Once every year, a year passes! Pundits, critics, observers far and wide seize the opportunity to assess yada yada yada. “Best Of 2017” lists pop up, also Grammy Nominations, BBC Music Magazine Awards, and much, much more. Who am I to hold back, nurturing my über-elitist attitudes?
Actually this gives me a chance to mention some great recordings I couldn’t work into a column last year. Readers can also rest assured that everything I chose for this particular list is well-recorded or better, as befits its presence in Copper. Meanwhile I rest assured that, since some of these albums popped up on other lists, I am occasionally getting it right. Some of them didn’t pop up elsewhere, which also proves something.
We could call these the Peter Awards, after the namesake of this fine column, but his truest fans would object, and rightly so! Heh. [ Or the PIT Award, after his initials? Nah. Hereinafter: The Schenbecks!!—-Ed.]
Ēriks Ešenvalds: The Doors of Heaven. Portland State Chamber Choir, dir. Ethan Sperry. Naxos 8.579008. This, the first album of Ešenvalds’ music recorded by an American chorus, certainly won’t be the last. Ešenvalds’ choral textures can be complex, but his unifying spiritual message emerges with enormous power. The PSCC performs masterfully. It’s an unusually mature sound for a college group. Choral timbres—augmented by percussion, jaw harp, overtone singer, and Native American flute—are gratifyingly solid, present, and well balanced throughout. Produced by Erick Lichte, himself a choral conductor; engineered by John Atkinson and Doug Tourtelot. Check out The First Tears, with text based on the Inuit creation stories of Raven and Whale.
Also noteworthy: So Is My Love. Ensemble 96, dir. Nina T. Karlsen. 2L–140. Extra points for the stunning multiformat high-resolution surround sound, maybe a few points off for a five-composer program in which the only consistent element is the love-song texts. Faultless performances; no jaw harp, but check out the Hardanger fiddle in track 1.
- Chamber Music
A Noble and Melancholy Instrument: Music for horns and pianos of the 19th century. Alec Frank-Gemmill, horn; Alasdair Beatson, piano. BIS-2228. Exactly what it says, beginning with an 1800 Beethoven sonata (Op. 17), ending with Dukas’ Villanelle (1906) and Gilbert Vinter’s Hunter’s Moon (1942). Okay, so perhaps not “exactly” what it says, but you get Schumann, Rossini, Saint-Saëns et al. performed on four different, historically appropriate pairs of horn and piano. In spite of all that ostentatious erudition, you’ll hear meticulously engineered, remarkably beautiful playing. (It is no easy feat to record horn-and-piano repertoire well, due to the instruments’ dauntingly different timbres and sound-projection profiles.) I recommend beginning with Dukas and Vinter, then moving backward through the album a couple of tracks at a time. The newer music is the most engaging, the oldest (Ludwig van) at once quite strange (because of the hand-stopping required) and quite commonplace (because its style wouldn’t have annoyed Haydn in the slightest). Frank-Gemmill’s witty, history-filled program notes begin with an observation from Charles Rosen: “The effect of musicology on performance is often to inspire the more ambitious musicians to make a nuisance of themselves.” Not here.
Also noteworthy: Debussy, Ravel, Chausson. Quatuor van Kuijk, with Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano, and Alphonse Cemin, piano. Alpha Classics 295. I know, I know: the Debussy and Ravel string quartets are among the most-recorded pair of works in the whole quartet catalogue. What’s so special about this set? Nothing, except it bristles with musicianly energy from beginning to end, never substituting fake passion, fake Gallic flavor, fake anything. I’ve listened again and again, because I like what they do and what they don’t do. Also, having Kate Lindsey aboard for the Chausson Chanson Perpétuelle is nice. (Click here for an interesting read about the Van Kuijks, percussionist Christoph Sietzen, and other youngsters we highlighted in 2017.)
- Early Music
A Lute by Sixtus Rauwolf. French and German Baroque Music. Jakob Lindberg, lute. BIS-2265. The mellow, exquisitely shaped sounds emanating from Lindberg’s instrument, originally built in Augsburg around 1590 and remodeled in Nuremberg in the early 18th century, provide the perfect antidote to the chaos, conflict, and crudity of our modern world. Dance suites by Dufault, Mouton, Kellner, and Weiss, all active in the late 17th or early 18th century; not meant for dancing, though.
Also noteworthy: Edinburgh 1742: Barsanti & Handel. Ensemble Marsyas, dir. Peter Whelan. Linn CKD567. At the center of this engaging collection are five concertos with horns by Francesco Barsanti (c1690–1775), an Italian émigré who served the Edinburgh Musical Society for eight years. He also set a number of “Old Scots Tunes,” four of which are included here. Featuring Alec Frank-Gemmill (see above) and his colleague Joseph Walters, horn players extraordinaire. Hearty, affectionate performances from a group long known for championing great wind music.
The King of Instruments: A Voice Reborn. Stephen Cleobury, organist. King’s College KGS0020. My new organ demo album. The Harrison & Harrison organ in the Chapel at King’s College, Cambridge dates from 1934; in spite of repairs and upgrades over the years, only recently was a major overhaul considered necessary. This celebratory album was recorded in January 2017, a scant two months after restoration was completed. New-ish works (Simon Preston, Harvey Grace, George Baker) alternate with standards (Mendelssohn, Franck, Bach), all presented with an irresistable combination of grace, power and transparency. Comprehensive notes, including a Revised Specification for the organ. Well done everyone!
Visions. Veronique Gens, soprano; Münchner Rundfunk Orchester, dir. Hervé Niquet. Alpha Classics 279. You don’t get to hear this music every day, especially on this side of the Atlantic. Gens released a fine album of French art songs a couple of years ago, and now she has produced a recital of French Romantic opera arias. The repertoire is organized around various notions of exaltation and ecstasy. As her program booklet says, “The protagonists are no longer themselves, they are more than themselves.” See pp. 18–19 of the CD booklet for the text of the selection below, a powerful scène from Genevieve by Bruneau (1857–1934). An aria from Bizet’s Clovis et Clotilde is available as well.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio for Strings. Pittsburgh SO, dir. Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings FR-724SACD. It’s been a rich year for recorded symphonic music, some of which I’ve covered in Copper. But I’ve grievously neglected the fine work done by Honeck in Pittsburgh, a neglect made more shameful because of Soundmirror’s crucial contribution. Whenever I sit down to hear one of these albums, I am drawn closer to the immediacy of live performance than with any other group/conductor/label. It’s all there: the electricity, the fierce sense of concentration, the sheer love of line and of shaping that line, the joy of allowing oneself to be led by a master interpreter and surrounded by other master executants. For those few minutes, it’s the Best Seat in the Best Hall with the Best Orchestra in the world.