July 20, 2017

(++++) WAYS TO WIN


Mama Lion Wins the Race. By Jon J. Muth. Scholastic. $17.99.

What This Story Needs Is a Vroom and a Zoom. By Emma J. Virján. Harper. $9.99.

     It is a strange thing about kids’ books involving competitions: virtually all of them preach the importance of being a good sport, of trying your best at all times, of enjoying the competition without necessarily expecting to emerge victorious, of celebrating your own worth no matter who comes out ahead. And then virtually all the books find ways for the protagonists to win. There was a famous Peanuts strip in which Charlie Brown listened to a very extended description of a massive come-from-behind victory by a team that had been losing until the very last minute, then proverbially snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and had a huge celebration in which all the fans joined. In the strip’s final panel, Charlie Brown asked, “How did the other team feel?” That sort of awareness, never mind pathos, is almost wholly absent in children’s books, where it is nice to compete and enjoy yourself and all that, but the ultimate message is that heroes – central characters – are winners. It therefore takes a very special author to ring some changes on the winning-ultimately-matters model – an author such as Jon J. Muth. Mama Lion Wins the Race is about a different way to be a winner, and it is a story told so delicately and delightfully that kids will be captivated by the outcome (or should be, anyway). Muth’s characters here are based on plush toys, and they are as cuddly and gangly and slightly messed up in appearance as would be expected for much-loved cuddly critters. That is one part of the book’s charm and unusual nature. The characters really have character: the Flying Pandinis are egg-shaped and utterly adorable pandas, the Knitted Monkeys are flat-faced critters wearing name tags, and there are a motorcycle-riding rabbit and a huge-eyed smiling turtle and more. The hints that this will be a most unusual race start even before the characters are introduced, when Mama Lion looks at the drinking cup being used by her partner, Tigey, and sees that it is dented and leaky. It turns out that first prize in the race is “a big, fancy trophy,” and second prize is “a nifty small cup,” and third prize is “the special Banana issue of Monkey Monthly.” Well, now, that is interesting. And so is the race itself. The monkeys toss their smallest crew member toward their car to get a head start – then apologize for breaking a rule. Then the race starts in earnest, and Mama Lion has a series of distinctly un-racelike thoughts: “The world is beautiful,” “The world is friendly,” and so on. Then Mama Lion’s car loses a wheel as Tigey swerves to avoid a butterfly, and the car right behind – belonging to the Flying Pandinis – stops to help. Clearly there is more going on here than winning at any cost: when Bun Bun later passes by on her motorcycle, she is scattering seeds that she will water after the race is over. Eventually Mama Lion and Tigey are in front – and make the decision to let the Flying Pandinis pass them at the last instant, out of gratitude for the pandas’ earlier helpfulness. “I would say that we won some very good friends today,” Mama Lion says as she pours “some nice hot cocoa into Tigey’s beautiful new cup.” And that is a winning lesson very different from the ones in most books about sports – and very much closer to what kids are, in theory, supposed to learn from teams and competitions.

     The latest Pig in a Wig book by Emma J. Virján takes a much more typical view of competitive sports in general and racing in particular. But What This Story Needs Is a Vroom and a Zoom keeps everything so light and amusing that it is possible for kids to absorb the fun of the race and the celebration of all three competitors (pig, goose and donkey) – rather than focus entirely on the fact that the Pig in a Wig is, as is only to be expected, the winner. There is a driving mishap in this book, too: going too quickly around a turn, the pig skids off the road into a mud puddle. But the “cross-country crew” that follows the whole race to help everyone out is there to change her car’s tire and get everything going again – after which there is “a vroom, a zoom, a whoosh, and a wheee,” and a photo finish with the pig first, goose second and donkey third. The book ends with all the competitors taking a victory lap in the pig’s car, so everyone is certainly shown as a good sport; and the cross-country crew cheers for everybody equally. Like Virján’s other easy-to-read, pleasantly rhyming books, What This Story Needs Is a Vroom and a Zoom tells a simple story amusingly and charmingly; and if it breaks no new ground as regards the meaning of competition, it at least gives kids a good time with some pleasant characters and a race that everyone in the book takes seriously enough to try hard to win but not so seriously that there are any bad feelings about the pig claiming the eventual victory.

(++++) THE USES OF ODDBALL CHARACTERS


Bobs and Tweets 1: Meet the Bobs and Tweets. By Pepper Springfield. Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell. Scholastic. $9.99.

Bobs and Tweets 2: Perfecto Pet Show. By Pepper Springfield. Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell. Scholastic. $9.99.

My Weirdest School #8: Mrs. Master Is a Disaster! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.

My Weird School Fast Facts: Explorers, Presidents, and Toilets. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.

My Weird School Fast Facts: Space, Humans, and Farts. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.

     The personalities of many characters in kids’ books are designed to make specific points, and much of the character comedy of the books involves personality contrasts. This is quite explicit in Pepper Springfield’s stories about the Bobs and Tweets, whose differing characteristics are simply and straightforwardly (and rhymingly) explained: the male Bobs are slobs and the female Tweets are neat. The possibilities are many, varied and delightful, and are immediately apparent in Kristy Caldwell’s covers for the first two books in the series, on which even the families’ names are shown in letters reflecting their predilections for messiness and care, respectively. The first book, in rhymes that are somewhat Seussian if not quite insouciant, introduces the two groups – the identical but different-size Tweets, looking like Russian nesting dolls that have been laid out separately, and the very-different-from-each-other Bobs. And Meet the Bobs and Tweets also focuses on one Bob and one Tweet who are the opposite of the rest of their families: Dean Bob, seventh and smallest of the Bobs, is neat and tidy, while Lou Tweet, seventh and littlest of the Tweets, is disorganized and messy. The respective families simply accept their not-quite-fitting-in members, and readers will quickly figure out that the two smallest characters will become friends. Sure, enough, the Bobs and Tweets end up living on the same block of Bonefish Street – guided by the same real-estate agent, Mo, who is later revealed to be the town’s mayor as well. “‘That Mo,’ says Bob Seven. ‘She lied to us all./ And now she has caused a huge Bonefish Street brawl.’” The dustup happens at the local swimming pool, where the Tweets want to swim in neat, synchronized lines, while the Bobs want to jump and splash and make as much commotion as they possibly can. The lifeguard takes time out from preening and using his phone to divide the pool into neat and messy halves, more-or-less solving the conflict – and setting the stage for future arguments and misunderstandings between the families. Such as the one in Perfecto Pet Show. Ms. Pat, who teaches both Dean and Lou, brings her six pets to class one day and announces an upcoming “Kid-Pet-Talent Show” for which kids can bring their own pets or borrow one of hers. This worries Dean and Lou for opposite reasons. Dean says, “My Bobs will be rowdy. Noisy. Not cool./ I worry so much when my Bobs come to school.” And Lou comments, “My Tweets will come early on the day of the show/ And insist they get six clean seats in the front row.” It turns out that Dean and Lou are both right – but that is not the half of what happens. The Tweets, determined to arrive four hours early and clean everything, inadvertently ride their bikes onto a huge skateboard ramp that was not there before and is now blocking their way – resulting in multiple crashes, wrecked bicycles, and dirt all over everything. Of course the Bobs turn out to be responsible for the ramp. Eventually, albeit reluctantly, the Bobs give the Tweets a ride to school, and even more reluctantly, the two groups have to sit near each other in the school auditorium. Up on stage, Dean Bob and Lou Tweet, who are now fast friends, end up performing together with their pets (Dean’s dog and Lou’s cat) after Dean gets stage fright so intense that he cannot do his act alone. And after the show, there is a glimmer of getting-along between all the Bobs and all the Tweets: one Bob has fixed all the Tweets’ bikes and added such touches as “Wi-Fi and a Blurpee cupholder.” This initially seems like a problem: “‘Oh no,’ gasps Dean Bob. ‘What will the Tweets say?/ Bob Four fixed the Tweets’ bikes the Bob-fashioned way.’” But the Tweets accept the help graciously and, in their turn, set about Tweet-ifying the Bobs’ bus by giving it a thorough cleaning. So all ends happily, at least for the time being, but the stage is certainly set for more personality-based (mis)adventures to come.

     Personalities are also an ever-present element of Dan Gutman’s (+++) “Weird School” series – that’s “series” plural, not “series” singular, since Gutman and illustrator Jim Paillot just keep churning them out. The current one is My Weirdest School, whose eighth entry, with the usual exclamation point at the end of the title, is Mrs. Master Is a Disaster! As usual, the title has little to do with the plot, which as usual features A.J., whose real name is Arlo and who hates being called that, which is why the other usual central character, Andrea, likes to use it. This book starts with class appearances by old fogies (grandparents), who spend their time talking about ridiculous ideas such as playing outdoors and avoiding sugary foods – but one of whom, Mrs. Masters, turns out to be an inventor. That gets the kids interested in inventing something so they can “make bazillions,” which requires them to come up with something worth bazillions in the marketplace, which leads A.J. (who is in the gifted-and-talented program even though he spends most of his time being what the old fogies would call a wiseacre) to spearhead the concept of a new kind of toilet seat. Gutman is fond of toilet seats and potty humor, and here gets to elaborate on the whole toilet topic. The Party Pooper seat is heated, glows in the dark, puts out a pleasant scent, and uses artificial intelligence to have conversations with users. The whole corporate-startup thing gets compressed into a few pages, and so does the whole corporate-success thing, and then the corporate-failure thing, so by the end of the book the kids are looking for someone to blame, such as A.J. or Mrs. Master. The book is no better or worse than others in the series, and the characters are true to form even though, in truth, they are rather formless – they move the plot along but have very little personality. Still, this easy-to-read book, like the many others in these Gutman/Paillot series, will be fun for kids who already know the characters and enjoy their adventures, even if their personalities are rather hard to pin down.

     Actually, the verbal byplay between A.J. and Andrea is somewhat more interesting in the fact-focused books that Gutman and Paillot spin off from the “Weird School” universe. Unsurprisingly, both of the most-recent fact books veer into Gutman’s usual preoccupation with toilets and bodily functions – but before they do that, both present some interesting facts (or factoids) about American history (Explorers, Presidents, and Toilets) and science (Space, Humans, and Farts). These books’ titles may not end in exclamation points, but several chapters of the history book certainly do: “The United States Is Born!” “The Colonists Are Revolting!” “It’s Getting Bigger!” “Rise of the Machines!” And, of course, “The History of the Toilet!” The narration by A.J. and Andrea, interspersed with occasional pictures, is filled with typical A.J. comments such as “nah-nah-nah boo-boo” and “I’m not going to tell you. Okay, okay, I’ll tell you.” And Andrea continually reminds readers that some things A.J. says are not true, as in, “Arlo, you totally made that up!” The mild banter is supposed to be all in good fun: Andrea really likes A.J. and periodically wonders if they will get married someday (“Over my dead body” is a typical A.J. response). The point of the fact-focused books, though, is, or is supposed to be, the facts; and there are enough of them so that kids who pay a modicum of attention will actually learn something. The balance of entertainment and information tends to be a little off: Gutman clearly enjoys the characters, not so clearly what they are communicating. Still, there is plenty of interesting material here, some of it not typically included in factual books. The history volume, for instance, discusses the disinformation campaigns of George Washington: early in the Revolutionary War, finding the colonists very low on gunpowder, he created a rumor that they had so much they did not know where to store it; and late in the war, he made elaborate preparations for what seemed to be an attack on New York, then went after Yorktown, Virginia instead. The science book follows a similar presentation pattern and has similarly mixed content. About clothing and chemistry, for example, Gutman explains that sheeps’ wool can be and is used to insulate houses – but almost half the world’s clothing is now made from synthetic fibers such as nylon, which was created in 1935 by Wallace Hume. There is also a note that racing cars are designed to work the opposite way planes do: air flow pushes planes into the air, but the cars are designed so that as they go faster, they are pushed more firmly against the road. And some elements of the science book seem as if they are kidding, but really are not, such as the notion that Earth is a planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” – a part of the solar system that is neither too hot for life nor too cold, but is just right. The “Weird School” books, fiction and fact alike, are designed to intrigue and involve kids who are not all that interested in reading for its own sake, but can be pulled into it by a combination of interesting and simply presented material and some personalities with which they enjoy spending time. For those who find A.J. and Andrea – and the other, lesser denizens of the “Weird School” world – to be congenial companions, the latest entries will be as enjoyable as the many earlier ones.

(+++) OTHER REALITIES


Tropic of Kansas. By Christopher Brown. Harper Voyager. $15.99.

Hidden Legacy #3: Wildfire. By Ilona Andrews. Avon. $7.99.

     The unceasing drumbeat of vitriol being produced by the self-proclaimed intelligentsia against what East Coast and West Coast illuminati contemptuously refer to as “flyover country” has become a steady, boring jeremiad. Hatred for President Trump – duly elected, despite many manifest shortcomings both personal and systemic – has become de rigueur in many bastions of higher education and among self-important literary types and so-called entertainers who seem to believe that they and their opinions actually matter. Ugly, narrow-minded, biased rants continue to proliferate, serving only to harden individual and group viewpoints and cause further ill feelings in a nation already awash in them. And now we have a let-it-all-hang-out “heartland” novel, Tropic of Kansas, a long-form debut by an author who has previously produced only short fiction. The setting here is nominally an alternative timeline: President Reagan was in fact assassinated in 1981, and the result is a militarized nation with walls on both northern and southern borders – a place called “robotland” by the people of Canada, to which many Americans have fled, only to be hunted down and deported back to the demonized U.S.A. (This alternative Canada is a lot less friendly to refugees than is the real Canada.) Tropic of Kansas is a book whose title instantly recalls Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, but one that shares none of Miller’s novel’s sensibilities and none of its once-groundbreaking sexuality and intense insistence on free speech – a combination that led to the book being banned as obscene for 27 years. Brown seems blissfully unaware of or uninterested in the irony of living in a country whose leadership he mocks and despises, but one in which he can forthrightly and without fear of repercussions write Tropic of Kansas and have it published. The novel’s protagonist is an adolescent named Sig, who has lived off the grid in Canada for years after his mother – a radical and therefore by definition a good person – was imprisoned and eventually murdered for her politics. Sig is caught, delivered to U.S. Motherland Security, and sentenced to forced labor in Detroit. He escapes, however – actually, he escapes from difficulties repeatedly – and makes contact with the radical (hence good) underground. Sig is heading for a sanctuary (therefore good) city, New Orleans, but is being pursued by his adoptive sister, Tania, who is working for the government under duress after she (gulp) insults the president. Brown actually has some very interesting ideas here, and Tropic of Kansas is at its best when he explores them rather than insisting on an utterly formulaic differentiation between good guys and bad guys. There is, for example, a pirate network with its own cryptocurrency and a method of inserting secret messages into the vertical blanking intervals of television broadcasts. Also here are an outlaw Texas billionaire, a deposed former vice president, a National Guard colonel, a series of citizen militias, drones put to nefarious purposes, and more. Dystopian, yes, but for the most part cleverly so – except when Brown’s exceedingly narrow political views (which appear to be his main reason for writing the book) intrude again and again, their inherent goodness as unquestioned here as is the inherent evil of viewpoints that differ from Brown’s and from those of his central characters. The focus of the book eventually shifts from Sig to Tania, as she rather than he starts to emerge as a potential change agent on a grand scale. The perils-of-Pauline escapes and repeated scenes of intense fighting become repetitious after a while, but Brown’s notions of revolution and counter-revolution play out with consistency and are presented in writing that moves the story along at a quick, often frenzied pace. Those who share Brown’s worldview and politics will revel in the underlying “destroy Trump and all those who resemble or follow him” mindset here. Those who find this approach tiresome and its attitude both venal and banal will not read the book anyway, so they can be safely ignored – the customary attitude of today’s self-proclaimed “good guys” of any political persuasion. It is ironic in the extreme that the eventual outcome of Tropic of Kansas, after much carnage and at very high cost, is to make America great again.

     The Hidden Legacy series by the wife-and-husband team of Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, writing as Ilona Andrews, also happens in an alternative U.S.A. – one permeated by magic – and in the central part of the country, specifically in and around Houston. But there is no politics here, zero, except for the imagined politics of various powerful magical groups (Houses) seeking leverage against each other and, frequently, using (or trying to use) protagonist Nevada Baylor to get it. This is a paranormal-romance series, and for anyone who may not realize that the characters and their connections are supposed to be hot, there are sufficiently self-explanatory titles: Burn for Me, White Hot and, now, Wildfire. After a sexually explosive connection in the second book with the ultra-powerful and of course ultra-gorgeous Connor “Mad” Rogan, Nevada is now trying to sort out her increasingly complicated life. She is a truthseeker – she knows when people are lying, a useful trait to have when operating a detective agency, as she does – and she is discovering that she is something more: she is just coming into powers so great that she would be a highly desirable match not only for Rogan but also for others of his super-potent ilk. The conspiracy to destabilize Houston so a magical dictator named Caesar can take over the city and do nefarious things is a thread connecting all three Hidden Legacy books, but there is so much else happening in Wildfire that that particular foundational element spends little time front-and-center. Instead we have a missing-persons kidnaping case, said person being a plant mage named Brian Sherwood whose wife, Rynda, just happens to be Rogan’s former fiancée. And a redhead. And gorgeous. And an empath. Of course there is nothing between her and Rogan anymore, but she is very clingy and demanding, and maybe, just maybe, she is looking to Rogan as a backup plan in case her husband never turns up. And also on the “family issues” side of things, there is Nevada’s grandmother, Victoria, as hard-hearted and apparently dark a character as any in these books – and a good deal more interesting then Nevada in many ways. Her motivations, her moves to control Nevada and the family as a whole, seem altogether more nefarious than anything coming from Caesar and his minions – unless, of course, it turns out that she actually has good reasons for what she is doing. Or is in league with Caesar. Or something. As a series conclusion – assuming it is one; the ending is decisive but does leave a glimmer of possibilities for potential future installments – Wildfire is quite well done, introducing new characters as needed, connecting the dots from the first two books, moving the Rogan-Nevada romance along smartly (or at least hotly), and creating new intricacies that are then neatly dissected, their multiple knots unraveled. And it is significant that the title of the overall series is quite explicitly explained here, when a minor character, speaking of Victoria, tells Nevada, “You’re family. …Family is all any of us have. You’re her hidden legacy, the future of her House.” But with all the solutions in Wildfire, this statement near the book’s end may be premature: “Finally. We won. Nothing was hanging over our heads.” That is not strictly true, for the very end of the book involves neither Nevada nor Rogan but the never-named Caesar, who is still very much alive and still plotting – and that is why this series conclusion may perhaps not be a genuine finale. Whether it is or not, Wildfire knits together enough disparate plot strands to be entirely satisfying to readers who have stayed with Hidden Legacy from the first book. They will not find this one disappointing – and likely will not be disappointed if there is a followup sometime in the future.

(++++) CHARACTERISTIC PIECES


Strauss in St. Petersburg. Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.

Wagner: Parsifal. Christopher Ventris, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Mikhail Petrenko, Falk Struckmann, Petra Lang; Chorus of Dutch National Opera and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer. Challenge Classics. $44.99 (Blu-ray Disc+DVD).

Richard Strauss: Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra; Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments; Sonatina No. 2 for 16 Wind Instruments. Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons (Concerto); Alexei Ogrintchouk, oboe and conducting Winds of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Serenade, Sonatina). BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Eugène Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for Solo Violin. Sharon Park, violin. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Many composers have written works dubbed Pieces Caracteristiques, usually indicating miniatures expressive of a particular time, place or emotion. But in a different sense, there are certain works, sometimes very extended ones, that come across as especially characteristic of composers’ thoughts, styles, experiences and beliefs. Those created by Johann Strauss Jr. for his orchestra’s many visits to St. Petersburg, Russia, fall into this category, most notably Abschied von St. Petersburg of 1858, a wistful and sad farewell not only to the city but also to Olga Smirnitskaya (1837-1920), with whom Strauss had fallen in love there – and whose own memento of that time, called Erste Liebe and written 20 years after she and Strauss parted, is intriguingly included on a new Chandos disc featuring the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. The CD offers a very generous helping of 20 pieces written for or about St. Petersburg by Strauss: nearly 83 minutes of music, an exceptional amount for a single disc, especially one as well-recorded as this. Aside from Smirnitskaya’s sweet memoir (nicely sung by soprano Olga Zaitseva) and the Pizzicato Polka written jointly by Johann Jr. and Joseph, everything here is by Johann himself – the works ranging from the highly familiar (Wein, Weib und Gesang! and Vergnügungszug, for example) to the very infrequently played (An der Wolga, Alexander-Quadrille and many others). Järvi occasionally pushes the music too quickly and ungently, but in the main keeps things lively without rushing them, and the orchestra plays with considerable verve and spirit. An unusually well-done set of booklet notes discusses each work briefly and lays them out sensibly in chronological order – which makes the decision to present the pieces themselves, on the CD, as a hodgepodge in no understandable order whatsoever, a highly peculiar one. It would have been much better to follow the progress of the Strauss orchestra through its years of St. Petersburg travel on a musical basis as well as with the booklet’s words. Nevertheless, having so much of this material all in one place – works redolent of the Strauss style and also “characteristic” of the city that is their focus – is a great pleasure; and the disc, with its generous helping of less-known material, makes an excellent addition to the library of any Strauss fancier.

     Pretty much everything Richard Wagner wrote for the stage qualifies as a characteristic piece, for all that he largely disavowed his first three operas, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi. But if there is one opera that sums up virtually all Wagner’s themes and concerns – indeed, including within its vast span references to a number of his earlier works, as if to make the summing-up explicit – that opera is his last one, Parsifal. Clad in traditional Christian guise, it is not really a Christian opera, instead using the setting of the Grail knights as a way to get at themes of power and energy, renunciation and acceptance, worldly pleasures and joys that transcend them. The fact that these are essentially the same themes explored in Der Ring des Nibelungen is no accident – that four-opera series is no more about Wotan’s downfall than Parsifal is about Klingsor’s, and indeed, the underlying concerns in these late operas were already present in Wagner’s earliest ones. A new Challenge Classics release, packaging a Blu-ray Disc and DVD together, provides an unusually trenchant view of Parsifal. This is a 2016 revival of a Pierre Audi production for Dutch National Opera from 2012, and – traditionalists be warned – it is an abstract spectacle, nothing like what one would expect at Bayreuth, the only opera house where Wagner believed Parsifal could be adequately presented. For those who do not insist on standard visual approaches to the opera, Audi’s direction and Anish Kapoor’s set design (with sensitive lighting by Jean Kalman and intriguing costume design by Christof Hetzer) will come across exceptionally well. A giant concave mirror suspended above the stage is a crucial feature here, literally reflecting the on-stage action and encouraging the audience to reflect on what is occurring. The mirror’s presence in some but not all scenes lends this reflective surface an unusual participatory role in the action. Yet there is in fact very little action in Parsifal, and Audi uses that fact to advantage: the stage is nearly bare during long stretches of dialogue, a minimalist approach that forces the audience’s attention onto what is being said and heard, yet offers far more visual impact than a concert performance can. The marvelous role of Kundry (Petra Lang), the last of Wagner’s woman saviors, is especially compelling here, the staging making it clear that Kundry – the most complex character in the opera – must be responsible for connecting Parsifal (Christopher Ventris, who is excellent) to his past and putting him fully in touch with a type of innocence through which he can claim both kingship and healing powers. The overt seductiveness (under duress) of Kundry and the purity and innocence (by heritage) of Parsifal come through particularly clearly in this production, and it is interesting to note that the Parsifal legend is in origin the story of an infertile ruler, a trait shared in Wagner’s opera by the suffering Amfortas (Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester) and the supposedly potent but physically self-castrated Klingsor (Mikhail Petrenko, who also sings Titurel – a genuinely fascinating pairing of parts). All the singers are excellent in the roles, presenting first-rate vocal acting that ranges from Amfortas’ wobbly vibrato to the strength and surety of Gurnemanz (Falk Struckmann). Iván Fischer meticulously follows Wagner’s many tempo indications and changes throughout the score, leading the Chorus of Dutch National Opera and the smooth-as-silk, perfectly balanced Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with consummate skill. References to Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle appear in the score as thematic resonances that complement and extend the leitmotif concept, and Fischer weaves them in skillfully but not over-obviously. There is much to be said for listening to Parsifal at home without any visual encumbrances, calling up its scenes within one’s own mind as the music flows through with studied inevitability. But, after all, the work was conceived by Wagner as a visual one; and even though watching a Blu-ray Disc or DVD at home can never be as involving or overwhelming an experience as attending a Parsifal performance in person, this Dutch staging captures so much of the spirit and spirituality of the music and story that it will truly enchant (yes, that is the right word) Wagner lovers seeking an exceptionally satisfying visual and aural experience.

     Operas are also what would be considered “characteristic pieces” for Richard Strauss, but some very different performances by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra show that this composer also had a characteristic (and firmly in-character) approach to non-vocal music. Late Strauss has a sound very different from the sumptuous, huge-orchestra one of earlier Strauss, and the 1945 Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, one of the composer’s final works, shows this quite clearly. In the Classical tradition of three-movement concertos and scored only for two flutes, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings, the work is strictly tonal (in D) and deliberately recalls the famous rhythm of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It also refers back to Strauss’s own recently completed Metamorphosen, much as Wagner in Parsifal refers back to his own earlier works with similar concerns. The live recording of the concerto for BIS by Alexei Ogrintchouk is a very fine, well-played one, and the conducting by Andris Nelsons is sensitive and nicely paced. Ogrintchouk is both oboist and conductor in the other works on the SACD, which are studio recordings. The short Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments is from the opposite, earliest part of Strauss’ career, dating to 1881, a full 64 years before the concerto. Modeled on Mozart’s Gran Partita, the work is charming, lively and quite self-assured in construction. The serenade gave Strauss an interesting connection with Wagner: its première, in Dresden, was conducted by Franz Wullner, who had conducted the first performances of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and would later present the premières of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote. The final work on this disc is much more substantial – longer than the other two put together. The label Sonatina therefore seems something of a misnomer, and in fact the work is sometimes referred to as a symphony. Its subtitle, Fröhliche Werkstatt (“Happy Workshop”) reflects its generally jovial and upbeat tone – a surprise for a work that, like the oboe concerto, dates to the closing years of World War II. The reason for the subtitle was to contrast this work with the Sonatina No. 1, which was written when Strauss was ill and was called “From the Workshop of an Invalid.”  The second Sonatina features very skillful wind writing – a Strauss characteristic that does not always get adequate attention – and an overall warm and mellow sound somewhat reminiscent of that of Brahms. Strauss’s days of musical radicalism are nowhere apparent here, and the work makes a fascinating juxtaposition with the early Serenade – because there is simply not much greater structural or instrumental skill in one than in the other. Strauss was something of a natural in wind writing, as the excellent playing on this recording makes abundantly clear.

     Sometimes composers seek to write music that will characterize and encapsulate other people, but what results may in fact show as much about the composer as about the people being musically portrayed. That is the case with the six Op. 27 solo-violin sonatas by Eugène Ysaÿe, which receive first-rate performances from Sharon Park on a new MSR Classics release. Park offers passionate readings of all six works, the first being dedicated to Joseph Szigeti, the second (“Obsession”) to Jacques Thibaud, the third (“Ballade”) to Georges Enescu, the fourth to Fritz Kreisler, the fifth to Mathieu Crickboom, and the sixth to Manuel Quiroga. Ysaÿe was inspired to write these sonatas after hearing a Bach solo-violin sonata played by Szigeti, and Bach’s spirit permeates the works: No. 2, for example, directly quotes the start of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin in the first movement and then moves on to a siciliano, a sarabande and a finale quoting the Dies Irae from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. Yet the sonatas are generally written in the style of the time when Ysaÿe composed them (1923), and as such are filled with dissonance and use techniques such as quarter tones and whole-tone scales. Furthermore, as the dedications to Ysaÿe’s contemporary virtuosi make clear, the works are technically difficult and designed in some ways to highlight the particular strengths of the performers whose names they bear. All this is historically interesting, but what ultimately matters – as Park clearly realizes – is how well the sonatas work as pure music, not as mere technical displays or dedicatory pieces. And it is in bringing forth the sonatas’ musicality that Park shines. The warmth of the Lento molto sostenuto that opens the Enescu sonata is as well-handled here as the tone painting of the two movements of the Crickboom work and the intense middle section of the one-movement habanera dedicated to Quiroga. Park manages to display and at the same time transcend the sonatas’ formidable technical difficulties, in so doing producing readings that absorb compositional demands and then subsume them into an expressive whole. And that is – characteristically – exactly what Ysaÿe said violinists need to do in order to perform effectively.

(+++) IN SEARCH OF IMPORTANCE


Prokofiev: The Stone Flower. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $34.99 (2 CDs).

Ross Crean: The Great God Pan. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Gregg Smith: Peter Quince at the Clavier; Double Sonata for Violin, Voice, and Piano; Fallen Angels. Eileen Clark, soprano; Thomas Schmidt, piano; Ari Streisfeld, violin; Evan Ziporyn, clarinet. Albany Records. $16.99.

Mark John McEncroe: Symphonic Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.

Vivaldi/Matej Meštrović: 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos. Matej Meštrović and Matija Dedić, piano; Hakan Ali Toker, piano and accordion. Navona. $14.99.

     It would be nice to think that composers continue to improve in skill and the ability to produce literally noteworthy music throughout their careers. But while there are some composers for whom that is assuredly the case – Mozart and Beethoven come immediately to mind – there are many others who produced music at essentially the same level over time (Mendelssohn), whose output showed signs of deterioration in later life (Schumann), or who stopped being productive altogether despite having many decades yet to live (Ives, Sibelius). Prokofiev is in more or less the same category as Schumann, although in Prokofiev’s case, the later-life issue was not mental deterioration but societal strictures, notably the notorious 1948 Zhdanov decree against musical “formalism,” which was deemed anti-Soviet. Unlike Shostakovich, who found ways in his later pieces to work around Soviet musical strictures, Prokofiev largely withdrew into simplicity and diminished expressiveness and creativity in his last years. The Stone Flower is one example of his works of this period. First performed in 1954, a year after the composer’s death, it is a very long ballet (two and a half hours of music) that tries hard to be “significant” in the context of the non-musical requirements of the time. It contains occasional flashes of excellence – notably the themes associated with the supernatural Mistress of the Copper Mountain, and the orchestration of sections such as “Solo of the gypsy girl and coda.” Unfortunately, there are lengthy arid stretches of music as well. Various sections (there are 46 in all) are orchestrated and repurposed versions of earlier Prokofiev works, and the pieces newly created for The Stone Flower are generally rather foursquare. Also, there is little dramatic tension in the story. It involves a craftsman named Danilo who wants to make a perfect malachite vase and hopes for magical help from the Mistress of the Copper Mountain; Danilo’s love, Katerina; and, for a nemesis, a bailiff named Severyan whose simplistic musical identification is of the twirl-your-evil-mustache variety. The orchestration of the ballet is frequently of greater interest than the thematic material, and in a new Chandos recording, the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda plays the work with considerable finesse – more, indeed, than the music really justifies. It is quite understandable that The Stone Flower is rarely heard, but it is good to have the work available in this first-rate performance – for those interested in less-known Prokofiev and those wondering what happened to the composer’s creativity when it came directly into conflict with the political environment in which he lived his final years.

     The search for meaningfulness also permeates the Navona release of a non-orchestrated version of Ross Crean’s opera, The Great God Pan. Crean wrote his libretto from a novella by Arthur Machen that was roundly condemned as horribly decadent by many critics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that was admired for its atmospheric elements by H.P. Lovecraft (albeit with reservations about its plentiful coincidences and pervasive melodrama). The story starts as science fiction and rapidly spirals into fantasy: it involves a doctor using surgery to connect a woman with the spiritual realm, which the doctor refers to as “the great god Pan,” and the terrible consequences when the operation succeeds and Pan – or a child of Pan – is loosed upon the world. This basic description makes the story sound more coherent than it actually is; its climax, in which the evil character is persuaded to commit suicide rather than be exposed as demonic, is particularly nonsensical. Crean clearly intends his opera to explore complex issues of science and spirituality, of the real and the fanciful; but the music, especially when heard with the two-piano accompaniment by John Cockerill and Stephen Uhl, rarely rises to any level of significant impact. The singing itself is the usual contemporary mixture of melodic elements plus atonality and Sprechstimme, with little variation of sound from character to character and, as a result, little enough for the audience to have a feeling of empathy, much less experience any sense of horror or even spiritual unease. The primary approach used by Crean is to create ostinato passages that are supposed to carry forward the story with a sense of inevitability, but in fact this technique quickly becomes aurally wearing and atmospherically ineffective. A couple of piano-only sections work well, as does the wordless chorus that opens “The Confrontation and Ultimatum,” but although the 10 individual singers handle their parts skillfully enough, the material itself is simply not sufficiently convincing to make The Great God Pan more than an interesting attempt to tell a strange and unusual story in operatic terms.

     Another vocal recording intended to elicit a sense of significance, on Albany Records, features three works for voice and instruments by Gregg Smith (1931-2016). The topics here are wide-ranging and the performances very fine; whether the material adds up to something meaningful, or only to well-crafted display pieces, will depend on each listener’s view of the poetry Smith sets as much as it will on his music. Peter Quince at the Clavier, a four-movement setting of Wallace Stevens’ four-stanza poem of the same title, is the shortest work here and in some ways the most effective. Stevens’ poem, despite using the name of a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in its title, offers an erotically charged version of the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the elders – essentially setting the story up as if one of Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” is telling it. Abounding in musical images (as well as ones of color), Stevens’ poem either lends itself naturally to musical adaptation or is itself so inherently musical that any notes to which it is set seem somewhat beside the point. Smith clearly respects the poem and handles its moods with delicacy and understanding. But despite the fine performance by Eileen Clark and Thomas Schmidt, the music does not add any particular degree of subtlety or expressiveness to what is already a very subtle and expressive work. Double Sonata for Violin, Voice, and Piano reaches back to an earlier era for its text, using poems of Robert Herrick and John Milton for an extended five-movement work that partakes both of sonata form and of something approaching oratorio – although Smith’s handling of excerpts from L’Allegro and Il Penseroso is quite different structurally and sonically from that of Handel, who created a full-scale oratorio using Milton’s entire exploration of characters driven by different bodily humors. In Smith’s work, the violin is almost a second vocalist. And here as with his setting of Stevens, Smith is quite clearly aware of musical elements in the poetry itself: Smith’s second movement uses Herrick’s “To Musique, to becalme his Fever” as its text. Fast-forward to modern-day big-city life and you have the third work here, Fallen Angels, to 10 poems by Kim Rich Norton. This is the least interesting and most conventional poetry on the CD, and oddly seems more time-bound than the other works. So much has been written in both words and music about New York City that yet another sampling of titles such as “Natural History,” “A Taste of City Summer,” and “New York Cabbie’s Meditation” has little to offer unless there are some genuinely original insights or perspectives in the material – which, in this case, there are not. There is nothing exceptional in what Norton has to say about New York, and while Smith’s music complements and underlines the words satisfactorily, it does not expand or deepen them to any significant degree, although the use of a clarinet does lead to some interesting soundscapes. The setting of Stevens is the most emotionally poised and involving of the three pieces here. However, the Double Sonata is the most structurally complex and musically interesting work, containing a smorgasbord of both old and contemporary compositional techniques, from canon and gigue to patter song and waltz, all within multiple meters and twelvetone writing as well as some conventional harmony.

     Mark John McEncroe is another composer who looks to the past as well as the present when seeking significance for his music. A new Navona disc of his two Symphonic Suites, which together he calls “A Medieval Saga,” shows this clearly. In the seven movements of Suite No. 1 and the six of Suite No. 2, McEncroe tries his hand at storytelling that is intended both to evoke a medieval setting and to have contemporary resonance. The suites are well-written and show a sure command of the orchestra, but they are not especially strongly tied either to the past or to the present. Their tone painting tends to be rather obvious, as in the contrast between the first suite’s third movement (“Rising Discontent”) and its fourth (“Peasants’ Uprising”). McEncroe does not seem entirely sure of whether he wants the audience to take the suites at face value or with a sense of irony, as is shown in the works’ individual titles: the first suite is “Just Another Medieval Tale” and the second is “And the Medieval Tale Continues.” The story arc, if not the musical one, begins and almost ends with a look at rulers: the first suite’s opening movement is “Entrance of the King” (suitably if conventionally celebratory), while the second suite’s penultimate movement is “Hail to the New King.” The second suite, more than the first, is essentially about warfare; but its very last movement is the somewhat puzzlingly titled “A Brave New World,” and it is never quite certain whether McEncroe here tries to move the underlying tale of nobles and peasants, rulers and ruled, into something different and more in line with our contemporary world – or whether the last movement’s title somehow reflects Shakespeare’s creation of the well-known phrase or Aldous Huxley’s ironic adaptation of it. Simply listening to these two orchestral suites without trying to impart any particular meaning to them – hearing them as a sort of film music without visuals, which is a pretty fair description of their overall sound – leads to a satisfying experience. It is only when one tries to find and accept the deeper meaning that McEncroe wants the music to have that the works fall short.

     Some composers do not just look backward for meaning – they try overtly to overlay the present on the past, musically speaking, and in so doing to produce works that retain an aura of earlier times while still speaking in modern musical language and for a contemporary audience. This approach can lead to something of a mishmash, which is where it leads on a Navona release of 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos by Croatian composer/pianist Matej Meštrović. Vivaldi’s four seasonally focused violin concertos are among the most popular of all classical works, and many composers have adopted or adapted them in various ways, or used them as springboards for other works – Ástor Piazzolla’s Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (1965-70), especially in the 1996-98 arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov, being one especially successful example. Meštrović, however, uses Vivaldi only as a springboard for wide-ranging jazz arrangements that frequently sound improvisational even though they are not. He and pianist colleagues Hakan Ali Toker (who arranged the Presto movement of “Summer”) and Matija Dedić (who arranged the Largo of “Winter,” here misspelled “L’Ineverno”) delight in adding introductions, byways, modern harmonies, over-the-top frills and runs, and much more to Vivaldi’s foundational material, which peeks through from time to time but never seems to be the primary reason for the existence of 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos. The work is undeniably fun much of the time, notably when it features interpolations from other composers’ works and makes use of an accordion. But its constant riffs on Vivaldi become repetitious and thus dull after a while, and the three players seem at times to be trying too hard to make the entire proceeding fresh and enjoyable. The pounding chord sequence that opens the finale of “Spring,” for example, just sounds silly, and the ostinato with dappled high notes at the start of the first movement of “Winter” is more an insult than a tribute to Vivaldi’s outstanding cold-weather tone painting. On the other hand, the scurrying opening of the last movement of “Autumn” comes across nicely (in a somewhat overdone way); and the finale of “Summer,” which opens essentially as Vivaldi intended, uses the tonal quality of the piano to good effect. 4 Seasons for 3 Pianos is more a discursion from Vivaldi than an excursion into his music. But when taken at face value and as an exercise in fun rather than attempted meaningfulness, it is pleasantly diversionary and has more than its share of effective pianistic exhibitionism.

July 13, 2017

(++++) ACTIVE FUN


Word Play. By Adam Lehrhaupt. Illustrated by Jared Chapman. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

Monsters on Machines. By Deb Lund. Illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

     It is no small feat to combine a lesson in grammar with a story that is enjoyable entirely on its own. But that is exactly what Adam Lehrhaupt has done in Word Play. The approach is disarmingly simple: show kids playing together, having agreements and disagreements, and eventually getting along just fine. The catch here is that each child represents a part of speech, and each does just what that part of speech indicates. There is a girl named Verb who constantly does things: climbs, slides, twirls and so forth – “climbs,” “slides” and “twirls” all being action words, which is to say verbs. And there is a boy named Noun who cannot do anything, but can be a person, place or thing. It is the initial conflict between Verb and Noun that is the heart of the story here. Why conflict? Because the other “word kids” watch and react to Verb and Noun. Interjection says “wow!” Adjective uses adjectival phrases such as “impressive display” and “crushing blow.” And Adverb chimes in with phrases including words such as “very” and “brilliantly.” Verb gets annoyed as Noun transforms himself into various things – for instance, “Noun becomes this place” (a tall building in a city) and “Verb reacts” by stomping monster-like through the streets. When the other “word kids” respond positively to Noun’s transformations, “Verb sulks.” As the story goes on, each character speaks in accordance with his or her part-of-speech role. Thus, it is Adjective who comments on “a giant, frightening bee” that, says Adverb, is “coming dangerously close.” The problem is that while everyone else can run from the bee, Noun cannot: “Noun can’t DO anything. He is stuck.” It falls to Verb to rescue Noun and drag him to safety – establishing their connection and friendship. Word Play, which includes Jared Chapman illustrations that give each “word kid” a different look and show each in a different color, is a very clever lesson that barely comes across as a lesson at all – except for the “parts of speech” explanatory list given at the start and end of the book, outside the narrative pages. Even Lehrhaupt’s dedication is in the spirit of his story. It reads, “For Kerri, my adjective noun. I verb you adverb adverb.”

     The kids in Deb Lund’s Monsters on Machines are transformed in a different, monstrous way. Scaly, pointy-eared, fang-toothed, lizard-skinned, hairy and horned, the four characters – Dirty Dugg, Gorbert, Stinky Stubb and Melvina – are mini-monsters engaging in a big construction project that requires use of a “fiendgrubber,” “crushermusher,” “roller masher,” “ghostergrader” and other avowedly monstrous equipment. Originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback, Monsters on Machines manages to keep the goings-on suitably icky but tastefully safe at the same time: all these monsters carefully put on hard hats, work gloves, earplugs and heavy boots before starting the job. None of the protective clothing prevents the little monsters from having a great time: “Flinging dirt like tornadoes, they holler and hoot./ (Monsters love getting grimy from hard hat to boot.)” Robert Neubecker’s exuberant illustrations nicely complement Lund’s rhyming text as the monsters build a “Custom Prehaunted” house so big that readers must turn the book sideways to see the whole thing – complete with cupola, snarling-beast decorations and an eye-poppingly clashing color scheme. After the project is done, though, the little monsters become a lot more like non-monstrous little kids – in behavior if not appearance. Their monster mom shows up with food and sets the table neatly, although she does then tell the little ones that it is fine for them to eat their “monsteroni and cheese” with “their hands and their feet.” Which they do – after which the four crawl onto Mama Monster’s lap for story time, followed by a nap, followed by very careful cleanup “so all’s tidy and neat.” Lund describes the foursome as “an organized earthquake reshaping the ground,” but at heart they are simply kids, and it is easy to see why little would-be monsters (even ones without horns, fangs and three eyes) will enjoy the adventures of this adorably awful construction quartet.

(++++) FACTS FOR FUN


Animal Planet Chapter Book #3: Bugs! By James Buckley, Jr. Liberty Street. $14.99.

Animal Planet Chapter Book #4: Snakes! By James Buckley, Jr. Liberty Street. $14.99.

     There is no shortage of factual books combining brief lessons in animal appearance and behavior with illustrations and photos that make the information visually appealing. But James Buckley, Jr.’s considerations of bugs and snakes stand out in this crowded field. The reason is that these books do not devolve into visually striking but informationally vapid “factoid” volumes in which the pictures overwhelm the text and the amount of material communicated is comparatively small. Buckley actually provides narrative chapters about the creatures that, although visually attractive (the books are nicely designed and sized well for small hands), really do focus mostly on content. Thus, one chapter in Bugs! begins, “Dragonflies have lived on Earth for more than 300 million years. Over that time, they have not changed much. …Dragonflies have four wings. Each wing can move on its own.” And so on. The start-of-chapter illustration is not just thrown in, either: it shows a dragonfly that seems to be doing a handstand, with the caption explaining that “that’s how it cools off when it gets too warm.” Certainly there are plenty of “factoid” sections as well as narratives, but at least there are narratives. A “factoid” entry here, for instance, is a “Fact File” dubbed (rather irritatingly) “Rockin’ Roaches.” Here Buckley explains that “while many say ‘Eww!’ about cockroaches, we should also say ‘Thanks’” because cockroaches are helpful ecologically as “recyclers” that “pass nutrients from the [dead] animals they eat into the soil and plants when they poop.” Cockroaches, this section points out, are even sold as food for people in Asia: they “are inexpensive and high in protein.” The balance of explanatory chapters with facts-at-a-glance entries is quite well handled here. So is the context. Buckley does not just comment that the loudest insect is the African cicada but also notes that the cicada’s noise level of 106.7 decibels is “louder than a motorcycle.” And he points out that the smallest known insect, the parasitoid wasp, is 6/1000 of an inch long, which is “smaller than a poppy seed.” The placing of statistics within context this way is not always done in Bugs! But when it is, it makes the information easier to understand. Buckley also includes some questions that encourage young readers to think about the answers, asking, for example, how many parts an insect leg has (five, all of which are explained) and whether insects can see color (some can; an experiment that proved this is briefly described). Although Bugs! is by definition a once-over-lightly book, it is not quite as light as other introductory books about the natural world, and as a result makes a better introduction to its topic than do similar books that focus far more on visual impact than on communicating information.

     The strengths are the same in Snakes! These creatures are endlessly fascinating to children and adults alike, even though, when you think about it, they simply “look like a tube,” as Buckley says. Snakes look so different from most other animals that there are nearly endless ways of showing what is special about them – for instance, while humans have 33 vertebrae and 24 ribs, “snakes have as many as 585 vertebrae” and “the longer the snake, the more vertebrae it has,” with internal organs that “are long and thin to fit its tubelike shape.” Buckley offers the usual reassurances about snakes not being interested in harming people, notes that “only about 20% of the snakes in the world are dangerous to humans,” and adds that “more people are hurt by insect stings than by snakebites.” The book nevertheless has quite a few photos of venomous snakes – many of which have unusual, even spectacular appearances that make them far more interesting to look at than the majority of non-venomous, often very plain-looking snakes. An especially interesting chapter here, “Moving Around,” discusses the different ways snakes are able to go places despite their lack of limbs: the familiar serpentine or slithering movement, rectilinear motion (using belly muscles so the body stays almost in a straight line while moving), concertina (using a series of curves to move forward), and sidewinding. There is also information on how snakes swim and, in a few cases, are able to glide by flattening their bodies to catch updrafts as they move from branch to branch in trees. What snakes eat – and how they eat – is always a fascinating topic, and is nicely handled here, complete with photos of one snake wrapped around lizard prey and one that has just swallowed an egg that is more than twice the width of its body. There is even an amazing photo of a large Indian python swallowing a deer. Buckley does a good job of including some scientific terminology and explaining it straightforwardly – for instance, that the shedding of skin by snakes is called sloughing and the single scale that protects snakes’ always-open eyes is known as a brill. The way snakes’ forked tongues work, the special senses that snakes have, the location of heat pits in snakes that have them – all these things and more are nicely explained here. And there are some fascinating photos, such as one showing a pile of corn snakes of many different colors (“morphs”) that encapsulates both the variety of snake colors and the animals’ striking and often beautiful appearance. Like Buckley's book on bugs, the one on snakes makes a fine introduction to its topic and manages to be meatier and more appealingly written than many others that handle the same information in ways that focus primarily on visual elements to the detriment of their factual content.

(++++) DUE EAST OF INDIANA


R.J. MacCready #1: Hell’s Gate. By Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch. William Morrow. $9.99.

R.J. MacCready #2: The Himalayan Codex. By Bill Schutt and J.R. Finch. William Morrow. $26.99.

     Just to get the inevitable comparisons out of the way quickly: yes, the protagonist of these novels is indeed very much in the Indiana Jones mold, except that to the extent that any sort of home base matters here (which it doesn’t very much), it would be farther east than Indiana, more of a New York thing. The reason is that both Bill Schutt (real name and a real-life vertebrate zoologist) and J.R. Finch (a pseudonym reversing the initials of the novels’ protagonist) are New Yorkers. And unlike globe-hopping, heroic World War II era anthropologist Indiana Jones, globe-hopping, heroic World War II era R.J. MacCready is – well, a zoologist, of course.  And to get one other thing out of the way, the authors will surely not object if readers amuse themselves by mentally pronouncing the protagonist’s name as “make-ready,” since the authors themselves surely had that idea in their own minds when naming the character. Or should have had it.

     The manifest absurdities of the Indiana Jones stories were a great deal of the fun, but these MacCready novels only appear to be filled with manifest absurdities: Schutt and Finch base them on sound science. At the end of each book, they offer explanatory material about the research from which they extrapolate, and if they take an occasional liberty in the name of slam-bang action – for instance, bringing back an extinct species or two – that is perfectly justifiable in the service of a couple of doggone good and doggone thrilling stories.

     So much for the preliminaries. The main action – and there is plenty of it – takes place in areas quite far from New York (or Indiana, for that matter). Hell’s Gate happens to be a real place in South America, but Schutt and Finch give it a kind of Lost World eeriness in the context of a wartime mystery in their first book, originally published last year and now available in paperback. The story takes place in 1944, when MacCready is sent to the Amazon to find out why a Japanese submarine headed there and became grounded in mud. He is given the task only after a crack team of Rangers is sent to Brazil and disappears. It turns out that this is no ordinary sub: it is gigantic, with a hanger big enough to hold three bombers. Mac guesses that the sub was headed for Hell’s Gate (Portão do Inferno), a mysterious area where, in our real world, Percy Fawcett – whose treks inspired his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and whose personality inspired, yes, Indiana Jones – vanished mysteriously in 1925 while searching for the Lost City of Z. In Hell’s Gate, the huge sub has been abandoned by its Nazi crew, which turns out to be a serious mistake, as the soldiers are picked off one by one by creatures known to the natives as chupacabra. These monsters are both vampiric and strangely sentient, able to take over parts of their victims’ brains; and no, this is not as far-fetched as a brief description makes it seem. Mac picks up some help in his search, which is a bit of good luck, since he is not familiar with the jungle and it turns out to harbor, among other things, giant man-eating turtles. Mac’s helpers are a long-lost friend named Bob Thorne and Thorne’s wife, Yanni, and if they are less interesting than Mac, that is a minor matter, since everything here is less interesting than Mac, who is not only smart and bold but also funny and sarcastic; and yes, yes, that is yet another Indiana Jones tie-in. In any case, Mac, Thorne and Yanni soon enough uncover a particularly dastardly Nazi plot involving missile launchers that could bring Nazi victory on the Russian front and, not so incidentally, destroy entire U.S. cities. There is no Ark of the Covenant secreted here, but there are plenty of other things that strain credulity to an almost equal extent – except that Schutt and Finch are remarkably meticulous in basing the speculative elements on sound science. Hell’s Gate also features some remarkably well-done descriptive passages that make the settings come alive and help readers feel they are going along with the characters through exotic and almost always dangerous (although frequently beautiful) locales. A fantasy-adventure with some echoes of Heart of Darkness, of Stephen King, of Michael Crichton, and even of Dracula, the book is not especially distinctive in style except for its attentiveness to scene depiction. But the strength of Mac as a character, the pure evil of his opponents, the bizarre but fact-based situations and creatures he encounters, and a pace reminiscent of that of H. Rider Haggard (who, like Doyle, was a friend of Percy Fawcett) combine to make Hell’s Gate a genuine page-turner whose balancing of suspense and science is expertly done – and whose conclusion opens the way to a sequel that readers will be eager to explore.

     And that sequel is The Himalayan Codex. Now it is 1946, and postwar rebuilding is in full swing. Mac is still recovering from the Hell’s Gate adventure and the toll it took on him in multiple ways – Schutt and Finch provide enough backstory to make it possible to read this book without knowing the earlier one (although their hints are so tantalizing that anyone who enjoys the second book will certainly want the first). Now, postwar, Mac’s civilian life has him at the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History (a portmanteau museum: there really is a Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New York has a Museum of Natural History as well). Mac is presented with some unusual jawbones believed to be from a dwarf mammoth that appears to have had two trunks. The mammoth, it is thought, came from a remote part of a remote land, Tibet – from an area known to local residents as the Labyrinth. All of Tibet is now under imminent threat of Communist takeover, making any journey there extremely perilous. But there may be something else, something even more valuable than an unusual mammoth, in Tibet: evidence of remarkable assertions contained in a partial codex written by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, possibly describing an encounter with the Cerae, or Yeti. And the Yeti, if they exist, could hold the key to an entirely new understanding of human evolution, for they may have the ability to speed up the evolutionary process. Mac agrees to go to Tibet and find out just what is there – as much to help himself forget some of the horrors he encountered in the Amazon as to enlarge his and humanity’s knowledge. Schutt and Finch again pull in peril after peril here – for instance, there is some creature out there that even the Yeti seem to fear – and they also create an interesting juxtaposition of Pliny’s travels and Mac’s. For example, Pliny encounters the Cerae and naturally reaches for his sword – which, it turns out, he does not have. And that is a good thing, because the companion who does have it is quickly dispatched. Many centuries later, one of Mac’s co-explorers barely escapes instant death when his weapon is knocked out of his hand just in time by another member of the party. This sort of parallelism makes The Himalayan Codex into, in effect, two separate, intertwined adventures – and that makes for echoes not of The Lost World, as in the first book, but of Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the modern-day (Victorian) explorers follow an earlier adventurer’s trail. (There is even a passing reference to Journey to the Center of the Earth here, although not in a parallel-adventures context.) As in Hell’s Gate, there are all sorts of elements in The Himalayan Codex that identifiably draw on earlier authors’ work; but, once again, Schutt and Finch use these elements in their own way and absorb them into a distinctive story (if, once more, not an especially distinctive writing style). There is a cinematic quality to The Himalayan Codex in the way the narrative cuts back and forth from Pliny’s time to Mac’s, and there is so much going on during the adventure that readers will find themselves visualizing scenes almost as if they were reading a screenplay rather than a novel – helped, once again, by some well-done descriptive passages that enhance the tale-telling without slowing it down. The novel has a number of supernatural or near-supernatural elements and a great deal of flat-out adventure, in some ways even more than Hell’s Gate possesses, and once more there is an extended note at the end that renders much of the apparent implausibility plausible. Although Mac has plenty of antecedents and Schutt and Finch tread territory already well-marked by earlier writers of thrilling adventures, Hell’s Gate and The Himalayan Codex nevertheless have a genuinely original feeling about them, thanks to their firm grounding in science and the authors’ regard for scenic accuracy and for motivations that, although sometimes stretched thin, never reach the breaking point. These are vivid novels, highly entertaining books whose apparently outlandish elements suggest that they are not to be taken seriously – except that they have a foundational basis in facts that makes the books more thoughtful, and more worrisome, than their fast pace and breezy surface style suggest on a first reading.

(++++) COMPLETE AND INCOMPLETE


Shostakovich: Complete Concertos (Piano, Violin, Cello). Lukas Geniušas and Dmitry Masleyev, piano; Sergey Dogadin and Pavel Milyukov, violin; Alexander Buzlov and Alexander Ramm, cello; Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Sladkovsky. Melodiya. $44.99 (3 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti. CSO Resound. $19.99.

     An ambitious and wonderfully conceived recording that fully repays the boldness of its approach, Melodiya’s release of the complete concertos of Shostakovich with the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Sladkovsky sheds new light on practically every movement of these works. The six young soloists are all recent International Tchaikovsky Competition winners, and unsurprisingly, each of them has technique to spare and a formidable grasp of the intricacies of this music. Somewhat more unexpectedly, each already has his own well-considered thoughts on the concerto he performs, viewing it not simply as a display piece but as a work whose structure and emotional underpinnings are worthy of exploration and require a specific form of emphasis and understanding. The soloists’ styles are by no means interchangeable – the contrast between the two cellists is particularly pronounced – and every performer shows why he has already attained major prizes and is at the start of what promises, in each case, to be a first-rate international career. Lukas Geniušas is particularly enamored of the sarcastic elements of Piano Concerto No. 1, delivering a fleet and strongly accented performance. Dmitry Masleyev makes Piano Concerto No. 2 good-humored without the snappishness of its predecessor, and fully explores the work’s lyrical elements. Sergey Dogadin blends his solo part carefully with the orchestral elements of Violin Concerto No. 1, putting virtuosity at the service of a generally balanced solo-ensemble sound. Pavel Milyukov accepts the density and gloom of Violin Concerto No. 2 and finds within the work a balance of forces that remains unresolved at the end. In Cello Concerto No. 1, Alexander Buzlov takes an approach akin to that of Geniušas in the first piano concerto, emphasizing the music’s ragged edges – but also allowing the finale to bloom in full expressiveness. Alexander Ramm takes a very different approach to Cello Concerto No. 2, making this work, which can easily seem overwhelmingly tragic, into a more-restrained display of emotional weariness whose effectiveness is abundantly clear at the music’s conclusion. Sladkovsky is a superb partner for all the soloists, working with each of them to produce orchestral sound and balance that fit each individual interpretation to excellent effect. And the orchestra is quite good, a touch ragged at times but for the most part assured and comfortable with the music, and with first-rate players handling soloistic elements of the concertos (in particular Dmitri Trubakov on trumpet in Piano Concerto No. 1). This is a remarkably fine release that thoroughly explores Shostakovich’s concerto output and sheds considerable new interpretative light on it.

     The new BIS recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä is the start of a planned complete-Mahler-symphony cycle. On the basis of this first reading, the cycle is likely to offer some insight into these now-standard-repertoire works, but may have quirks that will render it a (+++) endeavor – that being the rating for this particular recording. Vänskä’s reading gets off to a very strong start, the first and second movements (called Part I by Mahler) being rhythmically solid and emotionally intense, although the second movement backs off a little bit from the heightened potency of the first. But with Part II of the symphony – the third movement – things get a bit flabby: Michael Gast’s horn playing is fine, and the overall pace of the movement is good, but Vänskä makes the whole thing rather too episodic, and as a result the movement’s power and its ability to stand alone as a “Part” of the symphony are less than evident. And Part III of the work, consisting of the fourth and fifth movements, is a disappointment, for all of what is evidently its excellent intent. The lovely fourth movement, confusingly called “Adagietto” but then given the tempo indication Sehr langsam (“very slowly”), is taken practically as a Largo here: it is so slow as to be nearly soporific, the manifest beauties of its long lines largely lost as Vänskä focuses on bringing out minute details – which he does quite well – at the expense of the movement’s overall flow and structure. Mahler’s Fifth bears some resemblance to Beethoven’s – Mahler deliberately begins his with the famous rhythm that opens Beethoven’s Fifth – and the earlier symphony does have a well-known passage, at the end of its third movement, in which the orchestra almost seems to go to sleep as it is readied for the outburst of the finale. Perhaps Vänskä sees some parallel between what Beethoven did and what Mahler planned, but if so, the conductor takes it too far. And while Beethoven certainly wakes things up at the start of the finale of his Fifth, adding trombones and other instruments that have not appeared earlier, there is no such awakening in the finale of Vänskä’s Mahler Fifth. The jovial, even jubilant, forthright character of this rondo never gels: the finale starts a bit dully, as if shaking off the somnolence of the preceding movement, and while the proceedings are pleasant enough, there is no perkiness anywhere and no sense of triumphant assertion even in the chorale toward the end. This is a recording that starts well but goes steadily downhill as it progresses: nicely played, for sure, and sensitive to many of the nuances of Mahler’s lovely orchestration, but ultimately not structurally or emotionally convincing.

     Nor is Riccardo Muti’s version of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, on the orchestra’s own label, a fully convincing reading. Muti uses the traditional incomplete, three-movement version of the symphony – even though Bruckner quite clearly planned this as a four-movement work and completed the vast majority of the finale – and in the June 2016 concert from which this live recording is taken, Muti concluded the evening with the Te Deum, which Bruckner himself said could be used to complete the symphony. Thankfully, Muti does not take that suggestion here: the Te Deum is a poor fit structurally as well as musically with the three completed movements of the Ninth, and Bruckner was likely referring to its compatibility on a spiritual level rather than a musical one (the symphony is dedicated “to my dear God”). So Muti follows the tried-and-true tradition of regarding the three-movement Ninth as a complete work – a tradition deeply rooted at the Chicago Symphony, which gave the U.S. premières both of Bruckner’s Ninth (in 1904) and of the Te Deum (in 1892). The issues with Muti’s performance are more or less the opposite of those involving Vänskä’s reading of Mahler’s Fifth: Muti starts things out somewhat less impressively than he concludes them. The first movement is held in firm control and offers some particularly good playing from the brass – a longtime strength of this orchestra. But the passion, the mystery, the religious fervor of this movement are missing. This is a studied reading, a calculated one, powerful and sonically impressive but never as emotionally involving as the movement can be – until the final string phrases, which have an admirably gauged pleading quality. The weirdly flickering Scherzo gets similar treatment, but it fits this movement better, with vehemence bordering on malevolence in the main sections and a pleasantly whimsical handling of the trio that does not, however, completely escape a sense of underlying unease. It is only in the third movement that Muti really comes into his own here. The striving ever upward, the harshness of the sonic environment, the intensity of the full-orchestra outbursts, the strength of the climactic dissonance, the fragility of the very end – all these come through with a genuinely impressive level of power and involvement in which the winds are especially effective. As an inconclusive conclusion, this is a superior rendition of the movement, although the performance as a whole still gets a (+++) rating – which would have been higher if matters throughout were at the level they attain in the third movement. There are many fine readings of the truncated Bruckner Ninth available, and this is definitely one such. For Bruckner lovers, it is also worth paying some serious attention to recordings that include attempted completions of the finale, the recent one led by Gerd Schaller on Profil (using his own reconstruction of the finale) being particularly convincing. Fans of Muti and lovers of the very fine sound of the Chicago Symphony will not be disappointed in Muti’s Bruckner Ninth, which is impressive in many ways even though it does not stand head-and-shoulders above other very fine readings of the incomplete version of the composer’s final symphony.