Now that we’re well into the era of correct performance of Baroque music, it seems that there’s a new recording of Handel’s Messiah every year that vies for top position. And there have been some very good ones, led by Paul McCreesh, Anders Orhwall, William Christie, and Rene Jacobs, not to mention earlier pioneering efforts by Sir Charles Mackerras (a personal favorite), Richard Bonynge, Christopher Hogwood, and Sir Colin Davis. But this year’s live performance by Peter Dijkstra, the Chorus of the Bavarian Radio, and the B’Rock Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent goes right to top to ring the silver bell. Ding dong, five golden stars.
The soloists are all splendid – Julia Doyle, soprano; Lawrence Zazzo, counter tenor; Steve Davislim, tenor; and Neal Davies, bass. It’s the strongest roster, and certainly the most even, of any Messiah recording. The chorus is as good as you could hope to hear this side of heaven, and the instrumentalists do a lot more than “just accompany.” Tying everything together is conductor Dijkstra, who makes this the most convincing Messiah ever. Each soloist, every chorus member, every instrumental player seems aware of the words in such a way that the drama of the story of Christ is conveyed as scarcely before. Mackerras made an effort in this direction but his chorus was simply not as good as this one. Every single word is important to Dijkstra and his forces and though one is always aware of the genius of Handel, one also realizes that writer-editor Charles Jennnens, choosing words largely from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, also played a big part in the oratorio’s success.
The recorded sound, though taken at a live performance, is as ideal as the performance itself. Everything is clean and clear and has good presence and ideal balance. One presumes that there must have been thunderous applause at the end of this event, but it has been edited out from the recording where it might prove an intrusion on repeated hearing. And it’s for sure that this magnificent effort will receive many repeated hearings here. Messiah is often thought of as a Christmas work, but it is much an Easter and a universal one. If you get any money for Christmas, buy this recording and it will reward you ten fold.
I love movies that make me think or that deal with some social condition or the human spirit, but let’s face it – once in a while I just want to see an action adventure movie that thrills and entertains in doing so. This past week I was lucky to see two really good ones. Spectre at my local Regal theater and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation in the comfort of my home on the 65″ screen. Spectre might be the best James Bond movie yet, and I’ll talk about it when it’s available to view at home. Mission…is available on a dandy Blu-ray disc that gets four stars easy.
Once again Tom Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt, the indefatigable agent who always gets the job done, no matter the obstacle. Simon Pegg is back on board as his often humorous sidekick, Benji Dunn, as is Jeremy Renner as the head of Hunt’s elite squad. This time, that elite squad has been squelched by the CIA (led by a snarky Alan Baldwin), and the guys are on their own in trying to discover if The Syndicate, a collection of rogue agents, really exists, and if so, to annihilate it. Matters are complicated by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) a gorgeous and athletic agent who may or may not be playing them. There are car chases, motorcycle chases, shoot outs, and a tense underwater sequence. The pacing is breathless but there are enough resting places that one can catch his breath before the action starts again. In short, the pacing is perfect, the acting is perfect, the plot is engaging, and the mystery never lets up until the final twist. The Blu-ray disc has a drop-dead-gorgeous image and the sound is full bodied and has lots of presence. For once the balance between dialogue and lease breaking sound is perfect. Too many movies these days drop the dialogue way down and the effects way up so you’re faced with the dilemma of having to be blown out of your house by the effects just to hear the script. Not so with Mission..it serves as a model of how it should be done. There are lots of extras, by the way, that explain how some of the stunts were done and enhance the viewing experience. Four stars and maybe a half more – don’t miss it.
Regular readers will know that I absolutely hate it when producers too cheap to buy good sets or directors with too much imagination on their hands have go at opera. The latest travesty is a production of Puccini’s Turandot from Bergenzer Festpiel. In this horror, we suddenly see Puccini as a character on a small set with a bed and piano, adjacent to the enormous set for the opera. Puccini jumps over and becomes the opera’s hero, Calaf. Totally wrongheaded and tenor Riccardo Massi doesn’t do well singing or acting the roles.
How comforting, then, to come across Unitel’s Blu-ray disc of a Dresden production of Weber’s ghostly opera “Der Freischuetz.” It is set solidly in the early 19th century, the huntsmen even carrying guns that look correct for the period. And we know right from the
overture (which is performed by the orchestra in the pit, no uncalled for visuals on the stage) that conductor Christian Theilemann has the dramatic score in his blood. The singers are all good but it is two secondary roles that steal the show, Christina Landshamer as Annchen and Georg Zeppenfeld as Kaspar, the cursed huntsman who has sold his soul to the devil and wishes to pass the curse on to the hero, Max (Michael Koenig). The famous Act II Wolf’s Glen scene, in which Max and Kaspar cast magic bullets with the devil’s help, is really dark and spooky. In the ensuing Act III Kaspar gets the tables turned on him when Max fires the devil’s bullet (number 7) at his love Agathe (Sara Jakubiak), thinking she is a dove. Instead of Agathe, Kaspar falls mortally wounded.
The Dresden Staatskapple orchestra is brilliant throughout with special praise due to the splendid horn section. The sets are dark and forbidding and the costumes subdued as they should be for such a dark and mysterious work. The staging is flawless and the video filming is close to perfect. The camera shots are always right on the mark to keep the story clear and logically flowing. The DTS-HD 24bit/48kHz sound had excellent presence and clarity. This is video opera done right!
The universe of Marvel Comics is generally large, no make that gigantic. You have a collection of super heroes with superpowers and villains that seem virtually unstoppable. The Avengers have destroyed part of New York City and other parts of our earth as well. How could a tiny hero from Marvel’s “B” series compete. Very well, thank you. What Ant-Man lacks in size and power, it makes up in charm, levity, and ingenuity.
A lot of that feeling has to do with Paul Rudd, one of the most affable actors in Hollywood. Rudd plays a just released con with principles who is stalked and hired by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, in great comic adventure form) to wear a suit that will shrink him in size so he can steal and destroy the only other suit (Yellowjacket) from villain Darren Cross (A deliciously evil Corey Stoll). Cross plans on selling the suit to HYDRA, which as we know from other Marvel movies and particularly from TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is bent on world domination and destruction. The lengthy exposition is breezy and the last third special effects are awesome. The Blu-ray disc looks and sounds like a million bucks. You’ll enjoy it on a regular set up but if you have a home theater with surround sound, you’ll be knocked into orbit. Very enlightening and entertaining extras showing how it was all done. Two codes, two, so watch all the credits. “Ant-Man will return” it says. I can’t wait.
Here are three additional choral releases for the holidays that will make your season a little brighter.
First up is Stile Antico’s lovely and spiritual A Wondrous Mystery – Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas. There’s no other word to describe this album adequately except to note that it’s sounds are simply divine. The 12-voice singing group has been together some time now and made a specialty of singing unaccompanied choral music. Their attacks and intonation are so perfect they seem to respond as one, not a dozen. It’ s a pure and effortless, if occasionally antiseptic sound that perfectly suits the music here – motets and anthems by Johannes Eccard, Hans Leo Hassler, and Michael Praetorious.
Praetorius (1560-1629) is the only composer featured on Christmas Vespers, an album from Cleveland’s early music ensemble Apollo’s Fire, singing here augmented by The Oberlin Choristers, The Children’s Chorus of St. Paul’s Church, and The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra. Much of Praetorius’ music was written for multiple antiphonal choirs and these were greatly varied, you might find one piece for chorus and two instrumental choirs or another for soloists, chorus, and one instrumental choir. On this album, music director Jeanette Sorrell comes up with wonderful combinations, that keep the music colorful and varied. The singing is not quite as polished as that of Stile Antico but it is more enthusiastic and appealing. One quibble, would that this multi ensemble effort had been issued in surround sound.
Yulefest! with the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge conducted by Stephen Layton brings us back to unaccompanied choral music but quite a different sound from that of Stile Antico. For one, the repertory is more modern than that of A Wondrous Mystery. Secular and religious songs are mixed almost at random so that you have “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” followed by “E’en so, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come.” And there’s a very odd and thoughtful arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” that has echoes of Vaughan Williams in it! The singing is glorious, warm and virtuoso. Due to the different nature of the compositions, you’ll either swear that you’re hearing the best collegiate chorale ever assembled or one of the best cathedral choirs.
The sound on all three discs is state of the art with good presence, definition, and warmth on all. If I could only buy one, I’d pick Apollo’s Fire, but all are worthy of serious consideration.