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26.11.12

Gift Ideas for Cyber Monday

Here at Ionarts Central December 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. 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!

Pianomania: In Search of the Perfect Sound (directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck)

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This Austrian documentary, from 2009, received a very limited release in the United States. It has had mostly tepid reviews, generally by film critics who are not really classical music-heads, and the gross has been low, even for a documentary about something that is fairly esoteric. Directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, the film follows the nerve-wracking work of Steinway piano technician Stefan Knüpfer, as he fine-tunes his company's finest concert grand pianos for some of the best pianists in the world to play in the concert halls of Vienna. Like Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037, from 2007, it is something that anyone with a love of the piano must see.
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Massenet, Don Quichotte (dir. Laurent Pelly), J. van Dam, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, M. Minkowski (Naïve DR 2147)

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The appeal of this DVD is in the interwoven layers of the perfect twilight moment: an opera about Don Quixote, an old man living with regret; composed with great skill by a composer at the end of a long career; sung by baritone José van Dam, who had made the title role a specialty, returning to it in a grand gesture as he retired from the stage. To celebrate van Dam's career, the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels mounted this intriguing new production of the opera, directed by Laurent Pelly. Everything the French director has touched has impressed me. It was no surprise that Pelly created something that seemed to go against the content of the libretto but ultimately ended up enhancing one's understanding of the work.
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A Separation (directed by Asghar Farhadi)

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Iran, of course, is regularly in the headlines, but how much do you know about Iran and its people? One gets a profound glimpse in the latest film by director Asghar Farhadi, again using his own screenplay. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran, the film follows the struggles of a couple, Simin and Nader, who are trying to work out the details of their divorce. The wife wants to leave Iran, but the husband will not give permission for their daughter to go with her, feeling he has to stay in Iran because he is taking care of his father, who has Alzheimer's. When his wife moves out, the stressed-out Nader hires a poor woman, Razieh, to make the long commute from her home to his to take care of his father. An altercation, caused by the many frustrating details of the families' situations, lands Nader and Razieh in the Islamic courts, where a judge tries to sort out their complaints.
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Josquin Des Prez, Masses, Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM 044)

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Josquin Des Prez (c. 1440-1521) was the equal of Leonardo or Michelangelo in composition. He composed secular and sacred music, but for any composer worth his salt, the cyclic Mass was the symphony, the magnum opus of the day, and Josquin's polyphonic settings of the Latin Mass are the summa of the art. Every possible manner of unifying the movements of the Ordinary is explored -- canon, parody of chanson and motet, cantus firmus, chant paraphrase -- but this music is enjoyable first and foremost just as music because of the beauty of his melodic writing and the variation of textures. The Tallis Scholars have undertaken a complete recorded survey of Josquin's Masses, begun in 2006 with the re-release of a 2-CD set of their older discs devoted to this composer. The new recordings in the series continue to be just as valuable as those older ones, which introduced many eager young graduate students like myself to the complexity of this music in the best way possible.
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Beethoven, Diabelli Variations, Andreas Staier (HMC 902091)

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Andreas Staier made this disc on a reconstruction of a Graf fortepiano, an instrument that still has a thunderous forte side, albeit not as strong as a modern piano, but also a beautifully nuanced soft side. Playing on historical instruments, especially when they are actually instruments the composer may have known, can help illumine our understanding of the sounds and effects the composer was after in a piece. The modern piano can just do some of the demanding things better and more easily -- the trills all sound a little clunky and wooden -- but anyone who has an interest in this piece, either player or listener, should listen to this recording. The use of the moderator (forerunner of the una corda pedal) and shift pedal (Verschiebung) in Variation 20 creates an almost otherworldly soft sound, and the bassoon stop (touches of reedy buzz adding a sung quality) in the comic Variation 22 and the janissary stop (a crash of percussion on big chords) in Variation 23 are not to be missed.
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Une fête baroque, N. Dessay, A. S. von Otter, S. Degout, P. Petibon, T. Lehtipuu, P. Jaroussky, S. Piau, R. Villazón, Le Concert d'Astrée, E. Haïm (Virgin 730799 2)

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Last December, Emmanuelle Haïm celebrated the 10-year anniversary of her historically informed performance ensemble, Le Concert d'Astrée. As a retrospective of the composers who have provided their greatest successes -- Rameau, Lully, Purcell, and especially Handel -- Haïm led a gala concert at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, with a starry list of the singers who have worked with her over the last decade. This 2-CD set is the result of the live recording made in Paris. The thrill of this sort of event, with so many different singers, including many leading voices, performing only one or a few pieces is that all can throw themselves into their performances without worrying so much about safeguarding some vocal strength over the course of an entire operatic role. Standout performances come from less expected places, like soprano Jaël Azzaretti in a high-flying avian duet with Alexis Kossenko on traverso in "Rossignols amoureux" or horn players with serious chops in the hunting aria "A la chasse," both from Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie.
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Das Ewig-Weibliche (Goethe-Lieder), Marlis Petersen, Jendrik Springer (HMC 902904)

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Countless composers have set Goethe's words to song, and Petersen and Springer get top marks here for not selecting any of the expected choices, the songs that get performed all the time. This is true even for some of the most familiar poetry: Gretchen's spinning song is presented in the setting of Richard Wagner, and Mignon's Kennst du das Land in that of Alphons Diepenbrock (1862-1921). Six settings of the poem Wandrers Nachtlied II ("Ein Gleiches") -- which Goethe wrote on the wall of a Thuringian hunting-lodge near Ilmenau on a visit to the Kickelhahn -- punctuate the recital, and apart from the first, by Robert Schumann, none is particularly familiar.
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Beethoven, Bagatelles (opp. 33, 119, 126; WoO 52, 56, 59-61), Steven Osborne (Hyperion CDA67879)

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While spending a lot of time listening to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations recently, I was struck by scholar Jean-Paul Montagnier's comparison of the mostly concise movements of that work to something akin to bagatelles. It was a reminder that pieces that might seem on the surface like amuse-bouches can actually make a full meal served together, and it made me want to listen to Beethoven's actual bagatelles with a different ear. Steven Osborne's bagatelle disc is a fizzy breeze of a recording, with polished technique and uniformly diverting interpretations, generally preferring brisk and devil-may-care over the occasionally melancholy approach of a player like Brendel, closer in some ways to the fine recording of Rudolf Buchbinder (Warner Classics, 2002). A few unusual moments stand out, as in the blurred pedal effect in the B section of op. 33/7 (Beethoven's marking is "senza sordino," meaning to depress the pedal to lift the damper mechanism), with a gossamer-light touch at breakneck speed in the main section.
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Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart, Stile Antico, Fretwork (HMU 807554)

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We have been fans of the relatively new British choral ensemble Stile Antico for some time. Their recordings have all had the two qualities we cherish in early music recordings, unusual repertoire choices in top-notch performances. Their new recording stays with the sort of music that is their specialty, early English polyphony, sung here with a group of just twelve voices. The ensemble's harmonious balance and immaculate vowel unity and intonation are heard in many of these pieces, many of them well worth discovering. Stile Antico, quite admirably, goes a little off its well-beaten track by partnering here with the fine viol consort Fretwork. This makes possible the inclusion of some verse anthems that combine instrumental parts for viols with solo lines -- John Amner's tender Christmas scene O Ye Little Flock, William Byrd's impassioned lament Why Do I Use My Paper, Ink and Pen? (a setting of Henry Walpole's response to having saintly blood spattered on his white doublet at the brutal execution of Catholic martyr Edmund Campion), and Orlando Gibbons's See, See, the Word Is Incarnate -- as well as three settings of the In Nomine counterpoint, for viols alone.
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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Fretwork (HMU 907560)

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The sheer ingenuity of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations has led to an incalculable number of adaptations of the work for other instruments. Music this good can certainly withstand the pulling and bending of transcription, something that Bach himself did with the music of other composers. The best of these transcriptions update the work for more recent instrumental possibilities. This new recording by the viol consort Fretwork, an ensemble of six viola da gamba players, does the reverse by arranging the piece for instruments that antedate the score. Bach was, of course, familiar with the viola da gamba -- he wrote three sonatas for the instrument -- but his treatment of it in the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto shows that he regarded it as an antique curiosity, one primarily included for the enjoyment of his princely employer in Köthen, who played it.
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