirty Days Has September, although written for young readers, offers clear, common-sense memory suggestions that will be helpful to parents as well as children. English, history, science, math and other subjects are all included in this short (124-page) but useful little volume. Here you will find a tongue-twisting rhyme for recalling all 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, some easy ways to remember the difference between “desert” and “dessert” and between “stationary” and “stationery,” a poem giving a shorthand list of all British rulers since William the Conqueror, a way to recall the three Stone Age eras (Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic), multiplication shortcuts, a mnemonic for the difference between one-humped and two-humped camels, and much more. Entertaining, cartoonish illustrations by Sara Horne help make Chris Stevens’ straightforward suggestions more enjoyable. For example, in explaining how to remember the word “onomatopoeia” (the use of words that sound like what they describe), Stevens suggests thinking of yourself “hitting a gong [for the sound], on a mat, on a pier.” And Hughes shows a silhouette of someone doing just that, and looking rather bewildered about it (it is, after all, a difficult word). Children and adults alike will benefit from as well as enjoy these grammar, punctuation, geography and other memory hints.

     Of course, if you do not want to remember something, hints won’t help – and historian Philipp Blom believes a lack of interest in the early years of the 20th century has led to their fading from memory. The Vertigo Years is a dense, 466-page attempt to correct what Blom sees as the idea that the first decade-plus of the 1900s in Europe constituted merely a “holding pattern” of sorts between the industrialization of the 19th century and the start of World War I. This notion creates something of a straw man, as anyone familiar with Britain’s Edwardian Age will immediately realize. But it gives Blom a good starting point to discuss important events and trends that emerged early in the century, from quantum theory to atonal music to psychoanalysis (although Freud’s work actually began in the late 19th century, and The Interpretation of Dreams dates to 1900, which mathematically is the final year of the 19th century rather than the first year of the 20th). Blom provides a year-by-year account of the period he discusses, giving each year an intriguing title that he explains in the chapter devoted to it. Thus, 1903, “A Strange Luminescence,” is about Marie Curie’s discovery of radium and the Nobel Prize she won as a result; 1908, “Ladies with Rocks,” tells of a gathering of half a million people in London’s Hyde Park to demand women’s suffrage; 1913, “Wagner’s Crime,” focuses on a disturbed Swabian teacher named Ernst August Wagner, who killed 13 people – including his wife and four children – because of his sense of sexual inadequacy. Fascinating period photos give as much of a sense of the history as do Blom’s words: composer Gustav Mahler in a moment of relaxation, Russian peasants eating a meal outdoors, early abortion and lesbianism activist Madeleine Pelletier in a photo that makes her look a great deal like Oliver Hardy, larger-than-life stars Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso, and many more. There is also a subtly disturbing eight-page color section showing art of the early 20th century, from Egon Schiele’s self-portrait without hands or feet, to Matisse’s idealization of a sylvan, pagan scene, to Giorgio di Chirico’s female torso emitting (or at least juxtaposed with) bananas. “Had human character changed? Could it ever change? These were the main questions asked by the artistic avant-garde.” They are Blom’s main queries, too – and if he never answers them satisfactorily, neither did the artists themselves. But they certainly asked plenty of questions, and it is ultimately the questioning spirit of the early 20th century, rather than its specific accomplishments, that seems to define the age. Interestingly, much of the questioning occurs in the United States, even though the avowed subject of Blom’s book is Europe: for instance, it is in America that movies become a huge phenomenon, as do comic strips such as “Krazy Kat” (which Blom uses in one illustration). Also, Blom’s omission of some major events of the time is difficult to understand: there is no mention of Franz Lehár, whose operetta The Merry Widow (1905) defined an era in music and was strongly identified with Vienna, where Blom lives. If Blom’s book is, in the final analysis, a touch argumentative and a touch unfocused (a sequence of individual stories does not make a coherent narrative), it is also filled with fascinating information and a series of anecdotes that, while they scarcely provide a complete picture of the years 1900-1914, do offer an entertaining and at times thoughtful one.


Nielsen: Complete Piano Works. Christina Bjørkøe, piano. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Nielsen: Aladdin. Mette Ejsing, contralto; Guido Paevatalu, baritone; Danish National Chamber Choir/DR and Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Chandos. $11.99.

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: Concerto Grosso for String Quartet and Symphony Orchestra; Moving Still: H.C. Andersen 200, for Baritone and String Quartet; Last Ground for String Quartet and Ocean. Paul Hillier, baritone; Kronos Quartet (David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Jeffrey Zeigler, cello); Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

     Although Carl Nielsen’s piano works deservedly take a back seat to his symphonies – the piano pieces are by and large less viscerally appealing, more intellectual and drier – they do provide considerable insight into the composer, since they stretch from near the start of his career (1890, when he was 25) to the end of his life (1931; a last piano work was published posthumously). Christina Bjørkøe, a Copenhagen-born assistant professor at the Carl Nielsen Academy of Music in Odense, seems to have both an innate understanding of this music and a studied regard for it. She presents larger, more solemn and portentous works with gravity and dignity, while focusing on the many small and charming details of the less-imposing pieces. Her two-CD set is arranged chronologically, giving the listener a fine opportunity to hear how Nielsen’s piano style evolved – which it did in fits and starts rather than a straight line. Five Piano Pieces of 1890 are pleasant trifles, with Symphonic Suite (1892-4) on an altogether larger scale – not entirely successfully, since the work seems rather pedantic and mannered at times. Then there is a return to miniatures in Humoresque-Bagatelles (1894-7), a short and stately Festival Prelude for the New Century (1900), and a poetic meditation called A Dream about “Silent Night” (1905). After a break of more than a decade, Nielsen returned to piano writing with the large-scale, ambitious Chaconne (1916), written with Bach’s famous chaconne for solo violin in mind. Just a few months later, Nielsen produced his Theme and Variations (1917), another big work on a classical model that bears the composer’s unmistakable rhythmic and harmonic stamp. In 1919-20 came still another large work, simply entitled Suite – yet another Baroque form – that explores a wide range of emotions and piano techniques. Three Piano Pieces (1927-8) form a late suite of their own (they were composed after Nielsen’s final symphony) and share a certain sense of simplicity with Nielsen’s very last piano pieces, which were written specifically for students. In the 25 works of Piano Music for Young and Old (1929-30), plus a final Piano Piece (1931, published after the composer’s death), Nielsen uses only the span of a fifth in each short work – but employs considerable chromaticism, with the result that the pieces sound less like exercises than like small concert works. Bjørkøe’s handling of all the music is exemplary, and it is highly interesting to experience a less-known side of Nielsen’s output.

     Nielsen’s theater music – aside from his operas, Saul og David and Maskarade – is also infrequently heard. This is too bad, as Chandos’ re-release of a 1993 recoding of Aladdin shows. Nielsen’s 1918-9 music for Adam Oehlenschläger’s version of the familiar story of the boy with the magic lamp is constrained by the text and not of uniformly high interest, but it is filled with bright rhythms, clever orchestration and use of special effects (such as a genie’s voice produced originally by having seven basses sing through megaphones from backstage). The third act of the five-act work contains the most, and most interesting, music. For example, there is a “Prisoners’ Dance” that sounds much like a dirge, and a “Blackamoors’ Dance” that is filled with enthusiasm and features wordless female voices (Nielsen had used wordless voices in his Symphony No. 3 of 1910-11, and uses them elsewhere in Aladdin as well). The lullaby that Aladdin sings at his mother’s grave is simple and charming, and a brief song given to a messenger and a ghost is suitably chilling. Nielsen nicely handles several marches, a love scene, some outdoor scene-setting and other incidental music with a sure command of the orchestra and a fine sense of pacing throughout – and Gennady Rozhdestvensky leads the performance with attentiveness and enthusiasm.

     To hear how far Danish music has come, for better or for worse, since Nielsen’s death, listeners may want to consider a fine-sounding SACD called “Kronos Plays Holmgreen.” But be forewarned: Nielsen’s experimentation, which makes some of his music sound modern even in this century, pales before Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s. The composer’s Concerto Grosso was written in 1990, revised in 1995 and revised again in 2006 (the version heard with the Kronos Quartet). Like Schoenberg before him, Holmgreen draws on Baroque form while filtering it through his own very modern sensibilities. Instruments do emerge from the larger ensemble to play with or against it, but the sound is a significant distortion (with various degrees of subtlety) of that of Bach and Vivaldi. Moving Still: H.C. Andersen 200 has one American movement and one Danish one, and was composed for British native and Danish resident Paul Hillier, who performs it here. The contrast between Hans Christian Andersen’s prophetic "In a Thousand Years” and his patriotic “In Denmark I Was Born” serves to differentiate the New World from the Old. As for Last Ground, it is Holmgreen’s String Quartet No. 9, and it uses electronically manipulated recordings of sounds of the sea in addition to the quartet’s instruments. Unlike, say, Debussy’s La Mer, Holmgreen’s work focuses on the violent power of the ocean, almost to the exclusion of its other moods. It is an effective piece in its own way – Holmgreen has an offbeat sense of humor here, as in many of his works – but its sonic world does take some getting used to. Danish music has come a long way since the days of Carl Nielsen; but then, music in general has had a long march in the past hundred years.


Berlioz: Grosse Totenmesse (Requiem), op. 5. Keith Ikaia-Purdy, tenor; Chor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Sinfoniechor Dresden, Singakademie Dresden and Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     There is holiness in the air in this season, for those who believe in the religious underpinnings of Christmas. But there is holiness at other times of the year, too, and there has rarely been a performance so expressive of spirituality as the one of Berlioz’ Requiem led by Sir Colin Davis in February 1994. That is the performance heard, live but with such overwhelming audience quiet that the silence itself speaks volumes, in the new two-CD set from Profil.

     Dresden was firebombed by Allied forces – American and British – in the waning days of World War II. The attack was one of almost pure revenge by nations whose victory was by that time inevitable: although Dresden was a rail center, it had little strategic importance and a great deal of historical meaning to the German Volk. Perhaps that fact figured into the decision to destroy the city, for the Allies did not do a mere bombing raid: they rained down so much destruction that they created a firestorm, a hellish tornado of flame that swept through the grand old buildings and much-loved monuments of a supremely artistic city, killing 25,000 people and reducing most of the central city (but not the military areas surrounding it) to smoldering rubble. If this was a strike at any remaining German morale, it was wholly successful. But it was widely perceived, after the end of the war, as an atrocity, and as such became the subject not only of scholarly studies but also of such novels as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (Vonnegut had actually been a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing).

     The postwar German reaction to the Dresden firebombing eventually coalesced into an annual memorial on February 13 and 14 – the anniversary of the 1945 attack. Two performances of Berlioz’ Requiem in 1994 were that year’s memorial, and the Profil recording is of the second (it was so cold that February that equipment froze on the 13th, making recording of the first concert impossible). Berlioz’ Requiem is one of the most monumental of all classical works, requiring more performers than Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”) and turning stage management into as great a challenge as the music itself. This performance at Dresden’s Kreuzkirche solves the placement and musical problems with equal brilliance – and the result may surprise listeners. For this is a work most often identified as a spectacle, notably for its overwhelming “Rex tremendae majestatis.” But Davis’ presentation is most impressive for its quiet. The austerity of “Quaerens me,” the unusual sound of “Hostias” (sung by male voices with flute and trombone accompaniment), the solo tenor and women’s choir in “Sanctus,” and the pianissimo winds and quiet timpani at the very end are the elements that make this such an outstanding and moving performance. The audience is absolutely silent – indeed, it is a tradition at the Dresden memorials that there is no applause afterwards; everyone leaves in silent contemplation. The result is that listeners will feel as if they are themselves part of the live audience, moving with the music and being moved by it.

     The Dresden memorial concerts have offered a wide variety of music, including Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) as well as a number of requiems. Berlioz’ work in this form is not liturgically correct – the composer changed the words to suit his expressive purposes – but it is extraordinarily apt for the occasion. Indeed, in the Davis performance from 1994, it is a transcendent experience, spanning the time from Berlioz’ creation of the piece (1837) to that of World War II to that of our own modern and apparently unending wars.

December 11, 2008


The Adventures of Max and Pinky: The Mystery. By Maxwell Eaton III. Knopf. $12.99.

The 39 Clues, Book 1: The Maze of Bones. By Rick Riordan. Scholastic. $12.99.

     Children’s expectations of what constitutes a mystery, and how they can have fun solving it, change dramatically with age. The latest adventure of bald-headed boy Max and marshmallow-loving Pinky the pig is right on target for the 3-8 age range for which Maxwell Eaton III regularly writes. It’s a simple, silly and simply silly story of a barn painting gone badly awry: Max and Pinky spend a whole day painting the barn a nice, traditional shade of dark red, only to find out when they wake up the next morning that the barn is…pink. They repaint it – and the next night, it changes color again. They create a “barn alarm” of which Rube Goldberg would be proud, including a fan, frog, duck, chicken, bowling ball and more, and it helps Max solve the mystery – but it doesn’t help Pinky solve the mystery, and that is part of the fun here. As usual in Eaton’s Max and Pinky books, there are some things going on in the panels that will add to kids’ enjoyment even though they do not contribute directly to the story line – from a turtle on the roof to Pinky’s dream of (what else?) marshmallows. Everything is gently humorous and never more than mildly mysterious.

     In contrast, the planned 10-book series, The 39 Clues, aims at ages 9-12 and offers a much more intense and intensive mystery – plus a high level of interactivity. Rick Riordan designed the whole series and wrote The Maze of Bones to introduce it; other authors will handle subsequent books. No matter: the style is of less consequence than the fast pace and clever plotting. The basic setup has matriarch Grace Cahill changing her will in her last minutes of life, setting her relatives off on the trail of a series of clues that will eventually lead successful mystery solvers to a huge fortune and/or great power. Plenty of the family’s members are unscrupulous, but not Amy and Dan Cahill, orphans and straight shooters who have drive, intelligence, some special talents (Dan’s ability to memorize numbers instantly) and some special problems (Amy’s fear of crowds). Although the search-the-world-for-clues theme is scarcely original, some elements of the story are, such as the notion that the Cahills are related to everyone from Houdini to Napoleon to Benjamin Franklin. There is also welcome humor dropped in from time to time. And the clues will certainly be dribbled out – the first book contains only two. Among the most interesting aspects of this series are its adjuncts and its Web use. The book comes with six game cards bound into the cover, and kids can collect more of them – with the cards containing evidence that provides pieces (admittedly small pieces) of information about the mystery. In addition, there is a Web site,, that readers can visit to play an online game while waiting for new books to come out. This multifaceted approach will nicely fit the expectations of many preteen mystery lovers. Add in some neat (if not especially stylish) writing – “he tackled her with so much force she just about ate the lawn” – and you have a book that promises a great deal for the series it introduces, while offering the members of its target audience just enough enticements to keep them coming back.


Bone, Book Eight: Treasure Hunters. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $19.99.

The Heartstone Trilogy, Book 3: Queen of Oblivion. By Giles Carwyn & Todd Fahnestock. Eos. $25.95.

     Sometimes it is the smaller people – both the characters and the readers – who end up with the bigger adventures. And there are few bigger than Jeff Smith’s Bone, which in the eighth of its 10 books is inexorably approaching its climax. Smith’s work gets steadily darker as the story advances, with the tremendously bleak landscapes shown in the prologue to Treasure Hunters a perfect metaphor for the increasingly bleak inner landscapes of so many characters. The Bone books were created in black and white, but Steve Hamaker’s color work in the Scholastic edition vastly enhances what was already a truly magnificent graphic-novel series. Flashes of humor remain even at this late stage of the epic tale, but Treasure Hunters has nothing rollicking about it: it is a story of privation and portents, danger and dragons, robbery and rat creatures, thugs and threats. Princess Thorn has by now grown into her role as warrior and potential queen, and she and her followers in the old city of Atheia are looking for ways to overthrow the evildoers who now control it, especially Lord Tarsil, enemy of the old rulers and of the dragons who long supported them. The Bone cousins are in the thick of things, with Smiley seeming less knuckleheaded than ever while Phoney continues his neverending search for wealth and people from whom to fleece it. Fone Bone, diminutive hero of the tale, remains its centerpiece and by now seems fully human even though he retains the appearance of an all-white plush toy. “The two worlds of the dreaming are out of balance,” one character warns here, and that means the worlds of living and dead are coming into contact in unseemly ways, with the Lord of the Locust bringing forces of evil ever closer to triumph – while Thorn learns of the mysterious Crown of Horns, which sits on the tipping point between the waking and dreaming worlds and keeps them in balance. But before Thorn can use her knowledge, Atheia comes under attack – and a grand epic battle is shaping up as this installment ends. It will be particularly difficult for young (or older) readers who do not already know the Bone saga to wait for the next book in the series – this one concludes with a real cliff-hanger.

     There were cliff-hanging endings of a different sort in the first two books of The Heartstone Trilogy as well: Heir of Autumn and Mistress of Winter. Now this heroic fantasy for adults moves smartly to its conclusion in Queen of Oblivion (which followers of the first books’ seasonal references might have expected to be called Queen of Spring or something similar). Heir of Autumn focused on Brophy, who ultimately sacrificed himself to save the city-state of Ohndarien and keep the force known as Black Emmeria at bay. In Mistress of Winter, Brophy’s concubine, the sorceress Shara, failed to free Brophy from the horrifying dream-sleep into which he had passed, but another sorceress – the mysterious and ambitious Arefaine Morgeon – succeeded, returning Brophy to the world as a vicious monster, deeply corrupted by all those years in a horrifying dreamworld. Things began to look worse and worse for Ohndarien – and are not much better in Queen of Oblivion, in which a sinister voice is leading Arefaine and the city-state itself toward doom. This voice is connected with evil within another city, Efften, and it falls to Brophy (who has fought back to heroism from the effects of the dreamworld) and Shara (who has fought off her own despair at what happened to Brophy) to find out what Efften’s silver towers hold and how to prevent Arefaine from enabling its return to the world. This brief description belies the complexity of Giles Carwyn and Todd Fahnestock’s plotting, and also gives short shrift to their intermingling of grand-scale issues of good and evil with more personal ones of love, sex and jealousy. Unfortunately, for all their strengths, Carwyn and Fahnestock ultimately offer little that has not appeared in heroic fantasy before. Again and again, cliché rears its dull head: “She had to keep moving or she would never make it.” “Anything that can be done can be undone.” “I never stopped loving you. Never.” “So what happens now?” Well, what happens now – or then, or anytime – is a series of separations, reunitings, battles, magical conflicts, confrontations, and all the trappings needed in a tale such as this. The problem is that there have been many tales such as this. Queen of Oblivion gets a (+++) rating for its plotting and some sure (if scarcely deep) characterization, but it remains firmly a genre novel, concluding a genre series that never aspires to interest anyone beyond readers already enthralled by many other stories of the same type.


Copland: Symphony No. 1; Short Symphony (No. 2); Dance Symphony. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

Copland: Symphony No. 3; Billy the Kid Suite. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Naxos. $8.99.

Anderson: Orchestral Music, Volume 5: Goldilocks (excerpts); Suite of Carols (version for woodwinds); Goldilocks: Lady in Waiting, waltz; Shall I Take My Heart, instrumental. Kim Criswell, soprano; William Dazeley, baritone; BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

     There is something quintessentially American, in very different ways, about Aaron Copland and Leroy Anderson. Copland is the American composer to many people, although in fact he was closer to being two composers: one attuned to popular idioms and ease of connection with the audience, the other more “difficult” and experimental in approach. Anderson, although classically trained, carved out an almost-pop-music niche for himself through his many short compositions for the Boston Pops Orchestra – and he was strongly in tune with the technology of his time, designing most of those short works to fit on one side of a 78-rpm vinyl record.

     Copland’s music has become international. The Bournemouth and New Zealand Symphony Orchestras play it as well and with as much verve as any American ensemble, and it scarcely matters that Marin Alsop is American by birth while James Judd is British: both show plenty of affinity for Copland’s infectious rhythms, his blend of harmony and dissonance, and his approach to orchestration. Alsop’s new Copland CD is especially fine: she seems to have a genuine personal connection with this music. The Symphony No. 1 is actually a 1925 arrangement of Copland’s 1924 Organ Symphony, without the organ, whose parts are taken sometimes by winds and sometimes by brass. Copland thought this work would be heard more often if it did not require an organ, but in fact the organ version is deservedly performed more frequently: without that instrument, the piece – even when played as well as it is by the Bournemouth Symphony – seems rather stolid and ordinary. Not so the Short Symphony (1933), essentially a one-movement work with three sections (fast-slow-fast) and complex rhythms that Alsop highlights very well indeed. As for the Dance Symphony, is it earlier than the other works here, dating to 1922 and derived largely from a ballet that Copland was inspired to create by the very first Dracula film, the silent classic Nosferatu. There is nothing particularly demonic in the music, though: it flows well, especially in the second of its three movements (“Dance of the Girl Who Moves as if in a Dream”), and offers a level of lyricism absent from the other symphonies on the Alsop CD.

     James Judd’s Copland disc has been available for several years but is worth reconsidering in light of Alsop’s new release. The reason is the Symphony No. 3, the only one written by Copland that really assumes classical proportions and style. Judd treats the symphony in interesting ways – which will seem idiosyncratic to those used to other performances. The Scherzo is highly dynamic and the Andantino unusually slow (although never to the point of dragging); and the finale, which incorporates Fanfare for the Common Man, is strongly rhythmic and manages to conclude in triumph without sounding as pompous as it often does under other conductors. Judd’s is an unusual reading of the symphony and a very effective one, especially after repeated hearings – which it deserves. And Judd’s Billy the Kid Suite is grand, dramatic and toe-tappingly exuberant by turns – an excellent performance all around.

     Leonard Slatkin’s performances of Leroy Anderson’s orchestral works in Naxos’ ongoing Anderson series are excellent as well, but the fifth volume of the sequence offers rather thin musical gruel and therefore gets a (+++) rating despite the sensitive conducting and the fine playing of the BBC Concert Orchestra. This is quite a short CD – only 52 minutes – and is devoted almost entirely to Anderson’s one semi-successful Broadway show, Goldilocks (which, despite the title, has only a passing relationship to the fairy tale). The problem here is that Anderson’s usual pithiness and bounce are largely wasted on ordinary tunes and straightforward melodic development. The CD includes a couple of the musical’s undistinguished songs and quite a few of its bouncy but not particularly inspired dance numbers – “The Pussy Foot,” which is more or less a Charleston, is perhaps the best. Separated on the CD from the 11-track set of excerpts are two alternative versions of Goldilocks pieces, neither of which is of more interest than the ones included in the main sequence. As it happens, the most attractive music here is the Suite of Carols for woodwinds, which seems to catch more of the Christmas spirit than Anderson’s similar suites for brass and strings (those being available elsewhere in this series). In general, the settings of carols do not show Anderson at his most creative, but they have a pleasant sound in the woodwind version and speak nicely of his skill as an orchestrator. In any comprehensive survey of a composer’s music, there are bound to be lower spots as well as higher ones; this volume does not showcase Anderson at his best, but this music is still worth having for anyone interested in collecting both the better-known and less-known works of a composer with a distinctive American musical voice.


Haydn: The Complete Symphonies. Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois; Northern Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Ward; Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl; Toronto Chamber Orchestra conducted by Keith Mallon; Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Béla Drahos; Capella Istropolitana conducted by Barry Wordsworth. Naxos. $149.99 (34 CDs).

     There is so much right in the music and the performances in this massive set, and so much wrong in the presentation, that buyers need to think long and hard about whether they will find it a delight or an ongoing frustration after they add it to their collections. Unfortunately, it is likely to turn out to be both.

     To say that this box of Haydn’s symphonies lacks a single conductor’s approach and focus is a vast understatement. There are seven orchestras and six conductors here, and no apparent rhyme or reason for the matching of a particular ensemble or conductor to any particular group of symphonies. On the other hand, all the orchestras are small in size and skilled in playing, and the now-pervasive understanding of performance practices of Haydn’s time means that every single version of a symphony here is idiomatic and nicely conceived – even without being played on period instruments. Furthermore, the use of a single orchestra and conductor for a Haydn cycle does not guarantee uniformity of approach: Adam Fischer’s fine 33-CD cycle with the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra (available on Brilliant Classics) was recorded over a 14-year period, and interpretations on the earlier recordings differ significantly in style and emphasis from those made later; besides which, the makeup of the orchestra – and its performance practices – changed during those 14 years as well. (Fischer himself has said that by the end of the cycle he would have liked to go back and do the earlier part again, using what he had learned between start and finish.)

     So if the use of multiple orchestras and conductors is not an inherent problem, what is? Well, the arrangement of Naxos’ CDs, for one thing: it is enormously frustrating, and shows clearly that there was no thought of creating a full cycle when the recordings were made (they date to as far back as 1988 and as recently as 2005). The sequencing of symphonies on these CDs is not so much irrational as nonexistent. Nos. 1-13 do show up in order. But after that, things are all over the place: Nos. 22, 29 and 60 on one disc; 25, 42 and 65 on another; 44, 88 and 104 on another; and so on. The final CD in this set ends up containing Nos. 97 and 98. For listeners who want to hear a particular symphony, this may be no big deal; but for ones who want to follow Haydn’s symphonic development (despite a few known inaccuracies in the numbering), this will be very off-putting. And to listen to a particular subset of symphonies can be genuinely irritating. Take the six “Paris” symphonies, for example: No. 82 is on CD 30, No. 83 on CD 32, No. 84 on CD 23, No. 85 on CD 33, and Nos. 86 and 87 on CD 20 – in reverse order. Of course, you can use a multi-CD player to program the works into the right order if you want to hear them in sequence, but rearranging these six symphonies’ 24 tracks is a chore that many listeners would likely prefer not to have to do.

     The information on the symphonies in the accompanying book is also presented in an annoying way, since this set of Haydn’s complete symphonies is just one of four “complete Haydn” collections that Naxos is issuing. All four sets – symphonies, concertos, string quartets and piano sonatas – are discussed in a single book, which surely helps Naxos keep the price of the sets low (this company has a long history of offering excellent performances on reasonably priced CDs) but which also smacks of an unwanted marketing effort, designed to get purchasers of any “complete Haydn” set to buy the others.

     This boxed set does have some bonus items that make it more attractive. The fact is that Haydn wrote symphonies or symphony-like works in addition to the accepted 104 that bear sequential numbers, and some of those rarely heard works are scattered among these CDs. The Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat, sometimes called Symphony No. 105, is on CD 4, and Symphonies Nos. 107 and 108 (also known as symphonies A and B) are on CD 22, along with a couple of bonus overtures (to La vera costanza and Lo speziale) – although there is nothing designated Symphony No. 106, and no explanation for the missing work (only one part of a symphony given that number has survived).

     The balancing act involved in deciding whether to buy this Haydn set is not a simple one. On a strictly musical basis, the set is top-notch, with all the ensembles and conductors having a fine sense of Haydn’s style and all the orchestras being the right size for the music – and versed in playing it appropriately. But living with this set will require constant compromises, because of the near-random arrangement of the symphonies on the CDs, the lack of an organizing principle determining which conductor and orchestra are associated with which works, and the complete absence of a singular viewpoint on Haydn’s works and on his tremendous progress as a symphonist throughout his career. Haydn’s symphonies, as a whole, are among the cornerstones of classical music, and anyone who knows only a few of them will find hidden gems aplenty in this complete set. But searching for those jewels will likely prove annoying, and providing your own organization for a 34-CD box that does not already offer it may make ownership more of a chore than it should be, and less of a joy.