CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


À mon chevet: 'What I Talk about When I Talk about Running'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
My time at Harvard was over at the end of June, which meant the end of my stay in Cambridge. (Farewell, Sam Adams draft beer! Good-bye, Dunkin' Donuts!) I gathered all my luggage together and returned to Japan at the beginning of July. What were the main things I did while in Cambridge? Basically, I confess, I bought a ton of LPs. In the Boston area there are still a lot of high-quality used record stores. When I had the time I also checked out record stores in New York and Maine. Seventy percent of the records I bought were jazz, the rest classical, plus a few rock records. I'm a very (or perhaps I should say extremely) enthusiastic record collector. Shipping all these records back to Japan was no mean feat.

I'm not really sure how many records I have in my home right now. I've never counted them, and it's too scary to try. Ever since I was fifteen I've bought a huge number of records, and gotten rid of a huge number. The turnover is so fast I can't keep track of the total. They come, they go. But the total number of records is most definitely increasing. The number, though, is not the issue. If somebody asks me how many records I have, all I can say is, "Seems like I have a whole lot. But still not enough."

In Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, one of the characters, Tom Buchanan, a rich man who's also a well-known polo player, says, "I've heard of making a garage out of a stable, but I'm the first man who ever made a stable out of a garage." Not to brag, but I'm doing the same thing. Whenever I find a quality LP recording of a piece I have on CD, I don't hesitate to sell the CD and buy the LP. And when I find a better-quality recording, something closer to the original, I don't hesitate to trade in the old LP for a new one. It takes a lot of time to pursue this, not to mention a considerable investment of cash. Most people would, I am pretty sure, label me obsessed.

-- Haruki Murakami, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running (translation by Philip Gabriel)
The problem with people giving you books for Christmas is that you want to read them, and so my diversion from my Balzac reading project continued. This memoir by the author of Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a slender read and, I would have to say, not a great book, but I was happy to get a glimpse of the life behind the written works: Murakami's first career running a jazz club, how he organizes his daily life (especially around training for marathons and triathlons), and his music listening habits.


For Your Consideration: 'The Imitation Game'

available at Amazon
The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum
My brother, whose work is focused mostly on computers, favors a T-shirt that reads, "I failed the Turing Test." This T-shirt used to be a sort of inside joke, but more and more people are coming to know the story of Alan Turing, widely recognized as the father of artificial intelligence. The risk of popularity is that details and nuance are lost, and that is most of what one comes away with in the new Turing biopic, The Imitation Game, by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum. (As for just how badly the movie gets the facts wrong, I leave that to those more versed in the details, but it ranges from distortion to outright fabrication.) The screenplay, by newcomer Graham Moore, is based on Alan Turing: The Enigma, a book by Andrew Hodges, which was also the main source for Breaking the Code, a movie made for the BBC starring Derek Jacobi. It focuses largely on Turing's involvement with the Allied effort to break the Nazi Enigma code, in a top-secret operation at Bletchley Park during World War II.

In other words, the film is shameless Oscar-bait, and the fact that at the end of his life Turing ran afoul of the United Kingdom's draconian anti-homosexuality laws does not hurt as a hook for the politically minded members of the Academy. Since it is not good enough to win Best Picture, or at least it shouldn't, it could propel Benedict Cumberbatch a little closer to a shot at Best Actor, again without good reason. Since the BBC's Sherlock and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, when he first came to my attention, Cumberbatch has been in everything under the sun, including doing voice-overs for The Hobbit. He is a talented actor, but this is not his best work, relying on nervous tics, stereotypical more than individual, to give the appearance of idiosyncrasy, without the distinctive mania of his Sherlock Holmes, for example.

Other Reviews:

Washington Post | Christian Science Monitor | Los Angeles Times | New Yorker
New York Times | Village Voice | David Edelstein | Hollywood Reporter

In fact, none of the performances are all that memorable, which is partly due to the screenplay, which simplifies most of the characters down to stereotypes. Keira Knightley is more controlled than in her over-the-top turn in A Dangerous Method, and Matthew Goode (Death Comes to Pemberley) is a handsome Hugh Alexander, the leader of the Enigma team. Allen Leech (Downton Abbey) and Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) round out the top-secret project, led by Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) as the growling military commander who oversees it. One of the more beautifully handled subplots is in glimpses back to Turing's public school days, where the young Turing (Alex Lawther, who also played the young Britten in Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict) suffers horrific bullying and falls in love with another student (Jack Bannon). For all of its inaccuracies, the movie does an admirable job keeping its somewhat jagged narrative line, split between the childhood, Bletchley Park, and post-war phases of Turing's life, clear for the viewer.


Best and Worst of 2014

We have reviewed our last concert of 2014, which means it is time to take stock of the year that was. The following is a list of the Top Ten live performances I reviewed this year, arranged in chronological order. We conclude with a few other year-end honors (and dishonors) in several categories, as well as a remembrance of the notable people we lost this year.

available at Amazon
Bartók, String Quartets, Takács Quartet
1. Takács Quartet, Bartók quartet cycle (Kennedy Center, January 21 and 22)

As the musicians sat down to play no. 6, a feeling of sadness descended over me, as I realized that the cycle had to come to an end. Geraldine Walther, who was once an associate principal in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, gave a plangent reading of the opening viola solo, setting the tone of tragedy that begins each movement and is left hovering in the room at the end of the work.
2. Paul Jacobs, organ (Kennedy Center, February 5)
If the first concert in the series, back in October and featuring Cameron Carpenter, was about flamboyance, Jacobs offered a program, on the theme of “Music in Paris,” that was about refinement. Seeing these two artists, who represent opposite temperaments in many ways, compete with one another, rather than in series, would be interesting to say the least.
3. Evgeny Kissin and the Yiddish Word (Pro Musica Hebraica, February 24)
Nothing prepared me, however, for the sensation offered by his latest performance, a concert of solo piano music by Jewish composers, presented by the series Pro Musica Hebraica and the Kennedy Center in the Concert Hall on Monday night. In a noble and out-sized gesture, Kissin took public note of his recent embrace of Israeli citizenship by having this program be his first concert in the United States since that decision became official. In between performances of this mostly obscure music, Kissin made the unprecedented choice of reciting some of his favorite Yiddish poetry.
4. Escolania de Montserrat (Strathmore, March 16)
Historically, boys choirs in Catholic churches were the training ground for many composers, from Guillaume Dufay in the 15th century to Puccini and Bruckner in the 19th. Schubert was a choirboy in Vienna in 1809, when he may have sung at the grand memorial service for Haydn, who had himself been a choirboy at the city’s cathedral in the previous century. The tradition is still going strong at the Escolania de Montserrat, a boys choir school in Spain that is making its first American tour, with a stop Sunday afternoon in the Music Center at Strathmore.
available at Amazon
The Art of Melancholy (songs by J. Dowland), I. Davies, T. Dunford
5. Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford (Vocal Arts, April 8)
Davies possesses one of the most refined and lucent countertenor voices, with flawless intonation, ease and beauty across its range and not even a hint of shrillness. With his love of text, intelligent phrasing and clean but not overdone English diction, Davies is a natural match for the English Renaissance lute-song repertory, and Dunford, who has a similarly delicate approach to his instrument, matched him phrase for phrase. In repertory that is so soft, requiring careful listening, the two musicians held the audience spellbound and still, except for a few inconsiderate coughs.
6. James Conlon, NSO, Die Seejungfrau (NSO, April 12)
Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef was mercurial and passionate in the violin solos of the little mermaid, numerous enough to make the work almost a sort of violin concerto. Conlon gave the work a decisive pacing, which added gritty excitement to the faster passages. A rollicking horn theme signifies the prince and his men, and a passage of music in the second movement, excised after the work's premiere, has been put back into the score, recovered from the manuscript in the Library of Congress, heard for the first time in the United States in these performances.
7. Martin Helmchen (Washington Performing Arts, May 10)
It is a thrill to have one's expectations for a performer, on the basis of his recordings (he signed with PentaTone in 2007), be exceeded on hearing him live. This is what happened at Helmchen's Washington debut recital, presented by Washington Performing Arts on Saturday afternoon in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, where he leaped to or at least near the top of my estimation among performers of every composer whose music he played.
8. Dover Quartet (Fortas Chamber Series, October 8)
Conservatories are churning out young new string quartets at a dizzying rate, but lovers of chamber music should put the Dover Quartet on their to-hear list. The group, formed at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 2008, swept the Banff International String Quartet Competition last year. Its local debut, last October as part of the Candlelight Concert Series in Columbia, Md., was a triumph, and its Kennedy Center debut, at Wednesday night’s Fortas­ Chamber Music Concerts season opener in the Terrace Theater, was in the same category.
9. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Rouse, Scriabin, Strauss (Meyerhoff, October 23)
It was even more of a shame that Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was not more full than it was. The three pieces together produced an overwhelming effect, sating the ears with a riotous palette of tonal color, with two rarely heard works by Christopher Rouse and Alexander Scriabin as lead-ins to Strauss.
10. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Washington Performing Arts, November 5)
We have been hearing a lot of Bruckner's seventh symphony (E major, WAB 107) in the last few years -- the Philadelphia Orchestra and the NSO most recently -- but you will hear no complaints from me. Chailley kept the cymbal crash in the slow movement, even though to bring two percussionists (percussion and triangle) on the tour just for that one climactic moment was an extravagance -- and one that I admire.
available at Amazon
Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, Freiburger Barockorchester
(Harmonia Mundi, 2014)

available at Amazon
(DVD, 2000)
BEST OF 2014
Recordings, Movies, Books (Charles)
Top 10 Recordings (jfl)

George E. Lewis, The Mangle of Practice (Library of Congress, October 30)

IONARTS SUGAR PLUM AWARD (Best Christmas Concert)
Anonymous 4 Farewell Concert (Fortas Chamber Series, December 11)

Sumi Hwang, soprano (Phillips Collection, November 2)

George Balanchine, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Pennsylvania Ballet, June 7)

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Brandenburg Concertos (Library of Congress, February 4)

Peking Opera (Kennedy Center, August 27 and 28)

Huang Ruo, Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Santa Fe Opera, August 7)

Georg Friedrich Haas, in vain (Library of Congress, October 30)

In 2014 we said farewell to conductors Lorin Maazel (July 13), Claudio Abbado (January 20), Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (June 11), Julius Rudel (June 26), and Gerd Albrecht (February 2); early music pioneers Christopher Hogwood (September 24) and Frans Brüggen (August 13); singers Carlo Bergonzi (July 25), Licia Albanese (August 15), Magda Olivero (September 8), and John Shirley Quirk (April 7); film directors Mike Nichols (November 19) and Richard Attenborough (August 24); actors Lauren Bacall (August 12), Elaine Stritch (July 17), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (February 2); writers P.D. James (November 27), Maya Angelou (May 28), and Gabriel García Márquez (April 17); comedians Joan Rivers (September 4) and Robin Williams (August 11); and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (October 21).


Best Recordings of 2014 (#6)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2014 (published in whole on My lists for the previous years: 2013, 2012, 2011, (2011 – “Almost”), 2010, (2010 – “Almost”), 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 6 - New Release

Gottfried August Homilius, Cantatas: Warum toben die Heiden / Motets II: Habe deine Lust an dem Herrn, Handel’s Company & Choir, Soloists / sirventes Berlin, Rainer Johannes Homburg / Stefan Schuck (directors), Carus 83266 & 83267

available at Amazon
G.A.Homilius, Warum toben die Heiden
R.J.Homburg / Handel’s Company & Choir, Soloists

available at Amazon
G.A.Homilius, Habe deine Lust an dem Herrn
S.Schuck / sirventes Berlin

Lusty and Clamoring

It’s impossible to pin one of these two Gottfried August Homilius releases down as better than the other, so I treat them as one: whichever one is playing so sparkles with enthusiasm and glorious late high baroque gorgeousness, that it catapults the Dresden composer to the pinnacle of Cantata / Motets genre (accepting Bach as running hors concours). It makes us question why we only really think of Bach in the genre in the first place, when there are gems like Homilius (1714-1785) to be had. What considerably helps is that Homilius can’t be tagged with the “Gallant” label that makes life difficult for many of Bach’s own sons. (Understandably so, more often than not.) Part of the Carus label’s “Music from Dresden” series, these releases contain entire worlds of musical joy and even months after initial listening, I still have the catchy tunes of Homilius happily stuck in my head. (Actually: The cantatas are more fun, if I had to pick one. It’s just that I don’t.)!

# 6 – Reissue

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Clarinet Concerto, Overture and Arias from La Clemenza di Tito, Adagio K.411, Trauermusik K.477, Eric Hoeprich (clarinet), Joyce DiDonato (mezzo), Frans Brüggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century, Glossa 81107

Perchance to Stream: Fourth Day of Christmas Edition

Here is your regular Sunday selection of links to online audio and online video from the week gone by. After clicking to an audio or video stream, you may need to press the "Play" button to start the broadcast. Some of these streams become unavailable after a few days.

  • You can listen to a recording of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, recorded earlier this month at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, starring Kate Lindsey and Karina Gauvin, among others, and conducted by Jérémie Rhorer. [France Musique | Video]

  • From last January, here is Wagner's Lohengrin performed at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. [RTBF]

  • Mozart's Don Giovanni, from the production this month at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. [RTBF]

  • A rare performance of Robert Ashley's opera Improvement (Don Leaves Linda), recorded in 1995 for Austrian radio. [ORF]

  • Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in symphonies of Schumann and Brahms, recorded last September at the Musikfest Berlin. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Listen to the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform Bach's B Minor Mass. [BBC3]

  • From the Grieg Concert Hall in Bergen, Neeme Järvi conducts the Bergen Philharmonic and Bergen Boys and Girls Choir in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, recorded last December. [RTBF]

  • The first half of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, performed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus Musicus Wien, and the Wiener Sängerknaben, recorded at the Rasumowsky Palace in Vienna in 1973. [ORF]

  • A lovely Christmas concert from the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, featuring the Choeur de Radio France, the Ensemble Sagittarius, and organist Daniel Roth on the church's Cavaillé-Coll. [France Musique]

  • Caldara's Marian Vespers, plus music of Vivaldi, Manfredini, and Torelli, recorded at the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Asolo. [ORF]

  • Andrew Nethsinga leads the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge, and harpist Erika Waardenburg in a Christmas concert of music by Tallis, Britten, Darke, and traditional carols, recorded last December at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. [RTBF]

  • French Baroque Christmas music performed by Les Musiciens de St Julien and the Maîtrise de Radio France. [France Musique]

  • Musica Amphion and the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam perform Bach's Actus tragicus. [Avro Klassiek | Part 2]

  • A concert by the Tapiola Sinfonietta, with conductor Osmo Vänskä and pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, in music of Beethoven, recorded last September in Espoo. [ORF]

  • Rossini's Petite messe solennelle performed by the Choeur de Radio France and conductor Piero Monti. [France Musique]

  • Listen to the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin play music by Tessarini, Vivaldi, Caldara, Porta, and Marcello. [RTBF]

  • Violist Ruth Killius and violinist Thomas Zehetmair, with the Salzburg Camerata, perform That Subtle Knot, a new double concerto by John Casken, from a concert recorded last August at the Salzburg Festival. [France Musique]

  • From the Cité de la Musique in Paris, Ingo Metzmacher conducts the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden, with pianist Jean-Frédéric Neuburger and soprano Laura Aikin, in music by Hartmann, Maderna, and Nono. [France Musique]

  • Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bartok's second violin concerto, with Gil Shaham, and Mahler's first symphony, recorded last June in Munich. [ORF | Part 2]

  • Mariss Jansons conducts the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in Prokofiev's fifth symphony. [Avro Klassiek]

  • Pianist Éric Le Sage joins Les Vents Français for chamber music by Glinka, Mozart, and Auric, recorded at the Geneva Summer Music Festival. [ORF]

  • Music of Mendelssohn performed by the Wiener Virtuosen, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and friends. [ORF]

  • Thomas Hengelbrock leads the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble and -Chor in sonatas and psalms by Francesco Cavalli, recorded in Vienna in 1998. [ORF]

  • From Temple Church in London, a concert of Baroque music by the Temple Players and Temple Church Choir, recorded a year ago. [France Musique]

  • Pianist Roger Muraro joins the South Netherlands Philharmonic and conductor Kees Bakels in music by Franck (Variations symphoniques), Debussy (La mer), and Ravel (Daphnis et Chloé suite). [RTBF]

  • The ensembles InAlto and Clément Janequin perform music by Samuel Scheidt, Michael Praetorius, and others. [France Musique]

  • Cellist Andreas Brantelid and pianist Shai Wosner perform a recital of music by Beethoven, Janacek, and Brahms. [RTBF]

  • Sisters Lidija et Sanja Bizjak perform three of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos in arrangements for piano, four hands, by Max Reger, recorded in the Auditorium du Musée d'Orsay in Paris. [France Musique]


Dip Your Ears, No. 187 (Bach from Cavé)

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Concerti, Capriccio & Aria

Young Bach’s Keyboard Tone-Poem

After Scarlatti and Clementi, Olivier Cavé’s third album for æon is dedicated to Bach. The Swiss pianist with Neapolitan roots picked various Italian concertos that Bach had transcribed, the Italian Concerto, the rarely heard and beautiful Aria and Variations “alla maniera italiana” BWV 989, and the equally rare and fascinating Capriccio “on the Parting of his most beloved Brother”, a little keyboard tone-poem from young Bach. The disc shares about half its repertoire with Alexandre Tharaud’s supreme Concertos italiens. But where they perform the same works, Cavé’s more ornamental approach and his subtly different exquisiteness will delight anyone already in love with Tharaud’s recording. 

For Your Consideration: 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies'

available at Amazon
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, directed by Peter Jackson
When my childhood friends and I saw the Lord of the Rings movies, the epic trilogy directed by Peter Jackson from the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, it was like seeing our memories of reading the books as teenagers come to life. Although Jackson and his collaborators did make some unfortunate changes from the books, the production values and the overall look of the films were about as perfect as they could be. When plans for making The Hobbit into a movie were released, with Guillermo del Toro attached as director, it seemed like more of a good thing. Unfortunately, del Toro was involved only long enough to take part in some ill-conceived alterations to Tolkien's prelude to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, extending the story to an untenable length of three feature films. Jackson had already made a few jokey missteps in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, like a dwarf-tossing gag and the eye-winking nod to his B-movie, horror film past in the chainsaw buzz of the vanquishing Army of the Dead in Return of the King. Those tendencies were magnified in the three films of The Hobbit, so that they are not worth the effort of numbering in detail.

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | Forbes
The Atlantic | Hollywood Reporter | Los Angeles Times

available at Amazon
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
(75th anniversary edition)
Most egregious is the wholesale addition of new characters, none more so than that of the elf warrior Tauriel, introduced primarily to add a female presence to a decidedly male-heavy story, complete with a ridiculous elf-dwarf love affair for no good reason. If Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly (Lost) had done something with the role, that would be one thing, but she is unfortunately nondescript in both the second and third movies. A self-parodying toady named Alfrid Lickspittle (Ryan Gage) is added for comic relief to the Laketown scenes, distracting from the better characterization of Stephen Fry as the Master. The work of all of the principals is so good -- Ian McKellen's grungy Gandalf, Lee Pace's disdainful Thranduil, Martin Freeman's wry and self-effacing Bilbo, Richard Armitage's vain and rage-filled Thorin -- that one regrets the much tighter two-film version that this mess could have been.

Tolkien fans will see this movie, just as they have all the others, with or without anyone's recommendation, but since the point of the final installment is the CGI excess of the battle scenes, they should see it, as Master Ionarts and I did, in IMAX 3D.


Best Recordings of 2014 (#7)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2014 (published in whole on My lists for the previous years: 2013, 2012, 2011, (2011 – “Almost”), 2010, (2010 – “Almost”), 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 7 - New Release

Franz Schubert, Symphonies 3 - 5, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), BIS SACD 1786

available at Amazon
F.Schubert, Symphonies 3 - 5
T.Dausgaard / Swedish CO

Non-Violent Machine Gun Fire

Early Schubert symphonies are just a soupçon of tedium away from being boring. Wildness, youthful jubilance, brilliance and a good timpani thwacking are all necessary ingredients and it’s not surprising that (early) Schubert is being well served by early music and chamber ensembles: they are tuned to vitality and happy to go for the jugular. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (with Pablo Heras-Casado, Harmonia Mundi) tackles the Third and Fourth in their typical top-notch style (see Charles' review here), punching holes in the score, though perhaps even overdoing the drive in the Third: Frans Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century (Philips) had shown in the 90s that excitement is not necessarily about conducting faster—although they then proceed to be faster and more exciting in the Fourth Symphony. Honors among recent, very successful Schubert releases must be Thomas Dausgaard and his Swedish Chamber Orchestra, though. They have the best sound of the lot and perhaps the most deft hand at these works, too: Wherever slow, Dausgaard never drags, wherever fast, he never hurries. Punch and zest, yes, but not outright violence. The drum-roll opening of the Fourth shoots out like a salvo of (non-violent) machine gun fire, the darkness of the strings mourns passionately… The Fifth of Schubert, a personal favorite, can be a sunny masterpiece. Günter Wand in his last recording delivered something near genial perfection (NDRSO, RCA), but in his snappier way, Dausgaard rather matches him. That’s reason enough to declare the @SWCOrchestra’s disc one of the finds of the year!

# 7 – Reissue

Josef Rheinberger, Organ Works, Rudolf Innig (organ), M|DG 3171864

For Your Consideration: 'Into the Woods'

available at Amazon
Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall, M. Streep
Stephen Sondheim's music grates on my ears, always striking me as too clever by half. This is not for lack of know-how, as he is almost surely the only composer to study privately with both Oscar Hammerstein and Milton Babbitt -- although those also happen to be two artists I do not want to spend all that much time listening to. His lyrics, which often abound with internal rhymes, have a rhythmic irregularity that is reflected in the music that goes with them, constantly looping back on itself in endless repetition and variation. After a bad experience with Sweeney Todd as a young person, I have tried to avoid Sondheim, but with each of his shows that has come to my ears in spite of that, my opinion remains unchanged.

So I did not expect to like the new film version of Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall and with screenplay adapted by James Lapine, who co-created the stage version with Sondheim. Just not for the reasons that at least some fans of the musical will cite, especially because it does not use the same voice types in the roles as the stage version (actual kids for Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, for example, but also someone like Meryl Streep as the Witch). Streep can work miracles, and she even managed to make her voice work for this major role, as she told Anne Midgette in the Washington Post this month.

The conceit, and isn't it clever, is that the Witch brings together a handful of familiar fairy tales into one overly complex plot line. She has placed a curse on a Baker and his Wife, played here with admirable charm by James Corden and Emily Blunt, so they can never conceive a child. To break the curse, the Baker has to collect objects from four other fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood's red cloak, Jack's white cow (which he sells for a few beans), the golden hair of Rapunzel (who turns out to be the over-protective Witch's daughter), and Cinderella's golden slipper. It's tiresome but with plenty of arch fun had at the expense of daft princes, and finally it ends when the curse is broken and everyone lives happily ever after.

Other Reviews:

Washington Post | Chicago Tribune | Forbes | Hollywood Reporter
New York Times | Variety | Village Voice | David Edelstein

Unfortunately, that is only the end of the first act, and the story just keeps going, for reasons that are too complex to explain, in the soporific second act. The performances are all up to snuff, including the indecisive Cinderella of Anna Kendrick (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), slap-happy Tracy Ullman as Jack's mother, and the cold-as-ice Christine Baranski (who is a stitch as Leonard Hofstadter's clinical mother on The Big Bang Theory) as Cinderella's stepmother. One of the odder results of the decision to use children in some of the roles is that Johnny Depp has a rather bizarre, barely singing turn as a lupine pedophile stalking Little Red Riding Hood. This is just one of many reasons why this version is really not for kids.


Best Recordings of 2014 (#8)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2014 (published in whole on My lists for the previous years: 2013, 2012, 2011, (2011 – “Almost”), 2010, (2010 – “Almost”), 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 8 - New Release

Nicola Porpora, Arias, Franco Fagioli (countertenor), Alessandro de Marchi (conductor), Academia Montis Regalis, Naïve 5369

available at Amazon
N.Porpora, Arias
F.Fagioli / Marchi / Academia Montis Regalis

Neapolitan Gallantries

Countertenor Francoa Fagioli, whom I heard as a wonderful Andronico in the 2012 performance of Handel’s Tamerlano and whose outings on the Carus-label (Teseo, Canzone e Cantate) I have enjoyed well enough, has made a disc comprised of the best arias that Nicola Porpora (1686-1768) ever penned. I have a funny feeling it’s awfully good of him to spare us the other bits of this completely-unknown-except-perhaps-as-a-historic-voice-teacher-in-the-early-18th-century composer. On the other hand, the quality of the pieces he did opt for is astounding! At his best, this Neapolitan-style gallant-era composer seems to have written nothing but hard rocking, socking, and heart-string-pulling opera highlights that the Academia Montis Regalis under Alessandro de Marchi plays with unremitting zest. Then again, it could be Fagioli who elevates this music towards greatness. He is of a generation of counter-tenors (which also includes Philippe Jarrousky, David Hansen, Terry Wey, Xavier Sabata) whose sheer ability and complexity of timbre makes them transcend the early-music specialist niche. When my step-father, reasonably classical music loving but frankly on the unadventurous side, walked in on my listening to the Porpora arias I expected him to flinch. Instead he perked notably, inquired what I was listening to, commented on how beautiful it was, and lamented my unwillingness to part with the disc. Back in Salzburg I admired Fagioli’s wide timbered voice with a particularly good lower register but cautioned that looking at his grimacing made him a dramatic liability. He’s only added quality to his impressive voice since, and on CD you can’t see him anyway. That makes this disc an easy and simply gorgeous inclusion in this list.

# 8 – Reissue

Christoph Willibald Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, René Jacobs (conductor), Harmonia Mundi 921742

For Your Consideration: 'Mr. Turner'

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Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh, T. Spall
Mike Leigh's latest feature, Mr. Turner, made a run for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival last May, losing out to Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep. Leigh, known for actor-centered dramas like Secrets and Lies and Another Year, could likely fill that Merchant-Ivory historical film void with pictures like Mr. Turner and the charming Topsy-Turvy from over a decade ago -- movies that take historical artistic figures and, rather than exalting them, bring them down to our level. This process does not degrade them, although I will never look at another Turner or hear Gilbert and Sullivan again quite the same way: it makes them more human. In Leigh's time-proven method, the actors use improvisation to create the dialogue and story, in this case based on extensive historical research. While certainly not history or even documentary, it is more than mere fiction.

Timothy Spall gives a momentous performance as the legendary English painter J. M. W. Turner, for which he was justly recognized at Cannes. Most familiar now, perhaps, from character-actor turns as Wormtail in the Harry Potter movies and in Enchanted, Spall explores the painter's eccentricities and character flaws in an unflinching way: refusing to speak of two daughters he fathered with Sarah Danby (the normally genial Ruth Sheen exploring her shrewish side); sexually abusing his devoted and rather hideous maidservant (Dorothy Atkinson, whom you may recall from Topsy-Turvy); sketching a nude portrait while visiting a young prostitute. As far as the film is concerned, Turner relies on two people for human warmth: his aged father, now his painting assistant, played with likable bonhomie by Paul Jesson, and Mrs. Booth, the woman who rents him a seaside room in the town of Margate on his regular visits to paint seascapes (a homespun and kindly Marion Bailey, who was also in Leigh's Vera Drake). Mrs. Booth was the companion of Turner's old age, and he often stayed with her under the name "Mr. Booth," a way to avoid the notoriety associated with his own name. Turner died in her care, when he was recorded as having uttered his last words, just as shown here, "The sun is god."

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Stunning cinematography (Leigh's regular collaborator, Dick Pope) captures the painterly glory of the places Turner visits on his painting trips. At the opening of the movie, we see Turner looking at a Dutch landscape with a windmill, sketching it in his little book, as was the artist's general way of beginning a painting. At one point there is a view of white cliffs near Margate, perhaps at Joss Bay, that is frozen, highlighted in a way that makes it look like one of Turner's paintings. At another, a transition from Turner violently applying paint to one of his more expressionistic canvases melts into a closeup of a mountainside of green grass and stony blobs of white. You think that the camera is close up on a canvas but it turns out to be real, as Turner is hiking through the mountains to a lake scene (the film was shot on location in England and Wales).

The real-life Turner locations include Petworth House in West Sussex (shown above in the film, a scene based on one of Turner's watercolors), where Turner often visited the Earl of Egremont, who became a major collector of his work. Several charming anecdotes about Turner also turn up, like a famous confrontation with Constable at one exhibit at the Royal Academy. As shown in the still at the top of this post, Turner vexed Constable, whose Opening of Waterloo Bridge was hanging next to one of his seascapes, by placing a blob of red paint on his own finished canvas. A few wipes and scrapes later, and the red blob turns out to be a buoy bobbing in the foreground surf -- as seen in Tate Britain's Helvoetsluys. Constable supposedly huffed out of the exhibit, muttering "He has been in here and fired a gun." Similar scenes show the inspiration of other famous paintings, like The Fighting Temeraire and Rain, Steam, and Speed. The conversation Turner has with Mrs. Booth's second husband, who was a carpenter on ships in the slave trade, is one of the more haunting scenes, not explicitly connected with Turner's Slave Ship but obviously an inspiration.

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L. Costello, J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History
(Ashgate, 2012)
The only real miss in the film is the send-up of art critic John Ruskin, one of Turner's most steadfast defenders, who comes off here as a lisping, effete, bloviating nincompoop (played by Joshua McGuire, who had a similarly dweebish role on The Hour). Ruskin had his faults, to be sure, but to play him as unintelligent, pretentious about art history, and ignorant of how art is made is utterly off-base, smacking more of vengeance against some modern-day critic than anything else. To have a more serious look at the Ruskin-Turner nexus, see Leo Costello's book J.M.W. Turner and the Subject of History, especially the chapter on the reception of Turner's Slave Ship, which was influenced largely by Ruskin's description and contextualization of the painting. For example, one of the figures shown drowning in the painting is bare-breasted, clearly female although with her head cut off by the bottom of the canvas, but Ruskin did not identify her as such, a detail that many subsequent viewers missed because Ruskin had.

In one memorable scene, Turner is moved by a woman at Petworth House playing Beethoven on a fortepiano. In his grunting, barely sociable way, he remarks that he enjoys the music of Purcell. The woman plays the aria "When I am laid in earth" from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and Spall's Turner sings along in a deep, gruff, and heavily accented voice. Rather than the decidedly modern original score, with its moody saxophone solos (by Gary Yershon, a theater composer who also scored Leigh's Another Year), it is a sonic moment that roots the story in its own time.

This film opens today at the E Street Cinema.