Archive for December, 2011

Favourites of 2011: Film

December 30, 2011

I’d like to start by praising two filmmakers whose work I discovered this year: Terrence Malick and Whit Stillman.

I had actually seen one of Malick’s films before: The Thin Red Line (1998). I remember that at the time it made a strong impression on me, and certain aspects of it have stayed with me: that a war film should be presided over by a contemplative spirit was unusual, to say the least. But I am an obtuse man, and it never occurred to me to follow up by watching Malick’s other films, of which there were (at that time) three: Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), and The New World (2005). What prompted me, this year, to go back and watch all of these films was the release of his most recent, The Tree of Life (about which, more below). I would now say, first, that Malick is one of the most intriguing and impressive filmmakers of whom I am aware, and, second, that he is getting better. There are some fascinating formal things going on in his films: spare dialogue, editing that violates the usual syntax of continuity and perspective, extensive use of voiceover, occasional bursts of surrealism; and all is woven together by a gentle spirit who gives the viewer time and space to consider, carefully, what is being set before his eyes. Of all his work, it was The New World that most affected me. It is a profoundly beautiful picture, both visually and spiritually, a meditation on beauty and love and longing filtered through the tale of Pocahontas. Highly recommended — and the same goes for all of his films.

It was a priest at our parish who introduced me to Whit Stillman’s films over dinner one evening. To my knowledge, I had never heard of him before, nor of any of his films, of which there were (at that time) three: Metropolitan (1989), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998). (In 2011 was added Damsels in Distress, which has not yet seen wide release and which I have not seen.) All three of Stillman’s films have a similar aesthetic and common themes, and they could be seen, I think, as a kind of unofficial trilogy. What we get from Stillman — who, like Malick, both writes and directs his films — is a gentle but cunning examination of the social, moral, and intellectual lives of upper middle-class twentysomethings — what a character in Metropolitan calls “the UHB”, “the urban haute-bourgeoisie”. Naturally, these young men and women are, mostly, unreflectively liberal in their views, and I believe the films can be seen as deeply understated satires of the liberal ethos, the sexual revolution, and so on. But I stress that they are very far from being polemical. On the contrary, they are funny, intelligent, winsome, and touching. As my priest put it, Stillman is arguably something like a conservative Woody Allen. He gives us comedies of manners, with people talking, and what they say is not only interesting in its own right, but it tells us a great deal about them, for better and for worse. His films are wonderful.

Alright then, on with the show. In what follows I restrict my comments to films that were released in 2011, although, because I do not get to the cinema very often, I include films issued on DVD this year as well. It is perhaps worth noting up front that I did not see any of the most popular films of the year — nor, to be honest, do I intend to see any of them.

My favourite film of the year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Not only was it the most thought provoking and moving film that I saw in 2011, it was also the most gloriously cinematic experience that I have had in years. It is almost absurdly ambitious, and whether it finally ‘works’ is a question about which I remain undecided, but I certainly admire its audacity. It tells the story of a middle-class Texan family in the 1950s, setting their story against a (literal) cosmic backdrop. There is so much that could be said about this film that I hardly know where to begin. It probes the texture of everyday life for those cracks where glory, beauty, and transcendence can break in. It asks hard questions about the meaningfulness of our lives, about why we suffer, and about how we ought to live. It wonders about God and our relationship to Him, and about sin, and death. It vividly evokes the experience of boyhood, that experience which is, as Chesterton said, like having a hundred windows open on all sides of the head. It is visually stunning. Its music is gorgeous. I have a prejudice against Brad Pitt, but his performance here, as the father, is very good; Jessica Chastain is unforgettable as the mother: her beautiful spirit, exemplifying “the way of grace”, hovers over the film like a benediction.

The rest of the films I’ll discuss in no particular order.

The brilliantly-titled Animal Kingdom (2010) is an engrossing crime drama from Australia that was issued on DVD this year. I don’t think it had a very wide theatrical release, though it did get an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver in the Best Actress category. (Alas, she did not win.) It tells the story of a young man, orphaned, who goes to live with his relatives. They make their living in the drug trade. Naturally, he tries to stay at arm’s length, but, naturally as well, this is not as easy as it might sound. The film plays on shifting allegiances, uncertainties, and betrayals, and it generates a good deal of tension. Structurally, it is very satisfying. The acting is excellent. A young actor named James Frecheville plays the central character, and his performance is a model of restraint: he very carefully treads the fine line between being understated and being comotose, but he gets the balance just right. Watch him carefully. It’s a very good film.

Robert Duvall’s Get Low is a quiet picture but it packs a wallop. A man who has lived as a hermit for forty years decides to hold his own funeral — while he is still alive — and invites people from the surrounding area to come and tell stories about him. Meanwhile he has a story that he wants to tell. What I most admired and appreciated about the film was its seriousness about the moral life; almost the whole drama of the film plays out in the souls of the characters as they wrestle with remorse, repentence, and forgiveness. It is also, I must add, quite funny at times, and with Duvall in the lead role and the likes of Bill Murray in the supporting cast, the acting is as good as it gets. It’s a beautiful film to look at too.

I have known the rough facts of the true story behind Of Gods and Men for several years; John Kiser wrote a good book about it. In the mid-1990s, seven Cistercian monks living in the Algerian countryside were captured and killed by Islamic militants during a period of particularly intense internal violence in that country. They had opportunity to leave but chose to stay. This film is wonderful in the way it explores the reasons why they did so. We get to know each of the seven men, and something of their various hopes and fears. Christians will appreciate the theological seriousness of the film, but I think anyone would find the story compelling. Personally, I believe that the lives and deaths of these men were important, and Of Gods and Men does a good service in helping us to remember them.

But, you may wonder, did I have any fun at the movies this year? I did. For instance: I saw two pretty good science-fiction films in Source Code and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The former was admirable for the fairly careful way it handled its complicated multi-timeline story, and the second, though not a great movie by any means, dazzled me with the astounding quality of its motion-capture-based visual effects. Through long sections of the film I just sat, gaping, hardly believing what I was seeing with my own two eyeballs. I know, I know: visual effects are just tricks and cannot substitute for story, characters, etc. I know. But maybe this movie is an exception.

I’ll say little about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which was this year’s big disappointment for me. I love the book, and had high hopes for the film, all of which were dashed into little pieces, swept into a little pile, and thrown overboard.


I will close with a brief appreciation of two internet-based film reviewers whose work I particularly enjoyed this year. Steven Graydanus runs a one-man show at Decent Films. He reviews a lot of family-oriented films (which I am beginning to appreciate more than I once did), but his scope is quite broad. His special angle is that he brings a Catholic perspective to his reviews. His writing is consistently smart, and his critical judgements are, I find, quite trustworthy.

He also introduced me to the second reviewer, Tim Brayton, who runs another one-man show at Antagony and Ecstasy. I don’t know anything about him other than that he loves films, has seen pretty much everything, and apparently (judging from the sheer number of films he reviews and the amount he writes) has nothing to do but watch movies all day long and well into the night. I appreciate his reviews partly because he is tough to please, and also because he thinks about movies. It is also nice that his critical judgements are not always easy to anticipate: he finds grounds for praise or blame that I do not see from other reviewers. (Consider his remarkable take on the teen comedy Fired Up! — an extreme, but instructive, example of what I mean.) The only potential drawbacks to Tim’s site are that he has a too-dear affection for horror and his average review probably merits a PG-13 rating (for language).

Favourites of 2011: Classical Music

December 29, 2011

After I had finished putting together this list of favourites, I noticed that the majority were of music for voices, with a few solo recitals and chamber music recordings thrown in, but no orchestral music. That reflects my own interests, and so is quite fitting. I didn’t make any attempt to go back and come up with something more balanced across genres.

Taverner: Votive Antiphons and Ritual Music
Alamire; David Skinner (Obsidian)

John Taverner died in 1545, which means that he lived and worked during a tumultuous period of English history. The pieces on this recording date principally from the early part of his career, when the Catholic consensus had not yet been disrupted. Consequently the music is sumptuous, complex, and glorious in the finest high medieval manner. The programme includes two large-scale works, Ave Dei patris filia and Gaude plurimum, each lasting about fifteen minutes, plus a handful of other pieces, including the well-known (or, at least, fairly well-known) motets Audivi vocem and Dum transisset sabbatum.

The interest here is not so much in the repertoire — all of this music has been recorded before — as in the performances. This is simply one of the best sounding recordings of choral music that I have ever heard; it is magnificent. The ensemble Alamire is relatively young, although its members, and in particular its director David Skinner, are veterans of the early music scene. Their experience shows: the singing is superbly balanced, the rhythms supple, and the textures clear. I love it when I can hear down through the strata, from soprano down to bass, as I can here. The recording was made at Arundel Castle, which not only has a superb acoustic, but the conditions under which the recording was made were unusual. In a BBC interview that I heard a few months ago, David Skinner described how the ensemble stayed in the castle for an extended period, rehearsing the music together, living with it, even memorizing it, until they felt they could sing it with full attention to expression and ensemble, rather than to mere technical difficulties. This approach paid off abundantly, to my ears.

I am pleased to note, as well, that this disc is an early installment in a projected 30-volume ‘Library of English Church Music’ from Alamire. If they all sound as good as this, it will be a great achievement. [listen]

Weinberg: The Passenger
Michelle Breedt, Roberto Sacca, Elena Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski
Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Teodor Currentzis (NEOS, 2011)

This is the world premiere recording of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera Die Passagierin (The Passenger). Written in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, it had to wait until 2010, at the Bregenz Festival, for its first full performance, which was filmed for this DVD release. Weinberg himself died in 1996, never having seen it staged.

The opera is a Holocaust drama: some years after the end of the war, Lisa and her husband Walter are aboard an ocean liner crossing to America when Lisa encounters another passenger whom she believes to have been a prisoner at Auschwitz where she (Lisa) had been an SS guard. There is some uncertainty as to whether the passenger is or is not the former prisoner — her name was Martha, and Lisa had thought her dead — but in any case the encounter brings back a flood of anguished memories. The staging of the opera moves back and forth between the cruise ship and Auschwitz, the relationship between the two women becoming gradually clearer. Obviously particular sensitivities surround any art about the Holocaust, and Weinberg’s opera — based on a novel by Zofia Posmysz — is especially praiseworthy for its humane spirit. It treats its characters as real people, not as symbols, and there is a good deal of tenderness and understanding in it. It is definitely a drama, not a propaganda piece. This sobriety is all the more remarkable considering Weinberg’s own history: he was a Polish-born Jew whose family was killed at Auschwitz.

The music of The Passenger is very good. Some readers will know that Weinberg is a composer whose music, since I first discovered it a few years ago, has captured my heart and earned my admiration. His music is real music, all the way down, and the music of this opera is no exception. His vocal lines are singable — not always the case in twentieth-century opera — and the orchestral music is subtle and beautiful, even when it expresses (very aptly) violence and anguish. At a particularly dramatic point in the story he incorporates the music of Bach into the score, and the effect is electrifying. Weinberg was a friend to Shostakovich, who said, on one occasion, “I shall never tire of the opera The Passenger by M. Weinberg. I have heard it three times already [presumably at the piano] and have studied the score. Besides, I understood the beauty and enormity of this music better and better on each occasion. It is a perfect masterpiece.” Whether that judgment holds up or not is open to debate, but, speaking for myself, I can say that on first listen I liked The Passenger more than I like the operas of Shostakovich himself. In any case, thanks to the Bergenz Festival and the NEOS label, we now have the opportunity to hear the work for ourselves and make up our own minds.

MacMillan: Who Are These Angels?
Cappella Nova; Alan Tavener (Linn, 2011)

I count myself an admirer of James MacMillan’s music, particularly his music for choir, and I have collected a fair number of recordings. This is the best that I have yet heard. The music on this disc was mostly written between 2007 and 2010, and consists principally of a new set of ‘Strathclyde Motets’ (supplementing an earlier set recorded by the same ensemble) as well as MacMillan’s Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman, written for the papal visit to England last year. The motets are demanding, but breathtakingly beautiful, pieces; they will be too difficult for most choirs, and we are fortunate to have them sung as passionately and expertly as they are on this recording. The Mass, on the other hand, was written for liturgical use and would be within the grasp of many church choirs. This is, as far as I know, its first recording, and it would be good if it were to become popular. It is a fine setting (of the new translation). A little surprisingly, the Kyrie quotes the ‘Tristan chord’ from Wagner; MacMillan has given an interesting explanation for this in the CD’s accompanying notes. [listen]

A Worcester Ladymass
Trio Mediaeval (ECM New Series, 2011)

The Worcester Fragments are a set of surviving manuscripts from Worcester Cathedral, mostly dating from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and consisting principally of three-part sacred polyphony. They are fragmentary because the books in which they were originally written were ‘recycled’: taken apart, cut up, and reused as raw material for other books. In some cases the parchment was erased and overwritten, or glued into book-bindings. Though much of the music was thereby lost, this recycling operation turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for precisely because the music was thus ‘hidden away’ it evaded the general conflagration that destroyed so much of England’s sacred music in the aftermath of the Reformation. Only in the twentieth century did musicologists piece together the music from Worcester again.

Thank God for musicologists, because this music is gorgeous. It has probably never been sung, much less recorded, as well as it is here. The three women of Trio Mediaeval have made a name for themselves on account of the purity and blend of their sound, and they give this music their pristine, ethereal best. The disc’s programme is a quasi-liturgical Ladymass (specifically for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin); they have therefore supplemented the polyphony with appropriate plainchant, and, because neither a Credo nor a Benedicamus Domino are found among the Worcester Fragments, they commissioned Gavin Bryars to write new ones for them. He did a good job: no-one would mistake them for genuine medieval works — spicy harmonic splashes give their provenance away — but they are clearly aware of, and respectful of, the context in which they are placed.

ECM’s sound is, as usual, immaculate. The recording was made in the celebrated acoustic of Propstei St. Gerold, and it shows. My only complaint about this CD is that, as they are too often wont to do, ECM prints only the Latin texts in the accompanying booklet, as though these pieces are mere objets d’art acoustique rather than musical settings of religious texts that have, you know, meaning. That aside, this is a wonderful recording. [listen]

This was a Liszt anniversary year — his 200th birthday — and there were quite a few Liszt records issued in consequence. Of those I heard, three stood out. Nelson Freire’s programme of moody, ruminative pieces works very well, and the playing is distinguished. This record won accolades from critics, and justly so. Marc-Andre Hamelin offered a disc that, having the mighty Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H, the exquisite Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and the famous Sonata in B minor, fell just one Après une Lecture de Dante short of my ideal Liszt programme. As usual with this pianist, the playing is dazzling. But a late entry from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, called (rather pompously, in the manner typical of the major labels these days) The Liszt Project, was perhaps the most intriguing Liszt disc to appear this year. Over two CDs, Aimard interleaves Liszt’s music with pieces by later composers who were influenced by him. There are contributions from Wagner (writing for the piano!), Berg, Scriabin, Messiaen, and others. Sometimes the connections between the composers are not very evident, but it makes for fascinating listening nonetheless. [listen]

Chopin: Late Masterpieces
Stephen Hough (Hyperion, 2010)

There was a major Chopin anniversary in 2010, and there were quite a few recordings issued to mark the occasion. This was one of them, and I caught up with it in 2011. What a wonderful disc! Chopin is one of those composers who did not obviously evolve as he aged; he seems to have sprung from his mother’s womb with his compositional faculties fully mature. Nobody talks about “middle-period Chopin”. This is why Chopin recordings tend to focus, not on compositional period, but on genre: waltzes, nocturnes, mazurkas, ballades, and so on. That said, it is a fascinating idea to devote a recital, as Stephen Hough has, to his late works, regardless of genre. Thus we get some nocturnes, a barcarolle, a berceuse, a few mazurkas, and his Piano Sonata No.3. The music needs no superlatives from me. The playing is outstanding, as one would expect from this wonderful pianist, and the sound is above reproach. [listen]

Hamelin: Etudes
Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion, 2010)

Marc-Andre Hamelin carved out a niche for himself playing the fiercely difficult music of composer-pianists like Alkan, Godowsky, Medtner, and Scriabin. On this 2010 recording he shows that he is a composer-pianist himself; the entire disc is devoted to his own music for piano. Included are a set of twelve etudes in all the minor keys, a suite, and a set of variations written for his wife. I had heard several of the etudes before (he sometimes plays them in concert), but the rest of the music was new to me. It is quite good music, written with wit and feeling, and of course it is brilliantly played. But this disc is most remarkable simply for the way it crosses the artificial divide between composers and performers that has come to dominate classical music in the twentieth century. Bravo! [listen] [video]

Bach: Goldberg Variations
Catrin Finch (Deutsche Grammophon, 2009)

The Goldberg Variations are almost indestructible: they have been arranged for organ, string trio, string quartet, orchestra, carillon, jazz band, accordion, saxophone, handbells, guitar, choir, and more, and they always come out sounding pretty good. Catrin Finch plays them on the harp, and they sound really good. This disc took me a little by surprise, insofar as I liked it more than I thought I would. There is something so pleasant about the sound of a harp, and, being, like the harpsichord, a plucked instrument, it makes a lot of sense to play this music on one. Catrin Finch is not one of those ‘New Age’ harpists (harpies?) either, who soak the music in reverb and dreamy languor. She’s a real virtuoso who plays with fleet fingers and a solid understanding of the music. This disc is delightful. [listen] [video]

Weinberg: Sonatas for Solo Viola
Julia Rebekka Adler (NEOS, 2010)

Another Weinberg recording, and a good one. Julia Rebekka Adler gives world premiere recordings of Weinberg’s four Sonatas for Solo Viola, which are all late works (the earliest being Op.107). A composer has to think twice about writing such exposed music, music that leaves him nowhere to hide if he doesn’t have good ideas, especially since the imposing figure of Bach will be watching over his shoulder as he writes. I listened to these sonatas many times this year, and they are fascinating, engaging, and moving. They deserve to be better known. The two discs are filled out with an arrangement for viola and piano of Weinberg’s early Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and with a Sonata for Solo Viola by another Russian composer, Fyodor Druzhinin (1932-2007). [listen][video]

Hildegard von Bingen: Sponsa Regis
La Reverdie (Arcana, 2009)

La Reverdie is an Italian early music ensemble that has been around for a long time now. Their recordings, which tend to focus on less traveled byways of the high medieval musical landscape, do not always appeal to me, but this one certainly does. Dedicated to Hildegard von Bingen’s music written for the Blessed Virgin, this disc, to my great surprise, has displaced my long-standing favourite to assume top spot on my Hildegard hit parade. La Reverdie strikes a fine balance between the ethereal (where most recordings of this music lean) and the earthy, and the result is something quite special. This music was actually recorded back in 1999, but reissued in 2009. Pity I didn’t hear it earlier. (It is perhaps also worth noting the late-in-the-year news that Pope Benedict apparently intends to name Hildegard von Bingen a Doctor of the Church in 2012. I do not know enough about her to know what the grounds for such an honour will be, but I am certainly interested to find out.) [listen]

Brahms: Handel Variations
Murray Perahia (Sony, 2010)

Almost everything Murray Perahia touches turns to gold for me, and this wonderful disc of Brahms’ piano music is no exception. He plays the relatively early (Op.24) Variations on a theme of Handel, the mid-career (Op.79) Rhapsodies, and the celebrated late (Op.118, 119) pieces. It’s a programme that works very well, and the playing is richly endowed with that whatever-it-is that appeals so much to me in Perahia’s art. Superb. [listen]

Dvorak – String Quartets
Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon, 2010)

This disc, which includes Dvorak’s string quartets No.12 (“The American”) and No.13, won the Gramophone Record of the Year honours for 2010, which accolade prompted me to hear it. I do not know Dvorak’s quartets well, and was pleasantly surprised by these ones. The “American”, in particular, with its allusions to American music, is wonderful. The recording quality doesn’t strike me as particularly noteworthy, but it is clear enough, and the playing of this young quartet has been justly lauded. [listen]

Machaut: In Memoriam
Ensemble Musica Nova (Aeon, 2010)

I praised another recording by this ensemble a few years ago; this one is excellent as well. The focus here is on late fourteenth-century ars nova composers, including famous names like Guillaume de Machaut and Philippe de Vitry as well as more obscure figures such as Johannes de Porta and Francois Andrieu, of whom I had not heard before. The music is fantastic: intricate, subtle, beautiful, and wonderfully expressive. The principal reason to hear this CD, however, is for the performance of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. This is one of the great masterpieces of sacred music, and many, many recordings have been made, but I am ready — well, almost ready — to give the palm to this version. I maintain a strong affection for Ensemble Organum’s eccentric vision of the piece, but for a “straight” reading Ensemble Musica Nova is marvellous. There is a spaciousness about their performance that draws the listener in, and their singing is beautiful without being “pretty”, which suits this robust music very well. [listen]

Combattimenti! Music of Monteverdi and Marazzoli
Le Poème Harmonique (Alpha, 2011)

A bit of a curiosity here, perhaps, but a delightful one. Le Poème Harmonique is a wonderful French group that has made something of a specialty of producing fascinating programmes of little-known early music. This disc is more in the mainstream than is typical for them, consisting mostly of music by Monteverdi. Two madrigals from his Il Ottavo Libro of 1638 lead off the programme, and are followed by the famous Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a dramatic cantata on an episode from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata. But for me the chief pleasure on this recording, and undoubtedly the chief surprise, is a half-hour long dramatic piece by an obscure figure named Marco Marazzoli, sometime member of the papal choir in Rome and evidently a bit of a humorist. His La Fiera di Farfa is a dramatic piece, with sung and spoken parts, that is hard to describe. There is a hilarious section portraying a town fair, complete with cow and chicken noises, and the whole thing plays out like a deranged improvisation. It’s a real treat. Most impressive are the spontaneity and subtlety of the performances: if early music specialists were once a little stilted and four-square in their interpretations of unfamiliar music, the finest of the current performers seem completely comfortable with the idiom, and I can think of no better example of that facility that what one hears on this disc. [listen]

Favourites of 2011: Popular Music

December 28, 2011

At the start of 2011 there were two albums I was particularly anticipating: U2’s long-awaited Songs of Ascent, reportedly consisting of songs inspired by the Psalms, and the sophomore record from Mumford & Sons. As it happened, neither saw the light of day this year. There were some other nice surprises though — and a few mild disappointments.

Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest

My ‘album of the year’ for 2011 is this gorgeous country-folk record from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It had been about seven years since their previous record, the lack-lustre Soul Journey, and a full decade since the dazzling Time (The Revelator). The ‘harrow’ of the record’s title is a reference to what was happening in the interim: a general dissatisfaction with the material they were writing, and uncertainty about how to proceed. The waiting paid off: The Harrow and the Harvest is full of wonderful songs, heard at first as beguiling simplicity but slowly unfolding into something multi-faceted and absorbing. It might be the most languid folk album I’ve ever heard; the majority of the songs are in adagio or andante territory. This is just fine. It gives us space to relish the lovely harmonies and Rawlings’ amazing guitar work. Lyrically, too, this record is excellent. On previous outings (especially their debut, Revival) they sunk themselves so deeply into the tradition that it wasn’t clear whether the songs had been written in 1995 or a hundred years earlier, while on the aforementioned Time they tipped too far (in my opinion) toward the modern world, which sometimes made the old-timey music sound contrived. On this record, however, it seems to me that they have managed to strike a good balance between the two poles. The result is a fresh, intriguing, and very lovely set of songs. Highly recommended. [Listen to excerpts]

A few weeks ago Maclin Horton wrote a lengthy appreciation of this record. He also linked to a few good articles about the duo.

Ensemble Phoenix Munich: The Rose of Sharon

Several years ago I chose a record of traditional English folk song, by this ensemble, as one of my records of the year. This year they were back with The Rose of Sharon, a collection of traditional American music from the period between the War of Independence and the Civil War (inclusive). There is a wide variety of material here, ranging from marching songs to spirituals, Shaker hymns, and narrative ballads. Some of the songs I had heard before (such as William Billings’ fuging tunes), but others were new to me, including some real gems (like “The Death of General Wolfe”, a long ballad about the career of the great English General who conquered Quebec at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham). Even a song as hackneyed as Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” is here given a sensitive and fresh interpretation — quite a feat. The musicians on the record are excellent. They play period instruments and have been recorded in what sounds like a natural acoustic (as opposed to close-micing each instrument and mixing them in the studio). The singing is superb: modest, clear, humorous (when appropriate), with precise tuning and minimal vibrato. My only disappointment about the record is that Joel Frederiksen, the ensemble’s director, who is blessed with a rich and warm bass voice, sings on so few of the songs. I’d have liked to hear more of him. [Listen to excerpts]

Tom Waits: Bad As Me

Its name notwithstanding, Waits’ new record is very far from being bad. In fact, it’s pretty terrific, even if it falls short of his very best material. It feels like we’ve heard him doing this sort of thing before: the junkyard stomper, the sliced-jugular balladeer, and the chain-smoking bebopper are all here. A difference is that everything on this record is tight and concise: the songs deliver their punch and take their leave. Not that Waits has been particularly given to sprawl, but after a three-disc set of flotsam and jetsam, and the double-whammy of Alice and Blood Money it was arguably time for something a little more disciplined. On Bad As Me nothing, or almost nothing, outwears its welcome. To my ears the title track is one of the weaker in the batch, and the penultimate track, “Hell Broke Luce”, is too vicious and angry — it doesn’t fit with the rest of the record. But Waits makes amends with the final track, “New Year’s Eve”, which is easily among the best things I’ve heard from him in a long while; his drunken rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” is something of a dream come true. I keep hoping that Waits will someday train his enigmatic muse on the mythic and supernatural realms once again, as he did on the brilliant Bone Machine, but in the meantime Bad As Me is something not to be lightly passed over. [Listen to excerpts]


Joe Henry: Reverie

Every time a new Joe Henry record comes out, most of the music reviewers whom I most respect heap their choicest superlatives upon it. Each time, I dutifully buy it, and listen, and listen, and scratch my head, and listen, and shift my weight to the other foot, and furrow my brow, and — well, I just generally don’t get it. There is no doubt that Henry is a consummate artist, a superb musician, a thoughtful lyricist, and all the rest of it. He surrounds himself with top-notch players. He’s one of the best producers around, and his records sound fantastic. It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly what the problem is, but there is unquestionably a problem somewhere, for in the end his records tend to leave me cold. (An exception is 1993’s Kindness of the World, parts of which I really love.) It could be the music itself, which, though drawing on blues, country, and rock, is also tinged with jazz, which almost invariably curdles my blood. But I think the biggest problem is that, even after listening to his songs repeatedly, I cannot figure out what they are about. I just can’t. There is nothing in his writing that draws attention to its impressive impenetrability — he does not write like Dylan in the mid-1960s — but evidently he has mastered the art of writing in an idiom so subtle and elliptical that it evades intelligibility on a more or less permanent basis. All of which is to say that I am still listening to Reverie, still ruminating on it, and still withholding judgement. [Listen to excerpts]

Mild Disappointments

Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings

On paper, this seems like a great idea: put Buddy Miller together with a group of his guitar-god friends and have them play a set of country music standards. What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing, exactly. The songs are good; the playing is good. Perhaps I was hoping for something with a little more razzle-dazzle. Duelling banjos maybe. In the end it’s a decent record, but not one that particularly captured my heart. I’d have liked to hear Buddy singing on more of the songs. The final track, a Julie Miller original called “God’s Wing’ed Horse”, is excellent. [Listen to excerpts]

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

This one might be better filed in the “Undecided” category above, but I’m putting it here because this is how I feel about it recently. I praised Fleet Foxes’ debut record a couple of years ago for its refreshing blend of the Beach Boys, The Band, and Fairport Convention, and for the impressive maturity of the music. I was really looking forward to this, their sophomore record. I dunno. There is much that is impressive: lovely voices, long-breathed, serpentine melodies, poise, complexity. The sound is rich and layered. But somehow the music fails to involve me. I don’t really know what else to say about it. I wish I liked it more than I do. [Listen to excerpts]

Miranda Lambert: Four the Record

Five years ago Miranda Lambert put out a record called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She came across as a fire-spittin’, shotgun-totin’, sassy hot potato, ready to kick over some trash cans, knock some heads, and waltz off into the sunset. It was great. Then, a few years ago, came Revolution, which was sort of the same, but which leaned toward a commercial country radio sound — beefed up and glossy — and the extra amperage threatened to push her persona over the edge into caricature. Happily, Four the Record backs off of that tendency a little, even if it doesn’t quite all the way back to C Ex-G territory. She is riding the line between alt-country and Top 40 country, and doing a pretty good job of it. There are some weak songs in this batch, and while it is perhaps disingenuous of me to praise her for being bellicose and disorderly and then complain that her songs are unwholesome, I complain nonetheless: some of the material on Four the Record I cannot get through. But there are good songs as well, and when she’s good, she’s pretty dang good. [Listen to excerpts]

Guilty pleasure

Taylor Swift: Speak Now

Having said all of that, let me say this: I owe Ms. Swift a debt of thanks. Her record is so much fun — although it is a little frightening that someone with such unimpeachable teeny-bopper credentials goes around writing melodic hooks like she’s hunting Moby-Dick. (Get one stuck in your mind and you’re done for. You might as well just give up, grab that hair brush, and sing into it for all you’re worth until nightfall.) I don’t say this music isn’t bubble-gum, but may I please have another piece? [Listen to excerpts]

(One thing you’ll notice about Ms. Swift, if you spend any time poking around for live video, is that she often sings flat. The unusual acoustic perspective of this video maybe gives some clue as to why; I’d be out of tune too if I had to listen to all that. It’s nice that in this video, from the Letterman show, she sounds terrific.)

Favourites of 2011: Books

December 27, 2011

It is that time of year again. Today and for the rest of this week, I’ll be reflecting on the best of the books, music, and film that I read, heard, and saw in 2011. I make these lists for my own enjoyment and edification, but I post them in the hope that they will be a spur to conversation.

The topic for today is books. Only two books I read this year (Richard Panek’s The 4% Universe and Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People) were actually published this year, so I am admitting for consideration anything that happened across my path, regardless of when it was first published.

On the fiction side of things, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was fascinating. Its story, turning on themes of philosophy and art in a far distant future, won me over decisively [Book Note]. I also thought highly of Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, which explored the consequences of an unexpected (and unwanted) irruption of the transcendent into the routine of ordinary lives [Book Note]. And I re-read this year Victor Hugo’s great Les Miserables, finding it as good as ever it was — which was very good indeed.

Edward Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages was an absorbing scholarly study of medieval contributions to the sciences and the influence of the same on developments in early modern science. It cast new light on that important period of transition, and challenged the simple portrait of medieval science that is common in our culture [Book Note]. In The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch articulated a vision of the moral life greatly beholden to Plato but addressed to us and our contemporaries. The book is not without problems, but overall I found it a heartening and instructive read [Book Note]. Back in February I carried on a month-long blog-a-thon about Antarctica, and of the six or eight Antaractica-related books I read at that time, two stood out: Scott of the Antarctic consisted of Captain Scott’s heart-breaking journals which he kept during his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912-13, and Alfred Lansing’s Endurance was about Shackleton’s harrowing 1914-16 expedition. Both were excellent [Book Note, Book Note].

Since this last week of the year is a time for idleness, I have made a histogram showing the year of publication (or performance) for the books (or plays) I read this year.On the far left are the Greek tragedians, whom I have been slowly (and silently) working through. A few medieval books, then a smattering of Shakespeare at around 1600. A couple of nineteenth-century novels, and then a pile of recent books. This chart nicely illustrates just how provincial I really am.

Tomorrow I’ll write about music — and at considerably greater length.

Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas wishes to one and all. Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Great moments in opera: Hänsel und Gretel

December 20, 2011

My opera education continues with Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, which was first performed in 1893. I had heard this opera once before, on a famous 1953 recording, but otherwise I did not have much knowledge of it before sitting down with a recent DVD performance. The clips below are all from this same DVD.

The opera has a reputation as a Christmas favourite, and it is easy to see why. It has everything we expect from Christmas: drunkenness, child negligence, starvation, homelessness, nightmares, mass murder, and cannibalism. I know the story of Hansel and Gretel, of course, but even so I was surprised at how violent and gruesome the opera is. (I am even more surprised to hear, in interview segments accompanying the opera, that Humperdinck’s libretto plays down the dark elements of the Grimms brothers’ original. I may reconsider my plans to read those fairy tales to my kids.)

The real reason for its association with Christmas may be the sparkling orchestration, which brings to mind the glitter of tinsel and Christmas lights. It is one of the best sounding operas that I have heard in quite a while. (Consider the overture above as a sampler.) Perhaps part of its appeal is in the contrast between the sparkle in the music and the darkness of the story. I note with interest that the premiere performance was conducted by none other than Richard Strauss, and that Mahler gave the Hamburg premiere the following year. Humperdinck evidently had the respect of his time’s great orchestral masters.

The libretto of Hänsel und Gretel is unusual insofar as it is — almost? — entirely metrical, arranged into rhyming couplets. This in itself gives the music a lilting quality, like a nursery rhyme or a children’s song (and indeed many of the melodies sound as though they were lifted from or inspired by metrical folk songs). The story focuses on the two children: first at home, where they have nothing to eat; then in the forest, where they have encounters with various supernatural beings; and finally in the witch’s candy house, where through trickery they narrowly escape being turned into roasted kid.

The most popular piece in this opera is the Abendsegen, or Evening Prayer, sung by the two children as they find themselves in a dark forest at nightfall. The prayer asks that angels keep them safe through the night, and it has a hushed charm that is quite attractive. It is sung here by Angela Kirchschlager and Diana Damrau. This clip also shows the attending angels come in answer to their prayer.

The story ends, of course, with Hansel and Gretel turning the tables on the witch, popping her into the oven intended for them. This breaks her evil spells, and dozens of captured children pour out of the freezer and cupboards to sing a song of joyous triumph. Hansel and Gretel’s parents show up — sung in this production by Thomas Allen and Elizabeth Connell — and the opera comes to a close with the witch, now converted into gingerbread, being pulled from the oven and devoured by the happy children. Here we go:

Ruden: Paul Among the People

December 19, 2011

Paul Among the People
The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time
Sarah Ruden
(Image, 2011)
240 p.

There are people who find Paul disappointing or offensive. He says things that are not politically correct — about women, marriage, homosexuals, and slaves, for instance. It is not uncommon to hear the claim that he invented a version of Christianity that occluded the more attractive original. In such circles he is seen, at best, as an embarrassingly backward uncle who ought to be kept out of polite company, and, at worst, as a bigot who bequeathed us the besetting sins of Western culture.

The burden of Sarah Ruden’s little book is to challenge this view of Paul by providing some perspective on the man and his writings. She asks a simple but very interesting question: how would Paul and his message have been perceived by a contemporary Greek or Roman audience? She examines the testimony of Greco-Roman literature on the various controversial issues, and asks whether, in that light, Paul still seems unpalatable. She believes that he does not:

…the passages to which the modern world has the most resistance were all telling me the same thing: contemporary readers would likely not have seen Paul’s ‘authoritarian’ policies as anything but ways to connect with one another in conscientious tenderness.

Ruden is a classicist. She is a widely praised translator of Virgil, and has also published translations of Seutonius and Apeulius. Her sources for comparison with Paul include Aristophanes, Juvenal, Horace, and Ovid — the mainstream ancient tradition. Having said that, it should be acknowledged that she is not a New Testament scholar, and has no special expertise in Paul’s writings. (Neither, of course, do I.) She, wisely or not (I am not sure), does not try to mount a scholarly argument; her tone is casual and sometimes whimsical. She’s just a regular gal pointing some things out.

Her approach to Paul is interesting from an historical point of view because, of course, so many of Paul’s converts were Greek and Roman, and so Ruden gives us insight into why they might have found the Christian Gospel compelling. But it is also interesting from a modern point of view, for it serves (as we’ll see) as a corrective to one of the assumptions on which the reigning narrative of modernity rests — namely, the belief that the Greeks and Romans were ‘enlightened’ (by our standards) and that Christianity was merely an interruption between the eclipsed ancient world and its rebirth in the early modern period. Ruden argues, convincingly, that on moral issues at least we owe far more to Christianity than to the Greco-Roman culture it displaced.

A case in point is her account of the status of women in Greek and Roman culture. Paul has been criticized for saying that women ought to be quiet in church, or that they should cover their heads, or that they should be obedient to their husbands. It all sounds oppressive from our point of view. But Ruden argues that, in context, each tended to honour the dignity of women. Take the head covering, for instance: in Roman society, married women covered their heads in public. If a woman’s head was uncovered, it meant that she was either unmarried or a prostitute. Ruden cites literary evidence that Roman men found uncovered hair particularly erotic. By proposing, therefore, that all women cover their heads in church, Paul was killing several birds with one stone: in a gathering which likely included both married women and prostitutes (as the early Christian communities did) he was erasing the distinction between them, and he was also smothering a signal that might have been distracting to the men present. The overall effect was to make the Christians more a community of equals — which was certainly advantageous to women. Similar remarks apply to Paul’s treatment of homosexuality — a stomach-churning chapter on pederasty makes it clear that the ancient world was no gay paradise! — and of slavery.

Speaking of which, the chapter on slavery is perhaps the best in the book. The principal Pauline source on this subject is, naturally, the Letter to Philemon, in which Paul recommends to a Christian slave-owner that he take his runaway slave back into custody. By implication, he is recommending that the slave return to his master. Why did he not ask Philemon to free Onesimus? At the very least, this seems to have been a missed opportunity. Ruden describes the legal and cultural status of slaves in the Roman world, and argues that a grand gesture on Paul’s part would not have worked, even for Onesimus. There were simply too many obstacles. But Paul did not want to simply free a slave in a technical or legal sense; he wanted to turn the slave into a human being, and so he adopted a strategy that was ‘beyond ingenious’. He called Onesimus a son and a brother. In a Roman context, to describe a slave in these terms was somewhere between comical and revolutionary — and, though Paul has not often been noted for his comedy, Ruden suggests that this Letter may be a parody of a letter of recommendation. She draws out the complex of paradoxes and contradictions that the first readers of Paul’s letter must have found in it:

1. Onesimus, though a slave, is Paul’s acknowledged son.
2. Onesimus, though an adult, has just been born.
3. Paul, though a prisoner, has begotten a son.
4. Paul, though physically helpless, is full of joy and confidence.
5. Paul is ecstatic to have begotten a runaway slave.
6. It is a sacrifice to Paul to send Onesimus back: he selfishly wants the services of this runaway slave for himself; conversely, he gives away his beloved newborn son.
7. Paul has wanted Onesimus to remain with him in place of Philemon, as if a runaway slave could be as much use to him, and in the same capacities, as the slave’s master.

It goes on. The point is that, in Ruden’s view, the Letter to Philemon is anything but an endorsement of the slave-holding customs of Paul’s time. On the contrary, it was a bomb thrown into the bunker. It just had a long fuse.

All of which is quite interesting. Even acknowledging that Paul can never be understood apart from his Jewishness, to consider him from a Greco-Roman perspective is enlightening and often surprising. It sheds light on Paul as a missionary. But what is the upshot? Most of these issues on which Paul is ‘controversial’ are controversial for cultural and political reasons, not theological ones. It is natural to expect that Ruden’s arguments might, therefore, play into our current cultural and political arguments. From a broadly conservative point of view, Ruden’s book would seem to be welcome, for it seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of a canonical author, showing him to have been kinder and gentler than he has sometimes been portrayed. But the book also has its uses from a broadly liberal point of view, for even if Paul was not as enlightened as us (and who was?), he was evidently more enlightened than his pagan contemporaries. In other words, even if he could only do so much in his own time and place, contemporary liberalism carries on the work that he began. Far from being a monster, he becomes a mascot.

I am uncomfortable with both sides, principally because both bless and approve of Paul only insofar as he can be persuaded to agree with them. But Paul is a canonical author, and so should be, first and foremost, granted authority to shape us, not the other way around. Naturally there will be ways in which he rubs us the wrong way. When that happens, it is far from obvious that he should be the one to yield. Ruden may help us to understand Paul better than we did before, but when the result is to smooth off his rough edges and render him suitable for polite company, I am suspicious.

In the end, and despite my measured enjoyment of the book, I suspect that I am not in its target audience. As far as I can remember, I have never felt any particular animosity toward Paul (unless mild irritation with his literary style counts). Whether this makes me a plain dullard or a truly nasty piece of work is a judgment I leave to others.

Higgs boson in the news

December 13, 2011

There’s some excitement in the physics world today as CERN has made a tentative announcement about possible evidence for the Higgs boson. The Higgs is an elementary particle that was first proposed in the 1960s by a theorist, Peter Higgs, as a way of solving some problems in elementary particle theory. It was later incorporated, for the same reasons, into the Standard Model of particle physics, where it has remained ever since, although there has not been any direct evidence for its existence.

The announcement from CERN is that two of the experiments there, doing independent analyses, see possible evidence for the Higgs at a mass of about 125 GeV. (For comparison, the proton has a mass of about 1 GeV. The heaviest known elementary particle, the top quark, has a mass of about 172 GeV.) The statistical significance of the data, however, is not high enough to claim a discovery. It could just be a statistical fluctuation that will go away as more data are collected.

A friend who is privy to these things tells me that rumours have been swirling at CERN this fall that the Higgs was not showing up in the data. It is possible that today’s announcement is political, seizing on some tantalizing, but low significance, data in order to placate critics. Time will tell.

A generally good article from BBC News states:

Finding the Higgs would be one of the biggest scientific advances of the last 60 years.

I would argue it the other way: not finding the Higgs would be bigger news, because it would mean that the Standard Model is wrong. Finding just the Higgs predicted by the Standard Model, on the other hand, would be rather disappointing. For decades, most physicists have assumed that it, or something like it, must exist.

If CERN is indeed seeing the Higgs, then the mass estimate of about 125 GeV is potentially quite interesting. The Higgs mass is sensitive to quantum fluctuations which tend to lift it to higher — much higher — values. The most popular extension of the Standard Model, called supersymmetry, has the nice property of stabilizing the Higgs mass. However, a light Higgs such as the one hinted at in these data today actually does not need stabilization as much as a heavier Higgs would. These data, therefore, lessen the need for something like supersymmetry. A Higgs discovery, if it resulted in strong constraints on supersymmetric theories, would be a praiseworthy public service.

Incidentally, I notice that many news articles on this story are referring to the Higgs boson as “the god particle”. This name comes from a book by Leon Lederman, who actually wanted to call it “the goddamn particle”, but was prevented by his publishers. The name may be safely ignored.

Great moments in opera: Les Troyens

December 8, 2011

I was about halfway through Berlioz’s monstrous Les Troyens — that is, I had watched two full hours of it — when I began to worry: was it possible that the whole gargantuan spectacle could play out without a single ear-catching melody being heard? Perhaps I was just in the wrong frame of mind — although, to be fair, I did not seem to be. This opera is regarded as one of Berlioz’s masterpieces, and even as one of the most significant operas of the nineteenth century. Evidently I was not getting it.

It is certainly an ambitious work. For his story Berlioz turned to Virgil’s Aeneid. The opening acts concern the fall of Troy (from Aeneid, Book I), and we then follow Aeneas to Carthage and the court of Dido, where (as we know) she falls in love with him and kills herself when he leaves (Aeneid, Book IV). The libretto departs from Virgil’s model insofar as it introduces a major role for Cassandra, who foresees the fall of Troy and tries to warn the Trojans, to no avail. Les Troyens calls for a huge cast, and the two principal female roles, for Cassandra and Dido, are extremely demanding. Berlioz himself was never able to hear the entire work staged on account of its length, technical difficulty, and logistical challenges.

A good story is all too rare in opera, and Les Troyens certainly has one. I am struggling, therefore, to understand why I found it so tedious. It was not just the length — 4 hours — although that may have been part of it. More serious was this: most of the libretto, which Berlioz wrote himself, is exposition. Almost none of the action of the story takes place on stage. Instead we hear about events, and even about conversations, from on-stage soloists and choruses. This saps the drama. The music is also not very interesting, or at least was not to me. I’ll grant that it is stately and dignified, sometimes tragic, and (to say something positive) it avoids some of the excesses of nineteenth-century French opera, but it is also slow and strangely colourless. This is true even of the orchestral part. This is Berlioz! He is supposed to be one of the great wizards of orchestration. But Les Troyens did not impress me in that respect. (However much I may complain about Wagner, it is at least true that listening to his orchestra is almost always interesting.)

Yet, as it turned out, my patient waiting for a lovely melody was eventually rewarded. At the end of Act IV (of V), Dido and Aeneas sang a love duet, Nuit d’ivresse, that was everything I had been hoping for: lyrical, melodious, and entrancing. It is sung in this clip by Susan Graham and Gregory Kundehe, from a recent Parisian production:

That is lovely, and, in context, very nearly worth waiting for.

Be Thou my vision

December 7, 2011

“Daddy, sing me the one about the fight and the tower!” So says Daughter, who seems especially intrigued by military affairs. Consequently this hymn has been committed to memory: