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30.11.11

What to Put under the Tree

Here at Ionarts Central it is Advent -- and not Christmas -- until the evening of December 24. One does need to think about presents at this time of year, however, and for that culture-loving person in your life, here are some gift ideas, a few discs and films I most enjoyed over the past year -- five each in the sacred music, secular music, and movie categories. A gentle reminder: if you buy something we recommend by clicking on the Amazon link provided, a part of the proceeds goes to support Ionarts. Happy shopping!

CHRISTMAS AND OTHER SACRED MUSIC
École de Notre-Dame: Mass for Christmas Day, Ensemble Organum, M. Pérès (Re-release, Harmonia Mundi)

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Celebrate the New Year with this exquisite recording, which was re-released this year at an excellent price. Since first hearing this disc, shortly after it was first released in 1985, I have recommended it to everyone who would listen as the most beautifully performed and ingeniously programmed cross-section of liturgical music in the Romanesque period. Rather than neatly divided ages of chant and polyphony, forms of the latter are found in written sources nearly as old as those containing the former. A compilation of pieces making up a Christmas Mass, this program mingles chant and polyphony -- ordinary, propers, tropes, parallel organum, and more complicated polyphony, all transcribed from original sources -- in a seamless way. The performances are just as stylish as the musicology behind them.
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The Christmas Story, Theater of Voices, Ars Nova Copenhagen, P. Hillier (HMU 807556)
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The gift of CDs of Christmas music is a gauche gesture, because for the most part the music they contain is, at best, passably performed and, at worst, painfully banal. The only exception to this rule is the occasional disc of exquisite historical music performed with such delicacy and musicality that it is impossible to resist. This new recording from Paul Hillier’s two choral ensembles -- Theatre of Voices and Ars Nova Copenhagen -- is a handsomely packaged disc, complete with a thoughtful essay by Hillier and carefully edited texts and translations. Gregorian chant from the feast of Christmas is a winning choice of programming in these cases, and the selections here, like the introit for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Rorate caeli desuper, that opens the disc, and the Christmas introit Puer natus est, are beautifully performed.
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Sacred Music by Robert Parsons, The Cardinall's Musick, A. Carwood (Hyperion CDA67874)
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This is a recent release of beautifully recorded music by Robert Parsons (c. 1535-1572), a highly regarded composer who met an early death, by drowning in the River Trent, to be succeeded as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by none other than William Byrd. Not much music survives by Parsons (see this collection of online scores), but it has been recorded before, especially piecemeal for anthology-type discs. An Australian group, The Parsons Affayre, recorded all nine of the Latin pieces two years ago, but this recording includes all of those pieces, plus two brief works in English, and in better performances, for both the quality of singing and recorded sound. Like the image of Queen Mary I, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII, on the cover, the choice to make this recording in the Fitzalan Chapel of Arundel Castle, which maintained its Catholic identity distinct from the local Anglican parish, underscores the music's Romish leanings.
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Cherubini, Masses, Overtures, Motets, R. Muti, N. Marriner (re-release, EMI 6 29462 2)
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EMI marked the 150th anniversary of Cherubini's birth last year with this 7-CD set of mostly older recordings of Cherubini's Masses (only about half of what Cherubini finished, plus the two settings of the Requiem), overtures, motets (only a fraction of the two-score examples), and a few other miscellaneous pieces, priced to move at $30. Riccardo Muti's admiration for Cherubini is second to none, and these performances gleam with the loving care lavished upon them, with the Bavarian RSO, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. My own tastes would tend toward a performance on period instruments, like that of Boston Baroque, but it is difficult not to love these suave, heartfelt, Romantic (occasionally overblown) renditions. The Missa in F, dubbed the "Messe de Chimay" because it was composed after a visit to a village church in Chimay, where he was staying with the local prince, marks the beginning of the composer's late efflorescence in sacred music, after experiencing disappointment as an opera composer. In Chimay, Cherubini reportedly rediscovered his earliest training in counterpoint and the works of Palestrina, later writing a treatise on the subject.
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A Worcester Ladymass, Trio Mediaeval (ECM New Series 2166)
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We are great admirers of the singing of Trio Mediaeval, having reviewed these three Scandinavian women in concert in 2005 and 2008 and enjoyed their recordings. Their new disc returns to their best territory, late medieval polyphony juxtaposed with modern music, and their sound is as pristine as it ever was. This program is centered on some of the pieces of the so-called Worcester Fragments, a partial collection of music, mostly three-part polyphony, sung at Worcester Cathedral. The book was destroyed in the Protestant Reformation, cut up into pieces used to bind other books: the fragments were pieced back together and transcribed by musicologist Luther Dittmer from groupings at Oxford's Bodleian Library, with other shards of the manuscript still in the Worcester Cathedral Library. What makes this disc of interest, besides the refined, ethereal singing, is that it is a hypothetical reconstruction of a Mass for the feast of the Assumption of Mary, on August 15.
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SECULAR
Streams of Pleasure, K. Gauvin, M.-N. Lemieux, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis (Naïve V 5261)
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Alan Curtis, after a lovely selection of duets from Handel's operas, with Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce DiDonato (Virgin, 2004), has released a follow-up recording, this time of arias and duets from the English-language oratorios, dating from 1744 to 1750 (including the rarely heard Joseph and His Brethren and Alexander Balus). The results are equally hard to resist, especially with singing by two Ionarts favorites, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux and soprano Karina Gauvin. Curtis's instincts in Handel, as usual, are spot-on, neither underplaying nor overselling the music's emotional punch. Minor pronunciation tics that mark the singers as non-native English speakers (the word "the" is a dead giveaway), but one can listen without the booklet texts and understand every word. Lemieux sings with forthright and broad tone, the chest voice burnished and full, and Gauvin is as shimmering and sparkling as ever. All the duets are carefully balanced between the two voices. Solo highlights include Lemieux's seraphic "As with rosy steps the morn" (Theodora) and Gauvin's heart-rending "Can I see my infant gor'd?" (Solomon).
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D. Terradellas, Sesostri, re d'Egitto, Real Compañía Ópera de Cámara, J. B. Otero (RCOC Records 1102.3)
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Domènec Terradellas (1713-51) was a Spanish composer who left his Barcelona home to make his fortune in Italy, first as a student at the Conservatory in Naples and then for a short tenure at the church of San Giacomo e San Ildefonso degli Spagnoli in Rome. He had a few operas performed in Rome (as well as other cities, including Naples, Florence, and London), although evidence of them and their musical sources is scarce. The Real Compañía Ópera de Cámara has released this premiere recording of one of those operas, his last, Sesostri, re d’Egitto, performed at the Teatro Alibert o delle dame in Rome in 1751, the year of the composer’s death. It received one other known performance, back in the composer’s native Barcelona, at the Teatre de la Santa Creu, in 1754.
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Manto and Madrigals, T. Zehetmair, R. Killius (ECM New Series 2150)
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Thomas Zehetmair is a serious violinist. He has the chops to play the war horse concertos but is known for playing meatier modern concertos by the likes of Karol Szymanowski, Leos Janacek, Heinz Holliger and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Like many of his adventurous recordings for the ECM label, Zehetmair’s new disc is not for the listener who cannot abide music more recent than Debussy. It will be a welcome diversion, however, for those who like to have their ears pulled in other, even uncomfortable directions. The four-dozen duos by Bartok are among the most famous works for violin duet, and Zehetmair and his wife, Ruth Killius (also the violist in the Zehetmair Quartet), play a youthful Bartok duo arranged for violin and viola. The score, reproduced in the booklet, with a thoughtful essay by Paul Griffiths, is 22 simple measures in G major for the first violinist. Turn the score upside down and it is to be read by the second violinist. It is an ingenious idea that makes for a pleasing little trifle when played.
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J. S. Bach, Die Kunst der Fuge, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (HMC 902064)
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Joseph Kerman stands by the assessment of most specialists that Bach conceived The Art of Fugue -- and intended its performance -- for the harpsichord. As Kerman puts it quite wisely, "for this composer learned display was inseparable from practical performance" (p. 34). Many of the recordings we have enjoyed have been for keyboard instruments, like those by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), André Isoir (organ), and Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord). In this recent recording by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, the instrumentation changes with each movement, ranging from solo harpsichord or organ, to small chamber groups (string quartet, combinations of winds with brass or harpsichord), to the full ensemble. This is in line with some irresistible transcriptions of other Bach keyboard works, for various sizes of instrumental ensemble.
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C. Brewer, Great Strauss Scenes, E. Owens, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, D. Runnicles (TELARC 31755-02)
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This disc had me with its opening sounds, Elektra's shriek ("Sei verflucht!" -- up to an earth-shattering B-flat) as Chrysothemis runs back into the house, frightened by her sister's plan to kill Klytämnestra. It makes for a dramatic introduction to the scene actually recorded, with Eric Owens' Orest appearing at the doorstep but only gradually being recognized by Elektra, some of the heroine's most sensuous, tender music in an otherwise rather disturbing opera. Like that opening wail, the excerpt ends on Elektra's ecstatic realization that Orest will act on her long-desired revenge against their mother. So much of the disc's appeal is contained in that first searing vocal flight: the force and power of Brewer's voice, in all of its unaccompanied glory and later glowing effortlessly through the amassed orchestra.
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DVD
The Debt, H. Mirren, J. Chastain, dir. J. Madden
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One of the worst criminals of the Holocaust, Josef Mengele, infamous for his medical experimentation on prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, managed to avoid capture in South America until his death in 1979. The Mossad reportedly had a chance to abduct Mengele when he was in Argentina, but already had its hands full catching Adolf Eichmann. What if a team of Mossad agents had managed to capture and kill Mengele instead of letting him go? What if the story they told after the mission did not turn out to be quite true? This is the conceit of John Madden's new film The Debt, which follows three Mossad agents in the 1990s as they look back on their mission, in the 1960s, to abduct a Mengele-like Nazi war criminal -- Dieter Vogel, with the nickname "The Surgeon of Birkenau" -- from East Berlin.
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Jane Eyre, M. Wasikowska, M. Fassbender, dir. Cary Fukunaga
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As directed by Cary Fukunaga, in his first major feature after Sin Nombre, this is a stylish film that plays heavily on the ghost-story associations of the source novel, long on Gothic gloom and happily short on mawkish sentiment. There is nothing about the film as an adaptation of an over-adapted story that demands viewing, but it is beautifully shot (cinematography by Adriano Goldman), well acted, and the novel's long, sprawling narrative is convincingly streamlined. Anyone who enjoys watching English history pictures will enjoy this one, too. We are clearly going to be seeing more of the young, Australian-born actress Mia Wasikowska, last noted as a relative newcomer and the best part of The Kids Are All Right. Now she has the title role in Jane Eyre, and her performance and look are quite similar to that of Ruth Wilson in the 2006 TV series: with hair framing her face too close and an emotionless pallor, one might forget how pretty Wasikowska really is. She brings the same impassive calm she had in The Kids Are All Right and Alice in Wonderland, with emotional reserves that lurk just around corners.
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Copie conforme (Certified Copy), J. Binoche, W. Shimell, dir. Abbas Kiarostami
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[Blu-Ray]
At an English writer's book reading in Tuscany, we see a mother, unnamed, and her son, Julien, who go off to have lunch but leave information for a meeting afterward. The language of the conversation shifts, only one of many things in the film that are not necessarily as they seem. As the mother, Juliette Binoche (who won Best Actress prize at Cannes last year) switches easily between French, English, and Italian; her son, the German-born Adrian Moore, speaks impeccable French; and British baritone William Shimell speaks English and (we learn later) French. Miller meets the woman at her antiques shop, and they set off in her car for the hill town of Lucignano and its Museo Civico, on a voyage that consists of little more than the two of them driving, walking, and talking in squares and cafés. What exactly is going on between the two of them, and how reality can shift from one thing to the next, is for the viewer to determine. Are we looking at a copy or the original?
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Of Gods and Men, L. Wilson, M. Lonsdale, dir. Xavier Beauvois
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We took note of Xavier Beauvois's film Des hommes et des dieux when it was released in France last year. The film, a retelling of the story of the assassination of a group of monks in Algeria in 1996, won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Catholic dioceses around France sponsored screenings of the film, followed by discussions of the film to promote Catholic-Muslim dialogue. The monastery featured in the film, Notre-Dame de l'Atlas, was established by the Trappists near the village of Lodi, itself founded by French colonists in the agricultural region of Tibhirine. It was only a priory in the late 20th century, and its prior, Frère Christian de Chergé, led a faith exchange between Christians and Muslims. Played with solemn intellect by Lambert Wilson, he guides the monks in his care as the civil war between Islamic fundamentalists and the government worsens, making the threat to the safety of the monastery more and more imminent.
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Rabbit Hole, N. Kidman, A. Eckhart, dir. J. C. Mitchell
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This is likely the best Oscar-nominated film from last year that you did not see. Nicole Kidman received a nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Kidman's company bought the movie rights to the play, and she is also credited as producer), for her portrayal of Becca, a woman who is struggling to bear the worst loss imaginable: her young son ran into the street in front of their house, chasing his dog, and was struck by a car. Kidman's performance is the strongest of the nominees for the award (with Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine also in the running), but the media attention paid to Black Swan is likely to swing the voting to Natalie Portman [and indeed did so -- Ed.]. No less moving is Aaron Eckhart as Becca's husband, Howie, who helplessly watches his wife retreat into a Stepford Wife-like coldness and is tempted by a kindred spirit (Sandra Oh) at their support group. Finally, there is the screenplay, which plays its cards so subtly and with so few cliches that it would be a shame to spoil any of its details.
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