Downton Abbey Complete Series

October 8th, 2017

Downton Abbey: PBS Television series ★★★

Downton Abbey was a TV series that ran for 6 seasons, and was most popular during its time. It is the story about the life from about 1910-1925 of one of the remaining great houses in Yorkshire area of England. The movie presents life of both the aristocratic family in contrast to the servants in the manor, or to say it differently, of the working class as compared to the leisured class. Each season presented the tensions and problems of the two classes or people in the Abbey estate. It was intended to paint a sense of sympathy for life on both sides of the class divide. The story line left suspense and tension with each episode, until the very last episode of season 6, where everything is resolved, friendships and feuds resolved, the appropriate people married to the appropriate spouses, and the Abbey is at peace while celebrating a new year.

A most appropriate change to the name of this series would be Pride and Prejudice on steroids. The entire story line ultimately evolves around only two issues, 1) will Downton Abbey survive in the new world?, and 2) who will marry who, and when? To the first question, the answer is, “yes”, Downton Abbey survives, but with a loss of the Pracht and Herrlichkeit (splendor and elegance/majesty) of the past. The movie attempts to evoke sympathies for the aristocratic classes in their “loss” of their leisured world, and disappointed that they can no longer have people dressing/undressing them, having their regular elegant garden parties and life on the fox hunt, and massive banquets of white tie affairs, surrounded by maids and butlers, and a host of staff jumping to their every whim. They failed to claim my sympathies. To the second question, if one of the actors survived, they were all able to eventually get married, and usually within the desired class and to the “right” person.

The story line held one’s attention. Oftentimes, the story was a bit too contrived, such as people dying simply to create and maintain the appropriate flow of the movie. The story and scenery tries to maintain historical accuracy, and to that end I presume they did superbly. The setting was in one of the now retired great houses. Do I feel sorry for the aristocrats of the past, or possess some secret desire to wish I could have filled their shoes? Hardly not! I mentioned that this was Jane Austen on steroids, and that indeed is exactly what it was, without the hidden comedy of Jane Austen. The storyline is a seemingly endless repetition of the Jane Austen novels, yet is a little more crass at demonstrating the arrogance, as well as the hypocrisy of the British elite, especially in terms of their moral/sexual behavior. The issue not that they were more sexually loose than one would like to think, but that they maintained a stringent desire to cover up their dalliances with a gloss of moral righteousness. In this regard, they excelled over Jane Austen.

I don’t regret watching Downton Abbey. It was long. Betsy (wife) definitely enjoyed watching it again, and found it better to watch the entire six seasons in one long setting, rather than having to wait for each episode week after week. So, I’ll cease my criticisms and await your thoughts on this series.

Twilight Forever Saga

May 7th, 2017

Twilight Forever; the complete saga, starting Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattison ★

My son Jon and I spent a night in Forks on a week-long bicycle ride looping around the Olympics, and there was much talk in Forks about this film series. I had no great interest in watching this series, but then, curiosity killed the cat. It is a series of three episodes, the last episode dived into two parts. The movie is based on a series of books, written by Stephanie Meyer. The plot is easy to summarize. A girl (Bella Swan) moves from her mother in AZ to her father, who is a town sheriff in Forks, Washington. She is in her last year of high school, and needs to find friends. She first encounters a native Indian (Jacob Black), who is quite attracted to her. She also encounters another dude (Edward Cullen) who looks and acts more like a creep than anything else. The creep also has other family members attending the school who are just as creepy. Through a variety of events, Bella becomes attracted to the creep Edward as well as the Indian boy Jacob. Eventually, she discovers that Edward is actually a vampire with remarkable talents and doesn’t age with time, and that Jacob is a werewolf, but worse, that the vampires and werewolves really don’t get along too well together. Eventually, she totally falls in love with Eddie the vampire, partially because she fears growing old and thus would like to become a vampire herself. After many sub-events, she eventually marries Edward, has a baby from him which almost kills her, but is saved by becoming a vampire herself. Her baby though becomes imprinted to Jacob, making a crazy threesome.

There is just too many things wrong with this movie series to know where to start. First, this movie really doesn’t have good acting, and how Kristin actually became famous by playing the lead role testifies to the desperation of the Hollywood audience. None of the acting was remarkable. The visuals were good, but not outstanding. Secondly, the storyline was just plain stupid. Too many things were inexplainable, or inconsistent. Why would a 107 year old vampire wish to place himself in a high school situation? Why would the vampire father masquerade as a doctor? Why would the vampire family move away in order to keep their identity concealed, only to return later for no good reason? Similar questions could be asked of the werewolves. Why would the lead female fall in love with a creep? Why didn’t the female experience the problems of becoming a vampire and losing her soul, as she was warned? In both the vampire camps and the werewolf camps, there were bad vampires and “good” vampires, bad werewolves and “good” werewolves. What’s going on there?

My only explanation to this story is that the author really wrote with flight of thought, not even giving thought to what she previously wrote. Perhaps the books offer a better explanation? The mindset of the entire tale is with teenagers living in a solipsistic world of their all important selves. After all, high school is so great, and even 107 year old vampires would eagerly love to re-experience high school. So, my advice to anybody curious about this series—don’t waste your time. It isn’t even good entertainment. There are too many other reasonable movies to watch to waste your time on the stupidity and poor acting of this series.

North and South

April 7th, 2017

North and South, a film adaptation of a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell ★★★

Elizabeth Gaskell was the wife of a Unitarian minister living in Manchester, England, writing about the social injustices of the industrial revolution. This, like the Jane Austen novels, is essentially of romantic novel with the twist of making a social statement. The main character, Margaret Hale, thwarts a marriage proposal, returns home to her family in southern England, where her father serves as an Anglican pastor. He is forced out of the church owing to a loss of faith, and moves to Milton (Manchester?) to serve as a teacher. He acquires pupils, including the young owner of a local cotton mill, the nouveaux rich John Thornton. Margaret catches Mr. Thornton being quite harsh on several of his employees. She sympathizes with the employees, even when they threaten to go on strike, much to the chagrin of Mr. Thornton. Eventually, through the maturation of Margaret’s understanding of the complexities of employee/employer relations and the problems of maintaining a successful factory, Margaret helps mend relations with the employees of Mr. Thornton. In the end, Margaret falls in love with Mr. Thornton.

In a way, I felt like I was watching a Jane Austen novel even though there were differences. The now “impoverished” Mr. Hale still is able to afford servants. Margaret is able to conduct her life in a leisurely fashion, never worrying about needing to work or develop skills for gainful employment. The love story had to be incorporated into the novel, and the progression of confusion or hate to love had to occur. Events, such as the death of mother and later father, were unexplained and used only to make the novel progress. Thus, the story was a bit contrived, as are all the JA novels.

The movie itself had great scenes but fairly mediocre acting. Margaret seemed to have a very flat affect. Mr. Thornton did not have a realistic personality. It was more like watching a soap opera than seeing a film. The movie has its entertainment value but does poorly at social protest. Other films, such as the French film “Germinal” made a much better statement about social injustices, while having phenomenal acting (who can beat Gérard Depardieu?).

Persuasion

April 7th, 2017

Persuasion, a film adaptation starring Amanda Root of a novel by Jane Austen ★

This is the last novel of Jane Austen. The film adaptation was a bit confusing and challenging to follow. I presume that it assumed that one had already read the novel. A brief summary is as follows. Anne Elliott breaks off an engagement to a sea captain Frederick Wentworth. She is one of several daughters of a wealthy landowner now in the leaner years, needing to lease out the family mansion and live in Bath while the mansion is then occupied by the admiral and his son-in-law Frederick (surprise, surprise!!!). While most of the Elliott family move to Bath, Anne is asked to remain at the mansion to help with the transition. As predictable, Frederick appears to be no longer interested in Anne, courts other ladies, while a cousin of Anne is chasing her. Through multiple episodes of misunderstandings and ultimate clarifications, many of the eligible maidens are married off in the novel, while Anne and Captain Wentworth realize they both love each other and are engaged.

The predictability of these novels reveal some commonalities of the film adaptations of the Jane Austen novels. These points also summarize all five reviews.
1. The theme is always the pursuit of the main character, a young female, to an eligible person.  The movie always ends with the successful engagement or wedding of the appropriate person(s).
2. The females always come from, or are living with, wealthy landed gentry.
3. The movies always have at least one dance scene. The inability to dance, or the play the piano for a dance, removes a female or male from marriage eligibility. In several novels, the ability to quote Shakespeare or Byron were also eligibility tests.
4. Young eligible ladies from wealthy families never ever seemed to have anything to do but to go for walks and sit around pretending to read books. Occasionally they would play the piano without practice. Never were they expected to perform work. They usually played the piano, but their playing was always very mechanical.
5. Even when the wealthy became “poor”, they maintained a host of servants to care for them.
6. Military folk also seemed to be essentially idle and free to loaf at will. Perhaps that is why the British Empire eventually fell, but historical facts suggest that there were no military in sedentary life living in England at the time of Jane’s novels.
7. Older ladies were always pictured as obese, meddlesome, and suffering from verbal diarrhea. Older men were usually lazy old farts who did nothing but read the newspaper.
8. In all of JA’s novels, there is a confusion regarding who loves who, which is always perfectly resolved in the end.
9. Jane Austen was never married, and perhaps all of these novels are a psychological projection of a fantasy world that she wished to be in. Poor Jane. Why wouldn’t somebody marry her? Then, we might have been spared some of her novels.
1o. As to Jane Austen novels being comedies, Emma is the clearest example of that. Her novels are also seen as perhaps a jab at the ever-diminishing numbers of landed gentry in England in her time.
11. Religion is present in its Anglican form in all five novels reviewed, but this religion is very superficial and also a form of prestige. People went to church, but church was more a social gloss rather than a serious undertaking. Perhaps this explains why England is the way it is now.

Mansfield Park

April 7th, 2017

Mansfield Park, a film adaptation of the novel by Jane Austen ★★★★

This is the one film adaptation of a novel by Jane Austen that I actually enjoyed, and could not predict exactly the ending at the beginning. It is also one of the most controversial novels that JA wrote. Fanny was born into a poor family, but (for reasons not made clear in the movie) was invited to live with a very wealthy rich uncle Sir Thomas abiding at the estate called Mansfield Park, and whose wealth came from the slave trade in the West Indies. The Sir Thomas family includes two girls slightly older than Fanny, Edmund, who becomes close as a friend to Fanny, and a much older son. Fanny acquires a Cinderella role, with the two daughters being heavily favored in all social and family interactions. Edmond decides to become a clergyman. Henry Crawford and his sister come to town, and become heavily socially entwined with the Mansfield Park family. Finally,  Sir Thomas suggests that Henry and Fanny get married, since Henry is fabulously wealthy. Fanny rejects this out of hand, leaving to go back to her poor family rather than be intimidated into a marriage that she doesn’t want. Henry comes to visit Fanny several times in hopes of persuading her, but this finally comes to an end when Henry is caught in a sexual tryst with one of the now married daughters of Sir Thomas. Ultimately, Fanny and Edmond figure out that they were always in love with each other, and get married, ending the novel and the film. I guess cousins got married in 19th century England?

Several aspects of this film are interesting. First, is that it offers mild disapproval of the wealthy landowners for ill-gotten gain in the slave trade. Secondly, it actually brings in characters of other social status than just the multi-generational wealthy families. Third, it is Jane Austen painting her own deepest feelings about who she wished she could have been in the person of Fanny.

Emma

April 7th, 2017

Emma, starring Kate Beckinsale★★

This is now the third of five Jane Austen books adapted to film that I will review. I will keep the review short for the sake of my dear readers. After all, it was hard enough bearing through yet another Jane Austen novel. Emma is a rich young snot who loves to meddle in other people’s affairs, and the story starts with her at a wedding that she helped fix. She, like all the JA novels, comes from a wealthy landed family that had daughters, all of whom are eligible for marriage and desperate. Emma disguises her desperation by working on fixing other marriages throughout the movie (novel). She disrupts one marriage proposal to a friend Harriet, which she is trying to match to the local parson. Multiple brief episodes of love and hate occurs, until Harriet is finally united to her original suitor and Emma marries a Mr. Knightley, another rich young man with whom she has lapsed into and out of favor with. The movie has rich scenery, but the acting is quite mediocre. The story could mostly be ascertained in the first 10 minutes of the film. Emma as a film has it’s rich moments, and the Queen’s (King’s???) English is adorable. Multiple adaptations of this film have been done, including the film Clueless with Alicia Silverstone, a movie almost certain to never be seen by me.

Sense and Sensibility

March 28th, 2017

Sense and Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winsley, Hugh Grant ★

I have recently reviewed the movie “Pride and Prejudice”, and suggest that you review that review and the subsequent comments before reading this review. This is another of the Jane Austen novels put to film, and I will be doing several more Jane Austen reviews before the end of the year. As mentioned previously, I have absolutely no intention as to ever reading any of her books.

I’m not sure if Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility first or Pride and Prejudice first, but it is of little regard, since they are essentially exactly the same story, names and a few details changed. I guess that Jane ran out of creative juices. Perhaps the only difference is that the lead eligible maiden (Maryann) preferred men that read Shakespeare, rather than prefer dancing. The general details of the story between the two novels are practically identical. A family loses its fortune (in this instance, through the death of father) and must move out of the mansion with numerous servants to live like paupers in an ordinary house without servants. Yet, the two oldest eligible maidens are equally pursued by very wealthy gentlemen. The suitors mysteriously disappear to London, and the two oldest daughters journey to London to find their loves. Maryann discovers her lover is now interested in a more wealthy maiden, and so she eventually falls back in love with her original love interest, Snipe, who should have taken her back to Hogwarts. Eleanor discovers that her lover, whom she thought was engaged to somebody else, has broken off that engagement. Maryann goes through a near death experience, miraculously comes back to life, and the movie ends as a double wedding, just as in Pride and Prejudice. I was able to predict half way through the film exactly what would happen, based on recently watching Pride and Prejudice.

Why the title Sense and Sensibility? I presume it is because the oldest daughter, Eleanor, had the most common sense, and tended to hold in her emotions. The middle daughter, Maryann, was an emotional, flirty, “artistic” and impractical type, an addle-brained maiden desperate for a man (just like P&P!). Realism is lost in the novels. Wealth, like in P&P, simply did not exist as such in England at the time of Austen’s books. The gentlemen are aptly defined in the script of the movie as “men without an occupation or profession, and nothing to do” (loose quote). Austen herself was never married, so these novels were probably her painting wishful fantasies of herself into the feminine characters of her books. I know of many young ladies who have watched these films and used them as models for behavior and desire in courtship. In reality, this movie, as in P&P, only makes sense if really viewed as a comedy rather than a romance novel. Because of extreme similarity and “fictions” of both S&S and P&P, I will not be belaboring my point any longer to the weariness of the reader.

I will next be reviewing “North and South” based on a family recommendation. Then I will get back to several more Jane Austen novels. Since I have not seen these movies, you’ll have to wait for my comments.

Chocolat

March 28th, 2017

Chocolat, starring Juliette Binoche, Josh Densh, etc. ★

Chocolat is a marvelous, cute little movie that won 5 academy award nominations, which my wife watched many years ago, and suggested that it was a nice girlie type movie extolling the beauty of chocolate in transforming an innocent little French town from a prejudiced, unhappy villa to a place of joy and happiness. Right? Wrong! The movie is quite innocent, but really has little to do about chocolate. Instead, the entire theme of the movie is that Christian ethics and morality are oppressive and joyless, and by abandoning those morals, one can find peace, love, joy, and contentment.  The true movie title should have been called “Immorality”. The movie is in many respects “clean”. There is minimal blatant sex, drunkenness, bad words, and the only violence is performed by town Christians in seeking to drive out a poor helpless woman and her daughter from the town for corrupting the village morals. This makes is easy to accept without realizing the fundamental theme is rotten to the core, and the entire movie based on  impossible fictions.

Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk drift across Europe in the years after WWII. They arrive in a quaint French villa, where she sets up a chocolaterie. It happens to be that the town is staunchly Catholic, and that she arrives at the beginning of the Lenten season. She finds it challenging to establish a clientele for the business, save for a few troubled souls of the town who have already cast off their Christian faith. The town mayor and new priest insist that the Lenten season be abided by, making it all the more challenging for her to establish her business, and she is branded as immoral since she is a professing, avowed atheist free to share her deviant faith with those who would listen. The town is then visited by some river “rats”, gypsies that float the river, selling goods along the way, and generally having fun as they go. These river people are also rejected by the town, owing to their loose morals. Tragedy strikes when the town drunk burns down their floating city. Ultimately, Vianne decides to leave town on the day of easter sensing that the town is too “intolerant” for her good. The evening before, the mayor breaks into the shop to destroy a nude female made of chocolate, gets a taste of the chocolate, and is immediately addicted. The easter morning service is suddenly transformed into a lesson on tolerance, the village takes to liking for chocolate and dancing in the streets, and suddenly the village goes from doom and gloom to one of joy and gladness, accepting their new religion of atheism and amorality.

This movie is wrong in so many ways. First, it is economically a total fantasy. The movie shows the river rats living a rather sumptuous lifestyle, and yet never working to earn that lifestyle. Were they actually thieves? It shows Vianne coming to town with nothing but an illegitimate daughter and a few handbags at the start of Lent, setting up a very elaborate chocolaterie, making chocolate, baked goods and drinks in excess every day, and yet having only a few buyers. Vianne would give away multiple free samples, and also throw parties, such as a grand feast with lobster and turkey and all kinds of treats, yet never had a successful business as of yet to support that. Perhaps she was independently wealthy, but more likely than not, the author was completely clueless to the simplest matters of economics.

Secondly, the movie is wrong in trying to be so politically correct. It is politically correct to insult the prevailing western Christian morality and religious practice. Such a movie, if made in an even stricter moral context such as in a Muslim country during Ramadan, would be identified as blasphemous. I guess it is okay to rip apart the Christian faith but not Mohammedism. The final sermon offered in the village church on Easter morning was a sermon on tolerance. In one swift hour, the village is transformed from faith to paganism, from defined morality to undefined lust. It is so politically correct it makes me feel like vomiting.

Thirdly and most importantly, the movie (and book which the movie is based on) creates straw men. Nobody in the movie have real living personalities. To win an argument, contemporary liberalism uses the sly tactic of role reversal. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao become the kind, loving, benevolent leaders. Mother Teresa becomes a crotchety old moralistic witch (note that mother Teresa would not be personally attacked, but that the church which bred her is brutally and usually unrealistically attacked). In this movie, the Catholics of the town are intolerant, unloving, joyless brutes. In reality, I have never seen such a village. The personalities are entirely fictional, with the Compte (the mayor) living as widower (or divorcee, the book/movie never makes that clear but implies that NOBODY would live with such a wrench). Reality is that the Christian faith  brought joy and peace to the warring barbarians of Europe. It is the Christian faith, as compared to atheists/agnostics who have a much lower divorce and separation rate. It is the Christian faith which developed the interest in the world, including art, music, and cooking which Vianne now tries to market. The movie has Vianne painted as the only loving, caring person in the town, willing to reach out to the provincial village with self sacrifice. Actually, Vianne was intolerant to the conventions of the village, even refusing to occasionally set foot in a church or acknowledge some of the fundamental traditions of religious life in the village. The entire theme is that the village must adapt to her, no give or take, and no adaptation on her part. Also, has one ever stumbled across a loving, sacrificing atheist? This movie has no realistic personalities, and it is straw men created to form the fictional intentions of the book author.

Sadly, the movie is more destructive than meets the eye. Many will watch the movie as the joyful transformation of a town through the mediacy of chocolate. In reality, it is a town that goes overnight from Christianity to atheism. I would have appreciated the movie far more had it presented itself with entire fantasy, such as with fairies or magical spells. It would have then been more obvious as the fantasy that it is. But, that is so typical of the Hollywood elites, as they live in a fantasy world but wish the world to believe that they are presenting reality.   If you haven’t seen this film before, please don’t waste your time.

BBC Production of Pride and Prejudice

February 12th, 2017

P&P

Pride and Prejudice, BBC Production starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle  ★★★★ for production, ★ for storyline

I typically don’t watch girly films. By girly films, I don’t intend to imply the lewd films of the present day that don’t allow for public display. Both the present day sexually overt “girly” films and what I am referring to have sex as their primary subject and thus much similarity. The Jane Austen books and associated films have been the subject of popular opinion and frequent enjoyment by many close to me, and even the subject of an entire class offered at schools connected with my church denomination, and thus have I decided to break down and watch the most popular of the Austen series, P&P.

BBC does a marvelous production, with superb acting and excellent cinematography. One cannot fault the scene settings, as they are reflective of a most lavish production. I will limit my comments to the Austen story itself. Since I have not heard complaints about the screenwriters taking liberties with the text that offend what Austen wrote, I will presume that the BBC production is faithful to Austen’s script, as I have no intention of ever reading her book.

The Pride and Prejudice story is quite simple. The Bennett family are near broke aristocrats, struggling to keep the family alive with their five children, all marriageable females. The focus of the story is on the two oldest daughters Jane and Elizabeth,  with the primary focus put on the second oldest, Elizabeth, known as Lizzy. A very wealthy suitor comes to town, and immediately falls in love with Jane. A Mr. Darcy accompanies him, who happens to be even wealthier, but is interpreted by the Bennett family as being quite arrogant though he is interested in Elizabeth. After much wrangling and misreadings of various people’s intentions through the course of the novel, Jane and Elizabeth eventually marry their respective suitors and everything ends happily ever after. There are a few side stories, such as when the youngest Bennett daughter elopes with a soldier who presents himself well, but secretly has the reputation of a sleazy character: this event suggests a besmirching of Bennett family reputation.

There are three major problems that I have with the entire thesis of this story. First is the faithfulness to the historical context. Second is the nature of the individual characters in the story. Third are other underlying implications of the Pride and Prejudice narrative.

Factuality? Austen presents a plethora of idle wealthy landowners with nothing to do but to read books, throw dance parties, visit surrounding neighborhoods, or ride horses. Is this how England was in the early 1800’s when Austen wrote her novels? Scarcely not. England was rapidly depleting its wealth by fighting foreign wars and overtaxing its citizens. It is VERY odd that few normal classed people are ever presented in the story: there are the servants of the wealthy, but that is about it. Secondly, the story shows military personnel behaving quite leisurely and undisciplined, which assuredly was NOT occurring in England during Austen’s time. The entire story is a fanciful fairytale that draws young ladies into a fairytale world of courtship, romance, and marriage that never existed in England or anywhere else in history. Is it any wonder that so many Austen devotees of the female gender have ended in tragic romances and marriages?

And the characters, what about them? The most unendurable character was Mrs. Bennett with her histrionics that exceeded all reality. It was torture whenever she came on the scene. Mr. Bennett was a do-nothing milksop husband who lacks any real character at leading the family. The two oldest daughters Jane and Elizabeth really do not have character development. The movie doesn’t leave one feeling like one knows either of these girls better as they have no character development. Elizabeth continues her blank supercilious smirk throughout, Jane is nothing but a needlepoint preoccupied airhead or picking flowers with Lizzy, and both girls display an arrogance unbefitting of marriageable maidens. The only daughter of interest is the snarly piano-playing middle daughter, who at least has some inclination toward having enjoyments that are not rigidly defined by the family. The entire Bennett family has their own pathology as for example if a suitable mate doesn’t dance well, they are not suitable for marriage. In this regard, society has not changed much, but has just changed the symbolism of dance to that of if one is not good “under the covers” then they are not suitable for marriage. The preacher in the story we shall call Reverend Sniveling Creep, because that is precisely who he is. I hope that Austen wasn’t suggesting Rev SC as prototypical of all reverends; I’ll leave that to the reader to decide. Like nearly every character in Austen’s novel, money and wealth above anything seems to be the prime motive for decisions and actions. The only person with a character worthy of emulation is Mr. Darcy, though he is also not well developed in the story.

Perhaps a better (and more modern) name for this book should have been “Young horny aristocrats chased by young lovesick maidens in heat”, or, “Keeping up illusions”, because that is ALL that this story is about. Any modern retelling of the story would change the dance scenes to wild sex-party scenes, and you would still maintain the moral (though more overt) meaning to the story. P & P is often sold as a glimpse back on when society had a true moral base: if that is really true, it sure wasn’t obvious in the movie!

What about the religious sense in this movie? Does P & P show an honorable Christian moral society? I don’t think so. The character of the reverend best suits that of a cheap used car salesman. Religion is not spoken of save at the very end when the officiating reverend appeals to god’s name while intoning the wedding vows. The motivating spirit was to maintain artificial societal norms, maintain an appearance of goodness, while seeking the easy gain of as much wealth as possible. Religion is nothing but a vacuous means of surviving the prevailing societal norms. This book should be an embarrassment to the church, and definitely never taught without extreme caution in church schools. It is no wonder that England (and America) has so quickly lost faith, since (if the movie is true to public society) it had been lost long before overt behaviors reflected that.

Many interpreters of the Pride and Prejudice story focus on the maturation and change of the character of Mr. Darcy from a cold, distant, arrogant person, to that of a warm, caring individual. In fact, Mr. Darcy’s character remains the most stable of the entire story. The only other stable character (and much to their shame) was that of Mrs. Bennett, whom you pray would just fall over dead of a heart attack early in the novel. The prevailing pompous arrogance of the public, and most notably the Bennett family, did not allow them to see Mr. Darcy for who he really was. When Elizabeth finally had a change of heart and fell in love with Dr. Darcy, she seemed as much affected by the grandeur and elegance of the Darcy estate as by the discovery that Mr. Darcy was perhaps a really nice person, even though he would not always consent to a dance at the whim of  females in heat.

I am surprised that Pride and Prejudice has received favorable acclaim. There is wonderful use of the English language, but the story itself presents a very shallow minded society, with poor definitions of goals, direction and faith. I cannot recommend this book/movie as a worthy read/watch for anybody.

Herbert L. Clarke

November 12th, 2015

ClarkCornet

Cornet Soloist of the Sousa Band Herbert L. Clarke ★★★★

Herbert Clarke was among the first few generations of trumpet players with a modern three-valved trumpet, and he helped define the nature of virtuosity in trumpet playing. HL Clarke has written many of the trumpet lesson books that exist, and several of which I use on a regular basis. This is a very old historic recording, and the sound is horrid on many of the tracks. The producer admits that they did their best to clean up the recordings and to remove record scratchiness, but it is still a fairly prominent part of the background noise. Even still, it is a delight to hear an early master of the trumpet. While virtuosity today has well exceeded what Clarke demonstrates in these recordings, the Clarke recordings still demonstrate a great mastery of the instrument achieved by few even today.

Händel Edition

November 12th, 2015

Handel

Händel Edition; produced by Brilliant Classics ★★★★★

This was a budget compilation of many of the works of Georg Fredrick Händel, produced by Brilliant Classics. Many of the Brilliant Classics productions are substandard, but this production was not. Most of the pieces included in this collection were excellent performances with excellent recording technique. Though the 65 discs in this offering were quite budget in price, they were anything but budget in quality, and compete adequately with productions by other recording studios. Particularly, many of the vocal pieces were superbly performed, as well as the organ concertos. The Messiah production by Steven Cleobury competes with the other 10-15 recordings of the Messiah in my collection. It is at times a touch rushed, but I find that consistent with British recordings of the Messiah.

So, a few words on Händel. First, I find it incomprehensible that his name is spelled Handel or Haendel, and not Händel, which was his birth name spelling. OK, the Brits don’t have umlauts, but the British be damned, regardless of Händel’s tolerance for the British misspelling of his name. My exposure to Händel has up to now been limited. I’ve had a smattering of his most popular pieces, but there is not much out there with Händel that’s affordable. I’ve watched a number of his operas (in DVD video format), which are very tedious, and a strain on the sentiments of a modern opera lover.

Händel was born about 30 miles from where JS Bach was born in this same year of Bach’s birth. Though Händel became the wealthy internationally acclaimed composer, his works are brilliant but lacking the absolute genius of Bach, even when considering his Messiah. There is a sense of tediousness in working through Händel that is never found in Bach. Both composers borrowed heavily from other compositions that they or others composed, but Bach had a flair for instilling a brilliance to the new use of the music that is lacking with Händel. This is not to say that Händel was not an accomplished composer, and this collection by Brilliant has done a nice job of pointing out to me many of the lesser recognized works of Händel that are absolutely delightful, but rarely ever performed. Hopefully, some day we will see a COMPLETE Händel Edition with high quality performances. Until then, this collection of Händel is a very reasonable and inexpensive alternative.

Gounod’s Faust

August 28th, 2015

Faust

Gounod’s Faust, with Angela Gheorghiu (Margeurite), Roberto Alagna (Faust), Bryn Terfel (Méphistophélès), and the Royal Opera House★★★★★

Though Gounod wrote several operas and much other music, the opera Faust remains among the best and most compelling works. It is a wonderful liberal adaptation of Goethe’s Faust to the opera house. Unfortunately, it is not so commonly performed. Betsy and I saw it in Chicago at the Lyric Opera house many moons ago, with Samuel Ramey playing Méphistophélès (i.e., the devil). Yet, the music is most delightful, and the storyline modestly faithful to the Goethe story and thus far more interesting than the standard Italian tragic opera. In this production, it was staged in 1800’s Paris, which isn’t exactly where Goethe scripted his Faust story, but fitting for a French Gounod adaptation. Most the scenes were well done, though a few were a bit outlandish and distracting, such as the bleeding statue of Christ in the first act, and Méphistophélès cross-dressed as a lady in the last act. Having Alagna and Gheorghiu fulfill the Faust/Marguerite rolls was quite fitting, especially when they were singing the love scenes, since they were (at least at the time of this opera production) a married couple. Both were superb actors as well as top class singers, and Terfel was equally capable, though sometimes criticized for not acting devilish enough. I have another production of Faust which tends to put one asleep after the first act, this production doing the opposite. It is a worthy opera to watch, and would be enjoyed, even by those who dislike opera.

Review of Three Trumpet Albums

August 26th, 2015

PhilSmithCollection

The Philip Smith Collection ★★★★★

Philip Smith was chair of the trumpet section for the NY Philharmonic Orchestra for many years, starting in 1978, and only retiring recently. He also taught at the Julliard School (which suggests that he had a huge, possibly direct influence, on Wynton Marsalis), where he also studied music. Much of his early trumpet education was from his father, playing in Salvation Army bands. Smith’s style of performance is distinctive and being quite melodious, and singsongy. His technical capabilities are at the top of the realm of virtuosity. What was most notable to me was his ability to blend in with an orchestra without standing out: it was more like an orchestra with a trumpet, rather than a trumpet with an orchestra. The resulting sound was most outstanding. In this collection of three CDs (two of which needed to be downloaded from iTunes), Smith performs both baroque/classical as well as modern pieces, some of which were written specifically for Smith. It is a most worthy collection to have of an outstanding trumpeter.

ArtOfTrumpet

The Art of the Trumpet, Håkan Hardenberger ★★★★★

Håkan Hardenberger, a Swedish trumpet player, makes distinction for having a very fluid, crisp style. He performs a combination of the traditional baroque/classical pieces as well as contemporary. His technical expertise, especially with tonguing, produces a very crisp sound that few trumpeters possess. He  never sounds brassy, but keeps a pleasant tone to his playing. Certainly he stands as one of the contemporary trumpet greats.

NakariaiovTrumpetPianoNakariakovTrumpetORchestraSergei Nakariakov: Trumpet & Piano, Trumpet & Orchestra ★★★★★

This set (of actually two separate albums) are a collection of single CD’s which have been previously published. Nakariakov made his first CD (in the Trumpet & Piano album) when he was only 15 years old, and even then he has a wonderful virtuosic sound. His performances are a mix of the standard baroque/classical trumpet repertoire as well as modern stuff. He plays a combination of instruments, including a flugelhorn. His technical brilliance is unprecedented, save for a few giants like Maurice Andre. Oddly, he doesn’t do Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, which is probably one of the most demanding pieces in the whole trumpet repertoire to perform well. Owing to his young age, we can expect many more years of the most superb trumpet music from Sergei, and perhaps even hear more from Bach.

 

The Trumpet Shall Sound

March 5th, 2015

AndreTrumpetSound

Maurice André – The Trumpet Shall Sound – 2 CDs

Of the greatest trumpet players of my life time, the three that stand out are Rafael Mendez, Maurice André, and Marsalis Wynton. Mendez was probably the technically greatest player of the bunch, overcoming enormous obstacles and endless practice to achieve a status on the trumpet similar to Paganini on the violin — he completely re-defined the media for both classical and jazz players. Maurice André wins the prize of overall excellence in the classical sphere. He had the most extensive repertoire, even converting solos for other instruments like the bassoon or oboe or flute into trumpet solos. His technical fluency is most remarkable. He is best known for his command of the piccolo trumpet, though there isn’t a trumpet piece on either the regular or piccolo trumpet that doesn’t sing in his hands. Common to all three players is the endless practice schedule from dawn to dusk to maintain the extraordinary proficiency on the instrument that they possessed. Playing the trumpet may look easy, but it is as challenging as any other musical instrument, if not more.

This album of two CDs is a smattering of André’s performances, mostly in the baroque realm. It is a total delight. His playing never grates or irritates the listener. His command of the instrument is both smooth and majestic. This album is a wonderful showcase of a man who has truly mastered the instrument of the trumpet.

Hunter’s Bride

November 30th, 2014

HuntersBrideThe Hunter’s Bride (Der Freischütz) by Carl Maria von Weber ★★★★★

The Hunter’s Bride (Jägersbraut) was the original title to the opera Der Freischütz, changed to it’s current name by a producer in Berlin to assist in marketing. This film is an example film opera, where the film in performed in realistic settings like the outdoors and in various mansions, but the sound is recorded in the studio to assist in the highest quality. The producer Neubert took many liberties in interpretation. While the traditional seeting of the Freischütz is in medieval Germany, Jens Neubert chose to make the setting of this opera contemporary to von Weber in the early 1800’s in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. This modification from traditional settings actually works quite well.

Von Weber lived in the early 1800’s and followed Beethoven in the musical timeline. He was highly innovative, and served as the transition into Romantic opera, of which Verdi, and even more so, Wagner, owe their original ideas. This is a very German opera and distinctly NOT Italian or French. There is little schmaltz. The story is a battle between good and evil, God and the devil, and the struggle of the characters for moral purity and virtue, of fall and redemption. This opera fits all of the above. It’s a wonderful, though somewhat hokey story. Max needs to perform well in a shooting contest on the day of his wedding to Agathe in order to win Agathe’s hand in marriage. His recent bad luck in shooting contests causes Max to become quite desperate, seeking enchanted bullets to succeed in the shooting contest (Freischütz). The outcome remains for you to watch and see.

This production is quite delightful. The music is superb, and soloists are superb, both in their voice and in their acting. There were only two areas that I would change. The first is a very brief episode of nudity with Agathe, something that did not complement the opera. The second was the bizarre design of Semiel (the devil) in the Wolfschlauch scene. All in all, this was a 5 star production, and well worth watching.

 

Broadway in a Box

January 25th, 2014

BroadwayInBox

Broadway in a Box

I offer two sets of reviews for this set. There is a reason for this. I often post reviews to Amazon.com, and when I post positive reviews, the responding commentator (of my review)  will usually identify the review as helpful. If I post a negative review, I will receive generally an “unhelpful” ranking. Negative reviews from me often receive feedback that comment on my stupidity. It would be like being called an idiot for preferring chocolate by a vanilla aficionado.  This current review has two sections so that my review  may be received differently based on where one lives. Desperately desiring only favorable feedback on my reviews, I decided to write two reviews. The first review should only be read by those who live in New York City, would like to live in New York City, or who do not live in NYC but have an “I ♥︎ NYC” bumper sticker; if you fit this category, do NOT read the second review. If you do not fit this description, don’t waste your time on the first review and read only the second review.

First Review with New Yorker sentiments ★★★★★

The Broadway musical is a reflection of New York at its best, with the glamour, delight, and gaiety that exemplifies New York. In this most delightful collection of musicals reflecting Broadway plays from most the 1960’s and 1970’s, we see the charm that has brought such acclaim to Broadway. These recordings are a delightful collection of the best of the best that Broadway had to offer in those years, and are the original recordings of each of the musicals contained there-in.  A visit to New York gives one the electric excitement of a dynamic city. It is to this city that we owe much of the cultural innovation of the last century, and from Broadway that a true gift is given to the rest of America. A amalgam of Vaudeville, Tin-Pan Alley, and Big Band Jazz styles in contemporary settings offer a musical feast for the ears. To New York we owe our culture. They tell us what to buy (Madison Avenue), how to save (Wall Street), how to think about current events (NY Times), what to eat, how to live, and what to enjoy in music. And to Broadway we owe a perfect reflection of Americana, music that is truly American. The only thing missing in this box is the video, which would have been nice to go along with the sound track. It is a bargain and well worth the enjoyment of listening to many times over.

Second Review with Rest of the US sentiments ★

The Broadway musical is a reflection of absolutely the worst in American music, including its obscenity, its triteness, and its failure to resurrect the listener from the slums of abject boredom. Its theme of boy-girl love (or sometimes boy-boy/girl-girl love) dominates nearly every musical.  The music itself could have been written by a trisomic Mongoloid—if one simply writes a nonsense talking script and then generates a singsongy tune to accompany it, you have most of what is found on these CDs. Very little reflects true creative genius. But this is so typical of New York—vacuous glamour with a presumption of greatness. There was very little in the vocal performances to be admired. The frequent use of singing children does not provide rivalry to the vocal greatness of the Wiener Knabenchor or die Thomanerchor. Adult voices were not pleasant, especially female voices which were raspy and quite irritating. How any group of people, let alone a whole megalopolis of people, could tolerate this rubbish defies imagination. Some musicals, like “Chicago” were just plain obscene. Others, like “Hair”, attempted to make light of the radical Hippy movements of the late 1960’s through a love fest to the Hare-Krishna New-Age Jesus amalgamated religion. Certain musicals would probably have never made popularity if they weren’t “fixed” by Hollywood — this is especially true of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. The contents of this box with brief comments are as follows…

Disc 1: Annie (Original Broadway Cast) – raspy little kid sings “they’ll love me tomorrow”, but what about today?
Disc 2: Anything Goes (1987 Lincoln Center Theater Cast) – ho-hum. Obviously, anything does go in NYC.
Disc 3: Cabaret (Original Broadway Cast) – NY envious of Berlin pre-war decadence. Jolly right, ole’ chum
Disc 4: Camelot (Original Broadway Cast) – Came little. Ho-hum
Disc 5: Carousel (1965 Music Theater of Lincoln Center Cast) – June is busting out all over!
Disc 6: Chicago (Original Broadway Cast) – Sewage, not fit for Chicago
Disc 7: A Chorus Line (Original Broadway Cast) – ho-hum
Disc 8: Company (Original Broadway Cast) – super ho-hum
Disc 9: Fiddler on the Roof (Original Broadway Cast) – yea, ok, the Jews all left Russia and moved to NYC, wishing to be rich men. We know that already.
Disc 10: Guys and Dolls (1992 Broadway Cast) – c’est ennui. Can’t anybody in NYC compose an interesting story line script?
Disc 11: Gypsy (Original Broadway Cast) – hyper ho-hum
Disc 12: Hair – I didn’t realize that Krishna was hairy. Looks like the age of Aquarius is already over. With global warming, NYC will have the age of Aquarium.
Disc 13: Hello, Dolly! (Original Broadway Cast) – desperately needs Satchmo
Disc 14: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Original Broadway Cast)- deserves an Oscar for the worst script ever
Disc 15: Into the Woods (Original Broadway Cast) – a failed attempt to improve on die Gebrüder Grimm
Disc 16: The King & I (1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center Cast) Not sure why Yul Brynner and Hollywood decided to tackle this one.
Disc 17: Man of La Mancha (2002 Broadway Cast) – it is no wonder that Hollywood didn’t tackle this one, it’s an impossible dream.
Disc 18: My Fair Lady (Original Broadway Cast) “super-sexist” and would never be tolerated by today’s standards. Read Pygmalion instead.
Disc 19: Oklahoma! (1979 Broadway Cast) – Jed Clampett also had a beautiful morning once in Oklahoma, but immediately left it for Beverly Hills
Disc 20: Oliver! (Original Broadway Cast) – Little orphan Oliver! Male version of Annie
Disc 21: Show Boat (1966 Music Theater of Lincoln Center Cast) – Broadway subtly engaged in self-adulation
Disc 22: The Sound of Music – The hills may be alive with the sound of music, but Broadway is definitely NOT in the hills. Still trying to solve the problem of Maria
Disc 23: South Pacific (Original Broadway Cast) – New York’s method of making a bloody war romantically beautiful, n’est pas? Nous aimons les guerres!
Disc 24: Sweeney Todd (Highlights) (Original Broadway Cast) – Sweeney Who? This musical actually has highlights?
Disc 25: West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast) – Why couldn’t Leonard Bernstein just stick to conducting the NY Philharmonic? Amazing that somebody that sells themselves as the great professor and philosopher of music and adorer of Noam Chomsky could deliver something so trite. Bad music, bad script. The Beatles did better; the musical “Yellow submarine” far exceeds anything in this show. Compare Bernstein’s “America” with Rammstein’s “Amerika” and Rammstein will win handsomely.

First, Bernie attempts a half-hearted mess “everything is free in America” are some of the first words… spoken like a true liberal on welfare

Now, Rammstein will tell you what Amerika is really all about…

The late 20th century has produced exemplary music. Unfortunately, it has mostly come from eastern Europe. The West in their godless decadence has lost any ability for true creativity. Once entertainment is stripped of meaning, it becomes nothing more than a hedonistic bacchanalia that  fails to offer to an audience anything of lasting value. Comparable musicals that show more class include a) the Strauss musicals, including Die Fledermaus, in spite of the falsetto of Prince Orlofsky, the music and story line are funny and memorable  b) the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, which had horrid story lines and scripts, made up for by reasonably good music. Even such mushy schmalzy musicals (operettas) such as those of Lehar (Land des Lächelns, e.g.)  has minimally very impressive music in them. The only thing that the Broadway musical does well is to truly reflect contemporary Western culture. To that, the listener should hear and weep. I gave away this series to a good friend so that he could also do a little weeping. He’ll probably sing along to the recordings while in the shower.

If you’ve read this far and you are of the group that lives, loves, or belongs in New York, then clearly you’ve read too far. Shame on you. I suppose you read other people’s mail. You probably even support the NSA (and Obama) reading everybody’s mail. But, I’ll give you some advice that you can take to your friends on Broadway. Try a merger of Broadway with Hollywood. Here’s an example: merge a war musical and a war film. You can take South Pacific and The Sands of Iwo Jima. Once you have John Wayne hunkered down on the beach the first night on Iwo Jima, as evening sets in, have him suddenly stand up and start singing “Some Enchanted Evening”. The Japs can come out to provide the orchestral background, and the wounded soldiers beside John can sit up on their stretchers and offer the oohs and aahs. Once the soldiers reach the summit of Mt. Suribachi and they get ready to raise the flag, the John Wayne is joined by Jane Fonda (in her Barbarella outfit, but military green to match the Duke) and they sing Bali Hai with all the same words, but substituting “Iwo Jeem” for “Bali Hai”. For another merger idea, one can merge two Broadway musicals. Take the West Side Story. . . in the middle of the song “Maria”, some nuns can come out and start singing “How do you solve a problem like Maria” from the Sound of Music. Later, during the duet “Tonight, tonight, tonight may be the night”, Annie comes out singing “Tomorrow, tomorrow, just wait ’til tomorrow”.  Mel Brooks could have a feast on Broadway shows.

The little pagan

January 22nd, 2014

Paganini means “little pagan” in English. Some of his compositions are impossibly hard to play. Here is a tune that you’ll recognize, played by a single person.

Holy Land Revealed

January 20th, 2014

MagnessHolyLandHoly Land Revealed, taught by Jodi Magness, Teaching Company video ★★

In anticipation of a return to the Holy Land, I purchased this video. I was quite apprehensive, as the Teaching Company has a tendency for any series under the category of “religion” to be taught by liberal professors. Jodi was not only hyper-liberal, but also did not offer what the title suggests would be the topic. It would have been better titled as Holy Land archaeology or Holy Land history rather than Holy Land revealed. I assumed that she would delve into the Holy Land itself, discussing the geography, cities, archaeological digs, etc., but ordered in a historical fashion. Instead, the main video was not of the land itself, but of her in the classroom teaching. She was placed on a large square rug that, like a good obedient puppy, she never leaves save for one time, where she got her right foot about ⅔ the way over the edge of the carpet. I wondered if the Teaching Company had a hidden cattle prod that shocked her back onto the rug at that point.

Magness offers the richness of an archaeologist that has frequently dug in Israel. She spends an entire talk on her dig that revealed the toilet habits of the Qumram community (?), and much related to the Roman Masada ramp, which actually was quite interesting. Much of her talk oriented more around history than the land itself, which did not seem to be the topic suggested by the title of this lecture series.

Magness shows herself as a typical liberal, in that she easily holds extra-biblical materials, such as the writings of Josephus, as more credible than Scripture itself. She seems to delight whenever archaeology might suggest something contrary to Scripture, such as the dating of Herod’s slaughter of the children, or timing of the fall of Jericho. Sadly, she is unwilling to explore the controversy in these areas, but presents things as cut and dried. She is a perfect example of claiming that her scientific quest is “open-minded” and yet is hell-bent on proving a hypothesis, let all of the evidence be damned. Scripture over time has proven itself irrefutably infallible, about the only thing that one can safely hang their hat on, regardless of the storms and assaults of man. Archaeological evidence is highly subjective, the theories for interpretation of the data are constantly changing, and the evidence is often contradictory, leading to strange and obtuse theories to explain away the contradictions.

I learned some history in this presentation. I also learned a few interesting facts about the “land” itself. It wasn’t a totally worthless series, though it did not offer what the title and lecture subjects suggested that it would cover.

 

 

Górecki String Quartets

January 20th, 2014

GoreckiStringQuartGórecki String Quartets, performed by the Royal String Quartet ★★★★★

If you prefer to listen to pop/rock music, you will truly detest these pieces, as they are not easily accessible. The music is complex, challenging, and multi-layered. It is not 12-tone music, but definitely does not hold to a given key as your typical tonal composition. Unlike much 20th century music, which is nothing but noise, Górecki succeeds in accomplishing a convincing piece of music. The quartets fit the style of Shostakovich, though definitely having the personal sound unique to Górecki. The performance is very well done, and the recording comes across as sharp. This is not music for everybody, but seems to suit my taste quite well.

 

Nielsen Concerti

January 19th, 2014

NielsonViolinConcNielsen Violin, Clarinet, and Flute Concerti, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, directed by Kees Bakels ★★★★

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) was a Danish composer best known for his symphonies and violin concerto. These lesser pieces certainly are no less great than Nielsens’ symphonies, even if less performed. These concerti all use the solo instruments in a unique way, that doesn’t overwhelm one with the solo piece. None of the solos seem to be demanding virtuosic pieces, but are pleasant insertions into a well-fitting orchestral accompaniment. I am not a Nielsen fan, though I find that these pieces were quite pleasing to get to know. Naxos offers superb recordings, and for the price are quite worth it.

 

Bach Organ Works – Alain

January 19th, 2014

BachOrganAlainBach Works for Organ, performed by Marie-Claire Alain ★★★★

I have multiple recordings of the Bach organ works, including that found in the complete sets of Bach works by Brilliant and Hänssler, as well as the complete organ works by Walcha, Hurford, and Preston. Alain has recorded the Bach works for organ three times, this being her last complete recording. She is a formidable Bach interpreter, and her recordings of Bach’s organ works remains among the best loved and most sought out. I would certainly agree with that, in that she delivers a depth of feeling in the works that is noticeable. The technical aspects of her performances are also quite superlative. Each of the Bach interpreters in my collection offer something different to the Bach organ works, which make them complementary. Perhaps the performances that stand out the most are the Simon Preston recordings, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I could not say that any one series is best, and if a person were to seek out a single performance set for their collection, I would not not suggest any recording as better or worse than any other; you won’t err with any set of Bach’s organ works. Bach has a style distinctly different from other contemporary composers, including a style that is more demanding, more use of the pedals, and a better cohesion of musical statements than others. If all we had from Bach were his organ works, he still would remain a most remarkable and exceptional composer.

 

Górecki Symphony No. 3

December 22nd, 2013

Góreki3Górecki Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) and Three Olden Style Pieces), performed the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit ★★★★★

I have several versions of Górecki’s third symphony, both of which are excellent. Naxos provides a beautiful rendition of Górecki’s 3rd, with excellent sound and balance in this recording. Górecki is not a well known composer, without a large volume of works to his name. He passed away in the 1990’s. While being very distinctly 20th century pieces of music, they are also most accessible to even the most die-hard classicist. The symphony is a sad piece, with orchestra occasional accompanied by a solo soprano voice. The music is haunting, but not in the freakish sense, such as one would get with Ligeti.  Wit masterfully conducts the symphony with a great amount of emotion that touches the listener. As a bonus, Naxos also included the Three Olden Style Pieces, composed in similar genre to the third symphony, though without a vocal part. This is a piece that I would highly recommend to any discriminating classical music lover.

 

Joyeux Noël

December 15th, 2013

JoyeauxNoel

 

Joyeux Noël ★★★

This movie is based on a well-known story in early WWI, where German soldiers started to sing “Silent Night” (auf Deutsch, naturlich… Stille Nacht), but were soon joined by their English and French enemies in a 24 hour truce and joint friendship. This followed with the soldiers in each camp being shipped off to other fronts, and sternly disciplined by superior officers. Much has been made of this event and it has been used to reflect on the insanity of WWI.  This depiction of the December 24, 1914 event has a very Hollywood flavor, including matters definitely not recorded in the original story, such as the Scots starting the singing (no sane German would ever sing to the bagpipe), the German singing being led by an opera tenor with his accompanying girl friend also with him at the front, etc., etc. Since nobody is alive any more from this event, we will probably not get the actual facts of how things transpired. The film has good flow and good acting, but an inappropriate sex scene that doesn’t fit with the movie, and a story line that is rather contrived and reeks of Hollywood. It’s attempt at an antiwar statement is shadowed by “The King of Hearts”, “All’s Quiet on the Western Front”, and “Slaughterhouse 9”.

Jerram Barrs on Francis Schaeffer

November 22nd, 2013
Jerram Barrs

Jerram Barrs

FSchaefferEarlier FSchaefferLaterJerram Barrs on Francis Schaeffer; Part 1: the Early Years, Part 2: The Later Years ★★★★★

I’ve heard Jerram Barrs speak in the past, and thought that he was a touch boring. Thus, it was with mild trepidation that I approached this lengthy set of 23 and 25 lectures, all of approximately 45 minutes in length. This lecture series was anything but boring, one of the most gripping and fascinating lecture series that I’ve listened to in a long time. Barrs has the wonderful ability to providing an intimate discussion into the person of Francis Schaeffer, having worked with him and in the English L’Abri for many years. Barrs also offers personal life lessons that he learned from Francis Schaeffer, that makes the entire lecture series much more than a dry history of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. I’ve never met Francis Schaeffer, though I have spent time with Edith, having invited her to speak in Tacoma at a Crisis Pregnancy Center Spring Banquet. She was a real inspiration to be able to take around and provide for her care. I understand that Edith passed away a few months ago, making the Francis & Edith Schaeffer legacy now truly historical.

Francis Schaeffer

Francis Schaeffer

The first part of this series, The Early Years, is mostly historical, talking about Schaeffer’s early life, and becoming a Christian as a teenager. It speaks of his going to college against his parent’s wishes, and eventually to seminary, first at Westminster Seminary, and later at Faith Seminary when the Orthodox and Bible Presbyterian church split. Indeed, the greatest crisis in Schaeffer’s life occurred over observing the splits that occurred in the Presbyterian church, and Barrs spends much time reflecting on how this shaped the ultimate thinking and philosophy of Francis Schaeffer. The first part ends with a discussion of the structure of L’Abri.

The second part delves much more into the thinking of Francis Schaeffer, with a lot of discussion devoted to Schaeffer resolving issues as to why Christians tend to behave so badly towards each other, as well as why Christians are no longer able to communicate with the world around them. The encouragement is not to escape the culture but to engage the culture, by understanding where the culture is coming from. Culture is best learnt, according to Schaeffer, by looking at the arts, including painting, music, theater, and literature.

The only fault that I could find in this series is that the history of the later years of Schaeffer are poorly developed. Little is mentioned about Schaeffer and his development of an international presence, of his children (Frank is barely even mentioned), of his dealings with the presbyterian church in America, of his diagnosis of cancer, move to Rochester, MN, and eventual death. Barrs spends two lectures and occasional snippets in other lectures mentioning criticisms of Schaeffer, but these were the more superficial criticisms, such as those who attacked him for being a Reconstructionist while others attacked him for being a dispensationalist, neither of which is even remotely true, and obvious to anybody that has read Schaeffer. I would have appreciated more discussion of his thinking regarding presuppositional vs. evidential apologetics, which Schaeffer still receives charges about, or his stance on co-belligerency.

Schaeffer’s thinking is eminently personal, and always causes self-reflection. Jerram Barrs does a particularly exemplary job of bringing Schaeffer’s life and teaching home to an intimate and personal level. The lecture series will not leave one smugly self-satisfied. The series is not only informative but personally convicting, and Jerram Barrs does the series in a manner that approaches Schaeffer as a model of living true to his convictions, but always speaking the truth in love, something that each of us should emulate.

History of the Organ

November 16th, 2013

OrganHistory1

OrganHistory2

OrganHistory3

OrganHistory4

 

The History of the Organ, Part 1: It’s Latin Origins, Part 2: From Sweelink to Bach, Part 3: The Golden Age, and Part 4: The Modern Age ★★★★

Only after I purchased each of these separately did I notice that the complete set is now available for a bit cheaper than purchasing each part separately. The production was accomplished by ArtHaus, and utilizes a number of well-known and accomplished organists to demonstrate various historical and modern organs. There is much discussion on the early invention and development of what we know of as the organ, and its evolution and development over time into the modern instrument that we know. The development of organ music was also discussed. There are episodes that spend time in a modern organ building shop, showing how both historical and modern organs are assembled.

Each episode was slightly under one hour, making the set quite pricey for what you get. Topics are treated very superficially. You are never given an in-depth view of the assemblage of any of the organs demonstrated. There are no details as to how organ music has changed over time, or what musically distinguishes one composer from another, other than a brief demonstration of some of their pieces. The technique of playing the organ is only superficially approached in one teaching episode of an accomplished organist with a student.

I enjoyed the series but feel that it could have been much better done. Unfortunately, there isn’t much out there about the prince of all musical instruments, the organ. To that, a better series on the organ is well deserved.

Church History Lecture Series

October 31st, 2013

DavidCalhounAncient and Medieval Church History  (35 lectures)★★★★ and Reformation and Modern Church History (37 lectures) ★★★★★, by Dr. David Calhoun

These lectures were downloaded off of the Covenant Seminary website, and can be obtained for free. The series is excellent, and taught by one of the giants of church history, David Calhoun. Ancient and Medieval church history was excellent, but a bit too brief. The Reformation and Modern church history lectures also could have been much longer, yet were delightfully informative, even for someone quite aware of history of the church. David is a masterful lecturer, and holds one’s attention without difficulty. He does take some interesting viewpoints, such as coming down a bit soft on Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. This is in spite him admitting that he felt that Francis Schaeffer (who was one of his teachers at L’Abri) was one of the greatest theologians of all time. Dr. Calhoun is known as the historian of Princeton Seminary, having written the definitive history of that institution. His insights on American Christianity are fascinating and instructive. He will take you through the most interesting vignettes of church history, including recommending fishing books. For being free, there is no reason to not download and listen to Dr. Calhoun lectures—you will be ably instructed by a true master theologian, historian, and teacher.

 

Tell it on the Mountain

October 29th, 2013

TellItOnMountainTell it on the Mountain; Tails from the Pacific Crest Trail ★★★★★

Betsy and I have watched a number of PCT movies now, and this was the best. It essentially followed about 8-10 hikers, including some solo hikers, hikers who have done the PCT many times, and one who did the first PCT yoyo, which is from Mexico to Canada and then back to Mexico. It showed a number of couples attempting the hike, some of who made it, and some that didn’t. The photography was great, the realism was great, and the story line was great. It mentioned the dangers of the trail, but didn’t overwhelm you with what was bad about the PCT. You felt like you were there with the hikers. There are supplements to the regular film which focused in on several of the hikers, as well as one of the trail Angels. This is a film that can help one in planning out a trip, or if one simply wishes to enjoy the trail vicariously through others. Thus, one should enjoy watching this film even if they had no intention of every subjecting five months of their life to the daily grind of a hike.

Walking the West

October 29th, 2013

WalkingWest

 

Walking the West-Hiking 2600 miles from Mexico to Canada, A documentary by Myles Murphy ★★

This is a video account of two guys, both foreigners, one from New Zealand and the other from Ireland, who met while working in San Francisco, and decided to hike the PCT together. Neither had done much backpacking before in their life. They give a highly realistic account of the venture, and this film won several film awards. Oddly, it paints nearly the entire trail at its worst. Though not especially mentioned in the film, it seems like the two guys went from being best friends to worst enemies during the 2600 miles of the hike, often separating from each other, and not really supporting each other. The filming I presume was accomplished by a third person who would meet the hikers along the trail, as I’d hate to think of anybody lugging a movie camera along. The film emphasized the value of the trail to help one “find” ones self, even though the preponderance of the film was a downer. I’m puzzled as to why this film would receive a high rating, save that people sometimes enjoy watching others be miserable.

The Pacific Crest Trail

October 29th, 2013

PCTNatGeogNational Geographic Pacific Crest Trail ★★

National Geographic utilizes their abundant photographic skills in order to document the act of thru-hiking of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a trail that runs from Mexico to Canada through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain range. The cameramen latch onto several hikers (and horseback riders) in various stages of the event to catch their ongoing impressions. Generally, the hikers are caught in their best, and not their worst moments, and so the hike achieves a Hollywood style glorification. The filming is wonderful, with the sections of the trail caught in its best light. Especially noticeable were the helicopter views of several hikers achieving the summit of Forrester Pass. Unfortunately, this view might have been a little later in the year than when thru-hikers generally hit Forrester Pass (there are in most descriptions more snow and black ice  on the pass), and it is seen from a helicopter, a view generally not seen by thru-hikers. Many marvelous sections of the trail are missed in this all-too-brief “documentary”, and a glorification of an arduous feat that I presume none of the cinema photographers or scriptwriters of this film had ever attempted. The film is too short, too expensive, and too unrealistic to be of any value of actually picturing the PCT.

 

The Institutes of Calvin – Lecture Series

October 29th, 2013

Resources-Artwork-Header-Courses-Calvins

 

Lecture Series on Calvin’s Institutes, by David Calhoun, given at Covenant Seminary ★★★

I will soon be reviewing a very lengthy lecture series by Dr. Calhoun on church history, and will be giving him 5 stars for that series. Indeed, Dr. Calhoun is one of the premier church historians of the later part of the twentieth century. The church history series displays his absolute brilliance, both with his knowledge of the history of Reformed thinking, but also displayed in his several volume set on the history of Princeton Seminary. I believe Dr. Calhoun has since passed away, and in both this and the history lecture series, Dr. Calhoun speaks of suffering from cancer, and undergoing chemotherapy. The series on Calvin’s Institutes followed his church history series. In the church history series he is very lively and dynamic in his speech. In this series, it sounds like he is worn out and lifeless. When I started the series, it almost sounded like Dr. Calhoun was bored with the topic. Then, I realized that Dr. Calhoun was not his old self because of his illness. Since I hold Dr. Calhoun as one of the giants of church history, along with Dr. Schaff, I would have never given him only three stars for this series, except that the lecture series was also terribly recorded, and there were sections that I simply could not follow what Dr. Calhoun was saying. The lectures are all almost 1.5 hours long, and there are 24 of them, so it is quite lengthy to work through this series. Calhoun gives all too brief of a summary of the breadth and depth of the Institutes, essentially working from from to back cover of the final version of the Institutes. For Reformed (Christian) thinkers, the Institutes are a must-read some time in one’s life. Thus, it will be the next systematic theology that I attack. At Calhoun’s recommendation, I will be reading the McNeill translation. This lecture series is a wonderful supplement to reading through the Institutes.

Dorothy Sayers Detective Novels

October 22nd, 2013

PeterWimseyCarmichael PeterWimseyWhetherbridge

 

Dorothy Sayers Mysteries, and the Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries ★★★★

These are two sets of Dorothy Sayers Mysteries, all of them featuring the Lord Peter Wimsey. In the first set, Ian Carmichael stars as Peter Wimsey, and in the second set, it is Edward Petherbridge. The second set also includes Harriet Vane, a young lady whom Peter persistently asks to marry him. Peter Wimsey, in all of the series, has a male servant, Bunting, who is several of the Ian Carmichael films, does a better job of acting than Carmichael himself. It is impossible to say who was the best Peter Wimsey. Edward Petherbridge was constantly preoccupied with his monocle, and a serious type. Ian Carmichael was never sure what to do with the monocle, but tended to constantly giggle, often inappropriately. All the mysteries are long, 4-5 hours worth. The plot is a little less predictable than the Agatha Christie novels, though still just a smidgen contrived and absent of potential reality. They are entertaining. They are a different style of mystery from Agatha Christie, but still very engaging.

Miss Marple

October 22nd, 2013

MarpleAgatha Christie’s Miss Marple, starring Joan Hickson ★★★★

I’m told that there have been a number of Miss Marples, but this set only has Joan Hickson. There are a total of 10 episodes that Betsy and I watched. Agatha Christie is a master story teller, though the mysteries tend to follow a rough schema as discussed with the Poirot series. Miss Marple, contrary to Poirot, is an amateur detective, a little old lady who happens to be observant, and able to put confusing clues together. Hickson fills the role of Miss Marple quite convincingly, and I’m not sure anyone else could do as well as her. Like the Poirot novels, these are quite entertaining, very well done, and worthy to watch late at night.

 

Poirot

October 22nd, 2013

PoirotAgatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet and Peter Ustinov ★★★★

These movies consist of 16 Poirot mystery novels by Agatha Christie and re-created for movie. Most of the Poirot episodes use David Suchet, who I feel does a better job of Poirot than Peter Ustinov. The best episode is the Murder on the Orient Express.  Agatha Christie novels have a set plan, and so there is a sense of predictability. The crime (usually murder) is enacted, and you have no clue who did it, or sometimes, even whether or not it was murder. Poirot meets with all the suspects, and a prime suspect is developed. All of the suspects are then gathered in a meeting place, and Poirot then discusses his findings. He usually can accuse everybody in the room, but ultimately pins one generally less suspicious character as the murderer. Never does the movie give you enough clues to figure out before hand who might have committed the murder. Even with its predictability, these are still great murder mysteries, and very well reconstructed. There is high evening entertainment value to this set.

 

Organs, Toccatas, and Fantasias

October 11th, 2013

OrgansToccatasOrgans, Toccatas, & Fantasias, featuring Marie-Claire Alain ★★★★

Marie-Claire Alain is a French organist, having a fairly broad repertoire, though she is known to have recorded the complete Bach organ works three times. In this brief video, she expresses her immense love for the compositions of Bach, and why she feels that Bach was the greatest of all composers. She performs many of his works on various organs throughout Europe, using a combination of larger and smaller church instruments. Included are organs that Bach quite possibly may have played on himself. She goes into a moderate discussion of the organ as an instrument. Her playing is excellent, and the discussion is enjoyable, though brief and somewhat disorganized. This is a nice once or twice watched film.

 

At the Grave of Richard Wagner

October 4th, 2013

KronosWagnerAt the Grave of Richard Wagner, by the Kronos Quartet ★★★

At the Grave of Richard Wagner was written by Franz Liszt, is the lead piece on this CD, but is only 2:47 long. The rest of the CD is filled with a string quartet by Alban Berg (op. 3), and five pieces by Anton Webern. This is the only recording of the At the Grave of Richard Wagner piece that I could find.

Richard Wagner’s grave is located in the grounds of his home Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth, Bayern, Deutschland. Here is a recent photo of the grave, not taken by me (I’ve never been to Bayreuth)

Grave of Richard Wagner at Willa Wahnfried

Grave of Richard Wagner at Willa Wahnfried

Though Wagner’s music is among the greatest music ever written, I have little good to say about the man Richard Wagner. Thus it is fitting that he get a less than 3 minute music memorial written to him, which is rarely listened to, and even less recorded.

The music on this set is not bad. I’m not crazy about the new Viennese school, which Webern and Berg were students of. The performances are quite high quality, and the Kronos Quartet does a wonderful job of making Webern and Berg accessible. Sadly, the entire disc is only 33 minutes long. I bought it used on Amazon.com for a few dollars. It sells new for $42, making it over a dollar a minute, and definitely NOT worth it.

 

Haydn Edition Brilliant

October 4th, 2013

HaydnEditionHaydn Edition, Brilliant Classics ★★★★★

This is not a complete set of Haydn works, but the closest there is on the market. Assembled by Brilliant Classics, this is a steal at $130 for 150 CDs and 6 days, 17 hours and 40 minutes of listening time. It took me over a month to get through this set. The works can be divided up into 8 sections.

a) The symphonies – these were performed by Adam Fischer and the Austrio-Hungarian symphony. Though some of the Haydn symphonies are tedious, Fischer does an excellent job with these, and the recording quality is superb. I also have the set by Antal Dorati, and Fischer offers a nice alternative to Dorati’s set.

b) Concertos – These were performed by a mixture of groups. The recording quality was mixed, and performances good but none of the performances were notably outstanding.

c) Choral works- These were mixed. Brilliant did not include all of his masses, and the masses included have been better performed elsewhere. Even still, the recordings of the masses were excellent and worthy of having. The two cantatas (The Seasons and The Creation) also are better performed elsewhere, even though the included recordings are excellent. The operas are well done but tedious to listen to. This does not seem to be the performers fault, as the operas all sound like the early, less mature Mozart operas.

d) Folk songs-Most of these songs were in English, and written (I presume) while Haydn was in England. These truly were the least desireable part of this set. The songs for the most part all sounded the same. They were a challenge to get through.

e) String Quartets- The String Quartets were all produced by the Buchberger Quartet, and superb. The performances, as well as the recordings were delightful and a joy to listen to.

f) Piano trios- Performed by the Van Swieten Trio, they are quite capably performed. I am not as familiar with his piano trios as Haydn’s other works, so cannot offer great comments, except that they were nicely done.

g) Baryton trios- These are recordings that I have never heard of. I had to look up the definition of a baryton, which is sort of like a cello but with more strings, and strings of different types. The Esterhazy Ensemble is one of the groups instrumental in resurrecting the baryton, and their recordings are well done and most delightful. It is sad that these works are not better known, and I applaud the Esterhazy Ensemble for their wonderful performances of these pieces.

i) Piano solo works – these are offered by a mixture of performers. The recording quality is excellent, and the performances are well done, though none stood out as remarkable.

In summary, the Brilliant Edition is a true bargain for a mix of good to excellent performances of the works of Haydn, with no recordings being truly bad. For the Haydn collector, this is a no-brainer. If you don’t like Haydn, then you probably should not be reading this review.

 

Shostakovich

August 19th, 2013

shostakovichEdition

 

Shostakovich Edition, by Brilliant Classics ★★★★★

I had many of the pieces in this set, such as Barshai’s set of the Shostakovich symphonies. Then, there were many performances that I didn’t have, such as the wonderful production of the string quartets by the Rubio Quartet. There were many works that I didn’t have. This is the most complete set of Shostakovich currently available, and it is a wonderful set, with great performances, and flawless recordings. Many of the pieces have been performed better by others, yet none of the performances would receive less than 4 stars. Sadly, it is not a complete Shostakovich, with smaller works missing from the set. There is much of his film music that would be best left to listening to when watching the film. Shostakovich’s operas are also vastly more interesting when accompanied by the video, as the sound does not stand alone like  operas such as from Mozart which can be enjoyed either with or without the visual play action. Together, this set was an incredible bargain when purchased through Amazon.com. Because I am a strong fan of Shostakovich’s music, I can highly recommend picking this set up, even if you haven’t ever heard him before; it will give you a broad sample of much of what he wrote.

Wagner

August 19th, 2013

WagnerOperas OtherWagnerWagner: Complete Operas; Various artists, Deutsche Grammophon ★★★★★

The Other Wagner: Symphonic, Vocal and Piano Music ★★★★

Together, these two sets make up the complete published works of Wagner, as far as I can tell. I already had several performances of some of the operas in the Complete opera set, but the compendium had a reasonable enough price to make it worth purchasing the entire set. In the Other Wagner, there were new pieces for my collection. Naturally, the Sigfried Idyll and Wiesendonck Lieder were in my set, but not some of his early vocal music, which did not sound at all like the Wagner one is familiar with, or his symphony. The piano music was mostly transcriptions of his other vocal works; it is my understanding that Wagner usually wrote out a piano version first, and then orchestrated the piece, so having some of his piano transcripts is not surprising.

Each of the operas in the DG collection were superb. Many were not my favorite performances. The Ring series by Levine in this set is less satisfactory than the Solti and Karajan versions, yet is top ranking. The early operas (Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi) were all well performed and recorded. Together, both sets were bargains and worth the expenditure.

But, why listen to Wagner? He is painted by historians as a proto-Nazi, racist, self-serving prig. All of that may be true, yet most musicologists without an axe to grind will admit he is the greatest symphonist of all time, in that his orchestrations for a modern full orchestra are the most complex and creative compositions to date. Wagner created music-drama and with that film background music. Having just listened to the even more expansive set of the Verdi operas, one sees little maturation from the young to the old Verdi. Wagner is the opposite, where you would not recognized the same composer in his early vs. late works. Unlike the Strauss works that I just reviewed, Wagner does not form instant weariness on the listener. Wagner is not easy to listen to. The first time I heard Wagner, I was mystified that he didn’t do the standard opera style of Mozart or Verdi or others. There were no arias followed by choruses and mixed in duets, trios, quartets and the like. In the Ring, rarely does Wagner ever have two people singing together. BUT, when they do, the result is profound. Who cannot instantly fall in love with the Walkürienflucht or “Du bist der Lenz”? If you are into 5 minute sound-bite music, stick to Strauss. If you like complete predictability and ensemble music, Verdi will hit your tops list. But, if you like complex music with true creativity, then you are stuck with composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, or Shostakovich. And it will be a compendium of Shostakovich music that I will be reviewing soon, after I listen to it.

 

Strauss Family

July 30th, 2013

StraussWalzesStrauss (Family) Waltzes, Polkas and Marches, performed by Wiener Philharmoniker, Willi Boskovsky ★★★★

I love the Viennese music of the Strauss family. These pieces are very uplifting, and all have a strong march or dance beat. Willi Boskovsky and the Wiener Philharmoniker does a superlative job of recreating these pieces, and the recordings are flawless.

That having been said, I listened to these pieces straight through, a full 6 CDs, 7 hours and 24 minutes. I became convinced that it would be a torture worse than anything the Chinese ever had invented  to lock somebody in a room and play them this music continuously. In 24 hours, they would be totally insane. Three quarters time music endlessly heard with the same stylistic phrase and piece endings drives one crazy. The Strausses thankfully had the ability to invent wonderful tunes. Who could not become addicted to An der Schönen Blauen Donau, Frühlingsstimmen, Wiener Bonbons, etc., etc. Yet, creativity has its bad side, with orchestral imitations that are cheap, such as bird song, explosions, thunder and lightning, and the like, which are more annoying than beautiful. Viennese Strauss music is best heard with lots of champagne or beer on board, and works as well with the accordion polka band as with the full orchestra. We will leave the Strauss family to the occasional listening circuit.

This set is a beautiful compendium of the Viennese Strauss family music. There are larger sets, but I fear listening to such a set would drive the insanity to much deeper levels. Stick with this set and you won’t go wrong.

 

Helvetica

July 27th, 2013

HelveticaHelvetica, directed by Gary Hustwit ★★★★

This is a film that those in the typesetting and graphic arts industry will find most interesting. When I started my career in typesetting in 1970, Helvetica was just becoming popular as a typeface. It had a sense of presence that none of the other sans serif typefaces manifested, and useful in almost any circumstance as a headline type. This movie documents its creation in a small type foundry in Switzerland and eventually landing as the most popular, and perhaps most controversial typeface ever created. In the 1990’s it was considered to represent big corporations and capitalism, as well as the cause for the VietNam and Iraq war. Really. After the 1990’s, Helvetica sustained a rescue from the avant garde graphic designers who preferred to use type not to communicate but to express feelings. This movement led to “grunge” typefaces, handwritten type, and type set in a fashion that did not make language communication a top priority. All of that is gone, and Helvetica lives on. The movie had interviews with many top graphic designers and type designers, all reflecting on their experience with Helvetica, and all realizing the Helvetica typeface as a an unusually unique, if not perfect typeface for communication. It’s quite worth a watch if you’re into graphic arts.

 

Verdi Complete Works

July 27th, 2013

VerdiCompleteWorksVerdi The Complete Works – Various Performers ★★★★

Verdi was a most prolific Italian opera composer, writing 30 operas, of which this set has their performances. He also wrote minor works, including a string quartet, some ballet material, and some songs, which are also included in this set. The performances and recordings are superb. Verdi is a somewhat monolithic composer. While his compositions show some advancement over the years, it is far less than one sees in a Mozart, Beethoven or a Wagner. While he is a master of melody, much of his technique repeats from opera to opera. Thus, when listening straight through, unless one is intimate with all of his operas, it will sound like one very long opera. Fortunately, his last few operas show some stylistic and creative variations to make them interesting. I’m not saying that Verdi is a bad composer, and it is difficult to not enjoy all of his operas. Yet, my desire to fill in my collection with the operas of Verdi that were yet missing had too high of expectations as I wasn’t missing much. This is a marvelous set for the music collector. For the slightly interested opera listener, select among his 5 or so most popular operas and you’ll hear enough Verdi to know what he’s all about.

 

Buxtehude Organ Works

July 7th, 2013

BuxtehudeOrganDietrich Buxtehude Sämtliche Oregelwerke, by Ulrik Spang-Hanssen ★★★★★

Buxtehude was one of the organ masters that taught Bach organ technique and composition, Bach, at age 20, walked over 400 km to spend 3 months with him in Lübeck. Bach clearly excelled his teacher, yet these are quite delightful compositions in their own right. The recording is clear and well done, and the performances are superb and laudable. This is not a set that should be sought out by the occasional classical listener, but to trained ears, it will give hours of delight.

 

Tchaikovsky Edition

June 27th, 2013

TchaikovskyEdition

 

Tchaikovsky Edition, Brilliant Classics ★★★★

This is an extensive, though I do not believe, complete compendium of the existent compositions of Tchaikovsky. It consists of 60 CDs, and can be purchased at a very reasonable price from either Amazon.com or Arkivmusic.com. The recordings are quite variable, in that some are superb, while some recordings are generally of very marginal quality, and thus the four rather than five stars. There are repeats, including the 1st piano concerto, which is repeated five times, twice by the same pianist. Others, such as the 1812 overture, are performed without the vocal parts. The performances are for the most part of exceptionally high standard. For the price, this is a real bargain, and a good introduction to the music of Tchaikovsky.

Debussy Edition

June 16th, 2013

DebussyThe Debussy Edition, published by Deutsche Grammophon ★★★★★

Debussy was a brutally nationalistic composer,enraged by the German tradition, and wishing to knock German music off it’s feet. In the end, Debussy’s gift to the world was the invention of elevator music, soft, impressionistic, flowing music, which provides moods more than statements. I’ll prefer the Germans. I like music at least to say something, in addition to providing a mood. This set is rated highly for several reasons. 1. It’s a bargain. From Amazon.com, it’s slightly more than $2/disc. 2. The performances are superlative, very well expressioned, with flawless recording. It’s enjoyable music, but is best suited for the background of an elevator.

 

From the Rosetta Stone to the US Tax Code

May 16th, 2013

rosettaSToneFrom the Rosetta Stone to the US Tax Code: The History of Taxation. A Seminar with Charles Adams ★★★★★

This is a series of 10 lectures in 14 hours that Charles Adams delivered for the von Mises Institute. Charles Adams was a young lawyer when he inadvertently became involved in his undesired rise to fame as a tax lawyer. Adams eventually wrote a book on tax law which had difficulty being published but eventually caught the eye of certain people high in politics, leading him to further fame. He is strongly libertarian, though he is unwilling to claim that it is rational to expect eliminating taxes altogether. Adams successfully shows how much of the events that shaped the world, such as major wars and revolutions, and even things such as the Rosetta Stone, revolved around the issue of taxes. He is the first to persuade me that the Civil War probably had more to do with uneven distribution of taxes than issues of slavery or state rights. There are many gems throughout. An example is his emphasis that a graduated income tax is a misnomer, which should be called an income extortion, since all graduated “taxes” are in reality extortions. He was also able to show how graduated taxes were a major source for political instability, the cause of social class instability, and ultimately the instability of the state. Adams lectures in a  casual style, very relaxed, telling many anecdotes about his own personal history with rogue internal revenue agents, mostly in terms of fighting for his clients. The lectures are slightly disorganized, and they don’t fit neatly with the titles that they were labeled with.

A few people who will have read to here will still think that the state is your friend and looking after your best interest. Perhaps so, but definitely not the United States. He shows how US tax laws have some unique differences from any other tax law in the world. He rightfully identifies the IRS as worse than the Gestapo, since the IRS has certainly way outdone the Gestapo on spying on US citizens, knowing their every move and every dollar spent. Yet, they are also able to persuade the masses that they are an impartial and benign entity. Recent IRS news shows us just the opposite. I didn’t realize it that every country in the world taxes people as residents and not as citizens: what this implies that US citizens are the ONLY people in the world are supposed to be taxed even though they no longer live in the United States. Adams ends by showing how 8 simple laws can help bring sense back to taxation. The laws aren’t what you think they’d be. The first is to end government spying on American citizen’s cash flow. He strongly recommends an emphasis on indirect taxes, with direct taxes being apportioned evenly throughout the population (e.g., a flat-rate income tax, everybody pays, and all pay the exact same percent) as has been stated so clearly in the US constitution.

This lecture series can be obtained for cheap from the von Mises Institute website, and highly worth it. Dennis, if you wish to make comments that should not be seen in the public domain, I’ll be happy to make this post private with a password.

 

Harvey Cliburn

May 16th, 2013

VanCliburnComplete

 

Van Cliburn Complete Recordings, performed by Harvey Lavan Cliburn ★★★★

Harvey Cliburn had a somewhat short but monumental career as a concert pianist, coming into the world limelight after winning the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow at the heighth of the cold war. He went into complete obscurity after the death of his parents, making news on occasion only when performing for presidents or having problems with his gay live-in partners. Harvey “Van Cliburn” is known for his melodic sing-songy type interpretations of the classics, having been trained by his mother to sing along with his piano playing. These recordings are quite well done, and the performances have nothing to criticize. This edition is 28 CDs, but under 22 hours in total recording, in that many of the original issue CDs include only one concerto of under a half hour duration, whereas most CDs will tend to fill up the 72 or more minutes that could be placed on a disc. Thus, this collection is not a tremendous bargain except for the collector who happens to like Harvey Cliburn.

Tulev: Songs

May 16th, 2013

tulevSongsSongs: Tulev, performed by Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, with Paul Hillier ★★★★

I recently reviewed a CD titled “Baltic Voices 3”. This CD, while being choral music, fits into the similar genre, as would be expected for a Baltic composer. This CD is equally delightful to hear. Contemporary Baltic Classical music is not for everybody. One must listen a few times to grasp the stylistic differences. The music is not unapprochable, as is the case with much contemporary western classic music. This CD wonderfully represents good music coming out of the Baltic states.

 

Baltic Voices 3

May 16th, 2013

BalticVoicesBaltic Voices 3; performed by Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier ★★★★

This is a hodge-podge of music written by contemporary classical style composers, including Górecki and others. The CD is now the third in a series (so far) of three discs, the first two not being immediately available. I love the modern eastern block compositions as representing original styles yet pleasing to the listening ear, not as harsh or wierd as contemporary western composers and their atonal or experimental music. Hillier does a masterful job of conducting. This will probably not make anyone’s top 10 list, yet is a delightful addition to the classical repertoire.

 

Weber Violin Sonatas

May 16th, 2013

WeberSonatas

 

Carl Maria von Weber: Sonatas for piano & violin, piano quartet, performed by Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, et. al. ★★★★

This is a delightful CD of chamber music written by von Weber, best known for the opera Der Freischutz. The music is unfamiliar to me, but fits the style contemporary for von Weber. The performance is superb, and the music is given in a lively and compellingly delightful format. Von Weber shows his capabilities best in his opera, but I am pleased to learn of his great skill also in chamber music.

Pimsleur Mandarin 1

April 10th, 2013

MandarinIPimsleur Mandarin Chinese 1 ★★★★

I have found need to learn Mandarin, since I may be going to China for several months to teach at a medical school. There are many methods and courses out there for learning Mandarin, and in the end opted for this course. The Pimsleur method has many strengths to it, in that it focuses on teaching language like a child may learn a language. It offers the need to continually respond and recall words and phrases learned in the past. It allows one to learn a language while driving a car, or doing other activities. It also overcomes the greatest problem with learning an oriental language, in that it doesn’t waste time doing the most difficult activity, which is learning the writing system. Mandarin is a fundamentally an easy language to learn, in that there is importance to word order, but otherwise, the grammar is very simple. There are no verb tenses, no noun forms, no articles, no genders to learn. There is the problem of many words sounding very similar to western ears, and tonal qualities of the word can completely change the meaning of the word.

I am not giving the Pimsleur series 5 stars for a number of reasons. Even for all of its strengths over such language programs such as Rosetta Stone, it still doesn’t achieve the excellence of  French in Action. There are reasons for this…

1. It ignores the value of the written word. This is problematic because a) I often think in terms of words and sentences, and visualize what I am trying to say by visualizing in my mind the written word. The Pimsleur technique assumes that this sort of thinking doesn’t occur, yet it does as a child learns to read and write. b) The vocabulary of a auditory language problem is going to be limited, and the ability to interact with other language learning means, such as dictionaries (in Pinyin) and other resources becomes impossible unless one ventures outside of Pimsleur and learns Pinyin or written Chinese characters.

2. It doesn’t do well at developing the didactic part of learning a language. It is true that all aspects of a language can be learned by intense use, such as a child would learn a language. But, it is also true that adults can learn a language faster by grasping the rules of the language ahead of time.

3. Because of the absence of written text to accompany the teaching, it is hard to review what one had learned. It is true that review of words and phrases are constantly being mixed in with learning new words, but it is difficult to predict when a review will occur. At minimum, Pimsleur should have a summary review about every 10-15 units, but it doesn’t.

In spite of these shortcomings, I will continue to use Pimsleur all the way through the third section, but will supplement Pimsleur with other Mandarin language texts.

 

 

The French Chef

April 10th, 2013

FrenchChefThe French Chef, with Julia Child ★★★★★

These are selected episodes taken from a television series starting in 1963, and running for many years afterwards. The first episodes are in black and white, with a different theme song from later editions. All of the series represents Julia Child, teaching one how to cook. She has the delightful ability to entertain the viewer, often giving laughs with her bloopers and crazy comments. All the same, she has the ability to make cooking appear to be delightfully simple. The episodes are filmed lacking modern techniques, and are usually produced in a single 1/2 hour segment, without stopping the camera. Thus, Julia usually has on hand multiple stages in the given recipe until she reaches the end product. Occasionally, you’ll even go on tour with her to France to see how it’s all done there. In all, it’s a delightful and entertaining series, and we will probably be watching other Julia Child productions out there.

 

War with Andrew Wilson

April 10th, 2013

AndrewWilsonMasters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers, taught by Andrew Wilson, The Teaching Company ★★★★

The Art of War, Andrew Wilson, The Teaching Company ★★★

These are two series on war strategy taught by Andrew Wilson. The first series provides a chronological account of the most influential thinkers on war strategy, including Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Napoleon, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett, and others. Wilson first defines what he means by strategy, and compares that to the often confused  tactics. He allows one to see how thinking about war, including when to conduct a war, the expected outcomes of the war and what one expects to accomplish by war, when it is best to not engage in war, how to pick your enemies, how to play your friends, etc. all have evolved, and involve the greater spectrum of what we view as war strategy.

The Art of War is a more thorough summary of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This additional six lectures to the above 24 lectures, including 2 on Sun Tzu, include little in addition of great value except to the most curious.

 

Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time

March 3rd, 2013

SeanCarrollMysteries of Modern Physics: Time; Teaching Company Series, by Dr. Sean Carroll ★★★

I’ve been doing much reading on the issue of time, mostly focused on the aspect of God existing outside of both space and time. The title of this series suggested that physics might provide help in this regard. In reading debates on God and time I noted that the more conservative philosophers came under criticism for not understanding the new modern scientific thinking regarding time. Perhaps I was missing something, so this series seemed to be relevant in my quest for understanding. It wasn’t.

Dr. Carroll was a reasonably good lecturer and was easy to follow. The pace of the lectures was quite slow. Ultimately, the focus on the real issue (the physics of time) was continually side-skirted. In the first portion of the course, Carroll discusses the physics of entropy and its reversible nature. Even though I knew that entropy was time-directional, the extent of this discussion seemed irrelevant to grasping why entropy was uni-directional. Carroll then spent a section talking about the psychology of time, our perception of time. All relevant, but it doesn’t explain time itself. Finally, Carroll delved into the latest big-bang theory of the development of the universe, and other thoughts on contemporary physics. In order to work, the big-bang theory must arbitrarily assign a small entropy to the beginning of the universe. You wonder how many more rabbits were pulled out of the hat to create the big-bang according to modern physics? The ultimate rabbit trick is the multiverse theory, where the universe separates into two different universes with every action. Carroll is correct to identify the multiverse theory as the “ultimate free-lunch”, in that it is unproveable, and offered as a slight of hand in order to defend the physicist’s fundamental philosophy of life rather than trying to describe nature. Indeed, discussions on the latest and greatest in physics suggested that physicists were smoking some fairly strong weed, and reading too many fantasy books. Einstein’s theories were of no help either, because though one could slow down time in your personal perspective, you always returned to time-on-earth as it otherwise would have been. Einstein doesn’t explain speeding up time by slowing down… how could one slow down not relative to any other point in the universe? Such “slowing down” motion would always be perceived from the observer at point zero as accelerating, yes?

This lecture series was a bit too long for what Dr. Carroll attempted to do, which was to explain time. Although he gave a lovely discourse on physics, time remained the same. Time remains unexplained and unexplainable, and we are caught (created) inescapably in time, to know nothing other than a universe (or heaven) that has a history and the clock ever clicking. For us, there will never be a physics where time is not a part of the equation.

 

Making Healthy Food Taste Great

February 2nd, 2013

BriwaThe Everyday Gourmet: Making Healthy Food Taste Great, by Bill Briwa and Connie Gutterson of the Culinary Institute of America, The Teaching Company ★★★★★

Perhaps you noticed that we already reviewed a Teaching Company Video series with Bill Briwa. That series was 24 lectures long, whereas this one is only six lectures long. Bill is an awesome instructor, and with the help of the Culinary Insitute nutritionist fills us in as to how a gourmet chef actually manages to cook gourmet food at home while keeping it completely healthy. The series was enjoyable to watch, and Betsy found the series most inspiring. Briwa spends much time in discussing how different grains can be incorporated into the diet, and how to plan left-overs (planned-overs) for cooking successive meals. Thus, a grain like barley can be cooked and then incorporated into various different schemes. Though a few of his productions did not look terribly appealing, for the most part, the meals appeared to be most savory, and not the bland horrid taste that someone would expect from something really healthy. The series also comes with a hard-bound cookbook to make it easy to begin various healthy menus immediately.

 

Cooking Class via The Teaching Company

January 24th, 2013

The Everyday Gourmet: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking, by Bill Briwa (DVD, The Teaching Company) ★★★★★

The Everyday Gourmet: Baking Pastries and Desserts, by Steven Durfee (DVD, The Teaching Company) ★★★★★

These are two separate series offered by the Teaching Company, but because of their similarity, I’ll be reviewing them together. Briwa also did a short series on healthy cooking, which will be briefly reviewed later. Both chefs are prize-winning in their fields, and both teach at the Culinary Institute of America. Both series comes with accompanying hard-bound texts with the exact recipes for what is being cooked. Both are very well done, with clear teaching and superb examples of various dishes discussed. Watching these DVDs makes you want to get into the kitchen and attempt some of the recipes, realizing that a few of them can be a little bit tricky. They’ll have to be tried out on ourselves before we invite guests and then serve them something that flops. The only reason I would have liked to have given each of the series a few less stars is that they were way too short. I hope that Briwa and Durfee would be able to produce a lengthier version of this set that is more comprehensive of the styles of cooking and types of dishes that could be made in a normal home. There was great entertainment in watching these videos, but hopefully you dear reader won’t be tortured by our first experiments in gourmet cooking.

Die Thomaner

January 11th, 2013

Die Thomaner, a DVD documentary of the St. Thomas Boys Choir in Leipzig ★★★★★

David Miller on Amazon.com makes a review of this DVD as one of the best music documentaries that he has yet seen. I would concur. This is a one year documentary of the life of students at this 800 year old school in Leipzig, Germany, the most famous cantor being none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. One experiences the brutal testing necessary for entry into the school, the first days of homesickness, the gradual accomodation to a daily schedule that allows for minimal free time, the daily pressure for practice and perfection in music, the world tours, the excitement of performance at special times such as at Christmas and Easter, and the final end of year departure. Boys will enter at about 8-10 years of age, and leave between 16-18 years of age. During that time they will not only have mastered the Bach repetoire, but have spent many of good days on the soccer field, as well as excelled in the Thomas Internat (boarding school), which includes more students than just the 93 or so Thomanerchor Jungen. During those years, you see those who were faithful turn to an athiest belief, while there is a trend the other way, with many being so affected by Bach’s music to making a profession of faith and undergoing confirmation in the Evangelische Kirche. The angst among the students as well as the current cantor (Cristoph Biller) are well portrayed. This movie is a moving commentary on these incredible youth, worth showing to your own children when they are somewhat reluctant to practice their music lessons as they should.  The German is fairly easy to understand, with undertitles that are reasonably accurate translations.

The History and Nature of Apologetics

November 25th, 2012

The History and Nature of Apologetics, by Cornelius VanTil ★★★★

I would have given this lecture series five stars, except that the recording is at points quite awful, making the lecture unable to be understood. The last two lectures were incomprehensi ble. With presuppositional apologetics being the hallmark of VanTillian thinking, I would have thought that he would have belabored the use of the word “presuppositional”. I think he used that word just several times. I would have thought that he would have come down hard on Francis Schaeffer, as many of VanTil’s disciples tend to rip Schaeffer to shreds, yet VanTil gives Schaeffer the highest complements in this lecture series. Schaeffer also tends to stray from strict presuppositionalism in his apologetics, which leaves me wondering if VanTil wouldn’t have give more leeway than the “radical” VanTillians of today. This series was obtained for free on UTunesU from Westminster Theological Seminary. It is six one-hour lectures long. VanTil can be a challenge to read, and often his writings seem to not make sense, or seem to leave VanTil unclear as to what he’s saying. His lectures are extremely easy to listen to though often quite thick. VanTil develops the idea that our theology gives way to a clear method of apologetics. Since all men are fallen and logic in a fallen mind unreliable, the only reliability must start from God himself, as given in His statements to man, as found in Scripture. Thus, Scripture must first be presumed, though evidence in the world can substantiate the claims of Scripture. I don’t think Schaeffer would have objected to this, though his emphasis would have been on the evidence that substantiates the claims of Scripture. VanTil must be contended with and taken seriously for anybody speaking of Christ in the marketplace. This is not a bad place to start through this lecture series.

 

Christ and Human Thought

November 24th, 2012

Christ and Human Thought – A lecture series by Cornelius VanTil ★★★★★

This is a lecture series by VanTil, which can be obtained for free from UTunes University. It is essentially a history of philosophy from the perspective of VanTil. It is 28 lectures long, with many of the lectures longer than 90 minutes. VanTil is a giant, a tour-de-force, a masterful analyzer of human philosophy in the light of Christianity. VanTil shows the defect of all thinking outside of the Christian mindset. He stands with wonder as to why the Catholics would idolize the ancient Greeks and their monistic thinking, failing to identify a creator/creature distinction. VanTil marches through the middle ages to spend much time on Kant, followed by even more time on Karl Barth and his followers. Finally, he takes some jabs at the thining of Berkouwer and Gordon Clark. VanTil adds numerous personal anecdotes such as his sole encounter with Karl Barth. The last five lectures are actually separate from the lecture series but topically related, and tend to be reviews of the prior 23 lectures.

I took to listening to VanTil’s lectures with a mild sense that I would disagree with his thinking and outcomes. VanTil is quite persuasive in his arguments, and I would not hestitate at this point to cast my lot in the VanTillian camp. He does a marvelous performance of showing how secular theology has sunk into the Christian mindset, and how we can re-orient toward thinking Biblically. VanTil, like Francis Schaeffer, stands as a veritable giant in the philosophic landscape of the 20th century.  To avoid him and his writings/lectures is to our own peril.

Mercury Living Presence

October 27th, 2012

Mercury Living Presence Collector’s Edition ★★★★

This is a collection of 50 CD’s, representing a spectrum of albums produced by Mercury Living Presence (MLP). Many of the recordings in this set represented vinyl discs that were popular as a kid. MLP was an American recording company, that focused heavily on American classical and popular productions. Specifically were recordings of Antal Dorati with the Minnesota Symphony, Byron Janis, Frederick Fennell, Gena Bachauer, and Janos Starker, to name a few. Also included was distinctly American Music, including that of Copland, and Howard Hanson. The recordings were a mix in quality, some with a slightly distant sound to them. Many of the records would not have been my first choice, there is occasionally tracks that are speech and not music, and civil war music, Mexican music, and some of the other recordings were performed simply to record historical sounds rather than to provide musical enjoyment. When one looks at the cost of this set, it was very affordable at under $2 / disc, definitely a bargain by any perspective.

Der Ring des Nibelungen – Dresden

October 13th, 2012

Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner)  conducted by Marek Janowski, Staatskapelle Dresden ★★★★★

This production, recorded in 1981-1983, is reportedly the first digital Ring on the market. It had a star-studded cast, many of the best known opera singers doing cameo pieces, such as the Rheinmädchen or some of the Walkürien, but also including Jessye Norman, Siegfried Jerusalem, Peter Schreier, Theo Adam, and Rene Kollo as Siegfried. Much discussion about the use of the Californian Jeannine Altmeier as Brünnhilde on Amazon.com regards some weakness in her voice. There is truth to that, though it doesn’t seem to diminish her role, and excellent singing.

The Ring des Nibelungen is a work of four continuous operas, a total of 15 hours long, all of superb music. I try to make my way through either an audio or video production of the Ring every fall/winter around Christmastime, and having obtained a new rendering of the Ring, gave it my ear. This production originally sold on the market for about $80 and is now down to less than $30, a real steal for 14 CDs of superb music. How does it compare to other Rings? What is the best Ring? I’m not sure one can say. Every Ring out there has a few problems; none are perfect. For such a lengthy piece, how can one expect a perfect Ring? As Wagner performers are becoming harder to come by, it may be a few years before a definitive Ring hits the market again.

Bach Teldec

October 10th, 2012

Bach Teldec (multiple performers) 154 CDs ★★★

This set was issued 10 years ago as Bach 2000 by Teldec but with a pricetag astronomically higher than what I had to pay for this set. It is a major task to listen to the entire set, by 13 GB of music, 6 days, 14 hours, and 23 minutes of music.

The cantatas were produced by the combined efforts of Leonhardt and Harnoncourt. Both men are most accomplisherd in their interpretations of Bach. This set uses almost entirely original instrumentation, and in the sacred cantatas, almost entirely boy’s choirs.

I also have the Hanssler set, as well as the set produced by Brilliant Classics. Of the three sets, I preferred the Hanssler set the most. First, though I can appreciate the talent of young kids singing complicated Bach pieces, it still doesn’t settle on the ear like mature females singing the soprano and alto parts. Second, while Helmut Rilling has come under attack for lacking the interpretitive luster of other conductors, I find that there is quite a wallop of dryness in many of the Harnoncourt and Leonhardt performances, areas where the tempo dragged, or the singers seemed to have lost interest in the piece. Thirdly, modern instrumentation that is well tuned is always more appreciated on the ear. I can appreciate the challenge of playing a valveless trumpet, but I also realize that it isn’t quite as on-pitch as modern instruments. Also, in many of the pieces in this set, the nearly-ok pitches of the woodwind instruments were noticeable. Fourthly, many of the pieces in this set had recording problems. Especially with some of the ensemble instrumental works, recording balance was quite problematic, with one instrument of two playing sounding either disproportionately loud or quiet. To the credit of this set, they maintained some standardization, such as using the harpsicord throughout the keyboard pieces. The organ works were entirely performed by Ton Koopman, and superb.

For the Bach afficionato, this is a must-have set. Many of the works in this set are quite charming, showing brilliance in interpretation and performance. The problems set aside, I think Bach would have been quite pleased had he had a chance to hear any of these performances, and would not have thrown his wig in disgust for lack of performance quality.

Magic Moments of Opera

October 6th, 2012

Magic Moments of Opera ★★★★★

This is a set of ten operas, each of which is reviewed separately below. This set seemed to be a good buy at $11/opera, which I purchased hoping that at least a few would be reasonable performances.

Now that I’ve seen the entirety of these operas, I offer my comments on each individual opera. Regarding the entire set, my only advice is to not hesitate and purchase the set. It is a super bargain, without a single “bad” opera.

People ask me why I like opera. These performances are prototypical. A movie star needs to act well, but is rarely required to sing. When they do sing, nobody expects them to sing well. Think of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, or Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon—nice acting, but rather mediocre singing. Then you have the opera. The singing is extraordinarily complex and challenging. Yet, the acting is not mediocre, but quite well done. The demands on the opera singer far exceed that of the typical actor/actress.

I am not a professional musician rating these operas, and I’m sure the professional would provide a different commentary on each opera than I offer. As a musician, I am so bad I can barely sing on tune. I can make it through Für Elise and Mozart’s Andante Cantable on the piano, played the sousaphone in grade school band, I’ve listened to everything Robert Greenberg ever recorded for the Teaching Company, I’ve always loved music theory and music history, drool and get weepy over anything ever written by Bach, but never mastered anything musical. Yet, that doesn’t distract me from considering opera to be one of the highest art forms available. I also cannot paint worth beans, but still have strong feelings when stepping into an art gallery. Opera gives me that same sense. I review these as opera for the discriminating but otherwise common man.

★★★★ Georges Bizet – Carmen, live from the Wiener Staatsoper 1978, with Elena Obraztsova, Placido Domingo, Yuri Mazurok, Isobel Buchanan, Dirigent Carlos Kleiber

I’m not a Carmen fan, as the music is rather glitzy, reminding me of the soap music of Andrew Lloyd Weber. Yet, this performance is superlative, with excellent singing and staging. It’s one of the better Carmen’s that I’ve seen.

★★★★★  Johann Strauss – Die Fledermaus, live from the Wiener Staatsoper 1980, with Bernd Weikl, Lucia Popp, Erich Kunz, Brigitte Fassbaender, Dirigent Guschlbauer

This production of the opera has been around awhile, but is worth watching, as it is performed in a light gala style. Besides the incomparable singing of Popp and Gruberova, the entire opera was well staged and acted, making it an enjoyable three hours of the best of Johann Strauss.

★★★★★ WA Mozart – Die Zauberflöte , live from the Opera National de Paris, 2001, with Piotr Beczala, Dorothea Röschmann, Detlef Roth, Matti Salminen, Dirigent Ivan Fischer

The opera is sung in German, but the presentation is in French. Staging, singing, acting, and filming are all superb. This is not my favorite Zauberflöte, but then, there are so many well done Magic Flutes, that how can one pick a favorite? I was amazed that they had the Queen of the Night performing rather complex acting, while singing an impossible aria. The three children also were totally superlative.

★★★★ Ludwig van Beethoven – Fidelio, live from the Opernhaus Zürich, 2004, with Günther Groissböck, Alfred Muff, Jonas Kaufmann, Camilla Nylund, Dirigent Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Well-performed opera, with superb singing, and enthusiastic directing from Hanoncourt. My only complaint is the near minimalistic sets. To me, it is an injustice to the performers to have them spend countless hours learning their parts, only to give them a set that took 10 minutes to construct and assemble. It is not right. True, Fidelio always has been a nightmare to stage, but surely the Swiss could do better than what they did. The camerawork, by the way, was superb, with views at a live opera that generally are only seen with non-live performances.

★★★★★ Guiseppe Verdi – Aida, live from the Teatro Alla Scala 1985, with Maria Chiara, Luciano Pavarotti, Ghena Dimitrova, Juan Pons, Dirigent Lorin Maazel

This is an opera I’ve had on VHS tape, and so is nice to see in DVD format. The recording is clear, with superb sound. Pavarotti singing Celese Aida is almost as natural as the Beatles singing Strawberry Fields. The staging and props are quite lavish, Chiara is at her best, and the opera flows superbly. This is the best Aida production that I’ve seen so far, and defines what is the standard for this opera.

★★★★ Jules Massenet – Werther, live from the Wiener Staatsoper 2005, with Marcelo Alvarez, Adrian Eröd, Alfred Sramek, Peter Jelosits, Dirigent Philippe Jordan

Massenet’s music reminds me much of Puccini, and even the storyline of Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers is more fitting Italian opera than German or French. Yet, this is very well done. The staging is modern. I typically don’t like revisionist staging or minimalistic staging, but the staging in this performance fits quite well. The singing is superb, and acting exceptional.  The storyline of Werther is somewhat hokey. The last act has Werther singing for about 10 minutes after he shot himself, and lying on his deathbed. Nobody asks the opera to have a perfect storyline.

★★★★★  Richard Wagner – Tannhäuser, live from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (2008) – 2 discs, with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Philharmonia Chor Wein, Robert Gambill, Camilly Nylund, Roman Trekel, Waltraud Meier, Dirigent Philippe Jordan

This is a superbly performed Tannhäuser, with most remarkable performances for Elizabeth and Heinrich. Wagner’s themselves are challenges, but to act and sing supremely is most notable here. I have only one complaint with the performance. The costumes were great but the prop  for all three acts was horrid and irresponsible. As I complained before, considering the work that the singers and orchestra had to go through to make this opera a success, surely the stage designer could have been a bit more creative than a single spiral staircase for all the acts and scenes of the opera?

★★★★★ Gioachino Rossini – The Barber of Seville, live from the Opera National de Paris (date?), with Joyce Didonato, Roberto Sacca, Dalibor Jenis, Carlos Chausson, Dirigent Bruno Campanella

I loved this production. The singing was superb, the sets were quite elaborate, acting was superb, and it flowed with a wonderful cohesion. I am generally not a Rossini fan, but would not hesitate to claim this to be one of the better Barbers ever recorded. Didonato had a most remarkable voice, but so di Sacca, Jenis and the other singers. If one had to have just one Barber of Seville, this is the one to have.

★★★★ Giacomo Puccini – Tosca, live from the Arena di Verona 2006, with Fiorenza Cedolins, Marcelo Alvarez, Ruggero Raimondi, Marco Spotti, Dirigent Daniel Oren

This was an outdoor opera, which appeared to be filmed in the Coleseum in Rome, rather than the Arean di Verona. In any event, my experience with outdoor performances has usually been dismal, with poor sound and visual elements. This recording had neither, and the sound was superb as well as having meager, though superb sets. The singing and acting were both superlative, and the opera should have gotten 5 stars except for one thing. I am not crazy about the composition of the Tosca opera, and fault Puccini for coming up with an opera story and structure that really doesn’t work well. The Verismo style of this opera leaves a emptiness to the final ending of the opera. This is a personal sentiment, and if one has no problem with the opera Tosca, then this is a very worthy opera to have in ones collection.

★★★★  Richard Strauß – Elektra, live from the Wiener Staatsoper 1989, with Eva Marton, Brigitte Fassbaender, Cheryl Studer, Franz Grundheber, Dirigent Claudio Abbado

This is a dark, forbodding opera, an opera oriented entirely around one person (Elektra), vowing revenge for the murder of her father by her mother. I will not recount the plot as it can be found elsewhere. The opera was produced here as darkly as Strauß wrote it. It is not exactly a “fun” opera to watch; you know you are not at a Mozart opera. The talent and vocal perseverence to produce this challenging and difficult opera are quite remarkable and would buy the opera a 5-star rating. My given rating relates to the fact that this type of opera is really not my cup of tea. Life may be depressing enough, and I don’t need the opera to remind me of that.

The Great Silence

October 2nd, 2012

The Great Silence, starring Klaus Kinski and Jean-Louis Trintignant ★★★★

This is one of the Spaggheti westerns, actually filmed in Europe, in the same style as the Clint Eastwood films, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The music was actually written by the same Italian, Enrico Morricone as “The Good…”. Klaus and Jean-Louis are spectacular in their acting in this film. It is understandable why the film was popular in Europe but not the USA, as it has a sense of dark forbodding, and the evil wins in this film. I am told that the film was based on a true story, but like most Hollywood productions, the truth seems to be twisted and exaggerated with great artistic license. It is no wonder that Europeans have a rather bizarre view of the “wild West” based on what Hollywood tells them about our past in the west. The film has a persisting dark color to it, one of the few westerns that I’ve ever seen filmed entirely in wintertime. Kinski has also formed an indelibile image of himself from the film Nosferatu that is difficult to remove when you see him in other films. With a few alterations of the script, this movie could have been called “Dracula goes west”.

Great Tours: Greece and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul

September 30th, 2012

Geat Tours: Greece and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul, by John Hale, through the Teaching Company ★★★★

John Hale is mostly an underwater archeologist, and did much work in the Mediterranean Sea. This video course  in 24 half hour lectures, takes you on a “tour” of the mostly archeological aspects of Greece and Turkey, including the Greek Isles, showing where to go, what to see, and offering many tourist tips along the way. Hale is both entertaining as well as informative, and his teaching style is quite relaxed but never sloppy. Betsy and I both watched this series through, enjoying it totally. It provided motivation for someday going to Greece and Turkey.

Authority of Scripture

September 30th, 2012

The Authority of Scripture, by Edward J. Young, as found on iTunes U, Westminster Seminary ★★★★★

This series is 12 lectures averaging an hour each. It was given during the mid-1970’s, of moderate recording quality.  I found this lecture set to be totally awesome. I don’t understand why Dr. Young is only limited in his popularity, as he is a true theological giant. Young was a professor at Westminster Seminary, worked with JG Machen, and ist best known for his lengthy commentary on Isaiah.
Young gives some general lectures on Scriptural authority and infallibility, mostly in the context of discussing the attacks that have come upon denying the authority of Scripture. He spends a number of lectures on Genesis, discusses the issue of the authorship and authority of the Pentateuch, provides several lectures discussing the issue of the authorship of Isaiah, and then of Daniel. He speaks in a raised monotone voice, like an old-time preacher. Each sentence is thick. He has no trouble holding ones attention.
There are some particular aspects of this lecture series that I deeply appreciated.
1. He doesn’t coddle with the documentary hypothesis. For those who are unaware, the documentary hypothesis claims that the Pentateuch is an assembly of writers, the Eloistic writer, the Jawistic writer, and the Priestly writer, with one other thrown in at times. The immediate way to spot a documentary hypothesis believer is when one speaks of two accounts of creation. Now, Young does a superlative work of demolishing the entire notion of the documentary hypothesis, showing how it is unnecessary, unScriptural, and irrational and inconsistent. Why so many conservative scholars give credence to the documentary hypothesis is beyond me. They should have had Prof. Young as their teacher.
2. He doesn’t force a young earth/old earth distinction but completely destroyed the notion of theistic evolution. Young admits that when he gave the lecture series, theistic evolution was not yet being suggested, showing insight in Young’s ability to know what darling heresies might arise among conservative theologians. He was definitely ahead of his time. He absolutely demolishes the Francis Collins theistic evolution theory.
4. His refutation of the Barthian notion of Historie vs. Geschichte is priceless. Young explains in detail Barth’s thinking, and it is best to just hear it from him.
5. He is majesterial in his response to the 2 or 3 authorship theory of Isaiah, the other authors being a Deutero-Isaiah and a Tritero-Isaiah.
Young makes clear that many of the so-called assaults on Scripture are simply nothing more than unbelief. Why so many conservative scholars have given in to these assaults, including professors at Westminster and Covenant Seminary, is beyond me. Young has very choice and humorous words for these folk.
The series is a total must listen to series, and it is free. Just get into iTunesU and download it onto your iPod, and then enjoy some of the best teaching on Scripture available,  for the next 12 plus hours.

Ride the Divide

August 30th, 2012

Ride the Divide ★★★

While exploring the feasability and practicality of doing the Continental Divide Mountain Bike Trail, I thought it best to see a documentary of this being done. This documentary actually details a race involving 17 people, 10 of who drop out, going from Banff to the Mexican Border. The film showed not only the beauty of this undertaking but also the challenges that the ride presents. Unfortunately, the ride was presented as a race, which in my mind is quite stupid. Why ruin a beautiful ride by forcing yourself to go as fast as possible? The sole girl in the race actually drops out twice, and whines continually, before actually completing the course. The only people who seemed to enjoy the trip were a group of four riders, several from Europe, who rode together, did not come in first, and were not well documented in this film. I was able to grasp from this that it is feasible, that it should probably be ridden in late year (August/Sept) rather than early year when there is much snow, that it should not be done as a race, that it should definitely be ridden with another person, and that one might expect some aches and pains on the way. Most of the path was quite clear, and it didn’t seem like there was much cycling on footpaths, though a modest amount appeared to be on gravel and dirt roads. I doubt if I could talk Russ into doing this one.

Art of Public Speaking

May 21st, 2012

The Art of Public Speaking, by John Hale ★★

The Art of Public Speaking is a 12 – 1/2 hour series produced by the Teaching Company, using one of their regular lecturers, an archeologist John Hale. Hale’s style is to call up  noteworthy public speeches throughout history, showing how they were effective as public speeches. Hale selects a specific theme for each lecture, and will use a historical example followed by other historical examples reflective of the same theme to drive his point home. Much of his advice is sound and worth considering when speaking in public. My only gripe with the lecture series is that he tends to use choice speeches as soap boxes. Thus, there was the lectures on speaking in public, plus the under current of socio-philosophical ideology. I suppose Hale didn’t intend that, but it still comes out strong.

The Brothers Karamazov

May 14th, 2012

The Brothers Karamazov, ★★★★★

Having just read the Brothers Karamazov, I found this film to be quite rewarding. This is 12 – 45 minute episodes, I presume made for television. Spectacular is an understatement. The acting, the filming, and the script writing were all superb. For the script writer, reducing a lengthy novel and yet retaining the substance of the book would have been challenging and yet done flawlessly in this series. The filming is most outstanding, with the beauty of old Russia coming out with each scene. There was no hint of soap opera or cheap acting in this film, and all the actors were very convincing in their roles. Too bad they couldn’t be included in the choice for the countless Hollywood screen awards, since this film would definitely win. The subtitles often had misspellings, and grammatical errors were rampant, yet it was still easy to figure out what was being said. If one loves Dostoevski, then this movie (series) is an absolute must.

The Broadway Musical

May 6th, 2012

Great American Art: The Broadway Musical, by Bill Messenger (Teaching Company) ★★★

Bill Messenger did another Teaching Company series on the history of jazz, which I liked considerably. Though I was not terribly interested in the broadway musical (far preferring “classical” music), I thought this would be an interesting series to hear out. Messenger starts with the minstrel format, showing how it was a parody of a parody of whites imitating negroes imitating whites. This evolved eventually into ragtime, vaudeville and tin pan alley, now considered to define American music. Eventually, through the work of various greats as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, the full-blown American musical emerged. Messenger follows the broadway musical all the way up to the turn of the century, showing how the genre has changed over time. He offers many musical examples, often performing himself on the piano. This is a fun and informative series, even for a person not terribly interested in Broadway.

Classics of Russian Literature

April 23rd, 2012

Classics of Russian Literature, by Irwin Weill (Teaching Company) ★★★★

I originally started to listen to this series several years ago, and found it to be somewhat boring. I made it through about 4 lectures. Recently, I devoted myself to reading Dostoevsky, and returned to this series. Having read some Russian literature, Weill began to make sense, and I found the series to be considerably more enjoyable. Weill’s attention is definitely directed toward Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. He spends several lectures apiece on 20th century writers, though Solzhenitzen is given only one lecture. Many of the 20th century authors were quite appealing after Weill’s discussion, but the particular book or play was either unavailable on Amazon.com or moderately expensive, and not available for Kindle. This was a touch frustrating. In all, Weill presents an appealing presentation for delving in the Russian Literature, and an excellent summary for the person versed in the Russian author.

Crime and Punishment

April 21st, 2012

Crime and Punishment (Film) ★★★★★

This is a Russian adaption of the Dostoevsky novel by the same name, made for television, and in 8 episodes. Having just read the novel, I was quite curious about seeing how a Russian filmmaker would render the novel. This series stuck very close to the book, and minimal artistic license seemed to have been exercised. The sets and acting were for the most part superbly accomplished. There were only a few rare scenes where the acting was slightly “soap opera-ish”. Raskalnikov was totally superb in his acting. The filming was superb. On Amazon.com the only real complaints were about the subtitle translation. True, there were frequent misspelled words and grammatical errors but these were never so egregious that one could not immediately figure out what was said. For those who love Dostoevsky, this is a MUST have. Do NOT get Hollywood versions of the Dostoevsky novels, as they have been best performed in the mother land. If you must have the movie in English and don’t know how to read subtitles, then you shouldn’t be watching movies at all but going to English school. Betsy and I are now working through Brothers Karamozov and soon the Idiot, both also made for television, the Brothers Karamozov (soon to be reviewed) is equally superlative in its production and accuracy to the novel. Nothing is better than reading the novels themselves, as Dostoevsky’s writing style and the minor nuances of his text could never completely put on film. I would highly recommend reading these Dostoevsky novels before ever watching the films.

 

Sermons on Romans

April 21st, 2012

Sermons on Romans, DM Lloyd-Jones ★★★★

Lloyd Jones would spend Friday evenings at church slowly working through the book of Romans in an expository fashion. This took him a number of years to accomplish, preaching a total of 353 sermons in the series. This makes for a total of 290 hours and 20 minutes of sermon. Lloyd Jones numbers among the great preachers of all time, preaching in a conservative fashion from the Reformed perspective. In most cases he is fairly conventional, though at times he does bring objections to the most eminent Reformed theologians. In particular, his perspective on Romans 7 is unique, in that he holds this chapter as speaking of the non-converted sinner under conviction of sin. So, it is neither the non-converted person you would find on the street, nor the converted. His perspective on what Paul meant by “Israel” and the “Jew” are also somewhat at odds with convention, though he is quite firmly not a British-Israelite. Altogether, it is solid teaching and very informative. These sermons were listened to by me over the last several years while I was riding the bicycle on the trainer in the garage. As you might detect, I worked out a lot.

The Emerald Forest

April 15th, 2012

The Emerald Forest ★

This movie is supposedly based on a true story and is presented by various eco-environmental groups as a moving and compelling argument to save the rain forests. Because of its high reviews on Amazon.com, I decided it demanded a re-watch, having seen it many years ago. The story is quite simple. A young engineer in charge of building a dam in the Amazon basin is out with his family near the construction site, when the young (about 7 year old) son is taken captive by a tribe which was isolated from civilization. This boy grows up in that tribe and becomes a leader. Ten years later, the father eventually finds his son, but is caught in the cross-fire of inter-tribal warfare. The raiding tribe has made contact with civilization and has procured machine guns, and thus have hauled off the young ladies of the tribe to be prostitutes. Meanwhile, son  weds a young tribal lady, only to find her as a captive of the warring tribe. Using his now alienated father for assistance, the girls are rescued and son decides to stay primitive rather than go back to his roots. Upset with the dam that father has built, son calls on the frogs to make it rain, and a heavy rain coupled with new sympathies of father, father dynamites the dam and the progress of man is halted.

While this movie is reportedly based on a true story, it is quite clear that much of the events are fictitious. Hollywood needed to make a statement, and didn’t seem to be concerned about truth. Thus, when they made statements at the end lamenting the loss of the primitive savage and rain forest, they give numbers that any credible thinker would question. The filmography of the movie was okay, but not great. It is clear that the film crew had three or four locations at most. But, what about the movie? Why would it get such a low rating from me? This movie would be best thought of as a merger of Al Gore in Inconvenient Truth and Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon, with a story line written by Margaret Mead. The script writer had tried to develop the innocent savage theme of Margaret Mead, perhaps not realizing that most of what Margaret Mead wrote about her adventures to the South Pacific were a total fiction, and should have been condemned to the genre of the Harlequin Romances rather than credible science. Unfortunately, Mead was devoured by the non-critical ideologues of academia and was sold as an argument against civilization and for the peace-loving, amoral primitive man, not driven by money, greed or passions. This movie makes light of the alternate belief structure of the primitive Amazonian. They are able to call on the frogs to make rain, without explanation as to how they might have the power to do this.This leads to a beautiful non-sequitor, in which we should not destroy rain forest because if we were sensitive to “Mother Earth”, we could pray to frogs who would help us destroy the advance of modern technology. The movie leaves out that these primitives live in constant fear of the spirit world, which is an ugly taskmaster, and not the benevolent loving God of the Judeo-Christian faith. A favorite scene of the movie was the swimming hole, where the naked young Amazonian men would meet the equally naked young Amazonian women. It was a mixture of the opening scenes from Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” and various scenes from the Blue Lagoon–entirely fictitious and entirely wishful for free-love without bounds or constraints or defined morality. If only the scriptwriters could actually live in one of these communities for a while to see that the female always takes a seriously subservient mode to the man. But, academic fictions contribute to even more fictions, and the most gullible among us, the Academics, sell this trash to us without any thought as to its truth content.

The movie poorly asks the question as to which culture or civilization is best. Is it the primitive native of the rainforest, or is it the so-called civilized man? The referential framework for making this judgement in the movie is the question of who treats the earth the best, and clearly, the primitive native wins out. But, that is not really a fair question, since it is not the primitive native making this assertion, but rather, it is the civilized man using the technology and knowledge that is despised to fight technology and “knowledge”. It suggests that there is a primitive knowledge that is lost (note the very last statement of the movie!), but the movie makes clear that what is lost is a “knowledge” of the spirit world, a world that most modern man choses to believe does not exist, but those that are of a Christian heritage would ascribe to the demonic world whose torments are best to be delivered from.

Regarding the concern that anthropologists have to preserve primitive cultures, that is a total hypocrisy, since they wish to have access to these cultures, but nobody else. After all, if a primitive culture exists that you don’t know exists, it doesn’t matter whether or not they exist. Yet, the obsession with preserving primitive culture as a reference point for where modern culture has gone wrong fails. Margaret Mead used several isolated cultures in Samoa and New Guineas to build an argument for feminism and sexual liberation, an argument that is specious at best by denying what we see in man every day as a depraved person. We build utopian or mythical worlds to escape what we see is evil in our own culture, yet fail to grasp that we are chasing nothing but a fantastical creation of our mind devoid of reality.

In conclusion, the movie is inconsistent and ambiguous enough to make any decisions regarding either cultural judgments or environmental concerns. The movie offers no greater reference point for making any further judgements, either regarding morality or culture. Thus, one must turn elsewhere for these decisions. It is no wonder that The Emerald Forest has not had a lasting impact, and no wonder that the environmental movement and anthropology comes across as a touch insincere.

The World’s Greatest Structures

April 14th, 2012

Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity, by Stephen Ressler (Teaching Company) ★★★★

This is a fascinating tour of structures mostly built within the last 100-200 years throughout the world, with an orientation around first bridges, and then buildings. Ressler is a civil engineer, and so the orientation of the course was entirely around the design and mechanical features of bridges and buildings that have allowed for their great length or height. It is a most fascinating story of design failures, learning curves, and serendipitous success.  Ressler is reasonably non-technical, though I wish he would have included at least one lecture on the real mathematics of design–not all of us are science dummies. Ressler has an interesting style of teaching, but most effective. His personality struck both Betsy and myself as a cross between a close friend R.B. and Mr. Know-it-All Bullwinkle Moose. Both Betsy and I enjoyed this lecture set tremendously both because of the topic and the teacher, and recommend it to our friends.

Schubert Complete Songs

April 13th, 2012

Schubert: The Complete Songs, with Graham Johnson ★★★★★

This is a fairly lengthy work of 40 CDs representing the complete songs of Franz Schubert. The common aspect of the Hyperion production is the pianist, Graham Johnson. The vocalists are a broad assortment, many quite well known names, but all being superb in their delivery. The recordings are also completely top-notch. The length makes this a little challenging to listen to all at once, and this is my second time straight through. The brilliance of Schubert as a song writer is reflected strongly in this production. The song cycles, especially Schwanengesang, are superlative. The entire cost of this set is a royal bargain, worth any classical collection.

Zemlinsky Choral Works

April 13th, 2012

Zemlinsky: Complete Choral Works and Orchestral Songs, conducted by James Conlon with the Kölner Philharmoniker ★★★★

Zemlinksy was an Viennese contemporary with Mahler, Strauss, and Schoenberg, and acquainted with all of those. Being mixed Jewish, Muslim and Catholic, he eventually emigrated to NY City in 1938. Unfortunately, his life was always spent in the shadow of his better known contemporaries. His music resembles a merger of Mahler and Strauss. The EMI performance here is apparently a reissue, as EMI seems to be the only record company that has produced Zemlinsky’s works in depth. He is a worthy composer and most of his works do not deserve the obscurity that they have received. This album will definitely be enjoyed by those who enjoy choral works from the turn of the 20th century Viennese genre.

Trumpet Concertos – Eklund

April 2nd, 2012

Trumpet Concertos by Haydn, Hummel, Neruda, and Weber, by Niklas Eklund ★★★★★

These are four  baroque and classical trumpet concertos, with only the piece by Dedrich Weber being written for a valved trumpet. These are played by Eklun on a modern valved trumpet. Eklund has a few legendary trumpeters to compete with, the most recent being the masterful performances of Wynton Marsalis. Yet, Eklund holds his own, have a fluid, very non-brassy tone to his instrument that is most pleasurable to listen to. To put it bluntly, Eklund’s performance is quite stupendous. Naxos offers very affordable recordings, and these are most worthy of a classical collection.

 

The Cathedral

April 2nd, 2012

The Cathedral, by Dr. William Cook (Teaching Company Series) ★★★★

This is a series of 24 1/2 hour lectures offered by the Teaching Company in the video format only. Cook provides an informative 24 sessions, progressing from the Roman to Romanesque to Gothic to modern architecture of the cathedral. Cook’s main focus was on the superficial architectural design, and on the artwork, consisting of the design work, statues, and stained glass seen throughout European cathedrals. Him greatest emphasis was on the Gothic cathedrals of France, and he chooses to elaborate on the greatest of the French cathedrals, leaving the cathedrals of England, Germany, Spain, and eastern Europe only superficial touches. Though I find that he spends too much time elaborating on cathedral art, he is quite effective at generating an interest in paying more attention to portals and stain glass. I wish he would have spoken more about the general structure of the cathedral,  rather than limiting the interest solely to the main chapel. He also spent very little time elaborating the means of cathedral design and construction. The Teaching Company series on Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures seems to complement well this course, and Betsy and I are currently watching that series.

The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works

March 25th, 2012

The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works, by Robert Greenberg (The Teaching Company Audio) ★★★★

Greeenberg reviews thirty of the greatest pieces in the orchestral repertoire from Bach to Shostakovich. Each piece includes a biographical review of the composer, the nature of the composition, the compositional style, and then what makes it great. It is a whirlwind tour that covers the most relevant pieces. The last lecture on the ones that got away leaves one feeling that probably far more than thirty pieces still could have been included. Greenberg ends with a statement about how we need to support modern composers by listening to their music, noting that the very odd compositional years of the 80’s are long gone, and that composers are again writing quite sensible pieces. Perhaps the best thing Greenberg  could do is to do a series on contemporary classical music, giving us an argument as to why we should listen to modern pieces,  showing us what’s out there, and showing us why those pieces make them worthy of our attention.

Experiencing Hubble

March 19th, 2012

Experiencing Hubble: Understanding the Greatest Images of the Universe, by David Meyer ★★★★

This brief Teaching Company series of 12 lectures takes one on a tour some of the most impressive images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. In this series, David Meyer, one of the managing astronomers for the telescope, provides the scientific insights and explanations as to the significance of the Hubble images. Thus, they are far more than just beautiful photographs. Meyer explains first the politics of the Hubble Telescope, and how one gets a chance as an astronomer to use this telescope. He explains how the Hubble has shown certain things such as the formation of stars, the colliding of galaxies, and even the most distant reaches of the universe. Meyers maintains a teaching level that is not too complicated, such that most could follow what he has to say, and yet maintain ones interest. In conjunction with other astronomy courses, this course serves as a fitting introduction into a small category of astronomy, that of the advances which the Hubble telescope has provided to us.

 

Junction Boys

March 13th, 2012

 

The Junction Boys, starring Tom Berenger ★★★★

This movie was recommended to me by a doctor friend of mine, who was one of the star players for one of the winning seasons of the LSU football team. This movie presents a brief episode in the life of coach Bear Bryant, one of the winningest coaches of all time. Bear already had many successful seasons with Kentucky, and was recruited to coach the Texas A&M team. He started by forming a 10 day boot camp for the players at a place just outside of Junction, Texas. During the next 10 days, he thoughtlessly drove many players to total despair, having 2/3 of the team walk out on him. He did some exceedingly foolish things, such as deprive the players of any fluid replacement in spite of 114 degree Texas heat, causing some star players to collapse of heat stroke and exhaustion. Players remained in practice with acute lumbar fractures and other serious injuries. The final toll was his only loosing season of 1-9 wins-losses. The redemption of the movie was a brief 5 minute scene of the Junction Boy reunion at the practice camp, where he apologized for his total stupidity. The players who stuck with Bear had some sense that they benefited from this hell-hole experience and appreciated their time with coach Bryant. This is akin to kidnapped captives or abused children having a psychological affinity to their oppressor — in some ways it is a sick sort of devotion to an equally sick person. Sadly, even in the year that the Junction Boys camp took place, it was quite well known that fluid replacement was imperative for best performance in heat, and that over-practice can be as harmful as no practice at all. For coach Bryant to learn that at the cost of many young aspiring football players is nothing but a shame. There was a beautiful quote in the movie, when coach Bryant was explaining to a parent whose son was thrown off the team because he had a heat stroke that football was “war”, the parent, who was missing his left arm and spent two years with bilateral hip fractures and recently lost arm in a Japanese prison camp, responded “You don’t need to tell me what war is like, as I know it all too well. Football is not war, football is a sport” (rough quote as I remember it). This quote summarizes the theme that makes the movie worth watching. It is a good movie, very well done, but also a reminder for sports players to never forget that their sport is nothing but a sport.

Espionage and Covert Operations

March 8th, 2012

Espionage and Covert Operations (Teaching Company), by Vejas Liulevicius ★★★★

This is an enjoyable set of 14 – 1/2 hour lectures on the history of spying from earliest records until the year 2011. There is much to like about these lectures. Liulevicius is quite entertaining as a speaker, and covers the topic of spying fairly broadly, from episodes of international intrigue, to states spying on their own citizens, and ending the series offers a solemn warning about care with the state spying on you. What I find intriguing is how often spy craft gets it wrong, often leading to worse consequences than if there were no spies, a recent example being intelligence evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The few spying successes were found in WWII with the code-breaking of the German and Japanese communication signals. Our eagerness to maintain an international spy network has been troubled by numerous moles, leading to probably more deaths from spy activity than lives saved. Interestingly, misinformation given to spies has been quite effective at creating international pandemonium, and when international news alleges certain things, a strong aura of disbelief is healthy. I had wished that Liulevicius had spent more time talking about actual spy craft, perhaps even just a lecture on the nature of actually being a spy. One lecture did delve into spies in the literature and movies, and interestingly, many of these books, such as the books by Ian Fleming and LeCarre, were written by ex-spies. So, enjoy these at your own risk.

Bach: h-moll Messe

February 27th, 2012

This review covers four different video recorded performances of Bach’s b-minor mass. The first is from the Thomaskirche in Leipzig with Blomstedt conducting, then second from Neubuern with Guttenberg conducting, the third from München with Karl Richter conducting and the fourth from the Thomaskirche again with cantor Billing and a Jungenchor. Each performance is quite different and it would do an injustice to Bach’s h-moll messe to only see one performance. But first, I must say a summary about the mass itself. It was written by Johann Sebastian Bach during his Leipzig years when he was Cantor of the Thomaskirche. This was during the most mature phase of Bach’s composing years, and this piece was written by Bach without much expectation that it would ever be performed in his lifetime. Indeed, this piece also represents the pinnacle of all music of all times, written by the greatest composer to ever have lived. I look forward to the days in glory when Bach is again writing music, this time in a glorified state, and possibly with King David, the sweet musician, at his right hand providing words and suggestions for the melody.  The h-moll Messe is a demonstration of how perfectly words and music could go together — nobody did it better than Bach. The music of Bach always fits the words, and fits them perfectly. Though the church I attend emphasizes the importance of having the tune match the words, I think of how often they fail. Two examples follow. The first is O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus, sung in a minor key to a Jewish dance rhythm. Bach would have been horrified. The second is Rock of Ages, sung to the New City tune. The New City tune itself is catchy, but absolutely terrible in its compositional development, in that the first phrase is repeated with slight variations all the way to the end without progression or true development, and it simply doesn’t fit the words of Rock of Ages, wording that needs a solid tune, not a fancy flighty tune. The words that Bach uses are words that are so correct and true that they will again be sung in heaven. The music has a level of complexity and genius that no composer to date has even come close to matching, but bringing shear terror to the performer. It is sad that so many church musicians have a culturally closed their ear to the music of Bach since his compositions were all in either German or Latin, and never in English. The modern English and American church composers have no contest when placed against the least known or performed works of Bach. It’s a pity that we have to put up with the contemporary rubbish of Rutter, Townend, Getty, and others. Truly, I find it impossible to maintain a dry eye once a well-done Bach performance begins, as it is just too beautiful to contain the emotion. There are few other composers that can so overwhelmingly move a person. I pray that other church musicians will catch the Mendelssohn discovery that Bach can be imitated but never surpassed.

Bach’s B-minor Mass, Herbert Blomstedt conducting Gewandhausorchester und Gewandhauskammerchor ★★★★★

This is an all-adult performance (no child-musicians) on modern instruments. It is held in the choir loft of the Thomaskirche, facing the altar and grave of JS Bach. Having been in that church a number of times, I’m not sure how they fit everybody in. The acoustics were superb, and performance was most delightful. Blomstedt is a very engaging conductor. He tends to manifest a very friendly face to the musicians, frequently smiling and interacting with the musicians with his eyes and hands, while singing along with the music. The musicians seem to respond in kind to him, maintaining a dynamic spirit that promotes the spirit of the piece. As an example, when the credo speaks of the crucifixion and burial of Christ, the music is quite solemn and hushed. This immediately transforms into a most joyous explosion of the trumpets, orchestra and musicians when singing of Christ rising from the grave, and Blomstedt makes it happen perfectly. This performance is not with a large choir and orchestra, but reflects perfectly the spirit of Bach in Bach’s home. I’m sure that Bach gave a smile in the grave.

B minor mass, performed by the Neubeuern Choral Society, Enoch zu Guttenberg conducting ★★★★

This is a difficult piece to critic. There is so much good and bad about it. The performance itself was very good. The singers were very well organized. The orchestra and soloists performed flawlessly. Guttenberg conducted with intense spirit. I was surprised at how young many of the singers and musicians were. Though there were a few older people in the performance, it was mostly younger people. The choir itself was much larger than the orchestra and placed behind the orchestra, which was an average size for a Bach performance. The entire production occurred in a small narrow church, so that it seemed that the distance between the conductor and last row of the choir was quite great.

Things that bothered me were several. The recording itself did not do justice to the performance, coming across as a bit flat. You really didn’t have the feel like you were recording in a church. The conductor recently appeared to have left upper extremity surgery, and his arm was in a sling and cast, making it very distractive. The biggest flaw of the recording was the camerawork, which was constantly straying to painting and fixtures on the wall of the church. It was quite annoying. The camerawork and audio recording gets a 1 star for failing to make you feel present at a performance. Other than that, it is a worthy recording to have in ones collection.

Bach Messe in H-moll with Janowitz, Topper, Laubenthal and Prey, Conducted by Karl Richter, Münchener Bach Chor ★★★★

I have always liked Karl Richter, and his renditions of many of the Bach cantatas are absolutely first class. Interestingly, this performance, held in a large baroque styled church in 1969, seemed to be a bit flat. Except for Hermann Prey, none of the soloists seemed really moved by what they were singing, and the entire performance limped. The quality of performance was exemplary, and the performance occurred without a flaw. Even the cameraman seemed to be bored, with him rarely holding onto the performers, but focusing on the ceiling or drifting around the walls and lattice ornaments of the church. It would have been more enjoyable to simply listen to the performance, and not watch it on the DVD.

Bach h-moll Messe with Thomanerchor Leipzig, Cantor George Biller and Gewandhousorchester Leipzig ★★★

This performance had a number of distinct differences from the performances above. The choir was a boy’s choir. The alto solo was a male alto. There were added pieces in latin, some of which were sung by the cantor. The performance was quite decent, and stupendous for the boys. My problems with this production were several. First, I really don’t like boy’s choirs, except as a curiosity. Second, I find male altos to be especially harsh on the ear, even though this alto was not bad at all. Thirdly, the camera seemed to find particular fascination with the newly remodeled roof of the Thomaskirche. A nice touch was the camera panning in on Bach’s grave at the very beginning and very end of the performance.  All things considered, it was a rather impressive performance for the Knabenchor. This was a nice change from the typical performance of the B-Minor mass.

 

Keeping Score – Shostakovich

February 19th, 2012

Keeping Score – Shostakovich Symphony #5 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony ★★★★

Besides Bach, Shostakovich is one of the truly great composers to ever have lived. His was a life like Bach’s that was filled with tormentors and critics that had no appreciation for the greatness of the person. This film is one of the “Keeping Score” series where the director of the San Francisco Symphony engages in an educational forum that briefly describes the life of Shostakovich, while doing a quick analysis of the 5th symphony. It is quite educational, and even if one doesn’t like Shostakovich, they would find this film to be  informative. The DVD actually consists of two parts, the first being an analysis of the piece, and the second  being a live performance in London of the 5th symphony. Together they help to give a person a starting understanding of person of Shostakovich and the style of his compositions. The film is definitely intended for musical beginners, though anybody will get value out of seeing Thomas’ interpretation one of the great symphonies of all time, Shostakovich’s fifth.

Conagher

February 18th, 2012

Conagher, starring Sam Elliott, based on a book by Louis L’Amour ★★★★★

Betsy and I have watched a number of westerns recently, including True Grit (3 stars), High Noon (4 stars), Once Upon a Time in the West (1 star), Magnificent Seven (2 stars), and the Wild Bunch (1 star).  These films will not be reviewed by me. Several (the 1 star films) were so bad we could barely endure the entire films. Even True Grit had terrible acting, and no real moral punch to it. Sorry, but John Wayne is not the best cowboy. Conagher was completely different. Sam Elliott was a soft spoken, but very well acted cowboy who minds his own business, and keeps his promises even at the risk of his life. This gets him in jeopardy with a band of cattle rustlers after the cattle Conagher is guarding. Meanwhile, a young family moves into a lone house not far removed from Conagher, but the husband perishes in an attempt to get cattle for starting a ranch. Eventually Conagher endears himself to the husbandless/fatherless family, and …, well, watch the movie. This movie was likable because it did not create a fictional west. There were bad guys and good guys. The indians were not painted as tree hugging earth loving pacifists, but for the feared savages that settlers in real life knew them to be. Conagher did not have the miraculous art of killing 12 people with 8 bullets while shooting from the hip. He mostly behaved like a normal person would and should behave. The filming was nice with superb scenes. No “in your face” shots, or prolonged emotional drama. The action was a bit slow, but that helped paint the realism of the film. All together, this made a true-to-life but suspenseful drama, well worth watching.

History of the United States

February 12th, 2012

History of the United States (Teaching Company Series), by Allen Guelzo, Gary Gallagher, and Patrick Allitt ★★★★

It is impossible in the course of 84 – 1/2 hour lectures to give a detailed history of the United States. Yet, Guelzo, Gallagher and Allitt do a fine job of reviewing the high points of the American experience. Starting from its discovery by the Europeans and settlement, all the way to early George W. Bush, these three lectures provide a delightful summary of the last few hundred years of the United States. It is entertaining, and gives their perspective, typically respectfully, of their view of the American experiment. I don’t always agree with their analysis and conclusions, but that doesn’t distract from their ability to give a fairly balanced discussion of America throughout the years. The most contemporary discussions on matters such as the new world order, environmentalism, women’s rights movements, etc. did not deserve full 1/2 hour lectures, but are too charged of topics to glance over briefly. All in all, the lecture series works well as all the instructors are masters at the art of teaching.

 

Clint Eastwood Movie Reviews #1

January 31st, 2012

You may wonder what films we’ve been watching the last month. I got the Clint Eastwood collection for Christmas, and with some added additional Eastwood films (such as the No Name Spaghetti Westerns), worked through most of the filmography of Clint Eastwood. Clint primarily portrayed two characters, the first being the silent cowboy who shows up from nowhere and disappears into the sunset. In the meantime, he could shoot a handgun with precise accuracy and immense speed, thus terminating all opponents. His western films would be labeled revisionist, in that the good guys were the indians and the outlaws, and the bad guys were the government officials. Older westerns would have a moral theme, but revisionist westerns remain morally ambiguous. Thus, John Wayne would typically refuse to star in Eastwood’s films as an objection to the revisionist genre (although John Wayne rarely portrayed a morally pure character himself).

The other character of Clint is the quiet cop or detective who bucks authority, somehow seems to have the criminal figured out beforehand, usually has incompetent bosses and political figures telling him what to do, and Clint eventually solving the issue by working around the authority, usually terminating the criminals.

A lesser character of Clint seen is later years is the cranky old man, who knows better, but has to put up with the younger crowd. Such movies as Million Dollar Man and Gran Torino fit this category. Clint often has religious scenes, usually Catholic, many of them with him contending with the priest, or going against the advice of the priest. In a very strong way, Eastwood suggests that being mister tough guy and standing up for yourself is the most important thing in life. All of his movies, regardless of his role, portray this character and theme. Sadly, as good as many of Clint’s films are, they all fail to offer any suggestion of a higher morality or virtue. It is just another form of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Hitler would have loved Clint’s films.

I find that except for the spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry series, Clint’s early films are generally quite bad. There is a significant improvement in the quality of his later films, though even then a moderate number are not worth watching a second time.

These films are reviewed mostly in the order in which they were watched, which was in alphabetical order. The chronological order would have been a more natural way to watch his films, but the alphabetical order allowed for a better mix-up of Clint’s films. Because of the length of this post, it is given in three sections.

 

Absolute Power ★★★★★

This is one of Eastwood’s later films, and is a mishmash of the Nixon scandal mixed with the scandals of the Clinton administration.  The president is observed by a break-in artist (Clint Eastwood) in a rape/murder, which is covered up by the secret service. Realizing that he (Clint) cannot go to the police to report the crime, he then devises the means of bringing down the president. The action is fast and suspenseful, and the plot is unpredictable but a touch realistic.

 

Any Which Way You Can ★

Clint Eastwood is a retired prize fighter, now pursued by the syndicate to do one last fight, against his own personal will. He, his orangutan, and girl friend eventually resolve matters. This is supposed to be a comedy, but we didn’t find it to be very funny, and really didn’t have any significant plot or objective.

 

Bird ★

Clint Eastwood does not star in this film. It is supposed to be a biographical sketch of Charlie Parker, one of the great Jazz saxophonists of the past. The action is very slow moving, and is constantly taking chronological jumps as Charlie relives his past before committing suicide. Betsy and I were unable to endure more than 40 minutes of this film.

 

Blood Work ★★★★

Clint Eastwood as aging FBI officer has a massive heart attack while chasing a man and requires a heart transplant. He eventually learns that the heart came from a murder victim, whose sister is now asking Clint to solve the case. The plot is great with multiple unexpected turns until the case is solved.

 

Bridges of Madison County ★★

The Red Green Show once commented that the Bridges of Madison County failed as a movie since nobody was killed, and none of the bridges were blown up. There is truth to that statement. The only reason this movie received two stars is that the acting by both Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep was superb. Two middle aged people are going through the remains of their just-deceased mother, and discover that many years ago she had an affair. This affair is the main body of film, which occurred when a photographer (Clint) stops at a farmhouse asking directions to a bridge. The remainder of the family is off to the Illinois State Fair, and so she then spends the next four days in an increasing relation with him and they separate for good. Many parts of the film go so slow that we had to fast forward them. It was torture to watch this film. The message of the film unavoidably states that anything is okay as long as nobody finds out. The higher values of truth and purity are forgotten.  This is not a film worth watching.

 

Bronco Billy ★★

Clint Eastwood stars in Bronco Billy, the ex-convict who is now head of a roving circus cowboy show. It’s a rather lame film, with various characters getting in trouble with themselves and the law, mixed in with a somewhat spastic rich lady whose husband runs off on her, and she is left to live with the low lives of the circus until she realizes that they have something she doesn’t have with her wealth.

 

Changeling ★★★★★

This is the last film Clint Eastwood produced, and he does not star in the film. Supposedly, this film is based off of a true event. Angela Jolie is a single mother with a 9 yo son in 1928 Los Angeles. The son is kidnapped, leading Angela to seek for the child using the LAPD. A child is produced, which is very clearly not the son, even though the LAPD insists that it is. When Angela pushes the issue, she is committed to an insane asylum. Through the work of a Presbyterian pastor who was fighting corruption in the police system, she is released, and eventually a reasonable clue is found as to what happened to her son. This movie is unusual for Clint Eastwood, in that Eastwood’s characters are usually police that take the law in their own hands since the city and courts are incapable of that function. The roles are here reversed, where the police are found to be too aggressive. The common theme in Clint’s movies is the ultimate corruption in government, and this point is well made in this movie. It is only wishful thinking to imagine that matters aren’t any better nowadays – just different.

 

City Heat ★★

Burt Reynolds is a private detective, and Clint a police lieutenant, Clint rescuing Burt from various entanglements of the syndicate, in a film set within big city gangster town of the prohibition 20’s. Clint definitely proves a better actor than Burt in this otherwise very mediocre film.

 

Coogan’s Bluff ★★

Clint Eastwood is an Arizona cop sent to NY to return a criminal that he caught (how he got to NY wasn’t explained) to bring back to Arizona for trial. In the process, the NY police give him great grief, the criminal gets away, and Clint goes on a lengthy manhunt process independent of the NY detective agency. Clint tends to sexually attack every female that comes into his presence, which I guess makes him cool.

 

Beguiled ★★

Clint Eastwood is now a wounded union soldier, who ends up in a private girls school at the end of the civil war. The head mistress ends up keeping him and nursing him back to health, all the while preparing him to be picked up by confederate soldiers to be hauled off to prison to die. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a number of the girls in the school, and is caught making love to one of the older students. This leads to a series of tragedies since he was caught, ultimately leading to his demise. Poor Clint.

 

Dead Pool ★★★★★

Clint stars in the last of the Dirty Harry series, and this film is at his mature best. Lists of celebrities were published with wagers as to the greatest number of people who would be dead in a given span of time. Started as an innocent game, it turned bad when it was realized that somebody was individually picking off characters on the list. Dirty Harry happens to be on the list, and proceeds to eventually find the killer and terminate him. A second story line is Clint having to contend with the press, including an obnoxious female.

 

Dirty Harry ★★★★★

This is the first Dirty Harry film with Clint Eastwood. A sniper if knocking off people in the city of San Francisco, with a monetary ransom to have the killing stopped.  The killer and Clint interact, and then is released on legal technicalities. The killer then frames Clint for police brutality. Eventually the killer hijacks a school bus with children, only to be rescued by the ever-resourceful Dirty Harry.

Clint Eastwood #2

January 31st, 2012

Eiger Sanction ★★★★

Eiger Sanction could have done better on the plot, with Clint acting as a retired hitman, called back into duty to the service of his country to knock off several killers involved in an international spy ring. Strangely, Clint needs to perform this action while climbing the north face of the Eiger. Clint eventually discovers that he was deceived but comes out in the best. The most spectacular part of this film with the video of the Eiger climb, which unfortunately led to the death of a climber assisting in the filming.

 

Enforcer ★★★★

This is the third Dirty film. Dirty Harry is teamed up with a female that he considers incompetent in an effort by the city to make the police force more diverse. This episode, they have to fight a militant revolutionary gang, that leads them all over the city and even out to Alcatraz, Clint also having to do battle with the SF mayor, until he is required to rescue him from the gang.

 

Escape from Alcatraz ★★★★★

One of Clint’s better films, illustrating a breakout from Alcatraz. The head jailor is in best form, as Patrick McGoohan (Secret Agent/The Prisoner). The acting is superb, the story line is superb, the description of the very inhuman life in prison is notable, and you end up cheering for the prisoners that got away.

 

Every Which Way But Loose ★

This film was absolutely awful. It is a prequel/sequel to Any Which Way You Can, with Clint acting as a prize street fighter. The entire film was nothing but casual sex (not seen visually), bad language, beer drinking, indiscriminate violence, but worse of all, country-western music. Clint falls in love with a country western singer who doesn’t let on that she has no interest in him, until he’s chased her all over the country. A sick motorcycle gang, renegade policeman, and others are after Clint. Ho-hum.

 

Few Dollars More ★★★★

Clint Eastwood starred in a number of spaghetti westerns in the late 1960’s, this being one of them, and also included in the “Man with No Name” trilogy, which includes “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, and “Fist full of Dollars”. Here he teams up with Van Cleef as bounty hunters after the big nasty gang located along the border of the US and Mexico. Van Cleef has some awesome acting very much the equal of Clint, and a young Klaus Kinski shows up in this movie. The biggest winner in the Trilogy is the music of Ennio Morricone, who deserves an Oscar of his own for the genius of the accompanying music.

 

Firefox ★★★

Clint is a retired fighter pilot jock, called back from retirement to assist in the theft of a highly secretive high-tech stealth airplane of the Soviets (pre-1990). The graphics are good, the plot is suspenseful, the action is quite exciting, the acting is somewhat mediocre, and the reality of the plot is marginal, making the film a three-star. Though Clint does a better “top-gun” than Tom Cruise, between playing secret agent man, top-gun, and himself, he fails.

 

Fistful of Dollars ★★★★

Another of the spaghetti westerns, and the first of the No Name trilogy with music by Morricone.   Clint is a Whitey that rides into town along the Mexican border to find a feud between two clans is leading to the death of the town. By pitting the clans against each other, he manages to eliminate both clans. There is a wonderful mix of suspense and humor in this movie that makes up for an otherwise short story line.

 

Gauntlet ★★★★

Clint is a policeman in Phoenix sent to go up to Las Vegas in order to pick up a criminal to be delivered for testimony in court back in Phoenix. It ends up that both the police chief in Phoenix and the mob set him and his prisoner (Sondra Locke) up to be eliminated. There is much shooting and tough guy action as Clint and Sondra work their way back to Phoenix to establish real justice with the police chief. Much of the story line is not terribly believable, such as a bus driving through many streets of firearm, and Clint on a motorcycle escaping by bare centimeters firing from a sharpshooter in a helicoptor. But, things get blown up, so the movie is worth watching.

 

Good, Bad, and the Ugly ★★★★★

This is one of Eastwood’s best films, a spaghetti western and last of the “Man with no Name” trilogy, staged during the time of the civil war, where three gents, one being Clint, and another Van Cleef, are in search of buried gold. The tales of finding the clues to the location of the gold, the interactions of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” characters create suspense in a film that is entertaining even after watching a number of times.

 

Gran Torino ★★★★★

Betsy and I had low hopes at the start of this movie, thinking it was going to be just another Clint Eastwood “adoration of the fictitious self” movies. It looked like he was going to racing cars, or something of that sort. It instead turned out to be something quite other. Clint is a just widowed old man who had a heroic war past, but now sits on his porch drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and watching the neighborhood being taken over by foreigners. The next door neighbors are Hmong people. Slowly, he gets to know them, and eventually comes to their rescue by offering himself up totally for them. There are Catholic religious references throughout the film which suggests that Clint has no idea about true faith, but that doesn’t denegrate from this film, which actually suggests a moral lesson. I particularly liked the Clint character, a gnarly old man, similar to a few that I know.

 

Hang Em High ★★★★

Clint is a ex-lawman now rancher that was lynched and hung, only to rescued by a lawman in the Oklahoma territory. He is now out to get the nine men that lynched him, after he is re-made a lawman. Seeing much injustice in the system, including a couple of kids caught cattle rustling and hung, he finds it hard to adjust to his role in the system. He eventually gets most of the lynchers, but only after they shoot him up. The action line is very irregular, and incomplete, in that he doesn’t get all nine players. Also, there is a lengthy hanging scene where hymns were sung and the preacher active, all of which seemed to make mockery of religion, without realizing that that religion is what instilled a sense of justice to begin with.

 

Heartbreak Ridge ★★

Clint is an non-cooperative drill sergeant with war experience now assigned to a young group of Marines in boot camp. He establishes his presence going against authority, and eventually proves himself in the Grenada invasion. If Clint is supposed to be the Marine role model of the tough – guy, he fails miserably.

 

High Plains Drifter ★★★

Clint is now a no-name cowboy, that rides into a lonely town in the early west where the people refuse to defend themselves from roving gangs. An old gang is supposed to return to town, and they pay Clint to defend the town. For inexplicable reasons, he has flashbacks of a previous episode when the town allowed their sheriff to be whipped to death without lifting a finger. Clint gets even by knocking off the gang, but also by knocking off the town. Ho-hum.

 

Joe Kidd ★★

Just another Clint western, with him as a good-bad guy Joe Kidd, who is supposed to help a dishonest wealthy man knock off a renegade Mexican who seems to be doing nothing more than trying to honestly defend his land. Eventually Clint takes the side of the Mexican and helps knock off the rich dude and his henchmen.

 

Honkytonk Man ★

This is probably the worst Clint Eastwood movie of the bunch, with nothing good to say about it. Clint is a country singer in the depression 1930’s of Oklahoma. He wants to go to Nashville to sing in the grand ole Opry and takes along his nephew and uncle. On the way, he teaches his 11 yo nephew to drive, since he is too drunk to get behind the wheel. He then teaches his nephew to drink, steal, and visit whore houses. The movie has no redeeming moral lessons, and worst of all, the viewer has to be tortured with country music, even worse from Clint himself. Don’t waste your time on this film.

 

In the Line of Fire ★★★★

One of the late films of Clint, he is a secret service agent protecting the president. He is being tracked by an ex-CIA agent who plans on assassinating the president. In his typical role, Clint is the outsider who figures out eventually who the killer is and manages to stop the assassination by jumping in the line of fire. Though many of the elements of the movie are predictable, it does make suspense and is well filmed and acted.

 

Invictus ★★★★★

Clint directed but did not star in this film. The stars were Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, both of whom had superb acting. This movie was based on a real historical event, though the details I’m sure were Hollywood fictions. It is the story of Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, being released from prison and becoming president of the country, but being able to set aside the long-standing grievances of the past, using Rugby to spirit the nation into breaking down the racial divide. The movie is quite moving, and wonderfully enacted by Eastwood’s direction.

 

Kelly’s Heroes ★★★

This is a WWII not to be taken seriously, with many anachronistic elements, like Don Sutherland playing a 1960’s hippy. Actually, Don Sutherland was probably the funniest actor in the movie. A small group of GI’s discover that the Germans have a load of gold in a bank 30 miles across the front line. They work out an effort to retrieve this gold without their commanders knowing what was happening. The film had too many unreal aspects, such as an unorganized group simply breaking through the German offensive line, and a pile of gold sitting around practically unguarded. How they got a number of well known actors to participate in the movie is a mystery to me. It was pretty bad, but at times, funny.

 

Letters from Iwo Jima ★★★★

This is a story of the Iwo Jima from the viewpoint of the Japanese, and mostly from the eyes of a young kid who was a baker in Japan, but pulled away against his will to fight in the war. He remained one of the few survivors of the bloodbath. The movie was mostly in Japanese with under-titles. The filming was excellent. Clint directs but has no acting in this film. One wishes he would have cameoed himself like Alfred Hitchcock used to do.

 

Magnum Force ★★★★

Clint stars in the second Dirty Harry film in Magnum force. Clint is out to solve the mystery of a rash of assassinations of prime crime suspects that defy conviction. He eventually resolves that it is a group of four rookie cops led by in boss the lieutenant. There is lots of fast action and stunts making it enjoyable to watch, but is typical Dirty Harry.

Clint Eastwood #3

January 31st, 2012

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ★★★

Apparently this movie is based on a book relating a true story of a murder in Savannah, Georgia. Clint directs but does not show in the film – his daughter does some acting in the film. A upcoming extremely wealthy young man is convicted of murdering his employee. Much of the film takes place in the trial, where truths about the wealthy person are exploited, but eventually exonerating the man of murder save for self-defense. Many other themes are woven through the book includes a voodoo practitioner, a transvestite, wealthy society women and haute society life in Savannah. It gave one a good feel for the superficiality of life in the South, where appearances were more important than reality. I presume that unless one has read the book, the movie tends to drag a bit. The directing is superb, but many scenes did not contribute to the flow of the movie, though probably made sense in the book itself, such as the graveyard scenes. Many of Clint’s later movies are better than this one.

 

Million Dollar Baby ★★★

Clint runs a boxing center, and trains the pro boxers. He has a girl pestering him to have him become her trainer, which he initially refuses to do. She goes on to great success, only to have an attack from the rear by her opponent long after the bell rings, rendering her quadraplegic. She eventually gets Clint to pull the plug on her since she doesn’t wish to live. The movie has lots of slow action, and unnecessary scenes, making it drag, and a terrible moral ending that suggests that killing (euthanasia) is occasionally ok. Otherwise, it wasn’t a bad movie. The acting is superb, including that of Clint, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. The movie does an excellent job of portraying the agony of one who makes decisions against his better judgment and then has to live with the consequences of those decisions.

 

Mystic River ★★

Three childhood friends eventually grow up and go their separate ways. One of them has a child that was murdered, another was the suspected murderer, and the last is the detective trying to solve the case. The movie begins in a very slow and confusing fashion, and we almost turned it off out of boredom. The movie does a good job of psychoanalyzing the effects of child abuse and broken relationships, yet never offers ultimate redemption for any of the characters.

 

Outlaw Josey Wales ★★★★★

This was a western starring Clint that is truly a decent film. Clint is a farmer in Missouri whose farm is overrun and family slain by renegade union men just after the civil war. Clint seeks justice, but finds that the Union remains deceptive and corrupt. Plus, the union now has a price on his head. Running from bounty hunters and ex-outlaw partner, he is continually placed into tight situations where he narrowly escapes, but befriended by indians and settlers who also are fighting for existence in a land without justice.

Paint Your Wagon ★★★

This is a fairly lame musical, even having to bear with Clint singing. He doesn’t do too bad. The cinematography and scene setups are awesome, but then, beaucoup bucks were spent to make this film. The scene is the Sacramento area during the gold-rush, when Clint and Lee Marvin stake out a profitable region yielding much gold. They also end up with the same wife, purchased off of some Mormons. The story leaves much to be desired. Worth watching once.

 

Pale Rider ★★★★

The scene is in the gold rush basin of central California, and a downstream mining company is harassing the upstream settlers to leave. Clint comes into town as a preacher man, and eventually settles matters, when the mining company decides to hire a gang of renegade sheriffs to remove Clint from the scene. All are exterminated, and Clint goes riding into the sunset. Actually, this is a rather well done film, with good acting, and a good flow of action.

 

Perfect World ★★★

A couple of jail breakers kidnap a young boy, Philip. Kevin Costner, one of the jail breakers, kills his partner, and then runs off with the kid. A massive police search is done, with Costner adequately evading capture while creating havoc and murders along their path. Costner is the main star, engaging in conversation with the kid, learning that he had a “deprived” childhood, since his mom was a JW and would not let the kid celebrate halloween or Christmas, etc. So, Costner endears himself to the child, painting a fantasy world to him.  Eventually, Costner is wounded by Philip, and then is cornered by the police, with Clint in charge. Costner is again shot against Clint’s instructions, and the child goes home with mommy. The worst part of this film is that it painted fantasies that children should experience or else they would be “deprived”. The kid was a good actor.

 

Pink Cadillac ★★★

Clint fills the bounty hunter role in the 1960‘s of seeking out a lady who skipped out on paying her bail bonds. This leads him into getting entangled with a gang of outlaw soldier of fortune dudes hiding out in the Sierras with the kidnapped child of the lady. They eventually get the baby back. The movie had much humor giving it 3 stars, but the typical worn-out Clint dodging bullets, driving recklessly, and managing an uncontrollable female all at the same time.

 

Play Misty for Me ★★★★★

This movie is “Fatal Attraction” before that movie ever came out. It is a suspenseful psycho-thriller of a lady who falls in love with a disc jockey, and then pursues him relentlessly to her ultimate demise. Clint is quite young at the time, and I’m told this is his first movie that he directed. He definitely ran a low budget but brilliant directing and acting created a masterpiece.

 

Rookie ★★★★★

While not within the Dirty Harry series, this film fits the Dirty Harry tradition, with Clint playing an aging cop, and Charlie Sheen as the rookie. In a break with Dirty Harry tradition, the rookie doesn’t get knocked off, but becomes a Clint Eastwood clone. The action is great, and Charlie does a superb job of acting his role. Clint and Charlie are cops in LA snaking out auto thieves, and stumble across a ring of thieves. At first, Charlie makes a series of rookie mistakes, but learns quickly in order to get the bad guy.

 

Space Cowboys ★★★

Clint becomes a space shuttle pilot in this episode. He happens to be the sole designer of a guidance system for satellites, that is now long outdated. It just happens that the Soviets stole his guidance system plans and used them in a supposed communications satellite of their own. This guidance system has gone haywire and the satellite in orbiting on a crash course with earth. For some unknown reason, the Soviets call on the US to repair their satellite. And, it happens that Clint and his three pilot buddies have a grudge with NASA being “dissed” 40 years previously. So, they train, struggle through bureaucratic baloney and finally make the flight. In space, they discover that the satellite is not a communications satellite but loaded with six nuclear rockets aimed at the US, which explains why the soviets wished to have it fixed. They finally send it to the moon, but, people die and Clint flies the space shuttle home to Florida without a scratch. The graphics were nice in this film, the the story was just to hokey to be reasonable.

 

Sudden Impact ★★★★★

This is the fourth Dirty Harry film. It seems like the later Dirty Harry films are better than the first. Clint is trying to solve the mystery of a series of killings, which are occurring from a lady (Sondra Locke) who was gang-raped. She is out to do justice. Eventually the killers are knocked off, and Sondra not identified as the killer except by Dirty Harry, who lets it all slide.

 

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot ★

Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges play Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, two criminals seeking for their next heist, when old ex-partners of Clint’s enter the scene and complicate matters. They eventually stage a heist of a bank vault, find previous heist money, and only Clint ends of getting away and surviving. Not exactly a thrilling film, with even a worse message.

 

Tightrope ★★★★

Tightrope has Clint has a detective on the murder squad in New Orleans. He is tracking down serial rape-murders, where the murderer has a past history with Clint and thus is trying to pursue the females that come into Clint’s life. The film starts with a lot of inappropriate nudity from the rape-murder scenes, but evolves into a very intense psycho-thriller. Good acting from both Clint and Clint’s daughter Alison.

 

True Crime ★★★★

Clint is an aging reporter working for the newspaper in Oakland. He’s troubled by a past of heavy alcohol use, and a present life of cheating on his wife through liaisons with a coworker’s wife. Then he smells out that a black man is wrongly convicted of a murder that he didn’t do, but the execution is scheduled for 12 hours from now. In the course of 12 hours, he proceeds to solve the mystery of the killer, and save the man from execution. It is a good story line, which isn’t helped by painting the main hero (Clint) as a drunken, philandering godless man.

 

Two Mules for Sara ★★★

Clint is wandering through Mexico, when he runs across a nun named Sara (Shirley McClaine) who is being raped by three gringos. He frees her, then they begin a collaboration to help throw out the Mexican resistance throw the French out of Mexico. This they accomplish though with the inclusion of a number of side events, such as Clint being shot in the chest with an arrow or when Clint discovers that the nun is actually a prostitute. The movie makes for light entertainment but is not your best western.

 

Unforgiven ★★★★★

Outside of his No Name Trilogy, this is Clint’s best western. He is a “retired” gunman and reformed by his now dead wife. A young kid comes to his place seeking bounty money paid by a group of whores in town to seek revenge on two cowboys who cut up one of the girls. Clint, the boy, and his “partner” head off to find the two cowboys. A secondary theme is a renegade sheriff in town who tends to do more harm to innocent people than to criminals, and making law only to protect himself. Clint and the kid eventually get the two cowboys, but return to town to find that the sheriff killed the “partner” for no good reason. Clint eventually gets revenge on the sheriff, and then moves himself and kids out to San Francisco.

 

Where Eagles Dare ★★★★★

Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton are the two main stars in this film. They are a part of a covert operation to bring back a General held captive in Schloss Adler (supposedly Kehlsteinhaus – Hilter’s hideout in the Bavarian Alps). Between incredible cinematography, stunts, superb acting, a fast paced story line, and a highly unpredictable outcome, the film deserves five stars. It’s most serious problem is that it has an unbelievable story line, with Richard and Clint singlehandedly resisting and knocking off squadrons of German soldiers without getting hardly a scratch. If that can be forgiven, the film becomes quite awesome to watch – one of Eastwood’s better films.

 

White Hunter, Black Heart ★★★

Clint Eastwood plays a rough, eccentric Hollywood director working on a film in Africa. He arrives before the producer, and decides to go on an elephant hunt. He can’t get the elephant hunt out of his head until the black guide is killed by the elephant Clint was trying to hunt. The movie portrays Clint as a worst possible movie director, irresponsible, inattentive to the producer, and irresponsible for other people’s lives. The movie left you hating the Clint character. Not a bad film.

The Joy of Bach

January 21st, 2012

The Joy of Bach, featuring Brian Blessed ★★★

This short movie is a wonderful tribute to the greatest musician of all time, our own Johann Sebastian Bach. The movie is an amalgam of Blessed reenacting fictitious though highly possibly true scenes from the life of JS Bach, and modern day performances of Bach. The modern day performances were both done in standard orchestral classical style, though the emphasis was on how musicians have incorporated Bach into the most unique circumstances, such as performances on steel drums, guitars, Moog synthesizers, and you name it. Blessed effectively communicates that the music of Bach is so great, that it continues to live today regardless of how it is played. Perhaps there is no other composer that has ever or will ever achieve this distinction to the extent that has happened with Bach. This movie can inspire even those who dislike the music of Bach.

Ives: The Symphonies

January 21st, 2012

Ives: The Symphonies, performed by Dohnanyi, Marriner and Mehta ★★★

These are reasonable performances of Charles Ives, a early 20th century American composer (1874-1954). Ives uses much American folk tune and American hymn motifs in his writing. Together, he makes for very poorly convincing symphonies. His are symphonies that I would never use for my “Desert Island Collection” or attend in formal concert. I’ll settle on listening to these symphonies from time to time simply to stay knowledgeable in American music. They are not enjoyable. Better classical music in the 20th century is Russian and German.  The English speaking world flunks in the classical music realm.

Oceanography

January 5th, 2012

Oceanography, Teaching Company Course, by Harold Tobin ★★★★

Tobin is a superb teacher, and except for his habit of excessively rolling and waving his hands, has a wonderful skill of conveying his knowledge and interest in oceanography. I appreciated the way he made oceanography quite personal, explaining how he developed an interest in the subject, and how the study of the ocean still drives him. I certainly learned more in this course than in many of the other science courses from the Teaching Company. My major complaint with the course material is the occasional excess preoccupation in some topics that were only peripheral to oceanography. It was not necessary to spend a whole lecture on plate tectonics, or on cosmology, as it didn’t contribute to the understanding of the ocean beyond what a brief mention would have accomplished and referral to other Teaching Company series. I appreciated the lecture on ocean ecology and pollution, but there was excess time spent on global warming and its effect on the ocean in several other lectures. Save for the criticisms, this was a valuable series and spurred increased interest in being more observant at the ocean, and considering our human impact on the sea.

Note by Note

December 26th, 2011

Note by Note: The making of Steinway L1037 ★★★★

I’ve always wondered how a piano was built. I didn’t realize that Steinway concert grand pianos were entirely built by hand, and are probably one of the only concert pianos still made by hand. This movie walks one through the year long endeavor to build a piano. One starts in the lumber mill, where wood is specifically selected for the piano case and sounding board. Slow and meticulous processes eventually lead to the developed project. Many scenes are also shot of profession musicians in the NY Steinway piano store  trying out pianos. I guess that even with Steinway pianos, the action can vary enough that a concert musician may need to try 10-15 pianos before finding the instrument of his liking. There are a lot of extras with this movie, but the feature attraction was itself a fascinating journal behind the walls of the Steinway piano factory in New York, with interviews of many of the piano building craftsmen. Steinways have many hand carved features, constructed to precise millimeter tolerances. The tuning is all by hand, and not electronic like most other piano builders. The keys and their actions are all meticulously adjusted by hand to properly strike the strings with appropriate action on the key. One was left realizing that there may be a day where much of the art and skills of hand piano construction may be lost, and then we will be stuck with cheap Japanese imitations. Oh well!!!!

 

How the Earth Works

December 23rd, 2011

How the Earth Works, by Michael Wysession (Teaching Company Series) ★★★

This teaching company series, taught by a Geophysicist, discusses the mechanisms and processes that make the earth the way it is. Wysession is able to interlay the various processes, whether they be geologic, biologic, or astronomic, in discussing what gives us our world. The lecture series can be divided into three parts, with a grading on each part…

I. Plate Tectonics – 5 stars – the longest part of the course, it also is the best part of the course, taught where Wysession is most expert. Details of how the continents were created, how plate tectonic theory was developed, how earthquakes and volcanoes occur, are all discussed in popular lay terms that can be understood by anybody.

II. The Weather – 3 stars – though the weather is an important process in molding the earth, another Teaching Company course on Meteorology has done a far superior job of detailing how weather is formed, and the processes that lead to our climate and living conditions.

III. Biology and “My Soapbox” – 1 star – Wysession adequately discusses the role of biological organisms in helping to form the earth. He does a far worse job of playing biologist. Much of the last lectures of the course are more a soapbox on various subjects such as climate change, humans elsewhere in the universe, and the destiny of man, which would have best been left out of the course. Many of the last lectures have no relation to discussing how the earth works, but rather create a dummy pulpit for Wysession. I do credit Wysession for maintaining a sense of scientific uncertainty about matters such as climate change, and he doesn’t become preachy like Algore.

The course could be improved in many ways. Most importantly, I wish Wysession would have spent a few lectures discussing in depth the mechanisms for studying earth. He could have better discussed the various instrumentation for “sounding” the depths of earth. He could have given us more detailed explanations of land formations that help us understand the world we see, to allow us to engage in the process of being junior geologists. I would have been interested in having a rough feel as to how a geophysicist mathematically models things like earthquakes.

Wysession is an excellent teacher and adequately uses props and visuals to get his point across. This is a series worth watching, though the final lectures would be best deleted or changed as mentioned above to get the discussion back to the intended topic for the course.

Blood, Sweat and Gears

November 28th, 2011

Blood Sweat + Gears, Racing Clean to the Tour de France ★★★★

This film is yet another bicycle documentary, looking at the origin of the Team Garmin Slipstream and their rise from humble origins to competition in the Tour de France, with Christian Vande Velde placing 4th in total standing. The prevailing theme was a determination to do bicycle racing clean without the use of performance enhancing drugs. It is a moving and well done story, inspiring one to hop on the bicycle and take off.

 

 

Bicycle Dreams

November 28th, 2011

Bicycle Dreams ★★★★

This movie is a documentary on the Race Across America, the longest and cruelest ride in bicycle racing. The ride goes over 3000 miles, and is often done in 9-12 days, with an average of 350+ miles/day. The competitors rarely sleep more than two hours a night, and often spend the entire night and day riding. During this documentary, which was made during the 2005 ride, one of the competitors, a surgeon from Minnesota, was killed by a semi truck. This was his sixth time to ride the RAAM. There was one lawyer attempting the ride, who didn’t last more than two days. The agony of the riders is well documented. It assured me that this is a race I would never ride, even if I could. The film won numerous awards, fitting for the quality of this documentary.

 

 

Concert Masterpieces

November 28th, 2011

 

Concert Masterpieces, by Robert Greenberg ★★★★★

Greenberg does it again, producing a delightful review of eight concert pieces of value from the classical repertoire. In this set of 32 45-minute lectures, each four lectures covers a given piece of music. Included are the Mozart 25th Piano concerto, Beethoven 5th piano concerto, Dvorak 9th symphony, R. Strauss Death and Transfiguration, Beethoven Violin Concerto, Brahms violin concerto, Mendelssohn Mid-summer night’s dream, and Liszt Totentanz. Each set of four lectures covers in the first lecture a broad survey of the musical scene. The second lecture then focuses on the particular piece in its setting with other similar pieces of music, and then the last two lectures delve into the details of the piece of music itself. The entire lecture set remains very easy to listen to because of Greenberg’s humor mixed with a steady stream of fascinating information. He is never too technical, and spends much time filling in the listener  to the music theory and technical details of the piece. This set is a wonderful way to familiarize yourself to these eight pieces of music. It also helps build one’s ear for listening to any piece of classical music.

 

 

Höllentour

November 26th, 2011

Hell on Wheels (Höllentour), starring Team T-mobile ★★★★ Hell on Wheels is a documentary of the 2003 Tour de France from the viewpoint of the riders on the T-Mobile team, with special focus on Eric Zabel. It was an intimate account that documented the frustrations, exhaustions, and rare joy that occurs when competing in the Tour. The film is in German, with a moderate amount of French, and occasional English, but with subtitles to make it all work. This movie did not show what would be seen on television. It showed rather what one would see and sense as a rider or intimate spectator of the tour, including the set-up of cameras, conversations with the T-mobile riders between days, and expression of the moods of the moment when riding the Tour. Between scenes, clips of historic Tour de France scenes were shown. The Tour has come a long way! For Tour de France aficionados, this film will be a delight.

Harry Potter

November 26th, 2011
Harry Potter Complete 8-film collection ★★★
If one were to read the Amazon.com reviews, you would find to sets of reviews, those that are 4-5 stars and those that are 1 star. The 1-star ratings are offered simply because sufficient extras were not included in the set, and that certain director’s cuts were not included with the films. I have read the Harry Potter series, and it was a “cute” children’s story, which became darker and more foreboding with each episode. The movie seems to follow reasonably closely the book story line. On a second time through the Harry Potter story, a number of thoughts come to my mind.
1. I don’t think that this story glorifies witchcraft and evil too much more than the CS Lewis stories. Contrary, the greatest failure is for the series to fail to offer a true distinction between good and evil, and the source of both, other than that Harry and his closest friends were good, and that Voldemort was bad. Sure.
2. Character development left shallow personalities in all, including Harry Potter. The characters were flat, and never showed evidence of advancing or truly growing up. This is especially true of the students, who were either just good, or just bad. The kids are smarter than the adults, but just not as powerful as the adults.
3. Filmography on dvd was oftentimes way too dark, leaving much clipping when presented on a large screen tv. Otherwise, the graphics of the film were fairly stupendous.
4. Each book had its own separate story line or challenge that Harry Potter had to face, but there was a prevailing theme of the return of Voldemort, and his eventual defeat through the “chosen” one, Harry Potter. Who chose Harry is never mentioned. Which leaves a larger question mark with the entire series. Each story of itself had a strong sense of unbelievability, with Harry and his friends getting into trouble, and just somehow coming across the solution in the nick of time. Some of the plot was very poor, such as having Severus Snape swear allegiance to Voldemort in order to infiltrate his attack on Harry. It’s not exactly what you want to teach kids, of true heroes standing up to their word, especially when their word is sworn.
5. In the long term, the Harry Potter craze will wear off, and the series will be confined to the dustbins of countless other chronologically failed novels. There is no reflection of higher virtues. There is no basis for good and evil. Harry Potter is a flawed savior who passes into ignominy with time. The book/movie series has no compelling reason to be considered great other than the phenomenal graphics.

Deutsche Volkslieder

November 26th, 2011
Brahm’s Deutsche Volkslieder, with Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau, and Moore ★★★★★
This is a delightful set of songs written by Johannes Brahms for soloist with accompanying piano. Brahms uses both a soprano and a baritone voice, and often they sing in the same piece, but never at the same time. It is a delightful set of songs that can be enjoyed though one may not understand the words. The performance could not have found a better set of two voices to represent Brahms. I had listened to this set a few times before but have never reviewed it, and felt that it was high enough quality to deserve a place in my blog site.

Seabiscuit

November 26th, 2011

Seabiscuit ★★★★

This movie is supposed to be based on a true story of a smallish race horse, destined to be rejected, but purchased by a person willing to give the horse a try. The horse was run at the Santa Anita Racetrack in the 1930’s depression years, going on to become a winning horse in spite of various tragedies to both horse and jockey. It is a spirited film that gives one a good feel to the world of horse racing.

 

Baader Meinhof Complex

November 18th, 2011

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) ★★★★

This film is in German with English subtitles and attempts to re-create the story of the Red Army Faction, a militant group in the ’70’s through 1990’s. They had engaged in the bombing of a number of buildings, most notably the newspaper Bild building, as well as the assasination of a number of prominent political figures and police. The film is fairly well done, with fast action, considerable amount of violence, some exposed flesh, and some obscene language (though in German), making it perhaps not good to view with small children. The film presents many questions in the mind of the viewer, including the proper balance of freedom (anarchy) and law (police state). It also questions the treatment of criminals. In this situation, many of the RAF were able to continue their reign of terror even when behind bars. Politicians were nervous about being harsh on the violent criminals because of the presence of an odd, small, highly vocal, mostly consisting of students and lawyers, group holding a sentiment in support of the RAF. Throughout the film, it was difficult to hold pity for the RAF members, especially with their immature and extremist behavior. Yet, it was public support for them that maintained their criminal activity for so long. The film is very thought provoking and well worth watching. It should provoke some good discussions with my German friends.

 

 

Breach

November 16th, 2011

Breach, Starring Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe ★★★★★

This is supposed to be a film version of the uncovering of one of the worse security breaches in US history. It is the story of Robert Hansson, who had been selling secrets to the Soviets, resulting in the death of several Soviet agents that were working with the US. There are questions in Amazon.com reviews about the accuracy of historical details in the film, though it seems to follow the Wickipedia storyline quite well. The movie starts slow and you wonder at first where it is going. The action never speeds up, but it remains spellbinding to the end, when Hansson is finally caught in the act. The acting is superb, especially with Chris Cooper as Robert Hansson. The storyline slowly intensifies, as Phillippe acting as the young FBI operative who uncovered Hansson slowly realizes what he is doing. My appreciation to Dr. JL who introduced me and Betsy to this film.

 

Planet of the Apes Series

November 16th, 2011

Planet of the Apes ★★★, Beneath the Planet of the Apes ★★★, Escape from the Planet of the Apes ★★, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ★★, Battle for the Planet of the Apes ★

This is a series that started poorly, and should have ended after the second episode. The plots are as follows, Planet of the Apes – Charleton Heston is stranded on a strange planet after traveling into the distant future from his rocket ship sent from earth, only discover that the planet is now ruled by apes. He is taken captive, and eventually escapes with the help of two chimpanzees, only to discover that the strange planet is planet earth. Beneath the Planet of the Apes, a second rocket ship crashes, and the sole survivor meets up with Heston in underground caverns, which are clearly the ruins of NY City. The human inhabitants here are invaded by the apes, who decide on mutual destruction of all by setting off an atomic bomb which destroys the world. Escape… two the chimpanzees who helped Heston land in a rocket ship on the shores of Los Angeles, going back in time, and are discovered as talking apes. They reveal the scenario of the future so it is decided to kill the apes and save the future. A sole newborn chimpanzee survives. Conquest… it is now 1991 and all pets have been killed by man, so monkeys are now the predominant other species, used as pets, slaves, etc. The talking chimpanzee baby leads an ape revolt which takes over mankind. Battle… it is now many years later, and the first chimpanzee baby (Caesar) is now old, and there are battles between chimpanzees and gorillas and humans for control of civilization.

The films are rather benign, though there is much unnecessary obscenities and language used. There is a lot of ridicule of organized religion, and evolution is considered a given. The story plot is quite lame. It’s hard to criticize acting, when most of the actors are wearing monkey suits and acting like apes. My only wonder is how they made so many sequels until somebody got the idea that it was a stupid series.

 

Journey into Buddhism

November 13th, 2011

Journey into Buddhism: Vajra Sky over Tibet ★

This film was given to me by a very good friend who had converted from Anglicanism to Buddhism. It was his desire to demonstrate the virtues of Buddhist thinking. So, I watched it with as open of a mind as possible. The film was made in Tibet at the main centers of Buddhism. It showed the principle sites of worship, temple artwork, adherents coming to worship, and various outdoor scenes, some with religious events occurring. The commentary throughout the film was heavily oriented toward anti-Chinese sentiment regarding their purported destruction of a culture.

This film failed  to evoke sympathy for the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Countless cultures have come and gone throughout history, without any argument for their preservation. In Tibetan Buddhism, there was presented no argument that the culture offered anything worth preserving. True, the artwork was nice. True, a small subset of Tibetan devotees have the “right” to worship as they please. Yet, the film fails to suggest that Buddhism offers anything superior to the Christian faith, or any other religion or ideology. Even in Buddhism, they have the good and evil spirits, yet there is nothing to argue why the evil spirits are evil and the good spirits are good. All are one, and none should be given preference. In real life, Buddhists seem to be as violent as anybody else when given the opportunity. Similarly, I don’t see the same “Free Tibet” group arguing that Israel needs to be set free for the Israelite/Jew, since that is their legitimate homeland. I don’t see a war-cry that Temple worship should return to Judaism as restoration of a culture that should not have been destroyed by the nasty Romans. There seems to be a great degree of hypocrisy in the Free Tibet movement.

Oddly, the film reminded me much of our recent visit to Rome. In Rome, we saw devotees spending hours praying to artifacts, doing ritual climbs on “sacred stairs”, lighting of candles, holy water, endless repetitions of the Rosary. Is this no different than prayer wheels. If only we could automate our spirituality, or make it so that all one needs to do is to perform certain perfunctory functions. It is odd how Christ stated so plainly that God doesn’t listen to mindless repetition, yet this is how universal public religion has evolved. It is no wonder that the Roman Catholic church has often had the greatest problem in defending that Christianity is the only way to God as written in the Bible. The RC faith doesn’t offer anything much different from the Buddhists.

So, the film did not suggest that Buddhism is worth exploring. It only made me appreciate my Christian faith all the more. I am glad that I am able to have a personal relationship with the God of the universe. I am content with an Absolute in morality, truth, and existence, by whom I gain my own existence. I am comforted that I don’t have to seek to attain to god-hood, yet never be sure if I could be good enough to do that. What could be more assuring than to have the God of the Universe provide forgiveness solely through true faith in Him, and trust in Him. Christianity gives a God who truly loves, truly feels, and encourages love for ones’ brother while seeking to attain progress in life through secular work and sacred worship together, as neither are better than the other, yet neither can do without the other. Life does not end up as an endless circle, but as a linear progress, so that I can view the future as a non-repetition of the present. It is a pity that too often Christianity degenerates into a mechanism, to which it offers no advantage over any other world religion.

I would love to take a trip to Tibet since I’ve read much about it. Yet, I’ll probably do it with my Chinese friend, and probably not feel bad that Tibet is now mostly Chinese.

 

Star Trek-Original Series and Feature Films

November 12th, 2011


  Star Trek-The Original Series, Seasons 1-3 ★★★★

This series is a set of three boxes that take one through the original Star Trek series. Since then, multiple spin-offs have occurred, but the original series endures. The films are well preserved, and for those who enjoyed Star Trek, it is a delight to once again view many of the episodes again. I have several complaints about this series as it is offered. The packaging is worthless, and was immediately discarded. The episodes were not presented in order, I’m not sure how they decided on the order of presentation of episodes. I remember episodes that did not seem to be included in any of these three seasons, and wonder if they were intentionally left out. Finally, in regard to the film content itself, the series seemed to diminish in quality over time. By the second and third season, many ideas were repeated, such as placing several of the Enterprise crew member into a historical earth scene. The series transformed from being a simple science fiction film to being a socio-political statement. I became nauseous every time I heard Captain Kirk comment “We come in peace!”. I’ll never be a trekkie, but these films are quite enjoyable to watch, especially if never seen before.

Star Trek Feature Films including

The Motion Picture ★★★ This film is very slow moving, playing on mostly special effects. The plot is simple. A massive energy cloud approaches earth, and Kirk/Spock eventually discover that this is a massively advanced configuration of the original Voyager 6 “V-ger” space probe.

The Wrath of Khan ★★★★ This was the most suspenseful film. Khan returns from a tv episode in an attempt to pay retribution on Captain Kirk. Spock dies.

The Search for Spock ★★★ Spock just sort of died, and the intention of this film is to get Spock’s thoughts, which were transferred to McCoy, back to Spock, wherever in the universe he might be. Kirk steals his Enterprise spaceship to accomplish that and Spock is rescued, though the Enterprise is destroyed.

The Voyage Home ★★★ Kirk and Spock are now federation bad boys, but a space probe has approached earth and trying to destroy it. Spock and Kirk figure out that it is calling out for extinct whales, and they must journey back two centuries to earth to pick up several whales and save the earth. In the process, Kirk and crew are redeemed.

The Final Frontier ★★ The Enterprise is called on to rescue several ambassadors from a remote planet, only to have the space ship taken over by a bunch of hippies. The resolution of the conflict involves Kirk proving to the hippies that there is no Nirvana or Heaven to go to.

The Undiscovered Country ★★★ The Klingons have gone bankrupt and sue for peace. Kirk must escort the Klingon ambassador to the peace meeting, when things are sabotaged and the ambassador is murdered in a strange fashion. Eventually, it is discovered that junior officers working in conjunction with Klingons sought to dismantle the peace process, but only after many unusual adventures and last moment rescues.

 

War and World History

October 23rd, 2011

 

War and World History (The Teaching Company Series), by Jonathan Roth ★★★

This series looks at world history from the perspective of how war affected that history. Roth shows possibly by this lecture series that multiple other factors, such as religion, politics, and chance seem to affect the occurrence of war as much as vice versa. Thus, Roth delves at length how economy, culture and nationalism has affected the occurrence of war in the last several hundred years. Though he spent some time speaking of the development of war technology, it was rather minimal considering the topic. Also, I had hoped for more discussion on the style of conducting war, strategies, and how geography affected the nature of war, and the development of war in world history.

 

Review of three economic documentary films with commentary

September 9th, 2011

I am currently reading a book by Niall Ferguson on the history of money which will soon be reviewed, but have diverted to three films, all highly recommended by a broad spectrum of people on Amazon.com, and thus I felt reasonable to watch. In particular, I wished to learn more, after the fact, about the nature of the economic collapses of the last decade. In the end, I feel that I could have simply sat down and read a text from Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan and had a better feel as to the nature of the problems with the system of economics in this nation. I will review each film in order in which I watched them.

Collapse, starring Michael Ruppert ?

This film was absolutely awful.  The majority of the shots were various angles on Michael sitting on a single chair in the middle of an otherwise empty warehouse. We had to endure his continual preoccupation with cigarettes. Michael’s only message was that the entire system is going to break because the world is going to run out of oil. This will be followed by mass chaos and mass starvation, war, and disruption of all the social aspects of life.  He seems to fix most of his blame on George Bush. Michael’s brand of alarmism is disingenuous, in that he has essentially given up on the system. The final views are him in his home which has past due taxes and bills that he cannot pay. Poor Michael! While there is truth in his thesis of the purported coming system collapse, he lacks not only credibility, but also the ability to develop his claims in a convincing fashion. This film is a total waste of even the time it takes to watch it.

 

 

Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room, editor Allison Ellwood ???

This film is a documentary of the rise and fall of Enron. It is a sad story in many ways, in that it reflects what is happening throughout the financial structures of corporate America. Unfortunately, the editor identifies what I believe to be false or superficial causes for the collapse of Enron, including government giving in to demands for increased deregulation. The prevailing undercurrent in this film was a statement against deregulation. In fact, the documentary failed dismally to identify where deregulation was the great evil, outside of holding people responsible for their actions and maintaining transparency in issues that involve the public concern. There is a sense of anger left at the end of the film, as to why so many of the top executives could make out with hundreds of millions of dollars, middle managers and traders with millions of dollars, and yet leave many pension plans (such as with PGE) destitute. The films fails to identify a greater evil lurking in the very heart of corporate America that may lead to such corporate collapses many more times over in our short lifetime.  This film is worth watching if one has not stayed on top of the issues that led to the fall of Enron.

 

Inside Job, directed by Charles Ferguson, narrated by Matt Damon ??

This film is a documentary of the 2008 financial collapse. It attempts to offer an in-depth analysis of what went wrong with the financial system, placing most of the blame on none other than George W. Bush (surprise?).  No mention is made of the fact that it was a very socialistic democratic congress that essentially controlled governmental financial dealings. Oddly, the film uses two faux-pundits to help sort out was went wrong with the housing bubble and collapse of AIG and Lehman Brothers. The first was Barney Frank, who waxed eloquent about how proper regulations were not put in place on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Oddly, it was Frank and the democratic party that refused to listen to warnings. Barney is more to blame than anybody is the collapse of Fannie and Freddie. The second faux-pundit was George Soros, the consummate hypocrite who has made more billions off of shady dealings on Wall Street than anybody alive. The only benefit that I received from the film is that I was left with the impression that it is the fox that guards the financial hen-house.  The film shows adequately that even the academic institutions are now besot with corruption with very lucrative advisory roles given to many economics professors.  It has enough fairness to admit that even St. Obama has failed the faithful by continuing Wall Street personnel such as Larry Sommers, Timothy Geithner and many others who have failed the public trust through corrupt actions.

Conservatives tend to defend Wall Street as the model of free-market economics. The argument is against limits on top executives since free-markets determine what a person earns. Such an argument is certainly true for the prior builders of industries that have made America, such as with Andrew Carnegie, The Rockefellers, etc., and is also true of modern industry builders such as Dell, Gates, and Jobs. They deserve what they have earned. I have much more trouble with the astronomical profits earned by the financial gamblers of Wall Street who run the banks. They produce nothing, their risks are not great since the Feds will bail them out, and they will be able to make catastrophic decisions and still take home at least 100 times what I will earn in a lifetime.  Ferguson argues that these banking systems create the “wealth” that powers modern society to drive itself forward. Yet, I disagree to some extent. America grew quite fine before the Federal Reserve was created on Jekyll Island in 1913. There was never an issue of phantom monies coming and going, of corruption and dishonesty controlling and regulating itself. Why are normal politicians not allowed to see into the workings of the Federal Reserve? Because we just can’t understand? If banking is truly that complex, then we have a serious problem. Strangely, many evil people such as Sommers and Geithner were given positions by George Bush, only to held on to and adored by St. Obama.

As brother Dennis rightly states, there is minimal difference between the Republican and Democratic Party in many things, and economics seems to be one of them. Few besides Ron Paul have the wisdom to identify that the Federal Reserve is built in a fashion to protect corruption, promote parasitic high-rollers in the banking world, but in whom we are supposed to trust our money. Is it no wonder that the world economic status has become unglued?

The Liszt Collection

August 14th, 2011

The Liszt Collection, produced by Deutsche Grammophon, multiple performers ????

This is a hodge-podge 34 CD collection from the Deutsche Grammophon archives, presumably reflecting the best of Liszt. It was probably produced for the bicentennial year of Liszt’s birth. Sony has also produced a 25 CD collection, as well as the recently reviewed Leslie Howard complete piano works of Liszt. Sadly, nobody has ever compiled the entire production of Liszt like has been done for Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and other composers. This collection has all superb performances, as well as superb recordings. It is a very worthwhile introduction to Liszt for the classical lover who would like to get into Liszt.

The Adjustment Bureau

August 14th, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon ???

A recent conversation with Jeff Banker during a hike/climb of Flattop Peak in Anchorage, AK led to the issue of free will and providence. This movie came up in the discussion. It is suggested that there is a bureau of people who have enough insight in the makeup of all people in order to ultimately have plans for their fates, as well as the fate of the world. It is as though they are god, yet, unlike the Christian God of the Bible, is constantly changing his plans, not totally aware of the future, has no actual control over anything, can be worked around, has no prevailing moral code of operation, and is limited in his insights, judgement, and power to actually determine the fate of events. Damon is not his best in acting, and was much better in the Bourne series. I am quite sure this movie reflects a sense of providence/predestination equivalent with most people’s thinking, including Christians of the Arminian persuasion. This movie is an excellent argument that such a god is no god at all, but rather just a little more powerful version of the human being.

German Military Marches WWII

August 14th, 2011

Großdeutschland. Stormtrooper Marches. ??

Both of these albums were taken from historical archives. Thus, their quality is ok to quite poor. The recordings could have been cleaned up a little better, but were not. Many of these marches and songs are quite difficult to obtain. Of note, the Horst Wessel Lied is not available in Germany. It is illegal to have the tune, or to play it. It was hard enough to procure here in the US. For my German friends…

Bitte zur Beachtung! Passen Sie auf! Dieses Lied ist nicht erlaubt auf Deutschland. Hör es nur mit Kopfhörer. Wenn der Staat wisst, das du dieses Lied gehören hast, kannst du bestraft sein. Du werdest in Gefängnis geworfen sein, und der Schlüssel weg geworfen. Hör auf eigene Gefahr!

01 Horst Wessel Lied (Nazi Party Anthem – choral) 1

First, a clarification. I wish to compare this song with the French and American National anthems.

German original English translation
Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen!
SA marschiert mit ruhig, festem Schritt.
Kam’raden, die Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen,
Marschier’n im Geist in unser’n Reihen mit.
Die Straße frei den braunen Batallionen.
Die Straße frei dem Sturmabteilungsmann!
Es schau’n aufs Hakenkreuz voll Hoffnung schon Millionen.
Der Tag für Freiheit und für Brot bricht an!
Zum letzten Mal wird Sturmalarm geblasen!
Zum Kampfe steh’n wir alle schon bereit!
Bald flattern Hitlerfahnen über alle Straßen.
Die Knechtschaft dauert nur noch kurze Zeit!
Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen!
SA marschiert mit ruhig-festem Schritt.
Kameraden, die Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen,
Marschieren im Geist in unseren Reihen mit.
The flag on high! The ranks closed tightly!
SA marches with calm, firm steps.
Comrades shot by Red Front and reactionaries
March in spirit within our ranks.
Clear the streets for the brownshirts,
Clear the streets for the stormtroopers!
Millions are filled with hope, when they see the swastika,
The day of freedom and bread is dawning!
The storm warning is sounded for the last time!
We all stand ready for the fight!
Soon Hitler’s flags will fly over all streets.
Our bondage will only last a short time more!
The flag on high! The ranks close tightly!
SA marches with calm, firm steps.
Comrades shot by Red Front and reactionaries
March in spirit within our ranks.

French National Anthem

Allons enfants de la Patrie, Arise, children of the Fatherland,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé ! The day of glory has arrived!
Contre nous de la tyrannie, Against us of tyranny
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis) The bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes Do you hear, in the countryside,
Mugir ces féroces soldats ? The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras They’re coming right into our arms
Égorger nos fils et nos compagnes ! To cut the throats of our sons and women!
Aux armes, citoyens, To arms, citizens,
Formez vos bataillons, Form your battalions,
Marchons, marchons ! Let’s march, let’s march!
Qu’un sang impur That an impure blood
Abreuve nos sillons ! Waters our furrows!
Que veut cette horde d’esclaves, What does this horde of slaves,
De traîtres, de rois conjurés ? Of traitors and conjured kings want?
Pour qui ces ignobles entraves, For whom are these vile chains,
Ces fers dès longtemps préparés ? (bis) These long-prepared irons? (repeat)
Français, pour nous, ah ! quel outrage Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage
Quels transports il doit exciter ! What fury it must arouse!
C’est nous qu’on ose méditer It is us they dare plan
De rendre à l’antique esclavage ! To return to the old slavery!
Aux armes, citoyens… To arms, citizens…
Quoi ! des cohortes étrangères What! Foreign cohorts
Feraient la loi dans nos foyers ! Would make the law in our homes!
Quoi ! Ces phalanges mercenaires What! These mercenary phalanxes
Terrasseraient nos fiers guerriers ! (bis) Would strike down our proud warriors! (repeat)
Grand Dieu ! Par des mains enchaînées Great God ! By chained hands
Nos fronts sous le joug se ploieraient Our brows would yield under the yoke
De vils despotes deviendraient Vile despots would have themselves
Les maîtres de nos destinées ! The masters of our destinies!
Aux armes, citoyens… To arms, citizens…
Tremblez, tyrans et vous perfides Tremble, tyrants and you traitors
L’opprobre de tous les partis, The shame of all parties,
Tremblez ! vos projets parricides Tremble! Your parricidal schemes
Vont enfin recevoir leurs prix ! (bis) Will finally receive their reward! (repeat)
Tout est soldat pour vous combattre, Everyone is a soldier to combat you
S’ils tombent, nos jeunes héros, If they fall, our young heroes,
La terre en produit de nouveaux, The earth will produce new ones,
Contre vous tout prêts à se battre ! Ready to fight against you!
Aux armes, citoyens… To arms, citizens…
Français, en guerriers magnanimes, Frenchmen, as magnanimous warriors,
Portez ou retenez vos coups ! You bear or hold back your blows!
Épargnez ces tristes victimes, You spare those sorry victims,
À regret s’armant contre nous. (bis) Who arm against us with regret. (repeat)
Mais ces despotes sanguinaires, But not these bloodthirsty despots,
Mais ces complices de Bouillé, These accomplices of Bouillé,
Tous ces tigres qui, sans pitié, All these tigers who, mercilessly,
Déchirent le sein de leur mère ! Rip their mother’s breast!
Aux armes, citoyens… To arms, citizens…
Amour sacré de la Patrie, Sacred love of the Fatherland,
Conduis, soutiens nos bras vengeurs Lead, support our avenging arms
Liberté, Liberté chérie, Liberty, cherished Liberty,
Combats avec tes défenseurs ! (bis) Fight with thy defenders! (repeat)
Sous nos drapeaux que la victoire Under our flags, shall victory
Accoure à tes mâles accents, Hurry to thy manly accents,
Que tes ennemis expirants That thy expiring enemies,
Voient ton triomphe et notre gloire ! See thy triumph and our glory!
Aux armes, citoyens… To arms, citizens…
(Couplet des enfants) (Children’s Verse)
Nous entrerons dans la carrière[3] We shall enter the (military) career
Quand nos aînés n’y seront plus, When our elders are no longer there,
Nous y trouverons leur poussière There we shall find their dust
Et la trace de leurs vertus (bis) And the trace of their virtues (repeat)
Bien moins jaloux de leur survivre Much less keen to survive them
Que de partager leur cercueil, Than to share their coffins,
Nous aurons le sublime orgueil We shall have the sublime pride
De les venger ou de les suivre Of avenging or following them

Finally, the US National Anthem (I hope you know it already!)

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
’Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust;”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Notice that the anthems all tend toward violence, and the Nazi anthem is no worse than the French or American. The only redeeming value of the American anthem is the last stanza, which is unfortunately rarely ever sung. Francis Scott Key wrote other hymns, one which is still in the church hymn repertoire, “Lord with glowing heart I’ll praise thee”, but unfortunately is not found in many hymnals any more.

Shostakovich Complete Symphonies

July 25th, 2011

Shostakovich Complete Symphonies, performed by Kiril Kondrashin and Moscow Symphony Orchestra ?????

As you can tell, I’ve been reviewing mostly Russian music, including Borodin, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. Shostakovich is my favorite of all Russian composers. This 11-CD set includes all 15 of Shostakovich’s symphonies, as well as his violin concerto. Though recorded a few years ago by Melodia, the sound is quite excellent. Kondrashin provides very convincing performances, that rank among the best. His tempo and dynamics often differ a bit from western conductors, but is done in a way that is quite pleasing. The 5th symphony is comparatively slower than Bernstein’s, yet maintains all the vim and fire worthy of the symphony. This is a set of Shostakovich’s symphonies that is worth having, and is probably the best Russian performances available. I have complete sets by Barshai, Haitink, Maxim Shostakovich, and Jansons, as well as this set by Kondrashin, and tend to prefer the Kondrashin and Jansons sets above the others. Each conductor provides a much different interpretation of these symphonies, and all of the sets are worth having. Kondrashin would be a reasonable starting set for the beginner.

Rachmaninoff Edition

July 25th, 2011

Rachmaninoff Edition (Complete Works), various performers ?????

This is one of the sets produced by Brilliant Classics as a budget series, though none of the recordings in this set would fit the “budget” category as being highest quality performances. Especially delightful were the piano concertos with Earl Wild at the piano. This is reportedly a comprehensive set of Rachmaninoff’s works, including his operas, solo piano and solo voice works and other works. As a special treat, various historic performances of Rachmaninoff were also included. This set doesn’t seem to be available any longer from Amazon.com, but for the price when it was available, was a true bargain.

Borodin Chamber Music

July 25th, 2011

Borodin Chamber Music, performed by the Moscow Trio and Moscow String Quartet ?????

Alexander Borodin was a Russian chemist associated with “The Five”, a group of amateur musicians that sought to reform Russian music. The others in “the Five” were Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov,  and Mussorgsky. Though the musical output of the Five was not massive, it did have a profound influence on composers to follow, including Tchaikovsky and the 20th century Russian composers. Borodin has a sweet style to his music that is neither harsh on the ears or lacking in luster. Borodin’s chamber music is not commonly heard, and that’s a shame, since it is both tuneful and creative. The recording is flawless with a strong sense of presence, and the performances by the Moscow Trio/Quartet manifest charm in their interpretation. This is a worthy set to have in either small or large collections.

Fünf Stimmen für ein Halleluja

July 24th, 2011

Fünf Stimmen für ein Halleluja, by Die Beinahe Sechs ?????

Die Beinahe Sechs (The nearly six) vocal ensemble  from Germany has composed and revised various Christian themed songs. They offer a mix of songs sung in German and English in a truly remarkable performance. Dr. Kretschmar (from Leipzig) first introduced me to this album. Rather than offer a ponderous description of their music, I thought it best to include two excerpts, both in highly reduced format to hopefully render these as not violating copyright laws. My only regret is that this group is not producing more albums, as they beat most of the Christian music being produced in the English-speaking world.

Jesu, meine Freude

What A Friend We Have In Jesus

 

The Three Stooges

July 24th, 2011

The Three Stooges (8 volumes) ????

This series of the Three Stooges as presented on television goes from the earliest episodes in 1934 up to the final episodes with Joe Besser in 1959. The Three Stooges offer their own commentary of wit and humor. Many people who watch the Stooges in action feel that they are too violent, and I’m sure Leonard Maltin or Woopie Goldberg would not approve for the violence, but as they also tend to make fun of racial and ethnic stereotypes. The greatest disappointment with this series is that the last few years offered mostly remakes of previous episodes, often with only minor alterations in order to make it a new episode. In addition, Joe Besser simply cannot compete with Curly or Shemp. I remember watching the Three Stooges on television when I was 5 or 6 years old, and they were transfixing then. When I let the grandchildren watch them, they find them still amusing. Much of the wordplay is missed by kids, but makes the Three Stooges equally humorous for children and adults alike.

The Stoning of Soraya

July 3rd, 2011

The Stoning of Soraya, directed by Cyrus Nowrosteh ?????

This is a bad movie to watch late at night, as it will haunt you. It is the story of a young wife in a small village in Iran, as told through the voice of a journalist who was passing through the village. Apparently, it was based on a true story, as this story mirrors what happens many times throughout strict Muslim countries. Soraya is mother of two young boys and two young girls, but whose husband has found her to be less than satisfactory, in spite of her hard work and virtue. He decides to get rid of her and marry another girl in a neighbor village. She takes up the job of helping to care for the children of a neighbor widower, encouraged by the town officials and holy man. Through this, the town officials and holy man assist in devising a false trumped charge of adultery. The widower is threatened with his life if he fails to assist in this plot, and so contributes to the deception of the charge of adultery, attesting that she was found lying on his bed. The final verdict was the death penalty, and all men in the village, including Soraya’s sons throw stones. Justice is finally served when Soraya’s husband discovers that the other girl is not available to him and he is left without a wife, and that the journalist brings the story to the rest of the world.

The intention of this movie is to alert the western world as to the mistreatment of women in Muslim countries. The film inadvertently portrays a much deeper evil that lurks throughout the Muslim mindset, which is unfortunately turned into a virtue by the Muslim faith. In the Judeo-Christian ethic, a person that leads to the death of another in a trial by bearing false witness is also condemned to death (Deut. 19:15-20). Integrity and truth are considered integral to religion and worship of God. In the Muslim faith, the worship of Allah is divorced from the ethical environment. A hierarchy of values are generated whereby one evil may justify the performance of another evil.Thus, suicidal terrorist acts, the organized mistreatment of women, the debauchery that occurs in all Muslim countries are all condoned since the ends justify the means. My experience of having spent time in several Muslim countries (Bangladesh and Northern Africa) confirm this through observations of women essentially having the same social status as animals. This is not superficially observable as many Muslim men treated their wives with respect, even though they still remain second class citizens in the society. Attempts have been made to accuse Western society for demeaning women, yet, the difference is such that females are considered equal but different, contrary to feminist ideology that considers females not only equal but not different. Either is a far cry from the Muslim world, where a female might be imprisoned for driving a car, or speaking out in public.

The director of this movie did a brilliant job of character development, scene portrayal, and plot flow. It will hold you by the seat of your pants, in spite of the fact that I have just given away the plot of the movie. I highly encourage you to watch this film at your first chance.

Bartók Complete Solo Piano Works

July 2nd, 2011

Bartók Complete Solo Piano Works, performed by Zoltán Kocsis ????

Bartók has a unique style of composition and Kocsis a delightful ability to render those compositions in a pleasant and enjoyable manner. Bartók was born in Hungary, eventually emigrating to the United States in the early 1940’s to escape the war, though many of his works were produced prior to his emigration. He delved into a range of styles, including atonality of the Schönberg style, polymodal chromaticism, and various modifications of early 20th techniques. Bartók focused on the utilization of Hungarian folk song themes in his compositions. Kocsis manages to take these various forms of composition, and make them flow with reasonable emotive expression. These performances would never be in my “desert island” top 10, but they have great value in most music lovers’ collections, and much to commend to them.

Tchaikovsky String Quartets

June 18th, 2011

Tchaikovsky String Quartets, by the Borodin String Quartet ?????

I don’t often review music that’s sat in my library for many years, but this is an exception owing to its excellence. Tchaikovsky isn’t too well known for his chamber music, yet this set of 3 string quartets is gripping, addicting, moving, and most enjoyable to listen to. The melodies are catching but never “jingo-istic”. The Borodin Quartet is flawless in their performance, but not mechanical, adept at extracting the soul of the piece. The absence of popularity of these pieces should not prevent one from giving these pieces one’s full attention for many an evening.

Fall and Rise of China

June 8th, 2011

Fall and Rise of China, taught by Richard Baum (Teaching Company) ?????

This is one of the best Teaching Company series that I’ve heard in a long time. Prof. Baum was quite compelling in his presentation, and maintained a competent discussion mixed with a large volume of personal experience to be not only informative but also enjoyable to listen to. I personally appreciate Baum’s teaching style, though he does demand full attention, since he typically does NOT repeat what he’s said. I especially appreciated how Dr. Baum maintained neutral political stances in his discussions–he did not use his lecture stand as a bully pulpit to push down his personal ideology. Yet, few professors in my recent memory (from the Teaching Company) has sparked such interest in the topic at hand. A day did not go by when I was seeking further information from the internet, and even better, from close friends who grew up in mainland China and could not only confirm but expand on the professor’s statements. Prof. Baum offers several introductory lectures to provide a background history of the West’s involvement with China in the 1800’s, leading to the rise of anti-western sentiment and the emergence of Mao Zedong. Baum follows through the life of Mao to his death, with China emerging from its backwater status to be a leading economic and social force in the world. These lectures are a beautiful complement to another excellent Teaching Company series “From Yao to Mao: 5000 years of Chinese History”. Regardless of one’s view of China, it remains a people that are rising on the world scene, and there is no better way to mentally fit China into the grand scheme of things than through this set of lectures.

Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen

May 30th, 2011

Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen, by Richard Wagner, performed by the Deutsche Oper Berlin ??

Wagner wrote three early operas that are relatively unknown since they are rarely performed, including die Feen, das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi. They are operas that are not typical of  Wagner’s mature style, but do show development toward the final Wagnerian style. Rienzi is the opera that launched Wagner’s career as a musician, and several of the pieces including the overture are still occasionally performed. There were no available movie versions of this opera until this performance came out, so I decided to buy it, especially with the reasonable reviews given to it by Amazon.com reviewers. This performance has its merit. The singers were faultless, acting and singing well. The recording was high quality, though there were often problems with mixing of the sound of the singers and the orchestra, in that the orchestra tended to drown out the voices on stage.

My problem with this performance is the staging. I don’t object to modern versions of operas, so long as they don’t distract from the story and theme of the original opera. If the staging is such that it creates another theme or story than the original opera, or if it restricts itself to being solely a commentary on either the opera or the composer, then it should not be considered as a legitimate version of the opera. I recall the Peter Sellars versions of various operas that attempted contemporary contextualization of 18th and 19th century operas, yet they were never sold as straight opera renditions. Creative license with modern European staging tends to destroy the composers intent, and this should be overtly stated. It would be like re-writing a Beethoven symphony for a Jazz band but calling it the original symphony. Liszt did not have the audacity to do that, but was willing to call his transcriptions something else, and bizarre creative staging should be called something other than the original opera.

The staging used in this performance is indeed bizarre. The citizens of Rome come out masked at first, eventually removing their masks and donning suits that looked more like Soviet peasant outfits. Rienzi and his daughter appeared more like Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun than a noble Roman tribune. The themes of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini prevailed, forcing the entire opera into an entirely other interpretation. Adriano, the traitor, is made into the hero, and Rienzi is reduced to totalitarian scum. The final scene, with Rienzi in Hitler’s bunker and Speer’s model of the new Berlin before him was exceptionally distractive to the aria “Allmächtiger Gott…” and completely out of place. The videos of Rienzi as a totalitarian propagandist before microphones appearing on television were seriously distracting. Wagner’s character development in the opera was completely re-written. The behind the scenes slaughter of the assassins at the end of act 1 altered the story of the opera. This is not the way Wagner intended the opera to be, and the staging was too divergent from the actual opera story to be legitimate. I’d rather just listen to a recording than to watch what Stölzl has given us.

Whatever one may think of Wagner, I suggest that performances should leave Wagner alone. It is true that Wagner was a truly despicable  egotistical, racist person, yet his composing is sublime. It is quite easy to see his anti-Jewish sentiments throughout his operas, which must be overlooked. Thankfully, many Jewish Wagner conductors and performers have been able to do that, producing some of the best performances of Wagner in existence (eg., James Levine’s Ring, Leonard Bernstein’s Tristan und Isolde). To be obsessed with mid-twentieth century totalitarianism when performing a Wagner opera deprives the opera of its legitimate interpretation and reduces the performance to just another case of Euro Trash.

The Complete Liszt Piano Music

May 27th, 2011


The Complete Liszt Piano Music, by Leslie Howard ?????
This set consists of all the known piano music of Franz Liszt, including his solo works, transcriptions of other composers’ works, and orchestral pieces. In the section on rare works, even short 12 second snippets were included. The entire set consisted of 99 CDs, all but the last CD packed with music. The recordings themselves are very forward and realistic, sounding much like the piano is next to you in the room. Liszt has been known for the complexity of his compositions, thus limiting the number of performers willing to tackle his pieces. Yet, Howard does this with aplomb. Before hearing this set, I was familiar with the volume by George Bolet, and the short pieces by Earl Wild and Cziffra. These recordings place Leslie Howard with the best of all possible performers of Liszt. There is not a single piece in this set that lacks luster, or has been performed better by somebody else. In the nearly 122 hours that it took to listen to this entire set, the only tedium was in listening to the rare snippets – perhaps Howard didn’t need to be so complete in his complete compendium! Liszt’s music lends itself to showmanship. Yet, Howard gives one more than showmanship, and his interpretations are neither extreme nor flamboyant, but very creative with a touch that draws out the soul of the composition. This is highly recommended by me as a “must have” for classic music lovers.

Le Nozze di Figaro

April 16th, 2011



Le Nozze di Figaro, by Wolfgang A. Mozart, conducted by Karajan ???? and Böhm ?????
Both of these performances are awesome, the first with Herbert von Karajan, performed in 1949 with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried, and George London, and the second by Karl Böhm, performed in 1969 with a star-studded cast of Hermann Prey, Gundula Janowitz, Edith Mathis, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Tatiana Troyanos. The sound of the Karajan recording was definitely inferior to Böhm’s later recording, providing the greatest distraction. Yet, for a post-war production, it has a stunning and awesome quality to it. Böhm maintains technical excellence while producing a piece that overwhelms with charm. Both recordings are fitting for the Mozart lover.

Modern Intellectual History

April 16th, 2011


Modern Intellectual History: From Descartes to Derrida, by Lawrence Cahoone (Teaching Company) ????
I’ve been a bit disappointed recently at the quality of Teaching Company lectures and have backed off on purchase of some of the latest productions from that company. My feeling was that the lecturers were too biased in their discussions without giving credence to opposing views. In this lecture series, Cahoone maintains a very compelling discussion of the major philosophers from Descartes to those still alive today, holding ones’ interest while giving an in depth review of the main philosophical contributions of the person under discussion. He ends a touch weak, with a discussion arguing against the death of philosophy. It seems as though philosophy has gone full circle, with philosophy realizing that a crisis created by Derrida and other post-modernists have left no discussion since the claim is that all truth is either un-knowable or un-communicateable. Cahoone shows how modern philosophers have tended to return to the classics to resolve this muddle, creating a spiral (not a circle). Thankfully, he doesn’t discuss whether philosophy is spiraling downwards or upwards, as I tend to feel that it’s taking a downward spiral. After all, without an infinite reference frame, there should be no way of knowing whether one is spiraling up or down! This is a lecture series worth listening to, and will probably be heard again by me.

Touching the Void

April 16th, 2011


Touching the Void, starring MacKey and Aaron ?????
I love to watch climbing films, but often they are miserably done in a manner that considers the viewer completely naive to climbing technique and possibilities. I was fairly nervous that this film would repeat the horrid sensationalism of other recently reviewed films, like the Vertical Limit. This movie was everything but that. It is based on the true but unbelievable story of two British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates who set out to scale an unnamed peak in Patagonia. In the process, they succeed to make the summit, but descent is greeted by disaster when white-out conditions, and a fall by one of the partners, leaves the two completely out of communication, and presuming that the fallen climber is dead. The struggle to get off the mountain and eventual survival of both climbers is well beyond belief. The movie does a beautiful job with superb acting to portray as accurately as possible with what is thought to be the events that led to both climbers getting out alive. About the only other story this incredible is Doug Scott escaping from an unnamed peak in the Himalayas with both femurs fractured, while living out a 2 week storm. This is a movie very much worth watching, even if you aren’t into climbing.

Cherubini Masses & Choral Works

April 5th, 2011


Cherubini Masses, Overtures, Motets, Conducted (mostly by) Riccardo Muti ?????
Cherubini is an under-heard and under-appreciated composer from the era of Beethoven. Writing in an Italian style, these masses and other choral works are a delight to hear. Cherubini is quite accessible to both classical neophyte as well as long-standing classical listener. Muti does a masterful job of conducting these performances, which have a very crisp and clean recording presence. This set is a true bargain from Amazon.com, and worthwhile in any classical collection.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

March 26th, 2011


The Dead Sea Scrolls, by Gary Rendsburg (The Teaching Company) ????
This lecture series was a fairly comprehensive introduction to the history of the discovery and research on the Dead Sea scrolls, but also lengthy discussion of the various factions in Jewish society around the 200BC to 100AD time period in Palestine. Rendsburg was delightful to listen to, and remained fairly even in his discussion, always being willing to admit, and to discuss alternative interpretations and division in the field of Dead Sea scroll research. It is believed that the scrolls were the product of the Qumram community, who lived in a small community (about 200-300 people) on the northwest side of the Dead Sea. Rendsburg removes much of the mystery as to why it took so long for many of the scrolls to be published, as well as the actual contents of the scrolls. Besides numerous copies of the OT scriptures, many scrolls details the rules of life within the (presumed) Qumram community and various other writings of the community. Interestingly, one scroll was even a so-called treasure map, describing the various location of vast amounts of gold and silver, none of which has been found. Unlike many of the religious lecture series from the Teaching Company where the lecturer presents a single opinion on any subject, Rendsburg was quite engaging in discussing the Dead Sea scroll subject with true academic humility, often admitting that many questions remained unanswered.

Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World

March 6th, 2011


Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World, taught by Glenn Holland ?
This is an audio lecture offered by the Teaching Company. It’s focus is the ancient religions of the Mediterranean basin, including the ancient religions of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Canaan, Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as Israel. The entire set is not what I had hoped it to be. I doesn’t give a very good feel for the development and structure of religions outside of the Judeo-Christian realm. Coverage of important texts, like the Gilgamesh epic, leaves much to be desired. Holland offers very little analysis of these non-Israelite religions until the very end of the series, when he offers the pathetic statement of how they all have a unifying notion of our search for the divine. I don’t need to suffer through a 48 lecture course for that conclusion. There is no serious comparison and contrast of the various religions, and typically minimal insight into how these religions and their differences affected the various cultures. There were many religions that Holland mostly glosses over, such as the religions of the Ammonites and Edomites, which have substantial source material to work with. Meanwhile, he is quite ready to offer inane criticisms of the Bible, falling into the confusion of the higher school redaction criticism of the texts. Even here, Holland is not up to date on his facts or critical of his assessments, as I would expect of a university professor. As an example, his disagreement with the dating of Abraham simply shows misguided and uninformed criticism. He seems to be most critical of the Judeo-Christian texts since they are endowed with a certain reverence in the Western world. I don’t expect him to manifest a similar enthusiastic reverence, but I do hold him accountable for providing a critical review free of personal bias and as eager to prove as well as to disprove the veracity of a the sacred texts at hand. It was difficult to endure to the end this series because of the absence of true scholarship.

Shostakovich Symphonies – Jansons

February 23rd, 2011

Shostakovich Symphonies, conducted by Mariss Jansons, multiple orchestras ????
My first complete Shostakovich Symphony set was that conducted by Haitink, and also have complete sets by Barshai, Maxim Shostakovich, as well as multiple renditions of symphonies that do not have complete sets, such as symphonies conducted by Bernstein and von Karajan. Jansons seems to be the most novel of all the sets. Some symphonies did not sound entirely like what I heard out of the other performances. In many instances, such as his performance of the Fourth Symphony, it has a very accessible nature, probably the best 4th I’ve heard so far. Some of the recordings had annoying background noise and were not of highest quality. I still prefer Haitink as the all-round best performance of the Shostakovich symphonies, but consider Jansons in very rightful competition for the interpretation of these symphonies, and very much worth having in a music collection.

Living Stereo Collection

February 16th, 2011

Living Stereo Collection of Classical Music, RCA ????

This is a collection of 60 CDs, representing more than 60 albums of music published on vinyl under the Living stereo label. I remember having a number of these recordings as a teenager. They are now reproduced in CD format. For all of the CDs, the transfer was impeccable, with a brilliant and clean sound. Many of the performances are historically notable, such as the VanCliburn Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. Also featured were many of the recordings of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Charles Münch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as Jascha Heifetz. This set represents a super value, running at less than $2/disc when purchased on Amazon.com.

Music of Gregory Kufchak

February 16th, 2011

Homeland in Heaven, and Better than Light, by the MidOhio Chamber Players with the Apostolic Christian Church Choir, conducted by Gregory Kufchak ???

I have long sought for performances of the Zion’s Harp songs, the hymnal used by the Apostolic Christian Church. Kufchak has done a memorable service to this music by providing well-performed and orchestrated renditions of many Zion’s Harp songs, as well as a few of his own compositions and other music. Many of the songs had a ACCA translation (?), not the translation that  I was used to with the ACCN hymnal. Orchestration tended to be one-dimensional, in that the orchestra essentially paralleled the 4 part harmonies, with only an occasional embellishment. Kufchak tended to limit the amount of brass used in these pieces, and probably for good reason since the trumpets were seriously marginal in their performance.  I would wish that Kufchak continue his work, as he is to lauded for a great start in making public many Zion’s Harp songs. I hope that as he ages, his orchestrations develop a sophistication that complements rather than simply parallels the choir.

January 28th, 2011

Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Zino Zefferelli ? ? ? ? ?

Of all the films on the life of Jesus Christ, this has to be not only the longest, running a good 6 hours, but also the best done, with superb acting and very expensive props. It is clear tha an attempt for historical accuracy from a Biblical perspective was attempted, een though there is a moderate amount of directing freedom that has occurred. The film does have a touch of a Catholic “ring” to it, with Jesus running around as though he were a mythical character, but this film paints more humanity into Jesus than any of the other films available. Also, compared to the Jesus film, it is not so occupied with “in the face” emotionalism, but attempts a review of Christ’s life more akin to what you might see on tv with investigational reporting. Thus, it ranks in my estimate as much better than the Jesus film. This is a must see, long and demanding several nights to make it through the whole series, but is well worth it.

 

An Inconvenient Truth

January 16th, 2011

An Inconvenient Truth, by Rev. Algore ?

This film is labeled a documentary, but its entire format is really that of a sermon by Rev. Algore. There is very little documentary here. Included are also occasional testimonials by supposedly notable figures. There is much political jabbing, some of which is justified, but most of which is not. Approximately 95% of the entire film has at least 40% of the screen filled with Rev. Algore’s face. There are multiple clips that just don’t relate to the thesis of global warming, such as a complaint about how the votes were tallied in Florida, with the subsequent Supreme Court ruling, and no explanation as to what this had to do with the “inconvenient truth” of this film. The film is entirely about global warming, but unknowingly shows how Rev. Algore is particularly skilled at depleting carbon units, although he is exempt since he alone is allowed to consume mass quantities of energy. I can’t imagine the energy required to run Rev. Algore under the North Pole in a nuclear submarine and surface through the ice, just to add a 2 minute episode to the sermon. I could go on and on. Rev. Algore sanctimoniously suggests that the family farm quit growing tobacco because of the concern over lung cancer, yet it almost certainly was a result of declining reimbursements from tobacco. Rev. Algore’s tone of voice, inflections, and speaking style were much more like a sermon than a documentary. The fools who gave this film an Academy Award fail to offer how this film stood out in quality and credible research. The entire thesis of the film is based on supposed rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, while Rev. Algore maintains a schoolboy belief in the accuracy and significance of the data and its extrapolations, without any questioning of the data. It shows the absurd fallacy of having a lawyer/politician pretend to be doing credible science. There is no doubt that there is some truth to what Rev. Algore is saying. There is a retreat of glaciers in the last few decades. There are certain interesting climate changes. Yet, Rev. Algore fails to substantiate the exact causal nature of these events, and chooses instead to promote emotionalism and extreme reactions, exactly what he accuses the Republican party of doing, though on other issues. If Rev. Algore didn’t make so many hard jabs at his political opponents, he might have gained a few more sympathetic ears. Making the weather a political rather than a pure environmental issue makes Rev. Algore ineffective and suspect as to his true intentions for making this film. It is thus hard for me to give this film even one star. It is not worth purchasing, though a single viewing is of value only to see the many gorgous faces of Rev. Algore. Global warming supporters may have a credible argument, but it certainly is not given in this film.

Hitchcock Presents

January 9th, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Seasons 1-4 ?????

This is a television series which ran for four seasons. Each season contained 4 DVDs, each DVD lasting about 3 hours and each episode about 25 minutes. Hitchcock would come on at the beginning an ending, to discuss some aspect of the film about to be seen. Each episode would use first-class actors, and most plots were quite delightful. Towards the end of the fourth season, Betsy and I could usually guess approximately what the ending might be, as they are not what one would suspect. Interestingly, Hitchcock in this series is frequently imitated. After all, there is no greater director of suspense films than him. All the episodes are in black and white, and nothing objectionable as is usually found on television nowadays is seen in this series, with minimal violence and certainly no sex or smut. Hitchcock shows that one doesn’t have to resort to filth in order to entertain. There are no Hitchcock cameos that I could find in any of the episodes. In all, this is an enjoyable and suspenseful series that is most highly recommended for all viewers.

John Field concerti

January 9th, 2011

John Field Piano Concertos (sic), performed by Benjamin Frith, Northern Sinfonia ?????

First a brief comment about the English language. The pleural of concerto is NOT concertos but concerti. Unfortunately, we must live with this unbearable abuse of the common language. John Field is a little known contemporary of Ludwig v. Beethoven. That he is little known is a terrible travesty, since his concerti are so delightful. These 6 concerti on 3 CDs belong in the regular repertoire, as they are most compelling, and fascinating to hear. Field maintains a style that is distinctly classical, but distinctly different from Beethoven and more in line with Mozart or perhaps Schubert. These performances are crisply recorded, and though offered on a budget set, are definitely not budget recordings. They are most highly recommended by me. Though Field does not have much music that is offered in recorded form, he is worth seeking out for what little he may have out there. I have commented previously on the fact that British Isle music is generally lacking, with significant decent composers from those parts being able to be counted on one hand with most of the fingers amputated. Field is Irish, and would have to be added as one of the few that gets counted as a truly great British Isles (though NOT British!) composer.

Greenberg-The Music of Wagner

December 27th, 2010

Robert Greenberg- The Music of Wagner ????

It is hard to dislike anything that Greenberg does, and this Teaching Company series is no exception. Many of us waited for years for Greenberg to produce this set of lectures, as I’m sure it did not come easy to him. Throughout the lecture set, you sense a very strong love-hate relationship with Wagner and Greenberg. This feeling is reflected in the cynicism found throughout each and every lecture, though usually presented quite humorously, like suggesting, when the sword was named Notung, that perhaps Wagner even had a name for his pillow. In his animosity against the person of Wagner, Greenberg has forgotten his comments on the operas of other composers. Almost every opera has a silly if not ridiculous plot. Almost every opera is inconsistent with real life. No opera is believable. One could crack insults at Verdi for writing an opera where a larger-than-life character becomes fatally obsessed over a lost handkerchief, or a Puccini opera where ladies die of consumption at precise moments and heroes magically appear at the right moment to save tragedy, or Mozart operas where heads of state are made to look like bumbling idiots, Queens of the night appear out of no-where, etc., etc. Greenberg seems to love the music of Wagner, but writhes in agony at the consummate anti-semitism of the composer. Greenberg certainly is correct when he spends lengthy hours describing Wagner as inconsistent, arrogant, self-adoring, egotistical, impetuous, racist, mean-spirited, and any other possible negative epithet. All of these are correct, and would Wagner be alive today, he would be regarded as a despicable Arschloch. Greenberg is quite informative in showing how the thinking of Schöpenauer and virile anti-semitism is reflected in all of the music of Wagner, and this was most informative.

Greenberg does a marvelous job of following the chronological history of Wagner. Of interest is his almost certain Jewish father, which Wagner probably was aware of in forming many opera characters with lost identity. Greenberg probably added too much comment regarding Wagner’s desire for German unification. Most German intellectuals were desirous of unification, just as France had accomplished earlier, and Italy was in the process of accomplishing. It is wrong to presume that what was right for France, England, the United States and Italy was wrong for Germany, and perhaps the world wars came partially as a result of this prejudiced exceptionalism of the rest of the world to German unification. Wagner reflected a German ethos rather than a personal arrogance in desiring to see a unified country.

Greenberg is correct when he repeats often that one cannot separate the man from his music. He is incorrect in not stating that perhaps the greatest insult to Wagner the man is for his music to performed by Jewish conductors (such as Levine) with absolute disregard for the “deeper” meaning in his writings. Such disregard is not only possible but necessary, so that even in an unforgivably flawed person like Wagner, there remains genius to be appreciated. I await the day when a Jewish conductor with an all-Jewish orchestra from Israel performs Parsifal at Bayreuth in a comic fashion.

Felsenstein Edition

December 27th, 2010

Walter Felsenstein Edition ????

This set consists of  Beethoven: Fidelio ????, Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen ???, Mozart: Don Giovanni ????, Verdi: Othello ?????, Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffman ?????, Offenbach: Barbe-Bleu ??, Mozart: Le Nozze de Figaro ????.

Felsenstein was the manager of the Comic Opera in east Berlin, and also the producer of these operas. There distinction with this set, is that the operas were all performed in German, though only Fidelio was actually written in German. They are also produced as movies for film. Oftentimes, the opera script was heavily edited, such as Fidelio, with a number of inessential sections removed. In the Tales of Hoffman, additional spoken material is added and acts 2 and 3 are reversed. The operas work unbelievably well in German, and the modifications mostly improve rather than diminish the operas. These recordings have as much a historical value as well as entertainment value. The first three operas above were in black and white and thus somewhat lacking in the best of quality. The latter operas were very impressive, and the Tales of Hoffman and Othello were competitive with the best productions of those operas. The singing and acting were superlative in all the operas. The only opera that I didn’t like so much was Offenbachs’ Barbe-Bleu, but that had nothing to do with Felsenstein or the production, as it was not an appealing opera compositionally.

Widor Complete Organ Works

December 27th, 2010

Widor Complete Organ Works, performed by Ben van Oosten ?????

Charles Marie Widor, principal organist at Saint Sulpice in Paris and the most distinguished organ position in all of France, commanded the international scene from the late 19th century up to his death in 1933. He had multiple distinguished students, including Louis Viernce, Dupre, Varese, as well as Albert Schweizer. Widor had a strong interest in the organ works of Bach, and these organ works definitely have the distinct imprint of Bach on them. These are very attractive works, and while his most memorable organ symphony is his 5th, it would be a disservice to one’s self to limit listening to only his 5th symphony, as the grand total of his ouvre is remarkable and worth listening to. This set consists of 7 CD’s, and Ben van Oosten does a marvelous and flawless job of performance. I have not heard other sets of Widor and so can’t offer comparison, though this set seems to have a high rating on most public forums.

Vierne Organ Works

December 27th, 2010

24 Pieces en style libre, 24 Pieces de Fantasie, Complete Organ Symphonies, by Ben van Oosten ????

Louis Vierne was an assistant to Charles-Marie Widor in Paris, and during the first third of the 20th century was a formidable organist at Saint Sulpice in Paris. He was legally blind, and had a fairly unfortunate life, being involved in an accident which injured his left leg, having an unfortunate marriage and social life, but otherwise commanding a great presence in the organ scene. His improvisations often became the subject of many of the compositions above. While he is distinctly different from Widor, there are many similarities in their compositional style, including a Debussy-style compositional trait of painting moods rather than distinctive tunes. The result is organ music that is very easy to listen to, yet compelling enough to never venture towards being boring. Vierne is unfortunately not well enough known, and his works are definite masterpieces worth belonging in a good classical collection. There are a grand total of 9 CD’s in this 3 set collection, and the performance by Ben van Oosten is most compelling.

Rocky and Bullwinkle

December 27th, 2010

Rocky and Bullwinkle, seasons 1-4 ?????

It’s a cartoon, but it’s intended for adults as much as for children, so that both will appreciate and laugh at the jokes and antics. Bullwinkle is a moose without too much of a brain, and Rocky is his partner the flying squirrel, with only slightly more intelligence. Together, they fight the arch-criminals Boris Badenov and Natasha from Pottsylvania. Between the Rocky and Bullwinkle story is multiple other features, such as the fractured fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, Dudley Do-right, Mr. Know-it-all, and other small fragments, mostly featuring Bullwinkle. If you remember any of the Bullwinkle series, this is very much worth sitting through. Eventually, the last (5th) season will be made available. Until then, we’ll continue to enjoy most of the antics of the dynamic duo fighting crime and evil.

Shostakovich Piano Trios

December 17th, 2010

Shostakovich Piano Trios #1 & 2, Seven Romances on verses by Alexander Blok ?????

I’ve been listening to the works of the Beaux Arts Trio, who perform a number of classical as well as modern composers, but have selected a few that are my favorites. Of the modern composers, Shostakovich has written the best piano trios. They are tuneful, easy to listen to, and conducive to many repeat listening sessions. There aren’t many piano trios that are wearisome to listen to, whether they are from Beethoven, Mozart, Chausson, Faure, Brahms, or whoever. Yet, the Shostakovich trios stand out as the best of the best. These are NOT Schubert quartets. They are far more soulful, heart-wrenching, agonizing. The trios are accompanied by seven romances that consist of the piano trio plus a solo soprano, also well done, but doesn’t totally fit with the two trios on this disc. For the 20th century classic music aficionado, these are piano trios of that genre at their best, and a must-have.

Schubert Piano Trios

December 17th, 2010

Schubert Piano Trios, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio ?????

This is a most compelling set of piano trios and flawlessly performed by the Beaux Arts Trio. Schubert’s best knack is that of coming up with highly memorable tunes, developing them in complex fashions, and then delivering them in a most enjoyable fashion. These discs are very easy listening, and yet would not be identified as “elevator music” as creative genius exudes from each measure that is performed. Of all my music (of which there is much), this is one of my favorite sets for a relaxed encounter with the sublime.

Haydn Piano Trios

December 17th, 2010

Haydn Piano Trios, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio ?????

I’ll be reviewing the Haydn piano trios here, and the following two reviews will go over the Schubert and Shostakovich trios by the same group. All of the performances are superbly done,with a delicacy and interpretive style that conveys a richness to the pieces that are hard to not notice. The Haydn piano trios are a “must hear” set. This is a lengthy set as one would expect with Haydn, but gives an opportunity to see the progression of composition style of Haydn. The first trios of a young Haydn are attractive but slightly pedantic, with a sense of predictability, but the later trios truly reflect the genius of Haydn. It is possible that the interaction with Mozart, especially with the novel compositional style of the Mozart Haydn quartets, triggered the most delightful and mature Haydn to compose as he did. With the superlative performances of the Beaux Arts trio, this is a set that should be in every classical collection.

Kenneth Fuchs

December 5th, 2010

Fuchs: An American Place, etc., performed by London Symphony Orchestra ???

Kenneth Fuchs is a contemporary composer who teaches music at a college in the mid-west. Having a name roughly similar to my own, it piqued my curiosity. It was quite easy to listen to him, much against my expectations for a contemporary composer. Actually, it sounds like a merger between modern music and elevator music. This is not intended to be an insult but a compliment. There is nothing in these pieces that stood out as either bad or superlative. Fuchs has potential as a composer, and will keep an eye out for subsequent works from him.

Glass Violin Concerto

December 5th, 2010

Glass: Violin Concerto, etc., performed by Adele Anthony and Ulster Orchestra ????

Philip Glass creates a violin concerto and other works that do not seem to press the virtuosic abilities of the performer so much provide a minimalistic but not monotonous array of tones that enchant the hearer. I’m not a huge fan of minimalistic music, and would probably die at a Glass opera. This music lacks the intensity of a Wagner or Beethoven, or the cacophony of a late Schönberg. It is easy on the listener. The performance is very well done, and recording made with highest standards. This is a good buy for the budget price that one would find with most Naxos discs. It is to be commended to those who appreciate minimalistic music.

Rubinstein – Chopin

November 26th, 2010

The Chopin Collection, performed by Artur Rubinstein, on the RCA Victor Gold Seal label ???

This is a historic collection, and thus contains much disturbing recording noise to it, though in many of the tracks, it tends to be less apparent. There are now a number of Chopin collections, including the Biret and Ashkenazy collection, both of which are superb. I also have  other Chopin recordings by a potpourri of other performers, and the historic performer that is my favorite is Vladimir Horowitz. Artur Rubinstein (not related to Anton Rubinstein) was a Polish-America Jewish child prodigy, making his greatest claim in the interpretation of Chopin. His was a somewhat wanton life, living as a hedonist, though occasionally expressing moral approbation when his personal value system was affronted. While fighting “racism”, he arrogantly manifested himself as the greatest racist and intolerant to others not of his own thinking. Like Richard Wagner, his own personal life and character tends to distract from the personal genius of the man. This is an inexpensive set worth having for historical reasons, though better recordings are now available.

Ancient Empires Before Alexander

November 26th, 2010

Ancient Empires Before Alexander, by Robert Dise, from the Teaching Company ????

Many of my recent Teaching Company reviews have been less than favorable, but this series is an exception. Covering in this series is a discussion of the rise of the concept of empires, first noted historically by Sargon in Mesopotamia. Dise proceeds to then discuss the Ur kingdom, the Kassites, Hatti (the Hittites), Egypt, Minoan and Mycenaean empires, Israel, Assyria, neo-Babylon, Persia, and finally Carthage. Throughout, Dise remains informative as well as interesting. His discussions do not err as many in extrapolations of data, but instead gives a good review of our current knowledge of the various empires above. My most serious complaint is his treatment of Israel and use of the Biblical data. It is so often the case that while trying to maintain an air of objectivism and critical review of the sources of ancient literature, one fails to appreciate the differences in stylistic writing that would clue one into the credibility of the literature in question. Such is the case with the Biblical script, which should not come under doubt simply because it is also considered a religious genre. Other than that, it is nice to see that moderns did not invent the concept of empire, which existed from earliest written history. It is not a question of whether or not empires will exist, but rather, who will lead and control those empires. All empires have had the tendency to be expansionistic. Some empires desired expansion for economic reasons (Carthage), many for defense of borders, and some simply for the joy of lording over others. Power seems to remain throughout history a stronger driving force than wealth or any other characteristic in motivating empire. This series does a masterful job of helping one explore the concept of empire, and understanding those driving factors throughout mankind that drives for empire.

Saint-Saëns Choral Works

November 13th, 2010


Saint-Saëns; Oratorio de Noël performed by the Bachchor and Bachorchester Mainz ?????; Requiem and Psaume XVIII, by the L’Orchestre National D’Ile France ????

Both of these works are excellent, that oddly have not made it into the standard repertoire . The first piece, a Christmas oratorio, is superbly performed with sensitivity to the script. Neither piece has catchy tunes to titillate the senses or become the object of Hollywood movie moguls. Both have a sweetness to them that make listening easy. Saint-Saëns varies from simplicity to complexity in the pieces while avoiding the bombastic attacks of orchestra and choir as Händel and others might do. Both are high recommendations.

Liszt-Various Choral Works

November 6th, 2010

Liszt: Graner Messe, performed by Orchestra and Chorus-Paris/Sorbonne ?????
St. Stanislaw, Cincinnati May Festival ????
Missa Choralis and Via Crucis, by Corydon Singers ????
Requiem, performed by the Hungarian Army Male Chorus ???
Sacred Choral Music, Chorus of Radio Svizzera Lugano ????

Franz Liszt is mostly known for his piano music. During his lifetime, he underwent various phases. Starting first as a virtuoso performer of the piano, Liszt set new standards throughout the music world of what was expected of a solo music performer. Eventually, he would write more complex pieces for the piano than what was then existent in order to showcase his performance technique. Later in his life, he retreated to a monastery. Living most of his life as a European playboy and “rockstar”, it is a little bit unusual to get a large proliferation of sacred music from him. Yet, the quality of this music is variable but quite good. Of all the CDs reviewed briefly here, the Graner Messe was the best in both composition and performance, and St. Stanislaw close behind. The Corydon Singers do an orchestrated version of the Via Crucis, and quite capably performed. The other Via Crucis found on the last CD was quite anemic, and was the piano and male chorus version of the work. This Via Crucis was a bit anemic, the piano version being performed much better by the Netherlands Chamber Choir and found on the Philips label. The last piece, Liszt’s Requiem, was also performed somewhat marginally, and could have been more convincing in its presentation. Though I appreciate the choral works of Liszt, I find that his piano compositions are far more enjoyable and best demonstrate Liszt’s creativity.

More Shostakovich

November 4th, 2010

Shostakovich: Girlfriends, performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Tale of the Priest and His Worker, Balda, Songs and Waltzes, performed by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra with Thomas Sanderling ?????

As with my previous post, the review of these CDs reflect my horrid infatuation with the music of Shostakovich. All three of these CDs were budget, yet absolute marvelous specimens of music, impeccably and creatively performed, charming, enjoyable, and compelling. The Songs and Waltzes were particularly attractive, in definite competition with the best of the Johann Strauss waltzes. Shostakovich is not known well enough for his greatness. Much of the music on these CDs is totally accessible. They are not atonal pieces of cacophony so typical of much modern music, but reflect a creativity distinctive of 20th century music while not straining the ear of the listener, and very tuneful. Thus, my highest recommendations.

Shostakovich Film Music

November 3rd, 2010

Shostakovich: Odna, Hamlet, The Fall of Berlin, Suite from the Unforgettable Year 1919, performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra ?????

Those of you who know me well know that I am crazy about Shostakovich. He is, in my opinion, the greatest composer of the 20th century. These works are “pop” works of his, totally accessible, catchy, tonal, entirely tonic-dominant music. Yet, it is creative and possessing a clear brilliance. These are more collector pieces rather than something one would like to time and again. Some pieces, like the Fall of Red Hill in the Unforgettable Year 1919 suite, are absolute masterpieces of all time. The only regrets that I have while listening to these CDs is that the films are not themselves available with English subtitles (0f course). These CDs were purchased separately but were sold by Amazon.com as budget CDs, yet they are NOT budget music presentations.

Mendelssohn Chorwerke

November 3rd, 2010

Mendelssohn Chorwerke, performed by the Chamber Choir of Europe with Nicol Matt ?????

These choral works are entirely religious, and encompass the breadth of Mendelssohn’s career. Purchased from Amazon.com, they are a steal at less than $3/disc. Some are works that are quite popular, such as Hör mein Bitten, but performed better than more expensive recordings that I have purchased in the past. There was no piece in this set that was inferior, and the soloists were always in top form, not weak as is often heard with Mendelssohn performances. It is a pity that Mendelssohn is so seriously overlooked, especially among church choirs. It is also a pity that Nicol Matt is not better known, as he is a first-rate conductor. Perhaps works like this will draw more attention to Mendelssohn, and we will see more high quality performances of his work.

Cherubini String Quartets

November 3rd, 2010

Cherubini: The String Quartets, performed by the Melos Quartet ?????

Five stars should not suggest that these are my favorite quartets. For contemporaries, I certainly prefer the quartets of Beethoven or Schubert. Yet, these quartets have a delightful charm of their own, and worthy of highest recommendation. The Melos Quartet offers a very spirited interpretation, making it a joy to listen to each one of these six quartets. Cherubini is often forgotten, though one must remember that both Hayden and Beethoven praised with works. Anybody who listens attentively to these quartets will understand why Cherubini should stand among the great classical composers. Both the quartets as well as his religious choral works are charming, creative and enjoyable to listen to.

Schumann Secular Choral Works

October 29th, 2010

Schumann: The Secular Choral Works performed by Studio Vocale Karlsruhe ?????

A one time I never found much of interest in Schumann. Now that I’m re-listening to a number of his works, they are gaining a fascination. This album is no exception. The performances are charming and impeccable, very masterfully done. Each piece has its own delights, and provides for differing styles and types of works. This set is a budget set that consists of four CDs, and is a true bargain that will delight.

Vaughn Williams Sacred Choral Music

October 29th, 2010

Vaughn Williams Sacred Choral Music, performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge ??

These set of songs were adequately performed, but lacked brilliance and charm. It is typical of Vaughn Williams to have very predictable music, so that if one has heard one Vaughn Williams piece, you’ve heard them all. There is nothing about these choral pieces to excite the soul or transcend the realm of the ennui. I purchased this CD hoping to find in VW and British music some charm—but, British music, like British food, tends to be bland and uninteresting. The Brits have failed to produced good composers, outside of Purcell and the Beatles. The more I listen to VW, I realize that it is not a matter of missing something in the music that is subtle or complex, such as learning to appreciate the music of Wagner. The music of VW is just plain boring and uncreative.

Glass String Quartets

October 20th, 2010

Glass String Quartets, performed by the Carducci Quartet ????

I am not a big fan of Philip Glass, but these quartets were quite appealing to me. True, they possessed a minimalist aspect to them, with much repetitive structures. In opera, minimalism creates boredom. It does just the opposite in the string quartets, creating a relaxed, meditative atmosphere. Yet, Glass maintains enough character to the overall flow of the pieces to lend character and distinction to each movement and each quartet. This made listening a joy rather than a matter of endurance. These quartets are a “must hear” for anybody who enjoys the whole panoply of classic music.

Barber Piano Concerto

October 20th, 2010

Samuel Barber Piano Concerto, Prutsman, Royal Scottish National Orchestra ???

This and the next review focus on contemporary American composers. Samuel Barber is best known for Barber’s Adagio, popularized by Bernstein. This disc contains not only the Piano Concerto, but several other short works by Barber. The performance was technically adequate, but the pieces lacked an overall luster to them. Perhaps the performers didn’t have a chance? Barber seems to have a sense of non-direction to his music, being occasionally bombastic, occasionally quiet, but never leading anywhere. Fortunately, it was reasonably tonal and thus endured listening to. This is not exactly a disc that I’d encourage you to rush out and purchase.

La Fille du Regiment

October 19th, 2010

La Fille du Regiment, by Donizetti, starring Natalie Dessay ???

Donizetti was an extremely productive early 19th century Italian opera composer, though most of his works go unperformed at this time. His greatest works include this opera, as well as Lucia de Lammermoor, L’elixir d’Amore, Anna Bolena, and a few others. This is probably the poorest conceived of his better known operas, and best known with Joan Sutherland as the star daughter of the regiment. In this opera, Natalie Dessay is the star. Her vocal qualities do not compete with the excellence of Dame Joan, though her acting and overall operatic skills make her one of the better daughters to ever have filled this role. Thus, it was a delight and joy to watch. The staging was a cross between traditional and minimalist, and served as much as a distraction as a help to the overall flow of the opera. This is not one of my favorite operas. The music is not memorable, and the plot contrived. A baby girl (Marie) is picked up and raised by a French army regiment, but recovered by a rich Tyrolean couple who think that she is their long-lost daughter, and arrange a marriage for her though she is love with a Tyrolean Toni who she met in the regiment and who joined the French regiment in order to marry her. Eventually Tonio and Marie resolve the issues that hold them apart. Yawn! Ho-hum.

Ormandy

October 19th, 2010

Ormandy Collection ???

This is the last of the budget series that I’ll be reviewing, with the conducting of Eugene Ormandy. Eugene Ormandy was born in Hungary as Jeno Blau, being a prodigy that received a masters degree in music at age 14 before coming to the US. After a short stay as director of the Minnesota symphony, he moved and stayed for 40 years at the Philadelphia Philharmonic. Though his major mentor was Toscanini, his style and form are much different from this conductor. Ormandy excelled at modern works, and his renditions of Shönberg works were notable. Many of his works in this set were straight forward, though the recordings left something to be desired. His performance of Mahler’s second symphony was quite poor and left something to be desired. At least Ormandy never felt the urge to speed through a piece like Toscanini. It is without a doubt that Ormandy is one of the great US conductors of the 20th century, though this set would tend to betray Ormandy at his best. My advice would be to seek out Ormandy recordings, but not this set of recordings. There are better out there.

Furtwängler

October 15th, 2010

Wilhelm Furtwängler Collection ????

This is the second of three composer collections that I will be reviewing, the first being that of Arturo Toscanini. Furtwängler possesses far greater sensitivity in his conducting that Toscanini. Furtwängler was the director of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra during the second world war years, and was eventually replaced by Herbert von Karajan. It is without hesitation that I could remark on the greatness of Furtwängler as a conductor, in spite of his associations with Hitler and the Nazis. These recordings are quite variable, many of them having much record noise, but many being quite clean. For $17 it is hard to beat as a sampling of Furtwängler. The collection includes mostly classical and romantic composers, with a few non-German composers included.

The Clay Bird

October 12th, 2010

The Clay Bird, directed by Tarique Masud ??

This film is a quasi-historic depiction of life in Bangladesh just before the 1971 independence. It selects out a family whose father turns hard-line Muslim, sending his child off to Madrasa (Muslim education school), and depending on Allah during a child’s illness, leading to the death of his daughter and alienation from his wife. There wasn’t much of a plot– this is more a depiction of daily life and the struggles for faith and country that a typical Muslim household might have experienced in the pre-war years.The movie attempts a gentle and supportive rendering of the Islam faith, but instead shows it as a cruel uncaring religion before a merciless god. Sadly, most reviewers of this film on Amazon didn’t see it as such. The film has its strengths in showing regular life in Bangladesh, which is little changed since independence. Being a strict Muslim country, it still possesses much of the religious behavior that is shown in this film, though the intellectuals of the films were wiped out during the war with west Pakistan which I feel has led to an even more oppressive and depressive public ethos. The film ends in tragedy, which is exactly what a combination of hardline Muslim faith and war among Muslims will do. I enjoyed the film as being one of the first that was spoken mainly in Bengali, and I even was able to understand a few words.

Nordwand

October 10th, 2010

Nordwand (North Face) ?????

This movie is based on the true story of the attempt of the north face of the Eiger in 1936 by Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser. As of 1936, the north face of the Eiger had not yet been climbed, and pressure from the German regime to climb it before the Olympic games for Nazi propaganda was high. Two climbers from Bavaria were enticed, and this is their story. It is told mostly from the vantage point of Toni’s ex-girlfriend Luise, who is a photojournalist for the Berliner Zeitungen. The climb starts out marvelously, but disasters with an Austrian team pursuing close behind eventually lead to the death of all four members of the Bavarian and Austrian teams. Naturally, because they all perished, the exact story had to be surmised and fabricated in a good Hollywood fashion. Yet, it is presented in a compelling drama that keeps one on their seats for the entire movie. The attempted route of Kurz and Hinterstoisser becomes the route used by German climbers two years later to be the first to conquer the Nordwand. I love climbing films, and this film was exceptionally well done, with cinematography that was truly impressive. This is a wonderful, clean film that anybody could enjoy. It is in German with English subtitles.

Toscanini

October 9th, 2010

Toscanini, A collection of his works ??

It is typical that the first performance of any classical work that one hears, if well performed, tends to stick in ones mind, and defines for hearings of other performances a standard to measure up to. I grew up on Toscanini, and was told repeatedly that he was one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century. I remember sitting for hours, listening to nothing but Toscanini. In the case of Toscanini, the rule introduced at the beginning has not held true, and I have found much better recordings and performances of just about everything that Toscanini has to offer. This compendium of 10 CDs of his works confirms that statement. Toscanini tends to always be very sharp, bombastic, and unfeeling in his performances. Somehow, he seems to think that if a work is flawlessly performed in double the meter of any other conductor, it is better performed. Toscanini just has no feel as to the soul of any piece of classical music. There is nothing on this CD that I have not heard better performed by other conductors. Toscanini does a reasonable job with the American composers like Gershwin and Grofe, but destroys Wagner. I will be comparing two other conductor sets in this series, one with Furtwängler and the other with Ormandy. Furtwängler is not my favorite composer but is total delight to listen to, after having one’s ears abused with Toscanini. In addition, the recordings in this set are poorly cleaned up, and much of the record noise and tinny sound remains. They could have done better, though this set was only $17 for 10 CDs so it’s hard to complain too bitterly. The  good grace of this set is that it is very inexpensive, and does give one a proper feel for Toscanini.

Edition Bachakadamie Hänssler

October 9th, 2010

Edition Bachakademie Hänssler, mostly featuring Helmut Rilling ?????

This is now my second hearing of this set of 172 CDs, consisting of all the known works of Johann Sebastian Bach. There exist two other collections of his works, one put out by Brilliant Records, and the other by Teldec. I do not have the Teldec set, but will probably purchase it when it becomes available again. This set, costing about $1600 (I paid much less for it), is now being offered for $300 on Amazon.com, which should be a total steal. The Hänssler edition is the only collection that utilizes adults and modern instrumentation for the productions of all the cantatas and other choral works. The only exception, of course, is the boys choir in the Mätthaus Passion. There are better performances many of Bach’s cantatas. I feel that Karl Richter’s cantatas are superior in terms of feeling and expressive content, though Richter offers less than half of all of Bach’s cantatas. Rilling is a most capable conductor, offering the complete cantatas and other vocal works of Bach, with more compelling performances than any of the other complete collections. The Brilliant and Teldec sets oftentimes uses boy performers, which can easily become quite wearisome to the ears. Rilling, like Richter, avoids period instruments, thus giving a brilliance and charm to the works that other performances do not possess. Regarding using modern vs. original instrumentation, the keyboard works for harpsichord are variously performed in this set, occasionally with a piano, occasionally with a clavecin, and usually with a harpsichord. I appreciate harpsichord music, but, much dynamics of performance appear to be missing with a harpsichord. Even when a piano is used instead of a harpsichord, the performer usually tends to plays the piano in a fashion like I was taught, to make it sound like a harpsichord. This ends up in a rather mechanical sound, that might be imitated by a piano roll. Perhaps, this is why I really appreciate the Bach performances of Glen Gould, who breaks out of the mold of original instrument thinking, and allows Bach to speak in a new and fresh fashion. Sometimes, an unusual array of instruments are used, such as in the Wohltemperte Klavier, where the harpsichord, organ and Clavicin are all variously utilized. The keyboard works were quite variable, though most with quite convincing and compelling performances, even though a number were more routinely and mechanically driven. In total, this set is an amazing compendium of mostly top notch, well performed Bach. The cantatas are the selling point of this set, though that should not diminish the attractiveness of the rest of the works on the set, whether they be keyboard, violin or cello sonatas, or any of the other plenteous compositions of the greatest of all composers of all time. Any lover of Bach must have this set: it will be treasured for many hearings.

Les Contes d’Hoffman

October 1st, 2010

Les Contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman), by Jacques Offenbach, performed by Covent Garden, starring Placido Domingo ?????

Les Contes d’Hoffman is opera at its best, and this is a superlative performance of that opera. Domingo makes a perfect Hoffman. This performance utilized different opera stars for each of the women in Hoffman’s life, as well as a different “evil man” for each act. The story starts and ends in a tavern adjacent to an opera house, and Hoffman is led to tell the story of the lost loves in his life, all of which are based on short stories by ETA Hoffman. The first is Olympia, a young girl that Hoffman falls deeply in love with, only to discover that she is a mechanical doll. The next act, Hoffman falls in love with a courtesan in a harem, only to end up losing his shadow. The third is a young musician, told not to sing by her father, but encouraged to her death by Dr. Miracle. The music in each act of this opera, as well as the prologue and epilogue are unforgettable and often copied by later composers. This is one of the desert island operas that one would wish to watch many times over, and this is a wonderful performance of that wonderful opera.

Schumann Masterworks

September 29th, 2010

Schumann Masterworks: Multiple performers, produced by Deutsche Grammophon ?????

This is a wonderful mix of Schumann’s compositions, including his symphonies and other orchestral works, concertos, large choral works, songs, chamber music, and a rather comprehensive mix of his solo piano works. There are multiple performers, so that even in the piano works, you’ll hear a number of different pianists, including Pollini, Ashkenazy and others. Not all the works are the best of Schumann. As an example, Karajan does a much better job of the symphonies than does Gardner included in this set. The Lieder (songs) are very compelling, and offer a superb portrayal of Schumann at his best. Before my listening of Karajan’s rendering of the Schumann symphonies, I have never paid much attention to the works of Schumann as they have tended to be bland. Between Karajan, Kempff, and this set of Schumann Masterworks, life is brought into the Schumann compositions that has stirred my interest in this composer. This set contains 35 CDs and is well worth the price that one can find on the internet.

Schumann Piano Works

September 29th, 2010

Schumann Piano Works, by Wilhelm Kempff ?????

This is not a comprehensive collection of Schumann’s piano works, but rather an assembly of his most popular romantic works. Kempff performs flawlessly and with spirit, making them appealing. As with his Schubert performances, Kempff is one of the best interpreters of the early Romantic composers, and deserves a careful listening. This set consists of 4 CDs, and is usually sold quite reasonably through Amazon.com.

Avatar

September 29th, 2010

Avatar ??

This has to be one of worst films that I’ve seen in recent times. The only reason for two stars is that the graphics are incredibly well done.  The story is how a group of earthmen (mostly Marines and scientists) have need for a certain ore on a distant planet Pandora occupied by tall blue people called Navi. The earthmen have no regard for the environment of the planet, and run ripshod to tear up “sacred” landscape in order to obtain their ore. Eventually, the natives win out and are able to drive out the earthlings. So, what’s wrong with the film? 1. Character development: acting was poor. None of the characters in the film could be called admirable. Most were sullen, angry people (or Navi) bent on idolization of themselves. Sig. Weaver was a worn out hag. The Navi were angry, never happy, quite war-like and certainly not at peace even with themselves. The military marines and scientists were painted at thoughtless, brain-dead, clueless. The earth “traitors” that went over to the Navi side lacked any sort of insightful virtue. 2. Plot. This film has often been criticized for portraying developers and industrialists against environmentalists. That is too simple of an analysis. It one looks at the  Navi, they are essentially dressed with African animistic paraphernalia, and the thematic structure of their “religion” is essentially animistic and pantheistic, with the world “force” emanating out though every living being that is connected to the “mother”. Animism didn’t get the Africans and other primitive tribes too far, and fantasy films are now necessary to promote such religion of animism that is taking over America by storm. In total, this film make it for its graphics arts effects and not for its story, and so barely deserves two stars.

Claude Chabrol Collection

September 26th, 2010

Claude Chabrol Collection ????

Each of the films will be reviewed separately. Chabrol has a very distinctive style in his movies, and oftentimes uses his wife as the main female character. Many of his actors are repeat players, and it’s fun to meet different people playing differing roles.  All in all, the collection deserves four stars, though with its criticisms. These are very unlike American films! All the films are in French, with English subtitles optional. The speaking is usually not too difficult to follow in French, though the subtitles definitely help.

Juste avant la nuit ????

This is the story evolves around a central character Charles Masson secretly murdering his best friend’s wife after having an affair with her. Charles is riddled with guilt, initially telling his wife, and then his best friend, both offering acceptance and forgiveness. Regardless, Charles is unable to psychologically cope with this guilt, which ultimately leads to his ruin. The gist of the movie is the absence of an absolute morality, and that psychological internal factors are our judge. Chabrol is masterful at exploring the psychology of guilt in this movie, similar to that seen in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Though the movie starts with a brief episode of female nudity, the remainder is clean enough for general viewing, and would be a shame to refuse a good film thinking that the film was going to mostly be off-color.

La femme infidele  ????

This is a suspenseful story of a lawyer from Paris living in the countryside close to Versaille, who discovers that his wife is having an affair with somebody in town. He learns of his identify and then murders him. The police remain on the track of the murderer, who never solve the murder mystery. His wife does discover that he is probably the murderer but remains silent. Chabrol is skillful at holding suspense but never in an on-the-edge-of-your-seat fashion. Thus, the art of a slowly unfolding plot that never is obvious as to direction.

Le Boucher ????

The film starts at a wedding, at which the young but well-known butcher in town Popaul encounters the town head school mistress Helene and falls in love with her. Simultaneously, a series of brutal murders takes place. Slowly, Helene sorts out that it is Popaul who is committing the killings. Eventually, Popaul commits suicide. Though a simple plot, the story unveils in a Hitchcock style that holds suspense while typically leaving one unsure as to who-done-it. This is considered one of Chabrol’s best films.

Les Biches ???

This is an odd film, entertaining the mixing of complex though maladjusted characters. A rich woman Frederique encounters a street artist (Why) in Paris and falls in love. They go live in a villa in St. Tropez where a third person, a male architect is encountered, first falling in love with Why, and then soon after with Frederique. When the architect and Frederique decide to return to Paris without Why, Why murders Frederique. Chabrol artfully develops this dark drama, bringing in other characters, such as a gay male couple living at Frederique’s estate in St. Tropez. I rated this movie a 3-star, since Chabrol attempts profundity through what are essentially shallow characters. This is not one of his better films.

Les noces rouges ???

This film is a very strange story, though in many ways similar to the other Chabrol movies. Here, the wife of the mayor of a town is having an affair with the mayor’s chief assistant Pierre, who is having a terrible marriage of his own. Pierre eventually murders his wife, and then the mayor in order to allow their relationship to go unhindered. Yet, the mayor’s daughter detects what is happening, and turns mom into the police, causing both to be arrested. The movie is most interesting simply for the way Chabrol weaves the flow of the story line in a most unpredictable fashion.

Madame Bovary ???

Chabrol’s version of Madame Bovary, well acted, though Madame Bovary not exactly the seductive vixen that she is supposed to be. Otherwise, this is well acted and holds reasonably well to the story line of the novel.

Nada ????

Nada is the name of a revolutionary organization in France, which has just kidnapped the ambassador to the USA. Eventually the police discover the whereabouts of the group in a distant farmhouse, though use heavy handed means to corner the group, leading to the death of the principals of both the police and the terrorist group. As typical of Chabrol, the outcomes are not predictable, except that one can be assured that his films will never end with a happy end, this film included. Nada does hold ones attention for the unveiling of the plot as a police detective film.

Que la bête meure ?????

Known in English as “This Man Must Die”, this is probably my favorite film of the collection. It is a suspenseful thriller that starts with a young boy being killed in a hit-and-run accident. The boy’s father Charles slowly weaves out clues that lead to the killer, who is an influential businessman in Northern France. The killer has a most repugnant character, and all who know him wish for him to be dead. Thus, the complexity of sorting out the murderer in the end, when the killer is found dead by poisoning. Chabrol does excellent character development and flow of action in this film, with the usual French characteristic of most films of leaving the films’ conclusion not entirely certain and thus to the imagination, but definitely not a happy end.

The Secret Labyrinth

September 24th, 2010

A Secret Labyrinth, with the Huelgas Ensemble conducted by Paul Van Nevel ????

This compendium of early music (medieval and renaissance) was a pleasant surprise. Carrying a quite inexpensive price tag, the performances are flawlessly executed, yet with enough spirit to make them quite enjoyable. This is a mixture of sacred and secular pieces, and a broad spectrum of composers.  It is distinctly early music, being polyphonic yet without the compositional characteristics of music for the modern ear. This album is a delight, and medieval music at its best.

Peter Grimes

September 12th, 2010

Peter Grimes, by Benjamin Britten, starring Peter Pears, conducted by Britten, made for t.v. ?

This is an opera that has been recorded for DVD at least 5-6 times, and usually gets a 5-star rating. This performance by the composer himself has the highest reviews of all. Yet, both Betsy and I sat entirely bewildered for at least 2 hrs. and 15 minutes. This piece did not appear to have any remarkable creativity at all. It is exactly the sing-songy type speech one would make if one chose to satirize an opera. The story line also was entirely incoherent. It was quite obvious that Britten wished to make strong anti-Christian statements, but did so quite poorly, the story line showing hypocritical Christian leaders condemning Peter Grimes, and not showing sympathy for him. Yet, it was Peter Grimes that was money-grubbing, resulting in driving a child to death at the beginning of the opera and then the end of the opera again. No wonder the “Christian” folk were upset! Britten was a flagrant homosexual, and his lover was Peter Pears, thus, he wrote many pieces supposedly for Peter Pears. Perhaps his utilization of a boy-servant for Peter Grimes was not quite appropriate in such a setting. All in all, this work had no consistency for music, there were no musical episodes that one could call great composed music, the plot was horrible, and if a statement was attempted to be made, it was made quite poorly. This is an opera that I would never waste my time watching again. Don’t waste your time.

Der Fliegende Holländer

September 9th, 2010

Der Fliegende Holländer, by Richard Wagner, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, starring Donald McIntyre as der fliegende Holländer, and Catarina Ligendza as Senta ?????

This opera production has received mixed reviews with Amazon.com, being that it was a filmed version and not a staged version of the opera, and that there were short deletions in the full performance of the opera. I can appreciate criticisms regarding deletions, but not on objection to the opera being filmed in life-like circumstances. I consider the opposite of film versions, to be minimalist opera, which seems to be exactly fly in the face as to why composers wrote operas rather than oratorios–because they expected the staging/scenery to contribute to the statement of the opera. To change the scene from what the composer wrote is (in my not so humble) opinion similar to changing the musical script itself. Meanwhile, back to this opera. First, the musical performance was superb. Both McIntyre and Ligendza have superb voices, and the supporting vocalists were all first class. The live scenery was more effective at conveying the opera story than a staged version would have ever done. Of the two things that have made opera accessible to modern populaces, undertitles (supratitles at the opera) and filmed versions have been the most effective at spreading the appeal of opera to normal folk. I would certainly like to see more productions like this, especially with the Wagner operas, such as Tannhäuser or der Meistersinger. While playing this opera, I asked Betsy to guess the composer, and she was quite surprised to learn that it was Wagner. She had thought that Wagner did not write melodious opera that could appeal to all. This opera, and this production in particular, is a wonderful way to begin entry into the world of Wagner, before tackling his more mature works.

The Fugitive

September 9th, 2010

The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones  ?????

This is Harrison Ford at his best, filmed mostly in Chicago. It is a suspenseful thriller, Harrison Ford playing the role of a vascular surgeon, Dr. Richard Kimble, falsely sentenced to death for murdering his wife. He manages to escape while being hauled to prison, and then weaves a tale of running from the detectives, while sorting out the identity of the actual killer of his wife. There were a few unbelievable sections, such as when he survives a leap into the spill-out of a dam, and the solitary persistence of the detectives on pursuing Dr. Kimble, with Dr. Kimble remaining only a few steps ahead of them, both parties seeming to know exactly where the other party was going. Even so, it makes a great story and thrilling plot. Mostly, I enjoyed seeing Chicago again. I left Cook County Hospital in 1990, and this was filmed in 1993. Clearly, the insides were not completely Cook County Hospital, but there were recognizable characters, such as Dr. Roxanne (Rocky) Roberts, who was several years ahead of me in residency and stayed on staff in the trauma unit. As an aside, I was glad to hear that they are NOT going to tear down the old County Hospital, but leave it standing for other purposes.

Beethoven Violin Concerto

September 9th, 2010

Beethoven Violin Concerto; with von Karajan and Anne-Sophie Mutter ???

It is uncharacteristic of me to give Karajan only three stars since he is my favorite conductor of the twentieth century. Even this piece was impeccably conducted and beats other performances for its interpretation. I found several things annoying about the recording. Camera work was often bizarre and not typical for filmed orchestral performances. The recording often left the solo violinist too quiet to adequately hear. Since this was recorded close to the end of Karajan’s career, there is a sense of the absence of his prior dynamism.Oddly, he had his eyes open more than is typical for him conducting orchestras. Mutter’s only expression of enjoyment was the last two seconds of the recording on completion of the piece. Regardless, she performed the virtuoso sections of the concerto without flaw and expressively. This is a performance perhaps best listened to and not watched.

Sadko

September 7th, 2010