January 29, 2015
Dragons at Crumbling Castle and Other Tales. By Terry Pratchett. Illustrations by Mark Beech. Clarion. $16.99.
Many years ago, when there were wolves in Wales – no, that’s not it. Once upon a time, or twice – no, not that either. Everyone comes from somewhere – that’s it. Everyone comes from somewhere, and where Terry Pratchett of Discworld fame comes from is Buckinghamshire, England, where once upon a time, or twice, back in the 1960s, a young Pratchett worked for the local newspaper, not only reporting on many and varied local events (none of them particularly significant) but also writing for the paper’s “Children’s Corner” under the pseudonym “Uncle Jim,” creating a wide variety of stories (some of them particularly significant, at least in retrospect).
Dragons at Crumbling Castle is, many years later, the result of Pratchett’s youthful indiscretions, so to speak. The 14 stories here were not intended for the ages (newspaper writing never is), but they were intended for those of a young age, and this book is therefore a marvelous introduction to the world (or worlds) of Terry, now Sir Terry and regaled with honors aplenty for his many and various works of more-recent times. There are a few direct tie-ins of these early stories to Pratchett’s books: “Tales of the Carpet People” and “Another Tale of the Carpet People” eventually led to Pratchett’s very first book, entitled, not surprisingly, The Carpet People. But most of the relationships between these short pieces and Pratchett’s later work are in the realm of sensibility rather than specific characters or themes. Just to stick with “Tales of the Carpet People” for a moment, for example, one character tells another, “Worthwhile things aren’t just there for the taking, you know,” and that sounds very much like later Pratchett (although in his later books, worthwhile things are sometimes just there for the taking). And in the same story, which is a journey-to-a-new-land sort of thing with echoes of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Pratchett writes, “Something large and black seemed to be dancing around the bottom of the hair, blowing its nose menacingly.” And that too sounds a bit, just a bit, like later Pratchett.
The thing is, Dragons at Crumbling Castle is fun both for people who know later Pratchett and for those who encounter him here for the first time. None of these stories is up to the level of his later work, but so what? The themes of unlikely heroes, somewhat dangerous danger that usually is not too dangerous, and all sorts of unexpected narrative nooks and crannies, are in their formative stages in these tales; they would emerge in their full splendor only later. Dragons at Crumbling Castle is juvenilia, but it is mighty entertaining juvenilia.
So here we have the title story, set in King Arthur’s time, featuring a reluctant boy sort-of knight, a not-very-effective opposing knight, and a decidedly inept wizard who is nothing at all like the later Rincewind but might be a very distant relation. We have a heroic tortoise who sets out to see the world and conquers an asp along the way – a tortoise named Hercules. We have a particularly short and particularly funny story called “Hunt the Snorry” in which a large band of adventurers searches for something known only by its name and does, alas, eventually find it. We meet “Edwo, the Boring Knight,” “The Abominable Snowman,” and “The Blackbury Monster.” We experience the nefarious machinations of Baron von Teu as he does dirty deeds to make sure his gas-powered automobile defeats the steam-powered one of Sir Henry Toggitt, which pulls a little coal tender behind it, as shown in one of more than 100 hilarious and perfectly appropriate drawings by Mark Beech. “The Big Race” includes not only gasoline and steam cars but also a “mechanical car, with its eight drivers still hauling on the big key,” and “an electric car, an elastic-driven car, a compressed-air truck, a hot air balloon-powered bus, and two sail-powered bicycles.”
What is abundantly clear in this collection of early Pratchett is that many years ago, when there may or may not have been wolves in Wales but there were surely newspapers in Buckinghamshire, there arose the initial stirrings of an imagination that grew in later decades to produce some of the most prodigiously entertaining books to be written in modern English. Whether Dragons at Crumbling Castle is a young reader’s first introduction to Pratchett or an older reader’s opportunity to examine the early work of a satirist who has been compared with the greats of centuries past, it is a book that gives great pleasure on its own while also whetting one’s appetite for examining or re-examining later, larger-scale Pratchett – writing that is surely more polished, finely wrought and weighty, but is scarcely more delightful.
Red: A Crayon's Story. By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Finding Spring. By Carin Berger. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Leopardpox! By Orna Landau. Illustrated by Omer Hoffmann. Clarion. $16.99.
Be true to yourself and don’t trust labels. Those are the messages of Red, a very clever book by Michael Hall that features a crayon that isn’t what it seems to be and a variety of other crayons that serve as a combination of family members and a sort of Greek chorus. The crayon is called Red – that’s what his red paper label says – but Red is actually blue, so no matter how hard he tries, everything he creates comes out blue. His parents try to help him live up to his Red label, as do his grandparents (who are much shorter than the parents, since crayons wear down as they get older – a very clever visualization). But the family members, like Red’s friends of various colors, all see Red only in terms of what he is supposed to be, not what he actually is. This could easily be a heavy-handed book about discrimination, but it does not come across that way, because everyone really likes Red and wants to help him. Scarlet shows him how to draw a strawberry, but of course Red’s is not red. Yellow arranges for them to draw an orange together, but naturally the orange is green, since blue + yellow = green. Lots of other crayons have comments and suggestions about Red or for him, but nothing they say is very helpful: “He’s got to press harder,” says Army Green, and optimistic Sunshine says, “Give him time. He’ll catch on.” Amber actually wonders if Red is really red, but Hazelnut says, “Don’t be silly. It says red on his label.” And everyone accepts that. Everyone, that is, until Red meets a crayon called Berry, who has drawn a boat and asks Red to make an ocean. Red says he can’t, since oceans aren’t red, but he agrees to try, and lo and behold, he finds his true color at last – and is soon drawing bluebells, blue jeans, blueberries and much more. So now all the formerly skeptical crayons admire his work, with Yellow planning “to make a green lizard with him” and Brown saying he always liked Red’s blue strawberries. Thus everything ends happily and amusingly – but there are some good lessons buried not too deeply in Red, the most important being to learn who you are and be who you are, no matter how others may label you.
If Red is trying to find himself, a little bear named Maurice is trying to find spring. Maurice is so young that he has never seen spring, and when his mother says he has to sleep first, then goes to sleep herself, Maurice is too bouncy and enthusiastic to rest, much less to wait for the season he wants so much to see. Carin Berger uses delightful cut-paper illustrations to show Maurice searching for spring, thinking about all its wonders, asking the various animals where it is and how to find it, and being blissfully oblivious to others’ preparations for winter, such as Squirrel burying a big acorn and Robin flying south. On and on Maurice goes, through some especially attractive woods (a number of the trees have bits of words on them, from the paper with which they were made – an odd and somehow very homey touch). Eventually, Maurice feels “an icy sting on his nose” and finds that a beautiful crystal has landed there. It is so pretty that it must be spring, he thinks, and he chases after the crystals as they continue to fall, not knowing what they are but being convinced that they are spring. Eventually Maurice puts a lot of them together and has – a snowball. He takes it home to the den where Mama is sleeping peacefully, secure in the knowledge that he has found spring at last and will show it to Mama when they wake up. When they do wake up, it really is spring, but of course the snowball has long since melted. But is Maurice downhearted? Not at all – he leads all the other animals to the Great Hill, where he stood during the snowstorm that he thought was a shower of spring, and everyone sees that the hill is now covered with flowers and spring has really and truly arrived. Maurice’s naïveté and charm are thoroughly winning in a book that exudes springtime warmth even in the middle of winter.
One thing that happens to kids in winter is that they get sick: all that indoor time around other children, some of them ill even if not symptomatic, seems to bring out more than a season’s fair share of colds, flu, upset stomachs and other ills. A good book to cheer up a homebound child is Orna Landau’s odd and exuberant Leopardpox! It is the story of a little girl named Sadie who doesn’t feel quite well enough to go to kindergarten – even though she doesn’t have a sore throat, rash or tummy ache. Sadie just feels strange – so strange, in fact, that soon “her fingernails grew longer and longer” and “her teeth grew sharper and sharper” and her mother realizes that Sadie has, yes, leopardpox! Far from being a stay-in-bed-and-rest condition, this one causes the little girl, now fully transformed into a small leopard whose bounciness and delightful expressions are well-rendered by Omer Hoffmann, to leap and jump and climb the curtains and knock things over and generally have a wonderful time frolicking about. What can Mama do about this? She gathers her three other children – boys named Gordon, Jordan and Bannister – and heads for the pediatrician’s office. But leopard Sadie makes a major mess there, and the doctor says he does not take care of leopards – so Mama and the boys visit a veterinarian. He is delighted by the “healthy leopard cub,” but when he finds out that Sadie is really a little girl, he says there is nothing he can do – although he does ask whether perhaps Mama would like to keep her as a “very cute and special leopard.” Where to go for help? The family next tries the zoo, but Sadie refuses to go into a cage, and Mama yells so loudly at the zookeepers who try to put her in one that the men (and several animals, including a couple of real leopards) cower behind a tree as Mama and her boys walk off in a huff. Everyone in the family eventually gives up on getting help and returns home, where Mama cuddles and feeds and strokes the little leopard until, later at night, Sadie turns slowly back into a sleepy girl. And Mama snuggles happily into bed with Sadie, except that, well, now Mama feels a little funny… Amusingly absurd and absurdly amusing, Leopardpox! turns an ordinary sick day into something very special both for the fictional Sadie and, potentially, for real-world boys and girls who may be feeling a touch under the weather and could use a creative way to deal with the blahs.
Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love after the Big Breakup. By Susan J. Elliott. Da Capo. $14.99.
The underlying assumption of Getting Back Out There is that readers are already familiar with Susan Elliott’s previous book, Getting Past Your Breakup, and/or her ongoing blog on the same subject. Readers who do not know Elliott’s other work will not get far here – Elliott says at the start that this book is a sequel, and it is peppered with comments such as, “If you have done the GPYB life inventory, review your work.” It is theoretically possible to read Getting Back Out There as a standalone book, but its value will be much diminished on that basis. It is really an extension of what came before – in which sense it is much like some post-breakup relationships.
Elliott, an attorney and certified grief counselor who gives seminars and motivational speeches, sets out to create something that goes well beyond the traditional “just throw yourself back out there” approach to dating and hopefully finding love after a breakup. Her underlying point is nothing new: we bring ourselves, all of ourselves, to all our relationships, which means that we need to understand why we choose certain kinds of unsatisfactory partners again and again if we are going to break out of a negative pattern. This is the stuff of psychology and psychoanalysis, not relationship-advice books, and Elliott does not delve very deeply into it, although she does give some rather superficial examples of how the past – dating back to one’s childhood – can and does influence one’s adult relationship behavior.
The main point of Getting Back Out There, though, is to find ways to get over the past and forge a new and better future. Again, this is nothing new or unusual, but Elliott creates a structure that she says can help people reentering the dating scene. This is essentially a combination of understanding the past by making extensive notes about it (she uses the word “inventory” in several contexts) and deciding what you want the future to be (which involves, among other things, some rather surface-level notions, such as writing daily affirmations). One chapter subhead, “How Early Experiences Cloud Adult Experiences,” really stands for what the entire book is about. “Being real instead of putting on a show is a very difficult change to make,” Elliott writes in a chapter on sex, but the comment actually applies throughout the book.
Elliott takes readers through “the five Rs” of rebuilding (which would be a sixth R) after a breakup. They are Readiness (“make a proactive and conscious decision that you are ready to date”); Rejection (“taking a new view of rejection as something that is beneficial is important”); Recycling (“you feel as if you just broke up yesterday and all the emotions of loss come flooding in”); Rebounding (“going into another relationship right out of the old one without working through a breakup”); and Retreating (“moving back to the cocoon that you left to peek outside and see what was happening”). Elliott quotes various people, of many ages, describing how these stages feel: a large part of Getting Back Out There focuses on telling readers they are not alone by offering them comments from many other post-breakup men and women. Another large part involves frequently reminding readers that their needs, wants and desires will change over time – for example, “being ready means different things to different people, and the first question to ask is, What does it mean to me at this particular time? Your answer to this question can, and should, evolve over time.”
Elliott tries hard to provide practical solutions for post-breakup people, approaches to move life forward after analyzing what went wrong in the past. But not everyone will find her suggestions comfortable outside a protective therapeutic environment. For example, she recommends creating a sexual inventory that includes seven stages of recollection and analysis. Just one of them is: “For your last partner, write about any sexual act you performed that made you uncomfortable. Think back on other partners and list all such experiences.” Clearly some people, based partly on their age and partly on how outgoing and/or familiar with therapy they are, will find this sort of written self-inventory, sexual or otherwise, more comfortable and useful than others will. Also, Getting Back Out There is so filled with “sometimes” and “it’s okay” statements that readers seeking any sort of overt guidance will not find it here: Elliott’s whole point is to guide yourself to new relationships (or a new relationship), and that is a laudable goal. But it is not nearly as easy to reach in a careful and systematic way as Elliott suggests. For instance, she briefly discusses “emotional unavailability in both men and women” and can only say, “If you’re hanging in there with someone who has commitment issues, revisit your life inventory to see if this is a pattern and decide if it needs to change.” She does discuss the possibility of giving a commitment-phobe an ultimatum, but this gets confusing when she says “do not deliver one if you’re not ready to act” and also says “don’t deliver an ultimatum that is merely a line in the sand.”
Elliott deserves credit for tackling so many issues involved in post-breakup life and for handling them in a plainspoken way. Her repeated advice to “accept it, change it, or leave” certainly makes theoretical sense, however difficult it can be to implement while in the throes of a relationship. Her willingness to discuss everything from specific sexual issues to the right time to introduce children to a new partner is admirable. On balance, her statement that “this is a different kind of dating book” is accurate, and Getting Back Out There is a useful counterbalance to more-superficial books about dating and mating. Its heavy reliance on self-knowledge and self-exploration, however, makes it more difficult to read, and its suggestions more difficult to implement, than Elliott acknowledges. There is, after all, a reason that so many people with personal difficulties and confusions, including relationship-oriented ones, seek professional counseling instead of trying to figure things out entirely on their own.
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $49.99 (4 CDs).
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3, “Organ”; Cyprès et Lauriers; Danse macabre. Vincent Warnier, organ; Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1; The Rock. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $16.99.
Different composers have looked for very different things when creating symphonies. Schubert largely explored the intricacies of orchestration and some new methods of handling key relationships and formal structure in his first six symphonies – although it is a mistake to consider all six as a group, since they have strong individual characters, such as the Mozartean chamber-like delicacy of No. 5 and the considerable influence of Rossini in No. 6. After his first six symphonic works, written between 1813 (when the composer was just 16) and 1818, Schubert dithered about quite a bit while trying to figure out what he wanted to do with symphonic form and what it would best express for him. His very rarely performed Symphony No. 7 in E, which exists in short score but of which only 110 bars were orchestrated, is larger-scale and reaches for far broader expressiveness than his earlier works. It clearly marks a transition to the world of the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” symphonies, which, however, are sometimes given the numbers 7 and 8 (as indeed they are in the new Tudor recording of the cycle) – as if the E major work did not exist. Actually, the better numbers for the latest symphonies are 8 and 9, even though this points up the glaring gap in Schubert symphonic recordings – because the “Unfinished” did not spring from nowhere and mark a dramatic departure for Schubert; rather, it was a leap forward from the platform of Symphony No. 7 in E. Jonathan Nott’s recordings of the Schubert symphonies date to 2003, except for his reading of No. 9, which is from 2006. All the performances show the ever-versatile Bamberger Symphoniker at its usual best: the early symphonies are fleet, bright, wearing their heritage of Haydn and Mozart (with hints of Beethoven, notably in No. 4) to very good effect. Even when Nott overdoes tempos here and there, as in pushing the third movement of No. 1 or keeping the finale of No. 5 and first part of the finale of No. 6 unusually slow, the orchestra never flags or becomes ragged, and its sound fits the music like the proverbial glove. In the final two symphonies, Nott, who is especially skilled with the intricacies of large-scale symphonic music (Mahler’s, for example), elicits from the orchestra a fullness and intensity beyond what it shows in the earlier symphonies. The result is a full-bodied “Unfinished” in which the two completed movements contrast very well in sound and structure despite the fact that they are essentially in the same tempo (Allegro moderato and Andante con moto). Fascinatingly, Nott includes after the second movement of this work the first nine bars of the third movement – the only ones that Schubert scored. There actually exists a continuation of this movement, up to the Trio, and it has even been recorded (the nine scored bars turning into piano-only ones afterwards in a memorable reading by Max Goberman); but just hearing the nine scored bars under Nott is enough to make listeners who know this highly familiar music wonder, or wonder yet again, where Schubert might have taken the symphony – or whether he considered it actually finished in its two-movement form. Nott’s recording concludes with a truly monumental performance of the “Great C Major,” a work in which what Schubert was seeking was clear: he wanted to move the symphony beyond Beethoven, and he certainly did so in this very long, towering work (which lasts over an hour in Nott’s rendition, which – happily – takes all the repeats). It was this symphony that was so influential on later creators of gigantic symphonic works, notably Bruckner, and Nott gives the music plenty of opportunity to open up, expand and fill listeners’ ears and minds. Nothing drags, but everything gets lots of time to develop and sound out in the uniquely Schubertian mixture of forward drive and leisurely flowing thematic beauty. Schubert left so many pieces of symphonies strewn about that it is uncertain whether he ever found everything he sought from the medium – but in his final symphony, he certainly did find the beginning of a path to the future of symphonic music.
What Saint-Saëns sought in his third numbered symphony (he wrote five in all, two being unnumbered and unpublished) was made clear by the composer himself: he wanted to expand the use of instruments in the orchestra by including both an organ and a piano (played both two-hands and four-hands) within the usual complement of orchestral instruments. Neither keyboard instrument dominates the symphony; indeed, despite the “Organ” subtitle (Saint-Saëns actually said “with organ”), the organ enters only in the second movement and appears only there and in the finale – although because of the work’s innovative structure (the four movements are grouped into two sets of two), the use of both organ and piano is structurally significant throughout. Written in 1886 and dedicated to Liszt, who died shortly before the symphony’s première, this piece uses many Lisztian techniques, including the movement grouping and the evolution throughout the symphony of a cyclic theme. Even the inclusion of the organ recalls Liszt’s instrumentation of the symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht (“The Battle of the Huns”). However, Saint-Saëns’ symphony flows in a way recognizably that of its composer, and it is this flow that Leonard Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon bring out particularly well in a new Naxos recording. The fine organ work by Vincent Warnier fits the overall mood of the symphony well, ringing forth when called for and remaining in the background as part of the ensemble elsewhere. In all, this is a highly effective performance of a symphony that is quite different from the composer’s other four and that also differs significantly from most symphonic works of its time. The organ gets greater prominence in Cyprès et Lauriers, a much-less-known Saint-Saëns piece written quite late in the composer’s life, in 1919. This is a work lamenting the losses of World War I in its first movement and celebrating the Allies’ triumph in its second – all in the context of something like a concertino for organ and orchestra, with the organ assuming greater prominence here than in Symphony No. 3. Warnier is front-and-center here in a way that he is not in the symphony, encouraged to dominate the music and doing so with forthright strength. He plays an organ with a variegated history: it was originally one of the great Cavaillé-Coll instruments, built in 1878; it was reconstructed in 1939 in a new location; then it was moved again, this time to the Lyon Auditorium, in 1977, where it was restored in 2013. Much changed and expanded through its various incarnations, the organ shows its full capabilities in Danse macabre, whose 1874 original was transcribed for organ in 1919 by Edward Lemare – the result being a version that Warnier himself took up and redid in 2004 to showcase the capabilities of the Lyon Auditorium organ, which indeed sounds enormously impressive in this tour de force.
The organ seems particularly well-suited not only to Danse macabre but also to the Dies irae, which Saint-Saëns both uses and parodies in his Symphony No. 3. The Dies irae did not obsess the French composer, however: he merely used it as one important thematic element. It did, on the other hand, become an obsession of Rachmaninoff, in whose Symphony No. 1 (1893-95) it is prominent – as it was to be in many of the composer’s later works. This is the symphony whose failure at its première was so serious that it precipitated a mental collapse that made it nearly impossible for Rachmaninoff to continue composing until after he was treated for three years by Nikolai Dahl using the then-new techniques of psychotherapy. The symphony is somewhat cruder than Rachmaninoff’s two later ones, but it does not deserve its comparative neglect: it shares the other symphonies’ power and passion as well as their orchestral sound. The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln under Dmitrij Kitajenko pulls out all the stops – an organ metaphor, though this symphony does not use that instrument (although it does include snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine and bass drum). The result of Kitajenko’s care and intensity is a performance that shows the composer’s developing musical personality while also tying the symphony clearly to Tchaikovsky, whose Manfred Symphony Rachmaninoff had transcribed for piano duet in 1894. Rachmaninoff’s First does ramble and meander somewhat, but it has considerable power from its opening bars and evinces a sureness of orchestration that shows just how capably the composer, then in his early 20s, could already manage a large ensemble. The work is paired on this new Oehms CD with The Rock, an even earlier piece (1893) and an even more Tchaikovskian one. Rachmaninoff actually played The Rock on piano for Tchaikovsky and others, and the older composer had asked to include it in a European concert tour that did not occur because of Tchaikovsky’s death. It is easy to see why Tchaikovsky took to this atmospheric work, which draws scenically both on the poetic notion of a cloud resting upon a rock and on a Chekhov story in which a young girl hears an older man’s life story during a blizzard. Rachmaninoff shows himself here to be an adept tone-painter, and Kitajenko fully explores the coloristic aspects of the score while allowing it to flow freely through its several moods. Kitajenko recently completed an excellent Tchaikovsky symphonic cycle and now seems poised to do an equally fine job with the Rachmaninoff symphonies and other orchestral works.
Lehár: Der Graf von Luxemburg. Marco Vassalli, Mark Hamman, Eva Schneidereit, Daniel Wagner, Astrid Kessler, Marie-Christine Haase, Tadeusz Jedras, Marcin Tlałka, Stefan Kreimer; Chor des Theaters Osnabrück and Osnabrücker Symphonieorchester conducted by Daniel Inbal. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
The most consistently tuneful of all Franz Lehár’s operettas, Der Graf von Luxemburg was the last to be completed: Lehár added the final element of the music, the third-act aria for Gräfin Stasa Kokozow, in 1937, three years after finishing his final stage work, Giuditta. The original version of Der Graf von Luxemburg dates to 1909 and was highly popular in its time, when it was the composer’s first major hit after The Merry Widow (1905). The huge continuing success of the earlier operetta has left Der Graf von Luxemburg largely in obscurity in much of the theatrical world, although it remains popular in Germany. Listeners discovering it for the first time are in for an enormous treat, because there is not a single less-than-inspired tune in the work, and it is wonderfully balanced between a serious romance and a lighthearted one that provides plenty of opportunities for amusing ditties and marvelously ear-catching dance tunes – including several of Lehár’s sensual, swooning and emotionally gripping waltzes.
There exists, believe it or not, an original-cast recording of Der Graf von Luxemburg: excerpts released by Deutsche Grammophon in 1909, conducted by the composer. For the full work in a modern recording, the very best performance dates to 1968, with Willy Mattes conducting the Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Graunke Symphony Orchestra, and a stellar cast led by a sure-voiced and emotionally involved Nicolai Gedda and including Lucia Popp, Renate Holm, Willi Brokmeier, Kurt Böhme and Gisela Litz. The new CPO performance is not at this level, but it is a fine one nevertheless, providing a chance to hear some up-and-coming singers and discover, or hear once again, just how well Der Graf von Luxemburg stands the test of time. The work actually needs little updating to appeal to a modern audience. The principal change that an enterprising modern director should make is to bring to the fore the sexually charged subtext that explains the two main characters’ motivations. This means showing René, the title character (Marco Vassalli in the new recording), as a wastrel who has not only squandered his family’s money and honor but has also indulged in a long series of meaningless affairs. The opera singer Angèle (Astrid Kessler), for her part, needs to be shown not as flighty but as world-weary after her many liaisons – thus explaining why she is focused on leaving the stage and becoming a respectable princess by marrying the much older, love-besotted Fürst (Prince) Basil Basilowitsch (Mark Hamman). This approach would fully explain why – when René and Angèle have their sham marriage so that she can attain the noble rank required for her to marry Basil after divorcing the “marriage Count” – the two suddenly become thoughtful and inward-focused, showing depths not apparent in their characters before, as they wonder whether they are allowing the süßer goldige Traum of true love to slip away forever.
The new recording, whose singers lack the vocal acting ability of those in the Mattes version, does not make this subtext clear, so the “sham marriage” changes from amusing to serious rather too abruptly. But that is a common misstep in recordings and stagings of Der Graf von Luxemburg. Another issue here is that Hamman plays Basil very broadly indeed, turning him into an oaf along the lines of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. This is a justifiable interpretation but not a particularly appealing one, since it transforms Angèle into a pure gold-digger (a role which she certainly does fill in part) and makes her plan to marry Basil seem even less upstanding than it is. On the other hand, Hamman’s approach makes for some easy laughs – at least for those who can follow the German dialogue, since CPO once again provides no libretto and only the barest, very inadequate plot synopsis.
The second couple in Der Graf von Luxemburg does not serve a parallel role to that of the first, as Camille and Valenciennes do for Danilo and Hanna in The Merry Widow. Instead, Armand (Daniel Wagner) and Juliette (Marie-Christine Haase) live a life that is more carefree (despite Juliette’s newfound longing for the respectability of marriage) and more overtly Bohemian, encapsulated by the ditty Wir bummeln durch’s Leben, was schert uns das Ziel (“We wander through life, and ‘who cares?’ is our goal”) – which is brought back at the operetta’s conclusion to send the audience home in the most festive of moods. Wagner’s voice is barely adequate for his part, but the rest of the soloists handle their music very well, if at times a trifle shakily. Eva Schneidereit, whose role as dea ex machina in the third act makes the happy conclusion possible, deserves special mention for her combination of battle-axe intensity and misplaced girlishness. The chorus and orchestra are just fine: Daniel Inbal, who emphasizes the many leitmotif uses that knit Der Graf von Luxemburg together so well, keeps the whole production moving smartly along – as, indeed, it practically does on its own because of the wealth of wonderful tunes that tumble over each other from start to finish. This is an extraordinary operetta, and although the performance here is not quite at the highest level, it serves the music very well and will be a revelation for listeners who think The Merry Widow, because of its wholly deserved enormous popularity, must perforce contain the very best musical writing of which Lehár was capable.
January 22, 2015
Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution. By Mara Rockliff. Pictures by Vincent X. Kirsch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
A Violin for Elva. By Mary Lyn Ray. Illustrated by Tricia Tusa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
A wonderful, much-simplified retelling of one of the great stories of the American Revolution, Mara Rockliff’s Gingerbread for Liberty! contains so many improbable events that it reads like pure fiction – all the more so because of the highly innovative cut-paper illustrations by Vincent X. Kirsch, which give the whole book the sheen of a fairy tale. Yet the book hews remarkably closely to fact in its tale of a German-born American colonist who so loved his adopted country that he volunteered to fight for independence when he was 55 years old – only to be turned down as a fighter and asked instead to ply his trade as a baker to feed the hungry Continental Army. Yes, as the book says, Christopher Ludwick (or Ludwig) really did induce Hessian mercenaries, fighting for the British, to desert and join the American side – where they would be well-fed and have a chance to settle in Philadelphia, as Ludwick had, and make better lives for themselves. Yes, he did go behind enemy lines to persuade Hessians to defect. After the war ended, he did bake 6,000 pounds of bread to feed the defeated Redcoats. Besides all that, what did not even fit into Rockliff’s book was his marriage to an Indian princess (his wife gets only a brief mention); George Washington’s gift of a handwritten certificate of good conduct to a man Washington called “my honest friend”; and Ludwick’s tireless efforts after the war to help the poor, sick, and others in need. Even without those elements, this book is packed with fascination. Ludwick really did make a fortune as a gingerbread baker and confectioner in Philadelphia. He really did sneak into a Hessian camp (on Staten Island, New York) and persuade some mercenaries to desert and move to Philadelphia. And he really was on good and personal terms with Washington. Even the fanciful elements of the book make sense: Rockliff imagines Ludwick rowing to a Hessian camp while thinking the German words for “revolution,” “independence” and “liberty” – and he likely did something very much of that sort. She imagines that he may have made gingerbread as well as ordinary bread for Cornwallis’ troops – and while no one knows if he did, he was, after all, known as an excellent gingerbread maker, so this is possible. The story has a wealth of information told with a wealth of humor – for example, the illustration of very tall and very lean Hessians bending eagerly toward the short, plump, moon-lit figure of Ludwick is an especially amusing image. The book has fine bonuses, too, including an author’s note that gives additional information on Ludwick, and a recipe for gingerbread cookies that may not be 18th-century-authentic but that can be a lot of fun for young readers and their families to try.
The deliciousness is of a different sort – a rather bittersweet one – in Mary Lyn Ray’s A Violin for Elva, a story about wishes that eventually come true when it is almost (but, luckily, not quite) too late. Elva is a little girl who hears music in her head and wants a violin so she can make more of it. But her parents, for reasons that are not very clear, refuse to get her one (kids who read the book are likely to ask why not, and since Ray does not explain, adult readers should consider possible scenarios). So Elva, instead of asking for an instrument again, simply pretends she has one, “performing” with sports equipment, her toothbrush and anything else she can get her hands on, “playing music only she could hear.” Her parents never reappear after their refusal to get Elva a violin, so their reaction to all this is unknown. Instead, Ray traces Elva quickly from childhood to adulthood, when she has “appointments and important meetings” but still longs for a violin. Elva regales herself with recorded music (today’s parents may have to explain vinyl records to today’s kids) and talks with her dog to keep herself in touch with something other than her own feelings (she lives alone and certainly does not look happy in Tricia Tusa’s illustrations). Eventually, after deciding it is never too late to indulge in a childhood dream, Elva buys herself a violin – and soon finds that it is far from easy to play. Despite her determination to learn on her own, she is disappointed again and again – until she finally gets up the courage to buy lessons from a violin teacher. And then she does learn to play – maybe not exceptionally well, but well enough to fulfill her childhood wish. The picture of the teacher’s students playing together – all of them young children except for adult Elva – is the most touching in the book, and rather sad as well for what it says about all the years Elva lost. But it is not the final picture – indeed, the one just afterwards, illustrating the words, “Elva was making music,” is as joyous as can be, showing Elva completely captured and enraptured by her own ability to play the violin at last. This is a sweetly meant book that is less immediately uplifting than are most picture books for young readers. The front and back covers show sheet-music excerpts from Mozart’s well-known serenade, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”), and in a sense, that is what A Violin for Elva is about: the chance to make music after so many years, before night ultimately falls on one’s life. This is a more-thoughtful, more-cautionary message than is typical in children’s books, a fact to which parents should be sensitive – especially if their kids, like Elva, ask to play a musical instrument when they are young enough to have many decades of enjoyment ahead of themselves.
The Polar Bear Scientists. By Peter Lourie. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.
Hold Fast. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $6.99.
Here are two paperback reissues that give readers a chance to consider anew some interesting factual and fictional works – or encounter the material for the first time. The Polar Bear Scientists, originally published in 2012 in the “Scientists in the Field” series, is built around interviews with biologist Steven Amstrup, “the godfather of Alaskan polar bear research for the past thirty years.” Amstrup talks not only about climate change, for which the polar bear has become a sort of poster child, but also about the history of studies of the largest bears in the world, the capture-release-and-recapture program that makes modern scientific study of them possible, the use of radio collars to track bears that move between polar nations, and more. Other scientists and support personnel, such as George Durner and Kristin Simac, discuss the bears as well, and all are seen with bears, with the equipment used to catch and track them, and in the laboratory and office settings where data are entered, assembled and correlated. Peter Lourie’s words and photos clearly depict the difficult conditions under which scientists work with the bears – and the frigid land where the bears thrive, or try to. Some photos tell the story in ways that are more immediately dramatic than the text: a female with three cubs trying to scare off the scientists’ helicopter, a bear print that is elevated because Arctic winds have blown away the lighter surrounding snow, a female bear lying in snow as a scientist prepares gear to weigh and measure her, yearling male bears roughhousing, and of course some adorable cubs. The sorts of decisions the scientists face are clearly explained. A missing collar, for example, needs to be located if at all possible. “Of course it’s expensive to go find a distant collar, with the cost of fuel and time, but it’s equally if not more important to find a collar in order to determine whether a bear has died or has just dropped it.” A photo showing scientists with pickaxes trying to break through ice to dig up a collar gives some idea of what is involved in retrieval. The Polar Bear Scientists tells as much about the people who study these bears as it does about the bears themselves: the humans are concerned, dedicated and meticulous in their work. The global-warming debate has continued since this book’s original publication, driven more by political considerations than by hard science – but Amstrup puts it into perspective after Lourie points out that the bears have gone through at least two periods that were warmer than the current one. In those earlier warm periods, says Amstrup, “we didn’t have nearly as many humans out there competing with bears and otherwise affecting their security. …[A]s temperatures rise and habitat is reduced, polar bears are going to be competing with a lot of human uses of their environment.” The scientists’ worry comes through not as agenda-motivated but as genuine, well-intentioned and transcending politics.
The intentions are certainly good as well in Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast, a novel first published in 2013. But aside from first and last sections called “Ice,” this book has nothing in common with the study of polar bears. It is instead a study of people, in a cold city that is nevertheless warmer than the bears’ Arctic habitat: Chicago. Balliett’s (+++) book is somewhat too enamored of its own cleverness – for example, aside from the “Ice” parts, the book contains 12 sections that all have “C” titles (“Click,” “Crash,” “Cling,” “Clutch,” and so forth), with each word defined in several ways before each section begins. As in her earlier books, Balliett looks into the past for elements of this one, which springs from a major diamond heist in 2003. But unlike her prior novels, which at their best were fascinatingly art-focused, Hold Fast is essentially the simple story of a family sundered and eventually reunited. Balliett uses the story as a framework for advocating, in a passing and rather simplistic way, various causes; for example, she writes, in a note about homelessness at the book’s end, that the solution to this major societal issue is a simple matter of matching those without houses to abandoned and foreclosed buildings – a “solution” whose overwhelming naïveté is less than charming. The book itself does have charm, though, even if it comes across as somewhat too contrived. The basic family unit consists of Dashel (Dash) Pearl; his wife, Summer; son, Jubilation (Jubie); and daughter, Early, the book’s protagonist. The mystery here emerges quickly, as Dash tosses out some apparently unimportant (but perhaps crucial) number problems from a poem by Langston Hughes, and shortly thereafter vanishes mysteriously, leaving behind a notebook containing various numbers and a final line, “Must research number rhythms.” The disappearance, the notebook and Hughes are all recurring themes, along with the issues of what a home really is, what homelessness means to those who experience or fear experiencing it, and how people make it through extremely difficult times. Balliett goes out of her way to show how wonderful homeless-shelter operators and volunteers are: “If one of you gets sick, we’ll connect you with medical care. Chicago HOPES, a wonderful after-school tutoring organization, keeps a room here with books and games in it, a place to get homework help and some one-on-one attention.” And so on. The good guys here are so good – and the bad ones so bad – that Hold Fast is more unidimensional than Balliett’s other books; and the ongoing advocacy, however well-meant and justifiable based on Balliett’s sociopolitical views, gives the book more of a pamphlet’s stridency than is really good for it. The characters become types more than fully formed individuals as a result, and while they endure and overcome hardship, and Balliett pulls the plot strands together expertly, the overall feeling of this book is that it has a point to make rather than a story to tell. Hold Fast is well written, but its narrative is ultimately the victim of its author’s good intentions.
Living Candida-Free: 100 Recipes and a 3-Stage Program to Restore Your Health and Vitality—Conquer the Hidden Epidemic That’s Making You Sick. By Ricki Heller, PhD, RHN, with Andrea Nakayama, CNC, CNE. Da Capo. $18.99.
Nowadays diet is the source of all evil and, at the same time, the source of all that is good – provided you obey rules, restrictions and approaches set down by whatever dietary leader and set of instructions you choose to follow. The fact that this makes food consumption seem a lot like religion is no accident: in both fields, people with certain beliefs are convinced that they have the only correct solution to all the ills of humanity and that if only everyone would do what they do, everyone would be better for it.
Thankfully, dietary conflicts have not risen to the level of religious ones, but there is certainly plenty of angst and anger to be had in groups that include individuals who are omnivores, others who are vegans, others following the Mediterranean or paleo prescription, others eating gluten-free – you get the idea. In so fractured a field, it is no surprise that various people professing (or demonstrating) various degrees of expertise cannot wait to showcase their knowledge and recommendations to the like-minded – which does not mean that anyone who is not a member of that particular congregation will be converted by any of these all-knowing tomes.
And so we have Ricki Heller’s Living Candida-Free, which seeks to solve a problem that most people who chug along treating food as fuel probably never knew existed. This is the proliferation of candida yeast, a normal part of the digestive tract that can sometimes grow out of control and be responsible, Heller argues, for everything from digestive dysfunction to chronic fatigue. The science here is murky, to say the least, but people who have been told to watch out for candida, or those who have had candida infections (which are nothing to sneer at: candida is the world’s most-common cause of fungal infections), will surely want to give this book at least a once-over. Heller, an associate editor of Simply Gluten-Free magazine (assisted in this book by nutritionist Andrea Nakayama), follows a familiar dietary-advice arc: explain the problem (“Candida-Related Complex”); offer an upbeat solution to it (“Rebalancing Your Body Through Food and Lifestyle”); include easy-to-understand acronyms (“ACD” for “anti-candida diet”); show how to set up your food-preparation area to take advantage of the recommendations being presented (“Your ACD Pantry and Ingredient Substitutions”); and provide a variety of recipes that those committed to your particular dietary approach can follow.
Living Candida-Free does all of the above, and also offers 16 pages of color photos showing just how appetizing the foods in the book can be. This is a somewhat mixed blessing, though, since the “Perfect Golden Gravy” on one page looks much like plastic, while there is a strong appearance contrast between the “Mojito Smoothie” (looks good) and “Smooth Operator Smoothie” (unappealing) shown in the same photo. Still, Heller deserves credit for not only providing recipes but also showing readers how they ought to look when followed. Readers who find the entire color-photo section delicious-looking will actually be prime candidates for buying the book and following its instructions.
As for the recipes themselves, they range from the typical staples of non-traditional food preparation (“Basic Chia Pudding,” “Meaty Crumbles,” “Homemade Ketchup”) to soups, snacks, sides, sandwiches, spreads, salads, sweets, sauces and even some categories that do not begin with the letter “s,” such as breakfast foods and main courses. Heller does not pretend that switching to candida-suppressing food consumption is quick: the first of her three dietary stages lasts two to three months, and the third is targeted for one year and beyond – after which there is “long-term maintenance.” She also includes “foods you should really avoid for the rest of your life,” a list featuring the usual suspects: white sugar, cane sugar, anything made with refined flour, hydrogenated oils, and – perhaps a bit surprisingly – “mushrooms, except the occasional medicinal mushrooms (reishi, chaga, etc.).” Whether anyone actually needs to go on a lifetime anti-candida diet is another matter: the debunking of various dietary fads does not undermine the belief in them by people seeking their personal solutions to whatever problems they think particular foods or food groups can cause or solve. In this way as in others, dietary preferences take on some elements of religions: you believe what you believe, and no unbeliever (least of all one of a scientific or otherwise insufficiently faith-oriented bent) is going to convince you otherwise.
Surely there are some people for whom candida proliferation really is a significant health issue. Surely there are others whose symptoms approximate those that Heller here attributes to too much candida: the symptoms are common to many forms of bodily malaise. So some people looking for a non-medical answer to their physical condition will likely accept Heller’s assertions about candida and how to reduce it, and thus will find this an important book. And given the realities of the placebo effect (the condition of about 30% of people improves even when they are given nonfunctional treatments), it is certain that some people will benefit from Living Candida-Free. Whether many people should stay up at night worrying about ways in which their lives would be turned around if only their bodies contained less candida is another matter altogether – specifically, a matter of faith, or the lack thereof.
Josef Suk: Complete Works for String Quartet; Piano Quartet. Minguet Quartett (Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violins; Aroa Sorin, viola; Matthias Diener, cello); Matthias Kirschnereit, piano. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Federico Moreno Torroba: Guitar Concertos, Volume 1—Concierto en Flamenco (1962); Diálogos entre guitarra y orquesta (1977); Aires de La Mancha (1966); Suite castellana (c. 1920). Pepe Romero and Vicente Coves, guitars; Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Manuel Coves. Naxos. $9.99.
Bach: Cantatas, Volume 1—BWV 182, 81 and 129. Chorus and Orchestra of J.S. Bach-Stiftung conducted by Rudolf Lutz. J.S. Bach-Stiftung. $29.99.
Surveys of the complete works of composers, or of their complete music for particular instruments, are becoming increasingly common – and have proved very worthwhile for understanding how a composer developed, from what roots and into what branches and what sort of flowering over time. These surveys are not necessarily of interest to all listeners, though, since they inevitably contain works of varying importance and quality: even recordings of, say, the complete symphonies of Mozart or Haydn will showcase works of lesser inspiration alongside those of undoubted brilliance. Still, for understanding a well-known composer or being introduced to a less-known one, a “complete” recording of one sort or another can be most welcome. This is especially true when the performances are as fine as are those in all these new releases. The Minguet Quartet is simply wonderful in its recording of the quartet music of Josef Suk (1874-1935), who is generally remembered more as a violinist and for his relationship with Dvořák and Brahms than for his compositions. It turns out that Suk progressed significantly in his musical conceptions over time, starting out in a typical late-Romantic idiom but eventually producing a quartet so modern in its musical language that it caused something of a furor in Berlin in 1912 – earning the composer comparisons, not by any means always complimentary, to Schoenberg. Suk had a habit of revising and reconsidering his earlier works in light of his later interests, a fact that sometimes resulted in rather odd hybrids. His String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat, op. 11, for example, dates to 1896, and it is well-made and lies well on the instruments, featuring a finale with a recurring three-note motto that sounds like nothing less than Shostakovich. But some two decades later, Suk decided this finale did not work, so he created a new one in which – among other things – the motto becomes more prominent, the overall structure becomes far more dissonant, and the movement’s length is 50% longer. This new movement, presented here as Quartet movement in B-flat, really does not fit the quartet at all, but it is fascinating evidence of Suk’s later thinking about the quartet medium. That thinking is even more in evidence in the notorious String Quartet No. 2, op. 31, which has no specific home key and does indeed sound like something out of Schoenberg even though it does not adhere rigidly to twelve-tone or any other specific systemic structural device. It certainly fits with the time in which it was written: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was first performed in 1913, the year after the première of Suk’s quartet. The remaining works on this very well-recorded CPO release may be of lesser importance, but they have charms of their own. The early Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 8 lies firmly within late Romanticism, being fleet and pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable to hear, with the piano generally subsumed within the totality of the ensemble but asserting itself at a variety of appropriate places – especially in the rollicking Scherzo, whose opening would not be out of place in a work by Saint-Saëns. The other four pieces here are short and not especially significant, but are included for the sake of the completeness for which this release is designed. They are a Menuet in G, a warmly affecting Ballade in D minor, a brief Barkarole in D minor, and the thoughtful Meditace na Starocesky Choral, Op. 35a (“Meditation on the old Bohemian Hymn ‘St. Wenceslas’”). All are played with assured warmth and a fine understanding of Suk’s place in Czech music and the rising Czech national consciousness during his lifetime – the result being a release that provides valuable insight into some fine music by a neglected composer.
Also important for nationalistic reasons and also comparatively little-known outside his native land, Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982) was as important for his use and understanding of Spanish folk music in the context of classical composition as was Ástor Piazzolla for his adaptation of the Argentine tango to the classical milieu. The first of three planned Naxos CDs that will collectively include all of Torroba’s guitar concertos offers an exceptionally well-played combination of concerto music with works written for guitar solo. Each of the two guitarists plays one work of each type. Pepe Romero, world-renowned for his flamenco performances, brings forth all the color, virtuosity and drama of Torroba’s Concierto en Flamenco and is also heard in a suite of music focusing on the central Spanish region best known for the fictional Don Quixote, Aires de La Mancha. This set of five short movements mixes dances with musical visions of the area’s geography, and Romero plays it with assurance, warmth and a strong feeling for local color. The similarly evocative, much earlier three-movement solo-guitar Suite castellana, which includes the Danza that was Torroba’s first-ever guitar composition, also gets a sure-handed and understanding reading, in this case from Vicente Coves. And Coves shows himself a very fine classical soloist in the fascinating Diálogos entre guitarra y orquesta, which plays off the guitar against harp and celesta as well as the usual orchestral instruments, producing an extended concerto-like work that is playful, colorful, highly evocative of Spain and its folk music, and altogether winning. The Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra under Manuel Coves provides very fine support in the two concertos. Listeners unacquainted with Torroba’s music will find this disc a first-rate introduction to it.
The music of Bach, unlike that of Suk and Torroba, is exceedingly well-known, and is also exceedingly extensive: recordings of Bach’s complete works range from 155 to 172 CDs. The Bach cantatas alone take up more than 50 discs – and have been recorded as a cycle several times. This has not stopped new groups from producing new versions of the music, however, nor has it interfered with the creation of entirely new recording labels devoted to Bach’s music. J.S. Bach-Stiftung, founded in 2011, is one such. Based in Switzerland, it is a subsidiary of the J.S. Bach Foundation and is engaged in a 25-year project to release live recordings of Bach’s complete vocal music, using period instruments and authentic (which is to say small) vocal forces. On the basis of the three works on the label’s first CD of Bach cantatas, this will be a top-notch series of releases. The sound is warm and complements the intimately scaled performances beautifully. The singing and playing are historically informed and manage to be “correct” without sounding at all stilted: there is genuine involvement of the performers in the music. There does not seem to be any particular rationale for the order of the cantatas presented, indicating that these releases are really targeting listeners who want the cantatas as a complete set without regard to chronology or the specific religious occasions for which the works were created. Thus, BWV 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, was written for Palm Sunday; BWV 81 – Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? – is for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany; and BWV 129, Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, is for the first Sunday after Pentecost. All are sung and played here with solemnity and liturgical understanding, but without heavy-handedness; the organ parts are especially noteworthy, coming through clearly in the finely managed sonic landscape and within the small instrumental forces. Not all listeners will be willing to wait years for the full set of releases from J.S. Bach-Stiftung, but those who have wanted to build a collection of the Bach cantatas gradually will find this project highly attractive and a worthwhile alternative to existing recordings of the full set of these works, which were so very central to Bach’s life and his music.
Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer. Kwangchul Youn, Anja Kampe, Christopher Ventris, Jane Henschel, Russell Thomas, Terje Stensvold; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, NDR Chor and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons. RCO Live. $27.99 (2 CDs).
Mozart: Requiem; Vesperae Solennes de Confessore. Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Marianne B. Kielland, mezzo-soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; Christian Immler, baritone; Bach Collegium Japan conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Gounod: Requiem; Dvořák: Mass in D. Anne Bretschneider, soprano; Christine Lichtenberg, contralto; Holger Marks, tenor; Georg Witt, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Polyphonia Ensemble Berlin conducted by Risto Joost. Carus. $18.99.
The live recording of Andris Nelsons leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer seems designed to test a truism: if Italian opera is primarily concerned with the voice and French opera balances vocal and instrumental elements, in German opera the orchestra is paramount. Like many clichés, this one arose because it contains a germ of truth, and perhaps more than a germ. Certainly in much of Wagner, the orchestra, pervaded by leitmotif after leitmotif, is as much a part of the stage action as any of the singers. But there are limits to the effectiveness of seeing Wagner through a primarily instrumental lens, and this recording shows what they are. Like other great art, Der Fliegende Holländer has inspired multiple interpretations and has stood up to just about all of them. One particularly intriguing one treated the whole opera as a sort of “fever dream” of an unbalanced Senta, ending in her suicide. This is certainly not what Wagner intended, but the approach did solve some problems, such as the fact that everyone in the opera knows exactly what the Flying Dutchman’s ship looks like, but when the ship appears in reality, absolutely no one knows what it is; and the Dutchman’s portrait is prominently displayed in Senta’s home, but when the man himself – exactly matching the picture – shows up, no one but Senta recognizes him, either. Opera is not renowned for logic, but Wagner, here as elsewhere acting as his own librettist, surely knew of these plot inconsistencies, deeming them insignificant next to what he was trying to say about the redemptive power of love – his preoccupation for virtually everything he was to write after this opera, his fourth.
In Der Fliegende Holländer, the Dutchman is intended to come across as a sort of force of nature – certainly his Satanic sentence to roam the seas unceasingly, bringing all his unfaithful brides to eternal damnation, seems disproportionate to his “crime” of steadfastly refusing to be stopped by weather from rounding a cape. The Dutchman is, as a human, a tormented soul; this balances his supernatural presence. Unfortunately, in this RCO Live recording, Terje Stensvold gives us a Dutchman who is neither particularly otherworldly nor particularly human. His voice is barely up to the part – in his first appearance, in particular, it is weak and shaky – and he never achieves the rumbling drama of a true bass-baritone, perhaps because he is not one: he is really a baritone, and a comparatively light one, at that. This leaves the much-deeper-voiced Kwangchul Youn, as Daland, to dominate the men’s meeting in Act I (Wagner wanted Der Fliegende Holländer played straight through, but most performances divide it into three acts, as this one does). Yet Daland is supposed to be a superficial character concerned strictly with worldly goods – a good, reliable ship’s captain, but not a deep thinker and not much of a father, hesitating not at all to promise his daughter to a just-met stranger for the sake of wealth. The strongest voice and characterization in this recording are those of Anja Kampe as Senta: her handling of the ballad describing the Dutchman’s hubris and his fate is highly affecting, and her final scene is as dramatic as it can be – in contrast with the Dutchman’s rather pallid revelation to all (at last) of who he is. Better than all the soloists, though, are the three combined choruses – the wonderful scene in which Daland’s sailors taunt and then are taunted by those of the Dutchman is effectively spooky here – and the orchestra, which plays with smoothness, excellent sectional balance and considerable power. The positioning of microphones for this live recording could partly explain the comparative weakness of the soloists’ voices, especially Stensvold’s, but the audio of the choruses and orchestra is very good indeed, perhaps reflecting what seems to be Nelsons’ concern to focus the performance on the instrumental elements rather than the vocals. In all, this is a reasonably good, very-well-played reading that gives short shrift to characterization and vocal storytelling while placing choral and instrumental elements front and center throughout. Like its title character, though, it is pale (the Dutchman, both in his portrait and as a person, is described as den bleichen Mann); and while it has many effective elements – and, thankfully, includes a full libretto – it is simply not as involving or emotionally trenchant as Der Fliegende Holländer is capable of being.
The emotional impact of Mozart’s Requiem is certainly high in a new BIS recording featuring the Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki. But this release seeks to be more than an effective presentation of Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece: it wants to be a reconsideration. This is not the familiar (and familiarly flawed) completion of the Requiem by Franz Xaver Süßmayr but an altogether new version put together by Masato Suzuki, son of the conductor and a member of Bach Collegium Japan. The younger Suzuki uses a combination of Süßmayr’s work with that of Joseph Eybler (1765-1846), the friend of Mozart who was first asked by the composer’s widow to complete the Requiem but was unable to do so – leading to Constanze’s selection of Süßmayr, whose work Mozart did not respect (he liked and admired Eybler’s). Add in some material from Masato Suzuki himself and you have the Requiem as heard here. It would be unfair to say that all this is much ado about nothing – it is, in fact, much ado about something very important, for the Requiem is magnificent music left incomplete, and any and all thoughtful attempts to turn it into a fully integrated work are most welcome. However, it is worth pointing out that, just as non-specialists are unlikely to hear the flaws in Süßmayr’s work (technical errors, unnecessary doublings of voices, and some generally uninspired writing), so they are unlikely to perceive significant improvements in what Masato Suzuki has done. There have been a number of other attempts to complete Mozart’s Requiem, some being on the radical side (Duncan Druce), others being considerably more modest in scope (Franz Beyer, H.C. Robbins Landon), and still others lying somewhere in the middle (Robert Levin, Richard Maunder). Certainly Masato Suzuki’s work is worthy within this group of rearrangements (or re-completions), and certainly the performance here is thoughtful, well-paced and effective. As a rethinking of Mozart’s Requiem, though, neither the new version nor the new performance breaks significant new ground. The CD also includes a very fine recording of Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, which contrasts well with the later Requiem, plus an alternative version of the Tuba mirum from the Sequentia of the Requiem.
The concept of a Requiem expanded significantly, along with much else, after Mozart’s time, and there is a richness and opulence to Gounod’s Requiem in C that make the work both moving and attractive from a strictly sonic point of view. A new Carus recording led by Risto Joost, however, forgoes aural splendor and turns this work into something even smaller and more intimate than what Mozart produced: the Berlin Radio Choir is accompanied only by organ (played movingly by Hye-Lin Hur). This is a strange, if interesting, way to hear Gounod’s Requiem, which dates to 1893, more than a century after Mozart’s. The mysterious commission that led Mozart to write his Requiem is well-known, but there is no mystery about Gounod’s inspiration: he wrote his Requiem after the death of his four-year-old grandson, Maurice. It was to be Gounod’s final work, as Mozart’s was his; but except for some details on which Gounod was working at the time of his death, his Requiem, unlike Mozart’s, is complete. The intimacy that Gounod’s work receives when heard as a vocal composition with only organ accompaniment gives it an even stronger religious orientation and seriousness than it has in its orchestrated form. Yet this is scarcely a traditional Requiem: it omits the Offertory, for example, and sets the Introit and Kyrie together to begin the work. The atmospheric orchestral opening is lost here, and therefore so is the effect of the first, hushed choral entry; but the overall sparseness of the performance makes for a moving recording, if scarcely an authentic one. The disc also includes a rethought Dvořák Mass in D (1892), heard here with wind quintet rather than full orchestra. Interestingly, the original version of this work (dating to 1887) was written for organ accompaniment – but rather than use that form, Joost offers one featuring flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. The solemnity of this wind quintet actually comes across quite well, with the lower instruments frequently dominating the discourse and giving the work considerable depth – although never as much as it has in its orchestral version. The most interesting element of the piece, namely the way the composer combines then-new harmonic approaches with old church modes, does comes through well in Joost’s version. And even if this disc as a whole is a bit of a curiosity, it will be of considerable interest to listeners already familiar with these two heartfelt works and intrigued by the chance to experience them in previously unheard forms.
January 15, 2015
Living the Dream: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
Mel’s Story: Surviving Military Sexual Assault—A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Big Nate: The Crowd Goes Wild! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The notion that comics need to be, well, comic, is a long-outdated one, archaic even before the days of serious graphic novels and certainly obsolete today. Comics have long been used to teach serious things through humor – the early days of Mad magazine and the Pogo strips by Walt Kelly are perfect examples, and there are plenty of others. But for many cartoonists in recent years, humor itself has become secondary or even absent as the artists have striven to put significant societal issues within the comic-strip medium. No one has done this better than Patrick McDonnell, an outstanding artist with vast knowledge of comic-strip history and techniques who has put his understanding and abilities at the service of multiple animal-related causes – most notably adoption, but also such environmental issues as habitat destruction and human predation. True, McDonnell sometimes lets the “cause” elements crowd out the gentle, amusing one in his Mutts strips, but by and large, he does a superb job of balancing teaching and advocacy, on the one hand, with warmth and amusement, on the other. The latest Mutts collection, Living the Dream, showcases McDonnell’s skills perfectly. Several sequences within the book, which contains a full year of daily and Sunday strips, are in McDonnell’s now-classic “Shelter Stories” format, in which big-eyed animals plead winningly and nearly irresistibly with readers to take them home. Other sequences incorporate meaningful quotations into art with an animal focus: one Valentine’s Day strip – actually a single panel – quotes Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” The panel shows a woman reaching lovingly toward a caged shelter dog that is presumably about to be adopted by her. Elsewhere, McDonnell mixes erudition with amusement for no apparent reason other than his ability to do so: in a “Mutts Book Club” series, Mooch the cat reads titles on which other characters comment. Thus, Mooch says, “A Farewell to Arms,” and a bird holds up its wings and says “Yup. It’s an evolutionary thing.” In another sequence, Mooch and his best friend, Earl the dog, discuss the removal of wolves from the endangered-species list – a heavy matter handled with considerable delicacy and thoughtful amusement. And then there is the strip in which birds start to sing, but no notes come out – and one of them explains, “A song to Rachel Carson.” And yet Mutts has plenty of room for pure, unadulterated fun. For example, Bip and Bop, squirrels who perpetually bean other characters with nuts, at one point hit Alfred E. Newman and comment, “What, me worry?” At another, they hit the Hulk and say, “It’s clobberin’ time.” And they bonk Spider-Man and aver, “That should knock some spidey-sense into him.” The perfectly drawn renditions of the non-McDonnell characters showcase the cartoonist’s tremendous skill, while the contrast with his own creations enhances a strip in which amusement and education very easily coexist.
Coexistence is more strained in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, a strip that has long since become one focusing more on didactic than entertainment value. Trudeau is heavy-handed and dogmatic in a way that McDonnell is not – but Trudeau’s strips, for that very reason, can be remarkably effective in exploring and explaining societal wrongs that other cartoonists never tackle. Mel’s Story, one of a series of Trudeau books focused on specific troubling elements of military life, is a case in point. Its weakest element by far is the one that is not by Trudeau: a politicized and self-serving introduction by California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier. Indeed, this poor words-only opening of the book only serves to show just how much better it is to have a topic as difficult and complex as that of military sexual assault be handled in what is essentially graphic-novel form – providing that Trudeau is the one handling it. The whole book is aftermath – the assault is discussed but not shown – as Melissa “Mel” Wheeler tries to recover from “command rape,” in which her brigadier general gives her a choice between a sexual relationship and being pulled away from duty she loves and at which she excels and placed on the garbage detail. In the day-to-day sequence of the enormously complex Doonesbury strip, Mel’s story was intermingled with many other story lines involving different characters – Trudeau paints on a huge canvas and bounces about constantly (and often disconcertingly) from topic to topic. In this book, the panels featuring Mel are gathered in a single place, so her story seems far more focused and urgent than in newspaper form. We see her trying to cope with what happened to her, interacting at her military counselor’s office with amputee B.D. – whose physical wounds Trudeau skillfully balances with Mel’s psychological ones – and gradually finding her way back to self-respect and a surprising decision to re-enlist. This part of the book is gripping and dramatic – certainly not characteristics of old-fashioned comic strips – but the portion afterwards shows why Trudeau’s politicized thinking is scarcely to all tastes: after Mel returns to duty, Trudeau moves the story into the next hot-button issue, involving members of the military being able to declare themselves openly gay. Enough is never enough for Trudeau, and that is both a strength and a weakness. But in newspapers, where the “gays coming out” strips were separated from those involving Mel’s recovery from trauma, the change of focus was not as awkward as it is here. So if the newspaper format diluted Mel’s story, it made the transition to Trudeau’s discussion of the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” less jarring. There is nothing funny in Mel’s Story, although there is the occasional wry comment or ironic twist. Trudeau is long past the point of seeing comics as comic: to him they are a platform, one that he mounts regularly with considerable oratorical and artistic skill.
After one reads Trudeau, a foray into lighter fare is often welcome, and of course many comics today continue in the vein of amusement rather than that of argumentativeness and intensity. There is still a rich lode of humor to be mined with this old-fashioned approach, and cartoonists such as Lincoln Peirce extract the fun effectively. Big Nate, the adventures and mishaps of an 11-to-12-year-old self-proclaimed sixth-grade genius with a penchant for creating, yes, comics (as Peirce says he himself did at that age), is a strip that draws on many traditional cartoon elements but manages to make them seem fresh and new. Nate is clueless about many things, including his own cluelessness, but his willingness to press on despite repeated putdowns from his friends (jokingly), his crush Jenny (seriously), and unseen school monster/bully Chester (painfully) is what gives him his considerable charm. Nate’s strengths lie in not minding detention (which is good, since he gets it so frequently); in setting up highly creative events for Prank Day (“releasing a pack of raccoons in the faculty lounge,” for example, and using the Internet to set up his nemesis Mrs. Godfrey on a date with a lovesick rodeo clown); and in trash talk, at which he is the undisputed school champion. There is, unfortunately, little of Nate’s own cartooning in the latest Big Nate collection, The Crowd Goes Wild! But there are plenty of Nate-isms here. For instance, Nate worries about the highly advanced younger student who is his book buddy, and who is reading a work by Flaubert – Nate feels obliged to tell the teacher that Peter is using the inappropriate-sounding word “Bovary.” Also, Jenny – like the rest of the school – is delighted at the return from a six-month absence of Artur, Jenny’s super-competent and super-likable boyfriend; but Nate, whose jealousy knows no bounds, cannot help what Artur calls his “facial expressings” as he watches Jenny and Artur together. Whether worrying about his legacy as class president, admiring the looks of an older woman (a college-age lifeguard), or enduring the inept sports aspirations of his father (a character right out of many decades of feckless dads), Nate manages to retain a sense of buoyant optimism that fans of Peirce’s strip are certain to enjoy – especially as a refreshing change of pace from some of the much-more-serious strips out there.