Posts Tagged ‘Year in Review 2020’

Favourites in 2020: Books

January 8, 2021

‘Twas a tough year for book reading in 2020. I had a few reading projects on the go, with middling success. One ambitious project — to read the Bible in one year — foundered somewhere in the Book of Proverbs. I had planned to read a half dozen of Thomas Hardy’s novels, but only got through two — both excellent! I’ve been exploring playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare, and that went well until the autumn, when it didn’t. The one thread that I managed to maintain consistently was my ongoing exploration of Roman history and literature.

Since I’ve written, or intend to write, about these books at greater length, I’ll content myself today with brief notice of my favourites from the past year. WordPress’ formatting has gone haywire in recent months, and I don’t know how to fix the wayward image wrapping below; my apologies. In alphabetical order:

Beethoven: Impressions by his Contemporaries

I was fascinated to read this collection of first-hand accounts of meetings with Beethoven written by friends, rivals, and musical tourists. It provides a nicely rounded portrait of the man, and was one of the highlights of my observance of Beethoven’s anniversary year.

*

Boswell & Johnson: Journeys to the Western Isles

I found great enjoyment in these two books which were the literary fruit of the journey Boswell and Johnson took together through the wilds of Scotland. Johnson’s focus is mostly on Scotland, and Boswell’s is mostly on Johnson, and the latter is the better of the two.

*

Esolen: The Hundredfold

A book-length religious poem in which Esolen reaches back to verse forms that once had a wide appeal — hymns, lyrics, and dramatic monologues — to create an insightful and involving meditation on the life of Christ. A book full of music, in more ways than one.

*

Gribbin: Six Impossible Things

A slim, non-technical introduction to issues in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. I appreciated the clarity of the writing, and was left in amazement at our radical uncertainty about what this immensely successful theory actually means. One of the better popular science books I’ve read in some years.

*

Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd

A wonderful novel about the complexities of love, and a meditation on what makes for a good marriage partner. Splendidly written on every page.

*

Hardy: The Return of the Native

A darker, moodier exploration of romance and love, with a variety of interesting formal elements adding to the appeal. Also splendidly written. I wish I had had more time for Hardy this year!

*

von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

Written shortly after Vatican II, this is a very curious and valuable commentary on the aftermath of the Council from an author usually classed with the reformers, but here found to be a sharp critic.

*

Statius: Thebaid

An epic poem from Rome’s first century AD which re-tells an old Greek story about a fraternal rivalry for power in Thebes. It might sound unpromising, but the poem has a lot of personality and a number of things on its mind. A happy surprise.

*

Tacitus: Annals

A narrative overview of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from Augustus to Nero (14-68 AD), this is a sternly written, fiercely intelligent history. One could hardly ask for a better guide to the strange concatenation of emperors through this perennially-interesting period. One of the highlights of my Roman history project so far.

*

Wodehouse: Blandings and Uncle Fred

Not one book here, but an assortment. I polished off the Uncle Fred books, and continued my long, pleasant meander through the Blandings Castle series. When the world’s gone bonkers, and circumstances might reasonably get you down, Wodehouse stands ready to ease the heart and delight the mind.

***

Prospects for reading in 2021 are not looking particularly auspicious, but I am nonetheless looking forward with anticipation, drafting plans in hope rather than assurance. Setting aside with relief my disastrous efforts to spend a year with Yeats, I’m retreating this year to the safety and comfort of Wordsworth; Wodehouse will, I hope, continue to grace my bedside table; and my years-long Roman history project will reach a crescendo, or perhaps a long diminuendo, with a traversal of Gibbon’s gargantuan Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Such, at least, is the plan. We’ll see how it turns out!

Popular authors: Shakespeare (6), Wodehouse (5), Tacitus (3), Seneca (2), Hardy (2).

Favourites in 2020: Film

December 31, 2020

It’s been a somewhat tough year on the film-watching front. Whatever nooks and crannies I was finding for watching movies in the past few years were plugged up this year, first by life changes brought about by unhappy events like a global pandemic, and then by life changes brought about by happy events like the birth of beautiful, bouncing twins. Nonetheless, I did manage to eke out some viewing time, and some of what I saw was sufficiently praiseworthy that I’d like to share it. The “Top 10” list is divided, somewhat crudely, into a top 5 and a bottom 5.

**

To Live
Zhang Yimou (1994)

Zhang Yimou is the filmmaker whom I’ve been most grateful to have discovered this year. This film tells the story of a man who lives through the period of the Cultural Revolution in China. In the course of his life the country moves from one largely rooted in traditional Chinese ways to one wholly formed and managed by the Communist party. Although it is, in that sense, a political movie — political enough, it seems, to have been banned in China — the politics is all in the background. The film is mainly a personal portrait of an ordinary man just trying to do the normal human things under difficult circumstances: get married, have a family, earn a living, be a friend. It is extraordinarily well done, richly textured, often very funny, and finally satisfying. I loved it.

Parenthetically, I also watched several other of Zhang’s films this year, and I would recommend, in descending order of admiration: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Shadow (2018), and Hero (2002). All three stand out for their artistic design: gorgeous cinematography, lavish sets and costumes, and an appealing eye for formality in composition. In this sense, they all three differ from To Live, which is, in comparison, kind of shaggy and loose and earthy. Each was excellent in its own way.

**

The Young Girls of Rochefort
Jacques Demy (1967)

It’s a small French town. The streets are bright and clean. The sun is shining. Beautiful women are everywhere, and love is in the air. How can one keep from singing? Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is a simply marvellous musical comedy. We meet an array of characters, and watch with delight as the gentle machinations of the plot bring them into romantic alignment. It is a truly enchanting film, full of life and love and happiness and joy, beautifully structured, and charming in every way. It’s the film that La La Land aspired to be, and as much as I enjoyed that film, Demy’s is better.

It isn’t perfect though. There is that little matter of an ax murderer on the loose, a subplot that seems to go nowhere and amounts to nothing, and there is, more gravely, the matter of all that jazz, but I lathered up with antihistamine cream and I was fine.

**

Nights of Cabiria
Federico Fellini (1957)

I’ve had a very mixed experience with Fellini’s films over the years. Rome, Open City was probably the one that I most enjoyed, with his The Flowers of St Francis coming a distant second. La Dolce Vita left me cold.

I returned to Fellini this year, and his cinematic portrait of a good-hearted prostitute in Le Notte di Cabiria is the high point of my experience with this filmmaker. It took a while for me to warm up to it, but in the end it won me over. It is more of a portrait — a portrait of a beautiful soul — than a story; the episodes — the “nights” — are vignettes meant to reveal something of Cabiria to us. She is tough on the outside, though not proud, and it is only when she is most forgetful of herself that she shows herself most clearly. Fellini takes her to some bleak places, but this is a film that ends well, and that last shot, that beautiful, heart-rending, unforgettable last shot redeemed all.

Thinking that perhaps this good experience might be the start of a beautiful relationship between Fellini and myself, I watched his 8-1/2 and Roma, neither of which, I’m afraid, I was able to finish. We have agreed to an amicable separation.

**

How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal
Eugene Green (2018)

Green’s films are usually hard to find — I’ve been searching for Les Signes and Correspondances for several years, without success — so it was a surprise, but a delight, to find this one on YouTube. (It has since disappeared.)

The story is about a poet, Fernando Pessoa, who gets a job writing advertising copy. It’s very funny, in that understated Green way: a parable, with ludicrous components, about the hazards of mixing poetry and commerce, or, more generally, of putting the liberal arts at the service of the servile arts, or, even more generally, of not respecting the right order of things. There’s a humorous strain about the cluelessness of censorious bureaucrats — a timely theme in 2020! The humour aimed specifically at the Church didn’t seem particularly well aimed, though he did get in at least one good joke about the Jesuits.

I loved that even in a short film of less than 30 minutes, Green still took the time for his traditional 5 or 6 minute musical introduction. These things cannot be rushed.

**

Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi (2019)

While it is certainly nobody’s idea of an adequate response to the evils of Nazi Germany, I am full of admiration for the spirit of Taika Waititi’s World War II comedy in which a young German boy’s imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler. Sure, let us have grim and dark stories that grapple with the malice of the time. Let us have Schindler’s List and A Hidden Life. But I see no reason we cannot also, in the mix, have a bright and winsome comedy that muses on what the war might have looked like to a bright and winsome child.

It is tempting to call this a “dark comedy” — dark on account of its backdrop and certain aspects of its content, and comedic on account of its instincts. But, if we are going to call it that, we should understand that it’s quite a different thing from the “dark comedy” of, for instance, the Coen Brothers. There is a kind of darkness in which a sardonic laugh can find a place; this film has nothing to do with that. This film is fundamentally comical, with the darkness mere pomp, almost a mere wisp. It reminded me of Chesterton, who believed in the titanic strength of comedy, who believed that it is comedy that is the fundamental heartbeat of things, and it is comedy that will finally triumph. This film makes me think that Waititi believes that too.

It’s a bold film, then, in that respect, and I understand why many people found it difficult to take. The nearest thing to it that I can think of would be Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, which also makes of the Nazis an object of satire and jest. Jojo Rabbit is tonally very complex, and I’m curious to know how it will bear up under repeated viewings, but on this first pass it worked for me.

**

Early Summer
Yasujirō Ozu (1951)

A lovely picture about a woman contemplating marriage and all of the changes that it will bring to her life. A beautiful portrait of multigenerational family life, with its complications and confusions and joys. Quiet moments of happiness. A very heartwarming and optimistic picture from Ozu. Slow, of course, but that’s Ozu too.

*

The Return
Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003)

Another marvellous, slow-burn film from Zvyagintsev. Like his later Loveless, it encourages us to dwell on what children are owed by their parents, and is unsparing in its willingness to indict failures to honour those obligations. The story — about two boys who go into the wilderness with their hitherto-absent father — is simplicity itself, and there is enough mystery and ambiguity at play to keep us on edge. The main reasons to appreciate this film are the gorgeous direction and cinematography: the slow pans, the muted colours, the deliberate pacing. It’s sumptuous, in a really bleak kind of way.

*

Cinema Paradiso
Giuseppe Tornatore (1988)

A touching film about friendship, community, and how our upbringing stays with us. The film is, on one level, a story about one man’s life-long love-affair with movies, but on a deeper level it’s about how we are formed as people by the places we live, what we do, and those we know and love. It’s a lovely, charming picture. A nice portrait of life in an Italian village too. For a film about movies, it doesn’t have much in the way of visual flair.

*

Knives Out
Rian Johnson (2019)

Sometimes you just want to see a good whodunit. I don’t know how it will play on repeat, but on first go-round this was a riot. Campy, fun performances, humorous direction and editing, and a cunningly contrived plot. A little talky, but hearing Daniel Craig talk in that affected way is not a chore. One of the best times I’ve had in a movie for a while. I still don’t understand why people put Jamie Lee Curtis in movies.

*

One Child Nation
Nanfu Wang, Zhang Jialing (2019)

A mannerly but nonetheless devastating investigation of China’s repugnant “One Child” policy, told by a young woman who grew up under it and whose family was wounded by it. The scale of forced abortions and, when the state was too slow with the knife, the farming out of children to international adoption agencies is hard to believe, and harder to stomach.  The film contains images that are, on their own, frightening portrayals of the evils of abortion — the kind of thing that will get you kicked off a university campus in the West before you can say “third trimester”. It is absurd, therefore, that in the last few minutes it belly flops by drawing a moral equivalence between China’s totalitarian state and the efforts of pro-lifers to protect babies from harm. Let me get this straight: the problem with all those babies killed and dumped in garbage heaps was that it was done without the mother’s consent? Preposterous. But the film is better than such awkward pieties would seem to allow.

***

Films by same director: Zhang (4), Hitchcock (4), Fellini (3), Green (2), Malick (2), Villeneuve (2), Bong (2).

Oldest: One Week (1920), The Crowd (1928), The Public Enemy (1931).

Newest: Tenet (September), Emma. (March), Little Women (Dec 2019).

Re-watches: Parasite (2019), A Hidden Life (2019), The Tree of Life (2011), WALL-E (2008), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Fugitive (1993), The Princess Bride (1987), Vertigo (1958).

Abandoned: Little Women (2019), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), High Life (2018), Roma (1972), 8-1/2 (1963).

Favourites in 2020: Music

December 29, 2020

The past year was deficient in many respects, but not in the quality of the music that I heard. I’d like to share a selection of the discs that most appealed to me in 2020.

**

Saints Inouis
Ensemble Scholastica
[Atma, 2020]

The marvellous Ensemble Scholastica, based in Montreal, celebrated their 10th anniversary this year with a disc entitled Saints Inouis (“Astonishing Saints”). The musical programme is rather niche: it is structured around liturgies for three specific feast days in the French region of Creuse, located a few hundred kilometres south of Paris. The music celebrates St Pardoux (7th century), St Yrieix (6th century), and the feast of the conception of the Virgin (which would later come to be called the Immaculate Conception). The music itself dates from the 10th-12th centuries, and is of extraordinary beauty. The performances are gorgeous, and this is one of the most beautiful discs of medieval music to come my way in some time.

*

Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories
Graindelavoix
[Glossa, 2020]

In their last few records the vocal ensemble Graindelavoix has experimented more and more with new ways of interpreting the music of Renaissance masters. The style they have evolved, which is about as far as one can get from the pure, cool style familiar to us from the work of English choirs, is rugged, plangent, dark-toned, and lush. This disc, in which they sing the Tenebrae music of Gesualdo, is a match made in heaven. Gesualdo’s extraordinary harmonic adventurousness emerges in all its prickly, abrasive glory in these vigorous and committed performances. I have no idea if this sounds like what Gesualdo had in mind, but I have a feeling he would have liked it. I, at any rate, like it very much. Here is a lovely short film of the ensemble singing Plange Quasi Virgo, from the service for Holy Saturday:

*

Music for Milan Cathedral
Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies
[Delphian, 2019]

This wonderful disc is structured around the music of Hermann Matthias Werricore, a virtually unknown composer who, I learn from the liner notes, was maestro di cappella at Milan’s Duomo Cathedral from about 1520-1550, a good long stretch. We get to hear a half dozen of his motets, including a 10 minute setting of Ave maris stella. The program is filled out by other music that would have been heard at the cathedral during his tenure, the best known of whom was Josquin Desprez. I am putting the disc on my year-end list not so much because of the music — though it is wonderful music — but because of the singing by Siglo de Oro. I think I have praised this group in the past, and so long as their singing continues to be as rich, balanced, and transparent as this I’ll continue to do so. Excellent engineering from Delphian made this one of the best sounding discs of polyphony I heard this year.

*

Handel: Acis and Galatea
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
[Chandos, 2018]

I’ve a long-standing admiration for Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Sometimes described as a “pastoral opera”, it is a relatively small scale work (~90 minutes) full of delightful melodies and charming scenes. The story is of a love triangle between the shepherd Acis, the nymph Galatea, and the cyclops Polyphemus — obviously, from the title, Polyphemus is very much a third wheel. It was Handel’s first dramatic work in English, and it is a triumph, well worth getting to know. This performance, from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company, is headlined by the wonderful soprano Lucy Crowe singing the part of Galatea. The singing is great, the choruses are great. It’s all great. Here is the second-Act trio “The flocks shall leave the mountains”:

*

This year marked the 250th birthday of Beethoven, and much of my year was devoted to listening to his music. I went through all of the symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, and major choral works, often in multiple interpretations. It was a splendid project. Out of all the music I heard, certain things stand out as particularly excellent. I was very taken with George Szell’s cycle of symphonies, made in the 1960s with the Cleveland Orchestra.  I chose a small but eminent stable of pianists for the sonatas and listened through each sonata from each of them: Solomon, Arrau, Kempff, Gilels, Schiff, and Levit, with occasional forays into the playing of Perahia, Rubinstein, and Richter.

To my surprise, the pianist who consistently emerged as my favourite was Andras Schiff. I was surprised because he alone among these pianists played a “period instrument”, a relatively underpowered piano that lacks the rich sonority of a modern Steinway. But I grew to really appreciate his instrument’s clarity and lack of bombast, and hearing Schiff’s interpretations was one of the musical highlights of my year.

Another pianistic highlight was Ronald Brautigam’s three-disc survey of all Beethoven’s “theme and variations” pieces (excluding the Diabelli Variations).  The most famous among these is the Eroica Variations, but there are many more, including delightful pieces based on the tunes of “God Save the King” and “Rule Brittania”. I have a special affection for theme and variations compositions, and Beethoven was a master of the form. These were great fun. Here is a sample, an unpublished set of six small variations on a Swiss song:

*

Offenbach: Colorature
Jodie Devos, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Laurent Campellone
[Alpha, 2019]

After the austerity of medieval chant, the formality of Renaissance polyphony, the pastoral beauty of Handel, and the robust musical intelligence of Beethoven, we come across Offenbach in exactly the right frame of mind: ready for some candy. Last year (2019) was the 200th anniversary of his birth, and I had intended to listen to some of his music then. In the event, I didn’t get to it until this year, and one of the discs I most enjoyed was this corker from Jodie Devos. As suggested by the title, the disc is devoted to coloratura fireworks, and magnificent it is. Put this music on at a party — assuming we were able to have parties — and before you could say “Vive l’Escargot” your guests would be lined up, dancing a can-can. Here’s an aria from The Tales of Hoffmann:

*

Zender: Schubert’s Winterreise
Julian Prégardien, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Robert Reimer
[Alpha, 2018]

Schubert’s great song-cycle Winterreise I recommend to everyone. This disc of Hans Zender’s Schubert’s Winterreise is quite a different beast; I recommend it, but only to those who already know the original well. Zender’s Winterreise, which he called a “composed interpretation” of the original, was completed in 1993. It is completely bonkers. The piano has blossomed into an orchestra, and each of the 24 songs has been filtered through the musical developments of the two hundred years since Schubert first wrote them. Strange sonorities erupt, songs fracture and break apart, or take sharp turns down unexpected alleyways, and the singing sometimes reverts to speech. It’s not something to hear every day, but as a stimulating meditation on these immortal songs, it has won a place in my heart.

*

Sorabji: Sequentia Cyclica
Jonathan Powell
[Piano Classics, 2019]

Also in the bonkers category is this monster from Kaikhosru Sorabji. His Sequentia Cyclica is an 8-1/2 hour long colossus, a set of 27 variations on the “Dies Irae” theme from the Requiem Mass. It makes superhuman demands on the pianist — and also on the listener. This is the “theme and variations” form conceived on a massive scale; some of these individual “variations” run to nearly an hour. It is, again, not something I am going to listen to very often, but I am really happy to have heard it. Recommended to those with an affection for Mount Everest, the US national debt, and galactic superclusters.

Here is Powell playing the variation “in the style of Debussy”, complete with score:

*

Fading
The Gesualdo Six
[Hyperion, 2020]

My disc of the year, however, is this one from the British ensemble Gesualdo Six. The music is an eclectic mash-up of Renaissance polyphony and modern vocal music, tied together thematically by references to light and darkness. We hear Veljo Tormis’ Four Estonian Lullabies and pieces by Joanna Marsh, Sarah Rimkus, and the group’s own director, Owain Park, interwoven with music by Gombert, Byrd, and Tallis. It works wonderfully. The singing of this young group is immaculate, and I look forward to hearing much more from them in the future.

Here is Owain Park’s own setting of Phos hilaron, which, being translated, goes like this:

Hail, gladdening light, of his pure glory poured,
who is the immortal Father, heavenly, blest,
holiest of holies, Jesu Christ, our Lord.

Now we are come to the sun’s hour of rest,
the lights of evening round us shine,
we hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine.

Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
with undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life alone;
therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own.

Fitting thoughts as we close out this year and look forward to another.

***

That’s the kind of year in music it has been for me. Wishing you all the best for 2021.