Here's a grab bag of holiday gifts in the performing arts including books, CDs, DVDs. It's random and far from comprehensive, but these are a few of the things that have crossed my desk this season that I'd like to find under the tree.
One of my personal highlights this past year was taking in the San Francisco Opera production of Wagner's Ring cycle, and I'm always on the lookout for ways to deepen my understanding of the mighty epic. So one of the most welcome DVD releases of the year for me is the 11-disc reissue of the Daniel Barenboim/Harry Kupfer cycle made at the Bayreuth Festival in the early 1990s. Barenboim is a great Wagner conductor, and Kupfer's post-modern staging has been influential as well as prescient: The fiery climax of Gotterdammerung has a fashionable crowd watching the end of the world on TV, a scene that suggests 9/11 to some commentators. The casting has a British flavor — with John Tomlinson as Wotan and Anne Evans as Brunnhilde — and the Kultur Video release is a bargain at $74.99 at arkivmusic.com.
The Wagner books continue to get churned out. The most recent to offer something new is Wagner and the Erotic Impulse by Laurence Dreyfus (Harvard University Press, 266 pages, $27.95). "What is it in the notes and sounds — in their melodies, harmony, orchestration, rhythm and texture — that arouse thoughts of sexual desire?" asks Dreyfus of Wagner's music. Another notable opera book is Garry Wills' meditation on two masters of the stage, Verdi's Shakespeare: Men of the Theater (Viking, 225 pages, $25.95).
On the CD front, some of my favorites this year have been the historic live broadcast recordings from the archives of the Metropolitan Opera on the Sony Classical label. This series of budget releases, without printed librettos, includes gems such as a Tosca from 1962, with Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli and Cornell MacNeil in the three principal roles of the Puccini opera, and a 1960 broadcast of Beethoven's Fidelio, starring Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers, with Karl Bohm conducting.
Once again Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim is author of the theater book of the year, with Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011), with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany (Alfred A. Knopf, 456 pages, $45). Following last year's first volume, it includes lyrics and commentary on Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins and Passion, as well as an exegesis of Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show, the various versions of Sondheim's musical on Wilson and Addison Mizner, a pair of brothers who had a role in the Florida real estate boom and bust in the 1920s.
Follies, Sondheim's bittersweet love letter to show business, is represented in a P.S. Classics two-disc cast recording of the revival now on Broadway, starring Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines and Elaine Paige. There's also a reissue of a famous 1985 concert version of the musical, with the New York Philharmonic backing Carol Burnett, Elaine Stritch, Lee Remick, Mandy Patinkin and other stars; the two-CD Masterworks Broadway release of Follies: In Concert also includes Sondheim's score for the Alain Resnais movie Stavisky.
Boxed sets don't seem quite as numerous as they used to be, but there's one this season that would be an ideal gift for the flutist in your life, a 12-CD compilation on the Red Seal label of the great James Galway in concertos by Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi, Mozart, Ibert, Nielsen and many others. Pianist Murray Perahia has been on an amazing run of recordings lately — Bach and Mozart in particular — and his all-Brahms release for Sony Classical includes a fine performance of the Handel Variations. The string quartet is the subject of Wendy Lesser in Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets (Yale University Press, 350 pages, $28). Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review, brings a refreshingly literary (as opposed to musicological) style to her exploration of these powerful works.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.