Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some Favorites of 2007

Music. I heard so much wonderful live music in 2007, beginning with The Sixteen at Tewkesbury Abbey in March in a concert featuring sixteenth-century music from the Sistine Chapel. The high point of the concert was a performance of Allegri's famous Miserere, with the high C's provided by the young Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas. Her debut solo disc, Eternal Light, was one of the recorded highlights of the year. She has a beautiful, clear, pure voice. I recently compared her recording of Handel's "Eternal Source of Light Divine" with Kathleen Battle's lovely recording with Wynton Marsalis from the early 1990s. Battle's voice is beautiful, but darker and heavier, more operatic. I prefer Thomas's silvery voice, filled with more light than darkness. If the disc has one flaw, it's that the second half is a bit too heavy on slow, sad selections, including two lachrimose pieces by Dowland and Purcell's "When I am Laid in Earth," from Dido and Aeneas. But the last selection, "Pur ti miro" from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppaea (a duet with countertenor Robin Blaze), is breathtaking. Unfortunately, the disc is only available in the U.S. as an expensive ($35) U.K. import.

Another favorite disc of 2007 was Po' Girl's Home to You, featuring the wonderful vocals of Allison Russell. Treat yourself and check out some of her songs on Myspace. I'm looking forward to her next project, the debut CD by Sofia, the duo she formed with fellow Po' Girl Awna Teixeira.

Reading. It would be impossible to choose my one favorite book of 2007. But my favorite overall reading experience was probably that of reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner That Held Them in the tiny back garden of our English house in the midst of the most beautiful spring I've ever experienced. The novel, published in 1948, is about life in a fourteenth-century convent in Norfolk—about politics, plagues, and personalities as well as about the spiritual lives of the nuns. In a season in which I visited the ruins of the great medieval monasteries at Rievaulx and Whitby (pictured on the book cover), Warner's novel brought those places alive for me. Sylvia Townsend Warner is a marvelous writer. If you haven't read any of her novels, treat yourself and pick up a copy of Lolly Willowes, which is probably her most widely-available novel (and was the first-ever selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1926). Warner is a kind of fantasy writer for grown-ups (she was also the biographer of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King). There's an element of fantasy and otherworldliness in much of her work, but the worlds she creates—her fictional fourteenth century, the imaginary tropical island of Mr. Fortune's Maggot, the fairy world in Kingdoms of Elfin—become thoroughly real to the reader.

Other books I loved in 2007 (not previously mentioned in this blog) were Elizabeth Kostova's smart blend of bibliophilia, travelogue, and vampires, The Historian; Marghanita Laski's satire, both biting and elegiac, of the post-war decay of the British class system, The Village; and Karen Lystra's almost novelistic study of Mark Twain's last years, Dangerous Intimacy.

TV. On the BBC, Planet Earth and Dr. Who. David Tennant's Tenth Doctor is brilliant, and his latest companion, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), is the hottest. One much-anticipated television event of 2007, the ITV "Jane Austen Season," failed to live up to the hype. Two of the new adaptations were mediocre (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey), and one was awful (Mansfield Park, starring Dr. Who's erstwhile companion, the woefully miscast Billy Piper). You can judge for yourself when Masterpiece Theater airs the three ITV efforts as part of "The Complete Jane Austen" in 2008.

Theater. Shakespeare's History Plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The experience of seeing all three parts of Henry VI in less than twenty-four hours was revelatory and amazing. One of the great theater experiences of my life. The stage became an entire world, and the history of that world unfolded before my eyes in all of its brutality, poetry, and splendor. At the same time, Shakespeare seemed to mature as a playwright before my eyes, until he became the master magician of the English language who produced the incomparable poetry of Richard II.

Ale. There was so much superb ale to be drunk in England, but the pint I remember with the most fondness was Cameron's Creamy, from Cameron's Brewery in Hartlepool, as drunk at the friendly Poacher's Barn pub in Osgodby, Yorkshire.

Blog Post. How could I resist including among my favorites a blog post about me?


Mary Schier said...

Oh, Rob. I was so looking forward to seeing the new Persuasion and Mansfield Park on Masterpiece Theater this winter. Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel and I love the Amanda Root version, and the online previews for the new version look pretty good...well, perhaps I'll like it better than you. In the meantime, I'll check out something by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Happy New Year!

Rob Hardy said...

Mary: Persuasion was the best of the three, mostly on the strength of Sally Hawkins' performance as Anne, although most of the hard-core Janeites I know prefer Amanda Root. But tonight (December 30), Masterpiece Theater is showing the costume-drama highlight of our year in England: the fine new version of Jane Eyre.

Anonymous said...

I just picked up a copy of After the Death of Don Juan by Sylvia Townsend Warner, so I suppose I shall have to shift it nearer the top of the TBR pile now ;)

Happy New Year, cheers!

Christopher Tassava said...

I'm glad you liked the post! I couldn't help myself. Ruining good songs is one of my favorite activities.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .