Posts Tagged ‘Best of Year’

Favourites of 2017: Music

January 5, 2018

It seemed this year that I was treated to an avalanche of excellent music — much more than I could listen to with adequate attention. Of those recordings I devoted the most time to, I have selected for praise an even dozen. I proceed roughly chronologically.

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Ars Elaboratio
Ensemble Scholastica
(ATMA, 2017)

In his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, Borges imagines a writer who has become so immersed in the style and the world of Cervantes that he is able to reproduce, as an original work, a word-for-word replica of Don Quixote. This story has been brought irresistibly to mind as I’ve been listening to this truly wonderful and extraordinary recording from Ensemble Scholastica. What this all-female ensemble, based in Montreal, has done is perform newly composed elaborations of medieval plainchant in an impeccably medieval style. These elaborations include adding new monophonic material to the original, or adding additional voices, or instruments. Something like this past-meets-present concept has been done before, but usually the past and present are distinguishable to the ear as modern dissonances or cadences wander into the frame. What makes the music on Ars Elaboratio so intriguing is that there really is nothing modern to hear; for all we can tell, these could be original medieval compositions.

I can imagine someone wondering about the point of doing this. Just as with Menard and his Quixote, context matters, and a modern medieval composition has different resonances than a medieval original. Such an experiment might, for instance, be a way of poking the eye of the notion, current in music circles as elsewhere, that originality is rooted in self-expression; or, to deny the idea that history moves and we have to move with it; or, as a spiritual exercise in humility, wherein musicians enter fully into the imaginative and aesthetic world of another time and place; or, as a way of honouring the beauty and wisdom of the texts by creating music that would have pleased and delighted their medieval authors; or, simply as an expression of love for the beauty of medieval music. In the notes accompanying the recording, the ensemble states their purpose as follows:

“We wish to share with listeners the true beauty and intricacy of medieval music, in particular medieval liturgical traditions, the very roots of Western music. Our audiences thus have the chance to experience the remarkable joy and complexity of medieval spirituality and culture.”

I, for one, thank them for their efforts, which have greatly delighted me.

Here is a brief advertisement for the disc, in which one can hear excerpts:

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Matteo da Perugia: Chansons
Tetraktys
(Olive, 2016)

The number of people whose hearts go pitter-patter at the thought of a collection of music by Matteo da Perugia ought rightly to be legion, but is in fact probably somewhat closer to minuscule. This is just one of the numerous hardships which we must bear on behalf of our beleaguered times. I remember well the first time I heard one of his pieces, at a concert by the Huelgas Ensemble in Toronto; the music was so exquisite, so expressive and beguiling, that an audible gasp escaped the audience when the final note was sung, as though we’d all been holding our breath. Matteo was writing around the year 1400 and was a practitioner of what was then, and is still now, called the ars subtilior style — the subtle art — which is one of the most delightful of the medieval artistic byways awaiting discovery by listeners whose wanderlust leads them off well-beaten trails. His compositions belong to the courtly love tradition, being primarily settings of secular love poetry. Despite his name, he worked in and around the Duomo in Milan, and all of the music we have from him survives in a single manuscript.

His music pops up now and again on early music recordings, but this is, to my knowledge, just the third recording devoted entirely to him, the earlier two being by the Huelgas Ensemble and Mala Punica, both of them superb interpreters. But Tetraktys have nothing to fear from the comparison. They have chosen to perform these pieces as vocal solos with instrumental accompaniment — not a mandatory choice, if comparisons with the other recordings are anything to go on — and much of the appeal of this recording lies in the singing of Stefanie True, a Canadian soprano who is otherwise unknown to me, but who earns high praise for the beautiful purity of her voice. Instrumental accompaniment from a trio of musicians includes medieval fiddles, harp, and organetto. The result is one of the more alluring and gorgeous discs of early music I’ve heard in a long while.

Here is a brief excerpt of the ensemble during the recording process. It gives the flavour of what they are doing, but the sound on the CD is superior to what you hear here:

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Secret History: Josquin / Victoria
John Potter
(ECM New Series, 2017)

Years ago I drew up a list of my favourite music of the first decade of the 21st century, and near the top of the list I put a CD of music by Victoria, sung by Carlos Mena, in which the familiar intricate polyphony had been adapted for a single voice with instrumental accompaniment. I loved, and still love, everything about it — Mena’s creamy voice, the clarity of the musical texture, the limpid beauty of the vocal line. I’d never heard anything quite like it before — nor, for that matter, since.

But now this new disc from John Potter and friends revisits the same musical territory, with marvellous results once again. Potter tells us in his notes that it was a fairly common practice in the 15th and 16th centuries for sacred polyphony to be adapted into tablature for lutenists and vihuelists, and even that the music of some composers, including Josquin, survives mostly in these intabulated sources. He is here joined by three vihuelas and a viola da gamba, as well as by the soprano Anna Maria Friman (of Trio Medieval) in performances of these intabulated versions of Victoria’s Missa surge propera, a collection of motets by Josquin, a motet by Mouton and another by Victoria again, some Gregorian chant, and some preludes for vihuela by Jacob Heringman, one of the musicians.

It all sounds terrific. Once again, hearing the clarity of the vocal line pulled from what would normally be a dense polyphonic texture is a real delight, and there’s a wonderful intimacy about the whole affair, as though this sublime music were being re-imagined in one’s living room. For me, the recording as a whole doesn’t quite rise to the level of that earlier one by Carlos Mena, and this mainly because Potter, as good as he is (and, as a long-time member of the Hilliard Ensemble, he’s no slouch), simply doesn’t have the translucent voice that Mena does.

The recording was made at the famous monastery of St Gerold in Austria, long favoured by ECM’s engineers, and the sound is impeccable. It was recorded in 2011, so ECM sat on it for 6 years before releasing it. I can’t imagine why. This is my favourite recording of the year.

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Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli
Odhecaton
(Arcana, 2017)

Of the making of records there is no end, and there can be few pieces of Renaissance polyphony that have been recorded more often than Palestrina’s famous Missa Papae Marcelli. One naturally wonders if it’s worth bothering to record it again. But, lo and behold, here comes Odhecaton to make us hear it again anew. This ensemble, which is new to me, has a truly wonderful way with this music: the singing is very assured, pitched low if I’m not mistaken, and it has a splendid gravitas — in happier times I could have called it masculine, and been understood to be saying something intelligible. I have listened to it with some amazement, because I’ve never heard Palestrina sung like this, with such stately grace, which we expect, and earthy texture, which we don’t. The disc also includes a number of motets and Gregorian antiphons, and it actually opens with Sicut cervus, a motet that every mother’s son knows forward and backward; yet, again, not like this. [review]

Here is the whole of the Missa:

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Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
La Compagnia del Madrigale, Cantica Symphonia, La Pifarescha, Giuseppe Maletto
(Glossa, 2017)

2017 was a Monteverdi anniversary year, marking his 450th birthday. My plans to devote time to him largely failed, but I was able to hear this glorious new recording of his Vespers. This is a piece for which my appreciation has gradually grown over the years; it’s a sprawling, multi-faceted work that takes time to get to know, and as yet I feel that I’ve only begun to explore its many nooks and crannies. The musicians on this disc are an ace crew who will be recognized by early music aficionados. I must say that it is nice to have Italians performing the music of their countryman, and, quite in contradiction to the sometime-stereotype of period ensembles being rather dry and thin, they bring a stirring, full-bodied sound to their interpretation. The instruments, especially, are recorded with nice bloom, blending beautifully with the voices. I’ve long been fond of William Christie’s recording of this Vespers, with French forces, for its beauty and gentle tenderness, but this shows another side of this wonderful music.

This video takes us behind the scenes at the recording sessions:

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Bach: De Occulta Philosophia
Emma Kirkby, Carlos Mena, José Miguel Moreno
(Glossa, 1998)

Here is a disc that would appear to have been produced just for me: my favourite soprano, Emma Kirkby, and my favourite counter-tenor, Carlos Mena, joining together to sing chorales of J.S. Bach, my favourite composer, over a performance of the Chaconne, my favourite composition (or, at least, having a fair claim), in an arrangement for the lute, my favourite obsolete instrument in the guitar family! You might remember the recording the Hilliard Ensemble made some years ago, in which they, following a purported “discovery” by musicologist Helga Thoene, did the same experiment: singing chorale fragments over the Chaconne, which was, allegedly, subtextually quoting them. I confess I don’t put any great faith in these musicological claims, but it hardly matters: as musical experiments go, this one is a winner. I liked the Hilliard’s performance, but I like this one even more: the intimacy of the lute, and the purity of the two voices, is entrancing. The Chaconne, mind you, only lasts a quarter-hour. The rest of the disc is filled out with Bach’s Sonata (BWV 1001) and Partita (BWV 1004), played on the lute by José Miguel Moreno. It’s all good, but it’s the chorale-laden Chaconne that is sublime.

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Mozart: Don Giovanni
Music Aeterna, Teodor Currentzis
(Sony, 2016)

Like everyone else, I have long been wedded to Giulini’s 1959 recording of this, the greatest opera, so much so that I’ve never felt any real desire to acquire another. But nothing in this veil of tears is perfect in every respect, and there was always a possibility, however slim, that somebody might come along and do the thing well enough, and differently enough, to give us, not so much a rival, but an alternative reading. And then along came Teodor Currentzis and his mad cadre of musicians in a bid to do just that.

I say “mad” partly because of the conditions under which the recording took place: Currentzis had his singers and orchestra come to the Russian hinterland, where they stayed for weeks on end, living together, eating together, performing Don Giovanni hour after hour after hour, doing experiments, taking risks, going mad. The Guardian ran a nice feature that described the highly unusual working conditions.

And I say “mad” also because of the results. Currentzis plays this score with ferocious energy; the strings slash, the brass blares, the timpani thunders. There is nothing at all genteel about it. The sound engineering is impressively vivid. The singing is fine, but for me it is the orchestral playing that is the real draw. That might seem an odd position to take on an opera recording, but we are in the realm of the odd.

I understand the argument from those who say that this is an abuse of Mozart, who wrote at a time when elegance was prized and who could out-elegance anybody when we wanted to, but, on the other hand, this is Don Giovanni! If any opera can take this idiosyncratic, unrestrained treatment, it’s this one. An iconoclastic version could never replace Giulini, but considered as a compelling alternative view of this great music, this one is a success.

Here is a ten-minute featurette on the making of this recording:

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Mozart – Piano Concertos 20 & 27
Evgeny Kissin, Kremerata Baltica
(EMI, 2010)

I admit I’ve had a prejudice against Evgeny Kissin, whose status as a child prodigy led me to suspect that there was more of sentimentality behind his fame than solid musical achievement. But this disc was recommended to me in glowing terms, and I decided to listen mainly because of the orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, whom I have long admired. It’s a corker! These concerti are old chestnuts, and they are often played with grace and politeness, but Kissin and his band tackle them with thunderous excitement. The sound is big, the orchestra plays with sharp attacks and tight rhythms, and Kissin is terrific at the keyboard. The performance has verve and sparkle. I don’t know if this is typical of Kissin or not, but, if so, I stand corrected.

Here is Concerto No.20:

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Wagner: Arias and Duets
Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Philharmonia Orchestra, Leopold Ludwig
(Testament, rec.1957/8)

Birgit Nilsson has a claim to being one of the great Wagnerian sopranos of the twentieth century, and Hans Hotter can make a similar claim among bass-baritones. They were both in their prime for these recordings, made in 1957/58 in glowing sound that belies their age. Nilsson, especially, is majestic; her voice gleams, like a shaft of light penetrating the gloom. The sheer beauty of it is awe-inspiring. Hotter sings with tremendous gravitas as well, and he is a superb match for her in the long Act III duet from Die Walküre. The other selections are from Wagner’s earlier operas: Elsa’s Dream from Lohengrin, a long excerpt from Der Fliegende Holländer, and a soprano solo from Tannhäuser. This same music has been previously issued on EMI; probably this Testament release has been remastered but I’ve actually listened to both and I can’t hear any substantial differences. In either case, this is one of the best Wagner recordings I’ve ever heard. [review]

Here is the opening of Die Walküre, Act III, Scene III. Hotter is Wotan and Nilsson is Brünnhilde:

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Brahms: Piano Works
Arcadi Volodos
(Sony, 2017)

If, like me, you love those last, late piano pieces Brahms left us in his Op.116, 117, and 118, then I cannot recommend more highly these superb renditions by Arcadi Volodos. Volodos is a pianist I haven’t followed very closely (though I love his account of Liszt’s virtuosic transmutation of the Wedding March!). His playing is muscular, and he makes a big, well-rounded sound. You might not think that would work all that well with these elegiac masterpieces, but these are winsome performances that I have greatly enjoyed. This is elite playing, not just technically but artistically, and this is a great disc. [review]

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Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie
Steven Osborne, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena
(Hyperion, 2012)

Messiaen described this gigantic musical explosion as “a song of love, a hymn to joy”, and the joyous feeling he sought to capture as “superhuman, overflowing, dazzling, and abandoned”. Perhaps no better description of the symphony is possible. It is among the biggest, boldest, most outrageous, wildest examples of musical excess in the repertoire, and, as such, not the kind of thing I would normally be drawn to, but it’s the symphony’s spirit of unadulterated, supercharged love of life that wins me over. I’ve a few recordings in my collection, but this one from the Bergen Philharmonic, with Steven Osborne handling the difficult piano part, has delighted me to no end. The orchestral sound, which is the be-all and end-all of this piece, is wonderfully alive and vivid. A ravishing sonic experience. [Audio excerpts]

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Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2017)

For the past few years my year-end list of favourites has usually included something by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, and I have something this year too. Gidon Kremer has become a high-profile champion for Weinberg’s music, and in 2017 he, with Kremerata Baltica again, issued a two-disc set of Weinberg’s four chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet. The Quintet is an early work (Op.18) that has become quite popular, having now been recorded more than any of Weinberg’s other music. Kremer and his crew give it a good hearing, and of course ECM’s sound engineering is outstanding. But for me the chamber symphonies are the real draw. They are late works (the earliest being his Op.145), and, as always with Weinberg, I feel they put me in touch with a man of great musical intelligence, overlooked for too long. Music to treasure.

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In years past I have written twice about my favourite music of the year: first classical and then popular. This year there were pop music records that interested me from Bob Dylan, Joan Osborne, Van Morrison, Sufjan Stevens, Joe Henry, Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, Taylor Swift, Lee Ann Womack, and Neil Young, and some others too, but I either didn’t get around to hearing them, or didn’t hear enough of them to form a judgement. Maybe next year.

Favourites of 2017: Books

January 2, 2018

All things considered, 2017 was a pretty good year for reading. Long, difficult books were mostly off the table — there’s that volume of Kierkegaard I’ve been seeping through for 8 months — but I found some quite good, short, easier books that were worth reading.

For this year-end reflection, I’ve selected ten good books from among those I read this year. I list them randomly, or nearly so. Links, where present, usually go to my more extensive notes on the book.

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I’ll begin with Livy, whose writing was a thread that ran through my whole year. I began the first volume of his great Roman history Ab urbe condita in January or February, and I finished the fifth and last volume in December. This was a great book with which to kick off my Roman reading project; although it breaks off in the 160s BC, with much of the greatest drama still ahead, my understanding of the history of Republican Rome has improved greatly. I now feel I have context and at least some depth when I see a reference to Cincinnatus, or Camillus, or Hannibal, or Scipio, and a much better sense of how Rome grew from an Italian city among other, comparable, Italian cities to a superpower of the ancient world. I wrote fairly extensively about this history as I was reading. I am looking forward to continuing this reading project in 2018; I expect that much of the year will be spent in the company of Cicero and Julius Caesar.

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I was given as a gift a huge volume of Anglo-Saxon poetry this year, and I expect that it will be the center of gravity of my medieval reading in 2018, but this year my favourite medieval literature was The Song of Roland, a splendid heroic poem about a battle between the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, and the Islamic army besetting them as they pass through the Alps. Although not a scrupulously historical poem, it does teach us about the attitudes of Christians toward Muslims a thousand years ago, gives us an intriguing example of the medieval effort to baptize the military virtues, and presents us with a wonderful portrait of Roland, a figure who loomed large in the European imagination for centuries.

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With my son I have been reading Thornton Burgess’ books about the inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows. Beginning with Old Mother West Wind and continuing through the adventures of one little friend after another — Old Man Coyote, Paddy the Beaver, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Sammy Jay, Jerry Muskrat, Grandfather Frog, and others — we have gradually come to feel quite at home in those woods. Though he is certainly less mercurial and virtuosic than, for example, Kenneth Grahame, Burgess nonetheless has a fine talent for diverting tales with memorable characters and moral weight. He wrote, I believe, about 100 of these books, and so our explorations are far from over. So long as my son is content to continue, I am as well.

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This year I continued my habit of reading — or seeing staged — one Shakespearean play each month. I ventured off the beaten trail and read “Pericles”, a late-ish play (probably c.1608) that was new to me. It was a very pleasant surprise. It has something of the character of a fable, complete with riddles, a beautiful princess, an evil king, miraculous events, and a happy ending. For some time I’ve been interested in the relationship between Shakespeare’s art and medieval literature and drama (I’ve been meaning to read this book, for example), and in no other Shakespeare play have I had such a powerful sense of being on medieval terrain, as though he had adapted a story from The Canterbury Tales. In fact the play is based on a poem of John Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary, and Gower himself appears in the play in a role something like that of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. It’s delightful. Thematically the play is about, among other things, what it means to be a good father, and in particular about the relationships of fathers to their daughters. The final act has a reunion scene that brought tears into my eyes. Highly recommended.

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Over the past few years I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin sea-faring novels, and greatly enjoying them, but this year I also read The Voyage of the Beagle, a real-life account of a circumnavigation voyage in the 1830s, and I enjoyed it at least as much. It is true that Charles Darwin, the ship’s talented young naturalist, doesn’t tell us much about life at sea, but this particular voyage landed ashore at numerous locations along the Argentine and Chilean coasts, as well as at a few island archipelagos in the Pacific, and I found his many observations on natural history fascinating. The same author went on to write a number of other books on related topics, and it would be interesting to look into those some day as well.

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Perhaps because I spent a few months this year homeschooling our kids, I read several books on education. Among these the best was Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, a remarkably rich and thoughtful exploration of the classical educational trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Some descriptions of classical education merely correlate these three subjects with the developmental capacities of children (as Dorothy Sayers did in an influential essay), but Caldecott goes much further, digging deeply into the relevance this general schema has for the child’s intellectual, moral, social, and even metaphysical formation. His organizing question is “What kind of education would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing his poetic and artistic appreciation of it?”, and it leads him to rewarding discussions of tradition, drama, technology, and liturgy, among many other things. If you think that education ought to be richly human, concerned with what kind of persons we should be rather than just what sort of things we might do, calling for the best and wisest counsel we can muster, this is a book for you.

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The conversion memoir is a genre with a distinguished history stretching back, for English speakers, to John Henry Newman, and further back, to St Augustine, in the wider tradition. These memoirs tend to have certain elements in common, and perhaps the most distinctive thing about Sally Read’s Night’s Bright Darkness is that it doesn’t follow the usual patterns at all. It’s an account of her conversion from comfortable atheism to astounded Catholicism in which, instead of passing over the ground between the two, as a normal person would do, she somehow tunnelled or teleported from one side to the other. This is a poor metaphor for the real substance of her story, which is grace. The other distinctive feature of this book is how beautifully written it is; Read is a poet, and brings a literary sensibility to the manner in which she tells her story.

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English speakers continue to receive, in translation, by dribs and drabs, literary crumbs that fell from the table of the great German Thomist and intellectual historian Josef Pieper. This year I sat down with a volume that appeared, a few years ago now, under the title The Silence of Goethe. As is so often the case with Pieper, the slender profile of the book belies its rich content, which consists of meditations on the value of reticence and silence for both public and private life, as culled from the voluminous writings of Pieper’s great countryman. Counsel to the effect that “You live properly only if you live a hidden life” has particular value for those of us living in the age of social media, in which the temptation to live even our private lives in public is seductive. That this, and allied, advice comes from a man who was himself one of the best-known figures of his age gives it a certain tried-and-true authority.

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I read a handful of Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels this year, and Thank You, Jeeves can stand in, on this list, for the lot of them. Published in 1934, it was the first of Wodehouse’s full-length Jeeves novels, and is a delightful tale about Bertie’s retreat to a country cottage in which to practice the banjolele. Jeeves is unable to abide the instrument, and so enters the employ of one or another of the characters circling around Bertie throughout the story, being replaced by a homicidal, drunk valet called Brinkley. Among the most pleasing characters in this mélange is Pauline Stoker, an American girl possessed of a “pre-eminent pulchritude”, to whom Bertie was briefly engaged on a prior trip to America, and for whom he now tries to play matchmaker. At stake are the sale of a run-down manor house and the future married happiness of several of Bertie’s friends. As usual with Wodehouse, the writing is superb and the invention never flagging. Some might take offense at the plot element involving Bertie and the “loony doctor” Sir Roderick Glossop wandering the grounds in black-face, but we are not so censorious.

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This was yet another year in which I did not read much theology or philosophy, but I did manage one of the early classics of Christian theology in St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. The aim of the book is to provide a defence of the fittingness of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ against those who contended that these centerpieces of the Christian story had an arbitrary or even blasphemous character. Athanasius brings out beautifully the drama of Christ’s saving action as a descent into the world, a battle against evil, and a triumphant elevation of all things into the everlasting and unconquerable life of the Holy Trinity. It is a book that has become a touchstone for a Christian metaphysics of the good, in which Creation itself is caught up into the mystery of Christ.

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As in past years, it is fun to look at the original publication dates of the books (or plays) I read this year. Here is the histogram:

I skewed modern, as usual, but not so severely as in past years, and the classical and medieval books can at least be said to have made a decent showing. The 20th century was the big winner, as might be expected, but even there it was the early 1900s which got much of my attention, with the average post-1900 publication date being 1955.

Finally, a bit of trivia:

Most books by a single author: Thornton Burgess (12), Shakespeare (12), Terence (6), Wodehouse (5).

Favourites in 2016: Film

December 30, 2016

Today I wrap up these year-end reflections by considering my favourites of the films I saw this year.

I don’t get out to the movies much anymore, so I don’t see movies until they are on DVD. For instance, I’ve seen only a couple of the films on this list of 2016’s best. Instead, I watched a lot of old movies this year, from the likes of Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Krzysztof Kieślowski, François Truffaut, Frank Capra, and Charlie Chaplin. These are all great filmmakers, and no doubt those films were great too, but I’m still learning how to appreciate them, and the films I liked best — the 10 I’ve chosen to discuss in this post — are of recent vintage and generally less distinguished pedigree.

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By way of prelude: It will come as no surprise that the best film I saw in 2016 was, once again, The Tree of Life. In fact this year I enjoyed it even more than before, in part because I had several opportunities to think about it, both when I wrote about it at Light on Dark Water and when I read Peter Leithart’s book on the film.

treeoflifeclimb

But I propose to write today about films I saw for the first time this year.

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brooklynA young Irish woman leaves her family to travel to New York, c.1950, in search of a better future. She slowly makes a life for herself state-side, but then events in Ireland draw her back, and she finds herself torn between two homes, and two competing visions of her future.

Yes, of the films I saw for the first time this year, and if plentiful tears are anything to go on, my favourite was Brooklyn. I am a little surprised at this, because unlike some of the films I’m going to praise below, this is pretty much by-the-book movie-making. It has no grand ambitions, no particular sense of style, and no philosophical overtones. But what it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan has a quiet but commanding presence, and that Irish lilt is irresistible. (Not since Jennifer Ehle was Elizabeth Bennett have I been so ready to fall in love with a leading lady.) It’s a wonderful performance, and it’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.

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My favourite comedy of the year was Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially — with a notable exception — are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to Stillman’s comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.

Beckinsale dominates the film, but the supporting cast is good. The amiable fool Sir James Martin stands out as a particularly wonderful character; a cheerful idiot whose good intentions leave him ill-prepared to contend against Lady Susan’s wiles; he is played with hilarious volubility by Tom Bennett.

Love & Friendship has its laugh out loud moments, but it’s also a film that has humour in its very bones: in a sense, everything in the film is funny, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, and the tone. Even the music, which has been judiciously chosen and carefully integrated into the action, has a comedic role to play. The whole package is highly enjoyable. Decidedly enjoyable. Not unenjoyable at all.

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My runner-up comedy is 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be, a war-time film about the Nazi invasion of Poland that dared to make the Nazi war machine the subject of farce. One can still sense the dangerous edge of the humour, and apparently the film did offend viewers when first released. But it is easier now to appreciate how well the film is made, to enjoy how delightfully funny it is, and to admire the chutzpah of those who made it.

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Several films caught my eye this year partly on account of their unusual formal elements.

Dietrich Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross), from 2014, follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Bruggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and that ‘almost’ is key. On one level the film is not really, per se, about this fringe sect, but about the hazards encountered by any group that finds itself positioned against a majority while trying to retain its own intrinsic nature and culture. The issue is not about whether they are right to resist the larger culture — and this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be, fraught with loneliness and isolation, and fringed with risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s a potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

***

Personal sacrifice also plays an important role in La Sapienza (2014), from writer/director Eugène Green, albeit in a different way and with very different results. The film introduces us to Alexandre, a successful architect who, in the midst of honours bestowed upon him, finds he regrets the principles he has followed in his art. He resolves to travel to Italy to study the works of Borromini, the idol of his younger days. His wife, from whom he is very nearly estranged, comes with him initially, but, as it falls out, it is instead a young man, a budding architecture student, who accompanies him to Rome.

Rome! Over the years I’ve tracked down quite a number of films made in the Eternal City simply for the pleasure of watching the backgrounds, but never have I encountered, or even hoped to encounter, a film that puts the city on such loving display as does La Sapienza. The camera fairly caresses the marble facades, and the viewer is invited to bask in the many beauties on display. To call it magnificent is to undersell it.

But the film is more than surfaces: Green, though the adoption of a whole battery of highly unusual conventions in perspective and acting style, asks us to contemplate the depths that surfaces conceal, and to entertain the thought that beauty might be more than just in the eye of the beholder. It is a film that slowly creates around itself a space in which mysterious currents of the spirit flow. It’s rather profound and very lovely, and is unseen, I believe, by almost everyone. (Again, I’ve written a brief essay about it for Light on Dark Water.)

***

As great as are the challenges posed by these last few films, they pale when set beside Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor that, after several viewings, has left me with the sense that I have still only dimly understood it.

The difficulties don’t lie in the basic structure of the film, which is clear enough: we follow Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, explicitly so, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

Many reviewers have said that the film is about the superficiality of Hollywood, but this commits the error of taking literally a film that, it seems to me, takes place almost entirely on an analogical or metaphorical plane. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells. Hollywood comes into it only because fairy tales work best when the contrasts are bold and consistent, and nothing says pomp and empty promises like Hollywood.

The difficulties of the film lie not in its structure, then, but in its manner. Malick’s recent stylistic hallmarks, following on from To the Wonder, are presented undiluted: almost no on-screen dialogue — and what little there is is often sunk into the mix and made unintelligible — intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, discontinuous editing, and — a saving grace — gorgeous cinematography. The images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is often difficult to discern: waves on a shoreline, a city skyline, a road, Rick and one of his (many) girlfriends circling one another, the sun, a swimming pool. It seems to follow a dream logic (and indeed we are told in the first minute of the film that, like Pilgrim’s Progress, it will be “delivered under the similitude of a dream”). This dream aspect allows Malick to mix realism and visual metaphor with gusto. When Rick, at a strip club, crawls into a gilded cage, we understand that a point is being made, and the point is clear. When he stands at a fence gazing at a line of distant palm trees the point may be less evident, until we remember that someone had earlier told him, “You see the palm trees? They tell you anything is possible.” But is this the “possible” of formless self-invention or the authentic “possible” of escaping unreality for reality? Palm trees are trees, tall and thin, which in Malick’s visual vocabulary usually makes them signs of transcendence, reaching instinctively toward the sun.

This call of the transcendent will not leave Rick alone. It seems always present, like the distant roar of the ocean, recalling him to himself especially in his moments of greatest debauchery and aggrandizement. Even when he hears it, however, and even when he heeds it, he faces a recurring question: “How do I begin?” His life’s rotating door for beautiful women testifies to his confusion, for in eros he perceives an intimation of the reality he seeks, though more often than not he mistakes the sign for the reality itself. At one point we hear in voiceover an excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which feminine beauty is said to remind the soul of the wings which it has lost, evoking in it a desire for flight.

He does eventually begin to recover the thread of his quest, spurred to a significant degree, it seems, by an act of violence that disturbs his restless reverie. He begins to take an interest in meditation, he visits a priest, and, eventually, in one of the more purely metaphorical scenes, he sets foot on the lower slopes of a steep mountain. The resonances with Sinai and Purgatory are very much intended, I expect.

The texture of the film is complex, right down to the sound design. There are moments when there are 3 or even 4 layers of audible “action” occurring at once: on-screen dialogue, interwoven voices of different characters musing to themselves, a narrator, along with music or other sounds. A distinctive feature is that there is almost always a low hum present in the soundtrack; true silence is rare. And this hum is ambiguous, for sometimes it turns out to be the sound of wind or, as I have said, of waves on the shore, but at other times it becomes the sound of a passing car or airplane. It thereby co-operates in one of the film’s leading formal strategies, which is the contrast of the natural world, understood as God’s world, with the textures of modern urban life, the quintessential city of man.

My principal reservations about Knight of Cups pertain to the visual strategy, and in particular to the seemingly disconnected way in which the images sometimes succeed one another. I’ve already conceded that there may be a governing symbolic logic to these sequences, but is the viewer sufficiently tutored in that logic as to able to follow it? A truly great filmmaker should not waste a shot, and while I am convinced that Malick is certainly a great filmmaker, there were moments in Knight of Cups where I was not sure it was a great film, and precisely on these grounds. My jury is still out. The film requires thoughtful attention.

I want to link to two very good essays on the film. At Mubi, Josh Cabrita explores the Christian themes in Malick’s films generally and in Knight of Cups in particular, and at Curator magazine Trevor Logan considers the film from a specifically Kierkegaardian point of view.

***

Successful filmmakers are talented people, and it stands to reason that they might have put those talents to uses other than making movies. Are movies worth committing one’s life to? This is the question explored by the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar!, an introspective but witty and appreciative look at the means and ends of movie-making. Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it follows a studio executive (Josh Brolin) who has his hands full dealing with the personal foibles of his stars, the intrusive probings of the press, and the many challenges of putting a picture together, all the while pondering an offer to move out of the movie business and into a more practical and respectable line of work. It’s a paen to old-time movies — the Coens take us on set of a number of different productions, but rather than giving us a cursory look they, rather affectionately one feels, let each scene play out in its entirety before moving on — and a good-natured satire on Hollywood too, with bubble-headed big stars in one corner and coteries of Communists hatching dark conspiracies in another. Tonally it’s an odd duck, with farcical elements playing on the surface but serious questions about the value of art underneath. Nevermind, though; the Coens can handle it. Noteworthy are a number of fantastic bit parts played by Scarlet Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, and Ralph Fiennes (whose comic turn as drawing-room drama director Laurence Laurentz is a riot). It’s not quite the greatest story ever told, but it comes closer than you might think.

***

The best horror film I saw this year (from a small sample) was The Witch, the debut of director Robert Eggers. I’ve heard it said that the principal challenge of directing a film lies not so much in the technical aspects, nor specifically in working with the actors and the cameras, but in maintaining a tonal consistency throughout the process, so that the finished product comes to the screen feeling organically put together. Based on this criterion, Eggers is to the manner born. His film rests largely on precisely this careful calibration of tone to generate and maintain suspense. Much of the success of the movie is presumably due to his careful preparation; I understand he gestated this project for several years, doing a great deal of background work to bring the authentic textures of seventeenth-century New England life, including the distinctive cadences of their speech, to the screen.

The movie, which is subtitled “A New-England Folktale”, is about a Puritan family, banished from their community, trying to establish a new farm in a hard-scrabble wilderness on the edge of a great forest. (The location, in all its glorious desolation, was filmed not all that far from where I live.) They experience a series of strange and increasingly disturbing events that hint at the activity of a malevolent supernatural force dwelling in the forest, and the movie follows them as they do their best to contend against it. It’s a slow movie, heavy on atmosphere and dread, that, at least for most of the runtime, keeps its secrets under wrap.

The film has faults. I have particular reservations about the acting of one of the characters (I shant say which), and, like many people, I have some doubts about the way Eggers chose to end the film. However when first I saw it my principal objection was this: in the world of this movie the power of evil is palpable and effective, but the power of good seems impotent. Prayers for safety and deliverance fall, for all we can tell, into the void, and all the while something definitely not imaginary is encroaching on this family’s peace. This is not only a theological problem, but a dramatic one, for there can be no contest of good and evil if goodness is absent. However when I reflected on the initial setup of the story — that this is not simply depicting a Christian family, but a family that has been cast out from the Church — then in a curious way their impotence before the evil that confronts them might be interpreted as a reaffirmation that extra ecclesiam nulla salus. But this still doesn’t solve the dramatic problem.

***

George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988) is a superb psychological thriller about a man whose wife goes missing while they are on holiday. Part of the tension of the film relates to what happened to her, but much of it is focused on the husband left behind. How can he carry on with his life without knowing what become of her? What would he do if she came back? Can he let her go? What would he do to find out what happened to her? At its heart it’s a love story, and a rather convincing one. It is also a study in the psychology of evil, for we spend much of the film observing a third character who is up to no good. Sluizer’s direction is unobtrusive and perhaps a bit flat, though there are a few key shots that use the camera very effectively.

The Vanishing is sometimes classified as a horror film. I knew this going in, but was puzzled as I watched, for it didn’t seem to have any horror elements at all. But no: having seen it to the end, it earns its horror film credentials, in spades.

Note that I’m praising here Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch-language film (also called Spoorloos). He re-made the film in English in Hollywood in 1993, but that version I hear is dreadful (and not in a good way).

***

The Hunt is a 2012 Danish film that depicts what happens to a small, closely-knit community when one of its members is accused of a terrible crime. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) helps at his village’s kindergarten, but his life becomes a nightmare when he is (wrongly, as we the viewers know from the start) suspected of sexually assaulting one of the children. This is dark subject matter — though not so dark as if the allegations were true — but it nonetheless makes for riveting drama. Friendships rupture, fear and mistrust spread through the community, and Lucas, of course, is ostracized and personally devastated.

The film is notable not just for its exploration of personal relationships subjected to intense strain, but for its implicit criticism of well-intentioned “zero tolerance” policies. So much that goes wrong in this village goes wrong because “best practices” are allowed to replace prudential human judgment. Naturally, such policies and practices are intended to promote justice, but The Hunt illustrates how easily the opposite can result.

***

Rounding out my Top 10 is About Elly, from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. It was originally made in 2009 but only got an international release in 2015, and I caught up with it this year. It’s a stunner.

The story is about a group of families who go together to a beach-house for the weekend. One of the families invites their child’s teacher, Elly, to come along as a guest. The first half of the film is a loose study of how this group of people interact with one another, how certain personalities dominate, what they think of one another, and how they include or subtly exclude their guest. With deft use of foreground and background and reliance on multiple overlapping conversations it feels like a Robert Altman masterclass, while also preparing us for the film’s crucial sequence.

In that sequence, which occurs at about the mid-point, something happens (which I’ll not reveal); when it is over Elly is gone and no-one is sure where. The second half of the film is then a drama exploring how all of those relationships we learned about in the first half change under stress. We are shown the devastating power of lies, and the film finally arrives at a point where the duty to tell the truth is surpassingly clear and pressing. It’s a terrific movie.

***

Brief thoughts on other films

Apart from the few runners-up already indicated, I also enjoyed this year the CGI-animated The Jungle Book, though it’ll not replace the 1967 film in my affections, and the documentary The Look of Silence, a follow-up to The Act of Killing from Joshua Oppenheimer, a man with a fair claim to be the world’s bravest filmmaker. I saw Spotlight, Best Picture winner at the 2016 Oscars, and while I thought it was quite good, and appreciated its willingness to tell its story clearly and soberly, it wasn’t as good as its model, All the President’s Men (1976), which I also saw this year. Other highlights for me were the harrowing escape drama Green Room, with Patrick Stewart a superb villain, and the off-beat but delightful Bird People, about … bird people.

*

In the waning days of the year I was unexpectedly able to see Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time. This film has been released in two versions: a 90-minute version for regular theatres and a 40-minute version for IMAX theatres. It was the latter that I saw, at our local science centre, with two of my kids and a crowd of holidaying families. This was a bit like going to Disneyland and finding an exhibition of Rembrandt and Titian. My guess is that few of those present were expecting this contemplative, philosophical pondering of what natural history tells us about the universe and ourselves. Malick wonders about the origin of being, about whether consciousness preexists created minds, and whether it is love that animates and unites the natural order. The film is visually stunning — imagine a longer version of the creation sequence in The Tree of Life — and the music, dominated by Mahler 2, Arvo Pärt, and the Mass in B Minor, is superb.

I loved it. I must say, too, that I was proud of my kids (5yo and 7yo), who were fully engaged with it throughout. Eldest Daughter’s favourite part was a quiet moment in which the camera floated gently down a stream between high canyon walls — a lovely moment, to be sure — and Eldest Son’s favourite part was the space shuttle launch — in truth, this was part of the pre-film demonstration of the IMAX theatre’s sound system, but he did very well. Now, if only I could see the longer version…

*

Did you see Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films? I suffered through the first two but dodged the third. But this year I learned that an enterprising fan had edited the trilogy to exclude anything not in the book, which cuts the run-time in half. This Tolkien Edit I did see, and while I would not quite call it good, it was decently enjoyable, and certainly far superior to the theatrical versions.

***

Miscellanea

Oldest films: Dante’s Inferno (1911); Safety Last! (1923); The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Newest films: Voyage of Time: IMAX (October); The Conjuring 2 (June); The Jungle Book (April)

Most films by the same director(s): 4 (Coen Brothers & Terrence Malick)

Longest films: The Right Stuff (1983) [3h13m]; Magnolia (1999) [3h08m]; Fanny and Alexander (1982) [3h08m]

Shortest films: World of Tomorrow (2015) [0h17m]; Night and Fog (1955) [0h32m]; Voyage of Time: IMAX (2016) [0h40m]

Started, but not finished: Dazed and Confused (1993), The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Disappointments: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Safe (1995), The Right Stuff (1983)

Films I failed to understand: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000); La double vie de Véronique (1991)

Most egregious foregrounding of bad music: Sing Street (2016)

Best hagiography: Jean la Pucelle (1994)

Scariest goat: The Witch (2015)

***

And that, more or less, was my year in movies. Comments welcome!

Favourites of 2013: Film

January 10, 2014

I had another fairly instructive year at the movies. Last year in my annual round-up I mentioned that I had been trying, in a desultory manner, to educate myself by viewing films with some claim to classic status. That enterprise continued this year, except that I expunged all traces of the desultory from my efforts: I established a kind of system (which, for fear of ridicule, I shall not unfold in all its glorious complexity) to ensure that my film viewing would be both entertaining and improving, stretching the (mostly temporal) boundaries within which I have traditionally confined myself. Sad to say, much of that good seed fell on hard soil, or was choked by weeds, or trampled underfoot, and I feel it has borne relatively little fruit. As will be evident in a moment, most of the films I most enjoyed this year were of recent provenance, and I am just a little bit ashamed of that.

This year, for example, I went back and watched the very earliest films on record: the Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), the short films of the Lumière Brothers (c.1895), and the first narrative film, A Trip to the Moon (1902). I watched a few early horror films of the German expressionist school (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922)) and some early American films about wartime (The Birth of a Nation (1915), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Gone with the Wind (1939)). I made a point of watching films by highly regarded directors, such as Hitchcock [Notorious (1946)], Wilder [Sunset Boulevard (1950)], Kurosawa [Seven Samurai (1954)], Dreyer [Ordet (1955)], Altman [M*A*S*H (1970)], Tarkovsky [Solaris (1972)], Mamet [Homicide (1991)], and Anderson [The Master (2012)]; these I appreciated to greater and lesser extents, but none of them, at least on first acquaintance, have found much of a place in my heart.

la-promesse-150x150A highlight of my year was a “Dardenne Brothers Film Festival”, in which I discovered the work of the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. I watched La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002), L’Enfant (2005), and Le Gamin au vélo (2011), the last of which I discuss in more detail below. These are great films. The Dardennes have a distinctive aesthetic: handheld cameras, spare dialogue, long takes, shots often taken through door frames or half-blocked by corners, and so on. dardenne-rosettaThey have a particular fondness, which grows endearing, for filming the backs of their characters’ heads. There are thematic elements too that crop up again and again and make their films into something like a unified body of work. In each film they are looking at the economic underclass, people on the brink of poverty who often resort to blackmarkets or other illegalities to stay afloat. le-fils-150x150All of their films are intensely concerned with the relationships of parents and children, and especially with the role of fathers in the lives of children. But perhaps what is most characteristic of their films, and also most interesting, is their keen moral sense. Though their characters live buffeted by all kinds of pressures and act from all sorts of motives, we are never allowed to forget — and neither are they — that they are moral beings facing specifically moral decisions. enfant-150x150Not that the films are “moralizing” in a perjorative sense, but the films exist in a moral universe. In 2011 the Dardennes were awarded the Robert Bresson Prize, given to filmmakers whose work “has given a testimony, significant on account of its sincerity and intensity, of the difficult road in search of the spiritual meaning of our life.” They deserved it.

***

Now a few thoughts about the films I most enjoyed this year, more or less in descending order:

to_the_wonder_20244To the Wonder
(Terrence Malick, 2012)

With each new film he makes, Terrence Malick is rising steadily in my personal pantheon of filmmakers. That is not to say that each new film is better than its predecessor — To the Wonder is a lesser achievement than The Tree of Life in just about every respect — but the more experience I have of his work the more I find myself sinking into it, soaking it up. At this point, I am ready to give myself up to his films, floating along with his camera like a feather on the wind.

To the Wonder is in many respects his most challenging film yet. There is no question that it is visually and aurally gorgeous, but it makes few concessions to familiar cinematic conventions. It’s elliptical and elusive, with many narrative gaps and almost no on-screen dialogue — Malick’s penchant for voice-over is here taken to an extreme. Where most of Malick’s films invite a contemplative viewing, To the Wonder comes close to requiring it. It divided the audience at its premiere, and is likely to go on doing so.

The story centers around an American man, played by Ben Affleck, and his relationship with a French woman, played by Olga Kurylenko. They fall in love in France — there is a glorious sequence filmed at Mont St. Michel that lifted me up to the fourth or fifth heaven — but they eventually move to Texas where, for various reasons, most of which are only hinted at, their romance falters and the hard business of loving one another begins. Where The Tree of Life was concerned with exploring the meaning of grace, To the Wonder is about love: what is it? what does it mean? what does it feel like? how is it lived? where does it come from?

Malick explores these themes by contrasting the central romantic relationship with that of another character: a priest in the town where the couple settles (played by Javier Bardem). He is a good man who spends his days visiting the poor and sick, and who preaches from the pulpit with wisdom and authority, but who, rather like Bernanos’ country priest, is inwardly dry, steadfastly longing for God but finding no consolation in Him; he feels abandoned and alone. Nonetheless, he carries on with faith and hope, day in and day out.

My reading of the film is that Malick has set before us two understandings of love: one founded on romantic feeling, intense and spontaneous, and another founded on commitment, tenacious and steadfast. Which is the more attractive? Which is the more fruitful? Which brings the most happiness? The answers will vary from viewer to viewer, though I think I know where Malick comes down. There is, after all, little reason for the priest to appear in the film apart from his value as a provoking counterpoint.

This is not the first Malick film I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with his work; it is too saturated with unfamiliar techniques that, to the uninitiated, would be alienating. It is also a film with a remarkably cool, distant tone (though I think this is intentional and is related to the film’s moral attitude toward commitment). And it is admittedly a flawed film, with an awkward structure and a certain lack of cohesion. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly beautiful film that poses big questions and is finally, I think, a loving address to “the love that loves us”. It is my favourite film of the year.

*

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days4months
(Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

I hesitate to mention this film, not because it is not an excellent film — it is, emphatically — but because it is a difficult film to watch. Nonetheless, here we are. The film is set in Romania in the 1980s, under the Ceauşescu regime, and it tells the story of a woman who, with the help of a friend, procures an illegal abortion.

Both the style and the content of the film deserve comment. It is stylistically very dry: there are long, wide shots in which the camera is stationary, no overdubbed music as far as I recall, and in general a studied absence of overt effects. This does not at all mean that the film is artless: there is one scene, of a dinner party, that includes a single, static, long shot that is agonizingly great; I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it before. In general the director seems determined simply to show us his story, without getting in the way. This even-handedness extends to the story itself, which, on one hand, confirms everything that a pro-choice advocate believes: yes, this woman seeks her abortion on the black market, and yes, it is far more dangerous for her than it would be in our fair land. The film is right to portray this. We understand her desperation and we sympathize with it. But the force of those arguments is blunted beyond repair by the unsparing commitment of the filmmaker to show us what is actually happening. The quiet, apparently emotionless deliberateness with which the film proceeds grows increasingly sickening, and the director grants us no easy evasions. As such, I cannot believe that anyone could watch 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days without profound sorrow and disgust. Normally that would not be the way to recommend a film, but this is an exception. The final scene, in which the two friends sit together after the immediate terrors have passed, is understated but devastatingly effective.

*

kidwithbike-150x150Le Gamin au Vélo
(The Kid with a Bike)

(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011)

As I mentioned above, most of the Dardenne’s films are about the relationships of fathers and sons, and the same is true here but with this difference: the father is absent. They give us a probing portrait of the devastation wrought in the heart of the son by such absence. Rejected and abandoned, young Cyril is taken in by a local woman, Samantha, who becomes a steady friend to him. (The scene of Cyril’s first chance encounter with her is wonderfully handled by the Dardennes; this is understated direction at its best.) I loved that Samantha’s brave and unselfish solicitude for him was presented without any fanfare or underlining; goodness is so attractive that it can be trusted to shine even without a spotlight.

The film is morally serious: it is about taking responsibility for one’s actions (explored in a number of mutually impacting ways), about moral failure and moral heroism, about children’s need for love and role models, about forgiveness, and about the importance of families. The characters are richly drawn, and the relationships believable. Even the title is resonant: on one level it blandly refers to Cyril and the bicycle he rides around, but in the film the bicycle serves as a kind of symbol or stand-in for his father, and the title assumes a sadly wry undertone when we realize that Cyril is finally a kid with … just a bike. Ouch. The spare use of music in the film is superb: the Dardennes normally don’t put a “soundtrack” over the sounds their microphone picks up, but here they break their rule at key points, playing the opening chords of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, and it adds another dimension to the film that works superbly well.

*

gravityGravity
(Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)

Alfonso Cuaron has a reputation, I believe, as one of the more talented and serious directors of his generation — though I confess that I have not myself seen any of his other films — so I was surprised to find him at the helm of Gravity, which on paper sounds more or less like a straightforward thriller, the likes of which Hollywood churns out in quantity: astronauts cut-off from mission control by an in-orbit disaster must somehow find their way back to earth. It just goes to show that a good director makes all the difference between a paint-by-numbers thriller and a dazzling feat of cinematic virtuosity. From the acrobatic opening shot — which lasts for something between 13 and 17 minutes (depending on who you believe) — it is clear that we are in the hands of a master, and Cuaron sees his story, simple as it is, through to its white-knuckle finale with a sure hand. In the end, it is a fairly slight tale, filled out sparely but effectively with enough backstory to give the characters weight (so to speak) and some suggestive thematic elements. (I recommend Adam Hincks’ analysis of the film for insight into this deeper matter.) The principal glory of the film is its visual splendour: Cuaron works here with Emmanuel Lubezki — also Terrence Malick’s go-to cinematographer, note well — and the images he puts on screen, together with the choreography of the camera movement in the three-dimensional weightless environment, made this one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences that I have had in years.

*

City Lightscity lights
(Charlie Chaplin, 1931)

My first Charlie Chaplin film. From the opening scene, in which the Tramp is caught sleeping on a public monument as it is unveiled before a great crowd, I was won over. The story, about the awkward but sweet relationship between the mute Tramp and a blind woman, packs a big emotional punch at the film’s climax. I followed up by watching Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), a more overtly political film, and while I thought it was delightful it didn’t displace City Lights in my affections.

*

a_serious_manA Serious Man
(Coen Brothers, 2009)

When A Serious Man was in theatres a few years ago I had the impression that it was a “minor Coen Brothers” film, something to file beside The Man who Wasn’t There or (*cough*) Intolerable Cruelty. I’m now fairly sure that was wrong. Certainly it is a mesmerizing film in its own quiet way. Larry Gopnik is a middle-aged physics professor (!) whose life begins, piece by piece but rapidly, to fall apart: his wife wants a divorce, a student tries to bribe him, his brother cannot be dislodged from his couch, and odd coincidences unsettle him. The film is tonally very interesting: the general feeling is one of subdued and uneasy anticipation, even dread, yet step back a bit and the comic elements jump out. Indeed, the film as a whole is structured like a Jewish joke (“There were three rabbis in a small town…”). The first ten minutes of the film, a Jewish folktale offered by way of prologue, are perhaps the best ten minutes of cinema I saw all year. Absolutely delicious. And the ending too is a knockout. I’m not yet sure if A Serious Man is a “major Coen Brothers” film, but I definitely want to see it again. This trailer plays up the comic element more than the film itself does:

***

Other films I enjoyed: Anna Karenina (2012), The Conjuring (2013), Great Expectations (1946), A Late Quartet (2011), Lourdes (2009), Modern Times (1936), Much Ado About Nothing (2012), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Favourites of 2013: Classical music

January 8, 2014

My music listening this year was anchored by a few large listening projects: I marked the anniversary years of Verdi, Wagner, and Britten by dedicating a good deal of time to hearing their major works again — or, in some cases, for the first time. Given the composers involved, much of this music was opera, and I tried when possible to watch performances of their operas on DVD. I’ve written about some of that music in the consistently unpopular “Great moments in opera” series that I’ve been running (and a few more anniversary-related instalments will trickle out over the next month or two).

I had planned a bunch of other focused listening projects for the year too — Beethoven’s symphonies, Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, Schubert’s piano sonatas — but I didn’t get to them. They are bumped to 2014.

In the meantime, I’d like to share notes on a few of the best recordings I heard for the first time this year. In most cases these are new or new-ish recordings, but not in all. The predominance of vocal music reflects my interests. The ordering of this list is capricious.

weinberg-violinWeinberg: Complete Violin Sonatas
Linus Roth, Jose Gallardo
(Challenge, 2013)

For the last few years music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg has figured in my year-end accolades, and the same is true this year. This three-disc set is the first complete recorded set of Weinberg’s music for violin and piano, and what a treasure it is! Weinberg wrote six very substantial violin sonatas that exhibit the same musical intelligence and emotional heft that I have admired in his string quartets. As I said of the quartets, this music is “music all the way down”: no pedantry, no gimmicks, no self-conscious preoccupation with the music or its manner of composition — just good, smart, heart-felt music that is full of variety and endlessly interesting. I am happy to see Weinberg’s star rising higher on the strength of recordings like this one. Move over, Prokofiev.

Here is a brief video with musical excerpts and interviews with the musicians:

Elgar: The ApostlesElgar_Apostles
Halle Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder
(Halle, 2012)

This recording of Elgar’s oratorio about the life of Christ, from the calling of the apostles to the Ascension, won BBC Music Magazine’s “Recording of the Year”; there may have been some Anglo-centric prejudice informing that decision, but this is a terrific performance of a piece that hasn’t been very well served on record (and which, I suspect, might not finally be top-shelf music). The great fear with Elgar is that amateur British choral societies are going to get their hands on him, serving up bloated and sentimental renditions of his music before the potluck. It is amazing to hear this music sung as crisply and clearly as it is here, with a cool glow and as much dramatic emphasis as the music can bear without buckling. The singing is really tremendous, especially in the choral sections, and the sound is as clear and vivid as one could hope for. This recording has made me reconsider the merits of this piece, and made the reconsideration a pleasure. [Listen to excerpts]

Wagner--Kaufmann-Jonas-Runnicles-Donald-ODOBWagner
Jonas Kaufmann
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Donald Runnicles

(Decca, 2013)

Jonas Kaufmann, who glowers from the front cover of this CD, is considered one of the leading tenors in the opera world today, and he really is prodigiously gifted: a magnificent voice that rings from top to bottom, great power, and keen dramatic instincts. It is this last that has most impressed me on this disc of Wagner extracts. For all that Wagner was undoubtedly a great composer, it has nevertheless often seemed to me that his genius was principally manifest in his orchestral writing, and that his vocal lines were largely meandering eddies floating atop the surging currents, lacking dramatic shape and melodic interest in themselves. I won’t say that this recording has changed my opinion about his melodic gifts, but it has certainly made me reconsider my assessment of the dramatic shape of his writing. Never before have I heard Wagner sung in a way that brought out the taut dramatic energy, the sheer poise and responsiveness of the part as much as Kaufmann does. He has helped me to hear Wagner with new appreciation, and that is enough to get this recording onto this list.

Libera Nos: The Cry of the Oppressedlibera-nos
Contrapunctus, Owen Rees
(Signum, 2013)

The programme on this CD is a well-conceived one, gathering together a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century choral works on the themes of oppression and liberation by English and Portuguese composers. English Catholics in this period suffered persecution by the authorities, and Portugal was under the domination of the Spanish monarchy. Composers turned to these (mostly) liturgical texts to express their prayers for deliverance with a degree of personal feeling that is rare in public ecclesiastical music. The music is breathtakingly beautiful, of course, and the singing on this recording is very distinguished. Contrapunctus is a British choir formed in 2010; this is their first recording. They are a small ensemble of about ten voices, men and women, and they sing with astounding clarity and beauty; I don’t hear any problems anywhere. The multi-layered harmonic and rhythmic complexity of these pieces comes across sounding effortless (which it certainly is not) and, what is more important for this particular programme, there is nothing impersonal about the singing: it has a plaintive, striving quality that suits these pieces very well. Top shelf. [Listen to excerpts]

ockeghemOckeghem: Missa Mi-Mi
Cappella Pratensis, Rebecca Stewart
(Ricercar, 1999)

It was a year or two ago that I discovered the Dutch ensemble Cappella Pratensis. I liked them well enough to go searching through their back catalogue, and in this recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Mi-Mi I found a real gem. This Mass is one of Ockeghem’s most frequently recorded, and I have heard it many times, but never with this degree of translucence and calm repose. I tend to bristle at the common view that the music of this period is “relaxing” or “peaceful”, as though these frequently very difficult, intricate, and rigourously structured compositions were merely a kind of soporific. Yet in this case there would be something to that rough characterization, for this ensemble finds in this music a spaciousness and gentleness that lifts the eyes and touches the heart in a quite special way. The music breathes in long, slow rhythms, unhurried, as though content, at each moment, simply to be an expression of praise and a profusion of beauty. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Ockeghem sung in this way before; I don’t know that I ever will again. The Mass is presented in a quasi-liturgical context, embedded within the Propers for the Mass of Holy Thursday, and the programme ends with Ockeghem’s magnificent motet Intemerata Dei mater.

Here is the Kyrie of the Missa Mi-Mi:

Bach: Cantatas, Vol.55Suzuki-Bach_Cantatas_55
Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki
(BIS, 2013)

This disc is on this list not so much for its own merits — although it is exceptionally good — but for what it represents: the completion of Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan’s twenty-years-long project to record all of Bach’s surviving cantatas. Should I be ashamed to admit that I have collected all fifty-five volumes? Maybe so, but think of all the beer I didn’t buy. Japan might not be the country we think of first when we think of Bach (quite wrongly, perhaps), but the proof is in the pudding: the performances on this disc and across the whole set have been consistently excellent. Suzuki’s approach to the music is “historically informed”, which means in practice that the choir is small and lithe, the textures light, and the rhythms sprightly. It’s Bach played and sung just the way I like it. Here is the Bach Collegium Japan performing one of the cantatas on this final disc. Bravo!

sainte-chapelleWhitacre: Sainte-Chapelle
Tallis Scholars
(Gimell, 2013)

Eric Whitacre is one of the more successful young composers working today. As far as I know, he writes mostly choral music, in an accessible idiom within the reach of amateur choirs, and quite a few recordings of his music are now available. He was commissioned by the Tallis Scholars to write a piece to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their founding, and he came up with Sainte-Chapelle, a piece which imagines the stained-glass angels in that beautiful church singing the Sanctus. The piece was premiered early in 2013 and recorded shortly thereafter. It must be said that it is a gorgeous piece, growing in energy and luminosity as it goes. I had never before heard the Tallis Scholars sing anything other than Renaissance polyphony, but Whitacre’s writing respects their area of specialization, growing out a plainchant melody just as so many Renaissance pieces do. I’ve played this recording so frequently this year that I cannot but include it on this year-end list.

***

Honourable mentions:

ludfordLudford: Missa Regnum mundi
Blue Heron
(Blue Heron, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]

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schubertSchubert: Nacht und Traume
Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz
(Harmonia Mundi, 2011)
[Listen]

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howells-requiemHowells: Requiem
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Stephen Layton
(Hyperion, 2012)
[Watch] [Listen]

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yoffe-songofsongsYoffe: Song of Songs
Rosamunde Quartett, Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2011)
[Listen]

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philippe-herreweghe-victoria-officium-defunctorumVictoria: Officium Defunctorum
Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2013)
[Listen]

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mahler2-zanderMahler: Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Sarah Connolly, Miah Persson
Philharmonia Orchestra, Benjamin Zander
(Linn, 2013)
[Listen]

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praetorius-adventPraetorius: Advent and Christmas Music
Bremer Barock Consort, Manfred Cordes
(CPO, 2007)

 

Favourites of 2013: Books

January 3, 2014

As the pace of my life has accelerated and my hours of sleep have dwindled in recent years, I have become a little more exacting about the books I admit to my reading queue. At the beginning of 2013 I drew up a list of about thirty titles that I intended to read over the course of the year. Looking at that list again today, I see that I only half-succeeded. Well, at least I have a good start on my list for 2014.

Part of the reason for my slow progress was that I decided, mid-year, to ease up on my explorations of that vast ocean of “Books I Have Not Read.” I paused, took a deep breath, and went back to re-read some things that I had enjoyed on first acquaintance and always meant to return to. This was a good practice, and I am planning to continue it in the new year.

Among the books I did read this year, a few stood out as being particularly good.

Non-fiction

taruskin_3DCCOxford History of Western Music, Vol.V
Richard Taruskin [2005]

Let this final volume in Taruskin’s massive, and massively enjoyable, history stand in for the whole set, which I read in its entirety over the last few years. It is an amazing tour de force of historical and critical exposition, plump with enlightening remarks and (for the most part) accessible discussion of musical developments over the past thousand years of western culture. Taruskin is reputedly one of the world’s foremost musicologists, and in these volumes he has given music lovers an invaluable gift. A treasure. [Book Note]

Into the Silent Landlaird
Martin Laird [2006]

There are many books available about Christian contemplative prayer, and I have read a few over the years. This may be the best one that has come my way, not so much for sheer profundity, but for the way it strikes a nice balance between profundity and accessibility. Laird writes with a gentle authority which seems rooted in personal experience, and with sensitivity to the impediments which the beginner can expect to encounter. I found it an instructive and edifying book. [Book Note]

wildThe Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic
Robert Wild [2013]

I intend to write more about this book in the coming weeks, but I can make some brief comments here. Many books have been written about Chesterton, but Fr. Wild attempts something that I have not seen before: to describe the basic contours of Chesterton’s spiritual life. Fr. Wild argues that Chesterton is a kind of mystic, gifted with a special awareness of what he calls ‘the thereness-of-being-coming-forth’ — that is, an habitual apprehension of the contingency of creation and its dependence on God’s creative power for its continued existence. The argument is developed carefully and persuasively, drawing on a wide range of Chesterton’s writings. He goes on to argue not only that Chesterton lived this “Creator mysticism,” but that he had it in virtue of a special divine grace. That is harder to demonstrate, but the whole line of argument will surely be of special interest to the Bishop of Northampton. A stimulating read.

Fiction

Doctor FaustusDoctor Faustus
Thomas Mann [1947]

It had been about ten years since I last read this wonderful novel; I am so glad that I took the time to revisit it. It is, of course, Mann’s modernized rendering of the Faust myth. The central character, Adrian Leverkuhn, is a composer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a lifetime of creative genius and worldwide acclaim. I do not know why this book is not more widely read and more lavishly praised; few twentieth-century novels are its superior. Mann’s writing is superb: elegant, elaborate, and precise, with a charming loquacity that never wears out its welcome. It poses as a memoir written during the Second World War by Adrian’s childhood friend, and the events of Adrian’s life parallel Germany’s ill-starred bid for power under Hitler. But it would be crude to reduce the book to a political allegory: at its heart it is, I believe, a meditation on creativity and the sources and costs of artistic genius. The supernatural elements of the tale are handled deftly and with considerable subtlety: we are left in some doubt as to whether Adrian in fact encountered the devil or whether his genius and his eventual madness are together rooted in a physical malady, albeit one with a moral aspect. The book is a treat for music lovers too, as it contains some of the finest literary prose about music that I have ever encountered; the section on Beethoven’s last piano sonata is especially transporting. It is a great book from start to finish.

quest-holy-grailThe Quest of the Holy Grail
Anonymous [c.1225]

This year I devoted quite a lot of time to reading Thomas Malory’s Arthurian tales, most of them in the Middle English of Caxton’s original printing. In the course of doing so, I revisited this story about the adventures of Gawain, Lancelot, Galahad, and others as they search for the Holy Grail. For me this story, of all those in the Le Morte d’Arthur cycle (that I have so far read), is the most resonant and moving. It seems to me that, simply because of the nature of the story it is telling, it can be naturally interpreted as both a rousing adventure tale and as an allegory of the Christian soul’s quest for Christ. More effectively than in The Pilgrim’s Progress (which is so dourly moralistic), this story informs the inner life of prayer and devotion with magnanimity, gallantry, and the other splendid virtues of the Arthurian moral universe. It is a truly magnificent book.

Paradise Lostmilton-paradise-lost
John Milton [1674]

Speaking of dour — well, that’s not a fair way to begin, and “dour” is not quite the right word. Maclin Horton reminded me of Dr. Johnson’s comment about Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer than it is”, and while I admit that I cannot help smiling with recognition at the truth of that, I will also confess that there were many points at which I was truly carried away, spell-bound, by the power of Milton’s poetry. His reputation as a stern taskmaster is not the whole story. He is perhaps hard to love, but he has my respect. And we English speakers are not so richly blessed with epic poems of genius that we can afford to be cavalier toward this one. Much has been made of the alleged attractiveness of Milton’s Satan; when I first read the poem some years ago I was willing to go along with it, but this time I was less convinced; Satan may be the most characterful figure in the story (and he is certainly far less problematic than Milton’s disastrous God character), but I did not find him remotely seductive.

As I read the poem, I leaned on two sources to help me better understand and appreciate it: Yale’s “Open Courses” lectures on Milton, and C.S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost. On balance, I do not recommend the former: the lecturer is so intent on discovering subtle and unexpected meanings that he routinely overlooks the obvious and evident (and sometimes opposite) meanings, and he too often exhibits what C.S. Lewis calls the “touching innocence” of critics who believe the claims of the father of lies; Satan’s absurd claim, for instance, that because he cannot remember his own creation he might — who can say? — be self-created is treated in these lectures as a kind of provoking paradox ripe with subversive wisdom. On the other hand, there was a very interesting discussion of how Milton, in his descriptions of pre-lapsarian Eden, uses words in such a way as to restore to them morally neutral meanings (for example, “error” is used to describe the wandering course of a river rather than a moral fault); that sort of thing I find fascinating. Lewis’ book, for its part, is outstanding; it’s an indispensable companion piece in my view, loaded with good sense and helpful background.

Children’s Books

toms midnightTom’s Midnight Garden
Philippa Pearce [1958]

We read a lot of books with the kids; given their ages, these are mostly picture books short enough to get through at bedtime. But I have also been making an effort to “scout ahead,” reading a few popular children’s books that they might be ready for in 5 or 10 years. Thus it was that I came to Philippa Pearce’s magical little novel about a boy’s nocturnal adventures in a mysterious garden behind the London house he is visiting. The story has its secrets to disclose — I guessed the general shape of them fairly early on — but for me the attraction of the book is not so much in the story as the atmosphere: the book has a dreamy, hushed quality that has lingered long in my memory. Perhaps it would be an unusually sensitive child who would apprehend that tonal dimension, but my general rule is to give the children books that have more in them than they know. As such, Tom’s Midnight Garden is for keeps.

The Tale of DespereauxTale_of_Despereaux
Kate DiCamillo [2003]

We like Kate DiCamillo for her “Bink and Gollie” book, so I thought it would be fun to try this novel about a valiant little mouse who saves a princess. We actually read the whole book to our four-year old, and she followed it all the way through. There were some thematic elements early on that made me wary — tiresome tropes about rejecting the traditions one inherits and embracing one’s unique inner mouse — but of course whether that is objectionable depends very much on what is being rejected and what is being embraced, and in the end I was won over. Despereaux, with his large ears and wide eyes, is a splendid little hero. DiCamillo sets him apart from his kind by making him especially attentive to beauty, and it is his love of beauty that ennobles him and opens up for him a world that his friends and relations do not perceive or understand. This seems an unusually terrific premise for a children’s book. The writing is lively and clear, with strong but not simplistic characters. I’ve heard that there’s a film version of the book, but I’ve also heard that it’s not very good. The book, by that measure, is better.

adventures-tom-sawyer-mark-twain-paperback-cover-artTom Sawyer
Mark Twain [1876]

Would you believe that prior to taking up Tom Sawyer I had never read anything by Mark Twain? For some reason I had assumed that he was a hack, writing “exciting” adventure stories without much substance to them. I got a fitting comeuppance. It is true that the book is fairly episodic, but when the episodes are this entertaining I can hardly complain. I did not read a funnier book all year, but I love the book chiefly for its wide-eyed evocation of boyhood: granting that Tom is unusually adventurous and mischievous and exaggerated for comic effect (few boys of his time, I imagine, played at Robinson Crusoe long enough to make an appearance at their own funerals), the writing has the ring of truth to it: the awkwardness around girls, the failure to think through consequences, the inattention to schedules and cleanliness. Chesterton once wrote that childhood was “like a hundred windows open on all sides of the head,” and something of that experience makes it into these pages. Huck Finn is on my reading list for 2014.

***

And that’s the kind of year it’s been. Comments and recommendations welcome!

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]