Stocking Stuffers 2014

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Over the last few months I’ve watched recordings accumulate in my listening room while I worked on other projects or tended to my day job. At last it’s time to write about the keepers in that pile: here are some great new albums that you can get your audiophile loved ones this month. (Alternatively, just stick this list where someone who loves you will see it!)

1. You Had Me at ‘Dvořák’

Dvorak_6thThere’s a feast of symphonic literature waiting for you this holiday season. The sleeper in my pile was a delightful Dvořák set from James Gaffigan and the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902188; CD and download). Big news here is the Symphony No. 6, as warm-hearted a pastoral idyll as you’ll find—it calls to mind Beethoven’s 6th or Brahms’ 2nd, the latter of which may have directly inspired it. From its first phrases onward, this music—youthful, dynamic, life-embracing—will lift you. Listen:

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The slow movement complicates its bucolic manner with passionate, even tragic outbursts that let you know Dvořák was a grownup. There’s no false innocence in his very human view of the countryside. And when he brings in a furiant Czech dance for the scherzo—

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—all that passion gets a welcome release. The album is rounded off with the “American” Suite, op. 98, a set of miniatures described (by HM’s promotion people, I assume) as “an exotic patchwork of Amerindian and Afro-American music but with a pronounced Bohemian accent.” Hmm. They’re trifles, and not very exotic-sounding, at least to my ears. But like the symphony, this music is handled with love. I can’t emphasize enough just how fresh Gaffigan and the Luzerners make it all sound. (Speaking of sound, it’s quite good!) Highly recommended.

My other Dvořák find is probably in your collection already: Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony in a live performance of No. 8 (Reference Recordings FR-710SACD). This release has gotten attention from the big audiophile mags, so I will keep my remarks short.

Dvorak_8th  Nielsen_4thI compared Honeck’s No. 8 with Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Philips/Channel Classics). Although Honeck’s tempi are slightly slower, he usually creates a compelling, coherent flow of musical ideas, important in a work as discursive as this. In the volatile Adagio, the Pittsburghers connect all the dots while never failing to realize individual moments. Audience noise is more intrusive in this release than in their Strauss outing, partly because of the music’s wide dynamic range, but it’s acceptable. The filler, an exciting Symphonic Suite from Jenůfa devised by the conductor, makes a good reason to get this even if you already own too much Dvořák.

So now let me say a word about a third orchestral recording: Carl Nielsen, Symphony No. 4 “The Inextinguishable”; Symphony No. 1 (DaCapo 6.220624; SACD). Taken from live performances, this is only the second of Alan Gilbert’s projected complete Nielsen set with the New York Philharmonic. Like the first installment, it made me immediately hanker for more Nielsen, please! The composer said he wanted to express the Life Urge, “everything that moves, that has the will to life.” Listen:

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One of the most attractive features of this work is its alternation of big orchestral effects with delicate chamber-like scoring. Star producer/engineer Preben Iwan was on hand to pull off the needed tricks. Thanks to him, a solo cello line from Carter Brey comes as well-imaged, as nicely wrapped in its acoustic space, as the big brass tutti that may thunder in a moment later.

2. Keyboard Kapers

C. P. E. Bach: Württemberg Sonatas. Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord (Hyperion CDA67995; disc and download). The first thing you’ll notice is the sound of the harpsichord. It’s different, and that’s good. Mr. Esfahani plays a modern Czech instrument modeled after those of Michael Mietke (1671–1719), harpsichord-maker to the Berlin Court. (C. P. E.’s father probably created that big harpsichord solo in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 for one of Mietke’s instruments.) “The . . . 4′ strings [pluck] more toward the midpoint of the string than the other registers, [which] results in . . . 8′ and 4′ combinations that have a particularly singing quality.” Yes, this harpsichord really does sing. Less clatter-and-buzz, more tone—rounder, warmer, more sustained, much more vocal. In Mr. Esfahani’s hands, moreover, these six early sonatas by J. S.’s talented son emerge as genuine masterworks, full of fire, wit, and a spirit of adventure. Listen:

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Wurttemberg_EsfahaniIt’s not all fireworks. C. P. E. fashioned many of his arguments with mercurial rhetoric, tossing out comments and poses that turn on a dime or build convincingly with the sort of “development” we associate with Sturm-und-Drang-era Haydn:

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The middle movements offer welcome lyricism:

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Although C. P. E. later acquired a reputation for eccentricity, the Württemberg Sonatas contain no puzzlers, no indigestible stretches—just a great composer discovering his powers. (Warning: even more so than usual, the little mp3 clips provided here do not do justice to this recording. You must play it on serious equipment to realize the tonal beauty it harbors.)

Get this one for somebody who’s always wanted to like the sound of the harpsichord but never quite could.

Robert Schumann: Variationen & Fantasiestücke. Andreas Staier, piano (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902171; disc and download). Another old instrument: an Erard, Paris 1837. There’s something about the fragile, slightly constricted sound of the Erard that may evoke for you Schumann as Romantic poet: his relatively brief, turbulent life did not lack for inner adventure. Staier offers abundant evidence of Schumann’s gifts and limitations in this chronologically ordered assortment of short piano works. Two sets of Fantasiestücke are framed by the composer’s opus 1, the Abegg-Variationen (dedicated to “Countess Pauline von Abegg,” whose last name supplies the theme), and his op. posth. Variations in E Flat Major (the “Ghost Variations,” left unfinished at his death). Altogether they trace the shooting star that Schumann’s creative gift resembled. The “Abegg” Variations threaten to gallop off in three directions at once, showing us a young man not only capable of “fantastic” improvisations but preferring them above all else.

Schumann_StaierThe Fantasiestücke, op. 12 (two sets of four short character pieces) and op. 111 (three more fully developed works) give us Schumann at his height. Between 1837 and 1851—about 14 years—he created nearly all the music by which he is remembered. It is tempting to hear the op. 12 pieces as sketches for works like op. 111. Having them together on this album makes the comparison easy. But I find myself more drawn to op. 12’s varied fragments. Brief and disparate, their scattershot ideas seem more characteristic of both Schumann and Romanticism itself. Listen to Grillen (“Whims,” marked “mit Humor”):

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and then to Fabel (“Fable”):

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Staier ends the collection with a set of variations that lay unpublished for years. Schumann was already suffering from his final illness when he imagined that angels had dictated the theme to him. It is heartbreaking to hear these little pieces, so stunted and ingrown, having just experienced what he could do at the zenith of his powers.

I have long admired Andreas Staier’s playing but largely for his work in the Baroque and Classic repertoire. It’s a treat to hear him tackle Schumann, and I look forward to more Romantic masterworks from this great interpreter. Get this one for someone who doesn’t have a shelf-full of Schumann’s music played by the likes of Arrau, Rubinstein, Kempff, et al.

3. New and Unusual

Peter Sculthorpe: The Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu (Sono Luminus DSL-92181; Pure Audio Blu-ray and CDs). Beginning in the 1950s, Australian Peter Sculthorpe (1929–2014) brought the sonic landscape of Australia, especially the Outback and his native Tasmania, into the classical music tradition. Later he also found inspiration in the music of Bali and elsewhere in the Pacific Basin.

Sculthorpe_QuartetsIn 2001 William Barton, a young Indigenous musician, approached the composer and asked him to consider adding the didjeridu to his music. Members of the Kronos Quartet had already made similar requests, but—sensitive to the issues raised when non-Indigenous artists directly appropriate Indigenous materials—Sculthorpe had demurred. Working with Barton, a countryman of the Kalkadunga people of Queensland, he now fashioned a new version of his String Quartet No. 12. Later that year, he added dijeridu to several orchestral pieces, and the die was cast.

Sculthorpe felt strongly drawn to the quartet medium throughout his life, so the four works included on this release present a good overview of his career. Although key concerns—environmental degradation, the fate of the Indigenous peoples, refugees and immigrants—echo throughout this repertoire, there is enough variety to make the listener’s journey rewarding from beginning to end. You may think you know what a didjeridu sounds like, but you have no idea what it’s capable of until you’ve heard Stephen Kent play one (actually he plays several, since drones must coordinate with the tonality of the quartet parts). Listen:

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And:

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The Bay Area-based Del Sol Quartet gives committed, knowledgeable performances, enhanced by high-resolution multichannel recordings achieved at Sono Luminus’ Virginia studios (kudos to Grammy winners Dan Merceruio, producer, and Daniel Shores, chief engineer). The sound is vividly “present,” well-balanced, and richly timbred. MP3s and FLAC files are included for transfer to mobile players. The booklet includes session photos, recording data, and Graeme Skinner’s exemplary background notes on each of the quartets; you’ll actually want to read them beginning to end. This would make a terrific gift for that globe-trotting environmentalist on your list, and for anyone who wants to hear something “new” that’s actually centuries old.

Mortensen_PercussionThe Percussion Universe of Axel Borup-Jørgensen. Gert Mortensen, percussion, with Percurama Percussion Ensemble, Duo Crossfire, DNSO Brass Quintet, et al. (OUR Recordings 6.220608; SACD). This is probably not for everyone. Yet no effort has been spared—guests here include recorder whiz Michala Petri (hey, it’s her label!), violist Tim Frederiksen, and star Chinese percussionist Qiao Jia Jia, half of Duo Crossfire with Mr. Mortensen. It’s faultlessly produced and engineered by Preben Iwan.

All of which prompts a question: who was Axel Borup-Jørgensen (1924–2012)? Born in Denmark, he grew up in Sweden. His piano teacher tried to interest him in music through popular songs; that didn’t work. It wasn’t until he heard Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata that he got the message. Thereafter music became his obsession. Although he became aware of the avant-garde in the 1960s, he continued to follow his own path. Apparently it was a path of stillness and subtlety interrupted from time to time by really loud banging on things.

All right, that’s not entirely fair. This is percussion music, so one must expect a certain amount of, well, percussion. The music will certainly test your equipment’s transient responses and much more. But keep this also in mind: winter in Sweden is dark and cold and long. In his heart, Borup-Jørgensen was a Swede.

It’s hard to find a one-minute clip that will sell you on this recording. The selection I most quickly warmed to (sorry!) was Music for Percussion & Viola, from the mid-1950s:

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Makes a good gift for percussionists, of course, and anyone else on your list who’s into both Zen meditation and heavy metal.

4. Chamber Music

One of my picks in this category is a standard, while the other ventures into lesser-known regions. Did you know that Mozart and Haydn were friends? That they played string quartets together? Mozart was so in awe of his older friend’s talent for quartet writing that he dedicated six of his best efforts to him. And thus we have Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets. Three of them (K. 387, 428, and 465 “Dissonance”) appear on the Cuarteto Casals’ newest release (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902186; CD and download).

Cuarteto_Casals  Tre_VociLet’s talk string quartet for a moment. This is one of the oldest and most venerated chamber-music genres around, and yet it’s become one of the liveliest places to go for new sounds (see above). People are waking up to just how “relatable” quartets can be—even the New York Times has weighed in on the subject. I suppose we owe this to the pioneering efforts of Kronos and others. But still—I caught the Harlem Quartet a couple of weeks ago when they passed through Georgia. Wonderful performances of Haydn op. 76 no. 2 “Fifths” and Mendelssohn op. 80 “Requiem for Fanny.” Between those two warhorses, they offered an assortment of Ellingtonia and Afro-Cuban dance numbers. What knocked me out was this: we heard the Cuban numbers differently because of the Haydn, and the Mendelssohn differently because of the Ellington. These players’ ardent, incisive performances connected everything.

My point is that Cuarteto Casals plays Mozart differently too, because (1) they are bred-in-the-bone Spanish (okay, there’s one guy from Chicago); (2) they are young, having started the group when they were teenagers; and (3) they work with a wider range of music: standard repertoire, obscure Spanish works, living composers, Baroque or Classic works and HIP when appropriate. They bring enormous energy to pieces that sometimes “inspire” other groups to subtract the passion and get down-and-dainty. Listen to the way they tear into this minuet from K. 387:

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I cracked open a score to see just how those accented rising chromatic lines were marked in the music. Mozart used alternating dynamics, p f p f p f p f etc., creating (together with other rhythmic-displacement effects) a duple-meter feeling that overrides the triple-meter gestalt of the minuet. This is the sort of thing that Haydn delighted in doing—so what we’re hearing is Mozart paying tribute to his friend’s process. I have never heard that line performed with as much flair as these young Barcelonians provide. Not only will I keep this album in my playlist, I’m going to get Cuarteto Casals’ set of the Haydn op. 33, now available in a budget reissue. Here’s more, their near-Brahmsian take on the slow movement of K. 428:

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And now to lesser-known regions. Tre Voci, with Kim Kashkashian, viola; Sivan Magen, harp; and Marina Piccinini, flute (ECM New Series 4810880; CD and download). Here are two of my favorite musicians plus a fine flutist playing music that may as well have been written for them: Debussy’s elegant, elusive Sonata for flute, viola, and harp. To this centerpiece of the flute-viola-harp repertoire (heh heh) they have added And then I knew ‘twas Wind by longtime Debussy acolyte Tōru Takemitsu. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten rounds out the collection. Her piece also sounds indebted to Debussy, if only because her exhaustive studies of music from Asia and the Caucuses paralleled the older composer’s debt to Asian music, incurred fifty years earlier.

I suggest that you begin with Gubaidulina. Her title comes from verse by Armenian poet and balladeer Sayat Nova (1712–1795):

The revelation of the rose
The ordeal of a flower’s pain
The peal of the singing garden grew
The lotus was set aflame by music
The white garden began to ring again with diamond borders

According to the composer, musically “the form of this piece is the opposition of the bright, major coloration of the sphere of natural harmonics against the expression of . . . minor second and minor third.”

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Takemitsu’s title relates to a line from Emily Dickinson:

Like Rain it sounded till it curved
And then I knew ‘twas Wind—
It walked as wet as any Wave
But swept as dry as sand . . .

Jürg Stenzl’s excellent booklet notes (a welcome development in ECM-land) remind us that Takemitsu wanted his work to be performed together with the Debussy Sonata. In measure 22 he quotes the first six pitches of Debussy’s work, captioning the quotation so that no one will miss it. Yet Takemitsu added his own touches as well: a number of the “extended techniques” he requires have the effect of echoing traditional Japanese musical sounds.

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After you have absorbed Gubaidulina and Takemitsu, your attention span sufficiently deepened, you will relish the relative simplicity of Debussy:

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For more, click here. Exquisitely engineered by Markus Heiland at RSI Lugano; produced by Manfred Eicher. Ms. Kashkashian took the lovely cover photo.

5. Americana

Carter_PannCarter Pann: The Piano’s 12 Sides. Joel Hastings, piano (Naxos 8.559751). Pann is a young composer and pianist who has already made a name for himself—among other achievements, he’s won five ASCAP awards and a Charles Ives Fellowship. To judge from this album, he deserved them. Here’s a snippet of William Bolcom – An Elaborate Fancy, a short piece he wrote in 1997 while studying at the University of Michigan, where Bolcom teaches:

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Things get out of hand later on, but in a good way. You’ll have to get the album to hear that. Here’s the ending to one of the Piano’s 12 Sides, an intriguing set of homages to friends, teachers, students, and pianist Joel Hastings’ talent in particular. This movement is called Classic Rock, for a teenage songwriter that Pann mentored. He says you will hear an “unmistakable nod to a past composer” at about 1’02” (the composer appears elsewhere in this column):

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Pann wears his varied influences proudly on his sleeve, but there are enough clever, original moments in this album to allow us fond hopes for the future. Incidentally, the original 88.2kHz/32-bit recording was made with two Josephson C617 omnidirectionals; hi-res downloads are available out there. Definitely recommended.

6. Don’t They Know It’s Christmas?

We’re out of space, and I haven’t mentioned any actual Christmas records yet. Here are two. One is my personal favorite, a stunning collection of new and old carols and motets from New York Polyphony, Sing Thee Nowell (BIS-2099 SACD). Learn more here. For those with more conservative tastes, bear in mind Favourite Carols from King’s (CD; King’s College Cambridge KGS0007) and Carols from King’s (DVD; King’s College Cambridge DVD KGS0008). More information here.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy Hanukkah! Heri za Kwanzaa! Happy New Year! I’ll see you in January.