Classical Best of Winter 2014

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Winter? Spring? It’s been a while. Here is my almost-quarterly assortment of Best Recordings for Classically Minded Audiophiles.

Best Baroque: How many recordings of the Bach Brandenburgs on your shelf? I’m down to four: CDs of Britten/ECO, Savall/Les Concert des Nations, and Lamon/Tafelmusik, plus my beloved Gustav Leonhardt vinyl, which came with a complete facsimile of the autograph score. (Those were the days!) I remember owning others, but I gave them all away.

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Now I’m smitten once more. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra may be the best all-round group of its kind in the world. Their new traversal of the six Brandenburgs (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902176/77) is just terrific, especially if you enjoy “original” instruments, and most especially if you prefer exuberant, supercharged performances that risk the occasional scrappy moment. With the Freiburgers, it’s good scrappy. Here is the opening of Concerto No. 1 in F major:

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Those horns! To my ears, their raucous joy is perfect for this piece. Wait’ll you hear what they do in the fourth movement. Or hear this, the group’s Beethovenian take on the finale of the G-major concerto (No. 3):

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Yet these folks can provide grace and spontaneous charm (what Quantz called goût, or “taste”) in equal measure. They enliven the slow movement of No. 5 in D major with tasteful embellishments and judicious rhythmic sharpening:

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It’s an all-star collective, no conductor needed.The excellent musicians in this chamber-scaled performance of No. 5 include violinist Petra Müllejans, flutist Susanne Kaiser, and harpsichordist Sebastian Wienand, who also contributes a wondrously spirited cadenza in the first movement—it may be the first time I’ve heard that lengthy stretch of harpsichord noodling and not been tempted to hit the fast-forward button. From these excerpts, you may also have noticed another Freiburger strength, namely their uncanny ability to bring out the inherent dynamic rise and fall in every line, shaping the overall performance so that climaxes and releases occur as naturally as breathing. It’s recorded well too, the hint of hall ambience never swamping individual timbres or preventing us from hearing Bach’s sometimes-dense counterpoint. Besides the RBCD, a 24/96 download is available.

Best Backyard Baroque: It has only lately occurred to me that the young people have figured out something good and useful about music: Take it with you. Everywhere.

Which you can overdo, of course. Nevertheless I mean to venture forth from my Cave of Audiophile Wonders a little more often from now on. Last week I made some lemonade and wandered into the cool shade of the backyard, ambling in the direction of a comfortable lawn chair. Here’s the nifty part: before wandering and ambling, etc., I loaded lutenist Paul O’Dette’s new collection, My Favorite Dowland (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907515), into the living-room rig. I then fired up my wireless Sennheiser ‘phones and took them with me into the cool shade, etc. Wow. Perfect backyard, lemonade, lawn-chair music. Score one for the old guy.

Dowland

Now, you may never have thought of John Dowland (1563–1626) in the context of lawn chairs and lemonade. If so, you’re missing something. I’ll bet Dowland’s original patrons utilized this music in similar fashion. They certainly knew the delights of having a fine lutenist at their gatherings, which cannot have resembled a modern concert or recital entirely. For one thing, there were probably chicken wings. And lemonade, or the Elizabethan equivalent. And pleasant conversation between selections.

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That’s just a sample. The real joy is hearing one miniature, and then another, and another. Fantasies, galliards, pavanes, “fancyes,” “gigges,” “jumps,” and—of course—a couple of lachrimae. It helps that O’Dette is a master. He can make the most trifling piece resonate with meaning. And he can toss off an extremely difficult set of variations with apparent nonchalance, never letting its technical challenges interfere with its beauty. You may decide against acquiring all five volumes of O’Dette’s Dowland: Complete Lute Works (HM, download only), but you may want this little collection, especially if you possess a backyard.

Back to the Cave: Two outstanding orchestral discs—both live recordings—made their way to the top of my pile this quarter. One was the emotionally harrowing Mahler Sixth (ACC 10268, Blu-ray video; also available on DVD), Riccardo Chailly’s latest installment in a series for Accentus. The Gewandhausorchester Leipzig proves more than equal to its task, plunging headlong into an unflinching encounter with the music’s epic narrative. Thanks to Chailly’s twofold understanding of the score—in its executive dimensions, but also in a deeper autobiographical aspect for Mahler—we experience this Sixth as both musical triumph and tragic prophecy. By the time we arrive at what would have been the final hammer-blow of Fate (omitted here in favor of a moment of stony silence, as per the composer’s ultimate revision), our intimate journey with Mahler and his struggle against mortality has been joined to an exultant sense of victory: this conductor and this orchestra have wrestled a superb account from the mere notes in the score. It’s a textbook demonstration of the cathartic power of music.

I have finally become more comfortable with visual presentations like this. Producer Paul Smaczny and his crew have accomplished a nearly impossible task: a succession of close-ups, long shots, conductor gestures, etc., that seldom distract from the music, more often calling our attention to significant details of scoring and form. The sight of the players’ passionate involvement adds enormously to the experience. The sound, whether PCM stereo or dts-HD Master Audio, is (as ever with this series) first-rate.

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Equally exhilarating is a new release from the ever-reliable Reference Recordings, namely vol. 1 (RR FR-707SACD) of a projected series, Pittsburgh Live! Three tone poems by Richard Strauss, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, and Till Eulenspiegel, are conducted by the Pittsburgh SO’s music director Manfred Honeck. (They’ll bring out vol. 2, Bruckner’s Fourth, later this Spring.) I don’t know if this the “best” performance ever recorded of these symphonic warhorses. It’s only the most exciting I’ve heard in many years. This is a great orchestra, and they are captured in top-notch form by Soundmirror’s Dirk Sobotka, Mark Donahue, and John Newton at Heinz Hall.

It is hard to choose an excerpt that does justice to this album, because one of its best features is the sheer forward flow of the music. Every note bristles with energy, an energy that also shapes notes into phrases, phrases into periods, and so on until the stories are told. The recording was “made and post produced in 64fs DSD on a Pyramix workstation” using a principal array of five DPA 4006 microphones plus spot mics as needed. There’s plenty of detail throughout the spectrum, balance is expertly maintained, and audience noise virtually nonexistent (although the maestro—or someone—can be heard muttering and crooning in a couple of the big horn passages). You won’t hear cavernous bass, but when the contrabasses, contrabassoon, or bass drum make a contribution, you will hear it, appropriately balanced, well-imaged, and uncolored.

Here’s a moment from their Don Juan:

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Honorable Mentions: About a month ago I got a cryptic email from a musical friend. The subject line was “Kalevi Aho,” the entire message “Are you familiar with the works of this composer?”

I thought I was. I had two CDs of his symphonic works, but I had decided not to get any more Aho (b. 1949) unless someone left me their lifetime subscription to the All BIS All the Time Club. I told my friend, “the big problem with Aho is that the music just blares and tweets and occasionally swells or diminishes.  . . . It doesn’t go anywhere.”

And then my friend wrote back and recommended five—five!—Aho albums that he rather enjoyed.

Thanks to that email, I’ve found some Aho I like. His Solo X for solo horn, for example. It’s on a nice BIS recording (SACD-1859, also downloadable) with two horn trios, by Brahms and Ligeti, that you should get to know. More recently Aho’s done a concerto for double bass that’s well worth hearing. I encountered it on another BIS recording (1866; SACD) that couples it (trios it?) with his Symphony No. 15 and another work, Minea, written for Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra. (Go, MO!)

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This music does go somewhere. It gets there a bit more slowly than I, an impatient American, would sometimes prefer. But perhaps that makes it ineffably, cherishably more Finnish. Along the way, its textures and conversations can be ravishing indeed. The five movements of Concerto for Double Bass (2005), featuring the Lahti Symphony and principal bassist Eero Munter, offer a veritable encyclopedia of bass techniques. The second movement is a “cadenza” for bass and harp, for example:

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There’s a complementary fourth-movement cadenza for bass and two percussionists, while the third movement, Aho tells us, requires harmonics “beyond the end of the fingerboard, right up to the highest possible notes.” And in the tranquillo section, the soloist gets to explore the lowest register of his instrument. Aho’s trademark textural richness—very much in evidence in Minea and the Symphony—comes more into play in the opening movement:

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I liked it, okay? But I have to admit that I found another recent solo-bass release just a bit more accessible. That is Rick Stotijn’s Basso Bailando (Channel Classics CCS SA 33613), featuring violinist Malin Broman, harpist Lavinia Meijer, and the Swedish Radio SO. Listen:

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Stotijn opens and closes the album with piquant arrangements of works by Astor Piazzolla (Cuatro estaciones porteñas, or The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) and Manuel de Falla (the Siete canciones populares españolas). The latter features Meijer, while the former partners Stotijn with Broman (who really rocks out) and the strings of the SRSO. These works provide infectious counterweights (counterlofts?) to the academic conservatism of Nino Rota’s Divertimento Concertanto for Double Bass and Orchestra, written for Franco Petracchi, contrabass virtuoso who taught at the conservatory at Bari while Rota was its director. (Petracchi was one of Eero Munter’s teachers; if you’re a bass player, it’s a small world.)

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Jared Sacks produced and engineered these recordings, using B&K 4006 (yes, they are the parent company of DPA) and Schoeps microphones and an all-DSD digital conversion and editing chain. The resulting sound seems more transparent than the Aho recording, initially produced with Neumann mics in 44.1 kHz/24-bit PCM; I heard it on SACD. The slight opacity of PCM-via-SACD sound—which I’ve experienced on other BIS discs—is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to double-bass timbre: there’s more body to Munter’s instrument on BIS than you hear from Stotijn on Channel Classics. Of course: different players, different instruments, different halls, different repertoire. Nevertheless I prefer the sound of the B&K/DPA mics and the “pure” DSD from Reference Recordings and Channel Classics. On my equipment, there’s almost always something a bit more closed-in about 24-bit PCM.

On the other hand, the most fun I’ve had lately with a download was a 24-bit AIFF file I got from the Chicago Symphony via HD Tracks. It’s eminently recommendable if you like big, noisy 21st-century American orchestral music. Name of the “album” is Riccardo Muti Conducts Mason Bates and Anna Clyne.

Anna Clyne’s Night Ferry is an explosive one-movement work loosely based on The Rime of the Ancient Marriner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But it also references Franz Schubert, Robert Lowell via Seamus Heaney, and much more (read about the music here). She first created a series of graphic images that guided her musical composition. And then:

I couldn’t help comparing Clyne’s chaotic, anarchically alive portrait of the sea with the oft-becalmed waters of Jake Heggie’s latest opera, Moby-Dick. But that’s not a fair comparison, for a number of reasons. See below.

Bates’ Alternative Energy is a four-movement suite that combines post-Varèse orchestral sound with a dab of electronica to produce a cyclic progression that leads programmatically from Henry Ford’s workshop to the Fermilab and thence to China and Iceland (read about the music here). It’s sometimes loud, but it’s also delicate, rhythmically witty, and ultimately moving. Give it a try.

Best Opera: Will the Great American Opera ever get written? Some would say it already exists. We have Porgy and Bess, The Ballad of Baby Doe, Nixon in China, and many more works that are going to live on in people’s hearts and history books, and rightly so. Never mind that it’s not getting any easier to create opera in America, or to get those crucial second and third and fourth productions mounted.

The trick seems to be this: above all, remember We the People. From the moment of its birth as a commercial enterprise in 1600s Venice, opera has been the most popular of the art-music genres. Italians young and old, rich and poor, embraced it in a way that they never allowed for chamber music or orchestral works. In 21st-century America too, opera is the only professional art-music genre that seems to be expanding, not contracting, in terms of audience support.

So I take pleasure in reporting another American opera likely to stick around. It’s Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie (b. 1961), native of Florida, longtime San Francisco resident, and already a veteran of the American operatic wars. He first leapt into view with his adaptation of Dead Man Walking (2000), based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book and the 1995 movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Heggie has written several more operas, song cycles, and other works since those heady days, but it’s safe to predict that Moby-Dick is going to stand out among them for a long time.

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Heggie’s trick, if you can call it that, is that he writes familiar-sounding, vocally grateful lines, sensitive to the text, perfectly capturing a character in the dramatic moment. He does this in a musical idiom that advances the language not one whit beyond Puccini. Or beyond Douglas Moore or Carlisle Floyd, the last two American masters of post-Romantic opera.

His impeccable knowledge of what singers can do and what they enjoy doing comes from years working with Frederica von Stade, Susan Graham, and other fine singers. Besides that, he knows what an audience wants from opera: Loneliness. Desire. Passion. Conflict. Fulfillment. If he can provide all that with music that recalls the Bernard Herrmann of Vertigo and the Dmitri Tiomkin of classic Hollywood westerns, why shouldn’t such a feat redound to his greater glory? Maybe in our post-modern musical world, it will.

Even so, when I started watching the excellent San Francisco Opera Blu-ray of Moby-Dick (EuroArts 2059654), I thought first of Meyerbeer and Gounod. Those two masters of 19th-century French opera wrote beautiful tunes first and last, seldom worrying overmuch about character development, dramatic depth, and all that. Gounod’s Faust, which was extraordinarily popular up until World War II, concerns itself with the love story and supernatural fantasy of the Faust legend, not with the philosophical questions raised in Goethe’s Faust: The Second Part. Meyerbeer, for his part, relied on special effects to bring crowds into the theater and keep them entertained—his opera L’Africaine, for example, depicted a storm at sea climaxing in a shipwreck.

Hmm. Moby-Dick offers a storm at sea climaxing in a shipwreck too. (Hope that wasn’t a spoiler for anyone.) Yet for the first hour or so, I kept thinking, Gee, for an epic tale about a whaling captain’s maniacal quest, set in the raging Atlantic, this certainly has a lot of intimate, meditative moments. Much of Act I consists of duets and dialogues that establish characters and relationships: Starbuck, Queequeg, the Greenhorn (i.e., Ishmael), and of course Ahab, who stands apart. These are beautifully done, every one of them. Nevertheless, a little voice whispers to me: Gounod.

With their clever stage setups and computerized projections, the production people at the SF Opera do eventually persuade us of the sea’s vastness and danger. Heggie’s orchestral music also helps, although I found myself wondering why he didn’t venture musically a little further into the chaos-and-danger waters. In sheer orchestral terms, only the climactic final scene really gets the job done. (And a little voice whispers to me: that’s why it’s the climactic final scene, isn’t it?)

The tunes—including some haunting leitmotifs—remain gorgeous, the character conflicts emerge with considerable force, and by the time we reach that catastrophic conclusion, you will have been swept along by the music and the story, and you will know that you have seen a Great American Opera. Librettist Gene Scheer even works in a few big ideas, about obsession and courage, Manifest Destiny, and more. Melville would have liked that.

Singing and acting are uniformly superb, with honors across the board to Jay Hunter Morris (Ahab), Stephen Costello (Greenhorn), Morgan Smith (Starbuck), Jonathan Lemalu (Queequeg), and Talise Trevigne (Pip). Visuals are often astonishing; they may register almost as strongly on this video presentation as they did in the theater. The recording is occasionally congested, as will happen in live performances, but overall it serves the performances well.

Right now you can preview as much or as little of Moby-Dick as you like, using this PBS Great Performances link. Just remember that the first third of the opera does not reveal much of the narrative power of the last third. (Update, 5/29/14: you can find a three-minute “highlights” take on YouTube, and a number of videos related to the San Diego performances, but I have not posted any of that here. The three-minute preview gives a particularly poor impression of the opera, because it prevents the viewer/listener from gaining any sense of context, and thus of the musical flow and psychological continuity.)

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And furthermore: If you want more Heggie, there’s here/after, a PentaTone release (PTC 5186515) of recent songs and chamber music featuring Costello, Trevigne, Nathan Gunn, Joyce DiDonato, and other fine performers. It includes Heggie and Scheer’s memorial work Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston. Recommended.

Also, among these “Best Of” selections I really should have included the newly available Blu-ray of Written on Skin, the George Benjamin opera I reviewed earlier for PS Tracks. The Royal Opera House production includes the same principal singers as the previously released CD. Benjamin’s work is more cerebral than Moby-Dick. Don’t know if you’ll find that a plus or minus.

Coming Soon: Still have a boatload (sorry!) of new releases to cover, but we are out of space this time. Our next installment is dedicated to Leoš Janáček, phenomenal 20th-century composer and tortured soul. Then we’ll hit the new releases again, concentrating on recent long-term recording projects that have wrapped, or are about to — i.e., “Series Finales.” See you then!