More on Mantel’s malicious More

January 24, 2015

My central complaint about Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels was her “mean-spirited and calumnous” treatment of Thomas More, whom she portrayed as “a remorseless kill-joy and sadist.” (I am quoting myself.) At the time I recommended Peter Ackroyd’s biography of More for its more balanced appraisal.

Today I came across an even better, because more intimate, assessment of More’s character:

In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More. In society he is so polite, so sweet-mannered, that no one is of so melancholy a disposition as not to be cheered by him, and there is no misfortune that he does not alleviate. Since his boyhood he has so delighted in merriment, that it seems to be part of his nature…

In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent; if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter.

In other words, hardly the crabbed old vulture of Mantel’s imagination. These words come from the pen of Erasmus, the great humanist of the age and no sycophant. Read the whole thing at Supremacy and Survival.

From the same source I learn that there is a new television programme based on Mantel’s novels, which more than justifies a renewed critical look at her portrayal.

(Incidentally, to base a television programme on those books seems an odd choice considering that their greatest merits are distinctly literary: their tone, diction, and even grammar, none of which translate well to the screen.)


Varieties of wild mountain avalanche

January 21, 2015

Today I’d like to share a couple of curiosities that I have encountered during my pop music odyssey. I am currently working my way through the music of the early 1980s, which means that I am shuffling into the deck, for the first time, the music of Nick Cave. Tonight I began listening to his debut solo album, From Her to Eternity, the very first song of which is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche”.

This is interesting because although both Cohen and Cave are singing the same song, the songs are radically different. Each singer has stamped it with his own distinctive personality. Cave, in particular, has taken the song and made it totally his own. In my experience, this degree of assimilation of a cover song, in which a singer seems to inhabit and alter a song that we already thought we knew, is quite rare. And I like it.

Actually, to be strictly honest, I don’t like Cave’s version, just as I don’t like being threatened and frightened in a dark alley, and for much the same reasons. Cave scares me. But I admire what he’s done; I like that he is a force to be reckoned with.

Let’s hear the songs. Here is Cohen’s original:

And here is Cave’s version:

This is not the first time this phenomenon of the absorbed, pondered, and reborn cover song has impressed me during my odyssey. Back in the early 1970s I came across a Van Morrison song that I had not noted before, and I loved, loved, loved it. The song was “Purple Heather”, and it was a thing of beauty:

I heard the song numerous times before I realized that it was a song I already knew: the old folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme”, but so thoroughly and idiomatically reinterpreted so as to be almost unrecognizable. It’s a wonderful thing.

If you don’t know the original, here it is, sung by Emmylou Harris, Dick Gaughan, Rufus Wainwright, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. That’s a room full of talent if I’ve ever seen one.


Chesterton: The Flying Inn

January 18, 2015

The Flying Inn
G.K. Chesterton
(Dover, 2001) [1914]
320 p.

There are people who judge The Flying Inn to be one of Chesterton’s better works of fiction — and perhaps it is, though that would not be saying all that much. Is it a philosophical comedy? A farcical dystopian vision? A profound cultural critique? A mere excuse to string together drinking songs? It’s a little difficult to get a clear reading, because the dang thing won’t sit still. My view is that Chesterton was going for something like the good-natured adventuring of Pickwick, but this time through a landscape in which everyone but Pickwick and friends — sorry, Dalroy and friends — have forgotten what England is all about.

The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future, in which English society, and in particular the elite class, has fallen under the exotic sway of Islam. It’s simplified theology, the sumptuous aesthetic appeal of Arabic carpets and purfumes, and the ascetic appeal of teetotalism have endeared it to people who matter. The kinds of arguments on behalf of Islam that appeal to them are superbly half-witted (much more so than any such real-world arguments would be). Most significantly for the story, the English Parliament has passed laws shuttering all pubs that do not have a sign in front, and the signs have been confiscated — mostly. Captain Dalroy and his friends still have one, and the book is a record of their wild romps over rolling English roads with a sign, a barrel of rum, and an armful of cheese. They plant their sign in the unlikeliest of places, serve up warm cheer to the common folk who gather around them, and then abscond again before the authorities catch up with them.

The story is punctuated by spontaneous song-making on the part of the characters, and some of Chesterton’s better-known warm-hearted poetry comes from this book: “The Rolling English Road”, “The Logical Vegetarian”, “The Song against Songs”, “The Song of Right and Wrong”, and “Wine and Water”, among others. It’s not great poetry, but it is the sort of thing one would enjoy singing while drinking rum and running from the police (or so I imagine).

Considered as cultural criticism, The Flying Inn is vexing. The face of Islam presented in the book is a largely aesthetic one: only those aspects which appeal to the “progressives” have been adopted, and it seems to me that the real target of his satire is modern secularism. The character of the novel’s central villain, Lord Ivywood, bears this out; in his notes on the book, Dale Ahlquist summarizes Ivywood well:

Lord Ivywood is one of Chesterton’s best bad guys. He represents everything that is wrong with the world. He is not only the personification of Big Government and Big Business, he is the loss of Western religion, the unreflective acceptance of Eastern religion in the wake of that loss, and he is the mood of modernism in art, philosophy, and love: “I see the breaking of barriers,” he says. “Beyond that I see nothing.”

As such, it is not really clear what the quasi-Islamic background adds, unless it be simply its value as a foil. Maybe Chesterton needed something to oppose the traditionalism of his protagonists, and an unadulterated secularism was just too bland. Certainly the prospect of a marriage of progressivism and Islam has comedic value. Oh, did I mention that the book lies well out of the political correctness safety zone?

As a road novel, the book inherits the weaknesses inherent to its genre: a general shapelessness, haphazard action, and transient characters. I imagine Chesterton writing his episodes on napkins in pubs, puffing on a cigar and laughing to himself, and finally delivering the stack of napkins to his publisher. The book is witty, disorganized, genial, tedious, and sort of fun. I’m glad I read it, and please God I’ll not read it again.


Musical anniversaries in 2015

January 14, 2015

Every year I like to survey the major composer-related anniversaries that the upcoming year has in store. There’s a comprehensive list here. (Thanks once again, Osbert.)  Those I am likely to observe in one way or another are:

Birthdays

850 years

  • Philippe le Chancelier (c.1165-1236)

550 years

  • Richard Davy (1465-1507)
  • William Cornysh (c.1465-1523)

500 years

  • John Sheppard (1515-1558)
  • Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565)

350 years

  • Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) [17 March]

150 years

  • Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) [8 December]
  • Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) [10 August]
  • Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) [9 June]

100 years

  • David Diamond (1915-2005) [9 July]

In my books, the big birthday this year is Sibelius’ 150th; I’m planning a fairly extensive listening project to celebrate it. I have long wanted to be better acquainted with his symphonies, and this is a good chance. I include Jacquet de la Guerre because she is one of a very few female composers to have entered the ranks. Sheppard and Rore are polyphonic masters; I never need a good reason to listen to them, but I’ll take one anyway. The same should be said of the lesser-known English composers Davy and Cornysh, who belong to the deliberately obscured generation writing just prior to the English reformation. Philippe le Chancelier was a poet whose work influenced the Notre Dame school of polyphony; whether he was himself a composer is not clear, but it will be nice to remember his birthday anyway.

Memorials

800 years

  • Bertrand de Born (c.1140-c.1215)

700 years

  • Ramon Llull (1232-1315)

500 years

  • Antoine Brumel (1460-1515)

450 years

  • Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565) [September]

100 years

  • Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) [27 April]

I suppose the big memorial for this year is Scriabin’s. It will give me a chance to re-visit that big set of piano sonatas (with Marc-Andre Hamelin at the helm). Maybe, just maybe, I’ll even listen to the Poem of Ecstasy. Rore also has a memorial this year, so it will be doubly-difficult to overlook him. Ramon Llull was a polymath but not principally a composer; nonetheless, a contemporary source indicates that he “was given to composing worthless songs and poems”, so he makes the list. Bertrand de Born was one of the most eminent troubadours of his age; I certainly intend to spend some time with him and his music this year.

Happy listening!


Favourites of 2014: Film

January 12, 2015

This year I continued my efforts to acquaint myself with reputed cinematic masterpieces, giving relatively short shrift to recent films. I would like to share a few words about some of the films I encountered.

The best film I saw this year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). Since this was also the best film I saw last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, I will not dwell on the point. Something I noticed on this most recent viewing was that the mother (played so wonderfully by Jessica Chastain) was so very lonely. That her loneliness did not mar her inner beauty, but perhaps even softened her heart and made her more receptive to goodness, is a possibility that I think will enter into my meditations on this bountiful film when I next have the joy of seeing it again.

My runner-up film is another re-visit: P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). It is a film that I am careful about recommending — it really is saturated with obscenities of every variety, and I understand why some might very reasonably want nothing to do with it — but there is no denying that it is masterful film-making. It is sometimes said that one cannot understand grace and goodness without first understanding sin and wickedness, and if there were ever a film to illustrate the point it is Magnolia, a film in which sin abounds, but grace abounds all the more. I know that there are those who consider P.T. Anderson to be the greatest director currently working, and that his reputation has only increased on the strength of the films he has made since Magnolia, but for me those later films are too controlled, too precise, and, in a way, too cold; I like the risks he takes with Magnolia, I like the messiness of it, its raucous energy, and its sincerity of heart.

Moving on now to films I saw for the first time this year:

Ida
Ida

(Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)

Set in Poland about a decade after World War II, this quiet film follows a young woman, Ida, who, having been raised in a convent, is preparing to take her vows to religious life. For reasons that are not explained — maybe just as a courtesy, or maybe to test her vocation, or because she knows more than she lets on? — Ida’s Mother Superior sends her out of the convent to meet her only surviving relative, an aunt. The two seem to have little in common, but together they embark on a journey to find the graves of Ida’s parents, who had been killed in the war. In so doing, Ida is exposed for the first time to life outside the convent, and to the opportunities and temptations it presents. For a while the film seems like it might be pitching a simple tale of a naive girl who wises up and escapes from the narrow to the broad path, but it takes an unexpected turn that complicates that story considerably.

People who know more about film history than I do have compared Ida to Bresson’s work, but I can’t comment further on that. I can say that Ida is one of the most visually stunning films that I have seen in years; I paused it numerous times just to appreciate the loveliness of individual frames. The director, Paweł Pawlikowski, also made an unusual, but clearly deliberate, choice to frame his shots such that the action occupied only the lower part of the frame; there is a hovering emptiness — or perhaps a fullness — above. Apart from whatever thematic value this might have, it adds something distinctive to the film’s aesthetic qualities. It’s a very good film.

Beyond the HillsBeyond-the-Hills
(Cristian Mungiu, 2012)

Last year I praised Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in my end of year summation, and this year I had the opportunity to see this, his most recent film, which is almost as good.

The film takes place in a Romanian convent. A young novice’s friend comes to visit for an extended period, and the nuns begin to believe that she is possessed by a devil. For all of its formal and dramatic restraint, it is a harrowing film that explores the perils of a marriage of imprudence and authority in a small, tightly-knit community.

It would have been easy for Mungiu to play to the prejudices of his audience. Instead, he tacks against them, immersing us in the lives and world of these nuns so thoroughly that their motives and actions appear to us as they appeared to themselves: sensible and natural, given their understanding of the situation. Their sincerity and goodwill are never in doubt, even as their actions careen into recklessness. Indeed, Mungiu is so even-handed in his treatment that (with an important exception, described below) the film leaves open the possibility that the priest and nuns acted well, that the woman was in fact possessed — indeed, this might be the most fascinating thing about the film. I appreciated the unsensational and sympathetic portrayal of religious devotion in the central character, which served as an effective counterweight to the portrayal of tragically misguided zeal in the others.

As a bonus, Mungiu is teaching me to appreciate the art of direction. Each scene in this film is shot in a single take, and the compositions are superbly well considered: the placement of characters, the timings of their entrances and exits, the use of foreground and background, motion and stillness. It is intensely interesting to watch. His films are good examples of “art concealing art”.

As was the case in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Mungiu allows himself to comment on the actions of his characters in the very last shot of the film. He passes judgment, and (here as before) he condemns. The manner in which he does this is wonderfully judged: a consummately cinematic moment.

**

While we’re on the subject of priests, nuns, convents, and the like, let me briefly mention a few other excellent films I saw this year in which religious figures had a prominent role. I re-watched Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); I had first seen it about ten years ago and it had not clicked; this time it did. The face of Maria Falconetti has been haunting me for months. Two films by Roberto Rossellini impressed me: in Rome, Open City (1945) a priest who is helping the resistance against the Nazi occupation is an inspiring example of courage and grace in the face of danger, and his The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) gives an understated but winsome portrayal of the early adventures of St. Francis and his brothers. I also liked Calvary (2014), a film from director John Michael McDonagh in which a priest of a rural Irish parish faces, in a very personal way, the painful fallout from the sexual abuse crisis that has so crippled the Irish church. The film is perhaps a little too schematic, too neatly structured, but it is remarkable for its portrayal of a priest who is a good and faithful shepherd struggling to find ways to heal the wounds of his flock.

**

A few others:

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 1.58.30 PMAfter a ho-hum response to his more famous films (Seven Samurai and Rashomon) I finally hit Kurosawa paydirt with Ikiru (1952), a moving story about a staid Japanese bureaucrat whose complacency is upset by a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Trying and failing to give his life meaning by pursuing various pleasures, he finally resolves to devote himself to doing good. A more conventional film might end there, but Kurosawa devotes the last third of the film to a kind of conference of fools, in which the man’s colleagues debate his character and his final actions. Equal parts Pilgrim’s Progress and Twelve Angry Men, I found it really engrossing.

The Battle of Algiers (1966) is a dramatization, filmed to have the look and feel of a documentary, about the Algerian fight for independence from the French in the 1950s. It is short on character, dialogue, and so on, but it is fascinating as a study of the logic of terrorism and the process of political revolution. Another “process” film that I enjoyed was The Hole (1960), about a group of French inmates attempting a prison break. Again, the film is not really about the characters, their lives or their reasons for taking the risk (although there is a bit of that), but about how they go about it: the digging, chipping of stone, sawing of bars, and so forth. It’s more exciting than you might think.

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 1.59.12 PMTo call Museum Hours (2012) modest and quiet might be to risk overstatement: it is as unspectacular as they come. But at its heart — and it does have a heart, however measured its beating — it wants to propose a simple question: what if we gave to the everyday world around us the focused attention and regard that we give to the paintings that hang in a gallery? What if we saw meaning and significance, humour and beauty, in the sight of young people sitting together on a bench, or an old woman slowly teetering up a lane? It makes its point through close observation of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel paintings that reside in the Viennese gallery where much of the film takes place, and as such would make a brilliant double-bill with The Mill and the Cross.

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 2.00.20 PMMy favourite comedy of the year was Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), about a genial and enterprising Englishman who promotes his chances of inheriting a dukedom by systematically murdering everyone else in the line of succession. It sounds macabre, and it is, but delightfully so.

Animated:Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 2.00.58 PM From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), a touching story about two young Japanese students who discover one another and then find that their histories intertwine in ways they never expected, was the best animated film I saw this year. I’d not seen this sort of naturalistic animation, suitable more for teenagers and adults than young children, from Studio Ghibli before, and I really enjoyed it. It is a gentle film, thoughful and detailed. I want to praise it principally for its portrayal of the young, tentative romance that springs up between Umi and Shun. It is rare — very rare, I dare say — to find a film that treats that first blush of wonder with more honour and appreciation than this film does. Their young love is quiet and dignified, yet bright and full of hope, in a way that our culture — Hollywood culture, anyway — seems to have lost the capacity to express. When my daughter is 12 years old, this film is going to be slyly placed in her path.

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 2.01.48 PMScience fiction: Primer (2004) is an intriguing and confounding little film about two engineers who make an amazing discovery. It is more concerned with how its characters respond to their situation, and how it affects their relationship, than with gee-whizzery — though it must be said that it is one of those rare science fiction films that at least tries to couch its bluff in something intelligible. It becomes increasingly difficult to follow as it proceeds, and I confess that at film’s end I am at some loss to say what happened. But I don’t really mind: time travel is intrinsically confusing. I have the feeling that if I see it again my admiration may increase. According to Wikipedia the film’s budget was just $7000.

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 1.57.34 PMBlockbusters: I did not see many of the big blockbusters from this year, but I did see a few. The best of them was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a surprisingly affecting drama in which awe-inspiring special effects are placed entirely as the service of the storytelling. It’s a far better film that we had any right to expect. And the same could be said of Aronofsky’s Noah, which somehow managed to be compellingly dramatic, engage seriously with the source material, and also preserve the art-house reputation Aronofsky has been building all these years. (And I loved the rock monsters.) Finally, I’ll give an approving nod to Edge of Tomorrow, an indifferently titled but rather funny and fun alien invasion spectacle. It riffs on Groundhog Day without any of the profundity of Groundhog Day, but sometimes it is entertainment enough just to watch someone stuck in a time loop.

Others I enjoyed: Sunrise (1927), Paths of Glory (1957), Blood Simple (1984), In the Mood for Love (2000), The Act of Killing (2012), Night Moves (2013), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Films I most disliked: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Favourite moment: When the young and unknown Bob Dylan took the stage in the fading final moments of Inside Llewyn Davis.


Favourites of 2014: Classical music

January 8, 2015

I had a good and rewarding year of listening. Much of my time was devoted to a few listening projects: for the Strauss anniversary year I listened to a big chunk of his operas (some of which I wrote about), and I listened chronologically to the symphonies and string quartets of both Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg. In the cracks between these slabs, I enjoyed quite a few new, and new-ish, releases. Of those, the following were my favourites:

hilliard-transeamusTranseamus
The Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2014)

In December 2014 the Hilliard Ensemble gave their final concert, finally hanging up their tuning forks after 40 years of exquisite music-making. Though they long since parted ways with their founder, Paul Hillier, and though the membership of the four-man ensemble has changed over the years — countertenor David James being the only original member still singing — they sustained a remarkably consistent sound and sensibility, and few, if any, vocal ensembles could match their technical excellence and artistic adventurousness. Their work has been important to me personally. I had the privilege of hearing them live on two occasions, one of which (a performance of Arvo Part’s Miserere) I count among the great concert-going experiences of my life, and my music collection is littered with dozens of their recordings, many of which I hold close to my heart. I am sad to see them go.

The Hilliard Ensemble has had two principal artistic faces: they are specialists in medieval and renaissance polyphony, and the bulk of their recorded legacy has been devoted to exploring that music, but they are also well-known for commissioning and championing the work of contemporary composers, most especially that of Arvo Part. On Transeamus, said to be their final recording, they return to their roots with a collection of carols from late medieval England. Some of the finest pre-Reformation English composers are represented, including William Cornysh and John Plummer, but most of these pieces are anonymous. The performances are excellent and frequently superb; I might prefer a little more swing in a jaunty carol like “Thomas Gemma Cantuariae” (Paul Hillier’s earlier recording with Theatre of Voices is my touchstone here), but hearing the Hilliards singing “Ecce quod natura” or Sheryngham’s marvellous “Ah, Gentle Jesu” makes clear why they have been ranked with the world’s great vocal ensembles. I miss them already.

[Info] [Review]

*

bach-levitBach: Partitas
Igor Levit
(Sony, 2014)

These days it can sometimes seem that the major classical labels do little more than reissue recordings from their glory days, or, when they do issue new recordings, their roster of artists seems to have been chosen based more on consideration of shapely figures than of artistic excellence. But then along comes a pianist like Igor Levit to undermine all such gloomy ruminations. Still in his 20s, he made his recording debut last year with a much praised recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, and this year he followed it with this set of Bach’s six partitas (BWV 525-30). These pieces don’t get as much attention as the Goldberg Variations or the Well-Tempered Clavier, much less Beethoven’s late sonatas, but Levit opens them up in a way that I have never heard before. As usual it is hard to put one’s finger on just what sets one pianist apart from another, especially at elite levels where technically proficiency is assured, but nonetheless Levit’s playing has a special quality: muscular, poised, self-effacing, but yet somehow intensely inward-looking and contemplative. I find him mesmerizing, and heartily recommend this superb recording.

*

ludford-heronLudford: Missa Inclina cor meum
Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe
(Blue Heron, 2013)

Blue Heron is an American choir that is engaged on a long-term project to record music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, one of the relatively few sources of pre-Reformation English polyphony to have escaped the bonfires of the reformers. This is the third volume in the series, and it is a jewel. Polyphony in England in the fifteenth-century was clearly part of the same tradition as continental polyphony, but it was just as clearly an offshoot with its own distinctive qualities: there is a harmonic sweetness to the music, and the long, soaring soprano lines give the music an ecstatic quality that exceeds what one would typically have encountered on the continent. And this is music written on an ambitious scale: Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Inclina cor meum takes nearly 40 minutes just to present the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and John Mason’s motet Ave fuit prima salus is 20 minutes long. I wish that I knew more about the context within which this music was originally written and performed. In any case, this is the first time these pieces have been recorded, and it has been worth the wait.

[Info]

*

morales-bremenMorales: Christmas Motets
Weser-Renaissance Bremen, Manfred Cordes
(CPO, 2013)

A couple of years ago I praised a recording by Weser-Renaissance Bremen of Josquin’s music during my annual round-up, and here I am again with this disc of Christmas-themed music by Cristóbal de Morales. Morales was an important composer in sixteenth-century Spain, holding appointments in Avila and Toledo. He is probably best known today for his sublime setting of Parci mihi, Domine (made (relatively) famous by the Hilliard Ensemble in their collaboration with Jan Garbarek), but he was a prolific composer of masses, motets, and the like. This recording, with Manfred Cordes leading the choir, gathers together a set of motets on Christmas themes, ranging from settings of standard Christmas texts (O magnum mysterium, Puer natus est nobis) to pieces in honour of the Blessed Virgin (Sancta et immaculata virginitas, Salve nos stella maris). Some of the pieces are not directly associated with Christmas (Salve regina, for example), and others are actually more closely associated with other feasts (Missus est Gabriel, for instance, with the Annunciation). It must be said that the singing on this disc is spectacularly good. The pieces don’t pose any particularly dire technical challenges, but they do call for clarity, balance, and beauty of tone, and at these this choir is impeccable. As I said of their earlier Josquin recording, the sound has a burnished quality, as if glowing from within, and the recorded sound is immediate without being too close. It’s the single best recording of Morales’ music that I know of.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

*

podger-angelGuardian Angel
Rachel Podger
(Channel, 2013)

I suppose it is possible that the prospect of 80 minutes of unaccompanied baroque violin playing might set some people on edge, but when the bow is wielded by Rachel Podger there is no need for concern. She plays a variety of early baroque pieces which might have been — though whether they were in fact, I do not know — models for Bach’s more famous contributions to the repertoire. Two sonatas by Giuseppi Tartini (not his most commonly heard “Devil’s Trill” sonata), one by Johann Georg Pisendel, and a few short pieces by Nicola Matteis were all new to me. Podger also includes a transcription for violin of one of Bach’s flute sonatas which, though it might be an odd choice from a programmatic point of view, is nonetheless wonderful to hear. The disc closes with a performance of Biber’s stunning Passacaglia (from his Rosary Sonatas), the piece which was arguably the pinnacle of solo violin music until Bach’s own Chaconne came along. Podger is one of the world’s greatest baroque musicians, and she plays like an angel. For what it’s worth, this disc won the recital award at last year’s BBC Music Magazine awards.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

*

invocation-schuchInvocation
Herbert Schuch
(Naive, 2014)

A few excellent piano recitals came my way this year but I kept returning to this one, which features music inspired by the sound of bells. There are several pieces of French modernism with explicit bell-resonances — Ravel’s La vallée des cloches, Messiaen’s Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu and a piece inspired by it, Tristan Murail’s Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire… — but for me the chief attractions are the pieces by Liszt and Bach. Schuch plays selections from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, including a moving performance of his glorious Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, but the recital as a whole is held together by transcriptions of several of Bach’s beautiful chorales, played quietly and with great devotion. The overall feeling of the disc is one of meditative stillness, hushed and attentive. The sound is a bit distant for my liking, and the recording level is a bit low, but the playing and the choice of repertoire more than make up for it.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

Here is a promotional video for the disc:

*

pacifica-shostThe Soviet Experience
Shostakovich, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, Schnittke
Pacifica Quartet
(Cedille, 2011-14)

Over the past few years the Pacifica Quartet has recorded a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets; the fourth and final volume appeared this year. The competition in this repertoire is tough: the famous (but incomplete) recordings by the Borodin Quartet are always in the back of one’s mind, and I have also long treasured the cycle by the Emerson String Quartet. But this new set deserves to be considered alongside those ones. The Pacifica Quartet plays with all the muscle and acerbity that one could wish for, really digging into the scores to bring out their nervous energy. The ensemble playing is immaculate, and the recorded sound is as clean as a whistle. It’s a superb collection of what is, almost certainly, the greatest chamber music of the twentieth century.

And, as if that were not enough, each of the volumes in the set has been programmed with an additional quartet by one of Shostakovich’s contemporaries: Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, and Schnittke. Whether this broadening of focus is really enough to warrant the “The Soviet Experience” title under which the series has been proceeding is debatable, but the supplementary quartets do give one an opportunity to compare what Shostakovich was doing with what else was happening in Russian music at the time. And, as good as these other quartets are, it must be said that they renew one’s appreciation for just how colossally good Shostakovich was.

[Info] [Review] [Listen to samples]

***

Honourable mention:

dvorak-stabatDvorak: Stabat Mater
Collegium Vocale Gent, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2013)
[Info][Promo video][Listen to samples]

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where-late-sweet-birdsWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Magnificat, Philip Cave
(Linn, 2012)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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josquin-pratensisJosquin: Missa Ave Maris Stella
Cappella Pratensis
(Challenge, 2014)
[Info][Listen to samples]

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schubert-bostridge-wigmoreSchubert: Lieder
Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake
(Wigmore Hall, 2014)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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bach-contrasteBach: Transcriptions
Ensemble Contraste
(La Dolce Vita, 2013)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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weinberg-kremerWeinberg: Symphony No.10; Chamber Music
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2014)
[Info][Review]


Epiphany 2015

January 6, 2015

adoration-magi-giotto

Epiphany, which closes out the twelve days of Christmas, is always a joyful feast but this year I have a particular, additional reason to rejoice, for today a friend has been received into the Church. Or, I should say, “today”, for these movable feasts can sometimes prove elusive quarry, and in fact he was received on Sunday. But no matter! Let’s celebrate today.

Since this friend is rather fond of music, I offer John Sheppard’s setting of Reges Tharsis, the Gradual from the Epiphany Mass.

Reges Tharsis et insulae munera offerent,
reges Arabum et Saba dona (Domino Deo) adducent.
Et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae,
omnes gentes servient ei.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.

The kings of Tarshish and the islands will offer tribute,
the Kings of Arabia will bring gifts to the Lord God;
And all kings will adore him,
and all nations will serve Him.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.


Favourites of 2014: Popular music

January 5, 2015

To be honest, I have hesitated to write a retrospective about the popular music I’ve enjoyed this year. As my leisure time has been squeezed I have had to prioritize, and more often than not I simply never get to those things that are second or third on the priority list — like popular music. And this year most of my pop music time has been devoted to that pop music odyssey, about which I have already been writing. So it is not clear that I have much of interest to say.

As if to drive the point home, when I look at a list of 2014’s critical darlings, I’ve heard only 2 or 3 of the top 20, and I haven’t even heard of many more. In the past few days Jeffrey Overstreet has been writing extensively about his favourite records of 2014; his tastes overlap to a large extent with mine, but even so many of the records he praises are new to me. When you’re done here — it won’t take long — I recommend you go over there. (Part 1, Part 2)

Anyway, on paper I was excited about new records from Joe Henry, U2, and Taylor Swift this year, but for various reasons they failed to make a good impression on me. Joe Henry’s latest, Invisible Hour, I believe to be a great record, but I believe it strictly on the testimony of those to whom its greatness is evident; I myself do not perceive it, and this makes me feel rather bad about myself. I was keen when I first heard of U2’s What Was It Called Again?, but it seems to me a pretty indifferent record, nowhere near U2 at their best; for years now I have been awaiting their rumoured collection of songs based on the Psalms, rumoured to be called Songs of Ascent, but rumour has it that we have to keep waiting. As for Taylor Swift: my fears have been realized. I complained last time about the noisy pop posturing of the biggest hits from her last record, and sadly 1989 is cut wholesale from the same glittery cloth. Garish. There are still glimmers here and there of the girl I used to know — I quite like the back-half of “You Are In Love” — but on this record she has mostly been smothered by The Machine, or so it seems to me.

**

cohen-problemsWhich brings us to the one record from 2014 that I am truly fond of: Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. I wasn’t sure we would get another record from Cohen, and then suddenly there it was, an unmerited gift. It’s a strong collection of songs, with a production that is lusher and warmer than was the case on his previous record, Old Ideas, closer to a record like Ten New Songs. Though I am not sure I like the album quite as much as I did his previous effort, and while there does seem to be something unbecoming about an octogenerian tossing off double-entendres, in the end this record has found a place in my heart. If its last song, “You Got Me Singing”, should turn out to be Cohen’s last, it will be a most fitting departure. But I hope that it will not be his last.

**

oh-hellosWhen Mumford & Sons announced in 2013 that they would be on extended hiatus, part of me began quietly casting about for someone or something to take their place — that is, someone or something that would unite spiritual sensitivity with accessible roots rock and hipster sartorial excellence. It was then that I stumbled upon The Oh Hellos, who are doing very well on the first two criteria and failing decisively on the third. It’s good enough. The Oh Hellos are a brother and sister duo, Tyler and Maggie Heath, hailing from Texas. To date they have issued an EP (2011) and one full length record (2012), plus a Christmas EP. They are not as hip or as groovy as Mumford & Sons, and not as photogenic as Mumford & Sons, but the comparisons are most invidious only where they matter least. Where they matter most — in the quality of the songs — The Oh Hellos are very interesting indeed. When they sing, “We were young when we heard you call our names in the silence / Like a fire in the dark / Like a sword upon our hearts,” I, for one, feel like I have found a songwriter who is getting to the heart of things. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in their songs: sorrow and trouble, but rumours of glory whispering from between the lines. At the end of the day, I do not know very much about The Oh Hellos, but I like what I hear, and I recommend them for your consideration.

**

Other records I enjoyed, just not enough to write about them: Loudon Wainwright III, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet); The Lone Bellow, The Lone Bellow.


Favourites of 2014: Books

January 2, 2015

With the advent of the new year, it is time to look back at 2014. Over the next week or so I’ll write a series of posts about my favourites of the books, music, and film that I encountered in the past 12 months. Actually, these posts are already written, but it will take some time to embellish them with little pictures.

I’ll begin today with books.

***

This year much of my reading was devoted to re-reading: I re-visited Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Dickens. This did not leave a great deal of time for other things, but from those slim pickings I offer a few brief recommendations.

aubrey-maturinA couple of years ago a friend told me that he had read the twenty-one volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and had enjoyed them so much that, upon completion, he had returned immediately to the first volume and read all twenty-one volumes again! His was perhaps an extreme case of Aubreyphilia, but he was not the first person whom I had heard praise these books in glowing terms, and so this year I set sail on my own voyage, reading the first half-dozen titles in the series. For the landsmen among us, the books chronicle the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and physician Stephen Maturin aboard His Majesty’s naval vessels during the Napoleonic Wars. O’Brian has been praised for his richly textured historical writing, and justly so, but the heart of the books is their portrayal, both separately and in friendship, of the two principals. They are wonderful characters. The books are not to be ranked with the greatest literature, but they are examples of compelling storytelling wedded to admirable craftsmanship. I am looking forward to reading another half-dozen or so volumes in the coming year.

hart-experienceMy favourite nonfiction of the year was David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Hart mines the basic features of conscious experience, and even the very conditions for such experience, to exhibit what they reveal to us about God, or at least about a transcendent order surpassing those things in heaven and earth dreamed of by our modern Horatios. It is a serious book that gives the reader a good deal to grapple with, and beautifully written. I wrote extensively about the book, so I shant elaborate further here.

bate-johnsonMy runner-up is W. Jackson Bate’s much-praised biography Samuel Johnson, published in 1977. There is a temptation, even among Johnson’s admirers, to reduce him to a wit or a sage merely, but Bate wants to unfold for us the man in all of his complexity: his generous heart, his pride, his insecurities and fears, his depressions, his moral wisdom and piety, and, yes, his genius. It is a thoroughly engrossing portrait of a great man, which I hope to write about in more detail in the coming months.

**

I always enjoy looking at when the books I have been reading were written. Here is a histogram showing the original publication dates of those I read this year:

books2014

You can see Euripides and Virgil there on the left, then Augustine, then Dante, and so forth. Looking at that last bin, which counts books from the past hundred years, one might wonder how a father of two (now three!) small children, with a full-time job, and a wife working more-than-full-time, and a long commute, and a house to take care of, etc., etc. has time to read so many books! What is the secret of my success? I answer with just two words: Beatrix Potter. Remove those from consideration (as I have not considered any other of the many children’s books I read this year) and my numbers drop off drasti– but let’s not remove those from consideration.


Pop music odyssey: the 1970s

December 11, 2014

***

Another leg of my pop music odyssey has been completed, and I offer a few quick notes. This stage of the journey included sixteen records by Bob Dylan (including some live albums and bootlegs), fourteen by Neil Young, twelve by Van Morrison, ten by Tom Waits, seven by Leonard Cohen, and just one by the Beatles (to whom we now bid farewell). It has been a long road, and I’ve had to watch my step.

**

When I listen through Dylan’s records from the early 1970s — and here I am thinking of Self Portrait, New Morning, and Planet Waves, principally — I cannot but be curious about the precipitous decline in his standards. His albums from the 1960s were among the greatest on record. In retrospect I would argue that 1969’s Nashville Skyline was an ill omen, the promise of which was to be so sadly realized in the records that followed. In truth these records are not quite so bad as their reputations would suggest, considered in themselves; they are dismal, but it is by way of comparison with what had come before that they appear so crushingly dismal.

If one goes rummaging about in the statements Dylan has made about this period a few possible reasons for this appalling state of affairs can be discerned. One possibility is that Dylan had decided to make bad records; this might be thought a fancy concocted by his fans to save his face, but in fact there may be a real kernel of truth in it. This was the period of Woodstock, when Dylan was still being lauded as “the voice of his generation”. He famously declined to appear at Woodstock, and he has said that he simply wanted to record songs that would disappoint all those who had saddled him with a role he did not want for himself. He wanted them off his back, so he decided to record songs to which they would be unable to relate. Framed in this way, as a joke born of a kind of existential crisis, these records can be seen as the work of a man of paradoxical courage who would destroy his reputation to save his life.

But there must be more to the story as well, for not only had he nearly stopped writing good songs, he nearly stopped writing altogether. It was his first extended period of writer’s block. His muse seems to have abandoned him.

And I think there was something else going on too, something which might have been related to the writer’s block, but was distinct from it. The songs he wrote during and after this period have a quality which was largely absent from his great songs of the 1960s, and that is a sincere concern with simple feelings and direct communication. For instance, one cannot imagine “Forever Young” appearing on one of his mid-to-late 1960s records; the sentiment is too honest and straightforward. Dylan has said that in this period he wanted to get out of the limelight, and to live a normal life with his wife and children. “I realized what I was missing,” he said. And I think it is possible that his efforts to deepen his own personal relationships, and to learn how to express those commonplace but no less genuine feelings, without resort to swirls of imagery or clever wordplay, may have simply taken some time. He was deepening his art, and he went slowly. Whether he ever fully succeeded, and whether his songwriting thereafter ever reached the heights that it had reached before, is arguable, but any case to the contrary will have to contend with the mighty Blood on the Tracks.

It should also be said that no appraisal of this particularly difficult section of Dylan’s discography, and especially no dismissal of it, can be credible if it fails to take into account the recently released Bootleg Series, Vol.10 — Another Self Portrait, which consists of outtakes from the Self Portrait and New Morning sessions. These previously unreleased versions of the songs are frequently greatly superior to the versions that Dylan originally released: they have more spark, more poise, better singing, and clearer arrangements. The contrast with what we thought we knew of those records rather tends to support the “intentionally bad” theory that I mentioned above.

**

Tom Waits was the sole singer in this survey for whom all of his 1970s records were previously familiar to me. I have tended to divide Waits’ recording career into two or three phases: an early, somewhat anomalous, period in which he crooned at the piano (Closing Time and, to a lesser extent, The Heart of Saturday Night), a skid-row beat poet period (The Heart of Saturday Night up through Heartattack and Vine in 1980), followed by a sharp phase transition in the early 1980s when he ditched his piano and his jazz-trimming for a junkyard orchestra and a case of tuberculosis (starting with Swordfishtrombones). But this neat taxonomy has been upended by an encounter with a live bootleg recorded in Bremen in 1977. It’s a superb record, both sonically and for what it reveals about Waits’s development. It was astounding for me to hear an early song like “Depot, Depot”, which for me epitomizes his crooning period, rendered in such a way that it could fit comfortably next to a song like “Shore Leave” (from 1983). Many of the songs are like that. It was recorded with the same instrumental backing as on Small Change — to wit: piano, saxophone, upright bass, and drums — but it is so much more visceral and impolite and phlegm-laden than the studio albums of the same period that it is hard to believe it comes from 1977 and not a decade later. In any case, it’s a terrific concert recording, a very happy discovery for me, that illuminates Waits’ early career in a most satisfying way.

**

In my summation of the 1960s leg of this odyssey, I noted that the Neil Young of the 1960s paled in comparison with the Neil Young of the 1970s, and it is true that he had a spectacularly good decade. He slipped rather easily into Dylan’s evacuated shoes with Harvest (1972), but his parallel work with Crazy Horse showed he could stomp around in big boots as well when the song called for it. Indeed, this is one of the most remarkable things about Young’s career: it’s bifurcation into a mellow, rootsy groove on one hand and a raucous, feedback-drenched noise on the other, not as phases in his “development” (as is often said of Dylan) but in tandem, and somehow the two sides don’t seem to be at odds with one another, and I think this is a testament to the strength and consistency of Young’s artistic vision. The perceived unity of his work is also due in part to that eerie, wavering voice, which always makes the song unmistakably his.

Young is probably the only singer under consideration in this odyssey whose music — the sheer sound he makes — is more interesting than the songs he writes. He has a gift for melody, and he has his moments as a songwriter, but for the most part I find his songs most attractive when I listen least attentively to what he is singing. I could not but be dismayed, for instance, when I discovered that when he sang that “A Man Needs a Maid,” he actually meant that a man needs a maid — you know, to clean his house. Even his best songs suffer a lyrical vacuousness: “You are like a hurricane / There’s calm in your eye / And I’m gettin’ blown away.” Thud. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in his catalogue. Where he is memorable, he is memorable principally for a musical hook, not a turn of phrase.

I think it is also worth noting the extent to which Young was, during this period (without necessarily implying a contrast with what came before or after), the conscience of rock and roll. His forays into political songwriting are mostly failures, but when he is personal he can be very incisive. He was particularly good at indicting the drug culture which took the lives of several of his friends and bandmates during the 1970s. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is probably the most famous instance of this, but there are others, and indeed whole records (Tonight’s the Night) devoted to exploring and exhibiting the personal cost and the terrible sadness of drug addiction. Given his times and his place, this was an honourable vocation.

**

Allow me to present a list of my favourite odyssey-albums from the 1970s. I make no explicit claim that these are the “best” albums from this period, but such a claim might well be implicit. More or less in descending order:

Bob Dylan — Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Van Morrison — Veedon Fleece (1974)
Neil Young — Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Van Morrison — Moondance (1970)
Van Morrison — It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)
Tom Waits — Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
Neil Young — Harvest (1972)
Van Morrison — Into the Music (1979)
Tom Waits — Live in Bremen (1977)
Van Morrison — Saint Dominic’s Preview (1972)

**

Likewise, here are my ten favourite songs from this period. This was a tough list to put together, there being many good candidates. The list I came up with is a rather personal one; most of these songs are close to my heart. Again, in rough descending order:

Leonard Cohen — “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Love and Hate)
Van Morrison — “Country Fair” (Veedon Fleece)
Van Morrison — “Contemplation Rose” (1972, unreleased)
Van Morrison — “Into the Mystic” (Moondance)
Bob Dylan — “Tangled Up in Blue” (Blood on the Tracks)
Bob Dylan — “Idiot Wind” (Blood on the Tracks)
Van Morrison — “Full Force Gale” (Into the Music)
Van Morrison — “You Don’t Pull No Punches…” (Veedon Fleece)
Neil Young — “Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest)
Van Morrison — “Madame Joy” (1972, unreleased)

Bob Dylan dominated the list from the 1960s, but here it is Van Morrison who makes the strongest showing. I’m not surprised by this — he wrote so many great songs in the 70s — but I am surprised that not a single song by Tom Waits made my list. There are a lot of Waits songs that I like, but when I put them up against this rather stiff competition I found that they couldn’t crack the top ten.

Those two “unreleased” songs by Van Morrison did eventually see the light of day on his 1991 back catalogue showcase The Philosopher’s Stone. Technically, then, they were “unreleased” only during the period under consideration. They are great songs nonetheless; it is a mystery why he left them off his records at the time.

**

There wasn’t much point of doing so in the 1960s, but here in the more uneven 1970s it might be enjoyable to poke fun at the worst of what my odyssey had to offer. Worst album? Dylan is in competition with himself and the competition is fierce, but I will go with Self Portrait, a record whose quality was well-summarized in the opening flourish of that famous Rolling Stone review. As for the worst song, the runner-up is “All the Tired Horses” (from Self Portrait) and the winner is “If Dogs Run Free” (from New Morning), a song so wretched that I feel physically ill when I hear it. No, don’t listen!

**

And now it is time to swing around and peer into the future: we stand on the cusp of the 1980s. I have long maintained that there were only five great pop/rock records made in the 1980s, and sadly only one of those will be part of my odyssey. My prospects look dim.

But, then again, that might just be because I’m wearing these shades.


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