It’s that time of year again; maybe you’re still in need of a few things. And so I’m offering this simple phrase (no, sorry!) uh, these can’t-miss gift suggestions, a mix of the familiar and obscure. Which also gives me a chance to mention terrific music I had to cut from previous columns. Nothing’s been freezer-burned. It’s all good.
Nelson Freire: Brahms (Decca). This wonderful collection by the veteran Brazilian pianist appeared in 2017, but I’ve only just caught up with it. Kind of a Greatest (Piano) Hits album, it begins with the symphonically-scaled Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, written when Brahms was 20:
Later in life, Brahms concentrated on short character pieces with abstract titles: intermezzo, capriccio, ballade, rhapsody. Most of Freire’s album consists of those glorious products of the composer’s maturity. Here is some of the meditative Intermezzo in E Major:
Debussy: Les Trois Sonates/The Late Works (Harmonia Mundi). HM is commemorating the Debussy Centenary with albums featuring uniform package design and their best artists. Les Trois Sonates may be especially attractive because its repertoire is less familiar. Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras, and Antoine Tamestit are among the performers. The violin and cello sonatas receive outstanding treatment, and the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp is a welcome companion to them.
Tormented by the Great War and the cancer that eventually killed him, Debussy composed little between 1914 and ‘18. But when his depression lifted in 1915, he wrote to a friend that he was “learning music all over again.” Besides the cello and trio sonatas, he completed En blanc et noir for two pianos and twelve Études that summer (neither are on this album, which offers four less-familiar piano works). So let’s hear some of the cello sonata’s mercurial “Sérénade”:
Very inventive, something new under the sun! The violin sonata, composed in 1916 and ’17, cost Debussy far more effort but features another whimsical middle movement:
Whether you’ve been celebrating Debussy all year or you’ve purposely avoided the party, you’ll find music to enjoy here.
Stephen Hough’s Dream Album (Hyperion). I caught Mr. Hough in recital at Atlanta’s Spivey Hall several weeks ago, and it was, as always, a many-splendored treat. As an encore, he offered this, which some of you will recognize instantly:
I knew it, not because I’ve ever heard Desert Island Discs but because my father whistled it nearly every day of his life (the ascending pitch sequence is not that easily mastered!). It’s a tune by Eric Coates, beloved British composer of so-called light music, called “By the Sleepy Lagoon.” American bandleader Harry James made a hit of it in 1942.
This gives you only the merest notion of what’s on the album: you can learn more by clicking on the link above. Suffice to say these are mostly encores, but of a distinctively varied nature reflecting Hough’s own sense of humor, nostalgia, fun. Plus a few showy tracks that remind you of this guy’s phenomenal skill.
Beethoven 3/Strauss (Honeck, Caballero, Pittsburgh SO; Reference Recordings FR-728). These days my favorite “live” symphonic recordings—hot, fresh performances that don’t bust the orchestra’s budget—come from Pittsburgh and Seattle. Hearing almost any of Pittsburgh’s SACDs is the closest thing to being right there in the auditorium. Incidentally, Manfred Honeck may be on his way to offering a complete Beethoven cycle (already in circulation: Beethoven 5 & 7). I certainly liked his “Eroica,” although it may not be the most profound interpretation out there. (And yet the Times listed Honeck’s Funeral March among its 25 Best Classical Tracks of the year, along with some Messiaen and Stockhausen I’ve praised.) What seals the deal is William Caballero and his blazing rendition of Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1.
Thousands of Miles (Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano; Baptiste Trotignon, piano; Alpha 272). This album was released in mid-2017, and Lindsey/Trotignon have been touring behind it for nearly as long. Though it’s a triumph in every way, I never found a way to work it into a TMT column. Lots of Weill, including five songs Teresa Stratas featured in her famous 1981 LP, The Unknown Kurt Weill. Also: Alma Mahler, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Erich Korngold, all of whom emigrated from Europe to these shores. It’s music of exile, of bitterness and regret and unquenchable longing. Lindsey brings enviable vocal chops and a ton of style to the project. She’s superbly abetted by Trotignon, a jazz pianist who contributed exquisite arrangements and improvisation. Here is their “Je ne t’aime pas” (English translation here), because no one should die without hearing it:
Joël Grare: Des pas sous la neige (Alpha 436). Strange but comforting sounds. Beginning in 1986 percussionist/composer Grare apprenticed himself to a father-and-son team of master bell-casters in Chamonix, men who have devoted their lives to the “jingle bells and tongued cowbells that adorn [these] animals’ necks, filling the mountain with their chimes.” Over a twenty-year period he managed to assemble a chromatic set of bells with a range of nearly four octaves. The creative result of that journey can be heard on this recording, 18 relatively brief tracks bearing dedications, evocative titles, and pairings with other instruments, exotic and not. Here is a sample from Battements d’ailes dans le brouillard (“The Beating of Wings in the Fog”), of which the composer writes,
The snow envelops the countryside, reinvents it.
The fog, like a magician, makes it vanish.
I’ll cut to the chase: this is the record I’m getting this year for my near and dear. You can certainly buy it as a 96/24 download, but I loved the CD booklet’s poetic liner notes and pictures of instruments and players (though I wish people and pots had been identified). There’s a video that gives you a peek at Grare et cie:
100 Years of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College (King’s College KGS0033). This two-part collection, 27 tracks and nearly two hours’ worth of music, offers “a mix of brand-new performances and historical recordings not heard since the original BBC broadcasts,” according to the press release. Conductors include Sir David Willcocks, Philip Ledger, and the (newly-bearded) Stephen Cleobury. One Amazon curmudgeon has already noted that the title is misleading, since no lessons are read on the recording. It’s carols only, people!
Feel free to go forth and celebrate this lovely tradition anyway. May you find joy and bring it to others this season and in the year to come.