Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Best Piano Quintets

Of the various combinations of the piano with strings, the piano quintet has the greatest sonority and orchestra-like qualities - although, as this is chamber music, all players perform as soloists. The piano quintet was quite  popular in the 19th and 20th centuries and many great works have been written for this form of chamber music. I am a great fan of chamber music and especially of the piano quintet.

Although Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven already wrote important piano trios in the 18th century, the piano quintet was a bit slower in coming into being. That being said, already in the time of Mozart it was quite common to play piano concertos as home music in the form of a piano quintet (piano plus string quartet), and that custom continued well into the 19th century - also Chopin's piano concertos, for example, were additionally published in adaptations for piano quintet. After all, the only way to hear music in the age before there were recordings, was to play it yourself, if necessary adapted as home music.

The first original piano quintets (for piano and string quartet) were written by Boccherini at the very end of the 18th century and he must in my opinion stand as the genre's "inventor" (although mistakenly not generally recognized as such). He wrote 12 original piano quintets (two sets of six) in 1797 and 1799, where the piano and strings compete in an equal contest. Although Boccherini lived in far-away Madrid, as his quintets were published in Paris, they certainly didn't go unnoticed. It is true that he had several precursors, such as Giordani who in 1771 and 1772 published two sets of six piano quintets in London, or Vanhal who in 1784 published three piano quintets, but these works all have an  "archaic" character, as the strings are mainly used to fill in the harmony as in the in the 18th century so popular "accompanied sonata" - the voices are not yet independent. That Boccherini wrote the first real the piano quintets is not so strange, for he was a great experimenter who tried out many innovative instrumentations in his countless chamber works. And as a cello player he had a natural tendency to give more independence to the lower strings.

A further piano quintet on a rather large scale for this same instrumentation was written in 1803 by Louis Ferdinand, Prince of Prussia and a promising pupil of Beethoven and very original composer in his own right (unfortunately, the prince was killed in 1806 at a young age in the Napoleonic wars).

Parallel to these developments, a different type of piano quintet also came into being in 1799 when the Czech composer Dussek wrote the first piano quintet in the so-called "Trout instrumentation," i.e. violin, alto, cello and double bass, named after Schubert's famous piano quintet for this combination (Dussek's quintet was published in 1803). This instrumentation remained popular in the 19th c. and we have for example quintets by Hummel (1802), Ries (1817), Schubert (1819), Limmer (1830-1835), Farrenc (two quintets from 1840), Onslow (1846) and Goetz (1874) for this combination.

Schumann's piano quintet of 1842 is generally seen as a breakthrough, not only because it was a very influential work, but also because he again paired the piano with a string quartet as Boccherini and Louis Ferdinand had done (and of course others - there is, for example, a piano quintet for piano and string quartet dating from 1826 by the in Paris active Anton Reicha). Schumann's quintet had so much success (it is arguably one of the best works he ever wrote) that he has even been credited with the creation of the genre. As we have seen above, that was not true, but the artistry and high seriousness of the Schumann quintet were a quantum leap forward for the whole genre. Schumann's quintet was followed by Berwald (1853), Gouvy (1861), Brahms (1864), Franck (1879), Dvorak (1887) and many others, and the "Trout instrumentation" gradually died out. As we will see, the piano quintet remained very popular in the first three decades of the twentieth century, especially among French composers (for much of the 19th c., France used to an opera country where symphonic and chamber music was not popular, but this changed in the 1870s, when a new generation of composers started composing focusedly in these very genres).

Here is my list of best piano quintets - this time I have also included works by famous composers, for after all we are talking about the rare genre of chamber music, so even such major works are not really "world famous" and deserve some boost.

1. Luigi Boccherini, Piano Quintet No 3 in E Minor G. 415 Op. 57 (1799)
The Italian composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) had in 1761 settled in Madrid where he served at the court of the Infante Don Luis. After the death of his sponsor in 1785, Boccherini - whose fame was already of an international nature - was named court composer in absentio by Friedrich Willem II, the King of Prussia, but this patron died in 1797. This led to a flurry of compositions as Boccherini had to supplement his income. In that year, Boccherini wrote his first set of piano quintets which were published by Pleyel in Paris as Op. 56. The fervid experimenter Boccherini had created a new genre! In 1799, he wrote another set of piano quintets, Op. 57, which he dedicated to the "French nation and Republic" and sent to the French Ambassador in Madrid. These quintets are more elaborate than Op. 56 and also incorporate thematic references to France. The Quintet in E Minor is in five parts. It starts with an Andante lento assai which is full of dynamic leaps and features a second theme in the manner of a funeral march. This is followed by a graceful Minuetto (without trio)  and with no break follows the Provensal, an dance-like Allegro vivo that contains the most explicit reference to France. It is structured in the form of a Rondo with variations. The next Andante forms a sort of agitated recitative, and this leads to the fifth part of the quintet, which is a new reprisal of the Provensal and thus concludes the quintet. A very inventive and characteristic work, fully worthy of being one of the first piano quintets ever written.
Recording listened to: Zagreb String Quartet with Riccardo Caramella, piano, on Nuovo Era (with Piano Quintets Op. 57 Nos. 1 & 2).

2. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Piano Quintet in E Flat Minor, Op 87 ("Trout Instrumentation," 1802)
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was a child prodigy and pupil and housemate of Mozart. From 1788 Hummel spent four years concertizing throughout Germany, Holland and England. After returning to Vienna in 1792, he studied composition with Albrechtsberger, Salieri and Haydn. Hummel became Haydn's successor in Eisenstadt and later served as music director at the courts of Stuttgart and Weimar. Hummel apparently wrote the present Piano Quintet already in 1802, but only had it published in 1822, three years after Schubert's Trout Quintet. The main theme of the opening movement has a martial character. The movement is in very free sonata form, the second theme does not appear until after a mock "development." The Minuetto is a mixture of animation with melancholy. In contrast, the Finale is full of lighthearted merriment and leads to a brilliant close. A masterpiece that deserves to be better known, like all Hummel's music. Hummel was an important and direct link between Mozart and the Romantic period.
Recording listened to: Sestetto Classico on MDG (with Grand Sextuor by Bettini).

3. Ferdinand Ries, Piano Quintet in B Minor, Op. 74 ("Trout Instrumentation," 1817)
Ferdinand Ries (1784-1837) was Beethoven's most gifted pupil, and a fine composer and virtuoso pianist in his own right - again a composer who is today unjustly forgotten. Ries showed musical promise from an early age, before concertizing throughout Europe for a number of years. After that, he settled down in London and in his later years retired to Frankfurt. He wrote symphonies, piano concertos, but also a vast corpus of instrumental and chamber music. The present Quintet was written in London and performed with Ries at the piano. After a slow lamento introduction, containing some Hungarian elements, follows an exciting Allegro con brio in which one bravura passage for the piano follows the other, leaving little space for the strings. Here we have the admired piano virtuoso Ries in full force. The song-like Larghetto opens with a beautiful cello solo. The brilliant and dramatic Rondo finale follows without a pause - it is the most exciting part of the Quintet and again contains a brilliant piano part, although there is also a calm interlude that evokes a sort of medieval atmosphere.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt on CPO (with Grand Sextuor and Sextet by Ries)

4. Franz Schubert, Piano Quintet "The Trout" ("Trout Instrumentation," 1819)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote his famous Trout Quintet for domestic music-making in the household of one of his sponsors, a rich amateur cellist called Sylvester Paumgartner, but the work was only published in 1829, after Schubert's early death. Paumgartner's house was located in Steyr, in lovely rural surroundings, and that may have contributed to the relaxed and warm atmosphere of the quintet. The work has the character of a serenade, also through the use of the double bass, which as we saw may go back to Dussek's quintet from 1799, Hummel's from 1802 (although that last one was only published in 1822) or Ries' from only two years previous. The expansive first movement makes play with the natural contrast between the percussive features of the piano and the polished qualities of the strings. The second theme has much spaciousness. This is followed by an ornamented Andante and an agile Scherzo. Next comes a set of variations on the theme of a song, "The Trout" by Schubert, that was very popular with the Paumgartners. The genteel variations are around the melody rather than on it, as it is played over and over without concealment. The bubbling accompaniment to the original Trout song returns in full force at the end of the set of variations. The quintet concludes with an Allegro giusto, full of good humor.
Recording listened to: Members of the Hagen Quartet with Andreas Schiff, piano, and Alois Posch, double bass, on Decca.

5. Louise Farrenc, Piano Quintet No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 30 ("Trout Instrumentation," 1840)
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) was a virtuoso pianist and composer who had received lessons from Moscheles, Hummel and Reicha. In 1842 she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory, a position she held for thirty years. She composed in the first place for the piano, but also wrote chamber music and three symphonies. Her husband Aristide Farrenc established one of France's leading music publishing houses, the Éditions Farrenc, and also published her music. Louise Farrenc wrote two Piano Quintets, both the work of an accomplished‚ highly inventive composer. Both works have four movements following the classical forms and key schemes, but they are also characterized by a colorful harmony with a romantic sweep. The piano is the leader of the ensemble‚ sometimes even in a virtuoso way, for example in the opening Allegro of the First Quintet. The slow movement of that quintet has a dreamlike, Schumannesque opening theme in the high register of the cello. The following Scherzo is high-spirited and memorable. The finale concludes with a buoyant theme.
Recording listened to: Linos Ensemble on CPO (with Piano Quintet No 2).

6. Robert Schumann, Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44 (1842)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) began his career chiefly as a composer for the piano, and it was only in the 1840s that he tried his hand at orchestral music (including a piano concerto) and chamber music. In fact, prior to 1842, Schumann had published no chamber music at all, but in this year alone he would compose three string quartets, a piano quintet, a piano quartet, and the Phantasiestücke for piano trio. In writing his Piano Quintet Schumann may have been inspired by Schubert's second Piano Trio in E Flat major, as there some structural resemblances. The reason he opted for a string quartet next to the piano instead of continuing to write a piano quintet with double bass as had become customary in the early 19th century, was probably due to the cultural prestige the string quartet had achieved by this time as the most prestigious chamber ensemble, as well as the increased dynamic range of the piano which made a double bass unnecessary. The work was dedicated to his wife Clara, a renowned pianist, but she was ill during the first performance and Mendelssohn had to step in and sight-read the difficult piano part. The opening Allegro brilliante is characterized by two contrasting themes, an energetic, upward leaping theme, and a meltingly romantic second theme. The second movement is a funeral march, like in Schubert's trio mentioned above, but also reminiscent of the funeral march in Beethoven's Third Symphony (both are in C Minor). The theme is used in Bergman's film Fanny and Alexander. The third movement is a lively Scherzo with two trios and the final Allegro ma non troppo ends by combining its main theme with that of the first movement in a double fugue.
Recording listened to: Artis Quartett with Stefan Vladar, piano, on Sony Classics (with the Piano Quintet by Brahms).

7. Louis Théodore Gouvy, Piano Quintet Op 24 (1861)
Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898) was born in the border region between Germany and France and shared both cultures. Educated at the conservatoire in Paris, he spent most of his working life in Germany as there was little interest in symphonic music and chamber music in "opera-crazy" France. But Gouvy's music is characterized by French spirit and suavity, rather than German heaviness. The Piano Quintet starts with a joyous and dynamic Allegro giocoso. It is characterized by a continuous eight-note pattern that keeps moving things along at fast speed. The first theme is utterly charming and the second theme in the cello is sweet and warm. The slow movement is a Larghetto mosso, a sort of berceuse with an intriguing dream atmosphere. The third and last movement provides a brilliant conclusion in the form of a Rondo with a stirring refrain. This is a quintet chock-full of lovely and captivating melodies.
Recording listened to: The Denis Clavier Quartet with Dimitris Saroglou, piano, on K617 (with art songs and string quartet).

8. Johannes Brahms, Piano Quintet in F Minor Op. 34 (1864)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) advanced the compositional ethic of the great Classical composers into the late-Romantic era and was one of the most influential German / Austrian composers, until will into the twentieth century. Brahms was enthusiastically promoted by Schumann and he remained a life-long friend of Schumann's wife Clara after that composer's death. Clara Schumann also played a role in the long and difficult gestation of the present piano quintet. Brahms had originally written it as a string quintet in 1862, but the famous violinist Joseph Joachim judged it too difficult and lacking in tonal appeal. Brahms then reworked it into a Sonata for Two Pianos and sent it to Clara, who answered that it was too full of orchestral richness to play as a sonata. That finally inspired Brahms to combine the piano and strings into the present piano quintet. The outer movements are more adventurous than usual in terms of harmony. The first movement starts with a strong unisono by all instruments, a sort of dramatic, theatrical phrase. The tempestuous and tragic movement is in tightly packed sonata form. The second movement is a tender Andante, the third one of Brahms' most electrifying Scherzos. The groping introduction to the finale, with its rising figure in semitones, is remarkable in its modernity. The body of the movement, in fast tempo, is a hybrid of rondo and sonata forms with a Gypsy flavor, but without losing the basically tragic tenor of this great quintet.
Recording listened to: Artis Quartett with Stefan Vladar, piano, on Sony Classics (with the Piano Quintet by Schumann).

9. Giovanni Sgambati,  Piano Quintet No. 2 in B flat Major, Op. 5 (1867)
Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914) was born in Rome, to an Italian father and an English mother, and worked as conductor, pianist and composer in that city. One of the rare symphonists in Italy that was even more "opera-crazy" than France, he was supported by Liszt, whose works he frequently performed. Sgambati's most famous composition is probably his Requiem, but he also wrote instrumental music, symphonies, a piano concerto and chamber music. He wrote his Second Piano Quintet shortly after he completed his successful first. The opening movement is launched by a viola phrase against an tonally advanced accompaniment, which was a few decades ahead of its time. The movement with its flexible sonata form encompasses many moods, even that of a cafe-serenade. The second movement is a Barcarolle on a truly haunting theme. The finale, Allegro vivace, is a full of excitement and good spirits. This is an original quintet brimming over with lovely melodies and unusual rhythmic effects.
Recording listened to: Ex Novo Quartet with Francesco Caramiello, piano, on ASV (with string quartet Op. 17).

10. Franz Lachner, Piano Quintet No 2 in A Minor Op 145 (1869)
Franz Lachner (1803-1890) was born into a musical family (also his brother Ignaz was a well-known composer) and trained in Munich. He served as Kapellmeister in Mannheim and Munich. Franz Lachner was a prolific and famous composer, influenced by Beethoven and especially Schubert whose close friend he was in his youth, but also one who has fallen inexplicably out of the repertoire (or perhaps not so inexplicable: Wagner consciously worked to damage the reputation of the conservative Lachner, as he wanted the sponsorship of the Bavarian King for his own music). His Second Piano Quintet became instantly popular after its publication in 1871. Despite the date in the late Romantic period, the music reminds us that Lachner was a child of the late Classical and early Romantic era. The first movement is an unusual "sonata rondo." The main theme with is double content of latent power and lyricism is first presented on the piano before the strings join in. This lovely music is dark rather than tragic. In the ensuing Adagio non troppo the strings state the beautiful first subject. This movement has an almost Italian feeling. In contrast, the Minuetto has a more Bavarian flavor. The middle section includes an enchanting song for the cello. The finale is a genuine Rondo. The first theme scintillates in the virtuoso piano like a wild race, while the second theme is brought forth cantabile in perfect string quartet fashion. The quintet closes with a whirlwind coda.
Recording listened to: Orchester-Akademie des Berliner Philharmonisches Orchesters on Thorofon (with Nonet by Lachner).

11. César Franck, Piano Quintet in F minor (1879)
César Franck (1822-1890) was born in Liège, Belgium, but he studied and worked all his life in Paris. He was influenced by Bach and Beethoven, but also by Liszt. Besides his orchestral works and organ pieces, Franck was also an important composer of chamber music. His Piano Quintet is generally considered as one of his chief achievements, although it also has been criticized for its "torrid emotional power." The music has a cyclical character whereby a motto theme of two four-bar phrases, used 18 times in the first movement, recurs at strategic points later in the quintet. The first movement opens with a drammatico introduction and the ensuing music could not be more passionate and rich in dynamic contrast. It was rumored that the passion of the quintet (which in contrast to other works by Franck has nothing religious about it) was inspired by Franck's love affair with his pupil Augusta Holmès. The second movement, Lento, offers some respite and consolation. The finale, Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco, is again filled with raw passionate intensity. The cyclic theme also returns, giving unity to the whole composition. The darkness of expression of this melancholy quintet has certain elements in common with the brooding, unsettled post-Romantic music of Schoenberg and Scriabin. It was too much for some of Franck's contemporaries: Saint-Saëns, to whom it was dedicated and who played the piano at the first performance, demonstratively left the score on the piano after the concert and seems to have discouraged its further performances. Today it is considered as one of the best piano quintets ever written.
Recording listened to: Ensemble César Franck on Koch Schwann.

12. Antonín Dvořák, Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 (1887).
The Czech nationalistic composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) was active in all genres, from the symphony to opera and large-scale choral works, but he also wrote more than 30 chamber music works. His Second Piano Quintet belongs to the top of the canon and is a good fusion of Czech elements with an international musical language. It is a sunny quintet and the first movement possesses a particularly exuberant mood. The Romantic content with its impetuous interchanges of major and minor, emotion-laden harmonic modulations, organically related themes and protracted melodic lyricism is firmly lodged in the framework of a Classical sonata form. The Andante con moto is a Dumka in Slavic folk style, switching between melancholy and exuberance. Each time the Dumka melody returns its texture is further enriched. This movement adheres to the Classical Rondo form. The dazzling Scherzo has been modeled on a Bohemian Furiant with vital and springing rhythms. The Finale: Allegro keeps an unchanging pace throughout, despite the torrents of counterpoint, even fugue. It is in sonata-rondo form and comes to a close with a burst of brilliant energy.
Recording listened to: Emerson String Quartet with Menahem Pressler, piano, on Deutsche Gramophon (with Piano Quartet by Dvorak).

13. Ludwig Thuille, Piano Quintet No 2 in E Flat Major Op 20 (1901)
Ludwig Thuille (1861-1907) studied with Rheinberger in Munich where he himself became a teacher, of - among others - Ernest Bloch, Paul von Klenau and Walter Braunfels. He was a lifelong friend of Richard Strauss. Although he also composed symphonic works and opera, he concentrated on chamber music. The Piano Quintet No 2 has been called his greatest chamber achievement - its counterpoint and harmonic complexity are particularly skillful. The first sonata-form movement has a true symphonic sweep. This is followed by a passionate Adagio with desperate climaxes. The third movement is a sort of Ländler, but a rather aggressive one, to which the celestial trio forms a great contrast. The breathless Finale opens with a piano cadenza and culminates in the chorale-like melody from the second movement. A work of formal mastery and full of dramatic contrasts, that deserves to be heard more often.
Recording listened to: Gigli Quartet with Gianluca Luisi, piano, on Naxos (with Sextet).

14. Théodore Dubois, Quintet in F Major for violin, oboe, viola cello and piano (1905)
Théodore Dubois (1837-1924) studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Ambroise Thomas. Dubois was an important organist and also director of the Conservatoire. He composed mainly religious music, but also symphonies, concerts and chamber music. He also wrote important theoretical works on harmony and counterpoint. Although somewhat academic, his melodious and inventive music is unjustly forgotten, as will be clear from the present Quintet. With the addition of an oboe, the work has a rather unusual instrumentation, although the oboe can also be replaced by a second violin to have the traditional piano quintet ensemble. However, the work's interest lies very particularly in the way Dubois combines the timbre of the oboe with the string instruments. He favors the lower register of the oboe and has it project its tone over the ensemble in thematic passages. The first movement is joyful and optimistic. It is followed by an elegant Canzonetta. In the Adagio an expressive and emotional theme is contrasted with more objective material. The work concludes with a sparkling Allegro con fuoco. In accord with the cyclical tradition of the time, the principal themes of the previous movements return at the end of the work.
Recording listened to: Trio Hochelaga with Jean-Luc Plourde, alto, and Philippe Magnan, oboe, on ATMA Classique (with Piano Quartet by Dubois).

15. Gabriel Fauré, Piano Quintet No 1 in D Minor Op 89 (1906)
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) is the French master of chamber music, but also vocal music (a famous Requiem) and orchestral pieces, a pupil of Camille Saint-Saëns and later director of the Paris Conservatoire. Fauré wrote in a musical idiom all his own that was always fresh. The First Piano Quintet had a long gestation period, almost 20 years. The first movement is characterized by an austere and enigmatic mood: the opening theme is heard beneath a spray of piano arpeggios. This movement is an example of Fauré at his best, the parts intricately and seemingly effortlessly woven together into characteristic textures. It also has a song-like character. The Adagio has a basic binary structure and starts with the first violin floating above a descending cello line and the lyrical piano part. The finale features a strange archaic dance that keeps haunting the imagination long after the music has subsided. Fauré's music is unmistakably French with a strong kinship to both the urbane Romanticism of Franck and the cool sensuality of Debussy. He responded to the quasi-orchestral opportunities offered by the piano quintet with a wealth of inventiveness and melodic and harmonic inspiration. In 1921 Fauré published a second Piano Quintet that became even more famous than the present one.
Recording listened to: Domus with Anthony Marwood, violin, on Hyperion (with Piano Quintet No 2 by Fauré).

16. Adolphe Biarent, Piano Quintet in B minor (1913-14)
Adolphe Biarent (1871-1916) was born in Charleroi in Belgium and studied at the conservatories of Brussels and Ghent before becoming a music teacher in his hometown. As he died young and didn't work in one of the main European musical centers, he remained almost totally unknown, but has written some interesting music that was inspired by César Franck, especially the 1879 Quintet and Violin Sonata. The Piano Quintet is an dense and restless work, full of unsettledness and unease due to the constant tonal modulation. The first movement seems to have absorbed the usual second, slow movement. It is music that moves through various adventurous sections before arriving at a radiant B major. The tormented, central Intemezzo starts with an ominous piano figure. The powerful Finale is again an instrumental strife of light against dark. An intense and absorbing work.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Danel with Diane Andersen, piano, on Cypres (with cello Sonata). 

17. Louis Vierne, Piano Quintet in C Minor Op. 42 (1918)
Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was a French organist (student of Widor) and composer, who had a rather tragic life. From his birth, he was almost blind and he used Braille to compose. In WWI, he lost a brother and a son on the battle field. He died at the console of the organ of the Notre-Dame, when during an organ concert he suffered a stroke. Vierne mainly wrote organ music, but also chamber works and a symphony. The Piano Quintet was written as a musical votive offering in memory of the death in battle of his son Jacques. It is powerful music of vast proportions, but also with much tenderness. Vierne seems to have poured all his despair and anguish into the work. The first movement is opened by a short introduction played essentially on the piano, after which two very intense main themes grow in sublime sentiment, until ending in serenity. In the ensuing Larghetto the viola plays a sorrowful melody and tension lurks beneath the apparent calm. The finale alternates fugal sections with scherzo-like blasts of anger. It is a violent movement inspired by a sort of somber heroism, ending on powerful C Minor chords. A tragic, but dignified work.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Atheneum Tacchino with Gabriel Tacchino, piano, on Disques Pierre Verany (with String Quartet by Vierne).

18. Edward Elgar, Piano Quintet in A Minor Op 84 (1919)
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is today one of the best known English composers. He was a violinist and organist; as composer he was self-taught. In Victorian and Edwardian England, he was an outsider both socially (as a Roman Catholic from a poor family) and musically (his musical influences were from continental Europe). Elgar is known for his large-scale oratorios and orchestral music, but he also left a fine body of more intimate chamber music. The Piano Quintet was written in 1918, when Elgar spent a peaceful summer in a cottage in Sussex. The first movement has been called "ghostly music," starting in a magical way by confronting a slow piano theme reflecting the plainsong "Salve Regina" with insistent stabbing strings. The second subject is a Spanish-sounding, languorous dance. The slow movement banishes all specters and spins on in an expansive and reassured way, a center of romantic stillness. But in the finale, which starts vigorously enough, the specters gradually return, undermining confidence, until blown away by the recapitulation of the handsome first theme. The quintet has been linked to a legend about some sinister, twisted trees standing near the cottage where Elgar stayed during composition: these were associated with a legend about Spanish monks struck by lightning while performing a blasphemous dance. An ambitious and expansive work.
Recording listened to: Coull String Quartet with Allan Schiller, piano, on ASV (with Piano Quintet in D Minor by Bridge).

19. Reynaldo Hahn, Piano Quintet in F Sharp Minor (1921)
Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) was born in Venezuela from a German-Jewish father and a Venezuelan mother of Spanish-Basque origin. Hahn’s family moved to Paris when he was three and he studied at the Conservatory under Massenet. The flamboyant Hahn drew his friends from a wide cultural circle and was, for example, a life-long friend (and one-time lover) of the famous writer Marcel Proust. Hahn was especially famous for his art songs on texts by Hugo and Verlaine. He also left an interesting body of chamber music, of which the piano quintet (although today forgotten) was the most popular item during his lifetime. It starts with a big-boned and dramatic movement, Molto agitato e con fuoco, brilliant and impressive music that deserves to be better known. This is followed by a pensive Andante, with the sun only briefly shining through the clouds. The final Allegretto grazioso is elegant and genteel, almost like a piece of Rococo music. In this quintet we are miles away from the Groupe des Six - instead, the work seems a continuation of the Belle Epoque, nourished by Classicism, but also full of elusive regret.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Parisii with Alexandre Tharaud, piano, on Naive (with two string quartets by Hahn, all world premiere recordings).

20. Jean Cras, Piano Quintet (1922)
Jean Cras (1879-1932) was a 20th-century French composer and career naval officer, rising to the rank of Rear Admiral. He was born in Brest (Brittany) and in his music was inspired both by his native area as well as his sea voyages and travels to Africa. Initially self-taught, in 1899 Cras had the opportunity to study with Henri Duparc. The Piano Quintet (which also exists in a version where one violin is replaced by the flute and the piano by the harp) was composed while at sea and shows this inspiration in the short program notes Cras wrote for it. The first movement is clear and joyous, "the intoxication of breathing pure sea air." There is a vaguely jazzy quality to it. The calm second movement represents the "intense poetry" of an evening in Africa. The animated third movement is a sort of scherzo, representing "the rich musical intensity of an Arab town." It contains a clear oriental chant. The vigorous and triumphant finale represents the return voyage, "liberated by the open space from the petty things of life." Romantic and impressionistic at the same time, this is wonderful music. Cras himself regarded chamber music as his forte, a "refined musical form that for me has become the most essential."
Recording listened to: Quatuor Louvigny with Alain Jacquon, piano, on Timpani (with String Quartet by Cras).

21. Ernest Bloch, Piano Quintet No. 1 (1923)
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) was a Swiss-born American composer. Bloch studied at the conservatory of Brussels. In 1916 he moved to the United States, working in Cleveland and San Francisco, until finally becoming a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. His First Piano Quintet, one of his greatest achievements, was written in Cleveland in 1923. The first movement seems dictated by obstinate forces bursting with energy. Material in a grim tone brought in a somber whirl of the strings is contrasted with more reflective and meditative passages. To accentuate color in the chromatic glissandi even quarter tones are used. Although there is no program, the first motif seems based on a tune that for Bloch represented "revolt against arbitrary authority." This is followed by a dreamy, mystic and fantastic Andante. It is haunted music about "magical islands in the Pacific." The finale, Allegro energico, is full of barbaric frenzy, as of a wild joy, but interspersed with a quivering, mysterious meditation. We can hear bird calls, again in quarter tones. A majestic section of symphonic power then leads to a calm epilogue with a viola melody of liberating relaxation. One of the most dramatic chamber pieces ever written, a work of exceptional mastery.
Recording listened to: The Kocian Quartet with Ivan Klansky, piano, on Praga Digitals (with Piano Quintet No. 2).

22. Franz Schmidt, Piano Quintet in G Major (1926)
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was born in Pressburg (now Bratislava) from Hungarian parents. He studied with Fuchs and Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory. For many years he played the cello in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra under Gustav Mahler. In 1914 he became Professor of the piano at the Vienna Conservatory. Schmidt wrote in a late-Romantic idiom based on the Viennese classical tradition, and left four symphonies, two operas, an oratorio and a small body of fine chamber music. The Piano Quintet was written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in WWI. The quintet has an unmistakable Viennese flavor. The concentrated first movement is followed by a lovely, good-natured Ländler. The third, slow movement also contains a bubbling dance and the Finale is in Rondo-form.
Recording listened to: The Vienna Philharmonia Quintet on Decca (with String Quintet by Bruckner).

23. Julius Röntgen: Piano Quintet in A minor op. 100 (1927)
German-born, Leipzig-educated Julius Röntgen was a crucial figure in the music life of his adopted city Amsterdam from 1878 to 1932. Röntgen composed more than 650 works, many of which survive only in manuscript; there is an overwhelming number of chamber works, including 14 piano trios, 16 string trios, over 20 string quartets, and three piano quintets - these works were often written to be played by Röntgen himself with musician friends (including Pablo Casals) and his family members. The first movement, Andante, of the present piano quintet starts with a soaring melody that is checked by a characteristic, persistent seesawing figure, that creates an apprehensive atmosphere. The melting sequences give the music an unforgettable character. Although there are echoes of Brahms in Röntgen's music, this is very different from conventional Romanticism as expectations are constantly undermined in a modern fashion. The second movement is a motoric Allegro. This is followed by a Lento after which the finale in the end brings us back to the opening theme of the first movement in a questing atmosphere. A sophisticated case of thematic integration.
Recording listened to: Arc Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Canada) on RCA Red Seal (with other chamber music by Röntgen under the overall title "Right Through the Bone" an allusion to that other, more famous Röntgen).

24. Dmitri Shostakovich, Piano Quintet in G Minor Op. 57 (1940)
Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was one of the most important of 20th-century composers and much of his chamber music displays his genius at its highest level. His 1940 Piano Quintet is widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of its genre. It was premiered at the Moscow Conservatory by the Beethoven Quartet with Shostakovich at the piano. According to reports of his playing, the composer played with restraint, emphasizing the motoric elements and excluding  any emotional exaggeration. The work has five movements. After a Prelude led by an improvisatory flourish from the piano follows a long Adagio in the form of a four-voiced Fugue. It begins on muted strings and is played like an utterance from which all emotion has been drained. This is followed by a garish, whirlwind Scherzo, as we also know from Shostakovich' symphonies. The next movement is an unhurried Intermezzo, basically consisting of a single line of music over a gently walking bass. In the genial Allegretto finale previous ideas are recalled until the smiling music ends almost too gently on G major. This is a work of great emotional power and unusual purity, one of the best quintets ever written.
Recording listened to: The Borodin Trio with Mimi Zweig (violin) and Jerry Horner (viola) on Chandos (with Piano Trio No. 2).

25. Nikolai Medtner, Piano Quintet in C Major Op. Posth. (1949)
Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), a younger contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, studied at the Moscow Conservatory, among others under Taneyev. With the help of Rachmaninoff, Medtner left the Soviet Union in 1924; after a sojourn in Canada and the U.S., he finally settled down in England. Although he was an excellent pianist, he choose for a career as a composer. His works include piano sonatas, three piano concertos and chamber works. The Piano Quintet was published after the composer's death. Medtner considered it the ultimate summary of his musical life and worked on it throughout his life. It has an unusual structure, starting with a broad introduction on an epic theme. Then follows a section which reminds one of the Dies Irae. In contrast, the Maestoso section introduces a theme of hope. The second movement is characterized by a tragic but beautiful melody, rooted in music of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Finale forms a synthesis which sums up the whole work. It is written in very complicated sonata form and also demonstrates the mastery of counterpoint by Medtner. The coda brings a hymn that is full of light and joy.
Recording listened to: Dmitri Alexeev, piano, with the New Budapest Quartet on Hyperion (with Piano Concerto No. 1).
[Incorporates some information from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
Classical Music Index

Friday, September 25, 2015

Best Flute Concertos

The transverse flute (side-blown, in contrast to the recorder) is one of the oldest and most widely used wind instruments. In the Middle Ages (1000-1400) the transverse flute arrived in Germany and France from Asia via the Byzantine Empire. In this period, however, the recorder was by far more popular. In the late 15th c. the flute was taken up by military bands in Europe and in the late 16th c. transverse flutes began to be used in court and theatre music. In the 17th c. flutes also began appearing in chamber ensembles. Flutes in this period varied greatly in size and range. During the Baroque period, the transverse flute was redesigned. It was made in three or four joints with a conical bore from the head joint down. The conical bore design gave the instrument a wider range and a more penetrating sound, without sacrificing the softer, expressive qualities of the instrument. In addition to chamber music, the traverso began to be used in orchestral music, from opera and ballet to concertos. Although the flute became popular as a solo instrument, there were few professional flutists - often oboists acted also as flute players. In 1707, Jacques Martin Hotteterre wrote the first method book on playing the flute, followed by a famous exposition on the flute method by Johann Joachim Quantz in 1752.

Throughout the rest of the century the interest in flutes increased, peaking in the beginning of the 19th century. This interest also led to the acceptance of flutes in the symphony orchestra. Theobald Boehm began flute making - among other changes, adding keys to the flute. But with the Romantic era, flutes begin to lose favor (except as an instrument for home music) - there are almost no flute concertos written in the later 19th century. The instrument became again more popular in the early 20th century, for example among Impressionistic composers as Debussy. But although the flute was used more prominently in orchestral music, flute concertos remained rare even in the 20th century. The period during which most flute concertos were written was squarely the 18th century, from the Late Baroque to the Classical period.

1. Georg Philipp Telemann, Concerto for Transverse Flute, Strings and Basso Continuo in D Major, TWV 51:D2 (ca. 1716-1725).
It was in Telemann's concertos that, among other instruments, the new transverse flute - soon to be made fashionable by the galant style - first broke free of the soft-spoken confines of chamber music and proved itself capable of dominating an orchestra as solo instrument. Although conforming to the pattern of the Italian church sonata with its four movements in two pairs of slow-fast-slow-fast, Telemann drew on a wide variety of traditions and influences, with a strong whiff of France mixed in. But Telemann was above all a strong experimenter, both in what he asked from his solo instruments, as in his mixing of the colors of the orchestral palette. He eschews the Italian three-movement model of fast-slow-fast, and adheres to the German layout of four movements: slow-fast-slow-fast. The present concerto is fast-paced and allows the soloist ample scope.
Recording listened to: Wilbert Hazelzet, flute, with Musica Antiqua Koln directed by Reinhard Goebel (on authentic instruments) on Archiv (with five Telemann concertos for other wind instruments).

2. Leonardo Leo, Concerto for flute no 2 in G Major (probably after 1725).
Leonardo Leo (1694-1744) was a Neapolitan composer in the first place famous for his operas and sacred music, but he has also left an interesting body of instrumental works. As a graduate of the Naples conservatory, his style was founded on a mastery of counterpoint, but in his flute concertos he writes first and for all in the galant style. In early 17th c. Naples, flute music was popular in the mansions of the aristocracy and the city produced many virtuosi as well (often doubling on the flute and oboe). One factor in the popularity of the flute may have been the brief visit Johann Joachim Quantz (see below) made to Naples in 1725. Leo's second concerto starts with a solemn introduction marked "spacious in the French manner," adopting a stately dotted-rhythm after the style of a French overture. The Adagio boasts a highly expressive theme, consisting of a dialogue between flute and solo violin. The finale is delightfully fresh and dance-like. Leo's concerto is typical of the music of Naples, a city where composers were committed to making artifice and difficulty appear natural and simple.
Recording listened to: Enrico di Felice with L'Apotheose on Stradivarius (with other Neapolitan flute concertos).

3. Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in C Major for Two Flutes, RV 533 (probably 1730s).
Despite the fame of his 6 concertos Opus 10, published in Amsterdam in 1728, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was not a frequent composer for the flute. The two most famous concertos of Op 10, "Storm at Sea" and "The Night" were almost certainly written for the recorder. In fact, the orphanage-conservatoire for girls in Venice where Vivaldi worked, only acquired its first flute teacher, Ignazio Silber, in 1728, so relatively late in Vivaldi's career; and Vivaldi's first known use of the flute occurs in his opera Orlando from 1727. So his RV 533 that I have selected here, must be a late concerto. The fast-paced opening movement has an infectious energy. The slow movement is characterized by gentle simplicity and in the finale the energy returns with the flutes playing a sprightly melody against a rhythmically punchy bass-line. Interesting is the way Vivaldi handles the two flute parts: (1) in dialogue with minimal overlap of phrases, (2) imitating one another, (3) one instrument providing an accompaniment for the other and (4) both playing in parallel thirds or sixths. Vivaldi constantly interchanges these modes to achieve variety.
Recording listened to: Vivaldi Concertos by The Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood (on authentic instruments) on L'Oiseau-Lyre (with other Vivaldi concertos).

4. Michel Blavet, Flute Concerto in A minor (1745). 
Michel Blavet (1700-68) was the foremost French flute virtuoso in the first half of the 18th c. He had an exciting and brilliant style of playing which was very different from the languorous manner previously dominant on the flute, for example in the works of Hotteterre. Blavet played in the Concert Spirituel and later in the Musique du Roi and at the opera. He also played quartets with Telemann when that composer visited Paris and became friendly with Quantz as well. He later turned down a post at Frederick the Great's court despite the high pay offered him. Blavet's compositions show an Italian influence. For the flute he composed twelve sonatas, six duos and concertos as well as arrangements for teaching. The first and last movement of the present concerto are in Italian style, the middle movement is a pair of French gavottes.
Recording listened to: Andreas Kröper, flute, and the Concertino Notturno Prague (on authentic instruments) on Campion (with concertos by Frederick the Great and Wendling).

5. Johann Joachim Quantz, Concerto for Flute in G Major (QV 5:174, No. 161 (1740-1750).
Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) was a German flutist and composer. He composed 200 flute sonatas and 300 flute concertos, and wrote an important and exhaustive treatise on flute performance (1752). From 1728 he taught King Frederick II of Prussia, an eminent flutist, and moved to the court in Berlin in 1741 after Frederick became King of Prussia. In Berlin, Quantz' duties revolved around the king's private evening concerts, where the repertoire consisted for a large part of works by Quantz and Frederick himself. The Berlin style was characterized by an exceptionally refined use of dynamics and articulation. The heart of the present concerto, one of the best known by Quantz, is the magnificent slow movement, clearly demonstrating the originality and inventiveness of the composer.
Recording listened to: Benedek Csalog, baroque flute, and Aura Musicale directed by Balazs Mate (on authentic instruments) on Hungaroton (with three more flute concertos by Quantz).

6. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Flute Concerto in D Minor, Wq 22 (possibly around 1747).
Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the second (surviving) son of J.S. Bach and is known for his expressive and often turbulent "empfindsamer Stil" or "sensitive style." It is a mannered galant style in which the principles of rhetoric and drama were applied to musical structures. C.P.E. Bach, who was one of the foremost clavier players of Europe (he wrote a famous book on music theory and ethics in 1753), was from 1738 to 1768 in the employment of Frederick the Great in Berlin; from 1768 to 1788 he worked as successor to Telemann as music director in Hamburg. But C.P.E. Bach was not very popular at the Berlin court (proud of his university education, he was frequently seen in intellectual circles and made no concessions in his compositions to make them easier to play for the king) - his salary was only a fraction of that of Quantz or Graun. The first movement of the present concerto, which also exists in a harpsichord version, shows the influence of J.S. Bach, especially in the orchestral introduction. In contrast, the third movement has real Strum und Drang characteristics. Bach has the flute perform a true dialogue with the orchestra, providing a link to the Classical solo concerto.
Recording listened to: Machiko Takahashi with the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra conducted by Roland Kieft on Brilliant Classics.

7. Frederick the Great (Frederick II, King of Prussia), Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major (possibly 1750s or later)
The German monarch Frederick the Great (1712-1786) was a patron of music as well as a gifted player of the transverse flute and composer. His compositions include 121 flute sonatas and 4 concertos modeled on the works of Johann Joachim Quantz, the German flutist and composer who became one of Frederick's court musicians and who wrote many flute sonatas and concertos for his royal patron. Besides Quantz, the king's court musicians also included C. P. E. Bach (who was the king's accompanist on the harpsichord and who also wrote flute concertos for him), Carl Heinrich Graun and Franz Benda. A meeting with Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747 in Potsdam led to Bach's writing The Musical Offering. Frederick's palace, Sans Souci near Potsdam, became a focus of high-quality music making. King Frederick's own compositions possess a gentle charm, as is especially evident from the Cantabile movement of the present concerto. The concerto is a fusion of early-Classical galant and Italian late-Baroque styles and the fast movements consist of an alternation of tutti ritornellos and solo episodes. It is conservative in keeping strictly to the rules laid down in Quantz' treatise on the flute from 1752, but the second movement shows more individuality.
Recording listened to: Andreas Kröper, flute, and the Concertino Notturno Prague (on authentic instruments) on Campion (with concertos by Frederick the Great and Wendling).

8. Franz Xavier Richter, Flute Concerto in E Minor (probably between 1747 and 1768).
Franz Xavier Richter (1709-89) was an Austro-Moravian violinist and composer, who spent most of his life first in Austria and later in Mannheim and in Strasbourg. Although of an older generation, he belonged to the so-called Mannheim School, known for its pioneering orchestral technique, developed together with the excellent Mannheim court orchestra. Richter did not write in the Storm-and-stress style of his colleagues, but the basic feature of his music was a soft-toned meditativeness, often with a hint of melancholy. His music is always well-balanced. The present flute concerto is a typical example of the transitional forms of the Mannheim composers between the Baroque and Viennese Classicism. It is still based on the traditional ritornello technique of the concerto grosso, but also introduces a new element of orchestral thematic design in its sequences of contrasting motifs - a step towards the thematic dualism of the classical sonata form. Another harbinger of the future is the tripartite design of the outer movements, which would become the sequence of exposition, development and recapitulation of the classical style.
Recording listened to: Robert Dohn with the Slovak Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bohdan Warchal on CPO (with other wind concertos by Richter). 

9. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Concerto in G for Flute and Orchestra, K 313 (1777)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) wrote this concerto after receiving a commission to compose three flute concertos and a pair of flute quartets from Ferdinand Dejean, a surgeon with the Dutch East India Company. Mozart met Dejean in Mannheim in October 1777 and was to receive 200 guilders for the works. In the end, however, he didn't complete the commission - he only wrote one original concerto and one quartet (besides reworking the oboe concerto he wrote the previous year for the flute) and received less than half the promised sum. The most substantial fruit of that commission is the present flute concerto, a long and difficult work that starts with a movement of great breath (maestoso) and fine writing for the flute. The Adagio ma non troppo has been called the soul of the concerto, with a melting melodic line that is one of the jewels of Mozart's early maturity. The concerto concludes with a decorous minuet in rondo form.
Recording listened to: Liza Beznosiuk, flute, and The Academy of Ancient Music directed by Christopher Hogwood (on authentic instruments) on L'Oiseau-Lyre.

10. Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Flute Concerto No 24 in D Major (1795).
Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812) was not only a prolific composer, but also a significant music publisher for Mozart and Beethoven. Born in southern Germany, Hoffmeister had come to Vienna to study law, but soon switched to music and by the 1780s had become one of the city's most popular composers. Prominent in Hoffmeister’s extensive oeuvre are works for the flute, including more than 25 concertos as well as chamber works. These works were composed with Vienna’s growing number of amateur musicians in mind, for whom the flute was one of the most favored instruments. The present concerto has a radiant and march-like character, also thanks to the use of trumpets and timpani in the orchestra. It starts with a graceful main theme. The first movement has symphonic dimensions and also calls for virtuosity from the orchestra, for example in the use of a "Mannheim crescendo." Hoffmeister used an alla polacca texture in the slow movement, with the usual strong accent on the downbeat of each bar. The final rondo is full of festive splendor, spotlighting the soloist's virtuosity.
Recording listened to: Bruno Meier, flute, with the Prague Chamber Orchestra on Naxos.

11. Friedrich Witt, Flute Concerto in G Major (1806)
Friedrich Witt (1770–1836) was a German composer who worked most of his life as Kapellmeister for the Prince of Würzburg. He was famous for his operas and the oratorio Der leidende Heiland, but also wrote symphonies, concertos and chamber music. His Symphony in C Major, the Jena, was once wrongly attributed to his exact contemporary Beethoven, with whom (as well as with the later Haydn) Witt shares certain characteristics of the period style. Witt's Flute Concerto is a work that demands considerable virtuosity from the soloist. The substantial orchestra includes trumpets and timpani, and the concerto starts in grand style with an orchestral introduction. After that, the solo flute introduces an elaborate first subject, leading to a second theme and other material offering every chance for technical display. The second movement is a lovely Adagio cantabile, and the concluding Rondo has a lively principal theme.
Recording listened to: Patrick Gallois with the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä on Naxos (with two symphonies by Witt).

12. Saverio Mercadante, Flute Concerto in E Minor No. 2 (1814)
Saverio Mercadante (1895-1870) was an Italian opera composer whose 60 operas today stand rather in the shadow of his contemporaries Donizetti and Bellini, although he was admired by Verdi as groundbreaking composer. Besides operas, Mercadante also wrote sacred music and concertos and chamber music featuring the flute. These last works date from the years 1814 to 1820 and were inspired by fellow conservatoire students and their virtuoso teachers. There are in all seven flute concertos; the one in E Minor (No. 2) is probably the most popular one and includes a sizable orchestra. The concerto is permeated with a rich bel canto lyricism, as if the flute were a singer in one of Mercadante's operas. At the same time, the concerto is a showpiece for the agility of the soloist and the possibilities of the flute. It starts with an Allegro maestoso, very demanding in virtuoso terms, after which follows a breathing space in the short Adagio. The finale is a Rondo russo: Alla giusto and this is indeed a bright and lovely dance with a Russian flavor, a favorite piece among flutists and the highlight of the present concerto.
Recording listened to: Patrick Gallois with the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä on Naxos (with flute concertos No 1 and No 4).

13. Alessandro Rolla, Concerto in D Major for Flute and Orchestra (probably around 1830)
Allessandro Rolla (1757-1841) worked for most of his life in Milan as violin and viola virtuoso, conductor, teacher and composer. In 1808 he became professor at the new Conservatoire of Music in Milan. He is known as the teacher of Paganini, but also left a considerable body of 500 compositions, which were published by music houses all over Europe. The flute concerto is a fine example of an instrumental work written in the first half of the 19th century, when the main attractions for Italians were the voice and the theater. The soloist is treated virtuosically. The Allegro starts with a slow introduction, after which the flute takes up a bright theme. This whole movement has a sprightly atmosphere. The second movement is a short and simple Adagio, after which the concerto concludes with a Rondo variato, which demonstrates great inventiveness.
Recording listened to: Mario Carbotta with the Orchestra da Camera Milano Classica conducted by Massimiliano Caldi on Dynamic (with Concerto for Basset Horn and two symphonies by Rolla).

14. Peter Benoit, Flute Concerto (Symphonic Tale) Op. 43a (1865).
Peter Benoit (1834-1901) was a Belgian (Flemish) composer, who was educated at the Brussels Conservatoire. Although he also worked in Paris, he finally settled in Antwerp where he founded the Royal Flemish Music Conservatory. He concentrated on vocal and choral music on Flemish texts, but was also active as educator, conductor and music administrator. In 1865 Benoit wrote Two Symphonic Tales for piano and orchestra and for flute and orchestra - a turning point in his career, as these would become his last purely instrumental works. Both are large scale, romantic works, inspired by romantic legends from the composer's native region. The Symphonic Tale for flute and orchestra starts with a "Will-O'-The-Wisps" Scherzo vivace, containing two main themes, a nervous and fiery scherzo theme and a more lilting melody. The second movement is a Romance that starts with a horn solo theme, varied by the flute. The finale is again a "Will-O'-The-Wisps" dance, similar to the opening movement. In all, this is a very original concerto.
Recording listened to: Gaby van Riet with the Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Frederic Devreese on Naxos (with piano concerto etc.).

15. Carl Reinecke, Flute Concerto Op. 283 (1908)
Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) was an important master from the influential "Leipzig School," which dominated German music in the 19th c. He was a long-standing conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and director of the Leipzig Conservatoire, but also a prolific composer who saw himself as the guardian of the tradition of Mendelssohn and Schumann. The flute concerto was written when he was 84 and starts with a charming, floridly inventive Allegro, a glowing recollection of what was good in previous times. This is followed by an elegiac Lento e mestoso, a piece of both charm and substance, and the concerto concludes with  a fiery polonaise. A lively work that fully displays Reinecke's striking invention, beauty of sound, and mastery of instrumentation.
Recording listened to: Aurèle Nicolet with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur on Philips (with flute concertos by Nielsen and Busoni).

16. Carl Nielsen, Concerto for Flute FS 119 (1926)
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, after which he worked for 16 years as a second violinist in the prestigious Royal Danish Orchestra before - in 1916 - taking up a teaching post at the Royal Academy. He is generally regarded as the greatest Danish composer and was one of the most important pioneers of new music in the early 20th c. His monumentally expressive symphonies derive from a neo-Romantic inspiration. The flute concerto was written after the symphonies, and belongs to a later period in Nielsen's life. It reflects the modernistic trends of the 1920s and lacks tonal stability. The work consists of two movements and the solo instrument dominates the dark colors of the orchestra (which lacks flutes and trumpets). The first movement leads up to a virtuoso double cadenza for flute and clarinet (in this same period, Nielsen also wrote a Clarinet Concerto). Much of this movement resembles chamber music between the flute and various instruments. The second movement is founded on the contrasting expression of allegretto and adagio sections, leading to a march-like finale. The works ends with a series of playful slides on the bass trombone. A very personal statement and possibly the greatest flute concerto ever written - a work of real substance.
Recording listened to: Aurèle Nicolet with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur on Philips (with flute concertos by Reinecke and Busoni).

17. Jacques Ibert, Concerto for Flute (1934)
Jacques Ibert (1890-1962), a born and bred Parisian, studied at the Paris Conservatoire and had an active career as conductor and musical administrator, besides being an eclectic composer. His early works for orchestra are in a lush, Impressionistic style, but Ibert also wrote lighthearted, even fluffy works like the present flute concerto. His music is generally festive and gay, tinged with lyricism and gentle humor. Like his other four concertos, the flute concerto was conceived in "chamber" rather than "symphonic" textures, allowing the characteristics of the flute to emerge unimpeded. Ibert strove to find themes appropriate to the sonorous qualities of the flute. The flute concerto is a mercurial three movement work, that became immediately popular on its first performance in 1934. Especially the third movement is very felicitous and just good fun.
Recording listened to: Timothy Hutchins with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit on Decca (with Escales, Pairs, Bacchanale).

Classical Music Index

Monday, September 14, 2015

Best Piano Trios (Music Review)

Over the centuries of its history, the Piano Trio (in the combination of piano, violin and cello) has gained a repertoire exceptional in size and richness, one which includes some of the most widely admired of all chamber works. But instead of focusing on the principal works such as the trios by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Ravel and others, I would like to introduce here a number of so-called "unjustly forgotten trios" (often by "unknown composers") which are however rich in beautiful melodies and artistic invention. They are among my personal favorites and deserve more ears!

1. Heinrich Marschner, Piano Trio No 2 in G minor Op. 11 (1840).
The German composer Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861) was in the first place a composer of Romantic operas (with such ominous titles as The Vampire) in the period between the death of Weber and the advent of Wagner. Besides opera, Marschner's only other compositions consisted of a few chamber music works, of which the piano trios were lavishly praised by Schumann. These fine works are clearly the fruit of considerable time and effort. The second trio starts with a big and haunting Allegro, as if inhabited by the romantic atmosphere of one of Marschner's colorful operas. The second movement is a wonderful romance, great in its simplicity. After the whirlwind scherzo (a fast ride on horseback) follows the Allegro vivace which concludes the trio in magnificent style. A fresh and original trio that is the epitome of Romanticism.
Recording listened to: Beethoven Trio Ravensburg on CPO (with Piano Trio No. 5).

2. Charles-Valentin Alkan, Trio for piano, violin and bass in G minor Op. 30 (1841).
Paris-born Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was a child prodigy on both the violin and the piano. As a piano virtuoso he was regarded as the equal of Liszt, while also being one of the best piano composers - although his music is ferociously difficult to play. However, he gave up his concert career in his mid thirties and lived as a recluse, which made his reputation fade until rediscovery in the late 20th c. The piano trio was a very apt form for Alkan, for as a violinist he also knew how to write for string instruments, but Alkan was also an unorthodox composer as can be heard in the sometimes unusual interplay between the instruments. In the first movement, there is a sharp contrast between the violent first theme and the lovely, lyrical second theme. The scherzo is marked by a rapid rhythmic exchange between the three instruments, while the Lentement has an unusual, somber melody and a long piano cadenza. The finale is a tremendous perpetuum mobile on a powerful rhythmic theme, crowned by a climax of extraordinary intensity.
Recording listened to: Trio Alkan on Naxos (with violin and cello sonatas).

3. Robert Volkmann, Piano Trio in B flat minor Op. 5 (1850).
Robert Volkmann was a German composer who lived most of his time in Budapest, as piano teacher and reporter for the Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung. Volkmann produced two piano trios. Op. 8 in F is a somewhat lightweight affair (although with a beautiful melody in the first movement), but Op. 5 (published in 1852) is a stormy and passionate piece. More than that, it was the breakthrough work of the composer who had until then worked in virtual obscurity - when it caught the ears of Franz Liszt (to whom it was dedicated) and Hans von Bülow, it was hailed as a masterpiece and they proceeded to play it in various European cities. The trio does not keep to sonata form but seems more like a free fantasy. The first movement works up to a tremendous dramatic climax. The second movement is an intermezzo with a mellow character. The last movement has again a forceful theme. Despite the unconventional structure, the harmonic style is traditional, and Volkmann didn't really belong in the camp of Liszt and Wagner. Later in life, Volkmann befriended Brahms, and his music is now often seen as a link between Schumann and Brahms.
Recommended Recording: Beethoven Trio Ravensburg on CPO (both Volkmann trios).

4. Woldemar Bargiel, Piano Trio No. 1 in F Major Op. 6 (1851).
Woldemar Bargiel (1828-97) was Clara Schumann’s half brother, and through her introduction, received the support of both Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory with Ignaz Moscheles (piano) and Niels Gade (composition). Bargiel held positions at the conservatories in Cologne and Rotterdam before accepting a position at the prestigious Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin where he taught for the rest of his life. Bargiel composed relatively little, but everything he wrote shows a solid craftsmanship and rich inventiveness. That is also clear from his first Piano Trio, which was written in 1851 and published in 1855 with the help of Clara and Robert. After a slow introduction (which is unrelated to rest of the trio) follows a beautiful romantic aspiring theme in a triumphal march rhythm. The second movement Andante has two extremely lovely themes and its serenity is only briefly disturbed. The Scherzo is very Schumanesque and proceeds in continuous dactylic, dotted rhythms, interrupted only by a charming central section with lyrical string contributions against piano arpeggio figuration. The finale is a massive fugue, which is at the same time a breathtaking moto perpetuo. This trio is not only a demonstration of great craftsmanship, it also shines in its melodic inventions. There is an excellent balance between the three instruments.
Recording listened to: Trio Parnassus on MD&G Records (with violin sonata, etc.; other two trios by Bargiel on companion disk).

5. Théodore Gouvy, Piano Trio No. 3 in B flat Major Op. 19 (mid 1850s).
Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898) was born on the French-Prussian border and grew up with a dual French and German cultural heritage. This also meant he fell between the cracks of two nations. Moreover, after his study in Paris, he decided to become a French symphonist at a time that the opera ruled supreme. Throughout most of the 19th century, the French, and especially the Parisians, were opera-mad and not particularly interested in purely instrumental music. The last third of his life Gouvy lived almost entirely in Germany where he was more appreciated. His compositions, and especially his chamber music, were held in high regard in Germany, Austria, England, Scandinavia and Russia. Gouvy was a master of form and possessed a deft sense of instrumental timbre. He was a gifted melodist whose music is a joy to hear. Gouvy’s Piano Trio No. 3 was written with the freshness and energy of a young man. The opening movement has quite an uplifting bounce in the form of an attractive heroic theme played by the strings against a pulsing accompaniment in the piano. It is a movement full of excitement. The Allegretto begins like a children's dance but is disturbed by a powerful march in the trio. The work's center of gravity is the long Adagio, which evokes a brilliant, breezeless summer day. This inventive trio ends with a sparkling Vivace, full of vigor.
Recording listened to: Münchner Klaviertrio on Orfeo (with second piano trio).

6. Josef Rheinberger, Piano Trio No. 2 in A Major Op.112 (1878).
Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901) was born in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. When his musical talent was discovered, he was sent to the Royal Conservatory in Munich where he studied with Franz Lachner. Rheinberger was active in Munich as organist and choral master, and also taught for more than 40 years composition at the Royal Conservatory - among his students were Humperdinck, Wolf-Ferrari, George Chadwick and Wilhelm Furtwangler. He is in the first place known for his organ compositions, but his chamber music is also important. The Second Piano Trio was composed in the autumn of 1878 and is in four well-balanced movements. It is classical in form, but highly romantic in content. The genial opening melody of the first movement is unforgettable. The second movement, Andantino espressivo, is built around a gorgeous and languid melody, full of longing. This is followed by a Minuetto, with a duet between the strings underpinned by a flowing piano part. The finale is joyous and full of élan and re-introduces melodies from the first movement before ending with a bracing coda.
Recording listened to: Göbel Trio Berlin on Thorofon (with Nonet).

7. Ernest Chausson, Piano Trio in G minor Op. 3 (1881).
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) first studied law before entering the Paris Conservatory in 1879 where he studied with Jules Massenet and César Franck. The Piano Trio in G minor was written in 1881 at just about the time Chausson entered Franck’s class, and consists of four large movements. We can surely hear Franck's influence, especially in the first movement with its thick textures, dark harmonic progressions and abrupt dynamic changes. The opening movement starts with a twenty-bar slow introduction, in which the motto themes are somewhat theatrically presented, in succession on the cello and the violin. The piano provides a restless underpinning to the motivic phrases of the strings in a dark, intense minor mode. The second movement is a short and light intermezzo and the only movement that contains no thematic allusions to other parts of the trio. The third movement has a beautiful D minor piano tune, in fact the second motif from the first movement played at half speed. The final movement, too, was inspired by Franck’s use of cyclic themes and the work comes full circle on a dramatic note, with a grand peroration, during which the motto themes return with greatly expanded scoring. This trio shows an exceptional sense of architecture and lyricism.
Recording listened to: Pascal Devoyon (piano), Philippe Graffin (violin), Gary Hoffman (cello) on Hyperion (with Poème, Andante et Allegro etc.).

8. Arthur Foote, Piano Trio No 1 in C minor Op. 5 (1882-84).
Arthur Foote (1853-1937) was the first American composer of classical music to be wholly trained in the United States. Born in Salem, Arthur Foote studied composition under John Knowles Paine at Harvard University. In 1875 Foote earned the first master’s degree in music ever granted by an American university. Until this time Foote had considered music a hobby, but now he decided to devote his life to it. He became a private teacher of the piano and organ, and was for 32 years the organist of the First Church, Unitarian, in Boston. Many of his orchestral compositions were first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He influenced subsequent generations of musicians through his didactic writings and in the first two decades of the twentieth century was considered a central figure among American composers.

Foote was especially known for chamber music, art songs, and music for choirs. His training was European classical, in the style of Mendelssohn and Schumann, while he himself was in the first place inspired by the newer music of Brahms and Dvorak. His music is lyrical and serene. There are broad, stately melodies, as well as moments of romantic rhapsody, but in the end everything is tightly bound together by a classical structure. The first Piano Trio is a good case in point. It starts with an expansive movement characterized by a romantically yearning melody in C minor. The second theme somewhat resembles a New England church hymn. After an elfin-like, dancing Scherzo, we get a lyrical movement with a languid and sad melody and a dramatic atmosphere of unrest. The finale again brings a church hymn and closes satisfyingly after a long and exciting coda.
Recording listened to: Arden Trio on Marco Polo (with second piano trio).

9. Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Piano Trio No. 2 in B flat Major Op. 38 (1894).
Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859-1951) was born in Prague and studied organ and composition, taking over from Dvorak as chief organist in one of Prague's leading churches. His wife Berta Foersterová-Lautererová was a leading soprano and he followed her when she was engaged at various European opera houses, first to Hamburg and later to Vienna. In both cities Foerster worked mainly as a music critic. After their return to Prague, Foerster taught for many years at the Conservatory. Except in his early works, Foerster was not a nationalistic composer. He didn't employ a Czech idiom like Dvorak and Smetana, but wrote intensely personal music in an international idiom. The second of his three piano trios was written in 1894 shortly after the death of his younger sister. This loss is evident in the elegiac adagio that concludes the work. But the first two movements are quite brightly colored (the second movement is a brilliant scherzo), and the grief in the last movement is not of the tormented kind, but rather gives rise to meditative, melancholy music. The mood is tinged with a sophisticated sense of resignation and the end is muted, like a silent sigh.
Recording listened to: Foerster Trio on Supraphon (all 3 Foerster trios).

10. Julius Röntgen, Piano Trio No. 6 in C minor Op. 50 (1904).
Julius Röntgen (1855-1932) was born into a musical family in Leipzig and studied with Carl Reinecke, the director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, as well as Franz Lachner in Munich. His professional career took Röntgen to Amsterdam, where he helped to found the Amsterdam Conservatory and the subsequently world famous  Concertgebouw Orchestra. He composed throughout his life and especially after his retirement. Though he wrote in most genres, chamber music was his most important area. Röntgen had a special tie with the piano trio, as he played together as a trio with Carl Flesch and Pablo Casals, as well as later with two of his sons. His 1904 trio was dedicated to the Danish composer Carl Nielsen and indeed the trio's Andante has the character of a Scandinavian folk melody (although it is an original melody by Röntgen). This is the movement with the greatest charm. With its long and flowing lyrical melodies the first movement has Brahmsian qualities as does the last. Both are filled with rich and varied harmonies and a balanced interplay between the three instruments.
Recording listened to: Storioni Trio on Ars Produktion (with piano trios 9 and 10).

11. William Hurlstone,  Piano Trio in G Major (1905)
William Yeates Hurlstone (1876-1906) was born in London and studied at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villiers Stanford. He was very talented and in 1905, at the age of 28, he was appointed Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at the Royal College. Tragically, he suffered from bronchial pneunomia and less than a year later, he was dead. Although he also wrote a Piano Concerto and several other orchestral works, Hurlstone is in the first place remembered for his excellent chamber music works, of which the Piano Trio is one. It is happy and genially flowing music. The Allegro moderato opens with a lyrical theme on the cello, which is deceptively simple. Soon several harmonic detours and surprises follow, including the third-related key in which the second theme, molto appasionato, appears. In the Andante a lyrical cantabile theme is contrasted with more dramatic material. The third movement is a playful Scherzo with a hint of folk song - a very upbeat, English theme. The exciting finale is a lively Rondo characterized by undulating accompaniment and displaying Hurlstone's contrapuntal dexterity. A reflective second subject provides a beautiful contrast. The work is brought to a close by an exciting accelerando.
Recording listened to: The Dussek Piano Trio on Dutton (with String Quartet etc.).

12. Alexander Gretchaninov, Piano Trio No 1 in C minor Op. 38 (1906).
Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956) was born in Moscow and studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev, and later in St. Petersburg with Rimsky-Korsakov. His works achieved high acclaim in Russia - in 1910 the Tsar awarded him an annual pension, But after the Revolution Gretchaninov didn't feel comfortable anymore in Russia and emigrated, first to France in 1925, then in 1939 to his final destination, the U.S. The first piano trio was dedicated to Taneyev. The opening movement is propelled forward by passionate feelings and an urgent first theme. It makes a very "Tchaikovskian" impression. The Lento assai has a beautiful violin theme and the Allegro vivace which concludes the three part work is energetic and highly rhythmical and brings the trio to a vivid conclusion somewhat in the style of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto.
Recording listened to: The Moscow Rachmaninov Trio on Hyperion (with Piano Trio No 2 and Cello Sonata).

13. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Piano Trio in D major, Op. 1 (1910). 
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was an Austro-Hungarian composer who astonished the musical world as a composing wunderkind. Mahler proclaimed him a genius at age nine (!), after which he started lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. The child prodigy later developed into a major Viennese opera composer (Die Tote Stadt). In 1934 he moved to Hollywood where he became a pioneer in composing film scores - along with  Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, he is one of the founders of film music. His serious music was considered out of vogue at the time he died, but is now experiencing a reawakening of interest. Korngold wrote orchestral music (including a symphony and violin concerto), piano music and chamber works (such as string quartets), songs, operas and film scores. His Piano Trio was composed when he was only thirteen years of age. Premièred by leading instrumental luminaries in Vienna, it announced a precocious and major talent in its handling of bold and complex harmonies and musical form, taking the style of Richard Strauss to new levels of opulent beauty. In four parts, this is a substantial late-romantic work. The elegant swirls that open this piece evoke Strauss’s elegant waltzes and strike the listener as elegant but also mysterious ruminations. The layered textures and fervent themes impart a strong sense of space and expansiveness to the whole work.
Recording listened to: Beaux Arts Trio on Philips (with Zemlinsky Trio).

14. Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello Op. 24 (1945).
Mieczysław Weinberg (also spelled as Vainberg; 1919-1996) was a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin. He lost most of his family in the Holocaust and fled in 1939 to the Soviet Union. He was educated at the Warshaw Conservatory and moved to Moscow after meeting Shostakovich, with whom he remained close. There is a decided Jewish ethnic influence in Weinberg's music, such as of Klezmer ensembles. The Piano Trio is a substantial work written when Weinberg was only 26 and had just moved to Moscow. The trio offers powerful music with a genuine vitality. The first movement is a Prelude and Aria, with a pizzicato passage a la Shostakovich; then follows a Toccata with irregular rhythms; next a Poem which conjures up the atmosphere of an Orthodox hymn; and finally a sublime finale.
Recording listened to: Anatoli Sheludyakov, piano, Irina Tkachenko, violin, Tatiana Zavarskaya, cello, on Olympia (with Children's Notebooks for piano - all first recordings).

15. Edmund Rubbra, Piano Trio in One Movement, Op. 68 (1950)
Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) was an English composer who devised his own distinctive style based on single melodic ideas from which he let the music grow. There is a vocal quality to his overall style. Rubbra's teacher was Gustav Holst (with whom he shared an interest in mysticism). He wrote for all kinds of ensembles (his eleven symphonies are famous), paying much attention to choral music and chamber music. These chamber music works reveal the essence of Rubbra's music more directly than large-scale works can. Especially his approach to form was very individual, a balancing act between improvisatory freedom and intellectual control. Once he had found the right material, he "let the music take care of itself." The Trio in One Movement is a remarkable work, serenely beautiful but at the same time informed with a quiet passion. Although in one movement, there are three distinct sections. The work starts with a reflective, soulful theme presented in octaves by the violin and the cello, with accompanying figuration in the piano. Interestingly, the strings continue unrolling the thematic material in octaves. After the exposition, a cantabile theme introduced by the piano follows. The music then grows and swells to bell-like sounds. We are now halfway the twenty minute work. After an exciting and rhythmically complex Episodio scherzando, comes the final section, a long-breathed theme followed by three variations (Rubbra calls these "meditations"), the still heart of the work. The first meditation is introduced by a chordal passage marked Adagio. When the last meditation dies away with a tolling D at the bottom of the piano, the cello restates the opening theme, leading to a brief coda in which descending scales in violin and cello again emphasize the tolling of bells, bringing the work to an exultant conclusion.
Recording listened to: Endymion Ensemble on Dutton (with Piano Trio No. 2, Oboe Sonata and other chamber works by Rubbra).

P.S. The literature for piano trio is very rich and the above is just a small selection. I have had to leave out many beautiful piano trios and hope to come back to this genre in a second post at a later time.
[Incorporates some information from the CD booklets, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed]
Classical Music Index

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A History of Japanese Film by Year: Risk Avoidance (2010-2014)

Although the annual production of Japanese films scales new heights (408 in 2010, rising to 615 in 2014), unfortunately the quality of Japanese cinema is not commensurate to these voluminous figures. Instead, the number of artistic and intelligent films rather decreases. After all, more than 60% of Japanese films are anime aimed at below-twelve kids. Another large chunk is made up by the sheer countless teenage dramas (first love and all that heart-breaking matter), and another again by romantic comedies for young women. That leaves little space in the national cinema for serious works. 

But that is not all: also indies and serious films in this period are often limited, due to insufficient depth, the lack of a good narrative, and dearth of social vision; there are also problems with editing and cinematography, and in general too little critical stance. We could say that the creative wave that came up in the 1990s ("The New Wave of the Nineties") peaked before its time and that some directors who were part of the Wave didn't completely fulfill their high expectations. 

Japanese cinema is in the grip of risk avoidance, not only the mainstream (which always plays on safe and follows Hollywood-type investment models), but also indies and other independent films. Subjects are based on already popular manga, television drama, trendy novels and older films, and TV celebrities (who are not always good actors) are used as protagonists to get fans into the theater. The strange circumstance, that one after another great classical films (that in their original form are widely available on DVD) are being remade, is a good indication of the regrettable lack of creativity that plagues Japanese cinema today. 

But despite all this, Japanese cinema remains interesting as a window on Japanese culture and society.

January – A gunman kills three people at a bar in Habikino before turning the gun on himself.
January – Japan Airlines files for bankruptcy protection.

Kinema Junpo Award: Dear Doctor
Japan Academy Film Prize for Picture of the Year: Confessions

Deaths in the film world:
Anime film director Kon Satoshi dies at age 46. Actress Takamine Hideko dies at age 86. The actors Ikebe Ryo and Kobayashi Keiju die at respectively the ages of 92 and 86.

About Her Brother (Ototo) by Yamada Yoji was advertised as a tribute to the then 81-year old Ichikawa Kon, who in 1960 made a famous film of the same title. It is not a remake so much as meant to be an homage to the veteran director. Yamada only borrows the idea of a sister covering for the mistakes of her rowdy brother, in fact the situation he had already borrowed in his Otoko wa tsurai yo films. So this is rather a "remake" of Tora-san, but unfortunately Shofukutei Tsurube (a popular rakugo artist and TV personality, who did a better job in Dear Doctor) is no Atsumi Kiyoshi and the film gets bogged down in sentimentality and tears (the rowdy brother has to die a lonely death), despite the efforts of Yoshinaga Sayuri as the sister and Aoi Yu as her daughter.

Caterpillar by Wakamatsu Koji is an even fiercer anti-war statement, based on a story by Edogawa Ranpo that was also filmed in Rampo Noir (2005), of a war veteran (Kasuya Keigo) who is just a torso and a battered head, like a caterpillar. He can see, but not hear or talk. The ugly lump of flesh of the medal-decorated war hero is considered as a military god by the village from which new men are constantly leaving for the killing fields, until only women, children and the elderly are left behind. But our amputee can only eat, sleep and have sex (he still functions below the waist, although his wife has to do all the work). The wife (Terashima Shinobu in a Berlin Silver Bear winning performance) first is shocked, then decides to stand by her man and care for him, but gradually realizes that she also can exploit her husband's condition and so take revenge on him for his brutish behavior towards her in the past. To pester him, she starts pulling him in a cart through the village, where everyone has to pay their respects to the "war god"... Berlin International Film Festival.

Sweet Little Lies by Yazaki Hitoshi (of Strawberry Cakes fame), based on the novel by Ekuni Kaori, is the quiet but clinical story of the disintegration of a marriage, after just three years. Nakatani Miki plays a housewife who designs teddy bears as her hobby and Omori Nao is her IT-employed husband, who locks himself all his free time in his hobby room playing video games. Their emotional distance is so large that they communicate by mobile telephone even in their small apartment. Although they find it convenient to be married, there is no emotion, let alone love, between them and mentally they have little in common. So not surprisingly, when both in turn are aggressively approached by potential adultery partners, they swallow the bait of seduction: the wife with a musician, an arty type (Kobayashi Juichi) she meets in her teddy bear gallery, and the husband with a former schoolmate he sees at a class reunion (Ikewaki Chizuru). We then follow the parallel affairs and the games both play to keep up the deception. The end, however, is a surprise, because both decide to "return home" again... Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Kitano Takeshi makes The Outrage, a conventional yakuza flick as they are made by the dozen for the straight-to-video market in Japan. It was clearly aimed at a segment of his foreign audience that craved more violent yakuza films from him, but all he comes up with is a dull and tired story. On top of that, we by now have had enough of Kitano's signature sudden bursts of violence, with chopsticks rammed into eyes or ears. After three autobiographical films which became increasingly trivial, Kitano apparently unashamedly tried to go for the foreign box office. As they liked it in Cannes, Kitano even made a sequel, Beyond Outrage (2012), that gives addicts to cheap violence more of the same (and is marginally better). Instead of "Glory to the Filmmaker," this should be called "The End of a Filmmaker." Kitano Takeshi made some excellent films in the 1990s, starting with Violent Cop, and leading to such highlights as Sonatine and Hana-Bi, with in between more peaceful films as A Scene at the Sea and Kids Return, but in the new century seems to have completely lost his way, despite his one-off commercial success with Zatoichi. Cannes Film Festival,

Haru's Journey, lit. "Journey with Haru" (Haru to no tabi) by Kobayashi Masahiro is a road movie in which a young woman, Haru (Tokunaga Eri), living in Mashike, Hokkaido, as a teacher, has just seen her school closed down due to the decline in population. She wants to find work in Tokyo, but these last five years she has been taking care of her widowed grandfather, Tadao (Nakadai Tatsuya), an embittered and angry man who has difficulty walking. They start a trip by train to find a family member who is willing to take grandfather in so that Haru can go to Tokyo. But Tadao has not made things easy as his past egoistic behavior has rather estranged him from his brothers and sister, as well as from his son (Haru's father - who in his turn has discarded Haru). This humanistic film is supported by an excellent cast: Otaki Hideji and Sugai Kin as Tadao's eldest brother and his wife; Tanaka Yuko as the wife of the second brother; Awashima Chikage as the sister who operates a ryokan in Naruko (Miyagi); Emoto Akira and Miho Jun as the younger brother and his wife; and Kagawa Teruyuki as Tadao's son / father of Haru. The film is not only the story of an estranged family, it is also the story of how the uneasy relationship between Haru and her grandfather softens and grows, so much that she finally even decides to return to Hokkaido with him.

Confessions (Kokuhaku) by Nakashima Tetsuya is a safe journeyman product, based on a popular thriller by Minato Kanae. Like the novel, the film is hopelessly unrealistic, with countless plot holes, but I bring it up here for the insight it offers into Japanese society. The little daughter of a female teacher (Matsu Takako) has been killed by two underage pupils in her class. As the law can't do much, she decides to take revenge by herself and laces the school milk of the two kids with the AIDS virus (conveniently, her boyfriend has AIDS). Although neither of them becomes ill, as a result one boy turns into a hikikomori obsessed with avoiding contact with others so as not to infect them; he eventually kills his mother. The other boy still comes to school but is bullied by the rest of the class as an AIDS victim (the film here shows the sad workings of Japanese society where victims are sometimes bullied). This boy is an inventor (he also had invented the electrical shock purse that killed - or at least stunned - the little girl) and now makes a bomb with which he is planning to blow up himself including the school at the graduation ceremony. The teacher has read his webpage on which he announces this plan (!) and removed the bomb. Instead, she has put it in the university building where the boy's mother works (he hankers after his mother who has discarded him), so when the boy activates the bomb with his mobile phone, he blows up his own mother. The end. The biggest plot hole is of course that there seems to be no police to arrest a teacher who has tried to kill two of her own pupils. And by re-planting the bomb, she becomes a mass-murderer herself - but such niceties are never addressed. The reason I bring up this film is that it was so popular in Japan it was even sent in officially to the Academy Awards - although it is unimaginable that a film about a teacher killing her own pupils would ever win an Oscar. But the movie aptly reveals the feelings of revenge against criminal youths in Japan.

Family X by Yoshida Koki is a story about alienation and the breakup of a family. A mother on the verge of a breakdown (Minami Kaho), her husband who is only nervous about losing his work (Taguchi Tomorowo) and their uncommunicative son and "freeter" (Kaku Tomohiro) live "together apart." That there is little communication between them is underlined by the fact that they are almost never filmed together. A simple but heart-rending family tragedy. PIA Film Festival.

The best film of the year is Villain (Akunin) by Lee Sang-Il. Although his Hula Girls showed the potential birth of a safe hack, Lee makes much good in this noir thriller based on an interesting novel by Yoshida Shuichi. It is a story about alienated and lonely young people who meet via dating sites. One young woman (Mitsushima Hikari) who uses these sites to earn money from the men she meets and who brags to her friends about her success in love, meets her destiny on a lonely road. The young man (an unresponsive Tsumabuki Satoshi, but in a way that fits his role) who inadvertent kills her (in fact, it is more like manslaughter) soon after meets the woman of his dreams (a very good Fukatsu Eri), and she the man of her dreams, but it is too late... He looks like a sociopath with his bleached hair, but is in fact a tragic anti-hero. We also have a grandmother (Kirin Kiki) who is cheated out of her savings by gangsters and a father (Emoto Akira) who wants to physically avenge the death of his daughter. An impressive exploration of society's ills. The film earned a much deserved Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film in 2011.
My Rating: A+

Cold Fish (Tsumetai Nettaigyo) by Sono Shion is a return to extreme violence and gore by this provocative director in a film about bullying - not at school but in society. The weak and unsuccessful fish store owner Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikochi), who is despised by his slutty (second) wife (Kagurazaka Megumi) and rebellious daughter, is sucked up into the orbit of the powerful and unscrupulous Murata (a tour de force performance by Denden). Of course, Murata's fish store Amazon Gold is many times larger than Shamoto's and he employs sexy girls to entice customers. As one of these, Murata also hires Shamoto's disobedient daughter and next seduces his wife. He also does other things: when someone gets in his way, Murata kills him and then cuts up the body and incinerates the parts - something Shamoto is forced to participate in. The first to go is Murata's business partner, for Shamoto will take the place of the poor man - after helping cut up his body in a church. During this all, Shamoto is bullied by the stronger and more successful entrepreneur and his wife, who is his partner in crime (Kurosawa Asuka). In the end something snaps in him, and then he takes a terrible revenge on Murata and all others who have used him as a doormat... showing that the bullied do not become heroes, but are just as mean and vile as their oppressors, as they can only imitate them. There is not inconsiderable gore, but it is all cartoonish. This is not a horror movie, but a (very) black comedy about social breakdown. Venice Film Festival.

A rather unnecessary movie is Thirteen Assassins (Jusannin no shikyaku) by Miike Takashi. What is the use of remaking excellent classical films? Doesn't this stem purely from a lack of creativity? The original film by Kudo Eiichi simply can't be improved upon, and Miike's almost shot-by-shot remake is just another piece of evidence of the sad lack of ideas in Japanese cinema in the second decade of the 21st century. Premiere at Venice Film festival.

Here Comes the Bride, My Mother! (Okan no yomeiri) by woman director Oh Mipo starts out in a fresh way. A mother (Otake Shibobu) one day comes home and introduces a young guy with bleached hair (Kiritani Kenta) as "the bridegroom" to the daughter in her twenties with whom she lives together (Miyazaki Aoi) - not a man for her daughter, but for herself. This causes the daughter to start sulking, despite the efforts of the groom to ingratiate himself by being friendly to her. So the first part of the film consists of quiet comedy, before entering into darker territory: Tsukiko, the daughter, is in fact sitting at home - the only thing she does outside is walking the dog - like a hikikomori because she was stalked and harassed by a male colleague in the office where she used to work. Then we get a plot twist which unfortunately spoils the film by dousing it in melodrama: the mother is revealed as having a terminal illness and her boyfriend who knew this is just marrying her to make her last days happy... Why does the director need such a trashy plot twist to justify the second marriage to a much younger man of the mother, as if women in their forties have no right to make new choices in their lives? A disappointment, despite the setting in Kyoto along the Keihan line.

Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no mori) by Vietnamese/French director Ahn Hung Tran, based on the popular novel by Murakami Haruki, is beautifully filmed (thanks to the richly saturated images of cinematographer Pin Bing Lee), but hampered by the simplistic and sentimental love story that lies at its basis. It is about sub-twenties who are suffering from sexual and emotional angst. Kizuki commits suicide for the silly reason that he is unable to perform the act with his girlfriend Naoko. Naoko looses her mental stability because she blames herself for this and is put away in a mental hospital; she will finally commit suicide as well. Toru, Kizuki's best friend, is in love with Naoko, who still loves Kizuki, but he also meets the forward Midori (the only person who seems to be in charge of herself in this film) and, typically indecisive, finds himself shuttling between both of them. Despite the good performances (especially Kikuchi Rinko of Babel-fame as Naoko), this is mainly a juvenile tearjerker lacking the humor of the original novel. Venice Film Festival.

"Abraxis" (Aburakurasu no Matsuri) by Kato Naoki is wonderful film about Jonen, a young Buddhist priest and family man - priests are allowed to marry in Japan - who used to be a rock guitarist (played by actual rocker Suneohair). As he is struggling with inner doubts and demons, his spiritual mentor suggests that he once more holds a concert. Jonen decides to reunite for that concert with his old band, but instead of going to Tokyo, selects the grounds of his temple in a quiet coastal town in Fukushima for the concert (the film was made just before the earthquake and tsunami). He has posters made and puts these up himself all over the town. Suneohair gives a sensitive portrayal of Jonen and shows off his guitar playing in a celebration of non-conformity. An excellent feature film, showing the small happenings of daily life, based on a novel by Zen priest / author Genyu Sokyu. Note the sake that Jonen drinks in the film: Daishichi!

How many 98 year old directors still make films (how many people reach that age)? Shindo Kaneto (in what would be his last film) has made an incisive anti-war film, Postcard (Ichimai no hagaki), which earned a belated Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film in 2012. It is the tragedy of a peasant women who looses first one, then a second husband and her parents in law to the folly of war. With excellent performances by Otake Shinobu and Toyokawa Etsushi. A warning for our times... Tokyo International Film Festival.

Heaven's Story by Zeze Takahisa is a film full of anger, frustration and feelings of revenge - and it lasts four and a half hours, divided into nine episodes. The film follows family members of murder victims and shows how their lives were changed by these terrible events; the film also shows in Babel-like fashion, how the lives of a dozen people intersect over a period of ten years, connected as they are by murder and loss. Revenge will of course create new painful reverberations in this net of connections. The film is as dark as previous work by this initial pink film director, such as Raigyo. A massive monster of film that does not wholly succeed in its high aims, but is still an interesting experiment, showing that there is at least one director left who dares to take risks.

Into the White Night (Byakuyako) by Fukagawa Yoshihiro is a crime story based on a popular novel by Higashino Keigo. It is a well-made film, shot in a dark and minor mode, focusing on character development and therefore justifiably taking its time. It shows how the murder of their parents by two children (one of them abused and mistreated by both victims) follows the main characters throughout their lives, leading again and again to new crimes. It also shows the utter and altruistic devotion of a boy and young man to the beautiful girl he once saved, and whom he keeps helping, even onto his own death. His love is never requited and is of a kind you'll only find in Japanese culture. The film also shows how different the characters of both protagonists are, he (Kora Kengo) totally unselfish, but cruel on her behalf, she (Horikita Maki) from the start calculating, using the people around her for her own purposes and not allowing anyone to cross her. And, for more than two decades, we also follow the police officer (Funakoshi Eiichiro) who ultimately discovers the truth. The crime is initially shelved, but he keeps doggedly coming back to it and gradually unravels the web of lies, even after he has already been pensioned off. Tokyo International Film Festival.

February: The Japan Sumo Association cancels the Spring Tournament because of a match fixing scandal, the first time the event has been canceled since 1946.
March: Great East Japan Earthquake. A 9.0-magnitude earthquake hits offshore of Japan's Miyagi prefecture, resulting in tsunami waves as high as 10 meter, causing an accident at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. 15,899 deaths, 6,157 injured, 2,529 people missing.

Kinema Junpo Award: Villain
Japan Academy Film Prize for Picture of the Year: Rebirth

Deaths in the film world:
The actor Harada Yoshio dies at age 71.

"Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" (Ichi Mei)  by Miike Takashi again leaves one with the big question: why try to remake one of the undisputed masterpieces of Japanese cinema that everyone can find on DVD (Harakiri by Kobayashi Masaki)? This is truly an excess of the postmodern remake bubble and evidence that many film makers in Japan have no original ideas anymore. It is a flat and ineffective version (who cares for 3D?), with the annoying overuse of CGI many contemporary films suffer from. The best that be can said is that this crappy remake will hopefully inspire some viewers to seek out the 1962 original - which is truly one of the great films of Japanese cinema. Premiere at Cannes Film festival,

"I Wish" (Kiseki) by Koreeda Hirokazu is a joyful film about two brothers, small boys, who have been separated because of the divorce of their parents: Koichi lives with his mother in Kagoshima and Ryunosuke with his father in Fukuoka. Their greatest ambition is to reunite their estranged parents. Then they hear the Shinkansen route is being extended from Hakata to Kagoshima. This will not only bring them closer together, but they also believe that a miracle will occur when two Shinkansen trains pass each other in opposite directions. While not reaching the dizzying heights of Still Walking, this is a delightful film with excellent performances.

"Tokyo Park" (Tokyo Koen) by Aoyama Shinji, the director who has previously given us Eureka and Sad Vacation, is a youth film about a boy whose hobby is photography and who likes to take stealthy pics of women in parks. This setting seems a bit like Antonioni's mysterious Blow Up, but Aoyama only tells a dull tale about a man asking the youth to photo-stalk a woman (apparently his wife) and her kid through Tokyo's parks. The mystery is too thin to keep viewers interested for a full two and a half hours; the rest of the film is filled with rather boring discussions the boy has with his dead room mate (yes, he has a problem coming to terms with his grief), with his girl friend, a gay barman and with his stepsister who is secretly in love with him. The acting is bad - the protagonist (Miura Haruma) is played totally unconvincing - and the cinematography is as humdrum as your daily TV show.

Hiroku Ryuichi makes a film that is inferior to his best ones as Vibrator and It's Only Talk. "The Egoists" (Keibetsu, lit. "Contempt"), although based on a novel by Nakagami Kenji, one of Japan's greatest postwar authors, is a sort of "pink" melodrama that flounders due to the incredibly mawkish plot. Moreover, one of the protagonists, Kora Kengo, sports such a weird colored hairstyle that is impossible to take him serious. He plays a gambler (originally the scion of an important local family who has gone astray) who has to flee Tokyo because of his debts. He takes his pole-dancing girlfriend with him (Suzuki Anne), and returns to his hometown (Shingu in the novel), hoping to lead a normal life. That is difficult as the locals look down upon them (the "contempt" of the title) and his family rejects his girlfriend as a suitable marriage partner. Their hot love affair therefore finally descends into self-loathing and ennui. Of course his past also catches up with him and in a long scene that takes its cue from Godard's Breathless, he is killed in the local deserted shotengai. A sentimental love story, played out on the template of doom, without redeeming elements.

Themis (Himizu) by Sono Shion is a brutally violent story based on a cruel manga, to which he has added a background story borrowed rather opportunistically from the 3.11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which happened earlier in the year. In other words, this is not a film about the disaster and its human tragedy, but we have a director who (mis-)uses the disaster to make his film more topical. Accidentally, the movie itself is also a total disaster: caricatures of people are killing each other, fighting each other, shouting at each other, and continually hyperventilating. Every inch of the film is blown up. All the usual Sono Shion elements are there, but - besides that we are getting tired of even more weird sects or scenes of meaningless violence - this time it doesn't work. (In his Kibo no kuni ("Land of Hope") of 2012 Sono tries a more serious approach to the Fukushima disaster, but that later attempt plays out like an overblown TV drama and was selected as the worst film of the year 2012 by Eiga Geijutsu). Premiere at Venice Film Festival.

April: In Kyoto, a car crashes into a pole and hits multiple pedestrians, resulting in eight dead (including the driver) and twelve injured. The accident, which was later attributed to the driver's epilepsy, was the worst traffic accident since 1996.
May 22: Tokyo Skytree officially opened to the public.
October: Amagasaki Serial Murder Incident: The Sumida family in Amagasaki forces at least eight people to kill each other after torture over a period of twenty years.
December: The Sasago road tunnel in Yamanashi Prefecture collapses, resulting in 9 fatalities.

Kinema Junpo Award: Postcard
Japan Academy Film Prize for Picture of the Year: The Kirishima Thing

Deaths in the film world:
The actress Awashima Chikage, known from firlms by Ozu, dies at age 87. The actress Yamada Izusu dies at age 95. Film director Shindo Kaneto dies at age 100.

"Our Homeland" (Kazoku no kuni) is the first feature film of Yang Yong-hi, made after a series of documentaries in which this director explored issues in her Korean/Japanese family. The film is based on a little known fact of contemporary history: the emigration to North Korea of many Koreans living in Japan (who today still are split in adherents of the South and the North) in the 1950s-1970s, lured by false promises of the Communist paradise. Director Yang follows the story of Sonho (Arata Iura) who as a teenager was sent to North Korea by his father, an ardent supporter of the North, and also staff member of the North Korean culture center, a quasi embassy. Now Sonho is allowed to briefly return to Japan to seek medical care for a serious illness. He meets his family - his father, his mother who runs a small cafe, his younger sister who is a teacher (and the center of the film, played by Ando Sakura), and his uncle - but is all the time under the strict supervision of a North Korean security agent who traces his every step. Sonho would like to persuade his sister to move to North Korea, but has no chance as she rightly hates the regime. And then, out of the blue, after just a few days with his family and one initial medical check-up, without explanation Sonho receives the order to immediately return to North Korea (where he has left his own family behind), although he had permission to stay in Japan for three months. This is not a perfect film (interestingly, the Koreans in the film are even more non-verbal than Japanese usually are, and because of this the film looses something in expressiveness), but it deftly brings out the tensions caused by history in the relations of a family. Winner of the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film. Berlin International Film Festival.

Helter Skelter by Ninagawa Mika is just such a colorful spectacle as the director's previous Sakuran, but it is also more lacking in content and often just plays out as a gorgeous fashion show. Top model LiLiCo (a perfect Sawajiri Erika), the most popular model in Japan, is adored by millions of fans, has in fact turned into an arrogant and narcissistic bitch - as her manager Michiko (Terajima Shinobu) knows all too well. But only her stylist Kinji (Arai Hirofumi) and her agency director Hiroko (Momoi Kaori) know another secret: the beautiful shell of the super star is artificial, created by hundreds of beauty operations. Then one day, dark spots appear in LiLiCo's face - is her beauty beginning to peel off? This happens just when a rival, Kozue (Mizuhara Kiko), starts challenging her top status... Not only wonderful eye-candy, but also excellent performances all around.

"Dreams For Sale" (Yume uru futari) by Nishikawa Miwa is unfortunately a much lesser film than her previous work as Yureru or Dear Doctor. It is the story of a married couple, Satoko (Matsu Takako) and Kanya (Abe Sadao), whose restaurant burns down. Needing money to build a new place, and after the husband has accidentally received a large sum of money for his equally accidental one-night stand with regular customer Reiko (Suzuki Sawa), the wife comes up with a nifty scam whereby Kanya has to make up to lonely unmarried women and con them out of their savings by pretending to love them. Kanya is indeed able to lend the willing ear these solitary souls crave for. His first victim is prim Satsuki (Tanaka Lena), and there is still comedy here, but afterwards the film drifts into melodramatic territory when the new victims are obese Olympic weightlifter Hitomi (Ebara Yuki), abused prostitute Kana (Ando Tamae), and divorcee with a young son Takiko (Kimura Tae). Not surprisingly, Kanya gets emotionally involved with his victims, spending more and more time with them, and the marriage starts to crack (Satoko in contrast discloses her underlying selfishness by the joy she takes in the suffering of other women) - until a few contrived plot twists bring Kanya in jail and Satoko working at a fish market to pay back the money they have "loaned." The film not only wavers between comedy and melodrama, but also has totally unwarranted moments of knockabout farce, in which the protagonists' exaggerated performances are in the worst tradition of over-acting.

That Miike Takashi has lost his magic touch was already clear from his delving into remakes. "Lesson of the Evil" (Aku no Kyoten), based on a novel by Kishi Yusuke, is a revolting film about a psychopathic teacher who kills off scores of his high-school pupils (and has an affair with one of them). The director revels in one shot after another of blood-smeared pupils or exploding chests - Miike apparently doesn't realize that such crimes are all too real elsewhere in the world. As is usual with him, he refuses to confront his material from a moral point of view, but just makes a slasher gore film as pure "entertainment." But alas, the plot is full of holes and the actors are hamming away in a terrible fashion. Rome Film Festival.

June to October: 2013 heatwave causes 1,077 fatalities.
August: An explosion at the Fukuchiyama Firework Festival event kills 3.
October: A fire at the Abe Orthopaedic Surgery Hospital in Fukuoka kills 10.
October: A typhoon kills 17 people in Oshima Island; on the mainland, the storm causes major traffic disruptions and kills one woman in Machida, Tokyo.
December 6 – Special Secrecy Law passes the National Diet

Kinema Junpo Award: Our Homeland
Japan Academy Film Prize for Picture of the Year: The Great Passage

Deaths in the film world:
Director Oshima Nagisa dies at age 80.

The remakes roll on, and it gets even more ridiculous. One of the best films ever made in the world is Tokyo Story by Ozu Yasujiro. It is the perfect masterpiece. Yamada Yoji has had the audacity to remake this in a modern setting as "Tokyo Family" (Tokyo kazoku). The new film is dull and plodding and not even good when we forget it is a remake. Compared to Ozu's immortal masterwork, Yamada's film is an ant trying to be a unicorn. Designated as "worst film of the year" by the Eiga Geijutsu magazine.

"The Great Passage" (Fune wo Amu) by Ishii Yuya is an office drama, set at a publishing company, about the making of a dictionary called "The Great Passage." The small dictionary team has to fight against many odds to complete their ten-year task, such as the danger that the project will be canceled. The protagonist is new member Matsuda Ryuhei, an emotional nerd whose coming of age story this is (his name is "Majime," which means "serious" but is written with different kanji). Shishido Jo plays his extroverted colleague, and it is nice to see Kato Go and Ikewaki Chizuru in small roles, while Miyazaki Aoi is a suitable love interest as the granddaughter of Majime's landlady. In fact, this is a typical Shochiku film promoting all-Japanese values: diligence (even when the task is boring and sheer endless), perseverance ("gambaru"), perfectionism (when one small miss is found, the group spends day and night rechecking all materials), excellent teamwork and "wet" human feelings. It is therefore interesting for the insight it provides into Japanese culture and the values that ideally drive the Japanese. (Hong Kong International Film Festival) (premiere).

"Like Father, Like Son" (Soshite Chichi ni Naru) by Koreeda Hirokazu is a breakthrough to the mainstream for this director, although to do so, he unfortunately makes several compromises and delivers a film that is rather below his best work. The strength and interest of his best film Still Walking was the lack of an all too obvious plot, the feeling of just looking in on a day in the life of an ordinary family. In this new movie, Koreeda introduces a Hollywood-type plot that is just too obvious from the beginning, and that leads to an iron conclusion we can see coming from afar. Moreover, the acting of protagonist Fukuyama Masaharu, who is originally a singer, is just below par - the kids in the film do a better job. Fukuyama plays a career yuppie who suddenly is informed officially that his six-year old son has accidentally been switched at birth with another baby, who is the son of a poor but laid-back family. Should they be switched back? The question is nature versus nurture, with the father opting for the bloodline (moreover, he already thought his son was too weak to be his real offspring) and the mother for the life lived together, for the shared culture. As the opinion of men still prevails in Japan, the kids are temporarily switched back to the real parents, but of course that doesn't work out. We knew so from the very start. But despite its flaws, this film is well worth watching. (Cannes Film Festival) (premiere).

"The Ravine of Goodbye" (Sayonara Keikoku) by Omori Tatsushi, based on a novel by Yoshida Shuichi, is about a difficult subject that some might find offensive: a woman, Kanako (Maki Yoko), has been raped by fellow student Shunsuke (Onishi Shima) in high school, something which destroys her life as she can not keep future boyfriends or even hold a job. So when 15 years later she meets her rapist again, she starts living with him. Shunsuke is burdened with guilt, Kanako can't escape her past - she should not be considered as a victim fallen under the spell of her victimizer, but rather as a woman who in Shunsuke finds a refuge from the world outside. Moreover, she has power over him. This story is presented obliquely, as it comes out gradually through the investigation by two journalists of the murder of a child of a family living next door in which Shunsuke may have been implicated (the journalists are played by Omori Nao and Suzuki Anne).

R100 by Matsumoto Hitoshi (of Big Man Japan fame) has an interesting premise but fails to make the most of it by undermining its own story but not taking it serious enough. A man working as sales manager in a department store, living alone with his young son as his wife is in hospital, joins a mysterious SM club, where the rules are rather different: the membership is for a whole year and cannot be canceled, and what is more, the "playground" is everywhere - wherever the man is, he can suddenly be attacked by a vicious dominatrix swinging her whip through the air, or placing a well-aimed a karate kick in his face. When this escalates and the man is even attacked at his workplace or in the hospital when he visits his wife, things get badly out of hand. In the end, he seeks refuge in the farm of his father-in-law, where a large group of leather-clad women approaches like an army of zombies... Filmed in bleached colors, which are almost black and white. The title is a joke about the rating: not R15 or R17, but "R100." Toronto International Film Festival.

The remake machine rolls on. This time the perpetrator is Lee Sang-Il, who made the excellent The Villain (2010) discussed above. Now he derails by remaking Clint Eastwood's Western The Unforgiven in a late Edo samurai setting. Again, the original (as all originals) is much superior, and Lee has ended up making another unnecessary film. There are so many historical novels in Japan, was there really no original story to be found? Venice Film Festival.

"The Devil's Path" (Kyoaku) by Shiraishi Kazuya is a well-made crime drama about the omnipresence of evil in everyday society. A dogged but tired young reporter (Yamada Takayuki) is contacted by a death row inmate, the yakuza Sudo (Pierre Taki), who seven years ago has committed various murders at the instigation of his boss, a real estate agent called "sensei" (Lily Franky). That boss went scot-free and Sudo now seeks revenge. So he confesses to a series of nihilistic crimes which have not yet been discovered, such as the live burial of a victim and ramming another man into an incinerator. Most sickening for its casualness is the third murder of an elderly man, with the complicity of his family and (initially) the victim himself, in order to pay off a debt with his life assurance. The man is first fed lots of shochu and finally slowly killed by electric shocks from a stun gun, while the killers are rolling on the floor from laughter. This removes any sympathy we may have felt for Sudo, putting his confession in a cynical light. The reporter struggles against his boss who at first doesn't believe in the importance of the article he is writing, and also against his family situation, where his wife is unable to continue caring for his mother suffering from Alzheimer. Performances are excellent, especially Lily Franky, who, expertly cast against type, appears as a demon in human guise. An unembellished study of human nature at its most evil, the only flaw in this film is the cinematography, which doesn't rise above the level of a TV movie.

"Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days" (Pekorosu no haha ni ai ni iku) by Morisaki Azuma is the story of the sixty-two year old Yuichi (Iwamatsu Ryo), a Nagasaki-born baby-boomer with a shiny bald head (leading to the nickname "pecoross," a small onion), who is a "bad" salaryman who spends most of his days stealthily drawing manga or making music. He lives with his son Masaki and his eighty-nine year old mother Mitsue (Akagi Harue) who the last ten years, since the death of her husband, is suffering from dementia. This is described not with disgust as in some other films, but with humor and sweet sorrow. Mitsue goes out to buy sake for her dead husband, or sits all day waiting for Yuichi to comeback from work at the parking lot of his car. As she keeps going out on her own, it becomes unwise to leave her alone in the house, so Yuichi decides to entrust her to the care of a nursing home. Mitsue, however hates that, and keeps to her room like a hikikomori, drawing further and further back into herself and into her past life (which we get in flashbacks). She even imagines that her little daughter, who died at a young age, is coming to visit her... Based on an essay manga by Okano Yuichi. Kinema Junpo Award for Best Film. The director, Morisaki Azuma, is himself 87 and therefore the oldest active film maker in Japan. Surprisingly, he has made a light and heart-warming movie about a serious subject. It is regrettable this wonderful film is not better known.


January: Mitsubishi Materials Yokkaichi plant explosion kills five persons.
March: Abeno Harukas open in Osaka, the tallest structure in Japan.
July: Sasebo schoolgirl murder: A 15-year-old high school student kills her female classmate by strangulation, dismembering and decapitation.
August: Hiroshima landslides cause 74 fatalities.
September: Mount Ontake eruption causes 63 fatalities (worst eruption disaster since 1991).

Kinema Junpo Award: Pecoross' Mother and Her Days
Japan Academy Film Prize for Picture of the Year: The Eternal Zero

Deaths in the film world:
The actress Awaji Keiko (age 80), known for her role in for example Stray Dog by Kurosawa.
Director Suzuki Norifumi (80), known  for cult films as The School of the Holy Beast as well as the Torakku Yaro series.
The actor Takakura Ken (83),
and Sugawara Bunta die at the respective ages of 83 and 81.

"The Light Shines Only There" (Soko nomi nite hikari kagayaku) by Oh Mipo is the tragic story of three young people set in Hakodate. Tatsuo (Ayano Go) is traumatized because he has caused an accidental death of a colleague in his job as stone worker - he now spends his days playing pachinko and his nights drinking; his new friend Takuji (Suda Masaki) is on parole after stabbing a man; and his sister Chinatsu (Ikewaki Chizuru) provides for the family by working as a prostitute. Tatsuo and Chinatsu set tentative steps towards a relation, but it is clear that luck will not be on their side. A grim film, but as there are no strange plot twists, much better than Oh's previous comedy. Not only the acting, but also the cinematography (by Kondo Ryuto) are first class. Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Another director who surprisingly has lost her magic is Kawase Naomi. "Still the Water" (Futatsume no mado) is for the first time set outside Kawase's native Nara Prefecture, on Japan's southern island of Amami-Oshima. It is a coming of age story that unfortunately is overshadowed by boring touristy images of various festivals and songs and dances. Instead of making a film like a documentary, as many directors who started filming in the 1990s did, including Kawase herself, Kawase here just inserts documentary elements in a feature film, without proper justification. Her first work, Suzaku, remains my favorite among her films. Cannes Film Festival.

Miike Takashi makes "Over Your Dead Body" (Kuime), a dull version of the classical ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan that has already been filmed countless times. Although this a not a straight remake as Miike introduces a new perspective by presenting the play in the form of a rehearsal by actors whose lives start running parallel to those of the protagonists of the play, the film never comes to life. The reason is that Miike forgets to fill in the lives and characters of the contemporary actors - we mainly see them in their luxury cars riding to and from the studio - and for the rest we have to watch a rather boring rehearsal. As regards Yotsuya Kaidan, I advise you to watch the version Nakagawa Nobuo made in 1959.

Kabukicho Love Hotel (Sayonara Kabukicho) by Hiroki Ryuichi is an ensemble drama and dark comedy set in a short-stay hotel. Telling the stories of the hotel’s guests, staff and self-deluded manager (Sometani Shota), Hiroki captures every nuance with his gently probing camera. Toronto International Film Festival.

"Pale Moon" (Kami no Tsuki) by Yoshida Daihachi stars Miyazawa Rie as Rika, working at a bank where she is in charge of wealthy customers to whom she has to make home visits, and unhappily married to a busy salaryman. She thinks she has found something more in life when she meets the young nephew of one of her clients, a student half her age, and starts an affair with him. Unfortunately, the bland boy is played by a juvenile who considering his non-existent acting, still has to go to Theater School. But also from the side of Miyazawa there is not a single spark of screen passion, so their relation is unconvincing, to say the least. Rika is more like an elder sister or surrogate mother, also when she starts stealing money out of the accounts of her clients, first to help the boy through college, later to buy him increasingly expensive presents. Yoshida nowhere makes plausible why she would take such a high risk, nor what she gets out of it. The boy leaves her finally in the lurch for a girl his own age and Rika's embezzling is caught by her shrewd supervisor, Ms Sumi (played by Kobayashi Satomi), a colleague who supports the system although she has reached a dead end in her career. The direction by Yoshida is dull like a TV film, the story is predictable, and even Miyazawa Rie, who elsewhere is a forthright presence, seems nervous and uncertain. This film is unfortunately too flawed to be a statement about the empowerment and liberation of a forty-year old woman in stratified Japanese society. Tokyo International Film Festival.

The remake merry-go-round takes another swing. Another famous film gets the treatment, this time Ichikawa Kon's Fires on the Plain (Nobi), based on a novel by Ooka Shohei, remade by Tsukamoto Shinya. Where Ichikawa's artful and humanistic work was a "horror of war" film, Tsukamoto's giallo product is a mere "war horror" film, with stacked corpses, decapitated heads and other splatter effects. When the subplot of cannibalism kicks in, we are finally and truly in zombie-land. Tsukamoto plays the lead character, inviting a negative comparison with the excellent Funakoshi Eiji of the earlier film. More than that, this awful movie almost invites a reevaluation of Tsukamoto's earlier work as a director. (Venice Film Festival) (premiere).

Miike Takashi also makes "As the Gods Will" (Kamisama no iu-tori), an old-fashioned splatter-fest based on a manga about "killer dolls:" a Daruma doll, a Maneki-neko cat, four Kokeshi dolls, a wood-carved ice bear and even a set of Matrioshka dolls. It is another gleeful carnage of high-school teenagers, although this time the story is so cartoonish and silly (taking its cue partly from Gantz) that it is less offensive than Aku no kyoten. But isn't this all old hat? Rome Film Festival.

[Reference works used: Currents In Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato (Tokyo, 1987); The Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie (reprint Tokyo, 1983); A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (Tokyo, 2001); Japanese Film Directors by Audrie Bock (Tokyo, 1985); A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors by Alexander Jacoby (Berkeley, 2008); A New History of Japanese Cinema by Isolde Standish (New York, 2005); The Japanese Period Film by S.A. Thornton (Jefferson & London, 2008); Eros plus Massacre, An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser (Bloomington and Indianopolis, 1988); Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1988); Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (Duke University Press: Durham, 2000); The Waves at Genji's Door by Joan Mellen (Pantheon Books: New York, 1976); Japanese Classical Theatre in Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); From Book to Screen by Keiko I. Macdonald (M.E. Sharpe: New York and London, 2000); Reading a Japanese Film by Keiko I. Macdonald (University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu, 2006); Behind the Pink Curtain, A Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2008); Contemporary Japanese Film by Mark Schilling (Weatherhill: New York and Tokyo, 1999); The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp (Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, 2005); Kitano Takeshi by Aaron Gerow (British Film Institute: London, 2007); Iron Man: the Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto by Tom Mes (Fab Press: Godalming, 2005); Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike by Jasper Sharp (Fab Press: Godalming, 2003); Nihon Eigashi by Sato Tadao (Iwanami Shoten: Tokyo, 2008, 4 vols.); Nihon Eigashi 110-nen by Yomota Inuhiko (Shueisha; Tokyo, 2014)]
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