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11.12.15

Things I Liked in 2015: Music, Film, Books

Here are some gift ideas from the CDs, DVDs, and books I enjoyed this year, in no particular order. Jens has already offered 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.

RECORDINGS

Sibelius, Music for the Theater, 6 vols., Turku Philharmonic, L. Segerstam (Naxos)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
Leif Segerstam is recording all of Sibelius's music for the theater with his new band, the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra. Currently it numbers six discs, and it is all quite wonderful. Some of these pieces are better known than others, but many are tiny fragments one never hears. Sibelius's best-known incidental music is likely that for Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande, a gloomy musical setting for that murky Symbolist play. The set came to my attention because of the most recent volume, devoted to the longer score for Scaramouche. This delightful set of movements is for chamber orchestra, mostly woodwinds and strings, joined by four horns and piano, but Sibelius creates a wonderful tapestry of sound with these limited forces. [READ REVIEW]
--Vol. 1 | Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4 | Vol. 5 | Vol. 6--


Haydn, Symphonies, Vol. 2, Il Giardino Armonico, G. Antonini (Alpha)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
Any good recording of Joseph Haydn's symphonies is welcome at Ionarts, where the Austrian composer's music is a matter of faith. Last year the Alpha label and the Joseph Haydn Stiftung Basel inaugurated the Haydn 2032 project, for which Giovanni Antonini will record all of Haydn's 107 symphonies, divided between his period-instrument ensemble Il Giardino Armonico and the Kammerorchester Basel, in time for the 300th anniversary of the composer's birth, in 2032. Antonini worked with the former group on the first two releases in the series, and it puts its crisp and lightly balanced sound to excellent effect in these relatively early symphonies. In an unusual but value-enhancing way Antonini has included, on each disc of three symphonies each so far, a less-known work by one of Haydn's contemporaries. [READ REVIEW]

J.S. Bach, English Suites 1/3/5, P. Anderszewski (Warner Classics)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski recorded one of the English Suites for Erato in 2004, and has now recorded a disc of nos. 1, 3, and 5 for Warner Classics. Anderszewski can certainly deliver technical flair and polish, as in the flashy gigues of these suites, but he is also willing to surprise with some movements that one could describe as weird, like the otherworldly "double" of the sarabande and music-box gavottes in the third suite. Bach's polyphony, he told one interviewer, develops one's hands purely and physically: "there are no longer two, there are three or four hands. Afterward you feel like you can touch objects differently, and your brain feels much the same." Anderszewski has an approach for each suite: a multiform fantasia or intonation, with the feel of improvisation in the A major prelude; a Vivaldi-like concerto of ritornello and solo episodes for the G minor; a virtuoso fugue for the E minor. [READ REVIEW]

Mozart, Requiem / Vesperae solennes de confessore, C. Sampson, M.B. Kielland, M. Sakurada, C. Immler, Bach Collegium Japan, M. Suzuki (BIS)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
With Bach Collegium Japans's fine traversal of Bach's cantatas now complete, Masaaki Suzuki turned his attention to Mozart's setting of the Latin Requiem Mass. Not surprisingly, he has made a recording that is beautiful to listen to and forces the listener to confront the scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood work. This recording's supremely informed program essay, by scholar Christoph Wolff, ends on the description of the composer's sister-in-law Sophie's memory of Mozart's final moments on earth: "The last thing he did was to try to mouth the sound of the timpani in his Requiem -- this I remember even now." Wolff also observes that in 1791, the year he died, Mozart was expecting to be appointed Domkapellmeister at St. Stephen's Cathedral, and that he sought to make his Requiem a piece that could be used in an actual liturgy. [READ REVIEW]

J.S. Bach, Cantatas, Choir and Orchestra of J.S. Bach-Stiftung, St. Gallen, R. Lutz (J.S. Bach-Stiftung)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
A new Bach cantata cycle to follow, this time from the J.S. Bach-Stiftung in St. Gall. Conductor Rudolf Lutz began with the cantatas in 2006, performing one each month in the Protestant church of Trogen (Appenzell) in Switzerland. With private funding, the project draws on a range of singers and historical instrument specialists, now available in a wider distribution on a private label. Fourteen discs are available so far, with more set for release next month, but the series of concerts (and thus recordings) will continue for another eighteen years or so. The results are quite alluring, especially in the sounds of the chorus (mixed voices). As with singers, bigger instrumental names sometimes join on the series, like violinist John Holloway. [READ REVIEW]
--Vol. 1 | Vol. 2 | Vol. 3 | Vol. 4 | Vol. 5 | Vol. 6 | Vol. 7 | Vol. 8--
--Vol. 9 | Vol. 10 | Vol. 11 | Vol. 12 | Vol. 13 | Vol. 14--


FILMS

Deux jours, une nuit, M. Cotillard, by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who form a writer-director team, released this film last year. It focuses its lens on the less than glamorous working neighborhoods of Wallonie. Leadership at Solwal, a company that makes solar panels, has laid off one of its workers, Sandra, played with gritty beauty by Marion Cotillard. The Dardennes' script slowly reveals the details: Sandra was on medical leave because she suffers from depression, and while she was gone her boss discovered he could run his shop with one less salary to pay. The workers voted to accept a thousand-euro bonus in return for agreeing to Sandra losing her job, but Sandra's friend in the group has convinced the owner to allow the group to vote again, to give Sandra a chance to speak to them. Sandra has the weekend to convince her co-workers to give up their bonus so she can have her job back. [READ REVIEW]

L'homme qu'on aimait trop, C. Deneuve, directed by André Téchiné
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
In 1977, Agnès Le Roux disappeared. She was heiress to the family that owned the Palais de la Méditerranée, a luxury hotel-casino on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. She had apparently gone on a trip to Italy for the long Toussaint weekend (around All Saints Day, November 1), with Maurice Agnelet, a man who had been one of her mother's legal advisers and became her lover. Her body was never found, but Agnelet had transferred into his private account all of Le Roux's inheritance. Agnelet has been alternately convicted and exonerated and then convicted again for the next thirty-some years. The most recent verdict -- guilty again -- was rendered after French director André Téchiné had shot his latest feature on the story, distributed in the U.S. under the title In the Name of My Daughter. [READ REVIEW]

Gemma Bovery, F. Luchini, G. Atherton, directed by Anne Fontaine
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
France is a place where books still matter, where politicians like to be photographed with a copy of Montaigne's Essais in hand. Having had literary conversations there with taxi drivers, waiters, and bartenders, I was taken with the conceit of Gemma Bovery, the new feature by French director Anne Fontaine (Coco avant Chanel), about a baker in Normandy obsessed with Flaubert's Madame Bovary. When this nosy, bookish provincial, played by Fabrice Luchini with the same mumbling subtlety as his Monsieur Jourdain in Laurent Tirard's Molière, sees a British couple named Bovery move into the ruin across the street, his imagination runs wild. Not only do the bored, flirtatious Gemma (the seductive Gemma Arterton) and boring, oblivious Charlie (Jason Flemyng) resemble Flaubert's characters, Luchini's Joubert believes that he has the power to make his neighbors follow the course of his favorite novel. [READ REVIEW]

About Elly, G. Farahani, directed by Asghar Farhadi
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
Early in About Elly, a film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, we see a group of friends on a car vacation. As they pass through a tunnel, they scream out the window, delighting in the echo of their voices. The cars pass by campsites filled with tents and picnickers, on their way to the ocean, a scene that could easily be imagined here or in most other countries. Only a few things set this group of people apart, like the women wearing headscarves and the fact that they bring along a samovar for the camp site to make tea, and a hookah for smoking. What starts out as a sort of Iranian Big Chill -- most of the friends know each other from their university days -- becomes more and more unsettled because one of the women has brought along a friend most of them don't know, her daughter's kindergarten teacher, whose name is Elly. [READ REVIEW]

BOOKS

Honoré de Balzac, La Comédie Humaine
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
Last summer a friend, with whom I shared a love of Proust, asked what she could read that would give her the same satisfying long read. My response was my current reading obsession, La Comédie Humaine by Honoré de Balzac. Regular followers of my book posts know that I have been steadily going through it for many months now, and it has been absorbing in the same way as reading all that Proust was. You could probably pick up any single volume (or two) to offer as a gift and get most fiction readers hooked, but I have been reading the whole thing, story by story, on my Kindle and it keeps me from thinking too much about how much there is to read. A Kindle-ready edition of all of Balzac's collected works can be purchased for a song. [READ REVIEWS]

Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels (complete)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
New Yorker critic James Wood put me on to the Patrick Melrose novels of Edward St. Aubyn. They are every bit as caustic and horrifying as Wood described them, a portrait of the vicious underbelly of the moneyed and landed class idealized in Downton Abbey, for example. "Perhaps because [St. Aubyn] is much more of an aristocratic insider than Wilde or Waugh (the first St. Aubyn baronetcy was created in 1671), he retains no arriviste enamoredness of the upper classes he is supposedly satirizing," Wood puts it. "On the contrary, his fiction reads like a shriek of filial hatred; most of the posh English who people his novels are virulently repellent." Patrick Melrose's life, that is, is based at least in part on Edward St. Aubyn's. [READ REVIEW]

Elena Ferrante, Storia della bambina perduta (Neapolitan Novels)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
Readers are probably tired of me going on about Italian author Elena Ferrante, but I am recommending the four installments of her Neapolitan Novels again this year. The fourth volume came out in September, and it completed a fascinating set of novels that are "autobiographical" in style, if we can say such a thing about an author who has hidden "her" identity. Ferrante's account of the Camorra, the powerful Neapolitan mafia, in these books came back in an interesting light as I also recently finally got around to watching the television series The Sopranos, who are American descendants of those same Neapolitan mobsters. I have read everything by Ferrante translated so far into English, and one can only hope that she is working on something new. [READ REVIEWS]

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Min Kamp (Book 4)
available at Amazon
[Buy from Amazon]
I have also been recommending My Struggle, the six-volume autobiographical saga of Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, for quite a while. The first four volumes have been translated into English so far, with Book 5 not scheduled to arrive in the United States until next April. The fourth volume opens with Knausgaard's move to northern Norway, at age 18, to take a job as a teacher, where he begins his work as a writer. While there, he reflects back on his later teenage years, at one point acknowledging that he writes about those years not as a teenager but as a much older man. Multiple perspectives come into play, as we learn more and more about friends and various members of his family, like his father, whose disastrous collapse into alcoholism is traced further. [READ REVIEW]

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