January 22, 2015

(++++) FEEDING BODY AND SOUL


Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution. By Mara Rockliff. Pictures by Vincent X. Kirsch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

A Violin for Elva. By Mary Lyn Ray. Illustrated by Tricia Tusa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

     A wonderful, much-simplified retelling of one of the great stories of the American Revolution, Mara Rockliff’s Gingerbread for Liberty! contains so many improbable events that it reads like pure fiction – all the more so because of the highly innovative cut-paper illustrations by Vincent X. Kirsch, which give the whole book the sheen of a fairy tale. Yet the book hews remarkably closely to fact in its tale of a German-born American colonist who so loved his adopted country that he volunteered to fight for independence when he was 55 years old – only to be turned down as a fighter and asked instead to ply his trade as a baker to feed the hungry Continental Army. Yes, as the book says, Christopher Ludwick (or Ludwig) really did induce Hessian mercenaries, fighting for the British, to desert and join the American side – where they would be well-fed and have a chance to settle in Philadelphia, as Ludwick had, and make better lives for themselves. Yes, he did go behind enemy lines to persuade Hessians to defect. After the war ended, he did bake 6,000 pounds of bread to feed the defeated Redcoats. Besides all that, what did not even fit into Rockliff’s book was his marriage to an Indian princess (his wife gets only a brief mention); George Washington’s gift of a handwritten certificate of good conduct to a man Washington called “my honest friend”; and Ludwick’s tireless efforts after the war to help the poor, sick, and others in need. Even without those elements, this book is packed with fascination. Ludwick really did make a fortune as a gingerbread baker and confectioner in Philadelphia. He really did sneak into a Hessian camp (on Staten Island, New York) and persuade some mercenaries to desert and move to Philadelphia. And he really was on good and personal terms with Washington. Even the fanciful elements of the book make sense: Rockliff imagines Ludwick rowing to a Hessian camp while thinking the German words for “revolution,” “independence” and “liberty” – and he likely did something very much of that sort. She imagines that he may have made gingerbread as well as ordinary bread for Cornwallis’ troops – and while no one knows if he did, he was, after all, known as an excellent gingerbread maker, so this is possible. The story has a wealth of information told with a wealth of humor – for example, the illustration of very tall and very lean Hessians bending eagerly toward the short, plump, moon-lit figure of Ludwick is an especially amusing image. The book has fine bonuses, too, including an author’s note that gives additional information on Ludwick, and a recipe for gingerbread cookies that may not be 18th-century-authentic but that can be a lot of fun for young readers and their families to try.

     The deliciousness is of a different sort – a rather bittersweet one – in Mary Lyn Ray’s A Violin for Elva, a story about wishes that eventually come true when it is almost (but, luckily, not quite) too late. Elva is a little girl who hears music in her head and wants a violin so she can make more of it. But her parents, for reasons that are not very clear, refuse to get her one (kids who read the book are likely to ask why not, and since Ray does not explain, adult readers should consider possible scenarios). So Elva, instead of asking for an instrument again, simply pretends she has one, “performing” with sports equipment, her toothbrush and anything else she can get her hands on, “playing music only she could hear.” Her parents never reappear after their refusal to get Elva a violin, so their reaction to all this is unknown. Instead, Ray traces Elva quickly from childhood to adulthood, when she has “appointments and important meetings” but still longs for a violin. Elva regales herself with recorded music (today’s parents may have to explain vinyl records to today’s kids) and talks with her dog to keep herself in touch with something other than her own feelings (she lives alone and certainly does not look happy in Tricia Tusa’s illustrations). Eventually, after deciding it is never too late to indulge in a childhood dream, Elva buys herself a violin – and soon finds that it is far from easy to play. Despite her determination to learn on her own, she is disappointed again and again – until she finally gets up the courage to buy lessons from a violin teacher. And then she does learn to play – maybe not exceptionally well, but well enough to fulfill her childhood wish. The picture of the teacher’s students playing together – all of them young children except for adult Elva – is the most touching in the book, and rather sad as well for what it says about all the years Elva lost. But it is not the final picture – indeed, the one just afterwards, illustrating the words, “Elva was making music,” is as joyous as can be, showing Elva completely captured and enraptured by her own ability to play the violin at last. This is a sweetly meant book that is less immediately uplifting than are most picture books for young readers. The front and back covers show sheet-music excerpts from Mozart’s well-known serenade, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”), and in a sense, that is what A Violin for Elva is about: the chance to make music after so many years, before night ultimately falls on one’s life. This is a more-thoughtful, more-cautionary message than is typical in children’s books, a fact to which parents should be sensitive – especially if their kids, like Elva, ask to play a musical instrument when they are young enough to have many decades of enjoyment ahead of themselves.

(++++) REVISITS


The Polar Bear Scientists. By Peter Lourie. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

Hold Fast. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $6.99.

     Here are two paperback reissues that give readers a chance to consider anew some interesting factual and fictional works – or encounter the material for the first time. The Polar Bear Scientists, originally published in 2012 in the “Scientists in the Field” series, is built around interviews with biologist Steven Amstrup, “the godfather of Alaskan polar bear research for the past thirty years.” Amstrup talks not only about climate change, for which the polar bear has become a sort of poster child, but also about the history of studies of the largest bears in the world, the capture-release-and-recapture program that makes modern scientific study of them possible, the use of radio collars to track bears that move between polar nations, and more. Other scientists and support personnel, such as George Durner and Kristin Simac, discuss the bears as well, and all are seen with bears, with the equipment used to catch and track them, and in the laboratory and office settings where data are entered, assembled and correlated. Peter Lourie’s words and photos clearly depict the difficult conditions under which scientists work with the bears – and the frigid land where the bears thrive, or try to. Some photos tell the story in ways that are more immediately dramatic than the text: a female with three cubs trying to scare off the scientists’ helicopter, a bear print that is elevated because Arctic winds have blown away the lighter surrounding snow, a female bear lying in snow as a scientist prepares gear to weigh and measure her, yearling male bears roughhousing, and of course some adorable cubs. The sorts of decisions the scientists face are clearly explained.  A missing collar, for example, needs to be located if at all possible. “Of course it’s expensive to go find a distant collar, with the cost of fuel and time, but it’s equally if not more important to find a collar in order to determine whether a bear has died or has just dropped it.” A photo showing scientists with pickaxes trying to break through ice to dig up a collar gives some idea of what is involved in retrieval. The Polar Bear Scientists tells as much about the people who study these bears as it does about the bears themselves: the humans are concerned, dedicated and meticulous in their work. The global-warming debate has continued since this book’s original publication, driven more by political considerations than by hard science – but Amstrup puts it into perspective after Lourie points out that the bears have gone through at least two periods that were warmer than the current one. In those earlier warm periods, says Amstrup, “we didn’t have nearly as many humans out there competing with bears and otherwise affecting their security. …[A]s temperatures rise and habitat is reduced, polar bears are going to be competing with a lot of human uses of their environment.”  The scientists’ worry comes through not as agenda-motivated but as genuine, well-intentioned and transcending politics.

     The intentions are certainly good as well in Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast, a novel first published in 2013. But aside from first and last sections called “Ice,” this book has nothing in common with the study of polar bears. It is instead a study of people, in a cold city that is nevertheless warmer than the bears’ Arctic habitat: Chicago. Balliett’s (+++) book is somewhat too enamored of its own cleverness – for example, aside from the “Ice” parts, the book contains 12 sections that all have “C” titles (“Click,” “Crash,” “Cling,” “Clutch,” and so forth), with each word defined in several ways before each section begins. As in her earlier books, Balliett looks into the past for elements of this one, which springs from a major diamond heist in 2003. But unlike her prior novels, which at their best were fascinatingly art-focused, Hold Fast is essentially the simple story of a family sundered and eventually reunited. Balliett uses the story as a framework for advocating, in a passing and rather simplistic way, various causes; for example, she writes, in a note about homelessness at the book’s end, that the solution to this major societal issue is a simple matter of matching those without houses to abandoned and foreclosed buildings – a “solution” whose overwhelming naïveté is less than charming. The book itself does have charm, though, even if it comes across as somewhat too contrived. The basic family unit consists of Dashel (Dash) Pearl; his wife, Summer; son, Jubilation (Jubie); and daughter, Early, the book’s protagonist. The mystery here emerges quickly, as Dash tosses out some apparently unimportant (but perhaps crucial) number problems from a poem by Langston Hughes, and shortly thereafter vanishes mysteriously, leaving behind a notebook containing various numbers and a final line, “Must research number rhythms.” The disappearance, the notebook and Hughes are all recurring themes, along with the issues of what a home really is, what homelessness means to those who experience or fear experiencing it, and how people make it through extremely difficult times. Balliett goes out of her way to show how wonderful homeless-shelter operators and volunteers are: “If one of you gets sick, we’ll connect you with medical care. Chicago HOPES, a wonderful after-school tutoring organization, keeps a room here with books and games in it, a place to get homework help and some one-on-one attention.” And so on. The good guys here are so good – and the bad ones so bad – that Hold Fast is more unidimensional than Balliett’s other books; and the ongoing advocacy, however well-meant and justifiable based on Balliett’s sociopolitical views, gives the book more of a pamphlet’s stridency than is really good for it.  The characters become types more than fully formed individuals as a result, and while they endure and overcome hardship, and Balliett pulls the plot strands together expertly, the overall feeling of this book is that it has a point to make rather than a story to tell. Hold Fast is well written, but its narrative is ultimately the victim of its author’s good intentions.

(+++) BEATING THE LATEST FOOD WORRY


Living Candida-Free: 100 Recipes and a 3-Stage Program to Restore Your Health and Vitality—Conquer the Hidden Epidemic That’s Making You Sick. By Ricki Heller, PhD, RHN, with Andrea Nakayama, CNC, CNE. Da Capo. $18.99.

     Nowadays diet is the source of all evil and, at the same time, the source of all that is good – provided you obey rules, restrictions and approaches set down by whatever dietary leader and set of instructions you choose to follow. The fact that this makes food consumption seem a lot like religion is no accident: in both fields, people with certain beliefs are convinced that they have the only correct solution to all the ills of humanity and that if only everyone would do what they do, everyone would be better for it.

     Thankfully, dietary conflicts have not risen to the level of religious ones, but there is certainly plenty of angst and anger to be had in groups that include individuals who are omnivores, others who are vegans, others following the Mediterranean or paleo prescription, others eating gluten-free – you get the idea. In so fractured a field, it is no surprise that various people professing (or demonstrating) various degrees of expertise cannot wait to showcase their knowledge and recommendations to the like-minded – which does not mean that anyone who is not a member of that particular congregation will be converted by any of these all-knowing tomes.

     And so we have Ricki Heller’s Living Candida-Free, which seeks to solve a problem that most people who chug along treating food as fuel probably never knew existed. This is the proliferation of candida yeast, a normal part of the digestive tract that can sometimes grow out of control and be responsible, Heller argues, for everything from digestive dysfunction to chronic fatigue. The science here is murky, to say the least, but people who have been told to watch out for candida, or those who have had candida infections (which are nothing to sneer at: candida is the world’s most-common cause of fungal infections), will surely want to give this book at least a once-over. Heller, an associate editor of Simply Gluten-Free magazine (assisted in this book by nutritionist Andrea Nakayama), follows a familiar dietary-advice arc: explain the problem (“Candida-Related Complex”); offer an upbeat solution to it (“Rebalancing Your Body Through Food and Lifestyle”); include easy-to-understand acronyms (“ACD” for “anti-candida diet”); show how to set up your food-preparation area to take advantage of the recommendations being presented (“Your ACD Pantry and Ingredient Substitutions”); and provide a variety of recipes that those committed to your particular dietary approach can follow.

     Living Candida-Free does all of the above, and also offers 16 pages of color photos showing just how appetizing the foods in the book can be. This is a somewhat mixed blessing, though, since the “Perfect Golden Gravy” on one page looks much like plastic, while there is a strong appearance contrast between the “Mojito Smoothie” (looks good) and “Smooth Operator Smoothie” (unappealing) shown in the same photo. Still, Heller deserves credit for not only providing recipes but also showing readers how they ought to look when followed. Readers who find the entire color-photo section delicious-looking will actually be prime candidates for buying the book and following its instructions.

     As for the recipes themselves, they range from the typical staples of non-traditional food preparation (“Basic Chia Pudding,” “Meaty Crumbles,” “Homemade Ketchup”) to soups, snacks, sides, sandwiches, spreads, salads, sweets, sauces and even some categories that do not begin with the letter “s,” such as breakfast foods and main courses. Heller does not pretend that switching to candida-suppressing food consumption is quick: the first of her three dietary stages lasts two to three months, and the third is targeted for one year and beyond – after which there is “long-term maintenance.” She also includes “foods you should really avoid for the rest of your life,” a list featuring the usual suspects: white sugar, cane sugar, anything made with refined flour, hydrogenated oils, and – perhaps a bit surprisingly – “mushrooms, except the occasional medicinal mushrooms (reishi, chaga, etc.).” Whether anyone actually needs to go on a lifetime anti-candida diet is another matter: the debunking of various dietary fads does not undermine the belief in them by people seeking their personal solutions to whatever problems they think particular foods or food groups can cause or solve. In this way as in others, dietary preferences take on some elements of religions: you believe what you believe, and no unbeliever (least of all one of a scientific or otherwise insufficiently faith-oriented bent) is going to convince you otherwise.

     Surely there are some people for whom candida proliferation really is a significant health issue. Surely there are others whose symptoms approximate those that Heller here attributes to too much candida: the symptoms are common to many forms of bodily malaise. So some people looking for a non-medical answer to their physical condition will likely accept Heller’s assertions about candida and how to reduce it, and thus will find this an important book. And given the realities of the placebo effect (the condition of about 30% of people improves even when they are given nonfunctional treatments), it is certain that some people will benefit from Living Candida-Free. Whether many people should stay up at night worrying about ways in which their lives would be turned around if only their bodies contained less candida is another matter altogether – specifically, a matter of faith, or the lack thereof.

(++++) TOWARD COMPLETENESS


Josef Suk: Complete Works for String Quartet; Piano Quartet. Minguet Quartett (Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violins; Aroa Sorin, viola; Matthias Diener, cello); Matthias Kirschnereit, piano. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Federico Moreno Torroba: Guitar Concertos, Volume 1—Concierto en Flamenco (1962); Diálogos entre guitarra y orquesta (1977); Aires de La Mancha (1966); Suite castellana (c. 1920). Pepe Romero and Vicente Coves, guitars; Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Manuel Coves. Naxos. $9.99.

Bach: Cantatas, Volume 1—BWV 182, 81 and 129. Chorus and Orchestra of J.S. Bach-Stiftung conducted by Rudolf Lutz. J.S. Bach-Stiftung. $29.99.

     Surveys of the complete works of composers, or of their complete music for particular instruments, are becoming increasingly common – and have proved very worthwhile for understanding how a composer developed, from what roots and into what branches and what sort of flowering over time. These surveys are not necessarily of interest to all listeners, though, since they inevitably contain works of varying importance and quality: even recordings of, say, the complete symphonies of Mozart or Haydn will showcase works of lesser inspiration alongside those of undoubted brilliance. Still, for understanding a well-known composer or being introduced to a less-known one, a “complete” recording of one sort or another can be most welcome. This is especially true when the performances are as fine as are those in all these new releases. The Minguet Quartet is simply wonderful in its recording of the quartet music of Josef Suk (1874-1935), who is generally remembered more as a violinist and for his relationship with Dvořák and Brahms than for his compositions. It turns out that Suk progressed significantly in his musical conceptions over time, starting out in a typical late-Romantic idiom but eventually producing a quartet so modern in its musical language that it caused something of a furor in Berlin in 1912 – earning the composer comparisons, not by any means always complimentary, to Schoenberg. Suk had a habit of revising and reconsidering his earlier works in light of his later interests, a fact that sometimes resulted in rather odd hybrids. His String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat, op. 11, for example, dates to 1896, and it is well-made and lies well on the instruments, featuring a finale with a recurring three-note motto that sounds like nothing less than Shostakovich. But some two decades later, Suk decided this finale did not work, so he created a new one in which – among other things – the motto becomes more prominent, the overall structure becomes far more dissonant, and the movement’s length is 50% longer. This new movement, presented here as Quartet movement in B-flat, really does not fit the quartet at all, but it is fascinating evidence of Suk’s later thinking about the quartet medium. That thinking is even more in evidence in the notorious String Quartet No. 2, op. 31, which has no specific home key and does indeed sound like something out of Schoenberg even though it does not adhere rigidly to twelve-tone or any other specific systemic structural device. It certainly fits with the time in which it was written: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was first performed in 1913, the year after the première of Suk’s quartet. The remaining works on this very well-recorded CPO release may be of lesser importance, but they have charms of their own. The early Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 8 lies firmly within late Romanticism, being fleet and pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable to hear, with the piano generally subsumed within the totality of the ensemble but asserting itself at a variety of appropriate places – especially in the rollicking Scherzo, whose opening would not be out of place in a work by Saint-Saëns. The other four pieces here are short and not especially significant, but are included for the sake of the completeness for which this release is designed. They are a Menuet in G, a warmly affecting Ballade in D minor, a brief Barkarole in D minor, and the thoughtful Meditace na Starocesky Choral, Op. 35a (“Meditation on the old Bohemian Hymn ‘St. Wenceslas’”). All are played with assured warmth and a fine understanding of Suk’s place in Czech music and the rising Czech national consciousness during his lifetime – the result being a release that provides valuable insight into some fine music by a neglected composer.

     Also important for nationalistic reasons and also comparatively little-known outside his native land, Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982) was as important for his use and understanding of Spanish folk music in the context of classical composition as was Ástor Piazzolla for his adaptation of the Argentine tango to the classical milieu. The first of three planned Naxos CDs that will collectively include all of Torroba’s guitar concertos offers an exceptionally well-played combination of concerto music with works written for guitar solo. Each of the two guitarists plays one work of each type. Pepe Romero, world-renowned for his flamenco performances, brings forth all the color, virtuosity and drama of Torroba’s Concierto en Flamenco and is also heard in a suite of music focusing on the central Spanish region best known for the fictional Don Quixote, Aires de La Mancha. This set of five short movements mixes dances with musical visions of the area’s geography, and Romero plays it with assurance, warmth and a strong feeling for local color. The similarly evocative, much earlier three-movement solo-guitar Suite castellana, which includes the Danza that was Torroba’s first-ever guitar composition, also gets a sure-handed and understanding reading, in this case from Vicente Coves. And Coves shows himself a very fine classical soloist in the fascinating Diálogos entre guitarra y orquesta, which plays off the guitar against harp and celesta as well as the usual orchestral instruments, producing an extended concerto-like work that is playful, colorful, highly evocative of Spain and its folk music, and altogether winning. The Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra under Manuel Coves provides very fine support in the two concertos. Listeners unacquainted with Torroba’s music will find this disc a first-rate introduction to it.

     The music of Bach, unlike that of Suk and Torroba, is exceedingly well-known, and is also exceedingly extensive: recordings of Bach’s complete works range from 155 to 172 CDs. The Bach cantatas alone take up more than 50 discs – and have been recorded as a cycle several times. This has not stopped new groups from producing new versions of the music, however, nor has it interfered with the creation of entirely new recording labels devoted to Bach’s music. J.S. Bach-Stiftung, founded in 2011, is one such. Based in Switzerland, it is a subsidiary of the J.S. Bach Foundation and is engaged in a 25-year project to release live recordings of Bach’s complete vocal music, using period instruments and authentic (which is to say small) vocal forces. On the basis of the three works on the label’s first CD of Bach cantatas, this will be a top-notch series of releases. The sound is warm and complements the intimately scaled performances beautifully. The singing and playing are historically informed and manage to be “correct” without sounding at all stilted: there is genuine involvement of the performers in the music. There does not seem to be any particular rationale for the order of the cantatas presented, indicating that these releases are really targeting listeners who want the cantatas as a complete set without regard to chronology or the specific religious occasions for which the works were created. Thus, BWV 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, was written for Palm Sunday; BWV 81 – Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? – is for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany; and BWV 129, Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott, is for the first Sunday after Pentecost. All are sung and played here with solemnity and liturgical understanding, but without heavy-handedness; the organ parts are especially noteworthy, coming through clearly in the finely managed sonic landscape and within the small instrumental forces. Not all listeners will be willing to wait years for the full set of releases from J.S. Bach-Stiftung, but those who have wanted to build a collection of the Bach cantatas gradually will find this project highly attractive and a worthwhile alternative to existing recordings of the full set of these works, which were so very central to Bach’s life and his music.

(+++) SEEKING NEW ANGLES


Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer. Kwangchul Youn, Anja Kampe, Christopher Ventris, Jane Henschel, Russell Thomas, Terje Stensvold; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, NDR Chor and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons. RCO Live. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Mozart: Requiem; Vesperae Solennes de Confessore. Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Marianne B. Kielland, mezzo-soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; Christian Immler, baritone; Bach Collegium Japan conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Gounod: Requiem; Dvořák: Mass in D. Anne Bretschneider, soprano; Christine Lichtenberg, contralto; Holger Marks, tenor; Georg Witt, bass; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Polyphonia Ensemble Berlin conducted by Risto Joost. Carus. $18.99.

     The live recording of Andris Nelsons leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer seems designed to test a truism: if Italian opera is primarily concerned with the voice and French opera balances vocal and instrumental elements, in German opera the orchestra is paramount. Like many clichés, this one arose because it contains a germ of truth, and perhaps more than a germ. Certainly in much of Wagner, the orchestra, pervaded by leitmotif after leitmotif, is as much a part of the stage action as any of the singers. But there are limits to the effectiveness of seeing Wagner through a primarily instrumental lens, and this recording shows what they are. Like other great art, Der Fliegende Holländer has inspired multiple interpretations and has stood up to just about all of them. One particularly intriguing one treated the whole opera as a sort of “fever dream” of an unbalanced Senta, ending in her suicide. This is certainly not what Wagner intended, but the approach did solve some problems, such as the fact that everyone in the opera knows exactly what the Flying Dutchman’s ship looks like, but when the ship appears in reality, absolutely no one knows what it is; and the Dutchman’s portrait is prominently displayed in Senta’s home, but when the man himself – exactly matching the picture – shows up, no one but Senta recognizes him, either. Opera is not renowned for logic, but Wagner, here as elsewhere acting as his own librettist, surely knew of these plot inconsistencies, deeming them insignificant next to what he was trying to say about the redemptive power of love – his preoccupation for virtually everything he was to write after this opera, his fourth.

     In Der Fliegende Holländer, the Dutchman is intended to come across as a sort of force of nature – certainly his Satanic sentence to roam the seas unceasingly, bringing all his unfaithful brides to eternal damnation, seems disproportionate to his “crime” of steadfastly refusing to be stopped by weather from rounding a cape. The Dutchman is, as a human, a tormented soul; this balances his supernatural presence. Unfortunately, in this RCO Live recording, Terje Stensvold gives us a Dutchman who is neither particularly otherworldly nor particularly human. His voice is barely up to the part – in his first appearance, in particular, it is weak and shaky – and he never achieves the rumbling drama of a true bass-baritone, perhaps because he is not one: he is really a baritone, and a comparatively light one, at that. This leaves the much-deeper-voiced Kwangchul Youn, as Daland, to dominate the men’s meeting in Act I (Wagner wanted Der Fliegende Holländer played straight through, but most performances divide it into three acts, as this one does). Yet Daland is supposed to be a superficial character concerned strictly with worldly goods – a good, reliable ship’s captain, but not a deep thinker and not much of a father, hesitating not at all to promise his daughter to a just-met stranger for the sake of wealth. The strongest voice and characterization in this recording are those of Anja Kampe as Senta: her handling of the ballad describing the Dutchman’s hubris and his fate is highly affecting, and her final scene is as dramatic as it can be – in contrast with the Dutchman’s rather pallid revelation to all (at last) of who he is. Better than all the soloists, though, are the three combined choruses – the wonderful scene in which Daland’s sailors taunt and then are taunted by those of the Dutchman is effectively spooky here – and the orchestra, which plays with smoothness, excellent sectional balance and considerable power. The positioning of microphones for this live recording could partly explain the comparative weakness of the soloists’ voices, especially Stensvold’s, but the audio of the choruses and orchestra is very good indeed, perhaps reflecting what seems to be Nelsons’ concern to focus the performance on the instrumental elements rather than the vocals. In all, this is a reasonably good, very-well-played reading that gives short shrift to characterization and vocal storytelling while placing choral and instrumental elements front and center throughout. Like its title character, though, it is pale (the Dutchman, both in his portrait and as a person, is described as den bleichen Mann); and while it has many effective elements – and, thankfully, includes a full libretto – it is simply not as involving or emotionally trenchant as Der Fliegende Holländer is capable of being.

     The emotional impact of Mozart’s Requiem is certainly high in a new BIS recording featuring the Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki. But this release seeks to be more than an effective presentation of Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece: it wants to be a reconsideration. This is not the familiar (and familiarly flawed) completion of the Requiem by Franz Xaver Süßmayr but an altogether new version put together by Masato Suzuki, son of the conductor and a member of Bach Collegium Japan. The younger Suzuki uses a combination of Süßmayr’s work with that of Joseph Eybler (1765-1846), the friend of Mozart who was first asked by the composer’s widow to complete the Requiem but was unable to do so – leading to Constanze’s selection of Süßmayr, whose work Mozart did not respect (he liked and admired Eybler’s). Add in some material from Masato Suzuki himself and you have the Requiem as heard here. It would be unfair to say that all this is much ado about nothing – it is, in fact, much ado about something very important, for the Requiem is magnificent music left incomplete, and any and all thoughtful attempts to turn it into a fully integrated work are most welcome. However, it is worth pointing out that, just as non-specialists are unlikely to hear the flaws in Süßmayr’s work (technical errors, unnecessary doublings of voices, and some generally uninspired writing), so they are unlikely to perceive significant improvements in what Masato Suzuki has done. There have been a number of other attempts to complete Mozart’s Requiem, some being on the radical side (Duncan Druce), others being considerably more modest in scope (Franz Beyer, H.C. Robbins Landon), and still others lying somewhere in the middle (Robert Levin, Richard Maunder). Certainly Masato Suzuki’s work is worthy within this group of rearrangements (or re-completions), and certainly the performance here is thoughtful, well-paced and effective. As a rethinking of Mozart’s Requiem, though, neither the new version nor the new performance breaks significant new ground. The CD also includes a very fine recording of Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, which contrasts well with the later Requiem, plus an alternative version of the Tuba mirum from the Sequentia of the Requiem.

     The concept of a Requiem expanded significantly, along with much else, after Mozart’s time, and there is a richness and opulence to Gounod’s Requiem in C that make the work both moving and attractive from a strictly sonic point of view. A new Carus recording led by Risto Joost, however, forgoes aural splendor and turns this work into something even smaller and more intimate than what Mozart produced: the Berlin Radio Choir is accompanied only by organ (played movingly by Hye-Lin Hur). This is a strange, if interesting, way to hear Gounod’s Requiem, which dates to 1893, more than a century after Mozart’s. The mysterious commission that led Mozart to write his Requiem is well-known, but there is no mystery about Gounod’s inspiration: he wrote his Requiem after the death of his four-year-old grandson, Maurice. It was to be Gounod’s final work, as Mozart’s was his; but except for some details on which Gounod was working at the time of his death, his Requiem, unlike Mozart’s, is complete. The intimacy that Gounod’s work receives when heard as a vocal composition with only organ accompaniment gives it an even stronger religious orientation and seriousness than it has in its orchestrated form. Yet this is scarcely a traditional Requiem: it omits the Offertory, for example, and sets the Introit and Kyrie together to begin the work. The atmospheric orchestral opening is lost here, and therefore so is the effect of the first, hushed choral entry; but the overall sparseness of the performance makes for a moving recording, if scarcely an authentic one. The disc also includes a rethought Dvořák Mass in D (1892), heard here with wind quintet rather than full orchestra. Interestingly, the original version of this work (dating to 1887) was written for organ accompaniment – but rather than use that form, Joost offers one featuring flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. The solemnity of this wind quintet actually comes across quite well, with the lower instruments frequently dominating the discourse and giving the work considerable depth – although never as much as it has in its orchestral version. The most interesting element of the piece, namely the way the composer combines then-new harmonic approaches with old church modes, does comes through well in Joost’s version. And even if this disc as a whole is a bit of a curiosity, it will be of considerable interest to listeners already familiar with these two heartfelt works and intrigued by the chance to experience them in previously unheard forms.

January 15, 2015

(++++) TAKING THE COMICS SERIOUSLY


Living the Dream: A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

Mel’s Story: Surviving Military Sexual Assault—A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Big Nate: The Crowd Goes Wild! By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     The notion that comics need to be, well, comic, is a long-outdated one, archaic even before the days of serious graphic novels and certainly obsolete today. Comics have long been used to teach serious things through humor – the early days of Mad magazine and the Pogo strips by Walt Kelly are perfect examples, and there are plenty of others. But for many cartoonists in recent years, humor itself has become secondary or even absent as the artists have striven to put significant societal issues within the comic-strip medium. No one has done this better than Patrick McDonnell, an outstanding artist with vast knowledge of comic-strip history and techniques who has put his understanding and abilities at the service of multiple animal-related causes – most notably adoption, but also such environmental issues as habitat destruction and human predation. True, McDonnell sometimes lets the “cause” elements crowd out the gentle, amusing one in his Mutts strips, but by and large, he does a superb job of balancing teaching and advocacy, on the one hand, with warmth and amusement, on the other. The latest Mutts collection, Living the Dream, showcases McDonnell’s skills perfectly. Several sequences within the book, which contains a full year of daily and Sunday strips, are in McDonnell’s now-classic “Shelter Stories” format, in which big-eyed animals plead winningly and nearly irresistibly with readers to take them home. Other sequences incorporate meaningful quotations into art with an animal focus: one Valentine’s Day strip – actually a single panel – quotes Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” The panel shows a woman reaching lovingly toward a caged shelter dog that is presumably about to be adopted by her. Elsewhere, McDonnell mixes erudition with amusement for no apparent reason other than his ability to do so: in a “Mutts Book Club” series, Mooch the cat reads titles on which other characters comment. Thus, Mooch says, “A Farewell to Arms,” and a bird holds up its wings and says “Yup. It’s an evolutionary thing.” In another sequence, Mooch and his best friend, Earl the dog, discuss the removal of wolves from the endangered-species list – a heavy matter handled with considerable delicacy and thoughtful amusement. And then there is the strip in which birds start to sing, but no notes come out – and one of them explains, “A song to Rachel Carson.” And yet Mutts has plenty of room for pure, unadulterated fun. For example, Bip and Bop, squirrels who perpetually bean other characters with nuts, at one point hit Alfred E. Newman and comment, “What, me worry?” At another, they hit the Hulk and say, “It’s clobberin’ time.” And they bonk Spider-Man and aver, “That should knock some spidey-sense into him.” The perfectly drawn renditions of the non-McDonnell characters showcase the cartoonist’s tremendous skill, while the contrast with his own creations enhances a strip in which amusement and education very easily coexist.

     Coexistence is more strained in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, a strip that has long since become one focusing more on didactic than entertainment value. Trudeau is heavy-handed and dogmatic in a way that McDonnell is not – but Trudeau’s strips, for that very reason, can be remarkably effective in exploring and explaining societal wrongs that other cartoonists never tackle. Mel’s Story, one of a series of Trudeau books focused on specific troubling elements of military life, is a case in point. Its weakest element by far is the one that is not by Trudeau: a politicized and self-serving introduction by California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier. Indeed, this poor words-only opening of the book only serves to show just how much better it is to have a topic as difficult and complex as that of military sexual assault be handled in what is essentially graphic-novel form – providing that Trudeau is the one handling it. The whole book is aftermath – the assault is discussed but not shown – as Melissa “Mel” Wheeler tries to recover from “command rape,” in which her brigadier general gives her a choice between a sexual relationship and being pulled away from duty she loves and at which she excels and placed on the garbage detail. In the day-to-day sequence of the enormously complex Doonesbury strip, Mel’s story was intermingled with many other story lines involving different characters – Trudeau paints on a huge canvas and bounces about constantly (and often disconcertingly) from topic to topic. In this book, the panels featuring Mel are gathered in a single place, so her story seems far more focused and urgent than in newspaper form. We see her trying to cope with what happened to her, interacting at her military counselor’s office with amputee B.D. – whose physical wounds Trudeau skillfully balances with Mel’s psychological ones – and gradually finding her way back to self-respect and a surprising decision to re-enlist. This part of the book is gripping and dramatic – certainly not characteristics of old-fashioned comic strips – but the portion afterwards shows why Trudeau’s politicized thinking is scarcely to all tastes: after Mel returns to duty, Trudeau moves the story into the next hot-button issue, involving members of the military being able to declare themselves openly gay. Enough is never enough for Trudeau, and that is both a strength and a weakness. But in newspapers, where the “gays coming out” strips were separated from those involving Mel’s recovery from trauma, the change of focus was not as awkward as it is here. So if the newspaper format diluted Mel’s story, it made the transition to Trudeau’s discussion of the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” less jarring. There is nothing funny in Mel’s Story, although there is the occasional wry comment or ironic twist. Trudeau is long past the point of seeing comics as comic: to him they are a platform, one that he mounts regularly with considerable oratorical and artistic skill.

     After one reads Trudeau, a foray into lighter fare is often welcome, and of course many comics today continue in the vein of amusement rather than that of argumentativeness and intensity. There is still a rich lode of humor to be mined with this old-fashioned approach, and cartoonists such as Lincoln Peirce extract the fun effectively. Big Nate, the adventures and mishaps of an 11-to-12-year-old self-proclaimed sixth-grade genius with a penchant for creating, yes, comics (as Peirce says he himself did at that age), is a strip that draws on many traditional cartoon elements but manages to make them seem fresh and new. Nate is clueless about many things, including his own cluelessness, but his willingness to press on despite repeated putdowns from his friends (jokingly), his crush Jenny (seriously), and unseen school monster/bully Chester (painfully) is what gives him his considerable charm. Nate’s strengths lie in not minding detention (which is good, since he gets it so frequently); in setting up highly creative events for Prank Day (“releasing a pack of raccoons in the faculty lounge,” for example, and using the Internet to set up his nemesis Mrs. Godfrey on a date with a lovesick rodeo clown); and in trash talk, at which he is the undisputed school champion. There is, unfortunately, little of Nate’s own cartooning in the latest Big Nate collection, The Crowd Goes Wild! But there are plenty of Nate-isms here. For instance, Nate worries about the highly advanced younger student who is his book buddy, and who is reading a work by Flaubert – Nate feels obliged to tell the teacher that Peter is using the inappropriate-sounding word “Bovary.” Also, Jenny – like the rest of the school – is delighted at the return from a six-month absence of Artur, Jenny’s super-competent and  super-likable boyfriend; but Nate, whose jealousy knows no bounds, cannot help what Artur calls his “facial expressings” as he watches Jenny and Artur together. Whether worrying about his legacy as class president, admiring the looks of an older woman (a college-age lifeguard), or enduring the inept sports aspirations of his father (a character right out of many decades of feckless dads), Nate manages to retain a sense of buoyant optimism that fans of Peirce’s strip are certain to enjoy – especially as a refreshing change of pace from some of the much-more-serious strips out there.

(++++) TRULY SCARY WHAT-IFS


Syndrome E. By Franck Thilliez. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Penguin. $16.

Bred to Kill. By Franck Thilliez. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Viking. $27.95.

     If you already think real life is frightening, you do not want to make the acquaintance of Franck Thilliez. A French thriller writer with more than two dozen books to his credit, Thilliez is now becoming known in English translation through Syndrome E and Bred to Kill (published in French as Gataca), two novels in a series featuring a fairly typical duo of dogged-but-damaged detectives becoming involved in some decidedly atypical cases. Syndrome E, which dates to 2010 in French and 2012 in Mark Polizzotti’s translation, and which is now available in paperback, is the earlier of the two chronologically, although there are even earlier Thilliez books – one series about one of the detectives and one about the other – to which Syndrome E sometimes makes reference (confusingly for those who, as English speakers, do not have access to them). The investigators, who meet in Syndrome E for the first time, are Lucie Henebelle, a single mother of twins – one of whom is hospitalized when Syndrome E begins – and Inspector Franck Sharko, who goes even beyond being one of those darkly brooding antiheroic types familiar from the worlds of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The plot mover of Syndrome E involves, or seems to involve, an occurrence right out of Kôji Suzuki’s novel Ring, the book that inspired both a Japanese horror film (1998) and the American The Ring (2002). That is, there exists in Syndrome E a film that does terrible things. Its opening scene is virtually identical to that of Un Chien Andalou – a fact that, curiously, no one in the book recognizes until a character who appeared in the fictional movie actually draws attention to the famous and notorious film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. What characters do find out is that the fictional film causes horrific effects in some of those who view it – such as a man named Ludovic Sénéchal, who sees the movie and goes blind. Panicked, he calls a speed-dial number at random and connects with Lucie, his ex – who still has some friendly memories of their time together. And soon she is investigating, without knowing it, the same thing that Franck is: he is focused on five bodies found buried at a construction site, their hands cut off, eyes removed, and tops of their skulls gone. The autopsy reveals some very strange details that soon have Franck – and Lucie, who has contacted him about Ludovic – working on a world-spanning investigation that involves France, Belgium, Egypt and Canada. They are searching for the person or people who made the bizarre film and for the film’s connection to the mutilated bodies – and, not surprisingly in the thriller genre, they soon find themselves on the trail of some extremely dangerous people in very high places.

     Although the basics of the plot make Syndrome E seem like just another noir thriller with chemistry eventually developing between its protagonists, Thilliez resolutely refuses to let the book slip fully into cliché, and as a result turns it into something more thought-provoking and considerably scarier than most works in the genre – whose conventions it nevertheless upholds. For example, Franck is not just a burned-out officer of the law who is still mourning his wife and child: he has symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia – this is why he now has a desk job as a profiler – and he keeps seeing, and speaking to, a hallucinated little girl named Eugenie, who critiques him at every turn and may remind some readers of the hallucinations of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. as detailed in the biography and film A Beautiful Mind. Franck’s boss tells him, “Your illness does some funny things to your head, a kind of stew that lets you grasp things nobody else can sense.” Nevertheless, Franck may simply be too strange for some tastes – in which case the developing chemistry between him and Lucie, a more-conventional character who nevertheless attains depth in Thilliez’ hands, may be hard to accept. What is not difficult to believe is the eventual discovery of what the film and the construction-site bodies have in common: something that is not supernatural, as in Ring, but is all too plausible – and backed by considerable scientific research (which Thilliez dribbles out throughout the book). Incidents of collective hysteria and subliminal messaging, references to real historical events, and an appearance of the conventional, convenient and typical-for-the-genre bugaboo of the nefarious CIA, are mixed together skillfully to produce an ending that in some ways seems a little flat (it is a touch didactic) but that certainly ties up the many loose ends of the plot neatly. Polizzotti’s translation is only so-so: it keeps things moving well but contains some oddities, such as multiple references to “neon” rather than “fluorescent” lights and repeated use of the obsolete term “pedal pushers” to refer to Capri pants; and there are some odd word choices, such as a statement that bullets were “recuperated” after victims were shot (rather than “recovered” or “removed”). Also, a few passages in Syndrome E that are not up to the narrative level of the rest of it appear to originate with Thilliez himself, such as some condescending remarks about Egyptians and their predilections. But if Syndrome E has a number of flaws, it has many more strengths, if by “strengths” one means story elements that are significantly more plausible and thus significantly more frightening than those in many other contemporary thrillers – in whatever language they are written.

     Franck and Lucie work together again in Bred to Kill, which has considerable similarities to Syndrome E despite significant differences in plot specifics. Here the science comes from the fields of paleontology and genetics, the travel takes readers from Paris to the Alps to the Amazon jungle, and the mystery spans not decades but thousands of years, all the way back to the days of Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. Here Thilliez interweaves speculation about the reasons for the survival of left-handedness in a right-handed world with a denouement that depends heavily on scientific explanations – indeed, there is a touch too much science near the book’s end, which some readers may find distracts them from Thilliez’ otherwise well-done focus on Franck and Lucie as evolving characters. Also here as in the previous novel, the book starts rather slowly, but the pace soon picks up and even becomes frenetic at times. And here as well as in Syndrome E, there is some awkwardness in the translation, or even out-and-out errors, as in having a scientist use “moths” and “butterflies” as synonyms.

     All these matters, good and bad, are parts of what will quickly become, for readers, a recognizable Thilliez (or at least Thilliez-in-English) style – all at the service of another story that begins with a gruesome death that is not at all what it seems to be. This one is the killing of a graduate student named Eva Louts at a primate research center – clearly a tragic animal attack and no more, except that the chimpanzee that supposedly killed Louts knows sign language and uses it to give her own version of the story – one that checks out. This is quite a twist, and like so much in Thilliez’ books, it is one that at once seems bizarre and outlandish – yet lies clearly within the realm of possibility. It is Franck who investigates what he realizes is murder, reluctantly bringing in Lucie – now bereaved and even more deeply damaged than before – for assistance. It is Lucie who finds, in a glacier in the Alps, evidence of a long-long-ago crime – and proof that someone else has gotten to that evidence first. All this is tied together in some entirely logical ways (Louts was visiting left-handed prisoners who had been convicted of horrible crimes) and in some that stretch the bounds of coincidence but nevertheless fit the plot and characterizations very well (one of those prisoners was the man responsible for the death of Lucie’s daughter). Thilliez is scrupulously fair to readers here, more so here than in Syndrome E, whose title is never explained: in Bred to Kill, the original French title, coupled with the revelation of the full name of the killer of Lucie’s child, will immediately ring alarm bells in anyone with a modicum of familiarity with genetics and DNA – although it takes Lucie and Sharko longer to figure things out.

     Bred to Kill will not provide readers with much respect for human nature, either in the present or in the dim past, and will surely leave some wondering whether brutality and extreme violence are deeply embedded in the human genetic code – a question that in fact has been raised recently by real-world scientists studying chimpanzees and finding that aggressive violence appears to be innate among chimps and not caused by their interactions with humans. That troubling determination, the result of a 54-year study, occurred only in 2014, long after Born to Kill was published in France in 2011. But the recent discovery only makes the fictional search and findings of Franck and Lucie all the more chilling and all the more resonant with real-world events – which is very far from a comforting thought. Indeed, there is precious little that is comforting in these very dark novels (whose lack of more than the slightest touch of levity may cause some readers to find them somewhat difficult to get through). Everyday life can be scary on its own. Just beyond its bounds, in Thilliez’ fiction and perhaps in fact in the very near future, matters may be considerably more terrifying.

(+++) LEADERSHIP IN COLLISION


Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged. By William C. Davis. Da Capo. $32.50.

     Exhaustively researched and frequently exhausting to read, this highly scholarly study of two of the Civil War’s most-iconic figures is intended as joint biography and joint reassessment – to the betterment of Ulysses S. Grant and the diminution of Robert E. Lee. William C. Davis, who has written or edited more than 50 books about the Civil War and Southern history, argues here at very considerable length that Grant has been victimized, and Lee exalted, by wartime and post-Civil-War mythmaking that ignores the very real accomplishments and shortcomings of both men.

     Some of this is no doubt true, but non-historians and readers not enamored of the minutiae of the Civil War will find Davis’ handling of the material tough going. For example, the first 13 pages of the book, which detail what is known of Lee’s childhood, already contain 97 footnotes. And while there are occasional passing references to “the more things change, the more they remain the same” – such as Lee’s feeling that in 1840, “congress seemed to do little but pass appropriations for their own salaries” – the book is by and large about a long-ago time whose considerable differences from today are emphasized again and again. This presents attractive reading for the historically inclined, but creates something of a “so what?” atmosphere for readers not already fascinated by Grant, Lee and the Civil War.

     In truth, there is much fascination in the parallels and differences between these two generals, who met only four times but whose momentous decisions led to more deaths than in any other U.S. war – and whose eventual rapprochement helped set the stage for Reconstruction and what would come afterwards. Indeed, their influence extended beyond U.S. borders: Grant, for example, visited Japan in 1879 after returning to private life, acted as negotiator to keep peace between Japan and China, and was permanently honored through erection in 1929 of a monument in Tokyo’s Ueno Park that remained intact even during World War II.

     But the primary importance of Grant and Lee lies in their handling of the Civil War and their conduct in the postwar world. Their personalities, Davis argued, were largely formed or at least annealed by the war, and their later influence – beyond the mythmaking affecting both men – was determined by it. Grant’s misadventures in business before the war are well-known and have been cited as blots on his character, sometimes coupled with comments on his heavy drinking to indicate that he was at best an average leader whose war victories came from overwhelming force rather than tactical ability. Davis debunks this attitude rather effectively and with considerable attention to detail, arguing that Grant’s business problems were more the result of bad luck than lack of talent, that his supposed frequent drunkenness was innuendo started and fueled by rivals, and that his tactical skills were very considerable. Lee is often deemed a master tactician defeated not by those of higher skill but by the power of the industrialization of the North and the sheer number of soldiers thrown at his smaller and often poorly equipped forces. Davis does not accept this, attributing Lee’s losses and eventual defeat to a combination of his personal pessimism, his unwillingness to confront problems head-on, his reluctance to delegate, and his tendency toward over-complex planning.

     In general, Davis’ boosting of Grant comes across more effectively than his comparative denigration of Lee. Grant’s presidency, for example, was demonstrably more successful in hindsight than it appeared to be at the time, and the intractable corruption that dogged his administration was quite clearly vested in his subordinates rather than in Grant himself (although it was, after all, Grant who appointed them: he had a lifelong habit of poor choice of subordinates). And Grant became an excellent ambassador without portfolio for the United States after leaving the presidency, becoming to some degree – like Jimmy Carter in our own time – a better ex-president than president. Lee, for his part, counseled and practiced acceptance of the failure of the Confederacy and the need to get on with life, even reluctantly – a kind of fatalism that Davis seems to consider a character flaw, but one that makes good sense not only in light of the personality of Lee (whose noblesse oblige was a positive quality, although Davis regards it negatively) but also because of the depredations that the Civil War visited upon the South and not on the North.

     What Davis never satisfactorily explains is how and why the various rumors about Grant and Lee were able to take hold, grow and be sustained for generations, even into the modern world. It makes sense that Grant’s rivals would wish to demean him and that Lee’s supporters wanted to exalt him and the cause for which he fought. It is hard to understand, though, why politicized attacks on Grant have stuck so firmly to him for so many years, and why the overstated case for Lee’s nobility of purpose and mind has remained front-and-center for just as long. Is this because of some sort of residual Northern guilt about the Civil War and/or some sort of fondness for lost causes and the rights of the underdog who fights insurmountable odds? Perhaps; or perhaps there is something in the public and private personalities of Grant and Lee that resulted in their remaking by others taking hold in the public mind and overbalancing their actual accomplishments and failures. All this is beyond the scope of Crucible of Command and not apparently of any particular interest or concern to Davis – which is too bad, because a focus on the persistence of innuendo and unearned praise would have established a connection between the book and modern readers who are not steeped in Civil War history or particularly conversant with the biographies of Grant and Lee. What Davis does offer here is 500 pages of text and another 130 of notes, bibliography and index aimed squarely at those for whom the great figures of the Civil War are already unendingly fascinating and bid fair to remain so.

(++++) WHEN THE VIOLIN SOARS


Schubert: Sonatas for Violin and Piano in D, D. 384; A minor, D. 385; and G minor, D. 408. Tomas Cotik, violin; Tao Lin, piano. Centaur. $16.99.

Bach: Violin Sonata No. 3, BWV 1005; Telemann: Fantasias for Solo Violin in B-flat, B minor and D; Schubert: Ländler, D. 370, 374, 355 and 640; Piazzolla: Tango Études Nos. 1-6. Tomas Cotik, violin. Centaur. $16.99.

     Insightful and captivating, the performances of three Schubert sonatas by Tomas Cotik and Tao Lin give the lie to the notion that Schubert was never as fully involved in his works for violin as in, say, his songs and symphonies. True, some performances make the violin works seem rather superficial, their performance difficulties relatively arbitrary, their undoubted tunefulness less at the service of pervasive lyricism than in other Schubert pieces. What Cotik and Lin do so well on a new Centaur CD is to show that these impressions are in fact performance-related rather than inherent in the music. These three posthumously published sonatas – for whose recording Cotik is producer as well as performer – sing beautifully here. Written in 1816, when Schubert was just 19 years old, they were long regarded as sonatinas, having been so labeled when Anton Diabelli’s firm published them in 1836; and they do seem to have been aimed at amateur players, while the later Rondo brillant in B minor, D. 895, and the imposing Fantasy in C, D. 934, are virtuoso pieces of a decidedly higher and more-challenging caliber. But what Cotik and Lin show is that even these comparatively straightforward, unproblematic pieces sound wonderful in the right hands and with the right sensitivity to period performance style – which is here in abundance. These three sonatas date to the same time as Symphony No. 4, which Schubert called “Tragic” (although “Pathetic,” in the sense of pathos, would probably be a more-apt title). That minor-key work clearly shows the influence of Beethoven, which is quite apparent in Schubert’s symphonies and might have been expected in his violin-and-piano music as well – indeed, nine of Beethoven’s 10 violin sonatas were published by 1805, and the last one appeared in 1816, when Schubert wrote these three sonatas. Yet these works, especially the artless-sounding D. 384 in D, reach back past Beethoven to Mozart, with the violin largely subordinated to the piano. The sonatas thus come across as lesser Schubert – but as Cotik and Lin show, that by no means justifies their relative neglect by performers and audiences alike. The performers’ straightforward, light handling of D. 384 gives way in the two longer and altogether stronger minor-key sonatas to readings of greater depth and intensity, befitting pieces that sound more inspired and are structurally stronger and more interesting (especially the A minor work, D. 385). Cotik and Lin have clearly studied the performance practices of Schubert’s time carefully (tempos, vibrato, expression marks, piano pedal use, accentuation, and a host of others); but rather than turn their performances into mannered or straitlaced readings, those studies seem to have inspired both violinist and pianist to genuinely involving encounters with this unfairly neglected music. The result is exhilarating music-making, with all the accoutrements of encountering previously unknown works and the rather startling realization that these sonatas are not at all unknown – they are just not known to be as good, as effective and as musically and emotionally satisfying as they are here.

     Cotik alone, on another Centaur disc for which the violinist also is producer as well as performer, is at least as impressive as Cotik with Lin. The solo program he offers is wide-ranging and not entirely connected: the works showcase different eras, different performance styles and requirements, and different forms and levels of emotional impact. But if this renders the CD somewhat uncomfortable to hear straight through, it encourages listeners to hear the disc’s different elements at different times. And all those elements are rewarding, albeit in distinct ways. The primary focus of the CD is the Baroque, and Cotik does a remarkable job of presenting and balancing the multiple lines of Bach’s sonata BWV 1005 while also making three Telemann fantasias for solo violin sing. Cotik’s decision to use a modern violin with a Baroque bow is an arguable one, and not all listeners will accept his arguments for doing so, but in terms of how the Bach and Telemann works sound, this choice makes a great deal of aural sense – and is intriguing as well. None of these pieces has ever sounded quite like this before. Cotik does not hesitate to take faster Telemann movements very quickly indeed, with the result that the contrasting slow movements seem broader and more expansive than they otherwise would. In the Bach, the second-movement fugue is particularly impressive: it is Bach’s longest for any instrument, and its polyphonic passage with harmonic rhythm twice as fast as in the rest of the fugue is complex in the extreme and very difficult to bring off successfully.  Cotik handles it beautifully, with tremendous clarity of line and evenness of tone. His playing is equally fine in the other three movements: the opening movement’s surprising dissonances make perfect sense here, the third movement’s pastoral simplicity shines forth after the fugue’s tremendous complexity, and the virtuoso finale whirls to a wonderful conclusion. The biggest problem here is that this sonata is taken so far out of context: it is the fifth part of a six-part work, the Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1001-1006, and was never intended as a standalone piece. Perhaps Cotik will record all these sonatas and partitas in the future – a possibility worth serious consideration. The Telemann fantasias, as pleasant as they are, are considerably lighter fare than the Bach. Lighter too are the remaining, non-Baroque offerings on this disc. Cotik says the four sets of Schubert Ländler he plays here have never been recorded before – and given the amount of dance music flitting about in Schubert’s time, that may well be the case. These are very brief pieces indeed: there are nine in D. 370, 11 in D. 374, eight in D. 355 and two in D. 640, a total of 30 dances in 21 minutes. The rhythmic and harmonic connections between these pieces and those of Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss Sr. are clear, and the works themselves are straightforward and pleasant – trifles, yes, but delicious ones.

     Yet the Schubert dances are not the “encore” items on this disc. That role is filled by the six Tango Études by Ástor Piazzolla, the Argentine composer and bandoneon player who almost single-handedly brought the tango out of the dance hall and into the concert hall. Cotik himself is Argentine, but it would be simplistic and rather prejudicial to say that he has Piazzolla’s music in his blood – better to note simply that he plays these works highly idiomatically, with understanding that approaches the intuitive. Existing in multiple versions and heard as often on flute as on violin, these pieces explore elements of the tango in considerable detail, requiring not only outright virtuosity and attention to rhythmic nuance but also considerable musicality and a willingness to see the tango as being every bit as legitimate a classical-music dance form as the minuet, gigue or sarabande. What Cotik does so well here is to avoid “playing down” to the music – the performance equivalent of talking down to someone in a discussion or debate. Cotik respects the music. He is quite comfortable with some of the tango’s cruder elements, which Piazzolla incorporated (often, admittedly, in a somewhat smoothed-out form) instead of trying to gloss them over. The “study” elements of these works – parts of which are quite difficult to play – are apparent in Cotik’s readings, but there is nothing academic about the overall effect of this rendition. Indeed, Cotik shows, as Piazzolla intended to show, that the tango is just as valid a canvas for technical study and attractive music-making as are other dances. Listeners may wish to listen to this CD as four “mini-concerts” – Bach, Telemann, Schubert and Piazzolla – rather than as a continuous single recital: a straight-through hearing is emotionally and aurally rather exhausting because of the sheer volume of music here (80 minutes), the very considerable variety of the material, and the multiple fascinations brought forth by Cotik’s interpretations and technical skill.

(+++) FOR FANS OF THE SOLOISTS


Bloch: Schelomo;  Four Jewish Poems; Nico Muhly: Cello Concerto. Zuill Bailey, cello; Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Anderson & Roe Piano Duo: The Art of Bach. Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, pianists. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

     Sometimes excellent playing is enough. Listeners enamored of the artists on two new Steinway & Sons releases will have many chances to hear the poise, elegance and virtuosic skill of the performers, and for them, that will be reason enough to own the CDs. Those less familiar with the performers will find the discs less intriguing, though, because the fine music-making is not always in the service of especially interesting musical materials. Thus, the featured work on a new disc focusing on cellist Zuill Bailey is the Cello Concerto by Nico Muhly (born 1981), and Bailey certainly brings all his considerable skill and expressiveness to this world première recording of the music. The music, however, does not fully repay Bailey’s involvement. Muhly knows the tricks of the compositional trade, but that is just how they tend to come across – as tricks, for instance when, in the first movement, the cello is set against muted trumpet for no discernible reason, and when, in the second movement, the harp becomes a kind of solo competitor for the cello. Like many other contemporary composers, Muhly is strongly influenced by non-classical musical forms, notably pop and rock, in which he also works; and this concerto wears those influences clearly. But Muhly does not seem entirely sure what to do with those influences within a classical form. The final movement shows this particularly clearly: after setting up the orchestra and cello in opposition – the cello with a sustained soft note against a busily bouncy ensemble – he has the orchestra accept the cello’s offer of something approaching peace or resignation, but then the music simply ends inconclusively. No matter how well Bailey plays here, and that is very well indeed, he cannot make the music mean more than it does, and that is not very much. And although the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Jun Märkl does a good enough job with this work, it does not do much more than that: the players seem to lack conviction, as indeed does the composer. The remaining pieces on this CD are better and fare better, although the orchestra never really matches the quality of the soloist. Bloch’s Jewish-focused works have considerable resonance for those of any religion or no religion. Completed in 1916 and first performed in 1917, Schelomo, which the composer called a “Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra,” was the last work in Bloch’s “Jewish Cycle,” and Three Jewish Poems (1913) was the first. In Schelomo, the solo cello represents King Solomon, with the orchestra standing sometimes for his world and sometimes for his inner thoughts. A piece of textural complexity and variability, weaving multiple themes into a convincing musical narrative based on the king’s eventual conclusion that “all is vanity,” Schelomo has great sweep and beauty – and requires a kind of brooding quality in the cello that Bailey finds there and uses well. Three Jewish Poems is less popular than Schelomo and less overtly Jewish in its thematic material, but the three-movement work springs from the same philosophical impulse. Some themes of this earlier work reappear in Schelomo, but Three Jewish Poems stands perfectly well on its own. The opening Danse has a mystical feeling, the second-movement Rite mixes solemnity with emotional expression, and the concluding Cortège funèbre carries forth the second movement’s emotions until grief eventually overcomes any sense of stability through ritual – although at the very end of the work, there is a sense of acceptance, if not quite serenity. Bailey moves through the elements of Three Jewish Poems feelingly, with the orchestra supporting him adequately if not with the same level of involvement. Taken as a whole, this CD is all about Bailey, both in the greater works by Bloch and in the lesser one by Muhly.

     All the Bach music on a new CD featuring duo-pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe is wonderful, but because of the way the disc is set up and the way the performances are managed, this too is a recording primarily for fans of the performers rather than for Bach lovers. The basic issue is whether or not it works to play Bach in a highly emotional way on modern pianos. This may be an unresolvable philosophical argument between entrenched positions, but it is one that matters more to this CD than to many others involving Bach on the piano, because Anderson and Roe so clearly want the modern piano’s expressive and emotive abilities to be in the forefront of listeners’ minds. The result is indeed an emotionally involving experience, but it is not an emotionally involving Bach experience – even though Bach provides the basic sonic canvas on which the performers paint their evocative readings. Anderson and Roe themselves made two of the arrangements here: Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen from the cantata BWV 127, in which they are joined by violinist Augustin Hadelich for a particularly warm performance; and a suite from the St. Matthew Passion, which for all its cleverness is about as far from the effect of that grand work as it is possible to be. The two-piano version of the C major dual-harpsichord concerto BWV 1061 fares somewhat better, since the performers restrain their emotionalism to a degree. But their playing of Max Reger’s four-hand version of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is simply odd, especially in the improvised middle movement – which Anderson and Roe seem to regard, quixotically, as being somehow the most important part of the work. The reality is that enjoyment of this disc is tied completely to a listener’s interest in the players. Their warmth serves Mary Howe’s version of Sheep May Safely Graze from the cantata BWV 208 well, but their handling of Contrapunctus IX, XIIIA and XIIIB from The Art of Fugue is much less appealing, since they actually play down the contrapuntal elements that are crucial to the music’s structure. The two remaining works on the disc are short ones: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106, and 5 Canons on the Goldberg Ground. Both in these pieces and in the more-extended ones, Anderson and Roe are at pains to make the music emotionally trenchant – meditative here, piquant there, flighty in one place, intricate in another. Bach’s music can shine through this sort of treatment, just as it can emerge with beauty and subtlety no matter on what instrument or instruments it may be played. But there is a point at which it ceases to be “Bachian” and becomes more a reflection of the players than an interpretation of (or even a tribute to) the composer. That is the point at which this Anderson and Roe disc lies. It is by no means “bad” in any meaningful way, and the playing itself is sure-handed throughout and often quite enjoyable. But the relentless focus on the performers rather than on what they are playing turns this into a specialty “fan” item rather than a recording to be considered for the sake of the music on it.