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29.11.13

Black Friday: Twelve Things I Liked This Year

For your Black Friday or Cyber Monday needs, here are some gift ideas from the CDs, DVDs, and movies I enjoyed this year, in no particular order. Jens will also offer his thoughts on the best recordings of the year. When you buy through the links provided on these pages, Ionarts receives a cut at no extra cost to you -- so you are actually giving two gifts at once.

CLASSICAL

Bach, Orchestral Suites (Ouvertures), Freiburger Barockorchester, P. Müllejans, G. von der Goltz (HMC 902154)
available at Amazon
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This new version of Bach's orchestral suites from the Freiburger Barockorchester takes the Leipzig sources more or less at face value, with the usual corrections, reflecting Bach's (possibly hasty) recycling of these older pieces later in his career. Although the string playing is bright and unified, as one expects of the Freiburg musicians, it is the woodwind performances that stand out here, including several delightful bassoon solos (Javier Zafra) and bubbly oboes (Katharina Arfken, Andreas Helm, and Thomas Meraner), recorded with key clicks and all. Flutist Karl Kaiser absolutely dazzles in the chatty Badinerie of the second suite, paced as quickly as the breathless version from Concerto Köln (Berlin Classics) but trumps it by adding the most ornate embellishments ever witnessed by these ears in this piece, probably the most famous in the four suites. [READ REVIEW]

Schubert, Symphonies 3/4, Freiburger Barockorchester, P. Heras-Casado (HMC 902154)
available at Amazon
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Pablo Heras-Casado is a known quantity in New York, due to his conducting position with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and appearances with the outstanding Freiburger Barockorchester at the Mostly Mozart festival. With the latter ensemble Heras-Casado has recorded two of the lesser-known Schubert symphonies, in performances that put these two slender, even lightweight works in the best possible light. Neither of these symphonies, composed in 1815 and 1816 when Schubert had just turned 18, is what one might call a masterpiece: the menuetto third movements are in Schubert's almost-empty salon style, dances that escaped from suites somewhere and burrowed their way into a symphony. The fast section of the first movement of no. 3, with its swelling crescendo and frenetic rhythms, would not be out of place in a Rossini opera overture. The similarity between the two composers is not by chance: they were near contemporaries, born within five years of one another, and in this period both were mass-producing music at an alarming rate -- Schubert in symphonies, Singspiels, string quartets, piano sonatas, and songs; Rossini in Italian operas -- when Beethoven still had a decade to live but, for part of that time, was not producing any music. [READ REVIEW]

Bartók, Violin Concertos 1/2, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, D. Harding (HMC 902146)
available at Amazon
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You can throw another top-notch recording of Bartók's two violin concertos on the pile. Why would so many of the leading violinists of our time make recordings of the Bartók concertos? The answer is in the music, two pieces that feature some exquisite writing for the violin as well as head-spinning technical challenges. Isabelle Faust's rendition of the first concerto, from the first decade of the 20th century, stands out for her sheer gorgeousness of tone in the radiant soft passages. The same is true of the shimmering flautando sound in the much more raucous second concerto, from the 1930s, overall the more dissonant and barbaric of the two. No. 2's menacing middle movement, with some dazzingly inventive orchestration, sounds vaguely like haunted Britten in some ways. These qualities distinguished her recording of the Berg concerto, too. [READ REVIEW]

Mozart, Keyboard Music, Vol. 4, K. Bezuidenhout, fortepiano (HMU 907528)
available at Amazon
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Kristian Bezuidenhout, in an excellent traversal of the keyboard works of Mozart, continues to furnish jewel-like renditions of pieces you thought you knew but hear in different ways now, as well as others you did not really know and now wonder why not. For Mozart, Bezuidenhout chose a fortepiano built by Paul McNulty in 2009, modeled on an instrument built by Anton Walther & Sohn, in Vienna in 1805, loaned to him by Aleander Skeaping and tuned in an unequal temperament at A=430. Informative program notes by John Irving, Professor of Music History and Performance Practice at the University of Bristol, note an eyewitness account of what was likely Mozart's first encounter with a fortepiano, when he performed during a visit to Munich in 1774-75 on a concert with Ignaz von Beecke. The young man lacked "a command of subtle gradations of volume and balance that could be achieved on this touch-sensitive instrument." Irving also notes that in keyboard pieces from around the time of that visit and after, Mozart's manuscripts bear the dynamic markings and other nuances indicating the composer working out the possibilities of the new instrument. [READ REVIEW]

Britten, Songs, I. Bostridge, A. Pappano, X. Yang (EMI 4334302)
available at Amazon
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The Britten centenary is yielding some welcome recordings of the composer's lesser-known works. Add to the list this disc of Britten's songs performed by tenor Ian Bostridge, who has the optimal type of voice for much of Britten's writing. Britten wrote most of these songs for his partner, tenor Peter Pears, and the poetry (like Michelangelo's sonnets dedicated to his lover Tommaso del Cavalieri) often seems to have appealed to Britten and Pears for personally significant reasons. Bostridge sings all of it with exquisite subtlety, a certain reservation and lightness with some loud and strident sounds deployed carefully. These are exemplary performances of five groupings or cycles of songs, ranging from the odd fragments of Friedrich Hölderlin, at the edge of sanity, to the pacifist poetry of William Soutar and the Chinese paraphrases of Arthur Waley. The last of those was tailor-made for Pears's regular collaborator, guitarist Julian Bream, and the part is played here by Xuefei Yang. [READ REVIEW]

J.-P. Rameau, Complete Harpischord Works, J. Vinikour, 2 CDs (DSL-92154)
available at Amazon
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The harpsichord on this disc was built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf in 2005. It is a copy of a 1707 instrument created in Paris by Nicolas Dumont (hidden in an estate's granary, where it survived the French revolution), commissioned by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, where it now resides. It is featured again on this recent release of the complete harpsichord oeuvre of Jean-Philippe Rameau, recorded by Jory Vinikour. This is in the same category, one to add to our list of highly esteemed Rameau recordings. This disc even had the rare distinction, for a harpsichord recording, of being nominated for a Grammy this year, an honor it did ultimately receive. In general, Vinikour plays with pleasing variety, never satisfied with purely mechanical grind or simple repetition, making diverting changes in registration, ornamentation, and phrasing on the repeats. Dances have an infectious rhythmic impulse, like the brilliant sparkle of the gigue of the A minor suite (Premier Livre) and the gigues en rondeau of the E minor suite (Pièces de clavecin), while character pieces are often quirky vignettes (the chirpy Rappel des oiseaux and the manic, herky-jerky La Poule). [READ REVIEW]

Sprung Rhythm, Inscape Chamber Orchestra, R. Scerbo (Sono Luminus DSL-92170)
available at Amazon
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All of the music recorded here is for acoustic instruments -- no computers, no electronic processing -- and it is music that is long on harmonic and melodic interest and blessedly short on intellectual or mathematical gimmicks, without sounding overly neo-Romantic or derivative. The most beautiful examples are pieces by Philadelphia-based composer Joseph Hallman, beginning with Three Poems of Jessica Hornik, sentiment-laden songs written for the pretty, intonation-sure voice of soprano Abigail Lennox, who sings them here. Showing off Hallman's sure handling of instruments even more are the Imagined Landscapes, miniatures based on the nightmarish dreamscapes of H. P. Lovecraft that exploit all sorts of unexpected sounds. Two pieces by Washington-based composer Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis also reward repeated listening: the rhythmic chaos but still cogent structure of A Collection of Sand and the dissection and deconstruction of a short passage from a Chopin ballade in Chopin Syndrome. Justin Boyer's Con Slancio is in a style that often sounds like a mix of minimalism, blues, and American folk, a sort of hoedown for bass clarinet and string quartet. [READ REVIEW]

JAZZ

Le Bœuf sur le Toit: Swinging Paris, A. Tharaud et al. (Virgin 5099960255228)
available at Amazon
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Alexandre Tharaud’s Le Bœuf sur le Toit: Swinging Paris is really a collaborative effort. Working with a score of other musicians, the French pianist’s goal was to recreate the atmosphere of the most famous French cabaret of les années folles, the period we call the Roaring 20s in English. At 28, rue Boissy d’Anglas, near the Church of La Madeleine, entrepreneur Louis Moysès gave it the name of Darius Milhaud and Jean Cocteau’s pantomime-ballet in 1921, and until it was closed by the authorities in 1927 the club pulsed with the heartbeat of creative Paris. This reconstruction is speculative, given that no record of any precise program at the Bœuf survives, but an authoritative program note by Martin Pénet lays out the history of the club, the musicians who performed there, and what sort of music they left behind. The selection of music is centered on the composer and arranger Jean Wiéner, the cabaret’s pianist and de facto music director, as well as his partnership, in a two-piano duo act, with Belgian pianist Clément Doucet. Both musicians specialized in arrangements that bridged the gap between popular music of the time, the American jazz that took Paris by storm, and the European classical tradition. The result is suave, pleasurable listening from end to end -- a natural Christmas gift. [READ REVIEW]

Entre elle et lui, N. Dessay, M. Legrand, et al. (Erato 934148 2)
available at Amazon
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Crossover is normally off limits here at Ionarts, but my francophilia gets the better of me with this new release. So this recommendation applies only to readers who share my weaknesses -- for jazz, for the film scores of Michel Legrand (especially in the films of Jacques Demy), for French song, and for Natalie Dessay. Legrand, one of my favorite film composers, made a very rare visit to the Washington area in 2009, which through a calendar mishap, I managed to miss having the chance to review. This new disc gives me hope that I may get another chance to hear Legrand live, if there is a related U.S. tour. Dessay sings all Legrand songs in this selection, with the composer at the piano, joined at times by bass, drums, and harp, with vocal turns by soprano Patricia Petibon, baritone Laurent Naouri. Legrand himself sings in two of the more moving performances. Where he excels are the songs that sound best on this album, the slow ballads in minor keys that are infused with ineffable Gallic sadness (La valse des lilas, Les moulins de mon coeur, the song of Guy and Geneviève from Parapluies de Cherbourg, The Summer Knows, Mon dernier concert). [READ REVIEW]

FILM

Mozart, The Magic Flute, J. Kaiser, A. Carson, R. Pape, L. Petrova (film directed by K. Branagh), Chamber Orchestra of Europe, J. Conlon (Idéale Audience REVA1047)
available at Amazon
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This film version of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, directed by Kenneth Branagh, was first seen in limited release in 2008 (in Canada, France, and a few other places). I had long assumed that the movie was going nowhere in the United States until a DVD of the film arrived in the mail. Branagh used an English translation made by Stephen Fry, which updates the story to the trenches of World War I. This makes more sense than may seem likely, but anyone looking for a traditional performance on DVD will be disappointed. James Conlon conducted the studio recording that provides the soundtrack, with the fine Chamber Orchestra of Europe, a clean and delightful performance. The vocal cast varies widely, topped by tenor Joseph Kaiser in superlative form as Tamino and seconded by René Pape as his usual excellent Sarastro, just in oddly accented English. Although the Queen of the Night of Lyubov Petrova is quite fine, if slightly shrill, with Pamina (pretty but not always accurate Amy Carson), the Three Ladies, Papageno (rough-hewn Benjamin Jay Davis), and Papagena (Silvia Moi), there is the sense of casting more for looks and acting than for singing, which is important after all in this kind of film-hybrid project. Tom Randle makes a slimy Monostatos, and the three boys (William Dutton, Luke Lampard, and Jamie Manton) are adorable in their small soldier outfits. [READ REVIEW]

Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson, B. Willis, E. Norton, B. Murray, F. McDormand, T. Swinton
available at Amazon
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This is the film that should have won the Academy Award for Writing--Original Screenplay, a prize awarded to Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. The screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom, by director Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, is both improbable -- although many of its odd turns seem unlikely in the present era, they may have been normal in 1960s New England -- and utterly charming. I did not write a review of this movie the first time around, but when I did get around to seeing it, it has become obsessive watching -- saved on my DVR at home, I still return to it regularly. The dialogue is so hilarious, and the characters so memorable, all deep into the cast list. The protagonists, a troubled teenage boy and an equally troubled teenage girl, meet when he sees her performing as one of the birds in Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. This is appropriate since the summer of their improbable romance, which involves more than one adventurous escape, coincides with the arrival of one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the little island. The rest of the soundtrack is also by Benjamin Britten -- an LP of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra features prominently, as does a heart-rending children's choir performance of Cuckoo!, one of the songs from the Friday Afternoons collection, and the pizzicato movement from Simple Symphony -- and Brittenesque music by Alexandre Desplat, a nice tribute for the Britten centenary.

Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, S. Sharma, I. Khan
available at Amazon
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Ang Lee, when he is not making brainless movies (Hulk), is a whip-smart director who can distill a sprawling narrative down to its essentials, in human terms. After successes adapting improbable books to film (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility, and the superlative Ice Storm), Lee and his screenwriter, David Magee (who wrote the excellent Finding Neverland), adapted Yann Martel's Man Booker prize-winning bestseller into a spell-binding movie. They did this with a small amount of voice-over narration, admittedly a crutch in a screenplay, by having the adult Pi Patel shown occasionally recounting his story to a journalist in between filmed episodes. The film's strength is in the visual element of the story-telling, including seamlessly integrated CGI (the visual effects team was nominated for an Academy Award) for the animals and for the wondrous things that Pi encounters while floating for weeks on a lifeboat after the freighter carrying his family -- and the animals from the zoo they used to manage in India -- sinks on its way to Canada. The colors and settings -- in India and on the ocean -- are incredibly vivid (cinematography by Claudio Miranda, rightly nominated for an Academy Award in the category), and the beautiful score by Mychael Danna (one of Lee's preferred collaborators and the composer of the gorgeous music for Lilies, a strange but memorable film from 1996) would have been my choice for Best Musical Score last year. [READ REVIEW]

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