August 26, 2021


Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde; Xiaogang Ye: The Song of the Earth. Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Brian Jagde, tenor; Liping Zhang, soprano; Shenyang, baritone; Shanghai Symphony Orchestra conducted by Long Yu. Deutsche Grammophon. $13.98 (2 CDs).

     One of the most intriguing aspects of this utterly fascinating pairing of interpretations of Tang Dynasty poems from the viewpoint of two different centuries is that both the composers were the same age when they created their pieces: Mahler was 49 when he finished Das Lied von der Erde and Xiaogang Ye was the same age when he produced The Song of the Earth in 2004. There are many, many connections between these works as well as many, many disparities, but surely the different situations of the same-age composers in their respective time periods are worthy of note. Mahler, of course, was to live only one further year, while Xiaogang Ye is still going strong in his mid-60s; but still, the contemplation of thousand-year-old Tang Dynasty poetry in the contexts of two very different centuries, by two composers of the same chronological age, is exceptionally intriguing.

     It is far from the only fascination here. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is a subtle blend of Romantic-era German lied composition with a host of touches of chinoiserie, although the text of the work is twice-removed from the original Mandarin (it got into German by way of French). Mahler’s elegant use of pentatonic scales and inclusion of Chinese percussion elements in the orchestra lend Das Lied von der Erde an Oriental flavor, but it was clearly the opportunity to explore death, memory and the evanescence of earthly life that attracted Mahler to the Tang Dynasty poems – giving him a different angle on those topics from the one he had used in his “Symphony of a Thousand.”

     Hearing the Mahler played by the excellent Shanghai Symphony Orchestra under the highly sensitive direction of Long Yu is in itself a first-rate experience. The tempos here are, in toto, slightly faster than usual in this work, but never noticeably so during any of the individual sections. And the soloists are as good as the orchestra. Brian Jagde, undoubtedly in consultation with Lu, has really thought through the words’ meaning and how best to deliver it – the three very different ways he says Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod in the first song are evidence enough of his understanding of the progress of the narrative and the music. And his rendition of Der Trunkene im Frühling has just the right mixture of obliviousness and hysteria. For her part, Michelle DeYoung – despite being a mezzo-soprano, when Mahler clearly specified an alto for the part – has a rich, warm and thoroughly convincing voice that carries forcefully and elegantly through the entire song cycle (it is worth remembering that the female voice sings about two-thirds of Das Lied von der Erde). The haunting repeats of ewig at the work’s very end, so clear an indication of leave-taking of life as the music descends into silence, cap a performance that is careful, sensitive and emotionally trenchant throughout. Lu’s intermingling of the instruments with the singers is exemplary: notably, it is always hard for the orchestra to avoid swamping the male voice, but Jagde and Lu handle the balance admirably here. And the extended orchestral interlude between the two poems that make up Der Abschied is just one place where Lu’s fine understanding of Mahler comes through very clearly.

     The Mahler performance alone is enough to justify the cost of this two-CD Deutsche Grammophon set, but the inclusion of the world première recording of Xiaogang Ye’s work makes the release a remarkable bargain. Ye trained partially in the West and clearly has no problem incorporating and building upon Mahler’s style, which he acknowledges throughout The Song of the Earth, even though he rarely follows Mahler slavishly (although one brief harmonic sequence in the second song does sound perfectly Mahlerian). Ye uses the original texts of the Tang Dynasty poems, rearranges their sequence a bit, but opens and closes with the same material Mahler chose for the start and finish of Das Lied von der Erde. However, Ye uses different vocal ranges – soprano and baritone – and does not have them alternate: Liping Zhang sings Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6, while Shenyang handles Nos. 4 and 5 (and, intriguingly, this arrangement also gives the female voice about two-thirds of the material). By and large, the use of orchestra and the harmonic world of Ye’s work would not be out of place in Mahler’s time: there is greater dissonance in some sections, and some use of effects beyond what Mahler included, but nothing really outré by the standards of 1909. Shenyang, for example, sings in what sounds like Sprechstimme in No. 5, but even though Mahler did not use that vocal form, it was in use at the time of Das Lied von der Erde and became more common within a few further years.

     One difficulty of understanding just what Ye is doing with the relationship between the poetry and the music is the absence of transliteration. There is an English translation of the verses (and a German one as well), but this is a case where transliteration would have been very helpful, since listeners could then have followed both the sound of the words and their meaning while listening to Ye’s music, thus better understanding the ways in which he emphasizes, expands upon or otherwise comments on the poetry. In the absence of the ability to do this, English speakers cannot know just what words and concepts are being treated to techniques such as vocal glissandi, and it is impossible to know why one portion of the final song (No. 6) sounds as if Zhang is delivering a dramatic “ha-ha-ha” with all the finesse of a Disney villain.

     What is clear in Ye’s work, though, is that he uses much the same instrumentation as Mahler, with notable emphasis on the brass, but deploys elements of some orchestral sections differently, especially the percussion. In fact, while Mahler has the conclusion of his work fade into eternity and into silence, Ye ends his without any words at all – but with an extended percussion-only section that makes the final two minutes of The Song of the Earth sound more Oriental in sensibility than it has anywhere else. There is no sense of any competition between Ye’s 40-minute work and Mahler’s hour-long one – Ye’s is, if anything, a tribute to and extension of Mahler’s, using much of Mahler’s musical language while restoring the verbal elements of Das Lied von der Erde to their original sensibilities, which Mahler, working through translation, could not have known. It has become commonplace nowadays for composers to claim to be multicultural in orientation, to adopt elements from various locations and incorporate them respectfully into new works. Many of those claims are superficial and simply attempts to prove there is no “cultural appropriation” going on. But the Mahler-Ye pairing heard on this release is something different, and much better: it is cross-cultural, allowing Mahler his due for taking translated Tang Dynasty poetry and imbuing it with Romantic-era concerns about permanence and impermanence, and the place of humans in the universe; while allowing Ye to restore the poetry to its original sounds and dimensions, at the same time incorporating into his work the aural spectrum that Mahler offered nearly a century earlier.


Haydn: Baryton Trios, Hob. XI: Nos. 9, 55, 58, 61, 69 and 87. Valencia Baryton Project (Matthew Baker, baryton; Estevan de Almeida Reis, viola; Alex Friedhoff, cello). Naxos. $11.99.

Sullivan: Masquerade from “The Merchant of Venice”; Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII”; The Sapphire Necklace—Overture; Overture in C, In Memoriam. Emmanuel Lawler, tenor; RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny. Naxos. $11.99.

     The versatility of Haydn, the sheer extent of his creativity, his ability to produce nearly endless amounts of excellent music in so many forms, continues to be a source of amazement – and a gateway to unusual listening experiences. There is a wealth of Haydn that most people have never heard, and it really is a wealth: amazingly rich in innovation, design, construction and (in more cases than not) musical substance. It seems truly astonishing to realize that Haydn created at such a high level while largely confined to what was more-or-less a backwater of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and while working as a paid producer of tunes for a noble family. But perhaps that is the wrong way to look at things. Haydn’s isolation from the great musical centers of Europe allowed him to think in ways uninfluenced by the norms of musical creation – he could, almost literally, “think outside the box,” because he was not boxed in by being surrounded by other composers competing for audiences and noble sponsorship. Furthermore, for many years the Esterházy family basically forced Haydn to think of new and intriguing approaches to music, demanding that he be creative in ways that would please their highly refined taste – an insistence that let Haydn stretch the bounds of the expected. And then there were the Esterházy pet projects, which pushed Haydn in ever-new directions – which brings us to the matter of the baryton. This is a large, unwieldy instrument of Baroque times, combining elements of the viola da gamba with ones from the lirone – the lowest member of the lira family. The baryton is the size of a cello but more awkward, requiring both bowing of its six or seven primary strings and plucking of a set of sympathetic metal wire strings with the left hand. Prince Nicolaus Esterházy loved the instrument and enjoyed playing it himself, so of course he asked Haydn to create music for it. And Haydn obliged in a fashion that can only be called Haydnesque: he did not produce a few pieces here and there, but created 126 trios for baryton, viola and cello, plus 50-or-so additional baryton works. And Haydn, with his ever-present developmental creativity, had the sympathetic strings tuned an octave higher than they had been in the past, with the result that the baryton – and its noble player – stood out more strongly in the trios than would otherwise have been the case. The trios themselves are scarcely major Haydn or major rediscoveries: the six offered on a new Naxos CD are all three-movement works lasting nine to 12-and-a-half minutes, three being in D, one each in A and G, and one (intriguingly but scarcely profoundly) in A minor. But the works are nevertheless remarkable in their own way. The seamless blending-with-contrast of the baryton with viola and cello, the creation of a baryton part suitable for a talented and enthusiastic amateur but not requiring substantial virtuosity, the poise and elegance characteristic of everything Haydn wrote – all these are very much in evidence on this fascinating Naxos CD. Haydn even goes out of his way to vary the forms of the trios, beginning two with Adagio movements and only one with the Allegro that might be expected (the other three start Moderato). Each trio contains a minuet, but they are differently placed: in second position four times and as finales twice. And while Haydn created some movements to be played at greater length – as long as seven-and-a-half minutes – he did not hesitate to produce others lasting less than two minutes. The members of the Valencia Baryton Project, thoroughly versed in Haydn’s style, play the trios with all the elegance and poise they deserve, allowing the baryton its intended first-among-equals position while also producing a balanced and nuanced sound that is quite different from what listeners will know from Haydn’s string trios for two violins and cello or, less often, violin, viola and cello. It is fascinating to realize that Haydn produced just 18 trios with those more-common instrumental combinations, and wrote seven times as many including the baryton. Of course, a large part of his motivation was to please his employer – doing so was Haydn’s job, after all – but there was surely something in the baryton itself, in its capabilities and oddities, that attracted Haydn to such an extent that he produced so great an abundance of music for the instrument. The chance to hear half-a-dozen examples of his exceptional handling of this obsolete and unusual instrument is an unalloyed pleasure.

     What is surprising and unexpected on a new Naxos CD featuring music by Sir Arthur Sullivan is not the instrumentation but the type of music. Sullivan’s name is inextricably linked to that of W.S. Gilbert and to the string of operettas the duo produced. To a much lesser extent, Sullivan is known for his hymns and his religiously inspired song, “The Lost Chord.” And his “Irish” symphony, his sole endeavor in that genre, is occasionally (very occasionally) heard. But very, very few people have heard his incidental music, his operas with librettists other than Gilbert, or most of his non-stage works. That makes this disc – actually a reissue containing performances from 1992, which alone is evidence of the rarity of this material being heard – very welcome indeed. The CD reinforces knowledge of Sullivan as a stage composer of considerable skill: his music for specific scenes within The Merchant of Venice and Henry VIII is very well-crafted, ties neatly and emphatically to the material it accompanies, and incorporates songs (one in each sequence) that tenor Emmanuel Lawler delivers with suitable feeling and a fine command of the musical material. It is worth remembering that Sullivan was a ballet composer of some note: the sole surviving music from Thespis, his first work with Gilbert, is a set of five short dance pieces; his ballet L’Ile Enchantée was acclaimed when presented at the end of a performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula; and his full-length Victoria and Merrie England could stand, all on its own, as something of a summation of the musical tastes of the Victorian age. The Shakespeare-focused works on this disc date to the 1870s, when Sullivan and Gilbert mostly explored separate areas of interest but began to intersect: they worked on Thespis in 1871, then Trial by Jury in 1875. Even in the previous decade, though, Sullivan produced some music that certainly does not deserve obscurity. The overture to his very first attempt at opera, The Sapphire Necklace (1864), is an example: virtually all the music for this work has disappeared, and even the overture has survived only in a version for military band, but in the orchestral guise in which it is heard on this disc (Roderick Spencer did the orchestration), it is highly effective and contains more than a few hints of the substantial success that Sullivan would enjoy late in the following decade. Even more interesting is the 1866 Overture in C, In Memoriam, which certainly bears comparison with the 1870 Overture di Ballo. The earlier concert overture arose from a strong personal circumstance: the sudden death of Sullivan’s father. This traumatic event led Sullivan to produce a work of considerable sensitivity, very fine orchestration, and a greater degree of underlying emotion than was his wont in other music. It is never overdone and retains a certain gentility, in keeping with the mores of the age and Sullivan’s own personality. But it certainly serves – as does everything else on this very well-played disc – to show that there was a good deal more to Sullivan’s music than listeners would know from encountering him only in the Gilbert collaborations that made both librettist and composer so famous.

August 19, 2021


Captain Cake, Book 1: Meet the Candy Crew. By Chris Skinner. Marshall Cavendish Children. $16.99.

      A super-simple adventure for older pre-readers and early readers, the planned Captain Cake series fits squarely into the cute-unchallenging-diverse universe of books for young children, with a couple of distinctions that parents should think about before incorporating the first volume into their libraries. There is nothing all that unusual about the silliness of the idea of food transformed into people, although Chris Skinner throws in a bit of fun by noting that the four crew members are changed from a cake, “a bar of chocolate, a mound of jelly, and, for some reason, a sweet potato.” That takes care of the inevitable question, “What’s a potato doing in this?” The actual transformation is over immediately – a “special ray gun” wielded by General Rock changes everything on a plate into the spacefaring crew of a ship called The Sweet Candy. After that, though, things get a bit, well, sticky.

     The crew members, cleverly drawn by Skinner to incorporate the food items from which they originate (Private Potato, for example, has a sweet-potato-shaped head), have powers commensurate with their origins (thus, Captain Cake can “blast cream and jam from his hands,” although why he would want to do that is up in the air…or up in space). So the “origin” portion of Meet the Candy Crew works well enough. The “adventure” portion is somewhat less successful. The crew’s first mission is to get apple juice, because Commander Pickle needs some. This is a pretty lame mission – it’s a fair bet that even four-year-olds will wonder why the crew, or the commander, can’t just go to the refrigerator or a store for apple juice, instead of trying to find Planet Juice, land on it, and fill their jugs. There is nothing mysterious or exciting about the object of this quest – a fact that diminishes the interest of the book. Parents should think about this, and also about the way Skinner repeatedly interrupts the story to address his young audience directly: “Do you ever get into trouble?” “What would you do if you were him?” (That should be “he,” not “him,” but why quibble?) “Can you be logical?” It is as if Skinner is unsure of the extent to which he wants the educational element front-and-center in the book, compared with the degree to which he wants to keep the very frothy adventure story in the forefront.

     To be sure, this is a “message” book, but the message is so ordinary that even very young kids will likely have heard it before: it is good to have friends, teamwork is good, and it is good to help other people. The stories-within-the-story are a bit of a stretch, too. The most-amusing one is also the one most likely to raise questions: “Lieutenant Chocolate wakes up and finds himself lost in space,” it begins, and he is shown outside in a rocky, moon-like setting, where his wrist communicator fails to connect with other crew members. Because he is the most-logical member of the crew, he tries to think himself out of his predicament, eventually spotting and “following many specks of light” before touching one speck and, it turns out, turning on the lights inside the spaceship: he was never lost in space at all. Or was he? Is this the best a logical kid can do, not knowing the difference between inside and outside? Was the whole thing a dream? Why didn’t the communicator wake anyone up? What were all the little specks of light? How hard is it, really, when he turns the light off again, to remember how to “make his way to his bed in the dark”? Skinner provides no answers – but kids are sure to ask questions. It is funny to imagine the “logical” character unable to tell the difference between outdoors and indoors, but adult readers should be ready to fill in the many plot holes here – or hope that their own kids are not logical enough to spot them.

     Meet the Candy Crew is a very mild book, easy to read and understand. However, it is hard to escape the notion that Skinner’s main desire is not the story, which is thin even by the loosest standards of books for very young children, but to tell young kids how they should behave. Two sentences here pin down the central communication: “Do you know what being brave means? It means helping your friends when they are in trouble.” Certainly that is an unexceptionable point to make; it is also scarcely a new, creative or unusual one. A little more creativity surrounding the very clear messaging would have been welcome. Perhaps that will be delivered through later volumes in the Captain Cake series: Skinner plans to produce five in all.

(+++) ME FIRST

The Joy of Being Selfish. By Michelle Elman. Welbeck Publishing. $19.99.

     Selfishness, like stress, is much better in small doses than large ones. A certain degree of stress is motivating; indeed, it is arguable that without stress at some level, people would get little done, since they would not feel any particular impulse to accomplish things. In The Joy of Being Selfish, Michelle Elman argues pretty much the same thing where selfishness is concerned: being totally focused on yourself is overdoing things, but without a certain degree of looking out for Number One, Number One ends up somewhere around Number 276 when it comes to work, family, friendships, romance and more.

     The book’s title, though, is a bit of a misnomer. There is precious little in it about joy – a more-accurate title would have been “The Importance of Being Selfish.” An even-more-precise one would have been “The Importance of Boundaries.” The words “boundary” and “boundaries” are a near-constant refrain in Elman’s book: all five of the first chapter’s sections contain one word or the other; the three major book sections after the Introduction all include one word or the other in their titles; and there are six “boundaries” in a row in titles within the book’s fourth section, “Setting Boundaries in Different Contexts.” In fact, so pervasive is the “boundary” notion here that within sections whose titles contain “boundary” or “boundaries,” there are plenty of subsections using the words. For example, within “Boundaries in the Workplace” there are “Out-of-hours boundaries,” “Personal and professional boundaries with colleagues,” and “Setting boundaries with a boss.”

     Elman sets forth the connection between selfishness and boundaries early in the book: “Setting boundaries means saying, ‘I’m going to get my needs met and I’m not going to expect others to do it for me.’ If that’s selfish, then I’m selfish.” This formulation is a bit different from what readers are likely to expect when hearing the word “selfish,” but Elman stays true to her definition and explication. She may even be a little too true to it, using it to devise one of those self-help-book standards, an acronym encapsulating the book’s message. Here it is SELFISH, which includes Stories (stick to facts when something bothers you instead of trying to explain things away); Emotions (know which of yours a situation stirs up); Let go of conclusions (do not play out a difficult conversation in your head before it happens); Find [a] desired outcome (know what you are asking for); Initiate conversation (choose the right time for difficult talks); Set the boundary (it is your decision, not a joint one; it is up to the other person to accept it or not); Hold the boundary (if the distressing event recurs, establish a consequence and follow through on it).

     SELFISH may be a clever summation of Elman’s major points, but it is not a very useful guide to the specifics of what to do – there is just too much packed into the acronym, in too general a way, for it to be helpful in day-to-day life. The specific “text templates” near the end of the book are much more useful. They deal with specific emotionally fraught situations that readers may well have experienced or that are at least similar enough to ones they experienced so the suggested cogent, to-the-point replies can be easily adapted. Among the issues for which Elman offers suggested answers: “I think my friend is angry at me because they are not responding to my texts.” “I slept with a guy and ever since he has been replying slower and with shorter replies, and it’s making me feel bad.” “My boss raises his voice a lot.” “My partner makes more money than me [sic] and when she chooses a restaurant, it is normally out of my price range and it is creating a lot of financial pressure on me.” “My boss likes to micromanage me and constantly interrupts me for updates [and as a result] I submit work before I feel it is ready.”

     In each of these cases and other specifics she presents, Elman shows a way to put your own needs first – that is, to be selfish, to set a boundary – while remaining professional or emotionally engaged or whatever it makes sense to be in that particular circumstance. The section of proposed text messages builds on much of the book’s previous narrative. Elman does a particularly good job of illustrating and contrasting strong and weak boundaries of various types – material, physical, emotional, intellectual and sexual. Less useful are a series of overly simplistic and sometimes nitpicking formulations about the difficulties of setting boundaries (for instance, two separate possibilities are “you don’t know what you feel” and “you don’t know how to process what you feel”). Also of limited value are the typical self-help-book set of things to do to bring your life into conformity with the angle that Elman wants you to take. Thus, there is a “take action” page for lists of personal values involving career, love life and family & friends; a very short space (nine blank lines) for “writing out what you would have done differently” at times in your life when you tried unsuccessful to set boundaries; lists to be made “when you cut someone out of your life” of “red flags that I missed,” “the changes in the relationship that I did not notice,” and more; etc. Elman expects a good deal more work of her readers than her foundationally rather straightforward notions about boundary-setting really justify. Of course, it is possible just to skip the worksheets and read the narrative – and that is probably a better way to extract what is useful from The Joy of Being Selfish. A single one of Elman’s sentences really sums up the book: “Boundaries, and learning how to set them, are about setting the standard of how you want to be treated.” The process of doing this can be more complex than Elman lets on, and is more likely to be joyless than to offer joy: it is hard work unlearning long-established patterns of interaction and creating new ones, then adhering to them. However, as a basic, plainspoken guide to elements of interpersonal boundary-setting, Elman’s book can be a good starting point, if scarcely the last word.