Posts Tagged ‘Favourites’

Favourites of 2014: Classical music

January 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

[Info] [Review]

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

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

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

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

[Info]

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

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

[Info] [Listen to samples]

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podger-angelGuardian Angel
Rachel Podger
(Channel, 2013)

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

[Info] [Listen to samples]

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invocation-schuchInvocation
Herbert Schuch
(Naive, 2014)

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

[Info] [Listen to samples]

Here is a promotional video for the disc:

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

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

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

[Info] [Review] [Listen to samples]

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Honourable mention:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourites of 2014: Popular music

January 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourites of 2014: Books

January 2, 2015

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

I’ll begin today with books.

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

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

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

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

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

books2014

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

Favourites of 2012: Film

December 27, 2012

I didn’t go often to the cinema in 2012, but I did manage to see quite a few films at home. I’ve divided the films below into those which were new — either in theater or on DVD — in 2012, and those which were older but which I saw for the first time this year.

I have said before that I am a film-going dullard, with little innate feel for the medium and a poor acquaintance with its history. This year I made a concerted effort to overcome some of this ignorance by watching a number of “classics”. I saw films by great directors like Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Orsen Welles (The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story), Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and even Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown). I watched classic film noir (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep), classic western (The Searchers), classic romance (Roman Holiday), classic musical (Singin’ in the Rain), and classic horror (The Uninvited, The Innocents, The Haunting). I watched adaptations of Shakespeare spanning nearly 80 years of cinema, from the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream up through Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III to Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth and Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 Coriolanus. I staged for myself a Woody Allen mini-festival, watching in sequence a sampling of his more highly-regarded films (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Match Point, and Midnight in Paris). I saw quirky little films by auteurs (Brian Linklater’s Bernie and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) and massive blockbusters by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) and whoever-the-perpetrator-was (The Avengers).

Sad to say, my affinity for films with broadly classic status continued to have low valence. With a few exceptions, noted below, the famous pictures in the list above mostly failed to resonate strongly with me. Naturally I am willing to accept that this is due to my own insensibility. (Although I will say that how anyone could think The Searchers one of the greatest films is beyond my powers of imagination to grasp.)

Unquestionably my favourite film of the year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I saw again on DVD. Since this was also my favourite film of 2011, I will not belabour the point, but simply direct interested readers to last year’s list. Next to that magnificent achievement (the film, not my list) the films I am about to discuss appear wan and pale. But if one can forget about Malick for a while, colour begins to seep back into them and they can be enjoyed on their own terms.

To the business at hand!

Recent Films

Midnight_in_Paris_PosterMidnight in Paris
(Woody Allen, 2011)

I did not have any clear idea of what to expect from Woody Allen’s film about Paris in the 1920s. I knew that it starred Owen Wilson in a lead role, which would normally have led me to give it a wide berth, but the reviews were strong and the film sounded appealing. I had seen only one other of Allen’s films prior to this one — it was Annie Hall — and that many years ago, so even my sense of what a Woody Allen picture is like was hazy. In some sense, that may have been an advantage, for I now see that Midnight in Paris is a fairly atypical Allen film, and in a good way.

It is atypical in that it is genuinely light-hearted, and willing to risk a sense of nostalgic wonder without letting Allen’s besetting vice — hair-trigger self-consciousness — get in the way. It is true that the film eventually comes around to seeing itself as a kind of psychoanalytic-therapy-by-fantasy, but even this is done in such a winsome manner — thanks, in so small degree, to a surprisingly endearing performance by Wilson — that it does not spoil the fun.

The basic premise of the story is that Wilson, a struggling writer on a visit to Paris with his fiancée and her family, is magically transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, a time and place that he has always considered “golden”, and where he meets many of his cultural idols, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. (The Wikipedia page gives a nice run-down of the famous real-life figures who are portrayed on screen. I had hoped for a glimpse of Stravinsky, but I was disappointed. Probably they were unable to find anyone ugly enough to play him convincingly.) He is so enraptured by this experience that he is tempted to remain in the past, but reflection on this temptation leads to his learning a Very Valuable Lesson.

I suppose one could see the film as a kind of progressive’s catechism about the evils of “living in the past”, but it did not play that way to me. The nostalgia, ostensibly denounced in the end, was too sincerely conveyed to be entirely effaced, and even the denunciation was handled with a winking ineptitude that softened the blow. I came away from the film with a spring in my step.

Take_Shelter_posterTake Shelter
(Jeff Nichols, 2011)

This is a quiet and spare little film that plays like a realistic domestic drama but turns out to be a fable, or something. The story charts the struggles of a young family in rural America as their husband/father descends slowly into madness, prey to delusions and paranoia and troubled by ominous dreams. It is played unsensationally, and is all the more frightening for it. How would you manage if the one you loved began making poor judgements that gradually imperiled the family’s livelihood and safety? At what point would you realize that something was seriously wrong? How would you broach the subject with him or her? How would this behaviour, and these fears, affect relationships within the family? These questions are all raised by the script, and made compelling by superb performances from Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. The third main presence in the film, uncredited, is the sky above the family farm. The film’s range is admittedly limited, more or less striking a sustained note of brooding tension, but it is remarkably effective given its slim means. See it with friends and family and you will be arguing about the film’s ending until well into the night.

The official trailer for the film gives too much away, so here is another, made by a YouTuber named Peter Gergis:

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Older Films

double-indemnityDouble Indemnity
(Billy Wilder, 1944)

After many more or less failed attempts to learn to appreciate older films (“older” here meaning, say, more than fifty years old), I decided this year to try a different tack: genre films. I hoped that the familiar conventional elements of such films might pave the way for me to some extent. I believe this strategy has worked; at least, I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

Double Indemnity is considered a classic example of film noir, and with good reason. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay was co-written by Billy Wilder and none other than Raymond Chandler. The dialogue is as hard-bitten as one could hope for, and the cinematography, rendered (obviously) in atmospheric black and white, is a perfect match for the story.

It is a crime drama, but the drama derives not from suspense as to who committed the crime — we are told this in the opening scene — nor even as to how the crime was carried out — though it is true that much of the plot is involved with unfolding the (rather implausible) details. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film for his “Great Movies” series, in the end the film’s fascination turns on the character and motives of the two central figures (played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck). What do they see in one another? Are they in love, or is one using the other? Why is each willing to trust the other? (Does each trust the other?) What do they really want? And are we, as the audience, expected to sympathize with them, or is the film a dark comedy in which we watch, with a certain satisfaction, as the foolish pave their own path to destruction? You tell me.

This was not the only Billy Wilder film I watched this year. The Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like it Hot has a strong reputation, but I much preferred Double Indemnity.

roman-holiday-posterRoman Holiday
(William Wyler, 1953)

What a wonderful surprise! Here we have a charming romance with a winsome lead couple (in Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck), a spectacular backdrop (Rome, of course, and gloriously so), an intriguing premise, and a bittersweet finish that wrings the heart. Hepburn plays a modern-day princess who, fed up with endless days of official protocols and rigorous scheduling, escapes from her handlers to enjoy an incognito day of adventure in Rome. It is impossible to imagine a modern film observing the decorum and achieving the dignity of this romantic fantasy. The film floats on an air of sweet fun, pointing up at every turn the blessings of the simple life, and it avoids a conventional “Hollywood ending” in favour of a tough-minded, but very right, example of love and sacrifice. Hepburn is marvellous; I hadn’t seen her on screen before, but I am now compiling a list of her other films for future viewing. Would I have liked Roman Holiday as much if it had been filmed in another city? I don’t have to answer that.

the-innocentsThe Innocents
(Jack Clayton, 1961)

It was Martin Scorcese’s praise of this film that attracted me. I have no liking for graphic horror, but this promised to be a quiet, oblique affair with an undercurrent of supernatural tension. The story is about two children who return home from boarding school to take up their studies under a new governess on a large, remote English estate. The children are strange, eerie, and the governess is slowly drawn into a frightening mystery. The film is unusually unsettling, not for anything explicit, for for subtle touches that accumulate. The young girl, in particular, made my hair stand on end: something about her eyes and her voice. To be honest, I had reached a point in the film where, too frightened to continue, I was going to turn it off, when one of the characters spoke a name that I recognized: “Peter Quint”. Relief washed over me: I realized I was watching an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Fortified with new courage — not because James’ story is not scary, but because I knew I was on terrain I had trodden before without lasting damage — I was able to see it through. It’s a good film, with an uncanny atmosphere, recommended to those with a taste for such things.

match-pointMatch Point
(Woody Allen, 2005)

One doesn’t expect a thriller from Woody Allen, and this film, about which I knew nothing prior to watching apart from the general acclaim it had garnered, took me by surprise. It is about a middle-class tennis instructor in London who, by a series of fortunate events, marries into a wealthy family. He then commits an act that imperils both his marriage and his new social status, and to protect himself he goes on to commit even worse acts, desperately trying to keep the consequences at bay. The general set-up is similar in many respects to Allen’s earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors (which I watched later), but in my opinion Match Point is much the better of the two.

I admire the film’s ability to make gripping drama out of very ordinary materials. Early in the film four characters meet together for coffee, a meeting such as might happen thousands of times on any given day in a large city. Yet it is from the dynamics of those relationships, and nothing more, that the whole drama of the story unfolds. I also admire the film’s portrayal of the snowball effect of decisions and actions; one evil act contains within it the seed of all that follows, and the effort to cut off that growth only makes things worse and worse. Finally, the plotting of Match Point is superb: the structure, with all of its considerable intricacies and cunning diversions, fits together like clockwork. Allen deserved his Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.

Many commentators on the film have remarked on its cynical ending, and, it is true, one could read it as deeply pessimistic. It is probably intended to be read that way. Nonetheless I think it leaves enough unspoken to permit a more ambiguous interpretation. It is the sort of film for which one’s final interpretation rests to a great extent on how one interprets a facial expression in the closing frames. Quite apart from anything else, I cannot help but admire the craftsmanship of any film that can bring things to such a fine point.

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Other films I enjoyed, but not so much as to write about them here:
  • Recent: Argo (2012), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Damsels in Distress (2011), Drive (2011), Moneyball (2011), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
  • Older: The Way (2010), Ponyo (2008), The Ninth Day (2004), The Thin Red Line (1998), Annie Hall (1977), The Song of Bernadette (1943)

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Finally, I’d like to say a few words about two excellent music-related “movies” that I saw this year.

ballet-russesStravinsky and the Ballets Russes records live performances of two of Stravinsky’s early ballets, The Firebird, which premiered in 1910, and The Rite of Spring, from 1913. In this modern production from the St. Petersburg Mariisnky Theatre, they have tried to reproduce the choreography and costumes of the famous original productions in Paris. Now, I am not one to sit contentedly through a ballet, but I found these productions fascinating from start to finish. The Firebird, Stravinsky’s first major commission, comes across as a startlingly beautiful work; it is far easier to appreciate the music’s frequent changes in texture and tempi when one sees the accompanying dances, which (and I can hardly believe I am saying this) are really splendid. The Rite of Spring is another beast altogether. One of the surprising things Richard Taruskin said in his discussion of this piece and its famous premiere in the Oxford History of Western Music is that the riot which accompanied the first performance may well have been in response to the choreography rather than (as is usually supposed) the music. Seeing this performance convinced me that he may well be right: the dancing is crude, formless, chaotic, replacing elegance for violence at every opportunity. It is easy to see why lovers of ballet, which until then had been a genre nearly entirely insulated from the incursions of modernism, would have taken offense. I won’t say that I liked it, but it was very interesting to see, and if you love Stravinsky I would say this is probably essential viewing.

Bob Dylan - The Other Side Of The Mirror  [2007]-frontSecond is The Other Side of the Mirror, which documents Bob Dylan’s famous Newport Folk Festival concerts in 1963, 1964, and 1965. The footage is offered largely without commentary, so this is simply an opportunity to hear and see Dylan during what was perhaps the most artistically fertile period of his life. It is frankly astounding to consider how much he changed in those few years, morphing from the earnest strummer of folk tunes in 1963 to the enigmatic bard of 1965. We also see more of the infamous 1965 electric set than was shown in Scorcese’s No Direction Home (if memory serves). Warmly recommended to those who love Bob Dylan.

***

Anything I missed? As always, comments are welcome.

Favourites of 2012: Popular music

December 19, 2012

Truth be told, I heard relatively little popular music this year. I therefore cannot claim that my selections are anything like a “best of the year”. But these are the records that occupied my attention more than any others.

(Note: Several of the videos in this post are prefaced by short advertisements. I apologize for this. If I could get around them, I would.)

CohenOldIdeasOld Ideas
Leonard Cohen

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tune
(“Going Home”)

I do not know if we shall have another record from Leonard Cohen, who is now nearly 80 years old, but if it should happen that we do not then Old Ideas will stand as a fitting leave-taking. The songs seem to come to us from one perched at the boundary between life and death, looking first at one, then at the other, calmly but not complacently, and trying to say something fitting to the occasion.

Given the way these songs circle ceaselessly around loss and death, it is perhaps surprising to find them also enlivened by sly humour, stately grace, and a steady hope. For Cohen, it seems, the prospect of death provokes serious reflection but not despair, and he approaches us, his audience, not as one sliding into oblivion but as a prophet — albeit a reluctant one (which is the only true kind) — who can speak with confidence because he speaks the truth.

To say that he “speaks” is closer to the truth than you might expect, for some of the songs are indeed close to being simple readings of his poetry rather than songs sung. The music, which is never of very great interest on its own merits, sometimes settles into the merest background accompaniment. That is fine with me. And though I will not claim that Old Ideas is an unqualified success — the first half is notably stronger than the second, and that ought not to be true of a bona fide masterpiece — it is a record that I believe ranks with Leonard Cohen’s best, and that is no small matter. It is my favourite record of the year. [Music Note]

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart.
Come, healing of the reason.
Come, healing of the heart.
(“Come Healing”)

***

mumford-and-sons-album-babelBabel
Mumford & Sons

When Marcus Mumford first came to my attention a few years ago, following the release of his band’s debut record, I was surprised that he was possible. His songs, dressed up in attractive if fairly nondescript roots music, revealed a mind and heart of rare qualities. Here was a young man, still in his early 20s, writing songs about purity of heart, about grace, and about his desire to live in the truth. It was as though he had somehow gone around the moral and spiritual squalor of contemporary life by another route, emerging onto the stage holding a candle in the darkness, ready to sing about hope and a happy ending.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the songs struck a chord with young audiences, and in the several years since that first record became a surprise hit, Mumford & Sons have been on a wild ride, thrust into the limelight, playing to sold out stadiums, and lionized by taste-makers. They have been rubbing elbows with people who matter. Mumford himself went and married an edgy Hollywood actress. My great fear in advance of hearing Babel was that this success, and this new social status, and the scrutiny that goes with them, would have quenched that good and courageous spirit that had attracted me in the beginning.

These worries were not entirely in vain. If I am interpreting the record well, it is fairly clear that the success of Sigh No More was destabilizing in much the way I had feared. “I’m a cad, but I’m not a fraud,” he sings in “Whispers in the Dark”, “I set out to serve the Lord.” So the memory is there, but this new record is notably darker than the last, the songs populated by ghosts and wanderers making their way through trackless wastes, out of balance, lost and labouring under a confusion of tongues. Hope is not absent, but the traveller’s song is no longer a confident “I will hold on hope”, but a plaintive “Give me hope”.

The good news is that Mumford himself seems aware that something precious is under threat, and he is not content. The record’s lead single, “I Will Wait”, shows us a man broken-down and exhausted by “days of dust” who falls in a heap with this prayer on his lips: “Tame my flesh, and fix my eyes”, and who asks for something that only seems contradictory: “a tethered mind freed from the lies”. At several points on the record we encounter a similar wish, for an anchor, a secure foothold in a storm. In “Hopeless Wanderer” the wayward pilgrim is encouraged by these words: “Don’t hold a glass over the flame / Don’t let your heart grow cold / I will call you by name / I will share your road”. And there is reason to hope that this encouragement has been taken to heart, and that all shall yet be well. “Raise my hands,” they sing, “Paint my spirit gold, and bow my head. Keep my heart slow.” Keep my heart slow. It is the prayer of a man who has not lost sight of the most important things.

Musically, Babel ploughs much the same field as did Sigh No More; call it folk-rock, or call it pop music in acoustic garb. I’ll not quarrel. There are, in my judgement, no songs on Babel as immediately memorable as “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man” from their first record, but, taking the record as a whole, the quality of the songwriting has in general improved; fewer peaks, but also fewer valleys.

At the same time, some apparent limitations to their range are becoming apparent. The music has a tendency to bounce between two poles: adagio and piano, on one hand, and allegro and forte, on the other, with not much in between. It becomes predictable, and I’d like to hear something more supple from them on subsequent records. It also feels increasingly clear that the name of the group is all too apt: Marcus Mumford is the man among boys, and without him there would be little reason to pay attention. (Admittedly, I say this without any knowledge of how their songwriting happens; I give my impressions as a listener.) The musicianship, too, is not all that it might be; I cannot play the piano, but I expect that in two or three days I could learn to play the keyboard bits on these songs. Taken together, these considerations point to a lack of depth, and I am not altogether sure that his Sons are going to help Mumford reach his full potential. Nonetheless, for a sophomore record — often a major hurdle for any band that meets with great success their first time out — Babel is promising, and I’ll keep listening.

Here is a live performance of “Ghosts that we Knew”:

***

taylor-swift-red-album-1350575305Red
Taylor Swift

This is getting complicated. Ms. Swift’s previous record was — whatever the musical cognoscenti may say — some kind of middle-brow masterpiece that bounced from strength to tweeny-bopper strength, but which continued her gradual migration away from her country sweetheart roots. Not that she ceased to be a sweetheart, of course, but the music was definitely shedding whatever perfunctory twang and drawl it once had. For some of us this was an unhappy trend, though it was hard to be too anxious when sated on such irresistible confections. Then last year she appeared on the Hunger Games soundtrack alongside The Civil Wars singing “Safe and Sound”, a pleasantly creaky little song co-written with T Bone Burnett (!); in even my fondest imaginings I’d not dared to hope for such a thing, and it raised a question that suddenly seemed a genuine question: what would she do next?

Red answers the question, but not in a simple way. She’s doing this, that, and the other: the record, which clocks in at over an hour (even without the [not-to-be-missed] bonus tracks), sounds like two or three records thrown together. Songs that would have been at home on her previous few records, like the jaunty “Stay Stay Stay” or the smiling-through-the-tears ballad “Begin Again”, are placed cheek-by-jowl with material that stretches hard toward a trendy pop sound (“State of Grace”, “Treacherous”). After Speak Now, for which she wrote all the songs alone, Red is a real “Swift & Friends” affair: there are several flat-footed duets with male partners hopelessly overmatched by her sparkle, a half-dozen co-writers, and a similar number of producers lending a hand.

Which brings us to the nefarious handiwork of two vandals named Martin & Shellback, enlisted by Ms. Swift to produce a handful of songs (“I Knew you Were Trouble”, “22”, and the monster hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). These songs are cause for concern, for in them Swift’s country roots are not only entirely effaced but actually defaced by pop-monster studio gee-whizzery, and in them the neighbourhood girl for whom we felt such wholesome affection struts forth bearing a disturbing resemblance to those dime-a-dozen robo-divas one hears too loudly in shoe stores. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is by far the worst example of this; it makes me ill. I will confess a grudging affection for the groove of “We Are Never Ever…”, which retains a sense of fun (and the cheerful one-take music video will, I predict, have a long life as a favourite of dancing-animal-loving children), but I cannot finally approve of any song sung in a valley girl dialect.

Despite those reservations, there is much on the record to admire. The quality of the songwriting, which has improved markedly with each of her new albums, continues to trend upward. Not that she is (or ever will be) Karen Peris, but within the parameters typical of mainstream pop Taylor Swift is a songwriter to reckon with. Her strength has always been in her expansive melodies, and though to my ear that element is less dazzling on Red than it was previously, she has stepped up in other areas. She is, for instance, at the age of 22, taking strides to shed her teenager-oriented reputation; if her principal audience until now has been teenaged girls and their mothers, Red seems directed more at the moms than the girls. Seeing this, I am inclined to relax my complaints about aspects of this record: growing up is hard to do, and who among us wasn’t a wee bit awkward as we made the transition?

dylan-tempestTempest
Bob Dylan

Dylan’s latest is an ambitious and lively record that I really want to love, but somehow cannot. It is his best record since Modern Times and maybe earlier (pre-modern times?), with generally fine songwriting, superb musicianship, and loads of phlegm. He cannot here be said to be resting on laurels; the record is by turns funny, jaunty, haunting, and disturbing — it is certainly not boring. Yet I find that I do not much enjoy it, and for me I think the principal reason is the dominance, in the music, of the blues. The blues are not my thing, especially in long form. (Quite a few of the songs on Tempest are longer than 7 minutes, which is too long to be sustained by a blues riff.) Also, the title song, about the sinking of the Titanic and weighing in at nearly a quarter-hour in duration, is off-putting; the words are disturbing, but Dylan sings them in a casual, even jovial, manner that makes him sound like a tubercular Bad Santa. To my regret I cannot enjoy it.

dement-singSing the Delta
Iris Dement

It had been over fifteen years since Iris Dement’s last record of original material. She hadn’t been entirely quiet during that time — she sang some celebrated duets with John Prine and she issued an enjoyable hymn-sing — but some of us had been wondering if we’d ever hear new songs from her again. The mere existence of this record, therefore, is cause for some celebration. The chief reason to hear it is the same as it has ever been with her: that voice, which is one of the wonders of American music. It is not conventionally pretty, but it is unforgettable; call her the Callas of country.

The songs themselves are a mixed bag, but with a singer of this stature you take the good (“Before the Colors Fade”) with the bad (“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”) and count your blessings. Sing the Delta certainly doesn’t replace 1993’s My Life as the first Iris Dement record everyone should own and give to their friends, but it is something to be thankful for in any case.

I note from her Wikipedia page that since her last record she was divorced from her first husband and re-married to Greg Brown. Obviously no mere aesthetic consideration could cast a divorce in a happy light, but I will say that I’d give my left kidney to hear those two singing together.

***

Songs That Meant Something To Me This Year: Loudon Wainwright III & Ramblin’ Jack Elliot: “Double Lifetime”; Josh Garrels: “Farther Along”; Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: “The Quiet Life”; Dan Bern: “I Need You”; The Avett Brothers, “Winter in my Heart”.

Favourites of 2012: Books

December 13, 2012

Because I write fairly extensively about books on this blog, and have either already written or am planning to write about most of my favourite books from this year, I will be brief today. In 2012 I read only one book which bore a 2012 publication date, so these are simply my favourites chosen from what I happened to read, without regard to date of publication. A short section on children’s books follows.

Non-fiction

metaphysical-foundations-modern-science-e-a-burtt-paperback-cover-artIn his classic work on the philosophy of science, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, E.A. Burtt re-examines the history of early modern science. His particular interest is to trace the emergence of the mechanistic view of the natural world, to examine the arguments and motivations of its architects, and to explore its implications. The key sentence of the book is perhaps this: “[the scientist is] under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful.” It is an illuminating book that encourages the reader to critically examine assumptions that are too often passed over quietly. [Book Note]

fermor-a-time-to-keep-silenceA Time to Keep Silence is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s mid-century account of his sojourns at several prominent monastic sites: Fontenelle Abbey, La Grande Trappe, and the deserted rock monasteries of Cappadocia. Fermor was not a practicing Christian, and in the beginning he had more disdain than affection for Western monastics, but the book traces the slow undoing of those prejudices. It is a short book, but full of interest, and the writing is of the highest quality. [Book Note]

chesterton-dickensChesterton’s Charles Dickens, from 1906, is not much read these days, and that is a pity, for I am convinced it is one of his best works of literary criticism. It would be hard to imagine a better pairing of author with subject; there was a reason why Everyman’s Library asked GKC to write prefaces for all of Dickens’ novels. Dickens was for Chesterton not only a literary polestar but an existential one, for Chesterton saw him giving shape and expression to the deep comedy and irrepressible vitality of life. Chesterton considers Dickens’ finest achievements to be his early novels, especially The Pickwick Papers, and argues that while in some sense he became a better novelist as he aged, he also became more conventional and world-weary. Biographical details in this volume are slight, but for a probing interpretation of Dickens’ place in literature and life it is an excellent book, full of delights.

The-Landmark-Thucydides-9780684827902Finally, I made my first acquaintance this year with one of the great works of classical history in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. My education in the classics proceeds by fits and starts, and these days mostly crawls, so I was pleased to get through such a substantial work. The story of the war’s progress is absorbing, but extremely complex, and without the helpful maps, marginal notes, and summaries in my Landmark Thucydides edition I’d have been lost. As it was, however, I enjoyed the ride immensely. [Book Note]

***

Fiction

hart_the_devil_and_pierre_gernetMy favourite fiction of the year was David Bentley Hart’s The Devil and Pierre Gernet, a collection of short pieces which is a feast for the mind and the heart, and a delight to the ear as well. Hart is a stimulating and often provocative thinker, and an able stylist (to say the least), and he demonstrates those qualities to good effect in these stories. His writing is serious, and is both intellectually and morally probing, but the lush glory of his prose never loses its sense of play. It is a winning combination. Hart jokes in the preface about the “dismaying” prospect of reading stories of ideas, but when the stories are this well put together, and this absorbing, and this memorable, I can find no grounds for complaint. More, please. [Book Note]

undset-hestvikenOver the course of the year I slowly worked my way through Sigrid Undset’s medieval tetralogy The Master of Hestviken. This is the poor cousin to her more popular trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, but in fact the two sets have much in common: both are set in fourteenth-century Norway, both put the dramatic focus on the moral and spiritual lives of the characters, and both were plausibly cited as justifying Undset’s Nobel Prize in Literature. They are also — not to miss the main point — both excellent. The Master of Hestviken tells the story of Olav Audunsson, a moderately wealthy Norwegian land-owner, the focus very much on portraying the inner drama and moral significance of his life. Olav commits a wrong as a young man, and it dogs him throughout his days, leading to one sin upon another, until it seems to have shaped his entire life. It is a sad and difficult story, but not finally a bleak one — quite the opposite. It is difficult to do justice to the richness of Undset’s story-telling, or the depth and believability of her characters. She is sometimes stern — certainly there is nothing sentimental in these pages — but she seems to love these men and women she writes about, and I grew to love them too.

goncharov-oblomovI do not remember where I first heard of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, but I am grateful that I heard of it somewhere. Though quite a bit too long for the story it has to tell, it nonetheless impressed me greatly with its portrait of a man grown incapable of decisive action and become a ghost or a shadow in the world. His hand is unsteady on the tiller, and even when the wind blows he brings his sail in. It is a brilliant, darkly comedic character study. It had been a long time since a novel gave me so much to think about as I was reading, and Oblomov haunts me still. The story has the clean lines and satisfying shape that give it the character of an especially successful fable. [Book Note]

berry-coulterHannah Coulter was my introduction to Port William and the Port William fellowship, and a welcome introduction it was. Wendell Berry’s portrait of Hannah, an 80-year old woman looking back on her life in a small Kentucky town, is one of the warmest and most thoughtful novels that I can remember. Berry’s prose is quiet and plain spoken — a good foil for Hart’s above — but that doesn’t prevent its touching deep places in the heart. The book is a small wonder. [Book Note]

wolfe-bonfireFinally, I thoroughly enjoyed my romp through Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities in this, the year of its silver anniversary. (Can a book have an anniversary?? Is there such a thing as a silver birthday? Ayyyyiii!) Wolfe’s writing is all that I tend to dislike: sloppy, informal, laden with vulgarity — bereft entirely of poise or decorum. Yet somehow its reckless abandon won me over. It had been long since I laughed as heartily with a book. Pass the styrofoam peanuts, please. [Book Note]

***

Last year in an idle moment I put together a histogram showing the original publication dates of the books I had been reading. That Matlab code works just as well for the books I read this year:

books2012

Notable features: A fair bit of Euripides; a smattering of medieval works; no Shakespeare; some nineteenth-century novels, and a big pile-up in the twentieth century. I am a provincial reader. We can unpack that right-most bar of the histogram to see more detail:

books2012-20thc

I certainly do seem to have a liking for things glossy and new. The 1920s gave the 2000s a run for their money, mostly due to my reading Belloc, Chesterton, Undset, and Lovecraft, but it was not enough.

***

Children’s books

We read an untold number of children’s books this year. The librarians at our local branch have by now memorized our library card number, and I believe we have single-handedly employed a half-dozen interlibrary loan truck drivers. Here are some of the books we enjoyed the most.

With our three-year old:

steig-sylvesterSylvester and the Magic Pebble
William Steig (1969)

This is a sweet tale about a donkey who finds a wish-granting magic pebble while out walking and, when surprised by a lion crouching behind some tall grass, foolishly wishes himself transformed into a rock. The end? Not quite. It’s a surprisingly affecting book, maybe a little too sad in the middle sections for very young kids (but parents can paraphrase). The illustrations are wonderful — Steig is one of our favourite illustrators — and the text bears up well under repeated readings.

defilice-potatoOne Potato, Two Potato
Cynthia DeFelice
Andrea U’Ren (Illus.) (2006)

This is a truly wonderful story about a poor, elderly couple living alone on a desolate stretch of Irish countryside who discover a magic pot buried in their garden: the pot makes a duplicate of whatever one puts inside it. After a few hilarious misadventures, the tale comes around to an affirmation of the attractions of simplicity and the importance of love and friendship. The text is terrific: I cannot read it without lapsing into an exuberant (if atrocious) brogue. The illustrations are beautifully done, with a gentle but unsentimental quality.

bedard-wolf-gubbioThe Wolf of Gubbio
Michael Bedard
Murray Kimber (Illus.) (2000)

Books about St. Francis are legion, and we’ve looked at a few, but so far this has been our favourite. It recounts the famous legend about how St. Francis tamed the fearsome wolf that was terrorizing the good people of Gubbio. The illustrations are magnificent, with vivid colours and a style reminiscent of medieval masters, albeit with more naturalism. The text, too, is notable for its haunting cadences; certainly it is several steps above the usual fare in children’s books. I won’t claim that this story is an especially good introduction to St. Francis — throughout the story, he is simply called Il Poverello — but it is a good story nonetheless, and an addendum makes the St. Francis connection explicit.

maurice_sendak_where_the_wild_things_areWhere the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak (1963)

This is obviously a well-known classic, but it seems to me still worth remarking on. Our daughter loves it, and, though I do find it unsettling to some extent, I find it alluring as well. I do not tire of reading it. Sendak has been called “the picture-book psychologist”, and this book certainly could be cited as evidence. It has unspoken depths that prevent re-readings from becoming rote. Perhaps parents and young children, when reading this book together, are really reading different books to a much greater extent than is normally the case. It helps too that the whole book takes less than five minutes to read, making it perfect for bedtime. The illustrations are superb.

willems-bunnyKnuffle Bunny
Mo Willems (2004)

Although it is a simple little story, about a toddler who forgets her favourite bunny in the washing machine at the laundromat, it is told with such panache and humour that we never tire of it. The illustrations consist of hand-drawn figures integrated into black and white photographs, which is a style that I’ve not seen elsewhere. The chief delight, for parents, is in the small humorous touches and the spot-on portrayal of toddler antics. It is also one of the best father/daughter stories that we have found.

rapunzelRapunzel
The Brothers Grimm
Paul O. Zelinksy (Illus.) (1998)

There are many re-tellings of stories from the Brothers Grimm, covering a vast swath of quality. This is probably the best we’ve found so far. The text adheres closely to the original, and preserves its forthright elegance and elevated tone. The illustrations, though, by Paul Zelinsky, are the real attraction: each page is beautifully rendered, roughly in the style of Renaissance masters like Masaccio or Piero della Francesca. The tower in which Rapunzel is confined looks as though it was designed by Brunelleschi. The book is flat-out gorgeous to look at, and we return to it again and again.

With our one-year old:

wheres spotIt is only recently that our little guy has begun wanting to read books. He is fond of books in the “lift-the-flap” genre; probably the greatest such so far is Where’s Spot? He also likes nursery rhymes, and our favourite collection is this one illustrated by Barbara Reid; the pictures are photographs of modelling clay originals, and they are really interesting to look at. Finally, he likes Goodnight Moon; I have the readers of this blog to thank for telling me about that book.

***

Finally, several friends had books published this year. I do plan to read them, though I have not yet done so:

To finish a book is no small matter, and I offer my warm congratulations!

Favourites of 2012: Classical music

December 7, 2012

I kick off my annual review this year with a look at the finest music that I encountered in 2012. Some of these recordings are new in 2012; all are of recent vintage.

Filia Sion
Vox Clamantis
ECM New Series (2012)

My favourite record of the year is this collection of mostly Gregorian chant, but don’t give up on me yet. I have many chant recordings in my collection, and they do not come better than this. As is suggested by the title, the programme consists principally of music related to Our Lady, Daughter of Zion. Naturally the music is largely monophonic and anonymously composed, but Vox Clamantis varies the texture by including several pieces by the likes of Hildegard von Bingen and Perotin, and the results are dazzling, in a quietly peaceful way. What sets this record apart from the scores of similarly programmed collections of chant is not the quality of the singing, exactly (though the singing is terrific) nor the technical excellence of the sound engineering (though it could not be better), but the quiet, even contemplative, spirit that presides over the whole. There is a wonderful, restful poise to this music; to hear it is like entering a haven. It is hard to say just how or why that is so; I can only say that, for me, the experience is rare, and so I regard this record as a treasure. The liner notes are worth pondering too: “The Gospels do not reveal all of Mary’s feelings to us; the mystery of the Incarnation is only briefly presented. Relying on a few phrases and returning endlessly to the sacred words and setting them in different contexts, the musical tradition shows their inexhaustible richness. Medieval compositions meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation in all its aspects. They display different shades of joy: explosive, superabundant joy which wells up like a source, as well as the shimmer of peaceful, meditative wonder before ‘the miracle never seen, the joy never known’.” To describe this music, and these performances of it, as “joy which wells up like a source” and a “shimmer of peaceful, meditative wonder” is as good and fitting a description as any. Highly recommended.

***

Weinberg: String Quartets, Vol.6
Quatuor Danel
CPO (2012)

I have written before (Exhibits A and B) about the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who lived most of his life in the Soviet Union and was a friend to Shostakovich. I want to praise this recording of his string quartets Nos.2, 12, and 17 not only for its own merits (which are immense) but for what it represents: namely, the completion of the first cycle of recordings of all Weinberg’s seventeen string quartets. I have been collecting the recordings from Quatuor Danel since the first volume was issued in 2007, and I have been enthralled all the way through. If you love the string quartets of Shostakovich, you will love what you hear from Weinberg: indeed, this may be the best music you’ve never heard. Weinberg’s neglect is hard to understand on musical grounds, and I am persuaded that it is mostly due to historical factors: a Polish Jew did not fit the image of the Soviet artist that his government wanted to project, and so while he was fairly well-known within the Soviet Union (and many recordings of his music were made on the Soviet label Melodiya) he had little exposure in the West. That is now starting to change, with numerous labels (CPO, Chandos, Grand Piano, NEOS, and Naxos, among others) undertaking major recording projects to give his symphonies, piano music, opera, and chamber music a hearing. All of it is welcome, and much of it is superb, but from what I have heard these string quartets are the finest of what he has to offer. Here is the final movement of his String Quartet No.2:

***

endBeginning
New York Polyphony
BIS (2012)

New York Polyphony is a young, four man vocal ensemble hailing from the Big Apple. They had made a few impressive recordings prior to this one, distinguishing themselves for the smooth blend of their voices and their nuanced interpretations. All of that is again evident on endBeginning, and, together with BIS’s usual superb engineering, would be enough to recommend this disc. It almost comes as a bonus, therefore, to realize just how very interesting is the collection of music they have chosen to record. Most of it is Franco-Flemish polyphony from the sixteenth century, but much of it is rare: I had never before heard Antoine Brumel’s Missa pro defunctis, which includes the first known polyphonic setting of the Dies Irae, and I don’t believe Thomas Crecquillon’s Lamentations for Holy Week had ever been recorded before. The programme is rounded out by Gregorian chant from the Requiem Mass and several more famous motets on similar themes, such as Josquin’s Absalon fili mi, a setting of David’s lament on the death of his son, and Clemens non Papa’s Infelix ego, a setting of Savonarola’s meditation on Psalm 51 written as he awaited execution in Florence. It is all thematically a bit gloomy, I suppose, but gloom has rarely sounded this beautiful. The programme closes with a new piece written for New York Polyphony by Jackson Hill; Ma fin est mon commencement is described as a “fantasy” on Guillaume de Machaut’s motet of the same name, and it is an interesting piece, even if it doesn’t rise to the same level of inspiration as Machaut’s witty (because palindromic) original. Its inclusion here might have made more sense if Machaut’s piece has also been included, but placed last in the context of a programme meditating on death, it does make for a surprisingly hopeful conclusion. And it provides a sleek title for the disc too, which is surely convenient. Let’s listen to Josquin’s Absalon fili mi:

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Josquin: Missa Ave Maris Stella
Weser-Renaissance; Manfred Cordes
CPO (2012)

Despite their fairly extensive discography I had never heard Weser-Renaissance before I happened upon this disc. I was missing out. This is a luminous recording of Josquin Desprez’s Missa Ave Maris Stella, coupled with a handful of his Marian motets, including the justly famous Ave Maria … Virgo serena which is here given a glorious outing. I don’t know anything about the choir apart from what my ears tell me: it is an all-male ensemble that sings with impeccable tuning and impressive attention to detail. I particularly enjoy the way they sculpt the musical lines to give them shape and shading. The sound is of burnished gold; the glow of the album cover is a good visual analogue. The choir sounds a little larger than I consider ideal in this repertoire — I am guessing there are twenty or so singers? — but when the results are this beautiful those reservations are swept away. I have a couple of dozen recordings of Josquin’s music in my collection, and this ranks with the elite few. Here is the famous four-voice setting of Ave Maria:

***

Schubert: Die Winterreise
Nataša Mirkovic-De Ro; Matthias Loibner
Raumklang (2011)

There must be hundreds of recordings of this, the most famous of Schubert’s song cycles, and it is hard to know why one should take an interest in a new one, especially one issued on a fairly obscure label and sung by an unknown soprano. The remedy for this wariness is simply to listen: this is an extraordinary re-imagining of this well-worn masterpiece that not only casts fresh light on it, but seems even to find new depths. The most immediate oddity one notices is that Matthias Loibner, the accompanist, is playing a hurdy-gurdy! This is justified — or at least arguably justified — on artistic grounds because the whole trajectory of the song cycle arcs toward the closing song, “Die Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Player”). Surely to play that haunting melody on an actual hurdy-gurdy is defensible, and, if that song, why not the others as well? In fact the sound of the hurdy-gurdy, with its bleak drones and rough-hewn rusticity, serves these songs extremely well, both musically and interpretively. Naturally this would be little more than a curiosity if the singing was not also excellent, but it is! Nataša Mirkovic-De Ro’s voice is not the sort one characteristically hears in this repertoire: it is not a polite, conservatory voice. She has to my ears a quality I associate with cabaret music: impeccable, even exaggerated, diction, bold clarity, earthy frankness, and seductive beauty. She sings as though she is whispering this sad tale directly into one’s ear. This manner suits the stark, somewhat coarse, accompaniment perfectly. All in all, this is a brilliant performance. I don’t recommend it for those coming to Die Winterreise for the first time, but if you already know these songs I think you’d find it quite illuminating. The final song of the cycle:

***

Extreme Singing: Low Masterpieces of the Renaissance
Vox Early Music Ensemble
Ancient Voice (2011)

When first I saw this album on eMusic I passed over it on account of the cute title and awful artwork. I decided to return for a listen, however, after reading a glowing review (which I cannot now find, alas!). On the strength of this experience, I am in a position to coin a proverb: Never judge a record by its cover. (Well, almost never.)

Not only is the singing marvellously good, but the music and performance decisions are fascinating: they have undertaken to sing a selection of polyphonic pieces written in an unusually low register, and to sing them at the notated pitch (rather than transposing them up, as is apparently usually done). One of the pieces, a setting of Absalon fili mi attributed by scholars to Pierre de la Rue, includes the lowest note written for any known work from the Renaissance — a B-flat below the staff! Thus throughout this programme the basses are given a real workout, and the results are excellent: the choir rumbles magnificently. It is more than a gimmick: the low register gives the music, all of which is music of mourning in one way or another, an impressive gravitas.

In addition to the aforementioned Absalon fili mi, the recording includes a little known Stabat mater by Gaspar van Weerbeke, a few funeral motets, and the centerpiece is Pierre de la Rue’s Requiem. Yes, more singing about death. The chances of your funeral or mine sounding this good are nil. Here is Pierre de la Rue’s Absalon fili mi:

***

bach-schiffBach: The Well-Tempered Clavier
Andras Schiff
ECM New Series (2012)

Andras Schiff is one of my favourite pianists, and I am particularly fond of his Bach. He recorded The Well-Tempered Clavier once before, in the 1980s, and I have long loved those recordings. What a pleasure it has been, therefore, to revisit this great work with him again.

To listen to the whole of “the 48″ takes over four hours, and I confess that I have not gone back to do a close comparison of this recording to his earlier one, nor have I taken the trouble to compare it to any of the many other recordings available. I have been content to simply enjoy this for what it is: superb Bach playing. Schiff’s manner at the keyboard is consistent with his reputation: thoughtful, calm, sensitive, and self-effacing. He is there wholly to serve the music. Nodding to the kinds of instruments for which Bach originally wrote he plays throughout without pedaling, which gives the music a crisp quality that I like very much.

The sonics, as one has grown to expect from ECM, are above reproach. The piano is warm and present, not overly resonant, and I did not notice any extraneous sounds. A wonderful record.

Here is the Fugue in G minor (BWV 885) from Book II. I have a special fondness for this fugue because it contains the only bar in all of Bach’s music that I can play myself. (The fourth bar, to be precise. See page 3 of this score.)

***

ockeghem-sorensenSørensen & Ockeghem: Requiem
Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier
Dacapo (2012)

What?! How many Requiems can I recommend in one sitting? (Pall-)bear with me, because this is really interesting. We have here a recording of Johannes Ockeghem’s famous Requiem, now over five hundred years old and still going strong. It has been recorded many times before, and admirably; it is a stupendous work, the earliest known polyphonic Requiem, and a marvel of intricate splendour. It is also missing some parts. Enter Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen, who commissioned from the Danish composer Bent Sørensen a number of movements to complete the Requiem. Sørensen’s Fragments of Requiem is here integrated into Ockeghem’s original to produce a (largely?) complete setting. The blend is not seamless, nor is it meant to be, for Sørensen writes in a distinctly modern manner, but the contrasts are not jarring either. One hears a certain distant kinship between the two. The result is perhaps a little odd, but very much worth hearing. The singing is spectacular, as one expects from any choir with Paul Hillier at the helm, and their performance of the Ockeghem sections, in particular, have a wonderful spaciousness about them that I really enjoy. Here is a brief promotional video for the disc (mostly featuring the music of Sørensen):

***

I see in retrospect that most of my favourites were choral/vocal music. I didn’t plan it that way, but neither does it surprise me. Anything great that I missed? The comments are open.

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