‘Tis the season.
Throughout the year I audition dozens of recordings, most of which never make it into my monthly column. Sometimes they simply don’t merit your attention. Other times, it’s more a case of what the column needs, like a topic, a thematic spine, a promise that your reading will be focused and rewarding.
But now, as the winter holidays approach, I get one more chance to evangelize on behalf of music I enjoy. Some of my suggestions may also help if you’re trying to think of good gifts. (Late-breaking news item: Check out the NY Times’ list of Best Classical Recordings 2015 here. A few of my recommendations over the year have also turned up there. And a couple of my also-rans.)
Boxes and Stacks. Naxos has bundled Vasily Petrenko’s acclaimed readings of the Shostakovich Symphonies into an attractive, value-priced box set (8.501111). Good gift! With it, you or your giftee can trace the life journey of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), who wrote accessible, tuneful, powerful symphonic music. Anyone who enjoys Tchaikovsky or Mahler will find much to enjoy in Shostakovich as well. Don’t let his reputation get in the way. Yes, he was a suffering, deeply conflicted soul, pouring out bitter rants in coded musical language while fearing for his very life under a repressive Soviet regime, etc. etc. But such reductive descriptions totally ignore the humor, warmth, lyricism, and utter musicality that repeatedly surface in his symphonies. This is phenomenal music, a discovery I made all over again last week when I listened again to Symphony No. 1—finished when he was 19:
Amazing, isn’t it? He was already so skillful at producing wonderfully compact utterances, chamber-music intimacy, and forward motion within the orchestral fabric. And the performances! As the Telegraph said about another Petrenko recording in this series, “the orchestral playing is ripe, detailed, lithe, concentrated, and intense.” Exactly! (Each of those adjectives deserves a paragraph of detailed explication, but once you’ve heard these superbly recorded renditions, you’ll be able to write your own.)
Not that Shostakovich’s symphonic legacy was achieved without painful effort. His music reflects much of the troubled history of the 20th century. He addressed the horrors of war, tyranny, racial and ethnic “cleansing,” the soul-killing nature of the totalitarian state, and more. Yes, code abounds. Seemingly abstract sounds can be interpreted—and disputed—in chillingly paradoxical ways. They do hold secrets. It’s one of the reasons Shostakovich was the most important symphonic composer of the era. He had gravitas, which he often concealed with wit and humility.
In an unrelated event, DG has released a mammoth Tchaikovsky box: a 27-CD set including all the symphonies, the ballets, chamber music, symphonic poems, operas, concertos, and more. Full details here. Big names, older recordings like Mravinsky’s Leningrad PO traversals of the late symphonies. Inexpensive too. The drawback? Your average Tchaikovsky hound will have many of these on hand already. But if you know a newbie who’s in a swoon over the Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy and wants to hear more, this might be the ticket.
Speaking of Mahler! My other top recommendation is a short stack of Mahler symphonies done in live high-res audio and video from the Leipzig Gewandhaus-Orchester under Riccardo Chailly. All but Symphonies 1 and 3 are already available; No. 1 was filmed in February and will be out early in 2016; rumor has it that No. 3 is in preparation as well. Although Chailly is departing Leipzig, he is scheduled to conduct Deryck Cooke’s performing edition of No. 10 next February. So that may join the stack too.
These have been consistently first-rate performances. The newest release, No. 7 (Accentus Music ACC 10309), is no less brilliant. Often considered the “problem” symphony among this composer’s musical offspring, it actually presents fewer problems and more joy per square inch than any of his other works, with the exception of No. 4. At its heart lie two Nachtmusik movements (serenades, not nocturnes!) separated by a stylish, brief Scherzo. There is no program as such, except for the composer’s obvious delight in showing us what he can get out of an orchestra in terms of sound, color, power, heart. Nice cowbell parts too. (Thankfully, these are Austrian cowbells, so they make only a softly distant, bucolic impression.)
Aside from the music, what I have enjoyed most about this series is the opportunity to become familiar with the faces—and active bodies—of many of the Gewandhaus Orchestra personnel. They have no problem displaying complete physical involvement with the music. Their passionate visual presence gives the lie to the old notion that classical performers should act like oak trees onstage. The cameras also help us become more conscious of many fine details in the scoring, usually without overdirecting our gaze. Thanks to these Blu-rays, I have overcome my prejudice against seeing the musicians.
Nordic Tracks. We’ve already celebrated anniversary boy Carl Nielsen (1865–1931) a couple of times in this column. It’s also been a strong Sibelius (1865–1957) anniversary year, coming hot on the heels of the one in 2007. I have no ready recommendations for Sibelius symphonies—everyone will already have their favorites (e.g., Davis/BSO, Karajan, Vänskä), and this is not repertoire in which I take a continuing interest. But here are at least three Sibelius orchestral issues I did enjoy and can heartily recommend.
From conductor Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio SO, Lemminkäinen Legends & Pohjola’s Daughter (Ondine ODE 1262–5). This sumptuously played and recorded album couples two of Sibelius’s best-known symphonic poems with related but lesser-known music, all based on Finnish folklore. Legends, op. 22, is based on music from a failed operatic project. Its four movements include the popular Swan of Tuonela, originally intended as the opera’s overture and modeled on the glacially paced Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin. Here it serves as a perfect slow movement to a program symphony ( okay, Sibelius called it a “suite”) that sketches scenes from the (mythological) career of Finland’s very own Don Juan. Listen to the evocative opening measures:
Pohjola’s Daughter dates from 1906, when its composer was caught up in a creative tidal wave following the completion of his Second Symphony. He now found himself moving toward a more Classic approach: in spite of its expansive Romantic themes and rich orchestral coloration, this music is cast in fairly strict sonata form. Here’s the climactic rounding off of the first theme and the introduction of a contrasting second:
Theme 1 represents the wizard Väinämöinen, who labors in vain to win the love of the title character, she who “sits in the heavens and weaves cloth of gold” (Theme 2). Later on you’ll hear passages that Bernard Herrmann could have borrowed fifty years later for his Hitchcock scores.
Lintu’s reading has not erased from my memory Osmo Vänskä’s slightly more dynamic version in what had been my reference recording. That album of tone poems (BIS CD-1225) includes En saga, Night Ride and Sunrise, and more. If you’re newly bitten by the Sibelius bug, give these a listen!
It’s impossible to ignore the recent flood of little-known (at least to me) Sibelius from Leif Segerstam and the Turku PO. Start with the two described below and get more if you’re so inclined: Pelléas et Mélisande, Musik zu einer Szene et al. (Naxos 8.573301); Jedermann et al. (Naxos 8.573340). In a way they epitomize Sibelius’s miscellaneous output, much of which originated in incidental music for the theatre. His music for Pelléas post-dates that by Debussy, Fauré, and Schoenberg, but there is no indication that any of them influenced him. Maeterlinck’s drama had become quite popular, it was to be produced in Helsinki, and Sibelius was keenly inspired by its literary content. The music is primarily dark—i.e., atmospheric and heartfelt. Undoubtedly effective in theatrical context, it retains enormous power in excerpted form (listen to the Prelude in the clip below). Ditto for Jedermann. Though Sibelius never arranged a suite independent of the drama, Hoffmansthal’s adaptation of the old morality play Everyman, it stands well enough alone. Here the music features singers who vocalize Sibelius’s precisely calculated settings of the text. Very helpful liner notes for both releases, by the way. Strongly recommended. (I sampled these recordings on COL HD*LL, which also offers them as hi-res downloads.)
South of Various Borders. Pablo Villegas’ new album Americano (Harmonia Mundi HMU 90749) will probably help you get through the holidays this year. You’ll still need aspirin if Uncle Ed pulls his usual annoying stunts at dinner. But taken regularly, Mr. Villegas’ music should effect positive long-term results. Seriously, this guy is some guitar player! Here the repertoire encompasses a lively cross-section of North and South American dances, popular songs, and surprise “appearances,” from John Williams to Earl Scruggs. For example, Alma Llanera, a Venezuelan Joropa:
Or the more easygoing Sons de Carrilhoes, a Maxixe from the legendary João Pernambuco:
Makes a great last-minute gift for that friend whose collection seems complete. Without this, it isn’t.
Ditto Nostalgias Argentinas from pianist Mirian Conti (Steinway & Sons 30010). The title says it all. Although the musical depth of the 28 brief selections on this album varies greatly, most of them mix memory and longing with dance rhythms and witty asides. It’s nostalgia, yes, but of an especially refined sort. Here’s a tango from composer Pedro Saenz’s Aquel Buenos Aires:
Pianist Conti, herself Argentinian, clearly inhabits this repertoire. Recorded (like other Steinway albums) at the Sono Luminus studio in Boyce, Virginia. In other words, the sound of a great instrument—and a great interpreter—has been perfectly captured.
Voices. Hands down, my first choice this year would be Bach: Magnificat & Christmas Cantata from organist-conductor John Butt and the Dunedin Consort & Players (Linn CKD 469). The idea was to recreate the very first celebration of Christmas Vespers that Bach led in Leipzig on December 25, 1723. This was traditionally a big day in the Lutheran calendar, and he didn’t want to disappoint. Besides the Magnificat in its original E-flat version with four interpolated Christmas hymns, Bach offered the festive Cantata 63, “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag”:
Both of the big multi-movement works get sparkling, energetic performances. There’s also organ music (Bach, of course!), some congregational hymn singing, and a Gabrieli motet to kick things off, just as they may have done in 1723. (See the detailed booklet notes regarding the historical background.) Here’s a bit of “Vom Himmel hoch,” one of the four interpolated hymn settings (yes, it’s the same hymn used for the Canonic Variations on the Suzuki organ album—see below):
Another vibrant choral offering comes from Marin Alsop and her Sao Pãolo and Baltimore SO forces. It’s an all-Bernstein program featuring his Missa brevis and music from The Lark, but the main attraction is the restored (i.e., original) version of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”). Written for narrator, soprano, two choirs, and orchestra, it uses the traditional Kaddish text as repeating framework for a contentious, intermittently eloquent argument with God (scripted entirely by Bernstein). As ever, his language is wildly eclectic, in turn jazzy, then Brahmsian, even “atonal.” It’s heady stuff; Alsop and her crew make the most of it. Here is a relatively lyrical moment from midway through the work:
Nice recording, sturdy performances, and excellent liner notes from my old friend Frank DeWald, one of America’s better Bernstein savants.
Finally: you could justifiably leave a lump of coal in my stocking if I failed to mention Stile Antico’s seasonal offering, A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807575). They’ve moved a couple steps out of their British comfort zone with this release, warmly personable versions of old German carols and motets. It’s a special treat to hear some individual voices in the choral mix (this is a plus in this repertoire, not a minus!). There’s a delightful Christmas Mass by Flemish composer Clemens non Papa, and a few other surprises. Perfect tree-trimming music that also rewards the serious listener. More, please!
New Voices. Here’s the part where I lose a few of you. New music is terra incognita (and inhospitabilia) for many folks. That’s too bad, because it comes in more than one flavor. Take Gordon Chin. He’s a Taiwanese composer (b. 1957) whose language doesn’t venture far from Shostakovich or Howard Hanson—in other words, he’s fairly conservative. But he makes astonishingly effective music within those bounds. Listen to the opening of his Cello Concerto No. 1:
To explain himself here, Chin offers two Shakespeare quotations:
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools. (King Lear)
Give me life! (Falstaff, in Henry IV, part 1)
Naxos 8.570615 includes his “Taiwan” Symphony, which traces episodes in Taiwanese history. In its slow movement a popular folk song, “Flowers in the Night,” is quoted amid stormy interruptions from the orchestra. It’s followed by an energetic finale:
An earlier Naxos album (8.570221) of Chin’s orchestral music is also well worth hearing.
Sono Luminus, the hi-res label based in Virginia, is turning out to be a good source of new avant-garde music. Perhaps that’s because so much new music is first and foremost righteous ear candy. Timbre is paramount. Like 2L, Morten Lindberg’s Norwegian outpost for all things audiocentric, Sono Luminus has discovered a natural synergy between advanced recording technology and advanced musical thinking.
The latter comes courtesy of Iceland’s Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Her In the Light of Air has gotten a truly luminous treatment, midwifed by the International Contemporary Ensemble and the producing/engineering team of Dan Merceruio and Daniel Shores. This can be thought of as a sonic landscape: immersive, alive and ever evolving. Listen:
You can read more about the music here. It makes its fullest effect in hi-res multichannel playback.
Another Sono Luminus ensemble, the Del Sol String Quartet, brings us Scrapyard Exotica with music by Mason Bates, Ken Ueno, and Mohammed Fairouz. Ueno is respected as a conceptual and environmental musician; as with Thorvaldsdottir, his music unfolds over longer stretches of time. As for Fairouz, I find his larger-scale works rather uneven, so it’s a pleasure to recommend this traditional-sounding string quartet as an introduction to his music. Bates really gets around; he was recently Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago SO. His rock-flavored Bagatelles are the highlight of this album for me. Here’s some Bates from Del Sol:
Organic Organ. I’m sure you’ve had this experience: You go to a concert hall, find your seat. Lights dim, artist strides onstage, sits at the piano, begins to play. Within seconds you feel the tension slip away. Now the only drama will come from the music itself. Once again, a performer’s utter mastery has charmed you, enfolded you like the best security blanket in the world.
I seldom have this feeling when I sit down to review a recording. My critical faculties are simply working too hard. I listen for balances, for ensemble, for holes or hot spots in the tonal spectrum, for soundstage depth, for interpretation and interpretive consistency. There’s no opportunity to relax. I might miss something.
But when I put on the new Kansas City Symphony recording of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony this morning, it happened. Within ten seconds I had exhaled. Thank you, Michael Stern. Thank you, KCS. Thank you, soloists Jan Kraybill, Mark Geller, and Noah Gibbs. Thank you, Keith O. Johnson!
On this album (Reference Recordings RR–136), the Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”) isn’t the first music you hear, and that’s a good thing. It opens with the familiar Introduction and Rondo capriccioso for violin and orchestra, followed by La muse et le poéte for violin, cello, and orchestra, beautifully played by the KCS concertmaster and principal cellist. They help ease you into Saint-Saëns’ expressive world. Nevertheless, from the first few measures of track 1 I was hooked. The playing was simply so expressive, so technically secure, so certain of the way forward. And the sound! Silky and explosive in turn, offering a good sense of the hall, it served the music perfectly. I am not going to offer a sample here. No mp3 clip can convey what’s in store for you. Musically a great job all round, including such details as actually integrating the orchestral piano part with the total texture, which doesn’t always happen. Also, this recording helped me hear what my new sub, which I am still working into my system, can appropriately contribute. Cool.
But what if you already have the latest from Reference Recordings? Try this on, for masterful interpretations and a big dose of organ sound: Masaaki Suzuki playing Bach on the historic Schnitger/Hinz organ of the Martinikerk, Groningen, Netherlands (BIS–2111). It’s a well-balanced program, but what really impressed me was the interpretive fire and freedom Suzuki brings to these diverse works, which range from the familiar Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 through juvenilia and rarities to the Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her’” BWV 769, a canonic work in more ways than one.
Those of us who knew Suzuki only as the conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan could not possibly have been prepared for the combined power and sprezzatura—if indeed sprezzatura can exist in such a fully energetic state—revealed here. Whereas the Bach cantata series was recorded in the dry, bass-shy acoustic of a university chapel, emphasizing ensemble precision and a certain expressive restraint, this recording will have none of that. Wait ‘til you hear Suzuki’s gripping, in-your-face version of the D Minor Toccata. And then there’s the delicacy of this, the first of the canonic variations in BWV 769:
Doesn’t that sound like Christmas?
Can’t Wait: Brahms and Debussy for the Holidays. I will have a lot more to say about Brahms’s chamber music next month. In the meantime, though, if you’re stuck for a stocking stuffer and only Brahms will do, consider this excellent set: Brahms: The Piano Trios (Ondine ODE 1271–2D). Brahms came closest to revealing his true character in his chamber music, especially the piano trios and piano quartets. These new readings from Christian Tetzlaff, his sister Tanja, and pianist Lars Vogt go immediately to the head of the class. Because of their deep sensitivity and youthful fire, this has become my new reference recording for these works. Whenever I sought musical solace over the last few months, I turned to Tetzlaff, Tetzlaff, & Vogt. Pure Brahms, pure bliss.
A couple of months ago, I neglected to mention Marc-André Hamelin’s fine contribution to the Adams Grand Pianola Music I reviewed in (oddly enough) the Beethoven to 1806 column. Hamelin is a veritable Renaissance man: composer, intrepid explorer of the unfamiliar, technical sorcerer at the keyboard. He’s amazing. As Alex Ross put it in The New Yorker, “Hamelin’s legend will grow — right now there is no one like him.”
His recent Hyperion set of chamber works with piano by Leo Ornstein (1893–2002) is intriguing, as is an earlier album of Ornstein’s piano music. (Ornstein, an excitable young man who flourished in the Roaring ’20s, composed entirely by instinct, the results of which—for better and worse—are clearly audible.) But if I had to get someone a recording of something just beautiful, I’d have no problem making another choice entirely: Hamelin’s Debussy: Images. Préludes II (Hyperion CDA67920). I don’t have space here to say much about Debussy or Impressionism. So I’ll just leave you with a touch of Reflets dans l’eau:
Make someone happy this season. Give them Debussy. (Or Bach, or Shostakovich, or Mahler, Bates, Thorvaldsdottir, Saint-Saëns, Sibelius, Chin. . . .)