February 23, 2012


More. By I.C. Springman. Illustrated by Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

The One and Only Ivan. By Katherine Applegate. Harper. $16.99.

     We humans learn constantly from our interactions with animals, and children in particular tend to be open to lessons transmitted through fictional animal relationships that turn out not to be very far from reality at all. More is a story about hoarding and about the incessant need of some humans to acquire more than they need, simply because they can. But there is not a single word about that subject in I.C. Springman’s book. The story is simply about a magpie that at first has nothing except the band on its leg. Then a helpful mouse gives it something: a marble. And the magpie, inspired, starts to collect other things. But it doesn’t know where to stop. Not when it has “lots.” Not when it has “plenty.” Not even when it has “way too much.” Even when the mouse shouts “enough,” the magpie continues bringing stuff to its nest – in fact, it needs multiple nests to store everything (keys, coins, postage stamps, a harmonica, and all sorts of bric-a-brac). Eventually the magpie actually ends up buried in its possessions, and the mouse has to get a rescue brigade of other mice together to reduce the pile to “less” and then “a lot less,” until eventually mice and magpie agree that “not much at all” is really “enough.” The words are few and very simple here, with the story told through excellent Brian Lies illustrations – which are highly realistic in depicting the mice and magpie, but bend reality just enough to give the animals some human-like expressions and gestures. Lies, whose Bats at the Beach and other bat books also combine realistic drawing with fantasy adventure, here pictures a tale that is close to reality, since magpies really do hoard objects and sometimes create considerable stashes of humans’ cast-away items. Indeed, Lies’ accurate rendition of the magpie’s trove is one thing that shows children just how much we humans collect and then abandon: a whistle, a broken pocket watch, a wooden block, a jack, a mirror, an electrical plug, scissors, a playing card, and much more. Parents may need to reinforce the lessons of More with kids ages 4-8, but Springman and Lies do a fine job of having animals teach the basics on their own.

     Just as magpies really do collect, some gorillas really do paint – but The One and Only Ivan is more than a story about a painting gorilla. Katherine Applegate loosely bases this sensitive and unusual novel for preteens on the true story of a gorilla named Ivan that lives at Zoo Atlanta after almost three decades of life in a cage at a small roadside attraction. What Applegate does here is surround her fictional Ivan with imagined characters, animal and human – and give Ivan himself a voice. He is the book’s narrator, and it is through him that readers experience a world of small pleasures and enjoyable socializing even in a place that is not only inappropriate for a gorilla but also, in a human sense, a prison. The One and Only Ivan is not a formulaic “take better care of animals” book or an outright condemnation of the inhumane way in which captive creatures have been kept (and sometimes still are); if it were only that, it might be good advocacy but would be a poor story. What Applegate does is show that Ivan is initially well adjusted to his life as a star attraction at a roadside mall, enjoying the company of an elephant named Stella and a stray dog named Bob, and willingly helping the attraction’s owner, Mack, who not only puts the animals on display but also sells Ivan’s paintings. But a new arrival, a baby elephant named Ruby, upsets Ivan’s reasonably comfortable existence, and a janitor named George and his artist daughter, Julia, eventually upend Ivan’s world completely by first bringing more people’s attention to it and to him – and then attracting government and zoo observers, plus protest-sign carriers. There is an eventual happy ending for almost everyone (Ivan, Ruby, George, Julia and Bob), but that inevitable outcome is not what makes The One and Only Ivan special. It is the kind of voice that Applegate creates for the gorilla that sets this book apart. “Human babies are an ugly lot,” he observes. “But their eyes are like our babies’ eyes.” And, when he is jealous of the attention that Ruby gets: “[Julia] rolls a pencil across my cement floor. ‘You can draw the baby elephant too,’ Julia says. I bite the pencil in half with my magnificent teeth. Then I eat some paper.” Remembering his early life with Mack: “I went to baseball games, to the grocery store, to a movie theater, even to the circus. (They didn’t have a gorilla.) I rode a little motorbike and blew out candles on a birthday cake. My life as a human was a glamorous one, although my parents, traditional sorts, would not have approved.” Page after page is like this: naïve but observant, limited but cogent, different from a human viewpoint but close enough so readers will imagine that a gorilla just might possibly think this way. By creating the wholly unrealistic notion of a gorilla writing his own life story, by avoiding cliché while still showing how humans – even with good intentions – have so often mistreated animals even while caring for them, Applegate has written a gently moving book that is first and foremost a well-told story, but that also makes its point about improving the ethical relationship between humans and animals more effectively than a host of protest signs and shrill pamphlets.


The Quantum Universe (and Why Anything That Can Happen, Does). By Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw. Da Capo. $25.

The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society. By David Wolman. Da Capo. $25.

     Particle-physics professor Brian Cox and theoretical-physics professor Jeff Forshaw, both from the University of Manchester, England, are determined to disprove physicist Richard Feynmann’s famed quip, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” They don’t really succeed in The Quantum Universe, but they have a good go at it, and manage to create a book that is highly informative and more than intermittently entertaining. “The key ideas [of quantum theory] are very simple in their technical content, but tricky in the way they challenge us to confront our prejudices about the world,” they write. Well, yes. Cox and Forshaw postulate a particle known to be in a particular place and ask what the chance is that it will be located somewhere else later. Then: “To Isaac Newton, this would have been a very dull question: if we place a particle somewhere and do nothing to it, then it’s not going to go anywhere. But Nature says, quite categorically, that this is simply wrong. In fact, Newton could not be more wrong. Here is the correct answer: the particle can be anywhere else in the Universe at the later time.” And this is the simple stuff. Quantum mechanics is the opposite of intuitive, and it is quite impossible to discuss without venturing into some amount of math as well as a certain level of representational logic. Thus – and again, this is one of the simpler examples here – Cox and Forshaw state a rule of quantum theory as straightforwardly as they can, using clock faces (a concept they have expanded from Feynmann) to try to make it as comprehensible as possible: “At a time t in the future, a clock a distance x from the original clock has its hand wound in an anti-clockwise direction by an amount proportional to x2; the amount of winding is also proportional to the mass of the particle m and inversely proportional to the time t.” The authors actually comment in the next paragraph that they have set up the rule this way and imagined a single initial clock “to simplify matters.”

Clearly The Quantum Universe is not a book to be read quickly, lightly or easily. But it is an important book nevertheless, and Cox and Forshaw deserve credit for making a tremendously difficult subject about as accessible and understandable as it can possibly be made. They open one chapter, for example, by writing, “That we do not fall through the floor is something of a mystery. To say the floor is ‘solid’ is not very helpful, not least because [physicist Ernest] Rutherford discovered that atoms are almost entirely empty space. The situation is made even more puzzling because, as far as we can tell, the fundamental particles of Nature are of no size at all.” By presenting everyday occurrences this way, the authors constantly emphasize and reemphasize the counterintuitive nature of the quantum world – while at the same time offering readers a way to understand how and why things can be so different on a microcosmic scale compared with a macrocosmic, Newtonian one. They occasionally miss a chance for a humorous aside, as when they mention that the first quantum-field theory discovered was “quantum electrodynamics, or QED,” without punning on the notion of “QED” as indicating the successful conclusion of a mathematical or philosophical argument. Still, they do a remarkably good job of walking readers gingerly through some extremely complex areas – although not with ease and not without requiring some understanding of math and, if possible, physics as a foundation. But there is something mentally salutary in reading a sentence such as, “That things work out just fine is not an accident and it hints at a deeper mathematical structure,” and realizing that all the abstruse discussion and sometimes hard-to-follow argument does have a solid underpinning – which means, for all the extreme difficulty of comprehending quantum physics, that our macrocosmic world does after all have a solid foundation. Even if most of it consists of empty space.

     Up in the macro world of everyday life, where our interactions with matter seem a lot easier to manage and understand, one of the simplest things we do each day is make purchases for cash. But if Cox and Forshaw obsessively attempt to simplify the enormously complex, Wired contributing editor David Wolman is determined to show that this apparently simple type of transaction is far more convoluted than it seems. The End of Money is Wolman’s world-spanning tour from a year in which he tried to avoid using cash at all – achieving something less than 100% success, but not a lot less. The book’s underlying idea of a “coming cashless society” is scarcely new in one sense, with many people believing the United States and other industrialized nations are well on the way there already, thanks to credit and debit cards, online payments, smart cards, pay-by-mobile-phone systems, mobile banking, and other technologies. Wolman’s interest, though, is in a completely cashless society, a cashless world, in which even the two billion people who earn less than $2 a day can find a medium of exchange other than cash. This is a huge leap, whose importance and efficacy Wolman overstates because of his own dislike of cash (which he talks about but never really explains satisfactorily; it just doesn’t seem to be as big a deal as he makes it). Wolman acknowledges that cash has many uses, for instance in giving tips to waiters and waitresses in U.S. restaurants. His solution to that is to move to a European model of higher wages, plus service charges on all bills. But this kind of social-reengineering approach is exactly what undermines a book that has many intriguing elements. Wolman wants a different world, and the continuing existence of cash is a surrogate for many things whose dislike for which he does make apparent, such as the international preeminence of the U.S. dollar (a dominance that is in any case changing).

The most interesting parts of The End of Money are its many character studies, and some of the people Wolman encounters really are characters. There is Glenn Guest, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Danielsville, Georgia, who explains that Christ’s return is sure to come but that before that, “‘once Satan has control, we will have a completely closed economic system’” in which only those who accept the Mark of the Beast will be able to take part in commerce. There is Dave Birch, creator of the Digital Money Forum, who believes the many costs of handling cash (security and manufacturing expenses being two of the obvious ones) are irrational and will eventually be found totally unacceptable. There is 67-year-old Bernard von NotHaus, deemed a “domestic terrorist” by federal prosecutors because of his minting of items that look and act like coins but that he determinedly says are not, at least not in any lawbreaking sense. Wolman’s interactions with these people and others are often fascinating; and certainly Wolman himself makes many good points about the absurdities of cash. But many are points that have frequently been made before – for instance, the fact that it costs more to make a penny than the value of that penny. And some of Wolman’s assertions are only partially correct: “The next big coinage spree in the United States will be the $1 presidential series. By 2016, the Fed should have about $2 billion worth of $1 coins available, even though many merchants and cash handling companies won’t stock them because people don’t use them. …If you’re wondering what in God’s name these money managers are thinking, you’re not alone.” Well, here is what they are thinking: they have to make the coins. For purely political reasons, Congress passed a law mandating the creation of the presidential dollar coins, even though the likelihood of those coins having significant economic utility is virtually nil. This is not some grand Treasury conspiracy to further the cause of cash, but a typical piece of political posturing by a Congress that is largely immune to the effects of its own bad decisions. Ultimately, The End of Money is too myopic and in some ways too unfocused to be a strong case for cash replacement everywhere and under all circumstances. It does raise some intriguing questions and present the views and personalities of some very interesting people – who are often, however, very much on the fringes of society. And it would be unfair to say that their and Wolman’s anti-cash crusade is much ado about nothing – there are significant disadvantages to having cash as pervasive a part of everyday life as it remains today – but it is much ado about something less momentous than Wolman would like his readers to believe.


The Cabinet of Earths. By Anne Nesbet. Harper. $16.99.

Clarity. By Kim Harrington. Point/Scholastic. $8.99.

Perception: A “Clarity” Novel. By Kim Harrington. Point/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Debut novelists must, of course, start somewhere. And where they often choose to start in books for young readers is with the basics of a particular genre, upon which they then ring changes to a greater or lesser degree. In Anne Nesbet’s case, The Cabinet of Earths – intended for ages 10 and up – contains some very formulaic elements, but is presented in such a way that it could almost have been written for adults. There is a mixture of fantasy and science here, and a mixture of the commonplace (young American heroine who is unsure of herself) and the exotic (Paris, which is well used as a setting, although the detailed descriptions will be of more interest to adults than young readers – one reason Nesbet seems a bit unsure of her audience). There is a family curse here, along with some genuine moral issues: the cabinet of the title stores certain people’s mortality, making them immortal, but this option is available only to the wealthy and at the expense of other people’s well-being – again, a rather adult theme. The uncertainty of audience would not matter much with a well-paced story featuring a dynamic protagonist, but The Cabinet of Earths moves slowly for about three-quarters of its length, very gradually building up a backstory through bit-by-bit revelations; and Maya, the central character, mostly just drifts from scene to scene, worrying about her ill mother, baking cookies, going to dances, taking French lessons, making only one single friend in her new school (Valko, son of a Bulgarian diplomat), and finding various odd things as she explores with her little brother, James. Slow plot emergence and very slow emergence of Maya’s self-awareness make the book read more like a setup for future adventures than a self-contained novel. Characters other than Maya and Valko are little developed: James and Maya’s father have little personality, and Maya’s mother’s illness is not much of a motivating factor for anything that happens. Also, although the idea of mixing science and magic is intriguing, not much is done with it. The final portion of the book, though, shows where Nesbet can go if she wants to: it has plenty of action and much more intensity than the slow-building earlier part. But the intended audience of young readers may never get to the excitement, because the buildup requires considerable patience – and interest in some subjects that preteens and young teenagers may not care much about. In seeking to go beyond the formulaic, Nesbet has reached out somewhat creakily. But a sequel is certainly possible, and if it builds effectively on all the foundations laid in the early part of The Cabinet of Earths, the followup could be quite a good one.

     Clarity, the first novel by Kim Harrington, plants itself firmly in a different genre: supernatural fiction. And it aims for somewhat older readers, ages 14 and up. Published last year and now available in paperback – just as its sequel, Perception, appears in hardcover – Clarity introduces a sort of paranormal teen detective, Clarity (Clare) Fern. Unlike The Cabinet of Earths, Harrington’s book is easy to read and fast-paced throughout, and its romantic and school-related concerns target teen readers well. It lacks any real depth or originality, but that may not be an issue for high-school readers looking for something light and enjoyable. In the first book, we meet 16-year-old Clarity and her paranormal-ability-endowed family: her mother is a telepath and her brother is a medium, while Clarity herself is a psychic. They are collectively considered freakish by others in Eastport, the tourist town where they live. But when a teenage visitor is killed in a motel room, and Clarity’s brother becomes a suspect in the girl’s death, Clarity works with the mayor and a skeptical detective to solve the crime. It helps the plot, if not the investigation, that the detective has a hot son, Gabriel, with whom Clarity gets to work – helping her take her mind off her ex, Jason, who wants her back. The fact that Gabriel hates psychics is no surprise in the context of this sort of genre book. And the mystery element of the novel is straightforward – yes, it has twists and turns, but none of them is especially outlandish. The best thing about the book is Clarity’s voice: she narrates with down-to-earth humor and some sarcasm, and completely without the flightiness of some other paranormal characters. Her voice is the biggest plus in Perception as well. Some of the questions left at the end of Clarity are answered in the sequel, but Harrington’s main interest seems to be in turning this series into a long-running one. In Perception, Clarity remains torn between Gabriel and Justin, is deep in the middle of another mystery, and is unable to hang back from her psychic gift (in which she has visions activated by the objects she touches). The plot in Perception revolves around the disappearance of one of Clarity’s classmates and the messages and gifts that Clarity herself mysteriously starts to receive – maybe from Gabriel, maybe from Justin, maybe from someone else. Clarity is the usual self-reliant but somewhat insecure post-feminist so common in today’s books for teens: “Just minutes ago, I’d been thinking I didn’t want to go alone. But Justin pulling the whole helpless little girl needs a big strong man act made me want to turn him down on principle.” And she gets into situations that date back to the days of Nancy Drew, even though in the first book she actually comments on not having “time to snoop around Nancy Drew style.” For example: “I strained to turn my head and face my attacker. My struggling only made him laugh. My arms were pinned, but my feet were free and I calculated, aimed, and brought my heel down hard on his foot.” There are some chills at the book’s climax, but nothing that will really surprise readers – and for that very reason, Harrington should be able to continue bringing Clarity back to face other dangers. The outcome may be obvious early on, but the series’ combination of attractive narration and easy, fast-paced reading should be enough to keep it going.


Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. “0” and 1. Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 10—Adagio. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, contralto; Ladies of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir; Liverpool Youth Philharmonic Choir; Royal Liverpool Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz (No. 3); Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz (No. 10). Artek. $24.99 (2 CDs).

     The devil may be in the details, as the cliché has it, but there can be something angelic there, too. Mario Venzago switches orchestras but not his unusual approach to Bruckner for the second entry in his cycle of the composer’s symphonies. After performing Nos. 4 and 7 with the Sinfonieorchester Basel, he turns for Nos. “0” and 1 to the very modest forces of the Tapiola Sinfonietta. And before exclaiming that an orchestra with only nine first violins cannot possibly do justice to Bruckner’s monumental vision, listeners should understand that the transparency of texture and comparative lightness of orchestration are exactly what Venzago wants for these early Bruckner symphonies – and that the use of the small ensemble permits highly effective implementation of Venzago’s very personal view of these symphonies. Venzago returns to the symphonic size and performance practices of Bruckner’s own time, in particular the decade of the 1860s, to which both these works date. Although Bruckner is almost always deemed a “heavy” composer and given performances that can be monumental but may also be muddy (a fate that tends to befall Brahms as well), what Venzago has done is note that the orchestras of Bruckner’s time, for which he wrote his symphonies, were lighter-weight than those of later times, with a significantly smaller string complement; thus, Bruckner can be conducted, in informed period-practice style (although without the use of authentic 19th-century instruments), in a lighter, more buoyant vein than usual. And that is exactly what Venzago does here. The D minor symphony known as No. “0” (given that designation by the composer himself) is not actually Bruckner’s first work in the form – there is an earlier one in F minor that has survived but is very rarely heard (and when it is, is called No. “00”). But although Bruckner himself wanted the No. 1 attached to the C minor symphony on which he worked at about the same time as No. “0,” he did not suppress the D minor, as he did the F minor. So Venzago interprets the Bruckner cycle as starting with No. “0.” Interestingly, both the symphonies heard here are almost of identical length (about 44 minutes each), and both have exactly the same designations for their four movements: Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and Finale. But as conducted by Venzago, they emerge from different worlds. No. “0,” heard in its modified 1869 version because the 1864 original no longer exists, is Schubertian to a considerable degree; indeed, Bruckner’s opening parallels that of Schubert’s “Unfinished,” which had only been found and first performed in 1865. Frequently songlike and syncopated, occasionally even paying homage to Rossini, No. “0” features some highly virtuosic writing for strings that comes through especially clearly thanks to Venzago’s use of a small ensemble. Symphony No. 1, in contrast, sounds more like Schumann than Schubert, and the version heard here, from 1866, is actually earlier than the version of No. “0” that Venzago offers (there is a later and significantly heavier version of No. 1, dating to 1890-91). No. 1 is harsher and more determined than No. “0” and is considerably more serious in tone. Its outbursts of anger and violence come with effective contrasts: the march rhythm of the first movement compared with the fervent second, for example. The nearly wild vitality of the finale is most communicative at a fast tempo but with tremendous instrumental clarity – and here again, Venzago’s choice of the Tapiola Sinfonietta proves a wise one. Venzago is calling this cycle “A Different Bruckner,” envisioning it as a followup to his previously release, “A Different Schumann.” And the designation is not simply verbiage: this really is Bruckner performed with unusual forces and an unusual viewpoint, yet with authoritative style and a very clear and earnest attempt to bring forth elements of the composer’s symphonies that are heard infrequently, if at all.

     Gerard Schwarz’s Mahler Third has some uncommon elements, too, although not in orchestral size or because of any attempt at “period” interpretation. What Schwarz does here is turn this gigantic symphony, Mahler’s most world-spanning work, into an accumulation of small delicacies. The huge first movement does not stride forth as intensely as in other performances, but once established, it proceeds in episodic but well-paced sections that make it sound like a series of miniature tone poems. Quiet segments flirt with inaudibility – quite an achievement for a live recording (made in 2002) – while louder ones almost blast forth. But what is most impressive is the artful use of solos, including violin and timpani in the first movement: these more than compensate for an occasional misstep, such as the too-fast tempo at the movement’s very end. Small and elegant touches continue to abound throughout the symphony. The flutes enhance the gentle flow of the second movement, while the posthorn and trumpet are played with great style in the third. Both these movements are a touch on the quick side (Mahler specifically designated the third to be played Ohne Hast), but the beauties of individual instruments, and indeed the very fine playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as a whole, are what leave the greatest impression. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is highly expressive in the fourth movement, although her voice is a rather light contralto; and the women’s and children’s choruses produce bright and lively sound in the fifth movement, although Schwarz emphasizes the darker central section to a somewhat greater extent than usual. It would, however, have been nice to have the movements’ texts included with the recording. The finale, which again is a touch fast, flows beautifully and builds naturally to a gorgeously played climax that sounds simply wonderful even if it does not quite attain the emotional depth associated with the very best performances of this music. Taken as a whole, this is Schwarz’s finest Mahler performance on Artek: he is not known as a particularly adept Mahler conductor, but the Third clearly speaks to him, and through him to listeners. Also included here is a 2009 performance with the Seattle Symphony of the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, and this too is nicely done, although more ordinary in its effect than the Third and not played by the orchestra with quite as much intensity or devotion as the Liverpool musicians provide. This release as a whole, though, is a notable one that sheds light on the beauties of Mahler in some ways that other recordings of the Third do not.


Oscar Straus: Die Lustigen Nibelungen. Martin Gantner, Daphne Evangelatos, Gerd Grochowski, Hein Heidbüchel, Gabriele Henkel, Lisa Griffith, Josef Otten, Michael Nowak, Gudrun Volkert, Christine Mann; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln and WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln conducted by Siegfried Köhler. Capriccio. $16.99.

Oscar Straus: Der Tapfere Soldat. Johannes Martin Kränzle, Caroline Stein, John Dickie, Martina Borst, Gertraud Wagner, Helmut Berger, Walter Raffeiner; Händel Collegium Köln and WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln conducted by Siegfried Köhler. Capriccio. $16.99 (2 CDs).

Gilbert and Sullivan: The Mikado. Richard Alexander, Kanen Breen, Mitchell Butel, Warwick Fyfe, Samuel Dundas, Tom Hamilton, Taryn Fiebig, Dominica Matthews, Annabelle Chaffey, Jacqueline Dark; Opera Australia Chorus and Orchestra Victoria conducted by Brian Castles-Onion. Opera Australia. $22.99 (2 CDs).

     In operetta, where the musical numbers tend to decorate the spoken plot rather than being germane to what is going on, the CD can be a wonderful medium for encountering less-known works whose music has charms that may long since have outlived its staging. But when operetta is well-known, and especially when a recording is of a live performance, CDs can be a hindrance to enjoyment, making listeners feel they are not in on the jokes and are being deprived of the fun that the audience had when the recording was made.

     On this basis, Oscar Straus’ operettas translate quite well to CDs. Straus is no longer very popular except in France, where the Vienna-born composer was granted citizenship after the Anschluss of Austria in 1938. But he was heir to a rich tradition and was an important part of creating a new one: that of the musical. Straus was born the same year as Lehár, 1870, and outlived him by six years, until 1954. His name was originally Strauss, but he dropped the final “s” to avoid being incorrectly thought of as part of the famous Viennese Strauss family. Yet he took advice from none other than Johann Strauss Jr., who suggested that Oscar Straus write for the stage, which would be more lucrative than producing waltzes and other dances. Straus took the advice to heart and was a successful stage composer all his life, making quite a bit of money in the process because, unlike Lehár, he never tried to deepen the form of operetta – he simply helped it change with the times, evolving into the musicals we know today. Straus was in fact a direct competitor of Lehár for a while, supposedly claiming after the 1905 success of The Merry Widow that he could do even better – and proceeding to write Ein Walzertraum (“A Waltz Dream”), which opened in 1907 and did become a major international success. But Straus started his career in operetta with a different work: Die Lustigen Nibelungen (“The Merry Nibelungs”), a 1904 sendup of all things Wagnerian that will be hopelessly abstruse for many modern listeners but remains absolutely hilarious for Wagner aficionados who retain a sense of humor about their idol. The story, updated to then-modern times, tosses about everything from social caricatures in the spirit of Offenbach to multiple musical quotations from Wagner, plus a dachshund dressed as a dragon and a plot in which the plan to kill the wealthy Siegfried is called off because there is no longer any profit in it. Underlying all the humor was a subtle, or perhaps none too subtle, condemnation of the notion of German nationalism and Prussian militarism – a fact that led to the cancellation of Die Lustigen Nibelungen just about everywhere as intense nationalistic feelings surged in the early years of the 20th century. Little of this matters today, though, in light of the music, which absolutely sparkles in a performance from 1995, led by Siegfried Köhler with bounce, verve and humor. There is wonderful contrast between the shrill and demanding Brunhilde (Gudrun Volkert) and the sweetly romantic and gentle Kriemhild (Lisa Griffith), and it is hard not to laugh out loud when Siegfried (Michael Nowak) sings Das ist Rheingold, das ist mein Gold in waltz time. The Capriccio CD includes almost all the music (one number is unaccountably omitted); and although no libretto is provided, the booklet offers enough of a plot summary to allow listeners to understand the context of the various fights, arguments, misunderstandings, plots and counterplots. Die Lustigen Nibelungen is a silly delight, a parodistic journey to mythic lands whose bright music and overall sense of bubbling fun make it worth hearing even if its original reasons for being are no longer especially relevant or important.

     Nor was Die Lustigen Nibelungen the last Straus work to satirize militarism. Taking a page from La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein by Offenbach, the greatest satirical operetta composer of them all, Straus in 1908 produced Der Tapfere Soldat (“The Brave Soldier”). In English, the operetta is usually entitled “The Chocolate Soldier” after its subtitle, Der Praliné-Soldat, so called because the hero carries chocolates rather than bullets in his cartridge belt. This work – based on Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, who hated the adaptation – features a war between Bulgaria and Serbia in which a soldier dressed in Serbian uniform (but really a Swiss mercenary) flees the conflict and intrudes into the bedroom of the daughter of a Bulgarian colonel, who falls in love with him after realizing that the supposedly brave Bulgarian soldier she thought she loved is really a boastful fool, and not overly bright. Two others women in the same household also fall in love with the “chocolate soldier,” and all three slip their photos into a dressing-gown in which they help him escape – which later leads to jealousy, misunderstandings and slapstick, until eventually everything is sorted out and the right men get to marry the right women. This is a more typical operetta plot than that of Die Lustigen Nibelungen, and it is not surprising that this work – along with Ein Walzertraum – is Straus’ best-known. The fact that it includes some truly lovely music, such as the very Lehár-like and several-times-repeated waltz, Komm, komm, Held meiner Träume, is part of its considerable charm. The Capriccio recording of Der Tapfere Soldat, also conducted by Köhler, dates to 1993 and is also an excellent one: the operetta is brimming with luscious tunes, well-made ensembles and effective duets, and all come across very well indeed in a spirited romp whose music flows with delight, even though again the recording lacks a libretto and this time has a not-very-good plot summary. These two Straus works are not at the level of The Merry Widow, whose love story seems ageless and whose music transcends its genre even while existing firmly within it; but even if Die Lustigen Nibelungen and Der Tapfere Soldat are unlikely to regain international prominence on the stage, these recordings should give them a well-deserved boost for home listeners and will hopefully keep some wonderful music alive.

     In contrast to the Straus works, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado has remained a hit ever since its debut in 1885 as the ninth of the collaborators’ 14 operettas (if you include the lost Thespis). It had the longest initial run of any Savoy opera, and its popularity shows few signs of diminishing. But that does not mean it necessarily works well on CD; and unfortunately, it comes across very poorly indeed in Opera Australia’s new two-CD set, released by the company itself. The performance, recorded live last year, gives every sign of having delighted the audience – there are plenty of laughs and plenty of applause. The singers seem to having a great time, too, adding lines here and there and doing some sort of stage business for many of the numbers. But for the listener without visual cues (which would be there on the DVD of the performance, which Opera Australia has made available as well), the laughing and playing and asides and apparent amusements simply get in the way of the music. And the music gets in its own way, too. The recording is not only offered without a libretto (although most of the words can be heard clearly enough), but also presented without dialogue, which is completely nonsensical since the live performance was clearly recorded with dialogue, and the verbal byplay is not only fun in its own right but also would likely help explain some of what the audience at the theatrical version found so amusing. This is a two-CD set with just 51 minutes on the first disc and 37 on the second – there was more than enough room for the dialogue, and omitting it under these circumstances is close to unconscionable. So is a great deal of the treatment of the music. Even if you accept the company’s removal of the usual overture in favor of one that appears to have been newly composed, using different excerpts from the songs; even if you accept the now-common practice of having Ko-Ko’s “I’ve got a little list” rewritten to refer to contemporary events; even if you accept that “A more humane Mikado” has been rewritten as well – even if you find all this acceptable, the specifics of the changes do not go down well. Ko-Ko (Mitchell Butel) has a list that combines material that is purely Australian with items having to do with the misbehavior of minor celebrities, apparently within a few days of the performance – making the whole recital quite outdated already. Does it really improve The Mikado to mention Britney Spears within it? As for the Mikado (Richard Alexander), some emendations in his song are fairly harmless (e.g., Brahms instead of Spohr), but if the extended reference to a billiard-sharp is to be kept in, including the elliptical billiard balls, then why change the words to work “sweat” into the description of the punishment? Many modern performances of The Mikado, including this one, seem determined to distance themselves as much as possible from the D’Oyly Carte originals, which had admittedly become staid and often stale by the time the company shut down in 1982. But throwing out the good parts of the tradition in order to substitute new but inferior ones scarcely seems like a worthy approach. To make matters even more frustrating, the singing here is generally quite good (although Jacqueline Dark as Katisha seems unsure whether to be genuinely menacing or somewhat sympathetic), and Orchestra Victoria gives a delightfully spirited performance under Brian Castles-Onion. Nevertheless, this release gets a rating in the (++) to (+++) range, with pluses for the orchestra and quality of the singing but significant minuses for the poorly redone vocal elements and the absence of dialogue. The Mikado has survived worse performances than this, but it would have been appreciated if Opera Australia had offered a better one to listeners who would like a modern version of the operetta on CD.

February 16, 2012


Bone: Quest for the Spark, Books One and Two. By Tom Sniegoski. Illustrated by Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99 each.

Pandemonium, Book One. By Chris Wooding & Cassandra Diaz. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

The Flying Beaver Brothers: #1, The Evil Penguin Plan; #2, The Fishy Business. By Maxwell Eaton III. Knopf. $6.99 each.

     Graphic novels, those almost-but-not-quite-comics, continue to produce not only new stories but also new forms within or related to their genre. The line between comics and graphic novels can be a thin one: Jeff Smith’s brilliant, nine-part Bone sequence surely deserves to be called a graphic novel (or series of them) for its format, pacing and depth; but Smith himself called it a series of comics in its original incarnation. Since Scholastic reprinted the entire black-and-white Bone series with excellent color added to the illustrations by Steve Hamaker, Bone has continued to grow, spawning a prequel called Rose and several other ancillary volumes. And now there is an out-and-out adventure sequence, in the form of three illustrated novels under the umbrella title Bone: Quest for the Spark. Here the graphic novel, driven by Smith’s art, has returned to one of its roots: the illustrated novel, in which the pictures convey important information but are only subsidiaries of the words, where the real story is told. That story, written by Tom Sniegoski, is a fairly standard quest tale, taking place after the original Bone sequence and featuring some new members of the Bone family as well as some characters held over from the original series. Sniegoski’s plot is in some ways identical to Smith’s original: Smith had an evil creature, the Lord of Locusts, seeking to spread darkness over the Valley forever; Sniegoksi has a different evil creature, the Nacht (German for “night”), with the same aim. Gran’ma Ben and Thorn reappear in Quest for the Spark, although they are not significant characters here; also returning are Roderick the raccoon and the two bumbling but dangerous Rat Creatures, and they are major characters (the Rat Creatures even get names: Stinky and Smelly). The Bones here are explorer Percival Bone and his niece and nephew, Abbey and Barclay, who journey to the Valley aboard Percival’s airship, Queen of the Sky. Sniegoski draws on Jules Verne as well as on Smith’s work, and the whole Quest for the Spark has a comfortably old-fashioned air about it. The quest leader is not a Bone but a 12-year-old boy named Tom Elm, who has helped his family farm turnips even while believing, as all true adventurers do, that he is destined for bigger things. Sniegoski also brings former Veni Yan warrior Randolph Clearmeadow into the mix, plus a fascinating shapeshifter named Lorimar of the First Folk, “the last, I fear, of my kind,” who tells the tale of how the Valley came to be and of the way the Lord of Locusts possessed the dragon queen Mim, leading to all the troubles chronicled in the original Bone series. It is Lorimar who reveals that the Nacht is a turncoat dragon who supported the Lord of Locusts and is now determined “to strike at both the Dreaming and the Waking World.” It is in the mystical Dreaming that sensitives such as Thorn, Gran’ma Ben and Randolph become aware that something is going seriously wrong, but there is little most can do, for the Nacht is poisoning the Dreaming itself, pulling people into nightmares and keeping them there. Tom proves to be a sensitive of a different kind, attuned to the Dreaming in a different way: “It’s guiding me with visions. …Trying to help me get everything in place so we can stop the Nacht from carrying out its plans.” But the visions are not always clear or certain. One suggests that the Rat Creatures must become part of the quest; another involves giant bees and huge bears. What everyone is looking for is an object called the Spark, which can be used to defeat the Nacht but which has been shattered, its pieces scattered throughout the Valley. The seekers’ paths, on the ground and in the air, take them all over the place, and Sniegoski chronicles their adventures in prose that is well-paced and easy to read. Quest for the Spark is not, in truth, as effective at storytelling as Smith’s original Bone sequence, but it is a more-than-passable adventure series. And it does contain quite a few full-page Smith illustrations, colored by Hamaker, which can be quite marvelous: the first appearance of Lorimar is fascinatingly creepy, for example, and a scene of huge bears towering over the trembling Rat Creatures retains the mixture of amusement and fright that was a hallmark of Bone. The third book of Quest for the Spark is sure to bring the seeking to a successful conclusion, while establishing that the Bone story is rich enough to continue to spawn sidelights and sequels in a variety of formats.

     Although the new Bone books are not graphic novels, there are plenty of other attractive works in graphic-novel format being created. The first book of Pandemonium is a particularly good example, combining the experience of writer Chris Wooding with the fresh and interesting graphic style of debut illustrator Cassandra Diaz. The basic story is The Prince and the Pauper updated, darkened and turned into fantasy: teenager with uncanny resemblance to mysteriously missing prince of the realm is kidnapped and forced to take prince’s place so great affairs of state are not upended; but the substitute prince proves to have unexpected talents and abilities of his own, and is soon accomplishing surprising things. This being a graphic novel for teenagers, it is filled with action, adventure and romance, but what sets it apart from other books in the genre is the amount of humor it contains. The hero is named Seifer Tombchewer, and he is an expert skullball player. The game is explained in a panel called “skullball for idiots.” Seifer will of course prove to be anything but a cypher. His last name comes from his grandfather, who actually chews on graves and keeps trying to eat his pet cat. The name Pandemonium belongs to the ruling clan of the land, whose prince (named Talon) Seifer impersonates. The ruler is named Queen Euthanasia. Prince Talon’s sisters are Sarcoma and Hypoxia; their deceased mother was named Aphasia; Talon’s fiancée is named Asphyxia – and her mother is named Baroness Crustacea Effluvia. And it is not only the names that are amusing here. The three “velvet spies,” who capture Seifer and occasionally disguise themselves as “psycho carnage beasts,” debate what sort of plan to use in one of their tricky maneuvers, and vote for Plan C. “‘You always vote for Plan C.’ ‘That’s because it always works.’ ‘Just once, just once I’d like to try Plan B.’ ‘You know, it’s been so long since we used Plan B, I can’t even remember what it is.’ ‘It’s the one with the thing. Where we use the whatchamacallit.’ ‘Oh, yes. I never liked that one.’” Also in Pandemonium is a huge cat that has a tendency to try to swallow Seifer, knowing that he is not Talon; a helpful and cute love interest named Lady Carcassa Malefica, whom Seifer never quite manages to kiss before something goes wrong; plus the usual mysterious helper, unknown traitor in the midst, unstoppable giant warrior defeated by Seifer, and more. The almost uniformly dark backgrounds of the panels and the serious matters of war and statesmanship are well balanced against the frequently amusing sidelights and well-paced tale-telling in general. And there are enough complexities in the story – including hints that both Seifer and Crustacea are more than they appear to be and more than they themselves know – to guarantee reader interest in the next Pandemonium book.

     Much more straightforward graphic novels, intended for readers as young as age six (up to about age nine), the first two tales of The Flying Beaver Brothers are silly, easy to read and utterly meaningless except to the extent that they provide a touch of amusement for a little while. These small-format (+++) books are about Ace (the more dedicated and adventurous beaver brother) and Bub (the lazier one, who nevertheless manages to save the day when the day needs saving). They live on an island and have a happy-go-lucky life except when they cross paths with a large beaver bully named Bruce or with various nefarious characters, including penguins who intend to turn the balmy island into a winter wonderland (but will reconsider if someone teaches them how to surf) and fish who live on land (using water-filled helmets) and are manufacturing useless stick toys (“Fish Stix”) that are allegedly environmentally sensitive but in fact are being created by destroying the island’s trees. The mild eco-awareness of the books is their only slightly serious element; pretty much everything else is slapstick, whether Ace and Bub are arguing “penguins or puffins” or Maxwell Eaton III is making it a point to have a fish say that there is no “off” switch for the Fish Stix manufacturing apparatus (just to be sure readers know that that fact will turn out to be the ultimate downfall of the evil fishy plan). Eaton’s highly simplified drawing style works well with his highly simplified writing style (although kids are likely to wonder why the penguins [not puffins] do not have visible eyes). The Flying Beaver Brothers won’t win any awards for profundity, but it is the sort of series that can be spun into an ever-lengthening graphic-novel sequence, since the plots are so minimalist that new ones can easily be pulled out of a hat – probably the hat that Bruce wears almost all the time.


Lovetorn. By Kavita Daswani. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Love & Leftovers. By Sarah Tregay. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Memory Boy. By Will Weaver. HarperTeen. $8.99.

The Survivors. By Will Weaver. HarperTeen. $17.99.

     It is the most common of all themes in novels for teenagers: love in all its forms, all its splendor, and all its difficulties. Especially the difficulties. Book after book is filled with tales of teens – and often their parents as well – coping with love and loss, trying to understand the love-wrought changes in their lives, seeking (and usually finding) some level of satisfaction that, the books suggest, only love can bring. The problems faced by the protagonists of the love novels differ, but the story arcs are very much the same. In both Kavita Daswani’s Lovetorn and Sarah Tregay’s Love & Leftovers, for example, teenage girls are torn between two different boyfriends; their parents have problems that affect the teens’ relationships; both girls yearn for a return to a normal life, but both realize that they are not sure what is normal anymore; and both learn and grow through a mixed-up period of their lives and are, at the affirmative ends of their respective books, better able to face the future.

     This is not to say that the books or their central characters are exactly the same – far from it. Daswani’s Shalini and her family have just moved to the United States from India, and they have cultural adaptations and adjustments to make – one of them involving the fact that Shalini has been engaged since she was three years old to a boy named Vikram. But in Los Angeles, Shalini meets a boy named Toby, and realizes that he makes her feel different from any way that she ever felt with Vikram: “I was once miserable without him [Vikram]. But not anymore. I had filled my life with other things.” Shalini wants to turn to her mother for help and emotional support, but her mother has become depressed since the move (which was done because of Shalini’s father’s job). The book is written in straightforward first-person prose, with a smattering of Indian words and expressions (there is a glossary at the end). In contrast, Tregay, writing her first novel, presents the story in free verse, and she includes several viewpoints (although Marcie’s is the main one). Here the move is within the United States (Idaho to New Hampshire), and the impetus is the breakup of Marcie’s parents’ marriage – it turns out that her father is gay. So, as Marcie tells her Idaho boyfriend, Linus (after trying to handle her feelings for another boy, J.D., in New Hampshire), “I couldn’t see that Dad was all alone/ in his marriage without anyone to talk to./ I couldn’t see that Mom needed meds/ just to set her earth back on its axis./ I couldn’t see that I was a horrible best friend/ who demanded unconditional love in return.” Despite their differences in both style and substance, though, both these books partake of similar sensibilities, the authors navigating their central characters through circumstances that differ in particulars but that have essentially the same emotional resonance.

     Will Weaver’s 2001 Memory Boy, now available in paperback, and its just-released sequel, The Survivors, are about love of a different sort – family love – and involve facing trials of a different sort. These are post-apocalyptic novels, the apocalypse here being a series of volcanic eruptions that lead to years of ash falling from the atmosphere, changing weather and ruining everyday life, making people increasingly desperate to find ways to survive. Lootings, killings, and all the stuff of science-fiction survival books will be found here, along with the “glue” that keeps the central family going: love of each other despite the distressingly difficult circumstances. The Newell family especially depends on 16-year-old Miles, who manages in Memory Boy to get everyone safely out of Minneapolis and to a wilderness cabin aboard a wind-and-human-powered contraption that he has constructed from bicycles and sailboat parts and that he calls the Ali Princess. The title of the book refers to Miles’ photographic memory, on which the family comes increasingly to depend as Miles, his parents and his younger sister, Sarah, travel through regions where some things are familiar (there are still Dairy Queens and McDonald’s restaurants, although the food is no longer inexpensive) while others are deteriorating rapidly. Unfortunately for readers in 2012, Weaver sets Memory Boy in 2008, a fact that undercuts the predictions of doom: readers will have to think of this as an alternative-world story, not the potential-disaster-in-the-real-world one that Weaver intended it to be. In the sequel, The Survivors, Weaver delves more deeply into the everyday post-disaster life of the Newells, showing them adapting to the radically changed living conditions – with Miles really being the head of the family, his mind holding information that helps the family live off the land while his hands hold a shotgun that he is quite ready to use. It is love that binds the family together, and the love is sorely tested when Miles, suffering a brain injury in an accident, loses his memory, so the other family members must learn new lessons in self-reliance. Newell tries to keep the book realistic, and does a good job of showing what it could be like to live without electricity or indoor plumbing – and having to rely on hunting to put meat on the table. But the memory-loss angle is obvious and a jarringly unbelievable plot manipulation, and Weaver’s determination to show that better instincts will come out even in terrible circumstances comes across as forced (although understandable for the teen audience he is trying to reach). People’s better natures, annealed by love as well as hardship, may indeed keep life livable even in the face of natural disaster; certainly that is true in the sorts of disasters that strike the real world regularly. But Weaver’s oversimplified attempts to show that this will happen in case of a major, long-term worldwide catastrophe are not very convincing , even though they are certainly uplifting.


Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want. By Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D. Da Capo. $16.

The Book of Drugs: A Memoir. By Mike Doughty. Da Capo. $16.

     In his 1977 comedy High Anxiety, director Mel Brooks plays a doctor who takes over administration of “The Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous.” The most surprising thing in the intervening 35 years is that the institute doesn’t exist yet. At least not under that name. For the feeling of undifferentiated nervousness, of pervasive anxiety, has increased dramatically in recent decades, fed both by external events and by a generalized internal feeling that things are somehow coming apart, changing and moving too quickly to be handled, with people falling farther and farther behind every day, if not every hour. A simple method of handling free-floating anxiety would be most welcome, and that is what clinical psychologist Tamar Chansky says she is offering in Freeing Yourself from Anxiety. And the book makes some good points, even if it does not quite deliver on its over-optimistic title. Chansky’s “4 Simple Steps,” as mentioned in her subtitle, turn out, unsurprisingly, not to be so simple after all. Step One involves attaching the right sort of label to each concern – that is, determining whether it is merely a worry blown out of proportions or is something that your internal voice of reason wants you to handle. Step Two requires specificity: narrow down the real issue you need to deal with instead of “awfulizing” it or blowing it up to an undeserved gigantic size. Step Three, “optimizing,” involves backing up from a problem and getting expert views or other people’s perspectives to help you handle it. And Step Four is getting moving to deal with the issue – not allowing it to paralyze you, but taking what actions are necessary to manage it. This is fine advice in the well-reasoned pages of a book, but how many times per month, per week, per day will people be able to implement it? One of the greatest provokers of anxiety today is the unending flood of items requiring coping skills – work-related, societal, family-intensive, entirely personal and internal, technological, and so on. Chansky’s ideas are more practical in small doses than in the never-ending stream of anxiety provocations faced by so many people. For example, she notes “how conjuring absurdly bad versions of your situation can release the grip of anxiety,” and explains how to do that; then she points out that going “to the other extreme, to the absurdly good,” can be equally useful in defusing anxious thinking – and she suggests a chart listing worst-case and “ridiculously best-case” scenarios to help you get to the most likely outcome of an anxiety-provoking situation. As long as you encounter such situations only occasionally, or at least only run into significant ones from time to time (and can easily separate the important ones from the less significant), this approach can help; but it is scarcely practical to use incessantly. Much of what Chansky recommends is an improved form of self-relationship: “Just like [sic] children need to learn that when they make a mistake, their parents may be upset with them temporarily but still love them, we need to remember that bad moments don’t make a dent in the bigger picture of who we are.” Chansky is fond of encapsulating concepts in section headings such as “Dispensing with the Guilt Tactics to Look Beyond Yourself,” “Creating Safe, Resilient Expectations,” and “Keeping Open the Lines of Communication with Yourself.” She does her best to show how her ideas would work in real-world situations (in “Try This” sections), and she contrasts “Bottleneck Beliefs” with “Better Beliefs” and otherwise shows how self-defeating thoughts and behaviors can be managed more effectively. All these ideas, taken individually, are worthwhile; but as a group, they are something of an indigestible lump, especially for people so stressed and time-pressed that trying to apply a coping strategy even from time to time, much less constantly, will end up being yet another source of anxiety.

     A highly popular current medical approach to anxiety is medication, and Chansky mentions some drugs in passing, but clearly considers them only a partial and temporary solution. For some people, though, drugs – not only medically prescribed ones but also the illegal type – become the answer to just about everything in life. The pop-music world and other parts of the entertainment industry are notorious for this. But anyone who thinks The Book of Drugs by Soul Coughing musician Mike Doughty will be an apologetic memoir on the importance of rejecting drug-addled living will be disappointed. Yes, Doughty talks about being clean (or pretty much clean) nowadays, and yes, he discusses some of drugs’ depredations on his body and mind. But far from feeling that his drug experiences ruined him or his career, Doughty considers his drug years to be formative for his later life and music (which, by the way, he now considers wholly separate from his Soul Coughing work, which he does not like to remember or discuss). And even when talking about his decision to stay off drugs such as Ecstasy, he does so mildly: “(I don’t do E anymore. I’ll hang out with you while you’re on E. But if you start rubbing your face and telling me how amazing your face feels, I will make fun of you.)” Like most pop-music biographies and autobiographies, The Book of Drugs is aimed entirely at fans, with no attempt to reach out to people who do not already know Doughty – or to teach lessons with generalized applicability. The assumption is that the more detail readers get about Doughty’s life and observations, any observations, the better they will like the book: “There was a guy sitting alone in the corner of the coffee shop with a bong. He looked to me like an American who had come to Amsterdam on vacation to get high for a week or two. He took bong hits and lolled back in his chair. A Portishead record was playing, and every time a chorus sounded, he pumped his fist in the air, oblivious to those around him, anguished joy on his face.” What passes for self-revelation here is, for example, “My lungs weakened. I had so little breath that I would routinely have a panicked, choking fight for air just by standing up from a chair too quickly. …I couldn’t stand all the way upright; I shuffled, half bent. It took me ten minutes to cross my tiny apartment, piss, and return to bed. It took half an hour to go down the stairs of my building – I walked backwards, gripping the rail, as if I were descending an Alp. I never connected this with the $300 worth of dope I was sniffing daily. I was twenty-nine, and I thought, Well, twenty-nine, you know, getting older, the body starts shutting down. Seriously, I thought this.” If thinking at this level is what you want, and you are a fan of Doughty and want to hear his version of how he became a better musician and better person through and beyond drugs, then The Book of Drugs is for you. There is no particular reason for it to be for anyone else.


Weber: Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra; Concertino for Horn and Orchestra. Michael Collins, clarinet; Stephen Stirling, horn; City of London Sinfonia conducted by Michael Collins. Chandos. $18.99.

Schubert: Winterreise. James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Orchid Classics. $16.99.

     The Romantic era in music did not spring full-grown from the mind of Beethoven, although it sometimes seems that way. Its seeds were planted by some of Haydn’s late works and by Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Piano Concerto No. 24, among other pieces, and they were nurtured not only by Beethoven but also by transitional composers such as Field, Hummel and Ries. And then there is Carl Maria von Weber, whose family ties to Mozart and dramatic sensibilities within instrumental as well as operatic music make him a powerful early Romantic – who likely would have been more important to the era had he not died before his 40th birthday. The excellent new Chandos CD of Weber’s clarinet-and-orchestra works, all of which were composed in 1811, the year of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, clearly shows the ways in which Weber brought Romantic-style operatic drama and intensity to purely instrumental music. His approach is confirmed in the horn concertino that he wrote before he turned 20 and revised nine years later, in 1815. Michael Collins, as clarinet soloist and conductor of the clean-sounding City of London Sinfonia, is fully cognizant of the drama inherent in the clarinet works as well as the considerable skill needed to perform them. The first concerto, in the fairly unusual key of F minor, opens in mystery that is abruptly contrasted with an unexpected C major chord. It meanders from key to key, its first movement containing a C minor passage that sounds like something out of Der Freischütz (which was not yet written), its second movement mixing an opera-like aria with the sounds of a chorale. Only the concluding rondo is comparatively straightforward. The second concerto, in E-flat major, has a brighter first movement but a deeper second one, in G minor – which includes a recitative-like passage that would not be out of place in an opera. The finale is even more brilliant than that of the first concerto, again having something operatic about its bubbling intricacy. As for the concertino, it is unusual in being written equally in two keys: C minor and E-flat major. In only nine minutes, it moves from a very dramatic opening to a set of increasingly intense variations to a brief finale in which the clarinet’s emotional outbursts are contrasted with more-lyrical orchestral passages. These works, which are done to a turn in Collins’ performances, clearly establish the Romantic emotionalism to which concertos would be devoted more and more completely in ensuing decades. The horn concertino, which is very well played by Stephen Stirling, does not have quite the same sensibilities, but it is notable for another reason: Romantic composers frequently challenged the limits of instrumental playing, and that is just what Weber does here, giving the soloist an almost four-octave range and including pedal notes and horn chords (not all of which are playable). This concertino, in E minor, requires the soloist to be equally adept in high and low horn parts – even though, at the time the work was written, those parts were still kept separate and played by different musicians. What is remarkable about Weber’s solo clarinet and horn works is how much they moved into new territory while still sounding so good and offering so much listening pleasure to an audience: this CD is simply a delight to hear.

     Schubert’s dates (1797-1828) are not much different from Weber’s (1786-1826), but by the end of his short life, Schubert was fully engaged in Romantic sensibilities. Winterreise shows them from start to finish. Written in 1827 in two parts (the first 12 songs were finished in the spring, the last 12 composed later in the year), the cycle in some ways parallels Die schöne Müllerin of 1823 and also uses poems by Wilhelm Müller. But while the earlier cycle opened with upbeat moments that only gradually turned to heartbreak, despair and death, Winterreise is doom-haunted and gloomy throughout – even though it does not end in death. The pervasive bleakness of the landscape of cold, snow and ice is reflective of the heartache of the protagonist, whose beloved is now going to marry another. Fleeing the house and town where he had hoped to find lasting love, he wanders through desolation in an entirely Romantic way, with animals and the land itself indicative of his emotions and contributing to them. At the end of his winter journey he encounters an aged, impoverished organ-grinder, ignored by townspeople and snarled at by dogs, and wonders whether he should join his fate to that of the old man. This is comparable as a conclusion to the mezzoforte ending of Sibelius’ most-desolate symphony, No. 4, albeit in a very different medium – and early in Romanticism rather than toward its end. Winterreise is generally most effective when sung by a top-notch baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was one of its most notable exponents), but James Gilchrist shows that it can also have strong impact when movingly performed by a tenor – especially one ably abetted by so sensitive a pianist as Anna Tilbrook. Gilchrist and Tilbrook are true collaborators, the contributions of each complementing and enriching those of the other. Whether in the stasis of Wasserflut and Auf dem Flusse, in the rage of Die Wetterfahne, or in the mind-fogged illusion of Die Nebensonnen, the performers work as a team to bring together the pathos and intensity of Müller’s poetry with the delicacy and intense expressiveness of Schubert’s music. This Winterreise hovers on the edge of despair without ever quite falling into it – a highly effective treatment of a song cycle whose protagonist is driven almost to madness but ends up in something like a desert of emotional blankness. This is full-fledged Romanticism, which other composers would extend in later years but would scarcely make more affecting or more effective.


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1; Marche Slave. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Borodin: Symphonies Nos. 1-3; Notturno from String Quartet No. 2; In the Steppes of Central Asia; Prince Igor: Overture and Polovtsian Dances. Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis; St. Petersburg Camerata (Notturno); New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Steppes). Newton Classics. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Mikhail Pletnev’s interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are becoming increasingly capricious as he progresses through his cycle with the Russian National Orchestra. The orchestral playing is superb throughout, but Pletnev’s ideas can be simply bizarre. For example, he changes tempo repeatedly and confusingly in the four-minute slow introduction to the first movement of the Symphony No. 1 – but wait! There is no slow introduction to the movement. Pletnev invents one, turning the start of this Allegro tranquillo opening movement into something sleepy and dreamlike (perhaps because Tchaikovsky called the movement “Dreams [or Daydreams] on a Winter Journey”). Then Pletnev plays the next section of the movement at such a breakneck pace that a lesser orchestra would have had real difficulty avoiding sloppiness. Later in the movement, we get further speedups and slowdowns placed hither and thither, resulting in a disjointed, mixed-up and altogether peculiar performance. In the lovely second movement, Pletnev again starts slowly, speeds up (but thankfully not so much), and manages to bring out the cantabile in the Adagio cantabile ma non tanto tempo designation only because of the great warmth and beauty of the orchestra’s strings. At the end of the movement, though, Pletnev slows down the proceedings so much that listeners may find themselves nodding off: it is the orchestra that makes this recording worth hearing, not the conductor’s view of the music. The third movement, thankfully, is taken at an appropriately brisk pace, with lovely flow and gorgeous playing in the central section; the reduced tinkering vastly improves the overall performance. Pletnev actually takes the finale’s opening as an Andante lugubre, as Tchaikovsky wanted it to be, but he soon speeds up, apparently so he can slow down again toward the end of the introductory passage. Thankfully, there is no ritard just before the main Allegro moderato section (some conductors continue to favor one, but it is not justifiable), and the majority of this movement is well-paced as well as well-played. The coda is a touch on the slow side, but that is much better than playing it as quickly as some conductors do: Pletnev does not shrink from the bombast that results, and the conclusion is quite effective as a consequence. In sum, the first half of the symphony is nearly a disaster, while the second half is quite good and sometimes quite wonderful – a very curious performance indeed. The disc also includes a warm and gorgeously played Marche Slave, almost wholly lacking in the oddities that mar the symphony and concluding with a hugely upbeat flourish.

     Sir Andrew Davis’ interpretations of Borodin’s symphonies are much more straightforward and much more listenable. The British conductor may not have Pletnev’s intense connection to Russia, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra may lack the polish and panache of the Russian National Orchestra, but Davis has clearly studied these scores: he appreciates them and pays close attention to the composer’s intentions in tempos, dynamics and contrasts among orchestral sections. These analog performances (apparently from the 1970s, although their exact dates are unknown) may not benefit from the full and rich sound accorded Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky, but Davis’ Borodin is more musicianly and more appealing in its straightforward approach to the symphonies. Davis does not seem like a conductor with anything to prove – he defers to Borodin, ferreting out the composer’s ideas and working diligently to bring them clearly to listeners. Indeed, the clarity of the Canadian orchestra is a big plus here: the strings are not sumptuous and the brass not outstandingly warm, but the players’ skill and their excellent ensemble are evident throughout. The result is a First that strides nobly forward and is never less than compelling; a Second that is tightly knit, dramatic and cogent; and a foreshortened Third with pleasant chamber-music qualities that will make any listener familiar with the work regret, probably not for the first time, that only two movements of this symphony survive. The second CD here is a rather odd compilation. Davis does as fine a job with the Prince Igor excerpts as with the symphonies, and there is special pleasure in his inclusion of a chorus in the Polovtsian Dances, as Borodin intended – it is common in concert versions to omit the voices, but they add considerably to the beauty and texture of the music even when, as in this recording, the words are not provided. This CD, though, is a pastiche, not of composers but of performers, including the St. Petersburg Camerata’s rendition of a chamber-orchestra version of the famous Notturno from the Second String Quartet and a Leonard Bernstein (!) performance of In the Steppes of Central Asia. These are both very well done, and certainly effective in filling out an all-Borodin release; presumably Newton Classics, which re-releases older recordings, had these versions available and thought there would be no harm in including them. And there isn’t, really; just a slight sense of peculiarity. But it is as nothing compared with the peculiarities of, for example, Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky First.