Rest of the Best, 2016

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

As I write this, the Old Year is drawing to a close, so media outlets near and far are posting Best of 2016 lists in many categories. Even classical music gets a nod, especially in upscale publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (not much of a nod there, but check the Radiohead mention). If you’re an active fan or critic, it’s fun to see how their picks compare with your own. You do need to remember a couple things: (1) there’s too much “product” out there for you to hear—and judge—it all; (2) your own taste and experience matter; what you need and what Anthony Tommasini or Jim Fusilli highlight may be miles apart but equally valid. (That second caveat doesn’t apply unless you’ve actually been paying attention: no one develops an actual aesthetic stance—definable here as knowing what you like and why—without making an effort.)

As always, I got a kick out of seeing a few of my top picks show up this year in TAS or Stereophile or as Grammy nominees. On the other hand, some recordings I genuinely loved never found their way into Too Much Tchaikovsky. Either they didn’t fit a theme, or they duplicated repertoire I’d covered too recently. What follows are thumbnail recommendations for a half-dozen great classical recordings that otherwise got away this year.

Sibelius: Symphonies No. 3, 6, & 7. Minnesota Orchestra, Vänskä. BIS-2006; SACD. Minnesota’s plans for a complete Sibelius cycle began in 2012 with a stunning hi-res recording of 2 and 5, the composer’s most popular symphonies. They would have released this, their third and final installment, in 2015, the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth. A bitterly contentious 15-month lockout by orchestra management disrupted those plans and very nearly led to the demise of the orchestra itself. That it was able to regroup under a new contract and with new managers was itself a considerable achievement. The excellence of their now-completed Sibelius cycle indicates an artistic rebirth as well. These three symphonies vary widely in style, making them a good introduction to the composer’s work. (Although longtime Sibelius devotees will tell you that the mighty Second Symphony is a better place to begin!) Here is a bit of the brisk, clean Third’s triumphant first movement:

00:00 / 02:02

And the sombre opening of the single-movement Seventh:

00:00 / 02:18

Mozart: Great Mass in C Minor [K427]; Exsultate, Jubilate. Bach Collegium Japan, Suzuki. BIS-2171; SACD. Most of Mozart’s church music belongs to his childhood and youth in Salzburg, because he was obliged to write liturgical music there. Two works from his grownup years are exceptions, and exceptional. The Requiem is well-known thanks to the tragic circumstances of its creation. Here’s what I like about K427, the other: in 1782–83 Mozart was fully grown but still young, exploring the world of Bach and Handel for the first time courtesy of his friend and patron Baron van Swieten. He was also delving more deeply into the craft of opera, learning to create characters that move through a story with palpable desires and frailties. The Da Ponte operas lay ahead, but he already knew how to write thrilling music for a prima donna, which is to say for a character. You can sense all this in the Great Mass. (Soprano soloists play a major role.) Like the Requiem, it was left unfinished, but not for sad reasons. By 1783 Mozart was in great demand in Vienna; he needed time for other projects. Here’s a taste of the Kyrie, right at the moment where its monumental “Kyrie” (Lord, have mercy) gives way to “Christe” (Christ, have mercy) and C minor turns gracefully to E-flat-major :

00:00 / 02:05

Masaaki Suzuki must be having a blast. Having wrapped up his Bach cantata cycle, he’s now playing joyously in other fields. He pairs K427 with an orchestral “motet” for soprano, Exsultate, Jubilate. Carolyn Sampson, who made enormous contributions to the later Bach cantata albums, comes through in Mozart with expressive—and, in the case of Exsultate—exultantly athletic contributions; I don’t think I’ve ever heard her sing better for Suzuki.

“Death and the Maiden.” Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Alpha Classics ALPHA 265; 24/192 download available. What do you get when you pair up a fiercely independent, scrappy American chamber ensemble with the most creative, free-spirited violinist in Europe today? Here’s what. Music by Schubert—his great Quartet in D Minor D810, arranged for strings by PK herself (there’s an older arrangement by Gustav Mahler)—plus related tracks from Dowland, Gesualdo, György Kurtág, and medieval sources, done up with Kopatchinskaja’s signature blend of wit and intensity. Death has never sounded like so much fun. You can sample sizable chunks of everything here (try Kurtág’s “Ruhelos”). More with PK, not related to the SPCO’s Schubert project:



Michael Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway et al. Zuill Bailey, cello; Paul Jacobs, organ; Nashville SO, Guerrero. Naxos 8.559798. What do you get when a former Mister Smarty-Pants of American classical music decides to play it straight? Here’s the latest gratifying result. I’m old enough to remember when anything Michael Daugherty delivered to us came with a side of snide, a wink, an ironic sneer tucked in somewhere. Two works, his bassoon concerto Dead Elvis and opera Jackie O, stand out in that regard. But since Mount Rushmore and Niagara Falls (and probably before that), he has simply done what he loves: quote, paraphrase, and transform American vernacular music (Daugherty’s jazz bona fides go way back) in order to give us American portraits in sound. Here we get not only Papa but also Grant Wood and the Hearst Castle (or is it Citizen Kane’s Xanadu?). This feel-good music actually is good. Ably performed by the Nashville Symphony; nominated for a Grammy this year. See Daugherty’s Grove Dictionary entry here; the “composer background” essay is also good. And here is video of a complete performance of Tales by Mr. Bailey, the Detroit SO, and conductor Leonard Slatkin.

A couple quickies: (1) Debussy: Images pour orchestre; Jeux; La plus que lente. San Francisco SO, Thomas. SFS Media SFS 0069; SACD and download. (2) Jane Ira Bloom: Early Americans. Outline/Solo Luminus SL Editions SLE-70005; Blu-ray Pure Audio. I put these on the list because they’re the best-sounding records in this pile. You’re probably already aware of the San Francisco Symphony’s outstanding track record for sonics. This ain’t Mahler or even Mason Bates, but it still sounds terrific. Your ears and your equipment will thank you. The music is also well performed. Regarding Jane Ira Bloom: she plays straight horn, i.e., soprano sax, with consummate refinement. This post-mainstream, piano-less trio date heaps responsibility on sidemen Mark Helias (bass) and Bobby Previte (drums). Their rapport is singularly fine, but just wait until you hear the way they assume corporeal presence in your listening room. No kidding! True chamber music.

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