March 26, 2020
Hot Dogs, Hot Cats: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
The slow death of the newspaper business is troubling on many levels, including often-discussed ones relating to oversight of government and coverage of local issues – and less-often-noted ones, such as the sad decrease in venues for that most American of art forms, the comic strip. Yes, comics can move online and even be created there in the first place – and that works in a number of cases. But the highest-quality comics, the ones with the most artistic value, simply do not have the impact online that they have in print: they may have survived the miniaturization to which comics were subjected in newspapers in recent decades, but they are just not as effective on screens, much less the small screens of smartphones, as on newsprint.
The cartoonists who are most aware of comic-strip history (and art history in general) suffer the most in current circumstances, which makes books of their strips – showing sequences not only on paper but also in a reasonable size – all the more valuable. Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts seems particularly to cry out for presentation in book form: one item in Hot Dogs, Hot Cats, for example, is McDonnell’s hilarious-yet-touching version of Henri Rousseau’s famous 1897 painting, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” and there is no possible way to convey the effectiveness of McDonnell’s work except on paper, where Millie takes the gypsy’s place, Mooch the cat assumes the role of Rousseau’s lion, and McDonnell’s moon looks gently and very humanly down on the scene.
McDonnell is well aware of the stresses to which comic strips have been and continue to be subjected: his characters often interact with readers or discuss their own ink-on-paper lives among themselves – as in a strip in which a squirrel tells Mooch and Earl (the dog) that he has an idea for a strip that, unfortunately, may not work, because (as the squirrel explains in the third and final panel), “It needs four panels.” But McDonnell does not overdo the self-referential material, instead using recurring themes to keep Mutts readily identifiable and, at the same time, always new. There is, for example, “Mutts Book Club,” in which (in panel 1) Mooch welcomes squirrels Bip and Bop, tells them (in panel 2) what book will be discussed, and gets a snarky response (in panel 3). One sequence has Mooch promising that he will “be reviewing ‘The Idiot,’” a comment leading to the remark, “I love autobiographies.” Another recurring series, “Shelter Stories,” warmly examines the imagined thoughts of unadopted animals and their joy at eventually joining a human family. For instance, a dog named “Sweetie” has severe separation anxiety but is finally adopted by people who “are committed to helping and keeping me!” In the final panel of one strip in this series, Sweetie wears an expression of gratitude and delight: “No wonder I love people so much.” It takes a heart of stone to remain unmoved at some of what McDonnell does with the “Shelter Stories” idea.
It is true that McDonnell sometimes overdoes the “cause” elements of Mutts, forgetting that straightforward advocacy is not something that comic strips, even excellent ones, do particularly well. For example, in Hot Dogs, Hot Cats, one series featuring very long single panels (instead of multiple short ones) is called “Thanks Giving.” The first of these has a number of the regular Mutts characters bowing their heads, while seated at a human table, to bless “shelter workers, rescue groups, foster programs, adopters.” So far, so good. But the next series entry has a sheep, chicken, duck, pig and cow at the table to bless “farm animal sanctuaries” – a bit of a stretch. And a couple of panels later there is one to bless “vegetarians and vegans” – which is really a little too much. Still, if McDonnell occasionally overdoes things, his outright advocacy is balanced by strips that are entirely for fun and exceptionally funny, such as a Halloween sequence in which Mooch dares a witch to turn Earl into a frog, and then, when she appears to oblige, exclaims, “HA! That’s a toad.” (Yes, Earl becomes a dog again – through the time-honored “it was only a dream” plot twist.) Elsewhere, in a beautifully colored Sunday strip set at the beach, Earl asks if Mooch would like to go in the water, and Mooch turns into a gigantic Moochian lightning bolt of exclamatory (but wordless) hysteria before quietly saying, “No.” And then there is the attempt by Earl and Mooch to get in on the popular “big head dog pictures” craze by expanding their own heads to enormous size and looking thoroughly ridiculous. There is a lot of well-modulated ridiculousness in Mutts.
This particular collection’s title has an interesting provenance: the book includes a two-panel color page featuring art by “Ruby Wetzel, our editor Lucas’s seven-year-old daughter,” featuring “Hot Dogs” (drawn fairly realistically) on the left and “Hot Cats” (not drawn realistically at all) on the right. Perhaps Ruby is a McDonnell-in-the-making. Unfortunately, by the time she can refine her skills enough to bring them anywhere close to McDonnell’s, there may be no venue where she can practice the cartooning craft – at least no venue with the effectiveness of the old-fashioned newspaper. Presumably Ruby and her readers will adapt, as so many creators and enjoyers of comic strips have already adapted to a world gone so thoroughly online. But something has surely been lost in the transition away from printed comic strips – and books such as Hot Dogs, Hot Cats show just how significant the loss is. Hopefully books themselves – real, ink-on-paper books – will not go completely out of fashion, and will continue to provide a resting place for comic art whose quality is on the level of what McDonnell offers, consistently and often brilliantly, in Mutts.
Ein’ feste Burg: Music of the Reformation. Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires; Jared Stellmacher and Mark Sudeth, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Be Still My Soul: Songs of Hope and Inspiration for Trumpet and Piano. Jason Bergman, trumpet; Jared Pierce, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music can be a conduit for feelings of all sorts, spiritual ones definitely among them. And one need not be Lutheran, or even religious in a traditional sense, to appreciate and be moved by the way composers have written music inspired by the Protestant Reformation. A number of arrangements of that music have been gathered by the Chicago Brass and Organ Ensemble for an MSR Classics CD recorded, appropriately, at not one, not two, but three different churches. Yet, again, one need not be an adherent of traditional organized religion to enjoy this material, which spans some 400 years – or rather hopscotches the centuries, since the works are not arranged chronologically. The first piece offered is the most-recent: Rejouissance by James Curnow (born 1943), a fantasia on the best-known Lutheran hymn, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott. Curnow’s is an interesting work, respectful of its source, contemporary in some techniques (such as syncopation) and traditional in others (such as a warmly lyrical middle section). It is followed by the oldest material on the CD: Three Becker Psalms by Heinrich Schütz, arranged for brass quartet by Gary Olson. This brief proffers polyphony before the disc continues with its most-featured composer, Bach. Five of his works are heard here: the organ chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659; an organ-and-brass-quintet version of the opening chorus and chorale from his cantata (BWV 80) on Ein’ feste Burg; and Three Lutheran Chorales, BWV 680, 687 and 651. The last of these, inspired by Komm, Heiliger Geist, is a highly contrapuntal fantasia that compares interestingly with Curnow’s work. Bach’s pieces are followed on the CD by a rarity: the Kirchliche Fest-Ouverture (“Ecclesiastical Festival Overture”) by Otto Nicolai, who is known nowadays almost solely for the frothy The Merry Wives of Windsor. This overture, written for chorus and full orchestra, has none of the lightness and flippancy of the overture to that opera, being hyper-serious, staid and stately as well as celebratory. Its central theme is, yes, Ein’ feste Burg, and the Craig Garner arrangement heard on this disc brings out the joyous portions of the material to particularly good effect. Nicolai’s work is followed by two by Mendelssohn: his Organ Sonata No. 6, an impressive and too-little-known work showcasing not only the composer’s spiritual side but also the performance skills for which he was well-known in his lifetime; and the introduction and finale from Symphony No. 5, the “Reformation,” whose last movement raises Ein’ feste Burg to very great heights indeed. The brass-and-timpani-heavy arrangement here – another by Craig Garner – does not really show the music at its best: it provides more grandiosity than grandeur. Mendelssohn’s symphony is a work that, like Nicolai’s overture, really does sound better in its original form. However, Stephen Squires certainly elicits excellent playing from the ensemble, here and throughout the disc, and organists Jared Stellmacher and Mark Sudeth contribute impressively to the overall sound. The CD is, at its heart, an experience mixing the serious with the festive, reaching across religions and speaking to many forms of spirituality and belief.
The communication is considerably more personal on another MSR Classics release, this one featuring Jason Bergman on trumpet and Jared Pierce on piano – plus, on specific tracks, Michelle Kesler (cello), Brian Bowman (euphonium), Alexander Woods (violin), and Brian Blanchard (horn). The 14 works here come from various religious traditions and various forms of music, and the arrangements are designed to highlight the trumpet while giving complementary and supporting roles to the piano and, in four of the works, to other instruments. The basic material will be more or less familiar, and more or less congenial, depending on each listener’s musical and spiritual tastes. For example, the Kevin McKee arrangement of Amazing Grace incorporates newly written material that may or may not add to the work’s effect, depending on one’s viewpoint. Two pieces based on classical works – Be Still, My Soul, which is built on a modified Sibelius symphonic theme, and Der Engel from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder – sound somewhat peculiar as arranged here, but are presented in heartfelt fashion that is emotionally satisfying. A Simple Song by Leonard Bernstein, which comes from the composer’s Mass, is partly popular in sound and partly more classical in orientation – but in this case, its dual characteristics are in the original work, and Bergman and Pierce handle them well. John Rutter’s What Sweeter Music benefits from including a euphonium, which gives the work more heft than it would otherwise have. Joseph Palmer’s arrangement of Just a Closer Walk with Thee turns the traditional song into jazz. As these examples indicate, the disc as a whole is very much a mixed bag, musically speaking, with Bergman’s fine and sensitive playing and Pierce’s able support providing more continuity than do the pieces themselves. This CD comes across as a highly individual spiritual statement in which the performers share their feelings and hopes through music that comes in many forms and from many directions – not a thoroughly convincing musical whole, perhaps, but one informed throughout by sensitivity to an underlying inspirational message that music of all types is uniquely able to convey.
Jeremy Siskind: Perpetual Motion Etudes for Piano. Jeremy Siskind, piano. Outside in Music. $15.98.
Max Reger: Cello Suite No. 2; Ernest Bloch: Cello Suite No. 2; Robert Muczynski: Gallery—Cello Suite. Benjamin Whitcomb, cello. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Short, single-instrument recitals were common in the LP era, when a vinyl record generally ran 45 minutes or less. CD buyers have long since come to expect more music – often around 80 minutes of it – on each disc. That makes new about-45-minute recital discs by Jeremy Siskind and Benjamin Whitcomb into throwbacks of a kind, and means they are artist-focused CDs that will likely be of particular appeal to those interested in the performers and their instruments. This is not to say that the music on these discs is unworthy, but it may not be the primary attraction for many listeners.
Actually, in the case of Siskind’s recording on the Outside in Music label, the target audience could be people interested in Siskind as both composer and performer. The CD consists of nine etudes, and its “Perpetual Motion” title is apt, since in much of the music, Siskind plays the piano nonstop – Haydn’s notion of getting the silences right is very little in evidence here. The pieces have titles that are, in the main, reasonably descriptive of how the music sounds: Sometimes I Wander meanders across and along the keyboard, Van Gogh’s Dream has a crepuscular quality, Temple Bells includes suitably imitative keyboard writing, Floating has a sense of taking the music aloft, and Blues is clearly blues-derived even though it is not a straightforward essay in that element of the jazz world. Actually, jazz permeates this entire disc, with Siskind’s riffs on his themes and his improvisatory and quasi-improvisatory elaborations of them lending the music a distinctive-yet-familiar sound. The four pieces whose titles do not immediately call up specific musical references contain some of the most interesting material. Brooklyn Sunset includes note cascades from which themes gently emerge and into which they are absorbed, and alternates sections of rhythmic regularity and irregularity. Homesick is mildly downcast, its feeling more of pathos than of any sort of tragic separation: it strikes an overall wistful pose. Piccadilly Circus has the disc’s most-interesting opening, its splashy, pizzicato-esque bounce persisting for a minute before being succeeded by a much more conventionally flowing main section that becomes rhythmically interesting only as it approaches the piece’s conclusion. And Enchanted Forest, although it includes easy-to-anticipate tone painting reflective of its title, also delves into darker rumblings that indicate less-than-beneficent elements lurking in the world it portrays. Siskind is a very fine pianist and a strong advocate for his own music. The pieces on this disc are not etudes in the traditional sense of exploring and teaching specific pianistic techniques: they are more akin to miniature tone poems, each deploying the piano in the service of three-and-a-half to six minutes of expressive portraiture. The works are not especially distinctive in and of themselves – they are painted, in the main, using a traditional jazz palette. But Siskind brings them to life through his committed performances, with the result that the CD will be a particular pleasure for those interested in Siskind as pianist – although less so for those seeking a high level of originality in Siskind as composer.
Benjamin Whitcomb’s solo-cello recital for MSR Classics includes three 20th-century pieces that will be less familiar to listeners than they are to cellists seeking repertoire beyond Bach’s suites. Interestingly, though, Max Reger’s four-movement Cello Suite No. 2 is largely traceable to Bach, with two Largo movements and two Baroque dances (Gavotte and Gigue). Reger’s music can be dense and difficult, and there is often something rather academic about it. But this suite, which dates to 1915, is quite accessible to listeners and is impressive in the way it adopts and adapts Bach’s approach to material that is superficially similar to his. The broadly conceived opening Prelude (Largo) fares quite well in Whitcomb’s hands: he allows the music’s expansive nature to come through without making the music over-Romantic, although it is certainly redolent of emotion. The Gavotte features slightly irregular-sounding rhythms that Whitcomb conveys effectively; the extended and highly expressive third-movement Largo shows off the cello’s full range, with an emphasis on warmth; and the concluding Gigue has plenty of gaiety and bounce. The piece itself is as impressive as Whitcomb’s handling of it. Ernest Bloch’s Cello Suite No. 2 is a late work (1957, two years before the composer’s death), and is essentially in one movement: although it is nominally in four, each of its first three parts leads attacca to the next. This is a less-engaging work than the Reger: it is more gestural and seems more concerned with exploring and exploiting the cello’s substantial range than with communicating anything particularly significant to an audience. The pacing is filled with allargando and ritenuto molto passages, the dynamics with frequent and often abrupt volume changes. There is a sense of constant uneasiness: even when marked Andante tranquillo, the music offers little respite, much less tranquility. Whitcomb plays the work well, but the overall impression of the piece is that it is likely more interesting for a cellist to explore than for a non-cellist to hear. In addition to the two four-movement pieces, this CD includes Gallery—Cello Suite (1966) by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010). This is a set of nine short movements inspired by specific paintings by Charles Burchfield (1893-1967); and like virtually all music tied directly to visual stimuli, it loses something for anybody who does not know precisely what the composer is trying to evoke. Again and again, composers try to emulate what Mussorgsky did so brilliantly with Pictures at an Exhibition, but again and again, they come up short, since their portrayals of art do not stand up as music particularly well. That is the case here: Whitcomb plays Muczynski’s piece with skill, and there are some nice contrasts in the music between legato lyricism and more strongly accentuated passages. But the music is not interesting enough, in and of itself, to bear repeated hearings – it is really only for those familiar with the paintings that inspired it, or for those simply wanting to hear a very fine cellist effectively setting forth some music that has points of interest but is, all in all, less than compelling.
March 19, 2020
Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things. By Cy Tymony. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Big Nate: Blow the Roof Off! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.
Is it a MacGyver or a kluge? To each his or her own answer – and the enjoyment of the new edition of Cy Tymony’s Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things may depend on one’s response. “You can always do more with what’s around you,” Tymony writes, and demonstrates the truth of the statement with a five-part book of short-but-sweet lessons in creating useful things out of other useful things by using them in ways beyond the ones in which they were intended to be used. If you find Tymony’s little projects simple and elegant, you will see them as MacGyvers – named after the TV show from the 1980s (and beyond) in which the title character carried around a few innocent-enough items all the time and managed to make highly ingenious problem-solvers and outright lifesavers from them. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge that Tymony’s ideas would work but find them somewhat ungainly and perhaps not as pragmatically useful as he thinks, you will dub them kluges – workarounds that get the job done but are clunky and inelegant. Either way, though, Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things is an enjoyable book because of the way it helps readers see commonplace items in new ways, whether or not the resulting projects are ones that people decide they actually want to try. Not that the projects are difficult – most of the time, they are quite simple, and in some cases can indeed be exceptionally useful. “Your way of looking at things is your greatest resource,” Tymony says, and this can be particularly helpful if one needs some makeshift outdoor survival techniques. For example, all it takes is a large plastic bag to create an evaporator still: wrap the bag around a leafy tree branch they gets a lot of sun, seal the end (simply tie it tightly if you do not have string or a rubber band handy), and let the sun do the work – as the bag heats up, water from the leaves will evaporate and condense. You can even use some of the water to make a signal fire: put two teaspoons of water in a clear jar or bottle, tilt the jar so the water is in a corner at the bottom, and place it so the sun shines through the water onto some tinder – the water acts as a lens that focuses heat. The notion of using water to make fire rather than put it out is an example of the way Tymony cleverly uses rethinking and reframing. Back home, he finds many other neat ways to use everyday objects. For example, you can buy hiding-place items for valuables that look like commonplace items such as books or soda cans. But you do not have to buy anything made especially to hide things. Instead, you can simply store items out of sight in unexpected places that are probably already in your home: in the battery compartment of a portable radio, for example, or inside a tennis ball after slitting the ball along its seam, or inside a vacuum-cleaner bag. True, you have to remember which clever hiding spots you choose, but the basic idea is a useful one. Other concepts in Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things may be sneaky but are more in the nature of science projects than practicality. For instance, you can easily make a battery from a lemon by inserting a nail into it and a piece of heavy copper wire into it nearby (but not touching the nail). This gives you the positive and negative electrodes. The acidic lemon juice is an electrolyte – but the lemon battery generates only a fraction of a volt, so you would have to connect a whole bunch of lemons in series to get a useful amount of power. So that notion is clearly on the “kluge” spectrum. But whatever the merits of individual ideas in Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things, the book as a whole is a useful bit of mind expansion, showing that things are not always what they seem – and even when they are what they seem, they can also be something more.
Even comic-strip characters can benefit from thinking of everyday situations in new ways, as Lincoln Peirce shows in the latest Big Nate collection, Blow the Roof Off! Peirce finds ways, again and again, to vary the strip’s themes so they do not become merely formulaic, which they easily could: Nate is a perpetual sixth-grader who always has the same teachers and classmates, and it would seem that there is only so much a cartoonist can do after more than a quarter of a century with the interactions of a well-known cast of characters. So once in a while, Peirce shakes things up by giving a significant role to a completely new character – and that is what happens in Blow the Roof Off! In this book, Nate rediscovers a girl he met briefly at a fair in the previous collection (unfortunately, there is no recap for anyone who missed Hug It Out!). Their connection is explosive – he smashes into her while running in the hallway – and it turns out that she has just transferred into Nate’s school, and they really like each other. This is something new for always-lovestruck, always-striking-out Nate, and it is only the start of a particularly well-done reframing of the strip’s central character’s interactions with the world around him. Even in sixth grade, the course of true love never did run smooth, and in this case, the roughness becomes significant when it turns out that Trudy is in seventh grade – and anyone who ever attended middle school will recall that between sixth grade and seventh lies an abyss. The way Nate and Trudy decide to give things a try anyway is wholly believable within the context of Big Nate, and while it is predictable that Nate will have all sorts of ego-diminishing encounters with seventh graders (in class, in the hallways, even at a party to which Trudy invites him), it is also predictable that Nate will work his way through the putdowns and emerge with his sense of self-importance only mildly compromised. On top of that, Peirce gives some tantalizing hints that Trudy could be a very good match for Nate if they can overcome the age (that is, grade) difference, since it turns out that she has a locker even messier than his – which longtime readers of Big Nate will consider impossible until Peirce shows it. Of course, not all the sequences involve Trudy in Blow the Roof Off! There is a series in which things do not go well for Nate when he goes trick-or-treating as Mr. Moneybags from the Monopoly game. And one in which Francis suggests changing the name of the kids’ band from “Enslave the Mollusk” to “The Bobcat Boys” – that turns out to be a suggested reframing/rethinking that goes nowhere. And one in which bull-headed Coach John substitutes in teaching art and yells at Nate for doing an abstract painting – until Nate says he is actually depicting fireworks at a football game, which Coach John says is more than fine. All the Big Nate strips, and the book-length collections of them, are variations on a theme, and Peirce continues to prove just how versatile that theme is – while showing how a touch of reframing/rethinking here and there can open up a whole series of new possibilities for a whole series of new Nate-centric adventures.
The Keeper of Lost Causes: A Department Q Novel. By Jussi Adler-Olsen. Translated by Lisa Hartford. Dutton. $18.
Victim 2117: A Department Q Novel. By Jussi Adler-Olsen. Translated by William Frost. Dutton. $28.
Edgar Allan Poe may have created the modern detective story and developed the ratiocinative investigator epitomized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but the modern detective – a human being of flawed and/or uncertain personality and motivation – is more clearly traceable to Dashiell Hammett, whose prototypes (The Continental, Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles) remain recognizable in detective stories worldwide even today. Indeed, they are so recognizable that they are easily parodied: the 1988 Robert Zemeckis film Who Framed Roger Rabbit sketches Eddie Valiant in just a few seconds of screen time by drawing on the tropes of the genre. It takes an author of considerable skill to get past the clichés of the modern detective genre and create a cast of characters – built around a central character – in such a way that a modern police procedural novel can be taken seriously and can engage readers genuinely and without parody. Danish novelist Jussi Adler-Olsen has shown himself to be an author with the skill needed to create believable characters in complex (indeed, somewhat over-plotted) circumstances that draw very clearly on readers’ expectations where detective fiction is concerned while at the same time producing gripping narratives that keep the audience coming back for more.
Victim 2117 is Adler-Olsen’s eighth and most-recent foray into the world he has created, and while it can be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel, it gains something if readers first spend some time with the initial entry in the Department Q series, The Keeper of Lost Causes (first published in Great Britain in 2007 with the pithy, darkly ironic, more-apt title Mercy). The value of this first book is not just that it introduces the central character, Carl Mørck (pronounced about half-way between “Mork” and “Murk”), and gives him the usual background and personality quirks, although it does that: he is separated but at this time not quite divorced, he continues to have somewhat too many ties (financial, not emotional) to his almost-ex, he has both a lodger and his stepson living in his house, and he has had the traditional awful tragedy in his life. Carl and his two partners were ambushed during a murder investigation – with one of them dying, one being paralyzed, and Carl considering himself somehow responsible because he did not draw his gun against the unseen assailants and was not particularly badly wounded. So we have a top Copenhagen detective with a bad case of survivor’s guilt, plus the requisite prickly personality and difficulty getting along with others in his department. But he is too good to fire, so instead is banished to the depths of police headquarters (that is, the basement, which is symbolic of how low he has sunk) and assigned to run the newly created “cold-case” Department Q (the first book explains how it got that designation). He is the sole person in the department until he demands an assistant and is handed a (possible) Syrian refugee named (possibly) Hafez el-Assad – same name as that nation’s one-time dictator. And the assistant has many talents, some of them amusing, along with many quirks, some of them potentially troubling.
All this emerges in the first book – but even more valuable to readers interested in the eighth is that the first novel is a perfect introduction to Adler-Olsen’s style, to the extent that it comes through in translation from Danish. There are Scandinavian references that Americans will understand readily enough (“the ragnarok of his office”) and others that they will not (“his eyes fixed on the terrazzo floor and its swastika patterns” – this has nothing whatsoever to do with Nazism). There are lists that will be only partially clear to many non-Danes: “Winnie the Pooh, Don Quixote, the Lady of the Camellias, and Smilla all stormed through her head.” There are neat, short, to-the-point descriptive passages: “The barbecue gang was a little group of fanatics who all lived close by and who thought that beefsteak was so much better if it first languished for a while on a charcoal grill until it tasted neither of beef nor steak.” But there are also clichés: “Was it possible this guy was a diamond in the rough?” And there are passages created more for effect than believability, as when someone who is trapped and imprisoned laboriously scratches out a message to be found after her death, yet somehow, despite the agonizingly slow and painstaking use of an inadequate tool, creates elaborate scratched-in-the-floor sentences and phrases – for example, “Lasse, the owner of this building,” rather than, say, “Bldg owner Lasse.”
However, the fact that the central mystery in The Keeper of Lost Causes – the disappearance five years earlier of a rising star in Danish politics – turns out not to be an out-and-out murder, even though it has been designated a homicide “cold case,” shows how adeptly Adler-Olsen accepts and then adapts the detective/procedural form. And readers who absorb the unusual elements of his approach (mostly positive but occasionally negative) and style (at least his translated style) from the first Department Q book will get a great deal more out of the eighth.
Victim 2117 has a plot every bit as elaborate and neatly assembled as that of The Keeper of Lost Causes, but by now there are story elements that have resonance beyond the latest novel itself – which is one reason it helps to know the original setup of the series. The emotional detritus of the first book, and succeeding ones, is everywhere. Department Q is now slightly larger, peopled with souls just as damaged as Carl’s, so Adler-Olsen has more personalities whose relationships and foibles he can explore. Carl, in fact, is not really the central character here. This is because the first book’s Assad is still around and initially still mysterious, and this turns out to be crucially important, since the new book’s title refers to the 2,117th refugee to die in the Mediterranean – and the whole issue of refugees trying to escape the Middle East becomes central for Assad, who, after all, did just that, even if he has been less than forthcoming about a past that returns to haunt him profoundly in Victim 2117. “Carl nodded and pictured Assad the day he started down here in the basement over ten years ago, how he had introduced himself as Hafez el-Assad, a Syrian refugee with green rubber gloves and a bucket by his feet. But inside, he was really Zaid al-Asadi: a special forces soldier, language officer, Iraqi, and almost fluent Danish speaker. The man was one hell of a gifted actor.”
One character in the new novel has a distorted resemblance to one in the sequence’s first book: there is a devil-ridden parallel to Carl’s then-teenage stepson in the new book’s desperately overwrought, computer-obsessed teen, Alexander – although Alexander is unhinged and a great deal more sinister. As for Assad, with his troubled Middle Eastern background and memories, in Victim 2117 he must face not only his own past but also a genuinely horrifying brute named Ghaalib, who is masterminding a terrorist plot with all the same utter fanaticism displayed by the evildoers in the first Department Q book. Adler-Olsen’s twists and turns are complex, mostly logical, and generally fair to readers who are themselves trying to unravel the mysteries while Department Q explores them. His pacing is adept, and his characters are mostly sufficiently interesting to generate empathy – although his villains are more than a trifle one-dimensional (and, really, surpassingly vicious). There is nothing particularly urbane about the Department Q characters, nothing to place Carl directly in the distinguished line of Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Doyle’s Holmes. But there is plenty to show how closely this series parallels and expands upon the more-modern notions of Hammett, and of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald (pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) as well. Carl is certainly Danish, but he is recognizably an Everyman, or Every-Detective, for the 21st century.
Richard Strauss: Symphony, Op. 12; Concert Overture in C minor. Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Hermann Bäumer. CPO. $16.99.
Barbara Harbach: Orchestral Music V—Suite Luther; Arabesque Noir; Early American Scandals; Recitative and Aria. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Richard Strauss’s vast command of the symphony orchestra was not generally expressed in symphonies. Yes, there are Eine Alpensinfonie and Sinfonia Domestica, but despite their titles, they are really extended tone poems: it is tone poems in which Strauss most thoroughly explored and exploited orchestral textures without words – using the orchestra with similar skill in his operas. There are, however, two early Strauss symphonies that give an indication of “the path not taken” in his music while pointing in the direction in which he would choose to go with his compositions. These are very early works, written in Strauss’s teen years. The second, which is in F minor and was composed when Strauss was 19, receives a suitably large-scale and idiomatic performance from the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern under Hermann Bäumer on a new CD from CPO. The work’s key makes for an interesting comparison with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, also in F minor and first performed in 1878, six years before Strauss finished his work. The relentless drama that Tchaikovsky fully exploits in his symphony, the recurrent “fate” motif tying the whole work together – these are totally absent in Strauss’s symphony. Instead, Strauss strings together a set of largely independent segments and connects them forcefully by essentially pushing them into proximity rather than developing them in any meaningful way. The first three movements are recalled to an extent in the finale, but not in the carefully organized fashion of Bruckner (whose Symphony No. 7 dates to roughly the same time as Strauss’s F minor) and certainly not with the dramatic substance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Strauss basically mixes a big thematic pot, takes it in directions that interest him, then caps the whole work with a hymn-like conclusion. The result is a work that is intermittently effective while pointing in interesting ways to the manner in which Strauss would later structure other music. The symphony’s Scherzo, for example, harks back to Mendelssohn to a certain extent while taking the earlier composer’s notable lightness into far darker and rhythmically more-complex directions. The F minor symphony is unlikely ever to become standard-repertoire Strauss, but it is a fascinating source of insight into what the composer adopted from earlier music and what new directions he was already beginning to explore. Something similar is true of the Concert Overture in C minor, another work written when Strauss was 19. It starts as if it will pay homage to Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture but quickly moves in other directions, never quite settling in any formal way and even including an unexpected fugue. Strauss was later to write programmatic pieces tied much more tightly to specific events or individuals, but this overture, perhaps because it has no program attached to it, seems to drift rather than build to its eventual major-key conclusion. It is a suitable juxtaposition with the symphony (which ends in the minor) and offers further insight into ways in which Strauss, early in his career, was already seeking his own path by learning from the past while refusing to repeat it.
Barbara Harbach (born 1946) has long since established her own way of using the orchestra for expressive purposes. And the four world première recordings on a new (+++) MSR Classics CD seem, on the surface, to have something in common with the works of Richard Strauss, all being illustrative explorations of specific topics (although in the form of suites rather than in that of tone poems). Suite Luther is the most interesting of the pieces here, building its five movements on three of Martin Luther’s hymns: Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, notably used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” symphony and a favorite of other composers as well; Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (“In peace and joy I now depart”); and Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (“From deepest depths I cry to thee”). The comparative familiarity of Ein’ feste Burg helps make Suite Luther approachable and intelligible – this hymn appears in three of the five movements – and Harbach finds some interesting ways to develop her material, whether in the outgoing opening Motet movement, the introspective fourth movement based on Aus tiefer Not, or the concluding celebratory reappearance of Ein’ feste Burg in the finale. A very general understanding of the historical and religious sources of Harbach’s Luther Suite suffices to make the work understandable and emotionally satisfying, and its mixture of contemporary rhythms and harmonies with those of earlier times produces a sense both of updating and of continuity with the past. The three other suites on this disc – which is very well-played throughout by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Angus – are also all well-thought-out but are not quite as satisfying, because all require considerable familiarity with the topics that Harbach seeks to explore musically, and none is completely satisfactory without that level of knowledge. Arabesque Noir tries to use melodies inspired by Arabic decorations to explore master/slave relationships in early United States history – a somewhat inelegant juxtaposition and concept. Harbach certainly knows how to create flowing, lyrical material, and does so to fine effect in this three-movement suite, but the sociopolitical gloss of the music is never apparent within the material itself and feels as if it has been superimposed on a work whose gentle and loving sections are its most salient characteristic. The four-movement Early American Scandals does not quite deliver what its title promises: there were plenty of scandals, political and personal, in the early years of the United States, but most of this piece is general in nature rather than tied to specific events or people. Again Harbach tries to depict elements of master/slave relationships, love and desire, in the first two movements. But the third and fourth are more interesting. The third, The Vulture Hours, has some especially well-handled woodwind writing (clarinet, bassoon, flute and oboe) as it explores middle-of-the-night torments of memory. The finale, a generally straightforward dance movement called Virginia’s Real Reel, is attractive in its comparative simplicity after all the fraught material that has come before. The last work on this disc is called Recitative and Aria and was inspired by Harbach’s thoughts about famed actor Edwin Booth, elder brother of assassin John Wilkes Booth. The Booth family also inspired The Vulture Hours in Early American Scandals, but that movement’s effectiveness is not specifically tied to Edwin or John Wilkes. Recitative and Aria, however, is specifically about Edwin Booth and is supposed to elicit emotions connected not only with his notorious brother but also with his wife, who died after they had been married for three years. The music has some effective moments – Harbach does wistfulness particularly well – but packs little emotional punch for anyone who is unfamiliar with its specific inspiration. Harbach is a skilled orchestrator who explores certain topics on a recurring basis, notably that of the history of the United States. Without knowledge of the specific elements of that history that interest Harbach, however, listeners will get less out of the music on this disc that the composer put into it.
March 12, 2020
The True Story of Zippy Chippy: The Little Horse That Couldn’t. By Artie Bennett. Illustrated by Dave Szalay. NorthSouth Books. $17.95.
Sleeping Bronty. By Christy Webster. Illustrated by Gladys Jose. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.
The cliché of the lovable loser is such a well-established literary trope that it can be made to fit comfortably onto pretty much anybody, even a person who is not exactly a loser in the traditional sense. The label can even be pinned to a horse – and Artie Bennett pins it very deftly indeed, with more than a hint of sweetness and soulfulness, on Zippy Chippy, a peculiarly named, now-elderly thoroughbred racehorse that never finished first in a single race. Now, in horse racing, failing to come in first is not exactly the same as “not winning,” as bettors know well: the sport has a win/place/show arrangement for the first three finishers, and Zippy Chippy did place eight times and show on a dozen occasions in his 100-race career. But niceties like that would only get in the way of a rollicking good yarn that Bennett tells with relish and that Dave Szalay illustrates with panache. The fact is that Zippy Chippy – scarcely a name destined for greatness, and one quite out of keeping with the usual naming conventions of horse racing – was a temperamental and unpredictable horse, possibly with great potential (he came from championship blood lines) but without any noticeable competitive spirit. Bennett neatly explains (and Szalay neatly shows) what happened when Zippy Chippy refused to leave the starting gate, stopped mid-race to enjoy the smells wafting through the air, or played mischievous pranks ranging from sticking out his tongue at people to grabbing and chewing the hats of nonplused observers. Uncooperative thoroughbreds do not usually live long – racing is a business, and owners quickly move on to better opportunities – but Zippy Chippy was fortunate, after losing 19 races in a row, to be sold to a horse trainer from Puerto Rico who genuinely liked him and whose daughter bonded with him, turning the horse into a family member rather than merely an investment. Bennett neatly chronicles the ups and downs of Zippy Chippy’s adventures, some of which are hilarious, such as his loss in a 40-yard sprint against a human baseball player. Temperamental and sometimes even ill-tempered he may have been, but Zippy Chippy had a certain way of reaching out that endeared him to people – such as his decision to stop just out of the starting gate in his final race to bow to the crowd. Bennett overdoes it a bit when complimenting Zippy Chippy by saying that it not only takes guts to compete but also “takes courage to dream” – there is little sense of anything thoughtful or introverted in this horse’s story. But the conclusion that “Zippy won in the end,” won because he lost every race he ran, is inescapably, delightfully twisted. And the back-of-the-book Author’s Note, which also explains how Zippy Chippy got his name, explains just how and in what sense this ever-losing horse can and should be seen as a winner, not only for himself but also, as it turns out, for the other horses with which he lives in his post-racing career. “Zippy has earned more money in retirement than he ever did in racing,” Bennett points out, but money is not the main measure of success here. Like other “lovable losers” (or, in this case, lovable sort-of losers), Zippy Chippy connects with people precisely because we all know what it feels like to come in second or third – or last – in our everyday lives. The funniest statement in the book, appearing only in the Author’s Note, is that apparently Zippy Chippy was not the biggest loser ever among thoroughbreds – there is evidence that he came in second in that category, too. But it scarcely matters: loser or not, Zippy Chippy, as portrayed by Bennett and Szalay, is lovable – and that, rather than win/place/show statistics, turns out to be what matters.
The eventual success of a lovable (or at least admirable) loser is a standard feature of fairy tales, and comes through even when a story is twisted pretty much beyond recognition – as in Sleeping Bronty, which turns “Sleeping Beauty” into a dinosaur-shaped pretzel. This deliberately overdone board-book retelling in the “Once Before Time” series will be enjoyable mostly for young children who already know the original tale, because a lot of the fun in this (+++) book comes from the ways in which the story deviates from its source. It is not just that the cast of characters consists entirely of dinosaurs – including, yes, beaked fairies with vaguely dinosaur-ish bodies and wings. What is enjoyable here is the way some traditional story elements are modified for sauropod purposes: the three good fairies wish for little Bronty to have a long neck, long tail and long life (the first two features being very definitely characteristic of all sauropods: parents can explain to young readers and pre-readers just what a Brontosaurus is). There is nothing especially evil here, just “a selfish fairy named Rhonda” who wishes for Bronty to “prick her tail on a thorn” and “fall into a deep sleep.” Of course, that is just what happens – one of the good fairies did wish for Bronty to have a long tail, after all – so Rhonda, rather illogically, somehow becomes queen as soon as Bronty is indisposed. Now what will the members of this top-hatted, elegant-clothes-wearing court do? The answer is amusingly absurd, tying not to anything romantic but to Bronty’s princely friend, a food-loving dinosaur cook who especially enjoys making five-bean chili so spicy that it causes Bronty to go “HICCUP!” The chili, it turns out, is just the thing to revive Bronty, so the prince whips up a suitably spicy batch, drops a bit into sleeping Bronty’s mouth, and awakens her. And off she goes to confront Rhonda, who commandeers the vat of chili, eats a big spoonful, and gets a case of hiccups so bad that she runs away, leaving the crown behind. This is all about as silly as it gets, which is to say very silly indeed. Sleeping Bronty certainly will not supplant the original fairy tale, in which the princess loses her realm through the machinations of an evil fairy but becomes a winner when the right prince shows up to rescue her. But young kids who love imaginary dinosaurs – especially very young kids – will find plenty to enjoy in this smiley send-up of a well-worn tale in which, as so often in stories, good wins and evil is left with little more than hiccups.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 6. Essener Philharmoniker conducted by Tomáš Netopil. Oehms. $28.99 (2 CDs).
One of the many intriguing coincidences uniting the works of Bruckner and Mahler is that both composers wrote 11 symphonies – sort of. To get to that number for Bruckner, one must include both “No. 0,” written after No. 1 but withdrawn by the composer, and “No. 00,” the early so-called “Study Symphony.” Add those to the numbered nine, including the unfinished Ninth, to get 11. As for Mahler, the nine completed works are added to the unfinished Tenth and Das Lied von der Erde, a symphony-in-all-but-name that would have been No. 9 had Mahler not superstitiously decided to avoid attaching that digit to it.
Within both these 11-symphony universes, Symphony No. 6 is the midpoint, and both Bruckner’s Sixth and Mahler’s Sixth have some oddities that remain intriguing. In Bruckner’s case, the Sixth is the only symphony that did not have revisions made to it by the composer – indicating a level of self-confidence at odds with Bruckner’s usual compositional personality. Bruckner’s Sixth is also the least frequently performed of the mature symphonies, having characteristics that render it less appealing than the other symphonies to many audiences and conductors. It has the cycle’s strangest Scherzo, which has no recognizable theme at all. It has a unique first-movement tempo indication, Majestoso. Its first complete performance took place only after Bruckner’s death, in 1899 – conducted by Mahler. And that performance used a still-unpublished edition of the work, prepared by Mahler himself, that made significant changes in the sole symphony that Bruckner himself chose not to change.
As for Mahler’s Sixth, it is the only one of his symphonies regarding which there are two major areas of dispute. One involves the sequence of movements – whether the Scherzo should be performed before or after the Andante moderato. Mahler himself seems to have been ambivalent about this – unusual for so decisive a composer and conductor. Also, the enormous finale is punctuated and tremendously dramatized by three hammer blows that eventually destroy the imagined heroic figure at its center; but Mahler eventually removed the third of them, apparently out of another superstitious fear – in this case, of keeping it in and thus inviting dire consequences into his world. For, strangely, this deeply moving and intense symphony, now usually referred to as the “Tragic,” was written at one of the happiest times of Mahler’s life – and matters were indeed to take a dramatic turn for the worse afterwards.
Today’s many first-rate Bruckner and Mahler conductors generally do a good job of absorbing the biographical and musicological elements of these symphonies, but keeping them appropriately in the background when presenting the works, allowing the music to speak for itself and tell audiences what the conductors think the composers wanted them to be told. Both Thomas Dausgaard and Tomáš Netopil have clearly studied the scores of the Bruckner and Mahler, respectively, for their new recordings of these symphonies, and have done a fine job of bringing forth the purely musical elements of the works as well as at least some of their underlying emotional terrain. And interestingly, their new recordings of these “middle” symphonies do a fine, if unintended, job of showing just how different the sensibilities of Bruckner and Mahler were at these respective points of their compositional lives.
Bruckner’s Sixth is built on a far smaller scale than his Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth, lasting well under an hour – just 53 minutes in Dausgaard’s recording for BIS. Like other Bruckner symphonies, No. 6 does build toward a final-movement climax, but in this case the symphony is more front-weighted, with 32 minutes concentrated in the first two movements. This is scarcely a “slight” symphony, but Dausgaard handles it with more lightness than is usual in performances of Bruckner: this is a lean reading rather than an opulent one, and listeners will seek in vain any grand sense of organ-like sonorities or massively resonant full-orchestra passages. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra plays Bruckner with a kind of cleanness that it is tempting to associate with the fresh and distinctly chilly Norwegian air – a notion more poetic than realistic, to be sure, but one that gives some sense of the clarity that the orchestra brings to this music and that Dausgaard extracts from it. Indeed, the Bruckner Sixth under Dausgaard has a lighter feeling than Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 of two years later (1883). Dausgaard paces the work quite well, being perhaps a little light in the emotional second movement (marked Sehr feierlich, “very solemnly”) but otherwise presenting the music in a way that brings its exceptional structural clarity to the fore. Wisely, he does not rush the Scherzo (nicht schnell, “not fast”) and also pays close attention to the pacing of the finale (nicht zu schnell, “not too fast”). If there is a certain sense of coldness to this symphony, a lessening of the great warmth and emotional power associated with others by Bruckner, there is in its place a level of thematic and rhythmic clarity that keeps the work, under Dausgaard’s baton, effectively communicative from start to finish.
Mahler’s Sixth under Netopil, in a two-CD Oehms recording, is a decidedly less thoroughly integrated affair. This is very much a symphony of extremes, from the quiet use of cowbells and the exceptionally beautiful opening of the slow movement to the pervasive march rhythms and high drama of the outer movements and the ever-present sense of barely contained doom overhanging the whole work. Netopil is content to allow the disparate elements of the work’s construction to go their own ways: notably, he makes little attempt to integrate the sprawling first and last movements, so that the strong and highly rhythmic passages seem to come from a work that differs significantly from the one containing the beautifully lyrical material. This results in an episodic performance that involves listeners strongly in one element, only to wrench them into another without much warning or preparation – a legitimate approach to the music, but one that does take some getting used to. Netopil places the Scherzo second – a more-convincing approach than putting it third – and includes all the hammer blows, although he does not give them the otherworldly sound that some conductors use to convey their power to greater effect. On the other hand, Netopil’s opening of the finale is genuinely spine-tingling: the anticipation he produces becomes almost unbearable until the movement is eventually off and running through its dark passages to its eventual dire conclusion. There is no orchestra with a greater claim to this symphony than the Essener Philharmoniker: Mahler conducted the work’s world première in Essen in 1906. So the fact that the orchestra plays the music with sumptuous sound and a firm understanding of Mahler’s thematic and rhythmic demands is scarcely a surprise. What is intriguing here is the way Netopil turns the piece into a series of alleys and byways rather than a broad avenue along which the audience journeys. Neither Netopil’s Mahler Sixth nor Dausgaard’s Bruckner Sixth is a traditional interpretation – and that is all to the good, since both these recordings show just how much remains to be explored in the music of these closely related yet highly dissimilar composers.
Beethoven: Music for Mandolin and Piano—Adagio ma non troppo, WoO 43b; Sonatina in C minor, WoO 43a; Sonata in C, WoO 44a; Andante con variazioni, WoO 44b; Allegretto from Symphony No. 7; Hummel: Grande Sonata for Mandolin and Piano; Corentin Apparailly: Lettre à l’immortelle bien-aimée; Fritz Kreisler: Rondino on a Theme of Beethoven; Walter Murphy: A Fifth of Beethoven. Julien Martineau, mandolin; Vanessa Benelli Mosell, piano; Yann Dubost, double bass; José Fillatreau, drums. Naïve. $16.99.
Reza Vali: Three Romantic Songs for Violin and Piano; Calligraphy No. 14— Âshoob; Calligraphy No. 15—Raak; Love Drunk for Violin and Piano; Ormavi—String Quartet No. 4. Carpe Diem String Quartet (Charles Wetherbee and Amy Galluzzo, violins; Korine Fujiwara, viola; Carol Ou, cello); David Korevaar, piano; Dariush Saghafi, santoor. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The mandolin is scarcely an instrument usually associated with Beethoven. Indeed, even listeners who are highly familiar with his music are often surprised to discover that he wrote four works for it, with piano accompaniment, early in his career. The pieces were never formally published, but mandolin players know them well, and now the four works have become the jumping-off point for an unusual and rather quirky Naïve CD featuring Julien Martineau and pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell. The playing here is excellent, but anyone expecting fidelity to historic practices will be roundly disappointed: Martineau and Mosell delve deeply into the emotional subtext of the music, pulling it further into the Romantic era than, objectively speaking, it really needs to go. Mosell’s use of a modern concert grand, and her willingness to have the piano’s emotive capabilities in the forefront, make these slight pieces – all four together run just 23 minutes – expressive in a way that reaches beyond their time without fitting fully into ours. But there is method to this not-quite-madness, and it starts to become clear in the Martineau/Mosell performance of Hans Sitt’s arrangement of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. This is a genuinely strange-sounding arrangement that includes all the notes of the movement and very little of its sensibility: listeners need to don a different set of ears from the one they would usually use for this music if they are to appreciate the gentle undulations and very intimate emotional compass of this performance. This is exceptionally tender music that, however, bears only a passing resemblance to what Beethoven intended. Indeed, Beethoven’s centrality to this disc shines through more in its non-Beethoven works than in those by Beethoven himself. The gem of the recording is Hummel’s sonata, a finely crafted three-movement work that partakes distinctly of Beethoven’s spirit – the two composers were sometimes friends, sometimes rivals – but that goes well beyond Beethoven’s little pieces to showcase the potential of a genuine mandolin-fortepiano partnership. Yes, fortepiano: Hummel’s sonata dates to about 1810, some 15 years after Beethoven wrote his mandolin works, but this was still the age of the fortepiano, not anything approaching the modern piano – so in the Hummel as in the Beethoven, Mosell’s warmth and expressiveness convey more sentiment than the music actually contains. Still, all these pieces are technically played very well indeed, and Martineau’s sensitivity to the mandolin’s sound and capabilities is exceptional. However, the real heart of this CD, for the performers, seems to lie in the three works most distant in time from the age of Beethoven and Hummel. One of those is a mandolin-and-piano arrangement of the little violin-and-piano Rondino by Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), a tiny delicacy (running two-and-a-half minutes) that is gone almost before it has conveyed what feeling it possesses. Much more recent is a work of the 21st century, a musical Lettre attempting to convey some sense of Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” and here receiving its world première recording. This piece is by Corentin Apparailly (born 1995) and sounds a great deal like romantic-film music, especially in the grandly sweeping central portion. It is suitably lyrical and, indeed, somewhat old-fashioned in a heart-on-sleeve way. It could have served as an encore for the disc; so could Kreisler’s Rondino. But the actual finale here, and the work to which the entire CD seems to build, is an elaboration by Bruno Fontaine of the 1976 disco hit, A Fifth of Beethoven, by Walter Murphy (born 1952). The arrangement adds double bass and drums to mandolin and piano and, in all, sounds rather weird – intriguing, but weird. Murphy’s original has become well-known, and it still possesses a level of attractive crudity in its use of Beethoven themes with a disco beat. The Fontaine version turns the heat up a notch to produce a highly jazzy and deliberately odd-sounding piece whose relationship to Beethoven – and certainly to Beethoven’s own mandolin music – is less than intimate. This entire CD comes across as a kind of playground for Martineau and Mosell, a foray into less-known Beethoven that is less an exploration of the unfamiliar than a use of a romanticized view of Beethoven’s music as an entry point to a patchwork quilt of other material.
If the sound of the mandolin is not usually associated with Beethoven, that of the santoor or santur – a hammered dulcimer of ancient provenance – is not usually, if ever, associated with that of a string quartet. But that combination is exactly what the music of Iranian composer Reza Vali (born 1952) offers – among other things – in a set of world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD. The mandolin’s gentleness can be difficult to juxtapose effectively against the piano (although it works much better against a fortepiano), but the santoor’s rather harsh and percussive sound certainly makes it stand out against Western strings. However, Vali here offers some music with the santoor and considerably more music that seeks exotic sounds without it. The most conservative piece on the disc, Three Romantic Songs (2011), is a short suite written solely for violin and piano and intended as homage to Brahms – whose warmth and sumptuous sound the work more or less replicates, but without plumbing comparable emotional depths. It is more gestural than heartfelt. Love Drunk (2014) is also a violin-and-piano work; its overall title is also the title of its final, shortest movement. The suite is subtitled “Folk Songs, Set No. 16B,” and its movements do partake of and reflect folk music from Reza’s home region. Again here, the intent to communicate emotionally is clear enough, but the music lacks genuine emotive power and speaks mainly on a surface level. The disc is dominated by two string quartets. No. 4, Ormavi (2017), has sounds ranging from the fairly traditional Western to the faintly exotic Iranian/Persian-influenced. Its eight movements offer varying moods and tempos but little feeling of depth. The other quartet, called Raak (2016) and written as a single extended movement, opens rather cacophonously and remains unsettled-feeling throughout. Although the instruments sometimes emerge individually from the massed sound, this is primarily an ensemble piece – one in which the performers do not so much have a conversation as an attempt to overlay each one’s impression of the material on all the others. Sometimes the music descends into cliché, as in a series of rising and falling scales near the midpoint; at other times it indulges in atonality and arrhythmia to no particular end. Raak contains some interesting material, but not enough to sustain it as an 18-plus-minute movement. All these works use only strings or strings plus piano, but all emulate the sound of less-familiar-to-Western-ears instruments. And Raak, in addition to being a string quartet, is one of the three works here given the subtitle Calligraphy, being designated No. 15. It is in No. 14 of the Calligraphy series that Vali shows most clearly how he sees Western instruments and sounds in complement to and contrast with others. No. 14 is called Âshoob and is heard in two versions, one for string quartet alone (2015) and one for quartet plus santoor (2014). The essential music is the same in both cases, but where the expressiveness of the quartet version lies in the dramatic loud/soft contrasts and the use of specific techniques of emphasis, such as pizzicato, the version including santoor subsumes all four string players beneath the insistent santoor sound – even when that sound appears intended to blend with that of the quartet. The themes and their working-out seem more thoroughly at home in the santoor version than in the one for strings alone: the dulcimer emphasizes the exotic-to-Western-ears nature of the material in a way beyond what is done by the strings alone. There remains a certain comparatively empty feeling to the music – the insistent concluding portion, for instance, is apparently intended as dramatic but comes across mainly as repetitive. But the addition of the santoor seems to bring the material closer to the form of expressiveness that Vali seeks. Indeed, the CD might have been of greater interest if it had included more material using the santoor and less using only strings and piano to produce sounds that do not always lie comfortably on those instruments.
March 05, 2020
The Last Day. By Andrew Hunter Murray. Dutton. $27.
Dystopias are a dime a dozen these days, and “ribbon world” novels, while not quite that common, are scarcely altogether new: Isaac Asimov coined the phrase nearly 70 years ago to describe a non-rotating planet “where the two halves face the monotonous extremes of heat and cold, while the region of possible life is the girdling ribbon of the twilight zone.” Until the mid-1960s, our own solar system’s Mercury was believed to be a ribbon world – a clever Larry Niven story called The Coldest Place leads readers to believe the title refers to Pluto until, at the end, it is revealed that the reference is to the “dark side” of Mercury (although it is now known that Mercury does rotate). But what if Earth became a ribbon world? How could that happen, and why, and what would the consequences be? Well, Andrew Hunter Murray’s debut novel, The Last Day, is light on the how and why, but this cinematically paced adventure thriller is all about the consequences – to humanity in general and, specifically, to protagonist Ellen Hopper and the people in her, so to speak, orbit.
Murray is not particularly interested in the scientific consequences of the so-called Stop, which is just as well: in fact, it is likely that extremes of climate would be mitigated by thermal recirculation as wind and water carried warmed and chilled air and water across the boundaries between the sun-facing and opposite sides of the planet. That would not suit Murray’s “ultimate disaster” approach, though, so what he gives readers is a world with tremendously reduced population, vastly lowered fertility (affecting humans as well as nonhuman fauna and flora), and the inevitable vicious dictatorship determined to protect its realm (which happens to be Great Britain, more or less) by keeping out whatever remaining masses of unfortunate humans may try to escape sure death by boiling or freezing (a clear sociopolitical stab at anti-immigrant forces on our non-ribboned Earth).
Really, the setup is nothing special: Hopper is a scientist with a heart, who has been driven by personal life experiences to work in lonely circumstances on an offshore rig that searches for long-sunk ships and their long-dead passengers for reasons that are not altogether clear. She suddenly gets a mysterious visit from two sinister government types. That happens after she receives and then destroys a letter from her former tutor, a onetime political bigwig who fell afoul of the aforementioned dictatorship after helping it gain traction and now, nearing his life’s end, is determined to re-connect with his recalcitrant student for unspecified reasons and reveal to her, and only to her, some sort of momentous and possibly world-changing secret – even though the two of them scarcely parted amicably. The sinister types, also after whatever the secret is, get Hopper to her dying tutor’s bedside just barely in time for him to die without revealing whatever-it-is to her – but just in time for him to whisper, croakily, what may be a clue.
Described this way, the plot is simply silly, not to mention a repeat of endless thriller/mystery plots by an unending succession of writers. And this is scarcely the only formulaic element: there is the usual government infestation of (what remains of) the news media, and there is a nefarious attempt to obtain nuclear weapons because the world isn’t wrecked enough yet to satisfy the power-mad ultra-villains who always show up in tales like this one. But Murray, despite all the clichés with which he liberally sprinkles The Last Day, keeps matters interesting in several ways. For one thing, he has a talent for descriptive passages when he pauses long enough in the action to employ it. Thus, when Hopper re-experiences London after being brought there from the offshore rig, Murray writes, “London smelled of tar. She had forgotten that. The same pollution, she guessed, the same industrial works belching out poison as when she had left. The air was thick with it: a warm oiliness pervading the air, almost visible, a thick yellow blanket lying on the city. It made its way everywhere: into the pores, into the deepest recesses of the lungs, between clothing and skin, creeping thick and hot, industrial and intimate.” But there are not enough of these well-crafted passages to make up for quite a few instances of inelegance and plot holes. Why, for example, do so many people smoke cigarettes, and why, with such enormously constrained resources, does tobacco farming seem to get such a high priority, making cigarettes both ubiquitous and inexpensive? After all, this is a world of “shortage, shortage, shortage; shortages of food, of water, of fuel, of sleep, of levity, of decency.” But not of tobacco.
A bigger question, though, and one far more central to the issue of whether readers will enjoy Murray’s novel, is why anyone should really care about Hopper as a protagonist – that is, what makes her special. Yes, she has the usual bruised background: part of the plot involves the possible rekindling of romance between her and her ex-husband; another part has her still trying to cope with her mother’s long-ago death. And yes, she has basically good instincts that stand in stark contrast to the basically evil ones of the one-dimensional villains on whom she gets the goods, or some of the goods. But she is not an especially fully formed character herself – she is simply the necessary linchpin of a story that, typically for the dystopian genre, paints the horrors of an imagined near-future with broad strokes and then brings them into sharp focus by showing their effect on one particular individual who, really, just wants to find a way to cope with life and keep getting by. Hopper is admirable in all the right ways: she is challenged to do the right thing in circumstances that test her feelings and beliefs but that readers will know will not stop her from ultimately doing what needs to be done. Supposedly very smart, she is flat-out stupid in all the usual ways of an in-over-her-head protagonist, behaving with incredible idiocy by blithely endangering numerous other people (who, as a result, have a habit of turning up dead) as she determinedly operates entirely within her voluminous lack of knowledge even when help is available. “I know you don’t give a toss about any of us,” her brother says after she appears thoroughly to have frightened him and undermined his hospitality through her selfish thoughtlessness; and whatever his true motivations may be, this particular statement is exactly correct. And her ex tells her at one point, “People are dying, and you’re running around in the middle of it without a clue. …This whole sick island is a madhouse, and everyone I know is fighting two wars, because nobody knows who’s on whose side anymore, and here you come, just wandering into the middle of it explaining how perfectly simple it all is.” Well, yes – that too is exactly correct. But this is an area where Murray’s inexperience as a novelist shows, because, having raised what could be a central issue that would produce much more insight into Hopper’s personality and motivations, he promptly abandons the whole matter as being out of keeping with the novel’s focus, and the improbable but so-important quest continues apace.
If Hopper were more thoroughly fleshed-out as a character, The Last Day would be a more compelling and more thoughtful book than it actually is. Instead, what Murray offers is a well-paced, generally well-written near-future novel with a manifest absurdity at its center – an absurdity intended to show that human venality and heroism alike will both find ways to emerge even in the face of whole-Earth disasters. The book is a quick and satisfying read as a thriller, considerably less satisfying as a work of science fiction, and still less so as an exploration of human frailties and capabilities. It works well for what it is, so long as readers do not hope for it to be anything more.
Mozart: Serenade in D, K. 250 (“Haffner”); March in D, K. 249; Ein musikalischer Spaß, K. 522. Die Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
Tangos and More: Music of Aquiles Roggero, Mariano Mores, Ástor Piazzolla, Alicia Terzian, Juan Jose Castro, Jukka Tienssuu, Lucio Demare, Roque de Pedro, Juan Carlos Cobian, and Daniel Binelli. Grupo Encuentros conducted by Alicia Terzian. Navona. $14.99.
The two serenades by Brahms, at about 45 and 35 minutes respectively, are often mentioned as extending and expanding the relatively light serenade form into the near-symphonic realm, and in fact being used by Brahms as practice of a sort before he produced his full-fledged Symphony No. 1. But there is an earlier serenade more extensive and expansive than either of them, and while it is not symphonic in the same sense, it certainly shows the remarkable breadth and variety that a composer can bring to a form that is generally considered to be on the lighter side. This big serenade is Mozart’s “Haffner,” K. 250, an elaborate eight-movement work that can run more than a full hour when all repeats are observed. And it is a remarkable piece indeed, as is shown exceptionally clearly in a wonderful new period-instrument performance by Die Kölner Akademie, conducted by Michael Alexander Willens, on a very fine-sounding SACD on the BIS label. Actually, Mozart’s serenades, which were occasional pieces – created for specific purposes as a form of “outdoor music” – were often quite extended, but the “Haffner” is notable for more than its length. For example, it opens with a serious introduction that looks ahead to the composer’s later symphonies, and its second, third and fourth movements constitute a kind of miniature violin concerto that requires considerable virtuosity of the soloist – and the ensemble’s leader, Alexander Janiczek, is very fine here, performing with beautiful tone on a 1731 Giuseppe Guarneri instrument. This serenade was written for the wedding of a member of the prominent Haffner family, and Mozart made sure to create music that would be both appropriate for the occasion and challenging for the performers, notably in his wind use in the work’s finale, which is especially demanding of the bassoons. Along with the serenade, Mozart composed the March in D, K. 249, for the same occasion – and it sets up the serenade itself quite suitably and with considerable care. The elegance brought forth through Mozart’s always-careful compositional construction is important to understand when listening to Ein musikalischer Spaß (“A Musical Joke”), written 11 years after the serenade, in 1787. Here Mozart, from his very extensive knowledge of the right way to do things, does pretty much everything wrong – and a clear familiarity with K. 250 is vastly helpful for appreciating (and laughing at) K. 522. There are a few sections of Ein musikalischer Spaß that are so outrageously incorrect that even a listener unfamiliar with Mozart and the Classical era will be brought up short – there are overt wrong notes, for example, and some horn trills so high that they strain the players’ breath and capabilities (especially when performed, as they are here, on the natural horns of Mozart’s time). But there is much more than this in Ein musikalischer Spaß: accompaniment figures masquerading as melody, an overdone and tasteless cadenza, an attenuated fugue, and a final three chords played in five different keys at once – looking far, far ahead to the last note of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2. The better a listener knows Mozart and his time, the more fun Ein musikalischer Spaß will be, and the rousing performance here – by musicians thoroughly versed in correct historical performance practices – is an absolute gem.
The lighter, dancelike elements of Mozart’s occasional works, such as the three minuet movements in the “Haffner” serenade, were used to help establish the music’s celebratory and outdoorsy character. And even in the 20th and 21st centuries, dance music can be used to set a variety of moods. That is how matters proceed on a (+++) CD featuring tangos and sort-of-tangos conducted by, and in a couple of cases composed by, Alicia Terzian. Although most of the 13 compositions here are instrumental, voices, including that of mezzo-soprano Marta Blanco, are heard in Terzian’s Argentino Hasta la Muerte and Un Argentino de Vuelta, Mariano Mores’ Cristal, and Lucio Demare’s Malena. This is one approach through which these works, in a modern way, vary the sound, pacing and rhythm of the music, as Mozart did in a different way for his instrumental complements. The pieces on this Navona disc are written to elicit a wide variety of sounds, and to do that, some – including both by Terzian – use electronics as well as traditional instruments. The basic aim here is to show just how varied the tango is and how many ways composers have used it over time (Malena, for example, dates to the 1940s, while other works here were written 50 or more years later) and in different geographical areas. In other words, the tango is not only favored by composers in Argentina, where Ástor Piazzolla transformed the old dance form in ways that continue to resonate today – through works such as Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, two of which are heard here in arrangements for piano trio – but also by composers as far away as Finland, from which comes Tango lunar by Jukka Tienssuu. Grupo Encuentros, which Terzian leads, consistently displays its ability to handle the tango in any and all varieties, and every work here takes full advantage of whatever set of instruments Terzian calls for. (The ensemble’s full complement includes Claudio Espector, piano; Sergio Polizzi, violin; Carlos Nozzi, cello; Fabio Mazzitelli, flute; Matias Tchicourel, clarinet; and Daniel Binelli, bandoneon – the bandoneon being particularly well-used in Piazzolla’s Picasso.) The varying elements of these pieces and their differing instrumentation make the CD as a whole a treat for tango fans, with specific pieces likely to appeal to listeners with different tastes: Terzian’s own to those seeking a distinctly contemporary sound, Aquiles Roggero’s Mimi Pinsón and Piazzolla’s works to an audience looking for something a bit more traditionally and authentically scored, and so on. Anyone who loves the tango and is interested in the many non-traditional ways it has been and is still being developed compositionally will likely find at least some of the material here intriguing, and a few of the pieces perhaps even fascinating.