July 30, 2020


A Lush and Seething Hell: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. By John Hornor Jacobs. Harper Voyager. $19.99.

     The phrase “cosmic horror” in the subtitle of John Hornor Jacobs’ new book implies something Lovecraftian, something of indefinable dimensions and oddly, frighteningly wrong assembly, a tentacled horror whose very existence shows how miniscule humans are and of how little import are their wants, fears, plans and desires. But even though Jacobs has a character write of “lands made strange by impossible geometries and vile arcologies my mind could not comprehend,” that is not quite what the author delivers in A Lush and Seething Hell, and certainly not all that he presents. Still, what he offers here is, in its own way, quite creepy and eldritch enough. “We are but small vibrations on the face of the universe,” he writes in the second novella here – a clear declaration of adherence to some version of the Lovecraftian ethos.

     Jacobs, however, finds horror not in Red Hook or a similar setting teeming with urban humanity (or inhumanity), but in quotidian journals, a fictional South American country, and the American South. The journal in the first, shorter novella, the evocatively titled The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, has a distinct Lovecraftian reference: a young academic named Isabel Certa, who has become involved with a famed one-eyed poet named Rafael Avendaño, discovers a journal of his that points her toward a text called Opusculus Noctis, a clear reference to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. “Horror makes siblings of us all,” says Isabel, but the context is scarcely otherworldly: she and Rafael are both exiles from the fictional South American country of Magera, which is ruled by a brutal dictatorship. They both yearn to be able to return to their homeland, but only Rafael decides to do so – under mysterious and portentous circumstances. When he goes, he leaves Isabel money, his apartment, and – supposedly for her protection – a cat. Isabel finds that he has also left behind a strange poem called “A Little Night Work” that is not only lyrical but also anguished and distinctly creepy, with its references to the “sweet aroma [of] the killing and the letting of blood.” The poem is old, and Rafael has been working on translating it from Greek and Latin into Spanish. The echoes of a dark past are, again, Lovecraftian, as is the importance and danger of literary discovery, although again Jacobs gives the material his own angles and twists. The more time Isabel spends with Rafael’s journal and the poem that obsessed him and comes to obsess her as well, the more deeply she finds herself descending into a world of profound evil and corruption dating further and further back in time – a very Lovecraftian notion, indeed. Jacobs’ atmospheric style makes the creeping horror of Isabel’s discoveries grow with diabolical inevitability. But The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky has more of an inward focus than do Lovecraft’s tales, being ultimately about the way personal trauma is reflective of things that may or may not lie beyond human ken. The novella is scary for the way it handles people’s internal secrets and unsettling discoveries, not because Jacobs reveals the workings of creatures from beyond the known universe that take an unholy interest in the vastly unimportant beings of Earth.

     Many of Jacobs’ themes in The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky reappear in My Heart Struck Sorrow, despite the second and longer novella’s very different setting and characters. This story too revolves around the dangers of obsessive literary exploration and discovery. Its protagonist is a man named Cromwell, a Library of Congress researcher who specializes in oral tradition and who stumbles upon a set of blues recordings from the 1930s, along with the diary of a man – an earlier library researcher – named Harlan Parker. It turns out that Parker was intensely focused on performances of a song called “Stagger Lee,” which happens to be a real-world folk song, published in 1911 and first recorded in 1923, about a murder that occurred in 1895. Cromwell soon discovers that Parker made acetate recordings as he traveled through the American South, listening to various performances of “Stagger Lee.” And Cromwell soon finds himself playing the recordings as he reads Parker’s diary and, through it, retraces the earlier researcher’s explorations. The Lovecraftian element here is that Parker discovers that some people seem to know new, undiscovered verses to the song, verses that imply depths and darkness and disturbances of reality. Cromwell is presented by Jacobs as somewhat unbalanced by events in his own life even before he discovers Parker’s material; as for Parker, his field journal shows his own sanity teetering on the edge, with liquor and his possibly liquor-induced visions pushing him toward madness. Cromwell, in a very Lovecraftian narrative manner, soon falls into a pattern similar to and repetitive of Parker’s, and as the mystery grows, so does the tenuousness of Cromwell’s own hold on reality. In My Heart Struck Sorrow, Jacobs is at pains to distinguish the narrative voices of Cromwell and Parker, and perhaps does too good a job of it: the Cromwell sections move rather languidly by comparison with the adventure-propelled speed of those in Parker’s telling. But if My Heart Struck Sorrow is not quite as tightly paced as The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, and does not have the shorter novella’s sense of inevitability, it is still a deeply unsettling tale about a descent – one of so many in literary works – into a heart of darkness. Both novellas in A Lush and Seething Hell are skillfully structured, well-paced, plotted to maximize their chilling effects, and written in a style that, if scarcely as over-the-top as Lovecraft’s, is certainly evocative of occurrences both lush and seething.


Auber: Overtures, Volume 2—Le Concert à la cour, Fiorella, Julie, Lestocq, Léocadie, Couvin, La Fiancée; Violin Concerto. Markéta Čepická, violin; Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $11.99.

Twilight: Tribute to Women Jazz Composers. Mike Kaupa, flugelhorn and trumpet; Ric Vice, bass; Tom George, piano. MSR Jazz. $12.95.

     Daniel-François-Esprit Auber lived such a long life – 1782 to 1871 – that he had plenty of time to build a reputation and, eventually, outlive it. A prolific stage composer with some 50 operas and similar works to his credit, he is known today only for occasional performances of Fra Diavolo or La Muette de Portici and once-in-a-while concert programming of an overture here and there. This gives a conductor with an ear for the long-unheard-but-still-interesting, such as Dario Salvi, a fertile field for exploration, and a new Naxos release featuring Salvi leading the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice in music by Auber proves a very worthwhile experience. Actually, although the disc is designated as containing overtures, it is really a potpourri: of the 13 items offered, only four are overtures, the rest being often-very-short introductory and connective music for various works. The neglect of Auber’s music is strikingly shown by the fact that 11 of the 13 pieces here are world première recordings: only the overtures to Fiorella (1826) and Léocadie (1824) have been recorded before. It is quite easy, in listening to Salvi’s poised and idiomatic handling of the music, to be surprised at the neglect of so much fine material – and at the same time to understand the neglect, since the music seems largely transferable from work to work and is always pretty much of the same character, whether drawn from Auber’s very first stage work, Julie (1805), or from the latest heard here, Lestocq (1834). Even in works with more-dramatic libretti (often written by Eugène Scribe, with whom Auber had a lengthy professional relationship), there is a certain gentleness and elegance of flow to the music that makes it easy for attentive listeners to recognize Auber’s personal style – while at the same time showing that that style did not vary much over time, meaning that as tastes in staged works changed, Auber’s popularity, unsurprisingly, faded. A fascinating sidelight on this disc is a work that is not for the stage at all: Auber’s sole Violin Concerto, written at just about the time he started committing himself to the stage (1805) and featuring a solo part that is, by the standards of the time, positively anti-soloistic. The work is pastoral, somewhat meandering, unremittingly pleasant, unchallenging for the soloist, and by and large sounds more like a 19th-century update of a Baroque concerto (with the soloist often fading into the ensemble) than a concerto of the Classical or early Romantic era. Markéta Čepická plays it quite well by virtue of not overplaying it in the least: restraint is the order of the day here, and the overall effect is one of near-chamber-music congeniality throughout. Indeed, “congenial” is a good adjective for much of the Auber music on this CD: all of it is certainly worth hearing, all of it is well-made and is orchestrated with care and occasional panache, and none of it is particularly dramatic or intense. The disc offers a welcome dose of pleasantries, explored with care and enthusiasm and without a trace of any inappropriate portentousness.

     There are pleasantries as well on a new MSR Jazz recording bearing the title Twilight – a word that inadvertently also shows the limitations of this unassuming (+++) disc. The organizing principle here involves showcasing jazz works by female composers – a rather artificial approach, but one that is certainly in vogue nowadays. The disc’s title is taken from its first track, Twilight World by Marian McPartland – one of only three composers likely to be familiar to a wide swath of listeners (the others being Billie Holiday, represented by Fine and Mellow, and Carole King, creator of Go Away Little Girl and It’s Too Late). In fact, both the word “twilight” and the title of McPartland’s piece neatly encapsulate the mellow, laid-back, mostly quiet and rather static mood of all the music. This is a “mood” CD, some of it avowedly bluesy and the rest of it mighty close. Even when there is a bit of swing, as in Mike Kaupa’s handling of Close Your Eyes by Bernice Peskere, the underlying feeling is kept on the sedate side – in this specific case by Tom George’s handling of the piano part, in other cases by other means. The result is that all the works have an aura of sameness about them, including Put the Blame on Mame by Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts, What’s Your Story, Morning Glory by Mary Lou Williams, Them There Eyes by Doris Tauber (a work far better known than its composer), A Sunday Kind of Love by Barbara Belle, Fine and Dandy by Kay Swift, Learnin’ the Blues by Dolores “Vicki” Silvers, Candy by Joan Whitney, Good Morning Heartache by Irene Higginbotham, and Blessed Assurance by Phoebe P. Knapp. The CD is well-arranged both to accentuate the pieces’ mood and to provide what variety exists among the tracks: on the one hand, more-upbeat items tend to alternate with more avowedly placid ones, while on the other, some sequencing seems designed to keep the low-key feeling going – as when Go Away Little Girl is followed by It’s Too Late and Fine and Dandy comes right after Fine and Mellow. Nothing here really qualifies as a “find,” whatever the provenance of the music, although slow-jazz lovers will find plenty to enjoy both in the pieces and in the way Kaupa, George and Ric Vice handle them with relaxed smoothness and a sure sense of style. This is more-or-less what used to be called “mood music,” a disc more for background listening while doing other things or for winding down after a stressful day. Nothing on it is particularly captivating, but everything is suffused with a very pleasing crepuscular glow.

July 23, 2020


David Lang: prisoner of the state. Alan Oke, Jarrett Ott, Eric Owens, Julie Mathevet , Rafael Porto, John Matthew Myers, Matthew Pearce, Steven Eddy; Men of the Concert Chorale of New York, and New York Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Decca. $14.99.

     It is one of the ironies of music history that by far the best-known and most-popular French rescue opera of all time is German. It is Beethoven’s Fidelio, and while the term “rescue opera” was not formally applied to it and similar works, most of them French, until many years after Beethoven’s death, the basics of the form were already established in the composer’s time. They involve, among other things, a focus on societal issues and high ideals more than on individualized character – and this focus is clearly one that resonated with Beethoven even before he created Leonore (1805), which eventually became Fidelio (1814). This sort of focus resonates with many people today, too, including David Lang (born 1957), who had the clever if slightly sacrilegious idea of deconstructing Fidelio and turning it into a work for our times called prisoner of the state (all small letters: Lang’s dislike of capitals is an affectation). In our age, purity of ideas and beliefs seems to be considered a necessity for someone to be deemed serious about issues of importance, and in that vein, Lang eliminates from the original libretto all the matter he deems extraneous, such as the mistaken-identity elements that lighten the atmosphere somewhat but can seem ill-fitting with the grander portions of the opera (they actually work better in Leonore than in Fidelio). Then Lang grafts onto the original some material intended to make its philosophical argument more direct and intense: a kind of “Machiavelli aria,” some thoughts taken from Jeremy Bentham and Hannah Arendt, and more.

     The result is curious, overdone, over-serious, less dramatic than the original despite the multiple arias written in hyper-dramatic style, and always intriguing although ultimately unsatisfying. Some of Lang’s ideas work very well indeed: having looked into some of the reasons people would have been imprisoned in Beethoven’s time, he has the prisoners give a list of the offenses for which they have been incarcerated, in some cases stating their innocence and in others admitting their guilt. This is part of the way in which Lang changes the focus of his work from marital love to prisoner support. Other material is much less successful, with the ending of prisoner of the state particularly disappointing: there is no resolution at all – instead, the characters address the audience directly, intoning with monumental obviousness, “The difference here between prisons and outside – in here you see the chains.” Oh yes, we get it – we are all prisoners in one way or another, and prisoner of the state describes what each one of us is, and there is no triumph possible, but with solidarity, “if you can see us, we can be free” (the work’s final lines). This is all hyper-earnest and thoroughly puerile, no matter how sincere.

     Certainly the principal performers on the new Decca recording of Lang’s work give it their all: Julie Mathevet as the Assistant (the original Leonore role; but now she, like everyone else, is a symbol, denied the basic humanity of a name); Jarrett Ott as the Prisoner; Eric Owens as the Jailer; and Alan Oke as the Governor. Certainly Jaap van Zweden leads the chorus and New York Philharmonic with decisiveness, intensity and a strong sense of commitment. And to give the music its due, much of it comes through with suitable strength and dramatic (although often over-dramatic) flair. But prisoner of the state, as it progresses, forces the audience to move from glimmers of a personal story through which they can observe higher ideals (which is what Beethoven created) to what is essentially a lesson plan detailing the trials and tribulations of life in an imperfect world. Ho-hum.

     Strangely, Lang, who has in the past reimagined the works of many earlier composers, has either missed something very significant in his rethinking of Beethoven or has chosen not to share his knowledge with the audience. It is this: the original ending of the Brecht/Weill production of The Threepenny Opera (1928) is not the angry, defiant chorus with which modern productions often conclude. Instead, it is an additional verse for the Moritatensänger, a quiet conclusion to the famous song that introduces thief and murderer Mack the Knife. The last lines of that final verse are: Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln/ Und die andern sind im Licht./ Und man siehet die im Lichte./ Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht. That is, loosely, “Some live always in the darkness, while the others live in light. And you see the ones in brightness – those in dark are out of sight.” This is almost exactly the point Lang makes at the end of prisoner of the state, even to his words, “Down in this darkness, sometimes we feel your light on us. We need your light. You need to see us.”

     If Lang did not deliberately here echo The Threepenny Opera (which itself is an update and reconsideration for a new age of a work of exactly two centuries earlier, The Beggar’s Opera [1728] by John Gay and Johann Pepusch), then the coincidence of near-identical theme and verbiage is extraordinary. There are further echoes (or deliberate updates) here, too. Lang retains the Jailer’s aria about gold, rendering the words as: “In this world, without gold you can’t live, you can’t be happy. …Without gold someone else will get the power and the love.” And in the Governor’s “Machiavelli aria,” Lang soon follows the famous line, “Better to be feared than loved,” with the incongruous: “Men are cowards. Men want money.” And this is also reflected in that final portion of the Moritat, commenting on the improbable deus ex machina that rescues Macheath (the same sort of out-of-nowhere rescue provided by the arrivals of the King’s Minister in Fidelio and “the Inspectors” in prisoner of the state). Brecht’s aptly cynical and bitter words are, Ist das nötige Geld verhanden/ Ist das Ende meistens gut. That is to say, “things tend to turn out well when there’s enough cash on hand.”

     What Lang thinks he is doing in prisoner of the state is bringing “rescue opera” themes into a new era and focusing on their philosophical import rather than on the characters used to embody and present them. But this is just what Brecht and Weill did nearly 100 years ago: when the King’s Minister shows up to free Macheath, Mac’s own words – soon echoed by Polly – are, Gerettet, gerettet! …Wenn die Not am höchsten, ist die Rettung am nächsten. “Rescued, rescued! When the need is greatest, the rescue is nearest!” (In fact, rescue opera is known in German as Rettungsoper.) Ultimately, prisoner of the state strips Fidelio (and Leonore) of humanity and personal connection, proceeding with unrelenting seriousness and without the wry cynicism that pervades The Threepenny Opera, and offers music that is effective enough but does nothing to enhance, or even distract from, Lang’s opera’s didacticism. Lang does not bear compositional comparison with Weill, much less Beethoven, but that is not really at issue in prisoner of the state. What does matter is whether this refocus of Beethoven (intentionally) and Brecht/Weill (perhaps unintentionally) communicates its themes in a more pointed and meaningful manner for the 21st century than do the earlier works. Certainly it tries to do so, wants to do so. But it never quite measures up to the high standards that Lang sets for the work and for himself.


Dvořák: Four Romantic Pieces, Op. 75; Mozart: Violin Sonata No. 26, K. 378; Christian Asplund: One Eternal Round for two violins; Neil Thornock: A Crust of Azure for violin and piano. Alexander Woods and Aubrey Smith Woods, violins; Rex Woods, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     It is a constant problem for producers and musicians trying to interest audiences in contemporary music: how to get them to listen, even once, to something they have never heard before? The vast majority of contemporary classical works are fortunate to receive a single performance – additional ones are extremely unlikely. But a very few may intrigue listeners enough on first hearing to be programmed again, in concert or recital, or in recorded form. Of course, finding those very few requires getting audiences to listen to a lot of pieces that may possibly appeal enough to merit additional hearings; and that comes back to the problem of how to get people interested in works for the first time. One common method that has proved reasonably successful is to sandwich new music between well-known, more-familiar pieces: the notion is that if people come for what they have heard before, they will at least give a fair hearing to what they have not. When it comes to recordings, the “sandwich” approach is a bit different, becoming more a matter of “sprinkling” by mixing better-known and less-known works on the same CD, relying on the likelihood that someone who wants to hear any of the music on the disc will likely listen to all of it. That is the approach on a new MSR Classics recording featuring violin sonatas by Dvořák and Mozart, plus world première recordings of pieces by Christian Asplund (born 1964) and Neil Thornock (born 1977).

     The question here is not whether the Asplund and Thornock works measure up to those by Dvořák and Mozart – they do not – but whether, on their own terms, they are worth hearing and perhaps even hearing repeatedly. Asplund’s dates to 2015 and is for two violins (Alexander Woods and Aubrey Smith Woods). It opens as if it is going to be a kind of dissonant tribute to or imitation of Bach, gradually becomes more animated and equally dissonant (even screechy), and then turns into one of those instruments-chasing-each-other pieces that lie somewhere between canon and simple repetitiveness. The rather limited sonority of two identical instruments gives One Eternal Round a somewhat monotonous sonic palate, which Asplund makes little attempt to enliven. And the 10-minute work slips repeatedly into a kind of ongoing ostinato that by the end becomes simply boring, as if it has degenerated into a fingering exercise that abruptly stops. The piece may be worthwhile for violinists seeking something new and different to perform, but it is unlikely to be of much interest to most listeners.

     Thornock’s piece, from 2013, is in three movements, and at 28-and-a-half minutes is the longest work on the CD. There is considerably more to it than there is to Asplund’s work. The opening movement, “Tremulous Whirl,” has dramatic intensity that dips occasionally into lyricism and that uses consonant and dissonant elements for generally well-placed contrasts. The second movement, “Refraction of Sky,” juxtaposes Alexander Woods’ violin with Rex Woods’ piano in some interesting ways, taking the violin to its highest range and keeping much of the piano part high as well, but including dips into both instruments’ lower ranges that provide effective contrasting passages. The movement does meander and is essentially themeless, however, with the result that by the time half its 10-minute length is over, listeners may wonder if it is going anywhere. It is not: it is something of an exercise in 21st-century Impressionism, although it does end with more speed, more verve and more-emphatic dissonance than it exhibits earlier. The finale, poetically if oddly called “Lavender Shroud,” makes more use of the violin’s lower register and allows a certain wistfulness and songfulness to creep into the material. The passages with a “yearning” sound are somewhat overdone, to the point of triteness, and when the violin does climb to high notes and harmonics, it tends to do so for effect – but not very effectively in communicative terms. The very end of the work has a certain degree of dark resignation about it in the violin, but the piano part simply disappears into irrelevance. A Crust of Azure contains enough intriguing material to keep listeners attentive most of the time, although it does go on a bit longer than its content justifies and seems, as a whole, to be less than the sum of its parts.

     Neither of the contemporary pieces on this disc engages listeners with anything approaching the warmth and smoothness of the Dvořák or the poise, elegance and lyrical beauty of the Mozart. But certainly the performances of Dvořák’s Op. 75 and Mozart’s K. 378 are good enough to pull an audience into the entire CD. The first of the four short Dvořák pieces is beautifully songful and heart-tuggingly wistful; the second is rhythmically pointed, strikingly dancelike, and with excellent double-stopping on the violin; the third is sweet, slightly yearning, and highly expressive. All three of these pieces are marked with forms of Allegro: moderato, maestoso, and appassionato, respectively. Dvořák reserves the slow pacing in Four Romantic Pieces for the final Larghetto, which is the longest piece of the four. Here Alexander Woods and Rex Woods fully engage their Romantic sensibilities in a highly expressive conclusion.

     In the Mozart sonata, the give-and-take between violin and piano is balanced to far more perfection than in the works by Dvořák or Thornock. The first movement unfolds with a kind of pleasant banter that has some pastoral overtones. The second seeks beauty rather than depth – it is marked Andantino sostenuto e cantabile – and keeps the instruments so perfectly attuned to each other that they almost sound like longtime lovers who can pick up and finish each other’s sentences. The bright final Rondeau is led by the piano, echoed by the violin, and quickly becomes an essay in perfection of thematic choice, balance and development.

     It is scarcely a surprise that neither Asplund’s piece nor Thornock’s is able to come close to the pleasures of the Dvořák and Mozart works. Inevitably, the sequence of the disc makes the contrasts and limitations of the contemporary works quite clear: Dvořák is followed by Asplund, then Mozart, and finally Thornock. But the purpose of a CD such as this one is not to suggest that the performers have discovered modern composers on the level of a Dvořák or a Mozart. It is simply to use the exceptionally high quality of the older, better-known works to draw in an audience that will at least pay attention to the newer material and give it a chance to be heard – preferably more than once. Neither contemporary piece here is by any means an undiscovered masterpiece, but both are worthy of listeners’ time. The unanswerable question is how much of that time these works will be given even after listeners, drawn in by the first-rate Dvořák and Mozart performances, give a first hearing to the pieces from the 21st century.

July 16, 2020


5 Worlds, Book 4: The Amber Anthem. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $20.99.

     The marvels of the 5 Worlds series continue to pile up in the fourth book of the quintet, as the team of authors deepens the characters, explores their developing relationships further, and introduces some new and unexpected twists in this multi-world-spanning epic adventure. The story arc remains foundationally simple and easily graspable enough to allow the authors to toss in all sorts of outré elements without distracting readers from the progress of the primary plot. The basic idea here is that there are five interrelated worlds, settled long ago by obscure, poorly understood ancient figures called Felid Gods, about whom many mysteries remain. One of those mysteries is central to the totality of 5 Worlds: each world has on it a giant colored beacon, built for no known reason and now dark after having presumably been lit and important in some significant way in the dim past. The 5 Worlds quest is, at its simplest, the story of the re-lighting of the beacons and of the three young people who – against the feckless and often venal forces of their elders – make the re-lighting possible.

     The re-lighting is necessary because the worlds are overheating, already becoming uninhabitable by some wild creatures and soon, if the beacons are not re-lit, destined to turn into places where humans cannot survive. The relighting, done correctly, will cause some sort of massive realignment of all the planets and give all the races living on them a new lease on life – maybe. Exactly what will happen is one matter that remains a mystery and point of contention as the 5 Worlds saga continues. The parallel with worries about climate change (“global warming”) on Earth is quite clear, but is not overstated or delivered in a hectoring tone. Also clear, and also handled gingerly, is the fact that the adults in 5 Worlds have their own agendas and their own interpretations of what is going on – and many have deep-seated suspicions about the motives of three young people whose background is decidedly mixed and who seem ill-suited to any heroic endeavors. Of course, this part of the plot is straight out of innumerable “poor/uneducated/misshapen/underclass protagonist makes good” fairy tales; but as in so many other ways, 5 Worlds is told in a way that transcends and surpasses many of its models and its own underlying structure.

     This is a political universe, and the marionette strings of politics are in large part pulled by a bizarre creature known as the Mimic that is manipulating the governance and societal concerns of all five worlds: Mon Domani, Moon Yatta, Toki, Salassandra, and Grimbo (E). The Mimic is not only heartless in actions but also literally heartless because of some of the events in the books, but nevertheless appears unstoppable and, like all ultra-villains, seems to be steadily growing in strength. Yet the central characters barely manage, again and again, to outwit or out-think or outmaneuver the bad guy and his supporters and henchmen. The protagonists are Oona Lee, goodhearted but not-very-skillful student at a prominent school called the Sand Dancer Academy, who leads the quest and gains steadily in stature and self-assertiveness as she does so; An Tzu, a boy from the slums who knows how to trick and maneuver his way around his world’s oppressive society, and whose mysterious illness – in which parts of his body are constantly fading to invisibility – proves extremely important in the fourth book, providing a crucial link to the Felid Gods; and Jax Amboy, a star athlete in a highly popular game called Starball, originally an android construct but now fully human – thanks to symbiosis with a strange spiritual creature known as a Salassi Devoti.

     Among the clear but soft-pedaled elements of 5 Worlds is the extent to which the protagonists’ quest is a spiritual, moral and ethical one as well as one requiring them to make physical journeys from world to world, and around each world in turn, in order to light the ancient beacons in the correct order: white, red, blue, yellow, and green. Each color is associated with a different world and its beacon, and The Amber Anthem is all about Salassandra, which is permeated by the color yellow in its many hues. The fourth book is also, to a greater extent than the three earlier ones, about the tensions among the different races that populate the planets, and the need for members of all races to cooperate and work together in order to save all five worlds from destruction. This “we’re all in this together” theme – again, nothing unusual in fantasy quests, but handled with care and aplomb in this one – is quite explicit in The Amber Anthem, since the key to lighting the yellow beacon turns out to be, first, the rediscovery of the ancient anthem itself; and, second, its singing and proclamation by members of all five races – which requires figuring out exactly what those races are. Despite their differences in appearance (including skin color) and background, humans turn out to be a single race for this purpose. The second race is one of plant people, upon whom many humans of all types look down. The third race includes giant, usually completely silent, human-like beings known as Kyojin. The fourth, it turns out fortuitously, is the race of Salassi Devoti, native to Salassandra but long since gone – except for the one bonded to Jax. And the fifth race – well, there is something fortuitous about them, too, because the three protagonists have been sharing their adventures with a sentient creature made of oil, a shape-shifting (and often humorous and altogether delightful) character known as Ram Sam Sam. However, he, in the form in which readers and the characters themselves know him, is not sufficient to represent the fifth race. What is sufficient is one of the many mysteries solved in The Amber Anthem.

     Another important piece of the 5 Worlds puzzle incorporated into the myth-building in the fourth book has to do with the Mimic – exactly who or what he/it is, with what relationship to the Felid Gods, and specifically with what connection to An Tzu. The underlying motivation of the Mimic proves to be overly simplistic – one of the few false notes in a series remarkably devoid of them – and his last-minute decision not to destroy Oona Lee when he appears on the verge of doing so rings a bit false as a result. However, the question of the Mimic and An Tzu is clearly set up at the end of The Amber Anthem as the ultimate difficulty that the beacon lighters will face in the forthcoming final book, The Emerald Gate. It will clearly be a matter of overwhelming importance, and more than a small amount of heartache. But that is to come in the fifth book. For now, readers of The Sand Warrior, The Cobalt Prince, and The Red Maze can simply revel in The Amber Anthem, which is as skillfully told in words as the first three books, and filled with equally attractive and engaging art. There are parallels aplenty between 5 Worlds and other fantasy quest stories, and between this graphic-novel series and others. Yet 5 Worlds successfully sets itself apart from roughly comparable stories through the consistency of delineation of the characters’ personalities, their growth as individuals and as a group, and the apparent ease with which mystery after mystery is introduced and solved – only to whet the appetite for the new ones that keep coming up. 5 Worlds draws on many classic elements of fantasy quests and illustrated storytelling, but it does so in such a way as to make it virtually certain that the five-book sequence, when completed, will itself become a classic.


Not a Gentleman’s Work: The Untold Story of a Gruesome Murder at Sea and the Long Road to Truth. By Gerard Koeppel. Hachette Books. $28.

     There is something of a cottage industry in the exhumation and exploration of long-ago murder cases. All parties have long since passed away, and in the days well before modern criminology (not to mention DNA analysis), when evidentiary standards were minimal or nonexistent, it is certain that there have been any number of miscarriages of justice waiting to be explored and made right – if not for the sake of the participants in the dramas, then for the sense of satisfaction stemming from delving deeply into the past and uncovering innumerable legal, ethical and moral mistakes. After all, there are plenty of those even today, despite all our technology and supposed analytical sophistication. How many more must there have been in olden times?

     Gerard Koeppel’s Not a Gentleman’s Work is one recent example of the “murders revisited” trend. Its subtitle, however, is misleading: far from being “untold,” this story, which begins in 1896, was very widely reported in newspapers of the day, and continued to be a topic of discussion, reporting and (eventually) presidential concern all the way to 1919. What Koeppel means by “untold,” however, is that his book claims to reveal, for the first time, who was really responsible for the crime around which the story centers. It was a particularly gruesome triple murder, committed with an axe aboard a commercial sailing ship called the Herbert Fuller. The victims were the captain, his wife, and the second mate. The murders take up only two pages of the book, although that is quite enough to show their viciousness in “a total of nearly thirty swings with the axe.” But even in describing the killings, Koeppel makes some curious statements, pointing out in one paragraph that “the murderer was not perfect in his swing,” the axe blade having hit wood and a ceiling beam as well as the human victims – then stating in the next paragraph that the killing “suggest a killer who was not in a hurry, redundantly effective in his purpose, if not perfect in his practice. His victims weren’t just killed; they were thoughtfully and thoroughly mutilated.” But the second paragraph’s statement is very much at odds with that of the first, and “thoughtfully…mutilated” is a comment not in keeping with Koeppel’s description of the scene.

     The book is full of little touches like this, not-quite-opinions that do not quite work. Koeppel makes his dislike and suspicion of the sole passenger on the ship, Harvard dropout Lester Monks, clear from the start, writing of his “brief and troubled Harvard career” and stating that “what ruined Lester at Harvard was neither physical ailment nor insufficient intelligence but alcohol” – over-consumption of which, by the way (or perhaps not “by the way” at all), would seem a better explanation of a massive number of axe blows, including misaimed ones hitting parts of the ship’s sleeping quarters, than anything “thoughtful.”

     Koeppel is at pains to present small details in ways that hint at their considerable significance; but then he tends not to confirm that they were anything of importance. Thus, regarding the nausea and vomiting of the ship’s first mate, Thomas Bram, after the killings are discovered, Koeppel theatrically asks, “What was the importance of Bram’s vomit and his wiping it up, intentionally or not, before a sample could be saved?” Bram either slipped in his vomit and sat in it, so his clothing absorbed it, or sat in it deliberately, in which case “his actions [would have] suggested an attempt to destroy evidence that might somehow point to his guilt.” But nothing more is made of all this – and nothing whatsoever is made of the far more telling fact that Monks and the crew members found the murder weapon, complete “with two hand marks on the handle,” and summarily threw it overboard.

     Indeed, Koeppel makes little or nothing out of many elements of the story that would seem crucial to it. One of the most significant involves the Monks’ family attorney, Francis Bartlett, who, Koeppel writes, read all the newspaper accounts of the murders, then listened to Lester Monks recount the events for a full two hours, and then, according to Koeppel, placed “a hand on young Monks’s shoulder, and said, ‘My boy, tell me why you did it.’” This extraordinary scene, obviously so exceptionally pertinent to the narrative and recounted in more detail as to dialogue and feelings than Koeppel could possibly have gleaned from available sources, is ended by the author with ridiculously understated blandness: “Lester’s response is not recorded.”

     Part of the difficulty with Not a Gentleman’s Work is that even though the book is short, at fewer than 240 pages, it feels padded-out with largely extraneous detail that reflects Koeppel’s skill at research but bears at most indirectly on the basic story. For instance, he reports various people’s word-for-word presentations as told separately to the prosecution and defense, as if to encourage readers to try to catch someone or other in a serious contradiction. But no one tells a story exactly the same way twice, so the minor differences are of no consequence; and in any case, if the author himself had discovered significant inconsistencies and pointed them out, without expecting readers to wade through multiple versions of individuals’ recounting of events, that would have been a different matter and in line with the “untold story” concept.

     What happened after the murders was that Bram was convicted of the killings in January 1897 despite considerable evidence that he was not guilty, and in spite of the serious misgivings of several jurors about his culpability; the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction later that year; Bram was tried again and again found guilty, being sentenced to life in prison; he was paroled in 1913; and President Woodrow Wilson granted him a pardon – largely because of a newspaper campaign on Bram’s behalf – in 1919. The way the tale wends through generations of a rapidly changing America would make for a fascinating societal story, but that is not the one Koeppel tells, except that he trots out the usual recriminations about racially biased U.S. justice: Bram, who was born on the island of St. Kitts and considered himself white, actually had parents of African descent, while the jurors who convicted him were white and native-born. And surely there was prejudice aplenty in what happened to Bram, but that is not all there was, and not even the main issue at his trials. The societal elements, though, appear to be of little interest to Koeppel, who prefers to focus on the personal by following the very different lives of Bram and Monks in the years after the murders. The approach would have worked had either of the men gone on to great acclaim or extreme notoriety, but that is not what happened, so the entire narrative comes to seem a bit pale.

     The book is also somewhat oddly edited, or perhaps just under-edited. The family name Monks is often incorrectly used as its own plural (“American Monks” and “a number of Monks,” for example), but the plural is at other times correctly given as “Monkses”; there is a reference to “a millennia” rather than “a millennium”; “accidentally” is misspelled “accidently”; there is a mention of “exerting his authority” rather than “asserting”; and so on. Individually, these are minor matters, but collectively, they call into question the care with which the story has been assembled. Also questionable is Koeppel’s inclusion not only of precise dialogue that no one could have known, but also of narrative elements that have verisimilitude but are unsupported by evidence, such as the details of the ship’s journey back to port after the murders. Koeppel is scarcely alone in filling in historical blanks this way: plenty of history-reconsidered works tread the thin line between fact and docudrama. Nevertheless, when the professed purpose of a book is to ferret out the truth of a horrific long-ago crime, close attention to what is known and what is not would seem particularly important.

     Not a Gentleman’s Work is mostly written in a breezily accessible style, but its meandering narrative and somewhat confusing presentation tend to drag at it. Additional editing work – not only for specific language but also to tighten the narration and better connect its elements – would have made the book considerably more compelling, but perhaps would have reduced the narrative to something less than a book-length one. In fact, given the paucity of information on a number of the people involved in the story – and Koeppel’s decision to try to make the tale character-driven rather than societal in scope – there may simply not be enough known about the Herbert Fuller case, despite the voluminous coverage it received for a time, for a book-length treatment to sustain.

July 09, 2020


Solar Warden, Book One: Alien Secrets. By Ian Douglas (pseudonym of William H. Keith, Jr.). Harper Voyager. $7.99.

     An utterly ridiculous mixture of tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories with space opera and heroic-military clichés, the first book in Ian Douglas’ new Solar Warden series is impossible to take the slightest bit seriously – but insists that readers do so, since there is perilously little in it played for even the slightest of laughs. You have to admire Douglas’ sheer gall in combining multiple alien races competing on Earth with the “true” meaning of Roswell, New Mexico events with Nazis venturing into space as helpers/captives of nonhuman races with President Eisenhower signing an agreement allowing periodic, small-scale alien abductions of humans. Someone, probably Douglas, is laughing all the way to the bank as this plot builds and builds – in fact, Alien Secrets reads mostly like a scene-setter for future books in the Solar Warden series, although there are enough intergalactic battles to keep fans of military space fantasy (decidedly not science fiction, there being no science here whatsoever) occupied and happy.

     Government-conspiracy theorists will find plenty to masticate here, too. Douglas tosses about the usual alphabet soup of government agencies-within-agencies-within-agencies, all operating at cross-purposes with plausible deniability and all dipping unceasingly into the apparently endless “black budget” that conveniently funds just about everything Douglas wants funded. Whenever the plot seems about to bog down, which is infrequently, Douglas can always trot out a new super-secret, well-financed groups of something-or-others, whether human or EBE – “Extraterrestrial Biological Entities.”

     Oh, and there is also time travel, because “the Jew physicist Einstein had supposedly demonstrated that space and time were the same thing,” as the resident Nazi baddie notes. Clever, that Einstein.

     A plot this sprawlingly silly is actually something of a wonder, with so many strands and so much connective narrative needed that it is amazing to see how Douglas keeps everything neatly in place while tossing in enough action sequences to keep readers interested in the characters. In fact, it is particularly fortunate that Douglas is so skilled presenting battles and other mayhem, since character delineation and development is not and never has been his strong suit. The protagonist here – someone has to be the center around which everything else orbits – is Lieutenant Commander Mark Hunter of the Navy SEALs, the requisite tough-and-hard-as-nails-but-still-human generic military-hero-with-a-soft-side (he is sorry his wife left him and sorry that he has to leave his girlfriend to go on outer-space deployment). Hunter, who of course inspires tremendous loyalty among the men and women he supervises, is of course a reluctant leader and disciplinarian who of course knows the right thing to do is to tell the world about all those aliens and time travelers but of course does not do so because the baddies, human and EBE, of course know where his family and girlfriend can be found and won’t hesitate to do horrible things to them because they are, you know, bad.

     Solar Warden both undermines and enlarges the notion that the planet Earth is somehow special. On the one hand, humans are not special as an intelligent, spacefaring race, since there are lots and lots and lots of other, more-advanced ones out there. On the other hand, Earth is special, because it is the focal point for plots and counterplots, battles and chesslike maneuvers, in which alien and time-traveling characters constantly jockey for position because – well, the “because” part of Alien Secrets is a little on the light side, although some elements are clear enough, such as future humans’ determination to prevent present-day humans from blowing themselves up because then the future humans would, like, not exist, ok?

     Douglas’ clever authorial touches abound here, notably including his creation of wildly outré plot-supporting quotations that he then states are “attributed” to real historical figures, from Eisenhower to Neil Armstrong. The result is a tiny veneer of plausibility overlaid on the complete nonsense of the story. Although nominally set in the present – make that an “alternative present,” one of those conveniences of which Douglas takes full advantage – the book exists primarily to give the background of the launch of a new military space organization called the Interstellar Marine Force (a singularly uninspired name). It is that force’s usual bold journey to the usual places where humans have never been, to assert human moral superiority (or something) and figure out what the various EBE factions are fighting about and when and how Earth fits into whatever it is (or something), that Alien Secrets details. Damn the absurdity – full speed ahead, to misquote David Farragut’s famed order, “Damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead,” which Farragut actually did not say, except maybe in some yet-to-be-written Ian Douglas book. Damn something, in any case, and full speed to somewhere!


Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

     Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra continue to show their mettle with Mahler in their sixth symphonic release, of the odd and difficult symphony that musician, musicologist and Mahler expert Deryck Cooke christened the “Mad” (actually repeating "mad" four times to describe it!). Prior releases on BIS have included Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6, and have shown Vänskä to be willing to take some chances in handling these works – with greater success in some instances than in others. Each Mahler symphony presents its own challenges, but those of the Seventh have derailed a number of conductors. The work is puzzling in many ways: for example, although officially labeled as being in E minor, it neither starts nor ends in that key, opening in B minor and concluding in C major. It is a symphony of many moods and many small pieces, a difficult work to make cohesive – and Vänskä does not really try, preferring to highlight its many individual elements with great care and leave it to listeners to assemble them into a coherent whole.

     Structurally, Mahler’s Seventh looks both back and forward. Like the Fifth, it is built around its central movement, a fact that Mahler emphasized in No. 5 by stating that that work is in three parts: movements 1 and 2, the large-scale movement 3 alone, and movements 4 and 5. In the Seventh, he surrounds the central movement with two designated Nachtmusik, preceding the first of those with the very dark opening movement and concluding the entire work with a bright Rondo-Finale, the same form used to complete the Fifth. In the Seventh, though, the central movement is the shortest of the five, and in this way the symphony anticipates the unfinished Tenth, whose very short central Purgatorio movement is the linchpin of the entire work. Thus, the Fifth, Seventh and Tenth all have structures that are essentially arc-like. Emotionally, the progress of the Seventh is actually straightforward: it moves from darkness to light, as do many 19th-century symphonies. But Mahler’s finale here can seem too bright, too straightforward, and thus can be a puzzlement to conductors and audiences alike.

     Vänskä has a good sense of the way the symphony progresses. The first movement is funereal and intense at the start, barely dragging itself out of silence as it ebbs and flows. The opening rhythm, which Mahler thought of while listening to oars striking the water as he traveled on a lake, here suggests a watery crossing much disturbed – certainly nothing tranquil. The brass is especially fine in this movement as the themes fracture and fragment – the dark feeling here is episodic rather than concentrated, as it is in Symphony No. 6. Halfway through, Vänskä has the movement subside into a kind of stasis before it regains some forward momentum that eventually brings it to an end.

     The second movement and first Nachtmusik starts with more than the usual feeling of eeriness, with impressive sound as major slides into minor – another technique employed differently here from the way it is used in the Sixth. Here the lower strings are especially trenchant, and the movement has a strong chamber-music feeling as individual instruments slip in and out of prominence. As a result, the beautiful legato string theme comes across as more of a relief and contrast than usual. This is a night of strange, disconnected sounds, not exactly frightening but certainly not restful.

     The third movement is designated by Mahler as Scherzo. Schattenhaft – the “shadowy” feeling intended to take the impression of the previous movement further. Mahler states that the speed of this movement should be “fluent but not too fast.” As always, his directions clearly show his expertise as a conductor as well as his concerns as a composer. Here there is strangeness beyond that of the prior movement: Vänskä handles the third as a demonic dance, really impish, giving it a type of ebb and flow quite different from that in the first movement. The movement hesitates time and again, the prominent dissonances with brass being highlighted. There is a kind of clockwork feeling in the rhythms, as wind exclamations that sound like squeals add to the overall strangeness. At the end, the music simply dissipates.

     Again in the fourth movement, Mahler’s tempo indication is crucial: it is, simply, Andante amoroso. And it is here, in the second Nachtmusik, that the veil of darkness begins to lift. The horn calls here are somewhat reminiscent of those in Symphony No. 3, while the sweetness of the violin solo accentuates the brightness that is still to come. In Vänskä’s reading, the symphony by this time has come to seem rather dissociative, a collection of small parts thrown together – or large thoughts broken down into small components. It is not so much directionless as it is trying to go in multiple directions, never finding one that is quite satisfactory until the finale.

     And when the finale arrives, it does so in the most straightforward way possible – which Mahler fully realized, providing the highly unusual tempo indication of Allegro ordinario. The composer knew exactly what he was doing here, even if conductors and audiences sometimes find the movement disconcertingly out of keeping with Mahler’s other music. It is different in some ways, but not in others: for example, it again uses the major-minor contrast so crucial to Symphony No. 6. Yet the brass proclamation after the timpani open the movement is the first straightforward thing in this whole symphony – even more so in Vänskä’s performance, where the drumbeats are intensely emphasized. The rondo form, here and in the Fifth, is a straightforward one by Mahler’s large-scale standards. And surely this is an unusually bright movement, featuring triangle, cymbals and bells. Indeed, Mahler is more insistent here than in the Fifth of staying within what is basically a rigid form, as if to cement the symphony in brightness after allowing so much of it to drift, not quite aimlessly, in the dark. There are still exclamatory passages in this movement, and tempo variations, but now within a more-approachable, more readily comprehensible whole. In other words, the movement, like much that has come before in this symphony, is episodic – but within a structure that admits of an episodic approach and fits it into a clear totality. Vänskä handles the finale quite well, building it to a highly effective summation and ending.

     There is indeed some justification for Cooke’s “Mad” designation of Mahler’s Seventh, given the fragmented nature of so much of the material. But a better title, especially when it comes to a performance such as Vänskä’s, might be the “Disjointed.”

July 02, 2020


The Book of Dragons. Edited by Jonathan Strahan. Illustrated by Rovina Cai. Harper Voyager. $35.

     You may think there are two schools of thought about dragons: the Occidental, in which they evilly lay waste to vast areas, breathe fire, and are ripe for destruction by a lengthy series of St. George epigones; and the Oriental, in which they are earthbound or water-bound, beneficent or at least neutral where humans are concerned, and are generally harbingers of good luck. The Book of Dragons, however, shows that there are 29 ways of looking at a dragon, one for each contribution to Jonathan Strahan’s anthology. There may be even more, but even an almost-600-page book has to end sometime.

     Readers who are fond of dragon lore will wish this volume went on even longer than it does, because the variegated views of dragons espoused and explored herein make for fascinating reading from just about every angle that fantasy takes today. Here is a mundane real-world autobiographical tale that shades at last into wonder: Pox by Ellen Klages. Here is a traditional dragon-demands-maiden-sacrifice story, turned personal and enigmatic: The Nine Curves River by R.F. Kuang. Here is outlandish humor, in which dragons have to figure out, among other things, lawsuits: Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage by Zen Cho. Here is a tale so packed with detailed world-building that it feels like a novel compressed into 20 pages, or a 20-page story around which a novel can (and probably should) be built: Matriculation by Elle Katharine White. Here are two poems of enigmatic thoughtfulness: What Heroism Tells Us and A Nice Cuppa by Jane Yolen.

     Dragon lore is multifaceted, so in some ways it is no surprise to find The Book of Dragons so packed with so many variations on so fruitful a theme. But the sheer extent of those variations is a surprise, and a pleasant one. Dragons mean so much in this book. They mean that it is better to be a low-paid lighthouse keeper with dragons than a well-paid lawyer without them: The Dragons by Theodora Goss. They mean that a particularly lucky dragon-slayer is forced by a particularly unpleasant prince to capture a dragon alive so the prince can overcome it: Habitat by K.J. Parker. They mean that an otherworldly tug-of-war is ongoing over dragon-shaped human souls, or rather external manifestations of human emotions in the shape of dragons: Lucky’s Dragon by Kelly Barnhill.

     And there is much more here, from some of today’s best-known and most-accomplished fantasists – Michael Swanwick, Garth Nix, Patricia A. McKillip – and from numerous up-and-coming fantasy authors whose imaginative treatment of the topic is equally enthralling. It turns out that dragons continue to inspire creativity of all sorts, often with echoes of the traditional Occidental and Oriental views of them but equally often with echoes of a different kind: Where the River Turns to Concrete by Brooke Bolander, for example, imagines a river spirit ousted by human encroachment in essentially the same way that this happens in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, but with much more brutal consequences.

     There are many stories here in which dragons are central, as is only to be expected. But there are also some intriguing cases in which they are almost incidental: Peter S. Beagle’s Except on Saturdays, which is more of a musing upon the persistence of myth and the ways in which some people, a few, are open to it even in the modern world; and Sarah Gailey’s We Don’t Talk about the Dragon, a tale of an abusive family, more draconian than draconic, that is as monstrous in its small, casual and constant cruelties as any imagined winged beast.

     Most of the stories do their own word painting, their own scene creation, rendering the nicely sculpted Rovina Cai drawings decorative enough, but only modestly connected to the narratives or illustrative of them.

     Unsurprisingly, the book begins and ends with Tolkien, specifically with quotations from The Hobbit about Smaug. The opening one is the dragon’s self-description of might and potency; the closing one, Tolkien’s poetically nuanced words, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.” In truth, Smaug is dispatched in The Hobbit with rather more alacrity and ease than would be expected, given the buildup to his appearance and his own boastful words. But The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings, was intended for younger readers, and at least in Tolkien’s time, dwelling overmuch on the dragon’s depredations simply would not do. The authors in The Book of Dragons, on the other hand, are writing for adults, and their themes are frequently quite dark and very adult indeed. They are also quite a bit further removed from Tolkien than Strahan’s choice of opening and closing quotations might lead one to expect. Today’s best fantasists have absorbed the lessons of Tolkien, yes, but have by and large moved beyond them where dragons are concerned, finding new ways to use the dragon legends – of whatever provenance. There is little in The Book of Dragons that directly recalls Smaug, but much to indicate that Smaug and other draconic characters of earlier times continue to enthrall and captivate the newer generations of fantasy authors.


Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. Kate Royal, soprano; Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano; Tuomas Katajala, tenor; Derek Walton, bass; MSO Festival Chorus and Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Trevino. Ondine. $39.99 (5 SACDs).

     A Beethoven-symphony cycle is an inevitable rite of passage for young conductors, and one that will likely be held to even-higher-than-usual standards during this 250-year anniversary of Beethoven’s birth – when all things Beethovenian have proliferated to an even greater degree than usual. So Ondine’s release of a five-SACD set, featuring live performances from October 2019 by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Trevino (born 1984), faces unusually stiff competition among recordings – to the extent that it is valid to turn performances of this music into competitive endeavors. Trevino himself is still developing as a conductor, and although the Malmö Symphony Orchestra is a full-scale modern symphonic one (the booklet included with the release lists 91 musicians), it is not an ensemble routinely deemed among the very best in the world, or even in Europe. So it is particularly enjoyable to find out that Trevino brings some genuine thoughtfulness and a few new ideas to Beethoven’s symphonies, and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra plays them expertly and enthusiastically – if perhaps not quite with the highest precision or best sectional balance at all times.

     Trevino’s care with the music is everywhere apparent. At the very start of No. 1, he is careful not to rush things, to let the music of the Adagio molto opening bloom naturally before the ensuing Allegro con brio bursts forth at quite a quick pace. Speed turns out to be a characteristic of Trevino’s mostly bright and lively interpretations, although he does not rush the music – the first movement of No. 1 sounds playful as much as quick. The second movement is finely balanced between its walking pace and songful lyricism, just as its tempo indication, Andante cantabile con moto, indicates. The third movement is a headlong burst of enthusiasm, with well-considered dynamic contrasts. The chord that opens the finale is as surprising as the famous one in Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony, and the movement as a whole is bright and perky in a very Haydnesque manner, showing Beethoven’s debt to the older composer from whom he famously and rather churlishly claimed never to have learned anything. The clear articulation of the Malmö Symphony’s strings is a particular pleasure here, helping to compensate for the fact that the ensemble is really too large for the delicacy of this music.

     Symphony No. 2 announces itself with powerful opening chords that anticipate the more-famous ones that begin the “Eroica.” Trevino clearly sees these symphonies as a progression, not just as individual, independent works. In the first movement of No. 2, he contrasts a slow and stately opening with a propulsive main Allegro con brio section. The second movement comes as a surprise: it is lovingly paced as a true Larghetto, pretty rather than profound – and played with great delicacy and warmth without, however, lapsing into any inappropriately Romantic gestures. This entire symphony is under-appreciated, and Trevino shows in this movement why its poise and beauty mean that it should be seen and heard as more than just a transitional work between Nos. 1 and 3. The third movement of No. 2 here has rough good humor that looks ahead to No. 8, with Trevino doing a particularly good job highlighting the swift changes of dynamics. The finale opens at a quick tempo that could challenge the strings, but the Malmö players handle it well, and Trevino finds some especially attractive balance between the string section and the rest of the orchestra, even to the extent of highlighting the bassoon line as well as the more-usual horns, and bringing out the timpani effectively at the very end.

     To present the symphonies in order on five SACDs, this release needs an 85-minute second disc for Nos. 3 and 4. And this disc sounds just as good as the other, shorter ones – which is to say, very good indeed – showing yet again that it has become possible to offer top-quality sound without adhering to the 80-minute length previously considered the limit beyond which digital-disc audio would deteriorate. The fine sound quality is noticeable in the “Eroica,” which Trevino launches with a first movement that is a well-balanced mixture of drama and lyrical flow. Although the movement does not lack scale, it is not as grand and intense as in some other performances; as a result, Trevino’s reading ties the second and third symphonies together in interesting ways, showing the “Eroica” as growing from the earlier work rather than being a complete break from it. In this interpretation, the second movement comes as something of a shock: it opens in deep sorrow of a proto-Romantic type, with a halting rhythm that belies the notion of a funeral march. Only gradually does the notion of a cortège emerge. The lower strings are very fine here, solidly underpinning the entirety of a dirge that, as lengthy as it is, seems even longer because of its emotional depth. This performance offers a movement that blends high drama with deep sadness to very fine effect. Where to go after this second movement is always a problem for conductors. Trevino opts for a third-movement opening that breaks the spell of the funereal second immediately, with scurrying strings and particularly bright woodwinds playing at a tempo that immediately leaves the gloom of the second movement behind. The effect is to split the symphony into two parts – a common enough result in performances, and one that works well here because the third movement is played with enough enthusiasm (and pointed-enough horn parts) so it does not seem a comedown or afterthought in the wake of the second. As if to emphasize the structure of this “part two” of the symphony, Trevino leaps attacca into the finale and sets a faster-than-usual pace for it, with a genuinely breakneck coda. The result is intriguing: this “Eroica” in effect has three movements of approximately equal length – the first, second, and third-plus-fourth. Heard this way, the symphony has clearer through-darkness-to-light progress than it usually possesses. This is an unusual approach that may not be to all tastes: certainly the finale is propulsive, but its pacing, especially in the presto conclusion, makes it less weighty than it can be. Still, Trevino’s handling of the symphony is convincing on its own terms and shows that he has really thought through the ways in which the “Eroica” both fits into the cycle and marks the beginning of a new symphonic approach after the first two, comparatively Classical symphonies.

     Symphony No. 4, like Nos. 2 and 8, tends to get short shrift, or at least shorter shrift than the others, from many conductors. Given Trevino’s propensity for speed, listeners may expect a somewhat hectic approach to No. 4 here. Happily, though, Trevino again shows himself to be a thoughtful conductor. No. 4 is not really a “small” symphony, seeming that way only because it follows the “Eroica” and is about one-third shorter. But the orchestration, the emotional connection, the rhythmic development that Beethoven used in No. 3 are all refined further in No. 4, and Trevino recognizes this – showing his understanding, for instance, in the grandness of the chords that end the first movement’s slow opening section and introduce a well-paced and strongly rhythmic main portion of the movement (in which the bassoon and other winds sound particularly good). There is a sylvan quality to this movement that looks ahead to the “Pastoral,” and Trevino highlights it effectively. The gentle flow of the second movement, in which Beethoven explores contrasting piano and forte passages, is well-handled, with the quietest passages being played in exemplary fashion by both strings and winds. The overall scale of the movement comes through quite well – it is as long as the first, and as long as the third and fourth combined – and shows that this is in no way a “little” symphony. The third movement starts with a strong contrast: as he often does, Trevino opts for a faster-than-usual tempo, which in this case effectively pulls the symphony into brighter territory than it inhabits for the first two movements. This also happens in the “Eroica,” of course, but the change here is more seamless and feels less abrupt – one instance of the ways in which No. 4 moves beyond No. 3. The slower Trio of the third movement does come as a bit of a surprise here, since the main portion of the movement is so quick, but Trevino gives it an almost dancelike quality that works quite well. At the movement’s end, Trevino takes the same approach as in the “Eroica,” starting the fourth movement attacca. And this again has the effect of having listeners hear the last two movements as a whole, giving them, and the symphony as a totality, additional cohesiveness. Despite his penchant for quick tempos, Trevino does not rush here, adhering to the Allegro molto designation but not pushing past it. The result is a conclusion that is almost the symphony’s capstone, although not quite – Beethoven does not become thoroughly finale-focused until his next symphony. No. 4 is, in retrospect, something of a transitional work, and Trevino’s performance does a fine job of showing that while preserving the symphony’s individuality.

     Although the insistently hammering first movement is by far the most famous part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the second movement is some 50% longer; and this is the first of his symphonies in which Beethoven builds toward making the conclusion the climax – by himself connecting the third and fourth movements directly and adding certain instruments only in the finale (trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon). Trevino gives the first movement plenty of drama, taking it at a suitable tempo and not rushing it (it is marked Allegro con brio). The orchestra’s strings show their mettle here, and so does the brass – which, however, is not as warm and rounded in sound as are the brass sections of the very best European orchestras. The brief periods of quietude in the movement, and the always charming but slightly odd oboe cadenza, are well-contrasted with the overall momentum and drama. The second movement, which so often comes across as a letdown after the intensity of the first, here starts with exceptional beauty in the strings that relieves the first movement’s tension almost at once. But here as in Symphony No. 4, Beethoven resolutely uses strong dynamic changes to carry over some of the emotions of the first movement and transform them. Trevino’s close attention to the dynamics is a big plus for his interpretation. In the third movement, when the first movement’s four-note “motto” theme returns after its absence in the second movement, the orchestra’s brass again shows its strength, making up in pointedness what it somewhat lacks in tonal warmth. Trevino quickly restores the drama level of the first movement in the third, and the strings’ handling of the Trio – especially in the lower strings – is first-rate. The justly famous sense of the orchestra “falling asleep” near this movement’s end, preparing for the tremendous “wake up!” call as the finale begins, is well-handled; and the finale itself rings forth immediately with a tremendous sense of triumph. It is, however, another movement in which Trevino pushes the pace, in this case perhaps a bit too far: there is lyricism as well as splendor in this movement, but rather less in Trevino’s reading than there could be. However, the palpable excitement of the music certainly comes through very clearly. The slow and delicate section midway through the movement contrasts well with the rest of the material, paving the way for a recapitulation as forceful as anything that has gone before. Trevino highlights the glaring dissonances and some nice instrumental touches just before the coda – including the brightness of the piccolo – and the very end, which is taken very quickly, leads to as effective an insistence on the key of C as anyone could desire.

     Conducting the “Pastoral” has proved a challenge for many conductors of Beethoven cycles, even the most distinguished among them. Herbert von Karajan, for example, never seemed to know quite what to do with the symphony’s rather meandering gentleness and thematic simplicity: none of his many recordings of the work was quite satisfactory, no matter how well-played. No. 6 would also seem likely to be a particular challenge for Trevino, with his fondness for brisk pacing and thematic clarity. Trevino doers indeed have some difficulty at the symphony’s start, choosing a speed a bit beyond the designated Allegro ma non troppo. But a slight, barely perceptible slowdown early in the movement improves the pacing considerably, and the delicacy with which the orchestra handles the flowing themes is winning. Having settled on a satisfactory tempo, Trevino sticks with it and lets the music unfold at its own pace, focusing mostly on varying the dynamics – the very quiet pianissimo sections are especially effective. The second movement is the symphony’s longest and often feels that way, its Szene am Bach coming across as essentially static. But Beethoven wants this movement paced Andante molto mosso, not a crawl but a fast walk. Trevino does not take it quite that quickly, but he maintains a consistent walking pace with, as in the first movement, careful attention to the dynamic contrasts that provide what drama this essentially undramatic-by-design movement contains. The feeling here is of a pleasant waterside stroll with occasional pauses to sit and admire the scenery – a most justifiable portrait, although Beethoven made it clear that he was not writing “program music” so explicitly. Trevino does seem to be more comfortably in his element in the somewhat-more-ebullient remainder of the symphony. There is a pleasant jauntiness to the third movement, whose deliberately coarse rhythms Trevino handles very well, although the Trio sections are a bit too fast to be fully convincing. Unsurprisingly, the fourth movement’s storm is managed with great aplomb, the timpani pounding out the thunderclaps and the rest of the orchestra cutting loose to fine effect. Then the finale enters a touch tentatively, as if Trevino is reluctant to let the storm go – but the pace soon becomes a very pleasant Allegretto, and the sense of joy at the storm’s passing comes through well. What Trevino gets right here is that the music needs to sound entirely natural, unforced and straightforward, although it is scarcely simple in structural terms. By letting the movement flow with gently rocking motion, Trevino allows the symphony to conclude warmly and effectively. This is, all in all, a sensitive and very nicely balanced reading.

     The enthusiasm with which Trevino approaches Beethoven’s Seventh is scarcely surprising, but his statuesque handling of the first movement’s opening is a touch unexpected. He allows this introduction, Beethoven’s longest, to unfold at an unrushed pace and build in its own time, so it comes across almost as a self-contained four-minute piece that contrasts strongly with the quick, celebratory Vivace. The orchestra’s winds shine especially brightly here, and there is unflagging enthusiasm from the whole ensemble, with Trevino sometimes shading over almost into impatience to get to the next delightful episode. The performance is not so much rushed as it is eager. The very quiet opening of the Allegretto therefore comes as something of a shock, pulling listeners into an altogether different world. Trevino adheres closely to the Allegretto designation, not pushing the music but not allowing it to drag or become over-serious. It flows quite well, Trevino’s care with dynamics making the gradual crescendo about two minutes from the start very effective. The following decrescendo is handled with equal thoughtfulness, as is the full-throated delivery of the main theme as the movement’s end approaches. The performance is a trifle on the cool side, a bit studied, but otherwise very convincing. The third movement bursts forth with vigor and at a slower tempo than might be expected, given its Presto indication and Trevino’s tendency to keep things brisk. Here the rhythmic contrasts among the movement’s sections come through with fine clarity, and Trevino’s usual care with dynamics serves the material very well. The finale, taken attacca, goes beyond jauntiness and almost borders on hysteria through sheer speed and rhythmic insistence (the horns hold up well but are clearly being pushed close to their limit). The undeniable excitement of the movement comes partly from wondering whether the orchestra can possibly keep together at this speed – and it does, but the performance could not have been an easy one for the musicians to get through. Certainly Trevino’s flair for the dramatic is on full display here: the movement is a whirlwind of sound and orchestral color, concluding as if the music simply runs off the page in sheer delight.

     And then we get to the puzzle of Symphony No. 8, the toughest nut to crack in the cycle. Beethoven thought it better than No. 7 and said he was not pleased that people generally preferred the Seventh. No. 8 is the only symphony in which Beethoven repeats a home key: F major, the same key as the “Pastoral” and therefore an indication of a similarity of intended mood and effect – but certainly not of method. In most cycles, including Trevino’s, No. 8 is the shortest of all the symphonies; but this is a work that is compressed, not truncated. It has no slow movement, although both central movements partake of a reduced tempo. It is certainly Haydnesque, among other ways in its touches of humor and its third-movement Tempo di Menuetto. But it is not really a tribute to the older composer, who had died three years before this symphony’s creation in 1812 and for whom Beethoven seems to have had at most a grudging respect. Despite its brevity, the Eighth is not a “little” symphony – it requires the same power and dynamic range as the Seventh. Most conductors have no very clear idea of what to make of it, and therefore tend just to present the music and let the audience make of it what it will. That is what Trevino does, offering a very well-played rendition that is a performance but not really an interpretation. There is greater stateliness to the first movement than might be expected, thanks to a tempo that is slower than would seem likely from Trevino in a movement marked Allegro vivace e con brio. The second movement percolates along pleasantly, being perhaps a touch more serious than its Allegretto scherzando marking would indicate – the sudden dynamic changes here are among the ways in which this symphony’s humor channels that of Haydn. The third movement, which is almost a second Scherzo, is well-paced here and features nicely accentuated rhythms and well-highlighted brass – especially so in the Trio, where the horns are warmer in sound than usual. The fleet finale, another movement in which Trevino opts for a faster-than-usual tempo, is bubbly and suitably outgoing – once more showing parallels with Haydn, although again Trevino is a bit on the too-serious side. The performance as a whole is very pleasant, if scarcely revelatory.

     If conductors tend to be unsure what to do with Beethoven’s Eighth, all of them seem to be quite certain of how to handle the Ninth – although their certainty inevitably changes over time, being transformed into some other, more-mature certainty that is in its turn transformed yet again. So Trevino’s handling of the Ninth in this cycle will surely not be his last word on the symphony – but it is a very fine, as it were, “first” word, from a recording standpoint. The first movement opens with suitable drama and is, as it should be, un poco maestoso, although the pacing is a bit quick for the designation Allegro ma non troppo. The orchestra plays with sufficient weightiness to make this a strong opening for so extended a symphony, with a sense of turbulence quite different from that in the “storm” movement of the “Pastoral.” Trevino is not quite as attentive here as he is in the other symphonies to changes in dynamics, but the quieter passages of the movement are nevertheless quite well handled and are suitably contrasted with the grander and louder ones. Interestingly, the pacing results in Trevino’s performance having nearly equal lengths for the first three movements: the first and third run 14½ minutes each, the second just one minute less. This conveys balance in a way that is rather unusual for the Ninth. The second movement builds strength onto the first, but the pacing here, surprisingly, is a touch on the slow side: the primary tempo is supposed to be Molto vivace, but in this performance the speed is a bit slower than that of the first movement – resulting in a rather curious effect, in which the Scherzo seems more a continuation of the opening movement than a contrast to it. The movement’s subsequent Presto material retains the same basic pulse as the main portion, being differentiated more through instrumental emphasis than by its pacing. The movement is quite well played but not particularly distinctive. The third movement, on the other hand, is lovely in every way: Trevino clearly takes to heart the cantabile portion of the tempo marking, drawing a songful, warm and rather sweet performance from the orchestra. The sheer beauty of Beethoven’s themes here stands in marked contrast to the craggy and turbulent nature of those in the first two movements, and Trevino lets the pleasures unfold with natural flow surpassing that of flowing brook in the second movement of the “Pastoral.” Indeed, there is a touch of pastoral quality in this performance, a sense of simplicity and manifest beauty that sweeps away the concerns of the first two movements and aptly sets the stage for a resumption of drama in the finale. The last movement duly returns to the symphony’s earlier mood, after which the fourth movement’s main theme is introduced so quietly that it seems to sneak into listeners’ ears – an effective approach that gives Trevino plenty of opportunities to build the theme’s orchestration and volume, which he does to good effect. When bass Derek Walton enters to proclaim “enough of these sounds,” there is a genuine sense of change, and the woodwind accompaniment in the first verse of Schiller’s An die Freude is handled with excellent precision and balance. The MSO Festival Chorus sings with enthusiasm and voices the words clearly – and clarity is also a hallmark of the performance of soloists Kate Royal, Christine Rice and Tuomas Katajala. The Turkish march midway through the movement has some piquancy here, neatly anticipating the use of “Turkish” percussion at the movement’s very end – which, not surprisingly, Trevino takes at a genuine Presto. In fact, throughout the finale, all the instrumental passages maintain solid forward momentum as they provide bridges between and among the vocal ones. And in the sung portions, the verse starting with Seid umschlungen, Millionen is here delivered with a great deal of feeling, and the prayerful feeling of this section shows considerable sensitivity. Overall, it is the sensitivity of this performance, and of Trevino’s readings of the symphonies as a whole, that is the primary impression left behind by this very finely played, clearly recorded, thoughtful and frequently elegant entry among the many available releases of Beethoven’s complete symphonies.