December 28, 2017


What Was THAT All About? 20 Years of Strips and Stories. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $24.99.

     The answer to the question in the title of this collection of Zits strips may be found on page 49, and it is an answer of such sense, sensibility and sensitivity, such intelligence and awareness, that it bears branding into the consciousness not only of cartoonists but also of anyone who reads, enjoys, loves, tolerates, accepts, puts up with, collects, is appalled by, or otherwise interacts with comic strips. All this, despite the fact that the answer is written by the artist half of the Zits team, Jim Borgman, rather than the writer half, Jerry Scott. Unless the two swapped brains somewhere along the line, which, as this book shows, is entirely possible.

     This is another book in Andrews McMeel’s Handsome Hardcover series of comic-strip retrospectives; and no, there is no such official trademark, but doggone it, there ought to be, and double doggone it, now Andrews McMeel can rip off the idea. Well, it is a small gesture of gratitude to a company that takes comic strips seriously no matter how un-serious their content may be, which leads it from time to time to produce collectible hardbound volumes in designs ranging from elegant to clever. That includes this one, with its cover cutout through which eternal teenager Jeremy Duncan can be seen noticeably rolling his eyes. The book’s title and subtitle – and the strip’s name, which does not appear in either of them – are printed in several sizes, colors and type styles around that central cutout.

    About the strip’s name: that is just one of the many matters into which readers get insight here. The book is divided into sections with labels including “Happy Festivus, or Whatever,” “Six Bricks,” and “Chillax and Shredded.” One such title, “Making the Suits Squirm,” shows some of the many titles that Scott and Borgman considered for the strip before settling on Zits. The introduction to this particular section is by Scott, and among the many potential titles seen scrawled on scraps of paper are “Grounded for Life,” “Planet Jeremy,” and “Yo.” There are also three versions of the same panel showing Jeremy sprawled amid some of his possessions while his bemused dad looks on, one using the title “Jeremy and Stuff,” one called “Wild Thing,” and one with the final title, which even earned a backhanded compliment (the best kind) from Charles Schulz of Peanuts. Clearly the decision on what to call the strip was a very big deal: it is also the topic of a second section, “From the Wayback Machine,” which is introduced by Borgman and gives his take on the awfulness of some almost-used potential titles.

     Each of the book’s 21 sections (one of which gets introduction-style Roman numerals rather than standard numbers to make it look as if there are, like, 20 sections for 20 years, yippee) probes some element of the strip, with relevant examples then proffered not sequentially (as might be expected in a retrospective) but in a certain amount of depth. And one thing that comes clear again and again (and again) is that Zits is not only wonderfully written but also amazingly illustrated. As surreal-but-realistic strips go, Zits has no equal. The gorillas charging into the locker room as a tiny monkey flees before them are a perfect representation of high-school seniors as perceived by a younger student after gym class. The numerous ways Jeremy finds to make noise while descending the stairs in his house (including one showing both an elephant and a rhinoceros) are perfectly imagined. The tour of world landmarks, from the St. Louis Gateway Arch to the Eiffel Tower to the pyramids of Egypt, fits perfectly with Jeremy’s attitude toward after-school errands with his mom. A marvelous school-picture strip that includes five photos of guys with attitude (James Dean, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood et al.) whom Jeremy is supposed not to emulate is, well, picture-perfect. The way Jeremy’s long-winded explanations and complaints fit within single words or twine around the room as he attempts to get out of something-or-other provides exactly the right touch of absurdity and accuracy in equal measure. The horde of locusts stripping the Duncan family kitchen bare is just the right visual metaphor for teens descending on a food source. And all this comes on top of superb verbal and visual characterization of every single major character in the strip, from Jeremy’s long-suffering parents (emphasis on “suffering”) to best bud Hector, girlfriend Sara, much-perforated Pierce, and many others. Oh – and then there are the super-clever “repeat” strips, such as the guide to a teenager’s feelings that features 20 identical pictures of Jeremy’s face, and the one explaining why the family car is out of gas that shows 20-plus images of Jeremy looking forward, then back, as he practices getting out of and into the garage.

     So what is the answer to the question posed in the title, What Was THAT All About? “Putting something singular and remarkable into the world takes time and thought, usually many attempts, and the patience to stay with it when the first ten tries fail,” writes Borgman. “You should be thinking about working late into the night when everyone else has gone to bed and sometimes watching the sun come up as you put on the finishing touches,” he explains to a would-be cartoonist. “This is how cartoonists create worlds for their characters to live in and that seize the imaginations of their readers. It’s a beautiful feeling.” Wow, that is good. And wow, that is preachy. And wow, does Borgman know it, since he places next to his own words a picture of Jeremy’s mom, her hand smack over her eyes in the traditional comic-strip pose that means, “Oh, for crying out loud.” And wow, does that explain why Zits so often has readers laughing out loud. It’s a beautiful feeling.

(++++) BIRDING

Come Home Already! By Jory John. Illustrated by Benji Davies. Harper. $17.99.

Ducks Away! By Mem Fox. Illustrations by Judy Horacek. Scholastic. $16.99.

You’re My Little Chickadee. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

     The third one-sided-friendship book by Jory John and Benji Davies reintroduces well-meaning but over-enthusiastic Duck and slightly grumpy but basically good-hearted Bear in a tale that fits well with the previous Goodnight Already! and I Love You Already! The underlying plot is the same as before: Duck just does not know when enough is enough, and insists on pushing his friendship on Bear even when Bear wants a little time alone. For his part, Bear does not want to be crabby, not really, but he just wants Duck to give him a little space, something that Duck does not understand. So Bear goes to find his own space in Come Home Already! He heads off on a week-long fishing trip, a fact that Duck discovers when he comes to Bear’s house and sees the note on Bear’s front door. This is a big problem for Duck, who is a full-scale extrovert and does not like being by himself at all, ever. Duck comes up with all sorts of things he can do solo – read, cook, write a letter, play drums, watch a movie – but quickly decides that he “doesn’t feel like doing any of those things. …I’m just so bored.” For his part, Bear at first is happy being “alone with my thoughts,” with “no pesky neighbors knocking on my door at all hours.” But this turns out not to be exactly what Bear wants. He finds he has no skill at setting up his tent, and then it starts to rain, and he forgot to bring snacks, and cannot catch any fish, and does not know how to start a campfire – Bear, it turns out, is not much of a woodsman. A diagonally split page showing the two characters, each unhappy in a different way, each saying the word “sigh,” is the turning point here. Duck decides to go after Bear, who by this time is finding the woods “scary at night.” When Duck unexpectedly shows up, Bear is genuinely overjoyed to see him, all the more so when it turns out that Duck is “good at building tents and making fires.” And besides, Duck has brought snacks (marshmallows). So the two friends are genuinely happy with each other’s company – until the middle of the night, when Duck wants to make conversation and Bear just wants to sleep. Soon Duck and Bear are back to being something closer to “frenemies” than bosom pals, with Duck resuming his over-intrusive ways and Bear dreading the idea that Duck will keep his promise to “always be by your side.” So nothing is permanently solved in Come Home Already! But the story does develop the characters’ personalities nicely and set up further introvert/extrovert tales in the future.

     There are even more ducks in Mem Fox’s Ducks Away! In fact, there are six – a mother duck and five ducklings. The story here is a variation on the old one about a mother duck going “over the hills and far away” as her babies disappear one by one, until at the end they all come back and everyone is together again. But the setting here is different: the tale takes place on a bridge, across which the duck family is waddling, when suddenly a gust of wind blows one of the little ducks off the bridge and into the water below. The book quickly becomes a counting-down story, as Mother Duck asks, “Where should I go, with four on the bridge and one below?” Soon enough, one of the ducks still on the bridge looks down into the river, loses his balance, and falls into the water – and now Mother Duck has to figure out what to do about “three on the bridge and two below.” Judy Horacek’s very simple illustrations, against a plain white background, highlight the action nicely and will make the book appealing to early readers and pre-readers. Nothing really happens in the story except that the ducklings end up, one at a time, in the river, and eventually Mother Duck flies down there herself after one duckling tells her to “go with the flow.” And at the end, the six-duck family is reunited, now in the water, and that is that – a simple, mildly amusing story with pleasant cartoon illustrations that is an easy way to help young children understand the basics of subtraction.

     The bird in Sandra Magsamen’s latest adorable board book is a chick rather than a duck, or rather a “chickadee,” as the book’s title makes clear. This book is for even younger children than Ducks Away! It is simply a celebration of cuteness, with the little yellow chick having an orange comb that projects above all the pages and becomes part of each page’s illustration. The fun here comes from seeing the little chickadee in different poses, all of which are topped by the soft plush of the comb atop the book. The chick’s eyes are always closed, apparently in pleasure or with laughter, and its little body is made largely from “love hearts”: the legs are stick figures, but the wings are heart-shaped, and so are the background flowers and even the wings of a smiling bee that appears on one page. “You’re my little chickadee. You mean everything in the world to me,” Magsamen writes, and that is the entire point of the book – to affirm and reaffirm love and do so with a soft-looking (and, in the case of the comb, soft-feeling) little chick as the focus. This is a board book for the youngest children, perhaps up to age two or three, who will enjoy seeing the smiling little chick, hearing the pleasant rhymes of the text, and feeling the comb, which is tightly bound into a double-thick back cover so even eager little hands cannot inadvertently (or deliberately!) get it out. Parents and other adults looking for a sweet and simple way to express love to very young children will find plenty of help, and plenty of fun, in You’re My Little Chickadee!


The Book of Dust, Volume One: La Belle Sauvage. By Philip Pullman. Knopf. $22.99.

     A prequel to the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy of 1995-2000 and, in effect, two half-novels joined in the middle to make a single one, Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage is a most welcome return to the world of Lyra Belacqua at a time when Lyra herself is an infant whose diaper-changing needs are actually a plot point. But although Lyra is scarcely old enough to be an active protagonist in this part of her own story, she is quite important enough to be the prime mover in a tale of religious fanaticism on the rise and the first stirrings of heroic efforts to stem the tide. In fact, stemming the tide is a subtle metaphor in La Belle Sauvage, which really gets moving because of a flood that results in protagonist Malcolm Polstead fleeing with the infant Lyra to what he hopes will be safety.

     Knowing about the world of His Dark Materials and the role in it of Dust as a substance that both encapsulates and spreads consciousness is important for the full understanding and impact of La Belle Sauvage. Sensitivity to Pullman’s subtle and cultivated way with words is crucial, too. The book’s title refers to 11-year-old Malcolm’s much-loved canoe, but what the words actually mean is “the beautiful wild” (not “the beautiful savage”!), and while the importance of this concept is nonexistent for Malcolm himself, the fact that Pullman has Malcolm choose this name for his watercraft is significant for readers of His Dark Materials and, now, The Book of Dust. It is very much a part of Pullman’s anti-authoritarian, anti-rigidity worldview.

     Pullman is one of the world’s great storytellers, with an easy erudition that permeates his vocabulary and pacing. One should never, ever underestimate the care with which he builds worlds and fills them out. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm comes into contact with a scholar named Dr. Hannah Relf, who is studying the mysterious truth-indicating device known as the alethiometer; she lends him books while arranging for him to become, in effect, a spy for her – and the books she lends him are by Agatha Christie and Stephen Hawking. Leaving aside the cosmological question of how A Brief History of Time would fit into Pullman’s world (it would not, at least not neatly), what is interesting here is how Pullman uses this detail, one among a great many, to flesh out the world itself and the characters in it.

     He does not, however, flesh all of them out equally, so intensely does he devote himself to the central one. Malcolm is a marvelous creation, as fully formed in this book as an older Lyra is in His Dark Materials. And just as Lyra follows a somewhat Miltonic path in the trilogy built around her (whose title comes from Paradise Lost), so Malcolm follows a classic path of his own, specifically that of The Odyssey, with Malcolm called upon to find his own inner trickster while offering baby Lyra tenderness and fierce defense in equal measure. It is an impressive feat of characterization, one among many in Pullman’s works in general and the world of His Dark Materials in particular.

     However, the Odyssey elements of La Belle Sauvage, around which the second half of the novel is built, fit imperfectly onto the “thriller” elements that make up the first half. The early part of the book powerfully shows the rise of an autocratic, narrow type of religious tyranny in the form of the Magisterium, which not only maintains a black-shirt sort of security force called the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD) but also has a kind of Hitler-youth group called the League of St. Alexander. Both the CCD and the League pursue Malcolm as he flees with Lyra, boy and baby helped on their journey in La Belle Sauvage by the cranky and initially rather one-dimensional Alice Polstrow, a teenager with whom Malcolm has been working (and fighting) at the inn owned by his parents. Over time, as Alice and Malcolm become sort-of-friends, Alice develops more personality, but she is mostly a foil against whom Malcolm can display his growing heroism and self-awareness. In the second half of the book, wherein mythical creatures from our own world and Pullman’s appear during the young people’s journey (an evil fairy, Old Father Thames, and others), much of the book’s first part simply disappears – including, for example, Dr. Relf.

     The “nemesis” character who spans both halves of La Belle Sauvage is a strange and genuinely frightening man named Gerard Bonneville (another instance of irony in Pullman’s name choices: “good city”). He is a disgraced scientist, which here means an experimental theologian, with a scary hyena as his daemon – one of the most basic elements of the world of His Dark Materials is that people have daemons, essentially external manifestations of the personality and/or soul, that can act semi-independently but must always stay nearby. Bonneville is presented as a sexual predator (including some apparently consensual involvement with Alice) and, even more significantly, as the discoverer of the Dust particle. But his motivations for coming after Malcolm, Alice and Lyra in the book’s second half are never made entirely clear, much less convincing. He seems to want Lyra for some sort of leverage with the Magisterium, or perhaps for revenge after being sent to prison, or perhaps simply because he is deranged and obsessed – at one point he says he wants to roast and eat the baby and is really pursuing Alice. Bonneville is deeply sinister and tremendously violence-prone, but he is also rather mundane as an evildoer, more of a cardboard bad guy than a wholly believable (if detestable) adversary. The slightly uneasy mid-book merger of the thriller and Odyssey elements of La Belle Sauvage, the somewhat-less-developed characterization of those in the story other than Malcolm himself, and the mindless and scattered anger and viciousness rather than clear-but-twisted motivation of Bonneville, all make La Belle Sauvage somewhat more superficial than His Dark Materials. But if it is modestly less appealing on its own, it is nevertheless an excellent fit into the world of the earlier trilogy, a frequently exciting and oftimes imaginatively splendid return to the world Pullman created there, and yet another venture into Pullman’s superb storytelling art. The second volume of The Book of Dust, to be called The Secret Commonwealth, will take place after the events of His Dark Materials rather than before, and it will not be at all surprising if some of the characters of La Belle Sauvage reappear in it, perhaps in further-fleshed-out form.


Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition. By Stephen R. Bown. Da Capo. $28.

First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $28.

     There will never be a shortage of untold, or at least under-told, stories of historical events, so history buffs will always have plenty of opportunities to immerse themselves in tales of triumph and failure, heartbreak and drama, assembled by writers with a knack for delving into primary sources and turning complex and confusing narratives into comparatively straightforward tales whose plots move with novelistic surety. Stephen R. Bown and Harlow Giles Unger are adept at this sort of historical exegesis, and readers whose interests lie in these comparatively rarefied environs will not be disappointed with the latest Bown and Unger books. Bown’s innocuously titled story of a very extended, horrific exploratory trip that was ultimately successful in many ways and tragic in many more revolves around the last and greatest voyage of Vitus Bering (1681-1741), for whom the Bering Sea and Bering Strait are named. Bering, who was Danish, came to Czarist Russia when Peter the Great significantly expanded the Russian Navy and made clear his ambition to show that Russia was on a par for exploratory prowess with the greatest maritime nations of Europe. Czar Peter’s determination led to a decade-long, three-continent voyage known as the Great Northern Expedition, with Bering as Captain-Commander until his death in the midst of the journey. Starting in 1733, Bering led a task force – one that ended up including nearly 3,000 scientists, explorers, soldiers, interpreters, surveyors and others – from the Imperial capital of St. Petersburg across 6,000 miles of mostly forbidding Russian terrain. It was a three-year trek so harrowing, so filled with fighting and suffering, that it is hard to believe there could be worse to come. After reaching the Pacific Ocean, the expedition – bolstered by laborers and others commandeered from Siberia during its lengthy travels – built two ships that would sail into the Pacific Ocean. One of these, the St. Paul, sailed south under the command of Aleksey Chirikov (1703-1748) and eventually made Russia’s first contact with Japan. Bering commanded the other ship, the St. Peter, which sailed through what is now the Bering Strait – proving that Russia is not connected with America – and reached Alaska. But there was scarcely unalloyed triumph. The vessel was shipwrecked on an isolated Aleutian island, where Bering and many crew members died before the survivors were able, remarkably, to build another, smaller ship from the wreck of the first and eventually return to Russia with a tremendous amount of scientific information. The trials and turmoil of the expedition come through vividly in Island of the Blue Foxes, and Bown has done his usual meticulous research using diaries and letters as well as official reports and other secondary sources. The findings of the Great Northern Expedition really were remarkable – for example, one scientist, Georg Steller, provided the first-ever descriptions of animals that now bear his name, including Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s sea cow, and Steller’s jay. In terms of accomplishments, the expedition must be labeled a success – but Bown effectively balances that evaluation with strong, often gruesome scenes of what the explorers endured, notably on the island of the book’s title. This is where Bering’s ship was wrecked, and anyone who thinks that animals that have never encountered humans will be well-disposed toward us will be brought up short at what happened on that island: the feral foxes were extremely vicious, to the point of attacking and eating still-living but desperately ill men with aggressiveness that was not hampered by human counterattacks. It is not the scientific findings but the daily depredations of the shipwrecked crew that will likely stay most strongly with readers of Bown’s book – readers who, before picking up Island of the Blue Foxes, may have known little about Alaska beyond the fact that Russia sold it to the United States in 1867.

     Those who look into Unger’s biography of Richard Henry Lee will likely know only, or primarily, of one of Lee's relatives – either “Light-Horse Harry” Lee of the Revolutionary War or Robert E. Lee of the Civil War. And readers who know Unger’s other works may be taken aback by the title of this one, since Unger has already written The Last Founding Father (about James Monroe). What Unger wants to do in The First Founding Father is to rescue this Lee (1732-1794) from comparative obscurity. Unger pointedly says that Richard Henry Lee was the first Founding Father to call for independence, the first to call for union, and the first to call for a bill of rights – echoing, surely on purpose, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee’s eulogy in which he described George Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Richard Henry Lee was friendly with Washington, as well as with Jefferson and Madison and other Founding Fathers, although the friendships became strained in time and did not always lead to unanimity of purpose: Lee, for example, thought the Constitution an invitation to federal overreach on taxes and the raising of armies, which is one reason he became instrumental in adding the Bill of Rights to it. Lee certainly had political bona fides, serving in the Continental Congress and as a U.S. Senator. But Unger is more interested in the ways in which Lee helped foment and further the American Revolution – for example, by directly threatening King George III with rebellion unless the notorious Stamp Act were not annulled. Lee also helped Samuel Adams put together a spy network (which included Lee’s two youngest brothers) to watch British troop movements and provide intelligence from England; and at the First Continental Congress, Lee pushed for a total embargo on British goods. Lee was a noncombatant during the war itself, so the battles become background in The First Founding Father as Unger shows what Lee was doing, when and why, while the fighting dragged on. For example, he parallels Washington’s difficult maintenance of the fighters at Valley Forge in 1778 with Lee’s holding together of the Continental Congress in York, Pennsylvania, at the same time, after the British took the national capital of Philadelphia in September 1777. Significantly, it was Lee’s motion for independence that Congress approved on July 2, 1776, the day than Benjamin Franklin thought would be celebrated as Independence Day (a title that, however, was bestowed on July 4, the day when the motion was widely proclaimed). Unger does his usual creditable job of showing the importance of his biographical subject, and offers some interesting historical sidelights along the way, such as the fact that most Americans wanted a form of local self-determination and self-rule within Britain, not full independence from the mother country. Lee is ultimately not as interesting a human being as other Founding Fathers of whom Unger has written, but his contributions to the early history of the United States were many and profound, and they deserve to be far more widely known than they are – a situation to whose redress this intelligently written book is dedicated.


Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra; Mahler: Totenfeier; Symphonic Prelude for Orchestra. Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Chamber Symphony after the String Quintet; Mahler: Symphony No. 10—First Movement. Die Taschenphilharmonie conducted by Peter Stangel. Edition Taschenphilharmonie. $18.99.

Mahler: Das Klagende Lied. Simone Schneider, soprano; Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, mezzo-soprano; Torsten Kerl, tenor; Adrian Eröd, baritone; Wiener Singakademie and ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cornelius Meister. Capriccio. $16.99.

Claude Baker: Piano Concerto “From Noon to Starry Night”; Aus Schwanengesang. Marc-André Hamelin, piano; Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gilbert Varga and Juanjo Mena. Naxos. $12.99.

     The relationship between music and literature, particularly poetic literature, is a longstanding and frequently highly fruitful one. In the Romantic era and through to the present day, composers seeking to use music to evoke emotional responses have turned again and again to written material that has the same intent – heightening, broadening and expanding the meaning and impact of the original words through tone painting. It was this, not any overt “translating” of philosophy into musical form, that Richard Strauss sought in Also Sprach Zarathustra, which was inspired by Nietzsche’s great philosophical work but never intended as a musical “version” of it. Strauss was interested in the “evolutionary” nature of human beings as envisioned by Nietzsche – something that film director Stanley Kubrick realized in using Strauss’ music in connection with a mysterious evolution driver in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Strauss’ interest was carried into music through the entirely fitting device of metamorphosis: if Also Sprach Zarathustra is to be about evolving, then the music itself must evolve. Vladimir Jurowski’s handling of the work with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin makes this quite clear in a new PentaTone recording. Jurowski latches onto Strauss’ musical motifs and carries them clearly through the entire performance, never allowing the very large orchestra to appear to be present solely for the sake of a big sound. Strauss did often use large orchestral forces for their sheer monumentality, but not in Also Sprach Zarathustra, and that makes it particularly interesting to hear the other works on this disc. Neither is at all well-known. Mahler’s Totenfeier is the first version of what would eventually become the opening movement of his Symphony No. 2 – but this is its original, standalone version, which has some fascinating connections with Richard Strauss. For one thing, Mahler wrote to Strauss about conductor Hans von Bülow’s extreme negative reaction to Totenfeier. For another, Mahler conducted Totenfeier as an independent work in 1896, the same year Also Sprach Zarathustra was first heard. Totenfeier is not quite the same piece as the first movement of the “Resurrection” symphony (the orchestration and some musical details differ); and the chance to hear the piece in its original form, with its literary tie-in to the concept of a struggling hero (from Symphony No. 1) being carried to his grave, is a welcome one. As for the final piece on this disc, Symphonic Prelude, it is a reconstruction by Albrecht Gürsching that comes with an intriguing mystery. The work dates to 1876, when Mahler would have been 16 and was studying with Bruckner – and there is actually somewhat more evidence that Bruckner wrote it than that Mahler did, although the attribution to Mahler is more frequent. The piece does have some Brucknerian elements, but those could have been included by Mahler under the influence of the older composer. The work is in C minor and in straightforward sonata form. Aside from some dramatically Mahlerian propulsiveness, there is not very much to the piece musically, although it is nicely constructed. It makes an intriguing conclusion to a disc steeped in literary allusion.

     Mahler and Bruckner also appear together on the latest fascinating release by the wonderfully named Taschenphilharmonie (“Pocket Philharmonic”) on the orchestra’s own label. Peter Stangel and Die Taschenphilharmonie have been reviving the performance concept of Arnold Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School at their Society for Private Musical Performances, which existed briefly in Vienna in the 1920s. The group’s notion was to present large-scale modern works by both well-known and little-known composers, using first-rate musicians – but only 12 to 20 of them. Schoenberg himself was among the arrangers of music for these performances; Stangel has now taken over that role for most of the music performed by Die Taschenphilharmonie, and he is responsible for both works heard on the latest disc. Bruckner’s Chamber Symphony is based on his little-known String Quintet and, indeed, sounds only modestly expanded in Stangel’s arrangement, which is for just 11 musicians. The quintet itself is not a major Bruckner work, but it shows nicely that the composer had a solid command of traditional chamber-music forms and could write expressive, well-proportioned music on a smaller scale when he was so inclined. The pairing here is with the opening movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, and here the arrangement does represent a significant alteration of the composer’s original: Stangel calls for only 16 players, with some interesting instrumental choices (one flute, one oboe, but two clarinets). The exceptional chamber-like clarity of the earlier part of the movement comes across especially well in this performance, but the monumental and highly dissonant chord for which the latter part of the movement is known sounds more Schoenbergian than Mahlerian here – which, however, is part of the point of performing the music this way. Stangel and Die Taschenphilharmonie provide remarkable insights into the structure of the works they play, including both of those here, and the result is an experience that is both unusual and exciting, especially so for those who know the music in its original instrumental guise.

     Mahler’s use of poetry, from his early Wunderhorn songs and the symphonies incorporating or based on them to his late Das Lied von der Erde, was pervasive and, indeed, crucial to his oeuvre. It took him a while, though, to decide just what literary material he wanted to use and how. Das Klagende Lied is not quite as early as the Symphonic Prelude, dating in its original form to 1878-1880. But it is still very early Mahler indeed, and calls for so large and complex an orchestra that its first version is almost never heard. In 1899, Mahler revised the second and third parts of the work, in which he was already looking for a form beyond that of traditional symphony, cantata or opera. The first and longest part was never revised, and is not really necessary, since it basically gives a more-extended version of the same story told in compressed fashion in the second and third. However, performances of Das Klagende Lied, which are infrequent, commonly use the original first part and the revised second and third, producing a rather ill-matched but frequently very impressive-sounding work that runs more than an hour and calls on significant vocal and orchestral forces. This hybrid version of the piece is the one conducted by Cornelius Meister on a new Capriccio CD, and while Das Klagende Lied creaks at the seams a bit – especially so when the early version of the first part is mixed with the later one of the second and third – this is still a work of considerable musical effectiveness, and one that fulfills Mahler’s interest in enhancing the impact of the poetry on which it is based. The story – the booklet commendably offers all the words in both German and English – is about two brothers who woo the same queen, who has both seek a token in the woods. The younger finds the required red flower but is killed by the older. Eventually a minstrel walking through the woods finds a bone, from which he fashions a flute. The bone turns out to have belonged to the murdered younger brother; when played, it tells the story of the older brother’s perfidy. The minstrel plays the flute at the wedding of the queen and older brother, causing sorrow and mayhem. In Das Klagende Lied, Mahler, who wrote his own text, combined a Grimm fairy tale with a work by Ludwig Bechstein. The moody and careful scoring brings out the lugubrious story well, and the performers under Meister handle the material with clarity and sensitivity, resulting in an effective musical exposition and expansion of the material.

     Today’s composers, such as Claude Baker (born 1948), continue to find inspiration in literary models, in some cases including ones that have inspired composers of earlier times. That is the case with Baker’s Aus Schwanengesang (2001), a wordless revisit to and reinterpretation of some of the poetic settings by Schubert that were collected after his death and published as Schwanengesang. There are 14 songs in the Schubert grouping, with words by three different poets. Six of the texts are by Heinrich Heine, and these are the ones that Baker selects for reinterpretation – at the same time rearranging them, for narrative purposes, into the order in which they originally appeared in Heine’s collection, Die Heimkehr (Schubert’s publisher, Tobias Haslinger, had changed the order). Baker turns the six poems – again, though, without words – into a five-movement suite that periodically dips into Schubert’s wonderfully melodic musical language just long enough to contrast it with Baker’s far harsher and more typically contemporary musical approach. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Juanjo Mena handles the material adeptly, and the contrasts between the often very dissonant material by Baker and the wonderfully melodious phrases by Schubert are certainly dramatic enough. But Aus Schwanengesang really hangs together and makes sense only for listeners who know both the original Schubert music and the original themes of Heine’s poems – without that knowledge, neither the intended narrative nor the surprising periodic entry of sweet melodies will make a great deal of sense. Aus Schwanengesang is coupled on this (+++) Naxos CD with another poetry-inspired work, Piano Concerto “From Noon to Starry Night” (2010). This is a five-movement work inspired by poems of Walt Whitman, again presented without words and therefore requiring some prior knowledge of Whitman’s work in general and these poems in particular for full effect. The five poems are “Beat! Beat! Drums! – Blow! Bugles! Blow!”; “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun”; “Warble for Lilac-Time”; “The Dalliance of the Eagles”; and “The Mystic Trumpeter.” But the titles of Baker’s movements, although reflective of the poetry, provide somewhat different emphases: “Drum Taps,” “Silent Sun,” “Lilacs,” “Dalliance” and “Ecstatic Ghost.” The music here seems more fully Baker’s own, less self-conscious than that in Aus Schwanengesang, and the result is that the concerto is a somewhat more effective work. The musical language itself is less harsh, although it is prone to the stop-and-start pacing all too common in contemporary composition. The piano often assumes an obbligato role rather than one of leadership; in both circumstances, Marc-André Hamelin handles his part with skill. The orchestra, here directed by Gilbert Varga, also seems quite comfortable with Baker’s idiom. The fact remains, though, that unlike composers whose pieces incorporate poetry and other literary material so as to expand upon it, Baker’s works – at least these two – seem to be commentaries on poetry, requiring listener familiarity with their referents for the music to communicate effectively. That is a recipe for limiting one’s audience, not expanding it.


Handel: Messiah (1754 version). Sandrine Piau and Katharine Watson, sopranos; Anthea Pichanick, contralto; Rupert Charlesworth, tenor; Andreas Wolf, bass-baritone; Le Concert Spirituel conducted by Hervé Niquet. Alpha. $27.99 (2 CDs).

     It was not easy making a living as a composer in the 18th century. Most creators of music also had to be performers, and had to attach themselves to the courts of various nobles in order to earn enough money to live on. Even composers with generous and musically knowledgeable patrons, such as Haydn, had to spend much of their time catering to the whims of the court, which in Haydn’s case meant composing quite a number of operas for puppets. Composers originally noted for their performing abilities, such as the very young Mozart, frequently had a very difficult time making the transition to being primarily creators of music and only secondarily presenters of it. And even when a composer was highly successful with the music he brought into being, he had to reckon with numerous pirated editions, unauthorized and butchered performances, and attributions to him of works that he did not write and whose poor quality did nothing for his own reputation.

     This was a time before royalties – that is, payment for one’s creative endeavors, not to be confused with royalty, without which most composers would have been unable to function at all. It was a time when business-savvy composers wanted their works performed as frequently as possible, by as many organizations as possible, because that was where the money was: pack the performing space with people who would pay to see and hear the music, and the composer got to keep a good percentage of what we now call the box-office receipts.

     All this explains why the notion of a “definitive” version of a hyper-popular work such as Handel’s Messiah is a problematical one. Handel was a big success and a good businessman, quite willing to reuse plenty of his popular tunes and even full arias in new contexts so that people would pay again and again to hear them – and equally willing to modify his compositions for whatever forces might be available for a given performance, thereby ensuring yet more box-office receipts. Thus, there are about a dozen different versions of Messiah, and all of them are equally authentic even though they differ quite a bit from each other, sometimes rather dramatically. One of the least-often heard is the so-called Foundling Hospital version of 1754, which Handel created because of an unusual situation in which he had access to (and expectation of using) five soloists. The Foundling Hospital performance of Messiah is important musicologically because it is the first for which full details of the orchestral and vocal forces survive. The orchestra included 15 violins, five violas, three cellos, two double-basses, four bassoons, four oboes, two trumpets, two horns and timpani. The chorus consisted of 19 singers, six of them trebles and the remainder (all of them men) being altos, tenors and basses. The five soloists also sang in the choral portions of the work. But despite its acknowledged historical value, this 1754 version is rarely heard, undoubtedly in part because of the five-soloist requirement. It is therefore especially enjoyable to have it in a performance as beautifully balanced, finely tuned, well thought out and sophisticated as the one led by Hervé Niquet and featuring his ensemble, Le Concert Spirituel, which he has now led for 30 years. This is an outstanding group that plays with what sounds like perfect intuitive understanding of the music and a level of chamber-music-like conversational communication that fits Messiah surprisingly well. Couple the ensemble’s excellence with the firm understanding of period style shared by all the soloists, and the unobtrusively excellent sound on this two-CD Alpha release, and you have one of the most moving and interesting Messiah performances currently available – no matter what the version of the music.

     But the version does matter, and not just because this one has the five solo singers. Niquet, a supremely thoughtful conductor of music of this time period, sees Messiah as an oratorio with operatic aspiration, or perhaps an opera in oratorio guise. He focuses on the story arc of the material, bringing out the dramatic continuity of the tale of Christ’s predicted birth, actual arrival and ministry, death and resurrection. It is, in fact, a highly dramatic story, but it is one that generally tends to be shorn of drama in the name of piety. Not so here. Niquet sees the spiritual meaning emerging through the dramatic events, and to that end chooses tempos and balances that highlight the work’s many intense moments as well as its pervasively inspirational ones. That produces a highly intriguing view of Messiah, and combined with the choice of this specific version of the score, makes for a kind of re-perception of a work that listeners who have not yet heard this recording will only think they know well. There may be no definitive Messiah score – or performance – but it turns out that is all to the good, since it makes it possible for someone as knowledgeable and intelligent as Niquet to find and present one of the oratorio’s less-known versions in such a way as to intrigue, enthrall and deeply move anyone who listens to it.

December 21, 2017


Celebrating Snoopy. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $75.

     There are very, very few publishers that accord comics the respect they deserve as an art form and a communications medium unlike any other. Among them, Andrews McMeel is pre-eminent, with its outstanding hardcover “tribute” books that display and pay homage to some of the great and enduring examples of the form: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert 2.0, A Doonesbury Retrospective, Epic Big Nate and others.

     Equally to the point, there are very, very few cartoonists who are able to create mini-universes with their strips and then sustain them at a uniformly high level for decade after decade. These do not include famous names such as Bill Watterson, whose Calvin and Hobbes ran for only 10 years, or Gary Larson, whose The Far Side ran for 15, for example – but they do include George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (1913-1944), Walt Kelly’s Pogo (1948-1975), and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (1950-2000). And now Andrews McMeel has once again outdone itself with a marvelous slipcased hardcover volume devoted to one of the truly great comics and cartoonists – focusing this time not on the strip as a whole (the publisher’s Celebrating Peanuts already did that in 2009) but on one of the most unusual, endearing and downright strange characters in it: Snoopy.

     The fact that Snoopy does not seem particularly strange these days is testimony to how deeply and effectively Schulz developed this little beagle (not originally conceived as a beagle, except that he thought the word sounded funny – one of many revelations in this book). Snoopy’s personality, like that of any other human or animal character, changed in many ways through the years, but his basic conception was a simple and brilliant one that made all the later changes flow in ways that seemed natural. Celebrating Snoopy offers a perfect way to see Snoopy’s early days and trace his development, while not incidentally following the changes in the Peanuts strip itself. Readers will learn that Snoopy was based on a dog Schulz once had named Spike – and Spike eventually appears in Peanuts as Snoopy’s brother. Readers who know Snoopy’s famous impersonations and flights of fancy, ranging from the World War I Flying Ace to “Joe Cool” and many others, will here find Snoopy’s very first, very limited attempts to be something else: a wolf, a vampire bat, a vulture and more. Readers who cannot imagine Snoopy lying anywhere except atop his doghouse will here find the first time he did that (December 12, 1958) and be able to trace how that one new element of the strip led to many, many others as Snoopy’s personality flowered.

     At the same time, readers will here see Snoopy’s first eight years, before the first on-the-doghouse panel – years in which Snoopy understands what the human characters say but reacts to them in more traditionally doglike ways, as when he hears that refined people speak softly and changes his loud bark to a quiet one. Snoopy’s relationship with Charlie Brown (whom he later just calls “the round-headed kid”) is seen developing here, too: Charlie Brown fails to catch a baseball, the ball hits Snoopy, and after a series of “arf!” remarks, Charlie Brown comments that he hates to “get bawled out by a dog”; but in contrast, a Sunday strip shows Charlie Brown brought to tears by Snoopy’s enthusiastic greeting – and then somewhat spoiling the moment by wiping his tears on Snoopy’s floppy ear. On and on Snoopy’s development goes, with remarks by Schulz (made in various venues at various times) adding to the step-by-step progress seen in the strips (all beautifully reproduced and carefully shown with their original dates). Schulz was well aware of the more and more surrealistic world he was building for and around Snoopy, explaining at one point why the inside of the doghouse is never seen and why there is never any background behind it (“it would become too real”). For example, Snoopy is first shown ice-skating wearing four skates on his four paws, but it is not long before he is skating while standing on his hind legs and without actually wearing skates – sometimes even in his frozen water dish (February 23, 1964). And while Snoopy is seen dancing almost from the start of the strip, his original four-legged dances seem stiff (although he is always happy doing them) when compared with the now-more-familiar “happy dance” for which Snoopy is justifiably renowned.

     In fact, there are many reasons Snoopy is renowned, and many more for which Schulz is celebrated, and Celebrating Snoopy offers a prodigious number of them through 550 superb oversized pages. There are more levels of joy here than can easily be enumerated: the joy of discovering or rediscovering one of the greatest comic strips of all; the joy of seeing the inner life of a comic-strip dog brilliantly displayed in ways that make absolute sense in context while seeming to touch on what real-world dogs might be thinking; the joy of nostalgia for the ways in which Peanuts developed over the years; the bittersweet joy of finding or re-finding especially beloved strips in the knowledge that there can be no more; and the unalloyed joy of the whole beautifully produced assemblage of material in a book that deserves pride of place in any comic-strip lover’s library. If Celebrating Snoopy, one of the very best comic-strip collections of recent years, does not make you feel like doing your very own “happy dance,” there is something missing not only in your sense of humor but also in your basic humanity and your capacity for wonder and delight.


Calendars (page-a-day for 2018): Pearls Before Swine; The Little World of Liz Climo. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     In real life, thank goodness, most people are kind to animals and reasonably happy around them. In cartoon life, not so much. Hand-drawn animals are subject to all sorts of abuse, mistreatment, and utilization as proxies for human ills and foibles of all kinds. This can be done on a good-natured basis or, as in the case of Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, in a somewhat darker mood. Pastis is noted for his willingness to create and kill off characters willy-nilly, then sometimes bring them back with the explanation that they “undied.” He does not do this with his major characters, however, and in that way differs from cartoonists such as Scott Adams, who in the early days of Dilbert actually had Dilbert killed to find out whether anyone cared (nobody really did, assuming, correctly, that he would be back). In any case, those who enjoy Pastis’ rather dark and cynical Pearls Before Swine strip and want a dose of it daily throughout 2018 have a chance to get just that with a page-a-day calendar bearing the title “King Wrong” and showing, on the cover, giant-ape-like Pastis climbing the Empire State Building while holding Pig and being attacked by aircraft, including one piloted by Rat. In the Pearls Before Swine world, all this makes perfect sense. So do the strips shown throughout the year. Pastis is a character in his own strip – a scruffy and unpleasant one – and gets treated about as well as do the other characters. Yes, that badly. The short-term characters get it worst, though: for example, famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil shows up to look for his shadow and is promptly carried away by a bird of prey. Regular characters mostly spend their time showing their true personalities, as when Rat gets into politics and promises to create “a compassionate totalitarian dictatorship,” while Goat tackles deeper issues such as the afterlife, asking Pig, “What do pigs think happens to them after they die?” And Pig himself, of course, responds just as his personality dictates: “They get squished between lettuce and tomato and called a B.L.T.” When these three characters get together, Pearls Before Swine is at its – well, swiniest if not pearliest. In one strip, for example, Goat talks about Einstein’s theory of relativity, Pig says Rat explained the whole thing by telling him “they’re annoying and judgmental and ruin the holidays,” and Rat cuts in to say that’s his theory of relatives. Elsewhere, Goat takes one bite of a cinnamon roll and instantly gains so much weight that Rat says he no longer fits in the panel; Biblical ark builder Noah returns to find souls worthy of redemption and is only able to come up with one – his dog, Skippy; and just to make sure hand-drawn human characters suffer as much as hand-drawn animal ones, Rat is seen crushing a man between two airline seats to protest cramped airplane seating, and when Goat asks why Rat doesn’t just contact the company’s CEO, Rat explains that the crushed man is the CEO. “I’m more delighted than I should be,” says Goat – and fans of Pearls Before Swine will share that sentiment all year with this calendar.

     Liz Climo is kinder to her animal characters than Pastis is to his, but The Little World of Liz Climo is just as strange and surreal as Pastis’. Climo does single-panel comics (although sometimes divided into two small panels, and occasionally more) rather than multi-panel sequential strips, so the pacing of her humor is different. Her groundhog tribute for 2018 simply involves a rabbit and skunk wishing a good day to the groundhog, after which the skunk says, “Crap – were we supposed to get him a gift?” Then there is the shark – one of many recurring Climo characters – saying “lobster is the best medicine” to a lobster, who says he thinks it’s laughter, not lobster, to which the shark replies, “Actually I think it’s aspirin.” And there is the rabbit enjoying painting Easter eggs until a chick walks up and says, “Dude, that’s my brother.” Also here is a snake using his entire body as a selfie stick. And a young dinosaur telling his dad that there is an emergency requiring ice cream immediately – when his father asks what the emergency is, the response is, “I’ll tell you after we eat the ice cream.” Speaking of eating, a crocodile comments that the noodles he is having “taste kinda gross,” but when he is told they are worms, he says, “in that case they’re pretty good.” There is also a hammerhead shark that tries to wear 3D glasses but decides they are broken – because, of course, his eyes are not set close together but are on opposite sides of the head from which he gets his name. There are also a pig who makes a Halloween piggy-bank costume by eating another character’s quarters, a killer whale who dons little round ears and says he is a panda, and an armadillo who simply rolls into a protective round shape and looks exactly like a basketball. The fun here is sometimes in the words, as in a phone call where a sloth says he is “just hangin’ around” while the penguin on the other end says he is “chillin’.” At other times, the illustrations make the humor, as when a frilled lizard (characterized by a huge fold of skin around the neck) tries unsuccessfully to wear a turtleneck. Climo’s humor is always offbeat and often surprisingly gentle – this calendar is a good choice for anyone who wants an animal-centric chuckle every day rather than a guffaw at animals’ expense.


The Bad Guys #5: Intergalactic Gas. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.

Mutant Bunny Island #1. By Obert Skye. Illustrated by Eduardo Vieira. Harper. $12.99.

     The epic, world-spanning, zombie-pervaded battle between bad guys who are determined to be good and an adorable, brilliant but monstrously evil guinea pig heats up further in the fifth volume of Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys series, which is every bit as ridiculous as the first four, if not more so. This is not an apt entry point for anyone unfamiliar with the sequence – each of these books picks up where the last one left off, so starting with any volume other than the first is a recipe for confusion (in addition to the intentional confusion lavishly ladled out by Blabey himself). In Intergalactic Gas, evil Dr. Rupert Marmalade, whose initial plan to flood the world with zombie kittens was foiled by the Bad Guys in the previous book, has mounted his zombification ray on the moon and is turning everything cute and cuddly, and some things that are not so cute and cuddly, into zombies, thereby bringing about the end of the world. He is doing this because, hey, why not? The Bad Guys have to stop him, and are encouraged to do so by the foxy Agent Fox, who in this book turns out to be pretty much useless. She tells Bad Guys leader Mr. Wolf to “borrow” a spaceship and fly to the moon while she stays behind, urging this course of action even though Mr. Wolf, who really is determined to be a good guy, quails at the thought of stealing the ship. Of course there would be no story unless he did steal it, so he does, and Legs the tarantula pilots it as Mr. Shark, Mr. Snake and Mr. Piranha go along for the ride. So does a large bag of burritos, the favored food these days of Mr. Piranha, who overeats them grotesquely. This becomes an important plot point when Mr. Wolf gets trapped outside Marmalade’s moon lair in a spacesuit and discovers Mr. Piranha in it as well – in an extreme state of flatulence that Mr. Wolf eventually uses to break through to his captured fellow Bad Guys and defeat Marmalade for the moment. It is not a long moment, as Marmalade reveals that he is not an adorable, harmless-looking little guinea pig after all but a gigantic, multi-eyed, multi-mouthed, multi-tentacled alien thing, thereby setting up what will be the sixth of these books, Alien vs. Bad Guys. As for this fifth volume, it is not one of the better ones in the series. The bathroom humor is overdone even for the age group at which the book is targeted, and the uselessness of Agent Fox is really getting kind of annoying by this point. Still, Blabey’s ridiculous drawings are as much fun as always, and the latest “brilliant disguise” of Mr. Shark – as a booster rocket containing Mr. Snake, Mr. Piranha and Legs, all of whom he has temporarily swallowed (along with the bag of burritos) – is as grossly silly as anyone could wish. Anyone addicted to this series, that is.

     Mutant Bunny Island is not a continuation but the start of a series – the book is actually self-contained, but the number 1 on the spine gives the plan away – and it too features a transformation. A lot of transformations. Of bunnies, that is. Well, actually of people into bunnies. And then there’s the squid. You see, Obert Skye’s protagonist, Perry Owens, who narrates the book, knows nothing about the world (or Ohio, where he lives) except what he has learned by reading old issues of a now-discontinued comic book called “Ocean Blasterzoids,” featuring a noble squid named Admiral Uli. Perry gets the old comics from his Uncle Zeke, who lives on an island somewhere: “Uncle Zeke had always treated me more like an adult squid than a little kid,” explains Perry, who gets the latest delivery and exclaims, “Great inky beak,” when he finds a small piece of paper in the envelope – a single word, written in squid language, translating as “HELP.” This sets in motion Perry’s visit to the island where Uncle Zeke lives – Perry’s dad thoughtfully provides plenty of money for the trip even without having any idea of what is going on, and without talking to Zeke or doing much of anything, really, except functioning as an ATM. On the island, Perry meets a couple of locals, a boy and a girl, and becomes friends with both even though the boy, Rain, kind of lives by cheating people (including Perry), and the girl, Juliet, keeps headphones on all the time because they look cool, even though there is nothing to listen to on Bunny Island. The island’s mayor, Erwin Lapin, is determined to keep the place pure and natural, to the point of banning any and all snack foods, which makes it lucky for Perry that his luggage contains nothing but the snack foods on which he lives. Perry is supposed to be outlandish and funny, with comments such as, “You’ve got the pupils of a terrified tuna,” “Squid have big hearts” (referring to himself), “Wait a fathom,” and “The newts probably want to lull us into a dazed condition so they can begin their master plan of taking all the salt out of the ocean and going fresh.” About those newts: Perry believes that giant ones wearing trench coats are conspiring to get rid of all the salt in the oceans so newts can rule the world – he really believes this, since it is the basis of the comics he reads and he knows nothing except what is in those comics. All this gets to be a bit much after a while, as does the eventual discovery that Bunny Island is being victimized by a nefarious plot (not by newts, though) in which people are being turned into super-adorable rabbits because that will make it easier to steal their land, and this diabolical strategy is sure to succeed as long as nobody eats potato chips. The whole overly complex novel sounds more madcap and funnier when described in brief than it feels when read straight through, although it must be said that Eduardo Vieira does a fine job of creating the “Ocean Blasterzoids” comics that rule Perry’s world. Vieira’s wraparound cover of the bunnies and Perry is also a high point. Preteens who want more of Perry’s adventures can look forward to the implications of that “1” on Mutant Bunny Island, while those who are ready for mutants (or non-mutants) of some other kind will find that this book has a satisfactory ending that, unlike the endings of Blabey’s The Bad Guys series, is not simply a cliffhanger setting up the next entry in the sequence.


The Thousandth Floor No. 2: The Dazzling Heights. By Katharine McGee. Harper. $18.99.

Red Queen No. 1. By Victoria Aveyard. HarperTeen. $22.99.

     Back in 1975, J.G. Ballard wrote a chilling dystopian novel called High-Rise, in which a 40-story building becomes a microcosm for the breakdown of societal norms along the lines of Lord of the Flies, but with even more violence and with some implications of class stratification to complicate matters. Katharine McGee may not know Ballard’s book, but she may very well be familiar with the film of the same name, released in 2015 – because McGee’s own take on essentially the same story, The Thousandth Floor, dates to 2016. The film makes the class struggle explicit to a much greater degree than did the novel, specifically with upper-class people living on higher floors and lower-class ones below, very much along the lines of Upstairs, Downstairs and similar dramas on TV as well as film. That is exactly the arrangement that McGee uses. True, she expands the building’s size to 1,000 stories, but that is an arbitrary number designed to fit the scene of what is supposedly New York in the year 2118. McGee also turns the plot into a straightforward teenager-focused melodrama, populating the story with a mishmash of typecast characters and having them interact in ways that are supposed to be explosive but by and large are simply formulaic. As in Ballard’s novel and the film adaptation, McGee’s setting has some intriguing SF elements, in McGee’s work’s case from holography to communication-enabling contact lenses. But McGee downplays these so as to spend more time, indeed far more time, on interpersonal drama. In The Dazzling Heights, the sequel to The Thousandth Floor, there is – as in the first book – no real social commentary, none of the concerns about society and dystopic capitalism that pervaded Ballard’s book and came through as well in the film made from it. Instead, The Dazzling Heights is a kind of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with the reassurance, for those who are neither rich nor famous, that wealth and fame bring only heartache, violence and generalized misery. The plot strands of the first book are worked through and worked over in this second one. Troubled relationships abound, as do deep secrets, the latter being exploited by the vicious Leda Cole to blackmail witnesses to her murder of Eris Dodd-Radson. Hangers-on and wannabes are all around, including new-to-the-scene Calliope Brown and her mother, whose main aim is to take advantage of the richer building residents when they are not taking advantage of each other. Also ever-present are parties of the “desperation” type, with a kind of fiddling-while-the-world-burns style. The various events are multiply narrated, resulting in considerable repetition as McGee has different characters give their viewpoints on the same matters. Unfortunately, the narrative voices are so similar that this device bogs down the story instead of turning it into a where-does-the-truth-really-lie example of the Rashomon effect. The Dazzling Heights tends to be more blindingly obvious than dazzling – it will be suitably involving for readers who found The Thousandth Floor intriguing and are unfamiliar with this sequence’s many derivative elements.

     As a series, Victoria Aveyard’s four-novel Red Queen grouping is also deeply formulaic, in this case in a vaguely-medieval-fantasy-dystopic way rather than a vaguely-futuristic-dystopic one. The very first of the novels, Red Queen, which dates to 2015, is now available in a new blood-red edition (including red-edged pages as well as nearly all-red covers) that provides a chance to revisit the start of the sequence or discover it anew for those who are so inclined. The underlying plot contrivance here is that there are people with two kinds of blood, ordinary red and upper-class silver; the Silvers rule, and all of them have powers (whose origins and ties to their blood are never clearly explained). Silvers can control flame or water, read minds, teleport, cause plants to grow, control metal – basically, they have whatever powers Aveyard needs them to have to advance the plot. They rule not through clever, much less benevolent, use of those powers, but through old-fashioned manipulation and violence, allowing Aveyard to divide the world neatly if obviously into the good-but-powerless and the powerful-but-evil. Red Queen protagonist Mare Barrow proves the exception to the blood-power rule – this will scarcely surprise anyone who has ever read any kind of “guttersnipe makes good” story – when it turns out that, despite her red blood, she can take electrical energy into her body and manipulate it. The Silvers need to conceal the fact that a mere Red can do this, so they concoct an origin story for Mare and have her betrothed her to a prince of the realm. All this occurs against a background of constant war, in which a group of Reds called the Scarlet Guard is fighting the ruling Silvers. The Scarlet Guard’s leader is Diana Farley, one of several strong female characters in Red Queen, both good and bad; this may help make Red Queen appealing to the teenage girls who are clearly its intended audience. It is best if would-be readers are unfamiliar with fantasy tropes, though, since so many of them drive the plot here, including Mare’s dedication to her family, her ability to be a catalyst for change and even for revolution, her confronting of the ways in which apparently helpful characters turn out to be enemies, and a variety of wholly unexceptional twists and turns that eventually lead to the discovery that Mare’s favorite and closest brother, whom she believed dead, is alive after all. There is very little surprising in Red Queen, which Aveyard followed with Glass Sword (2016), King’s Cage (2017), and the forthcoming War Storm, which will conclude the series. The strength of many female characters is a plus, but the concomitant bland insipidity of the males is a minus, although the intended readership may not mind it at all. The palace intrigues and various battles are handled well enough, but there is little unexpected in any of the outcomes, and few surprises in the romantic entanglements, petty jealousies and betrayals that seem equally to characterize teen-focused novels in pretty much every genre.


Verdi: Overtures (Sinfonias) and Preludes to “La forza del destino,” “Aida,” “Un ballo in maschera,” “I vespri siciliani,” “La traviata,” “Stiffelio,” “Luisa Miller,” “La battaglia di Legnano,” “Il corsaro,” “I masnadieri,” “Macbeth,” “Giovanna d’Arco,” “Ernani,” “Jérusalem,” “Nabucco,” “Un giorno di regno” and “Oberto”; Ballet Music from “Don Carlos.” Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Philharmonia Records. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Wagner: Overtures to “Die Feen,” “Das Liebesverbot,” “Christopher Columbus,” and “König Enzio”; Concert Overtures Nos. 1 and 2; Siegfried Idyll. MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $12.99.

     Opera composers have to know how to start things. For a long time, pre-action music was simply designed to get the audience’s attention, let listeners know that the stage play was about to begin, and have everyone settle down and get ready to see and hear it. This accounts for the interchangeable nature of many early opera overtures (or sinfonias, as they were also frequently called). Then composers started to include material from the opera itself in the overture, preparing the audience for what was to come musically rather than simply in terms of mood. This did not always work – it explains why Beethoven gave up after three Leonore overtures that became miniature tone poems and reverted to the old mood-setting style for the Fidelio overture – but when it did, it prepared the audience quite elegantly for the drama or comedy of the upcoming performance. Composers struggled for years with the “right” way to start an opera, and Verdi in particular seemed to keep changing his mind. He eventually decided, in his late operas Otello and Falstaff, that a few bars of introduction were enough, but his earlier works sometimes use the mood-setting approach, sometimes provide brief character portraits, and sometimes are full-fledged dramatic overtures that stand quite well on their own as concert pieces and are often performed that way. Fabio Luisi and the Philharmonia Zürich offer a generous helping of Verdi introductory material, covering more than half his operas, in a new two-CD set on the orchestra’s own label. Verdi was a dramatist above all – even his Messa da Requiem is the most dramatic setting of the mass for the dead ever written – and all the material here shows his flair for clear establishment of a mood, or anticipation of many of them. It is a shame that the material is not arranged chronologically – that would have shown Verdi’s somewhat meandering development in this field clearly – but it is nevertheless fascinating to hear the clearly derivative elements of Oberto and Un giorno di regno, his first two operas, and be able to contrast them with the dramatic splendor of Nabucco and Giovanna d’Arco and the deliberately modest and circumscribed mood-setting of the start of La traviata. An additional highlight here is a real rarity: the upbeat ballet music from the distinctly downbeat Don Carlos. Ballet music was required by the Paris Opera for works performed there, so Verdi had to include a ballet within his bleak drama of the Inquisition, and duly inserted it as an entertainment for the king. Unlike a similarly required ballet that has become far better known than the opera in which it appears – “Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda – Verdi’s Don Carlos ballet has fallen into obscurity and is rarely heard. Luisi’s decision to include it here is a particularly happy one: the music is tuneful, very well-made, and thoroughly balletic, although it fits not at all with the mood and theme of the opera in which it appears. All these works, even the earliest, show Verdi’s skill in orchestration, and while it helps when hearing them if one knows what happens in the operas to which they are attached, such knowledge is not really necessary to enjoy the skillful way in which Verdi fastens onto listeners’ emotions in order to pull his audiences into the worlds he created on the opera stage.

     Wagner’s handling of opera overtures was quite different, focusing from the start (Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot) on extended tone-poem-like essays in scene-setting that led in his fourth opera, Der fliegende Holländer, to an overture that encapsulates the whole work in the same way the Leonore Overture No. 3 summarizes Fidelio. Wagner disavowed his earlier operas, not only the first two but also the third, Rienzi (whose overture is broad and in its own way magnificent). But early Wagner has been largely rediscovered in recent years, and a new Naxos CD featuring the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jun Märkl offers an interesting sampling of this material. In addition to the lead-ins to the first two operas – both of which are highly effective despite the clear echoes of Marschner in the first and Rossini in the second – the CD includes the overtures to two stage plays, Christopher Columbus and König Enzio, and both of them prove to be strong curtain-raisers, if not particularly individualized in style. Even rarer than these are the two Concert Overtures, in D minor and C major respectively, both written, as was König Enzio, when Wagner was not yet 19. Both overtures show strong influence from Beethoven, and the second is actually for a “rescue” work that mirrors in some ways the plot of Fidelio, the overture being suitably melancholic and dramatic. Neither work yet shows the style that would come to be known as Wagnerian, but both provide evidence of Wagner’s early command of orchestration, his fine sense of contrast between the lyrical and dramatic, and his willingness to match music carefully to dramatic needs – as in the quiet, disturbed ending of Concert Overture No. 2 despite repeated attempts by lighter material to assert itself. It is interesting that a previous Naxos release, from 2004, also focused on Wagner’s early works, including König Enzio, Christopher Columbus and the overtures to Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot. But that recording, featuring the Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alexander Rahbari, also included the Rienzi overture and the Faust overture as revised by the composer in 1855. Thus, the focus was entirely on earlier Wagner. This new CD, on the other hand, adds to the early material the Siegfried Idyll of 1870, a distinctive and distinctly late work that in this context primarily shows how far Wagner had developed in his use of instrumentation and expressive content by the time he created this birthday gift for his wife, Cosima. The careful and sensitive playing of the Siegfried Idyll is a particular pleasure of the Märkl CD, even though the work itself does not quite fit with the other material here (oddly, it is preceded on the disc by Concert Overture No. 1, the very earliest of all these pieces). On the whole, this well-played and well-paced disc, if not exactly revelatory of anything about Wagner, does a fine job of confirming the composer’s skill with the orchestra from his earliest days, and through the Siegfried Idyll shows the additional fine-tuning of that skill over the decades of his maturation.


Bizet: Piano Works. Johann Blanchard, piano. MDG. $18.99 (SACD).

Lehár: Die Juxheirat. Gerhard Ernst, Maya Boog, Alexander Kaimbacher, Sieglinde Feldhofer, Ilia Staple, Rita Peterl, Jevgenij Taruntsov, Anne-Sophie Kostal, Christoph Filler; Chor des Lehár Festivals Bad Ischl and Franz Lehár-Orchester conducted by Marius Burkert. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     There is nothing particularly unusual about wanting to explore beyond a composer’s best-known works. But there are certain typical ways of doing so. Anyone interested in Georges Bizet beyond the obvious and unending fascination that is Carmen will generally turn to operas such as Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth, for example, on the very appropriate basis that Bizet was primarily an opera composer and it makes sense to look past his greatest success at his other productions of the same type. But a fuller exploration of Bizet requires a more wide-ranging view of his music, a view that includes his songs and choral works on the vocal side and, on the instrumental one, his pieces for piano. Bizet was a first-rate pianist who deliberately chose to forsake a virtuoso’s career so as to devote himself to composition. Thus, although he did not create a body of virtuoso display pieces for piano, he was highly familiar with the instrument’s expressive and technical capabilities and more than capable of producing fine music for it. Johann Blanchard offers a fine hour-and-a-quarter recital of Bizet’s piano music on a recording with top-notch sound from MDG. And although he plays the works on a Steinway, Blanchard choose a particularly interesting one for this repertoire: a 1901 model D, which dates to just a quarter-century after Bizet’s death and retains some of the sonic qualities that the pianos of the composer’s time would have had. Furthermore, the music here is arranged chronologically, making it possible to experience this little-known aspect of Bizet’s work while at the same time viewing the composer’s development through a new lens. The Grand valse de concert and Premier Nocturne both date to 1854, when Bizet was 16, and are both well-formed and rather orchestral in texture. Chasse fantastique and the six Chants du Rhin, the latter being a set of songs without words in Mendelssohnian manner, date to 1866 and are suitably evocative, the standalone work of the cursed hunt of its title and the small Rhine songs of scenes from works by the poet Joseph Méry (1798-1865), in whose memory the set was commissioned. Interestingly, Bizet dedicated each of the songs to a different French pianist – the sixth of them to Saint-Saëns. Also here are a Nocturne in D and Variations chromatique de concert, both from 1868, the latter directly inspired by Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor of 1806. Bizet’s structure of the variations is especially clever and shows his understanding of the piano: the first seven variations use the theme in C minor while the second seven use it in C major. The final work here seems to be the best-known but in fact is not – at least not in this form. It is L’Arlesienne Suite No. 1, whose often-heard orchestral version dates to 1872. Bizet’s piano rendition, however, was not published until 1878, three years after the composer’s death and a year before Ernest Guiraud created L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2. The piano version of the first suite is impressive, each of its four movements neatly evoking a specific scene from the play for which the music was written. The suite sounds not so much like a piano reduction as like a pianistic treatment of material that the composer separately handled in full-orchestra guise. Blanchard plays everything here with skill and, often, considerable warmth, and the piano sound – subtly different from that of newer Steinways – is full-bodied and fits the material attractively. It is a pleasure to have a disc that explores a genuinely less-often-examined portion of Bizet’s legacy.

     And what of the legacy of Franz Lehár? It is as difficult to get beyond his Die lustige witwe as it is to get past Bizet’s Carmen. Yet here too there are typical ways of exploring more than the composer’s most-famous work: there are the pieces written for Richard Tauber, such as Paganini and Das Land des Lächelns, the exceptionally tuneful Der Graf von Luxemburg, and such standalone waltzes as Gold und Silber. But there is very little exploration of the operettas that Lehár composed before his greatest hit, and that makes the new CPO recording of Die Juxheirat very welcome indeed. The title translates as “The Joke Marriage” but may be taken, less literally but more explanatorily, to be “The Marriage Hoax.” Written only a year before Die lustige witwe, this work too revolves around a widow, but one different in almost every way from Hanna Glawari. For one thing, she is American – from Rhode Island – although the fact that she lives in a castle and all the elements of her life are distinctly European tends to give the lie to the officially designated geographical location. So does the fact that she is designated “Selma, baroness von Wilfort.” In any case, Selma (Maya Boog) is so determined not to remarry – apparently her marriage was less than ideal and, more important, she is a feminist – that she and some of her friends (Phoebe, Sieglinde Feldhofer; Edith, Ilia Staple; and Euphrasia, Rita Peterl) form a group called LVM. That stands (in German, obviously) for Los vom Manne, which means “get away from all men.” Obviously this will not stand by the end of the operetta, but it makes for a lot of complications during the story. One is in the form of chauffeur Philly Kaps (Christoph Filler in the part that was the real starring role when Die Juxheirat played in 1904) – he has imprudently promised marriage to both Phoebe and Euphrasia, is arrested as a result, usw. (and so forth). Then there is Harold von Reckenburg (Jevgenij Taruntsov), the man Selma’s father, Gerhard Ernst (Thomas Brockwiller), wants her to marry. Harold has a twin sister, Julianne (Anna-Sophie Kostal) who has a plot of her own, involving making a false statement to the LVM members that Harold has a twin sister who sometimes cross-dresses – a rather daring notion in 1904. Through a series of machinations, Selma enters into a Juxheirat with Harold because she mistakenly believes he is a cross-dressing woman. Things are eventually sorted out in the final act, with the LVM group dissolved and Selma refusing Harold’s offer of divorce papers after concluding she loves him despite his gender. The very complicated libretto, filled with witty wordplay and complex contemporary references, was written by a well-known Viennese critic named Julius Bauer (1854-1941). But none of this will come through to the audience for the new CPO recording, because the dialogue has been thoroughly reworked (by Leonard Prinsloo) – and English speakers will fare even worse than ones who know German, because while CPO has, thank goodness, included the lyrics for the sung numbers in its booklet (albeit only in German), it gives none of the dialogue at all. And the spoken parts here are quite extensive. So much of Die Juxheirat will be thoroughly incomprehensible to those who are not fluent in German, and partially incomprehensible to those who are. There are also some completely unjustified emendations to the lyrics themselves, notably in the concluding couplets sung by Philly Kaps, which now include references to the Bad Ischl festival (where this live recording was made in August 2016), to global terrorism, and to Donald Trump. That is pure idiocy that dates the operetta more hopelessly than would its original verbiage. However, and it is a big enough “however” to earn the recording a (+++) rating, there is the matter of Lehár’s music. This is a very big matter indeed. The many ensemble numbers are particularly attractive here; there is a delightful waltz song for Selma’s brother, Arthur (Alexander Kaimbacher); the scoring of the quartet for Selma, Phoebe, Edith and Euphrasia in Act II is particularly felicitous; and there is even a duet that includes and pokes fun at snippets of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. All the singers exude charm and appear at least moderately comfortable in their roles, and the orchestra under Marius Burkert plays very well indeed, although the chorus sounds a bit straitlaced. Lehár’s woodwind writing is especially piquant here, and the touches from the harp are lovely. Musically, Die Juxheirat has a great deal to recommend it, especially for lovers of Lehár’s works who really want to explore some of the less-visited nooks and crannies of his oeuvre. The ghastly rewriting of the verbiage of the operetta, and CPO’s continuing way of metaphorically shooting itself in the foot by failing to provide libretti and translations, pull down the overall quality of a work that deserves far better than the obscurity it has languished in almost from the start: it originally ran for only 39 performances. Lehár lovers can and should rejoice at this recording even as they can and should bemoan the numerous compromises and inadequacies that, taken together, make exploring Die Juxheirat far less than the unalloyed pleasure it could have been.